22 October 2018

How can we talk about character and ethics?

The Oklahoma County Courthouse facade, facing Park Avenue in Oklahoma City, Okla. 
Several role plays in the new prison curriculum lacked realism, she said. And she wanted to know how I got a job writing character-training material for prisoners.

It was family day for the faith and character pods at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ Mabel Basset Correctional Center. She had a tear tattooed in the corner of her eye, and I had a feeling her...balogna...meter was finely tuned.

The DOC had contracted with my then employer, Character First, to see whether character-based programming could―in connection with anger-management, cognitive behavior change, and other programming―change the culture for long-term prisoners.

Apparently it was obvious I didn't have much experience in prison.

But her question triggered two questions in my mind. First, on what basis can we talk about ethics? Because we talked about various character qualities―aspects of personal integrity―we had to give some rationale for what makes good and bad behavior. Most of the other curriculum I’ve seen focused on other variables.

“Thinking for a Change” uses terms, such as "action plan―a chosen plan for dealing with a particular problem" or "thinking choices―different attitudes and thoughts I could have had." As participants work through each unit of the curriculum, they add additional vocabulary focused on the social and thinking skills needed to change behavior patterns. These approaches have merit, particularly when verified by research. And by defining goodness essentially in terms of prosocial behavior, the writers avoid a lot of philosophical debate.

But avoiding a philosophical debate is not the same thing as avoiding a philosophical position. Teaching people to relate to one another in terms of prosocial behavior makes certain assumptions about what it means to be human and how the individual relates to others.

These approaches also involve assumptions about the nature of reality overall.  

Character First's approach seems to assume we live in a broken but ethical universe governed by a set of laws―something like the laws of physics―with which humans can be more or less in tune. 

Character First defined faith as “confidence that actions rooted in good character will yield the best outcome, even when I cannot see how,” discernment as “understanding the deeper reasons why things happen,” and virtue as “the moral excellence evident in my life as I consistently do what is right.”

But there are always questions when desired results tend to benefit those who have power...employers or prison managers for example...and that brings up my second question: who benefits from the ways we talk about character?

In the day-to-day work of developing a curriculum, it’s easier to tell people what to do than to walk beside them through their challenges. We think we understand. So we stop letting them explain.

David Vishanoff, associate professor in the University of Oklahoma religious studies program, has been one of my primary influences as I've wrestled with these issues. As part of his personal experience as a Christian believer in conversation with secular academics and others in his field of religious studies, he has articulated an approach based on the idea of loving one's neighbor rather than defending one's belief system.

He points out in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus describes the other not only as someone to whom his hearers can give, but also as someone from whom his hearers can receive—not just someone whom they can teach, but someone from whom they can learn. In conversations I've been privileged to have with him, he's stressed not studying books that tell how others think but studying others...and allow them to explain themselves, whether through texts or in person.

Not long after we started work on the Character First prison curriculum, Character First hired Jeffery Boothe. He had been in prison for a couple of years and was serving his remaining time in work release when another client sent him our direction. We had the obvious conversations―“Is this a realistic situation?” “Is that even an issue prisoners struggle with?”―but the greatest benefit Boothe brought to our team was the opportunity to know him, to hash out the finer points of the “no snitching” culture, to hear him wrestle with his experience.

In many ways, a discussion of character lends itself to this kind of engagement because it emphasizes the intersection of ethical concepts and lived experience. In his book, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement,” David Brooks presents a narrative of human experience, incorporating the insights gained from recent neurological research.  

In the “morality” chapter, he questions common rationalist assumptions about thinking and acting, and he points out the influence of the intuitive, subconscious mind in shaping the way an individual sees and feels.

Brooks points out the sense of justice small children display. He stresses how institutions teach people all kinds of little rules for getting along. And he observes how conscious choices can nudge and shape the direction of the subconscious mind.

In “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis uses the word “Tao” to refer to the traditional ethical standard found in various cultural and religious traditions. And he answers both those who would seek another basis for human behavior and those who would do away with ethical standards altogether.

On the surface, Lewis' argument appears similar to Brooks' argument, but where Brooks sees a synthesis created by the sometimes contradictory pull of various moral intuitions—sacrificing one's life for a cause and preserving the species for example—Lewis sees evidence that instinct is an inadequate basis for morality because a person must appeal to some moral standard in order to weigh any synthesis.

The difference can be more subtle than it first appears. Brooks leaves open the question of whether human moral experience is capable of infinite variation. Thus, we could argue Brooks merely describes the origin of the “Tao.” 

Lewis seems less concerned with how ethics come to be. So we might argue that a scientific description of how humans experience ethics isn't necessarily out of line with Lewis' “Tao”—or natural law as some call it. 

