Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Say Yes to a Life Worth Living


In the publishing world, this time of year is known as “new year, new you.” In other words, as we turn to calendar to a new year, we naturally think about how we want to make our lives new. Just a quick Googling a moment ago revealed that “new year, new you” means a time when the world of publishing and media generally goad us to make resolutions to exercise more, to eat better, to make more money, to work toward that career we’ve always wanted, that kind of thing.

Now of course there’s nothing overwhelmingly wrong with those things—most of them are worthy goals. But do they add up to a life worth living? If we all got thinner, richer, more powerful, and more famous, would we be truly happy? Would we be living a beautiful life? Most importantly, would it be the path that God wants?

And so, at this time of year, I ask myself, What needs to be the one big, hairy, audacious Yes in my life?

What I want in my life is not to make adjustments, to move the furniture around, but to become not simply a “new me,” but what the Apostle Paul calls “a new creation” in 2 Corinthians 5:17. And since I find myself on the brink of 2008, I’m also finding myself turning again to a great passage from Paul where he describes his overriding motivation. I am particularly moved by this passage because Paul writes this—not as a detached reflection—but in midst of imprisonment, where his lifelong ambition to proclaim the Christian message would seem to be thwarted. But for him, this affliction only further clarifies what he lives for. He knew the big, overriding Yes in his life.
"This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." Philippians 3:13-14

I think this is something worthy of human life. It’s not a life built of secondary goods of money, recognition, and position. It’s built on what we are created for—to enjoy and glorify God. And when we do this, I believe there we discover life, excellence, and beauty. That’s something worth living for.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Second Half of "Christian Faith and Sustainability"


Part two: Alternative Christian visions of the natural world
In response to Lynn White’s contentions—and many others who follow him—it's critical to remember that he was no biblical scholar nor historian of Christian doctrine. Herein lies the seeds of his mistakes and of rehabilitating the relation of Christian faith and sustainability.

White could have pursued this more deeply in the biblical and theological traditions. First of all, the notorious texts that speak of dominion—particularly Genesis 1:28—have a much richer and subtle meaning. “Dominion” (from the Hebrew kibbes) is closely related to stewardship, to the concept that the people of Israel were to act as God’s viceroy on earth, to “bear his image” as Genesis 1:27 says. This is language of the ancient near eastern kings who set up their image to demonstrate the boundaries of their territory and how it was governed. The critical exemplum for dominion in the history of Israel was the king, who was judged, according to the tradition of the mercy code in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), by his concern for the least, always exemplified in the “widow and the orphan.” In sum then, stewardship is care, not domination. For this reason, a statement D.T. Suzuki’s represents a serious misrepresentation of the biblical traditions, but provides a notable example of the academic caricature of this passage: “The Nature-Man dichotomy issues, as I think, from the Biblical account in which the creator is said to have given mankind the power to dominate over all creation” (“The Role of Nature in Zen Buddhism, Eranos-Jahrbuch 22 [1953]: 292). Human part of nature but also bear a distinct privilege in their power and ability to affect the natural world—I take this to be reasonably self-evident—but what are we to do with this capacity? The biblical traditions call us back to careful stewardship of creation.

White does note the life of Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), who lived in much greater harmony with the natural world. Francis wrote one of the earliest poems in the Italian language called the “Canticle of the Sun.”
Be praised, my Lord, with all your creatures,
Especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who brings the day, and you give light to us through him.

How handsome he is, how radiant, with great splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon and the Stars.
In heaven you have formed them, bright, and precious, and beautiful.

Notice two things with this poem: First of all, Francis spoke of a level of similarity and symmetry with the created world, naming the sun his “brother” and the moon and stars, his “sister.” Secondly—and at the same time—he retained the image of God language that much later became notorious as an exemplum for why men and women have exploited nature, using the tradition language that humankind bears God’s “likeness.”

It is also accurate that the biblical traditions talk of humankind as just one component of creation—miniscule in relation of God’s perspective. The eighth Psalm poses this insight in a question of wonder:
When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,
What is man that you are mindful of him?”

White is probably presenting Francis as the exception that proves the rule, but that argument has to strain out a considerable amount of Jewish and Christian history, the thousand year traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures itself notwithstanding.

In the history of Christian faith, Francis of Assisi is an excellent model, especially in his resplendent praise and appreciation for creation. Another, less obvious choice, remains John Calvin (1509-64) and the subsequent Calvinist tradition generally, which has always highlighted the call to Christian simplicity, which focuses on a life without ostentation, and which (to quote the Girl Scouts) instructs its followers to “use our resources wisely.” It is the tradition in which I, as a Presbyterian, stand. In a broader sense, it is the tradition, as descendents of the Puritan strain in American life, that my parents and my grandmother, whom I noted above, are largely unconscious heirs. In light of the current domination of market forces, this represents a stunning counter-consumerist move—when followed—that counteracts the exploitation of the earth. It does also offer a critique to much of the practices that have often characterized the history of the Christian Church, when we have forgotten the traditions of the Scriptures, of Francis, of Calvin, and of many others.

