Friday, September 21, 2007

Important factors for Scriptural interpretation

It's amazing just how few Christians realise how small their set of particular scriptural and theological ideas are compared with the vast number of ideas that have been and are held by other Christians. I've been thinking about ways to help people understand the concept of other interpretations of Jesus and Scripture, and came up with the following diagram. Hopefully, it might also show how we can stand a much better chance of understanding Jesus if we understand what influences the interpretations of his ministry and person.
Essentially, I think the NT authors interpreted Jesus in the context of their culture and their own inspiration and thought. So they wrote these interpretations down in the NT, which have now become Scripture. Later Christians have taken the NT writings, and interpreted them in the context of their own cultures and inspired thoughts. Each generation tends to take the ideas of previous Christians and interprets them in their own context. The problem with this recontextualisation is that if people aren't aware of this, they are inclined to misunderstand writings written in different cultural contexts. It is through many generations of such misunderstandings, I think, that several cherished doctrines exist today. In contrast, the best way to understand the NT authors, and ultimately Jesus, is to understand not only the culture that influences us now, but also the cultural context of the NT writers and Jesus. Understanding their cultural context helps us interpret what they say more accurately.

However, it seems common for Christians these days to be aware of only a very small subset of the ideas held within the whole of Christendom, both past and present. So, I think it's very useful to dialogue with people who understand other ideas. Only when we have understand a range of interpretations do we really have any choice about how we understand Scripture. For this reason, I think I like to help give people more informed choices about how we understand Scripture by sharing other ideas with them.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why people are more than biological machines

Imagine a program which reprogrammed and developed its own programming based on inputted information. The original program could be quite simple – as simple as that first sentence, in fact. Yet very quickly the complexity of the program would exceed its initial complexity. This program would, in a way, be alive.

This, I believe, is an appropriate analogy of the human mind. This effect is why I believe our thoughts can in some way transcend our biology. Our thoughts are not constrained by our DNA, our biology, and our physical environment because we are to greater or lesser extents metacognitive. We think about how we think, and can change how we think accordingly – just like the above example of the self-programming program. We are an example of complex adaptive systems - and very complex ones at that.

The reason I thought all that is because I’ve just heard that some people reduce thought and will to naturalistic, socio-biological phenomenological effects. The conclusion of such argumentation is that ethics and morality has evolved by socio-biological mechanisms, and that we are basically just biological zombies, robots, or animals. Because we are metacognitive, I believe our thoughts are not solely determined by biology and social phenomena. We are human, I think, precisely because we have this capacity to transcend the physicality of the atoms, proteins, cells and organs that make up our physical bodies. Instead, we can engage with ideas and thoughts which don’t exist in physical stuff – but which exist nonetheless. Perhaps even more amazingly, we can experience life consciously, rather than simply being biological machines with no self-awareness of our existence. Our cognitive processes emerge into a level above merely biological processes. In other words, I think that what it means to be human cannot be reduced to the atoms, proteins and biological processes in us. Recent advances in artificial intelligence (e.g. the controversial HTM) do seem to provide support for the idea that intelligence can indeed emerge from complex adaptive systems composed of natural, physical components.

We are somewhat like words – on a physical level, words are just markings on a page, but on another level, words convey meaning far beyond their physical nature. Another analogy would be one of Beethoven’s great pieces of music; on one level it can exist as written music, but it is not confined to that level of existence. It can be played and heard. It can be transcribed to other sheets of paper, and in doing so it transcends the physicality of the original written score. There are many examples of a system of physical or “natural” components creating more complexity than the sum of the physical components themselves. People, I think, are a very complex example of the same thing. And we are even more complex because we change our "program" based on the inputs we receive – both of physical things and of ideas that exist somehow beyond the physical realm.

This, I think, is why being human is so wonderful.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Getting information vs learning wisdom

I'm not very good at teaching. I fail, I think, precisely because I try to be too accurate in what I say. There's an example. As a consequence, I fear that what I write does little to help people but simply gives them reason to dislike me or my views.

Trying to explain ideas precisely sometimes looses the whole gestalt of what's being explained. It would be like describing the Mona Lisa by a very accurate list of Cartesian coordinates and colours. It might be very accurate, but you miss the whole effect of the painting (a cool part of it, from memory, is how it appears she is always looking at you). It is much better to bring someone to the Mona Lisa so that they know the painting on more than just a level of factual information.

