Archive for September, 2008

God as a Block of Ice

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on September 30, 2008 by RWZero

Finite Conceptions of the Infinite

I had a conversation with a couple of my good friends in Tim Horton’s once about the presence of God. Simply put, I argued that God is not omnipresent in the way that we imagine Him to be—if he is indeed omnipresent, He is present in gradations that allow Him to be more present in some places (or circumstances, actions and relations) than others.

My friends disagreed with me, and I suspect it was more than semantic. One of them characterized my portrayal as “the idea that God is like this,” where “this” involved him moving his hands about as if he was handling a blob-like alien organism, and he provided accompanying sound effects as he shifted God’s globular presence from one place to another. As I didn’t mean to characterize God as a cohesive blob, I may have smoothed that interpretation out by changing my analogy to that of a signal, which permeates the space we occupy, though only specific devices (such as TVs and radios) reveal its presence, and dance to its meaning.

At a reflective glance, I stand by the idea that God cannot simply be regarded as equally present in all times and places. People who claim to have encountered God in modern or ancient testimony speak of his distinct presence. In the Bible, God is described as one who reveals Himself—whose presence arrives—in specific time and place: on a mountain, in holy places of the temple, in the burning of a bush.

This conversation was only a facet of a greater issue: our finite conceptions of the infinite, as manifested in God.

I have noticed that most believers in God are tempted to frame this concept in the simplest way that one can frame an incomprehensible concept. They gather together the qualities and abilities that we ascribe positive value to (and experience in limited human context) and extend them to infinity.

If I may be granted a geometric analogy, we might imagine that all these qualities are graphed on perpendicular axes (Fig. 1). Of course, we can only show three dimensions on paper, but we might imagine more linearly independent directions for other qualities of interest. Thus, this conception of God fills up the entire space, maximizing his greatness—where his greatness is the area of this multi-dimensional solid. This God of Figure 1 is an infinite, boundless cube.

Figure 1– A simple infinite conception of God

At first, this may seem satisfactory. After all, we can scarcely imagine limiting God in any of these respects. But this is not a healthy way to imagine God, because in doing so we confine him to an infinite extension of our finite conception of his essential qualities. The more serious problem is that Christians tend to characterize God as defined by this concept, rather than having a character apart from such qualities.

If there were qualities unknowable to us, and if there were necessary relationships between them, we would be neglecting them in order to maximize God’s possession of the qualities visible to us. Furthermore, there are qualities known to us that have such relationships, and they cannot be treated independently as in Figure 1.

A human example of this may be (loosely defined) “fair, loving,” and “loyal.” Could a man cheat on his wife with as many women as possible in hopes of being ultimately fair to them? If fairness means only the treatment of all others as equal, perhaps he could. Ultimately loving? Certainly, if love knows no bounds. It is only because we condition these attributes with other qualities—loyalty, or even goodness—that we think differently. Basic qualities condition each other, creating dependencies, kinks and curves in the space they occupy.

Some may be tempted to wax existential here, arguing that virtue and positive qualities are created by us to suit our needs. Digression is unnecessary, as this would support the point. Rigidly ascribing infinite versions of our conceptions of virtue to God is dangerous, because these conceptions are imperfect and finite.

Christians are not the only ones who do this. Disbelief on the grounds that “God would,” or “God should” may involve this error. I must stress that I believe one may say “God would,” but in fewer cases than it is often said.

The more serious issue, as I mentioned, is the idea that God is precisely defined by this conception. That is, every thought and every actions of God is a calculated move that maximizes the “all-loving, all-knowing, omnipresent, all-powerful” dimensions of the situation. Such a god is merely an algorithm, a block of ice.

It seems strange that Christians might do this, as we believe in God as highly characterized through specific actions and words of Jesus, as well as conceptions found in Judaism. In reality, however, you need only sit through one Bible study to hear people explaining why this or that action is a direct result of him being all-everything. Jesus said such and such because, indirectly, it is the most all-everything thing to do.

This thinking casts God as having no character apart from his virtue. From where do we derive our ideas of virtue? Even if we derive them from God himself, he is not subject to the axioms that we have derived by conceiving of him. Such thinking also leads to objections like this one by Epicurus, also cited by Hume:

“Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

Yes, one might say that the problem of pain is a necessary cost of existence, but we often overstate this case. We cannot truly say why, or to what end, things are the way they are.

