Saturday, October 31, 2020

Book Review: C.S. Lewis Surprised by Joy

In a previous post, I mentioned that I was auditing a course at Houghton on C.S. Lewis, taught by Peter Meilaender. I hope you'll excuse the fact that my previous post lacked some depth of understanding of Lewis. Not that I have it now, but I am continuing to binge read Lewis for this class.

1. In the last three days I rushed through Surprised by Joy, the autobiography of Lewis' conversion. To be frank, I felt a good deal of sadness about Lewis' childhood. I had never thought of Lewis as a tragic figure. But it seems to me that his childhood was quite unhappy in some key respects. 

It got happier it seems in his late teens. Even happier after WW1. I suspect much happier in his 40s. But I feel like I have a better understanding of what feels to me the strange combination of cold logic and Romanticism in Lewis.

2. His mother died when he was nine, almost ten. He did not get along well with his father. His dad seems an odd bird of the sort you would meet in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Melodramatic. Twisted things. I immediately thought of an acquaintance of mine that always seemed to get things twisted in their mind, and once it was lodged, it was very difficult to dislodge.

Both Lewis' initial time at boarding school and his year at Wyvern seemed particularly bad. I was appalled at what seemed to be institutionally sanctioned bullying. Lewis also talks about what he calls "pederasty"--older boys with younger boys in the school. This was around 1910.

Beatings for bad grades on exams doesn't seem like a particularly good teaching technique. Hazing of younger students by older ones is not completely foreign to the US. I consider what happens during pledge week at many universities to be somewhat of this sort. I've even heard of bullying initiations at Christian colleges several decades ago. Unchristian nonsense. 

Lewis' remarks on the pederasty were quite astounding. He paints it as one of lesser evils of Wyvern, certainly less evil than the cruelty of the place. "Cruelty is surely more evil than lust and the World at least as dangerous as the Flesh" (109). He considered those relationships voluntary rather than forced, and the older boys, he suggested, became less cruel in those encounters. "In his unnatural love affairs, and perhaps only there, the Blood [older bully] went a little out of himself, forgot for a few hours that he was 'One of the Most Important People There Are.'" 

And while the love was twisted "Eros, turned upside down, blackened, distorted, and filthy, still bore the traces of his divinity" (110). This is quite an astounding passage. He is clearly not endorsing the practice. He is more indicting the violence of the "public schools" of that day (which in England are actually what we would call private schools). And he is indicting what he considers the hypocrisy of those who rail against such things. He attributes their feelings to "nausea" and disreputableness. "The real reason for all the pother is, in my opinion, neither Christian nor ethical. We attack this vice not because it is the worst but because it is, by adult standards, the most disreputable and unmentionable, and happens also to be a crime in English law. The World will lead you to Hell, but sodomy may lead you to jail and create a scandal, and lose you your job" (109).

Lewis himself was heterosexual, if a bit unromantic in that sense. He mentions a tryst with a girl in what we would be our early high school (68-69). He alludes to a twenty-year period when he lived with a woman twenty years his senior (198). Probably some Freudian things going on there. It started before he was converted and perhaps he felt duty bound to remain with her thereafter, which he did until she died.

Of his comments on pederasty, he confirms the thesis I have held now for twenty-five years that the notion of an orientation or "sexuality" is relatively new in history. Even for Lewis, indeed I would say even for my mother who is 94, same-sex is something people do rather than something they are as a matter of being. Lewis says of the boys at the school, "The Bloods would have preferred girls to boys if they could have come by them; when, at a later age, girls were obtainable, they probably took them" (109).

3. But the above is not the point of the book, of course. The point of the book is to share how he came to faith.

He was raised in the church. Most were in England 1900. He mentions his mentor Kirk (chapter 9) who was an atheist and yet still dressed up for the Sabbath (139). He mentions several atheists in his journey. Lewis allows himself to be confirmed while he is still an atheist because he doesn't want to get into it with his father (161).

Lewis first got a little serious about faith at his first boarding school (33), but it mostly involved fear and duty (34, 171). Indeed, he tries so hard and fails that he somewhat burns out on it. I identified with this in my college days, the tyranny of the oughts. Thou must get up and do devotions before 8. Thou must pray longer and longer of an evening before bed. These are now easy things but not so much to a hyperactive, attention deficient 17 year old male.

At Chartres, the lower school at Wyvern, he lost his faith and became an atheist. He gives a number of causes. One was a lovely matron who introduced him to all sorts of unorthodoxies and, in the process, made him realize there was more spirituality on the market than just orthodox Christianity. Then he was all too happy to be rid of fear and duty. 

Then there was classic mythology. Why should one be ridiculous and Christianity different? Then there was his pessimism, not least assisted by his father's pervasive expectation to end in ruin. "And so, little by little, with fluctuations which I cannot now trace, I became an apostate, dropping my faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief" (66).

4. The title of his autobiography hints of how he came to faith. It is a kind of argument from desire. I've heard people say, "Anyone can be happy, but joy is a Christian word." I always thought that was a little sappy. But I wonder if the idea is ultimately taken from Lewis.

Lewis speaks of Joy as something distinct from happiness and pleasure. For one, in some respects you can get pleasure whenever you want. For him, however, Joy is something that comes on you unexpectedly, something you can't make happen. And Joy is not something you have but a strange paradox of a glimpse of a delight you don't have. 

"The very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting" (166). It is "desire, not possession." I wrote "prevenient grace" in the margin.

It seems related to the glory of the sermon "Weight of Glory" from my last post. Joy is something like a glimpse of glory. Meilaender also connected it to The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader and Reepicheek's final destination. Lewis mentions three times in his childhood that he got a vision of this Joy (16-17).

5. His return to faith began when he was receiving private tutelage at Bookham, from 1914-16. What different times, where a person might go live with a tutor to prepare for Oxford entrance exams. Lewis remembers moments of previous Joy, particularly a spark of delight toward Norse mythology he had at one point (he calls the experience "Northernness").

"Only when your whole attention and desire are fixed on something else... does the thrill arise" (168). He becomes aware of "something other and outer." But it is "the Object, the Desirable," something "further away, more external, less subjective." The title of this chapter is "Check" as God, the "Adversary" at this point, begins to make his move toward Lewis.

A doubt arises in his atheism, a crack. "A drop of disturbing doubt fell into my Materialism" (175). He falls under the spell of Yeats, who is a believer. "I now learned that there were people, not traditionally orthodox, who nevertheless rejected the whole Materialist philosophy out of hand" (175). 

So God moves Lewis toward faith. He fears there might be "a world, behind, or around, the material world." He is drawn to "Holiness" (179). 

6. After the war, Lewis came to Oxford. There God moves him one more step. First, through Henri Bergson, he becomes convinced that the universe must existent. Something has necessary existence. Then through a friend he becomes convinced that there must be something beyond the sensory world. He cannot become a behaviorist and his friend shows him this is the alternative (209). He becomes an Idealist (like most at Oxford at that time--this is the stream of Platonism I mentioned in my previous post.) He comes to believe in the existence of "the Absolute."

Chapter 14 is titled "Checkmate," where he comes "kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction" back to a belief in God (229). "In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England" (228-29). This chapter outlines the steps from belief in the Absolute, to belief in Spirit to belief in God. "My Adversary [God] began to make His final moves" (216).

It begins with the realization that all the people he admires are Christians. First it was a fellow student. Then it dawns on him that so many of his favorite authors are believers--George MacDonald, George Herbert, Chesterton, Johnson, Spenser, Milton. Next he comes to an important philosophical distinction between reality and reflection on reality. Joy is not reflection on joy. It is real.

"A desire is turned not to itself but to its object... it owes all its character to its object" (220). "Far more objective than bodies, for it is not, like them, clothed in our senses, the naked Other, imageless... unknown, undefined, desired" (221). This is what I am calling Lewis' Platonic ontology (and also why I don't really resonate with a lot of Lewis' philosophy). "I accepted this distinction at once and have ever since regarded it as an indispensable tool of thought" (218).

He connects his idealism with the strand of his thought having to do with Joy. Then, since he is teaching philosophy, he connects all these strands with George Berkeley's idealism and calls the Absolute, "Spirit." He's still trying to make this Spirit impersonal. "There was, I explained, no possibility of bein in a personal relation with Him... He projected us as a dramatist projects His characters, and I could no more 'meet' Him, than Hamlet could meet Shakespeare" (223).

A couple further things then close the loop. First, an impactful conversation on the historicity of the Gospels. An atheist friend comments on the resurrection, "Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once" (224). This really gnawed at Lewis. "I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out."

