F.A.Q.: A Smattering of Intelligence

My birthday is the feast day of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, and I find it fitting. Anselm is one of my personal heroes in the faith, and I have two of his maxims written in Latin on the markerboard in my kitchen: Credo ut intelligam (“I believe so that I may understand”) and fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). I feel like Anselm and I would have been friends, for his mottoes sum up my own faith journey fairly well. I tend to blunder my way into theological problems and have to research my way out (hence my current work on the biblical theology of death and its relationship to the natural sciences). Anselm’s words keep me going, and I was therefore highly upset when he lost to Florence Nightingale in this year’s Lent Madness. (Oh sure, she saved countless lives and all that, but Anselm gave us the ontological argument! Priorities, people!)

I think many of us live in the tension of faith and reason. To be sure, a run-in with a harsh fact or a hard-to-swallow premise has given rise to many a crisis of faith. Many people are devout atheists because they cannot view theism in general and Christianity in particular as intellectually credible. For that reason alone, sundry proofs for the existence of God have arisen over the years, all seeking to demonstrate theism is logically coherent. Now we fire off proofs left and right, and the field of apologetics has experienced a renaissance of sorts as more and more flock to it seeking ways to demonstrate the reasonability of Christianity to hordes of rampaging rationalists.

Some stalwart Christians oppose the renewed interest in intellectual defenses of Christianity, espousing a sort of warped, internal variant of the principle of non-overlapping magisteria. “Faith is faith,” they say, “and faith isn’t subject to reason.” A friend recently lamented one of her pastors early in life once delivered a sermon commanding one to sacrifice intelligence on the altar of faith, and, as an intelligent human being, she always found that hard to swallow. And personally, I agree such a thing is a bridge too far. If we believe intelligence is a gift from God, and if we believe being a rational, thinking creature is part of the imago Dei, it seems rather ungrateful and hypocritical to say, “God gave this to me, and it’s part of how I’m like Him, but I absolutely can’t use this in conversations about my relationship with Him.” It honestly strikes me as a bit rude. And also frankly unbiblical.

For starters, Jesus says the greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, emphasis added). The word used here for mind is dianoia, and it refers to our ability to comprehend and think rationally — our intelligence. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems impossible to love God with your intelligence if you switch off your brain at the church door (or wherever you happen to go). Lest we ignore the words of Jesus Christ and break the most important commandment according to God Himself, let’s use our minds in our pursuit of God.

Secondly, Paul gives us the perfect biblical example of using intelligence in the defense of God and in evangelism. Aside from the masterful rhetoric and theology throughout his writings, an incident in Acts 17 demonstrates this for us. As Paul preaches in Athens, he engages polytheists by quoting from their own philosophers (Epimenides and Aratus in v. 28). His sermon in the agora rationally linked Christianity to truths from another discipline to show the veracity of his faith. When we fail to engage biology, geology, psychology, or other subjects and connect their truths to the God of truth, when we instead ignore their challenges and stick our heads in the sand of “it’s all about faith, not reason,” we fail to follow Paul’s example, the example of Scripture. (This is one reason I’m an advocate for public theology: Scripture teaches us to engage culture on Christian terms.)

That’s why I don’t believe God wants us to suddenly become sycophantic morons where faith is concerned, never thinking about anything but believing everything told to us. Are there things beyond the realm of human comprehension? Absolutely; the Trinity immediately comes to mind. We will never be able to fully grasp an infinite God with a finite mind. But we can and we should use our God-given intellects to pursue their divine source. We need to love God with our minds, chase the deep things of the Bible with reason and rationality.

Why? Because faith seeks understanding. Because, as Anselm said, I believe so that I may understand.

F.A.Q.: The Problem of Evil (A Reasonable, Rational Faith Part III)

I once attended a debate between two philosophers of religion (who were also philosophers of science). One was an ardent atheist, the other a committed Christian, and, as you’ve probably already guessed by now, the debate topic was the existence of God. When it came time for closing comments, the atheistic philosopher said something like this: “When someone asks me why I absolutely cannot believe in God, my answer is always ‘Anne Frank, Anne Frank, Anne Frank.’ I cannot and will not believe in a God who would allow this little girl to die. She believed in him, she prayed to him, and he let her die for some evil reason. And as long as evils like that exist in the world, and as long as a God who is supposedly good allows them to exist, I cannot believe in his existence.”

