Category Archives: Post-modernism

Everyone believes in something

Science shows us that the universe evolved by self-organization of matter towards more and more complex structures. Atoms, stars and galaxies self-assembled out of the fundamental particles produced by the Big Bang. In first-generation stars, heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen were formed. Aging first-generation stars then expelled them out into space – we, who consist of these elements, are thus literally born from stardust. The heaviest elements were born in the explosions of supernovae. The forces of gravity subsequently allowed for the formation of newer stars and of planets. Finally, in the process of biological evolution from bacteria-like tiny cells (the last universal common ancestor) to all life on earth, including us humans, complex life forms arose from simpler ones.

Albrecht Moritz, taken from The Origin of Life

Scientists love to ponder the statistical improbability of the Big Bang, seemingly just to see how many zeros they can crowd into a denominator. The conclusion is usually some variation of how fortunate we are that the universe was formed, that the earth is inhabitable, that life formed from quark-gluon plasma and that somehow the simplest microorganisms eventually developed into complicated animals—how fortunate we are that just like that, some 15 billion years later, human beings walked onto the scene.

I don’t mean to knock the Big Bang.  It’s a theory that both fascinates and befuddles me (though I confess I have no idea what quark-gluon is. And I can’t begin to imagine how anyone could put a date on this event!). But I must say, I think it takes some faith to swallow the theory whole. And it interests me that if a random Big Bang is as unlikely as scientists agree it is (was?), they don’t stop and ask whether it was random at all.  In fact, its very randomness makes it difficult to explain the nearly inarguable order and predictability of the natural world (the very order and predictability on which modern scientific theory is built).

Is there more of a chance that the Big Bang and evolution produced this ordered, predictable world full of complex organisms or that there is some cosmic force behind the universe that deliberately put the pieces in place and quark-gluon plasma in motion? To be honest, I just don’t know—I’m not smart enough to discount the probabilities.

I believe so many questions like this deserve our consideration.

I’m also prone to wrangle with probability of spontaneous life—that is, life willing itself into existence through the cobbling together of non-living matter in the proper proportions and sequences. Then, I wonder about the presumed serial advancements of those life-forms which allegedly culminated in man’s evolution from ape—the crowning accomplishment of the Will of Life.

Did you know that archaeology has never proven man evolved from apes?

Again, the theory is fascinating—and could still prove to be true, but as of now, it remains a theory. The Missing Link has many connotations, but none of them change that fact that no amount of digging has filled holes in the evidence that would prove the theory. Like evolution, we fill the missing links with quark-gluons and faith in the theory itself.

I think everyone believes in something—whether or not they realize it. Some may claim they are people of science, not faith; but so much faith goes into scientific theory, particularly where questions of the cosmos are concerned! Repeatable science is tough to argue against, but to me it’s (the very order and predictability of repeatable results) evidence for an Intelligent Designer. In the end, theoretical science is theory—and all theory is a way of filling in the missing links.

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Exclusivism that welcomes all

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. –Matthew 11:29-30

I have given a lot of thought recently to what makes Christianity unique among the religions to which it is often compared.  I think the answer hangs on the exclusive claims that Jesus Christ made about who he was and why he was on earth.  No other religious leader (of any major faith) claimed to be God.  No other religious leader promised to destroy death; followers of no other religion claim its leader’s resurrection.  So I contend that Christianity is either “better” or much worse than all other faiths.  I use the word “better” simply because Christianity makes a claim of unique truth that (if valid) supersedes all other truth claims.  That is, either Jesus was in fact God and was in fact resurrected from the dead, or he was not God and/or was not raised from the dead.  If the latter is true (in either variation), Christianity is a farce based on lies.  I accept that.  But if the former is true, it has far reaching implications. I believe the most important question a man must answer in his life is whether or not Jesus’ exclusive claims have been borne out by history (recommended reading on the historical validity of the Biblical accounts: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Richard Bauckham).

I recognize the intellectual problem presented by exclusive truth claims (such as this), particularly for thoughtful modern people.  The notion of unique, exclusive or True Truth is often perceived to be dangerous and/or obtuse and naïve.  I’d like to try to respond to those criticisms in the hopes that we can consider the nature of the Christian Truth claims and what they might mean for our lives.

Admittedly, history has demonstrated that exclusive truth claims can be dangerous.  The Crusades—designed to propagate Christianity’s unique truth claims—are not a bright spot in the history of that faith; just as the September 2001 terror attacks did not do much to mollify the world regarding the nature of Islam’s unique truth claims.  Sadly, many other horrifying examples can be cited, but misuse of truth does not negate a truth in itself—and I think it unfair to reject the thing itself before we even consider its claims. An exclusive truth claim can undoubtedly be dangerous, but it depends on the nature of the Truth it claims.

