And so our Lord Jesus Christ, being at birth true man though He never ceased to be true God, made in Himself the beginning of a new creation, and in the form of His birth started the spiritual life of mankind afresh ....
What mind can grasp this mystery, what tongue can express this gracious act? Sinfulness returns to guiltlessness and the old nature becomes new; strangers receive adoption and outsiders enter upon an inheritance. The ungodly begin to be righteous, the miserly benevolent, the incontinent chaste, the earthly heavenly. And whence comes this change, save by the right hand of the Most High? For the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil, and has so united Himself with us and us with Him that the descent of God to man's estate became the exaltation of man to God's.
-- St. Leo the Great, Nativity Sermon VII
A strange irony is curled up in Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of what was to come.
Nietzsche thought that the belief in objectively true values – a real good and evil, a real right and wrong – was finally petering out. Not much was left in the tank. Soon it would be empty. The age of nihilism would begin.
One result of this emptiness would be would be the rise of the herd creatures he called the “last men,” people who no longer believed in anything or aspired to anything (and who therefore might believe carelessly in anything), but who would know, more or less, what they wanted. Above all, they would want their lives to be comfortable, safe, easy, and just like everyone else’s.
The other result would be the rise of a few who were in some sense more than human, men who, instead of receiving values from supposedly transcendent sources such as God, would create their own values, imposing them on those weaker than themselves. Creating their own values would be tantamount to creating their own reality, because, if values are not objective, then facts are not either. In some unimaginable sense, the various supermen would war over whose values, whose “facts,” would prevail. As soon as some of them were able to impose a new order of reality, the specter of the abyss would retreat.
The strange irony I mentioned is that the sort of people who prattle about “creating their own values” has turned out to be exactly the sort of people whom Nietzsche despised as last men. Free at last, free at last! Let each person have his own reality, right along with his new car and entertainment center. If God is dead, everything is hey, whatever.
So the would-be supermen turn out to live in herds.
As it happens, we do from time to time encounter genuinely superior persons. This is nothing new; some of them have always been among us. But they are not supermen. They are what the Tradition has called saints. What uplifts them is not arrogance, but grace.
So the age of nihilism that Nietzsche prophesied has come upon us, but it is not, as he thought, a story of last men and supermen. It is but the latest chapter in the story of the lost and the found. May we be among the found.
To keep the government from doing bad things, James Madison and the other supporters of the Constitution proposed relying not so much on written prohibitions as on checks and balances. Other governments had used checks and balances between the social classes. The Framers proposed using them between the branches.
It was a daring idea. The aim was not to abolish conflict, but to institutionalize it. We were to rest our hopes for the common good not on getting along, but on fighting fair.
For a check is a kind of weapon.
But the idea of a balance based on fighting fair raised a profound question, which the supporters of the new Constitution never answered, or even, so far as I know, addressed. The permissible checks and balances are themselves spelled out in written rules. So if written rules are nothing but parchment barriers, why shouldn’t we pronounce the same damning verdict upon those rules? Aren’t the written sentences that spell out the permissible checks and balances also just parchment barriers? What is to prevent a political player from going outside the rules completely, fighting dirty instead of fair, competing with the others by unconstitutional means?
The only possible answer is that the Framers thought they had drawn up such good rules that each political player would find it in his interest to keep playing by them. If he did play by them, he would win some, lose some. If he didn’t, he might, conceivably, win everything -- but it would be much more likely that he would lose everything. So he would think it more to his advantage to stay within the rules than go outside them.
This is not always the case. From time to time, situations arise in which some players think – correctly or incorrectly – that they have less to lose by playing outside the rules than by playing within them. And so they do play outside them. When this happens, we have a Constitutional crisis. That is what is happening now.
Of course, to defuse Constitutional crises, we have other Constitutional mechanisms. The failure of certain checks and balances is compensated by other checks and balances. But if they fail too, a Constitutional crisis can go on for a long, long time.
If it goes on for too long, then the side that first began playing dirty may become more and more desperate, partly because it persuades itself that victory is almost within its grasp, partly because the consequences of losing now would be unthinkable. Consequently, it throws caution to the winds, violating the rules more and more gravely and openly.
