Ebolapocalypse has dominated the media for several weeks now eclipsing other stories about ISIS, the Midterm Elections, or the explosion at an Iranian nuclear facility. The Ebola scare is newsworthy, but the facts of the matter show it’s an African crisis not a world crisis. We should be alert, not alarmed.

Ebola Virus

Courtesy of BBC Science Photo Library

We can learn about ourselves and our politics through the Ebola scare but first we need to settle the noise so we can hear the voice of reason.

From what we know so far, Ebola is not very contagious. It doesn’t seem to be airborne. Nor does it transfer by casual contact. The two nurses who acquired it from Thomas Duncan had extensive contact with him and his fluids (i.e., “soiled linens piled to the ceiling”) while he was highly symptomatic and they had been using shoddy protective measures while treating him. Both nurses are now in quarantine at specialized hospitals receiving treatment from a world-class team of doctors. Thomas Duncan was not diagnosed till the late stages of the disease and has passed away. Hospitals took some time to adjust, but now awareness has been raised, the CDC and NIH are now giving the situation a high level of attention, and while we do need to be careful, be smart, and be prepared, we don’t need to riot in the streets about Ebolapocalypse.

There may be a handful of new Ebola victims over the next few weeks in the United States. But we have no great reason to think this number will skyrocket in the U.S. because the disease seems to be contagious only when patients are symptomatic. Admittedly, “symptomatic” is a gray area which includes 99.5 degree fever and sniffles, or it could be bleeding from the eyes and projectile vomiting. The people at serious risk have had extensive contact with victims or who are that unusual case of transferring fluids accidentally by sneezing in someone’s face or sexual contact. Meanwhile, fellow plane passengers or elementary classmates (of Duncan’s children) are at a very low risk.

So what is the suitable response? Be alert, not alarmed. Here is where your worldview and politics factor in. If you prize safety far above liberty, and if you have a pretty low view of the masses, thinking that people cannot generally take care of themselves, are pretty helpless regarding policing themselves or their neighborhoods, or that low-grade public health risks are just cause for high-grade intrusions on personal freedom then you may be one of the people crying out to ban air-travel through Dallas, close the public schools, and evacuate the victims neighborhoods. You would also be showing a stereotypically liberal bias, favoring federal policy answers where state/community level answers might work better. Perhaps if the health risks were far greater, such as the Black Plague or chemical warfare, then even conservatives might agree with this sentiment. The austerity of solutions must suit the severity of the problem. But when only three U.S. victims are known, and all of them had close contact with contaminated body fluids, we aren’t in that crisis stage yet. And we don’t have cause for crushing the free enterprise of tens of thousands of people.

Conservatives are leery of the nanny state, sometimes to a fault. But in this case, as with any potential crisis, conservatives should beware of excesses even as they support responsible public action respecting individual liberties, and supporting the rule of law. In all that, one need not give ground to progressives who “never let a crisis go to waste.” Lurking in the Ebola scare is an opportunity for federal overreach in the form of open-ended regulations for local hospitals, for CDC expansion (a federal agency), for federally controlled air-travel, or for the federal intrusion into on most any sector where people might interact. It would be only a muted victory to contain the Ebola outbreak in ways that press the federal government deeper and deeper into the private sector, making for harder and harder extraction later. Ebola is not the only epidemic worrying conservatives.

What is a conservative answer to Ebola? Suit the answer to the problem without catering to liberal agenda items. Liberals and conservatives probably agree on the same basic actions: quarantine victims, educate hospitals staff and communities, use HAZMAT teams at contamination sites, equip danger zones with protective gear, perhaps restrict air-travel to stricken countries, etc. The disagreement arises over how to accomplish these. Conservatives admit a role for federal government, often as a necessary evil, but give preference to local initiatives where possible such as public awareness campaigns, non-profits and churches, and individual efforts. These would include educational efforts through social networking, seminars, charitable giving, etc. Cities should be ready to use local cleaners, local clinics, and local hospitals—using “rainy day” funds to pay for these where possible.

Whenever large-scale methods are suggested, however, conservatives especially should consider the consequences. Most every safety policy infringes on liberty. Sometimes the tradeoff is worth it, sometimes it’s not. A travel ban for Dallas would cost millions in revenue, harm local and state economy, undercut exports like fossil fuels, potentially raising costs nationwide while stalling Texas growth. Now if we were talking about a Zombie apocalypse, then those costs might be justified. But the actual threat of Ebola, suggests a Dallas travel ban would be more harmful than helpful. That would be a punishing blow to a largely republican state invariably hampering republican incumbents in the upcoming midterm elections. Liberals might like that idea, but not necessarily for safety reasons.

We should be cautious and alert, recognizing real threats, evaluating options, and weighing the costs and benefits of our actions. Life will go on after Ebola dies down and it is for that future that we must also plan. Each of us can do our part to be smart and avoid transmission so we don’t need the Nanny State to do it for us.

By: John D. Ferrer
Originally: 13 January 2013, updated 28 September 2014

It is common for naturalistic thinkers in ethics to argue that our moral values are derived entirely from nature. Moral facts are facts of nature. For example, DNA wires us to desire pleasure and avoid pain. Our environment fosters community values, and social normas. Evolution filters out extreme deviancy and selects for altruism (charity, mercy, etc.). In schools today, naturalistic ethics is quite common if not the majority view in ethics departments around the country. Yet entering students are far more often raised with a different ethical framework, usually a religious framework where moral goodness is outlined in Scripture or based in God’s nature. For the student trying to forge a path for himself in the university, it may help to have a few responses ready in the event that an ethics teacher proves antagonistic to religious ethics.

