Needed: People to Live (not just Speak) the Truth

According to recent data, the percentage of atheists among thirteen to eighteen-year-olds is approximately double that of any other age group in the U.S. Experts suggest that this age group, known as Generation Z, might be the first to leave the Church and not come back. The Church is wondering what she can do about it.

Those who study the phenomenon have suggested a variety of steps local churches might want to take: encouraging a deeper and more vital engagement with Scripture; providing twenty-something ministry programming; and connecting young people with mentors. These steps are good, but they are rather like launching a lifeboat on a flooded river: some people may get into the boat, but the river’s current will not change direction. Still, we must reach those we can.

Mentoring people in their teens and twenties could be very helpful, but it is not enough to model the same old life young people already know, only with religious flavoring. They need mentors that demonstrate the possibility of an alternative, radically-Christian, genuinely loving way of life, devoid of malice and greed.

When I was new to the church, I was privileged to have those kinds of people in my life. One was William Mack, a nonagenarian who had pastored small churches in Western Pennsylvania when he was much younger. I was just getting out of the starting blocks and he was crossing the finish line, but I learned something from him: what a life looks like when God is the biggest thing in it.

Then there was Burton Quick, another elderly, widowed man who demonstrated the reality of a God-centered life. From William Mack and Burton Quick I learned that living large has nothing to do with income, luxury cars, or lake homes. A larger life requires a greater God, and I was beginning to see that the God of these men was more important than I had previously imagined.

I was in my twenties and pastoring a church when I first met Kenneth West. He was a big man and strongly framed, but what impressed me most was his humility. He was the most unpretentious person I’d ever known. He was obviously intelligent, but he didn’t show off his knowledge. He enjoyed meaningful conversation, but never used it to attract attention to himself. There was an unusual sense of peace about him. One had the impression that he would maintain his equanimity in a hurricane.

It was Dallas Willard’s sharp intellect that first attracted me to him, but it was the overall tenor of his life that brought me back to him again and again. Willard, more than anyone I know, understood how that tenor of life develops. He had learned how to consciously cooperate with God in the process of spiritual formation, and he demonstrated the result: a rich understanding of how life works, coupled with a gentleness of spirit rarely seen, even in the church.

These good men, Mack, Quick, West, and Willard, along with others, have been an enormous help to me. The help they rendered was not simply by the words they spoke or wrote, but by the lives they lived. They demonstrated what the good life really looks like, a life without greed or condemnation, rich in love and joy and peace. None of them knew how much they helped me – even I didn’t know at the time – but my life has been better because of them.

I do not think it a coincidence that all these people were relatively older when I came across them. The kind of life they lived took time to develop. They came into it through trials and errors, along with rugged perseverance, supported by grace. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, the people the church most needs today are not those who can do something, but those who have become someone—someone who shines with the love of God.

This is the need of the hour: church people who can prove such a life – rich in love and devoid of condemnation – is possible. People are dying to see this kind of life. Will Generation Z see it before the cultural currents of futility and apathy sweep them away?

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/21/2018

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Give Your Kids a Clear Alternative

Your teen daughter’s favorite show is “Pretty Little Liars.” Week by week she learns the singular lesson that her value depends on being beautiful, rich, and sexy. Her younger brother hardly watches TV anymore, and you are relieved: their fights have decreased significantly. But there is a price to pay: he’s in his room all afternoon and evening playing “Monster Hunter: World.” Though his sister and he are not fighting they are also not talking, and he only talks to you when you ask him a direct question.

It is beginning to dawn on you that your children are immersed in a value system you despise. They are learning that self-fulfillment is the most important – perhaps the only important – thing in the world. The idea that the goal of life is to feel good, or at least avoid pain, and that money is the way to that goal, is constantly reinforced. Sex, as demonstrated again and again in the media they consume, is represented as an exciting and pleasurable, but fundamentally meaningless.

