Sunday, June 30, 2019

Mercy and Fresh Starts: Thoughts on Peoples' Skeletons in the Closet

Have you ever imagined starting over? Really starting over. I've read a few stories about people who have faked their own deaths, or assumed another identity. (No, I'm not going anywhere; it's an analogy. Hang with me a moment.) They wanted a fresh start, and they were willing to go to any lengths to start over. Maybe they'd made irretrievable mistakes. Maybe they'd made such a mess of things that they didn't see a way forward. Maybe they'd gotten involved with dangerous people and didn't see a way out. So there are stories where someone fakes their death. They count themselves as dead to the old, dangerous crowd -- and that frees them to be alive to a better life. The U.S. government even has a witness relocation program to help people start over. But that has a high bar for admission; for most of us there's no clean, legal way to start over. And even then there's the risk of running into someone that you used to know.
"Count yourselves as dead to sin, but alive to God." (Romans 6:11)
When it comes to sin, that's not too far an image from the idea of faking our own death. Not in the sense of starting a false life, but in the sense of starting over with a true one. When temptation knocks, we tell the devil, "Sorry, I -- er, I mean they -- don't live here anymore."

But there's always the risk of running into someone that you used to know. It seems to be a public sport to find the skeletons in peoples' closets, to dig up an old secret and say that one thing from long ago shows what a person is "really" like. But is one thing from a long time ago usually the true key to what a person is really like? And, from our faith: is that the good news? When we come across someone's old secret and have a chance to think differently of them, how about: Let's not, and let forgiveness be our choice. We can let them live a new life, and not be the force working against mercy. After all, who doesn't need mercy?

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Value of Beauty And Stillness

There is a time to speak, and a time to refrain from speaking.

"The heavens declare the glory of God" in a way that is far less tiresome than anything a human can manage with words. Though will we ever keep our peace? "Be still and know that I am God." He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.

Of the making of many books, there is no end (and it brings weariness). God's sanctuary of old was not filled with books but with images of heaven. There is value in being still, and in seeing the beauty of holiness.

Some may object to the idea of "meditation" because there are so many forms and it may be that not all are healthy, or there is room for confusion on what is healthy. But if we are still, and let the heavens declare the glory of God, we can find that God restores our soul.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

c# theology: How clearly can we explain what we are saying about God?

Logic is a useful tool, and originally a branch of philosophy. Then computers were invented, and over the years logical languages became far more specialized than their ancestors that were used in basic syllogisms. With the advent of object-oriented programming (OOP), logical languages made enormous gains in their ability to model the real world. But has computer programming, the now-grown independent child, ever returned the favor to philosophy to see how much the more advanced logical tools can help clarify philosophical problems?

For example, someone once used the question "What is a chair?" to explain to me just how complex a thing can be. Roughly their side of the conversation ran like: "A chair is a noun, isn't it? And yet, if you change all kinds of things about it, is it still a chair? Can't we take two very different things (maybe a squashy recliner for one, and an uncomfortable hard plastic stackable armless seat for another) and say they are both chairs? So what can we really say about chairs?" And I thought to myself, quietly, "The effort we put into outsmarting ourselves!" I was very young at the time so simply filed away the example in my mind; these days I suspect they simply didn't possess the right analytical tools. Because from an OOP point-of-view you could argue that "chair" is an interface -- roughly a set of certain predefined requirements, in this case mainly the ability for one person to sit on it -- that is implemented by any number of specific chairs. Or you could argue that "chair" is a function that returns a specific object that can be used as a chair. There are probably other options for how we model our thoughts about what "chair" means. But we don't want to confuse "slightly complex" with "ineffable".

On Trinity Sunday, I often come to the question: How clearly can we explain what we are saying about God? And it's hard to know where to start. For example, what if I start here:

public class God
    // what it means to be God

We run into open questions immediately. What does it mean to be God? In the Athanasian creed, the content of what it means to be God would be filled in along the lines of "uncreated, infinite, eternal." In the Nicene creed, it would be filled more along the lines of "Father Almighty, creator". In various parts of Scripture we'd also see holy, wise, compassionate, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love (or simply "love"). For today I'm fine with leaving "what it means to be God" as an open question; we'd hardly settle it in the course of a post anyway.

But then on Trinity Sunday here, there's more to say. So what if we sketch out:

public class Word : God
    // class Word is from class God
    public purpose Speak(person[])
        // do something

For those who don't code for a living or use other languages to code, I'll mention: the above says that Word inherits from God, so that everything God is, the Word is also. And I've sketched in one method (action) that belongs to "Word": the Word can Speak. The Word speaks to one or more persons; we haven't defined persons yet but pseudo-coding theology is not a small project and we have to start somewhere. I'm not sure that putting "purpose" in the return value is the best construction for Speak() but I certainly didn't want to pseudo-code it that Speak returns void. (Yes, there's a coder-theology-geek pun in there, but might be on the obscure side.) At any rate, while it's open to a more fully-developed model, it will do for the first draft -- with the understanding that it's not done yet, and wouldn't even pass a programmer's logical syntax-check at this early stage. Most code starts that way.

