In 1943, C.S. Lewis published his short, apologetic work, The Abolition of Man, in which he tackles “The Green Book,” a new text being used in the British educational system, one that elevates observational science over the arts and moral norms. Lewis’ premise is ultimately that the educational system was producing “men without chests” — people who used reason and their passions without the constraints of moral virtue.
The Abolition of Man was written 75 years ago and time has been the judge of Lewis’ fears and predictions. And while the point of this reflection is not to go on a long diatribe about the state of the American educational system, if the violence present in the schools today is any indication of the moral standards of student bodies, then it is a pretty clear indication of Lewis’ insights into the consequences of a bad educational model. And, by violence, I am not simply referring to school shootings and stabbings, though that is a heinous crime, I am also talking about the violence in the hallways — bullying, verbal abuse of other students and teachers, and a general lack of respect for authority amongst the student body.
My concern this morning is to suggest that we have entered a stage beyond Lewis’ prediction of men without chests. We have also created heads without ears. Many people complain that in our world today the art of debate has been abandoned. Well-crafted argumentation has been replaced simply by arguments, most of which seem to be built on an ad hominem approach.
Truly, this is not a new thing. Ad hominem and the use of other logical fallacies are techniques that Arthur Schopenhauer suggested, for example, in his work entitled, The Art of Controversy. Further, it was the method of the Sophists in the 5th century B.C. Of course, it is arguments like these to which great thinkers like Socrates and Plato objected. Yet, today, thoughtless gibes seem to be the approach that people commonly take — a brief survey of recent presidential debates is a good indication of that reality. And, I am not convinced that audiences of these supposed debates really desire to hear competing ideas weighed out, I think that most only desire to have what they already believe echoed back to them in clever and novel ways: arguments rather than carefully discussed reasons.
And that brings me to ears. Ears are the organ by which we hear things. And, in principle, it is that which we hear in a conversation that ought to cause our minds to reason and understand the position of the other person. If you say, “I think we ought to do X rather than Y,” that is merely an opinion. But, if you say, “I think we ought to do X rather than Y, because of A, B, and C,” then that is a different matter altogether. Then we can carefully evaluate reasons “A, B, and C” to confirm that they are legitimate and pertinent to the question at hand. In addition, when I respond, “No, we need to do Y, because of reasons J, K, and L” then we have data and principles to discuss. As Sherlock Holmes often quipped to John Watson, “I cannot make bricks without straw!”
The problem is that it takes time and energy to come up with reasons for your position and to be able to defend those reasons in a thoughtful way. It also requires that we sincerely listen to one another, rather than using the time when the other person is talking to come up with our next attack.
Interestingly, Jesus teaches in parables precisely because people “hear but do not understand” and “see but never perceive” (Matthew 13:14). Such is seen as a judgment of God upon the unbeliever that they will remain blind and deaf to matters of spiritual truth. Yet, have we created a society that elevates this spiritual blindness and deafness? Have we created a society where we no longer can even hear the ideas of others in a meaningful way. We use our mouths then to spout off our thoughts, but without reasoned dialogue and an exchange if ideas, every man does what is right in his own eyes and we are left with chaos.
And, if a culture ceases to value its chests (moral virtue) and its ears (the exchange and deliberation of other ideas than our own), that what is it that is left? Anarchy? There is no question, if you have spent much time around this blog, that I have strong opinions. And, as a Christian pastor, there are certain presuppositions that I have that are fundamental to the way I think and evaluate ideas. At the same time, I have most enjoyed those rare, deep conversations with those from whom I differ, that have been held in respectful ways, carefully evaluating reasons for positions and not seeking to attack the person for holding said opinions. Given that said conversations do still happen in rare circumstances, I wonder (and pray) that the art of debate may one day be revived in our land.
“And the number of those who lapped with their hands to their mouth was 300 men; all of the remaining people bent over the knee to drink water. And Yahweh said to Gideon, ‘With the three hundred men who lapped, I will save you and give Midian into your hand and let all of the people go, each man to his home.’”
