Thursday, November 25, 2021

How we learn...

I'm working on my next blog post on "Why Campus." This next entry is on enhanced courses. I thought I would do a preliminary post here to get my juices flowing.

1. What are the weak spots of the typical college course? We have long heard that the lecture is the least effective way to learn. I did some quick research. This piece suggests that while students sometimes think lectures are the best, the introduction of interactive components can improve learning significantly. 

When I think back on my own thirty years of teaching, in the early decades I could tell when students were glazing over. I would insert a break or group activity when I saw this happening. However, my activities were not well designed. They were more release valves than truly helpful. I was somewhat entertaining, but it only helped with some students. 

When I started teaching Greek in the early 90s, I was the more entertaining of the two of us. However, I'm not sure that the students learned more from me than they learned from the other professor. They may have enjoyed the experience more, but it didn't necessarily produce greater learning. This may have been the case throughout my career--they enjoyed me more but did they learn more than they learned with the professor who was more regimented?

2. When wireless came into the picture, the scores on my tests went down. I used to be very clear about what would be on the test, but the attention to what I was saying went down. Now it didn't matter as much whether I was entertaining or not because they were entertaining themselves on the web during class. There were of course the curmudgeon professors who forbade laptops in class. I always looked down on them. Did they really think they could win that cultural competition?

No, we had to find ways to collaborate with the technology. In 2009 when I switched to primarily being administration, I was poised to used clickers to have in class quiz questions. I planned to ask questions throughout the class time that required you to snap out of whatever distraction you might be engaged in to answer questions. By golly you would learn in my class!

I have known for my whole career about different learning styles and I have felt the short attention span. I know because I have one. I always felt that my own inability to sit through sermons and lectures has made me a more interesting teacher because I can feel myself getting bored at myself. The idea that the average attention span is less than 10 minutes now is generally agreed, although this piece pushes back. My sense is that the piece mistakes being able to make a counterargument is the same as making a counterargument. This is one of the problems with much thinking today. It thinks that if you can show a contrary position is possible that it disproves the alternative or proves the minority position.

3. Zoom has been interesting. I continue to slip in group breakouts. But because I don't structure them, I'm not sure anything happens. I have found the students at Houghton College to pay better attention (I think) than the students I used to have at IWU. I don't know if this is a cultural shift, an indication of the typical Houghton student, or a misperception. 

At the same time, I have experience more silence and lack of conversation than my early years of teaching. It is always nice when there is at least one student that interacts. A few years ago I began to notice the "spectator student" dynamic. It seemed to correlate to what I saw in much Christian worship too. We watch the worship team but don't necessarily sing ourselves.

4. So what of the evolution of the online learning environment?

When we started Wesley Seminary, there was some defense made of online teaching. Those days are so long ago that I almost consider irrelevant any people who might still argue against its potential effectiveness. The twentieth century is calling you. Studies have shown that online teaching is at least as effective on average as face-to-face in terms of learning. You can also do spiritual formation virtually. 

In the end, it doesn't matter whether we like it or not. It doesn't matter whether we prefer it or not. It's here. It will always be here. You can grumble, but your grumbling is irrelevant. It is a train that will run over your grumblings and not even realize it has run over you. That's the situation whether we like it or not. Some purely face-to-face colleges may survive, but they will be few and likely very small. 

The early online course was convenient because it was completely asynchronous. Do it whenever you best can. It thus became out of sight, out of mind for many--sometimes even for the professor. You wrote a book--type, type, type, type, type, type, type. Those perceived to be the best professors were not the most entertaining but the best administrators. I often thought of the peppered moth phenomenon during the Industrial Revolution in England. They stood out and were eaten first before soot. Then they thrived after soot.

So the entertaining professor thrived before asynchronous online. The disciplined administrator thrived thereafter.

The pandemic has changed things. Mind you, I did a hybrid class in 2009. I was doing an online class with live Zoom sessions the very semester that the pandemic broke out. I blamed lack of bandwidth early on for the "type type type" phenomenon of online. I sense that we are now culturally used to Zoom. It's a clear shift, even though we are sick of it. We know it. It is not strange. 

5. I have speculated for several years now that the online class of the future will be more like video gaming. I know more than one (especially male) college student who has struggled in college because of gaming. They stay up late. They miss class. They don't get their work done.

There have always been students (mostly boys) who don't connect with the typical academic system. I call them the "lost boys." They are some of the brightest young people. They have a lot to offer. They often went on to pastor the largest churches and have some of the most "successful" ministries from one perspective. They failed their ministry classes.

I have worked with people who are extremely talented, extremely innovative, extremely successful, but they didn't do very well in the academic setting. I blame us in the academy rather than them. They found us irrelevant and uninteresting. We probably were not as irrelevant as they thought we were, but we were utter failures at our teaching method, I believe, at least for this set of students.

It seems to me that cultural shifts have turned us into extreme failures at teaching. We have not figured out how to teach this generation. Frankly, I don't think we knew how to teach the earlier generations either. They just sat and took it from us. When I look at the widespread cultural ignorance--no less present in the church than at large... when you consider that most of the culture went to college... I have to consider one of the primary tasks of the academy to have been quite a failure. "General education" hasn't seemed to do what it's supposed to do.

