Saturday, September 29, 2007

Spending Time With Socrates

One of the things that stands out most vividly from my high school education was talking about the death of Socrates in my 10th grade world history class. My history teacher loved Socrates, and he made the story come alive. I met Socrates again in college as I studied Plato in a philosophy class, but aside from being able to make general discussion of the Allegory of the Cave, the biggest impact the college class had was that it put The Dialogues of Plato and The Republic on my bookshelf.

All in all, like a lot of the education I received during that time in my life, these things have perhaps had the unfortunate effect of giving me the impression that I knew something about Plato without my having actually read much Plato -- kind of like seeing a movie and concluding that you don't need to read the book.

This week, as I was rummaging about my bookshelves for something to read, I came across the Dialogues and thought I'd give them a try. Seventy pages in, I'm really liking it.

It turns out my general knowledge was pretty reasonable. If I had discoursed on these dialogues with someone who had actually read them, I wouldn't have seemed like a total dolt. But, of course, the real enjoyment has come in the details. I've relished the simple pleasure of listening to Socrates debating. I've marveled at seeing ideas that are echoed in the New Testament (Socrates' discussion of the wisdom of God vs. the wisdom of men, for instance). I was intrigued by the dialogue with Euthyphro on the nature of the holy, though there were many questions I'd have liked to have put to Socrates.

And now, in reading "Phaedo", I've just come to the place where Socrates discusses philosophy as the practice of death and dying. Christianity could naturally make a similar claim, so it's very interesting to see how Socrates' development of the idea differs from (and yet has obviosuly influenced the development of) the Christian idea.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Dilemma

Tuesday a car turned in front of me unexpectedly. I hit the brakes hard and flipped my bike. While I was in the air, I hastily exclaimed, "Help me, St. Anne. I will become a monk." I ended up with only minor injuries. Am I bound by this oath?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


My daughter spoke up this weekend and admitted that she had trouble believing the miracles in the Bible. "They seem like magic," she said. My wife frowned at me and said, "She is your daughter."

I was thrilled about this on several levels. One, she recognizes the unreality of magic. (She's crazy about Harry Potter, so I wasn't sure.) Two, she's thinking about the Bible. Three, she's questioning things. Four, she's talking to me about her doubts. How long can I hope that will last? My two biggest fears as my daughters develop in their faith are that they won't question anything and that they won't talk to be about the things they question.

So, we talked about it and I did my best to leave things open-ended enough for her to think about it and come to her own conclusion. Frankly, I'm not sure what I think of miracles.

But today, as I was thinking back on this conversation, I formed this fanciful mental image of a lost scene from the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Delmar: I just don't see how all them things coulda happened the way it says in the Bible.
Everett: Well, Delmar, many people believe that the universe is possessed of a kind of sensitivity such that it reponds to the presence of goodness and justice, and so when a purely righteous man comes into the world, nature itself is at his beck and call.
Pete: What about that story of Elisha causin' them she-bears to maul a bunch o' boys?
Everett: The Bible's just a dusty old book written by superstitious people. What do you expect?

Saturday, September 22, 2007


As a parent, I usually rush past gumball machines as quickly as I can. It saves me a few quarters and keeps the family car from filling up with useless plastic junk. Today, we had lunch at a local Mexican restraunt (El Indio) and before we even got up from the table my nine-year old daughter made a pre-emptive strike, asking if she could look at the machines on the way out. We did, and very quickly I was asking my wife how many quarters she had. One of the gumball machines had tiny figurines called "Sanctos".

I got San Antonio, Papa Juan Pablo and la Virgen de Guadelupe. I was hoping for San Francisco, but Gina wouldn't give me any more quarters.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Richard Dawkins and a Personal God

Lee at A Thinking Reed set off quite a storm when his claim the Richard Dawkins doesn't exist drew the attention of Joe from A Human Blog, who like me writes from the godless Pacific Northwest.

The manifest dispute was over whether or not Dawkins' line that he wouldn't need to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns has any merit, meaning he doesn't need to be well-read in theology to criticize belief in God. What's behind this, I think, is one of the standard Christian lines of defense against atheism. We ask, "Which god don't you believe in?" with the intention that we would follow-up saying, "I don't believe in that god either."

