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.

Doubt your Doubt. The halfway argument.

"I'm having doubts"

"About what?"

"About my faith . . . I mean, is it real?  How would I know if it was real or if I just want to believe the stuff that I say I believe in?"

"Why would the fact that you want to believe in it mean that it can't be true?"

"Because maybe I am just engaging in wishful thinking . . . perhaps my desire to believe in something is causing me to see things that really aren't there?"

A lot of us have had similar conversations about faith with people who aren't sure what they believe.  Maybe you have had an internal conversation like that with yourself. 

These are truly deep thoughts - the kind of reflection that we should have on a regular basis to make sure that we are not treating our beliefs like an intellectual candy store.  We should not let our desires dictate what we believe or don't believe.  There needs to be a healthy dose of skepticism that we subject our faith to in order to have depth as believers.

It is fascinating, though how incomplete it is.

I have met many people who almost seem to want a pat on the back for being skeptics.  Like having doubt is some kind of accomplishment.  

"I'm not sure what I believe . . . I have lots of doubts about what Christianity offers."

Well good, as you should . . . but don't stop there mister.  Skepticism, the healthiest kind is a 360 degree endeavor.  So many people who have doubts stop with the acquisition of doubt.  Skepticism is not a point we reach, it is the manner in which we arrive at the truth.  

To successfully arrive at the truth means that we have to have a healthy doubt about everything - including our doubts.  True skepticism is reflexive.

Unhealthy skepticism is when we stop doubting.  There are many 'skeptics' of the faith who are merely dogmatists.  They have doubted certain ideas, conveniently neglecting to subject their own assumptions to the same doubt.  In order to be a real skeptic, we should doubt our doubts.