Monday, December 29, 2008

Evolution? Intelligent Design? – A Tight Rope Between Two Extremes?

Is there intelligent design to the universe? Is the universe like a giant clock, requiring, like our own watches, an intelligent maker? Are there developments in living beings that are "irreducibly complex", and thus require an explanation at the level of intelligence? On the other hand, is evolution through the mechanism of natural selection sufficient to account for the complexities of human nature? And isn’t the latter strictly a question for science, as opposed to the former? The answers to these types of questions form the center of a debate, which touches on matters of practical import; matters both political and educational. Should we teach evolution AND intelligent design in public schools? For that matter, should we teach either one, and how does either fall into the highly contested Church/State debate? I, for one, think all of these questions gloss over something very important.

Perhaps I should disclose a number of things at the outset. First, I am a Catholic, and I believe that part of our soul (soul in the Aristotelian sense) is purely immaterial, thus naturally immortal. Second, I believe that evolution is a theory, which is useful in describing how our material being has developed to its present point. Third, I am not a scientist, just a layman who finds himself intrigued by the exchange of powerful ideas in the midst of man’s Great Conversation, and who, to be clear, agrees with various points from both sides of the debate. Fourth, I think I should give a little personal history about why this topic is important to me, which will require a short digression.

I was raised as a Christian, but it wasn’t until my teens that I started to take my beliefs seriously. Thus, it was in my junior-high school years that I quickly gravitated to a fundamentalist mindset; a mindset through which I interpreted the Bible, including Genesis, in as literal of terms as possible. Fast forward a bit – I’m now into high school, my parents have divorced, I’m in and out of depression, and the one strong support in my life is my church. My church beliefs, it must be understood, are connected, rising or falling on the question of the accuracy of the Bible as I then was taught to interpret it. Therefore, taking a biology class in which the theory of evolution is treated as historical fact in a history spanning millions of years, and at the same time attending a church which is teaching me that history only stretches back three-thousand years; well, suffice it to say that the contradiction opened the door for a creeping nihilism and despair.

It’s been sixteen years since high school. Now, as a Catholic, I take a bit of a different approach to interpreting Scripture, which I mention primarily to point out that, even though I disagree with the fundamentalist interpretation, I still have a certain sympathy, in one important regard, for the fundamentalist motive. You see, the fundamentalist, right or wrong, sees the scientist promoting evolution in a way that threatens to dismiss the need for God, destroy transcendent goodness, and undermine human dignity; that, in a word, threatens to render his most cherished beliefs superfluous. I think it’s important to understand this motive, and I think there’s something noble and truthful about it; I’ll return to this in a moment.

The argument that Intelligent Design is not science, but more akin to philosophy, is a strong argument for keeping it out of the mandatory public-school curriculum. But what about a lecture in Biology class, or a biology text book, or a PBS broadcast, which begins, “Man has evolved…”, and which concludes as if evolution accounts for man’s existence in a way that leaves a difference only of degree between he and his animal ancestors, not one in kind? In this case, there’s an implicit clash of philosophy, by which I mean reason, not faith; and, though this clash is subtle, it is, I think, still very much detectable, especially at a sensitive age. I’ve already pointed out where I stand on man’s (immaterial) soul, and I don’t intend to debate the point in this article; my real purpose, to be clear, is to point out that there is a clash, there is a debate, there is a problem -- and I’m sure I‘m not the only one who’s been affected by its implications.

So, what are we to do about this conflict? Well, as someone who’s a Christian and who provisionally holds to the theory of evolution, I suggest perhaps teaching some form of ethics, though one, which specifically proceeds from the conviction that man is more than an animal, that he is, in fact, a rational animal. This was the classical view of man, held by our Founding Fathers, and by both the medieval Christians and the ancient Greeks who influenced them; its propagation does nothing less than form the logical basis for establishing the equality of man firmly in the mind of society, from which it may then issue politically. This is not an article of faith, i.e. a strictly religious proposition, but a subject of rational inquiry; it is for that reason that it serves as a point where religion and science can meet. Thus, certain religions, like my own, can supplement public school curriculum with their particular benefits, not contradict it with whatever unfortunate consequences to which one may be sensitive.

In conclusion, I would say this: though reason can be opposed to some people’s faith, for others it need not be; not, that is, unless reason be prescribed, implicitly or otherwise, to the workings of an irrationally dogmatic materialism. Walking the tightrope between two extremes often seems to be the road less traveled; I think, as the greatest pioneers and martyrs of truth, neither Socrates nor Jesus would disagree with me here. Neither men, however, were pessimists; thus neither would give up hope.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The gods on the DC Buses

Buses in Washington DC will now carry the "humanist" slogan, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake." But what does that honestly mean? To me it's no different from asking, Why believe in goodness? Just be good for goodness sake. Or, Why believe in God? Just be good for God's sake. Nor can I consider that people who sing this song have seriously taken the music of goodness to heart; otherwise, I believe they would have discovered the desperate need to call upon a muse for divine help, for the art of morality and our inevitable failures to be good are, according to great men like St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and C.S. Lewis, the very motive for seeking revelation from God. Moreover, I'd argue that part of "being good for goodness sake" involves believing in God for people's sake; humanists who were good for people's sake wouldn't slight their deepest convictions, and spurn the hope, which attends their faith. To me, the "humanist" slogan is an oxymoron, I see nothing fundamentally humane about it.

