Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Intelligent Design

I watched the Nova special on PBS last night. It was very interesting and helped me understand the Dover School Board case better than I had understood it from the news coverage of the time. It does seem fairly clear that some members of the school board were looking to balance the teaching of evolution with mention of some more faith-friendly alternative. As explained in the show, judicial precedent has determined such an intention to be unconstitutional. I don’t agree with that interpretation of the Constitution, but I’m not on the Supreme Court, am I? (Many of you are breathing a huge sigh of relief, no doubt.) That’s a topic for another post, perhaps. What I would like to do today is return to the issue of how we define science and look at where Intelligent Design might fit into that picture.

In an earlier post I wrote that science has not always been defined to exclude God as it generally is today. Modern science is about 500 years old. It was not until about 200 years ago, around the beginning of the 19th century, that a number of practitioners began to see it as a purely and essentially secular pursuit. That point of view did not completely prevail until near the end of the 19th century. Earlier scientists such as Newton saw themselves as explicating the wonders of God’s Creation. They saw the regularities in nature as reflecting the logical mind of God. In this view there is still plenty of room for the possibility that God might sometimes perform miracles that are outside the normal flow of natural events.

As I explained in a later post, the new idea that invaded science a couple of centuries ago is materialism, the philosophical belief that the supernatural does not exist. Nature is all there is, so all natural phenomena have a purely natural explanation. There are no miracles because there are no supernatural agents to cause them. It is sometimes granted that this idea is provisional: we proceed as if there were no miracles in order to avoid stopping too soon in our search for natural explanations. In this form the idea is termed methodological materialism and is even accepted by many Christians in the field of science. Judge Jones incorporated this principle explicitly in his Dover decision, citing testimony from Dr. Kenneth Miller (a Christian and an evolutionist).

My concern is with the possibility that we have erred in the other direction. We surely would like to avoid stopping too soon in our search for natural explanations, but how will we determine if we have gone too far? The problem is that philosophical materialism is not science any more than Christianity is. From the perspective of science it is simply a presupposition which informs how we conduct our science. If our presuppositions are wrong our conclusions may be, as well.

Let us consider what would happen if a modern scientist were seeking a scientific explanation for a phenomenon that was actually a miraculous act of God. There may be a number of potential explanations for the phenomenon, both natural and supernatural, but in this case the correct explanation is supernatural. The scientist who rigorously follows the dictates of methodological materialism will select the best explanation from among the potential natural explanations. It may be a poor fit to the data but it is better than the other natural explanations. There is no mechanism for science conducted in this way to recognize when it has made such a mistake. In practice, then, there is no important difference between the supposedly provisional assumption of methodological materialism and true philosophical materialism, i.e., the extra-scientific precommitment to the nonexistence of the supernatural.

I want to suggest that Intelligent Design theory might be at least a partial answer to this problem. I’m not talking about ID as a stalking horse for Biblical creation. I’m talking about the appealing idea that there may be some characteristics of the actions of intelligent agents which allow us to distinguish them from purely natural phenomena. From the criticisms I have read it seems that ID theory may not yet be formulated with sufficient rigor to be useful in practice for this purpose. I would like to suggest that instead of shouting the ID folks out of the room with cries of “That’s not science!” we let them attempt to work through the details and see if it can yield useful insights.

I see the bottom line as the need for a measure of humility in our scientific pursuit of knowledge. Are we willing to acknowledge there might be some limits to the knowledge that can be gained from science? We want to avoid stopping too soon in our search for natural explanations of the world around us, but this desire does not in itself justify the assertion that everything in fact has a natural explanation. If it is possible that God exists and that he is a worker of miracles, then it is possible that some events have no scientific explanation in the normal sense of the word. An open minded person must admit no less.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Scandal of Grace

If you could sum up the very core of Christianity in one word, it would be grace. Grace is what sets Christianity apart from any other belief system. It has been the central theme of the Christian message for the past 2000 years. Grace is good news. It is the Good News. It defines who we are as Christians.


It’s a sad fact that we Christians haven’t done a very good job lately of communicating grace to the world around us. That’s actually a huge understatement. Let’s be blunt: collectively Christians in this country have done a terrible job of communicating grace to our fellow citizens.

What is grace? Grace is showering blessings on those who don’t deserve them. Grace is a kind word to those who speak harshly. Grace is giving to those who don’t give back. Grace is forgiving without waiting for an apology. Grace is caring more for another person’s needs than for your own.

Why is grace the one word that defines Christianity, that sets it apart from every other religion? Because Christianity began with the greatest act of grace that can ever be conceived: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Christianity has always been a good news/bad news story. The bad news is that nothing you can ever do will make up for the sins you have committed. There is no way you can make yourself good enough to be acceptable to God. The good news is that no matter what you have done or how bad you have been, God has provided a way for you to be forgiven. Jesus took the punishment you deserve so that you can have peace with God. And that’s Grace – with a capital G.

Somehow we haven’t gotten the message across. I have rarely met a non-Christian who understands this aspect of Christianity. Somehow what people hear is, “You are a bad person because you do lots of bad things. You better straighten up or God will send you to hell. We Christians are better than you so God is going to let us go to heaven.”

What a horrible distortion of the Gospel! How can we have been so misunderstood? I know this is not the message that is preached from the pulpits of America every Sunday. A Christian is not someone who is better than everyone else. Christians are simply people who have realized what terrible sinners they are and have accepted God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

Alas, I think I know one reason our message has been so misunderstood. Over the past few decades we have become defined in the national consciousness primarily by what we disapprove of. As the nation has moved away from a Christian moral consensus, Christian groups have risen in protest. We protest abortion. We protest gay rights. We protest handing out birth control pills to middle schoolers. We protest Harry Potter. Before you know it everyone thinks of Christians as people who spend their lives following a long list of rules. But we aren’t content with that. We want everybody else to follow those rules, too. We have become the national nags.

