Archive for October, 2012

“God in the Dock” (Part 1 of 3) by David Opderbeck

The courtroom is a powerful symbol in our popular culture.  The phrase “the verdict is in…” appears in settings ranging from advertising comparisons of different kinds of shampoo to opinion polls on political issues to arguments for and against God.  As a practicing lawyer, law professor, and theology student, I find this use of courtroom metaphors fascinating and sometimes troubling.  In particular, I worry that the popularity of courtroom apologetics, particularly in the conversation over faith and science, belies some deep theological and philosophical misconceptions, and that these theological and philosophical misconceptions can hinder both our joy in seeking God’s truth and our faithfulness in witnessing to that truth in the world.

Let me begin with a story.

Some years ago I appeared in the U.S. Federal District Court for the District of New Jersey for a routine settlement conference in a contract dispute.  Both of the parties to the suit were small businesses.  My client had entered into a service contract with the plaintiff.  The plaintiff, according to my client, did not deliver all the services under the contract, and my client withheld payment.  The plaintiff alleged that it had, in fact, performed as required by the contract and that payment was due.  The amount at stake was about $250,000 – small potatoes for a Federal lawsuit, but significant to these small businesses.  State and Federal courts around the U.S. handle many thousands of similar cases every year.

In most Federal civil trial courts, settlement conferences are conducted by a Magistrate Judge.  Typically the Judge meets with counsel and the parties together in chambers to review the case.  Often the Judge will then meet with each party separately to conduct a kind of shuttle diplomacy.  Sometimes, while the Judge meets with one party in chambers, the other party waits in the empty courtroom, with subdued lighting, heavy drapery, and the great seal of the court positioned over the Judge’s bench.  There is an aspect of theatrical performance to this process.  The Judge tries to impress on the litigants the risks of litigation and the potential weaknesses in their respective cases in order to resolve the case and clear his or her docket.  Experienced counsel is wise to this game but tacitly participates in the ritual.  Trials are risky and clients sometimes harbor grossly unrealistic expectations about the results a trial might produce.

In the contract dispute I mentioned, the owner of the company I represented was shrewd businessman.  He and I both thought we had a good chance of winning at trial.  However, given the risks and costs, we were willing to offer about half of the claimed payment due in settlement.  We communicated this to the Judge during our private meeting, and the Judge agreed that this was a wise course of action.  The Judge had us leave chambers and called in the other party.  For an experienced litigator, this represents the moment when a case starts to move and settlement seems likely.

The owner of the plaintiff corporation, however, was not so objective.  For him, this litigation was about JUSTICE (he tended to speak about this in all caps).  He rejected our offer and insisted that he would take the case to trial and achieve justice, even if it took until his dying breath.

The Judge dismissed the plaintiff and called me and my client back into chambers.  He communicated to us the plaintiff’s position, and added the following astute judicial commentary:  “What a F—ing idiot!”   Some months later, after some costly and time-consuming discovery and motion practice, the case finally settled, at a value close to what we originally had offered.  Perhaps the plaintiff’s accountants realized the costs of justice.

I recount this story at the outset of this series because it illustrates the reality of the legal process.  In the popular imagination, the court room is the place in which lies are exposed and truth revealed.  Our iconic cultural moment for the judicial process comes from the movie “A Few Good Men,” where Tom Cruise cross-examines Jack Nicholson until Nicholson finally cracks and shouts “You want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth!” before admitting Cruise was right about everything all along.  The reality is that the judicial process is not set up to find the exhaustive and final truth of a matter.  It is set up to resolve disputes as pragmatically and efficiently as possible so that the business of society can keep moving on.

