Awkward Questions for Everyone

It is a universal truth that any political/social movement has awkward questions that it must ask of itself, if for no other reason than so that it has answers for when its opponents ask them. And, also, so that the aftermath of their goal doesn’t end in everything falling apart for the people they were supposed to help–see the post-ACW abolitionists for an example, due to their lack of forethought in figuring out what to do with all those freed slaves.

Yes, any movement, or cohesive group.

Today this is mostly directed at the politically active factions of evangelical Christianity, the right and left, which are mirror images of each other in nearly all ways. Both tend towards interventionist government in those areas they believe to be relevant to Christian practice, while favoring a more hands-off approach in those areas they deem to be less crucial. Both tend to claim that the other misrepresents the teachings of Christ, especially as regards government-enforced morality (both are correct in this regard, in my opinion). Both also believe that they are on the right side of history, although the left is currently buoyed on a tide of court decisions while the right is counting babies. Both also have tendencies towards self-righteousness.

So, a few awkward questions are in order.

First, is the Christian right willing to deal with the fallout from supporting God’s Word in all its teachings, particularly those on sexual morality, as the surrounding culture grows more hostile to such?

Second, is it willing to concede that it has largely failed to make the case for the benefits of the free market for the poor and the downtrodden, and for why it is not unjust to deny people what they feel they want?

Third, is it willing to go to the effort to make that case?

Fourth, is it willing to understand why people see it as the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector?

However, the Christian left has some awkward questions of its own to answer.

First, is it willing to deal with the temptations of the halls of power and to not give in to them?

Second,  is it willing to concede that it has largely failed to make the case that taxes are charity and that feelings supersede Scripture?

Third, is it willing to deal with the consequences of trying to shove its co-religionists onto the dust heap of history?

Fourth, is it willing to ask if the tax collector in the parable would have been forgiven if he had said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that judgmental Pharisee?”

I don’t expect anyone to have the answers to these questions–in point of fact, I don’t have answers to any of these, beyond the notion that human behavior is self-centered.

But these will be answered, either now in word and thought, or simply in action later. The latter is inadvisable.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

Via Dolorosa

We’re currently in what is known as Holy Week, the final seven days before the resurrection of Jesus announced to all and sundry that the longest war was won, and that Yahweh had won it. However, as of now, we still have two days until Good Friday, when the longest war was actually won.

However, that is not what this post is about. It is common, during this time, to focus on the anguish Jesus felt in Gethsemane, as death came for him, not with a scythe but with scissors. It is common to focus on the horrible, agonizing details of the crucifixion. It is less common to discuss the spiritual pain of Christ on that cross. Consider the statement that “he made him to be sin who had no sin.

We don’t really get what that means, I think. We are born in sin. We wallow in it. We cuddle it. Often we abhor it, but that is only when it takes a form not to our liking. Jesus, however, not being a man of sin, saw its true face, and knew it for what it was. To really get how awful this was for Jesus, imagine every cell in your body becoming malignantly cancerous.

Simultaneously.

And you live through it for hours.

Oh, and then your beloved father can’t look at you anymore, and closes the door.

And even then, I don’t think I really grasp it.

However, it is not altogether uncommon to discuss the spiritual suffering of Christ on the cross. What is uncommon is the focus of this post: What Christ went through in the thirty-three years that he lived here on earth.

To begin with, we’re not told what exactly “emptying himself” meant, but given the incident of the woman at the well and various other occurrences, it probably did not mean giving up omniscience.

Imagine walking around, all day, every day, knowing the exact fate of every person you see. Knowing their hopes, their fears, their desires, their fantasies, their sins, their triumphs, their tragedies, from birth to death. And, trumping all of that–could you handle knowing–knowing–who would be in heaven or hell? Think about that for a second. Could you hold up under all that? For even yourself, much less even one other person? I know I sure couldn’t.

But, let’s keep going. Imagine being the only living human in a world of zombies–who, by the way, you love, and desire to make better, despite their constant attempts to eat your brains. By the way, they’re also decomposing right in front of you, little critters and all. That is, spiritually, how we probably looked. And remember, the Lord looks at the heart. And, let’s face it, the above analogy probably understates things.

Ouch. I had no idea this would be quite such a downer.

