Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A bit of a quandary

Ok, now I've got my butt in a crack.

I still think it's useful to recognize that the Bible was written in premodern language by premodern people. In fact, I suspect that we're liable to get ourselves into lots of trouble if we don't make this distinction when we interpret. But I'm still a little bit dubious about how the premodern/modern lens will actually affect how we read the text.

Because Randy's mentioned Ephesians 6, let's use that as our first example. Maybe it will help if we start by pretending that we've just picked up some Ancient text and started reading it.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

OK, so the author starts talking about the devil and spiritual forces of evil, and immediately my brain starts sending up flares. "Danger!" it says. "Premodern language is being used here!" The author continues with his metaphor, recommending that his readers adopt defenses such as righteousness, truth, peace and faith against these supernatural attacks. Hugs, kisses, end of Ephesians, hooray.

Now how should I interpret this passage?

As a hair-splitting modern person, I think I should go about it by dividing the "truth" of the passage into two distinct parts. The first is the author's worldview, in which spiritual forces manipulate people and everyday events. The second is the author's statement, which is couched in the language of his worldview.

Now honestly, I'm very reluctant to try to evaluate the truth of a person's worldview. I can see some value to thinking of things in terms of spirits and spiritual realms, and it's not like empirical evidence can prove or disprove the existence of spirits. But the "spiritual realms" worldview is not my worldview. And so before I evaluate the point that the author is trying to make, I am obligated to translate it into language that is compatible with my worldview. In this case, I would be obligated to translate the author's supernatural language into something a little more helpful for my modern sensibilities; perhaps I would translate his "spiritual realms" language into a description of the shadowy regions of the human psyche.

As a result, I would then be able to get some benefit from the text: instead of trying to make myself believe that we are constantly manipulated by spirits, I can go ahead to what I think is the author's real point: that we should adopt virtues as means to produce goodness in ourselves, despite the ways in which we sometimes tend toward evil.

Put another way, I can treat the author's language about evil spirits as metaphor, and then try to apply or interpret the metaphor.

OK, great! So when I run into stuff about spirits manipulating the world, I'll just kind of gloss over that as a premodern metaphor, and try and translate the ideas into modern language.

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.


Thanks a lot, Apostle John. Now what am I supposed to do with that?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A bit of an epiphany

Reading your comments on my "Evolution" post gave me a lot to think about: Connor's move toward panentheism, Shane's suggestion of a new creation myth, Jeff's version of intelligent design, and quite a few other things. As I drove home from the Texas hill country this weekend, I was rolling all these things around in my head, hoping to wear away the incidental ideas and pluck out a few smooth, polished insights.

First, I decided that my problem begins with my experience of the world. So far as I can tell, we live in a world full of meaningless destruction and suffering. People are buried alive in earthquakes. They die of various diseases They starve to death. Children are abused by parents who were also abused. Towers fall on people. The strong exploit the weak.

But there's also a lot of beauty and goodness in the world, and it's not restricted to rich people in western nations. The sun sets in spectacular style. Rain falls and makes the world green. Friends and family lighten our hearts. Our appetites are sated by good food and good sex.

The problem that I encounter is that joy and pain are apparently distributed at random. There does not seem to be a divine intentionality about any of it; all of the beauty and all of the suffering simply seem to be the ticking of a mechanistic universe. Tsunamis are triggered by a set of causes and effects that, on the small scale, are trivial to predict and understand. Birds evolve from reptiles, and there's no need for a guiding intelligence to complete the picture. The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.

And so based on my experience, what can I say about how God acts in the world?

It seems that the only thing to say is that God does not act. That if God is present, God simply allows the world to continue ticking away, and doesn't interfere.

But there's a problem with this conclusion: faith traditions all over the world contradict it. The Bible paints a picture of a God who is intimately involved with the world, and who frequently acts on it. The good guys get rescued from fiery funaces and lion's dens ... the bad guys get zapped with plagues or swallowed up by the earth.

So how do we reconcile the Biblical narrative with our own experience?

I think the secret, for me, lies in how we interpret passages like these, which I have unabashedly yanked from their contexts in Matthew 5 and John 3.

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

The first passage says: the wind blows where it pleases. And if we stop to think too long, we may run into some real difficulties here. We know that the wind doesn't blow where it pleases. The wind blows based on variations in temperature and pressure on and above the surface of the earth. It has no preference as to whether it blows east or west.

