Archive for October, 2013

Is Christianity Dumb?

Benedict Spinoza Credit: Wikipedia

Benedict Spinoza
Credit: Wikipedia

It’s really the Enlightenment’s fault.  Ever since René Descartes decided the best catalyst for rational inquiry was skepticism, the skepticism supposedly necessary to reason and the faith integral to religion have been regularly presented as at odds with each other, or, at the very least, best quarantined from each other.  Consider this from Descartes devotee and Old Testament critic, Benedict Spinoza:

Those who do not know how to distinguish philosophy from theology dispute as to whether Scripture should be subject to reason or whether, on the contrary, reason should be the servant of Scripture:  that is to say, whether the sense of Scripture should be accommodated to reason or whether reason should be subordinated to Scripture … It is obvious that both are absolutely wrong.  For whichever position we adopt, we would have to distort either reason or Scripture since we have demonstrated that the Bible does not teach philosophical matters but only piety, and everything in Scripture is adapted to the understanding and preconceptions of the common people.[1]

Spinoza passionately contends that reason and religion must be kept in two separate spheres.  If they are not, he warns, Scripture will distort reason and reason will distort Scripture.  But key to understanding Spinoza’s argument for the separation of Scripture and reason is why these two entities distort each other.  “Scripture,” Spinoza explains, “is adapted to the understanding and preconceptions of the common people.”  Spinoza assumes that the biblical characters of antiquity did not have the intellectual faculties necessary to imbibe the great rational truths of the Enlightenment.  Spinoza elsewhere explains:

God adapted His revelations to the understanding and opinions of the prophets [and other biblical authors as well], and that the prophets could be ignorant of matters of purely philosophical reason that are not concerned with charity and how to live; and indeed they really were ignorant in this respect and held contradictory views.  Hence knowledge about natural and spiritual matters is by no means to be sought from them.[2]

Isn’t that nice.  God would have revealed matters of rational, philosophical reason to the biblical writers, but because they were not smart enough to understand them, God had to stick with giving them moral platitudes about “charity and how to live.”  Thankfully, Spinoza does understand the truths of rational philosophy and can explain them to us full-throatedly.

Unfortunately, Spinoza’s parings of reason with intelligence and religion with ignorance are still assumed in and normative to the thinking of our day.  Consider this from the Huffington Post:

Are religious people less intelligent than atheists?

That’s the provocative conclusion of a new review of 63 studies of intelligence and religion that span the past century. The meta-analysis showed that in 53 of the studies, conducted between 1928 to 2012, there was an inverse relation between religiosity – having religious beliefs, or performing religious rituals – and intelligence. That is, on average, non-believers scored higher than religious people on intelligence tests.

What might explain the effect?

Scientists behind studies included in the review most often suggested that “religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better.’”[3]

Now, the rules of rational and, for that matter, statistical inquiry remind us that correlation does not equal causation.  So, to surmise that religious beliefs decrease IQ from a study that happens to show some people with religious beliefs have lower IQ’s than those without religious beliefs is suspect at best.  Indeed, Jordan Silberman, a co-author of the study, admitted as much to the Huffington Post:

I’m sure there are intelligent religious people and unintelligent atheists out there … The findings pertain to the average intelligence of religious and non-religious people, but they don’t necessarily apply to any single person.  Knowing that a person is religious would not lead me to bet any money on whether or not the person is intelligent.

Silberman concedes that there are many anomalies that counter his correlation between religious belief and lower IQ’s, which speaks forcefully against any kind of causation.  Thus, this study gives us no real insight into to whether or not religion and rationality are truly at odds with each other.

So why do I bring all of this up?  Because, regardless of whether or not it is true, firmly ingrained into our society’s zeitgeist is the narrative that religion and reason are irreconcilable.  I, however, believe this to be false.  Christians can make full use of their rational faculties without having to sell their faith to the strictures of a seventeenth century movement and its incorrigible assumptions concerning the incompatibility of reason and religion.  Regardless of any assumptions bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, we know that we have far more than just reason or just religion, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).  And His mind bridges both reason and religion.  After all, His command created both reason and religion.

