Is Meaning a meaningless Pursuit?

making-sense-of-godFor many people in the 21st century the search for some transcendent meaning is futile, a mere chasing after rainbows. The meaning of life is simply what you make of it – relationships, pleasure, achievement, accomplishment (which can include sacrificial service) – in the limited time available. Certainly this has been the response of many commenters when I’ve delved into the questions of purpose and meaning in the past. In ch. 3 of his new book Making Sense of God Tim Keller argues that, ultimately, this isn’t enough. He admits that such “subjective, created meanings do serve human life well,” (p. 74) but these can weaken under adversity or on close examination.

But what are we actually asking when inquiring about the meaning of life? In common usage the term “to mean” has two overlapping senses. The first sense has to do with purpose. … The second sense has to do with significance. …

So to have meaning in life is to have both an overall purpose for living and the assurance that you are making a difference by serving some good beyond yourself. (p. 58)

The psychological need for meaning or purpose is intrinsic to humanity. It isn’t enough to simply exist – we need to do. But perhaps the subjective created meanings are enough. Keller notes that moving from modernity to post-modernity it is claimed that the loss of Meaning is liberating. After all, if there is no transcendent Meaning, then we are free to create our own meaning.

In the modern era we mourned the loss of the Meaning of life, but in the postmodern era, an age of freedom, we say good riddance to the very idea. (p. 61)

The very idea of submission to some transcendent Meaning of life is submission to a life of bondage … to that transcendent Meaning.

Created meaning vs. discovered meaning. Keller suggests that while a secular life is not meaningless, there is something missing.

If you decide that the meaning of your life is to be a good parent, or to serve a crucial political cause, or to tutor underprivileged youth, or to enjoy and promote great literature – then you have, by definition, a meaning in life. Plenty of secular people live like this without being tortured and gloomy in the manner of Camus. It is quite possible to find great purpose in the ordinary tasks of life, apart from knowing answers to the Big Questions About Existence. (p. 65)

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Apes on the Way Up?

Augustine_Sandro_Botticelli_dsNeuroscience and psychology are fast developing fields with a proliferation of sub-disciplines and degrees offered. Our scientific understanding of what it means to be human is undergoing rapid evolution. In many respects this is the battle front in any active war between science and religion.

Once upon a time the front involved the form of the earth – for example, Augustine considered it plausible that “the earth is suspended within the concavity of the heavens” although he also appeared to think it an unproven conjecture, but he did not think it reasonable to suppose that there were people on the opposite side of the earth. The “fable” of Antipodes (“men who walk with their feet opposite ours“) he writes “is on no ground credible.” (City of God, Book XVI, Ch. 9). Few today doubt that the earth is a spheroid and that there are humans on the other side of the earth.

pia12114dsLater with Copernicus and Galileo the primary question involved the centrality of the earth – about which the sun, the moon, and the heavens revolved. This, after all, was the clear teaching of Scripture. Today few question the perspective that we live in a sun-centered solar system and that the more accurate view is that less massive objects orbit more massive objects in an enormous universe. Day and night result from the rotation of the earth rather than from the motion of the sun over a stationary earth. (Image credit NASA/JPL)

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Reading Job as Literature

How to Read JobI am preparing to lead a short Bible study on the book of Job using the recent book How to Read Job by John Walton and Tremper Longman III as a guide. The book of Job provides an excellent forum for discussing the nature of Scripture as the word of God, God as creator, and God’s rule of creation. All of these are issues we must deal with in an consideration of science and Christian faith or the relevance of Christian faith in the 21st century. The questions we ask today are not enormously different than those asked by the original audience of Job, but the baggage we bring to the text of Scripture seems to have grown. We need to learn to read the Bible on its own terms, not according to our human (western, modern, …) rules.

Part One of How to Read Job addresses the question of reading Job as literature. The book of Job is not history and it is not, actually, about Job. Both Walton and Longman agree that the book of Job is about God and the way God runs the world. Two major questions drive the book. First: Is it good policy for God to bless the righteous? Blessing the righteous just buys pseudo-loyalty doesn’t it? And second, Is it it just when God allows righteous people to suffer?

