Archive for January, 2013

Moral Man, Immoral Society

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

For the first eight years of my life I stood in front of an ancient oak tree in front of my family home on South Highway, McGehee, Arkansas, and caught a big yellow school bus to McGehee Elementary School.  My buddies, Craig Towles and Pip Runyan, wickedly violated school bus riding etiquette and abandoned their boring bus stop two doors down and joined me so that we could surreptitiously deposit acorns AKA pretend “soldiers” in the middle of the road to be squashed by speeding autos AKA pretend German Panzer Tanks. The old oak tree liberally deposited brave acorn Wehrmacht  African Korps recruits on the crab grass carpet that my grandmother had futilely tried to replace with St. Augustine grass.

We made the most of the oak’s munificence.  Those little buggers made a wonderful chartreuse stain on the already steaming South Highway concrete crown. This was innocent enough—no one would miss a few acorns from a stupid oak tree—but before long, you guessed it, we—more precisely Pip—who was always full of errant but terribly interesting pretend scenarios—that boy always worried Craig and me—suggested that we abandon the acorns and started throwing grenades AKA rocks at passing cars (Pip will deny this of course but you must corroborate this story with Craig).  We finally hit (blew up) a few Tiger Tanks and got into big trouble (were captured by the enemy—the Gestapo—and were thoroughly punished–our parents beat the crap out of us).

The truth is Jimmy, Craig, Pip alone would not do such a depraved thing (well maybe Pip would do it—he tortured cats too).  In a group, together,  however, such a thing not only was plausible, it was downright desirable. Jimmy, Craig, and Pip did things Jimmy or Craig or Pip would never do alone. In a crowd we did things we would not do as individuals.

A Christian theologian named Reinhold Neibuhr said as much in a book he wrote called Moral Man and Immoral Society. Niebuhr insisted that public politics is concerned with correcting, balancing as it were, the sinfulness of human nature, that is, the self-centeredness of individuals and groups. But he understood that while little boys, and political despots might behave nicely if they are alone, in groups, they became monsters. He suggested that moral men became immoral men when they were together in a social group.

Niebuhr fervently hoped that a person would experience redemption and thereby redeem his society by a Hegelian, reductionist struggle with sinfulness. Hegel said, in short, that folks changed as they struggled with life.  Hegel hoped that people came through a struggle, hard times, as better people. Just like my mother hoped that my whipping for throwing the rocks with Craig and Pip would cause me to be a better person too.  In my case, the mental dissonance, combined with physical pain, worked!  I have never thrown rocks at cars since then. I still relieve myself outside behind another oak tree once in a while—another terrible thing that Pip and Craig taught me to do and my fussy mother told me not to do—but, hey, I live on  a farm!  But I have never thrown rocks at cars.

Niebuhr advanced the thesis that what the individual is able to achieve singly cannot be a possibility for social groups. He believed that Jimmy Stobaugh would be a good boy alone but inevitably, without a doubt, once he was with Craig and Pip or his other buddies he would indulge in chicanery.  It was inevitable.  Thus, Niebuhr believed in moral individuals and immoral societies or groups. He called it “the herd mentality.”

In other words, Niebuhr correctly saw the immorality of systems in society (e.g., social welfare) and its futile attempts to ameliorate individuals and their needs through systemic interventions. In other words, Niebuhr was not naïve — he knew that systems and cultures change and individual hearts change. But it was much harder to convince a group to change than an individual.

Niebuhr warned that one should try to change individual hearts first, but, in a last resort, power could and should be used to stop societies from harming its members and then other societies.

Once Craig and I were melting down Mr. Chilcoat’s discarded tar shingles to make spears. We were full of bad ideas but they always exhibited élan and ingenuity.  We carefully placed the tar shingles in empty discarded metal pork and bean cans sitting in a roaring fire.  Once the tar was bubbling we placed old broom handles in the mixture and, once the broom handles were removed, and the tar somewhat cooled, we place stone heads–carefully chiseled as surrogate Indian spear heads–into the warm tar.  Thus, we created a alligator killing weapon that we used to kill pretend reptiles in Mrs. Beck’s water garden.

My dad, observing our behavior, and, furthermore, discerning the obvious dangers of placing boiling tar and eight year old boys in the same vicinity, prophetically warned, “Jimmy, stop or you will burn yourself badly.”

Well, he was right.  Within the next hour I spilled burning tar on my right hand causing painful third degree burns.  I spent the rest of the day in Dr. Parker’s waiting room.  Even looking at lovely Jane Parker, Dr. Parker’s oldest daughter, my first heartthrob, only to be replaced by perennial goddess Jamie Fraser the following year, could not mitigate the pain.  It was a Sunday afternoon and Jane had accompanied her dad to his office, which was normally closed.  I longingly lobbied for curative sympathy from this exquisite beauty but Jane, always the pragmatist, simply thought I was stupid and resented that her dad had to waste his time on such a dope.

