Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On Absolute Truth

This is the first in a series of apologetics-related posts where I try to explain or defend various elements of the Christian faith. Before starting, I'll outline my view on apologetics. I don't think it's possible to objectively 'prove' Christianity in such a way that a rational person would be compelled to believe it. Christianity is more than just a religion, or set of beliefs: it's a dynamic relationship with God, and entering into such a relationship will always take a leap of faith. That's not to say, however, that apologetics is useless. Many people have intellectual obstacles to believing; questions of faith or unresolved issues with some element of Christianity. The duty of apologetics is to clear away these obstacles and make straight the path to belief.

That said, today I'm going to prove the existence of absolute truth. Cool, huh? I imagine many of you have heard some variant of this, but maybe I just feel it's everywhere because I read lots of books that deal in such things.

The basis of my proof is this: the statement "There is no absolute truth," or "Truth is relative," or any such variant, is self-refuting in much the same way as "This statement is false." If there really is no absolute truth, and truth is relative for everyone everywhere as postmodernists would claim, then it's absolutely true that there is no absolute truth, which is a contradiction. If there is no absolute truth, then making sweeping statements saying so is impossible. So clearly absolute truth does exist. This says nothing about what that absolute truth is like or what is absolutely true. The important thing is that it opens the possibility for this truth to exist. There is real, objective truth out there, and we may as well try to find it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

On How the Giant Pliers in the Sky will Come to Kill Us All

Google has foreseen it. I recommend running to the nearest cave as soon as possible. Or Middlebrook Hall; as vice president, I will protect us from the giant transdimensional pliers!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

On Evangelism

Apologies for the long silence; I've been staying quite busy with homework, classes, and running for vice president of my dorm; here's hoping I win! But I finally have some free time and I feel compelled to use some of it on this blog. Anyway, today at Hope Community Church we're in the aftermath of an epic 14-month trek through 1 Corinthians, most of which I was present for. (Except last summer) This week, our pastor was apparently celebrating by going skiing in the Rockies, so we had a guest pastor talk about church planting, an activity that is very important to Hope. For his message, he went through some Biblical examples of church-planting in Acts 17.

Basically Paul goes to Thessalonica and spends several seeks among the Jews there, talking in their synagogues to try and persuade people that Jesus is their awaited Messiah. In one of my favorite translations in the NIV, some Jews were opposed to Paul and "rounded up some bad characters" to riot against Paul, basically running him out of town. Paul goes to Berea and repeats his message, where more people listen, but the same troublemakers come and force him out again. Finally Paul goes to Athens and, while waiting to be joined by his brothers in Christ Timothy and Silas, starts conversing with the Greek philosophers, who invite him to explain his teaching at the Aeropagus (also known as Mars Hill, the namesake for our discussion group). He then presents a quick, eloquent explanation of the gospel, using the Greeks' devotion to their religion and their altar "to an unknown god" as a starting point.

Several points can be taken from this passage. Paul's commitment to his mission (and his message) is made pretty clear after he keeps preaching the gospel after being repeatedly run out of town and threatened by some "bad characters". In 2 Corinthians 11, he goes into more detail about the troubles he's been through for the gospel: imprisonment, flogging, being shipwrecked, going hungry, and the concerns that come from being responsible for churches all around the Mediterranean. This Christianity thing is clearly much more than a social club where people share feel-good stories and sing songs. No one dies for a social club.

Besides all the threats, Paul also perseveres amidst discouragement. Each time his message has some believers and (often a lot of) detractors. He doesn't convince everyone. This mirrors evangelism today where it's so easy to think we're not accomplishing anything, that no one is listening. It's a matter of faith to believe that God really is making a difference through our proclamation of His message. Paul also doesn't seem to have much time to start any kind of formal, established church in any of the three places. Of course, a church in those days was basically a big Bible study meeting in someone's house to worship God, a bit easier to set up than a modern church. The important thing for Paul was simply to help people understand God and the gospel, and train leaders to steward the church after he left.

One other thing we can get out of this chapter is how Paul makes an effort to speak to his audience out of their culture, in a way that makes sense to them. In the synagogues he speaks from the Jewish scripture to prove that Jesus is the messiah. On Mars Hill he builds off of the Greeks' religious practices and even cites one of their poets. He's attempting to make his message less foreign and more credible by linking it to sources and traditions his audience considers reliable. This kind of cultural awareness and willingness to adapt the delivery of the gospel to your audience is no less important today.

