Monday, July 30, 2007

Ralph Winter’s Modified “Gap Theory”

Hello folks, trust you are all having a nice summer.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Ralph Winter. He is the editor of the acclaimed book Perspectives on World Missions and is arguably the foremost expert on missions in the world today. Ralph and I exchanged several letters a number of years ago, right after God at War was first published (1997). (By the way, God at War just went into its 13th printing this week. Yeah!). I don’t know what influence, if any, my work had on him, but he told me at that time of a revelation of sorts that he’d had regarding missions and spiritual warfare.

Just as I’ve been arguing, Ralph had at some point come to understand that nature as we now find it has been corrupted by demonic powers. Since missions is all about spiritual warfare, Ralph came to believe that missions must include engaging in warfare against all aspects of nature that have been corrupted. If my memory serves me correct (it may not), he established a program to fund research into the origins of disease as a result of this revelation. The vision that funds this research program is that fighting viruses, parasites, diseases and the like is part of missions!

I couldn’t agree more!

Now, I recently received some mailings from a lady named Beth Snodderly in response to my recent blogs on “natural” evil. She’s the director of William Carey International University (I believe). She reminded me that Ralph had proposed a version of the “gap theory” that avoids the scientific difficulties I’d been struggling with in my own version of the “gap theory” – namely, the lack of corroborating geological and paleontological evidence. (If there was a world-wide “do over,” there ought to be massive evidence of it – and there’s none). I now recall Ralph explaining his view to me eight or nine years ago, and I remember not being very persuaded by it– which perhaps explains why I forgot about it altogether. But Beth graciously sent me several research papers she’d written on Ralph’s view as well as one of Ralph’s own writings, and I have to say this view looks much more plausible to me now than it did when I first heard it.

I can’t possibly do justice to Ralph’s view in a short (well, sort of short) blog like this, so I’ll just give the outline of the view and ask you to trust me that Beth’s excellent essays defending this view make a surprisingly compelling case. (Maybe in future blogs I’ll flesh out some of the argumentation). What follows is mostly from Beth’s essays, and I have to the confess that it wasn’t always clear to me from these essays which insights are Ralph’s and which are Beth’s. So when it’s not clear to me, I’ll just refer to them as “Ralph (and Beth’s) view.”

To begin, Ralph offers the not-entirely-implausible speculation that God commissioned angelic beings to oversee aspects of nature and the production of life, similar to the way God later commissioned humans to have a domain of authority over nature and animals. These angels, he speculates, were “in training,” which in part perhaps explains why life evolved so slowly (from our human perspective). (Read Ps. 82 if you think angels are exempt from needing training).

Some of these angels-in-training rebelled, and this is why the areas they continue to exercise authority over became corrupt. Ralph (and Beth) offer evidence that this corruption began early on during an epoch called “the Cambrian explosion,” roughly 580 million years ago. It is at this point that we find the first traces of violent forms of life, and they increase in complexity – and viciousness --with remarkable speed (by geological standards).

Now, similar to what I argue in God at War, Ralph argues that the phrase “formless and void” (tohu wa bohu) in Genesis 1:2 denotes a pejorative state of affairs. It doesn’t reflect creation as God originally intended it, but rather reflects a creation that has been overcome with chaos and futility. One of the documents Beth Snodderly sent me was a 25 page research paper she wrote on this phrase, and I have to say it’s the strongest case for the pejorative interpretation I’ve ever encountered. (Way to go Beth!).

Where Ralph’s (and Beth’s) view differs from the view I defended in God at War concerns the interpretation of the rest of Genesis 1. In agreement with a number of conservative Old Testament scholars, Ralph (and Beth) argue that Genesis 1 is written from the perspective of a person standing on the earth. In fact, it's written from the perspective of the sort of ancient Israelite the piece was originally written for. It reflects their worldview. (Thus, for example, the reference to the “vault” that holds water up in the sky, vs. 6). It’s not intended to be anything like a comprehensive, scientific account. So the “creation” of light, for example, does not necessarily imply that light didn’t exist before this time. It only means that this is when an observer on earth would have seen light.

Not only this, but Ralph (and Beth) also argue (also in agreement with many Old Testament scholars) that the structure of Genesis 1 is determined by the tohu wa bohu state of affairs referred to in verse 2. The chapter isn’t intended to give us anything like a literal chronology of events, in other words. This view is usually referred to as “the literary framework” theory of Genesis 1. (For a presentation of this and three other competing views of Genesis 1, see Boyd and Eddy, Across the Spectrum).

In this view, the author is interested in proclaiming how God overcomes the state of tohu wa bohu. On days 1-3 God battles the state of tohu (formlessness) by creating space for things to exist, and on days 4-6 God battles the state of bohu (emptiness) by filling out these spaces with appropriate things. Days 1-3 and 4-6 parallel one another, in other words.

More specifically, God fights formlessness by creating day and night (from the perspective of someone on the earth) on day 1 (vss. 3-5) and then battles emptiness by creating lights to govern the day and night on day 4 (vss. 14-19). Similarly, on day 2 God battles formlessness by separating the waters above (by creating the sky) from waters below (the sea) (vss. 6-8) and then battles emptiness by filling the sky with birds and the seas with fish on day 5 (vss. 20-23). And, finally, God fights formlessness on day 3 when he separates the land from the water and produces vegetation on the land (vs. 9-13), and then battles emptiness when he fills out the land with animals and puts human in charge of them both on day 6 (vss. 24-31) .

This creation is all described by the Genesis author as “good.” But remember, Ralph (and Beth) argue that everything about Genesis 1 is said from the perspective of one standing on the earth. So Ralph (and Beth) argue this “goodness” doesn’t extend to the whole cosmos. Rather, they argue that God had carved out a special “Eden,” as it were, on the otherwise corrupted earth. Ralph suggests God specially created humans and re-created animals as he originally intended them prior to the cosmic corruption and placed them in the garden. Standing in the center of this specially created Eden all would appear good. But Eden, in this view, was an oasis of blessing in a cursed desert.

But it wasn’t supposed to remain a small oasis. Ralph argues that Eden was intended to be a sort of mustard seed “beachhead” from which God planned to launch his assault against the rebel forces that corrupt nature and to eventually reclaim the entire globe as his Kingdom. His plan was to extend the freedom for the state of tohu wa bohu in Eden to eventually encompass the entire planet. We were, in other words, created for warfare.

This plan, however, was conditioned on humans remaining obedient to God, which, as you know, unfortunately didn’t happen. Eden was thereby forfeited and engulfed in the very state of tohu wa bohu it was established to overcome. Yet, God didn’t abandon his plan. He simply modified it. He graciously continued to work in and through humans to restore them to their rightful place of authority on the earth and eventually establish the entire planet as a domain of God’s reign. In Christ this happened, in principle. And through the Church this is happening in fact.

We are still battling the state of tohu wa bohu – and this, for Ralph, is what missions is all about. Indeed, it's what the Kingdom is all about.

I will need to do more research and reflection before I throw my hat entirely in the ring with this revised gap theory. But I have to confess I find it very compelling. It allows one to continue to hold to the gap theory on an exegetical basis, which I’ve always thought was very strong. Yet, by localizing the “gap” it completely avoids the geological and paleontological problems that accompany the standard gap theory.

Not only that, but while I’m sure the interpretation of Genesis 1 as reflecting the perspective of one on the earth and as structured for literary, not chronological, purposes may strike many lay readers of this blog as idiosyncratic, there are, as I mentioned, a host of conservative Old Testament scholars that have been arguing this for decades. In fact, a majority Old Testament scholars, evangelical and otherwise, embrace some version of the literary framework theory.

