The Failure of Philosophy and the SCOTUS Decision

nietzscheI was reading an interview with seven philosophers about the SCOTUS decision legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states, and in none of their short essays, save one, did the philosophers who responded actually apply any serious philosophy. Their answers are mostly opinion pieces lauding justice and dignity, with no attempt to define those terms philosophically, or to justify their importance. As K. Scott Oliphint says, Philosophy is largely well-articulated unbelief.

Only one philosopher, Cheshire Calhoun of Arizona State University, asks the right question. She notices that Justice Kennedy, in his majority opinion, referred several times to the “transcendent purpose of marriage.” As a non-Christian Calhoun questions where Kennedy gets the notion of the transcendent, and why that notion should be binding. The transcendent smacks of religion, and that cannot be tolerated, so she suggests that we do away with the concept and the vocabulary.

If any law is based on a concept of transcendence, there is a danger that transcendence may interfere with the next sexual taboo to fall, be it polygamy, incest, etc. Best to drop the language of transcendence, she advises, because it legitimizes marriage too much, and it’s high time we stopped considering marriage to be anything more than a misguided relic of the hateful past.

Calhoun is right about one thing. If there is a transcendent to which we can appeal, we are all in deep trouble. That transcendent may demand of us things we don’t want to do. It may hold the specter of future judgment. Like many of her philosophical peers, Calhoun is eager to jettison the notion. Also like many of her peers, she forgets the prescient words of one of her own comrades in the philosophical guild, albeit of a different century.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s parable of the madman confronts the hubris of those who discard the divine. He knew that ridding ourselves of the transcendent did not bring bondage, but a loss of the foundations of society, dignity, and rationality.

“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

What Calhoun celebrates, the idolization of desire, will not only be the destruction of her trade, philosophy, but civilization as a whole, the very thing she thinks has been saved by SCOTUS’s decision. If desire reigns, there is no need for philosophy, because each one’s own peccadillos are all that matters. Philosophy’s task is rendered irrelevant. There is no more room for the questions of universal good and justice. Such questions themselves become as oppressive as a transcendent idea of marriage.

The concept of civilization, too, will have to be redefined or discarded, once the most deviant in society realize that the holy grail of hedonism, consent, is nothing more than a preference. If there is no transcendent, there can be no argument that consent should be the guiding ethic of sexual expression. Once consent is lost, it’s a quick fall to chaos and destruction.

Bible believers know what happens when everyone does what is right in his own eyes. The biblical book of Joshua recounts the horrors of life without restraint. As one Puritan divine prayed, “O God, it is amazing that men can talk so much about man’s creaturely power and goodness, when, if thou didst not hold us back every moment, we should be devils incarnate. This, by bitter experience, thou hast taught me concerning myself.”

While those in favor of the SCOTUS decision praise it for its grant of justice and dignity, they pull the rug out from their own feet. Do away with the transcendent God, and terms like mercy and justice become meaningless. Only by beginning with the triune God of Scripture can the genuine dignity and justice in the world be possible.

Stale White Bread: The State of Evangelism in the Church

In an article last month in Christianity Today on the state of evangelism in the American church, Ed Stetzer summarizes two recent studies by Lifeway Researchers and the Barna Group. The Lifeway study concluded what any observant ChristiaWhite-Breadn already knows—evangelism has dropped off significantly in recent decades. Most Protestant Christians (85%) believe they have a responsibility to share the gospel, but only a few (25%) actually do so, or plan to do so.

Why is this? As with any issue, the answer is complex, but I can suggest several reasons.

First, evangelism training has not changed much in 50 years. The last evangelism training many Christians received was the same as what their grandparents received, even though the world has drastically changed. Post-WWII evangelism was primarily aimed at Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants, both of whom held to a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian view of man’s ability to merit God’s favor to some extent through good works. These were people who already believed in the Christian God (to some extent), and who already respected the Bible. Evangelism, therefore, was primarily focused on showing the listener from the Bible that salvation was by grace, not works. From the 1940’s through the 70’s, this strategy worked quite well, as untold numbers were saved and churches grew. But it inherently lacked any great substance, like white bread. It appeared to be nutritious for the church, but it lacked any substance.

By the 80’s and 90’s this form of evangelism began to decrease in its effectiveness. Postmodern skepticism, the public failure of influential Christian leaders, and the influx of world religions through immigration changed the fabric of American society. No longer could evangelists assume that their hearers believed what had been widely held a few decades before. Now they were encountering objections to the Christian faith from a variety of directions. Believers found themselves having to defend the Bible and Christianity in ways many felt ill-equipped to do well—textual criticism, the historicity of the Gospel accounts, and the uniqueness of the Christian faith among world religions.

