Wednesday, 30 December 2009

God Incarnate

And what are we celebrating when we Christians celebrate Christmas? Apparently it's about the Baby Jesus (or baby cheeses, depending on your accent).

Really? It's about a baby? If that's the case, Christmas is about sleepless nights, gas and filthy nappies. For all the parents who've had a baby late in the year this is probably true at least once. You have my undying admiration, but you're only 25% of the population, and a baby doesn't say much about Christmas.

Except for one thing: powerlessness. This is often brought up around Christmas, that God would be a powerless and vulnerable baby. Even though a baby is powerless and vulnerable, I don't think that's exclusive to babies. But let's run with it, because the comparison between God as transcendent and God as immanent is where it leads. God in the flesh is far removed from the kinds of gods found elsewhere. God in the flesh is powerless, not the force of nature found in the traditional fertility gods, or the god of the gaps.

Seeing God in this way, as incarnate, provokes us to think about the implications. God became human and taught people to follow him, to emulate him. Live life as God did. And die as God died, by taking up the cross each and every day. Christmas is a celebration of the liberation from the burdens we've managed to accrue through human history and human effort, but it carries with it the quiet reminder that to follow Christ, the God incarnate, is to follow the path of powerlessness and humility.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Biblical Texts

I've had mixed opinions about the origins of the Biblical texts over the years. At one point I didn't question their status as authoritative, because as a child I didn't question that kind of thing. When I was a fundamentalist evangelical I believed them to be literal and probably the result of trance writing or some kind of deep, prayerful authorship.


The fact is that Christianity has a canon of texts as well as other useful texts. Everything from the Gospel of Thomas through to the latest Christian best-seller is all part of the enormous literature of Christianity. Many of them aren't even self-consistent, let alone consistent with the others. And it's the tiniest fraction of them which even try to present Christianity as a whole, or as a system, and these works are large and difficult.

And then there's the contradictions within the Bible, and within the texts by the same Biblical author. All in all, the role of the Christian text is to create space in which to work out the consequences of the lordship of Jesus. If Christians are trying to obey Christ and become like Christ, then the texts can only be the attempt to deduce the consequences and/or to convey these consequences to others.

By doing this we rid ourselves of the notion that the Bible is infallible and we liberate Christianity from being an exclusively theoretical exercise. Christianity is meant to be lived, and lived intentionally. Christian texts allow the space to work out what that means but are no substitute for the activity of discipleship.

In this Christmas season, when we remember the shepherds and the magi and the angels and the manger, we need to remember that all of these symbols in the text are just pointers, and that the arrival of Christ in the world still depends on the activity of Christians today.

Monday, 28 December 2009


The Magnificat is a great little poem, full of humility and hope. You can read the full text of it all over the web, but if you like using your bible, try Luke 1:46-55. Following on from my previous post about the inversion of lowly and wealth, the Magnificat also has hard words for the rich.

He has shown strength with his arm

and has scattered the proud in their conceit,

Casting down the mighty from their thrones

and lifting up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty.

It's clear from this, and from other parts of Luke's text, that Jesus may well have inspired Robin Hood to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Mary's song doesn't pull any punches here, showing that the proud, mighty or rich will be brought low suddenly and powerfully, for the sake of the lowly and hungry. Jesus' arrival in the world isn't all fun and games. It's a redistribution of the wealth so that the hungry are fed by the rich, and to do this the rich must give up their conceit, their thrones and their wealth.

When I read things like this, I find it hard to reconcile the contemporary practice of giving useless or frivolous gifts to each other with the arrival of Christ in the world. To celebrate Christmas as a Christian would surely mean giving gifts to the hungry and lifting up the lowly, and not giving half-arsed gifts to other family members who are already overflowing with trinkets.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Gospel Inversions

There's a contrast in the Christmas story between the shepherds and the magi. I imagine that the inclusion of these two groups is quite intentional within the gospel accounts. The shepherds, although gainfully employed, probably weren't high in the social structure of the time. After all, they were looking after sheep during the night, not sleeping. The sheep probably weren't theirs. The real owners either were on the day shift, or were wealthy enough to pay for daytime shepherds as well. Conversely, the magi were wealthy enough to be able to spend their time gazing at the stars and reading. These were educated people, from somewhere outside of Israel.

These are the people who find their way to the infant Jesus to pay homage. The shepherds, though, are sought out by the angels. The angels go to them to tell them the news, and then the shepherds come to Jesus. For the magi, however, no one goes to them with the news. They're only given a sign in the stars to interpret, a sign that hovers above Jesus.

I think this is an intentional contrast. Lowly shepherds are found by messengers, whereas the wise and wealthy are summoned from afar. This is a typical gospel inversion; flipping the natural hierarchy on its head by privileging the underprivileged and bringing the privileged low.

It would be too easy to start claiming that there is a third group missing from this story: the priests of Israel. The one group who should see and know that Christ was born is the group that is neither summoned nor found. I'm always a little cautious about deriving lessons from what's missing because it runs the risk of reading something into the text. Still, it's a curious omission.

