Thursday, October 29, 2015

God against humanity

I'm going to be intentionally provocative here, exaggerating my point just to make it clear.

Traditionally (in our culture) Christianity is presented as a story about humanity. We were meant to live in relationship with God, and the problem is that sin destroys that relationship and leads to death. So in order to fulfill our purpose and find happiness we need to deal with sin. The Christian answer to this problem is to put our faith in Jesus Christ, whose perfect sacrifice on our behalf completely erases our guilty, and whose Spirit enables us to live holy lives.

This story is beautiful, but it's totally anthropocentric. There is no need for the world to exist. "Relationship" can be rather abstract--it can be minds or souls that interact on an ethereal plane, without any need for bodies. Moreover, sin in this story could come from anywhere. It could be that sin exists solely because God has established certain arbitrary rules. If He would just relent and change the rules, couldn't He deal with sin that way instead? So while beautiful from one point of view, the anthropocentric story might be problematic.

What's really interesting is that as I read the Bible, the story is not at all anthropocentric. God starts by creating a world. He spends six days creating before human beings ever cross His mind. When He does create them, He wants them specifically to cultivate the ground and rule over the animals. When they turn against Him, God is sorry He ever made them. He destroys them with a flood, except for one family, whom He watches grow into another human population, most of which will become utterly evil once again.

He calls out the Israelites from their enslavement to go wipe out the people who live in the land of Canaan. He assures them that it is not for their sake that He is calling them, it is for the sake of the land. The evil of the Canaanites pollutes the land, and their evil has to be utterly wiped out so that the land will be purified. If the Israelites sin as the Canaanites did, God assures them that the land will "vomit them out" just like the Canaanites. Yes, God is faithful to His convenant with Abraham, and eventually He will bring the Israelites back to the promised land after they repent with all their heart. But, He says, the land must have a sabbath before permitting them to return.

In this story, the nature of sin is clear: it hurts the land. That is, it hurts God's good creation. God create humankind to tend to His garden, and instead they destroy it. God has to strike back, or else humans will totally ruin everything. It's God versus humanity.

God's violence in the Bible appears horrendous if God is some abstractly conceived "perfect" being--omniscienct, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. But in the Bible, God is first and foremost the Creator of a good world, who must keep things in order by maintaining justice and restoring balance. He creates human beings in order to help Him do this, but they turn against Him and do just the opposite.

From that point of view, the story of Jesus takes a whole new meaning. Rather than continuing to fight back, God surrenders. He humbles Himself to the point of taking on human flesh, then lets Himself be killed by the empire of humanity. Yet He has the last victory by coming back from the dead. What is His purpose? Presumably the same as it ever was: to save the world that He made.

I suppose that raises many more questions than answers, but it's a way to throw out old baggage and to think about the whole story in a different way. Because the story is not so anthropocentric, it's a little more mysterious how humans fit into it. I guess I'll leave that for another time.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Why not intentionality?

A typical explanation (or "explaining away") of human religion is that we tend to see intentionality everywhere, since we are so familiar with the concept from our own thought processes. In other words, since our own actions can typically be explained by our own purposes, it is natural to explain events in nature according to some purpose--the storm has come because the gods are angry, there is no rain because the gods are punishing us, we won the war because the gods were on our side, and so on. We know better now, the argument goes, than to impose our anthropocentric reasoning on the world around us. Nature doesn't follow any purpose; it follows laws.

I don't have a problem with the idea that intentionality is a concept we impose on our vision of reality in order to understand it. What I would like people to call into question is whether there's any other way to understand reality. Cartesian coordinates are not inherent to space; they are a conceptual framework which aids spatial reasoning. Mathematical laws are likewise not inherently "there;" we filter our experience through them in order to understand some particular feature of what's going on. Seeing our favorite conceptual framework as the way things "really are" is normally not a problem in science. In fact, coming up with a conceptual framework to "impose" on reality is one of the most important roles of a scientist.

