Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Iraq: What Next?

Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. I feel like I should say something, but what is there for me to say? My meager mind cannot begin to grasp the magnitude of this conflict, nor does it want to. I follow the news and analysis like everybody else, of course, but the impact on my psyche is always shortlived. There is no real connection, no point of contact, between my day-to-day life and the horror experienced every moment by our soldiers and the Iraqi people. I confess my callousness; most of the time, I just don't care.

In the most recent New Republic, seventeen experts try to answer the question "Iraq: What Next?". The answers, as indicated the titles of the articles, are all over the map. Robert Kagan wants to "Send More Troops", while David Rieff says "Bring the Troops Home." Peter Galbraith thinks the best approach is to "Divide Iraq", while Reza Aslan believes we should "Keep it Whole." Three articles focus on the troublesome Sunnis: "Deal with the Sunnis", "Crush the Sunnis", "Ally with the Sunnis". Leon Wieseltier, not ready to give up, but also completely out of ideas, says "Try Anything" - desperation as foreign policy. Apparently, the only consensus is that there is no consensus; all options are terrible.

Lately, the debate among our political and media elites has focused on whether Iraq is in a state of civil war. To which I say: who gives a f*ck? Why are we quibbling about semantics when the situation on the ground is so appalling? Does anybody really think that our troops care whether the conflict meets the technical definition of a civil war? The reality of Iraq is too messy for the textbooks, too ugly to fit nicely into anyone's political ideology, conservative or liberal. So let's forgo the bullshit and the talking points, as well as the ridiculous calls for "moral clarity". All the clarity is gone, and the morals of everyone involved are nothing but filthy rags.

Given that a satisfactory conclusion to this bloody struggle is now a human impossibility, there is nothing left for the Church to do but pray, fervently and unceasingly. We must pray for peace, but also for forgiveness. The Iraq war has revealed, as few events in our history have, the hubris and sinfulness of humanity, and we all deserve a portion of the blame: Iraqis and Americans, Republicans and Democrats, Sunnis and Shiite. Let us pray together for deliverance.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Scientists Prepare for Battle

There’s a fascinating article in today’s New York Times that talks about the growing number of influential scientists who are itching for an all-out fight between science and religion. The article takes us to a conference in La Jolla, California, that brought together many of the leading anti-faith minds of the day, including Dawkins and Sam Harris, along with a few more moderate voices. The general tone at the meeting was one of anger and despair that so many people around the world continue to hold “irrational” religious beliefs. “I don’t know how many more engineers and architects need to fly planes into our buildings before we realize that this is not merely a matter of lack of education or economic despair,” said Mr. Harris, who has never been afraid to tar billions of people with the actions of a few. Why, oh why, are people so stupid, wailed the scientists.

Many of the scientists are fed-up, frankly, and they’re not going to acquiesce to religious belief anymore. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, thinks that “anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.” When someone mentioned that we should respect people’s deeply-held beliefs, Dawkins went into one of his hate-filled tirades: “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion.” For Dawkins, religious people are “brainwashed”, and those who respect religion are “brainwashed.” Only those who have spent decades practicing science in the insular world of academic research are not brainwashed. Amazing!!

The scientists, or at least the ones in La Jolla, want a war, an apocalyptic struggle that will settle the science versus religion issue once and for all. A bizarre wish, in my opinion, as this is a battle that science will never win. The vast majority of the world’s people hold some form of religious belief, and have for thousands of years, and a tiny cadre of scientists is not going to change that, no matter how many books they write. Not to mention that a concerted campaign by the scientific community against religion would put an incredible strain on the thousands of dedicated scientists who are also devout believers. I, for one, already feel like something of an outsider in the scientific world, and an anti-religion crusade by the scientific establishment would probably send me fleeing the lab as fast as possible.

Interestingly, once of the strategies advanced in the meeting was to present science to the public as a religion:
Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church, with Dr. Tyson, whose powerful celebration of scientific discovery had the force and cadence of a good sermon, as its first minister. She was not entirely kidding. “We should let the success of the religious formula guide us,” Dr. Porco said. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.” She displayed a picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn and its glowing rings eclipsing the Sun, revealing in the shadow a barely noticeable speck called Earth.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, it’s refreshing to hear a scientist acknowledge that the product peddled by Dawkins & Co. really is another form of religion (scientism), and not simply disinterested science. Secondly, her statement that the “incredible richness and beauty” of the universe is “so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God” reveals a profound ignorance of how religious people view the cosmos. For the faithful, the glory of God and the glory of creation are not in competition. Quite the contrary, they feed off each other in a synergy of glory, with the beauty of the world testifying to the goodness of its Creator, and the love of God infusing every corner of the universe. The atheist presents a false choice: either love God or love the “real world.” But the believer looks at the rings of Saturn and loves both even more.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Is Death Evil or Necessary, or a Necessary Evil?