The thing is, I always wondered, why didn’t my dad STOP me from burning Mr. Chilcoat’s roof shingles and, more pointedly, from burning to the third degree his accident prone, stupid middle son’s hand? What if I had killed myself or something?  I imagined Dad saying, “Well Jimmys dead—I told him it was going to happen.” Or “Well, now what am I going to do—there is no one to take the trash out in the morning!”  My dad would have been sorry, I was convinced if the fates of burning tar had snatched me from this world.

Or, worse, what if I hurt Craig—something I was always doing.  Poor Craig, more times than not, got hurt more often by my dim-witted choices than I did.  Craig got four stitches in his chin the next year when I caught his face with an army surplus shovel as we dug fox holes to escape the inevitable Japanese Banzai charge that would be visited on us at Guadalcanal. Didn’t Dad at least want to protect poor Craig?  It would have been pretty embarrassing to tell Mom, and Mrs. Towles, “Sorry to tell you—Jimmy and Craig were killed while making tar spears to kill pretend alligators in Mrs. Beck’s water garden.” Pathetic parenting.

I once asked Dad and Dad with an iconic grin responded, “Jimmy, even at age eight, you manifested an obduracy that I could not overcome. In the presence of Craig, in order to maintain your pride, I knew you would never listen to me.  You needed to experience the consequences of your actions before you would stop the action.”

Especially as I look down right now, as I type this digital magazine, and I look at my scarred right hand I realize my sagacious father was right.

Dad’s point was, individuals may be sincere in their understanding about several issues. In fact, they may be right about some issues. But they are wrong, too. But when that group gains political hegemony, it can lose focus and direction and can do immoral things—like throwing rocks at cars—and stupid things—like making tar spears.

Individuals can be moral in purpose and in actions. But combining a bunch of individuals into a coercive group can cause the group to become immoral. For example, Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was initially a pretty good thing for Germany. However, as he gained power, the good was replaced by the bad. This may not be inevitable, but it happens so often that we should  be cautious in giving so much power to groups. As an interesting sidebar, Niebuhr is directly contradicting the liberal Dewey who applauded the notion that the community, or larger society, created the greater good.

The answer to this apparent contradiction is, of course the Gospel.  Societies and groups change as individuals change. Niebuhr stressed the role of the Holy Spirit (what he calls the “religious imagination”). In a sense the group remained moral because the individuals in that society answer to a “higher power,” not to the coercion of the group or to the agenda of the group. Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German

World War II martyr, for example, was perhaps the most patriotic of Germans because he loved his God and his country enough to obey God and His Word above all persons. This was the only way, Bonheoffer understood, that his nation could be moral and right before the God he served. Unfortunately, he was a lone voice in the wilderness!

We live today in a world that is full of the tyranny of the majority.  The world tells us to relax, be happy and do what is right in our own eyes.  We do things as a group we would never do as individuals.  But judgment comes not to groups but to individuals!

The truth, then, is change—real change—is a “God” thing.  Only God can really change persons.  And as he changes persons, families, then he will change communities and nations. For Such a Time as This believes this with all our heart and anxiously wait for God to change our individual hearts, then our nation, and then the world. For the time we have left, with all the effort we have, FSATAT wishes to do exactly that: share the Gospel with one person at a time so that the world will change and God’s Kingdom will come on this Earth as it is in Heaven!

Metaphysical Challenge

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

In the spring of 1971, during my last year in high school, I was confronted with a metaphysical dilemma that summarizes the paradox facing all human beings . . .

Allegedly I was a Vanderbilt bound smart aleck but, secretly, I desperately wanted to go to the University of Arkansas, like my girl friend, Martha Lynn, and marry when I was 17 ½ .  This was the apex of the southern Arkansas pantheon—being a Razorback and attending school with one’s sweet heart. Prom night reminded me, again, that while Rick Sammons could be a Boll Weevil and my brother—another borderline nerd—could be a Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech, I was burdened with being a “Vanderbilt Commodore.”


The fact is, I perennially suffered from high school prom phobia.  Besides the fact that I abhorred dancing, I also dreaded the obligatory rituals that surrounded Prom night. On prom night, it was expected that one was to stay out all night and do wicked things with one’s girl friend/ boy friend or something like that.  My friend Ray and I had successfully avoided the life scaring scorn surrounding prom avoidance by escaping to his hunting camp, a modest metal building across the levee.  But my buddy was smitten this year and had his own girl friend.  Likewise, this year, as I mentioned, I had a girl friend too.

