You have offended me

I have noticed that the phrase, “you have offended me,” now is often treated as an unassailable trump card. Once this phrase is used, the person who has wielded it seems to have won. The offender has nothing much he can say except ask exactly how he offended or to seek to apologize for his affront, maybe do a little grovelling. In truth, this accusation often kills a discussion or seeks to win points by attacking a person’s character. If we can establish the other person as evil, well, what more is needed than that?

Why is this offense card so powerful in our society? Harry Frankfurt in his book On Inequality suggests that when people feel denied respect in some way, and respond emotionally, it is because they fear, “the unbearably deep suffering and dread that may be caused when people are treated unjustly.” Further, he suggests they feel that “their personal reality is threatened by a denial of the importance that is required by respect.” Our society, too, is colored by the fear of injustices that come from our past such as racism , slavery, homophobia, oppression of women, and so on. It is important to recognize many injustices have happened in the past and still do today, so we do not repeat them. This history colors the thoughts of many people, leading them to view the world in terms of oppressors and oppressed, victors and victims.

Further, many people wrap their sense of identity firmly around a variety of ideas, emotions, and desires.  Perhaps that is a racial, cultural, sexual, ideological, or religious identity.  Many also have past traumas from unbearably evil experiences. And so often we are taught that if we just pursue being ourselves in a way that flows genuinely from our emotions, then we will be living authentic lives. Then something horrible happens;  all this gets tripped up when others present ideas, arguments, or facts that contradict our sense of ourselves; it looks like the other person is trampling on our very existence.

I’m honestly often at a loss about how to convey the empathy that many people need in this cold, cruel world while at the same time having a reasonable discussion about important issues, especially ones that tend to push our cultural buttons. I don’t want anyone to feel the “unbearably deep suffering and dread that may be caused when someone is treated unjustly.” We generally ought to respect other people even when we disagree. It is also true that, whoever we are, we need to beware of playing the victim card. Once we are victims, we are essentially giving other people great authority to determine our destinies. Also, as the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, small traumas are good for the traumatized, so people should not be sheltered from offensive or challenging ideas.

Instead of identifying as a victim and playing up how we feel offended, we should arm ourselves with information. This information should address both sides of the argument. If your position is essentially an emotional position with a few tidbits here and there thrown in from personal experiences and studies, maybe the reason you feel so offended and fragile is that you don’t know enough. Thus alternative arguments and facts appear to obliterate your entire position. And this makes you feel like your entire identity is being threatened. But as it is written, the truth will set you free. Press into the truth and you will avoid the sense that your personal reality is always being threatened.

Photo by Ruth Caron on Unsplash

My pursuit of meaning

Are human beings primarily on a quest for power? Or do we mainly search for pleasure? If you look around at people, it looks a lot like we are power or pleasure-seeking beings. But what if these pursuits are misguided ditches? What if they are broken cisterns that can hold no water? I would argue that these are misguided quests that people fall into when they get disconnected from their sense of purpose in life. The sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve are essentially wired to seek meaning; everything else is just playing in the muck.

The sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve are essentially wired to seek meaning; everything else is just playing in the muck.

I’m not the first person to claim this.  Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl devoted much of his life to arguing this idea, making the case that a good deal of  mental illness today stems from a spiritual condition, a void of meaning in our lives.  This happens when we have grown disconnected from our spiritual and religious roots.  It is cliche for people to go off to secular college and abandon religious teaching.  They are taught in science class that human beings are mere oxidation machines or as Richard Dawkins puts it “DNA propagation machines.” But Frankl thinks the spiritual side of man can never be reduced to the physical.  If we do, it’s like the famous bed of Procrustes.  Procrustes was a giant in Greek mythology who would take you into his house and put you on his bed.  If you were too short, he would stretch you out to fit the bed. If you were too long, he would cut off your legs. The materialist view of the world does this to all of us, mainly by chopping out our souls.  But if you think about it, even the concept of meaning cannot be explained on materialistic grounds.  How can one bit of matter give meaning to another?  It takes a mind to have meaning, and mind like meaning cannot be reduced to the physical.

According to Frankl, the spiritual side of man can never be reduced to the physical.

Frankl believes that meaning has to come from outside of us.  Therefore, we aren’t meant to seek happiness within ourselves.  Happiness is more of a bi-product of finding meaning.  The popular psychologist, Jordan Peterson, a disciple of Frankl, argues the same.  Frankl points out that a personal source of meaning, such as the God of Judeo-Christianity, appears to be the best source of ultimate meaning.  But in his form of therapy (logotherapy), he doesn’t insist that his patients accept theism (belief in God).  Studies find that if people find any meaning outside themselves, it helps them.  But as proponent of Christianity and a thinker, I would point out that if a view lacks intellectual integrity, it will be like the famous parable of Jesus about building one’s house on the sand.  When the rain and the wind comes, if there is no solid foundation, the house will get blown down and wash away.

