Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In the absence of God: Sartre, Dostoevsky and the New Atheists

The trouble with the "new atheists" is that their moral outrage, most recently voiced against Papa-Ratzi during his state visit to the UK, is ultimately built upon the shifting sands of moral relativism.  When they take the moral high ground they need to presuppose theism at the same time as they deny it.

The implications of the denial and disappearance of God for morality were drawn out forcibly by the atheist existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) in a lecture that he gave in 1946.  Sartre's eyes were wide open to the implications of atheism, and in his following words he doesn't try to hold on to or smuggle in a morality that depends upon the existence of God.

It is somewhat ironic that the "new atheists" have not caught up with the insights of Neitzsche or Sartre.  Perhaps the explanation of that irony is due to a lack of interest in philosophic literature and rigorous philosophic thinking.  It is also due, I have no doubt, to the vanity of trying to re-write the rules of the universe.

Read on:
When we speak of “abandonment” – a favorite word of Heidegger – we only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end. The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain type of secular moralism which seeks to suppress God at the least possible expense. 
Towards 1880, when the French professors endeavoured to formulate a secular morality, they said something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis, so we will do without it. However, if we are to have morality, a society and a law-abiding world, it is essential that certain values should be taken seriously; they must have an a priori existence ascribed to them. It must be considered obligatory a priori to be honest, not to lie, not to beat one’s wife, to bring up children and so forth; so we are going to do a little work on this subject, which will enable us to show that these values exist all the same, inscribed in an intelligible heaven although, of course, there is no God. 
In other words – and this is, I believe, the purport of all that we in France call radicalism – nothing will be changed if God does not exist; we shall rediscover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-of-date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself. 
The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. 
Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimise our behaviour. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. – We are left alone, without excuse. 

Friday, September 24, 2010

Why we still need to learn from Francis Schaeffer

As an undergraduate I read almost everything written by J. I. Packer, John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Francis Schaeffer.  For all their discernible faults, these four men rank among the foremost spiritual giants of the twentieth century and the great moulders of classical evangelical theology, ministry and evangelism in the last sixty years.

If you know anything of their lives and ministries they also appear to be conspicuously out of step with the glitzy celebratory culture that pervades twenty first century evangelicalism.

Colin Duriez has done a remarkable job of recording the life of Schaeffer.  His biography Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life has the virtues of being interesting, honest and accessible.

Francis Schaeffer was a fascinating human being; born in 1912, he was an only child and grew up in a working class home in Pennsylvania.  The story of how he was brought to faith, his call to pastoral ministry, his early encounters with and love of music, art and philosophy, make for fascinating reading.  I will in due course write more about the man, how he was moulded by God (including the secondary causes and relationships that shaped him), and his thought and influence.

Francis Schaeffer has a lot to teach us about true authenticity in ministry today.  We have temptations that he can help us with, sub-cultural maladies that he can help us identify and avoid.  There is an ugly superficiality in evangelical ministry, a grubby clamouring for recognition, a lip service paid to our usefulness to God outside of the spotlight.

Here are some of the themes that I want to explore in future posts:

Schaeffer was a man with an unseen ministry for most of his life, his public significance came very late on.  What can we learn from this faithfulness in obscurity, and in working with small groups of people, in an age where usefulness and importance is confused with the size of the church you lead and the conferences you speak at?  How did we ever get into the mess of thinking that the best men to follow are easy to spot because they occupy the biggest platforms?

Schaeffer was a man of remarkable integrity.  In the early 1950s he faced up to the painful lack of reality in his own experience and that of the separatist circle that he was part of.  He faced it with courage and honesty and was not afraid to re-think everything he had believed and stood for.  In the preface to his book True Spirituality he wrote:
I told Edith that for the sake of honesty I had to go all the way back to my agnosticism and think through the whole matter.  I'm sure that this was a difficult time for her, and I'm sure that she prayed much for me in those days.
It was a crisis of authenticity, and a far cry from the kind of authenticity applauded today that merely apes secular mores.

Schaeffer was a man of marked compassion toward people.  He was a man who cared for the despair of the Western world, and a man who cared enough to do the hard work in order to understand the thinking and feeling of unbelievers.

But beyond that, anyone who has watched his series How should we then live? can see in his eyes and hear in his voice a great sensitivity for those who live without God and without hope in this world.

