Thursday, June 29, 2006

Coming up to reality

After my descent into talking jibberish on the last post, I thought I would come up to reality.

And what better way to talk about reality than to talk about TV?
Lost is by far my favorite show on TV right now. It has it all - action, intrigue, mystery, spirituality. It's sorta like Lord of the Flies without the kids, and without the flies. Oh, and with women.

While it is in the off-season right now, I look forward to watching it every week. Grade A TV, this one.

I suppose if I could be one character in the cast, I would choose to be Mr. Eko. Yeah, he's a fraud, a murderer, and he's black (all of things I'm not...I don't think), but he's also mystical, enigmatic, and in search of redemption for his past. Even though he seems crazy sometimes, he has clarity of focus. At the end of the season, though, it seems that he might be dead. I guess time will tell.

I also like Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. Yeah, you can say it - I'm a dork. But really, it is pretty mindless and fun television. The charactes are funny, the situations are preposterous, and the humans always win with guns and grenades even though their enemies have force fields and beam weapons. I guess all that military spending during the cold war paid off after all.

It's not award-winning drama, but it is lighthearted and fun. It takes my mind off of things. Isn't that what TV should be all about?

Speaking of award-winning drama, the new Battlestar Galactica series rocks. You might think you're justified in calling me a double-dork for liking SG-1 AND Battlestar, but you would be wrong. Battlestar Galactica is the West Wing of sci-fi.

The acting is incredible, the special effects are realistic and totally believable, the situations are always credible, and the response of the characters to those situations always make sense. There is no solving the problem with fake technology in this series - the solution is always hard and gritty.

The only thing I don't like about this series is the religious overtones. While almost every character in the series adheres to some form of religion, the way in which the religion is practiced is either apathetic, or radical. I find the presentations of the two extremes to be too polar. Real religion is more subtle.

And last, but not least, is MI-5. This show is produced by the BBC, and is about the British version of the FBI. While the series starts out slow (it picks up after a few episodes) and is rather low budget, I think that it ulitmately satisfies.

The characters are mostly believable, terrorists are caught via good spy work rather than through phone taps and imaging satellites, and the types of issues they address are real and relevant to the current political landscape.

Plus, they're British. Who doesn't like a British spy? The only thing I don't like is that the main character, Tom Quinn, and his boss, Harry Something-or-other, act like they have a case of either piles or heartburn, I can't tell which. But after watching a couple of episodes, you figure out why - the job is high stress. But c'mon, take a Tums (or a bran muffin), why don't you?

What shows do you like?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Evil and the Problem of Good, cnt'd

About 2 months ago, I posted on the problem of evil in a post I called "Evil and the Problem of Good" . As a result of that post, my good friend Alethia put up the comment:

don't you think though that the reason we feel bad when we hear about someone dying of cancer or getting killed in an accident truly is selfish? i don't think it is consciously that way, but if i had to be honest the real reason that makes me sad is i think, wow what if that was my husband who was killed in that accident or my mom who died of cancer and those are really the thoughts that make me sad. what do you think?

What do I think? I think she's right. But this creates a problem if you follow my argument that anything "good" we do is because God breaks into our lives and causes us to care. If I'm doing justice to Alethia's comment, she is pointing out that, within my framework, it might not be the call of God that breaks our selfish tendencies, but that it might very well be that when humans do "good" they're really just being selfish. In their selfishness they hope that if they help someone in their time of need, someone will help them when they need it.

In this view, it wouldn't really be God who causes the problem of good, but rather what we percieve as "good" is only a by-product of our evolution. In essence, Alethia is pointing out that Richard Dawkins' "Selfish Gene" is more complicated (and at times, altruistic) than I give it credit. As a result, I'm in need of repairing (or reframing) my argument.

For secular evolutionists, like Dawkins, things in the universe evolved by chance. The establishments of physical constants, like the strong nuclear force, gravitational force, speed of light, etc were the product of chance, and all of the self-organization of the universe since the beginning were the product of chance as well. From this vantage point, the characteristics of humans to be altruistic is simply a chance development as a result of natural selection. In the secular view, compassion is an instinct brought about by humanity's desire to survive. Compassion is therefore neither good nor evil - it just a neutral characteristic brought about by random chance.