Right from the beginning the gospel is good news for the poor, and hard news for the rich. Angels are sent to the shepherds, full of pomp and ceremony. No one is sent to the wealthy, who must search for themselves and then make a long journey to find Christ. Even with these little details, the framework is set for a gospel that goes against the grain of human society.

Friday, 25 December 2009

My Christmas Wish

Being Christmas Day, it's customary for my atheist, agnostic and theologian friends to make mention that December 25 is more closely related to Saturnalia than Christ's birth, that there are similarities between Horus and Jesus, that Christmas trees are pagan, and so on. The trappings of a ritual are all too easily the focus of the discussion.

But suppose that we leave them to one side for a moment. Suppose we simply say that it's appropriate for Christians to remember that Jesus was born and lived among us. And it is quite appropriate for that. Would it matter which day was used to celebrate it? If the Christian celebration was divorced from the pagan influences, it could be any old day.

On one level, I wish this would happen. Leave the shops and the tree and the public holiday where they are, and put the Christ Mass somewhere else in the year. Separate the two. People could give each other gifts for whatever reason they liked. They could take a day off work and decorate trees for their own reasons. More importantly, Christians could have a genuine holy-day on which to remember Jesus' birth.

I've asked before, in other places, whether anyone would celebrate Christmas if it wasn't a public holiday. I suspect that if it were not at the end of the calendar year (perhaps sometime in May?), it might be more like the Muslim observation of Ramadan, or the Chinese New Year. People who believed in it would take the time to observe it and proclaim it. It may even regain something of its authenticity.

Who knows, even the practice of giving gifts to the poor (rather than to our own families) may be associated with the Christian Christmas.

But just in case you think that I'm a grinch, that I despise Christmas, rest assured I don't. Rather, I believe that it's important for Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It just so happens that this celebration has picked up some baggage along the way.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Bits and Bytes of the Mind

The SEP now has a revised entry on the Computational Theory of Mind. As usual, it's a good introduction to the field.

Personally, I have some scepticism about the CTM largely because it arose with the development of computers. My feeling is that the CTM is an attempt to map the phenomenology of mind onto the structures of computers. It may be that at the level of third-person experience, a computer and a person could be indistinguishable (c.f., the Turing Test) but this doesn't guarantee that the two have the same internal mechanisms.

However, it may be the case that with the advent of computers, we have learned a new way to look at the world and this actually explains how the mind functions. But I doubt it.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Seven Deadly Sins - The Series

I've just finished listening to the last in the series on the Seven Deadly Sins produced by The Spirit of Things. Overall, I found it a little repetitive, until the last one on sloth.

The first six took the same form, in which the deadly sin was reinterpreted in the Anglosphere context and watered down until it became like something close to enjoyable. Lust became a lust for life, or a lust for one's partner. The others were much the same. Take the deadly sin, recontextualise it and now it doesn't look so bad.

For sloth, however, one of the guests at least had the courage to keep it in its original context. Sloth was differentiated from relaxing or recharging. Slothfulness was viewed as the bad thing it is, and not brought so close to rest as to be synonymous. This was a good move, and guided the whole of the conversation. The value of rest was praised without detracting from the condemnation of sloth.

Overall, this is a lesson for anyone taking a text across time, culture and language. It takes a lot of work to even begin to understand what a text meant to its original audience and to its author. Without acknowledging that, the reader is making a new reading. A new reading is a valuable exercise, for sure, but it has to be acknowledged as such.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Tony Abbott to make it interesting

Back in August, Scott Stephens wrote a piece in Eureka Street about Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader (reproduced with a few extras in Faith and Theology). Now we get to see how the prediction will unfold. To quote:
Indeed, one often gets the impression that Abbott is picking a fight not so much with Labor as with the libertarian and individualist tendencies within his own Party. Abbott’s determination to restore charity, belief and courage to their rightful place as the greatest of political virtues — which I’ve elsewhere described as ‘a leader’s willingness to wage war against the people’s baser instincts, to expand the public’s moral imagination rather than simply pander to avarice, to stare electoral oblivion in the face by defying popular opinion, to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of a larger cause’ — distinguishes him as the antitype of both Rudd and Turnbull.
Stephens argues that what politics needs is the reintroduction of virtues as drivers for policy, a capacity he says is missing in Rudd and Turnbull. Virtue in the face of popularity; this is precisely what Turnbull cannot claim. In the past week we've heard him say that voting against the ETS is a move that will be seen as taking no action on pollution and will lose the next election. I'm left wondering whether Turnbull supported the ETS because he thought it was right, or because he thought it was a vote-winner.

So now that Abbott's in, can we expect a return of virtues and belief as drivers for Liberal Party policy? Not having read Abbott's book, I don't know for sure, but I hope so. I honestly hope that Abbott can provide a genuine alternative to the two different flavours of vanilla we currently have. I've written before that Australian politics would benefit from a Senate of minor parties, with no clear balance of power. The situation of a single party - or worse, a single senator - holding the balance of power should be avoided. What we need is a variety of starkly different opinions on the matter, and I suspect that a virtue-laden Tony Abbott would move things in that direction.