But Lewis' fundamental objection remains—the variability of human “instinct” makes it a difficult basis for any idea of rightness. Brooks admits some contradiction between particular moral intuitions. But he argues these rational contradictions point to the inadequacy of the rational approach at least as a guide in daily decision making.

In “Ten Theories of Human Nature,” Leslie Stevenson and David L. Haberman develop a critical theory with which to compare religions, philosophical systems, and more recent theories. 

In the introduction, they write: “In our wide sense, a 'theory of human nature' encompasses: (1) a background metaphysical understanding of the universe and humanity's place in it; (2) a theory of human nature in the narrower sense of some distinctive general claims about human beings, human society, and the human condition; (3) a diagnosis of some typical defect of human beings, of what tends to go wrong in human life and society; (4) a prescription or ideal for how human life should best be lived, typically offering guidance to individuals and human societies.”

Parts three and four of their analysis involve more specifically ethical questions, but it also places ethical considerations in a context that deals with what is real and what is human. Granted, some “theories of human nature” might give ethics a stronger position within their understandings of what is real and human, but this approach gives us an opportunity to engage those ideas too.

In his book, “Naming the Elephant,” in which he critiques his previous work, “The Universe Next Door,” James Sire observes, “All worldviews have at least some operative concept of the passing of time and its relation to both human and nonhuman reality. Folklore, myth, and literature around the world from the ancient past to the present tell stories that put present human reality in the larger context of universal cosmic and human meaning. They act as orienting patterns.”

He takes as an example the Apostles Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell;
the third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven,
and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty;
from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Christian Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting. Amen.

In just two lines, this ancient statement of belief brings together what H. Porter Abbot in “The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative” calls the basic elements of a story—entities and events.

When a person assents to this story, he or she is not making theoretical statements but claiming a particular relationship to the story and adopting a way of perceiving the world—in this case seeing God as the ultimate entity and all things in the context of God.

Sire also argues, “How we view life affects the life we live; it governs both the unconscious actions we engage in and the actions we ponder before acting.” As Sire quotes Wilhelm Dilthey as he's quoted by David Naugle in “Worldview: The History of a Concept:” “Every true worldview is an intuition which emerges from the standing-in-the-middle-of-life.”

I suggest this intersection of moral perception and lived experience forms the narrative whereby we understand our ethical obligations and is formed by the narratives within which we see ourselves. Thus, examining these narratives can help us more fully understand disagreements such as the one between Lewis and Brooks and can help us interrogate our own ethical understandings.

21 October 2018


Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris
The Light with whom existence is shot through
Stands in our night, knocks at the door.
Amid the bloody aching mess of birth,
All that went wrong, that's left, and still might be
Met there as Mary held her child:
The promised son instead of Cain and Abel.
Creator into His creation comes,
“The express image of His person”
Becoming creature, Son of Man,
Yet Stranger, 'mid a family scandal.
He, sharing sister's grief, called brother forth,
Instead of stench, the glory of the Lord.
He took on Him estrangement and our death,
Bore Adam's thorns, the scourging, and the cross,
And with the wheezing thieves beside him,
Pulled up to breathe 'gainst spikes in hands and feet.
This gory spectacle of suffering—death,
He shattered and renamed.
His love retook, redeemed, reconsecrated
Every kingdom of mankind.
And by the grace of His forgiveness,
We hope our stories too can be made new.

20 October 2018

The Poetics of Christmas

First came the faint crackle vinyl records make, then Alexander Scourby's voice reading the King James Version. His voice painted the stories of Adam and Eve and Abraham and Job and Job's wife across my mind.

When we were kids, Mom tucked us into bed and turned on the record player.

There were two Christmas stories.

"The First Nowell," in "Christmas Carols New and Old,"
edited by Rev. H.R. Bramley and Dr. John Stainer.
Public domain, courtesy of Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Christmas stories—both St. Luke's and St. Matthew's Gospels—appeal to Hebrew authority.

Matthew begins with genealogy—with Abraham—picking up almost as if where the Chronicles of Israel's kings leave off. Matthew cites Hebrew prophecies fulfilled in events he records.

Luke starts with the temple in Jerusalem, a priest named Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were both “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” 

Zechariah's Silence

The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah as he burnt incense. “Your prayer is heard,” the angel said. The child would not drink alcohol and would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb. Then, in the words of the prophet Micah, the angel says: “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Centuries earlier, an angel of the Lord also appeared to Abraham and Sarah before the birth of Isaac and to Manoah's wife and then Manoah before the birth of Samson. Both Sarah and Manoah's wife were barren too.

But Zechariah had prayed so long, perhaps, he could not believe. So Gabriel tells him he won't speak again until these tidings come true.

