Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams pits two philosophers against a supercomputer named Deep Thought, whose purpose is to discover the meaning of life. Their demand is for “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty”, so that they might continue to have jobs.  I’m prompted to reflect upon this idea in response to a couple of Red Letter Christians blogs. Gungor and the Two Faces of Evangelicalism which looks at the reaction against a band who denies what some Christians believe to be essential to the faith, namely a literal (day I say literalistic) reading of Genesis 1-11. The other is the edgy piece Do Christians Really Need the Bible? For me, both pieces raise a number of issues about “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty”, or what Ron Choong of The Academy of Christian Thought calls “theological safe spaces”.

I think God is bigger than our doubts, our fears, our concerns, our misunderstandings and even our heresies. Try talking about the Trinity for more than five minutes and you’ll see what I mean. Not that I am advocating a free for all, breaking all boundaries and smashing all symbols like so much Henry the 8th style iconoclasm. What I’m wanting is far more nuanced.

Someone once described to me the difference between biblical theology and systematic theology as like the difference between the jungle and a botanical garden. The later is perfectly ordered, but its ordering may obscure the real relationships that occur in the wild. We need to constantly come back to the wilderness that is Scripture, with its many voices, to understand whether or not our arrangements tell us anything sensible.

In Scripture and the authority of God, Tom Wright divides the bible into five acts, not as rigidly as dispensationalism, but nonetheless as a useful guide to reading the bible as a story, and know where we are in it. By story, he doesn’t mean something made up, but an unfolding narrative of revealed truth, a story to tell and retell, to become absorbed in. The role of the reader is to let God bring their own personal narrative into the biblical one. The five acts are Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus and the Church or age of the Spirit. We are called to perform the fifth act, improvising in the light of what we know of the previous four, and the start and end of the fifth.

A narrative approach doesn’t oppose story to propositional truth, it simply grounds those truths in the narrative and warns us that too much abstraction will lead to deforming those ideas. The narrative approach is not opposed to Lectio Divina, for our stories become part of HIStory, and then the bible can be mined for inspiration, encouragement and daily nourishment.

The narrative approach should make our reading centre (center for my US friends) focused, not boundary focused. Rather than being gatekeepers, we can discover a Generous Orthodoxy as Brian McClaren put it. I mention Brian deliberately because some associated his ideas with universalism, which I’m not convinced is true. But more than this, Christians at both ends of the spectrum need to grow up from the immature hermeneutic of “guilt by association”. Quoting a person on one idea does not mean they are being endorsed in all areas.

If we must use labels like conservative, Evangelical or Liberal, let’s use them with much care. After reading much Roger Olson in books like Reformed and always Reforming, and How to be Evangelical without being Conservative, I call myself a post-conservative Evangelical because of this narrative, centre set approach. For me, Liberal is a hermeneutic of suspicion towards the bible, not necessarily a set of beliefs. Certainly, we must stop the immature mud slinging of the word Liberal at anyone who doesn’t conform with our set of beliefs, not at least until we’ve properly understood our own thinking, and then theirs as well.

I’ve spoken to a room full of progressive Christians (or liberals?), spoken fearlessly about a bodily resurrection, and still been embraced as a brother, told they didn’t see me as Evangelical, and by one member of the audience, told I’d make a good Jew! For the record, I think Romans 10:9-10 is a pretty good place to look for the minimum of belief.

Doubt is another funny thing. At the of the book of Job, Job is not rebuked for lack of faith, but has his worldview stretched well beyond where it was. God is far more interested in loving others and in so loving, bringing them closer to the Truth, who is a person. I’m not sure God who have ever blogged “farewell Job”.

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but apathy. In his book Benefit of the Doubt, Greg Boyd makes it clear that we kid ourselves if we think that faith means forcing ourselves to believe something that we find hard to believe. Faith is far more subtle, alive, a struggle, a fight. It is that which carries us forward that next step through life based on the promises of God. Faith can stumble, faith can fall, but it only needs to be mustard seed big and ask for help in its own unbelief.

