Friday, July 25, 2008

Personal note: My Wife's Cancer

As many of the readers of this blog are aware, my wife of 36 years, Ginger was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer in October, 2006. The cancer had metastasized to several other organs including her liver. She underwent surgery immediately and the largest of the tumors were removed. Since that time, she has been receiving chemotherapy in six month stints, with brief respites. She just completed the third such round of chemotherapy, and the results have been excellent. Today, we saw her oncologist, and he showed us the scans from the CT she had Monday. The spots on the liver, easily seen on all previous scans, are now practically indiscernible. The doctor told us that when he first viewed the scans earlier this week, he thought he must be looking at the wrong sets. He was amazed! So are we!

by the Metolius River in Oregon, one of our favorite retreats!

The recommendation is to extend treatment for two months after the cancer is no longer detected. So Ginger will be continuing the chemotherapy which she has been on for the last six months until the end of September.

Needless to say, we are thrilled with this news, and very thankful. Colon cancer is, of course considered incurable, but can be managed, sometimes for a very long time. We are hopeful! And we are so very thankful! Hundreds of friends on four continents have been praying consistently. We are so very grateful for this effort!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A quick note: Interesting discussion elsewhere...

Evolutionary Evangelism?

I wish to call your attention to a comment thread on a recent post over at An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution. Last night, Mike Gene (author of The Design Matrix) posted late a new comment on Ted Davis’s guest post there, and the comments which ensued. For context, you may wish to read my earlier comment on Hugh Ross (the 7th comment), and Ted’s response (the 10th comment) later in the thread. I think Mike’s comment is worthy of further discussion. If you agree, join the conversation there, or comment here.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

POST #17: Evolution, Red in Tooth and Claw (part 1)

The evidence for common descent and an evolutionary history of life on the earth is beyond question. The majority of Christians in America may still reject evolution, but this can only be due to a general lack of awareness of the evidence, or a mindless determination to hold to Special Creationist schemes despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. It is only a matter of time before evangelical believers come to terms with what many now consider to be undeniable: we are the result of a 3.7 billion year evolutionary process. And when Christians make their peace with evolution, they will immediately encounter a number of thorny theological issues.

That is why Evolutionary Creationists must turn our attention to the theological adjustments made necessary by the truth of evolutionary science. And these adjustments are not limited to the question “What about Adam?” discussed in an
earlier post on this site. Perhaps the most troublesome obstacle for evolutionary Christian theology is related to theodicy, or the problem of evil. Evolution involves untold suffering, bloodshed, and death. As life slowly arose, and took on increasing complexity and diversity, it did so at the expense of an endless stream of predation, pain, and extinction. An estimated 99% of all species that have lived on this planet are now extinct. To many, this seems wasteful and unnecessary, if a divine designing influence is granted. Worse, the entire process (if intended by a Creator) would seem to be the work of a cold, calculating, and sadistic god, one who capriciously unleashes random processes, arbitrarily assigning victim status to the vast majority of living things. In addition, these same random processes bring many malevolent organisms (such as the malaria parasite) which are, in turn, the cause of much suffering and death.

Christian theology once had a handy container for natural evil. All the horrifying rages of Nature, everything from animal predation to tsunamis, were viewed as consequences of the Fall of man. We now understand that this cannot be without a contortion of chronology. Natural evil predates the Fall by billions of years.

I applaud the observations of evolutionary Christians like Francis Collins who extol the virtues of evolution, its amazing ingenuity, remarkable elegance, and intricate mechanisms. But the beauty of evolution comes with a huge price tag of pain and suffering. Life rises up, but not apart from the grim specters of death and extinction.

A recent commenter to this site boldly declared:
“[T]here is NO way that the God of the bible used evolution as a method to create humanity- it is too slow, brutal, random. As Obi Wan would say ‘Nasty thing – not the tool of a Jedi’.”
It is the view of many such atheists that the loving, providential God of the Bible cannot be squared with the evolutionary history of life. Such a God as Christians espouse would never utilize so ruthless a mechanism as evolution for creating life. So the argument goes.

