Thursday, January 28, 2010

Calvin on Idolatry

Today is another day for reflection in my reading schedule on Calvin's Institutes. As I mentioned in my last post on this topic, the reading has been both enjoyable and frustrating. This is due to Calvin's bluntness, which could either be a product of the era in which he lived or his own personality. Since I'm an expert on neither of these, I'll say the jury's out on that question.

Calvin's method is pretty clear: 1) establish Scripture as the source of Christian doctrine, and 2) argue from Scripture in a systematic way all the doctrines that are essential to the Church. At times he cites the Church Fathers to support his views, but at other times he cites them merely to contradict them on the basis of Scripture.

What's clear is that he views tradition not as an unbroken chain of pure doctrines and practices, but rather as a mixture of good and bad, which can be corrected only on the basis of a careful and complete reexamination of the Bible. Certainly this view remains a point of contention between Reformed circles and both Catholic and Orthodox to this day.

Calvin is pretty thorough (that's why it's going to take me all year to read the Institutes) but I don't think defending his views is his number one priority. For example, in his defense of Scripture, he does give a number of reasons for his high view of the Bible, but I can't imagine he gets to say everything he could on the subject. An apologist would have to turn to more than just the Institutes for resources.

I suppose what Calvin is good for is training clergy. These days I find myself questioning the whole notion of "systematic theology," since it seems to me nothing can ever truly describe the mysterious, transcendent God of the Bible. But as I read Calvin, I'm trying to have respect for the fact that Calvin was a pastor and teacher, and many people looked to him for guidance in leading the Reformed Church. This context appears to be of central importance in the Institutes.

It was interesting in the last two weeks of reading to find out which doctrine Calvin decides to discuss first, after defending Scripture. That doctrine is the law against idolatry. Even before discussing the Trinity (which does come next) or any other essential doctrine of Christianity, Calvin chooses to focus on idol worship.

I don't think it was for purely polemical reasons that he starts this way. Although he does argue against the Roman Catholic view of icons, there's a lot more that comes out of this section.

Scripture, of course, makes idolatry of profound consequence for Calvin. Not only does it come up right at the beginning of the Ten Commandments (it's the second by Protestant counting), but the Prophets are absolutely full of rhetoric against idolatry. Indeed, as I read the Prophets of the Old Testament, I typically find that the best summary of them all would go something like this: Defend the cause of the widow and the orphan, give justice to the poor, and tear down all your idols!

Calvin sees this not as merely a command that happens to be repeated over and over in Scripture, but as a fundamental principle: no matter what ideas about God humans come up with, even the best ones miss the mark. In his words:

Therefore, that exclusive definition, encountered everywhere [in Scripture], annihilates all the divinity that men fashion for themselves out of their own opinion: for God himself is the sole and proper witness of himself.

This principle is far more robust than as a mere iconoclast argument. In a profound way, it preserves the mystery of God. Really, this is fundamentally what it means to be a Protestant to me: I believe that no matter what conception of God you have formulated, no matter how well thought out, and no matter how pure of heart you are, you still haven't got it.

And that's okay, because, as Calvin says, "God himself is the sole and proper witness of himself." In Christian tradition, God doesn't reveal himself in the abstract, but rather in events that actually took place in history. This is what we can know about God: we can know what He does. But we can never fully grasp what He is. There is impenetrable epistemological wall between us and God, not built as punishment, but present simply because of what God is.

This is the part of Calvin's teaching I find particularly beautiful.

As for iconoclasm in particular, I have read a lot of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thought on the subject, and I sympathize with a lot of it. The debate on this subject between Protestants on the one hand and Catholics and Orthodox on the other seems to be more or less at a standstill, and I don't think my thoughts will bring anything new to the table (although if you're unfamiliar with one side or the other, I think it's worthwhile to do some research).

However, there is one passage from Calvin that is near to my own heart. In arguing for icons, Catholics have used the argument that icons are like "Scripture for the illiterate." In response to this, Calvin argues that the Church should have rather taught people to read than forge icons!

I confess, as the matter stands, that today there are not a few who are unable to do without such "books" [i.e. icons]. But whence, I pray you, this stupidity if not because they are defrauded of that doctrine which alone was fit to instruct them?

Thus the Protestant tradition of universal education, which was present in Geneva under Calvin. I believe strongly that the Church has a responsibility to care for people's intellectual growth. We would do well to treat education as a spiritual good, and not merely a tool for gaining a more comfortable lifestyle, as it is so often thought of in today's culture.

