2012-12-19

Is there any better symbol for God than the Trinity?



What is the best, most complete possible way to speak of the nature of God? In the Christian Tradition, the answer is clear: The Holy Trinity. And for the sake of argument, let us posit that the idea of the Trinity is the most complete expression of the data about God that has been revealed in Christ, through Scripture, within the Christian Tradition.

Even if it is the most complete expression of God available on the basis of the data of revelation, does this mean that there could not possibly be a better model, or symbol, of God's nature, if we were only able to increase our intellectual ability, or develop new categories of linguistic expression?

This seems to be what philosopher Keith Ward is hinting at in a portion of his book "The Philosopher and the Gospel". This is, for the most part, a solid book and a very helpful philosophical exploration of the Gospel accounts from the perspective of idealist/ontological realist philosophy. However, I find myself struggling with parts like this:

"[The Triune nature of God derived from John's Gospel] is not something that belongs to the hidden and timeless nature of God, whether or not there is a universe (the so-called “immanent Trinity”). Of such a thing I do not think we can dare to speak, nor have we any licence to do so. Some theologians have suggested that unless we know that God’s ousia, God’s innermost being, is Trinitarian in form, then our knowledge that God’s being is Trinitarian in relation to us (the economia of God) must be incomplete, inadequate, or even false. This is not so.

It may be that God’s being-in-itself is unknown to human minds, yet God’s being is truly expressed in relation to us. The appearance is not false, for God is truly expressed as fully as is possible for finite human minds. Appearance is not illusion. Thus it is perfectly coherent to say that God’s being-in-itself is largely unknown and unknowable, but it is such that it is truly expressed in Trinitarian form in relation to us.

What is sometimes called “Rahner’s Rule”, that the immanent Trinity is identical to the economic Trinity, is not compelling if it means that God’s being-in-itself must be exactly the same as God’s being-as-it-relates-to-us. I think it would be very odd if this were so, for it would commit us to a form of naive realism about human knowledge that would not be generally accepted in the realm of scientific and commonsense knowledge...

[The] essential being [of God] is beyond any adequate human understanding. What we can say, perhaps, is that God’s being-in-itself is truly expressed in the only way we can understand, and as fully and adequately as we can understand it, in Trinitarian form. And that understanding requires us to think of God as truly – not in an ephemeral or illusory way – expressed in the history of the cosmos."

Keith, Ward. The Philosopher and the Gospel (p. 164-165). Lion Hudson. Kindle Edition.

This seems to me to open the door to saying that the Economic Trinity (God experienced as Triune in Salvation History) does not necessarily correspond to what God really is, in Godself, outside of space and time. And, as a corollary, this seems to imply that if our capacity were greater, or our language were richer, we might be able to formulate a symbol for God's essence that was both fundamentally different from, and fundamentally better than, the Trinity. In other words, the symbol of the Trinity may be wholly mistaken, but God gives it to us anyway in economic form so that we have some positive concept of God.

I know this is NOT what Ward explicitly says (or perhaps even thinks). But the train of thought he lays down here, despite his protestations, seems to open the door. This is because this mode of thinking shares in the chasm found in the philosophy of Kant. For Kant, there is a chasm of unknowing and unpredictability between reality as we experience it (phenomena) and reality as it is in itself (noumena). Likewise, for Ward there is a chasm between God as we experience God (economically Triune) and God as God is in Godself.

But if God is able to express Godself to human minds at all in revelation, it would seem that God would be able to express Godself truly (that is, in a way that somehow directly corresponds to what God actually is, even if adapted to human limitations). Furthermore, if we were to take all the symbols of God's nature from the panoply of human religious experience, it would seem that some of these symbols would be more correspondent to God's nature, while others were less correspondent. Finally, we could see that at least one of these symbols would be most correspondent.

This does not mean that the other symbols do not in some sense point to the reality of God, or represent God's nature in ways not explicit in the "best" symbol. Clearly if there is an infinite, inexhaustible Reality such as God, there would have to be a multitude of perspectives and dimensions that could not be covered by one symbol. It just means that at least one symbol would be "central", which does the most complete job of signifying the Divine Nature.

For exegetical and philosophical reasons, I believe I am justified in thinking that this central symbol which is most sufficient is in fact the Trinity. Furthermore, I hold that this symbol grants us real, if limited, insight into what God's nature actually is beyond space and time. Thus, when speaking of the "economic" and "immanent" Trinity, I prefer this formulation:

The "Economic Trinity" (God expressed in history as Father, Son/Word, and Spirit) corresponds to the "Immanent Trinity" is such a way that: (a) Positively, the most accurate conceivable symbolic descriptor of God's essence is the Trinity; (b) Negatively, God's essence cannot be anything that diminishes or contradicts the Trinity; (c) Even while undoubtedly the actual essence of God is infinitely deeper and more expansive than the symbols we use to point to God.

And it is at this stage that I wonder whether I am actually disagreeing with Keith Ward, or merely stating his case from a different perspective. For me, this seems to close up quite a bit of the Kantian "chasm" opened by Ward. Economic knowledge of God is real knowledge of God, even if it is limited. And yet, there is my own hesitancy about proclaiming that the symbol of the Trinity somehow exhausts all that can be said about God. Surely there is more to say, and yet this more will definitely cohere with a Trinitarian understanding. And perhaps this is exactly what Ward is saying too, using a more tentative, skeptical mode of speech.

Regardless of how much actual distance there is between myself and Ward, I do think we have to guard ourselves from two extremes: On one extreme, we must not confuse our verbal symbols with God. Our symbols point us to God. They do not replace him. To confuse God and the symbols we use for God is to commit linguistic idolatry.

On the other extreme, we must not think that God could be less than or other than the Trinity. That is to say that God has given us a fundamentally false image of Godself in Christ and the Spirit. It is to commit ourselves to a "Deus Absconditus" (a Hidden God) who is possibly hiding some defect of character from us. It brings back to us another form of Arianism (in which God is too distant to reach us, so he sends created mediators to meet us instead of Godself) or Modalism (in which God is always hiding behind masks, never truly revealing Godself to us).

But, what if the Hidden God is not "worse" than we believe? Might God in actuality be "better" than models of the Trinity dream of God being? Perhaps. But what would "better" mean?

Better could not mean that Christ was less than the full embodiment of God as a human being. That would be worse, for there would be no God who met humanity where we are, as one of us, to reconcile us to God in his body. So, we are committed to a robust doctrine of Incarnation.

Better could not mean that the Spirit is something less than the full presence of God guiding and empowering the faithful. That would be worse, for there would be no continuing presence of God, living in the depths of our being, filling us with God's own life. So, we are committed to a robust Pneumatology. And that commits us to a model of God in at least two distinct persons.

And finally, better could not mean something less than God as a Universal Parent who is the source of both the existence of the universe, and the absolute positive value of the persons within it. That would be far worse, for we would be left in a reality that is either indifferent to us or hostile to us, rather than a reality that fundamentally desires our full human flourishing. And thus, something "better" than the Trinity cannot mean something less than three fully Divine Persons sharing Love with each other eternally and enacting that Love in the history of the Universe.

So, if we posit that the essence of God is somehow "better" than the Trinity, how might we conceive that without deleting portions of what is good in the doctrine of the Trinity? I confess, I do not know.

We might want to say that this Trinity finds expression implicitly in other religions and philosophies, even if these symbolic ways of describing the Divine have not recognized it, and even if most forms of Christian theology have denied it.

Many religious traditions have spoken of Ultimate Reality as what cannot be spoken of, and thus they do not try to go as far "into" God's essence as the doctrine of the Trinity does. Hinduism's doctrine of Brahman, Buddhism's doctrine of Nirvana, the Jewish idea of God, and many other religions and philosophies tend to conceive the essence of Ultimate Reality as not only beyond all symbolic descriptors, but also beyond all temporary, contingent embodiments of Ultimate Reality in Gods or Goddesses or Buddhas or Bodhisattvas or Theophanies or Orishas or other spiritual beings.

Thus, in those religions, a claim to connect with the Ultimate through one of these temporary forms is not a claim that the form is a necessary expression of what Ultimate Reality eternally is. God is not, in these religions, eternally identified as Vishnu or Shiva or Mahdevi or Amida, in the same way that Christians would eternally identify God as Father, Son, and Spirit. In other words, in most other religions, an individual God or Divine Being is just an "economic" phenomena. God's inner essence is far above and beyond the phenomenal forms of the gods that represent it. In Christianity, on the other hand, the economic Trinity is an accurate, if limited, representation of God's inner essence.

