Friday, December 19, 2008

Brass tacks: I like 'em

Everybody's got a worldview.  What's yours?  What's mine?  The next time you're talking to somebody, think about how they might answer these questions:
What is the proper role of government?
What is man's basic nature?
What is good?
Are there absolutes?
Is there a God?  If so, what is His basic nature?

This year my aunt sent a Christmas card that showed a diagram from Ken Ham's ministry.  It shows two groups of people in castles blasting at each other.  Castle A's foundation is Creation.  Castle B's foundation is Evolution, and there are quite a few balloons hovering over Castle B.  These balloon are emblazoned with words like "euthanasia," "abortion," and "homosexuality."  The folks in Castle A are taking shots at these Castle B balloons, and some of them are popping.  Of course there's no audio, but Castle A folks are probably cheering as each balloon pops.  The folks in Castle B have a very different approach from that of Castle A.  They're going for the foundation of Castle A, and each Castle B cannonball is taking out a sizeable chunk from it.

I've seen this picture approximately 1,249 times in my life.  But I didn't understand it until today.  I was talking to some friends from school about the economic crisis that we're in.  They were glad that part of the billions of Bush's bailout were going to the auto industry, while I was trying to explain how little comfort it is that a debtor government has taken on a new passle of debt and handed it over to us. 

I wasn't getting through.

Somehow, they thought the government taking on debt is making the situation more stable.  I was trying to explain why this wasn't the case, and why it was wrong for our federal government to even try to step in like this.  I mentioned that the Constitution did not give the federal government the authority to step in and interfere with private industries like this.  Their statement was that the government's trying to make things more stable, and we'll worry about paying it off later.  In other words, it didn't matter what the Constitution did or not outline.

They seemed to have a sense of awe about the government, as if, now that the federal government has "taken on" the debt, everything's going to be okay.  I tried to explain my concerns about our progression toward a fascist state, but they looked at me calmly and said nothing.  I would have been happier if they had yelled at me and violently disagreed. 

They take comfort in the fact that the Feds are telling the auto industries that, because they're giving them a handout, they've got to shape up and submit a plan for restructuring themselves in a more efficient manner.  I see this as government nannyism, and they evidently see it as government being a good ol' watchdog.

Which brings me back to my original questions at the beginning of this blog.  Sometimes what a discussion like this one needs is a zoom out/zoom in approach.  My friends and I discussed a lot of details, but I wish I had zoomed out and asked them some big-picture questions, such as "What would you say is the proper role of government?"  Of course, to answer this, one has to have some idea about the smallest component of government: the individual.  And to keep proper perspective, a person must have made up their mind (or at least be functioning as if they had) whether or not there is a God.

So, you can spend an eternity of time on details.  But if you can zoom out to the universals every once in a while, you can help the person recognize and evalute the universals they've consciously or unconsciously accepted.  Then the big questions can begin rolling: do I believe there is a God?  Do I believe He's a personal God who is involved in day-to-day workings, or an aloof, impersonal God who wound up the universe is now passively listening to it tick?  If I don't believe there's a God, do I believe that man is at the top of nature, or that he simply has an overglorified view of mankind's position?  Do I believe that man is basically good or evil?  What is good and evil?  What defines them?  Are there absolutes?  How should man organize groups of people?  Is government man-made or God-given?  What role should government play in a person's life?

Once all of us have established which universals we want to operate with, the particulars flow out from it.  So often I forget this, and I only get into discussions with people on the particulars, and forget about the universals.  Then I wonder why we can't agree on something I see as "simple."  The thing I see as "simple" just means that it's closer to my foundation that other issues.  But while it might be a building block of my castle, there is absolutely no guarantee that it's a building block in theirs!  If I fail to recognize the universals that we've built our castles on, I may never understand why we disagree on a given particular.  In Ken Ham's diagram, the foundation of evolution could more generally be labeled "universals" or "first assumptions" or "presuppositions."  The castle: foundation + walls + roof + balloons = worldview.  Most of my discussions with people have been about the balloons: what do you think about abortion, government bail-outs, etc.  But if I can get them to peer down at the foundation of their castle, evaluate that foundation, and decide for themselves whether or not this is the castle they want to be in, I will be doing what God wants me to do.

