Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Day: "And the soul felt its worth"

"... he appeared, and the soul felt its worth ..."

This morning, as I prepared a pancake breakfast for my expanded Christmas morning family while listening to a Scott Simon interview of the The Puppini Sisters on NPR, I was struck by a lyric from their favorite Christmas carol. I’ve heard this lovely piece hundreds of times, sung it myself scores of times, but this morning the words fell upon my ears with fresh power: “'til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

The birth of Jesus, the song reminds us, forever raised mankind’s view of himself, lifting his lot from pining in sin and error to a thrilling hopefulness, to the dawning of a new and glorious morning. “ ... and the soul felt its worth.” By invading our material reality, and permeating earth with his transcendence, God forever ennobled life on this plane! By clothing himself in the flesh of humanity, God upped our stock, setting a new baseline value on what it means to be human! Nothing can impress upon the soul its eternal worth like the nativity scene, the humble babe housing infinity, the suffusion of man-flesh with unimaginable transcendent greatness.

The French wine merchant Adolphe Adam, and the English version translator John Sullivan Dwight merely assume this elevation of human dignity accompanying the divine visitation we commemorate on this day. David Bentley Hart builds the case methodically and potently in his brilliant work, Atheist Delusions. At the very core of what Hart calls the Christian Revolution is what he labels as nothing short of “the invention of the human.” As he traces the development of human worth through history, he argues cogently how effectively Jesus, the central figure in history, redefines what it means to be human. “ ... and the soul felt its worth.”

He also brings his readers face-to-face with the stark and terrifying prospect of a humankind delivered of its Christian influence. “If, as I have argued in these pages, the ‘human’ as we now understand it is the positive invention of Christianity, might it not be the case that a culture that has become truly post-Christian will also, ultimately, become posthuman?”

The chilling day when humanism has followed the path of a discarded Christmas, the day Hart sees looming on our horizon is not yet upon us. Nor is it inevitable. For now, the essential message of the Incarnation still rings clear. And Christians should boldly herald its powerful implications: Jesus appeared! “ ... and the soul felt its worth.” every soul! every color! every gender! every age! every ethnicity! every culture! the value of every person has been forever elevated by the event we know as Christmas. This revaluing of humanity is at the heart of the mega-joy implicit in Bethlehem’s child! This is the good news. It is this gospel that should be in our hearts, upon our lips, and lived out of our lives.

“ ... and the soul felt its worth.”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

By now, last month's surprise Hallelujah Chorus at the food court in a Welland, Ontario shopping mall has spread all over the internet. If you have not yet, you must view it! As I watched it today for the sixth or seventh time, finding my smiles yet irrepressible, and still wiping tears from my eyes, I wondered ...

The popular Antitheists of our day, and cultural icons like John Lennon, insist that the world will be a better place when all religion has been eradicated! Ah yes, “Imagine” with me a world forever cleansed of George Frideric Handel!

I tried in vain to think of a single cultural contribution that comes close to Handel’s Messiah which has been inspired by thoughts of a god-free cosmos. I could not think of anything that stirs the heart and soul. I did think of John Lennon’s ode to a world delivered of the joys and hopes of faith. Ah yes, Imagine! The words and music are, admittedly, mildly arousing. A bit mournful. Kind of like dry toast. Or old black and white photography. But still, I’ve sung along and (genuinely) tried to catch Lennon’s fervor (if indeed we could call it that). But listening to Lennon I have never felt the exhilaration, the sheer unquenchable joy flooding my whole being, mind and soul, which arise involuntarily during these five minutes of Handel in the Mall.

But I must admit to a faith-induced predilection to experience such a high! My atheist friends will no doubt find themselves yawning in boredom. And surely they can point me to works of art, music or visual arts, that stir their souls, that inspire them profoundly, that awaken deep emotions of joys rising to overwhelm their senses. I would love to hear about them!

Now I know that there is a certain sense of awe and excitement that is energized by our discoveries in physics and biology. I share those! They are wonderful. But, if I may be so bold to say so, they do not even fit into the same category with the sheer transcendent delight aroused by countless examples of faith-inspired art and literature.

