Category Archives: Culture

Faith in America

CNN is featuring an article by Ralph Reed on the evangelical vote in Iowa, entitled “‘Evangelical Vote’ A Myth.”  Reed argues that the evangelical voting block is a myth created by the media, since not all evangelicals vote the same way, and they don’t choose their candidates for the same reason.

I would be thrilled that someone actually said this in a national forum were I not so discouraged by the stereotypes and negativity that are all over the comments section.  One gets used to atheists spewing vitriol on any and every “faith-based” story in the news, but I’ve never seen so many people upset that their preconceived notions were being challenged.  Do these people even know any evangelicals?  I want to ask, but I’m afraid that some of them have had bad experiences in one church, and they’re judging the rest of us based on that.  To make the situation worse, CNN topped the story with a short slide show featuring comments from Christian voters whose comments sound exactly like what the atheists seem to fear most.  Alas, one of my brethren goes so far as to reject the separation of church and state.

The separation of church and state is not our problem.  This is the principle that guarantees us all freedom of worship whether or not those in power like our theology.  What is the problem is the conviction that some of our fellow-Americans seem to have that faith is antithetical to reason and, therefore, should not be tolerated in public discourse.  Having defined faith as blind obedience to arcane and outdated rules, they fail to see the vital role that it plays in civic life.

There is nothing blind about authentic, biblical faith.  There is nothing genuine in a faith that never asks questions, and which never wrestles with its own motivations.  I would argue that at least some of the people posting negative comments on CNN’s message board are guilty of blind faith themselves.  They were told by a teacher or a professor or an author that there was no “scientific” or “historical” evidence for the faith of their parents or grandparents, so they happily chucked it away and never bothered to do their own investigating.  They concluded that no one with any education or “sophistication” (yes, that word came up) believes in the God of the evangelicals.  When I was studying for my M.A., a fellow grad student from another department had a weekly editorial in the school paper and was continually writing statements that began with, “As an educated person . . .”  It was a university; we were all educated people, and plenty of us didn’t agree with him.  His generalization were, therefore, ridiculous.

Let me say, as a college professor, that not every thing college professors say should be taken without question.  I’m sure your professors gave you facts, but they also gave you interpretations.  Interpretations are conclusions drawn from the facts.  Interpretations are always subject to argument, and there are journals in every profession dedicated to carrying on those debates within fields.  There is plenty of archeological evidence that supports biblical accounts, and plenty more that may or may not.  The experts are still debating it.  Likewise, scientific theories are continually subject to argument and debate.  To make generalizations about what all educated people ought to believe is absurd, since not all educated people believe the same things even within their own disciplines.

I know there are atheists who really have thought through their worldview and reached it as reasonable conclusion, just as many Christians have reasoned their way to faith.  What offends me most is the idea that is continually promoted in popular discourse that people of faith are ignorant or bigoted.  It is worse during election season when people on a certain end of the political spectrum stir up antagonism against conservative candidates with the cry, “The Christians are coming, the Christians are coming.”  Even if we were “coming,” GOOD FOR YOU.  We have guided Western Civilization for most of the last two thousand years.  We have built schools and hospitals, created art, made scientific discoveries, promoted democracy and abolished slavery, at least where we could get at it.  We have reformed prisons, fed the homeless, voted in elections, argued for the dignity of women, and yes, campaigned for the separation of church and state.  If you don’t know these things, then your history class lied to you, and you need to do some real research instead of trusting the chewed up and spit out pablum that is dished out in most high school history books.

So, I would challenge the mockers on the CNN post to consider what authorities they have put their confidence in because there surely are some.  If they are trusting the opinions of experts or scholars, then I can offer experts and scholars to contradict them because that’s what scholars do.  If they are trusting their own reason, then they are trusting something that every philosopher since Socrates has doubted.  And if they are assuming that all evangelicals are exactly the same, then they are guilty of faulty generalization and no argument built on that has validity.  Likewise, if they are regarding faith and reason as incompatible, they are guilty of a false dichotomy -pretending that two things are opposed to each other when they do not need to be.

