Jun 1 2012

Life After Youth Group

Surveys by the Barna Research Group show that teens are more likely than adults to attend worship services and participate in other activities of the local church.[1] The picture changes alarmingly after graduation. More than sixty percent of survey respondents who were active in their teen years are no longer active in their twenties.

Youth Group loss

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May 13 2012

fiscus Christianus

After the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Romans added insult to injury by turning the Temple Tax into the Jewish Tax (the infamous fiscus Judaicus). The half-shekel that was originally offered to the Lord’s sanctuary (Exodus 30:13) was now being sent to Jupiter’s temple in Rome. Jews were required to pay this tax on top of all the regular Roman taxes.

As you can probably imagine, the Jewish community resented every denarius that found its way into the coffers of their pagan oppressors. The Jews of Palestine, in particular, honed their passive-aggressive evasion of taxes into a fine art.[1] We see a glimpse of this simmering hostility in Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and Herodians in Matthew 22. The Lord’s response on that occasion became the definitive Christian view: “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Christians believe in paying their taxes, but this doesn’t mean they like where the money is going. They have long objected to federal funding of abortions, and the idea of using tax money to support “spouses” of homosexual public employees seems no less odious.

On a broader level, Christians have a strong track record of giving to the local church and church-related organizations, and so are often ambivalent to government spending on social services. Critics complain that these donations do not represent real charity. Giving money to the church, they insist, is like paying a club membership fee, and has little to do with housing the homeless or feeding the poor. Except that it does. As Albert Brooks has observed from extensive survey data, religious people are “more charitable in every nonreligious way—including secular donations, informal giving, and even acts of kindness and honesty—than secularists.”[2]

In my view, tax-supported funding of materialistic science comes closer than anything else to a kind of fiscus Christianus. Following the triumph of Darwinism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, major universities, museums, and research institutes succeeded in marginalizing people of faith. Striking evidence of this coup shows up in the ranks of the National Academy of Sciences. According to one poll conducted in the late 1990s, only 7% of NAS members profess a “personal belief” in God.[3]

Charles Darwin coin

"Render therefore unto Darwin the things are Darwin's." The Royal Mint of Britain issued a two-pound coin in 2009 to celebrate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth.

Meanwhile, the dissidents are suppressed at every turn. Caroline Crocker earned her Ph.D. in immunopharmacology and had an outstanding teaching reputation before losing her job at George Mason University. Her plight was featured in the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, but this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are countless unpublicized stories of discrimination against Darwin dissenters and religious conservatives.

Being hounded out of a job is only part of the story. Billions of tax dollars are committed every year to support Big Bang cosmology, evolutionary biology, and other pursuits of materialistic science.

Christians have been asked through their tax dollars to fund missions to Mars because it is inconceivable that life could have evolved only on Earth. Ditto for funding of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). They have been asked to fund museum exhibits that portray the story of human evolution. They have been asked to fund large-scale physics experiments that promise to tell us how something could have come from nothing. In other words, the very same people who are obligated by God to pay their taxes are the very same people who are expected to fund the Temple of Darwin’s outreach efforts.

Thankfully, the Darwinian-industrial complex doesn’t always get what it asks for. The Superconducting Super Collider was supposed to find the Higgs boson – what Leon Lederman dubbed the “God particle” in his 1993 book of the same name. It was cancelled when cost projections climbed to the $12 billion mark, but only after researchers spent two billion dollars on a boondoggle now littering the Texas countryside.

Meanwhile, students seeking relief from the materialist worldview and its sordid consequences must pay a premium to attend a private, church-affiliated school. If they choose instead to attend a public university they will feel decidedly unwelcome in a variety of subject areas, and will have their views silenced by campus-wide speech codes.

Opportunities may be limited at the next academic level, as well. Graduate counseling students who are morally opposed to homosexuality have been required to spend extra time and money on changing their religiously-deluded minds. Eugene Volokh, of the UCLA Law School, calls this a “viewpoint-based tax.”[4]

So although there is no fiscus Christianus as such, at least not officially, Christians are still being made to support a system that is institutionally opposed to their faith.

Many Christians call or write their representatives when moral issues are at stake: abortion, homosexual “marriage,” or what have you. But how many write to object to the funding of materialistic science? How many have looked into the cost of these projects? How many have wondered whether their favorite public university supports the First Amendment?[5] Maybe it’s time to start.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think magazine, April 2012, as “The Tax on Being a Christian,” p. 8.]