It’s certainly something to think about.

My heart felt thanks to Beth for bringing Ralph’s view, and her fine defense of it, to my attention.

Stay centered in his peace,


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

An Argument from the Early Church Fathers

Greetings comrades in the war!

I’ve been sharing various arguments defending the S.I.N. hypothesis over the last dozen or so blogs (go back to July 12 to start from the beginning). I come now to my final argument (though I reserve the right to add to these in the future as further insights present themselves). This argument comes not from the Bible, but from the early church fathers.

These earliest theologians aren’t inspired, of course, and thus can’t hold a candle to the authority of the Bible. At the same time, their proximity to Jesus and the New Testament church gives their teachings more weight than theologians of later periods, all other things being equal. While we can certainly detect various pagan influences in some of these second and third century fathers -- especially in their increasingly Hellenistic conception of God -- we have many reasons to think that their basic theology and worldview was inherited from, and remained true to, the apostolic tradition.

What’s significant for our purposes is that the primary way these early theologians explain evil in nature is by appealing to the work of Satan, powers and demons. These fathers uniformly believed that angels, like humans, were created free and given a sphere of influence and responsibility over creation. As with humans, angels could use this influence for good, as God intended, or they could choose to use it for evil. They understood that this is simply what it means for God to have given us free will. The earliest fathers thus believed that, just as God had given humans “say-so” over the earth, which we could use for better or for worse, so God gave “say-so” over aspects of the cosmos, and to some degree over humans, to angels.

For example, Athenagorus – who in my mind is one of the most insightful of the earliest fathers – argued that “the Maker and Framer of the world distributed and appointed….a multitude of angels and ministers…to occupy themselves about the elements, and the heav­ens, and the world, and the things in it, and the godly ordering of them all.” Then he adds,

“Just as with men, who have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice….so is it among the angels. Some, free agents, you will observe, such as they were created by God, continued in those things for which God had made and over which He had ordained them; but some outraged both the constitution of their nature and the government entrusted to them” (A Plea For the Christians, 10).

So too, Origen -- who in my mind was the single greatest thinker in the early church -- held that every aspect of nature was under the care of “invisible husbandmen and guardians” (Against Celsus, 8.31). St. Gregory at a later date reiterates the prevailing view of the early church when he says, “In this visible world…nothing can be achieved except through invisible forces” (Dialogues, IV.5).

“Natural” evil was consistently explained in the early church as resulting from these spirits rebelling against God and thus abusing their authority over creation. Hence, for example, Origen argued that famines, scorching winds and pestilence were not “natural” in God’s creation; they were rather the result of fallen angels bringing misery whenever and however they were able (Against Celsus, 8.31). These rebel guardians were also “the cause of plagues…barrenness…tempests… [and] similar calamities” (Against Celsus,1.31).

So too, Tertullian argued that “[d]iseases and other grievous calamities” were the result of demons whose “great business is the ruin of mankind.” When “poison in the breeze blights the apples and the grain while in the flower, or kills them in the bud, or destroys them when they have reached maturity…” one can discern the work of these rebellious guardian spirits (Apology 22). For Tertullian, as for Origen and Athenagorus (and we could add Tatian, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and others), creation doesn’t consistently reflect the beauty of its Creator because it has been, and is being, corrupted by demonic forces.

Following the teachings of the New Testament, these early theologians all understood that the leader of the rebel army that ravaged nature was Satan. In the words of Athenagorus, Satan was “the spirit” originally entrusted with “the control of matter and the forms of matter” (A Plea, 24). The entire material creation was to be administrated by this highest ranking angel, according to this theologian! Unfortunately, this “spirit” used its free will to rebel against God. He now exercises his tremendous authority over material creation against God. He abuses “the government entrusted to [him].” Given the nature of moral responsibility, God could not simply revoke Satan’s sphere of influence. Hence, Athenagorus argued, “the prince of matter exercises a control and management contrary to the good that is in God”(A Plea, 25).

Reflecting the basic vision of the early Church, Athenagorus concluded that everything in nature that obviously looks contrary to God’s character appears that way because it is contrary to God. It didn’t arise from the omni-benevo­lent hand of the Creator (as the atheists of his day and ours object) but was rather due to the activity of an evil “ruling prince” and “the demons his followers" (A Plea, 25).

Much more could be said about this, but I hope this suffices to show that the early church fathers all saw creation as a war torn battle field. It had been corrupted to its very core. And this is why nature is violent, both toward animals and people. I don’t believe this view would have arisen in the church were the foundation for it not laid in the apostolic tradition. These early fathers are simply working out the implications of the biblical view that satan is the “lord of the earth,” the “ruler of the air” and the “god of this age” who “controls the entire world.”
And if you ask me, they were on the right track.

So when a tsumani wipes out an entire village or an earthquake massacres thousands of people; next time you consider the millions dying from AIDS or the millions tortured by parasites; next time you hear about the millions suffering from drought and famine, or consider the untold pain of millions suffering and dying from any number of other diseases, don’t say “This is the work of God.”

Say rather, “An Enemy has done this” (Mt 13:28).

Blessings on you as you wage the war of love against all that opposes it!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Argument From Cosmic Redemption

Hello folks,

I’m coming to my fifth argument defending my Satan-in-Nature (S.I.N) hypothesis -- the view that “natural” evil can only adequately be explained by positing that evil cosmic forces have a corrupted nature. If you haven’t read my arguments up to this point, you might want to go back and start with the July 12th blog.

These S.I.N. blogs are generating lots of great feedback! Thanks. I appreciate all the thoughtful input. (The “you-godless-heretic” sort of feedback not so much). I’ve had a few suggest I develop this material into a little book. Hmmmmm. I could call it, The Cursed Creation, or The Corruption of Creation, or Creation at War, or Who the *^&$%! Made the Minnesota Mosquito?

Interesting idea, but it’s going to have to wait. I’ve got three book projects I’m already juggling! Beside, I already have two chapters on this topic in Satan and the Problem of Evil (which, by the way, went into its fourth printing this week! Yeahhhh!)

Okay, this argument could be called The Argument From Cosmic Redemption.

The New Testament teaches that Christ died not just to redeem humans; he died to restore the entire creation. In Col. 1:19-20 Paul says that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (emphasis added).

Now, if “all things” will be reconciled in Christ, then “all things” must have been in need of reconciliation. This tells us that nature as we now find it is not nature as God originally intended it.

So too, Paul says the whole creation is groaning to be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). When humans will be reinstated as the rightful rulers of the earth, reigning with Christ (2 Tim 2:12; Rev. 5:10), the creation will cease groaning and will no longer suffer decay. (Paul, like other ancient people, saw the earth as the center of creation). This further suggests that the groaning creation we currently live in is not in every respect the creation God originally spoke into existence. It’s been corrupted.

As James Kallas noted, the New Testament concept of “salvation” isn’t limited to human beings. He writes:

…. since the cosmos itself is in bondage, depressed under evil forces, the essential content of the word “salvation” is that the world itself will be rescued, or renewed, or set free. Salvation is a cosmic event affecting the whole of creation.….Salvation is not simply the overcoming of my rebellion and the forgiveness of my guilt, but salvation is the liberation of the whole world process of which I am only a small part. (The Satanward View: A Study in Pauline Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), p.74.)

