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A Freebie Chapter: “Agapic Freedom and the Christian Intellectual Life”

December 22, 2017

I am providing a revised account of Christian intellectual life, adapted from Chapters 5&7 of Freedom All The Way Up: “Agapic Dianoia as a Model of Christian Intellectual Life.” Just click here to download the PDF. Feel free to circulate it to others. You are invited to post comments, supportive or critical, below. Enjoy!

Revisions to ‘Freedom All The Way Up’

August 4, 2017

Freedom All The Way Up: God and the Meaning of Life in a Scientific Age has been available (through Amazon, your local book store, etc) for the past couple months; however, I finished writing it over a year ago (it takes a year to get through the publication process), which means I have had a year to continue thinking about these matters. For those who have read, or will read, the book here are three revisions I would make:

  • My discussion of agape-love was deficient in a particularly significant way. I continue to agree with my definition of agape-love as ‘self-sacrificial self-giving for the blessing of God and of others, particularly those who are vulnerable, as well as strangers and enemies’. In Chapter 5, I said that there are two fundamental forms of blessing that constitute agape-love towards others—seeking justice and giving gifts. Now, however, I believe I failed to properly include the work of Jesus on the cross; that is, there is a primary sort of blessing that constitutes agape-love which I failed to identify, but which I now believe is essential to agape-love—reconciliation. Estrangement is humanity’s fundamental problem (estrangement from God and from each other through our self-focused inclinations); that is, I would identify estrangement as the fundamental form of hamartia (the Greek word in the New Testament usually translated as ‘sin’, but more literally meaning ‘missing the mark’). So Jesus’ life and death, his mission, was to overcome estrangement—to reconcile humanity with God and with each other, which in effect makes ‘offering reconciliation’ the fundamental form of Jesus’ agapic mission. Other forms of blessing are biblical too, such as seeking justice, physical healing, bestowing dignity, provision of needs, advocacy, and so forth, but I would now say that agape-love prioritizes reconciliation above all other forms of blessing, since, if we achieve reconciliation with God and with others, then the other sorts of blessings will more-fully follow. This addition of reconciliation as the principle objective of agape-love is a critical refinement to my original discussion (and I am very annoyed with myself for missing this in the book). Moreover, it adds another layer to the radicalness of Jesus’ agape-love, for if we truly understood the implications of deep reconciliation, then not just our individual relationships would be dramatically altered but our whole social, economic, and political structures as well. Consequently, I would now redefine agape-love along these lines: agape-love is ‘self-sacrificial self-giving for the blessing of God and of others, particularly those who are vulnerable, as well as strangers and enemies, principally through reconciliation, then also through justice and gifts’. (This could still do with some refining, but for now this makes my point.)
  • For the sake of comprehensiveness, in the book I should have discussed more of the social science research on the meaning of life. In particular I am thinking of the sort of work done by the Positive Psychology movement and by the Greater Good Science Centre at UC Berkeley. The Centre (which does great research) identifies ten elements of well-being for a meaningful life: altruism, diversity, compassion, awe, gratitude, mindfulness, forgiveness, happiness, and social connection. These are perfect examples of forms of ‘internal transcendence’ (IT). Of course, others could still be added—off the top of my head I can think of ‘solidarity’, ‘creativity’, ‘communicativeness’, ‘hope’, and ‘perseverance’.  It would also have been beneficial to have referenced the three methodological approaches to ‘well-being’ famously identified by Derrek Parfit in his book Reasons and Persons (namely ‘mental state’ approaches, ‘desire-fulfillment’ approaches, and ‘objective list’ approaches). None of these discussions would have changed any of my argument in the book; rather, they simply would have better illustrated my points in Chapters 7 and 8, particularly with regard to my argument that ‘uber-values’, such as ‘well-being’ or ‘flourishing’, are incoherent if not based in an uber-Mind (ie., God).
  • I would like to have given more attention to humanism and ‘the human spirit’. These two terms are essentially different labels given to the sorts of IT qualities described above—though my sense of how people use the phrase ‘the human spirit’ particularly emphasizes the qualities of perseverance and hope that enable people to rise inspiringly to the challenges of life. Nonetheless, because there is no—and can be no—single canonical definition of ‘humanism’ or ‘the human spirit’, these terms can be applied to any subset of IT qualities, including subsets that exclude altruism, self-sacrifice, and reconciliation, which are essential to agape-love. That is, ‘humanism’ and ‘the human spirit’ can overlap some IT qualities that are part of our imago Dei qualities, and can overlap some agape-love practices, but they are not the same as agape-love, and, because of their linguistic flexibility, can easily omit essential elements of agape-love. In effect, IT humanism and ‘the human spirit’ are attractive concepts, evoking life-encouraging feelings, even plugging into some of our God-created imago Dei qualities, but they are no replacement for God’s agape-love as the fundamental meaning of existence. (In effect, these observations do not change any of my arguments, other than to lead me to slightly refine what I said on p.218 of the book, so that now I would put it this way—that the qualities associated with IT humanism and ‘the human spirit’ can strengthen parts of the existential superstructure of life, yet they simultaneously undermine our existential foundations by removing God’s agape-love as the purpose of the universe and as the foundational meaning of our lives.)

