Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lesson from Sem 5: Ammo for the war

Contradiction is the end result of any stereotype. I mean, sooner or later you'll find a smart blond, or a black guy that likes to swim, or an old person who likes to drive fast. You might even find a Baptist who is reflective, but that's a stretch. My college sociology textbook said we use stereotypes because they are convenient, not because they are universal. I haven't yet found a reason to disagree with that.

This lesson from sem will be a bit of a contradiction of Lesson from Sem 3: Classmate disappointment. Don't get me wrong, that post was accurate, but tends toward a stereotypical view of all my classmates as stupid and lazy. Reality, of course, is more complicated.

When I went to seminary, I was hoping to be taught things I didn't know. At the same time, I thought I had a pretty good grip on the things I did know. When I learned things that didn't mesh with what I thought I knew, it was a signal that I should look more closely into what I was holding on to. During this journey, I let many things go. It was a scary and uneasy time of purgation. And ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the Christian journey on the narrow way of salvation is one of fear and trembling. This realization, I believe, is the beginning of wisdom.

One of my favorite New Testament scholars is Scot McKnight. He runs a blog called "Jesus Creed" that I have linked on the left. He has jokingly referred to teaching at a seminary as "working at a 'Semitary'", but there are teeth behind the joke. A lot of students file into grad school with everything figured out. They know what they know, and no matter how many logical arguments, philosophical trends, or historical facts you throw at them, they will not be swayed. These kinds of students are like the living dead, petrified in their system of beliefs, unwilling and unable to take a fresh look at the Bible, or their church, or their theology.

I'm not entirely sure why people like this go to seminary, since they already have everything figured out, but I can tell you the result. Instead learning the importance of new ideas, these students learn how to defend against the new ideas. Seminary time becomes a place where battle skills are sharpened for the impending war with liberals, Roman Catholics, pagans, and atheists. Instead of learning the fascinating history behind sacramental theology (communion and baptism, to name a few), these students learn the history so that they can poke holes in it, dismantle it, and put their system in its place. Instead of exploring and being disturbed by the critique of postmodernism, these students build sturdy defenses around the holes and the gaps in their own system, they scour the Bible to gather scriptural support for their beliefs to defend against any attacks, and they develop preemptive rhetoric to belittle and stymie their opponents.

I can think of a couple of examples, most of which are too long to blog about, but in one of my classes, we were discussing what happened on the cross. Yes, Jesus died, but what did that accomplish? The Bible speaks of it in a couple of different ways, but probably the most dominant way the Bible speaks of it is the "penal substitutionary model". Essentially, the model means that some punishment was required for the sin of individuals and humanity as a whole, and that Jesus was our substitute for that punishment. Jesus took our place as God poured out the wrath He harbored for humanity. The penal substitutionary model was the primary one used by Luther and Calvin in the protestant reformation, which is probably the reason it is the only one most protestant Christians are familiar with. And, trust me when I tell you, there are lots of Christians that believe the penal substitutionary model is the ONLY valid way to think about the cross.

But the Bible has other models for Jesus' work on the cross. So, one of the students asked a very fair question: "Can a person be a true, Bible believing Christian and not use the penal substitutionary model as their primary way of thinking about the cross?" The reply from those who were dogmatic about penal substitution was disappointing, but predictable. "Sure, it is possible to read and believe the Bible, and then to contradict what it says." In essence, this preemptive statement shuts down the conversation in a pretty heinous way. We weren't just having a debate among Christians about the meaning of the cross, we were instead calling each other hypocrites and heretics.

The lesson I took from all this was that many Christian leaders don't go to seminary to learn about what they don't know. They don't go to gain wisdom and understanding that is rooted in knowledge. They go to gain ammo for the impending spiritual war, or "Battle for the Bible", or to defend against the "attack on the family".

I'm not saying those things are bad. On the contrary, I think both family and scripture are very important. But scripture indicates that wisdom is vindicated by her deeds, and is characterized by peacefulness, reasonableness, and mercy, none of which are compatible with a petrified theology or war-like behavior.

With that in mind, I fear real wisdom in our Christian leaders will be in short supply.

What do you think? Do Christian leaders seem more war-like than they should? Does wisdom seem to be in short supply?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Theosis and Love

Maunday Thursday is the day Christians remember the command Jesus gave to the disciples at the last supper: "A new command I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

There is a long tradition in Christianity of something called theosis - which means "making divine". Essentially, the idea is that participation within the love of Christ - of loving others as he loved us - causes us to become god-like.

Most of the Christians I know get uncomfortable when I talk about theosis - of becoming divine, but the earliest theologians of the church thought theosis is a very important part of understanding what Christianity is about. They said crazy stuff like:

"God became human so humans would become gods." (Athanasius, 4th Century)

"...the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring to us even what He is Himself." (Iranaeus, 2nd Century)

I suspect the discomfort with theosis is because the idea of human divinity seems like blasphemy. Humans instead should be relegated to distorted and corrupt creatures. But what would happen if we began to take the teachings of these early church fathers seriously - that Christ brought to us what He is Himself, and heals our wounds as part of the forgiveness we are offered?

