A Christmas Meditation

(I wrote this for Kate‘s newsletter.)

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A couple of weeks ago, I spent some extended time with God. I was in the middle of a potential tragedy in my life, and seeking for solace of some kind, for a reminder that God was in control and cared.

I started by singing some hymns. Specifically, Christmas carols. One of the songs I ended up singing said this:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

In my mind I couldn’t help picturing the scene: cold, still, lonely, silent. No one around for miles and miles. It sounds sad, but it didn’t make me feel sad. In my imagination it was beautiful and strange and other-worldly.

I felt as though God were giving me imagery to match my mood, and showing me the beauty in being there with Him. The next verse said:

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Now the first Christmas, from the little I understand, may not have taken place in snowy December but in temperate March. Still, I can see why songwriters through the ages were drawn to the picture of God quietly invading earth on a clear, moonlit, freezing night.

A more familiar carol says this:

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight. 

and, in the third verse,

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.

As I clung to God that day, I felt like those songs. My world was frozen at that moment in time. God was asking for me to just wait for the moment to come when he would quietly step in with His salvation.

* * * * *

Scripture paints a similar picture. Here is Psalm 147:16-17

He gives snow like wool;
He scatters the frost like ashes.
He casts forth His ice as fragments;
Who can stand before His cold?

Psalm 147 is a psalm of praise. When Jewish believers sang this psalm in the temple, they were acknowledging the fearful power of God. God’s is sovereign. God is transcendent.

Sometimes we come face to face with the universe and realize just how little we are. God is infinitely mightier than the universe. Winter turns to summer and then to winter again, but it is all part of God’s plan. Storms arise and subside, but nothing is ever out of his control.

Look at the same verses in context:

He sends forth His command to the earth;
His word runs very swiftly.
 
He gives snow like wool;
He scatters the frost like ashes.
He casts forth His ice as fragments;
Who can stand before His cold?
 
He sends forth His word and melts them;
He causes His wind to blow and the waters to flow.

Everything happens according to God’s decree. When he decrees winter, there is winter. When he decrees an ice storm, there is an ice storm. But it is all under control. The day comes when he sends forth his word to thaw the frozen ground. He sends forth his wind to warm the ice. Spring arrives.  Waters begin to flow again.

The Psalms were written to be sung in worship by God’s people in all sorts of circumstances. Their composers intended them to be taken not just literally but also as metaphors for the work of God in general. They expected people to relate the imagery to their own lives as they sang. Someone might sing, “Who can stand before His cold?” and think, “That describe my life right now. I am undone by the things that are happening to me.” Then they would sing, “He sends forth His word and melts them; He causes His wind to blow and the waters to flow,” and think, “I long for the day when God sends forth His word to melt the ice in my life. I long for the day when His Spirit will set the waters flowing again.” They would go on singing praise in hope of the deliverance coming one day.

Which brings us back to Christmas:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright,
amid the cold of winter,
when half spent was the night.

Here is one last song about God quietly stepping in to our cold world to save us.

           Welcome To Our World

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The Christmas carols were:
In the Bleak Midwinter, text by Christina G. Rossetti, 1830-1894
O Little Town of Bethlehem, text by Phillips Brooks, 1835-1893
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, 15th cent. German; trans. by Theodore Baker

Book review: Suspicion & Faith

Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, by Merold Westphal

Westphal is a philosophy professor and a Christian.

The book is about the three modern philosophers Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. (OK, Freud isn’t exactly a philosopher, but he wrote philosophically relevant stuff, so I’m calling him one for now.) These three have become known as the “masters of suspicion” for the common approach they took in attacking Christianity.

As Westphal explains in this book, most of the atheists we’ve been exposed to practice skepticism rather than suspicion. That is, they try to debunk Christian claims by showing that they are false. The three discussed in this book took a different tack. They exposed the unworthy motives that they insisted lay behind Christian claims. Freud argued that religious beliefs are subconsciously generated by our secret desires and the guilt we feel about them; Marx said they arise as the inevitable result of class conflicts, and represent the justification of the rich and the pacification of the poor; Nietzsche saw them as the disguised resentment of the weak and cowardly against those who are willing to act powerfully, joyfully, and courageously. All three agree that Christians are not aware of their false motives, but they have them nonetheless.

