Here's a Thought

Patron Saint

Martin Luther (1483-1546)


Herman Bavinck (1854-1921)


God: Obvious and Elusive

It is sometimes objected to Christians that their belief in God is unfalsifiable. “How can your position be rational,” it is asked, “if God is not an item proposed for belief? Is a debate over the existence of God useful at all, given such a level of commitment?” And I have seen some reply, “Think of it like the ‘existence of other minds’ conundrum. You can’t ‘prove’ this idea, even though it makes sense out of all of your reality. And, like my belief in God, it is likely that your belief in the existence of other minds is close to unfalsifiable for you.” I think this response is inadequate (thought not technically false) for both philosophical and pastoral reasons.


1. The epistemic status of “belief in God” is the not the same as “the existence of other minds.” This is manifest from the fact that belief in God has declined in many cultures, but belief in the existence of other minds certainly has not. While I think the “existence of other minds conundrum” is a great way to get at various faulty epistemological theories, it is important to be careful to avoid conflating the manner in which it is “obvious” with the manner in which God’s existence can be said to be “obvious.” We need to be comfortable saying that there are ways in which some things are more immediately obvious than the existence of God. There is a sort of immediate spontaneously-arising belief which has almost never increased or decreased in any person in any era of history (including things like simple mathematical truths, etc). Granted, “obviousness” is not what all the folks who bring up this conundrum (especially Plantinga) have in mind. But then there is a deeper issue…

2. Taking my stand on Calvin’s sensus divinitas, I’d argue that God’s existence, while not more “obvious” in every sense than some basic observations, is nevertheless both (a) more foundational and more interior than something “obvious,” and (b) the highest point and end of human reason and desire. With respect to the first, Calvin’s sensus divinitas does not cease to exist in the case of an atheist. All persons are inter-personally related to God via God’s very own Personal engagement with them (Person to person). This is not “obvious” in the way that other things are obvious, but it is the very ontological foundation of all things which are obvious. God’s being is more related to the being of each person and event than those persons and events are related to themselves. As pure contingency, they are suspended (in every particular) in His pure actuality. With respect to the second, God makes Himself to be known as the final end of human desire and reflection. In this sense, He is not “obvious” in the manner of a basic mathematical truth, but He is the final Object to which all mathematical truths, physical observations, aesthetic reflexes, existential coping, reason, being, and reality point. He is the object/end of the highest reflections. Indeed, He is the site at which all being, human faculties, and created diversity converges. As such, He is not always obvious. Reason cannot always survive cohabitation with certain intellectual (ultimately, personal) immoralities, deficiencies of proportion and wisdom, etc. This is not to say that God is not “obvious” in any meaningful sense, but His specifically epistemic obviousness can sometimes be obscured by disoriented faculties which fail to reason properly – in proportion with being, reality, beauty – that is,  to reason with wisdom or character. There are many simple Grandmother’s who are, in this sense, far more reasonable than famous philosophers – and far more proportionate in their judgments. And to them, God is even “more” obvious (in a deeper sense) than the existence of other minds – all while remaining the mysterious and infinite Person which all being, goodness, and beauty finitely canvas.

In sum, God is not “obvious” in the manner that created realities are obvious. The latter are rather suspended between His Being as the ontological foundation of all that is “obvious” and His Being as the highest epistemic Object to be known (in all the rational, aesthetic, and personal dimensions of knowledge). That is, from Him and to Him are all things.


This is, of course, a rather large topic. And it is important for several (ultimately very practical) reasons. You see, Christians, especially suffering Christians, want to see God. They want Him to be “right there.” And it is theologies and philosophies which try to bridge the gap of divine absence which often lead to error. Indeed, this is perhaps precisely the reason John almost “out of the blue” emphasizes, in his first epistle, that “no one has seen God at any time” (1 John 4:12). But John goes on to say that in our love for one another, God dwells with us. And the same apostle, in his gospel says again that no one has seen God, but that the incarnate Christ “explains” Him or “makes Him known” (John 1:18). It is quite likely that John’s audience was assaulted by teachings which emphasized spiritual experiences, visions, and sight. But it is precisely the lack of these things that characterizes the present age. Faith is not belief against the evidence, but it is certainly belief when everything is not clear or “obvious.” This is precisely the contrast between walking by faith and walking by sight. It is not the contrast between reason and stupidity, but between immediate and apparent knowledge/experience and trust in an other’s knowledge/experience/character, etc. This experiential gap (wherein God is not “obvious” in the same manner that another person is obvious) is part of the current order of things. Even the incarnate Christ is no longer with us – the Holy Spirit bridging the gap of His absence by feeding us as pilgrims in the wilderness. In the interim, we make due with a diet of word, sacrament, and Christian love, through which the Spirit of the ascended Christ ministers to us.

Christians, especially suffering Christians, might be tempted to ask “why?” Why won’t God just peel back the clouds and make Himself obvious? Why must prayer sometimes be hard? Why must we sometimes persevere to believe that He is there, that He is not silent, that He cares? And here is where we must confront a strange reality: Because God wants it that way. You see, God’s revelation is clear, but that doesn’t mean it is as clear or as “obvious” as it possibly could be. No, God does not intend it to be so. God is not interested in being as “clear as possible.” He is interested in being “clear enough.” He is not interested in our desire for His revelation to be this way or that way, but He is interested in making Christian persons who are formed through suffering, through perseverance, for grasping after Him – and progressively coming to know His gentle providence sanctifying the Christian soul between the habituated rhythms of Sabbath and sacrament.

