Why Scientism Doesn’t Work For Me

A couple days ago, this article popped up in the “recommended stories” section of my browser:

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This is just the latest (and perhaps the funniest) example of a phenomenon which keeps me from falling into materialism or scientism (or maybe materialism based on scientism; I’m not sure of the technical categories here; I just know some people “believe in science” as both the best and only way to truth and a way that stands opposed to and has already debunked theism; that’s what I mean by scientism here).

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I call this phenomenon which keeps me from falling into scientism the “Stumped Scientist Phenomenon”.  It is the phenomenon that every week or so scientists (or “experts” as it is in this story) are stumped or baffled or confused about something.  And I don’t think “every week or so” is an exaggeration.  When I Googled “scientists stumped”, I got 187,000 hits, all of them similar to this one (including one which used that exact language for this smoking elephant).  “Scientists baffled” got 175,000 (though the first one was admittedly an Onion story).  “Scientists confused” got 31,700.  And on and on I could go.  If this doesn’t happen every week or so, it does happen with great frequency.

So why does this keep me from falling into scientism?  For the simple fact that if science is what scientism says it is (again, the best and only way to truth, a way which stands opposed to theism and has purported debunked theism), then scientists can never be baffled.  They can never be confused.  They can never be stumped.  They must know all.  They must be able to explain everything every time.  They can never be anything science doesn’t know or can’t account for.  There cannot be an Xs, unknown quantities.  If there are, those Xs could undermine everything science has previously asserted.

This is pretty close to what I call “the Phoebe Buffay argument”.  This is the fact that science has been wrong about many things, a fact easily proven by an examination of ancient science.  Taken to its logical conclusion, that fact suggests that it is quite possible for modern science to be wrong as well.  I had already come to understand this fact sometime in the late 90s, and then I heard Phoebe express it on friends, so I just named the argument after her.

 

The Stumped Scientist Phenomenon is different, though, in that it doesn’t focus on any provable wrong in science but rather at the rather obvious limits of science.  The fact of the matter is that even modern science is limited.  There are things it has not yet discovered, things it does not know, things it cannot understand.  And the fact that any such thing exists undermines scientism as a leak undermines a submarine.  That fact shows that any scientific explanation could be debunked by further discovery.  For example, some scientists estimate that 86% of the species on the planet have yet to be discovered.

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That’s a lot of species, a lot of unknowns.  How can know for certain that one of those species won’t completely debunk the theory of evolution.  We don’t.  Remember, no scientific theory was received from on high compete and accurate and incontestable (though they are often presented as though they did).  They are formulated by men according to the best data at hand.  But if men don’t have all the data, if there are unknowns which might contradict the data they do have (which they might; how do you know what an unknown will do or not do, after all?), then every theory is subject to some degree of uncertainty.  Every theory should be subject to some degree of uncertainty, anyway.

For me to subscribe to scientism, scientists must be able to understand and explain everything.   If they can’t, then neither they nor their science are not worthy to be in the best and only way to truth.  Then they also can’t be said to have debunked theism.   They aren’t able to understand and explain everything, as we repeatedly see in newspaper headlines.  And that’s why the smoking elephant/stumped scientist phenomenon keeps me from falling into scientism.

 

Afraid Of The Dark

Stephen Hawking died this past week.   I was aware of him, and had been for years.  I could probably tell you that he wrote A Brief History of Time.  But I didn’t know that much about him.  In fact, I thought his name was Stephen Hawkins.

I prayed for him when I heard about his death, though.  I do that when I hear about people who die, particularly enemies of The Faith.  I prayed for Christopher Hitchens this way (and truly do regret that he died; I truly am sorry that his life was cut short by a disease).  And I prayed for Stephen Hawking too.  I liked him, actually; I liked his proof against time travel (as you know if you read this post).  So I prayed for him.

And I don’t know that Hawking was as big an enemy of The Faith as Christopher Hitchens was.  I don’t know if he considered himself an enemy of The Faith at all.  But I do know that he once made a statement against The Faith or at least against people of faith.  He did so in a 2011 interview with The Guardian.  In that interview, Hawking said:

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Now I don’t have a huge problem with his assertion that he does not believe in “heaven or afterlife”; I’ve heard many people make similar assertions.  What I have a problem with is how he jumps to a conclusion about people who do believe in them.  He says not only is that they are a “fairy tale” (which is  an insulting way to describe someone’s beliefs) but that the only reason people believe in such a fairy tale is that they are “afraid of the dark” (that is, of what will happen to them after death).