They are learning that rules are made to be broken, which is the recurring theme of the TV shows your daughter binge-watches with her friends. In those same shows, parents are almost always ridiculous and stupid, and religious people are hypocritical and mean. When God is talked about, which is not often, he is portrayed in such a distorted manner that he is unrecognizable: a straw God.

Some parents, when they discover this, try to restrict their children’s media consumption, but by then it is too late. And, while limiting exposure to social and other media is a wise thing to do for children, teens, or adults, it is not the answer. What parents need to do is offer their children an alternative to the culture of self-absorption.

Urging children to lose themselves in work or sports is not an alternative. It is the same addictive lifestyle with a different drug of choice. What children need to see is a radically different value system, where life itself is good and people are objects of love. This is certainly not what they see presented in the media.

Nowadays the media, including media targeted at teens, glorifies darkness. Darkness is considered more “grown up,” more important, than light. The class of critics that lives in a symbiotic (or perhaps parasitic) relationship to the media are constantly extolling it. It is up to parents to help their children see the joy and beauty – and especially the meaningfulness – of light.

Parents must also demonstrate to their children that doubt is not automatically superior to belief. Contemporary culture regards doubters as more intelligent than believers, and this is particularly true in the academy. As Dallas Willard once quipped, “You can almost be as stupid as a cabbage as long as you doubt.” Intellectuals of an earlier generation would have been astonished by such an idea. Doubt may be a shortcut to academic acceptance today, but it was not, and will not, always be so.

Immersed in a culture where dark is light and light is dark, doubt is wise and belief is foolish (or worse, unsophisticated), many young people – the numbers are alarming – are leaving the church and the faith. There are various reasons for this but an important one is that they do not see any connection between the faith their parents espouse and the good life, as they have had it portrayed by the culture around them. Unless they are presented with an attractive and workable alternative, the faith cannot help but seem to them irrelevant or even illusory.

The people best positioned to present that alternative are their parents, but parents need to see it demonstrated themselves. This is where the church comes in. One of the most important things it can offer, more important even than sermons and Sunday School lessons, is the example of the extraordinary man or woman who lives the compelling life of love through faith-filled interaction with God. They shine with a light that makes the self-absorbed life appear petty and drab. In their presence, the life described in the Bible is no longer an abstraction, but a three-dimensional, attractive, real-life possibility.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/14/2018

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When Ideas Collapse, People Get Hurt

Drive into a city, Chicago, for example, and the first thing you will see is the skyline. From miles away you can see the Willis Tower, the Trump Hotel and Tower, and the Aon Center. But you cannot see the skyscrapers’ foundations. Even if you stand next to one, its foundation will largely be invisible because most of it is underground – in some cases, descending one hundred feet. Should the foundation be compromised, the skyscraper could topple.

Ideas are, in a sense, like buildings: they are constructed on a foundation and without it they will collapse. This has certainly happened. In the 1980s, for example, the idea of cold fusion – creating nuclear reactions at relatively low temperatures – captured the attention of scientists. It held the promise of cheap and universal energy. But the idea was based on an unrepeatable experiment. It lacked a foundation.

Go further back. Aristotle taught that life was spontaneously generated from inanimate matter. He based the hypothesis on the foundational ideas of earlier philosophers. But the foundation was not well-laid, and the idea eventually toppled.

Like a city skyline, there is such a thing as a cultural skyline. It is not constructed from concrete and steel but from ideas. Some of these ideas can be very prominent but the foundation on which they are built is largely hidden. If it is well-built, the idea may be around for a long time. If not, it may come toppling down like Aristotle’s spontaneous generation.

One of the ideas that stands out in society currently is that gender is, or at least can be, fluid. The idea is that a person can identify as a man or woman (or something else) at different times in his, her, or their lives. This idea has achieved prominence, particularly on college campuses, with their focus on protecting the rights of sexual minorities.

