Barfing Makes Me Barf

WordPress recently wished me a happy anniversary.  I published 33 posts in 2012, which kind of surprises me.  I didn’t figure I’d keep it going for a year.  While I certainly tapered off on the number of posts near the end of 2012, largely because my mind was distracted with some work-related shenanigans, I actually made it through an entire year of barfing up my ramblings at an average of nearly 3 posts per month.  I found it useful to be able to sort of sit down and flesh out some of my own  thoughts, if only for myself.  It’s easy enough to have an opinion about something, but it is quite another to be able to think it through carefully enough to lay it out publicly and be prepared to defend it.

In 2011, after finishing a chronological read through the Bible, I found I kind of missed the cover to cover goal.  Not only have I slowly become, I think, a better student of the biblical text, literary context, history, and culture, but I guess I’ve also become at least a semi-avid reader (you’ve got to get your context from somewhere).  Now, if you ask my mother, or my wife, you’ll find out that all the way up through 2011 I would have told you I HATE reading.  They both love to read; always have.  My mother tried in vain to encourage me to like reading when I was young.  I couldn’t stand it.  I’d much rather watch the movie than read the book.  I think it turns out that maybe I was just reading the wrong things.  Basically, when it comes to fiction, I’d still rather see the movie.  Being a technology enthusiast, I love multimedia for storytelling.  In the past year though, I’ve consumed 14 books (that I can recall), which is probably more than my previous lifetime total as far as books that I’ve read of my own volition.  Amazon has helped significantly in that regard, as having books in electronic version rather than paper version so makes it easy to haul a whole library around.  Plus, being an IT professional, I’m a tech junkie.  I like to read now, but if it isn’t on Kindle, there’s still little chance I will read it.  If I find a book I want that isn’t in Kindle format, you’ll find me clicking that button that says “Tell the publisher I’d like to see this title on Kindle” rather than the “Buy” button.

Beyond Kindle, it turns out what I actually like to consume books, just not novels!  It turns out rather than a good story, I like ideas and matters of utmost importance.  C.S. Lewis wrote, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”  I think this is a true statement, and perhaps I’ve finally realized it.  I’ve decided in a war of ideas, one can either be a soldier or a victim.  Being a bystander relegates you to being the latter.  This would explain the reading material I started consuming in 2012 I guess, along with acquiring a distance learning certificate in Christian Apologetics via Biola University’s apologetics department.

  1. Spiritual Warfare, Karl Payne
  2. Decision Making and the Will of God, Garry Friesen
  3. Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas
  4. Is God a Moral Monster, Paul Copan
  5. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Norm Geisler and Frank Turek
  6. True Reason, Collection of Essays by misc authors
  7. Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig
  8. Relativism, Greg Koukl
  9. Tactics, Greg Koukl
  10. Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult, Garrett DeWeese and J.P. Moreland
  11. Seven Days That Divide the World, John Lennox
  12. Adventures in Churchland, Dan Kimball
  13. Love Your God With All Your Mind, J.P. Moreland
  14. Disappointment With God, Philip Yancey

Currently, I’m in the midst of a systematic theology book by Michael Horton, but I’ve decided to take a break and read the just released “Cold Case Christianity” by homicide detective J. Warner Wallace.  The latter which I’ve been anticipating for a year.  I love unique perspectives, so 13% in (because the Kindle doesn’t think in pages) it is living up to the anticipation!  Perhaps this year I’ll have to try taking up book reviews.

You probably see a theme here, as it is the same theme emerged in my occasional blog posts.  Initially I had intended to blog what I was thinking about, which I figured was about a lot of different things that interest me.  However, it turns out that what interests me the most, are things that I believe are of infinite importance, and so I want to try to understand them the best that I can.  While I’m interested in computers/technology, running, photography, video games, and other pop culture, it turns out that a lot of time my thought patterns about even those things always come back to apologetics, theology, and understanding/defending my own faith in a triune God of the universe who ultimately rules over all these things.  I like to think about it, talk about it, be challenged to refine my own views, and challenge other people to refine their views.  I really appreciate the folks that have chimed in, even if it was to disagree with my views!  Civil argumentation is the only way any of us can actually come to know and believe anything true.  It certainly isn’t in a vacuum of unchallenged group-think that the truth is reached.  Lest you think that’s what I’m doing because of my book list, it’s also worth pointing out that I also consume the ideas of scholars like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Bart Ehrman, etc.  I generally gather information from the skeptical crowd in YouTube, podcast, and blog form though, as I prefer my money go to supporting the authors and publishers of the side I find myself agreeing with.  I’m considering changing that policy this year though, as I haven’t yet found somebody to loan me books like “The God Delusion”, “God is Not Great”,  “The Moral Landscape”, or a “Universe from Nothing”.  A borrowed book would have to be paper anyway…yuck!

