“When God Is Gone Everything Is Holy” by Chet Raymo


Religion is a universal human phenomenon. Can it survive the epistemological onslaught of the scientific method? If Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are to be believed, the answer is definitely not. If Chet Raymo is to be believed, the answer is yes, but….

When God Is Gone Everything Is Holy outlines "the making of a religious naturalist," as the subtitle puts it. In addition to "religious naturalist," Raymo describes himself as a "Catholic agnostic." A cradle Catholic, Raymo left behind his faith gradually as the result of his scientific education, but he did not leave behind his appreciation of Catholic sacramentality, of the holiness of flesh-and-blood, of what Dun Scotus called haecceitas or "thisness." Sacramentality provides Raymo the bridge between religion and science. "The religious naturalist seeks a language of spirituality that is consistent with the empirical way of knowing."

Raymo identifies his religious naturalism with "creation spirituality" and "panentheism," although he recognizes the dangers of using those terms. What he especially wants to guard against are the "idolatry" of belief in a personal god and "faith-based" ways of knowing. He recognizes the limitations of scientific knowledge, of course. "Nature likes to hide," he writes repeatedly throughout the book. Its mysteries must always be searched out by science. But Raymo is clear that science is the only reliable method of attaining genuine knowledge.

As a Christian and a pastor, I find myself both more attracted to and more wary of Raymo’s religious naturalism then of Dawkins’s and Harris’s strident atheism, even though Raymo is an atheist himself and somewhat appreciative of those two polemicists’ efforts. "God had it coming," he says. Why more attracted? Because Raymo is more apt to see the genuine, beneficial contributions the religious spirit has made to humanity than are Dawkins and Harris, who seem to think religion is unrelievedly evil. Why more wary? Because a little sugar hides bitter poisons. Raymo wants to retain all the ethical and aesthetic benefits of Catholicism (and Christianity more generally) while chucking its doctrinal core. Many will find this convincing.

Me? Not so much. Different metaphysics entail different moralities. Christian theism produced a morality quite different from paganism. One small example: Christians rescued from the trash dumps those weak infants whom the Roman paterfamilias had ordered exposed. Christians saw something wrong with this treatment of infants. Romans? Not so much. Another example: Christian missionaries in India forced the end of the practice of suttee, by which widows were burned alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Christians saw something wrong with what was taken as normal by Indians. Raymo is quite drawn to the compassion and grace of the Catholic (and Christian) religion and seems to think they can be separated from the ridiculous story of the Beloved Son of God dying on the cross. But why?

The scientific worldview is an evolutionary one. Nature is red in tooth and claw. Oh sure, biologists have pointed out altruistic behavior in animals, and this too is part of sociobiology. But at the end of the day, an evolutionist has no way of preferring tooth-and-claw to altruism, for both are simply strategies of survival. If picking fleas out of her mate’s hair helps a chimpanzee survive, do that. If cannibalizing her young helps her survive, do that. Who’s to say which is better?

Who’s to say, in other words, whether in the absence of God everything is holy or just plain terrifying? At several points, Raymo notes that a person’s religion generally correlates strongly with where he or she was born. If born in America, one is likely to be Christian. If born in Saudi Arabia, Muslim. If in Mumbai, India, Hindu. (Obviously, that has nothing to do with the truth of those religion’s claims. After all, if one was born to atheist parents, one is likely to be an atheist.) But I wonder whether Raymo’s privileged status as a white male, North American academic with a fairly comfortable retirement hasn’t slanted his view of nature. Would he consider nature so benign had he been born a dirt-poor, starving Ethiopian?

The picture of nature that emerges from Raymo’s book is of nature veiled, but nonetheless productive of wonder, awe, joy, and delight–of a good nature minus the God who brought order out of chaos and called it good. Rudolf Otto identified the idea of the holy as mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Raymo focuses on the fascinans. He has forgotten the tremendum.

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Faith’s PR Problem


 
“Faith has a public relations problem.”
 
With that sentence, J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler launch In Search of a Confident Faith. The authors are professors of philosophy and Christian education, respectively, at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California, and evangelical Christians. Their book is not an apologetic for the Christian faith directed at unbelievers. Rather, it is an exercise in spiritual formation for believers, aimed at “overcoming barriers to trusting in God,” as the subtitle puts it.
 
One of the reasons faith has a public relations problem is because it’s so widely misunderstood. The rash of books published recently by atheists reinforces this misunderstanding by tagging faith as an intellectual leap in the dark. This partially explains why, for example, Richard Dawkins and his ilk annoyingly refer to themselves as “Brights.”
 
