Saturday, August 5, 2006

Our Human Condition

A couple weeks ago while attending my Sunday school class the discussion turned to the concept of altruism - the idea of total unselfishness as a motive for doing something. Eventually, someone posited the question that the "carrot" of eternal life in heaven might influence our motivation to "accept Jesus"* as our savior as well as pursue a personal relationship with God. And finally we were faced with the question: is there anything that we do with unselfish motives?

Several days later, I finished reading Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis, an autobiography of his conversion to Christianity. In the final pages of the book he says:

My conversion involved as yet no belief in a future life. I now number it among my greatest mercies that I was permitted for several months, perhaps for a year, to know God and to attempt obedience without even raising that question. My training was like that of the Jews, to whom He revealed Himself centuries before there was a whisper of anything better (or worse) beyond the grave than shadowy and featureless Sheol. And I did not dream even of that. There are men, far better men that I, who have made immortality almost the central doctrine of their religion; but for my own part I have never seen how a preoccupation with that subject at the outset could fail to corrupt the whole thing. I had been brought up to believe that goodness was goodness only if it were disinterested, and that any hope of reward or fear of punishment contaminated the will. If I was wrong in this (the question is really much more complicated than I then perceived) my error was most tenderly allowed for. I was afraid that threats of promises would demoralize me; no threats or promises were made. The commands where inexorable, but they were backed by no "sanctions". God was to be obeyed simply because he was God. Long since, through the gods of Asgard, and later through the notion of the Absolute, He had taught me how a thing can be revered not for what it can do to us but for what it is in itself. This is why, though it was terror, it was no surprise to learn that God is to be obeyed because of what He is in Himself. If you ask why we should obey God, in the last resort the answer is, "I am." To know God is to know that our obedience is due to Him. In His nature His sovereignty de jure is revealed.


On the other hand, while it is true to say that God's own nature is the real sanction of His commands, yet to understand this must, in the end, lead us to the conclusion that union with that Nature is bliss and separation from it horror. Thus Heaven and Hell come in. But it may well be that to think much of either except in this context of thought , to hypostatize them as if they had a substantial meaning apart from the presence or absence of God, corrupts the doctrine of both and corrupts us while we so think of them.

As I understand what Lewis is saying, there is a valid, totally unselfish motivation for a personal, loving relationship that involves worship and obedience to God even if there were no promise of eternal life in heaven, even if our existence is finite, simply because God is who He is. Fascinating.

* The following is what I consider (most humbly) to be one of many great rants from E.W. Bullinger, this time on the subject of "accepting Jesus" .

Man's conventional talk of this twentieth century (of the present era) is about the sinner's acceptance of Christ. God's Word, for nearly sixty centuries has been about the sinner believing what He had said.

God has spoken. He has told us that He cannot and will not accept the fallen sons of men in their sins. In ourselves we are not only ruined sinners because of what we have done, or not done; but we are ruined creatures because of what we ARE. The question is, Do we believe God as to this solemn fact?

What God accepted was Abel's "gifts" (Heb. xi. 4); Abel was accepted only in his gifts (Gen. iv. 4).

So, God has told us that He can accept us, as such, only in the merits and Person of that perfect Substitute -- His Christ -- whom He has provided. Do we believe Him as to this?

If we do we shall by faith lay our hand on Him, confess our belief in God as to our own lost and ruined nature, and as to Christ as God's provided Salvation; knowing that, by this faith, God pronounces us righteous, accepts us in the person of our Substitute; and declares us as accepted in the Beloved," because God accepted His one offering when He raised Him from the dead.

Christ's resurrection is the proof and evidence that God has accepted Christ. Christ risen is the sinner's receipt which God has given to show that He has accepted Christ's payment of the sinner's debt.

There is no other receipt.

Christ's blood is not the receipt. That is the payment.

The sinner's faith is not the receipt. It is no use for a man to go to his creditor and say he believes he has paid what he owes. He must produce the receipt.

What is the receipt which we can produce to God which will prove that our debt is paid?

Nothing but the blessed fact that God's Word assures us that He has accepted payment on our behalf in the person of our Substitute, when He raised Christ from the dead.

We are to believe what He says when He assures us of this, and He is pleased to accept us in Him.

It is always the Creditor who accepts the payment which the debtor makes. And, when payment has been once accepted, no further demand can be made upon the debtor.

This is how Abel was accepted; and this is how the sinner is saved to this day.

By the same faith in what God has said, we lay our hand on that Lamb of God as our substitute; and we obtain God's witness that we are righteous. God bears His testimony to this in that He raised Christ from the dead, and has accepted the believing sinner IN HIM.

It is not a question of whether the sinner accepts Christ, but whether he believes God when He says that He has accepted Christ.

Loading Up the Bar

Michael Metzger offers some advice at Comment that Christians, especially those who feel very strongly about evangelism, might do well to take to heart.

We don't help a weight-training partner if we load up his bar with too much weight before he's ready to handle it. Metzger relates this obvious fact to Christian witness at the link.

Opium of the Intellectuals

John Davidson poses the question, "How has Darwinism Persisted?" He believes there to be two reasons in particular which he explains briefly at Uncommon Descent.

