Tuesday, May 29, 2012

“An Eye for an Eye”

    "I don't get mad; I get even." We have all felt that way at one time or another, and it does seem only fair. After all, what is wrong with insisting on our rights?
    Jesus continues His discussion of the Jewish Torah by examining the principle of retributive justice. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'" (Matt. 5:38; NKJV). The law actually did say that, in several different places in fact: Ex. 21:22-25; Lev. 24:17-22; and Deut. 19:21. It was a well established principle of law, and seemingly a matter of simple justice.
    What problem, then, could Jesus possible have had with such an obvious truth? The answer goes back to what we have said earlier about the difference between civil and moral law. Civil law is meant to serve a specific function: it involves the way order is maintained in society by the civil authorities. Moral law, however, involves our duties and obligations towards God. Civil law regulates external conduct. Moral law touches the heart and mind. The difficulty here is that the Torah embodies both civil and moral law at the same time. The problem is that during the time of Jesus' earthly ministry the rabbis had focused on the civil aspects of the law, sometimes to the neglect of the underlying moral precepts. The present instance is a case in point.
    The passages cited above were addressed primarily to the civil magistrates and involved the administration of justice. In meting out punishment the rule was strict equity: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. A whole body of case law was built up around this principle and was eventually codified in the Mishnaic tractates Baba Kamma, Baba Metzia, Baba Bathra, and Sanhedrin.
    It was tempting to think that we are entitled to stand up for our rights and demand retributive justice, but we are wrong to think that way. What the moral law requires is quite different. "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:18).
    And so it is that Jesus said, "But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two" (Matt.5z;39-41). If we love our neighbors as ourselves, if we genuinely car about his wellbeing, we will not seek vengeance but rather reconciliation. The point is to win him, not the case at law.
    And so it is that Jesus sums up His argument by saying, "Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away" (v. 42). And here Jesus is but echoing the words of the Torah itself: "If there is among you a poor man of your brethren . . . you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs . . . You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him . . .your shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land" (Dt. 15:7-11).
    God requires the civil magistrate to administer the law with strict equity and justice, but He requires us as individuals to practice kindness and compassion in all our dealings with others. The civil law is a concession to human weakness; to practice love is divine.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Jesus on Oaths and Vows

    Jesus next moves on to the subject of oaths and vows. When He says "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord'" (Matt. 5:33; NKJV), He is summarizing the contents of two entire tractates in the Mishnah, one dealing with oaths (Shebuoth) and the other with vows (Nedarim).. The tractates are based, in fact, on actual statements contained in the Torah. False swearing is condemned in Lev. 19:12: "And you shall not swear by My name falsely . . . ," and the duty to keep vows is inculcated in Deut. 23:21: "When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it . . ."
    The rabbis of Jesus' day, however, interpreted these passages in their characteristically legalistic way. The two tractates are filled with detailed discussions about whether one has or has not sworn falsely, or which vows are binding. For example, in Shebuoth 4:13 we are told that if we swear by any of the names of God we are "liable," but if we swear by heaven and earth we are not liable. One gets the impression that in first century Judea and Galilee oaths were rather commonplace. The challenge facing the rabbinical scholars was sorting out which oaths were valid and which ones were not. An example of their reasoning can be seen in a New Testament passage – Matt. 23:16-22.
    This, however, misses the whole point of the passages in the Torah. What God condemns is falsehood, regardless of what form of wording is used. "These six things the Lord hates, Yes, seven are an abomination to Him: A proud look, A lying tongue . . . A false witness who speaks lies . . ." (Prov. 6:16-19).
    Our reputation for honesty should be sufficient to render oaths unnecessary. People should be able to take us at our word. One commentator, William Hendriksen, made this astute observation: " It is characteristic of certain individuals who are aware that their reputation for veracity is not exactly outstanding that the more they lie the more they will also asset that what they are saying is 'gospel truth'" (comm. ad loc.). And so Jesus says, "But let your 'yes' be 'yes,' and your 'no,' 'no.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one" (v. 37).
    Lying is one of the most insidious of all sins. It is tempting because it often looks like an easy way out of an embarrassing or difficult situation. But it is destructive because it undermines trust and destroys relationships. A person who has been lied to feels betrayed and will find it difficult to trust the person who lied to him ever again. And without a basic level of honesty and integrity commerce is impossible. Lying is the very opposite of how God expects us to conduct our relationships with each other. "Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive" (Sir Walter Scott).

