Saturday, June 30, 2007

Historical Fall, Historical Redemption

Hello my Blogging Buds,
I'm still out here in Quincy. I'm missing my adorable wife and family terribly. I'm missing my friends. I'm missing my dogs. But, as compensation, I'm enjoying great intellectual stimulation. Life is full of trade-offs I guess.

In our tenth (yes, it's been TEN already!) session of the Quincy Science and Theology conference, we heard from Dr. John Haught, professor of theology at Georgetown University and author of God After Darwin: An Evolutionary Theology. Among other things, John has been at the cutting edge of attempts to fully integrate a biblical and (more-or-less) traditional Christian theology into the post-Darwinian worldview. It was, once again, a stimulating session. Here are a few of the highlights:

1. John did a great job graphically fleshing out the enormous worldview shift that has occurred in post-Darwinian western thought. Consider, for example, that prior to Darwin most people assumed the earth was about six to ten thousand years old and that humans have been on the scene from the start. Now, after Darwin, the situation is something like this: Imagine a stack of 30 books, each 450 pages long. For the first 21 volumes there is NO LIFE. The simplest living cells come on the scene toward the end of volume 22. The Cambrian Explosion occurs in volume 29. Dinosaurs occupy about seven pages beginning around page 380 of volume 30. Humans come on the scene at the bottom 10th of the LAST PAGE of the LAST VOLUME. THAT, folks, is a huge change of perspective! Theology needs to wrestle with it.

I know some folks think this is inherently an anti-god perspective. (I received an e-mail yesterday from one person who questioned my salvation for giving any credibility to evolution in my previous couple of posts!) But I (along with John Haught and all the participants in the conference) don't see why this should be the case. For a God who has always existed, the difference between 10,000 years and 13.7 billion years (the age most scientists give the universe today) is infintesimally small. I personally feel the older universe and long process God used to create humans adds grandeur to our picture of God.

2. We discussed the nature of "layered explanations." For example, suppose there's a pot of boiling water on the stove and someone asks, "Why is the water boiling?" One could respond: 1) by explaining to the person how heat pushes water molecules into an excited state we call boiling; 2) by telling the person, "I turned on the stove"; or 3) by telling the person "I wanted tea." These are not incompatible explanations. So too, Haught argued, saying "God did it" while explaining a natural proces by which (say) a species came about are not mutually exclusive explanations. The Bible and science (yes, even evolutionary science) are not in conflict (unless, of course, one insists on interpreting Genesis in a very literal way). Atheistic evolutionists like Richard Dawkins err in assuming that explanations #2 and #3 can be reduced to explanation #1.

3. John and the rest of us talked a good bit about the open-ended nature of creation and how it manifests a God who delights in creativity and adventure. God gives the creation its own "integrity," John argued, such that it participates in the creation process. God's creativity is channelled through natural processes where nature explores possibilities, sometimes coming to dead ends, sometimes finding ways to evolve into more complex, efficient, and intelligent forms. Dr. Haught also strongly emphasized the role of "promise" in the Bible. God's word, he argued, always involves "promise." He applied this to the creational process, arguing that the creation is brought about not as a finished product, or as a deterministic mechanism, but as an adventurous narrative that is moving towards a promised future. I think this is a view that is not only compatible with science and the Bible; it's also inherently beautiful and intuitively compelling.

4. We once again got into the ruthless nature of the evolutionary process. Haught graphically illustrated the issue with the life cycle of the sheep liver fluke. As I understand it, this nasty parasite gets inside of snails and eats them from the inside out, knowing precisely what NOT to eat to keep the snail alive until it's done using it as a host. I''ve heard of other parasites that possess this same "wisdom." I read about one (I forget its name) that eats grasshoppers from the inside out to the point where there's only vital organs and a head left! The parasite then makes the grasshopper go mad, causing it to dive into water and drown itself. This allows the parasite to leave its host and reproduce in water -- only to have its young find their way into other grasshoppers who drink the water! YIK. Why does nature produces critters like this?

Haught seemed content to attribute the "carnage" aspect of evolution to natural by-products of the evolutionary process. While I didn't make a big stink of it in this session (I don't want to come across as a "one-issue person" here), I find this explanation entirely inadequate. I grant that God gives nature its own integrity, such that there's an element of freedom and adventure in nature itself. But I don't see how this explains the production of "natural" complex agents like malicious parasites and viruses who inflict misery on sentient creatures for their entire existence. Since I have other reasons for believing that malicious cosmic agents exist, I see no reason not to attribute the aspects of nature that don't reflect the Creator's benevolent character to these agents. In this view, the creational process is itself a battle ground between good and evil -- which, it seems to me, is precisely how the creational process looks.

5. I'll end with a reflection on the aspect of Haught's view that deeply concerns me. Like many other theologians who center their theological reflections on the evolutionary process, Haught simply has no place for a historical "fall." In his view, there never was a primordial paradise or a primordial rebellion (Genesis 3). What we call our "fallen nature" is for these theologians simply our inherited animal instincts that we need to tame and transcend with our higher, ever-evolving, spiritual capacities. This is already troubling, but what makes it worse is that if there's no historical "fall," it's not clear how there could be a historical "redemption." Jesus isn't rescuing us from sin and the devil. He's simply helping us evolve, or something of the sort.

This, obviously, constitutes a signfiicant revisioning of biblical thinking about Christ, and because of my commitment to biblical inspiration, I'm not willing to go there. Jesus and the whole New Testament clearly affirms a historical fall (e.g. Rom. 5), and since I have very good grounds for thinking Jesus is the Son of God, I have very good reasons for thinking he's right about such matters. Nor do I see any good philosophical or scientific reasons to deny a historical fall or historical redemption. Indeed, it seems to me almost self-evident that there's something profoundly wrong with human nature and society -- as well as the "natural world" -- as we presently experience it.

As I put all this together, I'm led to the belief that there was some sort of rebellion in the primordial past, first among angelic beings, then with humans. The first resulted in nature becoming to some degree corrupt while the second (which is simply our being co-opted into the first rebellion) resulted in human beings becoming corrupt and loosing the authority over nature we were supposed to have.

Jesus came to restore both humans and the cosmos (Rom 8:18-25; Col 1:15-23). And he does it by freeing both humans and the cosmos from the oppression of the demonic powers and the sin that so enslaves us.

Blessings on you all,

Back to the Drawing Board on the "Gap Theory"

Heh folks,

I've heard from quite a number of you, and I'm delighted you're enjoying my daily posts on the Science and Theology Conference out here in Quincy. (I also know its not everyone's cup of tea, so to you non-scientific folks I say, "Thanks for your patience"!)

