Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Perplexed

Somebody help me out here: How does a Kantian, deontological-type ethicist justify inflicting pain for medical purposes? Giving an injection, for example? And how is this different from the scenarios where he has to choose whether to trade 1 life for 100 lives?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What's new

Before I begin my next bit of armchair theology, I suppose I ought to provide a few updates, just so there's not a lot of discontinuity between this year's post and last year's post.

First, I'm slowly working my way through Rene Girard for Dummies by S. Mark Heim, a fascinating book that is probably better known by the title Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross. Heim begins with some of the things that start to disturb us when our liberal humanist sensibilities collide with the biblical text: things like the conquest of Canaan, and the book of Job, and the binding of Isaac.

One particularly disturbing doctrine highlighted by Heim is the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement: the idea that while all humans deserve the wrath of God, Jesus saves us from that wrath by invoking the rules of the old sacrificial system, offering himself in our place as a perfect sacrifice to appease God's thirst for justice. Heim presents Girard's thought as a sort of antidote to PSA, a different way of understanding both the Bible and the saving power of the cross.

In the next few posts, I'll pick out some interesting bits of this book and share them with you. But you'll have to be patient ... like I said, I'm moving rather slowly, because I now have not just one, but two, count them, TWO children living at my house!

In addition to the time and attention required by a new daughter, I'm also spending some extra time taking care of her mother, because for some reason -- maybe she thinks it's funny -- she just keeps trying to die on us. Yes, she's home now, and doing very well, but to be perfectly honest, I wish she would QUIT SCARING ME, thank you very much.

Also, on a totally unrelated note, I hate doctors.

So next time, we'll have big fun talking about Heim, and we'll all learn why I'm right about God and Scoots is wrong. Until then ...

Monday, November 19, 2007

So what's up with Abraham sacrificing Isaac?

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to hear a sermon about this biblical story. You know, the one where Abraham is out playing ball with his miracle child Isaac, and God shows up with some instructions:
"Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.
"Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Wait, what?

To his credit, the preacher mentioned that this story is a little problematic. Then he went on to extract the moral that we ought to loosen our grip on our ideas about ownership ... that we ought not be Consumers above all, and that we should be willing to give God whatever God demands. That bit of scolding was good for me, because the message about holding loosely to things and releasing my consumer identity is definitely a message I need to hear.

But this lukewarm approach to the story of Abraham and Isaac still strikes me as sort of ... how do I say this nicely? Morally deficient?

Bad?

Evil.

OK, so I'll grant that we shouldn't be all grabby about our possessions. Great. But it makes me a bit queasy to see Abraham held up as a paragon of virtue when he holds his morals so loosely that he's willing to stoop to human sacrifice. I mean, it's not like this is some abstract theological question about an event that could only happen in the context of a Middle Eastern sacrificial system. No, apparently people have to answer this question on a fairly regular basis. When the voice of God pops into your head and tells you to kill your children, what should you do?

I don't know how much theological arguments can influence people with schizophrenic disorders. Maybe not at all. But my answer to the question is: if that voice in your head tells you to do something evil, like murder your children, call "bullshit". You can be pretty sure that it's not the voice of God.

Oh, but what if God has changed her mind and decided that in this situation, it is actually good to kill your child!?

Bullshit.

Maybe God knows good and evil, but she doesn't make them out of thin air. Power does not imply goodness. Or in the words of T.H. White, might does not make right.

Therefore, if you're worshiping a God who obliterates entire races of people, and demands child sacrifice, and deceives his followers about the nature of good and evil, then you've been tricked. You aren't worshiping a good God, you're worshiping an evil spirit. And by worshiping it, you empower it. You are complicit in it. If it continues to hold sway over the earth, then to some small degree, it's your fault.

Ahem.

After the sermon ended, a husband and wife stood up to share some thoughts before the eucharist; in our tradition we call them "communion meditations". And while I wish they had said something different, I can't really blame them for what they did next. They began juxtaposing scriptures about the sacrifice of Isaac with scriptures about Jesus, implying that just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac to God, God was willing to sacrifice Jesus to God, so that our sins could be forgiven.

Like I said, I can't really blame them. The metaphor pops up in the text over and over again, and if somehow God can be good while also demanding child sacrifice, well then of course God can be good while demanding adult sacrifice. God can't just forgive the sins of the world, somehow reparation has to be made, God's wrath has to be "satisfied". Jesus has to be the perfect sacrificial lamb.

On my more generous days, when I read those things, I can imagine how they were helpful to someone. But the only people I can imagine who might have taken away more good than evil from those metaphors were premodern Jews, who had no inkling about the philosophies of liberal humanism, and whose worldview was steeped in blood and sacrificial mystery.

Premodern Jews.

Now I understand why the church spends so much time literally interpreting biblical stories, giving churchgoers background about the Jewish sacrificial system, praying for rain, disparaging other religions and allowing a tribal deity's murders and genocides to go unexamined. It's because almost all of its sacred texts were written for an audience of premodern Jews. The only way to make any sense of the Bible, really, is to squeeze one's postmodern, liberal humanist mind into a premodern, Jewish worldview. It's only then that the theology of penal substitutionary atonement can be self-evidently beautiful, and it's only then that we can ignore the dissonance between God's claims to be huge and eternal and God's apparent distaste for shrimp, polyester and homosexuals. It's only then that it makes sense to say "Jesus ascended into heaven" rather than "Jesus flew off into space".

Consequently, my current task at church has become translation. Maybe this has even become my approach to theology in general. How can we understand the Christian story -- what metaphors can we use -- that will make it powerful and engaging for people who haven't spent their whole lives training to be premodern Jews? More practically, how can I make it through a church service without being offended at the wicked, petty God that my fellow Christians worship?

It's a tricky proposition, and though I think I've come a long way in the past few years, I'm still hunting the used bookstores for a pocket dictionary translating between "postmodern liberal humanist" and "premodern Jew". Wish me luck.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Slashdot: God Box


Not really new news, but, does anybody want a God Box?

The most straightforward philosophical arguments are here and here.

Thanks for the clear thinking, mstone.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Surprise! I'm really a conservative!

We haven't talked about economics for a while ... OK, we haven't talked about anything for a while, but still ... I think I'm going to highlight this post from our friend Jack Whelan:
... she rejected Greenspan's characterization of her as a socialist, defining herself rather as a proponent of a mixed economy, which is essentially what we've had here in the U.S. since the New Deal.

That's really the argument here. It's not between radical laissez-faire capitalists and radical socialists, but between radical capitalists and mixed-economy conservatives. The people who want to preserve the New Deal compromise between free markets and government controls are the real conservatives, because they are trying to conserve institutions that have already been established and despite their flaws have proved themselves effective. The fact that those who now defend the New Deal are considered leftists and that the radical capitalists are considered mainstream moderates shows how twisted our political discourse has become.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dirty thoughts about God

OK, so while we're going this direction, let's talk about "cultivating a deep love for God" ... if you know what I mean.

Assuming that none of my female readers are going to share their secret sexual thoughts about God and Jesus, let's start with the famous mystic Teresa of Avila.

It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not wont to see, save very rarely.... In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus. He was not tall, but short, marvellously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim.... I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God. (Peers, 197)
Cough cough.