My reading has started on Calvin's treatment of the Trinity, but I'm not all the way through that section, so I'll leave that until next time.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Leap to Infinity

I can't resist blogging on a recent article I read over at Republic of Mathematics. In it, the author wrestles with that perennial question of whether abstract mathematical concepts are real.

He talks about the set of natural numbers. We all know this set intuitively: {1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, ...} You know what the "..." means. It means the set goes on forever. If I have any natural number n, you know that n + 1 is another natural number, so the set of natural numbers can't have a biggest number.

You can't get this set from finite sets. If you work in the realm of the finite, you stay there forever. It takes a leap of faith to get to the infinite. This is what mathematicians call making an axiom. It's a leap of faith, but it's certainly not a leap in the dark. We have an intuitive idea that we just formalize. No big deal, until we think about what it is we've just done.

What have we done? Have we described something real? Depends on what you mean by real, I suppose. What got me interested in this subject again was the religious idea that came out in the article I read:

So at the heart of mathematics lies an act of reification, a taking as real some thing – the set of natural numbers – that is an abstraction from our human activity of counting.

The process of reification is explicitly addressed in Buddhist thought, where it is generally thought to be not a good thing because it leads to the delusion of permanence for mental constructions that are bound to decay:

All things and events, whether ‘material’, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. … things and events are ‘empty’ in that they can never possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.” Dalai Lama (2005)
Contrast this with the Christian point of view, that the created world has real, independent existence, and that it is good, in the sense that it ought to be cared for and treated in the right way. As I blogged about earlier, Florensky had a lot to say about this.

Indeed, Florensky would say that it is precisely Trinitarian thought that leads us out of these labyrinths of epistemological despair. Human rationality, he says, is based on two things: the static and the dynamic. Clear thinking depends on things being static--A is not non-A--while proof, explanation, and learning depend on things being dynamic--A is also B. The combination of static and dynamic is found in Trinity--God is both Himself and not Himself, and by being not Himself He is found to be most fully Himself. But I digress.

The article ends with a rather nonchalant statement of pragmatism:

So in mathematics we treat the abstract construct of the set of natural numbers as a real object and – as if by magic – discover deep properties of this set.

On such myths mathematics and science thrive!

Just as modern science has reached the height of its self-confidence, believing itself to be the grand beacon of objective knowledge, mathematicians are here to cut the legs out from underneath that self-confidence!

Not that mathematicians think any differently about science than your typical modernist on a practical level. It's just that mathematicians seem to quite often be okay with accepting a world that isn't real and manipulating it anyway. Curiosity becomes its own reward.

Many of us will have a negative gut reaction to this attitude, and I think that's healthy. Curiosity is a wonderful thing, but is it really that wonderful if there's nothing real to be curious about?

Nevertheless, I do think that mathematics is mostly about mental abstractions created by us; they don't exist "out there" in some Platonic heaven. But they are real, because our brains our real! The concepts are as real as we are. Some craftsmen shape metal or wood; mathematicians shape the human mind. (And we are certainly not the only ones who do that.) That's about as real as it gets, if you ask me.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Young pro-life activists

As if to clarify my point from earlier, a pro-choice opinion column from the Washington Post just came out reflecting on the high number of young people at the March for Life on Friday. It's not hard to see why this would be scary for pro-choicers. Yes, young pro-lifers are excited and adamant about the issue of abortion.

It's encouraging to see the mainstream media get nervous about this issue. Finally, someone is listening. I guess that means I might as well keep blogging, letting all of you out there know, this movement is here to stay.

My hope is that as pro-choicers encounter young pro-life activists, they'll begin to realize that our reasons for being pro-life have nothing to do with maintaining traditional gender roles, trying to attack feminism, or trying to convert the nation to our religion. Once all these false stereotypes are cleared away, and people start hearing the real message, I feel confident that one day, we pro-lifers will have the victory.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Reflections on the March for Life

Today thousands upon thousands of Americans met in Washington, D.C. today to protest against Roe v Wade, the decision made by the Supreme Court 37 years ago that forced all laws against abortion to be overturned.

This has become an annual event; indeed, this was the 37th annual March for Life. I'm inspired by the dedication of so many thousands of Americans to this cause. I believe their heart is in the right place: they believe in the inherent dignity of human life, and they want to end the killing of innocent human life.