On Thursday we dialogued with Dr. Ken Miller, professor of cell biology at Brown University. As with our previous guests, he was an incredibly informative and engaging speaker. Ken is a very quick thinker, an avid evolutionist, a passionate opponent of Intelligent Design being taught in public schools, and a very committed Roman Catholic. He's well known for his acclaimed book, Finding Darwin's God, but he's even better known for having written a widely used high school biology textbook that has been at the center of several controversies surrounding the teaching of Evolution and Intelligent Design in public schools, the most recent being the controversy in Dover, Pennsylvania, that got national attention.

Most of Miller's lecture was spent giving "the inside scoop" on his various battles with "the Intelligent Design" (I. D.) and "Young Earth Creationist" crowd. This wasn't quite on target for the topic of our conference, but it was nevertheless very informative and more than a little entertaining. Miller was a central player at the Dover's trial, and some of what went on during this trial was hilarious, at least as Miller tells it. As you probably know, the I.D. crowd was voted down by the Judge. Miller says that there are currently TWO movies in the making about this event. (I wonder if they'll include Pat Robertson's cryptic and omnious warning of disaster coming to Dover because of this decision against I.D being taught in the public schools.).

ANYWAY, in the course of describing these controversies, and especially in the discussion after his lecture, Miller provided us with a number of arguments as to a) why Intelligent Design is a religious, not a scientific theory; b) some of the more impressive recent findings that support the theory of evolution [most of which I hadn't known before]; and c) why evolution should pose no threat to religious faith. None of the participants in the conference (including myself) had any problems with "b" or "c," but a few expressed reservations about "a." One very sharp participant argued that Miller's depiction of some of the I.D. defenders and some of their arguments at the Dover's trial was quite biased -- but I'm frankly not informed enough on either side to comment on this.

The discussion also delved into the nature of scientific explanations verses religious claims, and I felt this was for the most part a helpful dialogue. Among other things Miller stressed that the claim that science must stick with a "naturalistic methodology" isn't an arrogant claim that all of reality can be understood naturalistically (as some philosophers of science seem to think -- see several blogs from last week). Rather, it’s a claim toward modesty. It is saying, "this is all we are competent to speak on." To qualify as science, he argued, a claim must in principle be TESTABLE by empirical means. If it's not empirically testable, it still may be TRUE--i'ts just that it can't be proven scientifically.

This is an important point, because Miller's battle isn't against people who believe the world was designed by a Creator. He himself believes this. His beef is with those who want to allow appealing to a supernatural source to qualify as science (and taught in public classrooms as such), for this is simply not a testable hypothesis. All the arguments used to support this contention at best only show that evolutionary theory is yet incomplete. They don't "prove" Intelligent Design. Also, Miller gave many examples where science at points was at a loss as to how to explain certain phenomena, but how when they "stuck to their guns" and insisted there must be a natural explanation -- against others who wanted to appeal to a supernatural source -- it proved fruitful to subsequent scientific discoveries.

I myself wasn't versed enough in Intelligent Design to enter this discussion (I've read a total of two books on the subject!), but several participants at the conference pushed back a bit on this. It was a good dialogue.

As it concerns my own theology, there's only one point that is possibily affected by any of the discussion this morning.. (Actually, its not really affected by any of this discussion, but the thought arose during the discussion).

To date I have argued that we have good grounds for maintaining that fallen powers were at work in the world before humans ever came on the scene, since (as I mentioned a few blogs ago) the paleontological evidence shows clearly that there were millions of years of carnage before humans were created. Odd as this belief seems to some, I'm personally convinced this view is true.

Now, in God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil I have appealed to the "gap theory" of creation as a way of reconciling this conviction with Genesis chapter 1. (My version of the "gap theory" posits a gap between verses 1 and 2 and says nature became corrupted by demonic powers and the world and the powers were judged during this interval). Among other arguments, I have contended that there are more than a dozen references to creation in the Old Testament, and every one but Genesis 1 involves "warfare" (chaoskampf -- meaning "conflict with chaos"), in so far as these passages depict Yahweh rebuking hostile waters or cosmic monsters to bring creation about. The imagery is of course mythic, but like all true myth, it must refer to a reality, and so it must be integrated with Genesis 1. So I have proposed (however tentatively) that we put this cosmic conflict between verses 1 and 2 in the first chapter of Genesis. (We have to put the creation of the angels in Genesis 1 somewhere, since they're not mentioned, so why not the fall of the angels and their corruption of the earth in this space as well? Plus, I find evidence in Genesis itself that warrants this God at War!)

At the same time, I've left open the issue of how literal or figurative the rest of Genesis 1 should be taken, and thus left open the issue of how to fit evolution into this chapter after verse 2. (I grant that it occurred before the arrival of humans, though I'm not convinced that current evolutionary theory is adequate to explain how).

Well, as Ken Miller was presenting his case, I had to face a problem that I've known about for a long time, but have to date been conveniently ignoring. Namely, there's simply not much scientific evidence for the "gap" I'm proposing. If there was in fact a cataclysmic judgment on the earth and then a re-creation, as I've proposed we find in Genesis 1, one would think there should be some evidence of it. In fact, one would expect to find MASSIVE evidence for it. Now, one can certainly find a number of major cataclysims in earth's violent history, but nothing that would come close to suggesting what the gap theory requires.

So, folks, I seem to have a problem, and I need to face it.

The advantages of my version of the gap theory are that it solves an exegetical problem (viz. reconciling Genesis 1 with the dozen or so other creation accounts that involve conflict); it accounts for an old earth; and it accounts for the carnage that existed before humans ever came around. But I have to confess it runs into a significant problem with the geological and palentological record. It also runs into problems with the genetic record, since the vast majority of scientists are now convinced there is a rather seamless ancestry that can be genetically traced from the lower primates up to humans. (Miller gave some of this evidence, and it was very impressive).

When established science and one's theology come into conflict, it simply means we have more work to do.

And so, folks, its back to the drawing board for me on the gap theory.
Keep growing, thinking and loving!

Ps. I know my concession in this post is going to disappoint some, since I've received numerous mailings from people who LOVE my version of the gap theory as a way of reconciling Genesis 1 with an old earth and violent pre-huminoid history. I'm sorry, but what can one do? I'm convinced there's a plausible way to handle all the biblical and scientific evidence, and I even have a HUNCH as to how this might be done. But I need to work on it. I encourage you to do the same.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Great Time Talking Faith and Politics

Hi folks,
I took Wednesday off from the Science and Theology conference to fly out to Washington D.C. and participate in a one day Conference on Faith and Politics, alongside Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Melissa Rogers. It was sponsored by Christian Faith and Ethics Today and The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (which includes 14 different Baptist organizations). About 400 Baptist leaders were present.

We had a wonderful time! Several people told me afterwards that they felt it was the most engaging and animated conference they'd ever attended. (One gentleman who told me this was around 70 years old and said he'd been going to conferences like this all of his life!) We all presented our views with passion, yet there was a discernable mutual respect and love that permeated the conference. Honestly, I love these folks. (And Tony is hands down the best speaker in America!)

