Category Archives: philosophy

my philosophy musings

why i still read the bible

As with any good book, though I’ve read it before, the hermeneutic circle of life learning and interpretation assures that I will learn something new each time I read it. Literature, because of the human condition does not remain static. The letters on the page do, the books themselves, whether paper or pixels do, but the meaning unfolds in perpetuity with every rereading.

I am not simply saying with the reader response crowd that the meaning resides only in me the reader. Rather, the symbiotic relationship between the static book, myself and the world, assures the persistence of change and development, even improvement and growth. I am not also simply saying with the propositional crowd that the text forces a single meaning on the words, or that we can understand the intent of the writer purely by arranging the words in a logical matrix. Neither myself nor the world are static. There are subtleties that cannot be detected in the interpretative matrices of these extremes. They force damage on the real world, sending us farther away from that reality, mystifying their adherents, preventing contact with reality.

So, the same drama between Heraclitus and Parmenides plays out in the modern world of hermeneutics. Because most of the people I associate with are of the logical sort with respect to the Bible, I am forced to play to the reader response side of the equation to balance out the debate. But I have every reason to believe that both extremes are faulty.

I am having some fun in my classes with the logical crowd, because they seem so certain and trot out their arguments to once-and-for-all fix the problem. But I am also assured that though they trust their reason in such a fashion, they are wrong to do so. There are a few who get the debate without another word, but most are not up to speed. A few are knowledgeably on the Heraclitean side of things, but seem harried, and not up to the argument. It is a much harder argument to grasp, of course, but I am inclined to side with them against the facile certainty of the Parmenideans.

I have more books than I will finish reading in my lifetime. I have purchased them because I believed they might hold some helpful remarks. I have read the introductions to most of them, but the majority have not kept my attention. I have found most useful the fictions I read at nighttime. They are unpretentious narratives that are not weighed down with the necessity of teaching some lesson, or wrestling the reader into a certain form of belief. In that sense they have gained my trust. And, as it turns out, the best of them actually do have a moral lesson. Their best heroes, though they can be faulted for ordinary human frailties, are both capable of learning and taking hits from their enemies. They falter, they fail and often, but not always rise to a better temper. But as with the best of literature, they are affected by their experiences and affect those around them. In a word, they are believable.

The Bible is like that. Like a good narrative, nothing of the foibles of its characters is hidden. They act happily or unhappily as we do. None seem superhuman, even Jesus, but they are all capable of learning and either get up after a fall or not. Peter gets up, Judas Iscariot does not. David gets up, and while learning some things, never learns others. As an example, David is great for some things but poor for others. Nevertheless, reading the narrative, you get which part of the man is to be valued, and which to be avoided. But not all of us avoid the undesirable elements of the biblical characters, and in this lies a secret. We can be confident that though we are weak and misguided, even damaged, that God is both aware of all of it and capable of managing whatever in our lives is redeemable. That’s a pretty good deal. At least that’s the promise of the Scriptures, and one that is not hidden too deeply under the skin of the cultures it is wrapped in.

So I keep reading, hoping that the features of my own life that puzzle me so deeply will find redemptive value in the narrative. That doesn’t mean that I have squared away the narrative, as if I could grasp the entirety by means of a propositional logic, or that life is so chaotic that I couldn’t recognize myself in the confluence of these words and my life, but somewhere in contact with the real world and the real world of others, the layers of my culture and the mystifications of the contemporary narratives would not prevent the redemption of my best parts in contact with the ineffable reality that lies beyond the world.

limits of rationalization

The problem of what we can think and how we systematize what we think, the boundaries between what we teach and what we know always emerge when I run into people, (students, professors), who think that they have all the categories in place and a place for each bit of knowledge that can be acquired. This is a form of foundationalism that immediately calls up the process of our discoveries in the twentieth century, that an exact interpretation of our world, the proofs we might offer, and the certainties we might give as answers to the issue of what we can know must be left to the fuzzy borderlands that stretch beyond our technologies.

By technologies I mean not only the physical reach of our civilizations, but the practices of the self that enable us to live within that reach. Not only is our physical technology extremely dangerous to those who will not control their interface with it, but the technology itself, a prodigious intelligent machine thinks nothing of the beings that inhabit it, and can’t will their safety. Its automatic responses reduce the freedom to move, act and choose a future course of events, limit and restrict what can be known.

