Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The God Who Nurtures

Mother’s Day is right around the corner. It’s a time when we honor those women who brought us into the world, nurtured us as we grew, and loved us even when the things we did were unlovable. In fact, a mother’s love is so unique and legendary, there’s an idiom for those of us blessed with rougher features better suited for radio. We have “a face only a mother could love.” There’s nothing quite like a mother’s love, and to be honest, to honor them one day a year is much, much less than they deserve.

Now when we think of God, we often don’t think of Him in motherly terms. There’s a solid theological reason for using fatherly language when we pray or talk about God. Jesus repeatedly refers to God as “the Father” especially in John’s Gospel, and the Old Testament prophets often refer to God as a Father to Israel (cf. Jer. 31:9, Isa. 63:16, 64:8, etc.). And there’s good reason for this. Fatherly terms serve to highlight both the Father’s closeness to Christ and through him the Church in the New Testament and to Israel in the Old, while also highlighting his roles as Protector, Provider, Redeemer, and Creator (who did not need a consort, unlike many of the pagan creator deities popular at the time).

But what many people aren’t aware of are the many instances in which scripture uses motherly terms to describe God’s relationship to us. For instance, the verb translated as “Maker of heaven and earth” to describe God in Gen. 14: 19, 22 (RSV) is the same verb Eve uses when she describes herself giving birth to or “making” Cain in Gen. 4:1.

Additionally, the same verb is used to describe God’s creation of personified Wisdom in Prov. 8:22, and God is described as both “fathering” and “giving birth” to the people of Israel in Deu. 32:18. Finally, and perhaps most beautifully, God is compared to a mother comforting her son in Isa. 66:13 and to a compassionate, nursing mother in Isa. 49:15.

It is clear from scripture that God is not only a valiant Protector, Provider, and Redeemer; God is also our Birth-Giver, Nurturer, and Comforter. Just as humanity is not fully represented by either male or female alone, but rather both together were created in the image of God (cf. Gen. 1:27); so also God is not fully reflected in our theology or Christian lives unless we recognize that He models both perfect fatherhood and perfect motherhood for us.

So, this Mother’s Day, as we remember those who gave birth to us,  and spent their lives nurturing and comforting us; let us also remember to praise the One who gives birth to the new life we are promised in the Spirit, which our spirits and even all creation groans for (Rom. 8:22-26).

#MothersDay #Motherhood #Theology

Friday, March 09, 2018

Lent: Finding Your Rhythm

Originally delivered as a sermon on March 09, 2018.

Many of you don’t know this, and it’s a fact that I’ve attempted to keep well hidden since I got here, but I play the drums… badly. I play the drums badly. I rush, I get tripped on on fills, I compete with the bassist for the pacing and back when I was single, I competed with the lead singer for the attention of the ladies!. You would think that after all these years, I would have gotten better at playing; but no, I think I’ve gotten worse! It’s because I have an almost uncanny knack for completely missing the rhythm of a song. It’s not just restricted to drums, when I go to weddings and am expected to dance, Marcia has to wear steel-toed boots!

Now, admit it, we’ve all been there. How many of us have, when singing a worship song, come in a half measure on the chorus before everyone else. Anyone here done that? Just me? Well, I can tell you it can be a little bit jarring. One second, our attention is focused on God (or on what we’re going to eat for lunch), and the next we’re snapped out of the song and we begin wondering how many people around us heard that slip up. It can be confusing and embarrassing, as we stumble to get back on track with everyone else in the song.

You know, life is like that. We feel most comfortable when we are in a rhythm. We get up, brush our teeth, maybe quickly eat breakfast, rush out the door, work, come home, plop in front of the TV for a bit, and then go to bed. Or maybe instead of work, it’s school. And instead of TV it’s social media. And instead of breakfast, it’s a quick cup of coffee because we woke up ten minutes late. But just like when singing that song, something jars us out of our routine. Maybe it’s a bad diagnosis from the doc, maybe it’s a new baby, or it might be news that we just got accepted into the college that we want, or that we got a promotion, but we have to move to a new town. Or maybe it’s a personal or family tragedy. All of a sudden, we are reeling with the changes and trying to figure out how we could possibly get our rhythm back.