It remains to be seen what kind of leader Abbott will make. Congratulations to him.

Monday, 30 November 2009


Christianity is marked by a general sense of dissatisfaction. I think this is found in two key areas. The first is a dissatisfaction with the empire of humanity. Best viewed as a perpetual ziggurat of Babel, the empire of humanity is a constant exploitation of the other through implementations of hierarchy that do nothing other than glorify those at the top. We're all caught up in it, but the Christian message is opposed to it, dissatisfied with the activity as means and as ends.

The second is much less appealing. I don't think Christianity is meant to be satisfying for the Christian, especially if satisfaction implies happiness. A Christian is not called to pursue self-happiness. Instead, a Christian is meant to pursue Christ. For some, that means refreshment from the living water and sustenance from the living bread (very Johannine of me) but that's not the message for all. Some of us already have refreshment, sustenance and comfort. For the rich Christian, Christianity is difficult and demanding. No wonder the rich man went away sad. The gospel account doesn't mention if he became a Christian or not, just that he went away sad.

Even in forgiveness, Christianity isn't satisfying. Without going so far as revenge, even a sense of fairness or justice is denied to Christians. Christ demands forgiveness. Rowan Williams' lectures on prayer during Lent 2009 included the observation that in the Lord's prayer, we ask God to imitate us with regard to forgiveness. God will only forgive us if we forgive others. Christ demands that Christians love their enemies, not demand justice from them for ourselves. We can stand up for justice on behalf of others, but not for ourselves.

The call of Christ is terrifying. It's difficult and onerous. I don't think there's much satisfaction in it.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The Office Analysed

Do you like The Office? Does it speak to you about the place where you work? Then read this great analysis and wonder if you really want to keep working the way you do.

It's certainly come at the right time for me.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Christian Practice

Listening to a discussion on Ernst Bloch recently I learned an interesting detail about 1st and 2nd century Christianity. Church history has rarely been interesting to me, at my detriment I'm sure, with clear exceptions along the way. This is one of them.

Jane Shaw, while speaking about the difference between Christian practice and Christian belief, identified that conversion as a result of belief statements rose to prominence during the Reformation. In contrast, the early Christian converts were often accepted as catachumens for a period of up to five years while they demonstrated their faith (e.g., taking care of widows, visiting the sick, feeding the poor, etc.). During this time they weren't allowed to participate fully in worship services.
If a pagan wished to become a Christian he was given some elementary instruction in the fundamental doctrines and practices of the Church. He had to show by his conduct that he was in earnest about the step he was about to take. So far, he was only in the stage of inquiry, and was not counted as a Christian at all. He was allowed to be present at the first part of the Mass, but he was dismissed immediately after the sermon.
Catachumen, The Catholic Encyclopedia.
I have a natural hesitancy to wholly agree with this practice, since it's alien to me. It also seems to stand in the way of people coming straight to Christ, but I doubt whether the sincere catachumen was disuaded by this. They were clearly welcome into the community, but not completely. I hear echoes of Paul's admonishment about the communion meal in 1 Cor 11, but it seems like a misdirection[1].

Conversely, this practice indicates that a person isn't counted as a Christian until they have been instructed and have demonstrated the activity of the instruction. That's something of a sober warning to the post-Enlightenment Christian. Many of us became Christians on the basis of a statement of faith[2] and have followed it with religious disciplines of bible reading, prayer and meeting together.

Widows and orphans, anyone? We have a lot to learn.

1. This passage seems to play with the "body of the lord" language between the bread and the Church. The "unworthy manner" appears to have more to do with failing to recognise the needs of fellow believers than it does with failing to recognise the bread as Christ's body.
2. "I turn to Christ, I repent of my sins, I renounce evil" in more traditional Churches and "I accept Jesus as my personal lord and saviour" in others are still just statements of doctrine and belief.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Top One Reason

But I'm realizing that I don't have ten arguments for why religion is harmful. I don't even have 57,842 arguments.

I have one.

I'm realizing that everything I've ever written about religion's harm boils down to one thing.

It's this: Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.

It therefore has no reality check.

And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality ... and extreme, grotesque immorality.

It's an interesting read. Christina goes on to discuss the consequences of her objection, including political oppression, justification for war, vulnerability to fraud and quashing science and education. She draws from her own experience and observations to identify religion as one cause for these evils and more.

It must be said right here that her criticism is not targeted at organised fundamentalist religion with approval of personal spirituality. There is no way to construe her argument to apply it that way. Her criticism is that the foundation of religion is the religious experience and not a rationalist deduction. There is no rationally verifiable evidence of the "invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die" and therefore religion has no firm foundation.

