Category Archives: Christian Worldview

Insights from Jordan Peterson on the Old and New Testament

My book club is reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life; An Antidote to Chaos. As part of this reading program I have been listening to various interviews of Peterson and a recent one, taken from a talk and interview at Lafayette College , caught my particular interest.

After a lengthy and colorful introduction by the moderator, Peterson posed a question to the audience. I am going to tell you what I heard in my own words, but I highly recommend you listen to his comments for yourself.

In my paraphrase and summary, his preamble and question went like this:

So called “right wing thinking” is concerned about establishing hierarchies (which are necessary for survival and for society to function), while “left wing thinking” focuses on equality and fights for the bottom tier of the hierarchies that have been established (which is also necessary).

He went on to say that we know where “right wing thinking” crosses the line into extremism: when they claim one group (usually their own) is intrinsically superior to other groups. Peterson then asked the question: Where is the line for extremism on the left?

He went on to answer his own question. The line is crossed on the left when their zeal for equality for the lowest tier in a hierarchy causes them:

  1. To focus on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity
  2. To compel a certain kind of speech and thinking because it’s the only way to get people to comply with their demand for equality of outcome.

What Has This to Do With the Old and the New Testament?

Note: I’m not especially interested into entering into political discourse, important as that may be, but I am interested in how Peterson’s comments affect my thinking about the history of Judaism and Christianity described in the Old and New Testaments. I will confine my remarks to that subject.

I thought about the points Peterson made, and it struck me how this analysis parallels what I see in the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, when primarily describing God’s dealing with His chosen people Israel, he clearly sets up hierarchies: indeed he set up a political one and a religious one each of which acted as a balances to the another. This structure enabled the Israelites to survive despite encountering many enemies and suffering under the afflictions they caused whether it be slavery in Egypt or captivity by Babylon. Even under the heel of the Roman Empire, their identity and cohesion as a people was preserved. When I look at it, the hierarchies in their culture and in their relationship to outsiders contributed positively to their survival and cultural cohesion. However, there was potentially the possibility of crossing the hierarchical line that Peterson articulated.

When Jesus came, he seemed to turn everything on its head. He came in at the lowest tier—as many thought—the illegitimate son of a Galilean carpenter. Yet Christ, while not destroying the Jewish hierarchy, taught that to be a leader in His Kingdom, the leader has to be servant of all. This seems very much like fighting for the lowest tier.

Given Peterson’s analysis, it’s striking to me how Christ came to restore a sense of balance to the hierarchies and keep the Jewish people (and hopefully Christians as well) from crossing the line into extremism where “chosen people” comes to mean “as a people we are superior.” This has been helpful to me because it shows a natural progression in the Old and New Testaments and shows how hierarchies and fighting for the lowest tier are both essential for balance.

Disclaimer: I know Professor Peterson has delivered some lectures on biblical topics. I have not listened to any of them.

©Peter Kazmaier 2018

A Christian SF Writer Comments on the Challenge: God is Either Loving or Weak

Is there a contradiction between the theological claims that God is omnipotent and that He is love?

A short time ago my teaching pastor, Bruxy Cavey was teaching on Three Beautiful Words (God is Love) from I John 4:8 (if you’re interested in this critical message you can download the podcast for free).

After the message, as is the custom in our meetings, the floor was opened up for questions. A query was texted in by Peter (not yours truly) and from memory the gist of the question was:

A speaker on TV said that God being loving and being omnipotent was a contradiction. If God were loving, he would fix the world to take away evil and suffering. Since he doesn’t that means either he can’t (therefore he’s not omnipotent) or he won’t (therefore he’s not loving). This has bothered me a lot. How would you answer this?

Now when I encounter challenges like this, I like to think through them and this is the reason for my post.

Thinking about the definitions

Omnipotence is a theological term that describes God’s power as creator and sustainer of all things. I don’t believe it is ever used in the bible but rather is used by theologians to describe the sum of the teaching on God in the bible on the subject of His power and sovereignty.

Before one can examine the claimed contradiction, I think it is useful to understand the word “omnipotent.” The TV speaker and I likely agree that omnipotent means “all powerful” but does that mean that there are no actions that are inherently impossible even to an all-powerful being?

