Is Free Will an Illusion? March 27, 2012Posted by Matt in books, Free Will.
Tags: choice, free will, philosophy, Sam Harris
1 comment so far
I know I haven’t posted anything substantive in quite some time, so I hope you will bear with me for a bit.
I’m a fan of neuroscientist/philosopher Sam Harris and have been for some time. Over the years I’ve read several of his books: The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape, and I have always come away challenged and maybe even a bit enlightened. He’s a brilliant man and a very good writer, one who makes good use of humor and rarely comes across as condescending, unlike the feeling I’ve had from some of his contemporaries in religious criticism like Richard Dawkins.
I downloaded Harris’s short book, Free Will, a few weeks ago and read through it slowly, taking time to digest his ideas and come to an understanding of his viewpoint, one which was somewhat foreign to me. Having been raised in a Conservative area of the country and having been part of a fundamentalist sort of church for many years, the notion of free will seemed as concrete and real as anything. I had the complete freedom to make conscious choices, whether good or bad.
As Harris says at the beginning of his book:
Most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice.
He then methodically disassembles this notion.
Without going into the details, he tells a true story of two men, career criminals, who murdered an entire family. He then tells of their troubled past, of abuse and psychological disorders and remorse, before making the statement:
Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are. Nor can we account for why we are not like them. As sickening as I find their behavior as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath.
What does this do to the idea of free will then? According to Harris:
Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.
Harris says that the idea of free will is based on two assumptions:
1) That each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past
2) That we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.
And this is just chapter one. Stay tuned for more.
Hemingway for Kids August 8, 2011Posted by Matt in books, family.
Tags: A Farewell to Arms, children, Ernest Hemingway
1 comment so far
I can’t recall exactly how it came up today, but at some point on our ride home from supper with our friends, my oldest daughter and I touched on the subject of one of my favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway. I mentioned how much I loved his novels and she, being the inquisitive sort, asked, “What did he write?”
“Well,” I answered, “he wrote a lot of books. My favorite is The Sun Also Rises, and some of his others are The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Farewell to Arms.
“What are they about?”
The first plot I could remember off the top of my head was A Farewell to Arms, so I launched into a quick summary that would make sense to a fourth grader.
“It’s about a man who gets injured in a war, then sent to the hospital to get better. After a while, he and his nurse fall in love.”
I glance in the rearview mirror and see her nodding along, so I continue.
“He finally gets better and is sent back to the war, but people want to kill him, so he runs away. He meets back with the nurse and they run away together. But she’s pregnant, and when it comes time to have the baby, there are problems and she and the baby die. Then the man walks home in the rain.”
There’s a moment of silence in the car as the description sinks in.
“That’s it?” she asks, incredulous that it could end in that manner. “Are you kidding me? That sounds like the middle of the book, not the end!”
I chuckle a bit, “Yeah, it doesn’t have a happy ending.”
Her mouth is open, aghast that any book could end in such a bleak and, in her view, unsatisfying way. “You got that right!”
Maybe we’ll tackle Faulkner next…
More on Fundamentalism July 18, 2011Posted by Matt in books, Christianity.
Tags: Christianity, fundamentalism, hell and damnation, Sword of the Lord
Our friend Barbara from church loaned me a book yesterday called Sword of Lord that I’ve found to be quite interesting. It’s a memoir of a man who grew up in a fundamentalist church that in many ways mirrors some of the things I remember hearing as a kid-teenager-young adult. Check out this excerpt:
A fundamentalist was set apart from “the world.” We were definitely going to Heaven when we died, and those with different views on Heaven, Hell, God and Satan, sin and salvation were definitely going to Hell, which was more than a shame because Hell involved eternal torment, literal flames, and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Our job was to tell people about Jesus so they could avoid going to Hell. The only way to get saved was to ask Jesus into your heart. Just that one little sentence, spoken sincerely aloud or in your heart, and you were going to be okay forever, headed for Heaven. Most Catholics, however, were going to Hell because they were counting on the Pope or a confession to a priest or the benevolence of Mary or their own good works to save them rather than the blood of Jesus. Communists were going to Hell because they didn’t believe in God at all. Many but not all Democrats were going to Hell, not because they were Democrats but because many of them didn’t believe the Bible or understand the right way to get saved. Most liberals and modernists wre going to Hell for the same reasons. Non-white people generally were going to Hell simply because they were more likely to live in remote, non-Christian places such as Africa, Asia, or South America where they would not hear about Jesus dying for them on the cross and so they would be lost. Virtually everybody in Europe was going to Hell because there were very few genuine Christians in any European country. And it only stood to reason that almost everybody living behind the Iron Curtain in China, the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, or Cuba was going to Hell.
