SHORT AND SWEET – 10

So why doesn’t objectivity provide the basis for morality? Isn’t it clear what is good and what is bad? Well, no it isn’t. The reason is found in the meaning of two words:

Descriptive.

Prescriptive.

Descriptive means the act of describing. You can describe as much as you like and what you have is information. How things are. Science is great for this. It tells us all kinds of things about our world.

Prescriptive means the act of expressing ‘how things should be.’ Politics is the art of trying to turn the world into the kind we think it ‘should be.’ Ethics is the discipline of determining how we ‘should behave.’

Descriptive activities, like science, tell us ‘what is.’ Prescriptive statements tell us our desires and our moral sensibilities.

From ‘what is’ to ‘what ought to be.’ Now, that is a vast chasm. Can it be bridged? I think it can.

But you need some imagination. Join me next week for an adventure.

SHORT AND SWEET – 9

Yesterday, I noted that prominent atheist Sam Harris doesn’t believe in free will. He follows the majority view among science writers. He’s a neuro-scientist.

His answer? Science can give us morals. No kidding. That’s his answer. Essentially, it’s this. Science describes the world. It is by far the best (and possibly only) source of knowledge that we have, so they argue.

It is not hard to come up with a description of human flourishing. Not subjective, but objective. Then, all we have to do, is use science to show us how to get there. Eg. A child dying of malnutrition in Africa is a worse state of affairs than a healthy child attending school in the West, where good parenting and positive social interaction and learning lead to a happy life. We just have to figure out – using science – how to increase the latter while decreasing the former.

Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? I think he’s right.

Half right. The half he’s right about is this: The world can be described objectively. In other words, there is such a thing as Truth. We can discover and evaluate, through a whole variety of disciplines, what leads to beneficial results for ourselves and our children.

But then we come to that word ‘moral.’ Objectivity, I’m afraid, doesn’t lead to morality.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on why that is.

SHORT AND SWEET – 7

“A statue of founding father and writer of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson is sparking debate at the University of Missouri, with some students demanding that the statue be removed over Jefferson’s “offensive” history as a slave owner.” Online article. 

A similar thing took place with regard to a statue of Cecil B. Rhodes, the Victorian adventurer.

Yesterday, I wrote about Progress. Some refer to it, I suppose, as political correctness. Were figures from the past sexist and racist? No question. There’s just no way of getting around that. But the urge to remove commemorations of historical figures because you don’t approve of their values, I’m not so sure. As with all things progressive, where do you draw the line and on what grounds? For fear of offending people, we will end up living in a world with nothing but white-washed walls. A kind of modern Puritanism.

A while back, Bomber Harris’ statue was criticized because he was responsible for destroying Dresden during WW2. Should he be removed? I think not. Morality in times of war is notoriously difficult to assess.

As for Jefferson, his case is much clearer. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, he is one of the greatest Americans in history, whose life has affected millions. Worthy of honour, I think.

Feels like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

SHORT AND SWEET – 4

No clearer example of morality being based on heart and not head is the issue of abortion. But let me start with some short observations on language.

Pro-choice. If you’re into marketing, this is possibly the best example of clever marketing you’re ever likely to find. It is quite brilliant. Why?

First, because words matter. They really do. Words create pictures, worlds; they build up, destroy, they exert immense power. Christians know this better than anyone. After all, we follow a man called The Word, whom we believe created the universe.

Pro-choice. Genius. The subject is abortion and you’ve framed it as choice. It isn’t actually about choice, but you’ve sold us the lie that it’s about choice. Nice work. Who could possibly be against ‘a women’s right to choose?’ Oh, there’s another tasty word, ‘right.’ Or maybe ‘a woman’s freedom to choose.’ Even more powerful. Freedom and Choice. Words don’t come more powerful than those two.

So, before we even get started, those who oppose abortion are up against it. We’re up against the power of language, and the other side is using the big guns.

Want to know why our culture approves of abortion?

Start with language.

SHORT AND SWEET – 3

‘You’re imposing your morality on me.’

Two responses. First, ‘Well, yes, of course, because morality is supposed to apply to all of us. It’s about how we should behave. All of us. It’s wrong to mistreat children. Yes, you over there. And me too. So, yes, I think some behaviours are right and some are wrong. Probably a little old-fashioned for our culture, but there you go.’ Pause.