And you have to admit: it’s a pretty good argument. And a pretty common one, too. I’d say most atheists I have personally met don’t disbelieve out of a commitment to a particular epistemology or other form or worldview; they don’t believe in God because there seems to be so much evil in the world, all of which functions as evidence to the contrary. As I’ve said before, the God of Christianity is an O-O-G God: omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good (and omnipresent, too). A wholly good God will only do good things. It stands to reason, then, such an entity would seek to eliminate all evil, or at least mitigate or alleviate it somewhat. As the philosopher from the debate said, the very existence of such an incomprehensible evil as the Holocaust must in some fashion be evidence against theism. He reminded me of a quote allegedly found scratched into the walls of a barracks in the Mauthausen concentration camp: “If there is a God, he will have to beg my forgiveness.”

It’s a natural, human response to seeing such an atrocity. For someone or something to have the power to spare millions of lives at will and to not do so . . . surely that counts as evil. Or, at the very least, the ultimate litmus test for its existence — and it comes out negative.

So it goes. The Christian martyrs, the ones of whom the world is not worthy according to Hebrews 11:38, all died believing in the God who let them die. Other people point to more personal evils and sufferings. Why do children have cancer? Why are they born with AIDS, addictions, and terminal illnesses? Why was my daughter raped? Why did he kill my son?

Powerful, emotional questions. Questions which demand an answer. So I’m going to give you the best answer I have:

I don’t know.

No one does. It is, perhaps, the single greatest unanswered and unanswerable question in the world (or at least of which I’m aware). But there are potential answers, and it’s those I’d like to address. But let me begin by making my personal theological convictions crystal clear: I do not believe the existence of evil to be the direct act of God. I don’t think it’s God’s will babies are stillborn and miscarried. I don’t think God looked down one day and said, “You know, I think I need to off a few million of my greatest worshipers.” I just don’t. There’s an entire school of theological thought which does believe such things, which says everything happens because God directly makes it happen. If that’s the God you don’t believe in, let me join you. Because I don’t believe in such a God, either.

I also don’t believe evil is always the result of a great personal sin. When Christ restores sight to a blind man in John 9, the Twelve ask Jesus, “Who sinned, him or his parents, that this man was born blind?” That was contemporary thought in the first century. If something bad happens to you, it was because someone sinned. I’m not convinced that always the case. Don’t get me wrong; I still believe in a God who disciplines His children, because that’s the God we encounter in Scripture (Hebrews 12). I just don’t believe that to be the case 100% of the time, because then you get a God who is responsible for all evil. Again, I don’t believe in that kind of God.

But I do believe in a God who honors the free will of the individual. Probably the best answer to the problem of evil (as it’s known; in theology, everything is a “problem” or a “scandal”; it’s rather disheartening, really) I’ve heard is what is now known as the Free Will Defense. The free will defense runs something like this: God is good; God gave humans free will as part of the image of God which we bear; free will is good; God will not revoke free will; free will can be used for evil; God will not stop evil when to do so would violate free will. It’s possible for almost all evil to be a result of a free will decision at some point in life (I still struggle with a few things, to be totally transparent). But this shifts the blame for evil from God to a fallen people living in a fallen world dominated by the true progenitor of all evil, Satan himself.

If that one doesn’t do it for you, there’s the classic “Greater Good” argument which I find a bit . . . problematic. According to this one, existing evils are permitted because they in some fashion achieve a greater good. It’s a rather utilitarian calculus I’m not sure God buys into, but here we are. So here we have a model wherein God is not responsible for evil, but can use it for His (often inscrutable) purposes.

In any event, it should be noted that God will not allow evil to continue indefinitely. There is a final judgment coming, after which no evil may persist. All things are redeemed and made new; they are sanctified and glorified, and evil will not remain. Everything will be in the presence of God, and a holy God cannot have sin in His presence. Evil will be destroyed, eternally punished. That should give us some comfort, even as live through great sorrow. We serve a just God, and His justice is terrible. (Old school “inspires terror” terrible, not the “eww, that’s rather shoddy work” kind of terrible. Just FYI.)

Again, I don’t presume to know the answer here. I know how I believe, and I can only offer a couple of the classic responses to the question of evil. But I don’t think the existence of evil precludes the existence of God. Both evil and a wholly good God can exist — temporarily. And until evil is destroyed forevermore, until the day when only He of the two of them will live forever, God will be with us, comfort us when we’re broken. Christ will look at his scars, gaze into our eyes so full of hurt, and whisper, “Me, too.”

Ours is a God who has truly felt our pain. And He is a God who will one day wipe the tears from our eyes forever.

