Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas and the Battle for Everything

A few days before Christmas, I engaged in an interesting debate with an atheist regarding my previous blog post:, a post which sought to lampoon various atheistic billboards. I am pleased to say that the discussion was very fruitful and did not devolve into name calling, which is a credit to the individual with whom I was debating. At any rate, the discussion left me thinking about the consequences of each of our respective world views. He began the discussion by arguing that evolution, random mutation, and natural selection provide a sufficient basis for atheism. He concluded a series of arguments by saying (this took place much later in the discussion); "It seems very little exists outside of our minds. It is difficult to say what, if anything." I began the discussion by pointing out that while evolution is effective in describing a process, it is severely wanting when it comes to accounting for the origin of that process. As to his final assertion that essentially reality exists in the mind, I made the case that in practice such a world view would be functionally impossible. Indeed, if there were no universals, progress would be unsustainable, and everyone would be wandering around in their own reality, like a bunch of patients in a mental institution.

My reason for bringing all of this up is not to to ridicule my opponent's position (for I truly appreciated his willingness to carry his logic to its appropriate end) but to highlight where both forms of logic lead. When most individuals think of Christians and atheists, they tend to categorize the former as one who is willing to "take a leap of faith", and the latter as one who is not. However, this is (I think) an oversimplification of both sides, as if one just believed for no reason at all, and the other decided to not believe because intellectually he could do naught else. In each of these instances a metaphysical "leap" is necessary. That is to say, when confronted with the world that is presented to us, we must determine what we believe. Is there any meaning to life, or is life arbitrary and without purpose?

From the theist's standpoint, he looks at everything that surrounds him- from science to aesthetics to religion and morality- and concludes that while he may not understand everything, he must leap towards the idea that there is some larger Reality binding everything together. In fact, he would argue that in some sense it would require more faith to believe that all of life, the good with the bad, has come to us via a series of cosmic accidents so numerous that the number is utterly unfathomable. By contrast, from the atheist's perspective, the world itself is, in a certain sense, evidence against the world. So in the face of the physical evidence, he is inclined to "leap" to the metaphysical conclusion that everything can be attributed to nothing.

One finds justification for leaping forward towards a greater Reality, while the other looks at reality and finds justification for leaping backwards towards nothingness. Mind you, the latter's leap is a far more irrational than the former. For why would you conclude that there is no God based on the fact that the world is both intelligible and incredibly conducive to the development of life (however you wish to regard that life)? In this sense then the rationality of the atheist actually works to destroy rationality. After all, what value has "reason" if in using it you discover that there is no reason at all?

So what does this all have to do with the Babe in Bethlehem? It may sound like hyperbole to say it, but I do think that this debate should be entitled the "Battle for Everything", with Bethlehem serving as the front line. Indeed, it is no wonder that at the moment of Jesus' birth, the forces of the "Nothing" (led by King Herod in this instance) were trying to hunt down and kill the Lord of "Everything".

When it comes to the existence of God, what is most lacking from a theistic perspective is the absence of any concrete evidence. If the divine remains in the abstract, or just an idea, then God is still consigned (from our point of view) to the realm of the theoretical. If God is not concrete, then who is to say that even we are? This is the danger and horror of modern Cartesian thought. In such a philosophy, the only thing that is certain is one's own thought, a premise that itself becomes progressively shaky, as anyone knows who has ever spent too much time alone (think I Am Legend and Cast Away). On the other hand, if there are things that are real and independent of our thoughts, then perhaps there is an objective truth, perhaps there is a world independent of ourselves. According to the Christian Faith, Jesus came into this world to save it... and I believe that to be true. However, I do not simply hold this because my heart tells me it is true- I believe it because the Incarnation is the only thing that actually makes my faith rational and concrete. Truth be told, it is the only thing that makes rationality rational and concrete.

If there is no objective world in front of me, and everything is a product of my imagination, then you, we, me, all of us, are potentially in a state of delusion, and that includes every scientist arranging their phylum and kingdoms like deck chairs on the bow of the Titanic. So to call Jesus my Savior is correct, but it may perhaps be even more correct to call him my Sanity. For if the he was born in Bethlehem, then I have a right to believe that I do have objective dignity and value. And if he is truly the Son of God, then I can be confident in saying that the Holocaust was wrong, and that goodness is in truth really Good. Heck, I even have a basis for saying that science is truly scientific. In a universe without the kind of meaning I just described, the only rational thing would be a bullet in the brain.

Back in the mid 1980s there was a movie out called The Never Ending Story (based on a book by the same title). It was by no means a perfect film, but I do remember something about it which I thought particularly insightful. The story was about a boy who, in an attempt to avoid bullying, hides in his school's attic with a mysterious book he "borrowed" from a bookstore. Alone in the attic, he becomes completely engrossed in the book. What makes the story so unique is the fact that in some mysterious way the boy becomes drawn into the story he's reading and is called upon by the characters in the narrative to help preserve their enchanted land. However,  the boy naturally struggles to believe that he has a role in the outcome. But as is his doubts persist, the villain of the story gains strength and threatens to destroy everything. The name of this "creature" is called the "Nothing". As I watched this story as a child, I truly became terrified by this beast, though I had no idea what it could possibly be. All I knew is that it would destroy the beautiful realm in which the story took place. As the film reached its climax, you discover that the Nothing is precisely that. It is not so much a monster as it is a kind of insatiable mouth which devours everything in the narrative; from the characters, to the fair country, to the very universe in which the story resides. And so the boy has to decide whether or not he will believe that the story is real, or subject it to annihilation.

It is interesting that atheists often call Christians (and other people of faith), believers of childish fairytales. Presumably they believe that these childish stories are based on unreality (whatever that is). Sadly, it never seems to occur to them that there may be a real purpose to these narratives other than mere escapism. What doesn't dawn on them is that these kinds of stories are generally imaginative ways to point out to children that life has a metanarrative, that is to say, life has a direction and a point, which is not reducible to a series of random accidents. Yet perhaps that is the point in the end, for in spite of the fact that the world is obviously imbued with any number of marvels and miracles, all these individuals seem to see is chaos and chance, and in spite of being confronted daily with the magnificent complexity and intelligence of nature,  they cannot see any Intelligence in it at all. Thus, we are left with an atheistic paradox, one that makes the Christian "leap of faith" seem pedestrian by comparison. Indeed, when it comes to drawing assertions about the "why" and the "how" of the world around us, the atheist comes to this stunning conclusion: seeing means not believing.      
"The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable assertion to deny the stones in the street; it will be religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream. It will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending not only the incredible virtues and sanities of this life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and skies with a stranger courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed."   

                               - G.K. Chesterton: Heretics 1905

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