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Christian or Humanist? — Yes!

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants on May 13, 2014 at 4:45 am

Science versus HumanitiesLast week, I stuck a link on Facebook to a short blog post I wrote for Abbotsford Christian Schools blog, InsideOut called,” My Coffee Cup and Genesis 1.” I received some heat for this post; I was called “yet another science bashing Christian.”

This appellation, I believe, is misapplied.

Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, so separate out my “Christianness” from anything I do or say, I think that it might be just as appropriate to call me “yet another humanist insisting that science has limits,” (humanist in the sense that I think like a humanities person).

What science does, it does well, but it’s not very useful for what it doesn’t do. This idea ought not offend anyone, unless they believe that science can do everything. Many scientists and nearly all philosophers would have no problem with the limitations I suggest. Science looks at the material world, it cannot tell us about everything, unless everything is material. There are some, many of them scientists, who suggest this is the case.

But as soon as anyone suggests this, they are no longer in the realm of science, but of philosophy. Scientism, philosophic materialism are among the names for this philosophy. Once in the realm of philosophy one must play by the rules of philosophy.

Philosophy is one of the humanities–there’s a lot of critical thinking in philosophy. Like science, it seeks objective knowledge, but it is not limited to the physical reality–one of the branches of philosophy is metaphysics. Other branches include logic, epistemology and ethics. Although philosophical materialism can be argued, it’s not easy because there are pretty good arguments from each of these philosophical disciplines that challenge the fundamental tenets of Scientism.

History is another of the humanities. History helps contextualize the current age with those that have gone before. Without history we might think that, just because we are progressing technologically, we are progressing in other ways as well. One well supported reading of history suggests that humanity is not, essentially, progressing as Scientism often assumes.

Literature, my favourite branch of the humanities, explores ideas with imagination–it asks, “What if?”  From Frankenstein to The Wise Man’s Fear literature warns of science stepping beyond its natural limitations.

Humanities and science complement each other. We are all the weaker without both being strong.  One of the many tasks that those of us in the humanities have is to maintain this complementary relationship.  My Facebook critic is not alone in thinking that arguments promoting the humanities are a defense of a bronze-age mentality.

I believe that science (mathematics, physics, biology), philosophy, history and literature–freed, within their natural boundaries, to do what they each do best–will lead to the truth. As a Christian, I believe this Truth to be Jesus Christ.

Conequences of Naturalism

In Books, Movies and Television on January 16, 2014 at 4:36 am

HBO-True-DetectiveHBO’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.

Warm Bodies: the Book

In Books, Movies and Television on June 11, 2013 at 10:08 am

Warm BodiesYou know you’re an English teacher, if, when a movie is released, you buy the book.

 The cover of my version of Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is the movie’s poster, but the it is better than a silly romance which cover seems to suggests.

The book’s first-person narrator is R — it’s all he remembers of his own name because he’s a zombie.  The undead always have identity issues.

R describes his life as a zombie: “We do what we do, time passes, and no one asks questions… We grunt and groan, we shrug and nod, and sometimes a few words slip out.  It’s not that different from before” (4).

  “It’s not that different from before.”

This is one of the main themes of the novel,  suggesting that, in many ways, people are like zombies long before they are  zombies.

 R finds himself the protector of Julia–she’s alive and pretty amazing.  She’s unlike any of the Living or the Dead.  Where R’s cognitive abilities are severely compromised, what with being dead and all, Julia is clever in a philosophical sense.  She  explains that the source of the “plague” was not anything like a virus or nuclear contamination, but was from “a deeper place.”  She actually uses the word “sin.”

 Besides by our own sin, she thinks the zombie “curse” was a result of “crush[ing] ourselves down over the centuries” (221).   In the last few centuries we have crushed ourselves, indeed all of reality, down into the very small container of the material.  We have rejected all transcendence: anything beyond the physical.  We have come to believe the world is ruled by immutable and impersonal laws, that humanity is just a bunch of genes trying to get ahead and that time is a mindless and purposeless march toward personal and cosmic oblivion.  This view of the world could be called “Philosophical Materialism.”  It holds that matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, consciousness, and will, can be explained in terms of matter.  The world described by philosophical materialism,  is closed to the transcendent.

 This idea has crushed us.  We’ve largely lost our sense of mystery and little evokes wonder.   More an more of us believe that everything from mountains to sunsets, from music to love, is a product of physical or chemical processes.  We no longer value things for their own sake, but for how economically useful they are–trees have become lumber and pigs have become pork.  It is just a matter of time when people will be valued only for their utility.  Or has this happened already?

 The book asks, if this is our conception of reality, what then is the difference between being a zombie or one of the Living?  Julie doesn’t see a lot of difference any more.  While looking at a daisy Julie says, “We don’t even have flowers anymore.  Just crops”  (70).

 Julie believes that human beings are no better than zombies if they lose their sense of wonder — when they cease to see the world and its inhabitants as beautiful  in and of themselves.  Her father, only concerned with practical survival is no longer any better than the Dead he hates.  She says of him, “Dad’s dead. He just hasn’t started rotting yet” (202).  Julie believes life is more than physical and that simple survival isn’t enough.  She says, “I mean obviously, staying alive is pretty . . .  important . . . but there’s got to be something beyond that, right?” (71).

Julie a foil to her father’s limited participation in life, but her vitality also provides a more important contrast to the Dead, represented by R.

Julia is less than impressed with R’s stagnant music collection.  He communicates that he isn’t really looking for anything different–that’s the way the Dead are.  She doesn’t accept this as a valid excuse claiming, “Music is life! It’s physical emotion–you can touch it! It’s neon ecto-energy sucked out of spirits and switched into sound waves for your ears to swallow.  Are you telling me, what, that it’s boring? You don’t have time for it?” (54).

Julie’s love of music, like that for flowers, is rooted in their transcendence–they possess qualities beyond their physical properties.  She is unique in that, unlike her father or the zombie R, she believes that there is more to reality than the physical.

This, it turns out, is salvation for R.

Romantic love is a part of it of this salvation, but it’s much bigger than love.  It includes flowers and music and everything else that in which human beings experience something that is good or true or beautiful, something supernatural, spiritual or transcendent.

 Love is the main marker of R’s encounter with a transcendent reality.  Before he meets Julie, R describes the zombie perspective of others, whether Living or Dead; we are all meat–“Nameless, faceless, disposable” (74).  After he falls for Julie, she becomes much more to him than meat, more than a mere physical body.  Consider this passage from near the ends of the story:

 “I look into Julie’s face.  Not just at it, but into it.  Every pore, every freckle, every gossamer hair.  And then the layers beneath them.  The flesh and bones, the blood and brain, all the way down to the unknowable energy that swirls at her core, the life force, the soul, the fiery will that makes her more than meat, coursing through every cell and binding them together in millions to form her.  Her body contains the  history of the universe, remembered in pain, in joy and sadness, hate and hope and bad habits, every thought of God, past-present-future, remembered, felt, and hoped for all at once” (222).

 In Julie’s face he sees the transcendent and it is inseparable from the physical.  This has always been true of everything, he just forgot–this is the essence of the zombie.  Somewhere in the last few centuries, we have separated the soul from the body and then ditched the soul because we couldn’t weigh it.  We lost the enchantment.  The novel’s thesis is that if you live long enough in a disenchanted world, you will eventually become little more than a zombie.  It offers a solution too; this story suggests that the first step toward the cure of the zombie curse is the re-enchantment of the world.

The movie made one significant change to the story.  Read my review of the movie.

Want more zombie articles? Start with this one: A New Kind of Monster