Friday, December 31, 2010

Faith is Nonsense Part II: Christianity is for the weak-minded.

Okay, my second installment of what might be something like, "if I were an atheist."

As you may know, I am a follower of Jesus . . . but I am a skeptic.

Not your normal skeptic, though.  Most normal skeptics have a certain amount of doubt in considering the God question.  Where they fall short is in their insignificant amount of doubt.  You see, they have enough doubt to poke questions at belief but not enough left over to poke questions at the very position they are arguing from.  Most normal skeptics would doubt the existence of an all-powerful God who could speak the universe into existence but not have enough skepticism left over for the troublesome and intellectually inbred manner in which we might arrive at that conclusion.

No, I say that there is enough skepticism to go around that we can doubt the claims of faith with enough left over to doubt the doubt that we have leveled at faith across the centuries.

And anyhow, atheism needs some more 'umph!' This is where I come in.  If I were an atheist, I would concentrate on the following things . . . 

And so, as part 2, I would focus on how faith is for the weak.

Jesse Ventura made headlines over a decade ago by saying that religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people.  If I was an atheist I would develop this further.

It is obvious that the majority of people who hold to the Christian faith are those that are intellectually inferior to those that are atheistic.  The more educated a nation is,  the more atheistic it is.  There seems to be a correlation between those that think deeply and atheism.  I say 'seems' because of the relative nature of intellectualism.

I would develop this further, however, and link it with the thoughts of Nietzsche, who argued that religious faith is an assault on the human will to succeed.  Nietzsche had a fondness for the way that the world apparently works:  those that have a stronger will, those who possess a greater internal strength are those who seize power and in so doing seize life.  This will rewards those who are the strongest and eliminates those who are not.  Left alone, the strong would become stronger.  Nietzsche's vision was to realize the strength of this power in the collective will to power that would one day liberate mankind from all weakness of heart and mind.

And then enter Christian faith . . . with it's 'brotherly love' and 'dying to self' and consideration of others as greater than yourself.   In some circles, the two competing philosophies (will to power vs. sacrificial love) may be arranged in a hierarchy, but it was Nietzsche who desired to present them as mutually exclusive.

In fact, Christian love is the ultimate demon because it seeks to position itself as the greatest thing to aspire to when in fact it is nothing more than a great equalizer - the mode by which the weak are made equal to, if not greater than the powerful.  Christianity seeks to invert the natural paradigm of the will to power.  Instead of being great by being first, it is now the last who are the first.  Instead of being the greatest, it is now the most humble who are exalted.  Christian faith, then, becomes the great mediocrity.  Instead of mankind continuing to become stronger, mankind becomes weaker.  The paradoxes of JEsus' teachings have become ways in which mankind has sought to sap the will to power and elevate the poor and the weak.

So, as an atheist, I would argue that Christianity seems to be targeted to and through the weak of the world.  Think of all the vehicles by which this ridiculous idea enters the world:  

1.  A small band of Bedouins existing between Egypt and Assyria (with perhaps some relation to a group that were nicknamed 'apiru' by the Egyptians - roughly translated 'riff-raff' or mischievous ones).  This becomes the family that we know as "Israel."

2.  The stories of this family are riddled with famine, poverty, and misfortune - main characters being left for dead, thrown in prison, harassed by authorities, murdered, taunted.  These are not world-changers, they are pawns in the bigger game of ancient international politics.

3.  The New Testament highlights the arrival of the SOn of God to a teenage girl in a small town on the crest of a hill outside Jerusalem and the only people that show up are shepherds (which were disdained in their day).

4.  The Gospel message is carried into the world by men who never made a mark scholastically.  In fact, they would have been the academic rejects.

And on it goes.  Can there be any doubt that the faith of Christianity is founded on nothing but weakness?  Are we not just links in a chain of intellectual inferiority?  Of course.

But in an effort to go full throttle on our skepticism, let's not just stop there.

Are we sure that intellectual frailty is the nemesis of truth?  What if we thought more broadly than that.  What if we were bold with our thinking and rethought what we think we know . . . what if  weak-mindedness were the portal to truth rather than intellectual wastebasket? Is it possible that all the ideas that we think we have in our possession about what is real or true are actually hindrances to seeing things as they really are - in all their odd and ridiculous splendor?  

Think of this - if the world operates in a mind-bendingly different orientation than we are used to or what we would expect, who would be more apt to hear it - those that think they know the truth already or those that are open to embracing the truth no matter how ridiculous it sounds?

In fact, it makes you wonder how over centuries of history and scores of authors writing from different areas of the world in different world-views all arrive at the consistent ethic of a God who continues to chose the weak and poor.  It seems like there is a conscious decision to overlook the wise and the learned in favor of those that are gullible and without credibility.

Is there a message to be deciphered in the shepherds observing the birth of the Son of God?  Shepherds were not allowed to give testimony in court and yet they are the ones who observe and give testimony.  The disciples were not rabbi material, and yet they are chosen to receive a new revelation.  And it is women (again not able to give testimony in court) who observe the single-greatest supposed event in the history of mankind - the resurrection of the dead.

These are three of a long string of a consistent theme in the Christian faith of the weak and the uneducated being selected for truth-bearing.

And of course we arrive at this conclusion - instead of arguing that Christianity is not for the weak, perhaps it is the weak that are most able to hear and accept it.

So I would agree with with you, dear skeptic - Christianity is for the weak-minded.  Perhaps in weakness, one is most able to open themselves to something greater.  Perhaps it is not so much that God prefers the weak.  Maybe it is not so much that God is not up for the wrestling match.  

