Monday, July 27, 2009

The Spirit of Mathematics

This is going to be one of those posts that interests only me.

I was having a conversation at lunch today with a fellow graduate student about how to deal with this tension we have as mathematicians.

The tension is between the idea that our mathematical ideas are inevitable, and the possibility that they are all inventions, mere reflections of our own way of thinking.

I've blogged about this kind of thing before. There are all kinds of weird thought experiments that you could do if to make you think that hey, maybe there's nothing special about our approach. A jellyfish in a pure continuum would never use numbers to do math, right?

But hold on, not so fast. There's still a strong argument to be made that if you never forced any sort of discrete patterns on your perception of reality, you'd simply never have any mathematics.

I was thinking, okay, what's an example of when we need to measure continuous things, rather than discrete things?

Here's an example to make you think twice about how numbers work. Let's say I throw three marbles into an empty bucket, and you throw four into the same bucket. Now how many marbles are there in the bucket? Well, three plus four is seven, of course. Sure enough, if we empty the bucket and count the marbles, there will be seven. We could run this experiment over and over and we'd always get seven. Three and four just are seven.

But now let's do the same thing with, say, shoveling sand. I'll shovel in three loads of sand, and you shovel in four loads of sand. Now let's have someone else empty the bucket with a shovel. How many loads will it take? Seven? Perhaps. But I could see how it might only take six, or maybe it'll take eight. If we repeat this experiment, we might get different answers.

Sand is more continuous than marbles. Marbles are discrete--you count them, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. With sand you just sort of guess--oh, that's about a shovel full. So would math have evolved the same way if we had to first deal with continuous things, rather than discrete?

Let's say a mathematician was hired in ancient Egypt to measure the rise and fall of the Nile throughout the year. The water level is a continuous thing, though. How would he describe the change over time? Maybe he'd draw a curve, instead of a numeral. Wouldn't that be perfectly legitimate?
There's some art here. The mathematician wants to make something to reproduce the flow of what he's seeing, to somehow relate to it in a natural way. In a way, he's being more poet than scientist. Most mathematicians want to be poets on some level.

But there is a practical question to be addressed. Chances are he's supposed to be tracking the water levels so that the people can know when it will flood. That's a yes/no kind of question. We have to draw a line somewhere.

Once you begin to think in this binary manner, you enter the world of the discrete. You begin to think using Aristotle's "law of the excluded middle": you can't be both A and not A. The river is either flooding or it isn't.

Moreover, it's not hard to see how this idea of distinction can progress beyond just two possible states. Maybe instead of merely drawing a curve to represent the water levels, the mathematician will decide it's useful to draw lines in banks of the river, so he can say at different times of year which lines the water level has surpassed. This provides a good estimate--a discrete way to measure a continuous thing.

And the truth is, that's all it takes to get to the integers. Once you have a way of drawing some line of distinction between yes and no, why, then you have 1 and 0. And if you have 1 and 0, then how many choices do you have? You have 2, of course. And if you have 0, 1, and 2, then how many numbers have you invented? Why the answer is 3... Could we keep going with this? Why, I think we could!

Oh, I understand perfectly well that not every culture would think to come up with the integers this way, but that's not the point. The point is how easy it really is to go from the bare concept of distinction into the vast realm of mathematics that has been built up for millennia.

It seems like the Platonists always have a point, you know? Mathematics really does feel, in a mysterious way, like it's merely discovered. It's somehow emanating all around us in the universe, and somehow we're eventually able to tap into its secrets.

The development of surprising things like non-Euclidean geometries doesn't seem to me to make a huge dent in this claim. Yes, in some sense we are merely "inventing" systems of axioms that we then proceed to work with. But the powerful and unexpected thing about mathematics is how such a tiny, bare concept can lead to such an extraordinarily large body of knowledge.

For instance, if my little thought experiment is of any value, then it seems like the bare idea of distinction gives birth to arithmetic, which gives birth to number theory. It's kind of unreal if you know anything about all the powerful theorems that exist in this area.

Yet even here, there is this desire to be poetic. It is not enough simply to be able to manipulate the world around us using the power of arithmetic. Mathematicians desire elegance and symmetry. Solving particular computations are not as interesting as proving results about all the numbers that have spun out of this strangely simple thought experiment.

I suppose there must always be this mysterious blend of two forces: the scientific and the artistic. The scientific force is the force of distinction; it categorizes and quantifies. The artistic force is the force of expression; it responds intuitively.

If we had no ability to draw distinction, how could we really know anything? We might be free to respond to the world, but we would never understand it. We would never even think of ourselves as ourselves--we would have no line between ourselves and the world, or between different things in the world.

And yet if we have no ability to respond intuitively, how could we really know anything? We might be able to categorize and quantify, but we would never care to. How can we learn about the world unless we are first swept away by its beauty? Occasionally mysticism must trump rationalism.

When I do mathematics, I actually do experience a bit of both. The scientific force is easy for everyone else in the world to see, but for any real mathematician, the artistic is there to see, as well. And if I could describe what I mean, well, then it wouldn't be what I mean. But you can always take a look for yourself.

