Thursday, December 06, 2007

The last things and the things before the last

In his unfinished book “Ethics” Dietrich Bonhoeffer includes a study of what he calls the ultimate and the penultimate. The context is the Christian life and how we live it. Bonhoeffer relates that as a pastor he usually adopts one of two very different attitudes when visiting a person that has lost a loved one. He can speak the Biblical words of comfort (the ultimate), or he can silently sit with them and share in their helplessness (the penultimate). Taken to extremes the ultimate becomes the radical and the penultimate becomes the compromiser. Bonhoeffer places these attitudes in opposition in the five quoted sentences below:

“Radicalism hates time, and compromise hates eternity.”

  • The radical wants the black and white solution that solves the problem. The passage of time only complicates the situation and makes things muddy.
  • The compromiser hates eternity, because instead of a yin and yang to everything there is a final answer that does not allow temporizing.

“Radicalism hates patience, and compromise hates decision.”

  • The radical does not want to wait. The answer is obvious and the execution of that solution should be immediate.
  • The compromiser does not want closure, there are too many factors to consider, no one should be ever be wrong, or right...

“Radicalism hates wisdom, and compromise hates simplicity.”

  • Wisdom implies breadth of thought and a willingness to go beyond the immediate "facts" to the big picture issues at stake.
  • Simplicity requires that some factors be ignored and judgment applied to closeout a matter of disagreement.

Radicalism hates moderation and measure, and compromise hates the immeasurable.”

  • Moderation implies limits--the radical hates nothing more than limits and the metrics that go with them.
  • Things without limits profoundly discomfort the compromiser. How can you "split the difference" when the positions can’t be quantified?

“Radicalism hates the real, and compromise hates the word.”

  • The radical sees the ideal and loathes the reality that challenges it.
  • The compromiser rejects any notion that important aspects of reality can be captured by language.

Bonhoeffer concludes:

"To contrast the two attitudes in this way is to make it sufficiently clear that both alike are opposed to Christ. For in Jesus Christ those things which are here ranged in mutual hostility are one. The quest of the Christian life will not, therefore, be decided and answered either by radicalism or by compromise, but only by reference to Jesus Christ Himself. In Him alone lies the solution for the problem of the relation between the ultimate and the penultimate."

Friday, November 30, 2007

Fruit From the Tree of Life

Other than its location close to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil Genesis doesn't tell us much about the tree of life. These two trees shared the same address—the middle of the Garden of Eden. We do know that all of the trees in the garden were pleasant looking and good for food (Gen 2:9). The last tidbit we can glean is that if Eve or Adam had eaten from the tree of life they would have lived forever—regardless of whether they ate before or after the Fall. That fruit was the ultimate jackpot if you happened to take a bite.

Did God do anything to prevent this disruptive chomp from happening? Did God make the fruit of the tree of life ugly, covered with nasty thorns, or only available on high branches? Maybe it smelled bad.

When I read Genesis chapters 1 through 3 I usually think about it in three ways. As a creation story it's a haunting tale of paradise created and lost. As the beginning of the Bible it's a fascinating introduction to the relationship of God and man, the conflict between good and evil, and of the consequences of sin. And finally it's a personal lesson, reminding me that I disobey God's commands and as a result I too am worthy of death.

The tree of life is the solution to the sentence of death in each of these viewpoints:

  1. In the garden God places the tree of life off limits—an angel with a flaming sword blocks the way

  2. Later in the Bible (Numbers 21) something analogous to the tree of life is introduced, but with a surprising twist. The serpent is now associated with the tree.

    'While wandering in the desert the people of Israel spoke against God and were plagued with deadly fiery serpents, Moses prays for help and God instructs him “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.' ESV

    Now a serpent (symbolizing sin) and wood come together as a solution. An act of will by the dying person is still required to get the prize of life. This story foreshadows the mysterious suffering servant that is prophesized in Isaiah 53.

  3. And finally, as the solution to my death sentence, Jesus is hung on another tree, takes my curse upon himself, and offers a personal opportunity to be redeemed. This new tree of life exists in the middle of my existence. All I had to do was pluck its fruit, lay aside my life, and eat.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

357 Magnum Meme

Heidi from Virushead has tagged me with the 357 magnum meme. It asks some basic questions about blogging. This tag was welcome because I have been suffering from blogger's block and these questions are a lot easier than the ones I am currently wrestling with. So here we go:

1. How long have you been blogging?

I have been blogging since December 2005. At that point the blogosphere was growing like mad and the basic technology had matured to the point where I could jump in relatively painlessly. Like most successful new technologies the new ideas were simple, and now look obvious, but anyone that posted material on a website before the advent of blogging knows that posting is a lot easier than it used to be.

