Wednesday, December 11, 2019

a community of concentric circles

In this age, the community of the messiah exists in concentric circles. The outer circle (circulus ad extra) is porous and visible to the world. The inner circle (circulus ad intra) is nonporous and impenetrable. The outer circle is the visible people of the messiah "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets," the Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church. The inner circle is the elect "chosen in him before the foundations of the world." And, as in Jesus's parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13.24-30), "both of them grow together until the harvest."

It is easy to enter the outer circle. No one can forbid it. One is born into it or one bids for membership out of personal desire or in response to an invitation. And there is a liturgical sign of entry. In Deuteronomy 28:9, directly after God says "The Lord will establish you as his holy people," he commands circumcision as a visible token of membership. Male babies were to be circumcised shortly after birth, and through them, the nation is circumcised. Circumcision was replaced by baptism in the Messianic, New Testament community. Members of the circle have public access to the benefits of the community.

It is impossible, by human effort, to enter into the inner circle (see Opening a Closed Circle, 83). Its members are elect by God. The language and benefits of the community are reserved for and active in the elect alone. They are the invisible community of the inner circle "born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." The inner circle is the church militant (Ecclesia militans). It is the burning bush in which God dwells by the Spirit and every man, woman, and child is on fire.

It is impossible and evil to fix another's place on the inner or outer circle, aside from their making an overt declaration. And it can be challenging, in the day to day, to know where to place oneself.

This post is a work in progress.
Its existence is to be a short, model ecclesiology,
 combining my model of "Saint Augustine's church",
 something on the two sacraments, and election.

Monday, November 18, 2019

A Response to C. S. Lewis's lecture "The Inner Ring"

A coworker named Greg asked me to respond to C. S. Lewis's lecture "The Inner Ring." I've touched on this lecture before in "Blue Longing or Yellow Laziness." Nevertheless, that post is only about private revelation. There is more to say. Pattern 83, Opening a Closed Circle, might also play an oblique role.


Hi, Greg,

Thank you for asking me about C. S. Lewis's lecture "Inner Ring." I ran across it first some time ago, and it stayed. Perhaps it is the frankness of his admission of how deeply this principle winds its way in human society and through the human heart. How many of our actions and thoughts are governed by it, this desire to be included and to avoid the terror of alienation? How powerfully this need affects ethics and politics. What would it be like to be truly free of it?

I can almost see to responding with a kind of personal, abbreviated Republic or Utopia. But pure politic is not on my mind. Instead, I wonder how Lewis's inner ring affects us in our relationship to God and in the realm of spiritual practice? Isn't Luther's great insight a hammer beating against the inner ring of Roman Catholic soteriology? It is probably best to defer dogma to Luther and the Magisterial Reformers. What I'm after is contemporary spiritual practice or habit as we find it in our days. And here there are three ways that I see working our human cravenness for the inner ring.

The first involves one of Christianity’s ancient enemies, Gnosticism. Gnosticism needs an inner ring. It promises salvation for anyone who enters its inner ring. Simply do this or that and one obtains the secret, the inner knowledge, one arrives or, in classical Gnosticim, one ascends beyond the flesh into the true realms of mind and spirit. This impulse is the religious impulse of the natural human being. It is idolatry’s lure.

The second involves private interpretations of scripture or revelations from God. To my mind, these play at a Christian variant of Gnosticism. God speaks especially to me. I am the recipient of private revelation. Or, applied to scripture, God made this scripture mean this particular thing to me. This is caricatured in the flop and drop joke about a man who opens his Bible and reads, “Judas went and hanged himself,” and, randomly opening his Bible again, reads “Go and do likewise.” More broadly, though, I think of the rising popularity of lectio divina.

There are various descriptions of lectio divina, but the generality is the same: one reads scripture slowly in a meditative and prayerful frame of mind, asking the Holy Spirit to speak through the text. The idea is that one reads the text and is open to words jumping out, phrases that want repeating, tugs at the heart. These, it is said, are the Spirit. One concentrates on these. At this point, some say that the point of such concentration (some use the word "eating the scripture") is to simply remain in the presence of God. Others say the point is to gently bring such Spirit-highlighted phrases or words to bear on one's life. This second option is what disturbs me.[1]

This kind of lectio divina, which looks for personal meaning in the texts, is a ring-writing practice. It is absolutely singular and individual from beginning to end. One desires a particular subjectivity unique and private and apart. Read another way: one takes a public, common text inspired by the Spirit through the church in the particulars of historical culture, personality, and context, and one makes it a Great Book of the Self, ignoring the entire tradition of reading, ignoring all historical context, and going so far as to ask the Spirit to treat the grammar and syntax of the words differently and to gurgle private unction like a hidden spring into the well of your mind, a second method of inspiration very different from the first. Such is a mysticism of the worst kind.

The third thing that comes to my mind is the false use of judgment by the churches to create “pure” spaces—perhaps this is one under the label of eschewing sin or particular sins. “My church does not accept people who sin in way x. But we do readily encourage people who routinely commit sins y and z. People who sin in way x will experience private judgment and public/pulpit condemnation. People who sin in forms y and z will be overlooked, excused, or made officers and put in charge of committes.”

Lewis expands on this point as follows--note my italics:

And you will always find them hard to enter, for a reason you very well know. You yourself, once you are in, want to make it hard for the next entrant, just as those who are already in made it hard for you. Naturally. In any wholesome group of people which holds together for a good purpose, the exclusions are in a sense accidental. Three or four people who are together for the sake of some piece of work exclude others because there is work only for so many or because the others can’t in fact do it. Your little musical group limits its numbers because the rooms they meet in are only so big. But your genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion. There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.

