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Truth Project #2 - Philosophy and Ethics: “Says Who?”

Apr.1/12 Col.2:1-10


Well, in honour of this auspicious occasion, I thought I’d forego the sermon today in favour of a responsive reading of Psalm 119 - ladies can start, men alternate, and we’ll just work our way through all 176 verses. HAH! Just kidding - April Fool’s!
    That would be one of the milder forms of April Fool’s jokes – much more pleasant than salt in the sugar bowl, or vinegar in the kettle, for example. It can be very unpleasant to be ‘fooled’.
    Paul doesn’t want the early church to be fooled either, to fall prey to convincing tricks of alternative teachings. He writes in Colossians 2:4,8: “I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments....See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Don’t be deceived, watch out for deceptive philosophy - don’t be fooled.
    This week in part 2 of The Truth Project, we’re looking at Philosophy and Ethics. Philosophy literally means “love of wisdom”, it focuses on how we think. If we get mistaken or fooled in our thinking, that can lead to disastrous consequences. The captain of that capsized cruise ship was foolish to suppose it would be safe to leave the charted course and venture in closer to a treacherous shoreline. So if we’re serious about Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, soul, and MIND, we want to get our ‘philosophy’ right. Here are some examples of philosophical questions [SLIDE 15]: “What is existence? What is reality? What does it mean to exist? How do I know I exist? If I do exist, why do I exist? If I think I exist, where did that thought come from?” [SLIDE 16] “What is thinking? What is reason? What is logic? What is knowing? If I know something, how can I know that it is real?” (Remember last week I mentioned the importance of epistemology, the theory or study of how we can know things.) And a big philosophical question is the last on the slide, “What is the meaning and purpose of life?” What’s worth living for; what principles or goals can we organize our life around so we’re fulfilled, so we don’t get the end of our life and feel we’ve missed out?
    Since the time of the enlightenment, philosophers have been trying to answer these big questions without reliance on God, at least, without starting from what we can read in the Bible. Descartes started from the axiom, “I think, therefore I am,” and tried to reason his way out from there to ultimate meaning - but his method is not entirely convincing.
    In the 19th and 20th centuries, science was king: success in study of the natural world led some to theorize that nature was all that is; to treat the Bible and religion in general as superstitious, like fairy tales or magic. They trusted only what could be measured and observed and replicated in a laboratory or by strict scientific method. If it didn’t fit in their categories, they refused to consider it within their narrow worldview.
    A late 20th century ‘prophet’ championing this view was Carl Sagan, erstwhile “Humanist of the Year”, featured in the popular TV series Cosmos. He maintained: [SLIDE 5] “The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be...Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us.” [SLIDE 8] “Some part of our being knows this is where we cam from.We long to return and we can because the cosmos is also within us...We’re made of star-stuff.”
    But there are dangerous assumptions in these statements. Consider particularly the assertion, [SLIDE 9] “The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Has kind of a Biblical ring to its rhetoric, doesn’t it? In fact it’s a blatant challenge to Biblical thought. Here Sagan by his assumption DEFINES God out of existence! By saying, “The Cosmos is all that is,” that means God does not exist - only the Cosmos. Think of the presumption, pride, and arrogance behind such a statement: to say that something doesn’t exist presumes infinite knowledge - that just because one hasn’t observed God, He mustn’t exist anywhere, as if one has ultimate knowledge including what’s under a rock on the far side of the universe, or in alternate dimensions beyond this space-time continuum.
    Such thinking results in what Dr Del Tackett calls [SLIDE 11] “The Cosmic Cube” – as if the whole cosmos or universe could fit in a box [SLIDE 12] and that’s all we can possibly know about. By definition, if ‘the cosmos is all that is’, there’s NOTHING outside that box. So, in order to solve the mystery of life, to answer the big questions about life’s ultimate meaning and purpose, we are limited to finding the answers by studying just what is observable and measurable and testable, the natural data inside the box.
    Now, such thinking suits many people just fine, because if you define God out of the picture, you no longer have to take seriously your ultimate ethical obligations, morality becomes your choice of flavour, there’s no threat of judgment or eternal damnation, you’re basically free to do-as-you-choose. Here’s a respected high-profile public figure advocating it; this is what our public schools and colleges teach, overtly or otherwise. But it’s the sort of thing the apostle Paul warned against being ‘taken captive’ by: v8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Human tradition - this world’s basic principles - RATHER THAN on Christ: the “rather than” is the defining God out-of-the-equation.


