Encounter

Essay written in about 1978 for a college course

at the University of Oregon (Eugene). Unedited from that time.

It was the disturbing spring quarter of my first year in college [1976]. The cavorting of the wild ruffians in my dormitory waned as the stillness of the maturing evening guaranteed a lessening of their activity. Having separated myself from them, I was now quite alone in my room, even though on any other night I would have found myself taking part in the activities of my companions. Having dispensed with my more mundane studies, I sat gazing at my imprisoned fish companion as he swam his circuits of impossible escape. The welcome quietness vaunted me to a high level of contemplation. I reached for the volume that had completed captured my interest through my History of Modern Philosophy class: The Portable Nietzsche. The ripening of my mood demanded that I again embrace the deeply disturbing prose of this infamous philosopher.

Existentialism was a word that I could barely define three months previous, but now it had become the object of my infatuation. Nietzsche was the prophet of its most iconoclastic side, screaming of the death of God (whom we have killed) and exhorting the shipwrecked individual to fly above the sickening weakness of man-qua-man and thus aspire to the realm of the absolutely autonomous Antichrist-like “Overman”. This message was hammered into my psyche in no uncertain terms. In relentless fashion this progenitor and personification of atheistic existentialism was dynamiting the last vestiges of my tottering and vague theistic conception one by one. The impediments of tradition were jettisoned. Overman beckoned.

These warring thoughts had made an unexpected entry. They surreptitiously gained power in my thinking. They were new, alien and incorrigible – sucking everything into their vacuum. My journey into philosophy had occurred quite accidentally during my first quarter when, while groping for classes, I captured a Social Philosophy course that fit neatly into my schedule. Most of my present state of being had its origin in this innocuous event. But as the year progressed I could no longer objectively analyze the schools of thought I encountered; I had to live them. After all, they represented some of the deepest thoughts of men concerning the very meaning of existence. This could not be taken lightly. Philosophy was not written solely to fill college lecture rooms or generate opaque dilettantish arguments.

This deepening of my philosophical investigations (no matter how embryonic they may have been) had also lead me into various religious philosophies, particularly those of the mystic East. But these theologies were savagely swallowed up in the urgency of the moment. I was impassioned with anti-theology.

After consuming a few hours worth of Nietzsche I laid the book down, bowing to fatigue. Yet any physical tiredness was superseded by the uniqueness of my predicament. How had I arrived at this position? This man, seventy years gone, whose name I could scarcely spell or pronounce, had exacerbated every hidden bit of despair in my consciousness, mixing it with a Dionysian excitement that left me in uncharted regions – regions where God no longer mattered. I faced the abyss, unaided by hope in the traditional sense. Providence could no longer afford me any relief. Everything would not just eventually work out. These sorts of optimistic maxims were destroyed because I was being existentialized. I was looking beyond dependence, for I was totally free to myself and from God. I had quickly arrived at an unexpected crossroads. This “philosophy” had transcended its ordinary title. The pompous aloofness that this definition connoted was obliterated. This philosophy had to be lived, not pondered, experienced not analyzed, embraced and not entombed in the graveyard of inaccessible erudition.

But wasn’t this all too ridiculously serious? Wasn’t I but a freshman just scraping the surface of philosophical inquisition? How could I have arrived at such a position? These thoughts did little to allay my anxiety; in fact, no comfort was allowed whatsoever. This was the existential dilemma. The comforting fluctuation of intellectual agnosticism was no longer permitted, for Nietzsche had adroitly dismantled its shallowness.