Giving people facts and information sometimes doesn't really help them in the way they need to be helped. I think I'm about to begin considering opinions and even true statements in that category. People can learn more facts, but more facts don't necessarily make someone any wiser.

I think I've placed far too much emphasis on trying to convey facts and information, and far too little on the skill of wisdom. I mean, if we knew all the facts and information in the world, what good would it do us? Facts cannot ever tell us how it is good to think. They cannot guide how we should interpret them and see the world. Facts are facts. Information is information. What I would like to do is not merely give people information, but to teach them wisdom.

You'll notice, especially when I point it out, that I didn't say "give people wisdom". That's because wisdom is not something you can "give" like information. It's more like the skill of playing a piano, for example. I can play it for you, explain some useful concepts to help playing, and serve as a guide to help you learn - but you have to learn it. Just telling you things isn't what will ultimately get you to play the piano well.

So, I see that on this blog especially, I've been basically trying to convey my ideas about things. Information... As if that is what would actually benefit people. I'm not sure such information is of much benefit to people. But helping people to be wise, that is something of great benefit to people. Perhaps I can learn not only more wisdom myself, but the wisdom of how to nurture wisdom in others too. Perhaps. I think I have much to learn... so to begin my learning, I will stop typing.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Focussing on wants rather than opportunities

I’m sick of wanting things. I want more free time. I want to be successful, liked, and funny. I want to fit in but somehow be respected and esteemed because I’m unique. I want to know more but not grow older. What don’t I want? Ironically, I don’t want this desire I have of wanting things. Wants are never fulfilled, because if they are, they become “haves” instead of “wants”. All wants ever do for me, or perhaps to me, is make me more bitter for not having what I think I should have. It’s stupid, really.

What will I do? Trying to not want things doesn’t work. It just leaves this temporary vacuum in my mind that quickly slurps in more things to want when I’m not looking, like a mischievous little child beside an empty cookie jar… Trying to want different things doesn’t work, because I’d still be wanting things and it would just shift the target.

No, a much better idea I had today is to replace this want of things all together with something better. The thought I had today was that maybe I could look and be glad for what opportunities I have instead. Looking at opportunities seems better, because instead of being off in a daydream wishing I had what I wanted I could be engaging the real world. Looking at opportunities is seeing what I can actually do instead of being distracted by what I wish I could do, and it might help keep my outlandish expectations more realistic.

This idea gives me the opportunity to start thinking in a different way, and perhaps prevent myself from becoming a bitter old man who never got what he wanted and never wanted what he got. See, I didn’t say that I want to start thinking in a different way, I said it was an opportunity. That way, if I don't manage to take this opportunity, I won't be depressed that I haven't got yet another thing to add to my enormous pile of things I don't have. Yes, that's the pile I'm sick of. But missed opportunities don't pile up on top of me like wants, they just drift of out of sight if you're looking ahead for more opportunities.

I now have the opportunity to end. =)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Solid faith despite uncertainty and doubts

So what do you do as a Christian when you're confronted with skepticism, doubts, and uncertainty not from other people, but from your own mind? The postmodern perspective has let people see that the complexity of life and Christianity doesn't really fit the small tidy filing cabinet filled that apparently contains "the truth" that people should believe. Doctrines and Christian ideas once safely treasured suddenly find themselves out in the messy world, where people ignore or trample on them. What do you do when the faith once based on believing those doctrines also finds itself out in the cold, struggling to survive?

Let me tell you of what I did, because it seems to have worked. It's quite simple really. I reestablished my Christianity not on dogma, but on principles. To base my Christianity on dogmas that I questioned was inherently unstable, so I based it instead on principles that withstood the tide of skepticism. So what were these principles? Let me investigate my own mind and hope it is coherent...

