Monthly Archives: April 2017

Science Marches On…In the Streets

My Sunday morning newspaper placed on the front page a picture of Saturday’s “march for science” in downtown Los Angeles. As I read the story I said to myself, “There is something strange about people protesting in the name of science.” Science presents itself as a disinterested search for truth. But protest is a political act for the sake of justice; this is a march for science. What does that mean? While I am a great lover of modern natural science I am somewhat suspicious of taking its cause to the streets. It raises the question of the nature and limits of science and its enmeshment within culture and politics. Since I wrote about this in The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (pp. 166-168), allow me to respond to the march for science by quoting myself:

“Modern natural science is greatly valued in our culture and scientists are held in high esteem. Why? Clearly, the main reason for science’s social prestige is that science has produced technology that people desire. Human beings want to enjoy health and long life, wealth, exciting entertainment, comfort and leisure, and, of course, military power. Some people are curious about the world and for that reason are interested in what science discovers. Others mistakenly think science will confirm their metaphysical or religious beliefs. But overwhelmingly science is valued for its material benefits. In their most idealistic moments, scientists may attempt to convince themselves that they pursue science for knowledge alone. Whatever the scientist thinks, however, the culture has another end in mind. There is no other way to account for the vast sums of money governments and businesses spend on research and development and individuals spend on technology. People today do not crave salvation or concern themselves with their God-relation. For many people science has replaced God as the source of well-being and the scientist has replaced the priest as the means of access to the source of good. A kind of mindless worldliness and thoughtless sensuality pervades the consumer culture the scientist serves.

“Natural science possesses no natural birthright to the cultural power it holds today. As I indicated, science is held in esteem because people want the things science provides. But science cannot provide everything people need. Science cannot tell you what is right or wrong or make you wise or good. Science cannot endow your life with meaning or make you happy. It cannot give you love or show you how to love. Science cannot forgive your sins or give you hope for eternal life. It cannot give you contentment in life. It cannot give you a genuine identity. It can’t tell you whether there is a God or what God thinks of you or what God wants of you. It has no comforting words to prepare you for death. It cannot change the laws of nature or control the future. Science must remain silent or speak foolishly in relation to the existential dimension of humanity. Science is not God. Science is human through and through; it derives from the power of our reason to figure out the laws of nature and use them for our ends. It gives the impression of being superhuman for the same reason that governments give that impression: it is a communal undertaking transcending the individual in power and longevity, but it does not transcend humanity as such. Science possesses all the strengths and weaknesses of humanity in an exaggerated form. At the risk of sounding unappreciative of science, it must be said that natural science cannot answer a single one of the top five or ten most important questions we ask or achieve anything of lasting significance. At the end of his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant gave his list of three most important questions pressing on human existence: “1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?” One could extend that list a long way before one gets to “What is the atomic weight of Iron?” Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) concluded, “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ).

“We must consider one more extra scientific factor when evaluating science. The scientist is an existing human being. The scientist is not a machine completely absorbed in the objective world of nature. She/he is a subject, a body, an individual, fallible, mortal and needy, anxious, jealous, hopeful or despairing, optimistic or pessimistic. Science exists only in the minds of scientists. Science can’t do scientific research. In addition to being founded on metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions and directed toward social and political ends, science is conditioned by the subjectivity scientists bring to their task. A person can be driven to engage in science by curiosity, love of discovery, love of beauty, desire to serve God, desire to benefit humanity, adherence to a philosophy of nature, desire for wealth or fame, hatred and envy, pride or shame, and many other human motivations. Scientists can be virtuous or vicious, honest or dishonest, caring or cruel. This is true not only because scientists sometimes falsify data or take short cuts or plagiarize but because these subjective factors affect what presuppositions they favor and to what ends they direct their research. Even at the levels of observation and interpretation subjective factors play a part, for good or ill.

“As these observations make clear, even if the inner workings and the material findings of modern natural science are strictly limited to the empirical, these empirical findings do not stand alone or interpret themselves or put themselves to use. Because science is nestled between epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions and cultural ends and is conducted by subjects, there is plenty of room for conflict and dialogue between what scientists claim as the significance of their empirical findings and other interpretations of reality.”

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How Do I Handle it When Someone Won’t Forgive Me?

Recently a friend, whom I will call Samuel, asked me to address a dilemma he faces. He is now a Christian, but formerly he lived a life in which he offended and hurt many people. In relating to those whom he hurt in the past, he finds that they want him to express remorse, but when he does, they don’t trust him to be sincere and want him to demonstrate remorse in unspecified ways. Samuel finds this situation very painful and is tempted to withdraw and keep silent. I think Samuel’s dilemma may not be unique, so I wanted to share the gist of what I said to him:

“Sadly, this is a common human response, Sam, and from a Christian viewpoint, its mere humanity is what is wrong with it. When people are wronged they naturally want revenge, and when they ask you to prove your remorse, they are saying that their desire for revenge has not been satisfied. They want to see you suffer. Desire for revenge is the root of bitterness from which springs all sorts of violence. Jesus tells us that we are obligated to forgive whoever asks us for forgiveness even if they sin and come back 70 times 7 times (Matthew 18:21-22)! He did not add a qualification that allows us to ask them to “prove” they are sorry. Nor did Jesus allow us to say “No” for any reason. In forgiving, we are not so much trusting the petitioner’s sincerity as we are trusting Jesus. We cannot know the hearts of other people—nor our own!—but we know the heart of Jesus! Petitioners can never do enough to prove that they are sorry to people who do not understand that they need forgiveness as much as the petitioners do. If we know that we have been forgiven a great debt, we will not hesitate to forgive others. Your point from Romans 5:8—that Christ died for us while we were sinners and enemies—was spot on target! God said “Yes” to us before we had even asked!!! I am amazed and completely humbled by his grace. All this reminds me of Jesus’ story of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). We all ought to pray, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” and have nothing to say to God or others about our goodness.