My Christian friends will ask, “Is that wrong? Isn’t it important that we take a stand for what’s right?” I’m not sure I know the answer. As citizens of a democracy we have a right for our voices to be heard. And we have an obligation to protect the young and innocent in our society, born and unborn. But by focusing on the behavior of others instead of the condition of their hearts we have sent the wrong message. We seem to be saying that the most important thing is following the rules. But we know that’s not true, because just trying to follow the rules didn’t save us and it will never save anyone else, either.

Theologians talk about the “scandal of grace.” From the earliest days of Christianity people were afraid that God’s grace might be misunderstood. When people find out that salvation is by faith in Christ alone, and not by living a holy life, they may be tempted to give lip service to God and keep right on sinning. That’s certainly possible. The Gospel might indeed be misunderstood as giving license to sinful living. But the greater danger today is that people will never hear about God’s grace at all. This is the true scandal of grace in our generation.

If you are not a Christian, please hear this from me today: God loves you, right now, regardless of what you’ve done or what you’re doing. Maybe there are some things you think are good and he thinks are bad, but there’s time later to work that out. You know deep in your heart you’re not the person you ought to be. God knows that, too, but he still loves you. He wants to cleanse your heart and make peace with you. There’s no price for you to pay because Jesus has already paid it by dying for you on the cross. Now God is waiting for you with open arms.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Crime and Punishment

Anna Quindlen wrote an editorial in the August 8 issue of Newsweek about this video making the rounds on YouTube. Apparently some people have gleefully discovered that pro-lifers don’t spent much time thinking about how to punish women who get an abortion. The pro-abortion folks take this as evidence that we aren’t very smart. But there’s a simpler explanation. Pro-life activists are motivated first and foremost by the goal to prevent abortions. They want to save the lives of babies. They’re not out to get pregnant women. They want to help them avoid what may be the biggest mistake of their lives.

If you wanted to prevent abortions, how would you do it? First, you might try to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Encouraging people to have sex only inside of a stable, monogamous, heterosexual marriage might be a good start. So what do we find? The same Christians who want to save the lives of unborn babies also generally support abstinence education and oppose anything that would weaken the cultural institution of marriage.

There will always be unplanned pregnancies, of course. Christians have therefore established thousands of privately funded crisis pregnancy centers in this country. The goal of these centers is to give women the emotional support and the practical help they need to carry their pregnancies to term, whether they choose to keep their babies or give them up for adoption.

The final component of the strategy to save the lives of babies is the drive to make it illegal to provide abortion services. We need to put these organizations out of business, or at least out of the abortion business. Should it also be illegal to get an abortion? Perhaps, but the pro-life movement has never been about retribution for abortions already committed. I believe jail time is not the most effective deterrent. Knowledge is. When a pregnant woman truly understands that she carries another human life within her, and when she understands how brutally abortion terminates that life, few would be so selfish as to choose their own comfort, convenience or even safety over the life of her child.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Looking for Dan Flavin?

Are you looking for this picture? A while back I posted a blog entry about Dan Flavin's art and I linked this picture. Lately, lots of people have been coming to Believer's Brain via a Google image search, looking for it. Please allow me to give credit where credit is due. The photo was taken by a blogger who calls himself D.A.K. You can see the original photo on his blog. Thanks, D.A.K.

By the way, I'm really curious why so many people have been doing the same image search. What were you Googling for? If anyone feels like posting a comment to tell me how you wound up here, I'd really appreciate it.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Theocracy: Just Say No!

There is a prevailing opinion in secularist circles that American Christians want to create a theocracy in this country. In fact, this has become quite a popular theme for fundraisers on the left. I would like to reassure our atheistic friends that for the vast majority of Christians, nothing could be further from the truth. You see, Christianity had its fling with theocracy centuries ago. It didn’t work out too well. From the time of Emperor Constantine to the rise of the modern nation state, the church wielded vast temporal power. This power only corrupted the church and diverted it from its true mission in the world: bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every corner of the earth.

But what about all the right-wing talk of America being a Christian nation? Yes, there is definitely a sense in which America is a Christian nation. It is a nation founded on Christian principles and friendly to Christian practice. Most of the founding fathers were Christians. Their words and their actions were motivated by their faith. But they were wise enough not to establish a state religion. Nowhere is Jesus Christ explicitly mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the Bill Rights as he is in many of the colonial charters and constitutions. I am convinced this was no accidental oversight by the founders. Instead what we find are general Christian principles such as justice, freedom of conscience, and the equality of all men before God.

The founders never intended that the government, or anyone else, have the right to coerce an individual to believe and practice any particular religion. I don’t know of a single Christian today who would subscribe to such a notion. At the very core of evangelical Christianity is the idea that each individual must freely choose whether to follow Christ. A forced conversion is a false conversion and does no one any good whatsoever. In fact, forced conversion is a great evil and I repudiate all such efforts in prior centuries which were falsely done in the name of Jesus Christ.

