Friday, December 30, 2011

Chance Encounter & Confessional Identity

We were both working through the philosophy and religion section at the bookstore. We courteously attempted to give one another space despite the fact that the same books were sharing our glaze. I knew by our similar perusals in philosophy and theology that we could probably enjoy a conversation, but I decided to avoid starting one. Then he reached over and pointed to a Timothy Keller book defending theism and said, “This is a good one.” Needless to say, I did not buy a book last night; instead, I had the honor of meeting and chatting with who appears to be Ethiopia’s most prolific Christian author: Tesfaye Robele.

Encountering thinkers like Tesfaye can be quite a rewarding experience. We intelligently discussed middle knowledge, process thought, open theism, Whitehead, Molina, Pinnock, and Boyd, and in so doing, we probably annoyed more than a few people within earshot. When I enter into a conversation with someone that I know I disagree with, I try to negate myself; I try to take in what the other person is saying and to put my agendas aside. This for me is a spiritual-humanitarian discipline, and I find it enables me to humbly and genuinely encounter the mind and perspectives of another. Tesfaye’s gentle and attentive manner suggested to me that he was doing similarly. But, why is it good to rub shoulders with those who differ in perspective? Why—it enables me to feel and perceive the limitations of my own thinking, perspectives, and presentation.

Tesfaye asked me, “Are you a Christian?” I hesitated. He had already shared with me his background and education, and I knew that answering in the affirmative would have been diplomatically easier. In many ways I do identify as Christian. Culturally and theologically, I am profoundly influenced by the full spectrum of Christianity, but, in my estimation, I would not qualify as Christian in the way he meant. I mean, I have a multi-spiritual identity, I advocate for religious pluralism, I am atheistically agnostic about the existence of the God of classical theology, and I take issue with many fundamental Christian doctrines and ethics. I answered in the negative and went on to give a four-point, two-sentence outline of my religious identity: “I was once Orthodox Jewish, and then I identified with Messianic Judaism. Later I became atheist, and I find aspects of process theology appealing.” I could have spent a lot more time qualifying any one of the points above, but I decided that this would suffice.

When I said the above my heart sank. I felt the powerlessness of an absent identity confession. In hind-sight I would have felt better asserting a positive identity, “I am [fill-in-the-blank].” I would have felt better offering a compelling, positive identity. Tesfaye then asked me, “Why do you find appealing about process theology?” I am taking away several benefits from this conversation, but this question might be the best. Aside from my ongoing attempt to construct confessional identities (a repeated theme in my writing), I am seeing that I will feel better about my thinking if I have ready, coherent answers to questions like, “Why aren’t you a Christian?,” “Why do you find process theology appealing?,” and, “Why don’t you believe in God?”

So, for example, “Why do you find process theology appealing?” Let me practice:

-- promotion and acceptance of religious pluralism
-- discursive methodology
-- absence of dogma
-- ability to look its own impossibility in the face
-- acceptance of naturalistic science
-- use of dysteleological evolution
-- placement of moral reasoning in the realm of humanity

Now, will I remember this the next time I am asked in person?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Psychological-Referential Revelation and Ethical Development

Before I propose what to many will be a new model of understanding Scripture, I will present the two following difficult-to-accept passages from the Qur'an and the Hebrew Bible. I chose them for their similarly regressive sex-gender ethics.

When Appropriate to Beat One's Wife

I am often reluctant to criticize material in the Qur’an for two reasons. First, I do not want to contribute to xenophobia. Muslims in America are a minority, and they are more often than not misrepresented especially by Evangelical Christians. I prefer to work against misconceptions rather than to feed into them even if this means avoiding legitimate criticisms of Islam and its sources. Second, there is a lot of good, a quantitatively overwhelming amount of good, to be lauded in the Qur'an and in Islamic traditions. The presence of such good does not negate the presence of qualitatively negative material, but I fear that focus on negatives will likely fuel xenophobic minds eager to find fault within Islam for the wrong reasons.

The Qur'an is often more progressive than the Pentateuch on sex-gender ethics. Unlike the Pentateuch, the Qur'an grants women the right to private property, the right to individual earning, a status beyond that of male property, etc. This contrasts with the Pentateuch which treats women (wives) as the property of their husbands, does not grant women property rights (with the exception of an absent a male heir, Numbers 35), and does not allow women the right to individual earnings. This being said, what amounts to likely the most regressive passage in the Qur'an, relates to the husband-wife relationship in the passage the follows:

Men are the maintainers of women, with what Allah has made some of them (men) to excel others and with what they spend out of their wealth. So the good women are obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded. And (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion (rebellion, Pickthal & Khalifa), admonish them, and leave them them alone in the beds (banish them to beds apart, Pickthal) and chastise (scourge, Pickthal / beat, Khalifa) the. So, if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Surely Allah is ever Exalted. Great. 4:34 (Maulana Muhammad Ali)

There is a multitude of views on this passage among Qur'anic scholars, and there is considerable debate regarding the permissibility of beating the “disobedient” or disagreeable spouse. Muhammad is reported variously as having stated that the beating Allah referred to was “as with a feather” and “...in such a manner that it should not leave an impression” (TR. 10:11). Progressive Muslim thinkers today have even found creative (itjihad) manners in which to make this into an absolute ban on physical “chastisement” or beating.

This passage should cause the reader outrage on multiple levels, but I am focusing on the permissibility or the prescription for wife beating. To think that the husband is permitted or prescribed the option, even if as a last resort, of beating his spouse is outrageous and barbaric. In the West, we have been powerfully affected by the Victorian era and feminism. We see marriage as a consenting partnership between two adults who practice mutual respect and who allow the other room for differentiation and autonomy. At least in theory, we encourage disagreement between spouses—we allow for differences of style, interest, decisions, etc. This passage flies against the last three hundred years of cultural amelioration for women in the West.

Retail of Daughters in Moses

At the early outset of the Sinai revelation in the book of Exodus, the following passage marks the second pericope of caustic civil-social law, preceded by regulations on indentured servant hood:

And if a man sell his daughter to be a maid-servant, she shall not go out as the men-servants do. If she please not her master, who hath appointed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed; to sell her unto a foreign people he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he espouse her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another woman, her food, her raiment, and her oils, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out for nothing, without money. Exodus 21:7-11

Some (Wright & Copan) have noted the protections afforded here to the retailed daughter. She is not permitted to be swapped between the buyer and his son. Likewise, the buyer cannot sell her to a foreign people—he can only sell her (“let her be redeemed”) to someone within the nation. Likewise, if the daughter in her concubinage is not granted the rights of food, clothing, and oils (possible reference to sex), she apparently has the right to leave without being sold off (“without money”).

For every possible progress this passage might pose against its historical-cultural context, this passage remains a dinosaur of regressive sex-gender ethics. If a man today put his minor daughter to work, let alone sold her into concubinage, he would be deemed a criminal. Christians who believe that the Bible is an inerrant expression of God's mind have a problem here. Psalm 19:7 declares, “The Torah of the Lord is perfect...” Torah here refers to the Pentateuch, most likely, from which this passage is drawn. How can a perfect Torah (law) contain such regressive allowances?

