Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best of the Blogroll 2017

Here are my favorite posts of 2017 from the Christian blogs that I read regularly:
Independent bloggers are becoming rarer, and I deeply value the commitment and dedication of the bloggers represented here. I'd encourage my readers to try a few of these links if you're looking for edifying and thoughtful material. 

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 29, 2017

50th Anniversary: The Trouble With Tribbles

It was 50 years ago today that "The Trouble With Tribbles" -- an episode of Star Trek -- first aired. In honor of that, I hope I can be forgiven for putting a limerick in the mouth of Montgomery Scott:  

There once were wee creatures called tribbles
That wreaked havoc with endless nibbles
  They ate triticale
  And gorged themselves daily
And turned the seed grain into kibbles
Here's to Classic Trek!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Advent 4: A child is born

Of all the joyful celebrations, there are few that rival the birth of a new child.

Yesterday (as I write this), a friend of mine needed to organize her things and so briefly handed me her daughter Molly, born four months ago. Holding her awakened that deep human need to love.

I find that holding an infant is always something of a spiritual experience for me. Molly harbors no hate and no suspicion. She brings no ulterior motive. She practices no unkindness, attempts no manipulation, brings no emotional risk other than having my heart stolen. I am free to set aside any vigilance against attacks or traps, and simply connect. Little Molly is at the age where she can make meaningful eye contact, and can smile. Freed from any need to watch my back, I can experience genuine amazement at a remarkable little person. Holding an infant reminds me how much other human connections may be tainted in comparison -- and wondering how much of the cause is within myself. But the longer I hold a child, the more this self-cynicism passes -- not because it's wrong but because there are better things to do. No matter what's in me, the infant offers a fresh start. I find myself free to be more relaxed, more authentic, more joyful in return. There's a connection to be made, and nothing to poison it.

In reaching out to us, God chose weakness. Some scoff at the idea of God in a human baby: foolish! But the weakness of God is stronger than our strength, and the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom. That purity that I experience when holding an infant is something that many of us also experience when we are around nature, or any time that we find ourselves in the presence of the holy. Considering God as an infant reminds me how much my other connections with Him may be tainted in comparison, wondering how much of the cause is with me, and finally letting the self-cynicism pass. There's a connection to be made, and nothing to poison it. There's a fresh start: For unto us a child is born.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Advent 3: If Not for Mary?

God has chosen certain people for very specific roles at different times. Consider Abraham: without Abraham, how and when would monotheism have gained a lasting presence in the world? Or Moses: without Moses, how and when would the world have gained the idea that the worship that pleases God is when we treat each other with honesty and compassion? In both of these cases, Christians will see the hand of God -- and yet God chose to work through a person. We can honestly say that the world is different because of the people through whom God works, like Abraham and Moses. And in both cases they were just the beginning, and the world began to fill with a stream of people who saw their service to God in terms of honesty and compassion towards their neighbors.

It's unfortunate that so many arguments have occurred surrounding Mary, mother of Jesus. She also holds one of the era-defining roles in history. And the virgin consented to remain a virgin while others would think of her as an immoral woman. That is so different from the way of the world, where so many of us would gladly settle for the appearance of decency, for hiding our sins, if only we could keep our reputations. Here's the temptation: Will the appearance of being good become more important to us than the reality? For Mary, the reality was more important than the appearance. In some small way she shared in her son's suffering, if only for a short time: numbered among the transgressors, despised and rejected without deserving it.

And again God chose to work through a person. The world is different because of Mary. "Wait," someone might say, "All she did was bring Jesus into the world." Well, that's like saying "All Abraham did was move to a new place." Some of the world-changers didn't do complicated things. Some of the controversy about Mary has been this: By focusing on her, do people take credit away from God? How much mention of her is appropriate? In Scripture, she focuses not on herself but on her son. That's exactly how she brought light into the world.

Since everything happens because of God, it is easy to think that we do not matter. But God has chosen to make a world in which we matter. God typically works through people. When he heals people or rescues people, it's generally done through someone else with human flesh and blood. Our struggles matter. When he feeds the hungry or visits the sick, it's through us. Even in matters of redemption, at every point we see that people matter. That is, after all, the point of redemption.

In dark times, we are called to bring light into the darkness. We are the vessel that carries Christ. For those hostile to Christ, we carry a quiet and humble form of Christ: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and serving God by honesty and compassion towards our neighbors. Because God works through us, and we matter.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent 2: Centuries ahead of his opponents ...

Reading Matthew's account of Jesus' conception and birth, the second chapter recalls prophecy after prophecy of God's plans for the age of the Messiah. Centuries before, the prophets wrote: "born of a maiden ... called Immanuel (God-With-Us)", in "Bethlehem of Judea". But if Jesus was to be King of the Jews, then the man who held that title wouldn't keep it forever, or pass it to his own descendants. So he set out to kill an infant.

At that point in the narrative, it is easy -- and right -- to look with disgust on someone who would kill a child. We see a lot of evil in this world, and if we didn't already know how that story ended, it would be easy to worry if enough evil could overcome God's purposes for the world's redemption. How could God make so much depend on a baby who couldn't keep himself safe? Joseph and Mary were not incredible super-heroes. They were no match for the soldiers dispatched by a murderous king.

We know what happened: in a dream, an angel warned Joseph to take the family to Egypt. But the soldiers didn't know the exact identity of the child, and still killed the remaining boys of similar age in that town. And ... centuries before, the prophets wrote: "out of Egypt I will call my son", and "a voice is heard ... Rachel weeping for her children, and will not be consoled." God knew. He knew the evil of his enemies. He knew their plans. He knew how low they would go. While his enemies were trying to undermine God's plans, in reality they were fulfilling prophecies as God foresaw how they would try -- and fail -- to undermine his plans. So even their attempts to stop him were confirmations of God's predictions.

