Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Lord’s Prayer: Introduction

    Prayer is one of the most basic exercises of religion, for it is our means of communication with God. This is what makes our relationship with God "personal"; without it no personal relationship with God exists.
    Prayer defines our relationship with God. How we approach God, and what we ask Him once we are in His presence, says a great deal about how we conceive of Him and about what He can do for us. Prayer is living theology, doctrine come to life.
    The Lord's Prayer is not unique. All devout Jews prayed, and the Pharisees in particular had a set of written prayers known as the Eighteen Benedictions, or the Tephillah ("prayer"). They were repeated, three times a day, at morning, afternoon and evening, and were one of the essential elements of the synagogue service. In some ways the Lord's Prayer reads like a simplified version of the Eighteen Benedictions.
    Having told His disciples how not to pray (Matt. 6:5-8), Jesus now tells us how they should pray. What follows is a model template for our prayers. Did Jesus intend for His exact words to be recited in public worship? Apparently the early church fathers thought so. According to the Didache ("Teaching"), and early Christian document, the Lord's Prayer was to be recited three time daily, apparently following the Jewish practice with the Eighteen Benedictions. Yet when taken against the backdrop of New Testament teaching and practice as a whole, Jesus had to have intended something more than just the mechanical recitation of a formulistic prayer. It was meant to be a general pattern of the kinds of prayers we are supposed to pray. We are to bring God our concerns about our circumstances, and present them in our words. The prayer is to be ours, straight from our hearts, and not the insincere repetition of an empty formula.
    The structure of the Lord's Prayer is instructive. It begins with a preface, in which God is addressed directly, and then lists six separate petitions. Significantly, the first three petitions seek God's glory and the advance of His kingdom, and it is only in the last three petitions that our personal needs are addressed. It is important to keep our priorities straight: God comes first; we come later. We are God's servants; He is not ours. We are here to serve His purposes. Ultimately everything is to be for God's glory. How often does that perspective inform our prayers? Lord, teach us to pray!

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Nature and Purpose of Prayer

    Prayer is the most elemental aspect of religion. Without it no meaningful relationship with God can exist. Yet prayer is an often misunderstood exercise, and the likely reason for this is that religion itself is misunderstood. What ought to be a form of personal communication with God instead becomes a kind of magical incantation, or even worse, an empty ritual.
    Most of the Sermon on the Mount is aimed at Jewish traditionalism as in manifested itself in Jesus' day. But in the middle of His discussion about prayer Jesus takes aim at a practice more typical of the pagan Gentiles, the practice of "vain repetitions" (Matt. 6:7,8). In the pagan religions of the ancient Near East the gods were often willful and capricious, given to fits of envy and baseless anger. Their actions, however, were thought to have an impact on earthly life, and thus a kind of prayer was offered up, usually with some sort of sacrifice. But there was no real assurance that the offering would be accepted or the prayers heard.
    One particularly vivid example of this is recorded in the Old Testament. In I Kings 18 the prophet Elijah has his famous confrontation on Mt. Carmel with the prophets of Baal. The prophets of Baal were challenged to lay a sacrifice on an altar and then call upon their god to consume it with fire from heaven. The text says that the false prophets called on Baal all morning, crying out "O Baal, hear us!" (v. 26). The prophets continued, they even lacerated themselves "as was their custom" (v. 28). "But there was no voice, no one answered, no one paid attention" (v. 29; NKJV).
    Aside from the fact that Baal was not a real god and did not actually exist, the actions of the prophets betrayed a serious misunderstanding of how prayer is supposed to function. Jesus put it like this: ". . . they think that they will be heard for their many words" (Matt. 6:7). In other words, in the pagan view the response of the deity was tied to the length of the prayer, either in a mechanical fashion, as in a magical incantation, or by way of merit – you earn your way into the god's favor through your effort. Either conception is false. God is sovereign and is not moved by the leverage of a ritualistic formula. But He is compassionate and desires to forgive and bless. "For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him" (v. 8). What He is looking for from us is a simple acknowledgement of our dependence upon Him as the source of our wellbeing, and this can be done in few words as well as many.
    In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, "Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God . . ." When there is a consciousness of being in the presence of God, there will be a profound reverence at the majesty of His being. Our prayers will be humble, sincere, and to the point, the very opposite of a mechanical recitation of a set formula. O that God would grant us the Spirit of genuine prayer!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Junk DNA