The more it does so – and this, I think, is what all men of good will must remember – the more frantic and furious the other side may also become, so that it begins to wonder whether it ought to play dirty too. Once it reaches that conclusion, both sides come unhinged, losing even what little was left of their principles.
Not even those who do play dirty want the populace to turn against them. Therefore, even the most extreme acts, short of assassination, are dressed in the garments of legitimacy. This is an easier set of clothes to put on than one might think, because few citizens understand the Constitution anyway. It is hard enough that checks and balances are so complicated, and therefore confusing. Making matters worse, those who play dirty have a deep stake in making the Constitution as baffling as possible.
It took the Romans years to realize that they had lost their republic. By that time they didn’t want it any more.
Everyone in my family except me is an atheist. At Christmastime, they deck the house out in Christmas stuff and play Christmas carols round-the-clock -- but at the same time, they make a point of mocking Jesus and His followers! Back in high school, my decision to become a Christian provoked such serious arguments with my father and stepmother that I'm on don't-talk-about-faith terms with them. Even at other times of year the situation can be difficult. Once, when my stepsister saw a bumper sticker that said “Jesus loves you,” she exclaimed that she hated the driver for it. But it gets worse when I'm home for the holidays.
I love my family and it hurts me to hear them talk like this. Please, give me some idea of how to speak for Jesus in such a way that they won't mock what I say and shut me out! I'd love to be able to take a stand without seeming obnoxious or self-righteous, but I know that if I do they'll get angry, and I'm afraid I won't be able to handle the situation gracefully.
I sympathize. The situation sounds unpleasant. Here's how I advise you: To be charitable, humble, grateful, and forbearing toward your family; to rejoice in their good qualities, and show your appreciation for them; to be actively helpful by doing things like running errands and washing all the dishes without being asked; to go on about your Christian business, like worshipping at church on Christmas Eve, without calling attention to yourself; and not to try to force your family to be what they aren't.
Besides all those things, do one thing extra: Pray for your family. Do it without ceasing. Leave it to God Himself to decide how to answer your prayers.
I know you want to do something more. You want to hurry God. You want to “make a stand.” My heart goes out to you. But believe me, practicing love to your family is making a stand. They know you're a Christian; it isn't necessary to talk Christ if they aren't yet ready to hear Christ. If they grow irritated with you even for loving them, just love them even more. I mean genuinely – not obnoxiously. Because being obnoxious about loving them might be a temptation.
By the way, if they want to sing Christmas carols, join them! Why not? You might ask them some year why they sing them, but don't fret about the fact that they don't believe them. Don’t you believe them? Besides, there may be more going on in their hearts than you think. Considering how angrily they fight against Jesus, perhaps they are feeling His pull. Would you rather that they be indifferent? Who knows what the Holy Spirit can do? You may all end up saints. Have a blessed Advent and a merry Christmas.
Physicists know that if certain physical constants did not happen to lie within an extremely narrow range, the universe would be inhospitable to biological life. Consider for example those heavens of which the psalmist speaks so eloquently. If the gravitational constant were minutely stronger than it is, stars would burn up too quickly. If it were minutely weaker than it is, they would never be able to ignite. The universe seems to have been fine-tuned for the possibility of life like us.
"Fine-tuned," of course, is another word for "designed." Even the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Fred Hoyle wrote, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.” Curious words for an atheist, but that’s what he wrote.
One of the most popular attempts to discredit the cosmological fine-tuning argument proposes that what we call our universe is really only one member of an infinite ensemble of universes, in each of which the physical constants have different values. Of course the values in ours are hospitable to life, the argument runs -- if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be here observing them! However, it goes on, this is no more surprising than the fact that if you go into a room, hang up a target on the wall, then fling an infinite number of mudballs in an infinite number of directions, at least one of them will hit the bullseye. No doubt the winning mudball thinks it is the product of miraculous aim, but it isn’t.
This argument against fine-tuning sounds rather good at first, but it is fallacious.
In the first place, whatever happened to Occam's Razor? “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily,” wrote William of Occam. All other things being equal, simpler explanations that assume fewer things should be preferred to complicated ones that assume more things. Yet instead of the hypothesis of just one God, the multiverse argument hypothesizes an infinite number of universes -- all of them, by the way, unobservable.