As a gross generalization, secularists believe like Dawkins, that everything in creation is morally neutral. They believe this because they adhere to a philosophy called reductionism, also known as Methodological Naturalism. Essentially, reductionism means that everything is ultimately explainable by scientific principles. But what makes this true? On what basis can one say that everything is explainable by scientific principles? Can a belief in reductionism then be explained via scientific principles? Or, is reductionism perhaps something people take on faith?

Now let me pause here and say two things. First, fleshing all this out involves getting into a lot of philosophy of science stuff, which is WAY to boring to blog about. That means that I'll leave out chunks of the explanation so as to not bore the 4 people kind enough to read my blog. If you want to know more about philosophy of science and where I come up with these ideas, read a book on it. Second, I personally tend to be quite reductionist, though it is a position I take on faith as much as a non-reductionist takes his (or her) position on faith. I believe that things can be explained through scientific principles, and I believe this because that is what time has taught humanity. For almost everything a person can think of, science has found a mechanism to explain it. It only takes a brief glance through history to find examples of how activity previously assigned to God alone is now readily explained through science.

Yet I also believe that some things are beyond our capability to explain. For instance, why are the physical constants in the universe fine-tuned for the development of life? What is the ultimate purpose (or goal) of creation? Why do I feel this continuous need to grope towards an understanding that is just beyond my grasp? Can scientific principles explain this? Currently, at least, they can't. And scientists who are a lot smarter than me (Hawking among them) believe that we will never be able to answer a good chunk of the "why" questions. Some things are just unknowable.

At least, unknowable in the scientific sense.

Which leads me to the real explanation of evil and the problem of good. Whereas the secularist takes reductionism on faith (I'm oversimplifying my point here), I take on faith the idea that the ultimate origin and goal of the universe comes from God. Within that universe I believe a great many things are explainable scientifically, but I also believe things are that way because God has a goal of drawing all creation to him. All of creation is said to "live and move and exist" (Acts 17:28) in God, and creation finds its meaning (which is something unanswerable via reductionism) as we "grope for Him" (Acts 17:27).

So, going back to Alethia's comment, how do we know that altuism isn't just a byproduct of natural selection? We don't. But I would contend that what we, as Christians, do know is that God created in such a way that creation would grope after Him and find Him. And as I look upon the startling complexity of the universe, and how it has gotten more complex over time, I realize that maybe creation actually is groping towards something. Maybe creation has a goal and a purpose that it is organizing towards. Evolution creates and destroys and turns things into chaos, but I see the face of God as things self-organize out of the chaos, as if creation is reaching towards God. THIS is the good that breaks into the evil of chaos. The default state of things is chaos and anarchy, but strangely all of creation doesn't fall into this, but it organizes steadily into something rational and stable - it organizes into something that can call on God and seek Him. The problem isn't that things want to be chaotic - that's their default state. The problem is that good breaks in and organizes out of the chaos, directing us as we live and move and exist towards our ultimate goal, which is an infinitely good God. Sure, altruism might be a result of evolution, but that doesn't mean it isn't a good thing that occured in humanity as creation groped towards God.

Intestestingly enough, all of this has a connection to free will, or the lack thereof. What if, in humans, creation no longer has to blindly and randomly grope towards God, but it can finally reach towards God in a new way - a way in which humans alone, despite all the other things in creation, are said to be in God's image.

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Why I have free will. (Or, why free will doesn't exist.)

For some unknown reason, my church lets me teach the youth on Sunday morning about twice a month. This is a little bit of a surprise for me, because, if you've ever read my blog, I border on being really bizarre, and a bit off the beaten path as far as my thoughts about church, the Bible, and spirituality. Still, someone has seen fit to let me teach, and the youth and I generally have a good time.

We happen to be going through Genesis right now, and not too long ago, when we read through chapter 3, which is the Fall, someone asked how mankind can be condemned for sinning if God a.) knew that mankind would sin, b.) created them with the particular nature that would be succeptible to a talking snake, and c.) set them loose, knowing full well what would happen, but d.) chose to do nothing about it. This kid's argument, such as it was, is that there really isn't such a thing as free will, but rather God ordains the ways things are, and there isn't much that can be done about it. If there was something we could do about it, then God's view of the future would be wrong, and he wouldn't be God.