It should be clear that sexual ethics change. What was once progressive polity is now regressive. When Scripture, though, is deemed inerrant, the reader today will most often ignore offensive passages. Because such passages are incongruous with the reader's values, their import and significance is often glanced over and missed. They are not revisited later as most do not even see the issues. What these passages, and others, testify to, though, is how culture changes. Where arranged marriage and patriarchy were once normative, consent and romantic love are deemed necessary conditions to marriage, and marriage is esteemed a cooperative, mutualistic endeavor. Cultural values change.

New Paradigms for Scriptural Authority and Contingency

Cultural values change. What does this mean relative to Scriptures? What roles can Scriptures play in setting and crafting ethics?

Influenced largely by process theology and thought, new paradigms for understanding the God-world relationship have been developed that have opened the door for reinterpreting how divine revelation works. One such model is Knight's (2004) psychological-referential model of revelatory experience. He maintains,

Any authentic experience of God that occurs through this divinely given “natural” tendency always...takes on a form that is appropriate to a particular cultural and psychological environment. Because of this it can never be absolute. It has a genuine referential component, recognizable in principle through the “puzzle-solving” character of the theological language to which it gives rise. It also, however, inevitably has a culturally conditioned instrumental component that makes the link between experience and referential doctrine a complex one (pp 56-57).

In Knight's model, revelatory experience is conditioned by its context. This is not enormously different thus far; however, Knight goes on to assert that the contextual-cultural conditioning makes revelatory experiences relative. To Knight, such experiences are not absolute. In turn, the later interpreter of revelation needs to understand the conditional and contextual nature of the revelation. Revelation is packaged and limited by the horizons of its context. It does not unilaterally interrupt and shatter the intellectual, ethical, or theological horizons and limits of its recipients. Hence, the reader is given responsibility to think on her own. She is not given license to set her mind on the altar of another person's ethical and theological conclusions—the process is alive.

Knight goes on to assert:

...there is in this understanding no a priori reason for believing that genuine revelatory experience can occur only among members of some particular religious grouping. ...a number of factors suggest rather strongly a pluralistic...understanding of the faiths of the world (p. 57).

I love this last conclusion. If revelation is psychological-referential, then it can come in diverse packages among diverse peoples. Revelation might then not be limited to he Jewish and Christian Scriptures, we can also look the the wonderful thoughts and betterment offered in the Qur'an. Likewise, the ultimate circumambient reality, God if you will, is not limited to working with prophets of old. We, today, are just as capable of trailblazing, of crafting new horizons and demolishing old idols as those we unfortunately and all too often deem as sacrosanct. We can today add the scathing and salient denouncements of prophet Dawkins to the weighty and progressive calls to justice from the Hebrew prophets. We can listen to Muhammad and Moses, disagree with them when wrong, and build upon their shoulders.


Works Cited

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011

Knight, Christopher C. Theistic Naturalism and the Word Made Flesh. In: In Whom We Live, Move, and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God's Presence in a Scientific World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004

Knight, Christopher, C. Wrestling with the Divine: Religion, Science, and Revelation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001

Wright, Christopher J. H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004


Friday, December 9, 2011

Objections to the Virgin Birth

Theodicy and Antinaturalism
Theodicy is the term used for the manners and theological-philosophical systems by which one levels or balances blame for moral and natural evil in the world with the assumed goodness and omnipotence of God.
“If God is good and all powerful, why doesn't God intervene and end suffering?”
“If God is all powerful and good, why does God permit natural and moral evil to prevail?”
Beginning with classical theistic models in which God is indeed both all good and all powerful, there are no good solutions to these questions, and theodicy rightly becomes a high moral ground for atheism. The God of classical theism stands wholly outside of creation, able to intervene as desired but withholding goodness and reprieve at every moment. In classical Christian soteriology, God does intervene to enact redemptive events. The classical models have God, in Jesus, “coming down” to dwell with humanity, entering the womb of Mary through a miraculous interruption of the created order. Deus ex machina. Just as humanity was about to propel itself off the precipice of depravity, God interrupted the human narrative, stooped down to the estate of a Jewish peasant, and was born of a virgin.
Classical Christian theology bequeaths substance language to theological discourse. It is hence difficult to speak of God-world relations without using a substance rhetoric that depicts God as substance in distinction to the world/creation as another substance. Despite my objections to substance language, I am using it.
Theodicy and Incarnation
Theologian Knight (2004) asserts, “...there is a widespread sense that the doctrine of the incarnation can be safeguarded only through a strong antinaturalist stance” (57). What is an antinaturalist stance? Antinaturalism is a position that gives countenance to breaks in the natural order of cause-effect. With regard to the virgin birth, antinaturalism is a description of the deus-ex-machina interruption of natural events to cause the virgin birth. The virgin birth is a preternatural event; it breaks from the normal course of cause-effect by removing the necessity of the natural human sperm meeting the human egg.
A God that interrupts the natural order to affect the virgin birth is considered antinaturalist. The same antinaturalist God who is capable of interrupting the natural order is the same God who is also the enigma and moral monster of theodicy. The fact that God can interrupt and doesn't, this is the effective fuel of atheistic theodicy. This is where classical theism collapses into monarchial-patriarchal models of God the seemingly arbitrary agent and giver. God the monarch-patriarch coercively delivers the seed; creation passively and irresistibly receives it as a vessel of God's bidding (Hartshorne, p. 60). God is absolute Power and unchanging Potentate, capable of intervening as demonstrated in the virgin birth but withholding good things from his children. The virgin birth then is a philosophical argument in favor of the failure of classical theism and theodicy.
Alternate Models of Incarnation
There are models of incarnation that maintain the integrity of naturalism and close the door on classical theism and its failed theodicy.
Knight (2004) states:
The divine aspect of the person of Jesus represents...is not something essential alien to the world—a supernatural intrusion—but rather a coming to fullness of something present in the world from the beginning (p. 58).
Knight goes on to develop models of incarnation that depict a “bottom-up” movement for the incarnation in which the incarnation is the coming into maturity, the blossoming into flower, of something already present within the natural order. Though I will not be developing his position here, he presents what he calls pan-sacramental naturalism in which God, as in the Anglican understanding of the eucharist, metaphorically works in, with, below the natural order and is limited thereby by either kenotic self limitation or ontological necessity.
Aruther Peacocke, the late and esteemed theologian and biochemist who wrote extensively on the relationship between science and faith, opines as follows:
[The incarnation] uniquely exemplifies [the] emergence-from-continuity that characterizes the entire process whereby God is “informing” the world... [W]e can now interpret “incarnation” not involving a “descent” into the world by a God conceived as “above” (and outside) it—as so many Christian hymns wokuld have us believe—but as the manifestation of what, or rather of the One who, is alread in the world though not recognized or known (which is what the first chapter of John actually says). The human person Jesus is then to be seen, by virtue of his human response and openness to God, as the locus, the ikon, in and through whom is made explicit the nature and character of the God who has never ceased to be present, continuously creating and bringing divine purposes to fruition in the order of energy-matter-space-time (pp. 37-38).
Peacocke's God-world model presents God in mutual dependence on the cosmos: panentheism. His panentheism is wholly naturalistic—God works persuasively within the natural order, not interrupting the laws of nature or the chain of cause-effect. Resorting to substance language, God's power is limited by the space required for the cosmos. That is, the freedom of the natural order and of human moral agents is a limit to God's power. In his model, God cannot interrupt, God can work at the level of persuasion and creation can chose to cooperate, or not.
For Peacocke then, incarnation is a coming into being, a germination of what is already present in the natural order. God does not cause incarnation unilaterally, God woos, persuades, and draws into being, into incarnation. Incarnation is realized by a bottom up process. What practical implications does this hold for doctrine of incarnation? I appreciate Peacocke's words below.
We have come to Jesus the Christ as the distinctive manifestation of a possibility always inherently there for human beings by virtue of their potential nature. This makes what he was relevant to what we might be, for it entails that what we have affirmed about is Jesus is not, in principle, impossible for all humanity (38).
It should be noted that this model of incarnation and God-world interaction provides a fruitful venue for further thought about the integrity of science, the place of faith, questions of theodicy, etc. In my next posts on this topic I will address the passages of Scripture that are either used to support the virgin birth or that do actually teach it. It will be found that the “Old Testament” does not teach the virgin birth, and the “New Testament” went too far with the idea.

