Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Presumably what the claim means is that "the universe does not look designed" which in turn means "the universe does not appear to be crafted like a mechanism." A very mechanistic worldview is at work, assuming that any God worth his salt would design everything in creation, and that this creation should be morally and physically perfect (as determined by our perspective). The creativity and changing nature of the cosmos is something that strikes me as miraculous. While some people point to the way that genetic mutations over time create ingenious "solutions" to "problems" (its difficult to write about such things without anthropomorphizing them, so please forgive me if I fail to avoid it) and state that it shows there is no need for a designer, I am amazed that seemingly random occurrences produce such incredibly novel and sophisticated solutions. I am not claiming that what is really happening is that God is intervening in mutations all the time to influence evolutionary outcomes. Rather, I am just saying that there are regular occurrences in our universe that are quite simply astounding and almost miraculous.
Just because we can see that its "the way things work" suddenly means that there can be no room for God. I don't see why there need be any such rigid division between "natural" and "supernatural" or "regular" and "divine." Just because the universe functions in such a way that certain things happen normally does not entail that there is no God. To me, the fact that there is a universe at all is astounding (regardless of those who would like to play semantic games with words like "nothing" and use sleight of hand question begging to make claims like "nothing is inherently unstable" to explain why there exists anything at all). Because of this, the universe looks exactly like I would expect it if there was a God, particularly a God who values freedom, narrative, love, and creativity. It does not look like the universe that a mechanic God would create upon close inspection, but all that does is challenge certain conceptions about what we think God should be like.
At this point I can hear the objections of a Christopher Hitchens-type who would claim that I am just using the "infinitely elastic airbag" of faith to redefine God into something that evades what science has shown. I think there is a valid concern in this criticism, and I believe seriously that there need to be good reasons for holding to what I believe about God. I find them in the narrative of the Bible, and therefore I feel comfortable about affirming such a view of God. Its true that there are different things that one can accent and stress in the Bible that can lead to different views of God, but I also believe that no text is open to any potential meaning someone might want to apply to it and that I need to seriously ask myself if I am doing violence to the text in my interpretation. I honestly do not think that I am, and that it is a remarkable fact that the Bible has been so resilient in being able to inform the narratives of human lives throughout so many different periods of history. It is not infinitely elastic, but it is nimble enough and layered enough to reveal new treasures to different people in different places in different times.
Texts are windows, but they are also mirrors and sometimes the failure to find something in a text has as much to do with the one who is doing the looking as with the text itself. If we bring our own ideas of what a God should be and what is the only acceptable way for a God to behave we will find much that is lacking. But what is lacking is our idol, not God Himself. I realize that there is no way to completely escape from our own views and assumptions about God, but this is a challenge to myself and others to let God speak on God's terms, because when He does it is often in ways that challenge our assumptions, our theologies, and our own views of ourselves and others.
When I look at the universe I see God. Others do not. And maybe its because we're not looking for the same thing.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
What started out as a discussion on the issue of justification switched over to a discussion of the penal substitution view of the atonement. Anyone who has read any of my atonement related posts here or at LA knows that I do not hold to the penal substitution view, finding it deeply problematic on a number of theological levels. However, since at least the time of Anselm, penal substitution has become something of the default view, at least for Western Christianity.
The point that was made that has gotten me thinking, however, was simply if Jesus or the Gospel writers or whomever wanted to connect Jesus' death with an idea of penal substitution, then it would have made more sense to have his death coincide with the Day of Atonement. As it is, Jesus' death occurs around the time of Passover, which connects back to the Exodus, not to the Day of Atonement.
Now I realize that there are any number of reasons why this might be the case, and I'm sure there are plenty of people that would be willing to put forth their own theory about about why Jesus died then (ranging from "because thats when it happened" to "in order to make a subtle polemic against divisions within the early Church" I'm sure), so as I said I am not trying to argue that this is some great or novel position. It just strikes me that the narrative of the exodus instead of the narrative of atonement would be the most prominent allusion at work at the crucifixion.
