Of Paintings and Place

How the simplest of things can teach us a theology of home

In one of my favorite parts of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, Jayber attends seminary and begins to realize he has a host of questions. Fearing this may mean he is not called to the ministry, he goes to speak with one of his professors and unloads the laundry list of doubts and questions. The professor, Dr. Ardmire, listens to his questions. The professor speaks up and says to Jayber:

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time.’
And how long is that going to take?’
I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.’
That could be a long time.’
I will tell you a further mystery,’ he said. ‘It may take longer.”

This scene came to my mind on Friday when hanging a painting in my office. With it came a rush of emotions that frankly, I did not expect. It recalled memories from the past and hopes for the future.

The painting has several memories, each woven into who I am. It’s an image of the 4th of July in my hometown of Campbellsville, Kentucky. Every year we’d gather on Main Street and watch a parade of floats, horses, dirt bikes, four-wheelers, tractors, cars, and youth sports league champions. My childhood was spent on this street and in a few of the stores with my parents. I learned how to drive on this street. I spent many a Friday night cruising with my friends up and down Main Street before heading over to a bakery that would open at Midnight. We would sit in my dad’s pharmacy parking lot (located right next to the bakery) or in the church parking lot across the street. Those memories are embedded on me like a deep scar, and I look back on those times with a fondness (and embarrassment at times) that grows with age.

It is a remarkable feature of humanity that something so simple can give rise to a host of complex thoughts, regrets, and hopes. To disentangle oneself from a scenario and contemplate your own humanity is an act of the moral imagination that still befuddles. Staring at an object that is filled with history, location, context, and memories might engender a desire for halcyon days where innocence seemed to roam the interiors of your mind.

But there’s more to this painting than the memories of growing up in a small-town. This painting was in my dad’s office for as long as I can remember. I have vivid memories of walking into the back door of his pharmacy as a young child, running toward his office, and seeing this painting hanging on the wall over my father’s shoulder while in my his — very tight — embrace. When I would come home from college to see him, I’d once again race back to his office. He’d be sitting in his chair, paying bills, sorting mail, and weaving back and forth between his office and the front counter. When he would leave I’d sit in his chair, feeling like a young prince sitting in his kingly father’s throne. Directly across from his desk was this painting, always in eyesight. It was a reminder to me that, despite moving away, this place will always be a part of me. It will always be home. 

I’ve never really asked my dad if there is something uniquely special about this painting or if he just liked it. I’m not sure it matters. He retired last July and I asked if I could have the painting to put in my office. As time passed after his retirement I assumed he had forgotten my request and I didn’t really want to bother him about it. For some reason, it seemed silly to me. After Christmas he gave it to me and it’s been in my office, hung within eyesight, ever since.

Since my son was born I have been thinking about what tangible objects might we acquire or currently have that can be passed down to our children. What physical embodiments of “Bryan” and “Danielle” do we have that mean the world to us that our children can hold and admire and say, “This is something Mom loved. This thing is something Dad loved”? I’ve chosen a life project that does this in hopes that my kids will one day be able to look across the room in their offices or homes and see a physical embodiment of something that brings back the memories of their parents.

It’s important, I think, to believe that this drive to remember, to honor those before us, is as old as humanity. From memorial stones in the Old Testament to paintings in one’s office, they are physical reminders of what Roger Scruton calls oikophilia, or a love of home. They are reminders of a “place where you and I belong and to which we return, if only in thought, at the end of all our wanderings.” What might seem lost can be restored. Home can be felt again and there is One ever-working to do precisely that. A love of home and place, under His rule and reign, takes a new — though no less physical — meaning. At the end of all our wanderings stands a bloody cross and a victorious Savior.

Freedom on the Fourth is a theology of place in a painting. Many of the individuals in the painting are likely gone from us now. Many more have grown up, forgotten the place to which we all belonged at one time and — potentially — forgotten who they are. I was painfully close to such peril. I don’t have full answers to the questions I’m seeking. Like Jayber, I have been given questions to which I cannot be given answers. I will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time. They are important questions and I hope to consider them for the rest of my life.

The painting now hangs in my office, and now I’m able to pull my son into my arms while he looks over my shoulder with this painting in full-view.

Bryan Baise is an assistant professor of philosophy at Boyce College. He has three kids and is far too emotionally invested in his sports teams. You can follow him on Twitter.

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4 (Simple) Responses to Science-Based Atheism

Lack of scientific knowledge can leave Christians feeling vulnerable when talking to unbelieving friends about why faith is superior to skepticism. Many college students discover atheism through science classes; students who enter university as Christians have their faith fiercely tested by their studies, and too many give up the fight merely because they assume that a biology professor must be correct about whether God exists. When a little bit of childlike faith meets a lot of studied atheism, fear can take control.

