cultural enmity

In this post, I want to reflect on what I take to be one of the most serious and urgent issues in modern society: that of social division.

It seems that in the area of political discourse, we are getting poorer at relating to one another. I often feel that the internet in general and social media in particular has partially delivered on the promise to spread information and unite us, and majorly delivered on the outcome of spreading misinformation and dividing us. Aside from whatever unity that has resulted, the internet allows people to find other like-minded people who agree with them, who share the same admiration (or frustration) about the same people, and they reinforce one another by sharing their ideas, videos, articles, webpages, memes, etc.

Whenever there is engagement between the divided camps, too often it descends sooner or later (usually sooner) into cheap and easy labeling of the other. “You are such a ______.”

In Aotearoa New Zealand, much too soon after the horrific violence of the Mosque shootings, the issue was weaponized into a way for those in opposing camps to blame the shootings on those on the other side. Righty folk had the nerve to suggest it was immigration’s fault. Lefty folk blamed and banned public figures who they don’t like. Both used the tragic events to demonstrate that they were right all along.

There are two reflections I have on all this. First of all, Jesus teaches us, not to never judge the other, but rather to do the hard work of judging ourselves first. In Matthew 7, we read that when we take the ‘log’ out of our eye, we will then see more clearly and be better able to take the ‘speck’ out of our neighbour’s eye. Political division will only grow as long as we focus only on how wrong we think the other side is.

Second, there is also another piece of wisdom that I think is relevant. It is not a biblical quote, but it is consonant with biblical wisdom, I suggest. It is the adage, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” I think the relevance for our current divided sociopolitical situation is that we need to stop labeling those we disagree with and start listening to them. Labeling is a conversation stopper. “You’re only saying that because you are a… (‘snowflake’, ‘millennial’, ‘racist’, or ‘xenophobe’).” It is utterly dis-empowering for discourse.

When is it hardest to do this? When we have strong ideas. If we’re unsure of our opinion on something, we listen much better; but when we’re convinced, we sigh, groan, label, and unfriend when we encounter the other view.

People fear that giving too much time to an extreme or harmful idea will strengthen it. But I say that if we don’t listen to it and don’t offer respectful engagement and challenge to it, it will grow cancerous growth. When people feel that nobody will listen to them, they give up on trying and retreat into their like-minded enclaves. As has been said, we were told not to talk about religion or politics, but we should have been taught to talk respectfully and constructively about them. I believe that if we do this, it will help put the brakes on growing extremism and enmity.

Engaging patiently with views that you disagree with means at least a few things: not using labels, not presenting the other view in its worst form (called ‘straw-manning’) paying attention to your facial expression, tone of voice, and not interrupting the moment you hear something you disagree with. It means holding your own ideas for the time being (if they are good ideas, they aren’t going anywhere), and making sure you understand what the other person means. If you cannot describe the other person’s view in a form that they will recognize and agree with, then you will never be able to dialogue with them.

This all may sound very clear, but in my experience it is incredibly difficult. I’m not great at it, but I’m trying.

For many of us, it is a real jolt of self-righteous pleasure to make a good point in a debate or discussion. In this way, patient dialogue has a sacrificial character, in that we sacrifice our own pleasure of feeling smart or right, and instead conduct ourselves in a way that awards respect to the other person and gives them the pleasure of at least being heard.

To hear someone, to listen to them, to give their side a hearing, is not to agree with them. It is simply to seek to understand them. Here’s to us re-learning the art of listening. May we be given the courage we need to do so.

the psalm 8 balance

One of my favourite Psalms is the eighth. I’m using it – very briefly – for a baptism sermon this Sunday, which will have absolutely no room to even begin to extol the kind of technical beauties this gem has.

First of all, there’s the structure.  Check this out:

A Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth,

B who has set your splendor above the heavens;

C from mouths of babes you ordained strength, to stop the foe & avenger.

D When I consider the works of your hands the stars you’ve ordained,

E what is man that you think of him, or a son of man that you visit him?

E You made him a little lower than angels & crowned him w/ glory & honour

D gave him dominion over the works of your hands & put all under his feet

C all sheep and oxen, yes the beasts of field

B birds of the heavens, fish of sea, all that swim in paths of sea

A Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth!

That’s a bit of chiastic beauty right there.  The widest frame of God’s glory, and within that the contrasts of the heavenly and the earthly ‘works of your hands’; all leading up to and from the middle, the intersection of heaven and earth: humans. Someone once said that, when it comes to what we have capacity to measure, from the estimated ‘size’ of the known universe, to the ‘planck length’, humans are in the direct middle.  True or not, that’s a cool thought.

