Blogs post by Dr. Roy Clouser the resident professor of Christian Leaders Institute

Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment: Pros / Cons

Capital Punishment Background

Over the course of the 20th century, almost every industrialized nation has abandoned capital punishment except the US. This arguably points to the conclusion the rest of the western world has taken the moral high road. Meanwhile, the US remains relatively barbaric. “Besides”, we are told over and over, “there is no conclusive evidence that capital punishment (also known popularly as the death penalty) deters murder.” The Christian political activist might address the issue in the following way. (For an extensive review of the current status of the death penalty in the US, click here)

Capital Punishment
Death Row Inmate

            The law of Moses provides the first Scriptural basis for the execution of the convicted person in cases of premeditated murder. The fact that the victim bore the image of God forms the bedrock of this particular law. Further, the doctrine of a human being bears the image of God continues in the New Testament. The Scriptural teaching re the image of God in humanity means all humans have equal rights (Gen. 1:27 –31, Acts 17:26, Gal 3:28). If, as we believe, the image of God in humanity is the ground for equal rights, then how can we ignore it when seeking a Biblical understanding of the issues surrounding first degree murder?

The Need for Deterrence?

I know someone will say that capital punishment deters other would be murderers. However, so long as this doctrine is the basis for capital punishment, the deterrence argument need not be raised. The image of God in humanity makes the reason for execution that this is what the murderer deserves.  The wonder of the image of God in human beings will best deter others from premeditated killing.

            How do we explain the fact that so many nations have abandoned capital punishment? In my opinion, this change demonstrates just one of many shifts among western nations away from broadly biblical assumptions for democracy to broadly humanistic ones. Where God’s Kingdom that is not the highest value, some single aspect of human nature asserts itself. Humanism urges the acceptance of the teaching regarding the greatest good. The single aspect of a human being could be such as rationality, feeling, or will. The problem arises that there is no higher value than human life and execution is itself just another crime.

Whose Life Is Worth More?

Some version of the humanist creed also seems to underlie the compromise view about capital punishment now popular in the US. The compromise urges the avoidance of a death sentence. Humanism reaches a striking conclusion. The argument revolves around who or how many
victims there are. This criterion will or will not warrant the use of the death penalty. On this view, the death penalty is deserved, say, if the Pope or the President or 25 people were murdered. One ordinary person? Then no.

The humanist creed asserts that many victims or a famous victim “contained” more of whatever human quality is being regarded as the highest value. Then the wrong involved in taking the murderer’s life is outweighed on the justice scales by the greater wrong committed by his crime. From the biblical view, however, there are no degrees of being in God’s image; each human life has equal value and should enjoy equal protection. The premeditated destruction of any person should be equally punished. That holds no matter whether it was one person or many, the President or a homeless street person. (These thoughts and more are found here.)

A Safeguard

Perhaps you agree with all I’ve said so far. But you would still object that the danger of executing the wrong person outweighs all else. This is a serious point. It focuses our thoughts on the need for new safeguards in our justice system.

            Presently a death sentence carries an automatic appeal so that a higher court can review the case to make sure there were no errors in legal procedure at the trial. That is not enough.

The first thing we need to add is a review of the facts and evidence. A review board formed in every public defenders’ office (but not limited to only cases defended by that office) will do the review. Evidence tainted by illegal means will not stand in review. I judge this evidential review is as necessary as to catch unfair trial procedures.

            Secondly, we need to impose this penalty only when the evidence is not merely “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It must be beyond all doubt. And there are such cases. The evidence is some cases is irrefutable. These are cases where a defendant is caught on sound, color, videotape, has the victim’s blood on him, and/or is caught in the act. According to this proposal, when the evidence is anything less than completely certain, the sentence may be for life, but the death penalty should not be allowed.

Stewardship: A Human Calling

What Is Stewardship?

