Posted by: gcarkner | May 23, 2023

Who Gave Us Scientism?

The Historical and Philosophical Roots of Scientism

The scientific revolution in the seventeenth century owes much to the new techniques of empirical science: important advances in mathematics and the telescope are just two impressive examples. Radical empiricism, on the other hand, derives from John Locke and David Hume of Britain in the eighteenth century. This is the origin of sentiments towards scientism. Hume claimed that an idea was meaningless unless it had empirical grounds. He attempted to reduce all knowledge to scientific knowledge and even suggested the burning of all books that contained no quantities or matters of fact. The irony here is that Hume was also the first skeptic of scientific induction.

Our brief historical overview next finds us in the late nineteenth century with the positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, probably the most significant representative of scientism. The father of modern sociology, Comte claimed that humanity had entered a new age—the age of science. Thus, he ruled out anything of a theological or metaphysical type, which he saw as passé. Science was seen to be the door to the future and it must replace religion, in Comte’s view. He also contributed much to the myth of progress. He (and others such as sociologist Emile Durkheim) looked forward to a day when religion would actually disappear (See British Victorian Naturalist T. H. Huxley and German Materialist Ernst Haeckel as two who saw science as the new religion of the late nineteenth century). Current scholar Mikael Stenmark of Uppsala University in Sweden wonders whether scientism isn’t taken as some sort of religious oultook by advocates of New Atheism (E.O. Wilson for example thinks science should replace religion as a framework of meaning).

The twentieth century formulation of scientism is best seen in A.J. Ayer (the father of logical positivism) with his famous Verifiability Criterion of Meaning . Briefly stated, this meant that we should treat as nonsense or irrelevant any statement which transcends statements of fact about the physical world (i.e. all ethical, metaphysical and theological statements). What we notice here is the development of scientism’s superiority complex or epistemological imperialism. Science is elevated and praised as the only way to solid, reliable truth, with a corner of the market (hegemony) on valid knowledge. Ayer later recanted from this kind of naivete. Philosopher Thomas Nagel more recently has raised serious questions about science as the last word on knowledge.

The spirit of the early twentieth century welcomed science as the cure for all evils and the ripe solution to all religious and political questions. It became a kind of ‘comprehensive scientism’. Astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell captures the ethos of the day. “For people of the interwar era, science and technology became the God through which man was seeking the road to economic and intellectual salvation.” (Sir Bernard Lovell, In the Centre of Immensities. (Harper & Row, 1978, p. 157).  Scientists were venerated as gods. The faith in science was very high, exhibiting a hard core scientism.

This optimism about science and its powers lasted until the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima, the bloodshed and massive carnage issued in by technological advances in World War II, where cities lay in ruins and some 50 million lives were cut short. There were huge advances in technology and science during the war to help both sides get the edge on the global battle (radar, code-breaking, rocket engines, tanks, ships, submarines and incendiary bombs, and finally at its apex the nuclear bomb). It was as if we humans re-invented evil on a mass scale using our brightest scientists. People were left in utter shock at how destructive science’s powers could be, especially when backed by a huge political agenda of imperialism and conquest. A recent review of some World War II film footage sickens the stomach at the terrible losses on all sides. The world witnessed graphically and first hand how instrumental reason could reduce human beings to cattle, slaves or objects of experimentation, and ultimately elimination in the Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps. It could reduce their life’s work to rubble. This was scientism at its worst. It led many to nihilism, giving up on humanity in toto.

In the early 1990’s at the end of the long Cold War, we took a deep breath, stepped back from the abyss of nuclear holocaust, and took on more awareness of the tremendous environmental costs of science, technology, industry and excessive Western consumerist lifestyles. The environmental movement made significant advances in this decade. We became acutely aware that, just because we could do something with scientific know-how, it did not necessarily imply that it was good for us and good for the planet. It often was not. Postmodern sentiments grew strong in this decade with heavy questioning of the scientific outlook and perceived hegemony in culture. This is when for many, science began to look more like a poisoned chalice. We became ambivalent; science was good but no longer a panacea; it could be employed to produce both good and evil. And look at how much damage it can do so quickly.

In the early twenty-first century, we have seen the rise of religion rather than the demise predicted by Durkheim. No longer can we say, after the tragic events of September 11, 2001 that religious discernment is not both relevant and vital. We have also witnessed some of the worst corruption and greed in human history; this was achieved by powerful people of a utilitarian, self-interest mindset (e.g. the Enron and Worldcom fiascos and sub-prime mortgage scandals erupting in a massive recession in 2008). Mathematical geniuses exiting Cold War nuclear weapons jobs offered to show us the magic of logarithms applied to the stock market and derivatives were invented to insure against losses.

Thus, over three centuries, we have moved from elation over the power and advances of science to the sheer arrogance and hubris of scientism, to the dogmatic, closed philosophical worldview spin of Naturalism. Early in the twenty-first century, scientism is held under hermeneutical suspicion, heavily questioned and deconstructed, shown to be wanting. There exist many who believe that science is not sufficient and that religious, aesthetic and ethical questions must be raised and examined once again, and that science needs ethical checks and balances. Postmodernists have revealed the destructiveness of scientism’s outlook, although they often go too far and question science as a whole, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water: i.e. that all claims to truth are suspected for power-interest. Some writers reduce science to a sociology of knowledge; others reduce it to an aesthetic enterprise–both are extreme views. A whole group of scholars today are asking whether good reason requires scientific materialism in our post-secular age. (Philip Blond (ed.), Post-Secular Philosophy. Routledge, 1998.) Top philosophers do not believe that a secular outlook is a necessary consequence of scientific discovery (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 2007).

Where do we go from here? Senior Political Science Professor John Redekop notes that the preservation and accumulation of knowledge and the transmission of a common heritage (including the moral-social-political) is the work of both the contemporary church and university. He welcomes all that science can offer us and all the ways that it can sharpen our epistemic skills, but appeals that academic openness to supernatural sources of knowledge is also a high priority in the road ahead. We should face all the important questions of our human existence.

~ Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Educator with UBC Graduate Students

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Posted by: gcarkner | May 12, 2023

Katharine Hayhoe Speaks May 20, 2023

Posted by: gcarkner | April 14, 2023

The Secret Power of Virtue

What will help Generation Z become successful and more resilient? Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, author and meta-educator, suggests that the secret is to follow the narrative strength of virtue. Zoomers will be well-served if mentors, teachers and employers exhibit character and reveal how virtue works for the common good in real life. Beyond mere career success, we also need relational skill to make life function well. He believes that there is an untapped personal power in virtue waiting for this generation to access. Virtue is a foundational concern today. See also the dialogue at the Hoover Institute. A Conversation with Tom Holland, Stephen Meyer, and Douglas Murray.

You simply must read the brilliant book by Robert Farrar Capon, An Offering of Uncles.

Op Ed article on mental health of adolescents:

More blog posts on Virtue:

Grappling with Moral Relativism:

Models of Successful Community Building

L’ Abri Canada: community, common meals, co-operative labour, dialogue, teaching, telling my story, exploring calling, grappling with worldviews

Apologetics Canada: addressing the toughest questions of the day with wisdom and grace.

Taizé France: international, ecumenical, dialectic, worship, bold pursuit of God.

Habitat for Humanity: collaborate in helping homeless with young and senior strong backs. See also ‘More Than a Roof’ in Vancouver, B.C.

Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa: study, internships on Parliament Hill, community, friendship, engagement. 

Other grass roots experiments in community, character shaping, servant leadership, missio dei (on and off campus) à Bridges, a new UBC Anglican dialogical community.

Exploring a Sense of Call

Ethical meanings involve a sense of call: either transcendent or immanent. Examples include God’s will or planetary health, justice for the marginalized, reducing suffering/disease, education or boosting human capacities and competencies. Zoomers are searching for such a call.  Ask them, “What is your passion?” “What pulls you forward?”

Meanings call us to aspire to, live up to, what is important: a higher, truer form of life as individuals and as a society. Upward moral mobility is the key: to escape from selfishness, narcissism, cynicism and nihilism. What is the most deeply animating force in your life? Don’t settle for mediocrity.

Such interpretations happen against the backdrop of a whole complex or “landscape of meanings” within which an individual agent operates. This includes a whole constellation of intuitions, motives, norms and virtues. The whole (gestalt/take) is vital to our understanding of individual meanings: both thinking and feeling.

The Ultimate Goal: To make coherent sense of one’s self, one’s moral framework, one’s moral progress, working towards a robust identity, as one embraces and builds a relationship with the good.  We can get better at this over time, through seeing things better—moral growth through coming closer to the truth.  Lauren Daigle, Rescue


(Charles Taylor, The Language Animal)

Habitus: Pre-articulate enactment/embodiment/performativity/praxis (existential habits, covenants and commitments). Example: wedding, worship, baptism, planting a tree, justice activity like defending the poor, saying The Lord’s Prayer, speaking truth to power.  (Jamie Smith, You Are What You Love)

Verbal Articulation: naming a norm together with its crucial features (for example, a code, principles and precepts, rights, virtues to emulate, a family of values—Psalm 119). This can also be captured by a great work of art, a good exemplary life (MLK), poem or music concert, a symbol, metaphor or meaningful story such as in a novel: Les Misérables; or Brothers Karamazov. Malcolm Guite is a very articulate Cambridge University poet.

Hermeneutical Account (raison d’être): discerning its overall role in our lives (rationale for the code) and its role in the larger world. Rational aspect of metabiological meaning: definition and clarification. Parts are understood in terms of the larger whole. Process of making (human) sense of agency, intuitions and action. Fruitful point of dialogue with others (exploring the dimensions of a social imaginary). See Jens Zimmermann, Hemeneutics: a very short introduction; Incarnational Humanism.

Virtue & Suffering: Can We Grow in Character through Suffering?

We ought not shield emerging adults from the crucible of suffering and tragedy. Reality therapy is a route to growth and meaning (rehabilitation of self-examined identity). Psychiatrist Scott Peck: “Life is hard.” Romans 5: 1-5, Character emerges through suffering as we persevere.  Experts say that to live well is to suffer:  A life of happiness will also necessarily involve considerable pain, even trauma and tragedy.

Can we train a new team of mentors focused on supporting Zoomers to take responsibility for critical moral growth and serious character goals (Integrity by Henry Cloud)? Can we mentor and walk alongside them? Can we create spaces for community and grow their confidence?

The Issues Zoomers Care About: climate change, transgender rights, loneliness, police brutality, gun control, cost of living (high rent), racial inequality, poverty, government accountability, safety and security, challenges of economic opportunity and student debt.  Much of it involves human suffering.

“A good place to find your calling is in the suffering interfaces at home and around the world, cracks in the sidewalk of life.” (Gordon T. Smith,  Ambrose University). This is suffering love.

See Making Sense Out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft


Zoomers are asking: How can I live in the house of meaning constructed by my forebears, or how can I create a new one of my own, one with which I resonate, and by which I am inspired?  Constitutive language (Charles Taylor, The Language Animal) powerfully opens potential new worlds for us, and breaks out of cultural, intellectual stifling due to scientism and relativism; fundamentalism and license. Moral Sources become sources of identity.

Philosopher Charles Taylor calls this the constitutive good: the realities contemplation of which, or contact with which, strengthens our commitment to lean into the good.  A force beyond us leads us into a creative, interactive relationship with higher values and ideals.   Resonance occurs. It involves personal transformation and motivation to do the good, actualize one’s higher potential.

