The End of Stubborn Piety, and a New Beginning.

“[R]ising anxiety, suicide, and deaths of despair speak to a profound national disorder….”

Donald Trump with Jerry Falwell, Jr. at Liberty University in Virginia

I just read Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why? By staff writer for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson. I find The Atlantic to be full of insightful articles, even when I don’t wholeheartedly agree with them. This article is no exception.

Thompson recalls those enlightened 19th century pundits who predicted the death of God and advances in “scientific discovery and modernity” that would lead to widespread atheism. Thompson is a skeptic, himself. While Europe has largely gone the way the pundits predicted, The United States has resisted that prognostication – at least until recently.

Thompson blames “America’s unique synthesis of wealth and worship” and “stubbornly pious Americans” for the United States not going with the flow of the Enlightenment ascent of man from the superstitious dark ages into the light of science and reason.

While the rest of the western world has been drifting away from religious affiliation, and religion altogether, the United States seemed impervious to those forces working on the rest of the western world – until recently. Things began to change in the United States in the 1990’s, and that trend continues.

The article borrows heavily from Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, for figures and figurings of the reasons why. The shift is clear, though, and the statistics bear it out, that religious affiliation and interest in religion in the United States is waning and going the way of the rest of the western world.

“According to Smith, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” Smith goes on to provide some explanation for how these “events” have triggered the change. He says,

“The marriage between the religious and political right …. disgusted liberal Democrats, especially those with weak connections to the Church. It also shocked the conscience of moderates, who preferred a wide berth between their faith and their politics.”

Thompson’s article got me thinking. He is right about the trend away from religion in the United States. We don’t need data to tell us that. The “nones” are increasing while the committed believers are decreasing. That these observations come from “outside the camp” doesn’t make them false.

Thompson’s explanations for the reasons why this is may be more of a mixed bag. He (naturally) views the changes through a naturalistic lens. He may be right about some of the cause and effect, but he (naturally) isn’t likely to see the more spiritual side of those things.

I “grew up” spiritually during the mid to late 80’s when the marriage between religion and the political right was consummated. I fell out of step with it, and lost track of it, when I went to law school in 1988. Apparently the honeymoon went well.

I count myself (even today) as an evangelical (though I search for a different label). My spiritual upbringing included the experience of the courting of the religious right of the Republican Party. (Or was it the other way around?)   

Law school, however, challenged even my most sacrosanct connections, and the cares and concerns of fatherhood and providing for a growing family distracted me from other relationships. It was all I could do to hold onto God during this time, and the truth is that He mostly held onto me.

Perhaps, that was a blessing in disguise, as I didn’t grow into the religio-politico affiliation that seems to characterize a large segment of the evangelical church today. I am a more distant observer of that relationship today, so I think I have some objectivity left.

I agree (partially) with Thompson’s assessment that the congruence of the religious right and the political right changed the political landscape. It also changed the religious landscape. Perhaps, more than we might care to acknowledge.

Continue reading “The End of Stubborn Piety, and a New Beginning.”

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”

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”

The Danger of Triumphalism in the Church


Marcelo Gleiser, a Brazilian physicist and astronomer and currently Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College, won the Templeton Prize for his outstanding contributions for “affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.[1] He is an agnostic, but he isn’t hostile to religion or faith. He maintains an open mind, stating:

“Atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method….

“Atheism is a belief in non-belief. So you categorically deny something you have no evidence against.

“I’ll keep an open mind because I understand that human knowledge is limited.”[2]

In listening to Gleiser recently on a podcast[3], I was reminded of another gentleman I listened to recently. Dr. Soong Chan-Rah, an evangelical professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. On first glance, these two gentlemen might seem like odd companions in my thoughts, but together they inspire this blog piece.

Gleiser grew up in Brazil. His mother died when he was 6. He described how her death led him into a dark time in his life. He was Jewish and lived in a conservative Jewish community. It wasn’t Judaism that led him out of the darkness as a young boy; it was science.

