Thursday, November 29, 2007

Parents Who No

I’ve been reworking my book that will be published by Doubleday in January 2009. It’s currently titled “The Power of No,” but that might change. In any event, the essential idea is that strategic No’s safeguard the great Yes’s of life in personal life, work, and relationships. No leads to Yes and thus health, integrity, and true success.

The chapter I’m polishing right is on Parents Who No. Here’s a conviction from that section.

The importance of No relates to a general conviction about parenting: it’s about working yourself out of a job—you’re actually not “raising kids,” but “raising adults.” You want to remember what they will become. I want my children to become honest, faithful, generous, loving, and honest. I want them to feel blessed by me and Laura. As we take in the Yes of what we seek our children to become when they’re mature, we can say No to wanting immature children forever. Put simply, we are called to create children that don’t depend on us for the rest of our lives.

Is that something worth No’ing?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Beauty is Certainly Not Just Skin Deep

Recently, I've reading scientists and theologians on their understandings of the nature of beauty. The similarities--or at least, complementarities--are striking. For this post, I'll just set two quotes side-by-side, first from the eighteenth century pastor and theologian, Jonathan Edwards, and then from the twentieth century scientist, Henri Poincaré:

"For as God is infinitely the greatest being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory."

"The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living…. I mean the intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts and which a pure intelligence can grasp."

Friday, September 28, 2007

Faith, Works, and the Blades of the Scissors

I'm reading James 2:14-26, which starts with this provocative statement--which frankly challenges my Reformation conviction that we are saved by "faith alone": "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?"

As is often the case, I turn to C.S. Lewis, the 20th century Christian writer, who offered a winning analogy: He replies that it’s like asking which blades of a pair of scissors is more necessary. Or, to quote another great Christian writer, Martin Luther, who struggled mightily with the theology, saving faith always includes good works: "O it is a living, busy active mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many good words, about faith and good works."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Spending Some Time with St. Paul

I've been teaching the past five weeks on the Apostle Paul, especially focusing on Romans, Philippians, Galatians, and 1 & 2 Corinthians. I've struggled with any concluding remark that might do him some measure of justice.

Well, I failed at that task, but there is one aspect of his life that struck me--that he loved to be in "partnership (Greek, koinonia) in the gospel" (Philippians 1:5) with all kinds of people--Timothy, Lydia, Epaphroditus, Luke, etc., etc. As the great New Testament commentator, F.F Bruce, put it: Paul loved the "syn" prefix in Greek, which means "with" or "co." So Paul spoke of "co-workers" and "fellow-soldiers."

I wonder: Are we, as Christians in the United States--who prize our individualism--apt to do the same?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Following After Jesus

Sometimes other languages just say it better. When the outstanding 20th century theologian and Christian witness, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote his famous book that we translate “The Cost of Discipleship,” he employed one simple word Nachfolge, which simply means “following after.” In other words, the German language title—and Bonhoeffer’s subsequent words—helped me to see that being a disciple is simply hearing Jesus’s voice and following after him. Following after Jesus… I’ve been pondering those unusual scenes in the Gospels—like Matthew 4—where the Simon and Andrew drop their fishing nets and hear Jesus call them to a new way. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” So often the puzzle to me has been this: Why did it happen so quickly, and how could they possibly have made that kind of decision so abruptly? Though I suspect the character of Jesus had a lot to do with it, I now think I may be missing the central affirmation: They decided to follow after Jesus. That’s what it means to hear his call and to be his disciple. I’m not sure things have really changed much...

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On Thomas and the Worth of Proving God's Existence

I've been reading Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae with some worthy interlocutors, and we've come to Thomas's famous Five Ways in which he seeks to establish the rationality of God's existence. He asserts that, if follow what we know about creation, we can establish the existence of a Creator. He finds a biblical warrant for this endeavor in Paul's words from Romans 1.20, "Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made." Consequently, Thomas seeks to prove that God is the ultimate proper cause of change, the efficient causal series, generation, degrees of being, and order

Good enough, I suppose, although I won't go into the merits (or lacks) or these arguments in this post. But I wonder how important these proofs are. I tend to believe that proofs for God are never decisive for belief--we have faith in God for other reasons. Or to quote Pascal, "The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of." They never in fact take us to the God who is really worthy of belief, but a First Cause, or a Governor of the Universe. Nonetheless, proofs for God do help us realize that faith is not irrational--or more strongly, that faith is not against reason. With the proper respect for their limitations, proofs of God's existence serve a useful, if not ultimate, function. So I guess that means I'll keep reading Thomas and his Summa.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Lewis's Final Letter

All right, just one more thought on CSL… Interestingly, I’ve also discovered some elements about C.S. Lewis that can only come through letters—an art that’s now lost in a world of email. I’ve found a Lewis that was astoundingly literate and could quote by memory Latin poetry (to those for whom it meant something). I’ve found someone who always crafted sparkling prose even in incidental writing. He carried deeply about great literature, and (now I’m thinking of a recent post) someone who didn’t think of life as rational without remainder. He knew the power of story.