In any case, I guess I’ll give up this year and admit that if I’m going to keep this blogging thing up (which remains to be seen), that it will most often be about apologetic or theological matters, even if the thought was spawned by work, play, politics, or pop culture.  Binding all of those things together with my faith is unavoidable by my worldview.  If you want to kindly set me straight on anything, whether you share most of my worldview (Classical Christianity), very little of my worldview (none is not likely), or somewhere in the middle…go for it!  I don’t offend easily.  If things of infinite importance don’t interest you, then you might as well steer clear!

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What’s So Great About Jesus Anyway?

CaptureSo he was God incarnate and died a horrible death.  He was God, so he knew he was not ultimately going to die, right?  So what’s the big deal?  Or so one might ask.  Especially this time of year when people seem to drag Jesus out, dust him off, and place him in their nativity scene.  I’ve used to ask myself this question on occasion.  It wasn’t until I came to better understand the triune God of the Bible that I really felt I had a satisfactory answer.  I think for a lot of my life, I got that the historical Jesus was fully human, and at least on the surface recognized that he was fully divine, but never really thought much about the ramifications of such a being.  I used to think to myself, that if I had to lay down my life for my friends, or my family, or even for strangers, that I could do that.  If somebody said to me, “You choose.  Will you die a horrible death, or all your friends and family die a horrible death?”  Could I exercise the kind of love that would allow me to trade my life for theirs.  Isn’t this basically what Jesus did?  So what makes him so great?  I hear stories about soldiers in battle jumping on grenades for their buddies all the time!  If they can take pain and death for somebody else, what’s so great about Jesus?  Isn’t it the same thing?  This is really a wrong-headed view of what Jesus did though.

First, it must be recognized that the God of the Bible is the source of objective Good.  If you have perfect goodness on one side, and some badness, say murdering somebody, on the other side, how much difference is there between the goodness and the badness?  It turns out that infinite anything against finite anything leaves you with an infinite difference.  This applies even against a finite badness of a lower magnitude, like stealing a pack of gum.  It also turns out that when you measure these things against infinite goodness, that the stolen pack of gum and the murder start to look a lot the same in relation to the perfect goodness.  It’s even an infinitely greater magnitude of difference in moral equality than, say, between Mother Teresa and Jeffery Dahmer, though we’d typically say the two were separated by an unfathomable moral chasm.

Now, keeping this vast difference between goodness and badness in mind, understand that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t sacrifice himself for his friends and family.  The sacrifice he made was more akin to trading himself as ransom for the population of San Quentin.  This guy who had done absolutely nothing deserving of death, or even after-school detention, was tortured in unimaginable ways in the place of the worst mankind has to offer.  That’s you and I by the way.  Sure it may look to us like we’re vastly different from Jeffery Dahmer, but in scale it’s a bit like us equating the size of the beetle to the size of the ant.  In relation to each other one is much larger, but from the perspective of a human being, the difference is fairly insignificant.  Measured against complete goodness, morally speaking, I’m that beetle compared to the ant that is Jeffery Dahmer.  Now this being the case I’m forced to amend my comparison from earlier, and ask myself a new question.  Would I sacrifice myself for the likes of a bunch of Jeffery Dahmer, Adolf Hitler (you didn’t think I’d leave Hitler out did you?), Charles Manson, and Joseph Stalin types?  Not only that, but would I be willing to be unimaginably tortured before being killed so that they could have a get-out-of jail free card?  I’m afraid this is where I’d take a pass.  But this still isn’t really the complete picture.

