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Thursday, September 28, 2006

theological engineering exam

4 Questions, 60 Minutes.

You may use a calculator, the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and the Book of Mormon. The speed of light is c. Show all work. For all problems, assume a perfectly spherical Jesus of constant density D. No praying during the exam.

1. (20 pts.) Bob and Joe are standing on a street corner. God loves each an equal amount of L_O. Bob then accelerates to .9c. In Joe's rest frame, how much does God now love Bob?

2. (20 pts.) Let the eternal, all abiding love of the Holy Spirit be the xy plane. Let Sue's soul be at (0,0,5) at t=0 sec., traveling at 5 m/s in the direction of the positive z axis. Everything is in Cartesian coordinates bespeaking subscription to a perfectly rational Enlightenment attitude towards the Universe. At what time t will Sue be saved? (Hint: Assume a point soul.)

3. (20 pts.) Assume the Rapture occurs at time t. Cornelia, a saved human weighing 90 kg, in a state of grace, has her head in the closing jaws of an alligator at time t. What mass of meat will remain to the alligator at time t+10 sec.?

4. Stan is a frictionless, massless Mormon in a rest state. His sin level for his faith is currently 11 McBeals. He eats .3 kg of pork, and enjoys it very much. Assume that the Jews are right about, well, pretty much everything.
A. (10 pts.) What is Stan's sin level now?
B. (10 pts.) Stan is one of them Salt Lake City Mormons. He ain't so smug now, is he?

Extra Credit (10 pts): 25 grams of wafers and 20 ml of cheap wine undergo transubstantiation and become the flesh and blood of our Lord. How many Joules of heat are released by the transformation?

Hand in exam when done, and may God have mercy on your work.

Hat tip: John the Methodist


Sunday, September 24, 2006

solving the homeless problem

Here in Wichita, homelessness is increasingly in the news. One of the reasons for the increased coverage has been the efforts of Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness (AECH). If I've learned anything from my involvement with AECH, it's the importance of getting the word out.

There are a number of agencies in town that help homeless people, and through their combined efforts they provide beds for as many as 350 people each night. For those who can't get into the permanent shelters, the City of Wichita has relied on temporary shelters during adverse weather and left homeless people to their own devices the rest of the year.

This year has been no different, except that the public is being made aware of the problem. A week does not go by without an article in the newspaper or a segment on the local TV news, relating to problems faced by homeless people.

Homelessness has now become an issue, and as elections draw near, city officials want to be perceived as taking action. They have appointed a task force to study the problems of homelessness.

Now, the task force may determine that what is needed is exactly what AECH is trying to create: A 24/7 resource center with support services, where all homeless people are welcome. On the other hand, the task force may have other ideas: Some Wichitans think the solution is to lock all homeless people in jail, confiscate their few possessions, and do everything possible to encourage them to leave town. Between these two extremes are many options of compromise, none of which would be compatible with AECH's goals.

Therein lies the danger for faith-based groups seeking help from secular powers: If we can get governmental backing for our efforts, we would have a much easier time accomplishing our goals; if, on the other hand, the task force has a different vision, we're on our own but with the added perception that we are in opposition to official efforts to solve the problem. Worse yet would be if the task force agreed with our goals initially, but later redefined them and ended up with something not recognizable as a 24/7 everyone welcome resource center with support services.

The truth is, solving the problem means something different from a secular perspective than it does from a faith-based perspective. I've known this intellectually, but now I'm seeing the tension between church and state on a personal level.

Ultimately, AECH must be committed to turning our vision into reality with or without civic support. Chances are, if we really want the vision to become reality, we'll have to proceed on our own. If the city decides to support us, it will. But we need to be prepared if the city chooses to go a different direction.


Monday, September 18, 2006

growing in christ

There's quite a discussion going on in the Methodist blogosphere.

