Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Matter and Manner of Christian Belief

A common criticism leveled against Christians by postmoderns (or responded to by Christian apologists) is that it's somehow intolerant, arrogant, or narrow-minded to claim that your religion has "the One Truth", that it is true and all other worldviews are wrong. Who are you to make such a bold claim and invalidate the experiences and beliefs of billions? The standard apologetic response goes, then, that truth is necessarily exclusive. By the nature of the claims they make, the religions of the world cannot all be true at once. Believing one is really, absolutely true necessarily means believing that all the others are therefore false. (And, of course, absolute truth does exist--to deny this is to utter a contradiction) Christian faith means clinging to the truth and rejecting falsehood. All of this tolerant mumbo-jumbo about all the religions being "different, equally valid paths to God" is then nothing but wishful thinking, a refusal to see the reality of "how truth works".

Is this really how truth works?

Large swaths of Christianity seem to believe so. Creeds, statements of faith, confessions, and so on have been an integral part of Christian tradition since the very early church. These can be deep, heartfelt expressions of a sincere faith in God, but (I think especially today) they can also act as definitions of what we believe. Agreement with a statement of faith is often a condition for membership of a church or denomination. A common confession serves to unify churches in their affirmation of what they believe to be true, against arguments and lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5).

All this to try to paint a picture of how much emphasis Christian churches, historically and certainly in modern evangelicalism, place on what Christians believe. Perhaps you can think of other examples. In light of this, I'm going to make a statement that may be provocative: What you believe is not as important as how you believe it. Surprisingly, when I first had this thought I was unintentionally echoing the 350-year-old words of the Puritan theologian John Owen, who wrote in his treatise Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, "The difference between believers and unbelievers as to knowledge is not so much in the matter of their knowledge as in the manner of knowing."

Of course any number of alarming implications can be drawn from this. If what Christians believe is not the thing of greatest importance that really makes them "Christians", then, in theory, someone could belong to Christ while professing to believe things that are antithetical to Christian tradition. It would mean that doctrines, creeds, and statements of faith aren't as central to Christian belief as we think. It might mean that those postmoderns in the first paragraph were right all along! Maybe I don't exactly mean all of these things. Remember that I didn't say that the matter of belief is not important, only that is is less important: the manner of belief--how you believe what you believe, whatever it is. Let me try to support this with three of the apostles.

James writes in James 2:14-26, a passage that often makes reformed Christians uneasy:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
What he is saying here is that simply believing certain things is not enough for the Christian: those beliefs must be of a kind that lead to changed action, changed lives. This doesn't just mean adopting a new "Christian" worldview and then consciously, rationally deciding to live differently according to it. As James K.A. Smith argues in his book Desiring the Kingdom, most of our outward lives are not the result of conscious decisions we make but of our habits, desires, and loves, which all strive toward a certain telos (goal) of our life. James (the apostle) is speaking of a belief that may manifest as a certain set of conscious beliefs (a certain "creed"), but primarily extends deeper than this--a turning of our hearts, imaginations, and habits to God. He is getting at a distinction between words of profession and action or affection that is easily forgotten in Christianity where it is highly influenced by modernism, which values consciously held, well-reasoned, propositional beliefs most highly (with the assumption that if we believe rightly in God in this way, He will change our hearts to align with our profession).

Or consider 1 John 3:16-18:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
Dare I suppose that John is talking about the same thing as James only with love rather than faith--that the love that is the true mark of Christian love consists not teaching people to believe true statements but in real, physical action--and this not out of obligation or to meet legal demands (which I think he would say is not really love) but a heart that has been transformed by belief in Jesus.

Lastly, Romans 2:25-29, where Paul writes to convict Jewish Christians:
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
So an inward orientation of obedience to God is more important than outward signs or professions of faith (which is just what circumcision was--not just a "ritual" as Protestant interpreters often construe it). And so we get more of an idea of what I mean by "how you believe something": with love, gentleness, and consideration (see James 3:17), not bitterness, pride, smugness, the need to be right, or a fear of bad theology.

I, for one, see a lot of the problems of the church as proceeding from this insistence on what is believed over (and even against) how it is believed, emphasizing humans as primairly being thinkers or believers of truth rather than lovers of ultimate good. Agreement with certain creedal statements (or even with a certain stance on hot-button socio-political issues) can effectively become the defining mark of a Christian rather than Christlike love (John 13:35); meanwhile, serious character flaws can be overlooked in someone with all their theological ducks in a row. Worse still, churches can and have split acrimoniously over doctrinal issues (up to and including the first major and biggest split in church history over the filioque), which may sometimes be justifiable but is often due to nothing more than elevating matter of belief over manner of belief.

We may try to minister to peoples' deep-seated emotional needs with bare doctrine, assuming that teaching people to think and believe rightly about God will be enough (hint: it isn't). Even if I have in mind exactly how the Gospel applies to some sin I'm struggling with, but no matter how much I tell it to myself it doesn't seem to make a difference. Knowledge of facts alone cannot save us. We cannot simply assume that telling people the (propositional) Truth about X (homosexuality, God's sovereignty over evil, evolution, fill in the blank) is automatically loving. The way in which we hold these beliefs and share them with others is more important and may even act as a guide to what we believe. (For an extreme example, does believing that God hates gays and wants them to burn in hell along with all who tolerate them make you resemble Jesus more or less?)

So how we are to address our token postmodern? I would qualify the critique as pertaining not to which beliefs we hold but how we hold them, a distinction which is easily forgotten in knee-jerk responses in defense of absolute truth. We are quick to point out the hypocrisy (literally from the Greek, "under-judging") of criticizing claims to absolute truth, but what if we were to trust postmoderns to be more consistent than this and actually try to understand what they are saying?

What I think this critique is getting at is the distinction between viewing yourself as a God-appointed prophet-teacher to the unenlightened masses, with a one-way flow of Truth from your mouth to their ears, or as a humble servant who has been entrusted with a message that has the power to transform lives and is a living case study of it, still undergoing the transformation of that message. One way really is arrogant, assuming that we ourselves are infallible because we possess an infallible gospel; the other resembles Jesus and realizes that God has placed His perfect gospel into fallible, finite human vessels as if to maximize the contrast (see 2 Corinthians 4:7). There is nothing wrong with simply believing that the Christian gospel is true (as I believe it is), but how we believe it is another crucial and oft-overlooked dimension.

As I was writing this, I was convicted to close with one last point. I said that the manner of belief is more important than the matter, but the most important thing is neither of these but the object of belief itself (existing "objectively", independently of the things you believe about it). Whatever you believe about him/her/it, the pivotal question is: toward what or whom is your belief (think the desire of your love, your greatest love, the fulcrum of your imagination, vision of the "good life", foundation of your identity, etc., not just doctrinal assent) directed?

Friday, June 21, 2013

More typology, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the F

So, about my conclusion a few months ago that I'm an INTP... I have come to realize that I was mistake about that. I now consider myself an INFJ.

I can assure you, this is as much a surprise to me as it probably is to you, loyal reader.
How can this be, you may ask? How can the author of such an unashamedly cerebral blog be a "Feeler"? Didn't you decide you much more strongly resembled an INTP? Are you just being wishy-washy and picking whatever type you feel like at the moment?