[1] Menachem Elon, “Taxation: Legal Aspects,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2007, 19:535.

[2] Albert C. Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism. New York: Basic Books, 2006, p. 38.

[3] Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, “Leading Scientists Still Reject God,” Nature, 1998, 394:313.

[4] Eugene Volokh, Brief of FIRE and NAS as Amicus Curiae in support of Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley, et al., October 19, 2010.

[5] The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education keeps a database of speech restrictions at http://thefire.org/.

May 1 2012

Once, Twice, Three Times an Immigrant

Ground Zero mural

Ground Zero mural commissioned by Yakov Smirnoff

As Yakov Smirnoff would often say, “I love this country.” The Ukrainian-born comedian built a sizeable career on this line and his signature Russian reversals.

In America, you always find a party.
In Russia, Party always find you.

For Smirnoff, these jokes were only partly tongue in cheek. They reflected an abiding appreciation for the economic and personal freedoms of his newly adopted country. On July 4, 1986, Smirnoff took the Oath of Allegiance on Ellis Island with a scale-size model of the Statue of Liberty in his hand. After the 9-11 attacks he used $100,000 of his own money to mount a patriotic mural near Ground Zero.[1]

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Mar 7 2012

Of Magick and Miracles

When atheists are looking to blame Christianity for all that is wrong in the world, they are inclined to run through the usual litany of crimes against humanity, including the Crusades and the house arrest of Galileo.[1]

My first reaction is to say that this has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. My second reaction is to point out that much of what we think we know about these events comes to us from people who have an axe to grind against the medieval Catholic Church, Christianity, religion, or all the above. Real historians have done their best to set the record straight, which the New Atheists blithely ignore as they regale the unfaithful with sordid tales of Christians acting unchristianly.

The same rap sheet usually includes the witch-hunts of the late 1500s and early 1600s. According to some estimates, around 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft, and as many as 60,000 may have been executed.[2] Critics blame these horrors on what they take to be the inherent evils of religion. In the Enlightenment, the medieval church was faulted for its irrational belief in witchcraft. Today, in the cultural morass we call Postmodernism, the medieval church is faulted for using witchcraft as an excuse to pick on lonely elderly women, or practitioners of pre-Christian pagan beliefs, or both. The first angers the feminists, and the second has become a cause célèbre of New Age Wiccans.

Again, I would reply that the witch hunters were hardly following the teaching of Christ and His apostles. Nor were they following legal precedent from the so-called Dark Ages. In 785, Charlemagne enacted martial law on the newly conquered pagans of Saxony. Article 6 of that law blamed belief in witchcraft on the deceits of the devil, and imposed the death penalty on anyone who burned a witch.[3] Misguided vigilantes posed more of a threat to life and property than a few pagan “witches.” So much for the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne and his contemporaries wrote magic off as a pagan fantasy. In this respect, they were closer to the Christian worldview. From a Biblical standpoint, nature works in a regular way until God intervenes. There is no room for magic and witchcraft because God reigns supremely over both the natural and the supernatural. The great witch hunts of later centuries undermined this view by giving witchcraft a newfound credibility.[4]

The whole point of magic – or maybe that should be magick – is that there are hidden forces within nature that can be manipulated for good or evil. Don’t get this confused with magic used as a plot element in Lewis’ Narnia series or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And don’t get this confused with the stage magic used by entertainers who pull rabbits out of their hats. To claim that magick is something more – that it is metaphysically real – is to deny the Biblical worldview.

This is why the Bible takes a no-holds-barred approach to magick, sorcery and divination. Under the Old Law, sorceresses were put to death (Exodus 22:18). This may sound harsh, but sorcery represented a clear and present danger to God’s chosen nation. If the Israelites could be conned into thinking that a pagan sorceress had real gifts of sorcery, then perhaps they could be conned into accepting her prophetic guidance as well, which could lead the people into soul- and life-threatening situations.

This helps us understand a potentially difficult passage in 1 Samuel 28. On the eve of his final battle, Saul consults the medium of En Dor. He asks her to conduct a séance with the dearly departed Samuel and, indeed, the spirit of the prophet appears in their presence. But is Samuel’s appearance a genuine piece of sorcery, or the work of God? The woman’s reaction gives it away: she cries out in a loud voice (vs. 12). She is shocked because she has never been able to summon the spirits of the dead. Her mediumship is a fraud, and she knows it. This is the work of God.

