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.