One reason we can worry about evil is because we have a suspicion that it could get out of hand. We worry that it is out of hand already. We recognize that the level of evil in our world is sometimes beyond our ability to overcome it (as it was beyond Joseph and Mary). We worry -- in some quiet, unrecognized part of our minds -- that it is beyond God, that things have gotten away from him. (That thought is behind some streams of atheism, as the common answer for why they do not believe in God: it's the evil in the world.) Almost all Christians agree on this: evil is contrary to God's will, by definition. If God does not desire evil -- and here it comes anyway -- does that mean that things are beyond his control?

I think that is one reason why God tells us some events in advance. He knew what his enemies would do then. He knows what evil is doing now. He knows what evil will do tomorrow. He told us in advance, centuries in advance. Evil has not outsmarted God, has not taken him by surprise, has not thwarted his plans. At this point in the world's story, it is easy -- and right -- to look with disgust on the evil in the world. But if we have listened to what Mary and Joseph's -- and God's -- son said, we may be a little less self-righteous, a little slower to blame God for not having eradicated us yet. We may begin to suspect that God is not a slacker, but patient. We may find ourselves trusting him.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent 1: The peace-bond

I think sometimes we forget, those of us who live in "melting-pot" countries, how much of human history has been lived in tension with people of different nations, where different bloodlines and different tribes meant the risk of war, where the enmity ran in the blood and was part of the cultural heritage. The ancients had a way of creating peace, of cementing a bond between two nations: to join the bloodlines. And in our melting-pot age, we generally only notice negative things about these alliance-marriages. But if we can drop our modern arrogance towards earlier cultures, we can see how an arranged marriage looks through their eyes:
                           ... The highly-famed queen,
Peace-tie of peoples, oft passed through the building,
Cheered the young troopers; she oft tendered a hero
A beautiful ring-band, ere she went to her sitting.
Beowulf, XXIX: 54-57
The woman became both queen and ambassador. And her child changed the relations further: the future king of the tribe had the blood of both nations. No warrior of either people could take up arms against the other without turning against their own.

In creating peace between God and man, Jesus is that child. He is the Word of God, revered by the angels, and the Son of Man. The ancients might see him differently, the mediator between God and man: The powers of heaven would not turn against man, because man includes one of God's own. The people of earth who acknowledge Jesus can no longer turn against God, for Jesus' sake. To turn against God becomes a form of self-betrayal now, because Christ is also one of our own.
For unto us a son is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulder. His name will be called: Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Thesis #2 On Church Unity

2. Scripture is our light in discerning the truth: not because it answers every question that we wish, but because it contains all the words known with certainty to come from God and from Christ, and because no disciple is above his master.

Again, while it is tempting to add some of the more obvious corollaries to that, at this point they might introduce less clarity instead of more.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Thesis #1 on Church Unity

1. Visible, acknowledged unity of all the followers of Christ is desirable: not because the See is infallible, but because fellowship is indispensable.

So tempting to add more right now, but here and now I want to focus on only this thought. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Thanksgiving: Foretaste of the Feast

My thoughts are turning to next week's Thanksgiving celebration, and to which favorite dishes I might prepare, or someone else might. One thing is sure: those of us working in the kitchen sample the food as we work. Anticipation is part of the celebration, and we take a foretaste of the feast to come.

Communion, or the Lord's Supper, is said to be a foretaste of the heavenly feast. As we come together, as we remember Jesus, we have one watchful eye turned toward the feast to come: the table and the gathering guests and the festive preparations. The wait is so long. We gather for a foretaste now, and next week, and again the week after ... like we did the week before, back for our lifetimes. The wait lasted through our parents' lifetimes, our grandparents', back into generations where the names are dim memories. The great saints of prior ages took the same foretaste as we do; we are joining them. The chain goes back unbroken to that upper room that Passover long ago: our Lord, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread and gave thanks and broke it and gave it to them all. He took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to them all, and said he would not partake again until the kingdom of God had come.

The Lord has been gone a long time. It is tempting to adapt the Jewish Passover refrain: "Next year, in the Kingdom!" It is hard for us to imagine "forever", a kingdom which never ends, and never fails. It is hard for us to understand "eternity" in a way that is possible for God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal. I think we can get a glimpse of the feast to come, and the depth of time in "eternity", when we realize how many lifetimes have come and gone in the time that it takes for preparation.

May I remember to anticipate, and not grow tired of waiting. Anticipation is how the joy of that celebration is drawn forward to brighten the holidays, so that they are not just a day but a season. 

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Objective Morality and the Narcissist

Awhile back, I was introducing a short series on reasons why I believe the concept of morality (a right way to treat each other) is intrinsic to our existence, and why I believe morality has an objective foundation in the value of life itself.