Besides, even if we do allow the multiverse proponents to “multiply entities unnecessarily,” the multiverse argument doesn’t explain what it is supposed to explain. It resorts to the hypothesis of a multiverse to account for this universe having the queer properties that it does – but how does it account for the even queerer properties of the multiverse itself?
For who made the room? Who hung the target on the wall? And who flung all those mudballs?
The quotation is from Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 20 (1982), p. 16.
Professor, I have a question about general theology. How does God's sovereignty work? Please allow me to use my situation as an example: I have spent the past few months struggling with loss since I broke up with an immature boyfriend who would never commit to anything, and I am wondering – did I ruin God's plan for my life by making a choice? If so, how do I get back on track? More generally, how does God's sovereignty work amidst our choices? I'm just not sure how I am supposed to decide or how I am supposed to guarantee that I pick "God's path" for me. I never really thought decision-making could be hard if we are seeking God -- I always thought God meets us as we step out in faith, redirects us, and in unseen ways, leads us toward his best for our lives, but right now, considering how it looks like I've messed up, I'm just really unclear about how this works.
Your letter – I’ve shortened and anonymized it for this post, of course – doesn’t give any reason to think that you actually have made bad choices. After all, you did say the young man was immature and would never commit to anything. I also notice that you don’t ask whether you ruined God’s plan by making a bad choice – you ask whether you ruined God’s plan by making a choice. As the Old Testament book of Sirach says, “God left man in the hand of his own counsel." That is why He gave us rational minds that are unlike the minds of the beasts. Making choices is what He intends us to do; we would oppose His plans for us if we didn’t make choices.
The great thing to do, with His help, is make good and wise ones. Sometimes, unfortunately, we don’t, but it’s not unfaithful to think so. He doesn’t absolutely prevent us from doing foolish things. Learning to do wise ones required discipline and experience.
As to “getting back on track” -- that can be taken in three different ways.
If you ever find that you have acted contrary to God’s law, for instance by stealing or by acting unkindly, then, of course, the way to get back on track is to repent, confess, and make amends with the persons whom you wronged.
Suppose, on the other hand, that you choose to do something that is not in the least incompatible with God’s law, but is simply unwise. In that case, the way to get back on track depends on the nature of the unwise choice. Some unwise choices can simply be reversed -- for example, if you choose a career in accounting, but only then discover that you are no good at arithmetic, you can be retrained for a new career.
Other unwise choices can’t be reversed. Even then, though, you can make the best of them. Suppose, for example, that instead of breaking up with that immature man who wouldn’t commit to anything, you had married him. It would be wrong to try to “get back on track” by seeking a divorce, but there are at least three other things you could do. One would be to overcome the immaturity on your part that led you to marry such a man in the first place. The second would be to encourage him to become more mature himself – lovingly, not nastily, and not blaming yourself if he doesn’t respond. And of course you could offer your suffering to Christ, so that you could become more perfectly conformed to Him in what He suffered for us.
But getting back on track can also be taken as meaning getting back on track emotionally. How do we get off that track in the first place? One reason, of course, is that we suffer from bad decisions. A drug addict suffers because of the decisions that led him to become addicted. A young woman attached to a young man who has the Peter Pan syndrome because of her bad choice of boyfriend. If I am no good at acting, but give up everything and go to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a movie star, I suffer needless failure and disappointment.
The other, more surprising reason for the need to get back on track emotionally is that sometimes we suffer even when we have made good and wise decisions. The drug addict will suffer dreadfully from withdrawal after giving up the drug, but he was right to give it up. The young woman may feel brokenhearted after breaking up with the unsuitable man, but that doesn’t mean she was wrong to break up with him. If I discover that I have no acting talent, and so give up my lifelong dream of being a movie star in order to do something better with my life, I might suffer just because the dream meant so much to me -- but that wouldn’t imply that I should have continued trying for a career I am not suited for. What it would imply is that I need to learn what kind of dreams to dream!
Since suffering can result from good decisions as well as from bad ones, it’s also important to avoid thinking that our decisions must have been bad just because we do feel wretched afterward. Shall we apply this to you? I suggest that you think more carefully about the reasons for your own present sadness. How often people go back even on good decisions just because afterward they are unhappy! And how often they experience far greater suffering by doing so! A wise decision made for good reasons does not become a bad decision just because flowers do not spring at our feet the next day.
