Six versions of reality

What is real? What things truly exist, and what things are part of our lives only due to our own imagination?

Most of the college classes I teach are world history surveys, but occasionally I get to teach a comparative religions class or an introduction to philosophy. In the latter, the students and I explore the question of what is real. We consider the three views of reality that are commonly held in western philosophy, but I also raise three other views of reality that accompany the usual three views.

One view of reality is called materialism. In this context, materialism is not dedication to money and the things money can buy; materialism is the belief that nothing is real unless it is scientifically detectable. Materialists do not believe in God. They do not believe in angels, demons, or djinn. They do not believe in a human soul or spirit. Anything that might be considered a human soul or mind is regarded as a function of material events. Materialists do not deny the existence of intangible qualities such as love or justice, but they point out that love and justice cannot be described apart from the interaction of material beings. For love to exist, there must be a lover and a beloved. Both those individuals can be studied scientifically to find material explanations for the experience that is called love.

Another view of reality is called idealism. In this context, idealism is not dedication to a cause with the firm conviction that it is right and will prevail; idealism is the belief that only minds and ideas are real. What people experience as the material world does not consist of material objects, but of ideas that have taken a tangible form or expression. Idealists like to show that the material world and its rules are logically impossible. For example, motion is impossible, because to reach point A I must first reach point B which is halfway there; to reach point B I must first reach point C which is halfway there; in the end, I must travel through an infinite number of points before I can arrive anywhere. Idealists express the concept of “mind over matter.” They say that the problems we perceive are part of our thinking, not part of the real world. When we change our thinking, we can overcome sickness, poverty, sorrow, and any other problem that we think exists.

A third view of reality is called dualism. Dualists believe that the material world is real, but they also believe that the world of ideas is real. Dualists speak of God and creation. They speak of the human soul or mind and of the human body. They describe reality as the intersection of the material and the spiritual. Many western thinkers are dualists. Opponents of dualism sometimes describe the dualist view of a human being as “a ghost in a machine.” They refuse to accept a universe with two sets of rules; they are convinced that either matter is truly real or spirit is truly real. The opposite, they say, is only imaginary; it does not really exist.

A fourth view of reality denies the existence of both matter and spirit. While this approach is rare in western philosophy, it is often encountered in Hindu and Buddhist thought. The senses seem to perceive a material world, but the Hindu or Buddhist says that world is only an illusion. The Hindu or Buddhist goes on to say that the sense of mind, of thinking, or of the sense of a self is also an illusion. The practice of both religions involves the effort to escape both illusions—to stop thinking of the human body and the material world as real, and also to stop thinking of the human mind and the immaterial self as real.

Along with these four possibilities—and anyone who acknowledges the first three should really make room for the fourth as well—I have suggested two more possibilities to my students. Both are variations on dualism, but in each possibility one reality is more real than the other. One is the source of the other, and the second cannot exist alone—it is contingent on the first.

In the first possibility, the material world is fundamentally real, but the world of mind and spirit is also real. Mind and spirit cannot exist, though, without matter. Whatever we define as mind or spirit or soul is real, but its cause still comes from the material world. No mind could exist without a body to house that mind. God can exist, but he requires the material universe in which to exist; without the universe, according to this possibility, there could be no God.

In the second possibility, the spiritual world is fundamentally real, but the world which is scientifically observed is also real. Matter cannot exist without spirit. All that we perceive in the material world is the result of a spiritual origin. God is spirit, but he called the material world into being and still interacts with it. He is responsible for the laws of nature, but he also has the power to break those laws whenever it pleases him to do so.

All six of these views of reality are internally consistent and are capable of interpreting the universe without contradiction, based on the presuppositions of each system. Thinkers can compare the systems and debate them, but each requires postulates that proponents of the others might not be willing to grant. As far as I can tell, though, the final system (in which the spiritual world is fundamentally real and the material world is real but contingent) best matches the universe as described in the Bible and in traditional Christianity. J.

Stupid sheep and stupid shepherds

In the new creation, teachers and pastors will not be needed. Jeremiah says, “they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:34). Viewing the same new creation, John reported that he saw no temple, “because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22). In this present world, the Church needs teachers and preachers and places to meet, because the darkness of the world and the darkness of every human heart requires the Light of God’s Word to be aimed and directed into the lives of his people.

The Christian Church is the Bride of Christ, but it consists of sinners. Leaders and followers are equally likely to sin, falling short of the glory of God. Pastors can sometimes be arrogant, overbearing, and stubbornly wrong. Members of a congregation can be self-centered, rebellious, and disrespectful toward their leaders. Trouble is brewing whenever a person says, “This is my church,” because the Church belongs to Jesus Christ and not to any member or leader in the church.