  • The “Is-ought” problem—if nature is what it is, where do “oughts” come from? That is, moral prescriptions are a different category from the descriptions of nature we find in the sciences. This problem is well known in ethics, but it’s often misunderstood and rarely if ever solved. Christian ethics, for example, allows that nature can possess the endowed intentions of its creator. God made animals to serve people and populate the earth. God made man to care for the earth, love each other, and honor God. With a divine mind at back of nature, nature can carry His intentions even if it’s not itself intelligent and cannot “intend” things like moral duties.
  • The Problem of Relativism—some professors are committed relativists, others are working hard to avoid it. But however you slice, relativism is a compelling option intellectually even while it offends our moral senses. To justify objective ethics and avoid relativism one needs an objective basis that all people everwhere answer to. Nature doesn’t seem to have this, at least not any sort that is also moral. Also, moral laws differ widely across cultures, and (for naturalists) the grounds for ethics tend to be human desires and intentions. Since those desires and intentions vary between people and cultures, morality would seem to be relative. But several weaknesses stand out. Here are three. First relativism trivializes morality interpreting “Rape is evil” as dislike (“I don’t like rape”), emotional distaste (“Rape is icky gross.”), desire (“I don’t want to be raped.”), or natural hardwiring (“Evolution made me think rape is evil.”). None of these encompass what we really mean when we say, “Rape is evil.” Second, relativism prevents affirmation or disagreement with other people or cultures. If Turkey agrees to kill hundreds of thousands of Armenians then that’s “good” for them and our culture can’t judge them. If Bob enjoys banging his head against the wall, then who are we to judge? If France promotes freedom of speech we can’t even judge them to be right as that would be “passing judgment.” Third and finally, in cultural relativism minority views are intrinsically wrong/evil. Martin Luther was wrong to oppose catholic abuses since the majority disagreed with him. Relativism justifies some heinous things and is highly problematic.
  • A Thought Experiment on Nature: What if nature had produced a radically different set of values for people such as (a) killing the sick, elderly, and slow is “good;” and (b) loving outsiders is “evil,” would those values then be true? that is, would it be factually true that when people agree with those values? If the evolutionist says “Yes,” then he admits that his ethics are arbitrary or relative on the evidence of nature (see #2). If he says “No,” then he has smuggled in leverage from outside of nature. to be more specific, evolution could have made any number of atrocious outcomes to be normal for human populations just as it did for other animal populations. some animals eat their young, some rape their mates, some throw poo everywhere. All of these are offensive to our senses, yet all of it is arbitrary on the evidence of evolution.

Ethics is a great area of study, but be warned. There are a lot of bad and even dangerous ideas circulating in philosophical ethics and students should be careful and calculating in how they approach this field. These three challenges should help the naturalist refine and develop his ethics beyond many of his peers in naturalistic ethics. And for the religious ethicist, these challenges—used skillfully—may help forge a place for your own ethical system to survive.

By: John D. Ferrer
Originally:  4 February 2014; updated 28 September 2014

Some of us make our living off of ideas—discussing them, teaching them, writing about them, broadcasting them—without necessarily having to apply them. Whether an idea works or not is irrelevant to our employment or success. We “idea-people” are what famed economist and social commentator Thomas Sowell calls intellectuals. In his book, Intellectuals and Society (NY: Basic Books, 2009) Sowell gives a chilling and insightful look into the presumptuous place of intellectuals in society. The “intelligentsia” or “the anointed” as he collectively calls them are typically not subject to the filters of the free-market or the popular wisdom of the masses—yes, wisdom of the masses. Those who assume the masses are foolish, unlearned, and unfit to determine basic measures and laws for themselves are precisely the kind of “intellectuals” Sowell means to correct. Meanwhile, Sowell argues there are some sorts of imbecility so deadly to society, so destructive to humanity, and so patently absurd that we would never believe them except that ivory tower scholars vouch for them. Unguarded by corrective external measures—their ideas on society and humanity don’t have to “work”—they are prone to assuming a kind of authority that is just as capable of authoritarianism as any other field might be. Key “intellectual” ideas include socialism, judicial activism, subjectivism, and moral relativism.

As an intellectual myself I find this book to be strangely comforting, a reminder that ideas can and do matter, that ideas should be tested against reality; that scholars can be wrong; and that we career-thinkers are not necessarily wise or even smart just because we’re educated. The book is hefty, and a thorough analysis of it would take some time—indeed I would not be surprised if this becomes a “great work” in western literature, or at least a staple of conservative libraries. So let me illustrate Sowell’s insight with an example.

In contrast to the vision of today’s anointed [left-leaning intellectual class], where existing society is discussed largely in terms of its inadequacies and the improvements which the anointed have to offer, the tragic vision [the conservative social perspective] regards civilization itself as something that requires great and constant efforts merely to be preserved—with these efforts to be based on actual experience, not on “exciting” new theories. In the tragic-vision, barbarism is always waiting in the wings and civilization is simple a “thin crust over a volcano” (pgs. 77-78).

