Sunday, May 31, 2020

It starts with one cop

There are times when a pre-planned post would be inappropriate in light of current events. This is one of those times. I'm speaking of the unnecessary death of George Floyd, where information as it is now known looks damning for the police officer who, from what we know, looks culpable. I hedge my words in acknowledgment that all my information is incomplete and not directly acquired. That much said, if the facts as we know them now stand the test of time, I believe that in a healthy society that police officer would see time in prison. Not just on administrative leave, not just losing his job, but with a felony conviction. In general I believe that a deterrent to evil and violence is necessary and that is the intended role of the police. The officer in question does not look like part of the solution, he looks like part of the problem. Police are welcome and helpful if they pursue justice for all people and protect people from all those who would harm them, including those wearing a badge. When the police come after a cop who kills a man unnecessarily, then the police will regain their street cred. This cop doing time will send a message to other cops that there's a line. This cop doing time will set a precedent that we don't tolerate our police acting that way. This cop facing justice will give reason to believe that the cops are there to stop all perpetrators, not just the convenient ones. The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. The journey to clean up the police will start with one cop. Let it be this one.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Toward a Theology of Beauty (Aesthetics) in Worship

When I read the descriptions of the ancient Jewish tabernacle, then the descriptions of the later Temple, I have a growing realization of the sensuality of our worship tradition. It is full sights: the fine embroidery in rich colors, the woodwork, the gold inlay, the careful shapes and proportions. It is full of scents: incense, and paneling of sweet-scented wood. It has a feel: water for washing. It has tastes: even then, bread and wine. This is a faith which embraces the world and recognizes its goodness. More than that, it takes the elements of the world and displays them as gems to reveal the creator's goodness. It patterns the earth's elements to reflect a transcendent heaven.

I've always been particularly struck by the description of the lamp stand: gold in the shape of an almond tree or branch, with almond flowers. When lit, I imagine that it looked like a tree of gold with flowers of flame. That is a sight that could have mesmerized, could have coaxed even the hardest soul to believe that there is good in the world, undeniably right before their eyes.

This beauty is not for judging; it is not merely for admiring. Worship is a participation, a self-inclusion in celebrating the eternal beauty. We recognize the presence of God in the beauty of the world.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Tautology and Logical Necessity

It's been awhile since I did a post that was on the topic of logic and philosophy as such. Recently an on-line conversation reminded me that I have fonder view of tautology than many people. (If you know what tautology is but don't care, you might rather skip this post. If you're willing to follow along for the ride, it helps to muster some interest in logical proofs and how they work.)

Tautology is something that is self-referencing, and so basically true by definition. Consider the sentence "An apple is an apple" or the more generalized and over-used "It is what it is." A tautology is something so self-referencing that it couldn't possibly be false. You can fault it for being dull or obvious, but not for being false.

Tying in another thread: There is an argument for the existence of God that starts by arguing whether God is necessary or contingent. That argument itself isn't the point here; it's used as a touchstone to bring up the distinction about whether a thing is necessarily true or just happens to be true (but might have been otherwise). So I mean necessarily true in a more technical sense that "It's necessary for it to be true", like the fact that A equals A, or "It is what it is." Those things are necessarily true; they couldn't be anything else. (Still awake?)

Anything that is necessarily true is, ultimately, a tautology. That is: if we have our definitions right, if someone wants to prove that a thing is necessarily true, then they must prove that their point is inherent in the nature of the things being discussed: that once all the variables are reduced, what is left is a tautology. If a thing cannot be reduced to a tautology -- if it doesn't rest on the definitions of the things and the nature of the topic -- then it is not necessarily true. It may happen to be true but that's contingent or circumstantial. So even the most complex thing that can be proven to be true must rest on the nature of the reality beneath it. Anything else is chance.

