August 26, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, August 26, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Another Earth? Why cosmology always reveals theology
The headlines appeared virtually all over the world. In the Financial Times it was this:
“Scientists find nearest earth-like planet outside our solar system.”Show Full Transcript
In the New York Times it was this:
“Another Earth Might Be Near, a Mere 25 Trillion Miles Away, Scientists say.”
Similar headlines appeared in just about every major newspaper, and as the New York Times’s Kenneth Chang reported,
“Another Earth could be circling the star right next door to us.
“Astronomers announced on Wednesday that they had detected a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest neighbor to our solar system. Intriguingly, the planet is in the star’s ‘Goldilocks zone,’ where it may be neither too hot nor too cold. That means liquid water could exist at the surface, raising the possibility for life.”
Chang then writes,
“Although observations in recent years, particularly by NASA’s Kepler planet-finding mission, have uncovered a bounty of Earth-size worlds throughout the galaxy, this one holds particular promise because it might someday, decades from now, be possible to reach. It’s 4.2 light-years, or 25 trillion miles, away from Earth, which is extremely close in cosmic terms.”
Now why would there be such interest in this kind of story? It’s one thing for a news story to appear and instantly to gain a great deal of attention. It’s another thing for a story like this to seem to cross national and linguistic barriers, catching the attention of people all over the world. In various languages the range of attention to the story around the world in just about 24 hours’ time tells us something about a quest that is deeply rooted in the human heart and about an interest that should also have our attention. There is an extreme interest on the part of many people to answer the question whether or not there is life outside of planet Earth. Now, as was noted by many in terms of looking at this story, that raises a host of questions about how one would define life; basically it’s some form of biosis, some form of living biological life. What isn’t clear is that there is any opportunity on any other planet for any kind of life akin to what we know on this planet. That was at least acknowledged in the New York Times in an article by Lisa Messeri. She asked the question,
“What’s so special about another earth?”
She points out the fact that many of the scientists who were looking for this other “earth,” as they are calling it, have a model of earth that is actually a very pristine and Edenic conception.
But the big issue here has to do with the fact that we do have the question as to whether or not we are alone in terms of the cosmos, and we also have the question of what it would mean if we were to find a life on some other planet. But the question of life on some other planet is really only really important in theological terms if that life is conscious life and, in particular, if it is conscious life in some sense like human life.
There is no evidence in Scripture, we should say, one way or the other, but this is not a simple silence. It is not a simple silence because it’s not as if the Scripture doesn’t address the larger question of the meaning of the cosmos, the entire universe that God has made. And the most astounding claim in Scripture concerning creation is not only the who, but the why. It’s not only that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” being all-encompassing of all creation of all cosmos, but it also tells us that God created the cosmos as the theater for his own glory, and in particular for the demonstration and for the accomplishment of the atonement of saving sinful humanity. And so if there were to be someday the discovery of conscious life on some other planet, that would not contradict anything in Scripture. But the general flow of biblical theology would not lead us to believe that it’s likely that there would be conscious life on some other planet.
But one of the most interesting aspects Christians also need to note about this is the fact that in that New York Times story by Kenneth Chang, there is the acknowledgment that what excites, at least potentially, so many scientists about this potential planet is the fact that it might be in the Goldilocks zone. Now, anyone who remembers the fairy tales of old will remember Goldilocks and the bed that was just right. Now what is the deep meaning of that from a worldview perspective? Well, it’s huge. This is what is referred to in apologetics, but also in modern cosmology, as the cosmic anthropic principle, and it really is important. That is the principle that reminds us that planet earth is uniquely habitable for human beings. As a matter of fact, it’s not just planet earth, it is this particular galaxy, and not only that but the solar system of which we are a part. If you take our sun and you take this planet and you take the total architecture of the cosmos as we know it in this neighborhood, it is uniquely attuned for the possibility of human life, so finely attuned that it is almost, as even many secular cosmologists acknowledge, as if it were—now get this—particularly and specifically designed in order to be habitable for human life.