Afterwards we all went out for dinner. We got into some very good, always friendly, debates. When I had to leave to catch a plane, I told them very sincerely I wished we had five hours to continue because it was so stimulating, challenging and informative. I honestly was pressed on points I need to think deeply about, and I appreciated this. Melissa (who is a legal expert on church and state relations and a fantastic speaker!) suggested we (and perhaps other like-minded leaders) arrange to do this once a year, and everyone seemed open to the possibility. We'll see.

Anyways, there's a trillion issues I could discuss, but I'll just briefly discuss my take on one. (The word "briefly" in this sentence is used in an Einsteinian sense: It's very relative.)

The four of us all agreed passionately that the most important thing disciples of Jesus can do to further the Kingdom isn't about politics; its about HOW WE LIVE. Furthermore, we all agreed that the Church needs to take responsibility for poverty, homelessness, racism, and all manner of social ills, and that we shouldn't wait on government to do any of this. And we all agreed that the only authority the Church has to speak to anyone is the moral authority it earns by sacrificing for others. (Tony was especially eloquent in his talk about this.) Where we disagreed was that Tony, and even more so Jim, believe that we must also invest energy in being "the conscience of government," holding it accountable to do the right thing. (I'm not sure where Melissa stands on this).

There's six things I'd say in response to this position (most, but not all, of which I expressed in my talk and in our dinner conversation).

1. I think it's EVERY decent person's job to "hold the government accountable." The criteria for good politics isn't Christian faith or self-sacrificial love, but common decency that promotes the common good. There's nothing distinctly Christian about holding a government accountable. Nor does being a Christian give one any special moral insight or wisdom into what government should do about various social ills. What being a follower of Jesus SHOULD do -- and this is our one distinctive -- is that we should be more willing to sacrificially serve others. So, I believe, our focus as Kingdom leaders should be on motivating and mobilizing Christians to sacrifice, not motivating and mobilizing them to vote "right."

2. Tony repeatedly appealled to the paradigm of the prophet going before the King and saying prophetically, "Thus says the Lord..." But this paradigm is rooted in the Old Testament in which both the King and the prophet were under the Israelite covenant. The JOB of the prophet under this covenant was to hold the King (and others) accountable. But America isn't Israel. It makes no more sense in America (or any other country) to proclaim "Thus says the Lord" to the President or Congress than it does to say this to a stranger on the street. Why should they care about what "the Lord" says -- or about what you or I THINK the Lord says? This is why Jesus never challenged Pilate or Caesar, though they were by any standards both very, very bad leaders.

3. I agree in a sense that Kingdom people can function as the "conscience of governement," but it's not by our WORDS, but by our LIFE. The unique Kingdom way to function as the conscience of government is simply by BEING THE KINGDOM -- which means, LOOKING LIKE JESUS. If the Church would sacrificially care about the poor, the homeless, the economically and racially oppressed, etc… it would cast a light on government that would expose its inadequate attention to these issues, just as Jesus exposed the ugliness of earthly governements (and the demonic power behind them, cf. Lk 4:5-7) by allowing himself to be crucified as he entered into solidarity with sinners.

I suspect the reason many if not most American Christians default to political power is because the Church in America is so far from being this kind of "conscience" that most can't even imagine it. Because of the Church's lack of Christ-like sacrificial power, the only kind of power most Americans see is "power over" others -- that is, political power. So they sadly think the Church needs to acquire as much of this kind of power as possible. As I argued in The Myth of a Christian Nation, the quest for this kind of power has always, and will always, destroy the Church. Our only authority is the Cross, not the Sword. And when we pick up the Sword, we put down the Cross.

4. Here's a big one. At dinner I argued with Jim and Tony that if we agree that our only authority to speak to governements or to anyone else is the moral authority we earn by sacrificially serving others, and if we agree (as we do) that the Church isn't remotely close to having this moral authority in western culture, then, I said, doesn't it make sense for us to BE QUIET about politics and put all our energies into motivating and mobilizing the church to be the Jesus-looking kingdom we're called to be in order to perhaps someday gain this authority? And if the Church ever did win this broad respect such that people and government actually cared about our opinions, then we wouldn't have to demand it. It would come naturally. (Moral authority, I believe, can NEVER be demanded. It must be earned).

On the other hand, when we speak into politics without this moral authority, we are heard simply as one of the many political voices trying to enforce our wills on others through the power of law. We're just another "power-over" special interest group. So, shouldn’t we simply "Seek first (to be) the Kingdom of God, and (trust that) all these things (include a voice in steering society) will be given unto you" (Mt 6:33)?

5. On top of this, what business does the Church have trying to get Caesar to act more Christian than we ourselves act? How can we possibly tell Caesar what he should do about the poor when we ourselves are not bleeding as much as we can bleed for the poor? The Church can have a role in leading government, I believe, but only if it does so BY EXAMPLE, not cheap opinions.
Until we ARE this example, I honestly think its counter-productive to the Kingdom to offer public opinions "in Jesus name." It's like those Christians who publically rally Christians to be against gay marriage because they're for family values, when Christians themselves have a higher divorce rate than the rest of America. This sort of thing invites the charge of hypocrisy. Of course, individuals can have whatever opinions they want about gay marriage or any other political issue. The trouble arises when groups publically represent this as "the Christian position." If Christians spent a decade doing nothing but healing their own marriages while sacrificially serving non-Christian gay people, maybe, just maybe, we'd earn the right to lovingly speak into their lives -- and they into ours (since, after all, our sin is like a tree trunk compared to their sin, which is a mere dust particle [Mt 7:1-3]).

6. Finally, my deepest worry is always about the demonic pull of politics. I think the devil loves it when we become so entangled in trying to get Caesar to do what we think he should do that we compromise our Kingdom call to do the one thing WE'RE supposed to do; namely, all the things we're trying to get Caesar to do! We can become so entangled with trying to steer politics that we don't get around to simply BEING THE CHURCH.

I suspect the devil especially loves it when we become divided over what Caesar should do -- as is inevitable once we become preoccupied with the politics Caesar, instead of the Kingdom of Christ. When this happens, we can't as a united front sacrifice together to be the Kingdom. The Matthews and Simons among us become so divided over whether the Democratic or Republican program is the best one to address injustice (or whatever) that we can't unite together to sacrificially do something in Jesus' name about injustice.

Again, we had a wonderful time together, and the conversation will continue. But in the meantime, may I encourage all of us to not wait on the outcome of this discussion, or of ANY discussion. Starting now, JUST BE THE KINGDOM. Unite with other disciples and live in the question: How can we bleed together to manfiest God's love to others?

