Friday, June 20, 2014

Frank Schaeffer is Not an Atheist

This is my review of Frank Schaeffer’s new book Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God. I gave it two stars. 1 star for his story telling and 1 for his liberal Bible study. He won’t say who his audience is. He wants to claim neutrality. But many atheists are saying he is clearly no atheist. I say this book is best for people willing to question the source of their religious feelings and want to learn more about Biblical scriptures and the traditions they say they are following. It refers to a few philosophers, but it is not a philosophy book.

My review is written in short sentences, so it (hopefully) gets read on I expand it afterward:

Positive reviews for this book are an indicator of the complete lack of understanding of philosophy in culture today. Frank asks Philosophy 101 questions and comes up with bizarre answers. He goes on a rant about not being able to define the word “significance”, then ends the chapter with “it is if I say it is.” I wouldn’t mind that so much if he didn’t rail on Dawkins and Dennett for things they haven’t said. He quotes the Bible and others, but when he speaks against atheists, he puts thoughts in their heads and tells us they are wrong. The New Atheists never said that there is no meaning, okay Frank?

I find it suspicious that he doesn’t know the basics of how science works. He says all science is circular, showing a lack of knowledge of the last 400 years that have demonstrated the premises of the scientific method to be completely workable and in a very real sense, true.  I was starting to believe he was insincere until he said, “my hunch is that things were beautiful before we were around to observe them”. Of course they were, but that says nothing about God or materialism. We evolved to be aware of beauty, to reflect on it, and to create words and art to describe it. That all this happened without a creator does not make it meaningless.

The redeeming quality of the book is his liberal Bible studies. And he admits that he is cherry picking. I admire that. He quotes someone saying Christianity should be reforming itself. I agree. But he comes up with weird stuff, like saying the Enlightenment was an “empathy time bomb” set by Jesus. In other words, after the Kings and Popes had their power taken away, after people were allowed to think for themselves without threat of torture, then he says it was Christianity’s idea to be inclusive and multi-cultural. Wrong.

Now for the details:
Frank starts his book with the story of some unlikely circumstances that resulted in him meeting a good friend. Then he reflects on that and what she and others have meant to him throughout his life. Early on he says, “My brain recognizes but can’t explain how love and beauty intersect with the prime directive of evolution: survive. Nor can I reconcile these ideas: ‘I know that the only thing that exists is this material universe, and I know that my redeemer liveth’.” A few times it seems like he is getting close to making that reconciliation, but then the chapter ends and the next starts with another story of his grandchildren. For an atheist reading this, I think they will find it frustrating. For an open-minded Christian, I think they can find some good places to start a discussion or think about these philosophical issues.

Philosophers, biologists and physicists are referenced throughout, but only in brief introductions. I’ll get to some misrepresentations of them later. First, if you haven’t heard of Frank Schaeffer, he comes from somewhat famous parents. They started something called the L’Abri Institute that created much of the foundation for fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. Frank admits he was “personally conditioned” by that (his italics, he loves italics). He has since renounced their teachings and regrets how they have been used. He speaks lovingly of his mother, who despite preaching about the sin of homosexuality, would gladly have them for dinner and listen to their concerns.

He also tells of his own guilt over being a terrible father and how he grew into a decent grandfather. He is still married to the woman he got pregnant as a teenager despite their difficult early years when he believed what his father taught about men being the rulers of their house. He also credits his parents for teaching strict rules about being faithful. If not for that, he may have made things worse by cheating on her. He says his religiously based “irrational guilt” kept him from doing that. He doesn’t explain why he calls that “irrational”. He does talk about the philosophy of materialism and theory of evolution leading to a conclusion that multiple sex partners would be a rational choice. But he ignores that the values of good parenting and family are easily traceable via evolution, the very things he says he discovered later in life. This pattern is repeated throughout; acknowledging the value of strict religious rules and passing over the values we all have through the evolution of civil society.

Almost every time Frank refers to a philosopher or theologian, he gets it wrong. Most of his quotes are in support of his argument, and they are terrible. Most of his comments on “New Atheists” are merely characterizations and misrepresentations with no quotes to back up what he is claiming they said. He quotes from Howard Wettstein; and summarizes by saying “I believe that psychology explains away altruism and debunks love and that brain chemistry undermines my illusion of free will. I also believe that the spiritual reality hovering over, in and through me calls me to love, trust and hear the voice of my Creator”.  If we were to find the people who said those things about psychology and chemistry, we would see that they or other psychologists and chemists also said that these sciences are in their infancy and we don’t fully understand consciousness.

