Monday, February 27, 2006


Last week Sami and I went to Circuit City (what an exciting way to start a post!). This, in and of itself, is proof that if your wife doesn't share your policy of throwing out all mailed advertisements before reading them, then they might have at least some chance of getting to you. Bored, and out of legitimate reading material that wouldn't make my head hurt more than it already did, one day I started leafing through the piles of unsolicited coupons and catalogues that my wife refuses to throw away. In that pile I found a DVD ad from Circuit City, claiming that they would have RENT (follow the link to read about my relationship with that musical/movie) for the low, low price of $14.99.

RENT finally came out last Tuesday, and so, enticed by the ad (which for once did not deceive or disappoint) we found our way to Circuit City. While we were there we saw one of my all time favorite thought provoking movies, Carl Sagan's Contact, for $5.99. Since the only thing I like better than buying movies is buying good movies for ridiculously cheap prices, we proved that my anti-commercialism is all talk, and snatched it up.

Carl Sagan was a first-rate scientist (despite all of the jealous grousing about him from other scientists toward the end of his life), who earned his PhD in astrophysics from the University of Chicago, taught at Stanford (genetics), Harvard (astronomy), was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and the Director of Laboratory for the Planetary Studies at Cornell University, and served as a long time consultant for NASA. He was also behind the landmark astronomy series Cosmos, which made the Big Bang theory comprehensible to hundreds of millions of layman (and infuriated "serious" scientists, who thought that Sagan, in presenting a view of the cosmos which people like me could actually understand, had "dumbed down" astrophysics).

Sagan even combined his interest in astronomy and genetics to create a new (hypothetical) field of study, exobiology, the study of the biochemistry of alien life.

This alone might make Sagan the "starry-eyed" mystic of the scientific community. But in addition to his fascination with potential life in other parts of the cosmos, Sagan also took religious criticisms of science quite seriously. That is not to say that Sagan was swayed by the cosmological views of any religious tradition. It is instead to say that he saw that religion had a kind of function in the lives of people, an important function which science had not yet been able to perform.

Science, at its core, is concerned with describing the natural world. Religion provides that world, and our experience of it, with meaning. Thoughtful religious people have long insisted that while science is a valuable tool it, by virtue of its aims and methodology, is not concerned with and cannot provide ultimate meaning.

Sagan had the intellectual honesty to see the value in that criticism. But he also had the kind of bold, creative vision to not let the criticism stand unchallenged. Why can't science be concerned with meaning? Why can't science, and scientific insights, touch us in the same existential places as myth? Why can't, in other words, science have a religious or even mystical component?

Contact, both the novel and the movie which followed, can be seen as Sagan's bold attempt to answer those questions. Contact can be seen, like the best in science fiction, as a kind of intersection between science and mythology. Contact is Sagan's way of arguing, in the form of a story (like the best myths), that scientific observations and discoveries can, in fact, provide our experience of life with the same kind of ultimate meaning as religion.

Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religions from the University of Chicago and author of The Sacred and the Profane, argued that religion is fundamentally concerned with encountering the holy, the other. In Contact Sagan provides us with a totally natural encounter with the other in the form of contacting advanced alien life. This encounter, this contact, has profound implications both personally and corporately.

The movie, which is more concerned with character and plot than the book, follows fringe astronomer Ellie Arroway, played magnificently by Jodie Foster. One of the most moving scenes in the movie, which sets up Ellie's motivation and Sagan's approach, involves a young Ellie and her ham radio. She is a young girl whose mother died in childbirth, and she reaches out with her radio to see how far her signal can reach, and who she can contact with it.

One morning she reaches a man in Florida. Impressed by the distance, she wonders how much further her signal can reach. Could it, potentially, reach beyond the limits of Earth? Could it, in fact, reach her deceased mother?

The adult Ellie, the scientist Ellie, listens to the stars in search of extra-terrestrial life. Though she is an atheist, her work has the air of a divine calling. She in fact recklessly endangers her bright career by her quest for extraterrestrial life, marginalyzing herself by her driven search to encounter the other. For Ellie, then, the implications of contact are personal.

But Sagan is less concerned with the personal implications, and more concerned with the corporate implications. He is less concerned with the meaning which encountering the other might have for individual humans, and more concerned with what it might mean for humanity.

For Sagan we have a collective existential problem, a feeling of being alone, isolated from other forms of intelligent life. Our fundamental loneliness is made worse by the fact the we really believe that we're alone, a belief which is not contradicted by any empirical data. It is here that Sagan begins to look much more religious, particularly in the form his arguments, made through his characters (particularly Ellie, but also through the unconventionally religious "priest" and author Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughey). Ellie, for instance, who has no faith in faith, exercises a kind of faith when she is asked why she believes that there is extraterrestrial life. She responds, "Because if there isn't, if we really are alone, well that would be a tremendous waste of space."

Here you see Sagan's faith in an ordered universe, a universe which makes sense and can be understood. But you also see his over-emphasis on rationality, particularly understood in human terms.

Humans, it can easily be argued, are not alone even if there is no life on other planets. This is because of the extreme diversity of life on this planet. And if you focus not solely on rationality, but include a much wider range of traits, you can see that we have a great deal in common with, and a fundamental connection to, much of the life which surrounds us.

Evolutionarily speaking this is obvious, as one of the core tenets of Darwinian evolution is that all life evolved from a single ancestor (and if ever there were a scientific theory which had religious implications, that is it). But this is also true in more experiential ways. I am united with all mammalian life by a shared set of characteristics. More broadly, I have sentience (the ability to experience pleasure and pain, and to express preference) with a wide variety of life-forms. More narrowly, I am part of one of many types of primates who care for and are concerned about their young and their mate.

So, even if per Sagan's terms we are alone, we are still not alone, since we are surrounded by other forms of life on this terrestrial ball.

But Sagan is concerned with:

a.) extraterrestrial life
b.) intelligent life, and
c.) extraterrestrial life which happens to be (and this is crucial) more intelligent and more advanced than we are.

For him it is this encounter with the more powerful and more intelligent other which has such profound existential implications. This is in part a response to a post-modern critique of science.

Post modernism looks at the advances of the modern world, and asks what they have gotten us. This view is best represented by the character Palmer Joss, who while appearing on the Larry King Show to support his new book, which is an attack on our technological society, is asked if he is anti-technology, or anti-science. He says no. He is not opposed to science or technology per se, but he has to ask this question:

Are we better off for our technology? Are we happier because of it?

His answer is that we are not. In fact, he sees us as being a great deal less happier despite all of our technological advances, because we have looked to technology as a kind of savior, and it has failed to be that savior. Technology is a tool, neither good nor bad on its own. Its value rests in how it is used.

Palmer's position reminds me great deal of that of the Swiss theologian Hans Kung (I still can't get this program to put an umlaut over that u!), who offered a great post modern critique of science and technology in light of the first and second World Wars. Kung argued that our reliance on technology as a kind of savior led to depression and disillusionment in the aftermath of these wars, whose catastrophic death tolls devastated Europe and were the direct result of our technology outpacing our ability to use technology in a morally and spiritually responsible way.

Sagan does not dodge this criticism. In fact he himself presents it. But he does answer it, and he answers it with a kind of faith. In his story it is the technology which is a tool rather than an end which makes the extraterrestrial contact possible.

But I am less concerned with outlining plot than I am with analyzing meaning. If you are interested in how the contact comes about, watch the movie. Here I am interested in what the contact represents. This is because, in the movie, I see the extraterrestrial encounter as a kind of religious experience. I have mentioned Eliade's notion of religion being fundamentally about encountering the holy. For Sagan, in Contact the holy turns out to be a part of the natural universe. The meaning-providing experience is not with something supernatural, but with something supra-natural. It is an encounter with a higher intelligence, an intelligence which will (it is hoped) help us reorder our lives and bring us back from the brink of destruction. But that intelligence is not found outside of the natural realm, but rather within it.

Here I think Sagan is offering a sensible critique of the religious perspectives which offered him such a valuable critique of science. Here Sagan is saying that science as the heir to religion can do religion better than religion, because it does not have to posit something outside nature, distant and removed from us.

The universe is such a fantastically large place that just thinking about its quite possibly infinite size can existentially disorient you. The astronomers of the "Deep Field Project" have, using the Hubble space telescope, discovered that visible space contains over 50 billion galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy, contains over 400 million stars. Our star, the sun, contains almost all of the matter in our Solar System. Our planet, which seemed impossibly large until very, very recently, contains less than 1/10th of 1% of the matter in our solar system. So when we compare ourselves to the enormity of the known (natural) universe, we are so impossibly small as to be insignificant. Cosmically speaking there is no real size difference between us and, say, the mites which live in our eyebrows.

With such a disorienting enormity of space, why would be want to posit some Being outside that space? What good would a God even more distant and removed from us than that farthest galaxies do for us? How could that possibly help our fundamental loneliness and insignificance?

So Sagan posits a natural other, a higher power which, being limited eliminates the nasty problem of pain; and which being inside the natural realm can more easily bridge the gap between us and it.

No, this alien life is not some sort of god, but it fills some of the same needs as a god.

