Contaminated by holiness

Recently I mentioned to a few people that in Leviticus, sin is talked about almost as a contagious disease. It makes us unclean and then we cannot approach God. Sort of like being quarantined.

In Leviticus 6, the picture is almost the opposite. It’s as though holiness is the contagion, and it’s dangerous for humans.

Here are verses 8-11:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law for the burnt offering: the burnt offering itself shall remain on the hearth on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire on the altar is to be kept burning on it. The priest is to put on his linen robe, and he shall put on undergarments next to his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire reduces the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. 

Before the priest removes the ashes from the holy altar, he must don special “protective gear”. After the ashes are removed from the altar, he is supposed to take them outside the camp to dispose of them, but before he does that he has to change back out of the linen clothes, presumably to limit the contact of everyone else with the garments. Even he himself is protected from the linen clothes by special undergarments. Touching the altar “contaminates” the linen garments with holiness, and contact is kept to a minimum.

Here are verses 24-28.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the sin offering: in the place where the burnt offering is slain the sin offering shall be slain before the LORD; it is most holy. The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. It shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. Anyone who touches its flesh will become consecrated; and when any of its blood splashes on a garment, in a holy place you shall wash what was splashed on. Also the earthenware vessel in which it was boiled shall be broken; and if it was boiled in a bronze vessel, then it shall be scoured and rinsed in water.”

Once again, the point seems to be to limit human contact with the holy. Garments that come into contact with it must be washed, but only in the sanctuary area — they should not be taken outside the camp unwashed. Vessels that were used to cook the holy offerings must be either broken or at least scoured and rinsed.

Here is another passage that sounds sort of similar from Ezekiel 46:19-20.

Then he brought me through the entrance, which was at the side of the gate, into the holy chambers for the priests, which faced north; and behold, there was a place at the extreme rear toward the west. He said to me, “This is the place where the priests shall boil the guilt offering and the sin offering and where they shall bake the grain offering, in order that they may not bring them out into the outer court to transmit holiness to the people.

It also reminds me of this passage in Exodus 33:18-24:

Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.

This is all sort of strange and maybe profound.

Am I right in thinking that in Christ we are able to approach the holiness of God without fear or danger?

I frequently ponder the hiddenness of God, the way that he so rarely shows himself to people overtly. I’ve tended to assume we need to learn to see God in the ordinary. But these verses emphasize the opposite idea — the idea that God is anything but ordinary. They make it sound like he hides himself partly because he is protecting us from too direct a revelation.

How do all these thoughts fit together? I’m not sure yet … Feel free to speculate in the comments.

Forgiveness

Our pastor’s sermon yesterday was on forgiveness. Afterwards our family had a discussion about it. So here’re all the thoughts I have about forgiveness for now.

Forgiveness is odd. On the one hand, it is a kind of mercy, which means is it always strictly undeserved. If it was deserved, it wouldn’t be forgiveness but justice. On the other hand it is our obligation as Christians to forgive. So how can I be obligated to give someone something he doesn’t have a right to?

One possible solution is that my obligation to forgive other people is actually an obligation to God. He has forgiven me, and demands that I do the same. They can’t justly claim forgiveness from me, but God can justly require me to give it.

Another solution is say that certain relationships obligate us to forgive others. A father ought to have compassion and mercy toward his children, for example, according to both Scripture (Psalm 103:13) and common sense. I forgive my children quickly not because the nature of their offences obligates my forgiveness but because the nature of our relationship obligates it. Good fathers are merciful toward their children. Good marriages are built on forgiveness. Good families maintain an atmosphere of forgiveness.

Christians are obligated to forgive one another on both counts: because God commands it, and because we are spiritually brothers and sisters in Christ. (Colossians 3:12-13, 1 Peter 4:8, etc.)

On a related note, in the New Testament we tend to think of God’s forgiveness as the prerequisite for us to enter his family. We cannot become children of God until our sins are pardoned (Ephesians 1:7, for example). In the Old, forgiveness is presented as the result of being God’s children. God’s chosen people experience his mercy because they belong to him (2 Chronicles 7:14, for example). I think the gospels also look at forgiveness the same way.

Jesus often taught that if we do not forgive, God will not forgive us. I used to worry that somehow that meant that if we do not forgive, we lose our salvation; then for a while I took it as establishing a prerequisites for saving faith. Most of the verses are in the context of prayer, though, and in such cases I think there’s a simpler explanation. Jesus means simply that if we come to God with unforgiveness toward others, he won’t answer our prayers. As long as we ignore their pleas, we cannot expect God to hear ours. (Mark 11:25-26, Matthew 6:14-15, 18:19-22).

The pastor said yesterday that forgiveness does not mean forgetting what was done. Yet, Scripture also speaks of God’s forgiveness by saying He will remember our sins no more (Isaiah 43:25, Jeremiah 31:34, Hebrews 8:12,16-17). Why does it say that? My children’s answer was: it means that God will not focus on our sins. Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). That is, we remember what was done to us, but when we evaluate others, we do not take those wrongs into account. That means that as long as the only thing we think about is the wrong someone has done us, we still aren’t fully forgiving.

