Cynicism has always been very alluring to me. There’s something about having low expectations that feels good. For one thing, a hardcore cynic doesn’t mind being proven wrong. Who would have a problem with a situation turning out better than expected? It is also helpful that when you have low standards, you find that the standards are frequently exceeded. Now I must emphasize here that I am not advocating for extreme cynicism. For its one positive aspect there are a multitude of burdens that cynicism creates. It is unappealing to people, fosters a lack of motivation towards progress, complains constantly, quells hope, etc. But for all of its faults, I am finding my cynicism to be a wonderful inoculation to one of the greatest threats our society currently faces – unfounded optimism.
[To hear the extended podcast episode on this topic, check out our episode here].
Every week, from thousands of churches across the United States, requests for help are sent out. Food pantries are in need of workers and food. Women's shelters need volunteers. Children are in need of being fostered or adopted. Families are in need of financial assistance as they try to pay medical bills. And the list could go on. While the church does much good in the world, many requests go unanswered, and needs are left unfulfilled. And though I'm sure it's true that the church could do better, we also recognize that we will never be able to meet every need in such a fallen world. Decisions have to be made about how to use our time and resources in the way that best loves God and others.
We all live in the real world, but at some point in time, we venture into possible worlds. Maybe you're a lover whose excursion into the alternate universe takes you to a place where you ended up getting married to your high school sweetheart instead of breaking up. Or maybe you're an adventurer who ponders the possible future where you journey to a faraway, remote, undiscovered planet. Or maybe you like to throw off all semblance of realism and you place yourself in a world where dragons or wizards exist. I don't know which world you love to enter, as there are an infinite amount to choose from. But I know I can tell you a world in which you will never, nor can ever enter, even in your imagination - the impossible world.
I can guarantee you that you have never - even in your imagination - visited a world where there are square circles or married bachelors. While one could conceive of a world in which dragons existed, since there is nothing in our world indicating that these creatures are logically impossible, we cannot imagine a world where square circles exist. Each, by definition, excludes the other. Philosophers love thinking about impossible worlds, though they can never enter them. This is because impossible worlds are an extremely useful tool we can use to test out the viability of an idea. Running an idea through this test doesn't prove the idea is true, only that it could be true. However, if an idea fails this test, we can remove it from the realm of possibilities and learn important information from it. So let's explore some worlds together by addressing a question I had recently: Is there a possible world where fallen humanity exists, but Jesus does not die for them?
Movies, stories, and songs are a great way to gather insight into the viewpoints of others and ourselves. They are wonderful, small windows through which we can look, which hopefully pique our attention to explore the philosophers who have dug much deeper than most of the artists. These sources of entertainment also tend to provide us with glimpses of popular thought. Exploring media allows us to see worldviews which are present in our culture or worldviews which are being presented to shape and change culture. One of the topics I have seen come up more frequently, as of late, is that of free will. Neuroscience, psychology, and biology have all been advanced greatly over the past few decades and they appear to be culminating into a conclusion that our lives are determined by our genes and our circumstances. In the minds of many, such a conclusion would overthrow religion. Therefore, it is important that we as Christians know what we believe about the will.
It doesn't matter which worldview you accept in life, any position is going to produce its nagging questions. Most people don't seem to have too much of a problem with the dissonance, either because they're unaware of the bigger questions or because it ultimately doesn't matter to them. They can go on with life and never give the problems inherent in their worldviews a second thought. That does not at all describe me. The big questions nag me, and nag me, and nag me - and will likely do so until the day I die. While I'm trying to find that middle ground and come to terms with the fact that mystery exists and isn't always bad, I don't think I can ever stop working through the big questions.
One of these big questions which arise and is particularly strong in Reformed Theology, is the question of how evil originated. If God created good humans in a good world, and if human action is the result of acting upon one's desires, then how could sin have ever come about? If a good, all-powerful God created a good world, then any deficiency which arises seems to be attributable to God. But Christians know that can't be the case, for then God would be evil.
The murder of James Bulgar is a story which wrecks my heart. While all murders are tragic, this one feels to me as if it fits into a different category. The level of reprehensibility, of violence, of senselessness, and of the corruption of innocence eats away at my emotions. But in reality, the murder of James wasn't much different than the murders of other children, save for one fact - his murderers were children themselves. I think the reason the Bulgar case has become so infamous and why so many find it more tragic than other cases is because the source of evil came from an unexpected place. How could two children kidnap, torture, and murder a small child? That's not something children do. In fact, that's something it seems children aren't capable of doing. We don't expect to find great evil in certain places. We think such a thing is reserved for the darkest recesses of society. We expect evil to exist, but we don't expect it in all the places where we often find it.
Many Evangelicals harp on the fact that our culture has lost notions of sin. Our culture is often willing to call evil, "good." Certainly the redefining of morality is problematic, but I think there is something even more tragic going on.
It is easy to live in fear these days. Perhaps it's always been that way. Maybe the times aren't any more fearful today, but rather humans are beings always prone to fear. Regardless of fear's source, whether in circumstances or in human nature, it's easy for those of us living in the present to see the fears which the modern world stirs up in our neighbors and in ourselves. But all this fear seems so odd in our enlightened age. One would have thought (or at least I would have thought) that a world which proclaimed itself as more "scientific," more "objective," and less "mystical" would be one in which fears would dissipate. In a world where malicious demons and capricious gods don't exist, we only have the rational world to fear. And what is there to fear in that which can be understood and controlled? The problems of modernity can be measured, assessed, and converted into probabilities. In a world where cause and effect are better understood than ever before, it seems like we should have a handle on most of our fears. Yet we find that in the Western world - the part of the world who thinks of themselves as the most advanced and scientific - fear reigns supreme. Whether you watch the news and take the temperature of the nation, whether you gather anecdotes from those in your community, or whether you simply look at rates of psychological/emotional issues and prescription drug use and drug abuse, you'll find that our world is one which is steeped in fear.
In my view, one of the main problems with libertarian free (LFW) will is that it's groundless. By removing causation from an individual's choice, only randomness is left as an explanation, which is really no explanation at all. To show this problem, I like to refer to the time machine analogy.
I recently started a podcast with some acquaintances. The podcast focuses on the issue of CHristian nonviolence, exploring the case for a nonviolent position as well as discussing rebuttals against the position. Check it out here!
For each of our pregnancies, I wrote sonnets dedicated to our new child. I don't have too much to offer in the way of quilting or woodworking, so creating some sort of functional heirloom isn't an option for me. Instead, I thought I would craft some of the ideas I thought most important for my kids to understand when they grew up, and I decided to do this in sonnet format. While the structure is modeled around childish notions (ABC's, 123's, Colors, etc), the content is about morality, theology, and the like. They are definitely ideas the kids will have to grow into. I hope that one day my children can read my sonnets and reflections and take them into their own hearts as they wrestle with their humanity, with God, and with how they are going to move out in the world. Until they grow into that, I hope these works will be of use to at least one other strange person out there who would take the time to read about epistemology or metaphysics in an archaic, poetic format.