All but the 300 are now dismissed to their homes. At this point, an army of 32,000 men has been reduced to 300…just about one percent of those who originally rallied to fight alongside of Gideon. By human reckoning, even the thirty-two thousand was small compared to the hordes of the Midianites, but 300 is almost laughable…that is in human terms. The key phrase in the verses leading up to this is “I will save you and give Midian into your hand…” God is doing the work (as he always does in the life of God’s people!) and God is ordering such so that he is the one who gets the glory. The rest of the soldiers are sent home.
But why send the soldiers home? Why not keep them as backup? Why not keep them as a support staff to assist the wounded? First, that defeats the purpose of calling out the 300 and would demonstrate a lack of trust on Gideon’s part. But there is something more important than that. Each man is sent back to his village with a purpose, and that is to report to the people what God is doing on the battlefront. Imagine each man returning home and his wife and kids and extended family would be pulling him to the side and saying, “Why are you back so soon? Didn’t Gideon need you? Did the Midianites not show up?” At this point, there are 31,700 men who are traveling to villages all through the region and telling the people, “No, God is going to move, so Gideon is only keeping 1 out of every 100 men that showed up.” That, folks, is exciting news.
In todays world of televisions and the internet, I fear we take for granted the ability to communicate easily and quickly. We are used to an ever-moving feed of news that tells us what is going on across the globe with very little delay in time. Yet, in our hyper-active news-fed world, I fear we have lost the value of face-to-face explanations of what is seen. In addition, given this era’s rejection of the things of God, it seems that the majority of what is reported has to do with violence, war, terrorism, and political scandal. Well, that, and the social lives of the rich and famous. Really??? Is not news of the spread of the Gospel much more significant on an eternal scale? How beneficial it is for the church to hear a missionary back in the states on furlough, say, “This is what I am seeing the hand of God do in such-in-such a land.”
The sad thing is that many Christians have fallen into the trap of thinking that what the evening news reports as important is what is truly important that they don’t get excited when a missionary comes to report as to what they see God doing. Shame on the church and shame on the Christian that is more concerned with crime statistics, sports statistics, and the stock market than on the movement of God in the world. How we need to train ourselves to look at the world through the lens of the Bible and not with the lens of human society.
“And it was in the night that Yahweh said to him, ‘Take the ox which is your father’s and a bull, the second one being seven-years old. And destroy the altar to Ba’al which is your father’s and the cut down the Asherah which is beside it. Then build an altar to Yahweh on the top of that row of stones. Take the second bull and make a burnt offering go up with the wood of the Asherah which you cut down.”
Following worship comes the cleaning of house. Interestingly, it seems that his own father is the one to whom the altar to Ba’al belongs, suggesting that perhaps his father was functioning as a priest to the people of his village. Given that Joash (Gideon’s father) was of the Tribe of Manasseh, not a Levite, once again it seems that man is doing what man wants to do, not what God has determined to be right — such seems to be the story of mankind.
In the end, though, God will not share his glory with anyone or anything and he will not have that glory confused with the worship of worldly and pagan things. Thus, before God works through Gideon, God requires Gideon to purge his father’s household, and by extension, his community, of the pagan altars and to establish right worship for those who would follow Him.
As I look around the churches in our culture today I am largely convinced that before God will do a work of reformation and revival in our world, a lot of altars to Ba’al and Asherahs need to be brought down and destroyed. Worship that is man-centered and celebrity centered needs to be turned into rubble. Worship that is idolatrous needs to be burned along with the songs that have more in common with humanistic worldviews than with Biblical teachings. And we need to turn all of our thoughts toward God as directed by His Word. Then, when the church is in humble repentance at the fire of man-made things, man-made priorities, and man-made ideas about God, then, I believe we will see the hand of God begin to work in our nation.
“And the Angel of Yahweh appeared to him, and he said to him, ‘Yahweh is with you, mighty warrior!”
With Ehud we discussed God’s sense of irony and ironic humor. Here we find that once again. Gideon is here hiding in a wine-press to beat his grain so the Midianites won’t find him and the Angel of Yahweh addresses him as a “mighty warrior.” You can almost imagine Gideon looking around in a dumbfounded way, looking for who it is that the Angel of Yahweh might really be addressing.
Yet, lest we be tempted to suggest that God is being a little bit mean in a sarcastic way, let us remember another principle from scripture.
