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Friday, January 18, 2013

How to Not Be an Existentialist


Gary Cox, How to Be an Existentialist. Or How to Get Real, Get a Grip, and Stop Making Excuses.  Great Britain: Continuum, 2009. 123 pages. Hardback. ISBN-10: 1441139877; ISBN-13: 978-1441139870.
HowtobeanExistentialistExistentialism, although not in its heyday, is not dead. It claims that God is dead and that man is alone, permanently alienated in an absurd universe. Recent books and articles seem to attempt to revive the philosophy initiated in post-war Germany and France in the 1950s and 1960s. Francis Schaeffer interacted with the leading atheistic existentialists of his day, such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Karl Jaspers (see The God Who is There[InterVarsity, 1968] and How Shall We Then Live? [Fleming Revel, 1976]). But many claim postmodernism has taken over the helm from existentialism as the more appealing and trendy secular philosophy—at least for those not committed to philosophical materialism of the tough-minded sort. For example, Richard Dawkins would claim neither existentialism nor postmodernism as his worldview.
Gary Cox, a proud atheistic existentialist, has written a brief and punchy treatise calledHow to Be an Existentialist: Or How to Get Real, Get a Grip, and Stop Making Excuses. The subtitle may prove attractive to those tired of victimology, psychobabble whining, and the naturalistic determinism that claims we have no free will. The cleverness of Cox’s title and book is that he defends existentialism in a how-to format, a genre enormously attractive to Americans with their optimistic proclivities. But this mood comes as a bit of a shock, since atheistic existentialism typically affirms the grim story of a meaningless (because godless) universe in which there is no life after death, and no divine guidance. To cite Sartre, we are “condemned to be free,” and man exists as a “useless passion”
Unlike postmodernism, which tends to emphasize culturally-formed beliefs at the expense of individual choice (“the disappearance of the subject”) without appealing to objective truth, atheistic existentialism tries to root itself in objective truth and place the individual in the driver’s seat. There are no supernatural consolations. You are responsible for your life. Meaning is in your own dying hands. Enjoy it while it lasts. Or, as Cox, sums up his thesis in the last sentence of the book, “Life has only the meaning you chose to give it” (113). (Please do not let the aspiring pedophiles, Nazis, sadists, rapists, and their ilk know about this philosophy.)
While many existentialist works are bulky tomes suffused with technical vocabulary (often including vexing neologisms) and convoluted reasoning, Cox’s book is crisp and clear. He knows the works of the big boys (particularly Sartre), but he can bring the gist of it to the masses.
Cox is exclusively concerned with atheistic existentialism, although various theists have claimed the mantle, such Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel; and, most influentially, SØren Kierkegaard. But Cox spends little time attacking theism. He pronounces God dead, and then teaches us how to celebrate after the funeral.
There lies the first devastating defect. The case for theism is strong and getting stronger through scientific evidence (courtesy of the Intelligent Design movement) and philosophical argument. All the classic arguments for God’s existence have been refined and strengthened in recent decades. (See Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics [InterVarsity Press, 2011], chapters 9-17.)
However, Cox is correct that without God, everything changes. We cannot cling to uniquely theistically-based beliefs, if we deny theism itself. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his parable called “The Madman” in The Gay Science, when we stop believing in God, our entire view of ourselves and the universe changes radically. There are no objective standards for goodness. There is no meaning to history.
But there is a very simple and direct critique of Cox’s program of meaning- making and personal responsibility in an absurd universe.
  1. Because there is no God, everything is absurd. (Cox takes Sartre’s position on this, as opposed to that of some atheists who try to find objective moral meaning.)
  2. Humans are simply parts of the godless and absurd universe.
  3. The part shares the quality of the whole.
  4. Therefore (a), there is no room for meaning-making or personal responsibility.
  5. Therefore (b), everything I do is absurd, including my “choices.”
This is deductively valid argument.  If the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. Cox falls into the same philosophical trap as Sartre (his hero): They posit the radical freedom of human beings in an otherwise determined and meaningless world. As apologist Cornelius Van Til would say, this is akin to building “a ladder of water.” When Sartre was once pressed as to how meaningful human freedom could emerge from an impersonal and material world, he simply replied that it was “a mysterious upsurge of freedom.” This is hardly an explanation.
