Moral Theory for Church Leaders

            As pastors and teachers in the church seek to exposit and apply the Bible to their congregations, they need to handle wisely the moral matters discussed in the Scriptures. We need wise positions on hot-button topics, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but we also need a sound theoretical understanding of morality rooted in the Bible. As Paul told Timothy:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15; see also Titus 3:5-6).

Some parts of the Bible are more directly related to ethics than others. Questions of conduct cannot be avoided when teaching on the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-18; Deuteronomy 5:1-21), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), or the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). All of Scripture is profitable for guidance on how to live well before the face of God (2 Timothy 3:15-17; Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, all of Scripture, in one way or another, concerns the moral life—our obligation to do good and to avoid evil, our need to learn to become a virtuous person, and our doing of good works.

            It may not be obvious, however, that moral theory can help ground and organize the church’s teaching on ethics.1 Teaching ethics at Denver Seminary—and elsewhere—for nearly thirty years has convinced me of this. So, let me explain and illustrate a few basic elements of moral theory in the hope that preachers and teachers will appropriate them for solid and clear teaching for God’s people.

            In the first paragraph, I said that Scripture concerns “our obligation to do good and to avoid evil.” That phrase captures the deontological aspect of ethics. Deontology concerns moral duties or responsibilities. In the biblical context, duties are based on God’s commands. Our actions should conform to his directives. The Ten Commandments are the moral backbone of biblical ethics.2 Eight of the Ten Commandments are negative: You shall not have another God, take God’s name in vain, worship an image of God, commit adultery, murder, bear false witness, steal, or covet.”3 Positively, you shall keep the Sabbath and honor your parents (Exodus 20:1-18). These commands all address actions to be done or avoided. When Jesus was asked what the greatest command was, he replied:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Jesus is not replacing the Ten Commandments, but rather getting to the heart of them. Loving God and neighbor needs the structure of God’s specific commands, lest “love” be reduced to untutored and unhinged sentiment (as it is so often today). For example, it is never loving to commit adultery, to dishonor one’s parents, or to murder. And Paul writes that “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). It cannot be loving to delight in what breaks God’s commands.

The demands and commands of God’s law for our behavior always call us up short and point us to the Cross of Christ for forgiveness and new life. In fact, we are commanded to repent and come to Christ. As Paul preached, “God…now commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30; see also John 6:29).

Since the Bible is so insistent on obeying the commands of God, some Christians have neglected two other elements of ethical theory that are revealed in Scripture. The first is virtue.

Virtue theory dates to the ancient Greeks, principally to Plato and Aristotle. For them, someone cultivates particular character traits by finding a moral model and following his lead in the context of a virtue-forming community. The cardinal virtues of this tradition are justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. Christian thinkers added the virtues of faith, hope, and love to this list (taken from 1 Corinthians 13). While Christians should obey God’s commands in their actions, we are also called to be a particular kind of people on the inside. Our characters should be so shaped by the Holy Spirit that we obey God gladly and habitually and learn to respond affectively to situations in a God-honoring way. We may know well that we should not covet anything that belongs to our neighbor (deontology), but learning to be content—through prayer and mental discipline—is a matter of virtue. Thus, the virtues assist us to want to obey God’s law and to do so in the right way, with a heart of love and service.

The second element of moral theory besides deontology is consequences or the consequential aspect of morality. Some moral theories, such as utilitarianism, make the achievement of good consequences the entirety of ethics. Utilitarianism teaches that we must bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. Now the question becomes, “What is the good to be brought about for the masses?” Utilitarians may answer this differently, but the standard model claims that the good is pleasure. God is not against pleasure, since he invented it as good in the beginning, but what fallen humans take pleasure in may not be truly good—for themselves or for anyone else. Think of the pleasure some derive from pornography or the pleasure derived from being a ruthless and heartless businessperson, who will do most anything to make more and more money. 

Christians can agree what we should do as much good to as many people as possible, but we should not attempt this apart from moral duties (deontology) and moral virtues. James tells us that our saving faith is verified by our good works (James 2:14-26; see also Ephesians 2:1-10). Jesus tells us to serve “the least of these” who are his “brethren” (Matthew 25:31-46). God told the Jewish exiles to seek the welfare of the city to which they were banished, because when it prospered, they would prosper, too (Jeremiah 29:7). Only as we our definition of good goes beyond mere pleasure can we bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. We cannot violate the law of love to bring about more pleasure for more people. Moreover, our moral goal is not pleasure per se, but the service of God and neighbor through lawful and virtuous obedience to God. One abolitionist, John Brown, said that American slavery had to be abolished even if all Ten Commandments had to be broken to accomplish it! Of course, no thinking Christian would every believe that. 

Christians can sometimes seek results at the expense of principles and godly character. I was in an evangelistic meeting where the teacher asked for eyes to be closed while he asked people to put up their hands if they wanted to become Christians. I kept my eyes open. Just after he asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to accept Jesus as Lord, he said, “I see hands going up everywhere.” They weren’t. I looked. After he lied, other hands went up. Only God knows how many people were born again that evening, but deception is never the proper method for evangelism or disciple making. Paul made this clear when he wrote to the church in Thessalonica:

For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young childrenamong you (1 Thessalonians 2:3-7). 

Much more can be said about moral theory in relation to the Bible, but I hope I have shown that the categories of deontology, virtue, and consequences are pertinent to moral decision making and moral action for the Christian. Teachers and preachers in the church can help clarify the moral vision of the Bible by explaining these terms and showing how the Bible’s teachings about ethics can be understood in these terms.  


1 For an in-depth treatment, see Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), chapters 1-3.

2 To defend this claim, see the exposition of the Ten Commandments in The Westminster Longer Catechism.

3 On the significance of this negativity, see Rousas John Rushdoony, “The Negativism of the Law,” in The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1973).

The New Age Jesus

Those enamored of New Age spirituality usually find in Jesus a kindred spirit. Rather than exiling Jesus to the legendary lore of religious imagination or debunking him as a messianic pretender, New Age writers see Jesus as an enlightened master who manifested a divine power—a power potentially available to all who enter the New Age.

The New Age movement is not a conspiracy but an eclectic configuration of spiritual seekers who have despaired of finding personal and cosmic satisfaction in either religious orthodoxies or secular materialism. Instead, they have turned to unconventional and esoteric sources in the hopes of finding what they seek in the ambiance of the mystical, magical and metaphysical.[i] Given these tendencies, the Jesus of orthodox Christianity may seem inadequate. Jesus must be rescued from a pedestrian and parochial orthodoxy that demands he monopolize the deity.

Jesus in the New Age

Because of its diversity, the New Age has no single view of Jesus, but it offers a family of related views whose common factors may be summarized.

  1. The New Age highly esteems Jesus as a spiritually attuned or evolved being who serves as an example for spiritual discovery and evolutionary advancement.  Jesus is referred to by various positive terms and titles including Master, Guru, Yogi, Adept, Avatar, Shaman, and Way-show-er.  He is revered along with other religious leaders such as Buddha, Krishna, Confucius, and Lao Tze.
  2. Many argue for the separation of Jesus the individual person of history from the universal and impersonal Christ Consciousness, or Christ Principle. His consciousness of God and miracles were evidence he tapped into a higher level of consciousness. But if Jesus tapped into this cosmic power, he did not monopolize it.  New Age philosopher David Spangler, echoing the ancient Gnostics, said that, “The Christ is not the province of a single individual.”[ii]  As Joseph Campbell put it in his best-selling book The Power of Myth (1988), “We are all manifestations of Buddha consciousness or Christ consciousness, only we don’t know it.”[iii]  Christhood comes through self-discovery; we may all become Christs if we tap into the universal energy, the Christ consciousness.
  3. The orthodox Christian affirmation that Jesus is the supreme and final revelation of God is questioned.  Although Jesus is respected, he is not worshiped.  Janet Bock complains that “the position that Jesus was the only ‘Son of God’ . . . is, in effect, a limiting of the power of God, a shackling of divinity to one physical form for all eternity.”[iv]
  4. Jesus’ crucifixion, if accepted as historical, is not deemed essential to restore the spiritual wholeness of humanity.  Jesus’ suffering on the cross is either rejected as unhistorical or reinterpreted to exclude the idea that he suffered as the Christ to pay the penalty for human wrongdoing in order to reconcile people to a holy God. Elizabeth Clare Prophet, leader of The Church Universal and Triumphant, states emphatically that the idea of a blood sacrifice is “an erroneous doctrine,” actually “a remnant of pagan rite long refuted by the word of God” and never taught by Jesus himself.[v] Since the New Age worldview denies both human sinfulness and a personal God who is ethically perfect, Jesus’ crucifixion loses its traditional significance.
  5. Belief in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is denied or spiritualized to remove them from the realm of the physical and the historical. Many others besides Jesus are recognized as “Ascended Masters” on the spiritual plane. Joseph Campbell interprets the Ascension to mean that Jesus “has gone inward . . . to the place from which all being comes, into the consciousness that is the source of all tings, the kingdom of heaven within.”[vi] For Campbell, Jesus does not ascend to the right hand of the Father but descends to the divine depths of the collective soul.
  6. The idea of Jesus’ Second Coming is spiritualized and democratized to refer to the evolutionary ascent of an awakened humanity. Soli, billed as an “off planet being” channeled through Neville Rowe, offers this esoteric insight: “You are God.  You are, each and every one, part of the Second Coming.”[vii]  The notion that “this same Jesus” (Acts 1:11) who literally and bodily ascended to heaven will himself return in like manner on Judgment Day is rejected as narrow-minded literalism (see also Philippians 3:20-21). Furthermore, final judgment after death is denied in favor of reincarnation.
  7. New-Age thinkers accept extra-biblical documents as sources for authentic information about Jesus.  Although the Bible is often cited, its function is secondary to other texts.  Instead, the spiritually inquisitive often turn to alternative records of Jesus’ life.  This quest for a “lost Christianity” follows several routes converging at key points.