Gender fluidity is an idea, and, like all ideas, it is built on supporting ideas and based on a foundation. As regards gender fluidity, except in the case of intersex (formerly known as hermaphroditic) people, identity is not based on genetics (XX or XY chromosomes) but on feelings and desires.

The idea that we are what we feel has been around far longer than the idea of gender fluidity and is foundational to it. But do our feelings really define us? Do they make us who we are? The idea is certainly widespread, but is it true? Is it safe? Or has it led us into confusion, addiction, and other troubles? Will future generations think of this idea the way we now think of cold fusion and spontaneous generation?

Another prominent idea in the intellectual skyline of our society is that each person has a right to pursue his or her own happiness. This idea has been ensconced in our national consciousness by the Declaration of Independence. But Thomas Jefferson did not create the phrase or the idea. He took it (in all likelihood) from one of his favorite philosophers, John Locke. Locke, in turn, almost certainly borrowed the idea from Greek and Roman ethical philosophy, particularly from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Were Jefferson, Locke, or Aristotle to see the excesses and injustices that have been done under the banner of the right to the pursuit of happiness, they would be horrified. Locke realized that “the pursuit of true and solid happiness” would sometimes require us “to suspend the satisfaction of our desires,” an idea that is not only foreign but is antithetical to present-day thinking. Aristotle linked happiness to living well and doing well. Jefferson himself wrote that while “happiness [is] the aim of life,” “virtue is the foundation of happiness.”

The right to the pursuit of happiness, at least as the idea is usually presented in contemporary America, is not a higher story idea built on the same foundation on which Jefferson labored. People who claim it as justification for their behavior – “I have a right to be happy, don’t I?” – may think they are standing on a Jeffersonian foundation, but they are badly mistaken.

Ideas matter. The provenance of ideas matter. Poorly-founded ideas eventually collapse and, when they do, people get hurt.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/7/2018

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Why I Keep an Empty Coke Can on My Shelf

When I was young, my parents or other adults occasionally quoted to me the old saw, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” I haven’t heard that for a long time. It’s as if the maxim has dropped out of contemporary parlance. Apparently, a metaphor about a book and its cover no longer strikes home in our digital world.

Nevertheless, the adage stands: you still can’t judge a book by its cover. A torn and tattered cover may contain a priceless book while an attractive cover may surround 300 pages of rubbish. Or vice-versa. When I visit a used bookstore, I largely ignore splashy, contemporary covers. Perhaps I have missed some great, even life-changing, books because I was judging them by their covers.

However, no one was ever speaking about books when they shared that bit of wisdom with me. They were always thinking of people. The point is always: You can’t judge a person by the way he or she looks.

Isn’t that the truth? Sometimes it’s the people who appear to have it all together that are falling apart, the people who seem full of confidence that are sad and empty. The psychologist Madeline Levine has identified a new variety of unhappy teenagers. In the past, they were often socially inept kids who got poor grades and struggled to fit in. Now the unhappy teen is increasingly likely to be smart, successful, and privileged—yet lost and profoundly empty.

For Dr. Levine, one client epitomizes this new type of adolescent unhappiness. She was her last appointment on a Friday afternoon, a 15-year-old girl Levine described as “bright, personable, [and] highly pressured by her adoring, but frequently preoccupied … parents.”

She wore a long-sleeve t-shirt pulled halfway over her hand, with an opening cut in the cuff for her thumb. Since girls sometimes wear these kinds of shirts to hide self-mutilating behaviors, the therapist asked her to pull back her sleeve. When she did, Dr. Levine was startled to find the girl had used a razor to carve the word “EMPTY” onto her forearm.

Levine says that the most common thing she hears from kids these days is, “I’m fake.” On the surface, their lives look good. They are successful students with many friends. They leave school in new cars that take them to beautiful homes with manicured lawns. “But,” Dr. Levine says, “when you get to what’s going on beneath these kids’ T-shirts, there’s not much happening inside.” They are empty.