It is just as likely that in your 'knowing' you have selected yourself out of the possibility of knowing something greater.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Faith is nonsense: Part 1: It picks on the young because they are an easy target.

If I were an atheist, I think I would attack Christianity on a couple of different fronts.   I will begin to go into detail on this blog on several of them.  The first one is the age of impression.

Why does faith continue to exist?  It is simple, because it is still encouraged among the young.

Just think of it.  When do people get introduced into the concept of God?  When they are children.  The reason that it happens in childhood would be many:

1.  In childhood, young minds are more open to fantasy and story.  They are not as skilled in possibilities and criticism of ideas.  They hear a story and believe it.  Dawkins argued in "The God Delusion" that this is a holdover from evolution.  When the young are impressionable, they listen to their elders.  Those that listen to their elders are more likely to survive childhood and pass those genes on to the next generation.

2.  For parents, the idea that a story can explain something (especially when the parent has no clue of how to explain it) is enticing.  Sometimes it is too enticing. Perhaps sometimes the lure of having the answers for the next generation coupled with motives of sustaining power may lead the elder generation to present the story of a god, gods or goddesses so that the circle of power fits tightly around those that convey the "truths' to the next generation.  It also serves as a way to make sure that these mouthpieces of divinity express the right way of conduct (which happens to simultaneously serve the elder generation).  Hmmmmm . . .

Imagine: "the gods have told me that you should respect your father and your mother.  If you do not respect them then the gods will be very upset with you."

Sounds like a nice way to enforce the values on the next generation.  Just create the impression in young people of an ultimate authority as the young grow out of their need for the family they come from.  By introducing them to a god or gods that not only enforces certain behaviors, but also wields power higher than any human, you have successfully found a way to leverage power over other people's behavior - particularly young men and women.  

3.  Humans have a need to explain patterns that they observe but can't make sense of.  This is part of what makes us human.  If a dog or a cat sees a shape on the wall move, it will switch into fight or flight mode - bark or be gone.  The same is true for humans, but after watching it for a while we switch into explanatory mode.  Correction, we NEED to switch into explanatory mode.  It needs to fit within our understanding of existence.  If we are strict scientists, then the shapes on the wall are projected shadows from a light source interfered with by an object somewhere outside of our observable powers.  If we are predisposed to faith, it is a message from the gods.  If we feel guilty for the lives we have led, it is a message from beyond the grave - someone is upset with us . . . and on it goes.

So the young are targeted for faith because we look for people to think the same way that we do because when we have created an existence that is congruent with our values (whether scientists or religious nuts) we have created the illusion of 'reality.'  The more people that think and accept a particular way of thinking, the more we achieve stasis - the calmness of soul, the absence of question.

And if you haven't guessed it . . . this is precisely why the atheistic argument falls woefully short.  It is the question.

The power of the question is the one thing that both ignites the fire of debate about whether God is there and yet simultaneously extinguishes all hope of partiality on the subject.

It lights the fire by burning in our minds.  Dogs and cats could care less about the meaning of existence.  Warm fire, fresh food and water, a gentle master . . . all is well.  We are plagued by the meaning of it all.  Meaning is arrived at with the answer of the question - "what is this all about?"  "Why am I here?"  "Where is this all going to?"

These questions are more than evolutionary by products of the quest for safety.  We are haunted by the question of meaning because there is an answer to it.  LIke C.S. Lewis said in "Mere Christianity", “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning”[i]

But because the question exists, the haunting remains.  We are haunted with the purpose of things, not because we have evolutionary drives toward answers, but because the world is animated with echoes of something other.  Even rigid scientific logic is driven toward the quest for an answer.  The greatest atheistic position would be the position that is okay with mystery and no answer for the questions that burn within us.  The strongest hand that the atheist could play would be to laugh in the face of meaning and claim that even science is a hopeless endeavor because all it seeks to do is shine the light on the fact that there is nothing outside of human consciousness.

But it doesn't.  Even the scientist claims to have the truth.

And the truth comes from a supposed answer.

And the answer is an attempt at a question.

And the question is what burns inside us when confronted with the unknown.

So the unknown may very well be the presence of God . . .

[i] Lewis, Mere Christianity.  Part 2, Chapter 6

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

It is Christmas Eve - 8:45pm.  Just got back from a candlelight service.  

Just a wish to say to everyone Merry Christmas.  How crazy it is that we have a savior who knows what it is like to be human.  Someone who sees us on our worst day and still likes us.  Thanks, God.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The gift of Socrates

Socrates was the gadfly of Athens.  Or at least that is what the Athenians said.

A gadfly is a small little fly on a horse's rear end that is so irritating it can prompt the beast to gallup as a result of its annoyance.  Something so small, so irritating can produce such great power.  That is who Socrates is.

I say 'is' because his ideas still provoke great things from us.  I think God smiled broadly when he considered Socrates.  All those sophists running around with their heads full of self-important ideas and then this old man came on the scene and made idiots out of all of them.

This was Socrates' M.O. (modus operandi, way of operating) - to look innocent in asking a series of questions that eventually brought the person under examination to the complete opposite of what he originally said.  Meno, Credo, Apology, Euthyphro - these aren't hip-hop artists, they are short books that contain the great ways that Socrates would make mince-meat of his opponents in the most humble and disarming way.

If you asked Socrates how he knew so much, Socrates would answer that it was his NOT knowing that was he real gift.  It is this awareness that is God's gift to the world on behalf of one of his children - Socrates.  

