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They Must Not Believe in God

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“They must not believe in God.”

These words from my daughter came after a conversation we had been having at bedtime about someone who she had heard yelling at their baby.  For her, it was clear: someone who believed in God simply would not do something as monstrous as scream “shut up!” at an infant.  People who believe in God don’t do such things, after all.  Right?

Needless to say, an interesting conversation followed.  We talked about how all kinds of people who believe all kinds of things exhibit all kinds of behaviours.  We talked about belief and behaviour and the connection between the two.  We talked about how we don’t always do the good we ought (or want) to do and how we sometimes do the bad we don’t want to do (Romans 7:14-25).  We talked about repentance and forgiveness and redemption.  It was an eventful bedtime—at least, more eventful than usual.

And, of course, it set my mind a-whirring on timeless question of the grounds of goodness.  Is God required to legitimate objective goodness?  Can we be good without God?  What about the bad behaviour of those who claim to know God?  These are old, old questions dating at least as far back as Plato’s Euthyphro and have constituted the subject matter of countless books and articles and lectures and conversations in coffee shops ever since.

They are also the subject of a recent post called “Good Minus God” by University of Massachusetts Amherst philosopher Louise Antony for The Stone, the New York Times’ philosophy blog.  I didn’t have high expectations in clicking the link, truth be told.  This way of framing the issue is rarely helpful, and it seems always to centre on either, a) demonstrating that there exist good people who do not believe in God (hardly a revelation); or b) that belief in God is required to do good (at least the right kind) in the world, depending on whether it is atheism or theism being advocated.  Regrettably, my low expectations were barely met.

Antony offers a fairly predictable critique of “divine command theory” (D.C.T.) and “divine independence theory” (D.I.T.).  In the former case, if things are only good because God decrees that they be so, then anything God decrees is good and goodness is arbitrary.  The illustrative example is equally predictable: “If God were to command you to eat your children, then it would be ‘right’ to eat your children.”  In the latter case, if what is good is independent of God—that is, if God prefers it because is good—then its goodness obtains its existence and resides outside of God, therefore God is unnecessary.

But surely there are better ways of framing the connection between goodness and God.  What about, for example, the possibility that God is inherently good and loving?  What if there is no contradiction between a property owing its existence to God and it being constitutive of God’s identity? What about the possibility that in creating us in his image, God made us to resonate with and respond to what is good?  What if our human evaluating and deliberating upon matters of good/bad, right/wrong is not us defining or determining what is good, but responding, more or less accurately, to the goodness that precedes, surrounds, guides, and leads us?

For me, this provides a better image of both God and human beings.  God does not arbitrarily decide that some things are good and some are bad just to see if his puppets will dance accordingly, and we do not slavishly obey and align ourselves with a dictatorial God’s commands simply because “God said so.”  Part of what it means to bear God’s image, it seems to me, is to share a deep and intrinsic connection to goodness.  As believers, we do not (or ought not) behave ourselves out of fear or duty or out of the promise of reward or punishment, as Antony suggests in this post.  Rather we strive to do what is good out of a God-given hunger and longing, however fitfully and incoherently this is understood or expressed, to be and to do what we were made to be and to do.

Of course commands are necessary at various points in the human story.  Of course we do not and cannot comprehensively apprehend the scope of what is good and true and beautiful.  Of course we do not always live consistently with what we do know of these things.  This is part of what it means to be fallen creatures, whether we believe in God or not.  We are complicated beings who believe and do things for a dizzying amount and variety of reasons, some good, some bad.

As disappointing as I found Antony’s construal of the view that God is necessary for good, I was even more surprised by how little she had to say about the atheistic justification for goodness.  This is about all we are offered:

We “moralistic atheists” do not see right and wrong as artifacts of a divine protection racket.  Rather, we find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others.

Aside from the fact that there is nothing inconsistent between believing that the above tells part of the story and believing that God is involved in the process, this simply isn’t very much to go on.  Why might such a thing as morality be immanent in the natural world?  Why might our species alone among sentient beings have the capacity to identify and reflect upon and respond to this immanent property?  Why, for that matter, might sentience and consciousness be linked to morality?  At some level, the answer will undoubtedly be linked to some kind of evolutionary advantage that these capacities conferred upon their possessors, but these questions are mostly left untouched.

At any rate, after reading this post my thoughts returned to my conversation with my daughter.  How would I like for her to understand the connection between God and goodness?  How would I like her to understand our human inconsistencies and confusions when it comes to what we believe and what we do?  How would I like for her to understand and affirm the goodness that she sees around her, whatever its professed source?

Quite simply, I think, I would like for her to know that God is good, that he has made (all of) us to long for, respond to, and participate in goodness, and that all people—whatever they “believe” about God—resist God and resist good.  Most of all, I think that I would like her to know that God delights in, longs for, and pursues his children with a fierce and determined goodness.  The good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the confused and conflicted, the rebellious, the joyful, the just-about-convinced, the hard-hearted and stubborn, the fearful, the expectant and hopeful.

Which is to say, all of us.