Studies find that if people find any kind of meaning outside themselves, it helps them.

I’ve always been sensitive to this quest for meaning for some reason.  When I was a teenager, my parents tried to get me to read the gospels and take interest in religion, but I had little interest.  I did, however, begin to develop this sense that life was meaningless apart from God.  This struggle peeked with a spiritual experience with Jesus that reversed my course.  It also gave me an instant understanding of where meaning comes from.  It comes from a transcendent, personal God.

You see, if meaning only comes from our minds and has no transcendent reference point, then there actually is no meaning.  We are stuck trying to scrawl our faint fairytales on the dry erase board of the universe, and each stroke disappears as soon as we write it. But if we can discover meaning that is really there, it can transform us.  If you have ever struggled to find meaning in life, it may be because you have squelched the voice of meaning deep within you.  Perhaps you have let other people convince you that life itself or many parts of life are meaningless.  The only way out of the darkness is to expose yourself again to real meaning, even if that risks discovery by a meaning-maker. Just like many of the subjects in Frankl’s book, you may find that while you thought you were chasing meaning, meaning was really chasing you all along.  “But with unhurried chase, and unperturbed pace” like Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven. Meaning comes on with “deliberate speed and majestic instancy.”  Hold tight. Meaning is coming.

 

Why God intervenes in the world: a short refutation of deism

Deism is the notion that an all-powerful, perfect God exists, but he merely started the process of creation; he never intervenes within it.  Deists hold that this is part of God’s perfection.  He is so great at his job, so to speak, that he never needs to break his laws of physics.  They allege that only a deficient deity would need to so intervene.  This also helps get God off the hook for the existence of evil.  If God intervenes all the time, why doesn’t he do so more often so as to stop evil?

I sympathize with the desire to see God as the most perfect being. I too think he must be perfect.  I also sympathize with those who are grappling with the problem of evil.  But I see some problems with the deist’s reasoning.

First of all, it is a bit presumptuous to suppose that for God to be perfect he would never intervene in his creation.  In fact, many have pointed out that God would be less perfect if he never intervened.  For example, a non-interventionist God would be supremely unconcerned to relate closely to his creation.  That strikes me as an imperfection.  God is essentially a dead-beat dad on deism, an apathetic father. A desire for relationship is one reason that an all-good God would have for intervening in his creation.

Second, if deism is true, it is hard to see how human beings could be created in God’s image.  The image of God is essentially what makes human being distinct from the other animals.  As image bearers, we have a unique responsibility to represent God on this earth.  If we take away this attribute, we may be tempted to exploit the world rather than steward it.   Stewardship requires humility.  Humility was seen as a flaw by Aristotle, one of the earliest deists.  And his view seems consistent with deism.  On deism, why should we seek to care for those who are lower than us on the social strata?  Why should we humble ourselves when we’ve sinned?  God doesn’t give a rip much about it one way or another.  He’s the dead-beat dad, right?  He doesn’t humble himself.

Third, deists often refer to the laws of nature as unalterable.  It would thus make God imperfect to violate his own unchangeable laws.  But why refer to the laws of nature as unalterable? Why not think of them as patterns of God’s sustaining activity?  Then an intervention is not a violation, but it is simply an addition or subtraction of something God is already causing to happen.  Imagine for example, that you are sitting in the famous tree above Sir Isaac Newton.  You are getting ready to drop the famous apple on his famous head.  What stops the apple from descending to the selected target?  It’s the strength of your arm.  You are holding the apple from falling.  Your arm muscles are keeping the apple aloft over Sir Isaac’s head by an addition of power.  This seems to me to be a better analogy about how God could intervene in such a way as that it is not viewed as a violation.

Fourth, the problem of evil is actually worse on deism than on theism.  As I mentioned, you have the dead-beat dad problem on deism.  On theism, you can see that God is working for a greater good.  The allowance of evil can be seen as a greater good because freedom of the will is greater than its lack. The deist could presumably agree with that sentiment.  But without God’s interventions and general oversight of the world, it is hard to see how evil will be defeated in the end.  Perhaps it could become some kind of optimal balance, but could it every really be defeated without God?  Look at human nature for a millisecond and your hopes of that will wither.  But maybe the most important issue here is that without interventions there would be no chance of God incarnate.  God could never suffer along with his children.  This is perhaps the greatest strength of Christianity among the theistic religions of the world.  Not only has God not been silent, but he has made his voice deafeningly clear through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  And the irony is that while most deists would be skeptical of the resurrection, it is the part of the Christian creed with the greatest amount of evidence.