I think the answer to that question is “no;” there are actions inherently impossible even for the omnipotent.
For example, the following actions are inherently impossible or necessarily limit the scope on omnipotence:

1. Actions that violate the law of non-contradiction: God can’t make it rain and not rain on the same spot, in the same sense, at the same time. Choosing to make it rain means He has already chosen against making it “not rain.” The decree and its complement come as a single package.
2. In any creative process, full omnipotence is limited to the first decision. After that, all future decisions are constrained by what has already been chosen. Often subsequent choices are impossible because they violate earlier choices.
3. Omnipotence tells us what God can do, not what He will do.

Allow me to elaborate on points 2 and 3.

In any creative process, full omnipotence is limited to the first decision

As a writer I see this principle in effect whenever I start a novel. When my page is blank I may write anything I like. Perhaps:
“In a galaxy far, far away …” or
“He found the body after midnight on the moor.” or
“When Dolores opened the letter, she knew her life would never be the same again.”

After the first line, my omnipotence as a writer has shriveled enormously. I can no longer do what I want. Everything I write afterwards has to be consistent with what I wrote before. I think God faces the same limitation of particularity. When he chooses a certain course in creation, the contingent choices have to be self-consistent. When He steps into time, what He can do now, is constrained by the choices already made.

Omnipotence tells us what God can do, not what He will do

Omnipotence argues that God could lie. What prevents Him from doing so? He could put the lying words together, but choses not to because of His character. We have the same kind of power: we can all formulate a lie, but in our better moments we chose not to. This argues that there are some things God could do, but does not do them because they conflict with His essence or character.

Okay so why doesn’t God end all wickedness and suffering right now?

I think this is really the heart of the question that bothered the texter, Peter, and I don’t have a full answer. Here is what I have: what would God need to do to fix all wickedness and suffering right now? I think we would have to change the role we currently play on this planet and wrest from us all impulses and desires contrary to His will whether we want to give them up or not.

One of my favorite fantasy book series is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time®. In it a group of gifted people, called channelers, have enormous powers over their fellow humans. One power they have is called compulsion. With compulsion they can make subtle changes the thinking in the ungifted or even the gifted they have overpowered. For example, a channeler might compel a highly competent general to make subtle mistakes in a battle that to lead to disaster. On the other hand, compulsion can be used to completely take over a person’s mind so that the compelled must worship the compeller and be willing to kill or give up their lives for him. In the books, compulsion was rightly seen as a great evil in all its forms because it turned humans into automatons.
If my memory serves me correctly, there was a vision in the last book in which all people were compelled to be kind, productive, generous etc. But their humanity was sacrificed to make them that way against their will. They were no longer human. The protagonist saw this compelled change as a great loss to evil.

I think this is the fundamental flaw in having God fix things right now—it would have to be done against our will and our nature and that action itself would be an evil even if the end were good.

So where does that leave me?

I believe God is fixing things (perhaps it might be more correct to say He has fixed things in Christ) but the full effect of the cure has not fully spread through the system yet. The need for the means and the end to be true and good means the process will take some time, but it encourages me enormously that God in Christ came down into creation as a man and suffered right along with us. He was born into a poor family, of an oppressed people. His father likely died when he was a young man. Finally, he was crucified as an innocent man, while dying for His enemies who did not value His death at the time. This gives me great hope that God deeply cares about our (and my) condition in this flawed and marred world filled with flawed and marred people.

One of my favorite pictures is the one shown at the head of this blog taken of a framed print in my home. In Michelangelo’s fresco of The Creation of Adam, God is seen as touching Adam’s finger ever so slightly. Through this lightest of touches, He is communicating His love, but also His gift of independence and free will. The touch is there so Adam can choose to move toward Him or away from Him. Alas, we have moved away. He pursues us, but the touch continues to be light to preserve our free will. It is always my choice whether I move toward the touch or away from it. If I have to choose between becoming automaton or having God work the process to bring us home when we are willing to move towards Him, I choose His timing and process.

A final comment on theologically-skeptical snipers

I must end this blog with a protest about theologically-skeptical snipers. I can’t directly complain about texter Peter’s TV speaker because I never saw the program, but I have seen many others like it. The speaker, in criticizing theism or Christianity trucks out some challenge and then leaves it hanging. In my experience, they never go on to say: “This is my world view and this is how I answer this question that I have just asked.” That would reveal that their own answers are at least as problematic as the Christian’s and thus leave them open to challenge. In other words, these skeptics are often not skeptical enough because they don’t challenge their own views along with the Christian’s.

