On Writing

Writing should never be strictly about itself.  Writing should always be about sharing something that matters.  It should involve information that is worth communicating or ideas that are worth spreading.  Even the most artful poetry will lack power if it’s all style and no substance.

In a society that’s obsessed with appearances, it’s easy to become only concerned with life’s surfaces.  In the world of writing, this means it’s ever so tempting to just worry about using sophisticated rhetoric and clever stylings without giving thought to the substance of a communication.  There is a huge output of writing that’s all style and no substance these days.  But good writing is more than nouns and verbs, more than grammar and composition.  I mean, think about this: the best writing has so much substance beneath and beyond its language that it’s worth translating into other ones.

On Jesus

I’ve noticed that it’s tricky to persuade some to take the man, Jesus of Nazareth, seriously.  Some couldn’t care less about the guy.  Now, by ‘seriously,’ I don’t mean automatically believing he was the cosmic-god-incarnate.  I just mean having a serious interest in learning about the man, especially since he’s arguably the most influential person to have ever lived.  But he’s been hyped up as God by so many of his followers that those who don’t believe he’s divine sometimes don’t even bother to inquire about him as an historical figure.  He’s placed in some special religious category, along with other irrelevant religious figures that are widely ignored.

Getting him out of that category is what’s tricky.  Persuading people to at least modestly view him as an interesting man who said and did some interesting things can be challenging.  Seriously considering his teachings alongside those of influential thinkers like Confucius, Plato, and the Buddha strikes some as an odd, or even novel idea.  But this is place to start at, especially if you find it unbelievable to think of Jesus as divine.  What’s more, I don’t think it’s even possible to appreciate the full significance of Jesus’ alleged divinity without appreciating the fullness of his humanity.

Now let me be upfront about my own opinions: through my own seeking, studying, and questioning, I’ve come to believe that Jesus is both divine and human; that he is the God-man.  So I am comfortable talking about either aspect of his identity.  And in my reflections and writings, you may notice that I’ll oscillate between exploring the significance of his divinity and his humanity.  But I don’t front-end load most conversations by strictly discussing his claims and acts of divinity, unless someone is specifically interested in delving into that.  It seems more sensible to me to begin with discussing his teachings and actions in his historical setting.  I like Francis Spufford’s approach to Jesus for this reason.  This is from his book Unapologetic:

‘He has no halo.  He does not glow in the dark.  Special lighting effects do not announce his presence.  If you cut him he bleeds.  His name is Yeshua, later to be Latinised as ‘Jesus.’  And what has he come for?  To say some things; to do some things.’

Simple, right?  As far as I’m concerned, this is a sensible, modest place to start if you’re interested in learning about the man and his message.

On Evil

Believing that goodness is as real and appealing as evil is not always easy.  In many moments, evil can appear so widespread and overwhelming that it seems like every bit goodness must be gone, that every glimmer of something true and worth living for must be have faded.

This is on my mind because I’ve been rewatching the Lord of the Rings films.  Nearing the end of the Two Towers, Samwise Gamgee encourages his companion, Frodo Baggins, as they struggle to press forward in their difficult and treacherous journey.  His words offer a moving reminder for anyone searching for hope in the midst of despair:

On Science & Religion

I think science is great.  We have learned so much about ourselves and the universe through committed scientific inquiry.  If you ask me, continually striving to better understand our natural reality is a wonderful and worthwhile pursuit.  It is truly amazing how our knowledge of ourselves and our universe has changed and expanded since the dawn of the scientific revolution.  Technology has also advanced in utterly remarkable ways thanks to advancements made in the sciences.  So my point is, science has my support.

I’m finding it more and more necessary to voice my support for science these days.  Why?  Because, from experience, some will assume that I must be anti-science since I’m religious.  I mean, you can only be scientific or religious, but you can’t be both, right?  As you’re probably well aware, science and religion are frequently thought to be in conflict; they’re thought to be offering competing explanations about life and reality.  And in some instances they are.  But this controversy raises a lot of important questions.  Like, what is the relationship between scientific inquiry and religious inquiry?  Are science and religion enemies, strangers, partners, or friends?  Do they offer competing or complimentary explanations about life and reality?