A Definition

The most basic form of stewardship is also the most encompassing form. It is a requirement of a faithful life that is first found in Genesis 2. When God places humans in charge of his creation he commands them to care for the garden of Eden. How? To leave it better than they found it (see Gen. 2: 15 by clicking here). The scriptures teach this idea in all the writings. The Bible teaches “all creation belongs to God.” Further, we are God’s vice-regents accountable for how we use and care for it. It is a responsibility that all humans bear just by being human. (For a comprehensive statement of this teaching of Scripture, see Our World Belongs to God.)

Our World Belongs to God

What does the Bible say?

The Scriptures teach us about individual accountability. How? We will be accountable for how we use the things that God’s entrusts to us as individuals along life’s way: time, talents, opportunities to serve others, and money. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that these are all gifts from God.

We tend to take time for granted until we get sick or old. We tend to think of our talents as our personal property until they begin to fade. And we tend to think of the source of our income as being our employer until we lose our job. Rightly, in such times we turn to God for help. All along, we knew deep down, “God lent us these gifts.” He did not give them away so that we can use them any way we wish. Rather, God entrusted each of these good things to us. Remember the solemn warning of Jesus, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

The “Bottom Line”

The idea of stewardship boils down to a statement like this. The whole of life is stewardship (and you thought this was all going to be about money!). Our very lives are gifts, as St Paul reminds us: “you are not your own… you have been bought with a price” (I Cor. 6:19,20).

Therefore, we who have the benefit of the worship, preaching, and ministries of our churches are among those who have been given much. Along with these gifts come opportunities to work for God’s kingdom by serving others. That could be simply by inviting them to worship with us. But we also have the opportunity to support such kingdom works as a food cupboard, a soup kitchen, and the mission work of our congregation.  It is also open to us to serve in worship, in the church choir, or in Sunday school, in the care of the sick, or any other of the Church’s other outreach programs.

An Affordable Way to Receive Training

It is to aid with this sort of work that the Christian Leaders Institute offers its courses – free – to anyone who wants to improve their ability to serve their church. For all these reasons, we need to begin to think about stewardship as an ongoing part of our everyday lives rather than as a concern only about pledging of money to our church.  The call to service comes to all, and comes from God Himself. As Jesus once put it: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Roy Clouser, PhD

Prof Emeritus

CLI Philosopher in Residence

Doubt: A Response to William Irwin

Preface

Philosopher William Irwin teaches at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He recently published a book entitled God Is a Question, Not An Answer.  In this volume Irwin contends one could find companionship with others who struggle with doubt about God. The title comes from a line in a novel, The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. Apparently Irwin’s book responds to the statement uttered by an impious man in the novel, “God is a question, not an answer.” In an article in the New York Times in 2016, Irwin makes this statement, “It is impossible to be certain about God.” In this post, Prof. Roy Clouser gives his response to Irwin’s thought.

Some history of “Doubt”

There is a long history in the western intellectual tradition of opposing doubt to certainty.  Ancient skeptics argued that we have no genuinely certain knowledge because there is nothing that cannot be doubted. Further, the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, thought he had to answer the skeptic’s claim in order to rescue the future of both philosophy and science.  His proposal for the one belief that cannot be doubted is each person’s own existence. No one, he said, can doubt his or her own existence so long as he or she is conscious of anything because existence is a precondition for consciousness.  The fact is – and no matter how far-fetched it may seem –  the Buddhist Pali Canon teaches the doctrine of Anatta which rejects the certainty of the self!  The result is that there are Buddhist monks who have cultivated doubt as to their own existence for centuries.

A Delusion?

So does that really mean we have no certainty?  Is it somehow a delusion innate to humans that causes billions of normal people to regard themselves as certain of countless beliefs all day every day?  David Hume, a sceptic, dismissed their certainty when he derisively referred to average folk as “the masses of the ignorant, unlearned, children, and savages”?