God’s existence is clear and rational, but it is clearest and most obvious to the rightly oriented soul. Do you want to know God more? Do you want to be persuaded of His reality? Then don’t just think. You have to pray. You have to love others. You have to engage Him in His word. And He has revealed Himself in such a manner as to call us to these activities. He has revealed Himself in such a manner as to be given to simple pious babes – while He is hidden from the disoriented (and fundamentally irrational) teachers of this age.

And being rightly oriented to reality, to God’s being, we find ourselves in a position to sift through all those threats to faith which are parasitic on life’s ambiguities. You’ve heard the objections. “Why didn’t God do it this way?” “If He’s so great, why not.” Why not? Why not? Why not? Like Christ, we can answer questions with questions. Why must these be answered? If there are independent reasons for asserting the rationality of a thing, then my lack of knowledge about all aspects of reality (and its mysteries) does not mitigate that thing. Let’s be frank. This is reality we’re talking about. Things are complicated. Why didn’t God do something this way rather than that? Maybe I could hazard an answer, but it is also completely alright to say “I don’t know.” And we all do this all the time, Christian or not – because that’s life. Life is walking by faith, no matter who or what the object is. But secondly, the Christian knows that the God who reveals Himself and makes Himself most clear to whole persons, the God who is known in Christ, who reveals Himself through nature/reason, Scripture, and history – in faith, hope, and love – is quite predictably difficult to grasp. Do we know why He does all He does? No. But why would we? There is still a ton of stuff that we (including the educated) don’t understand about ourselves, our neighbors, our spouses, others, history, life, science, nature, physics, biology, etc. Why should we understand the Author of all? The fount of life? The Christians always comes back to the obvious. God is God and I am a man. But the incarnate Christ has made Him known. There, I see God “for me” – to be grasped by faith and responded to in love.

In the end, God loves processes. He didn’t make the world all at once (sorry, Augustine!), but over time. And all of created order is motion from potentiality to actuality. It is childhood to adulthood. It is immaturity to maturity. It is Adam to Christ. And this is precisely why we do not yet see God as we would like. We live as pilgrims walking toward the promised land. We’re not there yet. God is not as “obvious” as we’d like. But the manna of Christ, Christian love, natural revelation, revealed Scripture (etc) is sufficient for the journey. And when it is not, know that this is a problem of our orientation, our desires and diets rather than the sufficiency of God’s revelation. And this is by God’s design. He will not just thrust us into the fullness of the eschaton. He will have us grow and learn to suffer and to walk by the Spirit. He will turn is into adults like our elder brother, Jesus. And He will do so not by circumventing our will and all of our faculties, but precisely through them. In short, God’s obviousness is clearest to “entire” persons. Speaking specifically of human freedom, Bavinck gets this basic principle just right:

“A freedom that cannot be obtained and enjoyed aside from the danger of licentiousness and caprice is still always to be preferred over a tyranny that suppresses liberty. In the creation of humanity, God himself chose this way of freedom, which carried with it the danger and actually the fact of sin as well, in preference to forced subjection. Even now, in ruling the world and governing the church, God still follows this royal road of liberty. It is precisely his honor that through freedom he nevertheless reaches his goal, creating order out of disorder, light from darkness, a cosmos out of chaos.”

–Prolegomena, vol. 1, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), p. 479.



An MRI with Hannah Arendt (or Atheists in God’s Image).

So I’ve been having some odd neuro-symptoms that I needed to get checked out recently. After delaying for a while, I finally saw a neurologist who ordered an MRI for me. At the MRI office, I was asked if I was claustrophobic. Without hesitation, I answered “nope.” My wife drove a confident me to my MRI appointment this morning, and a confident me went into the MRI room. A confident me sat down on the MRI bed – and a slightly less confident me was slowly pushed into the MRI machine. Within 30 seconds, an insanely maniacal freaked-out me realized that there was no way in Hell that I could make it through the procedure. I seriously panicked and I was out before the machine even turned on. Shameful, but I guess I am far more claustrophobic than I thought. Of course, when you are asked such a thing – it is difficult to think back to analogous circumstances wherein I spend a long amount of time in a small tube with loud magnets swirling around my head. So I left the office discouraged (especially since I’ve taken too much time off of work and put my wife through a lot as I’ve been trying to figure this out). Fortunately, the doc told me about open MRI’s (the sort where the machine is not a tube but leaves space for peripheral vision). And fortunately, there was a place a few doors down that offered just such services. So determined to use my day off well, I went a few doors down, gave them my doctors orders, shuddered at the look of the “open” machine and (later) scheduled an appointment for 2:00.

Then began the real planning. I called my wife to meet me at the metro with some tranquilizer pills that I happened to have that I have never used. Despite the “openness” of this machine, I knew I’d need to be in an altered state to make it. Then, since my wife had to watch our three children, I called a dear atheist Jewish friend to come hold my hand while I went through the procedure. I knew he wouldn’t pray for me, but I’ve been his confidant through a lot of trials, and I knew he’d be happy to help me through mine. And so it was. I met my wife. I took a “happy pill” and met up with my friend David near the office.