Epiphanies of transcendence occur: encounters with God or natural beauty/creation, strong personal experiences through travel, a powerful work of art or literature, finding a great companion/love or mentor. These dramatic experiences are important to personal transformation (e.g. Moses and the burning bush, Jacob’s ladder, Mary and the angel) and they shape our identity and calling.

Language is central to moral sources: creates, alters or breaks connections between people in significant ways. It can open new spaces for human meanings, vision for life and human identity.  Such is the language of the kingdom of God, or Jesus is Lord.  Words Create World.  We must have a take on reality and what constitutes progress, or we entertain an identity crisis.

See James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love.

The Creative Nature of Discourse

Generation Z Engages Church Tradition (Charles Taylor, The Language Animal, chapter 7).  Critical to the changes they may want to offer for new or fresh meanings or practice within church life. They must own the narrative and carry the Gospel forward, and interpret it for their generation.

Discourse has important constitutive power through providing a footing on which people stand with respect to each other. It often involves an interactional text (a constitution, mission statement or bill of rights, the Bible, communal covenant). The language animal is also a social animal, following certain habituses:  “the embodied sensibility which makes possible structured improvisation. To take on a habitus is to embody certain social meanings [and values]” (C. Taylor, 2016, 272). Discourse uses language as a way of setting out the parameters of social reality, but also to change social reality where necessary—the imaginative dimension.

The Doxa of a society is its felt reality: “the taken-for-granted, preconscious understandings of the world and our place in it that shape our more conscious awareness.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 273) See Taylor’s concept of social imaginary; Keesmat and Walsh, Romans Disarmed; James Sire, The Universe Next Door.) Reaching young people in the West today requires cross-cultural skill sets. This is related to the concept of moral footing.

Ritual (sabbath, baptism, family meals, memorials, various celebrations) is the key to repair or restore the individual’s relationship to the social-emotional order. 

One’s Life Narrative Undergirds the Creation of Meaning/Solidification of Identity: SEEKERS ON A JOURNEY: GROWING PSYCHOLOGICALLY, SPIRITUALLY AND MORALLY FROM YOUTH TO ADULTHOOD   [BILDUNGSROMANS], C. TAYLOR, 2016, 318-19.

“Stories give us an understanding of life, people, and what happens to them which is peculiar (i.e., distinct from what other forms, like works of science and philosophy), and also unsubstitutable.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 291).  Key insight:  “It is through story that we find or devise ways of living bearably in time.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 319).  We must have a take on reality and what constitutes progress, or we entertain an identity crisis.

“In what contexts are people able to open up and tell their full story?” Jasmine, PhD medical biology student UBC (Psalm 139). Jasmine had to review and rethink her entire history—it took two painful years.

Zommers’ sense of lostness/homelessness is a problem: My story is broken/dysfunctional, the future looks bleak, I am worried, I can see the coming apocalypse. They may be just surviving moment to moment, week to week. There is often a need for a turn-around story, a redemptive story (C. Taylor, 2016, chapter 8), finding my way out of a bad story.

How I tell my story defines my identity, which is central to being a self.  We each have an inner biographer—linking past, present and future mental states. This kind of temporal (diachronic) mapping is critical to a healthy identity: Where have I come from?  Where am I going?  What time is it?  What are my challenges and opportunities going forward?

Executive Control: It is imperative that I care about my future self as much as my present self. Closely associated with consciousness. Storytelling helps me become a self, reckon with dissonance and conflict, make sense of my life on an ongoing basis.  (J. Peterson’s Self-Authoring Suite)

What’s Love Got to do with It?

Love is the most complete form of knowing and the resurrection is the most complete form of love.   Wittgenstein:  “It is love that believes the resurrection.”

A new creation people, a new moral order, a new future in the present, emerges through the cross and resurrection:  Jubilee

“Jesus resurrection, by unveiling the creator’s love for the world, opens up the space and time for a holistic mode of knowing, a knowing which includes historical knowledge of the real world by framing it within the loving gratitude which answers the creator’s own sovereign love.” ~N.T. Wright

Knowing is a whole person, communal, here-and-now activity that is redeemed by love.

Love (III) by George Herbert 17th Century

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back

                              Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

                             From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

                             Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

                             I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

                             Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

                             My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

Agape Love Offers an Identity Footing and a Platform for Action by Gen Z

The strong version of transcendence means that, while such love comes from outside human culture, it offers transforming dynamics within the economies of the full range of culture spheres: in science, the arts, ethics and religion. Charles Taylor believes that the epiphanic discovery of agape love can act as a hypergood, in that it influences a rearrangement of the hierarchy of one’s moral goods or values, bringing into play both a transfiguration and transvaluation within the horizon/frame of the moral self.  This enables self-transcendence and motivation for embracing the good, taking responsibility, sacrificing for the other, facing pain, mitigating evil and grappling with personal challenges. On the transforming power of agape, see Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual.

Posted by: gcarkner | April 4, 2023

Easter Reflections 2023

It is Eastertide once again. We celebrate in Spring as we see all around us the signs of new life, new hope, new creation. Easter fosters critical memory and sounds the deepest depths of meaning. The world pauses  to reflect. Could it be true that the Creator of all being humbled himself in this way, to this degree, in order to draw us back to his embrace, to heal brokenness? It is the ultimate epiphany as heaven meets earth cataclysmically.

In the Passion, Christ’s sacrifice breaks the cycle of violence. A new horizon emerges: agape has replaced the cycle of primal rivalry and violence—showing the way to reconciliation. Author Andy Crouch, in Playing God, writes: “Love transfigures power. Absolute love transfigures absolute power. And power transfigured by love is the power that made and saves the world.” That’s the paradigm shift.

In the Resurrection of our Lord, death’s final intimidation is broken. This event is singularity that cannot be explained by anything prior. Eternity breaks in, dissipating our anxiety and despair, replacing it with infinite joy. It is a cultural triumph–an answer to our invested fears, right in the midst of culture, a sign of indestructible life. The cross, a symbol of oppression and domination is changed into a sign of the kingdom of God–the realm of forgiveness, mercy, and love. Grace will have the last word. Evil’s back is broken by goodness and gravitas: “Peter, do you love me?”

