The World’s Worst Proof for the Existence of God

I have come to terms. I’ll admit it: Philosophers are less attuned to ‘the obvious’ than most.

I even remember the morning that I realized I had no choice but to accept the stereotype. A group of philosophy faculty and students were gathered in my professor’s office, and we needed more chairs to accommodate everyone. Five or six people calculated the number of chairs needed. Five or six different numbers resulted.

The story came to my mind while exploring John Locke’s epistemology as described in his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and his personal commentary on the EssayThe Sillingfleet Correspondence.

In a previous article, I discussed Locke’s theory of government: whether or not it is correct, I found his ideas, at the very least, readily understandable. So I was surprised by my reaction to Locke’s explorations of ‘human knowledge’. I couldn’t help but feel like Locke and I were struggling to accurately count chairs.

If we join Locke on his journey, by the end we cannot know God exists, much less that Jesus was and is God, much less that core Christian doctrines are true. The Trinity? In Lockean terms, we can’t even know that the house next door exists, or that Barak Obama is President! We can have faith in these things, but to have faith in any given thing, according to Locke, means it is not known:

Faith stands by itself, and upon grounds of its own; not can be removed from them, and placed on those of knowledge. Their grounds are so far from being the same, or having anything common, that when it is brought to certaintty, faith is destroyed; it is knowledge then, and faith no longer.

How did he take us here?

“For with me,” Locke writes, “to know, and be certain, is the same thing; what I know, that I am certain of; and what I am certain of, that I know.”

Locke equates ‘actual knowledge’, or “the present view the mind has of the agreement or disagreement of any of its ideas,” with certainty. ‘Certainty’ is not merely confidence: to satisfy Lockean certainty, the knower must, while knowing, have immediate perceptions of the relating ideas. Any connection between not immediately perceived ideas is less than certain, and is believed only based on probability.

For example, I can only know that ‘my soccer ball is round’ if I am right now perceiving my soccer ball and its roundness. Apart from that, I can’t be certain that it hasn’t ceased to exist or taken on a square shape, even if highly improbable.

If we accept Locke’s terms, we can understand his theory of knowledge. Locke would assert that I don’t know that my friend in the next room exists—it’s only highly probable. I don’t know that I was born in January. I don’t know that God exists.

As we approach the text, we probably come with a fairly solid idea of what ‘certainty’ is—the fuzzy term is ‘knowledge’. If we accept that knowledge is certainty, then sure: I guess I don’t know when I was born or that God exists.

But does Locke’s definition align with our experience, or is he miscounting chairs? While reading, I’m find myself tempted to say, ‘Well, yes, Mr. Locke, five chairs would be right if five people were here, but look—there’s seven of us!’ On an intuitive level, something doesn’t sounding right.

If a father says to his child, “You know I love you,” we don’t normally assume he is trying to say, “You know there is absolutely zero possibility that I do not love you.” That would be false: it is impossible to have a direct perception of another’s person’s internal feeling of love—we can only know the expression of those feelings. What the father refers to is a firm faith in paternal love that he understands to be a kind of knowledge even apart from certainty.

‘Common sense’ intuition will, I think, suggest that the father makes sense, and is not simply speaking lazily. The same applies to a person who says, “I know God exists.” When we hear that, it doesn’t seem we typically take her to mean, “It is absolutely impossible that God does not exist,” nor, “I have a highly probably opinion that God exists.”

Consider Locke’s description of faith.

Faith…is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deduction of reason, but upon the credit for the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication. …[But] revelation cannot be admitted against the clear evidence of reason.

Revelation as subservience to reason is the vital point. Locke defines reason as: “the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions which the mind arrives at by deductions made from such ideas, which it has got…by sensation or reflection.” Locke claims that faith is not made out by reason, but unless we have had a clear sense perception of God, or resurrection from the dead our lack of grounded ideas implies that even the most basic tenants of faith are, at best, probable opinions.

In one way, this may seem like pointless semantics. Whether faith is ‘knowledge’ or ‘high probability’: what practical difference comes from holding one or the other?

Stepping back a bit can reveal how Locke’s theory does matter. His theory didn’t stop with mere transfer of terms. Locke says that things not tied to physical reality are not certain, and therefore, cannot be known. This (though maybe unintentionally) grounds later philosophical assertions that anything metaphysical is not even probable, seeing as probability itself is not a ‘sensible’ idea. (See Hume.)

Arguably, the logical conclusion of that assertion is the contemporary divorce we see today that divides ‘science’ and ‘faith’. The secular academic community has been infused with the idea that scientific beliefs are ‘knowable’, but faith beliefs are personal and ‘irrational’.

