Monday Monologues: Creation, August 20, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W. Hiemstra, www.StephenWHiemstra.net
Stephen W. Hiemstra, 2017

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I pray about baptism and talk about creation.

To listen, click on the link below.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

Monday Monologues: Creation, August 20, 2018 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Sabath_2018

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Arguments about Creation

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Discussions about the rationality of faith in the twentieth century invariably focus on the Genesis account of creation: its biblical interpretation, the Darwin discoveries, and the political context. Let me consider each in turn.

What Does Genesis Say?

The first chapter in Genesis paints a picture of God as divine creator who calls the universe into being with words spoken over a period of seven days. While much is made of God as a sovereign, king of kings, the language is not one of command, but of invitation: “Let there be.” God is a gentle sovereign who ruled by virtue of creative activity, not conquest nor purchase, nor chance, and in his first specific act of creation, created light—a metaphor for virtue (Gen 1:3). 

The first verse offers a summary: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen. 1:1) Who created? God created. When did he create? In the beginning. What did he create? Heaven and earth—everything. 

This one verse radically changed the perception of time and space. In the Ancient Near East, the time that mattered was day and night, and the seasons—spring, summer, fall, and winter—that controlled the cycles of agriculture. The space that mattered was the boundaries on a particular kingdom or empire. Here in this verse, God stands outside of time and space creating both. There are no paths up the mountain to this god, because he transcends both. The god of Genesis must come down the mountain to us.

How do we know? The Genesis account comes to us as the confession of the church. In creating the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing), the god in Genesis is nothing like other gods of the Ancient Near East, which appeared more like today’s celebrities, movie stars, and athletes. God redefined what it meant to be a god. 

Not only was he sovereign; he was completely free of the constraints of this world.  When God told Moses from the burning bush: “I AM WHO I AM”  (Exod 3:14), what he meant was: I am the real deal—a real god, not like the wish-fulfillment gods that Pharaoh created and that we create to serve our own needs.

The Darwin Discoveries

The nineteenth century brought amazing discoveries about our world in agriculture, manufacturing, science, and medicine. While authors like Marx and Freud likened religion to being on drugs and being delusional, Darwin stuck to his knitting in exploring the biological world taking stock of the fossil record and the diversity of species. Theorizing that ancient species of animals evolved into those that we see today, his theory of evolution quickly became viewed as a competing vision of the creation account in Genesis. 

Political Uses of Evolution

From the spontaneous generation of life from inorganic compounds to the development of human species, Darwin gave Marxists and other secular religionists a creation account that erased God from the picture. National Socialists in Germany likewise picked up on Darwin’s survival of the fittest to posit the existence of a master race, the German folk, among humans. The attacks on the creation accounts in Genesis quickly elevated quickly into power politics on a world scale. If as Nietzsche philosophied, God is dead, then anything goes. With our gentle God out of view, the secular religionists quickly built concentration camps and fired up the gas chambers. Millions perished.

Returning to Genesis

Ironically, while Marx and Freud were atheists, Darwin was a practicing Christian. Think about it. God’s invitation in creation does not describe how the instrument of creation beyond the invitation. Borrowing a legal analogy, when Congress passes a law, it usually does not care how the President implements the law beyond offering resources and perhaps a target deadline. God could easily have used evolution to see to it that his invitation in creation takes place. When your father flicks on a light switch and announces—let there be light, you could say that he, like our Heavenly Father, has a sense of humor, even if it is a dad joke.

A Doubting Church

The problem in the nineteenth century arose as doubt in society seeped into the church. Rather than calling out Marx and Freud for slandering God and his church, the criticism sunk in. Some found refuge in philosophic defenses of God’s existence, while others labored to make sure that Christians experienced deep emotional experiences in the pews on Sunday with great music and a good sermon. 

This adoption of Greek anthropology, separating thinking and emotions, weakened the church and mimicked stereotypes of men as thinkers and women as emotional. Without ritual, without deep teaching, without deep commitment and church discipline, the church acted as if the Bible were little more than a source of bedtime stories for the kids. Without moral training that recognizes the tension in practice between different theological principles, like purity of the church and evangelism, churches began to split over affinity to one theological principle over another.

Science in Service of Faith

The fascination with science peaked in World War II. With the invention of numerous instruments of mass destruction—mass bombings, napalm, death camps, nuclear weapons, and political uses of psychology and euthanasia—people woke up to the need for limits on scientific investigation. 

Several aspects of science proved helpful in understanding our faith. One is to notice that the scientific method—felt need, problem definition, data collection, analysis, recommendations, responsibility bearing—starts with assumptions about what is needed. These assumptions about how our world works start with the words we use and our faith. Is it any wonder that numerous modern languages began with a translation of the Bible into the local dialect? The King James version of the Bible played that role in English; Luther’s Bible played that role in German.

The Big Bang theory of creation started from measurement of the direction and speed of partials in space that point to a partial time and place where the known universe began with a singularity—a single point. In an instant, the entire universe came into being. No one can say why, but the evidence that it happened is written in the stars. And guess what? The confession of the church in Genesis is completely consistent with this theory from science.