Garden of Gethsemane

Gethsemane by former UK Archbishop Rowan Williams

Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?

Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.

Into the trees’ clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.

Crucifixion by Malcolm Guite

See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.

Adrienne von Speyr, a 20th Century Swiss Mystic: The Lord knows that all is now finished. His life is finished, what will succeed it is also finished. In the course of his sojourn on earth, he has put in place everything out of which the later Church will arise in the many-sidedness of her life; he has trusted his disciples and all those who believe in him with their special task. After he has then given his Mother to his favorite disciple, nothing further remains for him but to suffer; he can devote himself exclusively to suffering, plunge once and for all into suffering. It is in Christ’s isolation from the Father, where the center point of his suffering lies. To be separated from a love from which one has lived since eternity, one which constitutes the entire substance of one’s being, that is lethal.

Holy Week Tour in Jerusalem:

Stations of the Cross with Malcolm Guite Poetics

“Hope…means…a continual looking forward to the eternal world…. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next…. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Blessed Easter Gordon & Ute

Meaning of the Resurrection Luke 24 Jesus Vindicated

See the tome by N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Can Beauty Save Us? 

This is the image of a Jewish man from Nazareth, crucified. In fact, his is the face of “the King of the Jews” and yet, it is supremely grotesque, bearing all the marks of suffering. His face reveals real forsakenness; his body aches of real bodily torture and real agony. His corpse lies mangled and bloodied, and his eyes…proclaim the dreadful word that causes all who hoped in him to shudder: death. There is nothing at all glamorous, desirable, or romantic about this image of the crucified One. But, of course, what is so profound about the face of this human is that his is also the face of God. His face radiates the Beauty of divinity, for he is Light from Light uncreated, the perfect image of the Father. He is, as Hebrews 1:3 says, “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” The beauty of this person, wholly man and wholly God, lies in the mystery that he brings salvation to the world not by excluding suffering but by uniting himself to it. He refuses to recoil from a world that has become repellent; he does not laugh at the dereliction of others; he does not look at all that is bad and conclude, “all is well.” He does not stand far off. In his beauty, he comes near and embraces the “ugly” ones. He associates with strange and lonely and exiled folk, bringing the outcast in. He is the servant who suffers, and, protesting against “the way things are,” he laments “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He exemplifies and creates a people committed to what David Hart calls “strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness” to those whom Nietzsche would have annihilated…. He brings the whole festival of divine grace to a world that has excluded itself from it and invites…humanity to take part, to enjoy a feast of resurrection where all divisions, segregation, and exclusion are transcended, where all have their place at the supper of the Lamb, where all, who see the face of the Beautiful One and in that seeing are transformed, are inundated and radiated by Beauty itself. In a word, to paraphrase St. Athanasius, he becomes the Ugly One so that we, the original ugly ones who have made this world ugly with our violence, might become beautiful. This reveals the scandalous message of the Christian aesthetic regime, an alternative regime to that of our time: Beauty saves the world, but only by facing the Ugly head on and actually uniting himself to the regime of the Ugly. We cannot be saved by beauty as long as “beauty” is held captive by immanent attempts to achieve transcendence. The thought that we can be saved by immanent beauty is the presumption of a contemporary secularity that thinks that humanity can ever slowly, by carefully putting one foot above the other, ascend the ladder towards infinite beauty that awaits an enlightened race of humans. The truth that will always confront all of us at the top of that ladder, however, is the face of the God who, beyond history, came into history and became ugly, mangled, and ripped apart by deep dereliction and thorns, a face that unbearably whispers: you can only be saved by the beautiful one who has become the ugly one. In other words, the Ugly one alone can save us, the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, whose divine Beauty is manifest in his descent to become—Jesus of Nazareth. (Jimmy Myers, Can Beauty Save Us?

Posted by: gcarkner | March 23, 2023

Book of the Month

My book of this month choice is Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture. Christopher Watkin does a great job of following suit with St. Augustine’s City of God in the late modern period. It is a thoroughly brilliant biblical theology that engages critically with culture.

Posted by: gcarkner | March 4, 2023

Matthew Lynch Grapples with Violence

Dr. Matthew Lynch, Associate Professor of Old Testament 

Regent College, Vancouver, B.C.

The Land Keeps the Score: Violence in Creation According to the Old Testament

Tuesday, March 14 @ 4 PM

Excellent Talk on Bible & Moral Ecology


Most scholarly and popular treatments of violence in the Old Testament focus on social or personal dimensions of violence and its impact. Similarly, contemporary Christian attempts to grapple with the challenges of violence in Scripture often focus on the ethics of human-on-human or divine-on-human violence. While important, these approaches fail to address the Old Testament’s emphasis on the land as a victim of human violence. According to the Old Testament, the land bears the marks of violence because violence is, fundamentally, an ecocidal phenomenon. This talk explores this reality in Scripture and its implications for contemporary ethical reflection. 


Matthew Lynch spent the final year of his doctoral studies in Göttingen, Germany, remaining there as a postdoctoral researcher for another year following the completion of his PhD. He was subsequently hired at the Westminster Theological Centre in the UK, serving for seven years there in roles including Dean of Studies, Academic Dean, and Lecturer in Old Testament. During this time, he also lectured at Nashotah House and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He is the author of First Isaiah and the Disappearance of the Gods (Eisenbrauns),  Portraying Violence in the Hebrew Bible: A Literary and Cultural Study (Cambridge, 2020), and Monotheism and Institutions in the Book of Chronicles: Temple, Priesthood, and Kingship in Post-Exilic Perspective (Mohr Siebeck, 2014). He also has a forthcoming volume entitled Flood and Fury: Engaging Old Testament Violence (IVP). Matthew is a founder and co-host of the OnScript podcast. He is married with two children.