As for the obtuse and naïve nature of unique truth claims, I quite disagree with modern prevailing wisdom.  The general form of the argument against exclusive truth claims is often illustrated with a story about blind men trying to understand the full nature of an elephant they come to meet.  One feels its trunk and believes the elephant is soft and agile, perhaps snakelike.  Another man feels a leg and thinks the elephant much like a tree.  Still third man, feels a tusk and has quite a different interpretation of what the elephant is.  Each man understands a part of the elephant, but none of them has the full picture.  Such is life, the illustration suggests.  All any of us can hope to bring to the table is the unique piece of understanding we can derive from our experience, but none of us can understand the full elephant, as it were.  That is to say, yours or my unique truth claim will reflect yours or my limited understanding, but it cannot be the complete picture.  The problem with this argument (which admittedly comes in various forms) lies in the question of who is telling it.  After all, who could tell it? It can only be told by someone who sees the complete elephant.  Otherwise, how can the teller know that any individual has an incomplete picture?  In other words, the argument that no truth claim can be the full truth is itself a truth claim of being the full truth!
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Ideas are bulletproof

And the diminution of ideologues

after a hail of gunfire doesn’t stop V

Creedy: Die! Die! Why won’t you die?… Why won’t you die?
V: Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.

—Taken from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta

***

I was watching a favorite evening news/commentary program this week, when one of the most opinionated and partisan hosts on television denied the accusation of being an ideologue. It got me thinking….

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really know what the term ideologue means. It occurred to me that its root must be “idea”—a word with innocuous or even positive connotation—and yet my sense is that ideologue is most often used in a pejorative context. I’ve never heard anyone claim to be one, but have heard people deny it.

A William Safire article confirmed my hunch as it recounts Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation in 1847 that ideologue was “a word of contempt often in his mouth.” Safire claims the term ideologue is synonymous with “dogmatic”, “doctrinarian” and just short of “zealot”—labels virtually nobody wants ascribed to them. In 1957, the critic Clifton Felton summed it up: “An ideologue may be defined as a mad intellectual. He is not interested in ideas, but—almost the exact contrary—in one idea” (Language: The Evolution of the Ideologue, New York Times, 13 November 2005).

Safire goes on to suggest the term idealist may be construed more positively than ideologue, the former connoting a “high-minded, visionary, if somewhat impractical”—idealist coming from the root ideal, versus ideologue coming from the root idea…a “model of perfection” instead of “a concept” (ibid). Though I’m sure his history is correct, I don’t believe there’s much of a distinction in today’s town square—I think both labels are used to diminish.

It was not always so:

Before the French Revolution, the philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac took an empiricist idea from John Locke that knowledge came from experience and sensations and not, as the rationalists believed, from innate ideas. Condillac’s disciple, Destutt de Tracy, was known as an idéologiste espousing idéologie after the Revolution (as quote by Safire).

So while ideologue may have originally been a label of esteem—noting the value ascribed to knowledge from experience in place of innate ideas—this would eventually reverse. Today, the most feared individual in the public square is the one who believes in innate ideas—the ideologue.

(Chorus gasps as villain enters!)

The hero of this production (life’s sociopolitical drama) is of course the free-thinking, moderate pragmatist (also very handsome), who does not kowtow to these innate ideas. Innate ideas are a collar that the hero throws off—so he can move the lines where our modern sensibilities suggest they belong, rather than letting it be determined by some archaic and esoteric idea. He is able to take inventory of what the world needs now (love, sweet love) and thus make recommendations on how to proceed. He offers hope for what we can achieve.

The hero’s idea is that an ever-evolving humanity should let human history inform its future goals and aspirations—the way we govern and set up our societies. We can correct so much of what we’ve gotten wrong.

Many of today’s heroes, for example, believe religion was the worst construct ever (while often protecting votes by paying lip service to its value). Sure religions filled a need for ancient people (the logic goes)—helping them construct an understanding of the world and maybe giving them a basis on which to organize communities and care for the disenfranchised. But look at all the war and death they have brought—hatred between nations and peoples. Plus, now we’re sophisticated enough to know they’re mystical and nice, but none can actually be true—certainly not any more than another. Clearly, any new society would want to exclude them; particulay those that make a unique claim to truth.

This type of analysis continues through all aspects of society and culture, driven both by the hero and his focus groups. For example, in our generation advanced Western states have often concluded that religion, nationalism and personal charity should be diminished. State run programs and multinationalism should replace them. The list goes on.

So with the very idea of innate ideas rejected, we move the line to a place where it suits us.