I don’t support theocracy. I don’t know anyone who does. But I am alarmed at the efforts of some to expunge all Christian faith and expression from the public sphere. These efforts are unwise, unjustified, and unsupported by the history of this nation. In forbidding the establishment of a state religion, the founders did not intend to forbid Christian speech by those who hold office. In fact, we have two hundred years of precedent to the contrary. Of course in a Christian-majority nation there will be many officeholders who are Christians. Of course they will be motivated in their speech and their actions by their faith. But that’s a long way from creating a theocracy. This is still a nation of laws and it will remain so. The Christians in this country are as happy about that as anyone else. Christians came to this continent from Europe specifically to create such a society, where all citizens are subject to the rule of law, where they can participate in the democratic process, and where they are free to practice the religion of their choosing.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Theology of Science, Part II

Any system of thought requires certain axioms, or presuppositions, which cannot be proven within that system. Last time we saw that science originally rested on a set of presuppositions that arose from the Christian worldview. God is a personal, rational Being. He is the Creator of all things. We were created in his image as personal, rational beings. From this picture emerges the idea that nature is something which can be studied and understood by rational processes without fear of God’s wrath. Natural events can be described and predicted by natural laws which were ordained by the Creator. He pronounced his creation good and commanded us to exercise dominion over it, so he is pleased when we learn to understand and manipulate it.

These ideas about nature have been so thoroughly integrated into Western thought that few are aware of their Christian origins, or that there are other ways to look at the world. But about two hundred years ago a very different presupposition took root in science: everything that happens is presumed to have a purely natural cause which can, in principle, be explained scientifically. In other words, there is no such thing as a miracle. This is called methodological materialism.

It is important to realize that methodological materialism is an assumption. Popular opinion has it that science has proven miracles don’t happen, but the truth is just the opposite: science assumes miracles don’t happen. This assumption is so deeply entrenched among secular scientists today that most would say science is, by definition, the search for purely natural causes of every phenomenon. But this need not be how science is defined, and for most of the history of modern science it was not defined this way. This is not a small matter, because if our assumptions are wrong our conclusions will be wrong.

What is almost always completely overlooked is that methodological materialism is a purely theological concept. It is more a statement about the nature of God than about the nature of the universe. It says that God, if he exists, has never intervened in our world in any significant way. It should be obvious that if there actually is a God who has intervened in nature then methodological materialism will yield the wrong conclusions. The more striking the Divine intervention is, the more striking the error.

I am not saying that methodological materialism is always a bad assumption in every situation. Its applicability is directly proportional to our confidence that God will not somehow intervene and skew the results. In many cases we can be quite confident about that. For instance, even if you believe that God still works miracles to heal the sick, it seems likely this does not occur with sufficient frequency to skew cancer mortality statistics. And in the laboratory, scientists can readily repeat an experiment many times to verify the result, so one can be confident no miracle has occurred.

On the other hand, in the historical sciences such as geology, cosmology and evolutionary biology there is no way to repeat the experiment. We were not there to observe the past events we study. We have only the physical evidence which remains. In this situation the scientist must extrapolate backward using the physical laws we observe today. This extrapolation is based on the assumption that God has not intervened significantly in those events. I believe this assumption is completely unwarranted when extended all the way back to the origin of the world. Naturally, this belief is based on my own theological and philosophical understanding. An atheist would disagree. But that is a religious dispute, not a scientific one, and must be approached as such.

It is clear that science and religion are not separate spheres of human knowledge and thought. In fact, they are inseparably linked. Scientists must make explicit assumptions about religion in order to pursue their study of the natural world. These assumptions are not arbitrary. If they are wrong then the conclusions drawn from them may be profoundly wrong. There will always be a faith perspective implicit in the pursuit of science, especially in the historical sciences.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Theology of Science

Creationists are fond of saying that evolution requires just as much faith to believe as creation. I don’t need to tell you how much scorn is heaped on such statements by evolutionists. I think creationists miss the point with this remark because secular scientists try very hard to be guided only by the evidence. On the other hand, I think many scientists fail to realize the extent to which science depends on a set of philosophical assumptions that are themselves unprovable scientifically. These include the idea that nature is objectively real, that it exhibits a dependable regularity, that it is understandable to the human mind, that it is worth investigating, and that it is accessible by the human senses. These ideas must exist prior to science and are the foundation on which it stands.

Logical deduction proceeds from premises to conclusions. There must always be a starting point which is not proved but simply assumed. Naturally, these axioms must be well chosen because the entire system depends on them being true. Since axioms cannot be proven, the best ones will be obviously true. The problem is that what seems obviously true to us is strongly influenced by the culture in which we were raised.

Modern science first arose in Christian Europe in the late Middle Ages. Those who study the history of science are in fair agreement that this was no accident. The Christian worldview provided the philosophical and theological framework for the scientific method. Pantheists (e.g., Buddhists and Hindus) believe that the Universe and God are one. Everything is part of the Divine. Individuality is an illusion. The material world is an illusion. In this view the workings of the world are mysterious. There is no expectation that they would be subject to logical analysis and experimentation. The spirits which inhabit rocks and trees and lightning might not appreciate our meddling in their affairs. Furthermore, pantheists see the Universe as eternal and all history as an endless cycle. Nothing ever really changes; there is no sense of progress in history or culture. There is only the individual quest to achieve Nirvana (extinction of self through oneness with the Divine) through countless cycles of death and rebirth.

Christianity is quite different. God is the Creator and he is separate from his creation. Since creation is not divine, it is not blasphemous to seek to understand and manipulate it. God has in fact commanded us to exercise dominion over his creation (Gen. 1:28). This world that God created had a beginning and will have an end. Therefore history is progressing toward a goal and the choices we make affect that future. Furthermore, since the Creator of all things is a personal, rational Being and we are made in his image, we can expect that creation is both orderly and understandable to us. Since we are finite we would not expect to completely comprehend all that God has made, but we trust that he has given us the faculties to carry out his dominion mandate. It is this Christian worldview that gave birth to modern science and nurtured it for centuries.