The question is, of course, whether the concept of intentionality helps us understand anything, whether it ought to be replaced by a better framework, and whether it can be refined to give better understanding. I submit that most complex systems really need to be understood in intentional terms. When we observe the behavior of animals, for example, there is really no substitute for saying they want or don't want food. It is no triumph of modern science to "reduce" living things down to mere machines, because there simply is no mechanical language that significantly captures desire as a state of being. Desire and intention are fundamental concepts. They can be applied to plenty of other complex systems, too, which may not traditionally be considered beings with "souls." The market, for example, clearly wants things. If there is too much of a good, its price will go down. If there is too much uncertainty in financial markets, there will be large price volatility. It is vain to continually "remind" ourselves that the market does not "really" want things, because after all it is not a human being. So what? It is not a human being, but like human beings, it clearly moves in such a way as to pursue discernible goals.

One day computers may become intelligent enough to have intentions. Certainly computers are machines. If even they can have intentions, why can't we just admit that intentionality is a much more general concept than just some "anthropocentric" rendering of the world around us? Perhaps, on the contrary, we experience intentionality because we are part of a universe where it is abundant, and somehow we satisfy the criteria necessary to experience it.

The universe itself is, by definition, the most complex thing that exists. It only seems natural that it should have intentions. Perhaps this sounds more like pantheism than monotheism. Yet one thing that is still unclear, no matter how many people assert that it is clear, is what relationship exists between being and intention. Does my intention drive my being, or does my being drive my intention? In many ways this is an extremely practical concern. Do the ugly things I say result from hunger or a lack of sleep? Or am I responsible for those words in a way that transcends my physical existence? Well, the same question could be asked of the universe. Does all the complexity of the universe arise from a promordial physical state, thus allowing intentionality to emerge? Or is the universe intended to exist?

As much as scientists these days seem increasingly successful at showing that complex phenomena can emerge out of simpler ones, I don't think this question is any more decided by science than whether human beings have free will. It is of course entirely reasonable to explain human life in terms of simpler physical processes. That gives rise to modern medicine and improvements in physical well-being. Yet it doesn't help anyone decide whether life is really worth living or not. It doesn't tell anyone whether there's something wonderful about the world we live in. And ultimtely it doesn't really explain how we do anything. I have no doubt in my mind that, whatever difficulties might be there on account of my physical limitations, I make decisions that determine my behavior. If, indeed, this experience of free will is only an illusion, who, exactly, is performing it?

The grand irony is that we jettison the concept of intentionality more vigorously precisely when we wish all the more to control things. We wish to control how long we live, so clearly the human body is nothing but physical processes. We wish to control nature, so clearly there is no meaning to nature other than physical laws. Thus in seeking to control life, we render it totally unintelligible. Life cannot truly be life unless it has that spontaneous force we call intention. Living longer is certainly an understandable goal, but if in order to do so we must view ourselves as machines rather than as living things, is it truly life that is prolonged?

The concept of intentionality is robust and can be refined. We need not believe the gods are angry when there is a storm. But it is not at all unreasonable to talk about nature "seeking" a kind of equilibrium, so that weather can indeed be seen as a result of nature's intentions. And why wouldn't it be reasonable to extend this more broadly, to see broad connections between all the processes in the universe, and to find common purpose behind them? For example, we know that through a cycle of birth and death living things evolve and branch out into many different organisms of increasing complexity. Why shouldn't that be part of the purpose of the universe? In dying, we give life. Through suffering, we are purified. Perhaps this process can continue indefinitely, and one day the universe will see the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven. Who knows? Such questions may be beyond the scope of any one scientific discipline, but there is no reason why intelligent human beings should find such questions ridiculous.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Name of God in everything

I've spent a lot of time rejecting Descartes, because I've found such deep critiques of rationalism as to convince me it's one of the greatest intellectual sins of the modern world. You cannot build up all knowledge from nothing; starting from absolute doubt, you will get nowhere, and wherever you think you've gotten, you're secretly drawing from the assumptions you were supposed to have rejected. Human knowledge is heavily dependent on tradition, imitation, and intuition, and Cartesian rationalism seems to me a form of intellectual self-flattery with no solid foundation.