Epigrams besieged me with pure poignancy rising up from uncharted depths of thought-colliding and cannibalizing each other, yet all the time miserably failing to integrate into a coherent system. I navigated without bearing, craving stability in a metaphysical wasteland. As confusion and frustration oftentimes manufacture the intellectual recline of a recuperative depression, I was progressively aghast at the incessant insurrection of my psyche. I was granted no rest. My respect for social sanction had been shaken over the course of a few years of interest in radical leftist politics, but now a more iconoclastic mental revolution was underway which avalanched and destroyed the very bulwark of my presupposition: Was there any real order in life? Where was the overriding and underlying purpose and meaning? What is really left when God has vanished? My often clichéd-like questions had disappeared and been replaced by ones which evinced a new earnestness and seriousness. This was no game. Truth eluded me, yet I craved it. Where did it hide? Could life ever vouchsafe enough time for me to discover it? Was eternity long enough? I was choked in the straitjacket of human finitude. Would even the most dedicated emulation of “the intellectual” ever assure me of certitude in any area of my life?

I sat motionless at my desk, prideful of my understanding of such a difficulty philosopher, yet quivering at the consequences of my understanding. I reread the title of the book: The Portable Nietzsche. How fond I was of toting it around with me, letting the unenlightened know my status! This dreadfully misunderstood philosopher, whose core of atheism most people refused to take seriously, had become part of my identity. Yes, I had understood what I had read and it refused to give me rest.

Yet rest is a necessity for a productive college life so, after jotting down a few painfully brief notes in my journal concerning my turbulence, I waited for sleep to remove me from this predicament. It did not comply to my wished; my subconscious was not so easily placated.

After the darkness of the room and my mental and physical fatigue had given me sleep, a strange dream began-one that would continue where my waking thoughts had ended. My feelings of complete solitude were deepened as the scene of my dream was my very room. Surprisingly, my late night ruminations were not directly manifested in the dream, but the subtlety of its content was striking. The extreme lifelike quality of this chimera added intensity to an otherwise commonplace scene. Reacting to a small tapping sound I left my bed and stood before my lone third story window. What greeted me was, by itself, not a particularly gruesome or frightening sight, but its location accentuated the bizarreness of its appearance. My stare had been reciprocated.

A nondescript face shrouded in darkness appeared in the window. But I lived on the third floor. How and, more importantly, why would anyone climb to this absurd position? Or did they have to climb? My questions ended as I awoke from my abbreviated encounter. The terror of discovering this incongruent face was limited to a short few seconds in “dream time” but the underlying bizarre and haunting presence that the face represented was to remain.

I stared at the ceiling. The murky shadings of my box-like room enfolded me in a blanket of terrorizing solitude. I had rejected that presence that secretly sought me. I was completely alone. My conscience, even in its tremulous condition, held back tears – besides, they were useless. That hideous new conscience also halted prayer, for I was commencing the execution of God. In this state self-pity was unattainable. I hated God as a nebulous word, a by-product of weak generalizations, but I dreaded his concreteness, for if he existed he knew all – even this special agony: the agony of an existential autonomy that was rejecting him.

At this frozen moment time succumbed to ego and perished in thought. All existence ceased but my own. This anguished, fragmented self was infinitely separated from all. It despised its own company but had no other. It loved its despair; it clung to it with desperation. The brute reality of this situation could not be avoided. It was zero hour.

Shivering out of bed I hit a light. Then, grabbing a pen and paper, I began the impossible task of recording these maddening thoughts. The pen, squeezed by clutching fingers, began its jagged flight over the blankness of white. Fearing the dissipation of this bothersome brain-work I wrote with frenzied determination. The blankness of a few pages was conquered, the blankness of my soul was not. No degree of descriptive elegance could manifest the ineffable. The visceral danced with the cerebral in a desultory dirge. Heightened emotions which had gone unvented tore me asunder. Could this ever be explained – should it? Would I ever want to promote such horror in another? The danger of sleep now equaled the confrontation of wakefulness and my bed was as much of an enemy as my writing pad.