Given that I don't know everything, I need to figure out how to live with the relatively limited understanding I have. More important than my current knowledge is my approach and attitude to the knowledge I don't have. Postmodernism seems great at establishing a lack of certain knowledge, but I think we need to go beyond that to deal with that lack - a kind of post-postmodernism. This attitude in light of what I don't know, I think, is what wisdom is all about. If you found yourself lost in a place you had never been before, the most important thing for you is not where you should be, or where you are, but how you go about getting back to where you want to be. Wisdom is not about where you are, but about how you make progress. Similarly with knowledge, wisdom is not about what you know and what you do, but about how you learn and grow. Growing as a person seems to be not about accumulating life experience, but about becoming richer in wisdom, which makes our life experiences somehow better. For my Christianity, this helped me see that how we go about life in our relative ignorance of is far more important than what we know. This in itself somehow made my doubts and uncertainties seem in a strange way irrelevant. So wisdom, I think, is my first principle. And my second would be to grow in wisdom, for obvious reasons - a great wisdom is to seek more wisdom.

So given that I currently don't know most important facts in the world, and even if I did I wouldn't have the capacity to do nearly enough about them - I have to make a few working assumptions about how to live. They might not be the best, but I need to assume them or else I couldn't do anything - and that, I believe, is worse (because it seems to contradict the first two principles). So what principle can I use to guide my assumptions? I can't see that life would be particularly like living without it involving other people. So the on e such principle is that of community - that I should live in relationship with others.

Given that life involves other people, then, I consider as basic the idea that "I" could have been one of the other people, so I should treat as equals - and want as much good for them as I want for me (I know, sounds a lot like what Jesus taught). That, I think, is what love is about. Now I may not know the best way to act for the good of others, or my own good, but that's where wisdom comes in again.

I think life also somehow involves God, perhaps in a significant way. I don't know that with certainty, but I don't need to, because I can live according to the limited wisdom I currently have. Wisdom provides a way to live in the midst of uncertainty. I believe that God wants us to mature into experiencing life in better ways (by becoming wiser, more mature) , so I see no significant difference between a wise way to live if God exists, and a wise way to live if he does not. I seek to grow in wisdom, and I think that is both good and Godly. Because I believe God wants us to grow in wisdom as people, I don't think he will mind my uncertainty about whether he exists or not - that will all be cleared up in a few short decades anyway. And if God does indeed exist, I think he would want to help me grow in wisdom to become more like the person he'd want me to be (which I consider to be a sort of ideal "me").

So I suppose my Christianity is built upon not ideas or doctrines or theories, but upon a disposition towards wisdom. This disposition is about growing and developing in wisdom for the good of both myself, others around me, and maybe even God. That is what my heart is set on. That is what I am committed to. That is what my faith is all about. Uncertainties about doctrines don't really seem to shake that foundation. The philosophies and cultures I am exposed to can't seem to shake it. In fact, I've not come across anything that can shake it. It is basic. It is my foundation. But it wasn't always, and seeing Christians around me trying to balance their Christianity on their own wobbling doubts, I wonder: what do other people base their faith on?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The guise of authority, arrogance, and ambiguity

Here's what I've been thinking lately... distilled as a rant.

There is a cacophony of stupid doctrines resounding around the Christian community because people often don't seem to realize that teachers who (arrogantly) claim to teach "the truth" can in fact be mistaken. The common appeal to the authority of tradition isn't valid if the tradition is wrong. Yet many just seem to believe what they're told because someone says "it's the truth" without investigating what warrants that claim. The thing is, the many "true" doctrines out there are not harmonious - they don't all fit together. So what seems to be happening is that they are becoming blurred by ambiguity.

People increasingly pick and choose whatever doctrines suit them, but they keep all the same language to talk about them. So superficially, it sounds like everyone believes the same thing. But in fact Christians can mean very, very different things by the same words. This is what I mean by ambiguity.

So take the idea of "grace" for example. According to scholars, the Greek word (charis) was originally quite a clearly understood word used in the ancient Favour System, where it referred to having someone's favour or a favour given to someone. These days, I have read and heard "grace" being used to describe pretty much anything good or pious-sounding that involves God. It's perhaps the most non-meaningful word used by Christians now precisely because it's used to mean so many things. It's not only God's act of sending Jesus. It's his willingness to forgive us. It's the new covenant we're under. It's the means of our redemption. It's God empowering us, even "working in us" like we're some kind of marionette being pulled by the strings of grace. It's how God's looks at us, what he gives us, why he gives us it. It's the opposite of "law", "legalism", "striving", "effort", "works" and any other equally ambiguous terms that Christians don't like. It's everything Christians want and the opposite of everything they hate. Don't think, just "rest in grace".