One way to think about forgiveness of believers is in terms of 2 Corinthians 5:16-17. There, Paul says that when we think of other Christians, we should think of them as new creatures in Christ. All the sin of their past is erased. Even if you, as a Christian, should sin against me, I need to see that as a mere reflection of who you used to be. It is a remnant of your old life. It comes from the flesh. It isn’t who you really are anymore. It isn’t who you will be when Jesus returns. Forgiving you means, among other things, seeing you as you are created to be in Christ, and refusing to identify you with the way you act when you sin.

Our pastor suggested that forgiveness is not an emotion, but merely an act of the will. I agree that forgiveness frequently starts with an act of the will, but our emotions should eventually fall in line as well. At its fullest, forgiveness will affect our emotions. It would be a mistake to think of God’s perfect forgiveness as begrudging, for example. Nor would it be very forgiving of me to say to someone, “I have forgiven you with my will, even though I still have feelings of hatred toward you, and always expect to.”

Still, as another one of my children pointed out, when someone has hurt us, there are a lot of emotions involved. In particular, there will probably be both resentment and sorrow. Forgiving someone may release me from the resentful emotions, but leave the sadness in place. That can make it hard to feel as though I’ve fully forgiven someone.

Sometimes forgiving someone takes a while. I think it’s significant that the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) has us pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The Lord’s Prayer is full of things that we are supposed to pray daily. “Give us this day our daily bread” – as opposed to praying “Give me everything I need for the rest of my life” once, and then being done with it. “Forgive us our trespasses” today as opposed to “Forgive me all my sins for the rest of my life” and then never asking again. In the same way, we pray “as we forgive those …” each day because each day we need to be reminded that we are forgiving others.

A few years ago I had difficulty forgiving someone. I kept trying to truly forgive and then discovering the next day that I still had resentment toward them. At first I felt discouraged; I took this as a sign that my decision to forgive hadn’t been real, hadn’t “taken” in some way. Then I realized that perhaps I simply needed to reaffirm my decision to forgive every day. “Since it’s a new day, God, I once again forgive ___.” Gradually, the discipline of regularly re-forgiving changed my feelings and my stance. The forgiveness that had been at first just an act of my will became something deeper and more consistent.

Forgiveness is different than pardon, I think. Pardon is releasing someone from the penalty that justice requires, whereas forgiveness is related to the relationship. If I am a Christian, and have a job as a judge, I am supposed to forgive people but I am not permitted to ignore justice and stop sentencing them. In real life, I’m not a judge, but I am a teacher. If I am to have integrity as a teacher, I need to grade people’s work accurately. If you don’t turn in a paper, I’ll give you a 0. I’ll forgive you, but I’ll still give you a 0.

That makes it difficult to know to what extent we are supposed to implement mercy and forgiveness in society and government. Luther taught that there were two realms. In the spiritual realm we are supposed to live by grace and forgive each other. In the worldly realm of government we are supposed to live by law and hold people to the consequences of their sins. Similar distinctions apply to warfare. C.S. Lewis said that it is completely consistent for a Christian soldier to pray for a man’s soul while trying to kill him. I think there’s some wisdom in all this, but I think there may be something wrong in it also. I don’t think the “two realms” can be compartmentalized so easily. But I don’t have a better suggestion.

God both pardons and forgives us, by the way.

Do others have to ask for forgiveness before we can forgive them? Well, in a practical sense, we must unilaterally forgive others before they repent. If we had to wait until others repented to do that, we’d be in trouble, because some people will never repent, and some who have hurt us may have died. Forgiveness in this unilateral sense is simply a change of attitude on our part. We let go of our resentment. We release them in our heart, for our own sake. As someone said, “Forgiveness is setting a prisoner free, and discovering that the prisoner was me.”

On the other hand, I think forgiveness proper does require repentance on the part of the offender. Scripture seems to speak of God as extending forgiveness to all who will accept it, as though the forgiveness is not really put into place until they repent and are saved. Although forgiveness is offered unilaterally, it cannot really be received by someone who is unwilling to admit he was wrong. (Psalm 86:5, Luke 24:47, Acts 10:43, etc. – see also Luke 17:3-4)

What about when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing?” (Luke 23:34). What about when Stephen said, “Do not hold this sin against them?” (Acts 7:60). Isn’t that unilateral forgiveness?

Let’s start with Stephen. Does his prayer mean that all those who stoned him were forgiven all their sins? Hardly. I think it’s extremely unlikely that they all got saved. (How much did Stephen’s prayer connect to Saul’s eventual conversion? Hmm … set that aside for future consideration.) Did his prayer mean that all those who did not get saved were nonetheless forgiven by God for that particular sin apart from the blood of Christ? No, that doesn’t make sense either. In fact, if you think about it, the men who stoned Stephen were committing serious blasphemy against God. What right did Stephen have to ask that they be forgiven?

I think the best way to make sense of Stephen’s prayer is this. When those men stoned Stephen, they were ultimately sinning against God. They were also sinning against Stephen. While Stephen could not strictly speaking pardon their sins against God, he could release his own claim against them. He was saying, “God, deal with their sin as you need to, but I relinquish any claim I might have against them on the basis of what they are doing to me right now.”

I think Jesus was saying the same thing. He was speaking as a man being unjustly crucified. He was saying, “Father, I am, after all, dying that they might be forgiven. I certainly don’t want to also bring my own charge against them for killing me.”

