2017-01-13

On Atheist Heroes and the possibility of Altruism


Recently, a friend of mine started a discussion about whether acts of pure altruism are possible. Altruism is defined in my dictionary as “the practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”. Philosophically, Altruism can only exist if there is a category of action which creates benefit for others, while creating no benefit (or even a detriment) to self. 

The denial of altruism is a fashion among certain styles of thinking. Ayn Rand style Objectivism says altruism is not only impossible, but even psychologically sick, since the “natural state” of human beings is competitive enlightened selfishness, in which the fittest and most deserving seize resources for themselves, to the detriment of those less fit and deserving. Biologist Richard Dawkins states that even our genes are “selfish” and fool us into behaviors that may appear cooperative or even self-giving, but in the long run are designed to spread our genetic material as widely as possible, to the detriment of other beings’ genetic material.

And lest we think this is merely an issue among “secular” thinkers, religion is rife with this as well. The first serious adult discussion I got into on the possibility of altruism was with a Christian pastor. When we were in our late 20's this pastor told me he doesn't believe in altruism, and the Gospel needs to be couched in a way that appeals to people's selfishness, to give people incentive to give their lives to Christ. Now he is an Evangelical megachurch pastor. And he is not alone. Most religions offer enticements which appeal to human selfishness in order to convert, or behave, or sacrifice: From “pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye” of eternal life in a “heaven”, to avoiding “hell” in the afterlife, to social acceptance and promotion, to the more crass promises of riches and wealth found in Prosperity Theology. Religions are by no means exempt from effectively denying the possibility of altruism. 

But is this “double punch” from secular and religious authority enough to finish off the possibility of altruism once and for all?

I still think, on justified grounds, that truly altruistic acts are both possible and actual. One may say we are hard-wired and socially conditioned for cooperative behavior. And we are. We tend to feel intrinsically good when we help someone (even without any other social benefit). We tend to feel shame when we don’t help someone (even if no one knows but us). Yet, we are also hard-wired and socially conditioned to perform predatory behavior as well. We are trained to compete, to seize what we want, to fend off rivals to obtain resources we think will benefit us. 

But our “wiring” and our “conditioning” doesn’t destroy the possibility of predatory behavior that is self-serving, and based on the idea of winners and losers. Imagine how silly the argument would sound to say “Oh because Bob was programmed to act in a predatory way, therefore predatory behavior does not exist”. In the same way, it is a silly argument to say “Oh because Sue was programmed in an altruistic way, therefore altruistic behavior does not exist”. This is a variant of the Genetic Fallacy: The source of something does not determine its current reality, nature, or value.

So, although we are wired and conditioned for both predatory an cooperative behavior from our evolutionary inheritance, neither negates the actual conscious moral practice of selfishness or altruism by humans right now. The argument is whether altruism is currently a possible or even actual behavior. Again, altruism can only exist if there is a category of action which creates benefit for others, while creating no benefit (or even a detriment) to self. 

There are four categories of benefit to self in Utilitarian ethics:

A. Physical benefits: The action brings physical pleasure or increase of health and life. 

B. Social benefits: The action brings about affirmation, social power, or increased access to physical benefits through the community. 

C. Psychological benefits: The action brings about some sense of meaning or purpose or peace or other psychological good for the actor. 

D. Spiritual benefits: The action brings about blessedness of life in some other realm of being beyond this life. 

The question is: Is there a category of action in which the actor seeks to help others WITHOUT accruing any of the above benefits to themselves in so helping others?

The Christian faith is based upon a particularly gruesome and famous altruistic act. But my favorite example of pure altruism for the purposes of this kind of argument are atheist military heroes, especially of the sort that die in combat. People who wish to debunk altruism (often as a way of validating human selfishness, and hence their selfishness) will often write off martyrdom as a selfish attempt to get into heaven by a last great heroic act. This is often the comeback when I bring up Jesus or any of the saints or holy figures of other religions: They were just doing it to get a better parking spot in "heaven". I think this profoundly misses the point of real religion, but I don't even have to worry about that side argument when bringing up brave atheist soldiers who gave their lives and their futures to die for their country and their comrades. 

And, lest you think I am making up this category of person, here you go:
http://militaryatheists.org 

To this we might add all of the millions of Russian atheists who died during World War II to free their country from Nazi Fascism. We may argue whether their politics or economics were good or bad. But the fact is, millions of them laid down their lives for the benefit of others, in often gruesome ways, with no certainty of success.

There is no conceivable personal benefit for an atheist to give their life in service for their country or comrades. When they sacrifice their lives, they forfeit any kind of expectation future rewards, relationships, and pleasures. They have no expectation of going to heaven. They cease to exist. They have no way of being validated by the praise and honor that will be given in their memory. From their perspective there is precisely zero benefit they derive from their self sacrifice. 

And in fact, rationally they probably only can look forward to their martyrdom negatively affecting their family, and all who relied upon them outside of the battle field. And furthermore, any benefits they did accrue prior to their sacrifice— training, education, healthcare, social admiration, paychecks, etc.— all of that is forfeited the very moment they decide to jump on the grenade to save their comrades, rather than roll the other way and take cover.

To be specific, atheist heroes deny benefit D as impossible. The act of self sacrifice cancels out A entirely. Since they cease to exist, and have no knowledge of whether their act will actually help anyone else out, B is refuted as well. Only a perverse person would argue that the real reason they are sacrificing themselves is that they are masochists who enjoy C for the fleeting seconds they can savor death before falling into the void. Imagine how absurd it would be to say at a funeral for an atheist hero “Doug gave his life not for the good of others, but for the pleasures derived in imagining how great his sacrifice was in the split second before he lost consciousness and went into the void”. 

Some might even argue that the fleeting ephemeral pleasure of accomplishment is why Doug gave his life. But even if there was a microsecond’s awareness of pleasure (which is doubtful in such a situation), it was the effect of, and not the motive for, Doug’s heroic act. And it would be accompanied by massive amounts of pain and dread, followed by infinite nothingness. In short, the costs infinitely outweigh the “reward”. And if Doug was only acting for selfishness, he was infinitely stupid. If selfish acquisition is our moral norm, that would make Doug reprehensible, and not a hero. And yet, we all know deep down that Doug is a hero. This is because Doug’s act is one of heroic altruism in which there is no conceivable benefit, and many formidable detriments, for the atheist soldier who “falls on the grenade”. 

And yet, they were willing to give themselves over to the infinite void of nothingness in order to protect their comrades at arms. 

So regardless of how we are "wired", the case that altruism is both possible and actual is confirmed in the case of atheist heroes. This kind of act constitutes at least one entire category of altruism. Furthermore, this category of action could be easily enlarged by further showing that only a perverse justifier of rank selfishness could make the case that some sort of masochistic psychological pleasure is the real reason why a parent works three jobs to raise their kids, or why Mother Teresa gave her life in the slums of India. And these in turn would open the category further to include all kinds of small acts of sacrifice and kindness we find in the world. 

I am sure there are other equally powerful demonstrations of actual altruism, but atheist military heroes are the most conspicuous example that debunks the argument to justify selfishness that often hovers in the background of these discussions. I question the moral motivation of someone who wants to argue away any possibility of altruism. Want to argue it is rare? Fine. Want to argue it is difficult? True. But to argue it cannot happen? Why?

