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.