Now this is something of a chicken and egg question in terms of modern cosmology, and worldview determines whether you start with the chicken or the egg. If you’re starting from a secular perspective, perhaps you say that it was just fortuitous: this has to do with temperature, which has everything to do with whether or not earth would be habitable for humans. You move the earth slightly further away from the sun, it’s too cold, you move it even slightly further toward the sun, it’s much too hot. It has to do with the density and gravity of planet Earth, which has a great deal to do with whether or not the atmosphere would be conducive to human beings and to the structure of the human body. There are many other aspects of the cosmic anthropic principle, but most revealing is the fact that secularist try to suggest it is just fortuitous that the planet turned out to be this rich in potential for the development of human life. From a theological perspective and in particular from a biblical perspective, it is exactly what we would expect to find. If indeed in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and he planned on this Earth to create human beings as the only species made in his image, then he would’ve created the planet and the solar system, the galaxy and the larger cosmos, exactly so that on this planet human life would not only be possible, but human life could flourish.
Finally on this issue, another worldview dimension: at least some scientists and other observers are a little embarrassed about all the hoopla given this headline. Why would this be such big news? Does it not reveal a certain human-centrism, anthropocentrism as it’s known, does it really mean that we’re looking for others like ourselves because we consider ourselves to be the very center of the universe? What this tells us is that even amongst those who deny the biblical worldview, there is still the understanding, perhaps we should say the instinct, that human beings are utterly distinctive and unique. For that reason, Christians understand that that and the cosmic anthropic principle are never merely secular. They can’t be. They are at the very heart theological.
Dishonorable discharge? An Army general's adultery and the American conscience
Next, there was a very interesting headline in USA Today. It has everything to do with adultery. The headline is this,
“Swinger Life Ruins General’s Career.”
“Secret sex, 11 year affair put him at risk of blackmail and spying.”
The article is by Tom Vanden Brook of USA Today. It begins,
“Army Maj. Gen. David Haight, Army Ranger, decorated combat veteran and family man, held a key post in Europe this spring and a future with three, maybe four stars.
“He also led a double life: an 11-year affair and a “swinger lifestyle” of swapping sexual partners that put him at risk of blackmail and espionage, according to interviews and documents.”
It turns out that the woman with whom he had this affair for 11 years turned him in and said that she and the general had been involved in a torrid love affair that began more than 10 years ago in Baghdad and ended only this spring—as USA Today says in one word, of one paragraph—“badly.”
“His secret discovered, Haight was investigated by the Army inspector general, who issued a report in April, and fired him in May from his job running operations and plans at U.S. European Command, the Pentagon’s front-line bulwark against Russia. The Army hauled him back to Washington, reprimanded him based on an internal investigation and put him in a placeholder job awaiting retirement. A board will determine the rank that he last served honorably. A demotion to colonel or lower would cost him tens of thousands of dollars a year.”
Now this story has just come to light because even as he was removed from his command a matter of some time ago, it was not publicly announced. But like so many other events, it has now become publicly known.
This is a particularly interesting story in terms of what we are now being told in the larger culture. On The Briefing we’ve discussed the fact that several states have been dropping laws against adultery; that’s been one sign that so-called morals legislation is considered by many liberals and progressives in this culture as some kind of reminder of a past that we’ve overcome. And of course in the larger culture, we have a basic affirmation of a certain moral relativism. When it comes to sex and other moral issues, Americans seem to understand that adultery really is wrong and sinful, but they’re not sure exactly what to do about it. In contradistinction, it appears the Army is more certain about what to do with it. That tells us something. So does the language in this article.
First of all, the language is really clear about the fact that this was not some kind of isolated adulterous act undertaken by this general, a two-star general of the United States Army. But rather, it was a double life that he led—an adulterous affair on the one hand and then for over a decade trying to appear as a family man worthy of public and internal military support and respect. There’s more to it of course; it turns out that this was not only an adulterous affair, but it was also tied to a certain sexual lifestyle known as swinging with multiple couples.
So what’s so revealing about this story? Well, number one, it made the front page of USA Today; evidently this is still big news. Even in an age of moral relativism, it turns out adultery really is important. Or is it just important to the Army? Now here’s where there is a very interesting argument being made, and it tends to turn back on itself. We need to watch pretty carefully.
Here’s the implicit argument being made by some looking at the story; it turns out that this is embedded in the very opening lines of the lede. It tells us that the Army reprimanded and fired this general from a very important post out of fear that if his immoral lifestyle were to become known to America’s enemies, he might have been blackmailed, and that would’ve led to opportunities for all things, including espionage. Now that’s not a new argument, as a matter of fact, that’s been an argument used for years about other forms of immoral behavior and in the military, until recently, about in particular same-sex relationships and same-sex behaviors.