I know a preacher who was given advice about preaching from two members of his congregation in the same week. Both advisors were active members, attending services every Sunday, serving as officers of the congregation, and generously supporting the church with their offerings. The first said, “Pastor, every week you tell us what we are doing wrong in our lives. Don’t you think for one sermon you could tell us what we are doing right and help us feel better about ourselves?” The second said, “Pastor, every week you talk about forgiveness. Don’t you think once in a while you could use the sermon to tell us how to live our lives?” Jesus preached the message, “Repent and believe the Gospel,” but evidently after two thousand years the sheep are hungry for greener pastures.

On another occasion, this preacher was told by a Sunday School teacher that the congregation’s policy of solving disputes by the Bible was unfair. “You’ve been to school and studied the Bible, so you have an unfair advantage,” she told him. When he asked what else should be considered when solving a dispute, she replied, “Well, let’s start with my feelings.”

Preachers can be wrong, and tragic things happen when a flock of believers follows a wandering shepherd down the wrong paths. Often, though, the sheep grumble and complain and resist the guidance of their shepherd when he is faithfully leading them on paths chosen for them by the Good Shepherd. When the children of Israel grumbled against Moses, the Lord responded with miraculous punishments. No doubt many preachers today would delight to see the earth swallow certain complaining sheep along with their houses and their families. When pastors pray those Psalms that call for vengeance upon enemies—and when they are picturing the members of their flock while they pray those Psalms—the Church is in need of healing.

Jesus is the Healer needed by the Church. He strengthens preachers and guides them in calling for repentance, promising forgiveness, and trusting the Bible to reveal all truth that is needed in the congregation. Through the work of faithful preachers, he reaches into the lives of his people, helping them to love one another and to forgive one another rather than dividing the Church through stubborn disputes and arguments. Preachers and members together need to remember that the church does not belong to them. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ. He has claimed the Church for himself, washing away all its impurities and bringing it into his Kingdom.

If only we could see the Church that Jesus sees, a radiant Bride ready for her wedding day. Only then will the present sufferings of the Church fade into insignificance when compared to the glory that will be revealed. J.

Of light and darkness

Jesus Christ called himself the Light of the world. He warned that those who do not walk with him are walking in darkness.

This week a conversation between InsanityBytes and VioletWisp explored that idea of light and darkness. Violet pointed out that, “Christians imagine all sorts of things. They imagine that without the intervention and rules of their imaginary god, God, humans would plunge into a dark abyss of destructive, selfish behaviour, seeking momentary pleasure above all else.” Insanity replied that “people in general, in the absence of moral standards, are pretty much driven by pride, selfishness, and this idea that might makes right. We want what we want and we crave power.” Among the comments to Insanity’s post, she was repeatedly asked whether thousands of generations of people outside the Christian world “have all lived in an abysmal, joyless, wretched, civilisationless darkness?” Comments were made about “natural law” and its place among Christians and nonChristians.

Opponents of Christianity tend to attack the idea of Christianity as a source of morality in one of two ways. Sometimes they point out that the religions of the world all have about the same rules—pretty much every religion has the “Golden Rule,” that we should treat others as we wish to be treated. Therefore Christianity can hardly claim exclusive ownership of morality. On the other hand, some beliefs about morality vary greatly from culture to culture. Therefore, they contend, there can be no consistent morality for all people, and Christians therefore cannot impose their moral rules upon others. Of course these two arguments cannot be used together to oppose Christianity, since they cancel out one another.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul discussed natural law. First, he stated that any person can observe the world and deduce the existence of a Creator, even though most religions worship some part of creation rather than its Creator. Next, he spoke of obedience to the Law, pointing out that even people who have never encountered the written Law, delivered at Mount Sinai, still have a version of the law within them. They have consciences which sometimes accuse them and sometimes excuse them. Paul wrote that those who have the written Law will be judged by the written Law, but those who have only the inner law of conscience will be judged by that inner law.

As a result of that inner law, conscience, or “natural law,” the world has known many well-behaved and moral Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Daoists, followers of indigenous religions, atheists, and agnostics. If the truth of Christianity were judged only by the behavior of its followers, Christianity would be no truer than other religions or than no religion at all. Jews and Christians and Muslims consult sacred writings for lists of rules; among other people, morality is taught in the family or in the community, and it is reinforced by conscience.

When dealing with light and darkness, though, the key question is neither, “do you know the rules?” nor “do you follow the rules?” Paul points out that all people—whether they have the written Law or only the law of conscience—have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. He goes on to say that all people “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:23-24). The true light comes, not from the rules, but from the grace of God that is greater than all his rules.