2. What inspired you to start a blog and who are your mentors?

I enjoy writing and as I watched blogging mature I realized that it was a good match to my writing style. I tend to run out of gas on any subject after about a thousand words, which is about as long as you can expect any blog reader to hang around for. I have been a journal writer for a long time and I saw how blogging can be on-line journaling. Being in a public forum constrains me a bit, but it also motivates me to refine what I am saying. Regarding mentorship, my son Trevor preceded me in the blogosphere with In The Space Between, providing some much appreciated advice, encouragement, and for a long time was my only reader. He tracks the Web 2.0 technology closely and we enjoy speculating on what will happen next.

3. Are you trying to make money online, or just doing it for fun?

I’m definitely not in it for the money. On my Tickets Passports Money blog I plan to add Adsense and do an affiliate link—to learn the technology.

4. Tell me 3 things you LOVE about being online.

  • The creative aspects of posting are really fun. When I post something that works (at least for me) I feel the buzz of creating something that somehow transcends me, and perhaps is more enduring than myself.
  • Blogging is a new, unique communication medium. It’s not just an essay or a link. Unlike email it is a broadcast medium where you don’t know who you will reach, but the comment section provides the potential for the give-and-take of email or a forum. Through it we have the potential to tap into the energy and knowledge of millions of people.
  • Finding like-minded people. C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know we are not alone." The blogosphere is the same way. I link into really interesting people that I would never find in real life and through their writing feel an immediate connection. Their knowledge and their openness astonish me and motivate me to be better.

5. Tell me 3 things you STRUGGLE with in the online world.

  • Anyone that has a significant presence online must deal with truly scary people. I am thankful that I don’t have to deal with this, but anyone that followed the Kathy Sierra Story, or reads through the comments of popular blogs has seen that there are some real creeps out there. The misogynist element bothers me the most—for the most part I live in an environment that is supportive of women. The hatred of these guys is truly disturbing.
  • I struggle with writing for general interest rather for my self. I installed Google Analytics on my blogs mostly to see the technology in action, but now find myself checking it almost daily to see how many people have visited. I know that if I really wanted to build readership I should blog daily, but fundamentally that is not why I blog, and I need to stay true to myself in that.
  • I don’t want to be boring. I suppose I should also worry about being impenetrable—but I don’t. I’ve seen those looks in real life where the people are wondering what planet I came from, but I'll take that any day over being boring.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Monologue on a leaf

Photosynthesis is complicated, a few complexes that do it are shown to the left

We can’t recreate it today

That’s a shame--it captures solar energy almost for free

A recent study suggests that photosynthesis is even more complicated than we thought

It looks like quantum computing is involved

This is bad news for those trying to replicate photosynthesis

Because we can’t do quantum computing either

Many say that only God could have created photosynthesis—or quantum computers

Because it's so complicated

I used to

Not long ago the sun was a mystery too

People have looked at the sun for thousands of years

And wondered how it could be

Einstein didn’t know how the sun worked in 1905 when he introduced e=mc^2

Now we can do fusion

Eventually I expect we will be able to do photosynthesis without a plant

Then, when we know how a leaf works, maybe we can see how it came to be

Will God change His pattern and stump science forever with a leaf?

He could do this

But so far in all the things we understand well God chooses to keep His face behind a veil.

And require Christians to live by faith

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Separation of Church and Science

Psalms 104:5 “He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved.”

In the 1500s everyone knew the earth was the center of the universe. It was common sense. The earth doesn’t feel like it is moving (except for an occasional earthquake) and the sun, stars, and the moon move all the time. Astronomers were able to explain things like eclipses with this geocentric model, however the 5 wandering stars presented a problem. Except for not twinkling they looked like ordinary bright stars but their movements were very strange--they moved independently from the rest of the stars, they sped up and slowed down, and sometime even reversed direction. Astronomers struggled to come up with theories that explained this phenomenon.

Ultimately Copernicus, amongst others came up with the Sun centered heliocentric model that explained the motions of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The Catholic Church did not support this model on Biblical grounds—Psalms 104:5 and other references. Martin Luther reputably said, "However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.”

Ultimately, over the course of hundreds of years, the scientific evidence built up to completely validate the heliocentric model. Pope Benedict XIV suspended the ban on heliocentric works on April 16, 1757 and now 250 years later, very few people dispute the heliocentric model.

I think that most Christians would agree that if an immovable earth were still the generally accepted position of the church, that it would hinder people from accepting the Gospel.