No early church father seriously thought that we would become God. But they did believe we would become divine. St. John of the Cross puts it best, "[We become divine] not because the soul will come to have the capacity of God, for that is impossible; but because all that it is will become like to God, for which cause it will be called, and will be, God by participation." (16th Century)

Maunday Thursday reminds us that we are God by participation. That we love as Christ loved. That we sacrifice ourselves as Christ sacrificed. That we take up our Cross, being the vandalized images of God that we are, and look forward to our rebirth as divine creatures. We are called, with this command to love, to be God by participation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Strange Participation

My love of Christian holidays sometimes makes me think I should start attending a church that practices high liturgy. Participating in something like like Episcopal, Lutheran, or Catholic liturgy would work, but then I would run into other problems.

As Easter approaches, I find myself dwelling on the drama that led up to the cross. From the glorious entry on Palm Sunday, into the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday Holy Days. The stress of Maunday Thursday in which Christ offered the last supper, was arrested and tried unjustly. The despair of Good Friday, as the one heralded as the messiah was killed by the Roman invaders, and the earth shook. The panic of Holy Saturday as Jesus' followers wondered what to do next, leaderless and abandoned. Then, the joy and confusion of Easter Sunday, when the women found the stone rolled away and Jesus returned to life.

This story should draw us in like the great drama that it is. We should, year after year, find ourselves part of the story, hoping for the impossible on Palm Sunday, being crushed on Good Friday, and being ignited anew on Easter Sunday. The story should be so close to us that we feel like we participate in it as if it was happening today. But instead the pattern in our protestant churches is that we participate in this cosmic drama as if it is ancient history and so incredibly distant from us that we struggle to find how it is relevant to our lives today.

It seems to me that Christians experience a detached sort of participation in the events surrounding Easter, or even the Lord's Supper, for that matter. In the tradition in which I was raised, the meaning of the Lord's Supper was "whatever it represent to you". Participation was some sort of personal reflection on remembering who Christ was. When you keep in mind the story that goes with Easter or the Lord's Supper, mere personal reflection is a weak participation.

The events of Easter, and the events of the Last Supper should draw us into the life of Christ. They should remind us of the love he showed, of the life he lived, of the commands he gave, and of the life we should therefore live. When we eat his body and drink his blood, we partake in his life. But this partaking is more than just eating the food - it is participating in his life (1 Cor 10:16). More than just some vague remembrance of things that happened a long time ago, Easter is about participation in the life of Christ through his body and his blood so that we take on the mantle of being good news to the world. Participation in Christ is active, remembrance is drawing the past into our way of acting and thinking today so that we can participate with God in creating the future. The beauty of it all is when we find strength to participate in Christ's work - his love, his sufferings, and his glorification - and gather together it do it, he is there, too, participating with us. To me, at least, this sort of strange participation is what the Easter season is all about.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Brief Pondering About Time

I love to think about concepts like time and space and their impact on things like theology and anthropology and sociology.

For instance, when Acts talks about Jesus ascending into the clouds to sit at the right hand of the father, I often find myself wondering how that worked. It seems to me that Jesus would have either exploded or suffocated as he rose in altitude, and even if by some supernatural intervention he did not, I wonder where he went. Our telescopes can see pretty far, and there is nothing around us resembling heaven for a long, long way. I guess he could have moved really, really fast, at speeds approaching the speed of light (or faster?), but then he would have experienced relativistic effects. Perhaps that is why Jesus can say he is coming back "soon" - from the standpoint of someone moving so fast, his return would not seem like a long time at all. But I digress.

A random phrase someone used in a meeting today triggered a thought I'd like to share, but to outline the thought I need to give a lesson in evolutionary epistemology. Don't worry - it won't hurt, and might actually be interesting.

As a sweeping generalization, evolutionary biologists tend to think that evolution has produced in higher lifeforms an accurate view of reality. Sure, we might be not be able to see into the infrared spectrum, or hear hypersonic frequencies, or feel the motion of the earth, but in general that information which our senses gives us and our consciousness determines is real is, in fact, an accurate reflection of reality. (Drugs, mental illness, and love not withstanding, of course.)

This seems reasonable, if I see a green field in front of me, there is every reason for me to believe that, in reality, there is a green field in front of me. Likewise, if I see a ferocious predator in front of me, there is every reason to believe there is a ferocious predator in front of me. My consciousness would then kick in and tell me to run away before I get eaten. Evolutionary biologists contend that the forces of evolution blindly select for those characteristics that accurately present reality, and therefore can be trusted.

