Thursday, April 23, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, April 23rd, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Worldview Differences Just Don’t Go Away—Even In a Pandemic
On Tuesday of this week, the New York Times ran a front page article with a headline, "A Culture War is Simmering in Quarantine.” Jeremy W. Peters was the reporter. The bottom line on the story is that even as America is sharing the COVID-19 crisis, we are not sharing it evenly. You have different perceptions based upon, at least in part, where one lives. It makes a difference if you're in Manhattan or in Wyoming, but there is also a basic cultural divide that simply doesn't go away, even under the conditions of a quarantine or shelter at home orders or stay in place. You name it. There are still basic worldview issues that become very evident.
Sometimes they become evident along political lines. Just consider the fact that you have differing opinions—that's to say the least—whether you're looking at the television and you see the nation's most influential Democrat, that would be Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, or whether you're looking at the President of the United States, President Donald Trump, by any measure, the most influential Republican in the United States. You look at the television screen and you already know something about that divide in the United States based upon who is speaking.
That divide is not absolute. We are not looking at the conditions for a civil war or anything like unto it, and for that, we should be thankful, but nonetheless, anyone who knows what is going on in this country knows that there is a deep partisan divide, an even deeper ideological divide, and as Christians understand, an even more fundamental worldview divide, and it doesn't go away.
Now the particular concern in this front page article in the New York Times on Tuesday is how this culture war, as it is often described, works its way out on particular issues that are now of utmost controversy, some of them are related to the shelter in place or stay at home orders. The shutdown of the economy, the effort to try to flatten the curve to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Clearly, tensions in the United States are very high, and you're looking at the fact that there are huge issues that we face as a nation. Some of them do bring out a commonality and a bipartisanship, but those issues still have to be overlaid on top of very different understandings of the kind of society this is supposed to be, of the kind of government and policies and laws under which we should operate. These are very huge issues. They don't go away in the time of a national crisis. They don't even go away in a time of quarantine. As a matter of fact, under the conditions of this tension, sometimes the lines become ever more clear.
This reminds me of something a bit tangential, but yet related. The New York Times also recently ran an article by Sarah Lyle entitled, "The Cable TV Quarantine Fight." It has to do with tensions inside households, apartments, homes, families, in which the major decision comes down to, which cable television network do we watch? That points to another basic divide in the United States. You're looking at the fact that there are alternative worldviews being presented as you compare, for example, Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left. CNN increasingly, in worldview, tends to be on the left, although not quite so acerbically as MSNBC
But the point is that that worldview divide comes up again and again and again. What channel do we watch? Which politician do we trust? Which argument do we agree with? That's all a matter of the kind of partisan ideological worldview tensions under which we are now operating and that show up repeatedly on the front pages, on the front lines, and even in family conversations.
The “Essential” Marijuana Industry Is Booming During the Pandemic: Moral Change and Moral Opportunism in America
Furthermore, there are issues of deep worldview significance and also political controversy that you would think really wouldn't be an issue right now, and yet they are. The fact that they are also tells us a great deal. Trevor Hughes, reporter for USA Today, just a few days ago ran an article with the headline, "Virus May Be Helping Legal Pot to Go Mainstream: It's Deemed Essential, Stores See Opportunity.” Well, in this case, pot, of course, refers to marijuana, and as we have noted over and over again, marijuana turns out to be one of the most interesting test cases of moral change in our times. It has come so quickly.
If you go back just a matter of a couple of decades, efforts to legalize the use of marijuana, either as it's described medically or recreationally, would have been dead. They could not have moved forward politically in most jurisdictions, cities, states, not to mention nationally, and nationally, it is still very much an illegal substance, still a schedule one substance according to the federal authorities, but state-by-state, we have seen that redefined, either in terms of medical marijuana, that includes now most of the states, or so-called recreational marijuana. That is as we have noted, spreading also state by state.