Cough.

So far as I can tell, this is about par for the course with Saint Teresa. She's really, really, really hot on God.

If you know what I mean.

And I have this sneaking suspicion that she's not the only one.

Let's begin by observing that most human beings are interested in sex. Sexual hardware is buried pretty deep in our brains, and influences us in all sorts of bizarre ways. Take, for example, this image from a Nielsen eyetracking study:

Image

Although both men and women look at the image of George Brett when directed to find out information about his sport and position, men tend to focus on private anatomy as well as the face. For the women, the face is the only place they viewed.

Coyne adds that this difference doesn’t just occur with images of people. Men tend to fixate more on areas of private anatomy on animals as well, as evidenced when users were directed to browse the American Kennel Club site.


And even if you hadn't noticed that people are interested in sex, sexuality and sexual anatomy, advertisers have noticed: On the way home from Arkansas today, I tried to count all the billboards that used some sexualized image to sell a product. And even if you don't count each breast separately, the number is ridiculously high.

SPOILER ALERT: You may not be able to sing church songs the same way after reading the next few paragraphs.

Next, let's consider the sexy lyrics of modern praise and worship music:

All to Jesus, I surrender;

All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In His presence daily live.


All to Jesus I surrender;
Humbly at His feet I bow,
Worldly pleasures all forsaken;
Take me, Jesus, take me now.


All to Jesus, I surrender;
Make me, Savior, wholly Thine;
Let me feel the Holy Spirit,
Truly know that Thou art mine.


All to Jesus, I surrender;
Lord, I give myself to Thee;
Fill me with Thy love and power;
Let Thy blessing fall on me.


All to Jesus I surrender;
Now I feel the sacred flame.
O the joy of full salvation!
Glory, glory, to His Name!


Yes, I think "All to Jesus I Surrender" is my favorite source of questionable lyrics, but other examples abound. Please share your own.


Now my guess is that these lyrics aren't the result of someone's explicit sexual thoughts about God or Jesus, but I find it hard to believe that the ecstatic, sexualized language of these praise songs is significantly different than Saint Teresa's visions. If nothing else, both use sexually charged language because it's the writer's best chance at communicating the ecstacy of the experience of God.

So given that people bring their sexuality to their experience of God, let's observe that almost all of the God-language and God-imagery used in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches is masculine. God is always referred to using the male pronoun "he". God is often addressed as "father". Jesus (God incarnate) is male, and is often portrayed as a healthy young man in a snappy white tunic with a snappy blue sash. The holy spirit shows up and gets Mary pregnant.

My suspicion, then, is that women and men both have a sexual component to their understanding of God, and that this component significantly influences how they relate to God. The straight man and the gay man will have attitudes and understandings of God that are flavored by all sorts of sexual and father-figure issues. The straight woman and lesbian woman will bring similar baggage.

And so I have all these questions about how much this sexual component influences a person's perception of the divine. Are men less attracted to women who are attracted to God? (A recent study summary I read suggested that male attraction to a female decreases if another male finds the female attractive.) Are men less involved in church because it's perceived to be the territory of another male, or because they have no way to relate sexually to God? Is temple prostitution the inevitable byproduct of goddess-worship, and if so is there a mirrored problem for god-worship? Is sexual attraction to God generally good, or generally harmful? And can we talk about this, or is it too offensive?

Yeah, it's probably too offensive.

Cough.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Why it's hard to be a Christian Feminist

Scenario 1

Let's suppose that you consider it virtuous to speak (and act) against injustice and oppression.

Let's also suppose that you consider it virtuous to commit yourself to a church, which means, among other things, continuing to attend even if you have issues with the church's theology or practices or members. After all, you can't change the church for the better if you just up and leave, and frankly, church-hoppers are annoying.

Let's also suppose that your church refuses to give women and men equal status in the church. In particular, certain jobs that could be done equally well by both men and women are reserved for men, and this is reflective of a deeper misogyny woven into the fabric of the church and maintained by its traditions.

Let's also suppose that you're a man.

What do you do?

Scenario 2

OK, now let's say that you've discussed the issue in bible classes, and with church leaders, and you've already refused to serve the church in any office that is not open to both men and women: One Sunday, once you finished leading worship, you politely said that you wouldn't be leading worship any more -- that you wouldn't be doing anything that men and women weren't both allowed to do -- and that no one should be upset or agitated, and then you smiled and sat down.

So you've waited for a year or so, but none of the church leaders seem interested in pursuing the issue of whether the church practices are unjust, oppressive or unfair. And in fact there is no real forum for such a discussion.

And so you're thinking about taking some action to denote your continual displeasure ... if only make yourself a little less complicit in the sins of this church that you find yourself unable to leave or change. In particular, you're thinking about wearing a gag to church every Sunday. And because your denomination is ripe for a big messy schism, you're looking into recruiting like-minded people all over the world who will wear their gags to church, maybe every Sunday, or maybe just one Sunday a year. Like father's day or something.

How's that sound?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Can't seem to get on topic

But after sharing the book recommendations, I feel compelled to make some music recommendations. Both of these came to me from Colby, so if you like them, you should send all your affection to him.

First, an album: Ys, by Joanna Newsom. This is not the kind of album that you are likely to like right off. Newsom is a harpist - not an instrument you're used to hearing - and her voice is a bit ... unusual. Each track is fairly long - 7 to 15 minutes - and lyrically, the songs are very dense. But I think they're wonderful.

The other thing you need to try is Last.fm. Think of it as internet radio where you create the station. You enter the name of an artist you like, and Last.fm plays music from that artist and other artists that are "near" or "similar" to the artist you chose. It also does some social networking music tracking stuff. Obviously, you could create a channel for Joanna Newsom, but then who knows if you'll ever get to hear Ys? You should just buy it from iTunes, and then hate me for a week until you start to like it.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

What I did this summer

In addition to performing in the Abilene Shakespeare Festival (w00t), I also read some books. I would post my deep insights, but I don't think I have many deep insights. So I'll just give you some brief reviews, in the interest of getting back into the habit of posting again.

Bears Discover Fire - Terry Bisson
A collection of sci-fi short stories. My favorite was a story I had already read: "They're Made out of Meat".

Life Could Be Sweeter - William Sinunu
A former flight attendant brings you insights from other cultures.

Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway - Dave Barry
Not his best, but probably as funny as a Libertarian can be when talking about the U.S. government.

How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter - Sherwin B. Nuland
Interesting. Describes, clinically, how we die from cancer, cardiac arrest, AIDS, Alzheimer's, and other maladies ... but also describes how people confront the prospect of their own death. The best book in the bunch.

Through Painted Deserts - Donald Miller
A coming-of-age tale by the author of Blue Like Jazz. In my opinion, the intro is better than anything in the book itself.

A New Kind of Christian - Brian McLaren
A coming-of-age tale by a well-known pastor and emergent church guy. I didn't find any of this terribly interesting, but then again, I'm not sure I'm part of the target audience for this book. So I'm going to withhold judgment. It may have some things to teach me about approaching conservative Christians.

