Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

Imaginary friends…

May 12th, 2017

There’s a new attempt to claim that the existence of God is rationally probable kicking around at the moment, divided into five “reasons”.

Therer’s a general problem about all of these, in that while they may point to there being something which we don’t yet fully understand underlying existence, the directions the author is going in would lead to a “God of the philosophers”, which (as I’ve complained regularly) looks nothing like the God of the Bible. In fact, it looks a lot more like Stephen Hawking’s “Theory of Everything”, and while I would be absolutely fascinated to see Hawking or some other brilliant mind come up with such a theory, and I would no doubt regard it as wonderful, awesome and similar words, I can’t see myself worshiping, loving or having allegiance to a theory.

I may come back to the other four reasons, but at this point I want to talk about the first, which has been called by others “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. The link I use there refers to a number of objections by Richard Hamming, but the list of names who have regarded this as a puzzle which requires answering includes some very great thinkers, and I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand. As Max Tegmark suggests, perhaps at a fundamental level everything IS mathematical. It is definitely the case that mathematics comes up with concepts, and those concepts later find use when some theoretical scientist realises that that piece of maths describes (at least reasonably well) the mechanism which they are studying. The use of the Riemann mathematics in General Relativity, rather a lot of years later, is indeed a fine example.

I am not going to set out to dismiss the idea, but I do see a number of problems (apart from the fact that equating God with mathematics would negate virtually every religious or spiritual writing in history). Hamming mentions one, which I think has a lot of force – mathematics continues to produce a load of concepts, and not all of them by any manner of means manage to find a natural mechanism to describe. Some of them don’t describe the mechanism particularly well – I would argue, for instance, that string theory (which is an admirably complex piece of mathematical thinking) doesn’t actually describe the fundamental state of matter particularly well, given that to date it has failed to make any prediction which could be tested and that it keeps on being modified by legions of theoretical physicists in the hopes that one day it might.

He then develops that (it’s listed as a separate objection, but I think it flows from the above) to argue that we use the conceptual tools we have (which are, in science, largely provided by mathematics) to try to explain things. If we lack a mathematical concept for something, science doesn’t explain it, at least not yet.

What concerns me more, however, is the fact that mathematics throws up concepts which have no physical correspondent. Infinity is one such; we cannot observe an infinity; if we could, it would not be an infinity. It (together with a class of mathematical concepts which are quasi-infinities, called “transfinites”) is incapable of being experimentally verified; they just result from a contemplation of what would happen if an operation which you can perform a lot of times were continued indefinitely. I’ve written elsewhere of the problems faced by referring to attributes of God such as omnipotence and omniscience as infinite; I am deeply uncertain of the wisdom of this habit of saying “well, it looks as if it’s going there” without actually doing the experiment, as concepts have a habit of breaking down in limit conditions.

However, there’s another mathematical concept which cannot exist in the real world at all (it isn’t just not verifiable by experiment, it cannot exist) and that is the square root of -1, called “i”. The definition is i2 + 1 = 0. It is actually called an “imaginary number” for just that reason – it can have no real world equivalent. Mathematics therefore (arguably) axiomatically overspecifies what actually exists (axiomatically as opposed to the as-yet-unused mathematical concepts which may find an application some day).

I grant you, a very common use of imaginary numbers is in complex numbers of the form a + bi, where a is the “real” and bi the “imaginary” part; the imaginary part is then thought of as somewhere on an axis at right angles to the real axis. Any point on a two dimensional graph can therefore be represented as a single complex number.

The thing is, imaginary numbers are all over the place in some fields of mathematics, notably in areas like Rieman spaces (mentioned above) and anything to do with waves, including quantum physics. The mathematics for things which do exist therefore relies on concepts which don’t and can’t exist, despite the comments of the mathematicians talking with Melvyn Bragg in this BBC programme.

There are, I suppose, two ways of looking at this. The first is to say that mathematics clearly includes nonexistent things, and therefore cannot demonstrate the existence of God, because, well, God exists and they don’t.

The other is to say that if, just perhaps, there is something in the author’s argument that mathematics can tell us something about God, it is that “God exists” is at best a deceptive statement – because God includes some aspect which is, strictly speaking, imaginary…

So, my atheist friends, forgive me if I laugh at your comments about God as my “imaginary friend”. You’re reading this courtesy of techology which relies on imaginary numbers to exist.