She argues from a rationalist position that religion is not rational and is therefore invalid. With respect to Christianity[1] I agree with her proposition, but not entirely with her conclusion. The proposition is that religion has no rational foundation. Her conclusion is that it is invalid, and this needs some qualification before I'll come to the party.

For Christianity, the good news is that she's right about the foundation of faith. It's not rational. Rational knowledge is based on empirical, systematic deduction and conclusion. It's thoroughly integrated into the system of life that we've constructed and which we permit. What it doesn't permit is the introduction of anything non-rational, any kind of intervention from outside human knowledge.

In his analysis of Christianity as a formal example of a truth, Badiou indicates that a truth "punches a hole in knowledge." That is, it can't be integrated into the existing set of knowledge. In fact, a truth destabilises existing knowledge because of its resistance to integration. Rationalism, therefore, has a problem with an interruptive truth. It must do one of two things: reject the truth or shift entirely away from its old foundation. That's the nature of truth: it's foundational to the subject. When a truth intervenes, the foundation shifts. From this point of view, I agree with Christina. Christianity doesn't have a rational foundation.

But does this make it invalid? Yes, but only to the situation it interrupts. The situation of humanity (again, to draw from Badiou) is one of genetic survival. Most natural human behaviour can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations, typically those things which are beneficial for the perpetuation of an individual's genes. Christianity interrupts this pursuit by insisting upon love as the driving force. Love, the self sacrificing act, does not encourage the evolutionary process for the individual - it interrupts it. It interrupts the relentless pursuit of self indulgence and capital. It interrupts the natural impulses of the human endeavour and the consequent impulses of human civilisation. To that end, Christianity is invalid. The human system cannot account for it and rejects it.

Although that's the most significant part of my response to her article, there are some specifics I wanted to briefly remark on.
There's no reality check saying that their actions are having a terrible effect in the world around them. The world around them is, quite literally, irrelevant. The next world is what matters.
This is a good critique of an end-time mentality (and metaphysics). It's predicated on a Big Other who will punish the wicked and reward the faithful, and who will only do it when all is said and done. It's also in total opposition to the strain of Christian thought that says that the Church should be the embodiment of the kingdom of God in the here and now. The gospel message is not about the afterlife, it's about the way to live now. To miss this is to miss the point of Jesus' preaching. Christina makes the same case for suffering and war. I make the same response.

It makes religious leaders and organizations uniquely powerful in the political arena -- because their followers are typically taught from a young age to implicitly believe whatever their religious leaders say.
This reminds me of Kierkegaard's critique of the Danish state church. He lamented that it mediated God through the state, that God was not accessible to the individual except through church officials, all of whom were appointed by the monarch's hierarchy. Conversely, the Christian approach is one that is universally addressed. Everyone has the same access to the same truth and is challenged to decide for themselves if they will be seized by it. The same applies to her claims of vulnerability to fraud.

And so on and so on. My principle conclusion is that her position is from within the situation, that it cannot account for the foundation of Christian faith and thereby brands it as illegal[2] or invalid. Her criticisms of religion that revolve around a final judgement and the hierarchical mediation of God are worth reading. They're my criticisms as well. Ultimately, however, her inability to account for Christian love as an interruption into the present human existence is the weak point of her article. Christianity is an interruption, intended to be manifest in this life as the practical act of love which was taught by Jesus and which defines Christianity.

1. I can't really argue on behalf of others. They can do that for themselves if they wish.
2. She doesn't use this word, but I take it to mean illegal in the sense that it can't be accounted for in the system.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

In veritas there is bluster

I listened to a Veritas Forum debate this week, and could barely contain myself from tearing out my eardrums with a rusty spoon. The topic was allegedly Christianity vs Scientific Naturalism (debate and audience questions). I had expected something of a debate. Instead, I heard Craig use the formal structure of a debate, and Hardin use the informal structure of musings. Eventually, the debate collapsed into a series of alternating testimonies about how Craig became a believer and how Hardin became agnostic.

Hardin's ramblings didn't cohere into a single argument. And Craig announced that he was going to evaluate scientific naturalism and Christian theism by the same criteria, but after his attack on naturalism he decided to use an altogether different method for Christian theism. No one in the recording picked up the discrepancy.

If I thought I was disappointed by the conflicting methods, I clearly was ill prepared for the audience questions.

The audience appeared to be your typical group of intelligent evangelical Christians, capable of speaking articulately but only from within the evangelical framework. Questions like "If you were to die tonight, where would you go?" seemed out of place[1]. Craig clearly had the audience on his side, whereas Hardin had only the minority. Nevertheless, both handled the situation with cool heads and good humour.

In the end, no one won the debate. Craig's use of a formal debating structure made him sound more coherent and capable, though. I'm left to wonder about the choice of speakers for these Veritas Forum debates.

1. I think I asked this question as my senior yearbook quote. Thankfully, things have changed.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Why Darwin is no threat to Christians

According to some, Darwin and his followers represent a significant threat to Christianity, that somehow it removes the foundation for faith and jeopardises the very existence of God. In this, the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, I didn't want to let the year pass without making some kind of comment[1] on the issue.