Why God does not provide ‘knock-down’ evidence for God’s existence

February 17, 2017

Malcolm Jeeves has made the following observation: ‘In neuroscience, a leading theist was Sir John Eccles and a leading atheist Francis Crick, both Nobel laureates. When we see such distinguished scientists in psychology and neuroscience taking such radically different views, the lesson becomes clear: there are no easy answers to these questions. There are no knock-down arguments to settle the debates.’ There are those, however, who count it a strike against Theism not only that there are no knock-down, or irrefutably overwhelming, arguments for God, but that God does not give knock-down evidence of God’s existence. One thinks here of Bertrand Russell’s famous comment that, should he have to face God someday, he would say ‘But God, you did not give me sufficient evidence for your existence’. It turns out, however, that God has good reasons for not providing evidence that is so overwhelmingly-convincing that every rational person could only conclude from such evidence that God exists… [click here for the remainder of the article as a two-page pdf.]

Randomness in Creation and God’s Plan for Agape-love

January 13, 2017

“The physical-chemical processes of this Creation, which employ a continuous interplay between randomness, order, and emergent complexity, do not permit total predictability, such as predicting every specific neural pathway for every type of agape-capable being that will ever emerge on every possible eco-niche in the universe. Only a system without randomness could provide such deterministic predictability, but such predictability and control is not God’s objective. Rather, God has created the physical-chemical system we experience in our universe, with its particular balance of randomness, order, emergent complexity, laws, regularities, and probabilities, because it provides just what God desires, namely, a process by which beings with neurophysiological agape-capabilities and meaning-making capabilities would emerge through convergence and multiple realizability. This process provided God with a degree of predictive resolution such that God foreknew, from God’s design of the initial conditions of the universe(s), that many possible routes could come about to provide agapic neurophysiological capabilities, and that one or more of these would actually come about (through asymptotic probability over sufficient time), without needing to predict which actual routes would come about. This is the heart of the probability component of the agape/probability account.”

-From Freedom All The Way Up (forthcoming, April 2017)

Epistemology and Philosophy of Language in John’s Gospel

June 19, 2015

John says he wrote his Gospel ‘so that you may believe’. The basis of this hoped-for belief is Jesus’ teaching and miracles—or ‘signs’, as John calls miracles. In philosophical terms we could say that John’s Gospel is about ‘evidential spiritual epistemology’—coming to knowledge of God through the evidences of Jesus’ power as a teacher and as a worker of miracles.

Of course, John has nothing to say about scientific method, which may lead us to infer that he had nothing to say about our ability to understand the universe or anything therein. Yet two verses in his gospel may have significant implications for those of us interested in matters of contemporary science and epistemology (how we gain knowledge).