It all started nearly a month ago when fundamentalist megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll posted a rant about his perception of the mainline churches. In short, Driscoll thinks all mainline Christians are liberal pagan potheads who deny the deity of Christ, and even go so far as to (gasp!) ordain women to the ministry.

The discussion began when Beth Quick posted her thoughts about Driscoll's assumption that church success should be measured in terms of church growth. Jason Woolever objected to Driscoll's stereotyping of the mainline.

John Battern weighed in with his own assessment of Driscoll's post. Then John the Methodist added his thoughts about the decline of the mainline and the role of bad theology in that decline.

Then Joel at connexions offered a definition of liberal theology, so people on both sides of the discussion can use the same terms. PamBG added her voice, noting that it is possible to be "liberal in process and orthodox in doctrine."

But I want to touch on Beth Quick's original point: The church's success cannot be measured solely by the numbers. There's a danger in the 21st century USA to measure church by our culture's secular standards. Those standards, which include growth at any cost, are no doubt one of the factors that have led to the rise of the megachurches. But is this a biblical measure of success?

To be sure, we see in the beginning of Acts the nascent church of 120 adding 3000 members at Pentecost. But after that, what do we know about the church's growth? Certainly Acts describes a church that continues to grow as new congregations are added throughout the known world. But exact numbers aren't given again.

Paul's letters -- and the other NT letters, for that matter -- have a lot of advice for churches on resolving problems within the congregation, on settling doctrinal disputes, on Christology, on pastoral matters. But do they give a prescription for church growth?

Perhaps the size of the church should be considered less important than the commitment of church members. What if our churches did everything they could to get every member involved in ministry? It seems to me that if every church member were encouraged to put his or her spiritual gifts into practice, we'd be a lot closer to fulfulling Jesus's vision of the Kingdom of God on earth. As a byproduct, we'd probably see church growth, too.

But if numbers are the most important measure, the church will face the temptation to cut corners, water down the teachings, and ignore spiritual growth. Increased discipleship is not a natural byproduct of large congregations.

There's a story about an old abbey that had once had a thriving monastic community but had now been reduced to five monks. The abbot, seeking guidance, went to a rabbi to ask for advice. The rabbi didn't have any advice except for one cryptic sentence: "One of you is the Messiah." The five monks each pondered what this could mean, wondering which of them was the Messiah. Each faced the possibility that he himself might be the one. Without knowing which one the rabbi meant, the monks began giving each other extra respect. And as visitors came to the abbey, they saw the change in the community. Slowly, younger members began to join and the abbey was once again a thriving community.

Isn't that what the church ought to be?


Saturday, September 09, 2006

atheist apologetics

In the comments to my last post, Albert left a link to a 1932 essay by William Floyd, titled Mistakes of Jesus. Even though I've previously stated that I'm not even convinced by Christian apologetics, Albert apparently thinks I can be swayed by atheist apologetics. But if Floyd's essay is representative -- and from what I've seen previously, it appears to be -- the atheists aren't producing convincing apologists.

Rather than attempt a point-by-point assessment of the essay, I want to look only at its underlying assumptions. Some of these are stated explicitly, and some can be inferred from the statements made in the essay. The strength -- or in this case, weakness -- of an essay lies in the assumptions it makes.

First, in the section "Scriptures Unauthentic" Floyd discusses the differences between Genesis and scientific understanding of creation, then concludes:

It follows that if one important portion of the Bible is untrustworthy, other parts of that same book may not be the infallible Word of God.

This one sentence is so riddled with errors, it's hard to know where to begin.

First, Floyd uses the same reasoning used by some inerrantists to argue for the literal truth of Genesis 1. It's no surprise than an atheist apologist would want to take the Bible literally: That makes it easier to dismiss.

Second, Floyd follows the fundamentalist error of calling the Bible the "Word of God", when the Bible itself applies that term to Christ.

Third, the trustworthiness of one part of the Bible is not relevant to that of any other part, any more than an error in any anthology should cast doubt on the rest of the anthology. The Bible was written by more than 40 authors, in three languages, over the course of hundreds, perhaps even a thousand years. It's not a single book in which one piece is representative of the whole.