    Recently a commentator on another blog (Choice in Dying – cited the example of the vitamin C pseudogene and challenged us to explain why "an intelligent designer would give us apes a perfectly good gene for making vitamin C, but then borked it at a single locus so it's inactive." This, of course, is one of the arguments in favor of evolution, the presence of "junk DNA", DNA that has no apparent function. Dr. Collins uses this evidence as well in his argument for theistic evolution.
    As we noted earlier in our review of Dr. Collins' book, The Language of God, the argument from junk DNA is similar to the older argument from vestigial organs. Presumably a wise and all-powerful Creator would not have created us with useless organs and DNA, whereas evolution seeming offers us a plausible explanation for their existence. Presumably they were functioning organs in some ancestral species. Arguments of this sort, however, overlook an important biblical detail: the Bible makes it clear that nature, as it exists now, is not the way it was originally created. "For the creation was subjected to futility . . ." (Rom. 8:20; NKJV). The fact of the fall, combined with possible climate change in conjunction with the flood, would mean that a certain amount of devolution has likely taken place. We were originally created to live, but now we die. Something obviously had to have happened to change our biochemistry. Hence we should not be surprised to find damaged chromosomes and apparently useless DNA in our cells. That is very far from proving macroevolution, which would require a progression from simpler to more complex forms of life, with all the genetic changes that would require, including the appearance of entirely new genetic material.
     In the Christian theistic worldview, nature is sort of like the ruins of an ancient Greek temple.  The evolutionist looks at the ruins and says, "This could not possibly have been designed by an intelligent being.  What architect would design a temple with the columns broken off and fallen down"?  But the Christian looks at exactly the same ruins and asks, "How did they get there in the first place?  There is obvious evidence of design"!  The obvious answer, of course, is that the architect did not design the temple with the columns broken off and fallen down.  Something else happened, after the temple was built, to bring it to its present ruined condition.  And that, of course, is exactly what the Bible says happened to nature.
    At the end of his book Dr. Collins resumes the story of his conversion and then concludes with moving appeals to both believers and scientists to end their internecine war.
    Dr. Collins is to be applauded for trying to advance science while preserving spiritual values. He comes across as a very reasonable person, as well as compassionate, a person who cares deeply about both science and his faith, anxious to do justice to all aspects of life. And yet, as Christians, we cannot help but feel that he conceded too much to Darwin and did not give sufficient weight to Scripture. His book is, nevertheless, a valuable contribution to the discussion and well worth reading.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Theistic Evolution: the Philosophical Problem

    So far in our review of Francis Collins' book The Language of God we have considered some of the theological problems involved in his version of theistic evolution. But there are philosophical problems as well.. The central question in the debate is whether or not there is such a thing as design in nature, and this, in turn, lies at the heart of the much broader question of whether or not life itself has meaning and purpose.
    Like Darwin, Dr. Collins conceives of evolution as a naturalistic process, but he also asserts the "Anthropic Principle." At the moment of the "Big Bang" 14 billion years ago the universe was precisely tuned to sustain life and ultimately produce man. But this seems to imply a kind of mechanistic determinism of the type once advocated by Laplace: by a very long chain of cause and effect the outcome of the process is determined by the beginning. But that would leave no room for the kind of moral responsibility Dr. Collins says is the distinctive feature of humankind. Moreover, as Dr. Collins points out, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle undermines any notion of mechanistic determinism. That would mean that "God plays dice," as Einstein complained, and it would also mean that the evolution of Homo sapiens is would have been far from certain. Dr. Collins tries to tell us "evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God's perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process" (p. 205).
    But Dr. Collins still has not answered the question, is there design in nature? There would appear to be three possibilities: 1) God controls each step of the process to ensure the desired outcome; 2) Evolution proceeds in a deterministic fashion, so that God can foresee the outcome without directly controlling the process; or 3)Evolution really is a random and undirected process. Dr. Collins tells us how it appears, but he is not at all clear about how it actually is. Is the design real, or is it merely apparent?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Francis Collins and Theistic Evolution

    The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
    Francis S. Collins
    Free Press, 2006
    280 pp., pb.