Theologian and pastor Gregory A. Boyd posited the idea that God may not fully know the future. He almost got kicked out of an organization or two for that, and I don’t agree with it, but he may be onto something. I do not believe the correct conception of God can exist without a healthy dose of the thinking found in Isaiah 55:8-9. While we naturally expect great accordance between God’s will and intuitive virtues, his omnipotence in all known abilities, and infinite embodiment of all positive traits; Christians must realize that the greatest reverence we can have for God involves elements of mystery, and representations of him that appear to us, occasionally, as finite. [1]

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[1] I had another illustration involving the integral of 1/[abs(X)] that in fact sparked this entire entry, but I’m trying to keep the amount of analytical rhetoric down. I will include it in the compiled version. Some of you just glanced at that equation and figured out what my point was going to be.

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On Capital “G”

Posted in Humour etc. on September 29, 2008 by RWZero

This is not the intended post for this Sunday.

I’ll try to curb the amount of entries like this that I write, lest I commit the sins that I spoke of in my previous two entries. Furthermore, I have removed the previous two entries because I am afraid they could be used as evidence against me in the future. I may indeed become one of those people when I get a career, particularly if my career interests me.

In any case:

It’s proper English to use a capital “G” when referring to “God,” (especially in a specific monotheistic tradition) because the word is a proper noun. Some Internet-based atheists believe they are exercising their right to show disrespect when they write it in lowercase, but they are merely sacrificing proper grammar for the sake of childish protest. Proper nouns are capitalized, including Santa Claus, leaving such people (who conflate belief in these entities) without excuse.

I will not capitalize the pronouns “He” and “Him,” as Christians sometimes do.

I wrote in my schedule that I would post today, but I changed my mind about the sequence of entries. I did not want to post the one I had written yet (it’s not entirely due to my inability to hold to a schedule). In short, I’ll post tomorrow (that is, today).

Is He Holding You?

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on September 12, 2008 by RWZero

Thoughts on Critical Examination

In the middle of a rainy night at Union Station in Jacksonville, Mississippi, the Greyhound driver left our bus. Nobody came to take his place. We soon realized that it would be a while before dispatch could rectify the mistake, and as we waited there, I wandered into the empty station and watched the TV in the customer service area.

Larry King was interviewing Bill Maher—a comedian I had previously never heard of—about his upcoming film, which mocks religion. I paid attention to the dialogue that followed.

Maher made the conjecture that “the idea that another human being can tell you what happens when you die” is ridiculous. I can empathize with this. In the moments that followed he admitted that he was not strictly atheist, but agnostic. He suggested that although there might be answers, he didn’t know them, and he believes it’s much more honest to admit that. He doesn’t care much for the big questions, because “you just give yourself a headache thinking about them.”

At one point Larry King, in reference to these answers, asked: “So it could be Jesus?”

“Well yes, it could be Jesus,” conceded Maher, “but it also could be… Furby, or the lint in my navel.”

Larry King paused to note that they were having this interview because of the comedian’s upcoming movie, and that “no matter what you think of religion, you should see this film.”

Our driver still hadn’t arrived. I went back to the bus and opened up a book. A Southern drawl behind me broke the silence.

“Even people tryin’ a sneak on a bus ‘d be gone by now.”

* * *

There are many distinct paradigms on display when people candidly discuss God or religion. Inside the Christian church, I have heard for many years that the post modern era has produced a society uninterested in intellectual arguments. They want to know why this God cares about them, why He is relevant, and why He loves them. They may like Christ, but dislike the Christians, as Gandhi did. If we could show them a generation of changed lives, we may change their lives.

For all those years, I have kept my head down and silently disagreed. I would like to believe that God cares, and is present in the universe that He ostensibly created—I wish to live selflessly, and differently—but I can’t live for God unless I first have reason to believe He exists, and wants me to.

There is a classical assumption in the church that you cannot reason someone into faith. I do not disagree with this. I strongly believe, however, that you cannot bring someone to faith of any substance without reason. But how much can you apply reason to something so inexplicable and elusive?

In the opening lecture of a Professional Education course that I took during the summer term, our professor drew a graph in the shape of an inverse bell curve, with time on the X axis and commitment (to beliefs and ideas) on the Y axis. The curve was a cycle that many people, though not all, progress through. She labeled the first high point “dualism,” in which people believe there are only right or wrong answers. They then sink into “relativism,” in which they begin to question whether these answers can be found at all. In the last phase, they discover that while absolute truth is always uncertain, some answers are better than others, and they grow comfortable with committing themselves to those that they consider best. Although she made a tolerant disclaimer that there is nothing “good or bad” about completing this cycle, I seems to me a plain case of maturity with time.

