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Philosophy Science

The Limits of Science

A popular saying today is “follow the science,” which implies that it is science that will show us the correct path in life, and a person is wise who follows its guidance. I believe that science is a very powerful tool that helps us understand many of the mechanisms of our universe, but I also maintain that there are many mysteries of life that science alone will never penetrate, and science alone is insufficient to provide the wisdom we need to live a good life.

The scope of science

Science is limited in its scope. It restricts itself to studying things that can be observed and measured. I am teaching some 6th grade boys how to program a computer and make a video game. I told them they could calculate the distance between two coordinates using the Pythagorean Theorem, and one of them said something about the power of math. I told them that math is very powerful and can tell you a lot of things, but there are some things it can’t tell you, such as if you like a particular girl. (You can imagine the reaction that got.)

Sure, science can do a study to measure various bodily reactions in subjects as they look at different pictures of women, but that is not the same thing as a particular young man deciding he likes a particular young woman. An amazing thing about the human person is that he can choose to not follow the physical impulses that can be measured in a lab, but to follow some higher motivation that is beyond the ability of science to detect.

Because science has made so many gains in the narrow scope in which it does work, many people have come to believe that it is only that scope that matters. The questions that science cannot answer are now judged as unimportant or even nonsensical. This is scientism, an ideology that science is the only means of knowledge, and anything science can’t tell us is not worth knowing. Scientism is not scientific, but is a philosophical assumption based on an ideological preference. Since philosophy is not science, scientism judges itself to be unimportant or nonsensical.

Love, beauty, truth, goodness, and justice are all very important ideas, and they are central to who we are as humans. Disciplines such as philosophy, art, literature, history, and theology are all important for a deep understanding of these ideas. Science alone cannot cut it, so those who only want to follow the science end up being shallow and foolish when it comes to what makes us human.

Science is done by humans

The scientific method is a rational process, but it is performed by humans who are not always rational. As unbiased as we try to be, we are affected by our assumptions and and beliefs. This is especially true when it comes to topics that are heavily political, such as climate change and the coronavirus. Even when the process is followed perfectly, humans decide what questions to study, how to set up the studies and experiments, which data is valid and which data is erroneous, and how to interpret the data. These decisions all involve human judgment that is not always impartial.

Today, the situation is worsened by the fact that more and more topics are being judged to be off-limits. Certain questions are considered to be too dangerous to even ask, and if someone gets the “wrong” answer, it could mean the end of his career. How can we trust that the professionals are “following the science” in such an intellectual atmosphere?

Science is generally inaccessible

It is possible for many people to replicate the experiments of the early days of science so that we can see for ourselves that these early scientific ideas are true. These experiments are done in science classrooms throughout the world. However, most of the cutting edge science that goes on today is conducted by highly-trained specialists using expensive equipment. There may be only one or two places in the world where the experiments can be conducted with only a handful of people with the expertise to really understand what they mean. The rest of the world must trust what these people do and say.

If someone tells me that I need to “follow the science”, it is very unlikely that he means that he himself has done the science, nor does he expect me to replicate the experiment. What he means is that I must believe what a particular scientific authority is saying. Often times there are other authorities that disagree with them. If I am to follow the science, which science must I choose? Usually it is more a matter of institutional power that is behind a particular idea rather than the science being indisputable. Such an appeal to authority has always been considered a weak argument because it is really not much of an argument at all. It just points to someone else and tells us to believe.

Even though scientific verification is not available to most of us, we all have access to logic and common sense. Although it is true that such common sense is not infallible, we don’t have to completely throw it out just because someone cites a study that says the contrary.

Conclusion

I am not advocating that we be “anti-science”, but I am advocating a healthy skepticism when someone quotes a scientific authority to make people believe something that they don’t think is right. This is especially true for Christians because we do have another, very important source of knowledge and wisdom, which is the Word of God that has been revealed to us. I believe that revelation from God, rightly understood, will never contradict good science because God created the universe that science studies. He knows how it works better than any of us ever will. The conflicts only come about from either bad theology, such as a simplistic view of creation, or from people abusing science to make it say something outside the discipline, such as the claim that belief in God is irrational. Learn from science, but learn more from God.

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Christian living

Graduation Speeches

The speeches were exceptional at the Cistercian Class of 2021 graduation last night. You can see a recording of the ceremony on YouTube. The three co-valedictorian speeches, starting at 15:02 were quite good, focusing on themes of humility, self-knowledge, duty, and eternal life rather than worldly success. The guest speaker, acclaimed playwright and Cistercian alumnus, Will Arbury, had a very thoughtful and beautiful speech starting at 49:02 centered around this poem.