Works Cited
Hartshorne, Charles. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. State University of New York, 1984: Albany.
Knight, Christopher C. “Theistic Naturalism and the Word Made Flesh” in In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God's Presence in a Scientific World. Eerdmans, 2004: Grand Rapids
Peacocke, Arthur. All That Is: A Naturalistic Faith for the Twenty-First Century. Fortress Press, 2007: Minneapolis.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Truth and Remythologizing God

Nietzsche answers his own question:

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymics, anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which become poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage, seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses, coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account but merely as metal (p. 143).

We forget that we construct the worlds and the meanings that we dwell in. We forget that what were once current life currencies have lost their socially-established value and have become mere pieces of metal. Nietzsche raises a challenge to theology. We mustn't passively rely on the seemingly “fixed, canonic, and binding” illusions of “worn-out metaphors” which have lost power and currency. Instead, “the constructive character of theology must be acknowledged,” and with awareness that the social world which we inhabit has changed and is changing, we must “think experimentally, [we] must risk novel constructions” (McFague, p. 6).

Implicit in Nietzsche's statement is the need to deconstruct metaphors. The avant-garde of the conservatives have already engaged theology in deconstruction. For example, models of God like “Father” or “Monarchical Patriarch” are being appreciated for their metaphorical value. “God does not literally posses male gonads, does he?” However, deconstruction is insufficient. We need new metaphors, ones that address the environmental, economic, and erotic exigencies of today. I appreciate the following remarks from McFague:

One of the serious deficiencies in contemporary theology is that though theologians have attempted to interpret the faith in new concepts appropriate for our time, the basic metaphors and models have remained relatively constant: they are triumphalist, monarchical, patriarchal. Much deconstruction of the traditional imagery has taken place, but little construction. If, however, metaphor and concept are, as I believe, inextricably and symbiotically related in theology, there is no way to do theology for our time with outmoded or oppressive metaphors and models. The refusal to deal with the constructive task results in either a return to anachronistic models—a conservative retreat—or a move away from all images toward abstract language (xi).

McFague goes on to assert that the task of today is to “remythologize” the relationship between God and the world. On the level of the literal, most of theology is fiction, illusion; however, the fictional and illusory become truth when lived and experienced through the dynamism of myth. Models of God that need to be developed and extrapolated for today include the “death-of-God” and God as Mother, Participant, Goddess, Sensual, and Liberator (vs. Savior).

McFague, Sally, Models of God. Fortress Press, 1987: Philadelphia.

Nietzsche, Friederich, “On Truth and Falsity in Their Ultramoral Sense,” 1873 in Works 2:180.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I believe...


“I believe in order that I may understand.”

This famous statement by Anselm is understood and used by many to show that one “must first force one's mind to accept blindly a host of incomprehensible doctrines” (Armstrong, 132). That is, one must lend full intellectual assent to a set of dogma or doctrines, however unsupported, before one can understand how credible they actually are. Fault then is on the individual who rebelliously refuses to forgo reason and accept belief.

This interpretation of Anselm misses an essential meaning of “believe.” The Latin verb for “I believe” is credo which literally reads “heart to put,” that is, to apply oneself to something as in a discipline or course of action. Anselm's statement might better be read as “I involve myself in order that I may understand.” Armstrong summarizes Anselm's meaning well, “...religious truth [makes] no sense without practically expressed commitment” (p. 132).

Etymologically, the words for “belief” and “faith” in Hebrew, Greek, and in English are rooted in the meanings of action, fidelity, faithfulness and less in the notion of intellectual assent. “I believe” meant “I am engaged/committed/loyal.” To believe something is to live something, to embrace a truth that dwells at the level of mythos and not always accessible to logos or reason (Armstrong, p. 115). Allow me to borrow from Armstrong's example with the doctrine of the Trinity:

The Trinity reminded Christians not to think about God as a simple personality and that what we call “God” is inaccessible to rational analysis. It was a meditative device to counter the idolatrous tendency of people like Arius, who had seen God as a mere being... (p. 115).

Trinity was an activity rather than an abstract metaphysical doctrine. It is probably because most Western Christians have not been instructed in this exercise that the Trinity remains pointless, incomprehensible, and even absurd” (p. 117).

Though no doubt there was a metaphysical component to the Trinity, Armstrong emphasizes the practical, discipline of the Trinity as a meditative or sacred pathway away from logos/reason into mythos and truths not necessarily identifiable by logos/reason. According to Armstrong, Arius' error was making God into “mere being” and a subject of rational analysis.

For me God is a call to action—an expansion of vision, a set of circles that encompasses more and more of the world around me. I believe in God as a discipline, a sacred pathway and as a vehicle for meaning making. God for me is not the monarch of metaphysics but a dimension of my own existence.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Direction of this Blog


My blog is taking a new direction. Central themes of free inquiry, skepticism, science, biblical studies, etc. remain; however, I am no longer calling myself an atheist. I have not abandoned atheism as I still find atheism a viable and appealing perspective. Instead, as I explained in this post: Houses to Dwell In, my perspectives are better represented with a spectrum. I work with and mull over multiple perspectives, and I find it much too intellectually, creatively, and ethically unsatisfying in the long run to limit myself to just one paradigm or point of view. You might say that I am paradigmatically promiscuous as I cannot stay with just one partnering paradigm for long.

It should be noted that this new direction is not really new. It is neither out of step from the composite nature of the blog nor out of spirit with the blog’s name, Approximations. In the history of this blog’s development, I have expressed divergent views on several topics—I do not present a monolithic perspective here. Early on I was more agnostically theistic later to become more atheistic. Because this blog represents me, older posts will remain as examples of the good, the bad, and the approximations in between. I am not afraid to be wrong.