But there is an elephant in the room. A lot of Christian do believe in the God Dawkins is arguing against. In his letter to The Independent which started this discussion, Dawkins addresses Peter Stanford's objection that he "caricatures all church-goers as simple-minded fundamentalists" by saying:
Of course the churchgoers Stanford or I meet socially are not simple-minded fundamentalists. Unfortunately, they are heavily outnumbered, especially in the most powerful country on earth, where nearly half the people believe the universe began after domestication of the dog, and a slightly smaller proportion yearns for a Middle East Armageddon when they'll be raptured "up" to Heaven.
Let's face it, Tim LaHaye's God cannot be defended by reference to Paul Tillich's theology. But there's more than that going on here.

Before today I hadn't read anything by Dawkins, but following the hints in his aforementioned letter, I checked out this excerpt from his The God Delusion. I have to admit, I'm impressed.

Dawkins here lays out a sort of nature mysticism that many people would like to connect with belief in God, but then he shows how what he's talking about isn't belief in God. This is good stuff. I have a definite affection for the sort of wonder at the natural universe he describes. I like how it goes beyond a dry, mechanical view of the world and sees more there. At the same time it's frustrating, because I have to admit that as much as I want to think of my theological view as sophisticated and plausible, I must still finally admit that my faith with its view of a personal God who cares about the fate of the world, falls under Dawkins' condemnation.

I suppose the thing that frustrates me is that he says so much I can agree with, but just when I want him to go that one step further with me and consider the possibility of a personal God, he turns on me and mocks me, leaving me ashamed.

Dawkins' main distinction is between the natural and the supernatural, but it strikes me that there are some parallels here to the old theological debate between God's immanence and God's transcendence, except that Dawkins is on the extreme of the immanence continuum and wouldn't use the term "God" for what he's describing.

Dawkins writes:
Let's remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic belief systems, the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them). A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs. Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a nonsupernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. Deists differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles. Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist's metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism.
It's kind of ironic that after spending much of this excerpt showing how theists are wrong to claim Einstein for their side, Dawkins makes this bold move to claim pantheists for his side. I have to say I bristle at the statement that "pantheism is sexed-up atheism."

But let me go back to the immanence/transcendence idea, as it relates to Dawkins' concern about natural/supernatural. In the past I've taken issue with the way immanence and transcendence are played against each other in Paul Laughlin's writings. Laughlin treats them as opposite extremes on a single spectrum, with some caveats about weak forms of either. Against this I maintain that Christianity has often tried to take a position that doesn't fit on a linear scale between these two extremes.

But who says that immanence and transcendence are opposites? What happens if instead we map them out on separate axes? Thinking through this, it occurred to me that I'm not quite talking about immanence and transcendence as such anymore. I need new terminology. So I propose one axis that maps God's being organically present versus God's being wholly external, and a second axis that maps God's being ontologically distinct versus God's being ontologically identical with creation. Both of these scales could be described as mapping transcendence versus immanence, but notice that they are actually concerned with two very different things.

Here's my proposed map:

I've tentatively labelled the lower left quadrant as "atheism". That is, "God" is seen as ontologically identical with the universe, but not present -- atheism. I think that works.

It may not be clear what I mean by "organically present". Considering that I am proposing this as an analog of immanence might help. Basically, I mean a God who is part of the system so to speak -- not external and also not present as a visitor from the outside. I might be able to say "one with creation."

But if I make that last statement, you might start scratching your head, looking at my diagram and asking "How can God be both organically present and ontologically other?" That's a good question. If you have a substance-based ontology, it isn't possible, but if you have a relationally-based ontology (as suggested by John Zizioulas, for instance) then this is the only quadrant of my diagram that is possible. That is, if God's being is a being-in-relationship, then God cannot be other than organically present, and it is wholly natural for God to be personal.

Monday, September 17, 2007


The opening lines of the Isa Upanishad in Swami Parminanda's translation read, "All this, whatsoever exists in the universe, should be covered by the Lord....We cover all things with the Lord by perceiving the Divine Presence everywhere." Since I read this I've been mulling it over, trying to bring it into my Christian perspective with the aid of some ideas of Gerard Manly Hopkins that I found by way of William Short's book on Franciscan spirituality.