As Albert Camus said, existentialism attempts to transcend nihilism, the worldview that says everything (human choices included) is absurd and pointless. The German philosopher, Max Stirner, embraced this worldview, as did some twentieth century painters. However, this attempt to transcend nihilism misses the mark, since there is no basis on which to dignify the human person, according to atheism. Materialism leads to nihilism, and there is no exit.
Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that humans are made in God’s image and likeness, are placed into a world of objective meaning given by God, and are morally responsible to God for all their thoughts and actions. The existentialist objects that this limits human “freedom.” But it only limits autonomy from God, which is hardly meaningful freedom. This attempted autonomy from God—wherein the human will arrogantly claim supremacy—only ends in a vain attempt to transcend the prison of an impersonal, immaterial, and purposeless universe that is, in the words of Bertrand Russell, “just there.”
Therefore, however breathless or pugnacious Cox’s advice may be, it is built on sand; and, as Jesus said, the building cannot stand (Matthew 7:24-27). Or in the words of the Psalmist:
Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain (Psalm 127:1).
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
January 2013

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Love God With Your Mind


Our churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral. As Christians, their minds are going to waste. One result of this is an immature, superficial faith. People who simply ride the roller coaster of emotional experience are cheating themselves out of a deeper and richer Christian faith by neglecting the intellectual side of that faith. They know little of the riches of deep understanding of Christian truth, of the confidence inspired by the discovery that one's faith is logical and fits the facts of experience, of the stability brought to one's life by the conviction that one's faith is objectively true. - William Lane Craig in Passionate Conviction.
LoveGodMindJ.P. Moreland’s masterful book is an apt antidote to what his distinguished colleague, William Lane Craig laments in the quote above. After reading Love Your God With All Your Mind attentively (with all electronic devices turned off), one will begin to know, by the grace of the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13), the “riches of [a] deep understanding of Christian truth.”
As a long-time Christian philosopher and apologist, when I read the first edition of this book, I was thrilled because the author, one of the most important and astute Christian philosophers of our day, developed a thorough, readable, deeply challenging spirituality of the sanctified intellect. More than that, I have used this modern classic as a textbook in many classes for many years, and I often recommend it as a tonic to the anti-intellectualism and fideism that sadly plagues much of Evangelicalism in the United States.
The spirit of the second edition does not differ from the first (published in 1997), and much of the material is repeated. However, Moreland, who is distinguished professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, has added two new chapters that give an apologetic for Christianity from natural theology and the evidence for the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although seasoned readers of Moreland (as I have been, since Scaling the Secular City [1987]), will find much that is familiar here; chapters seven through nine set forth a muscular and articulate defense of essential biblical truths. Despite having read many of the arguments before, I discovered some profound new arguments to add to my apologetic quiver. Especially fascinating was the edition of a three-page argument from natural beauty to the existence of a divine Artist (175-177). This species of natural theology has not been adequately addressed in recent literature, to my knowledge.
The book is divided into four parts: (1) Why the Mind Matters in Christianity, (2) How to Develop a Mature Christian Mind, (3) What a Mature Christian Mind Looks Like, (4) Guaranteeing a Future for the Christian Mind. It also includes a long Appendix by Joe Gorra “on recommended resources” and another on “recommended organizations.” Rather than summarizing each section, I will highlight some of the many strengths of this volume.
First, like the apologist, philosopher, evangelist, and social critic and activist, Francis Schaeffer (1912-84), Moreland has a passion for the living God, for truth, for pertinent communication to our generation, for people, and for the objective truth of the Bible. (On this, see James Sire’s noteworthy introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of Schaeffer’s landmark book, The God Who is There [1998].) While Moreland, like Schaeffer, has the spiritual gift of evangelism, he is, unlike Schaeffer, a professional philosopher of the highest caliber, having written a voluminous corpus of work in the philosophy of religion, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of science, and more. And unlike some prolific evangelical authors (who shall remain nameless), these works are all impressive and worthwhile. But unlike most philosophers, Moreland has also written articles and books for the popular audience. For example, his book, The God Question: An Invitation to a Life of Meaning (Harvest House, 2009), is a marvelous apologetic aimed at the common thinking person. I could go on by citing The Virtue of Happiness and many more.