How you vote isn't going to change the world. How you LIVE will. God promises it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Satan and the Carnage of Nature

Hello my blogging friends,

Well, we had another FANTASTIC discussion at the Science and Theology Conference this morning (Tuesday). The presenter was Jeffery Schloss, Professor of Biology at Westmont University in Malibu California (Westmont is a conservative Christian University). He is a leading expert on competing models of Evolutionary Theory. With a breathtaking encylopedic command of the material (the man seems to have read everything by everyone on every topic related to evolution!) he presented an overview of the various ways contemporary evolutionists explain the apparent directionality of evolution.

Against most other experts, Schloss presented a vast array of evidence in making the case that evolution seems to be driven by purpose. There IS "progress," and at the apex of this progress are beings capable of choosing love (but also capable of choosing hate). Even if you don't accept evolution (I know some of my blog readers are young earth creationists), you'd have to appreciate the strength of Schloss' argument.

Now for the issue of the day. As you might expect, I tried to throw a monkey wrench into the proposal by pointing out that, while I grant there seems to be evidence of purpose in evolution, there's also clear evidence of purposelessness -- or worse, a purpose to destroy. This is Richard Dawkins' (the famous scientific atheist who just wrote The God Delusion) main argument against belief in God. Evolutionary history, Dawkins writes, is a history of carnage, waste, and pain.

In response, Schloss acknowledged the problem, offered a few reflections about the constraints God must work within to direct evolution to the production of creatures with our capacities, and the like. I then asked him if he felt evolution HAD to be this destructive to produce creatures like us, and, interestingly enough, he denied this. He admitted natural selection didn't require any death or violence at all.

How interesting.

Well, I felt I'd already hogged too much time, so I shut up. BUT, two hours later I found myself being driven to the Airport with him, so I asked him point blank: "Given the high profile that Satan and fallen powers have in the New Testament, why couldn't we explain the carnage that is evolutionary history by simply admitting that God isn't the ONLY influencer in the process? Why not suppose that Satan and fallen powers also influence evolutionary history? And since you (Jeff Schloss) admit that evolutionary history COULD have unfolded without this vast bloodshed, don't you as a believer HAVE to introduce a demonic influence at some point to explain why it DIDN'T unfold this way?"

His response was truly astounding. He chided me for not being explicit about what I was getting at in my question during the session. "I would have loved the opportunity to address this, and my answer would have been bold," he said. Then, getting rather animated, he said, "I'm hestitant to admit it in academic circles because no one seems to take it seriously, but I think there is absolutely NO WAY to adequately account for the carnage in nature unless you accept there's an evil destructive force that pervades nature -- the one the New Testament calls Satan." He said that he believed that God is always working for life, even through the evolutionary process, while Satan is always working to destroy life, even through the evolutionary process.


Folks, this is the first live, professional scientist I've ever found who agrees with me -- and he's one of the leaders in the field!

I then talked about the possibility of "coming out" with this conviction and doing a joint Science and Theology academic paper on "The Satan-in-Nature Hypothesis." He said he'd love to. Like me, he thinks it’s the missing variable in theodicy thinking.

And, we both agreed, the vast majority of our academic peers will regard us as looney.
So what.
Blessings on you all.

Intelligent Design and Intelligent Anti-Design

I flew back home this weekend to preach a couple sermons, then flew out to re-join the science and theology conference in Quincy -- and I am frankly sick of FLYING!! But, at the same time, it was wonderful seeing my adorable wife and son again, as well as my friends and my dogs. And, of course, I'm always blessed to worship and crack open the Word at Woodland Hills Church. So the trip was well worth the trouble.

Anyway, yesterday all of us theologians and philosophers had an excellent discussion with Dr. Ross Stein, Professor of Chemistry at Harvard Medical School. He's a very interesting bird. He was a hard core atheist up until about 5 years ago when the apparent inexplicability of abiogensis (the origin of life) and magnificent complexity of even the simplest life forms convinced him there had to be intelligence directing the evolutionary process. At the same time, the existence of complex forms of life that serve only to harm humanity (such as the AIDS virus) convinced him that God can't be omnipotent. In fact, Stein confessed it was the existence of natural evil that kept him from believing in God in the first place. So, Dr. Stein embraced a form of theism known as Process Theism.

Process Theism says that God is forever evolving along with the world. God didn't create the world ex nihilo, and so never exercises unilateral control over the world. But God INFLUENCES the world, moment-by-moment, steering it as best he can toward ever-increasing complex forms of life and higher forms of consciousness.

At the same time, the world is composed of "units of experience" (called "actual occasions" in Process thought) that have some minimal degree of decision making power. Everything -- literally, EVERY DISTINCT THING from people down to electrons -- is at its core an experiential center. (This is called "panpsychism" or "pan-experientialism," and I blogged about it several posts ago). So God can't ensure that every actual occasion will fully cooperate with his good plans. In Stein's Process view, evil arises from the unfortunate decisions of actual occasions.

Stein then proceeded, in great (and always interesting) detail, to use Process Thought to explain abiogensis and the evolution of increasingly complex chemical processes that produce "emergent properties." (If you don't know what this means, don't worry about it).

Now, as I argued in my book Trinity and Process, I find a lot that is valuable in Process thought. But, as I also argued in this work, I also find much that is theologically and philosophical problematic. Among other things, the God of the Bible is depicted as an omnipotent Creator. He does miracles throughout biblical history (and yet today) and became Incarnate in Jesus Christ -- things Process thought simply cannot allow for. But the objection I had today concerned its explanation of the problem of evil.

Here's the gist of my argument: Stein appeals to God's intelligent creativity to account for the origin of life and the ever increasingly complexity of living organisms. Creation reflects Intelligent Design. I agree. But when it comes to accounting for natural evil, Stein and Process thinkers in general appeal to nothing more than the micro-scopic random decisions of actual occasions.

The trouble is, natural evil is as complex as natural goodness. A virus with the capacity to quickly mutate in ingenious ways as it works its way into the human system with the purpose of harming and destroying is INCREDIBLY COMPLEX. So, if good complexity is evidence of a benevolent intelligence, why shouldn't we conclude that destructive complexity is evidence of an EVIL INTELLIGENCE? (I know this is simplistic in as much as some viruses and bacteria have over-all beneficial results. Fine. But you'd be hard pressed to see the positive results of things like the AIDS or INFLUENZA viruses.)

The Bible ascribes incredible (though not omnipotent) power to Satan and his legions. Satan is "the god of this age" and the "principality and power of the air" who is "in control of the world" (2 Cor. 4:4;Eph 2:2; I Jn 5:19). This is why I'm a bit puzzled by the fact that, when it comes to explaining evil, hardly any theologians seem willing to give Satan any "credit" for natural evil. But given the Bible's witness, together with its testimony that some "natural processes" like DEATH are described as being due to Satan (Heb 2:14), and given the difficulty of accounting for natural evil any other way, I submit we are justified in concluding that God isn't the only intelligence at work in steering natural processes (including the evolutionary process, if you believe in that). Satan is also involved.