Many believe that Gnostic texts provide a trustworthy record of Jesus as a spiritual catalyst who came to awaken the spark of divinity locked in our bodily prison. Self-knowledge, or gnosis, is the means of salvation. Since people hear of titles such as The Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter, many assume the Gnostic materials are historically trustworthy documents that were expelled from orthodoxy by defensive clerics. Professor Elaine Pagels, long an advocate of Gnostic materials over the canonical Scriptures, recently drew attention to The Gospel of Thomas in her best-selling book, Beyond Belief (2003).

Another strand of revisionism harks back to a book called The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, published in 1894 by a Russian journalist, Nicholas Notovitch. This book claims to unveil an ancient Tibetan record of Jesus’ “lost years” (between ages 13 and 29), which he spent studying, teaching and traveling in the mystic East. This Jesus bears little resemblance to the biblical Jesus.

Others find the key to Jesus in the ancient Essene community at Qumran, near the Dead Sea.  Claiming to base their interpretation on the Dead Sea Scrolls or other material, they see Jesus as part of a mystical remnant preserved from the Jewish fundamentalism of his day. Shirley MacLaine writes that “Jesus and the Essenes, with their teachings on love and light and cosmic laws along with the Golden Rule of karma, sound very much like metaphysical seekers in the New Age today.”[viii]

These esoteric materials are often augmented or eclipsed by revelations thought to originate beyond history entirely. Channelers or mediums receive messages about Jesus from personal spirit beings. Others, such as Edgar Cayce and Rudolf Steiner, keyed into an impersonal plane of higher consciousness called the Akashic Records or the Collective Unconscious, to extract a picture of Jesus not in harmony with that of the New Testament.  The popular three-volume set A Course in Miracles (1975), popularized by Marianne Williamson, claims to have been dictated by Jesus himself. Yet it denies historic Christian teachings such as original sin, the sacrificial death of Christ, reconciliation with God by faith in Jesus, and a literal heaven and hell.

  1. When the Bible is cited with reference to Jesus, an appeal is made to an esoteric dimension lost on those holding traditional interpretations. The Bible must be decoded to discern its secret substratum. So, when Jesus said that John the Baptist was Elijah, he was saying that John was the reincarnation of Elijah, not that John simply came with the same “spirit and power of Elijah” without being literally Elijah (Luke 1:17).[ix]  When he said, “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he really meant the soul is divine, not that the kingdom was breaking into history through Jesus (Luke 17:20-37).[x]

In the New Age, Jesus is understood apart from biblical moorings and placed in an alien intellectual and spiritual atmosphere. He is a Christ without a cross or physical resurrection, preaching a gospel without repentance or forgiveness, before an audience of potential equals who have no sin and are in no peril or perdition. Is this the genuine Jesus?

Is the New Testament Reliable?

Before considering the claims and credentials of Jesus, we should consider the reliability of the New Testament, since New Age sources impugn its integrity. The New Testament is often undervalued because of its antiquity and its manner of compilation. It is deemed unreliable because of the number of translations and editions. Some will reject its authority by saying, “Well, it has been translated so many times.” Yet the New Testament is the best-attested collection of literature from antiquity. Some 5,366 partial or complete Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have been recovered, dating as far back as the end of the first century. This plethora of manuscripts gives scholars ample material for reconstructing the original texts. No doctrine is affected by the small number of variant readings listed in modern Bibles.[xi] Although numerous translations of the New Testament are available, each modern translation appeals to the best ancient manuscripts available. They do not simply refer to the latest in a succession of translations. In fact, as time goes on more and more manuscripts are uncovered by archaeologists.

The date of the original composition of the New Testament books is quite close to the events described—in most cases, not more than a generation. We know that nearly all the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were in circulation by the end of the first century, because early church theologians such as Ignatius and Clement (writing at the turn of the century) refer to them or quote them. The original writers of the New Testament were also in a good position to ascertain the truth of their research, being either eyewitnesses (such as the apostles Matthew, Peter and John) or (like Luke) privy to eyewitnesses. Luke’s affirms that the material he used was “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” that he might present an “orderly account” of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:2-3).[xii]

Concerning the canonization of the New Testament, New Age writers protest is that it was the product of a fourth-century theological elite which excluded legitimate sources such as Gnosticism for purely self-serving reasons. But this scenario doesn’t bear historical scrutiny. The canonized documents were not given authority as much as they were recognized as already functioning in the churches with authority. These books predate the church councils that canonized them by several hundred years. They were not produced or altered ad hoc. Furthermore, books were excluded from the canon for specific reasons, such as late date of composition, questionable authorship, doctrine at odds with the primitive “rule of faith,” and lack of use in the early church; they were not rejected for merely political motives.[xiii]

In light of this evidence, the burden of proof lies on any other purported record of the life of Jesus that contradicts the New Testament. Can the New Age revisionist documents bear historical scrutiny?

Testing New Age Documents

The New Testament is far better attested than Gnostic texts. The Gnostic texts are second- or third-century documents that editorially alter an already existing orthodox view of Jesus. None of the Nag Hammadi texts, for instance, is an actual gospel of the form of the canonical Gospels. Rather, they are largely metaphysical discourses that for the most part bear little resemblance to the New Testament either stylistically or theologically.[xiv]

The Notovitch material (claiming to reveal “the lost years of Jesus”) was roundly condemned as unreliable by such noted orientalists as F. Max Muller and others shortly after its publication because of its contrived and unhistorical character. Despite continued interest in The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, the supposed Tibetan original manuscript has never been available for scholarly study; there exists no adequate verification of its existence, let alone its credibility. Most scholars have flatly rejected it as a fraud. It is better to have 5,366 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in the hand than (at most) one exotic manuscript lost in the Tibetan bush.[xv]

Claims that Jesus was an Essene do not hold up either. The Essenes of the Dead Sea Scrolls were not proto-New Agers. Rather, they were monotheistic Jews who, despite sectarian idiosyncrasies, affirmed human sinfulness, an eternal hell and a predestinating, personal God. Despite some similarity between Jesus’ teachings and the Essenes’ (due to their common belief in the Old Testament), there is a deep rift between them concerning asceticism, ethics, salvation and other issues. The Essenes were not New Agers, and Jesus was no Essene.[xvi]

With regard to channeled material, we should question why credence should be given to a revelation with no historical verification over documents with considerable historical verification—especially when channeled sources deny the central tenets of what Christians have affirmed for two thousand years. Because of this danger, the Apostle John warns: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). He goes on to encourage his readers to test the purported revelations by their views on Jesus; if they reject the biblical Jesus, they must be rejected as false messages, whatever their supposed source (1 John 4:2-3; see also Colossian 2:8).[xvii]

The simple fact is this: The evidence supports the reliability of the New Testament over the materials concerning Jesus given weight in New Age circles.

