Bible Geekery versus Social Justice and “Falling in Love with Jesus”

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This post diary-ish. It’s written to myself, and maybe other Christians.

Warning, my main point is utterly obvious.

I attended Newsong Church for about 12 years: Dave Gibbons is the pastor. I remember often finding myself at odds with his ideas.  It’s been years since I’ve been there. I think I’ve now reached some clarity about the whole experience.

Newsong is a church of paradoxes: it’s a megachurch with offshoots, but it explicitly resists the spirit of megachurches, with their formulae for growth. At times it was a stew of entrepreneurial/business jargon. Then it sponsored art festivals and got a gospel band. It had a special place for wealthy businessmen, but it also had a special place for a lot of “rejects:” drug and sex addicts, co-dependent enablers. One heard talk of social justice and crude oil futures. It was mostly yuppie Asian, but there were pockets of Newsong where almost anybody could fit in. It used to have bible scholars and more traditional discipleship advocates in its employ, but they have left. One thing is pretty clear, you don’t hear about theological orthodoxy that often there.

I also was involved in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a college Christian organization at U.C. Irvine. The group, at that time (1989-1993), was a bit divided. On one hand you had the traditionalists, those who emphasized evangelism, clean behavior, theological orthodoxy. On the other hand you had people focused on social justice and “falling in love with Jesus.” Each group rejected the other’s approach.

I recently read an interview with Dave Gibbons. Basically he was saying that we can’t just seek church growth: we must follow the Spirit. He also said that one can miss the Spirit if one is too focused on exegesis (interpreting/analyzing Bible texts), if one is too word-centric (Logocentric?). The Bible itself can be an idol. We need to follow the Spirit, and not get so tied up in making sure certain messages are always preached (the Gospel) or painstaking analysis of biblical texts.

In InterVarsity the voice of the social justice Jesus lovers was heard most often. I was more in the theological orthodoxy camp. The spirit of their criticism aimed at people like me was similar to that of Gibbons. It’s the problem of Bible geekery.

There is the danger of being a theology “geek.” Geeks are geeks because they obsess with some specialized expertise, some body of knowledge/skill, at the expense of social matters. You can be a computer geek, of course, but you can also be a philosophy geek (as if this is a surprise), or, more surprising, a Bible geek.

I like geeks, heck, I am one, but I see their weaknesses: they don’t see the value of people. And when one “geeks out” about God, or the Bible, or apologetics, God becomes more of a body of material to master and show off one’s knowledge about than a person to relate to. It’s seen in pastors sometimes (though not that often), but more so in seminary professors and seminary students (especially in students), and in young believers eager to sharpen their Bible “chops.” And, almost always, it’s in men, not women. It was definitely seen in me.

Maybe we do this because we aren’t good at sports, or are not very good looking or cool or . . . It’s a way of achievement, of recognition. That is, we do it for the same reasons many other types of geeks do it.

Following the Spirit/falling in love with Jesus prevents geekery, of course. So I can see why Gibbons and InterVarsity would advocate it. I’m eager to comply, actually*.

So where do I stand on this? There are three voices I often hear, all three cannot be right. I hear the voice of Gibbons and IV. I also hear the voice of orthodoxy, the voice of Talbot School of Theology (see About link). And I hear the voice of skepticism/atheism. (There is also a fourth which says, “Achieve financial stability,” which I hear mainly from my wife. I won’t discuss that here).

The voice of skepticism/atheism is discussed throughout this blog. I’ll just say this: I do feel the weight of criticism coming from atheists. I struggle against it. That’s just it, I struggle, I don’t glide through it!

So what about the Talbot voice? To start, one can ask, “Why does the psalmist in Psalm 119 derive so much pleasure from the Hebrew scriptures? Why does Jesus Himself quote the Hebrew Bible so often? Why was the apostle Paul so tenacious about matters of doctrine? Why did he go through all the trouble he did to spell out his view of orthodoxy? These are not what you’d expect if matters of belief/doctrine are not important.”