When Zechariah returns home to the hill country of Judah, Elizabeth conceives and hides herself five months. Why did she do that? Had she miscarried before and wanted to be sure? How much could Zechariah spell out for her? Did she see Zechariah's silence as a sign?

When John is born, the relatives converge to circumcise the child according to Abrahamic tradition. They call him Zechariah, but Elizabeth says—and Zechariah writes—“His name is John.”

“And [Zechariah's] mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, 'What manner of child shall this be!'” 

Thus, Zechariah's silence becomes a sign not just to him but to the neighbors too. He's filled with the Holy Spirit and bursts into song.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel;
     for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us
      in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets,
     which have been since the world began:
That we should be saved from our enemies,
     and from the hand of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers,
     and to remember his holy covenant;
The oath which he sware to our father Abraham, that he would grant unto us,
      that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,
     In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest:
     for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people
      by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God;
     whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
     to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Zechariah expresses the tension between promise and experience—“To perform the mercy promised... to remember... to them that sit in darkness....”

Something of the longing and weariness of God's people makes the promised grace of God more merciful.

His song becomes two parts: “Blessed be the Lord....” and “And thou child....” He reaches back in history, recalling David and Abraham and the Exodus. Then, he turns to his son and recalls the angel's reference to Malachi and the prophet Isaiah's words—“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

Mary's Psalm

In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, an earthy way to measure time, the angel Gabriel is sent again, this time to Nazareth, where Mary lives, a descendant of King David and espoused to Joseph.

Like Zechariah, Mary is first startled by the angel's greeting. Then Gabriel tells her she has found favor with God and “...thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.” and “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” The words Nathan the prophet spoke to David.

When Mary asks how this can be since she is a virgin, Gabriel uses language reminiscent of Genesis where the spirit of God moves on the waters and creates—“the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”

Then Gabriel gives Mary a sign—Elizabeth—and uses the same words Sarah received when she first laughed at the thought of Isaac—“For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

Mary responds, “Behold the [servant] of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

Elizabeth comes out of hiding when Mary arrives. Maybe Elizabeth saw Mary as a third witness that what she was experiencing was real. She is filled with the Holy Spirit, blesses Mary and Mary's child and concludes: “And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.”

Then Mary sings.

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
    And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
    for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things;
    and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him
    from generation to generation.
He hath showed strength with his arm;
    he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
    and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
    and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He hath holpen his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers,
    to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

Mary begins with the words Hannah sang centuries before as she dedicated her son Samuel to serve the tabernacle. Hannah in deep distress had prayed to have a son, and Samuel was the answer she received. Hannah sang of God's vindication of the feeble, the hungry, the barren, and the poor. Then she concluded,

“...the LORD shall judge the ends of the earth;
    and he shall give strength unto his king,
    and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

In the prophet Nathan's delivery of God's promise to King David, this idea came into fuller flower: “I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee.”

Mary's song expresses this covenant-keeping mercy. Her response is not resignation or resolve but praise.

In Psalm 89 there is perhaps a parallel to Mary and Zechariah. That psalm begins like Mary's song.

“I will sing of the mercies of the LORD for ever:
    with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations....”

It celebrates who God is and God's promises to David.

“...Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound:
    they shall walk, O LORD, in the light of thy countenance.”

It includes God's promised love, despite his people's unfaithfulness, and the psalm concludes with this Zechariah-like plea for God to remember.

“Remember, Lord, the reproach of thy servants;
    how I do bear in my bosom the reproach of all the mighty people....
Blessed be the LORD for evermore. Amen, and Amen.”

The Angels' Gloria

In Matthew's account of Jesus' birth, Herod gathers the chief priests and scribes to ask them where the King of the Jews is to be born. They reply with the words of the prophet Micah,

“And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    art not the least among the princes of Judah:
    for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”

Writing, perhaps, for a Greek, or hellenistic, audience, Luke sets events in the Roman historical context—“there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

So Joseph and Mary went up to be registered in Bethlehem, the home of their ancestor, King David.

While they are there, Mary gives birth.

An angel appears to shepherds in the fields and says, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord....”

Centuries earlier, at the death of Joshua, successor to Moses, the angel of the Lord rebuked the people of Israel for their failure to possess the promised land and their idolatry. Now at the birth of Jesus, an angel of the Lord announces to the shepherds—and all people—a savior, Christ, the Lord.

When Luke turns to genealogy, he will trace Jesus' lineage back through Adam. And Luke's sequel to this account, The Acts of the Apostles, will include the unconfusion of languages at Pentecost so that all people—Jews, proselytes, and gentiles—could hear.

Speaking on that occasion, Peter explains to his hearers what is happening in the words of the prophet Joel because Mosaic law measured a prophey's credibility by the truthfulness of its predictions and its consistency with what God had already said.