We went in. I was slightly relaxed from the meds. The doctor turned on a rock station (playing Boston I believe). David sat next to me, spoke encouraging words, gave me fist-bumps, and read me excerpts of Hannah Ardent’s Jewish writings. I believe he was reading from the introduction concerning the difference between Ardent’s zionism and that of Theodore Hertzl. The doctor allowed to tilt my head just enough so that I could see his face out of the corner of my eye. And, just to top it off, I prayed, recited Scripture, had libidinous thoughts (pure ones, mind you), drew numbers in my head, and frequently panicked. But I did it. 25 minutes. Done. Drugs felt even better afterwards.

I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. But all I can say that is that on this particular day, I appreciate the face, voice, and friendship of a young Jewish atheist. Medical crap can be rather lonely. And despite our ideological differences, there is a more fundamental sameness between David and I than difference. We are both God’s image. We are both persons. We are friends. And as much as we try to adjudicate our ideological differences, the underpinning of basic humanity is common. It is delightful. And it is precisely what God created us to need and enjoy. I needed God’s provision in the form of a person today, or I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have made it. It feels stupid to say so, but it’s probably true. And today, God’s face looked like a Jewish atheist who read Hannah Arendt out loud.

She Blinded Me With Science! Or, 5 Thoughts (Plus 1) About Science.

What follows is not a “professional” take on the scientific method. I am just gathering into one place my own thoughts concerning what makes scientific hypotheses more or less “persuasive” or “real” or “probably correspondent to the real world.” Here, I am using “science” in its limited modern sense – that is – the study of physical realities and the laws that govern their behavior. This sphere of explanation corresponds roughly to Aristotle’s “material” and “efficient” causality, without necessarily making reference to the philosopher’s “formal” or “final” causality. The abandonment of the latter by advocates of “scientism” (the view that science is the chief or only means of explaining any phenomenon at all) is demonstrably fraught with philosophical and practical problems, but I don’t want to get into that here. Nevertheless, I’ve been in several conversations of late with both conservative Christians and with confident atheists that have motivated me to collect my thoughts about what makes scientific claims “persuasive” into one place. And here, I do not mean to imply that any scientific theory will meet all the below criteria, but only that their persuasive power is either “more” or “less” intense depending upon the amount of the below criteria which are met and to the precise extent that each individual criterion is met. And so, in relative order of importance:

1. Scientific hypotheses build upon the sorts of observed events and facts that are very difficult to deny, even by those who are motivated to do so. For instance, if my brother and I got into a fight about whether or not he could lift 300 pounds, and I bet him 10 dollars that he could not lift 300 pounds, I’d be very motivated to observe his failure to lift 300 pounds. However, if he in fact lifted 300 pounds in front of my face, and there was evidence that the weights he lifted were real (believe me, I’d check!), then I would be confronted with the sort of fact that I could not choose to disbelieve even if I wanted to. That is to say, there are certain sorts of observations that, in a fashion, usually tend to compel belief and assent. The closer science sticks to these sorts of observations, the more persuasive it is. A recent example of this might be many discoveries in neuro-science. If someone was tempted to believe that the single direction of causality between the mind and the brain were from the consciousness to the brain (as a sort of tool through which the mind manipulates the body), they would have a very difficult time accounting for the discoveries of neuroscience. Indeed, I daresay that one really cannot be confronted by the findings of neuroscience and really believe that the causal relationship between the mind and brain is uni-directional. Now, likely very few people ever actually believed that (despite certain popular narratives!), but this just illustrates a very firm group of observations by modern scientists that built a cumulative case that is very persuasive. Things that happen to our brain can and do affect our consciousness. Inasmuch as science sticks close to these sorts of observations, its conclusions are at their most persuasive. The further we move into theoretical “models,” this degree of persuasion incrementally ceases. For instance, there are many well-accepted scientific theories (many of which are probably correct) which nevertheless no not “compel” belief in any obvious manner – or rather – they are not built upon observations that compel belief. Often, they are hypothesized as theoretical models to explain disparate phenomena (more on this below). Certain physics theories (String theory?) might be the least controversial examples here. To be fair, it is possible that certain observations would virtually compel belief if they were understood, but are the sorts of observations which take a specialist to even “see.” More controversialy, I suspect that many current culture wars over science are less a function of being unpersuaded than by a refusal to observe – less a function of mind than of will.

2. A good scientific theory or model should demonstrate “fittingness” with the observed phenomenon. I have often seen folks take all explanations which are not absolutely certain as epistemically equal. This is simply not the case. Some explanations are better than others, and obviously so. They are better to the extent to that they have a sort of aesthetic “fittingness” with the phenomena being explained. For instance, the hypothesis “Little magic blue people inside of atoms account for all of their behavior” is not a demonstrably false statement. But it also doesn’t account for any atomic behavior any better than, say, “little magic red people,” or “”little scientific blue people” or “little magic blue kittens.” That is to say, while this hypothesis is consistent with all of the evidence, it doesn’t actually “account” for the evidence in a way that is unique from, well, any other explanation. A good scientific theory or model isn’t just “consistent with” the evidence, but uniquely explanatory. It doesn’t remain content with mere logical consistency but seeks aesthetic harmony. The principle is something like, “If this theory is true, not only would it be consistent with these observed phenomenon, but you would expect the phenomenon to look exactly like, or very close to, what we find them to be in reality.” The recent science of plate tectonics is probably a good example of a theory that meets this criteria. In any case, closely related to this point…