Who has the better story? Which story would you rather live into?

Arguments about Creation

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Sabath_2018

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Challenges to Faith

One of the most seductive arguments against faith in God is the idea that faith is optional. This argument is usually offered by people who refuse to accept any ethical obligations. This argument is insidious because it is normally preceded by excuses for why God does not exist or the church is unattractive or just plain obstinance. What matters is not the excuse given but rather the motivation—laziness, self-centeredness, and the like. The Apostle Paul had little time for such people and simply advised the Thessalonian church: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thess 3:10) However, since few people accept Paul’s admonition today without qualms, let us examine the arguments.

The first inference, that faith is optional, ignores the problem of idolatry and is simply counter-factual, from a scientific perspective. Let me turn issue to each issue in turn. Then, let me address the usual excuses.

If we treat faith as optional, we frequently fall into idolatry. The problem of idolatry today has less to do with worshiping statues of pagan gods than with misplaced priorities. We commit idolatry whenever we place anything other than God as the number one priority in our lives and it is a sin because it breaks the First Commandment given to Moses: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3). The sin of idolatry is often taken lightly, but this a mistake because idolatry is life threatening.

To see the threat posed by idolatry, consider what happens when alternatives to God become our number one priority. Common today, for example, is to place work as the number one priority in our life. What happens then when we lose our job or our ability to work? Americans, particularly men, are prone to depression and suicide when a job is lost and cannot be replaced for whatever reason.[1] People who cannot work, like the mentally disabled, the young, the old, the uneducated, are treated badly. When we neglect our faith in God, we end up committing idolatry, which threatens our self-esteem and our relationship with people we should care for.

If we treat faith as optional, we also fail to understand how faith undergirds modern science. Knowledge based on the scientific method follows a distinct method for testing knowledge’s veracity. These steps are usually employed: a problem is defined, observations are taken, analysis is done, a decision rule is imposed, an action is taken, and responsibility is born (Johnson 1986, 15). The very first step in the scientific methods (problem definition) requires beginning with assumptions and a hypothesis. These assumptions are faith statements—no testing can be done without them. Faith is simply not optional.

The two most famous excuses for why many people believe that God does not exist were given by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud (1927). Marx (1843) commented that: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” By contrast, Freud (1961, 30) characterized religion as an illusion, a kind of wish fulfillment. While both Marx and Freud can be considered authority figures, the thrust of their argument is not due to a lengthy scientific analysis, but is presented more as simple slander, acceptable primarily as an excuse for decisions reached for other reasons. If we take faith as necessary part of a rational decision process, then simple slander does not warrant further investigation because burden of proof lies with those advancing a particular argument to make their case, which in this case was not done.

As Christians in a postmodern context, we have inherited a worldview which is quite capable of interpreting the world as we know it. In fact, Western civilization is built on premises advanced from the Christian worldview. The question for those who advance criticism of that worldview, normally by picking on some of its assumptions (or disputing its ethical requirements), is not how can we accept those assumptions. Rather, because those assumptions form a coherence and ethically defensible system, the question is whether alternative assumption can be used to construct a better system.

For the most part, proposed postmodern alternatives to the Christian worldview, such as deconstructionism, refuse to accept the responsibility for benefiting everyone, preferring to focus on criticism without advancing alternative, morally-defensible systems. Others talk about rights, but not responsibilities, for their client groups. Either position is morally reprehensible leaving many people hopeless and abandoned. Yet, powerful groups have advanced such changes primarily to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

These challenges to faith are repeated daily in the media, in our schools, and in society, yet they lack merit as an alternative to faith and cause significant harm to many people through their promotion of idolatry and other sins that isolate people from God, from themselves, and even from the science that has brought humanity numerous benefits.

References

Freud, Sigmund. 1961. The Future of an Illusion (Orig Pub 1927. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Marx, Karl. 1843. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie). Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher. (Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people)

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

[1] This observation is not hyperbole. The New York Times recently reported that suicide is now at a 30-year high point and the increase in suicide is greatest for men ages 45-64 (Tavernise 2016).

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McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 2

Twilight_review_05042015Alister McGrath. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: DoubleDay. (Goto part 1; goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

A defining moment in my understanding of my home country occurred in February 1979 when I visited Berlin and saw the Berlin Wall[1]. Driving through East Germany on the autobahn, we stopped at a rest stop for lunch. When I attempted to engage an East German traveler in conversation, he began to shake and could hardly speak. When I later saw the crosses on the wall where people had been shot trying to escape, I understood with deadly seriousness why the man was afraid—I was a American and he could be imprisoned for nothing more than talking with me.

McGrath tells the story of the rise of atheism, in part, through biographical sketches. Let me highlight three: Karl Marx (1818-1883), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

Karl Marx. Marx famously referred to religion as the “opium of the people”. He opposed religion and advocated its abolishment because:

“Religion…dulls the pain of an unjust world, enabling the downtrodden people to cope with its sorrows and distress, and indirectly encouraging them to collude with the existing order” (66).