Then again, we often rebel the hardest against that which is closest to our hearts. In the classic statement, "I think, therefore I am," I've always seen a most profound and courageous kind of insight. Even if nothing else is certain, there is still one thing of which I'm absolutely sure: I exist. And the reason I am certain of that is the very act of thinking. Do I exist? If I have the ability to ask the question, then surely the answer is yes.

If there is any weakness in this argument, it's in the subject, not the verb. Normally when I use the word "I," either in public communication or private thought, it is to distinguish an inner and an outer world. I have thoughts which, I presume, are hidden from others. The world "out there" might be totally mysterious and deceptive, but at least I am sure of my own inner life.

But why should I think that? What gives me the right, a priori, to distinguish between "inner" and "outer"? That is a metaphor imposed on me by the language I use; it is not an inevitable deduction made from experience. What is certain is that thought occurs. If others claim not to be able to see these thoughts--"my" thoughts--happening, that will perhaps lead me to claim the thoughts as "mine." But if I take nothing for granted, if I seek to go back to first principles, then the only thing absolutely sure is that something is happening. Thought occurs. Therefore something--everything--must exist. That is to say, there exists an "everything" which really is there. And I arrive at that conclusion by the mere act of thought.

That is to say, every act of thought finally reposes on the firm foundation of God's very Name--"I Am." This is not an individual I, not an interiority or a selfish ego. It is, rather, existence itself.

The most profound mystery of life is neither its origin nor its ultimate destiny nor even its purpose. It is the fact that it exists. I've always wondered why "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge." That "fear," it seems to me, is the overwhelming awe one experiences at the very thought that something exists at all. If you start from there, everything else is trivial by comparison.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Then the Lord raised up judges

After a four year hiatus, I've decided to resume my series on the Bible on this blog. My other posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. No explanation for giving up on this series could ever be honest--it's been four years now, and I simply don't remember why exactly I stopped. I do remember that the last post on Joshua made quite an impact on me. Genocide and the Bible: it seems like it would be a common question, but if you Google it there's a surprising dearth of resources on the topic for a religious perspective. Most answers you get will be from skeptics, which makes sense. The best little article I found from a Christian perspective was from Peter Enns, but it's quite brief and doesn't get too deep. Other Christian responses more or less waffle between, "I promise there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this," and, "Does the potter have no right over the clay?" These are hardly satisfying answers.

The reason I harp on this is because war is in no way a small theme in the Bible. In the Old Testament, "salvation" means, almost always, God rescuing his people in battle. To enter into the world of the Old Testament is to rejoin a warrior nation with constant danger on every side. If I'm honest with myself, I must admit two things. One, I have no idea from real experience what this is like. Two, I nevertheless sense deep down an atavistic longing awakened by these texts. I mention this because, before we sit in judgment over the text with our self-righteous modern ethical mindset, I think we should let ourselves be disarmed by the Bible. Before we ask, "How do we interpret the text and apply it to our lives?" maybe we should first just try to enjoy the stories. If you do this, you will absolutely love the book of Judges.

The theme of the book is laid out near the beginning, in 2:11-23, of which I'll quote 16-19:
Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord; they did not follow their example. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.
There are basically two parts of the book after this. The first part, which runs through Chapter 16, is a series of tales recounting the deeds of the awesome judges. The Greeks had their pantheon of gods; the Israelites had their judges, each one of them known for showing glory in battle. You cannot find more entertaining stories, but let the reader be warned--there are blood and guts everywhere. The first of these stories is Ehud defeating King Eglon of Moab. "Now Eglon was a very fat man," says the sacred text. So do you know how Ehud killed him? He went before the king all alone to give him a "message from God," then he plunged a sword into his belly, "and the fat closed over the blade." This is in the Bible, folks.