In my mind, these speakers are like snipers who are happy to lie hidden in the brush taking pot shots at their opponents. As long as their own position is undiscovered they can happily fire away without taking any return fire.

If you are interested in these kinds of questions and you find the musings of a non-theologian, Science Fiction author helpful, why not check out my book Questioning Your Way to Faith? In story form, it discusses questions I have wrestled with, in the context of a respectful conversation between friends who profoundly disagree on the answers. ©Peter Kazmaier 2018

The Uncanny Life of a Science Fiction Author: Seeing Yesterday’s Imaginations in Today’s News

Peterson Tweet2Yesterday, I was browsing my Twitter feed when I came across a link to an article by Mallory Millett (I believe Peterson meant “Millett” rather than “Miller”) from September 1, 2014 describing her life in the feminist movement, particularly under the influence of her sister, Kate.

I had never heard of Kate Millett, nor read any of her writings (were I better read, I suppose I should have); what struck me as I read Mallory Mallett’s account of her personal experience, was the uncanny resemblance to imagined dialogue I had written in my 2009 science fiction novel, The Halcyon Dislocation.

It is the work of every science fiction writer to ask the “What if?” question. Generally, one takes present-day observations on technology, sociology and political developments and extrapolates them to imagine what present trends would look like in the future.

Front Page - Mallory Millett2In my specific case, I had spent many years, first as a student, then as a researcher and Adjunct Professor to formulate a guess as to what present trends I saw in the university might look like in the future. What would happen if, say’ sociologists saw their university dislocated to a parallel world and they had an unique and unprecedented opportunity to implement their ideas of sociological “progress” in an environment over which they had complete control? Where would they take their students with their teaching, their laws, and their behind-the-scenes machinations?

Then a tweet led me to an article by Mallory Millett and I was startled to find her experience could have come directly from dialogue in my book. I had expected to see the effects of my predictions, but not their articulation. The fact that promiscuity was spoken of openly as a way of destroying the family (patriarchy) as early 1969 in the small women’s groups was sobering.

Here is a quote from Mallory Millett about her experience in a “consciousness raising group:”

We gathered at a large table as the chairperson opened the meeting with a back-and-forth recitation, like a Litany, a type of prayer done in Catholic Church. But now it was Marxism, the Church of the Left, mimicking religious practice:

“Why are we here today?” she asked.
“To make revolution,” they answered.
“What kind of revolution?” she replied.
“The Cultural Revolution,” they chanted.
“And how do we make Cultural Revolution?” she demanded.
“By destroying the American family!” they answered.
“How do we destroy the family?” she came back.
“By destroying the American Patriarch,” they cried exuberantly.
“And how do we destroy the American Patriarch?” she replied.
“By taking away his power!”
“How do we do that?”
“By destroying monogamy!” they shouted.
“How can we destroy monogamy?”

Their answer left me dumbstruck, breathless, disbelieving my ears.  Was I on planet earth?  Who were these people?

THD-2_Front_PageThis is a new experience for me, hearing my fictional extrapolations come to life in a personal memoir only a few years after I wrote them in dialogue. It is a strange feeling, reading about people openly speaking about destructive social change with intention, and conviction as if it were the most desirable thing in the world. Gone is the idea of freely chosen outcomes. There is no thought for making room for others with different aspirations and convictions. The prospect of living in an environment that adopts the tyrannical manipulations of the fictional University of Halcyon is deeply dismaying. It was a prediction and observation on university life about which I had fervently hoped to be wrong!

Peter Kazmaier is the author of the science fiction series, THE HALCYON CYCLE. His books can be found on Amazon, Chapter/Indigo, iBooks, Google Play, and at your local library through Overdrive.

My Review of D. S. Martin`s CONSPIRACY OF LIGHT

Conspiracy of Light: Poems Inspired by the Legacy of C.S. LewisConspiracy of Light: Poems Inspired by the Legacy of C.S. Lewis by D.S. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I share D. S. Martin`s love for the writings of C. S. Lewis. For that reason, reading Conspiracy of Light was for me a double pleasure.

On the one hand, I can enjoy D. S. Martin`s poems on their own merit. For example I can picture a lion standing between two mountain ashes in What Lucy Saw and be carried on to plumb the depths of what it means to follow Christ even when the path is unclear and uncertain.