There are numerous other contemporary examples. I will simply mention the North American theologian, Douglas John Hall, who speaks of imperial Christianity:
Under the conditions of imperial Christianity, it was not stewardship but lordliness that appealed to the mentality of the church’s policy makers. Thus, historic Christianity has seemed either to ignore and escape from the world, or else wish to possess it. (The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age, 82)

(Here I am reminded of Descartes’ notorious phrase that we are “masters and possessors of nature.”) Hall continues his analysis and reclaiming of the concept of human stewardship: it means that we must take in action role in tending creation and abandon “forms of religion that denigrate the natural world, that view the world as primarily a cache of resources to be exploited for human ends” (ibid.). In other words, strong biblical theology and faithful Christian practice lead us to care for the earth as stewards, not exploit it as consumers. Obviously, my arguments here find strong resonance with those of Hall.

Forward is the only way to go
With the exception of Hall, all those positive ideas—and the negative examples in Christian history—represent what is the past. And what lies ahead of us—with shrinking ice caps and decreasing rain forests, with increasing acid rains and diminishing species—is what Christians can do now. The first step I advocate is to reclaim a vibrant theological term, repentance. The Christian community must admit its guilt in the current ecological problems. We must turn around from our ecologically negative practices. We must repudiate our thralldom to the gods of consumerism and return to lives of proper simplicity and stewardship of nature.

Next, I believe we must move toward grass roots stewardship at the individual and congregational level. Congregationally, I have looked toward other Presbyterian churches and even our denominational structures, and have met with a team to engage with issues of sustainability and ecological stewardship at Bidwell Presbyterian Church. From the more conservative side of the Christian ledger a notable document has emerged recently, “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action.” It makes four claims: 1) Human-induced climate change is real, 2) The consequences of climate change will be significant, and will hit the poor the hardest, 3) Christian moral convictions demand our response to the climate change problem, and 4) The need to act now is urgent. Governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change starting now. As the prominent evangelical pastor, Ric Warren, writes in this document:
Life is all about stewardship. It all belongs to God—he just loans it to us for a short period of time. The first command God gave to man was to take care of the Earth, which includes managing and protecting the environment.

Even more individually, we are called to reuse, to limit our consumption of resources, and to be very specific and hit home, to bring with us reusable containers, to turn down thermostats, to turn up air conditioners, to lobby our politicians, to ride our bikes, and to walk. I heard a survey a few years ago that stated most Chico State students, who live within a mile of campus, drive to school! I also believe we are called to take this on, as we are today, in secular academic institutions and in theological institutions, where courses on ecology and theology, though a bit of a cottage industry, must form a component of academic discourse and ministerial formation.

I do not know entirely what will motivate the Church toward appropriate actions or whether the call to a sustainable life will ultimately take root. Though I must admit that I have a long way to go to stewarding well the resources of this planet, I know that as I attempt to live a more sustainable life, I seek to do as I bring to mind Grandma Elizabeth, my parents, and particularly the future for my daughters. I seek to care for this earth and to find a more sustainable life because I believe this is what my faith requires of me. I see many other Christians today doing the same and pray that many others to join because I believe, when we act as stewards of creation, we touch a bit of what God wants for all humankind.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Say No to Ecological Abuse and Yes to Stewarding God’s Creation


In light of some recent interest in biblical views of sustainability—for example, with the recent publication of The Green Bible —it seemed entirely appropriate to blog on the topic of Christian Faith and Sustainability. Below is the first half of a paper I presented last month at Chico State University at their annual sustainability conference.

Christian Faith and Sustainability: Friends or Foes?

If thy heart were right, then every creature would be a mirror of life, and a book of holy doctrine. There is no creature so small and abject, but it reflects the goodness of God.
The medieval Christian mystic, Thomas á Kempis

Reasons for this topic
Three images run through my mind and frame my thoughts on “Christian Faith and Sustainability: Friends or Foes?” First is my grandmother Elizabeth raising chickens in Tacoma, Washington during the Depression. There, in this simple instance, was sustainability—not self-conscious, but crafted from necessity: The chickens provided eggs while they were alive, they later provided meat when they were killed, and the bones could supply excellent chicken stock. And with very little carbon footprint!

I also remember my parents, Tom and Ruth, and their Yuban coffee cans—after the grounds were all percolated, these sturdy brown steel containers housed bacon grease, nuts and bolts, and sundry other items. They were hardly ever thrown away, at least until they were used and re-used multiple times. And that cycle sometimes implied amazing creativity. On one rainy day, the roof started leaking, and my father unrolled the can and patched the offending spot.

Finally, I imagine the faces of my two daughters, Melanie and Elizabeth—and wonder how they will be viewing you and I will and the way we have left this planet for them to inhabit. This topic is not distant and “academic” in the negative sense, but engaged and real for me. To be frank, I hope that the ideas imbedded in this paper will affect lives, change attitudes toward and within the Christian community, and ultimately transform behavior.