In a similar fashion, the rational technology of our civilization, reduced to axioms and formulas, both create a comforting residence for the unimaginative servants of that technology, and a dangerous limitation on the expansion of our knowledge. Definitions and categories, themselves useful in turning words and ideas into technologies, fail to extend themselves to the possibilities that lie beyond that technology. Just as a label restricts the movement of an individual by subjecting that individual to a set of written, spoken, and unspoken rules, so categories and definitions set boundaries on what is knowable, and limitations on the discovery of truths. Categories and definitions, not true of themselves, are but artifacts of our civilization or some previous one, whose use is to create some technology that gives us ability to manipulate our world. Reliance on them is particularly helpful for managing ordinary issues, but of no help for discovering how to manage new knowledge. Attempting to do so would be something like reverting to Newtonian mechanics for solving some riddles that arise in Einstein’s theories, or, as Galileo famously criticized the proponents of Aristotle for appealing to authority when faced with the results of his empirical examination of the heavens.

Don’t get me wrong, when our theorizing reaches a certain level of competence, we find it useful to turn it into technology. But we have to recognize the limitations of that technology in order to look beyond it. We must be cautious not to try to answer questions that are no longer being asked. Why should we still ask how the laws of physics changed when the universal flood took place according to the biblical record? Well, we shouldn’t. Not only do we know that there wasn’t a universal flood, but that the timeframe for local Mesopotamian floods is perfectly coherent with the biblical record. Add that to the forms oral history took, the local nature of their cosmos, and the explanation for the record as it stands in the Bible do not require a transformation of physics into something unrecognizable. Add to that the fine-tuning argument (anthropic principle as yet unresolved) and you retain a universe with constant physical laws. The worried believers will then place this discussion outside of their reality and dismiss it. But have I valued the text less than they by understanding the context under which it was written? Not really. I have valued it more for what it is instead of what I wish it to be on the basis of a faulty hermeneutic. I have retained the truths inherent in the Bible while they have manipulated the text to create an alternate universe.

What I am asking the reader to do is to consider the use of our rational technologies, philosophies, theologies, psychologies, scientific theories, et al with their axioms and rules of inference, with their ability to map out the rational landscape. We must recognize the limitations of such approaches to philosophical knowledge. They have great powers but by their nature restrict. They forbid asking questions of a certain kind, because those questions are double edged. They not only speculate, but worry the certainties and coherence of the systems they are part of.

One standard presupposition in my repertoire is that reality is richer than any of our theories can draw out. In all of history, the wonder of new discoveries and the profligate productivity emerging from them has never disappointed this presupposition. The greatest value of this metarule is that it doesn’t create rules, but incites us to permit curiosity and explore the wonder that the natural world and our minds provide.

So as much as I explore the reaches of our ancient and current theorizing, I never let it rule possible theorizing. I remain open to the wonder that emerges naturally without saying beforehand where it will lead. This is risky behavior, because it could lead me to rebuild my core beliefs. But the risk I turn away from is that of being turned to stone, trapped in a system from which I may not be able to escape. What poverty.

barnes & noble

I was browsing the racks in Barnes & Noble for a book I might give to my daughter Eden. I thought there might be a thoughtful and interesting book in the philosophy section. I was right. I got a book called The Hobbit and Philosophy. There are lots of interesting article titles there. But I noticed a disturbing trend, and I don’t know whether this is just the local store (my suspicion), or some edict from corporate headquarters.

I am not one to worry about what people think or express, as long as the tone is even and well crafted. And I am willing to listen to rants when it comes to the abuse of someone’s rights or a breach of morality. But I noticed that many of the books whose covers were facing the audience were of the new atheist persuasion. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading their rants and buy their books just to argue with them. I am a theist, and their thin dismissals of my experience and education (as prodigious as some of theirs) mark a failure of both their imagination and understanding. But from the display, it seems there is a clear intention to promote these works as central to philosophy.

Again, don’t get me wrong, the standard works of Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, and Hegel are there alongside some of the newer lights like Zizek, I’m just grumbling about the promotion of peripheral works as if they were central to philosophy. Maybe this is a passing fancy of a particularly angry store manager, a momentary promotion, and if so, I should just chill. Over the ages, who will ever know.

