Category Archives: Philosophy

In the beginning

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. – John 1:1-3 (NIV)

It’s terribly tempting to get into the intricate theology that is contained in these few words. And I started to do just that. But as I became more and more bogged down I realized that my real purpose here is not to instruct or convince. Rather, it is to share my thoughts. They may be insightful, they may be shallow and they may (certainly at times) be dead wrong. But in the end (no pun intended) they are mine.

I am examining this text with the benefit of centuries of Christian theology. So it is easy to read into the words meaning that wasn’t intended at the time. The Holy Spirit often does that. Holy men, as they are inspired by God, write things without always understanding what the fuller meaning of their words are. So it is here, I think. The first thing that jumps out at me is the idea of “being” and “being with” as simultaneously possible. Things, created things, can’t do that. I can’t “be” myself and “be with myself” at the same time. So John is either stating an obvious impossibility, or he is more likely stating something much more profound, namely that the Word is not a created thing, that the Word is in fact God. This meshes perfectly with the more fully developed doctrine of the Trinity which will not be elaborated until the fourth century. God is both Himself and His Word: they exist in perfect unity yet they are distinct.

The “word” he is referring to is the Greek word “logos.” Without getting into all the finer philosophical points, one of the obvious meanings of that word to readers at that time would have been the Greek philosophical concept of the logos as the active creative principle in the universe. And that is pretty much the meaning that John is conveying. God, the Word, creates all that there is by His Word. That’s a pretty obvious theme in the Old testament. “God said ‘Let there be light, and there was light’.” It was God’s Word that was the active agent of creation. We see this in verse three and also in this well-known passage from Isaiah.

11 So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:11 (NIV)

“In the beginning” is the opening both of this Gospel as well as Genesis. John is talking about the time before creation. But we now know that time and space are two different ways of looking at the same thing. Physicists use the term “space-time” to refer to the matrix of being in which we exist. I believe that prior to creation there was neither space nor time. It makes no more sense to ask “when” the universe was created than to ask “where” it was created. There was no “where” there and there was no “when” then. We’re dipping our toes into that arcane subject called ontology, the philosophy of “being.” One of the main questions ontology addresses is  “Why is there ‘is’ “?” Obviously the kind of “being” God possesses  is profoundly different than what we perceive to be “being.”  (What an unavoidable  swarm of bees.) The existential theologian Paul Tillich approached it this way:

Paul Tillich was critical of the view of God as a type of being or presence. He felt that, if God were a being, God could not then properly be called the source of all being (due to the question of what, in turn, created God). As an alternative, he suggested that God be understood as the “ground of Being-Itself”.

http://religiousnaturalism.org/god-as-ground-of-being-paul-tillich/

Or as another Paul (the apostle) put it when expounding the Gospel among the philosophers at the Areopagus , “For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) (He is quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides.) The word “ground” here is taken is the artistic sense of figure and ground. In other words, the variation (figure) is only possible against the unchanging ground. A black stroke on canvas exists because it is something other than canvas. Analogies can be helpful if not carried too far. Think of a glassy smooth body of water. No motion, no disturbance of any kind. And then think of a ripple moving across the water. The ripple exists but it only exists as a change of the otherwise unchanging water. The water s the ground and the ripple is the figure. By extension, then, our “being” is nothing more (or less) than a ripple on the ground of God’s being. We know that God is unchanging in His essence but he is also omnipotent and therefore unconstrained by His own nature. And here we come to the mystery of creation. Why, if God is complete in Himself, does He choose to create? Why is there “is?”

 

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It’s about time to talk about time

Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream. – Khalil Gibran

It’s been six days since I posted anything, but things were bubbling around in my head and I didn’t want to commit them to blog until I had a clearer sense of what I needed to say. It will take a few posts to get it all out so here’s a start.

Consciousness is a very slippery concept. Thinking about thinking can really get you thinking, am I right? I could write pages of thoughts on the phenomenon of consciousness but I want to focus here on a crucial aspect of it, namely our perception of time.

We know what the Past is (I’m going to capitalize these terms), at least if we have properly functioning minds. It is composed of memories of all that we have already experienced. There are some very interesting stories about people whose short and long term memory is compromised. Oliver Sacks has a number of good books about these things and I refer you there. Studying pathology often gives us a clearer sense of what “normal” really means. But for our purposes we’re discussing the Past as we experience it. And the Past is more than our own memories. We learn that other people have had experiences and we learn this by talking to them and even by reading accounts of things that happened long ago. The Past is real and those who love history love a real thing.