Emptiness is a disorder that affects adults as well as teens, religious as well as irreligious people. As a pastor, I have met many religious people, including clergy, who look good on the outside but are empty on the inside. They dress right, use the most up-to-date phrases and buzzwords and, frankly, are an impressive sight. But they are, in the prophet Jeremiah’s memorable metaphor, “broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” They are empty.

That may not always have been the case. They may once have been full of life and enthusiasm but, as a friend of mine says, “People leak.” The outside still looks good, but the inside is empty,

On a bookshelf in my study I keep an empty Coke can. It’s not empty because someone drank it. It is sealed, the pull-top still in place, the familiar white Coca-Cola logo emblazoned on the shiny red can. It came in a case of Coke in which every other can was full, but this one was empty.

I keep it as a reminder that I can look fine on the outside – proper, pious, kind – and yet be empty on the inside, a disappointment to those who are thirsting for something real. People are thirsting, but they will never quench their thirst on the way a thing looks.

Jesus pictured (and lived) a different kind of life, one that is rich and full, and enlivens others. He spoke of the availability of a life in which “rivers of living water” flow from within a person to refresh those around him. This life, as he made clear, is given to those who trust and obey him, but constantly eludes those who rely on appearances.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/16/2018

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It’s Time to Get Out of Line

By Martin Lewison from The Hague, Zuid-Holland, The Netherlands – Cedar Point and Oberlin’s CommencementUploaded by Themeparkgc, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26787830

The church I attended as a teen had a gold-colored carpet, cream-colored walls, and a dark-stained wood trim. In the front was a baptistry, inset and framed by walls on either side. All along the front of the sanctuary, even over the baptistry, were decorative dark wood strips, attached to the wall and descending from the ceiling, approximately a foot apart and eighteen inches long.

At one time, I knew just how many of those decorative strips there were. I had counted every one of them. Our pastor in those days was an older man in his final pastorate, and he was not what you would call a dynamic speaker. To keep myself from falling asleep, I would count the strips. Some sermons required as many as three recounts.

The possibility that our pastor’s sermons were especially boring didn’t occur to me until years later. I assumed all pastors were boring. I knew Christianity had developed out of the most important and exciting events in the history of the world but, paradoxically, I believed the Church was uninteresting by its very nature.

Verses like Revelation 3:12 didn’t help: “Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God.” The image of a pillar – silent, impassive, and stuck forever in an endless worship service – seemed at once to be apt and unappetizing. But then I hadn’t converted because I thought Christianity would be fun and adventurous. I converted because I thought it was true.

So it came as something of a surprise to find that following Jesus is a massively big adventure. Long prayers and dry sermons are not only not integral to Christian faith, they are antithetical to it. I had absorbed the idea that Christianity was boring from people who were bored. And how could they not be bored? In their minds, the main reason – and for some of them, the only reason – to become a Christian was to go to heaven when one died. Enduring long prayers and dry sermons was the price one paid to reserve decent housing in eternity.

I labored long under the misconception that Christianity was only about getting into heaven. I now think of that as amusement park theology. The anticipated ride – heaven – will be worth the wait, yet the wait will be long and boring. During the long wait, one should not be rude (that’s morals); one should talk to others in the line (encouragement); and outside the line (evangelism); but whatever else one does, one must not step out of line (apostasy).

In one version, stepping out of line means one can never return, while another version insists it is always possible to get back into line. A variant on the first of these claims that stepping out of line proves one was never really in line to begin with. Thousands of pages of detailed arguments have been written in support of these views. They possess value, but only if they are recontextualized in a biblical, not an amusement park, theology. It’s time to get out of line.

Amusement park theology did not originate with Jesus. His chosen image of the Christian life, which he presented repeatedly, was not of people standing around doing nothing while they wait for their shuttle to heaven, but of people following him in this world. The Christian life, as Jesus presented it, is a “follow me” life. It is active, not static; adventurous, not boring.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/9/2018

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Tolkien, God, and Character Development

Joseph Pearce, in the book Tolkien: Man and Myth tells how, in a 1997 poll, English readers voted J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, the book of the century. The literati were embarrassed by their fellow-countrymen. In a nation that produced the likes of George Eliot, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, and Thackeray – to name a few – how could the masses choose a fantasy for adolescents as the book of the century?