Today’s overwhelming preoccupation with the material world is, in part, a reflection of Marx’s belief that “ideas and values are determined by the material realities of life.” (63) Marx’s cynicism had a very personal root. His father enthusiastically converted from Judaism to Protestantism after moving to a different village in Germany because it was good for business. Marx’s father insisted that he do the same (62).

While only 11 people attended Marx’s funeral with Friedrich Engels delivering the eulogy, millions died in Russia, China, and elsewhere over the next century as communist governments attempted to implement his ideas[2].

Sigmund Freud. Freud thought of religion as wishful thinking, an illusion (74). He is best known as the father of modern psychoanalysis. McGrath reports that he was an atheist before he became a psychoanalyst and became a psychoanalyst precisely because he was an atheist—for Freud, his atheism was a presupposition[3]. McGrath writes:

“His infatigable harrying of religion reflects his fundamental belief that religion is dangerous, not least because it constitutes a threat to the advance of the Enlightenment and the natural sciences. Freud’s approach to religion rests upon the perceived need to explain why anyone would wish to take the extraordinary step of believing in God, when there is obviously no God to believe in…Freud declared that religion was basically a distorted form of an obsessional neurosis. The key elements in all religions, he argues, are the veneration of the father figure (such as God or Jesus Christ), faith in the power of spirits, and a concern for proper rituals.” (70-71)

Interestingly, Freud drew his impression of religion, not from scientific study, but from an adaption of Ludwig Feuerbach idea that: “the concept of God was fundamentally a human construction, based on the ‘projection’ of fundamental human longings and desires” (68). Feuerbach was himself, like Marx, a student of Hegel and also a student of Schleiermacher (53)—the patron saint of theological liberalism in the 19th century. Feuerbach was largely unemployable as a theologian, in part, because he “lampooned Christianity as ‘some kind of insurance company.’” (54)

Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is best known for the will to power which has become the core principle of deconstructionism. For example, Vanhoozer (1998, 57) writes that “Nietzche, a non-realist, contends that meaning, truth, and the world itself are human constructions.”  This implies that those in power determine the construction of meaning and truth. McGrath (151) writes of Nietzsche: “If there is no God, or if God has become a culturally discredited notion, then there is no absolute values or truths.”  The death of God is accordingly the death also of meaning and the beginning of nihilism (149).

McGrath has a more sympathetic view of Nietzsche than many commentators. He sees atheism losing its appeal ironically because it has discredited its opponent—the church.  If religion is no longer a credible, cultural alternative, then its protagonist—in this case, atheism—likewise loses its relevance. This insight McGrath credits to Nietzsche (219).

Nietzsche, though a darling of many postmoderns, is usually panned by commentators because Nazi Germany put his ideals to direct use.  In a nation of equals, a person of supreme ability (übermensch or superman) can arise to assume leadership. Nietzsche’s will to power accordingly provided the intellectual bona fides for the idea of a führer (leader) which was employed directly by Adolf Hitler[4].  Death and destruction quickly followed.

Although the death toll due to Nazi death camps (circa 3 million by one account[5]) looks small relative to the deaths precipitated by the communists, the point is that atheism in its official manifestations has been a plague on humanity. So why have today’s secular culture and even the postmodern church so readily embraced the ideas that led to these horrors?

If God is dead, then we cannot have been created in his image and human rights are an anachronism, not an inalienable right. Without the existence of God, the intellectual underpinning of social justice is vapor in the wind. The Berlin Wall was a tangible reminder of how different life can become when God’s presence is not acknowledged—I will never forget[6].

Alister McGrath’s book, The Twilight of Atheism, is a helpful book to spend time with.  As my review suggests, interpreting McGrath requires background in modern and postmodern history and philosophy. Here in part 2 of this review, I have focuses on the some of the personalities of the High Noon of atheism.  In part 3, I will turn to McGrath’s argument for the Twilight of atheism.

[1] I was a foreign exchange student in 1978/79 at Göttingen University (www.uni-goettingen.de).

[2] Estimates are cited in the range from 85 to 100 million people killed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_killings_under_Communist_regimes).

[3] Jung, a Christian and student of Freud, was more sensitive to the needs of human beings for God in maintaining the careful balance between order and chaos.  He writes: “This is why the medicine-man is also a priest; he is the savior of the body as well as of the soul, and religions are systems of healing for psychic illness.” (Jung 1955, 240).

[4] For example, Metazas (2010, 168) writes:  “Hilter worshiped power while [he viewed] truth [as] a phantasm to be ignored.”

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extermination_camp

[6] East and West Berlin were separated by only about 100 yards, but they were night and day different. West Berlin was busy and loud, a lot like visiting Manhattan, New York during the day. East Berlin was deserted and silent like visiting a graveyard at night.

REFERENCES

Jung, Carl G. 1955. Modern Man in Search of a Soul (Orig. Pub. 1933).  Translated by W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes. New York:  Harcourt, Inc.

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile Versus The Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 2

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