The point being made in this article at USA Today by Trevor Hughes is that the marijuana industry sees an opportunity in COVID-19, in the crisis. Hughes explains, "The marijuana industry embraces change. Stores are effectively closed. Instead, customers order online and pick up curbside. A major shift from when each buyer had to be personally verified by a licensed store worker. In California, stores have largely switched to an all delivery model.” The next sentence: “The country's burgeoning marijuana industry is working swiftly to adapt to customer's needs as the coronavirus outbreak debilitates the US economy."
But then you have a statement from Julie Armstrong, identified as CEO of the Montana-based cannabis analytics firm, Aurelius Data: "This is cannabis's moment to find its purpose and its voice." The next sentence, she said, "It was the opportunity we never saw coming."
Now there are a couple of things here to note, but one is that it takes a certain amount of confidence to look in the face of a deadly pandemic and say, "We now see the opportunity for our industry we had not been anticipating."
Then Trevor Hughes explains, "The outbreak has brought new challenges for legal weed sellers. Social distancing required retailers to essentially abandon their carefully designed stores and switch to curbside and delivery services.” We are also told the statewide shutdowns forced the cancellation of many marijuana celebrations that have been called 4/20, for April 20, a date that is culturally significant. It's an anniversary celebrated by the marijuana industry.
But, Hugh goes on to tell us, "The coronavirus has also spurred many consumers to go on buying sprees to cope with the long dull days at home and anxiety over the nation's mass layoffs and growing death toll. Regulators,” we are told, “in many states declared cannabis shops essential businesses on par with groceries, gas, and liquor." Now again, you can look at that sentence and say, out of nowhere, here we have an incredible revelation of our cultural moment. Here you have marijuana, we are told, and this is supposed to be the surprise, that is now listed in some jurisdictions as essential, but that's against the background that it's supposed to make sense that groceries, gas, and liquor are also defined as essential. Liquor being the interesting thing there. How did liquor become obvious as being essential on par with groceries and gas?
There again, you're looking at the process of moral change, and you have a statement that comes from an individual identified as managing partner of the California-based Poseidon Asset Management, that's an asset management firm that invests in cannabis businesses. "It's really an important point that we were deemed essential. In a sea of chaos, this was one of the biggest moments in our industry's history." Think about that, an open acknowledgement that being declared essential marijuana, by the way, not just medical marijuana, but in some jurisdictions, recreational marijuana, as it is called, deemed essential.
The hopefulness of the industry is reflected in this statement in the report. "Industry experts said this could be the necessary push to persuade Congress to permit marijuana businesses to use banks like any other business, because cash could be a vector for spreading the coronavirus." Well, just follow the logic here. The federal government has not allowed banks to participate in the marijuana business, because after all, the federal government still considers even the possession of marijuana to be a crime, and thus banks cannot legally engage with illegal businesses. That's just a common sense point, but the arguments coming in is right here in this article. "Hey, if you require them to use cash, then cash can be a vector for contagion, so in order to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, just let the banks go ahead and do business with what is deemed to be an illegal business by the federal government.” You can look at that statement and say, "That's illogical. It could never happen," but the whole point of the article is the industry sees this as an opportunity. They certainly hope it will happen.
Why Do Humans Love and Care for One Another? And Is There a Purpose Behind the Coronavirus? Examining an Evolutionary Perspective on COVID-19
Then next, I want to go to an article on a very different issue that appeared in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It's by Alison Gopnik. The headline: "How Humans Evolved to Care for Others.” Huge worldview significance here. The article raises a very important question laden with worldview. The question is this, why do human beings at risk care for one another? Why do we take care of one another? Why are there nurses and doctors in emergency rooms and in ICUs where they are exposing themselves to the coronavirus? Why are there firemen and policemen? Why are there mothers and fathers? Why does anyone care for anyone else?
