Islam and The Middle East Crisis

skd285135sdcLike many people, I have been paying careful attention to the religious and political events transpiring in the Middle East for the past several years. As a student of Islam, I am very interested in this religion’s relationship to radical ideologies that foment violence and terrorism.

But today I have a question. How many wars or conflicts or political tensions are presently at work in the Middle East? Given the complexity of the region and its fluidity this isn’t an easy question to answer. Nevertheless, here’s my attempt at a calculation (some may overlap). This is based upon news reports and the opinions of specialists in the region.

  1. Egyptian government military vs. Muslim Brotherhood
  2. Civil war rebels vs. Syrian dictator Assad
  3. Sunni vs. Shi’ite (major divisions in Islam) in general conflict
  4. ISIS (radical Islamic ideological group) vs. Syrian rebels
  5. ISIS vs. Syrian dictator Assad
  6. ISIS vs. Iraq
  7. ISIS vs. Iran tension
  8. ISIS’ persecution of Christians
  9. USA vs. ISIS
  10. Israelis vs. Palestinians tension
  11. Hamas vs. Israel
  12. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia proxy war (over who will control the region)
  13. Israel vs. Iran tension
  14. USA vs. Syrian dictator Assad tension
  15. USA vs. Iran tension

Christian end-times enthusiasts undoubtedly see this situation as a sign of an impending Judgment Day. In my opinion, these tensions and wars actually have more to due with how certain Muslims view the supposed end of the world than it does with actual biblical prophecy. In fact, it appears that apocalyptic end-times interpretations of certain Islamic leaders fuel radical Islamic ideology. (If you are interested in cautious thinking about Christian eschatology, I recommend you review my latest book, Christian Endgame: Careful Thinking About the End Times.)

The current volatile events of the Middle East should lead people in the West to ask some tough questions about the religion of Islam. For example,

  1. Do all Muslims think alike about religion and politics?
  2. Are there moderate voices within the religion of Islam?
  3. Does the Qur’an justify killing non-Muslims in the name of Allah?
  4. Are al-Qaeda and ISIS political ideologies that have attached themselves to the religion of Islam or are these groups the logical extension of Islamic theology, specifically its eschatology?
  5. Is Islam compatible with Western forms of democracy?
  6. Why are people attracted to Islam, given all the violence connected to the religion?
  7. How can the West respond effectively to radical Islam?
  8. Is the battle against radical Islam merely a military fight?
  9. In the marketplace of ideas, what does Christianity have to offer that Islam does not?

If you would like to hear my answers to these provocative questions then listen to the latest episode of Straight Thinking, where some of my colleagues and I confront these topics head on: http://www.reasons.org/podcasts/straight-thinking/winning-the-war-of-worldview-ideas.

 

Quote of the Week: Francis Crick

Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truth, but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendants.

— Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (New York: Touchstone, 1994), 262.

Use It or Lose It: Intellectual Exercise Can Save Your Mind

The mind can atrophy, like the muscles, if it is not used. Atrophy of the mental muscles is the penalty that we pay for not taking mental exercise. And this is a terrible penalty, for there is evidence that atrophy of the mind is a mortal disease.

— Mortimer J. Adler1

Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902–2001), one of my intellectual heroes, was a philosopher, educator, writer, and editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica series Great Books of the Western World. It’s no wonder, then, that he was broadly educated and one of the best read persons of the twentieth century. Even up to the time of his death at age 98, it appears that he retained his intellectual prowess—no doubt through the sort of mental exercise he encouraged others to practice.2

Medical science substantiates Adler’s warning regarding the necessity of cognitive exercise in preventing mental atrophy. For example, a recent Mayo Clinic study found that “Lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment and be used as a successful preventive intervention to reduce the impending dementia epidemic.”3

In a report on the Mayo Clinic study, Pacific Standard writer Tom Jacobs asks, “For most of us, avoiding cognitive impairment—or at least holding it off as long as possible—eventually becomes a high-priority concern. So what can we do to keep sharp as we grow older?” He observes, “The best medicine is living a life of the mind.”4

But how do we sufficiently challenge ourselves in order to get the great brain-mind benefits offered in the pursuit of the life of the mind? Online brain training sites like Lumosity.com seek to help people achieve this preventive maintenance through challenging games and puzzles. Let me offer three additional suggestions.