I understand the need to scream at stupidity. This rant may be an example of that. And the new atheists (NA) often are screaming at the stupidity of lots of incoherent theism. Americans seem pretty dull-witted when it comes to changing their minds, and many branches of Christianity seem dedicated to shooting themselves in the feet, giving the NA plenty of ammunition. It’s laughable, really. But then, I weep, because it really tells how the mighty Christian culture has fallen from its previous dominance. With the curious mix of rationales in the NA rhetoric of bad behavior by Christians, overconfidence, and incomplete science and statistics, they nonetheless have a point. That doesn’t mean that they have achieved the truth, only that as long as the Christian church chooses to live and argue on the old terms, it will leave room for criticism.

Part of that criticism arises just because responsible people in the church are just not interested in carrying on the conversation with those who oppose Christianity. I understand that. The outcome, however, is that the church carries on as if the opponents don’t exist. That is a bad thing. But with the absolute impossibility of keeping up in this era, we often must be content to keep aware. I don’t think this blog is much more than that.

one ring to rule them all

I’ve been thinking about the rings I wear. I have worn a wedding ring for over 32 years. What does it symbolize? Why can’t I, shouldn’t I take it off; is it possible to take it off without calling into question the commitment it represents? Marriage is complicated by every revelation, every intention, every act. Acts of faith and acts of passion, acts of love and acts of desire, known acts and hidden acts. Then there are moments of grace, moments of anger righteous and otherwise, prejudice and overlooking offense. The breadth of any relationship is extremely broad, and mostly unfathomable.

An old Jewish proverb curses by saying, “May you live in interesting times.” Marriage is clearly one of the most interesting times. As a man, I have one woman, and she is a fabulous complexity that though known, is almost entirely beyond comprehension. Human freedom accounts for most of this, but there is a matter of nature and limits, and genetics, and everything that limits freedom. Little cruelties don’t go unnoticed. Slights and offenses build up. Unintentional misfires of language set the stage for explosive anger and hunger for reattachment, forgiveness and a pledge to do better next time. We are together because we want to be and because we need to be. More than anything else the ring is evidence of that, but not its means.

It is the endearing and enduring quality of hope that makes living together the luxury that we can’t do without. And, occasionally we grow through the trials of our relationship into better people than we were before.

I have worn a few rings besides my wedding ring. The first that was important to me was my high school ring. East Aurora High was a place of profound change for me. I got a ring (I can’t remember whether I paid for it or my parents), you know, with a blue glass jewel and an EAHS inscription around it, standard fare for the 18 year old.

I was proud of it and wore it all the time, until I almost lost my finger to it hanging from it on the back of a stage prop in a play. I can’t tell you how scared I was or how grateful I was that I didn’t lose my finger. But I lost the ring after that.

The next ring I wore was my wedding ring. I was 27 years old and happier than I could have imagined. I told that story. I have never been threatened by my wedding ring like I was by the EAHS ring.

I felt I wanted another ring, and I didn’t want just any old ring. Why should I be happy with a ring that fit if it didn’t represent what I thought it should?

When our family traveled out west to explore and see the sights, we stopped off at an old voleano caldera and in the gift shop I found a silver ring. I found out later that it was a Hopi story ring. It had figures on its surface that told of Hopi life. I thought I would wear it in solidarity with Native American (even though they call themselves Indian) rights. I wore it on my right-hand ring finger. In a couple years I lost it while I washed my car. I replaced it with a silver spoon handle ring that didn’t represent anything.

The next ring I bought was also on our western trip. It was also a Hopi story ring but smaller and I wore it on my right pinky finger. I lost it about a year earlier than I lost the other Hopi ring, also at a car wash. But I went back and found it on the ground. Yea!

When my family and I went to Britain to celebrate me finishing my doctorate in philosophy, my wife and girls bought me a celtic ring. I took off the silver spoon handle ring and put the celtic on my right ring finger. I decided after that to remove my Hopi ring, since I really didn’t need or want to represent Native American rights any more. So Now I am wearing my wedding ring and my philosophy ring. But I went through a time after our Britain trip that I couldn’t wear my philosophy ring. So I didn’t I just had my wedding ring.