Tautology has an evil twin, the circular argument. We can tell them apart: while tautology argues that A = A, the circular argument asserts that A = B and proves it by the assertion that B = A; each is used to prove the other. When a circular argument is reduced, there's nothing left. When a tautology is reduced, you still have what you started with, but maybe it's better understood.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Limited Miracles the Omni-Max God

The occurrence of a finite miracle, in the midst of so many instances of unabated suffering, suggests that the being who is responsible doesn’t know about, doesn’t care about, or doesn’t have the power to address the others. (Matt McCormick in “God Would Not Perform Miracles” in The Case Against Miracles; quote courtesy of Tom Gilson since I don't currently have a copy of the original work)
First I'd like to say: I'm glad that he is giving voice to what we are too likely to tell ourselves on dark nights when things aren't going in our favor. The fact that the author gives an honest voice to an honest complaint is what draws me to respond in this case. The problem of evil is not a table game, and we all have a personal stake in it. And when I wish for a miracle that doesn't come, it's easy to imagine that God doesn't care. (Yes, I'm aware that quote could be misused. If someone wants a follow-up on that, it's only within my intent if it is a conversation, not quote-mining.)

When we're going through rough times, when we can join Job in doubting there's justification for why we exist, then we're not doing our best thinking. Our thinking at times like that has raw honesty, power and relatability; it's generally also full of bad ideas. We lose perspective and lose all sense of context when we're overwhelmed like that. Standard advice is not to make important decisions when our thinking is impaired by despair, so choosing world-views at a time like that seems like a bad idea.

At times in my life when I've been in pain, the point of the miracles that I've wanted can be just what McCormick mentioned: end the suffering and prove to me that God cares. At a time like that if I knew for a fact that God cared, if I knew that the pain would be over and I would have a life that I loved in the future, the despair wouldn't get out of hand. Then again, if I just had a miracle, it wouldn't get out of hand either.

Thing is, I don't know of a lot of modern miracles. It's not honest of me to think, "My neighbor got her miracle so where's mine?" My neighbor hasn't had a miracle either. There are only a few times and places in history where there were enough miracles to get my notice: the life of Moses, and the life of Jesus. Now the historical documentation we have for the two isn't comparable; I could understand someone who thought of Moses as Jewish folklore, though based on what I've seen I think it more likely he was an actual person. So I consider those two lives as the context where we found those clusters of miracles. Moses didn't do a lot of healing miracles (yes, I'm aware of some exceptions; still they were exceptions). Jesus, on the other hand, was well-known for healing.

So what's the context in which these known miracles happened? It seems to be in the specific presence of a person who has been sent by God and empowered in some particular way to do them. Which brings us to another of McCormick's points:
There are compelling reasons to think that an infinitely good being would not do miracles, even ones that do vast but finite good; if one were to occur, we should infer that the responsible party is not omnibenevolent.
In Jesus' case, what I see is a different scenario than McCormick pictured. The responsible party, Jesus, is someone I see as fully benevolent -- he doesn't send away people empty-handed. But he's not omnipresent, and in his incarnation he was not immortal. (Yes, follow-up conversations are begging to be had; still one thing at a time.)
Miracles, as confined, local events solving local problems… aren’t the sort of expansive, world spanning events befitting an omniscient being. (McCormick, as edited by Gilson. I see the trail of the passing editor ... and wish I know what the ellipsis omitted. Still, what remains is worth a comment.)
From the life of Jesus, what I see -- healings or resurrections -- starts with local events but doesn't end there. They did more than transform the lives of those who were healed. They did more than demonstrate Jesus as a channel of the healing touch of God. They did more than validate Jesus' message of God's love for the world, his portrayal of God as the God who blesses. They did more than validate Jesus' message that God does in fact raise the dead. They also validated Jesus' message that all of us will be raised some day, that all of us will receive the most desirable of all miracles -- being restored to life again. (Yes, there are more conversations to be had. But let's finish the one we're having first.)

