And he was with the wild animals: Why I’m warming up to pets and all manner of creatures

When I lived in Washington, D.C. in my early- and mid-twenties, I remember distinctly my attitude toward pets, and I was not ashamed to share it if someone asked.

“I could go the rest of my life without having a pet and be perfectly content,” I would say. And I meant it. My urban life was busy enough with work, church, concerts, happy hours, movies, and weekend outings with friends. I didn’t need another creature in my life taking up my time, attention, and resources. I had plenty of human friends, and that was enough.

Now, however, a public recantation is in order: I was wrong to feel that way. Or to phrase it with less judgment toward myself, there was something in my heart that was cold and disconnected that has since started growing warmer and closer to the heartbeat of life itself. 

I don’t remember any specific moment that marked a shift away from my dismissive attitude toward animals. Reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek probably had something to do with it. But in any case I’ve begun to change. I’m not at a point in life where having a pet makes sense logistically, but I am finding that there is value — much value — in being in relationship with animals. To live without connection to other living creatures, with their own wills, sensations, and even personalities, now seems like a rather impoverished way to go through life. 

I’ve never taken the time to extensively study or develop a theology of animals. This is the first time I recall ever writing about the subject. But I believe there’s a spiritual, soul-level dimension to this. From what I know of the lives of saints and spiritual leaders across faith traditions, many were steeped in a loving, attuned relationship to the world of living things, especially animals. 

St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most prominent example of this. He reportedly preached to birds and all manner of animals, blessing them and inviting them to praise their creator. One of the earliest accounts of Francis’ life, written by Thomas of Celano, who knew the saint personally, tells of a journey where the saint came upon a great multitude of birds.

“He greeted them in his usual way, as if they shared in reason. As the birds did not take flight, he went to them, going to and fro among them, touching their heads and bodies with his tunic,” Thomas writes. He goes on to describe how, in response to Francis’ preaching, “the birds gestured a great deal, in their own way. They stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks, and looked at him. They did not leave the place until, having made the sign of the cross, he blessed them and gave them permission.”

Today this legacy of St. Francis lives on; he is the patron saint of the environment and animals, and rightfully so.

In the Russian Orthodox church tradition, Saint Seraphim of Sarov was known to befriend a variety of woodland creatures near the cabin where he lived. One remarkable story describes his friendship with a bear:

Two nuns from a certain convent once came to visit Saint Seraphim. Suddenly a bear lumbered unexpectedly out of the woods and frightened the visitors with his appearance. “Misha,” said the saint, “why do you frighten the poor orphans! Go back and bring us a treat, otherwise I have nothing to offer to my guests.” Hearing these words, the bear went back into the woods, and two hours later he tumbled into the holy elder’s cell and gave him something covered with leaves. It was a fresh honeycomb of purest honey. Father Seraphim took a piece of bread from his bag, gave it to the bear, pointed to the door – and the bear left immediately.

These stories inspire me more and more every time I hear them. They stir my imagination for what is possible. Could a person really become so peaceful of spirit and attuned to the natural world that birds stop to listen to them preach or bears participate with them in the cocreative work of hospitality?

Assuming the natural world is an expression of a divine Creator’s love, creativity, and personality, I don’t see why not. My former priest from the Anglican Church, Fr. Daniel Rice, likes to imagine what happened when Jesus went out into the wilderness for 40 days of prayer and fasting. During this time, Mark’s gospel records, “he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.”

“Why was he with the wild animals?” Fr. Dan asks. Every time he speaks of this moment his voice becomes pregnant with emotion. “Because he was comforting them.”

He was comforting them! Take a moment to picture the scene in your imagination. Jesus’ heart for the world knew no bounds, it was deep and wide enough for even the wild beasts. He went out to these creatures, animals that were hunted and living out of fear and scarcity, and he proclaimed peace and hope to them.

For my part, I’ve started paying more attention to the animals around me. I do so first to honor their innate beauty, value, and worth, but also to receive any wisdom they might hold, opening my heart and imagination to what they might be speaking to me.

I offer two anecdotes from my life to illustrate this new way of moving through the world. Both of these happened last month, during my final week in Seattle:

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The first took place at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. As I drove up from the seaside town of Port Angeles, the clouds grew thicker and closer. With every twist and bend of the road I could feel the air getting thinner and the world turn more wild and holy. At last the road brought me up to the visitor’s center, which looked out over a great vista of golden grassy hillsides and thick, green groves of fir.  There was something here for me, I trusted in my gut, but the deep peace and knowing that I had been seeking on the cusp of a major life transition — my impending departure from Seattle — was still eluding me. 