65 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    In Isaiah 13, verse 16 refers to God slaying babies. As I am sure you know, this kind of thing is not unique to that verse. Mark 13:17 refers to Jesus saying something at least allusive to such an event.

    What do you say about such as is found these passages in the Bible?

    December 20, 2011
    • Strictly speaking, the verse says nothing about “God slaying babies.” But it is a horrific passage, regardless of the role God is thought to play, and there are certainly enough other passages to make one squirm.

      I doubt I have a response that will satisfy you or that you have not come across elsewhere, but I guess I have a few implicit interpretive strategies when it comes to texts like these:

      1) I see passages like these as similar to the “cursing Psalms”—they reflect the honest desires of the person or community who produced the text with respect to their enemies. They may also, in some sense, reflect God’s judgment on those who resist him, but even then, I read passages like these alongside passages where God is said to seek the welfare of other nations (for these passages exist as well) and the overall context of Scripture where God chooses Israel as a vehicle for blessing the whole world. Regardless, I don’t feel a need to affirm or agree with expressions like Isaiah 13:16.

      2) I read the Bible unapologetically Christocentrically. For me, Jesus is the truest picture we have of God and everything else I read in Scripture is read with one eye on the gospels. Yes, there are some nasty passages in the NT where Jesus comes as judge. Fine. I can accept Jesus as judge, even if it is a sobering thought. I prefer Jesus as judge to no judge at all.

      And now, a question for you. You think that I focus on the nice parts of the Bible at the expense of the nasty ones or just read the parts that confirm what I want to think. Fine. Yet, at times, you seem to do the exact opposite. You focus on the unpleasant parts to the exclusion of those that speak of life and peace and hope and goodness. Why?

      December 21, 2011
      • Ken #

        I think I have given you a wrong impression. I don’t raise questions about such passages as the moralists do who reject God because they think God is immoral or that no true God would be immoral.

        I do believe that God, meaning the one in the BIble, is immoral by modern standards of morality. That does not bother me because I am suspicious of morality in the way that Nietzsche and Foucault were, for example.

        My impression of you is that morality matters greatly to you, and my impression is that this is true of your tradition as well.

        My impression of you is that you do read the Bible Christocentrically. And it is true that I do not. I think we have different understandings about what the Bible says about Christ as well. In my understanding of what it says, Christocentrism involves a historical misreading of who Jesus was and what he said and did.

        Here I raised the question that I did because of the parallel I saw between the mother yelling and the passages in the Bible that refer to dashing babies against the rocks on the Day of the Lord. Here is how I think about this.

        As is written in Isaiah and the Psalms and other places, God’s is angry for only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime. Unless the mother yelling at the child has long-lasting emotional or psychological issues, her anger will last only a moment and her favor for her child will last for a lifetime. The Day of the Lord as presented in the Bible lasts only a moment, only as long as it takes to utter a word of anger. No time at all really. God’s favor is forever and overwhelming. That is what I believe the Bible says.

        December 21, 2011
      • My impression of you is that morality matters greatly to you, and my impression is that this is true of your tradition as well.

        Certainly it matters to me. I think it matters to you as well—perhaps more than you admit. You wouldn’t raise the issues you do on this blog nor would you be as critical of the elements of the PCUSA and other expressions of Christianity if it did not. Your criticisms are often profoundly moral in nature.

        I think we have different understandings about what the Bible says about Christ as well. In my understanding of what it says, Christocentrism involves a historical misreading of who Jesus was and what he said and did.

        Perhaps we do have different understandings, although thinking back on past conversations on this matter, I think I have tried to argue that understanding Jesus in his historical (Jewish) context and as the hope of the whole world beyond Israel are not mutually exclusive. Do you think that to interpret Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures is a “historical misreading?”

        December 21, 2011
  2. Ken #

    Re: morality, perhaps it is semantics. Nietzsche and Foucault can be seen as moralists even while resisting.

    Re: Do you think that to interpret Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures is a “historical misreading?”

    No. That is what the New Testament does say. If that is all that you mean by Christocentrism, then I think we must read it almost the same way, at least in that respect.

    My impression has been that Christocentrism generally refers to using the New Testament as filter for what is true of God in the Old Testament. It is, in a sense, a polemical reading associated with a view that God is presented in an inferior way in the Old Testament. I don’t think that matches the view presented in the New Testament. In addition, in some cases people who refer to their reading of the Bible as Christocentric believe that words (and pronouns) in the Old Testament literally referred to Jesus. In the NASV, for example, “his” and “he” are capitalized when they are thought to refer to Jesus. This happens in Isaiah, for example. (One Christocentric reader I have known actually emphasizes these words when he reads them aloud.) I believe this is a misreading, historically speaking.

    My statement that I do not read the Bible Christocentrically goes beyond these distinctions. In the New Testament, I hear the promises God made to Abraham. (I don’t hear Jesus himself in the promises God made to Abraham.) I regard the whole Bible as myth, one in which Jesus appears, but is by no means central to the whole. I regard the Bible as having two main characters: God and Israel. God and Israel are united in expression. The Bible does not speak of God without speaking of Israel, and visa versa. Jesus is a symbol for Israel.