Ironically, about two hundred years ago the idea arose that science can stand completely on its own. Science has been so successful as a means of understanding and controlling the world around us that it is now seen as self-justifying. The Christian view of creation has been so thoroughly incorporated into scientific thinking that its origins are no longer recognized. But every building must rest on a firm foundation, and every system of thought must rest on a set of presuppositions that cannot be proven within that system. Science is no different. It rests on a set of assumptions that are philosophical and theological, not scientific. They arise naturally from a Christian worldview.

Of course, assumptions such as the regularity and rationality of nature are not particularly controversial. As I said earlier, these ideas have been so thoroughly adopted in Western culture we tend not even to realize there are other ways of looking at the world. But the secularization of science in the past two centuries has seen the introduction of another presupposition that is still controversial in some quarters. That’s what I’ll talk about in my next post.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Mind vs. Matter

We’ve been talking lately about the Apostle Paul’s contention that Creation reveals the existence of God. In my previous post I argued that the existence of the universe and the existence of life are both good reasons to believe in God. Now I want to talk about another reason to believe in God that I find even more compelling, although it is much more subtle and easy to miss. This evidence can be seen by looking inward: the fact that I exist as a thinking, feeling, volitional and self-aware being. To paraphrase Descartes, “I think, therefore God is.” Cogito, ergo Deus est.

I mentioned earlier that we are so steeped in the secular scientific worldview we can look right at the evidence and not see it. But scientific naturalism, the philosophy of secular science, has a huge problem. It requires us to suppose that all our thoughts, ideas, feelings and choices are just an illusion. What’s real is the intricate arrangement of molecules in my brain interacting in complex, but purely deterministic ways. You and I, as individuals, don’t really exist. The life of mind is an illusion. We are nothing but chemistry. A temporary pattern of atoms that evolves and persists for a few years, then dissipates.

If you grew up going to public school, or watching PBS and Discovery Channel, or reading National Geographic, you’re probably saying right now, “So what?” You’re so used to this worldview being stated as fact that you can’t see what a breathtaking leap beyond the evidence it is. But stop and think about this for a moment. The most real, persistent, and intimate experience of reality I have is my own thoughts and feelings. When I talk about “I” it is not usually my protoplasm I’m referring to; it’s my mind. I experience this inner self in a different way than I experience anyone or anything else in the world. Everything else I experience through my senses as they respond to physical stimuli. But my mind is something different altogether. It is self-aware. It seems, at least, to have an independent existence apart from neural substrate that supports it.

Neural scientists are excited today because they feel they are finally beginning to “unlock the secrets of the mind” – to gain some insight into how physical brain function relates to mental processes. But just because a certain part of your brain lights up when you experience anger doesn’t give me any insight into what anger is. Even if I knew every tiny detail of what happens electrochemically inside your skull when you get angry, it would tell me nothing about how you feel. I only understand what anger is because I experience it myself in my own mind. It may correlate with certain brain activity. You may even be able to provoke me to anger by stimulating a certain part of my brain. But I believe it is a category mistake to talk about this mental feeling we call anger as being equivalent to the physical processes of the brain.

In a similar way, we all know what it is like to make a decision. We make decisions almost continuously every day. But the scientific naturalist must insist that my sense of free will is an illusion. Consider also our sense of right and wrong. If I am nothing but a deterministic physical system, then morality is just another illusion. The physical laws that govern the biochemical processes of my body are deterministic. There is nothing intrinsically different in applying those laws to my brain chemistry compared to a high school chemistry experiment.

What I am trying to help you understand is how utterly counterintuitive it is to suggest that our thoughts, our feelings, and our choices are an illusion. Some would argue that our intuition is simply wrong. It is true, of course, that science has discovered many counterintuitive theories, such as relativity and quantum mechanics. It’s easy to see how our intuition can be wrong when it comes to physical realms far outside our experience. When it comes to a theory of mind, however, we are all intimately familiar with the data.

But this theory is not just counterintuitive, it is illogical as well. It’s fine for me to contemplate the possibility that your mind is an illusion. But it is self-refuting for me to contemplate the idea that my own mind is an illusion. The problem is that we have been so completely indoctrinated into scientific naturalism that we fail to see the contradiction.

How does this relate to the existence of God? The connection is this: physical processes can only give rise to other physical processes. But my mind is a different type of thing, and it must arise from something different than a physical process. The source of my existence is a personal Creator God, who made me in his image as a thinking, feeling, self-aware and morally responsible being.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Hath God Wrought?

In my last post I talked about Paul’s famous statement in Romans that unbelievers are “without excuse” because God’s eternal power and divine nature can be clearly seen from looking at his Creation. The evidence for God is right before our eyes, so that he is justified in condemning us for rejecting him.

But some will object that we simply see what we want to see. You and I are watching a beautiful sunset. I believe in God; I see God’s glory in the sunset. You don’t believe in God; you see Nature’s glory. So how does nature prove God exists?

The short answer is, it doesn’t. If you’re looking for an airtight mathematical proof you will be disappointed, because we’re not dealing with mathematical concepts here. Very few things are actually provable in a formal, mathematical sense. Yet, there are still good reasons to believe in God.

The first reason is simply the fact that the universe exists at all. There is no reason to believe that the universe has to exist, but it obviously does. It makes sense that there would be a being whose existence is necessary, eternal and unchanging to explain the existence of a universe that is contingent, temporal and mutable.

