by Victor Lee | 27 January 2022 |
I visited a church I am familiar with in Sydney for Christmas. I had just arrived from being stranded in Brunei for two years. I was wearing a pair of jeans, a borrowed old shirt, and my two-year long hair tied in a man bun. The male church officers were impressive in uniform of identical black trousers, cream white shirts and black/white pin-striped ties.
I was looking for an elderly man in a wheelchair and another who had severe difficulty speaking and standing still. But both were missing.
After the service, two ladies surrounded and asked me for an update of my journeys, starting with, “Neat hairstyle you’ve got there… How’s life?” I explained about the semi-‘Nazirite vow’ I had made to cut my hair only when I meet my wife and son again when governments lift pandemic travel restrictions. (I’m not doing the sixties thing, OK?)
After hearing a little of my adventure, one of them offered to summarize the session with, “God is good, all the time!” This was predictably followed by the responsive line from the other, “All the time…” And they both mechanically chimed, “God is good!”
And that’s when I took it up to the next level. “I get a little worried when I hear people say ‘God is good, all the time.’” Not because He isn’t. But it can sound like shoving God in a box, labeled ‘Good’ according to our terms. They tried putting Him in a box once, and found out on the third day, it didn’t work so well. Now, we must be careful not to be too hard on those who like to simplify the Christian faith to bumper sticker slogans. In the age of Twitter and Instagram, sharing faith in forty characters or less has conditioned us to communicate in shorthand in positive ways. But sometimes this dumbing down of the eternal Gospel has unintended detrimental effects.
I was reminded of the 80s bumper sticker war a few weeks ago when my 19-year-old nephew, Herissen, rang up very early in the morning. About seven years ago, he had almost given up school after his older sibling left home to study abroad. His mother called for help in desperation, as she had to take care of his father’s advancing Alzheimer’s conditions and a family business. So I took several weeks off from church ministry as head elder in Borneo to play the pedagogue role to an angry lonely teenager in Indonesia (involving hours of driving lessons, Fleming/Broccoli movies, and billiard halls). Today Herissen is studying for ministry through multimedia productions at Biola University, California. He asked for help with his paper, a critique of the worldview depicted in an art object.
We chose the Darwin Fish, which is an ichthus symbol with “evolved” legs and feet attached and containing the word Darwin (like the ΙΧΘΥΣ or Jesus found in some Christian versions). It is intended to symbolize the theory of evolution as laid down by Charles Darwin that adheres to a philosophy of Atheistic Naturalism as opposed to Creationism and Christianity (while there are shades of Theistic Evolution or Evolutionary Creationism).
History of the Darwin Fish
Chris Gilman, a Hollywood prop maker, was joking with others about the idea of making a Darwin fish as an “advertising” alternative to the “Jesus fish” when their conversation turned to a court case involving teaching evolution versus creationism. He manufactured the first plastic car ornaments in 1988. Gilman’s fish faced right, while the Christian symbol faced left. But significant interest in the Darwin fish may well have leaped high after the 2004 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case.
Then, on October 22, 2005, The Washington Post published, “Bumper Fish Are Latest Symbol in Long Evolution,” explaining why Darwin-fish people put the symbol on their cars. Popularity for the symbol had reached sizable accounts. Evolvefish.com, a Colorado Springs company, sold about 29,000 Darwin fish in three years. But the article reports
Nona Williams, co-owner of Ring of Fire Enterprises of Ben Lomond, Calif., which sells more than 20,000 emblems a year, including about 3,000 Darwin fish, said the old standby Darwin has been eclipsed by the dinosaur-eating-the-[Jesus]-fish emblem.
The Worldview Aquarium
The bumper sticker war entered an academic realm when a college professor studied the trend. The Washington Post article goes on to report how
Thomas L. Lessl, an associate professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia, trolled parking lots in several states for cars with Darwin fish. He left questionnaires for the owners, asking: Why did you put it on your car? What audience did you hope to reach? What does the Darwin fish mean to you? The 51 responses ranged from hostile to whimsical.