Regarding theological orthodoxy and the Gospel, the Biola University/Talbot voice says the Church is on the Devil’s turf, and the Devil attacks us. Also, we have a natural inclination to not follow God, to neglect our duties toward Him. We need to constantly be on the alert to infiltration both from Satan and from our fleshly natures. We can’t go with what’s natural, what ‘feels’ right, for, more often than not, what feels right isn’t what is right given our sinful natures.

Satan’s strategy includes an emphasis on opposing the Gospel. God threatens Satan through His message. The Spirit’s message is in Gospel. It’s how He saves people. The Gospel is more than a creed or textual formula, but the call to trust God, to surrender, to realize that we are enemies of God and to accept both the justice of our destruction and the grace of God’s forgiveness and the depths to which God will go to save us. The theologians scratch their heads when they hear Christians want to play it down in favor of more ‘relevant’ things. How can the Gospel not be a compelling and emotional message?

It is when we get bored of it. When we’ve heard it a million times. When we don’t really believe it. When we’ve seen it paired with Christian butt-holes. When it’s couched in heady terminology (by butt-holes). But that’s not the Gospel’s fault, it’s ours, and Satan’s.

At Talbot I also often encountered a disdain for “the dumbing down of Christianity.” Honestly, I have no sympathy for this view:it’s snobby. It’s as if Christianity were an exclusive academy with a stiff entrance exam. It’s geekery at its worst. God loves dumb people too! It reminds me of those jocks who hate people who are weak or not good at sports.

God loves dumb people too!

I guess where I stand is pretty simple, obvious. It’s what most people would say without all the ruminations I just went through. Balance. Don’t go too extreme in any direction. Geekery (as defined above) is wrong. But rebelliousness toward Truth is also wrong, and is not justified by any so-called love of Jesus. We do have to remember we are at war, and that we are at Love. We do have to remember that God does use words about facts as well as imagery. He writes poems (the bulk of the Bible is poetry), he lays out theological systems. Both poems and systems. I hate poetry, but because God is a Lover as much as anything else, I need to try to appreciate them. And vice-versa for the poets.

Ok, Captain Obvious! So why write all this then? I think that people pay lip service to balance, but then go back to their lopsided approaches. We need to realize that the way that’s most natural to us is dangerous to us. I have to watch out for geekery and emphasize Love. The Lovers of Jesus Anti-Geeks have to emphasize theological reality. Action-people must emphasize prayer and introspection. The self-absorbed must emphasize active service of others. Conservatives must emphasize openness to wherever God is leading. Risk-takers must emphasize being careful to discern the spirits. And so on . . .

One way to help with our biases is to shine lights on them, and show that these ways aren’t the only possible ways of seeing things. I guess that’s what I was trying to do here.

*These days I don’t like Bible study. Actually, the Bible often repels me. It’s full of problems, stumbling blocks. When I read the Gospels, I don’t see Jesus as a wonderful teacher and Savior: I tend to see him as an authoritarian cult leader with extreme demands. Reading it is a huge struggle for me: should I follow this person, even with all the red flags he raises (things I discuss in my critical thinking classes), or do I risk damnation in rejecting Jesus?  Studying the Bible just brings me pain, to be honest. Trying to connect to God in an vague, non-cognitive way is more appealing to me. Why not meditate over the beauty of a tree? Or go into the city and help out someone who is worse off?

Pascal’s Wager: Many Gods Reply

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Very preliminary thoughts on this.

Pascal: Either God is or he is not. But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager?

The Wager: Suppose we don’t know whether or not God exists. Maybe it’s still rational to believe. If we believe, and we are right, we go to heaven and receive an infinite amount of bliss. If we believe and are wrong, we miss out on little or nothing (so Pascal thought). If we don’t believe and are right, we gain little (if anything). If we don’t believe and are wrong, we go to hell — an infinity of pain. Clearly the rational choice is to believe.

A major problem: the Wager assumes things about God: that God is the God of the Bible (Catholicism), that God rewards belief and punishes unbelief, that God has no competitors who would have you believe in them instead, etc. That is, we can construct many (an infinite number of) different gods and run the same argument regarding believing in them. What’s more, these gods might reward and punish different things, have different punishments/rewards, etc.