You see, when Socrates went to Delphi to ask the oracle there which man was the wisest in all of Athens, the answer was that it was Socrates - not because of his great knowledge, but for his disposition.  At the time there were plenty of people that had claimed to have great wisdom and knowledge (and they charged a hefty sum for learning what they knew).  Real knowledge, however, was not wrapped up in sophistry.  Real knowledge was knowing the limits of their sophistry.

It was the oracle at Delphi (as Plato tells it) that said that Socrates' knowledge was in his disposition rather than his position.  It was the fact that Socrates alone knew that he did not know which made him the wisest.  Whereas others claimed to have knowledge, it was Socrates who humbled himself and claimed that he knew only one thing - that one thing was that he knew nothing.

Now of course this is a foundation rather than a beginning point, but it is a beautiful gift (seldom unwrapped) for the rest of us.  Our faith in Christ starts with the deconstruction of all that we think we know.  In fact, it would be better to deconstruct what we think we know about anything and completely do away with laying the foundation for anything else.  When humans enter into the knowledge department, whatever we build is skewed. 

Instead, we can move closer to God with an increasing awareness of all that our greatest academic moment is when we agree that we know nothing (and to help others see the same in the impressive structures that they have built in place of God).

Because when I agree that I don't know what I think I know, I am free to let God fill me in on what He needs me to know - which usually comes from a relational perspective rather than a foundational perspective.  Leave the impressive structures up to the one who can figure all of that out and allow God to move in and abide in the structures that He has already built.

And of course we know that this is not good enough for the critics . . . but that is okay, because they really know nothing.  If only they could see the gift of Socrates!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Projectile Understanding

I want to talk about the nature of knowing what we know.  By the end I hope to have said something to people who are skeptics (and to people who can be smug in their beliefs).  In order to do that, I would like to acquaint you with a little bit of science.

So lets just get to it.

We know that there are certain limitations on our understanding when it comes to knowledge.  For example in the world of physics (of which I am almost completely illiterate), we know that we are almost completely ignorant of certain truths by nature of how limited our senses are.  Werner Heisenberg, a quantum physicist in the 1920's and 30's became famous in the philosophical world because of an observation he made in his area of expertise.   His assertion was just that you cannot simultaneously know the position and the momentum of a particular electron.  It became known as Heisenbergs's Uncertainty Principle.

Now I don't want to pretend that I am an expert on quantum mechanics, so I am just going to say that a fair summary of the uncertainty principle goes like this - 

The closer you get to knowing something is the further away you get from knowing it.   With electrons, Heisenberg said that in trying to observe the location of the electron, the energy you apply in observing it changes the momentum of it.  So you can't know both at the same time.  The closer you get, the further away you are.  Imagine trying to find something like your socks and every time you get an idea of where they are it affects the place where they are at.  Frustrating.

This applies in other areas of science - the very tools we use to observe something (like light) may affect the very thing we are trying to study (like, say . . . light) and thereby affect our understanding of the very thing we are trying to study.  Again, frustrating.

In a simplistic way, it is like trying to look at something on a window pane up close.  The closer we get,  the more detail we see but the closer our breath comes to the window pane, the more it fogs up the pane of glass.  

So there are certain things that will always have an amount of uncertainty because of how our senses function and what we use to observe the world.  It is ironic that the more we draw our hand closed on understanding, the more it eludes us in certain areas.  So the best we can do is to fill in the gaps on what we don't know with ideas of what we do know.  

This reminds me a little of the Kantian predicament - that we are not so much observers as we are projectors of information.  As we look more closely at why we know what we think we know, it gets kind of scary how much we really don't know.

For example, in the most simplistic sense (you have probably heard this one before) do we really know that the room has a nice tan carpet or is the color a value that I have projected onto the wavelength of light that is reflected to my eye? In this sense, I am not just observing, I am projecting what my mind associates with a specific wavelength of light.  I am no longer passively noticing things, but actively projecting values.  Is the smell really cinnamon that I smell coming from that candle or is this a value I assign to certain particles that are released from the man-made materials of the candle as it heats up?  The first two years of life we spend formatting our brain's hard drives so that our 'operating system' knows how to assign values to the things that we see and sense.

It is truly a marvelous function of design - that our minds develop as we seek to put tags on the things that come into our brains from the outside world.  It helps us to develop reason and manufacture meaning - two necessary items for moving through the world that we inhabit.

The problem is that we have done such a good job at projecting these values on such arbitrary things as carpet colors and candle odors that we trick ourselves into thinking that these things are 'real.'  In so doing, we push the 'real' nature of the outside world farther away as we move through life.  The true nature of the world is actually devoid of things like 'color' or 'scents' or hot or cold or rough or smooth.  These are values that the mind manufactures to make sure as humans that we survive in our world.  Projections.  At best they are survival values that enable us to manipulate our surroundings.  The true nature of the world (what Kant would call "the thing in itself") is lost to us - we can have no idea of what that really is.

In fact, the more that we try to grasp it, the more it moves away.

That is why people who believe in God or don't believe in God because of logic are sorely deluded.  Logic is a program that runs in our heads that creates the wonderful illusion of what we might call 'reality.' But that is all it is. 

I think that is why the Bible has a lot to say about pride.  Especially intellectual pride.  It is the uncertainty principle at work in the minds of mortals.  We don't realize that the closer we think we are, the further away it all is.

Intellectual arrogance blinds us to the fact that we might feel like we have all the answers staring us right in the face, but the truth is because of the inability for us to even know the "thing in itself" as Kant put it shows us just how far away we really are from any certainty.  You cannot put your finger on what you are after because the best knowledge we have as humans is approximations of what our senses can deliver to our minds.  Not only do we have the filter of the senses which are very narrow in bandwidth, but we have the very limited brain that always seeks patterns as a way of moving through the world.  Because of this, we will always project onto the world what we think we know, but we will never be closer to actually knowing what it is in itself.