Chapter 1 looks at “What Faith Is…And What It Isn’t…” Moreland and Issler note three synonyms of faith (confidence, trust, and reliance) and define faith as “trusting what we have reason to believe is true.” Rather than an intellectual leap in the dark, then, faith has its reasons. Interestingly, faith is not merely a spiritual act, it is an inherent part of the intellectual enterprise, for much of what we know we take on faith (confidence, trust, and reliance) from acknowledged authorities. Moreland and Issler go on to note that in the Christian tradition, faith is further delineated as noticia (content of belief), assensus (personal assent), and fiducia (ongoing commitment). Philosophy helps clarify the nature of faith by pointing out that there are degrees of belief, by distinguishing confidence in persons from confidence about truths, and by showing us how beliefs are changed indirectly rather than directly.
 
Chapters 2 and 3 offer advice about how to deal with intellectual and emotional barriers to belief, what the authors call “distractions of the head” and “distractions of the heart.”
 
Much of the reason why faith has a public relations problem in the West is because of the “plausibility structure” of modernity are so thoroughly naturalistic. That is to say, whereas in earlier ages—and even in other places today—belief in the supernatural is presupposed, in our age and place, unbelief is presupposed. “Our current Western cultural plausibility structure elevates science and scorns and mocks religion, especially Christian teaching. As a result, believers in Western cultures do not as readily believe the supernatural worldview of the Bible in comparison with their Third World brothers as sisters.” Moreland and Issler offer a “four-step procedure” for reducing intellectual doubts: (1) “Spot the activating source…and be alert while being exposed to it.” (2) “Explicitly state to yourself exactly the doubt-inducing cultural assumption that lies beneath the surface of the activating source.” (3) “Challenge and question the truth of the cultural assumption. Is that really true? Doubt the doubt!” (4) “Replace the cultural assumption with a biblical truth…and make it your goal to grow in God-confidence about the alternative.” Underlying this advice is the author’s commitment to the rationality of the Christian faith and the biblical world, which they believe to be both defensible and truth.
 
Many doubts arise not because of intellectual questions but because of emotional issues. “Life fundamentally consists of two basic movements,” the authors write: “either we’re moving toward God, or we’ve moving away from him—there’s no neutral or middle zone. They go on to conclude: “a fundamental life skill for all believers is learning how to discern the subtle ways our heart moves us in either direction.” An important goal of the spiritual life, then, is to identify and feed those desires that draw you closer to God, and to identify and starve those desires that draw you away from him.
 
If the first three chapters define faith and name intellectual and emotional challenges to it, the final three chapters talk about “expanding expectations for our belief in God.” For my money, Chapter 4 is worth the price of the book. Titled, “Making Sense of Jesus’ Incredible Promises,” it asks, “What is the normal Christian life?” Many Christians struggle with Jesus’ promises, which seem to set the standard of spiritual experience too high. Moreland and Issler suggest that we approach the issue differently, asking, “What kind of Christian living is humanly possible?” Rather than taking our current experience as “normal,” they suggest that we have set our sights too low. So, they suggest four “God-Confidence-Nurturing Projects. (1) “Personal/relational,” focusing on prayer and Scripture meditation; (2) “Content/worldview,” based on serious biblical and apologetic studies; (3) “Action,” putting your beliefs into practice through your behaviors; and (4) “Progression,” which is paying serious attention to growth or progress you have made in your spiritual journey.
 
If naturalism describes the plausibility structure of modernity, and if it is opposed to the biblical worldview, then it has to be undermined. This can be done at a philosophical level, but also at the level of credible witnessing to supernatural events by contemporary persons. Chapter 5, “Bearing Witness to God’s Activity in the World,” does exactly that. Moreland and Issler provide personal testimonies of supernatural experiences, and they cite the supernatural experiences of people they know. They argue that these testimonies are credible and inexplicable by naturalistic means. Faith is built through credible confirmation, so it is important for believers both to share and to hear such credible testimonies.
 
God-confidence is also strengthened as we receive divine guidance for life. Chapter 6, “Learning to Trust in God for Guidance about Life Decisions,” addresses the numerous ways God guides believers: Scripture, wise counsel, spiritual promptings, etc. As a Pentecostal pastor, I was especially encouraged to see Moreland and Issler emphasize the important role the Holy Spirit plays in all this: “The Holy Spirit is not just some force or power, but is a Person of power, who mentors and coaches us and makes it possible for us to live by faith and grow into Christlikeness.” “Furthermore, although we are always indwelt by the Spirit, we also need constantly to be ‘filled by the Spirit,’ to intentionally coordinate our decision making and life walk with the Spirit.” Once upon a time, Biola University, the home of Talbot Theological Seminary, was a hotbed of cessationist theology. Evidently, not any more!
 
