Monday, September 29, 2008

Philosophy of Religion Oral Exams

For my MCCC Philosophy of Religion Students:

The oral exams will be in Z-272 (La-Z-Boy Center).

The exam questions are:

1. Explain Anselm's Ontological Argument for God's Existence

2. Explain Gaunilo's criticism of Anselm's OA. Explain Plantinga's critique of Gaunilo (no "intrinsic maximum")

3. Explain Kant's criticism of the OA, and Malcom's response to Kant

4. Explain the Kalam Cosmological Argument for God's Existence

5. Explain Paley's Teleological Argument for God's Existence

6. Explain Hume's Criticism of Paley

7. Explain the Fine-Tuning Argument for God's Existence (Collins)

Heaven's Gates are... Where?

In today's there an article on the conversion of two great religious holy days in Jerusalem: the Jewish month of Elul which leads to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the Muslim month of Ramadan. For both Muslims and Jews these are holy times in a most holy place, Jerusalem. Having been to Jerusalem last winter I wish I could spend another month there now.

Is Jerusalem especially holy? "Holy" means "set apart for God." A "holy" month would be a month where God especially reveals himself; a "holy" city would be a city where God especially dwells. As 17-year-old Avi Kenig says as she looks up at a clear night sky, “It feels here as if the heavens are open to our prayer. We have been taught that here we are at the center of the world. These are the gates to heaven.”

What's a Christian like me supposed to think of this? My answer is that, in Jesus, the opening of heaven's gates is no longer geographical or temporal. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, a time is coming when there will no longer be worship on your holy mountain (Mount Gerizim) or in Jerusalem (on Mount Zion - the "temple mount"). When we pray "God let your kingdom come, let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," we're not asking God to send something special on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. We are asking God to rule and reign, here and now.

With Jesus the "center of the world" shifted. Geographical and temporal boundaries no longer matter. That's why we're experiencing the opening of heaven's gates here in Monroe, Michigan.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Brian McLaren's Kingdom Theology has a nice article written by Scot McKnight on Brian LcLaren. McLaren's theology is especially expressed in his two books The Secret Message of Jesus and Everything Must Change. I very much enjoyed both of these books. I'm using Secret Message in my "Kingdom of God I" class in RMS (as well as Ladd's The Gospel of the Kingdom).

McLaren says that he could only see the kingdom vision of Jesus when he came to a "place of cynically doubting much of what I had been told about Jesus." "To us the words of fellow emergent thinker Peter Rollins, the Northern Irish philosopher at Ikon community, McLaren experienced the "fidelity of betrayal." He had to betray the Jesus and the gospel and the church that nurtured him to become faithful to the Jesus of this kingdom vision."

I doubt McLaren's betrayal was that complete. But I don't doubt this happened. Because in many ways it's happened to me, too. I remain phenomenally indebted to my evangelical roots. They pointed me to Jesus. I'm still in love with Jesus, and this has caused me to want to know and make known the Real Jesus, whose message was about the beautiful kingdom he was bringing in. I see Brian doing that, too.

I'm not with him on everything. But hey, my wonderful wife Linda and I don't agree on everything either. McKnight does a very good job explaining what Brian is doing with Jesus and the kingdom, and offers helpful suggestions for furthering not only the dialogue but the kingdom itself.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Calvinist & A Non-Calvinist Answer to a Natural Evil

Why did the bridge in Minneapolis collapse? Here's the Calvinist answer of John Piper and the non-Calvinist response of Greg Boyd.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

N.T. Wright on I Thessalonians 4:13-18

In my RMS "Kingdom of God" class today a student asked a question about I Thessalonians 4:13-18. I'm nearly done with N.T. Wright's new book, so I'm giving his answer as a way to get into the issue.

In I Thessalonians 4:13-18 we read:

13 Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage each other with these words.

N.T. Wright, in Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, comments on this passage. "The point to notice above all about these tricky verses is that they are not to be taken as a literal description of what Paul thinks will happen. Theya re simply a different way of saying what he is saying in 1 Corinthians 15:23-27 and 51-54, and in Philippians 3:20-21." (131)

Which means... what? In 1 Cor 15:23-27 Paul talks about the parousia of the Christ as the time of the resurrection of the dead. It's "the time when his present though secret rule will become manifest in the conquest of the last enemies, especially death." In vv. 51-54 Paul speaks of what will happen to those who are not yet dead when Jesus comes again. They will be changed, transformed.