“For a man sees with the eyes, but Yahweh sees to the heart.”
(1 Samuel 16:7b)
How often we fall into the trap of judging others by the standards of men…how often we judge ourselves in that way, too. You see, in the case of Gideon, God sees in Gideon that which Gideon cannot see within himself — a man who will become a mighty warrior and leader of men for God. And why is it that God sees this where Gideon cannot do the same? It is because God has placed that potential in Gideon’s life (God is Gideon’s creator!) and God is now ready to develop that potential into something mighty and wonderful to deliver the people of God from the oppressive hand of the Midianites.
And while the office of the Judges no longer exists and we are not in a context where we need to beat out our grain in wine-presses to hide from Midianite raiders, we live in a world where God is still God and where He still raises up his people to lead. I recently spent some time talking to my son about not allowing the fun hobbies of his life distract him from his goals. How easy it is for that to take place and how often we miss doing things that will have lasting and eternal impact because we got caught up with a personal hobby, sport, game, or other form of entertainment. How often, in doing so, we fail to see what God sees in us until such a time as God gives us a sovereign wake-up call. Gideon is getting his wake-up call in this way. Moses got his at the burning bush. God doesn’t work quite like that anymore, but He gives us His Word — the Scriptures — to guide us in the paths that would best bring glory to His name. Shall we walk in them?
“And the people of Israel did the Evil in the eyes of Yahweh. Thus, he gave them into the hand of Midian for seven years.”
As much as this sounds like a soap opera to many of our ears, this is the story not only of ancient Israel but of peoples, nations, and churches throughout the ages — even today. We would think, having been given the Scriptures, that we would learn from the errors of those who have gone before us, but we do not. Even as individuals, we fall repeatedly into patterns of sin rather than pursuing righteousness.
Midian is to the southeast of Israel and lest we forget, the Midianites too descended from Abraham (Genesis 25:2) and it was to Midian that Moses fled when he was fleeing Egypt (Exodus 2:15). Yet, it was the Midianites who allied with the Moabites to destroy Israel as they crossed the wilderness for the Promised Land, first, by hiring Balam to curse them (Numbers 22:4) and then by enticing the men to defile themselves with Moabite and Midianite woman in Baal worship (Numbers 25:1-6). Finally, Israel defeated them in battle (Numbers 31). Thus, while there is a historical connection between these two peoples (Abraham), there is no love lost between them as tribes and nations.
More sadly, because of the sin of God’s people, those they had once conquered now become the conquerors. Such is the importance of knowing your past and being rooted firmly on the Rock of Jesus Christ. It should stand as a reminder to us today of the importance of remaining ever vigilant against those who would usurp the freedom of God’s people.
Yet, society today seems to have neglected it’s past and forsaken its foundation in Christ. The Christian church still faces challenges to orthodoxy from within as false teachers and cults try and seduce those who do not understand what the scriptures teach about the character of the Triune God. Many protestants are turning their back on hundreds of years of sacrifice for the Truth and are returning to Rome as well. The Muslim hordes who were stopped first at the Battle of Tours and then outside the walls of Vienna. And as a result of us forgetting the wondrous things that our God has done, like the ancient Israelites, our society and culture is being dominated by liberalism, idolatry, atheism, Islam, and cultism in numerous shapes and sizes — and such is being found even in the church.
It seems that we have an addiction to knowledge without an interest in understanding. We go to conferences and seminars but we return home and little ever changes. In the church, we hear sermon after sermon exhorting us to live this way or do that and, like a fad diet, we might try out a few suggestions for a day or two and then let it go by the wayside. We have become junkies for academic degrees but tend to divorce what we are learning from life. Game shows glamorize those who have memorized endless strings of facts with absolutely no emphasis placed on being able to apply or to interpret those facts in a way meaningful to life. As the early church father, Tertullian, lamented, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” Or perhaps, to put it in today’s vernacular: “What does real life have to do with book learning?”
In the world of Artificial Intelligence, there is a running debate over the question as to whether it is possible for a computer to “think.” In other words, can a computer ever be designed and built in such a way that it will be able to use inductive logic and make inferences based on new situations. Though the science-fiction community has been toying with the idea of thinking robots for quite some time, science-realty has not been able to produce such a machine. The simple reason is because no matter how fast or sophisticated the computer processor or the algorithms that make up the software, a computer is little more than a processor of information.