Then there’s the general pains of being human, added on to this. The pain of having your words misunderstood, in some cases deliberately, losing people you loved and cared about, sickness, disease, sore feet, etc. Oh, and temptation to sin, which, to Jesus, was the equivalent of being sexually propositioned by a month-dead corpse. All of this did Jesus go through, and none of it did he deserve. He was not under the curse of Adam, he had not rebelled against God. But he bore our burdens anyway, and bore far more besides.

Let us all think upon this, this Good Friday.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

Where Did the Egyptian Gold Come From?

Last week’s post on the dangers of plundering Egyptian gold resulted in a question being posed to me: namely, where did the Egyptians get the gold they gave the Israelites?

The answer ends up in “someone dug it out of the ground.” Either they got it out of their own gold mines, or they traded for it from other places that got it out of their own gold mines.

However, how did it get in the ground to begin with?

Well, I’m no geologist, astrophysicist, or chemist, but I’ve picked up enough to give you a general idea of the currently prevailing scientific consensus. (Ward, if I goof this up, please tell me in the blog comments).

Once upon a time, there was a thing that contained all matter. It exploded and became the universe. By means of various attractive forces and the vagaries of explosions, clusters of hydrogen atoms began to form. These eventually became nebulae, which eventually became giant natural fusion reactors, also known less awesomely as “stars.” When the stars died and went supernova, they spewed forth the fused hydrogen atoms, as well as unfused hydrogen. These would eventually hit other stars, space being a frictionless vacuum, and begin the process all over again. This process went on for a very long time, and involved more explosions than all the Expendables and Transformers movies combined.

After a few billion years of this, eventually there were enough of the fused hydrogen atoms and fusions of the resultant fusions and so on and so forth, that when the nebulae resulting from supernovas formed stars, there were enough leftover heavier bits to form large rocky things called planets and asteroids. We call those heavier bits iron, silicon, nickel, and gold, to name a few. Many of the pieces of those heavier elements are lone atoms or molecules, which is why a very small portion of your body is gold. Very small portion–don’t try mining yourself for it. However, occasionally, those elements form large deposits (relatively speaking) that, due to the vagaries of asteroid strikes, geological blips like volcanic eruptions, and just randomness, end up alllllll over the place, although generally most accessibly in mountains, which tend to act as both artistic inspiration and heavy metal access points for humanity.

And that’s where the Egyptians got their gold.

Or, let me put it more simply, and acknowledge the actual prime mover behind the whole thing. Because what I just said was the equivalent of discussing how a man makes a sword by going over the hammer strokes, the molecular composition of the metal, and the fuel for the fire. It might be fascinating,  but where is the agent? Where is the prime mover?

So, where did the Egyptians get their gold? They got it from God, who, according to the plan laid down before any but He had even existed, spoke the universe into existence, and set the event chains into motion, nudging them whenever His plan called for for such. Who made sure that there was gold placed where human beings could get to it. Who oversaw the building of civilization, and saw to it that the Egyptians had gold to give to the Israelites on their way out of Egypt, so that His glory might be proclaimed throughout the earth.

Now, what does this have to do with the previous post? Well, think of it this way. Ideas do not simply spring forth–they are built from other things. Ideas are, to carry the metaphor forward, the Egyptian ornaments, the golden calf, and the Tabernacle fixtures. The shiny yellow metal stuff itself? That’s what makes the ideas–thoughts, experiences, beliefs, and logic, and your brain and the weird electrochemical reactions within it, all placed and granted by God according to His will.

Just please remember, as I will strive to, that ideas can be idols or Tabernacles. Let us choose wisely.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

‘Twas Egyptian Gold Made the Golden Calf

Just to clarify: We already did our post on Fifty Shades of Grey.  We also already did our post on recent events in Alabama.

But, on to the main event.

A very long time ago, in a land over an ocean and a ways down the coast of a sea, there lived a man named Augustine, who would eventually become known as St. Augustine of Hippo. He was a very bright fellow, who was already well known for his theology and philosophy before he died, and has managed to maintain this reputation down to the present. He lived at a time of great political and intellectual upheaval, as the Western Roman Empire was in its death throes and Christianity was sweeping aside the old pagan order. Now, there were those who advocated what could be called “not-thought-of-here” when it came to the old philosophers and theorists, claiming that they were irretrievably tainted by their paganism.

Augustine, however, disagreed, claiming that the ideas of the philosophers that were not against Christianity could be taken from them, as the Israelites plundered the gold of the Egyptians. In the end, the church agreed with him.

The fact is, I have no problem with this–the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, after all, and who is to say that the same does not apply to ideas as well.