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Nevertheless, God…

November 8th, 2016

Some while ago I wrote a post with the provocative title “God – WTF?”. Having reread it, my thinking has not changed all that much. However, another slight spin on the topic came to mind earlier this week, when I was engaged in my other part time occupation of research assistant in a chemical process lab.

We were looking at a process which we had gleaned from a scientific paper, and (inter alia) speculating about how this particular reaction actually worked. If we can work out how it functions, we have a hope, at least, of making it work better – and the commonly used process for this chemical is only about 27% efficient; we want something as close to 100% as we can get.

Now, you can’t see a reaction happening, as such. Sure, you can detect that the stuff in the flask has changed colour, or become more or less viscous, or has started (or stopped) giving off bubbles. You can (as we did) take samples out at regular intervals and look at them with various instruments (in our case, chiefly a UV-Visible spectrum spectrometer, though we have also resorted to high pressure laser chromatography and, by sending samples away, mass spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy). These techniques let us at least guess at what the actual chemicals present in the reaction at that point are (the pinpoint identifications common in forensics based TV programmes are rather beyond what can actually be achieved in many labs, and rely on someone having identified a chemical previously so you have a characteristic trace for it).

None of this, however, is actually seeing the reaction, particularly as current theory holds that temporary intermediate chemicals are formed and quickly reformed in the type of reaction we are looking at, and will not be seen if you take out a sample and look at it at leisure – it will by then have reacted on or gone back to it’s original constituents. We are inferring what is actually happening from what we see, which is definitely second-order (and, of course, as with the equipment I have listed we are not looking directly at a chemical, we are looking at a trace on a screen produced by some physical process plus a set of fairly complex electronics, usually dissolved in something which itself affects the result).

One of the things we have decided during the last week is that the intermediate chemical in this process is not what the original scientific paper said it was. We have a number of possibilities, but it is pretty definitely not what the original authors (who were writing quite a while ago and probably didn’t have instant UV-Vis and HPLC results available to them) said it was.

This all reminded me of the position I was talking of in that post. I’m a mystic – I have experienced (and hope to experience again) something which I find past mystics have labelled “God”. I do not know (at least not with confidence, given a rather sceptical and enquiring nature) what that something is. It may be something which could reasonably be talked of as a person; certainly most theology in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their offshoots talks of God that way. It may be something more akin to a process – as John Caputo puts it “what is going on in the name of God”. It may be an emergent property, possibly an emergent property of mind, as I’ve speculated previously. It might even be just a meme (and even Richard Dawkins would agree that it is at least one meme…).

What I see from atheists, however, appears to me to be along the lines of “well, it isn’t A, and it isn’t B, and it isn’t C, so it doesn’t exist”. This, to me, is like saying that if in the experiment I mention we have ruled out the possibility of the reaction involving compound A, compound B or coumpound C, then the reaction isn’t happening. I can see it happening in the reaction vessel, even if I don’t know exactly how it is happening. Likewise, I can experience God (to a greater or lesser degree) without needing to know what it is that I am experiencing with any clarity – and, for me, that is a difficult thing to write, because I want to know with clarity how everything works!

It isn’t just atheists who are culpable here. A facebook friend involved in a webinar recently talked of people in his past (at a seminary) who held that if you had the wrong “doctrine of God”, you were damned. That, to my mind, is saying that the compound absolutely has to be compound A, whatever anyone else says – and, in a sense, that if it isn’t, for you, most likely to be compound A then, again, the reaction won’t happen.

Galileo is reputed to have said, in response to Church statements that the earth could not move (in order to orbit the sun) “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves). God exists (or insists) and does what God does irrespective of your doctrine of God and irrespective of those who say that if we don’t understand it, it can’t happen.

For some value of “exists”…

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Musing…

October 26th, 2016

Peter Enns mentions, in a post which is mostly about incarnation, the fact that some scholars don’t take inspiration and revelation seriously.

Probably, the more “liberal” your theology (or “progressive” if you like) the less you’re likely to regard these as important terms. However, by almost any standards other than out and out atheist, I’m pretty much firmly in the liberal/progressive camp, theologically speaking – but I do take both of these concepts very seriously indeed.

That’s because I’m at root a mystic. I wouldn’t be writing this kind of post or reading a stack of theology, biblical study and spirituality material if it weren’t for that fact; the me aged between about 8 and about 15 was a complete atheist, and was frankly happy with that state – and there’s probably no room in an atheist, materialist worldview for inspiration or revelation. A mystical experience, however, whatever framework of interpretation you apply to it, comes with a large dose of self-verification – in other words, it tells you that it’s true, and more true than anything experienced through more mundane channels.