Next, I turn to two facts that embolden me as a pastor, or in some ways, a religious leader in this community. Calculated at probably the highest level possible, the percentage of Christians in the United States hovers somewhere around 80% (Wikipedia, for example, has 78.5%)—thus how leaders in Christian churches approach the topic of sustainability will prove to be central to facing the ecological issues we face. Admittedly, that represents this represents people who are more Christian in name than in belief and practice. I also know the limitations that I, as a pastor specifically, or the church more generally, has on even those 40% that regularly attend worship services. Nonetheless, if any religion will have a majority influence on United States citizens, it is Christianity. For that reason, there is the gauntlet that has often been thrown at the Christian Church; we are alleged to have caused most of the ecological problems that face our planet. Consider just one recent book, assigned this semester at Chico State course entitled, “World Religions and Global Issues.” In his book, Ecology and Religion, David Kinsley, offers this summary statement, “Contemporary discussions of ecological spirituality centers on Christianity’s possible role in the advent of the contemporary ecological crisis” (Kinsley, xx).

In light of these considerations, I pose then this question: Are Christian faith and sustainability friends or foes?

Two clarifications
The topic of Christianity’s responsibility for ecological problems—or turned around, the Christian Church’s relationship with sustainability—still finds its epicenter in Lynn White’s famous article in Science, which still wears well after forty years, “The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis.” Among many partners in this dialogue—and in some ways, dispute—White remains worthy of attention. To his article, I will return in a moment.

On the way, I must make two clarifications: When I am addressing the topic of “Christian faith,” I will be focusing on Christianity as a system of belief and practice, which follows a line of scholarship that leads through such seminal scholars of religion as Robert Bellah, Huston Smith, and Clifford Geertz. This means that—in some contrast to White—I will center on Christianity as faith and less on Christianity as an historical religion. Secondly, I will offer a simple, provisional, working definition of sustainability: a way of life and practices that utilize natural resources by means that can endure, thereby providing for the welfare and ecological balance of the natural world.

The persistent challenge of Lynn White
Let me then return to the persistent challenge of Dr. Lynn White, professor of medieval history whose article first appeared in Science in 1967. This short, pity, and fascinating piece still continues to resonate to this day. (This fact is remarkable when one considers how much global ecological concerns have changed in these four decades.)

First of all, White makes excellent arguments and presents them in a much more subtle way than many summaries would indicate. In fact, he speaks from within the church, not as an outside critic. Nonetheless, he argues that, historically—and it is important to remember that White was a medieval historian, not a scientist nor scholar of religion—the Christian Church has been a significant player in Western in abusing our world’s ecology. He contends that Christianity set it self against and ultimately destroyed the animism present in paganism, and thereby “made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (White, 1206). The great historian, Arnold Toynbee, echoes this sentiment when he writes, “The salutary respect and awe with which man had originally regarded his environment was thus dispelled by Judaic monotheism in the versions of Israelite originators and of Christians and Muslims” (Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue, in Kinsley, 104).

Moreover, White particularly bases this contention on a reading of certain biblical texts, such as Genesis 1:26, that describes men and women as created in the “image of God” and calls for humankind to have “dominion” over the earth. This story comes in the very first chapter of the Hebrew Scriptures in its description of God creating the world and particularly making Adam and Eve:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

White concludes that “dominion” equals “domination” or “exploitation” and then combines with this argument—and this is critical and underappreciated move, in my opinion—that this element of thought in the Hebrew Bible led to the rise of modern science and technology and thus contributed to the “ecologic crisis,” to which sustainability seeks to respond. From the concept that “man” is “not simply part of nature; he is made in God’s image,” White concludes that Christianity “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (White, 1206).

This latter point brings us to a critical weakness in his argument. White ties the ecological crisis with growth of science and technology itself based on Christian theology. Today, we often hear the criticism that the history of Christianity is the narrative of suppressing scientific insight. Usually, the prosecutors bring out the trial of Galileo and the Church’s reception of Darwin as Exhibits A and B. Scholarly research of the past few decades has proven these two pieces of evidence are hardly conclusive, but I will not pause there, except to note that the argument is problematic. (I have a brief discussion of this, and the proper relationship of science and theology in the first chapter of my book, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science. Click here for link. It seems to me that the argument cannot go both ways. The history of Christianity is either largely for or against the development of science. In my opinion—and in agreement with White—Christian theology is the seedbed for the rise of modern science. This is not a new argument—Michael Foster, the Oxford philosopher first made it in 1934 and it has been echoed more recently by the U.C. Berkeley, Noble laureate physicist, Charles Towne. Nonetheless, misuse of our planet is not consistent with a properly constituted and elaborated theology. In other words, the history of Christianity does have within it the exploitative use of science and technology, but that is an infiltration of foreign thought and not integral to the core of Christian theology. It is worth noting the other threads of western history that have caused the degradation of our natural environment such as the rise of the Enlightenment and its propagators such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton. In addition, White does not note the growth of consumerism after World War II—as an alternative to spiritual life—whose consumption of resources has greatly inflamed the ecological problem.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Yes to Both Faith and Reason


Wow, I missed the entire month of October for posts, and before November also passed me by, here's something on saying Yes to both faith and reason....

