Friday, October 12, 2012

Alternatives - Part 2: Absolute "Freethought"

In my previous post in this series, I presented some of the stronger criticisms of theism as an absolute world view or heuristic.  Classical “supernaturalistic theism” was found to face difficulties with scientific naturalism (a redundancy used here for emphasis), to cultivate the problems of theodicy, and to hold the potential to turn into abuse of ethical priorities and human rights.  It should be noted that the criticisms so far developed related to theism as an heuristic, that is, as an interpretive lens through which one attempts to make sense of the world and to align reality.  These criticisms do not necessarily mean that theism is incorrect or somehow unsalvageable; however, as I will show later in this series, there are alternatives to both the absolutes of theism and atheism.

In speaking of theism and atheism as absolutes, I am hearkening to the useful spectrum of theistic-atheistic possibilities developed by Richard Dawkins.  This spectrum holds a polarity between a Level-1 Theist who holds unquestionably to the proposition that there is a personal God and the opposite end Level-7 Atheist who asserts unquestionably that there isn't a God.  In this spectrum, Level -2 Theists and Level-6 Atheists maintain the “de-facto” stance that, though an absolute conclusion on theism and atheism is beyond verification or final proof, each respective platform is held as true beyond reasonable doubt.  Within this spectrum, it should be noted, Dawkins himself identifies as a Level-6 or “de-facto” atheist (Dawkins).

Freethinkers – Platonic Disciples of the Enlightenment

Freethought can be defined as the proposition that:
…individuals should not accept ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason.  Thus, freethinkers strive to build their opinions on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any logical fallacies or the intellectually limiting effects of authority, confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmas (Wikipedia, “Freethought”, accessed October 12, 2012)
In my criticisms that follow, I want to emphasize that I identify largely as a freethinker, and thus I speak as a self-critical and thus self-aware practitioner.  There are some profoundly important methodological aspects to freethought that are, unfortunately, more often than not asserted in a profoundly na├»ve manner.  I hope to point this out in the process of this post. 

Plato maintained that ideas are prior to matter and knowledge transcends situation.  For Plato conceptual knowledge trumped the limits of the physical world.  Knowledge, real knowledge, is absolute and transcends without necessarily excluding the situations in which a knowledge is expressed.  Any philosophy which asserts that knowledge is extrinsic thus expresses a fundamental agreement with platonic thought.  

Freethought seeks to escape the shackles of subjectivity, culture, convention, tradition, and prejudice – it seeks to lay hold of that “true knowledge” which is thus extrinsic to these presumably inferior limits.  The freethinker thus relies on “objective fact” and not “subjective emotions” or convention.  In these regards, freethought is platonic.

British-Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein, the author of the “duck-rabbit”illustration asserted:
The questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt…It belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted (1969, p. 342)
If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The practice of doubt itself presupposes certainty (1969, p. 115).

Wittgenstein thus maintains that it is impossible to question, to doubt, or to practice skepticism without having a foundation upon which to stand.  Tilley (2000) proposes:
To attempt to analyze, inquire, doubt, or question a given item in a tradition requires participating in some tradition (perhaps not the tradition under inquiry).  …the Enlightenment thinker’s commitment to rationality arises within a tradition.  Numerous contemporary philosophers have even argued that such a commitment is a faith commitment, in the sense that it is not founded on an argument but is grounded in hope and sustained and supported by fellow practitioners (pgs 20-21). 

What is the tradition that the freethinker aligns with?  The freethinker is aligned with the Enlightenment trajectory that crystallizes into modernism.  The practice of modernism is heuristically, at its best, worked out in positivism (or verificationism) and methodological naturalism.  Positivism is the position that the only questions worth asking or answering are those which can be answered empirically, that is, through science, and science relies by definition on the use of methodological naturalism.

Uncritical Practitioners

Unfortunately, many freethinkers are not practicing a self-critical skepticism, and rather than realizing the limits of our own methodologies, we elevate them all too often to the level of metaphysical absolutes.  Clayton and Knapp note, “...the presumption of naturalism is methodological not metaphysical, because otherwise the presumption would be arbitrary, a matter of (nonreligious) faith or dogma" (2012).  A self-critical skepticism turns its lenses back onto itself, recognizes the historical-cultural location of its own methods, and is aware of the point at which a methodology becomes a metaphysic.

 Caputo and Gianna (2007) assert the following propositions about human knowledge:
…there is no experience of truth that is not interpretive.  I do not know anything that does not interest me.  If it does interest me, it is evident that I do not look at it in a noninterested way (Loc 285).
…knowledge is not the pure, uninterested reflection of the real, but the interested approach to the world, which is itself historically mutable and culturally conditioned (Loc 316).

When the situatedness of human knowledge is forgotten, the practitioner is at risk of elevating her perspective to the level of a “God’s eye” perspective.  And this is the irony of absolute atheism: it practices the dogmatism of asserting a “God’s eye perspective,” that is, it falls into the temptation of the mythical Adam and Eve who seek to know, who seek to grasp what is not possible and so to leave behind the ultimate situatedness of human knowledge.