Based on that, here's the question he asked: How can we be said to have free will?

Before I go too much further, let me just make the disclaimer that most of the stuff I'll say is off-the-shelf theology. I didn't come up with this on my own. But, as I've been thinking about the question of free will (especially as it relates to evil and the problem of good), I've come to a better appreciation of this stuff.

How would you answer this youth's question?

The answer I was always taught is that God gave us the ability to make decisions because he didn't want robots. He wanted people who could choose to worship him. It's just a bummer people chose something else. It's not God's fault - he created us perfect. The problem is that humans took what was perfect and perverted it.

But isn't a being who will pervert what is perfect not, in fact, perfect? (Unless, of course, it is perfect in that it is a perfect perverter. Then, you have to wonder what kind of God would create a perfect perverter.) The fact of the matter is that looking at humans as having free will is problematic in almost every way. Note that this will be a gross oversimplification, but either man has free will (the Arminian position), in which case God just sits back and allows things outside His will to happen yet remains blameless, or God is completely sovereign (the Calvinist position), in which case everything that happens is part of God's plan and man should not be held responsible. Isn't there a way to think about free will, or the lack thereof, other than these two options?

Why do we even think of things in terms of free will? I mean, I can't levitate, or walk on the ceiling, or drive my car over the ocean. I can't choose to cure cancer or fly like Superman. Aristotle (I think it was Aristotle) said, "A man is free to throw a stone, but not to recall it." How true that is. Even if I will the stone to stop flying through the air, it won't stop. Even if I will to fly like Superman or drive my car over the ocean, or cure cancer, my will is unable to make that happen. My will is not free to do these things.

So, why do we even think we have free will? I think, personally, we think this because we don't know any better. If push comes to shove, we could come up with a hundred times more things we CAN'T do than things we CAN do. Yet, because we get so used to operating in the arena of stuff we CAN do, we think we have free will because we forget about the stuff we CAN'T do.

So, because there are so many things I can think of that I can't will to do, I don't think we have free will. Our will is definately not free to do whatever we want, instead we are constrained to a very small portion of what is possible. On top of all this, the Bible doesn't even talk about people having free will. It's simply not a topic the Bible addresses. Free will, at least the way most people think about it, is a myth. Free will doesn't exist.

What the Bible does talk about are decisions. One decision can open up the option for more decisions. For instance, making straight A's in school opens up a ton of options for the future. On the other hand, taking drugs (or getting a felony) closes options for the future. The further you travel down either of these paths, the more options the good student has, and the fewer options the addict has. What the Bible teaches is that good decisions breed options for a better future.

The story of the Bible is that people couldn't learn this lesson. So, God called Abraham out of paganism, and created a chosen people and nation to help the world understand how good decisions (good stewardship of resources, the land, taking care of each other, and worshipping God) leads to a better future for everyone. But even the Jews couldn't get this message straight. So, God sent Jesus to show us an example of exactly how to live a life full of good decisions. But humanity couldn't tolerate such a person, so we killed him.

Nevertheless, Christ came to show us how to be free. Ever since Adam and Eve, we've been so mired in selfishness and greed, envy and malice, violence and indifference that we can't make good enough decisions on our own to secure a good future. We are a slave to sin, a slave to the limited options that are the result of our bad decisions. We are the addict who's options are constrained by his choices. But Christ came to break the cycle. He came to show us how to make good decisions, and to choose the things that give us options for the future. He came to show us how to be the good student, and open up a future full of options and hope. Christ came to show us how to gain freedom from what otherwise binds us. Christ came to show us how to be free.

This is why I have free will. I have free will because Christ is showing me every day how to make good decisions that open up my future to have better options. My will is continually becoming free to chose more and more options because the decisions I make are guided by an understanding of what God has revealed in Christ. It's not that I have "free will", but that suddenly my will is free to chose options that were not available before. And even after I die, my choice to follow Christ on the narrow way means that my options become infinite as I get to spend eternity with the God of infinite choices. Now THAT is good news, news that cures people of despair; news that gives hope and a future to those who are slaves to their choices.