I drove further past the visitor’s center to the Hurricane Hill trailhead. Here a paved path followed the hillside up through a smattering of trees into the mist. I began walking. After a few minutes I saw a deer maybe twenty yards ahead. It was standing just a few feet off the trail to the right. 

I stopped. The deer was walking away with a cool, self-assured demeanor, one slow step at a time. It stopped and looked back at me.

“Hello my friend,” I said to the deer. “May I come up here? I don’t want to stay. I don’t want to take anything. I just want to be here for a while, to enjoy this place with you. Is that okay?”

I stood still, relaxed and strangely at peace, and waited. A minute or two passed, and the deer began to walk away further into the forest. I took a few steps forward, knelt, and kissed the ground, honoring the land that this beautiful creature called home.

“Thank you my friend,” I said. “It’s good to be here with you. Go in peace.”

Feeling summarily blessed, I went on my way up the trail, full of gratitude and anticipation for what was in store. 

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My second profound encounter with animals happened during my last evening in Seattle. I had one slice of bread remaining in my depleted pantry, so I decided to take it over to the water reservoir across the street and see if I could find a crow or two to feed it to. I went outside, crossed the street, and began walking along the first stretch of the reservoir. 

At first I saw no birds out, then — a crow! And not just one, three of them! I walked over to the fence, tore off a piece of the bread, and threw it over towards them. One of them hopped towards me, snatched the bread in its beak, and took off. 

I heard a few harsh caws overhead, and then suddenly dozens, hundreds of them! Both of the two trees above me were filled with a murder of crows. They flew out and around the trees then back in with a pattern or rhythm I could not discern. 

The mystic in me came alive. I grinned like a little kid and looked up as the crows flew in and out, bidding me farewell. That was why they were here, after all, that was why they lingered above me. It must be! They were divine messengers, sent to let me know that providence had something up its sleeve for me as I turned the page into a new chapter of life. I couldn’t and wouldn’t know what would happen, but I knew it would be something beyond anything I could ask for or anticipate.

I began to walk back to the house. When I had gone a few yards a contingent of several dozen crows peeled off from the rest and flew into the next tree down, again directly overhead. 

I could hardly believe it. It was one thing for my heart to imagine the birds bidding me farewell. Now I genuinely believed it was happening. They were following me.

“Be well my friends,” I said, and the big, happy grin returned to my face. I basked in the moment a few seconds longer then continued across the street. 

Again, a group of crows broke off from the larger contingent, about a dozen this time, and glided over to the tallest tree in the backyard, a sizable fir. They perched near the top as I walked down the side of the house.

Now I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. Deep down in my heart and gut I felt that these crows knew I was leaving. They knew I longed for some sort of sign and they were here to offer it to me, to let me know that my leaving was meant to be, that the time was ripe, and that I wasn’t going to be alone.

“Be well! Thank you!” I said again, beaming with joy.

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What is going on here? These moments are nothing less, I believe, than manifestations of the divine nature clearly seen in the world. The Native Americans knew this, with their rich and vibrant understanding of a Creator, along with many other Indigineous cultures. The Hebrew psalmist and sage of the Old Testament knew it too (see Psalm 104 and Proverbs 6, among others).

Today in the industrialized and digitized western world this wisdom doesn’t seem as common, but I find pockets of it here and there. When his 15-year-old black Lab Venus, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and had to be put down, writer and Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr recalls with heartbreaking clarity the knowing and profoundly accepting look in his dog’s eyes.

“In those weeks before she died,” Rohr writes, “Venus somehow communicated to me that all sadness, whether cosmic, human, or canine, is one and the same. Somehow, her eyes were all eyes, even God’s eyes, and the sadness she expressed was a divine and universal sadness. I wondered if God might have an easier time using animals to communicate who God is, since they do not seem as willful and devious as we are.”

This story makes me think of a black Lab from my own life that I know named Katniss. When I arrived at Overgrow Farm, the organic farm where I’ve been volunteering through WWOOF for the past several weeks, Katniss ran up alongside my car as I pulled up the driveway. She was the first being to greet me, and her response at my arrival was utterly hospitable — nothing but enthusiastic joy, delight, and curiosity at my presence.