That said, it’s also incredibly difficult to communicate (at least to anyone who isn’t themselves a mystic) – mere words just don’t quite seem to hack it. They might for a poet, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d ever qualify as a poet (an occasional versifier at best…). I don’t think my “muse” is poetic.

I keep that very centrally in mind when talking either of my own experience or of the words of others which have been widely identified as “inspired”; the experience in and of itself may well be completely true, but by the time it’s filtered through the concept structures and language I have available, in my case at least it’s only somewhat true – and I expect that to be the case with any other person’s inspired statements. That means that I need to do some digging within the words used to try to discern what the original inspiration may have been – and that is particularly true where the original writer was using a set of concept structures and language which are foreign to me. On the most simple level, I need it translated into English. However, I also need it translated from, variously, a first-century Hebrew set of concepts or a first century Greek set of concepts when dealing with scripture, and translating into a modern-to-post-modern set of concepts.

The “post-modern” bit of that is a bit of a saving grace. The viewpoints Dr. Enns is talking of are, by and large, modern – and a modern view of inspiration is that it needs to be entirely rationally sustainable and reducible to material elements; this is what produces an insistence on an historical Adam and Eve, an historical recent creation and an historical flood. Those events have to have actually happened exactly as the literal words describe, otherwise they’re of no use whatsoever – a view agreed on by atheists and fundamentalists alike.

I can try to look behind the literal meaning and seek the inspiration which gave rise to to that kind of expression, given (in those cases) a several-thousand-year old Hebrew viewpoint on the way things were. A lot of what I post here involves that kind of process; I am working through scripture, reinterpreting it along the way as I am forced to do by not having an Iron Age Hebrew worldview and concept structures, and I am working through doctrines with the same compulsion caused by not having a first century Greek worldview and concept structures (particularly their philosophical ideas).

I haven’t got round to all scripture yet. There are some passages of scripture in which I find it so far impossible to discern an inspiration which I can regard as “true” – particularly those passages in which God is seen, ostensibly, as counselling genocide (the Amalekites in the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance) or as effecting it himself (the flood, or some interpretations of Revelation, for instance). Maybe those will never make sense to me as being inspired by or a revelation from God. Maybe they weren’t, and were inserted in what is definitely in part an inspired set of works by some thoroughly uninspired individual. I prefer, however, for the moment, to assume that at some point in the future I may work out how it is that they are divinely inspired, and in the meantime just not act on any of them which does not seem to me to display injunctions to love, not hate, and to peace, not strife.

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The impassible and impossible God, Eris and Dada.

September 28th, 2016

Brian Neice says something in a recent blogpost which has been part of my thinking for ages, namely that the idea of a perfect God is a theological blind alley. As he points out, a perfect God cannot act and cannot change his mind – both things which our scriptures claim God does, in the first place frequently, in the second occasionally.

There is another spin-off of the “perfect, unchanging God” concept (which is the God-concept of Greek philosophy, not that of the Bible, except insofar as some Greek concepts have penetrated the New Testament, which was written in Greek). That is the idea of Divine Impassibility (no, not “impossibility”, though I might argue that the perfect, unchanging, impassible God is also impossible – as, indeed, Mr. Neice may be saying). This argues that as God is perfect, God cannot be moved to emotion by anything which happens in the world. We cannot, says this view, do anything which can change God – even emotionally, as either before the change or after the change God would not be perfect.

Again, this is not the God of scripture, who is frequently called “loving” and sometimes “wrathful”; both of these are emotions. You just cannot love if you can not be stirred by emotion, changed by what happens with another person. Theologians have been wont to use weasel words to get round this – God does not love, but IS love, they may say, for instance. Alternatively “God’s love is of a different kind to human love” (to which my response is “So different a kind as not to be love at all”).

I therefore agree with the writer – God is nothing if He is not relational, and to be relational involves change.

That said, there is a fundamental dichotomy at the root of existence, that between order and chaos. In the Bible, God is represented in Genesis 1 as bringing order out of chaos, and is frequently seen after that as the embodiment of order – set against chaos. However, in the New Testament we see Jesus (who, according to deutero-Paul, is the image of the invisible God) saying “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”.

You can have order which is bad, as well as chaos which is bad (few of us want very much chaos to enter our lives), and in that case, chaos needs to be brought to bear. This is, I suggest, always the case in order that there be – well – anything (as indicated in the video I linked to a few days ago in my post “The experience and consciousness of a neutrino”).