For persons in the commitment stage, this commitment is based on knowledge. It is possible to base your commitments on reason, but like a powerful engine grinding on fumes, base your reason upon nothing.

For some, truth is so inaccessible that it could be anything—including Furby and the lint in Bill Maher’s navel—but for most, it is not.

* * *

An explanation is only a working explanation if it truly addresses the cause.

I have so often heard the beliefs and behaviour of Christians explained in the basest terms—that faith is a crutch for the weak minded, that the church is after your money, that God is Santa Claus for grown-ups, that we believe in God only to explain natural phenomena that science has now explained. These explanations are popular because they are simple, adequately fitting the scintilla of understanding that their hearers often possess.  [1]

There is no need to debunk these, because their occasional truth is inconsequential—as is the existence of atheists who disbelieve out of fear that God will make them change their lives. Neither reasons why people may believe in God, nor possibilities of how we may have invented the idea, determine whether it is valid.

Similarly, it is fallacy to say that something is wishful thinking because of desire. If a man and a woman are in love, we do not tell him that she and her love are imaginary, simply because he desires that it should be so.

A working explanation is only a correct explanation if it is in harmony with all you know, and all that you haven’t yet learned.

Explanations for events are often accepted as soon as they suffice in light of all that we know, and rarely do we consider that we may know very little.

If a new woman at work is seen getting friendly with the boss, we assume that she is not seeking unadulterated, true love. We allow for the possibility, but we do not press it, as there are no consequences for being wrong. In the “big question,” however, there can ultimately be only one truth, with no stereotypes or likelihoods to compare it to. If the true motives behind the workplace tryst held the meaning of life, we would surely take the pains to discover that these two have been acquainted since childhood, and long ago fell for each other.

Even agnosticism must be justified. The assumption that we cannot know the truth–or that the truth is not important–must be critically chosen as the better position… not defaulted to.

Larry King’s statement that viewers “should” see Maher’s film haunted me as I struggled to sleep to the humming of the Greyhound engine. The premise was unmistakable—viewers of all persuasions we have their thinking reformed by what they see, because it will be new to them. To suggest that we have thought so little about these topics that we “should” see—that we would benefit from seeing—a comedian heckle religious believers with trick questions, is abominable.

* * *

I read a story circulated on the Internet entitled “Is He Holding You?” about a girl whose atheist father committed a murder suicide in front of her. This girl had never learned anything about Christianity. Later, when she attended church for the first time, a Sunday school teacher held up a picture of Jesus.

“Does anyone know who this is?” she asked. The girl responded:

“That’s the man who was holding me the night that my parents died.”

The picture of Jesus was surely a white Anglo-Saxon portrayal that would bear little resemblance to the real man. The girl would never have simply accepted the memory of a strange man in her house, only to casually bring it up upon recognizing his face. The story contains no verifiable details. A Christian who passionately recounted this story would be ridiculed—would it be for these reasons? Or simply because belief in and of itself is to be ridiculed?

On an engineering test, it is not acceptable to leave out steps that lead to the answer, especially if there are only so many answers to choose from. It is not acceptable to be right by accident, and neither is it acceptable to be right for the wrong reasons—ultimately, this leads to being wrong.

How many Christians do examine that story and find it wanting? Religious believers are held to a standard of scrutiny that brings heavy criticism for believing flimsy tales. But I have already spent far more time reproving my fellow Christians than I’ve spent reproving those atheists and agnostics who comfort themselves with tales that are no less flimsy.

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[1] It’s true that many learned people tend to say things like this, so I only referred to popularity among the hearers.

Prognosis

Posted in Primary on September 12, 2008 by RWZero

I’ve gotten myself together, and have taken up my plan to write here again on a predictable, regular schedule. If you have any interest in reading, please sign up for the RSS feed, or learn how it works (use Google Reader, it’s simple) if you don’t already. I just discovered RSS feeds within the past couple weeks, despite feeling as if I should have long since known about them.

The topics I have posted may seem scattered and pointless thus far, but as I have mentioned, this blog is more of a personal writing project–all the entries have so far been introductions to topics I intend to expand on individually. The categories are, in essence, chapters, and at some point it may make more sense to click on them separately to see the continuity. As for the post I am writing presently, it too is an introduction to the chapter that I’ve left unopened.