Also, the image of one castle attacking another castle is disturbing on a number of levels.  One of the most disturbing is that while the folks in Castle A (the creation castle) are excited that they're taking out balloons, most of them never notice that their foundation is being obliberated.  I see this so often when I talk to Christians who accept evolution.  They do not see evolution and God as being mutually exclusive, and they wonder why I believe in 6-day creation.  The simplest way I can express my reason for believing in 6-day creation is because I've answered this question: Can I take God at His word?  Since I answer this with an avid YES, it takes away the doubt about the period of time involved in the creation week.  Thus, I do not see the question of creation vs. evolution as a question of religion vs. science; I see it as a question of believing God as the ultimate authority vs. believing man as the ultimate authority.

The next time I have a discussion with folks about the economy (or anything!), I want to help them identify and articulate their worldview and their underlying assumptions.  Of course, I've also got to peer down at my own foundation, and see what I've accepted as presuppositional! 

Monday, December 08, 2008

When Chesterton and YouTube Agree

It's always interesting when several threads from completely different spools end up coming together.  I watched part of the 1938 version of Robin Hood tonight and found this post:

"...Wonder why Costner's robin wasnt [sic] more like Errol's, movie might have done better(like john unable to swim). I'll admit it was hard at first to swallow watching/reading a/b robin being defeated, but this movie showed it was his character."

Then I read some of Chesterton's book Heretics and came across this:

"When men were tough and raw, when they lived amid hard knocks and hard laws, when they knew what fighting really was, they had only two kinds of songs.  The first was a rejoicing that the weak had conquered the strong, the second a lamentation that the strong had, for once in a way, conquered the week.  For this defiance of the status quo, this constant effort to alter the existing balance, this premature challenge to the powerful, is the whole nature and inmost secret of the psychological adventure which is called man.  It is his strength to disdain strength.  The forlorn hope is not only a real hope, it is the only real hope of mankind.  In the coarsest ballads of the Greenwood men are admired most when they defy, not only the king, but what is more to the point, the hero.  The moment Robin Hood becomes a sort of Superman, that moment the chivalrous chronicler shows us Robin thrashed by a poor tinker whom he thought to thrust aside.  And the chivalrous chronicler makes Robin Hood receive the thrashing in a glow of admiration...
" (pp. 43-44).

Coincidence?  I think not.

Literal poetry taken literally

(Here's my response to the claim that "The Genesis account is written as poetry, and should not be taken literally.")

Just thought of this, and thought I'd share...

Just because something is written as a poem doesn't mean it's not literally true.  When something is written in verse (as poetry), it can be literal or metaphorical.  When Psalm 139:23 says "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts," I don't have to wonder whether this is simply a beautiful, poetical but only metaphorical phrase.  When David wrote it, he literally wanted God to test him and his thoughts.  If I wrote a poem to my mom on Mother's Day and worked the phrase "I love you" into it, she would be right if she understood it literally.  She wouldn't need me to write out my meaning in prose to be sure that I really meant what I'd said.

It's amazing how much of Scripture is written in verse, and how much of that verse describes historical events.  For example, Miriam and Moses composed a song about the destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea.  What they wrote was historically accurate, but it lends rhythm,  expression, and dramatic emphasis into what they are singing about.  Even the Book of Numbers, which I associate with bookkeepers (not poets), in the midst of a straightforward accounting of facts and figures, indulges in poetry about historical events now and then (e.g. Numbers 21:27-30).  In the books of prophecy, God's spokesmen often denounce a country through verse.  When Isaiah delivers the message (in verse) that "...the Lord's anger burns against His people; His hand is raised and He strikes them down..." (Isaiah 5:25) the Israelites might have preferred to interpret the words metaphorically, but God meant them literally and carried them out literally.