The Claims and Credentials of the Christ

But who is the Jesus of the New Testament? He speaks with a voice of authority based on both his claims and credentials.

Jesus calls himself God’s “one and only son” who was sent in love by the Father to bestow eternal life to those who believe in him (John 3:16). No other shares that status. This is no idle matter, since Jesus goes on to say that “whoever does not believe [in Jesus] stands condemned already because he has not believed in God’s one and only Son” (v. 18). Peter declared:  “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Paul affirms that “Christ Jesus” is “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9; see also Ephesians 1:18-23).

Another authoritative affirmation comes from Jesus’ lips: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6; see also Matthew 11:27). In context, the exclusivity of this statement cannot be honestly avoided, although some, through “esoteric interpretation,” assert that Jesus is not speaking of himself as the way, but of the impersonal “I Am presence” (or God) in us all. Such interpretive innovation, often practiced in New Ager circles, is the result of “world-view confusion”—an entirely alien philosophy, in this case pantheism, is superimposed onto the text.[xviii]

Esoteric interpretation is countered by common sense. If nothing stated in the text indicates the esoteric meaning, and we have good independent evidence indicating that the document is written in code language, what grounds can be given to support the esoteric interpretation, besides wishful thinking? Although the Bible is not always easy to understand, no secret code is needed to decipher it.[xix] Peter warns of those who distort the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).[xx]

By what credentials did Jesus back up his claims? Because those involved in the New Age movement grant the reality of a paranormal, dimension that affects the natural realm, they should be impressed with Jesus as an unsurpassed wonder worker. Jesus restored the blind, deaf, dumb and leprous, cast out demons with a word, commanded the elements to obey him, and summoned Lazarus from the grave. In the grandest miracle of all, he himself rose from the dead on the third day, just as he predicted. There would be no Christianity without the Resurrection.[xxi] A reading of the Gospels will disclose Jesus as another shaman or mystical holy man. He is far greater.

Jesus never claimed to tap into an impersonal realm of power. His demonstration of power was thoroughly personal. Jesus miraculous power was grounded in his identity as God’s only Son, his relationship to God, the Father, and his empowerment by the Holy Spirit. His miracles displayed his compassion and integrity. This is seen when declared that a crippled man’s sins were forgiven—an act only God could perform—and backed it up by healing him on the spot (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus healed both soul and body, and in the process forgiven the man’s sins, declaring the prerogatives of deity.

The sheer number, power and attestation of Jesus’ miracles put him in a category by himself; but the miracles alone are not sufficient to establish Jesus as Lord. We must also consider Jesus’ unrivaled authority as a teacher; the certainty of his words regarding his mission, his identity and the need for human response; his fulfillment of prophecy;[xxii] and his love toward those he came to rescue. These factors show Jesus as a man of integrity and compassion as well as a man of power. He claimed to have the power to save the lost, whom he loved.[xxiii]

Jesus’ View of Salvation

Jesus was on a redemptive mission. However, New Age theology to the contrary, his mission was not to convince humans that they were really divine. He declared, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus understood being “lost” as sinfulness.  He catalogued thirteen items of infamy—such as adultery, greed, impurity—as “coming from within” and making a person unclean before a holy and personal God (Mark 7:21-23). Where the New Age sees a sleeping god, Jesus finds a tempest of transgression. It is no wonder that Jesus often warned of the horrors of hell (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31).

Jesus presented himself as the answer. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Speaking of his impending crucifixion, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Christ’s crucifixion offers something alien to a New Age theology, which understands God as an impersonal and amoral Force, Principle or Vibration. From this perspective, humans all partake of the divine essence, but the ultimate reality is impersonal and inhuman.  The Great Void makes no friends and sheds no blood. Yet we all yearn for loving relationships with other persons, for love, intimacy and acceptance.

We find our highest meaning in the inter-personal realm, not the im-personal realm. The Cross of Christ announces God’s sacrificial love toward us. God’s uncompromising holiness demands that a price be paid for sin: Jesus goes to the cross to bear that penalty. Yet God’s love provides a sinless sacrifice for a guilty race. As Paul said:

When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love toward us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

Finding the Genuine Jesus

The gospel of Jesus Christ is an objective claim on every individual (Acts 17:30). Christ offers the life we crave but which we cannot achieve by looking within ourselves. He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Although Jesus singled himself out of the spiritual crowd through his exclusive claims and unmatched credentials, he issues an inclusive invitation:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.  (Matthew 11:28)

Christ promises and provides rest from the futile human quest for Christhood. We may, by his grace, become his friends, but never his peers. We must surrender our quest for autonomy, turn from our selfishness, and turn toward the only one who can forgive our sins, give us eternal life, and equip us for good works for the glory of God. The first word of the gospel is repentance. Jesus said, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). If we admit our sin, repent of our wrongdoings, and put our faith in the sinless sacrifice of Jesus, we can find eternal life—beginning now and continuing for an eternity in paradise with Jesus. Only through faith in Jesus can a new age truly begin (2 Corinthians 5:17).[xxiv]

[1] For more on the New Age as a movement and a worldview, see Douglas Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, Ill,: InterVarsity Press, 1986), and Douglas Groothuis, “New Age Spiritualites,” in Christopher Partridge, Douglas Groothuis, eds., Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 278-280.

[2] David Spangler, Reflections on the Christ (Glasgow, Scotland: The Findhorn Foundation, 1977), 103.

[3] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 57. This material, based on an interview with Bill Moyers, was also made into a PBS television interview, which is still shown during pledge drives.

[4] Janet Bock, The Jesus Mystery (Los Angeles, Calif.: Aura Books, 1984), 112.

[5] Mark L. and Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Science of the Spoken Word (Livingstone, Mont.: Summit University Press, 1986), 86-87.

[6] Campbell, 56.

[7] Quoted in Otto Friedrich, “New Age Harmonies,” Time, December 7, 1987, 66.

[8] Shirley MacLaine, Going Within (New York, N.Y.: Bantam, 1989), 181.

[9] See Douglas Groothuis, Confronting the New Age (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 95-98.

[10] See Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 227-228.

[11] See Groothuis, Jesus, 38-41.

[12] For more on the reliability of the New Testament see Groothuis, Jesus, 17-63, and F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents—Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987).

[13] F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), and Groothuis, Jesus, 307-312.

[14] For more on the historicity of the Gnostic texts see Groothuis, Jesus, 102-118.

[15] For more on the lost years of Jesus see Ibid., 119-151.

[16] For more on Jesus and the Essenes see Ibid., 152-180.

[17] For more on channeling see Ibid., Jesus, 181-214.

[18] See James Sire, Scripture Twisting: Twenty Ways Cults Misinterpret the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 23-30, 127-44.

[19] On proper biblical interpretation see Gordon Fee and Stuart Douglas, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 2nded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993).

[20] For more on esoteric interpretation see Groothuis, Confronting, 87-91; Groothuis, Jesus, 282-284; and Sire, 107-115.

[21] See Groothuis, Jesus, 272-282, and Gary Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), especially Part I.

[22] On Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, see John Ankerberg, John Weldon and Walter Kaiser, The Case for Jesus, the Messiah (Chattanooga, Tenn.: The John Ankerberg Evangelistic Association, 1989).

[23] For more on the claims and credentials of Christ, see Groothuis, Jesus, 237-260.

[24] On coming to terms with Jesus, see Groothuis, Jesus, 285-306.

Television: Agent of Truth Decay

This is excerpted from Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay(InterVarsity Press, 2000).

First, television emphasizes the moving image over written and spoken language.  It is image-driven, image-saturated, and image-controlled.   …When the image overwhelms and subjugates the word, the ability to think, write, and communicate in a linear and logical fashion is undermined.  Television’s images have their immediate effect on us, but that effect is seldom to cause us to pursue their truth or falsity.  …As Kenneth Myers stresses, ‘A culture that is rooted more in images than in words will find it increasingly difficult to sustain any broad commitment to any truth, since truth is an abstraction requiring language.’

Second, [television brings] a loss of authentic selfhood…the self is filled with a welter of images and factoids and sound bites lacking moral and intellectual adhesion.  The self becomes ungrounded and fragmented by its experiences of television.  …Postmodern illiterates live their lives through a series of television characters (better: shadows of characters), and changing channels becomes a model for the self’s manner of experience and its mode of being.  Moral and spiritual anchorage is lost.  The self is left to try on a pastiche of designer personae in no particular order and for no particular reason.

