I have Been Unfair to Christianity

I noticed that I have been unfairly critical of Christianity, probably because that is my own background and the tradition to which I have the closest relationship. But that is not ethical. So as I explore things from now on, and engage in the quest for truth, I will try to be less critical and one-sided. I am not a model Christian by any stretch, since I have not only opened myself to possibility of other beliefs, I have also nurtured my doubts. Furthermore, I have been too critical of my tradition. Many of my Christian friends have been making a lot of sense in their interactions with me. 


Photo Credit: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/images/features/cslewis-young-crop.jpg

Mark Driscoll and the Culture of Violence Against Women

Mark Driscoll

Many are aware that there is a pastor from Seattle called Mark Driscoll, a pastor who has said some very ugly and demeaning things about women. He doesn’t do this directly necessarily. But when he speaks about how men should be there is an implied slander and prejudice against females. For instance, in a pseudonymous comment that Driscoll made in 2000, Driscoll wrote:

It all began with Adam, the first of the pussified nation, who kept his mouth shut and watched everything fall headlong down the slippery slide of hell/feminism when he shut his mouth and listened to his wife who thought Satan was a good theologian when he should have lead her and exercised his delegated authority as king of the planet. As a result, he was cursed for listening to his wife and every man since has been his pussified sit quietly by and watch a nation of men be raised by bitter penis envying burned feministed single mothers.

Notice that Driscoll wrote this comment under the name William Wallace II. Because he never used such language in the light of public, it makes one wonder whether the extremes of his chauvinism were secretly encoded in his public messages.

Wise readers will note that Driscoll does not represent all or most evangelical Christians when it comes to his demeaning views. The fact that a number of his close friends have kicked him out of their church network bears witness to this. But before these comments came out, many of his friends did not take issue with his views about femininity and masculinity. They accepted what he said as biblical. We might never know how much of Driscolls chauvinism has been delivered to his hearers. Perhaps the coded way in which he phrased his words in public disguised the same philosophy he espoused in private, a philosophy that was bizarrely demeaning to women.

I fear that Driscoll’s demeaning view of women opens the door to other things, to various kinds of social, emotional, and physical violence against women. Added to that, his views are an offense against the truth, the truth that women are equally suited to being pastors and theologians. Driscoll’s harmful view toward women is not scientifically or biblically credible. Only the person who wants to be forever ignorant – or who has some sort of a desire to see women marginalized – would sit and learn from men alone. This is not an exaggeration. Driscoll is part of a network of church leaders who do not allow women to teach men theology or scripture. To me that prohibition is so bizarre and inhumane.

Driscoll does not represent the best of religious attitudes toward women. Perhaps he should expose himself to learning from women, of being under their authority. When I was at Gordon Conwell, I had the opportunity to study with some great female scholars, and had numerous conversations with women who were preparing to be pastors and scholars. I can honestly say that the growth I experienced from my conversations with female theologians was the most significant thing I learned at Gordon Conwell. It really is amazing how those conversations formed habits in my soul, habits that led me to ask a lot of questions about the Catholic view on femininity. We can learn from Driscoll’s mistakes so that we do not repeat them.

Why we need more Leading People of Color in the Movies

One of the worst things a movie can be is inauthentic. This is one of the reasons why so many of the so-called Christian movies are not very good, nor are movies that have overt political agendas from either the right or the left. The best movies reflect the difficult ambiguities of real life, what Aristotle called mimesis. And one of the marks of the U.S. cinema in recent years is its inauthenticity with reference to the population of the United States.

The United States is far more dynamic than the movies suggest. In order to be authentic, we would need to see more Asian, Black, and Hispanic leading men and women. Some people might fear that this would lead to the political correctness of the cinema. Perhaps that is a danger. But surely it is possible to hold two things together: (1) more leading roles for people of color and (2) authentic storytelling.