In Search of a Confident Faith is an excellent book. It patiently defines terms; supports its arguments through Scripture and reason; is richly illustrated with salient personal testimony; and provides wise advice for believers. I recommend this book to any Christian interested is strengthening his faith, but especially to high school grads, college and graduate-school students, and pastors. They are on the frontlines of the conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism, both intellectually and experientially, and could benefit from Moreland and Issler’s advice.

Which Saint Am I? You?


You’re St. Jerome!

You’re a passionate Christian, fiercely devoted to Jesus Christ and his Church. You are willing to labor long hours in the Lord’s vineyard, and you have little patience with those who are less willing or able to work as you do. Your passions often carry you into temptation zones of wrath, lust, and pride.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

The Contested Public Square by Greg Forster


 

 
The Contested Public Square by Greg Forster is “an introduction to Christian political thought,” with a special focus on “the political effects of the Reformation and the Enlightenment in Western Europe [and America].” It traces the evolution of that theory through eight critical junctures in church history.
 
Chapter 1 examines “how persecution permanently shaped Christian political ideas” by forcing the early church to develop “an apolitical sense of its own identity.” As was true of Jesus, the church neither possessed nor sought access to the halls of power, whether in the Jewish Sanhedrin or Roman empire. Rather, its theology subverted the importance of the state.
 
Christianity believes that its religious institution (the church) is eternal and will survive intact after the destruction of the universe and the end of time itself; however, it believes that political institutions (the state) are merely temporal agencies that keep the peace and enforce justice in this world; they will vanish when the world does.
 
This theology both allowed the early church to survive and left it without a blueprint for political engagement. The Old Testament had such a blueprint, but the early church thought that Mosaic law was applicable specifically to Israel, not generally to the nations. The New Testament social teaching applied specifically to the church. If the church were to have a voice in political matters, it would have to utilize non-biblical sources.
 
The primary non-biblical source to which Christian theologians turned was philosophy, the subject of Chapter 2. “Critically and rigorously engaging with the Greco-Roman philosophical heritage helped them both to find answers to questions that the Bible did not answer and to address themselves on politics to those who did not believe the Bible.”
 
Chapter 3 examines the most influential Christian theologian to engage the philosophers on political questions, Augustine of Hippo, whose City of God is arguably the most important Christian work outside of the Bible. Augustine made several important contributions to Christian political thought in this book.
 
First, Augustine outlined a psychological distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. “In one city,” Augustine wrote, “love of God has been given first place; in the other love of self.” Different loves are ordered to different goods. “For the City of God,” writes Forster, “the only ultimate good is God; other things are good only to the extent that they look to God. For the City of Man, the satisfaction of one’s own desires…is good. And since you cannot satisfy your desires without having the power to satisfy them, the ultimate good for the City of Man, what it desires above all other things, is power.”
 
Through City of God, Augustine argues against early medieval pagans who blamed Christians for the sack of Rome, its loss of earthly power. Augustine saw things differently, however. He saw the sack of Rome as a just punishment of Rome’s depredations. “Remove justice,” he wrote, “and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?” While the City of Man desires power; the City of God desires justice.
 
The different goods sought by different loves does not mean that there can be no social cooperation between the two cities, however. “Just as there is no man who does not wish for joy,” Augustine writes, “so there is no man who does not wish for peace.” The cities cannot agree on eternal goods, but they can achieve compromise on temporal goods. Writes Augustine: “Thus even the Heavenly City in her pilgrimage her on earth makes use of the earthly peace, and defends and seeks the compromise between human wills in respect of the provisions relevant to the mortal nature of man, so far as may be permitted without detriment to true religion and piety.”
 
Justice leading to peace is the leitmotif of Augustine’s political thought. But how do we define justice and peace between the two cities when neither the Old or New Testaments are clearly applicable? Through natural-law reasoning. In Chapter 4, Forster names natural law “the most important political idea in history.” Natural law “holds that the only proper basis of political authority is the moral laws pertaining to life in the present world (do not kill, do not steal, keep your promises, help those in need, preserve the community, etc.) rather than laws pertaining to eternal matters.” Natural-law reasoning was “the driving force behind most…Christian political thought for as long as Christianity has existed.” But it was only in the Middle Ages that Christian thinkers (especially Aquinas and Ockham) produced “a fully developed understanding of natural law and its implications.”
 
Forster outlines six “basic principles of natural-law thought”:
 
  1. Natural law is an eternal moral law revealed to all people through human nature.
  2. Natural law influences (but cannot save) even fallen and sinful humanity.
  3. Natural law is the proper basis of political authority.
  4. Natural law authorizes society to establish a government.
  5. Governments are themselves subject to the natural law.
  6. Each society’s laws should apply the natural law to that society’s particular circumstances.
 