I think the main reason for the strange hesitancy of contemporary theologians to ascribe anything to Satan is that most are embarrassed by the concept of an evil cosmic being influencing the world. But why is believing in an evil cosmic being any more difficult than believing in a good cosmic being? Personally, because of the problem of evil, I'd have trouble believing in the latter if I DIDN'T believe in the former.

If you accept my Satan-in-nature theory, there's no longer any problem trying to explain why a good intelligent designer would design the AIDS virus or any other complex destructive organism. Natural process, as much as human beings, are under the influence of not only a good intelligent designer, but also of an evil intelligent anti-designer.

And folks, WE are called to align ourselves with the former, against the latter.


Friday, June 22, 2007

Temporal Flow, Relativity Theory, and Open Theology

Hello friends,

In our fifth session of the Quincy Science and Theology Conference, we heard from Robert Mann. Mann is the head of the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo in Ontario Canada. Unlike our previous guests, I'd never heard of Mann before. But this was, in my opinion, by far the most exciting and beneficial session thus far.

Dr. Mann gave the clearest, most insightful, and yes, entertaining talks on physics I've ever heard! It was truly remarkable. On top of all this, Dr. Mann is a Christian, and he ended the talk by discussing how every scenario science offers regarding the future of the universe leads to inevitable and complete doom. If there's any hope, he argued, it's in the Christian doctrine of resurrection. It was powerful.

But the main topic for the day was what science has to say about the nature of time. Among the many things Robert said was that there are 7 indicators in science (as we presently understand it) that suggest that the flow of time from the past to the future is real. (This is very important since the flow of time has for the most part been considered superfluous for the physical sciences, since most equations work forward or backward. Prediction and retrodiction are essentially the same).

I don't have time to explain these, but for those who are curious, these 7 arguments are:
1) Cosmological: Evidence of the big bang suggests the universe is moving from a start in the past to a finish in the future.
2) Radioactive: Light and sound diverge outward but don't converge inward.
3) Thermodynamics: Disorder increases over time. (This is the famous "Second Law of Thermodynamics").
4) Gravitational: Black holes absorb all matter in a one way motion. There are no "white holes" that reverse the process.
5) Subatomic: Anti-kaons (the anti-matter of kaons) disintegrate faster than kaons.
6) Measurement: The collapse of the quantum wave is irreversible. And....
7) Psychological: People uniformly remember the past and anticipate the future. (This one, of course, is not a strictly scientific piece of evidence, but perhaps Mann included it simply because its a phenomenon that needs explaining.)

All of this is very signficiant for theology, if for no other reason than because the arrow of time from past to future must be real if a) humans are to be free and b) if the future is to be open.

But the REAL exciting stuff took place around the theory of relativity -- which Mann presented more clearly than I've ever heard or even read before (and believe me, I've read quite a bit on this topic). At one point Mann seemed to suggest that Special and General Relativity Theory entailed a "block view" of the universe (this is the view that the past, present, and future are timelessly present as a sort of settled block. The flow of time, in other words, is not real ). He said that this didn't rule out believing in the real flow of time, however, since Relativity Theory isn't an exhaustive map of reality and other aspects of science suggest the flow of time IS real. (Plus, Mann confessed, he believes in free will, which rules out a block view of the universe).

After his presentation, we spent 90 minutes discussing and debating various topics. I jumped right in and pressed Mann on his interpretation of Relativity Theory. My argument was something like this:

We all know thawt Relativity Theory stipulates that the NOW of every finite perspective cannot be absolutely correlated with the NOW of any other finite perspective, since WHEN an event happens depends on WHERE you are, and HOW FAST you're traveling, relative to the event in question. Yet, each finite perspective has ITSELF as a NOW, and this NOW has a real "before" and a real "after." So the universe is comprised of all finite perspectives with their own NOW and their own "BEFORE" and "AFTER." (In relativity language, each perspective has its own "time cone").

Now, if we believe in an omnipresent God, God would be internally present to, and thus contemporaneous with, each finite perspective, and thus each NOW. God could therefore have -- indeed, MUST have -- a "NOW" that synchronizes and integrates ALL finite perspectives. Thus, for God, there is an absolute NOW that encompasses all NOWS. So even with Relativity Theory, I argued, God and the universe are moving forward from a real past to a real future. (I and Jim Knudson argue this in more depth, and with more humor, in The Cosmic Dance).

Mann's response to me sort of missed the mark, since he apparently thought I was asking about the predictive power of Relativity Theory. I was making a metaphysical point, but he gave a physics answer -- a mistake that happened throughout the morning (but which is totally understandable, given his training). Other seminar participants pressed him on the point throughout the morning, and by the end, Mann was quite explicitly agreeing that there's nothing in Relativity Theory that suggests the future is somehow "out there" as an already-settled reality. In his lingo, the "block universe" has fudge room. The future is only contained in a "block" in the sense that there are parameters to our free decisions (and to chaotic movement as well as quantum indeterminacy).

All of us Open Theists felt very good about this. It is refreshing, since we've all been frustrated reading in critical literature over and over AND OVER again that Relativity Theory refutes openness theology.

It just ain't so folks. If anything, it confirms it.

Enough for now.

Reflections on the Science Conference

Hello bloggers and bloggets,

Well, I'm having a great time out here in Quincy. The discussions with fellow theologians, philosophers, and scientists who are Open Theists is very stimulating. Plus we're having a lot of fun. At the same time, I'm missing my wife, family, friends, and dogs terribly, so I'm looking forward to coming home for the weekend.

In today's session we had a fine discussion with another leader in the field of the dialogue between science and theology, Dr. Howard Van Til. For years he taught Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College, but then got into a good bit of trouble for teaching naturalistic evolution and he ended up retiring early in 1997 (I believe). He was a delightful, humble, very honest, and extremely irenic person. We discussed a wide range of issues, only one of which I can mention right now.

As we did the previous day, we discussed a great deal about whether science must be committed to naturalistic explanations and, if so, what implications this has for our understanding of the relationship between science and theology. I (and several others) argued that the issue really isn't whether science should or should not be committed to naturalistic explanations. I think it obviously should be. The issue is whether science needs to regard its naturalistic explanations as COMPREHENSIVE OF ALL REALITY.

If a miracle occurs, or seems to have occurred, I argued, I have no problem with scientists looking for a natural explanation. This is simply what they're paid to do. In fact, I have no problem with the scientist sometimes FINDING a natural explanation for an alleged mircle. I'm sure many times people claim to have experienced a "miracle" when in fact they've only experienced something a-typical, and there's a perfectly good natural explanation for why this a-typical event occurred.