Now imagine how all this impacts the God who is immanent . . .

The Bible describes a God who, among other things, describes Himself as present and wanting to be among us.  This immanence is unique among the world religions - a revolutionary concept for the middle to late bronze age.  Other gods in Mesopotamia were completely indifferent to the story of man.  It is the God of the Old Testament that breaks into history seeking man's good.  From telling Moses that "I will be with you" to the end of John's Revelation in which "they will be my people" - God is all about immanence.

To me, pride is not the sin that makes God angry because of our arrogance.  Pride is the sin that moves people further away from the truth.  Just as much as our projectile understanding pushes us further away from the truth about what is real, it is the misuse of our intellect that pushes us further and further from the God who longs to be with us.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Unethical God . . .

I was in the car listening to a radio show earlier this summer and the host was interviewing a man and a woman who had been working on a book about how God is not a good God.  I was intrigued, so I turned up the radio and tried to really hear where they were coming from.  I think it takes more guts to disagree with God than it does to blindly follow without any reflection.

Their take on God was kind of weak at first - they had zeroed in on the manner in which Jesus spoke - asserting that Jesus was actually very cold and judgmental in the way that He spoke with people in the Gospels.  It didn't get interesting until they started to ask questions about how God could approve warfare in the Old Testament.  Thats when the board lit up and people were calling in registering their displeasure with a God who condones war.

I would say that the biggest problem that skeptics have with the God of the Bible is how bloodthirsty he can appear to be at times.  Just how does the Jesus of the New Testament square with the God of the Old Testament in passage like:

1. Deuteronomy 20:16-17   "However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.  Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you."

2. I Samuel 15:2-3  "This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”

3.  Exodus 12:29 - "At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well."

So what do we do with passages like this?  How do we worship a God  that seems at times to act so inconsistent with the rest of scripture?

I think it boils down to three options . . .

1. The first option consists of answers that we have traditionally heard on the subject that try to hold true to the text as well as our sense of what right and wrong are.  This has traditionally been the answer which states that the nations that the LORD sought to displace through force were evil nations that practiced infant sacrifice or were sexually deviant.  The Bible itself tells of God's wrath being poured out on these nations and it being time to judge these nations through such acts.  This takes the responsibility off of God and places it on the shoulders of the sinfulness of mankind.  

This has not been especially persuasive for people (and not just skeptics).  Did every man, woman and child practice child sacrifice?  Isn't it possible that some were innocent?  

To be fair to the Bible, though, the scriptures were not written from the perspective of someone justifying the act.  There was no need to.  So we find description of the act and a reporting of the intention behind it, but not a whole lot of supporting material.  Perhaps if it sensed an audience that would take issue with it, the scriptures would have more rationale describing such drastic measures but it simply states a fact that God commands obliteration of a people.  

2. The second option includes a series of arguments that make the assertion - "maybe its you!"  

For example, Brian McLaren gives a clear argument for the proximal matter of ethics in his book A Generous Orthodoxy.  In it, he compares the seeming barbaric act of warfare with the ruthless way that we treat the environment.   McLaren muses that it may well be possible that people 2,000 years from now will look back on us and wonder how God could have ever blessed a Pastor who rides in a jet that polluted the atmosphere or drove in a car that burned fossil fuels.  McLaren's point is that ethics are always environmental and that God's holy wars are a product of a certain people and a certain time in history.  Perhaps God's involvement with war is a context that He was working through.

Others go on to point out how subjective human ethics are.  What are ethics other than what we think should be.  There are ethics that are grounded in something outside of ourselves (like religious codes) or there are ethics that float within us, tied to nothing.  The problem with ethics that come from within is that they are subject to our drives and desires.  You may agree that it is noble to make sure a starving baby has enough to eat . . . but what if you are starving as well?   Ethics - the art of knowing and being able to choose the right - always suffers from the weightlessness of subjectivity.  We get what we think is right and wrong from our own perspectives.  

So looking at the scriptures with a pre-figured idea of what is right and wrong and how God should act is to invert the relationship between ground and subject.  When we start with subject as the center of meaning, the ground seems out of place.  When we begin with the ground first, the subject then relates to it.

This has traditionally helped those with the Old Testament problem by the simple idea of extension.  If God is good in every other sense (the ground) then even in this instance that is disorienting, I will arrange myself (the subject) around what He claims is true (the ground).  Some day it will all make sense, but for now I know I can trust him in 99% of the situations that I encounter, in this 1% of the time, I will choose to trust Him rather than myself.

This is helpful for us in a logical way because it reveals that I (the subject) am an agent that is biased.  All ethics that originate with people have certain limitations to them by nature of the will of mankind.  We are predisposed to preserving life in certain instances and taking life in others.  For example we would say that it is ethical to apply the Heimlich maneuver to someone who is choking (saving life) while in the same breath we would say it is ethical to strangle the person who is trying to strangle us (taking life).  These ethics aren't written in the stars somewhere or delivered to us by an angel - they are rooted in the sense of self-preservation.  We are wired to stay alive - it is a predisposition.  How many other predispositions are out there that shape the way we look at the world?  In the least, it changes the way that we look at ethics - we can't assume to think that we know more than the Bible just because our conclusions are different.

There are two other conclusions in this somewhat unsatisfying group:

a.  These are not nations as we would think of it.  By the time that most battles were fought, many had fled and those that stayed behind were mostly soldiers.  Sometimes we think of Word Wars that tallied millions of dead.  Remember, Israel is the size of New Jersey.  Battlefields were small and cities were not huge metropolitan areas that we imagine today.  
b.  In the least, the difficulty of the passages remind us that, contrary to some scholarly opinion, the Hebrew scriptures were not tampered with.  These passages could easily have been redacted and the hard parts eliminated or at least smoothed over.  But they weren't.