It all comes back to Trinity. Three in One, One in Three. In Threeness, God has quantity, distinctness, the scientific force. In Oneness, God Is Who He Is, unquantifiable, beautiful, to which we but respond, overwhelmed, because we cannot describe.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Wishes and Fantasies

I read a thought-provoking article this week by Frank Schaeffer (who, it turns out, is Francis Schaeffer's son). Although he has rejected his more conservative religious heritage, he is also critical of the so called "New Atheists" like Dawkins, Dennett and the like.

The article was about that topic that seems to circulate from time to time among people who talk religion: where does morality come from?

This topic is riddled with confusion. When religious people take the stance that morality comes from religion, atheists are quick to point out evidence that suggests otherwise. There are all sorts of standard objections, but I think most of them come down to a misunderstanding of the claim.

Most Christian theologians would not say morality comes from Christianity; they would say morality comes from God. Morality is a common grace, to use a theological term. The existence of a common morality becomes evidence for God's existence under this view.

Yet we all notice that there are significant differences between cultures on moral questions. This is where religious people can say that even though there is a common morality, we humans have still generally turned our backs on the Truth of God.

Atheists say instead that humans have simply not advanced enough in our understanding. And then again, maybe not all moral questions need to be settled; perhaps moral differences should be tolerated indefinitely, since we will never all have the same values exactly.

Of course, atheists aren't the only ones who say such things. It's just that their central mechanism for gaining understanding about the world, even morality, is science. It's modernism at its finest. There was a reader's comment on Schaeffer's article that made me smile:
"I'd like to add that rapid advances are being made in scientific understanding of moral behaviors as the products of evolutionary processes. I look forward to the day generally accepted science can explain not only why Jesus is quoted as saying the Golden Rule "sums up the law and prophets," which I take to mean summarizes morality, but when that accepted science can explain how to improve the Golden Rule."
Underneath this tragically funny comment is a deep conviction I think we all share, no matter what we may say: there just has to be a way to get what's good in life. And when I say good, I mean whatever it is that really gets at the core of our being and doesn't let go.

I really sympathize with Schaeffer's sentiment: "My beef with the New Atheists and with religious fundamentalists is that their ideas just don't seem aesthetically pleasing or imbued with the poetry that I experience in real life."

See, that's what we're really after. Poetry. Beauty. Hope. Meaning. Morality isn't there just because it "works." It's there because there's meaning in this world, and somehow we can just make out a tiny vision of Eden when people order their lives well.

Survival isn't enough. Not even a happy life is enough. We need to have what's good, and the reality of life is that we're always so close to it, yet so far away.

Wishes and fantasies, say the atheists. Eden is just wish, and heaven is just a fantasy. We will torture ourselves forever if we don't stop with these cravings for some ultimate satisfaction. We need to focus on what we can actually solve, and be happy with that.

Be happy with what, I wonder? Is happiness any better than sadness? Is health any better than sickness? Is solving problems any better than not? We'll only know what's better if we know what's good. And how can we know that unless it penetrates into our soul?

Christianity teaches that ultimately the good will be reality: He will come to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end. Personally I think Christians do a disservice to their fellow men by claiming to make some absolute authoritative statement on what is moral and what is not.

Far more valuable is the insight that what is coming is better than what is. Our moral life can be shaped by a certain kind of future, a future where there will be no more tears, no more death, and no more evil.

Moral dilemmas always face us because this future has not yet arrived. Frankly, I think the approach to ethics that seeks to iron out all moral dilemmas is ultimately useless. For me the purpose of a moral life is to live in hopeful expectation (and emulation) of the good future that is coming.

Not everything that you want to be true really is true. I understand that I'm wagering my entire outlook on life on the belief that Jesus actually rose from the dead, and that's how I know this is not all just wishes and fantasies. It's not a blind gamble, I don't think, but it is a wager--an act of faith, if you will.

In the end, I suppose it's not really what you think is right or wrong. It's what you hope for. You'll notice atheists are not without hope--they hope that somehow science will keep giving us answers. I have no objection to science giving us answers, but when it comes to understanding the good, I don't think science has any tools with which to approach the question.

But then again, neither does religion, unless it offers a true foretaste of future glory. Morality without future hope is not good; it's depressing. Morals should offer more than mere structure to society. Ultimately such structures do not last, anyway.

I hope there was a point to all this. Perhaps in God's kingdom, I'll know how to wrap up all of my blog posts.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Our Story

I was listening to this fascinating podcast featuring Stanley Hauerwas over on Emergent Village (it's an older podcast, I'm just catching up). The topic of the speech given by Hauerwas was actually the theology of death... Kind of a dark subject, but it launches him into some amazing points.

The thought I had about it doesn't have anything to do with death, actually. What interested me was this thing Hauerwas kept saying about what he called the "modernist story:"

"The modernist story is that we should have no story but the story we chose when we had no story."