John 1:1 opens with these well-known words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. The Greek word translated as ‘Word’ is, of course, logos. Using ‘Word’ as the translation for logos has become an ingrained convention among translators, and not without good reason—it is simple yet evocative, and is probably as good a single-word translation as any of the other possibility. However, we tend to forget that logos is polysemic, that its meaning in classical and koine Greek can be rendered into English by various other words as well, such as reason, opinion, account, and, as Grahame Hunter (Professor of Philosophy, University of Ottawa) has pointed out, intelligibility. Despite our proclivity to translate logos as Word, this polysemy was no doubt part of John’s semantic awareness. Hunter suggests that we read John 1:1 replacing ‘Word’ with each of the various other candidate words in English, to give us a fuller understanding of the scope and power of this verse. Here is how John 1:1 reads with logos as intelligibility: ‘In the beginning was the Intelligibility, and the Intelligibility was with God, and the Intelligibility was God’.

This is highly suggestive. If God is Intelligibility, then God is the source of intelligibility. Assuming that intelligibility involves two sides (‘able to be understood’ and ‘capable of understanding’), then on this reading of John 1:1, humanity, as the image of God, reflects both aspects—humanity is capable of understanding and of being understood.

This helps us address a couple questions. One is the old question, Why is the universe intelligible? That is, Why are we able to understand the universe? Alvin Plantinga has offered his well-known argument that evolution denies naturalism (materialism, atheism) because evolution is not built to give us the remarkable capacities we have, such as the levels of math and knowledge we have to understand physics and the universe; rather, evolution just gives us levels of knowledge we need for survival and reproduction. Thus the probability of evolution giving humans such reliable cognitive faculties is low, thus the fact that we have reliable cognitive faculties requires another explanation, namely God’s involvement in our cognitional formation. However, I believe this argument has been successfully refuted by those who say that the evolution of human intelligence for survival and reproduction has produced brains capacities that are capable of extrapolating their intelligence capacities beyond just survival and reproduction.

Nonetheless, I would contend that this evolved capacity for intelligence (intelligibility-capacity) was one of the qualities (along with love) intended by God to emerge from the initial conditions and physical-chemical processes of the universe. Thus the universe and our world are intelligible because intelligibility—both ‘able to be known’ and ‘able to know’—is part of God’s creative, evolutionary plan. Consequently, scientific method as naturalistic is not a repudiation of Theism, as Materialists often claim, but simply the application of our God-intended and God-reflecting evolutionarily-evolved intelligibility capacities. In effect, John 1:1 provides a theological explanation and justification for scientific enquiry: we are just using the brains God gave us…through evolution.

Second, in John 14:6 Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth (alethea), and the life’. In contemporary philosophy (well, Anglo-American) truth is a property of propositions. In terms of ‘truth’, does this verse mean then that Jesus is somehow a single fundamental proposition, perhaps a super-propositional truth which gathers into itself all other real and potential propositional truths? Such a proposal is nonsense—a person cannot be a proposition any more than a person can be a hamburger or a calculus equation. However, if both Jesus and propositions can be labelled as ‘true’ then there must be some common property that Jesus and propositions share—but what would that be? I suggest it is the quality of ‘faithfulness’ or ‘trustworthiness’. This makes an ontological connection between the nature of God and the nature of propositions—indeed, more broadly, with the nature of communication: propositions and communications which are true reflect the reliability and trustworthiness of God. Put another way, as God is a communicator (communicates with humans), the ability to communicate is part of being made in the image of God (an often-overlooked quality of the imago dei). That is, verbal communication, including both literal propositions and figurative language, is creationally founded in this property of God, namely being trustworthy or reliable. The truth-conditions of propositions (whatever one may say about their physical or metaphysical status) reflect the character of God.

Now we can combine these two portions of John’s Gospel into a powerful ‘theology of epistemology’ (doctrine of knowledge), namely that the natural world (including the universe, quantum mechanics, chemistry, biology, and human personhood) is intelligible to us because creation, including we humans, reflects the Intelligibility of God; and further, that when language is truthful, it is truthful by virtue of being reliable or trustworthy, reflecting these same characteristics of God. The world has been made by God to be intelligible, and our language about that world is true when it is reliable and trustworthy. Furthermore, the same applies to God, for God too is intelligible (to an extent adequate for relational purposes), and so our language about God—or anything else, for that matter—is true when it is reliable and trustworthy.