6. I've been doing "opposition research" for the better part of this year. I was at a pivot in my life and I thought I would go back to school part-time. I've taken online courses with Southern New Hampshire and Arizona State, two of the so-called leaders in the field. I've taken programming and graphic design courses with the one and a STEM class with the other. Meanwhile, I had been designing various online courses with Houghton College--webinars and software courses. I may take an Outlier course and maybe an Android course. What's going well? What isn't? 

Of course I'm working for Campus Edu, so I'm working with a bunch of brilliant people at this sort of thing. 

6. This blog post might begin here. What are we going to do about it? I come back to learning styles. In seminary, I learned about the Kolb experiential learning cycle. Concrete experience leads to observation. I reflect and then make some abstract conceptualizations. Then I experiment and the cycle continues. I'll confess this model doesn't connect with my personal learning styles so I have only taken away from it over the years that some people learn best in this way.

My son is one of them. He learns best by hands-on application and problem-solving. He is about to graduate from Purdue, which for all I can see has mostly failed to meet him at his learning style. 

Neil Fleming's VARK model (1987) seems to balance out Kolb a little. He had four learning styles: visual learners, auditory learners, physical learners, and social learners. My son, I suspect, would be more of a physical learner. The traditional academy may utterly fail this group. Some people need to see it. Some people need to talk it. 

I have worked a few times with "external processors." They have to talk it out to figure it out. You might guess that I learn best by writing and teaching. The process of presenting information or an issue helps me process it.

The model I like the most is the 7 learning styles approach, which I take to come from Howard Gardner (1991). I took this diagram from Educlouds. Google also has a helpful diagram here.

I think I can correlate some of this diagram with the Myers-Briggs personality types. On the introvert-extrovert spectrum, some learn best alone. Some learn best in a social context. That is, some people are internal processors and some people are external processors. 

Some people learn best by external/hands-on application and concrete problem-solving. Other people are most comfortable in reflection and abstraction. These differences seem to relate somewhat to the S versus N scale in Myers-Briggs, the concrete versus the intuitive.

The NTJ personality may learn best by the logical, sequential approach. Give me the subject matter in order, starting with the fundamental building blocks and building the structure up from there. This scheme may not account for the "P" learner as well, however. This is the person who learns best by getting right into it, using inductive learning. 

The "verbal" is sometimes broken out into writing/speaking. The very fact that I am blogging suggests I heavily function in this category. We should also not pigeon-hole a person into just one learning style. Most of us probably would learn best with some combination of these approaches.

This website, by the way, has 12 learning styles: 1) visual, 2) auditory, 3) tactile (touching), 4) kinesthetic (she breaks out physical into these two), 5) sequential (combined above into the logical), 6) "simultaneous" (this is the need to see the big picture first--I resonate with this one), 7) reflective (brainstorming, more inductive), 8) verbal, 9) interactive (social), 10) direct experience, 11) indirect experience (learning from experiences of others, and 12) musical or rhythmic.

7. Now for the synthesis. What is my own list, putting all the material above together?

  • It seems to me that there are few purely "auditory" learners. Yet this is the basket of the traditional academy. The least effective, it would seem.
  • I know there are visual learners. My daughter (and I) will not likely remember if we only hear something. We need to see it written down.
  • I know that there are "hands-on" learners (kinesthetic, physical). There's a proverb falsely attributed to Confucius: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." Well, for some. This connects to experiential learners. "We learn by doing" (John Dewey).
  • I know that there are internal and external processors. There are clearly reflective and social learners.
  • There are clearly verbal processors. Teaching is another example of this. I learned biblical Greek best by teaching it. I have learned a great deal about physics and math by creating YouTube videos. A variation on this style is the person who synthesizes material best by writing, as also applies to myself. 
  • There are deductive and inductive learners. The former learn best in sequence. The latter are best thrown into the thick of it. This last approach I find better holds attention. 
  • There are big picture and details people. The former need to see where you're going before starting the journey. The latter can follow the thread of detail into the subject.
  • Somewhere in here should go problem-based learning. This approach learns best by trying to solve puzzles or problems. I suppose this connects to Kolb's reflection phase.
  • Storied learning seems important. It relates to direct and indirect experience above. It is certainly one of the strongest human defaults, and this is something that should be kept in mind.
  • Somewhere in here we also need to mention the ever-declining attention span. It is a parameter I believe for teaching.
  • Where does the gaming mentality go? It is a kind of interactive learning that incorporates short attention spans. It is inductive. It is problem-solving. It is a kind of virtual hands-on. It is visual and auditory. It is interestingly very social these days. There isn't much abstraction or reflection involved, perhaps revealing a major weak spot in the current mental muscles of young men.
I'll stop there. I am writing a piece for the Campus Edu blog on how Campus Learn courses enhance learning. It definitely is more visual. It has more of a live component for better social. We'll see what my "learn by writing/teaching" style synthesizes further by Monday. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

Why Campus 2 -- Enriched Curriculum

Here is my second course in a series on the Campus Edu on the question, "Why Campus?" This one talks about how Campus Edu can be used to keep or expand curricular offerings in an enriched way.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Novel start -- Deconstruction: A Novel

Last week I started writing a novel, Deconstruction: A Novel. I've edited the first chapter several times this last week, trying to find the right characters. I'm posting more extensive stretches on Patreon, but thought I would put some excerpts here as well. Here is a little from the first chapter. Post-edits will certainly happen.