And while there are some points I'd like to discuss on that, it might help to bring the Holy Spirit into the discussion (in more ways that one!)

public class Spirit: God
    // class Spirit is from class God in the most ancient constructions
    public childOfGod Indwell(this, person)
        // do something

Again, that says that everything God is, the Spirit is also. And I've so far described one action of the Spirit, which is Indwell, an action which requires both the Spirit (this) and a person, and returns a childOfGod (again not even defined yet).

Now the number of things incomplete about this is fairly mind-boggling. If any reader feels the need to say so, you'll have my full agreement. But it opens up for us to have more exact discussions over our questions about God. Because the above is not the only possible arrangement; far from it. For example:

Which methods (actions) really belong to the child classes, and which to God as the originator? Is the Word of God more like a class, or more like an interface (having all the properties of God but not an independent class)? How about the Spirit of God: class or interface?

I know, some will find this hopelessly ... unhelpful (at best). But I hope that what it lacks in refinement, it makes up for in possibility.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Baptism - Why I do not see "obedience" as the main thing

I'm intending to pick up some older threads in the upcoming weeks, and wanted to start with a brief look at baptism. This is not here approached as an analysis of all the texts or arguments, more as a starting place for discussion.

If a parent tells a child to wash, and they wash, there's an aspect of obedience in that. But if the child asks, "Why?" I'm not sure the parent would answer "Because I said so." Was the washing nothing more than to show the parent's authority and check the child's obedience, or was there a genuine reason for washing? Was the parent using their authority as a test for the child, or was there something there for the child's benefit?

I can imagine someone making a case that obedience is itself the most helpful habit in the child: How could the child receive any benefits, ever, from following the parent's instructions if they never in fact followed those instructions? It's a fair enough question; it's also a fair question exactly what kind of relationship the child has to the parent. Is the parent working for the benefit of the child? Jesus encourages us to think of our relationship with God as to a Father who knows and cares what we need.

Jesus sends out his followers to make new disciples by baptizing and teaching, and those early days recorded in the New Testament speak of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Some people seem to be offended at the idea that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, and the objection seems to be roughly "If baptism brings us God's forgiveness, and baptism is an act of obedience, then we'd be earning forgiveness by our obedience. We know that's not right -- so baptism can't be about forgiveness." But what if it it's not about obedience?

If it were simply a matter of obedience there would be no need for water to be involved; the water would be arbitrary. God might as well have asked for us to do anything, if the only point was for us to do it. Based on Scripture I find it far more likely that God is trying to tell us something, that his choice to use water means something. 

The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that God works with us in a way we can understand. He has promised forgiveness. He gives us water for washing: we recognize that as a way to make something clean, new, and pure. He relates to us in a way that we can see every day when we wash. It's not our obedience that makes us clean; it is his washing away our sins that makes us clean. Baptism really is about forgiveness, and washing us clean, and making us new. None of that has so much to do with our obedience as God's mercy, his goodwill towards us.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

God and "The old guy with the beard"

Full disclosure: whenever I hear someone complain about a mental image of God as "the old guy with the beard", I tend to stop listening. There is nobody I have ever heard who thought it was meant literally; the objection as if that were a common understanding seems to me like argument-bait for an argument that I could scarcely believe was meant seriously, and certainly couldn't take seriously in any form I've heard.

For those who are familiar with idea of archetypes, I could say that the "old guy" image reminds me of the archetypal ancient sage -- much like Merlin in the Arthur legends, Tolkien's Gandalf, or more recently J.K. Rowling's Dumbledore. Archetypes are something like the shared images of the cultural mind -- and in this image we can see the thought of the powerful ancient man whose age has increased his wisdom without diminishing his strength.

In visual art Michelangelo -- one of the world's greatest painters -- in one of his most famous images, portrayed God as an old guy with a beard (below, image from Sistine Chapel). If we're going to use imagery at all, then meaningful imagery for God will convey one who is ancient yet vital. If we use images at all, we'd be hard-pressed to find a better image than that.

My experience is that those who complain about such an image of God tend to be either atheists who would protest anything that communicated God regardless of its merit, or Christians who find such images to be low-brow, unsophisticated, and embarrassing. It reminds me of times in the church's history when there were controversies over whether it was permissible to portray God in art, and times when Christian religious art was destroyed by other Christians. For the most part, the arts have won the argument for legitimacy in Christianity. Still the aspiring intellectuals may be its harshest critics. They may accept a great master like Michelangelo who makes a great painting of God as an old man, but if they imagine an uneducated person who finds that image helpful to make the idea of God more present, sometimes the aspiring intellectual may find himself embarrassed -- not of God but of his less fortunate brother.

I've recently been re-reading C.S. Lewis' Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. He had a useful insight that may be helpful when thinking of such images:
This talk of "meeting" is, no doubt, anthropomorphic ... That is why it must be balanced by all manner of metaphysical and theological abstractions. But never, here or anywhere else, let us think that while anthropomorphic images are a concession to our weakness, the abstractions are the literal truth. Both are equally concessions; each singly misleading, and the two together mutually corrective. (from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Chapter IV).
As Christians, we remember the Word of God in human flesh as Jesus. This teaches us that while we may have any amount of pious and lofty talk about God, it is at least as close to the truth to think of God as taking on flesh to reach out to us, and that God is not too high minded to make concessions to our weaknesses.