An entire discipline of science, called cosmology, is devoted to studying the origins of the universe. It is fascinating that despite the triumph of secularism in academia, modern cosmologists came to the uncomfortable conclusion that the universe has not always existed and is in the process of “winding down” over the eons. This very inconvenient truth has caused many scientists to work hard at finding a new theory to avoid this conclusion. But to date there is absolutely no evidence for any of these new theories. The motivation for many of these scientists is pretty transparently to avoid the theistic implications of the current theory.

Another good reason to believe in God is the existence of life. There is currently no good scientific theory of abiogenesis, or how life formed from non-living matter by purely natural processes. You will no doubt caution me to avoid a “God of the gaps” mistake. Just because no good theory exists today doesn’t mean we won’t find one in the future. While that’s certainly true, in this case the gap appears to be pretty formidable.

The problem is that random processes would take essentially forever to produce something as complex as a single living cell. The simplest bacterium has about 500 genes. This is far less than humans or fruit flies, but it’s still a dern sight more than the goo at the bottom of Stanley Miller’s Erlenmeyer flask. Evolution doesn’t help you bridge this gap because mutation and natural selection can’t happen until a self-replicating organism exists on which they can operate.

Just as some scientists are busy looking for a new cosmology that avoids the need for a Creator, others are energetically seeking to prove that life will form spontaneously wherever the appropriate conditions exist. It may surprise you to learn that this is one of the main motivations and justifications for the U.S. space program. NASA spends billions of dollars looking for evidence of life, or even complex organic chemicals, in our solar system and beyond. That is the main goal of all the recent robotic probes and landers we have sent to Mars.

The irony is that, even if we find evidence of life on another world, it really doesn’t prove anything about whether God created life or it developed by natural processes. We would still be lacking a good theory to explain how you can get from a prebiotic soup of amino acids to a living organism without the intervention of deity.

There is yet another reason to believe in God that I find even more compelling than these two, but I will save that discussion for my next post.

Friday, May 25, 2007

No Excuses

As a former militant agnostic and devotee of scientific naturalism, I consider these verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans to be one of the most powerful passages in the Bible:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Rom 1:18-20 NIV)

In a nutshell, Paul is saying that nature itself is evidence enough for God’s existence, so that no one has any excuse for denying it. Before I became a Christian it seemed to me that just the opposite was true. I believed that the supernatural realm, if it existed at all, was beyond observation. Therefore I could only give credence to natural explanations. I was steeped in a secular scientific worldview. It seemed elementary to me that our eyes only give us evidence for the natural world. Surely all belief in God is just irrational superstition! When I looked at nature I saw the glory of Science, not the glory of God.

I remember when I first became a Christian and came across this passage. I had a hard time understanding it. I was still heavily under the influence of my former way of thinking about nature. It was only with considerable effort that I was able to appreciate what Paul is saying:
  • When we see that the universe is vast beyond measure we know that the Creator is powerful beyond comprehension.
  • When we see that the universe is orderly and understandable we know that the Creator is a rational being.
  • When we see that the universe is intricate, varied, and exquisitely beautiful we know that the Creator delights in his creation.
In a recent sermon our pastor made the point that practically all cultures throughout history have shared two common ideas: belief in a god or gods and belief in life after death. The committed naturalist says evolution gave us these instincts. Is it not just as plausible that our Creator put them there? As our pastor said, we are all born to belief; it takes years of training to become an atheist.

Of course, our God-implanted instinct to worship the transcendent is not so easily eradicated. That is why even the committed secularists today tend to personify Nature, writing it with a capital “N” and speaking reverently of it. In his famous book and TV miniseries Cosmos, Carl Sagan personified and worshiped the universe in this way. His book opens with these words:
The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.
Paul warned us of this as well:
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (Rom 1:25 NIV)

But the glory of the heavens speaks to us of God’s glory so that, as Paul said, we are without excuse:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4 NIV)

People often ask, if God wants us to believe in him why does he hide himself? But Paul tells us that the evidence is right before our eyes. Indeed, it is written in our hearts.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Revisiting the Menil

Last week I wrote about visiting the Menil collection. I want to go again soon. It is an interesting place and I didn’t get to see everything on our first visit. One exhibit we didn’t have time for is entitled the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall. We did pick up a copy of the brochure, though. My description here is from the brochure.

Flavin was evidently a 20th century artist of some note, one of the founders of Minimalism, according to the brochure. It seems that in later years he specialized in creating artistic “situations” by arranging ordinary fluorescent lights of various colors in otherwise ordinary rooms. The Installation at Richmond Hall consists of a simple, repeating orthogonal pattern of light fixtures installed on the walls of a large, empty rectangular room. These are standard, industrial light fixtures mounted on otherwise bare walls. I can certainly see the advantage. It would be nice to know that whenever the Muse strikes you’re never very far from a Home Depot.

The brochure explains how Flavin stumbled into this convenient new medium:
In the spring of 1961, Flavin created a series of eight works, which he called “icons,” containing elements of electric light playing off painted surfaces. Two years later he attached a single eight-foot, yellow fluorescent light fixture to his studio wall, calling the work the diagonal of personal ecstasy. He renamed the work one year later the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Robert Rosenblum). Fluorescent light thereafter became Flavin’s signature medium in which he discovered the unexpected sensuousness and beauty of a seemingly sterile and ubiquitous material.
Help me out here. Am I the only one who snickered at the line “he attached a single eight-foot, yellow fluorescent light fixture to his studio wall, calling the work the diagonal of personal ecstasy”? I really don’t understand this kind of art. Can someone explain it to me? How does hanging a crooked light fixture on the wall qualify as art?