How then does a person get back on track emotionally? Part of your own sadness will take care of itself, because people do get over failed relationships. Hard as that seems to believe while the heartbreak is going on, it is really true. The great thing is not to hang onto the sorrow. Don’t cherish it, don’t coddle it, and don’t make a pet of it. You should also remember that if God does intend that you marry – He may, after all, have something better in mind for you, such as the life of consecrated celibacy -- then in time, if you choose wisely, you will find a suitable husband.
I don’t mean that every kind of sadness “takes care of itself.” Some doesn’t. But you can do something about the various sadnesses that don’t take care of themselves too, so that they become manageable, and even so that they work to your good. Suppose, for example, that through no fault of your own, a beloved brother cuts off his relationship with you and the rest of your family. The first thing you can do is refuse to blame yourself for his bad own decision. The next thing you can do is pray for him. This prayer should include a plea to God that the door to reconciliation with your brother may some day open, and that when it does, you will recognize the opportunity and know what to do. Still another thing you can do is continue to intend kindness to your brother, even if he is no longer kind to you. And finally -- just as in the other cases, so in this one -- you can offer your sorrow about the rupture with your brother to Christ, so that, by His grace, it may be united with His suffering for us.
Now about Christian decision-making being so much harder than you expected.
You are not wrong to think that God meets us on the path, and that if we cooperate with Him, He leads us. But this does not mean that decision-making with God is easy. In fact, it is just as hard for us as it is for non-believers -- but in a different way.
Consider the story of Elijah’s grief in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings. I’m thinking of chapter 19. Elijah has just experienced his greatest victory over the prophets of the false god Ba’al. He has acted well, and God is pleased with him. Yet he is in utter misery. He thinks that his life has been a failure and that his work is at an end. Losing his nerve, he runs away into the wilderness, holes up in a cave, and complains to God, “"I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." God doesn’t magically make Elijah happy. But He doesn’t leave him alone, either. He makes Elijah aware of His presence, gives him time to mourn, makes him go back, and gives him new work to do – not only for the present, but also to prepare for the future.
You ask about God’s sovereignty. His sovereignty means that He rules.
It doesn’t mean that He keeps us from doing stupid things. Yes, He assists us in learning from these mistakes, not just in the light of earthly prudence, but also, by His grace, in the light of eternal wisdom. But He doesn’t keep us from committing them.
It doesn’t mean that He will make all our decisions easy. Yes, He will always help. But there will times when we don’t recognize the help that He gives – at least not at the time that He is giving it, because sometimes it becomes clear to us only long afterward. You don’t have to feel his hand on your hand to walk with Him in obedience and faith.
And it doesn’t mean that He always makes us happy in this life. Although we bring much of our suffering upon ourselves, we will experience sorrow and real loss even when we are doing everything right. St. Paul says in Romans 8, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” When he writes these words, he doesn’t mean that our Lord and Master stops the freezing rain for us. What he means is that our Lord and Master, who rules everything, can use even the freezing rain for our ultimate good.
All of which is inconceivably wonderful. Not just in heaven. Now.
Some years ago I wrote a short dialogue for college age Christians trying to figure out God’s will for them: “Who’s Calling?” The original target audience was a little younger than you, but perhaps you will enjoy it. It’s a conversation between a young student and his mentor, an imaginary, idealized professor named Theophilus, who is much cooler than me.
The God of the Gaps
Atheist to theist: “You believe in a God only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the existence and properties of the universe.”
The Murderer of the Gaps
Atheist to forensic pathologist: “You believe in a murderer only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the bullet-shaped holes in the dead man’s back.”
The Thief of the Gaps
Atheist to policeman: “You believe in a thief only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the disappearance of the cash from the strongbox.”
The Author of the Gaps
Atheist to editor: “You believe in an author only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the existence of the manuscript that came in the mail.”
The Sculptor of the Gaps
Atheist to anthropologist: “You believe in a sculptor only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the human-shaped chunk of marble you dug up in the ruins of the city.”