3. Then there is the third option.  This is my personal contribution, so you may not like it.  However, I think this has some merit to it that most don't want to consider.

Remember that the idea of right and wrong is just the surface of something deeper.  I like how C.S. Lewis put it  in Mere Christianity - essentially ethics are the white and black keys that can be played by humans but it is the music that they play which is what is good.  Whether you believe that God being involved in a war is right or wrong is not an evidence of an ethic, it is the force that compels us to evaluate the act in the first place that is the actual good.  What drives us to seek whether something is ethical or not is the greatest evidence of the existence of good (and by extension, God).  In the end it is the question that makes us ethical and not the answer.  

If that is the case,  then we have to admit that if there is a God, His ethics must be beyond human reason because the conditions from which He is observing all of this human drama constitutes an entirely different set of ethics for Himself.  

So imagine, God is eternal, all-knowing and all-present.  Life emanates from Him and if we take the Bible seriously, He is anxious to put an end to sin and usher in an age in which we all return to good standing with Him, as in the garden of Eden.  From this perspective, what is death?  Death is nothing more than the transference from one life form to another.  It no longer has the sting of permanence.  Not even the idea of hell has permanence because of the saving work of the cross.  Add to that the fact that "it is appointed a man once to die" - meaning that everyone dies.  That and taxes are constants.

With that perspective, death does not carry the same weight as it does from this side of the grave.  Death has to happen.  Whether it happens from an accident or the sword, the result is still the same.  If God's ultimate aim is redemption, how are His ethics out of place if they are achieved by the sword or circumstance?

An illustration of this comes from dealing with my children.  A few years ago, a great argument broke out between my two sons.  It was epic . . . to them.  One son had stolen the other son's Easter candy.  It was a simple matter of just trying to find out what happened.  From our perspective, it was ridiculous - just give it back if you have it.  But Tyler was livid - a great wrong was perpetrated and the more he screamed "he has my purple ducky!" the more it became almost comical.  

Now of course I am not equating stealing candy with extermination, but I am saying that human perspectives are not the end of discussion when it comes to what is real.  We knew that there are dozens of purple duckies that we could easily get our hands on to settle the matter.  More than that, we had the foresight and maturity to know that this is a light and momentary affliction that will one day be a faded memory told with laughter.

Is it possible that God has the same perspective?  Perhaps.

I realize this is not a popular conclusion, I will get hate mail.  I am probably wrong to some degree.

However, this is the most compelling answer for how God conducts business - it takes it out of my hands and my need to make my ethos be God's ethos.

And of course we know that "He isn't safe . . . but He is good."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The mystery of language

I love languages.  My first language I studied was French.  I started in middle school and carried it into high school and never lost the knack for it.  

I know some of you are ready to check out at this point - most people, especially Americans are not too enamored with studying languages.  I like studying languages - mostly because I have an obsessive mind that tends to circle back on things rather than let them go.  It is perfect for language acquisition because you keep thinking about it when other people have moved onto more interesting topics.

Here's a quick hint - when speaking French, try this:  make your mouth like a little "o" - about the size of a bottle cap.  Now try speaking through this small hole.  If you do it right no matter what you say will sound French-like.

I got into Spanish in college.  After having learned French, Spanish was easier than starting from scratch.  I can also use Spanish a lot more than French.  Not only are there more Spanish speaking people, but more Spanish speaking people are okay if you murder their language.  Some French speaking people can't stand when you get verb forms wrong.  Most Spanish speaking people are fine as lone as they get the gist of what you are saying.

Here is another quick hint:  when speaking Spanish, smile.  In fact you can't speak Spanish without smiling.  That is, if you are speaking Spanish correctly, you can't do it with a frown.  Teeth bared, mouth wide - that is the way to speak Spanish.

It is funny that every language has its own little quirkiness.  For instance, you cannot speak German with a huge smile.  You actually need to have a little bit of an angry face.  Norwegian - related to German is similar.  A friend of mine from Norway, Bard, was trying to teach me some Norwegian.  In the course of my repeated failures to pronounce things correctly, Bard looked at me sternly and said that I need to frown to pronounce the word correctly.  His justification was that "Norway has 6 months of darkness - they are all depressed, so we speak with frowns."

It is interesting how diverse language is. The English language is one of 6,000 languages and dialects out there.  Interesting enough, 1% of English is from actual English (words like but, and, the, before, also) while 99% of all English is borrowed from other languages (words like video, romance, pleasure).  But check this out - of that 1% that is purely English we use those words 99% of the time.

Language is so intriguing for a variety of reasons (as if those weren't enough).  Like, where does language come from? From the evolutionary standpoint, I get that language enables primitive man to manipulate his environment more efficiently - but how does something behaviorally work its way into the gene code?

Or how do all these disparate elements - like mastery of the glottal, pulmonary and labial muscles that are associated with speaking work in concert with each other out of chance?  This ignores the language center of the brain - how can all these areas that give rise to language be influenced from an evolutionary standpoint?

Now consider that the history of language shows a stepwise progression in intricacy the further back in time we go.  You would think the opposite to be true.  Shouldn't language show increasing amounts of complexity as it works from something primitive?  The truth is that language is continually de-volving.  Language was more intricate in the past than it is now.  Latin is more structured than English currently and other languages that predate Latin show incredible amounts of ornate complexity.  Given that language is only about 100,000 years old, how does it pop on the scene with such complexity from the apparent random and chaotic world of the evolutionary timetable?