My mistake last time was deciding based on outward manifestations of the types. My whole method involved taking the descriptors in the MBTI images like the one shown above and averaging how much each one seemed to resemble me. But these things--and the four letter dichotomies themselves--are descriptors, not definitions. Stereotypes like J's being organized, F's being soft and shallow thinkers, or I's needing lots of alone time merely describe common epiphenomena (outward effects) of how personality really works. The descriptions of the 16 types that are just based on the four dichotomies read like horoscopes--they're sufficiently general that it's easy to "see yourself" in lots of them, and there is great potential for bias toward whatever you tested as.

For a better picture, we need to look at the history of the MBTI. Carl Jung, a disciple of Freud, originally postulated four "cognitive functions" that make up personality:
  • The perceiving functions, sensing and intuition
  • The judging functions, thinking and feeling
Jung believed that every person manifested each of these functions in an introverted or extroverted form. In other words, no one is "just" a thinker or a feeler, or a senser or an intuitive. Everyone uses all four of these functions, but they may be directed inwardly or outwardly. The contribution of Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers was to distill Jung's theory of cognitive functions into three letter combinations--E/I, S/N, and T/F--and to add a fourth, J/P, that describes a person's preferred extroverted function, perceiving or judging.

I'm going to explain my journey to INFJ in two ways: the thinking way and the intuitive way.

The Thinking Way

Anyway, thinking about types in terms of these cognitive functions rather than the simple dichotomies of the individual letters and their attendant stereotypes is generally accepted (at least around all the internet forums full of profiling and psychology nerds) to be a more reliable way of determining your type. Someone recommended a test to me that I really liked that scores you based on your preferences the eight cognitive functions (four introverted, four extroverted). I took it and got the following scores (averaged over two iterations on successive days):
Introverted Intuition (Ni)44.75
Introverted Thinking (Ti)42.8
Extroverted Intuition (Ne)34.65
Introverted Feeling (Fi)30.35
Extroverted Feeling (Fe)28.6
Extroverted Thinking (Te)24.55
Introverted Sensing (Si)22.4
Extroverted Sensing (Se)12.5
These results, especially the high introverted thinking and intuition, confirmed what I'd been suspecting. (Of course there is a risk of cognitive bias here) Bear with me; I realize I'm sounding more like an INTJ here. The standard MBTI model assigns four of these eight functions to each type: one of each function, two introverted and two extroverted. The dominant and auxiliary (first and second) functions correspond to the middle letters in your MBTI type; for introverts, the dominant function is introverted and the auxiliary is extroverted. For J's, the judging function (thinking or feeling) is the extroverted secondary; for P's the perceiving function (sensing or intuition) is extroverted. These functions and their order, from most to least preferred, comprise your "function stack". So the introvert's dominant function, the one they are most accustomed to, is the one opposite their J/P distinction, which is one reason why focusing on the four-letter codes is confusing.

With this in mind, it's a bit inconvenient that my top four functions only cover three of the letters and include only one extroverted function. Whatever type I end up as is only going to be an approximation. But which is the smallest approximation? As I asked for advice, the three closest (and their function stack) were:
  • INTP (Ti Ne Si Fe)
  • INTJ (Ni Te Fi Se)
  • INFJ (Ni Fe Ti Se)
Looking at the interaction of the functions provided more clarity than the simple dichotomies of the letters, like a "back door" to my type. For example, I always thought of myself as "a thinker", but this model affirmed that I was both and asked which one I was more of outwardly. INFJ was surprising, but interesting in that it had both Ti and Ni, which, if you have read much of this blog, you will recognize as strengths of mine. I recognized Ni in particular as being "me" from all the descriptions: a continual open-minded shifting of perspectives to see past apparent contradictions and redefine problems in interesting ways. For this reason, INTP, lacking Ni, seemed like an increasingly poor descriptor for me. Someone suggested ISTP because it had both Ti and Ni, but its function stack is Ti Se Ni Fe, and my intuition is definitely more prominent than that. (Notice how above both sensing functions were dead last on the test I in point, today I almost got hit by a train because I was lost in thought while walking down the street)

That left the two INxJ types that had Ni as their dominant trait, which I thought seemed very likely for me. But, even though I have always thought of myself as a "thinker", INTJ seemed like a poor fit. The functional description of extroverted thinking describes a focus on logical, straight-line arguments and appeals to evidence and empirical verifiability to make efficient plans and get others to see things your way. That barely sounds like me on my blog (recall my posts addressing the limits of empirical knowledge), much less in the rest of life, where I rarely even share my line of reasoning about something unless asked. Plus the INTJ lacks introverted thinking, which sounds much more like me.

That left INFJ (interesting article on the differences and similarities with INTP). The only difficulty in seeing myself as one was the fact that I don't consider myself a very warm or emotional person--but is this because I'm intrinsically not, or only because I've always been typecast (by myself and others) as a rational? After consulting some INFJs, they generally agreed that I sounded like one of them, but with an especially developed Ti function so that I seemed more like an INTP. So, effectively, the middle two parts of my function stack are reversed, resulting in Ni Ti Fe Se. Having my dominant and auxiliary traits be introverted also explains why I seem to live in my head even more than most introverts.

The Intuitive Way

The more I've thought about it, the more INFJ (albeit an especially cerebral one) seems to "fit" me--not in a superficial way like the type horoscopes, but on a deeper level that makes a lot of sense of my life and also challenges me. I'm not interested in directly implementing my ideas like an INTJ, and I'm not merely interested in ideas for the sake of ideas like an INTP (or I would probably have a BS in mathematics now); I'm interested in ideas for the sake of people who are affected by them indirectly or directly by believing them.

The extroverted feeling function is concerned with politeness, social conventions, and public ethics. For me, this often manifests as being "diplomatic" about my ideas; I try to explain them in a sensitive and warm way that people will respond positively to, even if it means withholding their full extent--because, I figure, they are more likely to be believed that way. It means trying to see every idea in the best possible way, even ones I disagree with like Calvinism, because much conflict can be avoided if we respect people regardless of what they think and don't settle for caricatures of peoples' beliefs but respect them. It means I don't mind when people disagree with me, but I can barely sleep at night if I have an outstanding interpersonal conflict with someone. Extroverted feeling guides how I go about sharing and implementing my thoughts and ideas. This blog tends to be a nice "safe place" to do so.

Meanwhile, having introverted intuition and thinking as my top two functions is kind of fun. Especially since my whole episode of doubt and the new perspective on faith and the Bible it opened up, I've been able to successfully combine them into something resembling a superpower. My intuition leads me on convoluted paths of abstract reasoning around and above simple dichotomies, restricting definitions, boxes that constrain thinking, naive analogies, and apparent paradoxes that others see as unresolvable; then my thinking pulls these nonverbal hunches up into my conscious mind where they can be examined from every angle, evaluated for soundness, and converted into a coherent and persuasive argument that I effectively received "for free", without having to reason it out with thinking alone. Oops! I just shared the secret to writing this blog. Don't copy me.

But again, my ultimate goal in all of this is not simply to understand as many ideas as possible; it is to do something meaningful, to make a difference somehow. That is why I get annoyed with theological debates like supra/infra/sublapsarianism, seeing them as pointlessly speculative. So, ultimately, I end up viewing my thinking and intuition not as ends unto themselves but as tools in the service of higher goals that are set by by extroverted feeling. These higher goals involve people, not just ideas. So my desire to help other people who experience religious doubt or skepticism as I have, so my willingness to withhold my thoughts and hunches when I don't think they'll be helpful to people. Again, four letters can never define or sum up who I am. But they are a nice description to wear for now, and a bigger set of shoes to grow into in time to come.

