Friday, July 31, 2009

A Theology for Atheists--Introduction

Labeling oneself in contradistinction to something else creates a peculiar kind of link: opposition. It is not true, then, that an atheist will not care about theology. She has tied her self-description to the view that she does not believe that the subject has an object. Presumably that position is important to her. Accordingly, it just might be important if someone takes the time to point out that the matter has not been properly understood. But this is not to be an attempt to convert atheists to theism. Rather, this theology for atheists takes up a more modest goal of creating a better understanding of what is being denied.

That said, the paradoxical fact is that a theology for atheists ought to be of even greater interest to theists. For no realistic theist can doubt that among the ranks of atheists are many well informed, sincere, and intelligent persons. Consequently, by engaging those persons who challenge their beliefs most radically, theists are given a prime opportunity to probe the object of their belief more fully. Surely a healthy faith will engage worthy challenges, not avoid them. By realizing the goal of creating a better understanding of what atheists deny--when theism is properly understood--the possibility of having a productive dialog is increased.

That said, the following statement just might unite theists and atheists in a common skepticism. When properly understood, something atheists do believe in--evolution viewed through the lens of philosophical naturalism--leads to a dilemma that the grand sweep of the biblical narrative both addresses and resolves.

It is a big claim. But to the atheist I make this point. Religion obviously occupies a central place in human history. Isn't it reasonable to explore whether there is an equally central reason in the evolutionary narrative for that unarguable fact? And to the theist I make this point: Unless you are a fundamentalist you need to frame your faith along side your understanding of evolution. If faith is to claim the central place in the lives of the faithful, and it must to be faith,1 doesn't that call out for an understanding of evolution that supports that claim? Fortunately, a candidate to produce that understanding for both the theist and atheist is not difficult to find, at least after one gets over the strangeness of the thought that evolution might actually help theists and atheists alike understand the point of faith better.

The followng words from St. Augustine almost shout the hypothesis that connects evolution to a better understanding of theology. "So my two wills, one old, one new...were in conflict, and they wasted my soul by their discord."2 A very short explanation suffices to make the connection.

With humanity evolution must be said to have taken a giant stride forward, from an animal that mostly expands to fill a niche in its natural environment to one that mostly modifies its environment to suit itself. If the world was a place where creatures mostly adapt to their environment, it became a place where the dominant species actively and knowingly adapts the environment to its will. To adopt theological language, the creatures began doing a lot of creating.

That view places us squarely in the opening biblical narrative, where the Creator makes humanity in the divine image: creatures made in the image of the Creator, presmably, will create. With the evolutionary narrative informing the biblical, it becomes clear that the Bible's starting point is pretty much the same as the most salient point about human beings from the evolutionary perspective: If evolution tells the tales of the survival of the fittest, for the first time an animal is going about the business of creating its fit, and is intelligent and self-aware enough to contemplate the consequences of its actions.

But as soon as that is said, we are reminded of Augustine's words, because only such a being can be expected to have "two wills": the will of the creature it is evolving out of and the will of the creature it is evolving into; "one old, one new" and "in conflict." The Genesis mythos portrays this precisely.

1. Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith argues this persuasively.
2. The Confessions of St. Augustine (Book 8, Chapter 5), tr. Rex Warner, (Mentor-Omega. New York, 1963) p. 168.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

PALIMPSEST--DISCARDED Creature and Creator--Introduction


If we are not fully, unambiguously, and without ambivalence living in a secular age, there certainly are large, growing, and highly influential pockets of the contemporary world that--for the most part--are: academia and pop culture are the prime examples.1 With that as the growing contextual environment to which those who espouse a theological view must speak, the overriding question becomes, why bother with theology at all?

Answering that question by starting within traditional theology can hardly be to the point, if it is precisely why one should care about traditional theological answers that is being asked: Theological speech must leave its traditional turf to speak to the question. To be taken seriously, theology must demonstrate that it engages questions that people care about, and to have a chance of being taken seriously as centering human life on what matters most--the core, animating claim of the great monotheistic religions--then theology must demonstrate that it engages the core, animating questions of our humanity. It is the attempt to provide just such an answer that motivates the writing of these essays.

But what would count as the core, animating questions of our humanity? One approach to answering that question would be to point to the core questions that have animated humanity's search for answers in philosophy: What is most real (ontology)?; what is most important (axiology)?; what is knowledge (epistemology)?; and so forth. But as anyone who has read the Bible knows, it does not answer those questions in a way which would satisfy someone who does not begin by taking its point of view seriously. Traditional theological or biblical speech does not speak to those matters in ways that will interest those who do not share its point of view. And that "share" is getting smaller.