Cameron Freeman writes recently (and I can’t link to it, as it is in the “Friendly Fire” closed group studying the work of Peter Rollins): “In the beginning, there is an irresolvable paradox of antagonistic tensions forever trembling in the sacred depths of the universe. This perpetual wrestling between contradictory forces is not, however, a curse but a blessing. For as the immanent driving force of all temporal becoming, this primordial antagonism at the heart of reality itself is what keeps the future open by making the transformation of the world as we know it possible.”

He goes on to say “As the cataclysmic non-ground that is radically otherwise to any temporally constituted unity – and therefore destabilizing to the rational grounding of any presumed totality and every world-system, the anarchic abyss of this primordial dissonance (i.e. the Crucifixion) precedes and sets the stage for all new birth, and thereby constitutes the “condition of possibility” for the emergence of new forms of serendipitous creativity – from out of the disruptive darkness and into the light of new life…”

Indeed, order and chaos appear to be diametrically opposed principles, so attempting to suggest that either one of them is fundamental (and the other secondary) is going to cause problems. Taoism has, perhaps, some element of this in its well known “yin-yang” symbol, interlocking comma shapes of black and white, each with an “eye” of the other colour. However, suggesting that they are both fundamental is, as Cameron points out, paradoxical.

Then again, absolute chaos involves the dissolution of everything into irreducibly small particles (if, indeed, such things exist…) and thus death, while absolute order involves everything being completely static and unchanging, which is another kind of death. Only between the two can we find life.

The theological attitude which Mr. Neice and myself criticise is one which demands absolute order, and thus the death of God, i.e. atheism. However, the inverse of that is possibly Discordianism – and I would strongly argue that Discordianism is a religion of the absurd, and a reaction against too much love of order in established religions. I can certainly sympathise with that – Hail Eris! (at least in moderation).

Is it however true that if there is a fundamental contradiction or paradox at the root of reality, that that-which-is, or God, is both order AND chaos, is this also absurd? Or is it merely a function of the fact that our comprehension and our reason are inadequate to understand any further than that?

Certainly my mystical experience gives me the overwhelming conviction that all is one, and that one is God – so is there therefore a fundamental paradox in God? In those moments of unitive ecstasy, there is no discord, but there is also no sterile immovability.

Perhaps ultimately I need to recall that Jesus told us to address God as “Abba”. This is often suggested as being potentially baby language, and preachers suggest “Daddy” – which is a fine counterpoint to our tendency to think of God as unapproachable (the God of impassibility and perfection). Should I suggest that a better word would be “Dada”?

Dada is, of course, also the name of an absurdist movement in art last century… and Origen wrote “credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it is absurd)…

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The consciousness and experience of a neutrino

September 23rd, 2016

I was interested by an article I read on panspychism (broadly, the suggestion that consciousness is the most fundamental thing and that matter and energy are epiphenomena or emergent properties of consciousness). Frankly, I’m inclined to agree with it’s stance, though another article which a commentator on the first links to, by Galen Strawson, entirely rightly refers to Bertrand Russell’s observation that “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events, except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” In that sense, at least, consciousness has to be primary, because that’s all we have to work with. Everything which we think we know about the world around us except for consciousness is ultimately a construction of our consciousnesses.

That, of course, includes such absolutely fundamental building blocks of science (and materialism) as matter and energy (ultimately, in Physics, the same thing).

The thing the author of the first article seizes on, however, is that while concepts such as matter and energy lead to a supremely useful edifice of scientific theory and hypothesis, the concept that everything rests ultimately on tiny units of consciousness does not lead to this, and in fact it’s very difficult to see that it leads to anything. It’s worth mentioning that this is one reason why I have difficulty with Process Philosophy and with its offshoot Process Theology – I find with Process that, once you get beyond the assertion that everything ultimately is reducible to moments of experience (and that all matter and energy is finally composed of moments of experience),  I tend to agree with the theologians who espouse it a lot. (There may be a viable distinction between micro-elements of consciousness and micro-elements of experience, but I don’t think it’s one which differentiates the two views significantly).

The trouble is, I can’t see that the explanation adds anything (and in the case of Process Theology, I can’t see that this basis is actually necessary for the rest of the theologians’ conclusions).