Atheism remains an intellectual and ethical paradigm for me. As I have previously explained, atheism is not a comprehensive world view in itself (see Atheism an Incomplete Worldview). Atheism, for me, is most comprehensive and compelling when it leaves the realm of the negative (e.g., a denial of god/gods) into the realm of the affirmative (e.g., humanism, naturalism, monism, etc.). I remain decidedly committed to several affirmations that are often found in conjunction with atheism such as humanism and anthropological monism. I am, though, also embracing aspects of the following meta-paradigms: process thought, process theism, and panentheism. Interestingly enough, none of these paradigms is inherently exclusive of atheism, and more may be developed on this at some point.

The goal of this post is not to defend any given position, and I might never take a defensive approach to any of the above. I will, though, present a range of perspectives that represent my own thinking on the topics that I address. I have not taken much time in the last few months to work on this blog, so this is a first attempt in a while. I am reformatting the margins and my links, so be patient with my progress. My tabs above will be developed more soon including updates to by biography as needed (we're having a baby in less than eight weeks).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mutability of Torah, Example One

For our first example of the mutability of the Torah, we turn to a unique subset of the ancient Israelite priestly tradition, Leviticus chapters 17 – 26 which is often dubbed "the Holiness Code" for its preoccupation with holiness. The opening passage of the Holiness Code reads as follows:

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 Speak unto Aaron, and unto his sons, and unto all the children of Israel, and say unto them: This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded, saying: 3 What man soever there be of the house of Israel, that killeth an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or that killeth it without the camp, 4 and hath not brought it unto the door of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering unto the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, blood shall be imputed unto that man; he hath shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people. 5 To the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices, which they sacrifice in the open field, even that they may bring them unto the LORD, unto the door of the tent of meeting, unto the priest, and sacrifice them for sacrifices of peace-offerings unto the LORD. 6 And the priest shall dash the blood against the altar of the LORD at the door of the tent of meeting, and make the fat smoke for a sweet savour unto the LORD. 7 And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices unto the satyrs, after whom they go astray. This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations. 8 And thou shalt say unto them: Whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that offereth a burnt-offering or sacrifice, 9 and bringeth it not unto the door of the tent of meeting, to sacrifice it unto the LORD, even that man shall be cut off from his people.

For emphasis let me draw out the two verses that I am focused on:

3 What man soever there be of the house of Israel, that killeth an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or that killeth it without the camp, 4 and hath not brought it unto the door of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering unto the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, blood shall be imputed unto that man; he hath shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people.

In this passage the faithful are forbidden to slaughter a domestic animal that is not first brought as a sacrificial offering to the Lord. The person who slaughters an ox, a lamb, or a goat for eating without first brining it sacrificially to the tent of meeting or tabernacle is imputed blood guilt. The text reads, “blood shall be imputed unto that man.” Fox (1995) notes regarding this verse, “Such slaughtering seems to be equated with the murder of a human being” (p. 591). Keil and Delitzsch (1891) assert that the phrase “he hath shed blood,” shows that “ such slaughtering was to be recokoned as the shedding of blood, or blood-guiltiness, and punished with extermination” (p. 592). Of note, this passage states, “This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations.” The “for ever” aspect of this passage is noteworthy not only because Messianics often emphasize passages that state that a given precept such as the Passover or the Sabbath is mean to be kept “for ever” but also because of the clear reversal of the is commandment in the passage that follows:

Deuteronomy 12:13-16 reads as follows:

13 Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt-offerings in every place that thou seest; 14 but in the place which the LORD shall choose in one of thy tribes, there thou shalt offer thy burnt-offerings, and there thou shalt do all that I command thee. 15 Notwithstanding thou mayest kill and eat flesh within all thy gates, after all the desire of thy soul, according to the blessing of the LORD thy God which He hath given thee; the unclean and the clean may eat thereof, as of the gazelle, and as of the hart. 16 Only ye shall not eat the blood; thou shalt pour it out upon the earth as water.
While this passage maintains the requirement of bringing sacrificial offerings to an authorized shrine (more on this in a moment), it loosens the presumably earlier legislation that required all animals to be slaughtered as offerings. In this passage the Israelite is permitted to slaughter his meat “within all thy gates, after the desire of thy soul.” He no longer is required to bring his animals to be offered first to the Lord (YHWH), but he is permitted to slaughter them whenever and wherever. Here what was once deemed a capital offense is now permitted as one pleases. What was once punishable by death is now an innocent pleasure.

It is worth noting that ancient Israel initially had many cultic locations and shrines. This eventually changed in the late seventh century under the reforms of Josiah when the Law of the Lord was presumably found by one Hilkiah the high priest. Where one was in the past able to bring his ox to a local shrine in the village, later one had to travel several days to make it to the singular national shrine in the Temple of Jerusalem. Faley (1970 ) explains this well:

Originally, the slaughter of clean animals, even for profane use, was considered a sacrificial act. The shedding of blood, as an act of dominion over life itself, was the exercise of a divine prerogative and could not be viewed as legitimate unless the life was first restored to God. For this reason, all such killings were reserved for a place of cult (I Sm 14:32-35). This requirement apparently presented no great difficultly as long as local sanctuaries were allowed, but with the centralization of cult under Josiah (621), such a law became impossible (78).

In the above example, the “eternal-statute” legislation demanding that all animals killed for food be brought first as a sacrifice with its severe penalty (i.e., death) is repealed with the permissibility of slaughter wherever one pleases.

Works Cited

Faley, Roland J. “Leviticus” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary. Champan: London, 1970

Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses. Schocken Books: New York, 1995.

Keil, C. F. & Delitzsch, F. Commentary on the Old Testament, vol 1. Translated, Hendrickson Publishers: Massachusetts, 1996.

Mutability of Torah, Introduction

As some of you already know, I attempt to dialogue with believers of various stripes. However successfully what transpires is as “dialogue” is open to question, but one of the religious groups that I discuss the Bible and theology with the most is “Messianics.” Though there is a great deal of theological and practical diversity among those who identify with the Messianics or Messianic “Judaism,” a rather common idea maintained by those I speak with is that of the immutability of the Law of God. Methodological problems aside (please see my post entitled “Messianic Negation of Torah”), the Law of God for the Messianic believer is found and expressed most authoritatively, exhaustively, and prescriptively in the five books of Moses which is often called variously the Chumash, the Pentateuch, and the Torah. For the Messianic believer that I have in mind, the Torah is God’s unchanging, immutable law or instruction. The Messianic will likely point out the following passage attributed to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-19).

With this passage the Messianic will pin to Jesus to the idea of the immutability of the Torah (the law referred to in this passage). However, this idea of the immutability of the Torah is by no means unique to Messianic believers, it is a fundamental axiom of rabbinic Judaism. Rambam, a much celebrated twelfth-century rabbi and Jewish thinker, formulated the essential 13 principles of Jewish faith. Number nine of these principals is as follows:

I believe with that the Torah will not be changed, and that there will never be another given by God (see http://www.ou.org/torah/rambam.htm).