That is a huge question. It's a basic question that Christians must acknowledge, and of course, we have an answer to that, and our answer is that God made human beings in his image, and making us in his image as moral creatures, he implanted within us a moral knowledge and a capacity to care and a responsibility to care, but beyond care, we would have to define that as the reality of love, which is one of the most fundamental issues in a biblical worldview.
But of course, if you are operating from an entirely secular worldview, from an evolutionary worldview that says everything has to be explained in terms of purely natural, purely material realities, then love or care or empathy, sympathy, all of those have to be defined as interesting evolutionary mechanisms that evidently have survived in human experience because the human societies and human individuals, who, after all, are those who are marked by those human genes who want to replicate, tend to be able to replicate more successfully if, indeed, the human societies demonstrate care and concern.
Indeed, one of the most basic questions that has to be asked and answered by any worldview is, why does a mother care for her child? The evolutionist has to say, "Well, love is an abstraction. It's nothing more than a mere relation of atoms and bits and molecules. It's simply a reality of nature. There's nothing metaphysically, transcendently real about what a mother considers to be love," but nonetheless, you can't have babies and you can't have replication of human genes if mothers don't take care of their babies. Therefore, evolution has demonstrated that the babies who survive are, by no accident, the babies whose mothers care for them. That's all evolution, in the end, can say. So happy Mother's Day to you.
But the Christian worldview begins in a very different place and ends up in a very different place, and of course, when we ask the question, "Why do we care for one another?", well, Alison Gopnik, writing from an evolutionary worldview in this article, says, "There must be an evolutionary explanation." She cites the philosopher Patricia Churchland as offering a potential answer in her 2019 book entitled Conscience.
As Gopnik tells us, "Churchland argues that altruism has its roots in our mammalian ancestry. The primordial example of an altruistic emotion is the love that mothers feel toward their babies. Helpless baby mammals require special care from their nursing mothers and emotional attachment guarantees this care." So just note, what is being argued here is the human mothers care for their babies, and beyond that, not just humans, but other mammals, because evolution explains that the mothers who have taken care of their babies produced the babies that survive, and after all, this requires what might be described as emotional attachment, which Churchland says guarantees this care. So that's all there is to it, emotional attachment.
But emotions have no transcendent meaning according to the evolutionary worldview. They simply exist as mechanisms that have helped to drive and explain evolution itself. Gopnik goes on to explain to us, however, that only a minority, a fairly small percentage of all mammal species demonstrate this kind of emotional attachment, and then she writes, "In turn, professor Churchland argues those biological mechanisms could underpin broader altruistic cooperation in species with larger interdependent social groups like wolves and monkeys."
After writing a bit more about how evolution explains why mothers take care of their children and human beings take care of other human beings, she writes, "The largest and most profound, imaginative human leap comes when we take those altruistic emotions and apply them beyond the family and village to strangers, foreigners and the world at large." Gopnik continues, "Professor Churchland argues that we don't begin with universally applicable rational principles, Kant's categorical imperative, or the greatest good for the greatest number, and then apply them to particular cases." Instead, "We begin with the close and personal and expand those attachments to a wider circle."
Very, very interesting. The argument here is that human beings don't care for one another because of overarching moral commands or overarching moral interest, but instead, it starts with the smallest, most intimate of relationships and then expands beyond that. But actually, Kant's categorical imperative, which meant that you should do nothing that you would not approve of everyone doing under the same circumstances, whether it was Kant, who was trying to replace the Christian ethic with a rational ethic, or whether it's the evolutionist trying to replace a biblical worldview with an evolutionary worldview, the point is they really can't explain why a mother loves her child, and even if they try to explain it, what we are noting here is that their explanation falls tragically short of any adequate explanation of why a mother loves a child or what that love is.
We as Christians believe that a mother loves her child because that love is implanted in her by the Creator. We believe that a mother loves her child and human beings love each other and take care of each other because the very character of God is implanted within us in the Imago Dei, in the image of God, and it comes out in our behavior. We believe that God made us moral creatures with a conscience in such a way that our conscience would convict us if we did not care for one another, and we also believe that our moral lives and the very existence of moral meaning, and the reality of something as fundamental as love is not just for time, but also for eternity. It is transcendent. It has eternal consequence.