First of all, it seems that there is an assumption within some debates about evolution, that somehow the human being of today is the pinnacle of evolution, that everything that has led up to the development of humans and has now stopped. This seems to be a contradiction. If evolution is a slow process that is facilitated through successful breeding, and breeding continues as much as it does, then evolution can't have stopped. So we can't assume that humans of today are the pinnacle. This is not a problem for the whole of Christianity, it's only a problem for the imago dei section of theology. Although I'm not well read in this area, I know enough to know that the definition of human is not described at a biological level. Although the discussions of capacities and so forth are all supervenient on the biological, I don't think this is an immovable object.

More important than the consequences of human breeding is the use of the origin of species (created or evolved) as the foundation for Biblical authority, or lack thereof. In other words, if God created humans as is then human religious endeavour has some definite intersection with the divine and is therefore a certainty on which faith can be established. It follows that if the foundation can be rocked, perhaps by insisting that evolution is correct, then everything on that foundation is also in trouble. The problem is that Christianity is not founded on the origin of humanity. Rather, Christianity is founded on Christ. Christ called his followers to hear his words and put them into action so that they are like a man who builds his house on a firm foundation, and not a sandy foundation. In this way, the biological origins of humanity have no influence on Christian foundation. Creation... evolution... neither of them make a difference.

The astute logicians in the audience will probably object by asking about the authority of Jesus. But this is the point of faith. There is no rational ground to it. We can't start with quantum physics and derive our way to "Jesus is lord" and nor should we. It is a leap of faith that takes us from one ground to another. To use biological origins is a misdirection.

This leads to the most significant point that I want to make. It's a distraction. Arguments about creationism and evolution do nothing to help the Christian mission. Christ told his followers to do lots of things, including preach the gospel and to live the gospel. Arguing about the origins of the universe was not, as I recall, on the agenda. Spending our time on it does nothing other than take our time away from more pressing matters of discipleship.

It seems to me, then, that the most Christian response to the question of Creationism and Evolution (and all the variants between the two poles) is to ignore it. It makes no difference to faith and no difference to Christian mission.

1. This post is not an exercise in apologetics. It's merely a couple of observations and thoughts on the issue.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Trinitarian Properties

If you're a Christian and you've not read Halden's post on The Trinity and Attributes, then you need to. He poses a question about precisely what is shared between the three persons of the trinity. This question is particularly useful.
But, what would happen if we didn’t just assume that the divine persons must be identical in every way except for the illusive categories of relations of origin? Why must we assume that the Father, Son, and Spirit must be exactly the same in all of their characteristics in order to be equally and fully divine?

I found it especially interesting that the perspective he criticises is the one that starts with the Father (and the Father's attributes) and then ascribes them to the Son and the Spirit. From that starting place, I think his argument carries a lot of weight. However, the proper starting place should really be Christ, the Son. If Christ is the revelation of God, then the Father is like the Son. Anything visible in the Son is true of the Father because the Son defines the Father.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Ideal Biblical Format

Plenty of people have a preferred translation of the Bible. I like the NRSV for the New Testament, and the Tanakh for the Hebrew Bible. But if there's one thing I'd really like to see, it's a New Testament formatted like the Tanakh.

Forget the double columns, just a single column. Is that too much to ask? A single column, NRSV New Testament.

If you happen to see one, leave a note in the comments and tell me where I can get my own copy.

Edit: One more feature I'd like to see is that the books are arranged in chronological order of writing. This is the one that tells me I would have to publish it myself. Such is life.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Christ the first and last

Faith is, without question, axiomatic. To have faith is to believe truths, despite there being no evidence to support it.[1] What you are about to read are some thoughts on an axiom of Christianity. This won't be a series of posts; it will be a category. I've added a tag for it so that you can find them all.

I think the first axiom of Christianity is also the last axiom of Christianity: Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ. This is a broad statement, but one which is the starting place for Christianity. It's the place to begin for Christianity because Christ is the defining signifier of Christianity. Christ defines Christianity. Also, Christ is tangible and revealed. Prior to Christ, God was not revealed, but a wholly transcendent being who becomes man writ large; like a magnifying mirror, enlarging the virtues of the observer. This is the kind of God that looks like an Israelite to the Israelites, that looks like an Aztec to the Aztecs, etc. Little wonder thatn Feuerbach wrote, "theology is anthropology."

With Christ, however, is a revelation that transcends particularity, rather than transcending materiality. Christ is material, a human being of flesh and blood. And Christ is particular, a male Jew. But Christ is not restricted to male Jews. It is the Christ-ness of Jesus which enables this transcendence over the particularity of Jesus. It is the declaration that Jesus is the Christ that defines Christianity.

