Monday, October 26, 2009

Symptoms of an Age, Part I: Education of the Young

We have lost our way. We prosper (less now that before, but still we prosper). But we do not know how best to live.

In what way is this shown? (Below I will speak of trends, not of exceptionless rules. But what I say does capture how our age differs from its past.)

We do not know how to educate our children.

We are hemmed in all around by educational theories. All that enjoy any popularity tell us that if we but teach our teachers how to teach, success will follow. Students are ready to learn, we are told, but our teachers fail them.

This is false. Where there is classroom failure, almost always there is a student who took her education with little or no seriousness. Why is this? Why are our students so unprepared to learn? They have been failed by parent and by culture. From an early age (by age 1 if not before), children must be instilled with certain traits of character that are essential to success in the classroom; and among the most important of these is respect for authority, perseverance, focus, attention to detail and a desire to succeed. Without these, children fail. With them, they succeed.

Who teaches these? Parents first; culture second. The teacher has little ability to instill them. If the parents work to instill them, and if in this effort they are supported by a culture that places value in them, the student will imbibe them. But if parent and culture fail in this,classroom failure will inevitably result.

This, I suspect, would have passed for plain common sense to prior generations. Success is in the first place a matter of character. But we have forgotten this. We think it a matter of classroom management, and in this we are deluded.

Why have we allowed ourselves to become deluded? I don't pretend to possess a complete answer, but I will say this: we have forgotten what we once knew of human nature. Human beings have tendencies to both good and evil; and we must work to strengthen the good and weaken the evil. This task is not easy; we must often bear down hard to achieve it. Human beings have, for instance, a tendency toward sloth; if they are not made to work - if we do not instill in them the value of work - that tendency to sloth will become so deeply ingrained that they will remain forever lazy. And how do we make them work? Discipline and praise, discipline and praise.

We praise, but we no longer discipline (or if we ever discipline, we do so only occasionally when at wits end). We no longer recognize the hard necessity of hard discipline. We no longer bear down hard. We thus fail our children.

Let me end with a diagnosis of this failure. Our culture has become secular and thus has lost the resources that Christianity provides to understand both ourselves and our place in the world. Christianity is quite clear about the native human tendency to evil; it as our birthright as children of Adam. It is also quite clear about our extraordinary potential for goodness. It makes of this world a struggle against evil and for good. It thus motivates parents to discipline children, to make their children disciplined.

When a secular culture loses sight of the propensity to evil, it will lose sight of the necessity of discipline. When it loses sight of the necessity of discipline, vice will run rampant in our children. When our children are ruled not by virtue but by vice, classroom failure is the result.

Ordinary Goodness . . . and Extraordinary

Perhaps ordinary goodness can be taught.

But the extraordinary . . . I cannot even think of how to begin to teach it. We can explain to a child why he must not lie, cheat or steal. But can we explain why he must love both friend and enemy? Can we explain why he must be prepared to give up his life for his enemy? Is it not natural to hate those hate us?

To the materialist, extraordinary goodness - the sort of goodness that seems unnatural - must be stupidity. Why would the materialist give up a life of comfort, travel to a place of poverty, disease and war and there work for the good of others whom he does not know? What reason could he give?

What reason can the materialist give for self-sacrifice? What reason can the materialist give for sacrifice of my life for another, no matter whether that other loves or hates me? If I am this body and this body alone, and my fate is this body's fate, should I not protect it at all cost? Perhaps I am made to love those near me. But love those far away - to love those who hate me - that nature has not made me to do. And if I am to do just that - love those not near, love those who hate me - then I am not made by nature alone.

If there are extraordinary goods (and of course there are), there is a moral order outside nature. And if there is a moral order outside nature, must we not entertain the possibility that there is a God?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Theist/Athiest Debate: Prospects

I feel less desire to debate the atheist than I once did. I have become skeptical that argument has any power to change minds.

Indeed both theist and atheist should expect that debate will prove forever fruitless. Their reasons will be different, but that conclusion will be the same.

What will their reasons be? I will let the theist speak first.

The Theist
We live in a world ruined by sin. It effects are plain, both within us and without us. Within us we find vice and ignorance, and these two defects cannot be rectified by us. Instead they will persist for so long as God allows. Only He can set them right.

Atheism - explicit, doctrinal atheism - is one expression of the ignorance of God, His existence and His works. Atheism is thus a symptom of sin. Atheism is the sin of ignorance of God become a matter of fixed belief.

Can argument alone serve to dislodge atheism? Of course not. Argument alone can no more undo it than it can undo, say, greed or lust. All are symptoms of our alienation from God, and the chasm that separates us from God can be bridged only by God. Atheism can be overcome only by an act of God's grace (and act which can be either accepted or rejected by the atheist). We cannot do it; only God can do it. Our arguments will prove ineffective.