Second, Love Your God With All Your Mind is peppered with real-life examples from Moreland’s impressive ministry experience of over forty years. (In this, it resembles Schaeffer’s The God Who is There.) Before becoming a full-time academic, Moreland planted two churches and worked with Campus Crusade. Even after entering the scholarly world full-time, he continues to reach out to the world around him in many creative ways. This challenges the reader to not only develop a Christian mind, but to faithfully apply it to all of culture under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Third, while intellectually fertile on a theoretical level, the book is replete with specific examples and exhortations on how to cultivate the life of the mind for the cause of Christ. Moreland spends some time on the concept of intellectual virtue, appealing (without addressing the scholarly details) to what is called “virtue epistemology”—a practice Jesus himself defends (see chapter five of my book, On Jesus [Wadsworth, 2003]). I find this practical emphasis (rooted in intellectual wealth) to be rare in books on the Christian mind and cultural engagement. For example, Moreland urges us to pay scrupulous attention to our grammar when we speak, and to hold others linguistically accountable for this as well. This is no curmudgeonly pet peeve for the good professor. As Moreland says to those who resist his advice, “Isn’t a developed intellectual love for God worth the price of an initial embarrassment at such correction. After all, the alternative is to continue to allow one another to speak incorrectly and fail to realize the intellectual benefits that come from the correct use of language” (129). Moreland also offers sagacious advice concerning adult education in the church, preaching, and outreach. For example, he rightly advises that Christian education be made intellectually rich by requiring texts, assignments, and a fee for attending. This adds weight to what otherwise is often no more than a Christian coffee and donuts clutch.
A short review cannot do justice to a book long on knowledge, reason, wisdom, and passion for the Kingdom of God. Therefore, read it—and reread it. Then apply it for the glory of God.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Mortality


Mortality

  • Christopher Hitchens
  • Jan 4, 2013
  • Series: Denver Journal Volume 16 - 2013
Christopher Hitchens, Mortality (New York: Twelve, 2012). 104 pages. $22.99. Hardback. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis.
MortalityChristopher Hitchens is dead, but he lived long enough to tell us of his dying. Reporter extraordinaire, atheist provocateur, prolific author, and acerbic commentator and debater, Christopher Hitchens died in 2011. His dying was (quite fittingly) a literary morbidity: he wrote of it in a small, posthumously published book called Mortality.  (The book also includes a foreword by Graydon Carter and an afterward by Carol Blue, Hitchens’s widow.) Unlike most, who die un-narrated deaths, he knew of his impending demise, retained his writing prowess, and lived long enough to tell us of his dying.  In so doing, he reveals how one very articulate and intractable atheist came to terms with his imminent demise. Hitchens was an iconoclast (even writing a book against Mother Theresa called, in bad taste, The Missionary Position), a masterful conversationalist, and intrepid enough to write on some topics he was not fit to pronounce upon. Consider his best-selling and embarrassing harangue, god is not Great (2006). This anti-religious sentiment pops up throughout the book, hurled more as hand grenades than laid out as arguments. I will address a few of these below, particularly the question of the logic of prayer. (Hitchens’s lack of philosophical acuity is painfully obvious in his debate with Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, which is available on line.)
In the middle of a book tour for a memoir, Hitch-22, Hitchens came down with severe symptoms that were later found to be esophageal cancer, a rapid and rarely curable form of this perennial plague on humanity. Hitchens tells his story without self-pity or lugubrious detail. In fact, he writes with a kind of detachment—here are the facts; here are my reflections on them—but not without some pathos. This slim volume is a less a lament than a report, which is apt enough, given Hitchens’ vocation. But it, nevertheless, discloses something of the sting of death, inflicted on one without the hope of the gospel. Hitchens remains a naturalist to the end: everyone dies; there is no afterlife; that is the way it is—and I might as well write about it.
Hitchens does his best to defeat the Grim Reaper, but progressively realizes that his chances of recovery are slim and finds no reason to hope against hope. So, he submits to whatever may slow his death, ameliorate his pain, and give him more time to write and speak. He is never sentimental, and offers some astute insights into dying, albeit dying without hope in the world to come. Nevertheless, Christians have an entirely different perspective on mortality, as Paul says, Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (2 Thessalonians 4:13; see also vs. 14-18).
As he dies writing, Hitchens considers some clichés on the matter, such as Friedrich Nietzsche’s often-invoked-but-seldom-thought-through aphorism, “What does not kill you makes you stronger.” Hitchens once thought this profound, but changed his mind in the grip of mortality. Yes, suffering can strengthen one, but it also tears one down. He says, “In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker” (60).  Hitchens then goes on to reflect on the truth of this statement as illustrated in the life of Nietzsche himself (60-63), a man much enfeebled—especially in his intellectual judgments—through certain turns of circumstance, particularly the debilitating  mental illness that closed out the last decade or so of his tragi-comic life.
