When Evil Comes, 2

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“If evil has the same kind of reality as good, the same autonomy and completeness, our allegiance to good becomes the arbitrary chosen loyalty of a partisan.  A sound theory of value demands something different.  It demands that good should be original and evil a mere perversion; that good should be the tree and evil the ivy; that good should be able to see all around evil (as when sane men understand lunacy) while evil cannot retaliate in kind; that good should be able to exist on its own while evil requires the good on which it is parasitic in order to continue its parasitic existence.”

C.S. Lewis, “Evil and God” in God in the Dock, Chapter 1, 1970

When evil has a personal face, it is easy to recognize, at least for “sane men” as Lewis points out in his brilliant little essay quoted above.  It is when it comes anonymously, as in a killer-virus such as we are now experiencing, or a terrible tsunami, or some other “Act of God”, that it is not so obvious. 

Evil is, as he so aptly describes it, “a mere perversion”, a “parasite” on the good.  Most of us can pretty readily accept that good health is good, but disease and injury are not, at least not in any meaningful personal sense.  Disease is a “perversion” of what normal life is meant to be, what we believe we are truly made for.  That is why we work so strenuously to avoid it and prevent it, and, when it comes, to overcome it and restore “normal” life as much as is possible.

We may get bogged down here by racing after the rabbit of evolution and its “laws” of natural selection and survival of the fittest.  The sociological counterpart of these “laws” is the doctrine of inevitable progress towards a more and more perfect society where everything becomes better and better for everyone over time.  From those two perspectives (which are really manifestations of the same belief system in different domains), some apparent “evils” are really good because the dialectical process (Hegel’s contribution to the endless progress ideology) demands a constant see-saw between the two poles (“thesis” and “antithesis”) in order for progress to occur. 

In other words, our whole modern-post-modern foundational perspective and ideology are actually built on a deeper worldview of Dualism.  In the essay quoted above, Lewis makes devastatingly short work of this ideology, leaving it as exposed as the Emperor with no clothes whom everyone ignores for the sake of living in peace because we are afraid to admit that insanity rules.

Lewis’ point is that Dualism itself is a false trail.  He concedes that it is better than admitting no evil at all exists, but its deception is that evil has an independent status on the same footing as good, “the same autonomy and completeness” reducing good and evil to simple partisan preferences of equal validity.  The Hebrew prophet Isaiah once commented on this kind of thinking and belief by denouncing it: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who change darkness into light and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)  As Lewis sums it up, “A sound theory of value demands something different.”

The proposal that an immoral and even evil course of action is justifiable because of the “good” end benefits, whether at a personal or communal level, is the subtlest end-run around “a sound theory of value”.  We have all heard this as “the ends justify the means”. Thank you for that pearl of cynical wisdom, Machiavelli!  The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck phrased it for politics and state-craft as “Realpolitik”. 

In a perfect world we would not have to deal with such thinking, but we have all run into conundrums in our own lives about whether or not to tell the truth, or perhaps “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.  Whether or not to “snitch”, be a tattle-tale.  When is it more right, or better, to withhold the truth or part of it, to perhaps allow a little larceny to produce a much better result for someone (or oneself) which will promote a greater long-term good?  Or perhaps to protect someone from harm and even death – as in sheltering a Jew during the Holocaust?  Or a fugitive slave?  A human-made law in and of itself is not necessarily right.  We all understand that there is a “higher law”, a “sound theory of value” that we are all yearning for.

At the personal level normal people have a conscience to guide them regarding good and evil.  Children need to learn not to hurt others, not to take what is not theirs, not to lie, but there is an innate sense that there are good and bad things – even if only at first in learning that some behaviors result in bad consequences.  But the ability to differentiate is already inborn.

Evil has a personal face, all the time.  A natural process is not “evil” of itself, but can have evil effects on the living creatures sometimes caught in its path.  Since we do not control these processes, we call them “acts of God”. 

But the Creator is not “evil” for creating a cosmos in which its elements and processes may bring pain and suffering on the beings inhabiting it.  Those beings are also part of that cosmos, but the difference is that some of them are aware of how things proceed, of the kinds of effects some actions can produce – both on themselves and on other creatures, and even on the non-living part of the cosmos.  That is where the moral element enters.

This is a very complex issue and relationship, much debated by philosophers and theologians since humans could record their thoughts.  The Biblical Book of Job is possibly the first treatise dealing with it in depth ever written.  It is still a compelling read, even for people who do not normally look into the Bible.  If you have a few hours during your present confinement, I recommend you (re)read it!  The end is rather shocking but quite a revelation and certainly humbling.