From the life of Jesus, we see that our dark thoughts aren't in touch with what God is doing. We can imagine that God chooses not to help people -- but we see in the life of Jesus something different than what we imagined. We can tell ourselves that our health problems mean we're on God's less-than list; Jesus says that's not it. We can join Mary and Martha at Lazarus' tomb, thinking, "If Jesus were here it wouldn't have happened (but now it's too late)" -- but from what happened next we find out that it's not too late, that with Jesus even after someone has died it's not too late. And so all of the miracles become promises of what God will do for us all, down payments on the redemption of all creation. 

McCormick is actually on the right track with his insistence that a good God will do the same for all. It's one of the few things on which a Christian and an atheist might agree. For Christians, to the extent that we are waiting for that day, it lifts the quality of our lives.

Monday, May 04, 2020

"Why was Jesus hanging out at a party when he could have been healing lepers?"

This continues some thoughts on a New Atheist book arguing against miracles which was a topic at Tom Gilson's blog, and in particular Matt McCormick's chapter on whether God would do miracles. He notes:
Christine Overall makes a step toward the same conclusion, “If Jesus was the Son of God, I want to know why he was hanging out at a party, making it go better [turning water into wine], when he could have been healing lepers, for example. (quoted from Gilson, who I'm hoping is quoting McCormick quoting Overall ... clear as day, right?)
This seems to be McCormick quoting another author. For the original quote, it's hard for me to relate to someone fault-finding attending a wedding reception. With a straight face and a sanctimonious tone, the author speaks as if healing (for example) and similar things are the only legitimate use of time and attending a celebration is not; as if Jesus hadn't healed far more lepers than those of us who have been to many parties without ever having healed a single one. That particular argument smells like posturing, of striking a pose that no one can honestly hold.

But aside from my personal reaction: Have the writers forgotten the time that Jesus went for dinner to the home of Simon the Leper? (It may be that Simon was no longer a leper, though the backstory isn't given.) Healing and celebrating aren't mutually exclusive. They are both legitimate -- both necessary -- parts of living in a world that is part broken and part triumphant, and giving due consideration to the whole of life.

Our age has a kind of killjoy piety in which we are urged to focus only on the negative, to allow no rest to ourselves or anyone else so long as any problem exists. The fact that it's unhealthy on a personal level isn't the real problem; we can legitimately fault our own weakness and limitations for the personal part. The problem is that the narrow focus on evil is used to undercut all the celebration-worthy events, and allows any evil in any context to upstage every good in the world. If you'll pardon an outdated term, it swag-jacks all the good in life -- not only that but it lays claim to the right to do that. It comes close to claiming a moral imperative to stop celebration (as we "could have been" doing something else). The original evil itself isn't able to delegitimize the good; but this approach to "morality" sets out to delegitimize any recognition of the good in life, or any time spent participating in it. Which I hope is all the explanation needed for why "morality" there is in perspective-check quotes.

Jesus' miracle at the wedding feast is a healthy corrective to the angstier-than-thou ethic of our age. Granted, for the feast to come (that's an allusion to the kingdom of God, for those who aren't familiar with the good news) -- nobody will enjoy the feast to come until all the lepers are healed. In this age, there are appropriate times when a foretaste of that feast, a celebration here and now is more than permitted -- it is good and right. The Bible teaches that "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. ... A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance." Evil has not defeated good; we will not allow evil to upstage good on an enduring basis. The complaint contains unspoken premises that so long as any evil continues then it should upstage all good for the duration, and that the good in life is frivolous or trivial rather than vital. From a Christian point of view, both of those are serious mistakes.

When we see ills in the world, we work good: the work to heal. So when instead we see good in the world, how much more should we work good by joining in that good. The main reason that I would call leprosy (for example) "evil" is that it deprives someone of that primary good, the participation in the good of life. It follows that not just leprosy but anything that would disable us from participating in the good of life is itself an evil. And here we have an argument that implies it is immoral to participate in the good of life. I would whole-heartedly reject the premises under that line of argument. I would contend that the participation in the good of life is the primary good, and the lack of that vital thing is what causes us to call leprosy evil.