According to Short, Hopkins has the idea that all things bring forth Christ into the world by doing what they are. "The grape grapes, the star stars, a volcano volcanoes. Each, doing this, is being itself: doing what it is. Hopkins calls this 'do-being'. This do-being is doing Christ." Of course, Hopkins being who he was tended to say it more like this:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves - goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -
Christ - for Christ play in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
So I've been trying to get in touch with this sort of view of the world. And so as I was riding to work today, I was thinking about this, and I was thinking how it's easy to see trees, for instance, as being God-covered or even the flow of traffic or a well-made road. But what about the trash on the side of the road. Does trash trash, or is this a defilement of its nature? How can trash on the side of the road be God-covered?

And this led me to wonder, can sin be God-covered? Naturally, the verbal cues here took me to the Atonement as I thought how all sin is covered by the blood of Christ, but that didn't really meet what I was looking for.

Then I connected this with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The man who fell among robbers has a certain affinity with the trash along the side of the road, and the Samaritan made him God-covered by bringing God into the situation through compassion.

And so I thought how there must be a distinction to be made between sin and what is despoiled by sin, but then I thought that likely God doesn't see it that way. Doesn't God see the robbers as creatures despoiled by sin as much as their victim? And here I met an obstacle. There's a clear class of villians in the Bible. Jesus has compassion on sinners and tax collectors, but he has strong words for the Pharisees, and beyond them we have the larger shadow of Caesar and Rome. How do they become God-covered?

My intuition is that Jesus' primary response to them is to allow himself to be crucified, but I haven't worked out how this fits.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Christian Reconciliation Carnival

The September Christian Reconciliation Carnival is now online at Proclaiming Softly. Thanks to P.S. for hosting.

At last, I'm overweight

Since February I've been trying to eat better and exercise more, and overall I've had pretty good success. I had a pretty poor health base to start with, but slowly and steadily I've been making progress. This week I finally managed to make the transition from obese to merely overweight as measured by the body mass index. Now I only need to lose about 30 more pounds to be "normal".

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Sower

On the way to work the past two days I've been ruminating on the parable of the sower. It's open to a remarkable number of interpretations, and I'm pretty sure a lot of them are good interpretations, possibly even intended. I suppose that's one of the beauties of the parables.

As a Lutheran, I naturally started from the recognition that I'm not one of the soils, I'm all of them. I'm constantly showered by the grace of God's Word, but it has different results at different times. There are times when the word hits me and bounces off without effect. There are times when I receive the word with joy but it takes no root. There are times when the word starts to take root, but it is choked out by the pleasures and cares of the world. And there are times when the word takes root and bears fruit. This isn't a terribly original interpretation, but it's a good starting point for reflection.

One of the things that I thought about is that possibly this state of things is normal. That is, maybe it's because God knows I'm going to be like this that God scatters the seed so generously. I could set about looking for the paths and the rocky ground and the thorns in my life and try to get rid of them, but the sower in the parable doesn't do that. He just sows, and he gets a good crop.

At the same time, there are things I can do. For instance, consider the seed sown among thorns. It starts to grow. Suppose I find that a word of God I have received is starting to take root. If I leave it, it might be choked by thorns. But if I watch it and care for it, I can nuture it and help it bear fruit. I can take the plant from among the throns and carefully replant it in good soil.

That is, there are times when I hear something and it strikes a chord with me, or I understand it in a new way. If I let it go, nothing more will come of it. But if I keep it in mind ("hold it fast in an honest and good heart", in Luke's version of the parable), it grows and, hopefully, will bear fruit in my life.

As I continued to think about the parable, I thought the field isn't me -- the field is the world and the parable is about the world. Individualism is so ingrained in our culture that it's hard to even think about this parable apart from how it impacts individuals. The natural tendency is to look at one person and ask, what does the parable say about this person (usually "me")? But what does it mean if it's a parable about the world? It seems to me that in that case, its message is essentially the same as the parable of the woman baking bread. God scatters the seed freely, indiscriminantly, prodigally throughout the world. Sometimes nothing good happens but sometimes it does and when it does the results are wonderful. Just as the leaven leavens the whole loaf, the good soil produces enough crop for the whole field.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mother Russia: A Reminiscence

I'm not quite sure I can call this a reconciliation experience. I have for some time had something of an infatuation with Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, when I went through the standard Lutheran post-adolescent drift away from Christianity, the Orthodox classic The Way of a Pilgrim was one of the decisive elements in my return. But for whatever reason, I had never stepped foot in an Orthodox church.