However.

As the title indicates, there are some issues with this gold. I refer you to Exodus 32:1-4, when the Israelites, or at least a faction of them, had Aaron make them a golden calf. Now, here’s an interesting question. Where did the gold come from? The Israelites were in the middle of the desert and they had been slaves, who tend not to gather precious metals in large quantities. There’s only one possible answer: the gold the Israelites picked up from the Egyptians.

Now, if one will permit me a bit of Augustinian metaphor-stretching, the issue should be plain. What we pull from non-Christian sources can easily be turned into golden calves–everything from philosophy to rhetoric to practical politics and messaging.

How do we know that we’ve turned it into a golden calf? As a general rule, does it go against what God has specifically ordered or said? If so, are we still doing it? If yes, then you have a golden calf.

Has it become more important than what God has said to do? If yes, then you have a golden calf.

It is getting between you and God? If so, you have a golden calf.

Is it causing you to throw wild parties involving obscene fertility rituals? If so, you have a golden calf.

But anyway, the point here is not to say that ideas coming from non-Biblical sources are automatically bad. I mean, even the Bible requires some degree of discerning between what the people are described as doing and what we should actually do. However, just for an example. we’re still dealing with a lot of the stuff from Neoplatonism that wasn’t from common grace but made it into Christian thought anyway. And don’t even get me started on politics.

It is best if we tread carefully when looting ideas from outside the faith, lest we offer strange fire before Yahweh. Do not assume that because you think an idea sounds like it would be a great way to worship or serve God that God will agree. That tends to end…badly.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

Christian Anarchy? Seriously?

So, recently, a former professor of mine published an article on The Gospel Coalition outlining why, in his opinion, Christians can, and should, vote. Naturally, at that point, the Yoderites and Christian anarchists came out to play.

Now, here’s what I mean. The Yoderites are those Christians who hold to the thought of John Howard Yoder, who believed that Christians needed to disassociate themselves from government, as it was too morally compromising due to the necessities of governmental action–war, policing, moral compromise in policymaking, general oppression, etc. The Yoderites will at least acknowledge that government is necessary, but will insist on not dirtying their hands with the grease that keeps the engine running. Since that grease is made out of money and blood (this, by the way, is universal), I understand this position as a legitimate interpretation of Scripture, albeit one I disagree with on exegetical and prudential grounds.

The Christian anarchists are those who take it one step further to say that there should be no government, as government is not only unnecessary, but inherently evil. Essentially, when you finally get them to Biblical rationale for such an action, (do something unprudential and read the comments section–I’m Tom, criticize my arguments at your leisure), they tend to emphasize 1 Samuel 8:10-18, where Samuel outlines all the awful things the king will do to the people of Israel if they get one. Spoiler alert: he’s right, if you read into the rest of 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. They tend to either ignore Romans 13, or discount it in favor of 1 Samuel 8.

The problem with this can be seen in the fact that the Israelites already have a governing system. If you read the whole chapter, you find that Samuel has basically been acting as a king for Israel, and the reason Israel wants a king is because his sons are, in fact, terrible people. (Shades of Eli, here) In subtext, if one reads Judges, Israel is also tired of the anarchy–bear in mind, they nearly wiped out Benjamin a few years earlier for protecting a city full of gang rapists. Now, the reason for the anarchy is that they are not following the Law of God–however, given that the point of the Law is that we can’t follow it, this is not a valid reason for saying we should attempt to roll that way ourselves. Also, the tribes were generally governed, as examples of collective action by various tribes can be seen throughout the book of Judges.

In other words, Israel’s sin here is not even that they want a government. Their problem is not even that they want a king, that they might follow God better. Basically, their motivation, if one reads 1 Samuel, is that they want to be like the cool nations, who have kings who can lead them into war and stuff. And, even then, note that God doesn’t tell Samuel to go and anoint a psychopath.

Finally, the Christian anarchist still has to deal with pesky things like “Render unto Caesar,” as well as Romans 13–y’know, the chapter that says to obey the governing authorities, as they have been put in place by God to encourage good and punish evil.  We can argue about particular governments and their merits later; the concept of government, however, is not, theologically, sinful in and of itself.

In other words, just because a concept gets hijacked by venal bribe-takers, psychopathic powermongers, and meddling do-gooders, it doesn’t mean we throw it out–it means we deal with the hijackers–preferably, by not letting them jack it in the first place.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

Reality Check, Christian Music Snubbers

Okay, folks, this is something that’s been bothering me for a long time, and it’s really time it got said.

