it seems to me...
reflections on life as I see it
Monday, January 29, 2007
Friday, January 26, 2007
Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, is not impressed with religious moderates. The problem, he alleges, is that moderates don't really believe, but just use God-talk to keep from rocking the boat:
Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word "God" as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred.
There probably do exist people who fit Harris's description, who value tolerance above all else, but they cannot accurately be called moderates. To elevate tolerance to the point that "right" and "wrong" no longer have meaning is just as extreme as the forceful intolerance of a Fred Phelps or a Jerry Falwell. If tolerance means that we can't make moral judgments at all, then we've lost all sense of balance whatsoever. Moderation, if anything, is about balance. Genuine moderation means avoiding both extremes of absolute certainty and absolute relativism.
Harris's real problem is that religious moderates don't fit into his simplistic view of human nature. He is more interested in bending reality to match his theory than in honestly seeking to understand people who are different from him. Harris bases his disdain for moderates on no less than five false assumptions.
I've already mentioned the first: He confuses "moderate" with "relativist".
Harris's second mistake is to confuse faith with gut-level certainty. Harris would prefer that religious people base their faith on their instincts. He has no use for an honest, soul-searching quest to discover God's will. He wants us all either to know -- without doubt or question -- that what we believe is true, or to dismiss the very idea of God as irrational.
In other words, by Harris's reasoning, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it," is sincere, and, "Now we see in a mirror dimly," is not. But which of these phrases can actually be found in the Bible? Harris can't have it both ways. He can't expect religious people to put their whole trust in a holy book, then ignore the nuances found in that book.
Harris's third mistake is to fail to recognize the limits of reason in making sense of the world. He would like to force every statement through the filter of cold, hard logic. You think God exists? You'll need to propose a battery of tests that we can do to eliminate any competing hypotheses.
The problem is that there are a lot of things in life that are outside the scope of logical inquiry. Consider the arts, for instance. What makes a poem work? Can we subject each line to a battery of tests to determine its veracity?
Consider the chambered nautilus.
When Richard Dawkins looks at a chambered nautilus, he observes that its eye has no lens. It's just a concave collection of light receptors. Nonetheless, it is better than no eye at all. Evolutionary biologists believe the existence of an animal with a lensless eye to be important evidence of the evolution of the eye.
When Oliver Wendell Holmes looked at a chambered nautilus, he saw a stately mansion, a source of inspiration, challenging us to aspire to greatness. Holmes, viewing the nautilus through a poetic filter, saw things a biologist might miss.
Faith, too, is a different filter for viewing the world. Faith does not follow the same rules as logic. Nor does it follow the rules of poetry, although faith can be expressed either in poetic or in logical terms.
Following from this error, Harris makes his fourth mistake, that of not recognizing that people often view the world through multiple filters simultaneously. That's why, for example, a religious moderate might have no problems with the theory of evolution, but at the same time still believe that God created everything. It is not necessary that science be wrong for faith to be right.
Finally, Harris is glibly myopic in comparing the relative progress in religion and science through the centuries:
Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is flat, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach.
First, to say that the 14th century Christian's religious ideas would be beyond reproach today is laughable. The Protestant Reformation brought into question nearly every teaching of the Catholic Church, and gave us a multitude of religious traditions in return. Few if any doctrines remain that are not disputed by one group or another.
Second, Harris cherry picks areas where scientific knowledge was lacking in the 14th century. In other areas, that 14th century Christian might still be considered well educated. The structure of logical syllogisms, for example, has remained unchanged since Aristotle wrote about them. The rules of Euclidean geometry, too, have been known since ancient times. And while it's true that Euclidean geometry is no longer considered an accurate representation of the universe, a person who understands its theorems and its rules for proof is no ignoramus.
But we can go even further. Let's look at one example of a well-educated Christian of the 14th century: William of Ockham. It so happens that Ockham is important to the history of both science and religion. He is most famous today for the rule known as Ockham's Razor: "Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity." In other words, given two equally descriptive explanations for a phenomenon, the simpler one is probably better. It is important to note that Ockham did not invent this idea, but he demonstrated its usefulness by applying it liberally.
The salient point of all this is that Ockham's razor has become one of the foundational axioms of the modern scientific method. How on earth can Sam Harris call Ockham a total ignramus?
In terms of theology, Ockham frequently clashed with the church. Some of his ideas anticipated Protestantism: his insistence, for example, that faith alone could reveal to us the nature of God. As a result of this fideism, Ockham further insisted that all logical proofs for God's existence were necessarily flawed. Ockham was not afraid to challenge even Thomas Aquinas's cosmological argument for the existence of God.
Ockham himself had his critics, and was brought before a papal court to explain himself.
