Monday, July 29, 2013

Clear, Rigorous Thinking in a Murky Public Debate

Like most people my age, my public school science education took the Darwinian story for granted and was
peppered with bumper sticker clich├ęs to help me understand how true the system was.  I was never really enamored by the whole thing because one of Darwin's basic principles contradicted one of the basic principles of reality that I accepted, but many around me took it all in as if it had already been proven true - by science.

Since then, it has fascinated me to watch as the public debate surrounding the Darwinian theory has transformed into something more sociological and political than scientific.  What claims to be a position buttressed by the current holy-grail of knowledge, science, is in fact largely supported by the same bumper stickers I was given over twenty years ago, a dash of political coercion, and a heap of scorn and sarcasm.   To listen to Darwin's defenders in the public square, you will come away with the distinct sense that you must believe their story or suffer the wrath of public scorn.  If you are 'one of us,' you will believe.

So, given the current atmosphere that we Darwin skeptics put up with, it is exciting and encouraging to find a work that is well-researched, well-documented, intensely aware of the latest advances in the relevant sciences, charitable to the opposing points of view, and shockingly enough, non-combative.  Dr. Stephen Meyer's book, Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and The Case for Intelligent Design, is a well-argued book that handles the science and arguments behind everything from the fossil record, to information theory, to a flurry of Neo-Darwinian proposals, cellular biology, protein synthesis, and body plan engineering.  But it is more than an argument critical of the adequacy of Darwinian and materialistic proposals, it is a positive case for considering the science of Intelligent Design as a vera causa for the sudden origins of animal body types.

Dr. Meyer uses the geologically sudden appearance of hundreds of body plans in the Cambrian Explosion as the groundwork for his arguments and in a way, the book is a chronological assessment of Darwinian explanations.  Beginning with Darwin and his proposals about the fossil record and the power of natural selection as a mechanism, Dr. Meyer moves forward in time through several (if not all) major versions of the materialistic, macro-evolutionary story.  At each step in his book, I found the bumper stickers I have heard for years dealt with in relationship to the most current science.  For instance, in Darwin's day the fossil record was very much up for grabs, so it could have been easy to believe that his thousands of transitional body plans were still underground simply waiting discovery.  Modern research in statistical paleontology, however, shows that we are unlikely to find many other major body plans in the record.  (And the missing links are still, largely, missing.)  I had also been told that the multitude of soft body plans early in the Darwinian Tree of Life would never be found because soft bodied animals did not fossilize, thus they could be postulated but never discredited.  But now I know that paleontologists who work with fossilized sponge embryos would disagree.

 Some of the most incredible research he deals with concerns the connection between the engineering of new body plans and the probabilities of random protein synthesis, epigenetics, and embryology.  Each new body plan function requires new genetic, molecular, and epigenetic information that was not present before.  If the materialistic account is accurate that means an untold number of non-lethal, random mutations on several levels must occur simultaneously to change, say, one component of an eye in a beneficial direction.  Current research simply is not in favor of the standard story.  And on it goes.

Then, having worked through the major and the modern materialistic models, Dr. Meyer develops a case for considering Intelligent Design as the better alternative.  Here, as much as anywhere else in his book, his argument dovetails with his other major work, Signature in the Cell, and compounds an already compelling case.  If an individual is willing to look outside the a priori and ad hoc requirement that science must be metaphysically naturalistic, they can find themselves considering compelling arguments that cohere with the evidence compiled in the rest of the book.

If Dr. Meyer is successful, his argument may be summed up this way:

"In other words, standard materialistic evolutionary theories have failed to identify an adequate mechanism or cause for precisely those attributes of living forms that we know from experience only intelligence - conscious rational activity - is capable of producing. This suggests, in accord with the method of historical scientific reasoning...the possibility of making a strong historical inference to intelligent design as the best explanation for the origin of these attributes." (pg. 358)

In addition to the content of the argument, a couple of other points are worth making.  The book is wonderfully written and edited.  It is easy to read, especially given its often technical subject matter, while never shying away from strenuous details.  And it is wonderfully illustrated.  I often find illustrations distracting from the content of a book, but here they are both a pleasure and a helpful supplement to the content.