What I have problems with is when some scientists claim that the whole enterprise of science hangs on the belief that all occurences MUST have a natural explanation -- that is, that nothing supernatural ever happens or ever can happen. In other words, they think naturalistic explanations are comprehensive of all reality. If someone thinks THIS belief lies at the core of the scientific enterprise, then, so far as I can see, there's no possible way Christian theology can be integrated with [their version of] the scientific enterprise.

But there's absolutely no reason for scientists to claim this. And there's absolutely no warrant for scientists to claim this. And many respected scientists don't in fact claim this. Yet, like Philp Clayton before him, this seems to be what Howard Van Til was (humbly and tentatively) claiming.

Look, the belief in God as a transcendent personal being IS a belief in the SUPERnatural. To try to integrate this belief into a framework where the supernatural is carte blanch dismissed is simply to try to integrate a belief in God with atheism. It's a contradiction. It doesn't work. End of story.

Fortunately, the scientific community as a whole is (so far as I can see) moving toward a more humble position. The more we learn about the world, the more we discover mystery. And this, I'm happy to say, leaves plenty of room for theology and science to talk to each other and learn from each other.

Gotta run.

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Notes from the Quincy Conference: Does Science Rule Out Miracles?

(admin's note...this blog was written by Greg yesterday...sorry for the delay in posting!)

Philip Clayton is one of the leading philosophers of science in the world, and today he delivered the lecture that we then discussed in the third session of the science and theology conference I'm attending.

I knew a bit about Philip's work ahead of time, so nothing he said surprised me terribly. It's just that I am in such fundamental disagreement with his whole program it was honestly hard for me to stay engaged. (Being ADD, my attention span is viciously tied to my interest level). There were points that caught my interest, as when he presented a philosophical and scientific critique of mutli-verse theory (instead of a uni-verse) and string theory, or when he delved into the anthropic principle. But at the base Clayton's agenda is driven by a desire to rework Christian theology without in any way violating foundational principles of science, such as the methodological assumption that the laws of nature are never violated. I frankly have trouble taking such a project seriously.

Clayton argued that if we were to allow for "supernatural interventions" (miracles), it would bring the scientific enterprise to a halt. (He called this idea a "science stopper"). With all due respect, I think this is absurd, and many participants in the conference expressed a similar sentiment. Of course science has to LOOK FOR natural explanations to explain natural phenomena, but there's nothing in science that hinges on believing that every event in history can IN FACT be adequately explained by appealing to natural laws. If the scientific enterprise hung on ruling out miracles at the start, what are we to make of the thousands and thousands of scientists today and in the past who have engaged in their disciplines very well but who nevertheless believed in them?

Clayton also argued against the possibility of miracles on the grounds that it contributes to the problem of evil. That is, if God does a miracle for someone in need at one point, we have to explain why God doesn't do a miracle for everyone in similar conditions. This is the problem of the apparent arbitrariness of God's interaction with us, and I agree it requires an explanation.

But I don't think the way to resolve it is to reject the possibility of any miracles. (Isn't that a bit like curing a leper by shooting him in the head?) In my books Satan and the Problem of Evil and Is God to Blame? I suggest that at least part of an answer can be found a) when we consider the number of variables that affect God's interaction with us and b) when we apply chaos theory to our understanding of the world.

That is, given the lasting ripple effects that every decision makes throughout history, and given the innumerable decisions made by innumerable free agents (human, angelic, and perhaps others) throughout history, we shouldn't expect to understand why ANYTHING happens exactly the way it does. There's an infinite sea of mystery that surrounds every single contingent event. So it shouldn't surprise us that we can't understand why evil happens to one person and not another, or, conversely, why God can miraculously intervene at one moment but not at other moments.

Lots of other things could be said about this and other issues that were discussed, but I just got a phone call that I'm supposed to be at the National Public Radio office for an interview in 15 minutes! (I'm NOT kidding). So I should probably sign off and see what this is all about.



Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Notes from the Conference

Had another fun session at the science and open theology conference this morning (Tuesday).

Among other things, a very well known philosopher named Tom Flint presented a paper defending "Molinism" and arguing AGAINST Open Theism. "Molinism" holds (among other things) that if God is truly omniscient, he must know the truth value of all meaningful propositions and must therefore know the truth value not only of all propositions about what free agents WILL and WILL NOT do in the future, but also propositions about what they WOULD and WOULD NOT do in every other conceivable future.

I argued against Tom that Molinism limits God's omniscience! For if God knows the truth value of ALL meaningful propositions (which I agree with), then he must know not only know propositions about what agents WILL do and WOULD do, but also what they MIGHT and MIGHT NOT do, since these too are meaningful propositions.

If I'm correct, then when God knows that it's true that Greg will (certainly) do x, he knows it's false that I might and might not refrain from doing x. But when God knows that Greg might and might not do x, he knows that it's false that I will (certainly) do x and false that I will not (certainly) do x.

So, I argued, only the God of Open Theism is truly omniscient, for only this God knows the truth value of ALL meaningful propositions. Open Theism is the only view that empowers God to know that some events might and might not come to pass.

Tom of course had a response, but it's too complicated to go into on a blog. I'll just say the issue hinges on whether one accepts or rejects the claim that saying Greg WOULD do x or WOULD NOT do x exhausts the alternatives. Molinist think they do. I do not.

For there's always those nasty "might and might not" propositions we need to deal with!

Chew on it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Greetings from Quincy

Hello fellow bloggerites,
I'm writing you from Quincy, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. I'm at a three week Science and Open Theology conference. We've got 20 or so scholars who espouse some form of openness interacting with various scientists doing work that may -- or may not -- have implications for our understanding of the future. We are meeting every day for four to five hours, discussing an assortment of issues related to this topic.

I've died and gone to heaven!!! (Well, not quite. I miss my wife and friends. But still).

Basically, the conference is on all the stuff that I and some friends are trying to cover in our quirky book called The Cosmic Dance (see excerpts on my homepage--Christus Victor Ministries). We're two years into the Cosmic Dance project and only have one more chapter to go, so I'm REALLY hoping this Conference confirms my thesis in this book. Basically, we're looking at how neuroscience, Quantum Physics, Chaoes and Complexity Theory, Non-Equilibrium Dynamics (or Systems Theory), and Relativity Theory affect our understanding of the future. My thesis in The Cosmic Dance is that they all, in various ways, support the concept of the future as partially open. I'm hoping I'm right!

Yesterday we tossed around a lot of different ideas, including the nature of time, different concepts of eternity, the problem of evil, the nature of power, and the history of openness thinking. We don't all agree on things. Not even close. For example, one very reputable scholar at one point blurted out that the suggestion that Satan had anything to do with nature being the way it is was "the nuttiest idea every suggested." A lot of people who know my work (esp. Satan and the Problem of Evil) looked at me and burst out laughing -- as did I. I let it slide at the time (partly because I'd already talked too much that morning), but I'm sure we'll come back to it.