In the comments section, Kevin -- one of the neighboring bloggers who knows how to have a good conversation -- brought up a counter-argument that he'd seen. I'll post parts of it here for reference; if you'd like to see what else is in the longer version, that's in the comments to the post mentioned earlier.
There is only one question pertinent to the discussion of intrinsic morality: Do you believe everyone else's life is as valuable as your own? When we're born, the answer is simply no. ... We're all born narcissists. ... The one question, though, we must answer before we can talk about intrinsic morality is, "Is my pain more important to me than anyone else's?" If the answer is no, then all morality is intrinsic and we need no laws. If the answer is yes, no morality is intrinsic and every law is a tool to give the weak a fighting chance in this dog-eat-dog world. 
It's interesting how deeply we disagree from square 1. In this view, there is "only one question pertinent"; on my view, I'm not sure it's a relevant question. I don't think my life should be as important to you as yours is to you; I don't think my children's lives will ever be as important to you as your children's lives are to you, and I don't think they should be. To make sure my point is plain: I think it is right that you value yourself and your family more than you value acquaintances or strangers. It doesn't make you immoral, it means you have skin in the game. (We'll be back to a related point on that before we're done with this post.) For now, the opening point is that there is a self-care and self-responsibility that, far from being immoral, is actually our job. I don't expect my life to be as important to you as it is to me; but I do expect you to have it cross your mind that my life is as important to me as yours is to you.
... [Early childhood development] The world exists to help and hurt me. People exist to feed and train me. Everything is my toy or my obstacle ... Along the way those pains may open our eyes and we may begin to figure out that other peoples' hurts are as important as our own. If this happens, we may become caring people in place of our native narcissism.
You may know that I belong to a support group for people who were raised by addicts. I know some clinically diagnosed narcissists. I come from the opposite end of the spectrum, those of us raised with so much neglect that we have trouble developing a sense of self. On this end of the spectrum, far from thinking that everyone else exists to serve our wants, we have made ourselves nearly incapable of recognizing our own wants, and dissociate ourselves from the awareness of wanting or feeling in general. There's a lot of dysfunction in the world, but it's not one-size-fits-all. Recognizing both our own humanity and others' humanity are normal stages in healthy human development. I'll grant you that there are plenty of us who miss those normal stages of healthy human development, but I wouldn't want to argue from a narcissist to the lack of real morality, any more than I'd want to argue from a blind man to the lack of real sight.

The picture painted above, viewpoint of the narcissistic child, is very ... zombie-chic, with a post-apocalyptic feel. It ignores every redeeming human experience. In this omni-bleak world, nobody has ever curled up next to another for warmth, or shared a clean laugh, or traded stories over a cup of coffee. No one has ever basked in a moment with the kids, or enjoyed working with a friend on a project, or high-fived each other over a shared success. No one has ever shared a genuine human connection and enjoyed it for its own sake. Our narcissistic child never met up with love, or the desire for meaningful companionship. Even some deeply dysfunctional childhoods have more warmth than that, every now and then. (I've heard it said that narcissists don't have relationships, they take hostages. That's not a meaningful relationship. Think Beauty and the Beast as a tale of someone outgrowing his narcissism to become human. And "human" is defined in terms of being able to enter a meaningful relationship: when the beast understands that -- apart from whether the other person is useful to him -- the other person is valuable in a way that is worthy of celebrating, and that there is pleasure in valuing someone else's goodness.)
Is my pain more important to me than anyone else's?
Perspective. If I hold up a quarter just so, it can block out the sun. I've been in enough pain that it has blocked out the sun. We are finite, and the number of other people is (for practical purposes) infinite compared to us. So I believe that your pain should be important to you, as mine should be to me -- not in a way that is heartless towards others, but in a self-compassionate way that prevents "morality" from being an excuse for being heartless towards ourselves by losing us in a sea of other people that we haven't even met and don't even know.

Does it threaten morality that the speck in my eye -- or quarter, if you'd rather -- blocks out the sun? Well, it certainly carries a risk ... not only because some people are narcissists and sociopaths, but because we're all capable of being overwhelmed by our own pain (or desire or anger or ego etc), and because what's close to us will always look larger than what's at a distance.
... every law is a tool to give the weak a fighting chance in this dog-eat-dog world ... 
Let's go with that as a premise. That means, whenever a society adopts laws, it means we want to give the weak a fighting chance. We want a level playing field, and hope for the weak, and people signed up to advocate for them and give them that fighting chance. We have a streak of decency in us. The zombies haven't won.

Do not do to others what you would not have done to you. - Confucius
Do unto others what you would have them do to you. - Jesus
What if it's healthy when we are infants that we start with just our own perspective? What if that's just the limit of our mind at that point? What if healthy development, and healthy morality, leverages that perspective -- not in a way that makes us lose connection with ourselves, but in a way that makes us gain a connection others?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Jesus' messengers: Sent out together (Part 2)

This weekend, my church is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In the sermon, Martin Luther was the main focus; Jesus was mentioned once. (I have no idea whether that's typical of other pastors in my denomination. I actually suspect it's not typical, but that it might be accepted just this once ...) The risk that the early church warned about -- "I follow Peter, I follow Paul" -- is well in evidence today. Once we are not focused on Christ, where is our unity? I know that church divisions began long before the Reformation, but they've definitely accelerated since then.

Last week I focused on a specific way in which Christ undertook to bless us when he gave us each other, and sent out the apostles in pairs. There are blessings when we are united in his name: his presence, each others' love and fellowship, an ever-widening band of community that encircles the earth. All of those things are damaged or compromised now. Each and every day, we are affected in ways we hardly notice, at depths we hardly reckon with, that our nation is not unified, our neighborhood is not unified, our family is not unified, our international allies are not unified, our voice in the public square is not unified and we are easily played against each other. There is hardly a voice anywhere in the public square which people trust. We spend much of our energy against each other instead of towards our goal. How did we get here?

To read Luther's original 95 Theses, his main focuses were purgatory and indulgences. He wanted to abolish the fundraising abuses, curtail the embarrassingly-questionable theology that he was no longer willing to defend from his teaching post, and return to a Scriptural foundation for church teachings. Luther did not accomplish what he set out to do. "Speak the truth with love." Luther was an incendiary. We'll never know if Luther would have accomplished more if he had approached the problem in a more Christ-like way, or if his opponents had approached his criticisms in a more Christ-like way. For our own part, we have glorified an incendiary, made a role model of an incendiary. What is the fruit of that? Many more have followed in his footsteps. We live in an age in which incendiary people are seen as heroes. We are almost to the one-year anniversary of an election in which the political rhetoric was full of hatred and contempt, where it was a struggle for many people to figure out which was the lesser of two evils (or lesser of four, if you include the minor parties). We can expect that the same crew that organized riots last year after the election will probably be unconcerned (last year, I believe the right adjective was "satisfied") if their planned anniversary "demonstrations" again become violent riots; "rage" is encouraged.
That kind of satisfaction comes from a contempt towards peace, and an indifference towards whether we ever reconcile with the other side, that we have spent half a millenium rehearsing. That includes those who are just sure that "the other guys" are at fault and "the other guys" won't listen. Whether we recognize it or not -- whether those who hate us recognize it or not -- we have set the tone and the pace here by accepting divisions, promoting firebrands, encouraging indifference towards reconciling with each other. We justify our inaction by rehearsing the problems with the other side, while they do the same. It's an ironic thing we have in common, across the divides.