Posted by: gcarkner | March 2, 2023

Foucault & Taylor on the Modern Quest for Identity

Two of the world’s most well-known philosophers, Michel Foucault (deceased, but much alive in his followers) & Charles Taylor, are brought into dialogue on the contemporary crisis of identity. Vancouver Meta-Educator Dr. Gordon E. Carkner lays out the different solutions they offer to build a robust and resilient identity in late modernity. He scribed his phD dissertation on this debate, and also wrote the book The Great Escape from Nihilism. There are some exciting angles to explore and some surprising consequences. What are the sources of self that make you stronger, more imaginative, inspired and engaged? Taylor, Professor Emeritus McGill University in Political Philosophy, is one of the deepest and most nuanced thinkers in our day, a public intellectual deeply concerned about the future of democracy. His 2007 book, A Secular Age, won the Templeton Prize. This discussion draws on his classic contribution on morality and identity Sources of the Self. His latest book is the 2016 volume The Language Animal. He has a positive international reputation.

You might also enjoy this discussion: Cultural Warning re: the Death of Civilization from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.


Posted by: gcarkner | February 14, 2023

Brilliant Reflection from Christian Smith

Dr. Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Smith is well known for his research focused on religion, adolescents and emerging adults, and social theory. Smith received his MA and PhD from Harvard University in 1990 and his BA from Gordon College in 1983. He was a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 12 years before his move to Notre Dame.

Smith is a leading American theorist of the philosophy of critical realism and the social theory of personalism. His larger theoretical agenda has been to move personhood, morality, motivated action, culture, and identity to the center of sociological theorizing generally and the sociology of religion specifically. Smith’s critical realist personalism require social science to revise its dominant approaches to causation, social ontology, and explanation. Recent personalist works by Smith include What is a Person? and To Flourish or Destruct. Earlier in his career, Smith’s work on social movements emphasized not only structural political opportunities but also personal moral motivations for participation in social movement activism. In his work on American Evangelicals, Smith developed a subcultural identity theory of religious persistence and strength in the modern world and highlighted the massive cultural complexities within conservative Protestantism. His book, The Secular Revolution, emphasized the centrality of culture, agency, and moral vision by religiously hostile actors in the secularization of American public life. Moral, Believing Animals’ anthropology underscored the morally-oriented, narratological, and epistemically anti-foundationalist condition of human personhood. Smith’s more recent work on the religious and spiritual lives of U.S. adolescents–in his books, Soul SearchingSouls in TransitionYouth Catholic America, and Lost in Transition–emphasizes the interplay of broad cultural influences, family socialization, and religious motivations in forming the spiritual and life experiences and outcomes of American youth.

See also Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies.

Brilliant Thought Quotes from Christian Smith’s Oxford University Press 2019 book Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver

It focuses on evaluating certain key positions and claims that many atheists assume or make about science, morality, and human nature. Smith contends that many contemporary atheist activists are trying to claim too much, attempting to establish positions that are unwarranted, going overboard in confidence and enthusiasm in prosecuting their positions.

Chapter 1. How Good Without God are Atheists Justified in Being?

I maintain that a truly good reason for moral actions requires both a warranting explanation and a motivational justification.

Our contemporary atheist moralists assure us that we humans still can and must aspire to a highly demanding version of a universalistic, egalitarian, and inclusive humanism…. But, none of them provides a convincing reason–sometimes any reason–for the universal scope of humans’ asserted obligations to promote the good of all other human beings.

Charles Taylor “The question is whether we are not living beyond our moral means in continuing allegiance to our [high] standards of justice and benevolence. Do we have ways of seeing-good which are credible to us, which are powerful enough to sustain these standards? If not, we would be both more honest and more prudent to moderate them.”

Smith speaks of the systemic vulnerability to moral hackers: “Again, I say atheists have reasons to be good without God, but not as faithfully and consistently good as these atheist moralists would like to think.”

Absent from these works is any recognition of human history’s tragic quality, to which (not only religious) human literature, drama, philosophy, and social commentary have testified for millennia.

There is a credulous faith in the innate and reliable goodness of human beings (against the evidence).

Chapter 2. Does Naturalism Warrant Belief in Universal Benevolence and Human Rights?, i.e. Does the moral beliefs of universal benevolence and human rights fit well with and flow reasonably from the facts of a naturalistic universe?

Many modern people tend to believe strongly that all human persons everywhere possess inalienable human rights to life, certain freedoms, respect of conscience, and protection against unwarranted or arbitrary violations of personal property and choices by government or other persons.

Officially science is only methodologically naturalistic, not metaphysically so, meaning that scientific methods and explanations only appeal to natural causes but science makes no judgments about the nature of ultimate reality.

Metaphysical naturalism is a general picture of all reality as consisting of nothing but the operations of nature. Atheism, by comparison, is the specific, “not-theism” answers to the question of whether some form of divine being exists.

Someone who believes in a naturalistic cosmos is, it seems to me, perfectly entitled to believe and act to promote human universal benevolence and human rights, but only as an arbitrary, subjective, personal preference–not as a rational, compelling, universally binding fact and obligation.

Many ancient civilizations and cultures readily accepted and practiced different forms of slavery, infanticide, patriarchy, and sometimes human sacrifice. Many took for granted innate inequalities between different groups of people. In general, few possessed the cultural resources to develop a strongly humanistic morality of the kind we affirm today.

By contrast, the transcendent monotheism of ancient Judaism introduced a set of uncommon ethical sensibilities that were crucial in the eventual development of the culture of benevolence and rights. Elaborated on page 51.