Watchmen - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
A graphic novel written by Alan Moore, who you might know better as the author of V for Vendetta. Nudges the reader toward some interesting questions about scientific ethics, free will and determinism, and the abuse of power.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling
Rowling moves really quickly in the final book of the series, trying to cram everything in I suppose. Still, it's good. I thought the final chapters were some of the best in the series.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

So what's up with that floating Axehead?

The company of the prophets said to Elisha, "Look, the place where we meet with you is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan, where each of us can get a pole; and let us build a place there for us to live."

And he said, "Go."

Then one of them said, "Won't you please come with your servants?" "I will," Elisha replied. And he went with them.

They went to the Jordan and began to cut down trees. As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axhead fell into the water. "Oh, my lord," he cried out, "it was borrowed!"

The man of God asked, "Where did it fall?" When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it there, and made the iron float. "Lift it out," he said. Then the man reached out his hand and took it.

2 Kings 6


Our preacher chose this story as the text for today's sermon. He explained that this story disturbs him, not because God made the axehead float, but because God doesn't do a lot of things that are a plainly more important than a prophet's borrowed axe.

We pray, he said, for people who need to be healed from diseases, and they aren't healed. We pray, he said, for people who need peace in their families or joy in their lives, and they dismantle their families or succumb to depression. How do we deal with these disappointments?

Now I don't know about you, but I think that it's pretty ballsy for a preacher to raise these sorts of questions from the pulpit. People need to hear that their doubts are perfectly well grounded -- that there really is something disturbing about the idea that God would float a borrowed axehead and not heal a cancer-stricken mother of three.

Rather than address the question of whether God actually floated an axehead for Elisha, our preacher chose to direct people toward what might be called "everyday miracles" ... rain, gentleness, generosity, things like that. Don't miss these miracles, he said, because you're fixated on floating axeheads, or because you've altogether given up on them.

I think this is a good redirection, and definitely a helpful antidote to the attitude that says, "your prayers aren't answered because you don't have enough faith." (Mark 11) But I question whether this goes far enough. As I've said before, I think the issue is primarily moral: can we say God is "good" if God floats axeheads for prophets but neglects to answer our prayers for suffering families? I think it is much better to say that God doesn't float axheads than to insinuate that prophets' axheads are more important to God than the friends and relatives of ordinary people.

As I was thinking about this, though, I began to wonder about my constant insistence that God be good. What if "God is good" is just as much a metaphor as "Jesus is the son of God?" What if, in using God's goodness as a basis for argument, I am overextending the metaphor "God is good"?

I'm not sure what to do with that thought, but I find it a little disconcerting.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

So what's up with Ananias and Sapphira?

So long as we've started with problematic Biblical passages, I guess we might as well continue. But first, a clarification: when I say, "problematic", I mostly mean morally problematic. I'm not really qualified to delve deeply into textual difficulties, but I figure I'm allowed to ask pointed questions about passages that seem to endorse things that are morally repugnant.

This isn't an attempt to repudiate the Bible or anything. In my opinion, it's absolutely ridiculous to hunt around for objectionable passages out of this book or that book, and follow that up with a conclusion that the Bible is worthless. By contrast, this is an attempt to expose questionable pieces of scripture that we might use to justify our own misbehavior. It's an attempt to allow ethics to affect how we interpret and assign normative value to various parts of scripture, when we usually do this the other way around.

So let's take a peek at the passage that was the sermon text at my church this past Sunday. It's the story of two early Christians, Ananias and Sapphira, and is found in Acts 5. I'll start my quotes a little earlier, in chapter 4.

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet.

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet.

Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God."

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?"

"Yes," she said, "that is the price."

Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also."

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.


Now, let me begin by saying that I don't think we should let Ananias and Sapphira off the hook for being greedy. The story obviously presents them as trying to get the church to approve of their generosity while feathering their own nest. But really, does the punishment fit the crime? So that's my first question about the ethics implicit in this passage: how is God morally justified in killing Ananias and Sapphira?

My second question has to do with Peter's attitude. Like one of my friends at church said, "Peter doesn't seem to be acting very much like Jesus." To make this a little more obvious, imagine Ananias and Sapphira as a couple from your church. You can even imagine some people you don't like very much.

Now imagine that the husband comes in to talk one of the church leaders, lies to him, and then keels over dead from a heart attack. When the wife comes in a couple hours later, what would you expect the church leader to do?

A. Gently break the news of the husband's death.
B. Warn the woman to be honest so God doesn't strike her dead.
C. Craftily cross-examine the woman and get her killed too.

I would hope for A, or at least B, but Peter seems to be doing C. Yep, those are the kinds of leaders I want for my church! So the second question is: how is Peter morally justified in entrapping, rather than comforting, Sapphira?

My third question isn't really specifically moral, but in light of ConcernedEngineer's recent comments - about how rejecting him is the same thing as rejecting God - I want to ask this question too. When Sapphira lies to Peter, he responds with, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?" My third question is: How is lying to Peter the same thing as "testing the Sprit of the Lord"?

My hunch is, there are no satisfactory answers to these questions. There is no way to justify the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. There is no way to justify Peter's entrapping Sapphira. And lying to Peter is absolutely nothing like testing the Spirit of the Lord. Combined with the fact that this is one of only two New Testament stories about God striking people dead (excluding whatever the heck is happening in Revelation ... and correct me if I'm wrong), I think we should be very cautious in trying to interpret this story and apply it to today's church. Frankly, I'm tempted to take the scissors to this story, but that would put an ugly hole in the middle of the story of Stephen, so I'll refrain.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Giving notice

Although I hate to give ConcernedEngineer his own post, I've never expected to have to ban anybody before, so I guess it's good to make this all aboveboard.

ConcernedEngineer:

This is my blog, and therefore I feel responsible for keeping it a hospitable environment for discussion. Your comment spamming, backposting and intellectual arrogance do not contribute to a pleasant environment. Incidentally, neither do your malice and misogyny.

I thought that if I teased you a bit, you would understand that I find you ridiculous, and then you would lighten up or go away. Obviously I was wrong.

So because this blog has only one rule, let's go back to the rule. Please answer the following questions for me:

Obviously, you believe that God exists. Is it possible that you might be wrong, and that God does not exist?

Obviously, you consider the Bible the Inspired Word Of God. Is it possible that you might be wrong, and that people, not God, were responsible for the biblical text?

Obviously, you believe that your interpretation of the Bible is correct, even on nebulous doctrines such as trinitarianism, which are not explicitly laid out anywhere in the Bible. Is it possible that you have wrongly interpreted the Bible?

If you cannot admit your own limitations with regard to these three topics, I will invoke the one rule of this blog, and ban you from it altogether.

(Also, if any of you think I should do something different, or think I'm misapplying my own rule, please comment.)

-Me

Monday, June 18, 2007

So what's up with the end of Job?


I was thinking about the book of Job on Friday afternoon ... in particular, the end, where God shows up and scolds Job for trying to get a straight answer out of the being who created the earth:
Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?

...

Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope? ... Can you make a pet of him like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls?

Having read the previous 40-odd chapters, this whole monologue just sounds wrong to me. This God isn't any more righteous than Job's four "friends", and everything God says just begs for a similar rebuke from Job. Maybe something like this:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm.

"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand."

"Interesting question," Job replied. "Where where you when my flocks were stolen? And when my servants were murdered? And when my sons and daughters were crushed under a ton of rubble?"