Nearly five hundred years before the geocentric debates started in Europe there was another schism between science and religion—in the Muslim empire. After a very productive period from 750 to 1050 A.D where Islamic scholars made big contributions to science and math Islamic science began to decline. According to Wikipedia:

"Seminaries systematically forbade philosophical thought which comprising both natural and theological aspects of world in Islamic context. Even polemic debates were abandoned after the 13th century. Institutions of science comprising Islamic universities, libraries, and hospitals, had been destroyed by foreign invaders like the Mongols and never promoted again. Not only wasn't new publishing equipment accepted but also wide illiteracy overwhelmed Muslim society.”

The Muslin world turned away from science and its methods.

In June 2007 a Gallup poll asked people their views on the origin and development of life on earth. Sixty six percent agreed that the following statement was true or probably true: “That God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years”. If you polled the physics, chemistry, or medicine Nobel prizewinners of the last 20 years, or all the physics professors in all the public universities in the US I think you'd get a different response.

Beyond just disagreeing with specific theories, many in the evangelical world have depreciated science in general and its methods. The Answers in Genesis ministry, which recently generated national press with the opening of its Creation Museum in Kentucky is an example of this. Consider the quote below, taken from their website:

“No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.” (from “Summary of the AiG Statement of Faith”)

Clearly the Answers in Genesis organization has decided to subjugate science to their interpretation of scripture. I believe that this subjugation will not lead to truth, but rather to scientific illiteracy.

I’m not suggesting we promote science to the position of the ultimate authority of our lives. However when scientific experts build a compelling case (let’s say 49 out of 50 experts agree) against the prevailing interpretation of a portion of scripture then it's time to seriously consider reinterpretation.

In the past devout Christians like Isaac Newton and James Maxwell revolutionized science--now in the 21st century Christianity is becoming synonymous with scientific farce. I believe the gap between evangelical Christianity and science is hindering the cause of Christ.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Thought Experiment

This post--ultraconserved-DNA describes an interesting subset of DNA research. There are sections of human DNA that are identical ("ultra-conserved") with a wide spectrum of animals (e.g. mice, rats). Scientists speculate that these sections are mission critical, and that any mutation in these areas would kill the host or the offspring and hence not pass on the mutation. The first pass attempt to verify this hypothesis failed miserably--mice with these sections deleted appear to do just fine.

I'm sure we will eventually get a good scientific explanation why this DNA is "ultra-conserved".

My thought experiment -- what if scientists discovered that encoded in the DNA of these sections were Hebrew passages from the book of Genesis that matched our best reconstructions of the original text. How would you incorporate that scientific discovery (after verification of course) into your belief system?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Questions in Genesis...

I've been mulling on these questions recently. Any ideas would be appreciated....

  1. If the serpent was so crafty (Gen 3:1), why didn't he suggest to Adam and Eve that they eat of the tree of life first, then from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
  2. Why did Adam wait to name Eve until after the fall (Gen 3:20)? She was "the woman" before that.
  3. After the fall God cursed the serpent and the ground but not Adam or Eve. Was the fall not a curse for mankind?
  4. In Gen 2:17 God says "but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." Since the word "day" used here (yowm) was the same as the seven days of creation a literal translation would suggest that God lied because Adam and the woman did not die in the 24 hour period after they ate of the fruit.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Women and the Word--Paul's position?

I look forward to spending time with women—especially with my wife Nancy, my daughters Kendra and Meryn, my sisters, and my Mom. As a guy I am drawn to women for the usual reasons, but there are many other attractions. Much of that appeal comes from what I experience as a common progression when conversing with women. Many men are happy to surf along at the lightest levels of conversation--sports, politics, and the latest in plasma displays.

Women, on the other hand, usually relish the opportunity to take a conversation to a deeper level. Their honesty is frequently disarming, they teach me things about relationships, and their hearts are soft. More often than with men I get the sense of connecting with another soul--a punctuation point in the flow of my existence.

This connectedness with women gives me considerable pain when I meditate on some passages in the Bible. These passages are charter members in my list of verses I wish weren’t in the Bible. Consider 1 Timothy 2:11-15:

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15But women will be kept safe through childbirth, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety.” (NIV)

It’s amazing how disconcerting 5 sentences can be. It is tempting to attribute this passage to an episode of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers—the Apostle Paul’s husk, lying shriveled up next to this imposter. How could the man that wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) give us this apparently misogynic paragraph?

If you have read some of my other posts (Authenticity.., Did God really say) you know that I am not inclined to take the easy way out on this passage (e.g. a writer other than Paul , or a rogue scribe injecting a passage). It's tempting for me to drop a cultural filter on this, writing it off as a message intended for a different place and time—after all braided hair is forbidden in I Timothy 2:9 as immodest. However, what gives me pause is the universalistic rationale Paul uses to defend his statements. Even in Paul's time the Genesis story was thousands of years old. By linking to this essentially timeless story Paul buttresses his arguments against the flow of time. In that context, Paul the man who in Acts 17 debated the Athenians at Mars Hill, lays out two powerful arguments:

1. I got there first (verse 13)
2. She made me do it (verse 14)

Then in an astonishing finale, Paul appears to link a woman’s salvation with childbearing and vigilant good behavior. I am aghast.