Abusive Absolutes in Freethought and Atheism

As touched on in the last post, absolute theism presents the ever-present risk of “masking social oppression and grant[ing] legitimacy to the status quo” (Ellison, p. 24), we also need to exercise caution about science masked as “objective” or “God’s eye” truth.   Ellison observes, “Science reflects ideological interests and helps to promote them as legitimate.  …science has the power to constitute and not merely observe difference.”   Ellison then observes how biology was used to legitimate status quo gender differences to make them appear natural rather than political in origin (p. 36). 

We hence see that freethought and science (which are not synonymous) can be abused when they are used to legitimate power interests.  In fact, calling skepticism by the epithet “freethought” can be a source of abuse because the implication explicit in this term is the “freedom” of the practice from situatedness in tradition, culture, politics, and power interests. 

There are other options to the absolutes thus far critiqued, and they do not require the dissolute.  That is, the only alternative to absolute is not dissolute relativism.  In the next most I will introduce one alternative.

Works Cited:
Caputo, John D. & Vattimo, Gianni. After the Death of God – Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture. New York: Colombia University Press, 2007.
Clayton, Philip and Knapp, Steven. The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Ellison, Marvin M. Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1996).
Tilley, Terrence W. Inventing Catholic Tradition. New York: Orbis, 2000.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. Ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Ansombe. Oxford: Blackwell, 1969; as quoted in Tilley, Terrance W. Inventing Catholic Tradition. New York: Orbis, 2000.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Alternatives - Part 1: Absolute Theism

Theism Defined

What is theism?  Classical theism as understood by Jews, Christians, and Muslims can be defined as follows:

...the belief in an unchanging God, external to the world, who nevertheless miraculously and supernaturally acts in the world at specific moments in its history (Epperly, p. 13). 
Classical theism has been called by philosopher of religion and science Philip Clayton, "supernaturalistic theism" (p. 120) in which God works as an agent outside of the cosmos, independently "looking in."  Classical theism generally conceives of God and the world (the cosmos) as substances which by definition are essentially spatial and cannot overlap.  In this context God is an absolute, unchanging, immutable being who is by definition sovereignly separate from the material cosmos which is inferior because it is always in the process of change.  God is perfect; the world is imperfect.  God is absolute; the world is contingent.  

Creation from Nothing: A Theistic Essential

An essential pillar of classical theism is the doctrine or idea of creatio ex nihilo ("creation out of nothing").  God created the cosmos out of nothing and all aspects of the natural world from the laws of nature to the existence of humanity are contingent and so unessential.  In turn, God is not restricted by the cosmos, and God's power is not limited by the the nature of the cosmos.  How do the contingency of the cosmos and the unrestricted will of God relate to creatio ex nihilo?  Erickson (1985) explains this well:
God did not work with something which was in existence.  He brought into existence the very raw material which he employed.  If this were not the case, God would...have been limited by having to work with the intrinsic characteristics of the raw material which he employed" (p. 374).
Grudem (1994) similarly asserts:
...were we to deny creation out of nothing, we would have to say that some matter has always existed and that it is eternal like God.  This idea would challenge God's independence...[and] his sovereignty (p.264). 
Grudem uses the following diagram to illustrate the God-world relationship:

Grudem's God-World Model
Both Grudem and Erickson agree that creatio ex nihilo is essential to the otherness and absolute nature of God.  With God utterly independent from the material cosmos, Erickson (1984) affirms, "...a definite supernaturalism -- God resides outside the world and intervenes periodically within the natural processes through miracles" (p. 304).

God can hence suspend, annihilate, or reverse natural law as God pleases.  In fact, natural law becomes illusory because there is nothing natural about it.  The ultimate essence of the cosmos is characterized by supernaturalism, or as Griffin (2004) notes, "...the 'laws of nature' can be interrupted because they are not really natural in the sense of being inherent in the very nature of things" (p. 36).  

The God of classical theism, the God of the classical God-world metaphysic, the God of ontotheology is thus 

- Absolute
- Unchanging
- Independent of the cosmos (in sovereignty and in actualization) 

Having set these foundations, let us consider how atheism is the best answer to the God of classical theism.


The God of ontotheology is a failure.  If the concept of creatio ex nihilo is correct and God is radically independent of the cosmos, the implication is that God could intervene at any time.  Hence, "...any evil that has occurred--from the rape of a child to the Nazi Holocaust--could have been unilaterally prevented by God."  Further, if God is the independent author of natural law, then all "natural evils" from birth defects to earthquakes to tsunamis were freely created by God and God, " hypothesis could have freely created a world with all of the positive values of this one but without the possibility of these evils" (Griffin, p. 38).  