My opinion is that until the U.S. film industry begins to promote more actors of color in leading roles, then there will be an inauthentic strain that runs through its films. I am not merely trying to be politically correct. The goal of film is to capture the truth, to tell a story that portrays the essence and the moment of a particular time and place. So then why are the stars in U.S. films disproportionately white? What we need is more authentic stories that capture the essence of the multicultural time and place in which we live, stories told from the perspective of the various colors and genders represented in this society.

Mark Smith and the Beginnings of Monotheism

I have heard great things about Mark Smith’s historical explorations into the very beginnings of biblical monotheism, but I have not studied his writings in any depth. I can already sense a problem however in his book, a problem that seems common to all historians who have to reconstruct theories in the iron age. The historical reconstructions rest upon small fragments of evidence, lots of intuition, and very small sample sizes. What that means is that “consensus” in this branch of historiography is not as meaningful as consensus in some other branches.

One of the things that history seems to bear out time and time again is that the unfolding of events is often not intuitive. Small changes here could have large ramifications there. One experience of an individual might make him unique in reference to his contemporaries. In short, intuition is often a misleading compass when it comes to the “seemingness” of what could or could not have happened in the life of a person and/or community.


Photo Credit: Wikipedia

How to Affirm Yourself without Being a Nietzschean

Some of us who have read Nietzsche have held secret thoughts of becoming like him, not in the sense of growing out a long mustache and mimicking his gestures, but in affirming ourselves in the way that he does. But there is a problem. His unique manner of self-affirmation is bound up with his philosophy – particularly with his view of truth and the real world, a view which can be summarized as “the celebration of anti-realism as if it were realism.”

There is a distinction, however, that can be made when it comes to self-affirmation. One can at least imagine a different type of self-affirmation, one that is consistent with humility, one that does not require us to write as if we were narcissists (i.e. “I am not a man, I am dynamite.”) In fact, it is possible that the best type of self-affirmation is available for those who have an honest estimate of themselves. But what might this type of self-affirmation look like?

My great hero is Don Quixote, or should I say, one particular interpretation of Don Quixote (a  great thing about Don Quixote is the manifold ways in which he can be understood). I look upon Quixote as a man whose sense of self-affirmation is bound up with the respect he shows other people. To think of the Quixote as an elitist would, on my reading of him, be at most a half-truth.  He was able to esteem in a sincere way many of those who were deemed shameful in his society. And he was unfazed by  the ridicule that was heaped up upon him for living his life in this way.

Of course one could read him in a Nietzschean way, as the celebration of anti-realism as if it were realism, or one could read him in an altogether different way, as celebrating anti-realism because it is more desirable than realism (something odious to the Nietzschean or Platonic spirit I think). But I prefer to read him as a man with a conflicted sense of reality, someone who was aware of the evil aspect of the human character, at least subconsciously, but someone who nevertheless chose to live a life with a sense of dignity for himself and respect for other people.

It is my suspicion that the Nietzschean form of self-affirmation is a type of narcissism.  I admit that I could be mistaken about this claim. But I want to know – honestly and sincerely – how I can live a life of Nietzschean self-affirmation without cultivating a devotion to myself – a cult of Doug whose temple is my mind. I don’t see how it is possible. Self-affirmation that is divorced from a realist notion of the human person (or at least open to the realist notion of the human person) seems to require a denial of the self (i.e. Buddhism) or a self-affirmation that is out of harmony with truth and being (i.e. narcissism).

