Friday, Feb. 16, 2018

Friday, Feb. 16, 2018

The Briefing

February 16, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, February 16, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. Today we’ll see why the University of Miami has hired a new professor of atheism. We’ll see why atheists are forever frustrated. We’ll see a church in New Jersey defy reality, and we’ll see Iran accuse the West of recruiting lizards as spies.

Part I

Atheists want to say what they're for, but their very name leaves them forever frustrated

Back in May of 2016, the New York Times reported that the University of Miami in Florida would be establishing what would be known as the nation’s first endowed chair in atheism. It was, even in 2016, news even if then rather undefined news. The University wasn’t exactly sure, that was part of this story, what it was going to do with this endowed chair and people were trying to figure out what would the establishment of such a chair mean.

As Laurie Goodstein reported back in 2016, “With an increasing number of Americans leaving religion behind, the University of Miami received a donation in late April from a wealthy atheist to endow what it says is the nation’s first academic chair ‘for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics.'” Back then the identify of the donor was identified. We are told that it was a $2.2 million donation from Louis J. Appignani, identified as a retired businessman and a former president and chairman of Barbizon International, a well known modeling school. When the story broke, there was no doubt about the donative intent of Mr. Appignani. He told The Times, “I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists.” Speaking of the gift to the University of Miami, he said, “So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate.”

Now the news story back in 2016 caused a great deal of attention simply because of the statement made by Mr. Appignani about the purpose of the gift. The University of Miami quickly tried to establish some distance between itself and its donor when the University stated that the purpose of the chair would be about the study of atheism, humanism and other non-theistic world views, not the advocacy for atheism.

But the news story in the New York Times seemed to give on one hand and to take with the other. On the one hand, Thomas J. LeBlanc, executive vice president and provost of the University of Miami, told The Times “we didn’t want anyone to misunderstand and think that this was to be an advocacy position for someone who is an atheist. Our religion department,” he said, “isn’t taking an advocacy position when it teaches about Catholicism or Islam. Similarly,” said the provost, “we’re not taking an advocacy position when we teach about atheism of secular ethics.”

As the article continued, Mr. LeBlanc said, and I quote, “this is an area where people can get overly excited if they don’t actually look carefully at what’s happening. The idea that there are nondeity approaches to explaining our surroundings is not controversial in the academy.” Now that’s an academic speaking for you and what he is saying is that if you understand the secularization of the academy, a very secular world view would not be controversial. The fact that there are explicitly secular, even atheistic, what he calls here nondeity approaches in the academy, is not news. But what is news, and perhaps even then uncomfortable news for the University of Miami, is that there is no way to establish this kind of chair without implying advocacy for atheism.

Then perhaps to make the point even more emphatically, Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous atheist alive today, the retired professor of the University of Oxford, he said, “I think it’s a very bold step of the University of Miami and I hope there will be others.” He went on to say, “it’s enormously important to shake off the shackles of religion from the study of morality.” Now that statement seems to come somewhat out of the blue, but the fact that it does tells us something. It tells us that here you have the great atheist dream, the great secular academic dream. Somehow to be able to unshackle the big questions of life, including morality, from transcendence and from theism, particularly in the Western context from Christianity.

So this article appeared to say two things at once back in 2016. This chair is about atheism, but is not about advocacy, and then on the other hand, we’re very happy that the chair is actually about advocacy. It depended on whether you were asking the university or its lead donor.

But that was then and now, in 2018, the university has announced the first professor who will hold this endowed chair, and as that news was made, well, the issues that arose back in 2016 have taken on increased significance. The professor appointed to the chair, formerly known as the Appignani Foundation chair for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics, is Anjan Chakravartty, who previously had been on the Philosophy faculty at the University of Notre Dame. Is Chakravartty an atheist? Well, not exactly, but maybe so. In the publicity about the appointment of the professor, it is made clear that he is a specialist about atheism and he doesn’t identify in any way clearly as a theist, but is he an atheist? He says that’s beside the point. But it’s likely the case that that question will not remain beside the point.