It is no easy thing to be a nerd heading to Vanderbilt University, and possibly Harvard Graduate School.  This cooled any ardor I could muster and my social status stock was at an all time low.  I mean, my reputation was at rock bottom.  In the unforgiving southern Arkansas social realm, I was somewhere north of a leper and south of a northerner.  My fate promised another year of social isolation.

Thus, my girl friend and my already tarnished reputation demanded that this year I was to stay out all night. I just had to.

It was no easy task.  I have always enjoyed going to sleep around 9 PM CST so the notion of staying up all night seemed impossible.

There was some precedence. For fiscal reasons mostly, and because, honestly, there was a definite enervated nightlife in southern Arkansas, we would spend hours “parking” with our girl friends.  It worked like this: the couple would find some obscure corn field, or my personal favorite, a road next to the Mississippi River, and would sit and talk and allegedly would do other things—although I never did.  No, really, ask Martha Lynn—or, perhaps, given my handicap—Vanderbilt and Harvard notwithstanding—you really do believe me!

A complicating incident occurred, however, that changed everything.

In March, 1971, I made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ.   I invited Him into my life.  Cornered, and then conquered by Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  I could no longer deny, could not escape, the fact that God loved me so much that He sent his only Begotten Son (John 3:16) and, as if He had not done enough, He died for my sins on the Cross at Calvary.  This was an incorporeal, metaphysical reality I could not escape!  Yes, I was captured by the love of God!

No, I had a problem.  On one hand, I had schemed to do all sorts of “wicked” things on Prom Night.  It was expected.  It was necessary. It was my corporeal reality.  Now, I had to consider an agenda, a world, which I could not see, but had more influence on me than the world I could see!

I was experienced, for the first time, a worldview battle. A worldview is a way that we relate to, and responds from a philosophical position that we embrace as our own.  Worldview is a framework that ties everything together, that allows us to understand society, the world, and our place in it.

A worldview helps us make the critical decisions, which will shape our future.  A worldview colors all our decisions and all our artistic creations.  In the first Star Wars movie (1977), for instance, Luke Skywalker clearly values a Judeo-Christian code of ethics.  That does not mean that he is a believing Christian–indeed he is not–but he does uphold and fight for a moral world.   Darth Vader, on the other hand, represents chaos and amoral behavior.  He does whatever it takes to advance the Emperor’s agenda, regardless of whom he hurts or what rule he breaks. You see, there are basically two worldview roots, two “worlds” from which we draw our decisions and realities. One originated with Aristotle who argues that the empirical world is primary.  Thus, if one wants to advance knowledge one has to learn more about the world.  Another root originated with Plato (and later with the Apostle Paul) who argues that the unseen world is primary. In Plato’s case, that meant that if one wishes to understand the world he studies the gods.  In our case, we agree with Plato to the extent that we believe that God–who cannot be seen, measured–is in fact more real than the world.

Now, in my newfound freedom in Christ, I was faced with a metaphysical dilemma: Do I make decisions according to an abstract reality, like the Word of God? Or do I succumb to societal standards? Who/what will be my primary worldview?  Prom Night, in bold relief, caused me to make a choice. This choice is the choice all people must make in their lives. I went to the Prom (still hate those things!) but did nothing that would dishonor our Lord.

FSATAT chooses God.  We choose His Word.  We will be motivated by His standards, and His precepts.  In next issue I will give more details about the FSATAT vision and I know you will be impressed!  Stay tuned . . .

A Creed Outworn

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

A worldview helps us make the critical decisions, which will shape our future.  I want to talk to you about what the vision, mission, and purpose of FSATAT (For Such a Time as This).  The For Such a Time as This (FSATAT) exists to love and  to glorify God, to help fulfill the Great Commission,  to affirm,  to encourage, to equip, and to empower parents and teachers to educate  and to disciple their students with excellence.  We are not merely a home school, or any school support resource—we want to participate, even in a modest way, in the coming revival/renewal we see coming to this nation!

In fall, 2011, I received my alumni magazine Harvard Divinity Today, Vol. 7, Number 3. I must admit reading the Today is not exactly the highest priority to this “alumni” who really reserves his allegiance to Gordon Conwell Seminary, but something caught my eye.  “HDS [Harvard Divinity School] to Expand Program in Buddhist Ministry Studies” caught my eye.  Silly me—I thought John Harvard bequeathed money in 1636 to found Harvard to prepare “men for Christian ministry.”  Can you imagine what John Harvard would say if he knew his endowment spawned a special Buddhist ministry program? Oh my.

But that is only half of it.  Buddhism—a sort of higher consciousness atheism—is no religion at all.  It has no formal priesthood, no serious understanding of soteriology (salvation) or redemption.  Buddhism is pretentious humanism; it has no serious belief in the supernatural.  It is a banana split of human effort but hardly a sugar cone of metaphysical reality.  No really ministry can occur without evoking the presence of a reality outside human existence, so, really, “Buddhism ministry” is an oxymoron.