I have been thinking about this for a number of years—the free way that we understand the work of the church largely as one of judgment, of line drawing, of forming circles of ins and outs. Lewis plainly says that this judgment-as-people-define-it exists for the sake of exclusion. I don’t think this is the work of the church—exclusion. But I do wonder how we can understand the Great Commission apart from excluding tendencies. Once I baptize a man or disciple a woman, aren’t they automatically forming an inner ring? I believe that the answer is a hard won no. By this I mean that one would think the answer is yes, but in typical God fashion, the church is asked to buck our natural tendency and break the circle and remain no despite one’s differences, similar to the way Paul’s strong and weak or James’s rich and poor are commanded to ignore such differences and partake of a common eucharistic meal.[2]

The triune God scandalously eschews an inner ring. Of all that exists, surely the Godhead would be right to keep its own fellowship, it own perichoretic dance of pure bliss. But it does not. God has opened the circle for love's sake. God is on mission. And so, the gospel message is freely spread to everything. Whoever wants can hear the word preached. Whoever wants can take up or Google scripture at any time and, in the phrasing of this week’s collect, “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” Gnosticism has no place here. And there is no private interpretation of scripture: one interprets as a member of the community as it is spread across the ages in time and space. There is no private revelation, for, as Jesus said in the parable, “they have Moses and the prophets. They should listen to them.”

If someone wishes to practice lectio divina, let them first do the hard work of exegesis. Let them practice lectio scriptura. Let them struggle with grammar, syntax, culture, idiom, and all that goes under the names hermeneutics and historiography. Let them do that and then, by all means, lectio divina as you will. But now one is working in the context of the interpreting community. (I still don't trust lectio divina because of its desire to get around the Spirit's initial method of inspiration and adopt something much more akin to the way pagans seek messages from the gods, but at least the worst sins of lectio divina are kept in check by its better educated elder brother.)

So then, struggling against the human tendency to close rings at every point of difference, Christians hold the doors open. By means of humility, they exclude no one. Lewis’s almost maudlin phrase (to modern ears) is “if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like.” Today, we hear a phrase like that and think this is exactly what jocks, white supremacists, and shady members of mob families do. But Lewis meant simply being open to like and to befriend any person regardless of what ring they are or aren’t in. The church is commanded to be open like this. It is commanded and allowed in this manner to be and become a gathering of friends, a community, a family.

Allow me to now proffer a hypothesis and say, What if only God can do the judging? Isn't it so that God's manner of judging is radically other than what we expect. With the scripture, we see that it is different and surprising. And with scripture, may it even be offensive? I hypothesize and say that God is judging the world in the work of the church, but connotatively. That is, in a manner that is not well understood by the church, probably misunderstood by the church, and is wholly outside of its ability. Indeed, doesn't scripture forbid people from assuming they can definitely say who is out and who is in? (Can we always judge rightly even about ourselves?) Perhaps the church is busy with hospitality and the Spirit is busy with the work of judging--whatever that is. I do not think human beings can well define that word. As J. R. R. Tolkien's Gandalf says to Frodo in the dark of Moria, "Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends."

Moving on then, Lewis’s last paragraph suggests the human craving for inclusion in inner rings derives from a deep longing for the gospel--being included in God's inner ring. If you are always trying to satisfy your own desires for inclusion (“them ask asks shan’t have”), you’ll forever be disappointed. But, he says, if one asks after Jesus’s command to “ask the Father,” then one is put on a new road which “lies quite in another direction.” And then Lewis talks about Alice’s house. Alice steps through a mirror in her house into the reflected “her house” which exists in Wonderland. This is exactly the sort of thing that Lucy, Edmond, and Eustace discover in the painting of a Narnian ship that comes to life in Eustace’s house and sucks them all into Narnia in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. What one is looking for is already there, but one has to have eyes to see it. One has to step through a looking glass into a place that looks the same but is in another world entirely.

Thus, the whole lecture is contained in Jesus’s teaching that in the Kingdom the last shall be first and the first, last. By giving upon one’s self-striving for being first, and by embracing the humility of last, one finds a community of friends and steps through the mirror into the Narnia that calls, always calls, from the center of every human heart.


1. The use of a text to quiet the mind so that one can be silent, reverent, and attentive to the encompassing presence of God is one of the deepest chambers of Christian meditative practice. All lectio divina--even this type--is governed by lectio scriptura; Buddhist and other practices of emptying the mind of illusions in an effort to find enlightenment is not what this is. The silence of Christian contemplation is obedient to scriptures such as "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth" (Ps. 46.10) and "The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him." (Hbk 2.20). The Habakkuk text is especially helpful as it contrasts this silence with the dead silence of the idols in verses 18 and 19.

2. In the post "Some Changes Affected By Sacramental Theology," I raise the question of whether the inclusion of a proper sacramental theology in one's ecclesiology doesn't serve a deeply irenic purpose as a bay leaf blunts bitterness in a stew.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Hurtado on the dogmatic origins of the Qu'ran and the Gospels

In a post on October 22 of this year, Larry Hurtado put into words something I've been chewing on for a while about dogma behind why Christians and Muslims treat their scriptures differently.
[The] traditional Muslim view of the Qur’an is widely different from the way that traditional Christians view their scriptural texts such as the Gospels. In traditional Muslim belief, the Qur’an is a miracle, the direct speech of Allah, and has been preserved miraculously down the ages with scarcely a variant. In contrast, in traditional Christian belief, the biblical writings are the products of human beings, “inspired” by God to write their texts. But the texts in question are the words of those human authors. That is, the biblical texts partake of the various historical circumstances in which they were written, edited, and copied. So, as with any text transmitted by hand, these writings have been subject to the vicissitudes of that historical process, and, therefore, textual criticism of these texts is essential to try to establish the most reliable form/wording of them. A vast amount of scholarly effort over a few centuries now has been given to setting these texts in their historical context, and to tracing how they have been transmitted through to the invention of the printing press.

