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The Truth About Religious Skepticism

Skepticism permeates modern culture. The most consistent and popular application of skepticism is religious skepticism. “We cannot prove God exists” is the common refrain. In fact, of the many unwritten social codes enforced by our culture, one of the strongest is the impropriety of claiming that Christianity is objectively true. Such a claim is an affront: a social faux pas at best and a mean spirited attack at worst. After all, agnosticism is cool; truth is not.

Should we follow the God of the Bible? Of particular importance when a person faces this question is the role of the will: he must decide whether he wants to live a life subject to God or whether he wants to pursue the enticements of the world.

What is striking about this particular question—whether to follow the God of the Bible—is that everyone does decide. Even the agnostic decides, though he may deny it. In fact, I am convinced that the rise of skepticism in our culture is a symptom of the will to unbelief. People do not want to be subject to God; they want autonomy to create their own reality. What better justification for denying one’s dependence on God than to claim that it is impossible to know if the Bible is true?

Skepticism is an inadequate general outlook on knowledge. It denies our God-given abilities. (We are born as truth-detectors, and we are very good at it.) It denies our daily experience. No doubt there are some questions that cannot be answered, and there are some questions that are not worth the effort to answer. Everyone acknowledges this. However, the skepticism that has pervaded our culture goes beyond this. It is often used as an excuse for not having to deal with the truth. We Christians, though, desire the truth, and thus we should struggle to resist the pessimism of skepticism.

 

[This edited excerpt is from “Truth Detectors” by Chris Swanson. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]

 

Erosion of Christianity and Cultural Decline

I was recently vacationing in England where at breakfast I met an interesting man from India. He had grown up in Nairobi, Kenya, and then moved to England as an adult. He was a Hindu, as evidenced by a forehead marking. We got to talking, and eventually the conversation turned toward culture and moral norms. He said he had left Nairobi and come to England in order to be able to do business in a morally upright way. In Nairobi, he had had a construction business.

However, the business was failing because he was not willing to participate in morally corrupt practices. All of the competition was corrupt, and he could not in good conscience employ their means. So he brought his family to England to start over.

Based partly on those experiences and partly on his recent observations, he was worried about the state of English culture and, by extension, American culture. He felt that both were in decline and that before long our cultures would begin to look a lot more like that of Nairobi. Interestingly, he ascribed the decline to an erosion of religious life. In the past, morals and cultural norms were upheld by largely Christian religious beliefs. But these beliefs were no longer being passed down to the younger generations. Without an underlying and strong basis for morality, there is nothing to prevent a moral decline. Cultural inertia is valuable to maintain norms in the short run, but he was concerned that in the next few generations, things would get a lot worse. Despite his non-Christian personal beliefs, he felt that a cultural return to the Christian religion would be required to halt the decline.

Now this is the sort of thing that the Christians have been saying for a long time. Perhaps every culture has always said, “things aren’t what they were in the old days.” Nevertheless, it was at least a little encouraging to me to find a like-minded person from a non-Christian background.

 

Steve Jobs: Heroic or Pitiable?

I recently read a biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and it made me think about fulfillment and the purpose of life. It did so because in many ways Steve Jobs epitomizes the life which attempts to find fulfillment in “worldliness.”

By most accounts Jobs was outrageously successful. He built the most valuable company in the world: Apple. Jobs’ energy, creativity, vision, and intensity were responsible for the remarkable rise of Apple. Because of the level of control that he exerted over every aspect of the company, he deserves much more of the credit for its success than a typical CEO. That is not to downplay the contributions of others who poured their heart and soul into the company, but Jobs was clearly the guiding light. Without him, Apple would be a ghost of what it is today. His abiding passion to make great products drove the company to an unbelievable number of innovations in the computer and music industry.

For me, however, the thing that is most striking about Jobs is not his enormous success. Rather, I find most interesting his clear and single-minded adoption of a purpose in life through which he tried to find fulfillment. His purpose seems to have been to build great products. That is what he lived for. While we might praise this purpose, to my mind it resulted in a tragic life.

Of all the people about whom I have read, Steve Jobs would have to be the person that I would least like to emulate. While he may have a legacy of great products and a great company, his legacy with regard to those things which have eternal significance seems to have been to cause pain and misery to nearly every one he met, friend or competitor. The biography makes clear that he treated people as tools to achieve his purpose. He was often narcissistic and abrasive in his interactions. What came through the biography was a story of a person who could not love and could not be kind. He constantly attempted to bend reality to his will, so much so that those who knew him regularly referred to his “reality distortion field.” He personified the stereotype of the man who makes himself god.

Neither his faults nor his strengths were hidden behind a veneer of politeness the way they are with most people. Instead, he wore his passions and his cruelty on his sleeve for all to see. I had the sense that he unapologetically gloried in the path he had chosen. Every ounce of his considerable strength and skill were given over to the impossible task of taking the place of the creator. Isaacson’s biography has exposed the poisonous results of his efforts. For many in our world it may appear as if Jobs succeeded. To me, however, his path was not heroic but pitiable.