His love for people, for individuals, his ability to speak to large audiences just as if he was speaking to one person sat on a chair opposite him, is something that can teach us a great deal.

There is a warmth and a humanity, a sadness and a depth of feeling, a winsomeness and love in his communication of the truth of God that is, in many ways, the missing note in so much apologetic ministry today.  The tears of Schaeffer in telling the truth of the gospel are worth more than smugness and hardness that sadly can accompany our own efforts.

Pick up and read the books of Francis Schaeffer and the Colin Duriez's biography of the man.

Cranmer on the hidden idolatry of the heart

In recent years there has been something of a recovery of the relevance of idolatry to practical Christian living and pastoral care.  I deliberately say recovery, or rediscovery, for one can find this train of thought in Calvin, Luther and Cranmer.

The following is taken from Cranmer's Catechismus, or to give it it's full title:

that is to say, A Short Instruction Into Christian Religion, 
for the singular commodity and profit of children and young people: 
set forth by the most reverend father in God, 
Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of all England, and Metropolitan (1548).
...by fearing, by trusting, and by loving, we may easily make a god out of a creature, which indeed is no god, but rather an idol, set up by our own fancy.  But this is a horrible sin against the first commandment of God, and so much the more perilous, because it lurks in the corners of man's heart most secretly.
When a man fears any creature, and thinks thus with himself, 'If such a thing be taken away from me; if such a great man be angry with me; if I escape not such a danger, then I am utterly undone, then I know not whither to run for aid and succour.  Whither then shall I go?  Who shall save or help me?
If thou have any such thought of any creature truly in thy heart, thou makest it a god, although with thy mouth thou dost not call it a god.  And this affection lies lurking so deeply hid within many men's hearts, that they themselves scarcely feel or perceive it.
But this fear ought to be removed far from us.  For we must cleave steadfastly by faith to the true and living God, and in all kind of adversity reason on this fashion:
Although men of great power be mine enemies; although this or that peril press me very sore; although I see nothing before mine eyes but present death or danger; yet will I not despair, yet will I not mistrust God, yet will I not hurt my soul with sin.  For I am sure that this creature, which so sorely persecutes, vexes, or troubles me, is no god, but is under the hand and power of the true living God.
I know that one hair of my head cannot be taken away from me, without the will of him who is only and alone the true living God.  Him will I fear more than the mighty power of any man, more than the crafty imaginations of mine enemies, yea, more than any creature in heaven or on earth.
And when this question shall be demanded of you, How do you understand the first commandment? then shall ye answer thus: In this precept we are commanded to fear God with all out heart, and to put our whole trust and confidence in him. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud

On 3rd April 1758 Sarah Edwards wrote the following words to her daughter Esther to break the news of the death of her husband Jonathan:

What shall I say: A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left to us! We are all given to God: and there I am and love to be.

It is clear that she knew the deep resources of a truly God-centred view of suffering, grief, and providence.

This is the same kind of Scriptural realism and comfort that you find in the Heidelberg Catechism. It boldly proclaims, on the basis of the Word of God, that our God is sovereign and good, being both Almighty God and a Faithful Father. Moreover "all things come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand" (HC 27).

There is much of God's goodness that we take for granted, much of his kindness that we respond to as if were the only proof of his providential rule. But his sovereign rule and providence are much greater than that.

In the book of Ruth we see God's providence on the macro and micro levels.
  • The harvest happens according to his will, "the LORD had visited his people and given them food" (1:6).
  • The birth of Obed too is under his sovereign will, "the LORD gave her [Ruth] conception, and she bore a son" (4:13)
Even the seemingly chance occurrence of Ruth being in the right field at the right time, what is delightfully referred to in chapter two as "she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz" (2:3), is also under God's providential guidance.

Yet there are also dark providences. Death, the grave, an uncertain future, bitterness, are all realities in the narrative. There would be no happy ending without these times of pain and sorrow. It is Naomi who gives voice to this sense of anguish, the hopelessness of the hand of the Lord being against her (1:13). She has felt deep wounds. And yet she still acknowledges that her God is sovereign (1:21).