Third, television relentlessly displays a pseudo-world of discontinuity and fragmentation.  …The images appear and disappear and reappear without a proper rational context.  …This is what Postman aptly calls the ‘peek-a-boo world,’ – a visual environment lacking coherence, consisting of ever-shifting, artificially linked images. …Without any historical or logical context, the very notion of intellectual or moral coherence becomes unsustainable on television.

Fourth, the increasingly rapid pace of television’s images makes careful evaluation impossible and undesirable for the viewer, thus rendering determinations of truth and falsity difficult if not impossible.  With sophisticated video technologies, scenes change at hypervelocities and become the visual equivalent of caffeine or amphetamines. …This means that one simply absorbs hundreds and thousands of rapidly changing images, with little notion of what they mean or whether they correspond to any reality outside themselves.  …Habituation to such imposed velocities tends to make people intellectually impatient and easily bored with anything that is slow-moving and undramatic – such as reading books…experiencing nature in the raw, and engaging in face-to-face conversations with fellow human beings. …The overstuffed and overstimulated soul becomes out-of-sync with God, nature, others, and itself.  It cannot discern truth; it does not want to.  This apathetic attitude makes the apprehension and application of truth totally irrelevant.

Fifth, television promotes truth decay by its incessant entertainment imperative.  Amusement trumps all other values and takes captive every topic.  Every subject – whether war, religion, business, law or education – must be presented in a lively, amusing or stimulating manner.   …Even off the air, people now think that life (and Christian ministry) must be entertaining at all costs.  One pastor of a megachurch advises preachers that sermons should be roughly 20 minutes in length and must be ‘light and informal,’ with liberal sprinklings of ‘humor an anecdotes.’  Just like television, isn’t it?  The truth is that truth, and the most important truths, is often not entertaining.  An entertainment mentality will insulate us from many hard but necessary truths. …Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles held the interest of their audience not by being amusing but by their zeal for God’s truth, however unpopular or uncomfortable it may have been.  They refused to entertain but instead edified and convicted.  It was nothing like television” (p. 283-292).

What is This Thing Called Love?

Originally posted on 7/13/2015

What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?

Cole Porter wrote the lyrics. Frank Sinatra sang the song. This gem out of the great American songbook captures something of the age-old quest for the meaning of love. Yet today love is nearly the most vexed word in the English language, taking second place only to the word God, which has been the most defiled by ignorance and arrogant redefinition. Given that love now supposedly justifies same-sex marriage and other sexual engagements outside of heterosexual marriage, let us consider its meaning.

Love is love, we are told, as if this argued in favor of same-sex marriage. Love is a human emotion, but that does not ground it in moral reality. As St. Augustine argued long ago in The City of God, our loves are warped by sin. As he writes in The City of God, chapter 28:

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.  The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.  For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.  The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.”

We may love the temporal more than the eternal, the flesh more than the spirit, the world more than God. Our loves are confused and untrustworthy when left to themselves. We may even love deviancy over morality.

God is love, teaches the Apostle John. God’s character is holy love, not mere sentimentality or an endorsement of all human attraction or affection. God is perfectly good and free from all ignorance and distortion. He is holy in that he is above and beyond his creation, living in perfect righteousness. Hence, when God revealed himself to the prophet Isaiah, the angels worshiped him.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:1-4; see also Revelation 4)

Isaiah’s response was not to rejoice that a tame God of had shown up. Rather, he cried:

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).

God is holy, holy, holy. The threefold description is a Hebrew figure of speech meaning the uttermost, the maximum, the zenith.

Many know Jesus’ statement of his mission in the Gospel of John. But let us look at it again in its fuller context to understand what love really means. Jesus said to Nicodemus:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God (John 3:16-21).

Jesus came to demonstrate love in the darkness—the darkness of evil. He did not come to ratify our preferences or to confirm our wishes. As God incarnate, he came to shine light into darkness, to condemn sin as sin (rebellion against God and his creation order), and, in love, to offer forgiveness and new life. Love has an object; it does not bless the darkness. That is what the denizens of darkness do.

The darkness not only rejects Jesus, it also paints him in false colors, making Jesus a chameleon for cultural trends. This is not the Jesus who is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8; see also Malachi 3:6). This is not the Jesus who can reconcile us to God and make us his servants. This is a counterfeit Christ, who is heralded by counterfeit apostles. Listen to Paul:

For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough (1 Corinthians 11:4).

These false teachers must be exposed:

And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (1 Corinthians 11:12-15).

These purveyors of falsehood will have their reward. There error is not small. As the prophet Isaiah declared:

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight (Isaiah 5:20-21).

Good and evil are determined by the character of God, the Creator and Designer of the universe and of human beings. We are not free to improvise on the principles of morality. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his classic The Abolition of Man, “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.”

But what, more specifically, is this thing called love? Paul, again, tells us in clear terms:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

Out of his own matchless love, Christ died to forgive and restore sinners. Love is God’s response to human sin. If we deny acts and thoughts that are truly sinful, we deny God’s claim of love to forgive and renew sinners. Let us listen again to Paul:

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4).

It is God’s kindness that reveals and condemns human sin, which issues from within a woman or man. As Christ said:

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person (Mark 7:20-23; see also Romans 3:14-26).

If it were not for the God of the Bible, we would not know who we are and what we have done in rebellion against God. God is kind, not cruel, to disclose this to us, his wayward children.

What, then, is God’s response to the slogan love is love when meant to endorse same-sex marriage and non-heterosexual activity in general? God cannot love what cuts against his character and the order and design of his creation. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. As the crown of creation he made women and men in his image and likeness, male and female, and God commissioned them to have dominion, cultivate the earth, and come together as husband and wife (Genesis 1-2). Sexual error is due to the fall of humanity. When creatures took it upon themselves to heed the voice of the lie and promote themselves above their Creator (Genesis 3).

God’s authoritative pattern for human sexuality is not open-ended. It is not a matter of subjective feeling or of cultural condition or of legal ruling. Jesus ratified the Genesis norm when he proclaimed:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:1-6).

God joins together male and female in marriage. No other arrangement is God-ordained, and no other pairing has his blessing

God’s love is demonstrated in sending Jesus to atone for our sins and set us right with God. God’s love is further revealed in his judgments of our sin as sin, so that we may repent and embrace God’s ways on earth and in eternity. God’s love, then, will never endorse, sanction, or bless anything that goes against his holy nature or against the nature of human beings he created in his image and likeness. However, when erring mortals turn against God and make themselves the authority, horrible things happen, as Paul teaches:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.  In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:18-32; see also Leviticus 18; 1 Corinthians 6:9-12).

The desires of these God-rejecting people suffered corruption, no matter how strong the desires may have been. Intensity of attraction—erotic or otherwise—does not morality make.

Some misguided scholars have attempted to blunt the force of this passage by claiming that Paul is only condemning some kinds of homosexuality. This is alien to every English translation and to the Greek text as well. Further, no biblical text outside of Romans endorses any homo-erotic behavior, let alone same-sex marriage.

By now, the reader should discern that God’s love does not extend to practices or institutions that God explicitly forbids in the teaching of the Bible, which is his living and active word (Hebrews 4:12). Rather, those who come to Christ and name him Lord must repent from their former ways of living in sin. The first word of the Gospel is repentance. After Jesus was tempted by the devil, he began his public teaching by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus charge to his followers after his resurrection and before his ascension into heaven stress repentance as well:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:46-48).

In the first of his 95 Theses (1517), the Reformer Martin Luther wrote:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

In the name of Jesus Christ, no Christian is allowed to condone what Christ himself condemns—all sexual immorality. One aspect of sin-causing behavior is sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual monogamy. When men and women are drawn to repent and confess Jesus as Lord, they will live lives of repentance as they seek to please the One who saved them from sin, death, and hell. This is a life of love. But not all that claims to be love from God is love from God. Paul’s famous love passage clarifies this:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:1-7).

Love is paramount. If so, we must get it right, lest love is drained of its glory. Love is positively shown in patience and kindness; negatively, love does not envy, boast, is not proud, does not dishonor others, is not selfish, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, and does not delight in evil. But there is one more positive statement about love that puts everything else into context: Love “rejoices with the truth” (v. 6). The Message translation says that love “Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth.” The majestic King James Version says, that love “rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.”