True Patriotism: The Vote

On one of my trips to Boise recently, the headline of the local newspaper was brought to my attention. It was an article about Frank Tanabe, former unwilling Idaho resident. He was a student in Seattle when World War II broke out. He was one of 110,000 Japanese-Americans sent to ten relocation centers across the western United States by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At that time, many feared that these Americans would show more loyalty to Japan than to their adopted country and engage in subversion and sabotage. Instead, Tanabe enlisted in the Army where he served in the Military Intelligence Service. A few years ago, he and others in the unit received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by Congress. In spite of his internment experience, throughout his life Tanabe exercised his right to vote in order to have a personal role in helping to shape the direction of this country. At the age of 93, determined to the end to exercise that privilege, he voted in mid-October by absentee ballot in Honolulu from what turned out to be his deathbed.

We live in a unique country. Certainly there are other “democracies” around the world; but nowhere else, and perhaps at no other time in the history of the world, have citizens been as free and able to shape and determine the direction of their country by individually, as free moral beings, going to the polls to vote for those individuals and those measures which, in each individual’s estimation, best reflect the plans and purposes of God. I know that sounds grandiose, but that is the right given us—first by God, who shapes and orders the affairs of men and then, at His behest, by the founders of this country.

This is the opportunity set before us again on Tuesday. Let’s take it seriously and not ignore this right and privilege.

Military Lessons Learned

We at Gutenberg are not a bellicose bunch. Of all the staff and board, I can only think of one person who even served in the military. My life has been filled with books and discussions rather than guns and war. But I am irresistibly drawn to accounts of courage and sacrifice and heartache experienced by those who have fought and, in some cases, died in the service of our country. So it is with interest that I am just finishing an account by Colonel David Hackworth of his experience in taking a beaten up and demoralized infantry battalion in Vietnam and turning them into a cohesive and effective fighting force. As I write here of my observations, I must first apologize to those who know far more about military life and strategy than do I. Where I am mistaken or have misunderstood, please be in touch to offer clarification and correction.

For most of Hackworth’s book, what held my interest were the accounts of actions in the field, some successful and some not, but all gut-wrenching. The concluding couple of chapters, however, contain the interesting and worthwhile lessons. I hope that I am accurate in my summary.

Hackworth suggests that it is the rare general who has truly learned the lessons of the battlefield and been able to use them to be able to win wars rather than just to pursue the next promotion. Those military leaders do exist, but they are not easy to find. And he is adamant that the greatest attention needs to be paid to the “boots on the ground”—the needs of those enlisted personnel actually doing the fighting and the lessons they have learned and the training and leadership that they need.

But Hackworth’s point that I found most interesting is what he says is almost endemic to a military mindset: military leaders use the tactics and strategies of the last great war to try to fight the current one. Hackworth, on the other hand, when faced with the guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong in Vietnam, studied those tactics, trained his men to understand them, and then employed strategies that would allow them to use those tactics against their enemy in the field. As things changed, he would change his tactics and strategies as well.

Hackworth’s strategy reminded me of a lesson I learned in my grade-school history class in Pella, Iowa—a lesson probably not taught in our schools today. General George Washington, fighting alongside the British in the French and Indian wars, saw his men mowed down when they used European battle formations against an Indian enemy. The “redcoats” (along with the colonial troops) would line up across a field and then march across it standing bolt upright, thus becoming easy targets. The Indians, however, would hide behind trees, set ambushes on wooded pathways, and then blend back into the forest to fight another day. Washington watched and learned and then employed those Indian tactics extremely effectively against the British in the Revolutionary War, allowing his more rag-tag army to engage and eventually beat a far superior British force.

Hackworth observes that there is a danger in the way today’s military is fighting the current “war on terror.” I know I am not being “politically correct” when I talk about there still being a war on terror. Supposedly we have already won that war. But as I look around our very unsafe world today, it doesn’t look to me as though the war is over, much less already won.

According to Hackworth, it is critically important for today’s military not simply to rely on superior firepower and technology when faced with a deeply entrenched force that operates in small units or even individually. He believes that it will continue to be critical to understand the mindset and the actions of the enemy on the ground (yes, I did refer to them as enemies) and to fight the battle, to some degree, on their terms. That doesn’t mean our military should eschew our vastly superior numbers or technology, but rather that it should harness those things in support of the war being fought—not impersonally from the skies but (regrettably) very personally  on the ground. Very interesting.

Now let me wander a little bit from my topic. Even writing about these things makes me a bit uncomfortable. I have never been in battle, face to face with an enemy intent on taking my life. I have never even served in the military. I cannot personally imagine the horrors of war. So it is not my intent to glamorize and encourage war.

My daughter Katie works with an organization that includes many in its ranks who have been in the thick of battle in the wars of the last two decades. Now, however, they are committed to bringing relief, medical and other types, to people still living under military oppression in other places. I was struck a couple of months ago when Katie referred to many of the people with whom she works as “warrior philosophers”—implying that these workers are desirous of being able to identify clear examples of evil in our fallen world and are then willing to fight to combat that evil.

I am not suggesting that everything our country has ever done militarily is right and morally justifiable or that every individual action in our military history has been above reproach. However, I do believe that, on balance, our efforts as a nation have been to do the right thing. We are not, contrary to what some are saying today, empire builders.

There is real evil in the world. There are people who will beat or even kill a young woman who wants simply to pursue an education without having her head covered in public. There are people who will cut off hands for stealing a loaf of bread or cut off heads for not following the dictates of a specific religious system. There are people who will herd an entire ethnic group into gas chambers.

And there are those who are willing to stand in the gap and use physical force to oppose evil. Hackworth’s plea is that we give those people the best chance of success—not by offering them tactics and strategies from safe military boardrooms far from the front lines but rather by giving them tactics and strategies that have been tested and found true in the field.

 

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