"But," the LORD blustered, "can you put the leviathan on a leash for your girls?"

"Perhaps you've forgotten," said Job. "My girls are all dead."

"Oh," the LORD said. "Good point."

So the LORD blessed Job with more sons and daughters and money than he had before.

"But my sons and daughters are still dead," Job said.

"Would you shut up already?" the LORD snarled. "Who do you think I am, God?"

Exit The LORD

So I started backpedaling through Job. Back through God's speech. Back through Elihu's speech. All the way back to chapter 31, where we find Job's last rebuke to his so-called friends, and this curious sentence:
The words of Job are ended.

What gives? Because the words of Job are definitely not ended. After Elihu shows up, and God shows up, he gives that little kicker about how he had heard of God, but now he's seen God, so he repents in dust and ashes.

Maybe ... could it be possible that the last 11 chapters of Job were added onto an original narrative? Let's look at the first part of chapter 32, right after "the words of Job are ended..."
So these three men stopped answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. But Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became very angry with Job for justifying himself rather than God. He was also angry with the three friends, because they had found no way to refute Job, and yet had condemned him. Now Elihu had waited before speaking to Job because they were older than he. But when he saw that the three men had nothing more to say, his anger was aroused.

Blink.

Is it just me, or is that passage practically begging us to conclude that there's a second author who glued his stuff onto the end of Job?

I suspect that it is not just me, and that there's a whole bunch of scholarship that says that Job is the work of at least two authors. But I haven't gone looking for that textual stuff yet. I'm just busy being blown away because I didn't notice this before.

So, my textual-study-type friends ... do you know anything about the authorship of Job?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Linky Linky

Normally, I am content to tag interesting articles that come through my feed reader and let you pick the ones you find interesting out of the "News and Opinion" widget over there on the right side of the window.

Over there. ->

But given our brief conversations about epistemic humility and the gender of God, and given my interest in seeing our traditional doctrines as metaphors, rather than reductionistic descriptions of metaphysical truths, I think you should read the following blog post at Find and Ye Shall Seek.

Trinity Sunday
The doctrine of the Trinity was a tool; it served a means of consolidating victory by Nicean forces in the Christian power struggles of that century. It lent a much needed theoretical foundation for the victorious side, one that various factions could coalesce around. The doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated by Gregory of Nyssa, actually made for an interesting and sophisticated theology. Unfortunately, whereas it should have served as a jumping off point for further free inquiry into the nature of God, the opposite is instead what happened; it became a tool with which to bludgeon dissidents. This is because the various factions that coalesced around it colluded with Roman state power to stamp out Arianism or any other free thinking doctrine.

Friday, June 01, 2007

A Shibboleth

I am hereby announcing a rule for my blog.

This is significant because it is the first rule ever to be declared on my blog. And really, I don't like making rules. Usually, most people are already following all the rules they are willing to follow, and they don't need any more rules, kthx.

But after visiting other blogs and encountering the same exasperating, circular conversation over and over again, I am going to institute a rule ... not because the readers of my blog have a big problem with this issue, but because I think this rule should be a "best practice" that will help create thoughtful and productive blogging communities.

The rule is this:

If you are unwilling to admit the possibility that you might be wrong, I will delete your comments.

I think this rule will be fairly easy to enforce. We will simply use the phrase "but I might be wrong" as a shibboleth. If you are incapable of admitting even the *possibility* that you might be wrong, you're not discussing, you're proselytizing, and we'll thank you to go away. Take this discussion for example:

Biff
: THE USA IS EVIL! IT IS DESTROYING THE WORLD! WE HATES IT!
Sully: The USA is evil? Do you think it's *possible* that you might be wrong about that?
Biff: No, there is no possibility that I am wrong. I am unequivocally right, I know the Truth and I am here to share it with you.
Me: Biff, please go away. You are in clear violation of the first rule and your subsequent comments on this topic will be deleted.

So beware! At any time, you may be called upon to pronounce the Shibboleth.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Altruism turns me on


In a number of previous conversations, I've tried to explain why I think that people who decide to do "the right thing" aren't particularly praiseworthy.

Nice people do the right thing because they feel like it. They do not, in some spiritual sense, muster up The Will To Do Good and apply it to their situation. Instead, their values make them feel like doing the right thing instead of pursuing some other option.

Recent neuroscience seems to support this opinion. If you have a minute, read this article at the Washington Post.
The scientists stared at each other. Grafman was thinking, "Whoa -- wait a minute!"

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.
(h/t GKB.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Speaking of perplexed...

Congressional Democrats have recently decided to use the power of the purse a little more gently, offering the President funding to continue his war without schedules, timetables or whatever you want to call them.

Obviously, the war in Iraq has been an ill-begotten, poorly-planned, poorly executed fiasco. But given that that's the case, here are two questions for you smart people:


1. Is the situation in Iraq "improving", "degrading", or "staying the same", and on what do you base this estimation?

2. What should the U.S. do next in Iraq, and why?

Please source your responses as well as possible. And Elrod, if you're reading, I'm especially interested in your opinion.

'Cause I'm perplexed.

Update: And in case you weren't going to respond because all you had to say was BS, you're also allowed to simply link to people who seem to know what they're talking about. Ready, go.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Climate Change

You may find this article from NewScientist interesting:

Climate change: A guide for the perplexed

Friday, May 04, 2007

A great bible class idea

Well, Richard Beck is laying out some principles for the class he is teaching at church, so this seems like a good time to share my latest Bible class idea. I guess you could use it for a sermon, too, but you should probably send the kids out of the auditorium/sanctuary first.

The idea revolves around a trend in recent horror films ... Hostel, Saw, Saw II, Saw III, and so forth. I haven't seen any of these films myself, but people who have seen them tell me that they represent a move from "horror film" to "torture film". In the past, it might have been difficult to get ahold of graphic depictions of torture, but I'm thinking that these videos should be pretty easy to find. (Though I guess if you're not up for the horror films, you could just make do with the fingernail-ripping scene from Syriana.)

So you get together some of the most gruesome scenes in this video, and you splice them together, back to back. When your class arrives, you sit them all down in front of a TV, turn down the lights, and play your video.

Be sure to set it to loop. Over and over and over.

When people start leaving, mock them. Tell them that it's embarrassing that they can't endure an hour of watching suffering and torture, when God intends to watch people to suffer in hell for eternity.

If anyone is still hanging around, read them the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.

For the one or two people who haven't left because you cleverly tied them to their chairs while the lights were off, read them the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15. Be sure they know it's in Luke 15, which comes right before Luke 16.

Then go find a new church. Hopefully, these people won't need you to help them work out a new doctrine of hell.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Why we shouldn't talk about crucifixion with children




The pair of images is from a series of monsters drawn by children and continued by artists. h/t colby.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

I have an idea

People seem to react poorly when I call God "she", so I've been trying to think up something a little less jarring.

If I can't call God "she", and it doesn't make much sense to call Jesus "she", maybe I can call the holy spirit "she" and not get kicked out of church.

Who's with me?

Monday, April 30, 2007

I hate April

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

- from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land

Friday, April 27, 2007

Identity is messy

Just jokin' about the post I promised you. I'm going to post this one first, because I like it, and because it's marginally related.