My Contention is…

I contend that the real illusion is that there is no good reply to skepticism along with its contention that there is no certainty. The illusion is the product of a category mistake.  The two categories confused are:  1) doubt as a subjective psychological condition, and 2) doubt incurred because of the actual grounds for a belief.  My point is that we can and often do have excellent grounds for a belief so that it deserves to be certain, while at the same time our subjective condition can prevent us from feeling fully confident about it.  What is more, we can be justifiably certain of a belief and doubt it at the same time because doubt is not the denial of certainty, disbelief is.  

We are entitled to be certain of whatever cannot be reasonably disbelieved, not of whatever cannot be doubted.  Thus, the proper reply to the claim that everything can be subjectively doubted is:  So what?

An illustration

Think of it like this. I start across the street and see a bus headed directly at me. I am fully justified in being certain I will be hit by it unless I move out of its way.  The certainty of that belief cannot be affected in the least by the fact that I happen to feel invincible that morning. My feeling gives me the idea, “I doubt the bus will hurt me.” By the same token, if I see a jeep drive over a rope bridge that spans a 1000- foot-deep gorge, I have every reason to believe it will hold me if I walk on it.  All the same, I may be terrified to walk that bridge. In fact, I may find myself in subjective doubt that it will support me with every step I take.

Doubt

Doubt and Belief in God

The same is true with respect to belief in God.  The New Testament speaks of faith as certainty derived from experience, and never as belief without – or beyond – the evidence. In a number of places the New Testament uses language for this experienced certainty. It echoes what mathematicians and philosophers had long called “self-evident” truth. Thus, people experience seeing God’s reality to be a self-evident truth. That belief may very well be fully justified. They are entitled to regard it as certain.

Pascal likened the recognition of the truth of God’s existence to the intuitive recognition of “the first principles of number, time, space, and motion.” Then he added: “Therefore those to whom God has given religion by intuition are blessed and justly convinced.”

Similarly, John Calvin compared seeing the truth about God to normal sense perception. He wrote “scripture bears on the face of it such evidence of its truth as do black and white of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste.” Nevertheless, Calvin also thought the life of the believer in God to be “a constant struggle with doubt.”

Conclusion

Many non-Christian thinkers – Prof Irwin among them – claim that the only beliefs worth having are those we in fact doubt. They assert that doubt renders a belief less than certain. As a result they conclude (quite confidently!) that it is impossible to be certain about God.

But, in fact, they have never given us any good reason to believe either of those claims are true.

Roy A. Clouser                                          

Prof Emeritus   of Philosophy & Religion           

Amusing Ourselves: Life Has Changed

New Year’s Musings

Since I wrote a post-Christmas reflection, it seems only right to follow it up with a reflection on the new year. As I pondered the reality of time’s forward march, I decided to take a moment to share with you my reflections. I hope you find these musings amusing.  So here goes.

The first thing is to express my gratitude to God for seeing yet another new year. This makes 81 of them, so the gratitude could hardly be more genuine.

Of course, I don’t actually remember them all. The first new year in my lifetime was 1938, and I was not even 1 year old. But I can recall quite a number of the years since then, and am surprised by the great changes they’ve brought. I don’t mean by that the technology changes – everybody knows about that. I mean the changes in people’s attitudes.

When I Wore a Younger Man’s Clothes

For example, in the 1940’s (my youth), the average person listened to the radio a couple times a week for its entertainment value.  When the day’s work was done, folks would listen to the news (world, then national, very little local), and perhaps a comedian or two. Many comedy shows were on the radio in the 40’s.  Jack Benny, Fred Allan, Fanny Brice, and Jimmy Durante all had weekly shows. There was also Duffy’s Tavern, Blondie, and The Great Gildersleeve.  My parents withheld some shows because they were too scary for a young person like me.  Among them were  The Inner Sanctum and The Shadow. There were kids shows too.  Let’s Pretend, The Lone Ranger, and the Buster Brown show are examples. The shows were all a half hour long, and no one I knew – or knew of – heard them all every week.