3. Scientific theories are more persuasive the more often they generate predictions which lead to further observations. It is particularly neat when a scientific model can say something like, “If the world is as I expect it to be, then I should observe x in place y” BEFORE they observe x in place y! If a scientist can pull that off, and the more they can pull that off, they are really onto something. Their success in discovery means that the world is yielding its fruit to their hypothesis. And this suggests that their hypothesis is correspondent to the world. There are many examples of this (Einstein’s predictions related to relativity being a famous example), but one of the most exciting in recent times has been the prediction(s) related to the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland – specifically the prediction and (hopefully!) discovery of the Higgs particle.

4. Scientific theories lack persuasive power to the extent that they are unfalsifiable. The mark of pseudoscience is that the target is always moving. I am sure there are many examples of this in various health studies and paranormal theories. Conspiracy theories are a good foil here. The more you attack the central premise, the more the conspiracy gets complicated and the ground of explanation shifts. “You think everyone wants to kill you? Then why are most people so nice to you and why haven’t they killed you yet?” “Because they are toying with me and fattening me up for the perfect ceremonial kill moment, of course! I mean, who wants to kill someone without some irony?” You get it. There’s no way to falsify the hypothesis. But good science is falsifiable. Do you want to disprove Newton? Throw something in the air that doesn’t fall back to the ground. Do you want to disprove evolution? As one scientist famously put it, produce a fossilized rabbit from the precambrian period.

5. Finally, good science recognizes when it has made a wrong turn. It knows its limits. This is controversial, but it is not for that reason less true. If “science” leads you to a view which says that human reasoning is all just deterministic and a fundamentally irrational response to stimuli, then you have falsified the persuasiveness of your theory. If your hypothesis leads you to conclude something which is utterly counter-intuitive (i.e. “we are likely a computer simulation of another species”), you have likely gone of the rails. It is not that science cannot lead to counter-intuitive conclusions (“wave-particle” duality, anyone?). But there are basic phenomena to be explained – some of which are so basic that they cannot be explained “away” or “reduced” without violence to what they simply “are” (Consciousness is a good one here). Fundamentally, I’m saying that science really cannot do without mind and reason and at least some level of reliable observation. Perhaps Plantinga’s “evironment within which the mind is intended to function” is the basic phenomenological zone which needs explanation here. Whatever the case, certain things (and we could argue about what these are – I’m just going for principle here) are basic and constitute the phenomena to be explained rather than phenomena which are reduced to other things. I’m talking to you, social scientists! Once again, scientific conclusions can be counter-intuitive, but they cannot be counter-being and the basic nature of being. This seems obvious to me. It is not as though, by the way, that metaphysics is any different here. Metaphysics leads to counter-intuitive conclusions as well. Or at least, it points to realities which cannot be fully grasped by the human mind – and in this sense, there is a certain fittingness between science and metaphysics. Indeed, one might even say that the realm of rational science behaves precisely like classic metaphysics would anticipate it to behave. Hmmmm…

Addendum: I should have mentioned (number 6?) that a hypothesis is more persuasive when it has independent lines of confirmation or fittingness. So, for instance, evidence from different fields of biology, chemistry, physics, geology – fittingness with philosophy, reason, etc. This means that even if a particulate line of evidence is negated, the whole is not necessarily negated. Basically, there is something of a “cumulative case” principle here.

Evolutionary “Explanation” and the Limits of Science

In the last week, I’ve had two conversations with friends and colleagues about the explanatory power of evolution (particularly evolutionary psychology) and the potential explanatory reach of the scientific method. So, a few thoughts on the subject:

      It is disturbing to me how quickly modern thinkers feel comfortable making explanatory moves that are in tension with our actual experiences of the phenomena being allegedly explained. That is to say, the explanation of a phenomenon is not related to our intuitive sense of what is going on. Rather, our intuitive sense is really a smokescreen for something completely different. Take morality, for instance. Human beings have always or for the most part connected morality to ontology. The reason right is right and wrong is wrong has everything to do with actual structures and moral norms woven into the fabric of the universe. And indeed, we intuitively experience morality this way. Wrong is just wrong because it is wrong, etc. It’s ontological. Even if it were not “inefficient” to rape a dying woman in the desert, you still shouldn’t and that is obvious. And then along comes evolutionary explanations to say that the real reason we relate our moral impulses to an ontology is because it is beneficial, given the evolutionary search for survival, for human beings to relate their moral feelings to something grand and great. It would take more “energy” for evolution to “explain” to its subjects what’s really going on. And, indeed, the tendency of humans to relate their morality to an ontology is very useful for making secure the actual behavior that contributes to individual and societal preservation. If we were in on the joke, so it is argued, the survival benefits of our deception would cease to exist.
     Now, let’s imagine that this is all actually possible or plausible. I don’t think that it is, but that’s not my main point here. Even if this were an option on the table, how does this become an “explanation” for the actual features of a phenomenon? Explanations which require such counter-intuitive moves require a huge burden of proof. So in this case, for instance, even if evolution could explain the origin of moral feelings, does it really explain the human tendency to relate these moral impulses to a metaphysical notion of “the Good?” This seems superfluous. If the evolutionary process is competent to make metaphysics, isn’t it competent to make creatures who are deeply motivated by simple socially pragmatic ends? Indeed, we operate in the realm of pragmatics (with no conscious metaphysical convictions) all the time. Why add “the Good” into the picture? It is not that, given a certain perspective, evolution could not produce notions of “the Good,” but (even if it could!) this does not mean that the evolutionary process actually persuasively accounts for such a notion in any unique manner. That is to say, even if evolution did produce our notion of “the Good,” the latter seems superfluous – something like a spandrel in our otherwise useful ethical impulses. Evolution more “allows for” the notion rather than “accounting” for it.
     And that gets me to my main point. Why do such explanations satisfy us? If we presume metaphysical and methodological naturalism, we’re likely to find this the only available explanation. But, the irony is that such naturalism is usually said to be warranted by precisely the explanatory power of the evolutionary process. In case my verbosity causes the reader to miss the point here, that is circular, especially if there are options on the table which explain the various features of morality precisely as they are intuitively experienced. If we do not assume metaphysical naturalism (and we should not), there are possible resources available to account for our notions of “the Good” in a manner that does not require this somewhat Freudian appeal to what’s “really” going on (Dennett’s alleged “universal acid”).
     Of course, this does not mean that evolution or evolutionary psychology is wrong. It just means that it is not as obviously a “sufficient” explanation as it confidently proclaims itself to be. The recent debate over the explanatory power of natural selection and evolutionary psychology between atheists Jerry Fodor and Elliott Sober suggests that this is being increasingly recognized, even in the atheist community.  The speed with which modern thinkers cling to such explanations suggests to me that metaphysical naturalism is often less of a critical conclusion than an assumed victor which, consequently, must explain all phenomenon. Of course, given such a method, it only takes a little bit of creativity, an imagined environment of evolutionary selection, and a dash of skill in abstraction, to come up with an explanation for pretty much everything. Can these sorts of explanations even be falsified (a la Karl Popper)?  Interestingly, another recent conversation between Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and atheist Thomas Nagel suggest that at least some atheists sense the problem in these sorts of explanations and are re-exploring older “naturalisms” which allow a larger place for “mind.” I can imagine two reactions to this overall point:
     Objection 1: “Science has produced counter-intuitive results in the past, so what wrong with that here?” First, I suspect that this is overplayed. There are many results of science which are unexpected but which do not necessarily violate what we would expect. The observations of particle physicists, for instance, can be genuinely surprising, but since we don’t experience “particles” in any conscious manner, our intuitions are not overtly violated. As well, it is worth remembering that the ancients anticipated (at least in principle) many of these modern observations. The “micro-world” was always seen to be mysterious. Many things were theorized concerning it, but it was probably always known that we knew very little and that the “small stuff” might be surprising. Probably a better example is that of heliocentrism or Newton’s laws of motion. The earth seems “central” and “stable” from our perspective, but our observations demonstrate to us that it is neither. Even here, I could imagine an argument distinguishing our phenomenological experiences from cosmic inferences. After all, even some ancients thought the earth moved!  Still, I won’t try to argue that there is nothing counter-intuitive here. But even if there is, our persuasion that these counter-intuitive propositions are correct has required an extraordinary amount of evidence (and  falsifiable evidence) concerning objects which are immediately or easily accessible to us.
    Objection 2: “Maybe evolution does not have unique explanatory power in relation to all the features of morality, but because it has explained so many other things very well, it has been shown to be a powerful causal force in the world and so we should be disposed to accept an evolutionary explanation, even if it is not equally illuminating in all circumstances.” And now the rubber meets the road and we get to the limitations of science. In my judgment, what is almost entirely overlooked in debates over the “new atheism” is the inability of science to actually prove metaphysical propositions. And unlike evolutionary analyses of basic physical traits, human consciousness, morality, joy, aesthetics (etc) – are all perceived by said humans to have qualitative and metaphysical properties. Let us imagine, for instance, that there was an evolutionary explanation (of the “efficient causality” sort) of all observable phenomenon. I don’t find such a claim persuasive, but even if I did, it would not mitigate any notion of “final causality” in the whole process. And there is no way to get around the fact that final causality has everything to do with the particular features that various phenomenon take. See Cunningham’s delightful “Darwin’s Pious Idea” on these matters. Let’s go back to morality so that we can make this concrete. What if every moral event had a corresponding and predictable mental equation/brain-event? Would we have “mapped” morality? Would moral impulses then be reducible to the equation. Many people assume so, but this is actually very far from obvious. In most of history, notions of “quality” (justice, good, right, wrong, evil, beauty, etc) were seen as just “there.” And why should we think otherwise? Because they are always attended by predictable physical or neural correlates? Why should we expect otherwise? Perhaps we would not have guessed it, but it’s certainly not surprising. Now, this is conceding a lot, but only to make a point. Even in the “worst case scenario” for the non-naturalist – indeed, even if naturalism were right (!) – there would be no reason to be persuaded that naturalism was true. Science can only traffic in measurements and observations. It can make inferences (and ideally!) predictions. But it cannot move beyond the realm of quantity to the realm of quality – which, from a purely phenomenological perspective, is an irreducible  feature of our consciousness. So to argue that science can move from that realm to explain morality, justice, goodness, God (etc), is to already assume that these things are reducible to quantities rather than being irreducibly qualitative realities. And this, my friends, is a philosophical move, and a bad one at that. If you don’t make that move, then even if naturalism were right, you could never use science to show it to be right. Indeed, to go back to the above metaphor, if naturalism is true, then it is necessarily far more clever than many atheists assume it to be. Why? Because even atheists can’t really be in on the joke and remain rational, given the phenomena that blind nature has built. If it’s true, even atheists shouldn’t be persuaded.
     As an antidote to this reasoning, see Herman Bavinck’s reflections on the foundational epistemic role of “self-consciousness” in his “The Philosophy of Revelation.”