Anyway, I'll keep you posted on how the conference goes.

Blessings on ya'll.

Determinism Is Ugly

In the previous blog I celebrated the beautiful non-necessity of things. If you haven’t read it yet, you might want to before reading this one. Because in this blog I want to talk about a major objection some people have to what I wrote there.

Determinists argue that the spontaneity we observe throughout nature and in our own lives is only apparent. They argue that everything is predetermined, despite all appearances to the contrary.

Perhaps the most common argument given in defense of determinism is that it’s implied in the nature of causation. Every event has a cause, and this cause accounts for the event being the way it is. This cause must itself have had a cause that accounts for it, and so on ad infinitum. Hence, everything must have been predetermined from the beginning (if there was a beginning), and so there is no room for spontaneity.

Now, I don’t think anyone can dispute the claim that every contingent event must have a cause. The idea of a completely uncaused contingent event is absurd. (Notice, I say every contingent event must have a cause, since I see nothing unintelligible in the concept of a necessary being, such as God, being uncaused. That’s what it means to be necessary, in contrast to being contingent). What is disputable, however, is the claim that every cause necessitates one, and only one, effect.

It’s one thing to say, (a) “ X is the cause of Y,” and another thing to say that (b) “Given X, Y had to happen” and/or (c) “Given X, only Y could happen.” There is no good reason to assume (b) and (c) are universally true. This is nothing more than a philosophical dogma. It’s the dogma of determinism.

The fact is that, as David Hume argued centuries ago, we don’t even know what a “cause” is. It is simply a word we use to say “When we observe X, we observe Y after it.” But there’s nothing in the nature of causation itself that says Y must always follow X. So there’s no basis for the assumption that “Given X, Y had to happen, and only Y could happen.”

If we look at the world as a work of art instead of a deterministic mechanism – as western science up until recently has been imagining it – we can see this more clearly. Imagine that we are all artists invited to paint a segment of a grand mosaic, and we paint with our free decisions. Now let's think about causation in this context.

Imagine Van Gogh’s famous hallucinogenic painting, “Starry Night.” We’d all agree that every riveting detail of this work is explainable by referencing the aesthetic vision that was inspiring Van Gogh to paint this painting. Nothing in the painting is capricious (that is, without a cause). Yet, can’t we imagine a slightly different painting being explainable by referencing this same aesthetic vision?

If the church steeple in the painting had been a centimeter taller or shorter, for example, would it alter the aesthetic achievement of the painting? If it had been a centimeter to the left or right, would it have been inconsistent with the vision that was behind this painting? If one particular stroke of yellow or purple or black had been a centimeter longer or shorter, couldn’t we explain it by appealing to the same aesthetic vision we would appeal to now to explain the shades that are presently in the painting? And so for a trillion other details in this painting.

My point is that a given cause can explain more effects than one, as artist works illustrate. But our own free decisions reveal this as well. So do quantum particles. And so does every aspect of creation! There’s causation everywhere, but there’s also an element (however slight) of spontaneity everywhere.

This dance of order and freedom, structure and spontaneity, is what makes the creation beautiful and an adventure.

So, determinism rests on an unwarranted assumption about causation. It runs against our experience of free decision making, of creating works of art and many other things. And it's inconsistent with some recent advances in science (as my book The Cosmic Dance will attempt to prove).

But perhaps the best argument against determinism is that it's just plain ugly.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Spontaneous Beauty

Like I said in the previous blog, I’m trying to get back into shape – at least a little – by jogging a few miles three or four times a week. (Not quite like my bygone ultra-marathoning days when I would cover 50+ miles in a single run). I always take a break around the half-way point to stretch my aching back.

So, I’m laying on the grass in this awkward, twisted, stretching posture when I notice a bird on the branch above me singing its little heart out. It sang a couple of notes with a particular cadence, and then three other birds somewhere in the trees successively sang a couple of other notes, each in a unique cadence that vaguely echoed the first bird's. At this point the first bird repeated its song, with a very slight variation, and the other three birds repeated their songs with slight variations. This went on and on, with the collective masterpiece gradually evolving over the course of the three minutes or so I listened.

Feeling duly limbered up, I rose to my feet, thanked the birds for the entertainment, and set out on the second half of my jaunt.

What I find most beautiful about this encounter is that none of it had to happen. I didn’t have to be lying on the ground just when I was and where I was, and the birds didn’t have to be singing in the trees just when they were and where they were. Nor did the birds have to sing just those notes, with just that cadence, and the collective song didn’t have to evolve just the way it did.

Though we usually don’t notice it, this random spontaneity is all around us. In fact, as I mentioned in my previous blog, I think it’s in the nature of everything. There’s a magnificent non-necessity to the nature of things.

Become aware of your environment for a moment, and you’ll see it.

I’m now sitting here on my porch. Look at those never-before witnessed and never-to-be repeated cloud patterns! Two birds are randomly dancing about just above the tree tops to my left. Now they’re gone. The wind just picked up and the leaves rustled like a chorus. Four kids are playing some sort of variation of hopscotch a few houses down, and a little girl seems upset over something. Now they’re arguing. A car just passed by with a loud booming bass. A dog in the distance barks several times. It stops. It barks again. There’s a passenger jet on the horizon. Another bird races by overhead, veering this way and that. A couple walks by with their big dog. The dog looks this way and that way, picking up scents that interest it, but the couple doesn’t notice because they’re talking. Birds are chirping all around with evolving patterns.

In this moment I’m aware that I’m enveloped in a virtually infinite sea of non-necessary details. The playful contingency of it all is splendid.

Enjoy the spontaneous beauty of the ocean of non-necessary details all around you.

And now I decide to stop writing.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Patio reflections on the free decisions of a spider

Hi folks,

I know I know. It's been a week. But I so loved the birthday pics and video that I didn't want to bump them from the top of the order. (Wasn't the video my wife and friends put together precious?) At least this is the excuse that seems most plausible to me at the moment. But I was also very busy, blah blah blah.

So, I was up on my patio on top of my garage the other day, enjoying a cold beer and the nice weather after a hard 6 mile run (I've been trying to get a little back in shape after two years of almost total body-neglect). I notice out of the corner of my eye a tiny spider darting about irradically on the wall closest to me. I begin to wonder why it starts when it starts, and stops when it stops. And why does it move in one direction at one moment and another at a different moment. It seemed completely arbitrary.

As I'm pondering this deep question a big fly lands close to the spider. The fly moves a little closer to the spider and then the spider darts away.