This excites me beyond belief. So, why do we never teach this in our Sunday School?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rubber meets the road

Having gotten that last silly post out of my system, I've been thinking about being a Christian where the rubber meets the road.

You see, deep down, I'm a mystic. In a Christian context, some people might think that I am more of a theologian, but the reality is that me spouting theology is the way I cope with my mystical encounters with God. Theological musings are the way I communicate to others the mystical lessons I learn as God invades my personal space and shows me himself. (For those wondering, the definition of mystic is: "having an import not apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence; beyond ordinary understanding". It's not magic. It's a delving into something beyond normal understanding.)

Interestingly enough, my desire for theological insight started with an intense mystical experience that happened when I was a teenager. Imagine my surprise when I found the opposite was often true - great theologians (Aquinas among them) stopped doing theology in response to a mystical experience. Thomas said that his incredibly influential work, "Suma Theologica", was "mere straw" compared to the reality of God he experienced during a mystical encounter one day during mass. He left his work unfinished, and never wrote again.

Similarly, I wonder how much of my theolgical wanderings (and wonderings) are mere straw. I mean, since when has my post on my Many Colored Days fed the poor? When have my musings on the wrong kind of forgiveness changed lives? Has the fact that I consider myself post-conservative ever caused anyone to feel welcomed in love? I doubt it.

So where does the rubber meet the road? Where does my personal quest to know God lead me to a place where I follow in Christ's footsteps? When does my love of God lead me to a place where I serve in such a capacity that an encounter with me also means an encounter with the very face of God? Not that I would be God, but that I want what He wants so much that I give all I have to be the person who makes God real to others. In my most mystical times with God, I want to bankrupt myself, I literally want to rupture myself to get what God wants. I don't want it so that I can give it to God as a gift, but I want to get what God wants because I want it to. I don't want it selfishly, as if I'm trying to steal from God, but I want precisely because it is the best possible thing to want.

Is it possible for me, a mere man, to convey the presence of the real God? Is it possible for me to follow in the footsteps of my savior, and in the process become a person who is able to point to the infinte God of love? Is it possible for me to ever have my personal experience with salvation meet with the needs of others in such a way that it changes their lives, too? Can the rubber ever meet the road? Can where I've gotten ever get anyone else anywhere?

I look at people, I hear and understand their fears. I watch them as they get happy and sad. I know that if they could just understand what I understand, things would be different. But I don't know how to do it. In all of my inward groaning to show others the narrow way, I struggle with how to make what I know and feel and exerience mean anything to someone else. I look at the prophets and Christ, and the disciples, and I come to the conclusion that even if you have a message directly from God, or are even God himself, people will misunderstand the message. They'll choose to stay who they are and where they are. They'll reject the message to live in the same place they've always been. Instead of seizing the opportunity to start over, they'll choose to stay paralyzed in the despair of their life, hoping something else will heal their wounds.

People go through life, wonder what could have been, wondering why their heart got broken, hoping that if certain things would happen just a certain way, then they'll be saved from the groping after meaning they experience every day. I know this feeling. I've lived this feeling. I know where they are. I've experienced dark times. I'm intimately familiar. But I also know that hoping in chances that will never come is a life of despair. It is the sickness unto death. Real hope comes from another place. I've lived that hope, too. But I don't know how to bring people to understand it. I don't know how to make discples, either under my own power, or with the power of the spirit. Even Christ didn't alter the world. Despair still looks us all in the face even though He was the ultimate answer to despair.

One life at a time. That's what I tell myself. One life at a time. People are driven into despair one life at a time. They kill the part of themselves that make them feel, because it hurts too bad. It happens not because the world reached out and crushed them, but because a person wounded them so deeply they don't think they'll ever feel right again. It happens one life at a time. Just like finding salvation. It happens one life at a time. One life at a time, people discover how having Many Colored Days changes everything. It happens not because Christ came once and for all, but because he comes to each one of us, and hopes we'll give him a chance. It happens one life at a time.