However, it's hard to come away from the March for Life and not feel a little drained. For one thing, it is exhausting marching in such a large crowd, but that's not primarily what I'm talking about.

One of my friends remarked during dinner this evening, "What are we really doing? I mean, 37 years... Have we changed anything?" It's hard not to get a sinking feeling inside when we consider how this protest has become another tradition, an event so commonplace, so predictable that the media hardly even notices it.

My main criticism of the March for Life is that it is too traditional, too predictable, too conservative. This causes the event to be easily passed over not only by the mainstream media, which already has a pro-choice bias, but even by many Americans who would be valuable pro-life allies.

I get the sense that the current leadership of the March for Life has been doing this for way too long, and really needs to let go of some control of the event. I've been to five marches in a row, and every year it's the same line-up of speakers. The only difference I've seen is that the past two years our nation's president has neglected to address us.

A severe weakness is the lack of innovative speakers at the rally before the march. It hurts to say it, but none of the speakers at the rally are especially eloquent (but I do enjoy the impassioned rhetoric of pastor Luke Robinson and Rabbi Levin--though he is a bit of a loose cannon). Mostly what we get are a bunch of senators and congressman spouting off a bunch of empty cliches.

It significant to note the lack of speakers from organizations like Feminists for Life, or even Students for Life. Many pro-lifers like to brag how young people are more pro-life than previous generations, yet the March for Life folks seem to refuse to bring in younger, more progressive speakers.

Ultimately, the March for Life remains for the most part a Catholic event. It's clearly run by Catholics and the majority of attendees appear to be Catholic, which is reinforced by the fact that at the end of every rally we always hear from the many bishops from around the country who are in attendance, while the members of their respective dioceses cheer, and after all that a final blessing is given by a priest.

I'm fine with Catholics being pro-life and everything, but abortion isn't a matter of Catholic doctrine or any other religious belief. Nor is the percentage of Catholics in attendance reflective of national public sentiment on this issue. As you can see in this poll and this poll, there is a higher percentage of Protestants that are pro-life even than Catholics (and that's including all the liberal mainline denominations).

Not that I blame Catholics for organizing the event, and not that I don't blame Protestants for not being more involved. I just think the March ought to have a more unified image, not only for the sake of attracting a broader base of pro-lifers, but also for the sake of defending our views in the public square. I don't see why we need to go on provoking the response, "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!"

On the positive side, the Silent No More awareness campaign is a wonderful, insightful program that plays into the strengths of the pro-life movement: compassion, genuine personal respect for life, and a desire for reconciliation. Not only are these the traits that will continue to reach the younger generations, but they are the right traits for us to have as human beings. This is one thing that the March for Life does not want to lose.

In short, I wish the March for Life could rethink its old-fashioned ways to create an event that would legitimately capture the nation's attention, an event full of speakers with a young, fresh, progressive attitude able to inspire the younger pro-life generation. There will certainly always be a place for the traditional in the pro-life movement; indeed, young people can be inspired by tradition as much as previous generations. But if the pro-life movement wants to succeed in the long-run, it must build credibility with as broad an audience as possible, and that may require the old guard stepping back a little to let new voices be heard.

Monday, January 18, 2010

We started a movement

"Love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe."

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everyone.

Yesterday the theme of my church's worship service was "love your enemies," and the sermon text was Matthew 5:38-48. I couldn't think of a more appropriate theme for this weekend, myself.

King himself preached a fantastic sermon on loving your enemies, which you can read here. The view expressed in this sermon is significant, because it not only promotes love as an act of personal religious piety, but as a political virtue, an ethic for all of human civilization.

I think far too much of the political discourse in this country focuses on the ethics of independence; that is to say, rights and personal autonomy are the key ideas. The reason for this, I think, is that we love freedom, and we think that preserving our personal autonomy will guarantee freedom.

Freedom is crucial to a thriving society, but the question is what actually guarantees freedom. I say that it is a positive love for human beings, rather than a fear of infringing on someone's personal autonomy, that best guarantees our freedom.

It is true that this latter, more negative idea will keep you from doing a lot of bad things. By not infringing on someone's personal autonomy, you will easily avoid killing, injuring, stealing from, or committing one of a number of offenses against that person.