For many with "punitive oriented, rewards-punishments positions" (Epperly, p. 39), there are no problems with an unrestricted, all-powerful, omnipotent God who doesn't intervene in the affairs of the world to prevent or to bring cessation to suffering.  Such positions, however, run the risk of canonizing and sacralizing structural injustices as the will of God, and, indeed, there is a rather poor scorecard on the part of many theists who have done exactly this and exonerated institutions from patriarchy to slavery with appeal to the absolute nature of God.   

Dissolution of Science: Gaps and Ignorance

The natural world is characterized not by supernaturalism but rather by what appears to be a closed-causal system of cause and effect.  At no point in the explanation of observable phenomenon from the rising of the sun to the conception and birth of a baby does one need to appeal to supernatural agency--everything happens within the context of natural law.  And, it seems that this same observation and the methodology it implies--naturalism--can be used to explain not only what is observed today but also what we know happened in the past including the origin of life, the change of life over time, and the processes that brought the cosmos into its present form.  

Many of the observed phenomenon that we now attribute to natural law were once deemed to be supernatural acts of God.  Many today, however, resist the explanatory value of naturalism and insist that there remain and will always remain "gaps" in the causal order of natural law, of cause-and-effect relationships.  These gaps, some insist, will forever point to the outside intervention of a supernatural God and will never lend themselves to the causal explanations of naturalism.  Science, however, operates only by naturalism and the use of naturalism to methodologically explain the natural world.  To insist on a God anchored in supernaturalism is to ultimately lay a logical foundation for atheism.  As soon as a naturalistic explanation has been found for what was once thought to be attributable to the divine, miraculous agency of God, God is no longer necessary.  Supernaturalism hence logically leads to atheism.  

Abusively Absolute Alerity

Theologically, alerity is the otherness of God.  God in classical theology exists outside and independent of the material cosmos as an absolute, unaffected by the material cosmos.  In turn, God is abstract, nonrelative, and that which is attributed to the status of God's will is also traditionally seen as absolute.  God's will is thus seen as absolute truth and deemed "nonrelative to anything else, absolved of all interdependence, all conditions, all vulnerability, all passion, all change (Keller, p. 16).  As mentioned under theodicy, this results in sacralized structural injustices.  It was God's will for Europeans to exploit and colonize North America, India, and Palestine.  It is God's will for millions to die of AIDS in Africa because condoms are sinful. It is God's will for American blacks to be economically disenfranchised.  It is God's will for the West to exploit cheap labor markets.

In this post we have considered some of the abuses associated with classical theism.  In the next post will will consider naturalism as a metaphysical absolute.  In a third post will start to consider alternatives to the standard theistic and atheistic absolutes. 

Works Cited:
Clayton, Philip. Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2008.
Epperly, Bruce G. Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.  New York, T&T Clark International, 2011. 
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Baker, 1985.
Griffin, David Ray. "Panentheism: A Post-Modern Revelation" (pages 36-47) in In Whom We Live Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God's Presence in a Scientific World. Clayton, Philip and Peacoke, Clark eds. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994. 
Keller, Catherine. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2008.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Gym Frog

Without glasses, I couldn't make out if what I was seeing slowly leap past was a frog or a toad.  I was at the gym, on an elliptical, and in the middle of an HIIT cycle.  The desire to finish the cycle overruled the temptation to leap off the machine to capture and rescue the little leaper from what would eventually be certain death by  foot or dehydration.  In my mind I had the leaper classified as either a common toad or a wood frog, but because wood frogs are relatively uncommon here, I ruled out the possibility of a wood frog classification.  I finished my HIIT cycle and prepared myself to rescue the toad.

I was favorably surprised and happy to find that it was indeed a wood frog that had decided to visit me at the gym.  I dropped to the floor and snapped a half dozen pictures from different angles.  In my excitement and with some concern for the scene I was making, I didn't take enough pictures with the gym in the background.  A wood frog with the unnatural background of florescent lighting, treadmills, ellpiticals, cardio monkeys, and gym rats would have been meaningful. 

Wood frogs are fascinating for their ability to survive with all of their cells crystallized into ice.  Where most amphibians spend their winters hibernating below the frost line buried in mud beneath ponds and lakes, wood frogs actually hibernate within the frost line. In turn, their respiratory systems will often come to a complete halt, freezing over completely.  Wood frogs are unique among North American vertebrates for this ability to survive being frozen.  Garter snakes have a similar ability to survive below freezing temperatures, but their success is attributed to blood properties that mimic anti-freeze and so retard the advancement of ice.  

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Differential Blues


This is currently stationed in the Keller Lounge at my church as an entry in Grand Rapids' Art Prize.  In fairness to the artist, I will add the artist's placard after next Sunday.  I did not think to take a picture of it yesterday.

I see the relationship between the church and members of the LGBTQ community to be parallel to the early church's relationship between its founding Jewish members and the non-Jews.  A pressing question in the early church was, "Do non-Jews have to convert to Judaism before entering the church?"  Are non-Jews permitted to retain their distinctive cultures and practices as members of the church?  Similar questions can be asked about the relationship between LGBTQ peoples and the church.