One more thing, if you must attack religion in a public forum, try to avoid name-calling.  It’s a sure indication that your argument has no substance.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Church History, Culture, Faith, History

A Question of Worth

My mother was born in North Carolina, as were her parents and grandparents.  In fact, the family’s North Carolina roots are quite deep.  I have even seen a digital copy of one ancestor’s marriage license — from North Carolina — during the American Revolution.  It is an interesting document.  Apparently, the newly minted state was too cheap to throw away its old licenses, so they scribbled out the reference to his majesty, the King, and wrote the state governor’s name into the margin.  Perhaps, some frugal clerk wanted to see if the Revolution worked out for them before he went to the expense of ordering new documents from the printer.

As I said, our North Carolina roots are deep.  So, I read with interest and dismay the story that National Public Radio is featuring on its website by Julie Rose entitled, “A Brutal Chapter in N.C.’s Eugenics Past.”  Prior to World War II, a number of states had eugenics laws designed to keep the “unfit” from reproducing.  The unfit were usually persons with disabilities, or those too poor to afford the children that they produced.   Eugenics fell out of favor in the U.S. after WWII because Americans discovered the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s eugenics program.  North Carolina, however, kept its eugenics committees into the 1970s.  According to NPR, North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 people.  Mecklenburg County alone (the Charlotte area) sterilized an astounding 485.  While sterilization was supposed to be voluntary, the state cannot now be sure that some of these people weren’t coerced.

Of course, they can’t be sure.  Persons selected for sterilization came into the system from psychiatric hospitals, “schools for troubled youth,” and the welfare system, to name a few ways.  In other words, the eugenics program targeted vulnerable people, just as euthensia is an issue wrapped around vulnerable people, i.e. the terminally ill.  How can anyone be sure that people in extreme circumstances, especially when they have diminished capacity, are not being bullied or deceived into consenting to an irreversible act on their own bodies?

The truth is that society cannot have individual liberty without also upholding human dignity.  It is our dignity, our fundamental value as human beings, that gives us a claim to liberty.  In The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson asserted that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rights bestowed upon us by our Creator.  They are inalienable because they are issued by divine decree and cannot be revoked by human authority. I’m not inviting you to stand and sing an anthem, but this is as good a time as any to consider how foundational this belief is to our way of life.  We may question whether Jefferson, a slave-owner, really believed that “all men” are created equal, or if he just meant to apply it to white men, and he surely did not mean to include women.  Our emerging national conscience, however, has insisted on applying it to everyone.  We fought a war over slavery, argued over women’s suffrage, and pushed on through the Civil Rights Movement, and every time we came back to the idea that The Declaration of Independence doesn’t free anyone unless it frees everyone.

The core of that conviction is that the worth of a person lies in the fact of his or her humanity.  We do not measure the value of a person by race or social class, as every civilization before ours has done.  We declare everyone equal on the basis of shared humanity.  That means that we must value life whether or not the individual is capable of giving society anything in return.  To decide that someone is dispensable because they are “a drain on the system” is to return to the days when societies considered the wealthy or the well-born to have greater intrinsic value than the poor.  Either way, you have measured human value in monetary units.

I realize that I appear to be addressing an issue (eugenics), which seems to have been tossed into the waste-basket of history, but the truth is that the underlying attitude never goes away.  Our society still wants to push abortions for babies that test positive for Down Syndrome (never mind that the test has a high rate of inaccuracy).  We still debate euthanasia, arguing for “quality of life” rather than quantity, as though each minute of life did not have intrinsic worth.  We complain loudly about welfare mothers, and while surely there is a better way of life than to eke it out on the dole, we forget that every child has enormous potential and a legitimate claim to good care, however dire the circumstances of his or her childhood.  I don’t have easy answers for the economic situation each of these issues create, but to dismiss life on the grounds that we can’t afford to maintain it seems to me a dangerous move away from our core convictions as a free society.