Months later, The Daily Telegraph took its own poll. Same result. Then the Folio Society asked its ten thousand members to rank their top ten books. Same result. Too bad for the literati, who refuse to believe a novel that isn’t about adultery and self-obsession could be good.

I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time the year I got married. I’d loved reading since I was a boy, but I had never enjoyed a book as much as I did The Lord of the Rings. Still haven’t. I have read Tolkien’s masterpiece once a decade or so since, most memorably aloud to my three sons. It is not the best novel I have ever read, but it is the most enjoyable.

Being a lover of the book, I naturally hated Peter Jackson’s film version and can only imagine Tolkien’s horror. Yes, it’s true the films garnered eleven Oscars, but they manifestly lacked Tolkien’s sensibilities. The book is comprised of 62 chapters, and I can only remember three that are dominated by battle scenes. Compare that to the movie, which is a gory war picture. For Tolkien, the most important battles between good and evil are always fought within, not between, people. Jackson missed this.

There were other things Jackson missed or reinterpreted that annoyed me. Chief among them is one of my favorite scenes in the book, when the protagonist Frodo’s loyal servant Sam lets slip the above-top-secret news that his master is carrying an instrument (for lack of a better word) with the power to bring victory in the war. He betrays the secret to the brother of a man who had already treacherously tried to steal it.

This man, however, is more noble than his brother. When he finds that fate has delivered the instrument into his hands, he refuses to take it. After one of the tensest moments in the novel, it becomes clear that he will not sacrifice his honor by forcefully taking the item.

After the fear and shock pass, a deeply-relieved Sam commends the man. “[You] showed your quality,” he tells him, “the very highest.”

The man shrugs off what he has done: “There was naught in this to praise. I had no lure or desire to do other than I have done.”

But Tolkien, for whom the character of his characters is of supreme importance, expects us to know this is not so. There is nothing worthier of praise than character. To desire to do some evil, yet refuse to do it, is praiseworthy. To have developed the kind of character that does not even desire to do evil is more praiseworthy still.

As a novelist, Tolkien saw the character development of his characters to be an important –perhaps the most important – aspect of his story. In this Tolkien, a devoted Christian, was like the God he confessed. For God, who allows us to be collaborators with him in his grand story, always makes plot serve character. One could almost say the purpose of creation’s plot is, from God’s perspective, the development of a particular kind of character in humans.

According to the Bible, God intends to bestow enormous power on his human characters, rather as Professor Tolkien bestowed enormous power on his character Frodo. At this point in God’s story, most of us have not developed the character required to possess such power without doing harm. But the long story of humanity’s fall and redemption looks forward to the day when that will change, when God will be able to “glorify” his human creatures and give them authority to rule the world. And they will do so justly, as he always intended.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter under the title, 6/2/2018 Character Is of Supreme Importance

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Think You Know What the Bible Really Says?

The first line of the Nicene Creed is, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” This claim has, as I have previously argued, practical implications. For example, if God made the earth, we had best not deface it. If God designed human sexuality, we should try to understand and conform to the design specs.

To articulate this claim in contemporary culture is to cause consternation among well-intentioned people and invite invective from others. A reader I believe to be well-intentioned recently commented, “And the Bible says slavery is acceptable and that women are property … are you following all the same laws…?”

I’ve encountered this kind of reasoning before. People mistakenly hold the Bible and, more specifically, Christianity, responsible for past injustices, like slavery and the unjust treatment of women. They then go on to argue that, since the Bible was wrong about past issues, anything it has to say about current issues, like gender and sexuality, must also be wrong.