What follows is a musing by my Victorian* friend Sara Martinez.

In case you weren't aware, "musing" is a literary genre, named by Sara, which often involves thoughts written on napkins, trees, walls and random Web sites. This musing was first published on the wildly illustrated wall of an art studio on the ACU campus. Imagine it's written in blue marker.

I am myself, a single, whole entity, having only one physical manifestation and occupying only a set length of time, having only one soul, whose destiny is unique. Yet I am myself a plurality, made of various, uncertainly connected, discrete parts.

For I am made of emotions that bow to various masters, of thoughts born from various progenitors, of opinions that have grown from, are growing from, or have yet to grow from seeds sown by various cultivators.

My heart cannot be said to be one to give to one, for it is free for the tearing to many, who may hate me, who may love me, who may never have even imagined my existence.

I am not of a uniform, singular, or unique spirit, being prone to mercurial changes in tone of mind and direction of purpose.

Bearing all this in mind, then, though I am but one person, in what way, exactly, am I an individual?

* "Victorian" as in "from Victoria", with no connotations of prudishness or steampunk.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Thinking Blogger Awards

I've been tagged with the "thinking blogger" award-slash-meme by Paul and Richard. (Richard thinks it started here.) I am supposed to respond by naming five bloggers who make me think. I'll go ahead and start with ... Paul and Richard:


1. Original Faith is Paul Martin's blog. Paul knows about interesting things like belief, psychology, and being really ill. Also, He's a bit of a poet. I like that about him.


2. Experimental Theology is Richard Beck's blog. Richard is a philosophy professor at my alma mater, Abilene Christian University, and shares my peculiar religious tradition. He knows about interesting things like genes, psychology, and speakeasies in New Orleans. He plugged me as "one of the few people I know who might be more heretical than I am". I like that about him.


Here are six other bloggers who make me think. I need to do extra because I don't want a real "blogroll" on my sidebar, and I feel bad about it sometimes. This is my way of expurgating that guilt. I'm glad you can all help me out.


3. Douglas Muder is a Unitarian Universalist, who once upon a time gently thumped me down because I said he had written a book he hadn't written. He's not a frequent poster, but he occasionally drops some good stuff at Free and Responsible Search.


4. Jack Whelan and Crystal are both Catholic, so I'm cheating and squeezing them into one slot. Jack's blog, After the Future, is primarily political, with a little touch of Catholic theology thrown in occasionally to spice things up. Crystal's blog, Perspective, is probably the most personal blog that I read, and has lots of Catholic theology with the occasional sci-fi movie review thrown in to spice things up.


5. Scoots is a Ph.D. student at Boston College, which happens to be in Boston. Scoots is a contrarian in a sea of liberals, just like I'm a contrarian in a sea of conservatives, so his posts tend to be a little conservative. His almost-eponymous blog tends to talk about things like the Bible and songs by Rich Mullins. But it's pretty good anyway.


6. Joel Spolsky, at Joel on Software, writes mostly about software development, but a lot of his insights apply to entrepreneurship in general. He used to work for Microsoft, started his own software company and wrote a couple of books, and has since ascended to the status of demigod in the programming community. I think this might have something to do with the fact that he says things like, "programmers should not be farmed in cubicles, but should have their own private offices with doors." I could be way off base, though.


7. Pastor Katherine preaches at South Bay Christian Church of Redondo Beach, which should make you deeply jealous. Her Sermon Blog is here, and she mostly keeps it updated. On a fairly regular basis, Pastor K's sermons manage to be triumphant without being cotton-candy. That's pretty sweet.


So there you have it, my set of "thinking blogger" awards. Hugs and kisses to all the winners.

Next up: the promised post about God and information theory.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Panentheism and Theodicy: Creator's guilt


I strongly suspect that the panentheistic approach isn't a silver bullet for theodicy problems, but it does have some interesting implications. For example, Scoots asked...
Would we understand a panentheistic God as having created the cosmos, i.e., with some form of intention? Because if we don't, then we still need some explanation for why there's a universe, and if we do then that god would still bear culpability for making a world where horrors would take place.

I think a panentheist could go either way on this one, depending on how he understands the relationship between God and the universe. An epiphenominal panentheist* who says that the mind of God arises from out of the universe, would probably say that God did not create the universe, but instead the universe created God. Regarding the origin of the universe ... who knows? I guess he could ascribe to some scientific theory about the of the universe, or he could dip into some narrative that attempts to explain existence, or he could simply argue that the question of "why" doesn't make any sense with regard to brute existence.

A pattern panentheist* might argue that God is not personal, and is therefore both unable to willfully "create" and, by similar reasoning, exempt from guilt altogether.

But a Platonic panentheist* might say that God is personal and did in fact create the universe. Then, like Scoots says, he would need to justify God's decision to create. If God created the universe, and could have foreseen the horrors that would come to pass, then God should be held responsible for those horrors. I expect a Platonic panentheist would use one of the many arguments that traditional theists have already made attempting to extricate God from creator's guilt. Maybe he would take a line from Romans 9 and say that it's OK for God to create things with the intent of destroying them. I don't like that approach very much. Maybe he would argue this is this is indeed the best possible world, and that the goods of existence outweigh the horrors that seem to remove any possibility of meaning from that existence. I don't like that approach either.

But here's a possibility: what if the idea of "creator's guilt" makes sense when discussing, say, the atomic bomb, but is inherently contradictory when discussing the creation of worlds. Here's what I mean:

Suppose that God is puttering around in God's kitchen, making Mrs. God an egg sandwich and trying to decide whether or not to create a universe. And to simplify things, let's further suppose that God wants to create a deterministic universe, where all events in time can be known based on the universe's starting configuration.

Also, God is making the egg sandwich using eggs from free-range, grain-fed chickens, so there's no guilt to deal with there.

To decide whether a universe is worth creating, God can simply follow the implications of the universe's configuration, thinking it through, so to speak, and decide whether the horrors in this potential universe are justifiable. If they're not justifiable, God will refrain from creating the universe. If they are justifiable, then God can go right ahead and do whatever God wants.

So, settling down in an easy chair, God begins thinking through our universe. God begins with the big bang, or whatever came before that, and proceeds to the formation of earth, and the animal ferocity of life as it evolved. God's mind simulates the universe perfectly, so God knows your person in its entirety. God knows what Abraham will think about Isaac, and what Pharaoh will do about the Israelites, and what you will think about these words you are reading right now. God considers, in every detail, the suffering of starving children, the grief of mothers, lovers, friends, every single detail up to the point that God decides should be the end of the universe.

But wait.

In thinking so exactly about the world, and its people, and their thoughts and feelings, God has essentially created that world.

In information systems terms, the hardware of the universe is the mind of God. The program of the universe is composed of its its initial configuration and physical laws. And because, in our panentheistic model, the mind of God is the only reality we have to work with, the only way to know the outcome the universe is to run the program. Once the program has been run, the horrors have already occurred. God simply can't think through a potential universe without making it an actual universe.

And if that's not curious enough: what if this is the simulation? What if, right now, God is simultaneously considering all possible universes, and the salvation of the universe involves God's ultimately selecting the best possible universe, or - even better - merging all the possible universes into the Best Possible Universe?

Hunh. Things keep getting curiouser and curiouser.