It sounds like a bit of a tongue-twister, but if you can decipher it, it's making an interesting point. This story is what modernists think of as "freedom." It's the ability to make up your own identity.

Hauerwas said the belief in this type of freedom has shaped our attitudes toward death. What occurred to me is that it affects our attitude toward the Bible.

If we think about how modernism has affected Christianity, it would appear that we can see it in the narratives we tell about ourselves--the "testimonies" we give as Christians. How a person came to Christ is essential in many churches. Without a credible testimony, you might not be admitted into membership.

Essentially, each individual Christian tends to feel that his story should be a fresh, originally rendering of Amazing Grace: I was lost, but now I'm found. This story becomes the story which defines a Christian's identity.

The reason I think this is a very modernist narrative is that it starts with the individual, and it is designed to give identity to the individual. This shapes how we read scripture: we are relentless in our pursuit of applications of scripture to our personal everyday lives.

We've taken the idea that scripture is God's word to us as individuals quite seriously in evangelical culture. A pastor might use no more than a single verse for his sermon text on Sunday, but you better believe he wants you reading through all the scriptures in your own quiet time.

And there are many churches where it is not uncommon to hear people saying they received "a word from the Lord" as they were reading scripture. A certain passage might "really speak to me" in whatever circumstance I'm dealing with. All of this is interpreted as God's providential ability to connect scripture with our everyday lives.

All of this is well and good, but I think it loses something very big. Scripture is fundamentally not my story, but our story; not only that, but it is a story that started thousands of years ago. My story is not the story that gives me my identity. The story that gives me identity is a story that existed long before I ever did.

Sometimes when I read scripture, I see absolutely no application to my everyday life. And I'm totally okay with that. The point of the text is not necessarily to teach me what to do, but rather who I am. I think it's application enough to be reminded that I was not here first, that life, the universe, and Christianity do not revolve around me and my story.

I can imagine most evangelicals sympathizing with this point, but still... I've noticed that the standard evangelical tendency is to make everything practical. By which we really mean, focused on individual lives.

What if pastors, instead of preaching from scripture in order to get some practical point across, used scripture to remind their congregations that Christianity is way bigger than their day to day lives?

I really like N. T. Wright's essay on How Can The Bible Be Authoritative? He argues that we interpret scripture by becoming the fifth act in the five-act play set up by scripture (Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church). This makes intuitive sense to me. It's basically saying our biblical interpretation would be more sound if we had the bigger picture in mind.

So yes, we can have the Bible give us wisdom on how to act in today's world, but it won't focus on our individual lives. It will focus on the big picture, on how to be part of the Church all over the world.

To the modernist, this is not freedom, but for the Christian, it is. Freedom for the Christian is not some abstract concept. It is a reality that is grounded in the history of flesh and blood human beings--one human being in particular, who died on a cross and rose from the dead.

It's too bad Christians often don't appreciate our history more.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cynicism and Skepticism

I realized at a conversation about politics the other night that one dominant characteristic of my generation is cynicism.

This cynicism is born out of skepticism: whatever we read or hear from anyone, it's probably biased, and we'll never know the full truth. Everyone has an agenda, and no one is out for your best interest.

Wisdom demands a certain amount of skepticism, right? Even well-intentioned people get things wrong, and it's both your right and your duty to question the information they feed you.

But cynicism is not healthy skepticism. While a person who is skeptical by nature might be inclined to seek out answers, a cynical person is not so inclined, because the answers just don't ever seem to be there.

I think this has everything to do with the form of media we consume, namely mass media. Mass media is only there to be consumed. It cannot be reasoned with. You cannot strike up a conversation with it. Even talk radio is hardly conversational.

Listening to both sides does not help. It only adds confusion to cynicism, resulting in despair. Is anyone telling the truth? I hear two people from opposite sides of an issue who both seem equally trustworthy (or equally dishonest). Some of the disagreement isn't even over grand theories of how the world works--it's over basic facts.

I suppose there are many who can watch the news and consume mass media without having these feelings of despair, but if you listen to the voice of the broader culture, it most certainly has an air of cynicism. And with cynicism often comes apathy.

This is all modernism's fault. The old idea of what it means to be "informed" is simply unfeasible, and perhaps on a very fundamental level, it's sheer nonsense.

The modernist view of what it means to be informed is this: you learn all the "facts," get both sides of an issue, and formulate opinions that somehow make sense of this data.

Never mind all the philosophical issues I have with drawing a hard and fast line between "facts" and other ideas. Suffice it to say I think "facts" are in part human constructions, and this is part of why everyone seems to have a bias in the media.

The real issue here is approach. The modernist basically says you have to back up in order to see the world through objective eyes. What I think is that we have to engage fully in order to gain knowledge.

In the old view, objectivity is basically observation that is untainted by outside influences. Our generation says, cynically, that a person is always tainted by outside influences. What I think we need is to happily be influenced by what's outside of us.

