By Gary DeMar
“Compassion and humanity are virtues peculiar to the righteous and to the worshipers of God. Philosophy teaches us nothing of them.” — Lactantius (c. 240–c. 320), Divinae institutiones
Literature is often a signpost for where we are in our worldview thinking. It’s not that everybody who reads the latest popular novel holds to what an author is expressing, but popular literature can tell us something about cultural shifts. Do readers engage critically with the material? Do they see certain undercurrents of thought? Is there a moral shift going on that is not immediately picked up on or never noticed? Consider the crime novel as an example that worldviews and morality go hand-in-hand, one must account for the other:
The genre of crime fiction (or mystery) is by its nature aligned with a theistic worldview. In order to have an interesting crime novel, one must have a crime: that is, an act that both the characters and the readers acknowledge as being genuinely transgressive. If there is no moral order to the universe, there can no such thing as crime; in an atheistic world, the idea of moral transgression is not even a coherent concept. If atheism were true, then murder, rape, or betrayal would be the equivalent of failure to get the appropriate building permit for a new business: there could be utilitarian reasons to prohibit certain acts, but there would be no moral element to the prohibition.Archimedes (287?–212 B.C.) once boasted that given the proper lever and a place to stand, he could “move the earth.” His problem was that he and his fulcrum needed something to stand in order for the lever to do its work.
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The pagan world never could resolve the philosophical problem of the ultimate foundation for truth. This is why Pilate could seriously ask Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). No one knew. Today’s no different. Materialists and skeptics tell us that (1) they know truthful things and (2) they can’t verify that anything they claim is true is actually true. Their initial claim of truth is based on some other claim of truth which is based on another claim. What they can’t come up with is an ultimate claim. What they have is a series of leaky buckets. I want to know that the last bucket is that holds all the dripping water.
“An often told story has a modern philosopher lecturing on the solar system. An [elderly] lady in the audience [declares]: Earth rests upon a large turtle. ‘What does this turtle stand on?’ the speaker [asks, thinking he’s got her cornered]. ‘A far larger turtle.’ As the scholar persists, his challenger retorts: ‘You are very clever but it is no use, young man. It’s turtles all the way down.’”There must be an ultimate reference point for everything: matter, humanness, morality, truth, meaning, etc.
The pagan world tried in vain to come up with an ultimate pou sto but couldn’t. Their pagan idols, while many (Acts 17:16–23), were mute (1 Cor. 12:2; Ps. 115:5; Isa. 46:7; Jer. 10:5; Hab. 2:18–20), so their philosophers spoke for them, but were no better at finding what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth.” All they could offer was probability and philosophical guessing. We don’t proclaim a god of probability. The only true starting point is with the God of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).
Modern secular philosophers are worse than Pilate. At least he admitted he did not know what was true. Today’s materialists claim to know what’s true even though they admit that they are children of the atom, or I should say, of atoms. A conglomeration of cosmic dust has the audacity to speak wisdom and certitude. Consider the Roman poem De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”), a first-century BC poem by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius.
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While he still believed in the “gods,” he went about redefining how the world worked without the need for any god or gods. Stephen Greenblatt writes the following in his 2011 book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern: “On the Nature of Things struck me as an astonishingly convincing account of the way things are” (5).
Greenblatt doesn’t adopt everything Lucretius believed, for example, that the sun circled the Earth, that the Moon and the Sun were about the same size, and that the heat of the sun was the temperature of the Earth.
Even so, Greenblatt adopted the epistemological fundamentals of Lucretius’s worldview:
“The stuff of the universe . . . is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes [particles] in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. There is no escape from this process. When you look up at the night sky and, feeling unaccountably moved, marvel at the numberless stars, you are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere detached from our transient world. You are seeing the same material world of which you are a part and from whose elements you are made. There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design. All things, including the species to which you belong, evolved over vast stretches of time” (6–7).There is no moral “should” or “ought” in Lucretius’s worldview. This is equally true for Greenblatt, although he would most likely argue otherwise.
While working on this article, the film Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) was playing on the television in the background. How can atoms, no matter how complex, be put on trial for killing other atoms?
After the defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich, war crime tribunals were set up in Nuremberg, Germany. The purpose, of course, was to judge those who had participated in the grossest of atrocities, the planned extermination of the Jewish race. John Warwick Montgomery explains the problem the tribunal faced:
When the Charter of the Tribunal, which had been drawn up by the victors, was used by the prosecution, the defendants very logically complained that they were being tried by ex post facto laws; and some authorities in the field of international law have severely criticized the allied judges on the same ground. The most telling defense offered by the accused was that they had simply followed orders or made decisions within the framework of their own legal system, in complete consistency with it, and that they therefore could not rightly be condemned because they deviated from the alien value system of their conquerors. Faced with this argument, Robert H. Jackson, Chief Counsel for the United States at the Trials, was compelled to appeal to permanent values, to moral standards transcending the life-styles of particular societies — in a word, to a “law beyond the law” of individual nations, whether victor or vanquished.How did the Tribunal account for this “law beyond the law”? What justification was given for it being imposed ex post facto? The Tribunal could not appeal to the Bible. Revealed religion had been discounted decades before. Higher Criticism, which had its start in Germany, had effectively destroyed the Bible for so many as a reliable standard for history and law.
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If the individual man be only a passing shadow, without any everlasting significance, then reflection quickly makes us decide: Since it is of no importance whether he exist or not, why should I deprive myself of anything in order to give it to him? For the rule of life soon becomes this, that everyone makes himself as comfortable in this life as possible; and this implies that he need not trouble himself about the poor and needy, whose existence or non-existence is at bottom a matter of no importance.