What are we, as religious people, to do with the critique which, through a marvelous story (and sometimes our points are made best within stories, as stories draw us in to the perspective of the story teller in a way that linear arguments often cannot - one of the many reasons I have said that Jesus teaches in stories) Sagan has given back to us? We should certainly take it as seriously as he took our critique, and hopefully that seriousness will yield as good a result.

For my part I say we need to recapture the spirit of the ancients, and look for our God within the natural realm rather than outside it. I'll explain what I mean by that another time.

Friday, February 24, 2006

There's No Place Like Hell

As I was driving around yesterday, searching for my now six-year-old nephew's birthday present (happy birthday, Josh!) an old resentment (to borrow from AA's jargon) resurfaced. I saw a car which looked like a car that I often saw in the parking lot of the church I pastored, and it dredged up old and evidently still bitter feelings.

I could judge those feelings, and my attachment to them. I could describe in detail why it is unhealthy to hold grudges and resentments. But that wouldn't help. As unhealthy as it is to carry such feelings around, it is equally unhealthy to label them and judge them. I don't need to pass judgment on my experience, I need only to experience my experience, experience the rising and falling of these emotions, and then try to let go of them.

When I was a pastor I didn't often give altar calls. This is not because I was not evangelical. In my own way I am very evangelical. Each week I told my congregation that what happens inside the walls of our church is meaningless unless it carries over into our lives outside those church walls. Each week I told my congregation that inside the walls of the church, in the experience we call Sunday worship, we encounter the grace and peace of God. As part of that experience, I told them, we are called to be agents of that grace and peace outside the safety of the walls of our church, bringing each person we meet into contact with that grace and peace.

The altar is a place in which Christians (and members of other religions) have traditionally experienced God. As such it is an appropriate place to encounter God, and ought to be used as part of the worship service. However, the altar has also been abused by those for whom religion must always be tied with guilt. The altar has been used as a weapon against sinners, and as a false antidote to sinning.

My own experience with the altar is checkered. As a fundamentalist teenager, motivated by guilt and fear, I responded to every altar call that I ever heard given. But responding to those calls, those nudges by the Holy Spirit, never took my guilt or fear away. All it did was subconsciously communicate that the grace of God was not sufficient for me. That the last time I responded to it was not enough. It help create a cyclical addiction to a particular kind of guilt-and-fear-laced religious experience.

As a pastor, chastened by my own unhealthy experience of altar calls, I vowed to do them only when I could do them right. Of course, this supposes that there is a right way to do an altar call, and that I would some day (but not today) have access to that absolutely right way. I was quickly disillusioned of this, and decided to give sporadic altar calls, checking against all of the abuses of them known to me, while also assuming that I would mess it up in my own way, and that would have to be OK.

One of my last Sundays at Mt. Zion UMC, just before I discovered just how deep the divide was between me and my congregation, I gave an altar call. With my own unhealthy experiences fresh in my mind, I decided to place a kind of check on the call. I said:

Do not come to this altar because you are afraid of hell. Instead come to this altar motivated by a desire to authentically encounter the presence of God in a real way.

No one responded, and I didn't think much of it until the next week, when we were scheduled to have our Charge Conference.

A Charge Conference is supposed to be meeting over which the District Superintendent presides, and in which all of the official church business for the year gets done. People are appointed to serve on various committees, the pastor's salary is set, the state of the building and the parsonage is accessed, the church finances are examined, etc. It is an extremely important meeting for the life of the church, and it is decidedly not the time to air complaints.

However, for this Charge Conference a faction of the church, motivated by a desire to get rid of me, literally stormed the floor and took over the meeting under the threat of physical violence. They then, claiming they had been told to do this by God, aired their list of complaints against me. At the top of their list, sure enough, was my final altar call.

In their vindictive rant they quoted me as having said:

Do not come to the altar if you are afraid of hell.

The difference between that and what I actually said was just one word, but that one word makes all the difference in the world. They claimed that I was intentionally excluding the entire church from the altar, because I disagreed with them about the wrath of God. They claimed that I wasn't really interested in saving souls, because in cutting out the threat of hell I was removing the only motivation to seek God.

[note: at this point my writing was interrupted by a pillow fight with my one-year-old son. He grab a pillow off the couch a clobbered me with it, then started giggling. I had to get him back!]

For them fear of God - not the awesome respect for the Holy, the Other, the divine, but real terror of what God might supernaturally do to them if the stepped out of line - was the fuel for their religious machine. I have before called their God the whack-a-mole God, the God standing over and above humanity, with a supernatural mallet, waiting to bash our brains in if we stick our head up.

As their pastor I tried to give them a different vision of God and a different experience of religion, but they rebelled against that. And now that I'm not their pastor I can't have any control over the way that they see me, the way that they describe me to themselves and others. I can't challenge their misrepresentation of what I said in that altar call, and I can't challenge their misinterpretation of my teachings.

My emotional response to this is teaching me that, just like them, my machine needs fuel. And just like them, my machine is run on an unhealthy fuel. If guilt and fear drive them, then the need to control, the need to be understood, drives me. And just like with them, this fuel drives me to the edge of hell.

The fear of God - again, not the awesome respect for God which is sometimes characterized as fear - and the fear of eternal damnation lead to an unhealthy religious expression, a cyclical pattern of behavior which makes no sense to those outside it.

I was once on that cycle. Now I am on a new cycle. Now, rather than being motivated by an existential dread I am motivated by a need to control, a need to be right, and to be seen as right. And so when I think of the lack of control I had and have over that congregation's interpretation of me; when I think of my inability to make them understand me, what I was trying to teach them, and why I was trying to teach them what I tried to teach them; when I think of the fact that their misquoting of me will stand forever unchallenged; I feel resentment. The same resentment I used to feel toward the God who I thought consigned people like me to eternal damnation.

Life is full of all kinds of hells, and there's no place like hell.

But that's not how the story has to end. If hell is an irrational pattern of behavior based on unhealthy ideas, then the way out of our temporal hells is to break that cycle. That cycle is still broken by the grace of the God who tells us not to take ourselves or our mistakes so seriously.

Both of the errors presented here; the tendency towards fear and the need to control come from a lack of faith. We experience these things because we do not trust God. We either do not trust God to be good, or we do not trust God to be God. In doing so, in either case, we really fail to appreciate that God is God, and that we are not God. God's will, unmitigated by our fear or desire to control, is the operating principle of the universe.

To realize that is to experience heaven, to rebel against that is to experience hell.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

What Can Migrant Workers Teach Us About Salvation?

This past Sunday I got to preach at the 8:45 communion service at my church, Fourth Ave UMC. I was planning to either reproduce the sermon here or blog about the experience of climbing behind a pulpit for only the third time since I resigned my pastorate and left professional ministry. But since I'm not an "either/or" or a "both/and" kind of guy, I've decided to skate a fine line between the two.

Part of that is due to the nature of my sermons. They are almost impossible to reproduce, because so much happens in the room but not on the page. I'm not a particularly dramatic preacher in the conventional sense. I don't jump up and down, I don't alternate between screaming and whispering, I don't make grand gestures with my hands. But, when I preach, it is dramatic in the since that, much like an actor, I communicate with much more than just the plain meaning of words.

As such, so much of the sermon never makes it to the page. In recognition of this, after I'd given a few sermons I stopped writing them down. Instead I would just write down a line or two, a brief sketch of the sort of thing that I'd want to say. Then I would sketch an outline of the main points, and how they lead to each other. And that's it.

No sermon on the page. Just notes which make since only to me. If I gave you the notes I wouldn't give you the sermon, since the sermon exists only in my head.

Because of this my sermons are/were fluid. I've given the same sermon at several different congregations, but it was never really the same sermon. In fact I've given the same sermon more than once on the same day in the same room, but it wasn't really the same sermon.

My sermon on Sunday was titled "What Can Migrant Workers Teach Us About Salvation?" The text for it comes from Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The first time I preached from that text I was the youth minister at Epiphany UMC in Louisville, KY. I filled in for the pastor every time he went on vacation, which meant I got to preach there at least 3 or 4 times per year.

The sermon changed considerably when I took my ill-fated appointment to pastor Mt. Zion UMC, near Willisburg, KY (you know you are in the middle of nowhere when you have to say "near Willisburg," as I'm sure that many of my readers haven't even heard of Willisburg!). There it was part of a series I gave on parables as "teaching stories." Each sermon began with the line "I love stories," (the church, in fact, joked with me that they would change the bulletin to say "Story of the Day" instead of "Message") and then I would explain:

a.) what it was about stories that I loved so much, and
b.) what it was about this story that spoke to me.

Seems kind of cheesy, looking back at it, but it was one of the few things that I did there that really worked.

That's because I really do love stories, and I'm not alone in that. In fact, I think that everyone loves stories, which is one of the reasons Jesus taught with them so often. A good story can bridge the distance between opposing points of view. A good story can cross a cultural divide. A good story can even, as a kind of shared experience, bring mortal enemies together for a moment. Stories have a kind of almost magical power.