Fourth, Floyd doesn't seem to recognize that the Bible was not written as a science textbook. One element of understanding the Bible is understanding the genre of the passage in question. If Genesis does not easily mesh with modern scientific theory, perhaps it is because Genesis was written for some other purpose.

In the "Documentary Evidence" section, Floyd begins:

The documents most generally accepted by Christians are those collected in the King James Version of the Bible.

The phrase "accepted by Christians" leads me to believe Floyd is talking about just the New Testament, not the Jewish Bible which is accepted by both Christians and Jews. And since the essay focuses on Jesus, the New Testament documents are the relevant ones anyway.

In the general sense Floyd's claim is true. The 27 books of the New Testament, which are accepted by all Christians as scripture, can be found in the King James Bible. In a more technical sense, it's not true: Even in 1932, it was recognized that the King James Bible was not translated from the most ancient and most reliable manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts had been rediscovered since 1800 -- and continue to be discovered -- and have helped us get a better idea of the original text of the New Testament. Still, our earliest known manuscript fragments date from the 2nd century, and the oldest (nearly) complete New Testament is a 4th century copy. But these are still more accurate texts than the source for the King James Bible.

The American Standard Bible was one of the first English translations to use the newly discovered manuscripts, and was published in 1901.

Yet even today, many atheist apologists like to use the King James translation to compile their "lists of errors".

Floyd continues:

Scholars have rejected the entire gospel of John as less reliable than the synoptic gospels; and the sixteenth chapter of Mark as an addition after the original papyrus had broken off.

Floyd makes two different types of claims in this sentence. He makes a value judgment on the reliability of the gospel of John, and a factual claim about the gospel of Mark. It's important to note the difference between these two types of claims, because they are not equivalent.

It's a fact: What had commonly been accepted for centuries as the ending of the gospel of Mark, verses 9-20 of chapter 16, are now understood to be a later addition. The reason is because those early manuscripts rediscovered within the past 200 years don't include these 12 verses. Regardless of one's beliefs or perspective, it is easy to reach the conclusion that if early manuscripts end at 16:8, and later manuscripts end at 16:20, verses 9-20 are a later addition. Furthermore, it's easy to see a motive for the addition. Mark 16:8, speaking of Mary Magdalene and the other women at Jesus's tomb, states, "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." A gospel that ends with no one being told, sounds incomplete. A later scribe may have added them, trying to tie up loose ends; we can't know for sure. But it seems, based on the available evidence, a safe bet that the gospel originally ended at 16:8.

Floyd's other claim, on the reliability of John, is not a factual statement. It is a value judgment. It may be a valid judgment to say that the fourth gospel is more "spiritual" and less "historical" than the other gospels. (On the other hand, John's gospel also contains some verified historical elements that are not found in the other gospels.) Still, to deem history "reliable" and spirituality "unreliable" is to make a much stronger value judgment. On what basis is it warranted? Floyd just assumes.

Floyd ends this section with the remarkable conclusion:

[The critic] is justified, moreover, in considering every word in the supposedly inspired gospels as equally reliable.

Again, this echoes the inerrantist assertion that "every single word" is divinely inspired. But since we've already seen that some words don't appear in the earliest manuscripts, we face the possibility that others have been added here and there, as well. Furthermore, if we look closely at the gospels, we can see that sometimes two writers describe the same event using different language. That's an indication that they have different purposes in mind. Finally, it's important to understand the gospels' purposes even to make sense of passages that appear in only one gospel. If we want to use the gospels as a reliable guide, we must understand what sort of response they are asking of us. Floyd gives no indication that he has considered this.