I couldn’t have said it any better myself! Just as we humans impact everything under our authority for better or for worse, depending on the decisions we make and the kind of people we become, so spirit agents impact everything under their authority, for better or for worse, depending on the decisions they make and the kind of agents they’ve become.

Unfortunately, it seems in a previous epoch there was some sort of mass rebellion among agents who had great authority over material creation, and they used this authority against God as they tried to throw his creational project off track by corrupting it.

Now, God couldn’t simply destroy these rebellious agents when they rebelled or began corrupting creation, for as I’ve argued in Satan and the Problem of Evil, freedom is intrinsically irrevocable. If God gives an agent x a certain amount of “say-so” to use this way or that way (that is, if God makes an agent genuinely free), God can’t simply revoke it because he disapproves of the agent using it that way. If God did revoke it, then he clearly didn’t give agent x any amount of “say-so” to use this way OR THAT WAY. In other words, if God revokes freedom, he clearly didn’t give it in the first place. Follow?

So God must, for a limited amount of time (conforming to the amount of “say-so” he originally granted to agents) put up with and work around the corrupting influence of spirit agents – just as he must put up with and work around the corrupting influence of human agents.

So the scenario I at present tentatively envision is something like this. Evolutionary history reflects God’s advancing his creational objectives, despite the corrupting influence of diabolic cosmic forces. This is why evolutionary history -- and nature and the animal kingdom today -- reflect both the marvelous creativity of God as well as the ugly corrupting influence of demonic powers.

By this means, God finally arrived at the creation of human beings, which was his goal all along. Unlike everything that preceded us, we were to be (and yet are to be) the rightful rulers of creation, administrating God’s loving providence “on earth as it is in heaven.” We were specially designed in the image of God and, I believe, we were free from the corrupting influence of the oppressed creation. It’s possible that with the creation of humans God formed a sort of beachhead (Eden) from which he planned to advance his Kingdom and ultimately bring an end to the warfare that had engulfed his creation. We were to partner with God to take back the earth. I believe this has never stopped being God’s plan.

But humans, like spirit agents, have free will, for love is impossible without it. And, unfortunately, like many spirit agents, we humans used our “say-so” to rebel against God and go our own way. We thus surrendered our dominion over to the very powers we were supposed to protect Eden from and acquire dominion over – at least as it concerned their influence on the earth.

And so it is that God’s goal of reigning with humans on the earth has had to take a much longer, more circuitous, and more painful route. The biblical narrative is a small peek at what this detoured route looks like. Ultimately, God’s union with humanity in Christ (which, I’m convinced, was at the center of his plan from the get-go) had to now become a “rescue operation” that involved him in the suffering of Calvary. And it is by means of this “rescue operation” of love that God in principle restored humanity, recovered the earth, and reconciled the entire creation.

I know there’s a number questions this scenario raises that will need to be worked out. But I think that at least something like this has gone on, and is still going on.

The good news is that some day, what became true “in principle” on Calvary shall be manifested as fact throughout the whole creation. All things will be reconciled to God. This Kingdom of God. At this time, the lion “will lay down with the lamb” and “eat straw like an ox”. At this time, finally, creation will be free of all diabolical influences, and we shall reign with Christ on the earth, extending God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.”

I, for one, am very much looking forward to this!

One more argument to come. Till then,



Friday, July 20, 2007

The Argument from a Cursed Nature

“Man…trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law –
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrek’d against his creed/”
Tennyson, In Memoriam

Tennyson nailed it. We trust that God is love. But we also believe that God is the creator of the nature, and nature simply does not seem to point to a God of love. Parasites, viruses, bacteria, diseases and cancer kill millions and torment millions more, humans and animals alike. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, mudslides and volcanoes do the same. And the animal kingdom is, as Tennyson said, red in tooth in claw. (So is the human kingdom for that matter). The creation looks almost as much like it was created by a cosmic predator (I Pet 5:8) as it does like it was created by an all loving, peaceful, benevolent Creator. There seems to be a “Lucifer Principle” at work in the world, as Howard Bloom noted. “Nature does not abhor evil,” he says. “[S]he embraces it.” (The Lucifer Principle).

In my view, creation looks like it has been influenced by a cosmic predator because for aeons it has been influenced by a cosmic predator. It looks like a war zone because it is a war zone. Throughout its long history the world has reflected both the beauty of an all-good Creator as well as an exceedingly evil cosmic destroyer. I’m calling this the S.I.N. hypothesis (Satan-in-Nature hypothesis).

I’ve previous offered four arguments supporting this thesis. I now offer a fifth. I might call this The Argument from a Cursed Nature.

Genesis 3 gives us an account of the “fall” (or better, the “rebellion”) of humans. In my view, insufficient attention has been paid to how this passage describes nature being affected by this rebellion. Between verses 14 and 19 we learn that because of the fall….

* there will be hostility between snakes and people (vs. 15)
* women will experience pain in child birth (vs. 16)
* the earth will be stubborn in yielding vegetation (vss. 17 & 19)
* vegetation will now contain thorns and thistles (vs. 18)
* humans will die (vs. 19).

There is, of course, an age-long debate over how literal or figurative we should interpret this passage. I’ll return to this at the end of my discussion, but we need not concern ourselves with this now. However one interprets this passage, it clearly teaches that nature has fundamentally changed as a result of the human rebellion. The world we now live in is cursed. This means that the laws of nature that have naturally brought about hostile snakes, pain in childbirth, hard-to-till soil, thorns and thistles and death are not altogether “natural.” They do not conform to God’s creational ideal. They rather reflect a nature that has been cursed.

Something similar is arguably entailed by Jesus’ rebuking of the storm (Mk 4:36-39). As a number of scholars have argued (see my God at War, ch.7), Jesus is here treating the storm as something demonic. The narrative is a reenactment of Yahweh’s battles with the raging seas in the Old Testament (see my earlier blog on “God’s Creational Battles”). This suggests that Jesus is carrying on Yahweh’s age-long battle for creation, which in turn suggests there are demonic forces at work in creation, as we presently find it, that God must battle against.

Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree (when it wasn’t even the season for figs!) also seems to point to the demonically cursed nature of the present creation (Mk 11:12-14). In the apocalyptic worldview of Jesus’ day, barren fig trees were considered cursed by Satan. As NT Wright and many scholars have argued (see my God at War, ch.7), this suggests that Jesus cursed the fig tree as an act of “reversing the curse.” In God’s original creational design, trees would always produce fruit. As Origen, Tatian, Athenagorus and other early church theologians argued, all barrenness, droughts, famines and other “natural” disasters are the effects of demonic powers at work in the world.

Paul also expresses the view of creation as cursed when he says that “ the creation was subjected to frustration” and that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:20-22). Whatever else Paul intends by saying creation is subject to “frustration” or “futility” (mataiotais), it certainly includes that fact that everything dies. Yet, death is as natural as anything can be, according to the laws of nature as they presently operate. In fact, the law of entropy (2nd law of thermodynamics) is one of the most fundamental laws of physics. Yet, if Paul (and Genesis) is correct, this law does not reflect the Creator’s creational ideal. According to the author of Hebrews, it rather reflects the anti-creational goals of Satan. Christ came to “break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Put all this together, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the creation has been subjected to the lord of death, Satan, leading to decay and destruction.

Now, this raises two interesting questions.