Sometimes in the evenings or during slow points in the day, Katniss will jump on her hind legs and hit the latch on the front door of the farmhouse to open it, just to come in and be with the people inside. When she does this her presence is almost always welcome. 

This is especially meaningful because the farmer who owns and runs Overgrow is recently divorced. It’s clear he’s still in the grieving process and picking up the pieces of a shattered life. But when his dog comes through the door, his face lights up and his voice jumps up half an octave and becomes tender and caring. Suddenly he sounds like a delighted father rather than a cynical, hurting man. I haven’t seen anything else come close to bringing him that much joy. 

I would dare to suggest, in fact, that Katniss is the greatest incarnate presence of Christ in his life right now — even more than I can be, in many ways. In a small but real way, she is a manifestation of God’s curiosity and delight and simple longing to be with us.

And I love her for it.

The five best books I read in 2015

In 2015 I set what I thought was a modest – but not insignificant – personal goal for reading: one book every two weeks – or 26 over the entire year (by comparison, Mark Zuckerberg set a similar goal for himself, and Bill Gates reads about a book a week; so I figured if those guys can carve out time then surely I can too). By the end of December I had finished 31 books, which I was pretty satisfied with. From those books, here are the five that made the biggest impression on me and were most worth my while.

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed there is something elemental about this masterful work. It aims for the moon and soars to the stars. Through the multi-generational story of several families who all cross paths in California’s Salinas Valley at the beginning of the twentieth century, it captures both a thousand stories of an era and that singular, timeless, origin story of human nature. At a time when many people still felt bound by fate, especially their own heritage, East of Eden proclaims the great freedom of human choice in a fallen world to break the moral trajectory of one’s lineage. The book finds its mythic roots for this in the Old Testament: Genesis 4. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, to which Cain responded with jealousy and anger. God asked Cain why he was angry and challenged him to overcome his temptation to sin. Per the King James Version: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” The key word here, one character insists, is timshel – the Hebrew verb that means “thou mayest.” The “thou shalt” from the passage, he says, should be rendered “thou mayest.” The message for young Cal Trask, who poetically revives the part of Cain in the book’s retelling of the story, is that evil is crouching at his door, but he is not destined to repeat Cain’s sin (or the sins of his parents).

Steinbeck’s prose – his ability to portray characters, to delve into the great perversities and nobilities of human motives, and to craft scenes that deeply engage the reader – is some of the best I’ve ever read. East of Eden is a tome, weighing in at more than 600 pages, but it is well-worth the toil of reading it.

2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

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Before reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I’m not sure I had much of a propensity to connect road trips and motorcycle mechanics with philosophy, but I do now. Robert Pirsig’s account of a former college professor’s motorcycle road trip to the American northwest with his son alternates between the physical, concrete, and calculable to the realm of values and meaning. It moves to and fro from the task of keeping a motorcycle in top shape to abstract musings that probe all the way back to The Phaedrus, the ancient dialogue penned by Plato between Socrates and Phaedrus. These musings, conducted over long hours spent traversing America’s backroads, revolve around a deceptively simple question: what is quality? It eludes simple definition, but put two papers of decidedly differing quality in front of an undergraduate English composition class and nine out of ten of them will pick the same one as being of better quality. So quality is real, it shapes how we live and perceive and engage with the world, but is there any way to put a finger of what, exactly, it is – to capture its essence in words?

The book grows more and more philosophical as the narrator delves deeper into the troubled intellectual toils of his past, but as it grows in abstraction it also grows in tension and suspense as it is revealed that the narrator’s inquiry into values ultimately drove him mad. Will he return to the madness of the pursuit? Is there any other conscionable thing to do – any other way to stay committed to the truth? The book was published in 1974, but its subject remains timeless and profound.

3. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

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In The Denial of Death, the late Berkeley anthropologist and writer Ernest Becker works his way through the inherent tension of man’s nature, delving farther into the Nietzschean abyss than most modern, secular people have gone. As the title indicates, this book is about man’s struggle to reach the eternal and find meaning as a mortal creature – the result of this impulse being that we obsessively deny the impending reality of our own death. Sure, we have the head knowledge and pay lip service to the idea that we will die eventually (YOLO!), but most people go about their days without a deep existential realization of the dagger hanging over their heads by a thread. We long for greatness and transcendence and try to find it by investing all of our purpose in the nation state or existential act or romance or faith. We are gods, so to speak, yet we all end up as worm food. As Becker memorably put it, men are “gods who s***.”