If you do try to explain this stuff to me, please remember to use layman’s language. When I read the descriptions of the art critics they don’t seem to have any connection to the artwork itself. I wonder if they really are looking at what I’m looking at. For instance, last week I wrote about visiting the Rothko Chapel. You will recall that it is an octagonal structure adorned only with featureless monochromatic paintings. As I was Googling for it I came across a book on titled The Rothko Chapel Paintings: Origins, Structures, Meanings (Sales Rank 1,012,518). The publisher’s note states:

No painting in the set could be understood in isolation from the rest or apart from its place in the architectural setting. The Rothko Chapel Paintings explores this interdependence of paintings and place. As viewers move about the Chapel's octagonal enclosure, over whose walls the fourteen panels are continuously distributed, they discover systems of pictorial interactions which become the terms or characters of a cosmological drama in which the viewer is a necessary participant. In the act of vision, the embodied viewer is prompted not merely to witness but also to reenact that questioning of human destiny which has preoccupied the Western spiritual tradition.
Wow! I have to admit I didn’t notice all that when I saw the paintings. I thought they were dust covers! This seems like a complete fabrication to me, but it is perfectly postmodern. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder, and evidently the beholder does not feel terribly constrained by the actual appearance of the piece.

Clearly I need to go back and take a second look at those dust covers. I also can’t wait to see the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall. But if time doesn’t permit, we’ll just swing by the lighting department at Home Depot.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Doughnut Souls

This past weekend my wife and I visited The Menil Collection. This museum houses the art collection of the late John and Dominique de Menil, prominent Houston philanthropists and art patrons. I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that although it has been open for nearly 20 years, this is the first time I had visited it.

Before we visited the main collection we took a walk around the grounds. There are two “chapels” on the campus of The Menil Collection. We visited the Rothko Chapel first. It is a windowless octagonal structure with stone walls and a stone floor. On the walls hang large abstract paintings by Mark Rothko. They are dark, monochromatic and nearly featureless. When I first walked into the dim light I thought the paintings must have been covered for protection. Then I realized those were the paintings. There is no other adornment and scarcely any furniture, just a few severe wooden benches and a couple of cushions for those who prefer to sit on the floor as they meditate. This space seems designed for meditation. Yet I almost felt as though my very presence was an intrusion into the silence and emptiness.

We stayed in the Rothko Chapel only a minute or two and were glad to be outside again. It seemed oppressive. We had been there once before several years ago when we attended a memorial service for a good friend’s son who had died of AIDS. My memories of the chapel itself were dim. I guess I was much more focused on the people and the service that day. Seeing it again, I reflected on what a fitting location it was for such a somber and sorrowful occasion. It occurred to me that the Rothko Chapel is the perfect metaphor for the emptiness of the modern soul. In such a chapel there is no God, no meaning, and no message from God to man – no content at all. The Rothko Chapel evokes the Eastern ideal of the extinction of self. In contrast, when we go into a Christian church there is light and music and words of hope, and most of all a community of believers gathered together to worship God.

After we visited the Rothko Chapel we walked over to see the Byzantine Fresco Chapel. It is quite different. This chapel was built to house two 13th century frescoes which had been stolen from a small church in Cyprus. The Menil Foundation rescued these pieces, restored them, and built the chapel to house them. The outer walls of bare concrete surround an inner steel box, painted flat black and suspended from above. Within the black box is a tiny chapel in the traditional cross-shaped arrangement, made from panels of frosted glass. The glass panels do not touch each other but are held by black steel supports, so that the whole effect is like one of those “exploded” diagrams you see in the assembly instructions for some machine. The frescoes themselves are suspended above this structure in the locations they would have occupied in the original medieval church.

This place seemed much friendlier and more accessible than the Rothko Chapel, and to my mind more beautiful as well. But in its own way, it too reflects the impoverished worldview of the postmodern society. The exploded structure reminded me of the disconnect in modern thinking Francis Schaeffer discusses in his book How Should We Then Live? He describes how in the Renaissance modern man decided to make himself the central reference point for all meaning and truth, rather than God. But without the transcendent to give his life meaning, man finds that he is nothing but a machine. To avoid giving into despair, Western thinkers began to split their view of reality into two realms, which Schaeffer illustrated as the upper and lower stories in a house. In the lower story is rational scientific thinking, which deals with facts and figures and has no room for value or meaning. In the upper story is irrational faith, which gives meaning and significance, but which has no factual content or objective truth. The two stories are entirely separate.

The Byzantine Fresco Chapel is the perfect picture of this philosophy. Here is this modern structure, all steel and glass. And above it floats these ethereal medieval symbols of faith, devotion and transcendence. Though they reside together in one box there is no connection between the two. Our heads have become disconnected from our hearts, so to speak. We stand amidst the glass and steel and look up wistfully at the beautiful images above. It makes me pity those whose hearts are so empty. They have doughnut souls – there’s a hole in the middle where God should be.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Agreeing to Disagree

For several years I have subscribed to World magazine, a weekly news magazine like Time or Newsweek, but written from a Christian perspective. Normally I enjoy, or at least appreciate, their take on things. However, the current issue has an article about urban living that really made my blood boil. The author, Mindy Belz, waxes rhapsodic about urban environments and disparages the suburbs. She speaks of being “moored in tracts of pavement on an empty retail prairie, forgettable constellations of congestion and sameness.” But, hey! I like the suburbs. I like the area where I live and I don’t like highly urban areas. This article really got under my skin, and I started to wonder why. Then I realized that she was making no room for differing tastes and life experiences. The message was simply: “City good, Suburb bad.”