That's not to say don't be careful. The problems come when we isolate ourselves from certain influences that may give balance to our opinions. When we engage more fully with information presented to us, we diminish these problems.

When two people converse, they each bring their own personal biases to the conversation. The assumption of our culture is sometimes that this means we're hopelessly lost in the search for truth. On the contrary, I would say two people can learn a lot from each other, precisely because they have preconceived notions about life. If I ever tried talking to someone with no presuppositions, there would be nothing to learn from that person.

Somehow, we have to learn to be happy in our genuine make-up as human beings. We are not meant to have a view of the world that is detached from the world, making our view as close to "God's eye" as possible. I am beginning to think that "God's eye" doesn't see the world this way at all, and in fact our use of this metaphor may be yet another example of human misunderstanding of the divine.

So what forms of media would help us engage more, rather than simply consuming information and wallowing in our cynicism? I've noticed every web site now has comment pages. People know that there is a cultural need to be engaged in conversation.

But somehow anywhere you find mass media, there is definitely some level of detachment. A comment page with 200 comments has essentially lost its use as a place for conversation. A talk radio show where callers get a couple of minutes to ask a question does not constitute a conversation. A CNN poll is hardly engaging. One needs more than merely expressing opinions.

My church is currently having a Sunday school class on "Thinking Critically about Faith and Culture." Each week a relevant topic is brought up and discussed among small groups. It occurs to me that something like this could actually be a means by which current events and other forms of information are made known and processed by people in the culture.

There is a place for mass media, but given the way mass media sells information as a thing to be consumed, I think it's necessary to push back against it and limit its sphere of influence. We are all relational beings, and ultimately to process knowledge requires relationship of some kind. No one can simply "give" you knowledge.

Anyway, it's late, I'm rambling, and the ultimate irony is that I might just be spewing out information--unless someone wants to leave a comment, and we can start a conversation. :)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Papal Politics

I read a wonderful Op-Ed the other day that really gave a voice to what I think are now my basic political opinions. The article itself was how American conservatives and liberals always fight over which side the last papal encyclical helps politically. He summarizes the absurdity that ensues as follows:
"These arguments never seem to go anywhere. When a pope criticizes legalized abortion, liberal Catholics nod and say that yes, they agree, it’s a terrible tragedy ... but of course they can’t impose their religious values on a secular society. When a pope endorses the redistribution of wealth, conservative Catholics stroke their chins and say that yes, they agree, society needs a safety net ... but of course they’re duty-bound to oppose the tyranny of big government. And when the debate isn’t going their way, left and right both fall back on flaccid rhetoric about how the papal message “transcends politics,” and shouldn’t be turned to any partisan purpose."
What I like about the Vatican is that they still believe the Church has something to say about all of life. American liberal Christians have tended to say that the Church should keep out of our personal lives, while conservative Christians say it should keep out of our economics.

I think this is because in the American political spectrum, all political ideas take shape around some conception of universal freedom--all of us Americans are remarkably similar in that way. The left and the right just happen to formulate opposite views of what freedom is.

In my opinion, these opposing views of freedom are equally incoherent. On the left, you have these very rigorous demands placed on society regarding our treatment of the environment; but when it comes to bioethical issues, freedom of choice is held sacred.

On the right, I suppose it's just the opposite. On bioethical issues, conservatives decry the moral relativism of liberals; yet when it comes to the environment (among other issues), they say just leave it to the free market.

I like the pope's philosophy, because it seems to have an expansive view of the sacred--human life is sacred, the world is sacred, and therefore we need to work to create a social order that respects both human life and the world that we use for our benefit.

I think this translates to a sound, coherent philosophy of politics, one which may contradict the Republicans or the Democrats, depending on which bullet point you've hit in the somewhat arbitrary list of positions in each party platform.

Not that I'm all that familiar with the particulars of the Caritas in Veritate (it's very long), but I just know that philosophically, I'd rather take the pope's route than that of Republicans or Democrats.

Everyone in this country is suspicious of the Church giving political opinions--"separation of Church and state" and all that--but the truth is, if the Church seeks diligently to give serious thought to a range of important issues and express opinions intelligently, people will listen.

There are two opposite but equally fatal approaches that the Church has taken to politics. One is not to say anything, because somehow God is too high for politics. The other is to express opinions dogmatically, as if the issues need no further analysis.

We can do better as Christians to make our political opinions conform more to a Christ-centered view of the world, and to express our opinions sensitively and intelligently. We may or may not start by listening to the pope; I just think his views show that our current political spectrum is not the only way to think about politics.

Disclaimer: No, I'm not Catholic, I just happen to line up with the Vatican on certain political opinions.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Praying with my eyes open

Tradition is important to all Christians, whether they like it or not. Or rather, whether they like to recognize it or not.

For example, when you're taught from a young age to pray a certain way--hands together, eyes shut, head bowed--you just don't see any reason not to. Unless you're like me, and you think too much.

(On a brief tangent, I've always wondered why Protestants follow this totally extra-biblical pattern for prayer, yet they don't make the sign of the cross like Catholics, Orthodox, or even high church Anglican or Lutheran. It's interesting what we choose to hold on to.)