Of course, Hitchens had no recourse to the concept of the fall of humanity is space-time history, but Christians realize that “life under the sun” (Ecclesiastes) is replete with suffering, pain, and unfairness—much of it seemingly meaningless, as the Preacher said:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11, KJV).
East of Eden (Genesis 3; Romans 3) and before the New Jerusalem descends on to the New Heavens and New Earth (Revelation 21-22), we live in the time between Christ’s resurrection and the consummation of all things at the Eschaton. What does not kill us, may or may not make us stronger. However, if we are “in Christ” (as the Apostle Paul so often says) we can know that our suffering (even when not understood) is not wasted or finally absurd, since Christ himself ensured the final victory over sin, death, and hell through his Cross and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). Therefore, we soldier on, bruised, bloodied, betrayed, benumbed by the scorched sorrows of this groaning world (Romans 8:18-26), and yet with a hope that “does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:5). Sadly, in Mortality, Hitchens reflects, instructs, and rebukes, but he could not hope that the final enemy of death would ever be defeated. In fact, in his demise he continued his apologetic against religion and Christianity. Consider his contemptuous argument against prayer, which is a staple of the Christian life (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
After writing of Christians who told him that they were praying for him, Hitchens attacks the very logic of prayer. He gets off to a snickering and clever start by quoting Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary: “Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy” (21). Hitchens dilates on this by explaining the apparent absurdity of a mere mortal informing the Immortal Sovereign on how He (God) should govern the universe. One could set up the argument this way (although Hitchens does not put it in an analytical form).
  1. God is sovereign and all-good.
  2. Humans are mortal and sinful.
  3. Therefore (a), God has no need for prayer by mortal and sinful humans, given his character (1).
  4. Therefore (b), Humans have no need for prayer, since it would be superfluous at best and presumptuous at worst.
But this line of argument commits the straw man fallacy by misconstruing the nature of prayer, biblically understood. First, there are many dimensions to prayer besidesintercession (asking God to do something in the world). The Bible is graced with many prayers and many kinds of prayer, including praise, lament, confession, thanksgiving, and more. Second, intercession is not meaningless or illogical if God is sovereign and all-good. Consider this counter-argument:
  1. God, who is sovereign and good, has instituted intercession as one means by which he rules the world. That is, God ordains both the means (including intercessory prayer) and the ends (the final result of his sovereign will).
  2. God instructs us on how to engage in intercessory prayer in the Bible and enjoins us to pray accordingly.
  3. Therefore, we should intercede with God according to biblical truths, as best we can ascertain them as fallen mortals.
There is nothing illogical about the above argument; it makes perfect sense. To those who say, “If God is sovereign, why pray?” one can retort, “If God is sovereign, why eat?” (This is from a lecture given by the late philosopher and theologian Greg Bahnsen.) God has set up the world in such a way as to make prayer meaningful. Further, prayer can shape the character of the one who prays, whether or not our requests are granted. Spirit-led prayer changes us for the better, whatever other effects it may have. Christians can and should hold firm to these truths, Hitchens’s (well-written) banter to the contrary.
Sadly, some Christians responded in an ungodly way to Hitchens’s disease. Hitchens quotes a statement from a web site that gloats over his malignancy, since Hitchens was such an ardent atheist and cutting critic of Christianity.
He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire (12).
Orthodox Christians should, on the basis of the Bible, believe in an eternal hell and its divine justice (Matthew 25:31-46); but this website’s manner of exulting in eternal torment is both unnerving and unbiblical. Jesus himself lamented over the rebellion of his own people.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing (Matthew 23:35).
Or ponder God’s statement through the prophet Ezekiel: “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32).
The death of Christopher Hitchens at age sixty-two robbed the world of a brilliant wit, a flamboyant character, and a larger-than-life life. But living larger than life—apart from Christ, life itself (John 10:30)—does nothing to defeat death. We should lament the loss of Hitchens’s gifts, but lament even more the loss of Christopher Hitchens himself, given his unrepentant rebellion against the very God who gave him those literary gifts.
Douglas R. Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
January 2013