Christian philosophers, like Alvin Plantinga, see a chink this logic, however. Dr. Plantinga contends that blind forces do not care whether or not reality is accurately represented. Lets use the example of the ferocious predator. All natural selection cares about is the survival of the individual, not the accuracy of perception. So, if I see a ferocious predator, and my consciousness kicks and tells me that if I run away, he will be my friend, then natural selection has achieved its goal. My perception is wrong (the predator will never be my friend), but the result it produces ensures survival. In other words, Plantinga believes that, if evolution is true, then our abilities are not necessarily designed to accurately describe reality, but instead to ensure survival.

Here's where time comes in. We all should perceive time as running one way. (If you don't, let me know. I have some questions.) No one to my knowledge has seen it run backwards. Yet there is no currently known reason in physics why it should run one way. (There's a lot of speculation involving stuff like entropy determining the arrow of time, but suffice it to say that there is a lot of disagreement about that.) Yet despite the fact that time doesn't seem to HAVE to run one way, we ALWAYS perceive it to run one way. What if it doesn't? What if the design of our faculties is such that we automatically ignore the hiccups that happen in time and see things always running one way? What if, at least in this pocket of space-time, survival is only dependent upon stuff that follows the arrow of time that we perceive, and all other information cannot be detected by our current equipment? What if?

The reason this captured me has to do with death. I'm not sure what happens to people between death and the judgment. Careful study shows that the Bible is at best ambiguous about it, and at worst in contradiction about where we go when we die. But if our perception of time is screwed up, then all the pieces can be made to fit. In fact, other things about how God might interact with us start to make sense, too. (See this post for some possibilities. Which, by the way, is my favorite of all the posts I have written.) We could very well close our eyes in death, and skip through time to the point of being resurrected. Everyone would enter eternity at the same "point", though their deaths are separated by large amount of "time".

In any case, I thought it was cool. So, the next time I'm around and you see my mind wander off somewhere, I'm probably thinking about something like this.

(Disclaimer: I realize the perception problem can be solved by denying evolution. I also realize you get on a slippery slope with saying our perception of time might be wrong. But ultimately I've been convinced by the arguments of Plantiga, Christian biologists (e.g., Collins, Miller), modern theologians (e.g., McGrath, Polkinghorn, Peacocke), and contemporary cosmology that the answer to evolution and reality is more complicated than taking Genesis 1&2 literally.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I read an article a couple of months ago about open source vs closed source software. You can read the article here. I read a lot, and it is rare anymore that I am exposed to something new, but this article got me to thinking.

When I surf the internet or talk to my friends who are computer nerds, I hear a lot about open sourced platforms. Almost universally, open sourced things are considered a positive. From Wikipedia to Linux distros to Firefox to OpenOffice to GIMP to LAME and a whole lot more that I can't think of right now. There's certainly no denying their utility. I use Wikipedia almost daily, and really like Firefox.

Don't get me wrong, I like open sourced material, but the stark reality of open source is that it retards innovation. Let's think about it - have the most intriguing products of the past couple of years come out of open sourced labs, or closed source labs? Think about things like MP3s, the Wii, World of Warcraft, Photoshop, digital cameras, BluRay, the Roomba. These things are the product of a very closed development process. Even Apple, one of the most respected and innovative companies on the planet with products like the iPod, the iPhone, Macbook, etc is probably the most closed development lab around. You don't see stuff like this coming from the open source community.

Apple, and Microsoft, and Photoshop compete with free because they are willing to spend the time and money to make a product innovative. This doesn't seem to happen when open source developers simply invest their mindshare into a product and not their livelihood. Innovation happens when you can break with the past way of doing things and head in a new direction. That's true with hardware or software platforms, like the Smartcar or GarageBand, but is also true of other types of platforms. Products from closed companies compete with the "free" open stuff because they are better, and, arguably, worth the premium. Almost universally, open source is incremental, not innovative, and no matter how you slice it, open source will always be fatally dependent on what came before.

To me, this insight into the nature of Open Source material has interesting implications for the way Christians and churches operate. Do you think it relates? How?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Boys and Girls are Biologically Different

In a stunning paper released this week by researchers at Northwest University and the University of Haifa, it was revealed that differences in language skills between girls and boys appears biological, rather than social, in nature. The full article can be found here.

For the first time, it seems, there is robust data to suggest that the brains of girls actually operate differently than the brains of boys. In the two groups, not only did different parts of the brain become active when using language skills, the level of activity in those parts of the brain differed drastically.

"Our data indicates that boys and girls are biologically different," said Dr. Obvious, one of the co-authors of the study. "This is exciting because it suggests that there might be other biological differences between boys and girls, perhaps even at the level of chromosomes. Who knows how these differences will manifest themselves in the phenotype? There may be actual physical differences between boys and girls due to their underlying biology."