This opens up an immense amount of room to say that what is good and true and beautiful in these religions is some sort of reflection of the Triune God. This is not to say that everything in every religion is "of God", anymore than saying that everything done in the Name of Christ actually reflects Christ. But those things in any religion which reflect the character of God revealed in Christ can be seen as some sort of trace of the Triune God's work in that religion. In fact, the great religions of the world can be seen as preparations to encounter the Triune God in Christ, in a way that is similar to how first century Judaism (and the Jewish Scriptures) were a preparation for the coming of Christ.

This is because most religions only claim to reach only so far into the eternal nature of the Divine. It is completely compatible with the Trinity to say something like "where your religion or philosophy stops, let us take it further and show how this is actually a reflection of, and preparation for, the Triune God". Thus, the "economy of salvation/liberation" in historic or mythic or contingent ways deals with God's actions in the world through a panoply of cultural forms and religions. And this is the level that most religions are working at. The insistence that God's "undefinable" essence is best symbolized by the Trinity is operating at another level above the "economic" claims of God's activity in the world.

Thus we have a series of "economic" descriptors of God's work in the world in the various world religions. All of these "economic" models present different perspectives on, and different facets of, God's work in the world. One of these models not only reveals God's unique incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth, but also most sufficiently symbolizes God's inner "immanent" life as Triune. Thus, among world religions, there is much overlap and some contradiction as regards models of God's "economic" work, while there is one "immanent" model which supersedes claims of the "undefinability" of God's inner nature, and tells us that God is Triune.

Even the Christian claim of Incarnation is, I think, categorically different than other religious claims to Divine Embodiment. For Buddhist Bodhisattvas the claim is that a contingent person became aware of the infinite, and by that contact, became the embodiment of the infinite in the world. This is a "bottom up" vision of divine embodiment. Some versions of the Hindu Avatars make a similar "bottom up" claim. Others versions make the "top-down" claim that Brahman (Ultimate Reality) did choose to become incarnate in a human person, but this incarnation did not happen in history. Rather, like the stories of Valmiki or Rama or Krishna, these "incarnations" happen in mythic time, outside of actual history.

On the other hand. the claim of the Incarnation of God in Christ is that Ultimate Reality became intentionally, specifically embodied in a human person, within human history. Jesus' self awareness was the same self that had always existed in God, in eternal communion with the Father and Spirit. That self now expressed himself through the finitude of a human life. This is a "top-down" vision of divine embodiment, that happens within space and time.

Thus, conceptually, there is the possibility that saying the divine lived in Krishna or Buddha in a categorically different way than the way in which the divine was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. There is the possibility that these are not contradictions because, for Buddhists, we have a bottom-up "contingent-reaching-eternal" vision of Divine Embodiment; for Hindus, we have multiple Divine Embodiments that happen in either a "bottom-up" way or in mythic time; Yet for Christians, we have a top-down "eternal-reaching-contingent" embodiment within actual history. One could even make the claim, similar to CS Lewis, that Divine Embodiments in Buddhism, Hinduism, and other "Eastern" religions actually point to the real "Myth become Fact" in Jesus of Nazareth.

And thus, we have possibly opened the door conceptually for a "better" version of the Trinity: One that allows genuine participation in the life of God by diverse religious traditions who do not acknowledge the Triune God. Perhaps it is "better" to speak of the Trinity as an overflowing of creative Love that is working even in places and cultures that do not know or acknowledge the Trinity.

And yet, is this "better" version speaking of God's INNER life in a new way? This "inclusive" vision of the Trinity turns out to be just another "economic" claim about God's activity in history, not about God's nature. We could say "Well, this demonstrates that God is Love!" But we already knew that by positing God as Trinity. God is Love because God is a communion of Persons giving to one another eternally, and from the overflow of this Love we live and move and exist. So, such claims of the inclusivity of the Triune God's work in world religions do not so much add to a definition of God's essence as they do illustrate and elaborate on what is already posited in the nature of the Trinity.

And thus, we are back to the conundrum. Could God's essence be "more than" or "better than" the symbol of the Trinity without denying or contradicting the Trinity? I do not doubt it is. I do not doubt that when I fully experience God in Christ "face to face", that experience will be so much fuller than what I can currently experience or conceive. Yet, I have no conceptual apparatus right now, nor do I conceive any while I am trapped in the limits of mortal finitude, that can more fully express who and what God is than the Holy Trinity.

When light is trapped in the dimensions of our universe, it is inherently limited to 186,000 miles per second. So also while humans reside within this universe, I believe that the nature of our knowledge and language is such that the model of the Trinity is the absolute limit for understanding God's inner nature. We may find better ways to describe the Trinity and illustrate how this Triune God is at work in the world. But nothing less than the Trinity- nothing that diminishes or contradicts the Trinity- can give us true knowledge of God.

And after all this writing, I'm not entirely sure I have said anything different from what Keith Ward has said. Our lines of nuance have been laid down in different places. I want to emphasize how much we do in fact know about God. I think he wants to emphasize how tentative our knowledge is. But, at the end of the day, I think we can both whole heartedly, with full conviction and philosophical integrity, pray the ancient prayer:

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

On Elisha, Bears and Bullying


In light of recent tragedies, I wanted to comment once again on the issue of violence in the Bible. On the whole, I tend to view Biblical violence, done in the Name of God, as a series of object lessons about how the God revealed in Jesus Christ does NOT want God's Name to be used, and how systemic violence can rot the core out of a society.

First of all, there are episodes of horrendous violence done in God's Name. Think of Joshua and the Israelites wiping out entire cities in Canaan, killing every man, woman, child, and animal for God. When we read these stories and then look telescopically across the trajectory of Scripture, I think we must ask ourselves: Do these violent actions create the society of justice, compassion, and peace that God repeatedly asks for?

And the answer is no. Across Scripture, we see many examples of cultures that fall into violence, injustice, and oppression, often while citing religious justification. Yet, in every case, whether done in "God's Name" or not, we find that violence begets more violence, injustice gives birth to more injustice, and oppression leads to more oppression. In every case, it spirals out of control, until the whole culture implodes from within, while often being invaded from outside as well. Thus, these stories give us a sad object lesson: Societies that use God as a justification for hatred and violence wind up being destroyed by monster they create.

There is also a parallel read of these stories of divinely sanctioned human violence. This is that these cultures had become so corrupt that God allowed their invasion and destruction as a kind of amputation to cut off their dead and dying social structures, so they could not keep on poisoning the larger civilization. That is to say, if the Biblical descriptions are anywhere near accurate, both the culture of Canaan before the Israelite invasion, as well as the culture of Israel and Judah centuries after the invasions, had become horrible places that were unable to support healthy human life. The accepted rule of the day was repeated abuse of women, children, the elderly, the poor, the marginalized, and basically anyone not belonging to the gang of the local ruler (i.e. warlord). And without a massive destruction of the social structures, and replacement of their oppressive "norms", the systemic cycle of abuse would just keep going. So, God allowed their implosion, invasion, and destruction.

So, a broad read of Scripture seems to show me that God does not want God's Name used as a justification for violence, oppression and genocide. It shows me that those who do use God for such a justification are sowing seeds for the eventual implosion and destruction of their own culture, because of the insidious infection of hatred and oppression it creates. And it shows me that God does allow the merciful destruction of civilizations that are so sick and malignant that they must be cut off and rebuilt from the ground up.

So much for Biblical violence, done by human agents, in God's Name.

But what about the Scripture passages where there seems to be a direct act of Divine Violence visited upon people, apart from direct human agency, in a supernatural, or at least highly improbable, way?

I'm not prepared to make broad interpretations of those themes across Scripture. Perhaps some of these stories are symbolic descriptions of God's destruction of evil spiritual realities and oppressive social systems (I think that is largely what is going on in the visions of Isaiah and Revelation). Perhaps other stories are ancient people mis-interpreting natural disasters as a direct act of God's wrath (one might think of the ancient flood stories here). And perhaps in some of these stories, God is actually getting rid of especially heinous, hateful, malignant people in an extraordinary way, so we can learn from their pathology. These stories need to be interpreted on a case-by-case basis before I could draw any broad themes.

In this case, I would like to focus on one story of supernatural Divine Violence that can alternately be seen as hilarious or heinous. It is a story that, depending on how it is told, could be put on a sketch comedy show, or could be a damning piece of evidence in a courtroom scene where God's goodness is put on trial. This is the story of Elisha calling down God's wrath upon a group of 42 "youth" in the form of two angry bears, found in 2 Kings 2.23–24.

And just so that what I am about to say has a clear basis in how scholars actually translate this text, I want to quote three different translations:

New American Standard: A Conservative, High-Reading Level Translation

[23] Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” [24] When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number.

New International Version: A Moderate, Mid-Reading Level Translation

[23] From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” [24] He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty–two of the boys. 

Common English Bible: A Mainline, Low-Reading Level Translation

[23] Elisha went up from there to Bethel. As he was going up the road, some young people came out of the city. They mocked him: “Get going, Baldy! Get going, Baldy!” [24] Turning around, Elisha looked at them and cursed them in the LORD’s name. Then two bears came out of the woods and mangled forty-two of the youths.