It makes me wonder how things might look if we started paying more attention to Jesus' death and resurrection as being part of a story of exodus and deliverance from slavery and bondage rather than a sort of divine legal exchange like the penal substitution view leads to. Just a thought.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
As a preliminary word, let me comment on the whole idea of debating these sort of topics. As many others have (rightly in my opinion) pointed out, debating has more to do with the rhetorical skills of the participants rather than the truth or strength of their arguments. I wasn't expecting to have my faith shaken to its core or substantially boosted from the exchange, and I doubt many if any in the audience experienced such a feeling in either direction. What debates are valuable for, however, is providing a starting place for further discussion on important topics. The students organizing the debate stressed this point, portraying the debate as a starting point for conversations to come. Debates don't prove the truth of atheism or theism, but they can help facilitate public discussion of important issues about God, religion, and science and help bring together people from different perspectives who share a like-minded interest in a topic. With that in mind, I'll try to summarize the main points and arguments of both participants, while tossing in a bit of my own reflection and analysis along the way.
Hitchens was the first to present his opening statement. Much of his opening statement was a call for epistemic humility. He stressed in various ways the point that in light of how little we know (and how the more we know seems to only make us aware of newer realms of which we know even less) that doubt and skepticism are the only respectable and responsible options. Religion is wrong because it claims to know the answers to our questions, but religion is simply a human-made construction that reflects humanity's primitive, primate origins, a lowly background marked by fear, tribalism, and aggression. Religion was the first faltering attempt of primitive humans to answer questions about cosmology, medicine, psychology, and the need for human solidarity. However, we have now found much better answers to these problems through science and ought to set aside the trappings of religion which so strongly testify to our primitive origins. Religion, asserted Hitchens severely warps our "moral sense of proportion" by making us think that we are somehow the center of the cosmos and the pinnacle of the world. In the light of the great age of the cosmos, to think that God revealing Himself to Middle Eastern farmers three thousand years ago is the purpose of the universe is exceedingly arrogant and presumptuous.
Dinesh D'Souza followed with his statement in which he stressed he would use reason alone to show the truth of religion. He stated that his approach would be that of a presuppositional argument (by which he seemed to mean an inference to the best explanation). He then proceeded to list a number of features of the world and our experience that he claimed science (particularly evolution) could not adequately account for. I should note that D'Souza does not appear to reject the theory of evolution, but instead believes that it has certain explanatory limitations. Evolution cannot account for the origin of the cell, and no good account of how the first life arose has been offered, he claimed. The depth of human evil also seems to go far beyond what evolution calls for, which merely offers "cruelty tempered by necessity" while human evil seems to often go well beyond any sense of necessity. Altruistic acts for strangers and rationality itself were also points that D'Souza claimed could not be accounted for satisfactorily from an evolutionary perspective.
I take issue with a number of Dinesh's points and his overall approach. I was a bit disappointed that he seemed to present only traditional Christian apologist fare, but much more seriously (as was also pointed out in the question and answer portion), Dinesh's argument seems to be only about the explanatory gaps of science, not the strength of theistic explanations. This is simply nothing more than the God of the gaps arguments. Dinesh seemed to admit as much himself when he claimed that if a better account could be given he would change his mind, implying that his only attachment to a belief in God is based upon naturalistic evidence. I find this a little difficult to believe to say the least. Also, Dinesh seems to ignore an important distinction within biology, namely the distinction between evolutionary biology and origins of life biology. This is not a major point, because even within the realms of origin of life biology there is no strong case for how the first life arose on earth, but to imply that evolution should be able to answer this question is misguided. Evolution only tells the story of how life on earth developed and changed over time, not how it first came to be.
In the rebuttal portion, Hitchens claimed that Dinesh's arguments were unfalsifiable and that religion provided an "infinitely elastic airbag" that could be made to assimilate any possible data point. He also claimed that even if there is no God, our moral problems would be identical. Thus, we should not presume that we can only be good with God. At several points throughout the debate, Hitchens took umbrage at the notion that he is somehow unable to behave morally simply because he doesn't believe in God, arguing that he had no need of a cosmic parent in the sky in order to behave morally and for the benefit of others.
I take issue with this last point of Hitchens'. While I do not doubt that Christopher Hitchens is able to behave morally, I disagree that the question of God has no bearing on the issue of morality. While I applaud Hitchens for desiring to do things like give blood and promote freedom and liberty around the world, what if someone else seeks fulfillment in doing things that Hitchens' would consider to be evil? There are profound disagreements in our world about what the good is and what the good society should look like, but all Hitchens' does is draw implicitly upon Western assumptions about what the good society should look like and our distate for societies that do not look that way.
