Monday, September 18, 2017

Chiseling: The Creation of the Universe and The Art of Negation

Chipping away represents God’s vision. Michelangelo believed that his creative power reflect divine inspiration. Late in life he received the moniker il divino (“the divine one”), though he was more modest than his fans: 
"The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection." Michelangelo
I’m convinced the Creator knows what art--and especially the art of negation, of saying creative Nos--can look like. God, the supreme Artist, sees our lives as works of art. And this is true artistry since we’re not simply blocks of marble for God to sculpt. 

To shift artists, the nineteenth century master painter, Vincent Van Gogh once wrote his brother, Theo, about God’s amazing skill. 
“Christ… is more of an artist than the artists; he works in the living spirit and the living flesh; he makes human beings instead of statues.” Van Gogh 
It’s definitely more difficult to work with living beings—and to use us in the process of chipping away. We resist the chisel. And yet, you might even say that God’s chipping away becomes part of the healing of lives.
Saying No through chiseling away at possibilities appears to be God’s method. Scientific discoveries have confirmed that this is the way God has created the masterpiece we call our universe. In forming the world, God also chiseled away. The entire universe has come into existence through a gigantic quantity of No’s. 

Since the 1960s, an astounding set of discoveries reveal that the universe has certain, very specific conditions, which allow for the emergence of conscious, moral creatures. Using anthropos, the Greek word for “human being” (as in anthropology), it’s called the Anthropic Principle, which states that the cosmos is fitted from the beginning for the emergence of life in general and intelligent life in particular. In fact, about thirty discrete, precisely calibrated parameters—such as the expansion rate of the universe, the mass of the universe, the strength of the strong nuclear force, and the ratio of antiprotons to protons—all were needed to produce the universe. Otherwise, it simply would not exist. (Watch this video for a related discovery.) Oxford physicist Roger Penrose has described just one such parameter, the “phase-space volume,” with a number almost impossible to write—a “1” followed by 10123  “0s.” That’s amazingly precise and signifies an almost innumerably amount of No’s.

In other words, the Creator chipped away at an enormous number of possibilities to create this world. God said No many times to create the Yes’s of life. It looks like the creation of beauty, intelligence, goodness depends on what is rejected even more than what is selected. 

And here’s what I figure: if chipping away through the art of negation is good enough for God and the universe, it’s good enough for you and for me, and our lives.

Monday, September 11, 2017

How do I Know what I Really Want in Life?

"I'm confused about what I really want. All I hear inside in static? How can I hear a wiser voice to guide me?"      

Here then is the bottom line: As we seek God, we actually find what we desire.
One of the most cited passages in the psalms reads like this: 
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4, NRSV). 
Some construe this verse to mean that God will give us the things we desire—a new BMW, a vacation in Tahiti. That sounds nice, but if you look at the context of the psalm, it’s all about doing what’s right and following God’s way. “Take delight” first in the Lord. Order all other things around God. By putting God as my first love, and thus ordering my loves properly, other desires fall in place. And I find out what I really want.
When we look at God, we see a new set of priorities, a new vision of caring for others. And so, on the (b) side of Frederick Buechner's quote, what “the world needs to have done”—our environment, those outside of us—cannot be silenced. The list here is immediately evident: providing education, caring for health worldwide, creating beauty in the arts and culture. So it’s not just what we want to do—our passion has to meet some actual need. Here we move away from the siren voices of our culture that prize individual self-expression above all else. Here’s the control on our selfishness. It is not centered on what benefits us first, but on what is of greater need in the world.
So the first step of call—or our big Yes to God—is to listen: to obtain some sense of the direction that resonates deep in us and out in the world. 
Does this happen at once? Not for most people. Listening for the call is gradual. Each insight builds on the previous one. It’s something like a website coming gradually into view. (You have to imagine a slow connection speed for this.) It doesn’t happen all at once, and even at first, it’s not clear what’s emerging. But at some point, it begins to make sense.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Some Notes Toward A Theological Rebuttal of White Supremacy That Shouldn’t Have to be Made

I've been working on a response to the rise in white supremacy in our country and why it makes no sense as a follower of Jesus. I wanted it to be brilliant, but it never quite got there. Maybe my head is jumbled because I can't believe I'd even have to write such a post. But that's the world of 2017...