The rules of evidence and procedure that govern trials – in the very, very small percentage of cases that ever go to trial – reflect this pragmatic orientation.  Trials do not go on forever, the parties cannot call every conceivable witness or offer every possible scrap of evidence, and the standards of judgment are flexible.  In civil cases, the standard of proof typically is “a preponderance of evidence” – meaning that the scales must tip only ever so slightly to one side or the other.  Mistakes of law are often reviewable by appellate courts de novo – from the beginning, with fresh eyes – but alleged mistakes of fact are usually reviewable only for an abuse of discretion – a standard that is rarely met.  And very seldom does a witness utterly crumble under cross examination and admit the other side is completely right.  In fact, in most cases that don’t settle early on, the “right” outcome generally is ambiguous.  Both parties usually can make out a viable case under the existing law and available facts.

I think all of this makes the courtroom an inapt metaphor for Christian apologetics.  We imagine some sort of Tom Cruise meets Jack Nicholson moment in which the world crumbles on the stand and acknowledges that we Christians are right about everything after all.  Real court rooms don’t work that way, and neither does real, authentic witness to the Gospel.

It’s not just a matter of making the courtroom appear overly dramatic.  In litigation, the court is a neutral authority capable of making a binding decision about the merits of the dispute.  The settlement conference procedure I mentioned above tends to work in most cases because the parties come to realize that the process, at least as applied to their specific case, isn’t about “justice” in any absolute sense at all.  The process is about resolving disputes and moving on.  It’s entirely possible that the court might reach an unfavorable conclusion simply because of the inherent constraints intentionally built into the process.  In the broadest sense, the parties agree to a social contract in which the court, whether it turns out to be right or wrong, has authority to decide the case.  And the realization that the court could get it wrong, or simply that the process might drag on for long time and cost substantial legal fees, almost always eventually moves the parties to compromise.

We who are part of the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, however, could never enter into any such social contract concerning the truth of the Gospel.  As far as we’re concerned, there is no neutral third party, no judicial body, capable of adjudicating the claim that Jesus is Lord and that his peaceable Kingdom has come through his death and resurrection.  To submit the Lordship of Christ before any such judicial bar would constitute blasphemy.  We do not seek or even demand a verdict from anyone about this.  Rather, we proclaim that it is so, and announce that it judges all other presumptive authorities.

Yet, we do publicly proclaim that it is so.  A public proclamation is always a form of apologia.  It is a giving of reasons why we as the Church seek to live and worship in certain ways.  And it is an effort to describe as fully and richly as possible all the implications of what we proclaim.  Not the least of those implications is that the God who created the world created it good, that He imbued creation with His own beauty and reason, and that of all His creatures His love for humans is particularly shown in our share of that reason.  So our public proclamation, our apologia for this good news, includes our effort to express the coherence, explanatory power, aesthetics, and moral force – the fullness of reason – inherent in it.

Notice the priority in this order.  It is not that reason establishes the validity of the proclamation.  It is that the proclamation establishes the validity of reason.  The Gospel does not make sense in the light of reason.  Reason only finally makes sense in the light of the Gospel.

This sense of priority suggests an order of truth:  God, theology, proclamation, reason, and apologia.  From a Christian perspective, the first order of truth must always be God, and the second order must be theology.  Since God is in essence ineffable, our primary mode of speech about God’s truth must be theology.  Proclamation, reason, and apologia follow from theology.  Theology was once the “queen of the sciences.”  For Christians, theology must yet hold this title.  In my next post, I’ll begin to unpack this claim by exploring the relationship between faith and philosophy.

There and Back Again: An Evolutionist’s Tale

This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained-well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

The quotes in this article are from J.R Tolkien’s classic tale, The Hobbit.  Tolkien insisted that his Ring stories were not to be read as allegory but I have to agree in with Picasso in that, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” Even—I would add—the truth about ourselves.  I recognize that there are limits to the parallels between Bilbo’s journey and my own but there surely is truth and insight amidst the literary  brush strokes of such an incredible storyteller.

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up–probably somebody lighting a wood-fire-and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again.