A few notes on the actual meaning of the Hebrew text are in order before I make any generalizations:

First of all, we must note that Elisha was at least an older adult, if not what we might consider "elderly", at this time. He already had a distinguished, apparently multi-decade, career as the assistant to Elijah. He later lives with a widow without a hint of sexual impropriety (2Ki 4). This is something that would have been considered scandalous if he was of marriageable age (i.e. young adult to mid-life). And he was old enough to be bald. So, what we have is an old man walking a road alone, when he is suddenly mocked and jeered by a crowd. Keep that in mind.

Second, what type of people are doing the mocking and jeering? There are two terms translated here. In verse 23 we have na'ar (נַעַר) which can signify a young male, from the age of childhood up to the age of young adulthood. The word na'ar in this verse is supplemented by the adjective for "small", which is qaton (קטן). Small has a very wide range of meanings, from physically small, to small in age (young), to a more metaphorical sense of small in importance or small in moral character.

So we have a group of "na'ar qaton", or "small lads". This combination term "small lads" can likewise have a range of semantic meaning, from literal "little boys", to a metaphorical reference to lesser servants, or even adult males as "little men" (cf. usage in 1Sa 20:35; 1Ki 3:7; 11:17; 2Ki 2.23; 5:14; Isa 11:6).

In verse 24, this same group, after they flee, is referred to a group of "yaled" (ילד). This word, likewise has a range of semantic meaning, from literal babies or young children, to a metaphorical way of speaking about adults who are acting childish. Similar to how we might say to an adult who is whining "stop being a baby!". We know that these cannot be literal babies or small children, because they are at least considered "na'ar" in the previous verse. And if we are looking for more clues about their age, that leads us to the next question.

Third, how many were there? According to the story, 42 of these young people were mauled. That is a large number. And unless every single person doing the mocking stayed still during the bear attack, we have to assume there were some from among the crowd who ran away and escaped the mauling. So, in all probability, the story is referencing a group of more than a hundred people, gathered outside of the city, who are intentionally mocking an old man.

Unless the people surrounding Bethel were prone to allowing all their young children to live outside of the city walls "Lord of the Flies" style, we must assume that these young people were on the older, metaphorical range of semantic meaning for both "na'ar qaton" and "yeled". What this text pretty clearly points us to, in a metaphorical way, is that there was a large gang of rogue young men, probably made up of adolescents and young adults, who roamed outside of the city as bandits, and probably made their living by robbing and pillaging travelers who were going to the local commercial hub of Bethel to trade. Gangs of bandits like this, preying on travelers and merchants, are common in ancient literature from all cultures, including that of the ancient near east [for instance click here].

Finally, what happened to them? The text intentionally does not use the word "killed" or "destroyed" to describe their fate. Instead, it says the two bears "mauled" them. The hebrew is baka (בקע), meaning to cleave or split open, and in this case, to get ripped up by two bears. Now, might there have been life threatening injuries sustained here? Of course. But, for the most part, the wording would signify instead what Texans might call "a good ass-whuppin". So, we have a group of "little men" who have fun bullying and taunting the elderly, who are sent running away, screaming like "little babies", after they are thrashed by the bears.

What does all this mean?

Well, for me, it is pretty clear we have an ornery elderly prophet, walking alone on a long road, who is suddenly bullied by a group of over a hundred young thugs. And like most mob actions, you never quite know when the whole thing is going to erupt in violence. So, in fear the elderly man curses the young bandits in the name of God, right before they are about to attack him. To everyone's surprise, God actually answers the curse on this occasion, and sends (or providentially allows) two bears to protect the solitary elderly man from mob violence. And in a very memorable way.

It was not enough for God to protect the elderly. God did it with flair. And perhaps also with a dark sense of humor.

The moral of the story? It seems that in this case, God protected the most vulnerable person from the hateful and powerful. God seems to be against rogue mob violence. God seems to be on the side of the oppressed and vulnerable. God does not seem to like bullies: People who use their power and vigor and numbers to intentionally harm others. That is something we would do well to remember as we debate social policy in our world today.

If I were to push the issue further, I might ask of this story: Is violence ever necessary, and if so, what is the justification of using violence? There are extreme cases where no peaceful or rational methods will stop a powerful, unjust oppressor from harming the innocent and the vulnerable. For those who have the power to stop the oppressor, the question then becomes which is the greater evil and which is the lesser evil: Is it worse to do nothing and allow violence to be done to the vulnerable, or to do violence against unjust human beings and stop their oppression?

Clearly, on the basis of this story, violence is sometimes the lesser evil to protect the vulnerable. I believe this is a principle that is generalizable across Scripture, drawing on Old Testament prophetic texts about defending the vulnerable, as well as New Testament texts such as Romans 13 and 1Peter 2. Thus, we come to the principle of "defensive violence": If all other peaceful, rational options have been tried and failed, it is the lesser evil to protect the vulnerable by harming their oppressors.

Thus, there is a place in a just society for "bears": Police and armed forces who defend the needy and vulnerable from injustice and violence. Yet, their defensive actions must not be done in God's Name. For God "takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live" (Eze 33.11). Violence is only justified as the lesser evil in the face of a greater evil. And if that "defensive violence" takes a turn toward oppressing other vulnerable parties (such as non-combatants), it is no longer justifiable on ANY grounds. So if violence is ever said to be justified in someone's name, it is not in the name of God, but rather in the name of the oppressed, who are being defended for God's sake.

Yet, questions of the legitimate use of violence are never the final question to be asked. Violence, as we have shown, is at best a lesser evil to protect the vulnerable, and at worst a blatant rejection of God's will. Without a God of healing who can redeem the world from our hopeless cycles of systemic violence and oppression, there literally is no hope. And that is why the trajectory of the Bible begins with a good Creation, and moves through Elijah and the young thugs and all the other stories of violence and evil, until it ultimately points us to the God who became embodied in Jesus. It is finally this God Incarnate, crucified, and risen again, who brings resolution to the problems raised by Scriptures such as 2Kings 2.23-24.

I know this meditation has gone far beyond the pale of what is being considered in this passage about one elderly man, two angry bears, and 42 young bandits. But if it is truly Scripture, then that is what it should do: Point us beyond itself.

No wonder Douglas Adams said the meaning of life is 42.

2012-11-29

On Atheist Fundamentalism and Christmas Wars


That's right folks: The Holidays are here again, and with them comes yet another round of the Christmas wars! Today I read a nice article summarizing the current battle lines for public displays of religious affection all over the country. And, upon reading the stories about how anti-religious groups are trying to shut down governmentally-sanctioned religious displays and events, I am struck by just how angry and determined many of these anti-religious groups are. And I don't actually blame them for the anger. There are very many people who have been mistreated in the name of God, and it is only natural to want to lash out. It is logical to want to shut down a force that you believe to be detrimental to the healthy functioning of society.

I get it: Religious people (and institutions) have hurt you, demeaned you, marginalized you, and in some cases abused you. Now it is time to silence religion so it does not happen to others. But is all the anger and bitterness and constant ideological war working for you? Is it working for the health of our society? Is it working for our children?

One of the most sure-fire ways to create a disdain for religion in the hearts of young people is for their parents (or other dominant "elders" in their cultural world) to embrace a particularly "fundamentalist" version of the religion: Harsh, hateful, closed-minded, and narrow. I think it is safe to say that, in modern religious cultures across the world, there has been a significant amount of the "youth demographic" who have abandoned religion for more secular ways of pursuing life. I can think of cases I have known or read where this applies to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism.

Up until now, Atheism/Secularism has not had a large enough demographic to see if the same will happen to their younger generation. But there are anecdotal incidents which show that this might happen, such as the son of militant atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who became a Christian largely to flee from the secular fundamentalism of his mother.

The sustained anger, bitterness, and vitriol witnessed by these "Atheist Fundamentalists" is just the mirror image of the angry, bitter, vitriolic versions of religion they are rejecting. And may I add: Rightly rejecting. If God is Love, as witnessed in Jesus, and taught by the best of human religious traditions, then God cannot be the hate that is preached by the worst exemplars of human religion. And that God of hate is rightly rejected, even if not immediately replaced by a better image of God.

The modern atheist movement is fueled by scads of people who have rightly rejected the hateful God of their elders, but have never replaced that God with a better God. The problem is, they are so filled with anger and bitterness at that God that they have simply shifted where their own hate is focused. As a result, many have become as shrill and judgmental as the religion they abandoned.

For instance, it would be one thing to have multiple "constructive" holiday displays in one venue. We could imagine a scenario where there is a Christmas creche celebrating Jesus, a Jewish Menorah in celebration of Hanukah, a Bodhi tree celebrating the Buddha, and a display of animals or a statue celebrating Darwin. Each of these constructs something of positive value that shows forth something valuable in their own cultural tradition.

