Archive for September, 2008

Thought Bomb # 3 – Rationalism & Empiricism

September 30, 2008

The fuses had now been lit. The 17th century saw a number of philosophers build on the dissenting medieval philosophers to produce what is considered the lead-up to the ‘Enlightenment’. These philosophers can really be divided into two groups – rationalists and empiricists.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was the leading rationalist, whose thinking probably made the break from medieval thinking. Descartes despaired of ever knowing anything with certainty except in one area – mathematics. It was the kind of certainty found in the pure logic and reason of mathematics that led Descartes to teach that we should ‘accept nothing as true which is not presented to the mind so clearly and distinctly that there is no reason to doubt it’. In such a rigid search for certainty, Descartes found that the only thing that was certain was his own existence due to his reasoning faculty: “I think, therefore, I am.” Thinking – reason – was man’s only hope for enlightenment. Descartes’ skepticism was to have lasting effects. Beliefs are easy to undermine but impossible to restore.

Along with Descartes was Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza continued the rigid skepticism of rationalism and questioned everything from the inspiration of the bible, to the question of moral freedom, to the very personality of God. Gottfried Leibniz was the third major rationalist of this time.

On the other end of the scale were the empiricists. Whereas rationalists taught that pure reason is the way to certainty, empiricists taught that sensory experience is the way to any kind of understanding. Empiricists teach that knowledge does not come from innate ideas, but from experience. Probably the father of modern empiricism is John Locke (1632-1704). Locke rejected rationalism, and taught the human beings are born with minds like blank tablets (tabula rasa). Our sensory experiences begins to write our ideas about the world upon these tablets, and these ideas form our understanding of reality.

Building on Locke was David Hume (1711-1776). He took matters further to say that reason really has no place in our beliefs, or even in our inferences about the world. Hume took skepticism to a new level.

If you step back and view the carnage of these bombs, it looks something like this: the average man no longer trusted faith, revelation or even the traditions of the past. Uncertainty about reality was spreading, and the only hope for understanding lay in human brainpower and sense impressions. Even with these, it might not be the ‘truth’ you were knowing, just some ideas being filtered through your mind. In fact, to the average man, it was beginning to look like truth does not exist.

You can see the soil where “Modern Science” will grow being heartily plowed up. The seeds of a worldview are being sown: Man is a product of his environment. The only things worth knowing are the things we have ‘proved’ (by sense experience). Man’s salvation lies in the continued application of his brainpower towards solving problems. Matters of faith are personal, private, unknowable – and a little foolish.

Sound familiar?



Thought Bomb #2

September 22, 2008

 As one explosion sets off another, the thinking of William of Occam led to the more direct and raw approach of Francis Bacon.

Bacon’s era (1561-1626) was still a time with little distinction between alchemy, magic and scientific enquiry. Bacon, building on Occam, changed all that, and laid the seeds for a naturalistic (and ultimately atheistic) worldview.

What Bacon claimed was that man was hopelessly chained to his own prejudices and judgements, through which he views the world. These views Bacon called idols – not in the biblical sense – but in the sense that they obstruct man from perceiving reality as it is.

His theory for understanding reality was essentially a step up from William of Occam. Individual things (particulars) must be examined – ‘taken to pieces’ – in his words, and, ‘by a due process of exclusion and rejection lead to an inevitable conclusion.’

Bacon was suggesting something never consistently done before – a methodical interrogation of natural phenomena. Essentially – Bacon was advocating controlled and careful experiments. Moreover, his motive in doing so was to understand and control human life. By careful experimentation, one could arrive at axioms, hypotheses and interpretations – and predictable, controllable results.

This was a major shift from the haphazard investigations and experiments in ‘natural philosophy’ of Bacon’s time. This was the beginning of ‘modern science’ as we know it.

While his methods undoubtedly laid the foundation for many advances in quality of human life, we should note the drift even further from the Medieval consensus. The view of life as ordered by an Omnipotent God, Who rules by moral law, Who is to be known through faith in Revelation was rapidly being replaced by an altogether different view. The ‘real world’ is what we can test, experiment with and predict. The real world is the stuff of repeatable experiments – matter. The real world is material.

Forget the questions of universals, absolutes and the eternal. These are mere speculations, errors and fallible judgements built up over time through tradition, personal preference, human fallibility and the weakness of human language. What we can know with certainty is what we can prove by repeatable demonstrations.

Further, reality is not controlled by a sovereign, personal God to whom we owe obedience. It is controlled by natural laws. The more of these laws we discover, the more of them we can manipulate – and be the masters of our own destinies. Whereas faith and obedience used to be the keys to understanding life, knowledge through experience is now the true friend of mankind.

Thought Bomb #1

September 15, 2008

When looking around the ruins of Western culture, and while strolling through the dilapidated remains of the Western Christian church, we might do well to ask, “How did it come to this?”

