Saturday, September 24, 2016

Sleep and death

A: Last time you were saying that life was our most fundamental desire, and that it didn't make sense not to seek eternal life, even if we had no proof that it exists.

B: More or less.

A: I thought about that some more. What if we make an analogy between death and sleep? Imagine the end of a long day of work, both physical and mental. You lie down in bed, your work finished, no more distractions. You don't just accept sleep--you embrace it. You relish the moment when your eyes close, and there is nothing more to do than to simply drift off.

B: I know the feeling. I suppose you're going to say we could accept death the same way.

A: Exactly. That's the ideal, anyway. A life well lived, leading to a noble death, which you can embrace just as much as you relish sleep at the end of the day. What's wrong with that?

B: There's no denying that having a need satisfied feels wonderful. I love that feeling of falling asleep, all cozy and warm, just as anyone else. But sleeping is like eating. It is a need we satisfy so that we can keep on living. Nothing feels better than to eat after feeling famished, or to drink after feeling intense thirst. That doesn't mean I actually "embrace" hunger or thirst, except in the sense that I know I need to eat and drink and that doing so brings pleasure.

A: That's quite a lot of ambivalence, there. You don't embrace hunger or thirst, but you do get pleasure out of eating and drinking.

B: Exactly! I love eating and drinking, not hunger and thirst.

A: That supports my point, not yours. You love eating, drinking, and... sleeping! And in the same way, one could come to appreciate death as a satisfaction of our ultimate desire--to be set free after a life well lived.

B: But death is not analogous with the other three. I eat and drink and sleep in order to sustain my life.

A: No, you also said there was pleasure involved. Isn't it true that we do these things primarily for the pleasure they give us? Sure, after the fact you can give this justification that you're sustaining life, but the immediate effect is to satisfy a desire.

B: True. Desire is a complicated business. Our desires compete with one another. We can't discretize them and satisfy them one by one, and call that happiness.

A: I suppose not. Still, can't one have the desire to die a good death, and be happy with fulfilling that desire at the end of a life well lived?

B: The problem is that death is an end to all desire, hence to all satisfaction of desire. I submit that part of what it means to live, especially as a conscious being, is to continually learn better what it is we truly want and how to find fulfillment.

A: OK, but eternally? That sounds tedious.

B: Not if there is genuine discovery all along the way. Although one might describe it abstractly as a repetitive existence--one always learns new things--in terms of concrete experiences, it is never dull, never repetitive.

A: Fine, fine, but you haven't responded to the initial comparison between sleep and death. Sleep is not like eating or drinking; it is much more like death, since in falling asleep you let go of consciousness. And you do so willingly, even gladly. How can you do that if the desire for life is so fundamental?

B: Hold on. I never said the desire for life is fundamental in the sense of being "primal," in the way that food and drink and sleep are. I don't have an "urge" for life. It would be more reasonable to say that life is made possible through urges, since only by continually searching to meet our needs can we grow and sustain life. At the same time, not all urges should be listened to equally. We often have urges to eat bad food or to drink too much. If we care for our life, we won't give into these urges.

A: Are you saying sleep can be the same way?

B: Sometimes. "As a door turns on its hinges, so does a lazy person in bed."

A: Right, but keep in mind the analogy I've been trying to make. Just as one shouldn't desire sleep until the end of a day well spent, so also one shouldn't desire death until the end of a life well lived.

B: At the end of a day well spent, one ought to desire sleep in the same way that three times a day, one ought to desire food. Our hunger for food should be kept in check, but we also need food, so we should listen to our bodies. In the same way, we need sleep, and we ought to listen to that need.

A: And one day, we all must die.

B: Only if you mean we must die in order to live, which in fact I believe.

A: Well there's an interesting twist.

B: Just as you cited last time, Jesus did say, "Those who find their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it." The goal behind renouncing one's life is to find true life, eternal life. The goal is not simply to embrace the void.

A: I know it seems like I'm willing to "embrace the void," as you say. I understand there's a tragic element to a vision of the world without eternal life. But it comes down to making the most of what we actually have, rather than wishing it could be otherwise. So we're really back to where we started.

B: Indeed. I still think you're being the defeatist in the desert.

A: I am by no means a defeatist. On the contrary, I think we should make the best of what we have now, rather than hoping for an eternity that probably isn't going to exist.

B: And what would that mean? How does one make the most of what is here?

A: By savoring every moment, by loving people, by leaving the world better than we found it.

B: Leaving the world better than we found it? But how can it ever be better than we found it, when in fact it is destined for destruction?