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Future of Playboy America

    Probably nothing expresses the attitude of modern America toward sex than the Playboy logo. Huge Heffner was the prophet of the sexual revolution. We now speak of "recreational sex" as if it were a commonly accepted thing. Now the latest development is the growing acceptance of homosexuality, with several states already legalizing same sex marriage.
    What does God think about sex? The short answer is given in Heb. 13:4: "Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (NASV). Here there is both an encouragement and a warning. The encouragement is "Let marriage be held in honor among all . . ." Notice that it says "marriage," not "shacking up" or a "one night stand." Marriage is a life-long commitment between a man and a woman – a commitment that is solemn and binding. This, God says, should be "held in honor among all."
    On the other hand there is a warning as well: "and let the marriage bed be undefiled." The marriage bed is "defiled" when it is shared with sexual partners other than one's own spouse. Sex is to be kept chaste and pure – an exclusive relationship with just one person.
    To underscore the seriousness of this principle the exhortation is coupled with a solemn warning: "for fornicators and adulterers God will judge." Here God pronounces His judgment on crimes against marriage. "Fornicators" are those who engage in sex outside of marriage, while "adulterers" are those who break their marriage vows by having sex with other partners. In other words, sex is to be confined strictly to marriage, and all other sexual activity is illicit. So serious are these sins that in the Old Testament adultery was punishable by death. According to our text fornicators and adulterers face condemnation by God in the Last Judgment.
    Sex was created by God, and in its proper context it can be a sublime experience – the celebration of the heartfelt love of a husband and wife for each other. But in our depravity we have trashed it – we have stolen it, commercialized it, made it the butt of crude jokes and used it as a weapon. We have dragged it through the slime of porno shops and red light districts. We are obsessed with it, yet we cheapen it and abuse it. That which was intended to be pure and beautiful we have soiled and tarnished. What we have done to sex is one of the greatest of all crimes.
    Our modern permissive attitude toward sex is destroying us. 46 % of all American high school students have already had sexual intercourse, including 30% of ninth graders! One out of every two marriages ends in divorce. 40% of all children are born to unwed mothers, and 26% of all children live in single parent households We have devalued the institution of marriage and are paying a heavy price for it. The family is the basic building block of society, the chief means by which children are socialized. And when the family is gone, it is gone, and not likely to be replaced. We have lost the golden chain that links the generations together. It bodes ill for the future of America.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Jesus on Divorce