Wright says "This is clearly the same event as he is speaking of in I Thessalonians 4; we have the trumpet in both, and the resurrection of the dead in both; but whereas in I Thessalonians he speaks of those presently alive being "snatched up in the air," in I Corinthians he speaks of them being "transformed."

In Philippians Paul speaks of the transformation of the present lowly body to be like Jesus' glorious body as a result of his all-conquering power." (131-132)

All three of these passages refer to the same thing. But why does Paul use the language he does in I Thessalonians about Jesus descending and people being caught up in the air? Wright writes: "I suggest that he is finding richly metaphorical ways of alluding to three other stories that he is deliberately bringing together. (Paul was good at richly mixed metaphors: in the next chapter, I Thessalonians 5, he says that the thief will come in the night, so the woman will go into labor, so you mustn't get drunk but must stay awake and put on your armor. As the television programs say, don't try that one at home.)" (132)

To conclude: Paul is not referring to 4-5 or more separate events but describing the same event using different language, some of it highly metaphorical. If this is not true then we seem to be committed to saying he's describing different events, which would be incoherent.

Weinberg on Science & Religion: Part II (Choose Funny-ness)

Steve Weinberg, in part 2 of his essay "Without God," talks about how to live life in the absence of God. He writes: "I'm not going to say that it's easy to live without God, that science is all you need. For a physicist, it is indeed a great joy to learn how we can use beautiful mathematics to understand the real world. We struggle to understand nature, building a great chain of research institutes, from the Museum of Alexandria and the House of Wisdom of Baghdad to today's CERN and Fermilab. But we know that we will never get to the bottom of things, because whatever theory unifies all observed particles and forces, we will never know why it is that that theory describes the real world and not some other theory.

Worse, the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair."

I think Weinberg is spot-on in these observations:

1. If God is not, then there's no point to life.

2. If God is not, then there are no objective moral values.

3. If there is no super-natural reality, then all that is real is physical. This includes "the emotions we treasure, [and] our love for our wives and children."

On atheism, all these things are correct. So, what's an atheist to do? Weinberg's answer is [I'm not now trying to be funny]: Get humor. Laugh. He writes: "What, then, can we do? One thing that helps is humor, a quality not abundant in Emerson. Just as we laugh with sympathy but not scorn when we see a one-year-old struggling to stay erect when she takes her first steps, we can feel a sympathetic merriment at ourselves, trying to live balanced on a knife-edge. In some of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, just when the action is about to reach an unbearable climax, the tragic heroes are confronted with some "rude mechanical" offering comic observations: a gravedigger, or a doorkeeper, or a pair of gardeners, or a man with a basket of figs. The tragedy is not lessened, but the humor puts it in perspective."

Now I am smiling. I find this funny. So, Weinberg has helped me already. Honestly, I find this hilarious. Maybe that's just me, but Weinberg has just touched my funny bone.

OK. But now I've got another problem. If all emotions are only the physical activity of the brain, what am I to make of the suggestion that I choose to get funny?

How on this physicalist paradigm can I follow Weinberg's advice? He counsels: "The more we reflect on the pleasures of life, the more we miss the greatest consolation that used to be provided by religious belief: the promise that our lives will continue after death, and that in the afterlife we will meet the people we have loved. As religious belief weakens, more and more of us know that after death there is nothing. This is the thing that makes cowards of us all." What on no-God's green earth am I to do with the exhortation to "reflect on the pleasures of life" given the fact that the act of "reflecting" on anything is right out of Descartes? And the atheistic truth is that after death there is nothing. OK. But this makes "cowards" of us all? Help! I fail to understand this hyper-metaphorical language.

I can see how Weinberg concludes, in the face of atheism, that all we can do is put on a happy face. What else could we do? Now I'm thinking of Bob Marley and Bobbie McFerrin. I used to despise this little song, but now I'm revisiting the lyrics.


Here's a little song i wrote, you might want to sing it note for note

don't worry, be happy

in every life we have some trouble, when you worry you make it double

don't worry, be happy dont worry be happy now dont worry be happy dont worry be happy dont worry be happy dont worry be happy

aint got no place to lay your head, somebody came and took your bed,

don't worry, be happy

the landlord say your rent is late, he may have to litigate,

dont worry (small laugh) be happy

look at me i'm happy, don't worry, be happy

i give you my phone number, when you're worried,

call me, i make you happy don't worry, be happy

aint got no cash, aint got no style, aint got no gal to make you smile

but don't worry, be happy cos when you worry, your face will frown,

and that will bring everybody down, so don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy now...don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy

now there this song i wrote i hope you you learned it note for note

like good little children don't worry be happy

listen to what i say in your life expect some trouble

when you worry you make it double don't worry be happy be happy now don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy don't worry don't worry be happy don't worry, don't worry, don't do it, be happy, put a smile on your face, don't bring everybody down like this don't worry,

it will soon pass whatever it is, don't worry, be happy...