These two challenges set up the focus of the book as it pertains to God’s policies in the world: it is not good policy for righteous people to prosper (for that undermines the development of true righteousness by providing an ulterior motive). In tension with that, it is not good policy for righteous people to suffer (they are good people, the ones who are on God’s side). So what is God to do? (p. 15)

I think we can take these questions and pose some additional questions that encompass all of Scripture. Why did God create humans capable of sin? Why was the snake in the garden? Why do the wicked prosper? Why does God show mercy? Why are there tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes? Why did God apparently (assuming evolution is correct) use years of death to shape the world, from the origin of an oxygen environment down to the present day? Why is the death of Jesus important? Why are hell and judgment important biblical concepts? Why are Christians sometimes horribly persecuted? All of these bear on the larger question of how God runs the world. It isn’t always clear from a human perspective.

What big questions do you see in Scripture?

What is on trial in the book of Job?

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We All Live By Faith

Making Sense of GodI closed my last post on Tim Keller’s new book Making Sense of God with a comment made on my post None and Fine With It:

The evidence is the evidence, and science follows the evidence. Christianity comes to the evidence with a preconceived premise that there is a supernatural creator, which then biases all the conclusions that follow.

And later in response to another commenter:

But as to the supernatural – it is normal to adopt the null hypotheses.

“Bottom line, we are all living by faith.” No – we are not. Faith is an utter failure as an epistemology. You might live accordingly, but I do not – nor do many others.

Let’s see where Keller takes us in response. This question drives chapter two of the book: Isn’t religion based on faith and secularism on evidence?

Do we all live by faith?

In a rather elementary sense this is clearly true. We generally have faith in our reasoning capabilities and in our senses. We don’t believe that we live in a Matrix-like world. I’ve never seen this movie, but I have seen other shows, books, or movies with a similar premise. The characters perceive an illusion and believe it to be real. This doesn’t really address the meat of the question though, and Keller quickly moves on to more important points.

Whether we believe in God (or the supernatural more generally) or not, we all shape our lives around ideas that we believe on faith. In particular, the secular humanism of the Western world – dominant in the academic circles I frequent – is a faith based system.

Besides a set of beliefs about rationality, most secular people today also hold a set of ethical beliefs about the nature of human life. Many would describe themselves as “liberal humanists” who are committed to science and reason, to progress and the good of humanity, and to the rights, equality, and freedom of every individual human being. Secularity is marked by a call “to take active responsibility for the progressive improvement of the world …[to] work for the betterment of other humans, even strangers beyond our shores.”* And, it is argued, removing the influence of religion in the world will help us realize these values.

However, where did these values come from? Not only can none of these humanistic moral standards be proven empirically, but they don’t follow logically from a materialistic view of the world. (p. 41, *Keller’s source for the quote: Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living pp. 72-73)

New YorkSecular humanism can be a valid foundation for life – but it is a faith based foundation. Keller will argue that the humanist part of this philosophical approach to life derives from the influence of Christianity on Western culture. This is probably true, but whether it is or isn’t derived from Christianity, it is affirmed on faith not evidence.

If it was natural for the strong to eat the weak in the past, why aren’t people allowed to do it now? I am not, of course, arguing that we should not love one another. Rather, I’m saying that, given the secular view of the universe, the conclusion of love or social justice is no more logical than the conclusion to hate or destroy. (p. 42-43)

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Science for the Good of the Church

new-scientistThe final section of A Little Book for New Scientists: Why and How to Study Science by Josh Reeves and Steve Donaldson looks at the interplay between science and Christian faith – particularly science and Scripture, the impression that most scientists are atheists, and the calling to be scientists for the good of the church. There is much good advice in this section. I will highlight only a few points, skipping altogether the chapter on the claim that most scientists are atheists. (Read the book – it is well worth the price and time.)

On Science and Scripture. There are many issues here and few that can be adequately addressed in a short guide for new scientists. Reeves and Donaldson instead focus on four principles that should guide our approach to Scripture as we wrestle with the text and consider the implications of science.

Principle 1: Having the Holy Spirit as our teacher does not make us infallible.

But faithful Christian interpreters must also remember: an uncompromising commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture does not mean we should have an uncompromising commitment to our own interpretations of Scripture. Because we are sinners with imperfect knowledge and motives, we must always be open to the possibility that we have interpreted a verse or passage incorrectly. (p. 94)

Intellectual humility any one? This is a critical point. We must be immersed in Scripture, open to the leading of the Spirit, and attentive to the insight gained by Christian scholars as the seek to understand the ancient language and culture of the original text.

Principle 2: We must read the Bible in community.