However, it is distinctly possible to see the same tendencies as are described in panpsychism as “consciousness” and in process as “experience” as self-organisation. As this video from Neil Theise MD, (principally a cellular biologist) indicates, if you put together self-organisation (which occurs at extremely fine scales, i.e. subatomic) with a random element (likewise) and some negative feedback, you will get larger scale stable things (communities or organisms, for instance). I interject that this is particularly the case where there is some means of storing information about the past. Incidentally, even if you don’t commonly click on my links, click on this one – it’s fascinating.

As you will see from the video, Dr. Theise found himself, to his surprise, put on a panpsychism panel when presenting some of his ideas, and has since convinced himself that he is, at least in some way, a panpsychist. However, he also indicates that he is reluctant to draw hard and fast lines where a continuum is involved, and while I can sympathise with that, I think it has led to him using the term “consciousness” for something which most of the rest of us would not call “consciousness”. He may not be prepared to draw that line, but our use of language has done so, even if it is a very fuzzy line (as is so often the case with language).

In particular, I think that in order to call something “consciousness”, we need the means of storing information, and that is not evident at the very lowest levels of organisation. This is a major reason why it is difficult for me to consider “experience” as basic, because to me, “experience” also demands a level of information storage which is just not present at the atomic level. Of course, being in origin a Physicist, my tendency is to see atoms or subatomic particles as fundamental, whereas Dr. Theise is used to seeing cells as fundamental. I just can’t say that a neutrino has consciousness or experience – it doesn’t fit.

However, he has drawn for me a pathway through something which may be called “epiphenomenology”, or may be called “emergence” all the way from the quantum soup to higher level beings such as ourselves.

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Prax, dox, path, pist and agap.

September 17th, 2016

Roger Wolsey, in his book “Kissing Fish”, identifies several hallmarks of Progressive Christianity, one of which is orthopraxy (right actions) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). I’ve been rather inclined toward this view – after all, it is a truism that in order to know what someone believes, one should not look at what they say but at what they do. James writes “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”, and Jesus perhaps goes further: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand” and ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Evangelicals, however, have a tendency to look at this emphasis and worry that it is preaching “works righteousness”; Paul writes ” For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (and elsewhere gives a hostage to fortune to those who say that good deeds absent faith are sins) and Catholics may worry about Pelagianism. Some might recall Isaiah 64:6, where good deeds are called “dirty rags”.

On the other hand, orthodoxy as normally interpreted means merely mental assent. You are agreeing to a set of faith statements, such as the Apostles or Nicene creeds, the Westminster Confession or the contents of the Catholic Catechism. My own church, the Anglican, uses the first two interchangeably, but actually also has as standard doctrine (thus “orthodoxy”) the Athanasian creed.

The relevant section of Catechism reads:- “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;  Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.  For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost.  But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.  The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated.  The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited.  The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal.  And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal.  As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite.  So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty.  And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty.  So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God.  And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.  So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord.  For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.  The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten.  The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.  So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.  And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another.  But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.  He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.”

I think this illustrates one of my problems with orthodoxy as a standard. That IS orthodoxy for my denomination, Catholics and quite a few other denominations (and is the root definition of trinity for all trinitarian denominations, which is the vast bulk of them). And virtually no-one among the laity really understands it, and, in my experience, precious few clergy – and that is assuming for a moment that it is, in fact, rationally understandable, given the statement by the Cappadocian Fathers that it is not supposed to be understood by human reason but is a holy mystery to be accepted by faith.

The thing is, when Paul talks of saving faith, I really don’t think he is talking of intellectual acceptance of some forms of wording which are at the least difficult (and at the most impossible) to understand – and yes, I know that Origen wrote “I believe because it is absurd” (in “Contra Celsum”). Assuming for a moment that the popular recent readings of Paul as properly referring not to “faith in” Christ but to “the faith (or faithfulness) of Christ” are not our preferred interpretation, the fact that “faithfulness” is seen as a viable alternative to “faith” may give a clue. “Faithfulness” is more a disposition than an intellectual exercise, and it really betokens love for and trust in someone (which perforce produces action). This is, of course, a viable meaning of “faith in” as well. I can have faith in my wife, without remotely needing to understand her, far less to accept a number of propositions about her (which is possibly why I am still happily married after 37 years).