Then there was the importance of an ethic for Lewis. His "Absolute" demanded nothing. "Idealism can be talked, and even felt; it cannot be lived" (226). But this "Spirit" of his began to demand something of him. The dry bones of Ezekiel began to live. "My Adversary [God] waived the point... He only said, 'I am the Lord'" (227). "Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded" (228).

"A young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully" (226).

7. The final chapter is titled, "the Beginning." The previous events had only brought him to Theism. "I knew nothing yet about the Incarnation" (230). He began to go to church again, not necessarily believing in Christ but because he thought it was important to "fly one's flag" in some way (233). He actually was still turned off by the idea of churchmanship.

An intellectual search was going on. The only two religions that fit with his understanding at that point were Hinduism and Christianity (235). He had become convinced of the authenticity of the Gospels. Still, he resisted Christianity. "I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken" (237).

"When we set out [to Whipsnade] I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did" (237). "I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion."

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Dale Carnegie II: "Six Ways to Make People Like You"

In honor of what would have been my father's 96 birthday on October 30, my daughter Sophie are reading his second favorite book (after the Bible), Dale Carnegie's, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Here is my post on Part I.

Part II of is titled, Six Ways to Make People Like You.
Chapter 1: "Do This and You'll Be Welcome Anywhere"
  • "It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men [and women] who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injury to others. It is from such individuals that all human failures spring." Alfred Adler (52-53)
  • "We are interested in people who are interested in us." Publilius Syrus (61)
  • "Become genuinely interested in other people" (62).
Chapter 2: "A Simple Way to Make a Good First Impression"
  • "Smile" (70).
  • "Happiness doesn't depend on outward conditions. It depends on inner conditions" (67... reminds me of Victor Frankl)
  • "The expression one wears on one's face is far more important than the clothes one wears on one's back" (63).
  • "Smile when talking on the phone" (65).
  • "Action and feeling go together... by regulating the action... we can indirectly regulate the feeling" (William James). To put it the way one of my students once did, "Motion brings emotion."
  • "Nobody needs a smile so much as those who have none left to give" (70). Anon
Chapter 3: "If You Don't Do This, You Are Headed for Trouble"
  • The bottom line of this chapter is, "Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language" (79).
  • It seems like my Dad may have talked to me about this sometime, the importance of remembering people's names. I've certainly absorbed it from somewhere. I'll say that my skills at the big picture carry a price on these sorts of unattached details. I remember things in connection to other things. Nevertheless, it is important and I work hard to remember names. I need to work harder.
  • "One of the first lessons a politician learns is this: 'To recall a voter's name is statesmanship. To forget it is oblivion'" (77).
  • You can extend this to the personal touch. I hear that Jim Barnes would sit throughout certain meanings signing letters to donors. I know President Mullen of Houghton sends personal notes to prospective students. Our online advisor sends not only personal notes and tea to each student, but meets with every online student one-on-one and knows their individual names and situations in detail.
Chapter 4: "An Easy Way to Become a Good Conversationalist"
  • "Be a good listener" (88).
  • "People who talk only of themselves think only of themselves" (88).
  • "Listening is one of the highest compliments we can pay anyone" (81).
  • "The ability to listen seems rarer than almost any other good trait" Isaac Marcosson
Chapter 5: "How to Interest People"
  • "The royal road to a person's heart is to talk about the things he or she treasures most" (89).
Chapter 6: "How to Make People Like You Instantly"
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. "Let's obey the Golden Rule" (96).
  • "Always make the other person feel important" (95)... "and do it sincerely" (105).
  • "The life of many a person could probably be changed if only someone would make him [or her] feel important" (98).

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

C.S. Lewis -- "Weight of Glory"

On Friday, a webinar begins online at Houghton College on C.S. Lewis, with Peter Meilaender as our tour guide. I'm participating, so I'll be reading a lot of Lewis over the next 8 weeks. To be honest, I've only read a little of Lewis. I don't connect with him the way many others do.

But I welcome the opportunity to plow through a bunch of his writings. This week's assignment was Surprised by Joy and "Weight of Glory." I'm quite convinced that Surprised is somewhere in my garage in a box, but a new copy should arrive tomorrow. So today, it's a sermon Lewis preached in 1942 at St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford. It had previously been published in 1941 in Theology--"Weight of Glory."

1. I am already picking up that Lewis has some affinities with Augustine, especially the notion of "desire" as fundamental to humanity. I also thought of some of the work of Jamie Smith. I'm not real fond of this framework, but I will try to keep an open mind. I'm more of a "choice" oriented person, seeing humans more as mixtures of competing desires.

Lewis begins by saying that the highest of the Christian virtues is not unselfishness (a negative) but love (a positive). He is surely correct about this. Here's a nice quote: "Our Lord finds our desires not to strong, but too weak" (26).

2. He then embarks on an argument that I don't think works. Our longing for heaven shows that heaven exists. For one, have most humans in history believed in an afterlife, let alone heaven or an afterlife of reward? Lewis should know better as a classicist. For most ancient Greeks and Romans, the afterlife was a mindless existence. The dead Teiresias is a mindless shade until he drinks the blood given him by Odysseus. The Old Testament itself has little conception of a meaningful, personal afterlife.

I fear that I am going to find a bit of the Platonic in Lewis, just as in Augustine. Plato/Anselm/Descartes would say that if I can conceive of it clearly and distinctly, it must exist in some way.

Nevertheless, Lewis (I think) rightly critiques those who would say Christians only are trying to be goody goody so they can get an eternal reward. "The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation" (27). As we eat food in keeping with the goal of satisfying hunger, we live in accordance with a life that fits eternity.

He also mentions a third situation, where a person embarks on a discipline that they only later realize fits hand in glove with its trajectory. I might liken the liberal arts to this (he uses Greek as an example). You don't necessarily see the value of them at first but it can show itself after the spark happens and you find yourself a different person.

On a more profound level, Lewis argues that "a transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny" (29). Meilaender has already pointed out the parallel between Lewis and Augustine's Confessions--"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."

So, Lewis argues, "we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy" (32). So Lewis thinks that "my desire for Paradise... is a pretty good indication that such a thing exists" (33). I think this probably betrays a certain cultural and historical myopia on Lewis' part, as I mentioned above. If you've grown up in a cultures that believe in a blissful afterlife, you probably do have this concept built in. Otherwise, probably not.

3. He interestingly suggests that our specific picture of heaven, including that within the Bible, is symbolic. "Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience" (33). He argues that we are bound to find biblical pictures of heaven puzzling or repellent, because "it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know" (34).

I won't deny that possibility. However, we should also keep in mind that biblical imagery is incarnated communication. There may be aspects of revelation's clothing that is ancient clothing and foreign to us for that reason. We don't want to be like those who argued for slavery from the Bible.

Here's another good quote: "He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only" (34).

4. The rest of the sermon talks about glory. He mentions two aspects to the concept of glory. First there is the idea of appreciation by God. Then there is the notion of brightness.

Lewis, as a self-confessed modern (36), wrestles with the idea that God would show us appreciation. "How we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us" (38). I resonate with this statement, especially the early Schenck. However, I will be interested to see if I think Lewis has too little a sense of God's love for humanity. He gets there in the sermon, but it almost seems tacked on, like it doesn't entirely fit the rest of the sermon.

The Bible comes from an honor-shame world, though. Glory is a much bigger part of it than in our western tradition. Lewis though translates it somewhat into our worldview--"glory means good report with God" (41). He suggests that, when we appear before God and have no pretense of our own value, we will be able to receive God's appreciation purely (37).

The brightness part of glory Lewis likens to us being united with the beauty we see (42).

5. The sermon ends with a turn to our neighbor. The "weight or burden of my neighbour's glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humanity can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken" (45). Thus the title of the sermon.

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal" (46). "Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses."

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Quantum Space chapter 1 -- Special Relativity

Last week I did a post on the Preface of Quantum Space. It tells the story of quantum loop gravity.

Chapter one gives a snapshot of Einstein's theory of special relativity, which he published in 1905. The title is "The Laws of Physics Are the Same for Everyone."

1. The late 1800s left us with two contradictory truths. The first is that the laws of physics are the same in every frame of reference. The second is that the speed of light is the same in every frame of reference. The contradiction comes if space and time are a fixed and absolute background. 

If a duck in a frame of reference is moving and the frame of reference (say the earth) itself is moving relative to an absolute background, then the speed of the duck is its speed plus the speed of the frame of reference. But this doesn't work if the speed of light is the same no matter what. If a spaceship is moving at near the speed of light and someone shines a flashlight from the top forward, Newton would say the speed relative to the absolute background should be spaceship speed + light speed.