[1] Benedict Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, Michael Silverthorne & Jonathan Israel, trans. (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007), 186.

[2] Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, 40.

[3] Macrina Cooper-White, “Religious People Branded As Less Intelligent Than Atheists In Provocative New Study,” The Huffington Post (8.14.2013).

October 28, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Waiting To Be Adopted

15-year-old Davion Only with his caseworker Credit:  Tampa Bay Times

15-year-old Davion Only with his caseworker
Credit: Tampa Bay Times

It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time.  15-year-old Davion Only attended St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, Florida on a recent Sunday with a request:  “Somebody, anybody, please adopt me.”  Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times sets the scene of this boy’s dark past:

Davion Navar Henry Only loves all of his names. He has memorized the meaning of each one: beloved, brown, ruler of the home, the one and only.

But he has never had a home or felt beloved.  His name is the last thing his parents gave him.

He was born while his mom was in jail.  He can’t count all of the places he has lived.

In June, Davion sat at a library computer, unfolded his birth certificate and, for the first time, searched for his mother’s name.  Up came her mug shot: 6-foot-1, 270 pounds – tall, big and dark, like him.  Petty theft, cocaine.

Next he saw the obituary: La-Dwina Ilene “Big Dust” McCloud, 55, of Clearwater, died June 5, 2013.  Just a few weeks before.[1]

It’s hard to imagine how this young man’s childhood could have been more heart-rending.

By Davion’s own admission, he has had rage problems in the past.  His caseworker once took him to a picnic hosted by an organization devoted to helping foster kids find permanent homes, but he lashed out – throwing chairs and pushing people away.  But the death of his mother changed him:

When he learned his birth mother was dead, everything changed.  He had to let go of the hope that she would come get him.  Abandon his anger.  Now he didn’t have anyone else to blame.

“He decided he wanted to control his behavior and show everyone who he could be,” [his caseworker] said.

So someone would want him.

The only thing more heartbreaking than the story of Davion’s past is that state of Davion’s present, encapsulated in this one line:  “So someone would want him.”

There’s a reason the Bible often uses adoption as a descriptor for the Gospel.  Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-6).  Elsewhere in his writings, Paul makes it clear that God’s adoption of us as His children is in no way based on our desirability.  Quite the contrary.  Paul minces no words explaining just how undesirable we are:  “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).  Our adoption as God’s children is not based on our desirability, but on His grace.

The Gospel, then, is this:  We do not have to wait for someone to want us.  For we know that someone does want us – so much, in fact, that He’s willing to die for us.

Lane DeGregory’s article ends with this postscript:  “At publication time, two couples had asked about Davion, but no one had come forward to adopt him.”  Praise be to God that when we are slow to adopt, our Lord is not.  He signed the papers for us 2,000 years ago.

[1] Lane DeGregory, “An orphan goes to church and asks someone, anyone to adopt him,” The Tampa Bay Times (10.15.2013).

October 21, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

You Don’t Want To Be Number One

"Moses with the Tablets of the Law" by Rembrandt, 1659 Credit: Wikipedia

“Moses with the Tablets of the Law” by Rembrandt, 1659
Credit: Wikipedia

Idolatry is rampant in our society.  And this is no surprise.  After all, people have loved to worship, serve, and trust in gods of their own making for millennia now.  From money to sex to power to education to an obsession with whatever rights we think we’re supposed to have, we have no shortage of gods on hand and in our hearts.  And idolatry begins when we are young.

I remember a chapel service I conducted for a childcare center at the church I used to serve.  I was talking to the kids about the First Commandment, which I paraphrased like this:  “God is number one.”  It was with this paraphrase that I heard a little two year old voice pipe up from the back of the room:  “No!” the voice protested, “I’m number one!”  I was taken aback.  So I tried to clarify:  “You are special and important,” I said, “But God is number one.  He’s number one over everything.”  The voice, however, wasn’t buying it.  “No!  I’m number one!” it fired back.

By the end of my chapel message, it was almost comical.  Whenever I said, “God is number one,” this little voice would respond, “No!  I’m number one!”  It seems the idolatrous desire to take God’s place is ingrained in us from the earliest of years.

