Thinking of God

August 22, 2008

The human brain is ideally suited for inventing God.

In his groundbreaking book, On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkings (the creator of the Palm Pilot) explains his very convincing hypothesis on how the human brain works. The problem up until Hawkins was that neuroscientists were concerning themselves with gathering data about the many complexities of the brain (a very important task) but not hypothesizing about what that data means. As we all know, the scientific method happens by hypothesis and falsification. So without the hypothesis, the science of the brain is only half-complete. So a big thank-you to Jeff from the rest of mankind.

Hawkins’ hypothesis is that the basic function of the human brain is “naming patterns.” Hawkins’ model has the brain organized as a tree-shaped hierarchy. At every stage in the brain’s analysis, the neurons of the neocortex receive input from several other neurons (structurally “beneath” it) and react by sending some kind of signal on to the next neuron (structurally “above” it). The processing done by the neuron in question, Hawkins suggests, is essentially the recognizing of learned patterns and passing the name of that pattern up in the hierarchy. This signal then becomes one of several inputs to the neuron next up in the hierarchy and the process happens again.

Let me give up my summary of Hawkins’ hypothesis with a hearty recommendation to read his book! A consequence of this model is compelling for thinking on religious matters: The human brain is ideally suited for inventing the concept of God. But before I explain what I mean, let me just say that if Hawkins’ hypothesis is found valid and my argument here also, it doesn’t necessitate God’s non-existence. This argument could equally be a rationale for how humans beings are intentionally created to find God, and thus without excuse. But I don’t find it as such.

The hierarchical human brain naturally categorizes. A glance around a coffee shop finds more than just one kind of thing (the coffee shop), but several: people, furniture, decorations, food. We can further categorize; pick furniture: tables, chairs, counter. Keep going; Table: legs, top, surface, edges. Etcetera, etcetera. But I still would mention only one thing if I tell you “I’m going to a coffee shop.”

We categorize in the other direction as well, getting to bigger things. A person is part of a family, which is part of a community, which is part of a municipality, which is part of a state, which is part of a country, which is part of the planet, etcetera.

This happens for events as well. “The ball is thrown; strike out; the inning is over; the Brewers lose the game. The Cubs win the world series. They are the national champions.”

This pattern happens very naturally for humans because it is how our brains function. We see patterns everywhere and we give them names. It’s how we create. Christians are prone to follow these created categories of mind in either direction, increasing or decreasing, and find God at each end. An educated Christian might hypothesize God’s action as the causal force behind superstrings, or even as a grand-unified theory of the cosmos—the next hierarchical category in either case. A Christian-on-the-street might cite God’s providence as the unifying category for several “coincidences” this week.

In any example I might give, it’s the basic suggestion of Hawkins that human beings are naturally inclined to take several disparate incidents and categorize them by finding (creating?) a common pattern. So of course, for anyone who tries, God can be found everywhere since he is by definition the ultimate category; and we are, by design, wired to create and name our categories.

 

POSTSCRIPT: Whether you find this line of thinking as an argument for or against the existence of God will depend upon your starting point. A Christian will see this as an explanation of how God works in the world: “God created mankind to seek and depend on Him; this is how He did it.” A non-Christian will read this as a simpler explanation for natural things observed: “See? We have an account to explain phenomena which doesn’t require God, so we shouldn’t add him in unnecessarily.” It comes down to a matter of which question you’re trying to answer: “How does God work in the world?” or “How God need not work in the world.” Is it any surprise that each side only ever succeeds in convincing people who already agree with them?

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What Dreams May Come

August 14, 2008

Intellectual Christian theology tends to include a doctrine of the closed canon. This means that God has already spoken and will not speak any more—at least not in the same way which he has already. Conservative Christians take the Bible to be the inspired word of God (See the earlier post: Inspiration). It functions with a level of authority which no other document can and which no person can challenge. I suggest there is a very good and clever pragmatic reason why the intellectual branches of Christianity (like Presbyterianism as contrasted against less intellectual Charismatic branches—both with which I have considerable experience!) insist upon such a doctrine despite a lack of Scriptural support. This reason is something I will call “Trajectory Theology.”

