Peace in a Turbulent Culture?

Lately I’ve felt like an outside observer to the melodrama that is our society. I am an audience of one, silently and emotionlessly watching a play taking place on stage and screen. I contemplate the action and reaction, dialogue and monologue, and try to understand. The thing that perplexes me most is not the plot or cast or even the issues that animate the action. It is the exaggerated emotion the actors express and the extreme action they undertake to defend and serve their causes. This is what needs an explanation.

I see displayed over relatively small matters the kind of passion usually associated with reactions to extreme blasphemy in traditional cultures or with modern nihilistic ideologies that demand absolute loyalty to the point of murder or suicide. Characters melt in despair or explode with rage over a word spoken against their political, moral, or religious opinions, which they seem to identify with the highest and holiest reality. They have staked their worth, well-being and happiness on the absoluteness of their cause. Now their cause has been blasphemed! And their first impulse is to pick up stones to silence the blasphemer.

What explains this phenomenon? There are, of course, social and psychological factors, but I wish to propose a theological explanation: idolatry. An idol is a finite thing that you treat as infinite, a relative value taken as absolute. When you vest your entire worth and happiness in an idol you are caught in a paradox. You have to defend, trust and cherish your idol as if it were the absolute and almighty God, but deep down you know that it is relative and vulnerable. Because the idol cannot bear the weight you give it, you cannot bear to hear its name blasphemed and its authority challenged. It is supposed to be your salvation, but you find yourself forced to rise to defend its honor and work for its victory.

But a savior that needs saving, a god that needs defending is a contradiction from which there is no escape. Perhaps this dilemma explains the despairing rage and the raging despair of those whose “divine” cause has been disparaged.

How can we escape the paradox of idolatry? Is there a way out of emotional slavery to the fortunes of our beloved causes? I have two suggestions. First, do not give your heart to an idol, no matter how impressive it is or what reward it offers, even if the whole world bows down before its image. Never trust in any temporal cause as if it were eternal. Do not mistake the relative for the absolute, the good for the perfect, or the powerful for the omnipotent. Second, give your heart, your whole heart, to God alone. God cannot fail. No blasphemy can diminish his honor. No idol can dim his glory. Unfailingly, he brings the true good in all good causes to perfection. No need to fear, no reason for anger, and no grounds for despair. In God, God alone, there is hope, peace and joy even in this turbulent world.

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Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part Three)?

Physical Objects as Ideas

In our experience of the world in common sense and scientific study we seek to understand physical things. We name them, categorize them, enumerate their properties, experience their effects, and perceive their holistic integrity and stability. In considering a physical object, such as an atom or a living cell, we know the difference between its unordered components and the thing itself. In the thing, components are so ordered, integrated and coordinated that they constitute one thing, which possesses its own properties, functions and actions. What makes a natural physical object the particular object it is rather than an aggregate of unordered components or some other physical object?

Natural objects are much more complex and highly integrated than human-made objects. We understand the objects we make better than natural objects not only because they are simpler but because they existed as ideas or design plans in our minds before we gave them actual existence as physical objects. Natural physical objects are living or nonliving. Some nonliving physical objects are aggregates: sand stone, blocks of coal, piles of sand or gravel. The nature of an aggregate is revealed in that by dividing it you do not destroy its properties. Break a block of sand stone into pieces and you do not change its properties. Nonliving things possess their unique properties and inherent integrity only at the molecular or atomic level. Break them apart and they no longer exist.  We can gain some knowledge of molecules and atoms by breaking them apart to discover their components and internal relations. But the problem with this approach is that we have to destroy the thing to discover the cause of its integrity! Our understanding of the original thing is an abstraction, memory or model. It’s not the thing itself. We cannot experience a physical thing in its integrity except externally. But that is not the same as experiencing the cause of its integrity, that is, its idea, which can be experienced only from within. Yet physics, chemistry and every other empirical science makes no sense unless it aims at this ideal, that is, to possess the entirety of a thing’s cause as an idea in the mind—a goal that it can never achieve.