The Bible is full of stories, and as we grow those stories grow with us. My treatment of the story found in Matthew 20:1-16 - even though the text of that story remains of course the same - changed a great deal as I preached on it in different environments. The sermon I gave at Mt. Zion was very different from the sermon I gave at Epiphany (for one, I didn't use the awkward phrase "existentially meaningful concept of salvation at Mt. Zion). The sermon I gave this past Sunday at Fourth Ave. was very different from the one I gave at Mt. Zion. I have grown, and my understanding of the story has grown with me.

The great thing about a story is that - if it is a good story - while it has meaning, it doesn't have a meaning. A story, in other words, doesn't mean "this" as opposed to "that." It can't be reduced to a single interpretation, a single perspective, a single message, a single meaning. Rather it is the meaning that it contains. But it also teaches us something, and so communicates meanings, messages, perspectives and interpretations to us.

A story invites us in to the story-teller's point of view, and in doing so helps us to see things that we could not have seen otherwise. By showing us how one sees instead of just what one sees, the story communicates a great deal more than the lesson. This may be one of the many reasons why Jesus so often (if the Synoptic Gospels are to be trusted) taught in stories. I know that many times we wish that Jesus would have just come out and said whatever it was that he meant, but he used these great stories for a reason. They expand our understanding to the point that we can no longer reduce his teachings to "this" or "that."

The story found in Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard and the subject of my sermon on Sunday, is an illustration of Jesus' point that "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" (Matthew 19:30 and 20:16). But along with that it is also a view of the nature of salvation. Jesus begins his story with "the Kingdom of heaven is like..." and then tells this story. So in this story we see the nature of salvation rather than merely a theological description of salvation.

So the question is, what does this story teach us about salvation? Or, as I put it in the title of my sermon, what do migrant workers (and this story about them) teach us about salvation?

That's right. While this story is about the kingdom of heaven, it is also about migrant workers. It is about a group of people who gather in the marketplace hoping against hope to get some work. So, to understand what this story has to say about salvation we have to be able to step inside the experience of the workers in the story, and then understand that their experience is our experience.

The traditional understanding of the story is that it is a kind of allegory (and it is always dangerous to deal with stories as allegories, since in an allegory everything must directly correspond to something else, which creates a whole set of interpretive problems that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say, with JRR Tolkien - who was accused of allegory himself - "I detest allegory wherever I smell it."). In this treatment, we are the workers, God is the landowner, the work in the vineyard is our work for God, and the day's wages is the eternal life which is our reward.

This is not a bad or wrong understanding of the story, but it is an incomplete one, which contains a few problems. If salvation is primarily seen merely as access to heaven after you die, and if the work you do for God is seen primarily as a labor not of love but for a wage, then a few things may follow which we would not want to follow.

1. Life here and now, if it is merely preparation for or a test for enterance to a new life, is meaningless. If our concept of salvation sucks the meaning out of life in the here and now, then it doesn't help us very much, does it?

2. If the work which we do for God is labor for a wage rather than a labor of love, God is more like an employer than a lover or a parent.

3. If all receive the same wage from our employer God, regardless of their work, then our employer God is unjust, even if it is within his (as the male landowner in the story) rights to do what he wants with his property.

So while it is helpful to understand that at the end of the day there is a reward for our faithful labor, if our concept of salvation stops here it is incomplete at best, empty and meaningless at worst.

In my sermon I told stories of people I know who's lives were not aided by this concept of salvation as merely a reward in the afterlife. I will spare you those stories, because they are so context dependent. The point I draw out of those stories, however, is this:

To understand salvation we have to understand that it is a solution to a problem. If you save me from drowning after I fall into a lake, then the salvation which you offer me is a solution to that problem. When we talk of God saving us we also talk of salvation as the solution to a problem. That problem is sin

Whatever else sin is, it is the obstacle between you and God. And the problem with the concept of salvation as merely access to heaven and eternal life is that it does not truly solve the problem of sin. This is because with sin there are ultimately two problems:

1. The penalty of sin, which the Bible tells us is death.
2. The presence of the sin itself, which stands between us and God, keeping us from God, and so from our own true nature.

Salvation as access to eternal life in heaven solves the first problem. It removes the penalty of our sin, and so (ultimately) removes the fear of death. Salvation seen like this rescues us from the threat of hell, and that is no small thing. But it does not yet make us creatures fit for heaven. This is because while the penalty of sin is removed, the sin itself, if salvation is understood merely in the terms we've used thus far to describe it, remains. Salvation, because it has not yet offered us anything in the here and now, has not yet given us power over our sinful nature.

To understand salvation, and our experience of salvation, better, let us look at the story (Matthew 20:1-16) from the perspective of one of the migrant workers:

At the crack of dawn you get up, but you've almost forgotten why you bother. You haven't had work in months, and you're starting to lose hope. You're not as young as you used to be. Your knees and back ache, and you start to wonder whether or not you can still do the work you used to do in the fields before the landowners starting looking past you to all of the younger, more able bodied workers. This culture can be unforgiving on the aging and the weak, and so you try your best to deny that you are both.

You head to the marketplace, wondering if perhaps this will be the day your luck turns around. But as you enter the marketplace you see all of the other people fighting for the same few spots as you. Each has the same aim. To be chosen. To be selected. To be wanted.

The landowners, the wealthy men who run the farms and vineyards that might need you help for the day, come into the marketplace looking for a few hands to fill out their work force. They immediately go after the young, the strong, the handsome, the able-bodied. Those chosen few have the chance to get picked up for more than a day. You're just hoping to con some poor rich soul into one day's work.

Perhaps, as the rich landowners look over the throng of potential workers, you try some subtle or not-so-subtle tricks to get noticed. Inside you are almost doing jumping jacks, yelling as loud as you can, "PICK ME! PICK ME!" Of course you wouldn't really do that, because such a reckless action would betray your desperation, and nothing could sabotage your hope of being chosen like the stench of desperation.

The morning plays out just like it did yesterday, the day before, the day before, and the day before, for as far back as you can remember, it seems. The landowners have made their morning rounds and selected the best and most promising workers from among the ranks of the unemployed. Its time to find something else to do with your day, again. But what? What could you do? As you start to wonder what your options are, as the other workers start to gather themselves and leave, one landowner comes back to survey the crowd again.

This landowner, it seems, did not pick up quite enough workers the first time around. The crowd has thinned some because of the workers who gave up hope, but there are more than enough able bodied workers, and you doubt that you can compete even with the ones that are left. How many jobs could this man have, anyway?

The landowner picks some more workers, and heads back out. Once again you've wasted a whole morning, waiting for nothing to happen. But just as you are ready to give up, that same landowner, the crazy one with too much work, comes back. Wanting to cast off all your remaining dignity and jump up and down, begging to be noticed, you start to approach the landowner. But how will that look? Won't that betray your desperation. Once again you force down that impulse, and try as subtly as you can to look like you would be a good worker.

But again you are disappointed. Again you are passed over. Again others are chosen, others are selected, others are employed, but not you. Another disappointment in a long line of disappointments. Another chance to see first hand just how worthless you are. Another chance to relive each of your past failures, as you contemplate how you got here. How could you be here? How could you be so unemployed, unemployable? How could you have squandered so many chances to be somebody, to do something with your life?

Despair sets in. You start to wonder why you bother to get up in the morning, why you bother to breath in and out each day, why you bother to continually go through the motions of a meaningless life. You have nothing better to do, nowhere else to be, so you lean against the wall in the marketplace and take a swig from the flask that numbs your pain and gets you through your days.

Society has lots of names for someone like you, but it seems to have forgotten your name. Do you even have a name anymore? You take another swig, which burns all the way down your throat. Then you throw your flask in disgust, put your head down, and go to sleep.

Someone taps you on the shoulder. It's the crazy landowner, and he wants to know what you're doing, just standing around the marketplace. Don't you want to work? Of course you want to work! Well, come on. You've finally been chosen, finally been selected. So you set of to work for the landowner, because he chose you. He gave you something to do, some way to fill your time, some kind of purpose and meaning.

If we see the story from this perspective we understand that, no matter what the text says, all of the workers did not receive the same reward. Sure they may have received the same wage at the end of the day, but their days were spent very differently. In fact, the worker who spent the whole day waiting to be selected may be in the best position to understand that the work is the reward.

This is what salvation is like. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Salvation is not just what happens to us after we die, it's what fills our life with meaning in the here and now. Understood this way salvation is a life changing experience, which empowers us.

This understanding of salvation is consistent with the Wesleyan understand of the grace of God, which while understanding God's grace as one thing, divides it up into three categories:

1. Prevenient grace
2. Justifying grace
3. Sanctifying grace

Prevenient grace is the grace of God active in your life before you are aware of God. It orders your life in such a way that it brings you to a place where you can enter into a relationship with God. In our story it was prevenient grace which brought the worker to the marketplace and set up the eventual encounter with the landowner.

Justifying grace is the grace of God which removes the penalty of our sins. It is found in the traditional understanding of our story. Justifying grace brings us out of the pits of hell and makes it possible for us to experience heaven. But by itself it does not bring us into heaven.

Sanctifying grace is the grace of God which transforms us and makes us into a new creation. It removes our sinful nature and replaces it with the nature of Christ. Sanctifying grace makes us creatures fir for heaven. Sanctifying grace is found in the work.

