The Paths that Diverge at the Crossroads of Existential Angst

Why do I wonder? Why am I conscious of my wondering, and why does my wondering create in me such terrifying angst?

Stephen Meyer describes the existential angst he experienced in his early teens in the interview with Sean McDowell that is embedded in its entirety at end of this article. Meyer majored in physics and geology, but he accumulated a minor in philosophy on his way to an undergraduate degree. His interest in philosophy was driven by the existential angst he felt as a young man.

(Stephen would become a geophysicist and college professor and would go on to obtain a Masters n Philosophy and a Ph.D in the philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge. He now directs Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle and authored the New York Times best seller Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2013), Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009), which was named a Book of the Year by the Times (of London) Literary Supplement in 2009, and more recently, The Return of the God Hypothesis (HarperOne, 2021).)

Meyer wanted to be popular and good at sports, like most teenager’s, but that wasn’t going well for him. A couple of nights before a planned ski trip with his father, some “weird questions” started “popping” into his mind: “What’s it going to matter in a hundred years?” He was initially troubled by it, but anticipation for the ski trip distracted him for the time being.

On the skiing trip, however, he broke his leg badly. He woke up from an operation with a full leg cast. Several days in the hospital and limitations on his mobility stirred his active teenage brain to dwell on the questions that haunted him before the trip.

While he was in the hospital, his father brought him a book on the history of baseball. As he read the book, he began to notice that the stories all ended the same way. The great prospects were scouted. They came up to the majors with budding promise. They had a fantastic career. They accumulated records, and they retired… and, “Then what?” He wondered.

In his 14-year old mind, baseball was the greatest thing a person could do, but he wondered, “In a hundred years, would anyone remember those accomplishments?”

His own mundane routines of life – getting up in the morning, taking the bus to school, coming home, doing his homework and chores, and getting up in the morning to do it all again – led him to fear “that nothing I was doing was going to amount to anything”.

He added the routine of hobbling to the mailbox each day to get the newspaper to read the baseball box scores. As days went by, he became conscious of the dates on the newspapers. Each day a new date, one after the other, with each one passing into his memory. Snap your finger one moment, he realized, and the next moment you are remembering the moment you snapped your finger, but it was gone.

He became aware of the ephemeral nature of time, and began to wonder, “What is it that is the same all the time and is the basis for binding all these passing sense impressions together?” these questions led to the conclusion, “Unless there is something that doesn’t change, everything that is constantly changing has no lasting reality, let alone meaning.”

He had no reason to believe, at that time, that there was an answer to this angst. There was no reason to believe there was anything that was always the same, that was unchanging. There was nothing evident to him to tether the ever changing world of his experience.

I recall early in my life a time of deep unsettling angst. I was maybe around 5-7 years old, when we watched a reel of home movies of my father and grandparents and me as a younger child. This was, perhaps, my first awareness of the passage of time.

I don’t know if I dreamt this, or imagined it, or whether it was a “vision”, but what I recall was “real”. I still remember it, though the immediacy of the feelings that went with it have faded. I experienced the sensation of floating in the unimaginably vast emptiness and expanse of space – alone – not connected to anyone or anything.

Terrifying is not the right word for the feeling I felt, but I can’t come up with a better description. I imagine now that the same or similar gnawing feeling is what Meyer experienced as he wrestled with the questions whirling in his young mind.

Meyer realized one day, as he had a strong urge to ask his parents, that his parents could offer him no better solution, that there was no sense even asking. Stephen Meyer remembers looking at his windowsill in his leg cast and staring at the pattern in the wood. He wondered, “How do I know that what I am seeing is really there and not just something that is going on in my brain?”

At that point his next thought was, “I wonder if this is what it means to be insane?” Then arose the fear that led to a new fear that the questions meant there was something wrong with him. If his parents had taken him to a psychologist then, he might have been diagnosed with anxiety leading to a panic attack.

In college, though, Meyer was able to find some clarity and context for his experience in the study of existentialism: “Without an infinite reference point, nothing finite has any ultimate meaning or value.” (Paraphrasing John Paul Sartre). Meyer realized, “That was what was bothering me!”

Everything is in flux from our human vantage point. Everything is passing, passing, passing….. Nothing has any lasting meaning or value from the position of a finite being. The anxiety he felt was a “metaphysical anxiety”.