Coinciding with this change in the culture was the Church Growth Movement’s emphasis on the “come and see” approach to reaching the lost. This is the second reason many Christians don’t share the gospel—the whole idea of serious discipleship and the “go and tell” of the Great Commission has been superseded. Removing anything that could be remotely offensive to unbelievers, these proponents sought to massage the unbeliever into the kingdom. I have met many attenders of CGM that were no clearer on the gospel than the average Muslim or Mormon, because the sharp edges of sin, wrath, repentance and belief had been whittled down to having an emotional experience with God. Christians in these types of churches, like toothless, domesticated bears at a roadside attraction, are reduced to inviting their friends and neighbors to the next “super” event at their megachurch, because they themselves have never been equipped.

The stale evangelism training of the previous generations fails in today’s world. This was brought home to me powerfully while speaking at a family camp in St. John, New Brunswick last summer. A retired pastor of 50 years, now in his late 70’s, approached me after I gave a session on apologetics. He grabbed my hand firmly and said, “That’s what we should have been teaching all these years! We have been teaching evangelism all wrong!” In other words, the canned approach of spitting out a gospel formula failed to follow the example of Jesus and the apostles in their evangelism, and therefore was unable to deal with objections and challenges. This elderly saint recognized the power in an apologetic approach that enabled one to “go and tell.”

That brings us to the Barna study, which found that 65% of Millennials (those born between 1980 and the mid 2000’s) had shared their faith in the last year with an unbeliever. This is encouraging news. And it doesn’t surprise me as an undergraduate professor. Much more than my generation, the Busters, younger Christians seem motivated to know their faith and to boldly share it.

There are many factors involved in this generational shift, but one I believe is a major part of this move is the resurgence of apologetics. With the advent of the internet the availability of resources for defending the Christian faith have become ubiquitous. Younger Christians who are tech-savvy can easily find and learn apologetic answers to the challenges that arise against their faith.

The younger generation may be able to revive the evangelistic fervor of the American church that the Busters and Boomers lost. Rather than see the declining state of evangelism as something to mourn, we ought rather to perceive it as an opportunity for a new, more potent and effective form to rise from its ashes. This new evangelism will be apologetically equipped and ready for the challenges that arise. We may yet see a great revival of evangelism in our day.

The Terror of Antiquated Creeds

TerrorI spoke at my son’s Baccalaureate service this week, and it was held at an area church. The service provided an opportunity for the fellowship of Christian students at his public school to celebrate the faithfulness of God to them during the last year, and to celebrate the seniors’ graduation.

While waiting for the service to begin, I thumbed through the “chorus book” of the United Methodist Church. The title of the fourth song in the book caught my attention: “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning.” Besides the clumsy lyrics (“As two currents in a river fight each other’s undertow…”), it sounded like a scientist or mathematician wrote it, as it incorporated words and phrases like “calculation,” “converging,” “science,” “coherent,” and “breadth of human knowledge.” All good words, no doubt, but strange for a hymn.

The third verse, however, holds the real gem. Here are the lyrics:

May our faith redeem the blunder of believing that our thought

Has displaced the grounds for wonder which the ancient prophets taught.

May our learning curb the error which unthinking faith can breed

Lest we justify some terror with an antiquated creed.

Say what?

Now, I am all for correcting error that unthinking faith can breed. We have plenty of that in evangelical Christianity. Think the Left Behind series, celebrity pastors, TBN, and those who emulate the Duggars.

The crown jewel, though, is the word terror. The creeds now become the principles behind terrorism. This reminds me of my year spent studying German philosophy at Villanova University. In a class on Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of my professors became well-known in the philosophical world for his dissertation, which argued that disagreement constituted violence. I think the irony was lost on him that any dissertation worth its salt disagrees with at least some ideas from others.

So here is the UMC chorus book warning of the potential terror that might be unleashed on humanity should we hold to an ancient creed. This is the hubris of liberalism. Only those who live in the modern world of the late 20th century and early 21st century can be considered enlightened. Scratch that. Only the present liberal mind that does not hold too strongly to any religious beliefs can be considered enlightened.

Yet, what terror and disorder the abandonment of “antiquated creeds” has brought to our world! Nietzsche was indeed a prophet when he warned 19th century liberal Europeans in his “Parable of the Madman” that in killing God they had unleashed eternal night.

What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?

I contemplated the small group of teens gathered for the baccalaureate service in this UMC church. They had just navigated another year of public school boldly, and with a potent testimony that led to students being converted. I thanked God that they had cast their lot with the creeds and, as a result, possessed a thinking and powerful faith.