So a theological safe space is where we are free to ask the questions that plague us. As a fellow of ISCAST: Christians in Science and Technology, I’ve been inspired by Ron Choong’s idea of the theological safe space. Science forces us back to our texts again and again and asks us to reconsider our readings. Not that science alone does that, as John Walton in The Lost world of Genesis One or Richard Middleton in The Liberating Image do with theology and so on with Genesis. We can’t simply stick our heads back in the sand, such an approach is intellectual dishonesty as Mark Noll pointed out some years ago.

We are also forced to think harder with new challenges such as global climate change and the possible collapse of civilisation, or genetic modification of humans and so on. We need to produce new wine, and sometimes the old wine skins of theologies past won’t cut it, yet the bible as our love story, our narrative of rescue, the saga of the journey of humanity from God’s good creation to God’s even better creation will be our guide, by the Spirit of truth, in the Messiah.

To explore the way forward, to express our doubts, to argue lovingly our differences, we need theological safe spaces. Oh that the entire global church could be that, but for the gatekeepers it cannot always be so. Thank God for those spaces, those people we can be safe with. Keep searching for the Truth, because He loves you.

On humility and self-promotion

I have a problem. Well I have several, but one in particular is that I now find myself as a writer (one book almost ready to print as a co-author, chapters in two others and a solo book to some), a blogger on a high profile blog (Red Letter Christians) and a speaker/preacher getting invites all over the place.

So, in wanting to push my ideas, share them, get them out there, how much is too much self-promotion? How does one go about and get gigs, publishing opportunities etc without becoming big headed?

There's a fairly recent and famous example of how not to do it. Mark Driscoll, now formerly of Mars Hill Church was involved in a scandal about using a marketing company to get it on the New York Times best seller's list. For a Christian, such self-promotion is unethical; it's bearing false witness. Indeed for most people this is unethical. Your average person engages in white lies, but this is of another level.

I suspect Mark didn't think through this in detail, and more than this, he was so convinced of the importance of his ideas and the need to communicate them, he didn't stop to think. Lesson one to me. I am not God; not all of my thoughts are divinely inspired.

But is self promotion right out? Clearly not! The fact that I've gained opportunities to speak and write, and continue to get them is some indication that this is my calling. The issue is not seeking opportunities (actually more often than not for me these days, simply saying yes), but a couple of things.

Firstly, when I see someone else doing something similar, I should be happy for them rather than either "I could have done that, why didn't they ask me?" or "I could do that better". I think this attitude gets at what Paul saying in Philippians 2:3 "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves."

Secondly, if the aim is self-aggrandisement, people will ultimately see through me, and hence the first part of the verse above will be broken. This is not to say wanting to be well known is such a bad thing, but what for and how will I achieve it? Writers and speakers love to share ideas and stories because they love their ideas and stories, think they are important and believe they can change people. That change should not be manipulative, but dialogical.

I can't bash people into believing climate change is real and needed to be acted upon, but hope to bring people along the journey to discover this. I've often said I wish my first book were not on climate change; there are plenty of less depressing topics to write or speak on. But I do it, not for fame or glory (I doubt there will be much of that) or for the money (there most certainly will be none of that) but for the sake of the earth, society and the glory of God.

So whatever you speak or write on if you find yourself in such a position; don't be ashamed at pursuing opportunities. Just always ask yourself, what for, who for? If the answers are because of passion and to help others, not only should you pursue opportunities, they will pursue you.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Threading the middle? Belief, fundamentalism and the centre

