No God? No meaning?

Hitchens - meaningWe can all get what the late Christopher Hitchens is complaining about here.  The claim that without God, life has no meaning.  There was certainly a lot in his life that must have given him meaning.  There’s a lot in all our lives, regardless of what we believe, that gives meaning.  We ought to be careful not to denigrate what others find makes their lives worth living.

But is that what is meant when we, as believers, say that without God there is no meaning to life?  No, it’s not.  Finding satisfaction in friendships, experience of love, good books doesn’t require belief in God for us.  If you believe that scoring more touchdowns than anyone else gives your life meaning, then it can give someone subjective meaning to their lives.  If you score more touchdowns than anybody, it will indeed give you meaning.  Subjective meaning, though.  That is, the meaning that we ourselves give to our lives.

But without God, that’s the only type of meaning we’ll ever have.  To have objective meaning, you need something outside, larger, and greater than yourself.  Without God, the only meaning or purpose in the universe in that which we assign it ourselves.  Without God, our lives are puffs of vapour that will only have the meaning we attach to them.  Without God, our world and all history is not – can not – be headed in any direction.  Without God, we’re left making good things (friendship, love, irony, humour, parenthood, literature, music, battling for the liberation of others…) into ultimate things.

And it’s in that way, that without God – objective meaning evades us.

 

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What Happens When We Want the Fruit but Chop the Roots of the Tree?

Last week , I wrote a summary of French atheist Luc Ferry’s acknowledgement of what Christianity has given to the world.  It was refreshing to read an atheist’s acknowledgement of what would be otherwise be unthinkable in the world of ideas if it were not for Christianity:  the universal equality of all persons, and the true democracy and foundation of human rights which flow from that.  And it was commendable on the author’s part.

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I closed with this:  “It is commendable that an atheist philosopher can acknowledge how much we owe the Christian worldview.  But it leaves us with a lingering question.  Doubtless, anyone living in the West enjoys a culture that has received these gifts.  But…   Will we be able to stay in possession of these gifts (the equal dignity and worth of all human beings, for example) when we have refused the Giver?”

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In other words, can we continue to receive nutrition from the fruit after we have hacked away the roots of the tree? What will happen to our civilization if we do?

The Resurrection, El Greco, 1584

The Resurrection, El Greco, 1584

Someone has provided an answer:

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…we know now that the modern world is coming to an end …at the same time the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism.  He will cease to reap the benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies…  Loneliness in faith will be terrible.  Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love which flows from one lonely person to another …the world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean…  Romano Guardini (1885-1968) from The Lord 
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That right there, is a prophecy.

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An Atheist Ponders Christianity’s Gifts to the World

Luc Ferry

Luc Ferry

There are atheists and then there are atheists.  There are atheists who view religion in general (and Christianity in particular) as having nothing of value to offer the world.  Then there are atheists that recognize the incredible gifts that Christianity has bestowed on the world.

Luc Ferry is the latter.  In his A Brief History of Thought:  a philosophical guide to livinghe recognizes 3 important innovations in the world, each that would have been impossible without the advent of Christianity.  They are so much a part of Western civilization we probably assume they are self-evident but they are not.  They are gifts and did not exist before the arrival of the Christian worldview.  They are:

1)  “Freedom of choice, ‘free will’, becomes the foundation of morals.”  This isn’t about free will vs determinism but about how virtue became an aspect of what someone did instead of what they were.  For the Greeks, Ferry says, virtue was akin to a talent or natural endowment, like having brown eyes or a stronger physique.  For Christians, that kind of natural hierarchy had no place.  People were all fundamentally the same and what counted as moral would be a matter of a person’s choice rather than their endowment.

2)  “In the moral sphere, the spirit is more important than the letter.”  Outward acts become not the only thing that matters and are certainly not the most important thing.  Conscience matters.  Motivations of the heart matter.  Think of many interactions Jesus had with the Pharisees to see how this is so.  For the Greeks, only what was done mattered and so behaviour was highly regulated within that society.  Ferry points out how much Judaism and Islam differ from Christianity in this regard too.  Christianity depends more on the individual’s conscience and moral motivations.

3)  And finally, “the modern notion of humanity makes its entrance.”  The first two predicate the third.  In essence, Ferry is acknowledging that we could not have our modern view of individual human worth and dignity without the legacy of Christianity.  “As soon as free will becomes the foundation of moral action and virtue is located not in the natural, ‘unequal’ gifts, but in the use to which they are put, then it goes without saying that all men are of equal merit.” (77)  And so Christianity becomes the foundation for human rights and real democracy.

It is commendable that an atheist philosopher can acknowledge how much we owe the Christian worldview.  But it leaves us with a lingering question.  Doubtless, anyone living in the West enjoys a culture that has received these gifts.  But…   Will we be able to stay in possession of these gifts (the equal dignity and worth of all human beings, for example) when we have refused the Giver?

 

 

 

 

A Brief History of Thought:  a philosophical guide to livingpages 72-77

Atheism for a Year? Sorry, beliefs aren’t like a pair of pants

I'll say this for him, he looks like a nice fellow and a snappy dresser!