Hmmmmmm.  Perhaps this is the mystery of language.

Or perhaps this is part of a meta-language that is spoken of by the faithful . . .

Friday, December 3, 2010

As Christmas Nears

So far we have done the Christmas tree thing (twice - one upstairs and one in the basement).  We have made paper wreaths and put on the Christmas music.  I bought Christmas cards and put up Christmas lights.  Okay, I'll admit it, I love this time of year . . . even if it has little to do with the actual celebration of Jesus' birth.

Of course we know that December 25th was the celebration of the festival of Saturnalia and the pine trees, the garlands, the blazing Yule are holdovers from pagan celebrations . . . but it really is a lot of fun.  There is something festive and warming about practicing these things that have very little tie to the first event, most likely occurring in late August or early September.  Not a whole lot to do with the crowded little house (if you accept Kenneth Bailey's scholarship) where a stranger was welcome into the living area of a tiny Palestinian home because the guest quarters were full.

Even so, I equate the birth of the Messiah with cold air, threatening snow offset by the warm glow of Christmas lights, soft music and hot chocolate - symbols of the contrast between the cold hearts of mankind and the coming kingdom.  I have the theology right - we know that the Kingdom of God is a brightly lit, warm and protective place for the sinner and heralded by the bright countenance of angels.  It is the connections that I have wrong.

The oil-painting that I have in my head of the wise men cresting the hill toward Jerusalem or of Mary and Joseph in a stable or Joseph frantically trying to find space in the town of his ancestors has more to do with childhood picture books and my own personal myth-making.  The real story was most likely more mundane - a journey to Bethlehem in a country the size of New Jersey in the late summer helps me get a better idea of the actual event than the swirling winds of the cold desert on the back of a lone donkey.

And it was in the midst of the mundane that something spectacular and frightening happens . . . but not for Mary and Joseph.  Remember, it was the shepherds who get the angelic message.  Mary didn't quite know what to do with that.  She just pondered all these things in her heart.  It did not dawn on Joseph to search the stars, it would be some time before the magi would show up with gifts for the young boy Jesus.  

So if I think of anything that is appropriate to get me in the Christmas spirit, it would be the embracing of the mundane.  To realize that in the routine we find the seeds of the sublime.  God seems to have his own schedule and purposes that sometime ask for our participation and at others roll out with an unexpected banality. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

And what can we know?

We have been conditioned to think that what we can know is all we can see and sense.  Bertrand Russell argued that man can't know what science can't discover.  It is rooted in a simple idea that everything we see and sense is all that there is to exist.  

Wittgenstein ended his Tractatus with this world being all that is the case, admonishing us that those things that we cannot explain we need to pass over in silence.  This silence wasn't the respectful passing of things that are too great for us.  No, Wittgenstein viewed things unexplainable as nonsense - that which is not real.

But where did we get such a profound sense of man's abilities that we should come to the conclusion that all there is - all that can ever be known - should fit so nicely within the narrow bandwidth of our senses and the reason built from these senses?

Logical positivists, optimists came to this (what Audi would call) naive empiricism.  Naive because it is rooted in the idea that all that can be known can be apprehended by the senses.

Let's face it, the bandwidth of our senses is very narrow.  I wish I could see what cats see at night.  As such, the reason that is built singularly from sense data is also narrow.  Because of that, we should have great humility at the powers of our reason.  We do not.  In fact, we mock religion when it claims to have knowledge outside the realm of reason.

It should not.

What man calls foolish, God calls wisdom and vice versa.  How intriguing it is to live a life knowing that what we can know is elevated high above what the senses deliver to us!

Rational Pharisaism?

A quick read of the New Testament will undoubtedly uncover the fact that Jesus had His enemies.  These enemies were the ones that were in power - those that prescribed the correct way to think and behave, using the Hebrew scriptures as a foundation.

On a second read, it is clear that the nature of their disagreement was the purpose of the Word.  For the Pharisees, the Word of God was the Law that was to be followed with the assistance of the commentaries available to them from their rabbinic tradition.  Sadducees, the Zealots, the Essenes and other groups each had their unique spin on the Law - but it was clear that the Law was something that had become prescriptive - a document that instructed Israel on the way that it should act.

For Jesus, however, the Law was more dynamic.  The Law was the embodiment of who God was - something like the 'nature' of God - holy, just, righteous, gracious and merciful.  In fact, the Law (for Jesus) seems to be alive.  It's intention was for Israel to draw close to Yahweh and gain the rhythm of God from its reading and the practice of God in its action.  

In the New Testament, we see over and over where the Pharisees have flattened this understanding of the Law in favor of a more rational and dissecting view of God's Law.  What was meant to give a view of God became a moral code that got more and more strange in the way that it tried to fulfill the letter and not the spirit of the Law.

And so Jesus comes and says the Law is not on a scroll - it is walking in front of them.  The Law has become flesh - the Word is now animated and full of the Spirit . . . but they could not get it because they were stuck in their two-dimensional approach to a Law code.

And this is where we are - the Pharisees are now those that argue that what we believe has to fit inside the human code of logic.  This thinking tells us that the divine mysteries can fit within the two-dimensional mind (of which sense-data and the reason that springs from it are the axes).  We long for the depth that only Jesus can bring - outside the realm of rationalism.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Evidence for God from Math?

It was a few years ago that I served as a liaison for Danny Korem coming to speak to students at Penn State University about how to debunk magicians and illusionists.  It was a very interesting experience filled with ups and downs that I continue to think about years later.