F.A.Q.: What about Miracles? (A Reasonable, Rational Faith Part II)

In my last post, I very briefly sketched the logical arguments in favor of the existence of God, hopefully showing Christianity (or at least a belief in God) to be logically coherent. One objection some people have at this point runs something like this: “Alright. I believe your God may exist, and it’s even possible Jesus might have lived. But what about all those miracles? Surely you can’t rationally believe such supernatural . . . whatevers . . . actually happened.”

Well, yes. Yes I can. And do. And believe they still happen today (which is in itself a highly contentious belief even within Christian circles today).

First, I want to define the word “miracle” itself. Most people understand miracles as supernatural occurrences with break or suspend the functioning of natural law. We all know dead people stay dead, for example, so for a deceased person to come back to life is a violation of natural law. You can only slice a pizza so many times before you’re giving out zero pizza, and so using a single slice of pepperoni to feed a few thousand teenagers is a violation of natural law. (I haven’t seen that one happen yet, but youth pastors around the world remain hopeful.)

But what if that’s not really all there is to it? What if, instead of breaking the law of the universe, a miracle is actually the enforcement of the law in the universe to come? Theologians talk about the in-breaking kingdom of God. Aspects of redemption are everywhere, and the Church Universal is God’s chosen vessel for bringing about the kingdom of heaven on earth. We see it in unconditional love, in selfless sacrifice, in the salvation of souls. By this train of thought, then, a miracle is simply God’s kingdom breaking into the world and making all things new. Miracles never affect the perfect, after all; they only make adjustments to the evils of this world. Cancer is an evil; being spontaneously made tumor-free is a great good, a sign of the redeemed world to come.

Whatever your definition of miracle, however, you’re still forced to pick a side. Will you believe in miracle claims, or will you believe such things impossible?

To understand a DISbelief in miracles, we turn back the pages of history to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment brought about great advances in science and philosophical thought, but with it came the underpinnings for today’s insistence upon empirical data, science as a sort of religion (scientism), and a deep skepticism concerning things which didn’t prima facie match up with what science said was true. (I’m not anti-science by any means, folks. I just don’t think it’s capable of answering every question in the history of the universe.) A philosopher named David Hume could easily be titled the Father of All Skeptics. For Hume, only our senses could be trusted; anything which lay outside of empirical data could not rightly be thought to exist. So why should we trust in something our senses haven’t registered?

Hume’s argument against miracles ran along similar lines. The overwhelming majority of people throughout history had never witnessed a miracle, he said, and so it could be rightly concluded miracles never happen. If they did, we would have seen them. But wait, his detractors said, people have seen them. Just look at all these written accounts. Impossible, replies Hume. Those accounts can’t be trusted. After all, miracles never happen because people never see them. How can you trust people who say they do?

Not exactly the soundest of arguments, is it? “Miracles don’t exist because I’ve never seen one because they don’t exist because I’ve never seen one because . . .”

Hume’s thought influenced the way we think about knowing things for centuries (including this one). Not many people still buy into his total skepticism about reality itself, but his empiricism/positivism is certainly the dominant epistemology of our popular culture here in the West. Most skeptics will say they need verifiable proof of a miracle in order to believe — and some of them go a step further, dogmatically following the “religion” of scientism, stating that even if something is verifiably scientifically inexplicable now, just wait until we know more things, and then science will definitely be able to give us an explanation. (Sounds a bit like . . . faith.)

We’ll probably never be able to convince the latter about the existence of miracles; such a paradigm/epistemology is hard to change. But for those who will believe current scientific reports concerning miracles, I invite you to consider the Roman Catholic Church — specifically the process of canonization.

Canonization is the official name for how saints are declared. To become a saint, you must meet three simple criteria: be dead, have two miracles attributed to you postmortem, and be officially named a saint by the current pope.  One miracle results in beatification (the Blessed So-and-So), and two gets sainthood (Saint That-One-Guy). In order for those miracles to be properly attributed to you, however, the Church launches an incredibly rigorous and laborious process of investigation. Medical evidence, preferably verified by multiple physicians (specialists are even better), must clearly document your condition both before and after the said miracle. You must demonstrate your prayers to the person up for sainthood which specifically requested intervention in this matter. You must have physicians swear no current medical treatment would have resulted in the change — and hopefully it will have been scientifically impossible for the change to have occurred at all. Finally, the Vatican’s teams of doctors and theologians review all the evidence and make a decision. Spoiler alert: the vast majority of miracle claims are never officially declared miracles, even if they meet all the necessary criteria. But assuming you do meet the prerequisites and you bought coffee and wine for the entire review panel and you were wearing your “I Love the Pope” t-shirt and gravity still works on penguins and a dove alit on the balcony of the chief medical officer’s hotel window at 11:38am on the previous Tuesday, you just might get yourself declared the bona fide recipient of divine intervention.