My experience with LGBTQ peoples has been formative in my understanding sexual identity.  In particular, a former pastor at Fountain Street, a partnered gay man, dramatically illustrated to me that it is possible to live out a deeply authentic multi-spiritual identity (he utilized practices and disciplines from Judaism, Catholicism, etc.) as a self-identified gay person.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Blog Spotlight

I'd like to spotlight a blog that I came across this morning: 

I am incredibly impressed with the balance, maturity, and thoughtfulness that this blog expresses.  From what I can gather about the author, she is a former Methodist become Catholic who, with her husband, once enjoyed a sacramental life within the Roman Catholic communion.  I do not know her entire story, but she now identifies as a "not-theist" Unitarian Universalist and a free thinker.  She often writes about what she misses in her sacramental life as a Catholic--she still craves the ritual life she once had.  I don't know her reasons for leaving Catholicism, but her thoughts about wanting a sacramental-life without all of the baggage of the Catholic church resonate well with me. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Somatic-Sacramental Worship at Fountain Street Church

After a summer church hiatus, my wife, family, and I return to our regular weekly church attendance at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids. I've been thinking about sacramental worship lately, and I would like to offer the following reflections and questions: 

The Roman Catholic mass is outlined in two sections.  The first section is a liturgy of the word and the second is the liturgy of the altar. During the liturgy of the word, the prayers and movements are directed toward preparation for readings from the Gospels.  The liturgy of the altar is the congregation's generally active participation in the sacrifice of the eucharist where the host is believed to be literally offered sacrificially and the congregation eats thereof.  A mass can only exist with both liturgies expressed.

In Protestant traditions, the eucharist (more often called communion by Protestants) is not believed to be a sacrifice but rather a symbol, an intellectual assent to the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection.  High-church Protestantism aside, historically Protestants have not celebrated a liturgy of the altar: the focus of worship is on the liturgy of the word.  As a result, Protestant worship is markedly cerebral and more a matter of intellect or a thought exercise than acts carried out with the body.  For the historic Protestant, the Reformation affirmed that "works of the law" (read as human deeds) are not and cannot be a means of grace; therefore, worship is not sacramental.  Worship is foremost a matter of the heart.  This results in varying degrees of dualism -- separating the heart and mind from actions done with the hands and experiences of the body.  Enter many a Protestant into a Catholic or Orthodox church, and there are often reports of formalism and "works-righteousness."  In addition to a liturgy of the altar, in Protestant churches icons and high-church architecture are also often absent--diminishing the somatic-physical experience of the congregant.  More could be said here with regard to social justice and the fundamentalist-modernist divide relative to Evangelical-Protestant dualism.  

Fountain Street Church -- "a liberal religious community in downtown Grand Rapids" (a phrase rehearsed in our weekly self-definition) -- has a markedly Protestant heritage. Up until the mid-1900's, Fountain Street Church was a mainline-Protestant church in the American Baptist denomination.  Since I have been attending, most of its ministers are ordained in the Unitarian Universalist denomination, and one of its ministers is ordained Methodist.  Though officially independent, the congregation relies heavily on Unitarian Universalist materials (e.g., curriculum for Sunday school and the hymnals), and has a markedly Unitarian Universalist feel -- these are all attributes of Fountain Street that I love.  How, though, does Fountain Street Church compare to historic Protestants in regard to liturgies?  Is Fountain Street worship a liturgy of the word? Is there an altar liturgy?

Because Fountain Street is not officially Christian, it does not have an official word or altar.  There is no eucharist, no communion. The Bible often is present, but so are readings from rabbinic literature, Dr Seuss, the Quran, humanists, and other sources of edification.  However, in terms of worship service, Fountain Street's main service is more a liturgy of word than of altar, and this requires significant qualification. 

Entering into the sanctuary of Fountain Street is a moving experience.  It is beautiful.  The vaulted ceilings; stained glass murals of biblical scenes and people significant in the movement of our society toward democracy, scientific advancement, and inclusive justice (including Darwin, Hume, and Lincoln); icons of angels and Jesus; American-Gothic architecture (a true oddity for a Baptist church in Grand Rapids!); and the nostalgia-inducing, incense-like scent of "church" all work together to deepen the somatic experience of entry and worship in the sanctuary.  The building is a sort of sacrament, an encounter with something larger than oneself including the contributions of generations to the life of the church--its building and its people.  

However, largely true to its Protestant heritage, Fountain Street's main worship service is a liturgy of word, a exercise of the heart and mind.  I state this not necessarily as a criticism.  Catholic and Jewish liturgies are both areas of interest to me, and I value manners of worship that are more engaging of the body-person.  I write this, though, more as a launching point.  Can congregational worship in non-eucharistic, liberal religious communities be more engaging of the body-person?  Can they be more sacramental without hurting the independent and liberty-valuing nature of an inclusive, progressive liberal body?  