To heal divisions of this long-standing, at this depth, will take saints and miracles. In the early days, the theologians and saints of the church were often the same people: they lived the life of Christ's people and servants in this world. These days, the theologians are often arguers or hair-splitters rather than those who love Christ and his people; they are not at risk of becoming saints, and that means their theology will never be truly great. There is a greatness in Scripture that they believe is beneath them, when I wonder if it is over their heads.

For today, I think the best I can do is recognize that Jesus sent us out together, and to treat all of his people as my people, regardless of whether the various firebrands and their apologists ever call a cease-fire. We are in great need, I believe urgent need, to have the blessings of unity that Christ gave us. Wherever we are gathered together in his name, he is with us.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Jesus' messengers: Sent out together (Part 1)

Jesus sent his followers to work in pairs. When we remember his apostles, we sometimes even remember them in pairs, especially those who were already brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John. And those pairs were part of a larger group, the Twelve, and those together were leaders among all the disciples. I'd like to make a few quick observations about Jesus sending his apostles in pairs, and come back to some related observations in a separate post. Here are some ways in which we can see the wisdom of sending them out together:
  • Whenever two or more are gathered in his name, he is with us
  • In pairs, Jesus gives fellowship to the ones working together
  • In pairs, when they talk to still others, the conversation has a baseline of fellowship and peaceful accord already established
  • Working from a position of fellowship and strength will lead to a more open and relaxed approach, helpful in both tone and memory 
  • Each person is not alone: there is always someone to turn to if frustrated or discouraged, provoked, or unsure of the best approach: there is always another perspective, always counsel, always support
  • The witness of love and friendship is beyond the witness of words; there is the deeper message that this is about belonging, about not being abandoned, and not being alone
  • Christ's teachings and this practice both establish peaceful relations and ultimately work to establish peace in ever-widening circles; each link is a building-block of a larger community
It is easy to underestimate the value of working together.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

How To Be a Furniture Salesman to the Glory of God

I've written before about what I believe is the biggest scandal in the church: the fact that, on most days, we don't live lives of such active compassion for others that it dwarfs the news that, yes, we fall short of our own ideals and are at times embarrassed by bad leadership. After Hurricane Harvey there was a huge shift, as people on the ground here in Houston know: there were countless thousands (I wonder did it cross over into 'millions'?) of Christians spending their days and resources helping in an organized way. Sure, there were some non-Christians who also showed compassion on people -- but the Christian community definitely shone brightly. It's still going on, though in quieter ways that don't really draw cameras: people still providing meals for people who lost their kitchens, or helping with the re-installation of sheet rock ...

The way that the media works, they pick one person to tell the story. During the height of the crisis in Houston, the news media chose Mattress Mack (real name Jim McIngvale), who is already well-known in the Houston area for furniture sales outlets, and even better known for giving back to the community cheerfully and generously. When the waters rose, he saw his fleet of trucks as rescue vehicles. With people needing a place to shelter, he saw his showrooms and warehouses as places with plenty of extra room and extra furniture where people could lay their heads, and sit down in a safe place. Because his heart is willing, he found the way.

We live in an age where we tend to delegate things to specialists. We are called to remember that living out our love is not for specialists, it's for all of us.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Does faith in God lead to lower or higher self-esteem?

Over at CADRE Comments, there has been some discussion of how religious beliefs may affect self-esteem based on academic studies which found a relationship between skepticism and low self-esteem. I thought the conversation interesting enough that I'd like to continue it here.


On the one hand, the question "What belief leads to highest self-esteem?" has some problems. It sounds as though we're trying to measure the health of faith in God (so far so good) by saying it will always lead to higher self-esteem. But what about narcissists? I've met a few. I expect that mental health would mean an increase in self-esteem for a self-loather, but a decrease in self-esteem for a narcissist. For a narcissist, I think the relaxed self-esteem would be more honest, less aggressive or defensive, more peaceful, and in the end healthier. So raising and lowering self-esteem, in isolation from any context, isn't a good measure of mental health, much less truth.

And then whether a belief system tends to raise or lower self-esteem would depend on what kind of view that belief system as a whole has on humanity, and the value of people. Consider two different belief systems: one teaches that humanity is in the image of God who loves us, and the other teaches that there is a god who is a flying spaghetti-monster (or might as well be) and has no particular bond with us. The stakes are about the nature of the Big Scheme of Things, about whether Reality has meaning and takes an interest in our well-being. So whether a belief system says that God made us in his image, or whether it teaches that any god might as well be a ridiculous monster, it necessarily leads to different views of the value of existing, and of being human.

The Skeptic's Perspective

A skeptic involved in the conversation presents these as sample messages from Christianity:
After all [and since I came from Christianity I will use that as an example], what type of messages does Religion send it's believers?

- I am not worthy of your love, Christ.
- Why do you love me?
- I'm a sinner.
- Jesus died to save my sins, therefore I deserve to burn in hell.
- I must humble myself before the Lord.
- Pride is a sin.
A Quick Point

Before I respond to the skeptic's list -- which really deserves a response -- I'll have to say: I have a suspicion of where our skeptic got those ideas. There are actually some Christians running around who practice self-loathing. Now, I think most Christians generally see the self-loathers as needing guidance, sometimes simply immature, though in worse cases it seems to be a bid for sympathy, hoping for someone to contradict them, which might happen more often if it weren't so manipulative or being used as bait for an argument. But they do their damage and it's more than just their own private form of self-harm.