I'm not worried

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Love of Philosophy

I really enjoyed this article from yesterday's on philosolphy professor Michael Jolley of Auburn University. Jolley is that rare person who's at a university and wants to teach. In his introductory courses his goal is to produce students who are “capable of genuine creative philosophical thought.”

Weinberg on Science & Religion: Part I

Steven Weinberg has an article called "Without God" in the new New York Review of Books. Here are some point he makes, with some comments I want to make.

1. We have a "widespread weakening of religious belief." Empirically, this seems to be false. See both Donald E. Miller's Global Pentecostalism, and Philip Jenkins's The Next Christendom. This is too general a statement to handle. In Europe might this be true? Jenkins would say it's not true.

2. A "tension" between science and religious belief has had, as a consequence, a "decline of religious belief." Probably not. And probably not among scientists. See Francis Collins's The Language of God, where Collins argues that the percentage of scientists who do and do not believe in God has not changed in a hundred years.

3. Weinberg says there are "four sources of tension between science and religion." #1 is: "religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena—thunder, earthquakes, disease—that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being. There was a nymph in every brook, and a dryad in every tree. But as time passed more and more of these mysteries have been explained in purely natural ways." The result, for Weinberg, was "the advent of widespread atheism and agnosticism among the educated in the eighteenth century." Here I want Weinberg to give empirical evidence because, Collins again, in the last one hundred years such things have not increased. In my church in East Lansing, Michigan, we have many scientists for whom the following could not be said: "the explanatory power of science worrie[s]those who value... religion." Because of their pre-theoretical worldview science's explanatory power ends up thrilling the "religious." Here it's all about worldviews, correct?

4. Weinberg writes: "we have not observed anything that seems to require supernatural intervention for its explanation." That's question-begging.

5. "There is a second source of tension: that these explanations have cast increasing doubt on the special role of man, as an actor created by God to play a starring part in a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation. We have had to accept that our home, the earth, is just another planet circling the sun; our sun is just one of a hundred billion stars in a galaxy that is just one of billions of visible galaxies; and it may be that the whole expanding cloud of galaxies is just a small part of a much larger multiverse, most of whose parts are utterly inhospitable to life." Is "multiverse" talk science? Some scientists disagree. Weinberg should refrain from mentioning "God of the gaps" arguments if he wants to bring in multiverse theory. See here, for example. And what, precisely, does the size of the universe have to do with anything? Are we "just another planet" (the "Mediocrity Principle"), or are we "rare earth?" Surely it's not clear. If we're the only intelligent life in the universe then, cosmically, we're not "just another planet." I don't think this in itself would dissuade Weinberg on the issue of God. If his myth gets exploded I don't see him becoming a believer. Likewise, for me, if there's ETs out there it will not affect my religiosity. And in all of this size does not matter.

6. Weinberg's words about the problem of consciousness are not helpful. He says we may never solve the problem of consciousness. I can accept that. What I cannot accept is that the physicalism he so wants to believe in is "true." It's precisely the problem of consciousness that makes this incoherent for me.

7. Weinberg's third source of tension between religion and science is Islamic fatalism, which leads to not a lot of science being done by serious Muslims.

8. Weinberg's tension #4 has to do with the conflict between what science claims and what religious authorities claim. He makes an astonishing claim: "Though I can't prove it, I suspect that when Americans are asked in polls whether they believe in God or angels or heaven or hell they feel that it is a religious duty to say that they do, whatever they actually believe. And of course hardly anyone today in the West seems to have even the slightest interest in the great controversies—Arians vs. Athanasians, monophysites vs. monothelites, justification by faith or by works—that used to be taken so seriously that they set Christians at each other's throats." This is Weinberg the psychologist, or Weinberg the Dawkinsian mind-reader. Weinberg is such a dogmatist that he simply cannot envision Americans, if they have any level of intelligence at all, actually believing in God and heaven and angels and hell. This marks Weinberg as a fundamentalist. Talking to him about anything different will be like talking to a brick wall. As for the "great controversies," Weinberg is guilty of anachronistic thinking. Those "great controversies" made sense within their historical context. To ask that many will today be concerned with them is to expect us to share a 1700-year-old worldview. Today we have other "great controversies," and many are fully religious. For example, the question "Does my life have a purpose?" is alive and well.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Return of Goodness; The Return of God

Edward Skidelsky has written a very intelligent essay of virtue ethics - "The Return of Goodness." It's a call for an ethic based on goodness rather than a utilitarian ethic. For example, utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote: "Neither one person, nor any number of persons," declared John Stuart Mill, the originator of this principle, "is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it." In other words, do what you want as long as you don't hurt someone else.

