Sunday, April 21, 2013

"What's wrong with the world"

Theologian Marguerite Shuster has a timely essay at Christianity Today:

Legend has it that G. K. Chesterton, asked by a newspaper reporter what was wrong with the world, skipped over all the expected answers. He said nothing about corrupt politicians or ancient rivalries between warring nations, or the greed of the rich and the covetousness of the poor. He left aside street crime and unjust laws and inadequate education. 
Environmental degradation and population growth overwhelming the earth's carrying capacity were not on his radar. Neither were the structural evils that burgeoned as wickedness became engrained in society and its institutions in ever more complex ways. 
What's wrong with the world? As the story goes, Chesterton responded with just two words: "I am." 
His answer is unlikely to be popular with a generation schooled to cultivate self-esteem, to pursue its passions and chase self-fulfillment first and foremost. After all, we say, there are reasons for our failures and foibles. It's not our fault that we didn't win the genetic lottery, or that our parents fell short in their parenting, or that our third-grade teacher made us so ashamed of our arithmetic errors that we gave up pursuing a career in science. Besides, we weren't any worse than our friends, and going along with the gang made life a lot more comfortable. We have lots of excuses for why things go wrong, and—as with any lie worth its salt—most of them contain some truth. 
Still, by adulthood, most of us have an uneasy sense of self. Whatever we try to tell ourselves, something in us knows that we don't measure up to our own standards, let alone anyone else's. Even if we think we've done rather well, all things considered, there remains a looming conclusion to our lives we cannot escape. Death will bring an end to all achievements and all excuses. And who among us can face the reality of final judgment with the conviction that we are altogether blameless? 
Maybe there is something to Chesterton's answer after all. In fact, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was fond of saying that original sin—the idea that every one of us is born a sinner and will manifest that sinfulness in his or her life—is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically verified. Everyone, whether a criminal or a saint, sins. Insofar as that dismal verdict is true, it's hardly surprising that there is a great deal wrong with the world...

The world of Genesis 3 is the world we live in. Seemingly insignificant choices, unbelief, and pride are key aspects of the Genesis account, and of our ongoing struggle. They have a sort of universal character to them. Yet the question remains: Why did God allow such a state of affairs in the first place? Why any serpent at all? Why, as theologian Karl Barth asked, place a DO NOT ENTER sign over an open door? Why not just close the door?
Please read the whole thing. It's so true that to understand the evil in the world, I must understand the evil in myself. What's wrong with the world is what's in me. I fight it, but I know it, intimately. The acts of the Boston bombers are horrendously cruel, and are something that (thank Goodness) very few of us do. But I know cruelty in my soul. Each of us knows it, if we're honest.

Why does God allow us to evoke such monstrous evil? It is because we are free. We are made in His image, and are thus free to choose good or evil. We are His sons and daughters, not machines. He values freedom more than involuntary obedience. He wants us to always freely choose good, but we sin, and He suffered and died to obtain for us the salvation of the sinless.

The possibility of human evil-- and of human good-- is His greatest gift to us, which is our creation in His image.

There is more that we can know about ourselves by reflecting on evil. The existence of horrendous human and natural evil and the suffering of innocents suggests that we are creatures of eternity. What we experience in our short lives is but preliminary to our eternal lives. Our suffering or joy here and now, as intensely as we experience it, is but a wisp of all that we will know and experience in eternity. We cannot yet imagine what He has in store for us, but it will dwarf what we have experienced in this life.

And for my atheist friends: your retort that the simplest explanation for evil is that there is no God, and that the universe is indifferent to our fate, is no retort at all. If there is no God, there is no real good or evil, but we just imagine things so.

But there is real good and evil-- look at Boston this past week-- and atheism, honestly understood, has nothing to say about absolute moral law. Yet moral  law-- violation of it and obedience to it-- was manifest in Boston in a way no sane person could deny.

Killing and maiming innocent people is evil, in a way that transcends human opinion. Helping innocent people in time of crisis is good, in a way that transcends human opinion.

Moral law exists. God exists.


  1. Bachfiend, if you're out there...

    Do you think that an Australian in the 1960's would have been more likely to think in english units or metric units? Would she be more likely to say that she lives about a hundred hundred miles from Perth or 1600 km?