Here’s one possible way of answering this problem: we may reasonably limit which Gods to consider. For it seems plausible to think that if God exists and is good (Do we need to run wagers considering an evil God?), God would reveal itself to a large part of the world (and not just a small number of people). Thus we need to only consider major religious traditions. We could then run versions of the Wager for the major religions and see if belief in any one of them has the edge. There are only three major theistic traditions. Run wagers for Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Or, since the rewards and punishments are similar, run a wager for a generalized God, and then use other considerations to decide which tradition has the best ideas about God.

What Naturalism Really Boils Down To: Personal Values

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Fix a clunker, or find God?

Consider the following quote from Alva Noe:

. . . Naturalism, at most, is committed to the idea that we don’t need to bring God into the story. Not because we know there is no God, but because it won’t help us fix the car.

On my view, this is the case for naturalism: it suits a particular set of values.

The context: suppose my crappy but beloved Honda Civic broke down. How would I explain it? It’s possible that North Korean spies are responsible, but it would suit me better to look for a mechanical cause if I want the car to run again.

Same goes for God: God’s a bad explanation because He doesn’t help us fix things. This rejection very practical. Even religious believers appeal to this most of the time in their daily lives. In no way does the rejection imply anything about God’s existence, only about whether or not we should accept God as an explanation, and ultimately for many, whether or not to believe in God.

Of course, what is practical is value relative. People are practically rational if they act in a way that maximizes what they value. If they value fixing cars, then they should seek a mechanical cause for the breakdown.

But what if fixing things isn’t the only thing one values? What if one values an ultimate meaning to everything? What if one values the sense of the numenal, something greater than humanity, the sense that there is a light shining on us from outside the universe (I can’t put this the way I want to. The master at this is C.S. Lewis). What if one values Joy, as opposed to stomach flutterings and a racing mind? Or Peace, as opposed to sleep, low heart rate, etc? What if one values the spiritual?

Wanting the spiritual values doesn’t make God exist, of course. But it mitigates against a complete naturalism, using natural explanations for absolutely everything natural. Why not open oneself to the supernatural regarding at least some things?

Noe’s fixing a car example is a bad one. There the practical need is very clear and acute, and also dependent on some other goal or need. It can’t be extrapolated to explanations about the universe and spirituality. In other words, just because Noe is right about the car, doesn’t mean he’s right about the universe! But naturalism requires he be right about the universe.

Why I Doubt the Doubts

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Thomas Nagel: has a cosmic authority problem.

In my “about” page I described my story a little; I said that I was a born-again Christian in college, then I started doubting the faith. I studied philosophy at a conservative Christian seminary hoping to solve my doubts, but instead of solving my doubts, studying there got me to doubt the doubts. That is, I didn’t come out with an overwhelming case for Christianity and against, say, atheism, but I did come out with reasons to be doubtful of atheism. In fact, I became doubtful of the whole naturalist project. This was the story of my faith from then through my PhD studies at a secular (and somewhat hostile; well, at least some of the professors were hostile to Christianity) philosophy department. It’s still my story.

Why doubt the doubts? It may be bordering on the genetic fallacy, but let me start with this: consider this blog post from Subversive Thinking. The poster quotes Thomas Nagel, a prominent philosopher. I’ll requote:

I believe that this is one manifestation of a fear of religion which has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life.

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world.

The field I know best, philosophy, definitely displays what Nagel is talking about. Consider this quote from another prominent philosopher, David Chalmers:

A fourth motivation to avoid dualism [the view that there is a non-physical component to us], for many, has arisen from various spiritualistic, religious, supernatural, and other antiscientific overtones of the view. On the view I advocate, consciousness is governed by natural law, and there may eventually be a reasonable scientific theory to it. There is no a priori principle that says that all natural laws will be physical laws; to deny materialism is not to deny naturalism. A naturalistic dualism expands our view of the world, but it does not invoke the forces of darkness.