Last week, I engaged in a dialog on local National Public Radio station on the topic of faith and reason. I affirmed a Yes to a robust faith and to an active life of the mind. My colleague, Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan, brought a confirmation from Jewish thought. On the other side of the ledger, the Chico philosopher Richard Parker stridently disagreed. It was a good time. Here’s the podcast for you to download. Click here for link.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Touched by God’s Yes


Last weekend, I had a fabulous time speaking at the all-church retreat of First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame. I focused on Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the yeses we say to God—in faith, in friendship, in our work, and in daily life. Given my interest in the power of no, I touched on where and why we need to state nos to make these yeses mean something. But here I want to underscore—as I did last weekend—that in order to be touched by God, the final word is not a no. Our final word is a Yes to God’s Yes to us in Christ. As Paul writes in another of his letters: “For in [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’” (2 Corinthians 1:20). And that is good news indeed.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Sarah Palin: Does She Need to Learn to Say Yes to No?


Like just about everyone else, I was surprised by Friday's news of John McCain's choice for a running mate: the 44 year-old governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. Then a day later, I read the stunning disclosure of her 17 year old daughter's pregnancy. As the news has emerged over the past few days, we find a woman whose rise is best described as meteoric--after serving as mayor of a town of 6700, she becomes her state's governor. Then just two years later, she is in line to hold the second highest office of our country. For the reason of her now very public status, it's an excellent the time to take stock and ask a question or two about her and about ourselves.

As I've written before, our lives are defined by the yeses and nos. We declare who we are through our decision, and in order to really say yes, we have to state many more nos. In striving to gain some rhythm between work and life, we all have to state clearly what we can't do in order to hedge what we can.Does Sarah Palin need to learn to say yes to no? Just three days after giving birth, she went back to office. She now is nurturing a Down syndrome child--will there be enough time in these critical early years if she begins as vice president? Did she need to say no to McCain's call to be vice president in order to protect her daughter from the harsh scrutiny of public life? These questions simply evoke the central issue of how she--and we--respond to the calling of both work and personal life.

However we answer that question for her, it does bring to us the same issue: Do we need to learn the right nos that so our most important yeses will flourish? Are we so ready to respond to the call of our vocation to work that we aren't truly saying yes to personal and family life? It's definitely something worth pondering.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Saying Yes to No at a Key Moment


As of August 20th, I’ve officially said Yes to a new element in my work—namely the exciting world of college ministry. It’s a Yes that brings a renewed passion for mentoring college students at a critical time in their life, where they will make some of their most important decisions. In addition, estimated that something like 90% of the students in Chico have no connection with a faith community. And that’s a challenge I love taking on.

It’s also an exhilarating time because my book, Say Yes to No is beginning to emerge. I’m the stage of galleys, the pre-publication versions of the book. Galleys, if you don’t know this phase (I didn’t), look like a paperback edition 1.0, and they are sent to various religion reports, magazines, new stations, and the like throughout the country. By the way, if you're interested, check out the book on Amazon .

The basic premise of the book—as I’ve thrown in this blog from time to time—is that the simple word No can transform your life and enable your dreams and character to flourish. Strategic No’s safeguard the key Yes’s of your personal life, work, and love. Ultimately No leads to Yes because the Power of No produces health, integrity, true success, and a life of beauty.

One of the first things I’m going to say to the college students of our church’s ministry, The Door, is that, during these years, it’s critical to say the right Yes’s and to realize that related to this is declaring the right No’s. The payoff for the rest of life could hardly be greater.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Yes's and No's of John Templeton


John Templeton, financier, and funder--through the John Templeton Foundation-of the research and dialogue in science and religion, died this month at age 95. I've been working on an article for the local paper, Chico Enterprise Record, in that I'm someone engaged in the interaction of science and theology, and because I've benefited in various ways from Templeton's largesse. Here are a few thoughts along the way...

According to the recent obituary in The Economist--who should know these things--Templeton spent his life as an investor “going against the flow.” Or “saying Yes to No,” as I like to phrase it… In September 1939, when investors were gun-shy about equities, Templeton started his career by borrowing $10,000 and staking his future on 100 stocks that were trading for less than a dollar. All but four turned a profit. Much later, he garnered considerable fame around the circles of Princeton Theological Seminary when, as chair of the board, he pulled a large amount of the PTS’s considerable investments out the stock market before the crash in October 1987. The Economist reports that he foresaw our current housing crash as early as 2003.

“Sir John” (who was knighted twenty-one years ago by Queen Elizabeth) seemed always to be prescient about upcoming trends—he also knew when to Say Yes—a quality that naturally made him an exquisite investor, for sure, but also a visionary in philanthropic work. He set up the Templeton Foundation in 1987 to engage, among other topics, the connection between religion and contemporary science. Such work uncovers the treasure trove of scholarly research that connects the two, as well as the places where significant change and reassessment need to occur. He could not have foreseen, though perhaps he intuited, the rise of New Atheism through Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker—those evangelists for atheism that brandish the sword of science to cut religious faith at its roots. That much of their argumentation is more rhetoric than scholarship few would know without the kind of work the Templeton Foundation supported.