I'd like to suggest a third: Darwinism (by which I mean the view that natural processes are sufficient explanations for the origin and diversity of living things) has persisted because it is the opiate of the intellectual elites. It anesthetizes them to the existential pain of a naturalistic world-view which rips all non-arbitrary meaning, morality and significance out of life. Like a drug it gives them a surge of metaphysical pseudo-strength that enables them to cling to an atheistic materialism which might have made sense a century ago but which no longer does. For the man who simply does not want God to exist, Darwinism is a narcotic.

As Richard Dawkins famously wrote, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Unfortunately, the satisfaction that it offers is much like the satisfaction the opium addict gains from his drug. It doesn't really fill the existential emptiness left by the removal of what has been taken away. It merely masks it. Man cannot live without meaning, and atheistic naturalism tells us that ultimately there simply is no purpose to your life or mine. Death is the end. Man is nothing more than an animal with no dignity or worth. Morality is purely subjective. There's no ultimate justice. Love is just a biochemical response. Consciousness is an illusion. Reason is an unreliable tool in the quest for truth.

The intellectual elites are like a bunch of numbed, unhappy addicts sitting around a room seeking to relieve their pain with a fix of materialistic opium, and Darwinism is the best brand on the market. It holds out the allure of an ersatz purpose, incorporating us into the great drama of biological development, it offers us a wafer-thin veneer of meaning by encouraging us to contribute to the well-being of our species. Like those who seek meaning and transcendence in drugs, however, Darwinism ultimately leaves us empty because if we are doomed to perish utterly nothing at all about this life really matters.

Nevertheless, this life is all the atheist has to hold on to. So, like the man dying of emphysema who keeps sucking on his cigarettes, the intellectual elites embrace their Darwinian world-view in hopes that somehow, against all indications, they'll be able to squeeze out of it a few precious drops of meaning for their lives. They're hooked and can't give it up.

Moral Absolutes

Science and Theology News has an interesting essay on ethics and morality written by Brian Henning, a philosopher at Mount St. Mary's College. Henning seeks to impress upon the reader that "Moral problems do not have indisputable answers existing prior to their solutions that we need only divine and then codify.... Moral laws should not be rejected wholesale, but how their status is conceived should be dramatically revised." He goes on to say that:

Just as there is no final or absolute certainty in physics that allows one to make perfect predictions about future physical events, there is no final truth in ethics that allows one to dogmatically determine in advance the good in any particular situation...every person must continually and resolutely revise his or her moral conclusions in light of the goods we see and resist the temptation to codify these conclusions in absolute moral laws.

Mr. Henning has many good things to say in this piece, but I think he goes too far when he suggests that we should abandon the idea of absolutes in ethics. While it's true that the circumstances surrounding an act usually determine the moral value of the act this is not always the case. In the real world it is absolutely wrong no matter what the circumstances (unless one posits circumstances that would obtain only in the hyperactive mind of philosophers) to beat a child with one's fists, to commit genocide or rape, to commit suicide by driving the wrong way on the Interstate, to torture someone for pleasure, etc.

These acts are always wrong because they violate the absolute commands of Scripture. Those absolutes are found in the Old Testament in Exodus 20:1-17. In this passage God gives the Isaraelites the Ten Commandments. The first four govern our relationship toward God and can be summed up in the imperative to "Love God." The last six are to govern our relationships toward each other and can be summed up in the imperative to "Love others." These are the two great absolutes of Scripture and Jesus Himself affirms this in Matthew 22:36-40 where He responds to a lawyer who asks Him to name the greatest commandment in the Law. Jesus doesn't reply that it is any of the ten, instead He sums up the first four and says that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Then He goes on to say that the second greatest commandment is to love others like we love ourselves. In other words, He sums up the last six.

We may define love not as a kind of feeling but rather treating people with dignity, respect, and kindness. In the Old Testament such actions are considered "justice" and the emphasis in the O.T. is on loving people by doing justice. In the New Testament the emphasis is on loving others by showing them compassion.

So, then, we are called to love God and do justice/show compassion. Any act, such as those specified above, which is unjust and/or uncompassionate violates the imperative of love and is therefore absolutely wrong. Lying, for example, is almost always unjust or uncompassionate, but there are times when, on the contrary, it is both just and compassionate and therefore the right thing to do. The classic example is the case of a family hiding Jews in their home from the Nazis in WWII. The Gestapo comes to the door and informs the householder that they are rounding up all the Jews in the town and they ask whether there are any in the building. It's a lie to deny that there are but it would be both unjust and uncompassionate to answer truthfully.

There are other cases where we might think lying is actually morally right. An undercover operative seeking to infiltrate a terrorist cell must lie to succeed. Would he be wrong to do so?

The serious ethical dilemmas arise in the attempt to balance justice and compassion because sometimes these seem to be at odds. The case of the moral propriety of capital punishment is an example. Justice may demand that a life be forfeit. Compassion demands that it be done in as humane a way as practical even though the criminal may seem to deserve much worse.

At any rate, although Henning is surely correct when he says that most of the time right and wrong must be gauged by the context in which the act occurs, he errs in suggesting that there are no moral absolutes. Such a claim would be true, of course, if there is no God, but if there is a God, and if He has revealed moral truth to us in Scripture, then He has indeed given us absolutes in the commands to do justice and to show compassion.