Love’s rejoicing in the truth of God about sexuality forbids rejoicing in what God forbids. We cannot stand with God when we stand against God’s truth about love.

Looking Back to an Old Typewriter

What difference might a typewriter make on one’s writing style; might it even affect one’s thinking itself? We are what we write, and how we write is shaped by the device on which we write. Consider Nicholas Carr’s reflections on Nietzsche’s use of a primitive typewriter.

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.” (The Atlantic, July/August 2008).

            Selectric is the name of an IBM electronic typewriter that awkwardly sits on a table in what should be the dining room. When I type, I hear the sounds of inscription. I see the words appear in front of me on a real sheet of paper. The touch is lighter than on a manual typewriter, but it is percussive. It pounds the letters into place and moves on. It is like playing drums and writing at the same time, although there is no steady beat. Maybe it is more like avant-garde drumming.

Machines like this are not easily portable. They are connected to nothing outside of their power cord. They are not made anymore, like the Hammond B-3 organ. Every major jazz organist plays a B-3. How many writers use an electric typewriter? Some still use manual models, which I learned from the delightful film, “California Typewriter.”

The Selectric was famous for being a dependable and correctible typewriter. A little key allowed you to backspace to a mistake and then strike the errant letter, which was (somewhat) erased. Then you typed the proper letter. Bad typists like me appreciated that.

Unmasking the New Age (1986), my first book, was half written on an early computer and half written on a Selectric that someone had rented for me. I wrote several other articles and reviews on the Selectric as well. But after getting my now extinct Kay-pro, the great beast was forgotten and all was written on computer—until I spotted a garage sale in my neighborhood. That is when the Selectric came back into my life.

Kaiser-Permanente will likely be stunned when they receive a typewritten letter from me protesting their decision not to cover a medical test. But mostly, I sidle up to the hulking black box to write letters to friends. So far, no recipients have complained. Some have applauded. None have typewritten back.

The Selectric selects the way I write. Corrections are not easily made. So, I think more before I write. Deleting a whole sentence is not easily done. I have not returned to the world of white out, a substance with which I never made piece. I think some of it from decades ago is still under my finger nail. If I must delete a lot, I strike through with dashes. That is ugly, but gritty. Tom Hanks types this way on his manuals; so I can, too. Knowing that I can resort to grittiness frees me from fear of error. Typing forbids you to move text around—something that is second nature to us now. You are committed to a sequence. If I want to return to a topic from several topics ago, I have to bring it up again. This is a little more like a conversation than typing on a computer, where cutting and pasting (to hark back to a literal practice) is simple.

My Selectric also has sentimental value. The muscle memory comes back. I think of typing out my lecture outlines for my class, “The Twilight of Western Thought,” when I worked in campus ministry from 1979-84 at the University of Oregon. I think of short essays I wrote to my fiancé, Becky Merrill, one of which was on the ontology of kissing. That has, tragically, been lost to history (I think).

I won’t be sending publishers any hard copy written on a typewriter. My black beauty does not have spell check. Nor can it insert links. Adding footnotes would be annoying. I remember those dark days. I won’t lug my typewriter into the office and then back home again. It is more of a fixture and part of my house. However, I would gladly have one in my office if could procure another good one at a decent price.

Perhaps I gave hypergraphia—at least a mild case—but I don’t suffer from it. I live it. When a colleague mentioned my productivity amidst the misery of living through my wife’s dementia, I replied, “I write in order to survive.” I write about many topics on various devices. Each device—computer, typewriter, pen and ink—shapes how I write. Perhaps that is worth pondering, since words will last forever and cannot finally be taken back.

 

 

Truth, the Universe, and You

By Douglas Groothuis and Elizabeth Johnston

Intellectual sobriety is rare. When pressed to think at all, many act like drunken sailors forced to take a philosophy quiz. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt called this, well, bullshit in his miniature best-selling book, On Bullshit. Page one says:

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.”

He understands the bovine excrement metaphor to mean communication that does not care about truth. Liars have a greater concern to get reality right—and then to claim the opposite. To lie, as Mortimer Adler puts it in Six Great Ideas, is to “willfully misplace one’s ontological predicates.” That is, I know that X is P and I say that X is not-P. I deny what I should affirm. This is the work of the liar. Exponents of BS, however care not whether his ontological predicates match reality. He speaks and writes for other reasons. Impressing people, persuading people, deceiving people, and hearing himself talk are among them.

Truth seekers and truth tellers are neither deceivers nor BS artists.

One should never get over a concern for truth, since lies lurk everywhere. Believing the truth with wisdom allows us to navigate reality far better than heeding the counsel of lies and BS. A man who is true to the truth need seek no lies. He is disarmed and rearmed by reality and will not try to falsify it. Truth makes its demands, if we have ears to hear. Consider its inescapable demands.

  1. A statement is true if it corresponds with the reality it describes.

Example: God exists.

  1. A statement is false if it fails to correspond with the reality it describes.

Example: God does not exist.

  1. For a statement to be true, it must cohere with every other true statement in the universe. That is, no true statement can cohere with a false statement, since they contradict each other.

Consider an example.

S1: It is objectively wrong to murder.

Since it corresponds to reality, this assertion is true. Subjective preference and derivation from a sociological sample do not influence its veracity. Its truthfulness is inherent. Thus, consistency with every other accurate pronouncement is a must.

Meet Goober; he is a materialist. Actually, Goober is a muddled materialist. He correctly holds S1 to be true, but he also believes:

S2: Materialism is true.

Materialism is an all-encompassing worldview. Denying not only God’s existence—but also everything abstract or spiritual—it insists that only matter exists. Thus, materialism cannot supply a moral authority beyond the mere facts of chemistry, biology, and physics. Normative claims have no logical place within that paradigm—befuddled believers in a materialistic worldview notwithstanding. Therefore, S2 does not cohere with S1. What else must be true if S1 is true? Consider:

G1: God is the source of moral authority.

G1 is true because God is the personal and immaterial evaluator of all things. He defines the meaning of good and evil based upon the moral perfections of his character. Human beings possess intrinsic dignity and the right to life because they are created in God’s image. Murder transgresses this intrinsic dignity and the right to life. As a consequent, murder is morally wrong. Therefore, the following two assertions do not cohere:

S1: It is morally wrong to murder.

S2: Materialism is true.

This is because the following affirmation is true:

G1: God is the source of moral authority.

Therefore, the following two statements cohere:

S1: It is morally wrong to murder.

G1: God is the source of moral authority.

Lest one take this analysis to be laborious and obvious, the point is a sharp one: A proper mindset accepts only affirmations that cohere with one another. Anything one believes to be true must be in accord with any other true statement in the universe. Let us remember:

  1. God is one.
  2. Truth is one.
  3. All truth is God’s truth.
  4. Errors are many.

Therefore, the wise will eschew BS, endeavor to find the truth, and will not contradict it by lying. God is watching. All truth is his, although he shares it with all who pursue it. Jesus, Truth Incarnate, declares:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).

 

 

7 Principles of Technogesis

“If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish.” So goes the Chinese proverb. By extension, if you want to understand the strengths and weakness of American culture do not ask an America. Why is this? To walk through life, we must take some things for granted, such as driving on the right side of the road or standing in line at the grocery store. However, God calls us to be discerning citizens of heaven and earth. Worldliness is a constant danger. To paraphrase David Wells, worldliness makes the godly look odd and the ungodly seem normal. The way of the fallen world is the way of the unregenerate flesh and its works. Paul warns us to avoid the works of the flesh by being filled with the Spirit.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

Acts of the flesh can become habitual patterns of life and so recede into the background. They seem normal. Everyone does them. For example, selfish ambition is often seen as the engine of success: sell yourself, put yourself first. The humble are the losers. They do not inherit the earth.

Worldliness may also throw its invisible net around us through the uncritical use of technologies, particularly communications media. Facebook, for example, might make us jealous or feed illicit erotic desires. The sinful may become normal for us.

Media may dull our senses to things divine and may enmesh and ensnare us in habits of the heart and mind that are earthbound. Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist (trained in rhetoric and literary criticism), wrote that “We become what we behold.” Or, as Scripture says, we resemble the idols we worship or we resemble the God we worship.