Then there's "faith". When directed towards a person such as Jesus, the Greek word pistis seems to have originally referred to ideas of faithfulness, obedience, loyalty and commitment to the person. These days, though, "faith" is used to justify whatever people can't justify through normal means. "Faith" is what assures believers that whatever they happen to believe is true (which of course isn't much assurance at all). It is a gift from God, but if you struggle to have it then it's your own fault, your own "disbelief". "Faith" justifies whatever ideas you want to hold and provides a firm and solid foundation from which to reject any ideas that don't like. It is the answer to all problems, the cure for all uncertainty, and the carpet under which to sweep all contradictory evidence. All pain, evil, trouble and intelligence suddenly disappears if we just have "eyes of faith." Don't think, just "have faith".

Complementary to faith is the idea of revelation, especially in Reformed circles. This is the truth divinely revealed by Scripture, which both the Jews and the early Christians needed to be interpreted carefully. The same Scripture can be interpreted in sometimes widely different ways. Many people who hold quite contradictory views can claim to have a divine revelation of truth - but they can't all be right. People often seem to ignore this though. Instead, they appeal to the authority of a divine revelation of Scripture, but they seem to actually be appealing to the authority of their own interpretation of Scripture (whatever than interpretation may be). The consequence is that people use this idea of having a "revelation" to justify whatever silly interpretations of Scripture they may have, and they arrogantly dismiss any and all opinions contrary to their own.

Then of course, there's the Holy Spirit. Now I'm not sure how the early Christians understood this, but I suspect that very few Christians these days correctly understand how they did. It seems to me that the early Christians saw this Spirit as a kind of disposition of character, and that by sharing "the mind of Christ" we share his Spirit also. Today, the Holy Spirit is often thought of as some kind of external invisible cloud that floats around near the ceiling of church buildings, or that lurks around the dim corners of our hearts. It has become so mystified with ambiguous and subjective personal cognitive experience that it has almost become meaningless. There may be authentic experiences with God, but Christians seem to welcome all manner of psychological effects masquerading as the Holy Spirit. The emotional and physiological results are often seen as authentic "experiences with God" - but they seem to bear little fruit beyond the physiological high. Of course, if you express skepticism about the validity of some of these religious experiences, you just don't have enough faith and you need to accept more of God's grace...

And there's the often mentioned "personal relationship with God". Now I think God can still interact with people personally, and the early Christians probably did too, but the modern idea of a "personal relationship with God" seems quite dangerous. It's dangerous because it's almost entirely subjective, and so can potentially be used as an invalid source of authority. These days God seems to have become the ultimate emotional substitute for an intimate relationship. In whatever ignorance they may enjoy, people seem quite happy to project onto God whatever thoughts, feelings, and views they want. There seems to be no clear doctrine of a "personal relationship with God" and everyone is left quite at liberty to imagine what God might be telling them. For example, how many times have you heard young Christians think God's telling them to marry the girl they're attracted to? Here's where the ambiguity and Christian terms and the cacophony of stupid doctrines really come into play, because people use them to construct their idea of God and his relationship with them. They reinforce their own ideas with "faith" and the experience of the "Holy Spirit", all the while taking comfort in "grace" if their character and lives don't seem to be moving in the direction Jesus taught.

So because of the ambiguity afforded by modern Christian terms, the likelihood of some Christians these days believing biblically accurate doctrines seems alarmingly low. Yet their eagerness to assert the authority and truth of their beliefs is alarmingly high. Does Christianity make these people arrogant, or would they be arrogant whatever they believed? Does Christianity attract a certain kind of person? How should Christians and non-Christians respond to these issues?

And what happens for the other people, who like me want to follow Jesus, but don't wish to believe stupid doctrines and imagine a inaccurate relationship with God that will meet their psychological needs? I suppose their Christianity will be as difficult and rewarding as it is authentic, and I suppose they will be humble in proportion to the amount they are willing to learn and grow. As for me, I will continue to pursue God and what is right, to do what I can to understand the bible accurately, and to be willing and open minded in sharing my thoughts with others while using all my faculties to discern what to believe as best as I am able. To help with this, I will try to be clear about my ideas rather than ambiguous. And with luck and some concerted effort, perhaps I will be able to avoid arrogantly claiming authority for my ideas, and instead to let them stand or fall on their own merits.