In my opinion, the challenge posed by evolutionary biology to the Christian faith is not that it refutes the so-called “argument from design”, but that it offers a narrative of nature that is at odds with the Christian understanding of Creation. Whereas Christians view the cosmos as essentially “good” and attribute the presence of death and suffering to the fallen state of humanity, Darwinists understand death and violence as intrinsic properties of the biological realm that predate the advent of the human species. From an evolutionary standpoint, there is nothing good or decent about creation; the story of life is one of brute force, of Nietzschean will to power, where all the spoils go to the strong and progress occurs by benefit of (and not in spite of) death. Nature exists only by virtue of its willingness to dominate; it has no purpose, no morals, no beauty (given this, it is somewhat surprising that so many evolutionary biologists are ardent environmentalists. E.O. Wilson, for one, has a strong sense of purpose to preserve this purposeless world).*

Christian thinkers have responded to this incongruity between the biological and Christian narratives in two fashions (here, I am greatly indebted to a series of excellent posts by Lee at verbum ipsum – please read them here, here, and here). The first approach, advocated by Keith Ward, holds that “destruction and death are built into the universe as necessary conditions of its progress to new forms of life.” That is, death and suffering serve to promote the greater good, namely, the evolution of intelligent life. The drawback of this argument is that is makes God the author of death and evil, and, for this reason, it has been strongly opposed by David Bentley Hart, especially in his book The Doors of the Sea. For Hart, death and destruction are alien forces in God’s creation to which He is implacably opposed. The advantage of this position, of course, is that God is no longer complicit in the existence of evil, and it more closely adheres to the traditional view that death is the result of man’s original sin. But, as Lee points out, Hart’s rhetoric can easily lapse into a kind of gnostic dualism wherein God is only the redeemer of the world, not its sole creator.

While I tend to think that Ward is more right than Hart on this point, I take issue with the assumption, implicit in both arguments, that death is evil. Isn’t it death that makes us creatures and not gods, serving as the most dramatic expression of our finitude? In particular, I find the notion that death only arose as a judgment for sin simply preposterous.** Perishability, after all, is what gives the world the possibility of true becoming and creativity, as well as its historical character (see Jüngel's excellent discussion of the positive aspects of perishability in God as the Mystery of the World). Moreover, the death and resurrection of Christ demonstrate once and for all that death is God’s servant, not his enemy.

It is man’s sinfulness, his lack of faith, that transforms death from something natural into something terrible, something evil. Humanity, apart from God, begins to have delusions of immortality, and then death becomes only an absurd negation. But the Christian understands that his life is never his possession, that he is always dependent on the higher power. His faith in Christ also teaches him that death has no real finality; it is God’s love that is absolute. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t mourn the passing of those we love, or try to heal the sick. We must always cherish and protect life. But we should never begrudge God death when it is He who so graciously grants us life.

So, in my estimation, the evolutionary biologists are right when they say that death is a necessary part of nature. But are they also correct in concluding that the world is not good, as the book of Genesis would have us believe? I think the answer depends on how one interprets the biblical statements concering the goodness of creation. Are these meant to imply that the world is intrinsically good, that is, good in-and-of-itself? Or do they mean that creation is only good when it’s in communion with its Creator? I think the latter answer is correct, which means that only a redeemed creation is truly “good”. We should never draw too sharp a distinction between God’s roles as Creator and Redeemer, as if He first made a supposedly good creation and then had to save it when all hell broke loose. Creation always involves redemption, and redemption always involves a new creation. Thus, it’s not surprising that a purely atheistic worldview like neo-Darwinism is incapable of seeing the inherent goodness of creation, since it cuts itself off from the salvation that redeems and restores this fractured world.

* The purpose of this post is not to challenge the scientific merit of the theory of evolution, which is quite simply beyond question. My target is Darwinism as a metanarrative, a sort of theory of everything, which is advanced by the likes of Dawkins and Dennett.

