Category Archives: Christian Worldview
As a science fiction writer, I enjoy science fiction cinema like Stargate SG-1. But inevitably the secular worldview that presumably captures the ideas of the screen writers and perhaps of the actors intrude on the plot. In Season 1, in the episode entitled ENIGMA, Captain Carter tries to explain why another civilization SG-1 has just met is more technologically advanced than earth’s. Carter glibly states that since we had the Dark Ages, where religious dogma stifled the development of science, another culture which did not have their own Dark Age, would have superseded us.
Is Carter right?
I don’t think so. Kenneth Scott Latourette’s A HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY. BEGINNINGS TO 1500, describes what is often called the Dark Ages as The Great Recession AD 500-950. This time period corresponded to the collapse of the western Roman empire, the rise of anarchy, and the loss of the protection and peace that the legions had provided. In Asimov’s Foundation series, he postulated a similar Dark Age, as the Trantor empire collapsed and the psychohistorian, Hari Seldon, established a colony at the fringes of the galaxy to reduce the Trantorian Dark Age from 30,000 years to 1000.
Referring to the Roman Empire Dark Age, Latourette points out Rome, although possessing an empire of the largest geographic extent on earth in 500 AD, was far from the only empire on the planet. In AD 500, Rome was rivaled by the Persian Empire, the Gupta Empire in India. China was also a force even though it was “in a long period of division, civil strife, and foreign invasion.” Not only has Carter wrongly characterized the meaning of dark age, but also did not understand that much of the learning, literature, and history of Rome and the empire was preserved in the monasteries.
However, Carter’s assertion about the stifling of science, really raises two important questions about Europe:
In other words, why the enormous advances in mathematics, physics, and chemistry in the 1400s and onward in Europe? Why not Persia? India? China?
If you want to hear a very succinct discussion of these questions, I suggest this five minute video … https://www.prageru.com/video/are-religion-and-science-in-conflict-science-and-god
Peter Kreeft’s book also provides valuable insights. Read my previous post below.
My Previous Post
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).
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.
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.
In August 21, 2017, the shadow of the moon crossed over the width of the continental United States. Interestingly, the narrow band of this solar eclipse could be observed in seven municipalities named Salem. This unique celestial event became the basis for Easley’s tale. Penelope Stone, a member of the “Salem Seven” from Salem, Oregon, was one of the teenagers who were destined for greatness. This is the story of what happened to them.
S. C. Easley has a wonderful imagination. Indeed, her fantasy story reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND or Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME series. Easley’s story is full of beautiful vistas, deadly enemies (for example Pyrats—beings with python bodies and rat heads) and many others. The seven teenagers meet many characters along the way (as Alice did) as they pursue their quest.
If I have one complaint, I wish this book had a glossary so I could refresh my memory as I meet characters a second time.
There was one part of the story, I particularly enjoyed. Several of the seven, thinking they knew better than their guide, decided to take an ill-advised shortcut to their next destination. The troubles on the short cut led to ill temper, sharp words, and grumbling. With every grumble their packs became heavier, until they opened them up and found rocks inside that had not been there before. These “weighing stones” had words on them that described their origin in the words, actions, and attitudes of the travelers. The teenagers could only continue after they had removed these rocks.
This is a wonderfully imaginative story. Like the best children’s stories, this speaks not only to children, but to adults who read it as well.
My Rating: Five Stars
Emma, by Jane Austen, is a delightful story with vivid characters, challenging interpersonal relationships, but overall a backdrop that encourages doing one’s duty, being principled, caring for others, and ultimately doing what is right.
In this reading of the story, I was struck by a new word that I learned:
Valetudinarian: A person of poor health or unduly anxious about health.Oxford Reference English Dictionary
After introducing the term, Austen illustrates it accurately in the character of Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father.
Before I describe him for those who have not read Emma recently, I think it’s important to distinguish Valetudinarian from Hypochondriac. A hypochondriac imagines he has a serious disease. I suppose when those fears are disproven, fear of another raging, illness emerges.