This gives us a fuller picture of the story, and helps us see the power of stories. In stories we have not a single point but many points, many perspectives. Each of these perspectives helps drive us closer to the God who is more than just our idea of God, but who exists independently of our ideas.

I could here get into why I think that it is beneficial for us to see salvation in the way presented here. I could tell more stories about how seeing salvation in this way, as bringing meaning into our lives in the here and now and giving us power over our sinful natures, has been helpful to me and to many others. But I won;t because I've already written too much for one post, and because I am interested in discussion.

This is not my sermon. I can't recapture my sermon for this blog, and even if I could it would not be appropriate. This is instead a sketch of the sort of thing I said, and why I said it. I have here added things that I did not make as clear on Sunday and subtracted things which might clarify some unclear points here. But my hope is that all of that will come out in discussion.

I am particularly interested in hearing from people who are not persuaded by the Wesleyan/Methodist approach to "Christian perfection." I've outlined some strength, but there are weaknesses that I hope someone will offer for me so that we can discuss them and, in doing so, see why becoming too attached to any idea about God or anything else is dangerous.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Bane of Digital Cable

Since this post reads uncharacteristically like a real blog, I've decided to add (in the High Fidelity spirit of "It's not what you're like, but what you like that matters") this:

Current listening:
Deitaphobia, Lo Fi versus Sci Fi
Morella's Forrest, From Dayton With Love
David Gilmore, Live in Concert (DVD)

Current reading:
Sunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (Thank you, Brian Cubbage. Merry Christmas to me!)
Ken McLeod, Wake Up to Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention

Current watching:
Ghostbusters (Sami, can we please watch this tonight? It's been so long since we've had a movie night. I know the Olympics are on, but...)

This past Friday my mom called me to ask if I was interested in going to see Driving Miss Daisy at the Lexington Opera House. My parents have season tickets to the Broadway Live series, and evidently feel like they need to bribe me from time to time to get me to visit them (and more importantly, bring their youngest grandchild to visit them). I wasn't too interested in Driving Miss Daisy, but since it is one of my wife's all time favorites, and since we were offered tickets for the low, low price of visiting with my family, I couldn't turn it down. [note: I was wrong about Driving Miss Daisy. It was a fantastic show. Now I can see why it one the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. My bad.]

Because I'm a doofus, the tickets ended up being not exactly free. That's because, like a moron, I parked in a pay parking lot, but didn't put any money in the slot. Insert predictable parking ticket. I guess the seats were free, but the parking was pretty expensive. You know the show was good when I got us a parking ticket and Sami didn't even complain about it.

Never one to leech off my parents and then run (I really do enjoy visiting them, I promise) we spent the weekend with them in Lexington. The problem was, between the snow and the extreme cold, there wasn't much to do. Of course, my parents have digital cable, so who needs something to do? According to Dad, there were like 17 different college basketball games on, so why not just plop in front of the TV with our standard Wheat Thins and Slone's Signature Guinness Dark Beer Cheese and watch basketball until our eyes bleed?

As an added bonus, we could watch our beloved (and insufferable, this year) Kentucky Wildcats lose yet another winable game. Alas, UK disappointed us (not really) by putting together their best performance in recent memory, wiping the floor with South Carolina in the second half. But there were many more games to watch.

We flipped over to the channel promising The Florida v. Arkansas game, at which point I realized that, if you've got something like 900 television channels, some of them are bound to behave strangely.

Instead of Florida v. Arkansas (the only game in which I can ever remember rooting for Arkansas) we got an infomercial for Yoga Booty Ballet. I couldn't make that up. Click on the link to see what its all about. We watched it dumbfounded, unable to tell whether or not we had accidentally stumbled on some Saturday Night Live parody, or the genuine article. It was simply the funniest thing I've seen in my life, made all the more funny by the fact that it didn't seem to know how funny it was.

You simply have to buy Yoga Booty Ballet, no matter what it costs. The laughter alone will shape and tone your abs.

Other than that, I still have nothing of substance to say. A cold and severe sleep deprivation (comes with the parenting territory) have robbed me of my brain cells. Please forgive the banal blogging. And, don't forget to contribute to the discussion at Habakkuk's Watchpost. There have been a couple of really good comments lately. Food for thought, and all that.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Join the Conversation

The good folks at Habakkuk's Watchpost are having a discussion about my post, Scriptural Evidence For the Trinity?. Since I've been participating in that discussion/defending myself against accusations that I'm not a Christian, I haven't had or made the time to write another "real" post. One's coming, I promise. In the meantime, if you're bored, join the conversation.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin

I've been wasting my time and energy at Habakkuk's Watchpost again, and as such have not written anything here in a couple of days. Since I'm heading out of town for the weekend, it will probably be another couple of days before I write a new piece.

I'm preaching at the 8:45 communion service at my church (4th Ave UMC, Louisville, KY) this Sunday, so I might put that sermon, or some observations about it, here. Or, I might not. Either way, it will mark only the third time since I resigned my pastorate and left professional ministry that I will stand behind a pulpit.

Since I've got nothing else to say at the moment, I'll leave you with this story from The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, by Idries Shah (quoted in Ken McLeod's Wake Up to Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention):

One day the villagers thought they would play a joke on Nasrudin. As he was supposed to be a holy man of some indefinable sort, they went to him and asked him to preach a sermon in their mosque. He agreed.

When the day came, Nasrudin mounted to the pulpit and spoke:

"O people! Do you know what I am going to tell you?"

"No, we don't know," they cried.

"Until you know, I cannot say. You are too ignorant to make a start on," said the Mulla, overcome with indignation that such ignorant people should waste his time. He descended from the pulpit and went home.

Slightly chagrined, a deputation went to his house again, and asked him to preach the following Friday, the day of prayer.

Nasrudin started his sermon with the same question as before.

This time the congregation answered, as one man:

"Yes, we know."

"In that case," said the Mulla, "there is no need for me to detain you longer. You may go." And he returned home.

Having been prevailed upon to preach for the third Friday in succession, he started his address as before:

"Do you know or do you not?"

The congregation was ready.

"Some of us do, others do not."

"Excellent," said Nasrudin, "then let those who know communicate their knowledge to those who do not."

And he went home.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Check out Tyler's post on Punk

I just read this most excellent post on punk by Tyler at Habbakuk's Watchpost. Do yourself a favor and read it. I've got nothing to add to it.

[note: I typed this while listening to "Making Flippy Floppy" by the Talking Heads. It just seemed appropriate.]

Monday, February 13, 2006

I'm not too proud to admit I could be wrong...

I've been participating in a discussion at Habakkuk's Watchpost on the uproar over cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad. In that discussion I came out pretty heavily against the cartoons, calling them foolish at best, inflammatory at worst. I said that they failed as art and failed as commentary. I basically said that they sucked in every possible way.

That, of course, doesn't justify the violent protests and foolish boycotts which have followed. They're just cartoons, for crying out loud! Of course the response to them has to be understood within the contest of a broader dispute between (at least) two very different ways of approaching life. And, of course, we ought to try to understand the other before we try to judge the actions of the other. Those are givens.

But I'm starting to doubt my understanding of the situation, and I'm really starting to doubt my criticism of the cartoons themselves.

I just read this essay (which was originally a commentary on NPR's "All Things Considered") by the Lexington Hearld Leader's Pulitzer prize winning political cartoonist Joel Pett, which has forced to me say that I could have misjudged this entire situation.

Interesting essay. Let me know what you think of it.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Bumper Sticker Watch 4.0

Sami got paid! I know, it happens like clockwork, every two weeks. But, like clockwork, every two weeks, it never fails to feel like a miracle. So, to celebrate the miracle that is a regular paycheck (I haven't had one since October) we set out to blow a wad of money on such frivolties as milk, bread, bananas and orange juice.

[note: you can actually blow your paycheck on fruit if you are drunk enough. There is a story about a relative of mine, long since dead, who on a binge somehow came home with a truck full of coconuts instead of a paycheck. His wife made him sell them by the side of the road, for whatever he could get for them, for the rest of the week.]

On the way to the grocery, however, we saw a bumper sticker so... well... words can't describe it. Anyway, since sharing audacious bumper stickers is becoming a recurring theme here, I just had to share this one with you. Bumper stickers can, after all, be so informative. So, without further ado, did you know that:


This was news to my wife. When she saw it she turned to me and playful said, "I didn't know I was a man. That's interesting."

I half expected the driver of the car sporting this eloquent statement to be a giant, ape-like redneck, who could eat my skinny, vegetarian liberal ass for breakfast and still be hungry. Alas the driver was short, staggeringly ugly, balding, unmuscled and bespectacled.

I know very few things in this world, but I am sure that I could have taken him. And given my ability to fight (or lack thereof - if all liberals were like me the bumper sticker might be true) that's really saying something.

But enough of this nonsense. I'm going to watch some curling! (Is curling on yet?)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Scriptural Evidence for the Trinity?

Thanks to my friend Amy, my former classmate at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (she's still there, thank God, but I left seminary when I decided to leave professional ministry. Yes, for those of you tempted to give me too much credit, I am a seminary drop out!) I've been participating in a debate on the Trinity here and here.