My mother was almost forty when I was born.  She was perfectly content with the two children she already had and certainly hadn’t planned on adding another.  My father was the church custodian and cleaned a doctor’s office on the side; mother was Nurse’s Aid.  They didn’t have health insurance.  According to the NPR article, they were exactly the sort of family that the eugenics board in North Carolina thought they were helping — families who didn’t need the burden of one more child.  Fortunately for me, my parents didn’t consider children to be “life accessories,” and they didn’t think that I cost more than I was worth.  I hear politicians preaching that our society should ensure that every child is planned and, therefore, wanted.  But planned and wanted aren’t necessarily the same thing.  Children are wanted when the parents recognize the intrinsic value of the child, and when they understand that no amount of freed-up income can compensate for losing one.  Children are wanted when society understands that it is worth the money to build more schools, give single mothers a hand-up, and provide safe and nurturing communities that allow even the disadvantaged child to thrive.

Otherwise, we may have left the eugenics model behind, but we will inevitably invite something equally despicable to take its place.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Culture, History

A Recent Passing

I was listening to BBC World News last night, when I first heard the news of Christopher Hitchens’ passing.  As with any such loss, sympathy must go to his family and colleagues.

I never got around to reading any of Hitchens’ books.  They aren’t the sort of thing I would pick up for casual reading, as a rule.  My response is to comments that Hitchens made that were replayed on the BBC last night.  Hitchens was famously resistant to the idea that he might have a death-bed conversion.  In the event that rumors of one got out, he implored the public to consider his actions the result of the illness and medications.  In the replayed interview, Hitchens responded to a question by stating that IF God does exist, and Hitchens did indeed find himself being judged by such a person, his only plea would have to be that he did not insult God with insincere and self-serving last-minute prayers.  Otherwise, he did not know what defense he could make, but that he certainly wouldn’t be “servile” about it.

That Hitchens wouldn’t say a prayer to hedge his bets was probably the closest he came to good doctrine.  Jesus had a term for prayers that were said without faith or sincerity – vain repetitions – and warned that God wouldn’t answer prayers that were noise and no substance.  What stunned me about Hitchens answer was the notion that one could address God with servility.  Clearly, Hitchens understanding of God-ness left something to be desired.

Atheists operate under that assumption that Christianity is one of many mythologies and, having lumped the Christian God in the same category as pagan gods, they assume that the Christian God must be just as limited in personality and power.  If one were addressing the womanizing Zeus, or the mummified Osiris, or the harlot Ishtar, a certain independence of thought might be rightly considered a virtue.  These gods did not create the cosmos; they were born out of it.  And they certainly unfit to be the moral judges of humanity.

The Christian conception of God, however, is that there is a Being of limitless power who willed and created everything that exists.  Science, therefore, cannot contradict our knowledge of Him, but it can refine and expand that knowledge, because God is the author of science.  He wrote the rules and designed the systems that scientists discover.  Because He created space and time, He exists outside space and time.

Does anyone have any idea what such a Person must be like?  How about this:  Go to pbs.org and watch the four of episodes of The Fabric of the Cosmos.  Do we really think it would be servility to pay homage to a God who could invent such a universe or even multiple universes?  If there really is a God, and I believe there is, then He deserves the worship of those He has made, whether we understand His judgments or not.

And would we dare to disagree with Him to His face?  God told Job to stand up and answer Him like a man (Job 40:7), and Job’s answer was to repent “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).  God told Ezekiel to stand up and answer Him like a man, but Ezekiel had already fallen flat on his face, and he was unable to get up until the Holy Spirit lifted him up (Ez. 1:28, 2:1).  A person may resent the fact that there is Someone with the right to judge us, but that does not make it any less true.  The fact that we must say it with fear and trembling does not make it any less true.

Believe me when I say that, if Hitchens was guilty of arrogance in how he spoke of God, I have been guilty of the same arrogance.  How often have I complained about the circumstances that God has put me in?  How often have I questioned the goodness of God, or been angry or bitter about the injustices of the world I live in?  And, yet, I too must stand before this God and give an answer.

I went to bed last night thinking about my own defense before God.  It is what it has always been.  God has pardoned me for the sake of Christ, and my defense is in Christ.  He is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God through Him (Heb. 7:25).  I hope, therefore, to see God with awe, but also with joy.  But let me also remember, when I am most inclined to complain about life, that it is God who will someday judge me, not the other way around.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Culture, Faith

A Marvelous Machine

The July issue of Scientific American is out, and I couldn’t resist grabbing a copy.  For one thing, it’s hard not to notice a cover with a large picture of a human brain on it.  For another, the caption was an attention grabber.  The headline is “The Physics of Intelligence,” but they followed this up with a question:   “Evolution has packed 100 billion neurons into our three-pound brain.  Can we get any smarter?”