Secondly, the reaction from this book's detractors generally serves as evidence for the under-developed form of engagement Darwin's supporters have with arguments critical of their views.  Dr. Meyer has no problem with views different than his.  He is able to disagree from an informed and reasoned stance, and if I am to take another point of view as seriously as I take his, I am looking for the same kind of intellectual honesty I find modeled in his book.

Darwin's Doubt may really be what some have claimed it to be - a major step forward in our understanding of our past and our origins.

[If you think my review is helpful, visit it at Amazon and say so.]

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Pastor's Post Sermon Prayer

A Pastor's Post Sermon Prayer

Lord, forgive me for any word forgotten,
For any word unfitly spoken.
Now, get me out of the way
And do what only You can do
In the lives of your people.


Friday, July 19, 2013

Recover Tradition, Recover Influence

My conviction that churches and pastors are healthy counter-cultural influences grows deeper with every passing day.  The more things change around (or even within) the church, the more our convictions and practices rooted in the faith once and for all delivered to the saints matters.  It is simply more true now of pastors and churches than it has been in a long time - we are culture makers.

At First Things, Dominc Verner reflects on this kind of imperative through the helpful lens of early catholic and Catholic influences.  These are men and women who shaped the ecclesiastical culture and disposition toward the outside world that was significantly un-Christian.  There are lessons to be learned here.  One influence he discusses is that of Dominic:

But the revitalization of our tradition must also be Dominican. Dominic graced the world with his love of Truth and his unshakeable faith in its power to save. His friars devoted, and continue to devote, themselves to study, digging their roots deep down into the soil of sacred mysteries. Firmly planted in the tradition, intellects honed through dialectical disputation and sanctified by contemplative prayer, the Dominican is at home in every public square, pulpit, and classroom. Even far from his priory, the preaching friar walks on native soil, confidently exploring the dark caverns of error, inviting lost wayfarers to come home to God’s truth.

Our stance towards the secular world must be Dominican for the simple fact that charity compels us to share the truth. Yes, we must first be steeped in our own tradition, fortified with sacred scripture, contemplative prayer, theological wisdom, and our perennial philosophy, but then, out of charity, desirous of the salvation of souls, we must boldly venture out into the wilderness of rival traditions and speak the word that saves.

The influential pastor will now be someone who recovers this kind of tradition.  Gone are the days of the fly-by-night televangelist who commands the loyalty of millions and reaches significant numbers of American/Pagan converts at the same time.  We must dig deeper.  We must study harder.  We must do the nitty-gritty work of laying our theology over the canvas of everyday life and weaving the beautiful tapestry of the Kingdom of God.  We must live with our congregations for longer periods of time than are typical for the average evangelical pastor.  We must find our routes into the cultures and communities around us. We can no longer get away with half-hearted and shoddy work.  We must become (again?) the moral and intellectual leaders of our communities.

We cannot become deceived by the prevailing cultural idea that love is tolerance of other religious and moral views, and thus become weak or afraid in our proclamation of the Gospel.  Christian love makes reality as clear as it can wherever it can.  And we believe that Christ is reality and the Kingdom of God is actually present and at work.

That's all.

This sounds expansive and nearly unattainable because it probably is for most of us, especially in its complete application.  But the Christian leaders who made the most impact in their non-Christian and pagan-saturated worlds were the pastor/theologians to aimed in this direction and worked at it with all their might (like Dominic).

It is becoming easier and easier for the church to be different from the world around it - just be the church and believe what the church has always believed.  It is good for our congregations to do so, and it is good for the world, despite their protestations to the contrary.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pastors as Important Things

"Who is to bring the knowledge that will answer the great life questions that perplex humanity? Who is to teach the world - the "nations," people of all kinds - the knowledge that belongs to Christ and his people? In any subject matter the responsibility to teach falls upon those who have the corresponding knowledge. With respect to Christian knowledge, the primary responsibility to teach  falls upon those who self-identify as spokespeople for Christ and who perhaps have some leadership position or role in Christian organizations. I shall use the word "pastors" for such people, but the word is here to be taken very broadly; it refers not just to those who hold a position with that title - though it is especially for them." (pg. 193)

Pastors need to have their work dignified, both from without and within.  Very few people can adequately define and describe the role of a pastor in a community or a congregation without succumbing to simplifications, and few outside the church walls even understand what a pastor "does."  As a result of these realities (and many other things), pastors have an "undignified" profession in the eyes of many, and in some cases, in their own eyes.  But in the passage cited above Willard pours some of the most important activity possible into the vessel of "pastor" and describes them with the role of teaching the nations the knowledge of Christ that answers the most difficult realities of life.