There’s a lot here I don’t understand about the relationship between sins against us and sins against God and our “right” to bring our grievances to God for judgment. Some relevant passages might be Genesis 4:10, Revelation 6:9-11, John 20:23, Romans 12:19-20, Psalm 51:4.

In the Old Testament, there were several times when sacrifices were required for sins that people committed unknowingly. (Leviticus 4:2,13-14 for example.) Is it possible to be guilty for something that was not deliberate? Can our lives be stained by sin even when our hearts were innocent of any attempt to sin? I don’t know, but I do think that God sometimes used pictures of sin consistent with that idea. He seemed to want the Israelites to imagine sin as something we can commit without even trying. We can find ourselves unclean before God without even having intentionally done anything wrong.  Whether this reflects the idea that sin is not always deliberate, or whether it reflects that we deliberately sin even when we think we don’t, I am not sure.

I do agree with Paul Ricouer that the notion of being unclean before God is more basic than the notion of violating a moral code. We don’t start with the idea of a moral law, and only then develop the awareness that if we have violated it, we are cut off from the presence of God. Rather, we start with the sense of being wrong somehow, of being cut off from God, and then develop a sense of moral standards afterwards. Guilt is a more primitive notion than failure to follow a code, which corresponds to the fact that our sin goes deeper into us than our conscious choices.

The word conscience in Scripture does not refer primarily to a Jiminy-Cricket-like voice who tells us ahead of time what we should and shouldn’t do. It refers to the weight of guilt we experience after the fact, which tells us that we have become unclean and unfit to stand in God’s presence. Our forgiveness in Christ means first and foremost that we are objectively declared innocent before God, but it has a subjective impact on us as well. The weight of our sin is lifted, and our conscience is cleansed.

How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered!

How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit!

When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.

For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.  Selah.

I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. (Psalm 32:1-5)

Praise the Lord!

Political controversies

I’ve been frustrated for years by political controversies. I decided a few weeks ago it’s time to start working out what I think for real.

My first avenue of attack is to decide how I think the discussion should proceed. I want to work out the rules I think are essential for a productive dialogue, and then let that guide me to the people I trust to show me how to think about political things.

One of the first moments of clarity for me came after listening to this iTunes U philosophy lecture.  The one I have in mind is #7, “Understand Skepticism About Climate Change”.

I describe the whole lecture over here. This was my conclusion:

Suppose conservatives and liberals disagree over factual issue X. Then I think the following are key to a discussion that actually makes progress.

  • Realize that people make decisions about X based on who they trust. It isn’t that one side is willing to look at the facts and the other isn’t. It’s that each side has its own experts telling it what the facts are.
  • Expect people on each side to be rational and honest. It’s just that liberals and conservatives have different presuppositions and trust different people.
  • Don’t use X to push a liberal/conservative agenda. That instantly makes you untrustworthy.
  • Help opponents find a way to believe X while remaining conservative/liberal.That’ll take creativity, but it gives people space to look at X without feeling like they’re being pushed into something else.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to think about how this would work in the case of scientific creationism / evolution, or the question of who was to blame in Ferguson, or the question of whether Obamacare was a good idea.

 

Truth in movies

Philippians 4:8 says this:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

Note what the verse does not say. It does not say we are to avoid anything that is false or dishonorable or whatever else is the opposite of the verse. It doesn’t talk at all about whether we are supposed to avoid bad influences. What it says is that we are supposed to focus on the good influences.

We live in a world in which most things both good and bad at the same time. In our world, every movie, every book, every song, is a mixture of truth and error, a potential influence both for good and for evil. Paul does not say, “Avoid all the evil”, but he does say, “Whatever you may encounter, notice and focus on the good.”

When it comes to movies, the same verse applies. We are not commanded in this verse to avoid every movie with error in it, but to sift what we see so that we can focus on the good. There certainly are movies we should avoid, but that’s not the meaning of this particular verse.

All this was already said by my daughter Hannah here. She is starting a blog series on movies and Philippians 4:8, and invited her readers to talk about movies and truth first. Since I’m one of those readers, here is what I have to say.

Hannah also already looked up the Greek word for truth in Philippians 4:8 and found three different definitions: a) reports the facts, b) authentic, and, from a very literal translation of the Greek word, c) unconcealing. She focused on authentic. I am going to focus on unconcealing.

A lot of people only care about the report-the-facts aspect. If something is true, it means what it says is a fact, and if not, not. Most movies are fictional, though, so what does it mean for a made-up story to be true? To answer that, I want to turn (just for a moment, I promise!) to philosophy.

In the 20th century, philosophy split into two branches. One was analytic philosophy, which predominates in the US and in Britain, and focuses on accurately defining all our terms and concepts so that we can analyze them as precisely as possible. The other branch was Continental philosophy, which predominates on the European continent – for example, in France and Germany. It focuses on understanding the things that we can’t define – either because they are just not the kind of things that can be captured by language, or perhaps because we are prevented by our own personal cultural and linguistic framework from thinking about them clearly.

Analytic philosophers seem to want to be scientists. Continental philosophers seem to want to be poets.