But the point we want to make here is that even in the context of a pandemic, there are huge questions that demand worldview attention. We have to ask the question, why? Why do we care about morality? Why do we care about one another? Why does a mother love her child? Why do people rush into care in an ICU rather than running away from it as medical professionals? Once again, we see the sterility of that evolutionary worldview.
But we also see it in another article that recently ran in the New York Times. It ran under its feature, The Stone, which is a philosophical conversation. The author of this article is Stephen T. Asma. He is professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago. The title, "Does the Pandemic Have a Purpose?"
He begins by saying, "Nature doesn't care about you." He's writing from an explicit evolutionary worldview, and he's telling us that nature doesn't care about us as human beings, collectively or as individuals. He quotes the biologist and prominent evolutionist, the late Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University, as saying that, "Evolution has a cold bath view of nature," which, as Asma says, is not warm and fuzzy in the way religion characterizes nature.
Wait just a minute. There's that basic worldview divide. We are told that religion produces a warm understanding of nature, but evolution, even as the late professor Stephen Jay Gould indicated, requires a cold bath view of nature. Nature doesn't care. Nature has no meaning. Nature doesn't love. Nature doesn't know or care about you.
He begins telling us about a root-headed barnacle as an illustration. This barnacle attaches itself to a crab, and then it castrates its host crab. No kidding, that's what we're told here, and we are told that when you're looking at that barnacle, you cannot give it consciousness. It isn't driven by any kind of moral impulse. It doesn't even care about the crab. It's just doing what a root headed barnacle does.
Speaking about this particular barnacle, Asma writes, "Not even the most inventive Hollywood writers can spin tales this fantastic, yet it is the bread and butter of everyday biology." He then goes on to talk about e-coli in our guts. "Should we thank them for helping us to digest?", he asks. Should we "alternately fault the virus that is breaking down our immune systems and spreading through the host population? These organisms," he writes, "are not evil or noble, intentionally wreaking havoc on our health. They are simply doing what comes naturally, surviving and reproducing."
So again, what we are being told here is that we simply have to come from an evolutionary perspective to a cold bath view of nature and understand that we shouldn't talk about a war on the coronavirus. We shouldn't talk about what the coronavirus is trying or not trying to do. We shouldn't speak of the coronavirus in moral terms, because it's just nature. Feel that cold bath? It's just nature doing what nature does.
Interestingly, professor Asma critiques some on the left and on the right. On the right, he criticizes President Trump for talking about an all-out war on the virus. His point is, "President Trump, the virus doesn't know you have declared war, nor does it care." Asma writes, "Strictly speaking, wars are fought against malicious agents, people who mean you harm. The coronavirus is like every other virus or pathogen. It does not mean us harm. It only wants to reproduce." Here again, I have to fault this professor, because he's not being very consistent. If nature is simply doing what nature does, and in this case, the virus isn't conscious, then the virus doesn't any more want to reproduce than it wants to kill us. It simply does reproduce by its very genetic structure.
My point here is that even this evolutionary biologist can't exactly keep the narrative straight, because we have to use terms like "want to.” If we don't use those kinds of terms, we can't understand the world around us. He cites Charles Darwin as saying that nature can be horrifying, but it is not good, nor is it evil. He says that President Trump exercises a mythopoetic manner when he talks about defeating the coronavirus, and indeed, in one sense, he does, but what is the criticism of the left? Well, he says, "The left is just as mythopoetic as the right, that is it spins its own mythology about the coronavirus." He says, "In this case it is liberal commentators who moralize on the grounds that our encroachment on pristine nature and our environmental sins have brought the zoonotic spillover as nature's retribution." Zoonotic in this case meaning that the virus originated in other animals, and then eventually was transmitted to human beings.