On the other hand, when I re-read one of Lewis`s books, I can also read a poem associated with it from this collection. D. S. Martin has a helpful Notes & Acknowledgements section in the back which makes it easy to read the poems associated with a particular Lewis book or essay. Reading “Conspiracy of Light“ in conjunction with Lewis adds a dimension to my enjoyment. The beauty and logic of Lewis`s writings is amplified by the pictures and emotions that D. S. Martin`s poems evoke.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves reading Lewis.

View all my reviews

Now That the Movie THE SHACK is Coming Out in theaters …

shack-cover-noncomm-no-modI published this post a while ago when I first read The Shack. The original post was lost when my WordPress server had to be decommissioned. Now that the movie version is coming out, this may be of interest.

‘The Shack’ by William P. Young

Warning: If you haven’t read The Shack and are planning to read it, leave this review until later since I do discuss the content.

My overall rating is 4 stars. The Shack is a thought-provoking book well worth reading.

The Shack is a novel that tackles very difficult questions in a way that puts the reader in the very middle of the action and challenges him to tackle the questions in a personal way..

Mackenzie Allen Phillips lost his young daughter to a serial killer. MacKenzie called this trauma, which tormented his life, THE GREAT SADNESS. One day he receives a letter from Papa (his wife’s personal name for God) that invites Mackenzie to meet ‘Papa’ at the shack in the woods where Missy, his daughter, was brutally murdered. The shack is the last place in the world he wants to go, but eventually he decides to go without telling his wife.

God appears as three people (Papa, Jesus and another woman called Sarayu (wind)). Mackenzie is able to watch them interact, watch them serve him, and answer his questions. What Young achieves are scenes that are not simplistic, but rather convey to the readers the complexity of fashioning and then sustaining a world that has free will, independent agents that make moral choices (e.g. human beings) and God. Although God is All Powerful and Good yet He still has to work within His own rules and His own character and honor the free choices made by human beings.

For me, this book caused me to think about who God is and how simplistic my own caricatures of Him are because of the unconscious assumptions I bring to the table when I think about Him. For example, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out somewhere, in God moral character and will must coincide in some fashion. For human beings, morality is something objective that is above us, and we have a duty to obey these moral imperatives. However, if God had moral imperatives in the same sense we have, then He wouldn’t be God, since the moral law would be above Him. On the other hand if moral law were simply an invention by God, it would be arbitrary. As I read the book, I had to grapple with this conundrum. I saw that this fusion of morality and will in God is one of the things that puts Him beyond my understanding.

If you go to amazon.com, and read comments on this book, you will find many that laud it, and some that most emphatically do not. Some of the objections are theological. Respondents argue that the book fails to properly account for some point of theology. I think that claim is fair, but it misses the point. Young has written a novel and wanted to bring us into an interaction with the person of God in a new way. I think it is better to learn what one can from the book, without trying to make it into a theological treatise.

If you’ve read the book or watched the movie, I would like to know what you thought of it.

 

A Response to Stuart Aken’s Blog on “Why are we required to respect religion?”

Images of Religious Symbols courtesy of Wikimedia

Images of Religious Symbols courtesy of Wikimedia

Writer Stuart Aken, in his blog entitled I’d Like to Know: Why? #3 Religion, asks the provocative question: “Why are We Required to Respect Religion?” This question is of interest to me as a Christ-follower (even though I would not characterize myself as religious—I know other people would characterize me in that way).
As I thought about Mr. Aken’s blog, it led me to think about how the phrasing of the question channels the responses that this question elicits. It’s always handy to set up a contest or a discussion so that only one side is given the bows and arrows while the other is left only with a shield. It’s like a Canadian or American football game where the rules of the contest allow only one team to play offence (and hence is best set up to score points) while the other is perpetually on defense. I think such a rule-based asymmetry is neither sporting nor does it readily necessarily let the better team prevail.