Question to answer: How much do we as Christians stand against racism generally and white supremacy specifically? Or do we stand for it?

It seems like every thoughtful Christian I know is trying to put together our President’s indulgence (or minimally, equivocation) toward white supremacists with his widespread support among some religious conservatives. I suppose we’d like to think that our country has learned something since 1865 or so about how to interpret the Good Book without supporting racism. 
So I returned to my Bible, and, as a theologian, I tried to figure out if there’s a case to be made for presuming one race has God’s favor over another.

I started with the first book and with creation: Genesis 1:26 clearly tells us the first humans, Adam and Eve (almost better translated as “Dusty” and “Life”) are created in God’s image. However we understand these two, creation means that we are all one in this pair. Paul in Acts 17:26 proclaims that God "made from one he every nation [ethnos in Greek, as in "ethnic group"].

I flipped to the New Testament and found that redemption has some strikingly universalistic (and need I say "non-racially segregated"?) themes. John 3:16 sets out that “God so loved the world” that God gave his Son, and In that same book (12:32), Jesus declares that “When I am lifted up from the earth”—in John’s Gospel, this means both being raised on the cross and in the resurrection—“I will pray all people to myself.” It’s not very nuanced, to be honest. Sort sounds like everybody.
What about the end of time or the consummation? Revelation 21: 24 sets out, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.”
That is, all the kings of the “nations” (again from ethnos) will bring their tribute God and the Lamb on the throne. By this time, I was running out of books to read….
All this means I couldn’t do it. I could not figure out how to read the Bible and be a white supremacist. Do those who take this book seriously believe that all are created in God’s image, that Christ came, taught, and died to redeem all, and that Christian hope is all tribes from all the ethne, will bring their tribute? The clearest conclusion is that white supremacy--any kind of racial supremacy--is supremely unbiblical.
Maybe there remains one easier solution—the religious conservatives who voted for and support Trump are white evangelicals.

I certainly hope that’s not the answer.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

C. S. Lewis and (Enlightened) Selfishness

Another excerpt from my book, The Time for Yes, on discernment...
"I would not know how to advise a man how to write. It is a matter of talent
and interest. I believe he must be strongly moved if he is to become a writer. Writing is like a ‘lust,’ or like ‘scratching when you itch.’ Writing comes as a result of a very strong impulse, and when it does come, I for one must get it out." C. S. Lewis in a 1963 interview
Doesn’t “finding your passion” and looking for "flow" (as I've written in recent posts) seem just a little too selfish and therefore illegitimate as a way of directing our lives? 

Not necessarily. I have learned from a distinction from the Christian writer and Oxford literary scholar, C.S. Lewis. He delineated an important distinction: being selfish and self-centered. Finding what we are called to do is, in a certain sense, selfish—we love doing it and therefore we find great joy—but entirely not self-centered—when we do what we love, we forget ourselves as we delight in the activity itself.
Lewis writes in comparing selfishness with self-centeredness.

"One of the happiest men and most pleasant companions I have ever known was intensely selfish. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts. Either condition will destroy the soul in the end. But till the end, give me the man who takes the best of everything (even at my expense) and then talks of other things, rather than the man who serves me and talks of himself, and whose very kindnesses are a continual reproach, a continual demand for pity, gratitude, and admiration." C. S. Lewis