‘But don’t you think the same? Don’t you also hold certain moral views? What privileges your views over mine? And when you accuse me of ‘imposing mine,’ isn’t that exactly what you’re doing to me? Rejecting my views because they conflict with yours?

Why is this attitude so common? Partly because it’s assumed that there’s actually an over-arching position of neutrality from which all views can be assessed and judged. From the outside. But that isn’t true. We’re all on the inside. The view is called the Myth of the Neutral Centre. Not a very sexy title, but true.

So, when you think I’m imposing my morality, methinks a little humility and clear-thinking might be in order.

And I haven’t even addressed assumptions. More soon on that.

Stephen, you’re on the wrong floor

You may have seen Stephen Fry’s rant last week. Here’s a (partial) transcript of what he said in an interview with Irish broadcaster RTE:

Asked what he’d say to God, if he met him:

I’ll say ‘bone cancer in children – what’s that about? How dare you. How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain. To see the whole video (2 mins 24 secs), click here.

The issue of human suffering is without doubt the most powerful and certainly the most common argument against the existence of God. I have ruminated on this question so much, I ended up writing a novel about it. More on that another time.

A couple of observations concerning Mr. Fry. As with so many, the emotional response comes first and initially, there simply is nothing that can be offered, let alone heard, in reply. Did he sound in a mood for dialogue? I think not.

There is no question that immense suffering plunges us towards mystery. Make that Mystery with a capital M. In particular, the suffering of children is very very hard to accept. When little ones suffer, we are fully justified, I think, in shaking our fists at the heavens. Such a response seems very natural and I would expect nothing less from a parent whose child lies in a hospital bed.

Stephen Fry, however, offers little in terms of argument; in short, he simply states, ‘if God exists, I don’t like him and I think he’s immoral.’ That’s not really an argument; it’s an emotional outburst. Many think that you can dismiss God’s existence with a short-form argument that goes like this:

God exists.
Suffering exists.
Those two are incompatible and therefore one must not exist. Since suffering exists, God must not.

Elegant in its simplicity perhaps, but false.

Why? Because the argument requires another premise to make its case. Most people assume this premise without stating it. So, the argument is actually this one:

God exists
Suffering exists
There are no reasons why God would permit human suffering
Therefore God doesn’t exist

It’s the third premise which is the one which theologians focus on and debate. And there are all sorts of justifications (theodicies) which can be offered. But not today.

Today, I’d like to draw attention to something a little different. You may have noticed from Stephen’s comments, that he is drawing on ideas almost without knowing that he’s doing it. What do I mean? Well, he assumes there is something called ‘morality.’ He also believes in value and good and evil.

The great apologist, Francis Schaeffer, observed many years ago that atheists are often in the habit of using ideas for which their worldview has no justification. It’s rather like a building with two stories. Francis Beckwith summarizes the analogy like this:

In the lower story is the cognitive stuff that counts as real knowledge: science, reason, data. In the upper story is the non-cognitive stuff that gives life meaning, but it is ultimately non-rational and therefore deeply personal and incapable of being judged or assessed by third parties. More here.

So Stephen enters the building and he takes a look at what’s on the shelves. What can he use to make his argument? Well, if he’s being consistent, he’ll notice that really all he has are facts about the physical world. Furthermore, he must confront the idea that his universe had no cause that he can account for, and all things will eventually be extinguished. So questions like ‘what are things for?’ or ‘how should we live?’ can only be answered with reference to science and empirical data.

Stephen decides, however, that science isn’t helping much with questions of how one should live or even what things are for, so he strolls upstairs and finds an embarrassment of riches. On the shelf lie all kinds of resources he didn’t have downstairs. Things like moral values, ethics, good, evil, even purpose. These are so effective in making an argument that he decides to use some of them. He calls God ‘evil.’ He assumes that human beings are valuable and ought not to suffer. He assumes that any Creator must be someone who would agree with his outlook on life. Lots of ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ floating about.

But hold on, Stephen, you’re on the wrong floor.

Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, he’s not supposed to be up there, using resources which aren’t available to him as an atheist.