He recalls the signs and wonders Jesus performed because signs and wonders were signs of prophetic credibility. And Peter sees the resurrection of Jesus—of which he offers himself and his companions as eyewitnesses—as fulfillment of King David's longing expressed in Psalm 16.

“I have set the LORD always before me:
    because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth:
    my flesh also shall rest in hope.
For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell;
    neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
Thou wilt show me the path of life:
    in thy presence is fulness of joy;
    at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.”

Peter further sees the work of the Holy Spirit that day—promised by Jesus before his ascension, and obvious to his audience—as further confirmation of Jesus' presence at the right hand of God as in Psalm 110.

“The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand,
    until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”

Peter concludes with the same announcement the angel made to the shepherds, “...Jesus...both Lord and Christ.”

The angel also gives the shepherds a sign—“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

The angel is joined by a heavenly host, saying,

Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Here “good tidings of great joy” explode in the mind and heart. Glory to God and good will toward men.

The intuition of Psalm 85 is coming true:

“...Wilt thou not revive us again:
    that thy people may rejoice in thee?
Show us thy mercy, O LORD,
    and grant us thy salvation....
Mercy and truth are met together;
    righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring out of the earth;
    and righteousness shall look down from heaven....”

The shepherds went and saw and spread the news. They were eyewitnesses. In Mosaic law, events are only established by two or three witnesses. And as a historian, Luke writes so that his reader, Theophilus, might “know the certainty of those things, wherein [he had] been instructed.” 

The shepherds hearers marveled as perhaps those same Judaeans marveled months before when they heard of John the Baptist's birth.

And just as the angel's proclamation is followed immediately by the praises of the heavenly host, the shepherds return glorifying and praising God.

Simeon's Prophecy

Luke records Jesus was circumcised the eighth day according to Mosaic law, and when the days for Mary's purification after childbirth had passed, according to the law, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to offer sacrifices, according to the law, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

That was the sacrifice prescribed for those with lesser means.

A man named Simeon lived in Jerusalem, “...just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ....”

When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, Simeon was there, “Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God....”

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
    according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
    Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles,
    and the glory of thy people Israel.

We see Simeon here in “the company of prophets” known to Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha and upon whom the Holy Spirit came. His song echoes the language of light and glory used by Isaiah, and it recalls how the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel spoke not only to Israel but also to the surrounding peoples.

In the book of Acts, Luke will also record the Judaean prophet Agabus predicting Paul's imprisonment at Jerusalem.

Simeon, like the shepherds, is an eyewitness, as is Anna, the prophetess, who “served God with fastings and prayers night and day” in the temple. She “coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.”

Mary and Joseph marvel.

Then Simeon says to Mary, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

Simeon echoes language Isaiah used of God: “Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel....”

Many, perhaps, immediately think of the pain Mary must have experienced at the crucifixion, though Luke doesn't record Mary's presence at the crucifixion. 

The context also suggests the rending of her community.

Mary went to the passover every year. She believed the promises recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Seeing herself in the Hebrew biblical tradition as she seems to have done, and living when Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism grew out of that tradition, whole portions of her community might have seemed to become strange, perhaps people she knew and respected.

We know from Paul's epistles Luke worked with Paul, the apostle to the gentiles. Scholars point out Luke quotes the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. And Luke records Paul interpreting two pagan poets when addressing the Areopagus in Athens.

But Paul clung to the Hebrew scriptures, as he writes in his first letter to the Corinthians—“...how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen....”

Luke records the risen Jesus walking with two disciples to Emmaus and “...beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Then later Jesus appears to a larger group of disciples and says, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.”

There is something persuasive...in Luke's Hebrew poetics. 

By poetics, I mean not merely rhyme, rhythm, and sentiment but a re-enchantment of language and the world—the kind of re-enchantment that recovers the psalmists' and prophets' intuitions and continues them in ways attested by eyewitnesses.

In this joy and sorrow, we find continuity with ancient Hebrew longing, and we find comfort in the knowledge we are not alone when we too feel our communities torn by truths we don't yet understand.

19 October 2018

Stevens Pass

Wenatchee River, Leavenworth, Wash.
The smell of trees
And memories seep through the snow;

Cascading peaks
Faces obscure in vales of mist;

Moonlight falling
Slivers itself on mountain streams;

Towns, houses, barns
Shed pools of light by silver roads;

Bare river trees
And orchard rows slip past half known.

18 October 2018

Doubt and the Material World

Dad would look through “Birds of North America” to identify Rufus Sided Towhees and other visitors outside our picture windows. He talked about each species' field marks and how bird book illustrators paint colors more vividly than they appear in life.