We met on the first day of college. Matt was a Southern Baptist from just over the Georgia border. April was a Methodist from Beaufort, South Carolina. Brad was a Pentecostal from Kings Mountain, just into North Carolina. Of course, they say we’re all just different flavors of Baptist in the South.

We all thought ourselves Christians. We all believed in the Bible. We each in our own way wanted to see the defeat of sin and injustice in the world. We all couldn’t wait to go to a Christian college, where we thought everyone else would be just like us. We were going to learn more about God. We were going to have a lot of fun. Welcome to Ebenezer College in the fall of 2016!

It was a strange and unique time in American history. Our first semester saw the election of President Trump. Our time there ended with COVID. None of us were expecting to struggle with our faith. None of us had any real sense of how much a person could change in three or four years. You see it looking back. They tell you it’s going to happen. You’re going to transition from teenager to adult. But it’s hard to see what that looks like from the front end.

They have a word for what some of us experienced. Deconstruction...

Deconstruction is the idea that, as you build something, it falls down under its own weight. The very building of it brings about the unbuilding of it. The principles that construct it lead to its un-construction. It unravels in the very process of trying to sow it together.

We all had different personalities. Matt was a firebrand. At one point we all thought he should have been the preacher. He was always fighting something. The world for him was a never-ending boxing match, with enemies out to get us around every corner.

Brad was funny. He never missed an opportunity to treat a subject lightly. We didn’t realize for a long time that he spent the other half of his time depressed. Looking back, it was really his search for God’s presence that drove a lot of our discussions.

April was more practical and far more organized than the rest of us. She was someone who kept a calendar of what to study each day to get her homework done and be ready for the test. It really annoyed her when Brad would ace a quiz or paper he had only worked on one night, while she had actually read the material and studied a little each day.

Meanwhile, Jessica and I pretty much looked on and watched the show. Jessica was April’s roommate. I lived in the same suite as Brad in the nicest dorm. Jessica came for softball, not paying any attention to the fact it was a Christian college. Required chapel really took her by surprise, as did the rules about not drinking. She hadn’t quite figured out what to major in. She wasn’t really there for the classes.

I thought I came to be a doctor. I found myself that first semester in the same biology and chemistry classes as Matt and Brad. But a lot of things change in college. Most students change their major at least once. The same would be true of me.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Why Campus Edu 1 -- Expanded Markets

Last week I wrote a piece on the Campus Edu blog on the future of modality in higher education. This week I began a seven-part series on why I believe Campus Edu could be a key partner for a Christian college in moving toward that future.

The first post in that series is titled, "Why Campus -- Expanded Markets." Here's a key quote:

"Campus aims to help colleges expand their markets by networking together. This is a hard sell for some because of the 'zero-sum game' assumption. 'Why would I give some of my students to another college?' The answer is, 'To get even more.'"

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

God With Ten Words self-published

I did the deed. I took the short project and self-published it. Sent some copies to some of my kids so they know my musings on God at 55.

Paperback version

Kindle version

The description says, "It is common to speak of the attributes or characteristics of God. This book picks ten key characteristics of God and explores them both biblically and theologically. God is mystery, love, power, knowledge, presence, Immanuel, good, parent, justice, and savior."

I did, by the way, self-publish an earlier book on God and Creation: Wesleyan-Arminian Reflections when I was 48. It was the first of a three-volume series I wrote, although I haven't found the time to publish the material I have already written for volumes two and three. I should probably push those out.

Monday, November 08, 2021

The Future of Modality in Higher Education

Here is a piece I wrote for the Campus Edu blog on the "Future of Modality in Higher Education." 

There are so many possibilities. This is not a time for fear, but for blowing the top off of education as we know it.


Saturday, November 06, 2021

Final Excerpt -- God with Ten Words

I finished my project to write a short book capturing my basic thoughts on God, using ten key words. I'll probably self-publish it this next week. Below is a final excerpt from near the end of the final chapter on God as Savior.

Here are previous excerpts from God with Ten Words:


It is interesting to remember my own path on the location of eternity. I grew up thinking that eternity was in heaven or hell in some other dimension. Having grown up on Star Trek, I never thought that eternity would be in this universe.

I remember reading a Christian comic book in high school that mused whether a particularly beautiful galaxy could be where heaven was. I chuckled, amazed that the comic writer would think heaven was in this universe. If God created this universe, then surely heaven—where God is—is somewhere outside of it!

Then again, I was amazed to find out at one point that my father did think that hell was in the middle of the earth. I had always assumed that hell must also be in some other dimension. After studying the Bible now for some time, I have realized that my father probably wasn’t wrong on where the New Testament writers pictured hell or at least the realm of the dead. Paul says those things “under the earth” will bow before Lord Jesus (Phil. 2:10). But surely this is a picture rather than something we should take literally.

So there are people that take this biblical imagery literally, with heaven up somewhere and hell in the middle of the earth. And for some reason, I grew up thinking that heaven and hell were in some other dimension. I also grew up thinking that, when we die, we went to that other dimension for eternity. I believed in the second coming too, but apparently, it was just a gathering expedition before Christ destroyed the earth.