Trajectory Theology is a fundamentally different way to approach the Bible than what is assumed by most mainline conservative theological traditions. Instead of taking the Bible as a systematic whole meant to reveal truth about the universe we would never grasp otherwise, Trajectory Theology takes the Bible as a document of its time, not meant as the final word, but which indicates the direction in which God is moving the world.

C. S. Lewis coined the phrase “chronological snobbery” to indicate the fallacy of privileging a certain period of time (usually the present) and the values, views, and beliefs of that time as being inherently superior to that of a past age. An example of this could be found in Joseph Campbell’s book “Myths To Live By” when he takes for granted that no one actually believes Christianity is historically true any more simply on the grounds that it is impossible in the intellectual climate of his day. Writing in 1966, Campbell says:

“It seems impossible today, but people actually believed [the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden] until as recently as half a century or so ago: clergymen, philosophers, government officers, and all. Today we know—and know right well—that there was never anything of the kind: no Garden of Eden anywhere on this earth, no time when the serpent could talk, no prehistoric ‘Fall,’ no exclusion from the garden, no universal Flood, no Noah’s Ark. The entire history on which our leading Occidental religions have been founded is an anthology of fictions.”  (Campbell, Joseph. “The Emergence of Mankind.” Myths To Live By. New York: Penguin Group. 1993. pg. 25.)

The chronological snobbery of this passage lies in the assumption that no one could possibly believe it today because it is such an outdated belief. Campbell ignores the fact that many scholars of his day and beyond actually do hold the belief in question and even more, it’s not proved untrue simply because it’s unfashionable in his time and “seems impossible today.” What’s more, you’d be hard pressed to find any proof of the non-existence of a thing which doesn’t fail to exist necessarily (which matters of history almost never do). While I respect much of what Campbell has to say in other places, this passage easily earns Lewis’s label of “chronological snobbery.”

But I suggest that this term should apply in both directions. Just as we should not privilege the present day as having a leg up on the intellectual competition because it is later in history, we should also not privilege the values, views, and beliefs of a certain age of the past simply because it is previous. Nevertheless, this is what Christians do with the age of the Bible—especially the New Testament. The message of Jesus Christ is taken to be the last word on the subject by most intellectual branches of Christianity that I am aware of—the notable exception being the Catholics who acknowledge statements made by the Pope ex cathedra as having a similar, but lesser authority. Hence the doctrine of a closed canon: God has revealed what will be revealed and nothing more can be admitted—at least nothing on the same level as the New Testament revelation. I suggest that the unscriptural doctrine of a closed canon is an example of chronological snobbery, but is pragmatically necessary to stave off Trajectory Theology.

Progressive revelation, or “Trajectory Theology,” as I’ve been calling it, is an understanding of the Bible as being divine revelation for a specific time. Therefore, as a 21st century theologian, one must look at the Bible as saying what it means to say to people of a specific time in history, and not (as a chronological snob) being a once-and-for-all revelation to all time. Therefore, given the different time periods which the Bible covers (for example, Old Testament and New Testament—or however one might divide them up), a faithful theologian would examine how doctrines have changed from one era to the next and faithfully conclude that the changes which occurred between those eras will continue in kind on through into new eras, like our own, resulting in a fuller—but different—understanding of the original doctrine.

Here’s a concrete example: Exodus 20:13 says “Thou shalt not murder.” This is the Old Testament revelation. In Matthew 5:21-24, Jesus reinterprets this revelation, saying:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to the judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother ‘Raca,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

In this passage, Jesus reinterprets the original passage, “Thou shalt not murder,” as being a command about the internal emotions of a person and how they affect tithing, not simply their outer actions—even though this is neither what the actual text said nor how the original audience understood it! So in like manner, with another 2000 years of historical water under the theological bridge, one might find it reasonable that pastors of today preach on Jesus’s sayings in Matthew and introduce new meaning to that passage as well. After all, no one today says “Raca.”