That’s unnecessary. You don’t have to have a degree in science to have something to say to those with scientific objections to faith. Here are four simple responses to those who say that science has either disproved God or has made belief in God unnecessary:

1) We cannot know from science if science itself is the best source of knowledge. 

There are two possibilities when it comes to human knowledge through science. The first possibility is that everything that is real is actually reducible to scientific principles. Everything–from the universe, to human emotion, to spiritual experiences–is explainable through scientific research. The other option is simple: Not all existence can be explained through science.

Here’s why this question matters. If the first option is true, then logically, science absolutely is the supreme mode of knowledge, and everything we believe about anything must be in submission to it. The problem though is that whether or not all of reality is utlimately explainable through scientific concepts is not itself a scientifically provable theory. It is a philosophical premise, not a scientific conclusion. The only way to definitively prove that science explains everything would be to have exhaustive knowledge of all reality, and then be able to explain (using only scientific data) what all reality is and what it means. Such a feat is impossible. Therefore, the belief that science is the best source of knowledge must be accepted on faith, for it cannot be verified through testing.

2) Scientific consensus can and frequently does change. This limits its epistemological authority. 

The progressive nature of scientific inquiry is essential to its value. Done rightly, science can correct its own errors. But this presupposes that science can make errors in the first place. And if that’s true, then the question is: How do we know what could be a current error in scientific consensus, and what do we know is absolutely true?

This is a very important question to ask religious skeptics who appeal to science. A likely response is that science may be wrong on almost everything it says, but it almost certainly isn’t wrong about what it doesn’t say; ie, if science hasn’t revealed God by now, it’s not rational to think it will. But this objection misses the point. One does not wait on science to exhaustively explain something before believing it. If that were so then 99% of human beings on the planet would not believe in the most basic realities of existence, or would be irrational in believing without having exhaustive scientific knowledge. If current scientific consensus points away from the existence of God (a highly disputable point, by the way), then who is to say that consensus cannot change? If it can, then science’s intellectual authority is limited, and the expectation that it will continue to oppose religious belief is more a matter of faith.

3) Only supernatural theism provides a rational justification of scientific work. 

The wording of this point is very important. If we left out the word “rational,” then the statement would actually be false and quite easy to shoot down. You don’t need supernatural theism to be curious, or to want to explore the natural world. But you do need supernatural theism to have a rational justification of science. What does the word rational mean there? It means that scientific inquiry done on the assumption that there is no higher intelligence than evolved human intelligence is making a value judgment that it has no right to make.

Why is knowledge better than ignorance? The atheist would respond that ignorance has less survival value than truth; after all, if you believe wrong things or do not know enough about your environment, you’re less likely to survive and flourish. But this explanation only applies to a very small amount of scientific knowledge. There is little survival value in knowing, for example, the complicated workings of time–space theory, or the genus of certain insects, or the distance of Jupiter from Mars. All of these facts are pursued by scientists as being intrinsically valuable, yet they offer very little information that can help guarantee a species’ continued existence on the planet.

The real explanation is that scientists pursue these facts because there is intrinsic value in knowing what is true about the world, regardless of how much help it gives us. Human beings believe that knowing is better than ignorance because they believe that truth is better than falsity, and light is better than darkness. But where does such a conclusion come from? It does not come from scientific principles. Science itself offers no self-evident account for why it should be pursued. You cannot study science hard enough to understand why you should study science at all. To study science presupposes a valuing of truth that must be experienced outside of scientific study. It is only rational to pursue scientific knowledge that doesn’t offer immediate survival value if there is some external, transcendent value in knowing truth. Theism offers an explanation for why knowing truth is valuable. Scientific atheism does not.

4) Only supernatural theism gives us assurance that real scientific knowledge is possible.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga is famous for articulating what he calls the “evolutionary argument against naturalism.”

The argument is complicated in detail but simple in premise. Plantinga begins by putting two facts alongside each other that nearly all atheists agree on. First, the theory of evolution is true, and humans have descended from lower life forms over time. Secondly, humans are rational beings in a higher degree and superior way to lesser evolved creatures. Plantinga then points our attention towards a tension between these two facts. If human beings are a more evolved species of primate, then our cognitive faculties (ie, the parts of our body and mind that allow us to be rational creatures) have evolved out of lesser cognitive faculties.

But, Plantinga says, if God does not exist, then the only factors that affected human evolution are time and chance. Based on time and chance alone, why should we be confident that our rational minds–which are merely the sum of lesser evolved minds plus time and chance–are actually rational at all? What basis do we have to believe our own conclusions? How do we know we are actually capable of knowing truth more than a primate? If the only players in our existence are lesser creatures, time, and chance, how do we know we are even highly evolved at all?