Science was always intriguing to me. Science makes even the smallest of things incredible.  In Bio 101 I learned about the wonders of the biological world from the depth of the oceans to the tops of mountains and as close as my own backyard. What’s more is that I was seeing all of this within a year of finding faith in Jesus Christ.  I saw science as a passion to pursue, a career path to follow, and a calling to give praise for. And then these two wonderful worlds teetered on the brink of collapse when a professor paraphrased the title from Theodosius Dobzhansky famous essay. Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”

He got up trembling. He had less than half a mind to fetch the lamp, and more than half a mind to pretend to, and go and hide behind the beer barrels in the cellar, and not come out again until all the dwarves had gone away. Suddenly he found that the music and the singing had stopped, and they were all looking at him with eyes shining in the dark.

My emerging faith brought with it assumptions about the truths of the Bible and those assumptions did not harmonize with the claims of evolution.  As an infant Christian I was concerned with the corrupting forces of “the world” bearing down on my still fresh faith.  I knew this concern well because in previous days my skepticism was aimed at the Church, the born again, the saved.  I feared that in science I would be fighting the atheistic foes that had filled the vacuum left by my recent conversion.  I felt that I would be compelled to choose: science or faith. I feared the journey ahead. And yet something Tookish made me press through the fear (the Took’s were Bilbo’s adventurous side of the family) and set out into the unknown.

These parts are none too well known, and are too near the mountains. Travelers seldom come this way now. The old maps are no use: things have changed for the worse and the road is unguarded. They have seldom even heard of the king round here, and the less inquisitive you are as you go along, the less trouble you are likely to find.

In large part through the virtues of keeping my head down and my nose to the grindstone the journey continued into a second year of biology, a second year that can aptly share my favorite chapter heading from the Hobbit: Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire.

My convergence of faith formation and confrontation with evolution was a challenge but by the grace of God I survived the experience, wary but still moving onward. Surviving this challenge only provided a preamble for the fire that was to come.

Against all professor’s recommendations, personal achievements in common sense and fellow travelers’ cautionary tales, I enrolled in the unthinkable:  Four upper level courses with labs, a half credit research class (the “Fellowship of the Undergraduate Researchers,” if you will) and additional commitments to work in the research lab as a source of income alongside the other jobs I held in order to support my young family.  For all intents and purposes this was an incredibly dumb idea.  There was too much work to do and not enough time.  This was a prescription for burn out, or even worse, a major hit to my GPA.

In hindsight I can recognize that there were two major blessing in taking on this course load. The first is simple but the second was a powerful turning point that relied on the first. In this period I didn’t have much time for anything else but biology, including thinking too much about my science path’s implications for my faith. Sure the concern wasn’t completely gone, but there was always a project to write up or fruit flies to sort and count or lab dishes to clean.  In the tight bonds of my crazy schedule I was given the freedom to almost exclusively think about science.

It was an intense time and by mid semester the sum of the load seemed to be less than the total of its parts.  The semester began to take on a synergistic energy.   The lessons I learned in cell bio spoke to the lessons I learned in invertebrate anatomy; the lectures in in my plant class where echoed in the dissections of comparative vertebrate anatomy.  I was beginning to see that science was more than a set of cool facts, and instead a way to see the world around me more clearly.  This full immersion in science most importantly became a sort of “refiner’s fire,” burning away what I originally thought to be the mere “politics of evolution,” concentrating the revelatory nature of evolutionary theory’s ability to be THE unifying theory of everything in biology.  I was becoming an evolutionist.

Is that The Mountain?” asked Bilbo in a solemn voice, looking at it with round eyes. He had never seen a thing that looked so big before. “Of course not!” said Balin. “That is only the beginning of the Misty Mountains, and we have to get through, or over, or under those somehow, before we can come into Wilderland beyond. And it is a deal of a way even from the other side of them to the Lonely Mountain in the East Where Smaug lies on our treasure.”
“O!” said Bilbo, and just at that moment he felt more tired than he ever remembered feeling before. He was thinking once again of his comfortable chair before the fire in his favourite sitting-room in his hobbit-hole, and of the kettle singing. Not for the last time!

