Posted by: dacalu | 17 November 2014

Bite Size Jesus: The Old Testament

Christians remember a long history of communication between the world and its Author. Through angels and prophets we worked to repair the alienation between the two. The Old Testament (book) provides perspectives on the long relationship between the Author and a particular people, Israel. Angels visited the prophet Abraham and he made an agreement with the Author on behalf of his family sometime around 2000 BC. His descendants go by the name of his grandson Jacob, called Israel (“wrestles with God”).

The people of Israel updated their agreement through the prophet Moses in the fourteenth century BC. The “Mosaic covenant”, which Christians also call the Old Testament (covenant), said that the Author would be the God of Israel, abiding with them and protecting them. Israel agreed to keep the 613 commandments given to Moses at Sinai, the first 10 of which are recorded in Exodus 34. They include rules for behavior, cleanliness, food, clothing, and regular animal sacrifices. Originally the sacrifices were performed at a moveable tent (tabernacle) but eventually they settled at a permanent building called the Temple in Jerusalem.

Posted by: dacalu | 13 November 2014

Psalm 1

By the waters, by the still waters, by the still smooth waters of the river,

I am reflected.

By the Tigris and Euphrates,

we wept for lost Israel,

the people we thought we were,

but were no longer.

Under the Mediterranean,

we learned to stomach prophecy,

to speak the words burnt into our lips.

The sea was not enough to force the breath from our lungs.

On Gennesaret,

We gazed upon true power,

and feared its gaze upon us.

Who is man that thou art mindful of him?

Now, by Jordan we see ourselves,

walking through the waters,

passing through our own reflections

to the one who sees us clearly.

Peace! Be still.

You and are fearfully and wonderfully made,

so that you might be a mirror

for light that shines in the darkness.

By the waters, by the still waters, by the still smooth waters of the river,

I am reflected

In God’s eyes.

Posted by: dacalu | 3 November 2014

Bite Size Jesus: Prophets

The Author of the world wants to communicate with us, but that process proves difficult. Contact with life beyond the pages of our story always unsettles us. Thus, angels usually being their messages by saying, “fear not.” Thus, the Author has chosen a few individuals to bear the brunt of Divine communication, to talk to God and humans. We call these people prophets and generally think of them having extremely difficult lives. Sanity is hard when your mind tries to live in two worlds. Life is hard when you see things others do not. Still, they help us orient ourselves to the Author and the story-arc of the world.

We seldom recognize prophets because their primary purpose is to tell us things we don’t want to hear – truths about the world we have failed to see or accept. Usually we only know them in retrospect. The most famous prophets brokered agreements between the Author and humans that try to bring us back into harmony: Noah, Abraham, and Moses. We remember them for providing key insights into the way the world works.

[Many books of the Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament or Tanakh) are titled for the prophets they describe or by whom they were composed. The “Major Prophets” speak at length and to broad topics. They are Isaiah, Jeremiah, (the author of) Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The “Minor Prophets” deal more concretely with specific instances or times. They are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Moses’ contribution extends to all of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).]

Posted by: dacalu | 28 October 2014

Rhyme, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

Does God break the laws of nature?

If yes, can we detect these interventions and, thus, prove the existence of God?

If no, how can we say God cares for us as individuals?

I am beginning to think that both questions miss the forest for the trees.

Several authors have suggested that God acts at the quantum level.  The idea has never appealed to me because I viewed it in a particular way.

1) I saw it as an appeal to something we don’t understand well – quantum indeterminacy – to explain something else we don’t understand well.

2) I saw it as an appeal to ignorance; because we can’t predict what will happen at the quantum scale, God may be acting there invisibly.

3) I saw it as an “interventionist” approach to chance and miracles.  Step 1: God set up a universe with probabilistic laws. Step 2: At times, God intervenes with a hand on the roulette wheel, stopping the ball in a particular slot.  The rest of the time probability applies.