There are ways to defend ourselves against such criticisms, but that isn’t Westphal’s point here. He wants to ask whether we can learn from the critiques. Should we take the charges seriously? Should we search our hearts in humility and repent of the things we’ve been charged with?

I really like that approach, and I want to take several paragraphs to discuss my view of it.

First, I think there is a place for doing apologetics, for defending ourselves against attacks by opponents of the faith, but I think there is also a place for asking whether we are guilty as charged. In my opinion, most attacks on Christian motives are exaggerated, but there is nearly always a seed of truth in them, and we need to consider how we should respond to that truth. We know that because of the example of David and Shimei (2 Samuel 16:5-12) and because of what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:1-5.

Furthermore, this approach is very much in line with my own gifts and personality. I thrive spiritually when I listen carefully to critics of Christianity. Once I understand clearly why they feel as they do, it deepens my own walk with God. (I have a corresponding weakness, in that it is difficult for me to shoot down false teaching when it needs to be refuted. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, but I am not sure what to say about it at this point.)

Anyway, there are a few different ways to respond to someone who is as hostile to one’s faith as the masters of suspicion. One, of course, is to reject everything they say as nonsense. I think that’s a bad approach.

Another is to capitulate too quickly; to just accept whatever charge they make as true and try to fix things. That way of dealing with their attacks isn’t much better. Freud and Marx and Nietzsche are so thoroughgoing in their rejection of everything remotely Christian, and their objections are so emotionally charged, that it isn’t spiritually healthy to accept their assumptions uncritically.

So a third way is to hold onto one’s Christian beliefs and then use the complaints of our critics to alert us to little things here and there that we can do a better job of. This is easy enough to figure out on a surface level. Marx says that Christianity is a justification of the rich and an opiate for the poor, so we think, “How can I be sure I am not ignoring the plight of the poor?” Nietzsche talks about disguised resentment, so we double-check our attitudes to be sure we have forgiven people. That’s not a very good response either, though; it’s too superficial.

The fourth, best way of responding to Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche is to go deeper. We can’t just think about how they view Christians, and then try to make ourselves look better than that. To be content with that would be to miss their point. They claim that our wrong motives are a) embedded into our very identities at a deep level and b) almost completely unconscious. We can’t see the problem by simple self-reflection.

What we have to do instead is wrestle with some deep theology about original sin and the nature of self-deception in Scripture. We have to find the precise connections between that and the suspicions these three raise. We have to track down the ways in which the views of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche are themselves corrupted by original sin. Finally, we have to look for ways to apply the insight this gives us to our lives, but we have to find, not just any application we can think of, but those which go to the heart of the matter.

Doing all this takes more than intellectual analysis: it takes humility, wisdom, balance, and especially time. It may take months or even years mulling over the basic charges being made, and doing so in inward conversation with the Holy Spirit.

Back to the book: that’s what I felt was missing when I read it. Westphal is completely right that there is value in working through how we need to repent in light of the masters of suspicion, but he didn’t help me see how to do so in any depth. I felt as though he used approach three. He just grabbed some obvious superficial applications and wrote some mild exhortations and platitudes about them.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s carefully thought all of this through, and what seemed glib was deep. Maybe he just presented it simply for the sake of his audience. If so, I needed less simplicity. I needed to see the depth.

So much for my disagreement with the book. There were also several things Westphal did well. That he wrote the book at all is great, because his general point is one that needs to be made. His explanations of all three philosophers were clear, thorough, and easy to understand. He is doctrinally sound and reasonable throughout.

Would I recommend the book? Probably not to most people, but I wouldn’t be worried about recommending it either.

Would I reread it? Probably I won’t, but if I wanted to take a closer look at his summaries of each philosopher, it’d be worth doing.

Even though I was hoping for more, I didn’t dislike the book. It didn’t raise any alarms in my mind. It didn’t make me mad. It was a mildly enjoyable read. On a scale of 1 to 10 I would put this around 4.