Frank and Howard want to claim sole proprietorship of mystery and wonder. They want to say spirituality is real and not have to explain what it is, let alone how they can claim it is real. Wonder does not belong to anyone. It is not taken away when you discover truth. Answering one question does not end all questioning. It almost always leads to more questions.

You might be wondering where the “atheist” part of this book comes in, given my quotes from Frank so far. He does say things like “religion is a neurological disorder for which faith is the only cure” and “we act as if our pet paradigm can be stretched to fit every case” and “don’t go to church if it is not helping you be a better person” and “Belief is never the point – actions are.” These are usually said in a context that denigrates metaphysical naturalism a few sentences later. He talks about actions being more important than words, but never discusses how no matter how much good someone does, if they speak against inclusiveness, tolerance and acceptance, those words are still bad and cause others to make poor choices and take bad actions.

In the middle of the book he quotes chapter and verse extensively. He sticks to the good stuff about Jesus bringing women into the conversation and speaking out against the literalist interpretations of the Old Testament. He quotes Jacques Ellul who discussed how Nietzsche and Marx questioned ideology and the power of the Christian churches. Ellul said it would be better if Christians today did that work themselves, questioning the elites of their own churches. This is the redeeming value of the book. I will simply agree with it and leave Christians to decide to do that work or not.

After quoting a large section of the Sermon on the Mount he says, “if only the rest of the gospels were consistent with this passage.” He says this with no irony. Yes, “if only”. If only any prophet or philosopher got it all right and handed us a book that gave us rules that worked perfectly in every situation in all times. What a wonderful world we would have. But that isn’t reality. It is simply wishful thinking. Choosing one of those prophets and believing that he meant to be consistent, but somehow the message got messed up and it’s our job to fix it, that’s not thinking at all.

Statements like that are where his Bible study goes south. At another point he compares a section from Luke 10 on going to hell to Luke 6 on mercy and forgiveness, asking which is Jesus. But I ask, why ask? We have had 2,000 years to figure out that one of those passages is good for society and one is not. Whether or not a particular historical figure agreed with either one does not affect my life choices. It only changes you if you are first trying to figure who in history is special then deciding to follow everything that person said. I don’t think that is a good strategy. Today, we can know who said what, who changed those words later, who translated them, who misused them and we know the effect of doing all that on world history. We can learn from all of the wisdom of the ages.

It gets worse when he gets away from the Bible and tries to discuss the meaning of life. In Chapter 14 he types “Earth’s place in the universe” into google and finds “our place within the universe is very small and insignificant”. This puts him a riff about the word significant. He asks, “less significant than what? Where’s the standard?”, “it’s subjective”, “it’s as nonsensical as Pope Paul V threatening Galileo.” He says “today’s secular science… assigns us a contradictory groveling insignificant, significance.” He then brings in environmentalism and claims this a new form of original sin, calling us culpable for destroying other life forms despite our insignificance. Then he jumps to a rant about the poor quality of modern art.

It gets weirder when he quotes Sagan’s entire Pale Blue Dot  saying Sagan “takes great pains to obliterate any sense of cosmic significance” and calling it part of the “secular theology of nothingness”. He says this theology is in conflict with itself since it sees us as “nature at her worst” yet seeks to find signs of life elsewhere. He then names Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens claiming “Religion’s chief sin, they argue, lies in elevating humankind above the pond scum from whence we came.” No reference for any of them saying anything like that is provided. He winds down this free association with the question that led him to write this book, “if we’re nothing, why bother to convince us of our nothingness?”

The answer Frank, is found in all the places you just referred to but failed to understand. Words have meaning. We use them to communicate. Breaking them down and understanding that they are “just words” is something fun for college freshman to do in a dorm room, but you’re writing a book about meaning. You should be clarifying, not deliberately obfuscating. Sagan asked them to turn the camera back toward Earth so we could see our real place in the solar system. He’s not saying we’re nothing, he’s saying we’re something, and there is a lot more. There is much for us to know and learn and explore and it matters that we are aware of it.

He spends next the few chapters expanding on these themes, including a perfectly useless history of art criticism in the mid 20th century. He plays with definitions of other words like “natural”, saying murder is “natural” therefore a naturalist perspective says it is not wrong. He never defines spirituality but says those who believe it is an illusion “tend to demote notions of beauty along with demoting us (humans).” I realized at this point that he honestly doesn’t understand the philosophy of materialistic naturalism. He rarely uses the word “materialism” without including “meaningless” in the same sentence.

