Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Whimsical Winston Churchill Quotation

"Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all."
The great thing about this quote is that each word has less than six lttrs.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Einstein's Religion

I find the religious thoughts of Albert Einstein fascinating. Considering I'm a grad student in math and a Christian, why shouldn't I?

Einstein rejected any sort of personal God, and espoused this idea of a "cosmic religious feeling" as being the highest form of spirituality. He sensed order in the universe, and that order was awe-inspiring. In some sense his physics was his religion:
"I don't try to imagine a God; it suffices to stand in awe of the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it."
This is not to say that Einstein didn't have a sense of the sacred:
"I believe in mystery and, frankly, I sometimes face this mystery with great fear. In other words, I think that there are many things in the universe that we cannot perceive or penetrate and that also we experience some of the most beautiful things in life in only a very primitive form. Only in relation to these mysteries do I consider myself to be a religious man."
Still, he goes on to say,
"But I sense these things deeply. What I cannot understand is how there could possibly be a God who would reward or punish his subjects or who could induce us to develop our will in our daily life."
It is not an arrogant or irreverent objection to theism that Einstein makes here. As a Christian, I understand that we are meant to do good because it is good, and not just for the sake of escaping punishment. It is too bad, I think, that Einstein didn't understand God more in terms of redemptive work and new creation rather than simply punishment. I have already written elsewhere on what I think the real Christian motivation to do good might be.

There is one Einstein quote that kind of thrills me, to be honest:
"Whatever there is of God and goodness in the universe, it must work itself out and express itself through us. We cannot stand aside and let God do it."
I guess many Christian ears would hear this quote as anti-Christian, but I think that would be rather unfortunate. In fact, this quote hints at a theology that is thoroughly incarnational, something that you would think came right out of Christianity.

What I mean is this. Christianity is built on the premise that God became man; but it doesn't stop there. As St. Athanasius wrote, "God became man so that man might become God." Or you might just say it like St. Paul said it: "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" (1 Cor. 3:16)

In other words, God works through humanity. Christianity does not say we ought to step aside and let God do His stuff. Nor does it say we will get anywhere by our own power. It simply says that God displays His power through humans.

How much more liberating or empowering an idea can there be? The God of reason, goodness, beauty, and love expresses Himself through humans. That is our purpose, and that is what makes all of our labor as humans worthwhile.

A little while ago I was at a Bible study on the book of Matthew, and we came to the passage where Jesus curses a fig tree and makes it wither (Mt 21:18-22). There we read that Jesus said to his disciples,
"Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive."
Naturally this is passage gives occasion to questions about prayer and whether God will literally answer any prayer we ask in faith. But it struck me that these questions might miss one of the crucial points of Jesus' statement. Try putting the emphasis not on which prayers are being prayed, but on who is praying them. Think how extraordinary it is that Jesus the Messiah tells his disciples that their prayers are the ones that will move mountains.

This is part of the beauty of how God is, according to Christianity: he expresses Himself through us, tiny little creatures that we are. All of us humans try to separate ourselves from God in one of two ways. We either kick God upstairs and worship Him from far away, or we kick God out entirely so that we can order things after our own liking. Both have the same impact on the world: they both ensure that humans with flawed ideas are the ones actually running things.

But imagine a world run by people who are run by God. In other words, imagine if, just as Einstein said, whatever there is of God and goodness of the universe, it actually expressed itself through humans. This is actually as Christian a picture of God's world as you can get. In the beginning we were created to have dominion over the creation; and in the end, this order will be restored, and it will be good.

This view of God is at once humbling and empowering. It is not we who bring goodness, order, and beauty into the world; it is God. But God does this through us, so that we become more than ourselves. How much more empowered can you get? To be more than yourself--because God is in you.

I think Christianity would be all the better if we took Einstein's thought and said, You know what? That's kind of true. God really does work through humans; it's what you might call the incarnational principle of Christianity. Incarnation, in a sense, does not end with Christ--the Holy Spirit is divine, too, after all.

I'm not trying to strip all things supernatural away from religion, which is perhaps something Einstein did try to do (nature for him was mysterious and profound enough). And yet, I do often wonder, how many supernatural events does my faith actually hinge on? I am pretty sure there is just one, the miracle we celebrate on Easter. As for my day to day faith, the most important events in my life are God working through humans (and through the elegance of nature, which Einstein also knew profoundly well).

Christianity is a religion of the ordinary as much as the supernatural, after all. At the foundation of its worship are two very simple tasks: hearing the scriptures taught, and eating and drinking the sacrament of the Lord's supper. Maybe what makes these things so powerful is that the natural and supernatural intersect in these ordinary events. We don't need to see things that are beyond scientific explanation to know that God has truly been at work.