Christianity directly inherited this ethical legacy and added to it the demanding teaching of Jesus on love for one’s enemies, universalizing the neighbour, self-sacrificial giving, the disciples’ worldwide mission, the sacred value of caring for the physical needs of others, and the dignity and importance of women, children, “sinners”. The Christian Apostles further taught the duty to share material wealth, respect for the conscience of others, the priority of persuasion over force, and the power of God’s kingdom to dissolve divisive social distinctions–“In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, because all are one in Christ.” ~Paul the Apostle

Few ancient human cultures appear to have possessed the embryonic moral and metaphysical material from which could have evolved the robust commitment to universal benevolence and human rights…. What actually did develop, at least in the West, was in large measure the cultural and institutional outcome of deep historical Jewish and Christian roots. And at the heart of those traditions was the belief in a transcendent personal God who is the source, governor, and judge of moral order and action. [Historian Tom Holland agrees with this in Dominion: how the Christian revolution remade the world.]

Many people are not naturally and predominantly altruistic, self-giving, considerate of the needs of others, and more committed to the truth and justice than their own welfare [a general empirical observation]…. Most people have not only a bright side with capacities for genuine good but also dark sides with capacities for deep selfishness, self-deception, and indifference toward the needs of others.

Nothing about the human capacity for complex reasoning, forethought, or planning per se naturally leads to universal benevolence and belief in human rights…. However, in the globalized world in which we now live, given the huge military and environmental challenges humanity now faces, the very survival of our species depends not only on human cooperation but also the imperative of universal benevolence and rights.

But the grounds for such require a cogent justification running in the background, capable of being brought to the foreground and vindicated when necessary. In the future of our dangerous, globalizing world, those wishing to champion and defend universal benevolence and human rights will have to think more clearly and explain more persuasively than their skeptics, however barbaric and heartless their skeptics may seem now.

Morality of the sort we are trying to justify here has to do with what is right and wrong, good and bad, et cetera, which are believed to be established not by humans’ own actual desires, decisions, or preferences but by sources believed to exist apart from them.

Plausibility Weakness of Naturalism: All versions of such rational, nontranscendent moral philosophies, it turns out, fail to account successfully for universal benevolence and rights in one or both of two ways. Either they surreptitiously smuggle in assumptions and commitments from the Judea-Christian or some other moral heritage, or they simply fail on their own terms as rational systems justifying universal benevolence and rights. See also Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Nagel is probably most widely known in philosophy of mind as an advocate of the idea that consciousness and subjective experience cannot, at least with the contemporary understanding of physicalism, be satisfactorily explained with the concepts of physics.

Chapter 3. Why Scientists Playing Amateur Atheology Fail

See also our GFCF lecture on Science & Scientism with Oxford’s Physics Professor Ard Louis:

Vulgar imperialistic scientism means claiming that if science cannot observe or discover something, then it cannot be real or true. Stated slightly differently: the only things that could be true or real are those that science can observe or validate. Examples used are: Yuval Noah Harari, Steven Weinberg, Edward O. Wilson, Victor Stenger, Richard Leakey, Marcelo Gleiser, science writer Roger Lewin.

The bemusing irony in all of this is that the presuppositions that authorizes only science to tell us what is real and true, and that produces such dramatic conclusions about the universe’s pointlessness, is not a scientific statement and could never, ever itself be validated by empirical science. It is instead a philosophical presupposition, something not unlike a faith commitment.

Science is a dominant institution when it comes to knowledge claims. And one of the privileges of dominance is not having to learn and think as hard as one should when it comes to making claims beyond one’s core competence.

When science writers publicly pronounce on metaphysics and theology, they should be obliged to satisfy two conditions. First, they should learn enough about real metapysics and religion to be able to speak accurately and intelligently about them. And second, they should make clear in their writing and speaking that they are no longer making scientific claims but rather switching modes of discourse and epistemological frameworks to discuss metaphysics or religion. To fail to do either of these I think is irresponsible and deceptive…. They are making a basic category error in thinking in the first place that they can even judge such religious claims with scientific tools.

Science is itself grounded on a set of presuppositions that are ultimately taken on faith or not. And, as Michael Polanyi has shown, scientific discovery is actually driven not by strict adherence to some Method but by deeply personal, prescientific commitments to human values like wonder, beauty, and truth. Both science and religion are thus implicated in personal belief commitments of various kinds, and to the evaluation of the truth of those beliefs through the facts of lived experience.

The difference that does matter here is something like this: science seeks to understand the natural workings of matter, energy, life, the mind, and society that can be theoretically understood through direct and indirect empirical observation, whereas most religions seek to understand and engage either realities that transcend creation, even if they interact with creation, such as a personal God (as in Abrahamic faiths), or realities that the immanent material world actually obscures, such as the force of Brahman (as in some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism). In both cases, even the most powerful of science’s tools are constitutionally incompetent to penetrate and evaluate religion’s claims.

A thought on scientists smuggling metaphysical atheology into their scientific writing: I think when we get down to it, a good part of what motivates many of these scientists to reject God, religion, and other nonnaturalistic metaphysical views are not the findings of science but instead personal moral and emotional objections. He gives examples from Steven Weinberg and Edward O. Wilson on page 101.

Finally, it is incumbent on scientific atheology writers (people who use science to dismiss God and religion) to think harder about the presuppositions of naturalism, materialism, and empiricism that drive them into narrow imperialistic claims…. Science qua science is constitutionally incapable of disproving the possible reality of what is most important in most religions: whether that be the God of Abraham, Saint Paul, Muhammed, or Zoroaster…. Let’s have good, rigorous arguments about science and religion… ones that are well-informed, fruitfully constructive when possible, and fair and honest when they must be critically destructive.

See also quotes from David Bentley Hart on Scientism:

Chapter 4. Are Humans Naturally Religious?

Based on critical realism as a background guiding philosophy. Critical realism reconstructs our basic assumptions, telling us to ask different questions … opening up new, helpful possibilities, understanding and explanation.

Definition of Religion: a complex of culturally prescribed practices that are based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers (personal or impersonal)…. Everything in reality has some kind of nature … insofar as entities possess and so can express particular characteristics, capacities, and tendencies by virtue of simply what they are.