Or something entirely different might happen. Often, it isn’t just one jarring experience which throws us and leaves us reeling that causes us to lose our bearings. Sometimes, we just find ourselves swamped with work, chores, our schedules, or our own goal-driven and individualistic tendencies that we soon find we have drifted from those we consider to be close friends and families. This is very common and I would say almost endemic to our culture. We, as a society, paradoxically prize our independence and yet collectively tend to feel more alone than ever. Just a few years ago, for the first time in American history, more adults were living alone than with others in a family unit. The majority of marriages end in divorce. And social media, while technologically connecting us to thousands of people in ways not dreamed of in a previous generation, increases the alienation as relationships lack the face-to-face element we all crave. I actually think that the rising suicide rates over the past decades and the current opioid crisis are devastating reminders that our people carry deep, often hidden wounds of loneliness.

All of these worries, pressures, and feelings of isolation or alienation can make us feel like we have no rhythm. We are just trying to jump from one task to another, or from one crisis to the next. And this is why the Lenten Season is perhaps more important today than at any other time in our cultural history. Lent reminds us that we need rhythm. We were made for it and it is counter-cultural. Rhythms of life and of seasons.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 says,
“1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”(1)

Notice that this passage contains 14 pairs of opposites which is twice the number seven, and is often interpreted as signifying completion or perfection.(2) This tells us that Qohelet intends to speak to the wide range of human experiences and frame them within the natural rhythms of life. Additionally, no value statements are attached to the pairs.(3) When reading this, we may be tempted to insert a dualistic meaning into the passage, but  as verse 11 says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” In its time, mourning is as beautiful as dancing, weeping is as important as laughing, being torn up by the roots as inevitable as being planted in soft, rich soil.

This is the first purpose of Lent: to get us to carve out space and time to perceive and reflect on the rhythms of life, and to see how God is working through them to transform the way we see the world. To see that God is perfect even when our word and our circumstances are not. When we meet these rhythms with the understanding that there can be beauty even in the midst of suffering, and that God walks with us through it all, we can find comfort by reflecting on the eternal promise which God has placed within our hearts. Though our next moments are never guaranteed, we are drawn to a bright, beautiful hope beyond all this suffering.

But not only does Lent provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the rhythms of life, it calls us to do so together as a community. No matter how busy we are, the Lenten Season is a time when we are reminded that we were not created to handle it all alone. We need each other. And just as each individual is called to carve out space and time for repentance and reflection; we are also called to do so together. As Psalm 133:1-3 says,

“1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is
    when brothers dwell in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
    running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
    running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
    which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
    life forevermore.”(4)

In a world that struggles to find meaning and connection, we have each other. We don’t have to do it all alone! Life is always more bearable when we have someone to share our burdens with; and it’s always more beautiful when we have someone to share our joys with. So tonight as we eat together, and in the coming weeks as we continue to incorporate the rhythms of prayerful reflection into our life, I encourage you to reach out to those around you, share the love of Christ and share the weight of each other’s burdens. Because when we share the fruits of the loving transformation God is working in us, those around us cannot help but be touched and transformed in some way too.

And this is the third purpose of Lent: to encourage us to carve out the space and time, not only for personal reflection, fasting and repentance, or mutual care and fellowship, but also for taking the love of Christ to the nations and those in our community who feel forgotten or abandoned by the rest of the world. For as Isaiah 58:6-7 says,

“6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed[a] go free,
    and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”(5)

While internal reflection and confession are essential to the Lenten experience, if our actions do not reflect the change we are experiencing inside, then it might mean we are holding something back from God. However if you act on your faith, and allow service to others to become as much an expression of prayer and fasting as your thoughts or words, then I think you will find God can transform us just as much through acts of love as he can during quiet reflection and prayer.

This might mean volunteering with a program at your church, or helping with a non-profit in the area. Or it could simply mean bringing a pan of brownies to neighbors you haven’t met, or helping run errands for the elderly in your neighborhood. Or it may mean comforting someone in your life who has experienced loss or is hurting, offering them not platitudes, but presence. It’s often not the grand gestures that mark the depth our faith, but the little daily actions that demonstrate just how much Christ’s love is transforming our lives and the lives of those around. us.

Now, before we go see what great soups our gracious volunteers have made for us, I’d ask that you please rise for a brief benediction.

May Christ’s transforming love shine through you and forever change your life and the lives of those around you. Never forget the fact that God loves you deeply and walks with you wherever you go. Amen.