But, if a group only desires to do "destructive" displays, it shows a pathology in the group-think. One does not have to put down others to show what is good, true, and beautiful in one's own community. A Christian group does not have to put up a Holiday display that proclaims all non-Christians are going to hell. A Jewish group does not have to put up a display condemning Gentiles. A Buddhist group does not have to put up a display that says all non-Buddhists are non-Enlightened. And an Atheist group does not have to put up a display saying that all religious believers are idiots at best, evil at worst.

I wish in this "culture war" we would learn the difference- on all sides- between constructive, affirming ways of exploring our beliefs and ideas VERSUS destructive, bitter ways of forcing our ideas and beliefs on others.

Back to the point: I am going to bet that, in the households of angry atheist fundamentalists, the seeds are currently being planted which will lead to a boatload of conversions to other religions by their children. The type of anger and bitterness described by this article is not a healthy spiritual or psychological environment to raise kids in. They will eventually reject it too. And perhaps, sadly, in 30 years or so we will witness a whole genre of re-conversion stories about people who found religion and are mad as hell at their parents for being mad as hell at religion because their grandparents were mad as hell at people who were not religious.

Or, conversely, perhaps in 30 years we can learn to learn from each other. I guess it is our choice.

Secular or Religious?



Recently, the head of the Evangelical charity "World Vision" came out and said that "Conservative Christians" need to stop waging their so-called "culture war" on "secular culture", and instead focus on doing Jesus' works of Love in society. Bravo! I heartily applaud this move, and support it with all my heart and mind.

And yet, I do want to call the question of what is "secular" and what is "religious". How do we identify secular things and religious things? Is something "religious" simply because the name God or Jesus is slapped on it (along with appropriate Biblical proof texts)? Or is something "religious" when it embodies the values and policies of religion, even if it does not claim religious identity or even recognize God?

While I do think we need to maintain terms that help us differentiate whether we are doing something with reference to God (i.e. religious, spiritual), or without reference to God (i.e. secular), I do think these same terms can sometimes hide the realities at work within cultural phenomena.

What if the word "secular" as used in our "culture war" rhetoric is a misnomer? What if what is actually happening is a movement of God's Spirit leading to a convergence of public policies which institute the dignity and worth of all people- gay, straight, women, men, non-religious, and religious? What if many of the manifestations of public religion in the United States have become so retrograde and backward looking, that they cannot discern the trajectory of the Spirit of Christ leading culture to realize the ethical and social values embedded in texts such as Galatians 3.26-29, 1Corinthians 13, the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus' ministry of healing and hospitality?

If the Church will not follow where Jesus leads, and where the trajectory of the Bible points us to, then Christ's Holy Spirit has only one option left: To work among those who will follow this trajectory, even if they do not realize it is the Spirit leading them.

And I'm not saying this is the Spirit doing "a new thing". This is the Spirit completing a very old thing which has been borne witness in Scripture for ages. Some folks say that the Spirit is leading us into "new truths". But I'm not so sure there are any new truths to be had out there. Perhaps it is just the application of the same Eternal Truths to new environments, contexts, and cultures. If it is eternally true that "God is Love" (1John 4.8) rooted in understanding God as perfect inter-communion in the Holy Trinity, then perhaps we are witnessing ever-new applications of this self-giving, self-sacrificial Divine Love as culture develops over time.

Yet, I'm also not saying this cultural movement is purely from God. It's not. No cultural movement ever is. In fact, I take severe umbridge at a couple of planks in the so-called "secular" platform. For instance, I do try to practice and preach a "consistent life ethic" which defends life from womb to tomb. Thus, not only do I find the use of the death penalty reprehensible in advanced industrial societies. I also think the use of abortion as a regular means of birth control is reprehensible, although abortions should remain safe and legal when they are used as a means of last resort to protect the mother's health and life.

So, some of our "secular" cultural values do seem to be at odds with the Kingdom of God. But much of the "secular" platform does seem to lead to a fulfillment of Jesus' Kingdom programme: Genuine hospitality to "the other", universal respect for human dignity, access for all to health care that leads to better life and human flourishing. And if we are going to define these values as "secular", while opposite values and policies are "religious", then I suppose we need to flip our definitions and proclaim Jesus as "secular" too.

2012-11-07

Is Data Real?


After tutoring one of our Residential Life students in philosophy today, I was pondering yet again how to explain the reality of the non-empirical world.

And I thought that the ontological status of whether data is something "real" might be a way to get the point across. Specifically, what is the ontological status of data stored in digital form?

And while I am sure someone has written about this somewhere. This is a new analogy for me.

It seems that the ontological status of digital data may be a concrete way of expressing the ontological status of any type of symbolic information. And the ontological status of symbolic information is a sub-type of the ontological status of all non-empirical realities (maths, logic, signification, etc.)

So, back to digital data: Is it real?

If I was to empirically examine a 2 gigabyte USB drive that was empty versus a 2 gigabyte USB drive that was full of data, would there be any difference? Does adding 2 gigabytes of data add any weight to the USB drive? No. Does it change the physical topology of the USB drive? No. Is there any permanent change that would survive a powerful magnet or electric shock? No. I'm not even sure that a powerful electron microscope would be able to discern the difference between a full USB drive and an empty one. And even if it could, it would not be a change of the matter of the USB drive, only an infinitesimal change in how that matter is arranged.

The only way to access the "reality" of the information on the drive is "subjective" so to speak: Only by internal interface with a computer with the right hardware and software internally accessing the data.

And the reality of that data can then be cloned millions of time, without changing the empirical attributes of the machines on which it operates, so that its reality has been multiplied exponentially. And that real data changes the way the physical machines run, even though it has no physical attributes at all (no extension in space-time, no dimensions, no weight, no matter, etc.)

The data itself is a system of rules and procedures which has no empirical reality whatsoever, and yet it can still affect the empirical reality which is qualitatively, categorically different from it.

So then you have two different ontological categories of reality:

1. Non-Empirical data/information
2. Empirical matter and energy which is controlled by the data/information

So, my question is: Does this hold as a test case for the existence of non-empirical realities? Is it a good analogy to get at the philosophical problem?

2012-11-02

1559, Elizabeth, and Parker: The Beginnings of a Middle Way



A colleague of mine recently sent me a very nice summary article from the New Yorker on the abiding impact of the Book of Common prayer on our culture. If you have no idea who Thomas Cranmer is, and why he is one of the most formative influences of the English language, you should read it. Right now. Before you read the rest of this essay!

Now, while I do not want to take anything away from that fine article, I would like to add a few notes of both historical and cultural interest. The author missed a rather important revision of the Prayer Book: The 1559 version. Why is this important?

The 1559 BCP was made to correct several problems introduced by the 1552 BCP. The 1552 version was a severely Calvinist version of the BCP that introduced some rigidly Protestant ideas of salvation and atonement, as well as diminishing the nature and need for the sacraments (such as Eucharist and ordination). It represented a pendulum swing away from strident Roman Catholicism toward an equally strident form of Reformed Protestantism (i.e. those forms of Protestantism originating from Calvin and Zwingli). In other words, the 1552 alienated many of the more moderate Catholics and moderate Protestants in England, and helped lead to the national instability that ushered in Queen Mary (i.e. "Bloody Mary") and her efforts to swing the cultural/political pendulum back to Rome.

In 1558, after Mary's demise, the unmarried Queen Elizabeth took the throne, and in 1559 installed her favored archbishop Matthew Parker. Elizabeth and Parker agreed with Cranmer in this: The way to reform the religion of a nation was primarily through shared prayer and liturgy (a common prayer book). But they differed with Cranmer on what type of religion best brings about the security, health, and godliness of the realm. Cranmer sought to install a severely reformed religion, followed immediately by Mary's attempts to install a severely papal religion. Both extremes almost ruined the commonwealth.

Elizabeth and Parker wanted a national religion that offered a type of "middle way" (via media) that avoided extreme versions of both Catholicism and Protestantism (such as extreme Calvinists and Lutherans, and Radicals who wanted to abolish all of the above). Yet they also desired a "moderate religion" that allowed for what was comforting and wholesome in those traditions, which led to the good order of society.

As a result, they crafted the 1559 BCP, which edited out what was most egregious and extreme from the 1552 BCP, added back in wholesome portions of the 1549 BCP, and tweaked many other things to make it both more usable, and more representative of their via media. They strengthened the liturgies of both Eucharist and ordination to better reflect their nature and necessity in the common life of the Church. It was this BCP that was the immediate forerunner of the 1662 BCP (which is still in use to this day in England). While the 1662 BCP represents an updating of the language and lectionary (table of readings) used in the 1559, the theological and sociological concerns are substantially the same as the 1559: To maintain a moderate religion of "Reformed Catholicism", which avoids egregious extremes, and thus is suitable to the health and vitality of the English Commonwealth.