Like the two triangles in the star of David, this Psalm is about the profound tension of being human.  Long before any old or new atheist ever protested the idea of humans being the centre of the world, we have ‘the baffled king’ David, who is flabbergasted at the thought of God thinking about humans.  And yet.  How inspiring is the irony that humans alone (so far as we know!) have the combination of sapience and science to grasp and be grasped by their small size in relation to ‘the rest’?  Psalm 104, by the way, speaks of purpose in creation beyond the comfort of humans.  Rock badgers, the land, the trees, the sun and moon and others all benefit.  Had David known about bosons, black holes, quarks and dark energy, he’d have found a way to speak of their delight in the provision of the Creator.

Which leads to what I like to call the ‘Psalm 8 balance’.  If to be human is to be “under the creator, and over creation” (as I recall hearing N.T. Wright say), then (as  humans primarily sin when they either fail to live up to their calling of being ‘over’ the works of God’s hands, or when they fail to submit to being ‘a little lower than God. (My understanding is that ‘elohim’ here should, as elsewhere, be translated ‘God’, not ‘angels’)  As Mark Biddle writes in Missing the Mark (p. 75),

“Authentic human existence involves living in and for the image of God while fully aware that one comes from the dust.  When this polarity becomes imbalanced in either direction, one falls into sin.”

Or Bruggemann, on this Psalm, writes,

Human power is always bounded and surrounded by divine praise.  Doxology and dominion its context and legitimacy.

Apathy is the enemy of the wonder that simultaneously makes worship godly and makes our ‘dominion’ humane.  And that is tension indeed.

And finally, there’s the way this Psalm just patient sits and quietly asks to be picked up and used to speak about Christ. The one in whom heaven and earth met.  The ‘man from heaven’ Paul would say.  The one who dared utter the words ‘before Abraham was, I AM’.  The incomparable God-Man.  The Only Begotten son, called both the son of God and son of Man, who didn’t leave his glory ‘set’ above the heavens, or just to the Father and himself ‘before the world began’ (as in John’s gospel), but who took flesh and let that glory be seen.

first contact

(I’ve got a week filled with almost a dozen meetings, a sermon to write, a boarder moving in, Tom’s 4th birthday party, and a band practice.  And I’ve got comments on this blog I’ve not had time to respond to yet.  But this post will be short… ;P  )

It’s a very real possibility (or a high probability) that at least some kind of life exists (or has existed – or will exist in the future) other than on earth.  We’ve found evidence of liquid water in the history of Mars and that’s just H20, and just within our solar system.  So it would seem to be hardly a surprise to find some kind of life, plant or animal – or something else? – in other place.

But how likely is intelligent life?

There’s no logical problem with it of course.  S.E.T.I. scans space for signs of intelligence, communication, speech from any ‘others’ out there.

I’m hardly the first to say so, but considering a (conceptual) spectrum-of-intelligence, we ought not assume that we are at the highest end of the spectrum.  However, there is an assumption that I think is reasonable.  It is the assumption that: if we ever do come to know of life that is higher than us on this spectrum-of-intelligence, it would seem less likely that we would discover it (e.g. the movie Prometheus), but that it would discover us (e.g. War of the Worlds or Transformers).

Other possibilities include that it possibly has already discovered us, but would have reason to make itself known to us.  Or possibly they are already trying to make themselves known to us, but our technology or techniques are not suited to pick up on their communication.

As an aside, it is also – at least logically – possible (though we rightly think it unlikely) that more-intelligent-than-us life is hiding out deep in the sea, deep underground, or just behind the sun.  :)

So then, given that we know of no known, reputable communication from other physical life forms (get ready for spam in the comments!?), the options seem to be:

a1) communication is not possible between them and us due to insufficiency of  technology and techniques.
a2) communication is not possible between them and us due to ‘them’ not even existing.
b) communication is not known by us due to our insufficient technology or techniques.
c) communication is not desired by them.

domain of discourse (of fear)

I’ve obviously changed a lot since moving to NZ.  I hate how tooting-my-own-horn this sounds, but I like the changes.  Both my theological and political views have been sharpened.

I used to be a cookie-cutter, conservative, two-issue-voter (you know which ones), republican-Christian.  Now I’m a liberal-conservative (in a centred,  rather than fence-sitting way), wide-screen voter (because all issues are ‘moral’, not just two), moderate Christian.