But though Paul adapts the way he preaches the gospel to make it more palatable to his audience, he never adapts the message itself. He doesn't try to hide or obscure the parts of it that will be difficult of might turn people away; for the Greeks it was the resurrection, in modern culture it tends to be judgment, hell, or even Christianity's claim to absolute truth and the only way to heaven. You might win more people over to a diluted, feel-good version of Christianity, but is it a victory if they don't know the real God? Going back to my emergent church post, it's smart of them to be aware of postmodernism and try specifically to speak to this culture, but diluting the gospel with the fuzzy truth and relativism of postmodernism is dangerous.

Friday, March 19, 2010

On Lay vs. Lie

Some Buffalo Wild Wings trivia brought an issue that is very important to me to mind. As a Computer Science major, usually the only grammar issues I care about are Java syntax and parentheses count. (Note the mismatched whatever-you-call-it in that sentence) But on the issue of the use of the words 'lay' and 'lie', I will never relent. No, never! I see them misused online, in song lyrics, and by my fellow students. I had a fantastic English teacher in high school who taught me how to use these tricky words, and I will share her wisdom now.

'Lay' has an object; it always acts on something; you lay something down. It could be your keys on the counter, a bag on the ground, or yourself on a bed. It's also the past tense of 'lie', which probably confuses a lot of people. So, for example, you could say "I lay myself down in bed" or "I lay there all last night." The past tense of 'lay' is 'laid'.

'Lie' has no object; it's reflexive. After you lay an object down, if it's inanimate it will lie there until someone picks it up. i.e. "You look tired; you should lie down awhile."

Hopefully this clears up some confusion. Now go and lay down the law...s of grammer.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Words vs. Sounds

Continuing this trend of posts inspired by Gannon Murphy's talk, I write about a documentary he recommended to us called "They Sold Their Souls for Rock n' Roll". It's filled with descriptions of how rock music is driven by the devil to tempt people and citations of lyrics out of context, and I wasn't entirely convinced. What I took away from it was that we need to be critical of the music we listen to; what the lyrics are saying, and the culture behind the music from which it descends. (Especially in live concerts, which have a much greater effect on listeners than recordings)

But this isn't a post on music; it's instead my thoughts on the above lesson that came to me during a bike ride today. Notice how in my watch list of what we should be careful of in music, I left out an important component: the music itself, i.e. the instrumentation. I don't recall a single mention of the instrumentation of the music the documentary was warning against. It wasn't concerned with 'Satanic' instrumentation; Black Sabbath's use of the tritone wasn't brought up at all when the documentary went over them. Why the imbalance?

What I realized, and what I argue now, is that the lyrics of a song can be inherently 'bad' (evil, immoral, etc...bad from a Christian worldview), and instrumentation can't. Why? Because we have a system for assigning meaning to specific combinations of letters/syllables/words called language. You've probably heard someone argue that words are just groupings of sounds with no inherent meaning apart from what we give them. And they're right! At least in a way. It is true that words have no inherent, objective meaning; if I listen to a conversation in Greek, for instance, it's pretty meaningless to me. However, by learning and using a language, we implicitly assent to that language's lexicon--the meanings it gives to certain words. In doing so, we gain access to a handy shorthand for expressing meaning to other users of the language, meaning that would otherwise be very difficult or impossible to express. (Unless you happen to be a a Charades master)

So while there is no truly universal meaning to a language, it has a meaning for its users built on knowledge of what its words mean, or refer to. If we want to converse in this language, we have to agree to its definitions. So to the speakers of a language, its words do have (effectively) objective meaning. If you deny this, why should anyone listen to your meaningless sounds?

On the other hand, there is not nearly as formalized a system for assigning meanings to more generalized sounds like the instrumentation of a song, aside from noises that might correspond to real world things or events that make them. (Dream Theater sometimes tells part of a story in their songs without words, through sound effects) Aside from this, I assert that it's all personal preference, which is fine for one who usually enjoys music for the sound, not the lyrics.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On the Emerging Church

Last night at the latest Mars Hill discussion we heard from Dr. Gannon Murphy, a learned theologian who had much to say on...well, just about everything. I'll likely come up with more posts on various things he brought up, but for now I'm writing about one topic that came up that, after some research, has alarmed me tremendously: the emerging church movement. I came across this article on an evangelical professor's experience with the emerging church movement. He cites a book that describes emerging churches with nine points:

Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.
McKnight then goes on to describe five major influences on the emerging church:
  1. "Prophetic rhetoric"; an intent to be provocative and spark reform of the church.
  2. Postmodernism, as mentioned above. The emerging church consciously identifies with the postmodern movement, seeking to minister to, alongside, and even as postmoderns.
  3. A focus on practice and actions over doctrine and beliefs.
  4. "Post-evangelism": skepticism of systematic theology and a focus on coming to a theological consensus via conversation rather than arriving at a final doctrine; questioning who is and is not saved
  5. Generally liberal politics.
Several things of this description of the emerging church distinctly worry me. Foremost is the movement's embracing of postmodernism, a pervasive system of thought whose central message is (correct me if I'm wrong) that scientific, rational attempts to figure the universe out have failed and that there is no one objective reality or truth, only everyone's own perception of it. Postmodernists put everything under skepticism (even, hopefully, postmodernism itself) and are leery of any truths that claim to be objective, or universal.