Is the Bible the Word of God: The Need for Conversation in Apologetics

My first foray into apologetics (making a defense for my faith, not apologizing for it, I would have been quick to add) was during my junior year of high school, about when I started really caring about the Christian faith I had more or less passively inherited from my family. The fact that my faith largely expressed itself through reason would become significant and probably led to my struggle with doubt as I realized the limits of reason. Anyway, I bought and devoured apologetics books with my lawnmowing money-- I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, The Case for ____, and so on. I reveled in the ability apologetics gave me to establish a firm rational foundation for my faith, impervious to any counterargument or skeptical attack.

If you couldn't tell, I don't look back on those days with much pride. I've since realized that the center of  Christian faith, the "faith" that needs to be firmly founded and vigorously defended, is not in the rational head but in the prerational heart. A faith built on knowledge of Biblical theology and rational arguments alone, which is largely how I started out, is an empty shell of God's desire for us (see James 2:19) But that's a discussion for another time, probably after I've read more of Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith (which I highly recommend if my previous statement intrigued you).

What I'm concerned with now is not so much the overly rational form apologetics often takes--though Alistair McGrath has plenty to say about this--but its focus on the "argument". If you have read any William Lane Craig or Alvin Plantinga, to name two, you probably have a sense of what I mean by this; if not, I roughly mean "A statement formed by reason and interconnected supporting evidences advanced in apologetics to establish a point being argued." For example, in classical apologetics you have the ontological argument for the existence of God, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and so on.

The danger of focusing on "argument" in apologetics is that they tend to be highly self-contained and, ostensibly set up to persuade skeptics, usually tend to be tremendously convincing to the apologist himself, so that apologetics can seem to consist primarily of the learning, memorization, and regurgitation of canned arguments (which often devolves into the other, less benign kind of argument, especially if both parties are doing it). Let me give an exaggerated example: Atheist at twelve o'clock? Quick, throw the cosmological argument at him! That didn't work? Point out the problems with Darwinian evolution! He's still not convinced? Argue that everyone believes in real good and evil, and therefore an absolute reference point for good! It's not working! Call in backup! Refer him to your theologian friend with a blog!

What is missing in the above example (I don't know how familiar it will sound to anyone but me) is simply conversation. Instead of viewing nonbelievers as beloved people made in the image of God and potential partners in real dialogue (or even as people to learn something from), a heavily argument-based approach to apologetics treats them as potential targets for conversion, and arguments as the tools for accomplishing this goal. Notice how no mention was made of anything the atheist is actually saying, just that they aren't buying your arguments so you'd better field more. Something tells me that this isn't a very good way to win people over to seeing things your way.

The other danger is that if all you're doing is reciting or rehashing arguments you've studied beforehand, you will be left flat-footed if a skeptic has some evidence you can't explain or a counterargument you can't answer. I'd like to do a case study of this with a Cru resource a friend showed me presenting arguments for the authority of the Bible/its status as the word of God. It's a pretty good outline of the supporting evidence for the Bible being the "word of God". What concerns me is that it's very one-sided: it presents some basic arguments and substantiation for each of its points, with the assumption that these will be "enough". If this is not the case or if someone has already heard these arguments, then it becomes useless.

What is needed beyond the basic talking points is conversation. This means an openness to allow the person you're talking to to really be heard and help shape the conversation--to actually hear and understand their questions rather than just giving them your answers. Viewing nonbelievers as people rather than simply evangelism targets means humbly entering into the loving give-and-take that should be a part of all of our relationships. For something completely different, let me illustrate with an imagined dialogue between Peter the evangelist and Paul the atheist.

(Paul is on the campus green, playing frisbee with an iPad. Enter Peter.)

Peter: Hi, I'm doing a survey about peoples' beliefs. Can I ask you a few quick questions?

Paul: Oh, another "survey"? You're here to tell me about Jesus, aren't you?

Peter: Actually yeah, that's right. Would you mind?

Paul: Eh, why not. You can dispense with the survey questions. I'm sure I've answered them before. I get what Penn Jillette said about how you really believe there's a heaven and hell so you want to tell people about it, and I respect that, but I just don't see how the Bible can be true. Between a book with talking snakes, magical fruit, people living in fish, and people coming to life like zombies, or the facts of what we know today about the world, about history, about people, the choice of which one to listen to is obvious, at least for me.

Peter: I certainly see the Bible as more than a story about talking snakes and zombies! 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all scripture is God-breathed, and the more I read it the more I see God, through His Spirit, transforming me through its truth. It's truly a book unlike any other book.

Paul: Well, that's great that you get so much out of it, but I still think it's pretty ridiculous overall. And whatever the Bible says about itself isn't admissible evidence to the contrary.

Peter: Well, I guess that's true. Internal evidence like that is convincing to me, but if you don't trust God in the first place I guess it wouldn't work for you. Have you considered the external evidence? Like archaeology--things like the five cities Abraham defeats in Genesis 14, or the fall of Jericho have been independently confirmed. That's pretty cool.

Paul: Sure, but for every Biblical "fact" archaeology confirms, it disproves another two. There is no evidence whatsoever for the Israelites being slaves in Egypt. Or most of the conquest of Israel. Or the earthquakes when Jesus died.

Peter: I'd have to look more into those. But a lack of evidence for something still isn't evidence against it.

Paul: But it's still significant, and it gives me no reason to believe any of these things actually happened.

Peter: Point taken. But I guess archaeology isn't what convinced me either. Or what about all the fulfilled prophecies in the Bible? The Bible predicts things like the fall of Tyre, or the Babylonian captivity--not to mention the hundreds of messianic prophecies Jesus fulfills!

Paul: That's assuming you've dated the books correctly. If they were written retrospectively after the events occurred, there's nothing amazing about it. Lots of scholars--even Christian scholars--think most of the Old Testament was compiled, if not written, from oral history during the second temple period. And have you seen some of the messianic prophecies Jesus "fulfilled"? Like prophecies written about someone else, songs that aren't predicting anything, or random parts of the law! I can't help but see your "hundreds" number as greatly inflated. Which of the so-called messianic prophecies can you establish as definitely being about Jesus in the first place?

Peter: Well, for instance, the famous "suffering servant" passage in Isaiah 52 and's hard to argue that it wasn't written about Jesus. Or Micah 5, which predicts a predicted ruler of Israel would be born in Bethlehem.

Paul: That's two plausible ones. And as my Jewish friends are sure to point out, for every prophecy Jesus fulfilled, you can point to plenty more that he didn't.

Peter: That'll be at His second coming.

Paul: But how do you decide which prophecies predicted Jesus' first time and which ones were about his second? Whichever ones he didn't fulfill now, he'll get to later? Seems awfully ad hoc to me.

Peter: Hm...I'm not sure how to explain it to you, but I still think it's pretty amazing. But I didn't come to believe in the Bible because of a list of prophecies Jesus fulfilled. Hm... Try to keep in mind that it isn't like any other book you might read. It was written by dozens of people over thousands of years, in many different places, circumstances, and genres, but it's all one story! Through all that, the Bible doesn't contradict itself. Isn't that amazing?

Paul: Doesn't contradict itself? Sure it does. Matthew and Luke give two different, incompatible genealogies for Jesus. And all four of the gospels give different accounts of the crucifixion. It's only supposed to be the central, defining event for your whole religion. You'd think they could get their story straight.

Peter: Hm, those are tough ones. I'd have to get back to you on the genealogy thing, but I'm sure there's an explanation.

Paul: Riight.

Peter: But about the crucifixion accounts, I would almost think it would be more suspicious if all four of the gospels agreed perfectly on it--it might indicate the writers collaborated or fabricated their stories.