If one looks at the question in its current form, then Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and other adherents of a religion are on trial to justify their beliefs and explain why their beliefs merit respect, but atheists, agnostics, materialists, and secularists are excluded from scrutiny by the form of the question itself.
It seems to me a more instructive and fairer form of the question would be: “Why should I respect the World View of others when their World View differs from my own?” In this context I use “World View” to mean how I and others view reality. I think this re-configuring of the question has important advantages:

1. Now everyone, religious and agnostic alike has a chip in the game and has beliefs that may be called into question.
2. It ought to be understood that everyone intrinsically believes that their World View best explains the real world (material and spiritual).
3. Any criticism that is leveled at another World View can also properly be asked of one’s own. So if one asks if religious world views are prone to violence, one has to ask if one’s own World View is different in this regard and why.
4. In this kind of a discussion, if one begins to believe that many of the key things one genuinely believes about the nature of reality are wrong, this will be a very unsettling development for everyone who experiences it—not just religious people.
5. Finally, I think it prevents participants in the discussion from making the disastrous mistake of assuming that all religions are really the same, merely because they are religions. Even within a religion there may be substantial differences in World View by adherents because of differences in emphasis, in interpretation of sacred texts, in theology, or by reconciliation with other sources of evidence.

Thank you Mr. Aken for raising this important topic. Perhaps as time becomes available, I will be able to give my perspective on some of the other follow-on questions you raised in your post.

Personal Thoughts on Peter Kreeft’s BACK TO VIRTUE.

I have previously published my review of Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Back to Virtue. In this post I wanted to provide a more personal view of how the book changed or perhaps broadened my thinking. At one point, Kreeft talked about how Christianity brought together the best of what Hebrew, Greek, and pagan thought and tradition had to offer. This is depicted in the diagram below (reworked to capture my own musings on this important idea from a similar diagram in the book).Christian Nexus

The Hebrew Foundation

If one reads the New Testament, one can’t help but notice how Christianity is grounded on, and grew forth from Hebrew history, revelation, and practice. All of the very early Christians were Jewish. The Old Testament is cited again and again in the New. Even the Christians called out of Greek and pagan backgrounds were steeped in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. When Paul spoke in 2 Timothy 3:16 about “all scripture,” he was primarily referring to the Old Testament.
Jesus had to be born into Jewish society because they had a high view of God: his Oneness and His creation of the world out of nothing. Had Jesus been born in Athens, as pantheists and polytheists, they would have happily put Jesus alongside Zeus and so missed the whole point of the incarnation. The shocking incredulity of the Jewish mindset to the incarnation was absolutely necessary for us to get the message and import of what was taking place.
This Hebrew ground or environment for the incarnation did not come without cost or loss. As far as I can tell from my reading, the first century Jewish people were remarkably free of idolatry. A by-product of this achievement was a complete lack of development of some of the arts such as sculpting and painting because they were too closely associated with idol worship. Kreeft helped me realize how this temporary omissions were build back in to the Christian community after the significance of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ were recognized.

The Greek New Testament

The use of Koine Greek (the lingua franca of the Mediterranean and Middle East) as the language of the New Testament had profound consequences. Not only did it bring the Good News in the common language of the Roman Empire, but it could make use of the nuances of language and thought brought into Greek by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. So for example it enabled the distinction between the old nature (flesh – sarx) from body (soma), drawing a clear distinction between Gnosticism and Christian teaching by putting a high value on the body as well as the spirit (Gnosticism values only the spirit). It also made God-guided reason an important way of testing truth claims and made reason an integral part of understanding teaching.

Pagan Imagination

When viewed as a religious system, pagan polytheism was simply a branch of pantheism. But pagan practice had given rise to stories, plays, and poetry that showed a wonderful imagination and a longing for truth. Here again, it seems to me Christianity was able to keep the good. Much if not all of the ancient literature was preserved by the Church as the Roman Empire collapsed and the anarchy of the Dark Ages replaced it. The use of imagination as an engine of the written arts and also of science has played a significant role and life of the church.

So What Does This Mean to Me?

Kreeft’s analysis and synthesis has allowed me to see a number of things in a new way. Here are some of them:
1. God is always working toward the summum bonum, the greatest good.
2. Sometimes because of our weakness and frailty, we miss out on some things as the Israelites did as they were learning to avoid idolatry and so gave up some of the arts. These temporary omissions are part of our growing process.
3. In the end all genuine good comes from God and we as his people are not wrong to seek it. You cannot go far wrong if one truly seeks the good.
4. My own Christian walk is founded on my personal interaction with the Lord Christ through His received word and His Spirit. Imagination and reason play an important role in that interaction.

Note Added on “Reason”

In The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, Kreeft points out the differences in the way the word “reason” was used by Aquinas and how it’s used by modern philosophers. Aquinas and other ancients used reason to denote knowing, judging, as well logical processes such as inductive and deductive analysis. Modern philosophers, according to Kreeft, tend to use it only in the third sense.