What is not getting smaller is the number of human beings who inhabit our world. A perspective that answers the question of how we as human beings should live in the world, then, is a very important and relevant perspective, and if it addresses the primary question that needs to be resolved in order to answer how humanity ought to view life in this world in order to get along, a good case can be made for saying that it answers the crucial question of our time. Perhaps of all time.

Since evolution provides the accepted means of answering how human beings came to be, let's ask a core question about what we have become: Animals capable of adapting our environment to our ends in utterly unprecidented ways and to utterly unprecidented extents. We do not simply adapt as a species over time to environmental changes. We adapt our environment to changes we wish to impose on it. In large measure we create our environment, often to a larger extent than we would like to be the case.

But as soon as that abundantly and clearly true position is stated, an equally clear and true statement about the Bible can be made. It begins attributing the world to a Creator, stating that humanity was made in the image of the Creator, and placing humanity in a garden where--naturally--it can go about the creative work of shaping its corner of the world. The obvious answer to the question of in what sense humanity is made in the image of God is that like the God of the Bible, humanity is creative. In fact the only real question here is how anyone would have ever thought otherwise. (The answer in that case, I believe, is that theologians did try to graft theology onto philosophy in the paradigm of the Greek thinkers who created philosophy as we know it. The problem is that Greek thought has no directly practical view of God as the Creator. Following the Platonic/Stoic/ Aristotelian lead, God became an intellect, and we became like God in possessing intellect. Thus, the simple, direct, obvious answer was overlooked that we are like God in that we are creative.) But what happens to a creature emerging from a stage in which it adapts as a species to the environment when it learns to shape its environment in important ways according to individual preference? The operatives are turned upside down.

Humanity was confronted at that point--and still is--with the fact that it has two very different sources of value. One source derives from its perspective as a being within a given environment. The other source derives from its perspective as a being that can shape its environment for good or bad. A series of related antonyms depict at the divided perspective: subjective/objective, individual/collective-holistic, egoistic/altruistic, and so on. But for purposes of these essays, we will focus on what I believe to be the root antithesis: We can be viewed from a theological perspective as both creatures and creators. And as we shall see, the tragedy enacted in the Genesis mythos is that humanity is tempted to see the creaturely point of view as the highest and best. It is tempted, in other words, to create false gods by using creaturely perspectives to inform its creative goals.

The upshot of this brief characterizastion of the biblical creation mythos is that it begins by dramatically framing humanity's most central and most urgent question: will we and can we get over the continual temptation that besets us to take the point of view of our lower nature as animals (creatures) seeking to get the most for ourselves in a world created for us rather than the point of view of creators who need to responsibly situate ourselves in a world ever more of our making. What science needs to understand is that religion has been asking and answering that question for milenia. And religion too needs to inform itself of that very thing.

To my knowledge it was C. S. Lewis who first explicitly framed this point of view in a way that connects how it is that evolution lands us in the midst of the very point of view enacted in the biblical mythos:

"...everyone has been told that man has evolved from lower types of life. Consequently, people often wonder 'What is the next step?'"2

The claim here is that the next step has been contemplated, though not framed in terms of evolution, for as long as intelligent people have read and thought about the Bible. Whether one is a Christian or not, or even a theist or not, a tradition that has formulated an answer to this fundamental question facing all of humanity deserves to be listened to--especially when the question, let alone an answer to it, has not even occurred to the philosophical and scientific traditions. That is not to say that one need be a theist to consider the point of view to be presented here. That is one reason I call this a theology for atheists.

[Note: I will work on CREATURE AND CREATOR: A THEOLOGY FOR ATHEISTS periodically, as I have time. And some times I will rewrite or add to what I have written, rather than add new chapters. Infact, expect quite a lot of that, since I tend to work best from a "centered" perspective, which means that new insights tend to affect my central point as well as being additions or extrapolations from it. I am taking this approach so that i do not have to decide between working at then depth I want to write from and posting frequently enough to generate interest in the ideas.]

Friday, July 24, 2009

Honesty as Fully-Informed Logical Elegance

I'm working out the final strategy for a patent application today, and in trying to perfect the application my goal can best be described as "fully informed logical elegance." That is, I want my application to be the simplest possible depiction of only the essential aspects of my invention, where "invention" is understood as a new way or means to accomplish a desirable end. Of course, one cannot assume one actually has an invention: Each patent claim requires research to be credible, and even after being granted a patent, the patent has provisional "credibility" in the sense of being subject to disallowance on the basis of further research. My goal in writing my patent application, then, is to give the simplest, fullest and most straightforward rendering of my invention that I can claim, given a full understanding the the field in which I claim my invention. In short, it is my duty to strive after a fully-informed logical elegance in describing my patent claim.

This might sound obvious to the point of making the point needless. That would be wildly false. I'll give you a couple examples.