The smallest living thing is much more complex than the most complex human made machine. Yet living things achieve much greater integrity, harmony, and unity than human made things. Billions of components are integrated into the whole organism to the degree that each stands in constant communion with all the others and participates in the life of the whole. We can observe the properties and behavior of living things in their natural state and environment or we can attempt to discover how all the components, systems and subsystems relate to each other and the whole organism. We quest for the entire “blueprint” for the organism. Unfortunately, the quest to think the blueprint leads us to destroy the integrity and the life of the organism. And we never really get inside the thing to experience the cause of its unity and life in the act. But unless we imagine that there is such a cause, it would make no sense to search for it.

These reflections lead me to conclude that our quest for knowledge of the physical world makes no sense if the world is purely material, if everything is at bottom only bits of matter related in space. This quest for knowledge assumes that there is a real intelligible aspect to the world and every thing in it, living and nonliving. Only the assumption that our minds can think the blueprint and cause of a physical thing can explain our drive to understand it, that is, that the thing could in principle exist in our minds as an idea.

Hence our quest to understand nature assumes that the ideas of physical things exist and exercise causal force in things before we set out to discover them. When we direct our minds to them we find them thinkable and available to be united to our minds. Our minds can think them even though we did not invent them. What is the explanation for this amazing fit between our minds and the ideas that cause natural things to be what they are? From where did the ideas of things come? How did these blueprints come to be actual physical things?

Other Minds

In our interactions with human beings we encounter other minds. We can understand their thoughts and, since we are embodied in the same way, we can empathize with their feelings.  Other minds are not my creations and they are not material any more than my mind is. Yet other minds are not simply ideas either. Other minds affect us in ways bodies and ideas don’t, as active, free and creative, as bearing a likeness to our own minds. The same idea can exist in an infinite number of minds. There exists, then, a community of intelligent minds that share the same mental space, an extra human intelligible world, where they can meet.

The existence of other minds confirms for us the reality, creativity and freedom of our own minds, and underlines what I concluded previously: that reality is not synonymous with materiality, and knowing is not synonymous with empirical experience of external surfaces. By reflecting on how other minds and ours work we become convinced that information can be produced and thought only by minds. But non-human nature is teeming with ideas and loaded with information, which enters our minds through our experience of the world. As I indicated above, the ideal of scientific knowledge is to think the whole world and reproduce its blueprint in our minds.

What is the explanation for this state of affairs? Nonmaterial minds exist and live in a physical world ordered by ideas. Our minds can create ideas or discover them in nature. We can share ideas we create or discover with other minds. The multilayered intelligibility of the world can be in part discovered by experience. In my view the most plausible explanation for the deep-down and far-wide intelligibility of the world is the creative activity of a universal and all-inclusive Mind. The human mind, far from being a by-product of the chaotic movements of unintelligible matter is actually the place where the true nature of reality finally shows itself most clearly in its basic form—creative mind!

And it is this Mind to which Epimenides and Paul referred when they said that “In him we live and move and have our being.” Paul says God made the world in such a way that we could “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:28). And in this series I’ve tried to show that it really matters where you begin your search.

 

 

 

 

Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part Two)

Why can’t we feel what Paul and the Athenians felt: that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)? In Part One of this series I argued that modern natural science beginning with Galileo and Bacon teaches us to view the entire world of nature as bits of matter related in space. Nature has no soul, no nonmaterial aspect, and no internal goal. No wonder we cannot feel that we live and move and have our being surrounded and indwelt by God’s presence and activity! Instead we live and move and have our being inside a giant material machine! And if God is anywhere at all, God is outside the machine in another dimension. We’ve been taught a model of reality that makes us blind to God’s activity and presence; we’re all deists now! Or atheists or materialists.

In my view a wholly materialist understanding of nature will lead eventually to metaphysical materialism and atheism. That is to say, if we exclude formal and final causality, we will not be able to imagine divine causality and activity. If we cannot imagine created, nonmaterial causes acting within the world, we will not be able to imagine how God is present and active in the world.

