Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Who Are You Thankful To?

"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

I had a discussion with my 8 year old daughter recently about true blessings. I won't go into the specifics, but it generally concerned her acting as if we "owed" her something after we had already given her quite a few extras and she really wasn't appreciating them. She was expecting things rather than being grateful for what she had already been given. I talked to her about something we'd spoken about before. We talked about the many blessings in her life and how when we become accustomed to something we tend to take it for granted. Saying the words that there are people living in horrifying poverty just doesn't seem to sink in if we don't actually see these people every day or live in those circumstances ourselves. We tend to forget just how blessed we really are. My point is simply that most of us should not have trouble thinking of something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

But I admit to sometimes struggling when I look at verses like the one from 1 Thessalonians and hear God telling us to rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances. I am more than willing to concede that I, living in the financially blessed American middle class, should be able to do so and when I don't it is the result of my own personal failing. But then I look at people like those in these pictures and ask, "What about them? How are they supposed to rejoice and be thankful?"

And yet many people living in poverty exhibit far greater appreciation for what little they have than those of us who possess far more, at least materially. Michael Ramsden, an apologist with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, once commented that he believed one problem in the world is not that we have nothing to be thankful for, but we have no one to be thankful to. I think this is a profound conundrum on Thanksgiving for many people. I read a Facebook comment earlier today in which someone said that Thanksgiving was their favorite holiday because it is for "everyone," regardless of what religion you belong to or where you were born. There is a seed of truth in that, but there is a problem as well.

Who are you grateful to? Oh, I don't mean for the obvious things. Two dear friends of mine just gave me tickets to the Baltimore Ravens game this weekend (my wife has never been to an NFL game). In that situation I know who to thank. But what about the air I breathe? What about the fact that we live on a planet that has the right environmental factors to produce crops? I'm not talking about the surface details like football tickets. I'm talking about the fact that our most fundamental needs for survival are capable of being met. Yes, I am grateful to the farmers who bring us food. But if the Earth was not configured the way it is, it would not matter how much effort was put forth by the farmer, we could not produce crops. Who do you thank for those things?

These are the needs that are more foundational than anything else. If they aren't met, nothing else matters. Yet on this holiday when we are thanking people for football tickets, familial companionship, our job, or those lovely floats going past Macy's, who do we thank for the foundational things?

I thank God. In the theistic worldview, there is an ultimate source for these blessings. Even more so, in Christianity that source is a Person capable of being thanked. It makes no sense to thank some ill defined concept of "Nature" or "Mother Earth." Unless the bestower of these blessings has a will and chose to bless you with them, there is nothing to thank.

So I ask you to reflect this Thanksgiving not just on what you have to be thankful for (if we really think about it, there should be plenty of those things) but on who you are thankful to. If you find yourself struggling to find an answer, drop me a line. God bless you all and happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reason and the Supernatural

In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis provides a fascinating argument on how our use of reason points to the existence of the supernatural. To understand the supernatural, though, we must first define what we mean by the “natural.” According to Lewis, “The Natural is what springs up, or comes forth, or arrives, or goes on, of its own accord: the given, what is there already: the spontaneous, the unintended, the unsolicited.”[1] The Naturalist assumes that this is all there is. However, if “any one thing exists which is of such a kind that we see in advance the impossibility of ever giving it [a naturalistic] explanation, then Naturalism would be in ruins.”[2] According to Lewis, our use of reason is just such a thing that defies naturalistic explanation.[3]

Reason implies inference. If we directly witness a phenomenon through our senses then we do not conclude it’s truth based upon reason but rather through our immediate observation. If however, we use our powers of inference to draw additional conclusions based upon the things that we have witnessed with our senses, then we have resorted to reason. If I conclude that the sun rose this morning because I witnessed it, I have not arrived at that conclusion through reason. However, if I infer that the sun must have risen this morning because it has risen every other morning during my lifetime, even though I have not left my house and have not personally witnessed the sun today, then I have reached my conclusion through reason.

Naturalists advance their arguments through the use of reason. They present various evidences and infer that Nature is all there is. But if Nature is “the whole show,” then everything, our reasoning abilities included, must have developed of their own accord. This begs the question of whether a naturalistic explanation for our reasoning abilities can be found.