To avoid worldliness and to embrace godless, we ought rightly to evaluate the cultural givens, testing them for truth-worthiness and asking how they may be used for human flourishing and the expansion of God’s Kingdom. Technological awareness also makes life more interesting and is another fun way to annoy your friends. Consider several principles of interpreting technologies in light of Christian character and Christian mission. I call this technogesis.

  1. Every technologies both extends and contracts human communication. The telephone extends the voice over distances far greater than a shout or even the stentorian capacities of a George Whitfield or L. Dwight Moody. However, the visual presence is removed. Thus, all nonverbal aspects of communication vanish. Skype allows us to protect our images around the world, but it still cannot bring the whole person with it.

In light of this, consider what the best form of media may be for particular kinds of communication. Hearing a sermon with other Christians in a church involves the whole person. Hearing the sermon on the radio or a podcast does not—useful as that may be.  You should not only send a text when you should shed a tear with someone who is suffering.

  1. Each medium has biases and prejudges. The text message or tweet has a bias toward speed and brevity. It is prejudiced against developed exposition and argument. Donald Trump releases may of his ideas and even policies on tweets. Had he lived to see it, this would have even shocked Neil Postman. The printed page has a bias toward recording thoughts through words in a linear fashion. Of course, the page can be fill with incoherence and randomness, but those values are better served by the Internet.

 

  1. With the development of technologies, there are always winners and losers. The carriage industry suffered with the advent of the automobile, as did the blacksmith. The original radios were large and took a central place in the home. They were well-crafted pieces of furniture. Now they are relicts, and how many families gather around a radio to listen to news and entertainment. Ear buds have radically individualized and miniaturized entertainment. With the coming of computer writing, typewriters become relics, whatever their virtues may have been. I wrote half of my first book on an IBM Selectric, the King of automatic typewriters in the 1980s. I could feel and hear the impressions of the letters on the paper. I could see most of the workings of the machine. It was not the black box, about which I could know nothing about its inner workings. What did I lose when I stopped writing on typewriters (as I did for all my many undergraduate papers) and switched to a computer?

 

  1. Technologies cater to extant assumptions and help reinforce them. Since Americans like to take technology with them, cell phones became smaller and more portable. However, that boomeranged when they became too small to manipulate. Now they are larger and some opt for even larger tablets for most of their communication. Since Americans love screens, technologies have put them everywhere—even on phones and watches. Many years ago, there was a cartoon called Dick Tracy, who sported a small screen on his wristwatch!

 

  1. Technological innovation is always a tradeoff. Consider e-books. What is gained in portability is lost in presence and heft. A book is a discrete object in the world. It has a history it carries with it. I have the first copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There, which I purchased from the University of Oregon book store in the fall of 1976. I have the same information in other token of the type of this book. Yet there is only one artifact that carries the meaning of this book. E-books are electronically searchable, a great boon to research. You can add notes. And yet…the book possesses virtues untranslatable into digital forms.

 

  1. Many media encourage the passive consumption of its content as opposed to the creative engagement of culture. Amazon video gives me access to myriad films and television programs. Watching (some of) these may be relaxing or touching. Some of the films may be great art. Because of my wife’s dementia, watching video and some old TV shows is one of a small number of activities we can share. Since Becky’s mental abilities are decaying, she cannot create or engage very much. She used to read, write, edit, sing, and more. I am grateful for the availability of this entertainment. It also makes me weep when I see her sitting in front of the screen by herself. Has it come to this? Yes, it has, although we search for others activities.

In Culture Making, Andy Crouch argues that we should try to create more culture than we consume. Play catch with a kid instead of buying him a video game. Enjoy no-tech meals with your family, paying attention to the preparation of food and the setting of the meal. Write a personal card instead of posting factoids on Facebook.

  1. Communication technologies encourage using culture instead of receiving it. According to C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism, to use a book or an image or a song is merely functional and utilitarian. One may read to “kill time,” God help them. Contrariwise, to receive a book or an image or a song means to submit to it, to consider it for what it is in itself. You pay your respects to a cultural artefact, such as a Mark Rothko painting in The Denver Art Museum. You linger at leisure. The Internet has a prejudice against receiving anything—although it is possible, say if you are watching a masterful jazz performance by Pat Martino.

My seven reflections are more suggestive than detailed. There are, doubtless, other principles for technogesis. These, however, should serve us well as we try to be in the world, but not of it.

Recommended reading

  1. Sven Birkerts, The Guttenberg Elegies.
  2. Andy Crouch, Culture Making and The Tech-wise Family
  3. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace. First Christian critique of the Internet—which no one read.
  4. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.
  5. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly.
  6. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man.
  7. Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, The Technological Bluff.
  8. Lassie: The First Fifty Years (1993).

The Book That No One Read

As the editor of a series of cultural critiques on compelling issues, Os Guinness wanted my work The Soul in Cyberspace to be “a shot across the bow.” I earnestly took up the challenge. At the time, Thomas Moore’s The Care of the Soul was a bestseller, and publishers were offering a proliferation of books on the Internet. Published in 1997, my book combined these two themes. My hope was that the book would sell well and help the church be more discerning.

The book was a flop. My success publishing essays from it in various periodicals and an interview in Christianity Today notwithstanding, it was dead after one small printing. As David Hume wrongly referred to A Treatise on Human Nature, it fell “stillborn from the press.” (For literary archaeologists, the book is available as a reprint from Wipf and Stock Publishers, and used copies of the original print can be found on Amazon.)

Why, then, did the book fail to engage the Evangelical world? Are there any lessons from it that apply to us today, especially given my last twenty years participating in the churning and ever-changing world of cyberspace?

First, it may have not been a good book. Perhaps it was written too quickly (as one reviewer put it) and/or without adequate research and nuance. God knows. I don’t remember any bad reviews; but there weren’t many reviews at all.

Second, it was written by a young curmudgeon, a social critic who did not (and does not) typically look on the bright side of things. In the middle 1990s, most Evangelicals (and everyone else) were agog with the teeming and wondrous possibilities of “life on the screen,” as Sherri Turkle put it. (She is now more nuanced and worried in her approach, as seen in her recent books, such as Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation.) Since Evangelicals yearn to reach as many people as possible with the gospel, we usually fall in love with whatever technology seems to have the broadest reach. Thus, we embraced radio to broadcast sermons, for example. I never denied the benefits of global connectivity—as much as I could glimpse of that in 1997. However, I pondered the unintended consequences that flowed from the nature of the medium itself, getting my chops and taking my cues mostly from Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, and Marshall McLuhan. So, I was more of a nay-sayer than a cheer-leader. But, I was partly right. Let me explain.

All communication technologies amplify some human abilities and diminish others. They are, as McLuhan wrote, “extensions of man.” The radio and telephone extend the reach of the voice, but removes the embodied human presence from which the voice comes. It favors sound over image. Television extends and favors image over sound and rational discourse. Vinyl sounds better than digital, but is less portable. And on it goes. Trades-offs in meaning and knowledge are inevitable, but usually neglected or forgotten. Christians, of all people, should know this. God coming in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is the consummate communication of God to humanity, improving on (but not negating) all previous forms of revelation.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

The Apostles Paul (Romans 1:11-12) and John lamented that they could not visit the recipients of their Epistles.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 1:12; see also 3 John 1:13-14).

A 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker cartoon showed one dog saying to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog.” Being-there was endangered by novel and prodigious forms of high-tech mediation. Fakery was easier, authenticity harder. You could craft a web page to make you look other than you were, and gain much attention in doing so, given the novelty of the form.

I also warned of the cyborg, the human machine combinations beginning to find identities. How far might enter cyberspace? Might we thereby become less human?

If I was partly right in warning of the depersonalizing aspects of the Internet and right in advocating unmediated personal relationships in friendship and teaching and in the church, what did I miss?

Even the savviest techno-wizards would be stunned by many of the cyberspace eruptions from the last two decades. When I wrote in 1997, personal computers were tethered to desks or put on laps. Cell phones were new, bulky, expensive, and alien to the fledgling internet. There was no “Cyber Monday” and no texting. My attention is drawn to only two giants, who emerged in cyberspace since I wrote The Soul in Cyberspace—Facebook and Amazon. Space does not permit me to expound on three of their giant siblings—Google, Wikipedia, and the omnipresent smart phone (which often outsmarts us).