The rabbis assert that the veracity of a prophet or a teacher is to be judged by this principle. The prophet or the teacher that asserts that God has eternally cancelled out a single precept of the Torah is a false prophet. And, in their misinformed zeal for the veneer of Torah piety, Messianics likewise take up the same rubric. In a recent discussion, a Messianic pastor asserted the following, “Scripture tells us that any teacher/prophet that is anti-Torah is a false teacher/prophet.” If asked for Scriptural support, this individual would likely hearken to passages such as Deuteronomy 13 which the rabbis likewise use to maintain this rubric of Torah immutability.

Though these posts that follow may not be of much relevance to many of my readers, they are directed to this specific subset of believers who identify variously as “Messianic” (though some eschew this term but maintain the idea that the Torah is immutable). It is my plan to provide a half dozen examples of where the Torah displays legal mutability with examples from within the text of the Torah and from the prophets. Truth be told, this is really an “in-house” discussion, and it might not be of immediate concern to many.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Is There a God? -- Is There Mind?

One of the more profound proposals in Dawkins’ The God Delusion is the following:

“…any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution” (p. 31, italics original).

From our observable experience, the only beings that are capable of design are those that are embodied and have neurological faculties such as physical brains. Without neurological physiology, design does not exist; without a body and a brain, the mind ceases to exist. Mind, though not reducible to mere matter is, no doubt, an emergent product of matter. In our experience as humans, in our empirical study of the cosmos, no exceptions to the mind-matter continuum can be pinned down, none. Anyone that presumes that mind exists without brain cannot assert this with the backing of empiricism and the scientific method.

In my recent reading of Keith Ward’s Why There Almost Certainly is a God I came upon a divergent expansion of Dawkins’ proposal stated above. Let me quote:

“The question of God is the question of whether conscious mind can exist without any physical body… Arguments for the existence of God are arguments claiming to show that not all minds arise from matter. There is at least one mind that is prior to all matter…” (p. 19).

I apologize to the unconvinced reader not for the fact that I am presuming the following to be true, but I am sorry for the educational system and the religious leaders who have fed you with lies, to believe that the soul is an immaterial part of your humanity, a part that survives beyond death. Mind and consciousness are late developments in the universe—the product of billions of years of physical cosmic processes that have resulted in the raw materials for life and the product of millions of years of biological evolution that led to the development of physical brains and higher-level thought and self-awareness. You have mind, you are reading, you are thinking and self-aware not as the result of a direct divine fiat miracle but because of the dysteleological process of evolution that brought the unlikelihood of you into conscious being.

We know, we observe, we can experience no mind or consciousness that is not a part of and the result of this process of naturalistic evolution. To assert that there is a God is to assert that mind, one mind is an exception to the rule. One mind (though indeed God would be more than mind though not less than) is an exception to the process of conscious existence. This is what it means to propose that there is a God outside of time and matter, it is to posit the existence of mind before matter and outside of the necessary process to produce mind from matter: evolution.

Now, this does not mean there isn’t a God or a Mind; however, if there is such a Mind, it is highly unlikely that it is an exception to every other reality that we know and experience. This Mind must itself be emergent, a product of evolution. In this regard I am an unquestionable theist through the paradigm of radically emergent theism in which God is a property that emerges from self-aware minds or from the noosphere. This is the only God that I can relate to, one that is herself made from the same fabric, the same matter, that produces Mind and consciousness. This is a God, who like myself, is not static but in process, changing. This is a God who can become what we want her to be. And, unlike the wooden ideologies of fundamentalism, she can become whatever we want her to be. Her fullness is contingent on a humanity that takes the reigns of its own potential, a humanity that will not wait for the intervention of a Sovereign God who is himself an exception to existence and morality, who is unaccountable to reality and ethics, and who will never show.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Houses to Dwell In

Process philosopher David Wheeler, in speaking of faith and faith communities, notes the following
…faith’s home is to some extent a function of the contingencies of one’s birth, upbringing, and historical-cultural location, and to some extent a function of one’s own temperament and choices. Fundamentalisms of every ilk ignore this truism… [C]oncrete faith communities , no matter how great their vitality and their efficacy in producing concord and well-being for their believers, do not exhaust the possibilities of encounter with the Real, nor do they exclude the possibility of other faith communities and traditions… [T]he Sacred Presence, or the Real, or whatever we way wish to call it, is always vaster and more subtle than all our categories and concepts (pps 104-105).
Though Wheeler’s observations are about faith communities, I am applying his immediate meanings beyond faith communities to secular philosophies such as atheism and humanism and then even to methodological paradigms such as naturalism. As a post-modernist, Wheeler points out that the dwelling place, the home of faith and philosophy is to some extent contingent on historical-cultural location and temperament. My placement of scientific methodologies such as methodological naturalism or humanist ethical systems on this chart does not put them on par with any of the religious examples given. As I will explain, these categories are instead very personal for me.
Dawkins’s belief scale is the basis of numbers one (1) through seven (7) at the base of my chart. This scale is a categorization from #1 Strong Theist through #7 Strong Atheist. The strong theist and strong atheist “know” their positions are correct. Every stage in between the polarities of strong theism and strong atheism is essentially a form of agnosticism. It might come as a surprise to some that Dawkins identifies at #6, as a de-facto atheist who knows that he cannot absolutely prove there is no god but who feels he can reasonably conclude there isn’t one and lives accordingly. Dawkins’ belief scale is the most objective aspect of my graphic, the remainder ventures into much more subjective categories about how I think.
The examples given under each category are deeply personal for me—they are not meant to be ontological. I am not asserting, for example, that Liberation Theology is inherently or by its nature Weak Theist, nor am I asserting that Evangelicalism is by its nature De-facto Theist. I am asserting that for me these examples represent perspectives within the category listed. I am saying that I can take on a given religion or theology within De-facto theism and run with it. I am able to and find myself often thinking like a Rabbinic Jew or like an Evangelical, taking such perspectives within the category of De-facto Theism.
Perspectival Empathy
On Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator tests I score INFP. My incline toward P (perception) versus J (judging) gifts me with the ability to understand and enter into multiple perspectives. In my personal development I find myself able to defend and think like any given point listed above. As recently suggested by a friend from church, I call this perspective or perspectival empathy. I say this not to boast because this is not in and of itself a badge of honor as it also burdens me with an inner discursive community of voices, representative voices that speak up and defend their holdings and claims as I navigate through the mysteries of existence.
In my thinking process, I recognize the contingencies of the perspectives I take. I realize that there are highly contingent histories and aspects my historical-cultural location and my temperament that influence how I think. Unlike the fundamentalist who denies such contingencies, I accept them. Hence, I see each of the perspectives listed here as way points, as houses to dwell in, to work with the quote initially given by Wheeler. No single point exhausts who I am or who I enjoy being. No single way point is a stopping ground for me, summing up the thoughts I am capable of thinking or defending.
Right and left brain distinctions in which the left brain is inclined toward logic, reason, and math and the right brain is inclined toward creativity, music, and art no longer carry weight in neuroscience. However, I find this distinction valuable as a metaphor. I feel as though my left brain thinks scientifically and rationally and is atheistic. On the other hand my right brain, my creative brain, swims in a world of theology and subjectivity and is theistic (or panentheistic, see note below). I do not feel as though any given category on Dawkins’ belief scale exhausts who I am and the thoughts I am capable of thinking. In some ways I could jettison the entire scale, which would not be too difficult, but I have found that I am able to use it as a metaphor to describe how I think and how I feel. I am a rational atheist with deeply mystical, creative anchoring in God. Yes, this is a contradiction, but I am okay with this. It works for me.
Note on Panentheism and Weak Theist
The items in the #3 Weak Theist category are there because they represent non-interventionist theism for me. Many have argued that theism is defined by the existence of a God outside of the cosmos whose intervention in the natural order is by means of interrupting natural law, i.e., by performing a miracle. Though for others some of the examples listed might better be categorized as de-facto theist, these paradigms for me are essentially non-interventionist in which God acts by means of natural law and in which God is likely ontologically incapable of contravening natural law. God in these models works naturalistically, entirely in step with natural law not by coercion but by persuasion. To the degree that one’s panentheism allows for an interventionist God, to that degree does panentheism become a form of theism. However, any appeal that panentheism has for me as a philosophical model or as a means of reconciling the questions of theodicy, fall into non-interventionist camps which might even be called non-theistic.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