Emptiness. The avenues were blocked. Things had become existentialized to the supreme degree. I was my only real audience – and my only motivation. But I remembered that man hidden in a book I had tried to forget. Shelved in a dark corner of my room was a work by Kierkegaard. I had previously ridiculed him in a philosophy essay with gleeful abandon. He was in the other camp, like the face in the window. Though an existentialist, like Nietzsche, he had nothing more central to his philosophy than the belief in, and the encounter with, God. My scorn for him went beyond a personal animosity over a philosophical position; it went to the core of his message. My antithetical attitude toward him was more a protection from his disturbing thoughts than a judicious analysis of them.

A slim volume was now in my hands, one from which I had previously fled. Its title, alienating to most at first blush, characterized my condition: The Sickness Unto Death. I leafed through to a random page and began reading. My reading was of a queer nature. It was not the vicarious enjoyment received through the admiration of the author’s style and/or message. After reading a few sentences I knew at the roots of my being that I must not sink into that merely aesthetic trap. This was not the breed of book that could be read for aesthetic gratification. Nor could it be read simply to add another title to a list of books read which supplies the dilettante with another piece of pseudo-intellectual baggage. I could not so maliciously insult the author by adopting any of these positions. Instead, I listened to the sermon, a sermon unlike any that I had experienced. The moral prodding did not come from the sententious admonishments of a dogmatic moralist, but form the profound observations of a perceptive and honest man. The pages became mirrors luminously reflecting and magnifying the exactness of my precarious posture.

The book spoke of a despair so acute, so piercing, that the God-rejecting individual internalized his despair by putting it onto the singularness of his being. He cherishes his despair because it is his and his alone. His pride drives him to unheard of heights of suffering. In this state, even if God in heaven would make himself directly known, offering to banish the suffering, the individual would reject him, opting instead to cultivate his odious despair. A reversal had occurred, the book was reading me, picking me apart with scrupulous exactitude.

I was laid bare – dissected and amazed. Was this newly discovered vital message a disclosure of Providence or a mere chance occurrence activated by my self-made freedom in a random universe? Legions of interpretations besieged me. I could not escape them, but I could escape the box that enclosed me.

It was early morning now. A time of roaring silence for me. Stark aloneness followed me out my door, down the three flights of gray stairs and on into the street. The hint of a new day loomed. I walked without direction as a physical automation possessing a mental maelstrom. Was I free to respond to this call to decision? What could I do with this awesome moral prodding? Yet I continued to love my autonomous despair with nauseating stamina. I had discovered the unthinkable: God was dead. Or was he? What was causing this crisis? Why was I thinking what I was thinking? No one could answer my query, no one except myself, or… God.

An occasional jogger broke the dawn’s quietude. The melodious tones of freshly awakened birds filled my path but failed to provide even an ounce of inner harmony. My gait was hulking but constant. The gravity of my thought had seemed to increase the gravity on my body. I carried too much to bear.

Chalkboards were filled and erased in my mind. A regiment of seminal thinkers fought to gain my attention. Their ideas, which had only recently gained my attention through the classroom, cartwheeled in my head. Karl Marx frowned and jabbed me, reducing the sum total of my experience to economic factors. My thoughts of God were nothing but a bourgeois illusion to him. Sigmund Freud appeared and spoke of my overactive superego. He labeled my thoughts about God as neurotic. Nietzsche doomed me to atheistic freedom. He instructed me to rebuke the God I could not destroy… And there was that melancholy Dane, Soren Kierkegaard. There was an infinite chasm between he and the others. He urged me to seek God with all of my heart and to stand naked and pleading before the creator, free from excuse. He was a Christian.

It was now nearing sunrise.

After an indeterminate period of time I discovered myself at the highest point on campus: the top of a hill next to the Student Union Building. I awaited the sunrise with passionate expectation. Feeling unalterably drained I desired renewal. Sunrises had always reminded of the beauty and intensity of the cosmic drama: the drama of creation and of its helmsman. I was dwarfed by the spectacle. Awe and mystery colored my perceptions as a tiny bit of red grew into a radiant orb of transformation. The final instant of night gave way to the newness of day. Tingling with a vague feeling of reverence, I signed deeply. My quest had not ended. Resolution had net yet appeared because the agony remained, but something had been beheld in a new and stunning way, something that I could never deny or rationalize into oblivion. My moral existence was not to gather any more strength from the defiance or denial of the divine.