He never mentions the premises of science. He never talks about the wonder of science or how it constantly questions itself, the very essence of the title of his book, that you live with the contradiction of knowing and not knowing. He promotes the idea that Christianity should examine itself, but never acknowledges that is almost the definition of what science is. He doesn’t seem to know that the idea that everything is natural, is a premise, and if it were shown to be faulty, we would look for a different premise. The important thing to note is that in 400 years, it has repeatedly been shown to be a premise that helps us understand the stars, to build bridges and to cure cancer.

Frank’s message is no different than any sermon I’ve heard, liberal or fundamentalist. He quotes a story of a hanging in a concentration camp then says, “Either God is evil and should be punched in the mouth, or there is no God. Which is it? Perhaps there is another possibility: Jesus’ co-suffering love is the best lens through which to reconsider God, or at least to reconsider ourselves.” The only difference is Frank goes on to say the God of the Old Testament is “apparently a vindictive monster” and sometimes Jesus is “trapped in pre-Enlightenment ignorance” and that “we need to forthrightly pick and choose what we follow in the Bible.”

At this late stage in the book, he finally asks a philosophical question, what does “good” mean?

As an answer he tells the story of Mother Maria, a chain smoking, bar hopping nun who helped Jews escape Nazi’s and paid for it with her life. He says, “To me, Mother Maria’s death is an example of love embraced as a stark life-changing and essential fact as real as the carbon compounds that form the basis of life.” He follows that up with more of his questions that he can’t answer and for a second, I have hope that he has turned it all around when he says, “Our best hope is not found in correct theology, the Bible or any other book, but in the love we express through action rather than words.”

If he ended there, or if that came earlier and he expanded on that theme, this could have been a great book. But he continues, “Our best hope is that love predates creation and thus that the Creator sees us as ever young. Our hope is that when we look at God through the eyes of the loving Christ we will see who God really is. Our ultimate hope is that God will be looking back at us as we’d like to be seen.”

That’s not atheism.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The First Fundamentalists

Before I get back to the beginning of fundamentalism, take a look at a few quotes through the ages of Christianity. Try to determine what time they come from.

The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremist agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse."

 “With regard to heretics two points must by observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by ex-communication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life.”

"From this disease of curiosity are all those strange sights exhibited in the theatre. Hence men go on to search out the hidden powers of nature (which is besides our end), which to know profits not, and wherein men desire nothing but to know. Hence also, if with that same end of perverted knowledge magical arts be enquired by. Hence also in religion itself, is God tempted, when signs and wonders are demanded of Him, not desired for any good end, but merely to make trial of."

The first are the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman. He was recommended for canonization by Tony Blair. He wrote eloquent apologia that brought Anglicans back to the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote this in his book, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1864. The second is Thomas Aquinas, considered one of the more liberal theologians. He was considered a heretic in his time, in the late 13th century, for attempting to reconcile faith with reason. He was later canonized not long after his death. The last is from the 4th century, from St. Augustine. He wrote prolifically during a time when no one was quite sure what the gospels and epistles meant. The Universal Church owes many of its concepts to him.

 In the time of Augustine, there were no Popes and the Bishops rarely met. For the peace of Rome, this was a problem. Most of you have probably heard of the emperor Constantine and the council of Nicea in A.D. 325. It is true that he called the council to try to settle the discord with the many Christian sects. There are many myths about what was settled. I’m going to skip the gory details, but I will refer you to A.D. 381, a great book on the topic. One myth I will dispel is that Constantine did not create the connection between government and religion. His meddling in religious affairs however did create a pattern that led to it.

Before the councils, and mentioned much less often, Constantine declared Christianity legal. That is, he passed a law of religious tolerance. Unfortunately that did not last. After Constantine, succeeding emperors continued to hold councils attempting to influence Christianity for their benefit. None succeeded at it until Theodosius. If you look him up in the Catholic Encyclopedia you will find some euphemistic language about how he expelled the Arian influence and spread the Augustinian understanding of the Trinity throughout Byzantium. It doesn’t mention how he did that.
The word was spread because if you were a Bishop and you didn’t spread it, you didn’t keep your church. And you weren’t given a pink slip and a pension. If you were non-Christian, your temple might be destroyed and your books burned. If you were Christian but not the right type of Christian, you might do a little better. The difference in types are hardly worth discussing, but they carried the maximum penalties at the time. It was chiefly a matter of Jesus’ divinity. Was he there at the beginning, did he get the Holy Spirit through God at birth, or did he receive it at his Baptism, or what? Apparently getting this right was more important than remembering how to smelt iron or maintain the aqueducts or how to read Greek or any number of things that had been important just a few decades earlier.