IB correctly stated this important point in her post, saying, “Well, actually I believe that without God’s grace, without the sacrifice made for us on the cross, we really would be plunged into a dark abyss, both in this world and beyond. Both literally, metaphorically, and spiritually. It is not really the rules at all Violet, nor the law, but rather Grace.” The Light of the world is found in Christ’s rescue mission, not in his law-giving actions. Those who attempt to live without that grace and forgiveness are living without light, no matter how hard they try to obey the rules, and no matter how well they obey the rules.

Sad to say, even some Christians measure their life in the Light by how well they conform to the Law. They overlook the grace of God as they judge themselves and as they judge one another. Those outside the community of believers easily change the subject to individual rules, whether those that are consistent in all cultures or those that vary among different cultures. So long as we look only at the rules, we are still living in darkness. Only when we look to the Savior will we see the light.

If anyone is interested in viewing this topic from a different direction, I suggest you look at one of my posts from last year: God has two plans. J.


On this day, Elvis Presley would be eighty-one years old. The truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi, became one of the world’s most popular singers when he was twenty-one years old. He began his singing career in taverns and high school dances in the cities and towns of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. His television appearances made him a star over much of the world. Eclipsed in the 1960s, he made a bit of a comeback in the 1970s. His sudden death in Memphis in 1977 solidified his claim to fame for years to come.

I am too young to remember Elvis at the peak of his career. The only Elvis I remember is the 1970s Elvis, out of shape, no longer relevant, and practically a joke to my generation of music fans. For most of my life, I have been a Beatles fan, and I must respect Elvis because the Beatles respected Elvis. His music in the 1950s helped to inspire their music, and his movie career led them to want to make movies too. His performances, and the response they evoked from the crowds, preceded Beatlemania. If there had been no Elvis, there might also have been no Beatles.

Andy Kaufman made Elvis impersonations part of his standard act. Pretending to be a foreign man with little understanding of American comedy, Andy would do several bad imitations of celebrities. Then, “last but not to be the least,” Andy would offer to imitate Elvis Presley. In a matter of seconds he would transform into the very image of Elvis, not only in hair and costume and music, but also in nuanced mannerisms. Elvis Presley himself is reported to have said that Andy Kaufman’s impersonation was the best imitation of Elvis he had seen.

Elvis sang a lot of number-one songs, but he did not write many number-one songs. In that category, the Beatles far outrank Elvis. The magnetic public personality of Elvis meant far more than his song-writing ability. Some people achieve massive fame in a single year, and then never repeat their success: Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen come to mind. Only a few become icons for an entire generation: Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jordan, and Bill Clinton, for example. The affection and loyalty they inspire in millions of fans far transcends their actual accomplishments.

Many of his fans were unwilling to accept the fact that Elvis died. Even today a few people cling to the hope that Elvis faked his death to escape the limelight and is living his retirement years in relative comfort and obscurity. Rarely has one person meant so much for so many people. I hope you are able to find a favorite Elvis song or two and listen to them today. J.

New Year’s Eve 2015

The events of New Year’s Eve about a week ago helped to bring the year 2015 to an end in such a way that I was particularly eager to enter a new year, hoping for better things in 2016.

I spent about half the twelve days of Christmas visiting family out of state. On a borrowed laptop I was able to keep up with wordpress, although a few glitches happened here and there. The house was crowded with people, the meal schedule and bedtime schedule were entirely unpredictable, and yet it was good to be with family and to continue the celebration of Christmas which had begun on the 25th of December.

The morning of December 31 began well. The place was quiet as I sat down with a cup of coffee and read from the Bible, as I do every morning. That day’s readings were Psalms 149 and 150 and Revelation 21 and 22. Then I read from Kierkegaard’s writings, as I will do every day for the coming weeks and months. The start of the day was quiet, reverent, and inspiring.

Later that morning I was driving the family van down the highway at 60 miles an hour when I heard a clank and a clunk from under the hood. My first reaction was to shut off the heater and fan. Several times over the last two months, the sound of a slipping belt had briefly come from the engine area. Since no warning lights came on and the van seemed to be operating normally, I assumed that the problem was with the temperature control system, which is why I turned off the heater after those two ominous sounds. Before I made the trip out of state, a mechanic checked the belts of the van, and he had said that they all appeared to be fine.