At the end of the day, I see two options here. Either acts of immediate self-sacrifice are conspicuous examples of heroic altruism, and thus represent the pinnacle of human good, because our moral norm is compassion and love. Or they are flawed and stupid attempts at self-reward, in which the intended benefit is infinitely smaller than the massive and total loss incurred, and thus they are morally evil, because our moral norm is to gain as much as possible for self. 

It may be that altruism functions as a kind of moral “North Star” to orient the ethical choices of our lives. For most people, most of our actions will be tinged with greater and lesser amounts of self-interest, even in our most “self-giving” acts. And we may never quite attain to pure altruism. But altruism still remains the infinite goal toward which we journey, which adds value and meaning to the paths we take in life. But at rare times, and in exceptional people, there is clearly a species of pure altruism displayed by their self-sacrifice for the good of others. And to try and exempt one's conscience entirely from the moral duty of altruism smacks of an ingrown and entitled moral malformation of some type. 

2017-01-02

First Post of 2017

I'm not much of one for New Year's Resolutions. I figure that if one is serious about changing their lives, they won't wait to start that change at an arbitrary time, such as the beginning of a year. So, what I am writing here is not so much what I will start doing now, as much as activities I have already started doing. 

Thus, in 2017, as in 2016, I resolve to make more time for the things that bring value to my life, and use less time on the things that take value from my life.

Top 10 activities that add value:
  • Praying/Meditating
  • Discussing
  • Lifting
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Teaching
  • Serving
  • Encouraging
  • Hiking
  • Playing
Bottom 10 activities that take value:
  • Worrying
  • Brooding
  • Ranting
  • Procrastinating
  • Resenting
  • Fearing
  • Arguing
  • Judging
  • Complaining
  • Stressing


2016-12-28

The Four Horsemen of the Post-truth Apocalypse


As I read the posts on social media and the cultural commentary from all sides, it seems to me there are four primary heresies-- Four Horsemen of the Post-truth Apocalypse, to borrow an image from Revelation-- that are destroying authentic Christianity "from the inside out" during these days:

First is the dual heresy of reducing Christianity completely to political affiliation and political action. This comes in a Right Wing version (The Religious Right; The Moral Majority; The Evangelical voting bloc) as well as a Left Wing version (which trends toward Socialism of some sort, and identifies with the #notmypresident faction, but has not coalesced under a label yet). 

Second is the dual heresy of exempting Christianity from politics altogether and retreating into the private sphere of personal fulfillment. This also comes in a Right Wing version (seen in various ways in revivalism, charismatic spirituality, and prosperity gospel movements), as well as Left Wing version (seen in Oprah Winfrey style universalist mysticism and human potential movements). 

All four of these heresies subtly, and not so subtly, move the focus away from following the Risen Lord Jesus as we continue his mission to heal and liberate our selves, our communities, and our world. They turn our focus instead on attaining power and influence in the world to the exclusion of rivals, or conversely seeking pleasure and prosperity for ourselves to the exclusion of neighbors.

The challenge of our century in Western Culture, it seems to me, will be to find a way of following the Risen Lord without falling into these heresies that beset us from all sides. We cannot do this on our own. May Jesus pour out his Spirit afresh and inspire our imagination with a fresh vision of how to live the Ancient Faith in this "Brave New World" of Postmodern, Post-truth, Post-democratic Consumerism.

2016-12-27

Christ and the Religions


Recently I did a teaching on three ways of relating the universal Love of God to the particular work of Christ in a pluralistic culture: Exclusivism, Pluralism, and Inclusivism.

For Christians, these three ways of relating Christ to world religions is based on our understanding of what the Incarnation of Christ accomplished, and how we read the Biblical texts that point to this Incarnation event. As we read the Bible, a Key Interpretive Question is this: Which set of texts are given primacy in interpretation? Will we allow texts of limitation to interpret and restrict texts of universal Love and Salvation, or will we allow the universal texts to expand and fulfill the horizon of the texts of exclusion and limitation?

On one side, we have the texts of limitation and exclusion in Scripture. These texts point out the particularity of Christ and our need for explicit faith in him:



THE CENTRALITY AND PARTICULARITY OF SALVATION IN CHRIST

  • John 14.6  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (cf. Romans 3-5; Ephesians 1-2)
  • John 8.24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he. (cf. Mark 1.14-15)
  • Acts 4.12 Salvation is found in no one else [other than Christ], for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. (cf. Acts 2.38-39)
  • 1 Timothy 2.5–6 For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the human Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.
  • 1John 5.10–12 Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.


THE REALITY OF LOST PERSONS AT THE JUDGMENT OF CHRIST

  • Matthew 7.21–23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
  • 2 Thessalonians 1.7–9 When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, [he will] inflict vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.


DIFFERENCES IN WORLD RELIGIONS:

  • Religions disagree about the fundamental problem with humanity: Is it Sin? Ignorance? Disobedience? Social Oppression? Infection by evil? Craving/Lust?
  • Different religions disagree about the meaning of “salvation”: Is it impersonal merging with the all? Is it reconciliation and justification with God? Is it outward social liberation? Is it inward personal transformation?
  • Different religions disagree about the end of human life and the end of the cosmos: Are we reincarnated? Do we cease to exist as individual persons? Do we go to a “heaven”? Are we resurrected? Is time cyclical and the universe is reborn? In time linear and history ends in a cataclysm and new creation?
  • Religions differ greatly on specific laws (especially purity and food laws), the specific kinds of rituals used, and how those rituals are interpreted.
  • These differences seem to be logical contradictions: They can’t all be true.
  • Regardless of how “pluralistic” we claim to be, we all judge religions and worldviews, and arrange them on a spectrum from false and evil (on one side), to true and good (on the other), based on our criteria for truth and goodness. As Christians, we believe that Christ is our criterion of Truth and Goodness.


On the other side are texts which stress the Universality of God’s Love and the cosmic effects of Christ’s Redemption:

THE UNIVERSAL LOVE OF GOD AND REDEMPTIVE PLAN OF GOD

  • John 3.16–17 [16] For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. [17] For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (cf. John 1.1-18; 1Timothy 4.10)
  • 1John 4.8-16 God is Love (cf. the nature of Divine Love in 1Corinthians 13; Matthew 5.38-48)
  • 1 Timothy 2.3–4 God our Savior, wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (cf. also 2Peter 3.9; Ezekiel 33.11; Wisdom 11.21-12.2; Romans 8.18-39)
  • 1 Corinthians 3.12–15 If [what was built with their life] is burned up, the builder will suffer loss, yet will be saved, but as one escaping through the flames. (cf. Hebrew 12.29; Malachi 3.2)


THE UNIVERSAL WORK OF GOD AMONG ALL PEOPLES

  • Amos 9.7 “Are not you Israelites the same to me as Cushites?” declares the LORD. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (cf. Psalm 87)
  • John 10.16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (cf. Magi in Matthew 2)
  • Acts 17.16-31 [26] From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, [27] so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. [28] For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’  (cf. Acts 14.15-17; John 12.20-26)


THE UNIVERSAL SCOPE OF CHRIST’S REDEMPTION

  • John 12.32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
  • 1Corinthians 15.21–26 [21] For since death came through a human, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human. [22] For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive… [26] The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (cf. Romans 5.12-19)
  • Colossians 1.15–20 The Son is the image of the invisible God… For in him all things were created in heaven and on earth… All things were created through him and for him… God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (cf. Philippians 2.1-11)