The Philosopher, John Searle, developed a useful analogy to help understand the limitations of computers. He described a man placed in a room that contained nothing but two books written in Chinese. There was also a slot where pages could be put in and a slot where pages could be sent back out. Imagine, he continued, that a man were put into the room that had never studied or even heard the Chinese language. The process would look something like this. A page of paper would be put in through the first slot that contained Chinese characters. The person in the room would then compare the characters on the paper to the characters in the first book. When he found the matching character, that book sent him to a page in the second book and then the man would write down the characters he found in the second book on a page of paper and send it back out the second slot.
Over time, one might expect that the man in the Chinese room would become proficient at his task and thus become both very swift and very accurate in his writing of the symbols. In fact, the man might become so proficient that he would no longer need to use the books as references. Yet, at no point will the man ever learn Chinese. The symbols themselves only carry meaning in terms of which symbol he is to write and not with the thing or idea that the symbol represents. And essentially, a computer chip is little more than a man in a Chinese box (just much smaller!).
Yet, as computer engineers seek to develop a computer that “thinks” more like a human thinks, humans are becoming conditioned to think more like computers…essentially as repositories of vast quantities of information but never applying that information to life. We gorge ourselves on information, but never slow down and reflect enough to incorporate all of the data we ingest into a unified system of thought and life.
The reality is that technology surrounds us and has become a part of our daily lives. While we can control our obsession with information, we cannot step away from the reality that information is a part of the DNA of our times. What we can do, though, is to better filter that information through a mature and unified worldview…one based upon the Scriptures of the Bible. All the while, always discerning how new ideas fit into the whole. If ideas are consistent with the fabric of the Bible then they should naturally fit into ones system of though; if not, it should be held in suspect while seeking to understand the Biblical ramifications of the new view. Is it corrective or destructive to the whole system? The one direction that we cannot afford to go, though, is the direction we are traveling…that of holding many contradictory ideas in tension, never unifying them in a system, but affirming any bit of information as equally valid and considering that knowledge of many things is more valuable than the understanding that comes from being able to apply those things to the whole.
I suppose that I should make one qualification up front. And that is that I personally know a number of non-Christians who are very thankful people and who thoroughly enjoy the celebration of this American holiday. There can be no doubting the deep Christian roots of this event, but regardless of one’s faith (or lack thereof), there is much in life to be thankful for as Americans. I should also state up front that many people (Christians included) live out their lives holding to a variety of inconsistencies without paying them any mind or suffering as a result of said inconsistencies — such is the natural end of living in a post-modern world. My intent here is not so much to argue the merits of a thoroughly consistent worldview, but rather to raise the question of Thanksgiving for the atheist, assuming the value of a consistent worldview.
To begin with, there are several categories by which we may mark our thankfulness. The first, we could think of as “personal thankfulness,” which would reflect a certain sense of satisfaction for having made choices or having done something that brought benefits to your life. “I am so glad that I chose such-and-such a restaurant for dinner” or “I am thankful that I chose to strive for this goal” are the kinds of mental thoughts that would accompany this kind of thankfulness. This thankfulness is good and important, but I would suggest that it makes up a smaller percentage of the state of our thankfulness than one might initially think. Simply put, often that restaurant was suggested by a friend or we were helped to the particular goal by others and the timing was perfect for you to be successful. Thus, this kind of thankfulness often is at least partially dependent on events or persons outside of you as an individual.
And that, then, leads us to the second kind of thankfulness: thankfulness toward others. This reflects the kind of thankfulness that is directed towards another human being who has done something that has benefitted you. It might be a nice gift, but it also might be found in the form of advice, counsel, or even a rebuke. As I look back on my life, I am very thankful toward certain friends of mine who had the integrity to tell me that I was about to make a stupid mistake if I took this or that action. I might not have felt thankful at the moment, we seldom do when people speak truth to us, but over time, once my ego stopped swelling and my self-defense mechanisms returned to their proper place, I realized the wisdom of what was told to me and was thankful to have such friends.