Well, that is one reason FSATAT (For Such a Time as This) exists.  2013 religious America invests a lot of resources—a generous donor gave $2,500,000–to enable Harvard to do something that cannot be done—equip Buddhists to do ministry. But isn’t that the sign of the times. An erstwhile classmate of mine, 150 years ago, now deceased of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, hardly a champion of Christian orthodoxy, but very much a vintage Harvard Divinity School man, speaking to the 1838 HDS senior class, in Divinity Hall, down the hall from where I lived, warned “One would rather be `A pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,’ than to be defrauded of his manly right in coming into nature, and finding not names and places, not land and professions, but even virtue and truth foreclosed and monopolized.” Virtue and truth are rarely discussed in 2012 America.

But virtue and truth are very important to For Such a Time as This.

What really matters to FSATAT? What is our vision? What are our core values?

  • The family, whether it is with a single parent, or two, is the God breathed entity that God has ordained to nurture, to equip, to challenge this new generation.
  • We value life and abhor any political or social policy that seeks to take life away.
  • We encourage parents to raise a generation who is not afraid to be overcomers in an increasingly hostile culture.
  • We urge families neither to conform to, nor to run from, secular culture but to transform this culture in the name of Christ.
  • Like Deborah’s generation in Judges 5:11, we seek to share Christ at the watering holes–cultural creating centers of this society.
  • We hope to establish an alternative culture/society of hope to this society of hopelessness so that His Kingdom might come on this earth as it is in Heaven.

 One final note.  Education is the most personal of  human experiences and belongs first to the Creator God, and then to his designated authority. Therefore, FSATAT strongly advocates and encourages parental input into education.  FSATAT passionately encourages full time home education but understands that public and private education, in some cases, is necessary, and even desirable.  We therefore support all education endeavors!

 Finally I need to say one more thing.  FSATAT is not interested in retreated from Post-Modern, secular, Post-Christian American culture. We are afraid of no worldview.  We will not pretend we serve any God but the awesome, omnipotent God we serve!  We are servants; we will die daily for one another.  But we will not participate in the culture of fear that is so pervasive in our nation. We intend to, and we encourage you,  neither to conform to, nor to run from, secular culture, but to transform this culture in the name of Christ. The newsletter encourages parents to raise a generation who are overcomers in an increasingly hostile culture. The newsletter is part of establishing a culture of hope and confidence so that Christ’s Kingdom might come on this earth as it is in heaven.

 In the months and years ahead we appreciate your prayers and support!

The Problem With Camus

Monday, January 28th, 2013

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life,” says Albert Camus (1913-1960). He was one of the earliest members of an artistic movement called “Absurdism.” Absurdism mainly centered on the idea that awareness of the certainty and finality of death makes life meaningless. In his journal Camus wrote: “There is only one case in which despair is true. It is that of a man sentenced to die….” The post-World War II mood of disillusionment and skepticism was expressed in peculiar terms by a number of artists, most of whom lived in France. Camus was a member of this group. Although they did not consider themselves as belonging to a formal movement, they shared a belief that human life was essentially without meaning, purpose, and absolute morality. They felt therefore that valid communication in any form, artistic or otherwise, was no longer possible. They felt the human community had sunk to a state of absurdity (the term was coined by Albert Camus). Camus was also an Existentialist. Absurdism is a literary movement. Existentialism is a philosophical movement. Existentialism rejects epistemology or the attempt to validate human knowledge as a basis for reality—a fundamental change in direction in Western philosophy. To Plato, ethical behavior was very closely tied to knowledge. Plato argued that if one knew the right thing to do, one would do it. Existentialism argued that that was not so. People made decisions based on need and function rather than knowledge. People were quite capable of making an evil decision if it suited their purposes. Human beings were not solely or even primarily people who made decisions from a basis of knowledge; they merely desired, manipulated, and, above all, chose and acted on their own selfish behalf. Thus, Camus regarded objects not primarily as “things” for cognition, a derivative characteristic, but as tools for processing the world. Camus’ characters are not detached observers of the world, but they are “in the world” participating in the chaotic events that we call everyday life. In short, Camus was more concerned with being rather than knowing.

There is a growing fear that Christian Theism has lost the edge, shots its last volley, fought its last skirmish, lost the advantage in the culture war that is raging.   Nathan O. Hatch, in his book Taking the Measure of the Evangelical Resurgence: 1942-1992 asks, “If there is such a huge resurgence of evangelicalism, why is there no more evidence in American society?”  Dr. Hatch offers two theories.  His first is what I call the “culture lag theory.”  He argues that elite culture (i.e., leadership in leading universities and corporations) has been captured by Modernism and Evangelicalism has to catch up.  How can Evangelicals catch up?