And the reason I have a problem with this statement is that it is an unproven (and probably unprovable) generalization.   It is an “all” or “every” statement, which we try to avoid because they are usually false.  It is also a statement based on knowledge Hawking does not have and can not possible have.

Hawking was a smart guy, as I understand it.  He certainly knew a lot of things I don’t know.  But one thing I know that he does not is why I have faith, why I believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And it isn’t because I’m afraid of the dark.  It is because I find faith/Jesus/God to be reasonable and supported by multiple streams of evidence.

Here’s a short list of such reason/evidence (one of many I could post and certainly not exhaustive):

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Honestly, I haven’t considered all of these things.  But I have considered a lot of them (particularly moral law) and have come to believe there is a God and Jesus is His Son because of them.  I have not, then, clung desperately to this belief simply because of an infantile fear of the dark or because I was raised to believe (the subject of another post) or any of these other things that non-believers accuse me of.  I have thought my beliefs out.  I have investigated them.  I have come to conclusions about them.  Just because I came to a different conclusion than you did doesn’t mean I didn’t do those things.  So please, all you intelligent atheists out there, please stop saying I didn’t.  Why I believe really is something you don’t know and can’t possibly know, and making general statements about what you don’t and can’t possibly know is not intelligent.

Reacting To Jesus

I don’t know when I first learned about Westboro Baptist Church and their protests.  It seems like I have always been aware of them.  What I do know is that I just learned they will be in my area.  According to a local ministers’ group, they are planning on picketing a couple local churches.  Here’s is the flyer they are apparently putting out to notify people of this planned picketing:

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The person who made the group aware of Westboro’s presence in our area leads an interfaith group.  Not an interdenominational group (of group of people from different Christian denominations) but an interfaith group (a group of people from different faiths).  He says he is “envisioning a world of interfaith peace”, and he signs his emails with greetings from several faiths (i.e., “Shalom, Peace, Salaam, Om Shanti, Solh, Amani” etc.).

As I read the email about this situation last night, I felt conflicted.  I obviously don’t side with Westboro Baptist.  I don’t want to attack them (I think attacking anyone, no matter how deserving, is wrong), and I probably won’t participate in the counter-protests being organized (I think protesting is lowly, a “weapon of the world” rather than a tool of Christ; 2 Corinthians 10), but I don’t want to be consider of them, on their side.  I don’t want to be considered on the side of the interfaith group either, though.  “Interfaith peace” sounds good on the surface; if by “interfaith peace” or “coexist” you mean not killing or hating people of other faiths, then I’m all for it, but if you mean (as I largely suspect most do) not affirming your own faith or taking it that seriously, then I’m not.  In fact, when I see a list of greetings such as the one this interfaith person signs his emails with, I’m reminded of this scene from The Simpsons:

So I find myself between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.  I find myself pulled between two extremes, both of which are certain they are correct and both of which, I assume, think I’m incorrect in some way.  I know Westboro Baptist thinks I’m incorrect; according to a fellow minister, they picketed my denominations annual gathering in Cincinnati, holding signs that said, “Your pastor is a whore.”  So I don’t have to imagine what their opinion of me is.  I do imagine the interfaith person likewise thinks I am seriously wrong in some way; he might not call me a whore, but he probably calls me “narrow”, “bigoted”, “closed-minded”, etc because I believe that Jesus is who and what He said He was: the only way to the only God.

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And I can live with that, I suppose.  I have been living with it all my life in one way or another.  I’ve always been aware that there are people who find my faith or my way of expressing my faith wrong in one way or another, and I’ve always been told I just have to deal with that.

If I could make a wish, though, or, even better, if I could speak some sanity into the insanity I see coming into my community in the next couple of days, it would be for those people on these extremes to see that I am reacting to Jesus.  The things I do (many of them, anyway, possibly even most of them) I do in reaction to Jesus and the things Jesus taught and the way Jesus laid out.  That, I believe, is the basis of discipleship (as I already showed here).  And that is undeniably what you find in me.  I may not be reacting to Jesus perfectly (I don’t know anyone who does).  I may not be reacting to Jesus as either Westboro or the interfaith group thinks (rightly or wrongly) I should be.  But I am reacting to Jesus.  The decisions I make every day…make that every hour of every day…are influenced by Jesus, by what I think Jesus would want me to do.  Jingoistic though it may be, I truly am a WWJD guy.