Nevertheless, I am assured by those who seem to know, that the lot of mankind will be greatly improved when the vestiges of faith and religion are but fading memories. The Antitheists will no doubt breath a huge sigh of relief knowing that their lunch in the food court will never again be so rudely interrupted.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Testing the Eyesight of the New Atheists

There have been many worthy responses to the spate of New Atheist books which sold in the millions a few years back. (I have reviewed a few of these responses here, and here, and here.) But perhaps the most succinct response I've read recently was written by an atheist, the conservative social commentator, Anthony (A.M.) Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple. Below are a few excerpts from his regular City Journal (Fall, 2007) column, "Oh, to Be in England", entitled "What the New Atheists Don't See".

Few of us, especially as we grow older, are entirely comfortable with the idea that life is full of sound and fury but signifies nothing.


...however many times philosophers say that it is up to us ourselves, and to no one else, to find the meaning of life, we continue to long for a transcendent purpose immanent in existence itself, independent of our own wills. To tell us that we should not feel this longing is a bit like telling someone in the first flush of love that the object of his affections is not worthy of them. The heart hath its reasons that reason knows not of.


Reason can never be the absolute dictator of man’s mental or moral economy.


For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.

________________ can reality have any moral quality without having an immanent or transcendent purpose?


Harris tells us, for example, that “we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.” I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.

It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.”


It is surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn’t be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But so have secularists and atheists, and though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply. If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.


The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.


Read the full article, here, in which Dalrymple takes each of the popular New Atheist authors to task. No doubt Dalrymple could build a case for his own atheism which might be worthy of consideration. But, as others have noted, the case built by the popular authors (including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) is at times poorly constructed, and at times completely fatuous. Were they merely catching a wave of unsophisticated public sentiment, and thus scoring big in book sales? Or were they really giving it their best shot?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Do Atheists Possess Special Courage?

Well, it happened again this week. Another of my atheist friends (Nick, this time), claimed the high ground with regard to courage. “It takes courage to abandon faith,” I hear over and over. “Atheists must face reality with courage!” I’m not not impressed.

Atheists insist that belief in God is commensurate with belief in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or in Leprechauns. So let me see if I have this straight: denying the existence of soaring pasta or fantasy imps requires courage? Really? How can atheists, with straight face, tell us that belief in God is vanishingly trivial, and then speak of the abundance of courage necessary for their denial?

No. Atheism requires no courage at all. Walking into a lions den, suppressing your natural fears by pretending lions do not exist, now that requires a semblance of courage (mixed with extreme folly). But atheist are careful to claim that they are doing no such thing. Their “courage” is the kind required to acknowledge that the sky is blue, that fish swim, or that 2 + 2 = 4. Courage?

I responded to my friend’s claims of courage on facebook with this comment:

Nick, I've been thinking a lot lately about that oft repeated mantra, "it takes courage to be an atheistic materialist." I'm not so sure. I often feel it would be much easier for me to let my naturally skeptical mind drift into complete unbelief. And for me, quite honestly, holding on to faith requires the greater effort, and the greater courage.

I'm not saying atheists have wimped out. But I am saying that continuing to believe, maintaining hope that our existence is not futile, that there will be ultimate justice, that there is profound meaning and purpose threaded throughout this universe—for me, this involves determination and courage.

.... How is courage involved in a world-view that has abandoned hope? Sometimes I fear unbelievers mistake "whistling in the dark" for courage.

The Pragmatist, William James, understood (as do I) that faith is a choice. And likewise, for the atheist: disbelief is a choice. Atheists like to assert that non-belief is the default position for an empirically non-verifiable claim. But this assertion holds no water; it begs the question: for the very notion of faith acknowledges the absence of the sort of evidence they consider necessary. James comments,

"To preach scepticism to us as a duty until "sufficient evidence" for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what ... is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?"

So this is how James saw it: Unbelief is grounded less in courage than fear. Fear of making the mistake of believing without “sufficient evidence”. We can derive from James that faith is grounded in fearlessness, courage, as well as hope.