(1) ESV.
(2)  Shepherd, Jerry E. “Ecclesiastes,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Proverbs – Isaiah, Vol. 6. 3rd Ed. Edited by Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 288.
(3) Ibid.
(4) ESV.
(5) ESV.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

A Dialogue on Discussing Religion with Atheists

My previous post reflected on guidelines for discussing religion with Atheists, principally that any conversation should be characterized by grace, humility, and a genuine desire to listen and learn. In it, I briefly mentioned ontological and teleological arguments for God as evidence (though, I contended, not "proof") for the reasonable assertion that God exists.

This sparked a very interesting conversation today with an Atheist friend of mine, whom I will refer to as C.S., and which I thought was worthy of reproducing here. It delves into a number of subjects, including cosmology, quantum physics, psychology, philosophy, logic, and even comparative religion. If anything, it helped me to wrestle with my own thoughts on these diverse subjects as I continue to wrestle with and synthesize both my belief in God and my respect for science and logic.

Without further ado, here is the exchange in it's entirety. I hope you are able to get something out of it as well:

C.S.: Philosophical arguments like the Modal Ontological Argument have no bearing on reality. What we can and cannot meaningfully, logically say is a function of our language, not the universe.
Also, as an atheist, I think there are three issues that get mixed up all the time. The possible existence of gods, what’s the real definition of gods, and which religion/dogmas are correct and true.

Many of the debates I have seen in YouTube mostly deal with the question of god’s existence. Apologists rarely ever want to defend the existence of their specific god, or the validity of their specific religion.

Ian Hyde: C.S., I've actually been thinking about that quite a bit recently, but I'm going to break my response up into two parts. Your first point is one of the reasons I think it is important to distinguish between the philosophical application of logic and the scientific process.

Both processes are essential to our understanding the cosmos, but where the scientific process discovers observable phenomena, philosophy orders them. The problem with the modal ontological argument is as you say, it's an application of logic without any direct bearing on phenomena in the universe as we find them.

I find it useful only in that it demonstrates that the idea of the necessary maximal greatness is at least logically coherent (if not evidentially demonstrable as a matter of fact). Therefore, it becomes necessary to link the ontological to the teleological, for it to have any bearing on the universe and not just the inner workings of our own minds.

This is where the dual process theory of the mind comes into play. Both the language of logical expression and the capacity for scientific reasoning are conscious processes (the so-called "System 2". They come with a choice. They can be embraced or ignored. But our abilities to instinctively distinguish order from disorder, life from nonlife, to perceive patterns, attribute meaning to events, or perceive intelligence are all unconscious processes (the so-called "System 1"). System 1 makes us conscious; System 2 makes us human.

Incidentally, it's also System 1 which provides the mechanism for perceiving the Divine, and it's the perceptions generated within System 1 which provide the foundation for the reasoning expressed by System 2. It's also the processes of System 1 which directly affect the results of the double-slit experiment or the results of the Schrodinger's Cat thought experiment.

Consciousness creates the reality which we then investigate using the scientific process. And if the presence of our consciousness defines the results of probabilistic outcomes experimentally in quantum mechanics; then it seems reasonable to infer a Divine Consciousness defined the almost immeasurably unlikely probabilistic outcomes leading to the creation of the Cosmos and us in turn.

That's how I link the ontological to the teleological, anyway; by understanding the observable universe to be a function of Divine Consciousness in a similar way as logical processes are a function of our own consciousness.

Ian Hyde: In response to your second point, I also agree that the three issues you listed are often conflated; though I also find the common atheistic argument that "Christians don't believe in 999 of the gods of other religions, while atheists just extend that logic to one more" based on a similar conflation of the issue.

If God is defined according to an ontological definition of "the maximally great Consciousness from which the cosmos is derived", then It is present in nearly every theistic religion. Even ancient pagan religions generally had one central deity from which all others were derived and which presided over all others. And almost all monotheistic faiths (and even non-theistic positions) today recognize the existence of elemental forces and the possibility of ultra-powerful beings which would seem to us as gods.

The primary distinguishing mark between monotheism and polytheism is not how many of these things exist, but what is worthy of worship. Monotheism (or its close cousin monolatry) simply state that only the Creator is worthy of worship and not the creature. Elemental forces or ultra-powerful beings, even in pagan mythologies, are generally understood as creatures springing from a singular Divine principle.