Review of Peter Kreeft’s BACK TO VIRTUE

Back to VirtueBack to Virtue by Peter Kreeft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another thoughtful book from Peter Kreeft with many valuable insights. Of particular significance to me was his observation (and my realization) that our society speaks of “having values” rather than “pursuing virtue.” This crafting of our language supports the subliminal indoctrination that channels us into believing or even espousing the idea the “the good or what is right” is not a real quantity like the natural laws but rather is made up or invented by people. Kreeft calls us back to pursuing virtue and abandoning the relativism that plagues us with moral equivocation. He sums up this idea by stating that society cannot long exist without virtue and virtue cannot long exist without religion.

A second important insight for me had to do with the strands of thought and practice that were brought together in Christianity. He argued that as Christianity built on it’s Jewish foundation, wrote it’s ideas using the Greek language and gradually brought more and more gentiles under it’s wing, it brought together three strands: conscience from Judaism, reason from the Greeks, and imagination from the pagan gentiles to craft the fabric of the faith.

Having said that, I will read this book over and over again because of the powerful and significant ideas it advances. I am less enthusiastic about the writing style. Kreeft often uses short sentences and the ideas do not flow well but rather come out like a machine gun barrage. I overlook the stylistic deficiencies because of the content.

View all my reviews

How to Win an Argument by Manipulating the Definitions

IMG_0009-2

As a novelist, I am in the midst of writing the second volume of a colonization epic set in the future. Although the stories have all the aspects of discovering a new world (my second book in the series called The Battle for Halcyon is about to come out on Amazon, iTunes, and Chapters) I am interested in making the stories as realistic as possible. To be realistic I try to have characters that care about the things most of us care about: survival, freedom, friendship, purpose, meaning, and spirituality. I am therefore interested in discussions that deal with these big questions.

An acquaintance of mine in the Goodreads group the Christian Theological/Philosophical  Book Club, posted an acerbic comment which was billed as the draft of a script to be presented as a monologue on YouTube.

The comment quoted from the Catholic Encyclopaedia on the topic of “belief.” I will cite certain portions of the comment for discussion since I am not sure all of my readers can open the Goodreads comment without first joining Goodreads. Here we go with the quote:

From the Catholic Encyclopaedia

Belief “That state of the mind by which it assents to propositions, not by reason of their intrinsic evidence, but because of authority”.

The commenter then goes on to interpret for us:

There we have it, Sinners: no evidence required when it comes to believing … just authority. It helps if you adopt a very severe tone when you’re dealing with matters such as this – adds gravitas to the smoke you’re blowing up people’s backsides.

I think you get the sense of the rant.

Three Questions

Now I am not a Catholic, but I have read many excellent, well-reasoned book by Catholics. My own experience with Catholic teaching and reasoning made me think that I was not getting the full story on the Catholic position on faith or belief in this rather one-sided monologue. So I looked up faith and reason in Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli’s excellent book Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Peter Kreeft is a Catholic, a philosophy professor at Boston College, and has impressed me with his practical and thorough going analyses of these types of questions. All of Chapter 2 is devoted to the question of faith(belief) and reason.

As I thought about the content of the Kreeft Chapter, I realized there are three types of questions that we can ask (the question taxonomy depends on the kinds of evidence one can muster to answer the questions):

  1. Questions that can be answered by reason and data alone.
  2. Questions that can partly be answered by reason and data, but then you need to trust someone (i.e. have faith in someone) to achieve an answer.
  3. Some questions are so fundamental and so foundational, they cannot be proved by data and reason at all and you have to trust someone for the answer.

Note even in type 2 and 3 questions, one can always “try out an answer and see how it works.” In Kreeft and Tacelli’s analysis, they connect “taking someone’s word for it” with revelation. That is to say that for questions of a spiritual nature, God has taken the initiative to reveal the answer to us (this is the most common application of faith in this context). In other realms, I may have to trust a physicist to explain the physical meaning of mathematics I don’t fully comprehend. Or I may have to trust a medical doctor to interpret symptoms and recommend a treatment for me in circumstances where I simply don’t know enough to make a proper judgement.

Examples of the Three Types of Questions

Perhaps the three types of questions would become clearer if illustrated with an example.