Maybe Locke should slow down and recount the chairs. Knowledge intuitively seems separable from absolute certainty. Claims like, “I know when I was born,” “I know you love me” or “I know God exists” are understandable. In fact, I know they are understandable. ‘

We Built this City on Rage n’ War

Every society has some form of origin story. A few, like America’s, are recent and well-documented. Others, as in Egypt or Greece, trace back to oral lore and ancient mythologies. But a larger question lingers beneath these accounts: why do humans form societies? Why can’t each person live, work and trade independently without governments and courts and elections and–most of all–without taxes?

Political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, writing during the late 17th to 18th century Enlightenment period, thought extensively about this question. They concluded the same thing: it’s because humans suck. Because we can’t get along without behavioral constraints, we need societies: without them, humanity would subsist in a perpetual ‘state of war’.

Since war has a nasty tendency to hinder everyone’s life and liberty, humans resort to forming social structures. Alexander Hamilton articulated the theory nicely in the Federalist Papers:

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.

John Locke, whose ideas are embedded in the foundations of American political thought, outlined the transition from the ‘state of war’ to the institution of government in his 1690 work, The Second Treatise of Government. Here’s the rundown:

First and foremost, Locke grounded his theory in a concept we’ve probably heard before: ‘natural law’. Given by God and within the fabric of the natural universe, this law is discovered when anyone uses her reason properly, meaning that every human is responsible to live at least according the natural law. Accountability to positive laws that reach beyond pure natural law, whether the Decalogue or the tax code, only falls to whomever the positive laws are directly given.

Locke believe that humans who live in accord with natural law are in the ‘natural state’. In the natural state, there is no need for authority beyond individuals and their own reason. Disputes can be solved by reason, without any third party. No one transgresses the others’ rights: namely, self-protection and allowance to individually seek recompense from another person who caused the agent to experience property loss.  In other words, there is zero need for government in the natural state.

So go live in the natural state!
This is the part where everyone says, Yeah. Right.

Short of Eden, an idyll not directly addressed but lurking beneath Locke’s description of the natural state, natural human harmony is impossible. We instinctively know that greed and pride best the best of us. Visions of universal peace sans law or external authority seem ludicrous.

Which is exactly Locke’s point. Which is why we form governments.

To escape the state of war, humans willingly surrender many of natural rights to a common authority. An autonomous individual’s natural freedoms—for example, the right to exact justice without a third party—are transferred to the governing authority for the sake of general order.

So rather than holding that God first instated human government, Locke holds that we invented government as a defense mechanism. Can we buy Locke’s theory? Can the origin of social structures be reduced to a desperate human need for protection from ourselves?

Whether or not the reduction is wholly correct, Locke seems to strike a deep and true into the motivation behind human behavior. His ideas are rooted in a theistic worldview: we were created by some Being greater than ourselves to live in harmony, but some fault in us destroys that possibility. That is why Locke would never entertain anarchy or utopianism as beneficial social movements: they deny that error is woven into the fabric of humanity. We instinctively know, as Locke recognized, that without government enforced laws, people will injure others for their own benefit.

I would like to know, then, what Locke would have to say about socialism. Close your eyes and pretend that the government now takes every cent of your capital and redistributes it using social programs.

If everyone consented to this program, Locke very well may find it permissible: his political theory allows for a wide variety of economic systems. But I don’t believe that the majority of Americans are willing to give that consent.

Locke holds that the government exists by virtue of citizens granting it permission to exist and conferring onto government many rights they would have as autonomous individuals in the natural state.

In the natural state, no one has the right to forcibly take another’s property—that would only happen in the irrational state of war, which the government is supposed to prevent. So, if the government takes wealth without general consent, it wages war on the people. I’m curious…when’s the last time you heard someone say they approved of Congress’s handling of tax dollars?

Social programs and expenditures continually shuffle through Congress, sometimes even beneath nineteen hundred pages of jargon. Congressmen will use shady tactics to gather votes, as we’ve recently seen with the health care bill.

According to Locke, we built this city as a protection from blunted reason. At what point will we find that bad reasoning emits from the city? Eventually, protection from other individuals fades in light of needing protection from government.

Reforming any government is a messy business, even when bloodless—just look at Poland’s Solidarity movement or Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. But at some point, the scale tips, and the pursuit of a happy, peaceful life is more hindered than helped by the government. At this point, government causes the state of war that citizens wanted protection against.

The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in an 1802 letter to Thomas Cooper:

If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy. Their finances are now under such a course of application as nothing could derange but war or federalism.

I have to wonder if, right now, Locke just might say that ‘war’ and ‘federalism’ are looking pretty similar.


Oh Orthodoxy, You’re So…Romantic!

I read romances during church.