But an equivalent scholarly effort to trace the origins and transmission of the Qur’an is still, by comparison, in its infancy. And a good part of the reason for this is deep opposition from Muslims who regard any such critical inquiry to be . . . well, almost blasphemous. So, it’s hardly a level playing field when Muslim and Christian apologists engage matters. Muslim apologists are impressively keen to follow critical investigation of the biblical texts such as the Gospels, but (as I know from personal experience) are reluctant to engage in, or even allow, such critical inquiry about the Qur’an. Indeed, I was told years ago by a Western scholar of Islam that one just didn’t explore certain questions, particularly about the textual transmission of the Qur’an.

Even the historical processes involved in the transmission of the Qur’an and the Gospels differ. From a very early point, Muslim rulers (such as Caliph Uthman in the late seventh century) took an interest in establishing a stable Qur’anic text, as part of their aim to standardize Islam, and consolidate their rule. But early Christian rulers such as Constantine showed no equivalent effort. Again, the reason partly lies in the different views of the respective sacred texts. And also, of course, from practically the outset, Islam was wedded to political regimes, where for the first three centuries the Christian movement was not.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Romping Around in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics

It behooves anyone wishing to think well to consult chiefly with the most original and influential voices. Aristotle is one of these. Though he lived centuries before the codex, beforen the crucifixion, before Caesar’s crossing, his work was foundational for shaping the Greek mind. He got in early. But he wasn’t just lucky, he was also a polymath—a man whose questions were too loud and of too great a variety for him to ignore. And it did not hurt that he came from money.

The ancient world was as interested in self-help and success as we are today. So it is no surprise that Aristotle wrote three works on ethics, which for him meant not how to live but what is the best way of living. The most influential of these is called the Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter, the Ethics). Since its publication sometime after 335 BC, it has been loved, hated, reviled, annotated, misappropriated, memorized, cut-and-pasted, highlighted, sold, resold, reprinted, retranslated, shipped, and, yes, slowly and silently, in shops and on planes and on boats and in libraries, dorm rooms and kitchens and bedrooms (and bathrooms aplenty) it has been read. And it should be read.

The big ideas of the Ethics are the mean, friendship, and the happy life. But those all presume a certain kind of person. The Ethics requires its protagonist to be a certain kind of human being whom Aristotle calls a good person, e. g. “the good man’s view is the true one.” A good person acts well for the sake of good acting. Such goodness is not necessarily moral, as we understand that word today. Think, rather, rightness or fitness, as in the right thing done or said at the right time. A good person reads the room and considers what they do or say. And, more broadly, a good person knows their place on earth and under heaven. Happiness or εὐδαιμονία is the result, a well-ordered life lived well.

“We ought, so far as in us lies, to put on immortality and do all we can to live in conformity with the highest that is in us; for even if it is small in bulk, in power, and in preciousness, it far excels all the rest. Indeed, it would seem that this is the true self of the individual, since it is the authoritative and better part of him; so it would be an odd thing if a man chose to live someone else’s life instead of his own.” (1178a)

Simply knowing the what of a thing or the how to of a thing is not enough. Technique and technology cannot deliver the happy life any more than an answer, no matter how correct, truly comprehends its question. Act without understanding is the way of the sophist. Aristotle says, “We do not find people becoming qualified in medicine by reading handbooks.” One must live their life. One must enter in to it, in all its complexity, and by effort and action; by dialog, education, and contemplation; by love, friendship, and association, and with a bit of luck and talent, one discovers what it is to be a human being. No shortcuts.

Now, what is life without friendship? Thus, Aristotle’s chapters nine and ten on the kinds and grounds of friendship have forever been beloved. “Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things,” he says. For “friends are a help both to the young, in keeping them from mistakes, and to the old, in caring for them and doing for them what through frailty they cannot do for themselves; and to those in the prime of life, by enabling them to carry out fine achievements. Between friends there is no need for justice. [So, then,] good men and friends are the same.” (1155a)

It is worth noting that Aristotle encompasses in the word friendship much more than we do today. For us, friendship is an affection between people who are otherwise unrelated. Married people will sometimes call their partner their best friend, true. But we would not call business relationships, local governance, or the bond between parent and child friendship. Aristotle’s friendship has the generality of friendliness without the superficiality of a greeting on the street. It is stronger stuff. It is the “bond that holds communities together.” Nevertheless, Aristotle begins to divide friendship into types almost immediately. What at first he lathered indiscriminately becomes a sorting of the most discriminate sort.



Quotations from Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. trans. J. A. K. Thomson. Introduction by Jonathan Barnes. New York: NY. Penguin Classics. 2004.

Working Outline of this Post for Use and (later) Deletion

We should read good things, and Aristotle is one of those.
Aristotle wrote on Ethics.
It is going to help us out.

Presumption of a Good Character
The happy life
Friendship and Politics "Right virtues without right social practice is meaningless."
The Mean

Can we be good without others?