Through thick and thin, my wedding ring has stayed on my finger. Later, I don’t quite know the moment, but I felt as if I had both earned my doctorate, and that I had become the philosopher, and I could again wear my celtic ring. So I wear the two as symbols of the enduring relations I have in my world, my wedding ring and my philosophy ring. But my wedding ring, has endured all changes and is preeminent over all the others in importance and time.

self examination

I am finding that movies and books, even at times music is not enough entertainment to keep me from thinking about myself. I am in the process of recovery still from my dissertation, completed over a year ago. I am smarter, more capable, but as one friend Ray said, “Now that I am a Doctor, people expect more of me.” That’s OK. They do, and the investment of their lives in patience for the fruits of my labor should be worth it.

I think some of the fascination with myself as an object, and a subject, is complicated by the material of my dissertation, (get it here.) Complicated because it is a challenge of truth about the reality of my Christian experience, my married life, my children, and all the other relations that require my time. The critique implied in my work brings a rich dialectic about my life. So it is more entertaining thinking about how I will become a better person than it is thinking about my work. Sometimes, the engine of my critique bowls over all other intended activity.

I remember years ago, while I lived in Alabama, that I began to read SF and adventure novels at night before I went to sleep so that I wouldn’t have to process my day, obsessively mark each detail and make a judgment about it. I’m still reading novels before bed, but I find myself thinking about my relation with the novels, the characters, and the scenarios they are in. There is something instructive in the musings of writers who make their characters dance through a plausible world, especially those great ones who are both so human that their failings are understandable, and so good that their life is to be emulated.

This is the classic setup for an Aristotelian tragedy. But it still works. The good ones struggle to keep their integrity, even if their integrity depends on a dark hope, or an absurd end. The struggle is engaging inside the hope that it will resolve itself without the emergence of our worst selves. Being thrown (Heideggerian thrown-ness) into the world that cares nothing for me, or my local clan, involves making peace in a Stoic way with the things that I cannot change. But that’s not enough.

I’ve been reading Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus and coming to the conclusion that our circumstances, whatever they appear to be are worth more than any mourning we might put into it. The experience itself is its own reward. I’ve also been reading something of the ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila. Oh my God, I open myself to an experience of being pierced like her. The pain and the transfinite pleasures not available anywhere else. I remember Thomas a Kempis saying, and I paraphrase, “How many of us would not prefer spiritual pleasures over material ones if they were always available to us?” This rhetorical question makes it obvious that we would choose those pleasures, except that they are not readily available, cannot be conjured up, and leave us a slave of our passion for them. One taste and you will be hooked for life. The funny thing is, that ordinary, everyday freedom, that expressed by the wino, techie, lover, or politician, distracts us.

Not a bad metaphor, addiction to Christ. But God wants more of a relationship than the metaphor of addiction can serve. The objective God, the one that can be sequestered in a box, is not one that can be shown to the skeptic. The enduring God needs no proof, nor does he need our services. He is, however, interested in a relationship, and has sacrificed his son to make that possible.

What’s next? Explore! We don’t need someone to tell us that good things come to those who wait. We need to go out and engage our world.

people

Squaring away my social enigmas takes way more time than I want to put into it. I like people, but then I can only take so much of them also. I need times away from people to vegetate, settle, scrub my brain from the influences and interactions. That is not to say I don’t enjoy those interactions, but the social definition of my self is only part of my being. I need time to return to myself, restore, recharge.

So, lately, I have been pretty busy. Work at school, work at work, work at home, etc. I am in the middle of two class preparations for the two classes I teach at Evangel. I take this seriously, and so spend quite a bit of time getting through this material, and creating presentations that are sequential, rational, well ordered, etc. One thing I have had to do is work Saturdays to catch up and keep up. I am grateful for my job, but Saturday work puts me in a deficit for private time. On top of that, social obligations on Saturday stack up to overload my ability to tolerate people. I start to be inconsiderate, even harsh, and to avoid further breakdowns, sequester myself to some private place. It doesn’t always work. There’s a bitter, harsh edge to my personality that needs free space and time to keep tamed.

I think of the Sabbath laws set in place for Judaism, and the requirement of rest for Christians. OK, I am not the religious sort, the sort that takes to laws and controls like a duck to water. But this requirement of rest, of a Sabbath, is sounding more and more like what needs to happen in my life to respond to my busyness.

