Sunday, July 23, 2017

Another Celebrity Self-Destructs .. Can We Re-Think Celebrity Culture?

This last week saw another celebrity suicide with Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. And it has become disturbingly routine for the rich and famous to take themselves out of the game before their time, either on purpose or with an accidental self-destruction through an overdose on drugs and alcohol.

I'm not sure when idolizing the famous became such a large part of our culture. I suspect the seeds were always there, and grew along with the reach of fame as world-wide audiences were possible. The loss of life is tragic. How much of the problem traces to celebrity-culture with its impossible demands for performance, beauty, energy and perfection? How much of it is the fleeting nature of fame, where the size of the talent pool results in so many "flash-in-the-pan" careers? (How many articles feature less-than-kind follow-ups on ex-celebrities: "Where are they now?" "You won't believe what they look like these days!" "Why won't anyone hire them anymore?") Some of it is the entertainment industry's pursuit of novelty and edginess, and as the frontier of edginess is pushed ever farther, some people selected for celebrity may be less grounded or stable, less able to deal with the stress, scrutiny, and instability of the industry.

And it can't be healthy for the consumers of the culture, when the culture is produced by -- and built on the lives of -- people who ultimately reject the worth of life itself. A few haunting times since the death of Amy Winehouse from alcohol poisoning, I've heard the song in which she sang about turning down rehab. Given what happened to the artist, why are we still playing that song? And part of the problem is that we've become consumers of culture, not so much participants in it. It's too easy to live vicariously through performers, too easy to go along with unreasonable expectations being placed on a performer, or finding someone who will voice our brokenness and at what point does it become taking advantage of them?

I've been mulling over whether there is anything we can do. The ideas below are tentative as I struggle with what we can do; there are ideas both what we can do to help celebrities and to help with the impact on the rest of us. I wonder whether it would help to:
  • Not buy tabloids that exploit the stress or misery of performers
  • Not follow click-bait links to articles that are vulture-like in dealing with lost careers
  • Call for ethical standards for media coverage of public figures
  • Call for better working conditions (hours/schedules) for performers
  • Encourage everyday people to have more real friends than imaginary ones, which should be a healthy step even if every celebrity were mentally-healthy and a good role model


Sunday, July 16, 2017

If the Bible didn't say "God is love", would we have figured it out?

I've recently traded some comments with a thoughtful skeptic. Christians take it as a given that God is love because one of Jesus' apostles left a letter saying that God is love. We take his word for that. But do we have anything besides his word for it?

So here are some lines of reasoning that support the idea that God is love. These aren't intended as full proper axiomatic proofs; they all have their premises that aren't in-scope here. But for those who accept the premises, these support the idea that love is what most defines God:

The Nature of Morality
  1. For Christians, the nature of morality is to be like God. Many commandments in the Bible are backed with this reasoning: do a certain thing because God does it. 
  2. According to Jesus, the greatest commandments are the commandments to love God and neighbor. 
  3. It would follow that the greatest way to be like God is to love. 
  4. So the action that most defines God is love.
The Nature of Virtue

Some people see this as the same as #1 morality; others don't, depending on their school of thought on morality and virtue. So to cover all the bases:
  1. Virtue is to be like God; 
  2. The greatest virtue is love; 
  3. It would follow that the greatest way to be like God is to be loving. 
  4. So again the virtue that most defines God is love.
The Origin of Creation

This one takes as given that God doesn't hate himself; it is also informed by the book of Genesis regardless of how analogically you take it.
  1. As any creator or artist, or as any parent, God created based on his own thoughts and will and imagination, and his own being. Everything that was created was based on his own being, and was good. 
  2. Everyone has goodwill and compassion towards what they have made that they recognize as good, because of the intrinsic nature of the relationship between the good in them and the good in what they have made. 
  3. God's love is therefore intrinsic in his relationship with everything he has made. 
 If anyone has another line of reasoning to add to the collection, I'd be glad to learn of it.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

"God is love": What do we mean by that?