So, though Sam Harris alleges that a well-educated 14th century Christian's theology is "beyond reproach" even today, the facts show that any theology -- whether the Pope's, Aquinas's, or Ockham's -- was not immune from scrutiny even in the 14th century. Since then, the Protestant reformation has led to an even greater theological diversity among Christians. Harris's allegation that religious doctrine can never be questioned is, quite simply, wrong.
Sam Harris tries to make the case against all religion, but in order to do so, he must rely on several dubious assumptions, and a few assumptions that are simply false. In the end, Harris has proved only that he does not understand the basics of religion.
Friday, January 19, 2007
Are we nearing the end of the world? A lot of people think so. According to a recent poll by the Associated Press and AOL News, 1/4 of all Americans expect the return of Jesus in 2007.
The Rapture Index attempts to estimate, based on current events, the likelihood of true Christians being taken away soon. In addition to floods, earthquakes, and crime, some of the warning signs are ecuminism, liberalism, the peace process, and civil rights.
I am completely mystified as to why so many people could be so devoted to such a blatantly heretical doctrine as the rapture. Is there something about this gruesome theology that actually appeals to people? Or are they just unaware that this is not the historical teaching of Christianity?
Can someone explain it to me?
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Sometimes the best way to explain things is through narrative. Jesus understood this, so he taught in parables.
In my post last week I suggested that the same Bible passage may have several possible interpretations. Shortly after writing it I found this post containing two parables that illustrates what I was trying to say.
So the Rabbi, in exasperation, said, ‘OK, answer me this. Two men go down a chimney. At the bottom one of the men has a face covered in soot. Which man turns to wash his face?’
Immediately the young man replied, ‘Why the man with the dirty face.’
At this the Rabbi began to turn around saying, ‘No, no the man with the clean face washed for he saw that his friend had a dirty face and so thought that he must also by covered in dirt and thus washed.’
‘Please, test me again,’ replied the young man.
‘OK’ said the Rabbi, ‘Two men go down a chimney, at the bottom one of the men has a face covered in soot. Which man turns to wash his face?’
The young man is confused but replies, ‘Why, the man with the clean face.’
But the Rabbi simply roles his eyes and says ‘No, no. It is the man with the dirty face. He sees the reaction of his friend and realises that he must be covered in soot.’
‘Please test me once more’ replied the young man ‘for now I know.’
Once more the Rabbi said ‘Two men go down a chimney, at the bottom one of the men has a face covered in soot, which man turns to wash his face.’
‘The answer I said first, but for a different reason’ said the young man.
‘No’ replied the rabbi, ‘ they both washed their face, for how could either of them think that they could have descended a chimney without getting dirty. Now go home and come back when you understand.’
The other parable is good, too.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Mark Driscoll is at it again. The controversial pastor, who caused quite a stir last fall when he alleged that all mainline Christians are liberal homosexual pagan potheads, has recently sparked discussion in the blogosphere over his theological reasons for switching to the ESV translation of the Bible. Several people have already responded to Driscoll's statement, but I want to touch on a point that I haven't seen anyone mention yet.
In point #3, Driscoll says, "Words carry meaning." Unfortunately, he has forgotten about the Bible verse that says, "A picture is worth a thousand words." (I don't recall the exact scripture reference for that one, but I'm pretty sure it's somewhere between "Cleanliness is next to Godliness," and "God helps those who help themselves."
Anyway, my point is that a Bible translation with lots of pictures is therefore better than one without. And the ESV, whatever its strengths, falls woefully short in the area of color pictures.
In fact, most available translations are inadequate in this area. I haven't had a Bible with color pictures since the Children's Living Bible I received when I was five. The only modern translation that even comes close is the Good News Bible from the 1970s, which has some really cool line drawings. But the sad truth is that most modern translations omit the Lego photographs that God placed in the original text. That's why the best modern translation, hands down, is the Brick Testament.
Perhaps an example would help explain why this is so important. Driscoll laments in point #4 the absence in some modern translations of certain theological terms. But honestly, now, which drives home the point better: The terms "justification" and "propitiation" (I'm not sure that last one is even a real word), or this Lego image of Jesus crying out in anguish from the cross?
Granted, the Brick Testament is not even a complete Bible. But because every picture is worth a thousand words (I'm going to find that reference soon), when you add everything up, it leaves out a lot less than most of the modern translations.
And while I'm on the subject, take a look at these three photos. Do you see anything strange? They've taken the cross out of crossing!! Does this politically correct hyper-secularization of our society have no limits?
Whew. I feel a lot better now that I've gotten that off my chest.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
In my previous post I said that my first principle of biblical interpretation is to ask the question, "God, what are you trying to tell me through these scriptures?" Some might object that my approach is too subjective.
There are risks in approaching the Bible subjectively, I'll grant. It can be easy to read it not in terms of what does God want me to learn, but rather what do I think the passage means, or even what do I want it to mean?
