The Truth of God: Not Trendy (Groothuis)

 I find myself going back to this book several times each year in my studies: Truth Decay by Douglas Groothuis.  In chapter three Groothuis gives a nice summary of the biblical view of truth.  I appreciate them all, but number five sticks out to me right now:

The truth of God is eternally engaging and monument, not trendy or superficial.  In postmodern times, our sensory environments are saturated with bright images, intrusive words and blaring sounds – all vying for our attention (and our funds).  Fads, whether in advertising, politics or sports, come and go with increasing rapidity.  It seems that nothing is settled or rooted or stable over time.  In his book, “The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion” (1993), Stephen Carter laments that for many people (and the state), religion is little more than a hobby, something with which to amuse oneself, a kind of curiosity for when the mood strikes but not something to take all that seriously, especially in matters of legality.

Yet beyond empty ephemeralities, there lies ‘the Rock of ages.’  Beyond the fragility of shifting tastes, hobby horses and market fluctuations stands the Word of the Lord, resolute and rooted in the eternal God of the universe.  ‘The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of God stands forever’ (Is 40:8). ‘Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens (Ps 119:89). And as God  declared to his rebellious people: ‘I the LORD do not change’ (Mal 3:6; see also Heb 13:8). God remains faithful to his covenant with creation and to the community he summons forth.  His word endures and is reliable, from age to age….

God’s truth is grounded in God’s eternal being.  It has no expiration date and needs no image makeovers.  Moreover, it is a living, personal and dynamic truth – a truth that transcends the transient trivialities of our age and touches us at the deepest levels of our beings by including us in an eternal drama.  This truth transforms us, as David knew well: ‘I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you’ (Ps 119:11).

The above quote is found in Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay, 73-74.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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“What is Man?” and Apologetics (Pascal)

As I’ve mentioned a few times here before, Douglas Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics is one of my favorite books on this topic.  I don’t agree with every part of it, but every part of it is insightful and worth reading.  One part that sticks out is the chapter called “Deposed Royalty.”  This chapter is a discussion of Blaise Pascal’s defense of the Christian faith from an anthropological angle.  In other words, one way Pascal aimed to prove the truth of the Christian faith is by arguing that Christianity has the best and most satisfying answer for the fact that man is both wretched and great at the same time.  No other religion can explain this fact nearly as well as Christianity.  Here’s Pascal:

“Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.””Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched: a tree does not know it is wretched.  Thus it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is a greatness in knowing one is wretched.”

Pascal is saying that humans have a sort of “dual nature.”  Here’s how Pascal said it (from God’s perspective):

“…You are no longer in the state in which I made you.  I created man holy, innocent, perfect, I filled him with light and understanding, I showed him my glory and my wondrous works.  Man’s eye then beheld the majesty of God.  He was not then in the darkness that now blinds his sight, nor subject to death and the miseries that afflict him.””But he could not bear such great glory without falling to presumption.  He wanted to make himself his own center and do without my help.  He withdrew himself from my rule, setting himself up as my equal in his desire to find happiness in himself, and I abandoned him to himself.  The creatures who were subject to him I incited to revolt and made his enemies,  so that today man has become like beasts, and is so far apart from me that barely a glimmering idea of his author alone remains of all his dead or flickering knowledge.”

Pascal, of course, says more about this.  But the gist of his apologetic argument is that the philosophers never did reconcile the fact that man is both wretched and great at the same time.  The Christian faith alone gives the best and most plausible reason for why humans are like they are.  Created upright and in God’s image, we fell into sin, and now we are both wretched (sinful) and great (still have a faint reflection of God’s image).  Pascal also noted that humans are redeemable by grace.  Douglas Groothuis summarizes the argument with a Creation-Fall-Incarnation logic:

Humans are 1) wretched because fallen, 2) great because of their unfallen origin and the vestiges of it, and 3) redeemable through the incarnation.

Finally, here’s Pascal’s challenge after talking about the need to answer the “what is man” question:

“Let us examine all the religions of the world on that point and let us see whether any but the Christian religion meets it.”

Pascal’s argument is very much worth considering.  Groothuis did a good job in summarizing it.  If you’re interested, pick up Christian Apologetics and see the chapter called “Deposed Royalty.”  And while you’re at it, check out the other chapters as well!

Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Pragmatism and Postmodernity (Groothuis)

In chapter six of Doug Groothuis’ helpful book, Christian Apologeticshe does a nice job explaining and refuting postmodernism from a Christian point of view.  He notes that in postmodernity, “dialoging about one religion being true or another false is beside the point.  All are ‘true’ in the postmodern sense because they give meaning and direction to people’s lives….”

“The postmodernist view also bears on the increasing tendency of some contemporary people to create their own religions (or ‘spirituality’) by mixing and matching elements of several religions, however incompatible these may be.  If spiritual truth is a matter of social or individual construction, then one need not be constrained by logical consistency or adherence to a received tradition (say Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, or Islamic).”