I recently stopped following a Facebook group. Nothing unusual there. A post pointed to a Patheos blog which assured me of various things the bible doesn't actually say. Nothing unusual there either. There's lots of folk theology as there is folk medicine (anti-vaxxers), folk science (climate change denial), and so on. It's a good thing to question the sources of information. My issue though was when I looked at the first couple of entries, it was just standard (yawn) Liberalism. Sure I know Jesus was a human, a first century Jew, a Messianic claimant and prophet. But the usual "he never claimed to be God but actively denied it" just doesn't wash. The "Paul invented Christianity" is so patently wrong, as with it the view that Jesus had no interest in Gentiles and that a move away from Jews was Paul's plan B. There's plenty of good scholarship to show the gospels reflect the earliest years of the church (where's the conflict on circumcision for example), and that placing Jesus in the full story of Israel and its true location made Gentile mission a matter of when, not if. My point is, in trying to stay with the Progressive (so-called) crowd, I often become weary of some of the so-called assured results of enlightened scholarship, as well as the ironic conservative bashing. Sure Mark Driscoll earned his critics ire, but please, something else. Likewise, when I can't say some things in front of some Conservatives because I'll end up in an argument over their ideological refusal to see the truth of human caused global warming, there's another end of the spectrum I'm unhappy with. All that said, any time we claim the middle ground, are we not repeating other people's errors? Pushing others to the margins, do we not commit the same exclusivity? Well, yes and no. If you have no centre, you have nothing. It's pointless defining a community, a belief system, etc without some core identity. This will include a central story (which contains propositions that can't be abstracted), practices, symbols and questions. But having a centre isn't the same as having hard boundaries (that's fundamentalism). That said, assuming you have even the centre 100% nailed down can be an overreach, as each new idea will open more and more questions. More than that though, overfilling the centre will quickly approach the bounded set, and hence back into Fundamentalism. We all want to think we occupy the centre in politics, religion, culture etc. There ARE extremes to avoid - but maybe not always? We find some Fundamentalisms as morally repugnant if they involve extreme behaviour, such as suicide bombing. Is any idea worth being extreme about? But what if Jesus really is God? Can one be too extreme as a Christian? I think history tells us though an extreme Christian is one who is willing to be persecuted and martyred, not be a persecutor. Likewise, what if the new atheists were right? Would there be something noble in their crusade to rid the world of all superstition? So maybe we don't always shoot for the middle, because sometimes we need to be extreme. Reasonable ideas can end up being simply not worth bothering with, and I think this phenomenon is killing some Christian denominations. So here's the punchline. Christians, be true fundamentalists by putting love first, just as we were commanded. A whole lot more extreme things may follow, and some may thread the middle - but at least it won't be a life satisfied by simply being extreme at either end for its own sake, or threading the middle to play it safe.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Insignificantly significant - Brian Cox's universe

I love Brian Cox's TV shows, and have now seen him live twice. He seems a softer atheist than the "new atheist" crowd, and when asked last time around about his attitudes towards belief, he was generally tolerant. As long as you engage with science on its own terms, it is ok.

His recent tour promotes his new TV series Human Universe. So far I've enjoyed what I've seen. There are two major premises he makes - we are insignificant, and we are inevitable and hence have meaning (though I've also heard he denies meaning, so what does he mean by meaning).

Insignificance comes from the vastness of our visible universe, the huge number of galaxies and the likelihood there are many planets with life. However, he also claims that our appearance on Earth is so unlikely that intelligent life is rare. We are a freak accident. This revolves round the geology of the Rift valley and aspects of the Earth's orbit (Milankovitch cycles) as they conspire to produce an 800,000 year cycle that helped force our evolution. I've about 5 papers to read on this - and will blog in future.

I toyed with the theme of God's control over weather as described in the bible and human evolution a while back. But paleontologist Simon Conway Morris suggested other factors would have forced the issue at some point, and for example no large bolide was needed (as Cox contends) to do away with the dinosaurs. CO2 is in decline (present human forcing notwithstanding) so that the global climate has cooled and ice ages would have done it anyway (killed off the dinosaur), to make way for mammals. So it may be that Cox is over stating his case about contingency. Conway Morris certainly thinks so.