We desperately need that sensitivity to good literature, style, and narrative among Christian writers today. I lament what appears as good writing from Church! And that brings me back to a lament for Lewis: When I arrived at the letters that marked the final weeks of his life, I glimpsed the signs of the end—a failing heart and even, at times, a bit less clarity in that amazingly brilliant mind. And yet I never got the sense that he resisted death or that its foreboding presence embittered him. In fact, his last letter, written the day before he died, he responded to a young reader, Philip Thompson, about latter’s interest in The Magician’s Nephew. “May I congratulate you on writing such a remarkably good letter; I certainly could not have written it at your age.”

J.R.R. Tolkien once remarked that the only reason The Lord of the Rings got published was Lewis’s “sheer encouragement.” And if there’s a magic about Lewis, it was certainly his ability to encourage others in their writing even when his life was coming to a close. The voice still speaks to me.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Walking with St. Clive, Part One

I surprised myself by pursuing one odd habit recently—reading the entire collected corpus of C. S. Lewis’s letters from 1950-1963. Besides noting my own idiosyncrasy, I also realized something in the process of reading these 1500 pages of epistles: I have walked with a mentor through significant events in his life and even with him to his death.

Through these words, I’ve seen him in a remarkable array of situations. To note just a few examples: he became increasingly well-known, perhaps even “famous” (although that definitely happened after he died) as The Chronicles of Narnia saw the light in the early ‘50s. I traveled with him through meeting, then marrying, and then experiencing the death of Joy Davidman. (And, by the way, his famous “crisis of faith” after Joy’s death seems overwrought—he wrote letters replying to various theological and philosophical queries within a couple of days.) And I read his final letter, written the day before he died—a reply to a young reader who had enjoyed Narnia.

Since there’s a fair amount of Lewis worship going on in Christian circles, I probably should add that what becomes clear from these letters the imperfections of Clive Staples Lewis—and that he clearly recognized his flaws. That fact has made the journey with him all the more remarkable. More on that in future posts…

Sunday, June 03, 2007

How Doing Good is Good for Us

Here I am again at the University of Pennsylvania for the annual Metanexus Conference on science and religion. This morning I heard several presentations on the nature of altruism and volunteerism and why there are actually health benefits to do good for others. For example, among older adults in one study, mortality dropped by 44% with those who volunteered. In fact, Doug Oman, from U.C. Berkeley (Go Bears!) added this: statistical evidence indicates that, if we are connected to a religious institution, the benefits of volunteering on health are increased. Apparently, doing go for others (i.e., altruism) is actually good for us. It's even better if we do it for God.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

What is "Transdisciplinarity"?

I’m currently at the Metanexus Conference at the University of Pennsylvania on “Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge” ( To be honest, it’s even exciting. Tonight, Eric Weislogel, Executive Director of Metanexus, began a role call of those present from the 43 countries present that are home to a “local society” (or a grant-funded science-religion dialogue group.) Large delegations stood from the United States (obviously), but also from Germany and (as I remember it) Romania. The most interesting to me was to hear that there are representatives from Tajikistan. By the way, I’m not entirely sure what “Transdisciplinarity” is, but I think it means that we’re looking for a third thing--a tertium quid, as it were--as scientists and theologians dialogue. More to come…

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Summary Statement on The Black Swan

I've been musing about Taleb's book the past few days (probably because a review is due soon for the periodical Books and Culture), and two key words have come to mind: humility and providence.

Now I've already posted about providence: that the concept of the Black Swan--and especially its randomness--may seem to collide directly with the Christian Church's commitment to God controls the world. If the pattern of history makes no sense, then is God really bringing any sense to it? But the doctrine of providence actually does not commit Christians to asserting that we understand history, only that God does. The famous statement from Paul that "God works all things together for good" (Romans 8:28) never goes on to describe how we see God's plan clearly unfold before us. And this brings me to humility. Taleb correctly points out that, in a world of management and scientific predictability, we are blind to the fact that we know so little about the highly improbable events that significantly affect our life and our world. Similarly humility before God's will is the call of the Christian Church. Or as the prophet Yogi Berra put it so well, "It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pascal, Asymmetric Outcomes, and My Next Decision

I return again to my reading of Taleb's The Black Swan and particulary to what appears to be a critical quotation: “Indeed the notion of asymmetric outcomes as the central idea of this book: I will never get to know the unknown since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that." Taleb ties this to Blaise Pascal’s well-known wager, which he defines, “I do not know whether God exists, but I know that I have nothing to gain from being an atheist if he does not exist, whereas I have plenty to lose if he does. Hence, this justifies my belief in God.” And so he concludes: “In order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than on the probability (which you can’t know)."