First, from talking with a patent examiner a couple of years ago. Because I filed a patent as a "small entity," I qualified as a "pro se" applicant. That is important for this story only in that I qualified to get help from the patent examiner as a result (assuming he believed that my claim was patentable but could use some professional help--BTW: the only changes that resulted were correcting a couple of spelling errors, which no patient reader of my musings will be surprised to hear :-)). In describing my approach to the claim in question, i basically said what I just wrote about seeking the shortest and most logically elegant description of my invention that I could manage. In telling him that I noted that most of the patents I had reviewed in preparing my application didn't seem to take that approach. "Lawyers!" he exclaimed, and proceeded to explain that in trying to protect every possible way to invent around their client's patent that lawyers typically take the opposite approach that I had: They seek to file a claim for every means of accomplishing the basic idea of the invention. The result is an extraordinary amount of needless complexity in a patent application. Now I don't want to be too critical. A patent for a good invention will probably--if the idea is really good, almost certainly--result in copy-cat versions of the invention that try to get around the patent on a technicality. One way to fend off such attempts is to make a seperate 'claim" of invention for every possible way that the filer can imagine a copy-cat "inventor" trying to evade the main claim. That sounds like a justifiable approach, given the fact that a lawyer is hired to protect her client's rights. That is, it sounds justifiable until you hear that a patent has a section called "Conclusion, Ramifications, and Scope" in which the patent writier can explain why she chose the particular "ideal embodiment' that she did, and how alternative means of accomplishing the desired end were considered and rejected. By simply rejecting alternative means of accomplishing the desired end, one puts a notice in the public record that that idea has already been considered, thereby disallowing any patent claim using that idea. So why do laywers add those alternative means of accomplishing the main claim to the claim section? Because by putting them there, they add the the technical section of the patent application that they can charge much more for writing. (There is a very specific and arcane set of rules for writing claims.) But by doing so, the logical clarity of the claims is obscured; the process of researching claims made much more difficult; and in general, much more work is made for lawyers who want to wrangle of money over hard to understand legal claims. It takes a certain amount of faith to take the opposite tack from the norm in writing a patent claim, but if a person has got an invention; describes it cogently; and can defend the description as the "ideal embodiment" in relation to inferior means of accomplishing the desired end, then there is no need for the multiplication of claims that serve no real end beyond lawyers' bank accounts and do damage to a system that ought to seek after fully-informed logical elegance...

The second example: The current US health care debate is full of either insincere bluster or profound ignorance. Either way there is a tremendous need to move in the direction of fully-informed logical elegance. Consider the conservative claims that the free market is the best way to deal with the current problems in our broken health care system AND that if the government creates an alternative to the free market offerings that the government alternative will have unfair advantages over the free market alternatives that may well put them out of business. It astounds me that apparently sincere people can hold those positions simultaneously and not begin to blush. And yet on the other hand, it astounds me just as much that a person as bright and knowledgable as our President can argue that the free market has had its chance, thereby rendering the conservative claim false (as Mr. Obama has claimed on many occasions). Isn't it clear that the kinds of standards that clarify grades of butter, apples, and eggs are not clarifying our choices in purchasing health care? But that instead an endlessly changing set of rules embedded in documents the size of books and written in dismaying jargons of the medical and legal professions make comparrisons across plans difficult and pointless even if they weren't difficult. That is enough to make it impossible for "the market approach" to work. But add to that the fact that people making the most important and expensive choices are often in a state of duress and extreme need, and the guarante is in place. If we don't fact the hard choices, and do so by clarifying what they are and how we might approach them--that is quite a task, but nothing less has a chance to work!--the entire present debate is disingenuous and doomed.

Well, it's sad that too often people protect their interest by obfuscation. The only way to combat that is to present a clear account of the matter that is being made unintelligible and hope that those who care about the matter will choose honest discussion over bluster and BS. Only by making fuly-informed logical elegance one's goal can a complex subject be rendered as clar as the subject allows. It is a goal devoutly to be wished...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Father-In-Law's Comment Prompts Change to Blog

This is mostly a slice of life post, but it affacts my blogging. My eighty-one-year-old father-in-law and I were talking last weekend when my family and I visited him in Wisconsin. A kind man and a good host, he inquired about my doings. I told him that I had begun working on an essay about Nietzsche's critique of Christian values that starts from a comparison between the Apostle Paul and the author of The Antichrist. He replied, "Say, 'Paul was antichrist; then God healed him.' That's all that needs to be said."

So much for impressing the inlaws. Now, I'm no prophet, but this is a great matter. And a few words are in order about not putting my head on a platter.

I would agree that not many Christians need to concern themselves with Nietzsche. But in an ever-more pluralistic society, we can't just define good and bad according to our ingroup morality and expect others to say, with us, "That's all that needs to be said." So if we don't allow a few Christians to be different with respect to understanding and even appreciating outgroup perspectives, the result cannot be good.