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

“The Jewel” by James Wright

Will spoke about how this poem served him like a prayer after he left Cistercian and ventured out into a world that would be mostly hostile to his faith and values. He asks the question, do I give in to the world or do I resist, holding on to what I know, and close myself off from the opposition? These are the alternatives most everyone is choosing between, but Will offered a third choice – to embrace the unanswerable and be vulnerable to the mystery. The only way to endure to the end of our journey is not control, but surrender. He connects back to the first co-valedictorian speech about humility and self-knowledge by saying that if you learn to listen to yourself, you can listen to others without being threatened.

I like what Will says about listening, and I would put it in the language of not judging others because we don’t know what is going on in their hearts. Only God knows all, so only he can judge. This does not mean that we shrink back from living and speaking the truth as we know it. We can be bold, humble, loving, and forgiving at the same time. This is how Jesus was in his earthly ministry.

Categories
Christian living Theology

Happy Ascension!

In the 21st century, the Ascension of Christ has been one of my favorite holidays. This is because on my way to the Catholic Church, not that I knew that’s where I was heading at the time, I learned the importance of the Ascension. I used to think that it was just the time where Jesus left us to fend for ourselves. Yes, he promised the Holy Spirit, who came to dwell in all of his believers on Pentecost, but still I wondered why he couldn’t have stayed with us on this Earth too.

Then I learned that the Ascension was an essential part of the process of salvation that God is accomplishing through Jesus, which started in the Incarnation, when Son of God joined himself to our human race by becoming a little baby in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary. This union between God and man in the person of Jesus continued through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in a process to reconcile the breach between God and man that happened when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden.

The Ascension is not the departure of Jesus from this Earth, but the elevation of humanity to God. In Jesus, a man is sitting on the throne in heaven at the right hand of God the Father, ruling the universe. Our destiny is to reign with him forever. That is an awesome thought to contemplate, and it gives a totally different meaning to our lives here on Earth. Jesus is reigning in heaven, preparing the universe to be our home forever. We can’t usually see what he is doing, but by faith we can trust him and do our part in his work. This work is not primarily about building earthly institutions, but by allowing God to transform us to be ready for this future he is creating. This article by Constance Hull is a beautiful expression of what the Ascension means for us.

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Christian living Politics Scripture

Flee Like a Bird?

It is natural when we see a growing threat of evil to think that we should flee to somewhere safe. David in the Psalms is confronted with the same advice.

In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me, “Flee like a bird to the mountains; for behold, the wicked bend the bow, they have fitted their arrow to the string, to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart; if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

Psalm 11[10]:1-3 RSV2CE

David is responding against someone who is pointing out that the righteous are being targeted by evil forces who have destroyed the foundations of the culture. Therefore, we need to find a safe place to escape and protect ourselves and our families because there is nothing else that can be done in the present situation. Doesn’t that sound like what many are saying today?

David begins by saying that it is the Lord that is his refuge and not some safe place in the mountains, so why should he flee like a frightened bird? David elaborates on this in the following verses:

The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes behold, his eyelids test, the children of men. The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates him that loves violence.

vv. 4-5

God is on his throne and he is aware of all that is going on. He knows the hearts that love him, and he knows all of the secret schemes of those who want to prey on his people. What is God going to do about it?

On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and brimstone; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the Lord is righteous, he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.

vv. 6-7

Wow! People look at the political situation and think that nothing can be done, but they don’t take into account the power of God. Salvation history is not a story of the good guys being stronger than the bad guys. It is the story of God stepping in and saving the people who put their trust in him when there is no hope on earth for them to avoid destruction.

Now some people today may see God’s response in this psalm as overly severe. This is because we live in an age that wants acceptance of every point of view except for intolerance. While tolerance has a place in a society of sinners trying to live together, this state is not meant to last forever. At some point, judgment will come, and it is decisive. That is because until then, we are in a time of grace where all will be saved who respond to God’s call for salvation. It will become clear at the judgment that those who refuse God’s loving grace will deserve the punishment that they receive.

Okay then, why doesn’t God do something about this now? He is patient and delays judgment for many reasons. One reason is that God wants to give people time to repent. Many people who may be enemies of God today may convert and turn to God. Some may even become great witnesses for him like St. Paul the Apostle did.

Another reason for delay is to let the present evil come to “full flower,” so to speak. When this happens, the evil of rejecting God may be clearly seen.

