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.


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.


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.


On Two Kinds of Bible Readers

Two kinds of Bible readers are invincibly ignorant, and have no idea how to understand what the Bible says, because they cannot see past their own ideology. The first kind are those religious fundamentalists who cherry pick the Bible's commands to justify their own ideology. The second kind are secular fundamentalists who cherry pick the Bible's absurdities to justify their own desire for the Bible to say nothing at all. Only those who sit with the Bible, listening as one might listen to a grandparent telling old family stories of joy and woe, are able to discern the deep currents of God at work in the messiness of history and culture. Religious fundamentalists present nice, clean, sanitary, pre-packaged answers to all of life's questions, while secular fundamentalists present self-satisfied, shallow, privileged satire of cultures and texts they will never comprehend. Beyond the mirror image fundamentalisms of left and right is a deeper way of discerning a trajectory in Scripture which leads to life, love, and justice. What Martin Luther King said about history is true of Scripture as well: The moral arc of history is long (and messy), but it trends toward justice.

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

Beyond Sit Down and Shut Up: On the need for debate and explanation in civil discourse

It seems lately that a bunch of folks from all sides want other folks to accept certain ideas and events as "facts" without explanation or debate. Trump folks want everyone to shut up and accept the election without question or protest. Progressives want folks to accept diversity without question as a social fact, and delegitimize anyone who disagrees as either ignorant or prejudiced or both. Scientists want folks to accept evolution and global climate change as fact and ignore young earth creationists and climate change deniers. Inerrantists want folks to accept a certain read of the Bible as the way Reality works without being questioned by secularism or other religions.

The truth is that this attitude is prevalent on all sides, and is both intellectually sloppy and socially lazy. If we hold free speech as a social good*, that means that no "fact" may go without the expectation of questioning, explanation, rational argument, analysis of evidence, and even protest. Not even this post. I personally think it is incredibly immature to tell others to sit down and shut up and accept your position as so superior that it is self evident you are right. If you think you are right, support it with an argument and an explanation to goes beyond simply posting and meme, and even beyond reposting someone else's article or news story. Although both memes and reposting articles may be part of an argument, they are not substitutes for it.

*This, of course, assumes the shared value of free speech. Which in turn assumes that speech-- discourse, dialogue, and debate-- can be used as a means to pursue truth and virtue. Thus, since truth and virtue are not a given and must be sought, the freedom of discussion opens the possibility of seeing truth and virtue from different perspectives. But not everyone holds these values. Some only see speech as a means of power: Social control and manipulation. This in turn seems to imply that either they think they possess the fullness of the Truth (and thus all that is left is to coerce people into accepting it), or that Truth does not exist (and thus, life is meaningless and all that matters is bending people to our will for our pleasure). Thus all the reasons I can think of for not valuing free speech lead to pretty scary social visions. Therefore I think free speech is a key social value for a healthy society, and therefore silencing tactics are antithetical to that value, and thus antithetical to a truly healthy society.

Back to civil discourse: I hold my views because I think they make the best use of the evidence I have been exposed to, and hence are better explanations than other views I disagree with. I'm happy to discuss, explain, and defend any one of these views if and when I have time (while at the same time acknowledging that there are constraints on time and other competing priorities). And I think others should have this attitude too. And it may the the 1000th time you have had to explain it, but it may be the first time someone else has heard it. If there's anything I've learned from preaching and teaching, it is that you must never tire of explaining the basics over and over and over.

I'm not offended when people question me, my views, my politics, or my religion. I expect it and welcome it. And many of the best people I know share the same attitude. I think it is a mark of intellectual adulthood to be able to compassionately and clearly discuss and defend one's ideas and ideals. It is a mark of immaturity to silence and shame others, expecting them to simply accept ideas you find self-evident. And not only that, but from a secular perspective it is a mark of a healthy society to have vigorous debate in the pursuit of free speech (as discussed above). And if one comes from the Christian perspective, this is even a clearly held Biblical virtue. After all, 1Peter 3:15 tells us: "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord [i.e. Don't be afraid to hold firm spiritual and moral commitments that stem from the "Lordship" of Jesus]. Always be prepared to give an answer [Greek "apologia": A rational, evidence based response and explanation] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience [i.e. Pursue free speech in such a way as to treat every human with dignity and respect as beloved by Christ], so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander."

Thus, for clear social, moral, political, philosophical, and religious reasons it is paramount to engage in sustained rational discourse and debate as a necessary facet of the value of free speech. There may be occasions when free speech must be paused to pursue a greater good. If your child is stepping out into traffic one must snatch them back first, and wait for later to explain the necessity of looking both ways. And when lives are in immanent danger, one must first stand in protest, or act in compassion, to save them. And only after lives are safe, will we have the leisure to debate the justifications. But in general, free speech and reasoned discourse should be the norm, from which crisis situations are the deviation.

So instead of saying people should shut up and stop protesting, try and explain instead why things are so darn good for them that they shouldn't want to protest. And if you cannot construct an argument that makes sense, perhaps that indicates that your position needs revision.

And instead of saying that you will ignore anyone who holds an opposing view by silencing them or shaming them, try explaining your position in a new way. You just might find that you come to understand your own views in a deeper way, even if they continue to disagree with you.

And if, at long last, you simply cannot come to a common agreement, perhaps the best way to handle it is in the silence of good deeds, as you continue to work for justice, compassion, kindness, mercy, and forgiveness. It takes no words give the thirsty a drink, or feed the hungry a meal, or sit in protest against injustice, or stand between a bully and his victim.

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


Hamstrings and Excellence, Law and Grace

For those who do not know me, I push myself hard in many areas of life. I generally like doing "hard things" that trigger the desire to perform within me. From preaching, to teaching, to writing long essays, to lifting heavy weights, I generally delight in doing things that many people find difficult or strenuous. And before I go on, let me make it clear that there are plenty of things I am bad at too. I hate administrative things, paying bills, balancing accounts, making beds in the morning, doing dishes, going to bed at a reasonable hour, waking up early, etc. So suffice it to say, I tend to perform in front of people, and get lazy behind the scenes. So, I've got a lot of growing to do.

But, one of my more effective hobbies is lifting weights. I'm good at it, for my age and build. I pick heavy things up. I put them down. Usually in the solitude of my garage with loud music playing. I don't injure myself often, but when I do, it is memorable. One of those occasions was last night.
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.