If lust is tantamount to adultery, divorce is likewise problematical, for it destroys a marriage altogether. And so Jesus considers the problem of divorce next.
    He begins by saying "Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce'" (Matt. 5:31; NKJV). This is a direct reference to a passage in the Torah which reads, in part, "When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house . . ." (Dt. 24:1). The passage goes on to say that if she remarries, and then the second marriage ends through either death or divorce, then she may not remarry the first husband.
    The rabbis of Jesus' day were not exactly sure what to make of this passage. A whole tractate in the Mishnah ("Gittin" – "Bills of Divorce") is devoted to the subject, most of it with questions of procedure: the formula used, the attestation, the method of delivery, even the materials on which the bill could be written. It is not until the very end of the tractate that we have even a brief mention of the grounds for divorce, and here we see an interesting difference of opinion. The tractate mentions three different schools of thought which differed with each other over which word in the text to emphasize. The school of Shammai put the emphasis on the word "uncleanness" and argued that unchastity was the only grounds for divorce. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, noted that the text is inspecific (it could be rendered "because of any foulness" – cf. Latin Vulgate) and argued that a husband could divorce his wife for something as trivial as ruining a meal. One rabbi put the emphasis on the phrase "she finds no favor in his eyes" and argued that divorce was justified if the husband found someone who was better looking than his wife! (Gitt. 9:10).
    Jesus took the side of Shammai. "But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery" (Matt. 5:32).
    Jesus elaborated on His position in a later discussion He held with some of the Pharisees, a party of Jewish rabbis noted for their strict interpretation of the Torah. As recorded in Matt. 19:3-12, the Pharisees asked Him directly about the grounds of divorce. Jesus answered by pointing to the account of creation in Genesis, noting that it implies that marriage is a permanent, binding, heterosexual relationship. His conclusion? ". . . what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matt. 19:6). Marriage is for keeps.
    The Pharisees then asked the obvious question about the passage in Deuteronomy: "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" (v. 7). In reply Jesus made a significant observation about the Torah: "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (v. 8). In other words, He made a distinction between the civil and the moral law. To the extent that the Torah functions as a civil law code, it made concessions to human nature. In real life marriages fail. There has to be an orderly way to dissolve them. Therefore, without explicitly sanctioning divorce, the Torah accommodated it by providing for a certificate of divorce. "But from the beginning it was not so." As the passage in Genesis demonstrated, it was never the intention of the Creator that marriages should be dissolved. The sanctity of marriage is a basic moral principle. And so Jesus repeats what He had said earlier: divorce is permissible only in cases of infidelity.
    The implications for society are far-reaching. The family is the basic social unit – the place where children are socialized and where their physical needs are met. The stability of the family, in turn, depends on the sanctity of marriage. Divorce rips apart the bond that holds the family together. Divorce is traumatic precisely because the marriage bond is so intimate and exists on so many different levels – physical, emotional, and economic.
    Seen in this light no-fault divorce was a catastrophic mistake. It had the effect of fundamentally altering the character of marriage. Instead of being a sacred union between a husband and a wife, marriage became a mere legal technicality, a simple contract between two parties that could be terminated at any time by mutual consent. Few people in America today expect a marriage to be permanent, and if it is not permanent, there is less incentive to make it work. The result is that today one out of every two marriages in the US ends in divorce.
    There is no question that marriage can be a difficult and challenging proposition. To make a marriage work requires wisdom, patience, understanding, and self-sacrifice. Our modern "me first" mentality is the reason so many marriages fall apart. But the root cause is sin – our stubborn, self-centered nature. Divorce, then, represents a moral failure.