Setting aside the question of whether or not evolution is the means by which our brains came into existence, there remains the fact that evolution can only be a means.  It is a process not a cause.  Atheists in the scientific community are often guilty of academic provincialism, assuming that because science can demonstrate a how, that it can also explain the why and the what next without any recourse to philosophy or religion.  Atheists assume that science has already rendered religion obsolete when, in fact, science can answer very few of the questions that religion and philosophy pose.  Even if evolution is how the brain developed, it does not prove that there wasn’t a who developing it.

This matters to a discussion of the article in Scientific American because of the question that article raises:  Can we get any smarter?  This is neither gloating nor arrogance on the part of the editors.  Rather, it is a question that challenges one of the core assumptions of evolution, and that is that change over time continuously results in an increasingly better product.  Survival of the fittest is the process by which the best and strongest survive to pass on their genes, and the weakest are wiped out of the gene pool by their failure to adapt.

Ever since Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, atheists have counted on evolution to improve on the human race.  The whole idea of a superman is predicated on the idea that humans, as a species, will continue to get stronger and smarter as natural selection weeds out weaknesses and abnormalities.  If an atheist has hope for the future, it surely lies in the expectation that human beings will get better at solving problems that currently seem insurmountable.  Even our ability to survive the possible death of our planet depends on our finding new ways of transporting a lot of people over great distances in space – a prospect that is currently impossible by any technology we can now conceive of.  I don’t just mean that we can’t build the technology; I mean that we haven’t even imagined a solution that would really be feasible.  In order to fulfill the kind of destiny that Darwinism offers us, we need to get a whole lot smarter.

The article in Scientific American (“The Limits of Intelligence” by Douglas Fox) would seem to throw a monkey-wrench into this vision of our future.  The size of our brains could increase, but then they would get slower because information would have longer distances to travel across our neural network.  If we grew more neural connections, they would take up more space, plus they would consume more energy and our brains already use up about 80% of the energy we burn on a daily basis.  (Can I turn that into a diet plan?  Think more, eat less?)  On top of this, more neural connections would mean more information traffic and more “background noise”.  The conclusion would seem to be that the human brain is as good as it’s going to get.

For those who do not believe in a higher power (i.e. we’re out here on our own), that has to be a depressing thought.  The article does not, however, leave them without a ray of hope.  Perhaps, we might find a solution in connectivity.  Perhaps, the development of technology that allows us to “pool our intelligence with others” (43) will prove to be the next great step in our evolution.  As a matter of fact, I think we should continue to develop that connectivity, as long as we are aware that information technology has the potential to make us all dumber together instead of making us all smarter together depending upon how we use it.  (See the previous post on PBS’ special Digital_Nation.)  I applaud the new definition of polity that seems to be developing in countries like Egypt and Syria where the governments have too long been Hobbesian Leviathans devouring their own people.  Instead, the internet, through tools like Facebook and Twitter, has become the new Leviathan, the new embodiment of the will of the people.  I think there is great hope that this will ultimately (perhaps, not instantly) produce more democratic societies, and history has shown that democratic societies tend to be more just and innovative.

But I don’t think this revolution is attributable to evolution.  We have always been wired to live in communities, to pool our resources and abilities, and to depend on those around us to help us get things done.  We have certainly invented new ways of doing this, but it is not a fundamental change in us as a species.  It is simply a new and more efficient way of doing what we have always done.   Those of us who espouse a worldview that includes a Creator have always assumed that any being who could design and wire the human brain must be unimaginably brilliant.  If he has given us the best possible brain within the natural laws he established, why should we find that surprising?  We always knew that we were fearfully and wonderfully made. Moreover, our minds were created by a God who designed us to live in relationship with himself and with other people.  God alone possesses the absolute power of self-definition.  The rest of us have always learned who and what we were through our interactions with those around us.  If we are getting better at creating and facilitating those interactions, it does not create a new destiny for us.  It simply makes us better at fulfilling the destiny our Creator gave us from the very beginning of Time.