Yet, again, this kind of thankfulness, while common to our experience, likely does not make up as large a proportion of our total thankfulness as we might think. The reality is that even in cases like this, there are still elements of providence (the atheist would likely call them coincidence) that are outside of the control of either you or the person toward whom you are thankful. For example, there are chance meetings that brought about conversations that led to the advice (or whatever) you happened to be given. And how did you make such a friendship? The singular friendship that I have maintained from my years at the University is that of a lady with whom I happened to get lost on campus. It seems that the two of us were given wrong information as to where a certain English class was to meet and we both ended up in the wrong corridor together at the same time. The typo on our course-lists, the fact that neither of us had received the correction (when most of the class did), and the timing by which we bumped into each other were all elements that were outside of our direct or indirect influence. I am thankful for all of these events because she and I have kept up correspondence over the years and have encouraged one another as we have both gone our separate ways in life. If we are honest as we survey the landscape of our experience, there are numerous such events that can be traced in our lives for which we are surely thankful. Again, some would call these things coincidence, from a Christian perspective, I choose to use the term “providence.”
Thus far, at least in the immediate sense of personal satisfaction and thankfulness to someone for kindness, there is no contradiction between the atheistic worldview and said thankfulness. In fact, were an atheist choosing not to be thankful for these things, one would have to draw the conclusion that something was wrong with the person’s thinking. Yet here is where the consistency comes to an end, for how is it that someone can direct their thankfulness toward someone (or something) in which he does not believe? Let me explain.
If I am given a gift, while I am thankful for the gift, I will typically express that thanks toward the one from whom the gift came (to do otherwise would be considered rude). That is easy enough to do when a friend or neighbor gives something to us, but what about when providence shines its face upon our lives? To whom (or to what) does the atheist express his thanks? Arguably, one of the reasons that ancient man began worshipping idols was to solve this dilemma. At least in the stone representation of that which his imagination dictated was the source of good things, one could then direct one’s thanksgiving. Yet, the atheist does not set up idols of wood or stone.
The likely answer to this dilemma that the modern atheist will bring to the table falls into one of two categories. One view is to argue that all things are determined by a sequence of cause and effects and thus these things took place and they could not have not taken place. This worldview is referred to as “fatalism” and is a form of deterministic approach. The atheist who holds to this view ought, then, be thankful for nothing (for what happened logically must have happened and could not have been otherwise) or recognize that their thankfulness also is simply a result of chemical interactions that are a result of causes (and again could not have been otherwise), thus making the idea of thankfulness devoid of meaning (it is simply an experience). Any discussion of thanksgiving, from a fatalistic perspective, reduces itself to meaningless absurdity and is thus neither internally consistent nor helpful if one is trying to be consistent with their worldview.
The second, and arguably more palatable, solution of the dilemma as to whom shall we express our thankfulness is to argue that what I am referring to as “providence” is nothing more than pure random chance and thus, I am not thankful to chance, but thankful for chance, in turn, never directing one’s thanksgiving toward someone or something. Yet, how can one be thankful for something that is purely random? Even the craps-shooter praises “Lady Luck” for his good-fortune with the dice. It is not that which is random that we are thankful for, but we are thankful for that which guides or superintends that which is perceived to be random. Granted that the atheist will likely counter that we simply perceive someone guiding “chance events,” but our perception is little more than a figment of our own imaginations. Certainly, the question as to whether God is a figment of our imagination or not is a discussion to be pursued, but not here because this response of the atheist is meant to do little more than to distract from the question at hand: can an atheist be thankful in a meaningful way while still being consistent within his atheism. The answer to the matter must be “no,” for thankfulness must be directed outside of oneself, particularly for the events and circumstances that we have no control over. I am thankful, for example, that I was born and raised in the United States of America in a middle-class home with a family who loved me. This very fact has afforded me opportunities that I would not have had were circumstances different. Yet there is not one aspect of these circumstances that I can say that I had any control over. I might thank my parents for loving me and for their choice to reside in America, but their choice to do so was also based on events that were outside of their sphere of influence (where there were jobs, etc…).
