Friday, March 19, 2010

The Incurably Religious Spirit of Humanity

I. Romans 1 – The Knowledge of God

Romans 1:18-23 reads:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking because futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Romans 1 insists that every human being has an innate knowledge of God – a sense of the divine (sensus divinitatis) – that these clues or arguments simply confirms. However, Romans 1 also insists that we have a tendency to suppress this innate knowledge of God, choosing instead to rebel against our Creator. A wise biblical scholar once quipped: “God created man in His own image; and ever since man has been trying to return the favor.”

Over the course of the past month or so, I have written about various clues or arguments that point towards the existence of God. First, we looked at the scientific clues – the arguments for God from the origins and design of the universe (cosmology and teleology). Next, we looked at the moral clue for God – the existence of a transcendent standard of morality which can only be grounded in a transcendent law-giver (that is, ‘God’). This week, we are going to turn our eyes inwards, and consider human nature itself, and we will discern how the unquenchably religious spirit of mankind points inescapably towards the existence of God.

II. The Ultimate Questions of Man

Thirty years ago, Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a radio series which was later published in book form, and eventually (in 2005) turned into a movie. Douglas Adams was an incredibly clever and witty man; a philosopher, a writer, and a staunch atheist—something which comes through quite clearly if you read his books. Here is a little quote from the Hitchhiker's Guide:

Some time ago a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings decided to finally answer the great question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. To this end they built an incredibly powerful computer, Deep Thought. After the great computer programme had run (a very quick seven and a half million years), the answer was announced.

The Ultimate answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is . . . (you’re not going to like it) . . . is . . . 42.

Which suggests that what you really need to know is, “What was the Question?”.

Adams pokes fun at people who seek after the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. The irrelevancy and meaninglessness of the answer—42—demonstrates that (in Adams’ mind) there is no such thing as the answer to the great question of life, the universe and everything. Yet his pithy mocking also hints at the truth of the very thing he wants to deny: human beings throughout the ages have universally and exclusively sought answers to the fundamental questions of life. Ants do not ponder the nature of the universe. Pandas do not pontificate and philosophize about the meaning of life. Monkeys do not ask who or what made them and why. Human beings, alone in all of Creation, seek to understand the deeper purpose in life. There is a deep yearning in our human nature to know why we are here. Philosophers and other thinkers in every cultural tradition have sought to answer these questions—Confucius and Lao-tzu in China; Gotama Buddha in India; Plato and Aristotle in Greece; Muhammad in Arabia; Solomon in Israel.

Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, argued that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is the creation of humanity, invented as a sort of wish-fulfillment. Life is uncertain and unstable; we want it to be secure and stable, so we project the existence of a supreme being who can facilitate stability. Freud believed that through scientific knowledge and advancement (particularly the miracles of psychoanalysis), human beings would be able to progress beyond superstitious religious beliefs, and have their lives founded upon the certainty of atheistic reality.

Tonight I want us to consider the nature of human beings, to look at what people were like yesterday (thousands of years ago), what people are like today, and what people will be like tomorrow (and thousands of years in the future). What I hope to demonstrate is that human nature and human experience—what I call the incurably religious spirit of humanity—points towards the existence of God.
Nicky Gumbel (of the Alpha Course) tells the story of a Swedish nanny who got very frustrated with the young British boy she was taking care of. She burst into the living room to discover an incredible mess, and demanded, in her broken English: “What are you doing on earth?” She meant to ask the simpler parental question: “What on earth are you doing?”; but in her mistake, she actually asked a far deeper, more important question. This is one of the deepest human questions. Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? What is the meaning of life? What is the point? Ultimately, the answers we give to those questions depend upon our answer to the primary questions—is there a God, and what is God like? The answers depend upon one another. Let’s look quickly at how one answers the question as to the nature of humanity if one concludes that there is no God. So, imagine, for a moment, that God is not real–after all, Freud argues that God is simply a product of the human imagination. More soberly, we each have neighbors, friends, or family members who believe that there is no God. More personally, when I was growing up, I did not believe that there was a God; furthermore, if there was such a thing as God, I was fairly certain that I did not care for him one bit. So imagine with me, for just a moment, that God is, in fact, a human invention.

III. The Hopelessness of Life Without God

If there is no God, how does one answer the questions, “Who am I?” “What is man?” I tell you the truth, when I was a young atheist, the answers to those questions were not pretty. If there is no God, then my life is utterly insignificant. As Blaise Pascal said, “Man’s brief life is bounded on either side by eternity, his place in the universe is lost in the immeasurable infinity of space ... Uncertain and untethered, man flounders in his efforts to lead a meaningful and happy life.”

Ecclesiastes poetically summarizes the life without God with these words: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (NIV)

Atheist philosopher Jacques Monod bluntly states: “Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance.” What is man, in the absence of God? An insignificant and doomed member of an insignificant and doomed race on an insignificant and doomed planet adrift amongst the infinitely immeasurable universe. Less than a speck of dust; as worthless as a mosquito. Perhaps we can do or create good or interesting things in the course of our life. Michelangelo certainly created some impressive lasting works of art which are still admired today. But what happens to them in the end? What happens to Michelangelo himself in the end? What is their ultimate fate? Nothingness. Extinction. And what is the end result of everything in our lives, including ourselves? The same–nothingness.

I remember being a teenager, and feeling intensely the futility of life. I wanted to do great things; I wanted to change the world. And yet what was the point? What was the purpose? If all ended in nothingness and extinction, why bother? I wondered why I ought to go through the motions of life at all! William Lane Craig writes:

If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this shows only a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance. His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate significance of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference.
(Reasonable Faith, 72)

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher, one of the earlier intelligent, consistent atheists. Nietzsche saw clearly the implications of atheism. He writes:

‘Whither is God?’ he cried, ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? … Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? God is dead … And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? (Nietzsche, “The Gay Science”, 95)

If there is no God, there is no meaning, no purpose, no comfort, no source of enjoyment. Nietzsche followed through these implications—an absolutely brilliant man, he wrote prolifically for years before descending into insanity, and died at the relatively young age of 51. Richard Wurmbrand was a Christian pastor in Communist Europe in the late 20th century who spent many years in prison on account of his ministry. He writes:

The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe when man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil. There is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The communist torturers often said, ‘There is no God, no Hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.’ I have heard one torturer even say, ‘I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.’ He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflicted on prisoners.
(Wurmbrand, Tortured for Christ, 34)

If there is no God, then the evil that is within men’s hearts is simply the way things are. Christians argue that man is afflicted by sin, and that this is not how God created us to be. But in the absence of God, whatever evil lurks within isn’t wrong or evil, it simply is. Craig writes: “Do you understand the gravity of the alternatives before us? For if God exists, then there is hope for man. But if God does not exist, then all we are left with is despair. … ‘If God is dead, then man is dead, too.’” Sadly, most people do not understand this—they continue to live an unexamined life, merrily going their way as though nothing has changed. As Craig says, “Most people still do not reflect on the consequence of atheism and so … go unknowingly on their way. But when we realize, as did Nietzsche, what atheism implies, then his question presses hard upon us.” Who will comfort us, if there is no God? Where can meaning and purpose come from, if not from God? Nietzsche concluded that there could be no comfort, and no purpose. Sadly, that was my conclusion as well. But that conclusion was deeply unsatisfying. I could not live under the oppression of a purposeless, meaningless worldview. I longed for meaning, for purpose—because God has created us such that each of us yearn and long for fulfillment and meaning. None of us can live consistently with the proclamation of the Teacher: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” From deep within us, we cry out for meaning and purpose.

The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal grew up like me, like C. S. Lewis, a proud atheist. Pascal came to Christ, and his life changed radically. His apologetic letters were later published as “Pensees”, or thoughts. In them, he reflects upon the sad state of his many friends and contemporaries—atheists who felt intellectually superior to the “myth-bound idiots” in France, but who refused to consider whether or not their atheism was true or even rationally defensible. In a passage dripping with sarcasm and irony, Pascal writes:

They say: “I know not who sent me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am terribly ignorant of everything. … I see the terrifying immensity of the universe which surrounds me, and find myself limited to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am set down here rather than elsewhere, nor why the brief period appointed for my life is assigned to me at this moment rather than another in all the eternity that has gone before and will come after me. On all sides I behold nothing but infinity, in which I am a mere atom, a mere passing shadow that returns no more. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I understand least of all is this very death which I cannot escape. As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I only know that on leaving this world I fall for ever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be everlastingly consigned. Such is my condition, full of weakness and uncertainty. From all this I conclude that I ought to spend every day of my life without seeking to know my fate. I might perhaps be able to find a solution to my doubts; but I cannot be bothered to do so, I will not take one step towards its discovery.”
(Pascal, Pensees, 29)

We cannot live life this way. The Greek philosopher Socrates declared, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates was wrong about a lot of things—but he was right about this. The unexamined life is not worth living. Let’s look at Sigmund Freud’s argument that mankind has created the God of the Bible as a figment or our imagination—that God is simply the projection of our human wish-fulfillment.

IV. The Unquenchable Spirituality of Mankind

I want to look at three different aspects of the incurably religious spirit of humanity. Each of them is a clue, an argument if you will, which points to the existence of God. The first clue is the human conception of an omnipotent, omniscient, timeless Creator God. The second clue is the unquenchable religious yearnings which dwell deep within the hearts of all men. The third clue is the prevalence of intimate religious experience over the centuries.

A. The Clue From the Idea of God

Sigmund Freud argues that the concept of God is a human construct. There are some deep difficulties with his logic—one of which is that his argument can simply be turned around upon himself. Freud argues that Christians so desire the existence of a supreme being who can bring us security and stability that we create God and proclaim Him to be real. I could turn Freud’s “wish-fulfillment” theory around upon him, and insist that Freud (and his fellow atheists) so desire to be morally and existentially free from the oversight of any divine being, that they have created a universe without God, and proclaimed it to be real. Another difficulty with Freud’s argument is that he claims too much for the creativity of the Christian. He presumes that human beings could construct a concept of an omnipotent supernatural Being, even though none exists. Philosophers Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli insist that human beings simply cannot do this.

Where does the idea of God come from? In essence, the whole idea of God is impossible to explain if God does not exist. Human beings cannot create concepts or ideas which are greater than ourselves, or for which we have no concrete referent. We can have an idea of something greater than ourselves only if that something (or something very much like it) exists in reality. The aliens in Star Trek bear striking resemblance to humans. Orcs resemble mutated or deformed humans. Unicorns are horses with a rhino or impala horn. And so on. Concepts created or imagined by human beings have readily-identifiable referents in objective reality. But God – a transcendent being, the Creator of time and space – has no objective referent. To be sure, the gods of some other religions – the Greek or Roman pantheons, native spirituality, animism, even Hinduism – do in fact resemble exalted or super-powerful human beings. But the God of the Bible is distinctly different. A God who creates out of nothingness is absolutely unique amongst the world’s religions, and is something which we cannot conceive of as human beings. Human beings are creative, and can construct incredible things. But we can only create out of pre-existent material, and thus when humans invent religions, their gods or goddesses do not create stuff, but rather shape and form what was already there. So the argument from the idea of God says we could not come up with the idea of God from our limited human experience and knowledge unless there was something out there that was, well, God, matching the idea we have of him.

B. Argument from Religious Yearning

So we have this inexplicable human conception of a supreme being who governs the universe. But there is much more than that. C. S. Lewis, my favorite Christian author, points out that human beings are incurably religious. He points out that every human yearning or desire is matched by something in reality which satisfies that desire. We hunger – there is food. We thirst – there is water. We have sexual desire – there is sexual relationship [within God-ordained boundaries]. We long for community – there is relationship, social organization. But think of the deepest, most unquenchable, most universal yearnings of human beings.

1. The Yearning for Eternal Life

First, there is a longing for eternal life. All Western cultures, civilizations, and religions throughout human history have demonstrated this longing to persist past physical death. The pyramids were stocked with goods to provide for the deceased Pharaoh in the afterlife. The Chinese terra cotta warriors were buried with the emperor to supply him with an army on the other side. The Taj Mahal is the funeral chamber of the Shah’s beloved main wife. The longing for life after death is universal. When I was nine years old, my great-grandmother died on my birthday. After her funeral, I remember asking my mother, “Where is great-gramma now? What happens after we die?” There was a long, uncomfortable pause; then my mom answered: “Well, we die and that’s it. There’s nothing more.” At nine years old, raised to not believe in anything, I was nonetheless profoundly dissatisfied and disillusioned by mom’s answer. It couldn’t be. There had to be more to life than that. All human beings have the innate yearning, the unquenchable desire, for eternal life.

2. The Yearning to Touch the Divine/Transcendent

But there is also a universal human yearning to understand and touch the divine. The practice of religion has marked every human society. Atheism is a relatively new intellectual and spiritual phenomenon. Even today, despite the official dogma of atheism within academia, and the reign of methodological naturalism in the sciences, the vast majority of North Americans (about 90%) believe in the existence of God, or ‘gods and goddesses.’ The religious spirit of humanity is unquenchable! Despite their best efforts, Eastern European Communists did not stamp out the God-plague—they merely drove it underground for a time. Atheism does not captivate the heart of people—but belief in God does. The logic of the argument from religious yearning is that, since all of our natural desires have the potential to be fulfilled by what exists in reality, then our dual religious yearnings (to persist past death and to touch the Divine) must also have the potential to be fulfilled in reality. For this to be the case, there must be a Divine Reality – God – whom we can understand and touch, and who can bring us into life after death.

C. Argument from Religious Experience

So we have, on the one hand, the concept of God itself, which is inexplicable unless God truly exists. We have, on the other hand, intense and irrepressible religious desires, which again are inexplicable unless God truly exists. The third aspect of human nature, or human history if you prefer, moves beyond human religious concepts and yearning, to human religious experience.

Billions of people from different eras and cultures claim to have had an experience of the divine. It is inconceivable that so many people could have been so utterly wrong about the nature and content of their own experience. Therefore, there exists a divine reality which many people of different eras and cultures have experienced. This divine reality is what we call “God.”

Skeptics will quickly (and correctly) point out that not all human religious experiences can be true and valid. After all, the Christian God and the Hindu Brahman have little in common, and cannot both be true reflections of the divine reality. But we are not claiming that all human religious experiences have actually touched the divine reality – some may be mistaken or even serious perversions of God. All I am arguing is that not every human religious experience is false. Indeed, for a skeptic to insist that every human religious experience must be false would require them to have omniscience – that is, all-knowingness. In other words, it would require them to have the knowledge that Christians attribute to God.

D. Personal Testimony

Beyond the religious ideas, desires, and experiences of human beings throughout the centuries, there is one final clue that demonstrates the reality of the God whom Christians proclaim. Simply put, as Christians we have personally experienced the reality of God in our lives through the risen Savior Jesus Christ. When I was 17, I went to church with the first time with a young lady whom I found both attractive and compelling—she later became my lovely wife. Within a couple of months of going to church with her, I came to recognize the truth of Christianity, not because I was presented with rational or logical arguments, but rather because I experienced the power of Christ in my life. God met me where I was, grabbed hold of me, and wouldn’t let go. Christ became real to me; I experienced Him personally, and I could no sooner deny His existence than I could deny my own existence! As Christians, we are not merely worshippers of the God of the universe—we are called His children, and even His friends. And when we know God personally, we need no further arguments to convince us that He is real.

Sigmund Freud argued that God is the illusory wish of foolish believers. Douglas Adams insisted that there is no answer to the question of life, the universe and everything—in fact, there isn’t even a question. Jacques Monod claims that human beings are adrift in a sea of meaninglessness. Friedrich Nietzsche professed that the idea of God is dead, and that there can no longer be any meaning or purpose in life.

Fortunately for us, and for all human beings, Freud, Adams, Monod, and Nietzsche were all alike wrong. Human beings did not invent the concept of an Almighty, all-knowing, Creator God—we are incapable of coming up with something like that. Nor did human beings create the religious yearnings which stir deep within all of us—they are undeniable, irrepressibly, and unquenchably there. Nor did human beings create fictional encounters with God. More personally, I know that God has revealed Himself to me in a personal, concrete way. Simply put, the breadth and depth of human religious ideas, desires, and experiences is a powerful clue, an unavoidable suggestion, that God is, in fact, real. Not only that, but also, God wants us to know Him – He created humanity both to want to and to be able to touch Him. He has planted within us an irrepressible yearning to know Him. Moreover, He has granted us the ability to know Him, as evidenced by countless human experiences.

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