Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Noble Agnostic

In Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Worldview?, I mentioned the committed agnostics who are unsure of God's existence. I address the problems of agnosticism here.

I want to be clear that this discussion does not concern those individuals who at present, are uncertain of whether or not they believe in God, but anticipate resolving the matter in the future. This stage is necessary for many people and I wish them all the best in sorting the matter out. No, I am addressing agnostics who claim not only that they do not know currently whether or not God exists, but that there is and will always be of insufficient warrant to decide the question.

In my view, there is good reason to be agnostic on many issues. There are questions that I cannot answer and will probably not be able to answer within my lifetime, but that I have no reason to form an opinion about. For example, I am agnostic with respect to the existence of extraterrestrial life, because I think that our knowledge of the cosmos and of the processes by which life forms will for many years be very limited, and because I do not have a compelling reason take a stance on the issue. (A few people would argue that I do have good reasons to take a stance, but their suggested reasons are almost certainly false, i.e. alien attack is imminent.) There are also issues on which I am currently agnostic and are of practical import, but which I believe I will later have the basis to answer. I don't yet know which professor in my academic department would make the best PhD advisor, but I believe that I will be able to decide the question after a few more weeks of meetings and observation. In general I think that it is acceptable to be agnostic about questions that have little practical significance and good to be agnostic about non-pressing practical questions that one will be able to answer wisely in the future.

The question of God, however, is one of great practical import, and one that new evidence or argument is unlikely to illuminate. The question is ancient and the new arguments pro and contra that arise in philosophical journals are almost always refinements of old ones. If there can be sufficient pre-Apocalytic evidence to decide the question, it is here already. And it is a matter of great practical importance, both in its eternal implications and because to become a Christian, or Jew, or Muslim is not merely to assent to a set of beliefs, but to embrace a way of life. The grim reality is that even though agnosticism is logically sound (one can demand more evidence for anything), and philosophically distinct from atheism, it fails to break from atheism in its practical implications, from atheism's failure to recommend a way of life. Lived atheism and lived agnosticism are the same thing. And if the evidence and arguments surrounding theism are so inconclusive, if there really seems to be a significant possibility that theism is correct, then why should one live as though the question has been decided the other way?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On Good Translation

Three English translations of the first verses of Genesis:

"When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, "Let there be light." - Robert Alter's Genesis

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the Earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." - New International Version

"First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss." - The Message

In poetic quality, Alter's translation is clearly best, its consonance mighty, the interruption of its polysyndeton underlining the power of God's creative word. The
New International Version is not as good, but still highly readable and instructive. The Message's translation of these verses is painful.

My purpose here is not to be critical of The Message, which is a very useful tool for many people who find more traditional translations difficult to read, but to praise Alter's translation, which to me, conveys the truths of the creation myth more strongly than the others because of its poetic sensitivity. It is too common for Christians to treat the Bible merely as a book of propositional truths, or rather, as a book of propositional truths and literary passages to be decoded into propositional truths. The best translation is thus the one that makes the decoding easiest. Such an attitude not only neglects the great pleasure found in reading imaginative literature, but also the unique instructional power of that literature, the way that a story or poem long held in the recesses of memory will one day spring forward to teach and to convict, the way that one can rejoice, suffer and learn with a literary character. To be sure, there are propositional truths to be learned from Biblical narrative and poetry - they complement, but do not supplant the truths that only literature can provide.

Some Christians reflect this attitude in their approach to art as whole. To some minds, good works of art are simply those that affirm things that they already believe in an artistic language that they can easily understand - bad works are those that subvert their values or are difficult. Again, this view neglects the pleasure and instruction of which art is capable. Whether the banality of some current translations of the Bible is a cause or symptom of this attitude I do not know.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Worldview?

Before heading off to undergrad five years ago, I got my share of lectures on the importance of church attendance, the dangers of booze and loose women, and snapshots of the prevailing philosophy of the ivory tower. Even as I took the advice to heart, I was afraid of the intellectual obstacles just ahead, nervous that I would soon see my Christianity besmirched, bludgeoned, and beheaded by the rationalistic arsenal of the academy. I wasn't afraid so much of a single knock-out argument against Christianity as the effect of a battery of small ones, each requiring an evasive ad hoc response, each making the faith a little less plausible while academic atheism stood firm against assault.