Next, in the obviously unbiased section, "Christianity Must Go," Floyd tries a rhetorical trick:

The significance of this investigation lies in the changes that would have to be made in religious thought if it should be found that Jesus was not perfect. If Jesus was in error concerning conditions of his own time and exhibited no knowledge of our modern problems, his authority will be lessened. Searchers after the true way of life will not continue to worship a person whose conception of the physical and spiritual world was erroneous. If Jesus made mistakes, he is neither the Son of God nor an infallible man.

Notice how Floyd squeezes in the words "and spiritual" toward the end of a paragraph that otherwise is focused on Jesus's knowledge about the physical world. But in fact, classical Christian theology states that Jesus was human in every way we are -- which would include having a limited knowledge of the physical world -- but without sin. If Jesus didn't know that there exist seeds smaller than the mustard seed, for example, that doesn't lessen his authority about spiritual matters. He might not be the final authority on agriculture, but then he never claimed to be.

Floyd then turns to the gospels themselves, and looks at Jesus's own claims about himself. In the section tited "Virgin Birth," Floyd concludes:

The dilemma is that Jesus must be condemned either for claiming identity with Jehovah (to whom he was really superior), or for accepting with only slight improvements the tyranny of God as described in the Bible, the Word of God. Of course if the Bible is not the Word of God, the whole system of Christian theology falls to the ground.

My head hurts trying to untangle the twisted logic of that paragraph. I do see, again, that Floyd takes up the fundamentalist claim that the Bible, and not Christ, is the Word of God. That simply does not accord with Christian theology.

In the next section, "The Jewish Messiah," Floyd claims:

In this as in other instances to be cited, Fundamentalists will not admit any mistake, for they believe in the supernatural events connected with the Son of God. But Modernists, who reject the anointed Christ while clinging to the human Jesus, may be at a loss to reconcile Jesus' claim to Messiahship with their rejection of his divinity.

This may indeed be a dilemma for modernists, but what does it really tell us about Jesus himself? And what does it mean for all the Christians who don't fit into either the "modernist" or the "fundamentalist" box? Floyd gives no indication that he has attempted to understand what Christians mean when we call Jesus the Son of God.

Floyd is fond of "either-or" statements that exclude all but the most extreme possibilities. In these he reveals one of his assumptions about the way the world works. He shares with fundamentalists the notion that if he can discredit the opposing theory, his will be proven correct. Here's another example:

According to the creeds based upon the Bible, Jesus rose from the dead, descended into hell, and ascended bodily into heaven. According to the gospels he stilled the storm, walked on the water and told Peter to do so and to find money in a fish's mouth and catch a large draught of fishes. These and other miracles connected Jesus with God and were part of his theology.

Every fair-minded person should re-read the gospels and refresh his memory regarding the theology of Jesus. Then a decision must be reached as to the correctness of the views expressed. Either conditions on earth were different in the first century from those of the twentieth, or Jesus was mistaken in his conception of God, heaven, hell, angels, devils and himself.

Conditions on earth were different in the first century than they are today, in many ways. Likewise, the mental framework under which first century minds operated was different from that of modern (and postmodern) people. To fully understand what the gospels meant in a particular passage, we need to understand the age in which they were written. But even if we cannot fully get into the heads of ancient writers, we may at least grasp their general meaning.

To take one example from Floyd's list, Jesus stilling the storm. Is this a poetic way of saying Jesus has a power that is greater than raw nature? Or is it a literal description of an event when Jesus changed the weather patterns? In either case, the message is the same. And if we apply it personally, the message is that Jesus can change our nature, too. If we read it as a Weather Channel report, we've missed the point.

Floyd misses the point, too, in the section titled "Labor."

The parable of the laborers [Matt. xx, 1-16.] relates that an employer hired men to work in his vineyard for twelve hours for a penny, and that he paid the same wage to other workers who toiled only nine, six, three and one hour. When those who had worked longest resented this treatment, as modern strikers would, the employer answered, apparently with Jesus' approval: "Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last."