    Outside of the Bible, I can also say that my theology is not Christocentric. A liberal theologian once remarked to me that evangelicals have a relationship with Jesus and liberals have a relationship with God. That was, perhaps, an element of what Christocentrism meant to her. I am somewhat like her, although not so certain as she was. As best as I can describe my theology, it is a pantheism, one which is materialist. To me, the earth and the universe, they are the body of Christ, which is to say they are Israel, the beloved one of God. And God, what is God to me? God is no being. For me to speak of God is to speak mythically and poetically, about the earth and the universe of which we are part, so mysterious and beautiful. It is to speak with desire.

    December 21, 2011
  3. James #

    This post follows nicely on the Hitchens commentary, Ryan. Hitchens found it so easy to give examples of immoral Christians and moral atheists, as it that solved the problem of God’s existence. It always baffled me how he persisted in it, for all his supposed brilliance.
    The other thing was his misunderstanding of the Dostoyevsky argument “without God anything is possible.” The whole point of The Brothers Karamzov book is that Ivan is moral even though he doesn’t believe in God but that his atheism is irrational. Atheists can well be moral but they have no reason to be. Whether or not mothers eat their children is of no more consequence than the waves lapping against the beach and a mountain sunset of no more consequences that an sewer. I have yet to meet a moral atheist that is willing to live with this conclusion. Dostoyevsky’s claim is that even as they rail against God, atheists are proving they intellectual inadequacy of their argument. I find that a very compelling argument. It is why I like The Brothers Karamzov so much- it is such an elegant argument.

    By they way, Ken- the NASB capitalizes all the pronouns for deity- not because they are Christological. It seemed to me that the subsequent translations avoided doing so to be absolved from making a deity claim around Jesus.

    December 21, 2011
    • Absolutely agree, James. I continue to be amazed that quite intelligent people consider the location of a moral atheist to constitute proof that God is unnecessary for objective right and wrong.

      I like The Brothers Karamazov for similar reasons. Among other things, It quite uniquely and powerfully asks the question of what moral conclusions we are prepared to live with and why.

      December 21, 2011
      • James #

        BTW I looked at the Peter Leithart book on Dostoyevsky on your list. Leithart also wrote “Defending Constantine” which I reviewed in the MBH. Obviously an author with a broad ranging interest. I thought the Constantine book was excellent if I have time some time I’d love to read this one.

        December 21, 2011
      • I’ll have to keep an eye out for your review. To be honest, I’ve barely begun the book on Dostoevsky—somehow time seems a scarce commodity these days :).

        December 21, 2011
    • Ken #

      Thank you, James, for the insights on the NASB. It surprises me to hear that they made this change.

      James, I concur in some respects with your observation that “Atheists can well be moral but they have no reason to be.” Nietzsche would concur in some respects as well. Still, from the perspective of atheists, there are reasons. For Rorty, for example, the reasons are pragmatic, not theological. I think his reasons are compelling.

      Ryan, I agree with you that there are problems with considering “the location of a moral atheist to constitute proof that God is unnecessary for objective right and wrong.” The word “objective” is key, I think. Similarly, I don’t think that the human need for treating others kindly proves that God is necessary for such kindness to be rational. (Personally, I am happy with it being irrational, and do not associate God with rationality, but that does not prevent me from agreeing with your rational point.)

      Darwin was a pragmatist morally. It made him shudder to think, as James wrote, that “Whether or not mothers eat their children is of no more consequence than the waves lapping against the beach and a mountain sunset of no more consequences that an sewer.” And yet, while he shuddered, he also saw a grandeur in such a world, one that did not depend on God.

      I think that the implication of the idea that chance and necessity, natural selection, accounts for the origin of species, is that chance and necessity account for morality as well. That is how things appear to those atheists who are probably better described as materialists than by the more polemical term “atheist.”

      BTW, my understanding is that Dawkins has as much disdain for the pantheist view (even the materialist one) as he does for the theistic view of things. My understanding is that he believes that to even use the word “God” poetically causes harm. From his perspective I understand his point. Personally, though, I would say, as a pragmatist, I think it is better that we not proscribe such talk, even while we remain cautious with its use. With Eliade, and the Hebrew prophets, I don’t see how we could live without it.

      December 22, 2011
      • From my perspective, when it comes to most of these big questions—the grounds for ethics, rationality, objective right and wrong, truth, beauty, etc—we are not in the realm of “proof” but suggestion.

        The human need for treating others kindly does not prove there is God who made us for kindness, but it is suggestive…

        The fact that most (all?) atheists are pragmatists as opposed to strictly consistent nihilists when it comes to morality does not prove there is a God, but it is suggestive…

        The fact that we shudder at some of the implications of an objective value-free universe does not prove anything about whether or not objective value exists, but it is suggestive…

        The fact that we hunger for truth and exert considerable energy in pursuing it does not prove that truth is worth the effort, that it has any connection to what matters to us, or that it rewards those who seek it, but it is suggestive….