Today, for the first time, I thought of another option. We tend to emphasize the irregularities of chance, the unpredictability, but that’s only one side of the coin. Chance only gets interesting when it is somewhat regular. Think of our conviction that all six sides of a fair die are equally likely to end up face up.  Probability has to do with things that are regular and predictable, but only when you consider them in batches.  I really don’t know which number will come up when I roll the die, but I’m confident that if I roll it 6000 times, each number will appear about about 1000 times.  That is a regularity.

It offends against my scientific and statistical sensibilities to say that God first creates the distribution and second removes one event from it.  This is intervention and it goes against the regularity of the system.

There is another way.

What if God, existing outside of time, plans things at multiple levels? What if God orders the distribution of events while selecting, them, so that every event is chosen and the collection of events forms a regular pattern? Consider couplets in poetry. Most poets do not begin with pairs of rhymed words and then build verses around them. Instead they start with a theme and search for words that rhyme. So, step 1 has God providentially choosing an event and step 2 has God pairing the events up so that they have statistical regularity.

Personally, I think of God outside time, so neither step actually comes before the other, but seeing them in this order removes the conflict for me. It makes sense that God would harmonize the universe.  True, you cannot prove that God exists based on some inconsistency with the larger pattern – but I’m not sure I like what that opposition says about God anyway.  True, you cannot use the success of the righteous to prove either Providence or righteousness – but again, I’ve never noticed that the righteous are more successful.  That would be a strange sort of Christianity, where self-sacrifice, was always enlightened self-interest.

So, I’m okay with God acting at the quantum level, as long we think of God acting at every other level as well.  And, I’m okay with God acting (providentially) with care for individuals AND acting (as sovereign) to set the laws of nature, so long as we are careful to note that these are not different types of action. God rhymes while composing, a trait I associate with the better poets.

Posted by: dacalu | 6 October 2014

God, Darwin, and My College Philosophy Class

Professor David Barash likes bringing up uncomfortable subjects, like evolution and creationism. I commend him for it. I also commend him for many of his conclusions. Many college students have faith incompatible with science. Others might need some mental gymnastics to accommodate both science and religion. It is not the responsibility of biology teachers to do that work for them. Biology only makes sense in light of evolutionary theory and that can be tricky enough without trying to cover metaphysics at the same time.

Why then does David insist on starting his biology class with a “Talk” on metaphysics? In a recent essay for the New York Times, he speaks about how he comes to these conclusions and how he presents them to students. He speaks of “religion’s current intellectual instability” and states that students “who insist on retaining and respecting both [science and religion] will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines.”

I teach a course on the history of science and religion and want students thinking critically about both. David’s conclusions may be spot on, but his arguments need work. He conflates several major issues and oversimplifies theology. Epistemology – the philosophy of how we know what we know – can clear up several of them quite quickly. Best not to confuse mental gymnastics for the rudimentary stretches anyone should do before exercise.

David confuses the failure of a doctrine with the failure of science to support it. Apparently only science can back up religious beliefs and only science should. This is patently false. All of us regularly rely on knowledge generated by appeals to authority, majority opinion, personal experience, and pragmatism just to mention some of the more rational appeals. Science does not hold the monopoly on truth. We must have one more step. How else do we find truth and what do you do when scientific evidence and other forms of evidence collide?

Here again I agree with David, wholeheartedly. Unlike Stephen Jay Gould, I think science and faith collide on a regular basis. I think we have free will. I must if I am to get through the day, though science tells me it is far less free than I think. Similarly, both biology and Christian theology have a stake in what we mean by life, death, and humanity. Unlike Barash (and a surprising number of creationists) I don’t think science must justify my beliefs. I really am okay getting my knowledge elsewhere and, on a very rare occasion, allowing that knowledge to trump science. Luckily, in my brand of Christianity (Anglican) the problem almost never arises. Mostly I hold religious beliefs compatible with, but not dependent on, empirical evidence.

The problem comes from dependence, not rejecting independence. A few Christian apologists (over the last few centuries) made their beliefs dependent on science. Paley’s argument from design was only one of many attempts to hitch the theological wagon to a scientific horse. Most Christian theologians have made the much less radical claim that science and theology, when done properly, will not contradict one another. They’re happy for science to agree with them, but expect theological arguments – appeals to scripture, tradition, revelation, and reason – to do most of the work.