Pastor, you are handling the nuclear energy of the human soul when you claim to stand in for Christ and His Word.  What you proclaim is no less than the ideas and knowledge given by God to handle the human life.  You are not the world's "fix-it" people, or fill-in messiahs, or gap-fillers for the rest of our culture's self-help schemes.  You are handlers of the knowledge of the Creator of all things, especially the human soul.

Are you up for that task?  Is this an accurate description of who you pray you will be when you stand behind a pulpit or visit someone in a coffee shop?  Have you unwittingly succumbed to the low expectations of a culture that seems to know only the healing powers of medical science or pop-psychology?  Do you know where you fit in?

Just In Case It Wasn't Clear, "Pro-Life" Means...

I saw this link posted to Facebook in a couple of places, so I followed it to see what the authors meant by 'pro-life' and hear what they had to say.  I clicked the link expecting to find an article on the old moral category confusion of abortion and capital punishment.  What I found was far less thoughtful.

Apparently the pro-life movement is a lie.  Their reasoning is curious in that they list absolutely no pro-life organizations and deliberately confuse what it means to be pro-life.  I would like to respond in three ways: first, I will accept their implicit premise and show them to be wrong, and second, I will deny their transparent attempt to redefine 'pro-life'.  And finally I want to deny a shocking association they make.

In the short post, the two Rabbis complain that if a person is to be truly pro-life, they will engage with the poor, hungry, and the needy.  They list a handful of organizations that appear to work with inner city youth, trying to better their circumstances.  The not-so-subtle jab is that people who traditionally call themselves pro-life don't do this, and they would only be genuinely pro-life if they did.

In short, they have no idea what they are talking about.  The inner cities of our nation and the world are filled with conservative 'pro-lifers' who do a lot of difficult and thankless work with the hardest cases imaginable.  To list them would be an embarrassment to the post's authors.  So, why didn't they know about these pro-lifers (who are conservative in their politics, and in many cases, Christian)?  It has been my observation that the deeper into Progressive/Liberal circles people are, the less informed they are about the non-Progressive world.  It is a strong tendency in the political and social left to act as if they are the only ones worth reading, listening to, and paying attention to.  As a result, they unwittingly but inevitably become low-information commentators on culture.  (This dynamic can be true of every social tribe, but in our current milieu it is especially true of them.)

Secondly, their implicit premise is that ‘pro-life’ is defined as something like, “those who help the needy and poor, especially the young.”  I do not see anything in their post that even hints at helping the weakest and most vulnerable among us - the unborn.  But this is a time-worn trick - overcome your interlocutor by misrepresenting and redefining her position in such a way that you can easily knock it down.  It is called the Straw Man Fallacy and is one of the most juvenile tricks in the book. The pro-life position begins with defending life in the womb, and anyone even remotely aware of the philosophical, cultural, and scientific debates over abortion would understand this to be the rightful and commonsensical understanding of the term.  To utterly ignore it is just silly.

And finally, they assert that pro-lifers ought to support Planned Parenthood.  If their assertion includes the belief that pro-lifers ought to support an organization that performs 300,000 abortions a year, then they have committed one of the most transparent contradictions possible.  If they are unaware that Planned Parenthood performs that many abortions a year, then they might need to either do their homework or simply observe the facts and change their minds.

In any event, the pro-life movement is alive and well, no matter what her detractors say.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Truth Appropriated

Some of the most valuable lessons I have learned as a Christian I have learned as a matter of process.  To be sure I was handed truths, the truths handed down from saint to saint about the nature of my faith, but those have made their way deeper into my heart and mind because of the journey.  I have struggled with and against people and ideas within and outside Christendom, and I believe my faith to be stronger as a result.  I have (hopefully, to be sure) gone from conviction and affirmation to genuine knowledge.