This kind of reasoning overlooks both the theology of biblical revelation and the realities of ancient history. Contrary to the reader’s claim, the Bible never says, “slavery is acceptable.” To make Christians responsible for the institution of slavery when it did not originate within their tradition evidences bias. Have we forgotten that the first biblical writers had been slaves themselves? They knew the injustice of slavery from the inside.

The Bible, according to theologians, is a progressive revelation of the character and purpose of God. It speaks to people in their own historical context, not where twenty-first century people might wish them to be. It’s true that the Bible does not, as Abraham Lincoln later did, bring an end to slavery by fiat. But slavery in the ancient world was unlike slavery in the post-enlightenment West. Many people chose to enter slavery for economic reasons, and almost all slaves were dependent upon their masters for survival. To end slavery immediately by fiat would have proved catastrophic.

While the Bible doesn’t prohibit slavery, it does insist on the just treatment of slaves. The biblical writers remind slave owners that God “owns” them, so they had better treat their slaves well. St. Paul goes further, and encourages slaves to buy their freedom, if they can. In many ways, the biggest blow to slavery did not come from Wilberforce or Mansfield in England or from Lincoln in the America, but from the ancient church. Slaves often held the highest positions in the early church, sometimes exercising spiritual authority over their own masters. It was in this setting that Paul wrote these revolutionary words: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The unjust treatment of women is another case in point: Don’t hold the Judeo-Christian tradition responsible for it. Women were counted as property long before Abraham, the father of the Jewish and Christian faiths, was born. Yet within the Judaic tradition, laws were enacted to protect women from unjust divorce practices. Jesus shocked contemporaries, even his own followers, by the respect he showed women and, on more than one occasion, stood up for women when they were being mistreated.

St. Paul is often labeled a misogynist today. It is an outrageous claim, one that would have angered his friends and coworkers, many of whom were women. He commended them to the church, and generously praised their hard work, even though he came from a culture where rabbis would not speak to women in public!

I suspect the rejection of the doctrine of creation has more to do with today’s issues than yesterday’s injustices. To claim there is a divinely-given design for human sexuality is deemed unjust and even capricious. Frankly, anything that limits our “freedoms” is deemed unjust these days. But if those limits are rooted in our design, they are anything but capricious.

The claim that there is a divine design is not intended to limit freedom, still less to pass judgment on people – “Who am I to judge?” as Pope Francis famously said. Rather it is to encourage people to reconsider, without bias, the Bible’s claims, and the benefits it promises.

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It’s Time to Take Creation Seriously

The idea that God created the material universe is foundational to the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The first verse of the Bible, the one on which the rest of the Scriptures stand, states: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

According to Jews, Christians, Muslims and others, everything came into existence through the intentional act of an unimaginably powerful being. That is a big idea. Its importance is impossible to overstate. Creation implies intention, and intention implies purpose.

That big idea has been challenged. The University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne has said that “the universe and life are pointless … in the sense that there is no externally imposed purpose or point in the universe. As atheists, this is something that is manifestly true to us. We make our own meaning and purpose.”

Coyne agrees with his theistic opponents. Without God, “the universe and life are pointless.” Yet he immediately tries to salvage meaning and purpose by asserting that humans can create their own. Many atheists deny this possibility, but even if Coyne’s assertion is true, it must be acknowledged that humans are powerless to create purpose or meaning that endures. Human purpose ultimately devolves into purposelessness and meaning into meaninglessness.

Unfortunately, interest in creation, particularly among fundamentalists and evangelicals, has often been limited to the method of creation and the age of the earth. These things should be explored and logically debated, but the method of creation is just one door, and a side door at that, into a large house, with many rooms. Too often people stand outside the house and argue about how it was built rather than entering in, enjoying it, and caring for it.

A growing number of Christians have, in recent decades, rediscovered the importance of the doctrine of creation. The conservation and environmental movements of the last century, and green technologies and sustainability in this century, have forced Christians to think about the implications of the doctrine of creation. But Johnny-come-lately Christians would have been out in front of this had they taken their own doctrine of creation seriously.