At least to me, there seems to be a bit of a problem with attempting to combine postmodernism and Christianity. While postmodernism denies that we can know any truly universal truth, Christianity emphatically declares that we can know the truth--and not just that we can intellectually grasp the truth, but that we can truly know the Truth, the Way, and the Life. The person of God--father, spirit, and son-- is the ultimate foundation of Christianity from which our beliefs and actions should descend. If, as postmodernists, we begin questioning and tampering with this essential truth, can the results really be called Christianity?

McKnight is clear in stating that the entire emerging church is not like this. Ministering to and engaging postmodernists is certainly a good idea; simply recognizing postmodernism as a condition under which we are called to proclaim the gospel is acknowledging the state of the world. But in our zeal for engaging postmodernists, we need to be careful not to join them.

The other possible mistake I see with the emerging church movement is its heavy "post-ness". Notice how in his five points McKnight describes the emerging church as postmodern and post-evangelical. The "post-" prefix generally indicates a reaction against a previous system or idea; the emerging church as a whole seems to be a giant reaction to a Christian church (or "religion") that is perceived as monolithic, hierarchical, strictly doctrinal, insular, and filled with modern-day Pharisees. So instead of these things, we get a church with "conversation" instead of real teaching and little in the way of doctrine.

As Christians, we should, of course, be concerned about becoming too much like the Pharisees. The extreme openness of the emergent church to people of all backgrounds and willingness to engage society in a culturally savvy way are both valid ways to avoid this, but in throwing out so many of the fixtures of church tradition and doctrine it loses some valuable things. My pastor describes the purpose of a church as being fourfold: worship, teaching, fellowship, and outreach, which I find to be a fine definition. The emergent movement is sorely lacking the teaching element; spiritual conversation can be helpful and enlightening, but it's still no substitute for the preaching of God's word. This, along with the movement's fear of establishing doctrine and centralization pave the way for all kinds of things to go wrong, like the aforementioned incorporation of postmodernism.

The challenge of the church has always been to keep, study, and teach the Word in the midst of the surrounding culture, in a way that helps people live lives given over to God. Arguing over doctrine and becoming prideful in our knowledge of the truth is one way to taint the transmission of the Word, but abandoning teaching and the search for the absolute reality of God altogether is not the answer.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On the Great Divorce

Whether you're a Christian looking to deepen your walk with God or barely even know Him, I can't recommend the writings of C.S. Lewis highly enough. They're at once intellectually deep, beautifully persuasive, and purely enjoyable to read in a way I've never seen in more contemporary authors. The Chronicles of Narnia were a highlight of my childhood (and of many others', no doubt), and I continue to enjoy them and his theological writings today. (And am told I need to read his space trilogy)

As to the purpose of this post: I just finished reading The Great Divorce, an allegorical story depicting a nameless narrator's journey from Hell to Heaven. The central idea of the book is a rejection of the "marriage of Heaven and Hell", the idea that all roads lead to Heaven and that we can get there while keeping the favorite trappings of our earthly lives.

The story starts with the narrator in a dingy town in perpetual twilight. He enters a line at a bus stop, with the bus bound elsewhere. In conversations with other passengers the town is revealed to be an afterlife of sorts, where you can summon any object by simply thinking it. Far from making the town a paradise, people use the ability to make themselves homes far from everyone else since no one can stand each other there.

The bus soon comes up over an enormous cliff to a wondrous country where everything is bigger, fuller, more solid than below and where the sun is just about to rise. For the passengers (who look like ghosts compared to their surroundings) blades of grass are diamond-hard and weigh tons. The rest of the novel is the narrator's accounts of the interactions between the ghosts and the bright, solid 'spirits' who inhabit the land. The selfish motives of the ghosts--pride, greed, lust, self-obsession, possessive love--are revealed in stark contrast to the selflessness and compassion of the spirits, who are people the ghosts had known in life and continually implore their old friends to come with them to the mountains, learning to love this country and its benevolent King.