But it's not, nearly light speed + light speed = light speed.

2. Einstein suggested that there is no absolute background. Space and time expand or contract as you approach the speed of light. Here's the formula:

As velocity (v) gets closer to the speed of light (c), the apparent length outside a frame of reference gets smaller.

It was also at this time that Einstein formulated his famous E=mc2.

3. This was part 1. But Einstein was assuming constant speed here. What happens if a body is accelerating? And what about gravity?

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Black Swan II -- The "Empirical Skeptic"

A few days ago I started reading, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Here is my look at the Prologue.

Today I read chapter 1, which was semi-autobiographical: "The Apprenticeship of an Empirical Skeptic." Here are some quotes and notes: 

1. He makes an interesting comment on libraries, one that I will use on my wife to justify the fact that I buy too many books. He refers to Umberto Eco's library. "Read books are far less valuable than unread ones" (1). I think the logic is that you need reference material for the certainly-going-to-come unexpected "black swan" events. You need to be ready to find what you need. You can't necessarily plan for them.

2. Taleb was born in Lebanon. He portrays the story of Lebanon as one that successfully coexisted for thousands of years. Then suddenly in the 70s everything fell apart. He ends the chapter saying the same about 1987 when the stock market crashed. He argues that no one could have predicted it. He considers both of them black swan events.

I'm not sure I totally agree with him. Then again, he's probably exaggerating a bit too. Did you notice that the end of double Republican terms that start with significant economic restructuring can end in stock market crashes? Reagan in the 80s. Bush in the 00s. Don't know about Coolidge/Hoover in the 20s. Would it be that if Trump had a second term and we recovered from COVID, we would see a major market crash at the end of his second term?

3. In any case, Taleb talks about what he calls "the triplet of opacity":
  • Data experts think they know what is going on far more than is actually the case. I had a superior in a previous life say, "We are more on top of the data than we've ever been before." Let's just say my internal reaction was, "Right."
  • In the rearview mirror, we make unpredictable events seem like they were causally inevitable. Diaries are much more accurate portrayals of history because they aren't retrospective.
  • Thinking you know what's going on travels in packs. If a bunch of journalists are staying in the same hotel, they will gravitate toward each other.
Here are some quotes from the last part of the chapter:
  • "Our minds are wonderful explanation machines" (10).
  • "History and societies do not crawl. They make jumps" (11).
  • "We are just a great machine for looking backward, and humans are great at self-delusion" (12).
  • "Categorizing is necessary for humans, but if it becomes pathological when the category is seen as definitive" (15).
  • "The great strength of the free-market system is the fact that company executives don't need to know what's going on" (17).

"Sin and the Sovereignty of God in Romans" by Bruce Longenecker

Today we're back to Sin and Its Remedy in Paul, by Nijay Gupta and John Goodrich. Chapter 3 is by my old friend Bruce Longenecker on "Sin and the Sovereignty of God in Romans." Bruce and I overlapped a year at Durham. He was teaching for Cranmer Hall at St. John's College and I was a first year doctoral student. 

1. This chapter functioned, I thought, on a deeper level than just exegesis. Longenecker begins by sketching the basic situation of sin in Romans. At times it reminded me of some of the more existential interpreter-theologians of an earlier day. Paul focuses in the first three chapters of Romans primarily on the "anthropological" dimension of human sinfulness--what in the Wesleyan tradition we have called "sin acts." Then Romans 5-8 shifts to speaking primarily of Sin as a power, the "cosmological dimension of Sin as a discernable and independent entity of some kind" (34). 

Together, Longenecker sees these two "foci" making up the "hamartiological matrix" of Romans. They constitute something like a "two-level drama," "converging in the concrete action of individuals" (35). With regard to the power of Sin, he inclines "toward the view that these powers were objective entities in Paul's mental universe" (37).

2. The precise origins of our sinful situation are seen as vague. We both have a problem of our individual hearts and yet Sin lurks in the cosmological wings. Bruce's chapter catalyzed a parallel that I don't think is unintentional. There is currently a divide, it seems, between those who say the church either should focus on individual sin and responsibility, along with personal salvation OR the church should focus on social justice and the problems of systemic evil.

There is a parallel, it seems to me, in Paul's treatment of sin. Paul is clearly concerned with individual sin--the dominant focus of the first three chapters of Romans. But Paul is also concerned with Sin as an enslaving power over humanity in general (chapters 6-8). Systemic evils like oppressive economic systems or systemic racism are analogous to Sin as a power. Bruce refers to these dynamics as "social Darwinism."

3. The first part of his chapter reaches four conclusions: a) Paul does not give a clear view of sin and Sin's origins, b) nevertheless, Sin has mastery over humanity, c) the power of Sin must be removed, but that is not enough if individual sin is not addressed, and d) human sinfulness must be removed but that is not enough if the power of Sin is not broken.

The chapter ends with some thoughts on God's sovereignty. Satan will be crushed, but Longenecker argues that God does not forcefully crush Satan. Rather, that is the end result. "In the theological discourse of both Jesus and Paul, the modus operandi is self-giving, and the result of that strategy is the conquering of any other strategy and all other power bases" (45). I'm not so sure if this last train of thought fully works with either Jesus or Paul, but it does seem to capture how Jesus and Paul expect us to live in this "in-between" time.

Previous posts

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Book Review: How to Win Friends and Influence People I

My daughter Sophie recently started reading perhaps my Dad's second favorite book (after the Bible): How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. My Dad actually took a Dale Carnegie course in the 50s. I've decided to read it with Sophie in honor of my Dad's birthday. He would have been 96 on October 30. I also sent a copy to my son.

Part I of the book is called, "Fundamental Techniques in Handling People."

Chapter 1: "If You Want to Gather Honey, Don't Kick Over the Beehive"

Here are some quotes:
  • "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people don't criticize themselves for anything, no matter how wrong it may be" (5).
  • "Criticism is futile because it puts people on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself."
  • "Sharp criticisms and rebukes almost invariably end in futility" (11). 
  • "When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion." (13).
  • "Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain--and most do." 
  • "'A great man shows his greatness,' said Carlyle, 'by the way he treats little men.'" 
  • "Instead of condemning people, let's try to understand them." (16)
Chapter 2: "The Big Secret of Dealing with People"
  • Most human wants are eventually gratified except one, what John Dewey called, "the desire to be important" (18).
  • Charles Schwab considered his "ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people the greatest asset I possess" (23). 
  • Andrew Carnegie "praised his associates publicly as well as privately." 
  • Dale Carnegie calls this "the power of appreciation" (25). It is not the same as flattery, which is insincere. "One of the most neglected virtues of our daily existence is appreciation" (27). 
  • Honest appreciation gets results where criticism and ridicule fails. (28) 
Chapter 3: "He Who Can Do This Has the Whole World with Him. He Who Cannot Walks a Lonely Way"
  • "The only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it" (31).
  • "Arouse in the other person an eager want." "How can I make this person want to do it?" (33).
  • "Every act you have ever performed since the day you were born was performed because you wanted something" (31 -- this is called psychological egoism).
  • "If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own" (35).
  • There are several examples of parenting where the parent yells at their children trying to get them to do something without success. The break-through is recognizing something the child wants that gets them to do what they need to do.

The Story of European Philosophy

When I taught philosophy at Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU), the overall curriculum wanted philosophy to be taught from a historical perspective. I think this was not only a practical mistake but a philosophical one. It seemed to be an example of the historical fallacy, the idea that we cannot understand the present without knowing its origins in the past. Rather, I would say that we only need to know the past to understand the present to the extent that the present is causally connected to the past or engages the past. Meaning is overwhelmingly synchronic rather than diachronic.

An easy way to engage philosophy historically was to have the students read Sophie's World. I always told my students that, "As a novel, it is pretty bad, but as a history of philosophy book, it is pretty good." What I meant was that, for the person who is not particularly interested in the history of philosophy, it is a spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.

I think philosophy is of course incredibly useful if taught in a pragmatic way and taught topically. I have both written a Western philosophy textbook and put an entire philosophy course on YouTube.

This post is a new series I'm doing on YouTube on the story of European philosophy. It is the old European philosophy that has so often been the philosophy curriculum of colleges and universities. It is horribly lacking because it does not engage all the other philosophies of the world and history. It is basically the lectures I used to give at IWU on Sophie's World.

1. Socrates and the Natural Philosophers
2. Plato and Aristotle
3. Hellenistic Philosophies

Friday, October 23, 2020

Book Review: The Black Swan I -- Prologue

Actually did read a chapter of a book yesterday but I'm going to post from that book in blocks.