Like much of Sowell’s writing, his insight here is broad and must be read with some grace since, philosophically, he’s only speaking in generalities and estimations. He speaks not as a skeptic, or even as a philosopher (i.e.: analytic), but as a social commentator waxing philosophic. He has in a few lines characterized a worldview difference in approaching society problems. I find myself at this crossroad. Do I think that societal change tends to be good, and do I welcome radical and progressive efforts at innovation? Or is society a delicate chemical combination of values and ideals, prone to degrade or explode, difficult to improve, prone to instability can only be maintained by strident efforts to avert disaster? Am I a humanist or a realist? An optimist or a pessimist? These are good questions that students and professors alike should ask themselves. And they might do well to wait for an answer before broadcasting their views/ideas as if good intentions and book-learning were enough to rescue bad ideas from social explosion.

Broadly conservative, capitalistic, and down-to-earth Sowell is a refreshing voice in the academic world. Contrarians should find in his work a fine distillation of conservative thought, a solid example of gracious and self-critical scholarship. Advocates might find in this book a refreshing elixir to drink on the porch while the world goes mad.  This book is a must read for anyone seriously interested in the life of an academic, where the currency is ideas, and the market is conversations and classrooms. Happy Reading!

By: John D. Ferrer
Originally: 24 March 2013, updated 28 September 2014

As a student of philosophy, occasionally I find people wandering into my field of study mistaking it for their own.  Generally, I am amused, unoffended, and graciously invite them in, or help the mistaken wanderer back into his own field. Often those misguided ma’ams and misters have wandered over here from their own field of science. Admittedly, the borders of science and philosophy can be difficult to define. With their indistinct edges, I’d expect that mistake sometimes. Science is a grandiose field of wide public acclaim. Many claim it as their own (shared) property. Many boast in its spoils and fruit, claiming all the harder that it is their preferred and favorite field. Going further, we may say, it is considered by many to be the field where truth and facts happen. Other fields, such as my own, in philosophy, or theology or the arts, are where subjective experiences, opinions, feelings, and the softer stuff of life happen. While I disagree with the distinction I understand it and its value, and do not dismiss everything about it. My purpose here is to observe how science, for all the facts, objective truth, and concrete reality it uncovers, is largely a field of art, where subjectivity, analogy, philosophy, and theology all overlap within the craftwork we call “Science.”

In classical categories, education has revolved around two main fields of learning: Arts and Sciences. “Science” referred to any field of knowledge. And the “arts” were all sorts of practical knowledge for making things—that is, craft work from painting pictures, to building bridges, to hunting, to cutting hair, to binding books, and so on.

Before modern science was born, education tended to hover around down-to-earth practical matters, such as reading, writing, basic math, and then craft or trade—be it shoe-making, needlepoint, farming, herding, etc.

And the main means of education were three-fold: parental child-rearing (where kids would learn elementary basics), apprenticeships, and, for the wealthy, a personal home tutor.

At that time, “sciences” referred to all the fields of abstract learning: philosophy, theology, and what we now call “natural science,” but was then approximated with the phrase “natural philosophy.” We’ll call this sense “scientia” (pl. scientiae), referring to the Latin term for “knowledge.”

As time progressed, Plato’s proto-universities eventually led into Medieval Scholastic universities. There, an educated person would have to master three basic scientiae and four advanced scientiae. The three basics, called the trivium, were composed of logic, to help people think well, grammar to help people write well, and rhetoric, to help people speak well. Added to that were the four advanced fields called the quadrivium wherein an “educated” person would need to understand natural science (identified with astronomy), calculation (math), engineering and craft (identified with geometry), and the fine arts (identified with music). Even today, the trivium and quadrivium are standard fare in classical schools.

Today, education has largely shifted (at least in the U.S.) away from the classical model, replacing logic and rhetoric with math and natural science in the basic studies, and identifying engineering, technology, and most any productive field under some form of natural science. Reading and writing are not as greatly emphasized, while “science and technology” are emphasized more heavily. For that reason, “natural science” (the term which replaced “natural philosophy” during the 19th century) is usually what people mean by “science.” Other fields, like theology and philosophy, may or may not be treated as fields of knowledge. They are considered fields of theory, value, or conjecture, often thought to be separate and subordinate to the findings of natural science.

The title of this post, then, might seem like a category mistake. To blur “art” and “science” is to treat science like it’s not a field of knowledge, but just a big how-to seminar.

Nevertheless, there is an artistic side to science. Navigating the modern educational world can be confusing, with many different models of education to choose from, different philosophies of education driving them, and serious consequences if we choose poorly.

This article is an attempt to cast the natural sciences more realistically, so that readers can have an advantage in approaching them in a university or vocational setting. He or she can anticipate, appreciate, and operate within the actual practice of natural science, and do so without having to first dig through idealistic misrepresentations in the brochures and ads.

The artistic side of science does not have to be a fault or a hindrance, but can dignify and distinguish the natural sciences. If you are a science major, or are entering a career in science, it is critical to understand the art of science, lest disillusionment cost you grades, time, money, and a lot of energy.

But how, then, can science be an art?

First, “science” is not a concrete term, but an abstraction referring to an activity. It refers to a certain craft involving the scientific method, some appeal to natural effects and causes, and falsifiability. One does not bump into a science as if it were a rock or a stump. Science is conceptual, referring to how one goes about understanding the world. Even though it’s difficult to define exhaustively, it’s broadly agreed that science involves the scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, conclusion), and some form of falsifiability.

When we learn, for example, that dolphins are mammals, that knowledge of nature can be called “science,” but to be more specific it should be termed “scientific,” since it’s consistent with the knowledge of nature gleaned through the craft of science. People observed dolphins, hypothesized that they were mammals, and then tested that hypothesis by looking to see if dolphins met the criteria of mammality. Science is an activity that people engage in, not merely a set of ideas. Art is the fitting term for craft work such as science.