  1. Reading the classic literature of Western civilization.5
  2. Learning a new language or brushing up on languages previously studied.
  3. Learning to play a musical instrument.

A sharp intellect is its own reward. But now we can add a longer and more enriched life to the list of great benefits that stem from rigorously pursuing the life of the mind.

Endnotes

  1. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 345. This book revolutionized my entire approach to reading.
  2. I had a joyous email exchange with Adler via one of his associates near the end of his life.
  3. Vemuri et al., “Association of Lifetime Intellectual Enrichment with Cognitive Decline in the Older Population,” JAMA Neurology 71 (August 1, 2014): 1017–24.
  4. Tom Jacobs, “A Lifetime of Intellectual Stimulation Staves Off Dementia,” Pacific Standard, posted June 23, 2014, http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/lifetime-intellectual-stimulation-staves-dementia-84088/.
  5. A good place to start is with the works catalogued in Great Books of the Western World. Adler and Van Doren also include a recommended reading list in appendix A of How to Read a Book.

Quote of the Week: David Naugle

There are three marks of a great person:

  • One who is a great thinker;
  • One who is a great lover;
  • One who is a great doer.

— David K. Naugle, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 202.

Interview with Dr. Travis Campbell

TravisCampbell2014Through RTB’s Visiting Scholar Program, we often have the pleasure of hosting and working with experts in various fields of study. This summer theologian Dr. Travis Campbell spent two months at RTB headquarters penning articles and recording podcasts. Dr. Campbell received his PhD in philosophical theology from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) in 2004, and currently serves as a history teacher at Deerfield-Windsor School in Albany, GA.

RTB editor Maureen Moser sat down with Dr. Campbell to discover what books, people, and experiences have shaped his approach to Christian apologetics.

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Outside of the Bible, what are the two most important books that shaped your Christian theological and apologetics perspective?

It’s hard narrow them down, but looking back right now, I’d say the two books that had the most impact on me were Hugh Ross’ The Fingerprint of God and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s God: His Existence and Nature.

When I first read that latter book I was wrestling with the existence of God and I found that Gerrigou-Lagrange laid out the case for God’s existence so clearly. He also convinced me that Molinism is untenable.

Who is your favorite Christian thinker from the past and why?

Well, I have three. Jonathan Edwards may be my all-time favorite theologian because he had a huge passion for God, but he never wanted to bypass the mind to get to the heart. John Calvin is another favorite because of the impact Institutes of the Christian Religion had on the Reformation. I also like Thomas Aquinas for similar reasons. I think Aquinas is the most intelligent Christian that ever lived.

Which Christian apologist today do you hold in high regard?

I think the greatest living defender of the faith is William Lane Craig.

Now, isn’t Craig a Molinist?

Yes, he is. I’ve actually published two essays on Craig’s work: one defending what he’s done and the other critiquing his position.

But despite your disagreements on that topic he ranks at the top of your list.

Yes, he has literally gone around the world and confronted the top atheistic philosophers. He’s done a heck of a job defending God’s existence in light of the criticisms from skeptics. And he’s also gone up against the top New Testament scholars in the world who deny the Resurrection.

So, he’s defended the two pillars of the faith—God’s existence and the Resurrection—better than, or at least as well as, anybody. Plus, he brings so much erudition to the discussion. He’s made major contributions to five or six areas of study. Craig is a force to be reckoned with. I don’t know why he’s not more appreciated in the evangelical community.

I’d also put Hugh Ross in my top five. I’m working with Reasons to Believe because I believe that.

What argument or fact or piece of evidence do you view as being the most probative in support of the truth of Christian theism?

The strongest argument for God’s existence, in my opinion, is the Thomistic cosmological argument.1

How does that argument differ from the Kalām cosmological argument?

The Thomistic cosmological argument assumes that the universe is eternal and still shows that God exists. That’s why I like it. Even if the universe were eternal, God still has to be there.

Thomas Aquinas, for whom the argument is named, was familiar with versions of the Kalām cosmological argument in his day. He knew that some people—especially some Muslims—were trying to argue that the universe had a beginning. He didn’t think you could do that; he thought those arguments were bad arguments. He said that as a matter of faith he believed the universe had a beginning, but he couldn’t prove it through reason. So, he assumed, as he argued for God’s existence, that the universe is eternal.