The same skepticism holds throughout the New Testament, and especially in Acts. Luke repeatedly draws a distinction between the real power of the apostles and the fraudulent claims of people like Simon and Elymas (8:9-25; 13:4-12). The apostles’ miracles are not tricks; they are not demonic; they are not self-serving. Their power is from God, just as the Gospel they are preaching is from God.

Mystics and charlatans were not the only ones with a magic problem. Christians in Ephesus still clung to their magical scrolls (19:18-19). Their worldview was confused and incomplete.

It has to make us wonder: How much stock do we put in black cats and four-leaf clovers? Maybe it’s not witches or magick for us. Maybe it’s something else, like astrology or evolution. But clearly there are consequences for not building a thoroughly Christian worldview.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, March 2012, p. 8.]

[1] Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian. London: Routledge, 2004[1957], pp. 22,123,161; Richard Dawkins, The Devil’s Chaplain. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 148,159; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. London: Bantam, 2006, pp. 1,37,41,166,308,312. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell. New York: Penguin, 2006, 30,43,408; ad nauseum.
[2] Edward Peters, “Witchcraft,” Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Garland, 2000, p. 1069. Peters’ figures are at the high end of estimates.
[3] See Arend Quak, editor, Speculum Saxonum. Rodopi: Amsterdam, 1999, 34 fn. 21. Article 6 reads as follows: “If anyone, deceived by the devil, believes, in the way pagans do, that some man or woman is a witch (strigam) and eats people and if for this reason he burns her and gives her flesh to be eaten, or eats it himself, he is to suffer the capital punishment.”
[4] Karen Jolly, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. London: Athlone, 2002, pp. 23-26.

Feb 7 2012

Whatever happened to faith?

Faith has a bad reputation, and it is our fault. By “our” I mean those of us who confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. In a terrible twist of irony, people of faith have turned faith into a dirty five-letter word. Not all of us have done this, of course, but enough of us to attract the attention of the wider world.

“Faith,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” At least this travesty appears several notches down from the primary definition. The same cannot be said for Webster’s New World Dictionary, which gives the following definition top billing: “unquestioning belief, specif. in God, a religion, etc.” Keep in mind that most dictionaries list the most common meaning first. This is why we don’t want preachers using their dictionaries to define important Bible words.

Needless to say, you will not find similar entries in dictionaries from a century ago, although the rot was already spreading into the pew from seminaries and the writings of prominent theologians and philosophers of religion. Astute skeptics certainly took notice. Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, put these words into the mouth of Pudd’nhead Wilson: “There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the schoolboy who said ‘Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.’ ”[1] Clemens’ wry observation turns into a battering ram for Sam Harris in a book appropriately titled The End of Faith: “every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This put the ‘leap’ in Kierkegaard’s leap of faith.”[2]

Ah, and now we get to the heart of the matter. It is easy to find simplistic or unfair characterizations of Søren Kierkegaard’s writings. His “leap of faith” is often portrayed as a momentous force of will to believe in God and the central claims of Christianity. This makes the Christian faith look bad in every possible way. How can anyone just decide to believe anything? And how could anyone hold such profound, life-changing beliefs in the absence of evidence or, even worse, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

It doesn’t help that Kierkegaard is notoriously hard to read, even in the best English translations. It doesn’t help that he never used this precise phrase, “leap of faith,” or its Danish equivalent. And it doesn’t help that he wrote some of his most important works (mostly in the 1840s) under a pseudonym, which leaves us wondering whether they represent Kierkegaard’s “official” view.

Despite all that, philosopher Jamie Ferreira tries her level best to offer a sympathetic reading of Kierkegaard’s leap.[3] [By the way, no one should use “Kierkegaard” and “basically” in the same sentence as I am about to do, but here goes anyway…] Basically, Kierkegaard envisioned a huge gulf between the historical claims for Christianity on the one side and the actual experience of Christianity on the other. The categories of knowledge and faith are so far apart, he thought, that we could never bridge the gap by piling fact upon fact. Evidence can lead us up to the edge of the abyss, but it can never take us all the way. Kierkegaard’s approving quote of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) gives us a strong sense of where he was going with all of this:

“If God held the truth enclosed in his right hand, and in his left hand the one and only ever-striving drive for truth, even with the corollary of erring forever and ever, and if he were to say to me: Choose!—I would humbly fall down to him at his left hand and say: Father, give! Pure truth is indeed only for you alone!”[4]

And so, standing on the precipice, it is possible to find oneself “infinitely interested” in God. All of sudden, as Ferreira puts it, one can “dare to be radically changed,… to take a real risk, to put oneself out over seventy thousand fathoms.”[5] In this very moment we leave behind the objectively uncertain proofs of Christianity and embrace the subjectively passionate striving after God. This is more a leap to faith than a leap of faith.