We kept binoculars not far from the kitchen table.

Grandma Paulsson also had a well-worn copy of that book...and eventually I got a new edition of my own. 

Green-Winged Teal pair, Dave Menke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,

public domain.
I read biology and earth science textbooks without them being assigned, and I still amuse my wife and hiking companions, stopping suddenly to point out the Cedar Waxwings and Hairy Woodpeckers in nearby trees.

When I first wrestled with Darwin's implications, I understood religion—a spiritual worldview that depended more or less on faith—and science—a material worldview that depends on physical evidence—as rival explanations for reality. It seemed that I must be a Christian or an atheist.

Former Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell, who blogged "A Year Without God," said in an interview with Chris Stedman, “...the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary. The world makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.”

I could not so easily resolve the question. My lack of spiritual experiences led me to appreciate the physicality and reasonability of science. My wonder at existence made me uncomfortable with the idea that the tangible is all there is.

Henry Morris first resolved these questions—accepting the inerrancy of scripture, applying a particular reading of Genesis, and providing a plausible theory based on the Genesis accounts of creation and Noah's flood.

It was not the tension between the inerrancy of scripture and the scientific evidence that first caused me to question Morris. It was discomfort with materialism.

In the Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate, for example, one clings to inerrancy; one clings to scientism; neither questions the assumption that the first 11 chapters of Genesis speak in modern materialistic terms.

As Terry Eagleton points out in his critique of Richard Dawkins, “Dawkins makes an error of genre, or category mistake, about the kind of thing Christian belief is. He imagines that it is either some kind of pseudo-science, or that, if it is not that, then it conveniently dispenses itself from the need for evidence altogether. He also has an old-fashioned scientistic notion of what constitutes evidence. Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of these places…. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

Defenders of the faith make a similar mistake when they adopt a scientistic reading of scripture.

Genesis presents a chronological collection of stories; collected in 10 sections—more or less divided by the phrase “these are the generations of....”

The first creation account presents an objective, earth-centered, account of God's creation of the universe. The second creation story has what we might call an anthropological perspective. The scientific details are not...materialistically...the same. But both accounts fit the broader sweep of Genesis...as the narrative becomes progressively more intimate.

Adam and Eve, Cain, Enoch, and Noah appear in a context that includes all of mankind. God is talking to people, and we even occasionally know what God is thinking, but we feel a distance from the action.

Then the book focuses on God's relationship with Abram. We see God making promises and changing Abram's name. We see Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah. We read about the messiness of Abraham's family.

The patriarchs continue to function in an intermediary way—Joseph's administration of the land of Egypt to Jacob's blessing Pharaoh.

God speaks only once and only to Jacob in the last chapters. But Joseph flees Mrs. Potiphar's advances because of who God is. He tells Pharaoh it is God who gives the interpretation of dreams. When his brothers come to Egypt, he forgives them for selling him into slavery, because “God meant it for good.”

One need not claim the first eleven chapters of Genesis are merely symbolic...in the modern sense...in order to question whether Moses meant to write a technical...in the modern sense...origin of the world.

On the other hand, to see in Genesis some kind of poetry is not to deny its historicity...any more than to describe the beauty of a tortoiseshell cat without describing it's genetics is to deny the cat's existence.

Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor, raises bigger questions in my mind when he begins his narrative of religion by discussing schizotypal personalities—personalities not schizophrenic but somewhere on that spectrum.

The right amount of metamagical perception, he suggests, hearing a voice from a burning bush for example, might give an individual prominence in the community and be an evolutionary advantage.

He then applies the theory to other mental conditions. A mild version of obsessive compulsive disorder for example might allow religious people to invent and follow rituals. He uses Martin Luther as an example.

It's plausible to see obsession in the hours young Luther spent confessing every day. But it is hard to see how that led Luther to oppose the medieval Church's sale of indulgences. One could imagine an obsession might work the other way.

But even if the Apostle Paul didn't have epilepsy of the temporal lobe—causing his fascination with religion and his urge to write—Sapolsky's broader point remains...that biology explains part or all of what we call religiosity.

We know the nerves of some make them more sensitive to spicy food. I'm not very spiritual, at least compared to Pentecostals I grew up around. It has always been the physicality of red-wing blackbirds, mountains, and the sacraments that make them immediate to me. Maybe if we knew enough about neurology, we'd see why my brain does not experience the things other brains do.

But Moses didn't only bring the Israelites stories of a burning bush; he showed them to a burning mountain. In Deuteronomy 13 and 18, Moses gives his people criteria to discern the credibility of prophets...whether their predictions came true. In 2 Peter 1, the apostle Peter writes, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables...but were eyewitnesses of his majesty....”