According to natural selection, useful traits are preserved. The ability to use inference to point toward truth (as opposed to flawed inferences that point to falsehood) is useful. Therefore, people with the habit of drawing objectively truthful inferences would be at a competitive advantage and this trait would be passed on to their offspring. This is a particularly important point for naturalists. They must concede that objective truth exists in order to avoid finding themselves in an un-affirmable contradiction (by claiming the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth). Explaining how we came to develop our habits of inference is hardly reassuring if those inferences do not point to the objective truth that naturalists and super-naturalists both acknowledge exists. Thus naturalists must justify within their worldview not only that we use inference but also that our inferences are reliable.

But the statement, “inferences that point to objective truth are useful” is itself an inference. The naturalist may collect evidences of how these types of inferences have proven to be useful in the past, but the supposition that they will continue to be so and will therefore generally be preserved is an inference. How are we to know that this inference is true? Should we come to that conclusion because it is useful? That is begging the question. We can only conclude that our reasoning abilities point to ontological truth by using our reasoning abilities. That is circular reasoning. After all, if our reasoning abilities actually pointed to falsehood, we may be absolutely convinced that they point to ontological truth but we would be unfortunately mistaken. Unless we first presuppose the value of our reasoning we can never prove that we have the ability to know ontological truth. All truth ends up being unknowable. This brings the naturalist back to the same problem of un-affirmability, being forced into the position of “knowing” that all truth is unknowable.

Naturalists may respond that they are willing to presuppose the value of reason. But this is precisely what they must not do if they are to be consistent with their worldview. Their basic premise is that all things can be explained by naturalistic means. But by presupposing reason, they are now claiming that all things other than reason itself can be explained by naturalistic means. If we grant any exception then there must be at least one thing outside the natural. Therefore, our ability to reason through inference shows that at least for this one thing, the supernatural must exist.

[1] Lewis, “Miracles,” 214 (emphasis in original).

[2] Lewis, “Miracles,” 217.

[3] The ensuing explanation is a summary of Lewis’ argument in his chapter titled “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism” in the book Miracles along with a few of my own elaborations. Lewis, “Miracles,” 217-23.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Inherent Value of Free Will

I am in the process of writing a more detailed evaluation of C.S. Lewis’ theodicy in The Problem of Pain and will post it on the website as soon as it is available. But I wanted to share one brief criticism I have of Lewis (and anyone who knows me knows that I have been highly influenced by Lewis in my own apologetic methods, so please do not take any criticisms I launch his way lightly). Lewis brilliantly combines elements of free will, natural law and soul-making theodicies in his book. However, one argument he raises is that God allows some pain to enter into our lives as a teaching tool. Basically, Lewis’ premise is that true happiness lies only in a relationship with God. Imperfect humans insist upon looking for happiness in earthly things, but these inevitably disappoint. Before we will ever find true happiness, we must completely surrender our will to God and turn it over to Him. This, however, is far from an easy process. At one point Lewis even compares it to a form of death, and it naturally involves pain. Because we have free will, we must be free to refuse to surrender our will to God. In fact, because our will is fallen, we will refuse to surrender it without God’s help. So God allows some pain in our lives so we will learn not to depend upon earthly things but instead to rely upon Him. Our free will is what permits us to make this choice. One way of viewing Lewis’ argument may be that God allows those earthly things to disappoint us.

I do not necessarily have a problem with this argument per se. My criticism is that Lewis overlooks an enormous gap in his theodicy and has left himself open to a pretty strong objection. Why should God permit us to have free will in the first place? Granted, we can only decide to surrender our will to God if we have free will. But if we did not have free will, humanity never could have chosen to fall either. If none of us had free will, we could not refuse to subject our will to God. We would have no will to surrender. Freedom, then, is a means to an end. It is a necessary means in order to achieve the end of surrender. But if surrender is not necessary, why have freedom?

Take the example of Adam and Eve. Lewis says we cannot surrender our wills to God because they are fallen. But before Adam and Eve’s sin their wills were not fallen. Yet God also granted them freedom. Adam chose what to name the animals. They both freely chose to eat the forbidden fruit. If freedom opened the door to rebellion, and it was not necessary in order for Adam and Eve to choose surrender (because their wills were not yet fallen), why give them freedom in the first place?

My point is simple: a free will theodicy cannot place the value of freedom solely in being a means to an end. Freedom must have inherent value in itself, regardless of whether it in turn is a means to achieve some other desirable end. If freedom is inherently valuable, then some degree of pain will be permissible in order to preserve that value. Lewis fails to acknowledge the inherent value in freedom and in doing so leaves himself open to the question of why God should have granted us freedom in the first place.