The Denial of Death’s diagnostic of the human condition is spot on and much more honest about the secular worldview, I think, than most intellectuals are willing to be. It is bleak and concludes without any hope beyond some abstract notion of throwing oneself into the life-force of the universe. Reading it shook me up pretty bad and deeply disturbed me at times, but in a good way. It’s not beach reading, but for those courageous (and perhaps foolhardy) souls who can’t get past the most basic questions of what it means to be alive and who value delving into the ideas of guys like Freud, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, I commend this book to you.

4. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“I have sworn not to put pen to paper until my ideas either clarify or depart entirely; I have quite enough sins on my soul without putting dangerous, shallow epigrams into people’s heads…” This conclusion to the despairing rant of Amory Blaine, the young protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s freshman novel, captures the angst of the young, talented writer. It’s a conundrum I often run up against myself. How does one justify his own participation in a world constantly in flux, in which public opinion shifts with the winds of the media’s ideology, true love feels eternally elusive, and matters of life and death seem to be dictated by cold, impersonal happenstances of car accidents and stray bullets?

Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at the age of 23, delivering a quintessential coming of age tale as America entered the Roaring Twenties. It is a fictionalized memoir of sorts, drawing heavily from his own crash-and-burn experiences with women, attending Princeton University, serving in World War One, and moving to New York City as a young man. I don’t have an answer for all of his frustrations, but it’s nice to encounter a youthful, zealous personality whose ambition and optimism crashes on the rocks of vanity. It’s also refreshing to encounter someone who is aware of his own self-absorption enough to refer to himself repeatedly as “the egotist.” Millennials may be the self-absorbed generation, with our Instagram and smartphones, but This Side of Paradise shows that adolescence hasn’t really changed much since it first came into being a century ago.

5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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I don’t read many autobiographies (or biographies, for that matter), but maybe I should. Back when I was in college a writing professor once referenced the Autobiography of Malcolm X, so when I saw it sitting in a box of free stuff on the sidewalk I picked it up. My professor had recommended the book because of its account of the turning point that steered Malcolm X’s life away from a vicious cycle of crime and prison to standing as a ideological and political leader among African Americans in the tumultuous lead up to the civil rights era. Everything changed in prison, as Malcolm himself recollects. When he first went to jail he estimated he had a vocabulary of just a few hundred words. He got religion through a Black Muslim, and then he decided to teach himself English – proper English. His method was simple. He opened a dictionary and started meticulously memorizing it one word at a time, starting with “aardvark.” By the time he was out of prison, he had read a vast swath of literature, history, and philosophy, and his education rivaled that of any college graduate. He became an eloquent speaker and powerful societal voice. As my professor would have said, he “mastered the civilization in which he lived.”

The literary and intellectual prowess of Malcolm X is evident in this book. It thoroughly transported me into his shoes. Given the great disparity between our life experiences – me, a college-educated middle-class white Christian from California, and Malcolm, a black hoodlum who cut his teeth on all manner of unlawful dealings in Boston and then Harlem – that’s really saying something. Even though much of his career was marked by decidedly extreme, violent rhetoric, reading his autobiography gave me a fresh empathy for the African American experience that has expanded how I think about racial issues today.

Step Back Sometimes and Remember that it’s All Fake and Pointless

Meet the latest cultural artifact and YouTube sensation from mix master Daniel Kim. For the past several years, Kim has been creating pop music mashups of the past year’s hits. His 2012 mix is easily his best yet, and the collective internet audience has rewarded it with more than seven million views after being out for only a week. It’s worth the eight minute watch:

I confess I’m enough of a Philistine to enjoy a good pop tune once in a while. Some I enjoy quite frequently (like Owl City’s “Good Time,” which I listened to daily all last summer). I try to at least know of the top music stars right now. A compilation like this thus brings back many memories from the past year. It’s skillfully mixed together and a lot of fun to watch.

These songs have a certain nostalgic value because I associate them with people or times in my life. That’s fine, but it really just obscures their true nature. When you think about the songs themselves, there’s almost nothing there. They are nothing but sticky-sweet ear candy stretched over a gaping void. Some of these songs are uplifting and anthemic, but most are also overwhelmingly narcissistic.