The hero’s new idea simply creates a new ideology—a new set of truths; it’s called relativism. We believe it’s freeing but we’re really just escaping from innate truths, only to bind ourselves with constructed truths. Most often, we’re trading ideas for the hope of desired results (see here); and assuming the means will justify the ends. As those desired results change, so moves the new ideology. So moves the line.

Right now, the prevailing wisdom of Western civilation is that a man should be able to do whatever makes him happy—that no one should impose his ideas on another.

I often wonder how this ideology works, because it seems to create some very difficult conundrums.

What happens when your happiness start to infringe on mine? What happens when a behavior starts to compromise social order? What happens if I still love my religion now that we’ve decided that the new order will exclude it? What if my nationalistic pride comes off as arrogance in the new (superior?) multinational world order?

And assuming we can answer these questions and implement the plan, will we like all the consequences?

At the state level, in the most constructive cases, the result of rejecting innate ideas tends to take the form of social engineering. This is the ultimate reversion to the mean, where focus groups determine allocation of resources, values, standards and laws. It strangles outliers with its fraternal embrace—saying: “Believe anything you want, except the existence innate ideas—believe what you will, as long as it maintains no claim to being uniquely correct”. If you make an absolute truth claim, you will be labeled an ideologue—and you will be demonized.

In the more tragic cases, it has resulted in oppressive fascism; but in reality only a fine line separates the two. Personal liberty and freedom diminish in both, and it’s a short jump to fascism once the will of the people is softened by its mild despot (a.k.a. The State).

Neither is a result I think we want.

But even at the moral level, I’m not sure we really accept the natural conclusions of relativism. If Nietzsche was correct in his claim that “there are no facts, only interpretations”, we are left to ponder how we can defend an Idea that we know in our hearts is right and how we can reject behavior that we know in our hearts is wrong (see Are all truth’s equal?).

On what grounds will we defend the value of human life? Many in history have drawn a line that allows for genocide to achieve some “greater end”.

How will we defend the right to personal liberty? Today, Iranians peacefully protesting a rigged election are being killed in the streets.

And on what basis can we condemn the mass murders and rapes of Darfurian civilians or the Iranian regime’s unwillingness to recognize the voice of its people?

These Sovereigns have drawn their lines as we have drawn our own. In the absence of innate ideas, I would suggest all we can do is advance our own interests. Who cares what happens to them?

…But then again, I’m an ideologue.

I understand that scares people, and admittedly not all ideologues are Good. It all depends on what that one idea is.

My idea is a Man.

He started an upside-down, inside-out Kingdom where glory comes only through service (see here). A Man who lived this out by dying to win his great victory—a victory that demonstrated the value of human life and the dignity of each person (see here). And it guaranteed the ultimate restoration and Shalom of this fallen world (see here).

Consequently, I believe what we do on earth matters, both in relation to each other and in relation to the created world. I believe in human dignity, the right to personal liberty and the obligation to defend the defenseless, to enfranchise the disenfranchised (see here). And I believe that we are not granted the privilege of ignoring any of the above in the interest of pursuing other personal or national interests.

I’m interested in lots of ideas, contrary to what Mr. Felton might have suspected, but I will not forsake the above for any other. No end is greater than what is required by this Idea.

***

By the way, I think John Locke was right, at least halfway. We should have a worldview that is informed by experience and sensation. Truth should not only be right, it should feel right (we know this in our hearts)—it should be consistent with what we see around us (see also here, here and here). But his argument does not offer logic that allows us to reject the notion of innate truth.

We’re left to ask, what if there are some ideas that are innate?

True, many are the claims of innate truth; and they are different in nature. But shouldn’t we at least understand what those claims are before rejecting even the possibility? I can tell you this; they wouldn’t go away just because we thought them inconvenient. They wouldn’t die just because we wanted them to. Ideas are bulletproof and innate ideas are eternal. An idea can still change the world.

***

Evey Hammond: Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot… But what of the man? I know his name was Guy Fawkes and I know, in 1605, he attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. But who was he really? What was he like? We are told to remember the idea, not the man, because a man can fail. He can be caught, he can be killed and forgotten, but 400 years later, an idea can still change the world. I’ve witnessed first hand the power of ideas, I’ve seen people kill in the name of them, and die defending them… but you cannot kiss an idea, cannot touch it, or hold it… ideas do not bleed, they do not feel pain, they do not love… And it is not an idea that I miss, it is a man… A man that made me remember the Fifth of November. A man that I will never forget.

V for Vendetta, Alan Moore.


As a rule, only very learned and clever men deny what is obviously true. Common men have less brains, but more sense.

—William T. Stace