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I believe that makes me a disciple.  An imperfect disciple to be sure.  A different kind of disciple or at least different-looking disciple than some others.  But a disciple nonetheless.

I’d like to think the same is true of Westboro.  I’d like to think the same is true of the interfaith group.  I’d like to think the same is true of both these extremes and every other extreme I encounter.  It may not be true of them; I understand that; I know that there are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” among us, “deceitful workman” who are not genuine followers.  But I’d like to think it is.  I’d like to think that most of the followers of Jesus who differ from me in one way or another are WWJD people, influenced by Jesus, reacting to Jesus, true disciples by this measurable definition.

And if we all recognized that about each other, wouldn’t there be more respect?  Wouldn’t there be less protests and counter-protests, less accusations, less suspicions, less attacks?  Wouldn’t there be less extremes?  I think there would be.  I think there should be.

Right But Wrong

My daily reading took me into the book of Job.  I heard the story of Job when I was in Sunday School.  That is, I heard the first part of the story of Job in Sunday School just like I heard the first part of the story of Jonah there.  But I didn’t hear the whole thing.  When I finally read the book for the first time at the age of 18, I was surprised to discover it was 42 chapters long and that the part I knew was over by the second chapter.  Most of the rest of the book were lengthy speeches by Job and his friends.  When I learned in Bible college a couple years later that most of what Job’s friends say is “wrong”, I was even further surprised.

My third surprise came when I did my reading just a few days ago.  I was in chapter 5, which is part of Eliphaz the Temanite’s first speech.  Most of that speech was new to me.  I had read the book several times since I was 18, but not much of it had lodged in my memory.  And then I found something I recognized.  It was verse 13:

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I knew those words.  I knew them as 1 Corinthians 3:19:

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I knew Paul was quoting something there in 1 Corinthians 3, but I didn’t know what it was.  You can imagine my shock, then when I discovered that it was not only from Job (being one of only two times Job is quoted in the New Testament) but from one of Job’s friends’ speeches, one of the “wrong” speeches.  Paul, I realized, was quoting something that was wrong.  He was quoting something that was wrong as if it was right.  It was quite the theological problem for me.

And just as soon as I identified the problem, I identified the solution.  It isn’t that Eliphaz was wrong in what he was saying there.  It isn’t even that Eliphaz and the other two friends were wrong in most if not all of what they were saying.  It isn’t that they were wrong in what they believed or “knew”.  It was that they were wrong in the way they were applying what they believed or knew.   They were taking a general truth or one truth (God punishes wickedness, which is indeed a general truth/generally true) as the only possible truth.  They were applying that truth across the board to every situation.  They were misapplying that truth in other words.  This is how they word can be “right enough” (for lack of a better term) to be quoted by Paul yet “not right” as God says in Job 42:7.

Now that was an interesting insight, and I could stop right there.  But I don’t think that’s what God wants me to do.  My Lord Jesus has made it clear that I should be far more concerned about the logs in my own eyes instead of the specks in others’ eyes (Matthew 7:3-5).  Therefore, I can’t just stop at what other people are doing wrong (though that is also so easy to see and thus so tempting).  No, I have to push on to whether or not I am doing the same wrong thing.

And I imagine I am.  I’m not sure where or how I might be doing this (that’s part of the problem; the friends couldn’t see that they were doing this, and we often can’t, either), but I have to imagine that I am doing it somewhere/somehow.  And I need to keep that in mind.  Next time I’m so sure that somebody is wrong/has done wrong, next time I get righteously indignant, next time I point the finger, I have to consider the possibility that I might be “right but wrong”, that I might be misapplying a truth and, like the friends, angering God in the process.

 

The Real Meaning of RIP

Someone famous died today.  Who it was isn’t important (well, it is, but you know what I mean).  What is important is that all sorts of posts and tweets began appearing after news of this person’s passing was released.  A good deal of these posts and tweets contained the acrostic (or is it an abbreviation?) R.I.P.  Some of these posts/tweets contained this acrostic at their ends, like a footnote.  Others had it prominently in their beginnings.  These latter posts/tweets not only mentioned R.I.P. but directly, prominently wished it upon this deceased person.