Questions like these involve two pursuits that both have massive scopes—so let me be clear that I don’t intend to provide any exhaustive answers.  Rather, what I want to do is zoom out from the details and consider some of the possible paradigms for understanding the relationship between science and religion. To do this I will take many cues from Ian Barbour.  Through the course of his life, Barbour made significant contributions in the area of science and religion and his work helped to form what has become a new field of science-and-religion studies.  He proposed four possible paradigms for the relationship between the two forms of inquiry.

Probably the most widely familiar paradigm is that science and religion are in conflict.  According to this view, their relationship is that of enemies; their explanations of the origins of life and nature of reality are thoroughly incompatible and deeply opposed.  This position is held by both scientific proponents who are anti-religion and religious proponents who are anti-science.  It is the view that is embraced by renown scientists and vocal critics of religion, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, for example.  Their recent documentary, The Unbelievers, is worth watching if you wish to get a flavour of the ‘conflict paradigm.’  It opens with the following scene in which they casually chat about explaining science and destroying religion over a coffee:

Their exchange, though brief, indicates their shared view that science and religion are necessarily in conflict.  When asked whether he’d prefer to explain science or destroy religion, Dawkins replies, ‘Well, I think that they go together.’  He essentially implies that it’s a false choice.  As far as he’s concerned, religion is destroyed as science is explained—they go hand in hand.  Later he broadly claims that religion offers ‘a competing scientific explanation,’ and goes on to suggest that evidence which supports evolutionary explanations of the development of life have rendered God’s existence useless.  Dawkins and Krauss are not alone in their opinion that science and religion are in conflict, either.  Many religious individuals would agree that the standard explanations of science contradict the views of their religion.  So, for a great number of people, science and religion are irreconcilable forms of inquiry that offer contradictory understandings of life and reality.

This view is only one of the four possible paradigms of the relationship between science and religion.  The second paradigm is that science and religion are independent.  According to this position, they are total strangers.  They have absolutely no contact, and thus, they are neither enemies or friends.  One of the most famous advocates of the ‘independence paradigm’ was scientist and author, Stephen Jay Gould.  He argued that science and religion each have their own ‘magisterium’, or realm of authority, and their respective realms are entirely independent.  In his book, Rocks of Ages, he elaborates that, ‘the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry…’

The third possible paradigm is that science and religion are in dialogue.  In other words, the two pursuits are partners in their quest for truth.  Though they each have some unique and separate interests, this position posits that science and religion do have some common concerns as well.  So an effective partnership may be formed to the extent their work overlaps.  In the event they encounter a conflict, both science and religion are involved in meaningful negotiations in an effort to settle their dispute and continue their partnership.  So, according to the ‘dialogue paradigm,’ science and religion are compatible forms of inquiry that offer complimentary explanations of life and reality.

The last of our four paradigms is that science and religion can be significantly integrated.  This paradigm imagines the two pursuits as friends.  And as friends, they are not merely complimentary but a deep concord exists between them.  This relationship is similar to one of partnership, but a step beyond.  Supporters of this view seek to integrate the explanations of science with the explanations of religion in ways that form an intimate, mutual bond between the two.  Both endeavours are considered to be worthwhile and valuable, and both are treated with high esteem.  This paradigm is perhaps the messiest of them all, because its proponents take the task of integrating the findings of science with the understandings of religion most serious.  For example, many will argue that evolutionary understandings of the development of life are not incompatible with the existence of a divine Creator and Sustainer; that evolutionary processes of change could very well be mechanisms designed by a higher power to create the diversity of life as we know it.  This sort of integrative work requires thoughtful and creative negotiations, of course, the kind of negotiations that may be paradigm-shifting in some cases.

Since both the ‘sciences’ and ‘religions’ are incredibly broad and sometimes diverse groupings, Barbour’s paradigms can definitely be detailed in various ways depending upon the particular scientific and religious views one holds.  Nonetheless, his framework provides a useful starting place which can open up thought and discussion on the matter, especially since science and religion are frequently assumed to be in conflict (with ‘no questions asked’).