What makes us inevitable for Cox is the eternal multiverse idea, which falls out of quantum mechanics/inflationary theory, but also a desire to push science further back in time and God out of the picture. Cox assumes that the multiverse must be necessary and eternal, and hence functions like God. This is a philosophical assumption left unexamined, just as is the idea that such a multiverse must produce at least one universe that is biophilic. But why should it be the case that a multiverse should exist that produces an infinite number of universes with at least one that is biophilic (beyond our obvious presence)? What adds fire to the equations of quantum mechanics?

It is of course nonsense to suggest this gives us any sense of meaning, that I must exist because I exist an infinity of times. That makes me insignificantly inevitable. It's turtles all the way down.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Stop fighting over who created the world

I love memes, so when I saw this one, similar to one I blogged about on my environment blog, I thought it worth a brief comment.

It is a difficult sentiment to argue with, and why would you want to? The key is that violence should never be the solution to any problem, let alone metaphysical issues. Indeed, when Jesus says that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, it seems to me that fundamentally Christianity is not about killing people for any reason.

That said, the meme betrays a couple of things, Firstly, we tend to take for granted that religion and politics should be separate (though I hope not that religious people shouldn't be in politics, these are not the same thing), and hence no issue (particularly in the middle east) is simply religious. It is political. Secondly, we would not want to forget the complex history of places like the middle east, and how western politics has helped shape the violence, even if it isn't the cause without remainder.

Thirdly, people are quit to forget that atheism kills as well as religion - think French Revolution, Hitler (he simply courted the church), Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, etc. These were all attempts to stamp an atheistic world view onto people, resulting in the death of religious leaders, intellectuals, pretty much anyone. It is intellectual dishonesty to suggest otherwise.

Dawkins would accuse people like me of compromise for not being literalists and fundamentalists. This is about as logical as accusing pacifist atheists of doing the same for not seeking to burn churches.

None of this is to deny the role religion plays in violence, and hence the meme as such is something I can agree with.

This leaves us with the opposite problem of the meme, which calls for us to fight against those who are destroying the world - in what sense can we 'fight' if we are opposed to fighting? Surely it doesn't mean it is ok to kill for non-religious reasons. It also doesn't mean we should go to war at the drop of a hat. It does mean that we should oppose violence in whatever form we find it, and perhaps pragmatically that means military interventions at times.

It does also mean we need to examine very carefully events that we see, and move past simplistic sloganeering.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Misconceptions in teaching science

In my wanderings on the net I happened upon a paper entitled Misconceptions in the science classroom by Michael DiSpenzo. Although it is aimed at high school classes, it still seems to me applicable to tertiary and adult education, thinking about public education in climate change and so on. I thought it would be useful for me (and maybe others) to summarise.

Factual misconceptions are errors in individual facts. This might be as simple as a wrong date or capital city; an error in a largely inconsequential fact. In this case, if such information carries little emotion baggage, some repetitious reinforcement can deal with it. DiSpenzo notes that in order to deal with these misconceptions, they need to be uncovered, and this is best done before learning.

Such pre-learning discovery of learner factual misconceptions shows the value of pre-testing. Applying it to what I do when I go speaking about climate change, it could allow for asking "what do we know about...?" type questions. It opens up the potential to be railroaded, but it also lets you know where your audience is. This second comment however makes it clear that some facts are linked to a broader set of beliefs, which I'll comment on below.

Conceptual misconceptions are concepts that are in error. A classic one DiSpenzo mentions is weightlessness in space, that gravity is negligble for astronauts. A meteorological one might be the direction water spirals down the sink in different hemispheres (it doesn't change). In climate science, it might be that trace gases like CO2 can have no effect. These are harder to root out if they can't be directly demonstrated in front of someone - so chains of reasoning, video demonstrations, graphs, charts, etc have to be used. Appeals to beyond reasonable doubt and best possible explanation come in.

Preconceived notions I have found less common in teaching adults. This is application of things seen everyday inappropriately into other areas. The only area I can think of it a confusion between weather and climate, and the tendency to think too much in cycles when there is a secular trend.