But this is not the virtue that has made our nation great. Leaving each other alone shows a certain amount of respect for other people, but only in a negative sense--you fear invading their privacy. Love requires a positive view of human dignity, one in which every human being has inherent value; and it is love for human beings that has made us this nation great.

Love has not only carried movements, like the civil rights movements, but love carries us every day. Every day, I am absolutely sure, there are thousands or even millions of cases of someone doing more than he needs to in order to help someone else. There are many people who make entire careers out of serving others. Without these people, many human beings would simply be left to rot.

With the recent destruction in Haiti, love has never been more important. But you can see love everywhere. I was just reading one of my favorite Webcomics, and the note from the author at the bottom said we should all do our part to help. Of all the places...

Love is so instilled in our society, even those who may not really know where it comes from still have it. And we can't live without it. King knew this.

So does the pro-life movement.

Oh, why would I bring up the pro-life movement when I've just been talking about love? Surely I can avoid for one day bringing up an issue that provokes such animosity.

Okay, two reasons I mention this. One, this Friday is the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and once again I'll be headed to the March for Life. The other reason is that I view the pro-life movement as being in line with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although many people view the pro-life movement as a backwards, conservative movement bent on undoing the progress made toward women having equal rights with men, the pro-life movement sees itself as quite the opposite. Indeed, we pro-lifers tend to see ourselves as a new (or continuing) civil rights movement.

Just listen for a while to this speech by David Bereit, National Director of the 40 Days for Life campaign, given just before the Walk for Life yesterday in Memphis. (You'll hear where the title of this post comes from.)

The pro-life ethic is an ethic of love. Whereas the pro-choice ethic is an ethic of personal autonomy, based on the fear of infringing on someone's privacy, the pro-life ethic is one of positive love toward human life. All human beings, no matter how small or insignificant, are inherently valuable.

And while the traditional conservative pro-life position may have been one of personal responsibility, which blames women for their mistakes, the pro-life movement has been developing an ethic of community responsibility. Churches have been supporting local crisis pregnancy centers, to offer free alternatives to abortion. Christians have been gathering together to pray in front of abortion facilities. People of every faith and background have been gathering in Washington, D. C. to protest Roe v. Wade.

It has also become a movement that recognizes that the women who have abortions are as much victims as their unborn children. It is a movement that seeks reconciliation and is eager to see hearts and minds change. It is a movement that selflessly devotes time and energy to saving unborn children from abortion, simply because human beings are precious.

Those who promote abortions are quite often those who stand to gain financially from abortions. Indeed, it is easy to see that abortionists will be willing to do their work as long as there is money in it. The pro-life movement, on the contrary, exists solely because of love.

But of course, I need to remember, just like everyone else in the pro-life movement, to love my enemies. I admit the pro-life movement has often been, well, very bad at this. That is not to say that the stereotypes and outright misrepresentations of us in the mass media are true. Yet hate must be avoided at all costs.

My dream, along with Martin Luther King's, is that one day, truly, "this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold this truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,'" and, to finish that quote, "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I'll see you in Washington.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Media Discrepancies

Compare these two headlines:
  1. Poll: 67 Percent of Americans Oppose Funding Abortion in Health Care Bill
  2. Americans evenly split on abortion health coverage
Pretty amazing, huh? It makes perfect sense when you consider the ideological bent of each publication. The first headline is from, a news source dedicated to pro-life issues. The second is from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The discrepancy may not be all media bias, though. It's interesting to compare the different questions that were asked in these polls.

The Seattle PI cites an Angus Reid Public Opinion national survey:

The poll found that 44 percent of Americans support banning abortion coverage through insurance plans subsidized by the government: 42 percent disagree, and 14 percent told Reid they are not sure.

Got that? The question was, would you support banning abortion coverage.

Now let's look at the Quinnipiac University poll cited by

The new survey asked: "Do you support or oppose allowing abortions to be paid for by public funds under a health care reform bill?"

Whereas the previous question asked whether you support banning abortion coverage, this one asked whether you support allowing abortions to be paid for.

It's hard to say what the outcomes of these two polls really mean. Why would Americans be evenly split on banning abortion coverage, but overwhelming opposed to allowing abortions to be paid for?

One hypothesis might be that the Quinnipiac question was more explicit in stating that the government would actually be paying for abortions. Perhaps a respondent who doesn't quite understand what's going on would think that banning coverage for abortions would somehow put a restriction on abortion, rather than simply prevent public funds from paying for abortions.