SIMILARITIES IN WORLD RELGIONS:

  • Our Ultimate Source is seen as a Transpersonal Reality of perfect existence, consciousness, and bliss, expressed in complete power, knowledge, and love, which is Transcendent, Immanent, and Personally experienced in relation to the Universe.
  • Ultimate Reality is often seen in Triune Ways: As Trinity in Christianity; As Creator, Theophany, Spirit in Judaism; As the Trimurti in Hinduism, as well as threefold Vedantic conception of Nirguna Brahman, Saguna Brahman, Shakti; Or as the Trikaya (Three Bodies) of Buddhism.
  • Enlightened persons are said to embody Ultimate Reality, whether in the Incarnation of Christ, Avatars in Hinduism, Bodhisattvas in Buddhism, or Sufi Sheikhs of Islam.
  • Religions use a variety of sacramental rituals (using hands, water, food, fire, etc.) to place people in community, bestow on them identity, and communicate the Divine life to them.
  • The Enlightened life is constituted by the “Golden Rule” of reciprocity: Loving neighbor as self, treating others as you want them to treat you, seeing yourself in others in interconnected life.
  • The Enlightened person exhibits common Christlike (or Godlike, or Buddha-like) virtues of Love, compassion, peace, contentment, justice, harmony, wisdom, and self-discipline.


Based on how one understands and balances these texts and ideas, three basic ways of relating world religions emerge:



EXCLUSIVISM

DEFINITION: A view of Religion in which only one path leads to Ultimate Reality. All of the other paths lead to dead ends or destruction. In this view, there is only one absolute Truth, and anyone who diverges from it is living a lie. One God, found on one path, in one system.

ROLE OF CHRIST: Christ saves us by giving us proper knowledge of God, namely that God became one of us, died to take our sins, and rose again to give us victory. But these events do not save us unless we understand, accept, and believe these facts as Truth. Christ saves those who explicitly acknowledge Christ and believe that Christ is saving them. Those who do not explicitly, consciously believe in Christ cannot be saved.

VIEW OF TRUTH: Truth is Propositional, contained in well-formed, objective truth claims. Christ teaches a system of Truth to be believed. If one collects all true statements, understands and believes them, they know "The Truth". Theological statements form boundaries defining who is in the Truth and outside of it.

KEY ANALOGY: It often uses a chasm analogy to describe religion: With one religion as a safe island across an infinite chasm which divides it from all the false and deceptive religions on the other side.

STRENGTHS: This focuses on the uniqueness of Christ as God's sole instrument of salvation, and our need to explicitly acknowledge this. Facilitates Christian confidence in Christ in the face of competing claims.

WEAKNESSES: This fails to deal adequately with God's universal Love for all creation, and the Scriptures which seem to point to universal restoration through Christ. The view of Truth here focuses not on Christ Himself to save us, but a system of ideology. It’s hard to be consistently exclusivist: It would logically entail spending 100% of time and effort to convert or eliminate competing religious views.

The polar opposite of Exclusivism is:

PLURALISM

DEFINITION: A view of Religion in which many paths lead to Ultimate Reality. In this view, there is no absolute Truth, because all truth claims are relative to culture and experience. Thus all religions are equally “true”, with different “Gods” sought through different paths.

ROLE OF CHRIST: Christ is one of many moral and spiritual exemplars who lead us into enlightenment or higher consciousness. Different religions function as different "languages" or "word games". Just as different sports have different rules, exemplars, and goals, so to with Religions. Just as you cannot judge football on the basis of baseball or basketball, so also Christianity and other religions are fundamentally different, and "played" according to the tastes and needs of the "player".

VIEW OF TRUTH: Truth is Perspectival, constituted by what seems or feels true to my subjective experience. Truth is not found "out there", objectively, in any other person or set of propositions. Thus there is no complete, absolute [T]ruth, but only partial, relative [t]ruths in an unbounded flow of experience. Christianity is true if you accept it as true for you.

KEY ANALOGY: It often uses the analogy of many paths going up a mountain, with each path representing a religion, and the top of the mountain representing experience of, and union with, the Divine.

STRENGTHS: This focuses on the universality of God's Love and hope that all persons will be included and saved. Facilitates inter-religious dialogue as equals.

WEAKNESSES: This does not do justice to the particularity of Christ as God’s only instrument of salvation. The view of Truth here focuses too much on the individual, and not on the common reality we inhabit. It’s hard to be consistently pluralist: It provides no way to judge a religious path as harmful or good, but wipes away all distinctives in a false equivalency.

And trying to mediate and do justice to the positive aspects found in Pluralism and Exclusivism, while negating what is harmful in these systems, we find:

INCLUSIVISM

DEFINITION: A view of Religion in which all the great religions reveal facets or aspects of the Truth that is fulfilled in a most complete Path. Lesser or partial truths lead to final and absolute Truth. The same God is known by different communication systems.

ROLE OF CHRIST: Christ fulfills what is good, true, and beautiful in other religions and cultures. He brings to explicit completion that which is partial or implicit. His incarnation, death, and resurrection brings at-one-ment with God. The patterns of truth in the religions are signposts pointing us to his Reality. Christ saves those who co-operate with his grace, even if they do not know or understand who is saving them (cf. CS Lewis' analogy of being nourished by food even if you don't understand nutrition). “Anonymous Christians” in other religions follow Christ without knowing it.

VIEW OF TRUTH: Truth is Personal, found in relationships between persons. Truth is found by conforming the inner reality of one person to the reality of another person through relationship. Theological statements do not exhaustively contain Truth, but rather give us signs that point to the Truth at the Core of reality, which must be personally experienced to “know” the Truth. Thus, Christ is Truth incarnate in a specific human person we can know.

KEY ANALOGY: It often uses a Solar System analogy, in which Divine Truth is the "Sun" at the center, and the great religions are in different orbits around that "Sun", each closer or further in different ways at different times, following different trajectories.

STRENGTHS: This focuses on Christ Himself, not a system of belief, as it tries to do justice to both the universal Love and saving intent of God, while also doing justice to the unique role of Christ as God's instrument of salvation. Facilitates inter-religious dialogue with a clear criterion by which to judge the health or sickness of a religion: The degree to which it conforms to Christlikeness.

WEAKNESSES: This may fail to do justice to the call of the New Testament to explicitly and consciously accept Christ as Lord and Savior in this life, thereby promoting a false hope that there are ways to more fully know Christ post-mortem.

You can download a PDF copy of the chart for this teaching here.

2016-12-22

Right about the Right


This is the best thought piece on the Religious Right, by a member of the Religious Right, that I have read in years (or watched). Russell Moore represents what is best in that tradition, and I found myself nodding in agreement more often than I frowned in disapproval. The whole thing is worth the hour of time invested in it. Yet, despite large swaths of my sympathy, there are three areas where I think he gets it wrong: 

First, one gets the sense that Jesus is something that must be shoehorned into his theological-social system, rather than his system being an unfolding of what he finds in Jesus. But if Jesus is God Incarnate, the very Word of God made flesh-- which I believe he is-- then he forms the fundamental fact which orients our theology, and the axiomatic set of values that define our ethics. And if we base our social positions on Jesus' values, rather than the values of Reformation Europe or an imagined 1950's era Americana, we will create a movement that is a vital third alternative to the "right" and "left" we currently have to choose from.