In other words, the average person – kid or grown-up – listened to less entertainment in a week than the average kid now sees TV in the average day! There’s something mighty sobering about that.

Did You Know …

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Did you know that the word “amuse” means “not think?”

The kids I see today continually amuse themselves throughout just about every day. My students at the college couldn’t walk from one class to another without plugging in earbuds to hear music or podcasts. The average US home has 2.3 TV sets.  The average person in the US watches over 5 hours of TV per day.

That’s a lot of not thinking.

Maybe worship is not amusing?

We keep hearing that church attendance in the US is in decline, despite the fact that the vast majority of people regard themselves as “spiritual.” No one can say for sure what all the causes of that decline are.  I suspect one of the factors is how much more pleasant it is to be amused and how readily available the sources of amusement are.

compassion for people

Compassion for people

Attending church requires that we think about what we’re doing and to whom our worship is addressed. It requires us to reflect on our lives and attitudes in ways that are often painful. And its message – the gospel – frequently winds up demanding that we change ourselves. On top of that, it constantly reminds us of the needs of others and of our obligations to them.

In short, church worship challenges our culture of amusement. It is, therefore, something that stands in opposition to the general flow of our culture. Just as we can say in the face of any serious question, “Let’s have a drink and forget it,” so too we can avoid being confronted with the gospel’s unpleasant truths about ourselves by simply skipping worship.

A New Year’s Resolution

So how about this for a new year’s resolution? How about a little more church and a little less not-thinking  (amusing ourselves)?

 

Roy Clouser

Belief in God: Does Science Make This Obsolete? Part 2

Definition of Materialism

One last thing. The prevalent form of contemporary Naturalism today is materialism. This is the belief that some (unspecified) exclusively physical realities are the self-existent (divine) realities. The two most popular versions of materialism are: 1) all that exists are purely physical things governed only by physical laws, and 2) purely physical things and laws produce all that is non-physical. Many of those who hold to these materialist views of reality try to justify them by claiming they are necessary to science or are somehow endorsed by science. For example,  George Johnson composed a review of two books by theists who are distinguished scientists. In the review, he dismissed their point that they saw no conflict between their science and their Christianity.  Johnson writes, “But theism and materialism don’t stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science.” (Scientific American, Oct. 2006, p. 95).

Proposing a Thought Experiment

That claim should at least look mighty suspicious even to those who wish it were true! For in fact every major figure in the rise of modern science was a theist. But that aside, what the claim asserts is literally nonsense. The reason is, that no one can so much as frame the idea of anything as purely physical. When we take “physical” to refer to that which is subject to physical laws, then our inability to provide any idea of “purely physical” can be confirmed.  We accomplish this by the simple thought experiment of trying to conceive of anything as purely physical.

Take as a first example, your concept of a stone. Now strip from that concept every quantitative property since these are not physical (numbers are not subject to physical laws). That will mean there is no “how much” to the stone so that it cannot be counted or measured. Now likewise strip away every spatial property so that it has no size or shape or location (spatial shapes and locations are also not governed by physical laws).

Next in our little experiment, remove any content of the concept that is in any way biotic so that the stone will not have any of these features. For example, the stone cannot be dangerous to life or able to be part of a bird’s digestive processes. Then divest it of any sensory property so that it is in principle unable to be perceived (this will mean, among other things, that no observations could possibly confirm any theory about it). Next subtract from your concept the stone’s logical property of being able to be distinguished from other things, and finally take from it the linguistic potentiality of being able to be referred to in language.

Now tell me what you have left. Have you any idea whatever?

What is Left of the Stone in the Experiment

Granted, some of the properties I’ve just mentioned are true of the stone only passively; the stone doesn’t actively possess sensory, logical, or linguistic properties. But unless it had the passive potentialities to be perceived, to be distinguished, and to be referred to, none of those actions could be performed on it by us. Each one of those potentialities requires that it be subject to other-than-physical laws: laws of perception or logic or linguistic rule.