But so what? Whether we take the cruder version of the leap or the more nuanced version, Kierkegaard is working with a number of faulty assumptions.

For a start, while Kierkegaard makes room for reason and evidence, he doesn’t make room enough. He is overly impressed, it seems, by attacks on the proof of Christianity coming from people like Hume, and attacks on the historical Jesus coming from people like Strauss.[6] But if we think that reason and evidence are on our side (they are), and if we think that Biblical faith is richer than Kierkegaard imagined (it is), then there is no need to separate the certain from the uncertain, the subjective from the objective, and make a leap from one to the other.

And in what sense is faith an instantaneous transition? This is where we need to distinguish between the subjective and the objective. From God’s objective standpoint, either we are born again or we are not (John 3:3-6). Either our sins were buried in baptism, or they were not (Romans 6:1-11). At no moment prior to this point are we somewhat saved or mostly forgiven. This is conversion to the faith of Christianity; the transformation that follows within that faith is something else again (Romans 12:2). The subjective experience of faith varies from individual to individual. Belief, which is the beginning of faith (Romans 10:14-17), might come suddenly, as it did to the Emmaus-bound disciples (Luke 24:31). Or it might come reluctantly and with a demand for more evidence, as it did for Thomas (John 20:24-29).

Speaking of evidence, some of our arguments will be inductive and issue in conclusions that fall short of certainty, but are nonetheless highly probable. Other arguments will be deductive and issue in conclusions that are certain (because the conclusion must be true if all the premises are true). For instance, design arguments tend to be inductive and probabilistic; cosmological arguments tend to be deductive. Christians have no problem with strong inductive arguments. When Paul appealed to the many eyewitnesses of the resurrection, he was effectively making an inductive argument (1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Acts 26:26). Not  only was it a strong argument, it was the only argument that adequately explained the facts at hand.

Kierkegaard was offering a false dichotomy: either Christians can build their faith entirely on deductive reasoning, and risk losing everything in the face of seemingly convincing counter-arguments, or they can ignore the arguments and make a leap to faith. In reality, deductive arguments for the existence of God have proven remarkably resilient, and inductive arguments have grown stronger as the amount of evidence accumulates in their favor (in areas like genetics, microbiology, archaeology, etc.). Even if the evidence for Christianity only ever rises to the level of “highly likely,” I can still have a reasonable, evidence-based faith.[7]

However, Kierkegaard was right in this one respect: we cannot build a scaffold to God out of facts and figures. As James reminds us: “even the demons believe–and shudder!” (2:19). Clearly, there is something more to Biblical faith than intellectual assent to the right number of propositions.

Faith in its fullest sense is not a risky leap, but a confident walk (1 John 1:7). It is not a confidence in what we see now, but in what we know we will see later (Romans 8:24-25; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Hebrews 11:1). It is a confidence that is grounded, not on wishful thinking, but on the historical reality of the resurrected Savior. Atheists are welcome to attack the straw man of dictionary faith, but it has nothing to do with Biblical faith.

[A version of this article appeared as “Leap of faith?” in Think, February 2012, p. 8.]

[1] Mark Twain, Following the Equator. Hartford, CT: American Publishing Co., 1897, p. 132.

[2] Sam Harris, The End of Faith. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004, p. 23.

[3] M. Jamie Ferreira, “Faith and the Kierkegaardian leap,” in The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 207-234.

[4] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009, 90fn56.

[5] Ferreira, pp. 220-221.

[6] George Pattison, “D.F. Strauss: Kierkegaard and radical demythologization,” in Jon Stewart, editor, Kierkegaard and His German Contemporaries: Theology. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2007, pp. 233-257.

[7] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Third Edition. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008, pp. 55-56.