Again the intention of the donor is made abundantly clear in a recent article of The Atlantic by Isabelle Fattal. The donor, Mr. Appignani, said in this article that his hopes in making the gift were that this professorship would “legitimize the word atheism” especially in the public square. According to Fattal in The Atlantic, Mr. Appignani “contends that atheists are one of the few minority groups in the country to still be widely ostracized by society.” And Mr. Appignani went on, along with The Atlantic, to point out that amongst other groups it is atheists who are now particularly underrepresented in many sectors of society. It is pointed out that only one member of Congress identifies as religiously unaffiliated, while just one other member of Congress has admitted that he is not currently a believer in God.

Mr. Appignani has made very clear as the donor that his entire reason for giving this gift, this endowment received by the University of Miami, is advocacy for atheism, the legitimization of atheism in the public square. In further statements, he said that his great hope is that atheism would supplant theism and that’s because the world will only survive, he argues, if supernaturalism is replaced by what he calls “rational scientific reasoning.”

Professor Chakravartty, who will be teaching in this position funded by Mr. Appignani, says that the cardinal sin of a philosopher is to be dogmatic and that evidently includes being dogmatic about whether he is or is not an atheist, or does or does not intend to make atheist arguments. Instead, the philosopher who, as I said, taught recently at the University of Notre Dame, intends to make clear the issues at stake in atheism, humanism and secular ethics. According to the article in The Atlantic, Professor Chakravartty “isn’t interested in disparaging religion, but rather in taking a look at why some people believe in God and why others don’t and, in the more optimistic project of exploring what an ethical and contemplative way of life without God might look like.”

Well, good luck with that we might say, but as you’re looking at the clash of world views, you rarely see that clash so clearly demonstrated as in this and, in this case, it’s not just a clash between theism and atheism, it’s a clash between the university’s donor and the university about the very nature and purpose of this gift and the endowed chair. According to the report, Mr. Appignani, in thinking of the name of the chair, wanted to make at least his position and intention clear by insisting that the word atheism had to be the first word. But in order to establish the gift, and even come up with the legal mechanisms for the endowed professorship, the university and the donor had to agree on a definition of terms, including a definition of atheism.

As The Atlantic reports, “according to the agreement between the University and Miami and Appignani, atheism is defined, for the purposes of this gift, as a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic and reason and rejects all appeals to supernatural entities in dealing with questions of science, knowledge, ethics, politics and social policy.” The Atlantic says the definition continues “atheism includes a range of theories and theoretical approaches that reject explanations in terms of God or other supernatural entities and, in that sense, rejects theism.”

But this gets right to the heart of an issue that Christians need to look at very, very carefully as we’re thinking about world view analysis of this kind of story. It comes down to the fact that one of the realities that most frustrates atheists, not only in the United States but elsewhere, is that their entire world view is constantly, consistently defined by what they do not believe, rather than by what they do believe.

You see the frustration here in both the statement by the university and the statement by Mr. Appignani, the donor, they want to make clear that atheism is a subject in its own right. But even within The Atlantic article, that argument begins to fall apart. Opposition to using the word atheism in the name of the endowed professorship became very clear even from within the University of Miami, and that included the professor and chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Miami, David Kling, who said, and I quote, “the word, meaning atheism, itself stands against something, theism.”

Now in one of the most odd turn of events in the modern secular academy, here you have a professor of religion stating that a professorship established in the name of atheism would likely constrain academic liberty, and that is academic freedom. Why? Because by putting the word atheism in the professor’s title, that actually was inserting an argument, not just a descriptor. But as Fattal reports, “in light of the word atheism’s controversial status, Appignani insisted that the University of Miami include it in the chair’s title and as the first word, despite some hesitation on the part of the university.”

But Professor Chakravartty, the man who will be the first professor to hold the position, seemed to agree with Mr. Appignani, the donor, when he said that the explanation of atheism and the purpose of the chair announced by the university would, and I quote, according to The Atlantic, “frame the academic study of atheism, not as the study of an argument against something, but rather of a particular set of ideas about how to engage with the world.”