* I just kind of made up the terms "epiphenominal panentheist", "pattern panentheist" and "Platonic panentheist", so you might not want to use them in essays or on dates or anywhere important.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Panentheism and Theodicy: Why worship?

Next, Connor and Jennifer hand us this question regarding the God described in the previous posts.
What about him is compelling, or inspires you to worship or follow him?

I think I'm going to have to begin by unpacking some of this panentheism stuff. Briefly, panentheism is the belief that God both transcends and is radically present within the universe. It is distinct from pantheism, which teaches that God and the universe are identical. So in terms of set theory, pantheism teaches that Universe = God, while panentheism teaches that Universe ⊂ God.

Paul's speech to the Areopagus begins to move in this direction:
"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'

There are lots of metaphorical approaches to this idea, each with slightly different implications. You might take the Platonic route and think of God as the Divine Nature or Form of Divinity, and all the things in the universe as being instances that reflect this form to a greater or lesser degree. Or you might think of God as the Divine Pattern, with all things in the universe exhibiting this pattern to a greater or lesser degree. Or you might think of God as the Divine Mind, a consciousness arising from the interactions of the physical universe in the same way that a creature's mind arises from the physical interactions in its brain.

Each of these metaphors provides a different way of describing God's relationship with the world, and each has slightly different implications for God's relationship to the good. If God is most accurately described as a Form that exists separately from the world, but is instantiated within the world, then good becomes the degree to which an instance reflects the divine form.

If God is most accurately described as a pattern that is replicated on small and grand scales throughout the universe (think fractals), then good becomes a part of this pattern, or perhaps is identical with the pattern itself.

If God is the mind that arises from the interactions of the universe, then the good is likely an idea that has some independence from God, but the mind of God would always affirm the good, and insofar as the mind of God could interact with other minds, the mind of God would always promote the good.

I think that these metaphors present sufficient reason for feeling worshipful awe and affection toward God: First, because God is immense, subsuming the universe we know and probably all the universes that we don't know; second, because God is present, immanent, intimately involved in every moment, suffering as we suffer, and rejoicing as we rejoice; third, because we can identify God with all the good we experience, either because God is the source of that goodness, or evident within that goodness, or personally affirming that goodness.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Panentheism and Theodicy: What do we do with the Bible?


In comments on my original theodicy post, Jennifer made several comments like this:
You could reject special providence, but I find it hard to reject the special providence if you're going to hold that the Scriptures contain anything that resembles truth regarding the nature of God

Sure enough, it is a royal mess. You have God dropping pillars of smoke and fire, smiting people hither, rescuing people thither, impregnating a virgin, sending angels here, sending angels there. You have Jesus walking on water, miraculously healing people, miraculously feeding people, and rising from the dead. You have tongues of fire, apostles freed by strategic earthquakes, casting out evil spirits, and raising the dead.

And then you have me sitting here, saying that this sort of behavior poses a logical dilemma that can best be resolved by saying that, in fact, God didn't do those things.

Now it's easy to see how I could maintain this belief and reject the validity of the Bible. And it's easy to see how I could abandon this belief and accept the validity of the Bible. The odd thing is that I'm saying that the Bible is valuable, but that God didn't do all these things that the Bible says God did. If the Bible contains all this misinformation about God, how can it be valuable?

I'm going to begin my answer by making an assertion about the Bible: The Bible was not written by God.

For some people, this statement will be terribly obvious, and for others it will be terribly offensive. For those who find it offensive, I'll just mention the internal contradictions in the text (variations in the number of Solomon's stalls and horses in 1 Kings 4 and 2 Chronicles 9; insects with four feet in Leviticus 11, how long Jesus spent in the tomb, yada yada). But if none of that makes *any* impression on you, please consider the following biblical story from Numbers 31:

"Have you allowed all the women to live?" he asked them. "They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD's people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man."

And the LORD was displeased with Moses for his lecherous and genocidal counsel, and struck him dead on the spot.

Oh, wait, that's not how it ends, is it? It ends like this...

The LORD said to Moses, "You and Eleazar the priest and the family heads of the community are to count all the people and animals that were captured. Divide the spoils between the soldiers who took part in the battle and the rest of the community."
...
The plunder remaining from the spoils that the soldiers took was 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys and 32,000 women who had never slept with a man.

I find that offensive. So now we can all be offended.

Really, though, my point is that it's difficult to read the Bible as a Perfect Book provided by a Perfect God. Either God's severely messed up, or the book is, and (based on the theological axioms I mentioned earlier) I have to prefer the latter.

Now if you're still with me, let's go on to another assertion: The Bible is, first and foremost, a collection of stories. It is not a divine rulebook. It is a story about how people - mostly, Israelite people - have experienced God in some unusual circumstances. Like all stories, it was written by a person (actually, many people) with differing goals, values, biases, priorities, perspectives and ethical blind spots. Like all stories, it was written for a particular audience, within a particular society at a particular point in history. This doesn't mean that other people can't read the story and learn things from it, but it does mean that there's probably a disconnect between what the text meant to its intended audience and what it should mean to us.

These two assertions encourage us to approach the text very cautiously and interpret it with an eye to the likely biases of the writers. When a writer says, "God said this," we should read that not as a divine claim that "God said this," but, "I think God said this," a statement that could be true even if God didn't really say such a thing.

This is the generous approach, by the way. The cynical approach would assume that the writer was intentionally putting words in God's mouth to get the God Trump for manipulating people.

So there's one way in which the Bible could be considered true: it's true insofar as when people say, "I heard God say this," we can assert that those people are telling the truth, although it's possible that they could have been mistaken about what God actually said.

But I don't think this goes far enough. The Bible has been revered for thousands of years by millions of people, and seems to capture some deep truths about the human experience of God.

I think this is the sense in which we should understand the Bible to be true. Somehow, it distills many human experiences of God into a single compilation. And so rather than trying to figure out whether we have to be baptized to be saved, or whether God created the world in 7 days, we should be looking for broad themes that are woven throughout the Bible. It's here that we can expect to see God's inspiration, threading hints about Divinity through its disparate stories, occasionally surprising us, continually nudging us toward goodness and love.

Monday, March 19, 2007

God Exists, God is Good, God is Love


Connor asked:
Could you say a little more about dropping special providence, but sticking with God is good. It seems to me that most people, at least at the gut level, claim God to be good because of special providence, i.e. Jesus (as God) dies for my sins so I'm saved, yanks me out of Egypt, whatever.

That is a bit of a conundrum, isn't it? The Israelites say, "we know God is good because God brought us up out of Egypt". But I'm saying, "if God brought you up out of Egypt, God is not good."

Let me cheat a little and rephrase Connor's question as, "If there is no special providence, how do you prove God is good?"

The short answer is, I can't.

My theology begins with a pair of unprovable statements: "God exists" and "God is good". My theological goal is not to prove these statements. If anything, my goal is to disprove them. I want to see if there is a way to understand the world given that these two axioms are true. While I can and can present arguments for each of them, and can relate my own experiences that reinforce these beliefs, and can relate the experiences of other people that have been elevated to the status of Church Tradition, I'm not really concerned with proving them true. These are things that I simply believe, in the same way I believe that the sky is blue. You could argue the heck out of the proposition "the sky is green", and I could try my hardest to believe it is green, but in the end I simply would be unable to affirm, from the depths of my being, that the sky is green.