Sense Experience and Materialism

A common argument for atheistic materialism begins with sense experience, which supposedly reveals the nature of reality for our immediate inspection. Through our senses we perceive the world as consisting of external, opaque and impenetrable physical objects.  Our senses are activated by our body’s physical contact with external bodies. Using this common experience of the world as an analogy, the materialist constructs a model of reality in which purely material bits (atoms) are accidentally related to each other to form the order we experience in the world. Matter itself possesses no order. The materialist perspective assumes that since we can destroy the ordered physical things we meet in everyday experience but cannot destroy the material substance of which they are composed, the material substance must be the only reality that endures throughout all change. The order itself is nothing and can be wholly reduced to spatial relationships of material bits. Everything other than unordered matter, including our minds and all intelligible properties, is simply a pattern in collected bits of matter. And the existence of the particular sets of spatial arrangements of matter that constitute the present order of nature can be explained as the result of pure chance. The world merely falls into place. It is not put or held in place.

A Different Beginning Point

But what if we begin our thinking about reality at a different point, not with perception of the external world through the senses, but with the mind’s perception of itself and its experience of its contents and powers? After all, we know our minds better than we know any other thing. Indeed, our minds are the only things we know from the inside. We are our minds! We experience our minds as intelligent, creative, unified, transparent and internal. In contrast, matter is defined by its impenetrability, externality, lack of order and unintelligibility. It is spatial, mindless and massive. The materialist model of reality as bits matter in spatial relationship is derived from an external view of things. But why rely on an external view of reality when we have an internal view! We have an internal perspective on ourselves completely inaccessable to an external point of view. Why not assume that other things do as well? Hence we are not being irrational or arbitrary when we make inner experience of our minds and their contents the beginning point for constructing a model of reality that includes minds, ideas and purposes.

From Inside Out

Let’s see what the world looks like when we begin with an internal view of the mind. Here is the path we will follow: (1) We will move from the mind and its inner world to our bodies; then (2) we reflect on our experience of the physical world not merely as external surfaces but as intelligible and information rich; then (3) we will ask about the significance of our encounter other minds like our own; and (4) finally we raise the question of an all-inclusive and universally operative mind in whom the whole world lives and moves and has its being.

Inside the Mind

Internal experience teaches us that our minds are real, free, creative, nonmaterial powers. Hence we know that reality is not synonymous with materiality, and knowing is not synonymous with empirical experience of external surfaces.

Mind In and Over Body

We find also that our minds have causal power over our bodies. We can move them as we will and through them move and reshape the external physical world to resemble the images we have created in our minds. Our own experience of our bodies demonstrates the power of mind to impose its internal order, its ideas, on the physical world. But what about the natural physical objects we encounter? Is the order they display the product of a mind?

Part 3 coming tomorrow

 

Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part One)?

Something has been bothering me for years, and I am obsessed with getting clear on it: why does living in modern culture rob us of a sense of God’s presence? When Paul spoke to the Athenians he could assume that they shared his vivid sense of a divine presence in human life and in nature. He was sure that they would agree with the sixth-century B.C. philosopher Epimenides whom he quoted: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). For the Athenians and nearly all the ancients it seemed obvious that nature was moved and ordered and directed by the divine spirit and mind. Why isn’t it obvious for us? Perhaps there are many reasons, but I want to focus on one: the impact of the model of reality generated by early modern science.

Modern science began in the early seventeenth century with Francis Bacon’s and Galileo’s rejection of Aristotle’s philosophy of science, especially their exclusion of formal and final causality from the study of nature. A formal cause is the design plan or blue print that makes a thing what it is as opposed to something else. It is the unifying center of a thing that integrates all its components into one whole. It is the foundation of its properties. Clearly a design plan is not a physical thing and does not exercise causality in a physical way. It can be comprehended only obscurely, as imperfect image. For these reasons, Bacon and Galileo excluded it from their new empirical/mathematical science.

A final cause is the reason for which a thing is made. It is the aim at which its entire development and activity is aimed. Like a formal cause, a final cause is not a physical thing and cannot exercise physical causality. It exists only in the mind of the maker of the thing. Bacon and Galileo saw no way of studying final causes empirically. How can you study the mind that made a natural object or the inner striving of the thing toward a goal? Those things, if they are factors at all, are hidden from the practitioner of empirical science who always views things from an external point of view.

Bacon and Galileo redesigned natural science so that it deals only with empirically observable phenomena, which it comprehends exclusively in mathematical terms. In other words, the task of natural science is to figure out the mathematical relationships of things that are capable of activating one of our five senses. What sorts of things activate our senses? The impacts of material objects! Hence, for Bacon and Galileo, natural science envisions reality as bits of matter related in space in ways that can be understood truly only in mathematical terms!