Second, besides mere activity, there is practical skill involved in conducting science. Much of science is exact, requiring great care, lest one ruin an experiment or data set with careless errors. And even the inexact practices permitted in science still have their appropriate degree of precision.

There may be estimates involved in counting planets in a solar system, but if those estimates are too far off, then they might not be exact enough to be considered scientifically credible. The demands of science are exacting, requiring practical skills, be it operating a telescope, cleaning beakers, calculating binomials, programming computers, or fixing the lab video camera. Being a skilled craft, science is therefore an art.

Third, there is an aesthetic component to the methodology of science. In evaluating which interpretations best account for the experimental data, there is no single and rigorous manner for weighing competing views. Scientists employ “inference to the best explanation,” or what’s called the “abductive” method.

Suppose two theories are equally precise, comprehensive, and accurate (account for all the relevant data), but one theory is aesthetically beautiful. The more beautiful theory can get the nod. With inference to the best explanation, or abduction, any number of different lines of evidence can be used to support a theory even when we admit that “beauty” is not the most objective, concrete, or definite evidence to appeal to. Simplicity, beauty, and explanatory power can all be used with various respective weights as evidence for a theory. Part of the appeal of Darwinian evolution is precisely that it’s beautiful in its simplicity. It streamlined the theory of speciation down from the theologically dense and mysterious theories of the day.

Fourth, the social side of science involves persuasion, and art matters in persuasion. Science is expensive. It takes time and money to hypothesize, experiment, make findings, write out those findings, publish those findings, and gather grants for further study in order to advance one’s particular field of science. Persuasion works in enticing donors, winning friends at conferences, earning grants, and in drawing together an audience to present findings. Persuasion is itself an art, but it also involves other arts such as language, beautiful displays, skillful planning, and stylish practice. Otherwise these artistic elements might seem unrelated to natural science. Strictly speaking, grant writing is not “science.” But in a broader ense it is, since the sociological phenomenon of science requires funding, peer review, publishing, and collegial interaction, and all of these have their respective artistic features where people, for good or ill, are more likely to sit through an aesthetically attractive presentation than a monotone monologue—even if both discuss the same experiment.

ifth, natural science is just as value-laden as it is factual, and “values” tend to be categorized at least as much under “art” as under “science.” Ideally, science should be done in as objective, or value-neutral, a manner as possible. However, the actual practice of science incorporates all sorts of values, such as liking or disliking colleagues, discerning practical values for conducting research (i.e., preferring early morning over late nights in the lab since the cleaning crew gets in the way after 10 p.m.), identifying ethical means of experimentation, and identifying ethical uses of one’s research.

Also, different fields of science can develop biases that direct what fields of study are valued—neuropsychology is deemed valuable, while parapsychology might marginalize the scientist, even if one’s hypotheses and experimentation are equally scientific in their rigor.

Sixth, natural science involves interpretation. While interpretation need not be subjective, at least not totally, it often is subjective, revealing as much about the scientist as it does about the data. Our interpretive filters can be skewed by faith, presumption, expectation, and agendas of various sorts, and these can slip into the “conclusions” that scientists draw, even without noticing, if enough peer scientists share those biases.

I’m not saying that subjectivity is necessarily bad, or that the interpretive element in science is purely subjective. But there is at least a subjective component to a lot of scientific interpretation, and where there is subjectivity, there is a degree of artistry that is liable to slip in.

Seventh, science involves creativity in constructing experiments, formulating hypotheses, elaborating theories, projecting uses of new knowledge, etc. That creativity is art.

Eighth, because science is difficult to demarcate thoroughly from other fields (the “demarcation problem”), one going definition of science is “science is what scientists do.” Whatever weaknesses this definition may have, it does admit something obvious—science is at least an activity. Hence, it’s a craft; its product is discoveries and technology, and it thereby falls within the realm of art.

Ninth, since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions first shook the science world, it has been widely recognized that science is not the simple, steady steamroller of certainty we once thought. Its advance is not necessarily a straight line of human progress. Scientists fight, old theories persist, new theories don’t always win out. Some win out for non-objective reasons. Others persist despite objective rebuttal. Some theories abide in tandem, having only “soft” or subjective differences between them. Scientists may change their views to get the grant to do their research. Other scientists spend their career reinforcing a theory that is abandoned a generation later.

Without taking a strong stand on one side or another, it may be admitted that there is a lot of subjectivity within the scientific world, and at least some of that subjectivity undermines the simple view of science as objective fact-gathering. Instead, the social phenomenon of science is deeply interwoven with artistic elements.

Tenth, the results of science can be beautiful. It is no embarrassment to science at all that its findings can be gorgeous. Watch an episode of Blue Planet, or study the physics of a water droplet, or a rainbow, or observe the geological findings cast upon the side of a mountain—the view is breathtaking.

Eleventh, there is a sense in which all scientific argumentation is by analogy. Natural science is, by its nature, inexact—compared to math and logic, for example. Following the scientific method, people observe some aspect of nature and then propose a testable theory, a hypothesis. This hypothesis is a generalization implying a conclusion about some feature of nature on the basis of incomplete but (usually) observed evidence.

That hypothesis could concern the mating habits of penguins, the decomposition rate of an element, the expansion of the universe, or most any natural thing whatsoever. Rarely does the scientist observe all cases over all their times before drawing a hypothesis. But how does one construct a general rule like that, proposing some theory which accounts for cases and times that one has not observed?