But wait a minute. Didn’t Beckwith write that these things are non-rational and therefore deeply personal and incapable of being judged or assessed by third parties.You can’t make arguments with those things, can you?

Well, it turns out that the building is poorly designed. Because the Christian faith, which draws on these ideas of morality, good, evil, value and purpose, does so rationally and with logical consistency. It’s our opponents who claim that morality and value are non-rational and deeply personal. Not true.

Morality isn’t non-rational at all. It’s accessible to all and even logically verifiable and you don’t need science to know that morality exists. Trust me, you don’t need a test-tube to affirm the truthfulness of the statement, ‘torturing babies for fun is wrong.’ What you do need, however, is the existence of something non-physical who grounds all these ideas, makes sense of them. Because science ain’t gonna get the job done.

You know who we’re talking about, Stephen. We’re talking about God.

You don’t like him? Well, basing morality on personal preference is a castle built on sinking sand. But you don’t think it’s just personal preference, do you? You think some things really are wrong. Absolutely wrong. Well, you’re bang on target.

So . . . here’s a thought to mull over during your day.

Morality is prescriptive, not descriptive and this makes ALL the difference. Science is entirely descriptive. It tells us ‘how things are.’ Morality has to do with ‘how things should be.’ The chasm between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ cannot be bridged by science, since science is not equipped to carry us across. Morality proposes moral laws and as C.S. Lewis argued many years ago, moral laws imply a moral-lawgiver.

We call that person God.

Final thought, Stephen. You’re right. Something’s terribly wrong. And if something’s gone badly wrong, you want to choose a worldview which can account for this. You respond instinctively to suffering as we all do. You don’t simply rail against the existence of suffering children, you express the feeling that ‘this shouldn’t be happening.’ Something’s gone terribly wrong with the world.

But Stephen, your cherished atheism can’t account for this intuition at all – beyond a subjective response – and it certainly gives no answer. Blind natural forces are so mute when you want an answer.

No, you need a worldview, a Story which explains what’s gone wrong and offers some kind of hope that ‘things are being put right.’ That’s why you and I, well, we all believe intuitively in Justice and it’s why we all long for Peace.

Turns out there is a Story full of hope. It’s called Christianity. And we have a full-blown doctrine of how and why things have gone wrong. But more importantly, we have hope, based on a Story in which an interventionist God partners with his people in restoring what’s broken, helping them to learn and grow in the midst of pain while also equipping them to share his love with hurting people.

Not only that, he too has suffered horribly. And for our sake. He has not left us. He is with us and he can be with you too, if you would but turn to him.

You too, Stephen.

His love extends even to those who shake their fists at him.

© Richard Collins 2015

We, the Undivine

Imago dei is a wonderful doctrine. The idea that we’re made in the image of our Creator imbues us with value and reminds us that we’re not like the other animals. We’re different. We’re closer to our Maker than we are to dolphins and chimpanzees.

So far, so good. However, I fear that this precious doctrine is frequently misused. Allow me to clarify.

Imago dei reminds us of what we share with our Creator, known in theology as ‘communicable attributes.’ For example, we share rationality, volition, emotions (perhaps), moral awareness. But this simply makes us think that he is a big version of, well . . . of us. He’s a super-human. Like us, just bigger, better. More and better of everything.

But he’s not. He’s not bigger and better than us.

He’s in a category all of his own. That’s the whole point of Job chapter 38.

Let’s go back to those attributes. Power, for example. We are powerful, just as he is, we tell ourselves. Just look at what we’ve been able to achieve. Sky-scrapers and submarines and rockets and by-pass surgery. We really are extra-ordinary creatures. Intelligent and creative – like him – and yes, powerful. Able to achieve goals set before us.

(Deep breath.) Okay, fair enough. We’re creative and powerful, but of course, we’re not God. His power is greater than ours.

Greater? Well, that’s the under-statement of the century.

When did you last create something out of nothing? It should be perfectly obvious that his power is of a completely different order.

His power sets him apart. Sets him apart. That should ring a bell. It’s the meaning of the word ‘holy.’