I’ll say this for him, he looks like a nice fellow and a snappy dresser!

Thursday morning I happened to catch Q, the foremost arts and culture radio program of my country.  I listened in, even in the midst of a busy day, because I wanted to hear what one guest had to say (click here to listen to the segment).  Ryan Bell, is a former 7th Day Adventist* pastor who has decided to “try on” atheism for one year.  I was intrigued and more than a little skeptical about his experiment.  I had heard about him a couple weeks ago but wanted to hear the man himself.  It goes without saying that I had some thoughts:

1)  It is good to try and figure out what other people think like.  Bell claims that he really wanted to understand his atheist friends.  I can track with that.  We should always be willing to learn where other people are coming from.  Unlike Bell, who perhaps was raised within the fold of a faith community – I don’t know, I have actually been an atheist.  I still and will always need to remember what that was like.  We always need to seek true understanding of others.  Today I do it in order to first truly love and respect another.  And secondly to better discern how I can persuade them of the Christian Gospel.  Because, yeah, I’m not embarrassed of it and I really do want others to believe in Jesus.  Bell rightly points out how atheists are capable of experiencing love.  Of course they are!  They are also able to experience the Good, the True, and the Beautiful that God has woven into His world.  And we should respect people where they’re at.  But that is a far cry from presuming we can actually become something other than we are.  Respectful discourse and learning of another is best accomplished when we know where we stand.  To abandon, or at least act like you’ve abandoned, your core beliefs and worldview in the name of appreciating others seems disingenuous to me.  I think there’s another story playing out here…

2)  I’ll let my most skeptical side air out for a moment.  Bell, I think , is attempting to come across as an authentic searcher and wondering/wandering pilgrim on life’s highway of sublime mysteries.  But you guessed it, he’s got a blog!  He’s doing the media circuit internationally.  Canadian radio!  Australian TV!  And it might be just my imagination but I can smell the aroma of a book deal on the breeze.  The Year of This, Year of That, Year of _____ is a minor cash cow in the faith-based publishing world.  The loss of faith, and the loss of faith amongst clergy, is not new.  What is new, however, is the ability to cash in on it like never before.  What is also new, is those who wrestle with questions in such a way as to move further away from answers.  And that they get to portray themselves as more ‘authentic’ than those who keep their feet on the Terra Firma of historical, orthodox, Biblical Christian faith.  Everyone wrestles with the big questions.  Everyone has doubts.  Working through them is part of normal Christian maturing.  Want to see real authenticity?  Look at someone who has kept the faith through the darkest season of their lives and become a saint because of it.  What is apparent with Bell is that his year of atheism is deeply personal.  To his credit, Bell admits that it is.  But that’s just it, isn’t it?  A very personal crisis of faith, which is at once emotional, philosophical, intellectual, and woven into a personal history full of hurts, disappointments and so on isn’t just a thought experiment.  But Bell casts it as one.  And to be let go from a faith-based institution for not holding to the core beliefs is a bit like a doctor having to look for a new career after refusing to prescribe medications.  It is no injustice!

Christianity is not like a pair of pants.  And even if it was, it wouldn't have cargo pockets!

Christianity is not like a pair of pants. And even if it was, it certainly wouldn’t have cargo pockets!

3)  Finally, I don’t think it will work.  Trying on atheism for a year is not just a thought experiment.  Bell knows this instinctively, I think.  He’s not going to go to Church, or pray, or do other Christian activities.  But as an experiment I don’t think it will work.  Here’s why:  our beliefs are not just in the realm of intellect.  Faith, and especially Christian faith, is embodied.  Christian faith is embodied in a Christian life.  Gathering for worship, hearing the proclaimed Word, praying alone, praying with others, praying in tongues, reading the Bible and other spiritual books, repenting of sins, renewing your confession, serving others… even what you put in your mouth!  Christianity is a set of ideas that form a worldview but it’s not merely that.  Christianity is not something that you can take of like a pair of pants in order to test out another.  And other world views aren’t either.  That’s why some atheists are wondering about the legitimacy of Bell’s year-long experiment.  What we set the pattern of our lives to become – we become.  That’s how worship works.  And that’s why Bell’s experiment won’t. It won’t make him, as a person of faith, be able to sympathize/empathize with atheists.  It may make him one though.

I’ll give the obligatory “he seems like an intelligent and decent guy” statement about Ryan Bell.  I don’t know the quality or reality of Bell’s faith prior to this.  And I can’t say for certain what his belief system will be like after 2014.  I certainly sympathize with anyone who goes through a crisis of faith.  I definitely grieve the thought of anyone turning their back on Christ (the rejecting of Whom I still am not ashamed to believe bears eternal consequences).   No one knows another’s path and every life is in God’s hands.  But being someone who was really once an atheist, I wish I could tell him how refreshing and wonderful it was to leave that worldview for another.

*  Is 7th Day Adventism truly representative of Christianity?  Let’s leave that aside for today.