But even as the military is trying its very best to join the sexual revolution in every dimension, here shows up the old sin that starts with the letter “A,” adultery. And it shows up in a big way. It shows up in a headline of this news story, and what it tells us when this argument falls back on itself is this: if there were not something deeply sinful, wrong, and immoral about adultery, it would not be a pretext or a cause for the kind of blackmail the military fears. So on the one hand we have a society that says we have outgrown laws against adultery, we are now a generation come of age in terms of a relativistic sexual morality. But when it comes to the acknowledgment that there really is a moral dimension here, it comes down in the black and white of a newspaper article that tells us that the United States Army is afraid that enemies would use the knowledge of this—let’s just say it—immoral and sinful behavior to their own advantage, even with the opportunity of espionage.
As is also usually the case, this kind of sinful behavior was accompanied by what can only be described as stupidity. Sin turns sinners stupid. The article tells us that the general was working in a facility that was absolutely secure from such intrusions as cell phones. Therefore, he was widely known to go outside the building and outside the secure area in order to use his cell phone. It should also tell us that that attracted the interest of other members of the military, and it is now known that he used his United States military cell phone in order to arrange time with his mistress with whom he was conducting the affair. And this has been calculated—because, after all, the government and the military calculate just about everything—that from June to November 2015, he used his government cell phone to make 84 private calls for more than 1400 minutes of conversation. Now get this paragraph,
“If an adversary such as Russia had learned of Haight’s affair and sexual adventures, he would have been a prime target to blackmail, said four senior government officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.”
Then this sentence,
“Russia, one of the officials said, aggressively intercepts telephone calls.”
Finally we need to look at a little linguistic clue in this story, a clue in the language that tells us that there is perhaps still more moral clarity on the question of adultery than the society around us would like to indicate. That linguistic clue comes in this sentence,
“A board will determine the rank that he last served honorably.”
“That he last served honorably”—now how is that defined? Clearly, it is explicitly defined as the rank he last held before he began this immoral adulterous activity. We haven’t completely abandoned the moral universe if the military still talks about honorable and dishonorable discharge, or in the case of this officer, a now-disgraced two-star Army general, the question of the rank he held when last he served honorably. That very language makes sense only in a moral universe.
The "Good Parent" vs. the "Get-Real Parent": Deep moral insight for parents from an unexpected source
Next, The Atlantic had a really interesting article on parenting that is laden with worldview significance. The immediate concern of the article is about parenting college students, in particular college freshmen, new college students. The title of the article by Caitlin Flanagan is this,
“How Helicopter Parenting Can Cause Binge Drinking.”
“The parenting style of some white professionals is propelling the alcohol problem on college campuses.”
Now that should have our attention, because it is linking the parenting style of some parents of incoming college students with really bad behavior, very dangerous behavior, the kind of dangerous behavior that has the attention of college administrators, the police, and should have the attention of parents as well—not just drinking, but what is identified as binge drinking and what’s being celebrated on many college campuses and is a part of the campus culture is a drinking culture that is completely out of control.
Caitlin Flanagan writing in The Atlantic says, some parents are actually facilitating this. And how are they facilitating it? Because some liberal arguments presented to parents are that they are somehow to train their children to drink responsibly, and perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that parents who are supposedly teaching their teenagers to drink responsibly end up with teenagers who when they get to the college campus, don’t drink so responsibly.
But the bigger issue in the story in terms of worldview significance is the distinction that Caitlin Flanagan makes between two parenting styles in postmodern America. One is the Good Parent and the other is Get-Real parent. What is she talking about here? She writes,
“Good Parents think that alcohol is dangerous for young people and that riotous drunkenness and its various consequences have nothing to recommend them. These parents enforce the law and create a family culture that supports their beliefs.”
Now again that’s the Good Parent, capital “G,” capital “P,” and remember that Caitlin Flanagan contrasts that parenting style with yet another she calls the Get-Real parents. The difference is that the Get-Real parent believes that teenagers and college students are inevitably going to drink and the parent shouldn’t panic over the drinking, but rather should try to train their children about how to drink responsibly.
“The horror stories (awful accidents, alcohol poisoning, lawsuits) tend to involve parents who didn’t do it right—who neglected to provide some level of adult supervision, or who forgot to forbid anyone to get in a car after drinking.”