The problem that arises for Christian theology is when this practice is applied with equal faithfulness to to the Bible as a whole, and not just selected parts. The most provocative is probably that of salvation. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But this is obviously not what the Old Testament Hebrews believed. They believed that, as God told them, the sacrifices of bulls and goats they offered to God paid for their sins and let them “come to the Father” (which, notably, isn’t “go to heaven;” but that is a topic for later post). Jesus reinterpreted the Old Testament laws to mean something different for a new time. He has support outside of his own words as well, when the author of Hebrews says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

So we have several examples of clearly understood Old Testament laws being reinterpreted for the different time of the New Testament. Trajectory Theology continues this tradition by looking for the path toward which these doctrines are headed through their change over time. Avoiding C. S. Lewis’s label of “chronological snobbery” and assuming that there isn’t one privileged period of history through which all events must be subordinate, we should instead look for the directions that orthodox theology will take as history changes up to the present day.

As stated, the most provocative of the theologies we might consider is salvation. If the Old Testament Hebrews were saved by the blood of bulls and goats, and New Testament believers of any race were saved by faith in the work of a certain man, where might that leave modern day Christians?

Who can say?!? But one thing seems clear: unless we are chronological snobs, we must at least admit the possibility that there could be further revelation which opens the doors for salvation even wider and in ways which we have not yet dreamed—just as the New Testament Jews hadn’t dreamed that a commandment about murder could actually be a commandment about the emotions they felt on the inside and tithing.

Lest you think I suggest these things lightly or alone, I will leave you with a quote from the very patron saint of modern-day Evangelicals and his seminal work: “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”  –C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

See No Evil

August 13, 2008

There are a only a couple ways for anyone who believes in God to account for evil. I want to trace one path at the present moment and highlight its shocking conclusion: that most Christians deny the existence of evil.

Either evil comes from God or it doesn’t. (c.f. The Law of Excluded Middle) Christians are usually keen to say it doesn’t come from God (“God is not the author of evil.” c.f. The Westminster Confession of Faith) but ambivalent about the actual source. On one account, it comes from the hearts of mankind (Genesis 6:5-6 and many more); on another, it’s from the influence of the Devil (Job 1:12 and many more). Most Christians that I know hold a confused amalgam of both sources. The curious feature I wish to highlight is present among any theodicy which accounts for the existence of evil as part of God’s plan for the world, regardless of its source.

According to most Christian justifications of evil, evil plays an important part in God’s plan for the world. (The most notable exception probably being that of Open Theism, which does not fall victim to this line of reasoning, but has its own set of problems.) God’s view of evil is probably best articulated by Jonathan Edwards’s explanation (or John Piper’s summary) of God seeing evil through two lenses: a zoom lens where God hates evil and its practitioners, and a wide-angle lens where God sees the function of evil in bringing Himself glory through the broad sweep of providential time. It is the later to which I take issue now.

This issues is commonly called the Problem of Evil and lies in the apparently inconsistent premises: 1.) God is all-powerful, 2.) God is entirely good, 3.) Evil exists. Some attempts try to qualify the power of God (ex: Open Theism). Some try to qualify the goodness of God (ex: dualist or polytheist theologies in which the gods are not all good). Some try to qualify or deny the existence of evil (ex: Christian Science). It is this last group where most Christians accidentally fall.

Christians deny that evil exists. The response to the problem of evil is often that God has a use for evil. In the end, they insist, good is displayed or God is glorified in ways that couldn’t have happened if this evil didn’t exist. I believed this line of reasoning for a long time. But if evil ultimately results in a larger good (which wouldn’t have happened otherwise), evil is not evil but rather a particular species of good. It’s a means to an end. Evil is necessarily how good happens. So if you take the long view, like Edwards suggests, whatever evil you might consider is actually a good thing in the long run because it is necessary to bring God glory in the end. “Evil is good in the long run.” Evil is good. Take the blue pill; welcome to the Matrix.

Any explanation of evil which posits a greater purpose of evil falls prey to this same peril. “Evil is an illusion that results from our limited perspective. If we could see it from God’s perspective—the hidden truth—we would see that all evil is necessarily a good thing because it accomplishes God’s plan.” Then the part no one admits: “So evil doesn’t really exist; it is only part of the good.” Therefore, everything is good.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Romans 8:28

Boundaries

August 9, 2008

Another watershed issue that marked the final milestone for my Christian faith can be encapsulated in a statement you’ll find amazingly simple: What’s true is larger than what’s Christian.

