There is a lot of evidence for human goodness–we see it in the so called “Olympic Spirit” where individuals dig so deeply to find incredible resources that we all admire. Athletes of different nations come together, despite so many differences (some of them very serious), and show the world that unity might be possible. There are many stories coming out of the Olympics that show the good humanity is capable of, like Justin Wadsworth, a Canadian Coach, who helped Russian skier, Anton Gafarov with his broken ski. Or Gilmore Junio who gave his position in the 1000m event of men’s speed skating to Denny Morrison who fell in the Canadian trials and did not quality.
But each of these athletes must undergo a rigorous regimen of testing because it is certain that some will resort to drugs and sophisticated doping methods to win. Judging scandals are also not uncommon. Cheating is exactly the opposite of what the games stand for, yet we expect it will occur as surely as we are of the Dutch winning a lot of speed skating medals.
Where modern manifestations of liberalism are a little more mixed in their ideas of human nature, classical liberalism has a positive view of human nature. Historically, more liberal political parties, starting from a position of human goodness, would work very hard to eliminate things like poverty and oppression or to promote things like education, for they believed that the evil men do comes from environmental factors.
This is another reason I might not be a liberal, at least not a classic one. I don’t have a lot of faith in human goodness. While environmental factors can certainly play a role, I think people are evil regardless of environment or education. To a large extent I suppose I agree with Hobbes. Not the Calvin’s side-kick, the stuffed tiger, Hobbes. Although these two explored this idea as well . . .
. . . but the philosopher. In his Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes said that without the authority represented by government or any transcendent moral authority, human beings will behave very badly. For Hobbes, the natural state of man, which exists outside the context of society, is one of war. According to Hobbes, all men are essentially equal in their vulnerability and weakness. This natural equality and our conflicting desires result in a state of constant war with our fellow man. He also argues that competition, diffidence and desire for glory are in our nature, as we seek gain, safety and reputation. We, therefore, live in constant fear because we realize that at any moment we can have everything taken from us, including our life. This is a reasonable fear, for Hobbes says that we have a natural right to everything, “even to one another’s body,” but to avoid the constant state of war that would ensue, we create contracts in which we mutually transfer these rights. To ensure that these contracts are performed, a society needs an authority who will compel adherence to the contracts through force or through institutional constraints. We willingly subject ourselves to this authority because it protects us from the state of constant war with others.
Because of humanity’s basic nature, Hobbes says that the “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
OK, I’m not completely in agreement with Hobbes. I believe that human beings are capable of amazing expressions of altruism, but I think our default is to be selfish.
When I look at myself in the best possible light, I find, that even my best behaviour is usually motivated by selfishness in some way. I won’t even begin to talk about those times when I behave badly.
I am not like most liberals because I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and, as such, it’s true and it’s relevant, and it’s also authorative.
But let me say that there are certain parts that I am really uncomfortable with as well.
But, I can’t easily reject them for two reasons.
One reason is past experience. I have frequently misunderstood what the Bible is saying. This is most often the case with the parts that I don’t like. It frequently happens that realize I had been misreading the Bible my whole life. I’ll be reading something or listening to a sermon and I find a beautiful resolution to these puzzling passages.
Take, for example, the problem of hell–how could a loving God send people to hell. That really bugged me for a long time, but then I read C. S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” and saw that God’s role is not so much sending people to hell as allowing people to choose to walk away from him–we were made to be with him, and to not be with him will be hellish. This idea of God allowing human beings to choose is central to the teachings of the Bible (and I might point out, liberal democracies). The problem of hell is still with me, but I’ve discovered enough through reading the Bible and other folks much smarter than I am that it is not necessarily incompatible with a loving God. By the time I got to reading Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I benefited from his critique on the Christian approach to the idea of hell, without accepting many of his conclusions.
Yesterday I came across another thought in Dr. John Patrick’s keynote from last year’s Apologetics Canada Conference. The idea was this: It’s not too hard to accept that God is both pure Love and pure Justice. Just as it is inconceivable that a loving God allow people to be in hell, it is also just as inconceivable that a just God would allow people into heaven, but nobody argues about that. It is a puzzling paradox, but it makes some sense if God is both living AND just.