So what do we mean by Christ? And what does it mean to say that Jesus is the Christ? Christ is the revealed, tangible God. To look at Christ is to look at God. I think there are two ways to read this. First, and I think this is the more common approach, is to take the attributes of God and to say that Christ has those attributes. So we take the properties of omnipresence, omnipotence, and so on, and then say that Christ has those properties. In doing this we are exposed to Feuerbach's critique. We define God in terms that are magnifications of our own virtues, and then we say that Jesus is like that. Jesus soon starts to look like the perfect man (strong, handsome, wise, and so on).[2]

The second way to read it is to say that what is seen in Christ is the definition of God. God is defined by Christ, not the other way around, because Christ is seen and God is not. The properties and characteristics of Christ are foundational for his followers, and also for God. In the paraphrased words of a friend of mine, "If it looks like Christ, then it's of God." And therefore, if it doesn't look like Christ, it's not God and probably the result of some human imagining. This approach takes away some of the speculation associated with theology, with the discussion of a transcendent being. Placing Christ at the centre of faith, and of the life of faith, is a defining move. The world, and everything in it, is now defined in relation to Christ and not in relation to the observer.[3]

And this is the point of this axiom. In taking Christ as the first and the last, we de-centre our lives. Rather than building up a phenomenology of conscious experience or idealism, we start with the assertion that Jesus is the Christ and begin to work outwards from there, applying it to the way we read the Bible, the things we believe about God, and the way we live. The Christian life of faith is not founded on empirical evidence about Jesus[4] but on this axiom. Christ is the first and the last, the foundation of Christian faith.

1. That's not, however, the same as there being evidence or argument to disprove it. It's possible for an axiom to be self-contradictory, or for some other evidence to disprove it. But it's also possible to conceive of an axiom with is neither provable nor disprovable (e.g., concerning the existence of God).
2. This is the Jesus that looks like a surfer carpenter. Just because Jesus was a tradesman who associated with fishermen, it doesn't mean that Jesus was the local pinup boy, tanned and muscular. Take a good look at tradesmen from peasant cultures sometime and see what I mean.
3. I wonder whether Christian writing should therefore be only Christology, and not lumped together as theology.
4. You can recycle or burn your apologetics books now.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Examiners' remarks (part the second)

The examiners' remarks have been handled now. It was interesting to read through it all, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of my work. Also interesting was the additional, separate set of comments which were unrelated to this piece as a thesis for a masters, but were entirely related to using it for ongoing research (perhaps a doctorate) or publication.

I have to say that the thought of more study next year still feels a like a burden, but only because it would be alongside full time employment and family life. And also because I like to take at least a year break between degrees.

The publication venture, however, has me a little bit tickled.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Bible Translation

This is some Bible translation that should be avoided by the faint-hearted and the prudish, and read with giggles by the rest. And if you really like your The Message translation, you won't find this amusing whatsoever.

Thanks, Roland. This made my day.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Examiners' remarks

The moment I'd been dreading for the past three weeks arrived yesterday. It was an email from the Dean advising me that the examiners' remarks on my thesis had been returned.

Apparently, two other people think I did OK with it. In turn, the BCT Postgraduate Research Committee also think I did OK with it.

This led, of course, to several minutes of dancing around the living room with my wife. Who wouldn't? We had to be quiet, though. The baby was asleep upstairs. Imagine, if you will, mad exuberance expressed only through movement, but not sound.

After reading the comments, I was somewhat sobered. Although I have only minor corrections to make, there are some deeper issues that I need to reflect upon in my understanding of Kierkegaard. I'm a very small fish in a large, well-established sea of Kierkegaardian scholarship. I won't bore you with the details here.

I'll revise it all over the next week or so and then that's it all done. Well, except for the ceremony in which I will get to wear a cap, hood and gown.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Human Rights

The idea of human rights is, one would think, obvious or self-evident. We certainly like to talk about human rights as though they are natural and logical consequences of being human, as though they were necessary properties of humanity. With a little examination, this view has some problems.

Rights are not the same as liberties. A liberty is a negative freedom, a freedom from restraint. Lions and sharks have liberties to kill and eat, but we don't say that they have rights. In the natural order, other carnivores have liberties to kill and eat even lions or sharks. A right, however, is something that is protected by Law. It is not a consequence of being human, it is a possible consequence of being recognised as a human in a society. Rights only exist through Law, and are granted by legislators. They are not necessary properties of humanity.

Other opposition to the idea of self-evident human rights comes from Alain Badiou. In Ethics he argues against the concept of human rights in several ways, but here are two key points. First that human rights are derived from an approach to ethics which is flawed.
Ethics is conceived here both as an a priori ability to discern Evil (for according to the modern usage of ethics, Evil - or the negative - is primary: we presume a consensus regarding what is barbarian).

