The Problem of Violence

To review once more, in the modern world there is not a continuum between two points, belief and unbelief, but rather a continuum between at least three points: belief, secular humanist unbelief, and anti-humanist unbelief.

Triangle

As nihilism and Nietzche become more influential in Western culture, they are going to present some serious challenges to both Christianity and secular humanism. One of them is the problem of violence.

Violence2

The nihilistic challenge is going to catch Christians and secular humanists completely off guard.

Violence

I want to point out the dilemma this creates for the secular humanist position.

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If you honestly believe all natural desires are good, you have to follow Nietzsche in celebrating and affirming violence. If the idea of celebrating and affirming violence bothers you, you have to abandon the belief that all natural desires are good.

This is why Christians adamantly refuse to abandon Transcendence as a source of morality and righteousness and the life-transforming power of the love of Christ. Even if it was discovered by scientists that humans have a gene pre-determining us to violence, Christians would say, that’s not the whole story. The love of Christ is powerful enough to enable us to transcend our biological natures. Christians have disagreed over whether repentance looks like pure pacificism or ensuring violence is carefully tempered with justice, but consider both options. A Christian convinced of the first option would find that the love of Christ drives her into being a pure pacifist. A Christian convinced of the second option would believe the love of Christ compels him to be a just police officer or soldier: he still commits violence, but he tries to temper it with self-control and justice, renouncing blood-lust, rape, and plundering. What both of them are not is stuck in their biological natures and pre-determined genes.

(My personal stance: Crusades, bad. OK, now that I’ve got that out of the way, I deeply respect pure pacifists and am friends with a few, but I lean toward the second option. In light of Romans 13, I believe it is legitimate for Christians to be just police officers and soldiers. I hope even pure pacifists see that society would collapse if there are not just police officers exerting force and violence against dangerous criminals. I believe a Christian soldier or police officer also has to obey the Sermon on the Mount. If he commits violence because he doesn’t want to turn the other cheek, he’s clearly in the wrong. Soldiers and police officers have to be very careful not to scapegoat like the Crusaders, where all the unrighteousness is out there and none in my own heart. People say, what about mercy? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has a civil magistrate who lives in the tension between justice and mercy. One of the characters is suspected for murder, so the civil magistrate pursues justice: he takes him to trial. But the civil magistrate also pursues mercy: he uses his own money to hire a doctor to care for the murder suspect. Is it hard to pursue both justice and mercy? Yes. I believe justice and mercy can only be perfectly reconciled in the Body of Christ on the cross.)

The Problem of Science

In the modern world, there is not a continuum between two points, belief and unbelief, but rather a continuum between at least three points: belief, secular humanist unbelief, and anti-humanist unbelief.

Triangle

 

In this three-way conflict, two points of the triangle team up to oppose the third point on a particular issue. Christians and secular humanists both oppose the celebration of violence or sheer meaningless in the nihilist point of the triangle. Secular humanists and nihilists team up against Christians, pointing out how silly we are to believe in Transcendence.

Surprisingly, there is a conflict over science. This is actually somewhere where Christians and secular humanists have common ground. According to Christianity and secular humanists, science is possible, but according to more extreme forms of reductive materialism, science is impossible.

Science

 

In the nihilist corner,

There is no God.

There is no truth.

The mind is a cosmic accident, and our thoughts untrustworthy.

Natural laws are false and arbitrary constructions.

Science is impossible.

It looks something like this:

Science2

 

Culturally, we have undermined science, but we don’t know it yet. We think we’re still in the Enlightenment when we’re in the counter-Enlightenment. The Enlightenment thinkers kicked out the foundation of God. The counter-Enlightenment thinkers kicked out the pillars of truth, mind, and natural law. We think, because the house hasn’t fallen, that everything’s OK. But everything’s not OK.

Christians, and many secular humanists, still affirm truth, mind, and natural law. But many others don’t. Postmodernists deny truth; that undermines science. Reductive materialism doubts or denies that ability of the mind to know anything; that undermines science. Reductive materialism thinks natural laws are arbitrary constructions, forms humans are trying to impose on nature in order to fake meaning in a meaningless universe; that undermines science.

So how do you respond?

If you believe science is possible, how do justify science against the attacks of reductive nihilist materialism? The existence of God, the Church, and the love of Christ are not the only things open to question and attack. Even science, truth, mind, reason, and natural law are all open to question and attack. How do you justify science? If science is possible, how do you justify truth, mind, and natural law?

Why were Newton and Maxwell incredible scientific minds? Because Christianity provides a firm metaphysical, philosophical foundation for science. God knows everything. Humans are created in the image of God. Through God’s gifts of knowledge and wisdom, including through science, human beings can have accurate knowledge of the world. But because of sin, something has gone horribly wrong. We turn science into Science, an idol that we use to shut God and righteousness out of the picture. The image of God is marred: we use Science to vaporize Japanese children with atomic bombs, to burn Vietnamese children with napalm, to perform Dr. Mengele’s experiments, to suck babies brains out, and to hide human beings in freezers. Mad scientists are real. They are evil. And maybe I have a mad scientist in my own heart trying to get out. The image of God remains, so we use science to gaze in wonder at the night sky, and to behold the crazy, intricate dances of ecosystems, things whose beauty, diversity, and unity are telling us about the splendor of the triune God. The image of God remains, so we use science to alleviate poverty, for medicine, clean water, food, and to improve human quality of life. Science when rightly used, increases our love for God and love for neighbor. Science, when idolatrously used and divorced from righteousness, results in rebellion against God and great wickedness toward our neighbor.