There are still passages that are puzzle me, or that I just don’t like. But I am no longer tempted to reject the Bible because of them, because perhaps I am misinterpreting it.
The second reason why I don’t reject the Bible because I don’t like what’s in it is–If the Bible were truly the word of God, then I doubt it would say only things I agreed with. I doubt it would only say the things that citizens of 21st century liberal democracies liked.
If the Bible really were the word of a transcendent God, it is highly doubtful that it would present only those ideas that are palatable us, only here and only now. That wouldn’t make any sense, especially since we keep changing our idea of what is right and wrong/good and evil every few centuries, or decades, or years. I haven’t been on this planet for very long, yet in my mere 50 years I have seen a lot of change. If the Bible perfectly conformed with culture, it would be reasonable to assume that authors of culture were God, and not the ultimate author of the Bible.
One of the arguments in favour of the Bible actually being the word of a transcendent God is that there are parts I am very uncomfortable with.
I understand that a significant barrier to acceptance of the Bible in (some) African cultures is that it demands we forgive each other. In North America, we have no problem forgiveness, but apparently this is as hard for them to accept as, say, sexual constraint is for North Americans.
I think the Bible is true, even though there are some parts that we have a lot of trouble with.
In some cases, we are troubled because we think it’s saying what it actually isn’t. In others, it’s actually putting its finger on an area where the Creator of the Cosmos is telling us we have strayed from the path of righteousness.
The trick is knowing which we are dealing with.
I think this might be the reason I find myself feeling more at home in Canada where, it seems, individualism is softened a bit.
Individualism arises from a particular view of the self–the self is first an individual, and second, a member of a group.
Individualism is not just liberal thing. Both Liberals and Conservatives enthusiastically support the tenets of the liberal democracies, of which personal freedom is one–they just tend to emphasize different ones. The liberals tend to be more interested in political and social freedoms and the conservatives are more insistent on economic ones.
I sometimes catch myself wondering if individual freedoms are the ultimate good, or if there might be some merit to sacrificing some of those freedoms for the common good.
I am not a liberal because I question the primacy of individual political and social freedoms.
My ideas about marriage, for instance, lean toward common good at the expense of individual freedom.
If the self is an ultimately an individual (I don’t think too many liberals would argue that this is pretty central to their beliefs) then the primary purpose of marriage is to serve the needs of the individual–it should contribute to happiness and aid in the flourishing of the individual. If the marriage is no longer achieving this end, then one might legitimately get a divorce and move on.
If the community takes primacy over the individual, then communal flourishing is more important than that of the individual. Under these conditions the purpose of marriage is to benefit the greater community in some way, say, by providing a secure environment for the nurturing of children.
It seems to me that in our culture we are unbalanced toward the side of individualism and showing no sign of moving toward equilibrium. Liberals are not responsible for this shift, but in the area of political and social freedoms, they tend to push that direction.
Abortion, euthanasia, divorce, free speech are complicated issues and many Christians, and other groups who have a more collective mentality, are at odds with those who lean toward the individualist side of the continuum.
Importantly, it is sometimes ones view of the self–whether it is primarily individual or communal–that determines one’s position on these issues and not, simply, ones bigotry or communist leanings.
Paul Tillich wrote that there is a “polar tension” between individuals and community because you can’t have one, without the other. A community needs individuals to challenge the identity of the community in order to keep it alive, and the identity of the individual is derived from the greater community.
I am a little worried that we are in danger of losing the tension.
The main reason I am not a liberal is because liberalism leans toward naturalism. This is not to say that one who identifies with liberalism always rejects a supernatural explanation for anything, but the idea of freedom is so fundamental in liberalism that it often means freedom from most external authority, and this almost always includes the authority of tradition and religion, and often the authority of a transcendent (supernatural) God.
If there is a rejection of all things transcendent, the naturalist liberal will have some difficulty finding an ultimate purpose to life.
This is not to say that they find no purpose to life. Life can have lots of purpose and meaning within naturalism: Enjoying family and friends (and our animal companions), sports and recreation, the arts and culture, seeking beauty and working hard to make the world a better place.
Purpose, is not the same as ultimate purpose. Many naturalists will accept that their philosophy does not offer an ultimate purpose or meaning to life.