My atheist friend objects to mixing evolution with Christian theism because evolution “is too slow, brutal, and random.” What of those three counts? Too slow? Not a problem to most theists. God, as the Bible and our experience reveal him, is never in a hurry, and he never lacks for time. A day, we are told, is as a thousand years, a thousand years as a day in divine time accounting (Psalm 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8). Too random? Not a problem for Evolutionary Creationists, who accept the necessary role of randomness in the processes of natural selection. (See my review of Richard Colling’s,
Random Designer.) Too brutal? That’s a little harder to dismiss.

A phrase re-popularized by Richard Dawkins in
The Selfish Gene, is often invoked by 1) Christians who object to evolution, and by 2) atheistic evolutionists who object to theism: “Red in tooth and claw”. It speaks of our bloody, predatory ancestry, the fierce and brutal history of evolving life. The phrase actually originated about 170 years ago, in the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He introduced it in his seminal work, “In Memoriam: A. H. H.”

Strange. The man who coined the phrase was neither a Christian objecting to evolution, nor was he an atheist. He was a Christian who accepted evolution (which had already gained considerable favor even in those pre-Darwinian days) but who grappled with the problem of evil, especially natural evil. Tennyson was, of course, deeply troubled by the untimely death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, for whom the poem is named. Evolution, and its brutality, was just another of the manifestations of natural evil that profoundly impacted Tennyson, and challenged his faith. At the core of his faith was his undying conviction that love was and is the basis of Christianity; that love was “Creation’s final law,” a law which Nature seems to violate both now and in the ancient past by what he witnessed in the paleontological record ...
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law,
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed.
Did Tennyson solve the riddle of Creation’s final law set against the backdrop of nature’s heartless, savage fury? Did he negotiate détente in the apparent strife between a loving God and a brutal Nature?
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
Did he ever come to peace with the blatant lack of economy in nature, with its troubling and excessive wastefulness?
That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,
Or did he continue to stumble over these phenomena, nearly losing his footing as he sought after God?
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God,
The apparent conflict stretched and challenged, but never quenched Tennyson’s faith. He never lost hope that someday, in some way, a harmony would emerge between the ravages of nature and the goodness of God.
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
His trust may have been faint, his hands of faith, lame. But Tennyson was confident the apparent dichotomy would ultimately resolve. I share his optimism. When I approach this problem, Scripture, science, and reason converge upon some fascinating possibilities, some ways in which the puzzle pieces interlock. I will address those possibilities in part 2, but before I do, I’d like to hear from you. Have you sorted the data in a way that satisfies your mind? Or are you content letting the riddle persist, unsolved, glaring though it may be? Or do you take the skeptics road, remaining convinced, with my atheist friend, that no possible solution exists, and the dilemma can only lead to a reasoned denial of God’s existence? I look forward to your comments ...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Book Review: The Truth Behind the New Atheism

The last three years have witnessed a dramatic rise in outspoken atheism. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have led this surge, each penning one or more best selling books. Whether atheism is actually experiencing significant growth may be arguable. But there can be no question that atheists have become more bold and prolific in their attacks upon belief. The rejuvenation of atheistic polemics, fueled in part by the ever-mounting evidence for naturalistic evolution, has been variously dubbed anti-theism, militant atheism, evangelical atheism, and the new atheism. What sets this new atheism apart from other manifestations of atheism is its combativeness. An atheist simply disbelieves in God. A new atheist is hostile to belief in God. To an atheist, it may be immaterial that the world is filled with theists. But to a new atheist, belief in God is something to oppose, something to stamp out, something to wage war upon in the arena of ideas. I recently met David Marshall online, and immediately ordered a copy of his new book. I offer the following review in hopes that many of my readers will also read this very useful work.