Heidegger, one of the most famous Continental philosophers, noticed that “truth” in the Greek was literally “unconcealing”, and used that notion of truth extensively. The problem with truth, he assumed, is not that we can’t find, but that we hide it from ourselves, even when – or especially when – we analyze it. With each step we take into more precise definitions, we further cut ourselves off from the thing we were actually trying to talk about.

For Heidegger, one of the best ways to see truth was art. Art has a way of pointing us that which we have been busily concealing from ourselves. The truth of an artwork is the unconcealing that happens when it sneaks around behind our intellectual fences and shows us not just as another fact to believe, but a whole new way of thinking and seeing everything.

Art, said Heidegger, clears a space for truth.

With regard to movies, I take this to mean the following: a movie introduces us to a new way of thinking about the world, a new way of seeing it, which raises possibilities for us that we would not have thought of on our own. Movies don’t do this by telling us what to think, but by letting us experience something. They put us inside a story. They put us in a relationship with the characters. That’s why Hannah says that she can vicariously live someone else’s life in a movie.

Because they draw us into an experience instead of just telling us about an idea, they can introduce things into our minds without having to put them into words. We have been changed afterwards, but it make take us some time to say exactly how.

Sometimes, once we have had the experience we can put it into words. Unlike Heidegger, I think there can be a great value to articulating what we think we know. The point is that, before the movie, there are concepts we could not have thought of. There are distinctions we would never have made. There are nuances we would never have cared about. And, therefore, there were truths that were inaccessible to us. After we have absorbed what the movie had for us, we can see more. A few of those things we can even put into words.

The truth of the movie is not a set of facts, but it is a new way of seeing that makes us more alert to all sort of facts we had been missing.

So … examples.

Remains of the Day: Lots of people make movies (and speeches) about the need to take a risk, and not let life slip away from them, but most of them make no impact on me because I am not sure they know what they are talking about. This movie, though, which is about two very proper English servants who fall in love but never get together because of their emotional reserve, really stuck with me. I saw, in a way I’d never realized before, how one’s caution about relationships can simultaneously be generous to others and imprisoning for oneself. It showed very precisely how that can happen.

Another Emma Thompson movie with a somewhat different insight about emotional reserve and propriety is Sense and Sensibility.

What was true about these movies? Not the facts, and not the moral of either story, but rather the experience each offered, an experience which not only tells the truth but makes it possible for it to be seen.

Rocky: This movie tells the truth about courage in an ordinary life by an ordinary guy. Even if I can’t say what courage means, I can think of Rocky and think, “That. Courage looks like that.”

All The President’s Men: Some movies, like this one, are clearly fact-based, but that doesn’t make them truer in the important sense. Personally, I dislike most pictures based on true events, because I don’t trust them. Even if the movie gets all the facts right, I’m always worried that they’ve interpreted them wrong. Whatever it was like to really live through the events, I’m sure it was different from the way the movie showed it.

So when I say this movie is true, I don’t just mean that the things it talks about actually happened. I don’t mean that it accurately reports the way that the Woodward and Bernstein felt. I mean that the movie used their story to communicate a specific way of thinking about Watergate, and journalism, and government. I think the fact that Nixon really did all that stuff is important for the success of the story, but the way in which the story unconceals isn’t found in the events it recounts but in the way it interprets those events through the eyes of the main characters.

Mr. Holland’s Opus: I don’t know whether to consider this a positive or a negative example. When I first saw it, I reacted very negatively, because I thought it was telling a falsehood. As I saw it, the story purports to be about a man who loves music, and wants to bring beautiful music into the world. Failing that, he wants to share the love of music with his students, so they can experience the beauty of it for themselves. At the end of the story, he is told that everything is all right because he was kind to his students as he went through his life, and although they still don’t share his love of music or see its beauty, they felt better about his being there for them. I thought of it as saying that there is no real point to beauty, no value in trying to point people to something beyond their own lives, just moments of superficial friendliness. That’s all we can hope to be.

You can see why I didn’t like it!

I thought the “truth” it was teaching was false, through and through.

Later, people convinced me I should interpret the story differently. I should see it as about a man who wanted to show people the beauty in music, and set his heart on it, but by his own choices, made consistently throughout his life, kept choosing to sacrifice that goal in order to show love to the people around him. At the end of the story, he is shown that the reason he valued the music was because of how it could be a blessing to people, and that his love for people was deeper and more important to him than the music. He realizes that he has not lost out. He lets go of his self-pity and embraces the fact that there is beauty that he has shown to others in all the small acts of kindness throughout his career.

If that’s true, then there is some important truth in the movie after all. But personally, I still think it told the story wrong. I think the first interpretation is partly there in the movie too. I like it now, but only because I think both interpretations are there. After all Philippians says “whatever is true”, so if there is some truth there I can rejoice in that even if I reject the falsehood at the same time.

Another negative example: Chinatown.
The truth I think it tells is that there is no truth that we can find. There is not even any provisional truth we can try to live up to. If we simply try our best and do what we can, we are just as likely to ruin peoples’ lives as to help them. It is a very bleak movie.

I think there is some value in understanding what is like to face that bleakness, but fundamentally I think it’s telling a lie about life.

Somewhere out there, there is probably someone who loves Chinatown and was profoundly moved by it. Maybe after talking to them about it, I would be able to appreciate its message, because through their experience of it I’d be able to find whatever is true in it.