Out of similar concerns, people have started talking about “orthopathy”, meaning right passions, emotions and empathies. The link I give is to an evangelical commentator, who is still keen to preserve orthodoxy and orthopraxy as well, feeling however that orthopathy has been neglected. I use it in part because it gives an excellent exposition of the term and in part because I don’t think it goes far enough – to my mind, while orthopathy is demanded by Paul and others, orthodoxy, in the form of rigidly correct intellectual assent, isn’t. However, orthopathy will automatically produce orthopraxy. I struggle to see evidence that orthodoxy does anything of the sort – if anything, the more orthodox someone is, the less they seem to me to embody the “fruits of the spirit”, or at least peace, forbearance, kindness and gentleness, which constitute for me (and, I think, for most Progressive Christians) a sizeable slice of the orthopraxy we are looking for.

Unfortunately, there is an earlier meaning for “orthopathy”, which usually denotes fringe medicine. If we were to use the original Greek “pistis” of Paul’s statements about faith as our root (instead of doxia or praxia), we would get something like “orthopisty”, which does not have a good ring in English. Perhaps “orthoagapy”, from “agape”, meaning love, used by Paul in 1 Cor. 13? I think that would convey right passion, emotion and empathy.

And what would the God who is equated to love by many theologians wish of us but love?

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Dogmatics, centering and the Synoptics.

September 13th, 2016

I found a link in my fb feed to an article arguing the need for dogmatics in the church. Dogmatics is “the systematic critique of the message of the church… to avoid deviation, weakness and heresy”. In the Reformed tradition, the masterwork on the subject is Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics”, which runs to 14 volumes…

My immediate reaction was to dismiss this argument as clear rubbish (as you might expect from someone who wrote a blogpost titled “The Heresy of all Doctrines” some while ago. And yet, I started thinking – about (for instance) Arnaud Amalric, bishop of Citeaux and papal legate saying (probably in at least some accordance with the doctrine of the time) “kill all, God will know his own”. I think of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel (and he is not by any means the only culprit). I think of the identification of Christianity with empire, which the Romans, Germans, Austrians, Russians, Spanish, Portuguese and British have done, and the Americans are now doing. And I shudder. These are all positions which I would dearly like to label false, deviant and yes, heretical.

Then again, I think of Barth’s 14 volumes (which I haven’t read, and don’t intend to – I’m not trying to be part of the Reformed tradition anyhow, although elements of it are definitely present in Anglicanism) and wonder whether with that level of specification anyone can avoid heresy on at least some point. Actually, though, I strongly suspect that the vast bulk of people in the pews are technically heretics on some point even in respect of a much more relaxed dogmatic structure than Barth’s – Jason Michaeli’s recent series on heresies should be enough to convince most of us. What good is doctrine which no-one actually follows in its totality? Is the only function to convince us that we are all sinners – simul justus et peccator?

No, as I suggested in the “Heresy of all Doctrines” post, I think the problem is not in having some principles, some basics, it’s in having too many of them and trying to specify them incredibly closely. However, bearing in mind that every basic principle or assertion is going to exclude someone if we are thinking in terms of a requirement for belonging to a group, I am very attracted to the concept of the centered set (as contrasted with the bounded set, which is defined by what characteristics you have to have to be within it, and by implication the lack of any or which sets you definitively outside it).

Using the language of centered set, you would be located within the normal spectrum of atheist-to-theist not as an “in or out” affair but on the basis of how close you were to centering your life on God (where “God” could possibly be interpreted as widely as you wished, at least initially – it certainly is in one group I belong to, and this seems to work just fine for them). Similarly “Christian” could indicate degrees – of adherence to the principle of following Jesus, but without demanding a particular conception of Jesus. Also, distance from the centre of the set would be less important, in this conception, than the direction of ones attention.

There could well be an objection that my insistence that we should not attempt to specify what-it-is-that-is-God or who exactly Jesus was means that the location of the centre is unknown, so we could not adequately orient ourselves. In the case of God, I would counter that God is essentially beyond adequate human comprehension in the first place and that humanity is unlikely ever to be so close to the centre that some slight difference in orientation matters; so long as God is (as Paul Tillich puts it) our ultimate concern, we are correctly oriented.

In the case of Jesus, I have previously argued that he has to be regarded primarily as showing us the (or at least a) correct direction to God rather than as a hurdle or obstacle in the way of communion with the divine, or (for those who consider direct communion with the divine impossible) a necessary intermediary beyond whom we cannot go. This is treating him as the paradigmatic example of a man living oriented on God and held out by God as such, which is very much the picture obtained from the Synoptic Gospels and illuminated in depth by Daniel Kirk’s new book “A Man Attested by God”; although further argument would be needed to demonstrate that this is also in reasonable accordance with Paul and with John (although possibly not with all of the deutero-Pauline or the Catholic epistles). This is, of course, not Kirk’s thesis; he has a personal high Christology and is merely speaking to the content of the Synoptics.