Stephen Meyer’s journey is somewhat similar to mine, except for the details. This journey is common to human experience, and it has ancient roots. Anyone who has spent any time reading Ecclesiastes knows what I am talking about.

Continue reading “The Paths that Diverge at the Crossroads of Existential Angst”

Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World

Down at the bedrock of modern, western values remains a Christian foundation.

Galleries under the central arena of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

I read Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, about a year ago, and I have written about it a few times. Many Christians would not think to read a history about Western Civilization by a self-described secular humanist (once atheist, perhaps now agnostic) historian.

Most non-Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the chronicle Holland describes of the radically influential role that Christianity played in the development of Western Civilization, providing the foundation, in fact, for secular humanist ideals. When Holland dug down to the bedrock of modern, western values, he was surprised himself to find them anchored on a Christian foundation.

Holland did not set out to write a Christian apologetic, and he seems to remain somewhat uncertain how to process what he “discovered”. What he found, though, changed his mind about Christianity. He gives a brief explanation in the following clip:

Though Holland has had a turnabout on his view of Christianity, he finds himself caught in an odd position wrought by the unexpected discovery that his lifelong, secular humanist values flow from the radical catalyst of Christian influence and remain embedded ubiquitously in its very fabric. The awkwardness of his current position is evident in his interviews and discussions about the book.

Christians and secular thinkers, alike, wrestle with his book. Holland doesn’t hide any warts, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Neither does he obfuscate the thoroughly paradigmatic shift in Western thinking that Christianity worked into a society that once proudly and unashamedly championed strength and privilege over the poor, the weak, and the lowly.

Holland exposes the metanarrative developed during the Enlightenment and thereafter that belies the foundation on which the Enlightenment structure was built. Far from advancing the progression of human values, the Enlightenment threatened to undo the distinctly Christian concern for the poor, weak, and lowly while attempting to wrest western civilization from the hold of the Divine. Humanism saved the Christian ethic, albeit divorced from Christ.

Consider the full title of Darwin’s great tome which staked out the ground of a scientific (and social) revolution free from God’s interference:

“The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”

The title of Darwin’s book championing the evolutionary paradigm, harkens back to the Greco-Roman value system that despised the poor, the weak and the lowly. That value system did not just turn a callous eye at wanton and discriminate cruelty, it cheered on the strong while they snuffed out the weak. It was national sport!

The very reason the full title never “stuck” (I now believe) is due to a fundamental, pervasive, and thoroughly entrenched counter-value of the intrinsic worth of human life that is uniquely Christian in its source.

The intrinsic value of all human life, from the greatest to the least, from the wisest and strongest to the weakest and most imbecilic, from the fittest to the most infirm, is traceable to the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God. That the survival of the fittest did not take hold as a western social or ethical value is attributable to the deeply ingrained Christian ethic that survived yet, despite the efforts to eradicate its God from modern equations.

Modern humanists may attempt to recast Darwin into a humanistic mold, but the idea of “social Darwinism” bears his name through no model of random, unguided selection. According to John G. West, Charles Darwin, himself, set in motion the inertia for eugenics, among other things, that were associated with social Darwinism:

Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.

While the defense of Darwin against the charge of social Darwinism has largely succeeded in popular and polite company, the very title of the Origin of Species (by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) belies the success of that effort. The fact that the full title is merely a parenthetical today is evidence only of a concerted rescue campaign.

Christian values survived despite the Enlightenment coupe, not because of it. Humanism today assumes the evolutionary paradigm for its science alongside the uniquely Christian paradigm of intrinsic human value. That the two assumptions do not fit well together seems to be lost on modern minds.

Continue reading “Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World”

Some Thoughts on Miracles and God’s Presence in the World

Reasonable, intelligent people with impressive degrees, credentials and accomplishments exist on both sides of the God equation

NT Wright commented recently on the modern, western notion that God is largely absent and distant from the world He created. Every once in a while He “reaches in” and does something extraordinary, and we call that a miracle.

There are people in the west who still believe that God is active in the world, but western society is more characterized by a view that is God aloof, if He exists (and the western world is more or less aloof toward God). We tend to forget that much of the rest of the world does not share our view.

I believe this view of God and of miracles goes back to the Enlightenment and Deism that gained popularity in the last three centuries or so. Deism is the theology that grew out of the Enlightenment, applying Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, order and a reliance of scientific method. Deists believed that God exists, but He does not intervene and is not active or present in the world.