True, navigating college was not the end of a long journey, only the first steps of a continuing excursion.  Still questions remained unanswered.

Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.

And on I went, trotting along, unsure of what end I would meet and meeting joys and challenges on the way. The greatest joys came in finding allies in authors and a friend. One friend, who is also my pastor, came to the same road I was traveling on but from a different starting point. I taught him how science works and he taught me about how the Bible works. Through this journey I have not lost my faith but have fortified it.  Some has been lost, but now I see it was only the dross.

Indeed Bilbo found he had lost more than spoons – he had lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’-except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders. I am sorry to say he did not mind. He was quite content; and the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party.

By Benjamin Sonquist.  To read more about Ben, click here.

A Pastor’s Thoughts on Euthanasia by Kerry Bender

Like most kids, I once believed that my dad could beat up your dad.  My father was a strong and proud son of German immigrants.  He was a farmer and a man of faith – quiet, strong, and resilient.

For the last several years, however, he has been confined to a hospital bed or to a wheelchair unable to walk or to recognize the sight, sound, or touch of those who were once closest to him.  While his body slowly declines, his mind has been stolen already by Alzheimer’s.

This once proud man now needs assistance with the most basic – and base – of human functions.  It is a fate that I watched my grandmother suffer through; it is a fate that I now watch my father suffer through; and a fate, if I am honest with myself, that I too will likely face in the future.

I’m 38 now, but I told my wife that at 65 I am having my living will tattooed to my chest with a “Do NOT resuscitate” clause in all caps and bold letters.  Of course, I am kidding about the tattoo (well, most of the time I am); I believe that human life is precious and should be preserved.  There are times, however, that allowing one the right to die or assisted suicide feels like a viable option.  Voluntary euthanasia feels more compassionate, more loving, more…   Well, quite honestly, it feels more Christian at times.

How something feels, however, is not the only test for the morality of a particular issue.  Christianity demands that we feel deeply; Christ himself was moved with compassion on more than one occasion, but we must also be willing to think deeply – a balance must be struck between emotion and reason.  We recognize that our intellect is fallen, but we must also recognize that are our emotions are fallen as well.  Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.”

As followers of Jesus Christ, we must be prepared to address the questions of the day – questions that push their way to the forefront of not only theological debate but also political debate.  We must be prepared to engage with these questions with great compassion and feeling, but we must also be prepared to answer them theologically and biblically.  “Right to die” laws or assisted suicide is just one example of issues that must be addressed by the Christian while engaging both feelings of compassion as well as theological thought.

As I ponder the condition of my father, a fate which I may share one day, it colors how I read about the debate over the current proposed “right to die” law in Massachusetts.  Proponents are hoping that Massachusetts will join other states like, Oregon, Washington, and Montana in allowing assisted suicide.  News stories surrounding this debate are filled with accounts of individuals and their families struggling with terminal illnesses – suffering unspeakable pain.

My heart goes out to them.  I feel for them, and my feelings cry out for their relief from pain and suffering as my heart cries out for my own father.  And yet I know, even believe, that human life is precious, that every human bears the image of their creator, and that God does not promise escape from suffering but that through the power of the resurrection He will redeem even the worst of human suffering.  This is the promise and the power of the cross and the resurrection.

Therefore, it is not my place to assess the value of any one human life – whether that of a stranger, my father, or even my own.  Rather, it is my responsibility as a believer in Jesus Christ and his resurrection to invest in that life because it is an image bearer of God.  It is not my place to determine whether or not the man in the hospital bed is or is no longer my father, whether his life has quality or not.  Rather, as a believer in Jesus Christ, it is my responsibility to treat him as father, and in doing this – in investing in that relationship as son – he is father, he bears the image of God, and his life has meaning and purpose.

I must admit that I do not always feel this way.  I feel as though it is unfair.  I feel afraid that this fate will strike me and all that I held dear will vanish into darkness.  But I believe.  I believe in the God whose image we bear.  I believe that we are to invest not to assess human life.  And I believe in the resurrection that is able to redeem the very worst of human pain and suffering.