Then there's the story of Deborah and Barak. Deborah the prophetess tells Barak to go to battle against Sisera, but Barak won't go without Deborah. So she tells him that because of this, "the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." Now the woman she's talking about is actually Jael, who tricks Sisera into coming to rest in her tent after he flees from battle. Then while he's sleeping, she takes a tent peg and drives it into his skull.

Then there's the awesome story of Gideon, who defeats the Midianites. God commands him to narrow his army of 22,000 down to just 300 (why does that number sound familiar?), so that the Israelites will be convinced that the victory was truly miraculous. Gideon is one of my favorite characters because of something he says near the end of his story. From 8:22-23:
Then the Israelites said to Gideon, "Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand if Midian." Gideon said to them, "I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you."
This beautiful statement of Israelite allegiance to God over all human authorities is that tainted by what happens just after. Gideon creates an idol for the people, and they bow down and worship it. The Bible is full of this kind of stuff: there is never a clean victory, because even the good guys always screw up something.

After Gideon one of his seventy sons, Abimelech, tries to establish himself as king by first killing off all of his brothers. Only one of them, Jotham, survives. Jotham prophesies that the people's allegience to Abimelech will backfire, and that is what happens: Abimelech burns all the people of the Tower of Shechem, and in the very next scene Abimelech has a millstone thrown on his head and dies.

Then there's story of Jephthah, who delivers the people from the Ammonites. Jepthah makes the most twisted vow I've ever heard of: he promises that if God gives him victory, he'll kill the first thing that comes out of his house upon his return as a sacrifice. So guess what that is? His daughter--his only child. And guess what happens next? He actually kills her. Even worse, his daughter agrees with his decision; she only asks to be allowed to go to the mountains for two months to "bewail her virginity."

I actually heard a sermon about this passage once, for which I applaud the pastor. It was something about not acting on bad theology; Jephthah was basically the example of what not to do. For that I applaud this particular pastor.

By the way, Jephthah is where we get that word Shibboleth. The Ephraimites get angry at Jephthah because he went to battle without them, so they go to war with the Gileadites (Jephthah's people). If any of the Ephraimites tried to escape, here's what the Gileadites did (12:5-6):
Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, "Let me go over," the men of Gilead would say to him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" When he said, "No," they said to him, "Then say Shibboleth," and he said, "Sibboleth," for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.
Finally, the last great tale in this series is Samson. In terms of awesome heroes, it doesn't get much better than this: he kills a lion with his bare hands, he kills thirty men at once by himself in order to pay a debt, he kills a thousand Philistines with a donkey's jawbone. And last and best of all, he is seduced by Delilah, which turns out to be his undoing, because she gets him to tell her the secret of his strength. As 16:16 says, "Finally, after she had nagged him with her words day after day, and pestered him, he was tired to death." I'm telling you guys, the Bible can tell it like it is. The Philistines cut off his hair, which takes away his strength, so they capture him and throw him in prison. But do not fear, Samson's end is glorious. The Philistines make him perform in front of them in their temple. Then Samson asks God for one last bit of super-strength in order to crush the Philistines. His hair grows back just in time for him to push against the pillars of the temple, crushing all of the Philistines and himself.

The reason I list all of these stories is that they deserve the repetition. Simply trying to derive an abstract meaning from them would do them and the reader a disservice. This is not a morality play. I would never teach my children to try to be like Ehud or Gideon, certainly not Jephthah or Samson. These are heroes because of their strength, pure and simple.

Yet there is a clear message which comes through as all these stories are woven together. God will never stop saving his people. There are enemies all around, and God will show his strength by raising up a hero to stop them. But why? Why does God still love his people after they've betrayed him over, and over, and over again? That's love, folks. No matter how angry God is with Israel, he always welcomes them back.