Human uniqueness provides a perfect example. Evolutionary biology demonstrates the continuity of humans, as animals, with other animals. Thomas Aquinas knew humans were animals in the 13th century. Origen knew it in the 3rd. This is not news to Christians, though I am grateful to Darwin and others for pointing out exactly how it works. Human uniqueness in need not be a scientific claim. It has nothing to do with being central or complex and everything to do with having God’s spirit moving within us. Some Christians need science to prove we have something extra; most do not. Most think the Bible is enough.

Theodicy provides a second example. Who could argue pampered Americans know more of suffering than rural Judean shepherds? Evolutionary biology rules out Romantic ideals about noble savages and God’s Providence in nature, but even Isaiah recognized the improbability of the wolf lying down with the lamb. We didn’t need science to understand the prevalence of unmerited suffering. A smidgeon of theological insight reveals that the author of Job actually struggled with this in the 6th century BCE. The book provides a complex reflection on unmerited suffering and fails to provide the simple answer that David suggests. Has he read Job?

Science falls apart when it tries to weigh in on these questions of value. It works so well precisely because value, intention, and preference are carefully bracketed out. It takes hard work to be a scientist, because you have to be ever so careful in how you put together your model of the truth. You have to know what you can and can’t include. In that way it is very much like in theology. I’m glad Dr. Barash teaches biology. I respect his science and his teaching. I just hope he’ll leave out the philosophy and theology until he’s properly warmed up.

Posted by: dacalu | 3 October 2014

Thoughts on Teilhard de Chardin

Many of my friends have asked for my thoughts on Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit paleontologist (1881-1955) who wrote compellingly on science and religion. He managed to fuse theology and evolutionary biology into a systematic and yet mystical view of the world.  I have great respect for his endeavor, his commitment, and his learning.  I find his system to be unhelpful.  Briefly, I would say this:

Chardin ran afoul of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Though I am unclear on the details, the gist is that he was too unorthodox.  He favored a weakening of the line between natural and supernatural, elevating the goodness of creation and de-emphasizing the Fall.  I’m on board for that.  It seems to me, though that he went too far.  He identifies Christ with the “Omega Point” the culmination of evolution in time.  I suppose I can wrap my head around that if I say that we will find, at the end of time, that we have come into complete harmony with Christ who is the all in all, and yet I feel this perspective takes something away from Jesus as a concrete human, found at a specific point in history.  Christ is more than we can ask or imagine, and yet it is by concrete meditation on the man Jesus that find hope.  That seems to be the greatest blessing of Christianity, that it is discrete, concrete, and tangible in it’s approach to God.  So, while Chardin may be right in this regard, I don’t believe he is useful.
As to science, Chardin’s paleontology may have been mainstream when he started, but the current shifted.  The 1930’s saw the rise of the Modern Synthesis and a very intentional rejection of progressive evolution (orthogenesis). Arguably, this was the defining moment for evolutionary biology as a science.  Modern biologists distance themselves from Herbert Spencer and others who saw evolution as evidence for improvement in the world.  The concept of improvement requires a concept of better, but It is unclear how a scientist would measure “better.” It is also clear that when we arbitrarily set “better” we find that evolution can not be relied upon to take us in that direction.
So, if Chardin’s major contribution is to reconcile faith with modern science, I fear he has failed. His consilience reaches neither applied theology nor respectable science.

Posted by: dacalu | 21 September 2014

Why Corporations Are the Zombie Apocalypse

What if the Zombie Apocalypse already happened, but no one noticed?

They’re not human. Please tell me you can see it. I feel like I’m living in a horror movie, with all these bodies walking around, talking, working, and eating people’s brains, but no-one notices. Brian Pellot posted a great blog joking that corporations deserve all human rights. They own property. The Supreme Court treats them like citizens, with free speech and freedom of religion. Why not go all the way?