Deist thinkers conceived of the world like a watch that is wound up and left to run on its own. This thinking harmonized well with trends in scientific thought at the time. Darwin and others before him began to see no need of God to explain the laws of nature because scientific inquiry revealed those laws of nature to be true, dependable, and capable of explanation without reference to supernatural agency.

Many Enlightenment thinkers worked consciously and intentionally to shrug off any implication of the supernatural in the study of the natural world. Science, after all, is the study of the natural world. With the discovery of laws like the law of gravity, there was plenty for scientists to do without contemplating a Law Giver.

The definition of science now excludes inquiry of or appeal to anything other than “natural” explanations. Though “science” once meant knowledge, generally, it now means only knowledge of natural things and natural processes (which by definition excludes consideration of supernatural things).

Many modern scientists are materialists, meaning that they have come to believe that nothing exists but the natural world – space/time and matter. They believe nothing exists beyond the natural world, and, therefore, they say that science is the study of all reality – all there is.

In this worldview, they conflate the facts that science reveals with reality. On the Deist and Enlightenment view, miracles are an aberration. Indeed, the very definition of a miracle is something that is highly improbable or extraordinary, something unexpected and inexplicable on the basis of natural or scientific laws.

Deism is largely a theology of the past, but the Enlightenment lives on in the modern, materialist who makes no room whatsoever for a transcendent God or anything supernatural (beyond nature). God is excluded from the materialist worldview by definition. Any apparent aberration to natural laws and material things requires a natural explanation, even if one is presently unknown.

Miracles in a Deistic world are so rare as to be highly unlikely. Miracles in a modern, materialist worldview are impossible. They simply don’t happen. Every miracle claim is a puzzle waiting for a naturalistic explanation.

This is the faith of the modern materialist – that every phenomenon known to human experience has a natural explanation. We don’t look for God because we have already decided that He is aloof, that God is of no consequence, and it’s a short walk from there to the conclusion that God does not exist.

Wright makes the observation that the Bible has no word like miracle. The closest we get to it might be the phrase, “signs and wonders”. People in the Ancient Near East saw God (or gods) in everything. The Enlightenment posited that this was due to a lack of explanation for most things that we now observe in natural laws or, simply, random colocations of molecules.

Scripture reveals a God who is far from aloof, which is increasingly a foreign concept in the modern, western world. The God revealed in the Bible is known both by His “faithfulness” and His presence, investment and activity in the world.

The idea that God is faithful has been replaced with the understanding of natural laws. We believe our understanding of the way natural laws work has supplanted God. God was a construct we invented when we didn’t have explanations for natural phenomena, but now that we understand natural phenomena we have no need for the concept of God.

Even as a Christian, a person who believes in God, I have been influenced by the western world in which I grew up. NT Wright’s observation that the concept of a miracle is a western concept, not a biblical one, leads me to put my thoughts into print as I work out the tension between biblical revelation and my western mindset.

Continue reading “Some Thoughts on Miracles and God’s Presence in the World”

On the Delusion of Plausible Arguments, I Hold to Christ in Me

As I read through Scripture, I am always looking to understand it better. At the same time, I am listening for God to speak to me. In the process, I notice things. Like today. I noticed Paul’s statement to the Colossians:

I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.

Colossians 2:4 ESV

Hmmm… the delusion of plausible arguments. That’s an interesting phrase…

Paul is writing to the people in Colossae, a very Greek city. He had already been to Athens where the Athenians and foreigners who visited the city spent their time telling and listening to the latest ideas. (Acts 17:21)

In our modern view, we might imagine an ancient think tank in which new ideas are explored and developed toward some greater ends. We might be tempted to see Athens as an incubator of ideas for the benefit of mankind.

Luke, the writer of Acts, was not being complimentary, however, when he made this observation. The context suggests a contrast between a desire for novel ideas and a desire for truth. Ideas for the sake of ideas and novelty for the sake of novelty may be an erudite pastime for the bored elite who enjoy comfort and privilege, but they are not noble pursuits in themselves.

Unless one has a desire to know truth, entertaining new ideas is only an exercise in futility, diversion and delusion. The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, writing about a millennia before Paul set foot in Athens, recognized “there is nothing new under the sun” – even back then. (Ecc. 1:9) Chasing after ideas that are new for the sake of novelty is just a distraction from the truth. It is meaningless!