Or so GK Chesterton writes in his book Orthodoxy, (see my previous post for a overview). When my congregation recites the Apostles’ Creed, we are declaring what Chesterton calls “the best root of energy and sound ethics…’orthodoxy’.”  Christian Orthodoxy, he believes, is the root and fount of romance.

Before elaborating on Chesterton’s connection between orthodoxy and romance, I should poke deeper into what Chesterton means by ‘romance’. When he says ‘romance’, he doesn’t mean dinner and a sunset stroll on the beach. Romance is the profound excitement and wonder that springs from being in love—not only sexual love, but in Chesterton’s case, a deep love for earth that is rooted in our love for God: a longing for God that inspires a love of ‘earthy’ things.

Romance is chosen: commitments take intentionality and work. And yet romance is also an accident: thus the phrase ‘love happens’. To a degree, we really do “fall” in love. Chesterton compares the experience to “dropping into poetry.” It is fostered by our freely willed behaviors, and certainly requires consent, but there is no equation for romance, no test tubes bubbling with liquid love. Chesterton rightly acknowledges that romance is both mysterious and absolutely compelling:

The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.

So then we return to the original question: What does Chesterton mean when he says ‘orthodoxy’—which he says “means the Apostles’ Creed”—is romantic?

Romance has elements that make it romance. Consider orthodoxy in light of other particulars: what makes patriotism, marriage, and orthodoxy examples of romance? What do they have in common?

All contain the paradox of being accidental and chosen. We don’t choose the country we were born into or the person we find ourselves in love with. Also, we don’t choose that God the Father “created the heavens and the earth,” that Jesus was incarnated, crucified and resurrected to the right hand of the Father or that the Holy Spirit has established a holy catholic church that promises fellowship, forgiveness and resurrection to eternal life.  In other words, we didn’t choose the truths of orthodoxy.

But we do choose to believe them. The beloved accepts the lover’s proposal on the strength of invisible love, has enough affection for her country to question its faults without questioning its existence or has faith in the creed’s unseen truths.

Love is not comprehended, and it isn’t controlled. We can’t prove love—there is no geometric or modus ponens proof. Yet somehow, in a wild and mysterious way, human beings continually find love so certain that we will live (and sometimes die) for a romance. I’ve yet to see a person live or die for a proof.

Orthodoxy takes us outside ourselves and, in so doing–in seeing how small we are in the cosmic scope of God and His creation–we also find our highest significance:

It has been often said, very truely, that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary. (Chesterton)

The romance of orthodoxy lies in the God that the Creed pronounces—one that Chesterton finds mysterious and transcendent, but also imminent and certain, the foundation of existence. That is not to say Christianity is without evidence…Chesterton just does not believe that experimental evidence is sufficiently persuasive. People need more than logic:

I will not pretend that this curt discussion is my real reason for accepting Christianity… I have another far more solid and central ground… And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one.

The Christian Church lives in Jesus, and in turn, offers the “huge and ragged and romantic rock” of orthodoxy, comprised of powerful and perilous doctrines surpassing understanding, but requiring that we accept the thrilling adventure. We say ‘I do’ in response to a living God, Instructor of the joy of Creation, tragedy of crucifixion and final cosmic comedy of resurrection and eternal life. ‘

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Power’s Chronic Struggle

Power is said to corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely. It implies that if a person doesn’t have power, she won’t be corrupt. But power does not cause corruption; it strips away the social structures that often motivate a person to do good. Power doles out responsibility, but takes away some of the authorities that hold the a person accountable to her responsibilities. The powerful person is free to manifest themselves more as they wish, and less as expected.

The freedom that comes with power is a terrible freedom. A leader is a human being with personal human desires, but she has to constantly balance those with her dutiful responsibilities, be it to students, disciples, citizens, etc. For example, in political power, a leader may face the decision to either act to benefit her nation or to satisfy her personal desires.

Shakespeare portrays this burden well in his play Henry V. At two key points, King Henry V of England must, against his personal wishes, put people to death. In the second act, three nobles (Cambridge, Grey, and Scoop), previously King Henry’s friends, are revealed as traitors. After they beg for mercy, Henry regretfully condemns them while personally forgiving them:

Touching out person seek we no revenge,
But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you…

Act III repeats the scenario: Henry orders that Bardolph, a former friend from his days of youthful roguery (seen in Henry IV), be executed for petty theft. Notably, although Henry voices no laments, he responds to the execution by immediately asserting it as a ‘moral example’:

We would have all such offenders so cut off…that in our marches through the country there be…nothing taken but paid for.

Like a parent, spanking her child in order to establish healthy discipline, Henry, the nation’s guardian, also lays aside sentiment for duty.

