Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter and the Road to Fifth-Stage Christian Belief

It’s Easter weekend, the weekend Christians all over the world pause to remember the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. According to Christianity this was a unique, supernatural occurrence. A lot of intelligent people have had a problem with this. David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, made the doubts of his time concrete with his famous criticism ("On Miracles") of the idea that a special set of unique events called miracles could ever be the basis for belief. A major theme of Third Stage thinking (Auguste Comte’s 19th century “scientific and positive” proposals) is the movement away from the idea that supernaturalism of any sort is compatible with a rational view of the world. I’ve attempted to outline the aftermath (my suggestion of a Fourth Stage or condition: “postmodern and negative”). Where do we go from here? With Western civilization experiencing massive crises: economic and financial, political and geopolitical, moral, and spiritual, or just in terms of the increasing army of unemployed and underemployed people trying to survive, this—it seems to me—is one of the most urgent questions we can ask. It is a shame very few professional philosophers seem interested in it. Many of those that are, mouth the same old leftist canards about “capitalism” (which arguably hasn’t existed since 1913 and possibly ended before that).

I’ve argued elsewhere (in my book Worldviews, 2005), that Western thought supplies us with essentially two worldviews, with several variations on each. There is Christianity, and there is materialism. (There are, perhaps, a few lesser ones such as “Platonism” that have remained essentially without large scale influence outside tiny academic or other enclaves, or perhaps "New Age" beliefs of the pseudo-spiritualist crowd.) Christianity places a personal God at the center: morally, metaphysically, and in every other sense. God, according to Christianity, was/is the Creator, and all of physical nature depends upon Him for its existence. (There are, of course, different interpretations of this, but we need not get into those here.) According to materialism, the universe — physical nature — is self-existent and uncreated; it came into being — however this happened (physical cosmologists like Stephen Hawking have expended enormous amounts of time and energy trying to figure it out) — by an entirely natural process. Reality just is physical nature, the world of space, time and causality. All events have physical or material causes. There are no supernatural events if materialism is true. If materialism is true, there probably is no such thing as “free will” as we tend to characterize it (taking actions — somehow — outside the causal structure of our surroundings).

Eventually you have to decide: which is it? Regarding Christianity: belief or unbelief? Some prefer to “sit on the fence.” You can’t do this indefinitely. You have to make a decision. To be an agnostic is to opt for unbelief. A good part of your decision is whether to commit to the idea that something really stupendous occurred on a single weekend a little over 2,000 years ago — when God took the sins of the whole human race and placed them on a sinless Jesus Christ — who was then resurrected from the dead, again sin free! One very good book, Peter Walker’s The Weekend That Changed the World: The Mystery of Jerusalem’s Empty Tomb (London: Marshall-Pickering, 1999) goes well beyond Frank Morison’s classic Who Moved the Stone? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1958; orig. 1930). But neither of these is going to convince a really determined Third Stage materialist or Fourth Stage postmodernist. What will?

Let me approach this in a different way.

Part of what I do in political philosophy is study why our various attempts to organize ourselves as political beings have failed. Recently I had a lengthy debate via email with a gentleman attempting to persuade me with very thoughtful, carefully considered reasoning, that anarcho-capitalism, Hans Herman Hoppe style, held the solutions. Hoppe has written a number of quite original tracts building on earlier writings by Austrian school economist Murray N. Rothbard in particular. He argues extensively that social governance involving a state (an institution with a legal monopoly on the use of coercion) is hopeless if your intent is to secure and preserve liberty. His best known work is Democracy: The God That Failed (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000). Anarcho-capitalism holds, essentially, that free markets can solve every problem in civilization and do so better than any state mechanism, including establishing and maintaining institutions of governance (police to apprehend those who initiate coercion against others, courts for adjudication of disputes, etc.) however limited: a private law society, Hoppe calls it. The correspondence appears to have ended; apparently the gentleman decided I was hopeless. But as much as I wanted to — I have also attempted to argue that liberty is superior to anything else — I cannot accept anarcho-capitalism: Hoppe’s or anyone else’s?

The problem is sin. That is the Christian term. We are sinners. All of us (Romans 3:23). It is in our blood, and has been since the first humans chose to follow their own paths instead of God’s path. This is the Christian line of reasoning. As sinners we are separated from God. We can be redeemed through Jesus Christ who paid the price for our sins on the cross (Romans 6:23). Moreover, only through accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior can one be redeemed and be assured of going to heaven in the afterlife (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). You can’t earn salvation (Ephesians 2: 8-9). But it is not difficult to obtain. All one must do is confess your sins and believe sincerely that Jesus Christ paid the price, invite Him prayerfully to come into your life as your personal savior, and you are saved (John 3:16, John 11:25-26, elsewhere). He waits, even now (Revelation 3:20). It is true that this calls for a decision made on faith. Faith, however, is not bad or evil. It is a necessary part of the Christian worldview (Hebrews 11).