The God of the Bible is triune.  Three persons (ie minds) in one being.  Yes, this is a mind bender, but this is the Biblical view of God.  Jesus is one of these ontological persons, keeping in mind that we’re not talking about human persons, but centers of consciousness.  The pre-incarnate Logos (Word) existed prior to Jesus the man.  The most straightforward scriptural data to this is in the first sentence of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)  John goes on to say that all things that have been created, were created through Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t just some guy, he was with and, at the same time, was the eternal uncaused first cause of all things.  Now, if I’m God (which I’m not) and I created some beings, gave them freedom to do as they please, and it turned out what they want to do is lie, cheat, pillage, rape, murder, and turn on me, do I really want anything further to do with them?  It turns out God did.  He tried all kinds of things through history to turn people around, which the way I read it seems as though it was largely to prove to us that none of those things work.  We’ll never be able to meet God’s standard directly.  It’s like asking a beetle to become the size of a human being.  Finally, he decided he (Father) would send himself (Son) as a mediator (Merry Christmas by the way), leave perfection, and take on the form of one of us in order to lead us back to himself.

Now, given this fact that Jesus pre-existed as God and with God, having no particular need of human beings, I have to amend my question even further I think.  I have to ask myself, as a human being, would I be willing to lower myself ontologically (ie change my very existence) and take on the form of…a beetle?  And be tortured and killed in order to save a bunch of rebellious insects (imaging for a moment that insects were free moral agents)?  Now not only would I take a pass, I’d laugh in your face.  Explain to me that after I am tortured and killed that I’ll be restored to glory as a human being, and ask me if it matters to my decision!  I see no good reason why I would submit to condescending to the status of an insect to be tortured and killed, even if not doing so meant the extinction of every beetle and ant on Earth.  Why should I care enough that I’d suffer even a hangnail’s worth of discomfort for such nonsense?  I see no reason for the general to step into the battle and throw himself on the gernade…to save the lives of the opposition.

That’s what is so great about Jesus.

WWHD: What Would Hitler Do?

Cheeky.  I know.  Most Christians like to operate on the WWJD premise.  However, a favorite apologist of mine, Greg Koukl, would argue that in order to know what Jesus would do in any given situation, you’d have to know what Jesus did in history.  He’s right.  It seems a lot of the time we prefer to operate on slogans and emotional appeals to make our cases, rather than doing the hard work of being students of theology or history.  I’ve decided since Jesus seems to be something of an enigma to a lot of people, including a lot of Christians, that using the motto WWHD can be a lot easier than WWJD.  It turns out most folks over the age of 20, regardless of political or religious affiliation, have a pretty good grasp of what Hitler was all about (although it seems even this significantly more recent objective history is losing traction these days).  After giving it some thought, I’ve decided Hitler can be used much more easily than Jesus to make some points.  Sometimes rather than trying to convince somebody of who they should be like, it might be easier to convince them of who they shouldn’t be like.  This seems to work best with people who generally subscribe to some sort of relativism.

I often hear people say things like, “I have my truth and you have your truth.”  However, although we may have differing perspectives, there is only one truth to be sought.  For example, Joe may say he thinks Mike is a hard worker, but Mary may say she thinks Mike is not a hard worker.  Can it be true that Mike is both a hard worker and not a hard worker?  I think not.  It may be true that Joe thinks Mike is hard worker, and it may also be true that Mary thinks Mike is not a hard worker.  These are just two opinions though, probably based on different experiences with Mike.  Saying “Joe thinks” a thing, or “Mary thinks” a thing though, is vastly different from saying “Mike is” a thing.  I can say, “Mike is a hard worker,” and there is an objective truth value to that statement that is independent of any observer.  The logical law of non-contradiction makes it an impossibility that a statement can be both true and false at the same time.  Mike is either a hard worker, or he is not a hard worker.  You may need to flesh out context and what is meant by “hard worker”, but it is impossible that, in the same context, Mike both is a hard worker and is not a hard worker.  Given an adequate definition, the objective truth of the statement “Mike is a hard worker” can be known.  Further, in the absence of objective truth values, can we say that Hitler wasn’t justified in his actions?  If multiple truths are possible, you can say it is your opinion that it was unfashionable for him to take such actions, but not that it was objectively wrong.  You may think it was wrong, but that’s just your own version of the truth.  Hitler’s truth was that he was improving the world, and his truth is every bit as valid as your truth.  This is an untennable position if you ask me.