Wading through the controversy is made difficult, partly because of the language that is typically used.  What I mean is, usually discussions or debates delve into the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘religion.’  But neither pursuit is uniform, and neither is founded upon a single methodology and a single philosophy that is unanimously agreed upon.  We’d do ourselves a collective favour if we moved beyond these sort of misleading generalizations.  We’d do ourselves a collective favour if we discussed the relationship between the sciences and religions with careful precision, because the philosophies of science and philosophies of religion are plural.

So what paradigm best represents your views about the relationship between the sciences and religions?  What specifically has persuaded you to embrace your position?  What specifically seems weak or wrong about the other views?  Let’s all strive to discuss these things more deeply with openness and respect.

On Books

Always remember that books have authors.  Don’t read them as if they’re impersonal objects with lifeless words on pages.  When you read, strive to engage with the author as if they are present with you; listen and respond, learn and reflect.  The book wasn’t made by a printing press alone.

 

On Christian Theology

Do you know the message of Christianity?  Have you ever heard the ‘good news’?  Don’t worry, I’m not going to shove it down your throat like some street corner evangelist.  But these questions are worth asking because—scandalous as it sounds—I’m convinced that sometimes what Christians claim to be the ‘good news’ is, strictly speaking, not really the good news.  There are two essential features of the Christian message that are sometimes overlooked or ignored: it is a message that is based on a story about who’s in power.  But what’s significant about this?

It is incredibly significant that the Christian message comes from a story.  To be more specific, it comes from a story about events that surround a person in a place and a time, not a system of abstract ideas.  This is key, because Jesus’ earliest followers believed their message came from a true story and not just some made-up story; they viewed their message more like a news report that concerned real happenings which unfolded in history, not a mythical story that was conjured up in the imagination.

For instance, in one of Peter’s letters he asserts that ‘we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (2 Peter 1).  John introduces one of his own letters with a similar posture, and writes, ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us’ (1 John 1).  Luke opens his biographical account of Jesus by stating his purposes, and writes that ‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account…’ (Luke 1)  This is the sort of mindset that is common and often assumed throughout the writings in the New Testament.  The earliest writers and messengers were sharing news, not merely novel religious ideas.

Somewhat surprisingly, Christians need be reminded of this from time to time.  We need to remind ourselves because we have reduced the central message of Christianity—the good news—into sets of abstract propositions or ‘spiritual laws’ at times, and then, in some instances, we unwittingly confuse our systems with the good news itself.  If we’re not careful, we risk misrepresenting the significance of Jesus’ story when we equate it with abstract systems of propositions or laws.  We must remember that the central message of our faith is news about who Jesus was and what he accomplished.

Now, we also believe that this news is good, that it’s incredibly great news, in fact—the greatest news in all history!  But what’s so great about this news?  This bring us to our second, often overlooked, feature of the message: it is based in a story about who’s in power.  We need to situate the Christian message within it’s historical setting to start to appreciate why so many rallied around this news, believing that it heralded truly great events.

You see, Jesus of Nazareth lived and breathed, travelled and taught, died and—as it is startlingly claimed—resurrected, in first-centruy Palestine, while the region and peoples were ruthlessly controlled by the Roman Empire.  He grew up knowing the harsh realities of life under foreign occupation.  Rome had expanded their kingdom by brutal force and maintained their power through ongoing violence and intimidation.  Yet, leaders would claim that their rulership was ‘good news’ for those under the imperial regime, if you can believe it!  Gospel edicts would be issued and proclaimed throughout the Empire, usually to spread the news of a significant victory on the battlefield or the reign of a new Caesar.  And this news was good, but only for a few; it was good news for the privileged and the powerful for the most part, and the social, financial, and political blessings that the imperial evangelists would proclaim really only benefitted the elite.  As Michael Bird notes:

The Roman Empire had its own ‘gospel,’ found in its propaganda and media that asserted that Caesar was the Lord and Savior of the world.  What is more, subjects of the empire could, by devoting themselves to his patronage and power, experience the benefits of obediently living under his imperial jurisdiction.