Having finished my dissertation over a year ago, I am finally getting my feet back on the ground. I’m not running yet, but I am moving. I still find it hard to read interesting things that are not associated with my schoolwork, but that is getting better. Even though it is for SPS, I am enjoying going through another pentecostal manifesto book by Nimi Wariboko The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical Methodology in New Spirit. He is an African. His writing style is not Western, though it is stimulating and powerful. I will be giving a review of the last chapter in the book and a critique at the SPS meeting in 2013.

What does this have to do with people? I am affectionately attached to the people involved in this endeavor. I have committed myself to scholarship and integrity in order to give a fair look at the material I encounter. I have committed myself to these people, the auditors, readers, and writers. There is a certain pressure to an engagement of this sort, and as I have only recently been recovering from my dissertation, I haven’t been able to give my fully-functioning self to this project. There is a certain amount of envy of the accomplished writers and thinkers in this crowd that I have to get over, and often do so successfully, and a certain mental bruise of the effort of my dissertation that persists, and prevents me from moving out vigorously as I have in the past. There is a loss of naiveté that and that cannot be recovered, and a certain fear that my efforts will again sink me into profound mental turmoil. But I am overcoming that fear, and rising to the challenges ahead.

The scholarly crowd deserves much appreciation for their efforts, and I wish to give it to them both in scholarship and thanks. But the relationships are complicated. I have to avoid cynicism while fostering it at the same time. I am aiming at the golden mean of cynical critique. I really think there is one. It is a living philosophy not a dead text.

drupal

Gosh, the installation was easy. My server offers it as an easily installable option. Click . . . done! I find that I need to update and advance my web mojo to keep up with one of my clients. So I am spending hours and hours learning how to do stuff I shied away from before.

That’s OK. It is the pathway now between fear and trembling on one hand and dread on the other.

I finished two projects this week that were sort of looming over my head. They were obligations to the academic community I am a part of and had been ignoring. The first, a review of Amos Yong’s book The Spirit of Creation for a journal that included comments about the book and Amos’ response to them. Dread kept me from that one. I couldn’t face the knowledge of that subject for a while, after I had thoroughly indulged myself in it. The second project was reading a book on theology for Brill, title and author’s name were withheld from me so I could review fairly. Good book, interesting thesis, but I don’t know when it will come out. I had forgotten to do it, and an email from the publisher reminded me. So fear and trembling pushed me to finish it.

Drupal, an open source web development system, a CMS. Interesting, simple structure. I am just beginning my journey.

Today I am going to the movies with my Alpha unit in the afternoon, and pick up my spouse from the airport in the evening.

a better ethos

I grew up in a house where respect for science was common currency, not unlike many houses in the United States. My mother, before marrying my father, was a research chemist. Both my parents took it as gospel that science and reason give us useful access to the world and its wonders. I grew up believing the earth was ancient and the universe even older. As readers of National Geographic, we all followed the exploits of the Leakey family as they fleshed out a plausible narrative of ancient paleontology. Louis Leakey was both a follower of Darwin and a devout Christian, not an unusual combination in the circles my parents traveled in.

When I became a believer in the early 1970s I began a long and sometimes tortuous relationship with the evangelical church. I had no problem with Jesus, but some of his followers weren’t so happy with me. God, however, saved me in many ways by the blood of Christ and fellowship of the saints. I needed the church and devoted my life to serving God.

My evangelical adoption came with many things as a package deal. Short hair (no big deal, I was in the Air Force anyway,) a literal interpretation of the Bible, and a deep devotion to God. I’m sure you can guess where we are going with this. I adopted with my new family a literal interpretation of the Bible, itself a very modern method, and struggled to reinterpret the world in those terms. I have to say that in my euphoria of early salvation, I glossed over the troubling consequences of literal interpretation and because of my grateful reaction to God I rebuilt my world with a young earth view.

None of my education at Valley Forge Christian College prepared me to face the consequences of such a naïve view of the scripture, though I was learning that not all scripture could be read literally. I did adopt an old earth view during that time, seeing that it was one reasonably supported view in Christianity. The curious thing was that I defended it with a strange logic of scripture. God perceived that a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. So, if time was relative to God, then I also would count the six days of creation to be relative. This realization did nothing to dissuade me from literalism, if I could import a reasonable argument to defend what, on the surface, appeared to be true, that the earth looked like it was very old.