Second, I think the frames Moore uses-- conservative vs liberal, right vs left, Biblical vs secular-- no longer correspond to social or theological reality, and tend to obscure common areas of concern around which a new movement could be formed. These labels have been stretched and appended, cut and remodeled, so often, by so many, for such different reasons over the last 50 years, that they are essentially meaningless. If we drill down past labels to specific issues, we might find we have more sympathy with each other than the polarized, ad-driven media machine tells us that we have.

Third, while I applaud his emphasis on strong families, I think he unwisely limits that to a single type of family he is culturally programmed to be comfortable with. The Biblical and social witness is that family is a much broader category than the nuclear heterosexual family. And the very things that make a nuclear family strong-- unconditional love, faithfulness, peacemaking, discipline, forgiveness, etc.-- make every type of family strong. And strong, diverse families formed by common ethical and spiritual values in turn form strong communities, which form a strong culture. 

If Moore means to form a Jesus-centered, values-based, consistently pro-life movement which seeks to protect the unborn, feed and educate the young, provide healthcare to the sick, bring racial reconciliation, make peace, end war, and strengthen all kinds of families in all their diversity, then I will join that movement. But if he just wants to resuscitate the moribund religious right of the 1970s, then I say let the dead bury their dead. As the author himself said "The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about". 

Moore is, after all, right about the Right. With this election it signed its own spiritual death certificate, even if it lumbers on socially and politically for the next decade as some kind of undead zombie. Calling the Religious Right out on its undead status has, in fact, gotten Moore in no small bit of trouble lately. This advancing necrosis, this tendency of the Right to eat its own, is why I left the religious right a decade ago. Yet, while the religious right may not be able to be saved, in dying it may just allow something new and transformed to be resurrected in its place. And for that I'm willing to work and pray. 

You can watch the whole address on Youtube, or read it at First Things.

2016-12-19

Modes of Prayer in the Spiritual Life


I am working on a teaching about modes of prayer in the spiritual life. I'm trying to come up with a way to help people find the presence of God in all kinds of activities, not just the verbal prayers we might pray alone or together. So, here is a chart I worked up for teaching, along with six rhyming words which describe six modes of prayer.

2016-12-18

The Legend of SciFi Santa the Time Lord




My second grade son is very into science fiction: Marvel Universe, Aliens, Terminator, DC Legends of Tomorrow, Flash, Godzilla, and many more. Tonight he started asking questions about Santa Claus. So, fusing sacred and secular, history and fiction, I explained how Santa is really a Time Lord who works for Jesus. And my explanation went a little like this:

Santa was originally born around 1700 years ago as Nicholas of Myra (in modern day Turkey). Because of his exceptional compassion for children and the needy, and his willingness to fight against injustice (as witnessed by his brawl with Arius), Nicholas was named a saint, and was granted immortality by God so long as he continued in the Path of compassion and justice.

Nicholas spent the first several centuries covertly fighting injustice and doing good for poor children in the region of the Middle East. Every Christmas, in honor of Christ, he snuck into the houses of the impoverished and left gifts. But as time went on, Nicholas grew curious about the world God created. Under aliases and a long beard, he began to study what was once called "Natural Philosophy", and later "Empirical Science" in places such as the Great Library of Alexandria, Tang Dynasty China, Abbasid Baghdad, Mughal India, the University of Paris, and early modern Oxford.

By the early 1800s, with centuries of accumulated knowledge, Nicholas far surpassed the best technological minds the world had ever known. And his legendary sweet tooth led his waist size to surpass every pair of pants he ever owned. But with the gift of immortality, he didn't have to worry about cholesterol, so the more the merrier!

On Christmas Eve of 1812, Nicholas learned how to warp space and time, appearing to move at relativistic speeds (i.e. near the speed of light) relative to an outside observer, while moving at "normal" speed relative to himself. Within the next year, using the same technology, he also developed the ability to create pocket universes. This led to the intervention of alien "Time Lords" who were alerted to the change of technology on planet Earth. Nicholas was captured and taken to Cygnus 7, home of the headquarters of the "Sentient Alliance for Negating Temporal Aggression" (S.A.N.T.A. For short). Once the agents of SANTA interrogated Nicholas for several years, bribing him with milk and cookies, they determined that he was in fact a morally virtuous immortal, who was granted Divine abilities to fight evil and spread compassion throughout the universe.

Thus thoroughly vetted, Nicholas was trained and granted "agent" status with SANTA as the protector for the Sol star system, and in particular for the third planet, Earth. He was sent back with instructions to protect Earth from attack by malevolent aliens, and to make sure that the timeline was not tampered with. He was now a Time Lord with the designation SANTA agent Nicholas, which was a real mouthful, and was eventually shortened to Santa Claus.

He set up his base with a small portal to a pocket universe in the most inhospitable place on Earth: The North Pole. From his secret base, he protects the Earth and her Solar system from nefarious threats in space and time. His pocket universe home base is staffed by several hundred aliens from all around the galaxy who help monitor the solar system and timeline, and who fabricate the tools Santa Claus needs to protect us. Usually the home base on a planet would be mainly staffed by life forms from that planet. But since the Earth is still so technologically and socially backward, the Time Lords of SANTA thought it best to staff our base with aliens until we grow up. Only one other human has attained Time Lord status, and she is known as "Mrs. Claus". Her identity is to be kept a secret at all costs, but legend has it she bakes the best cookie this side of galaxy center.

Starting soon after the establishment of his base in the mid-1800's, Santa Claus also began to enlarge his yearly gift giving to children at Christmas time. First the aliens living and working with Nicholas joined in by fabricating the best toys at the top technological level for Earth society in any given year. Second, these toys are housed in a pocket universe that holds a vast robotically controlled warehouse that is able to retrieve any toy in seconds. Third, he developed satchels that housed a portal to that pocket universe, which could easily be carried over the shoulder. Fourth, he created transdimensional time sleds which make use of 5th and 6th dimensional space, so they can appear "inside" the houses of families without having to go through walls or doors.

Thus equipped, Santa Claus, along with his alien helpers which he calls his "elves", drop off presents to every child in the world who is on the "nice" list (although Santa Claus almost always caves in and gives gifts to the "naughty" kids too). Because of the time warping effect of transdimensional travel, it appears from Earth perspective that it takes them about 1.8 seconds to deliver presents to every child on Earth. From the perspective of Santa and his elves, it takes about 6 months. Yet since he is immortal, and most advanced alien species live for centuries, the time spent making and delivering toys doesn't matter compared to the joy it creates.

This, of course, explains why we don't have records of the worldwide phenomenon of Santa delivering toys to children all over the world until stories started coming out in the mid-1800s. Santa's gift storage and delivery technology did not exist until then! It also explains why the North Pole base has never been found, and will never be found, until human technology leaps forward. From an Earth perspective, his "base" is just one well-cloaked transdimensional portal that does not appear visible in three dimensions. It emits tachyon particles and slightly warps gravity, but we won't be able to detect that for decades if not centuries.