** Of course, there is a form “unnatural” death that did arise because of man’s sinfulness: murder. But murder is not the same as death in general, and it provides no evolutionary advantage that I can think of.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Special Sufjan Christmas

While I normally forbid myself from engaging in any Christmas related activities before December 1 (or at least no earlier than the first Sunday of Advent), I've made an exception for Sufjan Steven's 5-disc Christmas Singalong,* which you can listen to here. While all the songs are terrific, I highly recommend "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" (disc 2) and "Joy To The World" (disc 4).

*Thanks to Clint at Lutheran Confessions for the tip.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"Every Phenomenon of Nature was a Word"

Since I've been bereft of original ideas lately, the purpose of this post is simply share some marvelous quotes from the 18th-century German theologian Johann Hamann (a.k.a., "the happy Kierkegaard"), whose writings I cannot recommend highly enough. Stylistically and theologically he is similar to Kierkegaard, but he lacks Soren's stridency and melancholy disposition. Moreover, one can find in his writings early traces of Jüngel's emphasis on language, Pannenberg's account of time and eternity, and von Balthasar's (and later Hart's) aesthetics. A truly remarkable combination for a humble bureaucrat from Königsberg.

The initial passage describes Hamann's vision of the original state of creation, and also expresses the eternal Christian hope for the consummation of the world:
"So Adam was God's: and God himself introduced the firstborn and oldest of our race as the bearer and heir of the world which had been made ready by the Word of His mouth. Angels, happy to look upon his heavenly countenance, were the ministers and courtiers of the first monarch. All the children of God lifted their praise to the chorus of the morning stars. All tasted and beheld, firsthand and in the very act, the friendliness of the Maker, who played on his earth and found delight in his human children. As yet no creature had fallen against its will into the vanity and bondage of the transitory system, under which they now yawn and sigh... Every phenomenon of nature was a word - the sign, symbol, and pledge of a new, mysterious, inexpressible, but so much the more intimate union, participation, and communion of divine energies and ideas. Everything that man in the beginning heard, saw, gazed upon, and touched, was a living word. For God was the Word. With this Word in his mouth and in his heart the origin of language was as natural, as near and easy, as a child's game."

Here we see how Hamann's thought is thoroughly imbued with a sense of the profligate and gratuitous Word of God; a Word that is not an abstract and ethereal idea, but something that can be seen, touched, and tasted. As he wrote to a friend: "To express my soul to you from the depths, my whole a taste for signs and for the elements of water, bread, and wine. Here is fullness for hunger and thirst." Hamann's motto was the Psalmist's saying: "O taste and see that the Lord is good" (34:8)

In short, Hamann was the epitome of an earthy Christian who never lost his awe for the sheer miracle of Creation:
"Just as man often pits his nature against his reason and makes his habit of action into a necessity, so too, in his worldly wisdom, he has often tried to pit nature against its creator by speaking of unnatural and supernatural works. We might ask how many miracles God has performed, that we should no longer regard anything as natural. And what is there in nature, in the most commonplace natural events, that is not a miracle in our eyes, a miracle in the strictest sense of the word?"

I absolutely love this quote, because it shows that Hamann was continually amazed that the world exists, and that he exists. He lived his life in pure receptivity, never failing to hear God's voice in Scripture, nature, and history. For him, existence was a perpetual conversation with the Creator, "the poet at the beginning of days":
"Our entire life is a history of divine mercy and love. When we complete the day's work, we praise and honor them if we accept love and appropriate it, the love which moved Him to be our creator and redeemer. This love alone can make us into creatures whom He views with favor and with the word of the second creation: 'It is finished.'"

Sunday, November 05, 2006

What was Abraham Thinking When He Raised the Knife?

I recently embarked on a second reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, hoping to suck more marrow out of this rich text. As a guide for this journey, I checked out John Lippitt’s commentary on F&T. But beware of commentaries; they can sometimes prove a distraction, preventing one from focusing on the primary text. This has happened here, as I find myself spending more time disagreeing with Lippitt’s interpretations than engaging with the book directly. Thus, this post offers both my thoughts on F&T and a critique of Lippitt's notion of faith.