So the next time an atheist asks me how I can believe what I cannot empirically prove, I will respond, “It takes a lot of courage! do you have enough courage? or have you settled for the safety of resignation?”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Still Your Soul in Silence

It is not often I encounter an artist whose faith walk parallels my own such that similar experiences create several significant touch points. For me, such an artist is Don Francisco. The lyrical artistry of his songs has delighted me for over 25 years. He is an inventive wordsmith, but he is also a troubadour to my soul. There have been particular times in my life when the poignancy of his music, especially his autobiographical songs, gives profound expression to my own heart. Such has been the case recently, as I have been enjoying a personal revival of Don Francisco music. I've chased back a few tears when I listen to ...

Still Your Soul in Silence

Don Francisco

In the lives of those that follow there is going to come a time

When rhythm starts to stumble and singsong swallows rhyme

When imaginations crumble, false foundations turn to dust

Towers fall to piles of stones and girders into rust

Til you let the blood of Jesus wash the rubble from your mind

And your eyes again can see the one you almost left behind

When theology's in tatters and reason is absurd

Still your soul in silence and listen for His word

So many turns, so many ways, so many voices cry

Standing at the crossroads watching time go flashing by

Indecision paralyzes, it's the fear of choosing wrong

But waiting is a step itself, and your wondering too long

So again you search the scripture, and again you ask your friends

But last of all the One who knows the beginning from the end

In the clamor and confusion and the blindness of your choice

Still your soul in silence, and listen for His voice

Rome is full of ruins, Babylon is gone

The temple's just a memory that some still dwell upon

But deep within a place that sword and veil had once denied

A tree of life is growing, living waters flow beside

Far beyond all human reason and words upon a page

His glory lightens all who fret their hour upon this stage

To know Him is our freedom, to hear Him is release

To fix your heart and soul on Him is rest and perfect peace

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The “Why” Question ... and why I don’t ask it. 

My family just passed the six-month mark. Do you ever get used to mom and wife gone permanently? Perhaps not, but most certainly not in six months. For the believer, such an untimely death always raises questions about the purposes and intentions of God. We are prompted to ask "Why, God?"

Often, as they envision a loving God, a provider of good gifts, a healer, and a keeper of promises, believers will ask why he allows such things as cancer, and untimely death. Why doesn’t he answer our pleas for healing? Why didn’t he? Some will respond glibly that he did answer, but that his answer was “no”. Somehow, I never understood how this helps. If I were struggling to trust a God who fails to answer my prayer, I’d sooner believe that he didn’t hear me than to believe my request earned his intentional and unequivocal refusal. Then again, of course he answers “no”. And that is precisely the problem. Why not, God?

The “why” question, of course, presumes that God could heal, that healing is always on the table, always an option for him; and that when he fails to heal, he must surely have good reason. After all, he knows what is best for us. But what if it's not like that at all? Oh yes, in the simplest of Sunday School formulas, the doctrine of divine omnipotence rightly informs us that God can do anything. But what if his failure to heal is not the result of his choice at all? What if he does not heal because he cannot heal?

If yours is a theology similar to mine, then you will understand that we are caught up in a battle of all the ages, a conflict of cosmic proportions between good and evil. The cosmic version of this battle is not unlike the skirmishes in which we find ourselves in this life, skirmishes for which we are given specific instruction. Jesus both taught us, and demonstrated for us, how the battle is engaged, and how the victory is won: Evil is overcome by good, which involves the strange and counterintuitive battlefield tactic of turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, offering blessing for cursing, and praying for — even loving our enemy. Evil is never overcome by the display of greater force. It is subdued, disarmed, and overwhelmed by the consistent application of nonresistant love. And this tactic often involves a very high price, for it often involves suffering. For Jesus, the cost was his very life. Paul teaches us that all of creation has been thrown into a state of suffering in this conflict; and he constantly calls us to enter into the sufferings of Jesus. And so, Peter admonishes us not to think it strange when we suffer. It is part of the plan. Always was.

Such a tactic often appears to be a losing one. Love and nonresistance strike scant fear into the hearts of an opposing army. But the long story of history will prove this immutable truth: there is no force anywhere that can withstand the mighty arm of love. Love will win.