Saturday, September 21, 2019

on panentheism

Christian metaphysics, or perhaps generally just philosophy of religion, is concerned with questions of whether god exists, of how god exists in such-and-such a way should there be a god, and about how such a god might be related to the world. Panentheism falls into this last question, as does pantheism and theism. Panentheism is a compromise between the other two. That is clear. And do any reading in contemporary theology. In Pannenberg. In Moltmann. In Polkinghorn. In Tanner. One runs into the term. It seems contemporary and trendy. But what is it?

Panentheism, a word derived from the Greek πᾶν ἐν θεῷ, begins in Ancient Neoplatonism (from Heraclitus to Plotinus) and comes up through Spinoza's Deus siva Natura to arrive in contemporary western theology in the process theologies of A. N. Whitehead Process and Reality and Charles Hartshorne The Divine Relativity. (The term was coined by Prussian philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause in 1832 to distinguish between the cosmologies of Hegel, Schelling, and Spinoza.) Panentheism posits that all that exists is in God and is part of God without ontological distinction, and yet, God has a unity and identity of his own distinct from that of his finite parts. It reminds me of emergence. There is a connection, but not an identity. God lives his own life, yet he lives it in and through the cosmos. The world is God’s body, and we ourselves are parts of God. Our experiences are God’s experiences. God is, to quote Whitehead, “the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands.”

Panentheism retains many of the religious resources of theism even as it criticizes theism’s separation between God and the world. William Hasker says, “Panentheism acknowledges that certain aspects of God’s being are unchangeable, but it stresses God’s involvement in temporal processes in a way that is mean to correct what is felt to be classical theism’s overemphasis on the immutability of God.” Where theism stresses the self-sufficiency of God from creation and characterizes their relationship as totally one-sided, panentheism says God and the world are interdependent. The god of panentheism is deeply involved in the world.

So, why choose panentheism? I can see two reasons. First, panentheism is friendly to scientific materialism and philosophies of science. But, at the same time, it can raid the cookie jar of theism. The second reason is existential: what is good for you is good for god. You can be a panentheist and follow New Thought, management-positive-thinking-optimism books at the office. There is a deep optimism in panentheism. Panentheists aren't judging anyone. And a panentheist can affirm wildly different expressions of religions with no problem.

For the Christian theologian, though, there are problems. Consider panentheism’s identification of godself with the world. If God came to earth to save sinners, then was God’s being damned? And is God quite literally saving himself? If we "fall short of the glory of God," then hasn't God's glory fallen short of itself? Furthermore, aside from dogma, only considering scientific cosmology, this unity creats a problem. Panentheism states that God needs the cosmos in order to live his life in a manner analogous to how human beings need their bodies. But consider this against our scientific understanding of the origin of our universe. God did not begin alongside the universe. That would be absurd! Yet panentheism requires an infinitely regressing series of universes.

There are difficulties that arise from distinction as well as unity. The Judeo-Christian intellectual tradition has always understood a distinction between the world and God. In the doctrine of creation, panentheism understands a creation ex deo, out of God’s own nature for creation is a necessity for the divine existence. Theism teaches creation ex nihilo, from nothing, and it specifically characterizes this as an act of grace from God to the world. The doctrine of creation and of soteriology relate closely together; if creation isn’t an act of grace, then what happens to salvation by grace? In addition, there is the matter of God as the Absolute Good. God is, in the classical categories, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful — originally, perfectly, and normatively. God is the ultimate standard against which any other good is judged. The universe is merely good in part, true in part, and beautiful in part. Panentheism ignores this. And, in doing so, it swallows evil. For if the universe is a mixture of good and evil, then so is god. God cannot then be the Absolute God, yet panentheism has no replacement. Such a standard would be independent of God. But, of course, there can't be anything independent of God. By confusing, as some have called it, the norm and the normed, panentheism drains its universe of good and evil. Sure, God cannot judge anyone, but there is also no judgment. Any act toward judgment, no matter how wise, is an expression of power, but no one can say whether it is done well or poorly or generates good or evil ends. God may be a fellow sufferer with the suffering, but he simultaneously exults with the tyrant.

To conclude, though panentheism in the form of process theology seems to bring the goods, there are deep cracks in the dogmatic engine. Redefining the classical categories, removing the ontological distinction between creature and creator, and remaking grace over in a new image--all of these are serious problems. I like the way Hasker ends his discussion, “Panentheism," he says,

"seems to the theist to be nothing more than a disguised naturalism overlaid with a veneer of religious language. . . . The theist may even find naturalism preferable to pantheism. A naturalist, at least, rejects religion and religious values in a forthright and direct manner. A panentheist, in contrast, makes what seem to be substantive religious assertions, but when closely examined the substance tends to disappear, leaving behind only a vague aura of pious emotion.” (114)

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Exegeting the Widow's Mite: A first look at the story in English

The story of the widow's mite is a cash cow for workaday ministry. Thanks to this story, the needy pastor need not fear when the once-a-year stewardship campaign or a building fund fundraiser comes due. He or she has it covered. Yes, from the very lips of Jesus himself drops money talk heaven-sent to open the wallets of the faithful. It is textual. It is orthodox. It is guilt free.

The story of the widow's mite is simple enough. Jesus is sitting near the treasury on the temple grounds. He with his retinue are watching people toss money into an offering box. A widow comes in. She tosses in a few mites--a tiny amount of money and probably the last bit of cash she had. Jesus sees it and says something like, "See! This widow is better than these other people. They give from their extra, but she gave even the last few coins she had to live on." And so the usual conclusion is to be like the widow. Dig deep. Give much.