Or perhaps it never occurred to some people that public insurance coverage for abortions means the government pays for abortions, i.e. our taxes pay for abortions.

Or maybe people just find it hard to support a ban on paying for abortions, because supporting a ban makes it sound like you're against the status quo. "Just leave it alone" might just sum up the majority opinion on this issue.

The most frustrating possibility, of course, is that it's all a matter of media bias. I take small comfort in knowing that the best a left-leaning newspaper like the Seattle PI can do is find a poll suggesting Americans are "divided" on this issue.

That saddest thing of all is to see how "liberals" continue to hamper discussion on this issue, quoting opinions like "There is no point in reopening a debate about abortion in the U.S. right now." It seems the Left wants more than anything to protect the status quo on abortion and silence opposition. That's not very liberal, in the truest sense of the word.

Calvin's defense of Scripture

Being the good Presbyterian that I am, having a desire to search out my own tradition for answers to life's important questions, I decided to read through Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion in a year. The reading schedule I have makes room for a day of reflection every so often, so I thought that on those days I would write a blog entry about what I've just read.

Actually, what made me decide to do this was a reading from two days ago (1.7.4-5), on the authority of scripture. This passage is a real struggle for me. I find Calvin's thoughts both beautiful and terrifying:

Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. ... Therefore, illumined by his power, we believer neither by our own nor by anyone else's judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that is has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men.


Whenever, then, the fewness of believers disturbs us, let the converse come to mind, that only those to whom it is given can comprehend the mysteries of God.

Immediately I can hear many of my friends shouting an "amen" to these words, yet in the same instant I can picture many others cringing, or perhaps rolling their eyes.

Calvin's words are worth considering. Personally I would not roll my eyes at them, just as I do not roll my eyes at the claims of Islam or any other religion which claims a sacred text. Do we seriously expect to ascend to heaven with our own minds, to know what God is like through our own finite efforts? If God is there, then surely He has been good enough to somehow communicate to the human race in terms that are clear enough.

On the other hand, it is hard not to cringe, out of a mixture of fear and doubt and frustration. It is not hard to see how Muslims could make the same case for the Koran, or a Mormon for the Book of Mormon. Any religious person could bring forward a profound religious text and defend it as God's own word, and claim that anyone who does not receive it as such has simply not been enlightened by God.

Of course, it would not be fair to say that Calvin doesn't care about reason and proof. He is not saying he would never give rational arguments to confirm the witness of the Holy Spirit that Scripture is God-breathed. But he is subordinating human reason to divine revelation, which on the one hand seems entirely appropriate, given that what is divine is greater than what is human; and yet on the other hand, there is a danger to subordinating reason to revelation.

Simply look at all the different groups of Christians (let alone other religions) and where they come from. At some point Protestants must have so internalized Calvin's principle that they couldn't help but split and split and split. It is easy to justify leaving others behind when you have internal confirmation from the Holy Spirit. The reason others disagree with you is that they have not been enlightened from above.

Rational thought can easily be made into a Tower of Babel by which proud humans assert their self-reliance, but divine revelation can be equally perverted. It can be an impenetrable wall shielding an all too human idea from human criticism. Ironically, it was this very thing that Calvin was trying to destroy--the wall between Catholic dogma and reasonable critique.

I do think it is insightful how Reformed apologists point out that there is nothing higher than God, and therefore it is logically impossible to find any higher standard by which to scrutinize His Word. However, the desire for a rational defense of Scripture's credibility is not necessarily the desire of arrogant man who wishes to put himself above God. It is, at best, the desire for love.

Reason allows us to see beauty where we didn't see it before. A complicated musical piece can be frustrating to people who don't know what they're listening to. Someone with more training can point out all the subtleties that make the piece enjoyable. Reason, at its best, is one person pointing out to another all the patterns that make the world beautiful.

When Scripture is merely asserted as an authority, it is not hard to see why people would think God does not love us. If He truly desires fellowship with us, let Him offer an explanation of Himself. Let Him guide us gently and show us the patterns in His behavior that make Him so truly beautiful.

In historical context, I think I see what Calvin is doing here in the Institutes, moving authority away from Church leadership and locating it in a common document to be read by all. However, I sense a great need to move beyond what he has done, since it leaves so many questions unanswered. Perhaps what I read later in the year will help.