God and fictional worlds

The hopelessness of fictional atheism

Sometimes TV show writers have a habit of torturing their shows’ characters for dramatic effect. Especially at the end of a season, there is a tendency to have something horrible happen to keep the audience interested. I don’t mind it when the cliffhanger is action-adventurey and leaves the protagonists in great danger. When it leaves the protagonists in emotional misery, though, it can really bother me.

Why does a fictional character’s distress cause me distress? I think it’s because a good story is supposed to be telling the truth about life. Even if the character and plot details are made up, they are made up in such a way as to say something about how things really are. To open myself up to a story is to let myself believe in its deeper truth. When writers invent tragedy just to play on my emotions, it angers me, but it also causes a lot of turmoil for me.

One of my children suggests I just invent a new ending, if I don’t like the old one. The reason I have trouble with that is that is seems somehow dishonest. When a writer invents a world, he gets to make the rules for it. To re-make the events of the story is just to pretend something about the characters that isn’t real within that story. It wouldn’t be appropriate to imagine away real-life tragedies; neither is it okay to imagine away fictional ones.

In real life, when I am faced with suffering, I cling to God for comfort. I rest in His unswerving love and sovereign control of everything that was going on. Even when it is people around me who are suffering, and they don’t believe in God, I can still take solace myself in the fact of God’s essential goodness.

In stories, though, it has often seemed wrong to do that, if there is no God in the story. If the writers have described a world without God, it seems as though in order to take the story seriously I should read it with that in mind. Atheist fictional worlds, properly interpreted, are worlds without God. The characters in it are in that sense without hope.

Or so it seemed to me up until recently.

The last time I got really upset about the random tormenting of a favorite character, I went for a walk to mull things over. As I was asking God for insight into my distress and how I should respond, an odd thought from philosophy passed through my head.

God exists in all possible worlds

Time for a quick detour.

First, there are these things that philosophers call possible worlds. In the twentieth century, philosophers struggled to pin down the precise meaning of statements like “X might have happened” or “If Y had happened, then Z would have happened.” They invented a discipline called modal logic, the logic of possibility and necessity.

As part of defining modal logic, they appealed to the concept of a possible world. A possible world is any way in which the world could have been, logically speaking. Possible worlds include those that are very much like ours, differing only in a detail or so, as well as those whose in which the universe operates according to completely different laws.

If something is possible, it means that it is true in some possible world. If something is necessary, it means it is true in every possible world.

Second, there is this strange proof for God’s existence known as the ontological proof. At first glance, it seems to try and prove that God exists from the definition of God, which seems pretty goofy. Even most theists reject the validity of the ontological proof.

In recent decades, however, a new version of the ontological proof based on modal logic has arisen which is a little harder to refute and perhaps more plausible. I won’t go into the details here, but it hinges on the idea that God exists necessarily. That is, God is the kind of being for whom it is impossible not to exist. Which means that God exists in all possible worlds.

So there you have it. God exists in all possible worlds. That means, he exists in any possible fictional world. So God is there after all!

Is this for real?

Well, sort of.

First, I am not sure the ontological proof works. It doesn’t matter, though. I don’t need to start from the mere definition of a necessarily existing God and get to a God who really exists. Rather, I start from the assumption that God already exists, and exists necessarily, and then work out the implications of that.

Second, possible worlds don’t actually exist. They aren’t worlds in the sense of being locations in space-time. A possible world is merely a set of logically consistent statements describing how things could be. Take any statement about how things are: “The sky is blue” or “The sky is green” for example. Add as many other statements as you like. Work out all the logical implications of all the statements, and you get a possible world, but calling it a world doesn’t mean we should think of it as being in any particular place. “World” is being used metaphorically.

Since possible worlds don’t exist anywhere specific, saying that God exists in a possible world doesn’t have anything to do with Him being anywhere in particular. Rather, it means one of the implications of any set of logically consistent statements is that God exists.

Fictional worlds are the same as possible worlds in this respect, though. When we say that a story takes place in a fictional world, we don’t mean that it happens at any particular place in space-time. (Even when the story is set in a certain time and place, as in a historical novel, we only mean that the story’s setting matches the real time and place; we don’t mean that the events in the story actually happened in history.)