Interesting, and I wonder what difference it makes to my quotidian life and particularly to my decisions. How would this guide me in deciding what to do next?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Postmodern Paradox and The Black Swan

If understand it correctly, a standard argument goes like: Postmodernism declares that “nothing is absolute,” but since that statement constitutes an absolute, postmodernism is self-contradictory and therefore absurd. Postmodernism has therefore nothing to offer. I don’t actually think that’s what “postmodernism” says—as I read contemporary authors, they state in a much more limited way, that they simply can’t find any absolute statements that hold up and that the path to certainty is strewn with road-kill. So I strain out a slightly different insight: there is a latent inconsistency, the Postmodern Paradox, in our contemporary philosophical and cultural climate. We want a grand narrative, but distrust it. So our Big Story is that there is none.

You see, I’m as distrustful of totalizing concepts as the next guy. I can sniff them out even when the author protests against them. So what I take up here—with Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan to my right—is that his contention that we by nature create huge structures in order to assert certainty and predictability in a highly improbable world. He calls this tendency (among other things): PLATONICITY, “our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defined ‘forms,’ whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias… [etc.].” But we don’t live in the world of the Forms. (Actually Plato didn’t think we did either.) Taleb wants to open us to the possibility of the Black Swan, to events and realities we could never predict, but that constitute what is most definitive for our lives and our world. Who could have seen the stock market crash of 1987 or the planes of 9-11? In other words, Black Swans rule, in a world that can only countenance boring, predictable white swans.

So I come to the Postmodern Paradox: No sooner does a thinker like Taleb want to emphasize the fragmentary, the irrational, the postmodern—no sooner does he evoke an incredulity toward metanarratives—than some new meta-structure comes around the back door. The Black Swan constitutes his totalizing structure. (The definition is in the post below.) Taleb wants to eschew the certainty that we derive from perfect, platonic concepts. And yet, it comes around that famous one-sided Mobius strip. In an odd way, it seems, asserting unpredictability (against the common, pedestrian desire for the known and the repeated) offers Taleb some level of mastery over the world. And that, to be sure, is a paradox.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Breaking the Silence

My blog entries the past few months have been spotty. The only excuse is well-worn: Too many things to do, and too many pedestrians… Nonetheless, here’s my first contribution to altering that reality.

I’m thrilled to say that my article for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), “The Church of the Last Stop” just appeared this week. In it, I offer five distinctives from Reformed theology that have guided our congregation, Bidwell Presbyterian Church, through a period of growth and renewal: the doctrines of Christ alone and of grace alone (that’s two), translating the contents of our faith into the vernacular, the church for the world (i.e., mission), and the sovereignty of God. The piece should be available on Geneva Press’s website,, but I haven’t seen it there yet. So send them harassing emails daily until the article appears.

Umberto Eco meets Milan Kundera—that’s the vibe from The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and that’s what I’ve been reading recently as I prepare a review for the periodical, Books and Culture. Here’s what Taleb asserts: “Our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable (improbable according to our current knowledge) [i.e., the Black Swan]—and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated.” That’s provocative for sure, especially because we like the predictable and the idea when we’re surprised that “we should have seen it coming.” The book so far also reads chaotic and in desperately in need on an editor. Gregg Easterbrook panned it in The New York Times Book Review, and I find the argument a bit flighty in spots. But I suppose that’s what we should expect from a book that asserts the unanticipated makes the biggest difference in life—a style that is unpredictable and jumpy.

I’ll have more to say as I indeed read more… What do you think? Have you read The Black Swan?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

On Reading the Qur’an Straight Through

I just finishing reading the Qur’an straight through. It was an eye-opener—and a bit of a chore, really. Since there’s not a narrative structure, no suspense pulled me forward. Instead I was driven by (a) wanting to complete the goal of reading it seriatim in a about month, and (b) trying to understand what Muslims believe.

Having finished this book that’s revered by a billion people on this planet, I asked myself, what struck me personally? My notes are entirely impressionistic and perhaps idiosyncratic, but three themes hit me in the face. First of all, judgment—the pleasures of heaven, but particularly the horrors of Hell—seemed to appear on every page I turned. This theme is related to a second: That the Qur’an is God’s perfect speech given through his Apostle, Muhammad. It is the “glorious Qur’an” (Suran 85) and the “best of scriptures” (Surah 39). I couldn’t totally shake the less-than-reverent thought that this represents a sustained work of promoting the Cause. It certainly reinforces Muhammad’s position. E.g., “Obey God and his Apostle” (Surah 64). Finally—and this is a little more devout—I was moved by passages that describe God’s ultimate glory: “There is nothing in the heavens or the earth beyond the power of God.”