I discovered later that the young earth creationists, many of them my brothers and sisters in Christ, also believed that the earth appeared to be very old. What seemed strange to me was that they spent most of their time proposing arguments more gimmicky than mine to prove that the earth was actually very young. I rebuffed their nuances when I realized that they were not as interested in doing science as they were in discrediting it. I started to see those people as one would see a dull witted uncle who still argues that the New Deal of Roosevelt’s era was a bad idea. You still invite him to Thanksgiving dinner but hope nobody brings up politics. My problem is that I like to get him going and ride the excitement, even though sometimes it turns sour. I don’t think he gets it.

When I was doing my doctoral studies at Temple University, I became interested in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. I discovered that within these disciplines, a critique of science was emerging that at once acknowledged the middle state of our knowledge and the embeddedness of the scientific enterprise within human limitations. Science, on this view, could not declare its findings with certainty, even though it had mastered technologies of many kinds. I found comfort in the realization that unlike the young earth creationists, the scientists, with many exceptions, were able to critique their own work. That seemed to be a much more honest way of engaging the world, and I adopted that ethos wholeheartedly. I hadn’t abandoned Christ, but believed that he would prefer this sort of humility against the principled dishonesty of the young earth creationists. I call it principled, because it resides within a tradition of biblical interpretation that had for a large part been a profitable means of exploring scriptural truth. I call it dishonest because its participants were not interested in the truth of the world any longer, but building a rational citadel against infidels. Their method had become naïve propositional logic and not faith in God.

In order to enter the kingdom of God one must become like a little child. Between the scientists and the young earth creationists, the scientists were more like little children being guided by wonder, beauty, and curiosity. I am not suggesting that scientists are blameless and more holy than the young earth creationists, but rather that they model an ethos that leads to the kingdom of God. They are also continuing to obey the command of God to subdue the earth.

the shame of losing foucault

I began my doctorate at Cardiff University with the thought that Michel Foucault was still interesting to read after all these years. I had begun to purchase the lectures when they were translated into English in 2003 or so. They reminded me of the struggle to annunciate thoughts, the difficulty of saying something that changed the way people thought about the world, to say truth, even when it went against the norms of the day.

The latest of the lectures, released just last week, is The Government of the Self and Others from 1982-1983. I am reading the first lecture and receiving the words with a freshness that makes me write of Foucault as if he were still alive, teaching this just now, and I am saddened that he died.

The shame of losing him is another thing. The brisk and incisive scholarship of his mature work is often clouded in the minds of some people with a rejection of the man himself who struggled early in his life with being homosexual. Later he did not struggle, but defended the right of homosexual people to live and experience life without the censure and disapprobation of a conservative culture that had never and has not yet cleaned up its own propensity for violence. It is a shame that knowledge unearthed and constructed in this man cannot find the light of day because people are blocked by their own sense of moral propriety.

It is senseless to speculate what would have happened had he lived, what he would have said. But the records of his life are being unearthed again and again. I am doing this in my dissertation, hoping there is a place in the conservative culture I am embedded in for the exposure of his knowledge irrespective of the person who unearths it.

This is a fun thing, partially, telling conservatives that C.S. Lewis drank quite a bit, saying how great men don’t follow petty moral visions, that for all their authoritative ring, don’t even know what the Bible said, or if they know, have discounted it because it conflicts with their own personal convictions.

Not so Foucault. Never afraid of challenging his own or others notions, he nonetheless managed to work toward a challenging and holistic moral vision around the problems of self construction within the matrices of necessity surrounding all of us.

Thanks Michel. There’s plenty of work to be done. Time for my dissertation.

dualism again

I am constantly bumping into references to science that force being scientific into the material/spiritual dualism I have begun to reject. But on that account, I really must define what it is that I think the real world is made up of. As I have said before elsewhere, John A. Wheeler’s quip that “it comes from bit” is an adequate description of what is real. The universe in all its diversity is neither material or spiritual, but rather, information. The experiences of the material world and non-material are all generated within the universe. Why is it that we need to attribute those effects to different kinds of stuff, as if wonder and concrete are opposing each other.