Category Archives: Post-modernism - Page 2

The problem of good in the world (Part 2/3): good that consumes

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—Romans 1:25a

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies—Romans 8:22-24

I started this 3-part essay (here) with the contention that if the world and humankind were created by an intentional creator, it stands to reason that we can understand the nature of the creation by understanding the character of the creator.  Admittedly, I continue to presuppose that there is a knowable true Truth (discussed more here), impervious to time or location, and that this true Truth is a person—the Judeo/Christian God.

Part 1 discussed God’s nature as a Triune God who created mankind in His image, sculpted the universe to house a Garden (and more broadly, the Earth) to sustain us; and declared that both were ‘very good’.  From this we concluded that:

  1. We were designed for a relationship with God
  2. We were designed for relationships with one another
  3. The things in the world are good
  4. Culture is good

Or said another way, being created in God’s image suggests we were made first for a relationship with Him (point 1), then for relationships with one another (2) and that we also have a relationship to Creation itself (3 & 4).  We deduced from God’s nature and motives (a good God creating a universe for people He loves) that the essence of Creation reflects God’s goodness—that it’s a gift to us and therefore the things in this world are good.

But if we’re intellectually honest with ourselves, the world doesn’t always feel so good, does it?  And as I alluded to in the conclusion of Part 1 (concluding remarks have been edited), I think we’re left to ask: how can I hold my belief in the value and dignity life and still acknowledge humanity’s clearly failing (/failed?) history?   How can everything created be good (1 Timothy 4), but the whole of creation be groaning as in the pains of childbirth (Romans 8)?  And for what does it groan?

Throughout history, philosophers and religious thinkers have tried to answer these questions.  Gnosticism and Nihilism are two such attempts.

The main tenet of Gnosticism is that the human spirit is Good but that it is trapped inside a physical world of Evil—both the very body that holds it and the world in which that body resides—pushing us always to compromise our goodness.  It allows its adherents to maintain the belief in the goodness of humanity (at least in a spiritual sense) and blames evil on the physical world.  The challenge of life then is to be disciplined and master ourselves—to beat our bodies into submission of the sprit’s will (think Monty Python’s monks whacking themselves over the head as they sing in Gregorian chant).

Nihilism takes a different approach. It claims that there are no inherent values or truths in the world—that “…morality does not exist, and subsequently there are no moral values with which to uphold a rule or to logically prefer one action over another…..(that) life is without meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value” (Wikipedia) (ideas I refuted here and here).  Nihilism claims there is no such thing as good and evil, so there’s no riddle to answer.  Evil isn’t evil at all!—problem solved.  It’s a terrifying idea if you follow it through to its end.

I am sympathetic to the logic of Gnostics and Nihilists because I believe both philosophies are attempts at intellectual honesty in the face conflicting information and experiences.  Many who ascribe to these philosophies may not know the words Gnosticism or Nihilism but they seek to true up what they want to be true of human nature and what they see in the world.  In other words, we genuinely want to believe that human nature is good and that life has value, but we look around and see (and often experience) a world full of pain: hunger, broken relationships, man-to-man violence where we stand against each other, natural disasters where the world seems to stand against us—and even death.

Have you never looked in exasperation at how brutal a place this can be?  Have you never wondered how we are capable, at times, of being so cruel to one another?

So the logic of Gnosticism allows us to preserve the notion that the soul is good, while the logic of Nihilism allows an escape from the problem altogether.  But adherents to either must face their respective dire conclusions: the Gnostic stands against a hostile world with even his own body against him in the struggle for the spirit.  The Nihilist must stare into the abyss, recognizing the only findable absolute is that of meaninglessness—and is forced to conclude that not even the spirit within him can be deemed Good.

Both, I think fall short—they are neither true to our experience of the world nor of our instinctive sensibilities.  So how do we bridge the chasm?

I want to offer what may seem like a counter-intuitive answer: I think we’ve treasured too much the good things in the world, and in so doing have sacrificed the most sacrosanct component of ourselves—severing the relationship with God for which we were built.

Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, in reflecting on the condition of humanity concluded that we were each made with a “God shaped hole” in our hearts.  Idolatry is the biblical term for trying to fill that whole with something other than God, anything other than God.   And we have a lot to choose from—God has given us so many great things to enjoy!   But nothing else will fill that hole.

And since we were built in a way that our relationships to one another and to the physical world were tied intrinsically to a proper relationship to God, all of our lives are thrown out of balance when that vertical relationship is broken.  Multiply that times 6.7 billion people and you have a world that doesn’t perfectly reflect God’s goodness.

This is not good news, but it’s consistent with what we know, isn’t it?  There is much beauty and friendship and sacrificial love in the world.  There are sunsets that move us, landscapes that silence us, mountains that awe us, oceans that mesmerize us—there’s Ireland!  We’ve all known laughter and the hand of friendship.  But we’ve also known tears and loneliness.  We’ve betrayed and been betrayed.  We’ve seen wars and destruction.  We’ve mourned the deaths of loved ones.

Our experiences don’t show us a world that is evil or souls that are always good; and our instincts don’t allow us to cop out with the claim that there’s no such thing as either.  We’re not good souls fighting our evil bodies, we’re one entity of body and soul just as God is!  We’re capable of tremendous good but also of terrible evil.

And the world is full of things for us to enjoy—mountains, beaches, oceans, sunsets, marriage, sex, family, wine, money—they’re all good things from God, not evil things designed to destroy us.  But they will destroy us (and we will also destroy them!) if we worship them instead of the one who made them for us.

The world was not made for death and decay (other thoughts on this here).  It groans to be restored.  And so must we.

part 1 here. part 3 here.

On the (in?)significance of what we do—two perspectives

What does a man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? –Ecclesiastes 1:3

While I have posited previously in this space that the question of Easter’s empty tomb (here) is the most important question one must answer in life, there is a question that in most cases precedes it—the question of meaning in our lives. Does our toil under the sun matter? Can we effect change? Will anyone remember us?

Philosophers dating back at least to King Solomon have pondered it, but I suspect most of us have either altogether, or at points in our lives, ignored the question. We either fear we cannot answer it with any certainly or fear what the answer might suggest for our lives. Sadly, we are more prone to spend time contemplating the destination of our next vacation or the location of our next dinner date than asking whether any of it matters.

The answer set is binary—we are either temporal or eternal beings—but the implications are infinite, literally.

Solomon explores the issue in Ecclesiastes (Verses 1-18):

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow.

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

What is twisted cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.

I thought to myself, “Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.

And though it may sound like Solomon is answering the question, I rather believe he is asking it—offering us a logical argument and forcing us to wrestle with its natural conclusions. Solomon says that if what’s under the sun is all there is—if we came from nothing and are going to nothing—there can be no meaning. We exist as inconsequential players in the cycle of temporal life, like the stream that flows to the sea, never filling it and only recycling again. We can do nothing new, cannot add or subtract anything from the world around us. Meaninglessness fills our days and surrounds us, and our lives will end in it (Tim Keller, Problem of Meaning; Is There Any Reason for Existence?,  May 31, 1992).

While many modern thinkers seem perfectly content with the assumption that there is nothing except that which is under the sun, they refuse to come to the conclusion of meaninglessness. Philosophers have created three main frameworks whereby we can claim to profit from our lives or gain significance in them. Humanism suggests we achieve meaning by fighting for justice to help an evolving world-order reach its potential. Hedonism admits nothing we do has eternal value and concludes that we should profit by drinking in the pleasures of life while we can. Existentialism posits that our significance is demonstrated by our individual ability to bring justice and nobility to “…an apparently meaningless and absurd world” (Wikipedia) (Help from Tim Keller here also).