That inferential work is by analogy. Analogies are comparisons on the basis of similarities. Where the similarities are relevant, plentiful ,and otherwise sufficient, an argument by analogy can work. Often we don’t even realize we are doing this. We may experiment on 1,000 or 100,000 penguins before concluding that the males warm the eggs. But what can we say about the thousands or millions of penguins that were not in our study? We apply these findings to those penguins, too, believing that their differences aren’t important enough to trump their similarities. On the basis of their similarities, we infer a conclusion—that is an analogy.

But let’s take this farther. Suppose, we could find a way to observe all penguins, and we find that in January, 2013, of all the penguins in the world, only males warmed the eggs. Have we gotten away from analogical argumentation then? Not quite. We still have to generalize over different times. It would be non-analogical to speak of the penguins observed only at the times they were observed. But the moment we treat the numerically same penguin as if it was identical across times, we have employed analogy again, presuming that Penguin A at time T1 is going to act consistently at times T2, T3, T4, T5, and so on.

In this manner, scientific argumentation operates by analogy. This is no shame or embarrassment, it’s just the nature of the beast. Understanding and appreciating how that fact redraws some presumed lines can give the individual scientist an edge in his field. But that element of analogy also reveals an inexact and even subjective component that might otherwise be overlooked. In that crevice, artistry can make the difference between an intuitively compelling theory and a counterintuitive, overly hasty generalization.

Twelfth, and finally, science cannot produce itself any more than the reader can be his or her own father. Science was born out of the philosophy of science, whereby someone first dreamed up the scientific method, falsification criteria, or whatever proposed distinctions qualify an activity as “science.” Philosophy is an open field permitting all manners of theory and evaluation—much of it rich with art. Philosophy of science is no exception. There is artful imagination, artful demonstration, and artful persuasion—all necessary for cultivating budding science from its philosophical soil.

As you can see, science is deeply artistic. There never was a strict divide between the arts and sciences. Art employs truth and knowledge about nature, and science employs art in conducting experiments and interpreting data.

Why might this matter to the vocational scientist or science major? For one thing, modern education might stand to benefit from appreciating the intersection of these typically divided disciplines.

A science major might do well to take an art class or two, cultivating the “right brain” a bit. A creative thinking class or a literature class could also help in these ways. A vocational scientist might benefit from a computer graphics course, or a study on interpretive theory. A bit of artistry might enable someone to interpret data in a more groundbreaking way that a non-creative scientist might miss. Not to mention that that person can, potentially, present his material in a more interesting, compelling, and persuasive manner, thus improving his chances for praise from superiors, for winning prizes, and for publication and circulation of his ideas.

It’s a mistake to think of science without some artistic component. Science has been a great friend to modern man, but can just as easily become our enemy. Science has risen in influence in the modern era, but it has not outgrown its dependence on other fields like philosophy (philosophy of science, ethics) or the arts.

Craft, skill, and creativity can spell the difference between successful science and failed theorizing.

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! (Psalm 133:1-2)

One of the cheesiest  most overused terms in the church today is “fellowship.” We hear the term all over Christian culture reiterating a Christian answer to the troubles of our lonely, isolated, and fractured selves. Many of our church efforts in this vein are surfacy and ineffectual. A potluck dinner, a sunday school class, a sermon series on brotherly love, etc. etc. Yet it seems like we rarely experience fellowship. Closeness, vulnerability, rebuke, love–these are the kinds of features that distinguish fellowship from just “buddies” or “acquaintances” or “facebook friends.” In the shallowing of fellowship, closeness is replaced with text messaging, vulnerability is reduced gossip, trust is replaced with independence, rebuke with ad hominem attacks, and love becomes “likes.”

birds on a lamp post

I contend that one of the biggest reasons we don’t typically have great fellowship is also the most obvious, We. Don’t. Know. How. This is not simply a matter of will–choosing to BE in fellowship or to DO fellowship–though we can’t have fellowship without some willful submission to the demands, hopes, and expectations of others. This is not simply a matter of “making time.” Fellowship does indeed take time, and if you value it enough you will make the needed time for these loving trusting relationships to grow strong. But having a strong will and free time is not enough to make fellowship happen. Nor is this simply a matter of abstract knowledge–knowing why fellowship matters, what it looks like, or how God has commanded it. That kind of knowledge would certainly help. But fellowship is also a matter of practical knowledge. Fellowship is, among other things, a skill, and if you have not practiced it, you won’t be good at it. And when you don’t know how to do something as big and unwieldy as fellowship, then you can get hurt, badly.

Unfortunately, even when you do know how to do fellowship and be in fellowship, it still will hurt you sometimes. The hurt doesn’t have to be any more than the hurt from a surgeon who operates on you to help heal you, but that is still a kind of hurt. People can hurt you. And you may be tempted to push them away, keep them at arms length so they can’t hurt you. But at that distance, neither can they help you. For that matter, neither are you much help for them. And besides helping and hurting, people who are pushing others away just aren’t being together. And you can’t have fellowship without some sort of togetherness. There’s a kind of meaningful peace when we aren’t trying to fix problems, or accomplish things, or plan for the future, but instead we are just together.