Having no ultimate purpose does not mean living in profound despair. Some live with a defiant courage in the face of oblivion. Others embrace humanity’s natural desire for meaning as a bit of a cosmic joke and just delight in the irony of it all. Many focus on the process and not how it’s all going to end; the process can be a lot of fun. Making cookies with a friend can be very meaningful without the final reward of eating the finished product. For the honest naturalist, these and other approaches are preferable to believing in a supernatural source of meaning.
The least acceptable philosophically, but probably the most common way of avoiding existential despair is to borrow meaning from our Christian heritage. Like the neighbour who borrows our leaf blower then stores it in his garage so long he thinks its his.
These “liberal” ideals borrowed from Christianity can include:
Attending to the needs of the sick and the poor,
Taking care of the environment,
Being hospitable to people who are different than we are,
Fighting for justice for the oppressed,
And freedom for the enslaved,
Recognizing dignity and of all human beings.
There really is no philosophical foundation for these ideals in naturalism. This critique of liberalism is not just mine, actually, it’s Nietzsche’s–so if you really disagree with what I am saying, you might want to take it up with him.
One might ask, “If these are Christian ideals, why does it seem like so many Christians oppose them?”
I suggest there are a couple of things going on here.
For one thing, it “seems” as if Christians oppose Christian ideals, but in actuality lots of Christians and Christian organizations work very hard in all these areas. These things don’t receive as much attention as the those, who work contrary to these Biblical ideals, especially if they are religious.
But unfortunately it is not just a misconception. Some Christians are obviously working against what I have called Christian ideals. But, just as there are many naturalists do not live lives consistent with a naturalist worldview, there are many Christians who do not live lives consistent with Christian ideals.
In the first instance I would call it common sense, in the second, sin.
The sacrifice of truth for the sake of argument.
This billboard is a case in point.
In an attempt to discredit the Bible, the makers of this billboard equate first century slavery with its 16th – 18th century version. Further, this billboard illustrates the hermeneutical crime of ”proof texting,” and therefore missing the entire point of Colossians 3:22.
The device presented on the billboard was used in the Americas a few hundred years ago. The hooks protruding from the collar “are placed to prevent an escapee when pursued in the woods, and to hinder them from laying down the head to procure rest” (reference). This is one of the ugliest faces of one of the ugliest periods of human history.
Many centuries separate this slavery from that of the first century slavery:
In the first century, slaves were not distinguishable from free persons by race, by speech or by clothing; they were sometimes more highly educated than their owners and held responsible professional positions; some persons sold themselves into slavery for economic or social advantage; they could reasonably hope to be emancipated after ten to twenty years of service or by their thirties at the latest; they were not denied the right of public assembly and were not socially segregated (at least in the cities); they could accumulate savings to buy their freedom; their natural inferiority was not assumed. —Murray Harris, Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ, NSBT (IVP, 2001), 44.
I am not saying that slavery in the Roman world was equivalent to staying at an all inclusive resort, but it is irresponsible to evoke all the repugnance of post-Enlightenment slavery when talking about the ancient practice of bond-servanthood.
Although this comparison is unfair, it really isn’t the point, because Paul is not advocating slavery even of the Roman variety.
When I was in grade school and I felt that the teacher had treated me unfairly , my parents weren’t nearly as concerned with the unfairness of the teacher as with my response to it. They made it clear to me that the general principles regarding my relationship with those in authority were still in play. Like my parents, Paul has other priorities and they are not really all that obscure for those who which to find them.
The billboard suggests that if Paul were against slavery, he would have said done something about it. But Paul’s purpose in Colossians is to explore the implications of a life in Christ, not to reform society. Paul knew that once a person experiences the love and grace of God in Jesus, everything changes. One is no longer a slave to sin, but received as a child adopted into the family of the King. We move from slaves to sons and daughters (even if we remain slaves in society).
This message was such a big deal to Paul that he endured treatment worse that most slave would have. He was beaten and imprisoned and eventually executed. Obviously, Paul had other priorities than simply being free.
The makers of the billboard are proof texting: taking isolated passages of the Bible and use them to justify one’s own views . In Christian circles, proof-texting is considered lazy and irresponsible. When Christians use the Bible in this way they can come up with some of the worst forms of religious evil possible. A case in point, the Christian slave owners in the American south (We’ve seen this recently in the film, 12 Years a Slave: my comments here). Ironically, just like the slave owners, the makers of the billboard are proof-texting; they are taking a verse completely out of context to justify their views.