There is no way to know all of the things they lost or destroyed but one interesting story tells us that science was on the verge of becoming modern just as Rome was falling. Newton’s discovery of Calculus in the 17th century led to all of the great discoveries of electricity, flight, even space travel, but 1,900 years earlier, Archimedes had begun to discover the very same principles. We know this because a book of Prayers was found in 1908 that had been written on papyrus that had Archimedes notes on it, but had been erased by a 14th century monk. Where would we be now if that math had been developed 1,000 or more years earlier?

Augustine introduced the metaphor of philosophy as the handmaiden of religion. “Natural Philosophy” at that time being a precursor to science. It is a fashion now to credit Augustine’s idea as a contributing factor to the discovery of technology throughout the Middle Ages. But that does not answer why literature, architecture, medicine and basic technologies not only didn’t progress under Roman Catholic rule, they regressed. While Spain and Baghdad were cultural centers, Europe languished. Europe’s Kings were more concerned about the Second Coming or correctly understanding the Trinity than the education of their people

Two hundred years without a strong class of scholars and a weakening empire led to another turning point with Pope Gregory the Great. He would have known of the politicking at the Council of Constantinople in 381 and that Augustine’s version of the Trinity would not have come to dominate Christianity without the support of emperor Theodosius and his military. Yet, he writes, “all the four holy synods of holy universal church we receive as we do the four books of the holy gospels” and of course he added his own authority as the successor to Peter. With this he proclaimed that the Bishops of the 4th century merely clarified the word of God. The history of emperors and armies enforcing their interpretation was swept under the rug.

More than history was lost. The Greek philosophers were comfortable with the idea of not knowing something. They were exploring the idea of the supernatural, not just a single god and how it was constructed and how its words were delivered. They were asking about the universe, not simply one god’s interest in the works of men and women. For the Church though, that one god and its relation to man, was the primary issue. This to me is what it means to be a fundamentalist. Regardless of what you think that one god stands for.

When Europe began to consolidate again after Charlemagne in 800 A.D., the wars continued. The need to reconquer Jerusalem led to the first Crusade in 1096. Pope Urban II offered everyone an indulgence remission of sins allowing for direct entry to heaven or reduced time in purgatory. This was the first time this was tried and I suspect the response was more than he expected. Again, a precedence was set and such indulgences continued for centuries. The definitions of Jesus set down in the 4th century were further enforced by the Inquisitions in the 12th century. As Christendom spread to the New World, the idea of bringing souls to Christ spread with it. As seen in the quotes at the top of this entry, these ideas influence Western thought right up to the present.

First in the series

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fundamentalists react

To understand what the Fundamentalists were reacting to, you need to know where liberal Christianity came from. Finding the roots of any philosophy always comes with the danger of not starting early enough in history, but you have to start somewhere. A good place would be the end of the “Dark Ages” because it was then that scholars started to more freely comment on the Bible.

The Italian scholar Petrarch coined the term “Dark Ages” in the 14th century when he noted the lack of Latin literature over the preceding centuries. The name came to also denote the lack of historians and of any decent architecture. This was primarily a European phenomena as Baghdad in Iraq and Cordoba in Spain were flourishing.

If you look at lists of important writing through European history, you will see a huge gap after the Greeks, then Erasmus. He wrote of free will and religious tolerance, those were radical ideas in his time. He wrote of the need for church reform, as did Martin Luther, but Erasmus wrote in Latin and was less partisan than Luther. He did not gain as many followers. This is unfortunate as Luther was less tolerant of other religions and his Lutheran party became increasingly violent, something the scholar Erasmus wanted to avoid.

Fighting over who should be able to interpret the Bible and how, led to war. Catholics were reading mass in ancient languages and telling the congregation what it meant and Luther and others believed the scripture alone should be one’s guide. This was known as Sola Scriptura. This led to wars. At the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, part of the treaty stipulated that princes within the Holy Roman Empire could select either Lutheranism or Catholicism as their official religion. (Thank you oh wise Prince for selecting for me from so many choices). Later in that century, John Calvin entered the debate with another form of Christianity. Relative peace was maintained until 1618, the beginning of the 30 Years War.

Noteworthy, during this time, were the trials of Giordano Bruno and Galileo. Bruno’s ideas were less scientific than Galileo’s, but they were still considered wrong strictly based on dogma, not on a review of his scientific accuracy. Some consider the trial of Galileo more of a political one rather than anti-scientific, due to the pressure on the Roman Catholic Church from the emerging Christian sects. They may have wanted to demonstrate their resolve to remain dogmatic. Also at this time, one of the largest monarchies of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg family, was allowing their subjects to choose how they practiced Christianity, further upsetting the Vatican. Notably, near the end of this war, Descartes published his famous works, stating, “I think, therefore I am”. He is considered the father of modern philosophy.