I believe.

 

[Read Dr. Jennie McLaurin’s Response to Pastor Bender’s Blog here.]

 

Read more about Pastor Kerry Bender here.

 

Who Made The Moon? A Review of Sigmund Brouwer’s Book by Keith Shields

Sigmund Brouwer is better known for his children’s books than for serious books that wrestle with philosophical questions, so perhaps it is appropriate that Who Made the Moon? is addressed to his two young daughters. In fact one of the stated purposes of the book can be found in these words of praise for his daughters:

Your questions about where the moon, the dinosaurs, and people come from are good, important questions. Your curiosity is one of the special things about you. . . Only a really courageous person asks the big questions and dares to seek honest answers. . . . These big questions are ones that people throughout history have been asking.

You will discover that some people decide that there is no God because it sometimes seems like science and the Bible can’t both be right. If you keep looking, though, you’ll see He actually uses both science and the Bible to teach us special things about Himself and about the amazing world. He’s bigger than all our big questions, and if you and I search for the answers together, then we’ll be able to see more of the special things God wants to show us.[1]

For several years I have followed the career of Sigmund Brouwer. For a time, my wife and I used his children’s books, of which he has written more than 70, as bedtime stories for our three daughters. He has also turned his writing skills to novels, at least 18 of them, and to non-fiction books such as the present one under consideration and six others. Brouwer’s wife is Christian singer/songwriter Cindy Morgan who has had a successful career in Nashville. Brouwer, his wife and two daughters divide their time between homes in Nashville, Tennessee and Red Deer, Alberta. Brouwer was born in Red Deer in 1959 to a family of Dutch heritage in which he was steeped in the theological underpinnings of Christianity. The questions he encourages in his daughters seem to also have been lived out in his own life and one can see a progression of questions and a shifting of theological positions over the course of his years of writing.

Brouwer also wrote Who Made the Moon? to encourage scientists. He points out that

Many scientists do . . . acknowledge at least the possibility of a supernatural Creator. In fact, many scientists serve in their churches as well as in their laboratories, and I applaud their faithfulness in enduring criticism from both naturalistic colleagues and misguided Christians. I hope this book makes their lives easier as more believers learn how faith and science can find harmony in explaining origins.[2]

He notes that scientists and non-scientists alike struggle with questions regarding evil and suffering in the world, regarding how God has presented himself to humans, and regarding life after death. “Even if someone . . . is willing to accept a vague supernatural force in the universe, pride may prevent that person from accepting the God of Genesis, who clearly asserts His supremacy.”[3] Furthermore, “evidence may suggest a supernatural Creator, but nothing can . . . empirically prove His existence.”[4]

The book goes a long way in accomplishing the tasks Brouwer has set for himself. It is a book that I have already recommended or loaned to several who want to explore the interaction of science and theology. As the book is addressed to his daughters and written at a basic reading level, it is accessible to most anyone and is a great introduction for those who have not considered the interaction of faith and science or for those who still believe that the two could never be compatible. Within Christian circles, origins discussions can all too readily become heated debates. This book does much to set a gentler tone for honest questions and gracious dialogue.

The strongest argument of the book is that the author is seeking to protect his daughters and other believers from assaults on their faith that might otherwise cause them to reject their trust in a creator God. He notes that many things might make one wonder about God’s existence, his goodness, or his communication to humans. He points out that the reader must not give up on trying to make sense of both science and the God of the universe. Brouwer suggests that these are the most important questions of all and demand absolute intellectual honesty uncluttered by superstition or dogma from either science or theology. He concludes that God is bigger than all of our questions.

The book has few weaknesses but perhaps one is Brouwer’s largely unsupported depiction of Galileo Galilei. He tells us that he has a soft spot for Galileo. He then proceeds to paint a very gracious picture of Galileo Galilei, which even Brouwer admits may be “wishful thinking.”[5] He depicts Galileo as a man of faith who cared for his family, championed truth in the face of opposition from the church, and as someone who Brouwer would follow if he were alive today.