Paul: So the fact that they contradict each other is supposed to make them more credible?

Peter: Surprisingly, yes! Especially when you consider that Matthew and Luke both drew from a lot of material in Mark, but their crucifixion accounts both differ from it and each other, indicating they were also drawing from their own independent knowledge of the event. And John's take is completely different yet.

Paul: Huh, I guess that makes more sense. But it's still kind of a distraction; it still doesn't explain why the discrepancies are there. Couldn't they differ in a way that doesn't contradict each other?

Peter: Well, when you consider that they were writing these things decades after they happened, it's not too surprising that minor discrepancies like that would occur, while the main theme and message of the crucifixion stays the same through them all.

Paul: Hm, I'll have to think about that. But I could pull up plenty more Biblical contradictions. There are web sites full of the things, after all, and I doubt that you or anyone could address them all.

Peter: I could try, but I'm not sure that's the point. I didn't come to believe in the Bible by having all the contradictions I saw in it resolved one by one, that's for sure.

Paul: Well, how did you come to believe in it, then?

Peter: I was raised in a Christian home, so I guess I've always been taught that the Bible is the true word of God. But I really came to believe it for myself in my senior year of high school. My girlfriend had dumped me, my grades were slipping fast, and I didn't get the part in our spring musical I'd been hoping for. Basically, all the things I'd been relying on for stability or a sense of control in my life had gone out the window, all at once. One day, at home, I didn't know where else to turn, so I reached for my Bible--I hadn't opened it in a few months--and it just fell open to 1 John 4:16: "And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them." And I thought that sounded really nice right about then, to rely on the love that God has for me instead of all these other things that had failed me. So I prayed to receive this love that God has for me and for Him to live in me. And right then I felt this amazing peace like I hadn't in a long time, and I've been following Jesus ever since.

Paul: Huh. Even if God is just your imaginary friend, that's interesting what a difference he made. It's funny you should say that, because my senior year of high school was when I started identifying as an atheist. My parents sent me to a Christian high school and I always saw this big tension between the stuff they taught us in Bible classes with what I was learning in my other classes--science, history, English, everything. I got increasingly annoyed that people believed all these ridiculous claims for no reason, with no evidence. Like the Bible and Christianity were disconnected from the real world, and there was no point to believing them.

Peter: I can assure you, they aren't for me. No, I can't prove that God exists, but I believe it because it sheds light and meaning on everything I know. I can't prove that good and evil are real things that don't just exist in our heads, or that it's better to be well than to suffer, or that the universe began from nothing, but I intuitively know these things have to be true, and Christianity explains them all perfectly. If I only believed things I could prove objectively, I wouldn't be left with much at all. Certainly not enough to live on.

Paul: Well, I'm not about to pray the magic Jesus prayer, but you've given me a lot to think about.

Peter: So have you.

Paul: What you're telling me about sounds different than the Christianity I rejected. Kind of interesting. Anyway, I should get going to class. Thanks for talking. And for listening.

Feel free to critique how realistic this dialogue is. It's largely me allowing the faithful and skeptical sides of my mind to duke it out for a little while. Notice how the times when Peter really seemed to connect with Paul and get a point across was when he deviated from the preestablished talking points (which he realizes aren't really central to his own faith) and tells the story of why he, personally, believes. A testimony, being so personal, lacks weight as an apologetic argument, but it has the potential to get someone to want to share (or at least understand) your faith instead of trying to draw them to it by forceful argument.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Typology (the theological kind)

Patheos blogger Joel Willitts nails what makes me so uneasy about typology:
But just recently I’ve come to realize what it is that makes me uncomfortable with much biblical theology today. I noticed it most clearly in two books on biblical theology published in the last year: Gentry & Wellum’s Kingdom through Covenant, and Goldsworthy’s Christ-Centered Biblical Theology.
Here’s my problem. These recent scholars, and a good deal many others, use typology as the preferred method for discovering unity. Typology is an interpretive move where the reader sees in an OT person or event a prefigurement (type) of something in the NT (anti-type), e.g. Moses and Jesus. While this is not necessarily problematic, the underlying assumption that is at work very commonly depreciates (at best!!) the earlier person/event in light of the later. As Matthew Boulton put it, “the occurrence of the latter seems to render the former either obsolete, no longer necessary or, at best, still venerable but nevertheless subordinate” (SJT 66[1]: 20).
Here’s my syllogism:
  • Most typological interpretation is supersessionistic.
  • Most biblical theology uses typology.
  • Most biblical theology is supersessionistic.
Here’s my problem. I don’t think the apostles were supersessionists. I don’t think this is how they read the OT. And it doesn’t appear to be the way they thought about its prefigurements. Consider John 1:16-17:
From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ (CEB).
In this text the Evangelist is making a typological comparison between the grace given by God through Moses and that given through Jesus. In Jewish interpretation this is a classic qal va-homer (‘ the argument from the minor to the major ‘). For the logic to work, it would make no sense to downplay or to depreciate the former in view of the latter. Such a move would only depreciate the grace now given. In other words, the higher view one has of the grace given through Moses, the greater view one will have of the grace now in and through Jesus. Clearly in the comparison the latter (grace through Jesus) is related and dependent on the grace of the former (grace through Moses). One can only appreciate greatness of the latter in view of the former.
Can biblical theology be done without a supersessionistic application of typology?
The Biblical survey courses I took through my church last year made me acutely aware of this pitfall of typology. We would talk about how such-and-such old testament figure or story "points to Jesus" or "foreshadows" the gospel to the point where the Old Testament could seem like nothing but a literary device to support the New. The significance of these things and their ability to stand alone as theological statements are forgotten as they are considered to be in the Bible primarily to make Jesus look better, to "foreshadow Him", "contrast with Him", "heighten the tension", etc. When we start interpreting and explaining the Old Testament in terms of types like this, we see less of a God who actively, personally involves Himself in the history of Israel and more a God who manipulates lives and kingdoms according to His whims like characters and plotlines in His next bestselling novel. This is an even less appealing picture of God than the bloodthirsty tyrant He is often caricatured as because it is not only amoral and borderline malicious, it is impersonal and detached.

Typology is ultimately a kind of analogical thinking, whereby we set up an analogy between an Old Testament figure and Jesus and then see the figure's significance in terms of this analogy, i.e. how we see Christ in the story. This is where the difference between the Bible being primarily about Jesus and it being entirely about Jesus comes into play. If we view the Old Testament typologically (as a series of reflections or foreshades of Christ), then it ultimately becomes highly redundant and repetitious, because the New Testament is much more clearly about Him anyway. Practically, this can play out in two ways. Because the Old Testament does, in fact, have unique knowledge to offer besides just saying things about Christ, typology tends to either downplay and marginalize these parts of the stories relative to the Christological parts, or they may be twisted to fit the typological rubric.

A big example is Adam, especially because Paul makes the typological relation explicit in Romans 5:14. Jesus is therefore commonly described as the "second Adam", but more accurate would be to say that Adam is considered the "proto-Christ", the reason Jesus had to come and die to atone for sins. I don't deny that Paul saw Genesis 1-3 in this light, but the danger comes when we make this our entire lens for seeing Adam. Not only does this make a historical Adam much harder to let go of, it makes it almost impossible to read Genesis 1-3 in any other way (e.g. as a parallel to the history of the Israelites, or a story about wisdom, or in general anything like how its original audience would have read it).