But we do need to clear up a couple of misconceptions: First, Santa himself does not actually hand-deliver every package. He divides Earth up into several hundred zones for himself and all of his alien elves. But since most Earth humans would be very disturbed by the idea of aliens visiting their house, they happily allow Santa to take all of the credit. Perhaps some day when Earth society and technology has evolved, the full truth can come out. Because the truth is out there!

Second: We also need to deal with the truth behind the reindeer. These, of course, are not the furry mammals that live in the tundra of the northern hemisphere. Everybody knows they cannot fly, and they hate pulling sleighs! REINDEER is simply another acronym for "Radiant Energy INduction for Dimensional Expansion and Extraction Robots". Basically, they are all purpose robots which supply the power which is necessary for the warp drive housed in the sleighs. The appearance of looking like a deer comes from the four legs which house ion thrusters. The "red nose" is the quantum fusion engine housed in the forward half of the robot. And because the fusion engine throws off lethal amounts of radiation, it has to be tethered to the sled by carbon filament cables several hundred meters long, to give space for the buffering force fields to contain the radiation. But don't worry: Since the REINDEER operate outside of the three dimensions of Earth space, none of the radiation ever makes it inside anyone's home. And because most people would be alarmed that radioactive four legged robots are pulling the warp sleighs, Santa is more than happy to have folks believe the story about the reindeer.

Well, I guess that is all we really need to know about Santa Claus, and how he delivers gifts every year. You may now be wondering "Well what does Santa do the other 364 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 58.2 seconds of the year?" Well, he is fighting to keep our timeline safe from enemies! But that is another story for another time...

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.

2016-12-05

How to win at Facebook


The definitive guide to crushing opponents on social media

Are you tired of stupid people clogging up you newsfeed with their inane ideas, stupid memes, and useless tirades? Do you want to destroy their stupidity without getting locked into endless battles of point-counterpoint? Well, if you desire to quickly and decisively win arguments on Facebook, comments sections, and other social media, just follow these five tried-and-true steps:

1. Go on someone else's Facebook wall, select a post you have problems with, and in no uncertain terms BOLDLY condemn it in unequivocal language, preferably while questioning the moral or intellectual ability of the person who posted it*.

2. If the original poster responds back with bluster, anger and offense, but without substantive argument, you have almost won. Keep repeating your assertions*, and questioning their abilities, to anger them until they explode in an ad hominem attack against you. At that point get "offended": Claim moral high ground, become righteously indignant, and use this as an example of how all people who disagree with you are uncivilized and hypocritical. You have just won Facebook.

3. If the original poster responds back with evidence and rational argumentation, DO NOT respond in kind*. Keep repeating your talking points, preferably in ALL CAPS. If the original poster begins to ignore you, you can safely assume you have won Facebook.

4. If the original poster ceases to be rational, and begins to respond with anger, go back to step 2.

5. If the original poster keeps responding with evidence and argumentation, back out of the argument with "Reverse-Offense". This is a tricky maneuver by which you claim that you have offended them, and you will back out of the argument "for their sake", so you don't "offend" them any more. While this is not a Facebook win, it is not a loss either. You may want to delete all evidence of what you said, leaving their comment tree looking like they were arguing with themselves. Which is kind of a win in itself.

*No matter what you do, never never never respond by attempting to use logic or rational argumentation (i.e. argument that proceeds in a linear fashion through interconnected points that imply one another, and do not logically contradict one another). This is a sure fire loosing strategy, as the difficulty level is just too high for most people to construct winning arguments that do not possess significant flaws in evidence or rational consistency. Thus, stick to talking points and assertions that are evidence free (or at least based on cherry picked evidence that only matches your interpretation) and bare no significant causal relationship to each other.

DO NOT:
- Clearly define the terms and ideas used in your argument
- Pay attention to logical consistency between assertions made in your argument
- Double check if your cherry picked evidence fits with larger trends and other relevant evidence
- Admit you are in error, either in possibility or actuality

Above all, do not try to construct, offer, or suggest a solution to the problems you raise. That will cause you to loose, because it will provide a substantive solution for others to criticize. Solutions are like ideological billboards that say "Hey! Spray paint critical graffiti all over me!" Instead, stick with criticism, critique, and destruction of others' solutions. Always tear down and never build up: It is the only way to win at Facebook.

Now, everything said above is, of course, a parody. There is an alternative. And that is to deliberately, and even prayerfully, engage in disagreements in a manner that is intentional, evidence-based, and rational, in an effort to seek the Truth as we can best discern the Truth. We might even trust that God works through debates and arguments to lead us to a fuller knowledge of Truth. For the few and the worthy who make use of this alternative to pursue moral, intellectual and spiritual growth, this guide works in inverse: Just do the exact opposite of each of the steps outlined above.

You can win at Facebook, or you can strive for Truth. But you can't do both at the same time.

2016-12-04

A Short Meditation on Evolution and Original Sin




This summer a friend asked me a great question about how Evolution and Original Sin can relate to each other. To get to my answer, I must first do a little theological back filling to set the stage for the question. First, I accept evolution as the means by which God "creates" life, although I would prefer to say that evolution is the self-expression of infinite Divine potential in space and time. If I were to bet, I would bet that the universe is actually a multiverse, in which every universe exists that can actualize at least one unique good as it evolves. This seems to be the kind of reality that would best actualize God's infinite possibility, although what I'm about to say would work in a singular universe as well.

Most of the great world religions state that Ultimate Reality-- often understood as a Infinite, Transcendent, Immanent, Personal "God"-- is characterized by love, compassion, empathy, and a self-emptying nature. God pours Godself out to share the gift of life with others. The unitive Divine Being allows Godself to become multiplicity to enjoy the actualization of Godself in the lives of countless beings. Thus the unfolding cosmic process of evolution is God giving Godself to create a world of beings who will someday realize they come from Divine Love and they will return to Divine Love.

In the process of evolution, the dice seem to be loaded to make the system trend toward the emergence of conscious, creative, communicative persons. In my theology, persons are unique in that they can be consciously aware of fellowship with God, and consciously choose to enact or reject that fellowship.

Most creatures in the world operate on instinct and are not fully conscious or sentient in the way human persons are (I don't think humans are the only persons, but we are the only persons we currently know). What I mean is that when most creatures act or feel pleasure or pain, they are not really different from a rudimentary computer algorithm or robot: They enact pre-programmed commands, and their sensors go off in response to stimuli. They don't have meta cognition to think about what they think about. They don't tell stories. They don't ask why. They don't invent things. They don't create art.

But as evolution continues, persons emerge who do all of these things. We can see this process happening right now in some higher animals such as chimps and dolphins, although they are not fully personal yet. Perhaps some day we will see it happen with a computer program. But AI has not arrived yet.

When this qualitative transition fully occurs from instinctual creature to conscious person, our mental apparatus is able to tune into a new level of reality: The level of moral and aesthetic value. Prior to the transition to person, creatures think in terms of actuality and potentiality (is/is not/can/cannot). After this transition, the moral light enters into consciousness: Should/Should not. The idea of moral duty and obligation. The rudimentary ideas that love, compassion, empathy, honesty are moral goods we ought to do, while hatred, selfishness, ruthlessness, and deception are moral evils we ought not to do (at least not to our own kinship group, although as persons evolve this moral awareness universalizes).