It gets worse.

Aside from legal punishments, leaders also have the burden of sacrificing individuals for the nation’s general good and being responsible for those decisions. Shakespeare nearly drops this weight upon his viewer in King Henry’s pre-battle soliloquy about the burdens of power and, in particular, sending his soldiers to potential death:

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition…
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages [i.e. sleeps].

Trying times offer a leader no escape. Three options are possible: relinquish the power, renounce it by failing to do one’s duties, or live with emotional strain. Present day leaders provide examples similar to Shakespeare’s King Henry. President Obama has written personal letters to every family who lost a son or daughter in the Middle East since his inauguration. Last year, President Obama wrote something quite different: an order to send over 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. The dichotomous psyche of a leader must balance both things—they must walk the narrow line between ‘leader’ and ‘individual’.

Simba, in the Disney classic The Lion King, famously sings, “Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!” If he had understood what he was saying, he would have sung differently. Leadership is glamorous, but it is also treacherous…and hard. Abraham Lincoln said of power, “…if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Lincoln’s word can be taken in two ways, both of which are true. In the most obvious sense, leadership tries a person’s character because they can do evil things without fear of punishment. In a second understanding, leadership tries a person’s stamina and fortitude: it is exhausting to exist in two worlds simultaneously, especially when neither is an apparent ‘wrong’.

Once, in elementary school, my mom was substitute teacher in my class. Being a saintly child (ha!), I didn’t get in trouble that day, but if I had, she would have faced a decision: show personally instinctive grace, or punish me in order to maintain order. The position is wearying.

Nearly everyone has some sort of leadership role, be it familial, professional or relational. Most of us aren’t a monarch like Henry V or President Obama. Still, our choices affect those around us, and we should remain conscious of those effects. To make wise decisions as a leader is difficult, but errors of judgment are better than dissolving or defaulting on responsibilities. And power can find a peace in that. ‘

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Freud’s Non-Libidinal Rub

What do you want, purpose or happiness?

If you don’t think the two pursuits are exclusive, take it up with Freud, who says as much in his treatise Civilization and its Discontents.

“The idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system,” he said. “We will therefore turn to the less ambitious question of what men themselves show…to be the purpose and intention of their lives…happiness.” Freud asserts that religion’s goal of objective purpose is an illusion; reality demonstrates that everyone pursues happiness.

[Religion] is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. It is still more humiliating to discover how a large number of people living today, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions.

This is Freud’s first critique of religion, leading into the next: religion is not only wrong, it imposes ‘wrongness’ on everyone else.

Freud thinks there is not a universal route to happiness (i.e. pleasure). The paths are subjective, and they are all legitimate. For example, concerning sex, homosexually or heterosexuality are valued equally: if it brings pleasure, it is legitimately pursued. Even aggression towards others, such as the desire to murder, is not ‘wrong’. Civilization, for its own sustainability, has to suppress these instincts.

However, only instincts that threaten civilization should be suppressed–the ‘harmless’ ones like incest or polygamy, Freud says, are suppressed only because of religious imposition.

Examining moral standards, such as ones against heterosexuality, promiscuity or incest, Freud tasted ‘arbitrary!’ in his mouth. Still, Freud never claims that these arbitrary religious rules, in their pursuit of purpose, directly contradict pursuing happiness. Religion “spar[es] many people an individual neurosis” and, in that, could possibly bring an individual some level of happiness.

He doubts it will last long: if a believer is ever slapped awake from religion’s “mass-delusion,” he will see that “all that is left to him as a last possible consolation and source of pleasure in his suffering is an unconditional submission.” In other words, a splash of cold water, and the faithful will collapse into a nihilism.

Freud’s charge against religion is not that it does not bring happiness—he can no more say that to believers than believers can say that to incestuous polygamists. His accusation is that believers do say such things–they impose their ideals of purpose and happiness on non-Christians, culturally repressing what Freud considers natural expression of libido, (for example, incest or polygamy).

Because religion seeks ‘purpose’ over ‘happiness’, bigheaded religious disciples, thinking they’ve stumbled into the truth, feel justified in stripping away “sinful” means of pleasure. In doing this, the “lullaby about Heaven” diffuses the libido, the source of love and hate (which are essentially ‘lust’ and ‘aggression’), ending the life-creating struggle between love and hate. Expressions of love and hate suppressed, civilized humans cave in on themselves and become their own means of unhappiness through guilt and misanthropy.

To summarize: Freud thinks that religion’s illusion of morality leads to guilt over natural pleasure-drives, which leads to humans hating themselves.

What happens if Freud is arraigned in his own courthouse—does he escape Felixocentrism? (Yes, I made that word up—don’t impose on my happiness.)