We should have little hope of interpreting the Bible well without the assistance of others, just as there is little hope of becoming a scientist on one’s own. The best way to think about our relationship to Scripture is in terms of discipleship, where one’s ability to read the Bible is slowly transformed under the guidance of others, just as Jesus gathered around him a community of followers in order to lead them to a fuller understanding of the truth. … As one seeks to puzzle out ways of reconciling science and Scripture, it is of the utmost importance to find quality teachers, those who combine intellectual rigor with the virtues that come with a life of Christian faith. (p. 98)

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Making Sense of God

University Church dsI wrote a post last Tuesday None and Fine With It that looked at recent results reported from the Religious Landscape Survey of US beliefs and trends. This post received extensive comment, much of it from people who are not Christians and gave their views why “none” was a preferred choice. Many of these comments shed light on issues that we, as Christians, need to address, My post on Thursday, Cultivate Humility, focused on the topic of intellectual humility – something that should be a virtue both as a scientist and as a Christian. This post received far less comment, but one person coming over from the Tuesday post noted:

So, does intellectual humility let you recognize and cope with scientific answers that contradict your doctrine?

I must admit to being curious about handling the cognitive dissonance situations like that must create.

This is an interesting question and one I’ve thought about a great deal. Intellectual humility is a posture and attitude that allows us to be teachable and to teach with sincerity. I try to take this posture into pretty much everything I do and teach. In Freshman Chemistry, for example, a posture of intellectual humility leads me to explain why things are true – not proclaim that they are true. I bring a confidence that I understand the material and can answer the questions, but this doesn’t mean that truth rests on my say-so. In other situations, research meetings for example, intellectual humility means putting my ideas, arguments, and conclusions on the table and defending them, but being willing to listen to the criticisms as well. This is how we learn.

Intellectual humility as a Christian leads me to realize that I am a finite human who does not have all the answers. When it appears that science contradicts doctrine it is important to examine both the scientific and the doctrinal claims. Sometimes the so-called scientific claims overreach into metaphysics and philosophy and need to be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes the claims are at the edges of understanding and we need to wait for further developments. Sometimes, as in the age of the earth, or the message we should take from the first 11 chapters of Genesis, or the way in which we should understand biblical authority, our doctrines need refinement. This is nothing new, each generation of Christians has found it necessary to wrestle with scripture in the light of new information. We need the humility to realize that we are at least as capable of error as those who came before us.

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Not Just Better; It Works


(Image from Wikipedia: credit)

The final section of the new book The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon? summarizes the evidence for the Grand Canyon as a monument to an ancient earth and asks if the differing conclusions reached by mainstream geologists and flood geologists is just a matter of worldview. Starting at the bottom of the canyon and hiking up one of the routes to the rim (the authors use the South Kaibab trail) is a trek through time. On top of the lowest igneous and metamorphic rock are multiple layers of sedimentary rock testifying to periods where the land was well underwater, under a shallow sea, dry land with rivers cut into the ground, underwater again, and sand desert. The fossils and trace fossils are in a progression from simpler to more complex life forms (not smaller to larger). Marine and terrestrial fossils are segregated into layers . “The fact that terrestrial and marine fossils are not found intermingled within the same layers is clear evidence of distinct intervals of time when the region was sometimes above seal level and other times below it.” (p. 200-201) This is not consistent with a flood model that requires all layers to be deposited in the waters of the flood.

Gregg Davidson and Wayne Ranney sum up:

The canyons many layers, structures, and faults certainly represent powerful forces at work, but each is easily accounted for by normal earth processes – some slow and some fast – but all normal. More importantly, the explanations for each individual layer or feature fit together into a larger story of rising and falling sea levels, and of slowly shifting tectonic plates lifting and lowering the crust. Fossils encountered along the trail in the canyon, and found around the world, communicate a consistent story as well – a story that makes sense only if the types of organisms present varied considerably at different times in the Earth’s history. The fact that not a single fossil bird, dinosaur, mammal, or flowering plant can be found anywhere along this 7-mile hike is of great significance.

Flood geology arguments often have a ring of plausibility to them when they are applied to one layer or feature in isolation, but there is no way to piece together all the individual explanations into a coherent whole.

The immense record of fossil life is said to be evidence of a global flood that swept across entire continents, yet that flood somehow failed to capture a single mouse, seagull, whale, frog, tulip, or lobster in the entire Grand Canyon sequence.

The conventional geologic understanding of the Grand Canyon is not just better than the flood geology view. The conventional model works; the flood model does not. (p. 204-205)

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