Vernacular misconceptions are problems with language. The classic was the so-called canali (Italian for channels), which was translated to canals and had English speakers looking for an advanced but dying race on Mars. In meteorolgy, ideas of clouds burning off or the air holding moisture are poor use of language that lead to confusion in the physics.

Finally, nonscientific beliefs continue to be problematic. This includes religious insistence on a young earth (note I'm an Evangelical Christian but understand both the science of geology, astrophysics, evolution etc to know the Earth is old, and that Genesis 1 is ancient near eastern polemics, a topc for another time), or political and religious opposition to climate change.

In some contexts, these issues can be dealt with head on, as I often do in talks and writing on climate change. In the classroom, the science needs to be dealt with head on, and being able to say "x is consistent with y because" is the best approach. Also being able to say that "z is not a science question ..." will mean that appropriate discussions will be had.

So when dealing with well established scientific ideas, knowing what our learners know and what and how they misunderstand some ideas is helpful in knowing how to address them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mark Driscoll, Rachel Held Evans and book burning

The above is one of my favourite scenes from Indiana Jones and the last Crusade, for it highlights that the challenge to all empires and regimes is not weaponry but ideas. A person I once knew at a church I was at, who I'd have to describe as theologically more liberal than myself (a hard term to define, but nonetheless) said that "It was easier to burn people than ideas". True enough, but we can burn books, or at least pull them off shelves.

A bookstore chain in the US, LifeWay stores, has recently pulled all of Mark Driscoll's books from their shelves after the various controversies that have surrounded him. Was this a good thing to do? It is also notable that they did not stock a book by Rachel Held Evans because a book she wrote contained the word "vagina" in it. I suppose if I ever expand my blogpost with Red Letter Christians entitled A Theology of Farts and Orgasms into a book, I can forget about their support? In all seriousness, Christian prudishness is no excuse for not facing the earthiness of Scripture and its implications for real life - but see the post for my views on that.

The issue is, when is it ever appropriate for a bookstore to either not stock, or remove from shelves, a book? I've only ever owned two books by Mark Driscoll. One is on mission which I've glanced at but not dug into. The other is one on marriage. The chapter on friendship is excellent, but I don't have it anymore. Mark is Calvinist and complimentarian, I'm Arminian and egalitarian. I've listened to some of his sermon series, seen him on the Elephant Room and been to an Acts 29 church for a time. I have ambiguous feelings about him. I think his personality has amplified all of the aspects of his theology I disagree with. But I think pulling his books was wrong.

Now of all of his sins (and let's call them that), the only two that really relate to books directly is the plagiarism (unintentional or not) and the dodgy attempts to promote sales.  Even then, only the book where the plagiarism occured provides reason for pulling it from the shelves, if at all. The dodgy promotional activity of paying someone to buy a bunch of copies doesn't change the usefulness or truth content of the book in question.

As for Mark's controversial character - Luther was an anti-semite and Calvin was a bourgeois snob implicated in Servetus' murder. Do we pull their books? Where do we draw the line on people's behaviour? And what about theology? Rob Bell perhaps? Brian McClaren?

Now all bookshops have to make stocking choices, and a Christian bookshop should stock books by Christian authors propounding a Christian world view. But what does that look like? For me, John Shelby Spong puts himself outside of historic Christianity by denying central tenets about the person of Jesus, but he was a bishop? Do you have a heretics section? Or ignore him? Or be brave and have a few copies? I don't think there is an easy answer, but it's an insult to book buyers to make up their minds for them, particularly if the filter is narrow.

Banning books, or protesting them is no where near as effective as loving the authors. I'm not about to jump into any Mark Driscoll, though in writing a book on mission I will be digging it out. Likewise I have just bought some Rachel Held Evans, and will buy her vagina book at some stage and see for myself just how liberal her exegesis is, as one person I know has contended.

Not stocking books for insubstantial reasons is a few steps behind book burning, but still too close for my liking.