The other day I had another friend explain that we should just say that Monday is now Saturday and go home.  He asserted this is mere social convention.  We’re just nature and nature has no need of such social constructs.  His claim, as I understood it, was that we can re-define any truth we want as we see fit by getting the majority to agree to it.  There’s actually some truth to this as it pertains to labels, but while I can certainly appreciate his disdain for Mondays, it seems to me that the “Monday” being referred to is a certain kind of thing.  Certainly we could take the thing “Monday” and call it “Saturday”, but if what we mean by “Monday” in this case is that it is the first day of the work week, then call it what you will, it is still the first day of the work week.  Calling it something different doesn’t change the truth of the matter.  I can call it “hamburger” if I want, but I still need to punch in at 8:00.  Perception may be able to be overcome by appealing to popularity, but unfortunately truth cannot.  Changing perception does not change the truth.  Just ask any magician.  Hitler changed perception by appealing to the ferocity of German nationalism.  Simply changing popular public opinion though, never did change the true fact that handicapped and Jewish folks are people, and unjustly taking people’s lives is murder.

The next time you encounter someone who argues that something is true or permissible simply because different people have different truths, or because all truth is only defined by what is most popular, just ask them to consider carefully…WWHD?

“Bad” Words Make Me Barf

Imagine for a moment that ‘barf’, is the filthiness four letter word in the English language. Now imagine you’re a native person in the middle of a jungle somewhere, and you’ve never heard English. Say you’re out in the woods and for whatever reason you randomly shout, “BAAAAAAAARF!” at the top of your lungs.  Did you just say a bad word?

This position gets me in trouble with Christians (including my own wife) sometimes, but I don’t think bad words are actually bad. It seems to me that when talking about objective morality, as I continue to contend for, that we’re sometimes basing our moral decisions on half-truths. Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor. He said all the law, and all the prophets, hang on these two commands. What these two commands guide us in, is intent, not specific actions.  They’re a benchmark for every action. I think language is a good example of how we get this wrong.

I think that usually Christians believe there is some set list of words to avoid using. I would disagree. Language is just composition of sounds.  The symbols and sounds that make up language in and of themselves are nothing. They’re just symbols and sounds. People ascribe meanings to them. The sounds and symbols themselves do not have any moral properties. If you sincerely curse me out in Russian I’ll have no idea what you just said, because those sounds mean nothing to me. What I’ll likely know if you do it in person though, is what your intention was. If you do it in writing I may not even know what your intention was. It will be as benign to me a the scribblings of a two year old. However, the generator of the language always knows what the intent was, even if the reciever dosn’t understand it.

You see, the objective morality with regards to language is not the language itself, it’s the intention of the language. I believe that I could say (remembering barf is a “bad” word), “have a barfing nice day!” and I’ve not violated any moral laws by the particular language I’ve used. The intent is much different from angrily saying, “barf you!” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that Christians should start using this sketchy list of words that we may or may not agree on in their everyday conversations. What I’m arguing for is that regardless of the words used, it is always the intent that should be considered. Real cursing is any language that carries the intent to harm somebody with your language, regardless of the particular sounds you make.

We’ve also got to be careful because there are a couple of other things to consider here. Just because I may not know certain words themselves to be bad, that doesn’t mean everybody is going to hold that same view. Even if I think I’m using some “bad” word with good intentions, it may still not be right to use it even though the word doesn’t carry the weight of any morality on its own. Paul found this same sort of debate happening over food in Romans 14 and encouraged his audience to stop passing judgement over disputable matters. He goes on to say that people should not put stumbling blocks in their brother’s way. This sounds a lot like love your neighbor! Perhaps I find a particular word to be benign, but the people around me don’t. Is it very loving to impose that language on them even if I mean no harm by it?