In regards to Christian theism specifically, I’d say the historical evidence for the Resurrection is the strongest proof. So, if you put the argument for God’s existence and the historical evidence for the Resurrection together, you have a case for Christianity.

As an apologist, what is the greatest sin that you wrestle with?

Self-reliance—I sometimes forget that it’s really the grace of God that wins sinners to the kingdom and not my arguments. This is one of the reasons I appreciate my Reformed convictions. I’m always being pulled back to that truth.

What important apologetics lesson has working with RTB taught you?

One of the things that was driven home to me is how important the peer-review process is.

Yes, peer-review is very important for scientists. Is there a similar process for theologians and philosophers?

The kind of peer-review you get in theology or philosophy is different from the kind you get in science. If I’m giving an argument for the Resurrection, I’m defending a core belief. If it’s false, then my faith is false. So, any argument I give for the core belief has to be grounded in a consensus argument. It’s very encouraging that the majority of scholars hold to the basic facts from which we make the case that Jesus arose from the dead.

So, imagine that in establishing one of those facts, a particular translation of the Greek had to be true—but the translation was controversial. This would mean that my case for that fact is really shaky. I don’t think that would pass peer-review. When considering core beliefs I believe it’s very important that the facts they stand on pass peer-review.

But now let’s say I want to speculate on something regarding eschatology. This field is so debated anyway and nobody—inside or outside the faith—has a clue as to what’s going to happen in the future. Thus, the fact that my eschatology might be very speculative is just not that big of a deal—as long as I’m trying to give a biblical rationale for it and as long as it’s reasonable and within the context of my Christian confession. If you come to me and say, “Wow, that’s really controversial,” I’ll respond, “Of course it is!” Everyone knows eschatology is a controversial topic. I shouldn’t be criticized for saying something debatable in this area, but I should be criticized for doing so when I’m defending a core belief.

What is your opinion on the current state of Christian apologetics?

I think it’s under attack, mainly from secularists, but I also think that the church is apathetic toward the questions apologetics addresses. The church would rather entertain students than equip them for college. Yet it doesn’t take a lot of training to answer basic apologetics questions. In my Sunday school class we’re going through Genesis using an apologetically oriented presentation. I did something similar in our study of Luke where I defended the historicity of the stories told there.

An apologetics thrust increases people’s faith in the text. I’d like to see more Bible teachers and youth group leaders going in this direction.

Endnotes

1. Another name for the Thomistic cosmological argument is Aquinas’s Argument from Contingency. Here’s one way of summarizing it:
a. Contingent beings are caused.
b. Not every being can be contingent.
c. There must exist a being which is necessary to cause contingent beings.
d. This necessary being is God.

 

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Quote of the Week: Thomas C. Oden

All sin has the character of setting chains of consequences in motion that cannot be simply backtracked or reversed….We have all caused harm that can never be made up for by human hands or works. That is why we stand in such dire need of justification by grace.

— Thomas C. Oden, The Justification Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 6.

Do You Like Being Alone with Your Thoughts?

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. — Blaise Pascal1

iStock_000002775921SmallAre you comfortable being alone with your thoughts? Before you answer, recognize what it means. It means extended periods without access to all the “i-Stuff” (iPhones, iPads, iPods, iTunes, etc.). If you are comfortable being alone with your thoughts and untethered from all the electronic gizmos then you are likely in the minority—especially if you are under thirty years old.

Heidi Ledford, writing for Nature, describes how many young people feel about experiencing solitude:

Given the choice, many people would rather give themselves mild electronic shocks than sit idly in a room for 15 minutes, according to a study published in Science.2

Researchers performed an experiment where they asked college students to relinquish their cell phones and other electronic devices and sit alone in a sparingly furnished room for 15 minutes. The results seem to provide support for seventeenth-century mathematician and Christian apologist Blaise Pascal’s general contention about human beings.

Of the 409 students involved in the study, nearly half said they didn’t enjoy the time they spent alone with their thoughts. Moreover, when researchers repeated the experiment by allowing the students to be alone in their own homes, nearly one third of the students admitted that they didn’t stay idle and instead broke the rules out of boredom.