From The Conscious Mind, p.170. Italics his.

This passage follows what I take to be a powerful case against materialism (the view that matter and energy are all that exist. By the way, for more on his views, see here.). He tries to reassure his readers that his views are genuinely naturalistic (i.e., secular, atheistic); even if dualistic they do not “invoke the forces of darkness.” This passage reflects a definite trend not only towards arguing for materialism among philosophers, but desiring materialism among philosophers. If the desire wasn’t there, then why the fear of dualism?

If other academics are anything like these philosophers it seems that academic atheists are influenced by emotions and other subjective stuff as much as anyone. They have their worldviews, their cherished beliefs. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not logic machines impersonally crunching the data and destroying God.

Peer review doesn’t eliminate this bias. It may work regarding individual biases, but what I’m talking about isn’t that; it’s more like a Spirit of the Age. I felt it in grad school. Other theists feel it (naturalists may not feel it, as the bias is not directed against them). Since so many in academia are alike in their naturalism, personal biases become a systemic bias, the kind that resists correction from peer-review and the like (so much so that even religious academics typically think that to be good academics they need to keep their religion out of their discipline — e.g. cell biologist and catholic Ken Miller’s endorsement of methodological naturalism).

Why does this produce “doubts about the doubts?” It might seem that since there is sort of a consensus with academics that naturalism is true, that reasonable people ought to accept it. The above mitigates this, especially since, to my knowledge, no one has really produced an overwhelming case for naturalism. Part of this consensus might be based on emotions, values (humanist values such as the desire for autonomy), and desires as much as it is based on facts and reason. In addition to this, perhaps motivated by such values, academics usually begin with an a priori commitment to naturalism (their justification being something along the lines of the success of science) before they even start investigating a topic. Then they make everything fit in it. Consider this dogmatic passage from Daniel Dennett, a prominent philosopher of mind:

This fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.

From Explaining Consciousness, p 37, emphasis his.

Dennett sees dualism as a non-starter, not because it’s been disproven, but because it’s unscientific and draws a limit to what humans can know. It’s not naturalistic. It violates sacred humanist values! In my mind the doubts arise: “But humanism is just one worldview. And what if there really are souls? What if God really does exist? Wouldn’t this attitude rule out our ever knowing these valuable facts?”

What I take from all this is that I need to be just as careful around atheist arguments as I need to be around theist arguments; I am tempted (due to the confidence we naturally grant to swaggering intellectuals) to let atheists slide in logic when I would pounce on a feeble-minded born-again Christian making a similar error. I also take from this that there are significant personal, psychological, and sociological forces behind naturalism that I, as a rational agent, need to resist.

Science Pride: Or Why William Lane Craig Wins So Many Debates

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Lawrence Krauss: Great physicist, but can he cook?

Physics is hard. It requires a lot of brains to do it right. Successful physicists have a right to be proud: they earned it.

I’m a philosopher changing careers: I’m studying computer science now. And, honestly, though philosophy can be tough, I think computer science is tougher. It requires more brains to be a leader in the field of artificial intelligence than it does to be a leading reflector on the meaning of mind. It involves math, algorithms, and such. And though my physics stops at the first year level, I can see it also has a lot of hard math, math beyond me. I will admit that physicists probably have higher I.Q.s than philosophers.

Before I studied philosophy I was a biology major (got my B.S. in it). It too is tough; perhaps tougher than philosophy.

So shouldn’t the great minds of physics, computer science, mathematics, biology, etc, be able to answer philosophical questions (such as “Does God exist?”) better than people who aren’t as smart as they are (philosophers)?

Well, isn’t cooking less intellectually rigorous than physics? Cooking requires skill and knowledge, no doubt, but it’s not physics. Physics is harder, and physicists have higher I.Q.s than cooks, in general.

Now, I don’t know whether or not Lawrence Krauss can cook (he didn’t list it as something he does in his spare time on his webpage). I’ll assume he’s not a master chef. Can he compete with Chef Ramsay? Probably not.