Finally, when the 30 Years War ended, The Peace at Westphalia stated that Christians had the right to practice their faith publicly under any denomination (any Christian one of course). Pope Innocent X called the treaty null and void, but his powers were diminished. This was the beginning of modern international law, ending the feudal system.

Soon, critiques of the Bible were openly discussed. Scholars began to notice errors and discrepancies. This became known as Higher Criticism. It is not criticism as in "criticizing", but a search for the true meaning of the text. Also about this time was the earliest written statement that the Bible was inerrant. I don’t think the statement came so late because it was a new idea, so much as it was the first time that anyone felt the need to write it down and make an explicit rule for their denomination. Simply saying the Bible is the word of God had been sufficient up until then, in my opinion.

You might also notice that Isaac Newton was born near the end of The 30 Years War and his scientific breakthroughs were nurtured by the newly formed Royal Society. The society performed experiments, published their results and reviewed the works of their members. They repeated each other’s experiments and compared results. If someone refuted another’s ideas, evidence was required to back up what they said. In other words, modern science was taking off.

This leads us up to Charles Darwin and to where we were in the first of this series. The only question left is how did the Roman Catholic Church come to dominate Europe for 1,000 years? To the point wars had to be fought just for the right to go to the church of your choice. Today, most of the world considers that wrong. So, was the RCC right about their theology? So right that they should demand everyone follow them, lest we all burn in hell? If not, then what is right? Were the Lutherans or Calvinists right to start a war over their ideas? These questions seem almost silly today, but they dominated European history.

In the last of the series, I’ll look at how this idea of dogma, of one true God, took over all other philosophies. 

First in the series

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Pope and the Big Bang

Something caught me ear, so I briefly interrupt the series on fundamentalists:

I heard a Hitchens clip this weekend about the history of the term “Big Bang”. He said, when the theory was first proposed, the Pope liked it and offered to make it dogma, so everyone would have to believe it. Fortunately, the cosmologist who proposed the theory said ‘no thank you’. As Hitchens said, ‘that would be missing the point’. This was told as a joke, but looking into the history, it’s pretty accurate.

Edwin Hubble laid the groundwork for the theory. Georges Lemaitre proposed a more complete theory in 1927. He was a cosmologist and had once been a Roman Catholic priest. This minor factoid is often mentioned as proof that science and religion are compatible. In 1949, Fred Hoyle used the term “Big Bang” as a pejorative, he preferred the steady state theory. In 1951 in a speech before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Pope Pius XII endorsed the theory, and connected it to the correctness of the Genesis account,

"…it would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies."  

And, to make sure no one missed the point,

“Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator.  Hence, creation took place.  We say: therefore, there is a Creator.  Therefore, God exists!”

After hearing the Pope’s speech, a friend of Hoyle’s commented to him, “I had not dreamed that the Pope would have to fall back on you for proof of the existence of God.”  

Lemaitre and the Vatican’s science advisor saw the problem here. If the Pope were to go beyond a mere mention of this theory, and make any more official statements about its relation to the proof of God or accuracy of the Bible, it could lead to problems in the future if the theory had to be amended. Theories of course are amended all the time. Changing Pontifical proclamations is not so easy. We only know that the two scientists spoke to him in private and he did not make any more comments on the matter.

Publicly, Lemaitre was as delicate and conciliatory as can be,

“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”

As we have seen since, despite silence from the Popes, and explanatory notes from the scientists, this idea of “creation took place, therefore God exists”, lives on. It’s as if any science since 1951 never happened. It’s the easy explanation that gets transmitted, not the hard work of collecting real evidence and holding on to what might have happened while experiments try to confirm what did happen.

In “A Brief History of Time”, Stephen Hawking tells of his audience with the Pope. He humorously notes his trepidation with such an audience, given past encounters with scientists and Popes. Although disputed, he claims the Pope told him to stay away from commentary on the moment of creation. Since then Hawking has made statements about the lack of need for a creator.

For me, I’d rather live in the world where scientists can be scientists, and not take orders from Popes or any other religious leader. Pope Pius XII tried to take the latest evidence and make it part of his religion. Popes have been doing that forever and getting away with it because most people are unaware of the evidence of their time and even less aware of earlier evidence and why the one trumped the other. Lemaitre knew all this and knew the difference between science and dogma. That he wanted to be respectful of the Pope doesn’t say anything about the debate between science and religion. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Fundamentalism today

This entry is a bit clunky, I wanted to connect the previous blog on the origins of modern fundamentalism to where we are today. Many of the sentences in this one could be expanded to full articles. Many lack subtlety. Hopefully I’ve laid out the general idea without any inaccuracies. Next time I’ll return to the roots of liberal Christianity that led to the fundamentalist backlash.