Once upon a time, my theology probably operated under the influence of a third axiom, "God regularly intervenes in the world", but I've since decided that this one simply won't jive with the first two axioms and my experience of the world. However, this panentheism project is an attempt to see if it's possible to soften that axiom somewhat so that it still captures an important part of the Christian witness; in particular, I'm seeing what might happen if I changed "God regularly intervenes in the world" to, "God is intimately involved with the world," or "God loves people," or something like that.

So really, these three axioms underpin my assumption that theology is something worth doing. If God does not exist, theology is silly. If God is not good, theology is dark and futile. If God does not care about the world, then why care about God?

But if these three axioms are true, and can be brought into harmony with my experience of the world, then theology may actually be a worthy endeavor.

My theology is not for people who have happy, rosy relationships with God, and who believe things like "God made the world in 7 days" or "God got me a parking space." My theology is for people who are suffering, or who see the enormity of the suffering in the world and are - rightfully - furious with God. If I can present a theology that provides a way to understand God as good and loving within a world full of horrors, then I think I will have done something helpful.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Theodicy


Theodicy (thE-'รค-d&-sE): A vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil.

For those of you who haven't encountered theodicy before: it's generally depressing. In fact, it could be magnificently depressing. So if you haven't already been wondering about God, and evil, and all that, you may want to go read something more pleasant. Like cute overload or something.

Still with me? Great.

Let's start this mess with a few observations about how Christians answer Big Philosophical Questions.

1. When answering the question, "What is God like?", Christians generally make several claims about the attributes of God, among them that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. The Bible seems to support these claims.

2. When answering the question, "How does God interact with the creation?", Christians generally endorse an idea of a God who is intimately involved with the creation, particularly with human beings. Christians also usually endorse special providence, wherein God occasionally interrupts the natural order to do something helpful for people. The Bible seems to support these claims.

3. When answering the question, "Is there evil?", Christians generally say, "yes." Sometimes people say that evil is illusory, or that evil is merely an absence of good, or that all evil is constructive and eventually has positive results, but sane people generally acknowledge that the world is full of evil - sometimes perpetrated by people (murder, rape, genocide), and sometimes perpetrated at random by nature (disease, earthquake, tsunami). Most sane people also acknowledge that often, this evil is so egregious that it destroys people, and it seems patently ridiculous to insist that these sorts of evil (called "Horrors", in a recent related discussion) could ever be constructive.

From the perspective of Western philosophers, this slice of worldview is fraught with peril. More specifically, it is internally contradictory. The answers to the questions can't all be right ... one or more of them must be wrong. This is where theodicy starts to show up. People - both Christians and non-Christians - notice what appear to be contradictions in the standard Christian story about the world, and so someone has to resolve the contradictions.

In general, there seem to be three ways that people go about doing this.

1. People deny the question has any validity, whether because it is immoral to question God in this way, or because God's ways are mysterious and incomprehensible, or what have you. Really, no discussion can be had after this point.

2. People try to define terms in such a way to dissolve the contradiction. So, for example, someone might claim that all-good does not mean that God ought to rescue children trapped under the rubble of a building collapsed by an earthquake. Or they might claim that all-powerful does not mean that God can do things that are inherently contradictory, and then show that intervening on behalf of abused children would raise an inherent contradiction.

3. People try to find a leg of the argument that they can let go. So, for example, process theologians might claim that God does not really fit the traditional descriptions: that God's moral character is developing just like a person's does, so the claim that God is all-good is simply inaccurate. People who are unwilling to deviate from the traditional description of God might try to give up a different leg, perhaps claiming that evil does not really exist, or if it does, God is not responsible for creating it or intervening to fix it.

Now, a few final observations:

First, the "problem of evil", as it has often been called, raises for atheists no analogous "problem of good". The problem of evil arises specifically because theists claim that a certain kind of God exists, and that this God has a certain kind of relationship with the world, which seems incompatible with the existence of evil. On the other hand, people who claim that there is no God need not explain why God allows evil, and they also need not explain why, if God does not exist, there is good. The painfully simple atheistic answer to that question is that good is not contingent on a God.

Second, in my estimation, the problem of evil is the strongest single argument against worshiping God. If God does not exist at all, it's ridiculous to worship. If God does not provide for followers, why worship? If God is not good, why worship? In fact, if God is not good, we may have a moral obligation *not* to worship. To make matters worse, this is a visceral argument. People can brush off a claim like "the ontological argument for the existence of God is invalid", but it's harder, rhetorically, to brush off the suffering of millions of people over millions of years.

Some people manage to do it, but it's harder.

As a result, it is absolutely necessary that Christians do good theodicy, theodicy that not only can be accepted by those in the Christian community, but those outside as well. And as others have said before, people outside the community can't take you seriously if your answers won't stand up to Auschwitz.

I've recently decided that, for me, the moral contradictions in the problem of evil trump all the other problems. I absolutely accept the claim that special providence is incompatible with perfect divine goodness: A god who delivers money to American churches but fails to rescue children from Indonesian tsunamis cannot be a good god.

But I also am incapable of dropping the claim that God is all-good. I am simply incapable of releasing that belief. So I have to drop something else ... and to me, the thing that seems most droppable is the doctrine of special providence. So I have to claim that when money arrives in the mail, or when I get a good parking place, or when a friend's cancer disappears, God hasn't intervened or done anything out of the ordinary.

Obviously, this move puts a new burden on me, first to explain how I can understand the Bible to be true in light of this doctrine, and second to explain some other way that God might relate to the world. And it also doesn't solve the problem of how God could be morally justified in having created a world that allows for so much horror. I'll talk about those things in a later post.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

I swear

I'm going to get around to posting a real post. Regardless of the hot water leak in the slab of my house, I really am going to have some free time this week.

But this is just too rich.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Question #6: Regarding Walter Reed Medical Center

Which would you rather give for your country, your legs or your life?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Question #5: Punctuation

Continuing our series of odd questions ... quick, is the following sentence correctly punctuated?

Come in and enjoy a home-style dinner with all the fixin's!

Definitive Answer from Casey:
"Though it looks wonky somehow, I think it is. "Home-style" is not in the dictionary, so it's hard to say if it should be a hyphenate, and though "fixin's" looking like an improperly placed possessive, it seems like a proper conjunction."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Equality Ride 2007

Looks like the Equality Riders won't be coming back to ACU this year. But they will be at Baylor...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Question #4: Zephyrs

Anyone remember the name of that church song with the line about the "gentle zephyrs"?

Definitive Answer: As expected, my mom and dad figured it out.

The song is Beulah Land. Interestingly enough, in our old songbook the first line was changed to "I've reached the land of love divine".


Beulah Land by Edgar P. Stites

I’ve reached the land of corn and wine,
And all its riches freely mine;
Here shines undimmed one blissful day,
For all my night has passed away.

    * Refrain:
    O Beulah Land, sweet Beulah Land,
    As on thy highest mount I stand,
    I look away across the sea,
    Where mansions are prepared for me,
    And view the shining glory shore,
    My heav’n, my home forevermore!