There is plenty of evidence that Brouwer’s depiction of Galileo does not truly represent the heart of the man. Many have pointed out that Galileo was a difficult man who spoke vehemently in favour of all of his theories. Many of his theories have indeed been found to be correct but several were also in error. I encourage the reader of this review to investigate Galileo for themselves but I will leave us with one quote which will suffice to summarize what others have discovered about the man.

In spite of all deficiency in his arguments, Galileo, profoundly assured of the truth of his cause, set himself with his habitual vehemence to convince others, and so contributed in no small degree to create the troubles which greatly embittered the latter part of his life.[6]

Who Made the Moon? does remind us that Galileo Galilei was the one person who pushed scientists of the day to combine experiment with calculation and philosophizing about science to successfully give us our present system of science. It is this same scientific approach and the rejection of superstition that Brouwer now recommends to his daughters and to other readers.

Those who have more deeply explored the relationship between science and theology will find that Brouwer could have gone further with many of the issues. However, this type of reader will also see the book’s value as a starting point for those who have not yet done so, but wish to faithfully explore our understanding of the universe through the words of God and through the discipline of science. Sigmund Brouwer has accomplished his goals and the book is worthy of wide readership. May it continue to prepare readers young and old for the assaults of a world that too readily wishes to discard the concept of a personal, creator, God.



[1] (Brouwer, Who Made the Moon? 2008, 19, Kindle location.)

[2] (Brouwer, Who Made the Moon? 2008, 1395, Kindle location.)

[3] (Brouwer, Who Made the Moon? 2008, 1399-1404, Kindle location.)

[4] (Brouwer, Who Made the Moon? 2008, 1395-1398, Kindle location.)

[5] See Kindle location 741.

[6] (Gerard 2012).

 

Works cited:

Brouwer, Sigmund. “Coolreading.com.” SigmundBrouwer.com. June 30, 2012. http://www.sigmundbrouwer.com/kids/ (accessed June 30, 2012).

—. Who Made the Moon? Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.

Gerard, John. “Galileo Galilei.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. June 27, 2012. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06342b.htm (accessed June 30, 2012).

Wikipedia. “Sigmund Brouwer.” Wikipedia. May 9, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigmund_Brouwer#Non-fiction_Books (accessed June 30, 2012).

 

Even Galaxies Grow Old…

I’m feeling pretty small right now. Insignificant, in fact, and wonderfully so.

I just spent twenty minutes reading about the new image just released by NASA from the Hubble Space Telescope, dubbed the XDF or eXtra Deep Field. Hubble spent around 500 hours staring at this tiny sliver of the sky in order to produce this image.  In it there are something like 5,500 galaxies. GALAXIES–not stars. The oldest of which is about 13.2 billion years old, just 500 million years younger than the Universe itself.

Think for a moment about the sheer scale we’re talking about here.  These 5,500 galaxies are all visible within a tiny sliver of sky, thinner than the thickness of a dime held at arms length.  How many dimes would it take to stretch from East to West?  How many more to fill the space between North and South? Even that is only half the sky.

Psalm 8:4 came to mind as I stared–mouth gaping:  ”What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” (Psalm 8:4, NLT).  If the author of this Psalm could pen this question from looking up at the night sky’s mere thousands of stars three millennia years ago, how much more urgent is the question on days like today when Hubble reminds us anew of how small we really are.

One sentence in particular in NASA’s description of this image caught my attention: “[the] red galaxies are the remnants of dramatic collisions between galaxies and are in their declining years.”

Even galaxies grow old and die. For all the limitless enormity of the Universe itself, death comes to even the most grandiose of things.

Yet again the psalmist’s words are wonderfully fitting: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

Fitting, yes, but I can’t help but wonder if silence wouldn’t be a better response to such mystery.

 

(This blog was originally posted on MikeYankoski’s website.  You can find it at www.MikeYankoski.com)