To me it seems that the best way to affirm ourselves is to do so in a Quixotian way [Note: Quixotian does not equal Quixotic]. We should be happy with ourselves in relation to our pursuit of goodness and in proportion to the respect we give to other people. One enemy of this type of self-affirmation is narcissism – not only the narcissism of Palpatine or Petyr Baelish, but the narcissism of the over scrupulous activist or religionist, the type of person who views himself to alone carry the light of truth and morality, who labels everyone else as idolaters or compromisers, the one whose sense of self-loathing drives him to lock the bathroom door, to curse at his reflection in the mirror, to  mutilate his flesh  with razors, to flog himself while no one is looking with a whip or a belt. [Note: I am not pronouncing judgment on every person who has ever done such things, or even pronouncing judgment on those who view themselves to be the sole torch-bearers of truth. I am speaking to them in love and respect, since I realize that the things that drive people to do such things are often complex, and that it is best to find some way for them to dissolve their self-loathing without disguising it under the veil of activism or religionism.]

In short, perhaps the best way to affirm ourselves is to find a way to truly be humble – to look ourselves in the mirror and to accept ourselves for who we really are. [Note: self-affirmation does not in any way mean to celebrate our vices.] We should question whether our loathing for this or that person is really a form of self-loathing in disguise. To go on a quest for goodness and truth that is at the same time a commitment to respecting other people: this seems to me to be the best way to nurture and care for our souls, to accept ourselves as ourselves, and to affirm what we see in the mirror. The narcissistic form of self-affirmation seems to rest on the unstable ground of falsehood – an imaginary idea of ourselves which is suspended over nothing, destined to fall to the ground and shatter, or else to forever remain a form of escapism.

The man who truly loves himself is the man who does not fancy himself to be the man, the myth, and the legend. Such a person’s sense of worth is bound up with his acceptance by others. But neither does it seem good for our self-worth to be bound up with a denial of ourselves – the no-self doctrine of the mainline Buddhist traditions, whether one takes the no-self doctrine in a realist sense or a therapeutic sense. The best sense of self-worth seems to be bound up with a true estimate of ourselves and other people. To go on a quest to do truly great things, to live a truly great life, these things should be held together with a respect for other people, even when they do not respect us. I call this the Quixotian form of life, all the while acknowledging that my own reading of the Quixote is only one possible reading.


Picture Credit: Wikipedia

My Philosophy of Argumentation

I was driving today on a surprisingly cool summer’s afternoon in Texas, during which time my thoughts turned to the question of arguing. What is the best way to argue? Many people are irenic to those who have power. [Note: we must think carefully about the various ways in which a person can have power.] Quite often however the people who are irenic to people they perceive to have power will be mean spirited or condescending to those without power.

My own approach is to treat all people with respect, to be willing to see the truth in their criticisms of me, even when they are adversarial or condescending. Of course my success rate in this is probably not that great. But I think I am getting better. I think there was some breaking point from me, a moment where I no longer became offended in the face of shameful treatment. I became content to be a Don Quixote type of character.

One of the strategies that I use to be irenic is this: to take philosophy very seriously, but to not take myself very seriously. None of us are oracles channeling pure and unadulterated truth. And if we happen to come to a disagreement with someone, a good thing is just to acknowledge that we have a disagreement with that person on the matter. That sort of attitude I think can help prevent us from judging other people, as if their disagreement with us has sprung from some moral defect in their soul.  Now perhaps there are times when a person will disagree with us due to a moral defect. But I think that we should be somewhat slow to sling that accusation, or to secretly impute that judgment unto them.

So my philosophy is to treat everyone with respect, even those who I don’t perceive have studied a matter as well as I have, to take whatever they say seriously in the chance that they might have something to contribute. And when I fail to be consistent in this practice (which will probably happen from time to time), to not let that inconsistency drive me to abandon the principle of listening to others and treating them with respect, even when they don’t do the same.


Picture Credit: http://www.illusionspoint.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/scary-optical-illusion-12.jpg


Is the Mishnah Philosophy?

One of the claims that Neusner makes in his The Transformation of Judaism is that the Mishnah represents a stage in Judaism on its way to religion, a stage best labeled as philosophy. He thinks that the Mishnah bears more in common with Greek philosophy than it does with religion.