Always the ghosts have something they cling to that keeps them from accepting the offer of forgiveness and love the spirits extend. One ghost hates the idea of taking moral advice from the spirit of a man who murdered his friend in life. A mother is singularly obsessed with seeing her son again and refuses to trade her possessive love for selfless compassion. Disheartened by what he sees, the narrator begins to question whether it's really possible for a ghost to stay in the land and become solid.

But finally he sees a ghost with a lizard (representing lust) perched on his shoulder, whispering in his ear. As he makes excuses for his companion, an angel is constantly asking him for permission to kill it. When he relents and his lust is killed, he is transformed into a bright spirit and the lizard into a stallion on which he rides off into the mountains. It's the most beautiful story of redemption I've ever read, an illustration of dying to sin and living to God.

Accompanying the narrator on this journey is the spirit of George MacDonald, a theological hero of Lewis' in real life, who provides explanation of the refusal of (most) of the ghosts to look outside themselves and stay. Their obsessions, their refusal to let go of everything they put ahead of God, blinds them to His grace. Explains MacDonald,
"Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see."
Elsewhere he likens Heaven and Hell less to actual places as to states of mind, of fellowship or separation from God.
"The good man's past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man's past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things...the Blessed will say 'We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,' and the Lost, 'We were always in Hell.' And both will speak truly."
My favorite quote from the book emphasizes that where we end up, Heaven or Hell, is not a surprise, it is a decision we all make.
"There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No one who seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened."
As Lewis emphasizes in the preface (and MacDonald in the last chapter), the story is not an idea of what Heaven and Hell will literally be like. It's an allegorical picture of what they are, and the choices we all make that determine where we end up. And in this it is one of the most amazing books I've read.

If you rode the bus from Hell to Heaven, what would be nagging at you to go back?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On Fractals, Part 2

Recently I and a friend concurrently stumbled upon this article on how an adaptation of the root-finding algorithm Newton's Method led a mathematician (the co-author of my math text from last year, actually) to discover a fractal pattern in the distribution of which starting points led to which roots of a function. A quick explanation:

Newton's Method is an algorithm invented by physicist, mathematician, alchemist, and all-around genius Isaac Newton for finding roots of a function--places where it equals zero. It's quite simple, and though it has some drawbacks, when it finds roots it finds them incredibly quickly. As my CSci 2031 professor won't let us forget, it's the basis for a lot of numerical answer-finding algorithms today since it's so easy for computers to perform. But it only finds at most one root, so one run of the method isn't sufficient for a function with multiple roots.

The fractal in the first link was generates by testing a variety of points in the complex plane with an adaptation of Newton's Method that apparently works with complex numbers (I'm fuzzy on the details). The function used was f(z) = z^3 - 1, which has only one real root (1) but two more complex ones. Points were colored red, blue, or green depending on which of the three roots Newton's Method found starting from that point, resulting in an infinitely complex, self-similar pattern--a fractal. Not as complicated as the Mandelbrot set since it mostly has one pattern that repeats, but still cool. I don't know why complex functions so often tend to produce mind-blowing patterns like this, but it's one of my favorite math mysteries.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

On Faith

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. - Romans 3:22

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. - Hebrews 11:1

As a Christian, I hear the word "faith" tossed around quite a lot. People are always talking about their faith, often in reference to their relationship with/belief in God. Faith is elevated as one of the highest ideals for Christians; it makes Paul's top three in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Christians are often described as "people of faith"; faith has virtually become a pseudonym for religion. Faith has meanings outside of religion, as well; people might have faith in a friend; in a favorite sports team; in a loved one. Is it possible that by using the word so much, we've diluted its meaning?

Today, I think that secular uses of 'faith' are too often closer to the mark. It's often used to refer to simply believing in the existence of the Christian God; I'm more guilty of this than anyone. I used to think I had an unshakable, amazing faith simply because I couldn't escape the reality of the existence of God. So why was I so ineffectual as a follower of God?

Because faith is more than simply saying yes to a list of facts, or believing something to be true. One way seculars get faith right is that in the definition I gave above, the faith is directed towards a person (or entity), not just towards a fact. True faith is not just in the existence of God, but in the person of God. (See the first verse at the top of the post)

The other way I see Christians getting faith wrong is in its power. As the second verse says, faith is equivalent to sureness and certainty. It's being absolutely convinced of the reality of the object of faith. This is why Christian faith necessarily goes beyond where mere facts and logic can take us, and why skeptics call it crazy--in a world where what we can know is ultimately limited by our own perception (maybe it was all a dream!) and 99.999% is about as close as we can get to sure of anything, God calls for us to believe in Him, 100%. If you were as sure about who God is as you were about who you are, what would it look like? I can barely imagine. Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed we can literally order mountains around, so our faith must be pretty tiny indeed.