...a few thoughts on my mind this morning.

Note: these are my own thoughts and observations and not officially representative of Fountain Street Church

Friday, July 13, 2012

Darwin is Dispensable

Jesus is to Christianity what ___________ is to Islam.

How do you fill in this blank? The easiest answer is probably Muhammad the prophet-statesman founder of Islam. But the analogy between Jesus and Muhammad is misleading. Jesus in historically-orthodox Christianity is an incarnation of God, a sinless redeemer, and a vicarious sufferer on behalf of sinners. Muhammad in Islam is the fully human, not divine, final prophet and revealer of God’s doctrines or teachings. Sure, Jesus was also a prophet-teacher as presented in the canonical Gospels, but the pedagogical aspects of Jesus in the Gospels are hardly the focus of historical Christianity. Christianity is focused on the person of Jesus: his membership in the Trinity, his kenotic incarnation as a man, his soteriological and conventionally other-worldly escape plan. Islam, in contrast, esteems Muhammad as the last and final prophet who was entirely human and a sinner.

As illustrated above, to make an analogy between Jesus and Muhammad as progenitors of the religions that claim them as their founders makes an asymmetrical comparison that is often taken advantage of by Christian apologists. Many a Christian apologist will stack up the creedally-orthodox attributes of Jesus (God, miracle worker, demon slayer, sin-bearer, death-conqueror, heaven-seated, etc.) against the prophetic-pedagogical ministry of the entirely human Muhammad, and when Muhammad is compared to the creedally-orthodox Jesus, he looks rather flaccid. However, the comparison is arbitrary. Muslims do not claim that Muhammad is God. In contrast, Muslims boast that, unlike historically-orthodox Christianity, they haven’t subjected their progenitor to apotheosis. A better, more fruitful analogy would be between Muhammad and Moses – both law-giving, prophetic statesmen.

Jesus is to Christianity what ___________ is to evolution.

Much like the misleading analogy given above between Jesus and Muhammad, the analogy above is fraught with difficulties. One’s incline might be to supply the answer “Darwin,” and, like with the examples of Muhammad above, supplying such an answer becomes a hotbed of supposed criticisms against evolution. Ben Stein, Ken Ham, Richard Weikart, William Dembski, et. al. will point out that Darwin was a racist and made racist assertions and that Social Darwinism was related to a sociological application of natural selection.

Judging evolution by Darwin is dishonest. Evolution would be exactly what it is today if Charles Darwin had never lived. Ten years before the publishing of the Origin of Species, Wallace had developed the idea of natural selection. Before Darwin and Wallace, the study of geology had come to recognize the variegation of plant and animal species in the fossil record, and the idea of the fixity of species was already in question. Bio-geographical observations had recognized that animal and plant species varied around the world even in similar or nearly identical habitats. Biology was ripe for evolution. The theories of evolution would have come into being had Darwin never lived. Further, evolution has developed far beyond what Darwin and his peers conceived. Darwin and his peers lived before the breadth and scope of what is available in the fossil record today, before the discovery of genes and DNA, and before the technologies and tools that are currently at our disposal. Darwin is dispensable. Criticisms of Darwin are irrelevant to evolution.

A more honest analogy might be:

Christianity is to Jesus what evolution is to Darwin.

How so? Christianity constructed Jesus into what he is today. The correspondences between the Christ of Christian orthodoxy and the Jesus of history are undetermined. Was there an historical Jesus? What did Jesus actually say? Whatever we have in the Jesus traditions of the canonical Gospels survived or exists because it was useful in the context of the church (a sitz-im-leben kirche versus sitz-im-leben Jesu) – none of the deeds or sayings of Jesus need be historical to be present in the canonical Gospels. Christianity thus formed the Christ of canonical and creedal orthodoxy. Similarly, evolution constructed Darwin. How so? The comparison is imperfect, but Darwin wouldn’t have discovered natural selection if evolution hadn’t happened. This is true on two levels. First, Darwin like all life on this planet, evolved from earlier forms. Second, it was because evolution was demonstrably true that Darwin, working within scientific assumptions was able to identify it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Creatures that Defy Creationism: Water Scorpion

Water Scorpion (female) // March 18, 2012 // Grand Rapids, MI

Here is another creature that defies creationism: the water scorpion.

I found this specimen depicted in the picture above walking clumsily across a sidewalk this past Sunday with her wings partly unfolded. She had apparently landed and was unable to take again to the air. Water scorpions are effective predators in slow-moving and stagnant plant-rich waters, but they are very poor walkers and feeble flyers.