As I further studied the New Testament, I came to realize that most of the New Testament does not picture eternity as off in some other place at all. It pictures eternity on a transformed earth. At first, this idea seemed heretical to me. After all, isn’t that what Seventh-Day Adventists think? I guess I took Revelation 21 as a picture rather than literally, the new Jerusalem descending to earth.

But Jesus speaks of people coming from north, south, east, and west to feast with him in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29). When Paul talks about the creation being freed from corruption (Rom. 8:21), he seems to be saying that the material world has been damaged by the power of Sin and needs to be “saved” too. We already mentioned that, when he talks about the power of Sin over our flesh, he seems to be saying that Sin somehow has a foothold over my body (Rom. 8:14). Scholars like N. T. Wright have particularly emphasized the transformed earth focus of the New Testament.

As is often the case, continued reflection leads to new questions and new possibilities that almost take you back to where you started. What has especially done this for me is reflection on the vastness of the universe and the possibility that there might be beings elsewhere in the past and future who will need redemption. The authors of the Bible only knew of the relatively flat “land,” probably not even that the earth was a sphere. Why would God doom the rest of this immense universe upon the sin of two people on a small, insignificant planet? And therefore, why would God transform all the rest of this universe because of the moment of salvation on one tiny little planet?

Perhaps the idea of a new earth in another dimension is not so ignorant after all. It would be a transformed earth, not least because it would be freed from the power of Sin over it. At the same time. it would fit with the sense that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us so that where he is, we may be also (John 14:3).

Perhaps that other dimension is still part of this universe in some way. After all, it is hard to imagine that we would be able to exist in “wherever” God outside this universe might be. We can even wonder if the angels as we know them are part of this universe, just in the spiritual part of it. These are all things above our pay grade, and no doubt we will laugh in heaven at how foolish I was even to speculate.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Chapter 10 Excerpt 2 -- God as Savior

Final excerpt from God with Ten Words:


The Hebrew word for salvation, yeshu‘ah, and the verb to save, yasha‘, together appear hundreds of times in the Old Testament. It is not likely that they ever referred to the afterlife in their original contexts. Salvation and being saved in the Old Testament were always about being rescued in this life from something, including being rescued from death (e.g., Ps. 6:4). Both before and after the exodus, Moses looks for the salvation of the LORD from the Egyptians (Exod. 14:13) and then he thanks the Lord for that salvation afterward (Deut. 32:15)—“the horse and its rider he threw in the sea.”

The very name Joshua, who leads Israel into the Promised Land, points to salvation. The salvation the Lord leads through him is not just escape from Israel’s enemies but also the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Israel is put into right standing in the land. The priest of the Jews after they return from Babylon is also named Joshua (Hag 1:12), as the Jews finally escape their captivity in Babylon and are restored to the land again.

The point is that God is not just the Savior of our souls. God also brings salvation in this life. God not only rescues us from those who wish to do us harm or those who might enslave us. God rescues us from any number of other things in this life, both individually and corporately. God “saves” those who are crushed in their spirits (Ps. 34:18). Job speaks of his “wholeness” having passed away (Job 30:15). In the Gospel of Luke, the Greek word to save (sozo) is used several times in terms of physical healing (Luke 8:50).

God wants our wholeness, our full restoration in every aspect. It does not always come in this life but sometimes it does in some area, and it is not wrong to work in this world for the wholeness of both individuals and societies. Obviously God’s greatest desire is for us to find eternal salvation. God also acts to heal our bodies (Acts 3:6). God delivers people from slavery, as we see not only in the exodus but repeatedly throughout the book of Judges. God heals and restores relationships.

While Christians currently disagree on the nature of the racial divide in the United States, there is no question biblically or theologically that God wants the reconciliation of all people to each other. It will not always happen, but God has no interest in us giving up, like the man who hid his talent in the ground because investing was too risky. Christians currently disagree on what a society would look like that was equitable to all, but we cannot disagree on the goal of wholeness for all.

The Bible reveals this impulse to “salvation” as an essential dimension of God’s justice. Understood in this broader biblical sense, education is a tool of salvation because it can potentially provide a pathway to restoration for those whose families are off track. We will disagree on the best methods and pathways, but the goal of wholeness for all should not be in question from a biblical standpoint.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Chapter 10 Excerpt -- Savior

We now get to the final word about God in the book I plan to self-publish by the end of the week: God with Ten Words:


God is our Savior. Although it may not fit with the way we normally think, salvation is part of biblical justice. Biblical justice is about putting things right, which means that God has “brought down the powerful from thrones and exalted the humble” (Luke 1:52). For a season, God may allow evil for reasons we have already seen. But evil is never the final answer.

God allows evil because it is better for us to freely choose the good rather than be forced to do the good. The corollary action of God is for salvation. Counterbalancing the constant presence of evil in the world is the constant action of God for salvation in the world. The culmination of this action was and is of course in Christ.

The thread of salvation runs throughout the Bible. Typically, we are well acquainted with God’s actions toward eternal salvation. We know the storyline of Scripture. Sin entered the world, and death through sin. Jesus came to destroy the power of Sin and death and free us to eternal life. This is the lens of salvation through which Christians predominantly read the Bible.