Philosophy of Technology in Six Ideas

As I prowl around bookstores, I find a gaggle of books on managing technology overload. One after another fall of the presses and make their way on the shelves and into my hands. Some, I buy; most, I pass over. Often, I think, “I noticed that twenty years ago.” I did not predict Google or Facebook or Wikipedia, of course; but in my unread book, The Soul in Cyberspace, I did exegete the medium qua medium, noted some of the internet’s strengths, but warned of ways it could diminish the good life that God wants us to live. Here are six words that capture some of the insights I find repeated again and again in these new books.

  1. More is often less. Humans can profitably interact only with a limited amount of data and sensory stimulation. We must limit our exposure to internet (and all) electronic media because, unless we are careful, it will addle and unravel us. It may even stupefy us, even as we twitch and click away.
  2. The medium is the message. As Marshall McLuhan wrote 50 years ago, each communications media shapes its message according to the dictates of the form of communication. An image communicates differently than the spoken word, the spoken word, differently than the written word, and so it goes. Attending a worship service cannot be translated truthfully by watching it on line.
  3. Efficiency is overrated and may be dangerous. Many good things come slowly, such as strong and vibrant relationships, handcrafted furniture, and skill in playing a musical instrument. All too often, modern technology accelerates without regard to quality. Downloading a PDF of a book can be done quickly; but perhaps finding a hard copy and enjoying its un-electrified slowness is what you should do. It is more efficient to use a program to put comments on students’ papers. However, writing with pen and ink is more personal and embodied. Yes, it is slower—and better (if you have the time).
  4. Resist quantification over qualitative concerns. Technologies trade on numbers. How many likes did your Facebook post receive? People may like it for the wrong reasons. How many people follow your tweets? How can you maximize exposure to your blog? What is left behind, too often, is the quality–the objective nature–of what is available online. What might God think of your essay, your poem, or your cartoon? Does what you put on line contribute to human flourishing.
  5. Virtuous engagement online requires abstention. We often give too much of our time to the on line world. Our very souls are shaped by its speed, its fragmentation, its instantism. Thus, we are wise to retreat, to unplug, to desist, to desert it. Leave your phone in the car when you go shopping or when you meet a friend at a coffee shop. Designate hours and days when you are off line entirely. You will gain a new perspective on your on line life by going off line. You will notice what slipped into the background: friends, pets, nature, the Bible, prayer needs, and more.
  6. Every new communication technology gives and takes away. There is no sheer advantage. The telephone and radio extend the voice, but take away the physical presence. Early users of telephones were rattled by a disembodied voice coming from far away. The internet opens up the world to us, but may separate us from the people in our midst. Hence, “the absent presence” of much of life today. How can someone listen to you when they are texting someone elsewhere? Electronic music files make music available nearly anywhere, but the sound quality is worse than a record. And when you can listen to music through your ear buds in public, you will not be as aware of the world around you. You may not see the tears in a stranger’s eyes or hear a sound of distress in your midst.

My miniature essay fails to address the evil algorithms out there, the good and evil of big data, and other empirical matters worthy of concern. Nevertheless, my six ideas cover much of what is being written about today, twenty years after I warned about the down side of technologies. My inspiration was and is thinkers such as Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, Malcolm Muggerridge, and Jacques Ellul. Take some time away from Facebook, Instagram, et al, and read them, please.

 

Kierkegaard on Sin

When I read the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in the spring of 1976, it opened the doors of myself that eventually lead to Jesus and his Gospel. In this excerpt from Philosophy in Seven Sentences, I explain Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin—a concept that showed me to myself for the first time. 