The central theme of F&T is the Akedah - Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah. Kierkegaard (via the book’s pseudonym, Johannes de silentio) never tires of praising Abraham, the father of faith. According to SK, Abraham’s faith involved a “double movement” - “infinite resignation” to the loss of Isaac, followed by belief “in virtue of the absurd” that Isaac would not be taken from him. To illustrate this concept, SK employs the example of a young lad who falls in love with a princess far above his meager social standing. As it becomes clear to the lad that he will never marry the princess, he becomes “the knight of infinite resignation”:
“So the knight [of infinite resignation] makes the movement – but what movement? Will he forget the whole thing?... No! For the knight does not contradict himself… The knight remembers everything, but precisely this remembrance is pain, and yet by the infinite resignation he is reconciled with existence.”

But if the lad had faith, like Abraham, he would make an extra movement, the movement of faith:
“Now we will let the knight of faith appear in the role just described. He makes exactly the same movements as the other knight, infinitely renounces claim to the love which is the content of his life, he is reconciled in pain; but then occurs the prodigy, he makes still another movement more wonderful than all, for he says, ‘I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.’… At the moment when the knight made the act of resignation, he was convinced, humanly speaking, of the impossibility… so the only thing that can save him is the absurd, and this he grasps by faith.”

It appears that Lippitt cannot understand this double movement, which, in his estimation, “involves simultaneously believing two mutually contradictory propositions”: that the lad will not marry the princess and that he will marry her (or, that Abraham will have to sacrifice Isaac and that Isaac will not be taken from him). In short, Lippitt does not understand why the knight of faith must first become the knight of resignation.

To solve this dilemma, Lippitt argues that “Johannes’ view of faith is inherently confused” and that it doesn’t represent SK’s true conception of faith. Lippitt instead advocates for Ronald L. Hall’s reading of the text, in which resignation is described as “annulled possibility.” Here, resignation is the antithesis of faith, not its necessary precursor; whereas the knight of resignation tries to transcend the pain of the world by refusing it, the knight of faith lives fully in the world. Lippitt, quoting Hall, writes:
Human existence is ‘intrinsically subject to possibility, and hence to anxiety, to vulnerability, to loss. The faithful self does not put these elements to rest, she plunges forward through them. The faithful self is continually called to embrace the world in all of its fragility, for she recognizes that it is, at any moment, in her power to refuse. The knight of faith knows that such a refusal would bring with it a form of existence that would be other than the human, and to this possibility she must continually say ‘no!’.

For Hall (and Lippitt), resignation is conceived as a form of temptation, or inauthentic existence – a possibility that must be forever annulled. But, in my opinion, this interpretation does violence to Kierkegaard’s concept of faith. For instance, in what sense does the faithful one, in Hall’s account, believe “by virtue of the absurd”? Moreover, how does Hall reconcile his reading with SK’s frequent remark that faith requires belief in what is humanly impossible? Where is Hall’s sense of paradox? The key problem, in my view, is that Hall is largely committed to a humanist reading of the text, and thus, for him, faith can never mean more than “authentic existence.” He is powerless to understand what SK means when he says that Abraham believed “in virtue of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.” In the end, the paradox that Kierkegaard was so determined to maintain is dissolved.

Even more problematic is Lippitt's argument that, if Hall's interpretation is correct, then “Abraham must not actually come fully to accept that his is going to have to kill Isaac: rather, such ‘resignation’ was what Abraham must continually fight against.” Again, I think that SK would strongly disagree. At one point in F&T he writes that “[Abraham] must know at the decisive moment that Isaac is to be sacrificed. If he doesn’t definitively know that, he hasn’t made the infinite movement of resignation, in which case…he is very far from being Abraham.” And yet, at the same time, Abraham believed that Isaac would not be taken from him, that "the Lord will provide". Lippitt is right to call Abraham's position paradoxical, but he seems to forget that that's the whole point! The text is emphatic that faith is a tremendous paradox, "a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off."

To fully understand Kierkegaard’s account of the Akedah, it’s important to remember the original promises that God made to Abraham: that God would make of him “a great nation” and that his descendents would as numerous as the stars. Given the age of Sarah, this promise was a human impossibility, and yet Abraham believed. He still believed in this promise as he walked up Mount Moriah, knowing that even if he sacrificed Isaac, “God could give him a new Isaac, could recall to life him who had been sacrificed. He believed by virtue of the absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function.” In other words, Abraham placed his faith in Him who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. He had a resurrection faith.