A: What, you mean several billions of years from now? That doesn't mean we can leave our descendants with something better than what we have.

B: I suppose we can, but they are just as doomed as we are. Each generation can decide, out of stubborn devotion to an ideal given to them by their ancestors, to leave the world better than they found it, yet no matter how many generations of human beings exist, you say that the human race must one day die out, do you not?

A: Who can know for sure? I mean, the best science we have says that's true, but we have a long time ahead of us to discover some way around that. Besides, even if the human race will all die out, why would that mean we shouldn't leave the world better than we found it for the next generation?

B: I don't know if it means we should or shouldn't. I'm simply trying to understand what it means to "make the most of what is here." When you say "make the most," you must realize that whatever you make is only temporary, and no matter how good you make it, its destiny is destruction. Or do you believe in the possibility of eternal life after all?

A: I never said I had proof that eternal life doesn't exist. I just don't think it's very likely, given what we know. And I think it's more important to accept what we know to be true than it is to hope for things for which we have no evidence.

B: Yet you persist in hope for things for which we have very little evidence. You want to leave the world better than it is for the next generation. Setting aside the ultimate destiny of the human race, why should we have faith in the next generation? Will it be much better than ours? Who is to say it will not destroy itself and/or the world?

A: You're being a bit pessimistic. We don't have much evidence to suggest that the human race will destroy itself in the next few generations.

B: What kind of argument will you give for that? "It's never happened before"? That's hardly a good argument, firstly because in fact entire civilizations have been wiped out before, and secondly because modern humans have more dangerous means than ever before. History may be cyclical in many ways, but nuclear weapons simply didn't exist before 1940, and that changes many things.

A: I'm not sure where you're going with this. Are you trying to pin me down, saying that I really have some sort of quasi-religious faith after all? Look, I have no illusions about humanity. I agree that we are in danger of self-destruction all the tie. All we can do is put our best foot forward, hoping that the next generation will benefit from whatever we do now. And even if they don't, we only have one life to live, so we'd better appreciate the time we have.

B: So it ultimately comes down to appreciating one's own personal experiences.

A: I suppose it does. That's all we have, in the end.

B: And even they won't last.

A: No, they won't, not as far as I can tell.

B: I agree with you, the evidence that we can examine for ourselves seems to point in the direction you say. As much as I would love to assert that the argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is air tight, that is far from being true. If I'm going to base my opinions on our best science, on science alone, then I will have to admit that all we can do is appreciate the short life we have. But that is precisely why I place my desire for life above my desire for truth. If I strive to make myself an "objective thinker," if I scour the evidence and try to make the most dispassionate assertion I can about what is most likely, I am confident I will come to the same conclusion as you. But I did not marry my wife because I had dispassionately investigated whether or not I would actually be able to fulfill my vows to her--to love her my whole life long. Rather, I made that vow in the hope of fulfilling it through daily effort, because she is my true love. In the same way, I have made a commitment to Christ in the hope of obtaining eternal life, not because I have measured the odds solidly in its favor, but rather because it is my one true desire. Knowledge comes afterward, in service of life, not the other way around.

A: That's fine for you, but you know the problems I have with that approach. Anyway, we can continue this discussion later.

B: You have some other moments to savor now, do you?

A: Exactly.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Truth seekers

Some friends converse over the question of God's existence and eternal life. They bring up many sophisticated arguments, summarize insightful books they've read, and share their own intuitions. None of them seem to have changed opinions, but the conversation is both stimulating and civil. The friends all sense that this is, in itself, a sort of victory.

Then two of them get into the following dialog:

A: Well, the important thing is to seek the truth--to follow the argument to its logical conclusion--no matter what the end might be.

B: Really? No matter what the end might be?

A: Of course! You wouldn't want to believe a lie just to derive comfort from it, would you? You may have perfectly respectable reasons for believing in God, but that would be beneath you.

B: There's deriving comfort, and then there's deriving basic motivation. What if some opinions are necessary even to begin to search for what we really need? In some sense, that necessity might be an argument in favor of the truth of these opinions, but not in a traditional, logical sense.

A: What do you mean?

B: Imagine two men wandering through a desert, dying of thirst. They have been left with no supplies, and they have no idea where they are going. One of them looks around him and says, "There is simply no evidence of any oasis anywhere. We are going to die of thirst. I, for one, would rather accept this grim fact than believe a fantasy for which there is no evidence." The other retorts, "I, for one, want to live. I will continue to search for an oasis." The first one bows his head in exhaustion and waits for death to come. The second continues on and finds water. The first one dies; the second is saved. Now, it is true that the second man had no proof that his path would lead to life, but if he had not acted on this belief, he would have died.