Similes and metaphors can be used in prose or in verse.  (For example, when Jesus talks about being a gate (John 10:9) or being bread (John 6:51), He's speaking in prose, not verse).  When we're reading the Bible, we've got to keep our wits about us and pray to the Holy Spirit for insight into whether the meaning of a given passage is literal or metaphorical.  And if there's a debate about whether or not a particular passage should be understood metaphorically, it's important to understand the presuppositions, motivation, and reasoning of the differing parties.

When it comes to Genesis, the fact that the creation account was written in verse does not automatically mean that everything in it is metaphorical.  That might be an attractive possibility, but it's not a foregone conclusion.  Two Christians going through the Genesis account might not end up agreeing on which portions are literal and which are metaphorical.  But they jolly well should know WHY they're marking each passage as one or the other! 

Here's one question that helped me put this issue in perspective: Was there pressure to interpret the creation account metaphorically before the theory of evolution became popular?  If the answer is no, then I am led to believe that men are bringing a presupposition ("evolution happened") to Scripture, and attempting to force-fit Scripture's account into the evolutionary model.

Obviously, I don't believe that the creation account should only be thought of as a nicely written allegory.  I like to think about possible reasons why God might have written the creation account in verse instead of prose.  For one thing, the parallelism of the account heightens my awareness of the symmetry of God's actions during the creation week.  Each day has the contrast of sameness and variety.  While each day begins and ends with the same phrases ("And God said, "Let..." to "And there was evening, and there was morning -- the ____ day."), each day brought its own new and glorious innovation.  The crescendo of each day of creation is beautifully communicated through the medium of verse, and I begin to see God as the model of craftsmanship and intricate design.  Not only does he craft a universe from nothing, but He creates it and describes it to us in a symmetrical, rhythmic, purposeful way.

Another reason I'm interested in this is because of a conversation I had with a United? Methodist pastor in town.  We weren't talking about creation vs. evolution.  We were talking about homosexuality, and God's view of it.  I asked her what she thought of God's choice to create a man and a woman as the first people.  And she calmly stated that the account in Genesis is a story (she might have used the word "allegory" or "myth," but I don't remember).  It didn't really happen, but God can use that account to teach us some things.  It's definitely not a referendum on God's preference for people's pairing up.

I was amazed by her dismissive attitude, and today it makes me think how much "easier" my life would be if I could simply dismiss the passages that I disagree with or don't yet understand.  If I dismiss a certain interpretation of a passage (for example, if I dismiss one Mormon's view that the "other sheep" mentioned in John 10:16 refers to Mormons and not Gentiles generally), I've got to know WHY I'm dismissing it.  Am I trying to justify an assumption that I had before I even looked into the Scriptures?  Or am I letting the Holy Spirit guide me into all truth?

.Tension between possible interpretations of Scripture and the latest experimental theory can be a rich source of inquiry and discovery.  It's selling God short to artifically limit the areas we allow Him to speak to through Scripture. 

Have an awesome Monday!

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Ethics: Where's your focus?