    Dr. Francis S. Collins is one of the most distinguished scientists of our time. He is the head of the Human Genome Project as well as the director of the National Institutes of Health here in the U.S. He also happens to be a devout Christian, and it is this combination of circumstances that helped make his book a New York Times bestseller.
    Dr. Collins gives us a fascinating account of his own personal journey from atheism to Christ, and then discusses, in the middle of the narrative, the current controversy between science and religion. In Dr. Collins' view the two are quite compatible, and what he offers as a solution is his version of theistic evolution. Unfortunately, his proposed solution has some serious difficulties.
    The first of these difficulties is a theological problem. In discussing evolution Dr. Collins sounds very much like his secular counterparts such as Prof. Jerry A. Coyne. He believes that all living creatures, including human beings, share a common ancestry, with single cell organisms appearing some 550 million years ago and anatomically modern humans appearing 195,000 years ago. And yet Dr. Collins wants to say that humans are somehow different – that we have a "spiritual nature" that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom, a spiritual nature that defies evolutionary explanation.
    There are, however, several difficulties with this scenario. For one thing, in order to accommodate evolution Dr. Collins has to adopt an allegorical interpretation of Genesis chapters 1 and 2. He argues that a "day" is not necessarily a literal 24 hour day. But the problem here is that the word "day" is defined within the text itself: "God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day:" (Gen. 1:5; NKJV). It is hard to see how the human author could have intended anything other than something close to a literal 24 hour day, and virtually no one else would have interpreted it any other way prior to the 19th Century. (Dr. Collins does note that St. Augustine raised some questions about how literally to take the six "days" of creation).
    By the same token Dr. Collins denies that there was a literal Adam and Eve. Yet the whole theology of original sin rests on the assumption of a common ancestor whose actions affected the entire race. Thus it is hard to see how the biblical narrative can be reconciled with Darwinian evolution.
    It should be noted that Dr. Collins arrived at his Christian faith largely through the philosophical arguments of C.S. Lewis. Lewis argued for the philosophical necessity of a Moral Law, which, in turn, implies both the existence of God as its author and a special capacity in human beings to discern this Law. To support the idea of evolution Dr. Collins relies heavily on comparative genetics and the presence of "junk DNA," both updated versions of the older arguments drawn from comparative anatomy and vestigial organs. Thus Dr. Collins begins with a philosophical presupposition, combines that with the standard scientific understanding of evolution, and then makes his interpretation of Scripture conform to the resulting conclusion. The result is that his theology is biblically weak, and this is a problem for the Christian believer who takes seriously the authority of Scripture as a divine revelation.


Next: the philosophical problem.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sam Harris v. Francis Collins