Over at CADRE Comments, there has been a discussion on the idea that "God is love" (with some intensity from a debate in the comment thread). I think the question is important; one the skeptics in the comment thread suggests starting with the dictionary, so:

The Oxford dictionary on love has the more relevant entries as:
noun: An intense feeling of deep affection.
verb: To feel deep affection for (someone)
The Oxford definition of "love" is lacking enough that it explains exactly why Christians often go back to the Greek word that can be rendered into English as agape: what Oxford means by "love" is only the tip of the iceberg for what Christians mean by it. Oxford limits love to a deep or intense affection; but affection comes and goes. Oxford's thoughts on love are (at best) a matter of the heart only or (less than that) just a passing hormonal phenomenon. 

Christianity sees love as "heart, soul, strength, and mind": the heart is essential for Christian love, but "Heart" is only a fraction of what is involved. "Soul" refers to the wholeness of our being, so that agape-love seeks more depth or permanence than affection, with more spiritual depth than affection. "Strength" reminds us of the role of dedication and effort in increasing and strengthening our love, and with a call to build something more lasting than can be achieved by sentimentality. "Mind" rounds out our love with participation from our intellect, with contributions such as thoughtfulness and consideration. This thoughtful love is the foundation of wisdom: knowledge directed by love. 

That's enough of definitions, though. Do we mean that God is capable of affection? Yes, we do, though it needs immediate follow-up because there is a school of thought that says that emotions are passions and imply mutability or weakness. Here's the thing: do emotions imply mutability or weakness by their essential nature, or do emotions get that reputation because humans are mutable and weak? If we take as a premise that "love", being generous in nature, is not weak, and that God, being divine in nature, is not mutable, then there is nothing unworthy of God in having a strong and immutable love. Imagine that is why he created: out of love. Now imagine that God has a strong and immutable love for what he has made, that leads him to work for the good of all he has made, and for restoring things to their original glory. Imagine that strong and immutable love includes you.

That's what we mean by "God is love." 


I'd invite any newcomers to the blog who are interested in the topic to also skim through the posts that are tagged "love", or tagged "God's love in action".

Monday, July 03, 2017

The Afterlife: Open response to Michael Shermer's article

Michael Shermer writes for Scientific American in their regular one-page anti-religious column (often anti-Christian column) titled "Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye". Setting aside the arrogance and argument-baiting in using that as the column title for an anti-religious feature, I thought his July 2017 article deserved a response mostly because it's on the topic of his next book to be released in 2018, and because the article contained some badly reasoned attacks on the idea of an afterlife.

His launching point is a response to the Netflix film The Discovery (2017) as an opportunity to respond to the theory of quantum consciousness, a scientific theory that the mind and consciousness are independent of the physical brain. In the page allotted to his column, he makes three quick arguments:

1. Memories As Function, Brain Death As Irrecoverable Failure
First there is the assumption that our identity is located in our memories, which are presumed to be permanently recorded in the brain: if they could be copied and pasted into a computer or duplicated and implanted into a resurrected body or soul, we would be restored. But that is not how memory works. Memory is not like a DVR that can play back the past on a screen in your mind. Memory is a continually edited and fluid process that utterly depends on the neurons in your brain being functional.
There's a side note that bears mentioning: there is a risk of oversimplifying if we reduce our identity to our memories. While our identity would include our memories, it does not end there. Another part of our identity would be what I think of as "attached appetites". These are desires, goals, drives, motivations, and that kind of thing. For example, we may have an appetite for understanding which is currently attached to the goal of understanding the contents of a particular book, or an appetite for mastery which is currently attached to the goal of mastering a certain language. Our memories might tell us how much progress we have made on our quests, or even whether we have consciously recognized certain quests. But these are framework items that unify our memories and contribute to our more fluid understanding; they are not fully accounted for by reducing our scope to simple isolated memories. On this point, Shermer and I might have common ground.