Along with this moral awareness comes an awareness of the future, and of the finality of death. While higher animals may mourn the loss of close members of kinship groups, sentient persons not only mourn the loss of loved ones, but they pre-mourn their own loss in the future as well. They begin to develop theories about the afterlife and take steps to ensure the continuance of their memory/legacy. Death takes on meaning, and serves as a kind of ominous warning about the consequences of action. Careless and stupid actions begin to be causally related to death.

So, among the many transformations of awareness for persons-- from developing an aesthetic sense to developing rituals of worship-- perhaps the greatest transformation is that we gain the dual sense of morality and mortality. And this directly and finally leads us to answer your question.

Among the many instincts that are inbuilt into the successful higher animals is the drive to predation/hunting, as well as the drive to cooperation/herd behavior. Each of these opposite instincts are useful in some situations, and are part of the biological inheritance provided for us by evolution. But when creatures evolve into persons, they suddenly have the moral choice between predation and cooperation beyond instinctual obedience. There becomes a moral sense that predation can be good only in a very limited context, and cooperation is generally good in most human contexts. And yet there is also the awareness that predation can provide access to resources and sex, at the cost of human community, by disobeying this moral sense. And there is also the sense of real danger that comes from violating this moral sense: Betraying the community for short term gain can cause ostracism, punishment, or even death.

And yet, this awareness of morality and mortality is not just limited to specific situations and the utility of individual choices. It somehow FEELS universal: As if betraying the moral ought also leads to death in a deeper "spiritual" sense. Perhaps you might think of this as self-alienation: Killing a little piece of yourself as you do what you yourself do not agree with. Or perhaps it goes even deeper and somehow alienates us from a Divine Cosmic Source (which, of course, is what the great world religions affirm in their various ways).

So, the "original sin" would be when our first personal ancestors became aware of morality and mortality, and yet acted against their own moral sense, incurring upon themselves the "death" of personal shame and social destruction that always accompanies choices that we condemn in ourselves. This "original sin" transmits like a virus or a meme through society. People pick it up by nature AND nurture as society evolves and develops.

I think that this is what Genesis chapters 1-11 are expressing, using poetry, myth, and symbolism. I would reject a "literal" reading of these Scriptures as self-contradictory, anti-science, and literarily absurd. But clearly in a allegorical or mythopoeic way, these chapters point to deep truths about the self-alienation and divine-alienation that comes from morality and mortality.

In this, I side with the Eastern Orthodox tradition on "original sin": They have always viewed it as an infection which makes people sick from generation to generation, which needs to be healed by the medicine that is God's grace given through the great Physician Jesus Christ. They have never had time for the peculiar Western ideas that legal or moral "guilt" was transmitted through the generations, so that modern people bear the "guilt" for "Adam's fall". In fact, the personal angst to feel guilt for what others do is one of many symptoms that we are infected with the disease of sin, and need healing and liberation. And the Western idea that original sin is somehow connected with the act of sex, thereby making sex dirty and unnatural, is completely absurd and probably demonic. To be sure, sexuality used wrongly in a predatory way that uses others, is sinful. But that is a case of using sex badly, not of sex in itself being bad.

Western theologies have made an idol of the courtroom and the financial transaction. They see God as arbitrarily commanding laws, and attaching a "price" to obedience or disobedience. When we make just one infraction against the command of the infinite being, we thus incur an infinite debt, which we must repay with infinite punishment. And then Jesus is seen as the cosmic whipping boy who takes the infinite punishment we "deserve" from our cosmic abusive Father, so that we don't have to pay. Western theologians call this act of divine payment "grace", since we cannot have salvation except for a free gift of Infinite worth paid on our behalf. But there is another way to look at it: As an absurd, unjust, and capricious God who is divided against Himself and who must punish Himself in Christ to pay for the guilt he demanded.

Does disagreeing with Western Theology equate to Pelagianism? I think not. Pelagianism is the denial that we need God's grace to be saved and healed: We can "do it ourselves" without God's help. But I would rather say that all is grace. The fact that we live in an evolving creation is because God graciously empties Godself into the cosmos to actualize the Divine Life in space and time. The freedom and consciousness with which we exercise moral choices are likewise gifts of grace, along with our twin awareness of morality and mortality. When we are infected by sin, it is grace that calls us back to God, grace that heals us, grace that empowers us to choose the good.

Ultimately, as a Christian-- and this in no way takes away from the many ways God's grace is displayed in other religions-- the ultimate act of Divine grace is that God's self-consciousness becomes personally embodied in the human life of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, God personally enters into solidarity with our human problem of morality and mortality. He perfectly embodies the good-- fulfilling our problem of morality-- and he takes death into himself and overcomes it by the resurrection-- fulfilling our problem of mortality. In so doing, he becomes the "injection point" of God administering the cure for our infection. By uniting God's life and human life in himself, Jesus opens the gateway to be united to God by sharing in his life. Our "therapy program" is to daily choose to imitate Christ and invite his life to flow through us. This is all grace and in no way Pelagian, although it is also not passive. We actively cooperate with the Christ life working through us, and the very possibility of cooperation is because grace is working through us.

Now, the same Divine life that becomes personally embodied in Christ, is also the same Divine life that teaches us in Krishna, shows us the path to enlightenment in the Buddha, establishes Confucius' Mandate of Heaven, expresses itself in the Tao, declares itself one in Allah, and calls to Moses in the burning bush. It is the cosmic Logos-- Word, Purpose, Plan, Pattern, Message-- that has shined light on all people and which has taken on flesh in Jesus (cf. John 1:1-18). So, I don't think that participating in Christ's life is limited to the Christian Path, although the Christian Path is certainly the most explicit and often the most direct way to participate in Christ's life.

But in terms of morality and mortality, Jesus Christ represents the final goal of human evolution, occurring early in human history, to show us what we can become if we cooperate with the Divine Spirit working within us. We are made to fully unite divinity and humanity in ourselves just a Christ did. As Saint Athanasius said in the early 4th century: The Divine Son became human so that humans may become divine. We are made to be gods who reflect God in our consciousness, creativity, communication, and compassion. Original sin is the disease that tries to trick us into NOT evolving into the glorious children of God that we are meant to become. But by cooperating with the Christ life that is at work in what is best in great religious paths of the world, we can be healed of this disease and play our role in humanity's evolution into Christlikeness.

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.

2016-12-03

A radical idea to end the Holiday Wars




Idea: Let's stop politicizing the Holiday Season and wish people whatever greetings convey hospitality the best in the given circumstance. And if we feel the need to be exceedingly theologically correct, let's wish people "Happy Hanukkah" (since that is what Jesus celebrated this time of year, cf. John 10:22), or "Blessed Advent" (since that is what Jesus' Church has celebrated this time of year for the last 17 centuries), and save "Merry Christmas" for December 25th and 12 days after, since those are the actual days of Christmastide. Or, alternately, just wish people whatever Holiday greeting best conveys "loving your neighbor as yourself" in any particular circumstance. Since, after all, that idea of loving your neighbor was the most important thing to Jesus, and if we want to honor Jesus, perhaps we should do what he asked us to (cf. Matthew 22.35-40). With that in mind, have a blessed and fruitful Advent y'all!

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.