This conversation started with a study showing that religious people generally have better self-esteem; it's because religious people generally have healthier messages than the ones shown above. But there are those who use religion like a cutter uses the blade in her purse, just a way to draw blood with another round of self-hatred -- and like a cutter can become addicted to the self-inflicted pain with its adrenalin rush. The self-loathers have the same relationship to self-love that an anorexic has to food, and will convince themselves that they have too much of the thing when they're starving for its lack. It's rare, but I think most of us have met a cutter, or an anorexic, or a self-loather. In gentleness (so that we don't make the problem worse) it's necessary that we are still firm when we tell a self-loather: it's not healthy, it's not spiritual, it's not Christ-like. We can show them a more excellent way.

The Bigger Picture

So when we get back to the skeptic, I'm going to work from the point-of-view that this person wants to make an honest argument, and isn't making a deliberate effort to distort Christianity, and may have even come by their distorted view honestly by meeting some self-loathers along the way. Regardless of how that view was formed, it's still a significantly distorted picture.

First let's take a general look at the things the skeptic mentions: they are a mixed collection, not all of them actually taught by Christianity. When it comes to that list, the best I can say is that, even when a particular point may be a message of Christianity, it is still distorted. For example: "Pride is a sin" sure: spend some time with someone who is arrogant and it's clear that pride is the enemy of love. But for the distortion, it omits the fact Christianity teaches that love is the foundation of all morality, that self-love is a good thing: "Love our neighbors as ourselves." We couldn't even begin on Christianity's basic moral teachings without self-love. Other items on the skeptic's list (e.g. "Why do you love me?") aren't teachings of Christianity in the first place. So the writer may have had some private context there, but not knowing that context I can't speak to it. The skeptic has selected things that show how Jesus' teachings lead us away from pride and towards humility, with an unspoken assumption that pride is the same thing as self-love, and that humility is the opposite of self-love. Those assumptions aren't true. We've already discussed pride. Humility is gentle by nature and isn't spiteful or harsh with anyone, least of all ourselves.

When it comes to the question, "Is that a distortion?", we see the most telling point when we compare the things that are mentioned against the big picture of what could and should have been mentioned:
  • "God so loved the world" (etc) is on the short list of most-quoted Christian teachings
  • He loves the whole world which includes each of us
  • We were made in the image of God
  • God considered us worthy of his friendship and compassion
  • Because we are his, we are from a source that is wholly good, and no matter the depths to which we sink, we are redeemable
  • There is joy in heaven over us when we reconcile with God
  • God's own Spirit lives within us
  • We living human beings become the living Temple of God
  • His love is greater than our sin
  • We will be holy and blameless in his sight
  • We will shine like stars in the universe
  • He will wipe every tear from our eyes
  • The point of the kingdom of God is for God to be with us, and us with him
It's tempting to keep expanding the list, but the size of the list isn't the point. The point is how impossible it is to separate the message of God's love from the message of Christianity.

A Distaste for Acknowledging Sin

That's still not the whole picture, though. It's not all about lists and counter-lists and big pictures. Here I speak as a perfectionist: it bothers me that I have any faults. There's a temptation to think that having any real fault makes me unworthy. And there's a tendency to be defensive, to see any suggestion that I have faults as an attack or a threat or a put-down. And it doesn't help that there are people who use it that way. But Jesus was very matter-of-fact about it: "It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." If I replace pride with self-love, I can be healed.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Why it matters that God is personal

There are philosophical understandings of God as the Ground of Being, the Unmoved Mover. These are often presented in contrast with the idea of God as a Heavenly Father. Some call the personal image "primitive" or some other pejorative to bar it from serious conversation. Here I write not only to defend that it is acceptable to understand God as person, but to affirm that it is essential and irreplaceable to a full understanding of God. If the purpose of study is to gain knowledge, and the purpose of philosophy to gain wisdom, then recognizing God as personal opens doors to understanding that are simply not available with impersonal abstracts.
  • If God is not personal, then it is ultimately unimportant that we are personal. With an impersonal deity, we're left with something like Eleanor Roosevelt's questionable claim:
Great minds discuss ideas,
average minds discuss events,
small minds discuss people.
That view stems from a deeply non-Christian premise: that ideas are the things of greatest importance, events are less important than ideas, and people are the least important of all. In that aphorism, "minds" stands in as a replacement for people -- or we could say it reduces people to their minds -- in order to maintain the view that people are the least worthy of serious consideration. Contrast that with one of the more striking art forms of recent centuries: the literary novel, in which the deeper themes are incarnated in events, and their worth as wisdom is tested by how they live out in the lives of people. If the art form of the novel per se has any meaning, if the format itself has any basic premise to communicate to the world, then the existence of the novel as art says that people are important, that we matter, that it is not small-minded to care. As a reprise to Mrs Roosevelt, I might offer: "Great thinkers generate great ideas, great doers cause great events, great hearts affirm the value of people." And to affirm the value of people, we have to believe that people matter, that being personal matters. If we see God as personal, this instills in us the sense of the value of being a person. We could not imagine the same extent of value with an impersonal God. We cannot disown the personhood of God without devaluing personhood in general, and ourselves in the process.
  • If God is not personal, then there is no point in praying. After all our prayers are said, the Unmoved Mover is ... unmoved.
  • If God is personal then divine revelations make sense. But if God is not personal, the concept of revelation is in doubt. If God is not personal, is it possible for God to reach out?
  • If God is personal, only then would we turn to him, relate to him, involve him in our lives. But if God is impersonal, then there is no personal connection to God to be found in religion, no meaningful distinction between religion and philosophy. Religion is reduced to philosophy-plus-ritual (some would say "plus superstition"), or philosophy-plus-moral-code; it loses the idea of a transformative connection with a Divine Person.
  • If God is personal, then being in the "image of God" affirms our own personhood. But if God is not personal, the "image of God" portrays us as copies of an abstract ideal, and assigns no particular dignity to the human condition. Without the idea of a person as the image of God, there is little basis for redemption of the person. 
  • If God is not personal, then the foundation of morality and its true nature cannot be love. Love is the unique province of beings who are aware, who value, who connect, who care, who have a stake in the well-being of each other. If God is not personal, God is not love.
I have (for this post, anyway) set aside the questions of how we know that God is personal, and what we mean by that. These are good topics in their own right, but among Christians those conversations have generally already taken place, even if they might bear repeating.