Vegetarianism and the New Covenant

June 19, 2015

In the summer of 2014 I gave up my life as a carnivore. Vegetarianism has never had much traction for most Christians, including for me. In fact, I always thought vegetarians were a bit odd. But, hey, to each their own—after all, each of us has our own quirks. Nonetheless, in recent times I have come to see the issue more seriously than this—as a matter of holiness and discipleship.

I suspect Christian indifference to vegetarianism has arisen from three biblical texts in particular. First is Genesis 9:3, in which God says to Noah, after the flood, ‘Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as [at creation] I gave you the green plants [for food], I now give you [for food] every being that moves’. In effect, God only permitted eating of the green plants (vegetarianism) before the flood, but permitted carnivorism after the flood. Why God would make this change after the flood? The answer is unclear, but there it is.

Second, in Acts 10 we read the following story: ‘About noon the following day…Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat”’ (NIV).

Third, we have these words from Paul: ‘One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God’ (Romans 14:5-6). This verse certainly gives space for vegetarianism, but it equally gives space for carnivorism.

I’m no longer convinced, however, that the permissibility of unrestricted carnivorism is an appropriate implication of a canonical reading of scripture—that is, scripture in its totality. In fact, I now think there are good scriptural reasons to take vegetarianism seriously.

First, back to Genesis 9. This is conventionally called God’s covenant with Noah, but it is actually God’s covenant with Noah and the animals—‘every living creature’, to be precise. The covenant is this: God promises to never again wipe out virtually all life on Earth. In fact, five times in the chapter God reiterates that this divine covenant is with Noah and the animals. And yet Christians are for the most part completely unaware that God ever made a covenant with the animals. (I only noticed this recently myself.) It seems to me that if God considers the animals worthy of a covenant, then, as God’s stewards and guardians of creation, we should have a covenant with them too. Furthermore, new covenants are part of God’s ways. There are a number of new covenants recorded in the Old Testament, well prior to the New Covenant that comes with Jesus. It seems to me that if new covenants are possible with humans then a new covenant is also possible with the animals. If so, then what would this look like? Perhaps like this: that we refrain from eating them as much as possible, and, where we do eat them, or even cultivate them, that we cause them no suffering, either in how they are raised or killed.

This fits with several parts of scripture. For instance, it fits well with the shape of how Jesus lived the new covenant with people, for this extended not just to ‘spiritual egalitarianism’ (neither Jew nor Greek, etc.) but to pacifism as well. For instance, in the Galilee synagogue, where Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll, he leaves out the role Isaiah gives to God’s vengeance. When tested with money, he said ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’, thereby negating the Maccabean/Zealot tradition of violent resistance to Roman taxation. Various other examples exist in the Gospels of Jesus’ pacifism—at least towards violence that causes injury or death (overturning the moneychanger tables at the temple was certainly violent but it caused no one physical harm). Surely a natural extension of Jesus’ vision for pacifism extends to our stewardship of nature, including how we treat the animals.

Likewise, the vision of Paul and John for a new creation includes by implication—even if they didn’t mention it in their writings—ceasing where possible to kill animals, and certainly to avoid causing them suffering. We see part of this new creation vision as far back as Isaiah 11, the messianic-prophetic text about God’s eschaton-kingdom of peace: ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them’ (often misquoted as ‘the lion will lie down with the lamb’). This passage is held up by Christians as a vision of the future peace and reconciliation at the end of the ages ‘when God wins’. We hold up these three now-vegetarian predators—the wolf, the leopard, and the lion—as symbols of God’s new kingdom precisely because they have given up their animal-killing ways. So why do we hold up these beasts as symbols of God’s new kingdom, yet think that their example doesn’t apply to us? We know this is God’s vision of the new kingdom, so we are in no position to say ‘But it doesn’t apply to me, at least not yet’. It reminds me of Augustine’s comment, ‘Lord make me chaste—but not yet!’ The clear implication of Isaiah 11 is that non-violence towards animals is part of God’s vision for the new kingdom, so there appears no valid reason to hold off living in accordance with this as much as we can.