In much of Christianity, this story is read as a personal story. That is to say, it is a story about me and my individual salvation. It is also a spiritual story about my eternal, individual destination. Of course that thread of the story is true.

It also is only part of the story of salvation in Scripture. For one, this story of personal salvation in Paul’s writings is even more a story of corporate salvation. It is also a cosmic salvation, the setting right of all things. It is our culture that leads us to focus on our individual piece of that puzzle. The biblical world was a more group-oriented world. The story of salvation in Romans and Paul’s letters is thus more a story of God's people being saved together rather than mere individual salvation. Election in Paul is more about us collectively and God’s plan corporately than about any individual’s salvation.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Sermon Starters: God's Loving Justice

I'll backfill last week's sermon. This is the second of two sermons on God at Brookside Wesleyan Church in Wellsville.

God's Loving Justice

Text: Hebrews 12:5-11


  • Getting my children shots for kindergarten--not because we were evil parents, a moment of pain to save death or a lifetime of trouble
  • We think pleasure is good and pain is bad. This is not actually the case.
Some preliminary questions about God and justice:

  • God allows evil because it is better for us to choose him freely than to be forced to. But then there will be evil.
  • We have to believe that God allows suffering for a greater good, though we don't often know why (relative that died of cancer, Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever")
  • Abraham discussing Sodom with God--God will do what's right
1. God's loving justice gets us back on the right path.

  • pain is a good thing--it is a warning
  • CIP and hot stoves
  • consequences remind us of the way God has made the universe
  • "Spare the rod and spoil the child" -- episodes in parenting

2. God's loving justice protects others from us.

  • Speed laws and seat belt rules
  • Traffic lights
  • Think of justice as protection rather than punishment
  • Jail as protection

3. God's loving justice lets us go if we ultimately abandon him. 

  • God lets go. Romans 1
  • hardened hearts
  • C.S. Lewis' thought experiment in the Great Divorce
  • "Life imprisonment"
  • Hell as letting us go to the torment of self-imposed separation from God

  • training for a race and discipline

Monday, October 11, 2021

Another Chap 9 Excerpt -- Justice

Excerpts so far from God with Ten Words:


How can God’s justice fit within the context of loving us and the world? First, one dimension of “justice” is redirection and redemption. The last chapter mentioned the discipline of God in Hebrews 12. The purpose of discipline is to help us both get on track as well as to help us grow.

For one thing, God has wired the world a certain way. If someone has Type 2 diabetes and eats lots of sugar and starch, bad things will happen to the body. They may find themselves unproductive because their body struggles to process what it is eating. Individuals may find their minds clouded. In time, they may begin to have vision problems or begin to struggle with heart problems.

These consequences follow naturally from the laws of nature. God is not being mean to people if they begin to experience such things. On the other hand, if they discipline themselves in their eating, they may find their energy returning, their thinking clearing, and they may find themselves healthier than some others who do not have diabetes.

As we saw in Romans 1, one dimension of God’s justice is simply letting us experience the consequences of our choices. God has created our world with a certain moral wiring as well. If a person is untrustworthy, it will have consequences. When such individuals need others to trust them, such trust will be a hard time coming. If a person is violent, violence gives birth to more violence. “The one who lives by the sword dies by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Similarly, indiscriminate sexual activity and adultery usually bring turmoil and unhappiness in one’s life, not peace or lasting joy.

Along these lines, some of God’s discipline is a warning. Perhaps we experience a check on how we are thinking or acting, one that foreshadows where we will end up if we keep on our current course. Let’s use the example of a speeding ticket. The reason speeding is against the law is because it is dangerous both to ourselves and others. A ticket is a kind of warning. “You should slow down before you get into an accident.” If we listen, we may save our own lives as well as the lives of others. Discipline or “justice” thus helps get us on the right path.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Chapter 9 Excerpt -- Justice

Excerpts so far from God with Ten Words:


We know God is love (1 John 4:8). Scripture also tells us that God does what is right (Gen. 18:25). On the one hand, the “righteousness of God” leads to salvation (Rom. 1:16-7). We should be careful not to see God’s justice solely in terms of judgment or punishment because the Bible also connects it clearly with salvation. Paul in Romans is arguably drawing from passages in Psalms and Isaiah where God’s righteousness is especially shown by bringing salvation to Israel and the world (e.g., Ps. 98:2; Isa. 56:1).

At the same time, the other side of God’s righteousness is the fact that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and human unrighteousness among those who hold back the truth with unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). Notice the reason for God’s action in such cases. It is to release the truth. We are prone to think of God’s wrath in terms of fire and brimstone, and we will come to those images in a moment. However, in Romans 1, God’s wrath mostly plays out by “letting go” of those who have gone astray (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). God lets them experience the consequences of their conscious turning from him (Rom. 1:21, 27).

How do God’s love and justice (in its more prevalent English sense) fit together? I do not believe they contradict each other when properly understood, but it is very difficult for us as humans to hold them in proper balance. It seems that in the end one or the other must ultimately be made the primary characteristic. It seems that we must either locate God’s justice within his love or locate God’s love within his justice.