For an illustration of how deficient or short-sighted “The Cosmic Cube” approach is, imagine you’re an ant crawling across someone’s bedroom floor. On the floor someone has thrown in disgust a hockey jersey - say a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey (as Sparling’s sign said this week, “It must be spring - the Leafs are out!”). But from ant-level, of course, it’s just a mix of blue and white colours. Now suppose our ant is of an inquiring sort, and decides to try to figure out what kind of shape this white irregular thing is. So he starts following the edge between the blue and white all around the maple leaf, in and out, zigging and zagging. By the time he gets all the way around, he probably wouldn’t have been able to figure out what it is. But suppose our ant has an idea (he’s an exceptionally intelligent ant). He climbs up the edge of a nearby dresser. From a foot or so away, he might be able to see the overall outline of that white shape, and realize it’s something like those objects he’s seen dropping from trees in the autumn. Whatever is ‘leaf’ in ant parlance. So, PERSPECTIVE provides UNDERSTANDING: you need a certain distance from the thing in order to see how it corresponds to other things.
    Ah, but then there’s those funny shapes in the middle of the hockey jersey. Sticks and circles and squiggles - what’s that? The markings would mean as much to an ant as a screenful of Arabic or Chinese characters to you and me. What’s the MEANING behind these? How would one find out? Take that first letter - “T” (make sound): who told you that was a “T” or made the sound “tuh”? Or the next, “O” (long ‘o’ or short ‘aw’)? How do you know what “Toronto” is? Somebody took the time to teach you how to read; perhaps they showed you a map, or took you there and pointed out the city as you drove by on the 401: “That’s Toronto”.
    In other words, the ant needs something beyond his immediate experience in order to appreciate the meaning of what he sees. There is REVELATION involved.
    Defining ‘the cosmic cube’ without God shuts oneself off from the benefit of God’s general and special revelation. God has delighted to speak to us from ‘beyond the box’. He has put within us conscience and spirit that react to situations of injustice and unfairness, that give us a feeling of shame and regret when we’ve hurt others, that stop us in our tracks to admire a beautiful sunset or get transported into bliss by a symphony. God has put within us a moral and spiritual faculty that wonders such questions as, “Is there ultimate purpose and meaning in life?” That wonders where people go when they die. That longs for justice to be done in another world if there have been horrors like the Holocaust in this. Augustine and Pascal talked about a God-shaped vacuum in our heart only God can fill. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says God has ‘set eternity in the hearts of men’.
    God has especially revealed Himself from ‘beyond’ to us through prophets and apostles, the whole canon of Scripture. Deut 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” 2Peter 1:21, “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
    But it has been God’s pleasure to reveal Himself most particularly and vividly in the person of Jesus. What’s outside the box is a mystery to us, but God has chosen to unpack much of that mystery for us, so that in Jesus we find the most irrefutable pointers to life’s meaning and purpose. He’s the ‘gold standard’ of goodness, grace, and truth. Colossians 1:27, “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” This mystery had been “kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed”: it’s not a never-gonna-find-out mystery, blut like a good detective show, the mystery is ultimately solved, the true facts of the situation are revealed.
    The Bible is a record of how God pulled back the curtain in Christ so we could know the mystery. In today’s passage, vv2f, we read that Paul’s purpose is that these early Christians “may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” God doesn’t intend to keep us ‘in the dark’ - He wants us to have ‘the full riches of complete understanding’, to know Christ in whom are ‘treasures of wisdom and knowledge’. Sounds like knowing Christ just ought to be the key to philosophy, to loving wisdom!