Is vegetarianism an absolute implication? Certainly not where there are mitigating circumstances—which there certainly can be. For instance, in some environments people do not have access to sufficient vegetation for survival, such as arctic peoples (Inuit, Yupik, Aleuts, and Sami, among others) or desert peoples (Bedouin, Tuareg, and Teda, among others). For such peoples, meat is a necessity. Then there is Peter’s experience in Acts 10, which can be seen as another example of mitigating circumstances, namely God’s desire to eliminate the purity laws. The purity laws were partly for health, and so in this regard were good. Yet they were also partly to demarcate the Jews from Gentiles, a principle which God gets rid of in the New Covenant. When God tells Peter to get up and eat, this is not a command to carnivorism but a command to break down some of the strongest walls in Jewish minds between Jews and Gentiles—their dietary laws. Furthermore, it was a vision, not a reality, so Peter did not actually eat the meat!

Further ethical reasons in favor of vegetarianism arise simply from our own age. Given our massive human population, our carnivore lifestyle is creating huge amounts of pollution—the extent of natural methane production from cows and pigs is now well known, as is the huge amount of energy that goes into their feed and transport, as is the hugely negative-return on calorie investment in raising them. This simply does not count as good stewardship of creation. Furthermore, many of our food production processes are inhumane. Periodically, secret cameras in factory farms show the inhumane treatment of animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens. Each time the industry says they will clean themselves up, another such situation comes to public attention some time later. (Even as I write this, yet another Canadian case of factory farm animal-abuse is in the media.) Abusive practices will always happen simply because people are sinful. From another angle, it is well documented that much of the fish we get from South East Asia is produced by slaves kept captive on the fishing boats.

To reduce pollution, to reduce suffering of animals, and to reduce the suffering of exploited people—in short, to reflect God’s kingdom here on earth, God’s healing of the world, and God’s new covenant with creation—Christians should give very serious consideration to vegetarianism. We still follow Paul’s tone of mutual respect in those words quoted earlier:  ‘He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God’. Nonetheless, we can also suggest that scripture seems to have implications in a certain direction—which I would suggest it does when it comes to the stewardship which God has given us of the animal kingdom.

Tolkien and Lewis as Pre-evangelists

March 20, 2015

I have been reading Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, by Holly Ordway (Ignatius, 2010), the autobiography of her conversion from atheism to Christ. Ordway is a professor of English literature, and her biography provides an interesting insight into the old Tolkien-versus-Lewis debate. As is well known, Tolkien and CS Lewis were friends, although, as is also well known, Tolkien had a strong disliking for Lewis’s style of allegorical writing. Indeed, readers themselves tend to polarize around one or other of the two. Ordway, however, describes how both of them prepared her for her eventual conversion.

Here is some of what she says about Tolkien: “Long before I gave any thought to whether Christianity was true, and long before I considered questions of faith and practice, my imagination was being fed Christianly….At some point in my childhood, I found JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and that changed everything. Not suddenly. Not even immediately. But slowly, surely. Like light from an invisible lamp, God’s grace was beginning to shine out from Tolkien’s works, illuminating my godless imagination with  Christian vision….The Lord of the Rings was where I first encountered the Christian evangelium, the good news….[S]omething took root in my reading of Tolkien that would flower many years later” (24-25).

Here is some of what she says about Lewis: “The idea of a personal God was almost impossible for me to grasp to begin with, let alone the Christian claim that the Creator became a human person…I could understand the definition of the word ‘Incarnation’ but not grasp its meaning….But what if the idea of the Incarnation did not have to be solved like a math problem.. .what if I could get hold of its meaning in a different way? I picked up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: this time not to analyze it for my dissertation but to enter Narnia like a little girl again. And I encountered Aslan….In Narnia I found that the Incarnation was not a bizarre idea, out of place in the world. It infused the very atmosphere. I breathed it in and was strengthened by it. That God would join his creatures by becomng part of creation himself seemed, here in Narnia, as fitting as the fact that winter’s end brought crocuses peeking brightly through half-melted snow…” (86-87).

Ordway also describes how other Christian writers, from Donne to Hopkins, prepared her imagination and worldview for her eventual turn to God and conversion to Christ. But what strikes me in Ordway’s account of Tolkien and Lewis is her ‘both/and’, rather than ‘either/or’, appreciation of them both, for each contributed to her eventual conversion in their own way.