I believe it is most biblical to locate God’s justice within the context of God's love. God’s primary orientation toward the world is for salvation rather than condemnation. We see this dynamic in John 3:16-17. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” … “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” James 2:13 says that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” If indeed God would prefer for everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), then God’s love and mercy must be the primary attitude of God toward the world, with a good but regrettable reason for justice to be an exception. Again, I am using the word justice here in its more prevalent English sense rather than its much richer biblical sense.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Fragments of Reading

It is my practice to "store" memory of the books I've dabbled in here so I can collect the information at the end of the year. I have not completed the following, but I have read or listened to several chapters of each. Don't have the time to write them up.

For the Body

Fault Lines


Reading While Black 

Another Chapter 8 Excerpt

Excerpts so far from God with Ten Words:


Not everyone has a great father or mother. Some fathers are abusive. Some fathers are distant and uncaring, perhaps even completely absent. A few parents even give their children their every wish and whim, providing no preparation for a harsh world that is likely to smack us around a few times.

It goes without saying that none of these models measure up to God as our perfect parent. Because of the failings of our earthly parents, God sometimes uses people to step into the gaps of our upbringings to help us see more clearly what such relationships can be. As an old song used to say, “God uses people, just like you and me.”

God is not like a parent who is never around or completely absent. That is not to say that we are likely to feel God’s presence every moment of every day. Sometimes, as part of the “growing up” process, God lets us learn to walk in silence. But such silence is temporary. God is a parent who is ever-present, even when we do not feel it.

God is not abusive. We will talk in the next chapter about God as judge. There are pictures of God as wrathful in the Bible, especially in some parts of the Old Testament but also sometimes in the New Testament. Like the pictures of God where God does not seem to know everything or be present everywhere, these are imprecise pictures. As we will see, they are especially examples of God meeting Israel within an extremely harsh cultural framework and also a picture of the consequences of living against the grain of the way God has made the world.

The primary image of God is found in the Old Testament “creed” that is repeated in every part of the Old Testament. “Gracious and compassionate is the LORD, slow to anger and great in steadfast love. Good is the LORD to all and his compassions are over all his creations” (Ps. 145:8-9).

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Chapter 7: God is Good

I decided to post most of the chapter on God's goodness from my project God with Ten Words.

1. God is great! God is good. We already saw in chapter 2 that God is love (1 John 4:8). God desires and acts for the benefit and good of the creation. God desires us to have pleasure more than pain. God is good—all the time. All the time—God is good!

So why have a separate chapter on the goodness of God when we have already seen that God is love? In this chapter we want to address the biggest question, perhaps the biggest obstacle that some people have to faith in God. If God is good, if God is loving, then why is there so much suffering and evil in the world?

This question is sometimes called the “problem of evil” or the “problem of suffering.” As we shall see, those are probably two distinct questions. But they do have the same basic underlying issue. If God is all-powerful, then God is able to stop evil and pain in the world. If God is loving and good, you would think God would want to stop evil and suffering in the world. Then why is there evil and suffering?

There are several different answers that have been proposed. Some suggest that God is not all-powerful. Further, some of the open theists I mentioned earlier would rather think that, because God is love, God cannot force anyone to do anything. I do not agree with this understanding of love.

Then of course some would say that God simply does not exist. They might say not to blame God for something he is not around to do. Interestingly, some in this last category almost act like they are angry at God for allowing evil. “I’ll show you, God, by not believing in you.” But of course, you can’t be angry with God if you don’t think God exists. I suspect many in this category actually do believe and are just upset because God didn’t stop some evil or suffering.

One argument for believing in God is actually the argument from evil. If God doesn’t exist, it suggests, then what basis is there for calling something evil in the first place? If God exists, we have a basis for saying that good exists. Therefore, even if we don’t always understand why God allows evil, we at least can call evil, “evil,” and oppose it.

The classic answer, the one I affirm, is that God always has good reasons when evil or suffering is allowed to happen. We just do not always know what they are. God is good. God could stop evil and suffering. But God has good reasons not always to do so, even though we often do not know what they are.

When I think of this question, I often think of the story of Abraham arguing with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. God knows how the conversation is going to end. God knows how many righteous people are in Sodom and has since the creation of the world. But God walks through the conversation with Abraham for Abraham’s sake. Abraham is a creature in time. God is outside of time and knows exactly how it will turn out without forcing it to go a certain way.

“Will you save Sodom for fifty righteous people?”

“Sure,” God says.

“What about forty?” “What about thirty?” “Twenty?” “Ten?”

Again, God saw this conversation before the foundation of the world. God knew what Abraham would (freely) ask, and God knew what would be answered.

What I find particularly interesting about the conversation is one of Abraham’s questions. “Will not the Judge of all the land do justice?” (Gen. 18:25).

To me, this is an excellent picture of our situation. We know that God is good and will always do what is the best and what is right. The problem is that we do not always know what that is. God does, but we don’t.

2. Our problem, I believe, is that sometimes it doesn’t look like God has done the good and the right. Why did God allow the Holocaust? As I write this chapter, they have just found the body of a young girl who went missing while on a road trip with her fiancé. We have footage of the police intervening earlier with them because they were fighting. It sure seems like she was murdered. Why, we ask, did God allow that to happen when it could have been avoided?

What we can say for certain is that God is good. We can say for certain that God is love. We do not know exactly why God allows such things to happen. But we believe that God has a reason and that the reasons are good. We just don’t see the big picture.