As I timidly told my Christian friends about my new admission, the invariable response I got was, “Well of course.” I don’t know anyone who disagrees with this. Christian doctrine wasn’t meant to describe everything that mankind could know. Saint Augustine once said, “All truth is God’s truth.” But that seems more like planting an American flag on the moon. The US Government doesn’t own the solar system because Neil Armstrong brought a banner.

The problem comes for the Christian faith when you start considering where the boundaries of truth might lie and why we draw those lines where we do. Let’s start with just one example of what else might be within those bounds.

“Muslims are a problem,” I told my pastor-friend over a back-yard beer one evening. “They worship the God of Abraham and claim to have genuine religious experience, just like Christians do.”

“Yes…” He is a good and sympathetic friend.

“But almost no one wants to say that Christianity is the same religion as Islam. This leaves three possibilities as I see it: Either one of them is true, both of them are true, or neither of them is true.”

“Jesus makes some pretty exclusive claims to truth,” my friend reminds me. “‘No one comes to the Father but through me.’ That probably rules out orthodox Christians believing that both are true.”

“Good point.”

“The same is probably true for Muslims, but I know less about their doctrine.”

We both sip our beers and I start back in, “So if only one of them is true, we have a big problem in determining who’s religious experience is valid and who’s isn’t. Here again, we have three possibilities. Claims to genuine religious experience like answered prayer or healing could be either 1.) real encounters with the God, 2.) self-deception, 3.) deception by a third party like the devil.”

“That’s probably what I would say of Islam,” said the pastor, “that Mohammed was deceived by a demonic spirit. So even if he did believe he was hearing from ‘the God of Abraham,’ the fruits of his teaching demonstrate that the source must have been an evil spirit or the Devil twisting the original word of God that Abraham received.”

“Right!” I start to get a bit more excited. “But therein lies the problem. You have just as much reason to say that about Islam as Muslims have to say about Christianity—and that goes for all three of those options. Everyone loves to trumpet the Crusades or bombing abortion clinics as perfect examples of evils that result from Christian teachings. So a Muslim could look at Christianity and cite those things as proof that the Christian teachings are influenced by whatever the Muslim equivalent of the Devil is.”

“Except that Muslim doctrine supports violently attacking people who hold a different ideology.” He’s a sharp guy.

“But regardless of which doctrines one chooses to highlight, each practitioner, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or something else, has equal justification for applying the ‘demonic’ label to the other religion. The same is true for self-deception. I know you’ve said that you are a Christian because you have a real relationship with the person of Jesus.”

“Yep.”

“But what would you say about a person who claims to have a real relationship with Allah?”

“If not that some demonic power was involved, I probably would say that they had convinced themself of it and now have something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Exactly!” I rounded the last bend, “And they could say the same of you. So in the end, you each have the same justification for claiming that your experience is a real experience of God, or lack thereof. And this brings us back to the first issue: if neither side has exclusive claim to their religion being true, and each claim both religions can’t be true, the only option we are left with is that neither are true.”

Neither of us liked this conclusion. We each sat back in our chairs and took long sips of our beer. I finished mine and set it down on the picnic table as I started in one last time. “But there is another option we didn’t consider: Maybe both of them are partially true. And the parts of truth which each highlight cover different a part of the greater tapestry of truth. It’s like the back yard here is truth, the neighbors property line marking the limits of what’s true.

“Let’s say Christianity occupies the space of the cement patio we’re on,” I continue, “and Islam marks the area where your daughter’s blow-up swimming pool is. They might overlap just a little bit, but each area covers different ground in the back yard. They both reach just beyond the back yard, or outside of what’s true, but for the most part they’re each in different parts of the back yard. Neither is the whole story, and neither are entirely in the yard. But with each taken alone, we don’t cover as much ground.

“Are you saying the exclusive claims are what’s beyond the back yard boundaries?” the pastor asked. “Do you mean that if religions weren’t exclusive, they would both really be true?”

“This will probably be a conversation for another night, but what I mean is that spending our time drawing boundaries around the patio or the pool is missing the point. We have a whole yard to enjoy. I’m going for a swim.”