Above I cited over a half dozen Scriptural passages. Why, in this day and age, should you believe Scripture? One answer is that when reading Scripture, you are reading the most analyzed, examined, and carefully preserved texts in all of human history. Nothing written by any of the ancient philosophers — Plato or Aristotle — has been as carefully analyzed or preserved as, e.g., the four Gospels. The earliest manuscripts we have of Plato’s and Aristotle’s works date to early medieval times. The earliest manuscripts we have for the Gospels date to the first century A.D., probably within the lifetimes of witnesses to events such as Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Early Christians went willingly to their deaths at the hands of the Romans. Sometimes these deaths involved suffering on a level we probably can't imagine. (Just study crucifixion and its effects on the human body; it’s the very definition of torture!)

How does this point us toward a role for Christianity in a Fifth Stage thinking that is still indistinct and unformed, much as Fourth Stage thinking was in the late-19th century? The road to a prospective Fifth Stage Christian belief runs through two realizations.

First, does sin really exist? Of course it does. It is manifest in our lives as political beings, and hence in civilization. If asked to do so, and we are honest about it, we human beings could produce a catalog of all the attempts we’ve made to organize ourselves socially and politically and why they failed. Our explanation would be: human sin. Different brands of sinfulness have affected different people at different levels in society. For some, it’s the sin of greed. Money becomes the end-all, be-all of existence. For others, it’s the lust for power. Domination is their raison d’être. For others, it’s just the sin of pride. For others still, it’s slothfulness. Christians are not exceptions to this rule. Christian institutions are as prone to dysfunction, abuse, and failure as those of non-Christians. The Christian doesn’t cease to be a sinner. All he can say is that he’s been saved from the ultimate consequences of his sin (eternal damnation in hell). There’s no room for pride here.

Sin explains our failure to produce a political system that doesn’t coerce or allow physical harm to come to somebody. It explains, as I maintained consistently in my end of the correspondence, why (1) there is no reason at all to believe an anarcho-capitalist civilization could come into existence on a large scale, though small-scale communities bordering on such might be possible; and (2) even assuming (1) to be false, why such a civilization wouldn’t be sustainable: people motivated by the desire for advantage — or just power — would organize and if they did not recreate the state openly, would create a surrogate that would have a de facto monopoly on coercive authority. There is no evidence that the masses, as such, are willing to give up all the advantages that come with having a state, for which they pay in ways both large and small however much they might grouse (about, e.g., income taxes). For those who want genuine independence, small-scale communities — I know of several in various stages of development — are a fantastic idea and I support them wholeheartedly! But again a threat emerges: to the extent these become visible successful oases of liberty and prosperity, they could easily become the targets of those who want power, which typically incorporates rejecting the very idea of people living independent, sustainable lives ... or just sheer resentment at the successes of others.

What we are in a position to do is look back at history — at our efforts: over 2,000 years worth of them. History is a gold mine of information, however disturbing. It all points in one direction: we will never build Utopia, because sin will invariably get in the way. That goes for “capitalistic” as well as “socialistic” Utopias, and it goes for the small scale as well as the large even if relatively speaking, “small is better.” Catalog could be compiled on why “capitalism” is under attack in West despite magnificent results in increasing the standard of living everywhere it was allowed to take root. Ultimately, factors ranging from pride to self-indulgence and the general lack of vigilance to which comfort gives rise all get in the way, allowing encirclements of control to take root and gradually thwart freedom. Other factors come into play as well. Consider education: for liberty to take root at all and for free markets to continue to operate, a certain body of ideas must be in place and maintained (the masses need not obsess over them, of course, but the bulk of common people must be exposed to them as part of their educations and must internalize them and live them). If within a free market, these ideas are no longer marketable, free markets will eventually face a problem — especially given increasingly indifferent masses that either don’t really want freedom or are ignorant of what went into building it. In this way, a free market system is vulnerable to deterioration from within if its participants cannot maintain the marketability of its own foundational ideas and thinking. While there are a number of endeavors (the Mises Institute being the obvious one) that have not only survived but done quite well on their own terms, especially given the entertainment-saturated marketplace of Stage Four civilization, their influence has been limited. They can only do so much. They cannot, for example, open people’s skulls and internalize liberty ideas for them. That, of course, would be a form of coercion. Thus the U.S. federal government continues to increase its secular power even in the face of magnificent defense of liberty. Something is missing. What’s missing is that internalization of ideas of genuine liberty and the zest for independence, plus the energy to carry it forward, among the masses.

Second … and with this we return to some unfortunately difficult philosophical and theological notions (did we ever really leave them?) … is the realization that finite human reasoning will never be sufficient to decide between the two worldviews. I believe that however it develops — if it develops — Fifth Stage Christianity will be presuppositional, drawing upon a specific apologetic of the sort theologians such as Cornelius Van Til have supplied.

Let me cite the philosophers and theologians from the various past stages to support this thesis.

From medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (Stage Two) we inherit the idea that a rational God — the foundational Logos (John 1:1) — created a rational universe, including ourselves, with a capacity for reason, and therefore both for knowledge that (episteme) and knowledge how to (techne): science and technology, neither of which would make rational sense otherwise. In other words, the idea of a rational God as Creator stands as the cornerstone of the very idea that physical nature is intelligible, and can be tamed through technology.