Another experiment allowed the students to have access to a machine that would give them a shock equivalent to a jolt of static electricity. Ledford reports:

When they were placed in a room to sit alone with their thoughts, 67% of the male participants and 25% of female subjects were so eager to find something to do that they shocked themselves voluntarily.3

For many people, and maybe especially for the young, contemplation equals boredom. And access to electronic toys seems to make matters even worse. It has been reported that some people handle their cell phone 100 to 150 times a day.

Receiving Life’s Most Important Call

As a reflective person by nature, I find spending time alone to process my thoughts a necessity. As a philosopher, reading, reflecting, and contemplating are essential daily activities of my life.

As a Christian, I certainly have a need to be part of the collective Christian community in partaking of Word and sacrament (Scripture and the Lord’s Supper) every Lord’s day (Sunday). Yet I also have a great need to spend time alone with the Triune God. This is my special time to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful in God’s presence as I contemplate the beauty and majesty of the Lord.

One of the blessings of living in the Western world is, of course, having access to modern technology. But with the blessing comes the challenge of being disciplined enough to not allow these electronic devices to divert us from the deeply needed virtue of contemplation.

In context, Pascal’s concern is that there are far too many powerful diversions in life that can keep human beings from asking life’s big existential questions. Yet Christians can also become diverted from the greatest good—spending time in contemplative prayer and worship of our Triune God.

Endnotes

  1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, rev. ed., trans A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1995), 136/139, p. 37.
  2. Heidi Ledford, “We Dislike Being Along with our Thoughts,” Nature, posted July 3, 2014, http://www.nature.com/news/we-dislike-being-alone-with-our-thoughts-1.15508#/b1.
  3. Ibid.

Quote of the Week: C. S. Lewis

A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.

—C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, (London, UK: Collins, 1975), 7.

How Can Christians Ease Suffering? Part 3: Hope and Meaning

Providence in certain ways is central to the conduct of the Christian life. It means that we are able to live in the assurance that God is present and active in our lives. We are in his care and can therefore face the future confidently, knowing that things are not happening merely by chance. We can pray, knowing that God hears and acts upon our prayers. We can face danger, knowing that he is not unaware and uninvolved.

— Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, 128–29

Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote extensively about the human need for meaning in life.1 In describing his own experiences in Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp, he said that when an inmate living on the precipice of starvation gave up hope he would commonly fall over dead. Frankl’s thesis is that despair is suffering without meaning. Allow me to make that into an existential equation:

Existential Equation: D = S – M

Despair equals Suffering without Meaning.

Along the same lines, distinguished evangelical theologian and counselor Vernon Grounds listed meaning, courage, and love as essential for preventing mental illness and promoting mental health.2 Grounds insisted that one’s worldview beliefs therefore have direct implications on mental health.

So both of these mental health specialists, one Jewish and one Christian, asserted that a deep confidence in life’s meaning is critical to facing anxieties and struggles. Without meaning suffering can result in deep despair and that despair can lead to the breakdown of one’s mental health. Thus the big questions of life (in this case whether life has meaning) can directly and dramatically impact the quality of life.

Three Assurances for Christians concerning Suffering

The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Christian world-and-life view provide powerful assurances concerning suffering. In helping our brothers and sisters deal with suffering we can remind them of promises and assure them of three things.

1. Believers never suffer alone.

God is with us during our suffering and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ personally suffered with us and for us. The God-man, our mediator, can therefore empathize with our sorrows (Hebrews 4:14–16).

2. Believers can have confidence in God’s goodness and sovereignty.

God loves his children with a sacrificial love (agape) and in his providence he guarantees that all things in their lives are being worked out for their good (Romans 8:28, 35, 37).

3. Suffering is a human problem that God will overcome in the new creation.

When Jesus Christ returns and the consummation of all things comes forth God will forever do away with evil, pain, and suffering. And God’s people will enjoy his intimate presence forever (Revelation 21:1–4).

These precious promises can serve to help our fellow believers who are facing great trials in this life and can also encourage nonbelievers to put their life in the hands of their loving Creator. We should therefore be bold in encouraging the afflicted with these biblical assurances.

For more on the historic Christian response to the problem of suffering, see chapters 13 and 14 of my book 7 Truths That Changed the World.

Endnotes

  1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning (New York: Pocket Books, 1984).
  2. Vernon C. Grounds, Emotional Problems and the Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976).
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Quote of the Week: John Jefferson Davis

In the New Testament, the Second Coming is not a topic for speculation, but an incentive for obedient and holy living.

—John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 141.