August 3, 2014

Faith (is) for Dummies?

This spring the Fox broadcast channel aired a series that was a remake of a classic science series from the 1980s hosted by the then-famous astrophysicist, Carl Sagan.  The name of the series was Cosmos.  The host of the new series is the now-famous astrophysicist and student of Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson.  I know I mentioned it a couple of times and posted a three-part blog reviewing the series, but did anyone get a chance to watch any of it?  I didn’t watch all the episodes, but for the most part I enjoyed what I saw.  Tyson was a great storyteller and the computer animations throughout the series were wonderful.  The series invited viewers to develop a sense of wonder about the world around us and how it all works so beautifully.  All that said, the series definitely had its problems.  Perhaps the chief problem, though, was one of worldview.  The new series, like the original, was deeply rooted in a worldview called philosophical naturalism.  Philosophical naturalism holds that nature is all there is.  Period.  Well, because nature is all there is and science is the way by which we come to knowledge about nature, science is the only way we come to know things that are real.  In other words, if science can’t tell us something then we don’t really know it.  Or to put that another way, everything that lies outside the sphere of science is mere belief or opinion.  What more, any beliefs or opinions which are held in contradiction to what science tells us is factual are not merely wrong, but stupidly and even disastrously so.  And the topic on which this worldview most often comes to bear today is the issue of evolution.

We can easily see this view expressed in the culture around us, particularly by those who fancy themselves intellectuals (whether they are or not).  In recent years Bill Maher, the host of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, has applied his comedic wit in large part to ridiculing religions and religious people and showing why they are dumb.  He once said that “religion is the enemy of science.”  Bill Nye, the famous “Science Guy” with whom folks in my generation grew up learning all kinds of fun scientific facts, has in recent years become a vocal proponent of Darwinian evolution and an opponent of every other view on the origins of life.  In a video posted to the science and culture website Big Think he said this:

“People still move to the United States.  And that’s largely because of the intellectual capital we have, the general understanding of science.  When you have a portion of the population that doesn’t believe in that, it holds everybody back, really. . . .And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world…that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them.  We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future.  We need…engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.”

A Gallup poll released about the same time Nye recorded these comments probably gave him a headache.  It found that 46% of the U. S. population rejects all forms of evolution.  More than that, a whopping 78% of the population rejects specifically Darwinian evolution (which is defined as undirected).  On the other hand, adding some weight to his insinuation that people who reject evolution as he sees it aren’t very smart, the percentage of folks who do accept Darwinian evolution is directly proportional to how advanced of a degree they have received.  The more and higher degrees a person has, the more likely he is to think like Nye.

Now, I have two degrees including a Master’s and happily count myself an exception to this last survey result, but before this devolves into a talk on the merits (or rather demerits) of Darwinian evolution, let me get to the point.  Because most folks have learned to associate Darwinian evolution with “science,” the natural conclusion many people draw is exactly what Bill Maher said: “Religion is the enemy of science.”  And, since most religious folks in this country would identify themselves with the Christian faith to one degree or another, the next logical step in thought is that the Christian faith is at odds with science.  Let’s push this one little step further.  Remember the worldview I mentioned just a minute ago and how it has gotten people thinking that the only real knowledge we have comes from science such that any view which is held in contradistinction to the prevailing scientific conclusions is not simply wrong but persistently wrong in the face of supposedly overwhelming counter-evidence?  Incidentally, we have a name for someone who stubbornly holds a particular view in spite of a mountain of evidence to the contrary: ignorant.  In light of this, guess what our culture thinks about Christians.

You got it.  How all of this plays out in the culture is that many people think Christians are stupid.  We believe things that fly in the face of what the modern, infallible priests of naturalism declare to be true and thus are stupid.  And, given that most people today would rather have the reputation of being smart than religious, they hear all this and very naturally reject God.  Because who wants to be associated with a god who makes his followers stupid?  But…do they really know the God they are rejecting?

This morning we are beginning a brand new series called “The God I Don’t Believe In.”  The idea for this series is that there are a lot of folks in our culture who reject God and the Christian faith for a variety of reasons.  Whatever their particular reason for rejecting God, though, if you were to push them on the nature and character of the God they were rejecting, you’d probably want to reject Him too.  I mean, if following God really did make people stupid I’d reject Him.  But, what if all these characterizations of God were wrong?  What if they were all describing a god we don’t believe in either.  The case I’d like to make to you over the next few weeks is that they are.  We are going to spend some time taking a look at some of the gods we don’t believe in so that we can better understand and bear witness to the God we do.

This morning we are going to start with this ground we’ve already been turning.  There are not a few folks today…particularly young folks…particularly young folks who have experienced enough of college to be wowed by professors whose goal it is to convince them to think like this…who think the Christian faith is okay for people who aren’t very smart, who don’t know very much about how the world really works, but at some point, if you want to move forward and become an intelligent, contributing member of society you’ve got to give it up and get with the modern times.  But is this really the case?  I know sitting there right now most of you are going to say, “No!  Of course it’s not!” and you should, because if you didn’t you’d be acknowledging that you aren’t very smart and you don’t think that.  But how would you answer somebody who did?

