Ex Nihil

Dear readers,

This is a draft of a post I intend to publish on LinkedIn after further thought and comments from dear readers like you. So please share your thoughts!

In Christ,

Mark

 

“choice, informed by fact, not by revelation”

These are the words of my colleague Lawrence Krauss, in the epilogue to his book A Universe from Nothing (2012), reflecting his views on how we approach the question of origins. He is an atheistic scientist-philosopher in my own department, engaged in the search for confirmation of his hypotheses (as most academia is, to be fair). The hypothesis relevant to this statement, of course, is that no revelation is possible. And if it is impossible, it is not necessary.

Of course, the origins debate has raged for millennia, and there is no reason to believe it will be settled until our time is up. But there is a strong insinuation – at times overtly declared, as by Richard Dawkins in the afterword to the aforementioned book – that science is deadly to supernaturalism, that a Creator begs the question of his own creation, that our world as it is does not require God to exist.

And yet Krauss has rather a point when he summarizes that “something from nothing may have been required for the universe to come into being”, an observation that is simple and profound. The question, then, is how this transition from something-to-nothing happened. He submits that a stochastic quantum multiverse of spontaneous particle-antiparticle generation in vacuum solves the problem of how things happened and which laws happen to apply to us, but he makes a frank admission that “we generally assume that certain properties, like quantum mechanics, permeate all possibilities.”

This is the rub. If one is asking a question about the boundaries of the known, and engages in the task using known tools, one will inevitably find that the boundaries are at the limits of the tools. Maybe that’s confusingly put, but I think of Dionysius Burger’s Sphereland, and the exhaustive investigations of a finite surface undertaken by the squares. They can determine (much to the establishment’s horror) that space is curved – they live on a sphere. But they cannot determine anything about what might lie above or below the surface of the sphere. It is beyond their ken. When the three-dimensional Oversphere reveals himself, it is indeed a revelation. Something outside the bounds of the knowable is reaching into those bounds.

So there is a fundamental problem with the quote from Krauss that opens this article. How does one know that fact is fact? He addresses this internally in his admission of the assumption of the generality of quantum mechanics. But why are the quantum fields facts? They are theories, and they may be very impressive and useful and observable. That’s wonderful! But to call them multiversal fact and treat them as the pre-existing pillars of the universe(s) is questionable.

To be fair, there is also the question of the veracity of revelation. Historic Christianity (among many other religions) declares the existence of the spirit world, of angels, the devil and other fallen angels. Revelation may come from unreliable sources. This is not meant to muddy the waters, but to apply the same challenge to revelation as to fact – how reliable is it?

One can take this skepticism a step further – are we even able to reliably interpret or adjudicate truth claims? This is a major sticking point in psychotherapy – whose definition of health is supreme? We are once again stuck – I think so because I think so. Is there a guide to labeling something “ordered” or “disordered”? How can we even define the term “nothing”? We have no experience of it, as the quantum fluctuations demonstrate (ie – we cannot ever observe “nothing”, because there are always stochastic fluctuations of particle-antiparticle pairs in the quantum field).

To me, of course, this strongly supports the Christian assertion that truth is personal and is found in Jesus Christ. The alternative is a faith-based affirmation of chaos (which flies in the face of observed order, anyhow). And, we can have confidence in the cosmos and in our investigations of it because of the continuous upholding and ruling of it by the divine energy of God. And, we accept the limits of our finitude, and are grateful for revelations made by this personal God in Jesus Christ – revelations of things not knowable to us, such as the beginnings and ends of all things.

Krauss is unlikely to be convinced of anything by such claims (and it’s quite unlikely that he’ll even come across my take on this), but conversely, I am unlikely to be persuaded by his claims. Because, as I mentioned, this debate goes back millennia. Is matter pre-existent? Is a Creator pre-existent? Can either be known with certainty? Can either be investigated with the tools of science?

That last question is perhaps the one to explore further, as it is the assertion of Krauss. History is subject to search. Origins are a trickier question, as this is the transition between unknowable and knowable. Perhaps revelation could give us facts about these, but that’s another discussion.

Cosmologists tend to be math folks. You work with such absurdly large quantities, and you have to find ways of lumping parameters together to ask questions you are interested in. Krauss speculates on the origin of “something”, but swirling around this discussion like the arms on the Milky Way is the question of what that something is. Specifically, the one instance of that something that we know of – our universe, our world, ourselves. Where did we come from?

This is the question pursued by two increasingly convergent fields – evolutionary biologists and astrophysicists/astrobiologists. The latter two disciplines are conjoined, as they are concerned with what kind of worlds there may be, and what kind are needed for life. The evolutionary biologists are concerned with how life can come to be on such worlds.

Let’s introduce the Drake equation, as we’ll refer to it several times.

N_civ = N_galaxy * f_star * f_planet * f_life

where:

N_civ = the number of expected civilizations per galaxy

N_galaxy = the average number of stars per galaxy

f_star = the probability that a star has the needed properties to sustain life

f_planet = the conditional probability that, given a suitable star, one has a suitable planet

f_life = the conditional probability that, given a suitable planet, one develops life

Now, let’s look through a very limited selection of writings that (I suggest) captures the trajectory of serious thought on the origin of life and its possible origin elsewhere in our big universe.

1781 – Immanuel Kant would wager many conveniences in life that there are inhabitants of other worlds. Critique of Pure Reason, Ch.2, S.3, para.112

1855 – William Whewell reasons by analogy that, as extensive as space is, there must be a plurality of worlds, on some of which there must be (by analogy) creatures of whom God is mindful, just as the Psalmist writes in the eighth Psalm. Of the plurality of worlds: an essay.

Late 1800s – Camille Flammaron and Percival Lowell popularize the belief that the Martian “canali” were evidence of civilization on the Red Planet, culminating in Lowell’s 1908 work Mars as the Abode of Life.

1933 – Cal Berkely Prof. C. B. Lipman reports bacteria in meteorites. The bacteria is identical to terrestrial bacteria. NY Times article, 31 January.

1963 – Large group of scientists urge that the chief aim of NASA should be the search for extraterrestrial life, with many suggesting “reasonable prospects of finding some simple living organisms” on Mars. NY Times article, 10 January.

1975 – Gregory Cain, following Carl Sagan’s values in the Drake equation, suggests on the order of ten million advanced civilizations in our own galaxy. The Physics Teacher, 13, p404 (1975);

1998 – Lee Werth urges that we are hopelessly anthropic, and the search is absurd, because we could never recognize extraterrestrial intelligence if we found it. Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1998

2012 – J Woods Halley publishes a Springer Reference work entitled, blandly yet simply, How likely is extraterrestrial life? This book sequentially explores the Drake equation, and the term for the probability of life developing stochastically comes back (assuming DNA is the destination) as 10^( -300943). Simplifying the assumed end-state proto-life structure (to a length shorter than a non-self-reproductive viral phage), the probability of life of 10^(-555) is reached. It should be noted that in the remainder of this chapter, the equation is run backwards with an assumed probability of civilization development >1, thus forcing the chain length “required” for life to evolve to be rather short (130 elements, compared to 5×10^6 base pairs in E. Coli, and 3.2×10^9 for the human genome).

I suggest, on observing these works, that cosmology recapitulates philosophy. The faith in church and revelation of the Christian era was disputed by the Reformers, with rationalism leading to the confidence of the Enlightenment, which gave way to the optimistic science of modernity, which is now giving way to the postmodern despair. The only possible (rationalistic) answer to the postmodern despair is to hide in statistics. These, however, fail when it comes to the origin of life. The estimated life of the universe is 10^10 years or so. It is extraordinarily improbable that the human genome could assemble itself even once. (The odds are more like 1 in 10^300930, a number so big that I struggle to grasp its magnitude – like one byte in a tera-of-tera-of-tera-of-tera-of-terabytes).

And so I trace an expectation that life is out there, nearby, and sentient, turning into a hope that simple proto-life may be detected not too far away, and fading into a desperate effort to probablistically convince ourselves that we aren’t alone. Then the stats come in from the evolutionary biologists. And the Drake equation says that we’re alone. And in fact, that we shouldn’t really exist at all. The bookies would not take bets on us existing, anyhow. And Halley et al. commit the gambler’s fallacy by betting on a second win.

So, out of nothing, something marvelous comes – something that asks questions about origins, self, truth, goodness, beauty, fate, and God. And if we will humble ourselves as creatures, under the Creator, in need of the Redeemer, then this exploration of creation will lead us to joy in that Creator and that Redeemer, Jesus. (NB – Orthodox iconography – in contrast to the Sistine Chapel – consistently depicts Jesus creating the world, per the first verses of the gospel of St. John.)

While we kick against the goads, it will drive us to despair.

But in the meantime, while we apply for grants, we will be as cheerful and optimistic as we can…

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Pagans and Paedeia – of Building a Culture

What role do the pagans hold in a Christian education?

This is a question that’s been bugging me for a while. I put Sisyphus on my final exam (he was supporting his boulder with a water jet), and there were a few people who got confused. Of course, my arrogant reaction is a “kids-these-days-don’t-know-anything” sort of grumble, but with respect to my own children, I wonder whether, when, where, and how to incorporate the pagans in such a way as to make a few things clear:

This is not Truth, though it has true lessons.

This is not Beauty, though much in it is beautiful.

This is not Goodness, though it has much to say of virtue.

The acculturation of a person is (in large part) the accumulation of stories. We have an immense and growing collection of such stories available, as virtually every mythos of every culture is translated and available to us in the West. What shall we do? What shall we read our children?

I’ll accept as axiomatic that the stories of the Bible are first and foremost. Stories of our family have their place – the worthy deeds of aunts, uncles, cousins, grand-folks, and so on are worth remembering. Stories of our nation have a place, too, though it is not enough to accept a nationalist (or cynical) view of any given nation. Personally, I think Paul Revere’s Ride belongs in a civics course, alongside discussion of social contracts and God’s blanket statements about authority from St. Paul. But I digress.

All of these stories shape our view of the world, consciously or not. And they all lay claim to belief simply by being known. To know a story is to allow it to make a claim – believe me. An aside: This is the power of the media state. A barrage of stories, without respite, all demanding the same thing – believe me.

But not all stories are to be believed. And it is certain that not all are to be believed in the same way. The news demands belief that such and such happened to so and so. The tortoise and the hare commands belief that diligence triumphs over pride. The tale of Sisyphus demands… what? Belief in an underworld of ironic punishments? Belief in justice? (Hardly.) Belief in the fiat of the gods and the unpredictability of fate? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is a story that, once known, requires continuous suspension of belief. This is perhaps the most pernicious way that media attacks a Christian. The more garbage that is allowed in, the more effort must be continually spent in the suspension of belief. This is effort that would be much more productively spent in pursuing holiness in various ways.

But back to the stories we are to tell. Every church tradition has them. In the Reformed churches, they tell of Huss, Tyndale, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the brave fathers of the Reformation, who for the sake of private interpretation, shattered Roman Christendom. In Orthodoxy, saints are commemorated daily, according to their repose (or notable day – St. John, Ivan’s patron, is commemorated today and in September). There are innumerable hagiographies, and each autocephalous national church has a paterikon, an “image of the fathers”, a collection of the saints of that church. This leads me to my next thoughts on culture.

Russia is Russian because of the Kievan Rus, who converted en masse, and it has been an Orthodox nation ever since (Communism being the great harrowing and trial of Orthodoxy in Russia). Georgia, likewise, has been a Christian nation for much more than a millennium. Bulgaria for about 1000 years (even under the Ottoman yoke). The culture of these nations is entwined with Orthodoxy, because (many of) the stories that are told are those of the saints of that land. (Aside, oppression is a danger to this, as in Ottoman Bulgaria, because it can mistakenly canonize rebels.) Serbia, Armenia (though not Chalcedonian), Ethiopia, Ukraine, and many other people groups share similar church-as-culture trajectories. So how can we late-modern-Americans work in ways that build our culture? And how can it be entwined with the church?

There must be love of God, love of neighbor, and love of our land. There is no rootless culture. All attempts at disembodied cultures fail cruelly. We live in a place, and culture is tied to place. In a few weeks, on the second Sunday after Pentecost, the Orthodox Church in America will celebrate the saints of North America. It is a small beginning, but it is a thanksgiving for holiness demonstrated in a place. One of the stichera from the Great Vespers reads:

“Rejoice, O mountains of Pennsylvania,

Leap for joy, O waters of the Great Lakes,

Rise up, O fertile plains of Canada,

for the elect of Christ who dwelt in you are glorified,

men and women who left their homes for a new land.

With faith, hope and patience as their armor,

they courageously fought the good fight.”

I never thought to hear a hymn about Pennsylvania. But lo! A recognition that holy people have labored here for the glory of God is the beginning of Christian culture. Humility, a recognition that we stand on the shoulders of giants (to unflinchingly use a cliche), a knowledge that we accept with thanks those things given to us – be they plentiful or meager – and we give them to God and to our neighbor in our land. This will make a culture. The saints, not the pagans, are the lights to follow.

Perhaps there is some wisdom in knowing the pagans for academic purposes, but I am not at all sure that it is wise to uncritically approach pre-Christian literature, as though Christ has not dispelled the myths of the demons. It is instructive that the Ephesians burned their magic books, rather than make a library for scholars to consult in the event that valid herbalism might be in there, too.

So know the saints. They live to God. They are not far from us. They worship better than we do, and we may well desire their prayers for us and for our land, even as they pray to God for the consummation of all things from beneath the altar.
“And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.” Nehemiah 2:18

Death and Safety

I just finished Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, a book I’d been interested in for a while. Amy’s mom had recommended it, and it dropped into our lap in a closet-cleaning from a dear friend at St John. (I’ve also requested Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto from the ASU library, and am looking forward to that.)

The basic premise is: we all die. He’s a surgeon, and has been in many roles surrounding the dying. His major accusation is: medicine is terrible at dealing with death. The book is, in part, his reflections on different paths that he has observed people take, from the uber-interventionist family and patient who are fighting to the end, to the old lady who decides not to eat any more, to his father who dies in home hospice surrounded by his wife, son (Atul) and daughter. In many ways the book is not prescribing a solution, but exploring a problem, which is its strength. It also provides a good cross-section of concepts for elder-care (and terminal-care), giving some ideas to chew over.

Gawande’s take on medicine is very interesting. He recognizes his own unpreparedness for dealing with death – patients, friends, parents. And he perceives that the goal of medicine is prolongation of life (irrespective of cost). This gives rise to a maximalist treatment program, especially as things spiral further down. The more problems there are, the more treatments you can give. And the cost of chasing after life in this way is death.

I do not mean that the occurrence of death is the cost. But the cost of “one more treatment” is the process of death.

Make no mistake: Death is the last enemy to be destroyed. The Christian, though, falls asleep in the Lord. We wish, in fact, for a good ending to our earthly life, one met with confidence and grace, because of our risen Lord who has descended into the grave before us and broken the bars of iron. We likely wish for time with family, time to write or speak our last earthly thoughts to the glory of God. A chance to make amends, perhaps, or at least a time of love and peace. We wish, in short, for a conclusion.

Medicine offers no conclusion. Sometimes our bodies or circumstances don’t, either. My father died suddenly in his sleep. But it was on a Sunday night, after worship, after a weekend spent helping us on our house. We probably would have had different conversations if we had known that was our last time on earth together, but we didn’t do too bad. My grandma (dad’s mom) died in a hospital in Seattle (or maybe it was the skilled-nursing floor of her assisted-living home, I’m not sure). I wasn’t there, but I got to speak on the phone with her the day or so before she died. She said she’d had a good life. She was ready. Many of her family got to be there, and it was a good end. My grandfather (her husband) died in his home. I came up from college, and we got to visit with him for a few days. A brain tumor had been discovered a few weeks before, and there wasn’t much to be done, just wait, see the family, and drift off.

Gawande points out that the maximalist care route actually risks increased major depression in relatives. The failure to intentionally use the few and uncertain weeks, hours, or days that are left to a dying person hurts everyone.

This is not an argument against care. This is not to say that medical fights aren’t worth having. But it is a call for caution – not everything must be a fight. Much can be learned from Luther’s quip that even if Christ should come tomorrow, still he would plant his apple tree. Though time may be short and uncertain, our actions and attitudes can be oriented towards the repentant enjoyment of God and His creation – not bent on seeking to overcome the limits of our fallen bodies. That may mean you choose the chemo. That may mean you try the surgery. But it means that it will be done because it was the best thing to do for the glory of God – not because it was the “only” thing to do. Jacob drew up his feet into his bed and breathed his last. David went to his fathers in peace. Perhaps we can learn from them.

Now to the broader point that is embedded in the title – A Christian sees safety as a blessing, an adjunct, but never as a solitary goal or a promise. The medical (and especially elder-care) industry sees safety as a goal. In fact, Gawande alleges that it sees safety as the goal. Nothing else matters as much – not independence or dignity, to be sure.

When I worked at a foundry, safety was critically important. But the goal was to make metal. To make metal well, everyone had to act in certain ways that would assure their own and their neighbor’s safety. This was the only responsible way to act. But if safety were the goal, we would not have come in to work. It would be safer to stay away.

In our life, what is the goal? Gawande (a Hindu by birth) sees life-fulfillment (as defined by the individual) as the goal. Thus, safety is an adjunct to this – it’s less fulfilling to be in a hospital with a broken hip than to be out on a walk in the spring. But the goal is to be out on a walk in the spring. What has to be done in support of that? For a hospital-admitted terminal patient, the goal might be to get home and be with family again, in your own house on your own couch. What has to be done in support of that?

For the Christian, the goal is conformity to Christ. We understand that this carries risks. Our goal is not to avoid those risks, but to seek conformity to Christ while (and through) loving God and our neighbor. We can’t seek safety. We can’t avoid death. But we can seek Christ, knowing that, should he tarry, we will die. May we die with his songs on our lips, his people around us, and his work done well.

Disembodiment

It crossed my mind today that the Gnostic spirit is a powerful devil, and the temptation to spiritualize and disembody our relation to God is rooted in a really deep dichotomy.

The devil is an immaterial spirit, a fallen angel.

Jesus is God become man.

The Gnostics (and yes, it’s an imprecise and overused label, and Clement tried to rescue it, but we’ll use it for shorthand) are allied with the devil, seeking to be like the devil.

The Christians are allied with Christ, seeking to be like Christ. Specifically, this is resurrection. We (like Paul in Philippians) strive with every nerve to attain … what? Enlightenment? Truth? Glory? Holiness? Not exactly. More precisely, the Resurrection of the dead. The resurrection is truth, glory, holiness, enlightenment, and the resurrected Christ is, has, and gives all these things. But the goal of man is to be like Christ – the resurrected man, the glorified man, the perfect teleological man.

We flee from the devil. We offer our body to God, because Christ died to save us, body and soul.

In Christ,

Mark

Side note – the stupid dichotomist/trichotomist arguments about the nature of man mistake the point. Man has a soul like he has a mind, a wrist, a toe. It is part of the makeup of man. But MAN is saved by Christ the God-Man who became Man. Christ saves us, body, soul, toes, and everything. Anyhow, this was a point of discussion in my seminary classes, and it’s such a Aquinian problem…

The Israel of God

I am thinking about the nature of the people of God (not surprisingly, since we are shortly to be admitted to the Orthodox church). And I am reflecting on the Old Testament parallels favored by the Orthodox and those favored by the Reformed. I freely confess to being ignorant in many things, so please forgive any obtuseness and feel free to demand clarity in any ambiguity.

The Reformed strongly favor exilic/sojourning parallels – such as the patriarchs, the wilderness years, and the exiled Jews. The emphasis here is on faithfulness to those bits of God’s covenant activity which are available (a commendable encouragement to be thankful for the grace we have received, and to personally love and pursue holiness). But there is a distinct flavor of non-normalcy (at least in the two-kingdoms camp, which I was in). There is an emphasis on alienation, and in some senses this is good – we are not citizens of the kingdom of the devil, but citizens of heaven – but it can also lead to the dangerous end of individualism, which I see as taking personal responsibility only for self (and perhaps for in-groups). Plainly, there is NT language that can lead to these conclusions.

In Orthodoxy (and/equivalently in the Fathers), there is much more use of the features of Israel’s life in the church life, a transformation, an uptaking, a filling of the types with the reality of the Holy Spirit’s present powerful work. This seems, however, more fully aligned with the New Testament. We are a holy nation, a royal priesthood, just like the people of Israel (declared at their constitution – realizing that the wilderness years are an aberration due to sin). We are living in the days spoken of by Joel, where the people of Israel are transformed by the Spirit. More could be adduced, but the general idea of the consummation of Israel in the church seems fairly well established.

So, the Orthodox discussion of the sacraments (which I am seeking to better understand, as we approach them) makes a lot more sense with the parallels to the constituted people of God – Israel. This probably seems anathema to the two-kingdoms camp. I suppose it may sit uncomfortably with the sympathizers of Rushdooney, too, since there’s been a deep theology of Christ in the world for two millennia in Orthodoxy, but they can be encouraged that they are on a right scent (though to be fair, two kingdoms are on some right scents, too). But the church is the people of God. Christ’s image of the olive tree – one tree, rooted in one place, with grafts and pruning dealing with the comings and goings – seems to fit.with the deep reality of the church’s life from the apostles onward.

I welcome thoughts and discussion on the matter, and am thankful for my Godly interlocutors.

In Christ,

Mark

New Coals

This poor blog sits forlornly, the flame gradually dying to a low heat beneath the ashes. I hope to throw some new coals in and fan the flame to a warm glow.

I hope you are all doing well. I have been frighteningly busy, which I am now beginning to see as a theological problem. People who are unclear about what God has given them each day to do as their duty don’t usually just sit idly, which is actually a great way to in a short time be brought to consider our life far too closely for comfort; they fill their time with distractions, which our world specializes in producing. May you in the next week see the glory of Christ so clearly that the unnecessary chaff of your worries and distractions burn in the heat.

The great swirling conversation surrounding the Benedict Option is worth peeking in on again. Whatever Rod Dreher wanted, he got his wish that it would be primarily a big conversation starter for the church. Its a New York Times bestseller, many major organs of our nation’s news have published reviews of it. Tell your friends about it, its the closest thing we have to a publicly recognized symbol of what we are talking about when we say the church in America is in fatal captivity to American culture. Its a conversation that just being aware of is a step in the right direction as far as I can tell.

Here’s a thought I was having about the subject in general, but about some other figures only loosely involved.

Dallas Willard and James K.A Smith: both philosophers by training, both heavily involved professionally in phenomenology as a field (Edmund Husserl and his followers), both involved in the topic of Christian formation and virtue ethics. Both of them through their careful philosophical study of human nature came to be very invested in writing works about how people can change, ultimately to become more like Christ. It is remarkable that both of them come at the problem of discipleship through their training in topics like consciousness, intentionality, being in the world, and returning to the things themselves. Smith cites Willard as an influence, and says he was attempting to write an ecclesiological supplement to The Spirit of the Disciplines.

But there is a difference in tone, and it led me to wondering about this broader split one can see in emphasis between the individual and the collective. The church, and the member. Put crudely, Willard’s is the individualist book. Smith’s work is more about what is done in groups. Dreher, like Smith, emphasizes the corporate church as well. We of course frequently lament the individualism of our era, which has the effect of attenuating our connections with larger groups. Obviously both Willard and Smith try to do justice to the other half of the coin: no one is saying the church doesn’t matter, or what you do on your own is irrelevant. But I think that Ephraim Radner’s reflections on individualism are worth noting, especially for how unexpected they are. Individualism is in many ways identical with the development of modernity itself, and thus accounts of one inevitably constitute an account of the other. Radner’s disturbing thesis that modernity arises as a kind of tragic corrective from the failure of the church the love its own members and the world has implications for how we interpret the individual/group dichotomy.

As one case study in his work A Brutal Unity, Radner observes that most churches in Rwanda, Catholic and Protestant alike, failed to resist the genocide in 1994, and instead actively participated. He wanted to know what set those churches apart that did resist, and to identify aspects of their practices or teaching which enabled them to do so. Drawing on a study by Timothy Longman, he finds that the congregations whose members did resist had an ethos of teaching which strongly emphasized individual responsibility. An excerpt from a sermon given in a parish which remained faithful:

“Those who do evil, each will be saved by his actions. In Romans 14:12 it is written, “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” What do you want to show God? Hate? Jealousy? What do you display before God? You hide nothing before God. As Peter said, “Leave me, I’m a sinner.” We must imitate Peter, tell God we are sinners and ask forgiveness.”

Radner concludes that individualism, best understood, is a hard won and necessary burden we must bear precisely out of our obligations to one another, to the church, and to God. Going even further, he concludes that while being faithful to the gospel in a liberal democracy like our own is extremely difficult, it is what must be done precisely because of the gospel. Of course, Radner is writing a book about the unity of the church, which is about as collective an emphasis as one can think of, so the emphasis upon the individual’s responsibility to take the initiative is in service of this goal.

Coming back to Willard and Smith, it is a salutary reminder that many of the most essential spiritual disciplines for us to practice are for us to perform alone before the Lord. Looking at the problem of evil from a more personal perspective, it is easy to see how atheism can slide neatly in with a view of evil that removes all responsibility from all actors. Its not God’s fault, its not our fault, its certainly not my fault, and it mostly can be blamed on sociopaths and people of the other political party. But once we see that we do want things to change for the better and that we are the first to need this change, we can then see our most critical duties do not belong to anyone else to exercise and our preparation to serve the needs around us will consist largely of taking our leave to be alone and pray.

Nota bene: Only three days ago, Pope Francis went to meet with the President of Rwanda Paul Kagame to apologize for “the sins and failings of the church and its members.” It is the most forcefully worded apology to date, for including “the church” in the culpability.