It may seem strange for me, with my BA in Philosophy, to say this, but I don't like speculating on the nature of God. I know, I've spent most of my life doing it, but it doesn't get you anywhere. If there is a God (or, to sound more like Paul Tillich, if there is God, because there can't be a God, since that would imply that God is a being rather than pure Being, the Ground of Being) then the nature of God - like most other things - is a total mystery to us. But Christianity, which ought by nature to be the religion of mystery has long been instead the religion of certainty. We treat our dogmatic formulations as divinely revealed certainties, often overlooking the fact that if God has revealed anything, then that revelation was given to us, arrogant and imperfect bumbling idiots who are certain to have screw up the message.

I don't say this intending to offend anyone who has participated in these great debates on the Trinity. Rather I say it to say that such debates, while they are fine academically, are without much value spiritually or religiously. This is because (as I've argued before) if anyone says anything accurate about the divine nature (or the nature of the divine) then they did so totally on accident. God is a complete mystery, beyond the bounds of knowledge.

That doesn't mean that talking about God is without religious or spiritual value. It just means that getting bogged down with metaphysical details distracts from the main point, which is having an experience of the mysterious personal presence of God, which informs our lives with meaning.

But we are very attached to our dogmatic formulations, and often wield them as weapons against those who have different ideas about God than our own. The problem is that we do not often understand the historical roots of the dogmas to which we are so attached.

Take, for example, the Trinity. It is often taken for granted that a certain understanding of the Triune nature of God is essential to Christianity. But the dogma of the Trinity has its roots in history. It developed at a particular point in time, and that point was after some people were calling themselves something like Christians, followers of Jesus the Christ (Greek) or Messiah (Hebrew); the Chosen One of God.

If you want to follow that historical trail, then click on the links in the opening paragraph (particularly the second one) and read my contributions to the debate. My concern here is less historical, and more scriptural. The question burning in my brain is: Is there scriptural evidence for the kind of Trinitarian formulations which we use today? The short answer to this question is no. The medium length answer is: that depends on what you mean by scriptural. If by scriptural you mean that which now appears in English Bibles, then there may be some scriptural evidence for our now orthodox Trinitarian formulas. But if by scriptural you mean that which was probably written by the authors and earliest editors of the scriptures (though, of course, particularly the authors did not know they were working on something which would be elevated to the status of scripture) then the answer must be no

What, you may ask, about the long answer? Well, I'm glad you asked, but I'm not qualified to write the long answer. (To which you may exclaim THANK GOD! We're saved from his long-windedness!) Alas, I've never let a lack of qualifications keep me from pontificating!

I've been reading Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman, the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill [note: those of you who know me know the soft place in my heart for UNC Chapel Hill, where my maternal grandfather still teaches] In it Ehrman explains how a number of puzzling passages made their way into the text of the Bible. Sometimes simple human error is to blame, as the earliest Christian "scribes" were simply the few people in any congregation who could read or write. As such it fell to these literate few to read letters (such as the Pauline epistles now found in the Bible) to the congregation, and to write out copies of them by hand for circulation.

Sometimes, however - particularly as Christianity grew and developed, leading to the formation of a profession clerical/scribal class - a theological agenda has been imposed on a particular text. It is for this reason, for instance, that the author of the Apocalyse of John, which we have as the Biblical book of Revelation, threatens with eternal damnation anyone who would add or subtract to the text of his book. [note: I use "his" here because, although authoriship of the text is by no means certain, it is probable that the text was written by a man.]

I John 5:7-8 is the only section of the Bible which explicitly lays out a Trinitarian formula (though not in all translations, as some newer ones have corrected the error which I will discuss). In the familiar King James version it reads:

7. For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

8. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood: and these three are one.

Ehrman translates the Latin Vulgate for this passage as saying something very similar:

There are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness on earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.

In verse 7 we have the only explicit reference to God being understood as three co-equal persons, "the Father, the Word (understood as the Son, Jesus) and the Spirit." With this verse, it seems (in the King James and the Latin Vulgate, at least) that scripture clearly outlines a concept of the Trinity in which God exists as three co-equal persons. But should this verse be in the Bible?

In 1514 Desiderius Erasmus set out to work on the first published Greek New Testament in the Western world. While the New Testament, the Christian Bible, was originally written in Greek, the Greek had long been lost in the West, for a number of historical reasons. By the 16th Century, while Greek was still considered in the West to be the language of heresy, and while the Latin Vulgate was still considered to be the Bible, efforts to reclaim the Greek text began. Erasmus' work is best seen in the context of these efforts.

His Greek New Testament, however, had a number of problems. First, it was rushed, because another publication, the Complutensian Polygot, which would eventually be released in 1522, was on the way. Coupled with this, because of the loss of Greek in the West, Erasmus had a hard time getting his hands on Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Crunched for time he often based his translation on only one or two manuscripts. (Ehrman outlines why, from a technical perspective, this would be a major problem. The short version is that each manuscript contains a few copying errors, so the more manuscripts you consult the better chance you have of noticing small errors.) In fact the single Greek manuscript he had for Revelation had a page missing. Instead of wasting time seeking out a new manuscript (which may have been a fruitless search, anyway) he retranslated the Latin Vulgate into Greek, creating, as Ehrman puts it, "some textual readings found today in no surviving Greek manuscript." In other words, in at least one place, rather than recapturing the Greek reading of the New Testament Erasmus inadvertently created an entirely new reading of the text.

But, for all its problems, Erasmus did attempt to be faithful to the Greek, which created some controversy, as it deviated from the Latin reading which had been adopted by the Roman Catholic Church as the reading of the Bible.

What we now have as I John 5:7, which explicitly outlines the Triune nature of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit, 3 = 1), is not found in any Greek manuscript. Or, I should say, in any early Greek manuscript. So Erasmus left it out of his Greek New Testament. This caused more than a few critics to attack him for removing words from the Bible. Here is how Ehrman tells the story:

More than anything else, it was this [the absence of the Trinitarian formulation] that outraged the theologians of his day, who accused Erasmus of tampering with the text in an attempt to eliminate the doctrine of the Trinity and to devalue its corollary, the doctrine of the full divinity of Christ. In particular, Stunica, one of the chief editors of the Complutensian Polygot, went public with his defamation of Erasmus and insisted that in future editions he return the verse to its rightful place.

As the story goes, Erasmus - quite possibly in an unguarded moment - agreed that he would inser the verse in a future edition of his Greek New Testament on one condition: that his opponents produce a Greek manuscript in which the verse could be found (finding it in Latin manuscripts was not enough). And so a Greek manuscript was produced. In fact, it was produced for the occasion. It appears that someone copied out the Greek text of the Epistles, and when he came to the passage in question, he translated the Latin text into Greek, giving the Johannine Comma [I John 5:7] in its familiar, theologically useful form. The manuscript provided to Erasmus, in other words, was a sixteenth-century production, made to order.

The King James Bible was produced in 1611, and was based largely on Erasmus' Greek New Testament. This was because Erasmus' publication of the New Testament into Greek was the first such publication, and as such was considered to be the "gold standard,"
despite its now obvious flaws. Because Erasmus, true to his word, added the overtly Trinitarian formula to his version of I John, it was now considered to be part of the "original" Greek even though it had been added to the Latin Vulgate for theological reasons, and as such is not found in any early Greek manuscript.

The King James Bible has often been considered the Bible in the Protestant/Evangelical context in America, just as the Latin Vulgate was the Bible in the Roman Catholic Europe of Erasmus' day. As such that reading of I John 5:7-8 (containing verse 7) has dominated our understanding of the New Testament approach to the Trinity.

But more recent English translations of the Bible have removed Erasmus' mistaken addition, restoring the ambiguity with which the Bible approaches the Trinity. (This ambiguity is due to the fact that there was no concept of a Triune God at the earliest stages of Christianity. Texts, particularly from the Gospel of John, which equate Jesus with God and in doing so create a divine Trinity, are held by many scholars to be later additions.) For instance, this is how I John 5:7-8 reads in the NRSV, perhaps the best English translation:

7. There are three that testify: 8. the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.

There is no reference here to a co-equal Triune God, no reference to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The New American Standard version - a very literal translation which is faithful to the Greek, reads:

7. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is the truth.

8. For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit and the water and the blood; and all three are in agreement.

Again no Triune God. The three that are in agreement, the Spirit, the water and the blood, are certainly not held up as being God, but rather evidence of the work of God, evidence which testifies in one accord. Their equality is found in their agreement, not in their fundamental nature.

I can't say whether or not God is found in the three co-equal persons of the Trinity (though I can say that such a statement does not seem to be monotheistic), nor can I say whether or not Christ is equal to God. I can say that such notions are historical developments which do not represent the views of the earliest Christians, and so are not essential to Christianity. I can also say that the only place in which they even seem to appear in the Bible was a later edition to the text placed there by those who would impose their orthodox theology on the ones who they labeled "heretics."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Origin of Magical Creatures?