Thus this battle has rules of engagement, set by God himself: self-imposed rules which severely limit his freedom to intervene at will. But Jesus gave us deep insight into the heart of the Father when his own heart was overwhelmed with grief over the untimely death of his friend, Lazarus. Jesus wept. Rather than envisioning a wiser than I grandfather God who sometimes must say “no” lest we be spoiled by his doting, I envision a God whose heart was broken, moved to tears, profoundly saddened over Ginger’s death, and that he grieves with me and with each member of my family to this day, and will continue to do so until that promised coming day, the day of the restitution of all things.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Bibliolatry n. an extreme devotion to the Bible itself. (from the Greek biblion "book" + latreia "worship")

In his regular Monday feature, Stephen Douglas posted a short George MacDonald piece on the purpose and limits of the Bible. Excellent quote. Drop by and read it!

The quote prompted me to think about this question, “Christian Faith: is it about a book? or is it about a person?”

For some time now, I find myself cringing every time I hear some good-hearted Christian refer to “the word of God.” They are nearly always talking about a book! which totally distorts the term, and misrepresents Christianity.

I have never found a Biblical reference to "the word of God" that does not either expressly refer to the person of Jesus, or to revelations of God ... specific, in the moment, revelations (in which cases, we have Jesus speaking via the Spirit). Among the 60 or so Bible references to "the word of God" or "the word of the Lord", I have yet to find one that refers to a book, (though it may be possible to construe a couple in this way). Since the Bible itself clearly declares Jesus to be THE WORD OF GOD, the quintessential manifestation and revelation of God to man, the term ought surely to be reserved for him!

Makes one wonder how we got from this simple and profound truth to preachers wielding their embossed leather-bound Scofields far above their heads and, in their most sonorous, quaking voice, shouting out something about "THE WORD".

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Where did the Stephen Hawking post go?

... I took it down.

Yesterday, I posted a short piece on Stephen Hawking which included this quote from A Brief History of Time:
"It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us."
I am embarrassed to acknowledge my quote mining error, the very sort of quote mining so often used by the Creationist camp (I should have been tipped off by the frequent siting of this sentence in Creationist literature.) No one pointed this out to me. I merely reread the paragraph. I'm glad I did.

When Hawking wrote the words "in just this way", he was referring to one of the problems with early Big Bang cosmology, and its inability to account for such things as the evenly distributed microwave background radiation (the "echo" of the Big Bang) which we observe today, without the imposition of a Creator. He goes on in the same paragraph to explain how the problems have been solved by more recent understandings in cosmology which allow the possibility of various nonuniform initial conditions.

When Big Bang cosmology first came on the scene in the 1920s, it was viewed as a bane on cosmology and physics by many scientists who concluded that such a "start" would almost certainly necessitate a Creator. Various work-arounds have since surfaced which make it possible for science to conceive of a cosmic beginning moment sans an almighty hand at work. Hawking was merely referring to this development of science.

It will appear to some that science is constantly "running for shelter" from a God. And that may well be the case for some. From what I have read of Hawking, I do not believe he is doing this at all. He readily allows the possibility of a Creator. But his search for natural laws keep leading him to rely less and less on science that appears to demand such a Creator.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Christianity & Science: Are they Compatible?

It seems that most of my on-line conversations now happen on facebook pages. From time to time, I may republish some of those conversations here to reach my blog readers.

The following is an exchange which occurred when a friend posted a link to an article which posed the question,

"Can You Believe in Christianity and Evolution?"

"Josh" gave his answer,
christianity and science can be reconciled... but it has to be good, true science for the reconciliation to work! :-)
... to which I replied,
I found Josh's earlier comment interesting:
Josh, would you also agree with me if I rephrased that?
"Christianity and science can be reconciled... but it has to be good, true Christianity for the reconciliation to work"
From my perspective as a follower of Jesus and a follower of science, science is more often "true and good" than many versions of christianity. Conclusive, objective, and empirical evidence should not be asked to bend to align with subjective, debatable interpretations of the Bible. Would you agree?
When apparent conflicts appear between hard science and our version of Christianity, which should give way?