So today's book chapter is from The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It seems to me that my friend Russ Gunsalus has mentioned this book before, but I found it looking to see if anyone had written on something like what I call "the Platonic fallacy."

1. I am a strange mixture of types that anyone who follows this blog will immediately recognize. On the one hand, I make plans. I have done any number of series on this blog, ranging from my ancestry to liberal arts to ministerial leadership to book reviews to my life's story to my Dad's story and so forth. In my current work, I continue to move any number of plans forward bit by bit, little by little.

The other side of me is hyper-flexible. If a better option emerges, I don't feel the need to continue the inferior one. I like to finish what I start, but I like even more doing something better.

This is a book about the unpredictable. "Our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable" (xxxii). Consider this quote: "The payoff of a human venture is, in general, inversely proportional to what it is expected to be" (xxiv). His book reminds me of a quote from the final Harry Potter movie: "Hermione, when have any of our plans ever actually worked? We plan, we get there, all hell breaks loose."

I personally don't at all take his thesis as a reason not to plan. By all means plan. But sit somewhat loosely to your plans and, more than anything, build in space for necessary improvisation. The person/organization that is best able to pivot with the unexpected is the one most likely to prevail.

2. Here is his understanding of a black swan. For thousands of years and millions of observed swans by Europeans, it was assumed that swans were all white. Then Australia was discovered. I have said myself in philosophy class of inductive reasoning something similar to what he says, "One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans" (xxi).

A black swan is 1) an outlier, 2) with extreme impact, 3) for which our human nature leads us to concoct explanations after the fact. It is this last point that connects to Plato. Christians do this with God's will. "What was God trying to teach me by that event?" "That's just too strange a coincidence. God must be trying to tell me something." 

Maybe God was. Or maybe God built chance into the fabric of the universe as a kind of "free will" God gave the creation. Given quantum physics, I believe the later is more often the case.

3. "A small number of black swans explain almost everything in the world" (xxii). He is basically expressing chaos theory here. Any one specific fluke event is highly improbable. But it is almost certain that there will regularly be fluke events in general. "Life," he says, "is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks" (xxiii).

"Black swan logic makes what you don't know far more relevant than what you do know." "The strategy for discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves" (xxv). "I disagree with the followers of Marx and those of Adam Smith: the reason free markets work is because they allow people to be lucky... The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can." You never know what is going to go viral. 

"Certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not. Based on their empirical record, they do not know more about their subject matter than the general population, but they are much better at narrating--or worse, at smoking you with complicated mathematical models. They are also likely to wear a tie" (xxv). The bell curve, he says, is the "great intellectual fraud" (GIF) (xxiv).

4. What he calls, "Platonicity," is the tendency to mistake the map for the territory. In my words, reality is far messier than the neat little mental constructs we come up with. The idea of a "biblical worldview," for example, is usually some kindergartenish "three point outline" that makes those of us of small IQ feel like we have mastered the infinite God. "Platonicity is what makes us think that we understand more than we actually do" (xxx). He calls the gap between messy reality and our Platonic mindsets as the "Platonic fold." That's where black swans come from.

5. A final thought from this prologue is something I have often thought of. When God prevents something from happening, we never find out about it in this life. It is the same when human events don't happen.

I mentioned this at the beginning of the year about COVID, back when New York closed down. If it works, I said, people will complain that we shut down for nothing because the virus would be stopped. Of course we are over 220,000 dead now, so it's clear it's serious.

But I did a thought experiment. What if Clinton had been elected and she had shut down the country immediately in February? Let's say the virus didn't spread like it has, and two months later the country had reopened. In my thought experiment, she would have been voted out for the nonsense of shutting down the country. In the thought experiment, we would have never known the alternative universe where we ended up with 300,000 dead under the current president.

The example Taleb uses is if a legislator had driven a law to put locked doors on the cockpits of planes that went into effect on September 10, 2001. The person might have been disgraced for all that extra expense, no one ever knowing that s/he prevented 9-11.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Quantum Space by Jim Baggott, Preface

1. My book buying is really out of control. My goal, unattainable, is to read a chapter of something each day and blog it. I've bought too many recently to go one by one. I'm going to wander.

Today I read the Preface of Jim Baggott's recent 2018 book, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe. I've read/listened to much of another book of his on the Higgs boson. I've also read more than one book by one of the key players in this book, Carlo Rovelli. It was well written.

Every once and a while I find what I consider a really good science book. The best for me was The Perfect Theory, on relativity. Rovelli's book, Reality Is Not What It Seems, is pretty good. There are others I like. I'm hoping Quantum Space is another winner. I've bought plenty that didn't hold my attention.

2. Quantum loop gravity. I don't like the name. I don't like some of its terms (like "spinfoam"). It doesn't capture the imagination. It's a PR loser.

But God has told me it's right and string theory is wrong. OK, maybe it was that sausage pizza. I do like pasta, but I don't like string theory. Never have. I'm afraid I'm with Leslie Winkle on this one. Reality is loopy.

The basic difference is that string theory sees reality as made up of vibrating strings in something like 10 dimensions. Quantum loop gravity sees reality as made up of space quanta. Neither theory can be experimentally tested or verified.

3. In the Preface, Baggott introduces the issue:

  • "There is not one single piece of observational or experimental evidence to support it" (ix).
  • "The quantum theory of gravity is simply the greatest scientific problem of our age."
The problem is that both the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics are both incredibly successful theories. Yet they are incompatible with each other. Quantum mechanics assumes that spacetime is absolute. Relativity does not. 

If string theorists tend to start with quantum mechanics and move toward relativity, loopies like me start with relativity and move toward quantum mechanics. LQG (loop quantum gravity) assumes that space is quantized. These "lumps" of space then interlink into a fabric of interlocking loops, a "spin network." (xii). The changing connections between these networks give rise to a spin foam. This foam added together gives us spacetime.

I think I could come up with better lingo.

4. Two key players form the heart of the story of the last twenty five years of LQC's existence. I've mentioned Carlo Rovelli. In addition to Reality Is Not What It Seems, I also have his Introduction to Quantum Gravity and Spinfoam Theory. The other player is Lee Smolin. I have a couple of his books too--The Trouble with Physics and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. They are both pretty good with PR.

So I'm excited to read this book.


Monday, October 19, 2020

"Originalism" and Biblical Hermeneutics, Part III

In the last two posts, I've been presenting some basic features of hermeneutics, the philosophy of interpretation. The first post explored the contextual nature of meaning and the ambiguity of language the further removed the interpreter is from its original context.

The second post then looked in greater depth at the dynamics of appropriating a text for a different time and place. Some key points from that post included:

  • Words are polyvalent. Without context or clarification, they can take on multiple possible meanings.
  • The process of canonical collection and consensus formation subtly alters the way a community understands its foundational documents
  • Fundamental principles take precedence over any individual passages that might be in tension with them.
The dynamics of hermeneutics work in general of all interpretation. They may provide some framing insights in relation to the interpretation of a historical document like the United States Constitution.

1. First, the Constitution differs in some respects from the Bible because 1) it was written to us, 2) it is a legal document, 3) it is one document rather than dozens, and 4) it is much closer to us in time and language.

The Constitution is the fundamental legal document of the United States of America. It applies to the government of this country and its citizens. By contrast, most of the Bible is not legal in genre, and the parts that are related to ancient Israel. In that sense, strangely enough, the Constitution is arguably more direct in its application to those who live here than the Bible.

As a single document, as a legal document, we would expect the Constitution's language to be more precise and less susceptible to tension than the books of the Bible. Further, although vast amounts of change have happened these last two hundred forty-four years, we are significantly closer in culture and, to some extent, worldview than we are to the worlds in which the books of the Bible were written.

In short, these factors suggest a greater directness.

2. Second, the principle of contextual meaning applies to the original meaning of the Constitution, just as to any utterance. These words had a meaning in their original context. There were things in the heads of those who ratified these documents that did not make it to the page itself but were how they understood these words.

So when Justice Thomas invokes questions of whether contemporary conceptions were part of the original meaning of the Constitution, he is asking a meaningful question. Clearly when Thomas Jefferson penned that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence, he was neither picturing women nor people of color in the statement.

The "right to bear arms" had a meaning in that time and place. It had a meaning in each of the heads of those who ratified the Constitution. That meaning was a function of that time. We can ask questions like, "What were they bearing arms to do?

3. However, as a collectively passed and ratified document, we cannot point to a single authorial intent. As I understand the judicial philosophy of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, originalism was not for him about the original intent of the framers but about the original meaning a common person at the time a law was passed would give it.