Kierkegaard on Sin

Kierkegaard is now ready to spring the trap. He says that “despair is sin.” It takes two forms.

Sin is: before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to be oneself. Thus sin is intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair. The emphasis is on before God, or with a conception of God; it is the conception of God that makes sin dialectically, ethically, and religiously what lawyers call “aggravated” despair.

The self is divided against itself in two ways, which are two sides of the same self. The first state of sin is to give up willing to be oneself. This is “intensified weakness,” which may sound odd but is not. One may shrink back from any task at hand (inward or outward) by hiding in excuses, such as “To err is human” or “Nobody is perfect.” These statements are true, but not the kind of truth the self should be satisfied with. The self is a movement and is not static. We know what an error is, and we do not praise it. We know what imperfection is, and we do not praise it. We embody both error and imperfection regarding moral intensions and actions. Kierkegaard will not let us rest in the popular phrase “mistakes were made.” We wonder how all these mistakes occur by themselves and without agents making them. Weakness is intensified when we play the victim when we are not the victim. I once accidently hurt a young playmate of mine. It was not traumatic to him, until his mother appeared. He then threw a fit over the egregious injury I had so unjustly caused him. His weakness was intensified.

The second state of sin is when we will to be ourselves in despair. We continue in a pattern of life that is less than ideal, with no hope of reform or renewal. People may say, “I’m just a big eater [meaning: glutton]” or “I will never get organized,” but they will to be this way—and without hope. Yet the conscience is not clean; it is not satisfied with chronic tension and disappointment. It is resigned to its condition but still feels guilt. Think of Friedrich Nietzsche’s defiant boast in Thus Spoke Zarathustra where he speaks of a life considered well-lived. This is a life so well-lived that one could bear repeating it eternally. Of the whole life one can affirm “Thus, I willed it.” Nietzsche said yes to the overcoming self, the self which is free from excuses but also free from scrutiny outside the self. For Kierkegaard the Nietzschean self is no self at all. This is because the essential dynamic of despair has been dissipated in the pure, untrammeled will. (The apostle Paul calls this “will worship,” and it is thus a form of idolatry.) But surely the will can go wrong. If so, then the will in itself cannot correct the will.

Nietzsche deftly illustrates Kierkegaard’s idea of “defiance.” To ignore or to repress is not to defy. Defiance pits itself against something. Nietzsche, in the voice of “the Ugliest Man” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, says,

But he had to die: he saw with eyes that saw everything; he saw man’s depths and ultimate grounds, all his concealed disgrace and ugliness. His pity knew no shame: he crawled into my dirtiest nooks. This most curious, over-obtrusive one had to die. He always saw me: on such a witness I wanted to have my revenge or not live myself. The god who saw everything, even man—this god had to die! Man cannot bear it that such a witness should live.

This defiant despair is not just found in Nietzsche and a few others. I know it from the inside out. As I mentioned, I was assigned The Sickness Unto Death in a history of modern philosophy class. When I began to read that book I found that it was exposing the deepest dynamics of my soul. Through my study of atheists—such as Nietzsche, Freud and Marx—I thought I had dispensed with God. However, I could not fully suppress my awareness of God (see Romans 1:18-21). Yet I did not want to submit to this God. Rather, I would will to be myself in my despair. As a rebel against God, I wanted to be a witness against him. Kierkegaard made me distressingly clear to myself, which was the reason for his book. This literary, philosophical, spiritual experience opened a tightly shut door that a few weeks hence led to my confessing myself as a sinner and Christ as Lord (see Romans 10:9; John 1:12-13).