It’s encouraging that the Amplified New Testament manages to rehabilitate this final verse (all punctuation is theirs):

"Nevertheless (the sentence put upon women [of pain in motherhood] does not hinder their [souls’] salvation), and they will be saved [eternally] if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control; [saved indeed] through the Child-bearing, that is, by the birth of the [divine] Child."

That’s a nice touch--our salvation does come from the Son of God that was born of a woman. Unfortunately the Amplified New Testament doesn’t regenerate the other 4 verses.

I don’t have an answer to this passage. God’s Word is in this book, and God's Word, Jesus Christ, is in my heart. My heart hurts, my logic fails, and I am speechless.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Who told you that you were naked?

Immediately after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit “the eyes of both of them were opened; and they realized they were naked.” What manner of eye opening was this?

Was it like the visual jump we experience when looking at the picture on the left?

Which do you see, saxophone player or a young woman? Now do you see the other?

Adam and Eve were naked--they just hadn’t noticed. Once perceived, they scrambled to cover up. Why this sudden modesty? Was it because this was the first time they had noticed their naughty bits—which clearly needed to be covered up? Did they have company--the serpent hanging around, exulting in his victory, or were there children about from already obeying God’s command to multiply?

I think they realized they had been parading around the Lord of the Universe wearing nary a stitch.

Various theories suggest human attributes which distinguish us from other animals. Language and the use of tools are possibilities, but some animals (e.g. whales) seem to communicate, and some animals use simple tools like rocks or twigs to obtain food. However, I am not aware of any creature besides mankind that has a sense of modesty. The mode of modesty varies greatly, ranging from bursas, to a string around the waist with a few trinkets attached, to nothing but tattoos--but the concept is there. Little children start out without any modesty at all, but that changes, at least for a while.

So they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Presumably the fig leaves are still in place, but the couple still hid from God. Have they become aware of more than just their nakedness? They had disobeyed God’s command. Like kids that had just broken the vase in the living room, their first impulse was to hide.

God walks through the garden and asks, “Where are you?"

Why would the omniscient deity just in from the creation of a multi-billion light year universe pretend He could not see two humans cowering amongst the trees? In reality those half-naked creatures had become something different; they had become god-like, “like one of us.” Was God treating these newly minted, god fearing creatures with respect? The same respect a parent grants when they play peek-a-boo with their toddler, or calls out "where are you” during hide-and-go-seek, even though they see legs sticking out from under the table. A parent knows that these stages are necessary for children to develop a sense of self and a model of how that self fits into the environment around them.

Adam responds, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

The fig leaves weren’t doing their job; they had not restored the world back to the way it was. Adam and Eve felt their souls, as well as their bodies exposed to the gaze of the Creator--and they knew fear. Likely they feared for their lives, after all God had said, "when you eat of it you will surely die."

God pursues, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?"

God offers an opportunity for clarification and confession. Could the serpent have told Adam and Eve that they were naked in a failed attempt to shame them into disobedience? Is this all a misunderstanding? No, sin did happen.

The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’

Adam responds to God with a pattern we know well. Yes, I disobeyed, but it wasn’t my fault. In fact this situation is really your fault for giving me that woman. Unwilling to take responsibilities for our actions, our first reaction when challenged about our sin is often to blame God. God, you created those appetites in me. God you gave me no choice. God, your commands are so unreasonable.

Adam makes no other defense and he offers no apology. The first couple were the first to fall, and the first to suffer the consequences of their sin. We don’t know if they ever repented of their sin.

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the Lord God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

Their knowledge of good and evil got Adam and Eve tossed out of the garden into a hard life. But God gave them a good set of clothes to replace the innocence they had lost.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Did God really say?

In thinking about God’s Word, I’m drawn to the fifty-seventh verse in the Bible:

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ”Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (NIV)

This verse is a milestone. It introduces:
  • The dissonance of a creature, made by God, that is in opposition to God
  • A talking serpent--apparently not a surprising thing to Eve
  • The first, and perhaps only time God is misquoted in the Bible. What God said earlier was: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Creation and Fall”, observes:

“The serpent’s question: ‘Did God say, You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’ was a thoroughly religious one. But with the first religious question in the world evil has come upon the scene”

Eve’s response to the serpent’s misstatement is the epitome of innocence—correction, but with deference to the questioner.