    So far in our review of Sam Harris' book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, we have seen Dr. Harris attempt to build an objective standard of morality on the basis of science. In the end what he had to offer was a kind of undated version of the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, but he gave us very few specifically scientific reasons for his conclusions.
    We also saw him wrestle with the problem of fee will v. determinism, and was not entirely successful here either. He began by denying the idea of free will, but then tried to argue that it is still possible to think rationally. We have motives for what we think – motives that are in our emotions, but we are still rational beings.
    In light of this Dr. Harris' treatment of Francis Collins is nothing less than deplorable. Dr. Collins is the Director of the National Institutes of Health, an evangelical Christian, and the author of the book The Language of God (Free Press, 2006). Dr. Harris says that "to read it [i.e., Collins' book] is to witness nothing less than intellectual suicide" (Harris, p. 160). In The Language of God Dr. Collins recounts, among other things, his religious conversion. He had been reading C.S. Lewis when he was struck by a passage in which Lewis said that given the claims that Jesus had made for Himself, either the claims were true or else Jesus was either a fraud or a lunatic. It is not possible to accept Him as a "great moral teacher" and yet think that He was wrong about who He said He was.
    Collins had felt the force of the argument, but the decisive moment came when he was hiking in the Cascade Mountains, and "the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ" (quoted in Harris, p. 163).     
    And what is Dr. Harris' reaction to this account? "This is self-deception at full gallop. It is simply astounding that this passage was written by a scientist with the intent of demonstrating the compatibility of faith and reason" (Ibid.).
    Self-deception at a full gallop? Wait a minute here. What exactly happened to Francis Collins?
    According to Dr. Collins' own account of his conversion, the book of Lewis' that he had been reading was Mere Christianity. Dr. Collins says that he was especially impressed by a section entitled "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe" (Collins, p. 22). Dr. Collins says ". . . I realized that all of my own constructs against the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy . . . Lewis seemed to know all of my objections, sometimes even before I had quite formulated them. He invariably addressed them within a page or two. When I learned subsequently that Lewis himself had been an atheist, who had set out to disprove faith on the basis of logical argument, I recognized how he could be so insightful about my path. It had been his path as well." (Ibid., p.21).
    Dr. Collins, however, did not convert right away. He continued to struggle. Why? "My desire to draw close to God was blocked by my own pride and sinfulness, which in turn was an inevitable consequence of my own selfish desire to be in control. Faithfulness to God required a kind of death to self-will, in order to be reborn as a new creation" (Ibid., p. 222).
    In other words, Dr. Collins' rational self thought that Lewis' arguments made sense. Dr. Harris himself gives the reasons that Dr. Collins cites as the basis for his faith: "the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of Nature's constants, the emergence of complex life, and the effectiveness of mathematics, as well as our moral intuitions" (Harris, pp. 165-166). In other words, while struck by a subjective experience, Dr. Collins still had a rational basis for belief. What the experience did was to break down his resistance to the truth. This is very far from being "an intellectual suicide."
    Dr. Harris says that there are "alternate (and far more plausible) accounts of these phenomena" (the ones cited by Collins in Harris, p. 166). We might wonder what "alternate" and "far more plausible" account there can be for such things as the effectiveness of mathematics, but he does not elaborate. We suspect that it comes down to a matter of perception. Dr. Collins' experience in the Cascade Mountains enabled him to see things in a new light. And what he was seeing was very real and not at all imaginary. It is doubtful that the "alternate" explanations, if they do in fact exist, are "far more plausible."
    What is especially unfortunate about Dr. Harris' strictures on Dr. Collins' conversion experience is that what Dr. Collins described is, for the most part, what Dr. Harris had just said in the preceding chapter of his book is the way all people think, presumably Dr. Harris himself included! We all have motives for what we think, but that does not prevent us from thinking rationally. Dr. Collins described what had happened to him on an emotional level. He also gave us his rational reasons for faith. Why cannot Dr. Harris see what Dr. Collins sees? The answer: his motives are different.
    Frankly, in light of what Dr. Harris had said about motives and beliefs in the earlier chapters of his book, we cannot see how he can condemn Dr. Collins for having the very same thought processes that Dr. Harris himself had described.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why Sam Harris Is an Atheist