Back to Shermer's comments; let's unpack that a little. I think most of us have seen how a new experience will update our understanding of a previous experience, or how reflecting on something will allow us to see things that we didn't understand at first. Memories may change in some aspects with our understanding of them. Still, I don't see that as a viable argument against preserving memories at a certain point of time -- say, at the moment of death -- and having those be the starting point for a reboot (if you'll pardon the term). We may be able to update our understanding of memories, but if our minds are physical then those updates are also available to us. Picking up at the point where Shermer mentions what he sees as the critical problem with the idea of memory-transference as a way to restore identities, post-resurrection:
But [the phenomenon of returning memories] cannot happen if your brain dies. That is why CPR has to be done so soon after a heart attack or drowning -- because if the brain is starved of oxygen-rich blood, the neurons die, along with the memories stored therein.
Shermer starts with something on which there's a consensus: that brain death eventually causes a state in which the memories do not return to the same neurons (which at that point have died) through the same natural process that is at work when we wake from sleep. He writes as though he believes this argument makes the final case that the memories or identity could not be restored at all, once the original neurons have died. However, he doesn't make any case for that, rather assumes it from the fact that it wouldn't happen by itself. Then again, neither would resurrection happen by itself, and people who believe in resurrection generally consider that the same Agent who causes someone's life to be restored would also cause the identity to be restored. And though he gives the appearance of interacting with religious views, Shermer makes no effort to address Jesus' resurrection on the third day after his burial with his memories, personality, and identity intact. For Christians at least, Jesus' resurrection addresses the question of whether the agent of the resurrection has this kind of thing covered.

Let's look at Shermer's second line of argument.

2. Resurrection as Copy or Twin: Non-Identity with Original

Per Shermer:
But a copy of your memories, your mind or even your soul is not you. It is a copy of you, no different than a twin, and no twin looks at his or her sibling and thinks, "There I am." Neither duplication nor resurrection can instantiate you in another plane of existence. 
Shermer may misunderstand what religious people would mean by our soul. When he says "even your soul is not you", much of religious thought would consider him to be wrong about that. A Christian would not say that a resurrected body has a copy of our soul, but the original one. Which makes the rest of his argument on this point moot, when it comes to Christian faith in the resurrection.

If Shermer's argument was addressed more to the "quantum consciousness" view than to Christians, I can imagine myself in a situation where I was restored after death through a phenomenon of copying. In that case, the fact that I was the only one of me in existence would be enough for me to think "Here I am." The identity crisis caused by a second instance doesn't hold (though more on that under his next point). So contrary to Shermer's argument, a copy after death would be different than a twin: the original is gone, and nobody is looking at the original and thinking "There I am," but "There I was (rest in peace); glad I'm back."

3. Identity and Point-Of-View

In Shermer's last argument, he references some interesting work done by neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth, president of the Brain Preservation Foundation. Shermer summarizes Hayworth by saying Hayworth separates the aspects of identity based on our memories ("MEMself") from the aspects based on our point-of-view ("POVself"):
He believes that if a complete MEMself is transferred into a computer (or, presumably, resurrected in heaven), the POVself will awaken. I disagree.
Let's assume for the moment that Shermer represents Hayworth's views accurately (though I look forward to the August issue, and hope that Hayworth gets response space). Let's envision "MEMself" as composed of millions of interconnected memory points -- like pixel art in our mental map of the world around us -- and "POVself" as the understanding we try to make of those -- like vector art trying to map the same items, and even complete the picture. If Shermer is saying that all the data points, like pixels, don't necessarily tell us what the next planned move would have been or the artist's perspective: that's true enough. But if Hayworth is saying that a complete MEMself would also include a memory of the big picture that we were trying to draw and the current progress, then that particular objection is overcome.

Shermer then makes two types of follow-up argument, which are recognizably his two previous points applied to the MEMself / POVself constructs. First for the reprise of the "identical twins" argument, applied to the hypothetical neural copy reboot:
If this were done without the death of the person, there would be two memory selves, each with its own POVself looking out at the world through its unique eyes. At that moment, each would take a different path in life, thereby recording different memories based on different experiences. "You" would not suddenly have two POVs. 
But having two of you doesn't actually mean the copy didn't work. In this case there is no longer simply one of "you", but Shermer seems to consider this an argument against the theory being able to work, rather than having side-effects as complicated as a time-travel story.