One of the things that I really like (or at least appreciate) about being a parent is that it gives you a whole new perspective on the world. I'm not talking about the perspective that comes when you realize, while gazing at your tiny, helpless infant, how fragile and precious life is. I'm not talking about the perspective you get as your body slowly and painfully adjusts to perpetual sleep deprivation. I'm not talking about the perspective you get as you rub your bleary, blood-shot eyes, look at the alarm clock and wonder if its a.m. or p.m. - is it that early? - and decide that you really can do this. You really can get up and take care of your screaming infant, allowing your wife to (for once!) keep sleeping.

Those are great perspectives. They teach you about yourself, the fundamental nature of life, and where you fit in to the whole "big picture." That's great. Lessons learned and all that. But here I'm being a bit more literal.

Parenting literally provides you with a new perspective, a new set of eyes from which to view the world, a new set of phenomenological experiences to try to interpret, and a whole new mode of interpreting those experiences. Parenting draws you into the experiential world of your child, allowing you to see through their eyes, hear through their ears, smell through their nose (and, my, what lovely smells!), and interpret with their young mind.

When I look at Adam I am more than myself. That is because he draws me in to his way of seeing, his way of thinking, his way of being. Of course I keep my far too jaded and analytical self, but I also add his self to my self, as I kind of counterweight. His perspective challenges my perspective, and supplements my perspective.

Among other things this has given me a whole new perspective on myth.

As a culture, in many ways, we have lost the value of myth. We are a very literal society, a very logical (if not quite rational) society, a very historically minded society. This, of course, shows in our approach to religion. The fastest growing religious movement in our country is a kind of literalistic fundamentalism which imposes our logical/historical mode of thinking on an ancient text. But I've beaten that horse enough.

This approach causes us to devalue myth. That devaluing is obvious in our language. We have a popular show called Mythbusters which exposes and destroys various popular "myths" which are really just false statements about the natural world. Conversationally we place "myth" against "fact," as though one were true and the other false, one bad and the other good.

But fundamentally a myth is not a lie, it is a story. A story which explains something non-literally, non-historically, and non-rationally, and in doing so provides meaning to our shared experiences.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with parenting? Simply this, children precede our rationality, or historical-mindedness, our need to divide the world into truths and falsehoods. Children have mythological eyes, and can, if we are willing to let them, lend those eyes to us.

We have two cats, and Adam loves those cats. Of course, the cats don't know or respect this, because they've actually met the boy. Worse, they've seen what he does to the dog, and they'll be damned (perhaps literally, eternally damned - hell hath no fury like a toddler's affection) before they let that happen to them. Adam, you see, like any child his age, has no concept of "gentle," no notion of finesse.

When Adam loves something, and desperately wants to communicate that love, he pulls its hair, yanks its tail, twists its ear, smacks its nose, or even chews on its face. No amount of parental chastising can solve this. He simply, motivated by pure, wholesome love and affection, torments our animals.

Cats are first and foremost survivors. They know the art of self preservation. Fortunately for Adam (and the cats) their "fight-or-flight" reflex is stuck on "flight." Whenever they sense him near they disappear. This morning I had the fantastic opportunity to see this event from Adam's perspective.

The cats love sunning themselves on our bed. If they could they would spend their whole lives sprawled out on the comforter basking in the warm rays of sunlight. In fact, cats may have invented the tanning bed (but that's a myth for another time). Alas, they live in the house with a maniacal one-year-old, so no such luck.

This morning the cats were in their usual positions on the bed, when Adam waddled into the room. He's learned how to climb, which is very exciting. He'll climb on anything. The other day I saw him in the living room with his feel on the base of the windows, his hands clutching their top, his teeth gripping the middle, holding on while testing his anti-gravity devise, trying to climb even higher. How he got their I'll never know, but I'll also never leave him alone near a stair case and a window.

Given his climbing prowess, no bed can stand between him and the furry objects of his affection. He grabbed a handful of the comforter and proceeded to climb Mt. Momma-and-Daddy's-bed. While Adam was focusing on the tough climb ahead, the cats, with an eye to their survival, frantically leaped out of the bed and scurried out of the room, unnoticed by the boy, who was fixated on his own task. When Adam finally made it onto the bed, he started looking for the cats.

His eyes darted from one corner of the bed to the other. They were just up here, his puzzled face seemed to say. Where could they have gone? In his world they had not simply jumped off the bed while he was not looking. They had vanished! Without a trace, as if by some sort of ancient magic, the cats, his cats, had dematerialized. Poof! They were gone, without some much as a cloud of dust left behind.

Watching Adam try to understand what had happened, the mythological wheels in my head were spinning. This must be where we get magical creatures!

We've all had experiences which defy rational explanation, and we've all invented stories to try to explain and give meaning to those experiences. This is the root of mythology. But how do we come up with the myths which we share? What experiences stay with us - on an unconscious level - demanding to be made into stories? And why do some of those stories resonate with such a wide variety of people?

Some of our most common myths, some of our most common stories, involve apparently normal animals endowed with some sort of mysterious magic. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Steven R. Donaldson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Lewis Carroll, Lloyd Alexander, George MacDonald and of course Madeleine L'Engle and J.K. Rawlings, all wrote stories involving magical animals. These stories captured our collective imaginations, drawing us into mystical, magical realms of wonder. They did so because they understood the inner child, the creature of wonder, the maker of myth, and in doing so reminded us that we were all once children, and - if the myths are true - shall all be children again.

It has been - for all of talk of myth and story - a very long time since I've just sat down with a good yarn and been swept away into a magical, fanciful place. Somehow, without my knowledge or consent, I became an adult, a creature of habit and a master of logic. But inside this adult there is a child, a product of myth and story. Nay, even a creator of myth and story!

My own child is drawing this child out of me. Perhaps we two children will, as soon as he emerges from his nap, tell each other a few magical stories involving disappearing/reappearing cats and the boy (or girl) who happened to cross one on just the wrong day and found himself all alone in a magical forest.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Anselm, Gaunilo, and God (after listening to the bishop on Super Bowl Sunday)

Every now and then I like to revisit my old philosophy papers. I'll find almost any excuse to do this. This week my excuse is a conversation that took place in the halls of my church. It's not every day that on the way out of the sanctuary, on the way to pick up your son from the nursery lest his banshee wail disturb the peace of the entire congregation, you hear someone toss around works like ontological and cosmological. I don't normally like to step into the conversations of others, but when they break out words like that, well, screaming child or no screaming child, all bets are off.

It turns out that a new friend of mine was waxing poetic on the various merits and demerits of medieval "proofs" for the existence of God. He didn't like Aquinas' cosmological arguments because they seemed to him too much like weak analogies.

Of course, weak analogies don't seem to bother too many people in the profession of religion, which is perhaps another reason why I recaptured my amateur status. For instance (and I know this is a serious digression, but its my blog, isn't it?) our bishop visited our church this week, and gave an inspiring pep talk, I mean sermon, titled "The Best is Yet to Come." It was firery (in a good way - in the sense that it displayed an inner fire and a passion rather than in the sense that he threatened us with fire) and inspiring. Uplifting, even. But it was also a nearly unending string of fallacies strung together with appeals to emotion rather than reason.

The bishop's favorite fallacy: weak analogy, followed closely by false cause. It was not faith alone, for instance, that caused Rudy to "play" football at Notre Dame, nor was it simple, unwavering belief that landed America on the moon first. And, incidentally, faith in God is not sufficiently like playing football at Notre Dame or taking a trip to the moon.

But the bishop did his job, which is why his job is not my job. He roused a congregation which has been dormant too long, with his (fallacious?) emotional appeals. We're now properly motivated for the work that lies ahead of us.

But, enough picking on the bishop, especially since this is supposed to be a brief introduction to a paper on the ontological argument of Anselm of Canterbury (1033 - 1109 CE). My friend - who pointed out the weak analogies of Thomas Aquinas, but not bishop James King - much preferred Anselm's "proof" for the existence of God. This reminded me that in another life I gave a much celebrated treatment of that argument. So, because my new church buddy reminded me of who I used to be, here's a paper I wrote on the ontological argument (though Paul Tillich argues that it isn't a properly ontological argument, a point which will have to wait for another time or die a slow painful death due to a total lack of reader interest), called Anselm, Gaunilo, and God:

Maintaining a belief in God, or a god, is often quite difficult because God is not the sort if being that can be directly experienced. You can't see God, or directly perceive God with any of your senses. If God sends messages they are not unambiguous. Anyone who, upon committing an act claims that God told them to do it is fishing for an insanity plea. If there is a God - and, of course, I believe that there is - God is a being categorically different than the rest of creation.

This creates problems not just in the realm of belief, faith and religion, but also for philosophers trying to prove the existence of God, or trying to explain any attributes of God. In his Proslogion, just before his famous "proof" for the existence of God, Anselm of Canterbury makes it clear that this is not lost on him. He asks of God, in the first chapter, "Lord, if You are not present here, where... shall I look for You?" and later, "...if You are everywhere why then... do I not see You?" He states clearly, "Never have I seen You, Lord my God. I do not know Your face." Each of these statements and questions admit the possibility of doubt, for Anselm has never directly encountered God. And yet each of these statements and questions are made to the God in whom Anselm clearly believes. Why? Anselm makes, at the end of chapter one, a cryptic statement which might answer this question, when he says "I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but believe so that I may understand." While Anselm sets out to "prove" the existence of God, his proof is possible only because he already believes in God. Faith, or revelation, informs all of Anselm's reason.