Question Type #1 Questions that can be answered by reason and data alone

A mundane example of a type 1 question would be “how do I fix my car?” With enough data and problem solving skills, one should be able to work it out. Now note, I could accomplish this by faith (the Greek word for faith in the Bible transliterated pistis really means trusting someone ). That is to say I could take my car to a mechanic that I trust (faith) and have him fix it for me. Faith in a person shifts my focus from the data and reasoning about the data to the character of the person that I’m trusting. But both are valid approaches. In the end whether or not I go back to the mechanic will depend on how the experience works out (trust can either be strengthened or weakened by experience).

Question Type #2 Questions that can partly be answered by reason and data, but then you need to trust someone or something to achieve an answer

Two examples of the second type of questions: Does God exist? and How does the mind work? There are many philosophical arguments for the existence of God (Kreeft and Tacelli list twenty of them in Chapter 3), but at the end of the day, one can always say, “I don’t know if that’s really compelling.” In the end it’s not enough to be intellectually be convinced that God exists because of for example the Kalaam argument, but rather one need to go beyond the data and reasoning to the person.  Similarly on the question of the mind, one can do many experiments on the mind but at the end some one has to use their mind to interpret the data. In the words of C. S. Lewis, that’s a bit like asking someone to take out their eyeball to look at it. Using the mind to analyse the mind is a form of begging the question. The measured data may be reliable, but in the end you must trust your own mind (or someone else’s) to analyse the data.

At the beginning of this blog is a picture of one of this year’s daffodils. Why do I find it beautiful? You can partly explain that by analysing the chromophores in the compounds the daffodil produces but ultimately there is a part of the answer that eludes that explanation. For me, like a beautiful painting, the daffodil was designed with my response in mind. The full answer to this question can not be achieved by studying the chemistry alone.

Question Type #3 Questions that are so fundamental and so foundational, they cannot be proved at all and you have to trust someone for the answer

The example that directly comes to mind would be the question: “What is God like?” A question that the writer George MacDonald thought was more important and more fundamental than the question “Does God exist?” If God is wicked, evil, or a trickster, he is powerful enough to fool us all. Any evidence I amass, any reasoning I apply will always face the caveat “But what if he’s just fooling me?” I can’t see anyway of getting around it. I have to trust in his goodness and see if it works out.

Some Observations

Now let me make a few observations:

  1. There are questions that one can ask in all three categories. So the questions exist. I think people who acknowledge that fact of question’s existence and try to answer them as best they can, are more connected to reality than those who try to cram all questions into category one and then either pretend that questions in categories two and three don’t exist or are meaningless.
  2. The most important questions (because they are the most fundamental and are most strongly linked to meaning) are in categories two and three.
  3. The genuine search for truth under-girds all three questions. By truth I mean, statements and assertions that are connected to reality (how things really are). Reality dictates the questions.
  4. Authority is related to character and trustworthiness, not power.

This sheds much more light on the definition in the Catholic Encyclopaedia. The commentary on the Catholic definition in the Goodreads comment to my mind is wrong:

no evidence required when it comes to believing … just authority

It’s not that no evidence is required, but rather that for the most important questions material evidence (in the scientific/engineering sense) is insufficient (actually woefully inadequate) for addressing these questions. In those cases one’s only recourse is to identify a trustworthy, honest, reliable, knowledgeable being and take their word for it. That process is another description of finding someone with authority (authority in this context means a character of honesty and access to the answers). So if one reads the context of the Catholic Encylopaedia definition as pertaining to the most important faith questions (type 3), it makes perfect sense because evidence in terms of archaeology, astronomy, chemistry and physics is of no value in addressing these questions.

How to Win an Argument by Manipulating the Definitions

One of the things that trouble me about the discussion by the commenter is the apparent willingness to orchestrate the conclusion by choosing a definition for faith that virtually compels the result that he is arguing for. One simply does not have that freedom with definitions. Definitions must be co-extensive with the property they are defining. If one is questioning the validity of faith in God or Christ, one needs to use the definition for faith as used in the Old and New Testaments, not simply make up whatever definition one pleases (or make up a definition calculated to make the argument outcome a ‘slam dunk’). Unfortunately a robust faith based on evidence of the senses and the reliable character of the messenger, seems to be transmogrified into what is better termed “blind faith” an irrational faith divorced from both evidence and the character of the messenger. To me that’s cheating and does not demonstrate a very high commitment to discovering the truth behind the questions one is asking (even if the answers are not the ones were were expecting). Furthermore when I read the New Testament and particularly the Gospels that is not the faith I see demonstrated.