Facebook did not exist in 1997 and no one knew of Mark Zuckerman, who was then thirteen-years-old. The social nature of the internet was largely exhausted by chat rooms, emails, rather static web pages, and discussion boards. I flirted with Facebook for a few years, and even spoke out against it on a BBC radio program. I now find myself a dedicated citizen of this digital place, which I find vexing, annoying, and nearly indispensable.

Like all electronic media, Facebook is not unmediated face-to-face communication; and, it should never substitute for it. (Although it tries hard through video calls). It should it become an obsession or addiction, which it easily can. Often, we denizens of Facebook are better off reading books rather than our newsfeeds. (I must get to that new translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions!) Our posted selfies may reveal less than virtuous selves. Self-promotion takes on new dimensions on Facebook and it is easy to forget what Proverbs counsels: Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2). I could go on. I hope you could you, too.

I did not know in 1997 that cyberspace might become, in some of its regions, a meaningful medium for insight, exhortation, commiseration, and prayer; yet, it can, indeed, carry existential weight. I have lamented on line, much of it on Facebook. Since my wife Becky was diagnosed with an uncommon and uncommonly cruel form of dementia in March of 2014, I have shared much of my grief before my Facebook “friends.” One long essay, written at the end of 2014, I called, “The Year of Learning Things I did not Want to Know.” The response was voluminous and heartening; it became a chapter in Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament. Many offered prayer, Scripture, general concern, and tangible help for me and Becky. A friend set up a Go Fund Me account. I try to do the same for my siblings in suffering by posting my reflections on our journey into the darkness of primary progressive aphasia. No one can serve my wife communion on Facebook. That requires being there with her. But this social medium may be used as a conduit for genuine love and service. For that, I am grateful to God.

The Soul in Cyberspace said little about commerce in cyberspace. Amazon.com came into existence in 1994, selling mostly books and CDs. I went on line in 1995 and had not used Amazon until 1999, two years after I wrote the book. Like many, I was at first reluctant to buy anything on line. It was too dangerous, I thought. Amazon has made shopping quick, easy, and, all-to-often, irresistible. It eliminates the middle man of a physical store. The shopping is done on line; the ordering is done at home. The selection is vast and ever-increasing. Like Facebook, it is a staple of my life. But what should we make of this behemoth with “the largest inventory on earth,” as it says?

Customers of Amazon can become critics of Amazon through its rating system. This feature of customer evaluation was dubbed Internet 2.0 a few years ago. This, for me, has become a literary template for my hundreds of my comments, mostly on books and music. There are the obligatory stars (which are too reductionist), the headline, and the discursive comments, which may become essays. I have found essays worthy of academic publication—along with the emotive drivel, grammatical chaos, and sheer inanity. Nevertheless, the customer’s words can add understanding to the product. They can do more. My reviews usually contain an apologetic undercurrent. Granted, this is not like publishing in The New Yorker, and I do not have a category on my academic resume for “Amazon Essays.” Still, some souls might benefit from them and I benefit from some of the reviews. Moreover, those suffering from, or enjoying, hypographia (a form of literary hypomania) have their outlet. (You can write reviews on YouTube as well, but most comments are more sewage than salt, and it may not be worth the wading through.)

The arms of Amazon reach further and further into the world. The most ominous development is the Amazon Echo, called Alexa, the digital version of the ancient mystical oracle. This personal assistant (a title we once used for mere humans only) uses voice recognition to answer questions, order items from Amazon, and more.  Amazon advertises its magic.

Just ask Alexa to check your calendar, weather, traffic, and sports scores, manage to-do and shopping lists, control your compatible smart lights, thermostats, garage doors, sprinklers, and more

Alexa is always getting smarter and adding new features and skills. Just ask Alexa to control your TV, request an Uber, order a pizza, and more.

Your interactions are recorded and kept somewhere in the Cloud. To that, I say that the convenience is not worth the possible surveillance. And might we talk more to a machine than to the mortals in our midst?

There are many more souls in cyberspace today than when I wrote The Soul in Cyberspace. It is heartening to see a good number of serious evaluations of this medium appear in the last ten years. Nevertheless, we ought to be diligent in asking how cyberspace affects our minds, manners, and morals. Therefore, we must test the medium and how it affects us. As Paul said, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:19-22).

Two Views of Suffering: Atheist Existentialism and Christianity

By nature, we all avoid suffering, and suffering comes in so many varieties. We attend funerals and sob. We visit a loved one in a psychiatric unit and wonder how live ever got this bad. We consider animal cruelty and are appalled and saddened. A military dog dies of sorrow immediately after his soldier is killed in battle. A mother laments over her son’s heroin addiction. A son agonizes over this father’s imprisonment. A seventeen-year-old commits suicide, leaving a hole no one can ever fill.

But what of it all? By nature, we seek to avoid suffering in ourselves and in those we care about. Much suffering is unavoidable (such as many illnesses); but much of it is avoidable, but still afflicts many who become haunted by guilt, as in alcoholism. What can the sighs, groans, headaches, tears, and sleepless nights tell us about the meaning of life? Can philosophy find clues in these myriad maladies on how to live a truer and better life?

Trying to answer these questions is the quest of a lifetime, and, one hopes, an examined lifetime. I offer only prods to this end. Prompted my own and my wife’s suffering, due to her dementia, I have much pondered on the meaning of suffering philosophically and, of course, existentially (many of which can be found in my book Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness–A Philosopher’s Lament). I will briefly compare two views of suffering, that of atheistic existentialism and of historic Christianity.

Atheistic Existentialism and Suffering

I thought that atheistic existentialism had passed from the intellectual scene by the mid-1980s, having been eclipsed by New Age thought and postmodernism. But its demise was, like Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated. Gary Cox has labored to rehabilitate existentialism (particularly Jean-Paul Sartre) through a number of short, snappy books such as How to be an Existentialist and Existentialism and Excess, a longer biography of Sartre. We even find The Dummies Guide to Existentialism.

"Atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre and his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, argue that life in itself has no meaning because the universe is uncreated and undesigned." - Jean-Paul Sarte

Atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre and his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, argue that life in itself has no meaning because the universe is uncreated and undesigned. Humans turn up and must define themselves, living without a “heaven of ideas” or the divine Amen. As Sartre famously wrote in Existentialism and Human Emotions, “Existence precedes essence.” Sartre emphasized the necessity of free choice to make an authentic life. De Beauvoir stressed the “ethics of ambiguity,” the right and the meaningful is not spelled out anywhere. We interpret life as we will—with no Hermes at our side. Heidegger claims that we are “thrown” into existence, suffering the anxiety of intrinsic alienation, and must experience “being unto death.”

For these thinkers (despite their differences), suffering is intrinsic to human being. For Sartre, we are “condemned to be free” and, as he says in No Exit, “Hell is other people.” There is no objective meaning to suffering, but only our subjective meaning in suffering. While Camus denied being an existentialist (as did the later Heidegger), he, like Sartre, et al, found meaning only in the absurd revolt against meaninglessness. Hence his book, The Rebel. The hero of Camus’s The Plague fights against the mysterious plague that ravages his town, knowing his task is futile. Somehow, amidst the ruins, a kind of absurd meaning is found. But that meaning does not extend beyond the individual. No one can align herself with a broader meaning of suffering in relation to a greater good or a hidden purpose that transcends the merely human and terrestrial. To use Kierkegaard’s term, “the audit of eternity” is lacking.

To endure such suffering, according to Existentialism, is simply our lot. We should not resign ourselves to it passively, but create meaning in the midst of it. As Sartre emphasizes, we have “no excuse” for leaving our post by blaming our biology or upbringing. That would be “bad faith,” not authentic freedom. Suffering, for Sartre, is part of the human condition of being who are always in process, but without an objective end or objective meaning to our becoming. All the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and there is no Atlas to help us.

Going further, Sartre says that man is “the desire to be God.” We yearn to be what we are without the instability that freedom brings, but we also yearn to be totally unconstrained and free to do as we will. But, says Sartre, this is impossible for a finite being qua finite being, and there is no infinite being (God) to synthesize this freedom and stability. Because of all this, man is “forlorn.”

Christianity and Suffering

Suffering is not the starting point for the Christian worldview, but, nevertheless, it throbs in its philosophical marrow. Blood is shed everywhere, but that blood is not without a voice. Humans did not just appear without forethought or purpose, but are integral to a divine plan. But this plan is fully made known—and often largely obscured—to erring mortals.