2016-11-27

This Advent perhaps we don't have to be rage monsters after all




Nietzsche once wrote "Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster". It seems that in our culture all sides tend to make those we disagree with into enemies. Then we make our enemies into monsters. And then we become monsters while fighting them, filled with constant rage and indignation and anxiety and blame. And soon, if we do not stop it, we will all reap the consequences of the monsters we have created and become.

This Advent perhaps the idea of "perhaps" could help us out of this predicament. Perhaps Jesus has another way out for us. Perhaps when we battle monsters we could become more like Jesus and less like monsters. Perhaps our enemies aren't monsters after all anyway (at least not all of them). And perhaps our enemies are not even our enemies really (at least not all of them). Perhaps they are people who want the same things we do: A full belly, well educated kids, dependable healthcare, meaningful work, a living wage, a loving community. And perhaps they have some different ideas about how to get from where we are to where everyone can have that kind of life. And perhaps in this "common goals through different means" kind of insight, we might even find some common ground. Perhaps.

This is all just crazy talk, I know. But perhaps it isn't. And perhaps the way that we have been doing things is not preparing us for the Advent of the Kingdom of God, in which all of God's children have daily bread, and live full and meaningful lives, as they Love God and Love their neighbors. And perhaps this means we could try another way. A way that looks more like the sacrificial service of Jesus, and less like the Imperial conquest of Caesar. And perhaps if we did this, Christ would pour out his Spirit upon us once again as in the days of the Apostles, and we would see people healed and set free and made whole. And as I say this, I know that this is all probably just a pie in the sky pipe dream that could never come to fruition in the world of realpolitik and billion dollar business deals. But, then again, perhaps it might just work after all. Perhaps.

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.

2016-11-25

A Meditation on Buddhist ideas of contingency and emptiness in relation to Western Trinitarianism





Today I was doing some reading on Indian philosophy, and in particular on the ideas of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna who argued powerfully that the ultimate source of the empirical world is "emptiness" which cannot be fully identified with, nor fully distinct from, the chain of causality (or dependent origination) which upholds the empirical world. For Nagarjuna this emptiness cannot be identified with either existence or non-existence, because both of these states of (non)being are contingent on a whole host of other causes. And emptiness as such is ontologically distinct from the entire contingent world of dependent origination, and hence the ultimate emptiness which grounds the world cannot be said to exist or not exist in any meaningful sense. Thus it is erroneous to think of ultimate reality as a "being" that (a) exists, or (b) doesn't exist, or (c) exists and doesn't exist, or as (d) neither existing or not existing. In short, no categories apply meaningfully to describe the ultimate reality that grounds the world, and thus this reality is purely "empty".

Yet, if we step back from existence and non-existence as primary descriptive categories, there is a reality that precedes, and grounds, and is the source of, all being and non-being, existence and non-existence. This is possibility or potential. Being and non-being are merely the first and most important actualizations of possibility, from which all further actualizations emerge. It is improper to call this possibility a "thing", or a "being", or an "entity", for it transcends and gives rise to all things, beings, and entities as a function of the actualization of their potential. Thus "possibility" is logically prior to the entire world of being, becoming, and non-being. Further, it is improper to say that this possibility exists or does not exist, since it is itself the ground of all existence and non-existence. In the words of Buddhism, this possibility is emptiness. But it is an emptiness that is Real in a way more primal and definitive than any contingent reality that emerges from it.

In the words of Theism, this possibility is uncreated and non-contingent, as it transcends all categories and beings in the multiverse of contingent things. Although this transcendent possibility is beyond personality, beyond power, beyond knowledge, beyond goodness, yet it is proper to speak of it as personal, as well as infinitely powerful, knowledgeable, and good, since the possibility for all personhood, power, knowledge, and good is implicit within the infinite potential which gives rise to all worlds. In fact, this Real Emptiness which is the Ground of all worlds must necessarily be experienced in a threefold way in relation to any universe, no matter how many dimensions are contained in that universe.

First, this Emptiness must necessarily transcend any category or being or cause or effect within any contingent universe. Although some concepts may form helpful analogies to point toward the Transcendent, the Transcendent will necessarily exceed and remain un-inscribed by such concepts in any possible universe (and this applies even to the flawed and partial definitions of transcendence we use). Hence the first aspect of this Ultimate Reality will be the Transcendent Emptiness from which all possibility flows.

The second aspect of the Ultimate in relation to a partial and contingent universe will be the infinite possibility discussed above. Every possible contingency and reality which will or could be realized in any possible world is held in the timeless infinity that transcends all else. Thus, the Ultimate Reality will necessarily be perceived as the Infinite Pattern of Potential that grounds and gives rise to all worlds, and which is the necessary basis for all existence and non-existence, as well as every being and non-being. To borrow the language of Greek Neoplatonic thought, this Infinite Potential would be likened to a "Divine Mind" in which every possible "form" or "pattern" is present as a possibility, awaiting the opportunity to be actualized in the space and time of a contingent universe.

This leads to the third necessary aspect of the Ultimate in relation to the contingent: The experience of actual being and becoming. If the Ultimate is both the Transcendent Reality and the Infinite Possibility that gives rise to any particular universe, there is a sense in which the universe "lives and moves and exists" within and because of this Divine Ground. We get the sense that this two-fold Ultimate somehow constantly enables the actual existence of all particular beings in the universe; The sense that this universe of plurality is somehow a self-expression of this two-fold Ultimate. And thus the Omnipresent Actuality, or Immanent Being, of all particular beings, becomes the third aspect of this now three-fold Ultimate. The Ultimate is also experienced as the power of being which brings about the actualization of possibility within the field of space and time.

So, now we have this Ultimate "emptiness" experienced in a necessarily threefold manner from the standpoint of any contingent and finite world, as Transcendent Reality/Emptiness, Infinite Possibility/Pattern, and Immanent Being/Becoming. And, as shown above, since personality, power, knowledge, and goodness is implicit within the host of possibilities that gives rise to any possible world, it is fair to say that this Ultimate Reality is personal, knowledgeable, powerful, and good, in ways which are analogous to our experience but not confined to it.

For followers of Christ, this accords well with the Divine Reality experienced in the person of Jesus Christ, who both embodied the Divine while calling God his "Father", and who poured out his Holy Spirit to be the continuation of his presence after he was absent in body. From this experience, as is well known, Christ's later followers created an interpretive concept for understanding the threefold relation of God in Christ, which we call the Trinity. In this concept, the singular Divine Life is experienced in three Persons, who are eternal and necessary self-expressions of the one God. God is Father, the Transcendent and Benevolent Source of all worlds. God is Son, the Divine Message and Pattern (Greek Logos), by whom God made all worlds, and in whom God is personally known through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. And God is Spirit, the personal power of God, through whom God gives life and existence to the entire universe, and by whom God is personally present to those who are conscious of God.

This, of course, is a very particular application of the idea that Ultimate Reality is necessarily experienced as Transcendent Reality, Infinite Possibility, and Immanent Being, as we see this worked out in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Without Jesus, it would be entirely possible to debate the moral character of Ultimate Reality. Because, in case you have not noticed, Infinite Possibility does not only include the potential for good beings and things, it also includes the potential for non-being, destruction, suffering, and death. In short, there is the possibility for evil implicit with the Ultimate. And without a definitive self-disclosure of the Ultimate, it would be entirely unclear whether the Ultimate was benevolent or malevolent or apathetic. Given the state of the Universe, it would be as consistent to say that the Ultimate wills evil and destruction, or that the Ultimate is simply unconcerned about what happens in the universe, as it is to say that the Ultimate is "good" or "loving".