We still hear the word sin quite a bit, and most of the lingo is not very compelling. Augustine has already deepened our understanding, but we will face a daunting challenge to conceive this concept aright. Most references to hell today are glib and unthinking. Some years ago a cartoonist drew a strip called Life in Hell, which had nothing to do with the place Jesus Christ warned about. Why this flippancy? This old, grave word was evicted from its home and is now acting as a vagabond, casting about for some shelter far from its native country. The ghost word sin now alights on notions such as mistake, miscue, false guilt, and needless shame. It finds no grounding in gravitas. According to the oracle of Google, there is a group named “The Sinners” and another called “Sinner.” But Kierkegaard does not discuss it in the way that Billy Graham or Rick Warren does, although all three hold to the historic Christian doctrine of sin. Nor does Kierkegaard resemble the approach of Jonathan Edwards’s much-excerpted (and much-misunderstood) sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Kierkegaard labors to explain and treat sin in existential-psychological categories, but without denying or compromising the church’s historic confession of humans as sinners. (He deals with original sin in The Concept of Anxiety, which is a companion to The Sickness Unto Death.) Kierkegaard sought to look inside the human condition to sound out its often obscured depths: its desires, its despair, and its possibilities. He feared that people could easily lose their selves in a labyrinth of popular dead ends but still receive the applause of the crowds and the money of investors and customers.

Groothuis, Douglas. Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic (p. 136-139). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

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).

Is Religion Dangerous?

As a freshman in college, I imbibed a heady brew of modern atheism, served up by Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Freud claimed that religion was a projection, a figment of wish fulfillment. We desire a Heavenly Father to make life tolerable, while the vault of the lies empty. Marx thundered that religion pacified and placated the desire for social justice, since lasting goodness could only be found in a heaven that did not exist. Nietzsche insisted that Christianity was the attempt by the weak to get revenge on the strong and that the truly free can live “beyond good and evil” by creating their own values in the godless, gladiatorial theater of nature.

Having little understanding of Christianity and no awareness of apologetics (the rational case for Christian truth), I viewed traditional Western religion as dangerous to the intellect, while I became attracted to Eastern religions in a vague sense. I stopped praying, tried to meditate, and fancied myself an aspiring intellectual who needed to oppose Christianity.

But something strange happened that first year in college: Christianity began to speak to my condition, despite my antipathy toward it. A philosophy professor assigned some readings by Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher. After having dismissed Kierkegaard in a paper, I decided to actually read the primary text, The Sickness Unto Death. I found a profound assessment of the human condition before God. Much to my surprise and dismay, the book began reading me—exposing both my rebellion against God and God’s offer of grace through Christ. Added to this was the loving and courageous witness of two Christian women, who were involved in the Navigators, a campus group focused on discipleship and evangelism. Through various providential events, many conservations, and Bible reading, I confessed Christ as Lord in the summer of 1976.

After a difficult summer of vainly trying to believe Christianity without evidence, I discovered the works of Francis Schaeffer, James Sire, C.S. Lewis, Os Guinness, St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and many more high-caliber thinkers, who demonstrated that the Christian worldview has nothing to fear in the world of ideas. I eventually switched my major to philosophy and began a grand intellectual adventure that continues to this day. Now, as a professional philosopher, I find some of the best philosopher alive defending Christianity.

"The Christian worldview has nothing to fear in the world of ideas."

In a sense, I have spent the last thirty plus years trying to disprove Christianity—not as an atheist, but as a philosopher who has investigated all the major religions and philosophies on offer. I found that the anti-Christian arguments of Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and others missed the mark. I have tackled the toughest challenges to the Christianity and investigated case for other worldviews. My years of study, teaching, and writing have convinced me that Christianity is objectively true, rational, wise, and pertinent to all of life. But I still believe it is dangerous—not to the intellect, but to any other worldview that attempts to refute it.

The PersonalPhilosophyTrainer (PPT)


Always looking for more applications of philosophy to life, I have come up with a sure-fire winner: the PhilosophyPersonalTrainer (or PPT). Personal trainers developed out of the fitness trends of the last three decades. We pay and defer to experts to size up our (generally unacceptable) bodies and propose solutions (or at least ameliorations).