I’ve come to realize that it’s the Yes’s and the No’s that define a human life. I don’t need to agree every Yes and No that John Templeton uttered and lived out to be appreciated and instructed by the ones that were right.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bleating and Buzzing in an Electronically Twitchy World


Apparently, the Atlantic Monthly is posing the question of whether Google is making us "stoopid" because the latter encourages us to move so quickly among various websites that we never really stop, reflect, and use our higher capacity for thought. At least that's what Laura, my wife, told me--she read the article; I didn't... A piece that I did read, however, came from last week's New York Times, which highlighted an issue rolling around the the Silicon Valley: Are we being overwhelmed by our technology? What does it mean that we're continuously connected through text messages, Blackberrys, and iPhones? Is the quality of our work suffering because we're continually distracted? (And the NYT article offered some reasonably compelling data that supports a resounding Yes.) I would add to these questions another: Do all the techie toys around us make us twitchy? And, do we really like being distracted?

In the emergence of a growing scientific and technological western culture, the sixteenth century scientists and philospher Blaise Pascal offered a succinct and piercing assessment of his society's condition, “I have often said that the sole cause of human unhappiness is that we do not how to stay quietly in a room.” That’s a hauntingly accurate insight for us as well.

It's even worthwhile to attempt Pascal's experiment. Try sitting in a room quietly. No TV. No stereo. No Internet. In a weird way, the lack of distractions is distracting. Our minds wander. We become uncomfortable and twitchy.

Tellingly, in Pascal’s own language French, the word distraction means “separation, subtraction, absence of mind, inattention, heedlessness, diversion, hobby.” And so we seek increasing amounts of hobbies to make us inattentive. One Microsoft executive coined a term for this state, “continuous partial attention.” Or inattention. This drive is demonstrated most notably in the lives of the rich and famous and for the rest of us, our tremendous fascination with them. Pascal believed that this inherent, uncontrolled restlessness drove women and men toward wealth and worldly success, "That, in fact, is the main joy of being a king [insert rock star, CEO], because people are continually trying to divert him and procure him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself."

I suspect that’s one reason we want to be distracted and twitchy. We're afraid we might have to come to deeper realizations. The problem is--and I say this as one who enjoys technology--that our minds, our hearts, and even our work, suffers.

So I've say Yes to tuning out and disconnecting regularly. It's amazing what happens when I engage deeper parts of my grey matter. I find that I can savor the truly substantive and beautiful elements of life, the ones I've often walked right by... while I'm checking the email on my iPhone.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

My One-speed Cruiser


Life doesn’t move at the car speed. When we zip past wildflowers on the way to work, when we don’t have enough time to see the sun’s shimmer on the creek to our left, we miss out. We fail to notice the subleties of God’s creation. We overlook the good and the beautiful things that God wants to show us.

As a biker and bike-commuter, I’ve realized that sometimes even my 24-speed mountain bike goes too fast. About a year ago—in celebration of a book contract for my upcoming Make Room for Yes (and the power of no)—I bought a simple cruiser bike, a type of transport that fills the streets of Chico, a conveyance preferred by the collegians that ride to and fro Chico State. And so I’ve become enamored with my simple one-speed cruiser. Because there’s one gearing—there’s a top speed and a minimal speed, and they’re not that far apart. I can’t rush. Even when I want to. Even when there’s a staff meeting that’s 20 minutes from my departure. It always takes about 25 minutes to get from home to work. So it’s essentially pointless to rush. I’ve learned not to even try. (And I’ve learned to pray for those who might be inconvenienced by my being late.)

I once heard a quote from a Midwestern farmer that I’ll paraphrase, “I decided to stop hurrying because I realized that I passed by more than I caught up to.” My one-speed is teaching me pretty much the same thing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

No or Yes to Self?


Since I’ve finished a book in the “self-help” genre… Did I mention that before and that it’s being published by Doubleday on January 6, 2009? But I digress…. I’ve been thinking about the “self” and whether it’s a good idea to feed it or to deny it.

The particular topic here is whether we should do things because we enjoy them or because they’re simply right. C.S. Lewis (have I mentioned his name before in this blog?) engages two titans of ethics, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, in his profound book, The Problem of Pain. Lewis writes this,

“Kant thought that no action had moral value unless it were done out of pure reverence for the moral law, that is, without inclination, and he has been accused of a ‘morbid frame of mind’ which measures the value of al act by its unpleasantness. All popular opinion is, indeed, on Kant’s side. The people never admire a man for doing something he likes: the very words ‘But he likes it’ imply the corollary ‘And therefore it has no merit.’ Yet against Kant stands the obvious truth, noted by Aristotle, that the more virtuous a man becomes the more he enjoys virtuous actions.”

And generally, I, with Lewis, stand with Aristotle. God’s desire for our lives—and therefore what we ought to do—is what we are created for. It is where we find joy and beauty. To do what God loves is the highest pleasure possible. As we grow in the spiritual life, we enjoy more and more what God wants, which is simultaneously what we truly enjoy.