For those of you know know me well, you might not think me an expert on fellowship. That’s an understatement. I’m a novice. To me, fellowship is a mystery that comes easy for other people but hardly comes at all for me. I want it, but don’t understand it. I need it, but I’m so clumsy at it that I get hurt whenever I feel like I’m using it right. If you get bucked off the horse too many times, you start to prefer walking over riding. That’s kind of where I’m at. So as I speak, please don’t think I’m presuming some expert status on the subject of fellowship. The how of fellowship remains a mystery for me. But at the same time, it doesn’t seem to be rocket science either. People need to trust each other, fight fair, work through conflicts, hold each other to honorable standards, put each other’s needs above their own, help, love, and be willing to be changed and grown in the process. That means saying you are sorry (and meaning it), that means preempting feuds rather than saving up grievances against each other. Fellowship means giving what you have to offer, and receiving what they have to offer. In short, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

The difficult artistry of fellowship enters here. The command does not say to “love your neighbor as if he were yourself.” They may not receive love the same way, or have the same needs and interests I do. I should love them with the personalized fellowship with which I would like them to love me. I need to seek to understand you, and as I learn how you receive love and how you operate in trust, I offer expressions of fellowship that address you there. After all, I want people to love me through food, respect, and encouraging words–some of my preferred modes of affirmation. It’s only fair for me to find ways that speak the same kind of love to you in your language.

Meanwhile, as I’m slow to learn this new language, I can testify that fellowship hurts. Don’t expect a lot of credit for trying either. Your efforts might be invisible, or the verbal equivalent of gibberish. Courageous humility is paramount. Until you find those expressions of fellowship that speak to them, they may not even know you are trying. It’s worthwhile, but the payoffs can be slow coming. It hurts, but ultimately it’s a good hurt.

Occasionally people say something about apologetics and it gets me excited. Yay! Someone else sees this great need and wants to DO something done about it. It’s nice to know some other people see what you see, and share your passion for it. Other times people say something about apologetics and it gets me . . . not excited. There are some misconceptions about apologetics that can make the whole field look foolish, misguided, or even dangerous. Here are some of the main misunderstandings with apologetics.

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Misunderstanding #1: Apologetics is all about arguing
Apologetics deals in defending the faith, and while that can include logical argumentation it does not necessarily include “fighting” (i.e., not rational argumentation but informal bickering and mean-spirited kind of “arguing”). Some apologists gravitate towards the field because they have an unhealthy interest in disputes. But fortunately, when apologists do their job right they are peacemakers more than troublemakers. They have a conviction about truth and do what they can to help people better see the truth. Anytime someone’s “apologetics” is getting mean-spirited, hostile, and angry they are probably obstructing the very Gospel they are supposed to manifest. Where apologists have come off as overly controversial, petty, and pugnacious, that is to their shame. Apologists who sacrifice love for truth are leaving out half of the Gospel. We are to speak the truth in love. The Gospel is neither truthless love nor loveless truth. It is truth and love.

Misunderstanding #2: Apologetics is a particular field of study
This is only true in a sense. I myself studied apologetics (as a field) and went to seminary to learn how to do apologetics. Apologetics can be a field of study, but here’s the trick. Apologetics is not just a subject of study, as if you can learn your arguments for God’s existence and suddenly you are an apologist. Apologetics is far deeper and wider than that. For one thing, Apologetics is skill-training. It’s a craft. It might be a helpful label for a particular subset of theology, philosophy, science, or various “fields of learning.” But it’s not just that. One can learn all of that stuff and still not be an apologist since apologists don’t just know how to defend the faith, they do defend the faith. That makes apologetics both an art and a science, it is a skill and a field of knowledge. Put another way, apologetics is not some separate ministry for argumentative Christians it is how you do your various ministries. If you are a music leader at church, you operate as an apologists when you are selecting songs and speaking prayers that help prepare people to face various objections and challenges to their faith. You can be preparing them with good theology, and powerful metaphors, in a beautiful form that persuasively habituates their hearts in harmony with the truth of Christ. It takes practice to learn to enjoy what God enjoys, to love what he loves and hate what he hates. And good music can help you do that. Also, an apologetics-minded music minister can eschew emotion-baiting in favor of emotionally relevant and intellectually astute music so people learn to worship (through music) with their whole selves and not just with their feelings. Also, you are filtering through your song selection with an awareness of how some audience members might misunderstand loose phrases or poor theology in the songs. If “apologetics” is not truly separated from music ministry, neither should it be roped off from other ministry domains like preaching, discipleship, teaching, evangelism, missions, etc.

Misunderstanding #3: Apologetics Is all intellectual
If you’ve met a self-proclaimed “apologist” chances are he or she was somewhat intellectual and might even have an air of superiority about them. Not that they are superior, but there’s no mistaking an intellectually arrogant person. And to make matters worse, apologists often berate the church for not nurturing the mind, or cultivating the intellect, or disciplining believers, etc. etc. Apologetics can be geared toward intellectuals. There’s nothing wrong with that since Christ died to save sinful intellectuals just like everyone else. And the truth of Christ should be relevant to the spiritual state of collegians and professors just like everyone else. But apologetics is not strictly intellectual. As such, the “intellectual” label is only partly wrong. Apologists have no reason to be proud, they are just as likely to lose their cell phone and car keys as anyone else. They mispell things. Any many of them aren’t particularly intellectual at all. And for those that are intellectual, they are rarely as intelligent as they think they are.Admitting that fact, it should be remembered that the Christian faith merits defense on many different fronts besides academic and scholarly battle fields. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the functional foundation for apologetics is not the university, or churches, or private Christian schools, etc. It is based in the home. Our ability to understand, believe, be transformed by, and be persuaded by the truth of Christ is first established in our family of origin. Healthy homes raise the bar for our ability to believe, we have far greater ability to conceive of a trustworthy Father-figure, the reality of (immaterial) love, objective (moral) natural laws, the sacrificial offering of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, and so on, if we’ve seen these sorts of things modeled by loving loyal parents. I’m not dismissing the sophisticated intellectual realms of apologetics, but rather remembering that the bulk of apologetics abides in the mundane matters, where non-professionals can contribute. Just by doing our own respective job of loving God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, we can be empowering our family and friends to see how plausible, how persuasive, and how powerful Christ’s truth really is. These sorts of “non-intellectual” things can even shape our ability to understand, our ability to think straight, and our very ability to conceive of how tough answers from a Christian worldview can still be the best response to the hard questions that life asks of us.