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Forty-two thousand. The number of retreating warriors of the Israelite tribe of Ephraim slain because they couldn’t pronounce the S-word. Well, not that S-word. But it might have worked just the same. Thirty-four hundred years ago (or so), the in-fighting between Israelite tribes came to blows, and the Ephraimites invaded the lands of their brother tribes living across the Jordan River in Gilead. They lost the war, and the surviving troops, forty-two thousand of them, retreated. But the Gileadites cut them off, securing all the river crossing fords. But a Jew is a Jew, and they could not tell an Ephraimite from a Gadite or a Manassehite; they all look the same! How could they determine whether a traveller was a member of the retreating invasion force? Well, it just so happened that Ephramites were afflicted with a mass speech impediment, and they could not say sh*t worth sh*t. So the Gileadites picked a word, any word, starting with SH. They happened to choose “shibboleth”, a word which means nothing particularly interesting, but was impossible for the poor tongue-tied Ephraimites to pronounce. They used the word as a password, a test for any would-be west-bound crossers at the fords. When anyone attempting to cross the river answered the password request, “sibboleth,” he was put to the sword then and there!

There may be a lesson here about teaching diction to our children. But more to the point, this word, “shibboleth,” has been passed down and still to this day it refers to those group-think words or phrases, those passwords of practice and speech, which distinguish the insiders from the outsiders. Shibboleths are like badges of belonging. Pronounce them just right, and you are “one of us!” Mispronounce them, and watch out.

Funny thing about shibboleths. Their usefulness in identifying insiders often outlives any connection to the veracity, or the importance of the actual identifying issue. That is, the shibboleth functions to maintain group-think, despite overwhelming evidence that the shibboleth is a based on mistaken, or false assumptions.

The insidious power of the shibboleths of American evangelicalism is something that many free-thinking, analytical, and informed Christians experience first-hand. Those who have encountered (whether by choice or not) the irresistibly compelling evidence behind the science of evolution, or who have encountered (whether by choice or not) the insurmountable logical and evidential problems with Biblical inerrancy, find it increasingly difficult to go on pronouncing their shibboleths correctly.

I’ve been corresponding on the web with a Christian, a wife and a mother of young children, who just so happens to hold a PhD in science. Put simply, she just knows way too much to go on pronouncing all her shibboleths in the accepted form. Many of the things she knows with clarity are at odds with the beliefs of her church leaders and friends. That she struggles with doubt is not surprising. I know of few evolutionary evangelicals who do not. And many of us who have come to understand that the Bible is not the magical word-perfect book it is hyped to be, deal with doubt, at times heavy and oppressive. This is not the fault of our acceptance of evolution, or good textual study. It is the result of the false dilemmas created by the stark contrasts between the group-think of our evangelical friends, and reality as we have come to see it. Nevertheless, we are evangelical! We seek to follow and obey Jesus. We choose to remain with those believers with whom we identify. We just cannot seem to get our shibboleths to come out right anymore.

So my friend is in the violent throes of painful doubt. At a time when she most needs the support of her faith community, when she needs to be embraced and accepted by her pastors and friends, she is instead “preached at”, she is told that her doubts must be the result of some secret moral failure. She is haunted by the pulpit finger-pointing which identifies doubt as sin. She fears being punished for her doubt. She is told by her Calvinist friends that faith is a gift, and those who doubt incessantly must not have the gift; in which case there is little hope for her. She finds herself increasingly isolated, turned out, because group-thinking Christians are taught to fear, as part of an invading force of evil, those unable to pronounce “shibboleth”. How can my friend, or my other evolutionary friends, be accepted in a community which is currently being assured by that trusted source, Focus on the Family, that evolution is lie from the pit of hell?

My experience is similar to my friend’s. As I take a few steps back from the accepted traditional theology of the evangelical church to which I belong, that very church keeps nudging me to step further away. I am asked to keep my concerns to myself. When I try to warn my friends that the edifice of Christianity is supported by pillars of styrofoam, I am told things would go better for me if I would just keep it to myself. I am told that the personal rejection I endure on so many fronts is my own fault. I come on “too strong”, they tell me. The fact is, I haven’t found any polite way to tell people that the survival of evangelical faith will require the shedding of many cherished shibboleths.