Then I got to college. I met plenty of anti-Christians, and I heard the full spectrum of arguments against Christianity. Some of their objections were trivial; some were serious and led me to reexamine my own views. The alternatives, however, did not fare any better. I found the popular academic views to be plagued with problems even greater than those of Christianity.

There are essentially three competing kinds of worldviews in the academy: theism, metaphysical naturalism, and creative anti-realism. Metaphysical naturalism prevails in the hard sciences, while creative anti-realism is nearly dogma in the humanities. Social science folks swing both ways, typically depending on just how scientific their disciplines are. There are a few theists throughout, and a number of staunch agnostics who claim that there is not enough evidence to justify holding any substantial worldview.

Metaphysical naturalism, as held in the academy, usually embraces both a metaphysics - all that exists is the natural, and an epistemology - all that provides knowledge is science. Its epistemology is incoherent, as the claims of metaphysical naturalism are not themselves scientific, and its metaphysics is unsatisfying, for it cannot explain why there is any universe at all, and moreover, why there is a small rock in the middle of it populated by creatures that are desperately seeking meaning beyond survival and reproduction. The usual response to these objections is simply to reject the question, to refuse to seek justification for its incoherent epistemology beyond the practical success of science, and to simply accept that the observable universe requires no explanation.

Creative anti-realism is a good name for a number of views that hold in common that there is no such thing as global truth, because all persons who make truth claims make them from divergent perspectives of culture, gender, history and embodiment. We are therefore creators of truths and of our worlds. It takes a very erudite and sophisticated mind to embrace this idea, because most people recognize that creative anti-realism is itself a global truth claim. Creative anti-realism usually clothes itself in intense moral language, rejecting the truth claims as imperialistic and oppressive. It nevertheless tirades against moral claims, by which its proponents really mean moral claims about sex and substance abuse. Creative anti-realism finds foes in both theism and metaphysical naturalism, and often in rigorous academic disciplines such as physics and logic, what with their annoying (sexist?) claims of universality. The anti-realists often do well in calling attention to the way in which our unique histories shape our views on important subjects, but they slide into silliness and forget that most truth claims are supremely banal.

Now, Christianity has some significant problems of its own, primarily, the problem of how a good, omniscient and benevolent God could allow human suffering, and how, even if miracles occur, it can be rational to believe in them. I think that there are good responses to these objections, and perhaps I will address them in a later post. But Christians should not worry that they are only ones with chinks in their armor.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Addendum to Hipster Christianity Post

The last post provoked quite a bit of response, leading me to realize that I was not clear about what exactly (or inexactly) hipster Christianity is.

Hipster Christianity is a largely a response to the seeker-sensitive movement that has characterized the evangelical church of late Baby Boomers and early Gen-Xers. The seeker-sensitive movement sought to give the church a more contemporary and inviting look for people wary of hymns, fiery sermons, door-to-door proselytizing, enforced tithing and other nasty stereotypes. Large suburban churches, Contemporary Christian Music, flashy children's programming, elaborate multimedia presentations in services, movies like Fireproof and Facing the Giants - these are the tropes of the seeker-sensitive church.

Hipster Christians aren't fond of all that. As McCracken characterizes them, they are usually young people who grew up in seeker-sensitive churches and have rejected a lot of what they found there - the lameness of Christian pop culture (even the mainstream stuff, like Switchfoot), the lack of depth and Biblical teaching in seeker-sensitive churches, the impersonal nature of huge services, the apparent indifference of evangelicals to social justice issues and the homogeneous right-wing views of church members. As a supposed remedy, Hipster Christians tend to have pretensions to intellectualism, to favor small churches with unconventional service styles, to espouse leftish politics, especially with respect to the environment, and especially, to immerse themselves in the cutting edge of pop culture. Hipster Christians are typically into the kinds of bands that get good press on Pitchfork and Stereogum, not what's hot on the iTunes charts, and the kinds of films that play at the dingy arthouse theater, not blockbuster productions. They tend to have liberal arts educations, to live in urban areas, and probably to start families much later than is typical for Christians. Seeker-sensitive churches have tried to follow artistic trends and use them to bring in the public; hipster Christians want to create them, and often to abandon them once they catch on.

