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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Friday, January 31, 2003

Cartoon reality

I begin with a quote from the Secular Web, one that rings with all the pomposity, righteousness and religiosity of a creed or a new Declaration of Independence.

"Our goal is to defend and promote a nontheistic worldview which holds that the natural world is all that there is, a closed system in no need of supernatural explanation and sufficient unto itself."

Despite the dexterity of the expression the creed is basically a negative one: “We do NOT believe in God.” They have gotten the "worldview" part right but the use of the term "holds" is a philosophical sleight of hand. What they really mean is that they "believe" that the natural world is all there is. The flipside of not believing in God is believing in “No God”; such a belief is fraught with metaphysical consequences. That it is proclaimed that this closed system has no "need" of supernatural explanation is mere begging the question. It's like Mickey and Donald proclaiming that they have no need of Walt Disney in their cartoon world, that they are indeed sufficient unto themselves, but the fact remains that they and their world would not exist without Walt.

People have a tendency to believe what they want, and to disbelieve what they find personally confronting. This cuts both ways: the fervent believer and the most ardent skeptical non-believer can both fall prey to self-deception and self-justification. The skeptic, would probably reject this assertion, believing (sic) that he is immune from this particular human foible - that it is only gullible religionists who cannot deal with "the facts", or face up to "reality". For himself, he is completely rational, logical and "scientific" is he not? While rationality and logic are two exemplary attributes they can at times actually lead one away from the truth and not towards it. The Apostle Paul wrote most deflatingly of the reductionist failure to see the forest for the trees:

"...the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools..."

Much earlier the Psalmist wrote “the fool has said in his heart there is no God”.

It has been said that the Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. For the afflicted it is good news of comfort and hope, but for those already comfortable western skeptics for whom all religion, but especially the Christian message, is truly offensive, the Gospel is indeed an affliction, one that they must rid the world of by any means.

Though himself a skeptic, journalist and author Joel Achenbach noted without apparent irony in his book Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe that:

“Many skeptics seem truly angry and outraged that religion has survived the modern age. One gets the sense that these skeptics lose sleep at night knowing that someone, somewhere, is believing in something that is unsupported by an evidentiary database.”

Though his book is an examination of the UFO and alien phenomena , Achenbach, the skeptic, states: “Let’s face it: the question that really matters, that underlies everything else, is not whether you believe in aliens, or anomalies, or the new physics, or the vastness of the unknown. The important and timeless question is: Do you believe in God?”

Most people nowadays feel uncomfortable with the notion that there is any higher authority than the self, that they may be held responsible for their actions by a higher power in the universe. Who wants to accept that they might have to stand before a divine judge and give an account of their thoughts and deeds? In this climate a belief in, say, the reality of Julius Caesar is harmless, for such a belief makes no demands upon us or our lifestyle. People can continue to do their own thing and live a selfish life whether Caesar ruled Rome or not. But if God who holds humans accountable really exists and really intervened in history then they may have to think twice about how they should live in the light of this truth. So I am suggesting that many skeptical atheists reject God because they either fear him, despise him or hate him. The fact of the matter is that "he who comes to God must believe that he is and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." So atheism is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. On this matter we must play by God's rules, not he by ours. As long as we remain committed to the proposition that God does not, and cannot, exist we will never find him anywhere, for it is only as we open up to his possibility we will begin to notice rumours of glory all around.

Following the lead of philosopher David Hume, skeptics declare that the simple, rational and logical reason for their antipathy to God is that there is no evidence at all for anything supernatural anywhere in the world at any time. But this statement is demonstrably false. Plenty of evidence for the supernatural exists, including thousands of eyewitness accounts, written reports, personal testimonials, and learned treatises.

What there isn't is "scientific evidence" or "empirical evidence" or "proof" for the supernatural. That’s because the scientific method relies on replicable experiments, and the "supernatural" (by definition) is outside of the "natural laws" which govern such experiments.

Someone has said that we live in a "cartoon reality". The laws of nature describe what happens in the normal course of events of our "cartoon reality", but they cannot tell us much about what happens behind the scenes or about the creator/designer's intentions or purposes outside and apart from the cartoon world. We may pick up hints and clues, signs and intimations but only the creator himself can really let us in on the big picture.