There is one other caveat to this discussion. Scripture does make it clear that the name of God is not to be used without good reason. This though, still clearly does not imply that use of the word itself is bad, since using God’s name in discussions of Him or with Him would not be morally wrong. In fact, this goes to prove the point.  Since the name of God can be used both rightly and wrongly, it is clear that the rightness or wrongness isn’t in the utterance of the word itself, but in the way it is used. It is the intent behind the use of God’s names that provides the foundation for the morality. Using the name of the One who created you flippantly, and against His direction, isn’t very loving to Him.

This then, is what makes “bad” words wrong. To really determine the objective moral sense of the words I’m about to use, I need to ask myself what the intention of my language is, and how will it affect my neighbors. Does it violate the two greatest commandments to love my Creator or love other people? I assert that no particular string of sounds is morally wrong in and of itself, but also that any string of sounds can potentially be morally wrong, depending how it is used!

Finally, if you disagree with me on this point, and hold to the idea that “bad” words are determined by each culture and what they understand, consider how easily I will pin moral relativism you!

The Falsifiability of Jesus

After my last post I had an extensive and enjoyable back-and-forth with a friend about conscience and the nature of morality. Many side topics came up, but in the interest of staying on track I let them slip by. I’d like to address a couple of them separately.

At one point in this exchange I made the observation that should Christianity be proved wrong today, I’d have to go looking for the real God. The reason for this is that reality, the way I seem to observe it at least, seems to entail certain objective moral laws. For instance, I don’t believe it would ever be okay to punch babies in the face for fun. Even if all of society started punching babies in the face, and declared a National Punch Babies in the Face Day, I believe at that point we’d have merely tricked ourselves into believing it was okay to punch babies for fun. The truth, however, is that it would still be objectively evil, even though nobody remained who thought of it as such. This observation of objective good and evil is one of several major evidences I employ for my own conclusion in the existence of God. Notice, however, that if moral laws exist objectively (like the laws of mathematics, physics or logic), while this may be evidence for God, it does not follow necessarily that the god would have to be God of the Bible. When I brought up the fact that if Christianity were proved wrong I’d need to find the real God, my friend took this as a weakness in my position. He concluded that because I thought Christianity could be proved wrong, that I obviously wasn’t convinced it was true. This is not the case though.

My statement on the willingness to allow for the disproving of Christianity is simply an observation about my own epistemology. You see, I can’t even prove that I exist, and I especially can’t prove that you exist. I seem to be self-aware, and I seem to be observing you (those of you that I come in contact with anyway), but I must admit that the potential exists that I am just a brain in a jar being stimulated by electrodes, similar to the Matrix or Avatar. All of reality could be an illusion and I’m just not aware of it. There is very little in life that we can prove with 100% certainty, but that doesn’t keep us from believing them, and living our lives under the impression that those less than 100% certain things are nonetheless true observations about reality. I wrote briefly about this in the past. I still have no good reason to doubt my belief in the chair I’m sitting in, nor do I have any good reason to doubt my belief that Jesus is a real historical figure, who was put to death on a Roman cross, entombed, resurrected, and appeared to many other real people from history.

I also try to be careful not to let my thinking fall into the category of confirmation bias. This is the tendency for people to support conclusions that confirm their pre-existing thinking or beliefs. Generally speaking, this is a terrible way to come to real conclusions. In practice, I believe modern Christians as much as anybody tend to fall prey to this, especially as it relates to the use of some parts of Scripture or non-essential doctrine. Often times we’re raised in a particular dogma that is difficult to let go of. In the face of overwhelming evidence, people will cling blindly to the familiar. Sometimes when people realize their brand of Churchianity doesn’t align properly with Scripture or reality after years of being subject to their own confirmation bias, rather than an actual belief, they run the opposite direction screaming rather than stopping to see if it is all wrong, or if just parts of it have been misrepresented. People really tend to be a mess, which is why if I’m going to accept a conclusion, I will come to it on my own based on the information at hand, and not exclusively based on what somebody tells me I ought to believe. Sure there are times to call expert witnesses, but in the end I want to believe true things, not necessarily popular things. In the interest of making sure I have all the evidence and framing my worldview on what I best believe represents reality, I’m willing to hear viewpoints that oppose mine as long as they are presented respectfully. Avoiding confirmation bias in drawing conclusions can only be done by allowing for these opposing views the opportunity to be presented and considered.