On one level, this is a wise distinction. It recognizes, for example, that the various individuals who voted at the constitutional convention may have had conflicting perspectives about the meaning of what they were signing. Indeed, the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence are neither part of the Constitution. Madison's thought can give us important clues to the general sense of the Constitution, but he was only one person. His thought or Jefferson's or Hamilton's cannot determine the specific meaning of the Constitutional text.

4. As a text, the Constitution is polyvalent. Its words are susceptible to multiple possible meanings. As a legal document, its language is tighter than most speech. But we still find plenty of debate over how to apply it.

Much of the debate has to do with what it doesn't say, gaps that contribute to its polyvalence. For example, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Does this statement mean that I should be able to have as many "arms" as I want? Does it apply to people with a criminal record? Does it mean it violates my rights to require a background check or a delay of purchase?

The text doesn't address these questions. Interestingly, with the Bible we sometimes find two approaches to things the Bible doesn't say. The Church of Christ, non-instrumental, would say that if the Bible doesn't mention a particular instrument, it should not be used in church. The Church of Christ, instrumental would say that if a particular instrument is not prohibited in the Bible, it can be used in church.

To some extent, the rulings of the Supreme Court are line calls on the gaps in the Constitutional text. Like applying the Bible to today, situations arise that simply did not exist at the time the Constitution was created. If we take the right to bear arms, the sophistication of modern weaponry goes beyond anything the first Americans could have imagined. Similarly, we can ask whether the very concept of a militia is a bit redundant given the police and the army.

5. In such cases, the Supreme Court has to improvise. It has to discern what the general principles and purposes were, the framework, and extend that trajectory to new situations. No legal system can account for every eventuality. It does no service to the American people for the Supreme Court to take the approach, "If it says nothing specifically, we will say nothing specifically." The job of the Supreme Court is decide cases arising under the Constitution. It is the nature of appropriation to extend the underlying foundational principles to new situations.

Not to do so is to allow situations that violate the spirit of the Constitution to prevail simply because the Constitution does not specifically spell out that situation. Like the Bible, not to make such an extension is to give the upper hand to the forces that are actually against the spirit of the Constitution.

Yes there is an amendment process. This was incredibly wise on the part of the framers. It is good that it is really hard to change the Constitution.

These amendments sometimes have supplemented the Constitution in an important way (e.g., no third presidential term, removal of president). At other times they have corrected flaws in the original framing (giving women and former slaves the right to vote). One might argue that there are times when the trajectory of the Constitution should not be a matter of debate but it is. In such cases, an amendment "seals the deal," so to speak.

6. In my opinion, these dynamics make the accusation of "legislating from the bench" somewhat simplistic. Ideally, an amendment would put all such issues to rest. But filling in blanks as best they can based on the fundamental principles of the Constitution is exactly what the Supreme Court is for.

Take the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act. Its intended purpose was not to limit free speech but to maintain a system where elections could work the way they are supposed to work. An amendment would be helpful, but the Supreme Court would not have been legislating from the bench if they had upheld it, in my opinion.

This brings up another issue not dissimilar to the Bible. The freedoms in the Bill of Rights sometimes come into tension with each other. My religion might lead me to want to shut you up, but you have a freedom of speech. What if my speech were treasonous? Does my speech extend to inciting the overthrow of the government? Line calls must be made because none of these rights are absolute--we have to make exceptions when they crash into each other. We have to decide which takes precedence in that particular situation. The Supreme Court is the place to do it if laws are passed that do not appropriately negotiate these competing values.

7. Lastly, there are consensus understandings that have developed over time, as with the biblical canon. Various rulings of the Supreme Court establish precedent. We call it stare decisis, "decision to stand." It keeps us from constantly reinventing the wheel or constantly jerking back and forth.

This seems a sound practice in general, for the Supreme Court largely to leave previous decisions intact. There have been some great and appropriate reversals. Brown vs. the Board of Education rightly recognized that Plessy vs. Ferguson had done nothing but subvert the fundamental principles of the Constitution with its "separate but equal" concept.

And some rhetoric about "strict constructionism" has hid some not so admirable motives. States rights was not the underlying cause of the Civil War. Rather, it was the way the South tried to perpetuate slavery. Similarly, the concept of states rights around the civil rights movement was really about not wanting to be told to integrate. In these cases, the Supreme Court was rightly enforcing the principles of the Constitution with regard to states that did not want to treat people of color equally.

These decisions brought movement toward fulfilling the fundamental principles of the Constitution. By contrast, Constitutional "fundamentalism" plays to the past deficiencies of American culture in the past. It is like the non-instrumentalists who say, "We can't play those instruments because the Constitution doesn't mention them."

I am suggesting an "appropriation" view. We "work out our Constitution with fear and trembling" in situations the original framers could have never imagined. It is not only a sound hermeneutical perspective. It is the one that leans most toward justice, in my opinion.

"Originalism" and Biblical Hermeneutics, Part II

Yesterday I wrote some thoughts on the original meaning of the books of the Bible. These included:

  • The biblical texts had original meanings.
  • Those meanings were a function of what words meant at the time of writing, not a function of how we might use similar words today.
  • The first meanings of the Bible were things God was saying to them, in their thought categories (not to us in ours).
  • God sometimes inspires additional meanings to biblical texts that were not the meanings they had originally.
In Part II today, I want to expand on the question of application of the Bible in light of the above. And, you guessed it, tomorrow I want to think a little about how we might interpret and apply a document like the United States Constitution in the light of hermeneutics.

1. Once a "text" is uttered, it becomes detached from its author's intent to some degree. This happens when you receive an email. This happens when you read a quote all by itself.

If we share a significant amount of context with the author of the text, there's a fair chance we can come close to understanding what the author was getting at. However, you have no doubt seen enough threads on Facebook to know that even what seem to be the most obvious of comments can be misinterpreted, especially tone. If you've ever preached a sermon, you may know that people often take something quite different from your words than you intended.

Words are polyvalent. Without context or clarification, they can take on multiple possible meanings. I truly believe that the Holy Spirit uses this aspect of the Bible to use it as a living word. The Holy Spirit helps us hear in the words what God wants us to hear, even though these meanings are often not meanings that the original authors would recognize.

This dynamic also applies to groups and communities of Christians, and it especially happened prior to the historical study of the Bible. Let me pick a sensitive topic--women in ministry and leadership. There is a wealth of biblical reasons to support women in such roles. There are the examples of individuals like Deborah, Huldah, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, Phoebe, Lydia, and so forth. There is the theological framing of Acts 2:17, which anticipates that women will prophesy in the age of the Spirit, something we see in Acts 21:9 and 1 Corinthians 11. Galatians 3:28 also gives a general principle.

But there is one verse that sounds like it is on the opposing side, 1 Timothy 2:12. Some Christians put almost the entire weight of a case against women in ministry on this one verse, ignoring all the other passages and instances. In my opinion, while the weight of Scripture clearly points toward the full empowerment of women for ministry and leadership, these voices in the end put all their eggs in the basket of this one verse.

The verse does sound like it's on the other side of the Wesleyan position, my tradition. I call such verses, "naughty verses," and every tradition has them. Let's face it, the Bible is a collection of dozens of books by many different authors written in three languages to multiple audiences to address multiple situations over the course of a thousand years. Such a library is bound to have material that at least sounds like it conflicts with other material!

So I have heard a number of different explanations in my circles for what 1 Timothy 2:12 really meant. These explanations build on the polyvalence of its words. For example, I believe that it is not addressing women and men in general but wives and husbands, a possibility of the Greek. My point is not to argue over its meaning. My point is that denominations get where they sense the need to go by way of the multiple possible meanings of biblical texts.

2. When we look at the Bible as a canon, as a collection of inspired and authoritative texts, we inevitably look at it in a way that is somewhat loosened from its original meanings. On the one hand, bringing diverse texts together into a canon changes their overall context and thus can push in different directions than their original meanings. 

For example, take the placement of the New Testament after the Old Testament. The Old Testament gives us no reason to think that sacrifices would ever stop. The Old Testament gives us no reason to think that the food laws would not be binding at some point on the people of God. Indeed, the Old Testament itself gives us no reason to think that it would one day become an "Old" testament, not when read in context.

But when the New Testament is placed after the Old Testament, we end up seeing an altered storyline, one in which the Old Testament is building to the New Testament. "The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed." The anticipation of a Davidic king in the Old Testament was always about an earthly king of a small earthly kingdom. In the New Testament, every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is cosmic Lord.

Further, there are collective meanings to the Bible that reflect a kind of consensus Christians reached after several centuries of conversation. It is no coincidence that it was after Christianity became both the favored and then the official religion of the Roman empire that 1) the text and contents of the Bible and 2) the orthodox beliefs of Christendom became a matter of agreement. It was not settled that the current 27 books of the New Testament are the right books until about the time that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. 