In addition, Elizabeth and Parker ensured that every parish in England had a copy of the Bible in the English vernacular. This Bible, called "The Bishop's Bible", was again an attempt to bring about a moderate approach to religion that avoided the extremes of the Reformation. For instance, many reformation era Bible translations (such as the Calvinist "Geneva Bible") had interpreted the text and added marginal "notes", in such a way so as to exaggerate theological issues (such as the relationship between predestination, faith, faithfulness, and works in salvation) as well as leadership issues (such as how to understand St. Paul's instructions to elders/priests and overseers/bishops). The Bishop's Bible, like the 1559 BCP, was intended to interpret the Scriptures in such a way that there was a latitude for forms of  moderate religious belief. However, it was a bit clunky as a vernacular translation, and was replaced in 1611 by the famed "King James" or "Authorized" Bible of the English Church. The "King James Bible" was translated with the Bishop's Bible as a pattern, and it adhered to the moderate, balanced aims of the Bishop's Bible. The main difference is that the literary quality of the King James far excelled the Bishop's Bible, and indeed any other English translation, for centuries.

Finally, as part of the project represented by the 1559 BCP and the Bishop's Bible, Elizabeth and Parker instituted the "39 Articles" as an outline, or confession, of the beliefs of the English Church. When read today, the text appears very rigid and overly defined, perhaps even declaring things we may find partisan (there are specific portions directed against Roman Catholic beliefs) or exclusionary (there are portions that affirm God's predestination of only the elect to salvation). However, at the time it was written, it was an attempt to, again, find a "middle way" which included a wide variety of Protestants. The precise wording of the 39 articles, when inspected deeper, actually lends itself to multiple interpretations. For this reason, the 39 articles was the greatest "flop" of the reforming efforts of Elizabeth and Parker. Through history, no section of the Church has ever been truly happy with these articles. For some, they are overly anti-Catholic, for others, they are too Catholic; For some, they are too Reformed, and for others, not Reformed enough.

As a historical side note: One of the traditional robes worn by English clergy is the Black Cassock. Many of these Cassocks, through history, have had 39 buttons going up the front. It has been traditional for some Anglican clergy to leave unbuttoned the buttons which correspond to the articles they do not agree with!

Back to the point: I write this to highlight the role of Queen Elizabeth and Matthew Parker in the English Reformation, and their enduring legacy in the Church. When people discuss the English Reformation and the history of the Anglican Church, the conversation often centers around King Henry and his insatiable lust for wives and power. More thoughtful folks may move the conversation to Thomas Cranmer and the first and second BCPs (1549 and 1552). This is certainly what happened in the New Yorker article.

But, among the Reformers of the 1500's, perhaps the greatest enduring impact on English speaking Christianity actually comes from an unmarried Queen and her choice of archbishop. It is actually Elizabeth and Parker that we have to thank for the ethos of Anglicanism (and its American child the Episcopal Church) as a "middle way" or "bridge church" between various forms of Protestantism, and between Protestantism and Catholicism. And that "middle way" finds its supreme textual embodiment in the 1559 BCP, which led to the 1662 BCP, which in turn led by a series of steps to the 1979 American BCP, which we use portions of in chapel every day.

And for those who are concerned to find strong female Church leaders in eras when "women's ordination" was out of the question, we need not look any further than Elizabeth herself. Not only was she one of the most skilled politicians of her day, but she was also a talented lay theologian, whose wise policies have led to a religious movement that has survived 500 years, and stretches across the globe, to include around 80 million members today. Granted, it took four centuries of theologians, clergy, and lay leaders to build on her legacy to get where we are today. But, more than Henry, and probably even more than Cranmer himself, we have Elizabeth and Parker to thank for laying the foundation for that growth.

2012-10-30

Images of Eternity: Paths to the Transcendent (A Book Review)



Keith Ward's book "Concepts of God", which is also titled "Images of Eternity" when first published in the U.K., is a distillation of some of the key discussions in Ward's much larger four volume magnum opus on Comparative Theology (i.e. the academic discipline of comparing models of God across religions and across linguistic/cultural divides). This book takes a representative thinker/theologian/philosopher from each of the major world religions (Jnana and Bhakti Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), who is considered "orthodox" within that religious tradition, and compares them with each other on key structural claims about the nature of "Ultimate Reality" or "God", which Ward tends to refer to as "The Transcendent".

Ward does two things simultaneously that are very difficult to do: On one hand, he allows each tradition to speak in its own voice without pressing them into a mold of pre-packaged politically correct "sameness". So, he allows genuine difference in the content presented by each religion. He does not pretend that all religions are simply "saying the same thing".

On the other hand, he presents a compelling case that each religion finds a way to deal with a common structure of religious experience. Ward shows how each religious tradition (including sub-traditions in each major tradition) all exhibit a six-fold "fiduciary structure" (i.e. a structure of "fides", or faith, in a Transcendent Reality). Each of the six elements in the fiduciary structure have a basic duality, or polarity, around which the element revolved. For instance, all religions have a structural element of "The Real" or "The Transcendent", with an essential bi-polarity of whether this Real is a Passive Void (an indefinable Abyss of pure Being) or is an Active Person (such as a Personal God).

The other structural elements include: 1. The Authority, alternating between pure mystical experience, or dictated revelation through a great Book or great prophetic figures; 2. The Goal, alternating between absorption into the Real, or as a personal loving relationship of obedience to the Real; 3. The Means of attaining liberation, alternating between "works" of moral, ascetic, and ritual effort, and grace, or the free, unmerited gift of the Real; 4. The Limitation of experiencing the Real, alternating between a denial of the goodness and usefulness of the material world as a vehicle for liberation, and an affirmation of the material world as a gift to help persons toward liberation; and finally, 5. The Cause of personal separation from the Real, alternating between unintentional ignorance and illusion on one hand, and intentional sin and evil leading to judgment.

What is truly interesting to see in Ward is how he shows that all religions, in fact, have means of dealing with each of these bi-polarities in the structure of religious experience. He points out that religions we would usually associate with "impersonal" and "immanent" ideas of Ultimate Reality (such as forms of Buddhism and Hinduism), actually speak of Ultimate Reality in personal terms to offset the dominant themes. Likewise, he points out that every religion- from the most "self-help" oriented religions, to those that claim to rely only on divine grace, do in fact make room for BOTH grace and works in their religious systems.

I heartily recommend this book. However, it is not an "easy read". Like this review, the sentence structure is often dense and philosophical. If you want a more accessible read from Ward that covers much the same area, try Ward's "The Case for Religion".

2012-10-25

Oh The Amazing Things Photoshop Can Do



This semester, I became an "art project" for the digital media class here at TMI - The Episcopal School of Texas. There were 130 pictures made of me, and we selected 25 to be shown in this slide show. Special thanks to the digital media class and Brian Palandri (their teacher)! Enjoy!!!

2012-10-16

On the Useless Usefulness of Art



A colleague of mine recently sent me a nice pop-science article on the neuroscience of art. In reading through the article, I found many things to be of great interest. All of the research on how the brain perceives and mis-perceives is great, and helps us understand why certain artistic techniques "work" to produce a certain type of perception. I really liked the stuff on the Mona Lisa.

However, where the article seems to fall flat is when it starts to talk about WHY we view art, seek art, find art beautiful, and even crave art.

All the explanations seemed predicated on finding a certain "usefulness" or pragmatic value to art. Almost as if art were yet another expression of the evolutionary drive to thrive. In this, art is treated solely as a means to another end (the end of evolutionary success).

I'm not sure if I can go with this. At least not all the way.

Sure, most art does have side effects that are "useful". Perhaps it teaches us something, or inspires us to be more moral, or helps us understand the world in a new way.

But it seems to me that there is more to art than just USE. It seems to me that there is something completely superfluous, playful, and even "use-less" about the best art. The best art is an end in itself. An encounter with raw beauty for the sake of beauty.

Here are a few "negative" examples of what we are willing to sacrifice for the value of art:

Think about all the artists who sacrificed all their skills and talents (which could have been used on something much more "useful") for the sake of pursuing beauty. Think of all the talented artists who starved and suffered and even died for "their art". Those who labored in obscurity for a lifetime, only to be hailed as "geniuses" after their death.

Think of all the money, time, and effort that goes into the arts that could be spent on more "useful" things, like feeding the hungry, or building sturdier buildings, or reading more science texts.

Now, either this is sheer madness and the human pursuit of art is a sign that we have gone collectively crazy...

OR it is a deep insight into the fact that beauty is an end unto itself, and it worth immense sacrifice to be pursued regardless of whether it is "useful" in a evolutionary or commercial sense.