R.I.P., of course, means “rest in peace”.  And I have a couple problems with it.  The first is that it spells rip, which is rather aggressive considering the situation.  It is great sentiment, but it is not really expressed in a great way.

The second and more important problem I have with this phrase is that it presupposes a spiritual element to life.  Actually, what it presupposes is an afterlife, an existence which continues after this present life.  That is not so much a problem for me, really; I believe there is such an afterlife.  But it is a problem for materialism, the worldview which is competing with The Faith for the minds of our society.  Materialism (sometimes called philosophical materialism or naturalism to distinguish it from the consumerist, love-of-physical-possessions type of materialism) asserts that there is no spiritual component to existence, that existence is only the material or matter.  This worldview is presented by some as the only “reasonable” interpretation of the universe.

Things get sticky, though, when these materialists start using R.I.P.  Because the fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as R.I.P. in the materialistic world.  There is simply non-existence, the cessation of existing.  That’s not “rest” or “peace”.  That’s just nothing.  Now that’s a “reasonable” conclusion I came to on my own, but you don’t have to take it from me.  Take it from a guy much smarter than me: Dr. William Provine.

Or if not him, how about Sherlock Holmes (the Benedict Cumberbatch version)?

Sherlock says this to a pair of children, and Watson immediately rebukes him for doing so.  And yet what he says is exactly what he should have said to not just a pair of children but all children if materialism is correct.  It is what is true if materialism is correct, what has to be true and has to be said if materialism is correct.

What we see, then, in R.I.P and Watson’s reaction to Sherlock’s comment is that people have a hard time living according to the materialistic worldview.  Even if they intellectually agree with it, they have emotional trouble living by it.  It is rather unlivable.  It doesn’t seem to fit real life.  It doesn’t seem to work.  It doesn’t seem to be what we need.  We just plain don’t like it.

And maybe the fact that we don’t like it on these emotional and practical levels says something about it’s truth.  Maybe we have this trouble with the materialistic worldview because we feel it isn’t the right worldview.  Maybe we find ourselves wishing for the rest and peace we don’t believe in because something hardwired in us says there must be such rest and peace.

Heart Problems

I came into the office this morning to find this note in my mailbox.  It was a note from one of our church members about a person (whose name and identity I have obscured) in this man’s family.  This person has turned away from church, and this man wants me to convince him to come back to church.  To help in that endeavor the man left me this list of problems this person has with church.

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The problem with this list, though, is that it is not the real problem this person has with church.  You can tell that it is not the real problem this person has with church with how easily these problems can be dismissed.  Just for fun, let me do that:

  • “doesn’t need church” – 1) you don’t know what you need (when I was a kid, I thought I needed Pepsi more than water and only found out how wrong I was when the dentist told me Pepsi had permanently damaged my teeth) and 2) church may not be about what you need but what others need from you (you’re not the only person on the planet, you know, and you have been called to a life of service, some of which is clearly done in the regular gatherings of Christ’s followers).
  • “most people are living in a bubble” – 1) and you’re not?  2) Followers of Christ understand death more than anyone.  We understand death is not just physical but spiritual.  This is why we work so hard and sacrifice so much to lead people away from death.
  • “church people just like everybody else or worse” – I could say the same thing about the military, which this person clearly respects.  There have been traitors in the military.  There have been murderers and rapists and all sorts of ugliness in the military.  Should I hate the military or avoid the military because they are just like everybody else or worse?  If the answer is no, then why should I do that to the church?
  • “gossip and holier than thou attitude” – again, you never see that in the military?
  • “Christianity looks ugly to non-Christians” – same thing; the military looks pretty ugly to many civilians.
  • “clubby, tight, selfish attitude” – again, you have that in the military.  This person talks about his “Marine buddies”.  Would I be accepted in their group?  Should I criticize them for being clubby and tight?
  • “grossly hypocritical way beyond that of non-Christians” – how did you come up with this measurement?  Why scientific method did you use to show that Christians are more hypocritical than non-Christians?  I seriously question your thesis here.
  • “he and his Marine buddies have a beer and it becomes a crisis when the church finds out” – yeah, people in the church don’t always react to things the way they should.  I can find plenty of people outside the church who don’t always react to things the way they should, either.