So what of the issue of God and evil, as per Lewis’s little essay?  Is the existence of evil, in all its forms, impersonal “acts of God” and personal acts of malevolence, a convincing “proof” that no eternal, infinite, all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator can possibly exist?  Or perhaps it proves, as per Dualism, that there are really two battling deities at war in the Cosmos?  Or is it really, contrary to modern-post-modern received wisdom, proof that there is such a Creator as the West’s traditional all-good, all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator?

As Lewis tells us (if you look up his little essay it is a ten-minute reading gold-mine) in “Evil and God”, the Dualism choice is better than the first one in the above paragraph, because it explains more of what we really meet in the Cosmos as it is.  But it is much inferior to the third choice he offers.

Our problem is that we westerners have so little foundation in metaphysics and spiritual formation that we do not have a way to fit a God who could allow evil to exist into any box we are capable of constructing.  Our scientific, materialist mindset insists that any Deity who can really exist must be measurable and reducible to categories that our finite minds can create. (Of course, if we could so delineate and define God, He/She would not be God!)

The paradox is that we don’t want to be told that there is an absolute truth and standard that is above and beyond what we are willing to accept either within our society or within our personal lives.  After all, I am an autonomous, independent, self-aware, self-determining being.  How dare some God tell me, in any way, what I am really made for and how I can best discover all I am meant to be!  We want the right to tell a Creator what He/She ought to do and be, and how!

However, despite all our Ophelian protests to the contrary (Hamlet saying of his lady-love, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much…”), our nature tells us that we are made to know that there is a Creator and that we are made to be in personal relationship with Him/Her. 

Somehow, when we arrive there, the good-evil dilemma, dialectic, paradox, etc., begins to take on a different face.  We become the “sane man” in Lewis’ phraseology, who is “able to see all around evil (as when sane men understand lunacy) while evil cannot retaliate in kind”.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 52: Saviours and Salvation, 8 – The Jesus Story, 4 – The Problem of Miracles, 1

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“Like the jester, Christ defies customs and scorns crowned heads.  Like the wandering troubadour, he has no place to lay his head.  Like the clown in the circus parade, he satirises existing authority by riding into town replete with regal pageantry when he has no earthly power.  Like a minstrel, he frequents dinners and parties.  At the end, he is consumed by his enemies in a mocking caricature of royal paraphernalia.  He is crucified amidst snickers and taunts with a sign over his head that lampoons his laughable claim.”

Harvey Cox, quoted in Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. (Zondervan, 2010), p. 73.

 “You have conquered, O Galilean.” – Roman Emperor Julian “the Apostate”, 363 CE

In the citation above, theologian Harvey Cox powerfully summarises the paradox of Jesus. 

As Napoleon once said of Jesus, he never claimed or sat on a throne (at least not on earth), never commanded an army, never wrote a book, travelled no farther than two hundred kilometers from his home (not counting his brief sojourn in Egypt as in infant), never married and had children (despite the revisionist fantasies about this in postmodern culture), never got rich or, after he set out to minister, owned anything except the clothes on his back, and during his lifetime had but a few dozen faithful followers, even if masses followed him around admiring and hoping to get something from him.  He was revered and reviled by the same masses within a week at the end of his pre-resurrection life.  He was born in a far from pristine and sanitary stable-cum-barn.  He died the most cruel, terrible, and humiliating death imaginable.  He was even buried in a borrowed grave.

Yet, as the dethroned French Emperor who had ruled almost all of Europe and held all its great nations at bay for fifteen years remarked, “He has more followers today than any man in history and is the most revered and honoured man in the whole world.”  In comparison, he, the great Napoleon, had achieved nothing, and he too would bow before this greatest of all rulers.

Our last post concluded with this list of questions:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

Let us briefly consider #1: Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  We have discussed this before and the definitive answer is “Yes”.  The Roman historian Tacitus (Annals of Imperial Rome, written in the early 100s CE) acknowledges him and the existence of his followers, even in the city of Rome by the time of the reign of the Emperor Nero (54-67 CE). Tacitus states that Nero used the Christians as scapegoats for the great fire of Rome in 64 CE: “the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.” .  Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions both Jesus and his disciples in his Antiquities, written in the decade of the 90s CE.  The Talmud mentions Jesus and his followers in a most unflattering and virulent fashion, pronouncing curses upon “the Nazarene” and his followers.  In addition, there are literally thousands of papyri fragments dated within less than a hundred years of Jesus’ death and resurrection that demonstrate his historicity.

#2: Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)  This question opens the issue of the reliability and historical validity of the official (canonical) Christian sources about Jesus, the Four Gospels found in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Whole libraries of books and articles and scholarly commentaries have been written on this subject over the last 1500+ years.  Once more, we notice the recent efforts of some very “progressive” scholars to discredit those sources and insert other “lost” gospels in their place, or at least alongside them, as equally valid and authoritative.  We do not have time or space to deal with this here, but we can say this: the sensationalism of such claims makes great headlines and attracts a lot of Web chatter.  But what is seldom said afterwards is that all of these attempts have collapsed in their own flimsy absurdity upon due analysis by competent authorities.