This is the very point that John Lennox made when he came to Toronto a few weeks back. It is well worth it to listen to his presentation. I made the point in my book Questioning Your Way to Faith (Subtitled: Learning to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable) that truth-seekers believing in the objective correspondence between truth and reality, ought to always try to achieve the strongest arguments on both sides of every question, because in the end truth matters. Two friends may ending up disagreeing because they weigh the evidence (personal evidence, anecdotal evidence, as well empirical evidence) differently, but still they ought to listen to each other.

Why the Three Questions on Faith Strengthens the Christian World View

In closing I want to make two final points. Ravi Zacharias in his book Why Jesus? provides two tests for evaluating world views: coherence and correspondence. To me the three types of questions speak to both criteria. A coherent world view needs to be able to answer questions of type 2 and type 3 (especially type 3). These questions often related to meaning and purpose. But type #1 questions are also compatible with the Christian world view. For me the Christian world view is coherent because it can relate to all three questions.

In contrast to the views expressed by many Materialists, science and Christian faith are compatible. The Christian world view is founded on the principle of objective truth. Many things science advocates are later revised. Christians are wise to wait until science is truly settled and can legitimately be claiming to describe a truth. For many so called scientific questions that level of certainty will never be achieved. For those unchanging assertions that are not revised, reasoning and data are valid avenues for discovering truth.

From my vantage point the Christian world view also speaks to correspondence. Since one can ask type 2 and type 3 questions there ought to be answers. Saying the questions are meaningless is not a legitimate answer in my view.

So What Does That Mean for Me?

I can’t control how others argue, but I can control how I argue on important questions. Here are some guidelines and aspirations I set for myself:

  1. Be a truth-seeker. Care more about the truth than about winning the argument.
  2. Listen carefully to what is being said. Don’t just wait for him to finish before I launch into a rebuttal.
  3. Pay careful attention to the definitions. Many friends talk past each other because they use the same word in different ways.
  4. Respect the other person’s right to disagree, even when the evidence seems compelling to me. Proof happens in the mind and evidence can always be weighted differently.

G. K. Chesterton on Paganism

The Everlasting ManI have been reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. This book, first published in 1925, has much to say to a 21st century reader. For me, the early chapters generated one of those wonderful intellectual events, when on reading Chesterton’s account, a number of disparate puzzles coalesced for me and came together in an ‘ah hah’ moment.

Let me explain. In chapters V-VII, Chesterton describes three strands of paganism which ran side-by-side: mythology with all of its fantastic stories; philosophy, particularly post-Socratic philosophy which has given our civilization so much; and those strands of paganism which worshiped demons and were linked with human sacrifice such as Moloch worshipers in Palestine and the Aztecs in the new world. In one sense these three strands were contradictory. How could philosophically rigorous thinkers participate in rites and observances related to Bacchus? How could peoples who at least believed in objective values, as Lewis calls it, the tao (The Abolition of Man), degenerate into human sacrifice?

Chesterton showed how these strands really represented three attempts to connect with the spiritual. Mythology was an act of the imagination. Philosophy was an act of reason, but the two always remained separate, if parallel, strands of connection to the spiritual Other. The darker strand of demonology and human sacrifice, was more pragmatic than the other two. At some point, reason and imagination were abandoned and people sought for what worked. And so dark powers were invoked, requiring hideous sacrifices, all to a pragmatic end – they’ll give us the power that we want.

Chesterton goes on to point out that synthesis between the philosophical strands and the imaginative yearning for mystical experience were only thoroughly synthesized in the Middle Ages. From my own reading I can see how Thomas Aquinas was able to bring reason, faith, and mystical experience together. Perhaps this is why pagan societies, for all their shortcomings, were often very open to the Gospel. The imagination, reason, along with objective value had prepared them.

One final point. In my last post, I discussed the book Living at the Crossroads. It was interesting to see how in our current age the imaginative strand and the logical strand have parted company again. We have Postmodernism (imaginative strand) and Modernism (logical, data-driven strand) existing side by side. We yearn for the beauty and meaning of Postmodernism and yet fall back to the sterile world of data and logic because in some sense it is more connected with reality and outcomes. We have lost the synthesis.

If you have read The Everlasting Man, I would appreciate hearing what you thought of it.

Thanks for reading,

Peter