I continued driving down the highway at 60 miles an hour, wondering if the lack of heat (and of window defrosting) would make the trip home more uncomfortable than usual. As I drove, I began to sense that the steering of the van was different. At first I assured myself that the difference was my imagination: I heard a frightening pair of sounds, part of my anxious mind assumed the worst, and I was prone to think that the van was seriously broken, even though it was still moving down the highway at 60 miles an hour. Only when I had to make a curve of ninety degrees on the highway did I realize that the steering was indeed much different. It felt as if I had no power steering, only manual control of the steering. Carefully I made my way back to the house of my host, and then considered what to do next.

My host knows more about motor vehicles than I do. When he returned from his own trip, he checked the internet for pictures of how the engine of my van should appear; then we opened the hood and examined the engine. The serpentine belt was still there, but it was lying loose in the engine. One of the pulleys meant to keep tension on the belt was completely gone. My host said that in better weather he could replace the pulley, but he would prefer that I take the van to a mechanic. He recommended one not far away, and he assured me that I should be able to drive the van that distance. A longer drive would have been bad news, as the serpentine belt causes the radiator and engine cooling system to work, along with the alternator that recharges the battery, the power steering, and a few other essential items. We made the trip to my host’s favorite neighborhood auto shop. As I drove, I nervously watched the temperature needle on the dashboard climb higher and the alternator needle slip lower. I made it safely to the auto shop. The workers were busy with many customers, but my host told them what was wrong with the van and exactly which parts they would need for the repair. They said they could get it fixed the next day. Then my host brought me back to his house.

The van did get fixed by the end of the next day, and members of the family were remarking how fortunate it was that the van broke down near my host’s house and not half-way between my house and his house. All the same, my usual anxiety was running full steam that afternoon. Driving and mechanical break-downs are triggers for my anxiety, and knowing that the van was going to be fixed, along with knowing that things could have been much worse, did not make my anxiety go away.

Afternoon turned into evening, which then became nighttime. In one room the television was loudly blaring. In another room joyful noises of young people rang loudly as they played a board game. I tried to find a quiet room as far away from the game and the television as possible, but (since the quiet part of the house was reserved for a sleeping baby and her parents), I did not have much luck. Other people meditate to relax; I get the same benefit from reading. Unfortunately, the pleasure reading I had brought for myself involved two books with rather unpleasant main characters: Thomas Covenant in Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, and Philip Casey in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Spending time with these two characters, both of whom are self-centered and whiny and unable to get along with other people, was even worse than spending time with my own family.

Midnight came, greetings and kisses were exchanged, and my host then announced, “Everyone has to come outside.” Some of us put on shoes; others remained barefoot. Some put on coats; others were fine in shirtsleeves. As we stood on the cement slab in front of the house, we saw and heard some distant fireworks. I have never liked fireworks—the noise distresses me far more than the colors entertain me. I was willing to watch distant fireworks for a minute or two, though… until my host began shooting off his own fireworks from his front yard. After the first Roman candle exploded, I quickly darted back inside the house.

By one o’clock I was in bed, trying to fall asleep. Six hours later, I was up again, ready to start a new year. I read Psalms 1 and 2 and Genesis 1-3 while sipping my coffee surrounded by quiet. Then I read some more Kierkegaard. I cannot imagine any better way of starting a new year.

May your new year be happy and bright, with as much calm and quiet as you want and need. J.


January 6 marks the beginning of the Epiphany season with the celebration of Epiphany Day. While many Christians in eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa are only now celebrating the birth of Jesus, western Christians are thinking now about his life and about his identity as the Son of God.

Before writers started using the word epiphany as a synonym for “realization” or “discovery,” traditional Christians were using the word epiphany to talk about their relationship with Jesus. The apostle Paul, for example, uses it in I Timothy 6:14 to speak of the appearing of Jesus on the Last Day. Since the root meaning of the word epiphany is shining out or shining forth, it can be used to describe a revelation or revealing. The idea of light is central to “epiphany,” which is why it best applies to Jesus, the Light of the world.

On Epiphany Day, western Christians recall the visit of a group of wise men to Bethlehem to worship the King of the Jews. These wise men may have been from Persia or from Babylon, but the gifts they brought suggest that they were Arabs. (Also, it was an Arab prophet named Balaam who associated the coming of Israel’s King with a star in the book of Numbers.) They brought three gifts, although the Bible does not say how many wise men came to Bethlehem. Many Christians have manger scenes in their homes that show three wise men (or kings) visiting the new-born Savior along with the shepherds and the farm animals. Matthew says that they found the child and his mother in a house in Bethlehem. One custom uses the figure of the manger scene to bring together Christmas and Epiphany: the figures of the wise men and their camels are moved from place to place in the house each of the twelve days of Christmas, finally arriving at the manger only on January 6, the day of Epiphany.