I suppose, even being the Christian mystic that I am, I'm still a man in need of a savior. I'm still a person in need of hope. Hope that I don't get crushed with despair over the task of showing the narrow way. Hope that my life is not only better for me, but makes a difference to others. Hope that the rubber will meet the road.

My Favorite Misspelled Word of All Time

What I think is incredibly fascinating about the world of computers is that misspellings become different animals than hand-written misspellings.

For instance, a person who doesn't know the difference might want to spell "their", but instead spell "there". Or, the might want to spell "pneumonia", and instead spell "newmoanya". Handwritten misspellings, while usually phonetically accurate, are usually not funny because they are the product of ignorance. I mean, who among us hasn't wondered if they are using "effect" and "affect" properly? It's not funny when you use them wrong - it's just that your stoopid.

Typed misspellings, on the other hand, are funny. Spelling 'teh' instead of 'the'? That's funny. I don't know why. It just is. Try pronouncing 'teh'. There's nothing phonetically helpful about it. It's just an absurd word. It's funny that way.

All this leads me to My Favorite Misspelled Word of All Time. Are you ready for this? Here it is:

I'm not going to tell you what it's supposed to spell, though I'm sure you can figure it out. But borken is great, I just love it. I mean, it is simultaneously titillating and exotic-sounding. It sounds mildly authoritative, yet playfully juvenile. It rolls off the tongue easily, but has no meaning whatsoever. It can be sexy or aggressive. And since it has no definition, it can mean whatever you want it to. Borken.

They say in space no one can hear you scream. Well, the same is true in the blogsphere, so I guess I'm safe if no one finds My Favorite Misspelled Word funny. Some of you might be nonplussed enough to want to show me this picture:
For those who would show me that picture, I have one word for you: Borken.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Petit Jean and more.

For the last 23 or so years, my father's parents, his siblings, and all their kids have met for 3 days on top of a "mountain" in Arkasas for a little family reunion. I know that for some people family reunions aren't exactly synonomous with fun, but this one definitely is. This is one of the highlights of my year.

You wouldn't think there would be a whole lot to do on top of a mountain in Arkansas, but in fact, there is. Every year, we hike down to the 'falls', which is about a mile hike down the mountain. Although they tell me it is only a mile hike back up the mountain (since we use the same trail), I think spacetime somehow gets warped and turns the trail into 10 miles. If only that power could be harnessed for good...

There are also lots of other trails, but none of them are quite as interesting to the untrained eye. We also play a lot of games, such as frisby golf, real golf, Monopoly, Risk, and dominos. Here is where it gets interesting. You see, my Dad's side of the family is big into games, such as dominos, but they don't like the traditional stuff. So, every year someone comes to Petit Jean with a new way of playing dominos. Now, I have a big book of domino games, and am familiar with quite a few, and know enough others to be dangerous, and I swear that these new domino games are completely made up. Most of them don't even make any sense. Here is a typical conversation around one of these "new" domino games:
"Okay, Ben just put down a double four. You can now put down anything that adds to that double four to make 12."
"I thought you said earlier that it always had to sum to multiples of 5."
"Yeah, but that's only unless someone puts down the double four, and then the rules change."
"Oh, so after I play the rule goes back to multiples of 5?"
"What if someone plays on the other side of the double four?"
Long Pause
"Uh...then it is...uh...then it has to sum to 13."

You get the picture. But on games where you can't fudge the rules, like Risk, there is more yelling and shouting than is usually present when Southern Baptist Preachers watch Dallas football. It's unbelievable.

But the really fun part is getting to know family again. It is here that I really begin to understand the tribe mentality - you all belong to each other. Sometimes that's frustrating, but it keeps you honest. You can't hide your history from your family - they've been there all along and know it all. They might not understand it all, and at times they think they know better than you, but I love them anyway. Long after my blog disappears and all my other friends die, that blood will be the thing that takes care of me until I, too, bite it.

And then when we're all resurrected at the end of time, and my uncle comes up with a "new" game of dominos, I'll be there, smiling to myself as the absurdity of it all unfolds.