    As we saw in our last blog post, Sam Harris set out to demonstrate "How Science Can Determine Human Values," to quote the subtitle of his book. It was a bold attempt to find an objective moral standard based on science. And, in our opinion, he largely failed in the attempt. While he offered many opinions of his own on a wide variety of subjects, he gave few specifically scientific reasons for them. Instead he mainly went over the same ground that numerous theologians and philosophers have traversed for many centuries before, all the while not professing to see any valid objections to his own highly colored opinions. In the end Dr. Harris comes across as an atheist trying hard not to sound like Nietzsche.
    In his wandering peregrinations of the mind, however, Dr. Harris stumbled into an age-old trap, the hoary controversy over determinism v. free will. Dr. Harris says that there is no such thing as a free will, but unlike religious determinists of the past such as Augustine, Calvin and Edwards, Dr. Harris is an atheist and a thoroughgoing materialist (and a neuroscientist at that). But this creates a dilemma for him. On the one hand he wants to say that everything that occurs in the human mind has a natural cause, and therefore can be studied scientifically by neuroscientists such as himself. But if this is the case, Dr. Harris' own thought processes have been biologically determined, which raises an intriguing question: how can scientific reasoning be valid? There would be no necessary correlation between what goes on in the scientist's mind and external reality.
    Dr. Harris himself is aware of the problem and states it this way: "The problem is that no account of causality leaves room for free will. Thoughts, moods and desires of every sort simply spring into view – and move us, or fail to move us, for reasons that are, from a subjective point of view, perfectly inscrutable" (p. 104).
    This, in turn, affects our view of moral responsibility. Dr. Harris challenges traditional notions of sin and culpability. If we only understood the underling causes of bad behavior we would be more compassionate with the erring. At the same time it would open the door to a scientific solution to the problem of human evil.
    But then Dr. Harris seems to step back and modify his position somewhat. He argues that a person could be held responsible for his behavior if he had the intention to do harm. However, if our "thoughts, moods and desires" are rooted in our biology and "simply spring into view," then does not the intention also have an underlying social or biological cause? How then, can we hold a criminal responsible for his actions?
    Moreover, if our thoughts simply spring into view for reasons that are inscrutable, then what about Dr. Harris' own research? It is remarkable that he managed to earn a doctorate from UCLA with thoughts that "simply sprang into view." And how about his book? How did it come about? (It became a New York Times bestseller.) Dr. Harris is caught on the horns of a familiar dilemma: science depends on the assumption of causality in nature; but causality in the mind means that the scientist himself is non-rational. Dr. Harris, it seems, has led us to a dead end.
    Again Dr. Harris appears to back off from his earlier assertions. He tries to argue that while biology and physical circumstances provide the motives for thought and action, that does not mean that we cannot still think rationally. "The fact that reason must be rooted in biology does not negate the principles of reason" (p. 131), he says. We are motivated to think, but we still think. "There is a sense in which all cognition can be said to be motivated: one is motivated to understand the world, to be in touch with reality, to remove doubt . . .As we have begun to see, all reasoning may be inextricable from emotion" (p. 126). But then he goes on to say ". . . the inseparability of reason and emotion confirms that the validity of belief cannot merely depend on the conviction felt by its adherents; it rests on the claims of evidence and argument that link it to reality" (pp. 126-127). It is a little hard to see how the one "confirms" its seeming opposite, but apparently what Dr. Harris has in mind is that our thought processes, while being driven and directed by our emotions, are nevertheless still capable of being rational. A passion for truth should lead us to pursue the truth with all the mental acumen and intellectual rigor at our command. But the problem remains: if everything we think is the result of chemical changes in our brains, how much mental acumen do we really have? Is it not all an illusion?
    Dr. Harris is quick to point out how emotion and bias influence the thinking of religious believers and social conservatives. But the argument is a two-edged sword – it cuts both ways. Is it not possible that Dr. Harris' own thinking has been shaped and molded by his personal biases? He notes at one point that dopamine receptor genes seem to play a role in religious belief: people with the most active form of the gene seem to be more religious. Might not a prescription for the drug L-dopa take care of Dr. Harris' atheism problem? Is it not possible that he is an atheist because he wants to be an atheist? The devout Christian sees evidence of Intelligent Design everywhere; Dr. Harris sees it nowhere. Has our perception, or lack thereof, been affected by our natural inclinations?

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Scientific Basis for Morality?

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
Sam Harris
Free Press, 2010
307 pp; pb.