As Lewis says, either of the two will destroy the soul in the end. So I’m proposing a form of enlightened selfishness--or, as some friends of mine prefer, enlightened self-interest.  I’m asking us to be more directed toward what we like because there we have the power to become self-forgetful and even other-directed. We just do what we enjoy doing, where we find “flow”—we actually forget ourselves. And therefore we simply cannot be self-centered.
(If you’re philosophically minded you’re welcome to call this “the hedonistic paradox.” Search for happiness and you won’t find it. Do what you enjoy, and you’ll find happiness as a by-product. But then again, you may not be philosophically minded….)
The point is not, as we often fear, that when we do something we like it will make us less moral. “How good is that guy—he actually likes serving at the homeless center!” Actually, what we truly love helps us to turn our eyes off ourselves and toward the activity. In fact, that’s the beginning of right actions. In other words, don’t stay selfish as an end, but learn to follow what you truly enjoy and follow it toward something outside of yourself. (And all this leads to mission, which I’ll arrive shortly.)
I’ve been unfolding this idea of “enlightened selfishness,” and I now arrive at the weird part: we often don’t know what we really desire. How many times do you hear someone saying, “I’m not sure I really know what I want”? 

We don’t always have the answers, but I believe the God who created us can help us find what we truly desire. That will be the content of a future post, but in the meantime, feel free to post your ideas.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Our Awareness of Divinity

This is more or less my teaching from last Sunday. It will appear in a different form in a chapter of an upcoming book, Connecting Faith and Science: Philosophical and Theological Inquiries (Claremont Press, 2018). I'd be interested to know what you think.

One of the places I absolutely love is Lake Tahoe. I believe I’ve literally been there every year of my life. And so, in a way, it’s part of me. The beauty of its azure lake flanked mountain peaks is stunning. It’s also a place where I sense something deeply spiritual. My mother, who most of her life was not a particularly religious person—she was even anti-religious at times—told me once, as our family would be sitting along Tahoe’s shores: “Here’s where I can see God.” At the time, I let the remark stand without further comment, but it definitely stuck in my head.
That’s what I mean by the title “our awareness of divinity.”
The phrase “awareness of divinity” comes from John Calvin, for whom the appreciation of nature was a key part of his spiritual life. In his vastly influential 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.3.1) Calvin wrote this: 
“There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.”

Reading beauty in the book of nature
This summer I’ve highlighted the idea of “Reading the Two Books,” that is, we read both the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Christians have noted that we read both books because they have one Author and therefore they don’t contradict, though their insights may enhance each other. One of the ways to read the book of nature, as I’ve mentioned before, is to see the beauty in creation.
This leads me to ask, What is beauty? If we were to Google beauty—especially for images—it’s almost entirely feminine physical beauty, along with products like cosmetics and shampoo, and events like beauty contests. Is that what I’m talking about?
I’m not denying that physical beauty is one form of beauty, but ancient thinkers talked about a broader transcendent beauty. Plato offers three markers for beauty: order, symmetry, and proportion; similarly, Thomas Aquinas, highlighted integrity, consonance, and clarity. Theologian Thomas Oden offers this: “Beauty is that quality or combination of qualities within a thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind of spirit.”
Ultimately, theologians see this beauty pointing back to God. So do many poets. As Gerald Manley Hopkins, the profound nineteenth century poet intones:
“Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Golden Echo”).
There is a similar experience of beauty as scientists read the book of nature. In Adventure of Ideas, the Harvard scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead pointed to this in scientific as well as artistic pursuits.
“Science and art are the consciously determined pursuit of Truth and of Beauty.”
It is beauty that lures us and that makes truth worth discovering.
And this brings us to the "awareness of divinity" because we see beauty around us, and we want to know the origin of this beauty. The Psalmist declares that he desires God’s beauty,
“One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
In the seventeenth century—right at the flowering of modern science—the mathematician Blaise Pascal offered a proof for God based on our inherent yearnings: “By nature, we all seek happiness.” But where do we seek it? Pascal wrote, “Some seek the good in authority, some in intellectual inquiry and knowledge, some in pleasure.” He continued by observing that all these various potential sources for happiness, for a beautiful life, leave us craving for more. He pondered what that meant:       

What else does this craving, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

The twentieth century Oxford literary professor C. S. Lewis echoed this conclusion about three hundred years after Pascal with a simple, logically compelling, phrase: 
If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” C. S. Lewis