What was involved in the change?  Well, I think I had to breathe different cultural air than I was breathing back in the buckle of the Bible-belt.  Only people without lungs are truly affected by trying to breathe underwater.  You only react to daylight when you suddenly step outside with eyes that have adjusted to the pitch black room you’ve been in.  You can see a lot better where you’ve been when you’re no longer there, but are somewhere along the trail looking back.

I think I was so regularly exposed to certain domains of discourse that I didn’t learn to critique the view I held.  This air I was breathing was hot with fear.   My wife and I tasted the tang of this fear when we visited the US a few years back and ‘ObamaCare’ was being discussed… no… damned… on Christian radio.  Now, I’m under no illusion that Obama or ObamaCare are without fault, but the simplistic and fear-inducing way in which both were demonised was just crazy to hear with fresh ears – having stepped outside the darkroom for a while, the pitch black was startling.  I’m opposed to abortion (save to save the mother, which isn’t really abortion), and wouldn’t like my tax  dollars funding one, but that seemed to be the crack in the system they were clinging to.   That, and the general paranoia about government getting too involved in our lives.  As many other countries can attest to (not least here in NZ), public healthcare can work quite well, and until the age to come, no system will ever be ethically and fiscally perfect.

And ‘government control’ also comes into the current gun control discussion.  It’s another discourse of fear.  I’m amazed at the paranoia of the countless imaginary people who these people have to defend themselves against.

I went for a photo shoot last night alone, and walked down some very dark and a bit spooky pathways.  For whatever reasons, I carry some of my childhood fear of the dark.  I imagine that someone could be laying in wait, under my car, ready to chop my legs off as I approach… etc.  You get the drift.  I caught myself planning out my response to this imaginary attacker.  “Take a camera stand to the face buddy!”  Now, I know that this precise form of attack has actually happened to some unfortunate souls.  But I want to make a point.

There will always be someone who is either more prepared or more equipped or has bigger or more guns or body armour than you.  If you spend your life in fear, ever-preparing yourself for what someone might do to you, then there’s a word for that: paranoia.

Now, some people in some places and times have more reason to be prepared for self-defense than others.  And that is one reason why I’m not for a total ban on all guns for all people.  But whilst a hand gun is a simple, relatively safe way for most to protect themselves, and whilst you can surprise an approaching attacker by pulling out a concealed weapon on them, you only have the element of surprise if you see them first!  Bottom line: as we develop our technology (including guns), the power will always be found in the hand of both criminals and non-criminals, and it often comes down to the element of surprise.  Which is why the whole thing is not about guns, but about paranoia, constant suspicion and fear.

for all

James Chastek points out that the authors of Scripture were not constructing a body of ‘evidence’ for God, but rather relating their testimony of things they were witnesses to.  He remarks, “Christ, for one, was chiefly interested in making sure that he would have continual witnesses on earth, not that there would be any careful documentation of what he did or incontrovertible evidence that he did it.  […] It is not obvious that founding everything on a monument, a DNA finding, a more meticulous Hebrew census-taking, etc. would be a better way to go.”

And it occurs to me that founding the faith on personal testimony instead of ‘evidence’ (i.e. “a monument, a DNA finding, a more meticulous Hebrew census-taking, etc.”) is more fitting of a God who wishes to be known to any and all persons and not only to archaeologists, geneticists, and historians.

technology

Listening today to the NewstalkZB discussion of youth vandalism (which relate to my recent post) and the Pike River mining incident (29 miners trapped in a complex and multi-faceted situation).

Yet again, we see that technology is neither good nor bad.

If it’s good things we’re aiming to do, technology aids and strengthens our efforts.  If it is best to send in human rescuers (or sacrificial, courageous fathers), then what a blessing to have breathing apparatuses & other gear to help them.  If it’s best to send in a robot instead (as was decided – controversially), then what a blessing to have such technology to even give us the choice (and even better if it is able to withstand watery conditions – which it unfortunately was not).

If it is bad things we’re aiming to do, technology aids and strengthens these efforts as well.  If it is not good to send in a less-than-robust robot to do a human’s job, then what a distraction the whole idea turned out to be.  If it is not good for every opinion to be broadcast, then what a pain to have a mechanism like talk-back radio.

One caller was grateful for the discretion of the police, who kept people from taking the situation into ‘their own hands’ – as if it wasn’t in human hands anyway?  Humans are responsible for doing what they can.  More technology gives us more ‘can do’ options (can-do doesn’t equal should-do.), but is there a point when we have too many options?  More power, but too much power?  Does it make us hesitate to act courageously, or make us too dependent on technology?