The very slogan itself, really, is an embarrassing tribute to its own authors. I'm sorry to say, it shows they either lack an awareness of, or refuse to acknowledge, the fact that God is not just a being religion holds exists, but philosophy does as well; that He's not only an object of faith, but of reason too; and, in either case, that it's traditionally posited that God is distinguished from all else by having no limitations, so that the slogan reading "a god" is confused from the start. There is and can only be one God, THE God; another "god" would have to be distinguished in some way, which would involve a limitation, thus would not BE God. In a country founded by Christians and deists, who believed in a basic idea of God, which served as the foundation of human ethics, is there, then, perhaps more to this inaccuracy than meets the eye? It's an ever-present temptation for those who want dramatically to alter the present to blur the past, even, I would think, if it starts with the most subtle propaganda (like inaccurate and uncharitable bus slogans).

"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?" Apparently, Thomas Jefferson would seriously doubt that a nation "can be good for goodness sake", that is, if goodness is deprived of an eternal context, i.e., divorced from the notion of God. This philosophical deism of a Jefferson or a Franklin, however, is, in itself, practically dead, and only really survives into the present through living forms of Christianity (like Evangelical and Conservative Catholic Christianity). The rub for certain people is that these active forms of Christianity are, in large part, the primary forces behind things like saving traditional marriage, banning embryonic stem cell research, and attempting to overturn Roe v. Wade. In other words, belief in a God of "justice" and "wrath" currently translates politically, so that political reaction, I'd suggest, is what drives things like "humanist" bus ads.

I hear and read all of the time that people motivated by faith should keep their religion out of the political arena. To an extent I believe this principle is correct, but I think it helps to define that extent, which is really only to reclaim what I believe was understood by our founders, and by those in their succession, like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I'd like to do this, to define that extent, with the help of one more quote from Jefferson, "A free people claim their rights as derived from the laws of nature." For many, that quote might understandably bring to mind the phrase in the Declaration of Independence reading, "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God", especially in light of Jefferson's earlier quote. But the point is that no one that I'm aware of wants to introduce articles of faith into the political arena -- no one, for instance, wants to force public schools to recite the Nicene Creed or, perhaps instead of fluoride, to take Holy Communion wine. Instead, the controversial issues rest, and should be discussed, at the level of "natural law"; that is, as subjects of reason, not faith. Whether or not one's reason is motivated by faith should be of nobody's concern, but that, I'm afraid, is what really angers people.

Indeed, it's religious motivation, I believe, that "humanist" reactionaries attempt to undermine through things like inaccurate and uncharitable bus slogans. To be sure, humanists have their own motives. The atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche knew that the death of belief in God would mean the rise of our own selfish motives as gods in His place. Humanist slogans, in that case, might ultimately and more accurately read, "Why believe in God? Trust in OUR gods for goodness sake."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Toward A Right Understanding Of The Catholic Church (Part I)

Denial of the truth claims of the Catholic Church take on the form of numerous arguments. For instance, some argue that the Church holds creeds that are irrational; some argue that the Church is not biblical; and some argue that the Church's history of scandal and abuse disqualify Her claims. The first is often argued by atheists and agnostics, the second by Protestants, and the third by a broad consensus, sometimes including Catholics themselves!

Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, "There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing." Whatever form an argument against the Catholic Church takes, if it's not the third argument above, I think it's safe to say that that third argument is still looming large in the mental background of the arguer, and working as a strong motive. What I'd like to do, therefore, is offer some clarity on the matter of how to think about the Catholic Church, specifically, about her claims to truth in the face of scandals and abuse.

To begin, I'd like to use a tool from Aristotle, called the Four Causes. The Four Causes are involved in any type of change, and, since the Catholic Church professes to bring the kingdom of God to human beings, to preserve the message of Christ as the instrument of the Holy Spirit, and since this can only occur through time, then it requires development, which is a type of change, thus involves the Four Causes.

The Four Causes are 1) the material cause, 2) the efficient cause, 3) the formal cause, and 4) the final cause. Let's say we want to built a shed. The material cause is the wood. The efficient cause is the builder. The formal cause is the plan for the shed. And the final cause is the purpose: "for storage." Now, let's say God wants to establish a Church. In this case the material cause is a sinful world, sinful human beings with free will. The efficient cause is God. The formal cause is the Kingdom of God. And the final cause is God's glory: the salvation of man. We could say, therefore, that the definition of the Church in light of the Four Causes is this:

The Church is the Kingdom of God made by God working on a sinful world for His own glory, man's salvation.

This, of course, SOUNDS just fine; however, one might object, so does Communism. Therefore, what we want to find out is how the formal and final causes, which are good in themselves, are brought by the efficient cause, God, to materialize in a world of sinful human beings. In other words, the means is always from the efficient cause to the material cause, so, just as we ask how the builder will build the shed (by hammering nails, and putting in the wiring) we have to ask HOW God is going to establish His Kingdom. We'll cover this question in Part II.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008