In turn, the distinguishing mark between Christianity and other forms of monotheism again does not revolve around which God exists, but rather how that God is self-revealed and expressed in the relational character of the Trinity (as opposed to other supposed self-revelations). We believe that the Father is self-revealed in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ and that both in turn are communicated through the work of the Holy Spirit. All three exist relationally and eternally as distinct Persons, while all are fully One God.

This means that if I did not think the kerygma (teaching) of the Church as expressed in the Scriptures and the writings of the Church Mothers and Fathers was true, then I wouldn't be a Christian. I'd probably be something else, but I still wouldn't be able to be an atheist, materialist, or philosophical realist; since I'd still be convinced that God very likely exists and is worthy of worship.

C.S.: Just because we can perceive patterns and attribute meaning to events, and/or perceive intelligence doesn’t mean that the answers we come up with to explain them are correct. Our senses can and do deceive us. We are really good at coming up with patterns for things that aren’t there. And attribute meaning to things that have none. Have you been to an art gallery lately?

Also, are you implying that some people have problems with their System 1 if they don’t
perceive divinity?

And System 2, the conscious process, is affected by many things like education level/understanding, cultural background, biases, experiences, brain damage/disorders, etc. The scientific method helps take biases away when trying to answer hypotheses, and can provide a high level of certainty in some cases.

But we all don’t engage in that method at all times, and can’t account for supernatural events or beings with it.

So consciousness creates a reality, but it’s not the same reality for everyone. I still don’t understand how you make the jump from quantum mechanics to Divine Consciousness. I’m probably missing something.

I know close to nothing about quantum mechanics, but doesn’t it rely on mathematics and science to some extent?

You can infer almost anything if your System 1 and System 2 allow you to. Mine are telling something else.

C.S.: Point 2. I think the ontological definition of God is a presupposition and nothing more. They are just words. It obviously hasn’t been proven that God exist and what attributes it has.

Also, a difference between Christianity and other pagan religions is that followers were and are instructed to stop worshipping other deities. And not only that, but once in power, they made it a priority to convert whoever they came across, by force if necessary. That’s a big difference.

The same reason you don’t believe in Zeus and worship him accordingly, is the same reason I don’t believe in Yahweh. To me there’s no difference between the two. I would require the same kind of evidence for both if I was asked to believe in either.

Ian Hyde: I really should go to an art gallery soon. :) Anyway, all art has meaning, whether conscious or unconscious (our aesthetics are a function of System 1, while their analysis is a function of System 2).

Also, I think everyone actually does instinctively, unconsciously perceive Divinity within System 1; but they choose whether or not to suppress that perception using System 2 processes.

Here's a link to a published article called "The Development of Childrens' Prelife Reasoning: Evidence From Two Cultures" by Natalie A. Emmons and Deborah Kelemen on the research backing my claim up (namely that we, as a species, are biologically primed to perceive the supernatural).

I also recommend the book called Born Believers: The Science of Children's Religious Belief by Justin L. Barrett, who is a professor at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology (Fuller is also where I earned my MDiv.).

To better understand the logical leap I made, I suggest looking up the double-slit experiment. Basically, when a coherent light travels through two slits in a metal plate unobserved, they exhibit an interference pattern when registered on a screen behind the plate (which means the light traveled through the slits as a wave). But when the beam of light is observed, the screen registers individual particles travelling only through one slit or the other rather than through both slits as a wave.

Even if the light is only observed *after* travelling through the slit, it registers as a particle hit, rather than a wave. This means that, even though the light should have moved as a wave unobserved through the slits, it uploaded a back-history as a particle when it was observed before hitting the screen.

This demonstrates empirically two things: 1) The act of conscious observation changes the outcome of the experiment, without physically manipulating the light. and 2) The act of conscious observation collapses the wave function deciding a probabilistic outcome and making it appear as if it had been a deterministic one.

This is perhaps best expressed in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which asserts there is a fundamental limit to our ability to predict outcomes, making them essentially uncertain and probabilistic until observed. The more precisely a particle's location is known, the less precisely its momentum can be known.