A strictly typological approach to Genesis 1-3 also leads to hermeneutical violence like detaching the curses in Genesis 3:14-19 from their immediate context to recontextualize them in terms of the "gospel narrative". So Genesis 3:15, the "protoevangelium", is seen as an actual predictive promise of the incarnation and gospel delivered to comfort Adam and Eve on their expulsion from the garden (rather than one that Jesus retrospectively fulfilled), and the curses on the man and woman are interpreted to mean the inauguration of original sin and the "Fallen World", even though no mention is made of the couple as the cause of anything bad anywhere in the OT after this and Adam's curse has nothing to do with receiving a sinful nature.

I hope I wasn't too hard on typology in general with that example. I am not saying that any exercise of theologically or thematically relating Old Testament figures with Jesus is bad. In keeping with Willitts' quote, what concerns me is when the Old Testament figure is devalued, rendered inferior, or diminished in significance by this comparison. Paul's typological comparison of Jesus with Adam served to help Jewish readers familiar with Genesis to appreciate Jesus more by His "fulfilling" the mistakes of Adam as well as to see Adam in a new way (the lack of mentions in the Old Testament indicates that the Jews didn't see Adam anything like we do now). The problem arises when we get so caught up in analogy-making that we see this new way as the only way to view Adam, glossing over the parts of the Bible that don't match this view or viewing them as insignificant compared to the typology-friendly parts. The Bible does not simply present one, "divine" perspective on the subjects on which it touches, but a tapestry of diverse (nonetheless inspired) human ones. Typology, done right, recognizes and celebrates this multivocality.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Slavery, misogyny, and other adventures in the world of the Old Testament

Fun Stuff

A commentor on my post on Biblical literalism brought up ten of the passages in the Old Testament that give him the most trouble. I'll lay them all out for you (I'm surprised he didn't mention anything from Joshua; there's some seriously juicy material in there!):

Exodus 21:7-11:
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.
Exodus 21:20-21:
When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.
Exodus 21:32:
If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
Leviticus 21:18-20:
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles."
Leviticus 25:45-46:
You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.
Numbers 31:17-18:
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.
Deuteronomy 21:10-14:
When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.
Deuteronomy 22:13-21, 28-29:
If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate. And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her; and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, “I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity.” And yet this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city. Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days. But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.
Deuteronomy 25:11-12:
When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity.
Judges 21:20-23:
And they commanded the people of Benjamin, saying, “Go and lie in ambush in the vineyards and watch. If the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and snatch each man his wife from the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin. And when their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Grant them graciously to us, because we did not take for each man of them his wife in battle, neither did you give them to them, else you would now be guilty.’” And the people of Benjamin did so and took their wives, according to their number, from the dancers whom they carried off. Then they went and returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and lived in them.

Wait, what?

If you're a Christian, verses like these might make you feel very uncomfortable and may even become a significant source of doubt. If you're not a Christian, you might point to verses like these (probably in in the more archaic language of the KJV) to show why! Lots of Christians, though they would never say as much, maintain a kind of separation from the "angry, vengeful" God of the Old Testament with His crazy laws and genocide and the "loving, forgiving" God we see in the New Testament through Jesus, picking the parts of the Bible that best fit with their cultural and moral norms to learn from while treading very carefully in Old Testament territory, sticking with "safe" stories like Genesis 1-3, the Ten Commandments, the (non-imprecatory) Psalms, or Messianic prophecies or presenting cleaned-up, Sunday school-ready accounts of such gems as the flood, the life of Abraham, or the exodus. The Old Testament is a potential source of embarrassment for them, so they do their best to sweep it under the rug. When confronted (probably by a skeptic with no sympathy for their faith), they get evasive or may say something to the effect that God was different "back then".

Christians who accept that both Testaments depict the same God and try to work both into their faith instead of minimizing one face an uphill battle. The simple answer, which is heavily informed for me by Peter Enns' incarnational model of Scripture, is that the Bible depicts a transcendent, timeless God speaking into specific, temporal human contexts and moral vocabularies that are far removed from our own. Obviously, cultural norms and morality in the Ancient Near East (ANE) are very different from our own, so it's important to draw comparisons between the Israelites and their contemporary neighbors, not between "backward ancient people" and twenty-first century western civilization in such a way that God seems similarly dull and backward for interacting with them. In this light, the treatment of women, slaves, and the poor dictated in the Mosaic covenant was progressive when understood in its context. There is apparently not one "right" way that society is always supposed to be that the Bible espouses from cover to cover, so let's not fault the OT for not depicting a "perfect" society.

I can understand how this can seem unconvincing. This doesn't really seem to answer the obvious questions: how can God not only tolerate but make provisions for slavery, draconian punishments, or misogynistic practices in the law He gives? It seems like a cruel joke to us to say that the Mosaic law was "progressive" because it mandated good treatment of slaves while still upholding the institution of slavery, or that it gave women some rights while still treating them largely like property. As soon as Christians start arguing that slavery is not always inherently evil, you can almost hear people stop listening. (Bear in mind that the ancient practice of slavery was drastically different than the racially-motivated colonial-era slavery we now associate with the term)

But again, these doubts largely arise from the tension between the culture and morality depicted in the Old Testament and our modern culture. Let me quote myself on this kind of imperialism:
When we clearly spell out the kind of moral expectations for the Bible this kind of trans-cultural comparing implies, the absurdity becomes more evident--how dare God command Abram to go to Canaan without first having him free all his slaves, rehire them as paid laborers with benefits, anti-discrimination policies, and minimum wage, accept total gender equality with his wife and the other women in his household, renounce the barbaric culture of clan rivalry and warfare he was steeped in, see all the gods of the surrounding pagan tribes as primitive superstition, etc...
How would you expect God to relate to an ancient people, if not something like this or what we actually see in the Old Testament? When a preschooler in my Sunday School class draws a talking mountain, I don't tell her that mountains can't talk and aren't alive; I just tell her that it's cool and that she's a good artist. She'll learn about mountains later. This in no way invalidates the fact that I know perfectly well that mountains can't talk. I think something analogous happens between us and God, must happen because the difference between us and Him is much deeper than the one between me and a four-year-old.

Let me try to approach the problem from another angle. Imagine, if the Bible were written today rather than thousands of years ago, what kinds of things in it might raise some eyebrows in a few thousand years? A future reader of a Bible written today might ask, "How could a good God still let His people keep using money? Or use such an impersonal, dehumanizing form of communication as the internet? How could He let them treat dolphins and chimpanzees as sub-persons?" (Let me stress that futurism is not a talent of mine)

Just as the existence of slavery or the primacy of men was uncontroversial in ancient Palestine, so things that even diehard social activists take for granted today might seem unthinkable to future audiences. We always expect God to act in the Bible according to our current moral standards, never questioning whether they are really perfect enough to expect God to conform to them. We can't imagine how He, being so perfect, can tolerate the evils that are considered "normal" in the cultural context the Hebrews are situated in while in covenant with them, never wondering if He might be doing the same thing with us. Remove the plank in your own eye first.

Dehistoricized Abstract Ethical Judgments

Let me propose an even more radical thesis. What if God's righteousness can't be encompassed or summarized by ethical propositions or simple value judgments like "all men and women should have equal rights" or "one human owning the rights of another is unethical"? A common conception among Protestants that I once held is that the commands God gives us, whether in the laws of the Mosaic covenant or the teachings of Jesus, are "good" not arbitrarily but necessarily because they are based on God's eternal, unchanging character or nature. In other words, God's character readily supports the deduction of moral precepts, and His righteousness easily distills down to a series of do's and don'ts that, as we become more like Him, we will live by. A bit more extremely, God's character consists of a series of moral precepts.