A: Ah, yes, but eventually the second man did find proof!

B: Did he? Proof of what, exactly? Only proof that there was, after all, an oasis. There is no proof that he will live much longer than the first man. Perhaps there is an oasis, and nothing more. Will he then be able to find food? Shelter? Every step he takes will be motivated by an entirely unproven assumption: that somehow, if he manages to find the correct path, his needs can be satisfied.

A: There is no reason to actually believe this assumption. One can simply search in hope of finding, all the while realizing there is no guarantee.

B: True. Though I wonder whether the statement "I believe X" is the same as saying "I believe X is guaranteed." But there is another point to consider. Haven't you noticed in life that very often those who truly believe succeed more than those who only advance half-heartedly? They put themselves more fully into their mission, because they are convinced they will succeed, and so in fact they do.

A: Yes, I know, but sometimes they don't succeed at all, because their mission is either wholly or partially misguided. Everyone has heard of people who sincerely believe in all sorts of crack pot medicine, but you know what? They don't get better. In fact, in some cases those people die younger than they should have.

B: Right, but I am talking about something far more fundamental. Rather than the belief that one particular path will lead to life, I am simply talking about the belief that a path exists. That is more akin to the belief that there exists a cure, even if we might not have it within our grasp at this moment.

A: And that might not always be true. Are you suggesting we should believe, just because it's more likely we'll find a "cure" for death if we really believe than if we don't?

B: I suppose I am.

A: Why do you want to live forever, anyway? You make an analogy to a man in a desert searching for water. Why is eternal life such a basic need? Why not just be content with this brief existence?

B: Would you say that to a child who's dying? "Why not just be content with this brief existence?"

A: Well, no. I'm not sure what I'd say to a child who's dying. It's horribly sad to think about children who die. There's so much they'll never get to experience. But an adult who has lived a full life--whether through a career, or family, or simply a multitude of rich experiences--why should they be sad to die?

B: What makes a life "full"? Is it not simply a comparison to the life of the more fortunate among us? We are no different from children who die. There are always infinitely many experiences of which we are deprived, whatever age we happen to die.

A: Is that so? That statement seems based on the idea that one can continue to learn and gain new capacities for all eternity. Yet most of our lives end up going around in circles. We work at the same job every day, we shop at the same stores, we eat the same foods, we spend our time with the same people... Imagine being stuck in such a circle forever!

B: I don't say that it would be enough to simply exist forever. Life implies the potential to experience new things, or at least to experience old things anew. Indeed, sometimes the quaint life of people who have lived in the same village all their lives can seem very dull, but they manage to experience every moment with the same old friends, every bite of the same old food, and every glimpse of a new day with a fresh feeling of thanksgiving and joy. So whether it's an infinity of brand new experiences, or an infinity of joy to be derived from a finite number of experiences, there is still an infinite reward which we miss out on whenever we die.

A: Again, there's no guarantee that this is so. Perhaps we simply don't have an infinite capacity for new experiences, or for experiencing old things anew.

B: But you are simply being the first man in the desert. You are giving up before you have ever found that oasis.

A: Yes, I thought you might say that. OK, suppose I concede your point, that one should always go in search of a path toward eternal life. With all the different paths that have been proposed, which one do you choose? Even a man dying of thirst will look for some clue that he's really on the right path toward an oasis. After all, his life depends on it! So you can't just choose a belief based on the comfort it gives you.

B: I don't disagree. As I was saying earlier, the second man in the desert doesn't finish his journey at the oasis, because if he wants his life to continue, he will require much more than water. But suppose he finds not an oasis but rather a guide, who leads him first to an oasis, then to food, then to a city where he can make a new life for himself. Will he not continue to trust the advice of that guide? At no point does he have proof that all the guide says is true, but his test is simple: if he continues to live--not just to exist but really to enjoy existence--then whatever the guide says must be right.

A: That is a perfectly legitimate proof that what the guide says is true! Of course, if the guide starts making claims that his advice will lead not only to longer life but eternal life, that is a different story. No matter how long his advice seems to hold true, it can never be proven to lead to eternal life, because the life we have lived thus far is always infinitely shorter than eternal life! To compound this problem, consider that there is never just one guide. There are often several who seem to have equal legitimacy, or even a myriad. How should the man distinguish between them?