Instead, my focus is here: The idea of personhood is necessary to a full understanding of God. Our understanding of God is incomplete or misleading if we lose sight of that. Setting aside the personhood of God is a disservice not only to "primitive religious" types, but also to true knowledge of God, and true knowledge of ourselves.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Deeper into the Beatitudes

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you, when people revile you, and persecute you, and falsely accuse you of all kinds of evil, for my sake. Rejoice, and be glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so they persecuted the prophets before you. (Matthew 5:3-12)
The beatitudes are the heart of God. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' teachings begin and end with images of the Last Day, of the kingdom of God fully realized. Here, at the start of his teaching ministry, he shows the Last Day as a day of blessing. There are blessings reserved for the innocents. There are blessings reserved for those who have known grief. Blessings will be poured out on those who have suffered injustice, and on the kind, the merciful, the peacemakers. We have heard the decree of God's healing for this world and for all that is good in it.

When we accuse God of injustice, we accuse the wrong person. We will see the unjust brought to account. Instead of our false accusations, we will see the charges that were right and true.

Between now and then, may I stop myself from adding to the injustice. And may I stop myself from adding a second injustice on top the first, by accusing the wrong person.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"800-year flood": Crisis and the real-life value of virtue

Here in Houston, we are still in recovery mode. There is an often-quoted number in our local conversations: some commentator has estimated that rain on that scale is a once-in-800-years event for our area. (I hope that means I've paid my dues.) As a pass-time between cleanup, repair, or volunteering stints, we trade stories of floods and rescues, clearing out homes, and waiting in the expectation that some day the garbage collection services will actually make an impact on the curbside debris piles. The standard greeting has become "How did you do in the storm?"

It has been interesting to see the different reactions to a catastrophe of this magnitude. I know someone who had over four feet of water in her home, and calmly waited her turn for boat-rescue, having changed into her swimsuit. I know someone who did not get water in her home, and was so overcome with anxiety that she was vomiting from the stress. (No, neither one of those is me. For my own part, during the worst of it, I was blissfully asleep. If worse came to worst, I'd rather start well-rested. Though the second night, once it became clear what we were up against and the roads were already impassably flooded, I'd packed a "just in case" bag with a couple of changes of clothing, and placed it on top of a chair where it would stay dry longer.)

It has been interesting to see different reactions to all the work that needs to be done. Some see an opportunity to remodel, some see an opportunity to help, some see an opportunity to make a quick dollar flipping flooded houses. And some are just quietly grateful that it wasn't them. Almost all of the people working at the shelters, distribution centers, and meal prep centers have a genuine compassion for those who were badly flooded. I have only met one person at a city-run distribution center who had an attitude other than compassion: the attitude was fear that we would be unable to help some people, leading to anger at those who tried to take more than the very modest limit. Fear and anger can make it tricky to enforce limits humanely and with respect.

Through it all, the genuine, down-to-earth value of virtue has become clear to me:
  1. Hope is not merely shallow wishful thinking. Those who work from hope instead of fear behave in more rational ways, and less self-destructive ways, during a crisis.
  2. Compassion is the most motivating force in a time of need. Compassion has moved an incredible number of people here locally to stand beside each other in our time of need.
  3. Kindness makes a difference. When the need is great, it becomes plain that even the simplest actions can help. Almost everyone has it in them to be a hero, when the opportunity presents itself.
  4. Fellowship is indispensable. None of us gets through this alone. Community also forms naturally when people get together.
I have seen more hope, compassion, kindness, and fellowship these last few weeks than I have seen in a long time. It's not that they were absent before, but the scale of these has had to grow to fill the size of the need.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The still, small voice of God

God came through earthquake, wind, and fire to Moses at the mountain. I expect most people who will read this know that story, and this one too: when Elijah took refuge there again, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. There was a mighty wind, but the Lord was not in the mighty wind. There was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. (Some people seem to like the earthquake, wind, and fire approach. But it's not the only one.) There was a still, small voice of calm. God was in that voice. (Elijah recognized God's voice. Someone who knew less of God's ways might have tried to give some sort of meaning to the earthquake, wind, and fire, and even claim to be speaking for God.)

Why would the Almighty be gentle? We misunderstand power if we can ask that. There is power in calm. There is a time for a voice that is not raised. There is a time -- it seems about now -- when we have all had enough of earthquake, wind, and fire to last a long time.

Bless the Lord, whose voice also creates calm.

Monday, September 04, 2017

For The Record: What Can We Predict?

I've long noticed, living in southern Texas, that it doesn't snow often. I've also long noticed, living in southern Texas, that when it does snow, it often happens in the winter just following a hurricane. So we just had a hurricane, and here comes winter. Is that enough to predict snow this particular winter here in southern Texas? My experience leads me to expect snow, even though it's rare here.

Some things are more predictable than the weather. One is that disasters, oddly, bring out the best in the people who go through them together. The basic compassion of shared humanity is in full bloom, and all the petty divisions disappear for a time. The just-drained neighborhoods (the backdrop for newscasts of daring boat rescues a week ago) are now filled with hundreds of extra cars: people who came to help tear out wet sheet-rock, pull up wet carpet, and move wet furniture out of the homes. The too-crowded streets have church relief trucks passing out sandwiches and water to people they never met, who are too grateful and too hungry to turn it down. I saw one relief truck get nearly mobbed in a neighborhood that is within a few miles of the rain gauge that set the new national record, and one young woman nearly brought to tears by some watermelon after a week of eating cold dry goods or things from a can. In some places the cleaner debris becomes a makeshift picnic-table: a door set across the washer and dryer out by the curb. And everyone has more friends and neighbors now than when we started.