This leaves us with the issue of how much credence and confidence we can impute to the Canonical (accepted as authentic by the Church) Gospels.  Once more, this is not the time or place to rehearse the long process of establishing which accounts of Jesus and the early years of the Church could be relied upon.  Even in the churches today, relatively few ordinary adherents know and care to know much of this story.  That non-Christians and non-church-goers are often quite misinformed and filled with rather distorted ideas about Christianity’s foundations is hardly astonishing.

Over the last two hundred years, serious Biblical scholarship and textual criticism has become a rather arcane discipline, even to the point that it allowed extreme critics such as the Jesus Seminar to be given far greater time and consideration than they really merit.  When we cut through all this, the conclusion remains that the New Testament documents are the only really reliable sources giving worthwhile details about Jesus and his earliest disciples.  Archeology—inscriptions, ruins, texts and artefacts—has over and over again confirmed many of these details and vindicated the New Testament accounts.  Examples of this abound for anyone wanting to go search them out.

Let us therefore consider “the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story”, things like healings and miracles.  We will leave the whole issue of his reported resurrection from the dead for a separate discussion.

Why do we have so much trouble with reports of miraculous healings and outright miracles, such as calming a storm and walking on water and changing water into wine?[i]  Were people two thousand years ago just that much more gullible, simple, and superstitious than we are?  That has become the standard answer in the Modernist and Postmodern West.  Now we just know better, right?  Whatever was going on there, it wasn’t really supernatural—i.e. performed by some sort of divine or semi-divine power operating outside the laws of nature.

To be able to give the Gospel accounts a fair hearing, we have to do two things: (1) recognize our own operative worldview-paradigm for what it is, along with its limitations, and (2) understand, at least to some extent, the context in which the Biblical stories happened, including the operative worldview-paradigms of that time and culture.  Once again, we can give only a very brief version of both of these.  Nevertheless, I hope that what I say will still be “just”.

First, let’s state our operative paradigm in the modern-postmodern, post-Christian West.  (Apologies to regular readers.  We have flogged this almost to death in this blog over that last year.)  The West has eschewed anything but what can be reasoned and verified, or at least analysed, by the Scientific Method.  If there is a Deity of some sort, we do not consider the intervention of God or any supernatural power a factor in explaining reality, at least not for discussing “how the world and universe work”.  We recognize that we do not yet know and understand many things, but we trust that someday we will, once again by means of and with the power of reason and Science.

Further, our attitude towards the people of the ancient world is that, because they were so ignorant of so much about nature and the universe that we now know, they must have been quite naive, gullible, and superstitious, and therefore easily deceived, or at least misguided, about things they witnessed, such as apparent amazing healings and miracles over nature.  Even the treatment of such reports by liberal, more “scientific” modern Biblical scholars demonstrate this. 

For example, we meet an explanation of the miracle of the multiplication of the bread loaves and fishes, recounted in all four of the Gospels, as a charming moment when one act of generosity by a child ignited a whole crowd to share what they had with strangers who had none, and so everyone ate.  It seemed miraculous, but the Gospel story of Jesus praying over the first donated few loaves and fishes and their spontaneously “multiplying” is just silly.  Same idea for changing water into wine.  How about walking on water?  Well, that had to be some sort of mass hallucination by the twelve apostles who were crazed by fear of drowning.

You get the idea.

There are lots of problems with these facile “explanations” so commonly offered by 20th and 21st Century Bible critics, but I will limit myself here to one which, to my mind, is the most lethal to this whole approach, an approach which has outlived its “best-before” date by quite a few years now.

The major problem is this: the critics’ basic assumptions/presuppositions about the witnesses and reporters of these long-past events are just wrong!  The vast majority of them were Jews —men, women, and children of First Century Palestine.  Yes, almost without exception they believed in Yahweh, the Personal Creator-God of the universe.  Yes, almost without exception they believed that the Creator was all-powerful and able to perform miracles and supernatural events.  Yes, some of them were superstitious and many believed there were malevolent spiritual entities who afflict people with maladies and misfortunes.

So they must have been pretty naive and gullible, right?  Hmm.  But this doesn’t sound very different from most regular folks of even the postmodern West now, does it?  We see the same stuff now—just in modernized guise.  We all see and even experience this in some way.  What is your favorite talisman—your lucky bauble or day?  Check you horoscope this morning?  Say your ritual prayer yet?  Recite your mantra yet?  Avoid that black cat yesterday?

The real issue is whether we live in a closed or open universe.  Back to square one: Is there, or is there not, a personal Creator-God, able to act within our time-space continuum, and who sometimes actually does?  Are there other sorts of spiritual entities who also can and do occasionally manifest themselves?