B: As for your second question, I think we've addressed this at many other points in our conversation. We can certainly compare different religious claims based on historical evidence, internal coherence, and so on. I don't want to rehash all that right now. But as for your first point, I can't really object. It seems unavoidable that no claim to eternal life can ever really be proven.

A: I'm a bit surprised to hear your concede that point. Are you saying that when you go to heaven (I assume you believe you will), you will still not have any proof of eternal life?

B: Strictly speaking, I guess not. Even if I rise again from the dead, who is to say that I will not die again one day? Eternity is a long time.

A: So, if I understand you correctly, you're saying we should believe in eternal life, even though we can never prove its existence, even while we're living it.

B: Exactly.

A: And yet, you seem to have come to that conclusion by your own logical reasoning. So I don't see how any of this contradicts my initial statement, that we ought to follow the argument wherever it leads.

B: But you said "no matter what the conclusion." I'm simply confessing that I've chosen the conclusion in advance. Why shouldn't I? It's living I'm committed to, more than being right.

A: I suppose that goes for all of us, even those of us who don't believe in eternal life. After all, I tend not to think so much about these arguments that I stop eating or working.

B: You see? And so, if you ever heard an argument telling you to stop those things, would you really take it seriously? Knowing that the conclusion contradicts your most fundamental desire for life, why should you care about the details of the argument? What could you possibly gain?

A: We don't have to take every argument seriously in order to be truth seekers. There have to be some standards. Some arguments are just so obviously foolish that we can move on to other, more serious arguments.

B: How is it more foolish than arguments against eternal life? Both call on us to accept death at one moment or another, which is against our most basic need--to live.

A: That's easy. We know for a fact, because we see it all the time, that people die. However hard that may be to accept, it's blatantly obvious. How can you go on saying it's "foolish" to deny eternal life?

B: Again, how are you different from the first man in the desert? He looks around and sees no evidence that he can live much longer. Perhaps he even sees dead bodies, or vultures in the distance. And perhaps he's right. One could easily change the end of the parable, saying that both men die. Yet is the second really worse off? They both died, as was to be expected. What, now? Was the second man wrong, after all? No, I say, because the only way to find any hope of living at all was to believe in the improbable. Again, what purpose does it serve to be right? What we truly desire is to live.

A: No matter how much we might desire to live forever (and I can't say I really do), that won't cause it to happen.

B: Of course not. But there are those of us who respond to our deepest desire for life, and there are those of us who bow our heads and wait for death to come.

A: I wouldn't put it like that. I think I tend to enjoy many things in this life, even though I think it won't last forever. In any case, you can say that, but I know you believe that Christianity is true. Otherwise, how could you entrust it with your eternal destiny? How could you afford to be wrong?

B: Strictly speaking, I don't entrust my eternal destiny to anything.

A: Oh really?

B: Really. As we said, eternity is a long time. I take each moment as a sign that I'm on the right or wrong path. Like Samuel, who set up the stone Ebenezer, saying, "Thus far the Lord has helped us." It's all about whether thus far the path seems to lead to life. Just like the man in the desert who finds a guide--the journey doesn't end at the oasis.

A: Right, but how can you say that you seem to be on the right path? People--certainly a lot of them Christians--are dying around you all the time. Have you seen any evidence of them rising from the dead? Do you have any evidence that they still exist in some way? I don't know about you, but I don't buy any of these stories about people reaching beyond the grave. So what evidence do you have that you're on the right path?

B: My evidence is in this: the more I live on this path, the more I desire life.

A: I'm not sure how that proves anything.

B: You say you wouldn't even want to live forever. But the more I live, the more I want to live forever. As I said earlier, it's only the ones who embrace their desire to live who will live.

A: This is not a serious argument. Are you really saying that because this "path" you're on increases your desire, that it is therefore more likely to satisfy that desire? Again, wanting something more doesn't mean you'll get it.

B: OK, I know, desire is certainly not sufficient. Yet every coach knows at some point to motivate his players to "want it more," meaning that if they don't desire victory, they will never win. It seems to me that life itself is intextricably linked with desire. Those who desire it more are more likely to have it. That is precisely because it is so basic.

A: Didn't Jesus say, "Those who want to save their life will lose it?"

B: Touché. But then, Saint Paul wrote, "To those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [God] will give eternal life."

A: Right, whatever. So, tell me, why is it that you desire life more every day?

B: It's not easy to describe. Every moment is a window into the infinite. The mere fact of existence is...enchanting. Why should we expect anything to exist at all? And yet, here I am, experiencing and thinking and reflecting on both experience and thought... And then there's the sheer beauty of the world. When I'm on my way to work, meditating on the words of Jesus, suddenly I notice, as if for the first time, the amazing beauty of the sun as it hits the trees, the fresh air, the river as I pass by, the people walking or driving...