Anselm's famous "proof" begins in chapter two of his Proslogion. First he asks God to give "understanding to faith." He already believes in God, and is now simply asking for certainty. He wants to understand that God exists, and that God exists the way that he believes God exists. So he "wonders" without doubt whether it is possible that God does not exist, using the famous verse, "the Fool has said in his heart, there is no God."

To address this Fool who "says in his heart, there is no God" he gives a description of God as "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought," and argues that even the Fool can think of this, because he can hear these words and understand them. And so, since even the Fool can think of "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" this can exist in the mind even if not in reality.

He then says that "it is one thing for an object to exist in the mind, and another to understand that an object actually exists." He argues that it is "greater" for an object to exist in both the mind and reality than just in the mind, and so God must actually exist in reality, by definition. After all, God is "that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought," and since it is possible to think of God existing both in the mind and in reality, if God did not actually exist in reality then one could think of something greater than "that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought," which, he argues, is absurd. "Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists both in mind and in reality."

There are a number of ways in which this "proof" can be attacked, some of which were employed by Anselm's contemporary Gaunilo. But before we attack his argument, it must be admitted that this is an argument that has rightly been taken seriously for almost a thousand years, and ought to be around for many more years. It is simple and elegant. But it, like every other argument about God, is vulnerable for a number of reasons.

The first two points of vulnerability in this argument are unsupported assumptions by Anselm. The first is that God is "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought." While most descriptions of God may hold this statement to be true, this is not the way in which God is often described. Many people who speak of God might not recognize God by this description, which is certainly not a comprehensive definition of God. But this may be a trivial objection because the statement may be true of God, or concepts of God, anyway. Anselm might argue that even if God is not definitively "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" He is certainly described by that statement.

The second assumption is that it is greater to exist in both reality and the mind than just in the mind. I wish that Anselm included more arguments here. I'm not sure what he means by "greater." But this may also be a trivial objection because he is not arguing that it is greater to exist in reality than in the mind, but that it is greater to exist in both rather than just one. Generally we will grant that two is by definition "greater" than one.

Anselm's contemporary Gaunilo outlines other points of vulnerability in his famous objection to Anselm's "proof," A Reply to the Foregoing by a Certain Writer on Behalf of the Fool. Gaunilo points out that Anselm, in chapter four of his Proslogion distinguishes between two ways in which someone may think of a phrase: to understand the words themselves and to understand that which the words signify. He says that the Fool could hear and understand the words used to describe God without also understanding what those words signify. So the Fool would have the words "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" in mind without actually having "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" itself in mind, and so only the words, and not that which the words signify, would, to the Fool, exist in mind. And if "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" must exist in mind for it to be manifest that it exists in reality, then it is not demonstrated that it exists in reality.

But the most famous of Gaunilo's objections is the one commonly called the "Lost Island," in which Gaunilo attacks the way in which Anselm went from God existing in mind to God existing in both mind and reality. He says that someone can describe an island which is difficult if not impossible to find, on which there are "all manner of priceless riches and delights." It is, in fact, "superior everywhere in abundance of riches to all those other lands that men inhabit." So this lost island is the greatest island.

Now, having heard this lost island described, Gaunilo says that he can understand these words, and also that which the words signify. He says then that this lost island exists in his mind. And yet it is not demonstrated from this that the island exists also in reality, even though it is thought to be the greatest island, and even though "it is more excellent to exist not only in mind alone but also in reality." He says that if anyone tried to pursued him by these means that this island existed beyond all reality, "I should either think that he was joking, or I should find it hard to decide which of us I ought to judge the bigger fool - I, if I agreed with him, or he, if he thought that he had proved the existence of this island with any certainty."

I, though, am not sure that this analogy of Gaunilo's is as good one. After all, an island is a specific form of being, that is; island. But Anselm in his proof did not mention any specific form of being. He did not mention the greatest this or the greatest that, such as Gaunilo's greatest island, but rather, he mentioned "that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought," the greatest unspecified thing. And so while it is not manifest from definition that Gaunilo's lost island exists in reality, it still may be for Anselm's God.

It is not necessary for the greatest ideal island to exist in reality, though it is necessary for the greatest actual island to exist in reality. An island may be thought to be the greatest island and yet still not exist. It would then not be the greatest island. This, though, does not carry over to Anselm's "that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought." His definition is much tighter than Gaunilo's definition of the lost island. It is still true from his definition that if "that-than-which-nothing-greater-could-be-thought" did not exist, and yet could be thought to exist; there would be an absurd contradiction because you could think of something greater than "that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought." Gaunilo has employed a weak, but very interesting analogy.

Still, Gaunilo, in forcing us to look more closely at Anselm's argument, has pointed out a few more potential problems. To defend Anselm from Gaunilo's analogy we had to say that his concept of God is as an "unspecified" greatest thing, distinct from Gaunilo's greatest island, a specified thing. That Anselm's God is unspecified means in part that it is impossible to give this God any attributes. Sure we can from Anselm's "proof" know that something exists than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought, a "greatest" thing, but what else can we know of this greatest thing? On what grounds can we call this greatest thing "God"? And, even if we can call this thing "God," what else can we know about this God? Has Anselm's proof really helped us to know that there is a God? Has it really helped us know anything about God, if there really is such a being?

These are questions Anselm must address in his reply to Gaunilo, A Reply to the Foregoing by the Author of the Book in Question. But before he address ways in which to ascribe attributes to God, he must deal with some of Gaunilo's objections to the way in which he attempted to "prove" the existence of God. First he claims that he is not replying to the Fool, but to "one who, while speaking on the Fool's behalf, is an orthodox Christian." While this at first seems to be just a witty stab, it turns out to be crucial to his argument. Gaunilo claimed that it was possible that, for the Fool, God does not even exist in mind. While Anselm will not necessarily grant him this he does not belabor the point, because he knows that, in responding to a Christian, he is responding to one for whom God does in fact exist in mind. And so, even if God does not exist in the mind of the Fool, that God exists in the mind of anyone is sufficient, Anselm thinks, to prove the existence of God. He then employs the same proof by definition of God as that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought.

He also claims, revisiting another argument from his Proslogion, that God's existence, by this definition, is so certain that God cannot even be properly thought not to exist. He says that when someone tries to think of God as not existing, "either he thinks of something than which a greater cannot be thought, or he does not think of it." If the doubter does not think of "something than which a greater cannot be thought," that person does not think of God, and so, in not thinking of God, cannot "think that what he does not think of (God) does not exist." But if the doubter thinks of "something than which a greater cannot be thought," then that person can also think of Anselm's argument. Then they would know that God, by that definition, must exist, or else "something than which a greater cannot be thought" would not be "something than which a greater cannot be thought." So it is impossible to think of "something than which a greater cannot be thought" as not existing, because if it did not exist it would not be "something than which a greater cannot be thought," and so in thinking that it could not exist you would not be thinking of it.

This may seem like hair-splitting, but it is essential to Anselm's argument that attributes can, from this definition of God, be ascribed to God. And some other attributes must be ascribed to God in order for this definition of God to be recognizable as God. From this argument, that God cannot be thought of as not existing, he argues that God is present in all times and all places. If God could be thought of as not existing in a certain place then God could be thought of as not existing, even if only in that place, which, by his definition of God, would be impossible. Likewise, if God could be thought of as not existing in a particular time then God could be thought of as not existing, even if only in that time, which, by his definition of God, would be impossible.

He then introduces a mechanism by which other attributes of God might also be smuggled in. He says that "since everything that is less good is similar in so far as it is good to that which is more good, it is evident to every rational mind that, mounting from the less good to the more good we can from those things than which something greater can be thought conjecture a great deal about that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought." So, by understanding what is good on the earth, though it is "less good," we can, in so far as that which is "less good" participates in the goodness of the God who is "most good," understand at least a little of the goodness of God.

I'm not sure, though, how far this kind of argument will take us in discovering attributes of God. Many theologians after Anselm are prone to point out that while God is good; the goodness of God seems categorically different than the goodness of man, or any other object creation. This is, of course, because God is categorically different than any other object in creation. Thomas Aquinas, after all, makes God a species to Himself. So while it may be possible to conjecture about "more good" from "less good" in that both are "good," I don't know that from this it is possible to know anything for sure about what is "most good," since the goodness of the "most good" is categorically different than the goodness of lesser goods.

So what are we to make of Anselm's famous "proof"? Does it work? Does he demonstrate the existence of a God who is recognizable as God? I'm not sure that he does. There are still some interesting issues that need to be worked out, the inability to ascribe attributes to God by his definition notwithstanding.