As I waited to take Danny back to the airport, a very earnest student came up to me wanting to speak with Mr. Korem and I told him that he couldn't see anyone because he would be leaving for the airport soon.  This student was insistent, so I gave in and asked, "what is so pressing that you have to see Danny?"

He explained that his roommate had discovered the mathematical proof for God.  Ok, that got to me . . . I had to know what he was talking about.  So I asked him what he meant by that.  Well, that is where it all broke down because this guy might have been a faithful disciple of his roommate, but he had no idea what he was talking about.  Flustered, he finally wrote down the number for his roommate and gave it to me to give to Danny.  I was faithful in executing his request . . . but I don't think it went very far.

Mr. Korem said he got those kinds of notes all the time from people convinced that they have found some secret knowledge about the nature of God or His existence.  Korem attributed it to quackery, I think it has to do with the need for control.

The real question is whether concepts like what we call truth or mathematics or reason are on the same level with the idea of God.  Does math exist in the world somewhere or is it something that was manufactured in our heads?  If it exists as some sort of universal law that is be uncovered by humans over the course of history, then perhaps one day there will be something that we are able to uncover and arrive at that can justify a belief in God (or for that matter, unbelief).

On the other hand, if it is not universal and it is merely the interesting arrangement of patterns that the human mind has noted about the physical universe, then mathematics is nothing more than the invention of the human mind.  If that is the case, then we cannot at any point argue for the existence or the absence of God from something so finite as the human mind.

For me, the evidence is overwhelming that something like mathematics has its origins in the human mind.  It does not 'reside' somewhere.  The 'language' of math is not written in the cosmos, not the language of math is inseparable from the human that invented it.  

Not sure?  Think of the word 'digit' - as in 'we live in the digital age.'  Digits are fingers.  There are ten of them.  There are ten numerals in our base ten system of mathematics.  Digits.  Decimals. The basic building blocks of our mathematical thoughts are inextricably bound to the primitive mathematicians that thousands of years ago invented the system of mathematics that we currently use.  Math was not discovered. It is not something that unfurls with our study of the cosmos. It is a projection of our anthro-centric worldview onto the cosmos.

Because it is an invention, it will suffer the fate of every other man-made pursuit - it will always be limited by virtue of the fact that we are limited creatures.  It will also tell us more about ourselves than the world around us.  Since it springs from the software of our minds, mathematics reveals more about the nature of humans than the nature of God.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Three Things I Know . . . and One I Don't

Faith is a tricky subject.  It inflames passions and gets people riled up.  It often winds up making people feel judged.  We almost never talk about it unless we are arguing . . . which makes it the sacred ground of the experts or the kooky.  

As a result, people keep their faith private . . . and as a result of that, the faith that grows inside of us never gets to see the light of other people's thoughts.  So weird things grow in the musty dungeon of our hearts.  It comes up for air a few times a year - at funerals or around Christmas and then it runs back down to the darkness of our innards.  

I have heard some really strange things from people.  Businessmen, single moms and school teachers alike - they all develop their faith in the confines of their heart for fear of someone making them feel judged.  

As I get the chance to talk with people, these stories come out.  One man I sat on a porch with at the shore tried to convince me that it was Jesus' mastery of tantrism that enabled him to slow his heart rate down to appear dead and then roll the stone away and flee for safety.  I was most intrigued by this theory and really wanted to know where Jesus went next.  He had no answer.  I mean, you try carrying out the biggest hoax of humanity and then trying to figure out where you spend retirement.  

There was another guy I talked with who just felt that we transcend ourselves at death.  I pressed him for what that means, but all I got was the T-word.  I guess to transcend yourself means that you somehow rise in the air?  I think he was more enamored with the word 'transcend' than he was the idea of resurrection.

I also remember working at one time for a man named 'Gus' who owned a Greek pizza shop.  His real name was over five syllables but everyone called him Gus.  When he found out that I was studying theology he made it his pet project to try to convert me to a way of thinking that was not just unorthodox, but actually a little perverted.  I don't think we need to go into too many specifics, but lets just say that I tend to stay away from Greek pizza shops.  I know, its culinary profiling, but I am human.

All this is to say that I think everyone has theories about faith and what to think about God.  It is a shame that we live in an era in which we keep it to ourselves, though.  Not only do weird things grow in the slime of the ill-informed theological swamps of our souls, but we don't get to help each other grow as spiritual people when we are so individualistic.

A lot of the impetus behind keeping faith so private has been the battleground between faith and logic.  Scientific skeptics face off against faith-minded apologists and it may be a lot of fun for them as they play word games or intellectual ping-pong.  For the rest of us, we become collateral damage as we are forced to align with one side or the other.

Or do we?

I say that there is a third way - a spiritual perestroika that can enable us to embrace our intellect and our faith.

So in that spirit - here are three things I know:  (I actually think I know more than this, but this is some of the better stuff).

1.  I know that there is a God.  

I know that there is a God because of all the motion around me.  Yes, I have three kids, but I am speaking of a different kind of motion.  The philosophers called it "prime mover" - I know that there had to be something that put this entire universe in motion because . . . this entire universe is in motion.  Aquinas and Anselm said it so much more eloquently (with assistance from the likes of Aristotle) but I will summarize the thought by saying that everything goes back to a first cause.  A ball in motion was put in motion by a foot kicking it.  It does not decide on its own to roll.  Similarly, the motion of the planets and stars indicates that we were all set in motion by someone.  To those of you who say that it was an incredible explosion that started it all, I am certain you are correct . . . but you have said nothing substantial.  Imagine sitting in a concert hall listening to a beautiful piano concerto.  Someone asks, "where did all of that beautiful music come from?" If you point to the keys on the piano you are right . . . sort of . . . but you have missed the point.  