Monday, May 14, 2012


    The "sexual revolution" of the 1960's radically changed the social mores of America. It has had a profound impact on family life that is likely to be felt for generations to come. But was it a mistake? Did we lose something that we cannot recover?
    By the standards of Jesus' teaching the answer is "yes," it was a mistake. After discussing murder and anger, Jesus went on in the Sermon on the Mount to consider the subject of adultery. It is here that modern society is likely to feel the enormous distance between us and Christianity. To understand what Jesus was talking about, we must understand marriage; and in modern society marriage has become virtually a meaningless concept.
    No fault divorce turned marriage into a mere legal technicality. A "marriage" can be terminated at any time for any reason as long as both parties agree to it. One out of every two marriages in the U.S. ends in divorce, and many younger couples are dispensing with the formality altogether. Cohabitation and out-of-wedlock pregnancies have become common and accepted. And now we have "gay marriage," an attempt to cover a notoriously promiscuous lifestyle with a thin veneer of respectability. "Marriage" has become something of a sick joke.
    According to the Bible human sexuality is not an accident of nature, the result of a blind, purposeless natural process called "evolution." Rather, it is something created by God. It exists by design. When God created the first human being, Adam, He said, "It is not good that man should be alone: I will make a helper comparable to him" (Gen. 2:8; NKJV). God then created the first woman, Eve, and brought her to Adam. The text adds the explanatory comment: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (v. 24). The Hebrew word translated "be joined" means "to cling, cleave, be close to." In this particular context it implies an intimate relationship marked by affection and loyalty. In marriage a husband and wife are bound to each other both physically and emotionally.
    Adultery is the act of unfaithfulness to one's life partner. It is an assault on the most intimate of all relationships. The victim feels betrayed, degraded and humiliated. The family is destroyed. The children are liable to bear the emotional scars for many years to come. Marriage is a relationship that was never meant to end, and for this reason adultery is one of the most heinous of all crimes. The Torah, in fact, prescribed the death penalty for it (Lev. 20:10).
    Here again Jesus internalizes the principle. "But I say to you that whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28). The very desire to commit adultery is itself a sinful impulse. What Jesus is doing here is interpreting the Seventh Commandment ("You shall not commit adultery") in light of the Tenth Commandment ("You shall not covet your neighbor's house; You shall not covet your neighbor's wife," etc. . . .) The words "lust" and "covet" mean basically the same thing (The Greek version uses the same word in both passages). And here once again Jesus is echoing the words of the Old Testament. Solomon warned against falling prey to the seductress: "Do not lust after her beauty in your heart . . ." (Prov. 6:25), and Job could say "I have made a covenant with my eyes; why then should I look upon a young woman?" (Job 31:1). Job then went on to say, "For what is the allotment of God from above, And the inheritance of the Almighty from on high? Is it not destruction for the wicked, And disaster for workers of iniquity?" (vv. 2,3). Jesus, in turn, takes note of the same fact: "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell" (Matt. 5:29).
    The marriage bond between a husband and wife is sacred. Upon this the most intimate of all human relationships, and the stability of society, rest. Anything that would undermine that relationship is just plain evil. Herein lies the present peril of Western society.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Should Same Sex Marriage Be Made Legal?

    Yesterday President Obama announced that he is now supporting same sex marriage after having earlier said that his views on the subject were "evolving." This comes only a day after the voters of North Carolina, with encouragement from the aging Billy Graham, approved a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriages in that state. And earlier, on Sunday, Vice-President Joe Biden weighed in on the issue, lending his support for homosexual marriages. Thus the topic of marriage is certain to be a hot issue in the Fall election.
    We need to put the issue in perspective. "Gay marriage" is not the beginning of the end.  Rather, it is the end of the end, the final epitaph over the grave of the institution we once called "marriage."  The very idea of a "gay marriage" would have been inconceivable if we had not already given up on the ideal of a two parent family raising their own biological children.