We need to stop retreating and take a stand on the seven great hills of our society: education, law, religion, domestic, art, literature, science.  We need to dominate these areas in our society: that is, we need to be the best teachers, best lawyers, best pastors, best homemakers, best artists, best writers, and best scientists in America.  We are starting to do this now!  We do these things with alacrity and courage.  We ask for no quarter and we give no quarter!  Every time we take a lazy short cut in our pedagogy, every time we fight among ourselves over petty issues (e.g., the case surrounding Susan Bauer’s untimely departure from the home school convention world), we weaken our effort and strengthen the forces of the enemy!  We have captured the elite culture of this nation—just like the Puritans—now we need to make hay while the sun is shining!

Where is Dante When we Need Him?

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Where is Dante when we need him? Faust: A Tragedy is indeed a tragedy, but neither Goethe or Faust know it.  The tragedy is that this Romantic tale lacks a tragic ending. We Christians earnestly, fervently hope that it does.  The notion that there is no moral universe with no consequences, no cause and effect, invites inevitable chaos and nihilism that is so much a part of our Post-Modern world. Faust’s yearning for experience and knowledge created a type for the Modern (1900-1990) and Post-Modern (1990-Present) ages still known as the Faustian hero, though in reality Goethe’s Faust is more a villain than a hero; and the purported villain–Mephistopheles–is one of the most likable characters in the play. His yearnings draw him toward the heavens, yet he is also powerfully attracted to the physical world. Ultimately the tragedy of Goethe’s tragedy, is that mankind cannot have his cake and eat it too:  we cannot reject Christ as Savior and suppose that we will spend eternity in his presence.  The fact that Goethe thinks otherwise is remarkable in its presumptuousness.

Faust is a very learned professor, who is dissatisfied with human knowledge, which by its nature is limited. Using magic, he conjures up the Earth Spirit in his darkened study. Regarding himself as more than mortal, he tries to claim the Earth Spirit as a colleague, but the Spirit rejects him scornfully and disappears.  Despairing, Faust contemplates suicide. He is saved by the sound of the bells welcoming Easter morning. He and his research assistant, Wagner, go out into the sunlight and enjoy the greetings of the crowd, which remembers the medical attention given to the people by Faust and his father. Faust is still depressed, denying the value of medicine and feeling torn between the two souls in him, one longing for earthly pleasures, the other seeking the highest spiritual knowledge. A dog follows Faust and Wagner home.  The dog, of course, is Mephistopheles!   The overall theme of this work is the struggle mankind undertakes to overcome evil and to discriminate between good and evil.

Faust Part One is a complex story. It takes place in multiple settings, the first of which is heaven. Mephistopheles makes a bet with God. He says that he can deflect God’s favorite human being (Faust), who is striving to learn everything that can be known, away from righteous pursuits. The next scene takes place in Faust’s study where Faust, despairing at the vanity of scientific, humanitarian and religious learning, turns to magic for the revelation of ultimate knowledge. He suspects, however, that his attempts are failing. Frustrated, he ponders suicide, but rejects it as he hears the echo of nearby Easter celebrations begin. He goes for a walk with his assistant Wagner and is followed home by a stray poodle.  God is only one among equals—epistemology is more important than faith, truth is subjective, not objective. We are no longer enjoying sunsets with William Wordsworth and speculating on their origins—we are looking into Hell itself, the New Age, Modernism, what Nietzsche calls “the vacuum.”

With Goethe, we move forward four hundred years through the Reformation, through the Renaissance, and into the Enlightenment. The period of Neoclassicism and Romanticism, the greatest epoch in German literature, fell within the lifetime of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The age of Goethe went beyond the Enlightenment’s substitution of science for religion, inasmuch as it ascribed to science only a peripheral position in relation to the ultimate questions of life. It insisted upon the value of feeling in face of the limitations of reason. Impulse, instinct, emotion, and intuition acquired a quasi-religious significance as being the links that connected man with divine nature—one way to define Romanticism. The ideal of the classical age was that of the fully developed personality in which intellect and feeling should be harmoniously balanced. We see the enigmatic Doctor Faust representing all three movements. Three phases may be distinguished in the evolution of this new outlook: Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), Classicism, and Romanticism. Goethe belonged to and profoundly affected the Sturm und Drang movement, which aimed at overthrowing rationalism. There is, however, something that is modern: the emphasis on an amoral vision. We see the beginning of a Friedrich Nietzsche’s “survival of the fittest” mentality.   It continues today . . .

We Must be Hopeful!