"Mill's principle has come to shape western public doctrine. It lies behind the social legislation of the 1960s and the anti-discriminatory legislation of the past four decades. Neither left nor right dares reject it openly. Yet in historical terms, it is an anomaly, a departure from the common sense of our species." So "a man who, having fulfilled his obligations to others, settles down with a six-pack to watch porn on television all day may be foolish, disgusting, vulgar and so forth, but he is not strictly speaking immoral. For he is, as the saying goes, "within his rights.""

"Virtue" has no place in this philosophy of morality. So? Skidelsky, who also cites the support of Richard Reeves, suggests that our real problems in our nation are not economic, but moral. We lack the moral resources to better our lot in life.

Virtue ethics argues that some choices really are better than others. There is such a thing as "goodness." "Goodness" sounds like it's an objective moral value, contra utilitarian subjectivism. Skidelsky thinks we can agree to this without belief in God. He says "it is a religion - a religion without God."
Can we be good without God? Yes, I think we can. Does goodness make any sense without God? No, I don't think so. We need a metaphyscial foundation to be able to claim that there is such a thing as "goodness." It is precisely the loss of God that led atheistic philosophers to try to find an ethical theory without God. Hence utilitarianism. So it seems our real problems are not essentially moral, but religious.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Praying at the Capital This Morning

It’s 6:30 in the morning, and I’m about to drive to Lansing where it will be my privilege to open today’s Michigan State Senate Session with prayer. For me this is a great honor. And it’s a God-opportunity. I’m glad our government still opens their sessions with prayer. Is the opening prayer mere protocol? For me it makes no difference, because I believe in God and I believe that where prayer focuses, power falls. I look forward to blessing our state senators with wisdom and hope and creativity and diacritical ability that can only come from God. They need it, as do I. God is not in some panic room over these difficult economic times, and has direction to give for all who will listen. And when it clesrly comes from God and advances his kingdom the glory will go to him.

I don’t feel that political solutions will ultimately cure the things that lie deep in the human heart. I do believe each of our state senators has a heart that can be transformed into Christlikeless. If and as this happens if will be good for them and us and God. If this happens it would cause the people to rejoice.

In 1 Timothy 2:1-6 Paul instructs young Timothy by saying: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.”

I’ll be standing before the Senate at 10 AM and before God asking him for some things and giving thanks.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Forget American Christianity, Just Give Me Jesus

(Hagia Sofia, Istanbul)

Increasingly, I find myself less and less interested in becoming what many people want to become. I don’t admire what a lot of people seem to admire. I mean this in two ways.

#1 - I’m not interested in becoming what the media says I need to be. And what’s that? It’s someone who has a lot of money, a lot of power over other people, and a lot of sexual experiences. The “big three” of America are money, power, and sex. Regarding money, I have never had a lot of money. Making money has never been my pursuit. I seem to be interested, for the most part, in the things money can’t buy. Like healed and restored people and relationships. I can’t say that I’ve never succumbed to the money-god. But I can say that life’s greatest joys for me have nothing to do with money. Regarding power over other people, I value serving others and getting beneath others rather than standing over them. Again, I can’t say I’ve never served the power-god. But I can say I don’t like it when power-hungry people exercise their authority over me, and this has caused me to not want to be like that towards others. And regarding the quest for multiple and many sexual experiences, I love being married to one women, Linda, for 35 years. There are things to know and experience in a long-term monogamous relationship that cannot be known in, e.g., serial monogamy and multiple sexual “partners.” Add to that the fact that I stood before God, my family, and my friends and vowed to Linda that I would be faithful to her through all the ups-and-downs of life “until death do us part.”