I would argue that in each of these, the original question has been either left unanswered or answered without sufficient logical support. Humanism is aptly compared to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; if the ship is going down, what have we achieved by fixing the place up a bit? Besides, by whose standards are the changes considered progress (see Are all truth’s equal?)? Hedonism at least attempts to acknowledge its presupposition of temporality, but does anyone think “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is sufficient to sate our desire for significance? It’s a chasing after the wind. As Solomon points out, almost in anticipation of the hedonists:

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

And existentialism claims that individuals can somehow derive a form of justice or nobility in spite of the inherent absurdity of the world? It acknowledges there is no order, but then suggests that we can demonstrate one—they, like the humanists must ask, whose standards determine nobility in a world without it.

What is twisted cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.

In spite of our best philosophical efforts through centuries I would argue that if all that exists is under the sun, we must conclude that it is all meaningless—it utterly devastates any hope that we can find significance regardless of where we look.

We can promote some ideal we judge to be good, but we have no measuring stick by which to judge between notions of goodness. We can pursue pleasure and personal gain through money, sex, power, wine—even family, children, relationships, romance, etc…, but none of those things fill us (and actually leave us wanting more & more). Or we can stand against the absurd, meaningless world as beacons of nobility, but to what end? Who is the Arbiter to judge our sanity over the world’s insanity? Who can say the role we played meant something? And even if it seems significant today, the next philosophical iteration may render it folly.  Either way, when the ship goes down, will moving the chairs around have helped? We will not be remembered.

There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow.

The natural conclusion is the lowest view of the value of life and of the world we live in. We are insignificant and our toil does not matter—we can add nothing to a world that spins on in cycles and forgets with each generation, until it too is gone.

Unless….

***

What if the philosophers could be partly correct instead of all wrong? What if we could construct a worldview in which things do matter? What if we come from something and have a future? What if there is something beyond the sun?

Jesus’ best friend John (Gospel of John 1-14) claimed that:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.  […]

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Do you see it? John is making the claim that there is Something that preceded—the Something beyond the sun turns out to be the very God who created us and calls us His children. It is the One who was here already, long ago; here before our time. And He made us no less eternal than Himself.

You have made known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand. –Psalm 16:11

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” –Mathew 16:46

The philosophers are all partly right.

For humanitarians, the Word means that there is a Standard by which to measure our deeds—there is a New Order that we can help usher in (see Upside-down, Inside-out). For hedonists it means there is finally something that quenches. For existentialists it means we can stand for order in a world designed for it—that has lost it only temporarily.

What we do does matter. Humans are eternal creatures. But there is more.

We learn the following in Revelations 1, verses 1-3:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.  On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.

Not only are humans eternal, but so too is the world itself. The Biblical picure of heaven is a city! The world will not fade or disappear—it will not freeze with the inevitable cooling of the sun that warms it, but will instead be renewed by the God whose hand placed it into orbit. Our destiny is not extinction and devastation but renewal. God’s eventual Kingdom will not take us from the earth to some ethereal heaven, but rather God will renew this earth to its state of Grace and Shalom—removing the curse. The nations will be healed not relocated.

Sadness and disease will be gone, laughter will replace tears, singing will replace gnashing of teeth. Everything sad will come untrue.

This is the highest view of the value of life and of the world we live in.

Our toil does matter, and what we do here can be accretive to the New Kingdom. It is the ultimate expression of being created in God’s image—that we can be co-creators with Him—that what we do here will echo into eternity. Therefore, art matters; architecture matters; investment banking matters; music matters; learning, teaching, discovering, inventing, constructing, everything matters!—for all will stay with us in some form as we move to the renewed world—it will be perfected, not lost.

While it may go without saying, I would feel remiss if I did not point out the implication for the value of humans and of relationships.

As C.S. Lewis observes in Mere Christianity, “Christianity asserts that every human being is going to live forever. […] If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilization, which may last for a thousand years is more important than in individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important, but incomparably more important for he is everlasting (pp. 74-75).

Any one of us will outlast the longest surviving civilization. We’ll be around to see the sun burn out!

So we would do well to remember that all the people in this world—those we pass by and those we never will, those we get to know and those we ignore—are eternal beings also.