        I think that one of the mysteries of life is that when it comes to the deepest existential questions humans have, we are given clues, hints, and possibilities instead of proofs, and we must decide what we will do with them.

        December 22, 2011
    • Ken #

      Yes, suggestive, just as you say, at least to many. That is why Dawkins, for example, asserts that materialist pantheists like me are part of the problem. Our words are suggestive in a bad way, he fears. I am even worse than that in his estimation, I imagine, because I still love the Biblical story and love God in that story for his great passion, his desire for Israel, his desire for the world.

      To me, as to Thoreau, life or the universe or nature seems sublime, not mean. To me, this sublimity does not require that the word God correspond to a being. I think it does not pose existential questions, provide hints or clues, or give us any imperatives. It is grace.

      I am not attempting to convince you, or to criticize your position, only to describe how life looks from another perspective. It looks beautiful.

      December 22, 2011
      • Ah, but grace, too, is a clue… :).

        I appreciate hearing how things look from your perspective. I wish you many encounters with grace this Christmas season, Ken.

        December 22, 2011
    • Ken #

      Yes, lets do together let grace be a clue and encounters with grace be abundant for all whatever God may be.

      December 22, 2011
    • Thanks for your comments on Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Kamarazov. Having regrettably not read it I hope to do so to gain from it the insights you’ve mentioned. As with others who have similarly suffered he thereby has a profound insight into the mind and ways of God found no other way, ultimately exemplified in the Via Dolorosa, which is why I find the various other comments made here going on about personal perspectives in reading God’s Word so underwhelming as so devoid of the profound, rich, deep “rubber meets the road” mind of those who suffered like Dostoyevsky et al of whom the world is not and never has been worthy. There are aspects of it at desiringGod.org, especially in his Sermon series preaching all the way through Romans & Hebrews. Soli Deo gloria!

      March 16, 2013
      • Suffering has the potential to teach like nothing else, certainly. I think that Dostoevsky and probably a lot of Russian writers in general have a depth of insight here that few can match… And they manage to portray this in incredibly evocative ways.

        Thanks for your comment.

        March 17, 2013
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Been following this conversation and thought it better to wade in at the end rather than “muck it up” in the middle….talk about abundant graces :) .

    Ken how does the materialist answer, “in the beginning” ? How does nothingness become the first somethingness?

    Ryan, have you ever experienced prayer in such a way that you were certain God was with you? Certain you were loved? Something that was more than just suggestive?

    I’m presently reading “The Gospels of Thomas” by Jean-Yves Leloup. I thought “Logion 29″ was relavent to the discussion.

    “Yeshua said:
    If flesh came into being because of the spirit, it is a wonder.
    But if the spirit came into being because of the flesh it is a wonder of wonders.
    Yet the greatest wonder is this:
    How is it that this Being, which Is,
    Inhabits this nothingness. “

    December 23, 2011
    • Ken #

      Paul, I don’t think materialists have an answer.

      As for me, I think of matter as quite mysterious. Matter is, of course, just a word for whatever is. And as for me, I think of the universe a whole as the body of Christ, as Chardin did.

      Even while I acknowledge my own atheism and my own materialism, and the weakness of the faith that yet have, I don’t want Genesis to be wrong in any sense and do not want to ever argue that it is. To admit my own disbelief is one thing. To argue with scripture, that is another.

      December 23, 2011
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Ken, I think/hope God understands your/my conundrum. Your answer to me sounds like the essence of faith…”to admit my own disbelief is one thing. To argue with scripture, that is another”…I think this is a faith worthy of Abraham. Blessings to you my devout friend.

    December 24, 2011
  6. Ryan, have you ever experienced prayer in such a way that you were certain God was with you? Certain you were loved? Something that was more than just suggestive?

    Yes, I have. When I use the language of “suggestion” I am mostly using it in the context of arguing for the plausibility of faith in a post-Christian context. It is language for the “public square,” as it were.

    December 24, 2011
  7. Anon #

    Hi Ryan,

    I am a follower of your posts and just wanted to start off by thanking you for your writings; they always give me something to think about. Because no-one in my family practises a religion (my ethnicity is Chinese, though we are living in North America), and I have had very little formal learning of any religious text, my reasoning about morality stems more from the notion of responsibility and free will (although this notion is becoming increasingly contentious as well). No matter what, it seems clear to me that as a human being each of my actions reflect a choice – I do not know why I am here or what the grand scheme of life is, but the fact is that I am here, and with my actions I can either work to destroy or harm what is around me, or to build them up and make them better. How I decide what actions are harmful and what are not are rooted in my own experience and learning – from reflecting on people who have helped and shown me goodwill, from works of literature, drama, and the narratives of other people’s lives, from historical events and what’s currently going on in the world. I guess what I’m trying to tentatively argue, as a devil’s advocate, is that perhaps it is possible for an individual to develop a moral system that is independent of God and religious teachings (albeit there being similarities between the two). I do not believe in an afterlife, nor how I may be rewarded or punished after my death for what I have done while I was alive; but I choose to do “right” things and to live as “good” a life as I can because I do not wish to betray myself and become ashamed of how I have lived – I do not wish to be a destroyer, and thus doing good is the only option left to me.