A: That's all well and good. I'd like to think I can experience the goodness of life in the same way, but it doesn't make me want to live forever.

B: How can you say that? You can appreciate the goodness of the world, yet you accept that it will all go away?

A: Some things you just have to accept.

B: But that's different from not wanting to live forever.

A: Right, well, I suppose it's not so straightforward to answer that. Some of it is precisely this fear of losing the kind of wonder you describe. What if I stop enjoying it after enough time? Like an old married couple grown tired of one another. They've lost their romantic spark. I don't think I could bear an eternity like that.

B: What I'm saying is that the path I'm on does precisely the opposite. It increases my desire for life. And as long as it does that, I will continue to think it is the right path.

A: There seems to be something oddly circular about that. You think it is the right path because it confirms your desire; indeed, it amplifies that desire. What if your desire can't be fulfilled? What happens when, one day, you do die?

B: I will be no worse off than you.

A: Except you'll have been wrong.

B: I don't mind.

A: I know you don't really believe that.

B: And I know you don't really accept that you're going to die someday.

A: Maybe not. I don't know. But I was sure that all of us here were committed to the truth, not just about making ourselves feel better.

B: Again, I'm not so much after truth as life itself.

A: I guess I would say that you might be missing out on pleasures and enjoyment in this life, but it sounds as if you might be enjoying life more than the rest of us (although we can't really measure that). Still, I'm rather troubled by your approach. It seems much too self-serving, as if the mere fact that you desire something to be true makes it true.

B: That's not really what I'm saying. But it seems that everyone is leaving now. Maybe we can talk about it more next time.

A: Maybe so. I'll think about it until then.

At this point several people from the group had already left because of their busy schedules. Everyone remaining agreed that they would meet again to discuss these things, because whatever the outcome of their conversation, they always learned something.

And so perhaps they will meet again, so long as they are still alive (God willing) to continue in their truth seeking.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Contemplating the binary and the infinite

Perhaps my favorite sequence in the world is this one; we’ll call it “S”:
01101001100101101001011001101001…
It is a sequence permanently trying to reconcile one with zero, something with nothing, existence with nonexistence, trying to find the perfect balance between the two, realizing that there is none, and spinning off into infinity. For if you start by mindlessly setting zeros and ones side by side, you will realize that it is horribly off balance:
0101010101010101010101010101010101…
For each one might be thought to balance out the preceding zero; but then, what will balance out the sequence “01”? The whole sequence is in fact a mindless repetition of this pair, and so there is no balance whatsoever. But the sequence I have written seeks to rectify this by responding at every turn. Responding to 0, it gives 1; responding to 01, it gives 10; responding to 0110, it gives 1001; and so on.
Actually, the sequence has an amazingly simple interpretation. Write down all the numbers, starting with zero, in binary:
0, 1, 10, 11, 100, 101, 110, 111…
Now write down the sum of their digits, again in binary:
0, 1, 1, 10, 1, 10, 10, 11…
Now take only the last digit:
0, 1, 1, 0, 1, 0, 0, 1…
And there you have the sequence S. In other words, the interpretation of S is this: for each counting number written as a binary expansion, we assign a 1 if the number of 1s is odd and a 0 if the number of 1s is even.
When one meditates on the binary number system, one senses there is something so basic, so extraordinarily fundamental about it that one is about to touch the essence of reality itself. Zero or One, Yes or No, Exists or Does Not Exist, True or False. It is not simply that these are binary choices we live by; it’s that without even such a binary choice, there would be no choice at all! That is, if one does not even have the option between existence and non-existence, how can anything be said to exist? Or how can it be said to not exist?
If such binary choices are necessary, they are indeed also sufficient. One can describe every quantity using them. Once we have used up “0” and “1,” then it suffices to string them together: “1+1=10.” It is then natural to think that one more than 10 is just 11, and so then comes 100. In general, 10…0 is simply 1 more than 1...1. And at each iteration, all the preceding numbers merely repeat themselves, but with a leading “1” attached. So it is natural for the sequence S to consist of mirror images, constantly trying to achieve “balance,” only to be continually thrown off balance because in fact there is always another place for a leading 1 to be added on.
Mathematics has a deceptive way of reducing down infinite sequences and sets to a list of abstract principles. It makes one feel in control of the whole thing. Yet the actual experience of it is quite difference. That sequence never really ends. There is no balance. Existence and non-existence do not combine, nor are they ever confused; they eternally remain opposites, and all of reality derives its existence from the endless iterations of this simple truth.
And so, as I gaze off into infinity, contemplating the structure of this mysterious sequence, I recognize that there is an enormous difference between rational understanding and contemplation. The former simplifies reality and puts it under my control; the latter magnifies reality and makes me desire more and more. The heart longs to actually find the end of the sequence, to find a resolution to this grand and mysterious dance between Zero and One; but it will never come. Yet in some sense it already has, thanks to rational understanding…