Last night while I was praying, I realized that closing my eyes while I'm praying has always had a good and a bad effect on my life with God.

On the good side, it is important to recognize the transcendence of God, that you aren't praying to a deity embodied in a little idol in front of you. God is in heaven, meaning, in a way, He is very far from your grasp.

But on the bad side, I noticed that it causes me to treat God as utterly transcendent and not imminent. I realized that often when I finish a prayer and open my eyes, it is as if I have left the presence of God and entered the "real world."

In philosophical terms, it reinforces the dualism that so easily permeates our culture. The line between sacred and secular is firmly established by my eyelids.

Last night, I decided midway through my prayer to gradually and deliberately open my eyes, while fixing my mind on God. It was as if a channel between heaven and earth was opened. God was still there, even in such a setting as a 23 year-old's bedroom, complete with books piled everywhere and my desk still a bit cluttered.

I felt a burst of joy from this, what you would probably call a "spiritual experience." I felt so silly that a simple habit like closing my eyes could have such a huge impact on how I lived my day to day existence, yet there it was. I have been missing out.

I decided that even so there ought to be a period during each prayer when my eyes are closed, because God is in heaven as well as on earth. But somehow there has to be a way to leave the gate between heaven and earth open. Perhaps a simple a thing as opening and closing the eyes gradually at certain points during the prayer can place the believer in a state of understanding this connection between God and earth.

I've always felt the specifics of prayer were relevant in the discussion of Christianity, but I find Christians are often pretty shallow, even evasive, on the topic. It's as if your physical body doesn't matter when you're praying. I think this is what I've been taught in the church most of my life, without anyone ever actually saying it.

It's good to have a blog for these things. That way I don't have to have a reason to come up to a friend and say, "You know what I realized last night...?" I can just put it out there for the whole world to see.

Friday, July 10, 2009

How messed up is this?

My girlfriend alerted me to this story about an advice column explaining to men how to convince women to have an abortion:
The advice column was authored by Isabella Snow, who is described as a Sex Education Correspondent. It was published on, a risqué site which claims seven million monthly visitors.

The column is bluntly utilitarian in style, focusing on pregnancy’s and abortion’s effects upon the relationship of a man and a woman. It ends each paragraph of advice with a summarizing tip labeled “prenatal prep.” The avoidance of children and fatherhood is a repeated theme.

Here's one part that floored me:

Snow advises discussing a possible abortion on a sofa at home to provide intimacy and “reduced eye contact,” purportedly to make it easier for the woman to speak “openly.”

“You’ll also want to take care with your word choice; pregnant women tend to feel like they’re carrying someone, as opposed to something, even if she is just a month or so pregnant,” Snow adds. “You can’t just talk about having an abortion the same way you’d talk about having a cavity filled.”

“If you don’t want to be a father, you have every right to come out and say so. You don’t have the right to berate her in the process and you should be kind, but you don’t need to understate anything,” the column continues, telling male readers they should use phrases like “I need” instead of “I want.”

"I need" instead of "I want"? Men certainly don't need to be told to express their selfish desires as "needs." How perverse that abortion would be used to glorify men's desire to have sexual relations without the consequence of fatherhood.

How utterly dehumanizing abortion is! Notice how the author takes it as fact that the unborn child is merely a "something," despite the fact that a mere month post-ovulation, blood circulation has begun to develop, eyes and ears are forming, and the brain and spinal cord are present. But I suppose that since it doesn't look cute yet, it's not really human?

Thankfully, it appears that this article has been yanked from Still, I wanted to write about it because if anyone actually reads my blog, you should know this side of the abortion debate.

What is sold to the public as a method of female empowerment is so easily twisted into a form of female exploitation. What selfish man wouldn't want advice on how to convince his partner to have an abortion? Then his sexual relationships require no commitment on his part.

It's good to know that Feminists for Life are speaking out about things like this:
CNA sought comment about the column from Serrin Foster, President of Feminists for Life, who initially characterized the column as “a primer for coerced abortion masking itself as choice.”

She said the content of the column “isn’t anything new,” but it does document the pressure a pregnant woman can face from “fearful fathers, embarrassed parents, well-meaning friends, people in medical settings in high schools and colleges who don't see a way for her to have a baby and continue her education or career.”

What I fear about abortion is that it becomes for many people a self-centered way out of actually solving major problems. Women shouldn't have to fear bringing children into the world. There's nothing wrong with children in the womb. It's the world that needs to be fixed.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Evolution as Creation Narrative

I was talking to my uncle tonight about the issues of science and faith, and how scientific knowledge influences how we think about ourselves.

That conversation naturally shifted toward the realm of the whole "evolution debate," which is really a debate about a lot more than evolution, as we all know.

As usual, I found myself sort of defending the side of the Christian evolutionist--one who believes in Jesus Christ, but also believes evolution happened. This is not a new position for me.