Folks, it’s not the 1980s anymore, Carman is no longer a prominent figure, and Christian music, is, overall, just as good as secular music, in terms of musical and lyrical quality (I am not qualified to speak of vocal ability).

Here’s what I mean. I have listened, due to working in a warehouse, to three different local radio stations that spew forth secular music. I have also listened, due to desiring background noise that isn’t going to cause me to freak out, to  the local Christian music station.

In terms of lyrical and musical quality, I really cannot tell the difference, except the classic rock songs sometimes have a better awareness of the state of the world we live in, as opposed to the world to come. The subject matter for both is extremely derivative–dear rock bands and pop artists, we have enough songs about having sex and engaging in bad relationships–while Christian artists really need some more fire and brimstone–encouragement is good, but most people need a kick in the pants every now and then. The lyrics are often banal, with overly repeated choruses, and the mindset is often adolescent, although at least the Christian artists can act like mature adults, if not think like them. And don’t even get me started on secular music’s view of women…

Now, here’s the the thing. A lot of the people I know who snub “Contemporary Christian Music” do so, I think, at least partially on theological grounds and the notion that we’re supposed to hold ourselves to higher standards.  I understand both of these notions, having had such opinions myself about many “Christian” bands. There’s also the issue of familiarity–most of us are familiar with the CCM scene, and as such we see its foibles and troubles and stupidity, therefore we criticize it, because we can best criticize what we see. However, we also end up being exposed, as a rule, to those secular artists who don’t play to the lowest common denominator, mostly because those are the ones who actually require an introduction, thereby getting a skewed view of the relative quality of Christian vs. secular music.

However, I honestly think that, partially, the reasoning is that they want to be taken seriously by their secular peers, and their peers hold Christian music in contempt, a contempt that is, at best, rooted in stereotypes from the 1980s and 1990s, and at worst merely an artifact of cultural sneering at music that doesn’t play by the same hedonistic, hierarchy-is-the-worst-thing-ever, rules. I understand this as well, but it’s really not a good reason to snub something.

(Ed. note: Don’t even get me started on “preachiness.” Stellar Kart at its worst has nothing on Hozier.)

And maybe I’m getting a skewed view because I’m listening to the radio, and I would hope that no one would take this to be some kind of claim that all non-CCM is bad and all CCM is good–as stated, the local Christian station is there mostly because my one real alternative is NPR, and who wants to listen to National Peoples’ Radio all day long?

That was a joke.

Anyway, just…think through why you don’t like stuff, and try to be objective about it. Be rational, don’t rationalize. I’ll try to do the same myself.

And we’ll be better for it.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

Good is Worth Doing

So, a few days ago, I was reminded of my teenage years of listening exclusively to CCM and NPR on the radio, and I happened to remember one of the songs that got played fairly frequently having a part that went like this: Alright, okay/We could load the van up/with our things today/Take it all to Good Will/But still/We might as well/just dump in a big landfill/If love is nowhere.

Now, thing is, the song is, essentially, a retelling of the verses from 1 Corinthians 13 wherein Paul gives a long list of really awesome stuff that you could do or possess, but then points out that if you don’t love, then you have nothing.

However, this particular verse, while a good reminder that doing good stuff for folks doesn’t necessarily make you a good person, has a really lousy practical application. Or, to put it another way, it’s only a viable notion to follow if the primary purpose of doing good stuff is to get you in good with God–that is to say, works righteousness.

Here’s what I mean.

The song is trying to point out that love–hopefully the biblical definition rather than the currently predominant one in our society–is the sine qua non of the Christian life, and really life in general. This is good. However, the fact is that, in reality, except so far as your own personal goodness is concerned, the world is better off if you give your extra stuff–or just your stuff–to people who need it and can’t afford it as opposed to throwing it away, because throwing stuff away tends to make it difficult to reuse. And, frankly, this ends up leading to other people receiving less help or no help, while you are still out all your stuff.

Oh, and you’re now self-righteous about not doing something without love.

This is not good.

If something is right to do, but you don’t feel like doing it, don’t let that stop you, m’kay?

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

Profit!

The title, unfortunately, is not an announcement what I am getting from this blog.

But anyway, I was reminded today of the complaint that corporations make “too much money.” This is a relatively common belief, particularly when dealing with bogeymen like the health insurance or oil industries. Well, what does this mean, exactly?