If this is representative of our cultural consciousness for the past year (not an entirely unfair claim), it raises some scary questions. The songs in this anthology are utterly detached from anything real, significant, lasting or valuable. It’s a load of fakeness, fool’s gold, glam and glitter, lights, pretty faces, too-perfect bodies, fleeting feelings. It’s kitsch that has little reason for existing other than to make money. Out of the Pop Danthology’s 55 songs, I could probably count on one hand the ones that aren’t about “love.” Continue reading →

Book Review: “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World”

It was with great eagerness that I picked up James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.” As the title suggests, Hunter tries to tackle the contentious topic of culture changing as it’s understood and practiced by Christians. Given that Hunter is both a Christian and prominent sociologist at the University of Virginia, he seems to be a good man for the job.

Any talk of transforming culture inevitably involves politics, and that’s the thing about “To Change the World” that piqued my interest. My understanding of the intersection of Christianity and politics has evolved quite a bit over the past several years (along with my convictions about what that intersection ought to look like). Given that I just graduated from a Christian college and started a fledgling career in politics, I could hardly have chosen something more relevant to my life.

That’s because Hunter sets out to answer the big question: how do Christians go about changing the culture in which they live? Or more generally: how ought we to go about living out our faith and engaging with the world? It’s a timeless subject that Christianity has wrestled through since it’s inception, starting at least with St. Augustine and continuing until today with organizations like Focus on the Family.

Hunter responds to this question in three parts. He first explores the substance of the question: What is culture? How and why does it change? What is it like today and what kind of influence do Christians currently wield? This part of the book is mainly analysis that lays the groundwork for the rest of the book, clears up some misconceptions about world-changing, and defines key terms—what exactly is “culture,” for instance. How do ideas have consequences? Why doesn’t society always reflect the beliefs of the majority?

Whether or not you’ve thought through these questions, it’s well worth the read. Some of Hunter’s answers may surprise you. For instance, changing culture isn’t as simple as “changing the hearts and minds, one person at a time.” Rather, those at the top of elite power structures have far more sway in the movement of our ideas and beliefs than whatever the masses say. Only 15% of America at the most is secular, yet our society–the public square, our classrooms, and so on–is intensely secular.

The second part of the book explains and critiques, in a self-admittedly very broad fashion, the three main movements or “models” that American Christians have adopted over the past several decades in their mission to change the world—the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists. He sums them up in the terms “defensive against”, “relevance to”, and “purity from”, respectively.

In the third part, Hunter goes on the offensive, offering a new model for cultural engagement that he terms “faithful presence.” Continue reading →

Book Review: Animal Farm

In terms of making me feel like I’m actually doing something with my life, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was a pretty good deal.

Here’s what I mean by that. It was short—at 128 small pages, I read most of it in a single weekend. It is easy to read—written in a clear, simple style. And it’s a classic—ranking just under “1984” on the list of famous Orwell books. In other words, I read a classic over the weekend and understood it.

Wish I could do that every weekend.

But seriously, “Animal Farm” is a pretty good read. Orwell writes with a down-to-earth simplicity that fits the book’s parable-like fairy tale genre. First published in 1946, in the aftermath of Nazi Germany and on the brink of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, Orwell launches a scathing attack on totalitarianism in no uncertain terms in one of the most simple contexts imaginable—a farm.

The plot is simple but effective. It begins on Mr. Jones farm. One night, one of the old hogs gathers all of the animals and tells of a coming revolution. He predicts that one day the time will come for all animals to rise up, overthrow their oppressive human rulers, and establish their own utopia where all animals live in harmony with each other, reap the full fruits of their labor, and enjoy an abundance of food and rest. Soon after the old hog’s death, on a night when Jones was especially drunk and careless with his animals, two younger pigs lead a revolution that ousts the farmer and gives the animals control of the farm.

Everything goes wonderfully, at first. Led by the pigs, the animals collectively work hard for the benefit of each other and quickly establish their own laws of “Animal Farm” to ensure equality and further their cause around the world.  They rename the farm “Animal Farm,” fly their own flag, and sing their own national anthem, “The Beasts of England.” Yet the dreams of a world of animal equality and abundance for all turn out to be nothing more than that—just dreams. Continue reading →

“After-Birth” Abortion?

Like many people, I reacted with horror and disgust when I first read in The Weekly Standard about this recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It is by two ethicists in Australia, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, and argues for the ethical legitimacy of what they call “after-birth abortion.” It’s a fascinating read, but it comes to a chilling conclusion: it is ethically permissible to kill an unwanted baby even right after it is born. The same reasons which justify abortion, they say, should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn. This is because a newborn baby is not yet a “person” in the proper sense of the word. It can take a few days or weeks for an infant to develop a sense of self, purpose, and aims. If the child is going to cause undue stress to the mother or her family, or if the child’s life will not be worth living because of some debilitating disease, the best thing to do is end its life.