But I realized something deeper this time around. To a certain extent, I want evolution to be true.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how narratives about the world influence how we act in the world. Beliefs about how we fit into this universe affect what part we seek to play in its existence.

One curious thing about this whole debate is that when we read the creation story now, we often read it only for what it says about God's role in nature, and not for what it says about us. If you think about it, there would be absolutely no point to having a creation story in the Bible if it didn't say anything about human beings.

I mean, really, it might be nice to know a bit about how things came into existence, but on the other hand, it's not really all that important if it doesn't say anything about how you should then live. It may even be impossible to imagine a story about how things came into being that doesn't affect how we should live.

The Genesis creation account says a lot about how humans should live, not least of which is how to form a work routine: six days of work, and a seventh day of rest. Our work is to mirror the creative act of God in the creation of the universe, and we should rest just as He rested. It's a beautiful idea, that our work should actually mirror the creative work of God.

When I think of evolution as a story of God's creative work in the world, I think, what a beautiful way to learn how we should live. For one thing, God's creative process was gradual, extended throughout eons of time. Maybe at each point along the way God stopped to enjoy each gradual step in the process, perhaps gazing at its strengths and weaknesses.

This gives me hope when I think about the fact that Christ came 2000 years ago and so far has not come again. We have seen the church go through 2000 years of change. Has it been for the better? I don't know, but perhaps we just need to be more patient with it. Maybe God really does take His time, and maybe that's okay. See 2 Peter 3:8.

For another thing, if evolution is the story of God's creative process, then God likes things to increase in complexity. I don't know if this is very appealing to a lot of people. Increasing complexity means that old answers become less and less helpful. It means less certainty. It means that old structures constantly get overwhelmed by the increase in diversity of nature.

The idea that God likes increasing complexity might help us navigate this ever more complicated world we live in. In the realm of ideas, we need to constantly be tearing down old categories in order to interact with increasingly diverse thought. This sort of "creative destruction" mirrors the actual creative process of God observed by scientists in nature.

Are humans meaningful and precious in this narrative? Oh, absolutely. Just as in the Genesis account, we are made to be part of the creative work of God. I think that's totally amazing, and it's part of the main reason I get up every day. In thinking about this purpose of ours, we might want to ask, how does God's creativity actually look in the world?

Just some thoughts, really. Just adding to the complexity of the debate, I guess.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

4th Century Bible Online

Yesterday I blogged about how the Internet is changing Christianity. Well, here is a completely different way in which that's true (brief excerpt below):
Internet reunites parts of oldest Bible

Codex Sinaiticus finally available in its entirety along with translations
Jul 06, 2009 06:22 PM

Faith and ethics reporter

The Internet has done what decades of theologians and scholars could not: brought together the books of the oldest known copy of the Christian Bible.

The 1,600-year-old Codex Sinaiticus, possibly the last surviving copy of 50 Bibles commissioned by Roman Emperor Constantine after his conversion to Christianity in the 4th century, is now available in its entirety at

I checked out the web site they cited. There is something astounding about being connected to such ancient history. One of the most amazing things to me about Christianity is its origins. I know a lot of people think all the problems with it started when it became the religion of an empire, but you know, the fact that that happened is pretty amazing.

Anyway, I just think this is cool, and I have nothing much to say about it besides that.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Emerging from the Internet

Another blog I like to read tipped me off to a web site that I have found rather fascinating: it's called Recycle Your Faith, and you can watch the introductory video here.

One of the statements in that video was just amazing: "An already divided Christianity creates new enemies every day. Too often, these enemies are other Christians."

The whole site is just a series of videos designed to help spiritual explorers continue to involve themselves in Christianity; yet it has no pretense of being traditional Christianity.

Probably my favorite video on this web site is this one.

Anyway, all this exposure in the past several days to web sites like this Recycle Your Faith as well as Emergent Village has caused me to think, wow, God is really doing something radical on the Internet. It is something of a revolution, I think.

And is it any wonder? The Reformation got a boost from the invention of the printing press. Perhaps this so-called "great emergence" is finding the Internet to be the printing press of our time. See video below.

I don't know about this 500 years thing... but still, it is an exciting time to be alive. I wonder what will come of all this?

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Prayer of Moses

Then the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites. And the Lord said to Moses, "How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they."

But Moses said to the Lord, "Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, 'It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.' And now, therefore, let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,

'The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation.'

Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now."

Then the Lord said, "I do forgive, just as you have asked...."

Numbers 14:10-20

For various reasons, I decided to read through the entirety of the book of Revelation yesterday. It is a rather awe-inspiring book: dragons and beasts and disturbing images of all sorts, all climaxing in a new heavens and a new earth, with a city the size of a small continent coming down from heaven to rule over the new earth.

But like so many people, I can't help but be disturbed by the images of judgment in a lake of fire, images of eternal torment for those who opposed Jesus. The wrath of God is supremely evident--at first I want to smile at the phrase, "wrath of the Lamb," but pretty soon you realize it's no joke. Who knew a lamb could be so vindictive?