Do they have hearts and minds? That’s what I want to know. Perhaps if they did, it wouldn’t be so bad. But, no. They borrow hearts and minds – dare I say it, souls – from their stockholders. It isn’t really a mindless hoard of corporations, sucking on the cerebellum of America. It’s a shockingly small number of investors who have managed to export their ideals into countless corporate bodies.

There are nearly 6 million corporations paying taxes in the US, or one for every 53 people. That doesn’t sound so bad until you think seriously about how many corporations are controlled by how few capitalists. One voice can echo in ten throats, one hand can manipulate a hundred arms. When every corporation has the rights of an individual, a few individuals can acquire the rights of many.

We believe in one person, one vote. We believe in a marketplace of ideas, and that marketplace is slowly filling up with the borrowed souls of corporations – zombies that feed the desires of the privileged few who can afford to replicate themselves. If you’re a corporation reading this, then it’s already too late. But if you’re a human, please speak up. I don’t know if I can face them alone.

Posted by: dacalu | 5 September 2014

Sympathy, Empathy, and the Bible

The Bible has been a great help to me in times of trouble. It has been a consolation and a joy, but perhaps not in the way people commonly hear that, so let me say something about help and about what the Bible means to me.

I frequently confuse the words sympathy and empathy. One day, working the word mines – that is to say writing – I came across this animation that explained it beautifully. The short improved both my language and my ability to care for others. Empathy means entering into the suffering of another, metaphorically climbing into the hole with them and saying, I’m here with you. Sympathy, on the other hand, usually requires you to maintain “perspective” and separation so that you can help them out of the hole. It is, in the worst sense, pity or charity, in place of real compassion. It means trying to solve a problem for someone instead of solving it with them. In bureaucracy this may be the best course of action; in psychology, it almost never is. You cannot improve people’s mental state for them, but you can be there with them and help them climb out. [I think this applies to the state of their emotions, their soul, and will as well, but that is a longer argument.]

The Bible speaks of God’s empathy for me, and allows me to empathize with many others who have suffered what I suffer. In the darkest of times, I can turn to those who have gone before and take comfort from knowing that they have been there. I can even look to how they responded without feeling a need to respond in the same way. They travel the journey with me.

I love God. As with any relationship, there are ups and downs, so sometimes I need to empathize with those who find their relationship with God troubling. I can look to Job. Job worried that life was not worth living. He thought God had been unjust and he spoke up about it. He ranted at God and about God, because sometimes it feels like God is a bit of a bastard. [This by the way, is one of the few insults Christians can get away with with impunity. Not a single member of Trinity has parents who were married. The sentiment is problematic, but that is exactly my point.] If I find myself in the very pit of despair and have trouble believing in God, Job is with me.

More often, God has been quite good to me, but seems to be holding out in one way or another. And then I can turn to Sarah. Sarah laughed when God promised her a son. She thought she was too old. The story does more than tell me Sarah was wrong – it tells me she was there. She felt as I do. I can empathize with her and she with me.

When I have failed, Peter stands with me. When I am lonely, John. When I am overwhelmed by others, Isaiah; by myself, Solomon. When God seems to be asking the impossible, Abraham, Moses, and Mary appear. When I doubt, Thomas. When I am doubted, Mary Magdalene. The Bible is so chock full of people suffering, it surprises me we read it at all. Remarkably often, things do not end perfectly in these stories. They do not end well by Earthly standards. Job gets a replacement family. Sarah ends up feuding with Hagar. Jesus and Peter are crucified. Mary loses her son and Moses never makes it to the promised land. The Bible has remarkably few concrete instructions for how to get to the promised land, but it is filled with people on their way. It has companions, with whom we can be in the midst of life.

Many modern Christians, but particularly Evangelicals and Pentecostals, want to turn the Bible into an instruction manual. They present it as a perfect record of God’s salvation or and eternal expression of God’s perfect servants. I respect these Christians in many ways, but cannot follow them in this. First, the Bible is a lousy instruction manual. It’s not concise, consistent, sequential, or by any means fool-proof. Most of these people turn out to be exceptionally bad role models. Even in the New Testament, look to Mark or Acts and you will find the disciples behaving in some rather dicey ways. Second, and more important, if they were perfect, it would rob me of true companionship. It would take away the empathy I have for them and, I believe, they for me. It would take away the God who is with me in the darkness and turn him into a repairman, who entered simply to change the light bulb. Part of the problem to be fixed is inside me, and I can be invited into that change, but I cannot be fixed.