Another example: A good friend of mine has a similarly negative reaction to American Beauty.

A final point: what is the Scriptural meaning of “true”? Is it report-the-facts, authentic, or unconcealing? I think that it is not really any of them, but a fourth which is related to the other three. It seems to me that “truth” in the Bible is personal truth, connected to a relationship of trustworthiness and reliability. Truth, in other words, is closely related to being honest and loyal.

Furthermore, truth in the Bible also connotes the really Real, that which lies behind the transient illusions of our life on earth. Jesus is the true vine, as opposed to the mere physical vines we see in the world.

Both meanings come together when we are told that Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life”. We can rely on Him because he is the ultimate reality and because he is faithful and loyal toward us.

 

So “whatever is true” may mean that whatever we encounter, we should try to see the reality of Jesus hidden behind it. We should look for signs of Him in the movies.

Faith and Reason Conference

I’m very excited right now because I am going to a philosophy of religion conference in just a couple of hours. I haven’t been to a professional academic conference like this for about 25 years, and I am expecting to really enjoy myself, even though most of the talks will probably go right over my head!

The conference is in honor of Richard Swinburne, a giant in the field of philosophy of religion who is celebrating his 80th birthday this year. Every paper is supposed to relate to something he’s worked on. Even though it’s in honor of him, participants are free (even expected) to disagree strongly with his views if they want to.

For my own entertainment, as well as to catch myself up on the philosophical basics everyone else there will already know, I looked at each of the descriptions for the papers that will be presented, and tried to figure out what they will be talking about.

I’m going to post what I discovered here, because I think some of you may be curious about what in the world they’ll be thinking about at a philosophy of religion conference.

The papers have been divided into two broad categories: Natural Theology and Philosophical Theology.

Natural theology is the stuff you can prove about God without appealing to things like the Bible or direct revelation or other stuff that only believers would accept. For example, if the natural world by itself is enough to prove the existence of God, then that proof would be a part of natural theology.

I am guessing that the Philosophical Theology category is for papers which do take certain theological doctrines for granted, and then grapple with philosophical questions they raise.

Anyway, here goes.

Natural Theology

The first two papers (Thursday) share a common theme. They discuss the nature of faith and how it is related to reason.

In one unit of the intro-level philosophy classes I teach, we discuss arguments for and against the existence of God. Sooner or later, one of my students will say, “But faith isn’t about reasons and arguments. It’s faith.” The question is whether faith requires reasons, and what kind of reasons count, and whether intellectually assenting to certain facts counts as faith or whether something more – some kind of commitment or trust or what-have-you – is needed.

The first paper on Thursday is explores the idea that faith is trust, which means it is more than merely a type of belief or knowledge. The author says he will compare his definition of faith to the “preference-based account” of another philosopher. Both accounts move beyond a merely doxastic conception of faith.

So then, here’s a new word for some of you!

  • doxastic = belief-related.

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Apparently, Swinburne argued that a life of faith involves belief in certain facts plus an ethical commitment to certain purposes, and said those commitments may be even more fundamental than the beliefs.

The author of the second paper agrees with this.

After developing the idea of these commitments as far as possible, he thinks we will see that they are so central to faith that someone who holds them could be considered to have faith even in the absence of all the doctrinal beliefs and religious attitudes we generally associate with it. (Hmmm … I’m skeptical.) Therefore, he concludes, when we analyze faith we should pay close attention to these ethical commitments, just as much as we do to the doctrines and philosophical beliefs associated with them.

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God created everything, but does the universe exist since then independently from him? And if not, how involved is he in its moment-to-moment activities? For example, is the existence of an object from moment to moment best seen as God recreating the object each moment that it exists?

A question with the same flavor is, what makes things happen? When A causes B, how does A cause B? Occasionalism is the view that God is the real cause behind everything. In one sense, when A causes B, it is really God who is the true cause of B.

The first paper on Friday morning (by a philosophical hero of mine :-) ) promises to relate occasionalism to the question of free will and determinism.

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The next paper relates Swinburne’s aesthetic argument to skeptical theism.

Swinburne’s aesthetic argument: Swinburne argues that the universe has order and that makes it likely that it was designed. To show that it has order, one thing he considers is the presence of beauty.

Skeptical theism: One of the arguments against the existence of God is the existence of evil. If an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God existed, so the argument goes, then there would be no evil. There is evil, and therefore such a God does not exist. One way to defend theism against this argument is to find a way to explain how God could allow evil. A different way is to just say that we have no reason to expect we would understand anything about God’s reasons for doing things. Therefore, if we can’t figure out a reason why he might allow evil, it doesn’t matter, because we wouldn’t expect to understand his reasons anyway. This view is known as skeptical theism.

The problem with skeptical theism is that although it undercuts the argument from evil against God, it also seems to undercut several other arguments for God’s existence. The author of this paper says he will explain a view about aesthetics that is similar to skeptical theism, and then show how it undercuts Swinburne’s aesthetic argument in somewhat the same way.

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There have been lots of natural theology arguments designed to show that it is likely that God exists, but for a while many philosophers have felt that none of them work. Swinburne agrees that none of them works by itself, but argues that we can consider their cumulative effect, and that, together, they make it likely that God does exist.