Where I connect it to Divine Consciousness is that, just as our observation defines the reality with which we can interact and measure; Divine Observation was required for the definite moments (the Big Bang and subsequent events such as the rise of our particular physical laws, the condensation of matter, the formation of the Solar System, the creation of the Moon, the rise of life, and then humanity) which allowed our consciousness to be possible. Without Divine interaction, these definite events would have remained undefined, probabilistic realities.

Incidentally, both Heisenberg (the father of quantum mechanics) and Georges Lemaitre (the fellow who first postulated the Big Bang theory) were devoted Christians. That really has no bearing on their scientific theories, but it does suggest that these scientific observations were not seen as antithetical to their faith.

Now, it's totally possible that I am the one missing something, and not you. But I keep going over it all in my head, and it seems to be logically sound and backed up by empirical research.

C.S.: I will look into the stuff you provided, but I think that you’re assuming stuff. The double slit experiment demonstrated those two things you mentioned and nothing else. You say that Devine Observation was required for the big band to take place, but that’s just an assumption.

C.S.: Oh and by the way, when it comes down to children, I told my 6 year old the truth about Santa. He kept asking questions about it and the possibility of certain things, like how can he have enough presents for all the kids. So, I told him that I was the one who bought his presents, and that Santa didn’t exist.

A few days later, he still believes Santa is real. Go figure. Even with all the doubts and
questions he has about it.

Ian Hyde: It's an assumption based on how consciousness shapes reality within the Universe. In any case, it seems to be more plausible to me than the Many Worlds Interpretation supported by Lawrence Krauss, which is the only other alternative I've heard of which explains these observations.

The problem with the Many Worlds Interpretation is that it requires an infinite variety of universes, which is in contravention of Occam's Razor, the founding principle on which all scientific theories are based. Occam's Razor states that plurality should not be introduced into a theory or system without necessity. Or, as Isaac Newton said, "We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. Therefore, to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes." I can think of no greater plurality than an infinite
number of universes.

As to your response titled "Point 2" above, I agree that the ontological argument doesn't adequately provide attributes of character (though "Maximally Great Being" does imply attributes of being: namely omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence) or provide proof of God's existence (I think I tried, unsuccessfully, to state that in my original response). It's just meant to provide a basic working definition for God and to demonstrate that God's existence, at the very least, isn't illogical.

Also, it's true that Christians are instructed to worship no other deities, but the definition of deity in that context is altogether different than that which describes the Maximally Great Being of the ontological argument. Other deities are understood to be creature, rather than Creator, and ontologically limited in a way the Creator is not.

As for those who would kill to bring people into their religion, they do so in direct contravention to Christ's teaching. The very instant they kill someone for not believing what they do, they cease to be Christians (defined as someone who follows Christ's teachings).

Finally, Santa Claus does exist! St. Nicholas of Myra was a bishop in the 4th century. He was imprisoned for 8 years for his faith, upheld the cause of the vulnerable and the poor, and became a model for generosity. What he stood for, the essence of his character, lives on whenever anyone lives generously or cares for the less fortunate. I have as much proof for his existence as I have for anyone else's. :)

Ian Hyde: BTW, the other problem with the Many Worlds Interpretation is that even multiverses are subject to the expansionary characteristics of the observed Universe (as multiple possibilities branch off) and STILL require a single point of origin, as demonstrated by the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth (BVG) Theorem. Even a multiverse, it appears, calls for a single Creator.

#faith #science #philosophy #logic #ontological #teleological #consciousness #quantumphysics #cosmology #psychology #comparativereligion

Recommendations for Discussing Religion with Atheists

We've all seen internet comment sections get out of hand. I'm sure too many of us, if we looked at our own responses carefully and honestly, would admit that we have occasionally said something hurtful, not because it was right, but because we just wanted to win the argument or because we felt insulted by something the other party said.

But as more and more opinions are shaped, challenged, or reinforced through discussion online; the way we respond becomes just as important as the arguments we use. In fact, I would argue it becomes more important, as it is indicative of how we view people who disagree with us. If we cannot love those who disagree with us, then we certainly won't be able to love those who hate us, and our responses become antithetical to the gospel, even while trying to prove its veracity.

I’ve always found that the best way to have a discussion about God, or any other religious, philosophical, or even aesthetic idea with someone who differs in opinion from you, is to approach them with as much grace as possible.