    Upon rereading my post, I realize that my argument is not very solid and I am not completely satisfied with it. But it is the best I can do for the moment, as I reflect on my secular upbringing. It is OK if what I have written is too muddled for following up on; thank you though for providing a space to discuss these kinds of issues all the same.

    December 26, 2011
    • Thanks very much for your comment. I appreciate your kind words here, and your taking the time to write.

      I find myself in enthusiastic agreement with virtually everything you say here. I think human experience and learning certainly play an important role in our ethical decision-making, I think that responsibility and choice (whatever difficulties we may have justifying free will intellectually, we cannot live as if it were not true) are crucial parts of what it means to be human, I think that the wisdom of others, literature, history, etc are all vital components of how we pursue “the good” in our thought and behaviour. The only thing I would add, is the question, “And why might this hunger for good and resourcefulness in pursuing it exist in the first place?” Why might the failure to live according to what is good and true represent a “betrayal”—of ourselves, of God, or anyone/anything else?”

      Which, I suppose, is just another way of saying that, from my perspective, the whole package you describe bears eloquent testimony to our being made in the image of God as responsible moral agents. It seems to me that given how we are wired as moral creatures, we are left with two basic options: either this state of affairs simply is—we know not why—or it was somehow intended to be so. In the first case, human goodness is a uniquely odd feature of a uniquely odd species in an amoral cosmos. In the second, it is a response to something real outside of ourselves.

      December 27, 2011
      • Moose #

        Hi Ryan,

        Thanks very much for your reply. I am also in agreement with what you wrote, and upon rereading your comment and parts of your post, I think I may understand your argument better now – that our capacity for moral goodness is placed in us by God. The question that still dogs me is, how can we know for sure that it can be traced back to God, or rather how can we not rule out the possibility that perhaps the world is absurd and we just ended up as moral beings for no understandable reason? The question reminds me of speculations about the existence of extraterrestrial life, where one side contends that it is highly improbable that we are the only living beings in the whole universe, while others keep urging us to imagine and stomach the cold possibility that perhaps we are just an accident, nothing more. I guess in these gray areas it comes down to faith, and we choose which viewpoint to put our beliefs and hopes in…

        December 28, 2011
      • Yes, I think you’ve identified the central issue very succinctly:

        we must choose which viewpoint to put our beliefs and hopes in.

        There is no way of knowing, with certainty, that the world is not just an absurd accident and that we are the way we are for no discernible reason. There is also no way of knowing, with certainty, that things are the way they are because they were made to be so by God. Of course, I think that the hints and suggestions of a created world are stronger and more compelling than an absurd and meaningless one, but everyone must decide how they will interpret a set of data that is mixed. The worldviews we adopt represent choices we make rather than places we are led incontrovertibly by indisputable evidence.

        December 29, 2011
      • Ken #

        Darwin’s natural selection (evolution) offers another explanation of morality, one that does not depend on God and one that does say morality is without meaning or absurd. And even while evolution is said (by Darwin) to work by chance and necessity, it is something of a polemical twist to say that means by accident. In natural causation remains intact even while purposefulness is not associated with cause.

        Apologetics does not overcome this. If faith is without material cause, then it comes by grace or not at all.

        December 29, 2011
      • Ken #

        Typo above: In natural selection, causation…

        December 29, 2011
      • Where does objective purpose or meaning come from in the Darwinian “explanation” of morality?

        December 29, 2011
      • Ken #

        Meaning comes (and goes) over time through biology.

        December 30, 2011
      • Objective meaning?

        It seems to me that whatever the explanation of morality offered by natural selection might be, it is descriptive, rather than prescriptive in nature. It can tell a biological story about why human beings (subjectively) find things meaningful or why we might have had a felt need to seek purpose at this or that point in our journey, but it cannot tell us anything about any kind of normative meaning that transcends our own preferences and experiences, should such a thing exist.

        I don’t see how an objective “ought” can ever be wrung out of an “is.” When we use “ought” language, we have wandered into metaphysics.

        Incidentally, I’m not arguing that meaning doesn’t come to us via biology. I’m simply saying biology doesn’t tell the whole story. I like John Haught’s analogy of a book. To expect biological analysis of the world to produce meaning would be like expecting a chemical analysis of the ink, the composition and paper textures of a book, combined perhaps with a structural analysis of the shape of the letters and their patterns of arrangement, etc, to yield the “meaning” of the book. It is no denigration of the discipline of biology to say that it simply isn’t the tool for the job, when it comes to discerning meaning.

        December 30, 2011
    • Ken #

      Re: Objective meaning?”

      No, not objective if one means something absolute or unchanging by “objective.”

      Re: “the explanation of morality offered by natural selection might be, it is descriptive, rather than prescriptive in nature. ”

      Yes, descriptive.

      It may describe the whole story of meaning in human lives as well as the origin of species, but it can never pass your test of truth.