Wouldn't it be better if Iran were a secular democracy and not a theocracy, asks Hitchens. But why is a secular democracy better? To certain strands of Islam, the good society is one that operates in accordance with Islamic law and seeks to behave rightly before God. A society that allows people to choose to disobey God as an act of free consequence is terrible and invites the judgment of God on such a view. All Hitchens has shown is that those of us who share a common cultural heritage and intellectual legacy prefer things to be a certain way and are suspicious and fearful of others who do not value the same things that we do. That says nothing about whether or not they are good. Hitchens' obviously has a strong sense of morality, but seems to assume that his moral principles are self-evident. This is simply cultural arrogance unless he can give an account as to how his moral views should hold any sway over someone else. The theistic explanation at least has that in its favor. This is a huge blind-spot in much of contemporary atheism and one that is quite simply mind-staggering to me. There are many different views of what the good and the moral is in our world, but Hitchens' fails to provide any clues as to how or why these different views can be adjudicated.
In D'Souza's rebuttal, he stressed that science is not only based on verification in response to Hitchens' charge of unfalsifiability. He also claimed that divine revelation has been corroborated by science, claiming that modern cosmology seems to have vindicated the ancient Hebrew view of a creation out of nothing. He also stressed that explanations function at multiple levels. Thus, a scientific explanation is only part of the story. He used the example of making a cup of tea. There is a scientific story that can be told about why a cup of tea came to be based on the boiling of water, the chemical interaction that take places when that water hits the tea leaves, etc. But just as correctly, a story can be told about why the tea came to be that simply states "Dinesh wanted to have a cup of tea." Thus, science cannot give an exhaustive explanation of things because it cannot begin to grapple with purpose and intentionality.
It needs to be pointed out that to the best of my knowledge, the ancient Hebrews did not in fact believe in creation ex nihilo, but instead believed that God had brought order to primeval chaos. The Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo still vastly predates big bang cosmology so the core of Dinesh's argument in this particular case is still defensible, but I believe that he has gotten his details wrong.
The question and answer session was entertaining as both participants are gifted speakers and very funny in their own unique ways. Hitchens' jokingly talking about leaving the Anglican Church was hilarious (and made me think of Eddie Izzard's "cake or death" comedy sketch). Also, this was the only point in the debate where the two interlocutors traded atrocities, something I feared the entire debate would dissolve into given the topic. Happily, the topic seemed to have been discarded with the very first opening statement in favor of broader arguments for and against belief and religion, so there was only limited exchange about whether believers or atheists have committed worse atrocities. After dealing with the question of atrocities committed in the name of secular utopianism, Hitchens' declared that the problem is the belief that humanity can be perfected by force, whether this belief be religiously or secularly motivated. This is a telling revelation in my mind considering that the topic of the debate ostensibly was "Is religion the problem?" Based on this view, it would seem that Hitchens' ought to say "no."
Hitchens' also claimed that the question of creation ex nihilo has been answered scientifically and pointed the audience to Lawrence Krauss' presentation on a universe from nothing. Having already watched Professor Krauss' presentation several months before the debate, I happen to agree with D'Souza's retort that Krauss merely uses some verbal sleight of hand to get around the question of how something can come from nothing. Krauss' answer is basically that in a quantum universe, nothing gives rise to something, which only begs the question since it naturally only leads to why we should have a quantum universe at all (incidentally, something that Krauss seems to admit in passing in his brief article "The Free Lunch that Made our Universe").
There was also a brief exchange on the nature of evolution debating Stephen Jay Gould's famous videotape analogy about evolution, with Hitchens' speaking in favor of Gould's contention that if the story of evolution were to replayed things would look completely different while D'Souza countered with Simon Conway Morris' work on evolutionary convergence to claim that things would look strinkingly similar as they do now if evolution could be played out again. Having recently read a collection of essays edited by Conway Morris, I admit that I drawn to his views on evolutionary convergence.
In the end, it made for an entertaining evening with two engaging speakers, even though I did take significant issue with points raised by each side. While both speakers were very engaging, I can't help but thinking that these debates are a bit canned. Afterall, Hitchens and D'Souza have debated each other several times before and will do so yet again later this year. There is obviously very good money to be made on the debate circuit, but the result is that the same anecdotes get retold each debate along with the same clever quips designed to get a warm reception from the audience (as anyone who has ever viewed any of the other numerous debates by either Hitchens or D'Souza available on YouTube can attest to). While there is nothing wrong with presenting the same ideas and anecdotes to different audiences, the cynic in me wonders about the sincerity behind them sometimes. If you keep debating the same guy again and again, at what point is this just a mutual agreement to make a lot of money by engaging with another entertaining person who disagrees with you? Perhaps that's a bit too cynical, but its the same way that I feel about itinerant preachers.