As a key part of his argument, he considers the question of how we choose between competing theories for something, and claims that one of the main criteria is that of simplicity. If one theory is much simpler than another, we should believe it over the other. He argues that based on simplicity, the existence of God is quite likely to be true.

The next paper is going to argue that simplicity is not really the point, but rather, “coherence” is the point, and that that makes Swinburne’s argument less convincing.

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Omnipotence is hard to define. For example, if it just means being able to do anything, then can God make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? Or, can he fail?

One way to define omnipotence is to claim that a being is omnipotent if it can do anything which does not contradict its essential nature. (To create a rock he cannot move would contradict God’s omnipotence, and so he cannot be expected to be able to do it.)

A famous counterexample involves a hypothetical being (a man named “McEar”) whose essential nature is that the only thing he can do is to scratch his ear. If he were to do anything else, it would violate his essential nature. Therefore, the only thing he has to do to be omnipotent is to scratch his ear, and he can do that, so he is omnipotent.

This counterexample means there is still something wrong with our definition.

I think (after googling a little) that Swinburne’s definition of omnipotence relies on the idea that an omnipotent being can bring about any state of affairs as long as the state of affairs does not lead logically to the conclusion that that being did not bring about the state of affairs. This eliminates the heavy stone example, but not the McEar example. Swinburne has since proposed a fix to his definition to deal with McEar. This last paper on Friday explores whether his fix works and whether there are alternatives available.

Philosophical Theology

The first paper on Saturday morning investigates the atonement. We often have the idea that God could not have forgiven us if Christ had not died. The speaker is going to present a particular view of the love of God and argue that it is incompatible with that idea.

My pastor always quotes the Scripture, “Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” as though it were embedded into the nature of the universe that there cannot be forgiveness without bloodshed. Actually, though, the verse says:

According to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood,  and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22.)

In other words, it isn’t saying that forgiveness requires bloodshed by its essential nature, but simply that God chose to set the law up that way — and even that is qualified with an “almost”.

So perhaps God could have set things up differently. Perhaps he could have worked things out so that forgiveness was granted through some other act. Or perhaps not.

I’m not sure,then, whether the verse contradicts the speaker’s views or not. I’ll have to wait and see what she says, since in her description of the paper she doesn’t say yet what her view of God’s love actually is. I think it’ll be interesting.

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The second paper on Saturday examines the fact that in liturgy and hymns, “the present tense is used when speaking of Christ’s birth or resurrection”. Why? How should we interpret it? One of the most common theories doesn’t seem to make philosophical sense, and he is going to ask what other options there may be.

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After that we get an exploration of “the Doomsday Argument”. I looked that up online and it appears to be basically this: if the human race were going to be around forever, it would be extremely unlikely that we would just happen to born so close to its beginning. Therefore, it is much more probable that the human race will only be around a short while. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that it will last forever.

Apparently this argument, which seems clearly wrong at first glance, is actually hard to refute.

The speaker promises to identify the key premise and then examine whether it would provide an argument against individual people living forever.

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The final paper looks complicated. It examines the nature of the soul and relates it to dualism and hylomorphism.

Dualism addresses the relationship between the mind and the body (including the brain). For example, Descartes, who was a dualist, believed that we are the combination of two separate things, a mind and a body. The body is a physical object, obeying physical laws, existing in our physical universe. The mind/soul and its thoughts are non-physical, and not subject to physical laws, but exist nonetheless. Somehow our mind and body interact.

Most philosophers today are not dualists. Typically they say that the mind is the brain – a physical object – or else some aspect of the brain, such as its organization or its functionality or something.

Swinburne is a dualist. He argues that one’s soul must be more than merely one’s body and more than merely one’s psychological characteristics (memory, intentions, etc.)

Hylomorphism (matter-form-ism) is an idea of Aristotle’s that I only partially understand. He said that everything is composed of both matter and form together. When you cut down a tree and cut it into timber and use the timber to make a chair, the same matter keeps being re-molded into different forms. We never see just matter or just form. We always see both together. (Reading this back, it makes it sound like a form is merely a physical shape. That’s not what Aristotle meant, but I will go wrong if I attempt to say anything further, so I’ll leave it at that!) Anyway, it’s possible to argue that the soul is the form and the body is the matter of a person.

It looks like this paper is going to compare and contrast a hylomorphic explanation of the mind/body distinction with Swinburne’s explanation.

Of course, this is all especially significant because we believe that the soul is going to survive being separated from the body and later reunited with a resurrected version of the same body. That means the relationship between the soul and the body matters.

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OK, there you have it. Maybe I’ll discover that half of these talks aren’t about what I thought they were going to be about at all! Doesn’t matter – I’m planning on having a blast, regardless.

See y’all later!

P.S. If you were going, which would interest you most? Leave your opinions in the comments.

Leviticus 2

My quiet time today [back when I wrote this] was from Leviticus 2:

“Now when anyone presents a grain offering as an offering to the LORD, his offering shall be of fine flour, and he shall pour oil on it and put frankincense on it. He shall then bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests; and shall take from it his handful of its fine flour and of its oil with all of its frankincense. And the priest shall offer it up in smoke as its memorial portion on the altar, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD …”

It reminded me of something very simple: that I can do my work each day in a way that brings pleasure to God.