Well, I’ll just state the obvious, that is impossible. And it is made very honestly impossible in the name of the chair because the word atheism itself is not a positive statement. It is rather, putting in the Greek language, what is the alpha privative in front of something that it negates. That is to say that atheism only makes sense if it is the denial of theism.

And here you see the absolute consternation and frustration of the atheist. They say they want to be known for what they are for, rather than what they are against. The problem with that, however, is that they themselves have to refer to their own position as some form of atheism, and they can’t say atheism without theism. It is not a positive position, but a negative position.

And for the Christian, it simply points out the great antithesis, that is the great opposition of world views and the fact that the only true way of knowledge is to begin with something sure and certain. And, of course, Christians understand that, by it’s very nature, Biblical Christianity begins with the sure and certain place of affirming the self-existent God, who is also self-revealing, most importantly in scripture. Without that sure and certain starting position, anyone who rejects theism is in the position of trying to start in an impossible place, and in that impossible place, they are left in an impossible predicament. They want to say what they are for, but the very name of their movement, the name of the world view, the first word by the donor’s insistence in this chair, is not about what they believe, but about what they disbelieve.

Part II

New Jersey church defies reality at 'renaming service'

Next, in Western society, in the wake of a moral revolution, we continually are told things that we know are not true, and we consistently observe in the culture around us a mass conspiracy to try to convince one another that we believe a lie, but the truth continues to shine through. Sometimes it shines through immediately in the failure of the lie.

So for this issue, we go to Hoboken, New Jersey, and we go there to a Lutheran congregation, a congregation of the liberal Lutheran denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is evangelical as an historical claim, not as the claim of the current theological identity. But the headline in the story that comes to us in the Jersey Journal of Hoboken tells us that in this Lutheran church just recently, the churchgoers attending the Sunday morning service celebrated the renaming of their pastor.

Caitlin Mota reports “the Rev. Rose Beeson has been transitioning from woman to man since last summer, sharing the journey with parishioners. After giving a sermon on what is known in the church as Transfiguration Sunday, the Rev. Tracie Bartholomew, bishop of the New Jersey congregation, held a renaming ceremony where the pastor, previously known as Rose, will now be called Peter.”

According to the article in the New Jersey paper, members of the church watched on as the bishop blessed the pastor, previously known as Rose, now known as Peter, using what was described as holy water from the baptismal fountain at the back of the church. The church council president, Leslie Neve, asked the congregation, “Will you be a beacon of welcome and inclusivity for those who are yearning for a Christian community?” We are told that the congregation then answered, “We will.”

Carol Kuruvilla, writing for the Huffington Post, tries to make a tie between what happened in the Lutheran church in New Jersey to what occurred in scripture, when God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, or as Simon’s name was changed to Peter, Saul to Paul. The important thing to recognize, from a world view significance, is that what we are looking at here is a repudiation of Biblical Christianity and it’s in the name of a morally superior stance, a morality superior to what is revealed in scripture. It is now claimed a morality that would clearly, straightforwardly claim, with a straight face, that an individual clearly born as a woman, and later even ordained as a woman, later even called to this pastorate as a woman in a liberal Lutheran denomination, is now, according to the statement of the bishop and the affirmation of the congregation, now longer a woman, but a man, still the church’s pastor, previously Rose, now Peter.

The fundamental point is this. I don’t believe that the bishop believes this for a moment. I don’t believe that the congregation believes this for a moment. I don’t know what the pastor believes, but I do know this. There is no way, in terms of reality, to actually change one’s gender identity in a way that’s fundamentally true. There is no way for a woman to become a man. There is no way for a man to become a woman. There is a way for both the individual and the society, or some subset of the society, to agree to some kind of nonetheless statutory understanding, some kind of culturally constructed understanding, some kind of declared reality, that isn’t reality, but is going to be a shared delusion and some kind of common affirmation.