Of course, medieval society had a degree of unity that is no longer present in society. Yes, the various kingdoms battled one another, but they did so under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church, whose doctrine established a unifying and authoritative worldview for the combatants.
 
The Protestant Reformation, the subject of Chapter 5, shattered that unity and gave rise to the nation-state, which is the basic political unit of modern society. Interestingly, the Reformers—at least the Magisterial Reformers—did not repudiate natural-law reasoning. What they repudiated was the authority of the Catholic Church, which provided the social glue to medieval society. In place of one church, the Protestant Reformation ushered in an era of multiple, conflicting spiritual authorities under the doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio (literally, “Whose realm, his religion). Predictably, war ensued.
 
Chapter 6 takes up the emergence of religious freedom in the Enlightenment, citing John Locke as a pivotal figure. The medieval and Reformation churches (magisterial Reformation, not Anabaptist, that is) seem to have forgotten the lessons of the early church and Augustine. Both realized that believers and unbelievers could cooperate and through the state realize temporal goods. Both also wanted the state to stay out of eternal affairs. By contrast, the medieval and Reformation churches used the state to enforce religion, thus sacrificing peace. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke wrote: “The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.” Those civil interests did not include enforcement of religion. “The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate because his power consists only in outward force, but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.” Forster does a good job of showing that Locke’s conclusions were based not merely on natural-law reasoning, but also on a close consideration of what the New Testament teaches about faith. Since the New Testament does not teach the civil enforcement of religion, Locke could find no use for it either.
 
While Chapter 6 focuses on Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, Chapter 7 focuses on how the American Founders used the natural-law reasoning of his Two Treatises of Government to justify revolution. Now, the pro-revolutionary stance of many American Christians is striking. The New Testament commands obedience to government (Romans 13), and the government in power at that time was both unjust and persecutory. How then can a Christian countenance revolution?
 
Locke turned to natural-law reasoning. Remember, natural law authorizes societies to set up governments, and the purpose of those governments is to practice justice leading to peace. If those governments practice injustice, however, who enforces justice against them? Society as a whole. Here we see that government arises, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, from “the consent of the governed.”
 
Perhaps you think that it is not the Christian’s duty to enforce justice against government. After all, Romans 13 does command obedience. But remember the immediate context in which Locke is writing. England has endured decades of civil strife resulting from religious strife, as Protestant and Catholic claimants to the throne struggled for possession of it. In such a situation, Christians were forced to make a choice as to who was the legitimate political authority to be obeyed. The mere possession of superior power could not settle the issue, since possession switched sides frequently. What had to be decided was the justice of the claims. In other words, who had the right to rule. But since an unjust government had no right to rule, it could be overthrown by revolution. That is what natural-law reasoning, at least in Locke’s hands, seemed to require.
 
The trend of natural-law thinking, then, at least as it developed in England and America, was toward liberal democracy, in which political authority rests on the consent of the governed. But liberal democracy had its critics, both externally and internally. This is the focus of Chapter 8. Externally, the greatest critics of liberal democracy in the twentieth century totalitarian Communism and Nazism. Internally, theologians such as Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr questioned its natural-law foundations, whether in toto (Barth) or in ironic part (Niebuhr). Interestingly, C.S. Lewis restated and defended natural-law reasoning in a variety of works.
 
On the whole, I think Forster’s book is a fair-minded summary of the development of Christian political thought, whose dominant mode is natural-law reasoning. I also think he correctly notes how natural-law thinking has historically tended to underwrite the project of liberal democracy. I was especially impressed with his two-chapter treatment of John Locke, which I have oversimplified (but I hope not distorted). Forster does not ask argue that natural-law reasoning is right. His literary enterprise is historical and analytical, rather than normative and apologetic. Nonetheless, I get the feeling that Forster himself believes the basic evolution of natural-law reasoning he outlines to be essentially correct.
 
It is a sign of his fair-mindedness, however, that he admits the triumph of religious freedom and liberal democracy is not without problems. Specifically, he mentions “the problem of public virtue”: “how do we maintain political adherence to the moral laws necessary for politics (do not kill, do not steal, keep your promises, etc.) without a shared community religion?” In our deeply divided, red-state/blue-state country, this is an urgent question without an obvious answer.

TDW Farewell!


Dear Friends:

I had originally planned to resume writing The Daily Word today, but after a long time of reflection–and a week off for the holidays–I have decided that it is time for me to bid farewell to TDW.

I have been writing The Daily Word for almost this entire decade. I have enjoyed the experience of daily, detailed interaction with Scripture. But, to be perfectly honest, I’m more than bit burned out.

Thank you for all your kind, encouraging words over the years! I hope TDW has been useful to you.

May God bless you richly today–and everyday!

George