After the Scopes Monkey Trial, Christianity faded from public debate. In presidential campaigns, no one cared about much about the religion of Harding, Coolidge, Hoover or Roosevelt. They did not mention it. The McCarthy era was somewhat of an exception, but the addition of “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance was more about anti-Communism than pro-Christianity. Then Eisenhower started inviting Billy Graham to the White House. In 1964, the evangelicals supported the conservative agenda of Barry Goldwater.

In 1962 prayer in school, led by any school employee, was declared unconstitutional. Vatican II also occurred that year, a move toward a more liberal Catholicism. A turning point was Roe v Wade in 1973. Leaders of the various Christian sects realized that as divided denominations, they could not hope to fight these broad secular changes. The use of the term “Christian” in a broader sense came into popular use. Jimmy Carter’s Christianity was an issue in the 1976 campaign and Reagan’s conservative social agenda even more so.

Also during the 1960’s a quieter movement was going on to study the roots of these changes and find ways to show that Christianity was still the answer. Francis Schaeffer started the L’Abri Institute in Switzerland and wrote extensively on the topic. He said;

 “If there is no absolute moral standard, then one cannot say in a final sense that anything is right or wrong. By absolute we mean that which always applies, that which provides a final or ultimate standard. There must be an absolute if there are to be morals, and there must be an absolute if there are to be real values. If there is no absolute beyond man’s ideas, then there is no final appeal to judge between individuals and groups whose moral judgments conflict. We are merely left with conflicting opinions.”

In his documentary series, available on YouTube, How ThenShall We Live, he carried this theme through the history of Western civilization. He applies it first to the Roman’s then other cultures throughout history. He uses oversimplified analysis of those cultures to say how and why they collapsed and intersperses it with the history of Christianity, claiming it carried this absolute moral system with it despite the pressures of those cultures. He never considers how we could question and study any particular proposal for a moral absolute and decide if it is indeed good. He never really even discusses what “good” is. He just says we need a standard, picks the Christian one, and says that is good.

Although he was deeply troubled by the Roe v Wade decision, Schaeffer did not advocate government takeover or any kind of theocracy. On the other hand, the conspiratorial nature of the documentary can’t be missed. In Episode 6, a strange man with a fake moustache is pouring something in the municipal drinking water. Michelle Bachmann watched this while in college and referred to it later in life when she ran for office on a dominionist platform. This is far removed from the open discussions Schaeffer once had at the L’Abri community. He always set himself apart from the wicked world, but he welcomed anyone in to discuss his philosophy.

Bachmann, and others are of course politicians. It is always hard to know what a politician truly believes and what they are saying they believe to gain power. Reagan courted them with his social agenda and George W Bush demonstrated the strength of the evangelical vote in 2000. Many more followed after that.

The Reagan presidency began with a dramatic rescue of American hostages from their embassy in Iran. For many Americans, this was the beginning of awareness of the Muslim world. The term “fundamentalist” was being applied to Islamic leaders with political ties who were advocating for laws derived directly out of the Koran. We sent arms in as Iran and Iraq fought, then we imposed sanctions on Iraq resulting in disease and the deaths of 100’s of thousands of children. The threat of nuclear and chemical attacks were used as official justification, but knowledge of Sharia law was ever present.

Then 9/11 happened.

It heightened the religious tensions and opened a door for Christians. In a 2002 National Security Strategy, George W. Bush stated that America’s “clear responsibility to history” is to “rid the world of evil.” Exactly what he meant by evil is obvious and at the same time obscure. He couldn’t explicitly claim a religious agenda because it would not be constitutional, and for that matter, would not line up with the teachings of a prophet in sandals who never sought political power. With the passing of the Patriot Act, the legal definition of “good” came into serious conflict with what it had meant for hundreds of years.

The other effect of 9/11 was a reaction by non-religious. Many realized they underestimated the potential consequences of religious zealotry. Books and articles discussing the problems and dangers increased. Secular groups have also been on the rise. The Scopes Monkey Trail has been replaced by debates about Intelligent Design. Prayer in government events is being discussed again. Hopefully these discussions have better results this time around.

First in the series

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Fundies are right.

That title is not some double meaning. I’m going to make the case that the Fundamentalist Christians are right about what Christianity is. That is, the Christianity that they practice is what most Christians have practiced throughout history. Those who say they are wrong usually reach back into the first couple centuries A.D. to make claims about what Jesus meant or what the early church fathers did. There are theological arguments for both sides, but I will be focusing more on how the differences are handled because I think that is what defines fundamentalism.