Always assume the best in their intentions, and try to actively engage in a way that values listening as much as talking. It’s a little bit like taking marriage counseling. Instead of just waiting for them to quit speaking so that you get your turn, truly listen to them. Weigh what they say. Ask yourself, if you were in their shoes, with their reasons, and their experiences, would you feel the same way?

So let’s imagine I am having a discussion with an atheist. We likely have very different opinions about God, seeing as I am a devoted Christian. So when I write a response, I don’t think, “Man, I’m gonna trip his logic up good!” Instead I think, “Are there ways that he can legitimately challenge me to think more deeply about my faith?” “Am I willing to be honest with myself about the hard questions?” “Is there a way I can provide him with thought-provoking answers that helps him think about things from an angle he’s never considered?” “How can we both grow through this experience?”

I’ve found having this attitude generally leads to much more fruitful and edifying conversations for all parties involved. :)

As to practical matters of discussion, I try to keep this Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote in mind, “How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know.”

This means that when we discuss God with someone who doesn’t believe, our reasoning should avoid arguments of infinite regression or appeals to a god of the gaps at all cost. There are good, objective reasons for thinking God exists based on the available scientific evidence (though I would argue that “evidence” and “reason” is quite different from “proof”).

For instance, the modal ontological argument at least demonstrates that God’s existence is logical and plausible; the double-slit experiment and the “Schrodinger’s Cat” though experiment both demonstrate that consciousness plays a defining role in structuring our physical reality (and when it is understood that we are in the same box as Schrodinger’s Cat, an Outside Observer to the Cosmos becomes a necessity. And I would argue that the dual process theory of the mind provides evidence that the very basis of that consciousness which plays an integral role in structuring the physical universe is at its most basic level (the so-called “system 1” or “unconscious mind) also geared toward finding patterns in our environment, distinguishing life from non-life, and providing a foundational belief in transcendent Deity.

All of these, when taken together argue (but do not prove) that God’s existence, and our foundational experience of religious belief, are both rational and even probable. Deciding to live one’s life on such a religious foundation then becomes what we call “faith.” Faith after all is not belief in spite of evidence, but rather relational trust based on the evidence that God exists and cares for us.

#atheism #faith #christianity #discussion

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Repeal of Net Neutrality and Its Impact on Churches

Please bear with me, this is a bit of a long post on the grave impacts of today's repeal of #NetNeutrality, but I think it's important (perhaps even vital to the health of our Republic):

The FCC's decision to repeal Net Neutrality unfortunately means the Internet will be divided up into "media packages", much like cable T.V. packages today (this is already the business model used in countries that don't have net neutrality enshrined in law). A place that was once a haven for the underdog, the marginalized, and new ideas will now be ruled by a handful of companies, who will function as gatekeepers, marketing the most profitable, corporate websites over less-profitable, independent websites.

This means that non-profits, religious organizations, small political campaigns, individual bloggers and podcasters will likely be forced out of the market; either because the costs of internet access for developing their sites will be too expensive, or because people will naturally spend their internet budgets on access to the biggest sites (Amazon, Netflix, Google products, Facebook, etc.).

The proponents of the repeal claim this will lead to more innovation and more competition, by deregulating the internet. The problem is that ISP's are already well established in almost all markets, and maintaining equal access to the Internet (which is what Net Neutrality is) did not restrict them before. Instead, it will have the opposite effect: stagnation and monopolization, as independent voices no longer have a place to express themselves and be heard.

And the consequences could be much darker than we realize. ISP's would now legally be able to restrict access to websites which promote Net Neutrality (or whatever ideological view which irks their corporate owners), so that people who want to organize in opposition to this (or any other) decision would have to do so without the powerful tool of the internet (while their political opponents would naturally have full, free access).

As a pastor, this directly affects my ministry. Websites will likely no longer be an effective tool for outreach, as people unacquainted with our faith will now have to pay an extra fee (or buy a different media package) through their ISP to visit these types of sites. And let's be honest, they would probably rather spend it on a Social Media package, or to have access to Hulu or Netflix.

Now this doesn't mean an end to the Church by any means, as churches have always been built through the expression of love for one another found in personal relationships. The Church doesn't survive because of marketing, it survives (and thrives) as people are transformed by the Gospel through the work of the Holy Spirit. But it does mean that people curious about what we believe will likely no longer have access to our sermons or blog posts, and people who may want to attend events, won't see our calendar unless they pay for access to these types of sites.