In their water habitats, water scorpions hunt by means of camouflage. A hunting water scorpion will sit stationary for hours in a largely vertical position. Her “tail” (the item of her anatomy that has won her the misnomer of “scorpion”) serves as a snorkel by which she is able to breathe. Her tail is made up of several strands, and they hold together underwater by means of surface tension; hence, when out of the water, her “tail” looks more like “tails” than a singular tube. With her “tail” to breathe, the water scorpion will sit motionless, resembling a stick or a twig with her stick-like narrow body.

As already indicated, the water scorpion is not a scorpion. She is not even an eight-legged arachnid; she is an insect with six legs. As a beautiful example of convergent evolution, the water scorpion has developed front legs that are a nearly complete mirror of a praying mantid’s forelegs. In fact, if I did not already know that the water scorpion was an aquatic insect, I may have even mistaken this for a mantid fly or even a praying mantis. However, the water scorpion is not closely related to the praying mantis; she developed her predatory front legs independently.

How does the water scorpion defy creationism?

One of the basic teachings of the majority of young-earth creationists is that of “no death before the Fall.” That is, there was no death of humans or animals prior to the sin of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis 3. Hence, as suggested in Genesis 1:29, all animals and humans ate fruits and vegetables only. The introduction of meat eating gradually emerged, according to most creationists, only after the Flood of Noah where, in Genesis 9:3, dispensation is given to eat meat. No joke—there are millions of Americans that buy this narrative uncritically.

The water scorpion is clearly adapted to hunt its prey of water insects, fish, and frogs. It is structured to remain motionless for hours, breathing through its “snorkel,” resembling a stick or a water plant. It has lightning-fast reflexes and mantid-like forelegs that quickly clasp and retain its unwitting prey. Now, one must ask, how would these adaptations—camouflage, “snorkel,” forelegs, speed, etc.—work in a world that was strictly vegetarian? What use would there be for any of these adaptations if the water scorpion merely grazed on water plants?

Frankly, in a deathless world, the water scorpion wouldn’t exist. It would have no use in a vegetarian food chain, and it would find no use for its marvelous predatory adaptations. This is yet another creature that defies creationism.

Click on the following for other posts on "Creatures that Defy Creationism"

Monday, March 19, 2012

Embodied Reality & Agnosticism

Our generation has seen the tremendous influence that the choice of a
hermeneutical viewpoint can have… (Wheeler, p. 126)

This is no new point for this blog; I’ve expressed this before. Process philosopher-theologian Wheeler asserts,

…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. Fundamentalists of every ilk ignore
this truism (p. 104).

And similarly,

…concrete 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. …the core images of
my faith tradition are ‘true,” in the sense that they are a faithful response to
God’s self-communication within the limits of human symbol-forming capacity (pgs

I live this reality—I have “lived” in numerous “faith homes,” I have run with numerous religious paradigms. This is no mere boast. I am a capable of rendering a coherent, robust, and thorough defense of any of the following paradigms, among others: metaphysical naturalism (atheism), agnosticism, Moody-Bible styled Evangelicalism, Assembly of God (first-wave Pentecostalism), Fundamentalist Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist, Messianic Jewish, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Orthodox Jewish, Conservative Jewish, traditional Karaite Judaism, hyper-scriptural Karaite Judaism, Sunni Islam, Shiite Islam, young-earth creationism, etc. I can enter into any of these paradigms and provide a strong defense. As a result, I feel that my choice of paradigm is, just that, a choice.

The primary driving variable then for me becomes, “What do I want to believe or disbelieve?” And, subsequently, I ask, “What makes me a better person?” There are times and there are situations when I feel that a conservative Christian theism impels me to be and to become a better person. Examples of such settings include times when I am dealing with guilt or seeking forgiveness. In such contexts the idea of a God who forgives and who calls to forgiveness helps me to assume a restorative stance and behavior patterns associated with confession or confrontation (depending on who the offender is) and apology. This is not to deny that such patterns and offerings cannot be found in other paradigms, but I find them the most meaningful for me against the backdrop of Christian theism. Additionally, there are other contexts where I find the same Christian paradigm to be morally retrograde and an obstruction to an inclusive vision of justice.

Granted, there are rules of logic that make methodological naturalism positivistically desirable and logically consistent. I am not denying this. Rather, I am asserting that I come away from my encounter with ultimate reality profoundly agnostic and aware of the embodiedness of my reason, experience, and thinking. Plato would not like me so well at the moment.

Wheeler, David. “Confessional Communities and Public Worldviews: A Case Study” in Searching for an Adequate God. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 2000 Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 2000

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why Polamory: A Personal Reflection

This entry is meant as a personal reflection. I do not set out to prescribe universal prescriptions or recommendations. And, because the content of this post might be seen as controversial to some readers, I am not going to discuss much beyond theory. Polyamory, in my iteration, is the relationship paradigm for me, and in this post I will explain why:

Polyamory encourages honesty specifically in the areas where monogamy tends to stifle honesty. In my first marriage I operated with the understanding that lusting after or desiring another married woman was tantamount to adultery and infidelity. Because I was a “good Christian,” I dared never confess to any wandering affections or lusts. In fact, I was quite proud of the fact that I maintained the image that I was idiosyncratically impeccable, never allowing my eyes to wander. However, the reality of my male humanity was always present. I did and do often find myself noticing attractive anatomy, and I did and do sometimes find myself drawn to others emotionally. However, instead of lying about this and claiming to my wife an artificial, dishonest singularity, I tell her the full, liberating truth. I tell her when I find someone else attractive. Now, mind you, I don’t tell her every time I entertain a lingering gaze. There is a balance, and I can reflect on this another time.