What about the danger to me right now? If God is delaying judgment, shouldn’t I flee to protect myself? It is certainly possible that some people should flee persecution so that they can continue to accomplish good in the world in a place of safety. However, we shouldn’t be motivated by fear. Nothing can separate God’s people from his loving protection. Even if God lets us suffer or even die at the hands of evil doers, we can have confidence that such hardship will never reach us unless God in his loving care allows it. The truth is that hardship can be good for us, causing us to draw nearer to God as we seek his protection. Finally, Christians know that death is not the end for us, but instead is the beginning of our joyful reward in glory that will make the greatest trials of this present life seem like nothing in comparison.

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Christian living Scripture

It is enough

Today I read a passage in Luke’s Gospel that was interesting in light of present circumstances. People are worried about the political future of the world, we have had a year of corona virus fears, and today I am snowed in due to winter storm Uri. Because of all of this, there is a growing number of Preppers, who are trying to be prepared for future disasters.

In Luke 21:35-38, Jesus is attempting to prep his disciples for His upcoming arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Let’s go through this passage a piece at a time.

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.”

Luke 21:35

Jesus begins by reminding them about when He sent His disciples out to preach, and He instructed them to not take with them any of the things one would need when traveling. They were to be completely dependent on God to meet all of their needs. This shows us that God is certainly able to meet all of our needs, but they could only count on such miraculous provision because Jesus specifically commanded them to not provide for themselves.

He said to them, “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfillment.”

Luke 21:36-37

Jesus is going to be treated as a criminal, and so will his followers. Jesus is telling them that they need to be prepared with provisions and means to defend themselves. While it is true that God has the power to supernaturally defend them, it is not usually His plan to do so overtly. God usually wants us to do our part, and He supports us in more of an invisible way. This behavior of God is referred to as Divine Providence. I have never seen a spectacular miracle in my life, but I have seen Divine Providence at work throughout my life, working in such a way that unbelievers might describe as “lucky.” It is certainly not because of my brilliant planning, even though I try.

These verses support the idea that Christians should make some kind of preparation for difficult times in the future. We should not presume that God will provide for our needs if we refuse to do anything ourselves.

And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

Luke 21:38

When I read these words this morning, I was struck by the impossibility of the disciples knowing what was going to happen in the hours, days, and years to come, including Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and the beginnings of the Church. We don’t know what to expect in our future either, and we cannot adequately prepare for it. It is easy to get obsessed or overwhelmed when contemplating these things, so we must always seek God’s direction and His help. I believe He will call each of us to be prepared in our own way, and He will use our meager preparations in his plans, often in ways we never expected.

There are preparations that we know will always be beneficial no matter what happens. Jesus says to seek first the kingdom of God, and all of the things we needed will be added (Matthew 6:33). Therefore, we should all seek God, repent of our sins, develop our prayer life, and build up the local church community.

I will close with a line from the 1970s Christian rocker Keith Green, who was a big influence on me in my early days as a Christian believer. “Just keep doing your best, and pray that it’s blessed, and Jesus takes care of the rest.”

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Scripture

Telegram #3

In Luke 21, Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, and then the scope of his prophecy moves to global proportions with “men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (vv 26-27). While the world is filled with fear, what does Jesus say his followers should do? “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (v 28). I don’t know when the end will come, but the troubles we see are signs that it is drawing near. We should not be filled with fear and foreboding, but we must look up in expectation that victory of Christ is nearing.

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Culture Politics Scripture

Telegram Post #2

“Even though princes sit plotting against me, your servant will meditate on your statutes. Your testimonies are my delight, they are my counselors” (Psalm 119 [118]:23-24). Many Christians are dismayed that government and cultural powers are growing more anti-Christian, but this is nothing new for the people of God. The answer is to be immersed in God’s Word and being conformed to his truth. His kingdom is not of this world, and neither should our hope be in this world.

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Culture Politics Scripture

Telegram Post #1

I have been exploring alternative social media technologies, and one that interests me is Telegram. I decided to start a Telegram channel, Catholic in a Hostile World. If you are using Telegram or want to give it a try, check out my channel. If you don’t want to get into Telegram, you don’t have to because I will be reposting most of my posts here. Telegram is more conducive to smaller posts, so I plan to post shorter but more numerous posts there. I will link to this blog for longer posts.

Here is my first post, setting the tone for the channel.

Jesus said, “Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:21-22). Although it is good for Christians to want to influence the culture and see the laws of our nation conform to the law that God has revealed, we should not be surprised when the world violently opposes us. Western civilization has moved from the Christendom of the Middle Ages to an anti-Christian secularism of modernity. For a while, we thought we could get along by compromise, but we are seeing that the anti-Christians are not interested in compromise. Therefore, we must bravely stand firm and proclaim the truth, putting our hope in the promises of God that His kingdom will endure forever.

Categories
Politics Theology

People are Complicated

One reason I made my last post about our spiritual adversaries is to deal with the fact that so many people today are demonizing their political opponents. The spiritual beings made their decision for or against God a long time ago, and their decisions are fixed. That is why we can categorize them as angels and demons. This, however, is not the case with humans in this present life. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has a great quote about this.

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Humans develop and grow in this life, not only physically and mentally, but also morally and spiritually. We develop a sense of right and wrong, which is called our conscience. Every day we make many decisions that have a moral consequence. Sometimes we follow our conscience and do what we think is the right thing, and sometimes we violate our conscience and do what we think is wrong, usually justifying it with some rationalization. These choices affect who we become, and as we move through life, we are a work in progress. It is not until the end of our life that our ultimate choice is made to either embrace God and goodness forever, or to reject Him forever. Until that happens, we are all a mixture of good and evil of varying proportions. Therefore, if we try to divide humanity into the good guys and the bad guys, we will get into trouble. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).

This doesn’t mean that we don’t judge the words and deeds of people as either good or bad. Crimes and lies are bad regardless of who the perpetrator is. The judging that Jesus prohibits is summing up a person as ultimately good or evil because we humans do not know the totality of the person or what he will ultimately become.

It is common now in the United States to divide people according to left and right, and to label one group as good and the other as evil. This can be a problem when dealing with individuals because good and evil exist in both groups, and some people are difficult to put into one of the two groups. Even in the realm of ideas, one cannot always say that a particular idea is necessarily left or right. I primarily identify with the right, and I am very concerned with many of the ideas I hear coming out of the left, but the way I prefer to look at it is that I am a follower of Christ, and I am opposed to ideologies that will drag people away from his salvation. That’s why I wrote in my earlier post that the real enemy is spiritual. We must remember that our enemy is loyal to neither the left or the right. He hates all of us. He will happily provoke the bad elements on one side to do something that plays into the plans on the other side as long as evil advances on all sides. Therefore, we must be careful to not defend bad actions or condemn good actions no matter who does them.

Categories
Theology

The Real Enemy

St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (6:12 RSV2CE) The Bible tells us that there are multitudes of spiritual beings that were created by God before man was created. Although most of them are loyal to God and help us, about a third of them rebelled against God. These demons, led by Satan, hate the human race because we are loved by God. They want to destroy us, and they ultimately do that to some of us by drawing us away from God to an eternity in hell. Note that they do not accomplish their goals if they merely kill us and we end up in eternal happiness with God in heaven.

The power of these beings is limited by God. They cannot do anything without God’s permission, and they are usually not allowed to directly touch us, but that protection from God can be forfeited by those who reach out to dark powers through witchcraft and the occult. The usual way the demons attack us is through lies. They can introduce deceptive and untrue thoughts into our heads. We can choose to reject those thoughts, but if we let them take hold, they can lead us into a downward spiral of sin.

Not only do these forces of darkness tempt individuals to draw them away from God, they also try to influence human history to establish structures in the world that will have a corrupting influence on us. I suspect that many of the times people think they see global conspiracies, what they may be seeing instead is coordinated efforts of demonic activity across the world, influencing various people to act in ways that work together for evil ends.

Because of God’s limits on their power, and the resistance of good and holy men and women, their plans do not always come to fruition. Even when they are able to bring about great evil, God is able to turn it into a greater good. This is illustrated most clearly in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the ultimate evil that brought about the salvation of the human race.

Because faithful Christians live in the power of the Cross, we have nothing to fear from these demons if we cling to God’s mercy. Nevertheless, it is good to know that they are at work. Indeed, I think we are entering a time when their operations will be even more manifest to those who have eyes to see. It is good to keep in mind that they are the real enemy. Men and women that may oppose us, although they bear responsibility for their actions, are also victims of the deceptions of the real enemy. This is why Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We never know the power of prayer, but it could lead to very unexpected changes. We should never give up on the most seemingly corrupted person. As long as they still have breath, the powerful grace of God can bring them to repentance. Pray without ceasing!

Edit 1/24/21: Add image.