While deism is a welcome half-way house between atheism and theism, it is a difficult place to remain.  Theism is a welcoming respite to the lonely deist.  It is calling.  Come back into the hospitality of God.

What kind of mind do you have?

I was surprised recently when my friend parroted back to me something I had told him about the mind.  This concept helped him understand how his own mind worked better.  It’s an idea from one of my favorite philosophers, Blaise Pascal. He says that some people are intuitive reasoners and others are mathematical reasoners. Intuitive reasoners often know things by sheer insight.  Mathematical reasoners reason from principles. Intuitors are more poetic. Mathematicians are more linear. It’s essentially the difference between poets and scientists.

What’s interesting is that intuitors often cannot understand mathematicians and vice-versa. The intuitors leap to ethical conclusions, for example, without thinking through many of their conclusions. Mathematicians need to see the steps of how we got there.  The refusal to see things from the other point of view often causes us to miss common ground. Perhaps an intuitor has gotten to the same place that the reasoner did only by different means. For example, perhaps one person believes abortion is wrong by intuitive means and another has gotten there by reasoning from the full humanity and independent DNA of those in utero.

One way for us to overcome this divide is for the mathematical people to read literature and poetry and the poetic people to read up on philosophy, logic, and science. But barring that, let’s at least remember that conclusions can be reached by different means. Then we begin to learn to appreciate the gifts of those who are wired differently than us. It occurs to me that some of the greatest minds in history, such as Plato, Aristotle, Einstein, and C.S. Lewis have been gifted with both ways of seeing the world. Appreciating both can open the way to astounding new discoveries, overcoming life-challenges, and even defeating some of humanity’s most difficult problems.

 

Blaise Pascal’s three ways to know truth from bullshit

Tradition, reason, and experience.  Whether we know it or not, these three ways lead us to our creeds.  Some believe out of tradition, simply following what their ancestors taught.  Others believe because of reason, investigating arguments that lead them to rational conclusions.  Others believe out of existential experience, finding more poetic and inspirational ways to knowledge.  Whether one’s position is secular or religious, these three ways guide our footsteps.

Many of us are skeptical of tradition.  We recognize that tradition is not always a safe method of finding the truth.  But we ought not be overconfident about that.  G.K. Chesterton once called tradition the “democracy of the dead.”  It ought to have some staying power because it represents the votes of our forebears.  For this reason, I’m unwilling to throw out all tradition.  In fact, we need tradition, and if we don’t follow our family’s tradition we will simply look for some other tradition to link up with.  Many traditions in our modern milieu can look utterly non-religious.  They may take the form of a club, a sport, a philosophy, let alone a religion. Traditions usually have some form of repetitive rituals that give meaning to a community.  Traditions also may include Scripture, the notion that a higher order of intelligence, such as God or the gods, has revealed certain things to be true. Scripture has advantages if true because it allows humans to access something beyond the normal realm of human investigation.  At the same time, it seems to me that any claim of Scripture should be open to verification or falsification. In our secular culture, we often experience the cross-pressures of many different traditions. There may be political, religious, and social traditions, pulling us in different directions.  Tradition provides a pattern of life we can conform to that may have more wisdom than anything we can come up with on our own.

Reason has been trumpeted by the new atheists as the ultimate arbiter of truth.  I actually, though not an atheist, partially agree with them on this statement. Without reason, belief claims appear vapid and void of all substance. Just like in Orwell’s novel 1984, 2+2 could then equal five.  Yet there is still a problem with a naive faith in reason; if our character is distorted, that will influence how we interpret the facts and evidence.  Since people are so easily swayed by emotions, traditions, pop-culture, moral practices, and personal psychology, these will affect our reasoning processes.  In other words, reason will always be limited by the character of the reasoner.  At the same time, the tradition and existential experience have no basis without reason.  We must be have strong evidence to support our beliefs.