Now: enter the PPT. Poor thinking is a perennial problem, at least since the fall introduced intellectual torpor, stupefaction, and dereliction. Things really got dumber east of Eden. Poor thinking, which leads to bogus worldviews and ruined lives, needs to be corrected. As C.S. Lewis opined, good philosophy needs to exist if for no other reason than to counteract bad philosophy. Yet many never take a philosophy class, never read a philosophical book, and don’t even know what modus ponens is. (Hint: it is neither a snow mobile nor a skin rash.)

The PPT will access your intellectual life—if there is one. First he or she accesses your library. Since most do not have a library (of books at least), the trainer will recommend starting one, even if this means talking money always from (gasp) cable TV and Netflix. Then, one must actually read these rather archaic objects in book form (not on line). One must learn to love the text, to indwell it, and have it indwell oneself. This, of course, takes work. Withdrawal symptoms include: twitches in the direction of the nearest remote control, urges to check one’s smart phone and email, boredom because the book’s text does not move, blink, or bark, and so on. The trainer can provide practical help by regaling the client with stories of those who used to intoxicate at play station who now are hopeless book addicts who cannot let a logical fallacy pass unnoticed. Support groups are available as well.

Second, the PPT audits your vocabulary and knowledge of the history of ideas. This is not done through a routine test but through conversations. The PPT sometimes uses personal restraints on the more hyperactive clients who tend to lunge toward whatever electronic medium is in sight. After several conversations, the PPT accesses the client’s knowledge (and ignorance) and makes general recommendations. Here is an excerpt from one recommendation made to Ivan Ignoramus:

Ivan, you know everything about “The Matrix,” but nothing about Plato. So, you really cannot understand “The Matrix,” since it trades on Plato’s cave allegory. You are terrific at video games but no knowing of Wittgensteinian “language games.” You are swimming in data about sports, but know nothing about theories of human nature or why humans even care about sports. Your vocabulary is miniscule, pathetic. You rely on a few emotive terms to do all the work of analysis (if I can call it that). Things you like are “cool” or “awesome,” but there is no clear sense what you mean by these terms. Things you don’t like “suck,” but you show no understanding of where this expression came from (the gutter) or just why you dislike the things that “suck.” You say, “Oh my God,” all the time, but have never considered whether there are any sound arguments for God’s existence. And you don’t know what “sound argument is.”

Of course, there is much more to the discipline of being a PPT. But this is enough to start a new movement, a movement of the mind in the making. All you need is a car, philosophical knowledge, and a lot of patience and clients. But what should the hourly rate be? As Proverbs says, “Buy the truth and do not sell it.”

 

The Philosophy of Gender

Ideas have consequences, but few understand how the consequences are rooted in, and flow from, those ideas. Inextricably related issues such as same-sex marriage and gender identity illustrate this point and require philosophical analysis. Spurring this article is the Supreme Court’s egregious decision that a ban on same-sex marriage is illegal. Worldview assumptions behind this jurisprudence must be exposed to the light of reason.

Gender is now considered a flexible concept; it is not a given in one’s nature. Biology now has nothing to do with gender. Rather, one takes one’s gender by identifying with a wide range of possibilities. The nature of a human organism—down to the DNA—is irrelevant to gender identity. The tradition of the human race that male and female are fixed and perpetual categories of being mean little to the gender experimentalists. Men may identify as women (and perhaps have a sex change operation); women may identify as men (and perhaps have a sex change operation); men may identify as bisexuals; women may identify as bisexuals. Male or female may identify as partially heterosexual and partially homosexual. And on it goes.

How did this reassigning human identity come about? Before we try to answer that, consider the metaphysics of the movement in relation to Christian theism, a worldview increasingly rejected by the power brokers of American culture.