“There is an element of pragmatism here as well.  If it ‘works’ for someone to combine elements of Hinduism (the practice of yoga) and Christianity (church attendance, the golden rule, and prayer), one need not worry about intellectual consistency or spiritual fidelity to an ancient tradition or revealed authority.  But this smorgasbord approach lacks intellectual integrity because it makes religious belief something to use instead of something to discover and live by.”

Excellent points!  And of course, postmodernist and pragmatic views of religion and spirituality fall short:

“Postmodernity often erodes religious confidence.  What results is a free-floating spirituality largely devoid of certainty or sustained convictions.”

The Christian faith, however, isn’t free-floating, nor is it devoid of certainty, sustained convictions, or truth.  Because the gospel is true, it gives us direction, certainty, and convictions.  You can find this entire excellent discussion in chapter 6 of Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics.

Shane Lems

Natural Theology and Apologetics (Groothuis)

One debate that arises in the area of apologetics is the role or place of natural theology in defending the faith.  By “natural theology” I mean the apologetic method that uses logic to derive rational arguments for God’s existence from nature.  Natural theology goes hand in hand with general revelation, the fact that God reveals himself in creation (albeit in a non-saving way; see Ps. 19 for example).

There are some objections to using natural theology for defending the faith.  For one example, Douglas Groothuis lists nine objections in Christian Apologetics (see chapter 9).  I appreciate his summary of the various objections and I also appreciate how he defends the use of natural theology in light of the objections.

The ninth point of criticism against natural theology for apologetics is that theistic arguments from nature cannot compel belief.  Since they can be resisted by rational people who are not Christians, they are of little apologetic value.  Here’s Groothuis’ response to this objection:

“…Human reasoning is a complex thing.  Theistic arguments may be quite strong in themselves ….yet not be recognized as such by people for a variety of reasons.  First, if an argument cuts sharply against an individual’s worldview, the person will be (at least initially) reluctant to give up or significantly modify his or her beliefs.  Second, someone may find such arguments threatening and simply avoid them for the sake of personal comfort in maintaining previously held beliefs.  Third, a person may (for no good reason) raise the logical bar so high that no theistic argument can reach it.  That is, he or she may insist that unless there is a deductively valid argument for God’s existence that relies on clear promises known to be true by everyone, there is no good evidence for God.  Yet that is no reason to cease arguing entirely.  Many surgeries fail to accomplish their ends, but that is no argument against surgery.  More to the point, many evangelistic overtures are declined, but that is no argument against evangelism.  As in all things, even after diligent labor, Christians leave the results in God’s hands.

In the end, the proof of the theistic proofs lies in proving, that is, in their validity and soundness, and not in theoretical musings about what they can and cannot or should and should not do.  We must simply discover whether the arguments, singly and taken together, make belief in God more credible than otherwise” (p. 184).

This is a helpful response.  The Christian apologist has a toolbox full of various tools to use in defending the faith and presenting the truths of it.  Just because one tool may not always work doesn’t mean we should throw it away!  After all, “…Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…. (Rom. 1:20 NIV).

The above quote is found in Douglas Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011).

Shane Lems

The Biological Basis For Religion?

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Douglas Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics has many strong points.  One part I appreciated was his section on neurotheology, which is the study of the biological basis for religious beliefs.  Some scientists today believe that religious beliefs (e.g. belief in God) can be explained “on the basis of certain functions in the brain.”  In other words, the only reason people have religious beliefs is because of the way our brains work – there is no external or objective basis for religion and faith.  Religion is a figment of our biological and neuro makeup – so they say.

The first thing Groothuis mentions about this is that it is begging the question since these scientists start with a materialistic presupposition: “Since we know there is no God and no sacred realm (all is material), we need to explain (and explain away) why so many have religious experiences.”  This presupposition seriously flaws their thesis.

Another thing Groothuis says is that this is no threat to the faith since we are material as well as spiritual beings.  The mind interacts with the body – Scripture confirms that.  We shouldn’t be surprised to find that brain states correlate with religious beliefs and experiences.

Groothuis continues:

“There is another problem for this reductive view: it works as a boomerang against itself.  If religious beliefs can be explained away as illusory simply because their neurological components (physical states) are identified, we must, by the force of the same argument, explain away as illusory the belief that religious beliefs are illusory (there is no God) because they too are merely neurological states.  This kind of reduction and refutation would extend to all beliefs that can be identified with brain activity.  But this conclusion results in an epistemological nihilism that is unsupportable logically and existentially.”

“It speaks volumes to note that while millions of dollars in grant money goes to explaining the neurological basis of religion, nothing goes to explain the neurological basis of atheism or skepticism.  Apparently, atheism and skepticism are innocent until proven guilty, whereas religious beliefs are just plain guilty.”