This astute observation was echoed by Thomas Nagel in his recent book Mind and Cosmos. Nagel, an agnostic philosopher from New York University, argues that human comprehension of the universe cannot be explained merely by atheistic evolutionary processes. It makes no sense to assume that humans can really make sense of their world on a conceptual level if human consciousness arose out of the very world it responds to. Nagel agrees with Plantinga that atheistic naturalism cannot explain why human beings can be rational creatures and do rational things that should be trusted.

Scientific knowledge is only possible if things unprovable by science are actually true. If Carl Sagan is correct and the material universe is all there was, is, and ever will be, then science itself is nothing more than a shot in the dark. If, however, human beings are the products of an infinitely greater Mind, then we have justification for believing that true and false are realities and not merely the shadow puppets of our ancestors.

Why You Should (Probably) Major in Philosophy

  1. Philosophy is difficult.
  2. But it is not very difficult. It’s easier than calculus and a lot easier than physics.
  3. Philosophy is all about books, books, books.
  4. An enormous amount of the most important philosophy books you can read are public domain and therefore (legally) free. If you want to build a library on a budget, philosophy is the way to go.
  5. Philosophy is about ideas.
  6. Philosophy isn’t just about old ideas
  7. Philosophy isn’t just about new ideas
  8. A good philosophical education will give you a foundation in literature
  9. …in history
  10. …in logic
  11. …in art
  12. …in math
  13. ….in science
  14. …in law
  15. …in writing
  16. ….in theology
  17. ….in politics
  18. and much more.
  19. Philosophy is one of the few subjects that will actually affect how you watch movies like The Matrix, Star Wars, Inception, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and lots of others (if you want to learn how to interpret movies well, skip the film degree and do philosophy).
  20. Aside from theology, philosophy boasts the richest contributions from Christians.
  21. Within philosophy you can study a mind-boggling number of topics and traditions, like epistemology (how do we know things?), ethics (what is right and wrong?), metaphysics (is there a God?), linguistics (what do our words mean?), aesthetics (what makes something beautiful?), philosophy of history (what does it all mean?), philosophy of science (is science really worth anything?), etc.
  22. Philosophy will help you have better conversations.
  23. Philosophy will help you have better reasoning skills
  24. Philosophy may help you get a job.
  25. Philosophy will make you, if you let it, into a lifetime learner.

How “God’s Not Dead” fails Christian students

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I took the plunge that I had been studiously avoiding and turned on God’s Not Dead, the evangelical blockbuster movie from last year that has thus far raked in cash, awards, and even designation as the “best Christian movie of the year.” I had seen beforehand its 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and read thoughtfully critical takes on the movie. I was more or less prepared to watch a bad film, and indeed that’s what I got.

The failures of “God’s Not Dead” are particularly frustrating when you consider how easily they could have been avoided. There’s nothing wrong with God’s Not Dead that couldn’t be fixed by handing the script to a writer who isn’t eager to portray non-Christians in the worst light possible. The film feels less like a dramatic narrative and more like a propaganda reel, highlighting The Enemy in all their inglorious abominations.

It would be one thing for the movie to caricature non-evangelicals if it had no aspirations to realism in the beginning. I actually would be curious to watch a well-done diatribe against the secularist monopoly on higher education; the potential to learn something in that context seems high. But the medium of dramatic narrative is a higher medium than a lecture. It engages the imagination and moves the spirit in a more significant way. That’s why God’s Not Dead’s animosity towards its non-Christian characters is dangerous; if Christians come away thinking unbelievers in real life are like the unbelievers of God’s Not Dead (and that is clearly the message of the script), they will be carrying a spiteful fantasy into their relationships and evangelism that will be fatal to Gospel conversations.

Fairly representing those who disagree is not something that Christians should be bad at doing. Telling the truth about what people believe and engaging them like honest people isn’t a spiritual gift or an acquired skill. It’s basic honesty. How can I criticize the anathematizing of people like Brendan Eich and Ryan Anderson if after hours I myself enjoy caricatures of those who disagree with me?

I understand why people enjoy “God’s Not Dead.” It’s a brief moment of cinematic glory for Christians who, for good reason, often feel lampooned and marginalized in pop culture. But it’s a moment that comes at the expense of a helpful or even realistic perspective on the dialogues between faith and unbelief. The vast majority of atheists that Christian students will meet in college are nothing like the professor from God’s Not Dead. If these students go into school expecting the contrary, the cognitive dissonance that will result from seeing a reality that contradicts their assumptions will have a worse effect on their faith than a few hours of talking with a unbeliever could ever have.