This ‘God is a bigger and better version of us’ makes the Bible especially hard to come to terms with. I’ll mention two aspects, in particular. First, the repeated mention of God’s name and the zeal which God has for his name. He is immensely concerned about his reputation, isn’t he? He demands absolute obedience and he desires that his people respect and revere him. Let’s just say it. He wants worship. Now, if you have the idea that God is just ‘bigger and better,’ this comes across as pride. Self-centredness. If we as humans behaved this way, we’d be called a big-head or arrogant or a narcissist.

But we’re not like God. Not really. He’s the only ‘justified narcissist’ in existence, and I mean narcissist in the best possible way! All existence is about his glory. That’s what the term ‘all in all’ means in the New Testament. One day, God will be ‘all in all.’ He is the only being worthy of worship.

We’ve never even come close. Not even before the Fall. We’re not God.

The second – and perhaps the most serious – difficulty comes when addressing the issue of human suffering. A God who is merely ‘bigger and better than us’ appears to have fallen short. Bigger he may be, but better? When babies die and women are violated? This is the charge placed at God’s door and the answer, he’s bigger and better just isn’t going to cut it. God is in a different category to us – a reply which I have argued contains a great deal of merit – well, even that is a struggle for many to understand. We need something a little more accessible. The most satisfying answer has to do with how we ground goodness. To explain, here’s a short section from my book, House of Souls.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“So what’s the solution?” asked Evelyn.

“The Father is good by nature,” said Korazin, jumping in. “He is intrinsically and essentially good. Goodness is therefore an intrinsic character trait. His nature itself defines what is good, because he is good by nature. Not only that, he is an entirely different category of being to the human. Humans are derivative; all that they are comes from their Creator. This is why in the book of Job, the Father reminds his servant of his vast power and the unfathomable depth of his knowledge. The human being must come to his Creator on the Creator’s terms or not at all. That is only right.

“Dear Evelyn and dear Aidan, the one who made you is not distant and he is not callous. He is close to the broken-hearted and he is profoundly good. Just consider all he has done for you. He has made you and surrounded you with beauty in the natural world. He has given you freedom to enjoy relationship with fellow human beings and with your Maker, if you turn to him. He has permitted a fallen world, yes, but he is not himself the architect of your fallenness. Indeed, we lucidi celebrate his goodness and generosity every day, soaking up his wonder and beauty without ever tiring of our praises.” Korazin bowed his head.   © Richard Collins, House of Souls, 2014

~~~~~~~~~~~~

That goodness is an essential character trait of God is an idea of immense power. And how could it be otherwise? If there were standards to which he had to adhere, then they would exist independently of him. How could God be worthy of worship only on the basis that he lived up to certain standards? That would not do. And if his behaviour simply defined what was good, then he would be accused of arbitrariness. But since goodness is essential to his nature, then when he acts, he acts in accordance with who he is. And goodness becomes an expression of his intrinsic nature. He cannot express himself without goodness emerging. Naturally. Not arbitrarily.

When the Bible attempts to describe the wonders of the divine being, it always feels as though it’s struggling a bit. Because how can words describe what is essentially ineffable. It’s beyond human language. Our Creator is worthy of worship. You’re invited to believe. You’re called on to trust. When the world burns and evil stalks our neighbourhoods and our schools, you must make a choice. To believe. To trust. And, if necessary, to submit. Yes, submit.

Essentially, the Fall is about man’s refusal to submit. We thought we knew better. We refused to trust. We refused to believe. But perhaps most of all, we refused to submit.

If God is not like us, if he is not bigger and better but of an entirely different category . . . good and pure and holy . . . not simply on a different scale but expressing something beyond our ability to comprehend, and if one day, he will be ‘all in all,’ then I have a different under-statement of the century:

It’s a good idea to do what he asks.

Believe. Trust. Submit.

If he says that obedience and worship are good for us, then . . . well, you don’t need me to tell you what to do.

© Richard Collins 2014

Note: Last week, a friend agreed to share my page on his Facebook wall. I received an extra 20 hits. Nice. Many thanks. If you would like to help me, please please click on one of those links down there – ↓↓↓↓ – and share. Takes about 10 seconds max. I know that being asked to share is tedious, so I promise this is the last time I’ll do this . . . for quite a long time!

I’ve noticed I have some Brazilian readers. To you I say, ‘olá pessoas bonitas!’

Finally, for those who are looking for some amusement, some thoughts on beards. Yes . . . beards.