There are at least a couple of problems with the naturalistic view, the ‘cosmic cube’, that excludes God from the picture: A) it is false, by defining reality as limited to what we can see or objectively measure; B) it is unfeasible, because it makes impossible any ultimate ground for ethics or meaning in life. In the Truth Project video, there’s an excerpt from a debate by Dr William Provine, an atheist, in which he baldly states that in the evolutionary or naturalistic view, [SLIDE 30] there are “no gods or purposive forces; no ultimate foundation for ethics; no free will; no life after death; no ultimate meaning in life.” Those are the logical outworkings of restricting reality to the “Cosmos”: no ethics, no ultimate meaning in life. Why go on living?
    Brilliant men in history who have followed this line of thought have ended in a dismal state. Dr Tackett notes the example of famous scientist and artist Leonardo da Vinci, a genius, extremely gifted in many areas...[SLIDE 22] “He believed he could find them (ie universals, the keys to questions of life’s ultimate meaning and purpose) in mathematics, then science, then art.Ended up empty.Died a despondent, depressed man without hope...failed to find the universals of life.” Taken captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy.
    And what happens to society when naturalism prevails and there’s no absolutes, no ultimate foundation for ethics? Ethics asks questions [SLIDE 27] of “What is right? What is wrong? Who makes the rules?” My ethics professor in theological college used to sum up ethics using Proverbs 1:3, “doing what is right and just and fair.” But if there’s no ultimate yardstick, people quit asking the question of ethics, ‘what ought to be,’ i.e.how the same group of people should behave as measured against some higher standard of right and wrong. Instead we shift from ethics to simply morality, “what IS”, the customs or ‘mores’ that govern the behaviour of a given group of people. By rejecting the higher standard of absolutes and universals, we’re left with what RC Sproul refers to as “statistical ethics”, which asserts that what’s normal is ‘right’, and that behaviour can only be judged against the background of survey data or popular consent. In other words, if 51% of the population thinks it’s OK, it must be right!


Let’s set aside for a moment the question of OUR ultimate purpose in life. Let’s ask a different question: what is GOD’S ultimate purpose for us in life? What’s the Lord’s goal or aim for us? Won’t that likely give us a clue to how to find true meaning? Consider these verses: Romans 8:29, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (The Father loved the Son so much He wanted a whole bunch more like Him!) Ephesians 1:4, “For [God] chose us in [Jesus] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Philippians 3:21 forecasts that Jesus, “by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” And 1John 3:2-3, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. [NOW, NOTE HOW THAT HOPE IMPACTS OUR ETHICS AND BEHAVIOUR TODAY] Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.” Our Saviour and Lord Jesus is our ultimate, absolute, point of reference! God’s purpose is for us to be transformed to be like His dear Son.
    Paul sums it up this way in 2Cor 3:18: “we...are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Transformation is our vocation, our calling, stepping into the glorious ‘new self’ with which God desires to outfit us (Eph 4:24).
    Yet, it would seem many church people are slow to get the message. Too many have been deceived by hollow philosophy, by this world’s basic principles. [SLIDE 36] We are in a Cosmic Battle - God’s truth vs the world’s belief-systems and associated lies. Social researcher George Barna reports [SLIDE 32] that amongst the general American population, only 4% have a Biblical worldview; but what about in the churches? Amongst the ‘born-again’ American population, only 9% had a Biblical worldview. Not surprisingly, Barna also found that we in the church - 91% of whom share an un-Biblical worldview with others - don’t ACT that different from the world (eg marriage break-up, pornography use, etc). Is it all that surprising we ACT the same if we THINK the same? Who’s being fooled?
    If you want to be a genuine follower of Jesus, you need to let Him be Lord of EVERY area of your life, starting with your thinking, your worldview. Romans 12:2 says, [SLIDE 39] “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds...”
    That means start praying and applying Scriptural truth with the Lord’s help to every area of our life. Chuck Colson notes, [SLIDE 33] “The church’s singular failure in recent decades has been the failure to see Christianity as a life system, or worldview, that governs every area of existence.”
    ChristianWeek tells the story of Aaron Gillespie, who for 13 years was the drummer in a popular ministry-oriented metal-core band called “Underoath”.  The band did well, selling over a million copies. But Gillespie left in 2010 to become a Christian singer-songwriter and worship leader. He admits there was a period in his life when he stopped trusting God. All he cared about was the music industry, and it was having a negative impact not only on his relationship with God, but also his relationship with his wife Janie. He says he had to “hit rock bottom before I even made [God] a priority.” God got his attention when he took a mission trip to Africa. Seeing people who have nothing worshipping wholeheartedly reminded Gillsepie of what’s really important.
    He says, “God called me away from Underoath and called me to a place of just being really open and honest about my faith...I was in a bad spot for a long time. Just the last few years, God really just grabbed my heart and said, ‘You need to either do it or don’t.There’s no more time for halfing it.’”
    What about you – are you ‘halfing it’? Does Jesus have ALL of you, including your thought life, your worldview? Is He key to your sense of ultimate meaning and purpose – is He central in what you’re living for?
    Gillespie concludes that worship is a way of life. He says, “It’s your everything - it’s not just a song or a time, it’s your life...Whether you’re a barista, a doctor, a lawyer, whatever you’re doing, [if you’re a Christian] you’re worshipping the Lord with your life.” Let’s pray.