The rising tide of anti-religious, militant atheism in our day calls for a strong, reasoned response. David Marshall has provided just such a response in The Truth Behind the New Atheism (Harvest House, 2007). Marshall answers and challenges various contentions of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens. But the book is weighted toward responding to Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion. For the Christian reader, Marshall’s work will confirm belief, reassuring believers that they have not “lost their minds”, are not “delusional”, nor are they afflicted with “a kind of mental illness”, as Dawkins would like us to think. To the skeptic, Marshall offers a challenging set of well documented, rational lines of argument.

As a student of history, philosophy, science, and religion, Marshall helps his reader to take a step back from the current battles of the theism debates and examine which, if any, of the new atheism arguments hold up to the facts. Many of the arguments of atheists suffer from historical, geographical, and philosophical myopia. An example is the general assumption (often cited by atheists who dub themselves “brights”) that the more learned a person is the more likely he will be an atheist. Is this true? Some statistics point to this possibility in our Western culture. But having spent much of his life in the Far East, Marshall is not boxed in by the observational boundaries which confine so much of our Western thinking. Marshall’s own observations in East Asia suggest that there the exact opposite may be true. In this far more populous region of our world, belief in God rises with education (see pages 40 and 41).

Marshall devotes two chapters to discussing evolution. Evolution has inspired many skeptics, fueling their atheism. Evolution, in their view, has eliminated the need for a Creator. And the views of literalist young earth creationists (with whom Marshall takes exception) have provided atheists with easy targets. In the chapter 3, Marshall acknowledges evolution as the best framework for understanding the history of life on our planet. But he contends that evolution has hardly eliminated the intellectual viability of theism. “For some”, he writes, “evolution has shouted down the voice of God. For others, it allows them to hear that voice in a new and more subtle way” (page 59). This has certainly been my experience. In chapter 4, Marshall argues that evolution is hardly the slam-dunk many believe it to be. Marshall navigates the many “riddles” and unsolved problems with evolutionary theory. Marshall builds a satisfying case that there remains plenty of room within evolution for the handiwork of a Creator, and it seems likely that some riddles may never find naturalistic answers. Those who would level the charge of “god of the gaps” reasoning should pay special attention to Marshall’s critique of how the rules of this argument have been framed (pages 61-66).

Many of the arguments of the new atheists are based upon false assumptions about what Christians believe, and how the Bible should be read and understood. Marshall devotes the middle section of his book to a reexamination of the Bible, and the claims of Jesus, in light of these atheistic arguments. Atheists would do well to develop arguments against the views of thoughtful believers like Marshall, instead of picking off the easy targets of literalist believers, or theists of their own imaginings.

Any analysis of worldviews ought to include a look at the fruit of competing belief systems. While they cannot be used as arbiters of truth, outcomes do strongly suggest the validity of any given view. History renders a laboratory full of data for such an analysis. However, each side of the God debates is often guilty of using selective history. In the final five chapters, Marshall helps us to set the history of theism, and Christianity in particular, into broader terms. New atheists love to cite the moral and ethical failings of Christianity. Indeed, the record includes no lack of atrocities and embarrassing black spots in the history of belief. This fact lines up well with the Christian teachings on the nature of man. Christians (and so-called Christians) have not been immune to abuses of power and other human frailties. But do the Inquisition, the Crusades, the moral failings of Christian leaders, do such blemishes outweigh the remarkable career of Christian Faith? Indeed, are our modern histories of the Crusades, for example, complete and fair? Marshall asks if Christianity has been a blessing to the world, or a curse. He leads the reader on a walk through history building a strong case that, on balance, Christianity has yielded impressive fruit. The correlating question, of course, is what fruit atheism? “Can atheism make the world a better place?” he asks. Certainly, many good and moral people are atheists. Many of these strive to leave the world a better a place. Marshall’s question has more to do with the natural social consequences of an atheistic worldview. And the evidence suggests that atheism does not possess anything like the intrinsic dynamic of Christian belief to move societies in a positive direction. And that fruit which has actually arisen from materialism is dubious at best.

Heavily annotated (there are 16 pages of end notes), and yet easily read,
The Truth Behind the New Atheism offers readers up-to-date apologetics, a well-reasoned answer to the brand of atheism that is attracting so much attention in our day.