Presuppositionally, there are only two practical answers – Yes or No.  “I don’t know” doesn’t cut it here.  If you say that, you are, in practical terms, saying “No” because you are not willing to ever acknowledge it if such an intervention really does occur.

[i]  C.S. Lewis wrote a marvelous treatment of this whole issue simply entitled Miracles if any reader is inclined to go into this issue in real depth.

The Third Way, 48: Saviours and Salvation, 4 – The Three Witnesses

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“Authority, reason, experience; on these three, mixed in varying proportions all our knowledge depends.  The authority of many wise men in many different times and places forbids me to regard the spiritual world as an illusion.  My reason, showing me the apparently insoluble difficulties of materialism and proving that the hypothesis of a spiritual world covers more of the facts with far fewer assumptions, forbids me again.  My experience even of such feeble attempts as I have made to live the spiritual life does not lead to the results which the pursuit of an illusion ordinarily leads to, and therefore forbids me yet again…. the value given to the testimony of any feeling must depend on our whole philosophy, not our philosophy on a feeling.  If those who deny the spiritual world prove their case on general grounds, then, indeed, it will follow that our apparently spiritual experiences must be an illusion; but equally, if we are right, it will follow that they are the prime reality and that our natural experiences are a second best.”

C.S. Lewis, “Religion: Reality or Substitute”, in Christian Reflections.  The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis. (New York: Inspirational Press, 1996), pp. 200-201

We have argued that humans are innately tuned to seek the absolute and to turn towards the transcendent.  Our ruling cultural paradigms in the 21st Century West, Materialist Modernism and Postmodernism, deny this.  In doing so, they also deny what makes humans uniquely human and put humanity on a par with any other accidental evolutionary extrusion.  There is no accounting for all the categories of human experience and awareness of something “other”, “beyond”, “higher”, “greater” than what we are now, and to which we yearn to aspire.

Beyond his well-known Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis was a great English thinker and writer about reality in his own right.  He cites three forms of evidence: the evidence of history, the evidence of reason, and the evidence of experience.  History gives us “the authority of many wise men in many different times and places”.  Reason shows him (us) “the apparently insoluble difficulties of materialism”, a subject which we have previously and frequently approached from a variety of angles.  Personal experience refutes the claim that the transcendent is all an illusion foisted upon the gullible.  Incidentally, Lewis could hardly have been accused of being a gullible simpleton.  He was a well-respected and established professor and scholar of Medieval Literature and culture at Oxford University.  In Surprised by Joy he called himself the “most reluctant Christian convert in history”, or words to that effect.

At this point of our discussion, we will therefore accept that human beings are a union of the physical and spiritual aspects of reality.  As Lewis says, “… the hypothesis of a spiritual world covers more of the facts with far fewer assumptions” than pure materialism.  For many modern/postmodern Western people with their conviction that strict materialism is the only acceptable version of reality, at least in practice if not in theory, this may be unpalatable.  After all, it (re)opens the discussion about God, Creation, and moral responsibility and accountability.  An unwillingness to even discuss these subjects betrays fear and weakness that their case is not nearly as conclusive as they like to assert.

Perhaps it is fair to ask why the possible, even probable, existence of the supernatural opens up the divisive Pandora’s Box of morality, personal responsibility, and accountability.  Let us consider once more the three “witnesses” on the subject which Lewis posits. 

First, the enormous preponderance of the “authority of many wise” people through all recorded human history claims that moral living is incumbent upon each of us and all of us together and that its expectations and standards are rooted in the spiritual side of reality, to which they also bear witness.  Furthermore, this same authority declares that responsibility and accountability are both personal and collective, and that this flows from the same (spiritual) source as morality itself.  

Then reason tells us that moral, responsible living is simply a much more satisfying course of life with much richer results in both the short and long term, for both the present and the future.  (Cf. Pascal and his wager in “The Third Way, 43 – Kohelet 7”.)  Once more, the historical record on this score is irrefutable.  Philosophers from all civilized cultures, from China to England, from antiquity until the modern period, have argued this, whether religiously motivated or merely considering morality and accountability on their own merits, as did Aristotle and Confucius, for example. 

Finally, every reasonably “normal” person experiences guilt and the sense of personal accountability which sooner or later will find them out.  It matters not if you are religious, agnostic, or atheist.  This understanding does not need to be taught, and it is inexplicable as a simple animal fear of getting caught and being punished.  This virtually universal experience is repeated over and over from infancy on.  It is actually a point of “first contact” with the absolute and transcendent aspects of reality, something we call “the conscience”.  It is coupled with the unavoidable sense of wonder when faced with phenomena such as the incredible vastness of the universe, or the amazing and inextricable harmonious complexity of all that is, from the protozoa to the human brain.  Faced with these awesome facts, it is an entirely natural reaction to be overwhelmed with one’s own infinitesimal insignificance and to behold all this with an irresistible sense that there has to be a Maker behind it all, one who knows us through and through.