Tragedy, Collective “Grief,” & Media

When tragedies like that at Sandy Hook Elementary School occur, I always wind up feeling guilty. Why? Because while many of my friends family express profound grief and sorrow over such a heinous event, I usually feel very little. Sure, it disturbs me, but mostly it just doesn’t seem real. Perhaps this means I lack empathy, but I doubt it. When grief strikes my family, friends, or community, I usually respond with a good bit of emotion and empathy. And that’s just the difference. I don’t know these people. I don’t know their children. I don’t know their community. And after all the tears of my friends are wiped away, those parents and those children and that community will keep weeping. This has all made me think about two things, and then a third.

First, I have been reflecting on what Charles Taylor has called the modern “social imaginary” – the way in which we collectively and reflexively experience our connection with other people in our modern open access society. For Taylor, this involves public space, public action, and what he calls a “simultaneous mutual presence, which is not that of a common action, but rather of mutual display. It matters to each one of us as we act that the others are there, as witness of what we are doing, and thus as co-determiners of the meaning of our action” (A Secular Age, 481). This is perhaps the way in which our modern society preserves some pre-modern forms of religious ceremony. We have collective experiences through things like rock festivals. And indeed, we experience collective grief (think Princess Di’s funeral).  And these moments of collective action stand in contrast to (perhaps a therapy for) modern atomistic and dis-engaged Western individual existence.

Second, I have been reflecting on the role of the media in our modern collective experiences. Collective grief is more complex that common excitement at a rock show. We don’t plan for it. It just happens – usually as served through news-media. In the recent tragedy, it would be difficult to describe the networks’ reaction to this as much different from the “play by play” mode of reporting that is common in professional sports reporting. “it was this boy.” “No it was the other one.” “His mom worked there.” “No she didn’t.” “It was 10 kids.” “No, it was 20 kids.” It is important to come to grips with the fact that the news is an entertainment medium. The music which opens the news is indistinguishable from that of a game show. And the developments in our world that the news reports are not those which are most important to our lives, but the ones likely to get the most viewers – and therefore most likely to gain the biggest audience to watch the commercials which fund the programs themselves. This is the nature of most television, internet, and newspaper reporting. Neil Postman spoke about “the news of the day” as a modern genre of information. There are many important things going on in the world, but exceptional evil and the sex lives of celebrities sell. I’m observing more than I’m judging. Like many people, I’m quite sure I have found myself curiously clicking on a link featuring some detail of Taylor Swift’s private life when I could have been reading about recent grain developments in the third world or about local political issues which directly affect me.

And so a third and final thought. At the end of the day, these are illusory and transient experiences. Our faculties are designed to respond to evil with grief. And it is a natural human response to want to “do something” when these tragedies hit. And digital media has made us to feel a part of these events. The schoolhouse, grief-striken parents (etc) are all in our living rooms. But again, this is illusory. We’re far away. We don’t know them. We usually can’t help them. And again, we will stop crying very soon. They will not. They will never “get over it.” They will find a new normal. I might send up a nameless and faceless “air prayer” and then get back to whatever I was doing before. I don’t mean to denigrate our prayers or our emotions, but it seems to me that they are (in many of these cases) a servant to modes of receiving information for which are faculties were not designed. And even if we actually “do something” in light of the information, we did not receive the information because we can do something, but because it was a “good story.”

And so I’m ambivalent. I have moments of sadness. But it is surprisingly easy to forget. And that, too, is normal. In a way, it almost seems almost disrespectful to feel “a part” of this tragedy. It was given to me by a dispenser of “good stories” because it was more interesting than any other number of things that could have run that day. But many real families in a real location in real space and real time are forever really changed. I am not. I can pray for them, but not like their neighbors and families. Perhaps this seems unfeeling, but I can only imagine that if (God forbid!) something similar happened to me, I’d look with bewilderment at the NBC van but with longing at the comforting and tearful grasp of my real neighbor.


Book Review of “Kingdom Through Covenant”

A few weeks ago, The Calvinist International hosted my book review of Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum’s recent tome, Kingdom Through Covenant.



