Sunday, February 24, 2013

Two Parables

One of the most common ways Jesus taught was by parable. ("Parabolic", instead of "hyperbolic" speech, though He certainly used that too) Parables are extended analogies used to make a point about a subject that may be hard to grasp when talked about normally (such as the kingdom of God) in plain, everyday speech. Though the format can seem similar, they are not allegories where every character and story element has a spiritual analog. The Bible says Jesus spoke in parables rather than plainly when teaching so only those who actively sought to understand His teaching would be able to do so. Another reason, I think, is that parables are good at catching people "off guard" by getting them to consider a subject from a perspective that they normally wouldn't. At least, that's my hope with this post.

As I argued in my response to Dan Barker's book, the interface between Christians and atheists can't simply be argumentation and debate. Actual, mutual understanding is needed (and atheists can't simply claim to already have this understanding by virtue of formerly being Christians). Christian "apologetics" should not simply be studying how to craft the perfect argument to persuade skeptics and detractors; it should be the pursuit of dialogue and real relationships with people of different beliefs than yourself. Promoting understanding, not persuasion, is the goal of the following two parables.

Disclaimer: The following parable requires some basic knowledge of calculus to fully appreciate. If you're feeling rusty, please review the basics of differentiation and integration.


Suppose, in some kind of alternate reality, mathematics was not pursued by science and engineering but by religion. Specifically, you have been raised in the holy faith of calculus. which believes that the culmination of all mathematics is the laws laid down by the great mathematician Isaac Newton. At your church, the preaching, teaching, and fellowship all revolve around the proclamation of the following eight laws, which you have been taught from childhood and which are supposed to be able to explain all manner of differentiation and integration.
Eight laws, four for differentiation and four perfectly matched ones for its inverse, integration. (It's true that the last of each law can be derived from the others) The two are perfect inverses of each other, and with the power of both every mathematical mystery can be answered. You gather weekly to remind each other of these laws, apply them to your lives, and sing praises to the great father Newton who derived them.

One day, feeling curious and less than satisfied with what you've been taught about the clarity, harmony, and sufficiency of these laws, you decide to try to apply them all by yourself. You quickly run into difficulty. You try testing the inverse relationship of differentiation and integration on a simple function, but get the following by applying the laws:
Wait a minute. You differentiated and integrated x squared, but you just got x back, even ignoring the extraneous C. How are they perfect inverses of each other? Moving on and hoping it will make sense later, you try plotting x squared and its derivative next to each other.
More confusion! Isn't the derivative supposed to be the rate of change of a function? If the graph of x squared is curved, that means its rate of change is, well, changing! And yet the derivative is a flat line, a constant 1! How can this be? Poking around in your holy scripture, you even find functions like logarithms that don't seem to have any way of being differentiated or integrated at all!

You arrange a meeting with your pastor for some answers. You show him your calculations, you show him the pages with the odd functions in your Bible. He closes his eyes, sighs, and shakes his head. He says, "Newton sometimes works in mysterious ways. For now, it is ours to have faith in the perfect correctness and completeness of the revelation he has given us, and to trust that one day he will make everything clear."

You don't find this answer very helpful or even credible at all. If calculus is so correct and complete, worked out by the smartest man who ever lived, why does it seem like it has contradictions and flaws, and why doesn't even your pastor know about it? You decide to turn to the internet, posting your questions on some calculus forums in hope that someone else out there has the right answers, though you're starting to wonder if there is no "right answer".

But the answers aren't much more helpful either. Some internet mathematicians say that these questions, don't bother them because they "feel in their heart of hearts" that Newton's system is correct and complete. Some make wild arguments about the order of nature and internet stories of people seeing Newton's laws show up on their toast. Some intellectual types try to redirect your questions or answer ones you never asked, explaining from their ivory tower that your church's teaching isn't true to Newton and drawing up pages of proofs and derivations of their supposedly-perfect system from algebra (if Newton was real, why would he make the truth so incomprehensibly complicated?). Some go on the offensive, asking, "How dare you question Newton?"

You start broadening your search, asking liberal mathematicians who only accept the first two laws and even followers of the antimathematician Leibniz you once considered heretics, but really it's starting to seem like there is no grand, mathematical system for finding derivatives and integrals. You finally reject the faith you once held and decide to pursue an BA in English.

This parable is largely a response to the other atheist book I read, Deconverted by Seth Andrews. He describes four kinds of people he interacted with in his doomed search for answers, represented above: the feeler, the folklorist, the theologian, and the foot soldier. Obviously I would fall into the theologian category. It sounds like Andrews saw the (partially true) answers the theologian types were giving him as overcomplicated, overconfident, grasping-at-straws attempts to explain away what he saw as increasingly obvious evidence for Christianity being a bunch of baloney. The parable is an attempt to show what this might have looked like to the theologians he was talking to--an unreasonable demand to have truth conform to expectations of simplicity and rejection of evidence that said otherwise as "explaining away' the obvious. (e.g. answering some Biblical questions by bringing up the need to read the Bible in its original context, which he dismisses but which I see as "obvious")

A New Sect of Islam

Suppose that in the near future, in Iran, a new sect of Islam emerged. This movement worshipped a previously little-known, poor, itinerant Muslim imam (teacher) named Isa. This man's life was little-documented at the time, but he was believed to have been stoned to death as a heretic in 1980, the early days of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Isa had been killed for claiming to be God, unthinkable blasphemy in Islam, but nonetheless after his death the cult he had led continued to persist and even grow, proclaiming that Isa really was God and was equal in stature with Allah, though somehow, mysteriously, one in spirit with him. Despite continuing, fierce persecution, the cult of Isa continued to spread, both inside and outside Iran, in the east and the west, converting not just Muslims but people or all faiths, finally gaining widespread, international attention in the present day.