Indeed, my hope as a Christian is that one day we will be able to look at any ordinary event and see God's work in it. My cousin's wife just today gave birth to a daughter. For humanity in general, this is just an ordinary event, but for us who are close to her, it is miraculous; you can see God's work in it. And that is just what I think Christianity makes me hope for--to see God become all in all.

Doesn't what I've just been describing give us the best way to live? Wouldn't life for us humans be best if we treated ourselves and each other as people privileged with the responsibility to act as God's power in this world, and if we rejoiced in our hearts at even the most ordinary of good things?

Yes, I think that would be the good life. I bet even Einstein would agree.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Oh, the horror

Here's CNN whining about how not every radical is a left-wing radical:

*sniff* *sob* Poor little CNN reporter. The evil right-wingers are so mean.

What's incredible to me is how liberals utterly fail to remember anything about American history (not to mention consider the feelings of many Americans today) when they can't see how taxes have anything to do with liberty.

There may be a lot wrong with Republicans these days, but these conservatives have guts, you know? They may not be the kind of sophisticated intelligentsia that liberals drool over, but there's something about them that uniquely captures the American spirit.

Happy Tax Day, everyone.

Monday, April 13, 2009


So I've added an RSS feed to my blog, so that you can listen to sermons from my church in Charlottesville, Trinity Pres. I thought I'd highlight yesterday's Easter sermon, which was fantastic.

There's a lot more to Easter than just this tradition that long ago a man named Jesus rose from the dead. The whole point of Easter is that this Resurrection is a foreshadowing of what life, the world, and even the whole universe is really about--redemption, glorification, new creation.

Incidentally, a friend and I were at the Mellow Mushroom when John Lennon's Imagine came on. He asked me if I took offense at the song--"imagine there's no heaven" and all that. I said I don't exactly agree with the song, but there's something to be appreciated about it.

After all, imagine if heaven weren't simply a destination. Imagine heaven coming down to earth. That's what Easter is all about. I suppose John Lennon didn't quite get it, but he might've been closer than a lot of us, after all.

It's a busy time of year for me in grad school... not much time for blogging. But I will be back more often when I have some free time. Soon enough...

*Edit: incidentally, the Easter sermon hasn't been posted, so if you were hoping to hear it right away, I guess you'll have to wait a few days.*

Tuesday, April 7, 2009



That's the number of lives saved by the 40 days for life campaign that recently ended. David Bereit, who is basically in charge of this movement that has taken shape in just the past couple of years, always puts a tally of just how many babies are saved from abortion thanks to the 40 days effort.

Why do I think that number is so important? Because it's real, tangible evidence of people making a difference. I love that Bereit always wants us to know the number. It shows that his number one concern is that lives are actually saved.

If the pro-life movement were about anything other than saving actual lives, these numbers wouldn't really matter to the people involved. Especially not when they hardly make a dent in the total number of abortions that occur each year.

To put a bit of perspective on it, in 2005 about 1.2 million abortions were performed. On average, that's over 3,000 abortions every day.

So why is 40 days for life rejoicing that after four different campaigns, only about 1,500 (including the numbers from this last campaign) abortions have been prevented? That's only about half of the number that happen every day, on average.

The only possible reason to get excited is that every life is actually worth something. Each of these 421 children matters. Although I understand the complexities of the abortion debate, it does somewhat confound me that in our country this idea needs defending.

I have been personally involved in 40 days for life, and I think it represents numerous possibilities for the future. Groups who gather together to pray in front of abortion clinics are composed of people who are equally willing to support women during and after pregnancy. The pro-life movement has slowly but steadily begun to integrate its message against abortion with a network of organizations equipped with real alternatives, such as pregnancy care centers and post abortion healing. People who pray can also give practical help to women, whether financially or emotionally.

What's secretly happening is that a progressive society is being formed at the center of what has been historically branded a conservative movement. A powerful alternative to the status quo is emerging out of the scattered efforts of people who just can't stand to think of children dying. This counterculture doesn't live according to old American rules of individualism. Its members go out of their way to save even the smallest human being, not primarily through law-making but through love: one person stands on the sidewalk and offers brochures, a group of people sit quietly praying, a group of volunteers offer free services at a pregnancy care center, a counselor provides post-abortion healing services, and others soon get involved one way or another as all of these start working together to make sure the needs of women are met--all of this because abortion just seemed so wrong.

The only problem is that the members of this society are not all used to this sort of lifestyle. Most of the pro-life movement is still about trying to persuade and change laws. But where the future of the movement really lies is in allowing this progressive society to fully take shape. That is the only way a pro-life nation would ever be sustainable; without a community that habitually cares for the needs of the helpless, abortion will always be seen as a necessary evil.