Even today, with all the weight of our educational apparatus and cultural propaganda against bowing to “the absolute” and accepting our natural awe of the transcendent, the vast majority of humankind still adhere to what the sages of the ages have told us about the spiritual foundation of reality and the presence within it of mystery and things we are intended to seek, but from which we are estranged.

As Rousseau[i] put it, the whole human race is “in chains”, somehow barred from clearly perceiving what Francis A. Schaeffer[ii] called “true truth”.  As tautological as this may sound, it is not nonsense, for we Modern-Postmoderns have become experts at obscuring the evidence and blurring all the categories and methods which might help lead us out of our self-imposed estrangement.  The truth is that we are afraid of the truth because it will actually and really hold us personally accountable for what we do with it once we admit it.  So we find “other truths” to explain away the mysterious aspects of reality.  We convince ourselves that someday, somehow, all the mysteries will fall before the might of our reason, logic, and Science.  Someday, somehow, the deepest secrets of the universe will be unlocked to our intellectual prowess.  After all, has this not given us all the technological and scientific wonders we now know, proving that, as Lamarck told Napoleon about God, and Hawking declared in echo, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis?”

It is the old Goebbels[iii] propaganda technique.  Tell a lie often enough and loudly enough and people will come to believe it, no matter how outrageous.  Thus we can plausibly restructure “the truth” as needed to accommodate the newest and latest reinterpretation of the “scientific data”.  We can redefine human nature or aspects thereof by rewriting the textbooks, for example redefining disorders and abnormalities into normalcy which can then be imposed on those who oppose.  Alternatively, dissidents and recalcitrants harking back to “old superstitions” can be sanctioned and bullied into silence or ostracized so they no longer need be heard.

However, who we really are cannot be defined out of existence.  What our hearts know even as our conscious minds protest against the voice of conscience cannot simply be decreed as unreal when the soul is whispering more and more loudly “Nevertheless…”  What the spirit hungers and thirsts after cannot be made invisible by strident affirmations seeking to shout down the conscience.

In fact, these shouts are really more reinforcement of the testimony of the “three witnesses”.  The more vehement the anger and shouting against the truth, the stronger the truth becomes until its light breaks out of the darkness.  The longer we live in the dark and the deeper we try to bury the light, the lighter it will become and the more it will bedazzle us when it breaks out once more into the clear, as it will again.

The question is, can we, in our own power and strength, break the truth of who we really are free?  Or do we need help to end our estrangement from the light of the transcendent absolute?


[i]  Jean-Jacques Rousseau – French Enlightenment philosophe, d. 1778.

[ii]  Francis A. Schaeffer – American Presbyterian minister and philosopher, d. 1984.

[iii]  Joseph Goebbels – Nazi German Minister of Propaganda, 1933-1945, d. 1945.

The Third Way, 16: True Truth

“You have given me a mere handful of days, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight; truly, even those who stand erect are but a puff of wind.We walk about like a shadow, and in vain we are in turmoil: we heap up riches and cannot tell who will gather them.”

Psalm 39: 6,7

Many Jewish and Christian scholars agree that parts of the Tanakh, which Christians call the Old Testament or Old Covenant, are probably the oldest written records of God’s relationship with humanity.  Advocates of other faiths would naturally dispute the honour.  Hindus say that the Rig Veda predates anything other religious written record.  Secularists disagree with all of them and point to Sumer and Egypt as the original cradles of “institutional” religion, while Muslims declare that all records prior to the Quran are distortions of the true message once revealed to the prophets Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, which Muhammad finally clarified and set down in its final, perfect form.

The truth behind the rival views is that the Creator is seeking restoration and healing of the brokenness in us and the creation we have been entrusted to guard, heal, cherish and tend into full flourishing.  Scholarship may help us assess which sources are most ‘original,’ but if there is truth to be found it must penetrate the heart and soul and resonate there in our innermost being, bearing fruit in keeping with its nature.

For the seeds we plant in our hearts and minds always bear fruit in keeping with their nature.  If we sow bitterness and anger, fear and rejection, competition and aggression, we reap their fruits and our actions become wounding, destructive, coercive, and even violent.  Jesus once said, “By their fruit you will know them,” and “If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.”

The old Western imperialism was straightforward—the superiority of the European, “Christian” civilization was clear and it was the “white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling put it, to enlighten the rest of humanity and teach them their place in the “natural order.”  The most horrendous example of this was, of course, Nazism’s attempt to assert the primacy of the “Master Race.”