      At the same time, that narrative is not one of meaningless or absurd lives. In addition, it is as compatible with Christianity as is yours. One need not believe in objective truth, or meaning or purpose or morality, to love God, meaning the holy one of Israel. And one need not love God to have meaning and purpose in life. The love for God is something that is optional in life, but very appealing to many, unavoidable for many, and, to me, very beautiful.

      December 30, 2011
      • It may describe the whole story of meaning in human lives as well as the origin of species, but it can never pass your test of truth.

        It’s not a test of truth that is unique to me. I am far from alone in puzzling as to how prescription can come from description. I’m happy to be shown how this is possible, but it seems like a confusion of categories to me, for the reasons I mentioned above. A strictly materialistic narrative may explain our subjective experience of and preference for meaning, but it cannot say anything about whether or not these experiences and preferences make contact with anything that is real.

        I’ve never claimed that people who adopt a purely materialistic narrative have meaningless or absurd lives or that they can’t love God or anything else you refer to here. Far from it. My questions on this topic are always and only with the consistency between the desire for these things and one’s underlying worldview assumptions.

        December 30, 2011
    • Ken #

      Re: “A strictly materialistic narrative may explain our subjective experience of and preference for meaning, but it cannot say anything about whether or not these experiences and preferences make contact with anything that is real.”

      That is right. It cannot and does not. It does offer an explanation of why we are the way we are. It does answer the question about the origins and nature of morality.

      Re: “I’ve never claimed that people who adopt a purely materialistic narrative have meaningless or absurd lives”

      I got that impression from the discourse above with Anon and Moose.

      Re: “or that they can’t love God.”

      I offered that as an alternative to your apologetic approach rather than an assessment of your position.

      What I meant by test of truth is that a metaphysics that asserts a truth out there is different from the narrative represented by Darwin and that the two are not reconcilable. The latter narrative says that evolution accounts for the origin of species (which is a matter of characteristics, including morality, for example). It does not answer the question why there is anything at all instead of nothing. The Christian narrative does that through mythology.

      December 30, 2011
      • It does offer an explanation of why we are the way we are. It does answer the question about the origins and nature of morality….

        What I meant by test of truth is that a metaphysics that asserts a truth out there is different from the narrative represented by Darwin and that the two are not reconcilable.

        I would say it offers a partial explanation of why we are the way we are. To make the further claim that it tells the whole story of who we are, without remainder, is a metaphysical claim. Both the claim that there is more to the story than biology and the claim that biology tells the whole story are metaphysical statements that go beyond the bare data presented to us by the natural world.

        December 30, 2011
    • Ken #

      I think that the Darwinian narrative is not a claim about ultimate reality, not even a partial claim. It is, instead, a paradigm of science. Nevertheless, it causes those who might otherwise believe in ultimate reality, or the role of God (understood as a being) in the world, if there is a God, to pause and have doubts that they know anything of truth or how to get to it if it even exists.

      Pantheism is one way to still speak tangibly of God for such troubled souls. For others, perhaps for yourself, critical realism is another way.

      December 31, 2011
      • I think that the Darwinian narrative is not a claim about ultimate reality, not even a partial claim. It is, instead, a paradigm of science.

        Yes, I absolutely agree. Yet it is very frequently interpreted and employed polemically as a claim about ultimate reality by those seeking to attack Christianity and other religions, or offer an apologetic for a materialistic worldview. This is why I think it is important to continue point out that all worldviews depend upon metaphysical interpretations of reality, even those most convinced that they are simply accessing the unvarnished truth about the world.

        Nevertheless, it causes those who might otherwise believe in ultimate reality, or the role of God (understood as a being) in the world, if there is a God, to pause and have doubts that they know anything of truth or how to get to it if it even exists.

        Yes, I also absolutely agree.

        December 31, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thanks for this, Ken. Once again you have distilled my spiritual intuits into language that confirms them. I am so glad to “know” you here. :)

        December 31, 2011
    • James #

      Maybe I am being too simple here, but it seems to me that if we let science make scientific statements and religion make metaphysical statements we can put a lot of controversies to rest. It is when scientists use their science to make religious claims and religious persons use their faith to make scientific claims that unnecessary confusion results.
      From my end I find nothing in the theory of evolution that is the least bit disturbing- until those who promote it venture into the metaphysical. The reverse is true as well.
      Of course I live with an Anabaptist epistemology that finds it easier than others to let separations between disciplines exist without a grand unifying theory.

      December 31, 2011
      • Ken #

        If I remember right, this was Gould’s position too.

        December 31, 2011
    • Ken #

      Ryan,

      re: “Yet it is very frequently interpreted and employed polemically as a claim about ultimate reality by those seeking to attack Christianity and other religions, or offer an apologetic for a materialistic worldview. This is why I think it is important to continue point out that all worldviews depend upon metaphysical interpretations of reality, even those most convinced that they are simply accessing the unvarnished truth about the world.”

      With your aim, I sympathize, completely, even while admitting my own materialist worldview. As I have tried to explain, some of us with materialist worldviews yet love God, the one in the Bible. While I may defend this way here, I am seeking no converts, and feel bad if anything I have written causes harm to anyone’s faith. I stand shoulder to shoulder with you on this, even while there are some theological differences between us.