From my limited and immature child’s point of view, Heaven was therefore populated almost exclusively by white people who lived in the United States, along with the original disciples of Jesus, an uncalculated number of genuine Christians who had lived throughout the ages, and many but not all of those mentioned in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Summer Reading May 26, 2011Posted by Matt in books.
Tags: books, looking for suggestions, summer reading
Summer, that wonderful time of long days and inferno-like temperatures, is nearly upon us and with that comes a veritable cornucopia of family happenings. Our oldest daughter, Rachel, will be spending a week at an Episcopal Church camp, we’ll no doubt be doing various activities around the city of Memphis, I’ll be gardening like a madman, and in June we will be spending a week in sunny Southern California. The months ahead will no doubt be busy ones, but there is one thing I can always find time for amid the hubbub of life beneath the glaring Southern sun – reading.
At the beginning of this year I set a goal for myself to read 60 books by December 31 and so far I have kept to the schedule pretty well, having finished 25 works to date. Currently I am reading Percy Jackson & the Olympians Book 2: The Sea of Monsters (a fun, light read that our 8 year old loved) and N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, but I have come upon a dilemma. What should I plan on reading this summer? Granted, we will probably pick up the remaining Percy Jackson books and I will dutifully read them once Rachel finishes, but I’m not sure where to go next. I have a pile of unread and unshelved books in my bedroom floor from various book sales over the past few months that are certainly strong contenders, but my choice remains undecided.
So, I turn to you. What books to you recommend I read this summer?
Quoting Vonnegut May 18, 2011Posted by Matt in books.
Tags: Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, quote
add a comment
From Cat’s Cradle:
And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”
It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it:
My New Toy October 28, 2010Posted by Matt in books.
Tags: birthday present, Kindle
For my birthday about two weeks ago I received a little money and an Amazon gift certificate, so after only a few moments of thought, I figured out what I would purchase for my gift: a Kindle.
I’m pretty excited about having it and each of the last two nights I’ve stayed up late to play with it and download as many free books as I could. I love the idea of being able to carry books with me in such a compact package and I’m very pleased with the screen. Do any of you have one? What do you think of it?
Our oldest daughter, Rachel, is already in love with it too. She started reading The Wizard of Oz (pictured above) on it yesterday and could hardly put it down.
Reflections on Bishop Spong and Nontheism, Part 3 October 1, 2010Posted by Matt in books, Christianity.
Tags: A New Christianity for a New World, Bishop Spong, gospel as Jewish liturgy, Jesus, Mark, mythology, Nontheism, Q, theism
add a comment
So, the question must now be asked: Can we tell the Christ story apart from the concept of a theistic God? According to Bishop Spong, “We can and we must.”
But, in this new paradigm of thought the role of Jesus has surely changed. If the idea of a supernatural being that lives beyond the sky and invades life periodically to accomplish a divine purpose is no longer a possibility for modern people, then, in Spong’s words, we must “acknowledge that Jesus understood as the incarnation of the theistic deity is equally without a future.” Thus, the Jesus stories of a virgin birth and supernatural miracles become an earthly portrait of a theistic God in human form and these theistic claims can be seen as ones that grew over time.
To delve further into this idea, Spong looks into the Christian scriptures in the order in which they were written. Thus, he begins with the writings dated to the mid-1st century, just two decades or so after the time of Jesus, the much theorized about Q document (Spong shares a method for distilling the contents of Q that I’m not going to go into except to say that it comes from the shared sayings found in Matthew and Luke), the embattled Gospel of Thomas, and the letters of Paul.
Upon examining Q and Thomas, neither of which contain the divine birth, death, or miracle narratives, one will find that Jesus was a wise man and great teacher, but not divine. Paul likewise does not make mention of the birth narrative or miracle stories, but he does have references to the resurrection story. (*Note: In my opinion, Spong’s logic in explaining these away is tenuous at best and to my mind amounts to little more than quibbling over details, but this is his book.) Thus, in Paul, we find little of the theistic framework and the imposed supernaturalism present in later writings, yet it is apparent that God was “powerfully present in Christ.” Spong suggests that Paul, who was not familiar with the later developing incarnational and trinitarian language of theism, claimed that Jesus acted as more of a conduit for a God-experience to the people.
The first of the Gospels to be written was Mark (65-75 CE) and by that time the theistic interpretation of God was becoming more widespread. Due to its omission, the miraculous birth story may not have been concocted at this time, but Mark clearly perceived a God-presence, poured on him at his baptism, in the person of Jesus.