“We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’”

Bonhoeffer comments:
“The fact that Eve must qualify something regarding the Word of God—even if it is falsely represented—must throw her into the greatest confusion. It must indeed enable her to feel, for the first time, the attraction of making judgments about the Word of God. By means of the obviously false the serpent will now bring down that which is right. “

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

There were elements of truth in the serpent’s lie--those truths gave his argument power. Humanity was not physically extinguished that day, and we do know good and evil. But God was telling the truth, something more fundamental than physical existence died that day. Before there was no need to reach for life--afterward eternal life was not something obtained so cheaply.

I too feel the attraction of making judgments about God’s Word.

I’m not saying that I have to take everything in the Bible literally. I am talking about the dangers of approaching the Word, not with humility and openness, but as an arbiter of its truth. As Bonhoeffer says, if I ask, “Did God really say…This is the question that appears innocuous but through it evil wins power in us, through it we become disobedient to God.”

Thursday, July 05, 2007

I AM writing assignment


Yes, Father.

I have a job for you. Now that the sons of man have gotten around to inventing writing I would like you to create a written version of yourself.


This task presents some challenges, even for Us. For starters, it can’t have any contradictions, it has to match physical reality, it has to be historically accurate, and it shouldn’t have any similarities to existing writings—we wouldn't want them thinking we plagiarized stuff. And, although it obviously will be great literature, you’ll have to keep it to a single writing style; otherwise they will be postulating a different author for every style. Cultural biases are a no-no, and as far as vocabulary goes, you are going to have to keep it simple. Their vocabulary isn’t very big yet; only a few thousand words, and I don’t think it will do to make up new words—that would be interfering.

Hmmm… What language should I use?

That’s a tough one. I am wondering if we screwed up with the Babel thing—the whole thing would have fallen over on its own if we had just left them alone. I’m thinking Hebrew, and then Greek once it’s available—it has some nice features.

Won’t the meanings of words drift over time?

Oh...time—I forgot about that. I guess once their grubby little hands are on it we won’t be able to update it. Oh, never mind, it will give them something to argue about. They love to argue.

How about the other languages?

They will just have to muddle along with translations and paraphrasing if they are too lazy to learn Hebrew and Greek. Besides they can always ask us directly for clarification if they’re serious.

Can I farm some of this out Father?

What, too busy building mansions?

No, I was thinking that it might give a nice, multi-dimensional feel to it if I involve some of the better players.

That’s an interesting idea Son. Job and David come to mind for the emotional crowd. Moses will bore them to tears with details, but he’s good with dictation. Solomon and Paul will appeal to the intellectuals. Start with some of your own stuff, though. Write some words in stone to set the tone.

Father, I see a big problem with this. If I create a perfect written version of myself that meets all your requirements, won’t it be tough not to believe in Us?

You are always good at illuminating the flaws in things. You’re right. A perfect written Word would take away free will.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

God’s Word in a Wal-Mart

A few years ago I was standing in a Wal-Mart checkout line when I noticed something going on in the lane next to me. A young, poor looking family was rung up, but there was a problem with the check they were trying to use to pay. Their cart was full of essential things-- diapers, staple foods--$110 worth. I watched them fidget as the supervisor was called. As I stood there God spoke to me saying: “pay their bill.” Even though I knew it was probably God talking I didn’t act immediately. In fact I didn't act at all.

You might be thinking that a more likely explanation for the "pay their bill" suggestion would be a chemical problem in my brain, serious psychological problems, or perhaps just a compassionate nature. All of these are possible. But I believe it was God. When He speaks to me it can be a simple statement, a word, a verse in the Bible or something non-verbal. I don't think there is anything special that enables me to receive messages from God. I believe everyone gets these messages--the tough part is listening. I do test the messages for reasonableness--I don't totally trust my brain...

I debated the "pay their bill" suggestion; how should I do this? What should I say? Will they reject my offer? Should I just pay their bill, or ask that they pay me back at some later date? I admit I worried about giving them any information that they could use to contact me later. I did nothing.

The supervisor came and things still couldn’t be resolved. They asked the family to follow them to an area that wasn’t quite so public. The last thing I saw as I drove away was the family, sans groceries, driving out of the parking lot.

I wish I had handed the clerk my Visa, and put that $110 on my card. I hope that Wal-Mart experience was just a minor setback to that family. I struggle with the feeling that this event had a very negative impact on them. I will never know what happened.

What I do know is my disobedience blocked the best path for that day.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Uncaused Light -- God as a "stop-gap"?

In the book "Letters and Papers from Prison" Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: "It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case). Then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat."

In one of his essays in "Creation and Fall" written in 1933 Bonhoeffer breaks his own rule. In his concluding remarks regarding Genesis 1:14-19 he raises the "old rationalistic question" of how light could be created in day 1 and the sun not until day 4. Where did this "uncaused light" come from? Bonhoeffer discusses this apparent paradox and concludes by saying: "The light per se of the creation, the light which lay formless over the formless darkness, is bound to form, to law, to the fixed, to number; but it remains in God, it remains God's creation, and never itself becomes calculable number."