Premises of Critical Realism:

  1. Real entities with essential properties exist in reality, often independent of human mental activity.
  2. Real entities possess certain innate capacities and powers, existing at a “deep” level of reality, that only under certain conditions are activated so as to realize their potential.
  3. When the causal energies of entities are released in particular cases, they are neither determined nor determining, neither absolutely predictable nor random, neither chaotic nor incomprehensible.
  4. The social scientific task in not to discover the covering laws that explain and predict observable associations of conditions and events…. The task rather is for our theorizing minds to use all available empirical evidence and powers of reason to develop conceptual models that as accurately as possible descriptively represent the real causal processes operating at a “deeper” unobservable level of reality, through the agency of real causal mechanisms that produce changes in material and nonmaterial world.
  5. We must always pay close attention to the environmental and contextual factors that do and do not activate the causal capacities and powers of different entities, which then produces a variety of possible, sometimes-observable outcomes…. We have to be willing to deal with major complexity.

Are people religious–in what sense?

Smith does believe that human beings are naturally religious in this way: They possess a complex set of innate features, capacities, powers, limitations, and tendencies that capacitate them to be religious (i.e., to think, perceive, feel, imagine, desire and act religiously), and that under the right conditions, strongly tend to predispose and direct them towards practicing and believing religion. The natural religiousness of humanity … is located in the distinctive, inherent features, capacities, powers, limitations, and tendencies of human persons that are rooted, ultimately, in the human body and brain and the emergent (often nonmaterial) capacities that arise from the body and the brain.

I am speaking here of very powerful causal forces and dispositions that are rooted in the nature of reality and are chronically triggered to become operative in human life in a variety of contexts. That helps to explain religion’s primordial, irrepressible, widespread, and seemingly inextinguishable character. See also by Christian Smith What is a Person?: Understanding Humanity, Social Life, and the Good from the Person Up; and Moral Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture.

All humans are thus believers before and more basically than we are knowers. There is no universal, rational foundation upon which indubitably certain knowledge can be built. All human knowing is built on believing (presuppositions). That is the human condition…. Religious commitment is not fundamentally different, at bottom, from all the human belief commitments, insofar as religion involves trust in and response to believed-in realities that are not objectively verifiable or universally shared by all reasonable people. Religious believing is thus not at odds with the broad trajectory of all human believing.

When the prospect of a helpful superhuman power is present, it is quite natural for humans to be interest in the possibility of appealing to those powers to help avert or resolve their problems.

Humans also ask and wrestle with the “Life Questions” (Brad Gregory): What should I live for? What should I believe and why? What is morality and where does it come from? What kind of person should I be? What is the meaning of life, and what should I do to lead a meaningful life? Other existential questions that emerge are in our consciousness of existence: death, tragedy, the character of love, obligation…. We are meaning-making animals (see Charles Taylor, The Language Animal). We need language for these awarenesses–Taylor calls it constitutive language.

At the end of the day, if atheism is not compatible with moral excellence, universal benevolence, human rights, the authority of science, and basic human nature, then its attractiveness is significantly diminished…. They are overplaying their hand, trying to claim more for their viewpoint than reason and empirical evidence justify…. Considered rationally, metaphysical naturalism is simply not a worldview that independently possesses the intellectual resources to warrant a commitment to benevolence afforded and human rights honoured for all humans everywhere…. Science is inherently incapable of proving or disproving God’s possible existence.

In most historical eras, it has not been hard for people and cultures to come to believe, embrace, practice, and pass on religions to subsequent generations. It has been much, much harder to extinguish them…. Humans not only have the capacity to be religious, like the capacity for anything else humans can do, including rare and difficult things, but also those capacities are directed by strong natural tendencies that turn them toward religious expression.

Notre Dame Sociologist, Christian Smith, documents the contemporary outlook in Souls in Transition, his award-winning book on Americans aged 18-23He notes the following revealing traits among university undergrads. They are:

soft ontological anti-realists: there is no real world as such.

epistemological skeptics: question every truth claim, including moral truths.

perspectivalists: mine is only one of many ways to see things.

subjective isolation: pursuing my own unique path in life, but with a sense of loneliness.

constructivists: building myself and my morality from the ground up.

moral intuitionists: how I feel about a situation or a decision is the most important factor, even if I am uncritical about such feelings.

-antipathy/rebellion towards parental shaping, social conventions and institutional morality.

See also my blog posts on moral relativism at ~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner Dr. Paul Allen on Critical Realism

Posted by: gcarkner | January 31, 2023

Robert Mann, Physics & Faith

Dr. Robert Mann from University of Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute gave a brilliant talk at the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Science & Christian Affiliation on Saturday January 28, 2023. Some people today think science and faith are incompatible, and this can cause an existential crisis. But that is definitely not the stance of Robert Mann. His talk was entitled “To Infinity & Beyond.”

Professor Mann works on gravitation, quantum physics, and the overlap between these two subjects. He is interested in questions that provide us with information about the foundations of physics, particularly those that could be tested by experiment. Professor Mann has a lively and energetic research group of about 10 graduate and undergraduate students, where we address a number of interesting questions in physics, such as

  • How would relativity influence how a quantum computer worked?
  • Could we use a quantum probe to peek inside a black hole?
  • Is it possible that the Big Bang could be replaced with a black hole at the beginning of time?

CSCA Talk: Dr. Mann sees four areas where science & Christian faith are compatible and in fact need each other: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. This is also known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Science & Faith together give us a richer perspective on life and reality.

Reason: There are epistemological parallels between science and Christianity. It is amazing and fascinating that the world is rationally transparent. Famous physicist Sir John Polkinghorne once noted, “There is a transparent beauty to the physical properties of nature.” Reason is used in science to interpret the data, and to eliminate errors in our thinking. Mathematics undergirds the laws of nature. He believes that this points to a mind behind nature. In his long experience, he observes that physics ‘makes God look good’. Peer correction is important in science as well as in understanding the Bible and the faith. A healthy measure of skepticism is important both in science and in theology. We need to continually test ideas until they become robust.