For the ancient Hebrews and Christians, death and suffering are rooted in our responsibility to God and others. The world and its finite stewards were created good, but that original felicity did not last. A rift occurred between Creator and created such that those who bear God’s image also bear God’s displeasure. In Christian terminology, this is called the fall.

As Pascal wrote in Pensées, man “could not bear so great a glory without falling into pride.” In The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Oriented Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin, Soren Kierkegaard considers the suffering of anxiety in explicitly Christian terms.

Things go wrong; blood is shed; tears are many. Cain slays his brother Abel out of his jealousy. His blood cries out from the ground for justice. There are wars and rumors of wars. Women and men waste their lives. Perhaps no other passage in the Hebrew Bible sums up our sorry condition better than the words of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, which I quote in the King James Version:

I returned, and saw under the sun,

that the race is not to the swift,

nor the battle to the strong,

neither yet bread to the wise,

nor yet riches to men of understanding,

nor yet favour to men of skill;

but time and chance happeneth to them all (chapter 9, verse 11).

The practice and skill of lament is how the biblical authors and the Jewish and Christian traditions come to terms with suffering. This world is broken and that cannot be hidden. Humans ought to recognize the losses and injustices of life, and make that know to heaven. This includes inexplicable suffering, lamenting over one’s moral failings, and paying the heavy prices of suffering for one’s religious convictions. Perhaps sixty of the one hundred and fifty Psalms fit in the genre of lament. The writers cry out to God and unburden themselves in their sorrows. But these are prayers, not the voicings of unheeded anguish. The reader finds anger, impatience, and even despair in these poems. They cover the gamut of sorrow, all brought before God. Man is not a useless passion. His passionate suffering and grief may be brought before God who is there and who hears him.

Psalm twenty-two was on the lips of Jesus as he was crucified before the audience of his fellow Jews and his Roman executioners: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This wail of dejection was also a prayer. Christians affirm that somehow this suffering heals the rift between God and man. Suffering was never more real than here, but suffering is not the final word, since these were not Christ’s final words.

A short essay cannot adjudicate between the Existentialism and Christian account of the meaning of suffering. I offer it simply to illuminate the landscape of possibilities under the sun.

 

 

 

A Royal Ruin: Pascal’s Argument from Humanity to Christianity

The Bible is God’s anthropology rather than man’s theology—Abraham Heschel

We humans often puzzle over our own humanity, scanning our heights and our depths, wondering about and worrying over the meaning of our good and our evil. No other animal reflects on its species like this. Here, and in so many other ways, we stand unique among living creatures. Why does a young student go on a homicidal rampage at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, murdering thirty-two fellow humans, and then kill himself? Why does evil strike so hard and so erratically?

In spite of these upsurges of human evil, we are also struck by the beauty, courage, and genius wrought by human minds, hearts, and hands. After every tragedy, heroes emerge who rescue the living, comfort the dying, and put others above themselves in spontaneous acts of altruism. Humans make machines made to torture others, and humans make music sublime in its ability to give pleasure. Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn ponders the complexities and contradictions of humanity in “The Burden of the Angel/Beast”—the distinctively human discomfort with being human and not understanding the origin and meaning of our own humanness.

We go crying, we come laughing.
Never understanding the time we’re passing.
Kill for money, die for love.
Whatever was God thinking of?

The meaning of human existence is a question as perennial as it is perplexing. It haunts our songs and our poems, it stalks our relationships, and it troubles our philosophies and religions.

In the seventeenth century, a young scientific and philosophical genius, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) marveled at our enigmas and inscrutability in Pensées.

What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, the glory and refuse of the universe!

Yet this was no mere marveling. Any worldview worth its rational salt needs to offer a sufficient explanation for both human greatness and debauchery. Pascal goes on: “Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.”

Any worldview worth its rational salt needs to offer a sufficient explanation for both human greatness and debauchery.

Pascal believed the answers were found in the Bible. We find greatness in humanity because we are made in the divine image. However, that image has been defaced (but not erased) through the fall into sin. There is something wrong with every aspect of our being, but we remain noble in our origin. There are, to invoke Cockburn again, “rumors of glory” found in humanity.

From the greatness and wretchedness of humanity, Pascal developed an argument for the truth and rationality of Christianity. While his ingenious argument has been reconstructed in more detail elsewhere, we will consider its basic structure, which provides a fruitful point of discussion with seeking and questioning people today.

The genius of the Christian perspective is that it explains both greatness and misery without exalting one above the other.

The genius of the Christian perspective is that it explains both greatness and misery without exalting one above the other. Our nobility, expressed in the achievements of thought, for example, is due to the divine image. Because of this, we transcend the rest of creation. Yet we abuse our greatest endowments, wasting our God-given skills on trivia and diversions, because we know we will die and do not know what to do about it. We are the corruption of a former original. Pascal says:

The point is that if man had never been corrupted, he would, in his innocence, confidently enjoy both truth and felicity, and, if man had never been anything but corrupt, he would have no idea either of truth or bliss. But unhappy as we are (and we should be less so if there were no element of greatness in our condition) we have an idea of happiness but we cannot attain it. We perceive an image of the truth and possess nothing but falsehood.

In other words, we are royal ruins. We possess some truth, but we cannot rest content in what we naturally know. We feel our own corruption; and in so doing, we realize the human condition is somehow abnormal, flawed, and degenerate. In the context of surveying human greatness and misery in many dimensions of life, Pascal says: “It is the wretchedness of a great lord, the wretchedness of a dispossessed king.”

In surveying human philosophies and other religions, Pascal notes that they either exalt humans at the expense of taking seriously their weaknesses or reduce humans to nothing at the expense of their significance. In his day, many were impressed by the philosophy of the Stoics, who asserted that humans were great in reason and courage and partook of the divine essence of the universe. Yet they made little allowance for human weakness, cruelty, uncertainty, and fragility. Thus, they exalted greatness at the expense of misery.

On the other hand, various skeptics, such as Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), delighted in showing the weakness of human reason and the arrogance of our pretensions. Yet the skeptics downplayed our ability to reason properly and the significance of human achievements in science, art, and elsewhere. As Pascal said, they should have been more skeptical of their skepticism.

While the specific writers that Pascal addressed are not commonly discussed today, the tendency either to overrate or underrate humanity is still with us. Many examples abound, but I will briefly inspect one worldview that today overrates humanity: the New Spirituality (or sometimes called New Age spirituality).

The New Spirituality is an amalgamation of ideas drawn from many sources. But whether it is the best-selling book, The Secret (hawked by Oprah Winfrey), the popular books by Deepak Chopra, or the movie, “What the Bleep Do We Know,” the New Spirituality claims we are divine beings who can tap into unlimited potential through a change in consciousness. (In this way, it is somewhat similar to Stoicism.) We are limited not by our sinful condition, but only by negative thought patterns. The “secret” of The Secret is “the law of attraction”—we attract good things to ourselves through positive thoughts and negative things to ourselves through negative thoughts.

This blind optimism and inflation of human abilities appeals to our pride, but it is radically out of alignment with reality. Yes, humans achieve much of what they conceive, but there are limits for finite beings qua finite beings. Thought itself does not create reality ex nihilo. Moreover, humans inflict evil on others willfully and repeatedly. We cannot explain this away on the basis of the negative thoughts of those who are victimized. Consider the millions of untouchables (or Dalits) of India. Their three thousand years of subjugation by the upper Hindu castes cannot be explained on the basis of low self-esteem in the Dalits. That would blame the victim unjustly. Rather, human beings, given their fallen propensity to exalt themselves over others artificially, have unjustly oppressed these image-bearers of God for three millennia. “Man’s inhumanity to man” is a fact of human history, in India and everywhere else under the sun. Even a royal ruin should be able to see that and search for an adequate answer.

The Christian worldview conserves both our greatness and our wretchedness in a profound revelation, something not available to unaided human reason, as Pascal points out:

Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Be humble, impotent reason! Be silent, feeble nature! Learn that man infinitely transcends man, hear from your master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God.

The biblical account of our creation and fall best fits the facts of human reality, argues Pascal. He does not condemn reason in toto, but rather points out the limits of what can be known apart from divine revelation, which encompasses spiritual and cosmic realities not available to finite and fallible knowers when shut up to themselves. However, Pascal counseled that we must “listen to God”—meaning, deeply attend to what God has communicated in the Bible—to discover this liberating truth.