I do not wish to deny the power of God. Indeed, I am a great defender of omnipotence and providence. But the Bible is not God. Nor is it a reference book on perfection. To turn the Bible into such a thing makes it an instrument of sympathy and not of empathy, an act of condescension and not of grace. At best it is gnosticism – to value propositions about faith over faith itself – and at worst idolatry – to confuse the creator with the created. Even if all the theological arguments fail, the pastoral issue remains.The Bible is most efficacious when it is narrative and companion, rather than didactic overlord.

I need companions more than I need idols. So, these are my people, and one of the greatest gifts of Christianity, not in spite of their suffering, but because of it.

Posted by: dacalu | 2 September 2014

Bite Size Jesus: Angels

The Author of Creation writes and orders reality. The author works with and through ministers who serve, counsel, and carry out plans for the story. The ones we know about have bodies, intelligence, and freewill just like us, but they are neither human nor once human. Because they focus on part of the Author’s work, they can help us understand God.

God is too big to comprehend. Angels give us small chunks of divinity that we can wrap our heads around. This is good; it allows us to see part of God’s work. It can also be dangerous; we can be tempted to confuse this part for the whole. We listen to angels because they can tell us where we fit in the story. We don’t worship angels (or listen to them uncritically) because they are only part of the whole.

Angels remind us that the story is bigger than our concerns. God does things that have nothing to do with us. Thus, angels talking to humans often begin by saying, “do not be afraid.” They are powerful and foreign, but also central to the plot of the story.

 

Notes on specific angels: The bible names only Michael and Gabriel among the angels. Michael appears in Daniel and Revelation (12.7) and takes the title of Archangel (high angel) in Jude (1.9). Michael leads the armies of heaven and acts as chief advocate for Israel and humanity. Gabriel appears in Daniel and the gospel of Luke, where he proclaims Jesus’ birth. Gabriel acts as God’s herald and chief messenger. Two other angels show up in the more popular disputed books of the Bible. Raphael appears throughout Tobit, and attends to marriage, healing, and pilgrimage. Uriel appears in 2 Esdras and Enoch, associated with wisdom and repentance.

Angels traditionally have neither sex nor gender, though for philosophical, linguistic, and cultural reasons are usually given a masculine pronoun.

In Hebrew

Michael – “Who is like God?”

Gabriel – “man of God”

Raphael – “God has healed”

Uriel – “God is my light”

Posted by: dacalu | 15 August 2014

Bite Size Jesus: The Fall

If life is a good story with an Author who loves us, why is it so painful? Why do bad things happen? Christians remember a time (it could be historical or just figurative), when the earth was a garden, when only two humans walked among the trees, and the Author walked with them. Things were good.

The Fall refers to the break from that goodness: strife with the world, with one another, and with God. Christians think humans caused the break. The first humans ate fruit from a tree after God asked them not to. But this was not enough. God came to the humans and asked them what happened. First they hid. Then they blamed. The man blamed the woman and the woman blamed the snake. So, humans broke the rules then they broke fellowship. They did not care for the garden, the trees or the animals, or one another.

That is the situation we still find ourselves in, though it’s much harder for us now, because humans have been in the habit of selfishness for a very long time. We live in selfish communities. One of the goals of the community of Christ is to fix the break.

[Strangely, many tell this as a tale of disobedience; we suffer because we do not obey. In the Bible, harm does not come when the humans disobey, but when they don’t listen, hide, and cast blame. God does not punish them, but spells out the results of their actions then prevents them from doing further harm. Similarly, Paul does not speak of Adam’s disobedience, but his lapse. Christians, if this sounds odd to you, please read Genesis 2-3 and Romans 5 again.]

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