And there are poets today in the world of rap music that are telling us the same thing, that no matter how hard the contemporary music scene tries, it can’t entirely let go of God. I start my Introduction to Religion class on Tuesday at Chico State with a reflection on God and spirituality in three of the most prominent rap artists today, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Chance the Rapper. They all talk about, and struggling with, faith in God. Chance, for example, appeared on The Tonight Show and produced a moving live rendition of his song “Blessings,” which includes the lyrics, “I speak to God in public," and "Are you ready for your blessing? Are you ready for a miracle?”
That is one way to express our natural awareness and yearning for God. A readings from the book of Scripture as most Protestants know it, as well as a text from the Catholic Bible--both from around the 1st century AD, offer similar insights. The context, by the way, is idolatry, the worship of creature rather than Creator. Both texts direct us back to the Source of all that is. Having said that, these verses seem clear enough to me. So I'll let them stand on their own without further comment.
Romans 119 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.  
Wisdom 13For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.
CSR and the awareness of divinity
This inherent “awareness of divinity” has also been studied by cognitive scientists, as they read the book of nature. What can evolutionary science teach us about this “awareness of divinity”? Justin Barrett, through his work in developing a Cognitive Science of Religion, uses the findings of the cognitive sciences to argue that evolution has developed human beings so that we implicitly see purposes in events, or are predisposed toward teleology.
“Evidence exists that people are prone to see the world as purposeful and intentionally ordered" (Justin Barrett), which naturally leads to belief in a Creator.
For example, preschoolers “are inclined to see the world as purposefully designed and tend to see an intelligent, intentional agent behind this natural design.” Some use this tendency to impugn belief in God—i.e., we cannot help but believe—instead I am arguing here that it is part of God’s creation. We are created through evolution with an openness to belief.      

Another area of research suggests that evolutionary pressures, particularly the human need toward cooperation as it leads to survival, produces a common stock of morality; “a recurring theme is that humans seem to naturally converge upon a common set of intuitions that structure moral thought,” such as “it is wrong to harm a nonconsenting member of one’s group.”
According the the Cognitive Science of Religion, we have then, deeply imprinted on the structures of our mind, an intuition of purpose and of morality. These together offer a sense of a moral Creator.
There are similarities with Calvin’s “awareness of divinity,” which points to a sense of the numinous, powerful and brooding. “Where can I go from Your presence? Where can I flee from Your spirit?” cries the psalmist in Psalm 139. It is the feeling of being out in a forest at night, knowing that no one is there, but feeling something. Often this experience can frighten us. And yet it also provides a witness to the natural knowledge of God. To be clear, God has used the process of evolution to implant this natural awareness.

Sense of the divine clarified by book of Scripture
There is a danger to this “awareness of divinity” if we only read the book of nature. It can leaves both Nazis and altruists unchanged, except with a veneer of belief and an assurance that what they already do now has divine endorsement. An “awareness of divinity” can be the basis of nature-worship, built on a sense of the mysteries of the natural world. It can be a brash, hedonistic worship of ourselves, embodied in the basest forms of contemporary spirituality. Even the Nazi’s propagated an appreciation for what “God is doing through the German Volk” and supported it with the powerful, but vague feeling of the Numinous working to renew the German civilization. (This also seems to be the case for today’s U.S. white supremacists and neo-Nazis.)
The book of Scripture offers clarity and directs this natural awareness of God. It describes Jesus as the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). Science acts in some ways, in describing this “awareness of divinity” as general revelation, but those truths receive clarity through God’s special revelation in history, especially depicted in the pages of the Bible. For example, we can find the beauty of God’s design in the natural world through scientific work—and thus be led to conclude that God is an incomparable designer. We can, however, only know that God has created all humankind in the divine image and that God has redeemed all humanity in Jesus Christ through the book of Scripture.

I’ve always been taught to ask, So what? What do we do with this? We might simply enjoy reading the book of nature today and noting how it quite easily leads us to ponder the presence of God, something like my mother’s experience at Lake Tahoe’s shores, “Here’s where I can see God.” And in that we can thank our Creator that we are imprinted with this “awareness of divinity.” I hope that seems like a good start.