It was also about that time that the text of the Bible used in worship stabilized. For over the next 1500 years the basic text that made its way into the King James Version was used. 

And the Nicene Creed became the official creed of Christendom in AD381. This creed locked our current understanding of the Trinity into place. The century thereafter would do the same for the dual nature of Christ as both fully human and fully divine. This is now how we read the texts of the New Testament. You might say it is now locked in as their canonical meaning.

When we read a text like Genesis 1:27 today--"Let us make humanity in our image"--it is natural for us to hear the Trinity in those words. Was the author of Genesis thinking that? Not a historical chance. The author of Genesis was more likely thinking of the heavenly hosts that show up at various parts of the Old Testament (cf. Ps. 82). But from a canonical perspective, there's nothing wrong with reading the verse that way--we know more than Moses did about God because we have the benefit of much additional revelation.

3. So the process of canonical collection and consensus formation subtly alters the way a community understands its foundational documents. 

This is an important process because documents otherwise become problematic as contexts change. And contexts always change. The ability of communities to subtly alter their sense of foundational documents in keeping with changes in context allows those documents to remain pertinent.

For example, there are laws in the Old Testament that Christians have almost forgotten were there. "You will not put on a garment made of two different materials" (Lev. 19:19). It's not entirely clear what the purpose of this verse was in ancient Israel. Christians would generally consider it today to be part of the "ceremonial law" that is no longer binding today.

Scripture itself--most significantly Jesus himself--has given us the key. The whole of the Law, Jesus said, can be summed up in "love God, love neighbor" (e.g., Matt. 22:34-40). We can hold up this principle to the whole of Scripture as a key to discern how specific instruction plays out in our contexts. This is of course a fearsome task we must do together. Some will try to use hermeneutics as an excuse to get out of God's will. But there is no way around it. We have to do it.

Matthew 5 gives us some case studies. Jesus holds up the love principle to several Old Testament laws and shows us how that principle helps us appropriate the Law. In some cases, it intensifies an Old Testament law. We not only must not murder or commit adultery. Love indicates we must not hate or lust.

However, in other cases the Old Testament Law, appropriate for its context, is redirected. Divorce was freely allowed in ancient Israel. But the love principle severely limits it in the New Testament. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is abandoned altogether on an individual level. Any tension between biblical texts is given its tie-breaker. The key principles take precedence over any individual passages that are in tension with them.

4. Even with the key principles, we are not so much interested in the specifics of what was in each author's head as with the general principles that made it into the canon. For example, if Paul had had a son--given the culture of his day--he might very well have beat him in a way we would consider abusive today. If so, Paul would not have seen such punishment unloving. In fact, when Proverbs 23:13 talks about beating a son with a rod, it likely pictures something that would get you arrested today.

The principle Christians would apply today in keeping with the love command is to discipline your children in the sense of training them. The form that such training takes will not likely look the same as such training in biblical days. That is completely appropriate. Doing exactly what they did is not actually doing what they did if it means something different in our context.

We thus look to the "why" of Scripture more than the "what." Must we "greet the brothers with a holy kiss" (1 Thess. 5:26)? A holy handshake accomplishes much the same purpose. And in the time of COVID, an elbow bump works too.

If we do not realize that revelation is always incarnated into the worldviews and paradigms of its original recipients, we will inevitably make God look stupid or become oppressive. John says every eye will see Jesus coming in the clouds in Revelation 1:7. We do not usually realize that we have subtly reinterpreted this verse from how John himself pictured it. He thought the earth was flat, so no doubt pictured everyone on a flat earth being able to look up and see Jesus.

5. God does not want us to apply Scripture in an "originalist" way. God wants us to work together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to re-contextualize its teaching into our paradigms and our worldviews. We typically do it without realizing it. We discipline our children, but we do not beat them with rods. We do not stone a rebellious son to death or put those who practice homosexuality to death (Deut. 21:18-21; Leviticus 20:13). 

This is the problem with Christian fundamentalism. It neither knows how to read the Bible fully in context and in its partial reading mistakes ancient context for the incarnated revelation. It thus mistakenly tries to make our world into the ancient Near East or ancient Mediterranean world, generally missing the essential task of contextualization. It thus makes God look stupid (by mistaking ancient worldviews for God's perspective) and then ends up trying to enforce the wrong points (aspects of the text that relate specifically to that time). 

Indeed, it can end up using the Bible to serve the Devil's purposes rather than God's! This is what happened to many Pharisees, whose "high view" of Scripture became a tool of oppression. This is what happened to those who strongly argued from the Bible in favor of slavery in the early 1800s. It is happening right now in terms of those who would prevent women from obeying the Holy Spirit into ministry. 

When Paul says that the head of the wife is the husband (1 Cor. 11:3), he was saying exactly what Aristotle said in his Politics. There was nothing uniquely Christian about that statement at all. Saying that a wife should submit herself to her husband (e.g., Col. 3:18) was something you might find in the writing of any ancient moralist.

So what is uniquely Christian are those points where Paul elevates the worth and value of the wife. When Paul says, "Nor is the man independent of the woman" (1 Cor. 11:11) or "The husband does not have authority over his body but the wife" (1 Cor. 7:4), those are points to take notice because they are counter-cultural. 

If 1 Peter 3:1 uses wifely submission as a tool of witness in that world and context, it would have exactly the opposite impact in our world today. It would drive people away from the gospel and indeed give free reign to bad behavior on the part of husbands. We have to discern the original point, not always apply the original specifics.

6. I end today's post with an illustration from modern Jewish practice. You cannot have a pepperoni pizza in Old City Jerusalem. Why? Because you must not "boil the kid in its mother's milk" (Deut. 14:21). It is not exactly clear what this command was about originally. We can guess. My guess is that it was addressing some Canaanite religious practice.

But it is certain it had nothing to do with having cheese with meat. Jewish tradition has tried to carry this practice forward but its original sense is pretty much lost. Modern practice is neither originalist nor meaningful, except as a tradition. This is the problem that time and change of context inevitably create. Failure to come to grip with such change only results in strangeness at best, oppression and evil at worse.

Tomorrow we finish this series by looking at how these hermeneutical principles relate to the interpretation and appropriation of a historical document like the US Constitution.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

"Originalism" and Biblical Hermeneutics, Part I

 1. Believe it or not, there is a subject I have spent more time pondering in my time as a New Testament scholar than the book of Hebrews. In fact, I suspect it is the one topic I have thought more about than any other. Hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is the philosophy of interpretation. What is also interesting is that, while I hope I know a number of things about Hebrews, I am actually quite confident about a number of features of hermeneutics. Don't tell the Hebrews guild, but I privately waiver on a number of interpretations of Hebrews for which I might be known. But I have few if any second guesses of my positions on hermeneutics.

2. For example, the biblical texts had original meanings, and those meanings were a function of what words meant at the time of writing. Words do not have meaning apart from contexts. Without human minds interpreting them, they are collections of squigglies. A smoke signal is just puffs of smoke without a human mind interpreting it. A set of flashes from an aircraft carrier is just a series of light pulses without human minds interpreting it.

And both the people generating those signals, those signs, and the people interpreting them do so as a function of potential meanings within their cultures, subcultures, and situations.

3. What of God, you say? Didn't God write Scripture so that the original meanings are God-meanings and not author-meanings? Aren't those meanings for all time and thus for us?

Here I would say there are two-possibilities, both of which I believe are true. First, the first meaning of the Bible in almost if not every instance, was God saying something to them. It would be rather narcissistic to say differently, wouldn't it? "It may say it's to the Corinthians but God was really writing to me." Or, "Revelation wasn't understood until John Darby decoded it in the 1800s so that Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye could finally tell us its real meaning." But surely the seven churches of Asia, to whom it was actually written, thought they knew a little something about what it meant?

"Ken, you're not getting it. It was written to all people in all places--to them and us." No, I get it. That's just not how language works on a specific level. Cultures change. Points of reference change. We share some things in common with other humans because, as humans, we know about eating and drinking and death. There can be similarities either on a broad or narrow level that make it possible for us to get the general picture.

But the specifics of the Bible's first meaning--assuming it means what it says when it says it's written to ancient Israelites, Romans, and others--was first and foremost a meaning that actualized the potential of the range of meanings words had in their time, not ours. We define our words too as an actualization of the potential meanings of words in our times as a function of our cultures, subcultures, and situations. So the person who says, "It was written for all time," is actually saying, "No one could really understand this text to its fullest extent until I came along."