Aside from the fact that this view completely fails to account for all the times God's commands change (the Jewish dietary restrictions and sacrificial laws are two simple examples), this view also conflates an effect of righteousness (moral precepts and right judgments) for righteousness itself, which I don't think is biblical. God gives ethical commands to various people at various points in the Bible, but we must not think that these commands are somehow essential to His true, unchanging nature. God's righteousness runs deeper than the laws and teachings by which it manifests itself. N.T. Wright writes on a recent Q&A on Rachel Held Evans' blog: "Part of the problem the way the question is posed is by assuming that we can abstract an ethical ideal from one part of scripture and use it to judge the actions of God in another part of scripture, as though scripture were given us so we could form such dehistoricized abstract ethical judgments! Life just isn’t like that." (See also a longer article by him on the tension between the testaments)

I love his phrasing, "dehistoricized abstract ethical judgments". We Christians are strangely eager to reduce our faith to a list of do's and don'ts, even if we don't think doing the do's and don'ting the don'ts will save us. Donald Miller in his book Searching for God Knows What strongly emphasizes how Christianity comes down to a relationship, not a formula. But cases like doubts about these OT passages makes me wonder if moral formulas, even applied with the best of intentions (e.g. trying to "discern God's will" by deriving ethical precepts from scripture to apply to a situation) might be distracting. If God made us to be primarily relational beings, not moral ones. If we're more concerning with knowing what's right and what's wrong than with knowing God Himself. And then Genesis 2:16-17 finally made sense to me:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
I set down Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics in frustration as he went on about how knowledge of good and evil and knowledge of God were mutually exclusive, but now I understand. The higher and more sophisticated an idol is, the harder it is to identify as such, and Biblical morality--seeking God's will for our lives rather than God Himself--is one of the highest idols there is.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Book Reports--May 2013

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

I got into Joe Hill's fiction after the comic-store employee who checked out some of my Locke and Key volumes recommended him. This is a ghost story about a washed-up former death metal star with a collection of macabre oddities who purchases a dead man's suit on an online auction that turns out to come with his soul thrown in, free of charge. Though it starts a bit slowly and isn't as addictive as Locke and Key, it demonstrates Hill's skill as a talented author who can write a gripping tale with or without fancy pictures to help him.

Mere Apologetics, by Alister McGrath

Yes, Alister McGrath is indebted enough to C.S. Lewis to name two of his books in the style of Mere Christianity. This is a skillfully written, (too) short overview of the Christian study of apologetics. I wish McGrath went into more detail, but what he did put into this book is brilliant and I found myself thinking often, "This is exactly what I think but expressed much better." He provides a theological basis for apologetics, distinguishes apologetics and evangelism, and makes the necessary point that apologetics is much more than the thoroughly modernist development of rational arguments to try to bring people to faith by logic. He also mentions the importance of contextualizing your discourse to your specific audience, with examples from the New Testament and from the modern philosophical landscape of modernism and postmodernism. There are also plenty of offhand (but hard-hitting) critiques of the new atheism movement, which seem to be a common feature of his writings. I would have liked a slightly meatier book (which I'm sure McGrath is capable of writing), but this is a high recommendation for anyone looking to get into apologetics. I wish it had been available my seventeen-year-old self when I was making my first foray into the field.

Prototype, by Jonathan Martin

This is a new book by Pastor Jonathan Martin of Renovatus Church, one of my favorite pastors to listen to online. The subject matter is kind of scattershot, but overall it's Martin unpacking how he "does" the gospel as a pastor. It's honest and hard-hitting, both theological and practical. He draws all kinds of parallels between us and Jesus, casting Him not just as our Savior to believe in (or just believe when He commands things), but as our "prototype", the perfect example of the new kind of life we of the church are born into. He asks rhetorically, "What if the ultimate goal of everything Jesus said and did was not just to get us to believe certain things about Him, but to become like Him?". He starts off with of a story of his memory of endlessly riding a bike in circles as a boy, moments which he later came to recognize as times of deep, unconscious communion with God. Jesus, he says, never forgot who He was: God's beloved Son. My description isn't doing this book justice. Any Christian author can write doctrinally about how God loves us, we're supposed to find our identity in Him, we're supposed to be like Jesus, and so on. Martin's gift, which comes out in this book and even more in his preaching, is to breathe life into doctrine by powerfully relating it to experiences not only in his own life, but in yours as well. Even if you think you've heard the basics of "the gospel" before, the chapters grab your attention, capture your imagination, and get you to think about (and apply!) the Christian faith anew.

Surfaces and Essences, by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander

I didn't so much choose this book as it chose me, sitting invitingly on a bookshelf in London. I decided to buy it almost immediately, not caring about how I would fit it into my carry-on suitcase later. Written by the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a lengthy and wandering discourse on cognition, language, logic, music, art, mathematics, self-reference, and artificial intelligence, I knew that if this book was even half as good it would forever change the way I thought and saw the world.

Surfaces and Essences is set up around the central thesis that analogy is the core of all thinking, and also that analogy and categorization (a process more traditionally thought of as central to human cognition) are really the same. The authors then proceed to systematically argue this thesis through an abundance of thought experiments, examples, anecdotes, and (of course) analogies. In the first few chapters they show how words, even simple and concrete ones (like  "concrete") can have multiple layers of meaning (or levels of abstraction) corresponding to literal or analogical uses. This is also true of phrases like "sour grapes", "hit the nail on the head", "Jewish mother", or "spill the beans", which really describe complex concepts that we relate (often unconsciously) to situations by analogy-making. Similarly, they point out "invisible analogies" like similarities we observe between situations that appear very different on the surface, revealing a "swarm of resemblances buzzing inside our heads".

They provide a fascinating mental model that resonated with me, picturing the landscape of concepts as a multicolored landscape with different words in different languages corresponding to points and territory in this landscape. A given word in one language may not have a direct parallel in another but may instead have its "territory" shared between multiple words, like the English "time" being split into two French translations, one for a temporal point of occurrence and one for a duration. (I should mention that both authors are bilingual and in fact wrote two originals of the book in English and French, so they do lots of comparing of these languages) Something similar happens in Greek, with the words χρονος and καιρος respectively meaning a specific time or duration and a more general age or era.

Further, they point out that there are large lacunae (empty spaces) in the conceptual space, meanings that no language has a word for. Using compound words or phrases extends the ability of a language to reach more concepts, but nonetheless there will still be limits to what the lexical terms of a given language can cover. Whereas an English speaker may have a convenient idiom to convey the concept of "the tail wagging the dog", a French speaker has no similarly concise way of expressing this without explaining it in much more length. Or on the other hand, French has the phrase "avoir l'esprit d'escalier", which translates to "to have the spirit of staircase", meaning to come up with the ideal retort to someone at a party as you are on the stairs leaving the party, which has no easy English equivalent. (Unless we start calling it "staircase wit") Sometimes speakers of one language will see the usefulness of a phrase from another and adopt it wholesale, like "deja vu".

I won't summarize the whole book, but once the authors get their basic concept of analogy-making very thoroughly established, they treat other interesting topics like layers of abstraction and inter-category sliding (fascinating subjects for me), how analogies manipulate us, and how we manipulate analogies. The last chapter is devoted to "analogies that shook the world" like the process by which Einstein formulated his theory of mass-energy equivalence (better known as E = mc2). This book isn't for everyone, but it is one of the most fascinating and persuasive works on language, cognition, metacognition, and meaning I've read in a long time, and I highly recommend it to anyone who shares any of these passions.

Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy, by Joseph Pieper

I picked up this book from Half-Price Books on a whim, but it has been quite a pleasant (if quick) read. He starts by explaining how even in the name, we often see the "Middle Ages" as a kind of boring transitional period between antiquity and the Renaissance before launching into an interesting narrative of some of the most prominent thinkers that shaped this period of history. Boethius, Anselm, Abelard, and Bernard of Clairvaux get fairly extensive treatment; Thomas Aquinas, surprisingly, does not, though he is frequently mentioned in relation to others. It's an interesting look at the evolution of theology and philosophy from the start of the church to the Renaissance. Particularly the evolution of the relationship between faith  and reason, which began as a simple unions with Boethius and became progressively more complex leading up to the Renaissance as the two began to part ways.

And, of course, the reason I won't be reading many other books this summer...

Apparently, Biblical Greek is blue.

Linguistic Ambiguity and Paradox

Have twenty minutes? Read this essay by Margaret Wertheim; it's the most interesting this I've read in weeks. Don't have time? Stay up twenty minutes later or something. It's worth it.

Summary (for those who didn't read it)

Wertheim has extensive experience in both the sciences and in the arts and brings both fields to bear. She describes the Platonist assumptions that underlie much of modern physics: that physics is a way of objectively describing "the way things are". During the Scientific Revolution nature was thought of as a "book" written by God in the language of mathematics which we, by the discovery of scientific "laws", are able to know. Though the explicit linkage between physics and theology has since dried up, the metaphor of delving into the "mind of God" continues. Current tensions in physics like the wave-particle duality--the tendency of photons, electrons, etc. to behave like waves and particles simultaneously--or the seeming incompatibility between the branches of physics pertaining to very large scales (general relativity) and very small ones (quantum mechanics) are seen as thorns in the side of the quest for an all-encompassing "theory of everything", tantamount to Galileo's "cosmic book", and many religious physicists continue to see a strong linkage between their faith and their work.

Wertheim contrasts her experiences serving on two panels: one with a cosmologist who saw physics in this way, as "a progression towards an ever more accurate and encompassing Truth", and another with a Lewis Carroll scholar who viewed mathematics as playful storytelling and mythmaking with little connection to reality. She here highlights a divide in academics' thinking about mathematics: scientists tend to see the correspondence between equation and reality as so reliable that the mathematics is allowed to proceed ahead of experience and intuition as our tool for finding "the way things are", leading us to counterintuitive (and impossible-to-test) theories to make sense of the math like the many-worlds hypothesis. She says, "what is so epistemologically daring here is that the equations are taken to be the fundamental reality. The fact that the mathematics allows for gazillions of variations is seen to be evidence for gazillions of actual worlds." Meanwhile, humanities scholars see this thinking as naive and disconnected from what is truly "real".
Duck or rabbit?
She ties this in intriguingly with a book called Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas, which ends with some theory about language, noting that all languages parse the world into discrete categories. For example, we categorize animals between categories like "mammals", "reptiles", "birds", "arthropods", and so on. But then we run into animals that refuse to follow these categories, like the pangolin, echidna, or platypus. Or consider the above optical illusion: is it a duck or a rabbit? Our brains flip between categorizing the same image in two different ways, trying to resolve the ambiguity because it's easier to just pick one than not categorize the image at all.

Wertheim notes the parallels between these linguistic paradoxes and issues in physics like the wave-particle duality:
As Douglas sees it, cultures themselves can be categorised in terms of how well they deal with linguistic ambiguity. Some cultures accept the limits of their own language, and of language itself, by understanding that there will always be things that cannot be cleanly parsed. Others become obsessed with ever-finer levels of categorisation as they try to rid their system of every pangolin-like ‘duck-rabbit’ anomaly. For such societies, Douglas argues, a kind of neurosis ensues, as the project of categorisation takes ever more energy and mental effort. If we take this analysis seriously, then, in Douglas’ terms, might it be that particle-waves are our pangolins? Perhaps what we are encountering here is not so much the edge of reality, but the limits of the physicists’ category system.
She is suggesting another possible approach to paradoxes in physics: rather than attempting to resolve the apparent contradiction between quantum mechanics and relativity, or between light being a wave or a particle, Wertheim wonders if the categories dictated by the language of physics we have, combined with the rejection of contradiction as unacceptable in the "mind of God", might be leading us to ask the wrong questions. Perhaps by trying to cram photons into the wave-particle spectrum we are missing something. "To put this into Douglas’s terms, the powers that have been attributed to physicists’ structure of ideas have been overreaching. ‘Attempts to force experience into logical categories of non-contradiction’ have, she would say, inevitably failed. From the contemplation of wave-particle pangolins we have been led to the limits of the linguistic system of physicists."


The comments on the Reddit thread by which I found this essay criticize it for being overly dismissive and pessimistic about scientific progress. I agree in that Wertheim doesn't really try to offer a constructive solution, but simply thinks scientific inquiry has reached a barrier: "Will we accept, at some point, that there are limits to the quantification project, just as there are to all taxonomic schemes?" What Wertheim misses is that this ambiguity is an artifact only of our language, not of our minds, which are not bound to the symbol-concept mapping of any one language or even, necessarily, by the need to fit everything into a single clear-cut category. If our current classification scheme is inadequate, we can find a better one. The conclusion I would tentatively draw from the wave-particle duality is not that it is an ambiguity impossible to resolve conclusively, but that our categories of "wave" and "particle" themselves may need to be rethought into something stranger. (I'll leave how to do this and keep the results meaningful and applicable to the physicists)

Of course, I can't help but try to relate this subject to theology. Like with physicists, theologians' thinking can easily become caught on simplistic dualities, categories, and spectra that don't fully describe the more complex "way things are". These things can be useful mental stepping stones for trying to wrap our brains around a complex subject (and there is no more complex subject than God), but allowing them to define theological reality to our thinking leads to dead ends, endless debates, and wondering why-can't-they-just-see-it-my-way. I'm sure you can provide your own examples of this, but a few that readily come to my mind would be Calvinism and Arminianism, asking whether salvation is by faith or by works (usually before affirming that it's by faith alone), and asking whether it's a sin to do ____. I call this allowing of one perspective to crowd out others that aren't necessarily incompatible "totalization".