I know that God’s forgiveness and cleansing is a permanent thing, that we have been given the righteousness of Christ, and that nothing we can do can make God love us either more or less. But I also know that, just as the actions I take and the thoughts I think can grieve the Holy Spirit, so they can please Him.

In the Old Testament, God trained the Israelites to see him as taking pleasure in their sacrifices, using the imagery of a sweet-smelling smoke rising into the sky. In the same way, as we live by faith and abide in Christ, offering our daily works to God as a kind of worship (Romans 12:1), we can know that it brings him pleasure.

It’s not that he needs our work, but that he is glad to see the fruit of his own work in us.

It’s not because he is our Lord and we are his faithful servants, but because he is our Father and we are his beloved children.

Divinely inspired imagery

One purpose of Scripture is to tell us facts that are true. Another, I increasingly believe, is to give us images to fuel our faith. I have found in the last few years that, when I need to pray or act and my faith is flickering, picturing things the right way can make a big difference, and the best source of such pictures is the Scripture.

For example, we know that God is able to provide for us, but when we read “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters” it gives us an image to use as we think about his provision. That image fuels our faith and helps us believe more genuinely and more enduringly.

I think this is especially helpful in prayer. When I’m praying, I ask God to bring Scriptures to mind to use as I pray, and often what comes to mind is a story or image from the Bible.

The image need not be connected to a promise made to us. If I am fighting a fierce temptation in my life, and I read about David defeating Goliath, I may be encouraged to trust God by that picture. I may imagine the temptation as Goliath, and myself as David, and God as helping me defeat it. None of this means that I interpret the David and Goliath story as promising me that I will defeat the temptation. My faith will not be a matter of “claiming” what God has promised. Rather, it is the kind of faith that asks God for victory, keeping the picture of Goliath’s defeat firmly in mind. My faith is in the God who really does things like that, without presuming that he must do them this time.

When I talk about imagery strengthening my faith, what do I mean? I am assuming that faith, while it has an intellectual content, is also something more than belief in an abstract proposition. I may believe something intellectually, and still have trouble emotionally committing to it (which is different than merely feeling like it is true). It is at that level that imagery helps.

Finally, I don’t mean merely that Scripture has a lot of images, and that imagery helps our faith, but that Scripture’s images are divinely inspired to do so. I realize this makes my view of Scripture a little mystical, but I’m willing to live with that as long as the mysticism does not nullify the process of sober, objective interpretation of Scripture’s meaning. It seems to me that Scripture speaks of itself as having not only accuracy but also power in our lives, power to stimulate faith and not only to direct it.

Book review: Protestant Concepts of Church and State

Book review: Protestant Concepts of Church and State, Thomas G. Sanders

This book was published in 1964. It looks at the various ways that Protestants have tried to make sense of the connection between church and state from the 1500s all the way up to the mid 1900s. It distinguishes five major strands:

  • A theocentric view (e.g., Lutheran tradition) – There are two realms. God works through the church according to the principles of grace. He works through the state according to the principles of law. Christians can be in politics, but if so they should use the principles of conduct that God intended to apply to the state, not those intended to apply to the church.
  • A sectarian view (e.g., Mennonite tradition) – Christians are to be separate from the world. Christians may need to withdraw from political involvement if to get politically involved would cause them to compromise their Christian principles. For example, many early Mennonites felt that it was wrong for Christians to get involved in politics at all, because to be in government was to use force, and to use force was a violation of Christian principles.
  • A pacifist view (e.g., Quaker tradition) – The state tends to use war and violence, which are against Christian teaching. However, the church shouldn’t withdraw: it should work to transform the way the state functions to be in line with Christian principles. This differs from the sectarian view in that it expects the church to be constantly trying to change the direction of the government and make it more pacifist.
  • A separationist view (e.g., American ideal of wall of separation) – The church and the state need to keep a strict wall of separation between them.
  • A transformationist view (e.g., Reformed tradition) – The church and state need a moderate amount of separation between them, but the church should also work to influence the state in more godly directions.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about what the idea church/state relationship would be, especially in a truly pluralistic society. I’m frustrated that while we have a whirlwind of activism today around the issue of how much the church should influence the state, we have very little reflection on what the ideal would be.

When I learned several years ago that that the church/state question was historically important to early Protestant churches, I decided I wanted to learn more, but I haven’t found many resources about it easily available to a layman.

I picked this book up hoping it would help, and it did. The things I most appreciated learning from it were a) the division into five traditions mentioned above, b) the degree to which early Protestants struggled with the whole idea of Christians being in government at all, and c) the degree to which Baptists and similar denominations spent the early part of the 1900s fighting for a lot more separation between church and state. The last point astonished me because we spend so much time today arguing against too much separation, as though that was always what we’ve believed. (Apparently our earlier passion to build the wall of separation as high as possible was motivated by a fear of Roman Catholicism getting too much influence.)

The one disappointing thing about the book is how old it is. So much has changed since the early 1960s! I’d love to have heard the author’s take on today’s church/state furor.

Would I recommend it? It’s a little dry, and probably impossible to find now, but I suppose, yes, I would, to anyone who is curious about the same stuff.

Would I reread it? Maybe. I think I already got most of the ideas I need from it, though.