At least, when we’re growing spiritually. But there are those other times, we, when we act out of the rebellion that lurks deep within us, the twisted self that the Bible terms “sin.” Here Aristotle, who had no real understanding of the distortions that lie within the self, comes to his limits as a guide. Similarly, Lewis finds a rapprochement between Kant and Aristotle:

“We therefore agree with Aristotle that what is intrinsically right may well be agreeable, and the better a man is the more he will like it; but we agree with Kant so far as to say that there is one right act—that of self surrender—which cannot be willed to the height by fallen creatures unless it is unpleasant. And we must add that this one right act includes all other righteousness, and that the supreme canceling of Adam’s fall, the movement ‘full speed astern’ by which we retrace our long journey from Paradise, the untying of the old, hard knot, must be when the creature, with no desire to aid it, stripped naked to the bare willing of obedience, embraces what is contrary to its nature, and does that for which only one motive is possible. Such an act may be described as a ‘test’ of the creature’s return to God….”

And so it is. We return to the Center of our lives, to God. In doing so, we need to learn to say No to the self that lives from a twisted, defiant will and says “No thanks God,” the self the atheist so triumphantly thrusts forward. But this No leads to the greater Yes of what we are created to be and to do. It is the deepest self, the one that God created in everyone. And the Yes to that self, to be sure, leads to life itself.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Hey, I Just Really Want to Share Something...

I've been pondering God's goodness and the way God uses pain to help us, well, repent--that is, turn our life around. That led me to re-turn to one of C.S. Lewis's finest books--and one of his first "Christian" ones--"The Problem of Pain." And here's the quote: “We ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’” Lewis is simply right, and even though it's a tough word, it's a good one. As he concedes, "It does not matter that I know I must become, in the eyes of every hostile reader, as it were, personally responsible for all the sufferings I try to explain.... But it matters enormously if I alienate anyone from the truth." (Wow, I wish more contemporary authors were willing to live by that rubric....)

Friday, March 07, 2008

Further Thoughts on the Problem of Good


I've had exactly a week since my Enterprise-Record article, "The Problem of Good" appeared, and I'd like to offer a few thoughts in response to my critics.

First of all, I am thankful for those (admittedly few) who responded. I am convinced that solid Christian thought (although my article was really simply "theistic") has nothing to hide, and therefore gains much, from honest engagement. Admittedly, many self-proclaimed religious "thinkers" are embarrassments. On the other hand, judging from some atheists, they have not cornered the market! So my hope is that this open exchange of ideas will prove fruitful.

I should also say something I couldn't include in my 700ish-word ER article: I am convinced that science provides excellent means for us to understand the complex realities of nature. Particularly, Darwin's theory--and subsequent neo-Darwinian evolution--have much to offer. I am thankful to be in serious intellectual interchange over his theories through the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and Metanexus Institute. I realize that Darwin's theory will continue to produce profound insights, as well as questions, for theists. For what it's worth, in my reading, Darwin himself appears not to have taken his theory toward atheism, but remained something of a deist. In any event, I was highlighting the contradiction that some atheistic scientists find themselves in (namely, that they have no ground for good within their systems of thought).

And this brings me to a central item that has missed the attention of my critics: In the article, I am quoting atheists. Dawkins, Geller, and Weinberg provide the ideas. It is not Augustine, Pascal, and Tillich. In a blog apparently populated by Dawkins's disciples, they pointed to his argument in "The God Delusion" on good. Dawkins does in fact present a kinder, gentler atheism in that book, but without serious philosophical reasoning for his bold assertions. For all his stylistic brilliance, Dawkins most often resorts to name-calling, inuendo, and bullying. (That's probably why the book has sold so well--it fits our zeitgeist.) I find it hard to take him seriously. In philosophy, one cannot put this book in the same work by atheists such as Diderort, D'Allembert, Hume, Nietzsche, Marx, or Russell. Instead, I chose to quote him from the earlier, "River Out of Eden" because he was much more thorough and honest there.

Tanya Heinrich's thoughtful reply, in the previous post, seeks to solve the problem of good by saying essentially that there is no such thing as good. It is a way out of the dilemma. I'm struck that this is so unsatisfying intellectually and ultimately circular. I can say that poetry does not exist, and that it's simply black and white on a page. But where does that leave me? Without the beauty of Shakespeare's or Eliot's words. She does offer that contemporary thinkers--she references Quammen--are seeking to build a new system (which of course has been a project for the past 200 years or so). They haven't convinced me yet that there is a sufficient reason to posit the non-existence of good, meaning, beauty to match the related non-existence of God.

Ms. Henrich's thoughtfulness does escape her when she closes the argument by writing, "There are those who believe that religion and science can co-exist. I am not one of these people. Religion is a crutch that was contrived to control and manipulate people and used in most despicable ways." This is an example of the lack of serious thinking that atheists so often apply to "religion." Can she really be serious that all religion was contrived to manipulate people? The assertion is so broad as to be either easily falsified (select one religious tradition that was not contrived to manipulate--easy) or as to have no actual explanatory power.