A parallel scenario was the months before and weeks after Thomas was born, two years ago.  We found the ante-natal classes generally helpful, and were grateful that we live in a time/place where such things are freely available to all.  But we also noted that the sheer amount of information can be at times suffocating.  You are given so many options and told about so many scenarios to be prepared for.  There is being prepared on one hand, and on the other being so aware of the 74,000 things that ‘could’ happen that you worry they ‘will’ happen.  Other parents we talked to related to this.  At some point, we all have to trust those that know – even if we don’t.

power, complexity & ethics

Two things (neither good/evil of themselves) which will not make humans more moral are technology & science.

  • Technology gives us ever-increasing levels of power; and this power can be used to do both good and evil.  Spiderman, anyone ((“With great power comes great responsibility.”))?
  • Science gives us an ever-increasing amount of data/facts; which make ethical choices more complex/detailed/varied – but which do not help us in the slightest bit to either know or do the right thing.

causal chain

Think of causality as a chain.  (Leaving aside Aristotle’s other varieties of causation [formal, efficient and final] we’ll just focus on material causation alone…)

  • Much of the chain we can see with our eyes
  • Quite a bit more of the chain has been brought into view with modern technology and scientific methodology
  • The rest of the chain (actually, even some/most of it seen with technology/science) we can only see with our intellect/imagination, using things like reason, logic, philosophy, etc.

As our technology and methods get better and stronger, we can be sure that more and more of the chain will come into view, so to speak…  But now, as always, we cannot know how far down the causal chain we are looking.  What we may think of as 95% down the chain may be only .0001%.  (Or the chain may be infinite, if you believe that infinity is not just a mathematical concept, but has a real example – the physical [multi/uni]verse).

Enter Hawking and Mlodinow’s new book, ‘The Grand Design’ – or I should say, enter the internet flurry of talk over the new book (Ken has nicely collected the relevant links), as most people (myself included) have not read the book yet.  I have only seen the claim that physics has answered the question of why there is something rather than nothing, as well as the idea that God wasn’t ‘needed’ for the Big Bang, etc.

What this is claiming is not only that we’ve seen the final link in the causal chain – we know there are no other links.

(note: what follows is not pretending to be interaction with the new book, but rather reflecting on the issues raised by it.)

I can imagine the atheist response, “Well, you think God is the final Link in the chain, so you are also claiming ‘there are no other links’.”

At one level, I don’t disagree.  Indeed, what the atheist must (or at least tends to) claim for Nature, the theist claims for God.  Both think they have identified the Thing beyond which no other ‘T[t]hings” lie.  Based on the admittedly tiny quote I’ve seen from a NZ Herald story, Hawking seems to think that the law of gravity is the ‘Thing’ that is just simply there?  I’d be interested to see if he deals to the obvious question that this begs – namely the question of the origin or cause of the Law of Gravity.

Also related to the discussion seems to be Quantum Indeterminacy.  I’ve never ever understood how this could even begin to contribute to the question of why something rather than nothing.  Claims that matter is being spontaneously created at the quantum level go way beyond anything we can actually observe.  This is where language needs to be precise.  Rather than saying that matter flicks back and forth in/out of existence, we ought to say that it flicks in/out of observability – given our current technology and methodology.

And even if we were certain (which we cannot ever be) that we were looking at the final link in the quantum causal chain, how do you ever run an experiment to test for divine action?  Most conceptions of God as Creator (well at least non-Deistic ones) hold that God is not just the Creator in terms of ex nihilo, but also in the sense of creatio continua; faithful, sustaining, moment-by-moment, on-going creative action.  If we believe, as we do, that the Creator is to be credited (ultimately) for the lengthening of a single blade of grass, then we also believe that Quantum behaviour, however known/unknown, is also dependent (ultimately) on divine creative action.

But at another level, I do disagree.  For God should not be thought of as just another link in a chain, let alone a chain of physical causation.  God should be thought of as the Anchor at the end of the chain – which is not the chain itself, but nonetheless has a permanent, fundamental and foundational relationship to the chain.

All analogies eventually break down, so I’m under no illusion that this one has great lasting power.  But nonetheless, imagine a person happening upon the end of a long chain that goes around a corner or out of sight.  The chain is moving.  It seems to me that the atheist claim is that nothing is moving the chain – it moves all by itself.

mather God?

Check out (and contribute to!?) the online, editable, book (‘Not Only A Father‘) by Tim Bulkeley about gender language and God.

Yes – editable.

This is a new kind of book. A book you discuss with others, and with the author, as you read. It may even be edited and rewritten as a result of your comments.

Pretty neat idea – hope he gets the meaningful interaction he’s looking for!