Side-note: there also seems to be a dig about whether the omniscient one forgot enough wine for the party. I get the impression that part was played for laughs, and the fact that Jesus wasn't in charge of the wedding reception is beside the point of mocking its target. If we take the complaint seriously (even if meant as a taunt), the Omniscient is benevolent enough to cover the party and continue the celebration, all without embarrassing the host. But it's difficult to respond to something as a serious piece when it seeks laughs that weren't earned because they were bought by misrepresenting the facts. It's in line with the original setup where going to a wedding reception is de-solemnized and trivialized as "hanging out at a party", so I think it wasn't an accident that the author traded accuracy for laughs.

Overall, I think "shame-on-Jesus-for-going-to-a-wedding" if taken as an argument is faulty in its premises. "The omniscient one forgot the wine" is merely a taunt, and an inaccurate one at that. Unfortunately, what people want from a taunt is that it provides an opportunity to make fun of someone they dislike; it may have filled the bill for some.

I've set this section as a separate post to bracket it from the basic syllogism of the argument per se in the prior post. The remaining point that seems to resonate with common sense and common experience is the planned topic for next weekend's post: where all the hurting people of the world want to know, "Where's my miracle?"

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Philosophical Question: Would A Good God Perform Miracles?

Over at Thinking Christian, Tom Gilson discusses a New Atheist book The Case Against Miracles. In a recent post he discusses Chapter 2, "God Would Not Perform Miracles," contributed to the book by Matt McCormick. Gilson's response takes one possible approach; I'd take another. I'll mention that I don't have direct access to a copy of the original book and am responding based on a) quotes of the original material that appear in Gilson's post, and b) some comments that McCormick made in the comment section when he stopped by Gilson's blog.

I'm currently planning a 3-part response; this current post is the first:

  1. (This post) Addressing the basic syllogism of McCormick's argument as gleaned from the comments by McCormick at Gilson's blog
  2. (Tomorrow's post, already written; after I get this posted I plan to go pre-schedule that one) A response to the complaint "Why was Jesus hanging out at a party when he could have been healing lepers?" (paraphrased). I know this breaks my usual practice of posting only on weekends but I wanted to keep that topic separate from today's post without drawing out the series too long. 
  3. Localized miracles and the scope of God's love (planned for next weekend's post)

So enough for the preliminaries. Based on McCormick's comments, it looks like his original argument runs roughly like this:
God wouldn't underachieve.
Localized miracles are an underachievement.
Therefore God wouldn't do miracles. 
Based other comments, he also seems to assert:
Someone who doesn't take this argument seriously is biased. 
But there's another option: someone who doesn't take this argument seriously because there's contrary evidence. There are miracles on record that, as far as I can tell, actually happened; so I do start with the view that we know the syllogism is missing something important because we have contrary data, and then the task is to spot where its assumptions diverge from known facts. (Note I stopped short of saying the syllogism is wrong. I think it has some underlying assumptions that are wrong but that doesn't come into the discussion immediately. It's easy to read into the syllogism things that it doesn't say, or to use it to prove an argument that it doesn't make. One step at a time.)

Note that it's possible for someone to accept McCormick's premises and still come away with the view that the miracles we have on record did in fact happen. McCormick merely argues that it's underachieving for the philosophers' omnimax God to do miracles. Even if we accept his premises, if we stipulate that the miracles with best documentation are recorded not for a hypothetical omnimax God but in the life of Jesus of Nazareth -- a local, flesh-and-blood human -- then the "underachieving" argument strikes me as inapplicable in the first place. It's hardly underachieving for a thirty-something Nazarene in Roman-occupied Judea to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and raise the dead. Sure, it leaves several follow-up conversations in need of happening, but one conversation at a time.

By the way I think the most applicable of McCormick's points for the real world is (roughly) "Why doesn't God just heal everyone?" That's planned for next weekend's post, after I clear away a couple of the conversations that need to happen first (this, and then tomorrow's).