Inspiration

August 6, 2008

There was no one thing that finally brought my Christian faith to an end—it was a long and slow progression. But if there was one watershed issue, it was that of the inspiration of the Bible. Let me give you some background.

I was a leader at a large church that many people had identified as “emergent” (even though the theology was quite conservative). As a leader in this church, I had started and run many different ministries. I was working on a new ministry which was going to revolutionize the way our church (and hopefully many other churches) did evangelism. We called it being “missional,” a term ripped off from Mark Driscoll, the “cussing pastor” of Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. I never did like that word, “missional,” but it was better than “evangelism.” So in order to train Christians how to be “missional,” I opted for a distributed approach of retraining through small groups. I would train the leaders who would then train other leaders who would eventually help retrain everyone in the church and beyond.

The idea was that Christian practice tends to undermine the very thing it means to accomplish, especially with evangelism. I’ll explain: Christians call themselves “Christians” and everyone else they call “non-Christians.” Evangelism is meant to bring Jesus to non-Christians. So by definition and right from the start, there is a decidedly exclusive tone to the exercise. “We are Christians and they are not.” So it’s us against them. This would not do! We needed to reexamine our terminology if we ever wanted to reach these “non-Christians.”

Enter: Christianese.

There is a distinct language that Christian people speak. It is marked by terms like “in the spirit,” “sanctification,” “gospel,” “the word,” and hundreds of other terms which no one except Christians use or understand. These terms mark someone as being on the inside of Christianity. If you meet someone in a social setting and don’t have the guts the ask them flat out, a Christian will—consciously or unconsciously—listen for these and other terms to recognize their kin.

The problem with these terms is that Christians pick them up without learning clearly what they mean. Case in point, I remember hearing and teaching the doctrine of justification as being “just-if-i had never sinned” (a phrase that shares phonetic similarity with the theological term). This is a handy memory peg for teenagers, but very few Christians ever move from that (mildly) catchy phrase to a robust theological technical definition

What makes matters worse is that phrase has other meanings as well. According to my Oxford English Dictionary (and probably the man-on-the-street), “justification” means: an act of showing or proving to be right or reasonable. This is not at all what the theological term means. Christians tend to use what are sometimes normal words in unusual ways, often without distinguishing the difference. This is the crux of my present concern.

“Inspired” is another term that Christians use in a way different from everyone else, and I would argue, in a way they seldom understand themselves, if ever. This term is particularly important when speaking of the Bible. All Christian theology hangs or falls on one’s opinion of the Bible.

The Bible is taken to be important and different from all other books because it is inspired. But if you ask a Christian what they mean by “inspired,” the most common answer I get is always “God breathed” (from 2 Timothy 3:16). While more poetic, that is obviously no clearer. It does however provide a great example of how the structure of Christian terminology is circular so one term can only be understood in terms of others. When pressed for a yet clearer definition, the answers go in many directions.

One thing is clear however, Christians do not use “inspired” in a normal way. If I see a beautiful sunset and am moved to write a poem of the occasion, I can rightly say the sunset inspired my poem; but that is not the sense the Christian means of the Bible. God isn’t the enrapturing idea that motivated a creative work. (Is it?) Similarly, the Christian almost never means that God held the pen or physically forced the hand of the apostles to make certain words on parchment. So what do Christians mean by the term “inspired?”

I suggest that no one actually knows. It is technically a vacuous term. It’s a term that is associated with identification in that community, but has perhaps no semantic meaning of its own, even in that community. The desire that often coincides with the use of this term is wanting to indicate that the Bible has authority. But this is certainly not what the term “inspired” means.

So if we dispense with the term “inspired” when talking about the Bible in favor of terms of that more clearly indicate what we mean, we are left saying it has authority—this is a very different place! We no longer have a book handed to us by God in one way or another; we have a book that is important for very different reasons—among them: defining order in the social setting of Christian organizations. It is possible to have authority for this purpose without ever being from God in any sense. For example, if the group agrees that it should be the guiding document, it has authority. So in the absence of an intellectually honest and rigorous account of what Christians mean by “inspired” and concluding term and the doctrine are vacuous, I was forced (yes, against my will; I didn’t want to believe this) to reevaluate my long-held dogma about the Bible and concede the unprivileged status this book has among others… at least outside of Christian social circles.