Let me punctuate this point with the following thought. There will almost always be overlap between what the words meant in that context and what it might mean out of the blue to me. An English translation of course is going to pick English words that maximize that potential overlap. But this is a matter of overlap of their meanings and our meanings, varying degrees of overlap. It is not a matter of "It means the same thing for all time." 

To the extent that there are points where the original meaning just doesn't really exist in my world, the hermeneutical point is made. It meant what it meant as a function of their context. It does not mean the same thing for all time. If my off-the-cuff understanding overlaps, it overlaps because my world shares something in common with their world.

4. Another possibility is that God "impregnated" more than one meaning into biblical texts so that it had a first meaning for them but other potential meanings for other people throughout history. Certainly God knew all the countless ways that people would read the Bible, including people not even born yet (if the Lord tarries). I suppose we could have a theological debate about whether God put those potentialities there intentionally or whether God simply dances with us within our own understanding. Maybe for God these two options are the same.

No matter. God does sanction different interpretations of the same words even within Scripture. In its original context, Isaiah 7:14 was a promise to King Ahaz that a virgin would conceive her very first time having sex and that before the child was old enough to tell the difference between right and wrong, the two kings troubling him from the north would be demolished by the king of Babylon. This happened.

Then the Holy Spirit made these same words jump out at Matthew in relation to the virgin birth in Matthew 1:23 in relation to Jesus. Isaiah would have had no idea. That's just not at all likely part of the "original" meaning of Isaiah 7:14. It is a "fuller sense," a "spiritual meaning," a "theological interpretation." God sometimes inspires additional meanings to biblical texts that were not the meanings they had originally. God does this numerous times within Scripture itself, and I believe God does it today when we are reading the Bible.

Let me use the contemporary practice of lectio divina as an example. Lectio divina is the practice of meditating on a passage of Scripture. You read it and then pause to listen to God. It is very much in my mind like the devotional reading that so many of us grew up with. You do morning devotions, think about the Scripture, then pray. The difference is that lectio divina is more methodical, more repetitive, and probably allots more time to listening.

But here let me make a claim. Lectio divina is not about God revealing the original meaning of Scripture to you. Lectio divina is about hearing God speak to you through Scripture today. If you don't know what words could mean at the time a text was written, you're not at all likely to come up with those meanings through lectio divina. Lectio divina is about hearing God speak to you now through the words. It is about a spiritual meaning God might give you for your life today.

5. Let me conclude this first post with a syllogism:

  • Every word (or nearly every word) of the Bible was addressed to people who lived 2000-3000 years ago.
  • They understood the meanings of the words in terms of what words meant in their historical, cultural, and situational contexts.
  • Those historical, cultural, and situational contexts were not only different from ours but, in many cases, dramatically different from ours.
  • Therefore, the Bible was not originally written in terms of my historical, cultural, and situational contexts.
  • Therefore, if I am not aware of this difference, if I don't know points at which the differences are significant, I will likely misinterpret the Bible in terms of what it actually meant. I will likely "misinterpret" it--in terms of its original meaning--often without even knowing it. 
But this is not to lose hope. The Spirit meets us where we are in our reading of Scripture. The Spirit can give new but slightly different (sometimes dramatically different) senses of the words for us, meanings that we need for our contexts and situations. The Spirit gets us where we need to go.

Also very significant, we should read the Bible in communities of faith, where the collective wisdom of the Church and a collective sense of the Spirit can help us. Sometimes our "not original" readings of Scripture aren't the Holy Spirit but that breakfast burrito we had. Reading the Bible together helps us discern what is the Spirit and what is not.

Part II tomorrow.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Revelation 7 Explanatory Notes

Douce Apocalypse Manuscript
Bodleian Library, Oxford
7:1 After this, I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth so that wind might not blow upon the land nor upon the sea nor upon any tree.
In the first two sequences of seven in Revelation, there is an intermission of sorts after the sixth in the sequence. Then the seventh reflects the accomplishment of final judgment and salvation. This chapter gives us the first such intermission. After six images of impending judgment, we get our first glimpse at those who will be saved from the final wrath of God.

God reveals himself within the categories of those to whom he speaks and moves them from there. Revelation is "incarnational"--it takes on the flesh of those who receive it. We likely have an example of incarnational revelation in this verse. We know today that the earth is more or less a globe, a sphere. In John's day, they pictured a relatively flat earth. [1] Indeed, if John were to draw the "land," the earth, he apparently would have drawn it with four corners, as something like a square.

We rightly take this statement metaphorically, even though John may have taken it literally. The point is that the whole earth, the whole "land," is involved. The holding back of the winds likely symbolizes the fact that the final judgment will not commence until the redeemed are removed from the earth. The angels hold back the winds of judgment for just a bit more.

2. And I saw another angel descending from the rising of the sun having the seal of the living God and he cried with a mighty voice to the four angels to whom was given to them to harm the earth and the sea, 3. saying, "Do not harm the land nor the sea nor the tree until we should seal the servants of our God on their foreheads."
One key take-away from this chapter is that those who are "sealed" by God will not endure the full wrath of God in judgment. They will undergo hardship and tribulation to be sure, but the consummation of judgment is for those who refuse to repent before the Lord. The imagery requires the old creation to pass away before the new creation fully comes. The land and the sea and the trees will be harmed in the transition between the old and new creation. But the redeemed will not be part of that conflagration.

The seal on the foreheads of the redeemed, of those who truly serve God, is not a literal seal any more than the mark of the beast in Revelation 13 is a literal mark. The point is that God knows who truly belongs to him. Those who truly belong to him will undergo tribulation but they will be saved from the final judgment.

4. And I heard the number of those having been sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand having been sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 5. from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand having been sealed, from the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad, twelve thousand, 6. from the tribe of Asher, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh, twelve thousand, 7.from the tribe of Simeon, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar, twelve thousand, 8. from the tribe of Zebulon, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand having been sealed.
It is virtually certain that 144,000 is a symbolic number. One hundred forty-four is a perfect square of twelve, the number of the tribes of Israel. These tribes are all enumerated here. 144,000 is a perfect number, symbolically fitting a perfect, very large amount.

We should also take the distribution of the twelve tribes as symbolic. After all, ten of these tribes were largely destroyed by Assyria in 722BC. Nor does John likely have in mind Israelites prior to Christ, since this is a chapter relating to those who come out of the time of great tribulation (7:14). Here is a warning not to see Revelation as entirely about John's day, for it would take some time to get to 144,000.

It is tempting to see these 144,000 as those ethnic Israelites who believed on Jesus during the tribulation time from the death of Christ to Jesus' second coming. On the basis of chapter 7 alone, it would be easy to see this group as distinct from the group in 7:9 from every people group. This is the "dispensationalist" interpretation that arose in the 1800s. It sees the 144,000 as Israelites who fulfill God's promises to Israel in the Old Testament, while those from 7:9 are Gentiles.

As tempting as this interpretation is, the later mention of the 144,000 in Revelation 14:1-7 steers us away from it. In that later passage, the 144,000 would appear to be all of those who are saved from the earth. In that passage, the message is to all the peoples of the earth (14:6).

We thus see John incorporating those Gentiles who become servants of God into Israel. This is not the obliteration of Jew and Gentile into a third race. It is the incorporation of non-Jews into Israel as the people of God. Those who worship God and the Lamb become part of the twelve tribes of Israel.

9. After these things I saw and, behold, a great crowd that no one is able to number from every ethnos and tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb, having been clothed in white robes and with palm branches in their hands.
Salvation is for everyone. No one is eliminated from the possibility of salvation because they speak a certain language, have a certain color or family, or come from a certain place. Everyone is invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. 

I have struggled to translate the word ethnos. We might render it as "nation," but that is bound to lead us to read modern nation-states into the text. A tribe is a group of people of similar ancestry. An ethnos is very similar but on a larger scale, possibly with more diverse elements within it. The word ethnos in the plural can refer to the Gentiles, the "nations" of non-Jews.

Israel had tribes within it, as mentioned in this chapter, but it might be considered one ethnos. We could say the same for the Greeks. Ancient Athens had tribes but the Greeks as a whole were an ethnos. The people groups mentioned in Acts 2:9-11 were ethnoi. "People-groups" is not a bad translation, although "peoples" appears in the verse as well. Perhaps we can think of ethnoi as including some mix of peoples beyond a pure people-group.

There is a principle here that can be difficult for us humans to hear. God is not an American. There is something very strange and not quite right about a US flag on a church platform. God does not favor the "white" American Christian over the brown illegal who snuck across an imaginary line that some secular nation drew there, as if people truly decide the boundaries of God's earth. America is not the new Israel, despite what some Puritans may have wanted to believe.