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Above everything else, the early church was hopeful.  In the midst of chaos and despaire, the early church was hopeful. We cannot live without hope. Walter Bruggemann, in his book Hope Within History explores the meaning of apocalyptic hope in history. Using Jeremiah as background, Bruggemann argues that the true history makers are not those whom we expect–politicians, doctors, and lawyers.  Real history makers, he argues, are those who can invest in a dream.  In spite of pretty bleak conditions–Jeremiah’s nation was about to be conquered and taken in captivity–Jeremiah was able to still have great hope.  He had apocalyptic (i.e., based in history) hope.  He understood who really had power–those who had hope in spite of the circumstances they faced.  God told Jeremiah to buy a piece of land (Jeremiah 32:6; 29:4-9).  He did.  Even though Jeremiah was never to enjoy this land, never to really own it, he invested in it anyway.  Apocalyptic hope causes us to invest in dreams we may never see consummated.  People with apocalyptic hope, assert the sovereign and omnipotent will of God in all circumstances no matter how bad things may be.  They “have a bold conviction about alternative possibilities which go under the name of hope . . . they see clearly that things are deeply wrong, but they still have hope.” Modern, existential hope of men like Viktor E. Frankl pales in the light of the apocalyptic hope of a committed Christian. “Was Du erleht, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben,” (What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.), Frankl writes (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Pocket Books, 1963, p. 131).

Today, in 2013 America, we must have hope.  If we don’t, fellow Christians, no one will!

In a World With No Classics

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

In The Western Canon; The Books and School of the Age (1994), Yale literary critic Harold Bloom examines the Western literary tradition by concentrating on the works of twenty-six authors central to the Canon. The “Canon” to Bloom includes the most important classical works in western civilization. This Canon, as it were, establishes a literary tradition. A central component of that tradition is the Homeric Epics, including the Odyssey.  The importance of the Odyssey to the western canon is without dispute.  The problem is, as Bloom laments in his first chapter “An Elegy for the Canon,” no one reads the classics! Or rather, people read any old thing they want and they call it “great literature.” “The Western Canon, despite the limitless idealism of those who would open it up, exists precisely in order to impose limits . . . by its very nature, the Western Canon will never close, but it cannot be forced open by our current cheerleaders.” (Bloom, “An Elegy for the Canon,”)

What does it mean to live in a society and culture that does not read the classics?  It means we have no way to talk to one another.  We no longer have common metaphors and motifs from which to share consensus.  We wonder from one existential moment to another.  Bloom, and I, dread that eventuality.  It is up to you, young people, to be such competent, but Godly writers, that society cannot ignore and then, you will resurrect the old and add to the expanding canon.

My own “classical” list can be found at my website,

Click on “Free Downloads” and then “Classical Reading Lists: Creation to Present.”

What are my top 10 choices:

  1. The Bible
  2. The Odyssey
  3. Confessions, Augustine
  4. Sound and Fury, Faulkner
  5. Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky
  6. War and Peace, Tolstoy
  7. Faust, Goethe
  8. Heart of Darkness, Conrad
  9. Macbeth, Shakespeare
  10. The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot

More Trouble with Evolution . . .

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

From Aristotle vs. Plato a panoply of world views evolved in four main epochs.

The following are characteristics of each epoch:

Classical Theism:

Ancient Times to Augustine

Pernicious gods involved in human affairs
Christian Theism: Augustine to Goethe


Loving God involved in human affairs
Modernism: Goethe to Camus Faith in science
Post-Modernism: Camus to Present Authors Faith in experience; suspicious of science

Most of you have not heard of this particular world view paradigm.  It is called a cultural world view paradigm (as contrasted to a socio-political paradigm).  Both are useful.  Both are accurate. However, most Americans obtain their world views from culture, not from scholarship and education.

While socio-political descriptions of world views are completely accurate, they are not used by American universities or the media at all.  When have you hear the word “Cosmic Humanist” used on television?  In a movie?  Very few people use this terminology in the real world.  Therefore, if Christians wish to be involved in apologetics they must use a language that the unsaved can understand.  Chesterton once lamented that Evangelical Christians are like Americans who visit France.  Chesterton generalized that Americans, by and large, speak their words slower, articulate their words more carefully, and speak fewer words to complete a thought.  However, what they should do, Chesterton argues, is to speak French in France!  If we believers want the world to hear us we need to speak their language.