    The theological rationale for marriage is the idea that human sexuality is something that is created by God, and that it has a specific God-ordained purpose.  That purpose is to create a permanent bond between a man and woman in which they can procreate and raise children.  Anything other than a permanent heterosexual relationship within the bond of marriage, or complete celibacy, is a deviation from the norm and therefore consistently condemned in Scripture.  This includes fornication, adultery, divorce, and pornography, as well as the grosser sorts of sexual activity.
     But, one might argue, the state has no interest in what God thinks about homosexuality.  But, I reply, the state does have an interest in creating a rational social policy, and its current policy, or lack thereof, is frankly suicidal.
     The legal rationale for marriage was to provide for a measure of social stability and to assure the proper socialization of our children.  But if anyone can get married, and if no one has to get married in order to have a sexual relationship, the social rationale for the legal institution evaporates.  Today all we have anymore is a series of transient relationships between persons of various "sexual orientations" engaging in different "alternative life-styles," and leaving a dismal trail of single moms struggling to raise children on their own.  "Marriage" is little more than a legal relic, a mere technicality.  What would homosexuals gain by the "right" to marry?  Very little, it would seem, besides a few survivor's benefits.
     But, one might argue, a pair of homosexuals living together in legal matrimony doesn't effect the marriages of heterosexual couples.  It simply gives the homosexuals the same legal rights as everyone else.
     Granted, it doesn't affect the marriages of heterosexuals who are married now.  But what does the heterosexual couple down the street tell their children about "Adam and Steve"?  Well, you say, that is simple.  They should tell their children that Adam and Steve are perfectly normal and that what they are doing is socially acceptable.  But how does that affect the children's concept of sex and marriage?  Haven't we just told them that virtually anything that is done sexually between consenting adults is O.K.?  How then will they establish stable marriage relationships?  You say, they can, if they find the right partners.  But the problem from society's standpoint is that given this kind of sexual license, only a relatively small minority will choose practice strict monogamy.  The result for the majority will be, and already is, social chaos.
     One could adopt a Libertarian argument and insist that each individual should be free to make his/her own life-style choices.  But are we willing to take that argument to its logical conclusion and say that the taxpayers have no responsibility to pay for the treatment of STD's , or provide financial support for single parent families?  Are we willing to say, "You are free to make your own choices, but you pay for your own mistakes; don't stick the tax-payers with the bill"?  But where does that leave the children?
     If we intend to make marriage a meaningful concept, then we should impose a penalty for violating it.  How many gays would still want to be "married" if the penalty for adultery was a year in prison and a $5,000 fine?



Monday, May 7, 2012

Christianity and Politics

    In an editorial in today's USA Today, columnist Jonathan Merritt describes a shift in attitude among younger evangelical Christians regarding political activism ("New form of civic engagement" – May 7, 2012). Mr. Merritt says that the old form of civic engagement focused on two or three central issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, and became deeply involved in partisan politics as a result, with a large majority of social conservatives in the U.S. voting Republican. The younger generation, according to Mr. Merritt, is less partisan and more interested in a broader range of issues. Mr. Merritt concludes the article by saying "So I say bring on the new brand of political engagement. Because crucifying the culture war model could be the only hope of resurrecting American Christianity in a new century."
    A lot of Mr. Merritt's observations certainly ring true. The culture wars of the past several decades have tarnished the image of Evangelicalism without remedying the social ills it tried to protest. Yet several cautions are in order.
    First of all, it must be said that the church has a right and a duty to speak forthrightly about social issues. Separation of church and state does not mean separation of the government from justice or the law from morality. As morally responsible human beings we cannot stand by idly while society rushed headlong over the precipice. The stability of the family, chronic poverty and access to healthcare are all pressing issues that demand attention.
    As Christians, however, we must be wary of partisan politics. Both major political parties in the U.S. are largely secular in nature and encompass broad ranges of political interests. While the record of the Democratic Party on family issues is appalling, there are elements of the Republican Party's agenda that are hard to square with biblical norms as well. Typical Republican positions on the military and the economy, for instance, raise serious issues involving the 6th and 8th Commandments respectively. In order protect the integrity of our witness to society we must be careful to distinguish Christian values from those of the secular world.
    Which leads us to the all-important question of how are we to engage society? The biblical answer, we think, is clear enough: we engage society primarily through evangelism. The real problem with the world today is not a handful of political issues. Rather it is the latent evil that lurks in the darkest recesses of the human heart. And the solution to this evil is not to be found in the political process, but rather in the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the gospel. Win the hearts of the people to Christ first, and social reform will come later.
    The apostle Paul described his approach this way: "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God, for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (II Cor. 10:4,5; NKJV).