#2 - I’m mostly not interested in becoming what the Christian media says I need to be. By this I mean the glitz, hype, fabricated drama, stage-presence, money-taking & money-making stuff I see. Not all Christian media is like this. But some are, and I don’t want to be like that. Of course it’s not for me to judge who’s real and who’s not. But I’ve seen more than enough of “Christian” tele-people whose lives fall apart because of money, power, and sex. Personally, I am asking God to protect me from all of that, because it ends up destroying a lot of people’s faith.

What would I like to become? Just give me Jesus. The Real Jesus. The Real Jesus of Matthew-Mark-Luke-John. Not the American-TV-”jesus.” Just…. Jesus. Give me the Jesus who tells me to watch out for “money” because Money is like a god. Give me the Jesus who, though He could have had all the earthly power He wanted, rejected all of that when He was tempted in the desert and instead chose to serve and give and love and sacrifice. Give me the Jesus who loved prostitutes and delivered them from sex-trafficking and gave them a life of holiness and dignity.

Jesus is the One I admire. I want to know Him and be like Him.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Missing God While Not Believing In Him

"I don't believe in God, but I miss him." So begins Julian Barnes' Nothing To Be Frightened Of. This is a book I would like to read after reading all the other books I've got that I want to read.

Here's another review of agnostic Barnes' new book.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Uh-oh... Sarah Palin Has Pentecostal Roots!!!

Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s Christian background is in the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. Some GOP leaders are trying to downplay this. Why? Because Pentecostals believe in things like “speaking in tongues” and divine healing. Horrible things, aren’t they; viz., the idea that God can speak to and communicate through someone who believes in him, and that God both is willing to heal people and has the power to do so.

I’ve met “Christians” who downplay those things, too. Or, rather, who take things like tongues and healing right off the playing field, saying God used to do that kind of stuff but doesn’t do it anymore. Which I find absurd.

In I Corinthians 14:39 Paul instructs Christians to “not forbid speaking in tongues.” Hmmm… sounds like God himself doesn’t want to downplay the gift of tongues.

In James 5:14 we read that if we are sick we should call the leaders of the church, and they will come to us, anoint us with oil, and “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody over a period of 38 years as a pastor who’s been sick who would want me to downplay my praying for them for healing.

Have you ever seen anyone healed as a result of praying for them? I have, many times. And I’ve documented a number of these events in 3000 pages of journal entries over many years. Have I ever prayed for someone who has not gotten healed? Yes. But I refuse to bring the teachings of Jesus down to the level of my personal experience. That is, I cannot “downplay” what Jesus says and does and instructs that we can do in his name.

Palin’s former Pentecostal pastor Tim McGraw says her Pentecostal roots may be being downplayed for a reason: “I think there could be issues of belief that could be misunderstood or played upon by people that don’t know.”

McGraw goes on to say: “Everyone has a way of viewing the world and Sarah does too and hers would be shaped by the common-sense practicality of how she’s been shaped by the Bible — which is basically the world view that says God loves people, people can access him and he’s given us wisdom for living,”

Of course. Everyone has a worldview. No one’s life is uninfluenced by that worldview. There are worldview issues going on here. Having lived in a religious environment that’s closer to practical atheism than living-God-theism, I’m not thrilled about those who want to downplay the latter into the secularism of the former.

(I have many Pentecostal friends here in Monroe and am myself indebted to Pentecostal teachings on the Bible. Pentecostalism has helped me in my desire to find the Real Jesus.)

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Pray & Fast Over the Violence in India

Here’s an article in Charisma magazine on the violence against Christians in India.

“I have seen a lot of violence against Christians in my more than 30 years of sharing the Gospel with the people of Asia,” said K.P. Yohannan, founder of Gospel for Asia. “I have even been on the receiving end of some of those attacks. But the events in Orissa are by far the most orchestrated and horrifying atrocities I have ever witnessed.”

For more news reports on the persecution google "orissa persecution."

Christian leaders called for a day of prayer and fasting for India on Sept. 7.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Challenge of Teaching Philosophy

Here's a picture of me going to teach last week at MCCC. It's a challenging environment, but I feel I'm up to it.

My Ultimate (Non-Political) Hope

Barack Obama is coming to Monroe today, and to me it’s exciting when any presidential candidate does this. But as an alien I’m looking at this from the outside. I very much like the way Greg Boyd puts it - followers of Jesus, pay attention! Boyd writes: “I’m a citizen of a different empire (Phil 1:27; 3:20) and therefore a foreigner in this one (Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet 1:17; 2:11). I’m only here as an ambassador and soldier sent to defend and advance the interests of my own homeland while being careful not to get too involved in civilian affairs (2 Cor 5:20; 2 Tim. 2:4).”