But is it really that simple? I confess to feeling a twinge of suspicion whenever I've heard this passage preached. Not to say that I felt the sermon wicked or the speaker a villain--not at all! Good people do they best they can at hard texts. I just knew that there was more to it, hearing as it were a kind of distant echo. And, sure enough, there is more--a lot more.

The best way to find out what is there is to dive deeply into the story itself. There is a fecundity to scripture. Even the most obvious bit of story, if you sit with it, will slowly widen out into a satisfying tableau. This story, or periocope, (A pericope is a set of verses that forms one coherent unit or thought. Pericopes are the bits of scripture read aloud in liturgical worship.) is found in Mark 12.41-44 and Luke 21.1-4. I am going to focus on the Marcan instance. Mark is the earliest gospel, and Luke does not use the periocope any differently than Mark. The goal is to arrive at a defensible, understandable, and meaningful interpretation that gives it reason in its lexical setting and makes its teaching available to us today. I will be using the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), as it is the critical English text used in universities and seminaries. I also want to stay with English as far as possible before consulting the Greek. So the text reads

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

When I begin to examine a pericope, I always start with two techniques: observation and structural analysis. Observation is what it says: focused looking. It is helpful to make a list of what is observed. Observation is all about the details, and each should be listed on its own line. Doing so helps the mind dismiss assumptions and see what is there. Like pulling up carpet, one sometimes finds new layers underneath. Structural analysis is different from observation in that it is not concerned with what is being said, the meaning of content, but with how it is said. Structural analysis uncovers the framework in which content is presented. The reader is after the purpose of a text. He or she wants to know the main idea and how other ideas are arranged around it. The structure usually tells you that. To do structural analysis, I use grammatical techniques like sentence flowing or sentence diagramming. You can also underline parallel constructions, highlight verbs with a highlighter, and so on. Any technique is useful. Here is the diagram I made of this pericope. I do not use verse numbers or include chapter headings. The point is to discover grammatical and rhetorical structure.

Beginning with observation, here are several written in the order they were made. The more observations one makes, the better.

  • The people in the story are the crowds, rich people, Jesus, his disciples, temple benefactors, and the widow
  • The place is the temple treasury (Where is that?)
  • Why is each person there?
  • Money is important to the story and how much or little of it there is
  • Economic class is part of this: some have "abundance," but the widow lives in poverty
  • The story has Jesus going through a series of postures: he sits, he watches, he calls, he speaks.
  • Jesus praises the largest gift, but based on a value completely other than the currency values of the day
  • No one is concerned about what happens to this widow after Jesus's pronouncement
  • The author makes a point to tell the reader how much the widow's coins were worth
  • There is a lot of the verb "put" in this story
  • The dramatic engine of the story is fueled by compare and contrast: wealth and poverty, large and small, the crowd and the individual, Jesus and the disciples, a wide view versus a narrow view, the value of the crowd and Jesus's value, watching silently and speaking aloud
  • The story doubles up on its description of the amount the widow put into the treasury: everything she had, all she had to live on
  • Are these two adjectival phrases about the widow's gift meant to give us more information about the widow, or is this just repetition for emphasis?
  • Jesus begins his teaching with "Truly, I tell you." Is this important?
  • The disciples are not present in the story until Jesus calls them
  • The reaction of the disciples nor of anyone else is unrecorded
  • Why are all the verbs in the simple past tense save the ones in Jesus's pronouncement. Those are all in the perfect tense?
  • Is there a reason Jesus contrasts the verbs "have contributed" and "has put in" in the final comparison?
  • Does their giving to the temple equate to our giving to the church or to charitable giving today?
  • What did this story mean to Jews or God-fearing gentiles circulating it twenty years before the temple's destruction?
  • What comes before this story? What comes after? How does this story "work" between then?
  • What status or position in society did widows have in first-century Palestine?
  • Who is Jesus at this point in the gospel?
  • What does this story say about Jesus? How does this story advance the story about Jesus that Mark's gospel is telling?

And now for the structural analysis.

The fun begins when structural analysis is finished (to whatever degree one desires). And it is fun! Sometimes I find it hard to complete an analysis for the insights jumping off the page! Highlighting structure words like then, therefore, and, but, etc. reveal the machinery of the text. It becomes easy to see how each piece, each paragraph, each sentence, fits together. And, in doing so, it guides the reader toward the main idea.

The main idea of a pericope is the pearl inside the grammatical clam. Discovering it not by whimsy or by guesswork but based on grammatical structure is one of the most important tasks of the exegete. Grammatical structure tells the hearer or reader what is important and what is not. It communicates the choice of meaning that a writer or speaker is making. Grammatical structure is a treasure map. And following it means that the exegete will not only emphasize what is meant to be emphasized, but make correct decisions about the importance of other parts of a story. Exegesis is not only understanding the words and sentences; it is understanding how the author has structured information for meaning.

The main idea is discovered by looking at the structure. So one begins looking for words that reveal it, such as relative pronouns or conjunctions that begin sorting material into independent and dependent clauses. In this case, the temporal adverb "then" divides the pericope into two halves. The first half comes before Jesus speaks and the rest follows after. Before is the factual world of action and after is the mental world of interpretation. The transition movement makes dramatic suspense. A division can also be made in the first half to create the diagram above. This pericope is a story in three acts: the opening scene at the temple treasury; the cast of characters, rich people and the widow; and the teaching that results from it all. I labeled these the Scene, Introduction of Characters, and the Lesson. But does this help to discover the main idea? Yes it does.