As you might be able to tell, I take the latter view.

I think that art is an end in itself, and that by participating in art we are somehow participating the beauty and joy of God's own life. When art is done well, it is mystical and transcendent. It brings us into a realm of awe and glory and reverence. Perhaps even worship.

This is not to subvert art and say something silly like "The only good art is sacred art". That is to shackle art to yet another theory of "usefulness", only this time it is "religious usefulness".

Actually, I find even deconstructive, paradoxical art to have a transcendent, numinous effect as well. I think of a Rothko painting, a Salvador Dali surrealism, even Duchamp's "fountain" (i.e. toilet). By throwing a sideways kind of spotlight on the mundane and even the depressing in life, it serves to sort of "backlight" or "inversely highlight" the transcendent in life.

For me, good art is "iconic" in the theological sense of what an icon is: An icon is a window into the "Transcendent Other", through which we either (in the words of Nietzsche) "gaze into the Abyss and the Abyss gazes into us", or in which (in the words of St. John of Damascus) "the reverence given to the Representation overflows to the Reality it Re-Presents". Thus the icon can either be a deconstructive encounter (of the Abyss of Being) or a constructive encounter (of the Glory of Being), or perhaps both.

Either way, when viewed from a strictly evolutionary or commercial point of view, art is utterly "useless". But, paradoxically, art helps us find meaning, purpose, and beauty through the "iconic encounter" with Transcendent Reality, that we could never, ever find if we lived by strictly doing "useful" things.

In the end, it is perhaps the uselessness, the playfulness, the excessive overflow of art that makes it worthwhile as a source of pure encounter with Meaning.

2012-10-11

Nate raps at Camp 2011



And while I am posting old videos, I might as well add this. In 2011 I did my "Gospel Rap" at Camp Capers in the Diocese of West Texas, and someone video recorded me on an iPhone!

This rap was originally written for a camp I did in 1994 as a sophomore in college. Some of the theology is not exactly what I might write if I wrote it today. I would still be as Jesus-centered, but not quite as penal-substitutionary-ish. Nevertheless, it is seared in my brain after performing it at various times over the last 18 years. Maybe someday I will write a new one that more adequately reflects my theology.

Until then, here it is. Enjoy.

Religious Not Spiritual



I'm not entirely sure why I forgot to post this on my blog in January when I made this video. But, nevertheless, here it is.


This is a response to the "Why I hate religion but love Jesus" video by Jefferson Bethke. There are many things I agree with him on, and I probably would have done a similar video (had I the skills and production abilities he does) 15 years ago. But I have been walking with Jesus for a while now, and this is where I am at on my journey now.

Here are the lyrics and some scriptures for further study.

Religious not Spiritual
Copyright 2012 © The Rev. Nathan L. Bostian

It is popular these days to say "I'm spiritual not religious"
And "We reject dogmas and rituals, but Jesus is fine with us"

And I can see what they're saying; They're serious and not playing:
Because religion has been the source of much delaying

Delaying equal rights for women, and minorities, and the oppressed
Delaying justice here and now, to wait for "eternal rest"

All while hyper-critical hypocrites look down their noses
Calling people sinners, while they strike pious poses

And they're right to say that Jesus stood opposed to all that junk.
So, listen, I'm not dissin', or saying anyone is a punk;

But I AM judgmental, because I judge the content of ideas;
And sloppy thinking doesn't glorify God, or that Son of his.

Now, you probably shouldn't listen to me 'cause I'm not young, hip, and cool.
Like the apostle Paul, I'm just an old cranky fool!

You won't see me in a clothing advertisement, or on a reality show;
But I think I got something that you really should know.

Religion is in need of reform, not in need of abolition.
Like when Jesus was religious, by fulfilling his traditions;
[See Matthew 5-6; 22:37-40]

Or when he read the Scriptures in his synagogue, or preached in the temple;
Or prayed the prayers of his fathers and mothers; It's not that simple.
[See Mark 15.34; Luke 2.46; 4.14--21; 19.47; 20.1; 20.17; 21.37; 20:42-43; 23.46]

You see, if religion is a community of people, with shared values and intentions;
With shared prayers and rituals, shared ideas and conventions;

Who share deeply in one another, and bear each other's load;
Then it is clear that Jesus WAS religious: You can't avoid that road.

Yet he cleared the Temple of filth, and preached against massive injustice
He called the leaders to task, and told hypocrites they were "busted".
[See Matthew 21.12; 23; John 2.15]

His religion liberated the oppressed, while still remaining religious.
That's because religion is a tool, that can build up, or cause distress.

Like a hammer can build a house, or put a hole in someone's head:
It all depends on how you use it, to make people alive, or keep them dead.

And while it is true that in Christ, God has sought out man:
Does that mean that what we seek, is not a part of God's plan?

Jesus says "ask, SEEK and knock", to fervently desire more of God.
And Paul says God wants all nations to SEEK the Divine. Now isn't that odd.
[See Matthew 6.33-34; 7.7--12; Luke 11.9--13; Acts 17.22--28]

Because God seeking us, does not mean we shouldn't seek him;
No, it's the other way around: His love gives us a place to begin.

To begin to construct a community of God seekers, who want more of his life;
A community that stands for justice, amidst destruction and strife;

A community strong enough to withstand the assaults of selfish consumption;
And call out corporations and governments, who operate on the presumption:

That humans are merely tools to be used, and abused, and thrown away.
We need a religion strong enough to stand up and say "Hey!"

Enough of this madness. Enough of the lies.
Enough of oppression. Enough of hearing the children cry.

If we try to stand alone, we will fall for anything;
But if we stand together as a religion, we can say "Let freedom ring".

We can be a community of hope, centered on the person of Christ;
Who use prayers, rituals and deeds, to show forth HIS light.

And there is another thing I think I really should mention;
I am passionately in Love with Jesus AND his religion.

Some say "religion is full of hypocrisy, it's just no use!"
Yes, we're all hypocrites growing in grace, so that means there's room for you.

So, if being spiritual is a narcissistic preoccupation with my self;
And religion is a commitment to each others health;

And if spiritual people just care about "Jesus and me";
And religious people live to serve Christ's community;

I guess the choice is clear, while I wax on lyrical:
I am completely confident: I am religious, not spiritual.

2012-10-06

Transformers Alphabet


My son recently turned 4 years old, and he is finally interested in learning the ABC's and how to spell. But his real fascination is with Transformers. Recently, he started asking me things like "What does Optimus Prime start with?" and "What does Megatron start with?".

So, I did a handy Amazon search for "Transformers Alphabet" and "Transformers ABC's". Nothing! I was surprised no one had put one of those out.

So, I decided to remedy the situation! But for free only, not for pay!

If you have a 4 year old in your life who might enjoy a Transformer's Alphabet book, enjoy the PDF below [22 megabytes]:

https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B9uX1KQ33IUub3pBT3VQdExicnc

2012-09-30

Great Quote on Worship


"For worshipping God is not telling some very powerful, invisible person how good he is, in the hope that he will pat you on the head and give you eternal life. It is the reverent awareness of the Being of God, as [God] truly is."

Keith Ward, Images of Eternity, page 3

2012-09-28

Science as an Act of Faith



An Essay inspired by John Gribbin's "In Search of the Double Helix"

A colleague of mine recently invited me to guest lecture in one of his classes on the relationship between religion and science, particularly the history of the relationship between Christian Theology and Evolutionary Science since the time of Darwin. He invited me to read a portion of the class book to prepare: John Gribbin's excellent summary of the history of Evolutionary Science entitled "In Search of the Double Helix".

I know from previous experience that Gribbin is a master at making complex scientific subjects understandable to the common person. His "In Search of Schrodinger's Cat" is a masterful summary of the basics of quantum physics for the layperson. I highly recommend it if you are trying to get a grip on your quantum uncertainty about the nature of quarks.

In "Double Helix" Gribbin once again shows his prowess in making the complex understandable. And his historiography is generally good too. I love the way he contextualizes Darwin's era, and makes it clear that Darwin was part of a whole network of thought that was shifting paradigms.

However, in one area, I find Gribbin's treatment sadly lacking. And this is probably unfair to say, because what I am going to speak about only comes from around 4 pages of one book, and is probably not representative of Gribbin's thoughts on the issue. And it is also unfair because Gribbin is writing about the history of science, not the history of religion and science.

Nevertheless, I wish his engagement with theology was much more nuanced. He seems to fall into some stereotypes that abound about reactionary, literalist Christians versus rational, objective scientists. I don't think these stereotypes serve any of us well- whether scientists or religious believers- in furthering the dialogue between the two major Sources- Science and Religion- that people draw on to make sense of their world. Yes, it is true that many of the more "literal" religious believers go nuts over Darwin's work, both then and now. But there is a strong tradition, even if it is a minority tradition, of creative engagement between theology and science.