Reams and reams of medical documents, diaries, and other paperwork exists to account for thousands of miracle claims, even if they’re never officially recognized by the church. And I’m not talking “Lassie got Timmy out of the well! It’s a miracle!” kind of stuff, either. We’re talking limbs growing several inches right before your eyes. The dead being raised hours, even days after being declared dead. Tumors disappearing in minutes. Goiters fading in the presence of onlookers. People known to be blind and deaf for decades suddenly seeing and hearing. All of it having no medical or otherwise-scientific explanations whatsoever. All of them being completely impossible unless we rewrite some of the most fundamentals laws governing the behavior of the universe.

And so we have the evidence. The question is if we are willing to accept it or not.

If Hume’s legacy is the only reason to disbelieve, then there’s not a reason. If there are other reasons, then perhaps they can be revisited to see which is easier to revise, personal theories or the empirical scientific evidence of the miraculous (which, I might add, either meets or exceeds the requirements of most other accepted empirical data, right down to being repeatable in the cases of known faith healers/evangelists). Of course, not everyone will change his or her worldview to allow miracles, data or not. And not everyone will believe such a thing to even be possible. At the very least, however, it shouldn’t be thought illogical or superstitious or downright silly to believe God still directly intervenes in the lives of human beings. Once we agree to that, then we can talk specifics with each other without condescension and arrogance.

For a much fuller treatment of the question and numerous personal testimonies of miracle claims, I highly, highly recommend Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts by Dr. Craig Keener, available here.

F.A.Q.: A Reasonable, Rational Faith (Part I)

It comes as a surprise to no one that our contemporary culture is one of rationalism. The only acceptable way to know something, it seems, is through rational thought based on empirical evidence. Ever since the dawn of the Enlightenment, empiricism and positivism have been on the rise, and people of faith have discovered a need to express the truths of religion in logical, scientific ways.

The problem with this, of course, is that not everything capable of being known is empirically verifiable or quantifiable. For example, what’s the unit to use when measuring love? Do I love my neighbor with a force of 2h/s (hearts per second) and chocolate chip cookies with only 0.25h/s? Why, exactly, are things beautiful, and why is that beauty capable of being both subjective and universal? Can neurochemistry adequately explain why music makes us weep, even when it has no words? The religion of science — scientism — is a short-sighted worldview. Regardless, our fellow humans, while explaining that science will eventually be capable of explaining everything even though it can’t right now, demand religion answer all of those questions immediately.

Luckily for us, Christianity in particular (and theism in general) is a perfectly logical, coherent faith.

For two thousand years, Christian thinkers have systematically built logical explanations for the tenets of our faith. No stone has been left unturned; we can use scientific and philosophical principles to explain why God exists, how the Resurrection is perfectly reasonable, why miracles can occur, and a myriad of other things. In order to explain how we can know God exists, however, we need to establish what kind of God we’re talking about.

The God of theism (the God or Allah of Abrahamic religions) is said to have necessary divine attributes: He is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and wholly good. (We call these the “omnis,” and philosophers of religion also drop omnipresent to call God an O-O-G God — omniscient, omnipotent, and good). Anything less wouldn’t be the God who created the heavens and the earth, the God who loves His creation enough to send His son to die for its redemption. It certainly wouldn’t be the God revealed to us in the pages of the Bible.

But it’s at this early, definitional stage people begin objecting to God. I think we’ve all heard the various “gotcha!” paradoxes in some form used as a way to claim an O-O-G God is logically indefensible. “Can God make a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it? Because since He can do everything, it means He can, but if He can, it means He can’t do something, so that means He can’t do everything.” Such a paradox is based upon a false definition of omnipotence. Omnipotence is the ability to do anything which is logically possible to do. So no, God can’t make a rock so big He can’t lift it, because that’s an illogical statement. Neither, as a professor was fond of saying, can God make a married bachelor. The two categories (married and unmarried) are mutually exclusive. God cannot violate the rules of logic. (Or, if He can and does, He probably doesn’t want us to know because it would blow our human minds. Oh, and I’ll handle miracles and other “violations” of natural law later.) The same goes for omniscience. Can God know everything? Answers range from “God knows everything and every possibility” to “God can only know what was, is, and will be.” Some people even say God limits His own omniscience in deference to our free will so that He doesn’t know the future — but I’m not buying that one. Regardless, it’s perfectly logical to have an O-O-G God, as long as we actually define what that means in logical terms.

(The problem of evil — or how God is wholly good when evil still exists — will also be treated later on.)