2000 years ago on a cross, Christ died even for mad scientists to make them new.

 

Reflections on Charles Taylor: Authority and the Self

Charles Taylor is highly critical of so-called “subtraction stories” told by modern secularism, namely that once God, superstition, theology, and the Church are outgrown, we are left with an uncontaminated, rational reality. One such subtraction story pertains to authority: once we are liberated from the Protestant authority, God speaking through the Bible, or the Roman Catholic authority, the Church, man is free and no longer burdened by these shackles of external authority.

This is false. Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited America, observed that Americans did not merely remove the external authority, they set up the Self as the religious and epistemic authority. (I’m not sure if Charles Taylor explicitly takes up de Tocqueville’s argument, but he would probably agree.) According to de Tocqueville, man did not merely remove all authority (the typical subtraction story); he actively established a new one, that of the Self.

Consider Gary Dorien’s extremely helpful definition of theological liberalism:

“Fundamentally it is the idea of a genuine Christianity not based on external authority. Liberal theology seeks to reinterpret the symbols of traditional Christianity…liberal theology is defined by…its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its favoring of moral concepts of atonement; and its commitment to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to modern people” (The Making of American Liberal Theology, p. xxiii, emphasis mine).

In other words, we all have set up an authority to govern our lives. People who say they don’t have an authority are either lying or not yet aware that their Self is the authority. If you are a secular humanist or theological liberal, why is the Self a more legitimate authority than the Bible or the Church? If you are a Protestant, why is God speaking through the Bible the legitimate authority? If you are a Roman Catholic, why is the Church the legitimate authority?

Here is how I would answer the question of authority:

  1. In the Sermon on the Mount, authority is something absolutely attributed to Christ. “He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as one of their scribes” (Matthew 7:29, ESV, emphasis mine). Hating all authority therefore includes hating Christ.
  2. Christ is the God of the Cosmos and the Servant King. When washing His disciples’ feet, He demonstrates His authority through love, service, and humility. Good authority is possible.
  3. Secular humanists are absolutely right to point out when Protestant and Catholic churches are demonstrating poor authority by lacking love, service, and humility.
  4. If a Protestant or Catholic church preaches a false gospel, it disqualifies itself as a spiritual authority (Galatians 1:8).  (Here my Protestant leanings are coming out a little bit.)
  5. Trusting the Self is fraught with peril. Proverbs is brimming with warnings about trusting our own understanding. Jesus thanks the Father that He hides the Gospel from the wise and discerning, yet reveals it to little children (Matthew 11:25). Claiming to be wise, the wise have become fools (Romans 1); God loves us and has mercy on us in our blindness, sin, and folly (Romans 2-11); therefore by the mercies of God (12:1) “never be wise in your own sight” (Romans 12:16).

Reflections on Charles Taylor: the Problem of the Mind

Charles Taylor, in his A Secular Age, points out at least three areas where the Western world is caught in tension:

1. Agency: we are caught between the belief that we are purely determined beings and the belief that we are active, building, creating, shaping agents.

2. Ethics: we are caught between the belief that we have biological instincts and base drives and the belief that we have higher spiritual/ethical motives.

3. Aesthetics: we are caught between the belief that beauty is a mere biological response to stimuli and the belief that beauty moves us because it hints at meaning and transcendence.

There are many more areas of tension, a fourth one being the mind. Many ordinary people, not just professional philosophers, have agonized over whether or not the mind is actually able to connect to the world through knowledge. Is the apple really red, and can my mind have true knowledge that the apple is actually red?

Consider three common explanations of the mind:

Nietzchean anti-humanism: the mind is atoms smashing together and we can’t be sure it works.

Secular humanism: the mind works because true thoughts confer an evolutionary advantage. The mind harbors lies and error because there are evolutionary kinks to be worked out.

Christianity: The human mind works because it is patterned after the Divine mind; humans are the image of God. The human mind works imperfectly, harboring lies and error, because of the contamination of sin. Jesus says worship is loving God with our whole heart, whole soul, and whole mind. The truth sets us free, and we must forsake lies.

This triad is a bit of an oversimplification, but a helpful one: many modern people don’t fit neatly into one category, but are being pulled in at least three different directions. Believers are tempted by unbelief; non-believers are tempted by belief; and skeptics are tempted by certainty. Where are you right now, and where are you being pulled?

 

Uncomfortable Immanence

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a significant work on modern secularism. James K.A. Smith writes a helpful condensation and commentary in How (Not) To Be Secular. Smith reflects on our discomfort with pure materialism:

“There is a fundamental discomfort with materialism and its attendant reductionism that generates a resistance and unwillingness to settle for the closed account of materialism…Taylor identifies three ‘fields’ of cross-pressures to which he will keep returning in chapter 16:

  1. Agency: ‘the sense that we aren’t just determined, that we are active, building, creating, shaping agents’;
  2. Ethics: ‘we have higher spiritual/ethical motives’ that don’t reduce to biological instinct or ‘base’ drives; and
  3. Aesthetics: ‘Art, Nature moves us’ because of a sense of meaning; these are not just differential responses to pleasure.”

~Smith, p. 104

One example I have seen of #3 is John Gray’s The Silence of the Animals. Since we and the world are temporary, susceptible to decay and death, beauty is a shimmering vapor issuing from the pit of entropic death. Is that really all there is to beauty, or does beauty whisper to us that we are haunted by transcendence?