How would I rate it? 5/10, maybe. Interesting, worth the read. It didn’t blow me away.

When we can’t quite say what is bothering us

Recently for my quiet time I read Daniel 2. In that story, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which disturbed him, and asked the wise men to interpret it. When they asked him what the dream was, he refused to tell them, asking them to say both what the dream was and what the interpretation was. He apparently wanted to be sure they weren’t just making something up. When they couldn’t (and when they mouthed off to him for asking them to) he decided to kill all the wise men, including Daniel.

Daniel and his friends prayed that God would show mercy and give them the answer to the king’s request. That night he had a vision in which God showed him the answer. He praised God, saying

“Wisdom and power belong to him …

It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things;

He knows what is in the darkness,

And the light dwells with Him.”

I often have thoughts or fears that disturb me. Sometimes they are even mysterious and deep and subconsciously powerful, like the king’s dream seems to have been.  It has been a great encouragement to me across the years that God is so wise that he can understand and reveal these profound and hidden things.

But sometimes I feel disturbed, stirred up, agitated, and do not even know why. I have the sense of having an urgent question, but don’t even know what the question is!

The great thing is that even that is not too mysterious for God. If he could give Daniel not only the interpretation of the dream but the knowledge of the dream itself, how much more can he reveal to me what is bothering me, along with its answer! After all, I at least have my question within me somewhere, however ill-defined it may be: Daniel didn’t even personally experience the dream that so disturbed Nebuchadnezzar, and yet God was able to reveal to him everything he needed to know.

In Genesis 40:8, Joseph said, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” It is up to God to tell me how to make sense of the riddles in story of my life. In Daniel 2, we learn than even the riddles themselves belong to God. Not only can God answer all my questions, he can also teach me what the questions should be. (Compare Romans 8:26 and Psalm 77:2-6.)

Genesis 12

In Sunday School this week, we looked at Genesis 12 — the last part, where Abram has Sarai tell Pharaoh that she is his sister.

One of the problems in interpreting the passage is to decide whether it is condemning or condoning Abram and Sarai for what they did. Were they lying? Telling a half-truth?Doubting God’s provision? Were they wrong? Or were they just being crafty?

Another is the general question of how to apply a narrative passage.

After our discussion (and, in most respects, before our discussion), my views are as follows.

  • One person asked, “Are we even sure that every passage has an application?” My answer is Yes, based on 2 Timothy 3:16.
  • I think the passage itself is silent on whether Abram and Sarai were right or wrong. I assume they were wrong, but it isn’t critical to interpreting the passage.
  • Someone in class said the application might be, “God can bless us even when we’re stupid!”. I think that’s sort of correct. The point of the passage is to show how God blessed Abram. The focus is on God’s blessing, not Abram’s righteousness. It doesn’t matter in the passage whether Abram should have lied or had Sarai lie or whether they told a half-truth or whatever. The point isn’t about Abram’s good or bad works at all. It’s just focused on God’s blessing.
  • The structure of the passage is interesting: it’s book-ended by two nearly identical sets of verses, in Gen 12:8-9 and 13:3-4. In between is the episode in Egypt. The effect of that is to emphasize the change that took place while in Egypt. There’s a basic before and after picture being presented. When Abram went down to Egypt he was of modest means and when he came back he was rich. So I think the main point of the passage is to explain how he got rich (Gen 13:1-2).
  • The passage follows immediately on the heels of God’s promise to Abram in Gen 12:1-3, in which he promised to make Abram’s people preeminent among all the nations of the earth. The next thing we see is God enriching Abram by using the nation of Egypt. It’s an instant demonstration of God’s favor to Abram above all the nations and even through those nations.
  • Furthermore, God promised specifically that “I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse”. (Gen 12:3). Abram visits Egypt and what happens? Pharaoh harms Abram by taking his wife, and God curses Pharaoh. Then Pharaoh repents and restores Sarai to Abram and gives him all sorts of gifts, and God blesses Pharaoh again. Again, the promise came first, then a story which instantly demonstrates it.
  • There’s more. The most pivotal event in Israel’s history was the exodus. No Israelite reader would have missed the parallels: Israel / Abram left Canaan and went to Egypt because of a famine; Israel / Sarai were taken into Pharaoh’s possession; God sent plagues on Pharaoh; Pharaoh agreed to let them go; Egypt gave them riches before they left (Exodus 12:35-36!) ; they returned to Canaan. The Genesis 12 story foreshadows the greater drama that would follow later.
  • When we read stories like this one, we are trained to look for the individual believer and try to figure out what we should imitate in his example. We see this as all about Abram, and have trouble figuring out whether this is saying we should act like Abram or act unlike him. But I suspect the Old Testament Jews would have read this as being about Israel. They would have been reading to see what this said about them as a nation. They would have been encouraged to see God immediately confirm the promises of Genesis 12:1-3 in a visible way. They would have taken heart and trusted that God still had plans for them as a nation and still was sovereign over all the other nations.
  • In the same way, I think most of the Old Testament stories are easier to understand if we see them as stories about the nation of Israel, with individual characters as part of the supporting cast, instead of seeing them as mainly about the individual characters with the nation as a part of the supporting cast.

P.S. If you want to see my latest philosophy post, on values, go here.