Lessl published his interest in the subject as “The Culture of Science and the Rhetoric of Scientism: From Francis Bacon to the Darwin Fish” in the May 2007 Quarterly Journal of Speech. Lessl argues that the Darwin fish emblem manifests a secular reshaping parallel to “the older Baconian world view in the scientistic ideology of those whose identity is compressed into this symbol.” Typical respondents to Lessl’s survey express themselves this way:
“Mainly I did it to annoy the Christian right wing,… It is a symbol of my belief in evolution and my irreverence for organized religion. . . . I have it on my car in good humor, not at all to offend anyone.”
According to Lessl, the responses showed that the Darwin fish was
subject to very different interpretations . . . but a substantial majority seemed to treat this as a worldview statement.
Compassion in Naturalism
As an overarching context for life that helps to shape our beliefs, goals and actions, this science-based worldview known as naturalism is presented in Thomas W. Clark’s book, Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses, as a comprehensive and fulfilling alternative to faith-based religion and other varieties of dualism. Taking empirical science as the route to reliable knowledge, naturalism holds that we inhabit a single, natural world; there is no separate supernatural realm. We are fully physical beings whose origins lie in cosmic and biological evolution.
Clark wants us to feel entirely at home in the universe. He claims that by “understanding and accepting our complete connection to the natural world, naturalism provides a secure foundation for human flourishing, an effective basis for achieving our purposes and addressing our deepest concerns.” And as conventionally claimed by atheistic humanists, Clark asserts that we don’t need belief in the supernatural to sustain us, if nature, as he believes it, is enough.
As director of the Center for Naturalism, Clark attempted to present a fresh and positive perspective on secular humanism, in naturalistic challenges to conventional wisdom on such topics as free will, moral responsibility, criminal and social justice, addiction, religion and the culture wars.
Clark proposes that by understanding ourselves as fully caused, and by attributing just how we are caused to our genetic endowment, upbringing, and social environments, “we dramatically enhance our powers of prediction and control, both in our personal lives and in the larger social arena.” It appears that he has carefully thought out his description to make his brand of naturalism appealing for a pragmatic, secular, liberal and socially progressive segmentation. This is apparent in the focus of
attention on what works, increasing self-efficacy and encouraging science-based, progressive social policies in areas such as criminal justice, social inequality, behavioral health, and the environment.
He then dresses naturalism as a kinder choice with more gracious appeal:
Also, since we see that we aren’t the ultimate originators of ourselves or our behavior, we can’t take ultimate credit or blame for what we do. This reduces unwarranted self-righteousness, moral superiority, pride, shame, and guilt. And since we see others as fully caused – for instance, substance abusers, criminal offenders, the destitute and homeless – we become less blaming, less punitive and more compassionate and understanding…. This insight provides the basis for a naturalistic ethics of empathy and compassion that guides personal behavior and grounds effective social policy.
There is an appealing side to this worldview for those who value sustainability issues or what Christians call “stewardship of creation.” By acknowledging human origins in atheistic evolution, Clark claims, the naturalist perspective also enhances our feeling of kinship with the other species with which we share this planet, and our desire to sustain and nurture the planet itself.
A Central Critique of Atheistic Naturalism
James W. Sire, formerly a senior editor at InterVarsity Press, is author of The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. In the fourth chapter, Sire sets the scene for Naturalism as “The Silence of Finite Space” as he puts his finger on the central issue that concerns us as Christians. For a theist, God is the foundation for morality which is revealed in His Word; for an atheistic naturalist, however, values are entirely man-made. “Man is the measure [determiner] of all things,” including ethics. Hence, there are no objective moral ideals to order human life or to discipline human conduct.