And so on…

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Faith and the intellectual life

I think discussions about science and faith are important. I think it's necessary to ask whether the latest scholarship and research contradicts or affirms traditional beliefs. I like to be involved in those debates, because I think sometimes skeptics can be convinced that Christianity is not all baloney and sometimes Christians can be convinced that not every traditional doctrine is Truth with a capital 'T'.

But there's a deeper, more fundamental question that surprisingly few Christian apologists ever bother to answer (and perhaps few Christians ever think to ask themselves). Is Christian faith consistent with a vibrant intellectual life at all?

Perhaps the question seems so blatantly offensive that it doesn't seem worth considering. I can certainly understand why. So many of the greatest minds, not only in science but in all areas of philosophy and the arts, have been faithful believers. Why should we doubt that one can have both sincere devotion to God and at the same time vigorously pursue intellectual questions?

Yet it seems to me there is naturally a great deal of tension between faith and reason for the intellectual. By "intellectual" I mean someone who seeks relentlessly to know what is true, who is indeed so committed to the pursuit of understanding that they will not allow any tradition, force of habit, feeling, prior commitment or anything else to stand in the way of rational inquiry. Thus intellectuals necessarily leave themselves open to changing every opinion, even those they hold most dear.

Christian religion, on the other hand, most certainly demands that we believe something. We are called to believe and warned not to fall away. We are expected to be convinced, and once convinced we are warned never to doubt. Faith is indeed a form of loyalty. It means devotion to a person--Jesus Christ--and to his mission, and to all the other people who have also made themselves loyal.

Can the intellectual truly hold such loyalty? I suppose the same question applies to any sort of loyalty. Can one be a committed member of a political party and be an intellectual? But changing political parties is certainly not unheard of. Perhaps a more dire question would be, can one honestly be loyal to one's country and be an intellectual? Is it not the case the one's country might get in the way of the truth, in which case such loyalty must be abandoned?

Less dire, more personal: can one be an intellectual and faithfully devoted to a family? This question seems to me far less hypothetical than the others. Families fall apart all the time in our day. That seems to be in large part because we are quite committed to discovering ourselves as we go, which means old commitments might sometimes have to give way to new self-discoveries. Some people seem to think it's worth it; others of us aren't so sure.

Maybe one could legitimately ask whether it's right or good to truly be an intellectual. After all, is it not self-defeating? To be committed to the pursuit of truth at the cost of any and all loyalties is itself a kind of loyalty of the most demanding kind. Yet that kind of loyalty is exactly the kind Jesus himself demanded: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me." Indeed, Jesus declared that he is the truth.

If we are committed to the truth at the cost of all other loyalties, there is no internal inconsistency, and moreover we are found merely to be doing what Jesus himself demands of us. The only question is, what gives Jesus the right to call himself the truth? Do there truly exist such overwhelmingly compelling arguments in support of such a claim?

Some apologists begin with five (or so) arguments for the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent creator. Others begin with historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Others begin with an appeal to our sense of justice and innate belief in moral objectivity. Still others appeal to the universal human thirst for spiritual meaning.

When we add up such arguments together, do we yet get anywhere close to where we need to be, in order to convince the intellectual that Jesus himself is indeed the truth? Can intellectuals' loyalty to God ever be higher than their devotion to the truth? Must their devotion, if it is sincere, lead to faith? (Such a demand seems to defy common experience.) Or is the ultimate discovery rather that their devotion to the truth is a sort of faith in God, albeit unbeknownst to them?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Peter denies Jesus

The woman said to Peter, "You are not also one of this man's disciples, are you?" He said, "I am not."

He surprised himself with how quickly he answered. Was it fear? Was he lying just to avoid suffering?

When he first heard Jesus talk about his own suffering and death, he took him aside and rebuked him. But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

It had taken a while to get over that. Slowly he had come to understand what Jesus meant. The power of God is not like the power of man. Throughout all the history of Israel, was it not through human weakness that God's power was seen the most? Did not the prophet Isaiah say that the servant of God would be despised and rejected by others, a man of sorrows and acquainted with infirmity?