Four hundred twenty-one children, who are now safe from abortion, are living testimony to the fact that such a community can exist.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Problem of Logic

So, yeah, I have been incredibly busy lately and not in the mood for blogging.

But, in keeping with the theme of this blog, as expressed in the title, I thought I'd write something that I've been thinking about lately.

It's the famous "problem of evil." It's a simple argument designed to prove God doesn't exist. Many people have famously left Christianity (and probably other religions) because this argument finally got to them. (A notable example would be Bart Ehrman, who recently wrote a book about the problem of evil.)

The argument is simple: if God is good, all-power, and all-knowing, then there should simply be no evil--he would be motivated by goodness and enabled by his power and knowledge to keep it out of existence. But there is clearly evil, so God doesn't exist.

Much debate has occurred throughout the ages over this question, with theists giving reasons why evil exists and atheists and others explaining why those reasons aren't good enough.

Not everyone takes that line of argument. See, for example, this debate between Bart Ehrman and N. T. Wright. Wright takes the position that you can't and shouldn't try to "solve" the problem of evil.

Let me explain why I more or less agree with this. Christian thought starts with God. God is the source of all goodness, beauty, and reason. Since these three have the same source, they are inseparable. That is, whatever is truly good is also beautiful and reasonable; whatever is truly beautiful is also good and, in some sense, reasonable; and whatever is truly reasonable is good and, in some sense, beautiful.

I can see why some people would not agree with this assumption. After all, isn't part of the beauty of humor that it is absurd, as opposed to reasonable? And can't a person be logical without being good? And can't something be good without necessarily being beautiful?

I won't go into all the details, but I think such examples fall short of true counterexamples. I think Christian thought begins with the idea that these things converge, since they all come from the Creator God, who makes chaos into order, creates beauty out of nothing, and calls it good. I think the humanity within us recognizes there must be some connection. If being reasonable isn't ultimately good, why be reasonable? If being good isn't ultimately beautiful, why be good? And if beauty isn't ultimately reasonable or good, then why should we find it beautiful after all?

With this foundation, we ask, "Where does evil come from?" and we realize that there cannot be an answer. If there were, then the answer would explain how it is reasonable for evil to exist. But if it were truly reasonable for evil to exist, then it would also be good for evil to exist. This cannot be the case.

Does this disprove the premise, that beauty, goodness, and reason have their source in one God? Actually, no, it does not. For one thing, the math nerd in me points out that there are plenty of such things as incompleteness theorems (for which Kurt Gödel, pictured on the left, is most famous) that show things like how you can't have a logical system in which every question has an answer. So just because the question, "Why does evil exist?" doesn't have an answer, it doesn't follow that we have taken the wrong approach to thinking.

(Super-math-nerdyness alert: I might bring up as an example that modern set theory leads to the inevitable conclusion that the continuum hypothesis can neither be proved nor disproved. But we don't throw out the basic axioms of set theory; it's still basically the right way of looking at most mathematical problems. We just have to acknowledge our limitations.)

More importantly, what are the alternatives? As I understand it, certain other philosophies simply drive a wedge between reason, beauty, and goodness--either one from the other two, or all three from each other. That's why you get in existentialism, for instance, this idea of the "hero of the absurd," who goes beyond reason toward that which is truly good. This can sound glorious, but in the end it is a tragedy--a world where goodness does not make sense and where reason is not good is not a world that invites human flourishing. We may as well throw up our hands and stop trying.

Do we need to accept the alternatives? What would be the consequences of accepting a manner of thinking in which reason, beauty, and goodness all converged--and one in which the question, "Why does evil exist?" has no answer?

First, we wouldn't accept answers as reasonable unless they were also good and beautiful--this would lead to less stern pragmatism and more creative thought about problems our society faces. Conversely, we wouldn't accept ideas as good and beautiful unless they also had a ring of reasonableness in them--this would curb our tendency toward hopeless romanticism. Such thinking could lead to true human flourishing.

And instead of answering the question, "Why does evil exist?" with reasons, we would answer it with actions. I mean, the obvious answer to the question is, and always has been, "Well, it shouldn't!" Stoic acceptance of evil seems wise at first, but I think it is an unnecessarily grim philosophy. What we need instead is a view of evil as real, powerful, and wrong--wrong because it is bad, wrong because it is ugly, and wrong because it is irrational. With this triple opposition to evil, how much more would we be able to actually combat it with our actions?

There's no room in one blog post to iron out all the details, but I'm glad just to be breaking this dry spell I've been having. This is a perpetually interesting topic to me, and I'm sure I'll change my thinking on it as I learn more.