The "never itself becomes calculable number" part of his statement appears to be wrong. Bonhoeffer reasonably assumed that the specifics of the creation of the universe would be forever inaccessible to science. What he could not have anticipated was that fifteen years later, based on the principles of Einstein's general relativity, George Gamow would publish a model for the creation of the universe. This theory postulated:

  1. Light could not travel any appreciable distance in the initial years of the early universe because any emitted photons were immediately reabsorbed by the ionized matter around it.
  2. About 400,000 years after the Big Bang the universe had cooled enough for matter to "condense" into neutral atoms. This transition allowed light to freely travel throughout the universe. Because the universe was exceedingly uniform at that point (formless) this shift occurred concurrently throughout.
  3. Gamow calculated that these freed photons from this transition would still be continuously arriving at the earth, "cooled" by the subsequent expansion of the universe to an equivalent black body temperature of about 5 degrees above absolute zero.

In 1948 when Gamow made this 5 degree prediction the technology did not exist to prove or disprove it. However in 1964 two physicists testing their new microwave receiver pointed it at the sky. They expected to measure just the self-generated noise of their equipment. Instead they found that no matter where in the sky they pointed they measured more noise than they could explain. At first they attributed it to pigeon crap in their antenna. But eventually they established it was photons from the cosmos, arriving with an equivalent temperature of 3.5 degrees --the light from the Big Bang. Recent satellite based measurements have refined that temperature to 2.725 +- 0.02 degrees (really!)

The light of creation that illuminated the universe for almost ten billion years before our own sun ignited has been given a number.

Friday, June 01, 2007

8 Random Facts about Vance

I’ve been tagged by Dr Heidi from Virushead for the “Random 8″ blog meme.

  • Players start with 8 random facts about themselves.
  • Those who are tagged should post these rules and their 8 random facts.
  • Players should tag 8 other people and notify them that they have been tagged.

So here are 8 random facts about Vance:

  1. I hate sweet potatoes and acorn squash--there is something in these two foods that grosses me out. It is not like I am a picky eater, I will eat almost anything, in fact I like the traditionally avoided foods like broccoli and brussels sprouts. Through sweet potatoes my parents learned that sometimes a kid is serious when they say a food makes them sick...

  2. I am an ex-believer in Intelligent Design. This blog is named for the meditation sequence that resulted in my change of heart. I didn't give up on God, I just decided that regardless of how complicated life is, science will eventually come up with credible theories how it happened. God's fingerprints won't be obvious and we will be left with another singularity like the Big Bang that defies analysis.

  3. My favorite musician is Bill Evans, the saxophonist, not the pianist. Not a gifted marketeer this Bill hasn't worked very hard to distance himself from the late Jazz great. He is almost invisible on Amazon unless you know one of his titles. If you like Jazz Fusion you might give this Bill Evans a try.

  4. I have this theory that all managers create a scientifically undetectable field called the "Reality Distortion Field". When multiple managers are in a room this field reinforces itself leading to some pretty scary results. The Reality Distortion Field (RDF) explains a lot of the apparently insane behaviors that businesses engage in.

  5. When I call my parents, their first question is often "Where are you", instead of "How are you".

  6. My advice to people that are lost while driving in a European city is to pick a random car to follow --it is unlikely that they are driving in circles. For more of my travel hints see tickets-passports-money

  7. Unless I really focus, I totally miss the lyrics in songs. Usually for me the singers are just another instrument.

  8. My favorite Science Fiction writer is C.J. Cherryh. If you like Science Fiction that focuses on character development rather than hardware/warfare you might try her novel Cyteen or her Foreigner series.

Here a the 8 I am tagging:

Friday, May 11, 2007

Meditations on a speck of sky

When I first saw this Hubble Space Telescope picture I was impressed by its beauty and the claim in the associated article that at least 1500 galaxies were contained in the image--which only covers about 0.00000025% of the sky. However, what really surprised me was the assertion that the picture would look very similar regardless of where the telescope was pointed, as long as there wasn't something "close" in the way (e.g. the Milky Way or its neighbors). To me this implied that either our galaxy is at the center of the universe (unlikely and rejected by astronomers), or I didn't know what the hell was going on.