I appreciate those theologians who find interpretations of this book that somehow don't make God look so full of wrath, but honestly such interpretations neuter the text. Revelation just has a lot of fury; in that way I think it stands out in significant ways from other New Testament books.

Still, it's just so disturbing to hear many Christians defend this wrath so blithely. The Bible says people who aren't Christians are going to hell, and that's that. This kind of attitude is, in my humble opinion, tragic.

To their credit, evangelicals say to pray for the souls of non-believers, but there's another resource in the Bible that I've turned to when I feel disturbed by all this talk of hell and damnation. That's the prayer of Moses, which I've copied above from the NRSV.

When God said He was just going to wipe out His people because of their insolence, Moses didn't think twice about interpretation. He didn't think, "Well, maybe God didn't mean it like that." And then again, he didn't turn and say to the Israelites, "Sorry, guys, but you earned it."

Moses chose to immediately pray to God--don't do it! And I love the reasoning he uses: God, think of your reputation! People think you were just unable to save. Think of your mercy, and think of your love.

Doesn't that make just as much sense now? Think of God's reputation--how many people reel in disgust at the idea of hell? Many good, sensitive people are inclined to say, "But can't God just win people over, so that He need not destroy them?" Think of His mercy, His love...

The great thing about the Bible is that its characters take God seriously without losing their own opinions. The Bible gives us resources for responding back to God, saying, "No, don't do that!" I don't think I need to interpret Revelation to death, until it no longer means what it says about hell. Why not take it seriously, and yet pray the prayer that Moses prayed, so that God would not do such a thing to precious human beings?

And the greatest thing about the prayer of Moses? Quite simply, God listened to him.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Postmodern Christians and Truth

I just listened to an interesting sermon by Don Heatley, a man I had never heard of before, on the Emergent Village web site. After listening to it, I finally realized something about the emergents' postmodern approach to Christianity.

See, when I was growing up, I thought postmodernism was just silly. I bet lots of us evangelicals could imagine some conversation like this:
Postmodern: "I believe truth is relative, not absolute."
You: "That sounds like an absolute statement."
Postmodern: "No, not exactly."
You: "Oh, so I don't have to believe it?"
Postmodern: "Not if you don't want to, I guess..."
To my mathematical mind, it was as simple as a reductio ad absurdum: if truth is relative, then the statement "truth is relative" is not absolutely true, therefore truth is not actually relative, a contradiction. Now I realize I was missing the point.

What I think the postmodern means to say is that words fail to totally embody truth. This point shines through in Heatley's sermon, which emphasizes that the experience of God is mysterious, and can't totally be put into words.

Now many clever evangelicals would be quick to jump all over this. How can you be saying that the experience of God is mysterious and can't be put into words, when you yourself have used words to say that--and preaching from a biblical text, at that?

But words just have to be put in their place. The idea is simply that words fail to totally embody truth, not that words fail utterly to point to anything true. That is why for emergents, experiencing God and becoming more Christ-like are far more important than doctrine. Yet they immerse themselves in scripture as much as any evangelical, because the scriptures provide powerful glimpses of Christ.

A little while ago I argued that we Christians need a new epistemology--that is, a new theory about what we know and how we know it. The reason I think so is that I've seen certain kinds of epistemology totally ruin discussion: "You're not taking scripture seriously!" "Well, you're taking it out of context!" "Heretic!" "Closed-minded!" etc.

This isn't just people being rude, or mean, or whatever. This is the result of people having a certain conception of what truth is, and acting on that. For many, truth is "right there" in scripture, as if pulling truth out of scripture is like pulling ketchup out of a refrigerator. I think this is a seriously deficient understanding of truth.

It would have been more helpful if throughout church history we had taken more closely to heart the words of Jesus: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." For one thing, I think "truth" is much more connected to the way of life that one takes than it is to statements that one may pull out of scripture.

For another, these words of Jesus point to a more personal meaning of truth. You find truth by finding Jesus, not by finding the right words to say. Yes, I know, I just used words to say that. But the question is how perfectly you think words embody the truth. We must be careful not to make an idol out of words.

I have found that those who believe the words of scripture perfectly embody truth do more than just cling to those words. They cling to a particular interpretation of those words. If they admit there is more than one plausible interpretation of the text, then they've given up on the idea that the words perfectly embody the truth--it's not a perfect embodiment if there's room for error.

Perhaps the real irony to this whole thing, however, is that postmodernists really are often too absolutist (as is so often claimed). The statement "nothing is absolute" becomes a mantra, so that eventually the people who say it implicitly believe that it perfectly embodies a certain ethos that they're trying to achieve, and at that point they've defeated themselves.

My experience on both sides of this culture war has been that ultimately words are tools, and I've seen them used both to help and to hurt. I can only hope that my words can somehow be of help... and therefore I blog.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Creation, Competition, and Capitalism

Recently I've been poking around the "Emergent Village," an online haven for this so-called "Emergent" church. Frankly, I still can't tell you what that is, exactly. All I know is I like a lot of things they're saying, and I'm a little disturbed by how quick some evangelicals are to throw around words like "heretical" when it comes to their teaching.