That it is easier to establish a concensus regarding what is evil rather than regarding what is good is a fact already established by the Church.
Badiou, Ethics, 8, 10.
In other words, the ethical foundation of human rights is founded upon a consensus of opinion about evil. The movement from ethics to human rights is the second point of his objection.
Evil is that from which the Good is derived, not the other way around [and therefore] 'Human rights' are rights to non-Evil.
Badiou, Ethics, 9.
Human rights are therefore defined through a double negation. The first negative is to identify what is prohibited. The second negative is an attempt to negate the first. However, this double negation does not result in a return to the first condition. (For another example of a double negation like this, consider that punishing a person for murder does not return the murdered back to life.) This double negation is just the avoidance of Evil in disguise. A right is just a representation of a prohibition, and therefore is just a measure of control for "acceptable" liberties (as defined by contemporary popular opinion).

If we accept that rights are the result only of Law, and that they are founded on principles of non-Evil, then there is nothing necessary about them. There is nothing self-evident in human rights, nothing inherent about human biological entities that necessitates rights.

Rights for the Christian are even less valid. The dichotomy between Caesar and Christ demands that the Christian gives preference to Christ over the state. Any rights that the state gives are next to worthless (skubala if you like). There is no reason for a Christian to appeal to rights, human or otherwise (see a recent Online Opinion piece about this). The basis for Christian ethical action is, as always, love - and love through the lens of Christ. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus said that whatever is done to the sick and the suffering is also done to the Son of Man. Love, the positive command, is directed at one and the same time to the downtrodden and to Christ. This command is the basis of Christian action, rather than an appeal to rights.

Human rights are, from a secular and Christian point of view, a misguided foundation for action - nothing more than the avoidance of evil. Instead, the positive command to love is the solid foundation for action, both personal and political.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Systematic Non-systematisation

Every now and then I feel the urge to list the Big Issues and start writing on each of them. It's a list that includes things like metaphysics, the meaning of the crucifixion, the meaninglessness of heaven and hell, and so on. I've written about many of them before, but never really with enough depth to tackle the issue.

I have only two reservations on the project. The first is my motivation, and the second is procrastination.

My motivation for the project is questionable. I find myself in discussions with other Christians from time to time, being disagreeable most of the time, and we reach an impasse. In the discussion and after the discussion it's apparent that the impasse is the result of differing foundational axioms. Unfortunately, the discussion of the axioms themselves never takes place and I'm left with a horrible, gnawing hypothetical image of a discussion that could have been. My project to pick the Big Issues and write about them seems like little more than engaging in the hypothetical discussion without the interlocutor.

Procrastination is not what you think, though. It's not that I don't have the interest or the time. Rather, by writing it all down I would probably have created a tenuously justifiable reason not to go and be a Christian. Prayer and Bible study, valuable as they are, are also great things to occupy your time while you procrastinate about being a Christian in the world.

So I don't expect to see a systematic theology move from my mind to print any time soon.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Theological and biblical illiteracy in the Church

A couple of blogs have made reference to this posting over at soli deo gloria about the intersection between academia and the Church. The quoted text I will quote further (in a nested quoting sense that screws with your referencing software) is this.
Sometimes theological discussion in the churches is illuminating and inspiring. Generally, however, the culture of theological discussion in the churches has little patience with the kinds of protocols noted above. It is frequently reactive, often trapped in denominational and geographical parochialism, and seldom well-informed. It is often driven by the pragmatic and the contingent, and is thereby distanced from any patient quest for the truth which intentionally draws on a larger horizon of theological wisdom. All of this is intensified by the underlying theological and biblical illiteracy which characterises so much contemporary Christianity.
(emphasis is mine)

I sympathise with this view. Academic rigour is far removed from daily Christian life and is too often viewed by the non-academically inclined as being too theoretical and not nearly practical enough. Although it could be argued that this critique is based largely on ignorance about what theology is about, there is nevertheless a grain of truth in this.

Theology is often seen to be a purely academic pursuit without any practical evidence. What theology and theologians need is to learn the lesson of May '68: get active and violent. Active in the sense that theology should be existentially manifest in the theologian. Violent in the sense that love is violent as an interruption to the natural order of things. Theologians should be at the front of the protest march, with tear gas and batons and an arrest record.

On the flipside, the regular churchgoer equally needs to stop pretending to read the Bible and actually read it as a text that is from another time, from another culture, and translated from another language. The claim that theological and biblical studies are irrelevant to daily Christian life is flawed to say the least. By refusing to read the texts deeply (including knowledge of its milieu), the reader is left with only a few choices, most of which are vapid and insipid.

Reduce the text to a greeting card. Take any verse you like (especially the ones you like) and print it over a beautiful photograph of a sunset, or a tree, or the ocean. Feel warm and fuzzy. Wash, rinse, repeat. I know people like this and if you're one of them, stop it now. I already complain about you behind your back and will start doing it to your face.

Stop reading. Just turn up to the meetings. Sing the songs. Stand. Sit. Kneel. Put your spare change in the plate. Let the people at the front do the reading, praying and believing for you. It's no different to a sitcom: it has people to live for you, tell jokes for you and even laugh for you with a laugh track.

Read and obey mindlessly. The Bible is full of commands. If you don't want to understand them in any depth, then obey them all to the letter. Existentially, you'll be OK ... at least until you find a contradiction in the commands. And even then, you can be an aesthetic existentialist who denies the continuity of consciousness.