There is a second part of this book, Chapters 17 - 21, which is just about the most horrifying thing you can find in all of literature. I read these chapters as one unit, framed by the repetition of the following verse, which is both 17:6 and 21:25, the very last verse of the book:
In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
It is a tale of idolatry, rape, murder, war, and lawlessness. There is a clear comparison made between the Benjaminites of Gibeah and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis. The whole story is not worth recounting here, and I'm not sure my stomach could take it if I tried.

The ending of Judges sends a mixed message. Is it now time for God to install a king in Israel? Perhaps that will turn them back from their wickedness. Yet all of this time, God himself has been their king; why do they need human protection? Later Samuel will tell the Israelites they have sinned in asking for a king, though God will give them one anyway. One way to read these words--"In those days there was no king in Israel"--is that the people had rejected even God as their king, and that is what they did "what was right in their own eyes."

If the first part was attractive because of its stories of strength and glory, the second part is nothing of the sort: it can only make one shudder. The Bible can be a very dark book.

But the thing is, I've always found Judges less disturbing than Joshua. It's no wonder that we see darkness when all the people do what is right in their own eyes. Somehow I can deal with that much more easily than I can with God himself commanding people to "show no mercy."

We'll just have to keep dealing with this as the Old Testament stories progress. War never stops being a central theme. Maybe by the time we get to Jesus there will be a way to make sense of it all.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

My one simple rule of politics

I have a simple rule for choosing the right view on any particular political issue. Whatever position makes you feel better about yourself--more patriotic, more compassionate, more socially conscious, more "American" (or whatever nationality you like)--is probably wrong. The right position is the one that makes you feel deflated--that you are just one small individual in a very large world, of no greater or lesser value than any of the other 7 billion people who walk the earth, wise enough to take care of perhaps your own affairs but not others', and that if there is hope for human progress, it comes from the unpredictable changes that occur when all these billions of people stumble onto solutions to their various problems.

To be sure, if you want to feel more compassionate, you can be more compassionate--by giving your money, your time, your work, and yourself to others. If you want to be more patriotic, you can do that, too--for instance, by joining the military (or perhaps better yet by actually reading what the Founding Fathers thought about government). But if believing in a particular public policy makes you feel any of these things without you actually doing anything, then it's wrong. Don't believe it. And definitely stop listening to anyone who tells you that you must believe in a particularly policy or else you won't be considered compassionate, patriotic, socially conscious, and so on.

In a word, the rule I'm talking about is humility.

That pretty much sums up my Christian pseudo-libertarianism. I say "pseudo" because it's not a philosophy primarily based on a love of liberty or a hatred of coercion. It's primarily based on a steadfast opposition to pride. And I suppose that makes it even less popular than actual libertarianism. In a world in which humans try so savagely to find a chieftain to rule their tribe, it's unlikely that humility will ever be considered a political virtue. I know of a man who once tried to declare himself a humble king. Well, they crucified him.

There is good news that comes after, or so I've been told. And I hope it's true, because if it isn't then I guess we'll just have to accept that the powerful get their way after all.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Morality in the abstract

There's a fascinating debate here between John Hare and Peter Singer, in which the latter opens by giving all the standard arguments why no belief in God is necessary in order to have a theory of morality. I won't rehash all the arguments. What I thought was fascinating was the point Singer conceded: the atheist has difficulty fully motivating a commitment to the moral life. The problem naturally arises once your ethical system makes high demands on you. Singer is a utilitarian, which, once you work it out, makes rather enormous demands.

What I found to be an amazing tension in his discourse was between his statement, on the one hand, that nothing could be more important than knowing how to live morally and, on the other hand, his answer to a personal question posed during Q&A. When asked how he dealt with moral failure in his own life, he revealed that he did not, in fact, feel guilt, but merely accepted that he is not as good as he ought to be. I suppose he also implied that he would try to improve bit by bit, which is fair enough. On the other hand, he was quick to add that, to be sure, he already gave more of his income than most people who call themselves Christian. It was truly striking to hear such an answer, coming as I do from a tradition which acknowledges human frailty, our constant need of forgiveness, and the need for humility.

