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Thoughts on Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: Patriotism and Paganism

July 15, 2020 Leave a comment

Some observations from recent reading and the Christian/Evangelical response to the pandemic situation.

In reading G.K. Chesterton’s classic work (published in 1908), Orthodoxy (online text and audio files available online here) I’ve noticed a similar thought style to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who were greatly influenced by Chesterton.  Additionally, Chesterton’s description of the right kind of patriotism, to me, brought forth the word-picture illustration of Tolkien’s The Shire (as for instance how Frodo described his love for the shire, without a particular reason, simply caring about it and its people):

The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason. If a man loves some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely), he may find himself defending that feature against Pimlico itself. But if he simply loves Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem. I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the mystic patriot who reforms. …If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason—because he has a reason. …Nowhere else is patriotism more purely abstract and arbitrary; and nowhere else is reform more drastic and sweeping. The more transcendental is your patriotism, the more practical are your politics.

Orthodoxy also brings out the lament concept, how we ought to respond in sadness, not rejoicing, at coming destruction and judgment.  Another interesting section is the contrast between paganism and its ‘non-binary’ sameness, versus the Christian expression of life with great diversity:

If any one wants a modern proof of all this, let him consider the curious fact that, under Christianity, Europe (while remaining a unity) has broken up into individual nations. Patriotism is a perfect example of this deliberate balancing of one emphasis against another emphasis. The instinct of the Pagan empire would have said, “You shall all be Roman citizens, and grow alike; let the German grow less slow and reverent; the Frenchmen less experimental and swift.” But the instinct of Christian Europe says, “Let the German remain slow and reverent, that the Frenchman may the more safely be swift and experimental. We will make an equipoise out of these excesses. The absurdity called Germany shall correct the insanity called France.”

Chesterton’s observations echo today, more than a century later, with the significance of the ‘break the binary’ movement that has now ushered in rampant homosexuality and transgenderism.  I first learned of this connection between paganism one-ness and these cultural expressions of perversion, from two of Dr. Peter Jones’ lectures (reference this previous post).

Yet as Chesterton pointed out, world history itself stands as a great testament to this fundamental difference in worldviews, in which we see the geographically large and monolithic Eastern empires, as contrasted with the great variety of life, even in the fact of the much smaller European nations that developed from the ancient Roman Empire.

Orthodoxy is an interesting read–some of it dated with references to the political ideas of the day, yet also expressing timeless truths about the Christian worldview, especially in terms of basic social ideas such as patriotism (and optimism/pessimism) and one-ness versus diversity.

Worldview Study: Understanding the Times (review)

December 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Nearing the end of the 2018 Challies Reading Challenge, I recently read a lengthy worldview book (from a frequent Kindle deal), Jeff Noebels’ “Understanding the Times:  A Survey of Competing Worldviews.”

The writing style is for laypeople, straightforward, though at over 500 pages it requires commitment to stick with it.  The first chapters seem to cover more general material common to any discussion about apologetics and other worldviews, as the book gets into describing several of the major worldviews:  Secularism, Marxism, post-modernism, Islam, New Spiritualism – and Christianity.  Of the non-Christian views, I have been most familiar with Secularism and New Spiritualism (which is a catch-all label for Hinduism, “New Age” and transcendental meditation), plus acquaintance with post-modernism and Islam.  Understanding the Times does not attempt an exhaustive look at all the different religious ideas or various cults, but interacts with the major ideas that Christians are likely to come across; modern-day Judaism is a smaller worldview; Buddhism and Hinduism have their differences, and have their differences from westernized “New Age,” but that would be the topic for other books – such as Marvin Olasky’s The Religions Next Door.  Marxism seems an odd choice to include, as an idea that enjoyed more popularity up through the mid-20th century, but the authors make the case for including this worldview which, unfortunately, has contributed in far greater measure to overall human misery and death in the last century, than other ideologies.

Where this book gets interesting is the chapters that consider several basic disciplines that are at the foundation of life in this world, and each of the worldview’s viewpoint (if any) at each of these points: theology, philosophy, ethics, biology, psychology, sociology, law, politics, economics, and history.  I particularly liked the chapters on ethics, politics, economics, and history, as well as the overall use of illustrations and quotes from popular literature (such as Les Miserables and Lord of the Rings, among others) as examples to help compare and contrast different worldviews on specific issues.