2 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Culture, Faith, Women's Ministry

An Exercise in Irony

I have been plugging away at teaching composition courses this summer, and I am now on the second week of a course in research and argumentation.   For the class I am currently teaching, the topic is technology, and how it is transforming the world around us.  We kicked off the course last week by viewing the PBS special, Digital_Nation.

What we know for certain is that technology is not just changing what we think about (everything from instant news to an explosion of pornography), it is also changing how we think.  We are becoming more visual and more vocal now that anyone with a computer has a tool of mass communication.   We have also rapidly adapted to getting information in bits and bytes.  With more information to think about, we have ever less time to think deeply.

What we don’t know for certain is how exactly this is going to change us as a society.  The Jasmine Revolution suggests that the internet has the power to transform political realities in the same way that Gutenberg’s printing press facilitated the Protestant Reformation.  Among the potentially positive effects is that political apathy will decline as young people recognize the empowerment technology offers when it is used wisely.

Digital_Nation also exposes what the producers might consider the darker side of technology — video game addiction, for example, or sexting.  Yet I can’t help thinking that these are not so much the darker side of technology, as they are new expressions of the darker side of human nature.   There is the tendency to construct fantasies for ourselves and to cling to them desperately,  and the pride that wants to define and enlarge ourselves as individuals at the expense  of community.  Above all else, there is the repeated denial of dependence – the insistence that we are completely in control even when we are not.

The most striking example of this in Digital_Nation was the discussion of multitasking that came at the beginning of the program.  The interviewers asked students at MIT how good they were at multitasking.  Everyone insisted that they were effective multitaskers, and most students expressed indignation at the refusal of professors to recognize that they were perfectly capable of performing tasks online while taking in lectures.  Yet, the brain scans performed by scientists offered undeniable proof that multitasking doesn’t work.  The brain is  not designed to do more than one thing at a time.  We have plenty of devices designed to boost our productivity, but the more we use them, the less productive we become.

The problem with discussing how technology changes us is that we are so immersed in it on a daily basis that we find it hard to step back and think about how our relationships have changed since they became digital, or how our work changed when we began to work with word processors instead of pens and notebooks. Even this discussion, an online post rather than a conversation around a dinner table, is an exercise in irony.  Still, I think that there are two things I can take away from Digital_Nation.

The first is to never take for granted my mastery over the tools I use.  The repeated insistence of tech users that they were in complete control even when they were obviously not begs a reference to Psalm 19:12, “How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults” (NLT).  Perhaps, we will be wiser in our use of technology if we pay attention to the feedback of others around us.  (Such as when my mother sarcastically refers to my laptop as “Anne’s beloved.”)  Or, perhaps, we might look to lesson two.

Lesson two is to recognize that our one-task-at-a-time brains are the invention of an all-wise God.  Rather than seeing our inability to multitask as a limitation, we should be grateful that God has given it to us as a safety net.  We are told by Jesus that our words and actions have deep roots in the thought life (Mt. 12:34).  We are also commanded in Scripture to meditate on God’s Word (see Psalms 1, 19, and 119).  God has designed us to make Him the single focus of our lives.  If we meditate on Scripture and interact with Him more persistently than we IM the people on our buddy list (I Thess. 5:17), we are going to have victory over the things that distract us spiritually and destroy our fruitfulness.  Why?  Because we can’t multitask spiritually.  A mind that is turned toward God can’t be turned toward sin and addiction at the same time.  God has made it physically impossible.  He has wired us for success if we only embrace the spiritual discipline of God-centeredness.

This is why Paul characterizes victory over sin as “taking captive every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) and the “renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2).  Technology has no power to overthrow the God-centered mind.  Rather, those who obey the first commandment to love God with all their minds are in a position to take technology captive to the eternal purposes of God’s kingdom, and that’s something worth plugging into.

1 Comment

Filed under Christianity, Culture, Prayer, Scripture, Women's Ministry