Apart from these options, the Christian who wants to take faith and the Bible seriously has to do more, and is in no position to feel smug about claiming that theologians are too theoretical, any more than a theologian can sit safely in a library, surrounded by books.

It's time for this foolish divide to collapse.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Updated SEP article on the Chinese Room

The perennially useful Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has published an update to the article on Searle's Chinese Room argument. This is a worthwhile read for matters of consciousness.

Overall, I find the argument useful for its intended purpose: to make obvious the distinction between handling syntax and understanding semantics. Unfortunately, the most famous (in armchair IT circles) test for AI is the Turing Test, which is entirely based on the appearance of understanding semantics, regardless of whether there is the qualia of understanding. I think that Searle's point is clear, and must be acknowledged.

I can't swallow the whole argument, however, on the basis of qualia and the consciousness of a system. That is, I am an independent observer of the Chinese Room and have no access to the inner life of the total Chinese Room system. Therefore, I cannot conclusively say whether the Chinese Room system has conciousness. Even if I was the man inside the room, I wouldn't be able to make that evaluation, inasmuch as the neurons in my head aren't aware of my total consciousness. My qualia are only available to me. Yours are only available to you. It isn't possible to say whether the Chinese Room has qualia, because they're only available to the Chinese Room.

However, from a physicalist point of view (the most convincing metaphysics I've encountered) I must leave open the possibility that the Chinese Room has consciousness. Minds arise from physical matter, after all. So for me, it's reduced to a matter of probability. Is it likely that a Chinese Room system has consciousness? Not nearly as likely as a dog having consciousness, and probably only slightly less likely than a thermostat with consciousness. And for more on the thermostat, go read The Conscious Mind.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Terry Eagleton on Revelation

In his interview with The Immanent Frame, Terry Eagleton has the usual things to say about his position in the debate between him and Ditchkins. He does it, of course, in his usual elegant style and that makes for good reading. So go and read the interview.

One point caught my attention though, largely due to its close proximity to my recent thesis.
NS: There are so many competing claims for supernatural revelation; some people say they adjudicate truth by the Bible, or by papal authority. How do you know one reliable supernatural tradition from another?

TE: Well, you have to argue about it on the basis of reason, and evidence, and analysis, and historical research. In that sense, theology is like any other intellectual discipline. You don’t know intuitively, and you certainly can’t claim to know dogmatically. You can’t simply, in a sectarian way, assert one tradition over another. I don’t think there’s any one template, any one set of guidelines, which will magically identity the correct view. Theology, like any other intellectual discipline, is a potentially endless process of argument. But that’s not to say that anything goes.
This is the problem with revelation-claims. On the one hand there's no template to follow, and this allows revelation to be free from humanly constructed limitations and definitions. On the other hand, we can't say that "anything goes" because of the horrors committed in the name of revelation.

And that, in a tiny little nutshell, is a very big problem for religion. I hope that when my thesis has been finalised, I will be able to write more extensively on the topic here.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The state of research

Having just submitted a thesis, I have a small amount of experience in the area of research. I am, by no means, an expert in the practice.

(This is just the lead in to the point where I pontificate as though I am an expert)

But I have noticed that the trend of research has moved. I'm not going to complain about it, but I feel inspired to note the shift in data sources. Whereas my paper on Kierkegaard and Badiou will be evaluated on, among other things, the quality of sources in my bibliography, I see that this is not a requirement for government documents. I flipped through the US Department of Labor report on Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor and was immediately impressed with the size of the bibliography. In a 194 page document, the bibliography begins on page 61 and continues to page 192. More than 130 pages of references.

Most of the references, however, are URLs. They're all correctly cited with the date of access and so forth, but they're still URLs. This is a masterpiece of modern research, having made use of the legwork of so many other departments, journals, NGOs and others, the Department of Labor has only to click away and read in order to get the information.

In academic circles, a bibliography like this would be viewed dubiously. Such standards don't apply to government papers, it seems. My reactions have been varied.
"This is just lazy research."

"The standards of government reports have declined."

"This is the way of the future."

"Where is the peer review?"

"Would someone earn a postgraduate degree with a bibliography like this? And when would this become acceptable methodology?"
As you can see, it's a clash of ideas for me - especially after submitting a thesis to an academic body. I'm keen to see where this goes for academia. At some point, the extensive use of online references will need to be handled and understood, and not merely tolerated as a necessary evil.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Submitted for Review

Wow. Finally, after many hours of labour, I've submitted my thesis for review. It'll be back in about 6 weeks, I'm told, whereupon I will be wracked with anguish once more as I am forced to make all the changes recommended by those more capable than I.

And if you're one of those people, thank you.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Two days to go

I've decided to submit my thesis on Monday. This is, of course, thoroughly terrifying and now the object of all my rage. Once I let go of it and turn around back to the car, all of this will be replaced by the nervousness of waiting to hear back from the reviewers.