As an introduction to ethics, Understanding the Times notes the types of ethical theories:

  • Theories about ends (teleology): judging actions as right or wrong, based on the end goals desired. What is the good life?  How might the good life be secured for as many people as possible?  This is the ever-pragmatic “the ends justifies the means” approach.  This was the view of, for example, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Nietzsche, and John Dewey.
  • Theories about duty (deontology): What ought we to do? Whether we like it or not, we “ought” to do what is right merely because right is right.  Philosophers of this view include Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes.

Christianity does not fit neatly into either of these categories, but resolves the limitations of each view.  Addressing the problem of secularism (atheism) and morality, this book observes:

Christians can applaud that biblical morality is being upheld, and it is to (their) credit that they know a good idea when they see one.  What Secularists fail to address, however, is why these values are worth defending as moral declarations.  Cornelius Van Til’s assessment is apt:  they are sitting in God’s lap in order to slap him in the face.  In other words, secularists draw on truths explained only by God’s existence and form them into arguments to deny His existence altogether.

A (brief) summary of five Christian views regarding political involvement:

  1. Christians shouldn’t be involved. – religion and the intellect occupy different domains. An example here is Henry Ward Beecher,
  2. Society isn’t worth redeeming – late 1800s, early 1900s. The view of D.L. Moody.
  3. Political structures can’t change the human heart
  4. Christianity is only about the institution of the church and is not relevant to civil government: “Two-kingdoms theology.”  Michael Horton is noted as an example of this view.
  5. Christians should be involved, and they should try to take over

Overall this is another interesting book on the basics of worldview study, with a good survey overview of many of the common non-Christian views–and what the Christian worldview proclaims, by contrast.  It has often been a Kindle sale deal, and is worth reading.

Worldview Suppression: Romans 1 and Apologetics

July 6, 2018 8 comments

From my recent reading (Challies 2018 Reading Challenge) and Reformed theology conference lectures comes an apologetics study of Romans 1.  What do general revelation and suppression really look like, in our 21st century post-Christian world?  This question is addressed in Scott Oliphint’s lecture from the 2018 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (theme Spirit of the Age: Age of the Spirit), Workshop 4: The Anatomy of Unbelief.  Oliphint is always interesting to listen to; I enjoyed listening to his lectures last fall, in Reformed Forum’s conference on the Reformation and Apologetics.

This 2018 conference lecture provides commentary on Romans 1 and suppression, and what that involves — what truth is suppressed?  His invisible attributes; His eternal power and His divine nature – and the wrath, the judgment that comes as a result (Romans 1 verses 24 through 32).  Oliphint also recounts his recent experience with a graduate level Hegel philosophy course.  Throughout the course, until the very end, the students were kept in suspense: what is Hegel’s “absolute”?  The expert didn’t know, and the expert admitted that he thinks Hegel himself didn’t know what it was.

Philosophers are nothing new, and Paul in Romans 1 was dealing with the same type of thing from the Greek philosophers of his day.  Yet their ideas about reality are only theoretical and do not work in the real world.  Objective truth is there, facing us every day in the external world.  We cannot arbitrarily ignore and re-interpret reality to decide that a red light means ‘go’ and a green light means ‘stop’.  A chair lifted up and about to hit your face is a real threat that cannot be ignored.

Another interesting point Oliphint noted, was observed by Jonathan Edwards.  We often hear that hell is the absence of God.  Yet this cannot be; by His very nature, God is everywhere, omnipresent–including in hell itself.  Instead, hell is the ever-continuous presence, in wrath, of the God that the people there despise and hate.

My recent reading includes a past Kindle deal that also addresses this subject of Romans 1, suppression, and the limitations of non-Christian worldviews which don’t work in the real world: Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes , by Nancy Pearcey.  Suppression involves focusing on one part of reality and making it the full truth – and ignoring the parts of reality that don’t “fit” within the box.  Following an outline of Romans 1, Pearcey presents five points to help Christians identify and respond to worldview suppression, with examples from Hegel, materialism and other philosophies.