Most of the ideals I care about will suffer in one way or another: religious freedom, the free exchange of ideas, the cultivation of art, music, philosophy, and theology, and even democracy itself.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Real Santa Claus

This morning in Sunday School, I introduced the kids to the real Santa Claus; a pastor named Nicholas, who lived in Myra, Turkey (then the Eastern Roman Empire) in the 4th century.

Nicholas was passionate about his faith, and giving himself up to save his congregation, was imprisoned and tortured for it. In an age when many great theologians are remembered for their eloquent words, he was remembered for his courageous acts: defending the innocent and self-sacrificial generosity. In fact, paradoxically, when so many men and women have sought to make a name for themselves at any cost, his simple acts of anonymous generosity ensured that his name has been honored continuously for 1,700 years.

On Dec. 6th, many Christians all over the world will honor the real man behind the modern myths. On that day, I encourage everyone to think of a creative, simple act of "guerrilla generosity." Give in a way that is anonymous, but which is meaningful to those around you.

For kids, it could be buying easy-to-make cookies and sneaking downstairs before your mom wakes up to bake them, and leave a note saying you love them. For adults, it could mean secretly shoveling your neighbor's walks, or putting together a gift basket and anonymously leaving it on the doorstep of a poor family or widow in the neighborhood.

In doing so, we remember that little acts of kindness change the world, and we honor the man who lived Jesus' words in Matthew 6:2-4: "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you," (NIV).

#Christmas #StNick #StNicholas #SantaClaus #GuerrillaGenerosity #Nazarene

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Problem of Evil and Epicurus' Trilemma

I've been musing over the problem of evil and that popular maxim put forward by Epicurus, 2300 years ago, as an argument against an all-knowing (omniscience), all-powerful (omnipotent), and all loving God. The argument is still popular today among many of my atheist friends (even being referenced in the movie Superman vs. Batman), so I thought it worthwhile addressing.

First, in case you are unfamiliar with the argument, Epicurus basically posited that if God is willing to prevent evil, but not able, He is not omnipotent. If He is able, but not willing, He is not all good. If He both able and willing, evil should not exist. If He is neither able nor willing, then He is not God.

The problem with the Epicurean trilemma (leaving aside the fact it is first quoted in the writings of a Christian theologian arguing against it, and was possibly never uttered by Epicurus) is that it rests on a few (unproven) assumptions: 1) the future is something which can be known, 2) omniscience is properly defined as knowing the future, and 3) evil can be objectively defined.

The reason this is a problem is that, if the future is something which can be known ahead of time (either because it is predetermined, or "exists" in the mind of its Creator), then free will does not exist. If free will does not exist, no action can be good or evil. A predetermined universe negates the initial premise of the argument.

However, it seems that quantum mechanics shows us "the future" is probabilistic in nature, rather than deterministic. This means it is essentially uncreated. While an omniscient God can know all the possible futures, there is no way a single future could be known ahead of time. A thing can only be known if it exists; so it follows that if the future does not exist, it cannot be known. In this case, a probabilistic universe negates the argument's definition of omniscience.

Finally, if evil can be objectively defined (especially as something within the created order), this suggests a moral reality beyond human social contract, which can only apply to functionally free beings in a probabilistic universe. Since humans are (said to be) free beings, then the burden of evil rests entirely on them.

But if there is no God, then there can be no moral reality beyond transitory human social contract. And again, the burden of breaking any such contract (defined as an act of evil) would rest only on its constituent parties, i.e. human beings. In either case, human beings are to blame for evil's existence, rather than God (whether or not God exists).

It seems to me that the God of Christianity (the faith with which I am most familiar) is generally described as creating humanity to reflect God's "Image", i.e. to be free beings which possess the ability to make moral decisions, to live in community (with God, fellow humans, and creation), and to create or destroy.

But the existence of free beings carries with it the implicit risk of evil, broken relationship, and immoral decisions. If Christianity's claims are correct, then the best explanation for the existence of evil is that God loves humanity so deeply, He figured it was worth the risk that we would dork everything up.
#philosophy #God #atheism #Christianity #theodicy #Epicurus #evil

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Toward a Philosophical Understanding of Abortion and Human Rights

Since the landmark Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, the debate regarding abortion has taken a center stage in the political discourse of the United States. Unfortunately, this debate too often degrades into tired platitudes and appeals to party lines on both sides. Even worse, the well-being of mothers and babies is held hostage to political power plays.