From the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (Stage Two) we inherit the idea that our reason is essentially limited to the world of space and time. Our “categories of the understanding” are simply not designed to address such questions as the existence of a supreme being or the beginning of space and time. It follows that we cannot, in principle, really understand supernatural events such as the Resurrection or states of affairs such as the Holy Trinity (God in Three Persons). Hence reason alone, whether all by its lonesome or acting on empirical information, unless founded on a presupposition or first premise to the contrary, is going to drift towards a de facto materialism because it while it can accept what it sees, smells, and touches, it finds discussion of a “realm” outside of space and time to be rationally unintelligible.

The first philosopher, I suspect, to grasp fully the impact of our limitations to the world of space, time, and human experience (including human suffering) was Søren Kierkegaard, the “melancholy Dane” (proto Stage Four). Part of his “subjective theory of religious truth” involved repudiating the idea that we could “reason” our way to God, as in, e.g., the teleological argument (or argument from design). Such arguments, he believed, would be more apt to provoke doubt than belief. In the end, there’s still no proof — not even a reason to believe the “laws of nature” won't change in the future and obliterate our convictions about them! (Maybe Kierkegaard had read Hume. Or maybe not.)

From Friedrich Nietzsche we inherit the full realization of where the philosophical rejection of God would take civilization: to a “revaluation of all values.” Nietzsche was a full-fledged Fourth Stage thinker in my sense. He warned of the “advent of nihilism” which the 20th century fully brought to fruition with its wars, the most destructive the world had ever seen; its acts of genocide; and the rise to dominance of the superelite whose ancestors had realized that the road to power over nations was through control over their monetary and financial systems. In 1913, this resulted in the U.S. Federal Reserve System. The rest, we might say, is history. In the 19th century, moral philosophers (especially the utilitarian school) had supported the idea of meliorism: science, technology and education will all make us better persons in the moral sense. They might even help us perfect ourselves! It seems to this writer that the 20th century has laid utter waste to this notion, although a few nutty transhumanists still appear to believe it!

Nietzsche, more than Kierkegaard, worked out both the ethical and some of the epistemological consequences of the rejection of a God who created a rational world order: there becomes no fundamental reason to see this world as rational or the events in it as explicable! First modern existentialism, especially in modern literature, and then postmodernism across many “academic disciplines” worked out many of the consequences of the idea that the world is not rational. For the latter, even those not obsessed with race-based or gender-based collective grievance, claims to knowledge or truth are easily “deconstructed” as power-motivations (which, sometimes, in a civilization bent in the direction of materialism, they are! The internalized philosophy becomes self-fulfilling!).

After Comte, professional philosophy largely fled the “big questions” in favor of analysis and has hid out ever since in academia. Theologians such as Cornelius Van Til bring us back in the only way possible: through the first premise, or presupposition, of a holy God who is perfect in every respect, is supernatural in transcending spatiotemporal physical nature (leaving aside the myriad debates over “transcendence” and “immanence”), is all-knowing in a manner we, as finite beings, are incapable of understanding with our reason and so must either embrace the first premise or not, and has revealed Himself to human beings in Scripture.

What helps us accept this first premise as a basis for a Fifth Stage Christianity? Perhaps, for those who have studied the history and examined the failures of political systems, just the realization that Western civilization has tried the contrary premise, either assuming that God does not exist or (what amounts to the same thing) dismissing the question as of no importance. We see the consequences all around us — as financial systems threaten to go down in flames and latent totalitarianism rears its ugly head in, of all places, the United States of America (the first nation to be founded explicitly on the principles of liberty and of Constitutionally limited government). We see, that is, the consequences of not having institutions or a population with a moral center, having internalized (however imperfectly) basic Christian principles. The modern world seems to be growing increasingly mean, and brutal — and we have to remind ourselves that a certain level of meanness and brutality has been part of the warp and woof of human life for all of history. Western civilization and its “capitalistic” institutions had begun to lead the way out of our likely “default” status; now, as these institutions crumble under the weight of secular materialism, our “default” status is increasingly coming back!

I submit in conclusion that materialism was a Third Stage (and, in its own way, a Fourth Stage) worldview and perspective. It will have no place in the Fifth Stage except as history — in the form of studies on what not to believe, and as a warning to those who will come after us. An attempt to continue it, as many intellectuals are wont to do, will ensure that there will be no Fifth Stage, which would be most unfortunate.

As we move into the future, let us celebrate Easter tomorrow in full and open realization that what we are celebrating is something truly miraculous — the supernatural resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Let us embrace the Christian worldview that this both presupposes and supplies for our lives.

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  1. A Fifth Stage as you envision here, Steven, is entirely in the hands of God as regards timing and actual numbers of believers at any point in history. "who were generated not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but were generated of God." (John 1:13)

  2. - Romans 13
    - 1 Peter 2:13-14
    - Matthew 17:24-27