Let me point you in a direction that I think will help.  If you have a Bible with you in some form, find your way to Matthew 22.  Matthew 22 tells the story of a particular set of interactions between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day that I think will help offer some insight on the nature of the God we do believe in.  As you find you way there, let me set up the scene.

In Jesus’ final week before His death He spent several of the days in and around the Temple complex teaching.  On one day in particular, when He had an audience that included several of the religious leaders of the people, Jesus told a parable which made very clear that God had rejected them.  In their place He would receive all those whom they traditionally thought of as unclean and unworthy of His presence.  This was a direct challenge to their political, moral, legal, and religious authority in a very public setting.  They would not allow this to stand.  As a result, each of the major groups of religious leaders sent a representative to try and trap Jesus with a question.

The first group was the Herodians who were sympathizers with Rome.  They tried to trap Jesus with a dicey political question.  The second group, the Sadducees, tried to play the fence.  They were the most politically connected group on both sides of the Roman-Jewish line and mostly just wanted power.  They fancied themselves academics who were too smart to believe in silly things.  They tried to stump Jesus with a complicated theological question.  The final group was the Pharisees.  These were the Bible-thumpers of their day.  They were chiefly concerned with matters of the Law and sought to keep it as rigorously as possible.  They sent a lawyer to ask Jesus an impossible-to-answer legal question.  Our story begins there.

Read with me starting in v. 34: “But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together.  And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’  And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Now, many of you have probably heard or read about this little episode before.  The focus was probably on Jesus’ elucidation of the greatest commandment.  But there’s something easy to miss here if we’re not careful.  We can miss the cultural element of what’s going on here.  The Herodians, Sadducees, and Pharisees did not represent merely the political and religious power among the Jews, they were the intelligentsia as well.  These were the smartest, best-educated men in the entire region.  When it came to matters of law and theology, politics and culture, these guys were at the top of the pile.  No one challenged them because nobody knew enough to challenge them.  And yet here Jesus goes toe-to-toe and comes out not merely the winner, but the undisputed champion.  They threw their very hardest questions at Him—questions whose answers they probably didn’t even know themselves—and He brushed them off like they were nothing.  Then he posed a question to them they weren’t even willing to touch lest the crowd see very clearly who the smartest man in the room was.  Jesus was a lot of really great things, but let’s make clear this morning something that often goes overlooked: Jesus was a really, really smart guy.

You can say whatever you want about Christians and Christianity in general, but let’s not get Jesus wrong.  He was probably the smartest guy who ever lived.  No, He didn’t know complex theoretical physics like Stephen Hawking, but He was super intelligent all the same.  There has never been a better communicator in the history of the world.  His ability to use argument and reason is unparalleled.  His capacity for mixing it up with the brightest of the bright in His day one minute and be totally understood by the lowest of the low in the next breath is beyond what we can fathom.  Well, if somebody this smart offers His opinion on what was the most important thing to do in order to have a good relationship with God (which was how His contemporaries understood the purpose of the Law), we’d do well to pay attention.

So then, Jesus’ summation of the Old Testament is essentially to love God and love others.  That’s fantastic.  That’s something we can grab ahold of and try to live.  But, if we just take the summary version like that we miss out on the details and there’s one detail in particular that I want to make sure we see this morning.  He said we should not simply love God, but to love Him with all our heart—the sum total of our emotions and will—with all our soul—the immaterial essence that makes us who we are—and with all our what?  Our mind.  Now the first two there really aren’t so terribly difficult to understand.  We do what God says, desire what He desires, and make Him our first priority in everything.  But how do you love someone with your mind?  How do we love God with our minds?

Let me offer some suggestions and then we’ll talk about what all this means.  Loving God with all our minds means working to see all our thinking and reasoning processes committed to seeing Him recognized rightly for who He is through our lives.  It means making certain that we commit ourselves to only those ideas which are true which itself means examining all these various ideas for their truth-content.  It means filtering out those thoughts and ideas which do not accord with the truth and preventing them from gaining a foothold in our processes of thinking.  It means taking every thought captive in obedience to God and committing all our mental merit to displaying His glory.  In other words, it means being really smart.  Here, though, is where we hit a snag.  There are a lot of folks out there who don’t think of themselves as very smart.  Maybe there are even some folks in here who have thought this before.  Some folks use it as an excuse for laziness.  Some folks wear it as almost a badge of honor.  But however you happen to wear that particular label if you have accepted it hear something important: loving God with all your mind doesn’t mean being smarter than anyone else.  It means using the incredible mind God has given you to its utmost capacity in order to see Him glorified through you.