The main idea of a pericope will be located in structures that are supported by everything around them. It will not be found in dependent material beginning with because, for example. It will not be found in introductory material. In this pericope, then, the main idea is not to be found in the first two acts. It is located in the third.

In the third act, too, some digging for the main idea is required. The act is divided into three parts: Jesus's assembly of the disciples for instruction, Jesus's surprising announcement, and the reason for the announcement. Now, the main idea cannot be in the first subdivision because it is introductory. So, it must be in one of the other two parts. Again, structure comes to the rescue. The third portion begins with the subordinate conjunction for. That section, then, supports the second section and depends grammatically on it. Thus, the main idea can only be in the second section of the third act: "this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury." But this is a comparative clause. And so, of the two, the first assertion is favored. Thus, the main idea of the pericope is "this poor widow has put in more."

Now, there is another structure in the pericope that deserves investigation. It involves a rhetorical device called syncrisis. Syncrisis is a kind of comparison or antithesis. And it is easily observable in the A B B A structure of the third act.

     A   this widow has put in more
     B   than those
     B1  all have contributed
     A1  but she has put in everything

Ancient rhetoricians used syncrisis to contrast people in order to evaluate their relative worth to society. Syncrisis is a subset of a larger genre called epideictic rhetoric which is designed to publicly praise (or shame) someone for the purpose of emulation (or shunning). Jesus's speech in the temple treasury is certainly an example of epideictic rhetoric, of a sort called an encomium, and syncrisis forms a major part of the way he structured his speech. But Jesus did not begin its use in the story. The gospel writer employed syncrisis in the second act of the pericope before Jesus's encomium. The story is built around them. I should also say that epideictic rhetoric would sometimes include some introductory narrative information. One was, after all, about to praise or damn someone, and so some factual information to set up the story might be helpful. This factual warmup is called by rhetoricians the narratio. So, then, Mark's story of the widow's mite is a three-part, dramatic, epideitic narration that begins with a bit of narratio and then uses syncrisis to publicly praise one of two contrasted people. Its hero is a widow. Its main idea is "this poor widow has put in more."

The temptation now is overwhelming to apply this as a kind of moral of the story. The sermon writes itself: "Just as this widow gave all she had out of her poverty and was praised, so you have no excuse, out of your abundance, to give to the work of the kingdom." But consider: almost none of the observations made above have been satisfied. The setting and action of the first two acts of the tale are ignored by this conclusion, as are any criticisms made by the story about class and wealth. Structural analysis has provided a framework. But there is more work to be done later in another post.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

A brief survey of evolutionary explanations for why math works

Space has been given on this blog for Plantinga's argument about the difficulty natural selection has in explaining higher functions. My naturalist friends have dismissed such arguments, and this post is meant to explore that perspective. The perspective, to restate, is that natural selection is sufficient to explain the existence of higher-order cognition, such as mathematics. I will be summarizing from a paper given by Russel W. Howell, who was professor of Mathematics at Westmont College.

Recall that what I'm after are evolutionary explanations for rationality, and the first of these that Howell mentions is that natural selection selected for meaning. Evolutionary process selected for survival forms whose inner models of reality best matched reality itself. A variant of this, argued by Geoffrey Miller in his book The Mating Mind, says that any greater capacity can be sexualized. Therefore, rational operations such as logic or math may set one apart from the herd and increase one's chances for sex. Howell says of these, "These speculations, while certainly not disprovable, seem to have no good evidence in their support."

Stephen Mithin is next, with a module approach to rationality. Specialized psychological processes for this or that, once brought into contact with one another, create emergent psychological domains. Plantinga's criticism is leveled at this pillar.

And finally, the author mentions work by Pascal Boyer, whose theory he calls the byproduct hypothesis. The idea is that many higher functions of mind are not evolutionary adaptations in themselves, but are byproducts of the same. They piggyback on adaptedness. Howell writes, "If one if going to argue for something using an evolutionary frakework, it behooves that person to supply a detailed model or story that will support it."

Perhaps, going forward, I can flesh out these criticisms and competing arguments with greater depth. But I hadn't had them in the blog yet, and this at least gives me a place to begin. Also, let me say this: natural selection has to have played a great role in human cognition and the existential fact of higher thinking in human beings. To deny this is to deny that matter matters and that natural processes and law have meaning and truly affect a true world. But there does not have to be an either/or. I deny sufficiency without cutting out the bone. And so I retain my Chalcedonian anthropology.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Penciling in a gesture toward providence, determinism, and liberty

What follows is embarrassing in its lack of precision. Let's call it what it is: sloppy. As a matter of fact, it is so bad that I've edited it four times since the original publish. So come back and check it later and it will probably (hopefully) be better. Nevertheless, William Hasker's little survey of metaphysics keeps me blurting out what I think about his subjects. And today, his subject is the impassible way between determinism and libertarianism. (Libertarianism here is not to be confused with the quasi-economic position assumed by many of the Rand-loving, conservative, twenty-something males that I know. It is, rather, a technical term for what is popularly called free will.)