We may not be important or powerful people in this world but we are eternal people and our actions will resonate forever, in other people and in this world that God promises to heal.

***

I realize I have allowed a fair amount of Biblical presupposition in this case. We can (and should) argue apologetics (the defense of Biblical validity and truth) over time, but here we see the logic of a Biblical worldview is the only one that holds up to review. The logic of humanism, hedonism and existentialism fail outright.  They claim no basis for meaning but then suggest we can find it.  It’s a nice idea, but it can’t be applied–it can’t be lived!  Furthermore, each philosophy is inherently unable to justify its own presuppositions—for it is far more difficult to prove God does not exist, that we came from nothing, than to point to evidence that He does exist (an idea I plan to explore more in future posts).

So the philosopher is asking you to wrestle with the natural conclusions of a worldview based on a closed system with no God above it.  Or as Tim Keller put it in a sermon on the text (found in multi-media on the right toolbar):

“The philosopher is pushing you to show you there is no middle ground. Listen, either there’s a God; there’s a life above the heaven…either there is a God who created you, and a God who sustains you and a God who will judge you and there’s an afterlife, an eternity…either there is a God or else everything is utter futility and there is nothing in the middle…How could this modern secular mindset work that says yes, there is no God; yes we’re accidents; and yes, eventually we’re going to annihilation? In other words, my origin is insignificant, my destiny is insignificant but while we’re here we’ve got to work for human rights…every human being is valuable, we have to work for human dignity, we have to work equal rights and for justice for all….come on!”

“If my (your) origin is in insignificant, and my (your) destiny is in insignificant, have the guts to admit that your (my) life is insignificant…Either there is life above the sun and there is meaning or there’s no life except that which is under the sun and nothing means anything.” (Tim Keller, Problem of Meaning; Is There Any Reason for Existence?,  May 31, 1992)

In the end, I think intellectual honesty forces us to conclude either nothing matters at all; or everything matters greatly.

***

I take the high view of human worth and of the significance of our lives and look forward to the day when everything sad will come untrue. More than that, as C.S. Lewis puts it: “God is not merely mending, not simply restoring status quo. Redeemed humanity is to be something more glorious than unfallen humanity (Miracles, Chapter 14, para 21).

There is much for which to hope as we toil under the sun.

Are all truths equal?

REPOST: (I wrote this some months ago when I first considered starting a blog). 

I was reminded this weekend of a conundrum that Art Linsley, one of my seminary professors, presented to me some years ago: Is God above the law or beneath the law?

It was an old Duke Law Journal article written by Arthur Allen Leff in 1979 (Unspeakable Ethics; Unnatural Law) that got my mind spinning on the subject. Leff was a professor of law at Yale Law School. His article focuses on whether a ‘normative morality’ or sort of universal law can exist without God. Interestingly, Leff was an agnostic and asked the question of whether there is some “findable” law that “ought” to dictate human behavior. The implication is that the point of human law is to find and point to a law that pre-existed. I am fascinated by and continue to struggle with some of Leff’s arguments but I am also awed by his intellectual and philosophical honesty. It seems Leff struggled with a sense of absurdity in humans dictating rather than finding law—and presenting a made law as the “Great Ought To.”

Leff’s conundrum would read something like: If law is not from a supreme source, then can it be a supreme law? Or if there is no findable law then don’t we make ourselves “god” in dictating a law? Leff did not assume God (quite different from Linsley).  I sense he is arguing for God’s existence through of a shared notion of universal “rights” and “wrongs” across time, but he winds up concluding that there really can be no rights and wrongs! My conclusion is different, but I think Leff builds a strong intellectual platform on which to build the case–if not for the existence of God–then at least for the consequences his absense.

***

So….Is God above the law or beneath the law?