I come from the pro-life camp, and I’ve no doubt that a lot of pro-lifers will probably jump on this article and claim that it is the inevitable result of the pro-choice position and that all abortion advocates implicitly promote infanticide. I don’t want to go that far (at least not quite yet), but I do think that it demands some hard questions of abortion proponents.

Given the assumptions that justify abortion, their reasoning that extends this to newborns sure seems pretty valid to me, but I’d be curious to hear it from any pro-abortion folks out there: what makes killing a newborn different from aborting a fetus? If there is no line before birth, why should birth itself be a line? And if we want to delve more into the philosophy of it, what gives us the right to decide when a fetus becomes a person?

For William Saletan, writing for Slate, the big question for pro-choicers is this:

How do they answer the argument, advanced by Giubilini and Minerva, that any maternal interest, such as the burden of raising a gravely defective newborn, trumps the value of that freshly delivered nonperson? What value does the newborn have? At what point did it acquire that value? And why should the law step in to protect that value against the judgment of a woman and her doctor?

Or to follow another line of thought: why shouldn’t the mother’s best interests, particularly her psychological and economic well-being, take precedence over the destruction of human life—even if that life is still potential? It is, after all, on an inevitable course to personhood, which brings us back to the basic abortion debate. I’m not asking these questions to back anyone into a corner. I’m genuinely curious.

Continue reading →

Book Review: A Rumor of Angels

We live in an age in which beliefs about religion and the supernatural–especially in the public square–seem to be growing increasingly polarized and antagonistic toward each other. The religious seem to be growing more religious, and the secular more secular. Modernity has engulfed the world over the last two centuries, and genuine, deep-set religious faith seems to be growing more and more untenable.

What are we to make of this? How should church leaders and secularists alike respond when faced with decisions about how to engage with the culture and those with differing beliefs? Or more important still, how ought we to go about finding answers to questions of faith and the supernatural?

Enter “A Rumor of Angels” by Boston University sociologist Peter Berger. Berger is one of those delightful intellectuals who refuses to be easily categorized. He does not subscribe to the typical thinking and well-known rhetoric of either side and offers his criticism to traditional Christians and the secularizing left alike. Berger himself probably put it best in a 1980 article in The Christian Century in which he described “A Rumor of Angels” as “an attempt to overcome secularity from within.”

I was first introduced to Peter Berger through a pastor. In this video about the question of certainty in biblical interpretation, Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York city referenced “A Rumor of Angels”, noting that the decision to remain skeptical and avoid taking a position on something is itself a decision about what the text is saying. In other words, you can choose from the various interpretations, come up with your own, or claim some sort of “enlightened uncertainty”, but all three are concrete statements about the nature of what you are interpreting. Any belief you choose takes a stance about the nature of reality. If one of the first two positions is correct, then the third one isn’t going to do you much good.

Indeed, the most valuable insight of “A Rumor of Angels”, I found, was Berger’s insistence that the cultural forces that condition our beliefs really have little to no bearing on whether or not something is true. At one point in the book he recounts a visit to India where he encountered a street funeral and afterwards spoke with a Hindu who shared a passage from the Bhagavad Gita. It spoke of life, death and reincarnation. Berger found that his western, Judeo-Christian sense of life sharply rejected the eastern view. He admits why: worldviews are relative and his beliefs had been largely conditioned by his background and society.

This fact in itself, however, does not present any “new” problems to the question of belief; it is merely a sociological observation. “The matter becomes interesting in a very different way,” Berger writes, “the moment one passes from, broadly speaking, the sociology of knowledge to questions of truth.” For all of our observations and analysis about how religious belief comes about, it does not help much when it comes to answering the one big question: Who is right? Continue reading →

Thinking About Science

Nothing huge this week. But one of my professors recommended a while back that I watch this interview with philosopher-mathematician David Berlinski.

Berlinski is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle and well-known as a critic of evolution. People can be quite dogmatic about evolution these days, but I think it’s pretty funny when a stuffy old philosopher like Berlinski comes out of academia and starts tearing apart the scientific establishment.

Whether or not you agree with what he has to say, I think it should at least give us pause. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to be a little more skeptical towards the claims of science.