If you are a follower of the Real Jesus, then listen to Boyd’s Jesus-perspective: “Whatever good [Barack] Obama, [John] McCain or any other politician may or may not be able to accomplish, the ultimate hope and allegiance of all Kingdom citizens must remain in Jesus Christ and in the mustard seed Kingdom he established. Our call as ambassadors of Christ is to individually and corporately look like Jesus in how we love and serve people, including the poor, the marginalized, the judged — and women with unwanted pregnancies. And our call is to trust that God will use the foolishness of this humble, servant activity to advance his Kingdom and ultimately transform the world. This is the audacious hope we foreigners are to embrace and passionately work for.”

How An Atheist Faces Death

I have not read Julian Barnes' new book Nothing To Be Frightened Of, but I might. Barnes' book is about living in the face of death; it's "an extended meditation on human mortality."

Barnes is an atheist. His book serves as a way an atheist faces death. From the's review, here are some highlights.

  • "For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about; unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out for ever -- including the jug -- there is no context to such pleasures and interests as come your way on the road to the grave. " Now that's some nice writing, and I think it's true. It's the Heideggarian truth that the meaning of death gives the answer to the meaning of life.

  • Here's a quote worth looking at in its entirety. "Bumper stickers and fridge magnets remind us that Life Is Not a Rehearsal. We encourage one another towards the secular modern heaven of self-fulfillment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn't it -- doesn't it? This is our chosen myth, and almost as much of a delusion as the myth that insisted on fulfillment and rapture when the last trump sounded and the graves were flung open, when the healed and perfected souls joined in the community of saints and angels. But if life is viewed as a rehearsal, or a preparation, or an anteroom, or whichever metaphor we choose, but at any rate as something contingent, something dependent on a greater reality elsewhere, then it becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious. Those parts of the world where religion has drained away and there is a general acknowledgment that this short stretch of time is all we have, are not, on the whole, more serious places than those where heads are still jerked by the cathedral's bell or the minaret's muezzin. On the whole, they yield to a frenetic materialism; although the ingenious human animal is well capable of constructing civilizations where religion coexists with frenetic materialism (where the former might even be an emetic consequence of the latter): witness America." The salient points here for me are the atheistic insights that: 1) without God, one must create another myth; namely, the myth of frenetic materialism and self-gratification. After all, as the apostle Paul once said, if Christ has not been risen (or if there's no God at all) we might as well eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; 2) "Life Is Not a Rehearsal." Or: there's no meaning to this life on atheism. Which is, of course, true. On atheism one creates an alternative myth.

  • Don't view your coming death through the eyes of the very, very, very few who will miss you when you're gone. "Rather," [Barnes] continues, one must see death "from the point of view of those who have never heard of you -- which is, after all, almost everybody. Unknown person dies: not many mourn. That is our certain obituary in the eyes of the rest of the world." He's right about this. Actually, this POV holds for the Christian theist, too. Even for us who believe in God and an afterlife, our earthly demise will go near-entirely unnoticed. The difference, for me, is this: while I will leave no personal legacy, nor should I attempt to (woe to those around me should I attempt to), God can leave his legacy in others through me.

  • "While some people on their deathbeds dutifully rage against the dying of the light, Barnes prefers those who simply remain true to themselves, who depart this life with, say, a gesture of quiet courtliness: "A few hours before dying in a Naples hospital," the Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller "said (presumably in Italian) to a male nurse who was cranking up his bed, 'You have beautiful hands.' " Barnes calls this "a last, admirable catching at a moment of pleasure in observing the world, even as you are leaving it." Similarly, the poet and classicist "A.E. Housman's last words were to the doctor giving him a final -- and perhaps knowingly sufficient -- morphine injection: 'Beautifully done.' " Au contraire, should I die before Linda my last words will be "See you very soon." The Post review says that, for Barnes, "certainly those gifted with religious faith possess an advantage over those without it: The dying believer will head straight for the door marked Enter, while the rest of us must settle for the one marked Exit." Yes, it's an advantage. And yes, I believe it's true.

  • Someone once described Barnes' life as this: "Got up. . . . Wrote book. Went out, bought bottle of wine. Came home, cooked dinner. Drank wine."

Such is the life of an atheist. Were there no God, then life's no more than this. No God = no value, no purpose, no meaning. Barnes serves as a decent example of trying to live this way. And, given his own post-mortem views, his book will become a mostly un-read and forgotten thing itself.