In fact, the fictional world of a story, to the degree that it is logically consistent, is a possible world. What does it mean that God exists in it? It means that the implications of the rules of the world include the existence of God. Every story carried to its logical conclusion would end up stating that God exists. Worlds in which atheism is explicitly stated are worlds which are, strictly speaking, logically contradictory, whether or not the author recognizes it.

In other words, I am free to imagine God being a part of every story, without worrying that I am not taking the author seriously.

With that settled, I can return with a clear conscience to picturing things in terms of worlds. Every story describes a world. Within that world, God is there, even if no one else in the story thinks so.

That’s kind of cool. I love the thought that God is so omnipresent that he even shows up in fiction!

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,

Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me. — Psalm 139:7-10

Book review: The Savage God

I’m working on finishing up the 30 or so books I’m in the middle of. I’ll post quick reviews of each one here.

Review of: The Savage God, A. Alvarez

This was a study of suicide. It’s a little hard to say what kind of study. It didn’t examine it psychologically in any real depth. It didn’t go really deep into any kind of analysis.

Mostly, it surveyed the ways in which suicide was regarded in literature through the ages. As tangents of this focus, it also talked a little about how culture in general has viewed suicide, and spent some time considering the effect of suicide on the arts and of the arts on suicide.

The other main thing it did was to give moving accounts of Sylvia Plath’s suicide and of the author’s own suicide attempt.

The biggest thing I learned was that people who are drawn to suicide often find themselves sort of fascinated by it, but at the same time mostly they don’t want to do it. It’s just that in certain moods, they just about decide to, and the rest of the time they feel that, inevitably, sooner or later in one of those moods they will follow through. Also, they may sort of flirt with the idea of committing suicide, sort of play with it or plan for it or rehearse it or attempt it halfheartedly because doing so brings an important sense of relief to them.

How do I evaluate the book? I liked it. It had a friendly, conversational feel. It was an easy read. I didn’t get any epiphanies from it, but I feel like it made me aware of the topic. I would put it just over halfway on the 1-10 scale, perhaps but probably not worth re-reading.

Politics and kindness

I love this:

 

I love the quote above. I love almost all the other quotes on the same web page.

It distresses me that we are sometimes so vicious in our politics, and particularly distresses me when Christians get sucked in to the same viciousness.

I like that Christians get involved in politics. I think that when we do so we have to be really careful not to adopt the world’s viewpoint of how to be politically effective. Matthew 5:1-10 and Matthew 20:25-28 should describe the way we engage in the culture war. I don’t think that they usually do.

A new blog

When I started this blog, I had two audiences in mind. One of them was my philosophy students.

I’d like to be able to point them to my blog in the classes I teach, but this blog is so explicitly Christian that I’m a little uncertain about doing that, so I created a separate blog for them.

It’s called musingoutloud-philosophy.com.

If the posts there seem relevant to this blog, I may cross-post them here or link to them from here. In the meantime, if you are really interested (*I* think they will be interesting :-)), be sure to check that blog out from time to time. There are a couple of posts there already.

Fixed!

Me, last night, to Kate.  “The calendar plug-in in WordPress doesn’t work!”

I went on to show her what I meant.

Kate, in an e-mail to the editorial calendar plug-in authors: “Currently the feature to type a new draft into an unscheduled post does not work. [Description of the problem.] Maybe you never noticed it doesn’t work? It would be wonderful if you got this feature working correctly. Will be looking for an update to correct this feature.”

Less than 24 hours later, there was an update to the plug-in, with this description: “Creating a new unscheduled draft is now working properly from the calendar.”

Sure, this is a testament to the responsiveness of the authors of the editorial calendar plug-in (thanks, guys). But I assume it also shows that Kate has unlimited influence in the programming world.

Schopenhauer and I are kindred spirits (apparently)

I just started reading a book with selections from Schopenhauer. To my mild surprise, I *love* what I’ve read so far. Half the time it’s made me think “Hey! That’s just what *I* believe too!”, and the other half I’ve thought “Oh! Great idea! I should have thought of that!”