Thus, I want to use this issue as an excuse to write about a more creative synthesis of the two. And I do this in honor of Gribbin's work. Because really, I am going far beyond the scope of what he meant to address in this chapter, and because he is a writer I admire who has helped me understand a great many things about science.

I find Gribbin's account in chapter 1 flawed at many points, particularly on pages 9 and 21-23, and I would like to correct it. The central flaw is that he is comparing a POPULIST view of Biblical interpretation and theology (that might be held by a great many lay Christians or poorly educated Clergy) with a SPECIALIST view of Science (that is full of nuance and attention to detail). He does nothing even close to comparing specialist, nuanced views of BOTH Theology and Science.

For instance, he speaks as if all educated Christians, even in Darwin's time, believed in literal 6 day creation around 4004 BC. That is not true of the mid-1800's, nor even for the earliest times of the Church. Sure, there are many Christians of every age, who, lacking education and the ability to interpret literature, have believed such "young earth" explanations. But, in every age that we have Christian scholars comment on Creation and Genesis, we have scholars who doubt the 6 "days" are literal, and hypothesize that the Earth is quite old. That is true from the mid 200's AD to now.

The theological school of Alexandria in the 200's, led by world renowned scholars like Clement and Origen, thought such crass literalism was unhelpful and allegorized much of the Old Testament. Saint Augustine, in the 400's, even hypothesized that, since the "days" are symbolic, God could have made everything over a long period of time using a process of gradual development of creatures. Many theologians and Biblical commentators through the Middle Ages until the present day have followed the lead of Augustine and the Alexandrians.

Gribbin's other philosophical mistake is his dichotomy between Christians who "believe" without "doubting" certain articles of faith based on religious authority, versus scientists who evaluate whether a hypothesis is "good" or "inadequate" based on a rational examination of the evidence. On this view, only religious people rely on faith or belief. Scientists don't need faith: They rely on rational acceptance.

First, it is simply begging the question to say that trustworthiness, or credibility, or believability is not something that is involved in the scientific process. A whole host of "faith" stances have to be engaged in to get to the point of empirical demonstration. One must have faith one is sane, and that one's sense observations correspond to reality. This in turn entails faith that there is actually an objective reality outside of one's self. This also includes faith that the physical constants and "laws" are uniform across the universe, and will not suddenly cease to function in the middle of empirical demonstration. One must have faith that the web of beliefs and assumptions one holds about the predictability and explainability and rationality of the universe (one's "paradigm") are fundamentally accurate before starting to test select portions of that universe. Finally, one must trust that one's lab colleagues are trustworthy people, and that the lab techs have reliably calibrated one's tools. And this is just a cursory exploration of all the faith involved in the act of scientific investigation.

It seems that science is saturated with credibility and believability all the way down. Not to mention imagination. Einstein once dismissed Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (along with its implications for wave-particle duality) by saying "God doesn't play dice". That is fundamentally a faith stance of believing that there HAS to be another way of explaining quantum phenomena other than the current hypothesis that fits the evidence (and coincidentally has been shown to be an incorrect faith statement on Einstein's part!).

This is because for Einstein (as for all scientists and indeed all humans) if certain ideas are beyond their imagination, then they are literally unbelievable. That is until the paradigms of scientific imagination switch for people like Heisenberg and Bohr and the Copenhagen school, so that they can think in possibilities beyond folks like Einstein. Then ideas like quantum uncertainty, string theory, and multiverse become believable, and hence testable.

All this is just a rehash of Kuhn and his concept of paradigm shift. But it is also important to see that it is key to the story of Darwin too. Because Darwin served as hinge point for a building trajectory of evidence to break into a new paradigm. As Gribbin's chapter 1 makes clear, many other scientists made observations that pointed in the same direction, and made evolution into a believable concept that could be imagined and tested. Darwin was merely the straw on the camels back. And it's no use blaming religion or theology for not thinking of full fledged evolutionary theory. Because until Darwin put all the pieces together not even science considered this a fully imaginable or believable concept.

So any true account of science is incomplete if it claims that science is "just the facts ma'am". It isn't just the facts. It requires concepts of credibility, belief, imagination, and a whole sociology of knowledge that accounts for paradigm shifts.

Second, Gribbin seems to accept a populist account of Christian belief as a reliable representation of intelligent Christian theology, but I doubt he would he accept a populist account of evolution as a reliable account of science. For instance, there have been many who have said that cutthroat "Social Darwinism" is an authentic (and empirically demonstrated) application of evolutionary theory. Millions have believed this, and they probably outnumber the number of genuine Biologists who actually teach evolution. Should we then accept that Social Darwinism is a true plank in the platform of evolutionary biology? What about millions of Nazis (and Americans and Brits!) who believed in Eugenics as a logical extension of evolutionary theory? There were plenty of certified scientists who were part of the Eugenics movement!

No, there are clear and logical reasons why such populist expressions of evolutionary theory are not counted as "the real thing". In the same way, millions of populist Christians believe in young earth creationism, and among their ranks are a handful of certified academicians. But this does not Christian theology make. This is because there are a number of logical distinctions, and a body of literature, that shows literalist creationism is not representative of Christian theology in the specialist sense.

In fact, I do not think young earth creationism was even a "majority opinion" for theological specialists in the England of Darwin's day. I could be wrong, and it would take a massive literature review to be sure. But I am sure there were significant theological voices that welcomed Darwin's insights. And I certainly know that literalist creationism has been a fringe minority opinion of certified theological specialists throughout the 20-21st centuries.

So, if we are going to judge the reaction of theological specialists to biological specialists since Darwin's day, I would say that the interaction is much more integrated, creative, and balanced than Gribbin (and many others) would lead us to believe.

One of the most fertile areas of interaction between theology and science is in the area of epistemology: How we know what we know, and what we accept as credibly believable.

Gribbin says that rather than believing things on the basis of authority (as all "Christians" supposedly do) the scientist will objectively evaluate evidence and simply say "that is a good hypothesis" or "that is not a good hypothesis". But theological specialists would never say that faith is simply believing in something based only on authority, regardless of the evidence. I will get to the basis of genuine theological belief in a moment.

But first, what does Gribbin's scientist mean by a "good" hypothesis? Does he not mean that it is a hypothesis that is imaginable, fundamentally rational, and thus believable? In philosophy, this refers to the fact that the hypothesis is made up of meaningful, well-formed propositions. Yes, that's part of it.

Secondly, it means that this rational hypothesis "works" when tested. It corresponds to the world it describes, and it is able to predict interactions in the world. Thus, the "good" hypothesis is the best explanation which fits the relevant data.

Furthermore, this hypothesis is then singled out as "most believable" from among other hypotheses that have lesser (or the same) explanatory power. Many times, there are multiple hypotheses, functioning within different paradigms, that seem equally plausible given the evidence. In this case, the decision of the "best" hypothesis is purely a leap of faith which may only be validated by experimental evidence decades later. A great example of this is the hypothesis of "Aether" versus the hypothesis of "Space-time" around the turn of the 20th century. As the Newtonian paradigm was giving way to the Relativistic paradigm, both hypotheses had great explanatory value. It took decades- in which scientists took their respective faith stances- for experimental data to sort it out.

In fact to do science, the scientist must have faith in a whole nexus of not-fully-validated hypotheses, in order to test yet other hypotheses. For instance, we have faith in the explanatory value of several hypotheses about how gravity works, in order to test other aspects of physics, even though we do not have a unified theory of gravitation (or electromagnetism, or weak force, or strong force!).

So now that I have shown how what counts as "accepting a good hypothesis" is saturated with acts of faith and belief, here is the big kicker: This is very similar to what most theological specialists would identify as the act of faith itself.

Theologically, faith is not accepting the claims of authority regardless of evidence. Faith is the acceptance of the most probable explanation of the relevant evidence. Populist Christians may accept doctrines such as the Incarnation or Trinity or Atonement because "The Bible says" or "The Church says". But specialist theologians, if they accept such doctrines (not all do!), accept them because, like scientists, they think they are the best available hypotheses that best explain the relevant evidence.

The true difference between science and theology is not the difference between "faith and reason" (BOTH use faith AND reason). The true difference is what counts as relevant evidence and what counts as "real".

The "hard sciences" accept only empirical, reduplicable facts as evidence. And methodologically, this is necessary to do good science. The "softer" the science, the more it relies on evidence that it is not strictly able to reduplicate (such as a sociologist studying cultural migration patterns). When you get to theology, the evidence is almost entirely historical: It cannot be reduplicated any more than Julius Caesar, or the American Revolution, or Darwin's Voyage of The Beagle can be repeated. Rather, it relies on logical inference back to forensic evidence found in literature and archaeology and sociological patterns.