    The Moral Landscape, by the outspoken New Atheist Sam Harris, is an attempt to find a scientific basis for an objective system of morality. The attempt is a bold one, for conventional wisdom says that it cannot be done. Science cannot deduce an "ought" from an "is."
    Dr. Harris is well aware of the difficulty. He is a neuroscientist with a degree in philosophy. Those on the secular left say that no such objective morality exists, while those on the religious right say that no such morality is possible without reference to a Supreme Being. Dr. Harris, however, thinks that he has found a way out of the difficulty.
    We should note that when Dr. Harris speaks of "morality" he is not talking about a set of unvarying moral precepts or an abstract principle that exists outside of the human mind. He even goes so far as to say that, strictly speaking, morality is not even about an "ought" at all, but rather about how we as humans would like to structure society.
    He argues that most human beings would prefer to live in a well-ordered society that has achieved a high level of peace and prosperity. By the same token almost no sane person would want to live in a poverty stricken country terrorized by corrupt warlords. The answer, then, is to learn how to cooperate with each other in a spirit of reciprocal altruism. And science, he says, can show us how to achieve that. In a word what Dr. Harris offers us is an updated version of Utilitarianism, the idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
    Dr. Harris' grand vision sounds very appealing, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. Dr. Harris' book has received a great deal of attention, much of it critical, and in an afterword to the 2011 paperback edition Dr. Harris responds to some of his more thoughtful critics. In particular he addresses three major criticisms; 1) the Value Problem; 2) the Persuasion Problem; and 3) the Measurement Problem. Due to limitations of space we will confine our attention to the first two.
    Dr. Harris contends that the goal of morality should be the general well-being of conscious beings. But how do we define "well-being"? Good health? Satisfying relationships? Material success? The good feeling that comes from acts of kindness? Religion? Wine, women and song? Dr. Harris offers us plenty of opinions of his own, on everything from burqas to embryonic stem-cell research. But significantly, he rarely provides us with a specifically scientific basis for his opinions, which raises the intriguing question, what is the real source of his values? Since he does not tell us, we can only guess. But the answer, apparently, is either from his own intuitive sense of right and wrong, or else he has borrowed them from his Western (i.e. Judaeo-Christian) culture. We seem to recall Someone else a long time ago telling us about the Golden Rule! That being the case, Dr. Harris has left himself wide open to the criticism from the left: his supposed universal standard of morality rests on nothing more than his own cultural or emotional biases.
    The other problem that Dr. Harris has is what he calls "the Persuasion Problem." The problem here is that Dr. Harris is trying to find a basis for altruism in self-interest. Here is how he himself states the problem: " . . . there is often a tension between the autonomy of the individual and the common good, and many moral problems turn on just how to prioritize competing values" (p. 42). "Prioritize" indeed. Why should anyone think about the common good at all? Dr. Harris says that it is in our own self-interest to do so, and so it is. But in real life self-interest and the common good often collide with each other, and when one's own individual self-interest lies close at hand, the "common good" can seem like a hopelessly vague abstraction. Adam Smith had a surer insight into human nature: capitalism works precisely because it appeals to our selfishness and greed.
    In the final analysis we think that Dr. Harris failed because the tried to combine two opposites: human autonomy and the common good. In so doing he eliminated the element of duty or obligation from morality. In the end his "moral landscape" is neither universal, nor truly moral, nor even scientific. Dr. Harris, it seems, is a law unto himself.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Culture Wars

    In his editorial in last Monday's USA Today Stephen Prothero deplored the bitter divisiveness of the current "culture wars," and suggested as an antidote what he calls "The American Bible," a collection of core texts that define us as Americans. He then concluded his piece with a quote from Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address: "Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. . . . Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans -- we are federalists."
    We can hardly blame Mr. Prothero for wanting to restore a measure of civility to our public discourse, but at the same time we think that he has vastly underestimated the differences that divide us. The sad fact of the matter is that we are no longer "brethren of the same principle," as Jefferson so elegantly put it.
    In Jefferson's day there was a consensus on certain core values that no longer exists today. It is fascinating to note the makeup of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. In included Benjamin Franklin, and , of course, Jefferson himself, both free-thinkers, as well as John Adams, who would eventually become a Unitarian. But the committee also included a devout evangelical Christian, Roger Sherman of Connecticut. In spite of this difference of religion, they were agreed on certain core principles which they said were "self-evident": that all men are created equal, and that they were endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.
    Would they have put it that way today? It seems unlikely. What separates us today from the world in which they lived is Charles Darwin. While Jefferson, Franklin and Adams were religious liberals or free-thinkers, they were not atheists. They believed in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being. Darwin, however, called all of that into doubt, and with it the whole rationale for the Declaration. In Darwinian thinking there is no Creator, and all living beings are in a constant state of evolution, locked in a struggle for survival. On this construction of things it is hard to see how there could be such a thing as an "inalienable right": there is no Supreme Being to endow anyone with any rights. Thus the values of human dignity, freedom and equality are no longer "self-evident truths," and the Christian is thrown back on a direct appeal to divine revelation to support the idea of human exceptionalism. This, in turn, is unacceptable to the modern secularist. Thus today we are no longer "brethren of the same principle." Rather, the debate is over whether or not universal principles exist at all.
    As faulty as David Barton's historiography undoubtedly is, his supporters have a sense of something of immense importance. What they sense is that civilization itself is at risk. We have become a society that has lost its faith in its core values, the universal norms of justice and humanity. Militant atheism is a denial of values and ideals of every kind. Do we, as a nation, still have anything worth fighting for?