My initial thought about this interpretation of the Mishnah’s relationship to the Gemara is one of skepticism. It is just difficult to believe that things are so neat and tidy. Also, we know that the Mishnah grew out of currents common in second temple Judaism, which doesn’t seem to be philosophy in the sense of Greek philosophy. There would have to be some radical break between the Mishnah and Jewish thought of the second temple period.

Today I read a bit from Mishnah Berakot, which I believe is the beginning of the Mishnah (I might be wrong about that). In the opening part of that Mishnah, the question of the Shema is taken up, specifically at what times during the night and at dawn one should say the Shema. The discussion does not seem to resemble Plato or Aristotle or philosophy in general in the Western tradition. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. But why call it philosophy? Obviously I am only a newcomer to these matters. So I do not want to pronounce judgment either way on Neusner’s thesis.

But if I had to wager a prediction of where my own interpretation most likely will go, it will be this: the Mishnah and the Gemara are both philosophical in some senses and religious in other senses, perhaps in different ways, degrees, and in different layers depending upon the particular text being examined. Overall, however, to call either the Mishnah or the Gemara philosophy is a bit confusing because it is too distinct from the Greek philosophical tradition that was part of the Jewish world of that time.

But I will be keeping my eye on whether or not the Mishnah is indeed more akin to philosophy than religion [Note: Neusner spends a lot of time defining his terms, i.e. religion, philosophy, etc.].


Picture Credit: http://www.abqjew.net/2014_02_01_archive.html


The Paralyzing Thought of Burning Forever

I was reminded by a Muslim friend about the real threat of hell. I have heard a clear presentation of the message of Islam and now I am accountable. But I also know that there is the real prospect that Christianity is true, which means that my soul would be possibly damned if I became a Muslim. Further complicating matters is the belief of many traditional Reformed Christians that those who truly understand the Catholic system of salvation, and yet who seek to be saved in that system, are in real danger of going to hell.

To really ponder hell is a very frightful prospect. Imagine being tortured forever and ever, with no respite. That sounds like a terrible prospect. Unlike many who dismiss the claim as nonsense, I do not have enough confidence to think that such a threat is empty.

If hell does exist, then the wisest thing to do would be to find a way to avoid going there. Now of course I realize that the symbolic descriptions of hell are not necessarily to be taken literally. But all the symbols seem to speak of unparalleled suffering that will last forever. To me that is such a horrendous prospect. But just because it is horrendous does not mean it is false.

The interesting thing however is that it is quite common (dare I say almost universal) for people to have no real sense of fright that they might have chosen the wrong religion or the wrong theology. Christians by an large do not fear the hell of Islam, and vice versa. Rarely do Catholics fear the hell of the Reformed Christians.  Rarely do the Reformed Christians fear the hell of the traditionalist Catholics. And rarely do those who minimize the threat of hell think that they are mistaken to do so, that in fact it should be maximized.

There are a few of us, perhaps, that will always be filled with a sense of horror that we might be wrong, that we might indeed be bound to hell. Sometimes I wonder whether God holds out the worst punishments for those who are worried about going to hell, those who ponder whether their religion is mistaken, those who lack confidence that their system of salvation is the right path. It is at least theoretically possible that God saves pious people from every religion, and that he condemns to hell those who go on a quest to find the true religion, the true God. Of course that is only one theoretical possibility in a sea of other possibilities. And that seems to be the worrisome thing. It is difficult to know which religion, if any, has found the way to avoid hell.

What if you knew that there was a good chance that a viper was somewhere hidden in your room? The fact that the viper could be anywhere is a worrisome thought. Perhaps there is no viper. Perhaps he is out of harm’s way underneath the dresser. But he might also be under the blanket. He might be coiled up in your boot. In a like manner, the threat of hell is very worrisome because we might be wrong about the nature of the threat and how best to escape it.