Maybe the answer is up to us. If we read Freud and ignore him, he escapes his critique. But, unfortunately for Freud, if we actually fill his prescription, he’ll falls into one of two contradictions.

One contradiction is this: if Freud is right that our primary and legitimate aim is pleasure, than believers must derive pleasure from imposing their beliefs. Freud, by condemning the imposition, is imposing on what he simultaneously calls legitimate behavior.  His theory could theoretically stand, but he has broken his own rule.

The other dilemma for Freud arises from an alternative perspective on the same scenario. Again, Freud says that pleasure-pursuits are all legitimate. Assuming that believers derive pleasure from ‘ethical tyranny’, Freud’s condemnation of religion’s ‘tyranny’ can only escape hypocrisy if his theory is false, and ethical imposition is illegitimate.

Either way, if a Christian changes her ethical standards on Freud’s account, she undermine the authority of Freud himself. And that, I’m afraid, is Freud’s non-libidinal rub. ‘

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Is Your Identity As You Like It?

If the world is a stage, we like putting on the same shows. The Matrix, The Truman Show, Equilibrium…not original. Even in Shakespeare’s 17th century comedy As You Like It, we confront the suggestion that the world is a sham and humans are the sham’s pawns.

At surface-level, the play is a ball of fluff—a cute comedy where everything ends neatly and everyone gets married. On a closer read, though, we find that Shakespeare juggles weighty questions in this ‘ball of fluff’ like ‘what is it to be human?’ and ‘how do I ‘find myself’?’ The various characters in the play (namely Jaques, Rosalind, and ‘everyone else’) depict three different answers to these questions—beyond that, Shakespeare leaves us to untangle identity’s mysteries.

Corrosive melancholy drips from Jaques’ words. “All the world’s a stage,” he declares, “…And all the men and women merely players.” The woodland existentialist makes his cynicism clear: in using ‘merely’, he implies that our ‘stage’ is meaningless. After all, as his soliloquy continues, every life ends in nothingness—“sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything.” To ‘What or who am I?’, Jaques responds, ‘You are a pawn. Dust. Puppet of a cosmic stage.’

I can hardly find fault with the cynic when I consider how most of the characters go about finding identity: they don’t. Rather, they seem to say, ‘we simply are what we’re thrown into’. Not exerting any will over their own lives, they trip obliviously through events. To accuse them of being ‘merely players’ is easy: from exile to love to religious conversion, the characters are reflexive, their identities in constant flux because derived from immediate fortunes. In this, they cut themselves off from pursuing human ethics: a typically requirement for ethical behavior is the cognitive choice of action rather than simply responding to externals.

I admit. I commiserate with Jaques acidic misanthropy: malleable people bug me. Even when they have strong desires, the desires are imbibed. In a way, As You Like It echoes the ironic image of a million Americans wearing name-brand shirts that boldly state ‘INDEPENDENT’. I can point at it and say, “I don’t want that. I don’t want my identity to be ‘pawn’.” If my life were entirely dependent on external influence, I think I’d fall into a kind of despair.

But is Jaques the alternative?—the man who detached from society in order to see it ‘objectively’ and became, as a different character notes, “nowhere…like a man”? He doesn’t despair about his life being externally caused; he has a despair of ever having that despair! We look at aloof Jaques, polar opposite of the manipulated majority, and see that while being a puppet of fortune is bad, isolation is worse. True identities are largely dependent on involuntary givens.

As Gandalf says to Frodo, we don’t get to choose where or when we live, but only what we do with the time we’ve been given. The majority of the players in As You Like It don’t impose will on the given—they simply absorb it. Jaques tries to reject all givens, but he ends up isolated. He affects the events of the play so little that Shakespeare could exclude him in the earliest manuscripts without much alteration from the later versions.

Still, Shakespeare doesn’t leaves us directionless in the ‘insanity’, as G.K. Chesterton called it, of “the man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else.” A different character provides a satisfying example of embraced identity…Rosalind. While she fully lives in her community, Rosalind also uses her wit and desires to impact her surroundings. She is committed to the given–she engages with life as presented to her–but Rosalind is not addicted to it. She knows herself because she sees the given and accepts it, doing what she can to improve it: she is not tossed blindly by fortune, nor does she pretend she can escape fortune.

We Christians claim to ‘live in the world, but not of it’. Rosalind demonstrates that principle in action. Not fighting suspension between reflexive and rational, Rosalind gains full human identity by embracing both. Unlike Rosalind, though, I hope Christians find better use of time than matchmaking. Unless, of course, the match was made in heaven..then participation is required.