Next is Shermer's reprise of the "continuity" argument where a large-enough interruption is deemed to be an irrecoverable failure of the concept itself, rather than a logistics issue:
If you died, there is no known mechanism by which your POVself would be transported from your brain into a computer (or a resurrected body). A POV depends entirely on the continuity of self from one moment to the next ... Death is a permanent break in continuity, and our personal POV cannot be moved from your brain into some other medium, here or in the hereafter.
He rests his whole argument on the discontinuity of death, but in this context it's a red herring. Right now, even if you didn't die, there's still no known mechanism by which your POVself would be transported from your brain into a computer. It's (at the very least) a technology problem. Death is not a necessary part of that theoretical discussion of whether our consciousness could be transferred to a computer; we could do it while still of sound mind and body, if possible and the technology existed. Though that does lead to the point where it matters that death is a red herring in the argument for "computerized synthetic resurrection", may my regular readers bear with me for the sci-fi leanings of this paragraph: Once someone's POV could be transferred to a computer at some point in time, death no longer need be an interruption for having that POV continue; it's just a matter of timing the transfer (say) somewhere in that window of time between heart death and brain death. Chalk one up for hypothetical hospice services of the future. So even if we grant his assumption that continuity is necessary, it's not an insurmountable obstacle for synthetic resurrection.

In his third point, Shermer has no new arguments that bear on the idea of Christian resurrection. To briefly recap to save the reader the cross-reference, if Shermer is positing that there is an Agent who can resurrect by some means that we do not know, then the Christian would also affirm that the Agent is fully able to restore our identities, and that this Agent has given us a good-faith demonstration in Jesus' own resurrection.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Where was God when ..."?

After certain kinds of tragedies, there is often some discussion about why they happened -- in particular, why God didn't prevent them. "Where was God when ..." some tragedy struck?

It's an odd question in some ways. It's typically asked after man-made tragedies -- such as killing the innocent -- which God forbids. Often enough, we have a confused situation in which people blame God even though he forbids such an attack, but do not blame the people who carried out the attack. In some cases -- such as 9/11 -- we see people blame the victims or the victims' government as if the attack were a matter of justice on some level, and yet still blame God for allowing the attack which was deemed justified. That's not a consistent and sensible approach to justify the attacker but condemn God for allowing it. And it does nothing to honestly stand up against that kind of darkness, much less shed any light on the deeper issues of how (or if) God works for our good.

The "Where was God?" approach ignores God's prohibition against taking an innocent life, and still blames God when it happens. I'll set aside the atheists who take advantage of a tragedy to sow doubt, and mention: some may raise the question because they want to hope in God. But when it comes to God's approach to evil, they want more than opposition, they want prevention.

We may long for a world without tragedies. As long as there are people in the world who justify hatred, who encourage rage, who make excuses for killing the innocent, there will be tragedies. What if God were to take out these people before they act? But I am not convinced that pre-emptive strikes are justified. If we blame God for anything that looks like judgment or punishment against people who have clearly done wrong, how much more would we blame God for acting against people who had not done wrong yet?

Those of us who are Christians start with the basic view that God is good. So it makes sense to look for God's goodness always, especially in the face of evil. The "Where was God?" argument assumes more than God's goodness, though; it assumes that God should solve problems in a certain way. I don't know that God's approach is about preventing tragedies so much as rendering them meaningless in the long run: he raises the dead. He makes the wounded whole again, and wipes away the tears. All the harm done will come undone.

I picture Jesus' crucifixion, where we have criminals facing execution, and some onlookers taking satisfaction that evil was being stomped out, one evildoer at a time. Where was Jesus? He was giving hope to the dying. And forgiving the executioners.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Evangelism of Ambassadors


We are Christ's ambassadors, called to be peace-makers in this world, to build fellowship and tear down the walls of division. The work begins within our own minds, our own hearts, as we root out any bitterness, rage, or malice and in its place sow love. As ambassadors we are strangers in a strange land. While we may have hours that are quiet or private, there is no public setting where people are not judging us -- and Christ -- by how we as ambassadors conduct ourselves. I will make some quick and obvious points before continuing to the real point of this post.