We also know what the Future is. It is, for the most part, a mental construct, an extrapolation of our Past, forward in time. In other words, we experience the Future as a projection of our Past. It is a sense that what has happened will again happen in some form or another. More on that later.

But this thing called the Present is a slippery beast indeed. We all have a sense of what it is but the more we try to experience it, the smaller it gets until it seems to have no substance at all. How can something so real have no dimension? Here’s an analogy that helped me.

Suppose you are looking down at a lake. You can certainly see the surface of that lake, so it really does exist. But how thick is it? Even when you get down to the level of the atoms that compose it, at some point there are water molecules below and air molecules above and the surface of that lake becomes the surface of atoms and where does that leave us? No further ahead than we were before.

If you think about it (and mostly we try not to) the surface is nothing more than a boundary, a point of transition from one material to another. It is real, but not in a tangible sense. It is a construct of our minds. And it is the same way with the Present. There is a boundary “in time” where “what has yet to happen” becomes “what has happened.” The Present is the boundary between the Future and the Past. And no matter how closely you observe it, there is never a measurable length of time that is the Present. It, too, is a construct of the mind.

Yet we live our entire lives there, and there alone. We cannot live in the Past, nor can we live in the Future. We live in that infinitesimally small place called the Present, and everything that we have ever done or ever will do happens there. But we often completely neglect it. We are constantly thinking about the Future or “dwelling” in the Past and are rarely, if ever, mindful of the moment that separates them.

There is a somewhat vulgar aphorism heard around AA to the effect that an alcoholic has one foot in the past, one foot in the future and is sh***ing all over today. It’s repeated because it speaks to the same truth I just elaborated, only reduced to its essentials. And we’ve all heard the same thought expressed various other ways, “living in the Now,” “…that’s why they call it the present,” and most certainly “One Day at a Time,” which we often shorten to “one minute at a time” or “one second at a time.” We can shorten it ad infinitum until we reach the same conclusion: that we must live our lives in the one instant we are given and in which to choose how we will live.

When we look at it this way, our Past is not merely memories of events. Instead, it is the recollection of the myriad choices we made in that place called the Present. (If you’ve ever had a severe regret you know what I mean.) So in one sense, the Present is eternal. There are an infinite number of “Presents” that make up the past. And there are going to be an infinite number composing the Future as well. If we truly live in the Present then we are, in one sense, living in the Eternal Now.

But, as I said earlier, the Future is no more than an extrapolation of our Past. To phrase it another way, the Future is illuminated by the Past. Why do newcomers feel so hopeless? Because the dismal gray light of their Past is the only lamp they possess to see the Future with. However, as we work the program, we make better and better decisions, and our past begins to grow brighter and brighter. And soon our vision of the Future is bright indeed.

A lot of our defects of character arise out of our distorted sense of time. That’s why I took so much time (pun intended) laying it out. I am going to do some posts on resentment and worry, so I wanted to make sure I explained my concept before launching forward.

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Did you say “myth?”

I was reading last night’s post and realized that I had used the term “myth” in a way that it is not commonly understood so let me back up a little and elaborate on that. If you are a literal interpreter of Scripture this post is not for you.

When I was studying anthropology (that again) I was taught a very important lesson about the biases of literate cultures, that is those who have a permanent means of storing speech. We have possessed the technology of writing for so long that we don’t think about how preliterate societies transmitted knowledge. The means by which they did this was by oral tradition, in other words “stories” told from one generation to the next. Keep in mind that each culture is uniquely adapted to its own environment and that transmission of these aspects of culture are critically important for survival.

Have you ever had the experience of hearing someone describe an event at which you were also present? Did you notice that the other person always got it “wrong” by leaving out facts, adding new ones or distorting some? Personal memory is a very unreliable way to store information, so if we are to transmit cultural wisdom we have to have some way to ensure that information is preserved intact through countless generations.