First, both in Genesis 3 and in Romans 8 it is God, not Satan, who cursed the earth and subjected creation to frustration. Does this not make God responsible for the sorry state of the present creation and thus undermine the S.I.N. hypothesis as ahelp in explaining natural evil? I don’t see that it does.

Throughout the Old Testament God brought judgment on Israel for its disobedience by simply allowing hostile neighboring nations to do what they wanted to do. For example, in Isaiah 10 God refers to Assyria as his disciplining rod as he leads the Assyrians to raid Israel. Yet, he then turns around and punishes the Assyrians for being the kind of nation who would do such things and for going beyond what Yahweh had intended (Isa 10: 5-7).

So too, I suggest we envision God as cursing creation by allowing Satan to do what he wants to do – namely, curse creation. Had Adam and Eve remained obedient to God, this hostile cosmic power would have been kept at bay. But once the primordial couple allowed themselves to be co-opted by God’s archenemy, they opened the floodgates for Satan and his minions to enter into the realm that humans were supposed to have dominion over. The war that had already been going on “in the heavenlies” was now invited down to earth.

This doesn’t make God responsible for the corruption of nature. The fault lies on Adam and Eve and on Satan and other cosmic powers for freely choosing to go against the will and designs of the Creator. God simply set up the laws that stipulate that disobedience has disastrous consequences.

The second question that confronts us is how we are to reconcile the fact that Genesis 3 locates the origin of the curse with human rebellion with the evidence that the creation had been permeated with violence and suffering for millions of years before humans ever came on the scene.

For young earth creationists, of course, this is no problem. These folks interpret Genesis 1 very literally and thus hold that all forms of life were created roughly contemporary with humans. They reject (or reinterpret) the evidence that the earth is 4.6 billion years old and that life has been brewing and evolving on this planet for almost a billion of them. This is a possible solution to our question, but its hard to take too seriously a view that 99.9% of scientists in the field think is absurd. I’ve read (but not thoroughly studied) on both sides of the debate, and I have to say I side strongly with the scientific consensus on this one.

So, how do we reconcile the Bible with the geological and paleontological evidence of a violent pre-humanoid world? As I noted in a previous blog, I used to account for this with a version of the gap theory (see my God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil). I still think this perspective is exegetically compelling. The trouble is, there’s no solid scientific evidence for the sort of global judgment the gap theory postulates. So, I’ve decided to go back to the drawing board on this one. I see several possible solutions, but at present none stands out as being preferable to the others. They are all plagued with difficulties.

Still, so far as I can see, the only thing that hangs in the balance on this issue is the question of how literally or figuratively we should interpret Genesis 1-3. As I noted above, this is an issue that has been around for aeons, and it's one that all perspectives have to address. So I don’t see that my S.I.N. hypothesis is particularly threatened by this presently unresolved problem.

There’s (at least) two more arguments to go, so stay tuned.



Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Argument from God’s Non-Violent Creational Ideal

Hello blogging community. Thanks for tuning in. I’m getting a lot of feedback on my recent posts about “natural evil,” and I appreciate it. Some of it has been people offering criticisms of my view, and I appreciate that as much as the positive feedback. It’s an “iron sharpening iron” kind of thing.

In his great book Mephistopheles, Jeffery Russell said, “No theodicy that does not take the Devil fully into consideration is likely to be persuasive.” This is my conviction in a nutshell. I’m suggesting that we simply cannot adequately explain “natural” evil unless we accept that Satan and other rebellious cosmic forces have had a corrupting influence on it. At the same time, however, I certainly am not denying that there are other considerations to factor in.

For example, one can argue that there are inherent limitations in any created reality. And one can argue that an element of chance, leading sometimes to unfortunate results, must be present in creation in order to attain other goods. I agree with this. I’m simply saying that I don’t find these considerations adequate in and of themselves to explain all that needs to be explained. Nor do I see why we would refrain from appealing to hostile cosmic forces when Scripture (I am arguing) gives us grounds for doing so.

Now, in my previously three blogs I’ve reviewed three arguments supporting my Satan-in-nature (S.I.N.) hypothesis. I shall now offer a fourth argument. It’s what one might call The Argument from God’s Non-Violent Creational Ideal.

In Genesis 1.29-30 the Lord says to humans:

I give you every seed–bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.”

Notice, God didn’t give animals to each other to eat. Nor did God give animals to humans to eat. This is reiterated in Genesis 2 when the Lord tells Adam he was “free to eat from any tree in the garden” (vs. 16-17). Adam was not free to eat any of the animals.

It seems, then, that the food chain in God’s ideal creation was non-carnivorous and non-violent. I have to, of course, grant that there’s room for debate over how literally or figuratively these passages should be interpreted. But even if one sees these chapters as mostly, or even totally, figurative, I don’t see how one can get around the implication that God’s ideal creation was, and is, non-violent.

That non-violence was part of God’s original design for creation is reiterated when God makes a new covenant with humanity after the flood. The covenant of Gen. 9:1-4 parallels the covenant of Genesis 1 very closely, except that God now concedes the reality of fear, dread and violence in creation. To Noah and his sons the Lord says:

Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.

Notice that, in contrast to Genesis 1, the entire animal kingdom now has “fear and dread” toward humans. Also in explicit contrast to Genesis 1, God now allows humans to eat meat (so long as the blood is drained out) just as God previously allowed humans to eat vegetation. This sharp and explicit contrast highlights the fact that God’s ideal creation included no fear, dread or violence. I submit that the fear, dread and violence that we now find permeating nature no more reflects God’s ideal for nature than the fear, dread and violence we presently find in ourselves reflects God’s ideal for us.

Related to this, scripture teaches us that someday the creation will be free from this fear, dread and violence. This supplies further proof that fear, dread and violence was never part of God’s creational ideal. Isaiah gives us an eschatological vision of the coming Kingdom of God when he writes:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

Infants will play near the hole of the cobra;
young children will put their hands into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea. (Isa 11:6-9)

When the reign of God is fully established on the earth, the fear, dread and violence between animals, on the one hand, and between animals and humans, on other, will completely cease. God’s ideal for creation will be attained. There will be a “new heaven and a new earth” (2 Pet 3:13; Rev. 21:1).

We of course find it hard to imagine what this renewed world might look like or how it would operate. We simply can’t conceive of a lion that eats “straw like an ox.” But this is simply because the only lions we are familiar with are the kind that eat lambs instead of straw. Paul teaches that the nature of humans and animals in the coming kingdom will be as different from the way they are now as a plant is from its original seed (I Cor.15:37-44).

I see no reason why we shouldn’t conclude that this same difference applies to the distinction between God’s original ideal for creation and the violent creation we presently find ourselves in. In the beginning God’s creation was non-violent. In the end God’s creation shall be non-violent. And this is enough to tell us that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our present violent creation.

What’s wrong with it, I submit, has something to do with the one who is called the lord of the world (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), the god of this age (2 Cor 4:4) and the principality and power of the air (Eph 2:2).

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Argument from God’s Creational Battles

Greetings my erudite internet friends,

I’m in the process of summarizing my defense of my claim that “natural” evil can only be adequately accounted for if we accept that fallen spirits have, to some extent, interfered with God’s good creational design for nature. So far I’ve given my “Argument from Animal Suffering” and my “Argument From Demonically Influenced Infirmities” (see the previous two posts). Today I offer my “Argument From God’s Creational Battles.”

When people think of the Bible’s creation story, they naturally think of Genesis 1 and 2. What most don’t realize, however, is that Old Testament scholars generally agree that there are dozens of other passages that refer to God’s act of creation. And what’s significant about these other creation accounts is that they all involve God battling forces of evil and/or chaos. This is what scholars refer to as the chaoskampf (meaning, “conflict with chaos”) motif of the Old Testament.