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Jesus and Jewish Monotheism

One of the questions I return to again and again is the question of early Christianity and its relationship to Jewish monotheism. The term monotheism is of late vintage, the seventeenth century, so it is a worthy question to ask whether the term should even be used to describe Jewish thought during the second temple period. I suspect that in the future there will be a greater outcry against using this term among scholars. Today however it is not a taboo to use the term, and in my view, whatever the preferences are of future scholars, the use of the word “monotheism” (just like the word “Judaism”) will either be fitting or unfitting to ancient Jewish thought depending on how we define the term.

A better strategy might indeed be to ask whether the worship of Jesus and the belief that he was the God of Israel was compatible with the Jewish thought-world of first century Palestine. Again, I think we would have to define the word compatible. If we mean logically compatible, it seems to me that early Christian beliefs/devotion were compatible with second temple Judaism in Palestine. But this is because logical compatibility is not a difficult feat to attain. All you have to do is introduce one distinction that has never been made before and you have created all the room necessary to dissolve any prima facie contradiction. In other words, logical compatibility does not tell us very much about the relationship of one thing to another. We need a broader notion of compatibility to rightly compare early Christian worship/theology to Jewish thought during that time.

Perhaps we should do a thought experiment. Imagine that instead of the earliest Christians worshiping/confessing Jesus as God, they did the same thing with his brothers and sisters. Would it be compatible with ancient Jewish thought to worship/confess five men and women as God? What about thirty men and women as God? What about four hundred men and women as God? Logically all of them are compatible with Jewish monotheism based on the distinctions being made by scholars like Richard Bauckham. For him, the confession that God is one means that there is only one creator. But the confession says nothing about how many persons there are within the creator.

To me, this form of argument is partially right. For the second temple Jews, God’s uniqueness was understood in terms of his uniqueness as creator and sovereign. The question I have is whether this definition is too limited. If you were to survey the Jews in Palestine regarding the question of persons within the Godhead, would they have thought it acceptable to say that there are multiple persons within the Godhead? As much as it seems like the answer would be no, we have to deal with the evidence of Philo of Alexandria. Perhaps he is irrelevant because he is not a Palestinian Jew. We should bear in mind that a distinction might need to be made between an Alexandrian Jew, like Philo, who was steeped in the Greek philosophical currents of that city, and the Jews of Palestine. With that caveat in mind, it is quite striking that Philo had a view of God that bears some resemblance to the monotheism of early Christianity. In particular, Philo had a very complex Logos-theology that could indeed have analogies to the early Christian understanding of Jesus-qua-Logos of God. Both Philo and the earliest Christians seemed to broaden the Shema to include various principles or aspects or hypostases within the one God.

Ultimately, I am not sure whether the worship and ascription of full divinity to Jesus is compatible with how Jews of the second temple period understood the oneness of God. Ultimately, the question does not matter in terms of assessing whether Christianity is true or not, since God could have done something so unique in the life and ministry of Jesus, something that exploded some of the previous Jewish paradigms about God’s oneness. The question is only relevant in so far as it relates to the Jewish understanding(s) of the oneness of God during that time.


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Virtue and Community Affirmation: What is the Relationship?

This chart strikes me as a United States type of reward and punishment system. All cultures need to be evaluated on a case by case basis to see how they express rewards and punishments.

Most people that I have spoken with disagree with me about the way I understand “the life of virtue” in relation to “the life in a community.” It might be because my theory is a bit whacky. Quite often I am fiercely attached to my ideas and only see that some of them are whacky or wrong or misguided in hindsight. Perhaps this is a case in point.

It has seemed to me that the life of virtue is best practiced when one has a sense of belonging to a community. Upon further reflection, it seems that my thinking has been unclear and muddled on this issue.  Perhaps there is some type of distinction that I have failed to make.

I was reading the historian Marshall Hodgson’s magisterial The Venture of Islam a few days ago, and he provoked me to see the distinction that I might need to make on this issue. He spoke about “group commitment.” Perhaps being a good person is impossible without group-commitment (I am making it into a hyphenated word).