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Science and Religion – III

    In our review of Stephen Jay Gould's book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, we noted that Dr. Gould called his solution to problem of how science and religion relate to each other "NOMA," or "Non-Overlapping Magisteria." According to Dr. Gould, science and religion each has its own proper sphere, or "magisterium," and as long as each confines itself to its own sphere there will not be any conflict. But, as we noted earlier, Dr. Gould's proposed solution to "the nonproblem of our time" offers cold comfort to devout believers. As it turns out, in Dr. Gould's view, the only kind of religion that is compatible with science is one that has been stripped of all its supernatural elements.
    The problem with "NOMA" is that Christianity, at least, purports to be based on facts. The biblical narrative aims to report real history – the Flood, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection are asserted to be real events that occurred in space and time. At one point in his book Dr. Gould recounts the story of "Doubting Thomas," recorded in John chapter 20. At the end of the narrative Jesus rebukes Thomas for his lack of faith. Dr. Gould sympathizes with poor Thomas – his only mistake was that he employed the methodology of science in the magisterium of religion, which calls for faith. But Dr. Gould misses the whole point of the story. John relates the episode in order to underscore one all important point: the physical resurrection of Jesus was a real, historical fact. Even the most skeptical of the disciples was compelled to admit as much when confronted with indisputable evidence.
    Modern science, on the other hand, is wedded to a rigidly materialistic philosophy. Thus, at the bottom of it, the conflict between modern science and religion is really a clash between two competing and mutually exclusive worldviews, between naturalistic materialism on the one hand and Christian theism on the other. One cannot be a naturalist and a supernaturalist at the same time. In order for NOMA to work, on the basis of Dr. Gould's scheme, Christianity would have to accept the limitations imposed on it by science. It would have to abandon most of its core beliefs about creation, providence, and redemption. The claims of its central figure would be just plain nonsense – a classic example of a "Fundamentalist extremist" imposing " a dogmatic and idiosyncratic reading of a text upon a factual issue lying within the magisterium of science" (p. 93) as Dr. Gould calls modern day creationists. Dr. Gould, in effect, is asking Christianity to commit suicide. In the end, his "humane, sensible and wonderfully workable solution" is really no solution at all, and the conflict between Christianity and modern science is a very real problem indeed.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Science and Religion – II

    In our last blog post we began our consideration of Stephen Jay Gould's book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. We noted that Dr. Gould attempted to reconcile science and religion through the concept of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" or NOMA, for short. We also noted with consternation that his proposed solution would have had the effect of stripping religion of all of its supernatural elements, leaving it but a pale shadow of its former self.
    But what, then, about morality? Morality, after all, according to Dr. Gould, belongs to the magisterium of religion; science cannot deduce an "ought" from an "is." But how does religion go about finding the answers? If there is no such thing as prophecy or divine revelation, God presumably has no way to communicate with us. He could not have spoken directly to Moses, or to Isaiah, or to the Apostle Paul. What, then, forms the basis of morality? Dr. Gould offers a suggestion of his own: we ate to "seek solutions to questions of morals and meanings in the proper place – within ourselves" (p. 197).
    This, however, cuts us loose in a raging sea of moral relativism. If values are determined by culture, then there are few, if any, universal values, for cultures can differ quite markedly from one another. Who is to say that cannibalism or genocide are absolutely wrong? Both practices have been accepted in various cultures around the world. In our own culture we have arrived at the point where we are no longer certain about such basic concepts as the sanctity of life or marriage. (True to our deeply held materialistic principles, the only thing we are certain about is the sanctity of private property. You can have my wife; you can have my reputation. But don't you dare touch my bank account!) To ask an even more disturbing question, why is it, that of all the species on our planet, only one, Homo sapiens, even worries about morality? We can't we, as human beings, simply accept life as it is, just like the ichneumonid wasps Dr. Gould describes in his book? (The female wasp stings another insect, usually a caterpillar, and then lays her eggs on the other insect's paralyzed body. The hatched larvae then eat the host insect alive!). In an amoral universe, is the presence of a conscience in a human being an evolutionary anomaly? Shouldn't it rather be considered a neurosis, and treat it accordingly?
    Ironically, Dr. Gould's conception of NOMA even creates problems for science. Modern science arose in the Western world precisely because of our belief in a rationally ordered universe, ultimately rooted in the Judaeo-Christian belief in an all-powerful and intelligent Supreme Being. Once science cut itself loose from divine revelation and asserted the autonomy of human reason, an epistemological crisis ensued. How do we know that the external world has a real, objective existence? How do we know that our senses are giving us accurate perceptions? How do we know that causality is a real phenomenon? Apart from revelation we have no way to validate our sense perceptions, and modern Western philosophy has struggled with these questions ever since. Modern science is built on a set of unproven assumptions.
    Dr. Gould calls his approach a "humane, sensible and wonderfully workable solution to the great nonproblem of our time: (p. 92). On closer examination, not only is it apparent that the problem is very real and pressing, Dr. Gould has actually made it more acute. We can appreciate his interest in the issue, but his solution leaves much to be desired.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Science and Religion - I

    Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life
    Stephen Jay Gould
    Ballantine, 1999
    222 pp., Clothbound


    The late Stephen Jay Gould was one of America's leading Darwinists, and in this engaging book he proposes a way for science and religion to coexist peacefully. He calls his approach "NOMA," which stands for "Non-Overlapping Magisteria." What he means by this is that science and religion each has its own distinct sphere, and the two "magisterial" deal with entirely different sets of problems. According to Dr. Gould, science "covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work that way (theory)." Religion, on the other hand, deals with "questions of ultimate meaning and moral value" (p. 6). As long as each discipline does not intrude into the other's sphere, there should be no reason for conflict between them. Gould calls his approach a "humane, sensible and wonderfully workable solution to the great nonproblem of our times" (p.92).
    Dr. Gould's approach is certainly appealing, and the whole book is manifestly written in an irenic spirit. He expresses his appreciation for religion, and acknowledges that science cannot provide answers to moral and ethical questions. He even paints a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of William Jennings Bryan (except, that is, when he calls the greatest orator of his age a "preeminent windbag")! And yet, on closer examination, Dr. Gould's "solution to the great nonproblem" offers little consolation to orthodox Christians.
    Let us begin by asking what kind of religion is compatible with "magisterium of science," as Dr. Gould conceives of it. He tells us, for instance, that NOMA imposes certain limitations on our concepts of God. For one think, "science holds sway over the factual character of the natural world" (p.22). If Scripture seems to contradict the findings of science, then "we had better reconsider our exegesis, for the natural world does not lie" (p. 21). Miracles, for example, simply do not happen. Divine providence is also presumably out. God may be a loving being, "but NOMA does preclude the additional claim that such a God must arrange the facts of nature in a certain set and predetermined way" (p. 94). Moreover, man does not occupy any special place of importance in the universe. "Homo sapiens also ranks as a 'thing so small' in a vast universe, and not the nub of universal purpose" (p. 206). (And the publisher says that the book displays Dr. Gould's "passionate humanism"!) As for the cosmos as a whole, it is "a universe without intrinsic meaning" (p. 203).
    It should be readily apparent that the implications for Christianity are radical and far-reaching. Because Dr. Gould conceives of nature as a closed system, and categorically rejects any form of supernaturalism, there is apparently no room in his scheme for divine revelation, prophecy, or answered prayer. It would rule out the Virgin Birth, the deity of Christ, and the Resurrection. Jesus of Nazareth had to have been a purely mortal human being just like the rest of us. What we are left with is a "God" completely outside of the world of space and time, and basically unknowable except in some vague, undefinable, mystical way.
    In short, what we are left with is what we know of today as theological liberalism, and the case can be made that liberalism is simply not Christianity. All of Christianity's distinctive features have been bled out of it. And this, in turn, is a religion that is not likely to be of much use to anyone. It offers little hope or consolation to the person faced with the real exigencies of concrete human existence. Far from reconciling Christianity, Dr. Gould has, in effect, tried to kill it.


Next: Dr. Gould and the problem of morality.