      As I think about what James wrote above, I realize that I do find religious value in science. I don’t deal with science and faith as Gould did – nonoverlapping magisteria – separate realms for science and religion. I think more like Loren Eiseley and other religious naturalists – that science reveals the wonder of the universe and what it reveals is holy. Ultimately it is the same holiness, I believe, that is found in the Bible. I am similar to Chardin in this way.

      In an sense important to me, I don’t think in terms of truth and morality, even while it may seem to you and others that I do. Nor do I think in terms of material vs immaterial or natural versus supernatural. I think that I think, instead, in terms of sacred and profane. The profane yields to the sacred, and the sacred is present even in the profane, and I pray that it may always be so.

      December 31, 2011
      • James #

        Hi Ken
        A light may have gone off for me in your last response. Let’s see if that is the case of if this is just another rabbit trail.
        It seems you me that your epistemology, like Chardin’s must be built on Plato’s idealism. I am in the middle of a similarly confusing discussion with a reformed philosopher about the separation of science and religion. He overlaps them- I don’t. He did not understand me and vice versa and then idealism entered the discussion. Idealists find it impossible to conceive of a separation of disciplines while empiricists like myself struggle to follow their logic- until idealism enters the equation. He thinks I argue like an atheist. I think he argues like a pantheist. He denies being a pantheist. I deny being an atheist. You of course are a pantheist which makes perfect sense for idealists.
        By the way, “blessing” as 2011 closes off.
        Like a true Canadian Mennonite pastor, I’m sitting here in the dying hours of the year watching a hockey game, refining the transitions of tomorrow’s sermon, and carrying on a conversation on Ryan’s blog with a friend I have never met. Could it be any better? :)
        May 2012 be a very good year for you and yours!

        December 31, 2011
      • Ken #

        Thanks, James. I don’tknow. I will explore your suggestion to see what I can find. I do enjoy reading Chardin.

        And thank you for the blessing. May it be a great year for you too.

        We fell asleep early last night, anticipating a ride on our bikes with friends today.

        January 1, 2012
  8. Moose #

    Thank you Ryan. It’s mysterious… but that is OK : ) Thanks again for this conversation. I hope you have a great new year.

    December 29, 2011
    • Thanks to you, too—and happy new year!

      December 29, 2011
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, you say…”The worldviews we adopt represent choices we make rather than places we are led incontrovertibly by indisputable evidence.”

    Leaving evidence aside, aren’t we as Christians called to incontrovertible understandings through faith?

    December 29, 2011
    • What do you mean by “incontrovertible understandings through faith?”

      December 29, 2011
  10. Paul Johnston #

    Pretty straightforward question. An unquestionable, certain understanding about God accepted in faith. A creedal predisposition if you will…I believe…

    Ken, borrowing from Ryan, and to help me with my understanding of your presentation of Darwin, is it fair to say that for Darwin, there is no “ought”? Or that “oughts” are malleable values, particular to the neccessity of the moment?

    December 30, 2011
    • It might seem straightforward to you, but I think it’s pretty important to clarify what we mean by the terms we use. So many misunderstandings in discussions like these can be traced back to confusion around terminology.

      When it comes to matters of faith, I prefer the language of “conviction”—”I am convinced of x,” “I believe x,” etc. The language of certitude (“incontrovertible,” etc) doesn’t seem like the right language for meta-questions, in my view. We are not dealing with proofs and knock-down evidence here, much as some might think or wish this was the case.

      December 30, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Does that mean you are certain of nothing regarding God ?

        December 30, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Sorry Ryan, another question comes to mind. Do you think Jesus spoke from conviction or from certitude?

        December 30, 2011
      • I am convinced. I think this is enough. What do you feel is gained by using the word “certain” in place of “convinced?”

        Re: Jesus, I think he spoke out of a conviction regarding his identity and his task, but at times (Gethsemane, for example) this conviction was tested. Presumably, though, Jesus’ epistemic situation differed from ours, not being tainted by sin.

        December 30, 2011
    • Ken #

      Paul, sorry for the delay, I just noticed that I missed your question about Darwin. I think his thought was closest to your second sentence – malleable values. Morality came like the species over a long time.

      December 30, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Is it fair to say then that, as a system of morality, Darwin’s is intrinsicly relativistic?

        December 31, 2011
      • Ken #

        I think that’s fair, or at least it provides support for those who see or advocate relativism or pluralism in morality.

        December 31, 2011
  11. Paul Johnston #

    Well, I think the question I am trying to prepose and the idea I am wrestling with here, is not the distinction between the words “certain” or “convinced” but rather which is the more authentic Christian predisposition. Is it better to say “I am convinced”, a relative, subjective truth, or “it is certain” an objective incontrovertible truth.

    Does truth depend on our affirmation to make it so?

    December 31, 2011
    • Tyler #

      “Does truth depend on our affirmation to make it so?”

      Depends what your talking about. To physical or material laws? Probably not.

      To the existence of God? Maybe. Nobody [living] knows.