I recently wrote the following words of encouragement to my friend:

Please, do not be deterred by the many Christians whose faith is based upon illusion, and blatantly false suppositions. Who wants that kind of faith, anyway? You seek a faith that can stand up along side volumes of data, data which most believers have never encountered, and from which (sad to say) they are sheltered by their Christian leaders. You didn't ask for the evidence for evolution. You didn't desire an understanding of the historicity issue surrounding the books of the Bible. These are empirical data, brute facts, of which but a small minority of Christians are even remotely aware. You and I are aware ... and this leaves us with the huge challenge, but also the wonderful opportunity, to build a faith that is truly durable, robust, and reality-based. My friend, this challenge is not insurmountable.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

What is Heaven like?

I apologize to the many readers who keep checking back at OutsideTheBox only to find the well still dry! It has been difficult for me these last several weeks. I miss my lovely wife more now than ever. I thought it would get easier by now. Not so. And so, writing has taken a back seat to other personal business. However, my friend, Regina, recently asked me to describe my current thoughts about Heaven (obviously, I would be motivated to think about Heaven and the after-life!). I answered her earlier this week in an email. That portion of the email is reproduced below.

Re. Heaven:

Of course, I think about this often. But not so much in the terms Christians typically use. It is one thing to glibly recite our standard beliefs about heaven, the afterlife, etc., when it is all theoretical and distant. But when someone as analytical as me is dealing with these questions up close, and so utterly personally, directly impacting the most significant of relationships, it is a little harder to maintain a simple belief. My thoughts have been all across the spectrum, to be honest.

Whether we like it or not, the state of evolutionary psychology today tells us that those things we once attributed to the soul (or spirit, or any immaterial part of man) are increasingly finding material explanations. That is, where we once thought that our own experience as a human necessitated some immaterial part of us, the "real me", the executive director of the mind, emotions and will, we now understand that no such immaterial reality is necessary to explain human behavior, thought, altruism, guilt, love, etc. We understand things like memory: our memory is stored in the massively complex meshwork of cells in our brain via electronic charges, not at all unlike the memory storage on our computers. The scary (really scary) thing for me was looking down at the sweet face of Ginger after she died, and thinking that, when she breathed her last breath, all of her memory literally ceased to exist. No need for a soul to "depart" her body. Even if such a soul did go somewhere, it left behind all those cells, all those strategically placed electrons, all that patchwork of axons and dendrites, all those synaptic interfaces. I began then to construct in my mind a picture of the human built upon the computer model ... one involving duplicate ROM and RAM memories, one in which the actual soul mirrors the material aspects of "soul-like" functions. More recently, I think of it in different terms.

Now, I conceive of God "recreating", if you will, Ginger (or any of us) based upon our unique genetic code, and with a stored (or resurrected) ROM memory. My faith in the resurrection, now, is built more upon God's love for me. If he really loves me (as we presume) and if he really wants relationship with me (as we presume), then he will not just let my body rot and my personhood cease to exist. He will resurrect me! If, alternatively, we were mistaken, and God (if he exists at all) doesn't really care for me or about me on the level we had assumed, I have no wish to be resurrected. I won't be resurrected, and I'd just as soon never be conscious again.

Does that make sense? I don't want you to think that I doubt the resurrection, or the after-life. I believe. But the reasoning has changed. It is not based upon some immortal part of me, an immortal soul. Rather, I believe (first of all) in the character of and the inherent goodness of God. (If we're wrong on that count, who wants everlasting life anyway?) And believing that about him, and believing in the extreme value of every unique human being, I am convinced such a God will call us to himself at some point after our death.

As to what Heaven is like, I'm sure I have no clue. It is beyond our imaginative scope to even come close. I don't mean this in terms of the gushy "Oh, Heaven will surpass all our wildest, most wonderful dreams! It will be better than anything we can imagine." Rather, I mean that the dimensionality of Heaven (or God's reality) is so multi-faceted with facets for which we have no calculus, that Heaven is unimaginable. Not unimaginably good. Just unimaginable.