Set for Failure: “One-and-Only” Expectations
Cultural developments in the Victorian era placed an emphasis on the importance of romantic love as the foundation of marriage. Contrast this basis with somewhat more traditional societies where arranged marriages both did not require romance at the outset or allow for one or both participants to express choice. The Victorian emphasis on romantic love and free choice in spouse selection were both positive developments and specifically betterments toward the achievement of a more egalitarian society. However, the focus on romantic love in spousal selection also lead to the romanticized idea of “soul mates” and romantic destiny in which one person is envisioned as one’s romantic all-in-all, an end to all desire, and the fulfillment of all of one’s emotional and physical needs. I don’t accept the cultural “soul mate” narrative. I don’t believe that I can be for my wife the end-all of all her needs and potentials. Frankly, I don’t believe that any group of individuals can accomplish this for me or my wife, but I do believe that such can be accomplished better within the company of other loving, romantic, fulfilling relationships. I will be who I am to my wife, and I expect the same of her.

Zero-Sum Love Games
When my youngest son was born the love that my wife and I had toward our first-born son did not dissipate. Spousal love is different than parental love, but this analogy holds. When I feel the energy of attraction to someone who is not my wife, my love for my wife does not need to diminish. Yes, the romantic love and eros that I feel for my wife will ebb and wane, and this would happen whether we were monogamous or polyamorous; however, the feelings I have for someone else do not translate into a need to abandon the wonderful love relationship and the beautiful relationship history that I share with my wife. In fact, when we let go and let another be, the love return can be great. “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again…”

Spousal Love
I love my wife. I have never loved a woman more than I love my wife. Love can be a creative force, and creative love grows in vulnerability through granting autonomy-rich space. I enjoy granting my wife time and space for her to pursue her interests and to do activities she enjoys. Likewise, I have enjoyed granting similar opportunities for her in relationships of various types. It is because I love my wife and believe in the strength of our relationship that I am willing to be vulnerable. I am willing to expose myself to jealousy and the feelings of insecurity that can accompany polyamory because I feel that our love will cultivate excellence and tread new ground.

I am not advocating for irresponsible hedonism or relationship-free sexuality, but this is the only life I will live. There is nothing to look forward to consciously after I pass. Why limit myself by someone else’s narrative? Why live my life by boundary stones set in a bygone era? I am setting my own narratives, limits, and horizons.

The above reasons do not exhaust my personal thinking on polyamory. And, as noted at the outset, these are not meant to be universals. These are my personal reflections.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Other-Abled ("Disabled") as a Sacrament of Our Humanity

As a result of cultural obsession with the “perfect body” and both externally and self-imposed idealized standards of how we should look, we often experience an affective alienation from our own bodies. We develop and retain an image of how we “should” look to others, measure ourselves against this standard, feel the disparities between the ideal and the reality, and, in the end, we recognize and dread our inability to attain to or retain our idealized perfect form. In the end, we lose a sense of “at-homeness” in our own bodies; we feel that our bodies are such an imperfect refraction of ourselves that we feel out of place in our flesh, an aversion to our bodies.

Dualistic anthropologies, like those traditionally upheld in Christianity, assert that the “real you” is not the outward body but an immaterial essence, often called a “soul,” that resides within the body. Such matter (body) and spirit dualism can no longer be scientifically or theologically defended. We are our bodies; our bodies our us. Our body-selves have real bearing on who we are, and dualistic anthropological assumptions only serve to foster and encourage our sense of alienation from and criminalization of our bodies, our material natures.

Susan Wendell a philosopher and herself an other-abled person, maintains that “the oppression of disabled people is linked to the more generalized cultural oppression of the body and, more concretely, of physicality...” Ellison, in summarizing Wendell states,

Our culture idealizes the body not only in terms of ideal physical appearance, but also in terms of responsiveness and control of body functions. Because so few persons measure up to the idealized standard of either beauty or bodily performance, people generally feel alienated and displaced from their bodies (p. 42).

Ellison (p. 43) goes on to assert, “ The cultural preoccupation with bodily perfection oppresses disabled persons, but it also alienates all persons from their experience of embodiment and heightens their fear of bodily change.”