אֱלהִים עֵץ וָאָבֶן / Gods of Wood and Stone…and Paper and Ink

The Bible chides those who construct their gods of wood and stone. In describing the vanity of creating an image, an idol the author of Deutero-Isaiah states the following:
The smith maketh an axe, and worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with his strong arm; yea, he is hungry, and his strength faileth; he drinketh no water, and is faint. The carpenter stretcheth out a line; he marketh it out with a pencil; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compasses, and maketh it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man, to dwell in the house. He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the ilex and the oak, and strengtheneth for himself one among the trees of the forest; he planteth a bay-tree, and the rain doth nourish it. Then a man useth it for fuel; and he taketh thereof, and warmeth himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. He burneth the half thereof in the fire; with the half thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied; yea, he warmeth himself, and saith: 'Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire'; And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image; he falleth down unto it and worshippeth, and prayeth unto it, and saith: 'Deliver me, for thou art my god.' They know not, neither do they understand; for their eyes are bedaubed, that they cannot see, and their hearts, that they cannot understand. And none considereth in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say: 'I have burned the half of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh and eaten it; and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? Shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?' He striveth after ashes, a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say: 'Is there not a lie in my right hand?' (Isaiah 44:12-20).
Hence, the idol’s maker plants the tree and oversees its maturation only later to draw from the same raw material, the wood, for both fuel as fire wood (a symbol of vanity or transience, Hebrew “chavel”) and a god from which he implores deliverance. The author here illustrates what he thus sees as the irrationality of idol worship: the same raw materials used for fire become the deity receiving worship.
They know not, neither do they understand…He striveth after ashes…[with] a lie in [his] right hand
Though far less concrete, this metaphor can be extrapolated to describe modern-day fundamentalism. The Christian fundamentalist* is characterized by a reliance on a wooden biblical literalism. She believes that she can define, though not necessarily formulate, God by the Bible. The word “definition” is itself a loan-word with etymological roots in Latin through French. Its root word is Latin finitus meaning “limit” or “boundary.” Hence, to define something is to set boundaries, to circumscribe, to set limits. In fact, the 14th century French use of definicion can literally be defined as “a setting of boundaries.” Through the Bible, the Christian fundamentalist feels that she can circumscribe God for what God is and what God isn’t. She constructs her “image” of God from the Bible. Developing this metaphor further, the Christian fundamentalist begins her process of circumscribing or constructing God with paper and ink—the Bible.

Driven by the belief that her reading of the Bible is guided by the Holy Spirit, she extracts her raw materials from the Bible, from the paper and ink with which she encounters the Bible, weakened as it is in translation. Putting aside questions of exegesis and hermeneutics versus devotional encounter, she constructs her image not from wood, but from words encountered on paper and written with ink. Though her resulting definition and image of God is not a concrete idol that is physically enshrined, her construct is nonetheless an image and an idol, a recipient of worship. The fundamentalist Christian is hence left with an image, a construct, a circumscription of her own creation, pieced together through what generally is an uncritical use of the biblical texts, and a recipient of her devotion and worship.

To make this more concrete, construct a mental picture of an idol of wood versus an idol of folded pages torn from the Bible, Bible origami. How is what the fundamentalist Christian does different than what the maker of the wood idol? Are not both likewise shot through with irreparable though humanly-necessary subjectivity? Of course the fundamentalist will argue, “The Bible is God’s self revelation.” Though, really, unless everyone that reads the Bible comes to the same construct of God, this point is utterly meaningless.

*I am referring specifically to fundamentalists of Protestant-Evangelical heritage and the epistemological implications of the doctrine of the priesthood of the [individual] believer

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hostile Honesty and Dishonest Apologetics

A hostile witness can be a wonderful learning tool. Back when I was in the throes of confusion, toggling between evolution and young-earth creationism, one of the issues that I had a hard time settling was who to trust. If my theology was correct, and humanity was sinful, at enmity with God, and bent on raising its fist to God, I weened, “How can I trust the ‘data’ the ‘raw facts’ that mainstream evolutionary science produces? How do I know that the information is not being perverted and the real truth concealed to justify rejection of God’s authority?” With such thoughts I would often settle my doubts about young-earth creationism by calling into question the integrity of secular science.

However, when I encountered University of Chicago and Harvard educated, PhD Kurt Wise who argued his dissertation under Stephen J Gould, I found a young-earth creationist that was qualified in his field (paleobiology) and honest with the data. Unlike other creationist brainwashing machines (Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, Kent Hovind, et. al.), Wise admitted when the field data was in favor of mainstream evolutionary science and where it challenged young-earth creationism. And, humbly, Wise admitted a lot of evidence in favor of evolutionary models. In The God Delusion, Dawkins, I was later to learn, even gives honorable mention to Wise for his honesty with the data, calling him an “honest creationist.”

Todd Charles Wood is another young-earth creationist that I respect for his qualifications (PhD in biochemistry) and honesty. Like Wise, he does not attempt to hide data or twist it to favor his young-earth models. He rather honestly concedes that the evidence overwhelmingly favors mainstream evolutionary models, and he honestly concedes that his reasons for maintaining belief in young-earth creationism rest solely with his reading of the early chapters of Genesis. Honest indeed—he does not feign the data to favor his faith in fatuous fables such as the Fall and the Flood.

Earlier this year Wood wrote a series of posts on his blog critiquing Reasons to Believe (RTB) – another creationist ministry. Unlike Wood and Wise, RTB along with Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana are old-earth or progressive creationists. Progressive creationists reject biological evolution, but they accept the standard geological natural history of the Earth. They maintain that each new species that arises on earth is a distinct special creation by God (including the some thirty now extinct species of elephants – not a very efficient God). I attended one of Fuz Rana’s seminars in early 2005 with my ex-wife where he promoted his book Adam and the RTB model of human origins. In the RTB model, modern humans or homo sapiens sapiens are the only hominids created in the image of God. The first homo sapiens sapiens were Adam and Eve, and all other hominids were soulless animals without an eternal, immaterial spirit. The sickening dualism aside, their model is hinged on the discontinuity between homo sapiens sapiens and earlier hominids and primates. Hence, they attempt to discredit the chimp genome project which uncovers an over 98% genetic commonality (even among pseudo-genes and “junk DNA”) between chimpanzees and modern humans.