There is much more to say, but in this post, I'll close in with this: I am seeking to take atheists seriously by looking at the import of their words. When I do, I see that they come to incredible roadblocks in their theories. Christian theologians have been much more honest about their aporias for centuries, and it's time for the New Atheists not only to know their sparring partners better, but to engage in a higher degree of intellectual rigor.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Response to my article, "The Problem of God"

Dear Rev. Cootsona,

Thank you for your article in the Enterprise Record of March 1, 2008. It prompted this response from me:

The problem of ‘good’ is not insoluble for this atheist. Here’s how I do explain it. Good and evil are simply human contrived words--each being opposed to one another; either word is not a word that describes or fits into the natural world. Evil is a religious word. Better descriptors can be used to describe wasteful destruction, harm, pain, etc, but ‘evil’ connotates a satan or devil. There is no satan or devil.

By contrast, ‘good’ is a word that does not fit in a naturally evolving system of life on the planet. Life evolves in a manner that allows it to be in a constant state of change or flux. How exciting and marvelous is that to know! This makes me want to live forever; there is STILL so much to discover in the natural world. It is all so fabulously interesting! Pitiless indifference but absolutely fascinating nonetheless. I do fully agree with Richard Dawkins.

You might enjoy reading The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, by David Quammen. It gives wonderful insights into the complexities of Darwin’s discoveries of life evolving on the planet.

Humans are a part of the world, not separate from it. We are still animals despite the best efforts to deny this fact. We are certainly unusual animals and in the end may have a history on this planet that is so short (think geologic time) that we will almost be immeasurable, except for the dramatic influences we’ve had on other living systems. It seems that the more we have used technology to improve our lives, the quicker we’ve moved towards eradicating ourselves with the growth of our numbers (heading towards 7 billion and still expanding exponentially), exploiting natural resources, causing species extinctions, altering natural systems, etc.

This atheist finds herself satisfied with the same joy and appreciation of life as any other person might. In fact, I would say, more so, because I hold no falsehoods, belief in mythology or superstitions; nor do I deceive myself or waste time with prayers and activities that do not advance knowledge of the reality of life itself. I do not have to be ‘forgiven’ as I lead a life of consciousness that takes responsibility for my own actions.

There are those who believe that religion and science can co-exist. I am not one of these people. Religion is a crutch that was contrived to control and manipulate people and used in most despicable ways. The fact that religion continues today reminds me that humanity continues to evolve with all the rest of life, but I for one, feel free -- truly free.

Sincerely,
Tanya M. Henrich

The Atheists' Problem of Good

(This essay appeared in Chico's Enterprise-Record over the weekend. I figured that posting it might create some additional public dialogue... for the good.)

The existence of good—and the related realities of meaning, purpose, and beauty—present together an almost insoluble problem for the atheist.

And I didn’t actually have to formulate the problem of good on my own. Prominent atheists have already taken on that task for me. Consider the words of Richard Dawkins, Oxford scientist, and bestselling author of The God Delusion: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

That’s a reasonably bleak portrayal of the universe, and, since we’re part of that universe, of our lives as well. It does, however, correspond perfectly with a basic conviction from Philosophy 101—“nothing comes from nothing.” Start with a purely physical system without any Creator, and all you have is brute fact. If the universe is simply a physical system, then why should something non-physical like good, meaning, purpose, or beauty arise? It cannot. Margaret Geller, formerly an astronomer at Harvard and now with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, believes that it is pointless to mention purpose in the universe: “Why should it have a point? What point? It’s just a physical system, what point is there?” And, given certain implied metaphysics, she’s right.

There will no be point and no good without something from outside infuses the system with these qualities. The words I’m typing right now have no meaning, no potential goodness or beauty, without the context that words can lead to sentences and thoughts. In the Western cultural tradition, of course, that meaning and goodness have come not from something, but from Someone—a Creator who imbues the physical system with non-physical qualities in the act of creation.

But, of course, the West is gradually moving away from its mooring in creation by a good, meaningful, purposeful, and beautiful Creator. Stephen Weinberg, the Nobel-winning physicist and atheistic scientist, stated this problem very pointedly. As we increase in scientific knowledge, our ability to comprehend its meaning has decreased. “The more the universe seems comprehensible,” Weinberg assets, “the more it also seems pointless.”

Pointless indeed. And why is this not a greater debate with the so-called New Atheism? My doctorate, and subsequent research, engages the dialogue between science and religion. And my very calling as a pastor often evokes the challenge, “How can you believe in a good, almighty God when there’s so much suffering in the world?” Put simply, I am often confronted by the problem of evil.

And there is a problem of evil, to be sure. It remains the greatest argument against belief in God according to no less voice than the great medieval philosopher of religion, Thomas Aquinas. So I agree with Thomas and with the atheists. Nonetheless, when we look not at some abstracted Omnipotence, but at the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth—a God of suffering, creative, and beautiful love—it begins to look quite different.

That topic, however, is not the focus here. Instead, I am offering a counter-question to the atheists. You show me a world without a Creator, then you also need to provide grounds for the existence of goodness in this world. How do you intend to answer the problem of good in a world without God?

Generally, the response is a bald assertion of human creation—that we supply the qualities lacking in a world devoid of God. Weinberg, when interviewed on his comment about the “pointless” universe, makes this offer: “There is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art… faced with this unloving, impersonal universe, we make a little island of warmth and love, and science and art, for ourselves—that’s not an entirely despicable a role for us to play.” I find myself sympathetic to his conviction, but I do hear the thud of an unfounded leap of blind faith.