Obviously not all of the parts of this story align perfectly with the gospel accounts. The point is that the emergence and persistence of an Islamic sect that holds a multipersonal view of God is just as unthinkable today as the emergence of a Jewish sect that held a multipersonal view of God in the first century. Judaism and Islam are both strongly monotheistic religions. The very existence of such an offshoot sect begs the question, how can this religion have possibly formed around a belief that completely flies in the face of the most cherished beliefs of its parent religion, and how can it possibly continue to hold traction and convert believers of this parent religion?

Again, to use another analogy, this would be like an explosively popular Christian denomination emerging, converting many existing Christians, while proclaiming that we should actually be worshipping Michael, with God as his assistant. It's that different. Atheists, who are inclined to see all religion as equally superstitious nonsense held by people who will believe anything, may not see any difficulty with how this could happen, but in my opinion it is even harder to explain than the resurrection accounts.


  1. Regarding this parable, I really do like it. My first reaction to the supposedly perfect system of algebra someone on an internet forum had was "well what about Godel's incompleteness theorem!" and I think that sort of jives with the point. Maybe there is no belief system that can both prove everything that is true, and NOT contain any fundamental contradictions.

    Going further, though, I'm not sure that means we shouldn't try. We could, for example, find out which of Newton's eight laws contradict themselves when we put them in a system together, and choose one of the systems that doesn't contain any contradictions, which I think of being similar to taking the bible as literally AS POSSIBLE.

    As a practical matter, stepping out of the parable into what I think is related territory, one of the things that has concerned me in the past, is the possibility that when people come to hold new religious beliefs, those beliefs are somehow accepted in order of how easy they are to accept. It seems to me that this could lead to bias in how we interpret the bible. For example, I'd have very few problems hearing "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" and thinking that it's a beautiful statement, and not thinking of it again, except to remind myself how much God loves me. There are other parts of the bible, however, that I'd read and say, "Hey now, this doesn't seem right." and then the interpretation starts.

    I think there is some fundamental morality in me, whatever its source might be, that leads me to accept some things more readily than others, and I've worried that this fundamental me-ness shaped my religious beliefs more strongly than my religious beliefs shaped my morality.

    Regarding Imam Isa(whose name is very close, by the way, to that of a real historical figure from the 80s), I think something very similar HAS happened. I'm curious what your thoughts on Mormonism are, if you're very familiar with it. I happen to have a copy of the Book of Mormon that I've been intending to go through and read at some point. From what little I understand, it is as radically different from Christianity as Christianity is from Judaism, but I don't think either of us are likely to consider this as proof for the validity of its claims.

  2. Something I've ironically heard more from atheists than Christians is that you shouldn't just believe something because you want to, or because it sounds nice. It's definitely applicable to Christians as well. Last night in my small group, we mentioned the tendency to reinterpret or culturalize only the parts of the Bible that we don't like at face value, which is of course inconsistent.

    Regarding the second one, I was just going for the name of Jesus in Arabic! Mormonism still hasn't really taken off like Christianity did, especially outside the U.S.--but then, I suppose Christianity was still considered a cult 150 years later. I haven't studied Mormonism enough to have much of an opinion. I got through the first book of the Book of Mormon, but all the "It came to pass that..." wears me down. It claims not to be fundamentally different, but most Christians would disagree.

  3. I think that Mormonism hasn't take off like Christianity did, but it's commonly said to be the fastest growing religion in the world, and it seems to me that they've developed a political presence in a much shorter time span than early Christians did, although I might be somewhat mistaken on that. I think of Christianity as not having terribly much political clout until emperor Constantine in the early 300s.

    As far as reading the Book of Mormon, I've had a very similar response. I've read a little bit of what other groups say though, and I don't know exactly how much weight to give their account, since they weren't exactly unbiased. I was directed, however, to "The Articles of Faith" by James Talmage, which is scanned and reely available on Google books.

    Now, I don't know the importance of this book relative to other writings in the faith, but according to wikipedia, "The Mathematics and Computer Sciences Building at Brigham Young University is named after Talmage" so I don't think he's been officially declared a heretic or anything. Starting at the end of page 38 on the Google scanned edition, he says
    "Three personages composing the great presiding council of the universe have revealed themselves to man; (1) God the Eternal Father, (2) His Son, Jesus Christ; and (3) the Holy Ghost. That these three are separate individuals, physically distinct from each other, is very plainly proved by the accepted records of the divine dealings with man."

    Which maybe leaves some room for there to still be a trinity, until he says within the next page:

    "Jesus, while on earth... has repeatedly testified of the unity existing between Himself and the Father, and between them both and the Holy Ghost. By some this has been construed to mean that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one in substance and in person, that the names in reality represent the same individual under different aspects. A single reference to prove the error of this view may suffice: Immediately before his betrayal, Christ prayed for His disciples, the Twelve, and other converts, that they should be preserved in unity, "that they all may be one" as the Father and the Son are one."