Paul views the sharing of ideas for the novelty of them in the same way modern people might play video games or read a book – entertainment to pass time. He had no time for such things.  

Truth had been revealed to Paul in the form of the risen Jesus, whom his people had crucified, and Paul had persecuted. Paul’s whole life was interrupted and set off on another course one day as he traveled with the intention of arresting and imprisoning Christ followers in Damascus.

Paul’s life would never be the same. By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians, his motto had become “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. (Phil. 1:21)

If we can tell anything about the biographical and autobiographical sketches of Paul in Acts and his letters, we can see that Paul was fiercely and uncompromisingly concerned about truth. That attitude led him to persecute the followers of Christ with zeal when he thought the truth lay in that direction.

It was Paul’s commitment to truth that prompted him to turn in the opposite direction and accept Jesus whom Paul had persecuted as his Lord and Savior. Paul gave himself completely to be a servant of the risen Lord to the point of sharing in his own body the sufferings of Christ, as he described to the Colossians. (Col. 1:24)

Paul’s turn of phrase, perhaps, is what caught my eye as I read through Colossians this morning: the delusion of plausible arguments.

Continue reading “On the Delusion of Plausible Arguments, I Hold to Christ in Me”

Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out

The exposure and expose of a wildly popular myth

I have written about Tom Holland before and the book he published called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. The story about the book has intrigued me since I heard him talk about it. I am taking my time reading through it.

We all have a perspective, right? We come to whatever we read or hear with certain assumptions that have developed in our thinking. Affirmations of those assumptions sit well, but challenges to those assumptions do not rest easy. You know what I am talking about.

Holland challenges assumptions from all sides, including his own. For that reason, it’s a challenging read, but all lasting growth of any kind comes through conflict and tension.

Holland is a historian with a particular focus on ancient, classical history. He chose dinosaurs over the Bible as a young child. He was more taken y Pontius Pilate than Jesus Christ as a teenager. The ancient, classical world and likes of Julius Caesar captured his imagination. His passion became both avocation and vocation.

When Holland wrote a book, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, that painted Islam in a candid and critical light, Holland was criticized and challenged to do a similar history of the assumptions that underlie his worldview. The criticism was fair, so he set out to do it.

His worldview? Holland is an atheist and modern humanist. His worldview is undergirded with ideas like human rights that are equal and unalienable, separation of church and state, the value of scientific endeavor and the social necessity of charity and good will.

When he set out to write a book tracing these values back to their sources, he was not predisposed to assume where he would find them, though he certainly had assumptions and presuppositions. Like the paleontologist sifting through layers of a dig site, though, Holland did his work.

Beginning with Darius and the great Persian Empire, he sought to uncover the roots of modern western thought from one empire to the next. Holland was looking for the roots of ideas that inform the modern western mind.

He did not focus on the usual events that historians often catalogue. He focused on thoughts as they developed and the people who championed them and events as they influenced those thoughts and ideas.

In the ancient world, as one might expect, many of those ideas were garbed in metaphysical dress. Holland’s focus, though, is always on the those thoughts and ideas that continue in our modern values today. The ones that died off, like the dinosaurs, are only interesting side notes to that history.

Much of the book explores the world of gods and beliefs, which seems like an odd thing coming from an atheist, but all the more intriguing. Those were the ideas that animated the ancient world. The beliefs of the ancients are the evolutionary precursors to our modern thought. In those layers of metaphysical sediment lie the traces of our modern values.

In sifting through the soils of history, Holland identifies the roots and beginnings of the ethics and values that ground his worldview as a humanist in the sedimentary layers in which they arose. As often is the case in such endeavors, Holland makes some startling discoveries.

What Holland carefully and methodically uncovers is one seismic development that sets and defines the course of the history of the western mind – a metaphysical Cambrian Explosion” our western thinking is founded on, permeated with and inextricably intertwined in Christian ideas.

Thus, when Holland gets into the Enlightenment Era, he exposes a disconnect that arises out of that soil – an incongruity that bears some candid analysis for its deviation from the origin and trajectory of historical developments to that stage. That the very essence of Enlightenment thinking is sourced from the root it seeks to dig out is both ironic and dangerous, like the man sawing the branch that supports him.

Continue reading “Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out”