If I were to continue with all my thoughts on this subject, there's no telling how long this would get, so I think I'll have to end here. Calvin's style is very blunt, which makes him fun to read, though I can see why many people take offense at him. Certainly he has made a tremendous historical impact, and for that reason alone it's probably worth taking the time to read his work.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Florensky on Creation

"Objectivity does exist. It is God's creation. To live and feel together with all creation, not with the creation that man has corrupted but with the creation that came out of the hands of its Creator; to see in this creation another, higher nature; through the crust of sin, to feel the pure core of God's creation... But to say this is to posit the requirement of a restored, i.e., a spiritual, person."

"'Nothing,' says St. Methodius, 'is evil by nature. Things become evil by the mode of their use...'"

"The body is something whole, something individual, something special."

"[T]he life of each of these organs--head, chest, and stomach--can be deepened by an appropriate training, and then a person becomes a mystic of the respective organ."

"[C]hurch mysticism is the mysticism of the chest.... If the chest is the center of the body, the heart is the center of the chest. And, since ancient times, the entire attention of church mysticism has been directed at the heart."

"A genuine Christian ascetic is distinguished from mystics of [the head] by restraint of a proud mind. He is distinguished from mystics of [the stomach] by inhibition of [lust]. All that a genuine Christian ascetic lives by arises in him not arbitrarily in one separate organ or another, but in the living center of his being, in the heart, and it arises there under the grace-giving action of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter."

"The genuine Christian ascetic is essentially connected with all of creation and does not despise anything that belongs to creation. But, in his case, in his feeling for creation, there is no lust. He penetrates deeply into the mysteries of heaven and earth and is not deprived of their knowledge, but, in his knowledge of the mysteries, there is no pride."

"Two feelings, two ideas, two presuppositions were necessary for the possibility of the appearance of science: first, a feeling and idea whose content was the lawlike
unity of creation (in contrast to the caprice of demons...); second, a feeling and idea which affirmed the genuine reality of creation as such. Only these two feelings and ideas made it possible to pierce the reality of creation with a fearless, direct gaze, to approach this reality with trust, and to love it joyously.
Theologically speaking, it was necessary to introduce two dogmas in man's consciousness: the dogma of the Providence of One God and the dogma of the creation of the world by a Good God, i.e., the dogma of the giving of its own, independent being to creation. The providence of God and the freedom of creation form, in their antinomy,
one dogma, the dogma of God's love for creation, a dogma that has its foundation in the idea of God as Love, i.e., the idea of the Triunity of Divinity. This antinomy, in all its decisiveness, is the foundation of modern science."

"Only Christianity has given birth to an unprecedented being-in-love with creation. Only Christianity has wounded the heart with the wound of loving pity for all being."

"'Love of nature...But what about ascetism, the escape from nature?'--we can hear the objection of worldly people. In response, I affirm in advance that worldly literature has never understood the spirit of Christian ascetism.... This leads to a situation in which the substantial differences between Christian asceticism and the ascetism of other religions, especially the Hindu religion, are usually not recognized. ... [T]here is nothing more opposed than they.
... One despises creation, although it is involuntarily attracted by its evil, and attempts to acquire magical powers over it; the other is in love with creation, although it hates the sin eating away at it, and the ascetic does not need magical powers, because grace-endowed creation will remove the yoke of sin's heteronomy and will be able to live as it is in itself, in accordance with its originally given mode of being."

These thoughts, scattered throughout Florensky's chapter on "Creation" in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, summarize for me the full meaning of science--this "being-in-love with creation." And it is only through a certain disposition--a "mysticism of the heart"--that one can truly enter into this kind of science.

That's my take on the relationship between science and religion.

Monday, January 11, 2010

If I were God...

Reading yet another criticism of Intelligent Design (by a Christian) reminded me of how tricky the evolution "debate" can be.

It has long been argued that it should be possible to tell whether this world has been designed by some sort of intelligence (cf. Paley's argument for the existence of God). It shouldn't be hard to see why this argument is so appealing--if this world was designed by an intelligent being, then there really is a transcendent purpose for this life. That's good news.

The central complaint made against this argument is the same, whether it's in the context of an argument about the existence of God or in a debate between evolution and "intelligent design": there are plenty of things that an intelligent designer clearly would've done differently.