Existential experience is a powerful pull for people today. Many, if not most in Western culture, are what sociologists have termed “expressive individualists.” Philosopher James Smith defines this as the tendency to see life as something that we each individually need to realize for ourselves. We believe that we are called to express that way of life rather than conform it to models given to us or imposed by others. The goal of life is therefore authenticity rather than living out a tradition or a reasonable point of view. A quick glance at our fascination with actors and musicians will verify our commitment to the expressive way of life. Many also look to the pragmatic to determine truth, to what works versus what doesn’t work.  The expressive individualists have a point in all this. We ought to seek know ourselves, and this is an intensely personal and individual quest. But at what cost do we express ourselves when the facts and external reality are at odds with us? This is where tradition and reason can help sort out our true-selves from our muddled false-selves. Harry Frankfurt points out in his masterful book, On Bullshit, that it is impossible to be authentic unless there is a truth about ourselves that we can be authentic about. And generally speaking, reason and tradition help experience find that truth.

The philosopher and inventor Blaise Pascal once pointed out that every religion has tradition and experience. But no religion but Christianity has reason. That’s a very strong claim. And Pascal’s statement applies not just to religions but also non-religious views of the world. Now, I can’t begin to defend this claim as a whole in this article.  That would take an entire book.  But let’s look at the claim briefly. Did you realize that we have very little historical access to most religious claims? Most religions are set so far into the past that historians cannot access them, and most do not depend on historical facts being true anyways. The great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do have much overlap with history, however. This adds a huge evidential component. The claims can be investigated.  Along with history, we also have to ask whether a religion or a philosophy is coherent or not. Without naming names, I’ll just put out there that many religions and philosophies, while containing beauty and even promoting goodness, are incoherent. They make claims that are self-refuting or logic denying.  Pascal claims that only Christianity can truly pass the test of reason. The only way to find out if that’s true would be to investigate it for yourself.  Maybe you’ll come up with different conclusions.

In the pursuit of truth, tradition, reason, and experience each play a crucial role.  Might it be that some have only used one or two of these means of discovery when all three can shed light on the truth? Truth ultimately is the most beautiful thing we can find, even when it may bring pain and loss.  Discovering truth is much like what St. Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians.  “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).  If that or something much like that is true, who wouldn’t want to know it?

 

Are You a Grace or a Truth Person?

Most people are either geared towards grace or truth. Either we believe in unconditional love and forgiveness or we tend to put a higher focus on what is true and right. Sometimes we are grace oriented in one sphere of life and truth in another. There is a way, however, to bring both grace and truth into every area of our lives, and if we think about it, we desperately need both. Let me explain what I mean.

Grace oriented people often see how deeply weak and wounded most people are, including themselves. Their creed is a “all we need is love,” always looking for redemption. They often point out that the truth people are hypocritical. Truth people tend to emphasize what is right and true and sometimes exclude anyone who does not conform to their standards. This can be seen perhaps most starkly in religious people who appear to have little love or compassion for the sins of others. If you are a grace person, you are probably nodding your head here. Does not attachment theory in psychology tell us that the love we received or failed to receive as a child powerfully impacts us? Only healthy, loving attachments can heal those wounds, and who is more loving that almighty God, who, according to Christianity “is love”? Therefore, the grace person mostly concerns herself with loving others, giving them uncritical freedom. She thinks we should rarely correct or judge behavior to be wrong even if we see how destructive it is.

Grace people, however, have to realize that there is a limit to their perspective. Truth actually does matter. Truth leads to wisdom and boundaries. It highlights the stark realities of human nature. Though we sometimes look like we are born from angel dust, more often than not we appear born from sin. How many of us have been left trembling by the callous, selfish, and outrageous actions of people we thought were incapable of such things? And how much worse when we realize how selfish we ourselves can be. Anyone who has studied history will know how brutal the past was; the present is not that much better. In our own century, we had the Nazi (National socialist) and Communist regimes, both of which together inflicted over 100 million casualties in their pursuit of utopia (Utopia is ironically a very grace-oriented idea). And we all know that even forgiveness does not mean letting other people hurt you again and again. Forgiveness means letting go of need to inflict justice over a wrong, not making the person pay anymore. It does not mean forgetting what happened or stupidly leaving ourselves open to more abuse. Grace has limits, at least in the sense that people often refuse it and go their own way.

Truth people will be nodding their head to all that I’ve said in the last paragraph. They care about facts, right and wrong, and reality. They see the outcome of flakey philosophies which state that there is no truth or that everyone should be equal in every way. These notions are not grounded in any facts. Truth people understand simple biological facts about gender differences. They are astounded at the mob mentality of social media. They can see when people are doing something self-destructive or irrational and usually are the first ones to point it out. They also note that the grace people have a pattern of being hypocritically intolerant of anyone they think does not belong to the grace-tribe.
But truth people need to see that even they fall short of their own standards. How good is really good enough? This is especially true as it relates to relationship with the Almighty. Nobody is capable of being perfect, says Paul. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Jesus told parables about self-righteous people like the pharisee who “thanked God he was not like everyone else” and the elder brother who refused to go into the party the Father had laid out for the wasteful younger brother (Luke 18, Luke 15). Truth without grace ultimately crushes the truth person under the weight of the law that they themselves have failed to keep. It often leads to callouse self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and mere outward conformity to the rules. All the while the truth person is desperately trying to cover up his own need for grace and forgiveness.