As I said in my last post, I identify strongly with certain aspects of Hipster Christianity. There are problems with seeker-sensitive churches, some of which the hipsters diagnose correctly. I like small services, exegetical preaching and weird artistic stuff and I hate the way that some Christians equate Christianity with the Republican party, even though I'm a Republican myself. Simultaneously, I don't like the way that Hipster Christians often condemn their old churches and fail to understand the problems to which they were responding. I also recognize that a lot of the differences are really just matters of taste. I dislike Hillsong, but you're welcome to them. I usually don't like video clips in worship services, but if they help some people learn, that's fine.

I think that the biggest problem with hipsters and with Hipster Christianity is that they tend to discard artifacts of pop culture as soon as they are widely adopted. It's always on to the next band, author, style of worship service, because if a lot of people are into it, it's clearly deficient. And this practice becomes problematic when creating fashions becomes more important than practicing discipleship. If you find yourself saying that an author is very "last year" when the author is in the peak of her popularity, you're too into your image. It's elitist, it's endless and it's contrary to the history and sincerity of Christianity.

I still haven't gotten my hands on the book, but when I do, I will post a full review. I saw an interview with McCracken and it's clear that he's not endorsing or condemning hipster Christianity; he's trying to understand it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hipper Than Thou

Too-attentive readers will note publication a day early. I move tomorrow.

This brief article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal introduced me to Brett McCracken, author of the book Hipster Christianity, an analysis of a new, youthful strain of post-evangelical American Christianity. From that article, and the chapter of the book available on McCracken's website, I gather that he is addressing two separate groups within the church, middle-aged adults seeking to retain younger adults in church congregations, and young adults rebelling against the shortcomings of the evangelical, "seeker-sensitive" churches in which they were raised. From what I've read so far, the book is focused on the latter.

McCracken seems like a thoughtful and tempered, if not especially penetrating writer, and I hope to read his book in the near future. A few preliminary thoughts: I identify strongly with certain aspects of "hipster Christianity" (I scored 79 out of 120 on the "Are You a Hipster Christian Quiz?") - its aesthetic preoccupation, its distaste for the performance aspects of contemporary worship services, its desire for substantive Biblical teaching. There are also aspects of hipsterdom in general that I despise: the fetishism for the new, the exaltation of irony, the obsession with personal appearance. I also think that these don't jive well with Christianity, which demands whole-hearted commitment to ancient teachings. I'm looking forward to getting McCracken's take on the trends.

Also worth mentioning for readers from my home church: We're not within a hundred miles of hipster Christianity. I'm the closest thing you have to a hipster, I'm far from it, and I'm moving away. We are a flyover country church, the young adults we have are firmly in the cultural mainstream, and the ones who are leaving are even more so. Hipsters are striving to be the cultural elite, and that ain't us. Nevertheless, the questions the McCracken is asking hipster Christians, questions about the possible trade-offs between relevance and faithfulness, are questions that are just as relevant to us.

"If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it's easy or trendy or popular. It's because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It's because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It's not because we want more of the same." - Brett McCracken

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Healthcare Mandate

The church has a very strange relationship with bodies. It likes to specify precisely what parts of them can be displayed in public. It is very uncomfortable with talk about some of the more common things that bodies do. It would prefer that you not look at this painting. It would like to forget that God himself had a body for about 33 years. Simultaneously, spend 5 minutes listening to the conversations of churchgoers and you will hear 4.9 minutes of conversation about bodies, namely what is wrong with those of distant relations. The body is hard to ignore.

I exaggerate. The body is of course a part of God's creation declared "good" prior to the fall of man, is capable of great good and of great evil, and is a great part of oneself. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton, we may never own our bodies because we did not ask for them and cannot choose to rid ourselves of them save by suicide. Christians can acknowledge this fact and recognize the body as a gift of God. We also recognize that the effects of sin have made our bodies imperfect, subject to decline, disease, and death.