Wood wrote these following eight articles to illustrate the inconsistencies and non-responsiveness to the current, relevant data that RTB exhibits in order to maintain their model. Wood proceeds with a great deal of respect. For example, where RTB and Rana seem to intentionally ignore relevant information that would utterly falsify their model, Wood gives them the benefit of the doubt (though he admits it is not always easy). Wood himself cannot explain the > 98% genetic similarity between humans and chimpanzees within his young-earth creationist model, but he at least is willing to honestly concede that the data is what it is. If anyone would like to have an expose in the dishonest antics often taken up by Christian apologists, I recommend these articles. They are also a terrific introduction into the current data on human evolution and our shared primate ancestry.

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 1

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 2

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 3

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 4

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 5

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 6

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 7

RTB and the Chimp Genome Part 8

Monday, March 21, 2011

This Atheist Believes in God (and Does Theology)

Looking back temporally from where we as a species stand today, we can identify at least three significant starting points or origins in our universe: the origins of the physical, the origins of life, and the origins of mind (consciousness). The origin of the physical universe, in this present iteration, encompasses all matter and energy. The origin of life encompasses only those domains where life actually emerges. The origin of mind and consciousness extends only to the domain of thought—the noosphere, which may in fact encompass only our planet. Hence, with each new origin, with each new emergence, the features become less universal and far more local. The human creations of philosophy, politics, piety, and ethics belong to the realm of human thought, the noosphere. The concept of God is likewise an emergent property of the noosphere (Morowitz, p. 134). The emergence of mind, the emergence of consciousness, the emergence of the noosphere are the emergence of God.

Samuel Alexander, Jewish philosopher and influence on Alfred North Whitehead, stated in 1918,

As actual, God does not possess the quality of deity but is the universe as tending toward that quality… Thus there is no infinite being with the quality of deity; but there is an actual infinite, the whole universe, with a nisus toward deity; and this is the God of the religious consciousness, though that consciousness habitually forecasts the divinity of its object as actually realized in an individual form (1920).

God hence is not a realized being, one that possesses independent personality and volition; rather, God is a naturalistically emergent property of the universe, specifically of the noosphere. And, only insofar that human consciousness exists does God (or do gods and goddesses) exist. Deity is dependent on and co-existent with the noosphere. This is what theologian Phillip Clayton calls radically emergent theism in which “God” is concomitant with human consciousness, is a quality that the universe comes to have increasingly over time, dwells in the noosphere, and is the universe expressing self awareness (2008, p. 95; 2004, p. 90).

Theology as Anthropology

Theology then, it should be pointed out, is not the study of an ethereal being. Theology is a form of anthropology. As humans are the biosphere’s master symbol makers, the study of theology is the study of ideas, symbols, and arch-types that are variously expressed in human culture(s). But, it ought to be asked, does the God of the noosphere influence humanity? The answer is most certainly yes. Though God only exists in the human mind, God concepts (memeplexes) assert tremendous influences on human thinking and culture in top-down causation. There can be no question that God is the inspiration behind many of the most incredible human accomplishments—both the good and the bad. Hence, God is active in history as an idea, a variously expressed memeplex that influences the direction individuals, groups, and nations.

Worshipping the Divine

Allow me to close this post with the following words from Morowitz (2004):

Ethics, morality, and religion have their home in the noosphere. Since the mind has volitional properties, some aspects of the local universe are under our influence. Prayer may be directed inward to our volitional selves, or public prayer may be directed to the public noosphere. We may stand in awe of the God of immanance; we may struggle to understand the mind of the God of emergence; and we may put our bodies on the line to fulfill the potential of the God of transdencence for the world of humans. … But transcendence shows no evidence of going beyond the human mind… Transcendence is the divine in us. To choose good, not evil, is our responsibility (pps 134-136).

This last quote touches on the properties of the divine and human religiosity that remain meaningful for me as a non-theist. When I say a prayer, it is not being offered up to a capable potentate ready to respond to my request and grant me my wishes. I worship “God” not as a miracle-maker; I revel in “God” as an outgrowth of culture and community. I take on a “God-perspective” as a powerful means to otherness, to see myself from a third-person set of eyes. This “God” though is utterly naturalistic, an emergent product of the universe and the human symbol-making capacity. I may be playing with fire, but fire, if this metaphor works, was a major step in hominid evolution.

Works Cited:

Alexander, Samuel. Space, Time, and Deity: the Gifford Lectures. London: Macmillan, 1920.

Clayton, Phillip. Adventures in Spirit: God, World, and Divine Action. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Clayton, Phillip. “Panentheism in Metaphysical and Scientific Perspective” in In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004

Morowitz, Harold J. “The Trinitarian World of Neo-Panentheism: on Panentheism and Epistemology” in In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Destroying the Idols of Local Truth

Moral philosopher Immanuel Kant’s first formulation was that of normative behavior. He posited,

Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will.”
Stated otherwise, behave as though the decisions you make would be acceptable to you if made by everyone, everywhere. Hence, if buying ones wares is a behavior that you can universally will or abide, then do not exempt yourself by theft. This is sometimes called the “universalizability test.” When the “universalizability test” is applied to epistemology, we find that the only way of knowing, the only paradigm that can stand is naturalism or methodological naturalism.

Religious Fundamentalism—Local Truth Systems/Privatized Truth

How does a religious fundamentalist know—what is her epistemology? Using the example of theistic religions, the Christian or Muslim fundamentalist knows by the same means that everyone else does—by use of the senses. However, fundamentalist epistemology diverges when it comes to authority and subjectivity. The fundamentalist’s primary epistemological commitment is to remain faithful to the “faith/truth once given” generally in the form of apodictic revelation like the Bible or the Quran. Fundamentalist truth is static, and the fundamentalist is not able to abide or abet revisions to dogma (Clayton, p. 33). Hence, fundamentalism is characterized by “tenacity, authority, a closure of inquiry, and an absence of growth” (Anderson, 3030).

Fundamentalism privatizes truth. It appeals to the authority of scripture or to subjective experiences. It is closed to criticism, walling itself up into privatized, localized truth systems, and the fundamentalist exempts her dogma, her truth from criticism, sheltering her beliefs in a veil of ignorance. She maintains her local shrine and protects it from criticism.

Science—Global Perspectives

Unlike privatized, localized truth systems, science seeks to find the realities, the truths that cut through and transcend subjective contexts. Science is a process, a way of knowing, and an epistemological commitment. By definition scientific knowledge is empirical, fluid, and continually open to revision. It does not cluster around sacrosanct ideas, it does not enshrine and wall in the sacred; rather, it exposes all ideas to criticism and to the rubric of empiricism and naturalism.