This parable may be a comfort to autocratic employers, sustaining them in their determination to dominate labor, but the principles enunciated are lacking in social vision. Equal pay for unequal work is approved, and the employer is vindicated in regulating wages and hours as he sees fit without regard for Justice or the needs of the workers.

In the parable, the first group of workers agreed to a fair wage. The later workers actually got more than what was fair. Those who worked longer would naturally perceive this as unfair. But the point is that in the Kingdom of God, the rules are different. Everyone gets their needs met, even if they might not have done anything to deserve it. I cannot fathom how Floyd managed to so completely miss the point.

In the section titled "Religion Only For Children," Floyd almost gets it.

Nor are these sayings clear: "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." [Matt. xi, 25.] "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein." [Mark x, 15.]

This train of thought implies that education is of no importance where belief is concerned.

Floyd makes no further comment on this subject, so it is hard to tell just what his objection is. He's correct, of course, that education is of no importance where belief is concerned. That's not to say that a believer can't or shouldn't get an education. Education might benefit us in many ways, but a high school dropout -- or a child -- can be just as faithful as a Ph.D.

William Floyd set out to judge Jesus by post-Enlightenment standards, and found that he didn't fit the proper mold. Jesus didn't fit the mold in his own time, either, and he was killed for it. What Floyd and others have found objectionable is the same thing that Pilate and Caiaphus objected to in the first century: Jesus demands that we take him on his terms, not ours. Regardless of the preconceptions we bring, Jesus expects us to leave them behind. For many people, that's not an easy thing to do.


Monday, September 04, 2006

why i believe

In the comments to my last post, Albert asked the following question:

I'm sure we could find a secular humanist who shares many of your same ideals like working on the problems of the homeless. So tell me, what additional meaning do you derive from framing your ideals within a particular religious framework?

It's a reasonable question, especially in light of my statement in the same post that actions matter more than beliefs. If I can work on the same issues without believing in God, why bother with all the strange doctrines that were developed centuries ago by people who didn't understand the world the way we do now? If actions matter more than beliefs, why believe?

In one sense, the question doesn't make sense to me. It's like asking, "Since we all come from different towns, why even have a home town?" We all come from somewhere, and we all have a framework for belief.

So, as I said in my own comment, the only answer I can give is a subjective one. I have never found apologetics convincing anyway, and I don't think I could create a convincing argument myself. What follows are my own answers, based on my experiences.

Why God?

With the remarkable advances we've made in this age of science and technology, why believe in God at all? Is is rational to believe in the 21st century that this world is governed by supernatural forces, when science can give us natural explanations for nearly every phenomenon? Why not trust in human reason instead of ancient mythologies?

First, I'd like to say that I don't think reason and mythology (or science and religion, if you prefer) are mutually exclusive. Sure, reason can answer a lot of our questions, and solve a lot of problems. But there's a whole realm that is outside the scope of reason, even without appealing to God. Science may explain why the sky changes colors as the sun nears the horizon, but it won't answer why we think sunsets are beautiful. Granted, neuroscience may one day explain exactly what is happening in the brain as we look at a sunset, but that's not the whole story. Science may explain how our brains are functioning as we listen to music, read a poem, or look at a painting. But that's not going to tell us what art is, or why we appreciate it.

Along those same lines, despite one scientist's claims to have discovered a God gene, science can't really tell us much about the supernatural. In fact, by definition, the scope of science is limited to the natural world. Anything that is beyond nature is simply not testable by science. The rational response is to remain agnostic. And if we were purely rational beings living in a purely rational world, we would have no reason not to choose the rational response.

But is that the kind of world we live in? Consider an analogy from mathematics. In the early 1930s, Kurt Gödel discovered one of the most startling properties of mathematical logic. Dubbed the Incompleteness Theorem, Gödel's proof demonstrated that no system of mathematical logic could be both consistent and complete. The theorem can be explained in non-mathematical terms thus:

Within a given system of logic, it is possible to construct self-reflexive statements, that is, statements that make statements about themselves. If we construct a statement (S), that states (S) cannot be proved true, what can logic tell us about (S)?