Though the doctrine of creation has helped some Christians be comfortably fashionable in their commitment to keep and protect the earth—and being fashionable is a more powerful motive than most of us care to admit – it has left other Christians awkwardly unfashionable. For if the Bible is right and God created humankind male and female and blessed their union, it is hard to avoid the implication that creation displays God’s clear intentions regarding human gender and sexuality. Yet to say so in contemporary society is to invite reproach and ridicule.

Concern for the planet has led some people to enthusiastically embrace the biblical doctrine of creation, but they have ignored that doctrine’s implications for gender, sex, and marriage. They have hitched their faith to cultural trends and then looked to the Bible for support. That’s getting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Another, and often overlooked, implication of the doctrine of creation is that God created humans to live in community. In the creation narrative, God is quite blunt: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Isolation is not good. It is ironic, but for individuals to be all they can be, they simply cannot be individualistic.

Yet modern culture is increasingly individualistic. The very idea of “the common good” is in danger of being lost. When I was a boy, we shared our phone with people in the neighborhood on a party line. Today, moms and dads and kids wouldn’t think of sharing a phone with each other, much less with the rest of the neighborhood.

The doctrine of creation calls us to community, but society is headed in the opposite direction. We sit alone, even in a restaurant full of people, and interact with digital images. More and more, our friends and family live on a 4-G network. How ironic that “privacy” has become one of contemporary society’s most pressing concerns.

The Bible asserts that “It is [God] who has made us, and not we ourselves.” The doctrine of Creation informs us that we were purposed and, contrary to Professor Coyne, we are not free to repurpose ourselves. Life works best when we operate according to the designer’s specs.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/19/2018

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Human Perception and the Nature of Reality

Human’s interact with the world through the five senses, which Aristotle listed as sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. But our “reality interface” also includes senses that Aristotle knew nothing about in his day. To date, researchers have identified between 7 and 14 senses, depending upon how one defines a “sense.”

There is proprioception, the body’s awareness of where it is in space. Equilibrioception gives the body balance. It depends on the vestibular system, which also gives us an awareness of velocity. There is mechanosensation, which communicates neuronal sensations to the brain, and others.

Some animals have senses we do not possess or do not use. In their hunt for prey, sharks use electroception, the ability to sense electrical fields. Bats navigate by magnetoreception, the ability to detect magnetic fields.

Whether human or some other species, the experience of reality is mediated to all animals through the senses. Yet, the ability to effectively use these senses does not come ready-made. It develops gradually, especially in humans.

Research suggests that children under the age of 8 are unable to fully integrate information simultaneously received by the various senses. They can hear a bird’s call and see a cardinal perched on a telephone line, but their brains may not be able to combine the information from both senses into one experience.

A recent study comparing how children and adults process visual information, conducted by University College of London and Birkbeck University, found that adults can integrate multiple visual cues in a way that children under the age of 12 cannot. Vision is not a unified experience but is constructed from multiple cues that are consolidated by the brain. Children’s brains do not consolidate the information the way an adult’s brain does.

One example: depth perception is based on more than one visual cue. The brain uses stereopsis, the visual signals received by two eyes rather than just one, to perceive depth. It also uses texture, convergence (the narrowing of the perceived separation of objects as they grow more distant), and other cues as well. Children see these various cues, just as adults do, but their brains do not consolidate them as effectively as adults. They remain distinct.

If animals perceive reality differently than humans – think of sharks using electromagnetic fields to find their supper – and if adults perceive reality differently than children, what makes us think that adulthood brings with it an accurate and comprehensive perception of reality? Is this conceit warranted? We readily admit that a child’s or animal’s perception is limited. Why do we assume that ours is not?