Now, I can't be sure, but it seemed to me the spider became "aware" of the fly and then "decided" to move away to protect itself. And then I begin to wonder if each of the seemingly irradic starts and stops were something like "decisions" -- but made for "reasons" that weren't apparent to me. And if in fact the spider was making something like "decisions," is it possible they were something like FREE decisions? Could the spider have acted otherwise? If MY decisions aren't exhaustively determined, why should I assume the spider's are?

It seems to me the only way I can gain anything like an understanding of the spider is to draw analogies with my own experience of the world. How am I to think about this except to suppose that the spider has SOMETHING LIKE consciousness and makes SOMETHING LIKE free decisions?

And then I begin to think, if this principle applies to everything from humans down to a spider or fly, why could it not apply to even lower forms of life? Why could it not apply to something as primitive as a virus? Could there be SOMETHING LIKE "consciousness" and "free decisions" at this level? And if so, why stop at a virus? Maybe there's something analogous to "consciousness" and "free decisions" ALL THE WAY DOWN?

Quantum physicistis sometimes talk this way about the unpredictable "behavior" of quantum particles. Why not?

The philosophic view I'm toying with here is called panpsychism (pan = all; psychism = mind like). It holds that something like experience or consciousness is the common denominator of all things. I've been intrigued by it most of my adult life. What drives the philosophy, in my estimation, is the correct insight that all things must share SOMETHING in common. The traditional view is that what all things share is "substance." But panpsychism has rightly seen that the concept of a completely mindless "substance" is devoid of any distinct meaning. It's equivalent to "something-or-other". It really affirms nothing. But the concept of "mind" as a substratum of all things is NOT devoid of distinct meaning, for as my little patio reflection reveals, the concept is naturally applicable by way of analogy to a wide range of things -- and hence possibly to everything.

Think about that the next time you casually watch a spider darting about on a wall.



Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Happy 50th Greg!

-from your admins :)

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Mother of All Birthday Parties!

On Friday, June 1st, my small group told me they were taking me out dancing (I LOVE to dance and frequently complain to the group that we don’t do enough of it). Julie said she found a good dance band at a local club. So we went out to eat at a fantastic Thai restaurant and headed over to the club. When we walked into the place I was greeted by a crowd of people shouting “SURPRISE!”

Turns out my wife had rented out the whole hall – and an 80’s band – to throw me the birthday party of my life.

Am I married to the most wonderful woman on the planet, or what? I love you Shelley Boyd!

The party was incredible fun. We all got a little crazy dancing, singing and playing air guitar with the band. (I danced so hard and long that the next day I was so sore I had trouble getting out of bed – a nice reminder that I’d indeed turned 50.)

The guys in my small group have formed a tongue-in-cheek band called NDY (for “Not Dead Yet”) and the performing band let us get up on stage and play a couple songs (our thanks to the band Rock-It-Science for indulging us – and for being tons of fun throughout the night).

Finally, Shelley and some friends had put together a video entitled “This is our life.” It was poignantly beautiful, and I, of course, got all choked up.

It was honestly the best party ever, and one I will never forget. If we’re still around, we’ll be talking about this when we’re 80.

As I enjoyed time with my wonderful wife, family, and friends, I was once again reminded of the fact that

I am the single most blessed man on the planet.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Reflections at the Two-thirds Point of Kafka’s Train Ride

I just turned fifty. I’m “officially” not young. (That was probably true 10 years ago, but I’ve always been sort of a late bloomer).

It seems like I was in high school a few weeks ago.

Here’s a weird thought – or at least a weird feeling. I spent as much time in college (including my masters and PhD) as I spent in school prior to college. And now I’ve spend almost as much time out of school as I've ever spend in school (kindergarten to PhD). Yet, the time in college seemed like a fraction of the time in school prior to college. And the time since school has felt like a fraction of the time spent in school.

And every year seems to race by twice as fast as the previous one.

Surely, I’ll be dead by tomorrow!

It’s like a Kafka novel. (For bloggers not familiar with Franz Kafka – he's the author of some wonderfully strange novels and short stories such as The Castle, The Trial and “Metamorphosis.” He is one of my favorite fictional writers. His stories always leave one very disoriented.)

We just wake up at some moment and we’re on a train. We didn’t choose to get on this train. We have no recollection of a life prior to this train. And we don’t understand the first thing about this train. We just find ourselves here. (The German philosopher Heidegger referred to this as our sense of “having-been-thrown” into existence).

The only thing we are sure of is that this train is picking up speed at an alarming rate, there’s nothing we can do to slow it down, and we’re certain it’s going to fatally smash into a brick wall at any moment, but we have no idea when.

How utterly peculiar. Who would have thought?

Well, statistically speaking, I’m two-thirds of the way to the great wall of the Grim Reaper. But for all I know, I may be mere seconds away from it, or, if I’m extremely lucky, only half way there. And while I feel like I know less about this train with each passing day, here’s three things I’m quite sure of.

First, we obviously board this train alone. And we obviously smash unpredictably into the great wall alone. But we can, if we choose, share large portions of our ride with others.

Kafka’s train can be experienced as a nightmare, or as a great adventure. And I’ve found that one of the main things that prevents the former and encourages the latter is riding with close friends. When shared with others, the very bizarreness of the ride becomes a force that binds us together at a profound level. And when this happens, the strangeness of the ride becomes something more beautiful than terrifying.

Reach out. Share the ride. Take risks. Make friends. Stay committed over the long haul.

Second, the monotony of this train ride can rock us to sleep, and to death, if we’re not careful. We start this ride like excited little children staring out the window in wonder at the mystery of the train and the passing scenery. But if we’re not careful, we can gradually become more like cattle staring mindlessly out of a cattle car. While this numbs the pain of the loneliness and fear this ride can cause, it is, in fact, the worst nightmare of all. Like the man-turned-beatle in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” the greatest horror is becoming something grotesquely less than we are meant to be.

Resist the lull. Stay awake. Never stop wondering. Notice the beautiful strangeness of every moment.

Finally, though many try to ignore it, every passenger on Kafka’s train wonders why they are on the train, and why the train exists in the first place. We try so hard to be shallow, because it hurts less. But our innate depth gnaws at us. We try to act like this train ride is “normal,” but our deeper selves know it’s anything but. Wake up. Admit it.

I have found that the quality of one’s ride largely depends on whether or not they believe the train they’re on has a destination. In fact, I honestly believe it’s possible to come to know the train’s destination by entering into an experiential relationship with the train’s creator and conductor.

And that, my friends, gives the Kafka train an entirely different feel. It’s still bizarre to the extreme—but it’s bizarreness with a beautiful purpose.

So, whether I’m half way to the great wall, or almost there, it honestly doesn’t concern me much. Its unpredictability and seeming finality is part of the grand adventure.

So, as the train speeds up and the great wall somewhere out there quickly approaches, I’m going to keep sharing the mystery with friends, commit to staying awake with childlike amazement, and do all I can do to know and serve the magnificent conductor.