Either (S) is true or it is not. If it is false, then it can be proven true, and thus is true even though it is false. That would make the logic system inconsistent. A statement cannot logically be true and false at the same time. On the other hand, if (S) is true, then the system cannot contain the logic to prove it. We may know intuitively that it is true, but we cannot know it according to the rules of logic. To find the answer, we must step outside the system.

Gödel's theorem does not tell us anything about the existence of God, but it does tell us about the world in which we live. It's a world where logic will never give us all the answers.

So if I'm going to make sense of some of my experiences, I shouldn't necessarily expect to find a logical explanation. I'm not denying that reason has a lot to teach us; I just want to recognize its limits.

Do my own subjective experiences prove the existence of God? No, but then I'm not trying to prove God's existence; I'm only trying to explain why I believe.

Why Christ?

So that's why I'm a theist and not an atheist. But, of all the religions in the world, why Christianity? Is it just because I grew up in a "Christian" part of the world? If I had been born in the Middle East would I be Muslim today?

Those are difficult questions, and if I look honestly at my faith journey, I must admit that my culture and my upbringing have played some part in shaping my beliefs. I have no doubt that if my experiences had been different, I would believe differently.

I also know that my beliefs have been shaped by mystical experiences and by chance encounters that have made a sudden impact on my faith journey. Are these the result of God calling to me, shaping the course of my life? I believe so. But why would I have these experiences when many people don't? I can't answer that, other than to say it's not because I merit favorable treatment.

And that leads me to my next point: I believe in grace. Regardless of the cultural element in my religion, I am drawn to Christianity because of this belief in unmerited favor. No matter who we are or what we've done, God gives us better than we deserve. I can't describe how liberating this concept has been in my life. All I can say is that, as I've seen examples of it in my own experience, I have come to believe very strongly in grace.

Which leads into my next point: As I've traveled on my journey of faith, I have seen how the biblical story meshes with my own life. When I read about Jacob wrestling with God, or Isaiah being humbled by meeting God in the temple, or Amos's preaching about social justice, or Jesus's proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God, or, yes, Paul's teachings about grace, it resonates with my experience. And not just the Bible, but the history of Christianity speaks to me: I feel some form of kinship with St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up physical comforts to have a richer spiritual life; with Dorothy Day, who struggled for many years before finding God's; with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero, who stayed loyal to the call of Christ in the midst of turmoil in their nations, though it cost them their lives.

I won't pretend I have the level of faith any of these people had. But their stories resonate with my own. In that sense, subjectively speaking of course, I find truth in both the Bible and Christian tradition.

Can a person find the same sort of truth elsewhere? Certainly. So who is right and who is wrong? Isn't that what religion is all about? In a word, no. It's not fundamentally about being more right than anyone else. It's about responding to God's call and being faithful to that call, however the call comes and wherever the call leads.

Why Methodist?

I grew up attending the United Methodist Church, but I didn't learn much about its teachings or its distinctive focus. In high school I became friends with a bunch of Pentecostal kids, and for a while thought I should become Pentecostal too. Then I went to a Lutheran college, where for the first time I got a real appreciation for God's grace. As I left college I tried to sort through my beliefs and find a church where I fit.

Surprisingly, my journey led me back to the United Methodist Church. I've alluded above to the four sources from which I've learned about God: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Surprisingly, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement over 250 years ago, identified these same four sources for learning about God. They are known in Methodist tradition as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Maybe I absorbed this framework in childhood without realizing it.

But it's not just the doctrinal framework that I find meaningful. Wesley also stressed the importance of putting faith into action. And that leads me back to where I began: Actions are more important than beliefs. Despite my own journey of faith, which has led me deeper into Christianity, I can join with those who have different theologies (or none at all) to work toward a common cause. Perhaps, if God is calling me to accomplish a goal, then the other people working toward the same goal are being called by the same God.