From the vantage point of the end of the book it is clear that these mundane events have served the greater purpose of being part of that story of King David's history (4:17-22). Unknown to all the dramatis personae caught up in the sorrows and joys (1:13, 19-21; 4:14-16) is this greater divine purpose hidden from their view, but strong and sure and real and good and true.

There is, of course, an even greater vantage point from which to survey the struggles of life in the book of Ruth. As the first page of the New Testament is turned we see that God's purpose through this family, and this line, was to bring to realisation the coming of his Son into the world.
And Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king...and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. (1:5-6, 16-17)
There were great purposes of grace at work even during days of dark providences. There was a mighty hand guiding all events according to the counsel of God even when the coming of Christ appeared to hang by a thread, and rested on the turn of a conversation (1:7-17).

What should this evoke from us?
  • Deep and heartfelt thanks for the outworking of God's gracious sovereign plan in history that culminated in the incarnation.
  • Confidence in our covenant God and his providence.
In the words of Heidelberg Catechism 28:
What does it profit us to know that God created, and by His providence upholds, all things?
That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father, that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

By the mere mercy of God

 This Sunday evening I will be starting a series on the life of Abraham.  Here are some tremendous words from Calvin on the sheer grace of God lavished upon Abram the pagan idolater from Ur of the Chaldeans:
This calling of Abram is a signal instance of the gratuitous mercy of God.  Had Abram been beforehand with God by any merit of works?  Had Abram come to him, or conciliated his favour?  Nay, we must ever recall to mind that he was plunged in the filth of idolatry; and God freely stretches forth his hand to bring back the wanderer.  He deigns to open his sacred mouth, that he may show to one, deceived by Satan's wiles, the way of salvation.

But this is done designedly, in order that the manifestation of the grace of God might become the more conspicuous in his person.  For he is an example of the vocation of us all; for in him we perceive, that, by the mere mercy of God, those things that are not are raised from nothing, in order that they may begin to be something.
John Calvin, Genesis, (Banner of Truth), p. 343

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Christ the Redeemer and progressive revelation

After a summer break during which I grew a beard, was subsequently called rabbi, read some books, and got a tan which faded immediately during a trip to Scotland, it is high time that I returned to blogging.

Sometimes it is easy to miss things in the Bible because we don't read the text closely enough.  Sometimes it is easy to miss things in the Bible because we assume that they are not to be found in the part that we are looking at.  Take Genesis and Exodus for example.

In Genesis 21:17-18 the Angel of God calls from heaven and tells Hagar that God has heard the voice of the boy.  Then the angel of God says that he will make him a great nation.  This is the very thing that God had told him that he would do for Ishmael in 21:13.  The angel of God and God have made the same promise concerning the same boy (cf. Joshua 24:2-6 with Judges 2:1).

In Genesis 22:11-12 the Angel of the LORD calls from heaven  and says that he now knows that Abraham fears God "seeing you have not witheld your son, your only son, from me."  Abraham has not witheld his only son from the Angel of the LORD.

In Genesis 22:15-18 the Angel of the LORD calls to Abraham a second time from heaven and says:
By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.
Is the Angel of the LORD a mere siphon, the conveyer of a tape recorded message, or is he what he appears to be, the covenant promise-maker as well as the sacrifice-receiver?  It would be very easy to approach these texts in a wooden way that, in effect, flattens out the contours of God's revelation of himself.

Lest you think that this is some quirky theory that I have dreamed up consider the words of the great Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) on Exodus 3:
This redemption was by Jesus Christ, as is evident from this, that it was wrought by him that appeared to Moses in the bush; for that was the person that sent Moses to redeem the people.  But that was Christ, as is evident, because he is called 'the angel of the LORD' (Exodus 3:2).
Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption, (Banner of Truth, 2003), p. 72

The one who appears and speaks to Moses, whose presence makes the ground holy, is the Angel of the LORD.  When he speaks he says that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the covenant promise-maker and sacrifice-receiver. 

Exodus 3:2 reads, "And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush."  In Deuteronomy 33:13 ff. Moses invokes the blessing of the LORD upon Joseph and "the favour of him who dwells in the bush."

It is somewhat ironic that the championing of progressive revelation has gone hand in hand with a diminished confidence in the revelation of Christ in the Old Testament.  Historically it is as if the church has regressed and not progressed in her confidence that it was "Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt" (Jude 5, ESV).