Gleiser was drawn by the wonder of science and scientific discovery. His interest in science was sparked by the gift of an autographed photo of Albert Einstein from his uncle. It became his “altar”, and it led him to become fascinated with the “exploration of the mysterious”. He left the darkness of his teenage years with a purposeful decision to engage the mysteries of the world and find answers.

Though Gleiser reveres science, and even speaks of it in religious terms, he isn’t hostile to faith. He is humble enough to make room for the possibility of God and spiritual reality. Hearing him talk about the limits of science and possibilities of faith from “outside the fold” can be instructive.

Dr. Soon Chan-Rah doesn’t come from outside of faith, but he also introduces a perspective that is outside the framework of typical American evangelicalism. Dr. Chan-Rah didn’t tell his story in the talk I listened to, but he is obviously Asian by descent. I bring that up only because it suggests he has a perspective that isn’t colored wholly by the fabric of western civilization.

I think it is vitally important that we hear from outside perspectives, lest we never question the assumptions we take for granted – the extra-biblical (and maybe unbiblical) influences that creep in with our culture, tradition and familiarity that go unquestioned.

I have heard Dr. Chan-Rah speak about lamentations in the Old Testament and the conspicuous lack of lamentations exhibited in American evangelical culture. He says that about forty percent (40%) of the Psalms might be characterized as lamentations. Whereas, only about twenty percent (20%) of the songs in modern American hymnals contain some form of lament, and those songs often go unsung in our church services. As for contemporary Christian music, we might be hard pressed to find more than five (5) songs out of the top one hundred (100) containing any form of lament.

Whether the math is exactly right, the point is clear. We don’t engage in lament in our American evangelical culture to the same degree as reflected in the Scripture. Chan-Rah attributed that cultural characteristic with several things, including the sense of triumphalism that has permeated American culture. That observation is what brings me to write this blog piece. Please allow me to explain.

Continue reading “The Danger of Triumphalism in the Church”

The Reconciliation of Science and Religion

By Brooke Ekstrom
By Brooke Ekstrom

The reconciliation of science and religion may seem unlikely to some. Though the Renaissance period grew alongside the Reformation, and advancements in science during that time were largely pioneered by men of faith, science began to deviate from faith during the Enlightenment period. I suppose that the divergence of science and faith that began in the Enlightenment period is somewhat like the Protestant movement separating from the Catholic Church.

As one grew alongside the other, however, and both having roots in the same soil, it is inevitable that separation cannot be complete or total.

To the chagrin of modern materialists, the connection cannot and will not be severed.

Many atheists would of course embrace the idea that science can falsify religious claims. However, if this is the case, then religion may fall within the purview of science. The claim that religion and science may overlap is a claim that atheists have fought vigorously in the courts to reject. The reason for this is that if science can falsify religious claims, then it is also conceivable that it can give evidence for the truth of religious claims.

It is also maintained that science deals only with the physical world as its subject matter. While this is a methodological statement, many believe that science only deals with the physical world because that is all that exists. However, this is not a statement of science; instead, it is a philosophical statement that can neither be verified through the senses nor falsified through reason. Alvin Plantinga, J.P. Moreland, and several other philosophers of science have written extensively on this understanding of science. The problem with this materialistic criterion is that it fails its own test. That is, definitions are not physical, concepts are not physical, and meaning is not physical, and these things are what the materialist uses to define science. Therefore, if definitions, concepts, and meaning exist, then not everything that exists is physical.

Of course one could believe that non-physical reality exists, but claim that science merely deals with the physical attributes of the world. That is all well and good, but would merely suggest that religion and science do not talk to each other. Yet, as shown above, one could clearly use science to show certain religious beliefs to be false. And, as I also mentioned earlier, if one can used scientific fields to disprove religious claims, science may also be used to justify the beliefs of many religious claims.

From the blog post, Is Science the Enemy of Religion?, written by Shannon Holzer.