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Thanksgiving on the Fourth of July

    At the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787 Benjamin Franklin urged his colleagues to pray, making this observation: "In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. – Our prayers, Sir, were heard and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor." This was not pious cant. American independence does indeed owe much to divine providence.
    At the outbreak of the war the odds seemed heavily in favor of the British. The Americans had only a rag-tag army, were poorly organized, and were entirely lacking in funds. They were opposed by the finest army in the world at the time. Washington's army would disintegrate through desertions every winter, and the militias were unreliable in combat. At one point we were betrayed by one of our top generals (Benedict Arnold). The fact that we eventually won the war was due primarily to poor planning and execution on the part of the British, the intervention of the French near the end of the war, and a series of fortuitous circumstances. The unlikely and improbable became an accomplished fact.
    What did the favorable outcome of the war bring us? What are its abiding results?
    The immediate result, of course, was our independence, and release from all the grievances that had occasioned the war in the first place. Our ancient rights and liberties as an English speaking people had been preserved.
    But in the succeeding years the distinctive character of American life emerged: representative democracy, the abolition of class distinctions, the private ownership of property and the unrestricted freedom of religion. Feudal distinctions and impairments were swept away, and government of the people, by the people, and for the people was firmly established.
    Franklin went on in his speech to say "I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?"
    Would it not be appropriate, on this Fourth of July, for those of us who are Americans to take a few moments to acknowledge God's past mercies, and to ask Him for His blessings on the nation in the future?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Our Least Christian President

    In an editorial in today's USA Today, Stephen Prothero criticizes David Barton's characterization of Thomas Jefferson as a Christian, decries the vitriolic invective of much of today's political discourse, and then advocates, as a solution, what he calls "The American Bible," a canon of significant speeches, songs and stories that describe what we are as a nation ("Our least Christian president" – July 2, 2012). Mr. Prothero's suggested canon includes texts running from the Declaration of Independence to Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, and would presumably be something upon which we could all agree.
    We have previously expressed our own reservations about the quality of David Barton's work ("Did the Founding Fathers Create a Christian Nation?" – Oct. 20, 2011), and would certainly agree that Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian, at least not in any orthodox, evangelical sense of the word. But is it true, as Mr. Prothero suggests, that "Americans have never agreed on a common creed of our public life"?
    It is certainly true that America, as an independent nation, never adopted a formal religious creed, and we treasure the right of each individual to follow the dictates of his own conscience in matters of religious belief and practice. But the Declaration of Independence is, arguably, a kind of "creed of our public life," in that it lays out the basic philosophical principles upon which our republic was founded. And that statement of principles says quite explicitly that "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." While it is true that Jefferson was no orthodox Christian, it is also true, as Mr. Prothero himself points out, that he was not an atheist either. He genuinely believed what he wrote in the Declaration. Our rights and liberties are not man-made, but are grounded in "the laws of nature and nature's God."
    Time and time again, in times of crisis and doubt, we have come back to these golden principles enshrined in our nation's founding document. Our wisest leaders, including both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., have appealed to its ringing cadences in pleading for justice and humanity in our public life.
    No, America is not a Christian nation, if by Christianity we mean belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. But America has always acknowledged God as the Author of its liberties, and of its peace and prosperity. Without God, our system of government withers and dies.


Note: Our readers may be interested to know that someone actually has put together a collection of speeches, poems and stories that epitomize our values as a nation. The book to which we refer is George Grant's The American Patriot's Handbook (Cumberland House, 2009).