In fact, it is no mystery how things came to be as they are. The real mystery is how to fix it.

One can trace our modern predicament back through a series of ‘thought bombs’. The thinking of several philosophers, politicians, psychologists and artists reshaped the world as we know it.

Probably the first bomb to begin the others was William of Occam.

To understand his influence, it is necessary to imagine life through the eyes of Medieval Man. To him, the world was a world created by, and ruled by, God. God was both transcendent and worthy of worship, while being involved in earthly affairs through Providence or miracle. Jesus Christ was the God-man. Man was sinful, dependent on God, and in need of grace. The universe was an ordered place, where God’s moral laws held sway over all.

Probably most significantly different from the modern’s was the view that the universe was filled with mystery and could only be understood by revelation. Thus, the primary way of understanding reality was not by observing it with the senses, but by faith in what God had revealed to be true of it. Though not all who held these views were regenerated Christians, this was the essential view of Western medieval culture.

William of Occam was a monk who lived from 1288 to 1348. William pioneered an altogether new way of perceiving reality. He contended that the universals which medievals regarded as giving the universe order (the true, the good, the beautiful) did not exist except in people’s minds. Knowledge was discovered not by using universals to understand particulars, but by examining particulars themselves. In William’s mind, particulars were the only things one could observe and know with certainty.

It’s hard to describe the explosion of this thought bomb in a few sentences. Richard Weaver took a whole book to describe it. It’s important you read this book at some point.

But if we are to try to capture the explosion with the limitations of our cameras, it might look like this: man’s focus moved away from the transcendent, eternal, permanent and absolute things towards the immanent, temporary and imperfect things. The organ of knowledge would inevitably shift away from faith toward sense experience. Man began to think of the universe with himself at the centre. God was bumped, and increasingly became something other than the purpose of man’s existence.

Thought bomb #1 would set off a chain reaction of other thought bombs.

The debris you call the world is the fallout.

Oswald Chambers on the Religious Imagination

September 6, 2008

The test of spiritual concentration is bringing the imagination into captivity. Is your imagination looking on the face of an idol? Is the idol yourself? Your work? Your conception of what a worker should be? Your experience of salvation and sanctification? Then your imagination of God is starved, and when you are up against difficulties you have no power, you can only endure in darkness. If your imagination is starved, do not look back to your own experience; it is God Whom you need. Go right out of yourself, away from the face of your idols, away from everything that has been starving your imagination. Rouse yourself, take the gibe that Isaiah gave the people, and deliberately turn your imagination to God.

One of the reasons of stultification in prayer is that there is no imagination, no power of putting ourselves deliberately before God.

                                                 – Oswald Chambers 
        My Utmost For His Highest, February 10 

Chambers is right. No one can pray without imagination – not for long, at least. Now, we might want to qualify the meaning of Chambers’ use of imagination. Chambers would be horrified by the New Agers’ ‘visualise Jesus’ prayer so popular today, or by the return of mystical contemplative prayer. These perversions of prayer are not what it means to pray with the religious imagination.

Chambers was referring to the ability to grapple with unseen realities. In prayer, imagination is critical. Perhaps like in no other endeavour, prayer must deal solely with what cannot be seen – hence the closed eyes.

Consider all that occurs in prayer.

One must have some idea of whom we are speaking to. One must have a picture in one’s mind of what prayer is accomplishing, of what it is to speak to God and be in His presence. One must correctly view oneself before Him, not using the sight of the eyes to judge who and what one is before God. An image of how He responds to prayer, what His attributes are, His nature and His works must be present in our minds or our prayer will not be prayed in faith, and it will aimlessly wander into distractedness of mind.

Since God must never be depicted in a graven image (for He cannot be), God has filled His Word with word pictures – metaphors, similes, graphic language, parables, comparisons- that enable the mind to grasp something of the truth of Him with whom we have to do, and who we are before Him. As we speak to the Invisible, Unseen One, we must necessarily be thinking on the truth portrayed in these word pictures of what He is like, what is happening when we pray, who we are, what promises are made to us and so forth.

These similes, metaphors and word-pictures portray God as Father, Son, Spirit, King, Maker, Vine, Door, Light, Bread, Fire, Shepherd, Bridegroom, and so forth.

Prayer is depicted as incense rising, subjects appearing before a throne, children asking their father for needs, supplicants appearing before a judge, victorious ones hailing their conqueror, slaves listening to their master.

The access is pictured as a veil opened up, a golden sceptre lowered, a gracious reception at the throne.

We are portrayed as pardoned criminals, favoured children, glorified saints, brothers and sisters under Father God, heirs, priests.

The point is, we must stock our minds with biblical images to pray with strength and concentration. We must do our best to purify such images of shallow associations. And when coming to prayer, we must not try to speak into the emptiness and nothingness, but rather speak to the One who has revealed Himself to our imaginations through countless word-pictures.