Finally, this leads to a method of critical evaluation known as “falsifiability.” The notion of falsifiability says that a theory or hypothesis must have the logical possibility of being disproved if it is to be taken seriously. If an idea doesn’t have the logical possibility of being proved wrong, it can’t be proved right either. I think historical Christianity fits this model well. The best historical evidence I’ve seen, including but not limited to the New Testament itself, lends incredible support for the identity of Jesus as he is known within the classical framework of Christianity. I see no reason to discount the accounts of the New Testament writers or their extra-biblical contemporaries. In fact, the historically verifiable track record of the Bible and the vast quantity of early manuscripts make it easily the most well-supported document in all of ancient antiquity. Could I be wrong? Sure, I could be wrong. It’s possible that some ancient Allen Funt will pop out of antiquity, so to speak, and say, “Smile…” Currently though, ancient history is surprisingly devoid of naysayers, even though they clearly had their opportunity. Logically speaking, the potential exists for Jesus’ supernatural identity to be at least challenged by discovery of contrary historical documents, rather than just a priori dismissal of the possibility of God incarnate.

If I’m not willing to admit that it is logically possible that Christianity could be proved wrong somehow, I don’t think it’s possible for me to say I really believe it.  It seems to me that if one claims to have good reasons for accepting something, one must also admit that should good reasons come along to not accept that thing, that those reasons would be allowed into evidence.  I could appeal exclusively to authority or emotion to make my case, but in the end that would probably just make me a victim of confirmation bias. That might be easier, but shutting off my mind is an untenable, as well us un-Biblical, option to me. Instead, I take everything I seem to believe about reality (with more than 50% certainty), like the New Testament is a historically accurate account of Jesus, the Old Testament predicts Jesus in an eerily accurate fashion (while also pre-dating the New Testament), the entire Bible seems consistent with the reality I observe, and my personal experience with following Jesus of Nazareth seems to comport with reality as the Bible explains it. All of these things have the logical potential to be disproved. Even my own personal experiences could be a figment of my imagination should it turn out I’m in the Matrix.

So, could Christianity be proved wrong? Hypothetically speaking, yes, it could. Like I told my friend though, at that point I’d have to figure out who God really is, because I believe reality screams out with the evidence of a Creator. I believe my willingness to allow for this logical possibility is a strength of my evidentially supported belief in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus, not a weakness. Would I bet on a competing hypothesis as being the best explanation of reality? No, I wouldn’t. If I believe what I believe because I believe it to be true though, then I should have no problem leaving the door unlocked for challenges from the outside. Let the Truth prevail. After 2000 years of challenges, I believe the framework of classical Christianity still best explains reality. If Keanu Reeves shows up to get me out of the Matrix though, I’ll let you know.

Do I Know What I Barf?

I sit in a chair at Peace Portal Alliance Church in Surrey, BC. I know this chair won’t collapse and leave me on the ground. Can I prove it? No. I can’t. Does this mean I can’t know it, and trust it to be a true description of reality? Absolutely not. I can know all sorts of things I cannot “prove”.

Last night I listened to philosopher Dr JP Moreland speak on the subject of knowledge and worldviews. He made some excellent points about what constitutes sound knowledge. He started by pointing out what truth and belief are. Truth, he says is the relationship of correspondence between a belief and reality. Belief, he says, is something that you take to be true with between 51% and 100% certainty.

This makes perfect sense. Notice that I live my daily life mostly on belief of things that I may not take to be 100% true. For instance, I can’t believe with 100% certainty that this chair won’t collapse on me, but I here I sit anyway, because I don’t need to remove every potential empirical obstacle to believing it will hold me before I believe it with enough truth to live my life as if my belief corresponds with reality.

This is how we make most decisions in our lives. To require absolute empirical “proof” prior to asserting something as true, that is I believe I’ve discovered the affirmative relationship of my belief to reality with reasonable certainty, is absurd. Nobody lives that way.

I believe with reasonable certainty that this chair will hold me throughout the day, and so I will live my life as if my belief corresponds with reality.