You’ll notice that I said God “allows” such things to happen. There is an important distinction here. There are some Christians who believe that God directs everything that happens in the world. They believe God selects who will be saved and that every single event that happens is according to God’s intricately detailed plan.

The problem with this approach is that it makes God directly responsible for evil. On this understanding, every last detail of every murder that has ever been committed was planned by God down to the last, intricate detail. On this understanding, every last detail of every rape that has ever happened was planned by God down to the last, intricate detail. On this understanding, Satan and demons are but puppets through whom God tortures the universe. God becomes the author of evil on an astounding level.

This is untenable and incoherent. If God is responsible for all evil on that level, then Christianity is a farce.

When we say that God allows evil, we are saying that God has chosen—on God’s own authority—to give the creation some freedom in decision-making. There are likely many things that God makes happen in the creation, things that God determines. But Christians from my tradition believe that God has given some freedom to the creation to make its own decisions.

In chapter 3, we mentioned God’s “sovereignty,” God’s absolute control over the universe. Some Christians believe that God could not give any freedom to the creation without losing his sovereignty. But this claim makes no sense. A parent could let a child make a free decision and still be in control of the situation. “Should I get the strawberry or chocolate ice cream, Mom?” “You decide.” By delegating that decision, the parent does not lose any authority over that situation. The claim simply doesn’t follow.

We are talking about the difference between God’s “directive will” and God’s “permissive will.” God’s directive will relates to things that God determines to be so, that God commands to be so. God’s permissive will refers to what God allows to happen. God is in total control of every situation all the time, but some specific things happen that God does not prefer but allows.

We have talked about God creating the world out of nothing. That fact does imply that God created the possibility of evil. But it seems different to say that God created the possibility of evil for a good reason rather than to say that God dictated the actuality of evil with high intentionality in every case.

And here it is important to note that evil is not a “thing.” As a young man I remember seeing a comedy on television where, at the end, it turns out that evil is actually a lump of black substance something like coal. Evil is not actually like that. It cannot be removed from the human heart in some supernatural surgery. It is not a presence to be removed or an absence to fill. It is not a thing. Evil is a decision, made by a person. It is an adjective that describes intentional choices and actions. An animal cannot do something evil. You cannot accidentally do something evil. Evil requires a mind, an intentional “agent.”

You can of course accidentally “wrong” someone. In that sense, you can unintentionally “sin.” On the one hand, there can be intentions in the background of such sins. You can neglect sleep and have an accident the next day where someone is killed. Such an event probably does not rise to the level of evil, although there is culpability and responsibility involved. There is a category in the law—negligent homicide or criminal negligence.

However, dying in a volcanic eruption invokes the question of pain and suffering but not the question of evil. Tectonic plates are not evil to cause an earthquake that kills you. The problem of evil involves the intentionality of minds. The problem of suffering involves a slightly different question.

So God created the possibility that angels and humans would choose evil, but God does not dictate evil decisions to happen. This raises the question, “How could Adam sin in the Garden if he did not have ‘evil’ inside him?” How could Jesus be tempted if he did not have evil within him?

Pristine temptation happens when a good desire is directed at an inappropriate object. Sexual desire is good in itself. Temptation to sin happens when its object is someone who is different from your spouse. But temptation itself is not sin. James 1:14-15 make it clear that sin is one step beyond temptation. Sin is when temptation “has conceived.”

So Adam desires knowledge. Adam desires to “be fruitful and multiply” or to excel and advance in the world God has given him. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil tempts him and Eve because it is an opportunity for knowledge and, apparently, advancement. But it is an inappropriate object of such desire. Temptation happens. And, in their case, it conceives.

This version of the existence of evil suggests that God does not dictate for specific evil to happen or exist. Rather, God dictated that evil could exist. This difference seems significant. We are suggesting that God could create the possibility of evil taking place and yet be good in God’s intention. However, if it were true that God dictates and commands specific evils to happen, then God would be the author of evil. I do not believe this.

3. The question still remains, however. Why would a good God even create the possibility of evil choice?

The primary answer that Christians have given throughout the centuries is that a world in which we can choose God freely is a better world than one in which we are forced only to do the good. This answer is called the “free will theodicy,” where a theodicy is an explanation for how God can be good despite the existence of evil and suffering. This explanation chiefly goes back to a Christian thinker named Augustine (AD354-430).

Now, going back to chapter one, who are we to say what the best universe is? I resist those who would say, “this is the best of all possible worlds” (e.g., Gottfried Leibniz) or “God couldn’t create a universe where it was better not to be free.” I just would argue that this is not that universe. In this universe, it is better to be able to choose God freely than to be forced to choose the good. Who are we to say what God has done or could do elsewhere?

In this universe, however, most parents would say it is preferable for their children to love them freely than for them to be forced to love them. The same goes for spouses. It is surely preferable for your spouse to be with you because they freely wanted you rather than because someone forced them to marry you.

But if people have those choices, some will choose God and some will not. In the traditional understanding, Adam and Eve had that choice, but they made the wrong one. Christians disagree on the extent to which we still have such a choice. Many traditions believe that only those that God chooses or “elects” can make the right choice. They would typically say that God’s will is “irresistible” in such a case. If God chooses to save you, you will certainly choose God and be saved.