As I thought about it a bit more it occurred to me that this is a common mistake we make. We take preferences and turn them into moral judgments. For instance, when I was a kid a lot of adults complained about rock music. But instead of saying they didn’t care for it, they said it’s just noise, not music, and only a bunch of degenerates would listen to garbage like that. Nice conversation starter, huh?

I hate bananas. Don’t ask me why; I just do. The smell of them makes me nauseous. This has been the occasion for a lot of jokes in my family, but they realize they don’t have to “convert me” to a banana lover. And I’m not trying to talk them out of eating bananas. We can agree to disagree about the fruits we like. Why can’t we do that with the kind of neighborhoods we like or the music we listen to? Why do we have to condemn those with different tastes? There are more than enough important issues we disagree about without making up extra ones that really don’t matter.

Humans are naturally prideful and self-centered. We want to make ourselves the gold standard for everyone else. So without even realizing it we often take our personal preferences and turn them into moral standards by which we judge others. When we think about it, of course we realize this is wrong. But the opposite mistake is just as bad. We must not treat important moral issues as mere personal preferences. This is the source of much conflict in our society today. At the heart of such classic cultural battles as abortion and homosexuality is a disagreement over whether these are moral issues or mere personal preference. Take abortion, for instance. Central to the question of whether it should be illegal or not is the question of whether it is wrong. It’s amazing to me how often this fundamental question is glossed over. Too often the issue is framed merely in terms of the politics of power. I won’t go into my own position on that today. I just want to suggest that whenever we disagree on some issue, it is important to ask ourselves whether we are dealing with a moral issue or merely personal preference.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Have a Nice Day!

The other day a friend of mine posed an interesting question. Why are Americans, by and large, so much more respectful toward each other and toward public property than citizens of other countries? My friend is from South America. Her father is here visiting, and he was marveling that no one seems to litter and everyone is so nice to each other. He wanted to know, how did this come about and why isn’t it that way in his country?

I confessed I didn’t know, but I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and I’m ready to hazard a guess.
  • Americans are, by and large, tremendously proud of their country. It is so large and beautiful. We are proud of its history, proud of its freedoms, proud of its strength and proud of its wealth.
  • We truly have a sense of ownership in this country. We really believe all that stuff in the Constitution about “We the people…” If we harm this nation we are hurting ourselves and our neighbors, not just getting back at “the man”.
  • The idea of government based on the rule of law rather than the rule of men is deeply ingrained in us from childhood – we feel viscerally that “no one is above the law.”
All of these factors give us a sense of belonging. Our identity is more wrapped up in our community (city, state or nation) than our many and varied ethnic or racial backgrounds. So we are more disposed to regard our communities and our neighbors as worthy of respect.

Some people might challenge these assertions. It is certainly true that these feelings are not universal. Many do feel disenfranchised, especially among those who live in poverty and have suffered racial discrimination, but most do not. What worries me more is that our society seems to be polarizing and fragmenting over the last few decades. I hope that we don’t forget what made this a great country. Sometimes we just need a reminder. And nothing helps me put our problems in perspective like talking to a first generation American who loves this country and doesn’t take it for granted.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Roll over, Rembrandt!

Today I want to talk about modern art. Fair warning, though: I am a geek. I write computer programs for a living. I am neither schooled in art, nor an avid fan of it. My encounters with art are mostly of the casual and unplanned type. If you are an artist, consider this a dispatch from the frontiers of your world, where serious art occasionally intrudes upon the lives of the ignorant masses.

Unschooled I may be, but even the most casual observer can notice that something has happened to art in the past hundred years or so. Somehow I grew up thinking that Art (be sure to capitalize it) was about creating timeless expressions of Truth and Beauty (be sure to capitalize them, too). I was woefully behind the times. In our impoverished contemporary culture, truth and beauty have been deconstructed to the point of disappearance. What values do the artists of today hold dear? From what I have seen of their work, I would say there are only two: novelty and shock value.

For the thoroughly modern artist, novelty takes the place of beauty. This is a tremendous boon to the aspiring auteur. It takes skill to create beauty, but mere cleverness is all one needs to achieve novelty. Of course, there are only so many novel ideas out there, so when you come up with one you need to milk it for all it’s worth. In practice, this means that artists tend to come up with some gimmick and then execute endless variations on the theme. It’s as if they’re practicing to get the Motel 6 starving artist contract. So what constitutes a good gimmick? Well,
Jackson Pollock dripped paint. That was a good one. How many different gizmos can you rig up to drip paint on a canvas?

I went to MIT in the 70’s. There was an art gallery in the Humanities Building I often passed on the way to class. (Yes, at MIT they had all the Humanities in a single building. You laugh, but then how many small liberal arts colleges have one Science Building?) Anyway, I remember seeing some pretty silly exhibits in that art gallery. One guy’s gimmick was making India ink drawings of eggplants! Fat ones, skinny ones, large ones, small ones: all down the long corridor it was just one eggplant picture after another. I wonder if that guy ever came up with another gimmick, or did he just retire when all the eggplants started looking the same?

If novelty takes the place of beauty, then surely shock value has taken the place of truth. The old masters tried to create works that reflect some deep truth about life in a way that is profound and moving. The modern artist believes he is performing a great service to humanity if only he can transgress some social taboo in a way that offends the bourgeoisie. Or maybe he doesn’t really believe he’s performing a public service, but it’s a good way to generate some publicity, right? The problem with this notion is that year by year there are fewer taboos that have not been transgressed. Year by year the bourgeoisie grow accustomed to outrageous assaults on their values and respond only to more and more extreme examples. This is the trend that gave us, in the past few years,
crucifixes soaking in urine and images of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and pornographic cutouts.