If you have children or grandchildren you must have told them some classic bedtime stories which are pretty much known throughout our culture. And did you notice that when someone else told them the details were pretty much exactly intact? Why? Because unlike the memory of actual events, they are not dependent on personal recollection but rather on the fictional details. Stories turn out to be a mechanism by which information is handed down in a reliable and consistent way because they contain a relatively small number of details structured in such a way that the story itself is radically changed if even one of these details is distorted.

So in preliterate societies, the story tellers were responsible for passing on the culture And we call these stories”myths.” Myths are not untrue, but rather they contain essential truth wrapped in a fictional structure that protects that truth from distortion. As a culture begins to develop writing, these myths start to be written down, not so much as a historical record as a modern person would define it, but as a memory aid to ensure even more the accuracy of the story. When we approach these texts as modern Westerners, we tend to bring our understanding of textual criticism with us. And many people approach early texts incorrectly with that bias.

Seen that way, the first five books of the Old Testament are probably the earliest written versions of the creation myths of the Jews that stretch back hundreds of generations. I personally believe that the ancient Hebrew myths were in fact directly inspired by God and as such contain tremendously important truth about His nature, His creation and His creatures. For example, I do not have to believe in a literal Garden of Eden to accept the truth of man’s fallen nature. (my theology, but maybe not yours)

Because God himself is unknowable, any stories about God are necessarily mythical, that is, they reflect the total mystery of God. Theology, or the “study” of God, is really the study of the truths contained in the myths, or sometimes the creation of entirely new myths shrouded in academic credibility.

So when I refer to the “God concept” as a benevolent myth, I do not mean that belief in God is a belief in the untrue, but rather a belief in the unknowable. And as I said in the previous post, this “myth,” this story about God, is such a fundamental part of our human nature that we are never entirely complete until we embrace a story about God that fulfills our deepest longings.

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Timing

This post concerns a comment by a reader “John” of christiannews.net. I quote:

First of all I certainly am against killing of the innocent. The timing of the abortion (how far along the pregnancy is) is important to me. I certainly am against late term abortions.

I have invited him here to discuss this in a more temperate atmosphere.

Here are a few questions that I need clarified if we are to have an intelligent debate on the subject.

  1. Why are you “against late term abortions?”
  2.  Is your opposition based on objective principles or are you just uncomfortable with the practice?
  3.  Do you believe there is a right to an abortion that ends when it becomes ” late term” or is this right absolute?

What do you say?

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Centered

We talk about ups and downs. “Ups” are good, “downs” are bad. But we can never quite reconcile in our minds how God can be in the middle of all of it. How is it that my faith can be so strong at times while at other times the word itself seems like a cruel taunt?

Part of the problem stems from what I wrote about recently: the need for emotional assurance. It’s not enough that I know God is there. I need to feel He is there. And early on in our spiritual lives God does allow odd things to happen to let us know that there is more the our reality than just the surface. As time passes I’ve found that these experiences become fewer, not because God is withdrawing from us, but because He expects us to mature. We weren’t meant to live a spiritual life of constant reassurance any more than we were meant to live on mother’s milk forever. And what God is weening us from is precisely this need to feel emotional assurance every step of the way.

This doesn’t solve the problem, of course. We still lack something and we become frustrated when we fail to receive what we think is essential. My experience is that people of high spiritual development almost universally experience these times of emptiness and alienation. And just as universally come out the other side with a more profound relationship with God.

And here lies the crux of the matter. We swing from elation to desolation and back, and we manage to convince ourselves that God is behind all of it. What we fail to realize is that God is just trying to get us to stop swinging. A pendulum eventually comes to rest because friction and gravity compel it to the center. And the essence of mature spirituality is not the constant feeling that God is present, nor is it the constant struggle to stave off the feeling of alienation. It is not about feeling at all. It is about resting.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” – St. Augustine

I often hear about people who are trying to be “centered.” Good news: you are already “centered.” You may be self-centered, or you may be centered on the drama in other people’s lives, but centered you certainly are. And, like a pendulum perturbed by a magnet. it is a centeredness that exposes the forces acting to deny us rest. So we use the term “God-centered” and never really ask what that means. 

“God-centeredness is not a state of mind. It is not an emotional state. And it is not, in the sense that some use it, a spiritual state. It is not, in fact, sensible. It is a state of being. And when we begin to surrender this childish demand for feeling, we begin ever so slowly to rest. We are pendulums that swing ever more gently to the point of equilibrium.

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