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers performed tests measuring the brain activity of those doing spelling or writing language tasks. What they found was that the brain area associated with abstract thought worked the hardest in girls, and the area associated with sensory perception worked the hardest in boys.

"Dude, it was so boring," moaned Quintin, a 13 year old boy who took part in the study. "After about 30 minutes, all I could think about was a hot beef'n cheddar from Arby's. I wanted it so bad I could taste it, but I would have settled for some ding-dongs."

"I loved the words and phrases," bubbled Patty, an 11 year old girl who also took part in the testing. "They made me think of a pasture in Ireland or maybe Wisconsin where there is a girl who lives on a farm and is in love with a boy who looks like Zac Efron. He really likes her, too, but they don't know it and end up asking other people to the dance. They spend the whole night ignoring each other until both of their dates get sick, and they have to dance together for the final song. During that dance, they look into each other's eyes, and realize how deeply they care for each other. But just before they kiss, someone runs in and says that the Jones' barn is on fire and the guy who looks like Zac gets called off to help put it out," Patty sighed. "You know, sorta like Anne of Green Gables, but with the guy from High School Musical. He is sooo hot."

"What's really amazing about these results is that they held true even though we controlled for things like age, gender, and performance accuracy," said Dr. Bozzo, lead researcher and director of the center for language science. When asked if the study controlled for the crazy thoughts that zip through the head of a child at an alarming frequency, Dr. Bozzo replied that they had not yet proven such a thing even exists.

"The results of this study do not in any way undermine the hard work we have done to prove we are just as capable as men on any and every level," said Sarah Paxson, junior political science major and president of the Feminine Equality League at Northwest University, when asked about the implications of the study. "If anything it shows that we bring needed insight into a world dominated by the confused thinking of men."

When also asked about the implication of the study, Brian Landman, a sophomore biology major shouted, "Eat it, you PC hippies!" as he waved a copy of the study over his head. "Eat it and then iron my shirt. Wooooo! Sigma Phi!"

Monday, March 03, 2008

Postmodern Devotion

I consider myself postmodern. Kinda. Maybe postmodern with a squirt of empiricism and sympathy for foundationalism. And a good healthy dose of global skepticism. That is, I consider myself all those things if I thought labels could describe me; I hate labels.

In other words, I consider myself postmodern.

For me, postmodern leanings are a constant battle to figure out the truth of a thing - to figure out how to make it subjective and meaningful to me as a single individual. The postmodern battle for truth is complicated.

As I daily embark upon the narrow way, I've recently come to reflect on what it means to be devoted to something. In the Christian faith, it is not uncommon to hear calls to "simple", "pure", "undivided", or "sincere" devotion. To be honest, I have no idea what that means.

Devotion, it seems, is anything but simple. If devotion were as easy as just saying you were devoted, then the word wouldn't have any meaning. We could all be devoted to whatever we wanted to be, by merely speaking the words. But that's not devotion. Even a casual observer would realize I'm not devoted to my wife if I cheat on her, even if I say with the loudest voice that I am devoted. It seems that devotion is more than wearing a label, or pledging allegiance. It seems that devotion must be a more extensive act.

So is devotion where your mind and effort dwells to the exclusion of other things? Can a person be devoted to clinical depression, or to substance addiction? Should a person who is ensnared by that which they hate, be called "devoted" to their misery? Returning, over and over again, to things you hate is a sign of a split mind. That seems more like addiction than devotion. On the other hand, being single-mindedly devoted to things you enjoy, to the exclusion of other things, like your friends, or your family, or your personal identity feels more like obsession than devotion. It seems that devotion is a more balanced act than that.

Is devotion doing what it takes to accomplish the good things you desire? After all, when you love someone, wouldn't you do whatever it takes to make them happy? But the ugly side of this is that happiness can be a fake - a manufactured reality based on false promises. Anyone can tell a sincere lie to further a cause. Devotion must be more substantial than that. It must be courageous enough to speak the truth in love, but also realistic enough to realize that devotion is much deeper than words alone. Devotion, it seems, must come from within and spread, in a certain way, to what is outside yourself.

What if real devotion is complicated in its origin and multi-layered in its approach? What if it is more than words spoken and actions taken, since any of these, on their own, can be a lie?

Devotion, it seems to me, is not a prospective act, in which I say I'm devoted and then prove it to you later. Instead, it is a retrospective act in which I look back and see unmistakable trail of devotion. Devotion isn't words spoken or actions taken. Devotion is a life lived, colored by the complicated past that drives a person to unite heart, mind, and strength. Devotion can only be seen in the rear view mirror. Perhaps that's why a person is said to be "devoted"- which is a past-tense word.

So as I wake up each morning, and wonder what a person devoted to the narrow way does today, I know that future devotion can only be approached with fear and trembling. This, it seems, is our daily postmodern devotion.