Dr. Ayala makes this exact argument:
"I do think that people of faith may find in the world many reasons that support their belief in God. But I don’t think that intelligent design is one of them. Quite the contrary. Indeed, there are good reasons to reject ID on religious grounds, in addition to scientific grounds. The biological information encased in the genome determines the traits that the developing organism will have, in humans as well as in other organisms. But humans are chock-full of design defects. We have a jaw that is not sufficiently large to accommodate all of our teeth, so that wisdom teeth have to be removed and other teeth straightened by an orthodontist. Our backbone is less than well designed for our bipedal gait, resulting in back pain and other problems in late life. The birth canal is too narrow for the head of the newborn to pass easily through it, so that millions of innocent babies—and their mothers—have died in childbirth throughout human history."
It sounds as if we're not debating science at all, but rather theodicy--how can God exist if there are bad things in the world?

Believers in God almost all do the same thing in this debate: they find some way to make bad things not God's fault. Ironically, that goes for both believers in intelligent design (or creationism) and opponents of intelligent design. While creationists say God designed the world good and humans introduced evil, theistic evolutionists say God allowed evil by way of a "hands-off" policy. (Perhaps "deistic evolution" is more accurate.)

I think what's really going on here is a tricky balance between two important desires. One desire is to find beauty in the world. It is natural that studying the world should leave the impression that it is designed, because there is so much out there to inspire awe and wonder in the human heart.

But the other desire in this balance is to rid the world of suffering and death. Just as it is natural to think the world is designed because it is beautiful, so it is equally natural to think the world is not designed (or unintelligently designed) because there is so much suffering and death. As much as this world can be awe-inspiring, it can be equally heart-breaking.

Many people tend to cling to both desires equally, and yet on the question of whether the world was designed, they seem forced to choose yes or no. In either case, something has to be rationalized away. Those who insist that the world was designed find a way to rationalize the existence of suffering and death (this is theodicy).

Those who believe the world was not designed have their own rationalizing to do. On the question of why the world is beautiful, usually the answer is that it comes down to arbitrary human preferences ingrained in us as a result of millions of years of evolution. I find this at least as weak as any explanation for why a loving God would allow evil.

I guess I find it hard not to simply keep these two desires--one for enjoyment and the other for justice--in tension. Resolving this tension never satisfies me. Scripture never really resolves this tension, either. Just read Ecclesiastes and the prophets side by side. Maybe it is sheer vanity that we persist in this debate. Given the way we seem to talk past one another, that can't be far from true.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Meaning of One and Three

It occurs to me that the doctrine of the Trinity is a stumbling block because it messes with our mathematical system of accounting for things in the world. But God is not a creature to be counted as such, so why do we expect that our conventions still apply?

If God is both One and Three, it is only because He cannot be accounted for by standard mathematics. In mathematics, One is not Three, and that's that. However, if One and Three are words that can have different meanings other than their mathematical meanings, then the doctrine of the Trinity is still possible.

This is one reason why I'm not such a mathematical Platonist these days. When it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, I find myself constrained by reason to reject such a doctrine if, in fact, the system of mathematics I use every day is reality.

Yet the doctrine of the Trinity sums up a manifest experience of God, witnessed not only in scripture but in life. God was in Jesus, and Jesus was in God, and Jesus was God. No one has ever seen God or ever will, but if you've seen Jesus, you've seen God. This paradox is not a matter of abstract philosophical principles but of experience.

If I think of mathematics as a tool for describing reality, or even better, a system that helps me manage reality, then there really is nothing wrong with this paradoxical doctrine. God being both Three and One doesn't contradict real experience; in fact, it corresponds most exquisitely with real experience. But clearly God cannot be described (or managed) by the intellectual tools of (traditional) mathematics.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Butter is Better

My girlfriend sent me this amazing link.



Winners and Losers

I watched two big bowl games this week, one by actually traveling to Phoenix to see the Fiesta Bowl and one by going to my aunt's house to watch the National Championship on HDTV.

I was cheering for TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, of course, because of my extensive family ties to the university. My aunt is a professor there, my brother an alum, and, well, we live in the Fort Worth metro area, so it seems fitting we should cheer for the Fort Worth team.

I guess it was just an off day for them. Boise State played a good game, don't get me wrong. They didn't make mistakes like TCU did. If TCU hadn't made those mistakes, though... I got the feeling it could have been different.