It makes me oddly optimistic. Even the apocalypse doesn't seem entirely bad, from a certain angle. It's not that the predictions of doom and gloom have been entirely wrong, just that they leave out the power of compassion.

Monday, August 28, 2017

This weekend's post was pre-empted by a hurricane ...

My power is now back on, & I hope to be back posting next weekend.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Intrinsic Need And Intrinsic Morality

This post builds on earlier material, where I present the case that there are intrinsic principles of morality based on the intrinsic properties of the reality in which we live. The earlier material includes the following foundation:

  1. The inherent value of life to the ones who lives it. Self-value, self-preservation, self-love. 
  2. The bond of shared humanity. Recognizing that others share the same humanity as ourselves. 
  3. The fragility of life and the corollary of compassion for ourselves and for those who share our humanity. 

Beyond life's value, its shared nature, and its fragility, there are other intrinsic facts of life that can lead us to recognize further reason for shared values. I should be clear, when I speak of "morality" here, I mean some very basic things: that causes have effects, that people are interconnected, that we do things that affect ourselves and others for good or bad. This post develops some of the ways in which each life affects others, and the values that most people acknowledge as a direct result of the nature of the world in which we live:

4. The passing of life and the need for children
In natural occurrence, human life continues to each new generation of children through biology's natural process of a man and a woman coming together in a heterosexual act. In general, people need very little encouragement to perform the act in question. (While technology has developed some expensive alternatives to natural conception, they are not a practical replacement at the large scale.) The act of producing a new child creates an intrinsic biological relationship between father, mother, and child. 
Long-term survival depends on new children to continue each new generation; we have a unique dependence on productive heterosexual relationships.
5. The vulnerability of children; the vulnerability of mothers in pregnancy and childbirth
Human children begin life helpless and vulnerable. The mother also is vulnerable, especially during pregnancy and childbirth. Decency requires that both the father and the mother share the responsibility for the new life, and help through the vulnerable stages of life. This involves a new application of principles we have already seen. We apply the bond of shared humanity and the corollary of compassion to the vulnerable states involved in bringing a new child into the world. We also recognize the intrinsic bond to the parents when a new life is created, and the long-term benefits to the children of having responsible, caring parents.
The quality of life is higher for the mother, the child, and the father if there is a trustworthy bond of mutual support, affection, and respect. There is an inherent value in supportive family relationships, and in stability through committed relationships.
From this inherent value, we derive principles to promote not only marriage but the kindness and self-control necessary to make that relationship supportive and healthy for those who participate. From this we also derive principles to discourage unkindness, divorce, abandonment, or unfaithfulness. When these principles have been denied or disregarded, the most vulnerable have been women and children, who carry an over-sized share of the burden of isolation and hardship because of the intrinsic vulnerability of how children are brought into the world.
The well-being of a community across generations depends on promoting long-lasting, stable family relationships. This involves kindness, faithfulness, and self-control.
6. The general value of community
Human life is safest and most prosperous when people and groups live at peace within their homes, at peace with their neighbors, and at peace with neighboring groups. This requires that people in general develop principles of self-control, and recognize the value of both self and others. This further requires the development of boundaries, and methods for resolving disagreements.
Norms against trespass and theft recognize that we physically need territory, home, and safety, and involve the community in safeguarding the people within it. Norms against physical attack, slander, malice, and provoking strife all recognize the destructiveness of badly-handled conflict or inciting division. Rules of privacy, courtesy, manners, and civility all recognize the value of respecting each person, and the value of building and strengthening harmonious relationships. Shared celebrations and observances are a means of building and strengthening community.

For community-building purposes, the norms and rules vary in content but not in function. That is to say, to promote the prosperity that comes from a large-scale, culture-wide common bond, the "universal" here is not the content of the norms but their function in establishing community. This function goes beyond having norms for the sake of something to share or a component of identity; it also involves taking care of the self-regulation and self-care that are necessary for a society to continue. It is the intrinsic value of life extended to the intrinsic value of the life of the shared community.
Human life is safest and most prosperous when there is a well-developed, mutually respected system of both courtesy and law. Those who respect their own stake in the community will generally adopt the norms that function to preserve it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Intrinsic value and intrinsic morality

This continues last week's thoughts on whether there are any moral certainties, or moral values that can be held as universal. This includes a recap of last week's thoughts, and lays out three of the most basic steps in exploring human universals, human values, and what that means for morality.

1. The inherent value of life
Life in its natural and healthy state is inherently valuable to the one living it.
The most fundamental value is self-value, self-respect, or self-love.
2. The bond of shared humanity
If each each human life is inherently valuable to the one living it, and others share that same humanity as ourselves, then we can derive the general bond of humanity: the regard for others as having lives that are inherently valuable to them in the same way.
The first social value is recognizing that others have the same humanity as ourselves.

As mentioned before: from this, we can derive all laws that protect life and the quality of life. Even traffic laws are, in the end, about not deliberately endangering a life. The culture-specific laws towards those ends derive from the culture-transcending, intrinsic recognition of the shared value of human life.
3. The fragility of life: the corollary of compassion
During the life cycle, we each experience inherently vulnerable states. When young, before the age of self-sufficiency, we experience a vulnerability that is intrinsic to that state. There is a vulnerability in pregnancy that is intrinsic to that condition. There is a vulnerability in injury, sickness, and old age that is intrinsic to our mortal condition. From our self-value, we will develop self-compassion towards our own vulnerability. From our recognition of others' shared humanity, that compassion extends to others. 
The second fundamental value is self-compassion.
The second social value is compassion and mercy for the vulnerable.
This list is meant as a beginning; there are several other values that I believe are human universals because they are intrinsic to the human condition. However, it's a topic shift between this group and the next, so this seems a good place to pause.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Is there a basis for moral reasoning?