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: The Straits of Orthodoxy

I have a bone to pick with G.K. Chesterton about his book Orthodoxy. It took me a ridiculously long time to read. He just had to go and make every sentence so delicious and profound that I was forced to sit back after every line in order to laugh at his wit or furiously scribble notes.

Think I’m making things up? I’ll open the book to three random sections and write down a sentence from each:

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms: it means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”

“In that sense [that action desires limitation] every act is an act of self-sacrifice.”

“The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy.”

Case in point.

Here’s another problem: I read Orthodoxy for the first time less than a year ago, and re-read it this past week, but I could swear Chesterton took it off my shelf and re-wrote it during the interim. I was floored by it then, but I was stunned by the second read with greater potency than the first.

And also, of all of writers, Chesterton would be the one to devise such a prank.

Philip Yancey is spot-on when, in the introduction, he writes that Chesterton “preferred the role of jester.” Chesterton dresses his words in the bright, vivid colors of rollicking wit. This makes it all the more unexpected when, mid chuckle, one realizes that Chesterton just explained a wretchedly abstruse enigma in two sentences…and in a joke, no less!

Chesterton does not tackle the difficult subjects—he blows them over with a hardy “HA!

Orthodoxy is a comedic romance: it recounts the intellectual journey of Chesterton, the self-proclaimed “fool of this story,” through “elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious.” The ‘obvious’ is Orthodox Christianity, made “perilous” and “exciting,”, says Chesterton, by a delicate, yet perfect equilibrium between egoism and altruism, materialism and mysticism, determinism and freewill, hate and love, saint and sinner, and so on–all while in pursuit of Christ, the fully Man and fully God.

Orthodoxy is also a book of comparison and contrast. Scientists, Nihilists, Buddhists, Unitarians…none escape Chesterton’s sharp eye and sharper wit.

He brings Orthodoxy against essentially every other possible worldview, faith, and philosophy, only to, with deep respect and good humor, hold them naked to the light of penetrating analysis. He strips pretense from all, demonstrating rationalists to be fantastical and revealing Buddhists as apathetic ‘quietists’. By the close, Chesterton brings his reader to a rich understanding of where he began—Orthodoxy. The perilous, exciting tradition of rational mysticism.

In the second chapter, Chesterton writes:

The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland…If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them…sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.

Orthodoxy has been accused of every excess and every corresponding deficiency. The reason, Chesterton points out, is that Orthodoxy, or “straight doctrine,” has always maintained a constant course between extremes—taking truth from each and holding them in tension. The ironic result is that Orthodoxy is called extreme by both sides.

No matter who the reader is, Orthodoxy can challenge her to look at the world with new wonder. For me, as one prone to rationalism, reading Chesterton caused me to look at a tree and think, “What a bizarre creation! Wood growing out of the ground—how fantastically absurd!”

For one who leans towards skepticism, Chesterton affirms that “reason is itself a matter of faith,” and free thought “exhaust[s] its own freedom” into weary despair.

I particularly enjoyed his response to libertarians who scorn tradition for the sake of free love and pleasure:

Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once…It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once.

Orthodoxy is a fiercely joyful trek through cold mountaintops and scorching deserts to the Christian faith. It is, at the core, the fairy tale of Chesterton’s journey to Christ. Simultaneously, as he says, it is also a “riddle and its answer…solitary and sincere speculations and then…the startling style in which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian Theology.”

Chesterton writes about recognizing Christian truth as if it were akin to waking on the first morning after a long trip and suddenly realizing, “Where am I? Oh, I’m Home!”

In Orthodoxy, he then opens the front door and invites us in for good conversation and a cup of tea, each taken with a good dose of vivacious mirth.

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Er…Kommunistischen?

Communism’ is a likely candidate for ‘touchiest word of the 20th century’.

While the word evokes many high-charged reactions, two seem consistent among American conservatives: First, communism is associated with naïve hippies who think there should be no war and want to sing ‘Why Can’t We be Friends?’ at Kim Jong-Il. We gape at it and exclaim, “Really? Really?”

The second association conjures up images of Soviet statues and Cold War newspaper headlines, starving citizens and maniacal despots. We think the USSR—along with North Korea, China, Vietnam, et cetera—was the inevitable product of those silly utopians.

Popular assessment of Communism treats the philosophy is as if it were like Spongebob, initially dripping with obnoxious optimism, but a Spongebob destined to devolve into a fanged beast wielding automatic weaponry. (Although, on second thought, Spongebob can’t be a communist since he owns pineapple property.)

Maybe it’s time we compare our presuppositions to what the original Communists said about Communism. It’s exasperating when people point to the Crusades and call Christianity ‘violent and cruel’–communism should receive the same fair trial that we demand for Christianity.