Martin Luther comments on the First Commandment:

Now this is the work of the First Commandment, which enjoins, “Thou shalt have no other gods.” This means, “Since I alone am God, thou shalt place all thy confidence, trust, and faith in Me alone and in no one else.”[1]

I love how Luther describes the spirit of the First Commandment not in terms of obedience, but in terms of faith.  In the First Commandment, Luther explains, God invites us to trust in Him rather than in the idols we make for ourselves.  Why?  Because the idols we make for ourselves take from us, hurt us, and condemn us. The true God, however, gives to us, blesses us, and saves us.  Idols pain us.  The true God comforts us.

The pain of idolatry becomes especially acute when the idols we make for ourselves happen to be ourselves.  When we are our own gods, we are inevitably left disparaging and hating ourselves, for we fail ourselves and find that we are not the kinds of gods we need ourselves to be.

The First Commandment, then, is not just a dictate, but a promise – a promise that we do not have to worry about running everything as number one gods.  The real God already has that number one spot – and all the responsibility and peril that comes with it – covered.  So don’t just obey the First Commandment, have faith in the One who issues it.  For it is only by faith that this commandment is kept.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 44, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 30.

October 14, 2013 at 5:15 am 2 comments

I Don’t Want To Grow Up

Young Man 1It used to be just a fanciful myth.  Now, it’s a psychological reality.  When the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León came to believe some waters at Bimini, the westernmost islands of the Bahamas, could reverse aging and restore youthfulness, he set out on an expedition to find what we have come to know as the Fountain of Youth.

These days, we don’t need a fountain to enjoy perpetual youth, just a psychological pronouncement.  An article published in BBC News chronicles the shift in the way psychologists are viewing youthful adolescence.  Sarah Helps, a clinical psychologist, explains:

We used to think that the brain was fully developed by very early teenagerhood and we now realise that the brain doesn’t stop developing until mid-20s or even early 30s. There’s a lot more information and evidence to suggest that actually brain development in various forms goes on throughout the life span.[1]

It is with this research in mind that child psychologists have now identified three stages of adolescence:  early adolescence from 12-14 years, middle adolescence from 15-17 years, and late adolescence after 18 years.  Notice there is no upper limit on late adolescence.  Adolescence, it seems, can now extend into an indeterminable future.  We can be forever young.  Bob Dylan would be ecstatic.

This is quite a shift from the beginning of the twentieth century when, according to columnist Diana West, “Children in their teen years aspired to adulthood; significantly, they didn’t aspire to adolescence.”[2]  It used to be children wanted to leave adolescence as quickly as they could so they could enjoy the promising perks of adulthood.  Now, more and more grown-ups are eschewing adulthood, with all of its responsibilities, for the nostalgic perks of childhood.

I am not going to argue against scientific evidence that suggests the human brain continues to develop into the late 20s and 30s.  This is, I am certain, true.  But this does not mean that, even while brains are developing, these “late adolescents” are somehow incapable of living – or should not be living – as reasonably developed adults.  Indeed, in any area of life, challenge is necessary for development.  If one wants to develop physical strength, he must endure challenging workouts.  If one wants to increase intellectual acumen, she must challenge herself with reading, researching, and thinking.  If one wants to develop in maturity, he must challenge himself to live as an independent, responsible adult rather than as a dependent, carefree child.

Perhaps it is Gary Cross, Distinguished Professor of Modern History at Penn State University, who states the problem with the increasingly delayed transition into adulthood most succinctly when he writes of young men who refuse to leave the thrills of adolescence:  “The culture of the boy-men today is less a life stage than a lifestyle, less a transition from childhood to adulthood than a choice to live like a teen ‘forever.’”[3]  Brain development may indeed be a product of psychological biology.  Maturity and immaturity, however, are consequences of moral volition.

Choose wisely.

[1] Lucy Wallis, “Is 25 the new cut-off point for adulthood?BBC News Magazine (9.23.2013).

[2] Diana West, The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 1.

[3] Gary Cross, Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2008), 5.

October 7, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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