From this day on to the beginning of Lent, Christians focus on the evidence that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Savior, a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of Israel. His miracles are remembered—changing water into wine at a wedding celebration, healing diseases of many kinds, and similar acts of power. Traditionally, the final Sunday in the Epiphany season recalls the Transfiguration of Jesus, when he shone with light in the presence of his disciples Peter, James, and John, as well as the Old Testament heroes Moses and Elijah.

Epiphany is a time for Christians to remember and celebrate Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. As he shone in Bethlehem and in the towns of Galilee and in Jerusalem, so he shines in the lives of his people today. Through the writings of the apostles and the prophets he shines into the lives of people all over the world. Through the work of his Bride the Church, he shines upon many within the Church and many who are drawn to the Church. He has not stopped working miracles, but his greatest miracles are not physical healings and the casting out of demons. His greatest miracles are the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of faith, and the power that turns sinners into saints. May the light of Jesus the Son of God shine in your life this Epiphany season. J.

Twelve drummers drumming

With the setting of the sun and the observance of Twelfth Night, the season of Christmas comes to an end. During this time we have celebrated the birth of our Savior, we have started a new year, and we have considered some of the saints who the Lord has blessed and through whom he has blessed his Church. I hope that my tour with you of the twelve days of Christmas has been helpful and meaningful for you. If you have never observed these twelve days before, I urge you to consider doing so next winter. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night! J.

Eleven pipers piping

Elizabeth Seaton is described as the first saint native to the United States, although of course many thousands of saints were living in the United States when the new nation first declared its independence. Raised as an Episcopalian, Elizabeth married and had five children before being widowed at the age of twenty-eight. After joining the Roman Catholic Church, she founded the American Sisters of Charity, dedicated to helping the poor and to teaching children.

Saints do not become saints by living better lives than other people. God is not content with “better than average.” He demands perfection. Saints become saints by faith in Jesus Christ. Through his perfection, we saints are seen as perfect by God the Father, because he sees us through his Son and therefore calls us his children. Having been forgiven and made holy by Jesus, saints now strive to live as children of God. We try to match the perfection of Jesus. We still fall short, of course, but we are also still forgiven. We remain perfect in the eyes of God the Father.

Like Elizabeth Seaton, we can dedicate our energies to helping the poor who live in our midst. Like Elizabeth Seaton, we can use our energy to teach others what they need to know—especially the victory of Jesus Christ and his promises to rescue us and claim us for his kingdom. If we are saints, then we should act like saints, bringing glory to God’s name and drawing our neighbors to learn more about the hope that we have in Christ. J.

Ten lords a-leaping

Saint Genevieve lived in Paris during a time of great turmoil. She is said to have negotiated with both the Franks and the Huns for the preservation of her home city. This means that she spoke with Attila the Hun and with Clovis, first of the Merovingian kings of France. Truly she moved in important circles.
Today Saint Genevieve is best remembered as the patron saint of Guinevere, wife of King Arthur, according to the musical Camelot. Before she meets Arthur, Guinevere is heard praying to Saint Genevieve, begging her protection from this unwanted marriage that has been arranged. The future queen even threatens the saint, saying that Genevieve has failed in her duty, “and from now on I intend to pray to someone else instead.”
As for me, I have never prayed to a saint. I know that I can approach God the Father directly through Jesus Christ. When you are invited to express your concerns to the top authority, why rely on intermediaries? Even though I do not pray to the saints or expect miracles from their intervention, I still find them worthy of being remembered. Saints can and should be honored for their faithful service to the Lord. More than that, they are useful reminders of the way God cares for his people and keeps his promises to us. Best of all, we too are saints, already made holy by the saving work of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate the saints, we also celebrate our place among their number. J.

Nine ladies dancing

Basil and Gregory were two of the great theologians to rise in the Church after the time of Sylvester and Constantine. They defended the decisions of the Council of Nicaea, which described Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten (not made) Being of one Substance with the Father.” For several decades after the council, opponents of those teachings continued to insist that Jesus is not equal to the Father, that he was created by the Father, and that only God the Father is Almighty. Thanks to writers such as Basil and Gregory, the teachings of the Bible as summarized by the Nicene Creed were preserved in the Christian Church.
Both men were highly educated in philosophy as well as in Christian doctrine. They were able to serve the Lord and the Church through their writing, explaining the mysteries of the Christian faith so more could believe them and receive God’s blessings through them. Many other generations of the Church have also been blessed by such writers: Augustine, Martin Luther, and C. S. Lewis come to mind. God always blesses his Church at the times that his people most need his help.
May you revel in whichever writers have helped you to understand the Word of God and the teachings of his Church. J.