His resurrection story is also one that can be confusing when looked at in this light, for, to many scholars, the book’s original ending takes place with the women finding the empty tomb, then fleeing and saying “nothing to anyone.” Spong and other referenced scholars believe that this ending to the book was found to be untenable in a time of supernatural and theistic imagery, so an additional ending was added later to incorporate these ideas.
One of the most interesting ideas to me was Spong’s declaration that “we can detect in Mark the influence of Jewish synagogue worship,” that the events recorded in the book directly correlate with the Jewish liturgical calendar. If we begin with the crucifixion at the end of the book (14:1-15:42), which took place at Passover, and work backwards, we can see how the book seems to conform with the Jewish holidays. For instance, the Transfiguration is placed by Mark in the point of the calendar known as the Festival of Dedication, in which the light of God was restored to the temple – this is especially interesting if one dates Mark after the AD70 destruction of the Temple. Next on the liturgical calendar is the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish harvest festival, which coincides with Jesus telling harvest parables and demonstrating power over nature (4:1-42). Following that in our move back is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at which point in the gospel Jesus is healing the sick, forgiving sins, calling Matthew to discipleship, and talking of fasting. The last stop on the calendar for this purpose is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in which people are called to an expectation that the kingdom of God is at hand and they are urged to repentance, which directly correlates to the message of John the Baptist, who could even be seen as a human shofar, announcing the coming kingdom of God. Thus, Spong makes the case that Mark is a Jewish liturgical text, not a history book or biography.
To sum up, Spong says,
The earliest witnesses to Jesus – Paul, perhaps Q and Thomas, and Mark – portray a Jesus whose life has not yet been squeezed into the theistic mold. Yet it is a Jesus who is seen as a God-presence, a life through whom God is seen. That is the experience we need to embrace. Jesus was a human life through which people experienced the presence of God, and this experience is documentable prior to the time when the later theistic explanations were laid upon him. The theistic explananations can be set aside, as indeed they have been in our generation, but the experience can remain intact.
Reflections on Bishop Spong and Nontheism, Part 2 September 29, 2010Posted by Matt in books, Christianity.
Tags: A New Christianity for a New World, Bishop Spong, Ground of Being, Nontheism, source of life, source of love
I wrote in the last entry about the supposed death of theism and the rise of a new spiritual form that Bishop Spong calls nontheism. As we delve a bit deeper in the religious rabbit hole, we will come into contact with ideas that may be foreign to our thinking, but still decidedly God-centered.
For centuries, great Christian thinkers have attempted to describe/define God within the parameters of theism. Yet, the question must be asked: Is it possible to define this presence that we know as God? Bishop Spong answers this question with an emphatic no. Any attempt to define God is only a human creation, something designed to control the trauma of self-consciousness. Our language has its limits, so the infinite God lies beyond its ability to define, but though It is beyond definition, God can be experienced. To be clear, this experience is not akin to the Experiencing God workbook you can pick up at the local Lifeway. It is something other. The death of theism takes us beyond the supernatural God ready to take care of people and leave them in a permanent state of passive dependency, and instead takes a step toward maturity.
To take it a step further, theological attempts to describe and define God could even be seen as a form of idolatry. It is interesting that the Jewish people were not even allowed to speak the holy name of God. In their view, to be able to name something was to know it, to have power over it, and to define it, all of which could never been done to the Jewish God. Bishop Spong puts it this way:
No human words, no human explanations, will ever capture the essence of God. We surely ought to be suspicious of the fact that the theistic God we have defined so precisely is said to have the primary vocation to care for, watch over, and meet the needs of the very creatures who defined this God. When the ultimate result of the worship of the God that we have defined is to make us – the definers – feel good about our human situation, we must suspect ourselves of self-serving motives.
Yet, as human beings, we only have human words to talk of God with. Spong suggests that we do away with the long-used language that makes God into a being (in our image?) and realize that the only way to approach speaking of God can be through analogy, through the use of abstract ideas, even though that can also never truly encapsulate it. In this, even the Bible itself becomes a product of human beings, earnestly trying to understand the Divine. Thus, in Spong’s view, we must move beyond this belief that the Bible is the source of theistic revelation, that it is perfect, absolute, and inerrant, for these ideas can turn even it into an idol.
So, can one experience God without being able to define God?