The experience highlighted for me one common point of tension in these debates over God and morality. It is now a standard litany among Christian intellectuals debating the topic that "of course, atheists can be moral, too, and indeed some of them are so moral as to put most Christians to shame." All the same, we clearly do not quite agree on what really is right and wrong. So it's hard to know by what standard we're repeating this litany.

But that is not the point which stuck out most. Listening to Singer, I was left with a profound question: is morality nothing more than an abstract concept? It's important to mention that Singer (like Hare) emphasizes the central role of reason in determining right and wrong, and more particularly the necessity of taking the most universal point of view possible. By considering the consequences of our actions not only for ourselves and those around us but also for every other conscious creature in existence (an abstract form of the Golden Rule), we come to increase our ethical knowledge.

It is not the enormity of that task which particularly bothers me. Rather, the product of this process seems detached from reality. We get a theoretical vision of what might maximize something called happiness or utility or well-being. But the vision is ahistorical--it doesn't go anywhere. Commitment to this vision is entirely optional, as Singer concedes. If one commits to the ethical life, it is not in hope of any fulfillment, but merely because one is inclined to follow abstract principles wherever they lead.

The Christian vision of ethics, it seems to me, is entirely different. The point of Christian ethics is not to obtain a theoretical blueprint of how to maximize an abstract quantity, like happiness. The point is to be part of God's ongoing project of saving the world. Thus our commitment to live morally or immorally is not an arbitrary choice, but instead a response to a commitment that God has already made--we are either with him or against him. When we ask what it means to live ethically in the world, the question is not how to maximize an abstract quantity, but rather what will it look like to live in the world that God will one day realize.

Of course, the Christian vision is incomprehensible if one thinks of God himself as abstract and impersonal. Then one is left, as Singer is, with no plausible answer to the problem of evil. If God is defined by the three qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence, then God does not exist. Yet I thank God that such a god does not exist, because if it did, I do not see how anything in the world would ever happen--everything would be predetermined by a set of principles, and the kind of spontaneity that characterizes all that is living and beautiful would not exist.

For the Christian, God is not known through abstract principles which define him, but through God's story. He, like us, has a history, which starts with glorious creation but also involves the pain and suffering not only if his creatures but also his own suffering and death. If the resurrection of Jesus tells Christians that God's victory over evil has finally begun, this does not mean that the victory will be easy or that it won't be messy.

Now, if Jesus really didn't rise from the dead, none of this really matters. But I think there are compelling arguments to suggest he did, and as a bonus I find it to be a much firmer grounding for ethical thinking than secular rationalism. I certainly don't begrudge anyone who wants to try and live morally for whatever reason. I simply find that when I contemplate the choice to make moral commitments, I can't help but feel paralyzed at the thought of how arbitrary such a choice would ultimately be--unless that choice is in response to a project which is already at work in the world. In other words, I have a hard time with morality in the abstract. The world is either going somewhere or it isn't, and if it isn't going anywhere, then I don't see much point in doing anything.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A humble science

Mathematics is the lowest and humblest of all the sciences. It makes slow but steady progress, and it says little to nothing about the questions dearest to the hearts of human beings, but what it says is absolutely certain. What gives it such certainty? It is content to study objects which are wholly abstract, so that the relations between them are absolute, eternal, and necessary. The word abstract implies that they are drawn away from reality. In this way they are lifeless. Rather than exploring strange new worlds with their own vibrant existence, the mathematician is content to study lifeless forms which are absolutely transparent to the mind. Let the brave adventurers go off to study living creatures, the cosmos, and that most mysterious object of all, human pyschology. The mathematician will humbly work at understanding that which is already closer to home than anything can be--that is, close to the mind.

It would be a fatal mistake, then, to view mathematics as a lofty venture, towering over all the other sciences, for that is the opposite of the truth. Mathematics, like anyone who wishes to be great in God's kingdom, must be the servant of all. We happily live in a world which follows certain patterns, often not at all obvious, and the objects we encounter, though they have in some sense a life of their own, can be seen to follow abstract rules which can be studied at the level of theory. In this way the applications of mathematics are abundant, starting with the simplest of all objects (physics) and working our way up even to the most complex and spontaneous (biology, economics).