On the other hand, there are dangers in trying to read the Bible objectively. We can easily separate ourselves from the text, relegating it to the long-ago past, or we can treat it as nothing more than the foundation of a systematic theology. These approaches can prevent us from really wrestling with the scriptures, making them personal.
And ultimately, that's what the word "subjective" means: personal.
But at the same time, a healthy approach to scripture must be more than personal. The Bible wasn't written just to me, and I'm not the only one who has wrestled with the texts. The community of Christians might be helpful to understanding scripture.
So, in addition to my first question, I'll add three more questions:
1. What did this passage mean to the original hearers?
2. What has this meant to Christians through the centuries?
Both scholarship and tradition can help answer these questions. Personally, I think scholarship is a little better than tradition at answering them, but that may be due to my modern biases. If I've learned anything reading from Christian tradition, I've learned that the questions we ask today are not always the same questions that have been asked through history. Likewise, the hot-button issues of today have not historically been matters of importance to Christian faith.
3. What does this mean to other Christians today?
For this one, we can get answers from church, Bible studies, devotionals, books, conversations, or even blogs. Perhaps this question is less useful than the first two, because it is easy to let the spirit of our age affect the way we think, and today's church is carrying a lot of cultural baggage. Sometimes to hear God's voice we must step away from the insulated world of today's church. Still, none of us can grow in our faith without being part of a faith community. We were not created to live in isolation (except for a few rare individuals.)
Looking at the scripture's meaning in these three ways, we're likely to get a range of ideas. These can form a starting point in understanding what God is trying to tell us. But understanding the meaning is only half the battle. The Bible is useless if it can't be applied today.
So, I'll add three more questions relating to application:
4. How does this apply to the world today?
5. How does this apply to the church today?
6. How does this apply to my own life today?
Maybe a particular passage does not have an answer for one or more of these questions. Or maybe the answer is just hard to find. Then maybe that's not the lesson for today. Maybe God is trying to tell us something else first.
Finally, because the Bible is a book about God, the last question is:
7. What does this passage tell me about God?
It's possible, using these questions as a starting point, to learn something different each time we read the same passage. And that's when it begins to come alive.
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Saturday, January 06, 2007
Harvey Bluedorn has laid out a set of general principles for the interpretation of scripture at the Trivium Pursuit blog. (Hat tip to Henry Neufeld of Participatory Bible Studies blog.)
I can't say I agree with these principles, or the stated goal behind them:
If there is such a thing as truth, and if it is important to know the truth, and if the Scriptures are the truth, then it is important to know and understand what the Scriptures mean.
If we all chose our own private way and took anything to mean whatever we desired it to mean, then how often would we agree? And why would we agree? We would agree about as often as we happened to have the same desire.
But if we all understood and followed the truth, how often would we disagree? And why would we disagree? We would disagree about as often as we failed to understand and follow the truth.
The bottom line is, if we all agreed to follow the truth of Scriptures, then the differences among us would be due to our ignorance or misunderstanding of the meaning of Scripture. So ultimately, our unity depends upon our having the same principles of interpretation.
If we all applied the same principles (these or any others), we might all reach an agreement about the meaning of the text, but truth does not always follow consensus. We might all agree, yet still be wrong.
Beyond that, the purpose of the Christian community is not intellectual agreement. Jesus did not say, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you get all the facts right." No, he said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
He drove home this point with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans had their theology all wrong. Theirs was a strange mix of Judaism and paganism. But in his parable Jesus made the point that the more important thing was showing mercy to someone in need.
That's not to say that Scripture reading is not important. In fact, my wife has observed that whenever I get out of the habit of spending time with God, I become less loving. And one of the ways to spend time with God is by reading the Bible.
But if I'm reading it with no higher goal than to confirm whatever I already think, then I'm not really spending time with God. To get anything out of Scripture, we must be prepared to be challenged. Harvey Bluedorn is perfectly right in rejecting any type of Bible study that merely conforms to our own wishes or desires.
On the other hand, if we are all part of the body of Christ, and each part has its own function, and the parts must function together to keep the body healthy, then it might make sense for God to give us each different lessons as we read the Scriptures. Maybe our disagreements are the result of our taking the lessons God has for each of us, and trying to apply them to others. Maybe, though, God has other lessons for them.
All this is a long way of introducing my first principle of biblical interpretation: "God, what are you trying to tell me through these scriptures?"
I have more to say, but it's late. I'll continue in my next post.
Monday, January 01, 2007
The Kingdom of God is like a preschooler with eight chicken nuggets. If one of them falls to the floor, will he not leave the seven on his tray, and crawl under the table to get the one? And once it is found, he will proclaim it cleansed from all impurities, and no one will be able to snatch it from his hands.