By the time it came to Peter's last meal with Jesus, he was ready to say, "Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you." If the Lord himself had to suffer, then he would suffer with him. But Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times."

Three times. Was that a prediction, or a command? Peter couldn't tell the difference. Everything Jesus said would happen was happening, no matter how bizarre. Why did he now deny his master? Was it in fact out of loyalty to him? Was he trying to fulfill his words? Or were Peter's own words beyond his control? Had destiny caught up with him?

"You are not also one of his disciples, are you?" He denied it and said, "I am not."

An exact repeat of the first instance, only this time he was surrounded, whereas at first it had only been a single woman.

Perhaps he had really meant it this time. Why should he follow the one who had pushed him away? It was Jesus who had told him not to follow him. He had offered to lay down his life for him, and instead he had insisted, "Where I am going, you cannot come." Why did Jesus think that he must suffer alone? He had taught all along that all of his disciples should take up their cross and follow him. It had taken Peter so long to understand that teaching, and just at the moment when he could at least put it into practice, he was met with rejection.

One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, "Did I not see you in the garden with him?" Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Well, then, the prophecy is fulfilled, Peter thought. Have I not done my duty? Have I not done God's will? Have I not, indeed, done exactly what my master told me? I have been a faithful disciple by denying my master. I have followed him by falling away. What else would he have me do? Where he is going, I cannot come.

The Lord turned and looked at Peter.

And he went out and wept bitterly.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jesus goes up to Jerusalem

Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again." But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said. (Luke 18:31-34)

Of course they don't understand, he thought. Has this not always been the question since the dawn of creation? Why should there be any suffering at all?

For a while he said nothing, while his disciples followed, arguing with one another what his words meant. He contemplated the great passage in Isaiah, "Who has believed what we have heard, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" Who, indeed? Has it not always been a struggle? How much longer, Father, must I be with this crooked generation? How much longer must I put up with them?

Yet for this reason he had come into the world. For this reason, in some sense, he had created the world. In all of this suffering he revealed his glory. Why did no one seem to understand?

Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me. Yet not what I want, but what you want.

There was always that tension within him. Maybe that famous complaint of mortals was right, after all. Why bring into being a world only to subject it to its own evil? Why should I suffer for the sake of the world? Why does it exist at all? Could there not have been a better way?

"So the Lord said, 'I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created--people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.'" Jesus couldn't help thinking about these words. He prayed in his heart, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Truly, they do not know what they are doing. But had not Job spoken what is right about God, and had not his friends kindled God's anger against them? And was not the psalmist telling the truth when he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Were not all of these complaints vindicated by the Scriptures? Perhaps mortals know more than they get credit for.

Perhaps I am the one to blame for this, he thought. Is that why I am going to die? Is the sin of the world really my own, after all? I am the light of the world... But if the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. What a fine phrase for the Prince of Peace! The suffering that I bring is not only my own, but of the whole world. If I have the power to raise the dead, why should anyone die at all?

"Why do you all me good?" He had really meant it. He knew very well that mortals had many complaints in their hearts against God. If being born man had truly taught him anything, it was that time and finitude were enough to drive anyone mad, even to the point of wondering whether the Father was there at all.

Three times he had told his disciplines exactly what was about to happen. And three times they had become distressed, not understanding what he meant. Maybe they never would understand.

As he was lost in thought, he barely noticed the blind man calling out, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" He stopped. "What do you want me to do for you?" The man said, "Lord, let me see again."

It really was so obvious. Lord, let me see again. I'm blind, so let me see. The difference between this man and the crowds is that he knows exactly what he wants.

Why is he blind? Is it just so that I can heal him? Did the world come into being for my own vanity? "Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher." Even if I heal this man, will his life be any less vain?

Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has saved you." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

But no one understood why he was going to Jerusalem.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Anthropocentric religion, part 2

A while back I wrote on this blog against the complaint that Christianity is essentially anthropocentric. Yes, the universe is vast, and humans are very insignificant in relation to the whole sum of existence. That is hardly an argument against a faith which, historically, strongly affirms these claims.

But then again, experience often contradicts this fact and reinforces the idea that Christianity is a religion focused on satisfying some human psychological need. I was reminded of this a week ago during Sunday worship.

Perhaps the vast majority of self-identified evangelical churches would summarize the gospel as follows: we are great sinners, but Jesus is a great Savior, who through his sacrifice on the cross atones for our sins and loves us unconditionally, so that through faith in him we may approach God with confidence and find eternal life.