For example, when we speak of Heaven as a place of unremitting joy, we only fool ourselves if we think of joy in the terms we now experience it. Joy, as we know it, is related to things like conquest, overcoming resistance, winning the battle, success (which implies resistance.) Life itself for us, in our current condition, contains potential for joy precisely because it also contains potential for sorrow. Take away suffering, resistance, struggle, pain, sorrow, and I submit that "joy" has no meaning. And yet, for most believers, Heaven is a place devoid of those things, but full of eternal bliss. Within our current frame of reference, that is craziness ... but most Christians never give it much thought.

More than anything you can possibly imagine, I hope to see my Ginger again.

Thanks for asking,
~ Cliff

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Personal: Lunch today with Stephen!

It is not often that I meet someone whose thinking aligns with mine in nearly every respect across a broad spectrum of topics. Is this because I have so many opinions which are out of the mainstream, or is it just because I have so many opinions? Whichever the case, I've known for sometime that Stephen Douglas, who authors Undeception, a blog site I highly recommend, fits that bill. (In those times when you want to know what Cliff thinks, and I'm not offering enough for you here, you can safely go to Stephen's site; chances are about 98% that you will learn more about me!)

Stephen lives in Georgia, where I happen to be for business. Today he and I met (face to face for the first time) in Macon for lunch (authentic Southern Cuisine, if that be not an oxymoron) and a delightful three hour visit. Here is my public "thank you" to Stephen for breaking away from his doctoral studies and his family to carve out those hours! It was like a breath of fresh air. Thank you, Stephen.

(Just kidding about the Southern Cuisine. I've been loving it!)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Facebook Exchange

I had an interesting exchange this morning, facebooking with a Christian-turned-atheist young friend. Because it dovetails into some of the current discussions here, I asked the friend if I could post our exchange here. He agreed, and it follows:


30 June at 08:52

So. I'm sure you more or less remember me, I used to go to your church. Well, a lot has changed since then, I've lost my religious side, and became atheistic. I realized that maybe I shouldn't just listen to what everybody has told me was true, and so I started first not with evolution but with the history of the bible. I started reading that the writers of the bible weren't even eye witnesses, let alone within decades of eyewitnesses. I started reading the bible more, Genesis 30:27-30 anybody? There were stories that we know are false that people just believe. It gave me reason to doubt. Now, I may be only 15, but I know I shouldn't just believe in a talking donkey. Since then, I've read. I've read a lot, I've studied evolution in and out, from the bad design of the recurrent laryngeal nerve to atavisms to the evolution of DNA, sex, death, movement, everything. I've found a passion of it. I've studied the laws of physics, mostly quantum mechanics and relativity. I've studied the fossil record in and out, looking at transitional fossils such as tiktaalik rosea, and I've looked at our own embryonic state (we develop a tail and an embryo sac..)

All this lead me to believe that there wasn't, couldn't be a god. What I had been raised believing was true, I realized wasn't. I started debating evolution with a pastor from Toledo. Honestly, I've never been more saddened by a person in my life. He's a pastor and he doesn't know anything about his own religion. He says everyone were eye witnesses. He says we have no evidence for macro or micro evolution, he brings up arbitrary ideas such as the laws of entropy, and then he questions me, he says that because I'm 15 I have to copy/paste all my answers to his questions. I met with him in person, and we went over carbon-dating. He says that the formula for half life, (y=ae^kt) must be wrong. He wouldn't tell me why. He told me I was going to hell for not believing in his god, and that his god was the only truth, and that I wouldn't be happy without him. I'm a lot happier now, without a god, than I was with one.

I've been reading your blog, and you seem like quite the intelligent person, who is interested in the same topics as I. It'd be nice to talk to someone as intelligent as you, who won't just say that we should believe in talking donkeys because the Bible tells us to.

Cliff Martin 30 June at 11:29

Thanks for writing, John. I enjoyed visiting with your mom yesterday.