Misunderstanding #4 Apologetics is All About Evangelism
As noted above, apologetics is a disposition. That means its not restricted to collegiate evangelism, or witnessing to atheists, or coverting muslims.It’s great when that happens. But apologetics is just as important for when believers are shepherding other believers. That means apologetics is not just for evangelism, it’s for discipleship, it’s for worship, it’s for service. It’s for any sort of ministry where people need an “answer” for the faith. People may believe in Jesus and love God, but their theology is crumbling over some misconception, or they are emotionally falling apart because they need to see what some of these “answers” look like in practical service and physical hand to hand ministry. Every human being struggles with doubt, fear, and insecurity at some point in their life. Apologetics can dignify that vulnerability, meeting people at their point of need, and there begin to build in people the courage of conviction, the hope for answers, and understanding where confusion reigned. When believers are not confident that Christianity can answer tough questions, They tend to fear and avoid those kinds of questions. Insecurity creeps in. Faith becomes fragile and irrational. It’s like people frolicking in the kiddie pool, unfit and fearful of diving into the deepest depths of the faith. The apologetic depths are forbidden to them so they forever miss out on any pearls that may be found down there. Christians who are confident about their faith are liberated in their faith. Preachers can train up the congregation with good apologetics. Music ministers can lead congregations to worship God in spirit and in truth. And teachers can cultivate wholistic maturity be edifying the head along with the heart and hands.

Misunderstanding #5 Apologetics is For Professionals
As a professional apologist myself, I make a living teaching apologetics. Most apologists aren’t like me. Thank God! The world would be a dry and boring place if all apologists were like me. The need for apologetics in the world is to big to be left to a handful of egghead professionals. It’s great to have a high level understanding of sophisticated attacks on the Christian faith. But most attacks on Christianity are “on the ground floor.” at a level where normal believers can understand. When congregants are willing to hold their ground, listen to a question or challenge posed against Christianity, and then say, “I’m not sure how to answer that. But I’ll look it up.” That’s apologetics. You’ve dignified the question, and so dignified the questioner. You have embraced an opportunity to learn. You’ve gained a conversational access point with that person and begun earning trust. And you might even find some good answers that you can bring back to the person. Apologetics, like a lot of relational ministry, is pretty much just intentional conversations. You can use lay-level apologetics by being conversational and trying to dignify the whole person, intellect and all, when they are confused or questioning. 

A Commentary On Barak Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” Speech[1]
By: John D. Ferrer

You Didn't Build That
Conservatives have seized upon a line in Barak Obama’s July 13th (2012) speech and made it a touchstone for conservative ideals. Obama’s “You didn’t build that” is answered with, “Yes I did.” Liberals retort that the quote is taken out of context and misinterpreted. This quote is critically important since its use could potentially sway enough swing voters to generate a republican victory in November. A bit of context and commentary might show whether conservatives have treated this quote fairly or not. Below is the entire quote in its relevant context, with interspersed commentary.

Barak Obama: There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. . . .

The president has slipped his reference point from the “hardest worker” to “hard worker.” It can be admittedly that hard work does not guarantee success, and, especially in this economy, a lot of hard workers cannot keep their jobs or advance. But that is not as much the case for the hardest workers. It is literally impossible for everyone to work harder than everyone else. The person who works harder than his peers is largely preferred over the less hard worker. Such a person is more valuable to his employer, is more likely to keep his job, and more likely to be promoted than his peers. A “little hard work” is not the point at issue. Rather, the entrepreneur, for example, is invariably the hardest worker within his business. And his “hardest” work is a big part in success. The entrepreneur works the hardest because he has to. He innovates, and stays late, and digs deep, and cuts expenses because if he doesn’t succeed he is wrecked more than anyone else. He builds it because no one else will. If the hardest worker is an employee, he still distinguishes himself and earns his place and may be the boss one day in large part because he was the hardest worker. The person who works the hardest is a little safer and has a better chance of advancing than the person who just “works hard.” The same can be said of the “smartest” worker, and more so about the person who combines smarts and hard work to earn do a better job than his peers.

. . . If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. . . .

Since this is more likely to have been private citizens, acting in a private capacity, the “government-help” connection that Obama is implying does not follow. If we suppose that Obama is not implying anything about government help then his point is trivial. Of course family, friends, and community help each individual to reach their level of success. But that help does not necessarily build anyone’s business. The individual still builds his business. They helped him/her become able to build, but they didn’t build it; the individual entrepreneur, the indidivudal farmer, the restaurateur, these are the people who build it.

. . . . There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. . . .