God's kingdom cuts across all visible human organizations and societies, including the church. Within the visible church are those who truly have the seal of God on their foreheads and those who have the mark of the beast on their right arms. There are Russians and Iranians who are servants of God and there are descendants of the English Pilgrims who are not.

One can go a long time without realizing that your congregation all looks exactly the same as the dominant cultural group of your tribe or ethnos. Once you notice, it can become increasingly uncomfortable that everyone looks the same, especially if there are many others who are different nearby. We might like to think that anyone would be welcome, but is it true?

Sometimes an all white church can be situated right in the middle of a rich cultural diversity of peoples and completely ignore them. In the mid-twentieth century, people in northern white churches moved to the suburbs to get away from increasing diversity in urban spaces because of the "great migration" of African-Americans from the south. These were families fleeing a space controlled by Satanic Jim Crow practices and laws. For a while, people in those urban white churches would drive in for miles past people who would not have felt welcome at the church in their neighborhood. Eventually, they moved the churches to the suburbs as well.

Sometimes when urban white churches actually did outreach, they assumed that those surrounding people were not believers. Many of them had churches of their own to which the upper middle class white church was oblivious. Black Christians did not simply wait to be included in the white churches where they were not welcome after the Civil War. They founded their own churches and denominations.

God knows nothing of these barriers. Martin Luther King Jr. once mused that Sunday morning was the most segregated moment of the week. But there is no race test in the kingdom. There is no status test in the kingdom. You do not have to show God an ID to prove you belong because he has put his seal upon you himself.

Those who belong among the rescued wear white robes. Their hearts are pure and they have lived in obedience to the King. They are servants whose palm branches show that they know who the true Lord is, and it is not Caesar.

The word "standing" is in the perfect tense. It suggests that they remain standing before the throne and the Lamb. They came to stand and they continue to stand. There seems a sense of finality to their destiny. Those who have opposed God will fall, but they stand. The throne refers to God (the Father) in a reverential way by referring to where his presence "sits." And the Lamb of course is Jesus.

10. ... and crying with a mighty voice, saying, "Salvation [belongs] to our God, who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb.
These individuals are those who are "saved." This expression has become so common that we talk of "getting saved" when we first become a Christian. There's nothing wrong with that use of the word, but it obscures the fact that the Day of Salvation is most literally the day that we escape the wrath of God in judgment. The Day of Wrath is the Day of Judgment, and thus the Day of Salvation is the day that we do not undergo that judgment. To say we have been "saved" before then is a shorthand for "If I continue in faith, I am guaranteed escape from the wrath of God on the Day of Judgment."

All those who have escaped the judgment, from every people on earth, thus proclaim in the throne room that salvation is a property of God and the Lamb.  It's what they do. This is what Paul primarily means when he speaks of the "righteousness of God" in Romans 1:16--"It is the power of God leading to salvation to everyone who has faith."

11. And all the angels have stood around the throne and the elders and the four beasts, and they fell before the throne on their faces and they worshiped God, 12. saying, "Amen. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength [be] to our God forever and ever."
If those who have just been saved "have stood" before the throne, the angels and beasts possibly representing the creation have been standing for much longer. The perfect tense is used once again, indicating that they remain standing before the throne. God sits. They stand, an indication of God's importance and their service. The elders, again, may represent the wise of humanity throughout history, while the saved are those who have served God since the Lamb was slain.

And they fall on their faces, like Isaiah in Isaiah 6. Salvation is accomplished. All is now going to be right in the cosmos, for the first time since the creation. Everything will bow from now on before God, every knee.

So they worship God (the Father). The "Amen" indicates solemn agreement and finality. The terms of this doxology are honor terms that fit perfectly within the honor-shame world of the ancient Mediterranean. "Blessing" is the favor of one's group, and "glory" is the honor of one's group. Of course the blessing of God and the "glory of God" (cf. Rom. 3:23) are infinitely greater coming from God. But the creation cannot but give what little favor and glory it can to its Creator. "Honor" is the esteem of others, the acknowledgement of value and worth.

Wisdom is an obvious property of God, as is strength and power. God has always possessed them and will always possess them. Wisdom is not only knowledge but the ability to process and use that knowledge in the right way. Strength and power belong to God because God is omnipotent and can do anything.

In the end, "thanks" are clearly in order. God has saved his people from destruction. Not because they deserve salvation but because of God's mercy and their repentance.

13. And answered one of the elders, saying to me, "These having been clothed with white robes--who are they and from whence have they come?" 
The elder obviously knows, and John does not. It is a rhetorical question meant to lead us to the key insight on what is going on in this event. The great crowd is wearing white robes, which indicates their purity and righteousness.

14. And I have said to him, "My lord, you yourself know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes and they made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
This is the verse from which the expression, "the Great Tribulation" comes. Many will be acquainted with the concept of a seven year period at the end of time just before the judgment. According to this late nineteenth century idea of "dispensations," an evil figure called "the Antichrist" will arise and take control of the world. Israel will be re-established and the temple will be rebuilt. The figure will be so convincing that even many Christians will believe he is the Christ.

This interpretation and interweaving of biblical passages came from an Irish man named John Darby, who thrived in the mid-1800s in Britain. It is quite an ingenious system. However, it runs roughshod over the differences between the various passages it interweaves. For example, the word "antichrist" is never used in the Bible of a single individual. Darby conflated the term from 1 John with the beast from the sea we meet in Revelation 13 and the "man of lawlessness" from 2 Thessalonians 2.

Similarly, the book of Revelation never speaks of a seven year period. We will find the symbolic use of three and a half years in Revelation 12, but Revelation never compounds this number. Darby conflated this number with the seven year "weeks" of Daniel 9. His hypothesis was that one last week of seven years was missing, to be finalized before the judgment.

But Revelation 7:14 gives no time period for this great tribulation. It seems to refer rather to the difficult times of John himself, the time awaiting the return of Christ in salvation and judgment since he left earth. The word tribulation has already been used more than once of John's own day. In Revelation 1:9, John addresses his churches as individuals who share in the same tribulation he is undergoing. He tells the church at Smyrna that he knows their tribulation (2:9-10).

Accordingly, the time of tribulation, like the time of millennium, is now. We are in the tribulation. It is the period between the effective, saving work of the Lamb and his return in judgment. This picture of the rescued is the same picture of the saved that we will see in later presentations in the book of the same scene from a different symbolic perspective.

15. For this reason they are before the throne of God and they worship him day and night in his temple, and the one sitting upon the throne will spread his tent over them.
In the book of Revelation, we see the same basic scenes, the same basic components of the final days, over and over again from different sets of symbolism. So in these last verses in Revelation 7, we are seeing the scene that is presented at greater length at the end of the book in Revelation 21 and 22. This is the scene of the new Jerusalem.

We know from Revelation 21:22 that there will be no temple in the "eschaton," in the time of eternity, the "last time." To be in God's eternal temple day and night worshiping is to be in the new Jerusalem with God throughout eternity. Revelation seems to come from the time after the earthly temple was destroyed, in AD70. This is a time when it dawned on many Christians that they did not need a temple for atonement. Jesus had provided a final and definitive atonement for all time (cf. Heb. 10:14).

God will "spread his tent over them." God will tabernacle with them forever, just as Jesus tabernacled among us when he first came to earth (cf. John 1:14). But this time the earth will be entirely devoted to God. There will be no dissenters. The image of the tabernacle of course comes from the Old Testament when Israel wandered in the desert and God's presence went with them within the "tabernacle of meeting" (cf. Exod. 33:7).

The image of the new Jerusalem requires no sun because God is their light (21:23). Apparently there will be no need for sleep either, so we will be able to worship God (the Father) day and night. These are of course pictures. We should imagine that the reality to which these images points will be far greater than we could now express in words.

16. They will not hunger still nor will they thirst still, nor will the sun fall on them nor any burning.
No doubt hunger and thirst were a greater reality for the believers to whom John writes than they typically are for Western Christians today. This was perhaps part of their tribulation. They did not have running water. There was no government program for the poor. There were no weekends to get out of the sun.

The righted world will not have such problems. All will have food to eat and safe water to drink. They will not have to work under oppressive conditions in the scorching heat. God will be their light. The bread of life will be in their midst.

17. For the Lamb in the middle of the throne will shepherd them and will lead them to springs of life of waters, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
The Lamb becomes the shepherd. The image of a river of life is used later in the scroll (chap. 22). The Great Shepherd who provides living water (cf. John 4:10) will make sure there is no thirst in eternity. The tears that go with tribulation will be abolished in salvation. We long for such a day. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

[1] This flatness is probably how every eye can see Jesus when he returns.