The Bible's argument is not that there are not false visions or even that the messengers are normal but that they witnessed something real.

17 October 2018


Mule Deer, Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake,
United States Fish and Wildlife Service,
2001 (Public Domain)
October sun,
Deep blue sky,
Between afternoon and dusk,

I had been running.
He stood just off the trail

Seen suddenly,
Yet maybe
Having been there all along.

Grass belly high,
Wild rose hips, willow thicket,
Reds, greens, golds.

His coat, a silver brown,
White collar
Underneath his chin.

Black-liquid eyes,
A charcoal visor,
'Neath his sweeping crown.

I paused;
He watched me pass
And then we disappeared again.

A whispered breeze
Tugged at the trees;
The lake lapped at its bank.

16 October 2018

Poetic Intuition

"Portrait of René Descartes," By Jan Baptist
Weenix. Public Domain.
Respect for Descartes notwithstanding, “I think; therefore, I am,” is an odd statement.

Rocks don't think...as far as we know...but anyone who has had one in a shoe knows rocks exist, even though they don't think.

If I understand, Descartes began his search for truth by rejecting things he found occasion to doubt. He observed the senses might be deceived, and the body is mostly perceived by the senses.

The thing he could not doubt was his mind.

We realize we are because we can think. But human thought depends on human bodies for existence. And none of us thought about existing...before it happened to us.

There are different ways of discussing existence, in science and art for example. There are some things more true or more to the essence of things, but there are only real things.

Unreal things are theories or constructions or jokes that depend on some reference to what's real in order to have meaning. You can know a Muslim or a scientist for example, but you cannot know Islam or science in the same way.

Beauty, like truth, is universal. All people have beauty, but some are beautiful in this way and others in that way. Some perceive this aspect of beauty and others that one.

So meaning, as I imagine it, is the way we experience beauty and understand story. It connects the person together and connects the person to something beyond himself or herself. In that sense, maybe, meaning is an expression of relatedness to a broader idea of being. 

In all these senses of meaning...we bump into relatedness. And this breaking through of beauty and otherness...in language and narrative...is poetry.

In “Poetic Diction,” Owen Barfield critiques the narrowing of meaning in modern language, influenced as it is by the growth of scientific thought. Languages earlier in their evolution, he argues, are less scientifically precise and more naturally poetic.

Barfield describes the poet's task as something like re-enchantment, re-creating those slivers of meaning lost as words become more technical and precise.

Thus, the poetic challenges and renews our understanding of the world by refusing to speak in the categories we bring with us. The poetic is not reducible to what we call emotional or spiritual...because we must speak about real things if we want to mean anything at all...and because we are embodied beings.

The poetic also contrasts with materialism. Ken Ham and Bill Nye both read Genesis in materialistic fashion. The former thus believes. The latter disbelieves. But both, perhaps, somewhat miss the point.

It is modern to think life breaks into discreet subjects, such as poetry versus science. It is not human...or necessarily reasonable.

For example, it seems to me that we experience God through relationship. That's one reason why it sometimes appears there is no God. We attribute things to anthropology, which is partly true, like attributing being to thinking. But if God is as big as we imagine he would be in order to be God...then we would not expect to trip over him in the living room or to see him peeking 'round the moon.

We would expect him to be the ground reality of all being in the first place, which might feel to us as though he didn't exist, because we'd not be able to imagine without first being in order to imagine.

We might even expect God's activity to look like natural processes or human activity. We would experience them like we experience rivers and valleys or chickens and eggs. We might not always know which came first in particular cases, but they are all subject to the essence of being itself.

This is not to say that we only relate to part of God. If God is a being at all, we relate to all of him. We just have to expect he's a different kind of being than we are. We have our reason for existence in God. God has his reason for existence in himself, as I think Ravi Zacharias once put it.

So God does not relate to us the same way we relate to him any more than we relate to pottery the same way pottery relates to us.

It also makes sense, if God is the creator...by whatever means...that we'd find in him, as in the world, community. And if we can accept this intuition, the trinity also becomes plausible.

And that brings us to a story...shot through with strange poetry...a creation and a people and promises, burning bushes and mountains, tablets of stone and temples and prophets and kings, a manger and shepherds, water made wine, a God suffering with us...sharing our biology...an empty tomb and a promised new creation. It brings us to eyewitnesses who weren't expecting what they saw, but who staked their lives on the truth of their story.

15 October 2018


I first saw her tossing about the tops of Douglas firs
and heard her as she rushed around the corners of our house
and when she stretched and twirled chimney smoke
or tossed the rain up underneath the eaves.

And later she would whisper in my ear and muss my hair
and rock the bows and sway the trunks of trees I liked to climb;
I saw her drawing curtains 'cross the moon,
and felt her wringing raindrops from the clouds.