Do not doubt the power of God to work through our arguments if He so wishes. But the power of the argument itself, the logical power that it possesses in itself, is as naught. So deep are the hooks of sin within him that no matter how powerful the argument, the atheist will reject it. The ignorance of the atheist is a willful ignorance. It betrays a defect not just of intellect but of will. The atheist stubbornly clings to his atheism in spite of all argument to the contrary. Do not pray, then, for eloquence. Pray instead that the atheist will accept the gift of grace. What is needed is not more and better arguments. What is needed is a change of heart, and without the latter all arguments will fall on barren ground.

The Atheist
We ought always to apportion our belief to the evidence. Where there is evidence, we ought to believe. Where there is not, we ought not believe.

This most basic requirement of rationality is flouted by the theist. She believes though there is no evidence. Moreover, much depends on that belief. It shapes who she is, how she acts. The whole of the intellectual edifice of her ideas depends upon it. The whole of her character and its expression in action depends upon it.

Her theism is thus not a little piece of her psyche. It is the greater part of it, and so the irrationality that gives rise to it permeates her whole being. It isn't as if she has some one irrational belief or other. Rather she herself is deeply irrational. She shows herself quite able to take on a whole host of beliefs with little or no reason at all.

We shouldn't expect the theist to be amenable to rational persuasion. The arguments of the atheist will fall on deaf ears. When we ask the theist to believe only that for which there is good evidence, we should expect to be ignored. For we have already been ignored, and the theist has made her identity hang upon her irrational belief.

Thus, as I said, both atheist and theist have good reason to suppose that their arguments will be ignored. The atheist/theist debate thus seems pointless, no matter whose point of view we adopt.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Within You or Without You?

I have begun to search for the way to best formulate a certain assumption that seems to run through much of the theist/atheist debate. (For convenience, let us construe "atheism" widely here. Atheists are those who believe theists irrational.) I've landed on a name. I call it "The Teapot Model". Bertrand Russell argued that the God-hypothesis was much like the hypothesis that a teapot orbits the sun. It is possibly true, he said. But he insisted that, though possibly true, it could not be known true, for no evidence could be given in its favor. Thus, he concluded, the God-hypothesis was deeply irrational.

One might respond to Russell in many ways. One might say that we do have good evidence of God's existence. One might say that God, if real, is so radically unlike a teapot that to assume we must come to know them in the same way is deeply mistaken. I have some sympathy for both responses. (Of the two, the second seems closer to the heart of the matter.) But to me they've always seemed to fall short of the mark.

The issue is this: the God-hypothesis would have us assume that God is an object that stands outside us and whose existence can be known only by inference from what is clear either to sense or to intellect. I reject this assumption.

I am not alone in this. Much Christian theology rejects it. God, we are told, is He in whom we have our being. We are with Him, but not as two who stand side by side. We are through Him, and Him through us. Thus we are not ours alone. God is in us, and at every moment He sustains us. Every iota of what is good in us - and all that truly is is good - is Him. When conscience speaks, it is the voice of God. When we love, the love we share is God.

God is not over and above. (Perhaps we should say that God is not over and above only, for though in us He is no exhausted by his presence in us. We are finite, He infinite.) Rather He is within, and thus is to be found within.

Thus God is not to be discovered as the teapot would be discovered if in fact it were there. The believers relation to God is not that of knower to an external object known. This is why I find atheism a bit ridiculous. I've had a number of moments in my life where the presence of God within me has become quite clear. Even now as I sit with the noise of traffic around me, cold and alone, and still feel that presence. It is a hint, a whisper. It is as motion caught in the corner of the eye. Attention is mostly elsewhere, but a fraction is upon it, and I know that He is there.

When someone tells me there is no God, it seems to as if I have been told that there is no sun or moon. Perhaps I do not see them now, or see them only faintly. But I know they are there.

Perhaps it would be better to say that it seems to me as if I have been told that I have never felt love, or regret. Of course I have, I would reply. I feel them now. They are here before me, with me. I cannot doubt them. S0 too I cannot doubt that God exists. He is here with me now.

So I say to the atheist: God is within you (and without you too in all creation). Do you feel the tug of conscience? That is God. Do you love someone? That is God.

Do not ask me then to marshal evidence in favor of God as He were some variety of exotic particle that could be made to show itself were conditions just so. Do no demand miracles. Do not demand proofs. Search yourself. There is within you a power upon which you depend, a power upon which all depend. Do not close your eyes to it.