A couple of years later I can report that this “every direction looks the same” assertion does make sense to me--although some aspects still make my head hurt. The reasons for this apparent "center of the universe" view relate to the physics of the Big Bang. A couple of key points:

  • The Big Bang was not an explosion in space. There was no space before the Big Bang and no time. The Big Bang not only created all the matter in the universe, it also created the framework (space) to hold it, and the time to run it.
  • In the Big Bang's very early phases the universe expanded much faster than the speed of light. It was space, not matter or light that was expanding so the Einsteinian speed limit was not violated. This early hyper expansion, called the inflationary phase, ended when the universe was about a meter across. One of the resulting effects was that matter, which was caught up in the expansion, became very evenly distributed throughout the universe. By the way, the spot where you are now sitting was inside that meter wide universe.
  • Because it started out so evenly distributed, even when matter eventually got around to clumping together into galaxies the large scale uniformity of the universe was preserved. The result is that our view of the far away universe looks the same in all directions.

As I learned about the beginnings of the universe as defined by the current, general relativity based theories, there was an unexpected harmonizing with Biblical accounts of creation. As Dr Hugh Ross points out , the most common description used in the Bible for the creation of the heavens (11 times) was that they were “stretched out”. For example: "This is what God the Lord says--he, who created the heavens and stretched them out" Isaiah 42:4 It is inspiring to me that these 2000+ year old words can be re-interpreted from formerly puzzling passages into respectable descriptions of the formation of the universe as astrophysics now describes it.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Authenticity of the Bible

Recently a friend of mine asked if it bothered me that there were so many challenges to the authenticity of the Bible. I responded that that these challenges don’t bother me, because if God is omniscient and omnipotent He certainly can control what we have come to know as His Word. If God doesn’t have these “omni” attributes, then he is at best irrelevant, and more likely non-existent—definitely not worthy of our attentions or worship.

Believing in the inspired nature of the Bible doesn’t resolve the issues that are raised in Dr Heidi's post early-christian-protest, it just challenges me to find a framework that fits. I cling to a few additional beliefs including:

  1. If a topic is important it will be repeated in the Bible
  2. There will be things about a non-created thing–God, that created things will not be able to understand
  3. The reason the universe exists is because God desires a relationship with us

My recent ponderings on the death and resurrection of Christ have revolved around the role of language in reaching a diverse and intellectually evolving world and wondering if the Passion of Christ was really an instantiated metaphor for what really happened before the beginning of time: Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men”. Phil 2:5-7

Friday, April 06, 2007

Saul--King of Israel 2.0 - a study in scarcity?

For me the story of King Saul has morphed from being a vaguely remembered Sunday school story to a puzzling tale of why God chooses whom He chooses. Early in the story I discovered that Saul was not the first king of Israel--God considered Himself the first king. This is one of those rare cases where the second release is dramatically inferior to the first.
Scene I: A New King for Israel
The people of Israel (to Samuel): "You have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations."
The Lord (to Samuel):"Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them."
MeditatorSaul was really the Hebrew's 2nd King, God was the 1st. As Christians, God is King of our lives, but how often do we reject His kingship to pursue phantoms of justice, security, or prosperity?
Samuel (to Saul) "And you shall go down before me to Gilgal... You shall wait seven days until I come to you and show you what you should do"
Narrator"So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal.
MeditatorIn spite of screwing up almost immediately Saul was king for probably 12 years or more. God selected Saul out of the whole nation of Israel. Was Saul the best to be had? It would seem so.
Narrator (about Saul)"Now he waited seven days, according to the appointed time set by Samuel, but Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattering from him."
Saul"Bring to me the burnt offering and the peace offerings."
Narrator "And he offered the burnt offering. And it came about as soon as he finished offering the burnt offering, that behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him and to greet him"
Samuel (to Saul)"What have you done?" (with anger)
Saul (to Samuel)Because I saw that the people were scattering from me, and then you did not come within the appointed days, and that the Philistines were assembling at Michmash, therefore I said, Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not asked the favor of the Lord. So I forced myself and offered the burnt offering.
The importance of obeying God’s specific instructions exactly is an oft repeated theme. Many times the Lord’s direction is faint or missing, but when it is clear take note and don’t deviate.
Saul's sin--not waiting for God, even when God is "late". The people were drifting away, Saul wanted to take action. He trusted the quantity of soldiers under his command more than he trusted God. Quite a contrast to Gideon sending most of his army away. So Saul "forced" himself to disobey God's command--because he had not yet asked the favor of the Lord. We want the Lord's blessing without the inconvenient or distressing obedience bits...
Samuel (to Saul)"You have acted foolishly, you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you, for now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. "
David’s kingdom was established through his offspring –which ultimately resulted in Jesus. If Saul had been obedient would Jesus have had a different mother?! How invariant is God’s plan?