A valetudinarian, such as Mr. Woodhouse, does not necessarily believe he is ill at the moment, but rather evaluates every activity, every relationship, and every interaction from the perspective of the health implications. So, for example, when others are enjoying a hearty meal, Mr. Woodhouse insists on a thin gruel. When guests are coming over, he insists Emma make sure they are not ill. Children are seen as carriers of disease and travelling is to be avoided if there is any chance of cold, rain, or snow.
Austen does not overtly criticize Mr. Woodhouse, but simply shows how his valetudinarianism constrains his own life and the lives of those around him. Still he is much loved, and understood. Emma cheerfully looks after him. Even Knightley acknowledges this duty as an important obligation.
When I look at my own life in 2020 and 2021, the tendency toward valetudinarianism is very strong. I seem to have been conditioned to see every relationship, every activity, every human interaction from the perspective of health. Like Mr. Woodhouse, this long term focus, this application of a health filter to every aspect of my life is not beneficial and constrains me much as it did Woodhouse. Indeed, it naturally engenders a constant feeling of vague fear.
So what’s the answer?
While I was reading Emma, I was also reading George MacDonald’s The Seaboard Parish. MacDonald, like Austen, lived in an era when medicine could do very little to improve health. The recipe seemed mostly to rest and wait to see if the patient is able to recover. MacDonald’s personal experience with illness and death, should have made him a prime candidate for valetudinarianism, but he was not like that at all, even though he suffered many sorrows from disease.
Sickness, particularly Tuberculosis, was no stranger to the MacDonalds. George would christen it as being “the family attendant” in later years. It took the lives of four of his children and some of his grandchildren as well.http://georgemacdonald.info/children.html
MacDonald lived the idea that God is supremely good and we can trust the future to him, including whatever confronts in the way of illness or death. Our job is to do our duty in the present and leave our future (over which we really have no control) in the hands of the Almighty.
In The Seaboard Parish, there is a massive storm which casts a great ship on the rocks just off the coast of Walton’s parish. At great peril, some sailors and passengers are rescued but many were not. A battered sailor with a broken leg believes he is dying (he was not) and asks Vicar Walton what he should do. Here is what what MacDonald said through the character of Walton:
Trust in Christ and do not be afraid.George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish, Kindle Edition (Unabridged).
He did not lie to the man as perhaps some would today, to make him hopeful of recovery and easier. He gave the unvarnished truth and I believe it was the best thing to say, since MacDonald had a hope that transcended even the prospect of imminent death. So, as I continue to hear the never-ending news reports on Covid strains as they move through the Greek alphabet, like hurricanes moving through alphabetical names in September, I’ll remember George MacDonald’s admonition and try to live a life of faith, unintimidated by the government, the health agencies, and the news media.
In these days when, by government edict here in Canada, churches are deemed “non-essential services,” I find myself searching the internet for inspiring and thought-provoking messages. A few weeks ago, I listened to a 2004 message by Timothy Keller on guidance. See the link below:
For a transcription of the talk, check out the link below:
Keller talks about three forms of guidance:
“We’ll find out by answering, by looking at these proverbs and understanding first of the guidance God does, secondly the guidance God gives and thirdly the guidance God purchases for us.”
- Guidance God does
- Guidance God gives
- Guidance God purchases for us
He further subdivides “Guidance God does” into:
- Paradoxical guidance God does
- Non-obvious guidance God does
There is so much in this message that I can only talk today about what spoke to me about “Paradoxical guidance God does.” When I think of guidance I think of help in decision making. Keller points out there are two contradictory views about decisions. One view is a deterministic view that decision making is really an illusion. Our brain chemistry, our hormones, are appetites so completely determine our decisions (if you’re a Materialist) that our decisions don’t matter. There is also a theological version of this: God makes our decisions for us, so again they don’t matter.
The second, free-will view, is that our decisions completely determine everything. Keller astutely points out that both points of view, if thought through to their logical implications, can’t help but lead to despair. Absolute determinism logically leads to complete passivity. My decisions don’t matter, ever. But free will leads to paralysis since I know so many of my decisions will not only be wrong, but devastatingly wrong that second guessing and doubt will paralyze me.
