Nov 14 2012

Ordinary Miracles

According to Bill Gates, we need a miracle to fight global warming. Specifically, we need an energy miracle.  Gates quickly explains: “When I use the term ‘miracle,’ I don’t mean something impossible. The microprocessor is a miracle. The personal computer is a miracle.”[1]

Like any good speaker, Gates knows what his audience is thinking when he uses the term ‘miracle.’ They will naturally think that the Nerd-in-Charge has thrown up his hands in defeat. A technological solution would require a miracle and, as everyone knows, miracles are impossible. But not to fear: if we think of “miracles” as solutions to difficult problems then, all of a sudden, the impossible becomes possible.

Clean energy is a long way from Moses parting the Red Sea or Jesus turning water into wine. Apparently, if we want to borrow quaint religious words from the Bible then we have to lower our sights, a lot. We have to start thinking in terms of perfectly ordinary miracles.

The modern attack on miracles can be traced to an obscure Jewish philosopher by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1688). According to Spinoza, all of nature is God, and so the laws of nature are as fixed and unchangeable as God himself. As Spinoza put it, “nature cannot be contravened.”[2] If anything, claims of miracles distract us from our faith because they point beyond nature, and hence, beyond God.

David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish skeptic, gave us the version that most college students are forced to read and adopt today: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.”[3] Hume had no time for Spinoza’s pantheism, but the line of reasoning was the same: the laws of nature cannot be broken; miracles, if they happen, would have to break the laws of nature; therefore, miracles cannot happen.

We know we are in trouble when apologists buy into the same underlying premise. Sure, an unbreakable law of nature cannot be broken, these guys will concede, but God is the great lawgiver. He “can make or break it” as He sees fit.[4]

This takes us into a dangerous rhetorical minefield. Do we really want to insist that the great lawmaker is also the great law breaker?

And then there is the whole problem of God decreeing the laws of nature. Unlike Spinoza and Hume, we no longer view the laws of science as fixed and unchangeable, and we no longer view the universe as a mechanical clock. Newtonian gravity and other laws have been replaced or modified over the years. With some humility we have come to realize that the laws of science are our best attempts at describing the observed regularities of God’s amazingly complex and often surprising creation.[5] Miracles are exceptions to these regularities, not violations of immutable natural laws. Every law of nature includes the possibility of God’s intervention, but intervention is not the same as contravention.

Besides all of that, the Spinoza-Hume approach begs the question. One way to beg the question is to restate in your conclusion what you already stated in your premises. In this case, by claiming that miracles break the unbreakable the skeptics already have their conclusion, namely, that miracles are impossible.

Before the skeptics came along and told us what our own words should mean, theists had a pretty good understanding of miracles. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) offered the following definition: “Those things must properly be called miraculous which are done by divine power apart from the order generally followed in things.”[6] The keyword is ‘generally.’  A law of nature is a generality, and no more.

So let us not speak of the miraculous when we really mean to speak of the pleasantly wonderful: of spontaneous cancer remissions, of lone survivors and, of all things, microprocessors. The miracles of the Bible were neither ordinary nor quaint. They communicated a clear message, were consistent with God’s character, and always had a sound theological footing.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, November 2012, p. 7.]


[1] “Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to zero!,” TED video, February 2010, 7:10-7:28. [Online]  http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html

[2] Baruch Spinoza, “Of Miracles,” Theological-Political Treatise, 6:5.

[3] David Hume, “Of Miracles,” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10:1:90.

[4] Paul Little, Know Why You Believe, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, p. 139.

[5] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008, p. 262.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, “Of Miracles,” Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.101.


Jul 1 2012

Slaughter of the Innocents

Almost every system of values has its supreme goal or highest good. Depending on the ethical theory, this could be something like happiness, or self-interest, or tolerance, or the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people. From a Biblical standpoint, the highest good is to love God and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6; 1 John 5:2). On this view, my actions are morally right if they demonstrate a love for God and are consistent with what God wants me to do. In ethical circles this is often dubbed the Divine Command Theory (DCT).

A long-standing criticism of the DCT is that it could end up condoning acts of horrific cruelty. We might have to accept, for instance, that torturing animals for fun and profit is right and good if God commands it. As a matter of fact, the God of the Bible has condoned no such thing, but that’s not the point. If God told me to torture animals then I, as a dutiful servant of God, would have to agree that it was the right thing to do. If I don’t agree, then I would have to concede that right and wrong depend on something other than God.

Atheists are fond of this argument because it follows a similar line of reasoning developed by Plato in his Euthyphro dialogue.[1] But the gods in Plato’s sights – the Olympian gods of popular Greek religion – were notoriously cruel and arbitrary. Plato never knew the God of the Bible. He never knew a God who was both all-powerful and all-good. From the standpoint of Biblical morality, it is right to obey a divine command, not because it comes from a God who happens to like the idea, but because it comes from a God who is just and loving.

This is a more nuanced version of the Divine Command Theory, but critics still see chinks in the armor. The problem now is not what a supremely powerful being might command, but of what the God of the Bible actually did command. If God is a just and loving God then why, for instance, did He order the slaughter of innocent children?

We cannot paper over this problem. As the Israelites were preparing to enter Canaan, God ordered the “complete destruction” of its existing inhabitants (Deuteronomy 7:2). It wasn’t long before they put this plan into effect at Jericho: “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old” (Joshua 6:21). And it was still in effect when Saul attacked the Amalekites. “Do not spare them,” God says, “but kill both man and woman, child and infant” (1 Samuel 15:3).

How do we respond? First, it was a case of kill or be killed. This might offend our modern sensibilities, but the Israelites faced overwhelming numerical odds (Deuteronomy 7:1). Their opponents would give them no quarter, and the Israelites could afford to give no quarter in return. Like it or not, these were the rules of engagement. But why was it so important to win at all costs? This brings us to the second and most significant point: if the Israelites failed to survive as a covenant people, then there would be no Christ, no Lion of the tribe of Judah, no Root of David, to win a final victory over sin and death (Revelation 5:5).

In rehearsing some of these same points, William Lane Craig reminds his skeptical readers that they are the beneficiaries of an ethical tradition that values human life.[2] Their squeamishness over the treatment of non-combatants would not be possible without the final and full revelation of the Biblical worldview. When Richard Dawkins subsequently denounced Craig as an apologist for genocide,[3] we have to assume that Dawkins has a low opinion of genocide, and then we have to wonder how he arrived at that opinion. It didn’t come from nature or evolution, and it certainly didn’t come from the Bronze Age Canaanites.

The broad sweep of redemptive history reveals a God who is loving and just (Romans 3:21-26). When this same God ordered His own people to destroy or be destroyed then perhaps, and only perhaps, can we begin to understand how desperately we needed His plan to succeed.

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



[1] Louise M. Anthony, “Good minus God,” The New York Times, December 18, 2011. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/good-minus-god/

[2] William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites.” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites

[3] Richard Dawkins, “Why I refuse to debate William Lane Craig,” The Guardian, October 20, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/richard-dawkins-william-lane-craig

 


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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