I've seen her fingertips ripple a sunset's reflection;
sometimes she sprinkles sun's light like glitter on the water.
She passes gently down the rows of hay,
and sometimes spins and rearranges them.

Stormy nights in Oklahoma she piles cars and scours ground;
she pushes sand across a road and dust half 'round the world;
part of this place and changing its shape too,
she comes and goes and in my mind remains.

I've known her refreshing sigh and felt her icy fingers;
she murmurs of grandpa's tales and of drumbeats long ago;
she's baptized me in salty ocean spray
and tugged at all the kite strings in my heart.

She smells of spring—of sage, of lilacs, and of fresh turned earth;
no matter in what distant place I've ever found myself,
her laughter echoes through these aspen trees,
she whispers 'gainst my cheek, and I am home.

Spring rain on the Waterville Plateau, Douglas County, Wash.

14 October 2018

The Land of Zoomzoomachi

Most of the folks
in Zoomzoomach'
live there because 
they're tired of 
the world they left behind.

They hoped they could
explore the place
and maybe, too,
discover there
something they hadn't seen.

A mighty land, 
it's all frontier
with vast red clay, 
and grasses grow 
across wide blue-skied plains.

No rules there
'Cept in your head 
and other laws,
like gravity,
you have to have to think.

The people too,
you bring with you 
though some you might
not recognize,
and some have come before.

Sometimes it snows
and gets quite cold;
not many trees
but lots of gold
and beauty hidden there.

Such beauty's best
explored, enjoyed;
it can't be grasped,
but someone tried 
to hoard and take the gold.

And when he failed,
he sought to stay
and rule his hoard
and others too,
but some resisted him.

And part of me
resisted too
with little steps
or floating leaps,
helpful when being chased.

He then became
king of the beastleys...
or we became
then beastly king:
talking, shape-shifting things.

In famine, they'd 
lure little towns
with barbecue
and then ambush
the hungry innocent. 

Appearance hid
their treachery,
they'd go to church,
gain trust, and turn
on poor defenseless folks.

The people now
grow stronger 'cause
heart's brothers bind
in sacrifice 
to other brothers' hearts.

Where is this land?
People around
think only it's
a thunderstorm?
But you and me, we know.

There is no road
or ship to take
to Zoomzoomachi,
but sometimes you 
might visit in your dreams.

13 October 2018

Reading Chesterton

G.K. and Frances Chesterton, 1911 (Public Domain) 
In his book, "Heretics," G.K. Chesterton held forth "On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small," "The Mildness of the Yellow Press," "On the Wit of Whistler," and other things.

Chesterton wrote “Orthodoxy”—his “slovenly autobiography”—“in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe.”

He was responding to G.S. Street and others who criticized
“Heretics” for not supporting its arguments with sufficient examples.

begins with an argument from sanity. He writes, “...as all thoughts and theories were once judged by whether they tended to make a man lose his soul, so for our present purpose all modern thoughts and theories may be judged by whether they tend to make a man lose his wits.”

He does not merely question modern materialist assumptions; he moves from example to example, turning modern categories on their heads. A democrat by taste, not just ideology, he defends tradition as “democracy across time.”

He appeals to lived human experience, drawing evidence from literature, art, and architecture as well as philosophy, and idealizing an earthy old England prior to the Puritans and materialists. 

His discussion of suicide is not about suicide itself but builds a bridge from the inadequacies of optimism and pessimism to the resolution he finds in Christianity.

Under the weight of all these little observations, he comes to the sensibility that Christianity is a truth-telling thing.

"...since I have accepted Christendom as a mother and not merely as a chance example, I have found Europe and the world once more like the little garden where I stared at the symbolic shapes of cat and rake; I look at everything with the old elvish ignorance and expectancy. This or that rite or doctrine may look as ugly and extraordinary as a rake; but I have found by experience that such things end somehow in grass and flowers. A clergyman may be apparently as useless as a cat, but he is also as fascinating, for there must be some strange reason for his existence."

Reading Chesterton is more like exploring a landscape than following a logical progression. One outlines in the margins only to return and scribble notes over other notes as themes emerge and re-emerge and modify one another. His writing is poetic, breaking established categories to recover or reveal the reality of things.

He does this, as Alison Milbank argues in “Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real,” through defamiliarization, the grotesque, and paradox.

In his poem, “By the Babe Unborn,” the speaker is not directly named and speaks from an unusual point of view. The effect is to re-enchant the ordinary world—grass, sea, sunlight, and hills...and give the reader the experience of seeing colors for the first time.

If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,

If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.

In dark I lie; dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.

Let storm clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.

I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.