Cartoons, like films, books and plays, have their own internal logic but we wisely never assume that their reality is the sum total of all existing reality. The successful cartoonist, author, playwright or director creates his own self -contained "real" world, one that often speaks powerfully to us, but we would be seriously - even dangerously - mistaken if we failed to recognise that there is another reality waiting when the curtain falls, the book is closed, or the film stops rolling and we stumble blinking into the light.
Shakespeare, as usual, said it well:

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts..."

What I am suggesting is that while in one sense we are mere players strutting on a stage, in another sense we have another deeper “waking life” awaiting us when we the play is over and we take off our makeup and costume and catch the taxi or bus home from the theatre. In opposition to this the skeptic’s assertion is, that in effect, "the Play's the Thing", the only thing that ever was and ever will be - that the cartoon is the reality. When you are in the cartoon, cartoon laws apply. But do cartoon laws apply to the one who created the cartoon or to the ones viewing it?

Skeptics will readily believe in something like the Battle of Thermopolae on the basis of no greater evidence than that provided for the miracle of the loaves and the fishes (i.e. eyewitness accounts). Philosophically they are opposes to the latter while not being opposed to the former because the Battle of Thermoplae presents no personal challenge to their worldview whereas the man who performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes does. Of course there is not much "scientific evidence" for most historical events - the evidence is of a different kind. Skeptics continually ask for "proof" when speaking of historical and wholly unrepeatable events. But, as has been pointed out, an historian cannot empirically demonstrate an historical event. (e.g. How would one empirically or scientifically "prove" the exploits of Washington or Napoleon?)

One can only provide enough evidence for historical events and persons so as to push them beyond reasonable doubt. However, if you have already concluded that the supernatural is completely unreasonable, there is not much I can do to convince you. You have already built your worldview upon an unproven and unprovable assumption: that reality is to be defined by what is accessible to scientific experimentation. Thus for the determined atheist, no evidence of phenomena beyond the natural is ever reasonable enough. The Christian who affirms the fact of the resurrection - in the atheist's opinion - is talking nonsense, for such a thing is impossible! Thus, it is no surprise when the atheist concludes that no evidence will be sufficient because in his frame of reference “evidence” means scientific, empirical evidence. His philosophy overrules whatever the historical data suggests which instead must be made to fit his worldview. For others, not shackled to blind faith in an unprovable assumption, the evidence for the resurrection of Christ is quite impressive.

Eyewitness testimony is the bedrock of all historical verification. If one presumes that eyewitnesses cannot be accurate, (or highly accurate) no one else who was not an eyewitness can come within cooee of accuracy as to what actually happened in the past. The holds as true for the evolutionary history of the development of life on earth, as it does for the recorded history of humans - except for one major difference; for the former we have NO eyewitnesses and for the latter we have lots. And yet the former is accorded the status of fact while the latter when it pertains to Jesus Christ or the "supernatural" is immediately dismissed out of hand. Curioser and curioser...

In as much as myself and many others have come to belief in God, it may indeed be mystifying to skeptics, but not impossible, that our faith is indeed based upon solid evidence. Faith is another word for trust. Trust in the empirical evidence of eyewitness, trust in the historical validity of eyewitness accounts, trust in the testimony of countless others, and supremely trust in our personal encounter with the Other, the I Am, the living God. Skeptics could leap in and find out for themselves, firsthand as it were, whether there is any validity to the Christian claims, or they can stay outside and make sniping remarks ‘til the cows come home. It's their choice. I really do believe that if you were to take God "at his word" he would indeed "prove" himself to any genuine seeker. But again, this is a choice only the individual can make. It's sort of like a romance, the tentative way we try to make contact with that special other. At some point we have to "step out in faith". God will not bludgeon us into belief; he always respects our free choice.

Christianity is indeed about faith, that is, a matter of trust, but it is trust based onevidences. Skeptics often give me the strong impression that they have a loaded definition of the concept of faith - sort of in the vein of "believing things you know aren't true" or something akin to fairy tales or myths. And that somehow by getting Christians to own up to this "faith" they can then launch into an attack based upon the philosophical presupposition that nature is all there is, that nature equals reality, in order to show that religious belief is just a castle in the air, a crutch for weak minded people... But nobody "believes" in things which they "know" are false or myths or fairy tales. People may at times be mistaken or misguided but it is just nonsense to say that people believe in things that are false merely because it gives them comfort. I think what you will find is Christians saying that we have faith in God as we affirm the historical reality of his intervention in space and time. This may beyond empiricism but it is not beyond historical investigation.

6:20:00 pm