There are so many theological interpretations of Christianity today, I don’t think it is possible to choose one that matches the original. The word “theology” did not even exist then. There were gods (theos) and words (logia) to discuss them. There were many gods and many ideas about how the world worked, and these ideas were competing and changing and would continue to change. An emperor might even declare himself a god, but people knew that other emperors did the same thing. The idea of one true god having influenced all generations and all to come had not taken root.

To make my case, I’ll first need to show where the origins of the term “Fundamentalism” and how it is used today. To understand that, I’ll look at the liberalization of Christianity that was happening before that and how it led to the reaction by the Fundamentalists. We’ll see how that liberalization began with Erasmus and was further promoted by Luther and Calvin and resulted in several wars and the complete restructuring of the political boundaries in Europe. The thread of what could be called liberal or humanist Christian has existed throughout Christian history, but I will be following the Christianity that was in power. That power structure began in the 4th century, related to the often cited Council of Nicea. I will, hopefully, clear up some of the confusion around that.

I should note that I don’t really care what version of Christianity is right. I won’t be discussing much about the theology, except when pointing out who believed what when. What I do care about is how everyone deals with their differences today. Past fights over theological differences have caused tremendous suffering and we have much more powerful means to create suffering today than we ever have before. So we need a better to search for a resolution.

If there is anything we need to learn from the past, it is the manner in which philosophical differences were discussed by the Greeks before the Fall of Rome. They were developing the methods of discovering what is true then and we have refined those methods since but they barely get taught to most people. We have applied them to democracy, curing disease and exploring space. We can apply them to how we educate the next generation and make a safe world for them to live in, or we can draw lines and claim our righteousness.

Let’s get started.

Dictionary definitions of fundamentalism vary and even groups that many consider fundamentalist don’t use the label themselves, so just what it is can be debated. Here are all of the theological precepts I could find that are claimed by one or another fundamentalist group:

Belief in:
  • The Trinity
  • The Person of Jesus Christ
  • The Second Coming
  • Salvation
  • The inerrancy of Scripture
  • Dispensationalism; The interpretation of the Bible that includes periods of changing relationships with God leading up to some sort of end times.
  • Virgin Birth
  • Substitutionary atonement
  • Resurrection of Christ
  • The creation account in Genesis
  • Miracles, particularly those of Christ
  • Intelligent Design
  • Prophecies have been fulfilled and are being fulfilled now
  • We are saved by faith, not works
  • Literal Satan, hell, demons, heaven and angels
  • Do not believe in evolution
The first five appear in the original pamphlets titled “The Fundamentals” which will be discussed more in a minute. The others vary widely and some, like dispensationalism, have many variations. Espousing just a few of these beliefs would not make someone a fundamentalist necessarily. In fact you will probably note that some of them seem like perfectly normal beliefs held by Christians. That is why most definitions of fundamentalism will include not just these “whats” by also some “how” and some applications of the theology, such as:

  • Government should have values based on religion
  • Unwilling to compromise
  • Presuppositional arguments for the theology
  • Subordination of the wife, and women in general
  • Children should be taught faith beginning early
  • Radical up to and (for some) including violence
  • The scope of religious life; where it should be displayed, its inclusion in public spaces, part of public school during ceremonies or prayer in the classroom
  • Religion test for candidates
  • Rejection of modern scholarship (theological or historical)
  • Refusal to recognize scientific theories
  • Value faith over evidence.
These short versions of the beliefs mask the underlying complexity that result in long theological works going back for centuries. The differences described in those works have resulted in 10’s of thousands of Protestant sects. Some variations find harmony, for instance by saying that salvation is by faith but we must show our faith through our works, or it is meaningless. Others isolate verses and claim they are the only correct ones. This debate begins in the Book of Acts between Peter and Paul and as far as I can tell is not settled by the end of the New Testament.

Some of these are very difficult just to define, like the Trinity. Biblical support for it is difficult to find. Augustine wrote an extensive work on it in the 4th century and even he concluded in the end that it is a mystery. This made for a bit of a dilemma when teaching the Trinity became Roman law. If you can’t describe what it is, how do you enforce its proper teaching? This led to more councils, more debates and more unclear explanations, like The Chalcedonian Formula of 451. Later when Emperor Leo I asked the Bishop of Melitene if he wanted a council in 457, he responded, “We uphold the Nicene creed but avoid difficult questions beyond human grasp. Clever theologians soon become heretics.” A more concise statement against free thought would be hard to find.