My Savior comes and walks with me,
And sweet communion here have we;
He gently leads me by His hand,
For this is Heaven’s borderland.

A sweet perfume upon the breeze,
Is borne from ever vernal trees,
And flow’rs that never fading grow
Where streams of life forever flow.

The zephyrs seem to float to me,
Sweet sounds of Heaven’s melody,
As angels with the white-robed throng
Join in the sweet redemption song.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My Son My Executioner

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a reading by the U.S. Poet Laureate, Donald Hall.

The Poet Laureate is almost 80, and doesn't move too quickly. He sat behind a long, narrow table covered with a white tablecloth, and occasionally, when he got involved in a poem, his foot would poke, poke, poke at it.

I enjoyed his poetry. Listening to a thoughtful, eloquent lector made me feel like I was participating in something important and mysterious, and when he finished, I felt like I'd been to church. As far as feelings go, I haven't been to church in quite a while.

Here's one of his early poems, written about his first child.

My Son My Executioner

My son, my executioner,
  I take you in my arms,
Quiet and small and just astir
  And whom my body warms.

Sweet death, small son, our instrument
  Of immortality
Your cries and hungers document
  Our bodily decay.

We twenty-five and twenty-two,
  Who seemed to live forever,
Observe enduring life in you
  And start to die together.

Friday, February 16, 2007

*piff*

Woah.

I think a fuse in my brain just blew. And nobody else is likely to understand why. But here's my attempt at an explanation.

Jack Whelan just said this:

The encounter with the Christ is an experience of insemination in the Matthew 13 sense (parable of sower, mustard seed, etc.). This seed has a subversive effect within the soul life of those who are inseminated, and they find that if they nurture its germination in the right way, a new regime grows within.

This was a marginal point within his post about postmodern Catholicism.

Now briefly: The idea of "seed" is an ancient idea, an archetype that goes way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way back. It may be so old that it's actually genetic rather than just memetic. It's all tied up with life and death, with dying to live again, with harvest gods, with Jesus, with sex. And, as hinted at in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, the idea of seed is all tied up with modern things, too, particularly potentially world-changing technologies such as genetics and nanotech.

Another primary theme in The Diamond Age is subversiveness ... the idea that things change for the better primarily because of tiny changes that happen out of public view, and perhaps in opposition to public norms.

Those two ideas rattle around in my head fairly often. I know they're really important ideas, but I'm not sure why. So anything that talks about "seed" or "subversion" will light up my pattern-matcher.

Particularly things that also talk about "Matthew", and my lucky number, "13".

Hrm.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Question #3: Regarding Social Norms

Say you, personally, wanted to change a social norm. In light of the last 100 years of American history, what method would you use to make that change?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Question #2: Regarding Artificial Intelligence

Why is it so hard to design a machine that can make free, undetermined choices?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Question #1: Regarding the Shoah

In Jewish history, is the Holocaust effectively the opposite of the Exodus?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Heavens to betsy

I've written a little lately about books I've been reading, but what about the books I haven't been reading? Specifically, what about the book my wife is reading about Chinese Christians in the early 1980's, The Heavenly Man?

Because I'm not reading this book, I only know what my wife tells me. And basically, she tells me that it sounds kind of like the New Testament. Church leader gets put in prison, hears a voice, his hands are loosed, and he walks out of the prison, making a miraculous leap to the top of a wall and a miraculous leap across a sewage-filled moat to complete his escape. Back home, his wife has had a vision that he has been captured, and the church has been praying and fasting on his behalf.

Yeah, sounds like the New Testament. But the Book of Mormon sounds a lot like the Old Testament.

I say that, not because I have any good reason to believe these things didn't happen, but because I'm kind of afraid that they did.

Why am I afraid?

I'm afraid because thousands of African Christians didn't walk away from their murderers.

Because thousands of men, women and children didn't walk through tsunamis unharmed.

Because 6 million Jews didn't walk out of Nazi death camps.

In other words, I'm afraid that I'm going to believe that these things actually happened, which will force me into Dostoyevsky's corner, where I have to admit twin propositions like:

1. God exists and acts in the world

2. God only acts on the behalf of those who tickle God with prayers, or fasting, or whatever gets God off.

For me, this is the basic problem with special providence and supplicatory prayer. Can we call God "good" if God only rescues those who recite the proper incantations ... or are lucky enough to have wives back home, reciting the incantations on their behalf? And if this capricious, megalomaniacal God really were the God of the universe, could we morally justify worshipping it?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A few bucks for things she needed

So a few of us are up at the church building this morning, getting lunch ready. Woman walks in and tells me about how she got jumped at the bus station. Shows me her broken glasses. Tells me how the nice bus people reinstated her ticket, thank the Lord, but now she needs some help for the trip to Dallas.

Sorry, I tell her. I don't ever give anybody cash.

Which I don't.

Buying food instead of giving people cash may take a bit longer, but it's darn hard to trade Chicken Express for drugs or booze. And I was pretty sure that this woman wasn't headed to Dallas, but to the crack house down the street. Her story wasn't very good. Her heart wasn't in it. She didn't want to lie to me. Really, he just wanted a couple bucks to buy whatever it was she needed to make her feel better for a little while, to forget whatever she needed to forget.

So she turned down my offer of food to take with her, because food wasn't really what she needed. She left looking tired and sad, telling me, as she walked out the door, that she hoped I would have a nice day.

But I wouldn't have a nice day. I had called her bluff, and for some reason, I felt pretty bad about it.

I used to think giving people drug money was patently bad, but now I'm starting to wonder. Maybe some people legitmately need drugs. And rather than pretending that what they need is food, maybe I should think about offering them ... safer drugs. I mean, really: life looks pretty bleak sometimes, and we cope the best way we know how. Street kids in Central America sniff glue, because it makes their hunger go away. Maybe Texans do meth, crack, or whatever because it's the relief they have access to.

In other words, maybe people do meth because they can't get Prozac.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Troop Surge Address

Just so you don't miss it, the President is supposed to address the nation tonight at 8 p.m. Central (GMT -6) regarding his proposal for increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. Democrats in congress have already started advancing legislation that would require authorization for any such surge.

(Oh, and I assume everyone knows we've been dropping bombs in Somalia? Just a heads-up.)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Jesus Fish

I walked past a massive black Suburban in a parking lot today, and noticed that it was sporting a school of Jesus Fish, looked something like this:


Obviously, the four fish represent four family members. My question for you is ... and I want your knee-jerk response ... which fish do you think represents dad?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk

My deepest apologies for being so off-topic ... but you've gotta see this.



(thx, laughing jack.)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Another blog for you

Jack @ After The Future:
Societies evolve, and with that evolution comes painful losses with the important gains. Every society, including ours, must learn the trick of what to hold onto and what to let go of. It's not easy. The extreme cultural right is the party of hanging on no matter what; the extreme cultural left is the party of letting go no matter what. Most people live mostly unconsciously in the conflict between the two tendencies, sometimes leaning one way, sometimes the other. Sane people in the middle have to find a way to consciously, artfully synthesize the two tendencies. That's what it means to me to be a centrist--the center is defined by this integrationist project, which is very different from just splitting the difference between the extremes. Integration in this sense is a spiritual activity, but that's a subject for another time.