A Reformed Protestant, I begin every thought in this area with a confession of God's providence, for "he himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together (συνεστηκεν)" so that "he sustains (φερων) all things by his powerful word" (Col 1.17; Heb 1.3b NRSV). "The will of God," said Augustine, "is the necessity of all things." Not only, but the first, stated pattern of my theological pattern language is simply, God leads out.[1] But this beginning throws me and similar theists into a certain bind. I like the way Hasker sums it up:

It is quite clear that the doctrine of predestination entails determinism: specifically, theological determinism. God has effectively determined everything that shall happen, and no creature has the power to act otherwise than God has decreed. It is clear, furthermore, that the theological determinist, at least if he is a Christian, must be a soft determinist, for the view that humans are responsible for their actions is central to Christian belief. Thus one has the very difficult problem . . . of explaining how a person is responsible for his actions when he was unable to act otherwise. And there is the additional problem of explaining how God himself is not responsible for human wrongdoing, even though it is God's decrees which necessitate that the wrongdoing occurs. (51)

So the Christian may confess providence, which is a scripture-affirming thing to do, yet providence creates fundamental ethical problems on the human and divine sides. This is why the free will question is unavoidable even if it tires you--as it does me. If humans do not have free will, can they be held responsible for wrongdoing? Is there meaning to human action? Should we trust or value or include as evidence the experience we all have of decision making? Is there a way to avoid Calvin's abhorrent second predestination of the wicked to destruction which, it can and has been argued, makes God unjust, the author of evil, and responsible for the suffering of innocents?

I am not going to discuss the divine side of the equation, but I am going to talk about the rest. Taking up the first question: I believe that people do act with a kind of qualified freedom (a soft libertarianism.) We are embedded (thrown) into layer upon layer of historical and cultural context, and these deeply shape who we are as the actor (see the card "Every Action a Reaction.") And, theologically, the nature of the heart, whether it is unregenerate or regenerate, will figure in. Real human freedom (not divine, but human freedom) is impossible to the unregenerate. It is a struggle for the regenerate, but there is at least a kind of advancing freedom. We can act according to where and who we are in a moment over-and-against the future. And, with maturity, that freedom better and better reflects the true freedom of God the Son.

Going back to the conflict between determinism and libertarianism, I think the frame of reference makes a big difference in understanding. If one is looking out of human eyes, actions are messy but still, in a way, free. But if one imagines oneself into a divine state, determined providence seems only natural. The thing is, human beings think about things from both angles, theory and praxis, nor can we eliminate one. We must, instead, choose which we will emphasize.

To the problem of settling these two perspectives, God's timelessness comes to the rescue (though it too, Hasker says, is qualified and disputed). Because God is timeless, tensed words like now, tomorrow, yesterday, or talk of the future or past do not apply. As Hasker says, God "believes things timelessly, entirely out side our time sequence . . . And what it is that God timelessly believes depends, in part, on what I will freely choose to do tomorrow morning." (55) God's timelessness allows for human free action. And it tells us that providence must effect itself in a manner much different than the two-dimensional before-then-after of Aristotelian sufficient causation. Something like what I'm getting at I find in this bit from Reformed theologian Paul Helm:

"In creating, God does not add to his reality. The creation does not distend God’s boundaries, for he has no bounds. So thinking of God as if has he has boundaries would be inconceivable. The contrast between God’s ways and ours is not one of degree, but one of kind. For this reason the decree of God may be considered as the eternal aspect of his mind."

[Insert a note here: scientific discussion of the non-locality of quantum entanglement suggests that time is not part of the infrastructure of reality but is its result. The engine of reality must work outside of space-time. And the non-locality/non-temporality of quantum events, then, means that there is no need to wait for any cause to produce any state. Back to the original blog now.]

There is another way, of course: the way of the process theologians and the panentheists. Going that way, God limits himself, opening up a space of some kind (logical or spiritual or metaphysical or metaphorical) from which his divine power is removed. That process they call creation, and in it, evil and choice have their temporary arena.

At any rate, it just occurred to me that I have thought of providence as either an organizing force of matter or events in space-time or as a soteriological act whereby God saves sinners. What I haven't considered is that providence provides a horizon of meaning. Because of providence, truth, justice, and beauty have a horizon from which they derive significance.[2]

And, finally, meandering to an end, allow me to say this about discussions of providence and free will or, if you like, determinism and libertarianism. A friend today asked me whether this wasn't majoring on the minors. I don't think he knows how much I dislike the whole of it myself. I would much rather talk about other aspects of dogma. Nevertheless, I said to him that though there is no ultimate resolution to these questions in our present state, they have persisted and will persist as long as thinking and confessing persist. And joining in that argument means laboring alongside some of the best minds humanity has ever produced. It is a labor they found valuable because it connects so many other portions of real thinking and living. And shouldn't we, with the life and the minds given to us, be part of this human work? I would look askance at someone who beginning at the door of thought did not eventually arrive at this chamber. And I would doubt the abilities of anyone who found a way to move further in without discomfort at the choice they had to make. Either choice means pain and ongoing discomfort and shouldering the unreasonableness of reason.

[1] Note that "God leads out" does not suggest the lure-theory of the process theologians but a kind of strong pull where the future and the God of the future providentially pull all things to their appointed end. Another way of saying this is that the doctrine of creation is not a static doctrine but an ongoing on. The creation is not yet in the state to which its creator desired it. It is advancing toward that state according to his providence and promises.

[2] Charles Taylor has usefully distinguished between self-referentiality of content and manner. Self-referentiality of content sees nothing in discourse except the self and its desires. Self-referentiality of manner recognizes a horizon against which the self finds significance. (Ethics of Authenticity [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991], 81-82.) In Michael Polanyi's terms, the self-referential is subsidiary to the focus of education: the pursuit of justice and truth. (Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962], 55-57). // this copied from Hasker pp 490-491n64.