Then a couple of years ago I was in Russia on business. Unlike typical business trips, this one left some free time for non-business activities. I was in Nizhny-Novogorod, so after visiting the house where Maxim Gorky was born, there wasn't a lot of typical touristy stuff to do. Naturally I wanted to see some churches, and let me tell you...Wow!

So Nizhny doesn't have anything like St. Basil's Cathedral, but for someone who had never seen a Russian Orthodox church before, all of them are awe inspiring.

My first experience was with a group of co-workers. First, we visited a monastery where after a small contribution the monk who was trying to get us to leave gave us a tour and (through a Russian co-worker who translated for us) gave a very motivational speech about St. John the Baptist ("Sometimes you have to preach to explain," our interpreter said). Later we visited a church whose name my Russian co-worker translated for us as "the Church of the Death of the Mother of God." We happened to be there during a worship service, and I was very uncomfortable as our mixed, mostly non-Christian, group stood in the "tacky knicknack shoppe" area and observed.

As it happens, however, because there are only two flights a week out of Nizhny, I had a Saturday morning free and was able to return to the church of the Dormition for Divine Liturgy. It was then that it became a place of prayer for me. The liturgy was, of course, in Russian and I only know about three words in Russian (no one taught me the Russian word for lip). I think I picked up "спасибо" ("thanks") a few times.

But it turns out that this language barrier was, for me, the greastest blessing of the whole visit. It allowed me to notice the non-verbal aspects of worship -- the sounds, the smells, the sights and the motions -- most of all the motions.

The sounds: there seemed to be a choir somewhere, but I never did figure out where they were, which was brilliant. Listening to these beautiful, far off voices singing something that I couldn't entirely's a wonderful metaphor for worship.

The smells: incense, incense and more incense. I thought of the refrain I know from Ash Wednesday services, "Lord, may our prayers rise like incense in your sight...."

The sights: this particular church, and every church I saw in Nizhny, had a full iconostasis, which was stunning, but beyond that, the arched walls of the area where the laity worship was covered with icons. Having these images of the saints "looking in" on the liturgy -- from behind, from above, from all around -- gave me, for the first time, an experiential knowledge of what is meant by worshipping with the whole Church.

The motions: Lutherans think they move around a lot in worship...sit, stand, kneel...but we've got nothing on the Russian Orthodox. First, they don't sit. They don't have pews. They would just be in the way. Throughout the service, everyone was constantly prostrating, bowing and making the sign of the cross. At first, I watched the people next to me and tried to keep up, usually half a step behind. Eventually I picked up on some of the auditory cues and began doing things at the right time (to the extent that there is a right time -- there was quite a bit of variation). I saw what it means to worship God with one's body. Anyone who speaks of "just" going through the motions in worship hasn't truly noticed what the motions are capable of.

All of this showed me a side of worship I never knew. I haven't been able to even approximate the experience in a Lutheran service, but the mere memory of it calls me deeper. It reminds me that there's more going on than meets the eye.

Useless Trivia

Working from home today and having the house to myself while my daughters are at school and my wife is away, I've gotten the chance to watch the day end of the Tigers-Rangers double header. In doing so I've picked up a couple of pieces of trivia so useless I had to share.

1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has the longest last name of any player in major league baseball history. As the Tigers' announcer observed, I wouldn't want to be the guy who has to stitch the letters on the back of his jersey.

2. The Rangers' pitchers combined to throw 230 pitches on Sunday. This is a major league record for most pitches thrown by the winning team in a nine inning game.

You've gotta love baseball. What other sport tracks these kind of things? BTW, the picture of Saltalamacchia's jersey is from the Rangers' 30-3 win over my beloved Orioles. It was the first time a team scored 30 runs in a game since 1897 when the Chicago Colts beat the Louisville Colonels 36-7. Yet another bad "Colts" link for Baltimore sports fans (yes, we're still bitter about that).