I'm not saying any of this to make anyone feel bad; again, I'm more guilty than anyone of having an insufficient faith. This has been on my heart for a while now, and hopefully someone else can benefit from a clearer picture of faith. I'll close with a paraphrased Treichlerism that well illustrates faith:
A man (Charles Blondin, for the curious) set up a tightrope over Niagara Falls and proceeded to do amazing, gravity-defying stunts high above the water. He returned to the shore amid thundering applause and asked, "Who here believes I could carry a man across the falls in a wheelbarrow?"
"Yes!" the crowds responded.
"Get in," he said.

Friday, March 5, 2010

On the Origin of Mathematics

Tonight I was treated to a most excellent discussion on, among other things, the origin of mathematics and science: man-made or divine?

First, let me say a few words about the means by which I learned about and was able to participate in this discussion, namely Mars Hill. Mars Hill is a student organization at the U of M where we discuss various topics of academia, philosophy, and religion from a scholarly perspective. We welcome anyone interested in a good, deep discussion; topics this year have ranged from the nature of beauty to just war theory to what I'm about to write about.

Anyway, tonight our discussion came to the nature of math and science. What are they, and are they human creations or from God? For a former math major with considerable experience with the subject, it was a good topic for me. We started with science; the consensus was eventually that science is the rational study of the physical world, i.e. the creation. Then, on to the nature of math. My initial position was that mathematics is a series of statements derived from applied logic and exists separately. Others argued based on how we study math or what we do with it, but out speaker urged us to define it as "the study of ____". She defined it as the study of structure, which was new to me. The way I see it now, the mathematical truth is objective and not man-made, but mathematics is the study of how it all works and is man-made. Logic is the basic tool we use to study math.

Lastly, I apologize for my extremely abbreviated description of the discussion that doesn't do it justice. If anyone with a functioning memory who was there happens to read this, feel free to add on.

Greetings from the internet, plus why I am called Fractal David

Well, guess who started a blog. I think some of my thoughts have been bouncing around in my oversized head for a bit too long. This blog will be the outlet for them, hopefully for the general enlightenment of all who read it. Hopefully after partaking you will somehow feel less confused than before. (or perhaps more?) Anyway, I feel under a good deal of pressure to make my first post a good one, so I'll begin with a subject that is very dear to me:

Fractals are cool. I mean it--really, really cool. Objects in real life are limited in how complex they can be--once you look at them closely enough, they're just atoms, and not far beyond that is all theoretical physics and speculation. Fractals, on the other hand, are different: they're infinitely complex. No matter how far you zoom in on one, they never get any simpler; you can never get down to their smallest constituent because they go on forever.

Some of the simplest fractals are generated by simple processes. The Cantor set, for instance, starts with a line. Remove the middle third of this line. Repeat the process for the two thirds of the line you have left, giving you four shorter lines. Repeat this process on each line ad nauseum until all that's left is a fine dust of infinitely many infinitely short lines. The first few steps of this process look like this:

Pretty cool, and infinitely complex, but not terribly interesting. Other fractals of this kind include the Koch curve, the Peano curve, and Sierpinski's triangle, which I encourage (but don't force) you to look up.

But other processes can make much different, more interesting fractals. By choosing a complex number and repeatedly squaring the result and adding the original number, a fractal can be made out of the points that don't become infinitely large: the Mandelbrot set, which looks something like this:
Much more interesting than a collection of line fragments, in my opinion. The Mandelbrot set has a fascinating geography unlike anything in real life, showing various infinite patterns wherever you zoom in along its boundary. Coolest of all is that smaller versions of the whole set are hidden away in it--the tiny black dot on the uppermost 'branch' of the set is one. This video illustrates just how ridiculous the Mandelbrot set is better than my ramblings ever could. If you don't feel like sitting through the whole 10 minutes (it gets kind of repetitive), skip to the end, where after zooming in to a magnification that dwarfs the size of the universe, we finally get back to a minuscule version of the whole set. I honestly cheered the first time I saw that.

Anyway, this infinite complexity and self-copying make fractals amazing. I don't doubt I could spend my life trying to understand why such a simple process can generate something so far beyond human imagination as the Mandelbrot set. But it's always fascinating to try. Exploring the Mandelbrot set is a hobby that never gets old.

So hopefully you're now at least a fraction as excited about fractals as I am. In conclusion, hello. And until next time, goodbye.