Because theology is the study of an infinite, transcendent Subject, it will always be incomplete. I think this is why I find it so much more exciting than my field of undergraduate study, which being a manmade subject has relatively little in the way of unanswered, weighty questions besides ones that intersect with mathematics like whether P equals NP. This continual incompleteness means recognizing that no theory of atonement, of salvation, of Trinity, etc. can ever totally describe these weighty subjects or definitively box up our discussion of them (and that's a good thing!). Let that be a reminder to keep your mind open to truth and always learning.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Naming the Animals

I have been rereading through Searching for God Knows What, a wonderful book by Donald Miller (I recommend it, along with anything else he's written). It contains several chapters of musings on Genesis 1-3: God's creation of the cosmos, the Garden of Eden, and the Fall. During one such chapter he wonders about how God had Adam name the animals all while lonely, because Eve hadn't been created yet:
And if it took John Muir the better portion of his life to realize his theory about the landscape in small Yosemite, I wondered, then, how much longer it must have taken Adam to name all the animals in the earth. I wondered how long it must have taken him to journey to the ocean to name the sea life, and whether he had to make a boat and go out on a boat or whether God had them swim up close to the shore, so Adam only had to go in about waist-deep. I looked up how many animals there are in the world, and it turns out there are between ten million and one hundred million different species. So even if you believe in evolution, that means there were between one million and fifty million species around in the time of the Garden, and Adam, apparently, had to name all of them. And the entire time he was lonely.
The source text, Genesis 2:18-20, reads:
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.
Like I said, I really enjoy Miller's writing and have for years, but after the thinking I've done recently on God's manner of creation and the Fall, this part struck me a bit oddly. Miller reads that Adam named all the animals and assumes that this process was similar to the creation of our modern taxonomic system, meaning Adam was probably the smartest man who ever lived (which is ridiculous if you think about it; I highly doubt Adam, or any ancient peoples, would have distinguished between twenty-two thousand different varieties of ants). When my church's lead pastor touches on Genesis 2 (which is often, because of our strong focus on the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration narrative), he jokes about Adam naming all the animals: "Big grey thing with big ears and a trunk? Hm...I'll call you, 'elephant.' Or, because he wasn't naming them in English, um... elephiantium." At most, we imagine Adam's "job" of naming the animals as simply deciding how to refer to them in whatever language they (actually, just Adam) spoke in the Garden. (Which, unfortunately, means all his "work" has since been lost along with this proto-language)

After reading up on the Ancient Near East (ANE) background of creation stories like Genesis, I have learned how names had much more significance in these stories than they do for us. John H. Walton, an Old Testament professor at Wheaton, writes in his book The Lost World of Genesis One that far more than simply being concise ways of referring to something,
Names in the ancient world were associated with identity, role, and function. Consequently, naming is a typical part of the creation narratives. The Egyptian Memphite Theology identifies the Creator as the one who pronounced the name of everything. Enuma Elish begins with neither the heavens and earth nor the gods having been named. In this is is clear that naming is a significant part of something's existence, and therefore of its creation.
This ancient understanding of name as identity makes more sense of other phrases relating to names in the Old Testament, like naming a child as "calling his name" (Genesis 4:25, Matthew 1:21), which just sounds redundant to us, or describing worship as "calling upon the name of the Lord" (Genesis 4:26, 1 Corinthians 1:2), or David giving thanks to God's name (Psalm 138:2) or Jesus receiving "the name that is above every name" (Philippians 2:9). It also helps explain why the Jews refused to speak the true name of God and abbreviated it in writing as YHWH, which used to seem like silly superstition to me.

And so Adam's task of naming the animals takes on much more significance than we normally think; it means assigning them their identity, role, and function in the world. So Adam's naming the elephant wasn't just deciding what to call it, it was bestowing its very identity of "elephant-ness" (possibly including its physical characteristics) on the beast. Genesis 2 is, then, the ultimate "how the leopard got its spots" story, or rather, "how all the animals became what they are".

And there's more. Adam's naming work can be seen as a direct continuation of God's creative work in Genesis 1:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. (1:3-10)
God's naming the Day, Night, Earth, Heavens and Sea is an integral part of His creating these things (which, additionally, was more defined by bestowing them with a role and function in the cosmos than giving them material being as we think of creation). But God's naming stops with the Sea. He doesn't name any of the plants or animals (except humans) He creates (doesn't give them defined roles or "identities"). He leaves this task to humans, His appointed image-bearers (1:26-27). It's a cool image of how we are appointed to be co-creators, God continuing through us His ongoing work of creation and re-creation.

This understanding of naming is difficult to handle if you try to read Genesis in a way that concords with modern science. It means that animals have their characteristics not simply because God created them that way, but also because they were named as they are by humans. The work of humans, God's appointed image-bearers, is an integral part of the creation of the animals in Genesis. This is difficult to reconcile with animals that lived and died before humans existed (e.g. the dinosaurs). It's also difficult because it doesn't resemble any theory we have about animal origins, or indeed accord with any theory somehow explaining how naming something can change its characteristics.

The solution is to stop reading Genesis in a culturally imperialistic way that assumes that the ancient Hebrew author of Genesis (be it Moses or whoever) must have had the same perspective of the world that we do today, only perhaps missing a few of the finer points from the fossil record. This is an absurd assumption to make, as the radically different ancient understanding of names shows. If we try to force Genesis to fit into a modern worldview, we not only run into many hermeneutical roadblocks (and the need to poeticize away all that stuff about the "vault of the sky", "waters under the earth", and so on), we risk missing out on the theological knowledge it's supposed to convey, like humanity's role as "little creators". If we let Genesis be Genesis, an ancient book written by an ancient culture very different from our own, we begin to understand its original significance and how this significance can be transferred to today.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

God's glory, seen through our wounds

I can't recommend Pastor Jonathan Martin of Renovatus Church's new book, Prototype, highly enough. It's a series of simple, but profound reflections on God's love for us and how Jesus is our "prototype" for how life is supposed to look like. For those who don't have the money for the book, Martin is also preaching a sermon series that roughly parallels (but doesn't copy) the book. The fifth sermon corresponding to chapter five, "Wounds", really hit me as he expounded on 2 Corinthians 3-4 like I'd never heard before, even from my own church last year. Do yourself a favor and listen to that sermon (and the others from the series). I'll just share some reflections on it.

Paul is being criticized among the Corinthians by some teachers he sarcastically refers to as "super-apostles" who call him unqualified, incompetent, double-minded, and weak, unwilling even to accept payment for his ministry as a sign of professionalism. In his defense of his ministry, we see Paul at his rawest and most human. In chapters 11 and 12, he boasts in the things that show his weakness (11:30), for he learns in 12:9-10:
But [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
What pastor Jonathan does is brilliantly tie chapters 3 and 4 in with this theme. Paul alludes to the giving of the Mosaic covenant, a pivotal event in Jewish history, but puts a new twist on it:
Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.
Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end.
In the original story (Exodus 34:29-35), the only reason given for Moses wearing a veil is that his face was shining from being in such close communion with God, making the people afraid to come near him. Moses would talk with the Lord, receive more instruction, pass it on to the Israelites, and then put the veil on until next time. Paul offers another explanation for this behavior: Moses wore the veil to hide the fact that the glory of God was fading from his face. Which Martin, in turn, interprets as Paul saying that Moses wore the veil to look like a more impressive leader than he really was, who was in such close contact with God that his face shone all the time. He likens it to an old, more attractive photo of an aging celebrity being used instead of what they actually look like now.

But Paul's ministry, he says, is not like Moses' ministry. We minister with unveiled faces because it's not our face but Jesus' that people are supposed to see: "For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." Read that last sentence a few times. We carry around light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (what a buzzphrase!) in jars of clay (our failing bodies) to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. God isn't just able to work despite our weaknesses, He works through them. Martin uses the analogy of a cracked pot with a lamp inside; the more cracks, the more light shines through. The last thing we want to do as Christians is to try to put a veil over our wounds and weaknesses!

This analogy is, of course, a little misleading; God doesn't need imperfections to be able to do anything through us, and He is at least as able to work through our gifts and strengths (see 1 Corinthians 12). But for now, God seems to be pleased to manifest His glory through our brokenness, so we'd best let Him! This is hard to accept: the things in our lives we are ashamed of and try to hide, like Moses' speech impediment or Paul's bruises and prison record, might become a window for heaven to shine through into earth.

Like I said, if this piques your interest, listen to the sermon. Jonathan Martin is one of my favorite preachers to listen to at the moment.