So when Jesus’ first followers began to spread their message about who he was and what he’d accomplished, they intentionally communicated their claims through this politically-charged language.   But what was the good news about Jesus that they were so eager to share?  I’ve written about it and around it so far, but I haven’t written it, yet.  To use N.T. Wright’s words, the good news is ‘the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world.’  This is the central message of Christianity, the news that so many throughout the following centuries have viewed to be so remarkable and revolutionary.  And, if it is true, the implications of this new reality are vast and staggering!

In contrast to the good news about Caesar, the arrival of Jesus’ kingdom and Kingship is truly good news for all; it’s blessings do not just benefit the few while the many suffer in abject hopelessness and misery.  In contrast to Caesar’s kingdom which is established through intimidation, oppression, and violence, Jesus’ kingdom is established through sacrificial love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  In contrast to Caesar’s peace which comes by the sword, Jesus’ peace comes by the cross.  And while Rome’s power for death appeared to be the strongest force in the world, Jesus’ power for life  proved stronger still.  So Michael Bird writes further that:

The early Christian didn’t steal the idea of a ‘gospel’ from the imperial rhetoric of the Roman empire; instead, they were exposing it as a perverse parody and a counterfeit fraud of the real gospel about the Lord Jesus Christ.  The gospel issues forth a challenge: Who is the real Lord of the world: the Son of David or the son of Augustus (see Luke 2:1-20; Acts 17:7)?  The gospel is a royal announcement that, regardless of what the world may think of Jesus, God has validated him as Israel’s Messiah and installed him as the rightful Lord of the world.

While much gets passed off as the essence of the Christian faith, it is the good news that Jesus is King and in power, that his kingdom has arrived through his life, death, and resurrection, that is the centre of the Christian message, the foundation of the Christian faith—accept no substitutes.

On Faith

I’ve been lingering on this question: are reason and faith enemies or friends?  According to some, reason and faith are enemies—they are essentially incompatible ways of knowing.  Reason is pro-thought; faith is anti-thought.  Reason is always supported by evidence; faith is always unsupported by evidence.  Personally, I’ve come to doubt these simple dichotomies.  I’ve come to doubt that reason and faith exist on opposite ends of these sorts of polarized spectrums.  I have actually come to understand reason and faith as friends; as deeply compatible and inseparable aspects of knowing.  As far as I can tell, we cannot know anything or anyone without exercising reason and faith.

In the previous post I argued that all knowledge is supported by a-rational assumptions that must be accepted in faith.  What this means is we cannot exercise reason—that is, we cannot follow the rules of deductive thinking or even the methods of inductive investigation, for that matter—without working with assumptions.  These assumptions may be the premises of logical syllogisms or the principles in philosophies of science.  They sometimes seem elusive and difficult to pin down because they’re often so basic in our thinking, so deeply assumed, that we take them for granted.  Regardless of whether we’re aware of them or we take them for granted, the point is: all rational thought and inquiry is supported by assumptions.  But I want to move on from somewhat abstract epistemological musing to something more practical.  What I want to explore is the role of reason and faith in relationships.

The simple truth is reason and faith have vital functions in any healthy relationship.  They are necessary ingredients in all intimate friendships.  Take a moment to think about it.  Think about the most intimate relationship you have and think about how your relationship developed as you and your friend mutually exercised reason and faith.  My best personal example is my friendship with my wife.

Let me share some of the (surely unoriginal) bits of our story that highlight how our friendship developed as we exercised reason and faith.  Sarah and I met at school.  We had plenty of classes together seeing as we were in the same program.  But plenty of time passed before we started getting to know each other.  That’s mostly because I was doing my own thing; I lived out of town, so I pretty much came to school for class and split campus as soon as classes were over.  So I wasn’t that involved in student life and I certainly wasn’t looking for a serious relationship.  But we gradually—and I mean, gradually—got to know each other while we shared brief moments in the cafeteria or we worked on assignments and projects together.  The early stages of our relationship were slow going.