Scene II Destruction of the Amalekites
Samuel (to Saul)"Thus says the Lord of hosts...Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey."
Narrator"But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were not willing to destroy them utterly; but everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed."
MeditatorGod's command to utterly destroy everything did not sit well with the Israelites. Likely the disobedience came for a desire to prevent "waste", avoid offending the masses, or perhaps to be "religious". In any event not obeying God's direct command exactly is not a good idea.
Lord (to Samuel)"I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not carried out My commands.."
MeditatorGod's response to Saul's sin? Some translations say regret, others say repent--or was it just a sigh (the simple definition of the Hebrew word used)
Narrator"And Samuel was distressed and cried out to the Lord all night. And Samuel rose early in the morning to meet Saul"
Bystander (when asked where Saul was)"Saul came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself, then turned and proceeded on down to Gilgal."
Saul built a monument to himself for "his" big victory against the Amalekites. So much for giving the glory to God.
Narrator"And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him"
Saul "Blessed are you of the Lord! I have carried out the command of the Lord!"
Samuel"What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?
Saul"They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed."
SamuelStop!...Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”
Saul"I did obey the voice of the Lord, and went on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and have brought back Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took some of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the choicest of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord you God at Gilgal."
MeditatorSaul was not willing to take responsibility -- "the people" did this, or that.
Samuel"Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, "to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. "For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has also rejected you from being king."

Scene III Too late -- Repentance
Saul“I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may worship the Lord.”
Samuel“I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”
Narrator"Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel."
Narrator "Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him."

The rest of Saul's reign is really a nightmare: evil spirits, attempted murder, the ordered killing of Godly priests, consulting with a medium.
Given His omniscience I wonder why God chose Saul. But regarding God's choices you can say the exact same thing about all of mankind. Even the bright spots like Moses and David were murderers!
Is the story of Saul a microcosm of God's relationship with mankind? He creates us, selects us, we choose evil almost immediately, and things go mostly downhill from there? The only thing that makes sense is that God so desires relationship that He was willing to endure the pain and heartache of a mostly disastrous result. He chooses the best possible reality.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Where are the modern day idols?

In the Old Testament idols were a big deal--two of the ten commandments are taken up with prohibitions against them. Not many people in Europe, or the Americas seem to be worshiping Baal at stone altars or wooden Asherah these days. However in a recent trip to China I saw a lot of people offering incense and bowing down to various Buddhas and other idol like figurines. I have seen similar stuff in Japan. Are these just the fading pockets of idol worshiop? Will this be mostly gone in 50 years? So what are the 21st century idols? Have idols morphed into something else, or are they a vice man has mostly left behind--perhaps the only one? Conventional wisdom says that our material things (e.g. Plasma TVs) are modern day idols--but this is not compelling to me. People typically don't worship these things or pray to them--they just want them for status or to immerse themselves in a football game. Have we elevated science to god status now? Looking to it for protection and for answers to the mysteries of life.

After Saul botched his assignment to wipe out the Amalekites Samuel tells him:"For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry" This equates idolatry with disobeying God -- essentially putting yourself in the position of God.

Mike Thorburn Bayside said that anything that comes between you and God is an idol. This approach would promote a lot of things to idol status--in fact almost everything sinful or evil. This strikes me as perhaps too broad--but this would fit with the emphasis given in the Ten Commandments.

Scot Douglass in his book, Theology of the Gap says: "Diastema and Kinesis are antidotes to humanity's propensity to idolatry. The very fabric of creation speaks of the absence of God and invites those within the diasteme to seek for God elsewhere".

Yes, I agree it is arguable whether this last quote is actually in English. My paraphrase of Scot's sentences above is that life is the juxtaposition of "now" -the moment that we live in, and the untouchable past and future. If we recognize the mystery of that, then we are far less likely to seek god in a wooden statue wrapped in gold foil.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Man would create God, but would God create Man?

(Meditation in Progress) I am certain that man would create God if there were no God. I am less certain that God would create man if there were no man. Given that man seems to exist, the question centers on "is there really a God?" There are many men, and hence many religions. I suppose there could be more than one true path, but Jesus discourages that alternative ("No man comes to the Father but through me")

Is Christianity really unique in its historical basis? A religion where at least some of its history is verifiable distinguishes itself from myth, and from most other religions. Many religions with no verifiable history(e.g. Mormons) have a sort of made-up feel to them. The historical veracity of Christianity certainly doesn't hurt its believability, but the path to faith doesn't usually follow an archeologist's steps.

The ongoing friction between Christianity and Science is a serious thing. I suppose it hasn't always been this way. Until science reached a certain level of maturity I doubt its explanations were any more compelling than just chalking things up to God's will. However once science achieved some predictive capability (e.g. timing of eclipses) things started to change. Over and over the church has opposed new scientific ideas (e.g. heliocentric solar system), only to eventually abandon their position in the face of compelling evidence. Why is there this historical animosity? The church has been lagging science ever since the 1st century. Will this gap ever close?