Not all artists have gone down this road, but far too many have. By adopting such impoverished values, these artists have marginalized themselves to an ever increasing degree over the past few decades. When they finally have something to say that society finds worth hearing, and when they recover the ability to express themselves in an appealing aesthetic, they might just regain an audience for their work. In the meantime we’ll just keep watching TV.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Jesus Family Tomb?

Recently the news, er, publicity broke that James Cameron (of Titanic fame) has made a documentary for Discovery Channel called The Lost Tomb of Jesus, presenting conclusive proof that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. No, it turns out he married Mary Magdalene, raised a family, and was buried in a large upper class family tomb in Jerusalem. When they opened it up in 1980, his bones were still in the box – right where he had left them.

The filmmakers express surprise that this might be a controversial claim. Why are Christians so up in arms? Well, let me quickly say that I think many Christians just need to calm down when stories like this hit the media. It’s no secret that the vast majority of the entertainment and media elites are not Christians – that many are in fact militantly anti-Christian. So should we be surprised or upset if they use their access to the mass media outlets for evangelizing their point of view? Mel Gibson did the same, and did it brilliantly, with his The Passion of the Christ. Whatever you think about the merits of his movie, per se, it generated a huge amount of publicity which he leveraged to promote his beliefs.

But, then, I am up in arms about The Lost Tomb of Jesus, at least a little bit. For one thing, it is hard not to be cynical about their intentions with this. Controversy means publicity, and publicity generates an audience, and large audiences mean big bucks for those involved. And nothing will stir up controversy like a story about the world’s biggest religion being a hoax. One suspects that they must have latched onto this project, at least in part, because of how lucrative they thought it would be. In contrast, Mel Gibson has a long established, passionate commitment to his Catholic faith, so I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt about his motives.

Another reason to be up in arms is the flimsy nature of the evidence given for such a spectacular claim. This is not just a partisan Christian criticism. There is good reason why the great majority of reputable archaeologists are repudiating the Jesus Tomb theory. It accords with basically nothing we know historically about Jesus of Nazareth. The tomb is in Jerusalem; his family was in Nazareth. Only the well-to-do could afford such a tomb; his family was poor. There is no contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous evidence that Jesus was married, or had children. All historical accounts agree that he was executed by the Romans. He did not live to a ripe old age to be buried surrounded by his extended family. The names on the ossuaries were all quite common in first century Israel. There is nothing remarkable about such a collection of names within one family. The connection with the alleged James ossuary is, to put it politely, tenuous at best. The “patina fingerprinting” test was invented for this project, strictly for the purpose of corroborating a conclusion reached without any other evidence.

Please notice that at no point do any of these arguments appeal to faith or any doctrinal argument. They are accepted by most mainstream archaeologists and historians. Those who dispute such statements generally have an ideological axe to grind. It’s typically theologians and philosophers, not historians, who dispute the basic outline of Jesus’ life as contained in the Gospels: a famous Nazarene whose brief public ministry as an itinerant rabbi was cut short by a brutal public execution. (The miracles, of course, are questioned by unbelievers. After all, people who become convinced of the historicity of the Gospel miracles almost always become Christians.)

On this last point, I must say a further word about the historicity of the New Testament. As I have examined all the arguments against accepting the New Testament as a reliable historical source, I have become convinced that they are all ultimately rooted in one core presupposition: the impossibility of miracles. The unspoken starting place of each analysis is this simple syllogism: “The New Testament contains miracle stories. Miracles stories cannot possibly be true. Therefore the New Testament cannot possibly be true.” Of course I oversimplify the argument by treating the New Testament as a single, monolithic entity. But you get the picture, I think. Now each of us is entitled to our presuppositions, but we shouldn’t try to misrepresent them. You are entitled to say the Gospels are a fairy tale. (You would be wrong, of course!) But if you claim to have proven they are a fairy tale and your argument depends on a presupposition against miracles, then you are guilty of circular reasoning.

Getting back to The Lost Tomb of Jesus, let me summarize by saying this show is simply another attempt to sensationalize a dubious attack on the legitimacy of Christianity. These attacks come with such frequency and regularity that I am disappointed they still gain so much attention for the perpetrators. Haven’t we just been through the Judas Gospel and the Da Vinci Code? The word for believers and unbelievers alike is: don’t put much stock in these latest claims. They’re just a way to sell air time on Discovery Channel.

Introducing - Me

Welcome to Believer’s Brain. Let’s get the demographics out of the way, first. I am a middle-aged, happily married man. We have two teenage sons and live in the western suburbs of Houston, Texas. We generally vote Republican and we’re active members of a Southern Baptist church in the area. This means we’re just like about a half million other people who live within 25 miles of here. (Well, I’m exaggerating; some of them are Methodist.) So now you can activate all your preconceptions and be prepared to either love or hate everything I say in this blog. Just do me the favor of reading what I say before you decide to love it or hate it!

Every blog reflects the interests of its author. I am a Christian and to me that means more than where you’ll find me on Sunday mornings. I believe we cannot make sense of ourselves and the world around us unless our thinking is grounded in the Truth which God has revealed to us in his written Word, the Bible, and in the Living Word, Jesus Christ. Although I might write about science or art or philosophy or politics or culture, I always strive to do so from a biblically informed viewpoint.

Technorati claims that, as of a few months ago, there were 57 million blogs in existence. So how could anyone possibly believe the world needs one more blog? The truth is, it probably doesn’t. But I believe the blogging impulse comes from the human desire for self-expression. So there it is. I’m writing more for me than for you. Of course, I do hope that along the way a few people will read these posts and get something out of them. Let me know if that ever happens, will you?