Thing is, we hear a lot of talk, these days, about how corporations are making billions of dollars in profits. This is true, but should be placed in context–they’re also spending billions of dollars as well, to the point where the average US corporate profit margin, at least in 2013, was about 9.3%, which is considered a historical high–since the 1950s, the average margin has been around 5.9%.

While I’m not going to assume that everyone knows this–I didn’t know the numbers ’til I looked them up while writing this–it seems like it should be part of the national debate on economics that these people are making $1.09 per dollar that they spend. I mean, this is a pretty decent margin, but it’s not like the average US corporation is minting money. Instead, all anyone talks about is huge-sounding absolute numbers.

Furthermore, what does it mean to make “too much money?” While I would be inclined to say that there is a point after which one has too much money (that is, somewhere between “pay living expenses for your descendants to the fourth generation” and “Annual GDP of Chad”), I’m not inclined to base my political decisions on that notion, nor would I be inclined to defend that concept to the metaphorical death, much less the literal one.

However, the vibe I seem to get off of most of the people who talk about this is that they don’t really have a notion of what it means to make “too much money” other than “They’re being exploitative.” This is a fair statement–after all, even a .0000001% profit margin off of slavery is too much money, because you are gaining it by enslaving people–but it doesn’t answer the question of what it means to be exploitative.

There are some things that seem painfully obvious–unsafe conditions that don’t have to be unsafe, not paying people enough to feed themselves, preventing workers from leaving, etc.–but some things aren’t quite so obvious. Take the ruckus over the minimum wage, which is supposed to be raised from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour. With all due respect, what on earth is going on here? I mean, I get wanting to raise the minimum wage to cover inflation–which, as of 2013, would mean upping it to $7.82 an  hour–but upping it to $15 an hour would mean that you could raise a small family by working as a cashier at a fast-food place for forty hours a week. On one income. Well, briefly, until prices went up to match, while more people got replaced in favor of machines wherever possible, and…yeah.

Is having the minimum wage at $7.25 exploitative? I don’t know. What I do know is that the definition of exploitative behavior seems to be “I’m not getting as much money as I think I should, never mind the actual worth of my labor.” Which brings us to Karl Marx.

To put it bluntly, a lot of the hollering about corporate profits is Marxist in nature, in that there is a strain of thought that, deep down, believes that profits themselves are inherently exploitative, not rendered that way by corrupt and sinful business practices. That is to say, it appears that there is a strain of thought that believes that making money over and above operating costs (including taxation) is wrong, or at the very least morally suspect.

My question is–why? And, more importantly, why do so many Christians seem to be okay with this? Every single screed against “the rich” in Scripture is  upset with people who actively do terrible things, not against wealth as wealth (perhaps the rich young ruler is an exception). Why do so many people fail to grasp the concept that making money is not sinful, while so man others fail to grasp that means of doing so can be?

Look, my point is, let’s not assume that profit is bad or good, m’kay? Let’s find out how it’s gotten, first.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and Perceptions of Sex

Re-post because I’m tired.

Just to lay my cards on the table, let it be known that I have read The Chronicles of Narnia multiple times, and that I have only read the Harry Potter series once.

But, on to the post.

So, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, said that she had “a big problem” with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia because “there comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex.”

With all due respect, that is bunk. Here’s why.

First off, Lewis had absolutely no problem with sex as general sort of thing that people did. He was, in point of fact, a fan—so long as sex was had as it should be had. If you don’t believe me, go to your local library and read the final two chapters of That Hideous Strength. (Then go and read the rest of the Space Trilogy. You won’t be sorry.) However, for those of you who don’t have access to a copy, or those of you who just want to get on with the post already, the last part of the book involves the planet Venus coming very close to Earth—at which point all of the animals, and all of the married couples among the protagonists, become very amorous, and, while nothing is shown or described, it is made very clear that all the couples are having sex, or will be having sex very shortly.

Also, in the particular section of the Chronicles of Narnia that is being discussed, the problem isn’t that Susan discovered sex. The whole “nylons and lipstick” issue is merely symptomatic of the actual problem that Susan had, at least as Lewis saw it—namely, that Susan wanted to be a young adult for as long as possible—and possibly longer.

However, Rowling’s statement is symptomatic of a deeper issue with modern culture, and that is this: saying that there could anything negative in the least about realizing the twin facts that there is such a thing called “sex” and that having it is desirable (yes, I know there are asexuals out there) ends up getting turned into saying that sex is bad.