The ”Christian” slave owners are an example of the great evil that can be done when the Bible is used irresponsibly. This type of Biblical misreading results in reprehensible behavior that held justifiably condemned, but also results in charges leveled against Christianity by the critics of religion. I don’t see how it helps the conversation when the American Atheists and the Pennsylvania Non-Believers engage in the same behavior as the worst of their religious opponents.
HBO’s new drama, True Detective aired this past weekend. There’s a great bit of dialogue between principals, two Louisiana CID detectives, while they drive through a rundown Louisiana neighbourhood. Reacting to the setting, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson)mutters, “There’s all kinds of ghettos in the world.” (View video. Warning: there is some strong language)
His partner, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) replies, “All one ghetto, Man. . . . giant gutter in outer space.” When pressed, he explains his philosophical perspective:
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. . . . We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self. A secretion of sensory experience and feeling programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody. When in fact, everybody is nobody. . . . I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming–stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction one last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.
Cohle describes this worldview as philosophical pessimism. It starts with naturalism, the belief that all is material and material is all there is. According to naturalism, there is no God, nor anything one could call spirit. There are also no transcendent ideals like, The Good, The True and The Beautiful. If you carry it a little further, there is not natural basis for identity, purpose or meaning.
Denial of God, need not be as bleak as this–one can still believe in friends and family. One can still enjoy art and believe in power of reason. And fight for freedom and equality, and against poverty and oppression. But I think Cohle would say they are avoiding the logical consequences of their naturalism.
Cohle does not smuggle Christian conceptions of human dignity and equality into his view of humanity, nor does he wrap his view of life in the warm blanket of meaning and purpose. He accepts that without the transcendent–I would be a little more specific, without the living God–life is a tragic accident, it has no purpose or meaning and identity is an illusion.
I look forward to how this philosophy runs up against Hart’s very nominal Christianity as they investigate the actions of a serial killer.
Debate.org asked the question: Does religion divide the world?
73% of those responding said yes.
Why does religion divide? One of the respondents (AbdulRaufw4lr6s) nailed it explaining that “Religion is another form of categorizing” :
Religion . . . tries to divide between good and evil . . . ; accordingly, people who belong into that particular definition of ‘good’ is called the ‘believers’ and likewise, those who belong into the definition of evil is termed ‘sinners.’ From there, the whole process of giving definition and categorization escalates . . .
It is true that religion divides humanity in exactly this way. Whenever someone claims and exclusive truth there is a great danger of division. The thing is, everyone makes truth claims
–even “non-religious” people:
“All religions lead to God”
“There is no God”
“Truth requires evidence”
“The ends justify the means”
So the issue is not whether or not one will hold a exclusive belief; the issue is to which exclusive set of beliefs will one hold.
In the spirit of unity, why not the one that will most likely lead to unity? Let this be our standard.
In a sermon entitled, “Exclusivity: How can there be just one true religion?” Tim Keller identify three key differences between Christianity and every other religious beliefs. Keller contends that it is in these differences that we find the basis for unity.
- The central figure of all other religious beliefs is a human being, but in Christianity it is God himself.
- This God became flesh–he became a human being.
- In all other religions the central figure tells us what we need to do in order to be blessed, but in Christianity, God blessed us because we could never deserve it.
These very things, if they are embodied, are the very things that will bring peace on earth.
- Because we aren’t saved by our performance, we can’t even begin “the whole process of giving definition and categorization” described by AbdulRaufw4lr6s. Keller points out that both the secularists and moralists look down their noses at others, but people who live the Gospel believe that they are no better than any one else, probably worse. If you’ve run into Christians who think they are better than everyone else, you’ve either misunderstood them, or they’ve misunderstood the gospel.
- All other religions, (according to Keller) point to a life to come as the true destination for humanity. Christianity, on the other hand, is very interested in THIS life. By becoming flesh, God himself is affirming this world–this physical world. He wants all of humanity to work together to make this world a good world–he wants us to serve the world, as he did when he died for it and us. If you’ve run into Christians who don’t care about the environment, for instance, then you have either misunderstood them, or they have misunderstood the gospel.