One other point made by Robert was the question of authority: It is important for atheist scientists to refrain from waxing eloquent about how science disproves God and religion, rendering all religious activity and belief to ‘unscientific’ fantasy and myth. Christian Smith covers this problem well in his 2019 Oxford University Press book Atheist Overreach, Chapter 3 “Why Scientists Playing Amateur Atheology Fail”. It is important that we stay in our lane epistemologically. Guilty parties operating this intellectual sleight of hand are top people: Yuval Noah Harari, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Leaky, Victor Stengel, Marcelo Gleiser, Steven Weinberg. The temptation to speak on the nature of everything (meaning, purpose, destiny of humanity and the universe) is lively, but wrong headed. This does not add to one’s scholarly integrity but subtracts, while confusing the public about the nature of reality at a popular level. It often bleeds into the ideology of scientism. Assumptions of materialism, naturalism and empiricism are articles of faith.

Experience is equivalent spiritually to Experimentation in science. We have to reflect on and interpret both our encounters with God and our scientific discoveries (data). We test these against Tradition–what is established thus far. History, both in science and theology, is important. Thus, the importance of peer reviewed journals. We don’t start brand new in the lab each week; we are building on knowledge that others have established. It is also important to see that science does not give us the big picture of meaning or metaphysics. We need to go elsewhere for that insight. In religion and human meaning, we need other forms of language–constitutive language (Charles Taylor, The Language Animal).

Scripture is not a scientific text per se, but of course scholarship is working on getting the best documents and discerning the tradition from other scholars down the centuries. Continual comparison occurs between different statements about God throughout the biblical narrative until a sound picture emerges. The scientific spirit of making rational sense of the Bible resonates with wise Christian believers. Scientific theories and theology are similar. Good theories and good theology will endure the tests of time. In Solomon, one of the ancient, wise kings of Israel, we see someone who operated in the spirit of science before science emerged in his botanical categorization.

~Gordon Carkner, GFCF @ UBC [] View our scholarly lectures.

Here are the videos from Robert Mann’s visit to British Columbia:

Listen to Robert Mann’s UBC 2019 talk on The Multiverse, Science & Theology: A Critical Inquiry.

See also how one scientist, Dr. Sy Garte, came to a personal faith over 60 years

See also Robert Mann on The Edge (Physics & Theology).

Posted by: gcarkner | January 27, 2023

Reading Suggestions

Follow-up Reading to Michael Ward’s Lecture on C. S. Lewis

Sir Roger ScrutonAnybody who goes through life with an open mind and heart will encounter moments that are saturated with meaning, but whose meaning cannot be put into words. Those moments are precious to us. When they occur, it is as though, on the winding, ill-lit stairway of our life, we suddenly come across a window… through which we catch sight of another, brighter world–a world to which we belong but which we cannot enter. There are many who dismiss this world as an unscientific fiction. I am not alone in thinking it real and important.

Soul of the World

In The Soul of the World, renowned philosopher Roger Scruton defends the experience of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism. He argues that our personal relationships, moral intuitions, and aesthetic judgments hint at a transcendent dimension that cannot be understood through the lens of science alone. To be fully alive―and to understand what we are―is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things. Rather than an argument for the existence of God, or a defense of the truth of religion, the book is an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life―and what the final loss of the sacred would mean. In short, the book addresses the most important question of modernity: what is left of our aspirations after science has delivered its verdict about what we are?

Drawing on art, architecture, music, and literature, Scruton suggests that the highest forms of human experience and expression tell the story of our religious need, and of our quest for the being who might answer it, and that this search for the sacred endows the world with a soul. Evolution cannot explain our conception of the sacred; neuroscience is irrelevant to our interpersonal relationships, which provide a model for our posture toward God; and scientific understanding has nothing to say about the experience of beauty, which provides a God’s-eye perspective on reality. Ultimately, a world without the sacred would be a completely different world―one in which we humans are not truly at home. Yet despite the shrinking place for the sacred in today’s world, Scruton says, the paths to transcendence remain open.

On Human Nature  

Roger Scruton presents an original and radical defense of human uniqueness. Confronting the views of evolutionary psychologists, utilitarian moralists, and philosophical materialists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Scruton argues that human beings cannot be understood simply as biological objects. We are not only human animals; we are also persons, in essential relation with other persons, and bound to them by obligations and rights. Scruton develops and defends his account of human nature by ranging widely across intellectual history, from Plato and Averroës to Darwin and Wittgenstein.

The book begins with Kant’s suggestion that we are distinguished by our ability to say “I” – by our sense of ourselves as the centers of self-conscious reflection. This fact is manifested in our emotions, interests, and relations. It is the foundation of the moral sense, as well as of the aesthetic and religious conceptions through which we shape the human world and endow it with meaning. And it lies outside the scope of modern materialist philosophy, even though it is a natural and not a supernatural fact. Ultimately, Scruton offers a new way of understanding how self-consciousness affects the question of how we should live. The result is a rich view of human nature that challenges some of today’s most fashionable ideas about our species.

UNCOMMON KNOWLEDGE: Dialogue between historian Tom Holland, author Douglas Murray and scientist Stephen Meyer well-nuanced with various levels of belief on the God Question: Does God Exist? 

Tom Holland: “Christianity is the most successful explanation for what human beings are doing, what life is for, why we were created, why there is suffering…. The mystery of Christian inheritance is a kind of strangeness

Jurgen Habermas: “I am dismayed by the unwillingness of the modern West to admit that there is a God-shaped hole in the culture.

Stephen Meyer: “Human rights are fantastical without Christian theology.” See also Christian Smith, Atheist Overreach, Chapter 2. on this topic.

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