Eventually we started hanging out outside of school.  Sarah started inviting me over to her place for parties or jam session (we were in a music program).  As you’ve probably guessed since these romance stories are fairly predictable, I started realizing that I liked spending time with Sarah.  Once I realized that I liked spending time with her and, well, I liked her, I started thinking a lot.  We didn’t have a real deep friendship at this point, but we had gotten to know plenty of things about each other.  So I became consumed with thinking about her, with thinking about me, with thinking through our compatibility.  I would think about her qualities and my qualities, about her interests and my interests, about weather we’d be a ‘suitable match.’  At this stage I hadn’t placed any deep trust in her, which is to say I hadn’t exercised much faith.  But I was thinking a ton about what I had learned about her, what I knew about myself, and about the potential for a relationship, which is to say that I had been exercising plenty of reason.

Eventually my reasoning turned into faith.  I was so tongue-tied when I first tried to ask her out on a date.  She picked up on my stumbling—so she asked me out!  The moment we chose to begin dating was a significant moment for our mutual faith: we each made ourselves vulnerable enough to admit our thoughts and feelings, and we put a degree of trust in each other.

We first trusted that it would be worth getting to know each other more.  We trusted that we wouldn’t carelessly hurt each other, even if our relationship didn’t last.  We began to put a great deal of trust in each other, but we mutually extended our trust because we had each provisionally decided that the other was trustworthy based on the knowledge we had accumulated and the reasoning we had done up to that time.  And it’s not as though we used our ‘reason’ in the first stage of our friendship and ever since we’ve just been exercising ‘faith.’  At every time and stage we’ve been exercising both our reason and our faith simultaneously, in tandem.  We continually get to know things about each other through thoughtful reasoning, and we continually get to know each other and strengthen our friendship in other, often deeper, ways through mutually trusting in each other.

It’s hard to say which came first: reason or faith?  Because at the very beginning of our friendship we began exercising reason in little amounts and faith in little amounts, and our reasoning and faith-ing have simply grown—and continue to grow—as they work together over time.

Here’s another epistemological angle: the way we get to know something is much the same as the way we get to know someone.  In other words, the way we go about knowing something, like an idea, in an abstract, theoretical way follows similar patterns to the way we go about knowing someone in a relational way.  When we encounter a new idea, we usually have an initial reaction to it.  Often without giving it much careful consideration, we have an intuitive gut-response to it that either attracts or repels us from it.  If we find the idea attractive, we’ll intentionally get to know it by thinking it over; we’ll do our best to understand it’s meaning, significance, and implications; maybe we’ll consult some other sources and see what our friends, teachers, or published authors think about this idea; we’ll compare it with our own existing ideas and see how it fits with our current philosophies; we might change it slightly in order to fit it alongside our own ideas, or we might change our own ideas, philosophies, or maybe even lifestyles to accommodate and incorporate this new idea into our thinking.

We essentially go through a feeling-out process of ‘relational compatibility’—though its not a real relationship because, no matter how much you might love an idea, it will never love you back.  We go through the process of determining whether we’d be a ‘suitable match’—though I hope you don’t take it too far since ideas are not people and you can’t literally marry a thought.  But figuratively, we couple ourselves with ideas and marry ourselves with philosophies all the time.  School is like speed dating in a lot of ways: as a student, you move around from desk to desk, encountering a bunch of different ideas during a constrained period of time in which you’re rapidly doing you best to become familiar with them; and hopefully it will be time well spent and some of the relationships formed at school will actually last (though that’s unfortunately not a guarantee).

The bottom line is, through both my experiences of ‘knowing’ and my reflections on the nature of relational, practical, and theoretical ‘knowledge,’ I’ve come to conclude that reason and faith are not conflicting enemies but closely-linked friends.  Reason and faith are reciprocally linked, they are symbiotically joined, in all acts of knowing by necessity.  They form the integral supports for all structurally-solid knowledge.

As always, your thoughts and pushback our welcome.