Dogmatic Epistemologies are Immoral

When we apply Kant’s first formulation, the “universalizability test,” to fundamentalist epistemology, we find it immoral. The scientist and scientific epistemology seek to “discover a single underlying framework that belongs to every possible observer” (Clayton, p 41). This single framework is naturalism—the paradigm that everyone can share in regardless of birth or life position. The fundamentalist seeks to create and defend a local truth system, a shrine, a set of impassible truth and unalterable knowledge that is exempt from the same criteria she would apply to other truth systems.

Would the fundamentalist Christian, for example, abide and abet the Muslim believer in making the same gratuitous assumptions and defenses of the Quran that she makes for her own view of the Bible? No, she exempts her local truth shrine from criticism, from the universal acid of naturalism, that she would gladly apply to her neighbor’s local truth shrine. If there ever were an idolatry, it is that of local truth systems, that of fundamentalism.

In light of Kant’s first formulation, the only responsible and ethically consistent epistemology is that of methodological naturalism and/or science. Every other epistemology is local, non-universal, and exempts itself from the stream of progress.


Works Cited

Anderson, Douglas. "Pierce's Common Sense Marriage of Religion and Science" in The Cambridge Companion to Pierce. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Clayton, Phillip. Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Ecclesiastes and Agnostic Destinies

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath (רוּחַ); so that man hath no pre-eminence above a beast; for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all return to dust. Who knoweth the spirit (רוּחַ) of man whether it goeth upward, and the spirit (רוּחַ) of the beast whether it goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I perceived that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion; for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? (Ecclesiastes 3:19-22)

The above passage is rich in reflective material.

Unlike other passages in the Bible that delineate a body-soul dualism in which the soul, the animus, survives death in a disembodied state (see Revelation 6:9; Luke 16:22; et. al.), this passage softens or even eliminates dualism. It does this by comparing the mortality of humanity to that of beasts—placing humanity on a similar footing with the rest of the animal kingdom.

It is worth noting the bias in most English translations at this point. The same Hebrew word translated “breath” and “spirit” is the Hebrew word רוּחַ transliterated as ruakh. This word carries the meanings of breath, air, spirit, etc. Because English readers tend to anthropomorphize “spirit” to refer to the disembodied soul, the immaterial “true you” that survives death, it is uncommon for most English translations to translate ruakh as “spirit” with reference to non-human animals. Hence, “spirit” is generally reserved as the translation for ruakh only when it refers to humanity or God. Notice in the first occurrence of ruakh above the translators used the word breath, and it is only when the ruakh is described leaving the body that it is applied in parallel to non-human animals and humans. Hence, it is worth noting that “they all have one breath” in verse 19 is actually referring to the spirit/ruakh shared between metabolic biological life on Earth.

After meditating on the “one spirit” that equalizes humanity with the rest of the animal kingdom, we learn that we all have the same fate. The mortality of the beast is comparable to the mortality of the person. This passage might suggest a dualism with the upward mobility of the human ruakh contrasted with the downward, “to the earth,” direction of the non-human ruakh, but this is posed as a question. The author is actually presenting himself as agnostic on this matter—unsure of whether there is a difference between the destiny of humanity and animals. Rather than despairing of hope and purpose in the absence of existence or awareness beyond the grave, the author concludes that “there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion…”

Naturally, most fundamentalist scholars and apologists will neutralize this passage’s message. They will posit progressive revelation so that the author was unable to know about the promise of the resurrection. Or, they might state that this was written in despair and with appropriate genre consideration, that this passage is not authoritative. In making these hermeneutical maneuvers they may maintain the integrity of their dogma and belief systems, but they lose the texture of the Bible and they mute biblical authors who disagree with their status quo. This passage is incredibly agnostic about human purpose and destiny. It does not hold out the hope of eternal life which is no surprise considering that a maturely articulated life-after-death schema was not present in the religion of Israel until during and after the Babylonian Exile (see Daniel 12:2 for an example of a passage heavily influenced by Zoastrainism).

However, as a non-theist who does not believe our purpose is contingent on the dictates of gods or other such external authorities nor on the eternal destinies that our minds fancy, I find a lot in common with this passage. I realize that there is futility, a vanity that permeates my existence. Yet, I enjoy life. I work hard; I enjoy the fruits of my labors. According to the Preacher (the author of Ecclesiastes, see 1:1), I am participating in the best of life. Do I agree with this conclusion? I do in part, but enough has been said for this post.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Killing in the Name of the Wrong God

In the book of Leviticus, the children of Israel are commanded not to offer or sacrifice their children to Molekh, presumably a Canaanite deity. One text reads,

…thou shalt not give any of thy seed to set them apart to Molech…(Lev 18:21)

This prohibition is restated and further developed in Leviticus 20:1-5 where the death penalty is prescribed for the one who so offers his seed or offspring to the Canaanite god. Armed with modern, egalitarian sensibilities of the value of human life, many readers find the idea of human sacrifice, let alone sacrificing one’s child[ren], to be unduly abhorrent. Of course YHWH, the god of the Hebrews, would proscribe or prohibit human sacrifice, the thinking goes. How could a good God call for the killing of another human, let alone innocents? However, as this post will develop, the prohibition against child sacrifice here is not rooted in the value of human life but in the seemingly minor ritual detail of what god the sacrifice is being made to.

Deuteronomy 7:1-2 instructs the children of Israel to commit genocide, to wipe out seven nations from existence:

When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; and when the LORD thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them.

Now it is highly noteworthy that the words translated “utterly destroy” (transliteration: ha’chareim t’chareym) here are often translated as “devote [to destruction].” Without addressing all uses of cherem, it is worth noting that this word is loaded with cultic or ritual meaning. An example of its cultic or ritual use is to be found in Leviticus 27:28:

…no devoted thing (cherem), that a man may devote (ya’charim) unto the LORD of all that he hath, whether of man or beast, or of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing (cherem) is most holy unto the LORD.
In this passage a person voluntarily devotes or makes cherem something unto YHWH (“the LORD”). He is not permitted to redeem it or to sell it, it must be given over as “most holy” to YHWH. An example of this in action would be a man devoting his fatted ox as an offering to YHWH. Once dedicating or devoting an object, thus making it cherem, it must be offered to YHWH. A similar use is found in I Samuel 15:21 where the devoted items are offered in sacrifice as burnt offerings to YHWH.

Returning to the prohibition against human sacrifice to Molekh, we learn from Deuteronomy 7 (see also Deuteronomy 20:16-17), that it is not the human sacrifice component that is the root issue. It is not that YHWH values human life for its own sake. Elsewhere YHWH requires the genocidal devotion or offering (cherem) of entire people groups—men, women, children, and animals. What moral take away is there from this? We learn that killing is not always a bad thing—what is important is whose name one is killing in.

Most Bible believing and Bible reading Christians obviously will not accept this ethical conclusion. They, like much of the world, have moved ahead in our moral amelioration to accept the dignity of human life. However, it bothers me that so many of these same Christians will claim the Bible as their ultimate moral compass and final authority. Hypocritically they herald the Bible as their guide but they accept humanistic value systems which they, in turn, ascribe to God.