As evangelists, as ambassadors of peace, there are messages and conduct that undermine us and discredit us. 
  1. Justifying ourselves
  2. Elevating ourselves
  3. Accusing others (including its cousin fault-finding)
  4. Belittling others
  5. Anger or fits of rage (so-called righteous anger is usually self-righteous anger, and there is nothing righteous about it)
There are messages and conduct which further our message:
  1. God forgiving us and others
  2. Elevating God
  3. Forgiving others
  4. Lifting up others
  5. Love, joy, and peace
Why, then, on reading Christian writings -- whether on-line or in print -- do we see ourselves willingly rushing away from things that further our message, towards things that do not? What about the temptation to put down others and gain at their expense is so attractive to us? What is there about anger, or sarcasm or mocking, or displays of contempt that make us think these are suitable tools of disciples of Christ? What about forgiving others is so elusive to us? What about giving the glory to God is so foreign to us?

The answer is our own sinfulness, I expect. We see humility as a loser's virtue for when we aren't accomplished enough to merit pride. But pride is a decoy virtue that lures us away from our better intentions. Prestige and recognition are bait for a spiritual trap. It is humility that is the basis of friendship, fellowship, brotherhood. It is the basis for all relations based on mutual kindness in which each person enjoys giving and receiving compassion and respect. Without humility there is no peace, there is no forgiveness, there is no reconciliation, there is no fellowship.

We live in dark times. This is no age of saints. So it takes only a little effort to shine as lights. God, grant us wisdom and willingness to walk your paths.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Separating Authentic from Inauthentic Jesus Tradition

Over at CADRE Comments, Joe Hinman was responding to "The Bayes Craze" in atheist polemics, and he mentioned a common anti-Christian claim:
"[T]here are no reliable criteria for separating authentic from inauthentic Jesus tradition."
While the claim is fairly common, it is also so badly mistaken that I'd like to respond again, at the risk of being repetitive. I've previously done some research and posted summaries on this blog about objectively measurable ways for evaluating different accounts of Jesus to determine their historical value. These methods can be done by computer and do not depend on the evaluator's preferences. To recap:
  • The real Jesus was Jewish. When evaluating the accounts of Jesus, the more Jewish context there is, the more authentic it's likely to be. This can be measured in the prevalence or lack of reference to Jewish Scripture, Jewish national heroes, synagogue worship, Jewish religious holy days, trips to the Temple, Jewish controversies, Jewish religious traditions, and the like. It can also be measured by loan words from the original context and languages, or phrases recounted in the language in which originally spoken.
  • The real Jesus lived in Judea and the key events of his life took place roughly around year 30 of our era, in Roman-occupied territory. When evaluating the accounts of Jesus, the more we have of first-century Roman-occupied Judea, the more authentic it's likely to be. This can be measured in the prevalence or lack of reference to Roman occupation, Roman officials, first-century money systems in use in that time and place, and first-century events. 
  • The real Jesus lived in the geographical world of that era. When evaluating the accounts of Jesus, the more geography there is, the more authentic it's likely to be. This can be measured in the prevalence or lack of reference to cities, towns, rivers, lakes, valleys, hills or mountains, traveling, modes of travel, neighboring territories, and at the micro-level by reference to landmarks or particular peoples' homes.
  • The real Jesus was a physical human being. When evaluating the accounts of Jesus, the more physical context there is, the more authentic it's likely to be. This can be measured in the prevalence or lack of reference to everyday physical events like eating, drinking, sleeping, hunger, thirst, tiredness, looking at people, picking up things, standing up, sitting down, and all that type of thing that shows a physical context of physical beings. It can also be measured by the prevalence or lack of reference to the physical context of our surroundings such events happening at day or night, the weather being being hot or cold, whether a food crop is in season or not, passing storms, and the like. 
There are other criteria to be mentioned as well, but these are some of the most obvious and most easily measured. Anyone who reads the various accounts of Jesus -- both inside and outside the New Testament -- will quickly come to see that some documents are more grounded in a Jewish context, in first-century Roman-occupied Judea, in a physical world involving physical human beings. In fact, some documents are several orders of magnitude better grounded than others, with a far better claim to authenticity. The more a document's contents are grounded in the appropriate time and place and language and culture and physical world, the more we'd evaluate it as an authentic record of its time and place.

Here's the thing: I've run those analyses, and I know the answers; it leaves me with full confidence in the authenticity of the canonical gospels as the best sources on Jesus. Anyone with a computer and texts of the various documents could do the same. The fact that the scholars of the various Biblical studies departments haven't done a similar study leaves me with exasperated doubt about the authenticity of Biblical studies scholarship.