Monday, August 05, 2019

a brainy argument against determinism (and also materialism)

For some beach reading, I picked up a two-dollar paperback survey of metaphysics by William Hasker, part of the IVP series Contours of Christian Philosophy. My goal was pure curiosity: I wanted to see what topics the author included under this heading. I will probably blog something in dialogue with this book again in the near future. But, for now, it includes an argument against determinism (and, by extension, against materialism) worthy of reproduction against future forgetting. From pages 47-48, italics rendered as in the text:


"It is clear . . . that rational thinking must be guided by rational insight in the light or principles of sound reasoning. That is to say, one must "see," rationally, that the conclusion is justified by the evidence--and one is helped to see this by principles of reasoning, such as the laws of inductive and deductive logic and the like. Furthermore, and this point is crucial, one accepts the conclusion because one recognizes that it is justified by the evidence. It is this recognition which brings about the acceptance.

"Now let us suppose that all human thinking is physically determined in the following sense: (1) Every thought or belief accepted by a person is a result of that person's brain being in a corresponding state. (2) We assume, provisionally, that the physical indeterminacy which exists at the quantum level makes no perceptible difference in the overall functioning of the brain. So that (3) every brain state, and therefore every thought and belief of the person, is fully determined by the physical functioning of the brain in accordance with the deterministic laws of physics.

"Is it not evident, on this supposition, that rational thinking is an impossibility? It cannot be true, on this assumption, that anyone's thinking is guided by rational insight; rather, it is guided entirely by the physical laws which govern the brain's functioning, which proceed with no regard to whether the thought processes they generate correspond to principles of sound reasoning. Occasionally, to be sure, it may happen that the thought processes generated by the physically determined functioning of the brain will arrive at a conclusion which is correct. But this, when it happens, is simply a fortunate accident--and to say that a conclusion is reached by accident is incompatible with the claim that that conclusion was reached by rational thinking .Therefore, if all human thought is physically determined, then no one ever thinks rationally.

"Nor is the situation changed if we modify our assumptions (and our definitions of "physically determined") so as to allow that sometimes random, physically undetermined events within the brain have a perceptible effect, so that a different conclusion is reached than would have been the case without the random event. For such a random event is no more responsible to rational insight than was the physically determined brain process of the previous model. What is needed for rationality is not simply an injection of randomness into the physically deterministic brain functioning, but rather an infusion of rational insight as a factor which guides and directs the thought processes. But to accept this is to give up physical determinism altogether. And so our conclusion: If physical determinism is true, no one ever thinks rationally."


The summary of the above is simply this: that a car, acting according to its own structure, cannot take you where you want to go. Even should it, somehow and by your good fortune, deliver you safely to a desired address, the result says nothing about the cause. Rational insight, one's reason, and in this metaphor the driver, must come from elsewhere.

What this means for emergence, I'm not wholly sure. Emergence theorist assert that the driver emerges from the complex and perhaps ineffable workings of the machinery, subject as it is to physical laws. If that is the case, doesn't this but shift the problem? In that case, the emergent property becomes our metaphorical car, and we are left asking how it knows where to go.

Some time ago, I wrote a post akin to this one called "Plantinga Pulls a Sampson." In it, Alvin Plantinga invokes natural selection, whereas William Hasker, who wrote the above, was addressing the debate between free will and determinism.

As I consider both posts, I can begin to see my own outline. I see a skepticism of reductive materialism, scientism, and "nothing but" physics--no surprise there. What is embraced is more interesting: a qualified dualism:

  • the mind as not the same as the brain but connected, perhaps as an emergent property
  • the self as a (qualified) free agent [not theologically free, but naturally so]
  • a humanity that, though subject to material laws, transcends them
  • reason/ethical judgment, the derivation of which could be the community or someplace altogether mysterious in origin

Note: this post does not well address the point of the quotation itself which is epistemology, which is about determining what is true.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

checking in with epistemology, 2006

It is a good thing that ideology progresses slowly. I am finally reading an issue of Christian Scholar's Review from the summer of 2006. I kept it in stack for years and years, and I am glad that I did; the opening paragraph is a nice snapshot of the present state of western epistemology. It reads:

"This special issue . . . explores the implications of a world of relative values for the scholarly enterprise. The postmodern fixation on relative values has a certain appeal for a young man or woman interested in sex without entanglements, but it raises a different set of issues for scientists who desire 'honest' reporting of research data. With quantum mechanics we discovered that certainty has its limits, but have we also begun to discover that relativism has its limits as well? How do we preserve the cognitive knowledge and aesthetic achievements we have acquired and build on these if the culture no longer has a basis for judging between ideas? One of the insights of our age that people have increasingly recognized is that knowledge is multi-dimensional. Without a basis for judging and comparing ideas, however, the pursuit of knowledge and the gains of culture are threatened. The modern period made the mistake of reducing knowledge to facts, but the postmodern age has the tendency to confuse knowledge with information, and in its use of the World Wide Web, information is traded for data." (447)

The conclusion of the introduction picks up the thread:

"The postmodern critique of modernity has had its impact on the academic disciplines, but it presented little constructive help except in pointing out that the modern emperor had no clothes. These essays [which make up the summer 2006 issue] suggests how a few of the disciplines have begun to cut new cloth. These essays illustrate that the discussion belongs to more disciplines than philosophy and literature. The discussion of beauty belongs to the sciences as much as to the arts. Discussions of 'the good' belong to economics as much as to ethics." (449)