I tracked with your first paragraph. Since you listened to me teach at TCF (I must apologize for passing along a lot of misinformation ... but that is all in the past), I too have developed a deep interest in DNA, sex (well, I've always been interested in THAT!), death, movement, quantum mechanics and relativity, even evolutionary psychology, etc. I understand how the recurrent laryngeal nerve drives the last nail into the coffin of "Intelligent Design". But when you write, "All this lead me to believe that there wasn't, couldn't be a god", I have to say that I have come to radically different conclusions. Surely the findings of science today, which are largely trustworthy, alter the ways we must think about God, and how we define him, and how we understand his involvement in the cosmos, etc. But how do they rule out the possibility of his existence?

I probably think more like you than your pastor friend. But I have not even come close to abandoning my hope that humans have infinite value, that suffering is not meaningless, that justice will prevail in the end, that we are more than chance chemical assemblages moving futilely through an ultimately inconsequential universe. In a way, I reject atheism because I reject its inescapable nihilistic despair. I choose hope. And such hope is, for me at least, richly rewarded and more than worth the risks involved!

But we all must choose. And our choices ought to be intellectually viable. That is why I say I have more in common with you. Fundamentalist Christians are either uninformed of the current state of science (and willfully remain so) or they live with a cognitive dissonance that would for you or me be unbearable. But is this the result of TRUTH, or the result of religious constructs designed in fear and maintained for the manipulation and control of the religious masses? It is clearly the latter, in my opinion.

Before you discard the bathwater, I highly recommend that you reconsider the baby!

As for the debate with your friend; Christians who reject carbon dating do so because they feel they must. They do not understand carbon dating. But they find great comfort in the relative few anomalies in the process which are well understood by scientists, but appear ridiculous to the lay-person. Such people will typically say things like, "no one knows what happened 200 million years ago because no one was there!" So I use a different tack with friends who reject ancient evidence:

I ask them to consider the same basic evidence that first convinced Darwin (and many of his contemporaries) of evolution in a time before much fossil evidence had been discovered, and we knew nothing about carbon dating, radioactive dating, DNA, etc. Darwin (if I'm not mistaken) was convinced by two things: 1) The newly developing understandings of Mendelian Inheritance (which no one denies), but even more so by 2) Biogeography, or the consistent patters of distribution of the flora and fauna throughout the earth, particularly on the islands of the world. These patterns are everywhere consistent with the predictions of evolutionary theory, and are weird to the extreme if we postulate special creation of the species. And this evidence is available to anyone today, requires no dating methodologies, no reliance upon the "witness" of “biased” paleontologists, and can be analyzed by anyone willing to THINK, without the huge learning curve on the front end of DNA evidence.

Ask him what logic can explain why a creator went out to all the islands of the world and proceeded to create life so as to make the earth look exactly as it would if it had been populated by living organisms over 100s of millions of years through the very process Darwin describes.

I have a limited respect for the few (very few) Creationists who actually understand the evidence for evolution and explain it this way: God made the cosmos to appear as though it had evolved (à la the Big Bang) and life appear as though it has evolved (à la Darwin) to find out if we would believe him when he declares that it all happened in 6 days, a mere 6,000 years ago. They make God into a trickster and a deceiver, an insecure person who so fears rejection that he actually sets it up (some sick people actually do that, you know).

Let's talk sometime.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Personal: Thank you Michael!

I've just returned home from a delightful morning spent with a new friend, Michael Banks. Michael is a research professor at Oregon State University Hatfield Marine Science Center (in Newport, OR) specializing in marine population genetics. We enjoyed a two-hour visit over breakfast, after which Michael treated me to a tour of his offices and laboratories at the Center, where I met several of his students (one of whom gave me a really cool baseball cap!), and got a feel for how geneticists do their work. What a treat!

Michael is a rare find in this little outpost of Lincoln County, Oregon. Christians who truly understand and fully accept evolution, and maintain a deep belief in and love for God, are few and far between here. Michael is a delightful conversationalist, a deeply insightful believer, a leading scientist in his field; and he is a man who recently lost a brother (in his native country of South Africa) to cancer. He walked alongside Ginger and I through the final months of her battle. So when we are together, the list of topics for conversation is lengthy indeed.

This is my public "Thank you" to Michael for the gift of his valuable time. And here's to many more similar visits if the Lord has that in store for us!