Bishop Spong describes God in three abstract terms. First among these is that God is the source of life. Though ancient Israel certainly saw God in tribal, theistic terms, as a deity who punished and rewarded like a parent and child, beneath the literal words it can be seen that God and life were not separate. As Spong says,
God was seen as the source of life – the depth, the meaning, and the experience of life. If one has the eyes to see beneath the text, the external God of theism was, even for the Jews, but a vehicle to invite people beyond their usual limitations into a recognition of their unity with each other, and the mutuality of their dependence on each other. Theism was part of the tribal call for members to step beyond their individuality into the experience of life itself, with its ever-widening, ever-expanding consciousness. The theistic God was a human symbol for the divine depth of life, that vast consciousness which we encounter in the center of life and to which we can contribute, when our lives expand or when we are able to expand the lives of others.
Thus, stepping beneath the text and beyond the boundaries of Israel’s tribalism, we see that God is the ultimate source of life. Worship for this God is done by living fully, by sharing deeply.
Secondly, Spong describes God as the ultimate source of love. In order to experience God, we must step beyond the boundaries of our own narcissistic love. As Spong says, we have “to love for love’s sake, not for our sake.” We must be able to expand the boundaries of our love beyond our friends and family, beyond our nation, until it encompasses all of humanity, because all carry with them a piece of God’s divine nature. Walls must be torn down, between races, religions, and those of differing sexual orientations. This all-encompassing love is described in the book in this way:
In that process of coming to know that which we name as divine, the God who is love is slowly transformed into the love that is God – boundless, eternal, passing beyond every limit and calling us to follow this love into every crevice of creation. We journey into this God by being absorbed into wasteful, expansive, freely given love. The more we enter and share this love, the more our lives are opened to new possibilities, to the sacredness of others, to a limitless transcendence.
Thus, if God is the ultimate source of love, one worships God by loving wastefully, spreading love frivolously, and giving love away without heed for the cost.
Third, Spong describes God as Being – the reality underlying everything that is. Note that this is not God as a being, the description often given to the theistic God, but rather as the source of all being. He points to the story of the burning bush, in which Moses asks God, “What is your name?” and God answers, “I am who I am.” Perhaps this was the early biblical writer’s way of describing God as the Ground of all Being, the source of all Being. As humans, we have the attribute of being within us. Spong says,
It is a characteristic of our human life that we cling to our being with an intensity that befits the profound struggle that all creatures have endured through the billions of years of history. The evolutionary pathway has been a journey from single-celled life to the complexity of self-conscious humanity, with its ability to know transcendence. Yet look at what our self-aware but fragile humanity, so desperately seeking the bondage of security, does with the gift of being. We take that precious but fragile gift and surround it with all of our defenses. We clutch it tightly. We try to protect it from all encroachments. We need to recognize that being is not a gift that can be embraced and preserved or even held in perpetuity. Protected being is dying being. Unrisked being can never become expanded being. The only thing one can do with being is to give it away.
Thus, to worship the God who is the Ground of all Being, one must be willing to risk all, to abandon their defenses and their security systems. It is to be all you can be, to stretch beyond your limits, to step beyond the survival mode of our evolutionary history and live for others.
It is these steps, to live fully, to love wastefully, and to be all we can be, that will bring us into the experience of God, the Ground of All Being, that will allow us to transcend this life into a life of oneness, with each other and with the Divine. The death of theism is not something to be mourned, for it ushers in a new spiritual maturity, one in which God is no longer an outside, parental force, but is now “at the very heart of life.”
To be continued…
Reflections on Bishop Spong and Nontheism, Part 1 September 28, 2010Posted by Matt in books, Christianity.
Tags: A New Christianity for a New World, Bishop Spong, death of theism, god, human condition, Nontheism
I recently read the book A New Christianity for a New World by John Shelby Spong and within its pages I found both reasons to rejoice for finding a somewhat kindred soul and reasons to reflect on my own faith and ideas about humanity and God. There are two major themes in the book, the first dealing with what he terms the “Death of Theism” and the second on building a new vision of Christianity in a post-modern, post-theist world. It is a brilliant book in many ways that disturbs and challenges the reader to closely examine the paradigm of belief in which they reside and to perhaps return with some unconventional conclusions.
Bishop Spong defines the term theistic God as such: a being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will. This description of God, according to Spong, is dead. To further this idea, he looks at the roots of theism and the human knowledge in today’s world, coming to the conclusion that the two viewpoints are incongruous.
In the modern world we have a wealth of scientific knowledge as well as an awareness of things going on outside of our small sphere of influence, and these have greatly contributed to the supposed death of theism. The scientific world no longer sees God in terms of a chain of cause and effect. We know that sickness is not a reflection of God’s judgment, but that it is the result of germs, viruses, etc. Our knowledge of weather patterns, fronts, and other meteorological phenomena show us that harsh weather (droughts, floods, tornadoes, etc.) is not an expression of divine will, it is explainable. The security-producing role attributed to God (God will take care of you) only works until it doesn’t, and when that happens one’s faith is either destroyed or one is forced to perform theological acrobatics to retain their worldview.