Some of these passages explicitly state they are describing creation, while others are determined by scholars to be creational accounts on the basis of the way they parallel the creation accounts of Israel’s ancient near eastern neighbors. As I describe in my book God at War (chapters 2-3), some of these accounts depict God battling hostile personified waters that were believed to encompass the earth, while others talk of cosmic beasts (e.g. Leviathan, Rahab, Yamm) that all ancient near eastern people believed threatened creation (see, eg. Ps. 29:3-4; 104:3-9; 74:10-13. 89:9-10; Prov. 8: 27-29; Job 9:13; 38:6-11; Hab 3:8-15). Biblical authors are uniformly confident that Yahweh can handle these cosmic foes. Yet, his victory is considered praiseworthy precisely because these foes are real and formidable.

Now, the language of God resisting hostile waters or cosmic monsters is obviously mythic. Yet, if we accept this material as divinely inspired, as I do, we have to ask the question, “What do these mythic portrayals convey?” And whatever else we might say in response to this question, we would have to conclude that these passages teach that God faces opposition on a cosmic level when he creates and preserves the world.

How are we to reconcile these passages with the Genesis creation account where there seems to be no conflict? It’s not clear. In God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil, I argued we can plausibly insert them between verses 1 and 2 of Genesis 1 (this is known as “the gap theory,” since it posits a gap between these two verses). As an exegetical argument I think this works great. But, as I admitted in a blog several weeks, this view runs into difficulties on the scientific end of things.

The way one ends up reconciling these various creation accounts will depend on how they read Genesis (there are at least four fundamentally different interpretations accepted among Evangelicals) and how they read the scientific evidence. But this need not concern us presently, for it doesn’t affect the more fundamental point that the Bible depicts creation as being laid siege by hostile forces that God must resist to bring about and preserve creation.

The chaoskampf material never addresses where the forces of chaos came from, but I submit that the New Testament provides us with a ready answer. For here we learn about the rebellion of various angels, headed up by Satan (2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6; cf. I Tim. 3:6; Mt 25:41). We’re not told when these angels rebelled, but given the chaoskampf material, and given the scientific evidence for a suffering-filled creation long before the advent of humans, it seems evident they fell long before humans were created.

In light of all this, I see no reason to assume that nature as we now find it is in every respect nature as God intended it to be. Rather, it seems reasonable to me to conclude that the warfare between good and evil permeates the very fabric of the creation. C.S. Lewis said somewhere that “every square inch of the creation is at every moment claimed by Satan and counterclaimed by God.” Given the material we’ve just reviewed, I don’t regard it as an absurd claim to make. C.S. Lewis also speculated somewhere that the violence in evolutionary history might be plausibly explained by the influence of anti-God forces. And given the material we’ve just reviewed, I don’t regard this as an absurd claim either.

Still more to come. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Argument From Demonically-Influenced Infirmities

Hi folks,

I’m summarizing my case for my belief that “natural” evil can only be adequately accounted for if we accept that fallen spirits have, to some extent, interfered with God’s good creational design for nature. In the previous post I gave my “Argument from Animal Suffering.” In this post I offer my “Argument From Demonically-Influenced Infirmities.”

The Gospels frequently (but not always) attribute infirmities to demonic activity (I’m using “infirmities” here to cover all forms of illness, disease, and disabilities). In Luke 13, for example, Jesus comes upon a woman who has a deformed back and says, "How long should this woman, a daughter of Abraham, suffer under Satan's oppression?" Peter summarized Jesus' ministry in Acts 10 by saying that Jesus went about freeing people from Satan's oppression by healing them of their diseases. In fact, the word the Gospels sometimes use for disease or infirmity is mastix, which literally means "flogging." (I review all this material thoroughly in my book, God at War).

Now, there are three points that I think are significant about this as it concerns the issue of accounting for "natural" evil.

First, there’s no reason to think that a scientist couldn’t give a perfectly natural explanation for these infirmities that the Bible attributes to Satan and demons. They are, on one level, simply the “natural” results of natural processes working in accordance to the laws of nature.

This establishes that there’s no intrinsic incompatibility with attributing infirmities to spirits, on the one hand, and explaining them in natural terms, on the other. This is actually a very important point, since the most common objection to the view that spirits are responsible for some aspects of “natural” evil is that these evils can be accounted for scientifically.

Second, and closely related to this, if infirmities are the natural result of natural processes operating according to the laws of nature, on the one hand, while also being, at times, the result of demonic activity, on the other, then it seems that the laws of nature as we now find them must to some extent be demonically influenced. In fact, the New Testament says that Satan holds the keys of death (Heb. 2:14). Yet, death is a natural result of natural processes operating according to the laws of nature. This should be enough to tell us that natural processes can, in some cases, and to some extent, be satanically influenced.

Third, for Satan and demons to be involved, on any level, with bringing about infirmities, they must be able to affect matter. And if they can affect matter to bring about human infirmities, on what basis could we argue that they can’t affect matter to bring about other aspects of nature that seem incompatible with the perfect goodness of God?

On top of this, we need to remember the incredible stature and authority ascribed to Satan in the New Testament. He is called (among other things) the “lord” (archon) of the world (Jn 12:31, 14:30; 16:11), the principality and power of the air (Eph 2:2) and the god of this age (2 Cor. 4:4). He is said to control the entire world (Jn 5:19) and to own all the authority of all the kingdoms of the world (Lk 4:5-7). In this light, why should we think it impossible that this fallen archangel, along with his minions, has messed with the natural order of things?

Consider also that humans have the capacity to affect natural processes, for better or for worse. For several millennia we have brought about new breeds of domesticated animals, for example. And today, we’re acquiring the power (Lord help us!) to genetically engineer everything from ears to new-and-improved immune systems. If we as intelligent free agents have the “say-so” to impact the natural order, why think spirit agents uniformly lack this capacity?

Recall that in Genesis 6 we’re taught that angelic beings materialized and had sex with “the daughters of men” (Gen. 6:2,4). Their offspring were apparently hybrid creatures who were abnormally large. Hence they were called “Nephilim.” If that isn’t messing with the natural order of things, what is?

So, we have solid biblical reasons to conclude that spirits can affect matter and mess with the general order of things. And from where I sit, this provides us with an important component of an adequate explanation for why nature is so “red in tooth and claw,” despite having been created by an all-good, peaceful, Creator.

More to come in subsequent blogs.


and be kind to animals!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Argument From Animal Suffering

Hello my smart friends out there in virtual reality land!

It's so good to be back home with family and friends. Not that I didn't love being with all the philosophical, theological and scientific brainiacs out in Quincy. But, like the great philosopher Dorthey once said while holding her trustworthy dog Toto:

"There's no place like home."

Amen to that!

Now, I've gotten a lot of e-mails in response to my science and theological conference blogging. It was really quite amazing. I was really impressed with some of the input I received. We've got some pretty high level scientists and philosophers checking in on this site! Wonderful!

The most discussed topic - and undoubtedly the most controversial - was my contention that natural evil can only be adequately explained if we accept that fallen spirits have to some degree corrupted nature. Some bloggers really liked the idea, but many did not. So, in the next couple of blogs I thought I’d briefly summarize my reasons for holding to this position.

I will call my first argument The Argument From Animal Suffering.