He criticizes Pope Francis as making the argument that, "Pandemics may be nature's retaliation for human abuse of the environment." The Pope said, "I don't know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature's responses."
"No," says professor Asma, "They're not nature's responses. They were in nature all along." In his words, "Disease and death are not bugs in the system, but features." He goes on to say, "In fact, the cold bath truth is that natural selection works only because many more organisms are born than can survive to procreate. Natural selection," he says, "is not malevolent, but it's clearly not benevolent either."
Take this under full consideration, and what you come to understand here is that there is an open acknowledgement of the fact that nature is not moral positively or negative. It's not malevolent, nor is it benevolent. There is no basic moral meaning in the entire cosmos. Deal with it. Not only do you need a cold bath view of nature, according to the evolutionary worldview, we've got to settle for a cold bath understanding of morality and meaning as well. Basically, there is no right and wrong, and there is no meaning. Deal with it.
Making the point emphatically as he concludes his article, professor Asma says that as a philosopher, "I'm inclined to recognize that nothing has intrinsic value until we humans imagine it so." Just incredible. Here you have the statement, and it's honest, I appreciate the honesty, that there is no meaning in anything, anything, no meaning in anything until human beings imagine it. Not even the human beings discover it or that it's revealed to human beings, but that human beings are imagining it. You think you have meaning in your life? It's only imaginative.
He concludes by saying that we should simply affirm, "That the universe is more remarkable with us in it." Well, why would we say that? The universe doesn't know that we are in it, and his very point is that the universe neither knows nor cares. It's only remarkable if someone does care. If someone external to the universe cared enough to create it, cares enough to maintain its existence and to rule sovereignly over it, and is powerful enough to bring the story of the cosmos to exactly the conclusion that he intends, but of course, that worldview requires the sovereign Creator God of the Bible, and don't we know it.
Finally, as we bring this to a conclusion, professor Asma is not writing merely from an evolutionary standpoint, but from a Buddhist standpoint, and understand, those worldviews are not in conflict, because Buddhism is not explicitly theistic. There is no doctrine of creation that is believed to have been true in space and time and history. It is contradictory to say that you are Christian and secular, but it is not in the same sense contradictory to say that you're Buddhist and secular, which is one of the reasons why there is attraction to Buddhism on the part of many in our secular society. You really can be secular and Buddhist, at least in practice.
Worldview Really Does Matter: Impermanence, Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, and the Coronavirus
But as we conclude, this points us to an article that appeared in this week's edition of Time magazine by the Dalai Lama, perhaps the most famous Buddhist authority in the world today. The Dalai Lama writes in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, "From the Buddhist perspective, every sentient being is acquainted with suffering and the truths of sickness, old age, and death, but as human beings, we have the capacity to use our minds to conquer anger and panic and greed." The title of his article is "Thoughts, Not Prayers.” But the most interesting part of it is how he concludes, "As a Buddhist, I believe in the principle of impermanence. Eventually, this virus will pass, as I've seen wars and other terrible threats pass in my lifetime, and we will have the opportunity to rebuild our global community as we've done many times before." He then says, "I sincerely hope that everyone can stay safe and stay calm. At this time of uncertainty, it is important that we do not lose hope and confidence in the constructive efforts so many are making."
The most important thing to recognize here is where he tells us that as a Buddhist, he believes in the principle of impermanence. Worldview matters. Buddhism does believe in the reality of impermanence, that principle, because history, according to the Buddhist worldview, is not linear past, present, and future. It is a giant wheel or a giant cycle. It comes around again and again and again. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing is headed towards an eventual end or conclusion. It's just history repeating itself over and over and over again.
We certainly get the fundamental point looking at all these articles and issues today, even in the midst of a coronavirus crisis. Particularly in the context of a pandemic, we're reminded over and over again that worldview really does matter.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.