Certainly, from the mouths of atheists, it sounds like the problem of good is insoluble indeed. And I believe it is… without an act of faith. The question is this: Will this faith be reasonable or not?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Henri Nouwen on Compassion


As I prepare to serve with a mission team this week, I am reminded of a quote by the brilliant 20th century writer on Christian spirituality, Henri Nouwen. It goes like this: “Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer. Those who can sit in silence with their fellowman, not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.”

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Brief Reflection on God's Beauty and Glory


In the biblical traditions—despite the variety of perspectives in its various books—there remains a remarkable unity about beauty. It is woven with God’s goodness and most importantly, the divine glory. Beauty does not stand alone and certainly never apart from God as its source.Thus, in the Scirptures, the centrality of God’s glory and the people of the covenant’s call to glorify God. To glorify God is to point to God’s own glory. Divine glory involves God’s very character of holiness, and holiness is first of all God’s otherness because the nature of deity is perfection. God’s holiness thus evokes our awe and praise. In Hebrew and Greek, God’s glory (kabod and doxa) also includes God’s beauty. The Reformation finds God’s glory throughout the deep grammar of Scripture as well as in specific biblical texts. For example, Isaiah 6:1-8 describes the prophet’s famous call; Isaiah finds himself in a divine throne room. YHWH’s presence evokes wonder and fear. Similarly, the Reformed understanding of worship builds on Isaiah 6 as it seeks to evoke God’s majesty and power. The worship service is designed to lead the congregation in glorifying the Lord. In other texts, such as Moses’ experience with YHWH in Exodus 40:34ff., God’s glory even includes a certain luminosity. So glory implies wonder and fear, and the human response to God in worship seeks to mirror this experience.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Lewis, Tolkien, and The Power of Friendship


2007 just ended, and as is my habit, I spent the Christmas and New Year's break reading about one of my mentors. Again it was C.S. Lewis, the eminent 20th medievalist, writer of accessible and popular theology, and--in this case--friend of J.R.R. Tolkien. Alan Jacobs's intellectual biography, "The Narnian," provided the text. I was reminded that, as a new year begins, flourishing as human beings really depends on the quality of our relationships. We don’t even realize our own particular talents until we let others in.

Though Lewis and Tolkien's relationship hit rocks--Tolkien had serious problems with Lewis's popularizing of theology, for example--when their friendship worked, it was powerful. Check out how Lewis influence Tolkien. The latter's The Lord of the Rings remains one of the enduring classic books of our time. In fact, a 1999 Amazon.com customers poll chose it as the greatest book, not just of a mere century, but of the millennium. In case you’ve missed the hype, this fantasy trilogy concerns the small-fry hobbit (a “halfing”), Frodo, and his friend, Sam, who set out to save their age from great evil by destroying the One Ring of Power, created by the evil Lord, Sauron, to enslave all beings. Tolkien began the mythology behind all these 1200+ pages in the foxholes of France as a soldier in World War I. As a professor of English literature (old English—Beowulf, that kind of thing), Tolkien was never a full-time writer, but he gradually and on-the-side created his own legendary world of elves, dwarves, wizards, and orcs. The entire process took almost four decades until the books began being published in 1954. Then another four decades later, the filmmaker and director, Peter Jackson, himself went on an eight-year odyssey to produce his cinematic trilogy. Completed in 2003, the final installment, The Return of the King, alone won an unprecedented eleven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director.

It's a fabulous story. But did you realize that the novel almost never got published in the first place? Tolkien constantly toiled over work. He frequently hit snags in creating his story. At one point, the wizard Gandalf plunges down the cavernous, dank, and dangerous Mines of Moria, and Tolkien didn’t know how to complete the narrative. He broke off writing for an entire year. During this time, he was reading his work to a small group of Oxford intellectual lights called the Inklings, which included Charles Williams (“C.W.” below) and C.S. Lewis (“C.S.L.”). Listen to the description of his struggles in a letter to his son, Christopher Tolkien, "I worked very hard at my chapter—it is very exhausting work; especially as the climax approaches and one has to keep the pitch up: no easy level will do; and there are all sorts of minor problems of plot and mechanism. I wrote and tore up and rewrote most of it a good many times; but I was rewarded this morning as both C.S.L. and C.W. thought it an admirable performance and the latest chapters the best so far."

These two Inklings, Lewis and Williams, provided constant support, and even goading, to Tolkien. His friend Lewis, however, received unique appreciation. In light of Tolkien’s frequent anxiety that anyone would actually enjoy his meandering mythology, he later described the distinctive influence of C.S. Lewis: "The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not 'influence' as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my 'stuff' could be more than a private hobby."

That phrase, a private hobby astounds me because that “hobby” became the Book of the Millennium! And the story behind the story is the power of friendship and how it motivates and enhances our lives. Friends, at their best, help us move forward. We, of course, are probably not secretly concocting the novel for the next 1000 years. Still we have to ask, How many “private hobbies” do we have, which are currently buried, but simply need a friend’s encouragement?