In particular, his view of the relationship between direct intuitive perception and reasoning about concepts is close to mine.

My belief is that there is a world out there that we experience at a pre-verbal level. Then when we *think* about this experience, we frame it conceptually. That means, essentially, that we form abstract concepts to represent what we experienced. Those concepts are a model of our direct knowledge, but are no longer direct, and there is always a small gap between the concepts we have and the truth we are trying to capture using them. That gap can be exploited to create liar’s paradoxes and other strange things.

Schopenhauer adds that by means of concepts we can make our knowledge last beyond the experience. We can reason about what we’ve seen without having to *see* it right now. We just manipulate the concepts logically and follow where they lead. But we do well to remember that we aren’t dealing with the direct perception anymore, and so there is always the possibility of error being introduced — even if our conclusions are based on valid deductions, they may not map directly to what we *meant* by the concepts.

For example, suppose I want to understand justice. I may start by defining it, but I will test the definition’s plausibility by “trying it out” — by thinking of examples in which I just *know* what justice is, and checking to see if the conceptual definition I am using matches that knowledge. Then I work out the consequences of my concept of justice, abstractly, without worrying much about intuition. Finally, I check the consequences against what I intuitively know about justice again. At this point, I may say, “No, that’s wrong somehow. That must not really be what I meant by justice”, or I may say, “Wow, that seems right, but I never noticed that before. Now that I notice it, I can see (intuitively) that it is true.”

Is this exactly how things work? Of course not. (It couldn’t be. My description is itself an abstract conceptualization of how things work, and so if it is true there must be a gap between what I’ve said here and how things *really* are.)

But I think it’s pretty close.

Political hubris

Here’s another interesting quote from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Discussing political activity, she says:

[T]he old virtue of moderation, of keeping within bounds, is indeed one of the political virtues par excellence, just as the political temptation par excellence is indeed hubris … and not  the will to power, as we are inclined to believe.

This is really important, I think. We assume the primary danger comes from people who are power-hungry, who do what they want from selfish motives. In fact, the greater danger comes from those who think they know how to legislate for everyone else, for their own good. It happens on both the left and the right. Politicians on both sides want to pass laws to save people from themselves, and it never occurs to them all the unintended consequences their well-meaning control might have.

The biggest problem is that when someone is doing this, he knows he is acting from unselfish motives. He is not power-hungry like so many others. Consequently, he will not listen to objections because he is confident there can be none from anyone who really gets it. His political purity in his own eyes makes him immune to counter-arguments.

That is one of the most important downsides of the political polarization in our country: not just that it produces incivility or unpleasantness, but that it cultivates this kind of hubris. It insulates each side from having to take the other side’s beliefs seriously.

Arguing for or against God’s existence

Just a quick thought about something I will write up in a lot more detail later.

I’ve been reading lots of philosophical arguments about the existence of God this past year — some arguing that God does exist, others arguing that God does not exist.

All of them start from the assumption that we are unbiased, rational observers able to decide on the basis of the evidence we find whether or not God exists. But if Christianity is true, that isn’t really the case.

We have the God-given ability to reason logically (usually), but logical arguments are only as strong as their premises, and premises are only as reliable as the conceptual framework within which they are articulated, and those frameworks are anything but unbiased.

In 1 Cor 2 Paul said:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.  (1 Cor 2:14).

I think the word “appraised” there refers to the fact that our intuition about what is good and bad and right and wrong and real and fake and true and false is gravely distorted by the fall. We have an anti-God bias built into us. We can reason about things, but we can’t properly judge the likelihood of the premises or the significance and relevance of our conclusions.

Earlier, Paul said:

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor 1:18-21.)

Our unbelief is a moral problem, not an intellectual one. I’m not sure how to reconcile this with the philosophical practice of looking for good arguments for or against the existence of God.

I’ve heard that a fideist is someone who believes there is no rational proof of God’s existence; that we just have to take it on faith. I’m not sure I’m a fideist. I think there are good reasons to believe in God, but I believe we are incapable of seeing them without the grace of God to open our hearts to them. Is that fideism? I’m not sure.