But what the Incarnation of Jesus definitively shows us is that the Ultimate is self-giving, self-emptying Love, who participates in our sufferings, and works within the universe to bring about fulfillment and restoration (as witnessed by Jesus' sacrificial death and victorious resurrection). Much more could be said about this. And it is important to note that all the Great Religions-- those that have lasted centuries and nourished the lives of countless millions-- have a similar insight into the goodness and redemptive will of the Ultimate. From Buddhism to Hinduism to Judaism to Sikhism to Islam to Chinese religions, there is a unified theme of the Goodness of the Ultimate, and the desire for this Goodness to bring peace and love and fulfillment to the Created order. Even Secular Humanism, which eschews Ultimate Reality as such, has a strong intuition into the inherent goodness and value of full human flourishing and care for the world we live in.

So, we return to the Transcendent Emptiness that gives rise to all worlds. Why should there be something rather than nothing? Why give rise to any universe, with all its beauty and ugliness, joy and pain, life and death? We see in Christ and in the Great Religions an insight that there is a level of Reality that is not contained in the world of "is", "being", and "becoming". Our own language bears witness to this with the language of value. We speak not only in terms of "is" and "is not", but also in terms of "should" and "should not", of "ought" and "ought not". In this distinction between descriptive (is) and prescriptive (ought) language, we have another subtle insight into the Transcendent Reality that grounds us, which is witnessed in the pan-religious insight that the Divine ultimately wills our good, our life, our blessedness. For instance, when we say that all persons should be treated with dignity and respect, and we ought to work for the fulfillment and human flourishing of all people, we are speaking a language of value that flatly transcends and even contradicts the facts we can observe. There has never been a society where this was a reality, and in fact many societies have given complex justifications for why the opposite should happen, and some people "should" be deprived of life, liberty, or human flourishing.

So, in a world where suffering and death is ever present, and where people have often defended this order of suffering and death as "the way things are", where does this weird moral instinct come that all persons ought to be treated with dignity and humanity? And how has this Transcendent Value infected all of the Great Religions and Worldviews to the extent it has? Perhaps it is because the Transcendent Emptiness which gives rise to all worlds is also the Eternal Value that says "Let there be life! Let there be light!", and which makes "something" out of "nothing", because this "something" is inherently valuable to the Divine Life as a recipient of Divine Love. Again, we might never have this insight into the Primal Emptiness if it were not for the revelation which comes through Christ and the Great Religions. But since this insight into the Transcendent Value of Love is nearly universal across time and culture (even if it was frequently the minority view held by those despised by the rich and powerful), perhaps it is wise to incorporate this into our threefold understanding of the Ultimate.

The Transcendent aspect of "God" is thus both "empty" AND "good", valuing life for it's own sake, and willing the self-giving overflow of Divine Love to make all worlds. The Eternal self-expression of this Love is the Infinite Pattern of Possibility, which founds and gives rise to any actual world. And the overflow of Divine Life from the Transcendent Goodness through the Infinite Possibility, is the Immanent Being who brings to actualization every being in the universe, and who nourishes them and empowers them to grow and evolve into all the fullness of their Divine Potential. And not only does the Ultimate participate in the Universe as the Immanent Being, or Spirit, that upholds all things. The Infinite Pattern becomes finite in a particular human person in history, in Jesus of Nazareth, to reveal to us the depths and riches and character of the Transcendent Good who he calls "Father". It is this Father who draws us into his Infinite and Transcendent Love, through the mediation of Jesus, by the power of his Spirit.

And thus, having begun by contemplating the abstract emptiness of a Buddhist sage, we are drawn at last to a passionate and personal relationship with the Ultimate Source of our existence, who is encountered in a threefold manner as Transcendent Goodness, Infinite Possibility, and Immanent Being, in the persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit: One God in Glory Everlasting. Amen.

Postscript: The picture at the top is an illustration of the Trikaya, or "Threefold Body" of the Buddha. It is an interesting Buddhist idea that ultimately reality is experienced in Transcendent, Immanent, and Personal modes through the Buddha. There are interesting convergences and divergences here with the Christian idea of God as Triune.

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.




2016-11-22

On the use of Nazi in public discourse





Just a quick thought: Calling people Nazis does not make them want to stop acting like Nazis. You know who else was called "Nazi" and yet kept acting like Nazis? Actual Nazis.

Calling someone a Nazi-- like calling someone a Libtard, or a Fascist, or any other derogatory name-- identifies that person or group of people as totally encapsulated in a certain negative identity. It no longer treats them as human. It no longer provides any room for them to repent and change. It demeans them and imprisons them in a shameful label, and tells them that "you are just THIS and can never be any other". And most people, when labeled thus, live into the label. At some level, consciously or unconsciously, they say "OK, if you are going to demean me with that label, I will turn it into a badge of honor, and I will be more [insert label] than you can possibly imagine".

In other words, if you want to empower and push people to actually become Nazis, then one of the most effective rhetorical tactics you can use is reinforcing that identity by constantly calling them Nazis.

If, however, you want compassion and mercy and peace to win in this culture, perhaps there is a better strategy than demonizing and labeling a whole swath of the population. I am in no way saying to ignore or passively allow acts of racism and xenophobia and misogyny to happen in this culture. But rather to protest these acts as such: To name the specific acts you are protesting, and why these acts are demeaning to people made in God's image. If we are protesting for Native American rights and against petroleum pipelines, to name it as such, instead of saying we are protesting against Nazis. If we are protesting to protect Muslims against racism and xenophobia, to name it as such, instead of saying we are protesting against Nazis. If we are protesting against xenophobic policies, and people with a history of racism and misogyny being appointed to high office, to name the reasons why, rather than simply writing them off as Nazis.

Instead let us say we are protesting against X, Y, and Z because it is against humanist and theological values; Because similar policies led to horrible atrocities in German history and Turkish history and even in American history with slavery and Native Americans and Japanese internment; Because WE are better than this, and YOU are better than this, and together we can create an American future where nobody gets left behind or excluded from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In combating injustice, I think we must find a way to enunciate our anger and fear and hope in a way that is in accord with our values. Because right now, the divisive Spirit of our age has us completely under its control. And it will destroy us if we let it. It doesn't care if the Left wins or the Right wins or the Poor win or the Rich win. It only cares that is causes hate and discord and destruction in the process. Don't let that Spirit win.

And you may be thinking "Hey Nate! Why aren't you telling the same thing to THEM?!? We will stop hate and labeling if they do first!" First, I am talking to "them" just as much as I am talking to "us", because what I'm saying is for "all". And I have no idea who "them" and "us" is to you. Second, it is a horrible strategy for change to wait for the other before you will start change. Change starts with you. It always has. It always will.

I have kids. I teach kids. I don't want to bequeath to them this country as it is right now. I want to bequeath to them something better, something more hopeful, something that lives into our pledge to live as one Nation "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all". I want to bequeath to them a land where E PLURIBUS UNUM is a reality.

It will take a lot of work to get there. But let's work together. And let's begin to be the change we want to see in the world.

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.


This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.