 

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The incoherence of the philosophers?

September 2nd, 2016

I came across an “In Our Time” in which Melvyn Bragg discusses Averroes, the 12th century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, with, inter alia, Peter Adamson of the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast. I recommend both.

One point I particularly take away is this. Islam had, in the twelfth century, discovered the works of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, and had started translating these into Arabic (a practice which, mostly via the incredibly tolerant culture of al-Andaluz (Andalucia) in which for a brief period Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars worked together and sparked off each others’ works, introduced the Christian West to Aristotle, who had been largely forgotten about).

This concerned a theologian called al-Ghazali, writing in Baghdad. Al-Ghazali wrote a work against Aristotle (who he thought was dangerous to Islamic faith) called “The Incoherence of the Philosophers”, thus making himself a philosopher as well as a theologian – you can’t attack philosophy as a discipline without, ironically, being a philosopher yourself.

Averroes was engaged in writing commentaries on Aristotle, which were so influential that some centuries later Thomas Aquinas referred to Averroes as “The Commentator” and quoted him extensively. Not surprisingly, Averroes didn’t always agree with al-Ghazali, and wrote a rebuttal called “The Incoherence of the Incoherence”. However, on some things he did agree with al-Ghazali, but attributed that to faults in the interpretation of Aristotle by Avicenna, a Muslim philosophical giant of the previous century…

Don’t you just love philosophers?

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Revisionist or balanced personal history?

August 17th, 2016

Malcolm Gladwell podcasts at “Revisionist History”, and episode 9 is titled “Generous Orthodoxy”. Much of the episode revolves around Chester Wenger, a Mennonite clergyman, and his dealing with his son’s coming out as gay. He displays there what Gladwell calls “Generous Orthodoxy”, and I might add that it also displays costly discipleship.

His proposed alternative action for protestors at Princeton is also an example of costly discipleship (and one I approve of; if you desire that something take place and argue for that, you must take into account the thought processes of the people you’re trying to persuade, otherwise you’re just venting and will not get what you want), but what I want to focus on here is what Princeton should do. The root of the protest was the naming (many years ago) of a building after Woodrow Wilson, who was a major benefactor of the university (along with a lot of other “rich white guys”) and also, of course, a notable president of the United States.

What I hadn’t known before listening to this was that he was also a segregationist who set back the cause of black equality significantly. I plead in my defence that I’m not American, and the history of the States in the 20th century tends only to interest me where it bears on the history of my home country or where it displays some major historical trend, though I’m tempted to quote “1066 and all that” and say “the Americans became top nation and history ended”.

The issue was that black students at Princeton felt uncomfortable and excluded by having to study in a building named after a prominent oppressor of black people. Now it’s difficult for me to put myself in their position – I’m white, male, English, British and European, and all of those are “privileged” categories. I’m also comfortably off by the standards of my relatively rich country, which also probably doesn’t help. OK, I do also have a number of features which move my “privilege” score down to something more median, but still, I must consider myself as being in a privileged position. Could you make me feel uncomfortable and excluded by the naming of a building I had to use? I’m not sure. Maybe the “Adolf Hitler Cultural Centre”, or the “Joseph Stalin Centre for Political Studies” might give me pause, but probably no more than a very mild discomfort. That’s a thing I’ll come back to later.

I have two main problems with removing Wilson’s name from the building. The first is that he did make a huge contribution to Princeton and to the fact that there is a building there at all. Gladwell’s suggestion of various other Wilson’s to name it after ignores that rather fundamental fact; those others didn’t make that contribution. In removing the name, you are erasing the building’s history (but then, the podcast IS called “Revisionist History”); with that, you are erasing both the good and the bad aspects of Woodrow Wilson. I have no problem with looking at history anew and finding new ways of interpreting it, but I have a huge problem with throwing away chunks of it in the process – generally when new historical ideas are proposed, they have some truth to them, but they are also a reaction against the previous dominant historical ideas, and have a tendency to overreact – very often, a better analysis is found in a synthesis of the two. Rewriting history is, of course, always the project of the winners of any conflict, but as Orwell described in “1984”, it makes a mockery of any search for truth.