    1. Ben,

      In the '60s, definitely Imperial. Metric units were being used and taught in high schools in the '60s. I remember my first year at university in 1973 where the medical physics lecturer (Dr Stanford, whom I'm pleased to state is now dead) announced that he'd be teaching the course in the units we'd be using for the rest of our professional lives; pounds, inches, ... Sheesh.

      I don't know of anyone nowadays who uses Imperial. Except for obstetric ward nurses, who apparently have to calculate birth weights of babies into pounds and ounces - to satisfy the grandmothers perhaps?

      There's a typo' I take it in your example of distance.

    2. Oh yeah, that should be 160 km, not 1600. Thank you again for the info.


  2. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyApril 21, 2013 at 12:08 PM

    [Chesterton's] answer is unlikely to be popular with a generation schooled to cultivate self-esteem, to pursue its passions and chase self-fulfillment first and foremost.

    Indeed. In fact, there are few theories more inane than Maslow's so-called hierarchy of needs, the launching pad of modern self-esteem bullshit. It's a clear case of cum hoc ergo propter hoc, as Maslow studied only the top 1-2% of WEIRDs (see Haidt for the definition of WEIRD).

    Roy Baumeister (despite his unfortunate addiction to frequentist p < .05 statistics) has fairly demolished the whole Maslow idiocy with a pretty impressive program of research (for a psychologist):

    Self-esteem was a huge disappointment. It didn't really deliver the goods. Making people more conceited really doesn't make them better off in any palpable way."
    Baumeister, "Young Minds" 2012 Conference (avail. on YouTube)

    Of course, self-esteem is still dogma in the self-absorbed, navel-gazing, rub-my-junk Progressive cadres. You know, the "reality-based community". Heh.

    1. Georgie,

      Agreed. Boosting someone's self-esteem when there's no reason for the person having self-esteem in the first place is likely to be counterproductive. But on the other hand, deliberately setting out to destroy a person's self-esteem is also not a good idea, unless you want to find a minority of very tough individuals in special situations, such as elite military units.

      The best way of boosting someone's self-esteem is to praise him (or her) for the effort put into an activity (whether educational or sporting) - regardless of the outcome - and not for innate ability such as intelligence. Praising a person's effort results in more persistence and enjoyment of the activity. Praising a person's innate abilities often just causes the person to drop the activity with any reversal.

    2. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyApril 21, 2013 at 6:36 PM

      Bach: "The best way of boosting someone's self-esteem is to praise him (or her) for the effort put into an activity (whether educational or sporting) - regardless of the outcome..."

      You must have gotten that from a gorilla video. The rule you reference is called the Dodo Bird Rule (see Ch 3, Alice in Wonderland):

      [T]he Dodo suddenly called out `The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, `But who has won?'

      This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, `EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.'

      The introduction of the Dodo Bird Rule into American public schools was perhaps the stupidest fucking idea of the 20th Century.

    3. Georgie,

      You are a farking idiot. I once mentioned the BOOK 'the Invisible Gorilla' and you with your senility induced problems with reading comprehension immediately misread it as referring to a YouTube video.

      I very rarely watch YouTube videos, unless recommended. My problems with bandwidth make the viewing painful.

      Anyway, I'd like to increase your self esteem, but I can't. You don't put in the effort into reading accurately what you have in front of you. Nor do you have the innate ability for reading comprehension.

  3. Well, there's no absolute moral law. You can't use the 'existence' of a non-existent absolute moral law as evidence of the existence of God.

    Atheists do agree that there's good and evil. Humans are hard wired to feel empathy when fellow humans (indeed members of other species) suffer. A quality humans share with other species, such as bonobos, common chimps, whales, elephants...

    Evil occurs when humans set out to deliberately harm others, directly or indirectly. I notice that no one has responded to my comment regarding the fire and explosion in the Texan fertilizer plant. I'd argue that the operators of the plant were evil in denying that there was no risk of an explosion with their store of 270 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. As were the regulators, who failed to close down the plant, or at least insist that it be moved away from the retirement home and schools in the immediate vicinity.

    You might think that evil and suffering in this world 'suggests' the existence of a compensating afterlife. Of course it doesn't. It's just self consolation.

  4. “Killing and maiming innocent people is evil, in a way that transcends human opinion.”

    More Bullshit, It’s ALL opinion. You seem super upset by the Boston bombing, yet you don’t seem all too terribly concerned about the hundreds of innocent people that have been “collateral damage” in the ongoing drone war. One man’s monster is another man’s hero. You may not agree with their opinion, but opinion it remains.