The Communist Manifesto was born amid the insufferable social conditions of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. The Communist League had commissioned Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to create a document that would outline the rationale and goals of Communists–a fair reading of the end product will evidence that Communism, as originally imagined, was neither Utopian nor tolerant of totalitarianism.

Karl Marx openly derides “utopian socialists” in the Manifesto. He scoffs at their plan to “attain their ends by peaceful means” and end class struggle by “reconcili[ing] class antagonisms.” Marx insists that only violent revolution can destroy the Bourgeoisie/Proletariat class divide. By eradicating the Bourgeoisie, the Proletariat ends class friction and becomes the only class; ‘reconciliation’ is “fanatical and superstitious.”

Although Marx died in 1883 and never saw 20th century USSR, he would have also considered the Soviet project to be Communist heresy. Aside from the fact that Russia’s leap from Feudalism into Communism contradicted Marx’s theory of social evolution, the USSR did not eradicate class struggle–not even close. The USSR, like its modern counterparts, was a society solidly divided between ‘Party members’ and ‘non-Party members’. Far from Marx’s vision of Proletariats abolishing all political powers after annihilating Bourgeoisie, the Soviet ‘Party’ was hopped up on bureaucratic steroids, constantly exercising political muscles. So, just as Marx’s Communism is not Utopianism, we should be wary of associating Communism and Stalin’s Russia or similar dystopic states.

Approaching the Manifesto with generosity towards Marx’s ideas will both address false suppositions about Communism and allow us to truly learn from Marx and honestly oppose him. The Manifesto might not have answers, but it sure can raise questions. Instead of merely going to war with Marx, read the Manifesto as if you were talking to a friend. Assume Marx knows that Utopias are unrealistic, and assume he’s not despotic.

We find that Marx has some valuable words for us. Often, his critiques of capitalism contain painful accuracy:

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its pain wage-labourers…That [capitalist] culture…is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine.

Marx presents a real concern for any Christian opponents: how can communism be rejected as ‘materialist’ when our consumer culture is little different? If we want to reject his solution, we need legitimate grounds and consistency. For example, theologically, Marx’s materialist teleology clashes with our doctrine of a Kingdom of Heaven distinct from a Kingdom of Earth—but so does consumer capitalism. We are challenged to find a third option: a plan to address social injustices through relationship rather than infrastructure.

Awareness and familiarity with Marx will accredit Christian responses to Communism. But, even more, developing the awareness will force us to think critically about how we ought to navigate and value our material world. Careful thought is essential, as our goal is a high one: to love our neighbor as ourselves or, as Dorothy Day wrote, “make life here for others a foretaste of the life to come.” ‘

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Meet Machiavelli

Meet Nick. He is a wealthy man, and he works for President Noble as a high-powered ambassador. In a radical upset, Noble is ousted at the next election, and President Masse takes power. Nick continues to work at the capital for Masse—after all, it pays the bills.

In the next election, Noble manages to regain the Presidency. Nick comes back joyfully to reclaim his place of affluence with the administration, but instead, because he worked for Masse, Nick accused of treason. He is tortured, exiled, and all his property is seized. Still, Nick misses the importance and bustle of government work. He writes a book to Regis—a pragmatic guide to gaining and maintaining political power—in hopes ‘getting in good’ once again.

Welcome to Niccolo Machiavelli’s life, leading up to his writing of The Prince, published in 1513.

You may have heard some nasty slurs about Machiavelli. A despotic political figure might be called ‘Machiavellian’, or the phrase spat out, ‘it is better to be feared than love’. Not directly tied in origin to Machiavelli, the saying ‘might makes right’ is also closely associated with The Prince.

As with Darwin, who I discussed in my last ‘Classics’ post, Machiavelli should be read before being condemned. For the contemporary Christian, especially one concerned with current politics, The Prince can be a painful read. Why?: because it names a fanged, white elephant, and then faces us with the question, “If we don’t want this to be true, what do we do about it?”

The Prince, as I said, is practical: Machiavelli doesn’t lament that ‘power corrupts’, he assumes that breaches of ethicality are simply part of the power game. His words should ring true (though perhaps gratingly) in our ears:

You must realize this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate.

When Machiavelli says ‘flexible disposition’, he means that a ruler should be willing compromise religious moralities for the sake of temporal power. That does not mean that Stalin or Idi Amin were Machiavellian—in The Prince, the ideal leader is sharply attune to the desires and opinions of his citizens. Machiavelli’s leader will found his state on “good laws and good arms”; reason and strength fortify his society. While Machiavelli has some less-than-pleasant suggestions for a prince (such as assassinating entire families of discontent nobility), his time and place should be taken into account. City-states comprised 14th century Italy, which meant that a powerful, rebellious family in a city was an acute danger to that city’s governor. Knowing that won’t make ol’ Machy a saint, but it will help us be charitable while reading him.