If there is no basis for moral reasoning, then nobody has ever done wrong. Consider the usual examples about how evil the past has been: if there is no moral right or wrong, if there is no good or evil, then it would follow that the Nazis were not wrong and the slave trade was not wrong. It would follow that there is no moral reason why a serial killer or sex predator should be brought to "justice"; what is justice? If morality is an artificial construct, society may come to agreements about rules, but does society have a right to pass judgment on dissenters or conscientious objectors?

"Is it natural or artificial?" is a complicated question, even if we look for a simpler topic than morality. If we get milk from the store, is it natural or artificial? Was the cow given hormones? How about antibiotics? How much selective breeding was involved to produce the herd? Was the milk pasteurized? An artificial process may be applied to a natural thing, and there may be difficulty in attaining an absolutely natural state; that does not imply that there is no natural state. When all the arguing is done, mammals produce milk whether anyone has given them hormones or antibiotics.

So what about morality? Is there a natural state? In tracing its roots, I have not found more basic than this: Life is good. To explain that more fully: Life naturally comes with the beauty of the natural world and the enjoyment of that, with an intrinsic bond to those who gave us life and those who share it. Our original sense of good seems to be our innate sense of the worthiness of life itself. And if anything is good, then opposing or attacking or sabotaging it is not good.

From that, we can derive all the laws that protect life, protect freedom, and promote quality of life. Even traffic laws are, in the end, about not deliberately endangering a life.

If life is good, if it is intrinsically valuable to the one living it, then there is an objective basis for morality.

Next I hope to explore whether there are other intrinsic and natural bases for moral reasoning. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Cicero's claim about immutable goodness

There is a train of thought going back even to the classical and ancient world that living an upright life is one of the marks of being human, and that going against it is an offense against humanity and ourselves. Here is the Roman writer Cicero (d. 43 BC), giving eloquent voice to that thought:
There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation.
Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing today and another tomorrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must for ever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author,—its promulgator,—its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man. For his crime he must endure the severest penalties hereafter, even if he avoid the usual misfortunes of the present life.

[Alternate translation of the last portion:

Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly considered punishment.]

[The second seems a more faithful rendering of that portion of the original, which is given as:]
cui qui non parebit, ipse se fugiet ac naturam hominis aspernatus hoc ipso luet maximas poenas, etiamsi cetera supplicia, quae putantur, effugerit.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (De Re Publica [Of The Republic], Book III Section 22)
Some themes are common to all humanity. Cicero had a good reputation in the church, both for his philosophy and for his writing style. 

So: Do we obey a command because God gives it, or do we obey a command from the incentives of reward and punishment? That question, much like Euthyphro's dilemma, also has premises that undermine a complete answer. If the desire to do right is intrinsic to humanity, and if there are universals of what is right, then denying them is denying part of our humanity. In that case, doing what is right is healthy and intrinsically carries the reward of actualizing the human potential even if no external incentives ever appear. Likewise doing is wrong is unhealthy and intrinsically carries the shame and loss of rejecting that part of our own humanity, even if no external punishments are ever applied.

From a Christian point-of-view, we identify this intrinsic good with both God's will and God's nature. This means that pursuing this intrinsic good will move us closer to God's will and nature, and that turning away would do the opposite. And because fellowship is built on what is shared and common, the same pursuit of intrinsic good will unite us more closely with people who pursue the same goals.

If Cicero is right that there exist human moral universals, then a denial or rejection of these human moral universals would lead to an erosion of humanity or human excellence. It would also lead to an erosion of unity in society, as each group goes after their own way, and an erosion of the rule of law as it is considered to have no ultimate validity.

Is Cicero right? We live in an age that no longer grants his premises. (Which, I hope, will be the topic of the next post.)

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 of 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 permanence than affection, 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.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

"Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind" Meets Some Other Touchstone Verses

When Jesus was asked which command was the greatest, he said it was this: that we love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. It's easy to think of love in terms of heart, or possibly in terms of strength if we're trying it by will-power without much help from our hearts in some situations. Sometimes I wonder, "What part does each play?" Sometimes I find myself thinking: it doesn't help much to break it down; the point is we love with all that we have. At other times ... Well, this is one of the other times when I'm curious whether it would help to see the part played by each. And so I've taken some of the other touchstone verses of the Bible, and looked at whether each thing seems like a way to love with heart, soul, strength, or mind, in hopes that I'll see other ways to increase in love. I should mention: I take it as given that all these touchstone verses instruct us in how to increase our love. 
  • Characteristics of love: patient, kind, not jealous, not boastful, not proud, not rude, not self-seeking, not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, takes no delight in evil, rejoices in truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Kind, not jealous, rejoices in truth
Not boastful, not proud, not self-seeking, takes no delight in evil, hopes all things
Patient, not easily angered, bears all things, endures all things
Not rude, keeps no record of wrongs, believes all things

  • Sevenfold spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear of the Lord, joy in His presence. (Isaiah 11:2-3)
Joy in His presence
Fear of the Lord
Wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge

  • Taking off the old self: Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, and every form of malice. (Ephesians 4:31)
Get rid of bitterness
Get rid of bitterness
Get rid of rage, anger, brawling
Get rid of slander and malice.

  • Think on these things: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good reputation, if there is any virtue, or anything worthy of praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Whatever is lovely, of good reputation, worthy of praise
Whatever is honorable, just, pure, worthy of praise
Anything of virtue, worthy of praise
Whatever is true
Think on these things

Some of these of course could have been placed differently. Still, when I find that my heart isn't cooperating it's good to know how to help it along with my mind or strength, and vice versa.