Natural science and the technology it has made possible have been decisive in forming modern culture. Modern science’s way of explaining empirical phenomena and the model of reality that has guided its investigations have so shaped our understanding of nature that we unthinkingly assume that it describes the way things truly are: everything in nature really is just bits of matter related in space. There is no formal causality operative in nature and no final causality that directs it toward a goal. Hence we cannot immediately experience nature as the result of design and in movement toward an end. And this is why we cannot feel what Paul assumed the Athenians felt, that “in him we live and move and have our being.”

In my view one of the most urgent needs of modern culture is to rediscover formal and final causality in nature and ourselves. I am not a professional philosopher or a scientist, but I want to do something to help people see the world through a different lens. What follows is not highly systematic. But I hope it can nevertheless cause us to question the materialistic model that robs us of the feeling of living in the flow of the divine life and thought as it manifests itself in the forms and flow of nature.

To Be Continued: Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

Does God Love Each Equally?

As a prepared for the lecture I plan to give tomorrow (“Love and the Question of God”), I was struck by a quote I intend to use. Some of us have a hard time and we wonder if God cares about us, and some of us seem to have it easy and we feel guilty about that. So, I simply wanted to share the quote with you and hope it helps you in whatever state you find yourself:

God wills our highest good. But we cannot attain our highest good as isolated individuals. We exist in relation to God primarily, and secondarily we depend on the whole creation and other human beings for our lives and personal identities. And we can experience the highest good, which is perfect fellowship with God, only in fellowship with the whole creation. Each of us plays a part in God’s story with the world. Some of those parts are short, some long, some painful, some mostly happy, some relative easy, and some very hard. From within life and from the perspective of the individual, life does not seem fair and God seems to love some more than others. But from the perspective of the end and the whole history of creation, God loves each person perfectly—and equally. God loves the whole world in each person, that is, God blesses the whole world by using each individual to bring something to the whole that makes it complete. And God loves each person by loving the whole world, that is, each individual will experience the whole good God makes of the whole. And in the end, all converge and each gets what has been given to all (A Course in Christianity, p. 48).

Be at peace. Rest in God’s love even when you feel you are not being treated fairly. The story is not over.

“To Be or Not to Be?” Which is Better?

Is it better to exist than not? Don’t answer too quickly! For this is a subtle question requiring careful thought. First of all, it is stated as a comparison between two things that are difficult to compare. “Better” is the comparative of good, and good can mean “good for” for a particular nature or absolutely good, which means something “good for” every possible nature. Only God is absolutely good. Life with food is better than life without food because food is “good for” living things. It is difficult to say that it is better to exist than not, because there is no comparison between nonexistence and existence. Not existing is not a defective state of existing. Indeed it is not a “state” at all. Hence we can’t conclude from this comparison that existing is better than not existing. Nor can you get at the question by asking an existing person whether being deprived of existence would be a loss of good and then concluding to the superiority of existing because of its greater goodness. In so far as we imagine a state of being deprived of all goods, of course we would find that condition worse than our present state of relative contentment. But our imaginations fool us here, because ceasing to exist is not comparable to losing a good while remaining in existence.

Is there a way to answer the question? I do not think so if we limit ourselves to the original question: is it better for me to exist than never to have existed? But there are other possibilities: is it better for the universe or others that I exist rather than never to have existed? We may not be able to answer this question, but at least it makes sense. Perhaps we can ask it another way: was it better for God to have created the world than not to have created it? The only workable answer I can imagine to this question goes like this: God created the world out of sheer love to share his eternal joy with creatures. If so, we can safely assume that God determined that it was better for God’s purposes that the world, which includes us, exist rather than not. But even from a divine perspective how does God know that it is better for you and me to exist than not, since there is no way to compare the two? I can think of only one way. God can know that it is better for me to exist—for myself and not just for others—only if I am not merely nothingness and chaos before I exist in this world and for myself. I must in some way exist for God and be known and loved by God from all eternity even before I exist for myself. I can then understand God’s act of creating me as enabling the me God knew eternally to exist and act for myself as good for the world and good for me.