Monday, February 19, 2007

Technology, Lent, and the Good

In a recent post or two, I offered some caution about our use of technology in the U.S.

I still believe that we often use our techie toys to distract ourselves from hearing God's voice (and sometimes the internal voices of our need for God). For that reason, as Ash Wednesday--and thus Lent-- approach, I encourage the silencing of TV, cell phones, video games, iPods, and/or email for at least an hour/day and an entire day/week.

Nonetheless, I just spent the weekend with some entirely creative and intelligent grad students from U.C. Berkeley and Stanford who are using technology to serve developing nations: helping facilitate better polling, the discovery of clean water, and the dissemination of critical information critical. I want then to counterpoint my earlier concerns about technology with a plea that we, as a highly technological nation, use our expertise to bless others, especially to help them attain basic services that can truly be the difference between life and death.

Is there some redemption to be found in microchips, videocams, and SMS? I think so. And that's definitely good news.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Probability and God

I’ve been thinking about the probability of belief in God. Not for any random reason (as it were), but because of a class I taught last night on science and faith with special reference to Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion.

Dawkins makes the claim that God is “almost certainly” does not exist—that God’s existence is improbable. Naturally I don’t agree, and I’m tempted to say that scientific discoveries like the Anthropic Principle offer reasons that it’s likely God exists. And yet at the same time, I don’t want to fall prey to proving God’s existence through its probability. On the other hand, I’m convinced that we can see the fingerprints of God (older theologians, talked about God’s footprints) through the amazing intricacy and complexity of creation.

So what do you think? Is probability a good ground for belief or not?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Wisdom of Pascal

I'm in the midst of working on a class where I use my book to interact with Richard Dawkins, and somehow I'm compelled to remember the insights of Blaise Pascal, the 17th century scientist who saw so poignantly the limitations of the growing scientific revolution. He knew that the profound insights of science can leave human beings desiccated of meaning and purpose. Science, and its servant reason, are good, but faith needs both habits or religious practices and most of all, God’s movement through the Holy Spirit, "There are three ways to believe: reason, habit, inspiration. Christianity, which alone has reason, does not admit as its true children those who believe without inspiration. It is not that it excludes reason and habit, quite the contrary, but we must open our mind to the proofs, confirm ourselves in it through habit, while offering ourselves through humiliations to inspiration, which alone can produce the real and salutary effect. Lest the Cross of Christ be made of none effect."

If we are to be fruitful in bringing together science and theology, let's not presume that science can prove theological truths. Instead we will do well to head Pascal’s words.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

One More Thought: The New Atheists' Logical Error

Sometimes errors in argumentation are exceedingly simple. This is the case for Dawkins (and from what I'm told, Sam Harris).

It goes like this: The fact that some religious believers have childish and irrational belief does not prove that all believers do, nor does it prove that belief ispo facto is an unreasonable, or unreasoned, delusion.

A Note from MacWorld

I just returned from MacWorld, which was really cool. Amazing products to surround my iPods (a device I love) and programs to enhance my MacBook.

While there in SF's Mascone Center, I beheld something almost religious and certainly pseudo-salvific: several dozen people at a time were gazing on the glory of the new iPhone as it slowly twirled within a glass-enclosed pedestal.

I wondered whether technology, or its parent, science, can actually provide the salvation they promise. Richard Dawkins certainly believes so, and actually argues that religion has never actually delivered the goods.

But it doesn't take much to see that Dawkins appears to have succumbed to better marketing in presenting his case for a kinder, gentler science. The harsh realities of what we often call a "Darwinian," survival-of-the-fittest world have been softened in his latest installment. Instead so often we see science and technology proffering exactly the type of "self-delusion" and "wishful thinking" he deplores. We are led to believe that a technological or scientific insight will provide salvation. Sometimes they do provide healing, to be sure. But other times it takes just a few moments to perceive that they will appear as dated in a few years as 8-track tapes and floppy disks appear today.

And then we rush to the next product.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Rationality of Dawkins's Optimistic Atheism

I’m preparing for a class I’m teaching on Richard Dawkins’s new bestseller “The God Delusion” in which this Oxford professor of evolution argues stridently that Darwin’s theory undermines the rationality of belief in God.

He seeks to demonstrate that a scientifically-informed atheism affirms life. In other word, it’s positive:
“As many atheists have said better than me, the knowledge that we have only one life should make it all the more positive. The atheist view is correspondingly life-affirming and life-enhancing, while at the same time never being tainted with self-delusion [read here: like a religious view], wishful thinking, or the whingering self-pity of those who feel that life owes them something.”

Does that work? In this entry, I’ll just set these words in contrast with another of his works, “River Out of Eden” where he reflects on the bus crash of some Catholic schoolchildren.

"If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of a bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. 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.
As the unhappy poet A. E. Housman put it:
For Nature, heartless, witless Nature
Will neither know nor care.
DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music."