Well said!  These are great things to remember the next time you run across an article or person who says religion is a figment of the mind.  It may at first glance sound like a decent thesis, but there are huge flaws in this reasoning, and it comes not from bias free scientific studies, but a materialistic and anti-Christian point of view.

Scripture’s teaching makes much more sense – that because there is a God, and because he created us in his image, we have a “sense of the divine,” as Calvin called it.  Sadly, many people suppress this truth in unrighteousness.

The above quote was taken from Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, p.384.

shane lems

Christianity: Intellectual Suicide? (Groothuis)

 

 

 

 

 

“Some [people] refuse to give Christianity the time of day because they deem it anti-intellectual – a religion that values ignorance and credulity far above critical intelligence.  In his satirical book, “The Devil’s Dictionary” (1911), Ambrose Bierce defined faith as, ‘Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.’  In a book on how to leave one’s religion behind, Marlene Winell writes of a young man named Sandy who was in her ‘religious recovery support group,’ who lost his faith in college through an encounter with an anti-intellectual pastor.  The young man was experiencing doubts as a result of what he was exposed to in college.  Instead of addressing these questions head-on, the pastor kept changing the subject.  One day, when pressed by the young man, the pastor replied, ‘Sandy, it’s about time we call this what it is – sin.’  The young man left the church and Christianity, being unwilling to follow ‘a religion that made thinking a sin.’”

“No one should be willing to follow a religion that decapitates critical thinking.  Anti-intellectualism has quite a grip in many aspects of American culture, not only in the Christian church.  The reasons for the irrational faith shown in some aspects of American Christianity are numerous and will not concern us here except to say that none of the reasons flow from the Bible itself or from the best and truest elements of the Christian tradition.  While some have pitted faith against reason, the Bible does not endorse blind leaps of faith in the dark but rather speaks of the knowledge of God gained through various rational means.  Instead of a ‘leap’ of faith, it commends a well-informed and volitional ‘step’ of faith. …We find then that Christianity should encourage a robust life of the mind and that many philosophers today are owning and defending Christianity philosophically.  There is therefore no reason to refuse to consider Christianity on the (false) basis that in demands intellectual suicide” (p. 95-96, 98).

Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers’ Grove, IVP, 2011).

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Television, Vigilance, Truth

Product Details Douglas Groothuis calls television an agent of truth decay in today’s (post-)postmodern world.  Os Guinness, in Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, from a slightly different angle, comes to a similar conclusion.  So this post and the one quoting Groothuis should be read together.

[[Before I quote Guinness, I do want to note that I’m not saying we should throw our TVs out the window (although doing so might result in an improved Christian life!).  I’m simply pointing these things out so that we, as Christians, might exercise moderation and vigilance when it comes to what we watch and how much we watch (whether in the theater, on the laptop, tablet, smartphone, or actual TV).  We are indeed surrounded by screens, so we need to think about how this might affect the Christian life.  As another side note, these discussions might help us think about violence on television and its relation to the tragic shootings in the past years.]]

Here’s Guinness (slightly edited):

First, television discourse has a bias against understanding.  With its rapid images, its simplistic thought, and its intense emotions, television is devoid of the context needed for true understanding.  Its superficiality amounts to a form of disinformation…‘misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented, or superficial information – information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing.”

Second, television discourse has a bias against responsibility.  The same rapidity, variety, and intensity of images that provides the viewer no context for true understanding also prevents the viewer from engaging with the consequences of what is experienced.  The abrupt – sometimes absurd – discontinuities between programming and advertising particularly makes this so.  ‘There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political burden so costly…that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying ‘Now…this.’”

Third, television discourse has a bias against memory and history.  Its very place and style create a nonstop preoccupation with the present.  Incoherent perhaps, irresponsible certainly, the ceaseless, breathless flow of the Now renders viewers incapable of remembering.”

Fourth, television discourse has a bias against rationality.  With rare exceptions, television so disdains ‘talking heads’ that the very act of thinking becomes unthinkable on television.  A thinker questioned might pause to reflect, ‘Now let me see…What do you mean?’  But on television such thinking is too slow, too uncertain, too boring. …It is theatre rather than thinking, entertaining drama rather than edifying debate.”

Fifth, television discourse has a bias against truth and accuracy.  Credibility was once linked to veracity – someone or something was believable because of being true or not true.  Today, however, credibility serves as a synonym for plausibility – whether someone or something seems to be true.  Credibility in the television age has little to do with principle and all to do with plausibility and performance.  ‘Is it true?’ is overshadowed by ‘Was it compelling/sincere/entertaining/charismatic?’

You can find the entire discussion in chapter 9 (called “Amusing Ourselves To Death” after Neil Postman’s excellent book) of Fit Bodies, Fat Minds by Os Guinness.

shane lems

sunnyside wa