  1. Identify the idol.
  2. Identify the idol’s reductionism
  3. Test the idol: does it contradict what we know about the world?
  4. Test the idol: does it contradict itself?
  5. Replace the idol: make the case for Christianity.

Many examples are provided (with the actual quotes) from secular scientists and philosophers who admit that they really can’t live with the ideas they come up with about reality, such as this section about materialism:

When it reduces humans to complex biochemical machines, what sticks out of the box? Free will. The power of choice. The ability to make decisions.  These are dismissed as illusions. Yet in practice, we cannot live without making choices from the moment we wake up every morning.  Free will is part of undeniable, inescapable human experience—which means it is part of general revelation.  Therefore the materialist view of humanity does not fit reality as we experience it.

When we see statements about how “we cannot live with” a view, that is worldview suppression.  Through the five principles, we can identify the specific type of suppression – and respond to it, to those who present such ideas, with the truth of Christianity.

Oliphint’s lecture is an excellent summary overview of apologetics related to Romans 1.  Pearcey’s book provides more details and examples, with special emphasis on the experience of college students who leave home as Christians and “lose their faith” when challenged by anti-Christians in the academic university setting.

iTunes University: Theology Courses, Including History and Worldview Lectures

February 12, 2015 5 comments

Having enjoyed Carl Trueman’s Reformation history lectures, I recently learned about the full collections of audio lectures available from many theological seminaries — through iTunes University, a feature of iTunes software. Of particular interest: the available content from Westminster Theological Seminary, as well as Reformed Theological Seminary and Covenant Theological Seminary, cover many interesting topics: various periods of church history, Bible surveys, theology courses and more.

I have now started a “Church and the World” series, offered through Reformed Theological Seminary, with 28 lectures covering a topic I only know bits and pieces about: the history and development of liberal theology over the last few hundred years. The first messages provide general biographical and philosophical detail regarding the major figures of the Enlightenment, beginning with Descartes followed by the more radical David Hume and Immanuel Kant of the 18th century. Later lectures address such ideas as process theology, existentialist theology, liberation theology, as well as post-modernism, liberalism and fundamentalism, and the neo-orthodox reaction to liberalism, and I look forward to future lectures, to help put together more of the pieces concerning recent Christian and worldview history.

A few observations from what I’ve learned so far, and how it applies in current-day online theology discussions.

  • The Pre-Modern world (classic theism): A.D. 312 (the year of Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity) through the 16th century – a time characterized by a theistic worldview, in which everyone understood and accepted the authority of God (and in extension the authority of the Roman Church) for understanding everything in life
  • The modern world: from 1600 to 1950, a time characterized by “a gradual but seismic shift” in understanding of human knowledge and relationship between humans and God, resulting in a worldview change. Major developments during this time included the 18th century Enlightenment and the 19th century Industrial Revolution.

These are categories we see in hindsight, not clear and sharp yet distinct gradual changes that establish themselves through a period of time. Of note, the 16th century Reformation Leaders held to more medieval-type thinking, at least to a greater extent than later Christian thinkers (here I recall Carl Trueman’s emphasis on this especially in relation to Martin Luther; Trueman saw Calvin and others as more of the then-emerging humanist mindset), and thus the “modern era” starts in the next century, though not in full swing until the 18th century. The modern era brought the ideas of rationalism and empiricism, a fundamental worldview shift in which man’s ideas dominate over the authority of God and His word, and where Christianity (and religion generally) is “proved” or disproved on the basis of man’s rational thoughts and experiences rather than from objective truth outside of ourselves.

This historical background helps in discussions regarding what past believers thought and how they expressed what they believed. As for example, in a recent discussion about the 1689 London Baptist Confession’s wording in chapter 4, regarding creation “in the space of six days,” one person suggested it was somehow of interest and special note that the confession authors “could have” specified more detail and “could have” been more precise and explicitly stated that the days were literal, normal 24 hour days – and therefore, because they did not, therefore that interpretation is left open and we can consider “six days” as meaning something other than really six days.

Such thinking of course reflects the modern and post-modern worldviews, and reading our own way of thinking into 17th century English Puritans. To see such qualifying and specific statements in 17th century documents would be an anachronism. Old-Earth views did not influence Christians until the 19th century, and no one in the 17th century thought in such terms regarding the definition of the days in Genesis 1. John Bunyan’s Genesis commentary (chapters 1 through 11)  indeed shows what Christians of that day were considering about Genesis 1 (chiliasm and the Millennial Week idea) as well as, by its absence, what they did not think about –because such ideas simply did not exist in their world.