In “A Man and His Image,” Chesterton uses the grotesque to contrast a saint with how he is remembered. But the use of the grotesque here to get at something more true also reveals something about how Chesterton saw reality...as something wilder and only partially perceived.

All day the nations climb and crawl and pray

In one long pilgrimage to one white shrine,
Where sleeps a saint whose pardon, like his peace,
Is wide as death, as common, as divine.

His statue in an aureole fills the shrine,
The reckless nightingale, the roaming fawn,
Share the broad blessing of his lifted hands,
Under the canopy, above the lawn.

But one strange night, a night of gale and flood,
A sound came louder than the wild wind's tone;
The grave-gates shook and opened: and one stood
Blue in the moonlight, rotten to the bone.

Then on the statue, graven with holy smiles,
There came another smile—tremendous—one
Of an Egyptian god. 'Why should you rise?
'Do I not guard your secret from the sun?

The nations come; they kneel among the flowers
Sprung from your blood, blossoms of May and June,
Which do not poison them--is it not strange?
Speak!' And the dead man shuddered in the moon.

Shall I not cry the truth?'--the dead man cowered--
Is it not sad, with life so tame and cold,
What earth should fade into the sun's white fires
With the best jest in all its tales untold?

'If I should cry that in this shrine lie hid
Stories that Satan from his mouth would spew;
Wild tales that men in hell tell hoarsely—speak!
Saint and Deliverer! Should I slander you?'

Slowly the cowering corse reared up its head,
'Nay, I am vile ... but when for all to see,
You stand there, pure and painless—death of life!
Let the stars fall—I say you slander me!

'You make me perfect, public, colourless;
You make my virtues sit at ease--you lie!
For mine were never easy—lost or saved,
I had a soul—I was. And where am I?

Where is my good? the little real hoard,
The secret tears, the sudden chivalries;
The tragic love, the futile triumph—where?
Thief, dog, and son of devils—where are these?

I will lift up my head: in leprous loves
Lost, and the soul's dishonourable scars—
By God I was a better man than This
That stands and slanders me to all the stars.

'Come down!' And with an awful cry, the corse
Sprang on the sacred tomb of many tales,
And stone and bone, locked in a loathsome strife,
Swayed to the singing of the nightingales.

Then one was thrown: and where the statue stood
Under the canopy, above the lawn,
The corse stood; grey and lean, with lifted hands
Raised in tremendous welcome to the dawn.

'Now let all nations climb and crawl and pray;
Though I be basest of my old red clan,
They shall not scale, with cries or sacrifice,
The stature of the spirit of a man.'

The Magi identify themselves in the second stanza of “The Wise Men,” but Chesterton employs paradox after paradox until we find ourselves included in the final stanza.

Step softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain
That we may lose the way.

Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore
On tortured puzzles from our youth,
We know all labyrinthine lore,
We are the three wise men of yore,
And we know all things but the truth.

We have gone round and round the hill
And lost the wood among the trees,
And learnt long names for every ill,
And served the mad gods, naming still
The furies the Eumenides.

The gods of violence took the veil
Of vision and philosophy,
The Serpent that brought all men bale,
He bites his own accursed tail,
And calls himself Eternity.

Go humbly…it has hailed and snowed…
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

The world grows terrible and white,
And blinding white the breaking day;
We walk bewildered in the light,
For something is too large for sight,
And something much too plain to say.

The Child that was ere worlds begun
(…We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone…)
The Child that played with moon and sun
Is playing with a little hay.

The house from which the heavens are fed,
The old strange house that is our own,
Where trick of words are never said,
And Mercy is as plain as bread,
And Honour is as hard as stone.

Go humbly, humble are the skies,
And low and large and fierce the Star;
So very near the Manger lies
That we may travel far.

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain.
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain.

His poetics take this shape it appears because this is how he gets through to what is real...and perhaps equally how he sees reality reveal itself. Or as the protagonist in his novel, "The Man Who Was Thursday," experiences:

"He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.... Dawn was breaking over everything in colours at once clear and timid; as if Nature made a first attempt at yellow and a first attempt at rose. A breeze blew so clean and sweet, that one could not think that it blew from the sky; it blew rather through some hole in the sky. Syme felt a simple surprise when he saw rising all round him on both sides of the road the red, irregular buildings of Saffron Park. He had no idea that he had walked so near London. He walked by instinct along one white road, on which early birds hopped and sang, and found himself outside a fenced garden. There he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl."

In the sixth chapter of "Orthodoxy"—his discussion of Christianity’s paradoxes—Chesterton uses Gothic architecture to illustrate.

"Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years. In a Gothic cathedral, the columns were all different, but they were all necessary. Every support seemed an accidental and fantastic support; every buttress was a flying buttress. So in Christendom apparent accidents balanced."