- Jesus is God. Keller admits this sounds a little arrogant. But Jesus came into the Jewish/Roman world which was very divided. There were tremendous divisions between Greeks and Jews and the rich and poor. The early Church gives testimony to the inclusive nature of the gospel. Christians mixed races and socioeconomic classes. This unity was created because people understood Jesus to be God, not just a man, who came to earth and died for people who hated him so that they might live, both now and forever. How can a person who follows this God, look down on others for any reason?
The last book Bonhoeffer published in his lifetime was “The Prayerbook of the Bible.” He writes this book while in prison for his participation in a plot to kill Hitler, and the subject of the book is the Psalms. Remember, the Psalms of the Old Testament are Jewish literature. You can bet that the Nazis weren’t all that thrilled with publishing books celebrating Jewish literature. Apparently he was unaware that such material had to be submitted to the Board for the Regulation of Literature before publication. Bonhoeffer was sticking it to The Third Reich at the same time he was teaching Christians how to come closer to Christ Jesus.
I read about Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on prayer in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, a book I received from my parents last Christmas.
In this book, Bonhoeffer suggests that we naturally wish, hope, sigh, lament and rejoice—but we should not confuse these things with prayer. Unlike these internal and natural impulses, prayer is supernatural in that it must be initiated from outside of us, by God. For this reason, he encourages Christians to pray the Psalms as Christ did. Our own prayers would travel to heaven along with those of Christ.
Metaxas points out that praying the Psalms was much too Jewish for the Nazis, and probably too Catholic for the Protestants, who don’t go for recited prayers, but Bonhoeffer was insistent that Christians must pray the Psalms.
Because of this publication of this little book, he Bonhoeffer was forbidden to publish anything again.
Whether you accept Bonhoeffer’s imperative on the praying of the Psalms, it is important to understand that prayer is a supernatural activity. My problem is that I usually forget this and do what comes naturally: “wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting and rejoicing” (Metaxas 368).
Praying with the Psalms—which means praying with Christ (as well as the historical Church)—will at least externalize the source of my own prayers and once again remind me that my ability to approach God at all is his gift of grace.
One more thing about the Bill Maher video.
Consider this my Christmas post.
In the video, Maher equates faith in Jesus Christ with belief in Zeus, Thor and the Kraken and all the other “stuff that is not evidenced based.”
I love it when he gives us the circumstances by which he would become a believer. He challenges, “Show me a God and I will believe in him. If Jesus Christ comes down from the sky during the half time show at the super bowl” and starts doing miracles, then he will believe in God. Confidently he concludes, “But that’s not going to happen.”
But it did happen.
It is only in timing that God’s plan diverges from Maher’s. Other than that, the Incarnation of God on earth was exactly the sort of proof that he demands. If the Incarnation is what Christians proclaim, I don’t think that even Maher would insist that there ought to be some repeat performance just for his sake. The issue for Maher is that he doesn’t trust the first century Jews and Romans who saw, first hand, the events as recorded in the Gospels. For some reason, he doesn’t trust their testimony. Perhaps he doesn’t think they were as smart as he is, or at least rational–too easily duped.
A good argument can be made that first century Jews were less likely to believe that Jesus was the son of God than modern day atheists. They proclaimed every day that God is One–they refused to give up this tenet even in the fact of the most horrendous persecution by the likes of Antiochus Epiphanies. Still, they were convinced. Christianity started with a significant number of these very people willing to die equally horrible deaths at the hands of the Romans proclaiming what they had seen with their own eyes.
Granted, there were some who saw and did not believe. I wonder if Maher would be convinced even with his Super Bowl miracle. Then as now, to accept that God exists and that Jesus Christ is his son necessarily leads to submission to this God. For many, it’s this submission that is the issue, rather than the evidence.
Within Maher’s cynicism is an incredible testimony of how incredible an event the coming of Christ was. What actually happened, and convinced so many of the inconvincible, was much more wonderful than the trick of changing “nachos into loaves and fishes” at a football game. Instead of changing a modern snack food into the ancient equivalent, he fed the hungry, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and made the lame to walk again; he offered forgiveness to all–shady businessmen, prostitutes and me. 0
Evidence aside, this is a God of a different category that Zeus or Thor or the Kraken?