christianity philosophy science theology

same as always

It’s 12-12-12 today ((or was exactly 2,000 years ago to be pedantic)), and we are nearing the day (21-12-2012) which is heralded by some as something of an apocalypse and an end-of-the-world event.

Among other things, this highlights to me the reality that scientific discovery does not wipe out superstition.  People have always been superstitious and will always be.  Conversely, people have always denied any inherent purpose or meaning to the world – and they always will.

Science is great and helpful.  But I think Dallas Willard is spot on when he says “you can be very sure that nothing fundamental has changed in our knowledge of ultimate reality and the human self since the time of Jesus.” (The Divine Conspiracy, 106; emphasis original)

People wrongly think and speak as though at some point in history we learned some fact that forever sealed off the cosmos from any and all miracles; whereas the ancients, blissfully ignorant of this elusive fact we now know, had no other option.

In addition to ignoring the reality of ancient unbelief and scepticism, this way of thinking also misses the blindingly obvious truth that it’s psychologically and linguistically impossible to think or speak of a ‘super’-natural event if one has no idea of what a natural event is.  As Lewis said, when Joseph learned of Mary being pregnant, he was startled – not because he didn’t know how babies were conceived, but precisely because he did.

christianity philosophy theology


I’m happy to be accused of ‘middle-ism’ ((Painting two extremes and arguing that the middle is best or most correct)), but with regard to the question of inherent meaning in/to any things or events ((In a sense, things are events??)), it seems that meaningfulness is between the extreme on one hand of seeing too little – or no – meaning (nihilism) ((from Latin nihil – ‘nothing’)), and the extreme on the other of seeing too much meaning (superstition) ((from Latin superstitio – ‘over-standing’)).

The spectrum seems an honest one.

Nihilism is as far as you can go in the direction of denying any/all kinds of meaning, purpose or value.  Superstition is as far as you can go in the direction of affirming any/all kinds of meaning, purpose or value.  Judaeo-Christian monotheism opposes both.

In opposition to nihilism, monotheism says that there is inherent meaning, purpose and value to things/events ((Interestingly, however, Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, thought that – at some level of experience – ‘everything is meaningless’.)).  Life is seen to have at least some kind of purpose, meaning and value – even if non-omniscient humans cannot omnisciently know the content of them ((Stop and ask, however: Isn’t our utter inability to know everything one of the first things we can truly know?  And doesn’t this overturn full-on agnosticism?)).  Life (from amoeba to anthropos) is seen as the result of a purpose, desire/will, intent – and not a meaningless accident with no purpose.

In opposition to superstition, monotheism resists falsely attributed meaning to things like cats walking under ladders, mirrors breaking, crystals, idols, necklaces (yes, even cross-shaped ones).  It is not that ladders, necklaces, cats, crystals and mirrors have no meaning or value, but that meaning/value is falsely attributed to them.  Ladders evidence human tool-making, and necklaces their art; cats and crystals show the creativity of the Creator (and the natural processes employed), and broken mirrors point to anything from carelessness to human art/illustration ((I shattered a mirror in a camp talk making the point about how sin shatters human nature which like a mirror reflects God into the world.)).

There are other points on the spectrum on both sides of monotheism that (in both directions) gradually approach nihilism and superstition.  Something like this gradient seems accurate: nihilism (atheism), pantheism, panentheism, deism, monotheism, henotheism, polytheism, animism, voodoo/spiritism.

Pantheism (I like to say) is characterised by a rejection of all particular beliefs, whilst affirming the general notion of some kind of universal ‘energy’ that can be appreciated, sensed, or ‘felt’ etc.  Even ‘prayed to’; there are degrees within pantheism, too ((I’ve heard people talk of putting thoughts ‘out into the universe’ which will return, etc.)).  Pantheism ((Atheism and pantheism are mere millimetres apart.)) is very tolerable and acceptable as it allows people to identify as ‘spiritual’, without having to bother with ‘doctrine’.  It prefers general over the particular.

Polytheism, however, has a myriad of gods whose action is attributed to all manner of things/events.  The sun god brings out the sun, the corn king provides corn, etc. ad infinitum.

To the nihilst/atheist, all other positions (including monotheism) are superstition.  To the polytheist, monotheism is a kind of nihilism/atheism.  The early Christians, for example, were called atheists – for they were ‘atheists’ about the Roman idol gods ((Ah, but ‘some of us just go one God further’ is the Dawkinsesque line.  But as we’ve seen, the spectrum is not like that – killing off all meaning is a bit harder than killing off extreme superstition.)).

christianity philosophy theology


It’s a common charge that believers simply (or simplistically) attribute ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to God or the devil depending on the results.

  • Good happens to us: God did it.
  • Good happens to enemies: Devil did it.
  • Bad happens to enemies: God did it.
  • Bad happens to us: Devil did it.

However, the providential monotheism of Judaeo-Christian belief holds that God is able to use even ‘evil’ events to achieve ‘good’.  One interesting example is the prophetic interpretation of God using the Assyrians to punish Israel and take them into exile – and at the very same time holding the Assyrians responsible for their evil assault.  Or take the actions of Judas.  He did evil in betraying Jesus, but for the biblical authors this was no surprise.

This is nothing other than the simple belief in a God who is sovereign over history, and ((in true jujitsu-like fashion)) brings about results through the genuinely free actions of created beings.  The more real the freedom of the creature, the greater the sovereignty of the Creator.  Because anybody can bring about a result through manipulating, say, a machine.

Again, this of course is not a post about God’s existence, but merely aims to distinguish the superstition of a lucky-charm god ((Which, admittedly, believers of all kinds and all times are tempted to make God into.)) from the providential monotheism of Jews and Christians.