Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Obama on Faith and Reason

Obama argues we should keep Christ out of politics in the ironically titled The Audacity of Hope.  The following is a block quote from chapter 6 on faith, interspersed with my responses.

What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy demands is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason.

This is ambiguous.  Is Obama saying democracy demands Christians drop our values in politics or just drop them to be more persuasive?  On the one hand, the government does not demand that we drop our values - it grants freedom of religion.   (Notwithstanding the fire religious freedoms comes under from time to time, like the US government's seeking to deport a German family on the grounds that homeschooling is not a religious freedom (link) - generally the government grants religious freedom).  So I doubt Obama means the government is demanding Christians to drop our values.

On the other hand, if quoting scripture is simply unpersuasive, why doesn't Obama just let us continue with our unpersuasive tactic?  It's hard to believe Obama is just offering some friendly advice on how Christians can better defeat his policies on abortion and homosexuality.  That would make his statement a sort of  cry for help – “please stop me”. 

More likely he just wants us to put down our weapon that's been giving him so much trouble.  Christianity is not just amenable to reason – God Himself is the foundation of reason. It's painful all-around to be reminded that your opposing God.

If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God's will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

This assumes Christianity is unreasonable – that God’s commands are not a valid and persuasive point about what’s right and wrong.  But God's word is powerful.  Abortion is immoral because it violates God’s law of “thou shalt not kill” and unless someone completely hardens their heart, they know or can know abortion is wrong. Romans 9:11 calls Jacob and Esau children while in Rebecca’s womb - so unless you like the killing of kids, vote against abortion. If you don't like that answer, take it up with Him.

The problem isn't access to God's laws, but rather accepting them and submitting to them.  Wisdom calls out loud and clear, but if we refuse to listen, she will abandon us even when we seek her.  (Proverbs 1:20-30) Now I am not saying we can think up the Trinity through natural theology alone, but I think we can figure out we are not suppose to kill kids.    

For those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do, such rules of engagement may seem just one more example of the tyranny of the secular and material worlds over the sacred and eternal. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Almost by definition, faith and reason operate in different domains and involve different paths to discerning truth.

Different domains?  Both faith and reason tell us murder is wrong, so they are on in different domains.  My faith and my reason are under the dominion of the Lord Jesus Christ.  How can Obama say the world is sovereign and tyrannical over Christ?  He made the world and He came to save the world.  If you believe the world popped into existence out of nothing, you might as well live for nothing and have the audacity to hope you return to it when you die.

Scripture calls those without faith both wicked and unreasonable. (2 Thessalonians 3:2).  It’s unreasonable not to believe God exists and that He created and upholds the world and has given us His commands and has revealed Himself to us in Scripture.  There’s no other way to account for the origin of the world, the basis of morality, or scriptures unified message about who God is.  

Reason—and science—involves the accumulation of knowledge based on realities that we can all apprehend. Religion, by contrast, is based on truths that are not provable through ordinary human understanding—the “belief in things not seen.”  When science teachers insist on keeping creationism or intelligent design out of their classrooms, they are not asserting that scientific knowledge is superior to religious insight. They are simply insisting that each path to knowledge involves different rules and that those rules are not interchangeable.

Evolution is not science; it’s bad theology.  No one observers one species evolving to another or the world popping into being.  Those are examples of science trying to pry into theology.  But theology alone explains origins.  That’s why it’s the prince of the sciences.   Scripture says atheists are fools and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Descartes, after reasoning "I think therefore I am", says His knowledge of God is more certain than his observations, because God must have created him and put the idea of God in him.  (Descartes.  Meditation 3) Indeed, scientific observation alone (watching apples fall) cannot ascend to a general principle (gravity) without first believing in a God who holds things together.  Without knowing God is the origin of gravity, you are left post hoc fallacy of deriving causation from correlation. 

In a pluralistic democracy, the same distinctions apply. Politics, like science, depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. Moreover, politics (unlike science) involves compromise, the art of the possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It insists on the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime; to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

Obama equivocates between moral and logical impossibility.  There's nothing absurd or self-contradictory about God's standards, even if we can't be morally perfect in this life.  Obama says God's laws are dangerous; he knows better than God what is good for people. But of course, the real danger is ignoring rather than obeying God's laws.

Science doesn't depend on our ability to persuade each other. It's an organization of what we learn through repeatable observations.  Science describes objective reality; whether others are persuaded to believe it's claims or not.  Evolution is spread through persuasion rather than observation, showing yet again that it's not science.  

The story of Abraham and Isaac offers a simple but powerful example. According to the world’s three great monotheistic religions, Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his "only son, Isaac, whom you love," as a burnt offering. Without argument, Abraham takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded. Of course, we know the happy ending—God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute. Abraham has passed God's test of devotion. He becomes a model of fidelity to God, and his great faith is rewarded through future generations. And yet it is fair to say that if any of us saw a 21st century Abraham raising the knife on the roof of his apartment building, we would call the police; we would wrestle him down; even if we saw him lower the knife at the last minute, we would expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away and charge Abraham with child abuse. We would do so because God doesn't reveal Himself or His angels to all of us in a single moment. We do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know, understanding that a part of what we know to be true—as individuals or communities of faith—will be true for us alone.

Islam says Ishmael, not Isaac, was placed on the alter.

God tested Abraham.   We do hear what Abraham heard, because it's recorded in scripture.  There's no reason to believe that anyone within earshot of Abraham wouldn't also have heard God's voice or have seen the angel.  God ensured that everyone who need to hear the message did hear it. It's true and billions know it's true; it's not true for Abraham alone.  It's surprising to hear Abraham as grounds for denying absolute truth and for moral relativism - where's the connection? 

It's true some receive more revelation from God than others. But this is generally true of Christian doctrine rather than morality.  We all have a God given conscience; everyone knows it's wrong to kill, steal or lie.  

As for child abuse, according to Josephus, Isaac was 25 years old.  (Antiquity of the Jews Book 1, Chapter 13)  So we need not think of Isaac as an impressionable 4 year old - scarred for life dispute being rescued in the end. While it's true we shouldn't legislate God's tests, that's because tests are not normative, not because moral relativism is true (or false or true-false or whatever nonsensical truth status moral relativists assign to moral relativism).  


Felix Alexander said...

Regarding the first exerpt of Obama's book, you ask "Is Obama saying democracy demands Christians drop our values in politics or just drop them to be more persuasive".

I think the answer is neither. Since the development of the modern state, their main advocates have basically seen them as a drop-in replacement for God. For instance, in the Westminster tradition, Parliament is omnipotent and capable of decreeing right and wrong—early in the long process of divorce liberalisation in England, a Law Lord even concluded the parliament, by divorcing a certain couple, had even changed God's law and made it moral for them to remarry in the Church.

Obviously the American context is a bit different, but I think Obama is essentially trying to define the terms of legitimate debate and actually change and minimise and isolate Christianity in the process. In Obama's mind, you should be a faithful subject of the state first and foremost, and only a Christian subsequently (if at all); when of course, you should be a faithful Christian residing for the time being in the dispersion in America (who, of course, you should have every concern for).

So I guess I reckon Obama's saying the state demands Christians drop our values full stop, and adopt those of state (feeling free to go to whatever religious congregation you wish to one day a week), because the state is a religion-free faith of its own.

As for the rest of the post, I won't comment further.

Godismyjudge said...

Hi Felix,

I am afraid you are right - though Obama probably wouldn't it state it that openly, he probably wouldn't mind if just that happened.

God be with you,