I contend that animal suffering is an evil that needs to be accounted for by theists who believe that God is all good and all powerful. Many have tried to argue that animals don’t really suffer, but their arguments are simply unconvincing. (For a SUPERB refutation of these arguments, as well as an eye-opening account of how animals suffer in our Industrial Farms, see Matthew Scully’s book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. It’s brilliant.)

Consider this: All developed societies punish people when they inflict unnecessary pain on animals. This practice only makes sense if we share a fundamental conviction that animal suffering is an evil that should be avoided and remedied when possible. So, if we accept that God is the Creator of nature, and if it's true that nature sometimes (often!) makes animals suffer, then it seems we have to either:

a) hold that God is responsible for animal suffering, hence not all good;

b) hold that God is all good, but animal suffering is necessary; or

c) hold that free agents are responsible for animal suffering.

Option (a) obviously isn't viable for people who believe God is all good. Option (b) is a possibility, but I've frankly never found it argued convincingly. (This denial will of course have to be further developed). So, we're left with option (c). This is the option we presuppose when we hold humans culpable for inflicting suffering on animals. But when no human is involved, who are we to hold responsible?

The only logically possible answer is non-human free agents.

More to come. Stay tuned. And have a great day!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Milbanks and the Satan in Nature Hypothesis

Some of you may be familiar with John Milbank, one of the founders of a movement called "Radical Orthodoxy." (His best known book is Theology and Social Theory). I don't agree with everything he writes, but it seems we are on the same page regarding a) the centrality of non-violence for citizens of the Kingdom of God and b) the unequivocal distinction between the Church and all forms of secularism, including secular sociology and politics. He argues that the Church's job is to provide the world with an alternative society that manifests the loving, peaceful reign of the triune God against the secular world which is rooted in what he calls "an ontology of violence." To accomplish this, the Church must never let itself be defined in secular categories -- whether this be sociology or politics. Those who have read my book The Myth of a Christian Nation will have no trouble seeing the commonality between Milbanks and my views.

What I didn't know -- or even remotely suspect -- until this morning is that Milbanks also seems to be roughly on the same page as me regarding "natural" evil. This morning a friend of mine (Tom Belt) sent me the following quote from an interview of Milbanks concerning the book mentioned above. He says,

"I think one thing that I don’t say in Theology and Social Theory very clearly is that I definitely line up with the die-hards who think that death comes into the world after the fall. And I agree with the nut cases who say, “If you abandon that, you abandon Christianity ... ” The whole Bible’s sense of what is bad is very objective; it includes natural evils as well as moral evils, and it doesn’t really distinguish between the two a lot of the time. At least in the Old Testament that seems to be true, that there is cosmic disorder. And it seems to me that the New Testament has a sense of how these interact, but we live in a world into which death has entered and this makes malice possible ..."

Now, I'm not sure if Milbank's is referring to the human fall or the angelic fall in this paragraph, and if its the former, I don't kow what Milbank's does with pre-humanoid violence in the world. But I'm delighted to see he recognizes a cosmic disorder at the level of nature, such that the "natural world" we now live in isn't really "nature." There is, as he says in his book, a sort of violence that has encroached in on the world.

I love it.


Saturday, July 7, 2007

A Meeting With the Grand Master

Hello my brilliant blogging friends,

Today (Friday) was the grand finale of the science and open theology conference, and what a finale it was! Our visiting guest was Sir. John Polkinghorne, the grand master of contempory science and theology (at least according to ME). If you've done ANY reading on science and theology, you've undoubtedly encountered this man's work. Polkinghorne was a world reknowned physicist before becoming an Angilcan priest and the most prolific writer on science and theology in the world today. Honestly, he's written a gazillion or so books on the topic! What makes him particularly signficant to our group is that he argues that both science and the Bible point us to a God who created a dynamic world that is moving into a partly open future. He was a delightful, whimsical, very fast talking, brilliant guest.

His heavy English accent was pretty cool too!

Okay, here are a few highlights.

1. Polkinghorne had a fine section on the implications of Chaos and Quantum theory -- which delighted my heart, since I had been a bit disappointed on how little we'd discussed these fields in this conference.

Neither of these fields proves the world is indeterministic, but in contrast to so much of classical science, they at least don't rule out indeterminism. Quantum Theory in particular can be given either a deterministic interpretation (if one posits "hidden variables" to account for quantum indeterminacy) or an indeterministic interpretation (if one accepts the indeterminacy as an ultimate description). But Polkinghorne argued that the indeterministic interpretation was to be preferred, and is preferred by most physicists. The "hidden variable" explanation is contrived, he argued. (I'd also say it exacts a high price in other areas, but I can't get into this now).

2. I finally got clear on why a Quantum Chaology (combining Quantum and Chaos theory together) is theoretically difficult, if not impossible. I've never quite understood this. Polkinghorne's brilliance is his clarity. He noted that Quantum physics has a scale to it, while Chaos does not -- it's fractal. You can't fit a scaled discipline with a non-scaled one. It's an apples and oranges kind of thing.

3. Polkinghorne outlined his theory that God influences the world by providing "patterns of information" that steer the direction of energy flow without interfering with natural processes. I inquired what sort of causality this "information" might be, if it can't be detected by measuring instruments. And I wondered precisely how it influences the direction of things. Is it determinative or merely persuasive? If it’s the former, how can the future be open? But if it’s the later, what is there that keeps it from being determinative? His answer to me was not too satisfying, relying on analogies of the mind influencing the brain (which itself is a very mysterious process, as I noted yesterday). Other's followed up with more questions along these lines, but Polkinghorne (who is a very humble man, by the way) admitted it's all quite mysterious.

4. One of Polkinghorne's best sections, as far as I'm concerned, centered on showing why Relativity Theory does not in any way call into question the real temporality of the Cosmos. As I discussed on a previous blog a couple weeks ago, while there is no privileged perspective regarding when "now" is, according to Relativity Theory, each perspective has an unambiguous past and an unambiguous future. There is no conceivable perspective that doesn't move from the past to the future. While Polkinghorne didn't say this, I would add that this means that an omnipresent God who is coterminous with each and every perspective would have a "now" that is a synthesis of all the relative nows of all perspectives, thus constituting a cosmic "now" with an unambiguous past and an unambiguous future (consisting partly of possibilities, in my view).

5. Polkinghorne gave a splendidly clear overview of four areas that suggest there is a real "arrow of time" (moving from past to the future). There is a) the cosmic arrow (the unidirectional expansion of the universe); b) the thermodynamic arrow (unidirectional entropy); c) the arrow of increasingly complexity (the cosmic movement from simplicity to complexity -- which doesn't contradict "b" by the way); and d) the psychological arrow (our sense of living in the "now" with a real past and real future). I was surprised that he didn't mention the quantum arrow, since he's discussed this in several of his books. When a quantum particle transitions from its "superposition" state (in which it is nothing more than a probability wave) to its measured state (in which it becomes a fixed point), there is a movement forward that cannot be reversed, thus suggesting a real arrow of time.

Following his presentation we had a great time discussing an assortment of things. There was a good bit of discussion regarding the issue of God's timelessness, flowing largely from a statement Polkinghorne made to the effect that, while he doesn't believe all future facts are present to God's knowledge, he doesn't think it’s a logical contradiction to suppose that they are, and even that we could continue to be free if they were. Many of us tried to help John see that this is infact contradictory, but to no avail.