Many would call Jesus the best and wisest human ever to have lived.  His method of assessing things and behaviours by their fruit is probably the surest way to move into the “spirit of truth,” upon which the Third Way depends.  Jesus also said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

Finding “truth” in the 21st Century is perhaps the greatest conundrum we face.  It has been relativized into absurdity.  Two thousand years ago, a Roman judge facing Jesus asked him, “What is truth?”  We do not know enough about Pilate to say for certain if this was a cynical quip seeking no real answer, or a genuinely puzzled wish to explore the issue, but knowing there was no hope of pursuing it under the circumstances.

In our age we face a growing sense of cultural, social, environmental, and spiritual crisis. It overshadows human consciousness everywhere; there is no more critical question.  We seem far from any consensus regarding truth, and the fundamental divisions seem to be growing wider.  The ‘old truths’ are under siege, and, if there is any new truth, it shifts and reforms so quickly that it is like trying to catch your shadow.  The West is trapped in its Enlightenment paradigm of truth: reason-logic-science will lead us to it.  The West’s technological and economic ascendancy (now under threat from the rising stars of the Orient in particular) have engendered enormous backlash, even while those reacting to it adopt its main characteristics.

Has truth disappeared?  Is the search for it really a cynic’s game, as Pilate’s question implied?  Or is it that we have lost sight of it while it has been “hiding in plain sight?”  Is truth a mere convention arrived at by general consensus, and mutable as the consensus changes?

Evolution over billions of years is now the ‘accepted truth’ which represents the ‘consensus’.  Thus, humans and all the other living (and non-living) things are outcomes, end-products of the self-organizing and self-formulating properties of the essential energy that underlies everything.  The trend in evolutionary theory is to attribute some sort of proto-consciousness and will to matter.

It is a strange metamorphosis.  As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”  A useful philosophical principle called “Ockham’s Razor” suggests that the most obvious and simple solution to a logical, philosophical conundrum is usually the right one.  In this case, because the bankruptcy of a purely mechanistic and materialist explanation for the Cosmos and ourselves has become rather obvious, we now find even the most ardent believers in the Scientific Model of existence returning to attributing rather esoteric and mystical properties to matter and its sub-tending most fundamental energies—including quasi-consciousness and quasi-personal characteristics.  The Medieval Academic Ockham would forthrightly say, “Oh!  You mean God!”  But Stephen Hawking replies, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis.” Instead, because the whole notion of God has become anathema a priori, we are left with sheer fanciful speculation about matter somehow being predisposed to organize itself to present the appearance of meaning and purpose.  Ergo, the Cosmos created itself ex nihilo.

As I stare into the newest contortions of circumlocution aiming to block the hoary old notion of a personal Deity reasserting itself after all the tremendous efforts of the last two centuries to erase even a trace of His/Her presence, I find myself ironically amused.  I also find myself weary, wishing the Creator would just appear and, as C.S. Lewis once put it in the metaphorical terms of a poker game, “OK boys, the game has gone far enough.  The Dealer is calling in the cards and reclaiming your chips before you are so far gone you totally wreck the place and are really convinced you are god.”  (Apologies to Lewis buffs: I have grossly misparaphrased the metaphor.)

 While the ‘Dealer’ will someday say, “Time’s up!” and call in the chips, He/She is far more patient than any of us, far more forbearing, and, as one New Testament version puts it, “Not willing that any should perish, but desires that all should be saved.”  The creation is on a clock, whether a short- or long-wound one.  Evolution says it has perhaps another fifty billion years to tick.  But humanity’s clock is unlikely to be so generous, and certainly our personal clocks are “but a brief candle,” with some of us much nearer burning out than others.

Why are we so averse to turning our faces to look the Creator in the face?  Why are we so wilfully unwilling to look at all that He/She has made and displayed in all its awful and awesome glory and splendor and see His/Her handiwork and signature?  Every day is a gift; every being a masterpiece. Yet we see mere forms and outer shells to be used and exploited for “personal peace and affluence,” as Francis A. Schaeffer puts it.  Or we attribute semi-magical properties to the components rather acknowledge the incredible worth of the Maker who allows us to gaze into His/Her very heart, soul, mind and strength, longing for us to come to Him/Her with our own hearts, souls, minds, and strength so we may know and be known and become the children the Creator made us to be.

Instead we engage in absurd and futile avoidance strategies, because we are addicted to our own petty ‘godhood’ which absolves us of real accountability.  It will not do to say we are a strange, temporary, personalized, and self-aware extrusion of the mysterious Cosmos.  Personhood is not a strange and inexplicable phenomenon allowing the essence of the Cosmos to futilely and dimly observe itself before it reabsorbs these ‘bubbles’ into the anonymous and amorphous ‘Om’ where there is only blissful impersonality which somehow knows all and nothing at the same time.  Personhood is a gift from the Creator which reflects His/Her own essence, and extends itself to love and be loved in return.  It is married to individuality—and we see both at work indivisibly everywhere we look.  It will not do to say that it is all mere maya, illusion masking ‘the Real.’