The four epochs above manifested seven basic world views. The world view are best discerned through works of art and of literature.  The world view of an artist/writer is a reflection of how the author expresses his views on essential issues like: God, Man, Morality.  The following are seven world views found in art and literature:

Theism: God is personally involved with humankind.  Theism argues that the universe is a purposive, divinely created entity.  It argues that all human life is sacred and all persons are of equal dignity.  They are, in other words, created in the image of God.  History is linear and moves toward a final goal.  Nature is controlled by God and is an orderly system.  Humanity is neither the center of nature nor the universe, but are the steward of creation.  Righteousness will triumph in a decisive conquest of evil.  Earthly life does not exhaust human existence but looks ahead to the resurrection of the dead and to a final, comprehensive judgement of humanity (adapted form Carl F. H. Henry, Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief).  This is the only viable world view until the Renaissance.  Examples: Homer, Virgil, C. S. Lewis, A. J. Cronin, Tolkien.

Deism: God was present, but is no longer present.  The world is like a clock wound up by God many years ago but He is now absent. The clock (i.e., the world) is present; God is absent.  Still, though, Deism embraced a Judeo-Christian morality.  God’s absence, for instance, in no way mitigated His importance to original creation.   He was also omnipotent, but not omniscient.  His absence was His decision.  He was in no way forced to be absent from the world.  He chose to assume that role so that Socratic empiricism and rationalism could reign as sovereign king.  Speculative Theism replaced revelatory biblical Theism.   Once the Living God was abandoned, Jesus Christ and the Bible became cognitive orphans (Carl H. Henry).   Examples: Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson.

Romanticism: Once Americans distanced themselves from the self-revealing God of the Old and New Testaments, they could not resist making further concessions to subjectivity.  Romanticism, and its American version, Transcendentalism,  posited that God was nature and “it” was good.  The more natural things were, the better.   Nature was inherently good.  Nature alone was the ultimate reality.  In other words, nature was the Romantic god.   Man was essentially a complex animal, too complex to be controlled by absolute, codified truth (as one would find in the Bible).  Human intuition replaced the  Holy Spirit.  Depending upon the demands on individual lives, truth and good were relative and changing.  Romanticism, however, like Deism, had not completely abandoned Judeo-Christian morality.  Truth and the good, although changing, were nonetheless relatively durable.    Examples: James Fenimore Cooper, Goethe.

Naturalism: If God exists, He is pretty wimpish. Only the laws of nature have any force. God is either uninterested or downright mean.  All reality was reducible to impersonal processes and energy events (Carl F. H. Henry).  All life, including human life, was transient.  Its final destination was death.  Truth and good, therefore, were also transient.  They were culture-conditioned distinctions that the human race projected upon the cosmos and upon history (Carl F. H. Henry).    This maturation, as it were, of the human race, necessitated a deliberate rejection of all transcendentally final authority.   Examples: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane.

Realism: Akin to Naturalism is Realism.  Reality is, to a Realist, a world with no purpose, no meaning, no order. Realism insists that personality has no ultimate status in the universe, but is logically inconsistent when it affirms an ethically imperative social agenda congruent with universal human rights and dignity.   Realism, then throws around terms like “dignity” and “human rights” and “power.”  What Realists mean, however, is that these concepts are real when they fulfill a social agenda that enhances human dominance over the universal.  Thus, Realism believes in  a world where bad things happen all the time to good people.  Why not?  There is no God, no ontological controlling force for good.  The world is a place where the only reality is that which we can experience, but it must be experience that we can measure or replicate.  Certainly pain and misery fit that category.   If an experience is a unique occurrence (Example: a miracle) it is not real.  Examples: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald.  

Absurdism: A modern movement where there is neither a god, nor any reason to have one.  Everything is disorganized, anarchy rules.   There is a compete abandonment of explaining the cosmos and therefore an abandonment of being in relationship with the deity.  It is not that Absurdists are unsure about who creates everything, or in control of everything.  Absurdists simply do not care one way or the other.   Examples: John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Existentialism: The submergence of God in overwhelming data and in experience is the first step toward putting God out to die.  Truth is open to debate.  Everything is relative.  A very pessimistic view. Examples, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, and Jean Paul Sartre.

Aristotle vs. Plato

Monday, January 21st, 2013

From our study of Greek history we know that there are basically two world view roots: One originates from Aristotle and argues that the empirical world is primary.  Thus, if one wants to advance knowledge one has to learn more about the world.  Another root originates with Plato who argues that the unseen world is primary. In Plato’s case, that meant that if one wished to understand the world one studied the gods.  In our case, we agree with Plato to the extent that we believe that God–who cannot be seen, measured–is in fact more real than the world.

Incidentally, these two world view positions are replicated in American society today.  How important is God’s Word?  Does a person claim allegiance to something and to someone he cannot see?  Or does one bank on science and empiricism?  The truth is in 2013 I think our epistemology has taken us about as far as we can go.  We need our metaphysics to rescue us.