All the main elements of worship at the church where I worshiped were clearly designed to reinforced this message. From the opening remarks (in which the associate pastor confessed that he, too, is a sinner, awkwardly eliciting faux surprise from the congregation) to the songs (including a rendition of "It Is Well with My Soul" in which the instruments made sure to put a musical climax around the verse, "My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought... is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more...") to the sermon (an interpretation of Psalm 139 which, though quite sophisticated, nevertheless boiled down to, "God loves you and thinks about you even more than you do"), everything pointed one's thoughts toward our individual need for love and redemption and the good news that God satisfies these needs. (Ironically enough for an evangelical church, it was perhaps the Lord's table which made an exception to this rule, the focus being not merely Christ's atonement on our behalf, but the spiritual life he gives us by feeding us. But I digress.)

The closing hymn was none other than "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," which has the following lyrics:
I am weak, but Thou art strong,
Jesus, keep me from all wrong,
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.

When my feeble life is o’er,
Time for me will be no more,
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom's shore, to Thy shore.
Now, far be it from me to say this song is without merit as a hymn of praise. It is not wrong to celebrate one's personal walk with Jesus Christ. And yet, an outside observer could be forgiven for concluding from these words that Christianity is fundamentally about worshiping an imaginary friend who comforts individuals through hard times and assures them that one day this sad, physical, temporal existence will give way to an eternal, motionless bliss.

To be clear, I don't think the evangelical summary of the gospel is a lie. I merely think it is not a summary of the whole gospel. Where is the cosmic significance of Jesus Christ? Where is the story of God's creation? Where is the hope for the redemption of the universe? These things are also part of the gospel, and they beckon us toward something much larger than the affairs of human beings.

Consider a different hymn, "Of the Father's Love Begotten":
Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

At His Word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion,
Death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children
Doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below,
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Saviour of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him,
and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert sing,
Evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord,
Evermore and evermore!

Righteous Judge of souls departed,
Righteous King of them that live,
On the Father’s throne exalted
None in might with Thee may strive;
Who at last in vengeance coming
Sinners from Thy face shalt drive,
Evermore and evermore!

Thee let old men, Thee let young men,
Thee let boys in chorus sing;
Matrons, virgins, little maidens,
With glad voices answering:
Let their guileless songs re-echo,
And the heart its music bring,
Evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant with high thanksgiving,
And unwearied praises be:
Honour, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore!
I have no idea why this is considered a "Christmas carol." It is a song which literally summarizes the entire gospel--from Christ's divine identity, to his creation, to his incarnation, to his redemption of humankind, to his final judgment. It calls in the entire universe to praise him, reminding the singer that human beings are not alone in receiving this good news.

This isn't just a long complaint about how the church needs "better music." Every element of worship is a choice affecting what members of a congregation will fix their minds on and remember. Worship is a reflection of our beliefs about God, and attending regularly will tend to shape and reinforce our beliefs about God. Just as one needs to be concerned with eating a balanced diet, so also, it seems to me, we ought to be concerned as Christians, whether our worship gives a balanced view of the gospel.

It is rather trivial to observe that most people focus on themselves most of the time. I'm not actually sure how true this is, exactly, but I know that any pastor can easily proclaim it as an unquestionable axiom of human existence. What is perhaps less trivial is how focused we are on our need for acceptance from others. Human beings have always been social creatures, dependent on family and tribe for survival, and this is only more true in a civilization in which most of our professions depend not at all on nature and the elements but wholly on ideas, technology, and our relationships with others. Beginning as children raised in schools, and continuing on as adults whose survival depends on successful performance reviews, we are obsessed with assessment. Perhaps it is no wonder that we present the gospel in these terms--God's view of our performance.

While it is certainly comforting to know that God is not like our boss--that he is loving, compassionate, patient, and forgiving--I think it would be even more eye-opening to have our gaze turned toward something other than God's assessment of us. When God spoke to Job in response to Job's complaints about suffering, he gave Job a tour of the whole creation. There is something about being reminded of our place in this universe which allows us to flourish in ways we had not understood before.

If Christian worship does not direct our minds and hearts toward the majesty of all creation, what will? Modern life doesn't reinforce the splendor of creation. We are obsessed with human creations--democracy, economy, technology, popular culture. I think it is our Christian duty to direct the eyes of human beings back toward the heavens, so that we might say with the psalmist, "The heavens are telling the glory of God," and, "What are mortals that you are mindful of them?"