More importantly, if I am right about doubt informing faith, we are doomed to being superficial even in our "in-group" understanding of faith, and precisely because we don't incorporate out-group perspectives. Since Nietzsche's is, perhaps, the ultimate "out-group" perspective." On that view he is our best teacher. I sincerely believe that.

Though I have not had the time this summer to do a proper job of writing about the insights that accrue as a result of taking up Nietzsche's challenges, I am more than ever convinced that there is much to be gained by doing so. If you read my posts the liklihood is that you came to them by way of following Into the World on Richard Beck's Experimental Theology blog. There I took up Nietzsche's view of Pilate's dismissive "What is truth?" comment. I've come to understand that there are equally valuable insights to be mined from his critique of Christian values.

But it is too much to ask of you that you follow my mere explorations on that topic. Since I can't devote more time to blogging till the fall, I will only post when I have a (relatively) finished chapter to present here. That means the posts will be infrequent for the duration of the summer, but I'm convinced that it is more important to leave my reader feeling "That was good, what there was of it," rather than, "That was a lot to read, but it wasn't very good." After all, my father-in-law is already convinced that I can blather on to no point. Why spread that point of view?

Monday, July 13, 2009

This is no dog--I hope!--but it does eat my blogging time...

I've been having fun "working" in my spare time trying to perfect "RowPedo" so that it can be sold by next spring. Just thought you might like to know why my blogging is so infrequent of late.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Nietzsche VII: The Overman at the Evolutionary Crossroads

If the will to power is embedded in human nature, we do not transcend it even when acting in accord with the moral law. Niestzsche's comment that "When the great man screams, the small man comes running with his tongue hanging out from lasciviousness" captures that view. True, "the small man's" desire to take "the great man's" place is not a dictate of the moral law. But the moral law is a way for "the small man" to level the power differential with "the great man." And so as we have noted, Nietzsche's overman was above the moral law and its stultifying effect on human greatness. Morality does not bring out our better selves, it imprisons them. Morals are based on a lie that denies the foundational struggle for power at the base of all nature, including human nature.

So goes the Nietzschian harangue. And if we translate Nietzsche's will to power into the view that each living organism by nature "seeks" the life strategy that has the best chance of perpetuating its genes, Nietzsche can be said to have a present-day defender in Richard Dawkins (THE SELFISH GENE).

But as noted in the last post, human beings are not just creatures embedded in a given environment. We are also creatures that modify our environments. That changes a lot. The old rules cannot be applied to the new reality. What does it mean to successfully colonize one's environment, if those doing the colonizing are also those overseeing and judging the merits of doing so? One possible outcome is that we will see ourselves as "weeds" in our own "garden." We oversee ourselves; go "meta" on ourselves; create our own good and evil, relative to our "garden"--the little corner of the world where our creative effort is directed. As noted in the last post, rather than being a primitive, simplistic myth that humanity has outgrown, the garden of Eden mythos is profoundly germaine to humanity's defining relationship to its world: we are creators of it as well as creatures in it. And that, I argued, is the foundamental message of Genesis 1-3. (And one need not be a theologian, or even a theist, to see it.)

That said, the Nietzschian/Dawkins point that it is foundational in human nature to seek a life strategy that optimises the chances to passing on our genes--construed as the evolutionary version of the will to power--hits a crossroads with a being that can become a weed in its own garden: will we sacrifice our lower selves for the sake of our higher--the weeds for the garden--or our higher for our lower--our garden for our weeds? It's a universal human dilemma; no other animal faces it; and the metaphor of the garden expresses it exceedingly well.

It was C. S. Lewis, to my knowledge, who first (in 1943) pointed out that Christianity functions like our next evolutionary step:

"People...ask when the next step in evolution--the step to something beyond man--will happen. But on the Christian view, it has happened already. In Christ a new kind of man appeared..." (MERE CHRISTIANITY, 62.)

Nietzsche's overman is still embedded in nature when humanity needs to transcend it--to go meta. But to go meta, when that implies that our old nature may have to be sacrificed when the new nature differs with it, that is no moot endeaver.

The solution to the possibility of sin discovered in the garden? Well, one must turn one's back on the desire to act out of the same impulses that motivate our lower natures: power and all that we can have because of it. We must learn to act from a position that values the good of not just ourselves but everyone who shares our environment. We must learn to serve, and to serve even sacrificially, or we are not acting with the best interest of our garden in mind... In that case we are acting like a weed in our own garden. Or a wolf in sheep's clothing.

I think that the King of the Kingdom of God would have to turn his back on the motivations that would have him replace human leadership without transcending it. He would have taught us that Nietzsche's overman missed the turn on the evolutionary road that really leads to a new kind of human being, and one fit to be "over" other men.