There are certainly verses that sound this way (e.g., Rom. 9). But there are many other verses that do not sound that way (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:4), and God certainly didn’t seem to operate with that philosophy in John 3:16. Even language about God choosing us seems to be conditional in some places (Rom. 11:24; 2 Pet. 1:10). The election would seem to be more collective and a matter of God’s plan than something fixed for individuals apart from their choices.

I breathe a sigh of relief here, because the idea of unconditional election and perseverance seems incoherent with any substantial notion of the goodness and love of God. A loving God would surely want as many people as possible to be saved, as 1 Timothy 2:4 says. The notion that God seemingly arbitrarily numbers us off, whimsically consigning some of us to burn forever and others for bliss hardly makes any sense in the light of 1 John 4:7-8.

By contrast, the Wesleyan tradition holds to a notion known as “prevenient grace.” This is the idea that God reaches out to everyone in their morally disempowered state. God does not force anyone to move in the right direction, but the Spirit empowers those that do. Movement toward God brings more grace, like steadily turning on the light. Those who continue to receive that grace find themselves eventually saved by that grace. In this way, salvation is by grace through faith, not of works, but it is available to all who freely choose it.

This is a book about God, however, not about humanity or salvation. We were concerned about the fact that God allows evil. We wondered how God could be good and allow evil to happen. The “free will theodicy” says it is because there is a greater good. The greater good is the ability for us to choose God freely. But if we are free to choose God, some will not, and evil will result.

We have still not answered many questions. Are humans really free? What does that look like? It sure seems like what we do is very determined by our environment, by our genetics, by our biochemistry. In the scenario above, moral freedom comes by the supernatural power of God. There are other possible answers, such as the idea of a soul that stands to some extent outside the normal cause-effect chain of events that take place in the world. But that is probably a topic for another book. For us it only matters that there are possible answers, not that we have the one, right answer.

Another question is why our default state seems to be one of moral disempowerment or “depravity,” as it is sometimes called. The classic answer is that it is a consequence of the sin of Adam and Eve. In an event in Genesis 3 known as the “Fall,” the power of Sin comes over the physical world (cf. Rom. 8:20-21), including our bodies (Rom. 7:14). We think a little about the question of Adam and Eve below.

4. The free will theodicy gives some explanation for how a good God could allow evil in the world. God gave humanity extensive moral freedom, which is good. But if we have moral freedom, some will make the wrong choice, and evil will result.

A second theodicy gets more at the question of pain and suffering. It is sometimes called the “soul-making theodicy,” and it is older than Augustine’s free will explanation. In the second hundred years of Christianity, a man named Irenaeus suggested something very similar to the exercise slogan—“No pain, no gain.” If you never exercise, your body will get weak and flabby. Resistance is essential to build strength.

In the same way, Irenaeus suggested that the challenges of pain and suffering help us grow morally. Without pain, we sometimes take the gifts of God for granted. Without challenges, it can be difficult to know how deep our moral strength is. “What does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Sometimes suffering can result as a consequence of bad choices. If I eat a certain way, if I behave a certain way, I may be more likely to get sick or have an accident. Consequences make clear the structure of the world God has created. I learn not to touch that hot stove.

A man named C. S. Lewis spoke of suffering as a chisel by which God makes us into something beautiful. It is not a particularly pleasant image, but there may be some truth to it. Some of the most beautiful and significant creations of humanity have come from the depth of pain and suffering that are part of the human experience, like the annoying spec of sand in an oyster that produces a pearl...

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Book Review: Helgoland

The burden of literature is great. I've been reading in a number of books these past few months and like to keep a record here, but it is a challenge to find time to read, let alone to record.

On a drive from Nashville to Indiana to Chicago to New York, I listened through a book I bought. (Now there's the burden of going back to underline) It is Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution by Carlo Rovelli. I like Rovelli. He's brilliant. He can make complex ideas understandable.

He also talks too much. It didn't help that the audiobook reader had a pretentious British accent. By the time I was on the last leg of my journey, I was almost hateful toward the verbosity and audiobook reader. Not good from a business perspective.

I did enjoy the first few chapters. It was perhaps the best presentation of Heisenberg and Schroedinger I've ever heard. But like a Jewish apocalypse, it's uncannily accurate until it gets to the future. Since there is no solution yet to the reconciliation of quantum mechanics with relativity, Rovelli can't explain that to us. 

I don't feel like I have the time to summarize the book as I often do. I don't subscribe to the "many worlds interpretation." I would have preferred the "hidden variables" interpretation in my teens and early 20s but not anymore. 

While I found the last few chapters almost unbearably poetic in a British accent, I think he gave us a glimpse of the solution to the current quantum/relativity conundrum in this sentence:

Quantum theory "is the discovery that all the properties (variables) of all objects are relational, just in the case of speed" (83). I am neither smart enough nor young enough to take this kernal to its conclusion, but I wonder if it is the seed of the next revolution.

There is no such thing as inherent speed. "Speed... is a property that an object has relative to another object" (82). What I take from Rovelli's suggestion is that all the fundamental concepts of matter need to be reformulated in this way as well. There is no position but relative position. There is no mass but relative mass. There is no charge but relative charge.

"Objects are such only with respect to other objects" (88).

So who will work this insight through?