Now, the fact of the matter is that there has been a strain in Christian thought that has been convinced that sex is a Bad Thing, due to the influence of Greek philosophy and its denigration of the body in its attempt to honor the soul on the early church fathers. However, there is another strain—the one that Lewis fell into—that held that sex was an excellent thing, so long as it was practiced within the bounds that God set up for it (Note: I am not going to launch this blog into The Great Homosexual Marriage Debate at this time) and so long as it did not become an idol.  That was Lewis’ position, and it is evident in his writing, particularly in Mere Christianity and That Hideous Strength, the latter of which is particularly interesting because in it, it is one of the main villains who seeks to rid the human race of sex, and the only person who is on the side of good who is offended by the amorous goings-on at the end is the atheist among the protagonists. This was doubtless somewhat unfair of Lewis, but it does indicate his lack of a problem with sex as sex.

However, he did have a problem with what could be called “the four evers” of how some people wanted to have sex in his day, and still do in ours—that is to say, whenever, wherever, whoever, with however many—and the less extreme variants thereof. So far as he was concerned, this was a perversion of the original purpose. Also, he believed that there was a time to be a child, a time to be an adolescent, and a time to be an adult. All these things had their seasons, and Susan, unlike her siblings, her aunt and uncle, and Eustace and Jill, wanted to get through childhood too fast and wait too long to actually grow up—this is actually stated in-book, by the way, and the fact that Rowling, along with many of the other people who have criticized Lewis for throwing Susan out of Narnia because she “grew up”, missed that little bit of information simply proves my point.

This also raises some interesting questions about the linkage between sexual awareness and maturity both in reality and in the mind of society. While I don’t know how much these are linked in reality, it does seem to me that society as a whole does not seem to believe that one can be a fully functional adult without some sort of sexual experience, or at least that this is what the entertainment industry seems to be pushing. If you don’t believe me, I would like to request that you find me one known virgin who is a major recurring character in a current television series who is not a nebbish of some sort. The fact that you will probably have to hunt for one says volumes.

At this point you may be wondering why on earth all of this is important. Here’s why. What has happened is that modern society has developed the opinion that sex is something that is abnormal to not engage in, and that may be necessary to functioning well as a mature adult, but that it does not matter who one has sex with, so long as there are not blood relatives, children, or coercion involved, and to mention that it might be wise to have other strictures is the act of a repressed killjoy.

This causes, even from a non-religious standpoint, numerous problems, most of which can be guessed. Among these are teen pregnancy, single-parent homes—this is not to say that single parents cannot be good parents, but it is fairly clear that, on average, children in two-parent households do better than ones from single-parent households—and numerous amounts of emotional, mental, and relational baggage that will impair further relationships, combined with an unwillingness to acknowledge that there is a problem. From both a religious and a non-religious standpoint, it results in disordered desires—a desire for a bed partner instead of a wife being the primary one. From a Christian standpoint, it is an attitude of rebellion towards God, and a perversion of the gift He has given.

Now, I’m not attributing all of modern Western society’s problems to its attitudes about sex—in point of fact, I believe those attitudes to be a symptom of the problem. However, sometimes symptoms can cause secondary symptoms, and sometimes those secondary symptoms can be as deadly as the primary symptoms.

What one person believes may or may not affect a society. What a large portion of a society believes will affect that society, for good or ill.

Ideas have consequences.

‘Til next time,

 Lowell Van Ness

Worshiping the Creation?

hs-2001-10-a-1280x960_wallpaper

Recently, I’ve been reading several articles on the topics of physics and faith, so I decided to share some of my thoughts about them here, especially on symmetry in nature and fine-tuning of the universe for life. Nothing in physics or life is separate from the new life found through faith in Christ, and I am concerned that we as scientists and science enthusiasts often fall for less than what we are made for in our approaches to science. We are too easily drawn into worshiping the impersonal creation rather than its personal Creator. To give some background for this claim, I’d like to reflect on several of these articles on science and faith below.