By this person’s standard, you should not only leave the church but you should leave the military and all of society.  There is no accusation here which cannot be legitimately leveled against those outside the church as well, and there are plenty of accusations here which are false or skewed at best.  That being the case, these accusations can, as I said, be easily dismissed.

If I meet with this person, though, as this man wants me to and dismiss his accusations as easily as I can, will he back in church?  Of course not.  I know that and you know that.  And that in turn shows that his real problem is not this list of grievances against the church.  His real problem is his heart.  He has tried to present that heart problem as a head problem (heart problems always try to present themselves that way; see Jeremiah 17:9), but it is really a heart problem.  He is not following God or serving God or submitting to God wholeheartedly.  That’s not a criticism; he may be following God to some degree, may still have a believe in and love for God.  I’m sure he does, in fact, and I commend him for it.  But it is a reality.  If this person were serving God wholeheartedly, these problems would not be problems.  If this person were serving God wholeheartedly, he would stick with the church despite its many problems.  People who serve God wholeheartedly do just that; they do things that are difficult or counter-intuitive or unpleasant because God told them to.  Hosea married a prostitute because God told him to.  Gideon dismissed the majority of his fighting force because God told him to.   Paul stuck with the Corinthian and Galatian congregations despite their many shortcomings because God told him to.  So these accusations against the church, legitimate or otherwise, are not the problem.  Not submitting to God wholeheartedly is the problem.

And I don’t know how to solve that problem.  That is the real point of this post.  I’m not writing this post to castigate this person or to defend the church.  I’m writing it to say that I don’t know how to solve the real problem, the one problem that really needs to be solved.   I know how to win arguments and dismiss accusations, but I don’t know how to change hearts.

Jesus did.  Jesus had a way of dealing with people which drove through the symptoms and hit the real problems.  His encounter with the woman at the well is my favorite example of that (John 4:4-26, see especially verses 19-24 where Jesus sidesteps her theological debate and brings the discussion back to her personal convictions), but there are dozens of others in the Gospels.

And I want to be like Him.  I want to be fruitful and righteous and effective as He was.  I’m not sure how to do that yet, but I am sure it does not have to do with dismissing lists of accusations such as this one.  I think it instead has to do with sidestepping such lists and driving to the heart.

Ever O’er Its Babel Sounds

Our spirits need food just as our bodies do, and I’m always looking for such spiritual food.  I usually find it in the Bible.  I sometimes find it through the Spirit (I think there are times when the Spirit applies the Bible to my situations, and other times when the Spirit just helps me see a truth from God apart from the Bible in my situations).  And I occasionally find it in spiritual songs as well.

I found some spiritual food in the old Christmas carol “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” this morning.  I was putting the overhead slides for this song into the PowerPoint presentation for Sunday’s worship.  As I did, I noticed that the music the band planned to use had a few verses I didn’t know.  There were some lyrics to this song I had never heard before.  Oh, I knew the first verse by heart.  I have known it by heart since I was a child.  I knew the tune as well.  But I had somehow missed these verses.  The first of them said this:

Still through the cloven skies they [the angels announcing the birth of Jesus] come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

What really caught my attention (and that’s usually how spiritual food comes to me; something in a Scripture or a song or a situation just catches my attention, probably through the agency of the Spirit) was the second to last line (which, by chance, just happened to be the thumbnail YouTube used for the above version).  That line says the angels sing over the “Babel sounds” of the earth’s sad and lowly plains and continue to sing over them.  In other words, the angels deliver the message of the birth of Jesus despite whatever mean and meaningless things the world says.

This was a great encouragement to me.  It was a great encouragement to me because I am quite affected by the world’s mean and meaningless sayings.  I have what some people call “a prophetic nature”.  I am very distraught by false statements and often want to engage them in battle.  I see them as threats to the Gospel and want to neutralize them.  What I have come to realize lately is that there are far too many such statements out there.  These threats to the Gospel are never going to be neutralized, not as completely and permanently as I desire.

What this song is telling me, though, and what I believe the Spirit was telling me, is that it doesn’t matter if they are neutralized or not.  The Gospel is proclaimed despite those statements, and it continues to bear fruit despite those statements as well.  The angels’ song and the birth of Christ happened and continues to progress not by neutralizing all contrary songs and deeds but by riding over them unhindered and oblivious.

To a prophet and Jesus-lover like me, that is a great encouragement.  I hope it encourages you as well.