Spong carries on the discussion by visiting the distant past, saying
For literally hundreds of millions of years, most of the living creatures who inhabited this planet were born, lived, and died with no conscious awareness of themselves. They simply passed through billions of life cycles, guided by biological instinct and environmental necessity in an apparently endless wheel of fortune, without any need, desire, or ability to raise questions of either mortality or purpose.
At some point self-awareness came into being and with that, “the trauma of self-consciousness,” as Sigmund Freud put it. Perhaps this is the manifestation of the “image of God” bestowed upon humankind in the creation myth of Genesis. As this realization of mortality grew, the early humans were gripped with anxiety. The relative shortness and uncertainty of human life became existential realities that could be thought of abstractly and anticipated consciously. So, with this realization, a need to find meaning, permanence, and stability in a chaotic world was born. This self-awareness and consequential anxiety compose what is known as the human condition.
Spong then goes through a series of subconscious statements that may have plagued the early humans as they came to grips with the trauma of self-realization.
“I am self,” was the first definition of self consciousness. This then led to,
“Perhaps I am not alone,” the conclusion reached by newly self-conscious being when it viewed the world as an objective other for the first time. Next, they said,
“Perhaps these powerful forces can be made to work for me or at least not against me.” Then, going a bit farther,
“Perhaps these powers are benevolent. Maybe they desire to help, watch over and protect me.”
Thus, the God understood theistically was a human definition, not a divine revelation.
Today, in Spong’s thinking, the theistic God is dead, run through by the sword of knowledge, but of course the human condition persists. The hysteria accompanying self-awareness and the anticipation of mortality continue to plague humans. This leads to a variety of reactions, from our Western dependence on drugs, a classification that could include something relatively benign like caffeine, something potentially destructive like alcohol, or even the rampant use of anti-depressants as prescribed by doctors, to the violent outbursts so often reported on today’s newscasts, to the rabid Christian fundamentalism shrilly proclaiming and condemning in pulpits across America.
With numbers declining and the world rapidly changing around them, Christianity stands at a crossroads. Theism is dying and atheism is an unfulfilling option, so perhaps there is another way – and that is just what Bishop Spong attempts to hash out in this book. He ends this section with what he calls the “profoundly religious questions of the new millennium.”
Is it not a possibility worth pursuing that our very self-consciousness might be the means by which our lives could opened to nontheistic dimensions of our existence, even nontheistic definitions of God?
Could not our growing self-consciousness also enable us to relate to that in which our being is grounded, that which is more than who we are and yet part of who we are?
Could we not begin to envision a transcendence that enters our life but also calls us beyond the limits of our humanity, not toward an external being but toward the Ground of All Being including our own, a transcendence that calls us to a new humanity?
Is there not a new maturity that can be claimed by human life when we cease the search for a supernatural being who will parent us, take care of us, watch over and protect us?
Is there not a new human dignity that can be found in the rejection of those groveling patterns of our past through which we attempted to please the theistic deity in the early years of evolutionary history?
In place of that groveling, are we not now able to open ourselves in new ways to discover the Ground of Being that is met and known in the self that is emerging as expanded consciousness?
I’ll tell more about his ideas later as I have time.
Read a Banned Book September 27, 2010Posted by Matt in books.
Tags: Banned Books week, challenged books list
add a comment
In case you didn’t realize it, this is Banned Book Week, a time that celebrates the various attempts by people to have various books removed from libraries and schools. To see a list of some challenged books from the past year, along with the circumstances from each situation, check out this site.
Sure, it might seem reasonable that some titles listed in the above list, like the Lesbian Kama Sutra (no joke), should be somewhat restricted, but the general practice of banning books is both ignorant and counter productive. Among those that people sought to have banned in the past 12 months are classics like To Kill a Mockingbird (which makes the list every year), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and The Complete Stories of Ernest Hemingway.
One of my favorite descriptions on the list is a book called Baby Be-Bop by Francesca Lia Block. According to the site, four Wisconsin men belonging to the Christian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU) sought $30,000 apiece for emotional distress they suffered from the West Bend, Wis. Community Memorial Library for displaying a copy of the book. The claim states that
“specific words used in the book are derogatory and slanderous to all males” and “the words can permeate violence and put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”
You can see a list of other classic books that have been challenged in the past here.