If there are higher order beings in the universe – think of science fiction’s familiar super aliens – might they not receive sense data that we cannot experience and process such enhanced data in ways that surpass our abilities? But higher order beings are not just in science fiction; they are also in the Bible. Various species of beings are mentioned in Scripture, the most familiar of which we call angels. We know what they are called, but we hardly know what they are, or of what they are capable. Do angels perceive reality differently, and perhaps more fully, than we do?

Recent research into quantum anomalies has led some scientists to claim that there is no independent reality apart from observation and measurement. Physics World went so far as to claim, “Quantum physics says goodbye to reality.” But this idea assumes that human perception is what matters – an assumption which is dubious, at best.

Still, the physicists may be onto something when they say that reality is not independent of observation. Where they err is in thinking that it is human observation that gives reality its shape. Not even adult humans are developed enough to make full use of the data their senses receive—and what of the data they don’t receive?

It is not humans nor even angels who give reality objective existence. They are both creatures, whose existence is contingent on another. The one who observes all reality, and in so doing gives it an objective reality, is the creator: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/5/2018

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Relationships Are Key to a Flourishing Life

In, The Adventure of Silver Blaze, Arthur Conan Doyle puts Sherlock Holmes on the case of a missing thoroughbred, horse-napped on the eve of a big race. His trainer is also missing and presumed dead. Holmes usually solves cases by spotting evidence others have overlooked, and then fitting it into a logically consistent narrative. But this time, he doesn’t solve the case by what he finds but by what he doesn’t find. He doesn’t find anyone who heard the guard dog barking in the night.

When Holmes draws the Scotland Yard detective’s attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” the detective replies, “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” Holmes replies, “That was the curious incident.” Holmes realized that the most important clue was not what he found at the scene, but what was missing.

Perhaps Holmes’s approach might help us make sense of a very different kind of mystery. Imagine a case in which people from diverse racial, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds are experiencing increased incidences of cognitive dysfunction and breakdowns in health. Imagine further – it seems a red herring to most observers – an increase in political extremism among these people.

These “clues” are not out of a detective story, but out of the evening news. How do they fit together? Could the presence of some hitherto unnoticed influence explain these diverse consequences? Or might the real explanation lie with what ought to be there but is missing – “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”?

There have been increases in cognitive dysfunction among older Americans, along with a rise in certain health problems across all ages: diabetes, obesity, increased stress, elevated levels of inflammation, and more. Researchers have looked for clues in what we eat and in our daily routines – the things that are present in our lives – but only recently have they looked for clues in what is missing from our lives.

What is missing? Close and meaningful friendships. Andrew Horn writes that the number of close friendships in America has dropped over the past few decades: “Between 1985 and 2004, the General Social Survey reported that the average number of confidants Americans felt they could talk to about important matters in their lives fell from 2.94 to 2.08.”

Things get worse. One out of four respondents to the survey say that they have no one with whom they can share important matters. No one. Zero.

Loneliness is shortening people’s lives. It is robbing them of their wellbeing. The absence of meaningful relationships is slowly killing people.

A review of research on the subject in Science suggests that social isolation places a person at the same risk for illness or premature death as does high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise or smoking. Another study linked loneliness to an increased risk for developing dementia.

God knew what he was talking about when he said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Humans need interaction. Meaningful relationships are a key to a healthy, happy, and flourishing life.

I can’t be myself by myself. I discover myself through interaction with others. As C. S. Lewis explained: “By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.” I need relationships, first with my creator, then with others, if I am to understand and become myself.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the kind of relationships in which a person discovers and becomes himself or herself are not digital ones. So where, if not on Facebook, will twenty-first century people find them?

There are, of course, many places. Enriching relationships have begun in coffeeshops, service clubs, country clubs and even bars. But the church is the ideal place. The church, though far from perfect, is a place where people are supposed to care for and respect each other. The church is a place where people find themselves by finding God – or being found by him – and then find each other. God, the biblical poet writes, “sets the lonely in families,” and one of his go-to families in which to place people is the church.

 

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter

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