Maybe TCU was just disappointed not to be playing an SEC team. TCU vs. Florida would've been a fun game to watch. Whatever it was, you can't lose focus if you want to win a bowl game against another top ten team. It could have been different, but TCU lost.

It was a great finish for Boise State, for sure, completing a 14-0 season. And you have to respect that team, whose 2007 Fiesta Bowl victory against Oklahoma was legendary.

Still, it could've meant so much to TCU to win that game, and probably finish with a #2 national ranking (if there's any justice in the world, it'll be Boise State at #2). Not bad for a team that nobody's ever heard of.

Texas lost to Alabama, and of course we all know how Colt McCoy got injured in the first quarter, which knocked him out of the game. Did that affect the entire course of the game?

I don't know, but I thought it was remarkable to hear McCoy talk after the game. He said he never questions what happens, but trusts God to be in control of everything. Still, he would've given anything to be out there on that field. Wouldn't it have been a great story, McCoy leading the underdog team to victory?

But it's still a great story for Alabama to win, after all. The Heisman curse has been broken. In fact, since the underdog team won the past four years in a row, it's hard to even know what "underdog" means anymore. If it means "team you don't expect to win," then statistically the #1 team might have been the underdog (based on the previous four national championships).

I guess what I was thinking about in all of this is how these games bring together hundreds of different individual stories, divide them into two big teams, give one team the glory, and take it away from the other.

Even completely opposite teams can both make great stories out of victories, each in their own way. The team that no one has ever heard of can come out of nowhere to win a championship. That's a great story. Or the team that has a long tradition of excellence can win yet another championship. That's a great story, too. People love both.

Mostly I suppose people like it when their team wins. It's a pretty arbitrary system, but maybe that's what's so fun about it. There's nothing fans can really do to determine the outcome of a football season, so when it goes their way, it feels like the gods smiling on them.

Sure, we watch sports because they're fun to watch, but I think there has to be a little more to it than that. I think we all want to feel a little bit of the gods smiling on us. Maybe it's deeply engrained in us from an era when we were all warring tribes. (I've heard that football is just war without the killing.)

I wonder what that means for actual religion. It's not good enough for God to smile on all of us. That's boring. Or at least it sure isn't football. We all need our moments to feel we're special, as in distinguished, as in better.

Is this just a heathen desire that we ought to nullify? If it is, God forgive us--I don't see this desire going away any time soon. But if it isn't, I does one find this desire fulfilled in the Kingdom of God?

Maybe I'll just leave it at a question for now.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Unreasonable Effectiveness

I've recently become a fan of Peter Leithart, thanks to the recommendation of my brother. I was perusing some old posts and came across this one on the comprehensibility of the universe. Of course I am always flattered to hear about "the unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics.

It is a beautiful mystery, that mathematics, which is pure thought, can lead to advances in understanding the natural world. (This is dear to my heart, given that I study that's actually applicable to science and engineering.)

But on the other hand, I've heard it argued, with some merit, that there is no reason to think that we humans genuinely understand the world around us. The universe is "rational" only insofar as we force it to be, i.e. we subjectively interpret it as rational.

For instance, Newton came up with a beautiful model in his mind, and then applied it to the universe around him. The power of his model is that it really is so predictive and helps us to manipulate the world around us so effectively. Is it "correct"? Does it really enable us "to discern the inner structure and beauty of the physical universe?"

Obviously not, because Einstein supersedes Newton. But now that we have Einstein, do we now truly understand the universe? Well, why would it be any more so with Einstein than it was with Newton? Again, the power of Einstein is that his mental construct provides us with such excellent predictions of real-world phenomena.

I don't think that one can argue that of necessity humans developed intelligence that allows us such power over our surroundings. However, I do think it can be argued that power is all we're getting from our ability to do science. There is no guarantee that what we obtain in our theorizing is some direct understanding of the universe, as if we've truly unlocked its secrets.

Leithart ought to appreciate this, as there surely will always be some mystery in the universe.

I see mathematics as a creative act. It is almost as if, instead of discovering a system that already runs the world, we are actually building a system by which the world ought to be run. People might be surprised how often mathematicians say something like, "Morally speaking, this is the answer we're looking for." The idea is to look for what should be true, and then see if the universe obeys.

We are learning to have dominion over the world. Yet it cannot be an arbitrary or cruel dominion, because only by truly loving the material world can we master it. Any old scientific model will not do. It can only be one that truly captures the heart of reality.