Alvin Plantinga has dedicated a whole book to provide weight on a response to naturalism that has been called “persuasive”, “powerful”, a “complex, but important philosophical argument”. It is entitled, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. His Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism (EAAN) begins with the following simple idea: the evolutionary process of natural selection selects organisms due to adaptive behaviors, but not necessarily due to true beliefs. If this notion is even possibly true, then it is also possible that some (or many) of our own beliefs are not truthful and that our reasoning processes may not successfully point to truths (but are merely evolutionarily advantageous).
Framed more intimately to the Judeo-Christian worldview, if we have no spiritual dimension, no soul or image of God, if we are strictly and exclusively the product of natural factors and evolution, we can’t trust our cognitive faculties to tell us the truth. And if naturalism means we can’t trust our cognitive faculties, how can we trust them when they tell us naturalism is true? The proponents of atheistic naturalism, like the Darwin fish, don’t really have a leg to stand on.
God Is Grander than Good
Thomas Clark reminds us how important compassion, justice for the underserved, and care for creation are for Christ’s disciples. The sad reality is that the majority of the Christian West and Westernized Christianity may not be up to the task of “destroying arguments and all arrogance raised against the knowledge of God, and … taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) in winsome ways. Many Christians encourage a view of their faith as profoundly anti-intellectual. Faith is seen as more about experience than reason, more about loyalty than dialogue. Asserting The Truth takes priority over exploring productively and honestly what the truth might be. Then it is dumbed down to bumper stickers.
While the release of the T-Rex emblem eating the Ichthus fish has some in the Christian community worried about this latest attack on their symbol, there are those who believe the truth is more than a catchy slogan or trendy bumper sticker. Our God and Christ’s Gospel of the kingdom is much grander than the simplistic symbolic “God is good all the time,” however trendy a rallying cry it may have become.
Richard Dawkins, claimed by many as the most famous representative for atheistic naturalism, once acknowledged that he couldn’t on a purely rational basis exclude the possibility of a supernatural being.
But it would be on a much grander one, more complicated than any human being can ever contemplate – truly He must not be the One Christians are talking about.
The Art of Silence
There is a culture among Christians from developing countries who have achieved social upward mobility to meet each other and testify about how God has blessed us with success. It is easy for us to say, “God is good all the time…” But Jesus makes a loud statement when He points out that God has higher esteem for the widows and sinners hiding in the shadow over the successful and piously blessed. It is the despised Samaritan whom God calls “good”. Certainly, God is good even when life is painfully disastrous for those like Job. And when God spoke to him, the suffering patriarchal friend of God could only say,
Behold, I am insignificant; what can I say in response to You? I put my hand on my mouth (Job 40:4).
It isn’t a bad thing to enjoy the golden silence of God’s knowing friends. Those who have truly experienced God’s undeserved goodness can often be the quiet type. Their simple smiles are genuinely knowing smiles. I had gone to church to look for two gentlemen who had difficulties walking, talking and feeding themselves from the consistently splendid buffet lunch that only Indonesians can offer. Three years ago, I had made it a habit to just sit alongside them at lunch. There was no need to pretend to speak with them. As Linsey Harrey points out, there is an art in communicating with silence, some find to be hidden treasure. For others there are special places on earth for solemn silence. Irrespective of where you may be, the human soul is the chamber of silence.
But my two silent lunch partners were not there. One passed away just last week. He had shown kindness to me as a young boy when we first arrived in Sydney. The other man didn’t come to church. I miss them.
I left some good friends back in Brunei. One of them sent this text message:
When I was a child, I would ask my mother at Christmas, “What gift do you want?” She replied: “Let no one be absent next year.” Then I said, “No, Mom, a real gift ….” Today I realize how right she is; gifts mean nothing if the chairs are empty …
Victor Lee studied Theology at Avondale College, Political Science at Flinders University (Singapore Campus), and works in the new rubric of Agroecological Epigenetics developed at Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD). He was born in Indonesia, grew up in Sydney, Australia, and has made the mega biodiversity of Borneo his home for the past ten years.