So, where does that lead us? No, I do not expect a run of atheists coming into the church, giving up their unbelief, and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior because their worldview has inconsistencies. Sure, it could happen, but that would be a work of the Holy Spirit, not the work of a logical argument. In addition, it should be noted that Christians are not the only ones who can appeal to this kind of argument, any religious institution that envisions their gods interacting with the lives of men can appeal in similar ways. My purpose is to appeal to what I believe is an inward desire that we each have — and that is to have a worldview that is consistent with experience, reason, and itself. I have had atheists say to me, “I am thankful for my inconsistency,” but deep down, is that a very satisfying way to live? Is intellectual inconsistency either satisfying or something to thank oneself for? I would suggest it is not and would counter that intellectual consistency is not only satisfying, but it is something we desire deep down (and ought to because we are made in the image of a God who is perfectly consistent with himself).
The third of our statements deals with the relationship of Satan toward believers—“I will snatch them” or “I will steal them away.” While we would affirm in our theology that the believer is held by Christ and can never be separated from his hand (John 6:37; 10:28; Romans 8:37-39), the reality of Satan’s eventual failure does not dissuade him from this attempt to make us stumble and fall away from our Lord and master. He is a persistent foe. This phrase could be embellished with some of the means that our enemy employs: Ego Territabo (“I will intimidate”) or Ego Onerabo (“I will weary” or “I will oppress”).
In contrast to Jesus, who gives life and life abundant (John 10:10), but the thief, which is Satan, only comes to kill and destroy. He comes to undermine the work of the fellowship and to frustrate our labors. Though he knows he cannot win, he strives toward that end. Peter describes him as a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8) seeking someone to devour. Jesus describes him as a wolf, seeking to prey upon the weak sheep (John 10:12). John describes him as a dragon who deceives the world and seeks to lash out and destroy the followers of Jesus Christ (Revelation 12:9,17).
So, what is our response to this kind of wild enemy. Peter says that we are to be sober-minded and watchful. Being sober-minded means that one’s mind must be clear from distractions and from all of those things that would flatter us so as to lead us astray. As the man who is drunk acts in a way that is both unwise and unlike his character, so the man who is sober-minded should act in a spirit of wisdom and in a way that is consistent with the Godly character that the Spirit has instilled in us. It is to remain self-controlled even in situations where threat arises.
And to be aware of those threats, we must be watchful. This is a military term reflecting the guard that we must have on the wall to warn us of the temptation of sin (Ezekiel 3:16-21). We are not to be like the ostrich burying its head in the sand. We must not be found asleep at the post. The Apostle Paul even uses this term of watchfulness as an analogy of being alive (1 Thessalonians 5:10), a reminder that life and death are the matters with which we are dealing; a serious reminder indeed, particularly in a world that rarely takes seriously the warnings that scripture sets before us.
Though Harry Houdini may not be a model example of Christian faith (his heritage was Jewish), he is an example of what it means to be sober-minded and watchful as a Christian. Many of his stunts, from the perspective of an outside observer, were death-defying, reckless, and foolish. Yet, when you realize that Houdini never performed a stunt that had not been planned out and rehearsed many times with many safeguards in place, you must confess that reckless is not a term that can be properly applied. From the perspective of a non-Christian, sometimes the work that Christians do seems equally reckless and foolish. Christians regularly go and minister to people in plague infested areas knowing that they too might contract the disease, but doing so for the sake of the Gospel. My favorite missionary, John Paton, went to Tana Island in the New Hebrides which was populated by several cannibal tribes and his life was at constant risk. Yet, he went anyway. I have worked with inner-city drug addicts in a place where at one time the shelter’s director was stabbed by a man staying there. The Christian goes, though, because the Christian understands that the call of God is more important than the risks. At the same time, the Christian goes knowing the risks that are present and does not ever go until one has bathed himself in prayer and sought the prayers of others. Like Houdini, there are risks certainly, but the risks are approached in sober preparation.
The Devil seeks to snatch you out of the hand of God. That cannot be done, but that does not mean that the resultant tug-o-war on your life will always be a pleasant thing. At the same time, in knowing who the victor will be, it enables you to stretch beyond your limits and grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Given our fallen and sinful state, there is a great deal of stretching left to be done to prepare us for God’s heaven—what are we waiting for; step into the call that God has placed upon your life.