Christians, along with Jews, know that universe has an intrinsic meaning given by an infinite and personal God, the Creator and Designer of the universe. This Being, who thinks and speaks and acts, brought humans into existence as His representatives; as such, they possess rationality, will, emotion, and relationality. As the first book of the Bible teaches:

God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and    increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:27-28).

This statement is philosophically rich. Humans have a God-given nature and a constitution as male and female. This is a divinely-bestowed given. That is, humans are a particular kind of being, as is the rest of the living creation. Before the creation of humans, Genesis reports that:

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:24-25; emphasis added).

The word kind should not be taken in a biologically precise manner; rather, it speaks to a distinct form of being, an essence. God did not create the cosmos and humans in a value-neutral manner. On the contrary, the meaning and proper functioning of living entities are specified by their designer and worn in their very being.

While male and female are equally made in God’s image, their equality is not a matter of sexual sameness. Genesis, chapter two, tell us that God created humans as heterosexual being, whose sexual unity is found in marriage. After beholding the first woman, Adam broke into poetry:

“This is now bone of my bones
  and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
  for she was taken out of man.”

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh (Genesis 2:23-25).

Our first parent’s rejection of God’s order and command issued from the desire to redefine reality independently of God. Their rejection of God’s world on God’s terms resulted in the Fall, the effects of which have been experienced down through the ages (see Genesis 3; Romans 3:14-26).

Moving from creation to resurrection, the Apostle Paul affirms objectively real categories of reality—living and nonliving—in his great discourse on the resurrection of Christ and of Christ’s followers.

Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor (1 Corinthians 15:39-41).

One need not delve into Paul’s greater and detailed argument to discern his intent—God has specified the nature of things. Since this is so, creatures should heed their Creator’s design.

When one rejects the existence of God (or simply ignores him), one is not merely rejecting a philosophical or religious idea. One is also rejecting all ideas and practices that are uniquely supported by Christian theism. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) understood this well. In his famous parable, “The Madman” (from The Gay Science) Nietzsche lets his prophet speak of the implications of “the death of God.”

How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

Yes, “they have done it to themselves,” by banishing God from their thinking, their living, and their culture. God is dead to the ungodly, but remains stubbornly alive as Creator and Judge. Psychologist Eric Fromm (1900-1980) wrote that in the nineteenth century God died. In the twentieth century man died. If man is not created by God, why care much about him? The grim harvest was the tens of millions murdered by Nazism and communism. In the twenty-first century gender has died, since man has no given nature by God. Gender is now unhinged from biology, history, logic, and religion. It is flexible, fungible, malleable, and endlessly fickle, since it need not obey anything objectively real.

Gender talk is everywhere; gender fact is nowhere. Facts make too many demands on free spirits.

Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), philosopher and social critic, discerned this break from God’s given reality in 1968 in his landmark work, The God Who is There.

Some forms of homosexuality today…are not just homosexuality but a philosophic expression. One must have understanding for the real homophile’s problem. But much modern homosexuality is an expression of the current denial of antithesis. It has led in this case to an obliteration of the distinction between man and woman. So the male and the female as complementary partners are finished. . . . In much of modern thinking all antithesis and all the order of God’s creation is to be fought against—including the male-female distinctions.

Schaeffer saw the source of the problem: People were denying the real antithesis between truth and falsity, between good and evil, between what God created and what man corrupted. But even Schaeffer—prophet though he was—could not have seen the extent to which reality would be denied in the name of love, tolerance, choice, and freedom.

Let us try to bring all this together. The philosophy that undergirds and animates this redefinition of gender is anti-essentialist and constructivist. Humans as male and female have no objective nature, qua gender. Gender is only a placeholder for the will of the identifier, who chooses gender not on the basis of anything stable or trustworthy, but only through erotic eccentricity. One constructs a gender identity, but without the aid of a blueprint. What one constructs, one can deconstruct—whimsy without end. And now this philosophy is backed by the full force of federal law. If you disagree, you will be punished. I will take this up in a later essay.

Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg