Matthew Mullins: Is God Surely Dead?

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Editor’s Note: Matt Mullins is Assistant Professor of English and History of Ideas at the College at Southeastern. He also serves as the Assistant Director of the Writing Center. Matt has a PhD in English from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and is a perceptive reader of American literature and culture. So, he makes the right person to review Terry Eagleton’s recent book, Culture and the Death of God.

In his new book Culture and the Death of God, Terry Eagleton claims that God is not nearly as dead as many believe. Despite many attempts to kill Him off, the Almighty remains a resilient presence in contemporary culture. In fact, many thinkers on opposite sides of the God debate agree that God has made something of a comeback in recent years. Beginning with the 17th century Enlightenment, Eagleton tracks various challenges to religion over the last few centuries. He ultimately argues that culture has been unable to do away with God because it continues to rely on a view of the human that draws its significance from a sense of transcendence.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment never set out to refute religion. Enlightenment thinkers sought to civilize religion, to bring it in line with rationalist thought. Eagleton argues that it was not the personal or communal practice of religion, but religion in an “institutional sense that most of the philosophes took as their target.” Enlightenment thought ultimately failed to rationalize religion because reason was far too abstract to provide the kind of common ground societies need to motivate morality.

If the Enlightenment sought to rationalize religion, Idealism and Romanticism set out to replace it. Idealists attempted to make reason itself religious. But Idealism turns out to have been, well, too ideal. Its “dewy-eyed” view of humanity could not account for all that was wrong with the world. Given Idealism’s failed attempt to replace religion, the Romantics thought perhaps art could do the job. Imagination becomes “a secular form of grace,” and along with nature “both could serve as secular modes of transcendence.”

Idealism and Romanticism try to establish non-religious religions, preserving the need for God. The product of these failed experiments is what Eagleton calls “The Crisis of Culture.” Culture, encompassing everything from foundational values to collective identity, emerges as a vague and hazy alternative to religion. The fundamental problem at the heart of the conflict between culture and religion is the division of society into a rational elite and a religious populace: “You could opt for a politically docile populace, whose backward religious views implicitly questioned your own faith in the universality of Reason; or you could plump for a rational-minded citizenry who might confirm your own faith in the scope of Reason, but only at the cost of potential political disaffection.” In other words, each generation faces the dilemma of either embracing religion or finding a replacement that accomplishes similar social results.

Given this dilemma, it should be no surprise that nationalism turns out to be religion’s fiercest rival. Like God, the nation transcends the individual while simultaneously shaping personal identity. The intellectuals and the masses can be citizens of the same nation. The nation-state draws on the best features of Idealism and Romanticism by creating a culture with “a secular set-up (state) and…the spiritual wisdom of the common folk (nation).” Yet national cultures tend to be entangled with religion at their cores, and nationalism itself is finally another attempt to replace God rather than do away with him completely.

Each of these surrogate religions fails to muster the courage to break with God completely by acknowledging what Friedrich Nietzsche hailed as the ultimate truth: to get rid of God we must get rid of Man. “Modern secular societies,” Eagleton asserts, “have effectively disposed of God but find it morally and politically convenient—even imperative—to behave as though they have not.” They have abandoned the name of God but maintain religious values because of the social dilemma. If God is to be truly killed off, we would have to totally rethink the human.

Eagleton’s analysis suggests, then, that a culture’s view of humanity can serve as a sort of canary in the coal mine for its view of God. For thousands of years philosophers and scientists have sought to explain human existence without reference to the Divine. Today, with the emergence of neuroimaging technologies, neuroscientists continue this tradition by seeking purely biological explanations for human behavior, sociality, and morality. Perhaps we will finally succeed in reasoning God into the grave. Perhaps humans are not sparks or images of the Divine but only neurons and electrical pulses. If human consciousness and action can be explained solely in immanent terms, what need do we have of transcendence?

Neuroimaging and other similar technologies may, in fact, be able to demonstrate how our brains function. They may provide evidence that reading the poetry of Rumi ignites some people’s sensory cortexes more than others, for instance. But such technologies cannot answer the question “Why?” Until we develop a technology that can address this question, or, following Eagleton’s logic, until humans stop wanting an answer, we should remain skeptical about culture’s ability to dispense with the Divine.

Daniel Heimbach gives us a Manual for Defending Marriage against Radical Deconstruction

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Why Not Same SexSEBTS Senior Professor of Christian Ethics Daniel Heimbach has recently published a unique book in the vast literature about same-sex marriage. Why Not Same-Sex Marriage: A Manual for Defending Marriage against Radical Deconstruction. Is a thorough and comprehensive treatment of the subject from an evangelical Christian viewpoint, but it is not written for an evangelical audience. Instead, it is written to persuade those who are “on the fence.”

The rapid rise of the same-sex marriage movement has left many Christians with the sense that there is something wrong with the arguments for homosexuality, but without the time or ability to research and articulate defenses for the arguments. Contributing to this, the broad and varied stream of arguments used to support normalization of homosexuality and same-sex marriage are being broadcast as an incessant barrage in an attempt to sweep away all opposition to same-sex marriage.

This book is offers a reasonable argument in the midst of many hostile and emotional appeals for redefining the basic social institution of marriage. Heimbach writes,

Truth is the first casualty in political contests where one or both sides rely chiefly on emotion, on making good impressions, and on grabbing favorable attention at all costs. When this occurs, contests degenerate into emotional rhetoric severed from objective reality. Opponents are blackened beyond recognition, and champions become larger than life. This book enters a fray in which both sides are passionate, but it does so clinging to objective reality while resisting mischaracterization and distortion. (xiii)

In support of this goal, Heimbach presents 101 arguments, with a paragraph length statement for each argument, for the redefinition of marriage. Heimbach then offers a page-long response to the argument posed in firm, but charitable terms. Next comes a single-sentence statement of the main objection to the argument. Finally, each section includes a representative bibliography of popular and academic sources that weigh-in on both sides of the argument.

Though many conservative and evangelical blogs have helped to explain some of the arguments and counter-arguments surrounding same-sex marriage, many of those responses answer only a few of the varied attacks against traditional marriage or, sometimes, they lack the charity and careful research to make them compelling and convincing to a hostile audience.

Heimbach’s book, Why Not Same-Sex Marriage, fills the void admirably. The main substance of the volume is a collection of gracious answers to 101 false arguments for redefining civil marriage. Each of the arguments has been categorized by its type and the book arranged to reflect that. Heimbach uses categories like “Arguments Regarding the Nature of Marriage,” “Arguments Regarding Society and Social Order,” “Arguments Regarding Constitutional Law,” and “Arguments Regarding God and Theology.” The book is designed to be a reference manual for engaging in cultural dialogue.

In the back of the book, Heimbach includes two testimonies of former homosexuals who renounced their same-sex sin as they sought to live holy lives patterned after biblical norms; they were not “cured” so much as they were redeemed from their sin. He also includes two scholarly essays that provide an academically robust treatment on some of the movements that seek to redefine marriage. Finally, the book closes with a list of resources and agencies that provide assistance and information to those with questions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

This book, as any argument on this topic, is easy to caricature. Opponents will tend to dismiss alternate viewpoints and malign the motivations of those who stand by the traditional understanding of gender complementarity in marriage. However, anyone who picks up this book and reads a few arguments will find that the reasoning is sound, the assumptions are stated, and both viewpoints are represented fairly. Heimbach has done his readers a favor by grabbing a “third rail” in the ongoing cultural discussion and attempting to fairly answer the arguments of those who would want marriage redefined. Why Not Same-Sex Marriage is a substantive and significant contribution to the ongoing cultural debate.

Spiritual Disciplines as Means of Grace

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This past Sunday, I began teaching a class at First Baptist Church of Durham on the topic “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.” The class is loosely adapted from Donald Whitney’s well-known book by the same title, which has recently been republished in a second edition. In the first class meeting, I introduced the topic by discussing some key definitions, explaining the nature and purpose of spiritual disciplines, and expounding some key biblical texts. I also addressed the idea that the spiritual disciplines are means of grace in the Christian life. Let me explain what I mean.

Many people, both believers and non-believers, are tempted to practice the spiritual disciplines in a legalistic way. They are either trying to earn God’s favor or keep God’s favor. This is unfortunate, but perhaps understandable: the language of spiritual disciplines sounds similar to the religious self-help lingo that is so pervasive in American culture. For this reason, Kyle Strobel suggests that “spiritual disciplines” is a well-meaning term put in an unfortunate way in his excellent book Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards (IVP 2013, p. 70).

In part as a reaction to this legalism, other believers do not practice spiritual disciplines in any sort of deliberate manner. Because they live under grace, they consider almost any discussion of the spiritual disciplines to be legalistic. (Though, interestingly, most of them still say we should read the Bible and pray regularly.) As the late Dallas Willard reminded us as often as he could, grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Spiritual maturity is hard work!

We need to remember that we never pursue the spiritual disciplines as ends unto themselves. Instead, we pursue a closer relationship with God through the practice of the spiritual disciplines in the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, one of the ways we live out the gospel is to practice the spiritual disciplines. When we think about spiritual disciplines in this way, we see they are what past generations of Christians called “means of grace” that the Holy Spirit uses to conform us more and more to the image of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). Please don’t misunderstand me. By “means of grace,” I do not mean that the spiritual disciplines contribute to our spiritual standing before God; we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone! Rather, I mean the spiritual disciplines are God-ordained practices that God uses to grow us in godliness.

Near my home is a great city park with a couple of miles of trails. Many of the trails wind through acres of woods. When the city bought the land for the park from a local farmer several years ago, they carved out these trails to help walkers, joggers, and bikers avoid getting lost in the wilderness. The trails are not ends unto themselves; rather, they are the means to help us make progress in our journey of exercise and guide us to the right destination. In the same way, spiritual disciplines are “trails” that God has ordained to help keep us on the right path and make progress in our journey of sanctification.

I want to urge you to practice biblical spiritual disciplines such as Scripture meditation and memorization, prayer, fasting, silence and solitude, service, worship (personal and corporate), and mission. If you want to learn more about the spiritual disciplines, check out Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (NavPress, 2014).