“But you asked about your dilemma and not the offended party’s dilemma. I simply thought considering the obligation we have to forgive others when they ask for mercy would help us think clearer about the petitioner’s dilemma. If we are required to forgive those who ask us without knowing for sure that they are sincere, aren’t we—the offending party—also required to ask for forgiveness even when we cannot know that someone will extend it? Even if we are sure that they will not forgive? After we’ve faced our sin in God’s presence and have accepted his forgiveness, if possible, we should express remorse and ask forgiveness from those we’ve hurt. If someone doesn’t trust our remorse or grant our request for forgiveness, even though it is hurtful to us, in the spirit of Jesus we should in our hearts forgive them for not forgiving us. For they are in the wrong and need God’s grace and help. We should pray for them to come to know their forgiveness in Christ! And as we pray for our self-made enemy, God may grant us healing from the hurt of rejection. Indeed, I believe he will. It may be your remorse and requested forgiveness that finally confronts them—the supposedly innocent party—with their sin of not believing in the forgiveness of sins. Your costly remorse and their reaction could be means of their awakening and redemption.”

“It Takes a University to Produce Ideas this Dumb”

One day last week as I was reading my local newspaper and drinking my morning coffee I came upon a story lamenting a recent series of incidents of some type of bad behavior, a sort of secular jeremiad. Whether they were cases of racism, sexism, bullying, physical and verbal violence against women or LGBTQ people, I don’t recall. What struck me as worthy of note was not the particular list of sins condemned but the author’s diagnosis of the root problem and the response advocated: ignorance remediated by more education!

What’s wrong with that? Nothing per se. Every parent knows and all ancient moralists understood that human beings need to be taught the difference between right and wrong; they need discipline, training and practice. But everything depends on what you teach! Secular approaches to moral education, such as the one advocated by the author I read, leave out the most important part of morality. They assert moral rules without foundations or inner coherence. Of course the moral training of a small child, a two-year old for example, must begin with parents laying down rules backed up only by parental say-so. A young child cannot understand moral theology or philosophy. But at some point in our lives we need more than arbitrary rules backed up by threat of punishment to sustain a moral life worthy of mature human beings.

Here is what struck me about the story: the secular moral educator cannot get beyond two-year old morality. That is to say, the secular moralist can only make assertions backed up by implicit or explicit threats. If students ask a secular moral educator why they are obligated to follow the asserted rules, sooner or later they will be confronted by a humanly legislated law or an administrative regulation that has the force of law. This is the adult form of “Because I said so!” (Those who have had to complete institutionally required workplace sexual harassment training understand what I am saying.) The secular moralist may assert certain rights or invoke the concept of justice. And what if you ask for the basis of those asserted rights and claims of justice? You will receive one of two answers. Either the original assertion will be repeated at a higher decibel level or you will be directed again to legislated law.

By definition, secular morality cannot appeal to any moral standard that transcends human desires, wishes or assertions of power. Such appeals would have to mention the will and purpose of God or some spiritual reality that determines the meaning and end of human life. It cannot successfully appeal to natural science to ground its moral assertions, because science only describes things and cannot tell you what ought to be.

And because secular morality possesses no unifying philosophical or theological vision of the world and human life, it cannot bring unity to its asserted rules. Sometimes it invokes principles such as individual liberty or community solidarity to give its rules a semblance of coherence. But as you can see, these two principles often come into conflict and call for a higher principle to harmonize them. And apart from a higher unifying principle, individual liberty and community solidarity are just as much arbitrary assertions as is the incoherent list of secular rules.

Moreover, secular moral education is as weak psychologically as it is philosophically. Why would you expect racists, sexists and bullies to change their minds and reform their ways simply because a teacher, professor, supervisor or celebrity asks them to do so? It’s laughable. Such changes of heart require something more persuasive than appeals for niceness. Genuine moral convictions must be grounded in a clear vision of truth. Moral reformation must arise out of a powerful perception that one is out of tune and out of touch with what is truly good and right, misaligned with the way things ought to be. And for most people moral reformation must be accompanied by religious conversion; for God is the creator and lawgiver of human nature and of the whole world. You can’t get right with your neighbors unless you get right with the Creator of your neighbors.

Christianity’s moral vision acknowledges the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to be the unifying center of all reality, metaphysical, physical and moral. The scriptures teach us that to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves are our highest duties. And Jesus Christ has set us a perfect example of what it means to love God and neighbor. This vision of the good and right is not an empty and arbitrary assertion. It is grounded in the eternal being of God and revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the perfect image of God. And those who see it don’t need a secular educator’s special pleading or threats to motivate them to not to do violence to their neighbors. They are already way beyond that stage.