      To morality? Absolutely. I’d even argue that relativism is good for ethical development. The key distinction being between ‘relative’ and ‘subjective.’

      December 31, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thanks for taking the time to respond, Tyler. I suppose my differences of opinion are established elsewhere on this thread and don’t need repeating.

        I will say regarding the existence of God, that I am living, at least some of the time :) and I have been blessed by Our Lord’s presence. Lots of people have. Some, though not me, even through ecstatic vision and conversation.

        Whaddya think of them apples!! ( Shameless GWH appropriation )

        May His grace and peace be with you always.

        January 1, 2012
    • What leads you to say that one represents the “authentic Christian disposition” and one does not? Why do you say that “convinced” is a “relative, subjective truth” while “certain” is “objective?”

      For me, to say “I am convinced” is the language of choice and commitment. It represents the basic gospel imperative to choose the one you will follow. I don’t think as Christians our chief task is to ratchet up our level of epistemic certainty. We are finite and fallen people, and our knowledge will always reflect this. But we can always choose to whom we will commit, the direction in which we are oriented and moving. Perhaps this has always been one of the important differences between Mennonite/Anabaptist approaches and those of the more formal, creedal traditions.

      Does truth depend on our affirmation to make it so?

      No.

      December 31, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Ryan, as per my last comment, my questions aren’t with the distinctions between the words, “convinced” and “certain” but rather the contexts, “I am convinced” and “it is certain”.

        As best as I can explain my position, I defer to “it is certain”. In this way, my faith, not being dependant on my conviction for it’s being, does not wane when I am less than convinced.

        With regard to “authentic Christian disposition”, I did not mean to suggest “either/or” but rather “best or better”. As well, in case it is neccessary, please believe that my question was a sincere inquiry, nothing more. In no way was I intending to be rhetorical or judgemental.

        Given some of the ways I have dialogued in the past, I can well understand if you are suspicious.

        December 31, 2011
      • Oh, I didn’t interpret your questions as anything but sincere, nor did I sense judgment. Just trying to clarify the terms we’re using and why, that’s all.

        Perhaps ironically, I prefer “conviction” language for similar reasons to the ones you cite for preferring the language of “certainty.” My cognitive status is not reliable enough—I can’t ever be sure that I know comprehensively or correctly enough as a limited human knower. How can I be certain that I am certain enough about the right body of knowledge? But I can, as a limited, imperfect knower, speak and live according to and into what I am convicted by and convinced of.

        December 31, 2011
  12. Paul Johnston #

    ….”But I can, as a limited, imperfect knower, speak and live according to and into what I am convicted by and convinced of”….I like the humility implicit in this statement of yours.

    Just for mischeif’s sake :) how does the prologue to the Gospel of John strike you? Would you say it is more the work of a man whose words are accurately contextualized by the statement, ” I can’t ever be sure that I know comprehensively or correctly enough as a limited human knower.” ? Or the musings of a man sharing an incontrivertible truth?

    December 31, 2011
    • Ken #

      The question is for Ryan, I know, but rather than adding to the last long thread, I am posting here.

      I think, with Eliade, that certainty is one of the benefits of faith. Faith has a givenness quality to it that is uncomfortably associated with the idea of conviction. Certainty lasts only while a sacred moment lasts. It releases us from the uncertainty that is characteristic of ordinary life. I cherish those moments.

      Eliade observed that certainty is associated with things that are eternal, that do not change. Uncertainty is associated with ordinary time and with change.

      Outside of the sacred moments, and especially in moral and political contexts, I think certainty is dangerous and oppressive. I think It is difficult to distinguish convictions from certainty there.

      It may also be that certainty is dangerous even in sacred moments. Mercifully, God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac in such a moment. It may not be quite as Yeats wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Still, his words too often seem to fit. God recognized this and said, “Stop!”

      John was certain when he wrote the prologue. Of that, I am certain, or at least, convinced, or at least, persuaded, or at least, like to think. Reading those words takes me to a sacred place and time, in the beginning when the Word was with God.

      December 31, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        I like what you say about sacred moments, Ken. I too experience them. Mostly in Eucharistic Adoration, sometimes in prayer.

        Strangely though the experiences leave me feeling differently about morality and politics than they do you. My sense (God’s sense for me?) is that the sacred experience is meant to inform my morality, which in turn is meant to inform my politic. If then, God is incontrivertibly true, then there is an incontrivertibly true morality and politic.

        My fear is that I may live and die and not know the certainty that is God and the certainty that was meant to be my virtueous life.

        January 1, 2012
    • Well, it strikes me as the work of one who is utterly and thoroughly convinced of the truth of what he writes :).

      (Happily, I have not been entrusted with the matter of writing Holy Scripture, so I have no need to compare my level of certainty with John’s :).)

      December 31, 2011
  13. Paul Johnston #

    Well dodged, sir. You are the “Patches O’Houlihan” of religious bloggers!

    I suspect a political career my be in your future.

    January 1, 2012
    • Paul Johnston #

      oops, should read…may be

      January 1, 2012

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