Generally, though, we don't worry about this passage. "It's a figure of speech used by people with a premodern worldview," we say. "This passage, after all, was written by premodern people for premodern people."

We do the same thing with the second passage, although we have to be a bit more explicit. There's really no good reason to suppose God fiddles with gravitational fields and hauls the sun up over the horizon every day, or to think that God causes the rain to fall by pushing around some molecules. This is just the language used by people who didn't have any more functional explanation for what caused the rain and the sunrise.

But these aren't the only passages in the Bible that were written by premodern people. In fact, the entire Bible was written by people, and for people, who had no recourse but to explain natural phenomena using supernatural language. Consequently, the lens that we use to read "God makes the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous" is the same lens we should use to read about God killing Aninias and Sapphira. The lens that we use to read "the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well" is the same lens we should use to read "the wind blows where it pleases".

Does this mean that we have to dismiss all the miracle stories in the Bible as fables written for a premodern audience? Not necessarily. Premodern people would be perfectly justified in using supernatural language to describe supernatural events, and any good empiricist will admit that it's notoriously hard to prove that something never happens.

But it does mean that we should be reluctant to accept at face value passages that attribute action to God. Although they may be theologically helpful for a premodern reader, they may be theologically destructive for a modern reader. Some of us are simply incapable of believing in a God who heals the illnesses of middle-class Americans, but fails to prevent earthquakes that slaughter thousands of Kashmiris.

I'm fairly excited about exploring the implications of this premodern/modern distinction, because I think it will allow me to affirm my experience of the world, affirm the theological value of the scriptures, accept my own modern (or post-modern) worldview, solve some really hairy theodicy problems, and take a step toward panentheism. But that should probably wait for another post.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Once upon a time, people thought that the sun revolved around the earth. This was CLEARLY the biblical worldview: The Bible talks repeatedly about the sun "rising" and "going down" (Ps. 104, and others). God makes the sun stand still for Joshua (Joshua 10). The earth has a "foundation" (Job 9,38). (A lengthy summary of the biblical cosmology can be found here.)

But in the late 15th century, a few obnoxious fellows begin pushing an evil, contra-biblical cosmology: the heliocentric model, wherein the earth revolves around the sun! The Catholic church forced Gallileo to recant, but the genie was out of the bottle. Eventually the heliocentric model of the solar system overtook the geocentric, and most people stopped worrying about the conflicts between modern astronomy and the biblical text.

A few centuries later, this guy named Charles Darwin showed up, and things got all messy again. Seems that Darwin had this theory that organisms evolved over time as a result of random mutation, environmental pressures, and other factors. Birds seemed to have evolved from reptiles, and (gasp) humans from primates. This was CLEARLY against the biblical worldview, which described God as a creator-God who fashioned the earth and all its species in six literal days.

Sadly, the inquisitors of Gallileo's day have come and gone, and the church has much less power to control what people say. So this "evolution" idea has gotten out, and scientists have been free to investigate it, both by looking at the fossil record and in the evolution of microorganisms. Oddly enough, most have decided that evolutionary theory is the best way to explain this evidence. On the other hand, many Christians continue to reject evolutionary theory because they think it conflicts with the biblical worldview. Some even go so far as to insist that you can't be both a Christian and a "Darwinist".

For a while, I was opposed to that approach. I thought of evolution like heliocentrism: as a discription of the natural world that in no way compromises the Bible, because the Bible is about theology, not biology or cosmology. But now, I'm starting to think that there may be actual theological issues implicit in evolutionary biology.

With heliocentric cosmology, the major theological issue was the primacy of humankind in God's creation. It wasn't too much of a stretch to suppose that an omnipresent God could have created an immense universe, but still be intimately involved with the people on a single planet.

Evolution, on the other hand, seems to present some major challenges to our traditional theology. For example:

  • Evolution calls into question God's status as creator-god. The God of evolution sounds a lot like the watchmaker that the deists talk about: one who creates the universe, and then simply lets it run. This threatens the idea of a God who is intimately involved with humanity.

  • If we accept evolutionary theory, we can no longer "prove" the existence of God using the argument from design. A bird's wings are complicated but that doesn't mean anyone designed them. Complex systems are just as likely to arise from blind chance as they are to have been created ex nihilo by a benevolent creator God.