Keller correctly points out that, not only Proverbs, but he New Testament itself asserts both individual Free Will and God’s Sovereignty (Determinism) simultaneously and the two together are essential for hope and confidence in the future.
Since Free Will exists and is operative, my decisions matter a lot, so I cannot be passive. Yet since the God who loves me still is sovereign, he can smooth over my many poor choices, so in the end I will be okay. Keller uses the Genesis historical account of Joseph where many people made terrible decisions with some good ones thrown in, but God, made everything work together to good purpose and save Jacob and his family from a killer famine.
How to Come to Terms with this Paradox
As a scientist, I am no stranger to paradoxes. The one that springs immediately to mind is the wave-particle duality that is particularly pronounced in small particles. One knows this paradox is intrinsic to particles. One also understands the quantum nature of very small particles is so different from what I encounter in the macroscopic world, that I should not be surprised the properties characteristic of the quantum realm appear as paradoxes to me.
The way a physicist handles these paradoxes is instructive. One knows when to treat an electron as a particle and when to treat it as a wave to solve a particular problem. For diffraction one treats an electron as a wave; for collisions as a particle.
Some years ago I read Roger Penrose’s book The Road to Reality. Much I did not understand but his explanation of the arrow of time always stayed with me. Of the four dimensions (x, y, z, t) only time is unidirectional, that is to say time always moves from the present to the future. Indeed, our world is what it is, because of time. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that for any process, the entropy of the universe must increase. To go back in time is to return to a lower entropic state of the universe and so contradicts this law. As a human being, I am remorselessly and relentlessly bound in time. At one point in time I am deciding cereal or eggs for breakfast. Twenty minutes later that decision is irrevocably set in the past. Within time I made a decision.
Yet if I believe that God created everything including time, then I have to believe he exists outside of time as well as within it. This to me is the whole explanation why Free Will and Determinism can co-exist. Within time (the only realm I comprehend), real decisions are being made and have consequences. Outside of time, in some way there is some multidimensional present where all of infinity is seen (I want tot say simultaneously, but that would be a symptom of my incurable compulsion to always drag time back into God’s timeless realm).
This brings me to my final point. I can’t understand God’s Sovereignty without dragging time into his timeless realm and so making him responsible for all actions and destroying Free Will. I can’t understand his sovereignty, but at least I know why I can’t understand it.
As Keller points out, having free, meaningful choices and a sovereign God superintending all is the only way of avoiding paralysis on the one hand and passivity on the other. Like the scientist, I apply my imperfect models to the problem at hand. When I am making a decision, I decide knowing that this is my responsibility. When I have second thoughts and wonder if I my decision has been a huge mistake, I am confident that God in his sovereignty will make it work out, despite my flawed choices.
My Review …
I enjoy books that keep me engaged and keep me reading. But I also like books that get me to think. Indeed, it is the books that have both of these attributes, which I read again and again. THE HERETIC by Glen Robinson excels at both.
On the one hand it is a thriller that kept me reading to find out what happened next. So much so, I couldn’t wait until my next reading session came along. I cared about the main protagonist, DJ, and constantly found myself hoping he wasn’t putting himself into situations he couldn’t escape. The ending was exciting, but to large measure, surprising.
On the other hand, this thriller gave me a great deal to think about. It posed the problem: what would be the fair, just, and honorable response if one encountered a vigilante (or even a terrorist organization in the eyes of the FBI) that was willing to break the law to accomplish good. Would rescuing the kidnapped and giving purpose to those whose lives no longer had meaning, compel me in some sense to approve or condone the actions they took? I would say that the end does not justify the means, but what if the end were unmistakably good and authorities seemed powerless?
Elijah Brown runs an organization he founded by rescuing street gang members, prostitutes, and drug addicts. But he is hunted by the FBI. What the FBI does not know, or will not believe: many of Brown’s foes are supernatural and have powers that make them almost impregnable. Is Brown breaking the law? Yes. Is he bringing criminals to justice? All the time. Does this excuse him and his associates? I don’t know. The story makes it difficult for me to give an easy answer.
If you like a fast-paced thrillers with a supernatural component, this book is for you. My rating—five stars.