2.  I know that this God is described of accurately in the Bible.

Of all the ancient works - the Bhagavad Gita, Qu'ran, Dao De Jing - you name it, there is nothing that has the same degree of historical attestation as the Old and New Testaments.  Geza Vermes, one of the most renowned Egyptologists (and not a believer, as far as I know) has remarked that the preservation of the Old Testament is nothing short of miraculous.  As a historical witness it is unparalleled among religious works.  As a document that continues to exhibit head-scratching self-deprecation, it testifies to its reliability as a book that tells the truth regardless of the outcomes.  From the exposing accounts of morally-challenged leaders like David to the attention to honest detail in the New Testament including shepherds hearing of the birth of Christ and women witnessing His resurrection; the scriptures paint an accurate picture - warts and all.

3.  I know that the Biblical ideas are divinely inspired.

The Bible is full of (what we would call) ridiculous ideas.  A God who creates from nothing, with nothing, from nowhere.  A Son of God who is fully divine and fully human.  Grace as an ethic.  These are absurd when viewed from a rational perspective.  But that is exactly what encourages me about their divine authorship.  When I look at two ideas - one is completely logical and the other is wild and weird - the one that does comport with reason looks suspiciously like it may have come from the human mind.  On the other hand, those things that seem ridiculous exhibit signs of something from somewhere else.

Okay - so there are three things that help me place an address on what I think and believe.  But it is the thing that I don't know that is most compelling.  

Since I am human and I have limits that are set on the things that I can see and sense and reason, I have to arrive at the conclusion that there are things outside of my present understanding that exist.  In fact, if you take philosophers like Kant or James seriously you have to think that there are things that are not just unknown to me, but things that I purposefully 'tune out' because I am not able to 'make sense' of them.

Okay, okay - for the less philosophically minded.  Basically we are all creatures that love to see what we want to see.  Faith has had that charge leveled at it for centuries.  The same is true in our daily experiences.  Sometimes we see things that aren't there (optical illusions) or we hear things that weren't said (try talking with people about song lyrics).  Chances are that you cn read ths sntnce bcuse your brain is trned to look for pttrns among thngs evn whn thse thngs are mssing.  We are creatures that look to fill in the blanks - we project what we think ought to be onto the world around us.  This is the same for logic.   Logic is not 'in the world' - it is in our minds - it is a way of looking for patterns that has a hard time with things like faith.  

The fact that faith eludes reason does not make me doubt faith - it makes it more real!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Trans-rational faith . . . say what?

Shortly after the Dawkins "God Delusion" book came out I knew I had to read it.  I definitely did not want to buy the book.  I wasn't going among the dollars that put a new pool in his backyard.  So I did the reasonable thing and went to the library and borrowed it.

I have to admit I was a little nervous.  I mean this guy is a genius and he is deconstructing faith.  About halfway through it, however, I was surprised to find that it was a little more than a rant about why he finds Christianity irrational and Christians themselves abnormal.  To be honest, the book had very little substance and I found myself surprised that he didn't take advantage of the attention the book garnered to put advance his ideas better.

In fact, there is one illustration that he uses that is a complete head-scratcher.  He tells this story of a moth that goes to and from its home at night using the moon as its navigational aid.  In this story, Dawkins theorizes that the moth uses moonlight to operate as it's constant allowing it to have an immovable object to get around.

Well, wouldn't you know, the moth stumbles upon firelight from a campfire and gets derailed from his lunar constant and focuses instead on the fire.  As a result the moth is drawn into a firey vortex mistaking the flames for his navigational aid.  This is his theory for why moths circle firelight.  It is also his parable designed to warn us of the human-generated flames of man-made religion.  The fires of myth are going to doom mankind because it takes us all off the evolutionary course that we are meant to be on.

I give Dawkins credit for creativity, but am I the only one who noticed that his parable actually argues the opposite of what he intends to say?

Of course I get that he is setting the constant of evolution and the dangers of human created myths.  But lets look very closely at the example he uses.  Now follow me on this . . . what was the poor little moth guilty of?

Was the moth drawn off course by a fiery sermon?  Was he moved to tears by a manipulative preacher? No.  He was just using his senses.

Think about that for a minute.  The moth was drawn off course by the senses that conveyed to his little brain an incorrect source of light.  It wasn't the fuzzy spiritualism of man-made theologies, it was the strict empiricism of science that led our little guy, the moth, off course.  Science killed the moth.

Science killed the moth because when all we have is reason, we are only able to understand things as much as the hardware we have to understand them with.  Moths fly into flames.  Dogs eat their vomit.  You don't even want to know what Monkeys do . . . and humans are not outside this great limitation.  

Yes, in the end, reason is a great tool for navigating through this world.  It is not, however, a good vehicle for things like truth beyond itself.  Sense and reason can tell you a lot about what is going on, but not why it is there to begin with.  

And yet there are so many Christians who get all excited about trying to make faith fit inside our little minds.  We take something like faith with all of its complexity and wonder and try to flatten it to fit inside our minds.  

This is not necessary, by the way.  In fact a faith that does not respect the bounds of reason is the most satisfying faith there is because it resides in its native environment rather than trying to jump through the hoops of sense and reason.  

So are you a skeptic?  It's probably because faith sounds ridiculous to you.  Yes, it is ridiculous inside the human mind because it continues to trespass over the line of logic to its native environment beyond the grasp of human logic.  Chances are you haven't even had the chance to reject faith as it really is - it all of its absurd glory.  Real faith is trans-rational.