Would Chef Ramsay be impressed with Lawrence Krauss’s souffle?

The same goes for philosophy. Even if it’s easier than physics, you still have to learn it! And if you go head to head with a professional philosopher, and you haven’t bothered to study up on it, then you will end up looking like, well, Krauss did when he took on Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig in debate: foolish. The same goes for the embarrassing performance of Oxford chemist Peter Atkins.

I don’t agree with everything Craig says, but he does know philosophy. And that’s where much of the debate is regarding God. And, what’s more, Craig has taken the time to study physics as well. Krauss, on the other hand thinks his expertise in physics should be enough to carry the day. That’s just not true. It wouldn’t be enough to bake a cake either.

Atheism, Morality, and the Meaning of Life

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For an atheist’s account of the meaning of life, check out this video by A.C. Grayling:

For him, autonomy and freedom are key to the meaning of life: we choose our meaning, what is valuable. I think there is an incoherence here. For consider another area of value: morality.

For moral realists, that is, those who think there is such a thing as an objective right and wrong, autonomy cannot be the source of the content of morality. We don’t get to choose what is right or wrong. The only choice we get is whether to follow the commands of morality. Regardless of what we choose, the command is what it is, a command. If we choose not to follow these commands, we are morally wrong, evil, wicked.

In other words, even if a moral realist is an atheist, he must admit that there is something in the realm of value that he he is called to submit to, something he doesn’t get to choose. If he does choose to live as a purely self-choosing autonomous being, he must  do so as an amoral/immoral being. He cannot be moral.

This isn’t to say that atheists aren’t moral: they often are. What it’s saying is that having self-will as the purpose of life implies that one throw morality out of the view.

The only way to be a moral being, and to have righteousness as part of one’s goal for living, is to reject autonomy as the core of one’s purpose for life. Purpose comes from outside, not from inside.


A New Burden of Proof Argument Against the Soul

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This post is about substance dualism, the view that we are both body and mind, where the mind is an immaterial substance that can survive death. That is, the view that we have a soul. Religious people are usually substance dualists.

I say the argument is new because I haven’t seen it before (except, perhaps, by the judge at the end of the above Star Trek clip). It’s not the usual Ockham’s Razor burden of proof argument against dualism: we should presume the simplest view of the mind, and adding a non-physical component to our theories of mind involves a complexity that needs to be justified. I’m thinking more of something like the argument pro-life advocates make when they say that fetuses should be given the benefit of the doubt regarding the right to life.

I’m assuming that computer science will, someday, be able to create machines that can do every cognitive task we can do. The machines will pass the Turing Test. The argument starts with this:

(1) If a machine can pass the Turing Test, then it has a mind.

(2) If a machine has a mind, then it has a right to life and all the other rights of personhood.

(3) Therefore, if a machine can pass the Turing Test, then it has a right to life and all the other rights of personhood.

When these machines appear, if (1) and (2) are true, then they will have these rights, and if we refuse to grant them, we will be on a moral par with Hitler and slave owners.

The obvious objection: Just because machines act like we do, that doesn’t mean that they are conscious, that is, have experiences (as David Chalmers argues). They may also lack semantics (as John Searle argues). They will just be symbol manipulating machines.

These are good points. But here’s the rub: Do we know that machines don’t have this consciousness? Sure, it’s possible that they aren’t conscious: Chalmers and Searle are successful in showing that behavior doesn’t imply mind. But that doesn’t mean that a mind isn’t there. They just showed that it’s possible that AI machines don’t have minds. The same goes for us as well, for it’s possible for a brain do all that we do yet have no “inner world!” That is, philosophical zombies are possible. But no one takes that seriously.

If we don’t know that powerful AI machines are not conscious, then we might have a burden of proof argument in their favor: we should rather be mistaken about treating them as persons than not treating them as persons.

Who among us would really want to deny Data, for example, his rights?!

But if this is true, and we do end up granting machines rights, then we will be compelled to accept that being a machine is enough for personhood/mind, and we would settle on the idea that we are just machines too.