Hence we can assert that it is good to exist not only because we desire it naturally or when we experience more good than evil but also as in faith we validate God’s decision that we should exist. Since you in fact exist, you can know that it is better for you and for creation that you exist than never to have been. As long as God wills it, then, “To be” is better than “Not to be.”

Note: Recently, a student asked me the question discussed in this essay. I wrote these thoughts in answer to his question, but I thought I’d share them with you as well.

Saved From Suicide

Recently I learned that 12% of current American college students admitted to having seriously considered suicide. I am not a psychologist, counsellor or sociologist. I am a professor, and I must walk into my classroom next Monday (August 27, 2018) to meet my new students. This statistic forces me to consider what silent despair may be hidden behind those youthful eyes. I teach about 100 students per year, and each one is a unique living, breathing human being, loved by God. Each is capable of so much good or evil, love or hate, hope or despair. And when I think that 12 of the 100 may be thinking seriously about taking their own lives I begin to seek for something to say that might replace their despair of life with hope.

As I said, I cannot speak as a psychologist, counsellor or sociologist. I can speak only as a fellow human being, from life experience and faith. I thought I would share with you what I think I would say to my students if I were to speak to them about suicide:

I know what it is to despair of life, to suffer inner pain and to feel that no one understands or can understand your suffering. I know what it’s like to be unable to think of a reason why I should expect tomorrow to be any different than today. When I was 17 years old, not much younger than you are today, I suffered such isolation and hopelessness that I concluded that it would be better had I never been born. I worked hard to hide my despair from others by an outward show of wittiness and from myself by staying busy. But when alone my thoughts would turn to my unhappiness, and my gaze only magnified my misery. I didn’t feel worth anything. I didn’t like myself, but felt unable to change or forget. And if I did not like myself how could I believe anyone else could? I saw no way forward and no way out. But I did not kill myself.

I said above that I saw no way out. And I didn’t. But I believed it was possible, though I could not imagine how. This slender thread of hope kept me from utter despair and suicide. Even in the depths of the pit I could still cry out to God and still believe he could save me, though I could not feel his presence or see his light. And he saved me. That little ray of light was God’s way of being present and of pointing toward the future he had planned for me. That period of near despair taught me two lessons I don’t think I could have learned any other way: (1) I am utterly dependent on God for my being, worth, meaning and hope. Without God I can do nothing. I have been in the pit. God was there. (2) I have great compassion for any one suffering from the despair I felt. I know what it’s like, and I know there is hope even when you cannot see it.

When I was in despair, as I said, (1) I felt alone and believed that no one could understand my pain, (2) I did not like myself and thought no one else could either, and (3) there is no reason to believe that the future will be better than the present. I was wrong on all three counts.

You are not alone. Many have suffered as you are, and there are many good and kind people who will listen as you express and deal with your fears and wounds. Don’t suffer in silence. I understand that the thought of letting someone else into your head and heart is terrifying. Please believe me, there are others who will understand; they will not gasp in horror or laugh in derision. Find them.

You are worthy of others’ love and respect. You are God’s creation, and God thinks you are worthy of life and joy. It doesn’t matter what you look like or what you have done. When I was in despair I was afraid to learn what other people thought of me because I suspected their thoughts would not be kind. I did not yet know the rule I have since learned: if you love others they will love you back, but if you determine only to get love from others they cannot love you in return. Love can’t be earned or forced but must be freely given. However little you feel it, however tiny that ray of hope may be, believe that you are loved already and are worthy of human love. Act on that faith and you will find it confirmed.

Things will get better! Even from a common sense point of view, things are always changing. The present is not fixed in concrete. Different stages of life bring different challenges and rewards. The weather changes! Moods change! Not all these changes can be bad. New opportunities arise. From the point of view of faith in God a wholly new perspective arises. God is in charge of the future. God may require hard things of us, but he will not ask us to face these challenges alone and unequipped. He will be there.

This life is not eternal sentence. This may seem strange advice to give to those tempted with despair of life. But listen. Life doesn’t always feel good. There is much evil in the world and many regrets and anxieties dog our paths. So, when you think of the troubles of life and the evil that seems to rule the world, remind yourself that it won’t last forever. There is a way out. I think I would go completely crazy if I thought I had to live forever in this world. Thankfully, we don’t! But let God make that decision. God is the only one capable of making the right decision at the right time.