The meaning of things is not to become nothing.  It is to be born again in spirit and in truth, and for the body and soul to be truly one and healed in the embrace of our Maker.

The Third Way, 12: Comedy of Errors

The Third Way, 12: Comedy of Errors“God writes a lot of comedy, it’s just that he has so many bad actors.”  Garrison Keillor, American comedian quoted in Common Prayer, (Zondervan, 2010), p. 222

            By all appearances, we have painted ourselves into a corner.  There have been many bad actors involved in this self-inflicted crisis.  Perhaps the Divine perspective on this ‘comedy’ is a sort of irony that the Creator can see but seems lost on us poor wayward mortals.  We typically blame Him/Her for the tragedy of what we mostly do to ourselves and one another.  But, comedy, irony, or whatever we want to call it aside, I doubt that the Creator is laughing.

I suspect that we will only be able to see the ‘joke’ quite a bit farther down the road.  I am reminded of the catastrophic predictions of the famous “Club of Rome” in the early 1970s.  Mass famines and plagues as per Malthus anyone?  Then there was the Far-Right panic about a global Masonic takeover and One-World Government in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  And then there was the worldwide Y2K apocalypse panic which made billions for techies but was no more than a hyper-inflated burp.  And let us not forget the various 9/11 conspiracies (it wasn’t really Al-Qaeda, eh).  Finally, for Bible-thumpers, there is the perennial “Jesus is returning on Day X at 12 noon” and for Koran thumpers, the Mahdi is about to emerge any day. 

There are quite a few of us who would like to blame the Supreme Tragic-comedy Writer for the whole mess.  But then we would have to accept there is a Creator to blame.  Instead, it is more expedient (and atheistically consistent) to blame, at least in part, the poor, ignorant and benighted souls who still believe there is a Creator.  On the other side of that coin, believers in that mythical being can blame the fools who don’t believe there is a Creator, or the ones who do but believe in Him/Her the wrong way.  Whoever there is to blame, it is their fault because they have stubbornly opposed and resisted, and continue to oppose and resist (circle the correct answer, as per your chosen villain): (a) the kind of progressive measures that would save Planet Earth from the immediately looming climate change apocalypse, (b) acknowledging and submitting their lives to the Creator, or (c) getting themselves lined up with the real truth about the Creator and abandoning their errors.

Admittedly and regrettably, more than a few very conservative religious types, Christian and other, can be identified among the groups that latch most fervently onto the kinds of scenarios mentioned above (Y2K, etc.).  Too often and sadly, those boldly wearing the label “Christian” seem to be over-represented, but they are not the only ones to shouting, “The Barbarians are at the gates!”

Our latest doomsday prophecy is the Climate Apocalypse, impressively supported by the now official ideology of “climate change science”.  We have just been told that the world has twelve to fifteen years at most to turn things around and that in many respects we have already passed “the point of no return.”  We can all plead guilty to pillaging the planet’s hydrocarbon and forestry resources at a rate that cannot be sustained.  We are told that it is indubitably human action that is irreversibly desertizing enormous swaths of once-fertile land as we burn up the stored energy of the sun and emit enormous clouds of Green-House Gases which the earth’s forests, atmosphere, and oceans cannot cleanse fast enough.  We have been doing this recklessly and without forethought for the last 200 years, at least in that ‘land of the usual suspects,’ the West.

The ultra-alarmists on this one are not, this time, the neo-Fascist Neanderthals on the Far Right.  (Incidentally, we should stop slandering the poor Neanderthals, who, anthropologists now tell us, had larger brains than we do and were just as intelligent, did not drag their knuckles, and did not talk in inarticulate grunts, having fully evolved vocal capacity.)    To undo our Neanderthal slander, we should have our Parliaments and Congresses, and perhaps the UN, move official apologies to them and all their descendants, along with legislation for appropriate compensation.

The UN’s science directorate and various other official and semi-official organisms (a long list that continues to proliferate and clamor for funding) have reached the conclusion that whole small nations, and coastal regions of larger ones, are about to be flooded by torrents of glacier-melt-water causing rising sea-levels, while in the interior of the continents, heat-waves will wither and kill the vegetation, or burn it all because of uncontrollable wildfires.  Lakes and rivers will dry up by the thousands as ground water sinks in depth and quality.  Meanwhile, buried nuclear waste is a ticking time-bomb poisoning the substrata so that monstrous mutations will someday emerge and destroy whatever remains of ‘normal’ life.