Perhaps the most offensive word here is “allowed.” Read strongly, this suggests that the collective “American System” is what possesses and doles out businesses to entrepreneurs. It is the collective system, the “we” that gives the entrepreneur permission to start his business. Since Obama likely understands government as part of that “American System,” this strong-reading sounds a lot like a Nanny State. Presumably, that implies that people owe some great gratitude and service (perhaps servitude) to their government for its great generosity of allowing them to have a business. That is a “strong-reading.” But it can be read more charitably too. By this “soft-reading,” the word “allowed,” is an open term for some broad preconditions which made the individuals success possible. The line would thus say, “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that [was sufficient to enable] you to thrive.” While this charitable reading is possible, I do not think Obama meant this. The thrust of his speech is towards some sense of indebtedness towards the collective help and support of others. He is rebutting the idea that individual citizens have built their own business pretty much on their own efforts. That entrepreneur, according to Obama, did not just receive help in building his business. He is indebted to those who helped him. Therefore, I think, Obama intends this strong sense of “allowed.” The collective American system is a/the rightful claimant of businesses, and it has granted individual entrepreneurs the permission to steward those businesses.

Moreover, Obama has mentioned some interesting examples of collective initiative in citing roads and bridges. The roads and bridges were funded by tax dollars, from individual citizens, with private interests, many of which would be just as willing to use non-government means to build those roads if the government allowed them too—it follows then that we the people built those roads. Government “help” is largely indirect and often done in an overblown, inefficient, and mismanaged way compared to free-market private sector answers where people are spending their own money. Interstate roads, and much infrastructure does require wide-scale cooperation and support, but that does not reach the heart of the issue. No amount of roads or rails directly builds my business. Then are preconditions for it, but they do not do the actual work of building anything.

If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Here the President gives his infamous quote. He could have said, “You didn’t build that yourself,” or “You aren’t the only one who built that.” These variations are a little less offensive, but they still fail to solve the key problem of this speech and they aren’t what President Obama said anyway. Instead, he says more strongly “You didn’t build that.” This point is patently false. Even if other people helped build my business, I still built it, I just didn’t build it alone.

Someone may object that the President was referring to something other than businesses. But the word “that” is singular. Since its most immediate object in the preceding phrase is “business,” then he is likely saying, “You didn’t build that [business].” If he meant those other elements mentioned earlier, like “roads,” bridges,” etc. then he should have said, “those.” He seems to mean the other people who helped individuals along the way—they are the ones who built this.

Taken one way, this line is self-refuting. A better interpretation is possible but let’s first see how that line can defeat itself. If nobody built anything, and others have actually done it for them, then neither did those other people build their respective “roads, bridges, teaching, etc.” In short, the ad infinitum ad absurdum conclusion follows that no one built anything, but neither did the other people who helped them, neither did they build anything since they had people who helped them, and so on and so on. No one built anything.

I don’t think this reading is necessary. There is a gentler way to read Obama’s infamous line. Perhaps “you” (singular) did not build that, but “we” did. We all have some kind of help and this is easily admitted. I’ll assume this gentler reading is what Obama meant.

Still, this line “You didn’t build that,” is patently false. If Joe Plumber builds his plumbing business then he has to have help from all sorts of things that aren’t really “building” his business. He needs police to help in case a customer assaults him and steals his wallet. He needs water to exist and have the properties of water or else he can’t be a plumber. He needs the senate and house to establish laws and the court system to enforce laws of the land so Tyrants don’t collect all the power and run the country into the ground ruining his plumbing business. Keeping the “building” analogy, all of these contributing factors provide the individual citizen with the building tools—the bricks of technology and culture, the mortar of family and community, the tool belt of education, the cement of constitutional law, and so on. But none of that builds my business! The individual must take the initiative to collect those resources then sweat and bleed over them till that business is built.

Obama’s line is therefore patently false for treating the brute materials of society like they somehow construct themselves without private citizens infusing the critical factor of actually building the business. No amount of other people’s help ever builds our businesses.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

Obama’s commentary here is only trivially true. We can all admit that we are contingent, interdependent beings, who did not give birth to ourselves, feed ourselves as infants, sew all our own clothes, mill our own flour, etc. etc. So what? Many many things require outside help. And more towards Obama’s line of thought, many things require government help such as fire-fighting, policing, and military efforts. Obama’s example is not helpfully related to individual entrepreneurship unless perhaps we are talking about Bounty Hunters or Private Military Contractors.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the G.I. Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

This point would be more penetrating if he retained a private business context, and distinguish between “allowing” (passive) and “building” (active) business. The government does not and should not build my business. That is what China does by limiting and directing people’s career options regardless of what the individuals themselves would prefer to do. Instead, the Government should help clear the field of lawlessness gross injustice and monopolistic imbalance (including government monopolies) and establish a wide perimeter fence to protect against foreign (military) threats so as to allow cement of constitutional idealism to set. The government has not built my business, but rather has built a large perimeter fence so that there is a free and wide field for me to build my own business, how I want it, to serve my interests, and meet the needs I intend to meet. So, sure, we are in this together and we can help each other. But no one else builds my business, just as no one else has to take the fall when my business fails, and no one else writes the checks for my business investments.

In conclusion, Barak Obama’s now infamous quote, “You didn’t build that,” is well understand by his opponents. The general reading of it at the Republican National Convention is fair. The critical distinction seems to be between “allowing” a business and “building” a business. People can help, and people can get out of the way, and the government can certainly support or oppose individual business, but it is invariably the entrepreneur who is actually building that business.

 

[1](Barak Obama, Roanoke, VA: Speech, 13 July 2012, accessed July 26, 2012 at: http://radio.foxnews.com/2012/07/26/president-obamas-you-didnt-build-that-transcript/).