What all this means is that Christianity is a thinking man’s game.  The God of the Bible is not for dummies.  In fact, this notion that the Christian faith either prevents people from becoming as intelligent as they might otherwise be or makes them less intelligent than they were before is a perniciously modern one.  When you look back on the last 2,000 years of history, the smartest people were always followers of Jesus.  They were the most reasonable people in the world.  They could see what was going on around them with greater clarity than anyone else.  They understood how the world worked with greater insight than all who came before and most of those who didn’t.  They were more committed to growing in their knowledge of the world than any other religious adherents.  They tended to be the least superstitious people in their communities.  Everywhere the church flourished, people were more rational and clear-headed than in places where it didn’t.  Speaking right to the bedrock of the modern worldview: the reason modern science exists is because of Christians.  Modern science arose in one place and at one time in the world.  It wasn’t in Buddhist China; it wasn’t in Hindu India; it wasn’t in the Islamic Middle East; and it certainly wasn’t in the animistic rest of the world.  It was in Christian Europe.  Why?  Because no other worldview sustained the necessary beliefs to see it happen.  They may have made some important discoveries, invented some important things, but this was never formed into a system of learning whereby more discoveries could be made by more people.  All these smart folks were not achieving in spite of their faith in Christ, but because of it.  Christianity is a thinking man’s game.

The truth of the matter here is that as followers of Jesus you are heirs a rich intellectual tradition the likes of which no other faith (or non-faith) tradition in the world can claim.  When the culture looks at you as somehow less intelligent than the average non-Christian bear simply because you are a Christian, you don’t at all have to feel threatened by this assessment.  In fact, you don’t even have to accept the premise of the criticism.  Far too many folks do and as a part of this are willing to give up biblical fidelity in exchange for cultural credits.  I saw an argument made by a pastor of all people a few weeks ago that went something like this: Because 99% of all scientists (a questionable statistic even if it came from Newsweek) accept (Darwinian) evolution, evangelicals (that’s us) need to go ahead, take the plunge, and embrace it too.  Other than being a gross example of the logical fallacy appeal to authority, this argument ignored some really important details.  First, the primary proponents of Darwinian evolution have a great deal riding on it being accepted, true or not.  They have invested a great deal of intellectual, social, philosophical, economic, and vocational capital in the matter.  The growing weight of evidence, however, suggests more and more powerfully that it just isn’t true.  We’ve seen some of that this summer in our Table Talk series.  If the great majority of scientists believe in evolution it may be because it’s true, but it may also be because they have been educated in places where their reputation and in fact careers depend on their signing off on the Darwinian line.  The “Darwin police” patrol the borders of what they see as scientific orthodoxy very carefully and treat the folks who get too close to the line (much more those who actually cross it!) with a great deal of hostility.  There’s nothing so much like the slaughter of nonconformists to encourage conformity.  All this data shows, though, is that Darwinists have done a remarkable job achieving a nearly unassailable monopoly on the educational apparatus of the country, not that their position is anymore true.

Rather than accepting the premise of this line of argument, challenge it.  What do you mean by that?  Why do you think that?  Can you offer examples of that?  Have you ever interacted with the available counter-evidence?  When I posted my review of Cosmos on my Facebook page I got into a lengthy conversation with an old friend who threw this challenge at me.  “Isn’t Christianity anti-science?” she asked.  I asked her for specific examples and she gave me one: stem cells.  Wasn’t the church against stem cell research?  Thankfully, I know a bit about this and was able to share that the church opposed the morally questionable embryonic stem cell research which, as science has finally figured out, was a gigantic waste of time and resources.  On the other hand, the church wholeheartedly supported adult stem cell research which has turned out to yield fantastic medical advances and miracle cures for many diseases including several types of cancer.  The church not only supported science in this case, but supported the best science from the start over and against the agenda-driven supporters of embryonic stem cell research.  In other words, I showed that she had rejected a god I don’t believe in either, and that perhaps she should consider the God I do believe in as worthy of her devotion.

Last point here.  Since you are heirs to this rich intellectual heritage, don’t just presume upon it, take part in it.  Like those old ads for the Hair Club for Men, don’t just be the president, be a member.  It’s great that Jesus gave us an easy-to-digest summary of the Old Testament here, but let’s hang onto the details too.  Love God first and to others be kind, but this essential task must include our mind.  Love God first and to others be kind; this essential task must include our mind.  How do we do this?  We develop good habits of the mind so that we can love God with all of it.  We need to make a habit of doing things that grow and stretch and challenge our minds.  Read good books.  Read junk too, but make sure that good, intellectually challenging books are always in the mix.  Study the Scriptures.  Don’t merely read as a checklist item.  If you read just to get through the Bible it’ll never get through you.  Study the Scriptures and use the resources you have available (including the library in my office) to make sure you understand it.  Avoid sustaining too heavy a diet of TV and pop-culture.  Be very much aware of the latest trends in each, but take them in as a dynamic critic rather than a mindless slave a la the early Hulu commercials.  Keep up with the latest scientific discoveries and think about the ethical implications and challenges they will present to your kids and grandkids.  In other words, don’t settle for anything less than using the incredible mind God has given you to its utmost capacity.  Love God first and to others be kind, but this essential task must include our mind.  Do all this and prove to the culture that if it rejects a god who makes his followers dumb, so do we.  Then, invite them to consider the God whose followers have contributed more smart things to this world than any other worldview system as someone entirely more worthy their time.  Love God first and to others be kind; this essential task must include our mind.