But it is a slippery slope from application to assimilation. The problem with much modern thought is the way it treats all objects as abstract, lifeless forms. What mathematics so useful and reliable is that it studies objects which have no independent existence and no context. To study living things--and particularly the human mind--in such a way would be (and often is) disastrous. Psychologists have noticed, for example, that searching for universal principles governing human thought by observing only Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic people is a flawed idea. Yet in observing that our methods do not lead to what we are searching for, rarely do we ask whether the search itself is misguided.

Why does modern thought push relentlessly toward that which is universal? I suspect the reason is as much moral as scientific. On the one hand, science seeks that which is universal because it gives us a deeper understanding of life as a whole, and that allows us to do the greatest amount of good. On the other hand, we would also find it unfair if our particular context really mattered. The universe should be, above all, fair, even if that implies it is meaningless. History must be random, because otherwise that would imply something special about the way things happen to be. We have concluded, after thoroughly deconstructing the moral pretentions of past generations, that there can be nothing special about our heritage, culture, or anything else passed down to us.

As an aside, I highly suspect this attitude explains why physicists have come up with the idea of a multiverse. If there really is one universe, with exactly one history, that means a practically infinite number of possibilities are shut off forever from all reality. That would mean all of reality is dependent on a particular context--it is no longer held captive by abstract concepts. Such a conclusion is intolerable in our intellectual climate.

The modern reaction against the Judeo-Christian tradition can be explained in these terms. If there is a God, its existence should be explicable in rational, abstract terms that do not depend on context--that is, mathematically. There is a long tradition of such proofs in Western tradition. But that is not what we find in the Bible. What we find there is a God who, though he is supposed to be the creator of all things, has attached himself to a particular people in the Middle East. "I Am Who I Am," God says, affirming his utterly transcendent identity, and then adds soon after, "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." How can all of reality find its source in a God so particular? How could one petty group of people out in the middle of nowhere happened to have stumbled onto the source of life and hope for all humanity, and indeed all the universe?

As much as it offends our sensibilities, we ought to be able to understand this. Life is a serious of decisions and commitments, each of which cuts off others which were at one time possible. Once you say a word, it will be forever true that you said it. Once you are married, it will be forever true that you decided to marry. Once you go to your grave, whatever you have done with your life is all that you have done. There is no going back. Indeed, we might perhaps better understand this than our ancestors, since because of the Internet, nearly everything we say in public will be forever recorded somewhere in this vast ocean of data.

Is it really so impossible to believe that God himself would make such commitments, and that those commitments would be the basis of all reality? In fact I myself find it very hard. If at one time in human development it was natural to anthropomorphize God, today it seems difficult to think of God as anything other than an abstract concept.

Theology isn't the only thing at stake. It is not just the living God whom we try to kill with our abstract thinking. It is anything living. We moderns are increasingly detached from our own history, living in the dream that we can transcend history, which was random and arbitrary up to exactly our generation, and then build the future on abstract principles from here on. Naturally, we refuse to believe that this dream came from anywhere other than our own reason.

To be sure, looking at the abstract principles behind living realities is a good thing. It helps us to simplify problems and find solutions agreeable to everyone. It can even help us know better what we observe, so that we can appreciate it all the more. (I find this especially true of music, and I suspect it is true of art. For me, music theory makes great works come to life even more than they already do.)

The problem comes when we confuse abstract principles with true or ultimate reality. That is the path to self-destructive rationalism--it empties the world of all meaning, it jettisons history as a source of knowledge, and it risks degrading civilization itself, which is built on living traditions. No, reality is not a set of equations. It is a living, spontaneous, external universe which imposes its particularity on us. I say this not to denigrate my own field, but merely to put it in its rightful place as a loving servant of the real.