Accepting miracles has always seemed important to Christians I have known, but some are harder to explain than others. Raising from the dead can just be a difference in what “dead” means, as we see with increasing knowledge of medical science. Feeding multitudes could have just been a good leader who encouraged sharing of resources. Bodily resurrection however should be considered an extraordinary event in any time. Any mythical interpretation of it diminishes Christ as a god. I could understand a Christian who refuses to accept any of the other miracles in the Bible, but if you don’t accept this one, I wonder how you define “Christian”.

This question of the definition of Christianity seems to be what some people were worried about in the 19th century. As more translations of the Bible became available and our ability to translate the original scriptures improved, scholars, Christian scholars, began to pick apart the Bible. Primarily coming out of Germany, this was known as Higher Criticism. It questioned not only the historical accuracy of the Bible, but the very authorship of its books.

This was too much for some Christians. They reacted with a collectionof pamphlets by 90 authors. They were distributed for free between 1910 and 1916. They coincided with the rising evangelical movement. This vocal minority brought their cause to national attention with the Scopes Monkey Trail in 1925. Although they actually won that trail, because the law clearly stated that it was illegal to teach evolution, the fundamentalist movement suffered afterwards. The modernist movement did not portray itself well either, coming across as somewhat of a bully in the proceedings.

It seemed for a while that this would work itself out in academic circles, but as the world began to change rapidly after World War II, people like Billy Graham and Francis Schaeffer were bringing these ideas back into the forefront. I’ll pick up there next time.

Next in the series

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Opposite of Al-Kahzali

Ryan Bell's blog

A pastor, Ryan Bell, started a blog this year, titled “A Year a Without God”. Last year, he lost his job as a pastor due to his questions about the theology of his church. Since then he has been struggling with those questions, leading to this idea of spending a year NOT praying or looking to God for answers. On January 10th his entry was titled “What the…?”, expressing his surprise at the attention he was getting. Other entries express sincere feelings of doubt and an honest effort to deal with them.

1,000 years ago, another theologian Al-Kahzali, had similar doubts, but he took a different path. He was teaching the Muslim faith but he no longer felt he was being honest. He quit his job, abandoned his family and went on a spiritual journey. The details of that journey are scattered because he did it privately. When he returned, he claimed that he had found his god and that his journey was an experiment that proved that god was real. He went on to challenge the philosophers of his day. It destroyed many of the advances of science of reason that had been made.

Ryan’s journey is very different. He is being completely public. He is not challenging philosophers, he is reading them and commenting on them.

No matter what he learns, I don’t expect that it will end with the destruction of either religion or science in the 21st century. Neither of those options would be very good. 1,000 years ago, science and reason did not have strong support so knocking it down was not difficult. That would be a lot more difficult today. What failed then was the attempt to integrate religion INTO science. I don’t think that is possible. Science has made attempts to integrate into religion for as long as it has been around. That is more likely possible but religion will have to make some compromises. Ryan’s work seems to be trying to do just that.

What I mean by that is, if you say there are religious miracles, then you can’t take the scientific stance that everything has a natural explanation. If you rely on scientific evidence, then you can’t explain something only in terms of what God has done. If you require reasons to reach conclusions, then you can’t conclude anything for no reason. Religion relies on the individual experience of God and personal testimony about Him.

However, you can approach the natural world with awe and wonder at its size, its deep time, its immense energy and vast empty spaces. There is so much left to be explained that calling something a miracle is acceptable in the sense that something is as yet unexplained. You can posit any theory you like for the unknown, just don’t stop there, keep searching for the evidence of whatever it is you think is there. Creativity is always encouraged but all statements of fact need a consistent method for how they are established. These aspects of science are the community of science, the shared experiences that we can all participate in.

What Al-Kahzali came back with, he couldn’t share with others. He could only claim it. He could explain what he did and others could do the same and they may or may not achieve the same results. If you didn’t, you would be called an unbeliever. In his time, that could have dire consequences. The only test for a believer is that the believer says they believe. There is no way for certain to know if they believe or not or even know what they believe. If you can demonstrate what it is you believe, point to it, then it is a shared experience for all of us and no longer requires belief.

Science has always relied on a shared experience. If someone cannot repeat what you claim you did, it is not scientific fact. If you can’t explain it using consistent definitions and formulas, it is not scientific fact. If you can’t teach it to others, then test them to determine their understanding, it is not scientific fact.

But the unknown is still part of science. Searching for knowledge is part of science. Being inspired by nature is part of science. Understanding our place in the universe is part of science. Poetry, philosophy and ritual aren’t exactly part of science, but there is no reason that we can’t all share the same view of the mysteries. We are all looking at the same stars. Ryan Bell gets this, and I’m glad he is sharing his experience with the rest of us.