There are several things we need to note here. In the first place, it’s just clear and undeniable, and here you have the evidence, that there are many liberal denominations in churches, congregations that have gone so far as to declare their full endorsement of and complicity in this mass delusion, claiming it as a superior morality and a superior view of humanity, a superior view of human sexuality to that offered by Biblical Christianity.

But the other thing to note is that it is simply not believable that the people who declared this new, supposed reality to be real believe that it’s so. It’s simply almost impossible to believe that the people in that room actually believed what they said, that a human being, who had been a woman, is now actually, in reality, a man. No. If you look at the language, and if you look at the argument more closely, it’s clear that this is an argument about how we are to recognize one another, to speak of one another, and to create a socially constructed identity. But here’s where Christians must understand that there is wholeness and there is health only in the fact that our existence is not socially constructed, and our identity is not fundamentally merely socially constructed.

Rather it is based in reality and that takes us back to the previous story about this chair in atheism and humanism and secular studies. It takes us back to the point that if there is no sure and certain point to begin thinking, then we’re actually intellectually lost. And it comes down to an even more personal crisis. If there is no sure and certain point in which we can ground our own identity, then every single one of us is lost in the cosmos.

My guess is that the headlines about this transgender pastor and the ceremony of this church in Hoboken, New Jersey is likely to be little more than click bait for most Americans, the kind of article that appears salacious and interesting, and there will be those who will say, “well, that’s a good sign about the progress of the moral revolution”, and there will be those who shake their head and say, “well, there goes yet another church, yet another denomination.” And both, in their own way, will simply understand this as an isolated event.

But this is where thinking Christians must recognize this is not an isolated event. This is an event fully understandable in light of the moral revolution and the moral revolutionaries. And it also tells us that these days, merely being willing to state the truth puts one fundamentally out of step, not only with one’s neighbors, not only with the ELCA, not only with this congregation, but potentially with what is increasingly mainstream America. The real issue here is that if the moral revolutionaries have their way, and at least to this point they are having their way, this headline news story will not remain either headlines or news for long.

Part III

A step into greater paranoia: Iran claims lizards are being used to spy on nuclear program

Finally, we turn to Iran, a nation that, like North Korea, seems to be redefining paranoia as a world view. Newsweek Magazine is reporting that Iran is charging its Western enemies with using spy lizards, lizards that, according to the Iranian official press agency “attract atomic waves” to spy on Iran’s nuclear program, this stated by the former chief-of-staff of Iran’s military.

Speaking of local reporters, Newsweek tells us this now senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Western nations are frequently spying on Iran using tourists and environmentalists, but not only tourists, not only environmentalists, but now, according to this high ranking military authority, lizards, lizards that have the unusual ability to attract atomic waves. Hassan Firuzabadi had accused Westerners of attempting to spy. Some of them he said had been detained and arrested and “in their possessions were a variety of reptile desert species, like lizards, chameleons. We found out,” he said, “that their skin attracts atomic waves and that they were nuclear spies who wanted to find out where inside the Islamic Republic of Iran we have uranium mines and where we are engaged in atomic activities.”

This came after Iran had been the target of a great deal of criticism from the West after Kavous Seyed Emami, who was a Canadian-Iranian environmentalist and academic, was allegedly reported by Iran to have committed suicide in an Iranian prison after he was simply accused of spying on the country. That’s probably the reference by the military advisor to the fact that Westerners, he charged, are using environmentalists as spies.

But it’s one thing for Iran, an autocratic and theocratic regime, to claim that Western nations are using environmentalists and other human beings to spy. It’s a step into greater irrationality and it’s a further step into paranoia for the Iranian regime now to claim that these supposed human spies are now using amphibian and reptilian accomplices, including lizards with what is claimed is an ability to attract atomic waves. When you have senior military authorities claiming that these reptiles are now recruited as top line spies, well, you have simply stepped into a point of irrationality from which there is no return.

All this reminds me of a poster that was up in a Psychology classroom I had as a teenager. The poster simply said this, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not all out to get you.” That’ll give you something to think about over the weekend.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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