Now. We know who God is. How can we prove He exists? Christians have long maintained a variety of logical proofs for the existence of God. The most obvious ones are what’s known as the teleological and cosmological arguments. The teleological argument gets its name from the Greek word “telos,” meaning purpose or end. It holds that the evidence we see around us points to a world which exists for a reason. It exhibits logical laws and evidence of design with a purpose in mind. This points back to the one who purposed or designed it, and therefore needs a designer. We call this designer God. A form of the teleological argument is called the fine-tuning argument: conditions for life are so extremely narrow, it’s as if someone turned all the knobs of the universe just right to make it exist. The existence of the universe is so incredibly improbable that it couldn’t have arisen unless someone fine-tuned the conditions necessary for it to spring into being. That someone is God.

The cosmological argument goes something like this: the universe exists; everything which exists has an origin; the universe therefore has an origin; its origin is God. God is the Prime Mover, the First Cause, the Creator. Everything which exists and moves has a point of origination, and God is the one who brought it into being.

There are, of course, objections to both of these. Evolutionary theory states that the universe didn’t change itself to meet the conditions of life, but rather life fine-tuned itself to the rest of the universe. It simply meets the conditions around it. Then there’s the classic question: if God made everything, who made God? A reasonable, logical faith can answer both of these. The rules governing evolution and the rest of the universe (things like natural selection, Planck’s Constant, the exact value of the weak nuclear force, etc.) could have been completely arbitrary. They may be totally difference in an alternate universe; who knows? But that these rules exist points to someone who established the rules. Life is still free to make itself according to these rules via evolutionary processes.

So who made God? Well, no one. Scripture tells us God was, is, and ever shall be. There was never a time when God was not. In philosophy, we call such a thing a necessary being. Its existence is necessary for all other things to exist (those other things being labeled contingent beings, as their existence is contingent upon the existence of something else). That gives us a fixed endpoint in the “who made what” game. If you don’t have an endpoint, something uncreated, it turns into infinite regress of x made y which made z which made a which made b . . . you get the picture. So if you remove a necessary being, you get infinite regress. You add one, you get the universe. Even atheists have a necessary being in their worldview: the universe itself. All matter being contained in the singularity before the Big Bang, well, banged, is necessary. The arrangement of that matter into contingent beings follows. But wait! Physics is now saying a total vacuum — literally nothing — will spontaneously create something given quantum gravity. Ok. So gravity becomes the necessary being (er, maybe necessary force). Either way, both religions — theism and atheism — agree that something had to exist without creation in order for everything to exist. Christians simply state this necessary, uncreated thing to be God. The same logical system is used in both, and so Christianity is only irrational at this stage if atheism is.

There are other proofs for God’s existence, of course. The moral argument says morality exists because it reflects the character of God. Without God, no morals. The argument has strengths and weaknesses. After all, some would say morals are evolutionary byproducts for the survival of the species. (I mean, it’s hard to survive if murder becomes a value.) And yet cultures exist where deception, murder, cannibalism, etc. are perfectly normal, even expected — and are immediately discarded upon an encounter with the living God. A final argument is called the ontological argument (i.e., the “being” argument). Saint Anselm of Canterbury came up with this one. Imagine, if you will, a perfect being. Something perfect in every respect to every degree. This is called God. Now, isn’t it more perfect for it to actually exist than for it not to? Therefore, it exists. God exists. It’s a bit of a logic game, to be sure, and people have written counterarguments and defenses for over a millennium now. Nevertheless, it shows another means of utilizing logic to prove the existence of God.

Hopefully it’s clear by now that Christians don’t just toss logic and reason to the wayside when we practice our faith. We’re not some cult which relies only upon mass delusion. We don’t say, for example, “God exists because I believe He exists.” I mean, that’s horrible reasoning, if reasoning it be. (Think of Russell’s celestial teapot: I choose to believe a teapot exists orbiting earth beyond the moon, and since I believe it, it really exists. Clearly belief does not equal reality.) Instead we practice a faith which uses reason, logic, and rationality to show truth, the truth of the existence of a logical, rational, O-O-G God. Even though pure reason is insufficient to truly know everything in our universe, it can still be used to know the God who knows us.

We should never mock those who are not of faith because they prefer to rely on their intellect. Our witness is horribly eroded if we call evolutionists stupid, or monkeys, or liars. We fail to show the love of God when we tell people God wants them to dumb down, to toss their intelligence to the wayside in the service of faith. Christians must reclaim the use of logic and rationality in our faith lives and in our public witnesses, evangelism, and apologetics. We must take a phrase from Isaiah 1:18 and make it our mantra: “Come now, and let us reason together.”