Moreover, this result  accrues when this experiment is applied to concrete objects. The result is equally valid when it is applied to abstract properties that are physical. To see why this is so, you need only repeat the experiment using an abstract property as our test case. Let’s use the property of (physical) weight. What is weight which has no amount or is nowhere. Is weight unable to be perceived?  Could weight be distinguished from any other property? Can weight not be referred to in language?

Therefore, …..

This experiment destroys materialism as a plausible theory and exposes it as a divinity belief which is as unprovable as is belief in God. It’s unprovable because there is no recovery from the point that materialists cannot so much as frame the idea of what they claim to be true, and what cannot be conceived of cannot be proven. The real ground of the materialist belief, then, is the person’s experience of having it appear self-evidently true to each person individually, not that it is necessary to science.

Our thought experiment shows materialism to be a divinity belief with the special difficulty that nothing can so much as be conceived as purely physical.  As such, materialism is a belief in worse shape than the assertion that there are square circles. When we speak of a “square circle” we at least have an idea of what we’re talking about. That’s how we know the expression names an impossible entity. But when we say the words “purely physical” we have no idea whatever of anything it could name. The thought experiment shows that the expression “purely physical” is literally meaningless.

Materialism Is An Inconceivable Myth

For this reason, materialism is not an assumption scientists actually employ in their work. Even scientists who are avid materialists are forced to treat the concrete objects and the abstract properties and laws they work with in physics as possessing quantitative, spatial, sensory, logical, linguistic, and many other kinds of properties. For example, they do mathematical calculations upon the data being investigated. They regard their sensory perceptions of observed tests as evidence. They take precautions when working with materials that can be biologically hazardous. Each one has to have economic concerns about the cost of their experiments. In short, no one ever actually works with the mythical class of the purely physical. Because that myth is literally inconceivable, it has zero explanatory power even as a theory of reality, let alone as a part of physics.[i]

The thought experiment exposes the fact that as materialists do science, the term “physical” means that what they focus on are the physical properties of entities that all the while plainly exhibit other kinds of properties as well. And when they discuss materialism they shift the meaning of the term to designate their fictional “purely physical” entities. Thus, although they hold the view that the purely physical entities are the ultimate (divine) realities, they work in physics with theories and experiments that never deal with anything as exclusively physical. Moreover, this is not just a slip-up on their part that could be overcome if only they were more attentive. Rather, as we’ve just seen, it’s because they can’t so much as frame the idea of anything as exclusively physical.

Theism On the Other Hand

Belief in God, on the other hand, played an important role in the rise of modern science.  Alfred North Whitehead, a Naturalist philosopher of science, made this observation. First, I’ll quote him concerning his Naturalism. Whitehead says:

What is the status of the enduring stability in

the order of nature? There is the summary

answer, which refers nature to some greater

reality standing behind it. This reality occurs

in the history of thought under many names,

the Absolute, Brahma, the Order of Heaven, God…

My point is that any summary conclusion

          jumping from… such an order of nature to the

easy assumption that there is an ultimate reality…

constitutes the great refusal of rationality to

assert its rights. We have to search whether

nature does not in its very being show itself as

self-explanatory.[ii]

 

Then there is Whitehead’s observation about belief in God and the rise of science:

 

…the greatest contribution of [the middle ages]

to the formation of the scientific movement [was]

the inexpugnable belief that every detailed

occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents

in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles…

When we compare this

tone of thought in Europe with the attitudes

of other civilizations when left to themselves,

            there seems to be but one source for its origin.

It must come from the medieval

insistence on the rationality of God… [iii]

 

Roy Clouser

[i]           This argument and a non-reductionist theory of reality are both developed in my book, The Myth of Religious Neutrality (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).

[ii]           Science and the Modern World, (NY: Free Press, 1967), 92.

[iii]“The Origins of Modern Science” in Science and the Modern World. Ibid., 12.