Against the norms of a culture that values idealized beauty and autonomy, an other-abled person symbolizes all that is dreaded: mortality, loss of autonomy, and disparity with body-image ideals. The other-abled lack autonomy. The other-abled person is vulnerable—she is dependent on the care of others; hence, she is at odds with a culture that moralizes and esteems autonomy and self-reliance as a cardinal virtue. And, to the degree that the other-abled person misses the mark of autonomy, to that degree is she even moralized into marginalization.

Ellison posits,

Cultural myths of radical autonomy reinforce the oppression of the disabled. The disabled represent those who have not managed to control the neediness of their bodies. Therefore they appear not only as different, but as wrong... [The hatred of the disabled] is rooted in their lack of autonomy, along with their visible embeddedness in nature and the body (p. 43).

The other-abled remind us of who all of us are. Humanity is actualized not in radical autonomy but in immersive vulnerability and dependence on intra and inter-community relationships. None of us stands alone; no one stands with her own bootstraps. Instead of seeing disability as a sign of moral failure, weakness, and instead of seeing our existence in dualistic differentiation from our bodies, we should view the other-abled as a symbol of our shared human condition. We are all body-dependent, we are all dependent on one another. Mutualistic dependency is the ideal, not the aberration. As Ellison proposes, maybe the other-abled should be viewed as a sacrament of our human reality: at-homeness in and identification with our body-selves, dependent on a complex web of relationships.

Our moralized normalcy of able-bodied autonomy, idealized beauty, and aversion to the body not only encourages the oppression and marginalization of the other-abled, but it engenders alienation from our bodies while diminishing our shared humanity. A sacramental vision of the other-abled reminds us of our shared interdependence, vulnerability, weakness, and embeddedness in the flesh, our bodies. “...we live in, and because of, our bodies... [and] We live because of, not in spite of our embodied connections” (p. 44).

Ellison, Marvin M. Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality. Louiseville: John Knox Press, 1996.

Wendell, Susan. “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability.” Hypatia: A Feminist Journal of Philosophy 4:2 (Summer, 1989) in Ellison, Marvin M. Erotic Justice (see above).

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Top Reads of 2011

In all, I probably read some thirty books in 2011. Many of them deserve mention, some of them for how profoundly terrible they are. However, my top five reads for 2011 are as follows:

Anatheism: Returning to God After God, Richard Kearney

After the introduction, I could hardly read more than a few pages without breaking into tears. This work is having a profound impact on my thinking. Anatheism might become my new designation/identity especially if this term starts to find broader use. I love that anatheism, in Kearney's use and in my own developments on the term, allows for atheism, in fact, it embraces atheism as both a necessary and ameliorating intellectual and moral conclusion. I will be writing with reliance on this work for some time, and I apologize in advance for the likelihood that much of my writing will reference this work for the foreseeable immediate future.

Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action; Philip Clayton

This work is an important contribution to the development of a truly progressive, science-positive, pluralistic theological method. It explores questions of theological method with a healthy emphasis on the need for inter-religious dialogue. Clayton fairly and informatively develops the historical and contemporary interplay between classical theism, deism, atheism, open theism, panenetheism, and process theism. He develops and defends what he entitles open kenotic process panentheism—a paradigm that I find religiously compelling.

Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality, Marvin M. Ellison

Written in the early 1990's, Ellison writes as a gay Christian academic and ethicist prior to the justice advancements for LGBTQ rights in the last twenty years. His context as a sexual minority gives him an insightful perspective on the cultural hegemony of white, patriarchal, monogamous, heterosexual normalcy. He makes sexuality into a justice issue and shows how it operates as a barometer of inequities prevalent in society. Ellison seeks to promote a sex-positive, body friendly (“at-homeness”) sexual ethic that moves beyond both power, possession, and control. This is an excellent read in social justice from a unique perspective. This also seems to be an under-appreciated resource for those interested in constructing an empowering ethic of non-monogamy and/or polyamory.

Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Christopher Wright

Wright's work tops the works on biblical studies that I read in 2011. Wright's approach to ethics in the Pentateuch and the Hebrew Prophets begins with a reconstruction of the social settings (the sitz im leben) that form its ethical frameworks. He shows how Old Testament civil-social ethics are inherently situational and contingent on particulars of historical-cultural setting. Against such situational contingencies, Wright then shows how Old Testament ethical assumptions such as the priority of justice, humanity, and compassion can still inform and inspire ethical systems today. He is not an inerrantist who believes that the Bible has to be always correct on matters of morality; instead, he takes an accommodationist approach in which biblical ethics are limited by the ethical imaginations of the biblical authors. Hence, Wright does not give biblical ethics unbridled authority today—they must be understood for their bedrock moral assumptions rather than, as fundamentalists are wont to do, making particulars into universals.

Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, Charles Hartshorne

This work, by Hartshorne, is a brief, cogent presentation of Hartshorne's philosophy and theology. In it he dispels and critiques some of the more damning assumptions and dogmas of traditional theisms such as the idea that revelation or scripture must be inerrant, the idea that God is all powerful, and the idea that immortality must be personal as conscious life after death.