On the pro-life side, I often hear appeals to religious principles or scriptural passages, but how do we apply these in a secular nation? Can we really expect those who don’t believe as we do to accept the formulations from a book they don’t read or care about? Apart from scripture, how do we develop an argument that human life (both pre- and post-born) should be respected? At a more basic level, is there an argument to be made that a freshly formed zygote is an individual human being with individual rights?

On the pro-choice side, I often hear the line that a fetus, or fertilized egg, is just a mass of tissues and has no rights apart from the mother. The problem is, I rarely hear a philosophical reason for why the process of birth separates masses of tissues from fully formed human beings. Beyond the ritual of having fluid squeezed from the lungs and passing through a tunnel, what is the difference between a baby moments from being born, and one already in its mother’s arms?

I think it is clear that, in the context of these important questions, one’s political opinion be founded on philosophically coherent principles. And the fundamental philosophical question is this: Are zygotes and fetuses fundamentally human beings with intrinsic, individual rights?

Now, as a Christian, I can’t completely remove the influence of my faith from my political positions, since the fundamental linchpin of my understanding of the universe rests in the belief that we are created in the image of God and like God, we have will, desire, moral understanding, and the ability to create, destroy, and shape our environments. Still, even a person who either denies the existence of God, or whose understanding of God is fundamentally different from mine, can at least (hopefully) agree that human beings exhibit the above attributes. That being said, I go a step further in my philosophy of individual rights.

You see, the above attributes all focus on “ability”. Humans have the ability to express will or desire, to create or destroy, to make moral choices, etc. However, if our definition of a human being only rests in its ability, what does this mean for the mentally or physically handicapped? Or for those whose ability is restricted by external circumstance, like the poor? Or those whose ability is restricted by past choices, like the prisoner? Even in the past century, we have seen many atrocities committed by regimes who denied the intrinsic, fundamental human right to life of one or more of these groups because they lacked “ability” in one way or another.

Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the Kims of North Korea all provide ready examples of the terror such a definition of humanity can create. It would be bad enough if these outbursts of violent and repressive regimes were the only examples we had, but there are new acts of violence and death perpetrated each day, all over the face of this planet. Every murder, every execution, every act of war represents the destruction of one or more human beings. And in order for a human to kill another human being, they first have to justify it in some way. Usually this means making an argument that the other human being has lost their right to life in some way, and have become less than human. Whether these deaths are justified (for instance in the execution of criminals or when fighting wars) is beyond the scope of this article.

But in the context of abortion, the observation remains true, people justify killing fetuses using the same psychological mechanism which allows them to kill enemies. This tells me their philosophical foundation for human rights is fundamentally deficient. A very pertinent example is the current practice in Iceland to screen for Down’s Syndrome and abort fetuses based on the results. On the one hand, their efforts are being lauded as successfully eliminating the genetic malady from the country. But at the same time, almost any parent of a Down’s Syndrome child will tell you just how wonderful, loving, and happy they can be. How long before we begin aborting fetuses that have the genetic disposition for heart disease, obesity, or brown eyes instead of blue?

To correct this, I argue that we must expand our definition to not only include “ability,” but also “potential.” Though a fetus is utterly reliant on its mother for the sustenance of its life and its ability for self-expression is severely limited at the moment, its potential for all the above attributes is never diminished. After all, a newborn baby is just as reliant on its mother’s survival as an unborn fetus and most humans of any age are utterly reliant on their communities for their survival, as well. In fact, no matter what challenges or changes the human organism faces throughout its life, though its ability is constantly changing as well, its potential for further expression in each of the above areas (however small) continues to remain a fundamental attribute.

This expansion of our definition of humanity has the potential to revolutionize how we philosophically frame a wide variety of political and ethical issues, including debates over the justification of war, capital punishment, euthanasia, poverty alleviation, environmental policy, and even the extension of rights to artificial intelligence or extraterrestrials we may come in contact with (topics which are science fiction now, but may become a part of reality in the future).

For me though, the issue is much simpler. Because I’ve fallen deeply, irrevocably, and irrationally in love with God; I love the bearers of God’s image just as deeply. To see any destroyed breaks my heart.

#politics #philosophy #abortion #prolife #prochoice