Personally, I suspect Polkinghorne hasn't completely worked through the full implications of his dynamic view of creation. For example, at one point he claimed we need to accept "a kenosis (which means, self-emptying or self-limiting) of divine omniscience." In the span of two sentences he said, "God limits his knowledge of the future" followed by "there's nothing in the future for God to know." My question to him was, "If there's nothing in the future for God to know, why claim that God limits his knowledge not to know 'it'"? If there's nothing 'out there' for God to know, there's no 'it' for him not to know (though I would say there are possibilities 'out there,' and that God knows them). So we should simply say that God creates a world comprised of possibilities, and that he knows it just as it is precisely because God has unlimited omniscience.

The point is that, despite his open theism, Polkinghorne seems to yet have a vestige of the old classical view of the future 'out there' as a domain of settled facts to be discovered, rather than a domain of possibilities to be realized. He, like the rest of us, seems to be yet in process -- which happens to fit the dynamic world view he espouses very well.


Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Emergent Self

In our next-to-last session at the Quincy Science and Theology conference, Dr. Bill Hasker (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Huntington University) presented a comprehensive argument for what he calls "the emergent self" (or "soul"). It was a summary of a book that he recent published with this same title.

Here's the problem Bill is trying to tackle. On the one hand, we all experience ourselves as having a mind that can originate ideas, make decisions, and freely move our physical bodies in various ways to accomplish various tasks. At the same time, we also all know that our mind is inextricably connected to our physical brains. In fact, through neuroscience we now have mapped very specific areas of the brain that are in charge of carrying out specific mental tasks.
So the question is, How can our minds be free when they're inextricably tied to a brain that is not (for the physical brain operates according to the laws of physics)?

Throughout western history most people have embraced DUALISM, which views the mind/soul as totally different from physical reality. This view is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it can't really explain the inextricable connection between the mind and the brain. Rejecting this, many nueroscientists today embrace MATERIALISTIC MONISM which believes the mind/soul is nothing more than a shadowy by-product of the deterministic processes that characterize the brain. This view is also problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it means our sense of freedom is a complete illusion. Indeed, in this view our experience of impacting our brains and bodies by what we think is just an illusion. Thought and choice always follows deterministic physical processes. It never impacts physical processes -- for there is no autonomous "it" to cause anything. (This is sometimes called Epi-phenomenologicalism.)

Against both of these views, Hasker argued that we should view the "mind" as an "emergent property" out of brain processes. As I noted in a previous post, "emergence" is when a physical dynamic system is organized in such a way that the system as a whole acquires a property that none of the constituent parts of the system have. We find it all over the place in nature. Applied to the mind-brain problem, Hasker argues that while every aspect of the brain is physical and determined, it gives rise to mind as an "emergent property," and this property is neither physical nor determined. Indeed, once it emerges, the mind can be the originator of activity, impacting both the physical brain and therefore the body with its mental ideas and choices. So, Bill's view accounts for both the inseparability of the mind from the brain but also the relative independence of the mind and the brain.

I personally think something like Hasker's view must be correct. At the same time, I don't see that it really explains anything. Bill's theory is really just a description of what we experience and a way of saying, "this is true." He doesn't explain how deterministic physical processes (the brain) can give rise to a self-determining non-physical mind/soul. He simply observes that it does.

So here's what I'm wondering. Nobody knows what "matter" is, apart from what matter does. Nor does anyone know what "mind" is, apart from what mind does. And yet, it seems like we consistently forget this fact. We act like we know a great deal about both matter and mind -- enough so that we're very sure they're radically different from each other. This is what gives rise to the mind-body problem that dualism, materialistic monism and the emergent self theory each try to solve.

But what if we didn't start with the assumption that mind and matter are fundamentally different things? It's true that what we call "matter" behaves according to the laws of physics while what we call "mind" seems to be able to transcend these. But what if this difference was merely a matter of degree, rather than a difference of kind? What if the matter that looks like it slavishly obeys the laws of physics is just (what Hartshorne called) "low grade mind?" In other words, what if all material things are in their essence "mind-like," however low-level this mind-quality might be (this is the pan-psychism I referred to in an earlier posts)?

If we think this way, then there really is no mind-brain problem to solve. And it makes Bill Hasker's emergent self theory more compelling, I think. For while it's very hard to see how a free mind/soul could emerge out of brain parts that are themselves completely devoid of mind and freedom, there is no problem seeing how a high-level free mind could emerge out of brain parts that are each low-level mind and exercise low-level freedom.

Just a thought.


A Frustrating Debate

Hope you all had a nice fourth of July! God bless America -- and all other countries!!

To be honest, I have a little bit of trouble really getting into this particular holiday. Should I as a Kingdom person celebrate one "Christian" nation violently rsing up against a ruling "Christian" nation simply because I happen to be born in the nation that ended up winning?

As an aside, the other day our science and theology group visited Concord, where the American Revolution began. At the bridge where the first British soldiers were killed, the tour guide referred to them as "the invading army" and talked about how our valiant freedom fighters pushed them back. Now, if memory serves me correctly, America was at this time a British colony, which means the British army wasn't "invading" anyone. Rather, they were coming to Concord to check out rumors that insurrectionists were stockpiling weapons.

This wasn't really a preemptive "strike," on their part. But it was a preemptive "checking out."
Isn't history full of ironies? And it just goes to show how history is always revisioned by the victors. Kind of like Columbus "discovering" America, and many other quaint American tales we teach our children. But don't get me started! Let's move on.

Last night our conference hosted a debate between Dr. John Sanders, defending the Openness position, and Dr. John Jefferson Davies, from Gordon Conwell, defending the classical view of foreknowledge. John Sanders did an excellent job, though John Davies was clearly the more polished debator. He controlled the flow of the debate. More often than not he had John back on his heals trying to answer questions thrown at him. Dr. Sanders is in a sense just too much of a gentleman to be really good at this sort of thing -- especially when coming up against someone like Davies. To everyone's chagrin, Davies was pretty rude, and Sanders had a hard time getting a word in edgewise, because he just refused to be rude back.

If you judge who "won" or "lost" a debate by who had the most impact on the crowd, I think most people in the lecture hall would say that Davies lost by a country mile. Not so much because of the content of what he said (though this wasn't spectacular) but because of his demeanor. While John always comes across as courteous and polite, Davies somehow managed to alienate, aggravate, and pretty much insult everyone in the room who had any sympathy for openness. It was positively amazing - and more than a little frustrating.

Davies also had a very irritating way of answering questions with questions -- which is how he managed to control the debate so thoroughly. For example, Davies argued that God transcends time and that we Open Theists who view God as being in time (I'd rather say "in sequence") are guilty of "wagging the biblical dog with the philosophical tail" (meaning our philosophical presuppositions about time supposedly control our biblical interpretation). When they took questions from the floor, I asked Dr. Davies:

"I certainly don't want to wag the biblical dog with a philosophical tail. So can you please help me out? I'm sure you're aware of the several hundred passages where God looks back to the past and forward to the future. And we're all aware that the whole biblical narrative depicts God as acting in time. But I for one am not aware of the wealth of biblical material that depicts God transcending time. So, aside from the Septuagint mistranslation of Ex. 3:14, can you share with us some of the many biblical passages that show this?"

There are, of course, none. So, after a brief but rather awkward pause, Davies responded, "Do you believe in creation ex nihilo?


Of course, I do believe in creation ex nihilo, but I certainly wasn't going to let Davies change the topic by supplying him with an answer. So I just sat there smiling. It was kind of weird actually. Finally, the moderator said to him, "The question was directed to you. Could you please respond?"