But let us explore a thought-experiment. Imagine you were committed to Group A. Now imagine that no one else in Group A was committed to you. Would it be possible to live a good life without the affirmation of anyone else in Group A? Perhaps the answer is yes, if someone from Group B or Group C gives you affirmation. We might imagine some person trapped inside a cult. Everyone in the cult thinks this person is a bad person because he is doubting the cult leader’s proclamations. But then somebody from a different group hears about his plight and gives him affirmation. In this sense, the man slowly moves from Group A into another group, at least in his internal commitments. But what if all the other people from Group A, Group B, and Group C think he is a bad person? What if everyone else from Group A through Group Z think this as well? Could the person live a good life without any affirmation?

Psycologists have long pondered the question of affirmation with reference to human beings. B.F. Skinner and the behaviorists noticed that different animals could be conditioned (trained) to do certain things in a voluntary manner on the basis of rewards or punishment. And many teachers have noticed that rewards or punishments seem to influence the behavior of some of their students. But Skinner and his theory of “Operant Conditioning” has been criticized from numerous angles. His philosophy of mind is open to a major critique, since not all neuroscientists or psychologists believe in the behavioristic presuppositions that underlies Skinner’s theory. But on the other hand it does seem like affirmation and shame are indeed in some way related to one’s sense of worth. Skinner had a predictive hypothesis: reward and punishment do seem to be ordered to modifying behavior in various animals. But his model for why this is the case seems (in my view) to need some modification.

We need to take two things into account (at least). The first is that probabilistic predictions of behavior do not imply that behaviorism is true. Second, human beings need to be contrasted with other animals, because there does seem to be some unique feature of human rationality when contrasted to other animals.

My own view is that rewards and punishment seem to be ordered toward a healthy human life. Those who live a life stripped of all rewards and only receive punishment are in an ill ordered context for their wholeness, which would relate in some way to the intellectual and moral life.

Now very few people live their lives with all punishment and no rewards. The thought-experiment is only to show that the subjective sense of being rewarded or punished does indeed matter when it comes to human wholeness, which would be related in some way to the intellectual and moral life.

So I do not think that group-commitment alone is part of the properly ordered moral and intellectual life. There is a subjective element as well involved, namely the subjective apprehension that one is being rewarded or punished for one’s actions. In other words, the sense of belonging to a community seems to be properly ordered to the life of wholeness.

With human beings this is a very complex matter, because some people have a sense of their own rightness despite being mocked by the majority of their communities. What this suggests is that human beings are not simply behavioristic, that the way they relate to the world is very complex, and cannot be reduced to input and response.That said, we can still speak about contexts that are ordered toward certain results.

These are where my thoughts are at the moment, and they will most likely be revised and perhaps even abandoned as I continue to study these matters. These questions are especially meaningful to me because they bear down on the question of whether the life of philosophy is well ordered toward the life of virtue. The life of philosophy seems ill ordered to a life of belonging to a community.  If this is the case, then it would also seem to follow that the life of philosophy is ill ordered toward virtue. Now perhaps philosophers are unique people in that they have little need for the rewards and punishments of the masses. But if this is the case, then why does the history of philosophy bear witness to the opposite, namely that philosophers seem to be no more immune to the need for rewards and punishments than other people.


Works Consulted: I did a bit of surfing through the internet to see what the main ideas were floating around. I do not endorse necessarily any of these sources, but I include them for the sake of honestly admitting the places I visited and what might or might not have influenced me. Some sources are left out because I did a lot of surfing and reading and was unable to relocate them.

- http://fac.hsu.edu/ahmada/3%20Courses/1%20General%20Psychology/1%20GenNotes/Module%2022.pdf;  http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html; http://yayasanbaik.blogspot.com/2012/03/principle-of-operant-conditioning-from.html;  http://www.education.com/reference/article/operant-conditioning/; about.com

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