Machiavelli’s ideas are not fully compatible with Christian leadership. For Machiavelli’s prince, ‘appearing’ virtuous is vital—‘being’ virtuous is not. Deceit and cruelty, so long as they are used efficaciously to the general preservation of the state, are not lamentable necessities; they are commendable ‘prowess’.

Contemporary Christian leaders also face the tensions inherent in ‘lesser evil’ situations. After 9-11, do we ‘turn the other cheek’ or go to war? If a police officer goes undercover, shouldn’t he use deceit for a greater end? These and similar situations would swiftly lead us into a discussion of situational ethics.

Machiavelli is not concerned with situational ethics-at least, not in the same way. He handles the tension by creating a new ethical system. As he writes, “he should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary.” On first take, it is easy to agree with this: after all, isn’t war sometimes justified as a means of self-defense? However, when we say this, we are trying to show that war is still some type of ‘good’ even if not the most ideal ‘good’. Machiavelli, though, has no problem with actions that are ‘deviations’ from good–those that are not the most ideal good according to Christian ethics–for the sake of maintaining power.

Machiavelli uses two sense of ‘good’, and in that, he is divided from the Christian ruler. The ‘end’ which might makes a Christian’s ‘unethical’ behavior circumstantially ethical is not identical to that of Machiavelli’s prince. While temporal power can play a part in the Christian’s achievement of a ‘greater good’ (the undercover officer lying his way into a high position within a drug cartel), there is only one conception of good, and it is ethical. Actions should manifest a striving for peace and the pursuit of ideals like justice.

Machiavelli paints power itself as the highest good. When religious ethics come into conflict with the ethical of power, religion gives way. Political power includes some compatibility with religious ethics—not being overly cruel in order to maintain peoples’ approval, for example—but these are means to power for Machiavelli, not the purpose of power.

Keep in mind the double (but paralleling) standards employed by Machiavelli while reading The Prince. I encourage you to grapple with Machiavelli, but do so remembering his terms: he offers sound advice on leadership, even if The Prince never peers beyond the mere possession of affluent position. The Prince will not permit lofty, abstract idealism. Machiavelli forces his reader to think clearly, realistically, and dare I say it, powerfully. ‘

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Digging into Darwin

Darwin’s Dead and He Ain’t Coming Back…or so the Christian bumper sticker says. Personally, my favorite is the one of the Jesus fish eating the upside-down mutant fish with legs labeled ‘Darwin’. In the Jesus vs Darwin showdown, apparently survival of the fittest is true after all.

For many Christians, the instinctive reaction to Darwin, author of the theory natural selection—not, as commonly thought, the author of theory of evolution—is defensive and even hostile. Darwin, some think, is the guy who tried to kill God in the 19th century. He’s the main cause of modern secularization; his theory is in direct opposition to Christianity.

Everyone and their great-uncle’s cousin have an opinion about Darwin. But few have slogged through his five hundred-page classic The Origin of the Species—the book that influenced the future shape of biology, geology, botany, et cetera, et cetera…

But is it possible to let Darwin speak for himself? Not without cracking open Darwin’s text.

From the Introduction, Darwin states that his purpose is to show that “the view which most naturalists entertain…that each species has been independently created—is erroneous.” His goal concerns the origin of species, not the origin of life. Throughout the course of Origin, the exclusive focus of his work is the interconnectedness of specific species and how they trace back to one or more ‘archetypal’ organisms.

In fact, not even until the last pages of his work does Darwin address more universal implications of his theory:

Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction.

Assuming that the analogy holds true, Darwin still never attempts to answer where that ‘prototype’ might have originated. He certainly never rules out the possibility of a divinely orchestrated evolution that utilizes the means of natural selection. It would seem that, if a Creationist wishes to dismiss Darwin, it must be on scientific, not religious grounds—common descent of species is possible within the Christian conception of God. As author G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.”

Whether discussing the hive bee’s architectural genius or the tyrannical, slave-making habits of the Formica rufescens ant, Darwin’s observations of the natural world evidence how miraculous it is. If those species had a common ancestor, would they be any less miraculous? For my part, and aside from any concerns of the theory’s accuracy, I find the idea of God using the gradual processes of the natural world to develop his energy from a single seed even more awing. But for any Christian, The Origin of the Species is well worth reading, particularly while keeping that in mind. Give Darwin the benefit of the doubt: he’ll open up an amazing world of intricate and diverse, yet unified life. No cannibalistic Jesus-fish required.

The opinions here expressed are solely that of the author.
…well, not solely, but you know what I mean.