With that being said, I would encourage anyone with any interest in atheist-theist debates to see either of these two speakers live if the chance arises. Again, I do not think that either one made a knock-down case for their position, but they are both very good orators and these debates do help stimulate discussion. I wouldn't be writing a blog if I didn't think matters of faith were worth talking about, so anything that helps encourage dialog along those lines has its place:-)
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Professor Rea spoke on the topic of divine hiddeness (or divine silence to use his preferred term), and while that is not the topic that I want to discuss, he made a very interesting point that I think is significant. In questioning whether or not silence may be part of God's personality, Rea made the comment that there is an endemic tendency in the philosophy of religion to treat God as devoid of all personality and simply reduce God to a machine that rewards and punishes, maximizes good, etc. However, when we do so we treat God as if He has no personality Himself and can be easily made to reflect what we perceive to be the obvious good or benefit to us. Taking this point as a launching pad, I want to reflect a bit more on what it means to speak of God's personality.
This is deeply problematic on a theological level because for Christian theology God is supposed to be the epitome of person-hood. The trinity, three persons in one, is the ultimate reality, and this reality is personal. To treat God as if He has no personality is a tacit denial of this crucial point of Christian doctrine. Perhaps too much discussion of personality is bound to make some people uncomfortable. After all, stressing that God may in fact possess a vibrant and dynamic personality leaves wide open the possibility that God may be very eccentric or idiosyncratic. It is important to stress that these characteristics are not incompatible with being all-loving or all-good. What it does mean is that God's reasons for acting or not acting may look very different than ours.
This is perfectly compatible with the testimony found in Scripture. Besides an obvious verse like Isaiah 55:8 ("For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways"), we also find telling examples from the life of Jesus. Jesus in many ways is a paradigm of the unexpected, constantly defying the expectations of his culture, his family, and his disciples. For anyone who affirms the divinity of Jesus, this should be a powerful challenge to our own expectations of who God is and how God goes about acting.
While the context of the passage clearly indicates that they were being sarcastic, if we take seriously for the sake of argument the call of the teachers of the law to Jesus as he hung on the cross ("He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! 32Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe." Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him." link), then it seems that Jesus passed up an opportunity to make evident who he was and gain more followers. Presumably there may have been other people there too who might have been willing to follow Jesus but were struggling with how such a person fit into their religious paradigm. Didn't Jesus care about these people? Didn't he know that if he came down from the cross others might believe? (Again, this is just for the sake of argument. I am not claiming that this is the meaning Mark is trying to convey).
To anyone honestly wrestling with who Jesus was at that moment, it would be extremely natural to think that the best thing for Jesus to do would be to come down and prove he was the Messiah, the anointed one. If he really cared about these people and he really was the Messiah, why wouldn't he do such a thing? It is easy to see why not in the light of the resurrection that followed, but for anyone on the first Good Friday such a thing could not have been anticipated. And that is just the point- God does things that we do not expect, things that violate what to us seem like self-evident truths about what a good person should do in a given situation, but in the end what God has done surpasses our imagination and is incomparably greater than what to us seemed like the obvious thing to do.
This imagination and counter-intuitiveness may very well be a part of God's personality that reflects just who God is. Will this satisfy everyone who wonders how a world filled with evil could ever be justified? Probably not, but perhaps, following Ivan Karamazov, they may walk the quadrillion miles and declare it incomparably better than could ever have been imagined when they at last come to see what God has done:-) All this is only to say that Scripture is filled with incidents of God acting in unexpected ways that at the time undoubtedly seemed to go against what seemed to be the obvious good decision to make. If we take seriously God's personality and look to the testimony provided in the Bible then we have reason to believe that what we see now may look radically different in the light of what God will yet do. This requires a step of faith, but it isn't a blind leap. We can only have confidence in God Himself and who He is, which is exactly what we should expect if He truly is personal.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Today is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. We remember Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, recognizing that it led to the cross. Dying for our sake that we might have forgiveness and new life, Jesus endured excruciating pain and loneliness, dying a criminal's death. This is the scandal of the cross- a challenge to our own assumptions, institutions, and values. As St. Paul wrote, "but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor. 1:23). We confess and celebrate the resurrection, but we can never afford to forget the reality and brutality of the crucifixion. In anticipation of the resurrection that we will be celebrating a week from today, I am posting a passage from the liturgy of St. Basil the Great for reflection on the significance of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Coming from the Holy Anaphora, I think this text is a powerful reminder of the power of God and the hope of resurrection:
I hope this week will be a time for sober and grateful reflection on the passion of Jesus that we might be all the more able to be filled with the joy of the light of resurrection.