Both Plato and Aristotle were impacted by Socrates.  Socrates was one of the most influential but mysterious figures in Western philosophy.  He wrote nothing, yet he had a profound influence on someone who did: Plato.  Plato carefully recorded most of his dialogues.  Unlike earlier philosophers, Socrates’ main concern was with ethics.  There was nothing remotely pragmatic about Socrates who was the consummate idealist.  Until his day, philosophers invested most of their time explaining the natural world.   In fact, the natural world often intruded into the abstract world of ideas and reality.  Socrates kept both worlds completely separate.  To Socrates, the natural laws governing the rotation of the earth were merely uninteresting speculation of no earthly good.   Socrates was more interested in such meaty concepts as “virtue” and “justice.”  Taking issue with the Sophists, Socrates believed that ethics, specifically virtue, must be learned and practiced like any trade.   One was not born virtuous; one developed virtue as he would a good habit.  It could be practiced only by experts.  There was, then, nothing pragmatic about the pursuit of virtue.  It was systematic; it was intentional.  Virtue was acquired and maintained by open and free dialogue.  For the first time, the importance of human language was advanced by a philosopher (to reappear at the end of the 20th century in Post-modern philosophy).

There was no more important philosopher in Western culture than Socrates’ disciple, Plato.   Plato, like Socrates, regarded ethics as the highest branch of knowledge.   Plato stressed the intellectual basis of virtue, identifying virtue with wisdom.  Plato believed that the world was made of forms (such as, a rock) and ideas (such as, virtue).  The ability of human beings to appreciate forms made a person virtuous.  Knowledge came from the gods; opinion was from man.  Virtuous activity, then, was dependent upon knowledge of the forms.

To Plato, knowledge and virtue were inseparable.  To Aristotle, they were unconnected.  Aristotle was not on a search for absolute truth.  He was not even certain it existed.  Truth, beauty, and goodness were to be observed and quantified from human behavior and the senses but they were not the legal tender of the land.  Goodness in particular was not an absolute and in Aristotle’s opinion it was much abused.  Goodness was an average between two absolutes.   Aristotle said that mankind should strike a balance between passion and temperance, between extremes of all sorts. He said that good people should seek the “Golden Mean” defined as a course of life that was never extreme.  Finally, while Plato argued that reality lay in knowledge of the gods, Aristotle argued that reality lay in empirical, measurable knowledge.   To Aristotle, reality was tied to purpose and to action.  For these reasons, Aristotle, became known as the father of modern science.  Aristotle’s most enduring impact occurred in the area of metaphysics–philosophical speculation about the nature, substance, and structure of reality.  It is not physics–concerned with the visible or natural world.  Metaphysics is concerned with explaining the non-physical world.  Aristotle, then advanced the discussion about God, the human soul, and the nature of space and time. What makes this particularly interesting is Aristotle’s penchant for delving into the metaphysical by talking about the gods in human terms.   Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know” and it is by the senses that the gods were known–or not.  Faith had nothing to do with it.   In other words, Aristotle, for the first time, discussed the gods as if they were quantified entities.  He spoke about them as if they were not present.   The Hebrews had done this earlier (Genesis 3) but Aristotle was probably not aware of Moses’ text.   While some Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas employed Aristotelian logic in their discussions about God, they never speculated about His existence as Aristotle did.  They only used Aristotle’s techniques to understand more about Him.

As you consider the decisions that you must make for your children, yourselves, and your nation, make sure that you epistemology (knowledge) doesn’t take you farther than your metaphysics (faith) can rescue you!

Teaching World View

Friday, January 18th, 2013

What is a “world view?”  A world view is a way that a person understands, relates to, and responds from a philosophical position that he embraces as his own. World view is a framework that ties everything together, that allows us to understand society, the world, and our place in it.  A world view helps us to make the critical decisions which will shape our future.  A world view colors all our decisions and all our artistic creations.  In the first Star Wars movie (1977), for instance, Luke Skywalker clearly values a Judeo-Christian code of ethics.  That does not mean that he is a believing Christian–indeed he is not–but he does uphold and fight for a moral world.   Darth Vader, on the other hand, represents chaos and amoral behavior.  He does whatever it takes to advance the Emperor’s agenda, regardless of who he hurts or what rule he breaks.  It is important that you articulate your world view now so that you will be ready to discern other world views later.

Answering the following questions is one way that you, and your children, can articulate a world view:

What is the priority of the spiritual world?

Authority–Is the Bible important to you?  Do you obey God and other authority–your parents–even when it is uncomfortable to do so?

Pleasure–what do you really enjoy doing?  Does it please God?

What is the essential uniqueness of man?

Fate–what/who really determines your life?  Chance?  Circumstances? God?

What is the objective character of truth and goodness?

Justice–What are the consequences of our actions?  Is there some sort of judgment?  Do bad people suffer?  Why do good people suffer?

(Adapted from Carl Henry)