Next, in reference to what counts as real, science must necessarily truncate reality to what can be observed and tested. For science, what is methodologically "real" is what is strictly empirical. Science could not work as science any other way. In this, science is more a tool for understanding the world rather than a worldview. I think it is a mistake to view science as a comprehensive account of all that is real. Rather, it is a methodological tool to explore one dimension of reality: The empirical dimension.

But, while science can only consider empirical explanations as "real", theology and philosophy can take a wider, more comprehensive view of reality. They can allow the possibility of transcendent, or "trans-empirical", or "metaphysical" explanations.

For instance, the empirical method itself is a metaphysical, or non-empirical, construct. It cannot empirically test itself using empirical data because it is the rational tool that stands outside empirical phenomena and gives us a method to understand it. Yet, theology and philosophy can test the empirical method itself by asking questions such as: "Is the empirical method coherent and consistent logically?" or "Is it rational to assume that the empirical universe is rational and understandable?" or "Is the nature of reality such that a regulated, rational tool such as empiricism should work to explore it?" or "Why is there reason and order instead of chaos and unpredictability?" or even "Why is there something instead of nothing?"

Theology might answer that, given the world of empirical phenomena, which follow a logical and mathematical regularity which can be described scientifically, it seems that there is a logical, rational, trans-empirical Source which is the fabric of rationality that regulates reality. This Source might be termed "God", and it might be hypothesized that this is also the Source of the predictable physical mechanisms that allow for the evolution of ever-more-complex life forms. This is NOT theology declaring how these evolutionary mechanisms work. Rather it is theology saying that there is a certain type of metaphysical explanation for why there is any rational, predictable mechanism of any kind in the first place.

Theology might go further and say that, if there is such a God as this, it is reasonable to assume that God may reveal his character and his purposes for causing a rational universe, in ways we can understand, as we evolve biologically, socially, and intellectually. And thus theology might come to see Biblical "Creation Stories" as a symbolic disclosure of WHY God made us, adapted to pre-scientific human understanding, instead of as a literal, pseudo-scientific explanation of HOW God created us. Questions of how- mechanisms, methods, empirical causes- this is the realm of science. Questions of why- meaning, purpose, and motive- this is the realm of theology and divine revelation in Scripture.

Something like this, I think, would be representative of true specialists in theology. And I think it would be a much more fruitful way for Gribbin (and scientists in general) to interface with religion. It is much more fruitful than the stale old caricature of "religion as willfully ignorant faith in spite of evidence" versus "science as objective explanation of evidence apart from faith".

With all that said, Gribbin does give a nod to more creative engagement in a two sentence quote on page 22. While the rest of his treatment I find lacking, this is where I would like to push the argument:

"For those who do subscribe to the religious view of creation, it is quite possible to reconcile this with the idea of evolution by taking the Biblical story as allegory and imagining the Creator establishing the whole Universe, with all its physical laws, and then leaving evolution, both physical and living, to take its course. That truly does smack of the Great Architect."

I think this is a very helpful route to start to travel. I would want to tweak that away from the Deist implication of a Watchmaker God who has now left the scene. I would want to steer it toward an idea that God is the vibrant power that animates the universe, and the "fabric of rationality" that the system of the universe is woven into. In this, evolution is not just something that God merely allows to happen, but a dynamic process that expresses God ultimate desire to bring about intelligent, conscious, moral beings who can freely share in God's Love.

2012-09-05

Readings on the Philosophy of Science and Religion



This post grows out of a conversation with one of our science teachers here at TMI.

One "package" of questions that students and adults frequently ask me about is the bundle of issues surrounding science and religion. They range from supposed scientific "proofs" of God's existence (or the star of bethlehem, or Noah's ark, etc.), to questions of evolution, creation, and the Genesis stories, to deeper questions about whether God has a meaningful role to play in a world where we have physical explanations (or at least hunches) for most empirical phenomena.

If you are interested in reading accounts of this from specialists in the field, I would like to recommend the following reading list. Both of these writers take science and religion seriously, without trying to do ideological "violence" to either. Both of these scholars understand Christian Scripture in an expansive way, and would regard the Genesis creation stories as metaphorical or mythological, not as empirical statements of the methods and timeframe used in Creation. Both of these writers hold to theological convictions that would make them credible to religious people here in the "Bible Belt" (i.e. both are practicing Christians who affirm the essential points of the Creed). And finally, both of them think that human origins are best explained by evolution through mechanisms of "natural selection", without recourse to Creationism or "God of the gaps" theories where God is forced to supernaturally step in and "prop up" evolution somehow.

The first writer I will recommend is John Polkinghorne, who for most of his professional life was a quantum physicist of some renown. In his 50's he began pursuing theological education and was ordained as an Anglican priest. He has PhD's in both applied science and systematic theology. I find his books immensely helpful, although he does tend to write in both a very English and a very Academic way at times.

Polkinghorne reading list (easier and more basic, down to more specialized):

Faith of a Physicist (Theology & the Sciences) (9780800629700): J. C. Polkinghorne (Very interesting book because he takes on "The Nicene Creed" from a physicist's perspective)

Quarks,Chaos & Christianity: Questions to Science And Religion: John Polkinghorne: 9780824524067 (a nice, short primer on the subject very suitable to non-specialists)

Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World (9781932031928): John C. Polkinghorne (although it does not directly answer the thornier specialist questions about evolution, it does provide a nice framework to embed the issue within)


The second writer I will recommend is Keith Ward, a philosopher of science, theologian of comparative religion, and Anglican priest as well. His writing comes from much the same philosophical and methodological bent as Polkinghorne, but his writing style is much more approachable. Ward also tends to draw from insights across world religions, whereas Polkinghorne deals mainly with Christian theology in conversation with science.

Ward reading list (easier and more basic, down to more specialized):

Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins (9780745953304): Keith Ward (In my opinion, one of the most respectful, scientifically knowledgable responses to Richard Dawkins' "God Delusion")

God Chance and Necessity (9781851681167): Keith Ward (In this, he deals well with probability theory and whether current physics allows for meaningful involvement of God in the universe)

More Than Matter?: Is There More to Life Than Molecules? (9780802866608): Keith Ward (Deals well with current explanations of human consciousness, and whether conscious experiences are reducible to merely physical epiphenomena)

The Big Questions in Science and Religion (9781599471358): Keith Ward (this is a fairly specialized book, but what is very interesting is that he tackles the questions from a pan-religious viewpoint, taking into account what insights other religions may have on these questions)

I hope you might find this interesting. If you have any suggestions for this list, please add in by commenting.

2012-08-18

The Joker, Mass Murder, and Metanarratives



Within hours after the Aurora shooting, people were predictably asking "Why?"

Why would an intelligent young man dress up like "The Joker", arm himself to the teeth, booby trap his apartment, and then go on a rampage that kills and maims dozens, only to give himself up without a fight?

Speculations have ranged from mental illness to demon possession to blaming moral relativism in society. A particularly helpful take on the connection between the murders and the "Joker" is found here:

Religion Dispatches | Neither The Joker Nor Godlessness Drove Batman Shooting

In reference to Ledger's version of the Joker, I think this post gets close to the heart of the matter, and that is that there is no heart- no central self- to the Joker. He is an embodiment of random, absurd chaos. Kind of an anti-incarnation, or de-carnation of the Logos.

I take exception to this hackneyed phrase "it seems random, senseless, and destructive for destruction’s sake". The Joker is precisely destruction for no sake whatsoever. He could be randomly, senselessly compassionate or kind as well, for that is also completely congruent with his chaotic character (its been a while, but isn't there at least one scene where he is chaotically kind?).

Joker is the Neizchean übermensch, who wills to power simply for the will to power. Or, perhaps he is the incarnation of a hyper-Calvinist deity, whose kindness and severity have no predictability or logic to them. They just are.

It is for this reason that the Aurora shooter has betrayed the Joker identity by taking it on himself. The Joker has no story, no identity, no inner logic. The shooter has taken a story and identity on himself- that of the story-less Joker- and thus he has betrayed the chaos of the Joker by imposing the logic of the Joker upon himself.

The fact that he tried to provide an identity and "backstory" to his heinous deeds- "I am the Joker"- means that there is still some hints of divinely given rationality in him. The fact that we as a society are still asking "why?", still seeking a "backstory", shows that there are still some common values and rationalities available to us. Both of these point to a capacity for redemption: Being able to be re-knit into a divine story.

Our capacity for understanding ourselves as part of a metanarrative is evidence of the imago dei in us, and precondition to our redemption. Because redemption implies the salvation of persons, and personhood is rooted in our identity as part of a broader story that has a past, present, and future.

When we are in real trouble (although it wouldn't matter any more at this point) is when we stop asking why, and simply shrug our shoulders and go on to do whatever is next in our Rolodex of cravings. When we blink blandly at horror and beauty, there is nothing left in us to redeem.

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.