  • If the crowning glory of creation is humankind, why would a good God muck about with evolution? Millions of years of species competing for dominance, going extinct in evolutionary dead-ends, and all that sort of thing ... seems like a lot of pain when God could just poof humans into existence.

So there you go. Big theological issues. No way to reconcile evolutionary biology and Christian theology. You can be a Christian or a Darwinist, but not both.

I'm right about this one, so don't argue with me.

I mean it.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Contact your congressman!

So for the last month or two, I've been trying to get a response from my congressman, Randy Neugebauer. Neugebauer is kind of a n00b politician, who unseated our incumbent (Democratic) congressman of seventy-odd years by being the best candidate because the Republicans gerrymandered our district. (You can see the district boundaries in the image above.)

Having finally overcome my bitterness about the redistricting, and expecting to have Neugebauer around for a while, I set about to discover how to help him hear the moderate and liberal voices in his district. My first efforts were through Neugebauer's website, where I entered tons of personal information so that I could send an email that will probably be ignored. I sent the email twice: once on June 16, and once on July 13, and it went like this:

Congressman Neugebauer,

I've been looking at all the Web sites devoted to sending email to members of Congress, and thinking that it must be impossible to read all of the emails and letters you receive from your constituents.

So I'm wondering how you handle this flood of information. Does someone read all the mail and summarize it for you? Or do you actually read each letter? And if there's too much to read, does it just get discarded?

In general, what have you found to be the best source of information for understanding our needs and opinions?

I look forward to your reply.

I'm still looking forward to a reply. I'll send the message again today, but I suspect I will be looking forward to a reply for some time to come.

On the other hand, an interesting thing happened last night, which may have been something like a reply. I was playing with my son, and my wife took a phone call that happened to be some sort of town-hall meeting with Congressman Neugebauer. Unfortunately, I didn't get to take the call, and I couldn't find anything about it on his Web site.

However, Neugebauer's Web site does advertise something he's calling "Coffee with the Congressman", wherein he goes around to cities in the district and ostensibly listens to what people have to say.

"Hooray!" I thought. "Now I can actually show up and ask him my question!"

I perused the list of towns Neugebauer was visiting, and found Abilene at the bottom of the list.

Tuesday, August 29th
4:00 - 5:00 pm
Dyess Air Force Base
Heritage Club
217 5th Street, Bldg. 7402

Immediately, I saw two problems. First, the meeting is from 4 to 5 p.m. Lots of us work until 5 p.m.

Out of Neugebauer's 17 stops, only one stop runs until 5:45 p.m., and none of the stops occur before 8 a.m., which would allow the attendence of citizens with day jobs, and which, I have to say, would be the most logical time for coffee.

But the second big problem I noticed was that the meeting is actually ON Dyess Air Force Base. Having some experience with Air Force bases, I knew that you usually have to have a pass to get on base. Certainly not my definition of "accessible". But maybe I could get a pass, or maybe the Heritage Club is on a low-security section of the base -- outside the fence, maybe -- so I wouldn't need a pass to get in.

I called Dyess. The protocol staff was very helpful, and after telling me that 5th street is indeed behind the fence, they called Neugebauer's office for me. Neugebauer's people explained to them that the visit was for "Air Force Personnel", but that I could go to one of the coffeehouse get-togethers in another city if I wanted.

Gee, thanks.

(I guess this explains why Neugebauer's two "in the district" photos had to be taken at Dyess.)

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Fighter jets mixed up with the cross

Many thanks to Casey for her link to this New York Times article:

Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock

An excerpt:

[The Rev. Gregory A. Boyd] said he first became alarmed while visiting another megachurch’s worship service on a Fourth of July years ago. The service finished with the chorus singing “God Bless America” and a video of fighter jets flying over a hill silhouetted with crosses.

“I thought to myself, ‘What just happened? Fighter jets mixed up with the cross?’ ”

I find it interesting that this guy has a fairly conservative set of morals, but he also thinks that those morals don't need to be legislated. In my experience, that's a rare combination of opinions.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Distraction

You may hate me for this, but I'm going to introduce you to my current favorite among online comics: Ozy and Millie.

The cartoons aren't always as political as the one shown above, but if you like political cartoons, you can always visit the author's other comic, I Drew This.

Also, please feel free to continue to comment on the conclusion to the "Examining the Text" series, below. (Notice how the comma before "below" totally changes the meaning of the sentence? I love sentences like that.)