“Get-Real Parents understand that learning to drink takes a while and often starts with a baptism of fire. Better for Charlotte to barf her guts out on the new sectional than in the shadowy basement of a distant fraternity house. On the nights of big high-school events, Get-Real Parents pay for limos, party buses, Ubers—whatever it takes to ensure that their kids are safe. What is an Uber except a new kind of bike helmet?”
There so many dimensions of this story that should have our attention. In the first place, the very fact that it appeared in The Atlantic. The Atlantic is one of most influential magazines on the cultural left—that tells us that this article is considered interesting for the kind of people who will read The Atlantic, who presumably would readily identify the types of parenting identified here. They would know the good parents and the Get-Real parents. Frankly, they might be a little of each. The Good Parent here is presented as moralistic and enforcing rules, thinking that drinking is never good for teenagers or college students and, furthermore, Caitlin Flanagan very carefully says they not only set the rules and enforce them, but they create a family structure that reinforces them. But the Get-Real parent approaches this entirely differently and, in this article, Flanagan makes very clear that many modern, suburban, more liberal parents are not only deciding they’ve got to get real, but they have to somehow facilitate the safe experiences with drinking that might be undertaken by their own teenagers as high school students preparing them for college.
This really is, of course, a distinction in parenting, but more fundamentally it’s a distinction in worldview. It has to do with what parents understand their responsibility to be, and it also tells us that at least some parents believe that getting real means that they have to abandon virtually any kind of moral absolutes and become the facilitators for their children learning how to be more rather than less responsible, even with something as volatile as alcohol.
But there’s more to this story, and it’s really alarming because Caitlin Flanagan tells us that the Get-Real approach isn’t merely undertaken by some parents, but it is increasingly undertaken by some college and university administrators, and even by some administrators at the high school level. They actually are encouraging many parents to leave the Good Parent model behind, and instead merely now to “get real.”
Flanagan tells us that those who are considered and now dismissed as the Good Parent are subject to ridicule by the larger culture, often by these educational administrators, and of course by the Get-Real parents. She writes,
“Ridicule is not the only disappointment in store for the Good Parents. For one thing, high schools turn out to be more in the Get-Real business than they were a generation ago. Go to a parent meeting on some topic like “Teens and Drinking” and you’re likely to get an earful about how to keep your teen drinker safe.”
You’ll notice the distinction: not to keep your team from drinking or to set down rules or to enforce those rules. But then in a very interesting twist in this article, Caitlin Flanagan makes a very ironic observation. This is actually a generation of college students and high school students who desperately want moral direction from their parents and tragically, in far too many cases, what they know they need is exactly what they are not receiving from their own parents. These parents have accepted and swallowed a form of moral relativism that their own children find scary. Flanagan writes,
“No wonder these young people keep drinking. The hollowness at the center of their lives—the increasing abandonment of religion, the untethering of sexuality not just from relationships but even from kindness, the race to jump aboard the STEM express because that’s where the money is, the understanding of eventual parenthood as something that will be subordinated to the management of two successful careers, and the understanding that their own parents care so little about them that they will happily allow them to sustain the kind of moral injuries that blackout behavior often engenders—would make too much consciousness hard for anyone to take.”
Caitlin Flanagan concludes this article, I remind you, in The Atlantic, with these words,
“What are these kids really vomiting up every weekend at their fancy colleges? Is it really just 12 shots of apple-flavored vodka? Or is it a set of values, an attitude toward the self and toward others, that has become increasingly hard for them to stomach?”
Christian parents should find this article, first of all, alarming, but also incredibly fascinating. Because what it tells us is that even the secular world is now trying to grow towards an understanding of why parents matter, of what kind of parenting actually helps children. And there is an understanding in this article that there is something of an emergency in parenting adolescence and college students that has our attention, because we are now watching a generation that is giving itself to behavior on the high school and college campuses, especially the college campuses, that is absolutely self-destructive.
But it can’t be a mere coincidence or merely arbitrary that this article appears in The Atlantic just at the beginning of a new academic term, just when thousands and thousands of young Americans are finding their way to the adventure of the college and the university. It can’t be merely a coincidence that at this very time, Caitlin Flanagan sends a message to the Get-Real Parents telling them that they’re doing very real damage to their very own children. Though this is not addressed to Christian parents, Christian parents can’t miss the message, because for us it’s more fundamental and even more urgent.