Thoughts on Church “Authority”


After several conversations with a dear friend concerning the nature of the church’s authority, he bought me the 2010 book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, by Jonathan Leeman. Leeman argues, in sum, that God’s love is defined for the world by the practices of formal church membership and discipline. This book is endorsed by prominent Southern Baptist pastor, Mark Dever, and by the Reformed theologian, Michael Horton. It represents a trend among recent confessional evangelicals in North America to reclaim (against the backdrop of its de-emphasis) the doctrine of the church and its centrality in the life of the believer. While I benefited from many sections in the book, I’m uneasy about this new re-emphasis on church authority. In my judgment, many ambiguities attend the recent Protestant recovery of “church authority.” And as much as I consider myself to have a “high ecclesiology,” the flavor seems off here. Many of Leeman’s most controversial statements must die the death of a thousand qualifications – some of which he gives and some of which he does not give. Here are a few thoughts:

1. The concern for “clarity” as it concerns the relationship between the visible and invisible church can, in fact, be unprincipled. Over and over again in Leeman’s book, he argues that church membership and discipline are God’s way of guarding His name, making clear what His love actually looks like, etc. The less we practice formal membership and discipline, presumably, the less clear we are about the exclusive nature of the gospel and Jesus’ gospel demand for repentance. But, the “boundary” between the visible and invisible church has never been particularly clear. Look at the people Paul can meaningfully call “brothers” and “churches” in his Corinthian correspondence. Consider the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The objective behavior difference between the visible church and the world is sometimes sadly blurry. But this is just a feature of living in the age between Christ’s first and second comings. Certainly, the line between the church and the world is not endlessly elastic. Paul did, after all, oust someone in 1 Corinthians. And surely if a person said, “I don’t believe in Jesus anymore,” they’d be out. But the threshold of entrance into the church in the New Testament is not particularly high.

As much as we might like to make the line more clear, we are not authorized to do so in the New Testament. While the entrance threshold is quite low (i.e. basic confession and the lack of any explicit evidence against the confession) – the standard that the confessed are held to is rather high. Paul spends a lot more time in his epistles exhorting confessors than he does questioning the “reality” of their faith. In any case, once we focus too much on church membership and making the line “clear,” where do we stop? Church history is, after all, riddled with churches that have all sorts of ways of making “extra sure” that individuals’ confessions are real – and with terrible consequences.

The answer to nominalism in our churches is not to “up the ante” for church-membership, but to encourage and disciple one another with the word of God. We do not need to construct artificial forms of community (see below), but rather be ever more vigilant in pursuing the love of God through the gospel. The risk of luke-warm Christianity is not a risk Jesus saw fit to absolutely eradicate. And this is precisely because the church is a school for sinners, not a club for saints – a contention that surely everyone in the current debate would agree with.

2. While I think the first point constitutes the largest sentimental problem with Leeman’s paradigm, the largest semantic problem has to do with his equivocal use of “authority” in ecclesiological matters. Again and again, we are told that the church has been given Christ’s authority. We are told that the local church (not individual Christians) has been authorized to speak in His name, declare who belongs to Him, separate those who don’t, disciple its members, etc. This might offend us, we are reminded, but this is only for the same reason that God’s authority offends us.

There is a major problem with putting the matter this way. As I’m sure Leeman would agree, when it pertains to Christian conscience, the church only has the authority of the word. If the church excommunicates you for no good reason, it has no spiritual implications. If the church doesn’t excommunicate you when it should, then you are still in big spiritual trouble! Why? Because the church is only declaring externally what is already true spiritually. The only “authority of Christ” it has is an “inasmuch as” authority. That is, it has “ministerial” and declarative authority. But, this authority really belongs to every individual Christian. Spouses can minister God’s word to one another and to their children. Individual can admonish one another and rebuke one another with the word. And inasmuch as their admonishments, encouragements and rebukes accurately reflect the word, they are (indeed!) speaking for Christ! The only difference the “group” makes is with respect to the “group,” not with respect to the underlying spiritual realities so declared. Certainly only a body of believers can kick someone out – but that is because of the nature of belonging to a collective body. Certainly only a local church (not an individual) can refuse you the Lord’s Supper or baptism, but that is because both of these are communal events which require more than one person. But here is the key. The spiritual meaning and implication of this refusal to the sacraments is not different when it is said by a group or by an individual, because all that is being said is what God’s word says. It is not as though one is “right with God” up until the moment of excommunication and then they’re “out with God” when the church gavel hits. That is just a visible testimony of what is already true of someone – and which can (in principle) be stated by any believer. And this is also, by the way, the reason the tense of the verbs in Matthew 16 matters. “What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” can also be translated “shall have been bound in heaven” (future passive). In other words, the earthly binding takes its “binding” quality from its already heavenly archetype.

And so, the church does not have “spiritual authority” in any way analogous to the earthly authority of a parent over the life of a child or a magistrate over a citizen. The church has this sort of authority only as it pertains to certain externals: the time of worship, the order of the service, the “Cider House Rules” of each particular church community, etc. These are a function of the church being like any other organization or political structure. As a political or institutional structure, the church has no particular or unique relation to Christian conscience. It is only in respect of its gathering around the word and sacraments that the corporate church has a particular relationship to Christian conscience – but this is (again!) a function of the word being gathered around and its ministry rather than a function of the institutional quality as such. The “spiritual authority” is only ever the word – and this exists in principle with any priest (i.e. believer) ministering in God’s name.