What them to do with this gift? Between neglect and obsession lies the way of care. I think that Christians have, if not a duty, then extremely strong reasons to care physically for themselves and for one another. Let us suppose that there is such a thing as proper bodily function. By striving to maintain this function, one then honors God's intention for the body. Suppose this reason is invalid. Good functioning of our bodies still makes all other tasks in life, even those that we think are primarily mental and spiritual, easier. Try getting work done when you're sick.

Practical steps realizing this duty: healthy diet, regular exercise, abstention from smoking, authentic encouragement of those working toward better health, consideration of careers in health, advocacy for a fair and efficient political arrangement of healthcare (whatever that may be).

I recognize that this is a very easy virtue for some, very hard for others. So it is with kindness, charity, prudence, hope and all the others. Moreover, I recognize that for some people, no efforts can produce good health, and that eventually, all bodies fail. But I'm advocating care, not immortality.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

On Being a Toy

One of the great triumphs of the now complete Toy Story series is the creation of a imaginary toy psychology, with desires, fears, neuroses, and stages of development. Toy psychology isn't just a projection of human psychology onto plastic objects - it stems from the unique relationship of toys to growing child owners, always threatening to lose a favorite toy, to replace one treasured plaything with another, or to grow too old to play with toys altogether, and always unaware of his toys' self-consciousness.

The Toy Stories chronicle the better part of the life of Woody the cowboy doll, a favorite toy of owner Andy, and the audience's primary window into toy existence. Woody's difficult maturing process is not primarily a matter of learning what his purpose is in that he is a unique toy called Woody, but in learning what his purpose is in that he is any toy at all. He faces the temptations of eternal life in a museum and endless but shallow affection from rotations of small children at a daycare center, but reject each of these, deciding that because he is a toy, his purpose is to serve as the object of an owner's imagination and affection. This is something that Woody knows implicitly at the beginning of the first film, but a belief that the crises of each film call into question, and one that he must eventually make a choice to follow. It is often hard for a toy to pursue that purpose. It carries the risk of abandonment and decay. It is nevertheless the right thing to do, and the only means to a satisfying life for a toy.

I think that this notion of purpose is unusual in contemporary cinema. There are many contemporary films in which characters struggle to find their purposes, but these are usually struggles to find one's purpose insofar as one is such-and-such a person and not some other person. There is very little investigation of the possibility that there is a purpose that all human beings ought to try to fulfill simply because they are human beings. The only markers of "the good life" are then autonomy and authenticity.

Christians of course believe that humankind does shares a purpose, well stated in the Westminster catechism, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." Many ways of life and many activities can fall under this end: work, service, play, worship, creation, learning, love. Fulfilling this purpose is also marked with trials and suffering; it is a difficult choice, and one that we must weigh against other forms of life. I also believe that it is one that allows us to live lives of personal authenticity. Weighty stuff for a kids' movie.

Note: Pixar's two other most recent films, WALL-E and Up, are also films of great spiritual significance.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Demandingness and Christian Ethics

If I were put in charge of determining right and wrong, morality would be very simple, and very easy. Each person would be afforded certain rights: life, property, truth, fidelity in contract, perhaps a few others. All rules would derive from this central principle: Do not violate another person's rights. From this rule, our basic moral prohibitions would arise: do not murder, do not steal, do not break promises, be faithful to one's spouse, do not lie (under most circumstances). Beyond these prohibitions, my ethical system would have no requirements. It would effectively render humans moral by default. After all, it takes a great deal of effort to carry out a major theft, to tell compelling lies, to carry on an affair, to commit a murder, and we do not usually regard any of these things as components of a happy life. Perhaps you too find my moral system tempting.

The moral codes of both the Old and New Testaments contain a fair number of prohibitions, including those that I have included in my system. For me, one of the great difficulties of faith is that Christian morality asks full commitment of oneself to others - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" and "Love your neighbor as yourself". Adhering to the prohibitions described above is the smallest part of carrying out these commands.

These demands are brutal. By following them, we lose time, money, dreams, passions, blood. I think that many people reject the faith because of them. And so they reject a world where these commands will be the law of the land and of the heart.