God’s Truths To Us In Similitudes

May 19, 2011 Leave a comment

A Spurgeon sermon I read recently pointed out the many ways in which God uses similitudes, or comparisons, from our everyday lives, to communicate His truths to us.  In this sermon (Everybody’s Sermon, #206) Spurgeon specifically mentioned many similitudes that can warn us of the danger of hell fire and our great need to repent, to flee from the wrath to come.  Through these I was also reminded of the point of Romans 1, that all men are without excuse since even creation itself gives us enough light to damn us.

From Spurgeon:

Now it struck me that God is preaching to us every day by similitudes. When Christ was on earth He preached in parables and, though He is now in Heaven, He is preaching in parables today! Providence is God’s sermon. The things which we see about us are God’s thoughts and God’s words to us. And if we were but wise, there is not a step that we take which we would not find to be full of mighty instruction. O you sons of men, God warns you every day by His own Word!  He speaks to you by the lips of His servants, His ministers, but besides this, He addresses you at every turn by similitudes!  He leaves no stone unturned to bring His wandering children to Himself, to make the lost sheep of the house of Israel return to the fold. In addressing myself to you this morning, I shall endeavor to show how every day and every season of the year, in every place and in every calling which you are made to exercise, God is speaking to you by similitudes.

Indeed we can find truths of God’s word in the creation around us every day, both in nature itself and in many of our areas of employment.  Among the many examples cited by Spurgeon:

  • times of the day, sunrise and sunset, night time
  • the seasons of the year and farmer’s work of seeds, gardening, the sowing and reaping the harvest
  • winter weather – blackness of sin like bleakness of nature
  • wind — the Spirit of the Lord “blows where it wishes”
  • heat — the eternal heat and fierce anger of God against wicked men
  • the mountains and hills — God endures forever, even beyond these

Then Spurgeon listed many occupations and ways in which they can send warnings and exhortations to us.  Obvious ones such as the farmer’s life come to mind, but others include:

  • baker:  dealing with ovens and bread:  “For the Day comes that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud and they who do wickedly shall be as stubble. They shall be consumed.”
  • butcher
  • shoemaker
  • brewer
  • businesses with scales and measurements, reference to our being weighed and perhaps being found lacking (ref. Daniel 5)
  • general servant with diverse occupations
  • writer:  “know that your life is a writing!… You are writing your sins or else your holy confidence in Him who loved you.”
  • physician or chemist: the idea of writing prescriptions… “Man, you are sick. I can prescribe for you. The blood and righteousness of Christ, laid hold of by faith, and applied by the Spirit can cure your soul. I can compound a medicine for you that shall rid you of your sins and bring you to the place where the inhabitants shall no more say, ‘I am sick.’
  • jeweler — God makes up His jewels, contrasted with the common pebbles that are not included in His jewels
  • builders (construction work):  “are you building on the right foundation?”

I further considered how to relate Spurgeon’s list to modern-day occupations.  Even some such occupations did exist in his day, yet were omitted from this list, especially more abstract and/or higher-paid paper-pushing jobs.  Not surprisingly, Spurgeon did not include similitudes for bureaucrats or politicians (jobs that have always existed if more so today), or even lawyers or accountants.  Then again, perhaps the majority of his audience actually worked in more down-to-earth jobs.  (Undoubtedly 19th century England did not employ so many attorneys as 21st century America — home to 3/4 of the world’s lawyers).

Still, it would be nice to relate this to our lives today, and upon further reflection I thought of one further similitude, for the computer programmer / analyst (my secular vocation):  the programmer is designing and coding a sequence of steps to complete tasks, even to integrating different files and systems.  Herein we can see God the master-planner with His Divine Purpose, and His amazing providence including the very complex and detailed overall design, even to the programs God puts into the DNA of all plants, animals, and even into us, for God’s specific “programs” in this life. We can take the warning, too, to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” to know that we are in the Lamb’s book of life, in God’s care within His great Divine Purpose.