Secondly, though, I challenge whether it’s Christian to do this. One essence of Christianity is the willingness to admit fault and ask for forgiveness (which, I concede, Wilson never did) but another is to offer that forgiveness to everyone. All that is left of Wilson is his memory, and erasing a chunk of that memory is a kind of death penalty (and as he has passed beyond earthly sanction, we can perhaps consider that he has already been adequately judged and, as appropriate, sanctioned and forgiven; “Judgment is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay“, with the subtext that we don’t need to and perhaps should not). Yes, that memory is at the moment only (at Princeton, at least) of the good he did, following the principle “de mortuis nil nisi bonum“. Clearly that memory is inadequate, and needs adding to – but not in the half-hearted and apologetic vein suggested by the Princeton graduate whose comment is on the podcast. Equally, though, I think it inappropriate that we should follow Shakepeare’s somewhat sarcastic “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with Caesar”.

The thing is, we extol the virtues of famous people but fail to mention their bad qualities. Often this leads to meteoric rises and falls – the public (often through the press) latches on to someone and puts them on a pedestal, and then finds flaws and brings them down again. It also leads to the idiocy of thinking that (say) a pop star is worth hearing about politics or economic theory.

What we should, I think, do is always hold in mind the fact that everyone is “simul justus et peccator“, Luther’s phrase to indicate that everyone remains a sinner while being justified or righteous. Or, indeed, forgiven. What we need is a balanced view of everyone; they will have their virtues and good deeds, they will also have their vices and evil deeds. Perhaps the best exposition of how I think we should view people is described in Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead“; his invention of the “Speaker for the Dead” attempts to give just such a balanced view of those who have passed away, presenting them as a human being and inviting understanding rather than adulation or condemnation, and there are now some people who, following Card, will act as Speakers for the Dead at funerals.

So what should Princeton do? At present, they have an unbalanced testimony to Wilson’s good actions. I suggest a plaque is sufficient, not just giving a nod to his bad side but giving it equal weight with the good and recording that the bad is not approved while yet the good is celebrated.

And, as one should always “follow the money”, that might allow Princeton to assuage student’s anxieties while still not putting off future donors who are afraid their own contribution will end up on the scrap heap of history due to a reassessment of their character in the future…

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A God of psychotic unconcern?

August 6th, 2016

There’s an interesting article on Patheos’ “Unfundamentalist Christians” blog  by Randall Rauser, which I strongly suggest you read before reading further.

Rauser could also have pointed out that the granddaddy of Western Theology, Thomas Aquinas, wrote as an answer to question 94 of his “Summa Theologia”:-

94. THE SAVED AND THE DAMNED

1. The sufferings of the damned will be perfectly known to the saints or blessed in heaven, and will only make them the more thankful to God for his great mercy towards themselves.

2. There can, however, be no pity in the saints with reference to the damned. For, on the other hand, they know that the damned are suffering what they chose and still perversely choose. On the other hand, pity is painful in the one who experiences it, and there can be nothing painful in heaven.

3. The blessed are in full conformity with the will of God who wills justice. The saints rejoice in the accomplishment of God’s justice. To this extent it can be said that they joy in the pains of the damned.

Rauser (to my mind entirely reasonably) asks how we can see holiness in individuals in this life as involving increased compassion for others, but think that the summit of holiness, presumably reached by being “saved” and thus one of the blessed in heaven could mean the complete absence of compassion for others.

To my thinking, this is the result of the miscegenation of Judaism and subsequently Christianity with Greek philosophical ideas, in this case the deduction that God must be “impassible”, i.e. not moved by passions. There is a decent article on Aquinas’ position at Helms Deep, which (inter alia) attempts to dispel the idea that this means the same as “impassive” (i.e. unfeeling) and, to quote, the idea that “An impassible/impassive God is said to exhibit psychotic unconcern.”

Aquinas also uses the same set of principles, arguing from God’s perfections; God must be perfectly loving, pure, wise, holy and just, to argue that God cannot be angry or jealous (both of which scripture ascribes to God repeatedly) nor can he repent (as scripture says he does on several occasions, notably in the book of Jonah), as these would detract variously from Godly perfections, as would (for example) pity or sadness (again, both ascribed to God in scripture).

My perhaps naive conclusion is that the “God” described by Aquinas (and by most of the Western traditions of theology up to and including the evangelicals of today) is not the God described in the Bible – but this “God” is one who exhibits psychotic unconcern.

And not one fit for worship.

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