For all these reasons grace without truth and truth without grace are incomplete. Only in Jesus Christ can we really put the two together. How so? Jesus Christ is the one who embodied these two realities perfectly, so in him we have a perfect example of what it looks like. He could speak a word of truth with absolute love. Just read the gospels to see for yourself. But more than that, Jesus loved us to death, literally, showing us how we can reconcile grace with truth. At the cross, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10). Jesus bore our sins and the weight of God’s justice on the cross to reveal God’s great unconditional love. The cross turns our grace into real grace that recognizes falsehood and sin, rather than just overlooking it or explaining it away. The person who zealously strives to balance grace and truth without Jesus has to ask herself a question. What philosophy or religion has ever united grace and truth in a more coherent, beautiful, and historically accessible way than that of Jesus Christ? Often I suspect that the rejection of Jesus Christ, either outright or in practice, is for one of two reasons. Either the truth person does not want to accept that radical message of forgiveness available to the worst offenders who embrace Jesus, or the grace person does not want to accept that God would speak clearly in a way that seems to exclude those who don’t accept it. But Jesus can offer forgiveness in a way that bears the weight of truth while telling the truth in a way that beckons in grace to the loneliest outcast. “In him we have all received grace in the place of grace” but also the fullest expression of “grace and truth.” (John 1:16-17).

Isms and Facts

Can facts correct your isms?  Or do isms correct your facts?  We all have particular beliefs.  Some of them we hold onto without even noticing them.  The philosopher Charles Taylor called these our “unthoughts.”  These are what we think without reflection, often without confirmation.  J. Warner Wallace, a famous cold case detective, says we ought to seek facts, not evidence.  Evidence so often helps us rationalize our unthoughts.  But most of us want evidence, not pesky facts that could challenge us.  Few people, in fact, step outside of what society generally allows them to believe.

So, for example, society tells us that religion is alright if we find our own personal meaning in it.  Most people only think of meaning as a property of their minds. Meaning is just in our heads, not out there in the real world.  But it’s not generally understood today that a religion could actually be true, even historically verifiable.  Since religion is something we simply make meaning of, it cannot have the ability to change our lifestyles much.  We don’t need to take up our crosses and follow a real Jesus very much.  Thus we can go to church on Sundays and live mostly for ourselves the rest of the week.  It goes without saying, though perhaps I need to say it, that this depiction is at odds with historical and orthodox Christianity.  I also think the idea of making your own meaning is incoherent, but that’s another story.

Another example of “unthought” is our preoccupation with race, class, and gender.  Many of our assumptions about this modern trinity go completely unchallenged.  We are told there is systemic racism and instead of researching what that means and looking for facts to support it or deny it, we simply accept it.  For white people it is good virtue-signalling to accept it because if you don’t, you are considered racist.  Sure there is still individual racism, which is very unfortunate, but systemic racism?  How do we define that? We have so much “white guilt” (as the much ridiculed black conservative author Shelby Steele points out) that we’re afraid to look into it. But when we boil it down, it is very hard to substantiate systemic racism as existent today. As far as class goes, we are told that when the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, as if economics were a zero sum game.  One reading of Thomas Sowell’s Economic Facts and Fallacy would blow this view to smithereens, but that takes away from watching our favorite TV shows. With gender, we are told that it is simply a social construct with no biological meaning.  If you examine these concepts, you will find out very quickly that all this is based on extremely muddled thinking rather than facts, research, stats and so on.  But again, most of us feel our way through life, keeping ourselves busy with constant amusement, unaware that “a-muse” means to not think.  We don’t think while we slowly walk onward towards our mortal end with nothing substantial to truly follow, leaving life half-lived and truth half-sought.

And we wonder why people are so sensitive today.  Well, if your worldview is completely subjective, not based on facts at all, and I challenge it, how are you going to react?  You’re going to react like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie “Jingle All the Way,” with total panic. “Put that cookie [fact] down! Now!”  Or perhaps you’ll be more like one of Jim Jones or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s cult followers.  You’ll just smile, knowing that you know the truth because…well…you just feel it.