In his unashamed work, Conscience and Its Enemies, the wonderful thinker, Robert P. George, makes the case that truth is the kind of thing that must be worked for  - it must be attained.  In contrast to the prevailing idea that truth is a matter of personal passions or political and cultural power, truth is beyond all of that and cannot simply be something we look within to find.  There is value in argument and the struggle for true beliefs that simply does not come if we are driven by our passions or conventional wisdom.

He says, "Although some have depicted freedom and truth as antithetical, in reality they are mutually supportive and, indeed, dependent on each other" (pg. 39).  We are not free if we are unshackled from some notion of truth that we all must or can attain; we are not free if truth is a free-for-all.  On the contrary, freedom (in any robust sense of freedom for the human soul) requires an objective truth.  If truth is outside our ability to cajole or manufacture, then we must strive, learn, and grow.  His point about the oppression of relativism is made in the ubiquitous examples of the suppression of speech and the honest seeking after truth by those who are self-appointed guardians of political correctness, campus speech codes, or conventional wisdom.

But the point I find valuable is the one that resonates with my experience - you will be better off if you attain your knowledge, not just feel it.  "The stronger and deeper reason [for allowing error] is that freedom is the condition of our fuller appropriation of the truth.  I use the term appropriation because knowledge and truth have their value for human beings precisely as fulfillment of capacities for understanding and judgment....Knowledge that elevates and enriches - knowledge that liberates the human spirit - cannot be merely notional. It must be appropriated" (pg. 40).

He is right.  This is the only understanding of truth that develops the virtues in the human soul, and gets us out from under the tyranny to self.  The Christian faith has always seen it this way.  We know God, and we know Him truly.  But we strive to know him and his creation more and more because with each step we draw nearer to the One who created us, and we become more like the creatures we were made to be.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Asserting My Religious View On Abortion

Because the issue of life in the womb is so clear-cut for me, I am intrigued by thoughtful defenses of abortion rights.  More often than not abortion supporters rely on emotion and, frankly, out-shouting their opponents, so I am drawn to ideas that could possibly be a thought-out defense for taking a baby's life.  The Huffington Post blogger, Rabbi Aaron Alexander, wrote such a post to such a person like me.  It is from one person serious about their faith to another person serious about their faith who disagrees with him on the issue of life and abortion.

In opening, he makes a point about connecting religious belief with potential danger and coercion.  He recognizes my right to hold a religiously informed point of view then notes, "But, like all things religious, it is also potentially dangerous."  So, I assume, he is talking about his point of view.

Then, addressing the pro-life position, he says, "So this is the part I don't understand. Your definition of when life begins is not based on scientific fact. It is your religiously held belief. But it isn't mine....My religious tradition -- which prioritizes life above all else -- generally assumes that potential life doesn't become its own living entity until 40 days into the pregnancy."

What a curious set of things to string together.  Is he interested in the scientific evidence?  I'm not sure.  As far as I can tell all the actual scientific evidence that can be mustered in this debate tells us that the fertilized embryo is a human being.  The debate about whether or not it can be killed is not a scientific question, but one of value and meaning ('is it a wanted child?' 'will the mother be psychologically harmed if the child is carried to term?' 'when is it right to take the life of an innocent human being?' etc.).

Then our two views are pitted against each other with no clear arbiter.  They just are.  We simply hold two different opinions.  Great.

And then the inevitable happens.  He closes by saying,

You may disagree with my religion's definition. That I understand and respect. But here's the rub: when you attempt to legislate what my community (or any community) can and can't do based on your faith's definition, you don't just simply disagree with me. You are saying, to be blunt, that your religion is correct and mine is incorrect -- coercively. That takes a considerable amount of hubris that isn't worthy of either of our faiths, or our great country's principles, for that matter.

I do disagree, and I do respect his right to hold an opinion and defend it.  But I don't have any qualms about arguing for the rightness or accuracy of one position over another.  And, as it turns out, neither does he.  By asserting a position different from mine, and thereby either explicitly or implicitly hoping that I will hold his view instead of mine, he has violated his own standard.

But that's OK.  In fact, it is only right and natural that he does.  This is what we were given minds and rational capacities for - to aim at the truth of the matter.  I am glad I ran across his article - it has given me another opportunity to hear the 'other side's' argument and make sure my position is up-to-snuff.

And, surprisingly, I have no urge to be coercive or dangerous now.