The first issue is his notion of God existing in mind. It is an interesting statement, to say that that which is thought of exists in the mind. Yet this is essential to his proof. He argues that "just as what is thought is thought by means of thought, and what is thought by a thought is thus, as thought, in thought, so also, what is understood by the mind is thus, as understood, in the mind." Yet a literal reading of this argument would have to say that to understand a brick, or a rock, or an elephant, that would somehow mean that I have a brick, or a rock, or an elephant in my mind, which is a truly odd thing to claim. This raises questions of what exactly is mind, and what does it mean to have something in mind, which Anselm does not address. Without clear concepts of mind, and of what it means for something to exist in mind, it is difficult to claim that God does in fact exist in mind, even though God can be thought of. Surely to claim that God exists in mind is not to claim that the substance of God is literally in my mind any more than to think of a brick means that the substance of that brick is in my mind. This is an issue that I wish Anselm would have clarified.

Another important issue with Anselm's argument is raised in this question: if Anselm shows that something than which a greater cannot be thought (God) exists in mind, and therefore, by definition, in reality, does he show that there needs to be only one such being? While Anselm believes in a monotheistic God, does he, by his proof of God, prove that the God of his proof is monotheistic? In the specific language of his proof, unfortunately, no, he does not. God as that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought is not that-than-which-nothing-equal-can-be-thought, and while that may on the surface seem to be a trivial claim, it might actually be crucial. For God's existence to be proven by Anselm's argument, God must be recognizable by Anselm's definition. Anselm's argument is solid enough - except for the bit about in mind, which may be trivial - to prove whatever is described by his famous phrase. But is God described by that phrase? A monotheistic God is not, because there is room, in his phrase, for more than one such God. A Christian God may not be either, because, as seen earlier, it is difficult, if not impossible, to ascribe any specific attributes to God as described by Anselm's phrase.

Is it possible to clean up this definition of God so that God may be recognizable by this definition? Yes, I suppose it could be possible, but to do so will take a greater mind than me.

Addendum (added Feb 7, 2006, at 9:45am): In my paper I argued that Anselm's argument was, with a few conditions added, "strong enough" to prove that there is a greatest existing thing. I no longer can stand by that statement, as it - along with Anselm's argument - assumes that creation can be divided into a kind of hierarchy of goods. That mode of thinking has led to a great deal of harm, as that which, by its own nature, has been deemed "less good" within the natural environment has been subject to destruction by the "more good" humans.

There is no reason other than moral arrogance to assume that something are by nature "more good" than others. This kind of claim is also incompatible with Darwinian evolution, which turns the medieval notion of a created gradation of goodness on its head. Evolutionarily speaking, if one can say that one form of existence is "greater" than another, it is quit possible that the "least" by human standards (insects) are by evolutionary (and therefore divine, if in fact evolution by natural selection is the means by which the universe has been brought into its present transitory state of being) standards are actually the "greatest." This is because, in terms both of raw numbers and variety insects are the most numerous (by far) form of life on our planet.

The old adage that if we destroy our planet in a nuclear holocaust the only thing that will survive are the cockroaches speaks to the relative "greatness" of insects.

As such it is absurd to think that we can divide the natural realm into grades or degrees of relative greatness, and then make assumptions about the nature of God based on those artificial distinctions.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Everything's a Game

This morning (and well into this afternoon!) I took the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test). After roughly five hours of having my thought processes poked, prodded and probed by questions designed to trick me into looking even dumber than I really am, I echoed the words of Apollo Creed as he was being wheeled into the hospital after narrowly beating the Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa, "There will be no rematch." The last time I said that I was in the hospital, and my wife had just given birth to our as of yet only child.

I'm sure I did just fine on the test. Of course since I used to think I was a genius I was hoping for a perfect score. Now I just hope I passed. But I always do well on tests, so I'm sure I did just fine. At least that's what I keep telling myself. But honestly, even though I should be sure I did just fine, I'm not. I'm irrationally scared of failure. I always do just fine, but I also always think that I've failed miserably and have to pursue yet another career option.

This evening at dinner I turned to my wife and asked, "Do you think I should have a back up plan just in case I don't make it into law school?" What could she say to that? If she says "Yes, I think that would be wise" then she doesn't have enough faith in me. But if she says "No, I'm sure you did just fine, and will have no trouble getting in" then she isn't taking my concern seriously. Worse, if she doesn't say either one or the other (or some sort of variation on one of those two) then she's patronizing me.

Being married to a chronic self-doubter is a lot like being married to the sort of woman who would ask "Do I look fat in these?" and honestly expect an answer. I don't remember how Sami answered my dishonest question, but I suspect that she either floated both answers to see how I'd take each of them, or she tried to skate between them without committing. She's as artful at evading traps as I am at setting them. Just another example of how we've turned traditional gender roles on their head.

But I didn't sit down to write this just to tell you about my self-doubt or how my wife handles it. I sat down here to write because at dinner tonight, crippled by irrational fears and insecurities, I realized once again how Oscar Wilde's (at least I think it was Oscar Wilde - I've always thought that memorizing famous quotes was a sort of useless parlor trick used by insecure pseudo-intellectuals to try to distract you from the fact that they are incapable of critical thinking) adage "the child is the father of the man" is so true. Or, to put it another way, while I think that I am teaching my son something, he's actually teaching me. And what is he teaching me? Wisdom.

Tonight at dinner I thought once again about what I want to do with the rest of my life. I was so serious. Of course I can't - like the John Cusack character in Cameron Crowe's Say Anything - buy, sell or process anything. So that rules out most careers. As you know, I used to be a minister, and I don't want to go into why I'm not doing that anymore. I'm not sure that even I fully understand everything that went down and why.

When I was a minister I really wanted to be a philosophy or theology professor. But as my friends in academia know all too well, there's no money in that. And when I say "no money" I don't mean that you'll never get rich doing it. That goes without saying. You don't dedicate your life to the education and enlightenment of yourself and anyone who happens to cross your path because you're the sort of person who needs three German sportscars and the garage space in you mansion to put them in to be truly happy. No, when I say "no money" in this case I mean, almost literally no money. The best academics I know in my would-be-field are chronically underemployed, with little to no benefits or job security. It is almost scandalous the way our consumer driven society treats the people who are collectively responsible for our enlightenment and/or mental health. I fully believe that professors of philosophy and religion are, much like poets, very much responsible for our emotional and spiritual well being. But they can't even find work, despite devoting their entire lives to their extraordinarily valuable field.

No, I've got a family. I can't enter into a field competing with sometimes literally a thousand applicants for a single job, some of whom are among the brightest minds in the country. That's not the kind of prospective employment I need.

But when your aspiration is to be a kind of secular minister in a marketplace that values only the kind of consumption that I've lambasted so much at this site that it's getting almost boring, there just aren't a lot of career prospects. So I decided to be a lawyer. And, as I said, this morning I took the LSAT, and now because of my chronic self-doubt I'm once again questioning my choice of vocation.

Woe is me, right? That's what I'd like to think. Sadly enough, that's what works for me. I've never been able to figure our why or how, but I'm not happy unless I have some sort of existential crisis to complain about.

Enter Adam. At dinner he was his usual delightful self. In other words, he played with everything. Every object that crosses his path is at least potentially a toy. Every activity in which he is engaged is, at that moment, a game. Picking up your bottle, sloshing it around to see what strange noises it makes, hitting it against the tray of your high chair and giggling, looking at your parents to see if they are as delighted at these strange sights and sounds as your are, is evidently the most fun that any living creature can have. Snatching your father's glass of water and - trying to imitate the way that he drinks - dumping its contents down the front of your shirt, is delirious fun.

In fact, some of Adam's favorite games are mundane activities. He loves going into the kitchen, grabbing a spoon and a bowl, and pretending to eat air. He does this every day. And every day when he does this he looks up at me and smiles, as though I should know that the world's greatest game is pretend eating. He also loves crawling up to me while I am lying on the couch reading. He grabs my glasses, places them on his face, grabs my book and starts turning the pages. This is great fun.

Watching Adam play with his dinner reminded me that when I was a kid everything used to be a game, too. There was almost no distinction between work and play. If my Mom made me sweep the back deck, for instance, while I swept I would be Wayne Gretsky, scoring goal after goal. Each movement of the broom was really some variation on a slap shot, as I fired puck after puck, leaf after leaf, past an imaginary goalie.

When did work stop being play? When did adult life get so serious? When did I grow up, and why didn't I notice sooner?

I'm pretty sure that I'll have no trouble getting into law school. My grades are outstanding, my references are good, I've won a bunch of academic awards and I'm sure that my writing sample (built around lawyer jokes, oddly enough) will stand out from the crowd of applicants. I'm also pretty sure that my LSAT score will be above average, even though it surely isn't the perfect score I was gunning for. I've got nothing to worry about on that front, even though I almost constantly worry.

But even if I get into and out of law school, that won't solve my fundamental problem. See, my fundamental problem is that I need a career. I need to do something other than what I'm doing, as if doing something will make me happy. But, as the old adage goes, "Wherever you go, there you are." You can't escape yourself. I can't escape myself. Whatever I do, whatever I call myself, be it "reverend" or "professor," "stay-at-home Dad" or "freelance writer," "published author of a best seller" or "attorney," I'll still be me.

For Adam everything is a game. That works for him. It might work for me, too.