Dr. Davies then blurted out "John 1:1 and Ephesians 1.4!"

I encourage bloggers to check out these two passages to discern whether either of these passages reveal what Dr. Davies claims they reveal.

Well, God bless him. He was certainly frustrating, but he has unsurpassable worth and is sincerely trying to do the Lord's work as he understands it.

As one who on occasion does public debates, I'm thankful for being reminded of the easy-to-forget truth that how you conduct yourself in a debate is actually more important than what you say in a debate.

Blessings on you all,

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Science of Forgiveness

Well, the conference took a different turn today. We talked about forgiveness -- not exactly a topic you'd think would arise at a science and theology conference! Our discussion was led by Dr. Everett Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University who has researched and written a lot on this topic. Here are a few of the highlights along with my comments.

1. Everett provided neurological evidence that we're hard wired for revenge. Experimental subjects about to engage in revenge have the pleasure pathways of their brain activated. This undoubtedly can be explained on an evolutionary model, but I have to believe this is a result of the fall. This is downright diabolic!

2. Everett provided evidence that proves that holding onto anger and resentment is disastrous for a person's mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical health. We pay terribly for every moment we refuse to forgive. I say AMEN to this. This undoubtedly is why we find in the NT that forgiveness lies at the heart of the Good News. Also, it sheds further light on my first point, for it means that revenge feels good in the moment (activating pleasure neuro-pathways) but kills us in the long run.

3. Everett made a strong distinction between "Decisional Forgiveness" -- where a person just decides to forgive without any emotional change -- and "Emotional Forgiveness" -- where they actually experience a changed disposition toward the one they're forgiving. He held that one could do the former without the latter.

I agree, but only if the former is understood to be the first step toward the latter. If someone "forgives" without taking steps to get out of their hatred or resentment for the person they "forgave," I don't see how their forgiveness is genuine. It's no different than a person who says "I love you" to an enemy because they're supposed to, but who REALLY continues to despise them. This is not only disingenuous, it can become demonically pathological in that it deceives people into thinking they're forgiving and loving, when in fact they are not. This is why religious systems that focus on behavior (oughts and shoulds) are so damaging to people.

4. Finally, we spoke a lot about how the atonement relates to forgiveness. I suggested that a major obstacle to western Christians (especially evangelicals) walking out Kingdom forgiveness is that many have a worldview in which forgiveness doesn't really happen. That is, many see the atonement as an act whereby the Father unleashes his wrath against sin on his Son, punishing the Son for what we humans do. This, it is believed, is what allows the all-holy God to forgive and embrace us sinners.

Now, there's many problems with this view, but the one that concerns me right now is that this model depicts a God who never really forgives. Suppose you owe me $100 but can't pay it. If I won't let you off the hook until I get my $100 from someone or another, I never really forgive the debt. I got my payment. So too, if God won't forgive unless someone or another (his Son) pays off the debt, then God never really forgives. He gets his payment. (For an alternative way of understanding how Jesus died as our substitute, see my essay in Eddy and Beilby, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views [IVP, 2006]). Since we all tend to become the God we worship, I worry that this model of God and his role in the atonement hinders people from freely forgiving.

Walk in freedom. Forgive as you've been forgiven -- freely.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Reflections on the Body, Soul, and Spirit

Hello comrads in the great and mighty battle!

Trust all is going well for you. I'm still out here in Quincy at the Science and Theology Conference. I'm starting to really ache for my family and friends, but I'm also loving the academic camaraderie and am having a good bit of fun with some of the folks. There's this guy out here named Dean Zimmerman who is just a riot! He's got a monster brain and is well known in philosophical circles for his work on metaphysics. But he also loves to kick back and have a blast. Among other things, we've spent several nights watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- which, by he way, I'm starting to really like. Hilarious.

Anyways, today (Monday) we heard from Dr. Warren Brown, Professor of Experimental Neuropsychology at Fuller Seminary. He's the author of the book Whatever Happened to the Soul?, and recently co-authored a book with Nancey Murphy entitled Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?

The bulk of his presentation consisted of a very interesting and in-depth look at how various parts of our brain are activated when we recognize faces, ponder possibilities, make ethical decisions, have religious experiences, solve mental problems, etc. If these parts get damaged, a person's ability to engage in these activities is diminished, or completely extinguished. Warren gave examples of people who, as a result of a brain injury, went from being very moral people to extremely immoral people. (Good luck to God sorting THAT one out on the judgment day!)

Warren also gave some very interesting data showing that we humans aren't nearly as rational or free as we might think. Our frontal lobe, which is in charge of our conscious reasoning, lags behind other parts of our brain that are already responding to our environment by the time we're aware of it and thinking about it. So, in many respects, our reasoning and conscious decision-making activity is more of a "caboose" than it is the driving "engine" of the train we call our self.

Also, Warren gave an interesting argument for viewing "mind" and "free will" as an emergent property from the complex dynamic system that is our brain. He believes in free will (within limits), but denies that humans have a "soul" or "mind" that exists as a separate entity. In other words, he's NOT a dualist (one who believes humans are comprised of two fundamentally different realities -- a physical body and a non-physical soul).

Much of our discussion afterwards was on this topic. I and others had trouble seeing how genuine freedom can be an emergent property of a system that is otherwise deterministic. One could easily explain THE EXPERIENCE of freedom as an emergent property, but not freedom itself. In this case, we FEEL free, but actually we're determined.

Warren's response was simply to insist - a number of times -- that dynamical systems are capable of producing emergent properties that none of the components have. The sum is more than the parts. This is a non-controversial point in and of itself, but I and others think it's being stretched too far in the attempt to explain freedom.

So far as I can see, Warren's position really amounts to a) simply observing how the brain works b) observing that we experience ourselves as free, and c) concluding that freedom is an emergent property of how the brain works. But this isn't really an EXPLANATION. It's just a CLAIM. And it’s a claim that goes beyond the scientific evidence. Scientifically, it seems to me, Warren should simply conclude that the EXPERIENCE of freedom is an emergent property of the brain, not that we are IN FACT free.

For my two cents, I'd argue that "mind" and "soul" IS an emergent property of the brain, just as Warren does, and for all the reasons Warren does. But I don't think this exhausts what a human self is, for I would argue (see below) that humans are also "spirit." While our conscious experience of freedom is clearly rooted in the brain (as an emergent property), I think the REALITY of freedom is more fundamentally rooted in our essence, which is spirit.

The four best arguments I'd offer in favor of this view would be (in VERY succinct form):

1. The Bible suggests humans are more that psychical processes. We are body and soul, and, in several cases, body, soul, and SPIRIT (I Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12). See Boyd & Larson, Escaping the Matrix, for more on this.

2. For theists, we already believe in "spirit" since we believe in God. What objection could there then be to believing God created humans as spirit as well as physical beings?

3. As I argued above, I don’t' see how we can adequately account for the REALITY (not just the experience) of freedom without appealing to something that transcends physical processes. (And note, appealing to quantum indeterminacy at this point doesn't help, for quantum indeterminacy is no closer to our experience of freedom than determinacy is).

4. Finally, there is a growing body of impressive documentation of people who have had "out of the body" experiences (usually "near death experiences") through which they acquired information they could not have acquired by natural, physical means. This strongly suggests, and perhaps conclusively proves, that something conscious and non-physical survives the cessation of brain activity.

That's all for now. Keep thinking, growing and loving!