With that, I give the floor to Mr. Berlinski himself. The following are a few quotes that stood out to me. Be sure to watch the interview to understand them in their full context.

In regards to evolutionary theory and the big bang:

It is a creation myth without a Creator.

The game must be fixed, or I must be inordinately favored to win it like this.

In regards to morality and the meaning of life:

The idea that the world of matter is the world that matters is simple not true.

All the laws of heaven and earth are unable to prevent man from his crimes. Surely relaxing the laws of heaven and earth shall not dispose man to better behavior.’ That seems to me self-evident.

In regards to the nature of science:

In order to advance scientifically, there’s an enormous body of assumptions that have to be in place, and those assumptions can’t be defended. No science, Aristotle said, ever defends it’s own first principles. And we can’t either.

In regards to the Bible:

The Old Testament is the greatest repository of human knowledge and wisdom in the history of civilization–any culture, any time, any place–and that really should be the first point of discussion because every attitude current today in the discussion, from Richard Dawkins to me to Christopher Hitchens to lonely pastors in the Bible belt on Sunday morning ranting from a particular text, is discussed in the Bible and there’s a character in the Bible who expresses that point of view and there’s sympathy expressed for that point of view and there are reservations expressed by the sympathy.

I think that last quote in particularly significant, as Berlinski is an agnostic and describes his relationship to the intelligent design movement as “warm but distant.” Yet he has a point. For anyone seeking answers to the big questions of life, or anyone who simply wants to engage with western civilization, you must read and study the Bible. If nothing else, it’s a matter of intellectual honesty.

Evangelicals, Reason, and Intellectualism

I ran across this provocative op-ed in the New York Times a while back. We can say two things about it right off the bat. One, Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens are writing for the Times’ audience. Their points were brief and slanted even though they dealt with complex issues, so they’re not likely to change anyone’s mind. Two, I think evangelical Christians need to be very careful and thoughtful about how they respond to criticism like this. I understand how gravely Christians take St. Paul’s command in 2 Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed,” but they ought to remember that not every hill is worth dying on.

And let’s be fair. Giberson and Stephens raise some good questions about how Christians should live within today’s western societies. They accuse many evangelicals of “simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism.” We must realize, though, that almost every evangelical would say it is important to use the mind. They’d say that they support intellectualism (at least to a certain degree). Regardless of whether it is true, Christians don’t see themselves as intentionally ignorant and isolated like the article implies.

The Weekly Standard touched on this a while back in a review of “The Anointed,” a book (also by Giberson and Stephens) that deals with evangelical truth in a secular age. Reviewer Thomas Walker rightly pointed out that, in the view of Giberson and Stephens, there seems to be little room for intellectual, culture-savvy Christians who still hold on to old “fundamentalist” dogma. People like Albert Mohler or Timothy Keller, for example, are well-read and up to date with the times, but both fall largely within the orthodox Christian tradition.

Shortly after the Times article was published, Mohler (pictured below) came out with a response on his blog, where he isolated the key issue here. It boils down to the question of what evangelicals ought to stand on as their primary source of truth–in other words, what do you believe about the Bible? Mohler concludes: Continue reading →

Which Came First, God or Man?

Last week, the LA Times ran this little op-ed by J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer, authors of “Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.” The title of their piece is “Science and religion: God didn’t make man; man made gods.” I couldn’t resist taking a look.

Articles like these always catch my attention. I think part of it is curiosity to see what new “anti-god” rhetoric atheists have come up with this time, but on a more serious note, the question of God, morality and origins is pretty fundamental to how we look at the world, and it has huge implications for how we live our lives. One of the compelling things about Christianity, I find, is that it is awfully hard to explain away.

Thomson and Aukofer claim to be able to do just that, and it therefore deserves a great deal of both fear and fearlessness as we approach it. I mean a sort of “fear and trembling” in the sense that it speaks to a high-stakes personal decision, and “fearlessness” in that we must be willing to listen to both sides. If they are right, we have nothing to fear about the claims of religious believers, and if a certain religious belief is true, then it should be able to withstand scrutiny.

(that said, thankfully I never thought to start reading the 2000+ comments. . . rarely a good idea, especially on YouTube)

I admit that on one level they have a compelling case. A lot of it does make sense. . . given certain presuppositions. However, the interesting thing about some of the claims of the article is that one can argue in the opposite direction. In fact, some Christian apologetics does exactly that.

Continue reading →