Is there any way to gain a bit more objective perspective in the midst of this near-hysteria?  Between 1934 and ‘61, the brilliant British meta-historian Arnold Toynbee wrote A Study of History,an immense analysis of the patterns of history.  As a minor historian of sorts, I found and still find Toynbee’s attempt to synthesize and make sense of the whole human saga fascinating.  Toynbee exhaustively recounts the rise and fall of all the major civilizations throughout recorded history, beginning with the first empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India, down to the modern day.  As he was completing his massive survey and synthesis, he was witnessing firsthand the final collapse of the European colonial empires, uncannily conforming to his observed pattern.

Toynbee proposes that one can only really get a grip on what is occurring in one’s own time, society, and culture by having a deep understanding of the repeated cycles of the rise and fall of kingdoms, empires, and civilizations through centuries and millennia.  Unfortunately in the 21st Century West, we have become blind and deaf to, and abysmally ignorant of, who and what we are and where we have come from.  Long-sighted historians have often said that the key to understanding the present is knowing the past.  Likewise, the key to forecasting the future is in knowing what people have typically done in response to similar circumstances in the past.  This procedure works pretty well overall because the constants in all such studies are human nature and human behaviour, neither of which have changed in any essential throughout recorded history.

But the West as a society and civilization no longer knows or values its past, let alone appreciates the values and beliefs that used to underpin its life.  Socrates once said that the key to living a good life was to “Know thyself.”  We no longer do and are close to reaching another “point of no return” from the one that our climatic eschatologists tell us we are swiftly approaching. 

This other point of no return is that of the wayward child who has repeatedly refused to come home, choosing to spend all his/her capital on false promises and hopes proffered by countercultural snake-oil salesmen and ideological Newthink, Newspeak, Soma.  It is a familiar story whose archetype can be found in Luke’s Gospel in chapter 15 of the New Testament.  If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so, as it has been called the most effective short story every composed.  It is also a story offering hope when all seems lost.

Meanwhile, at this juncture of human history, we are on the cusp of a true, classic paradox.  The West’s leading ideological elite blame all the old ways and ideals and declare ‘all of THAT’ false and, worse still, the root cause of our ruthless pillaging of the planet.  But the irony is that, in more and more pockets coalescing below the materialist veneer of the dying civilization of the West, spiritual hunger and awareness is bubbling up and resurfacing.  There is a gut-hunger for reconnection with reality beyond the mere “quantum, random order-out-of-chaos somehow but for no reason we can discern” worldview that leaves us desperate to try anything.  A huge irony in it all which borders on comedy is that the West has lost control of reason, its most sacred, valued, and vaunted tool and bequest to the human tribe.

Arnold Toynbee diagnosed precisely where we were going sixty  and even seventy years ago.  There were others too, if any had really been listening—C.S. Lewis and even Winston Churchill among them.  For his part, Toynbee was clearly and accurately defining the stage our civilization and culture had reached—the evening shadows of a lingering empire that still had outward form and clung to the shadow of what it had once been.  But it was tottering on the brink, even then.

Toynbee says that civilizations finally collapse in one of two ways, both involving “barbarians”, “barbarians” being a term he deliberately chose to typify what happens at the end, and the ‘end’ is always humanly enacted.  The ‘end’ may appear to be sudden and swift, but it has almost always been slowly and gradually coming on, with a final kick administered by violent agents.  The barbarians may come from the outside or the inside, but they are barbarians nonetheless even if they are internally generated.  (Think French and Russian Revolutions for internal, and Goths and Huns for external.)

As a final thought today, it has become completely silly to blame God for our sorry pickle.  We virtually booted God out of the house after World War 2, yet we have the nerve to continue to revile Him/Her for what has happened.  Of course, God’s detractors had been reviling the Creator long before that horrific bloodletting.

It really is high time that those who decry where we are and what we have become stop blaming the non-existent and therefore, to their mind, impotent Deity, and also stop blaming those who still insist on remaining attached to the Creator, but who have been relegated to irrelevancy in their economy.  The anti-Creator faction has been in control now for long enough for Truman’s ‘buck’ to sit firmly on their desk.  In reality, no one wins the blame game.  As a Bible passage puts it in old language: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “Sin”, in New Testament Greek, is a word which means “missing the mark or target; falling short”.

It matters not whether you are a Theist, Desist, Agnostic, Polytheist, Pantheist, or Atheist.  All of us are guilty of “missing it, falling short”.  If we listen to our consciences, they condemn us, every one of us, regardless of our starting presuppositions about the nature of reality.

The complete picture of our apocalypse is not merely about climate change’s “point of no return,” as dire as that may be.  Regardless, Planet Earth will survive humanity’s rape of its hydrocarbon resources.  Over time, it will regenerate if we eliminate ourselves in the ultimate tragicomic dénouement, or if we succeed in stopping our environmental barbarism.  But we need to read the real road-signs as we approach an even more critical junction.  To rightly read our trajectory into the future, we have to go much deeper into the heart and soul of the matter.  Which is where old-style sages like Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, C.S. Lewis, and Arnold Toynbee can still help us.