At lunch today a group of us were talking about ethics.  One guy has taught an ethics course to students, and he was struck by how little they understand about basic ethics.  I mentioned that as I have sat through ethics courses at the university, I've been amazed at the lack of force in the arguments to be ethical.  Without a solid foundation for morality, all this ethics talk comes down to utilitarianism.  But that dissolves as soon as unethical behaviour becomes beneficial to me.  (And what's the defintion of beneficial, anyway?  What is "good"?  If everything is relative, then who are you to define what my ethical behavior looks like?!) 
   Later today, I came across the following passage.  I think it continues some of the thoughts we were talking about at lunch today, on ethics.  Of course, Chesterton's not talking about teaching students' ethics courses -- he's talking about ethics in literature -- but he makes a point that applies to a lot of different situations.  (It's from chapter two, "On the Negative Spirit," of G.K. Chesterton's book Heretics.  It was written in 1905!)  Compare it to Philippians 4:7-9 "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.")
"Much has been said, and said truly, of the monkish morbidity, of the hysteria which has often gone with the visions of hermits or nuns.  But let us never forget that this visionary religion is, in one sense, necessarily more wholesome than our modern and reasonable morality.  It is more wholesome for this reason, that it can contemplate the idea of success or triumph in the hopeless fight toward the ethical ideal, in what Stevenson called, with his usual startling felicity, 'the lost fight of virtue.'  A modern morality, on the other hand, can only point with absolute conviction to the horrors that follow breaches of law; its only certainty is a certainty of ill.  It can only point to imperfection.  It has no perfection to point to.  But the monk meditating upon Christ or Buddha has in his mind an image of perfect health, a thing of clear colours and clean air.  He may contemplate this ideal wholeness and happiness far more than he ought; he may contemplate it to the neglect or exclusion of essential THINGS; he may contemplate it until he has become a dreamer or a driveller; but still it is wholeness and happiness that he is contemplating.  He may even go mad; but he is going mad for the love of sanity.  But the modern student of ethics, even if he remains sane, remains sane from an insane dread of insanity..."
(He mentions an article written by a Mr. Foote, who explains how he thinks alcohol should be dealt with).
"...Mr. Foote dismissed very contemptously any attempts to deal with the problem of strong drink by religious offices or intercessions, and said that a picture of a drunkard's liver would be more efficacious in the matter of temperance than any prayer or praise.  In that picturesque expression, it seems to me, is perfectly emobodied the inscrutable morbidity of modern ethics.  In that temple the lights are low, the crowds kneel, the solemn anthems are uplifted.  But that upon the altar to which all men kneel is no longer the perfect flesh, the body and substance of the perfect man; it is still flesh, but it is diseased.  It is the drunkard's liver of the New Testament that is marred for us, which we take in remembrance of him.
     "Now, it is this great gap in modern ethics, the absence of vivid pictures of purity and spiritual triumph, which lies at the back of the real objection felt by so many sane men to the realistic literature of the nineteenth century...  The thing which is resented, and, as I think, rightly resented, in that great modern literature of which Ibsen is typical, is that while the eye that can perceive what are the wrong things increases in an uncanny and devouring clarity, the eye which sees what things are right is growing mistier and mistier every moment, till it goes almost blind with doubt..."
    "...My meaning is that Ibsen has throughout, and does not disguise, a certain vagueness and a changing attitutde as well as a doubting attitutde towards what is really wisdom and virtue in this life -- a vaguness which contrasts very remarkably with the decisiveness with which he pounces on something which he perceives to be a root of evil, some convention, some deception, some ignorance...  There are no cardinal virtues in Ibsenism.  There is no ideal man in Ibsen... Mr. Shaw sums up Ibsen's teaching in the phrase 'The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.'  In his eyes this absence of an enduring and positive ideal, this absence of a permanent key to virtue, is the one great Ibsen merit.  I am not discussing now with any fullness whether this is so or not.  All I venture to point out, with an increased firmness, is that this omission, good or bad, does leave us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good.  To us light must be henceforward the dark thing -- the thing of which we cannot speak.  To us, as to Milton's devils in Pandemonium, it is darkness that is visible.  The human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained knowledge of good and evil.  Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us.
     "A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization.  All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man.  A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that the most we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.  Ibsen is the first to return from the baffled hunt to bring us the tidings of great failure.
    "Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.  We are fond of talking about 'liberty'; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about 'progress'; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about 'education'; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  The modern man says, 'Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.'  This is, logically rendered, 'Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.'  He says, 'Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.'  This, logically stated, means, 'Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.'  He says, 'Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.'  This, clearly expressed, means, 'We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.'"