I found a series of podcasts by Brian McLaren on Creation: God's Project of Reconciliation. I've never read anything by McLaren, but listening to him is quite a treat. The slow, thorough way in which he deals with scripture is enlightening. I also enjoy his voice--it's rather soothing. :)

One part of his third podcast I thought was interesting was when he was comparing the Hebrew creation account to other creation stories from the ancient Near East. Whereas other cultures viewed creation as emerging from chaos through violence, the Hebrews viewed creation as being essentially a harmonious thing, spoken into existence by the sheer will of a loving God.

Also whereas in some Egyptian creation stories things are already set in place before humans show up--crops already planted, irrigation channels already dug--in the Hebrew creation story, humans are given a part in creation--to work the land.

So McLaren points out that the biblical creation story says that humans were made for harmony as opposed to violence, and we were made not to support the status quo, but to participate in God's creative act.

He says that there are systems of economics and politics today that view competition and violence as driving creative forces, suggesting that these work counter to the biblical conception of God's creativity.

I think it's pretty clear he has in mind a conservative capitalist economic system. Conservative economists unashamedly call capitalism "creative destruction," which does give you an image of violence as the means by which progress happens.

Capitalism is not supposed to be based on literal violence (though there have been some instances of that). However, the "violence" of free market competition can still seem out of joint with the harmony that Genesis says we were made for.

It does make you wonder: why have Christians in America (Protestants especially) been so wedded to free market economics when a biblical worldview doesn't seem to lend that much support to it? Perhaps it's only when you compare the Genesis account to other creation stories that this really becomes clear. It's too bad Christians haven't often kept up the practice of comparing our own scriptures to those of other cultures. We would learn more about our own.

But today is Independence Day, and having recently listened to the Declaration of Independence being read, I think it would be tragic not to give at least a little defense of free markets. When you read what Jefferson wrote about King George's tyrannical acts, you sort of realize that free markets were part of what the revolutionaries fought for.

Of course, that all may have been a result of their Enlightenment thinking, rather than orthodox Christianity, but certainly they were great men, and the beliefs of great men deserve to be considered carefully.

One need not think of competition as the driving force of capitalism. I think the fundamental point that capitalism makes is that each human being has sufficient dignity to govern his own property. The idea that owning property is a dignified thing makes capitalism fundamentally different from other political and economic systems.

I think this plays nicely into McLaren's second point about the Genesis account--human beings were not meant to support the status quo, but to have an active role in creation. By conceiving of human beings as creatures who may own property, capitalism defines a natural way in which humans can assume that role.

The incredible thing about capitalism is that dividing up the world into private property is not a zero sum game. That sounds counter-intuitive, since there's only so much matter to go around.

But that's where human creativity comes in. Although we cannot create matter, we can essentially create new things out of nothing, simply by rearranging matter into a more useful, beautiful, or otherwise pleasing form.

By developing new technology, art, literature, and entertainment, it is possible to increase the overall amount of property in a society. That's because people measure property in terms of what the things they have mean to them, rather than how much matter is actually present. This is why I paid a lot more for the computer sitting on my desk than I did for the desk itself.

I, too, worry about a culture that thrives on a competitive, Darwinist approach to economics. But I also worry about some reactions to the free market that seem to deprive human of that basic dignity which the Bible says they have: the ability to rule over part of God's creation and to take part in His creativity.

Human beings are not meant to step on each other in order to climb up the corporate ladder. But neither are they meant to see themselves as dependent on the government. We should work hard in our society to make people know how each and every person--as opposed to only a few heroes--can be part of God's creative work, changing the status quo for the better.

Happy Independence Day.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

So a rabbi, a priest, and an imam walk into a TV show...

Check out this story from Istanbul:
"Just when one thought TVshows could not get more outrageous, Kanal T comes up with the idea to make an imam, a priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk try to convert 10 atheists. While some fear the program could create problems, a sociologist says this just shows the yearning to learn more about religions."
That's right. Reality TV gets religion--at least in Turkey, which, from my experience, is not especially known for its political correctness.

(Fun side note: my profile picture seen to the right was taken in Istanbul.)

I'd really like to know which religious leaders would be willing to be on such a show. I can see how the atheists would have a blast. On the other hand, there are benefits to actually being converted, too:
"Each week, a different group of atheists will appear in front of the religious leaders. The producers of the show are well aware that there is a chance none of the atheists will be convinced by the arguments presented to them. Yet if an ex-atheist is "persuaded" to start following one of the religions, he or she will have the chance to travel to that religion’s center, whether Jerusalem for Christians and Jews or Mecca for Muslims or Tibet for Buddhists."
That's a pretty sweet deal for the atheists. They can find salvation and get a free trip.

What would happen if one of the clergy gets "converted" to atheism?

...Maybe they'd win a trip to New York. ;)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009