I realize this question presupposes a proper God, but for the purposes of this discussion, “god” can be thought of in non-specific terms—i.e. a higher power/intelligent designer, etc. You will probably see there is a problem with both of the options presented. On the one hand, if God is above the law, the law is, in a very real sense, arbitrary. That is, should the designer have chosen other things to be ‘right’ instead, they would be. Or, he could change his mind and something that was right yesterday might not be right tomorrow. The natural conclusion here is that nothing is actually True in a cosmic/permanent sense, except at the whim of their god.

On the other hand, if God is below the law, then God is himself subject to the law. But if that being is subject to the law then isn’t it the law itself that has become God? For in this event, the rules would rule the ruler, becoming themselves the ultimate ruler. You might still posit an intelligent designer, but its hands would be tied by a Law that supersedes. We are left with a cosmic Truth, but a toothless god—an omnipotent Law with a weak chief executor. Further, we might wonder whether the law is “good” or if it “has our best interests in mind” for it would be faceless, nameless and somewhat cold to the feel I think.

It’s interesting to note that in either event, something is True, a salient point in a world that has become definitively relativistic. If we accept some sort of Supreme Being, it’s hard to reason that such a God would have no view of right and wrong. If above the law, He might change right and wrong over time, but it would be His discretion, not our own. If beneath the law, there is an inalienable, faceless truth that would be unchanging. So in order to conclude the absence of some unassailable truth at any point in time, one, I think, has to argue that there is no God—regardless of the fashion in which it exists.

As Leff argues, one of the great ironies of life is that humans seem to yearn so strongly to be free, and yet cannot deal with the consequences of absolute freedom. We want to rule our own lives and define our own truths and yet find the implications terrifying. Post modernism suggests the notion of Absolute Truth is archaic—that we have ‘progressed’ to higher philosophical grounds. Relativism rules the day. Relativism is appealing because it allows us to define our own truth. It allows us to be politically correct and to embrace others and their beliefs without any uncomfortable questioning. But I think we realize that in so doing, we are letting go of one of our greatest hopes—that something is True, that something is Good. Or perhaps even more importantly, that there are things that wrong.

For in the absence of such an Absolute, we are forced to conclude that we cannot apply standards to others. Relativism suggests that what is right for any person or group, is right for that person or group and what is right for me is right for me. The one thing a person cannot do, though, is to apply her own sense of right and wrong to the others. Therefore, if I accept relativism, can I really say it is wrong to kill? Can I say Hitler was wrong, the 9-11 hijackers? Can I say that rape is wrong? I would argue that I cannot. The natural conclusion of relativism is that everything is true and therfore nothing is True.  I find this to be a terrifying conclusion and I think relativists must often reach into the abyss searching for some laws that are inalienable, even if they can’t describe from whence those lswa might come.

The Biblical answer to the conundrum is that the Biblical/Judeo-Christian God is, in and of himself, the Law. This means that God is Truth and that Truth is unchanging–that the Law is not arbitrary but is, rather, an expression of God’s character and very essence.  It follows that in understanding what is True, we understand God Himself.  And to the extent we can know God, we will know what is True and right.  If you follow this out a bit, we arrive at a God whose character defines a spiritual universe  (that is subject to that spiritual law), just as his actions created a physical one (that is subject to physical law–think Newtonian Physics). As there are physical truths (e.g. you will hit the ground and hurt yourself if you fall from a window) there are also spiritual truths (e.g. you will damage your relationship if you lie to a friend). God did not make it so, he has expounded on it for us so that we know it is so. And we know that the Law is Good because it expresses God’s own character. He is not above the law, having decided that you should not lie. Rather, it was always wrong to lie, before the dawn of time, but God allows us to know that law. God’s law then is not to arbitrarily rule over us, but to help us live more fulfilled lives—jump from windows less, if you will.  It’s an instruction book, not a to-do list.

Leff begins his article:

I want to believe —and so do you— in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe —and so do you —in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and good and to create it.

He concludes:

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves, and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things stand now, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless:

Napalming babies is bad.

Starving the poor is wicked.

Buying and selling each other is depraved.

Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot —and General Custer too— have earned salvation.

Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.

There is in the world such a thing as evil.

[All together now:] Sez who?

God help us.