Of course, we certainly render our elders and pastors the submission and deference due their office, service, etc. We want to make their lives a blessing in gratitude for their ministry to us! And (hopefully!) as exemplars of what the word looks like in practice, we might take their council as more weighted in moral and spiritual matters than most other church members. Indeed, churches normally hire someone to explain the word and it is normative for a believer to go to such a  person for help in understanding what God’s word requires us to do and believe. But in all these cases, as it pertains to Christian conscience, we are only bound to follow these men inasmuch as they proclaim the word accurately – and (in precisely this sense) we are just as obliged to listen to any brother or sister who accurately applies the word to us. Again, the most obvious difference between the authority of any individual in Christ’s body and its leaders (or the church corporate) is in the non-binding prudential matters which are a part of any institutional organization of people.

3. Behind this semantic issue is a confusion, in my judgment, about what the “church” is. The visible church is just the totality of the baptized in the world. The church is just the people of God called out of the world. They exist prior to their institutional expression. This is why a mother can “minister” to her child. The church is a community (both worldwide and local) and has all the ambiguities of normal human communities. Indeed, in founding the church, did Jesus’ even found a particular institutional form? For the most part, the history of church structure and government has been a history of Christian prudence. Like Jethro’s prudential suggestion that Moses institute judges in the Old Testament, so the New Testament church basically follows the Inter-Testamental Synagogue pattern (See James Burtachaell’s From Synagogue to Church). In Acts, the founding of the office of the deacon seems to be rooted in particular problems that require a particular solution. And what is more, most human communities in history have had something very similar to “elders” and “deacons.” Even in Ephesians 4, Paul’s exposition of the “word ministries” assumes the prior existence of the church to which the ministries are given as fitting to “build up” the people with the word. In sum, the church is just the community of confessors and the political form they take is rooted in nature and in Christian prudence as guided by Scripture.

The point here is not to say that we can pick and chose any form of ecclesiastical organization that we want – any more than we can say the same of human government generally. The point is rather to say that the rhetoric which is associated with “ministers” and “offices” that Jesus has given to the church as “authorities in His name” understate the extent to which these ministries stand in continuity with the ministries of Israel and with all human communities. And in recognizing this, we move a step away from viewing the church as a people associated with a priestly caste and rather just call the church the people – the offices just comprising the political expression of the people in the manner that all human communities express themselves. Far from making a “free for all” blueprint as it pertains to forms of ecclesiastical government, however, there are independent arguments (both Scriptural and prudential) to be made for particular forms of church organization.

Putting the matter this way also helps to clarify that the individual Christian has the same relationship to the word as “the church” does corporately. Both as individuals and a body, we stand under the word. The body nor its officers mediate the word to the individual as a political ambassador reading decrees. Any individual can receive such decrees from the word individually or from another Christian apart from a particular institutional expression – even if we recognize a particular blessing in the worship gathering and the uniqueness of the manner (preaching and sacraments) in which we receive the word there.

4. As stated above, there is a failure here to perceive how the church as an institution is not unique among human institutions. Making the church as a local institution something “special” in this sense creates lots of awkward problems. Am I “more obligated” to members of my local church than to members of another local church? Am I “more” of a spiritual family with my local church than with other believers throughout the world? Should I submit my resources and my calling “more” to the local church than to other churches, believers, or unbelievers? If the institutional church is just the natural political expression of the baptized community, then the answer to all these questions is very simple: It depends – and it depends on precisely the same sorts of “neighbor loving” or “group” considerations that obtain in any other institution. Does the fact that one has a significant ministry in the life of one’s unbelieving neighbors play a role in making a decision about whether or not to move? Does the societal benefit that incurs when one uses their gifts at their job perhaps mitigate against an offer to make more money?

Certainly it is a problem to move from church to church willy-nilly. But this is not because our “church vows” obligate us otherwise, but because we shouldn’t behave this way in any community of which we are a valuable part. Members in Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, develop deep relationships with one another and really need each other. It would reflect bad character to skip from AA chapter to AA chapter without building the deep and personal relationships for which the program was designed. The problem of “church skipping” is not to be solved by binding the conscience (comparing local church membership to a marriage contract, for instance), but rather by dealing with the societal impulses that make us unable to commit and love people.

5. This leads to a final point. It seems to me that the “return to ecclesiology” (which is a good thing!) can have some uncritical “pendulum” effects. In a culture awash in options, a culture in which there is nothing forcing us to commit to anything, where we can divorce at will, choose to form relationships in ways that our forefathers would never have dreamed, etc – we face many complex pastoral problems that former generations did not have to face. The solution to this, however, does not lie in the artificial erection of boundaries or laws to “compensate” for the modern situation. The solution is to reflect upon the uniqueness of our situation, pray for wisdom, and seek the Spirit’s help in building up natural community and accountability in the way that human beings have always done. Behind this solution is the old Reformed notion that redemption renews (rather than replaces) creation. The reason church community looks very much like natural community is that God is in the business of redeeming creation. And for precisely this reason, the problem of church membership and discipline is not different from the problem that faces our human communities generally. We don’t suffer from a problem of church commitment only, but from job commitment, marriage commitment, organizational commitment, friendship commitment, etc. The solution is to analyze the way in which our modern situation destroys natural human bonds and flourishing and to recover nature – but as moved along by grace.

The other solution is to recover the Reformed doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” for which I recommend Brad Littlejohn’s recent series.