Priest: Together with these blessed powers, loving Master we sinners also cry out and say: Truly You are holy and most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages. He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ. He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high and He will come to render to each according to His works. As memorials of His saving passion, He has left us these gifts which we have set forth before You according to His commands. For when He was about to go forth to His voluntary, ever memorable, and life-giving death, on the night on which He was delivered up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy and pure hands, and presenting it to You, God and Father, and offering thanks, blessing, sanctifying, and breaking it:
Priest: He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying: Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you and for the forgiveness of sins.
Priest: Likewise, He took the cup of the fruit of vine, and having mingled it, offering thanks, blessing, and sanctifying it.
Priest: He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying: Drink of this all of you. This is my blood of the new Covenant, shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.
Priest: Do this in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this Bread and drink this Cup, you proclaim my death, and you confess my resurrection. Therefore, Master, we also, remembering His saving passion and life giving cross, His three; day burial and resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven, and enthronement at Your right hand, God and Father, and His glorious and awesome second coming. (link)
Friday, March 19, 2010
Following others, I think of faith as belief, trust, and commitment. Faith is not merely believing something (God is good, God exists, the capital of Montana is Helena, etc.), but being willing to personally commit oneself in some way to that belief, while trusting in it. On this view, doubt and faith are not opposites or antonyms, but can in fact coexist. In fact, I would argue that doubt is essential for faith, because there is no need for trust or commitment in matters of certainty, at least not in any sense of personal stake. It is this uncertainty or doubt that causes us to rely on the one whom we are putting our trust in. In order to trust someone through periods of doubt or uncertainty, we need to remember what they have done in the past, and this is where the importance of memory comes in.
Failures of memory and the suffering and pain it causes are littered throughout the Bible. Time and again in the Old Testament, God delivers Israel from affliction, persecution, or imminent danger, causing Israel to worship God. However, soon afterward we see time and again Israel forgetting God and turning to sinful ways. The book of Judges is essentially dedicated to this cycle of deliverance and return to sin. Why does this happen? Because Israel did not remember the things that God had done in the past. In Exodus, we see the Israelites demanding if Moses has led them out of Egypt simply to die, seemingly ignoring the miraculous events that have allowed for their departure. Their deliverance from the armies of Pharaoh does not stop them from crying out at the lack of food they encounter, and then after being given quail and manna, growing tired of these foods.
In all of these situations, the Israelites encountered difficult situations that threatened their lives and health. The dangers were real: death at the hands of an army and starvation. However, God delivered them in each instance. That does not take away the uncertainty that inevitably faced them in these situations: the mere fact that they had left Egypt did not logically entail safe journey to the promised land. There were legitimate grounds for doubt then, and their only choice was to have faith in God, putting their trust not in any certain circumstances or law-like processes, but in a person. However, their failure to trust God showed a failure to remember all that God had done. No matter how often God delivered Israel, in the face of danger time and again they still did not trust Him. If nothing else, this should give us pause that if God were to suddenly start performing miracles in greater frequency and visibility that it would inevitably lead to greater trust. If God is really interested in lives submitted to Him in relationships of trust and commitment, as I believe, then it seems like great acts may not be the way to achieve this end. It certainly wasn't in the stories recorded in the Old Testament.
In order to trust God, we must remember what He has done in the moments when He seems distant or absent. This memory allows us to trust when our circumstances and instincts tell us to abandon hope or give up. Nowhere in the Bible does it suggest that God is interested in freeing His followers from lives that involve risk, danger, difficulty, and uncertainty. Thus, even more overt acts of God are not going to remove uncertainty from our life, because there must still be room for trust. This gives new significance to Jesus' words "do this in remembrance of me." Remembering what Jesus has done is central to the mission of the church, enshrined in the Eucharist. Faith requires trust which in turn requires memory. Failures of memory lead to failures of trust. The Church isn't just the body of Christ on earth, working for His kingdom. It is also a community that exists to serve as a witness to God's acts and promises.
In moments where God seems distant, we are reminded of the many times that God's people went years and decades in seeming silence. Even Jesus himself cried out to God, asking if God had forsaken him. These memories can serve to guide and comfort, reminding us that God does not always act in ways that we expect or in the time frames that I want, but that He is good and able and will complete His plans. This is what I strive to remember and what Christians can never forget.