In “Anthropic Coincidences,” First Things writer Stephen Barr addresses the fine-tuning toward life of many physical constants in our universe.  Over the last century, physicists have discovered natural processes that “just happen” to balance, such as a resonance between the energy levels of carbon-12 and the three-alpha nuclear reaction that allows elements other than hydrogen (and thus life!) to exist. Or the huge mass difference between electrons and protons that somehow still have exactly equal and opposite electric charges, making atoms possible. Or the expansion rate of the universe… As these sorts of abundant, serendipitous coincidences cast doubt on the idea that life has no purpose or design in the universe, Barr investigates the implications of fine-tuning for theism. Several arguments objecting to the theistic explanation have been formulated, such as the many-universes response, the limitations-of-knowledge response, and conventional-science counter, which Barr admits have some weight, but do not defeat fine-tuning arguments for theism.

I could easily spend a blog post on each of these responses to the argument that the universe’s physical constants are finely-tuned to allow for life (and will, hopefully, at some point) but for now, the short version of these objections to fine-tuning are as follows: the many-universes response says that our universe would look fine-tuned if there were a huge number of other universes, each with different values of the physical constants. Some universes would be fine-tuned, some would not. The limits-of-knowledge responses are that we don’t really know what sorts of possible values the physical constants could take,  and the conventional science counter says that there are as-yet-unknown explanations that naturally follow from what we already know, but just haven’t discovered yet. There are also responses to these counters, but that is not the point I am trying to make here.

While physicists question the implications of fine-tuning, asking what relation our status as biased observers is (we can only observe a universe which supports life, for obvious reasons), the arguments for and against design in fine-tuning yet remind us how unlikely our existence is. When I consider fine-tuning, I do not see a rigorous proof of design, but instead, to channel Wigner, an “unusual effectiveness in the natural sciences” for supporting life. The fact that the proton and electron have the same charge while their masses differ wildly, or the happenstance of carbon-12 resonances give an impression of design, and are a cause of wonder. For the Christian, this is cause to worship. However, the particular fine-tuning arguments for theism (FTAs) put forth, while certainly not invalid, are not strongly persuasive by themselves either. They are probability arguments, and as such, relate to our knowledge states. The problem is that our knowledge states about the possible values of the physical parameters themselves, the number of universes, and the other evidences for the existence of God all play upon the probabilities in FTAs. That is not to say these are defeaters for the FTAs, but they do mean that FTAs should not serve as stand-alone arguments.

Instead, Barr’s treatment of the fine-tuning coincidences reminds me of the purpose and wonder of Creation, primarily as a means of marveling at nature in its study, and growing more in awe of its Creator, serving as reminders of God’s ingenuity as Creator, and providence as our Sustainer. I would like to further explore the individual formulations of the FTA in further posts and continue to probe their relative effectiveness as an intersection of modern physics with natural theology. I do believe after examining these arguments in some depth that they are logically valid and have merit, but am currently unsure about their degree of effectiveness as probabilistic arguments about hypothetical changes in parameters that we cannot directly test.

How instead should we view fine-tuning in light of theism and materialism? Barr gives us a clue in yet another First Things article, “Fearful Symmetries“. Seeing order as emerging from chaos, some materialists, such as Daniel Dennett, employ the metaphor of cranes whereby nature builds itself up from a basic level as opposed to unnecessary sky-hooks (i.e. “God”) building it from “up-there.”  However, this misses the way that those “cranes” work: only a deeper level of order allows apparent chaos to give rise to order, as evidenced by symmetry, a kind of order in physics. Using the example of marbles in a tilted box rolling into a tight-packed symmetrical pattern, Barr shows how this symmetry is actually a loss of symmetry inherent to the spherical nature of the marbles; generalizing, Barr develops the principle in physics of order from yet deeper order.

Unlike fine-tuning, which speaks to us of God’s providential care for our existence, symmetry reminds us of His transcendent power and beauty. Wigner comes to mind as Barr describes the mathematics of gauge symmetry in the fundamental forces, in which an expression for the energy of a system known as the Lagrangian does not change with changes to coordinate systems. Barr recognizes this strange effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences, and how it speaks to a universe where things that do not have to be beautiful to work nonetheless are. While fine-tuning thus says more about God’s care for man in creation, symmetry brings us to consider God’s sovereign beauty and our relationship towards Him.

Like fine-tuning, symmetry does therefor teach us something of God: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20, NIV) In other words, symmetry is not a syllogism proving that God exists, but a deeply affective expression of beauty that leads us to wonder at nature. For the reductive materialist, this wonder becomes idolatry— a worship of impersonal matter rather than an infinite-personal loving God. Upon encountering beauty built into the very fabric of reality, we can ignore it, worship it, or worship the One who made it, but we are never without excuse.