December 15, 2009

Is Open Theism’s Cosmology Coherent?

Filed under: Church,Philosophy,Science — Bob Gifford @ 8:45 am

I just completed a Systematics Theology course at Fuller Seminary. Class assignments included a term paper, which I decided to do on the confluence of physics and the theology of divine time, omniscience and providence. It’s a fascinating subject. The term paper had a limit of 10 pages (which I exceeded a tad) or I could have gone on longer. As it was, the limit forced me to be concise and focused.

Click here for a pdf of my term paper.

October 7, 2009

Quote for the Day Year

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 11:41 am

A Sully quote for the day. Given the name of this blog, I have to pass it along:

“Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it. The man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith,” – Thomas Merton.

June 29, 2008

Niebuhr Predicts the Iraq War

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 12:15 pm

I’ve started reading Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr. it was written in 1932, but I am amazed at how incredibly relevant he is to the events of our day. Niebuhr writes*:

The economy of nature has provided that means of defense may be quickly transmuted into means of aggression. There is therefore no possibility of drawing a sharp line between the will-to-live and the will-to-power. Even in the emotions, attitudes of defense and aggression are so compounded that fear may easily lead to courage, and the necessity of consolidating the triumph won by courage may justify new fears.

[The U.S.], seeking to maintain her hegemony in [Iraq], speaks with monotonous reiteration of her need of security. She typifies the human spirit with its curious mixture of fear of extinction and love of power. Power, once attained, places the individual or the group in a position of perilous eminence so that security is possible only by the extension of power. Thus nature’s harmless and justifiable strategies for preserving life, are transmuted in the human spirit into imperial purposes and policies. So inextricably are the two intertwined, that the one may always be used to justify the other in conscious and unconscious deception.

As you may have gathered, Niebuhr was not actually speaking of the U.S. and Iraq, but of France and Europe in the period between the two world wars. But when we look at the original decision to invade Iraq, the Bush doctrine of preemptive attack, or Bush and McCain’s desire to maintain U.S. bases and troops in Iraq indefinitely, Neibuhr’s observation fits like a glove.

So what is Niebuhr’s solution to this human tendency to pursue aggression in the name of self-defense? I don’t know — I haven’t gotten that far yet. But it seems to me that awareness of the problem is the first step towards healing.

* Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 42

May 26, 2008

The War Prayer

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 10:56 am

The War Prayer

by Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams – visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest! Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory –

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor – and also you in your hearts – fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. the whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them – in spirit – we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

[See here for some background on this poem.]

December 18, 2007

Haught vs. Pharyngula

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 8:07 pm has an interview of John Haught, Catholic theologian, devout Darwinian and author of books such as God After Darwin. It is very Polkinghorne-esque.

Haught covers topics such as: the shallow grasp of Christianity by the New Atheists, the compatibility of Evolution and Christianity, the false teleology of scientific materialism, his dissatisfaction with Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria, the correctness but incompleteness of scientific truth, the bankruptcy of the “God of the Gaps”, the inanity of intelligent design and the downright scariness of Mike Huckabee. He touches on some of my favorite authors like Paul Tillich, and some I’m totally unfamiliar with like Teilhard de Chardin and Camus. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout (except for the camera-at-the-resurrection part — I’m still mulling that over).

In short, it’s crack for anyone interested in the intersection of science and theology.

But the really interesting part is the reaction Haught provoked by one of the New Atheists. Pharyngula, aka PZ Myers, has a rather, um, uncharitable post in reply.

[I don’t know] why we still have universities with theology departments, and haven’t razed them to the ground and sent the few remaining rational people in them off to sociology and anthropology departments where their work might actually have some relevance. It’s terribly uncharitable of me, but after reading this interview with John Haught, a Georgetown University theologian, I’m convinced that the discipline is the domain of vapid hacks stuffed full of antiquated delusions.


Every time I read something by one of these credulous apologists for religion, I am further convinced that they are just making stuff up.


This guy is completely batty. If this is an example of theological thinking, I’m entirely justified in dismissing this entire academic discipline — these guys are the equivalent of astrologers, still lurking in the spider-webbed corners of our universities.

I don’t think he likes Haught much.

After reading Haught’s thoughtful, reasoned interview, I was struck by how little Myers actually engages with his arguments. He just kind of dismisses him and the entire field of theology. He counters Haught’s logic with invective and hand-waving, which is odd since Myers is defending the exclusive use of logic against any kind of religious belief. For example:

[From the interview:]

The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity. Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, all expressed it quite correctly. The implications should be nihilism.

Here we have yet another believer trying to tell us what the logical conclusion of atheism should be: in this case, nihilism. Doesn’t the fact that none of the New Atheists that I know of are nihilists matter? I guess if you’re willing to abandon any requirement for evidence, you can also ignore any evidence that counters your opinion.

So…why aren’t Nietzche and Camus correct that atheism leads to nihilism? Myers doesn’t say.

But Myers really pisses me off when he says this:

I consider the feeble gullibility of, for instance, the average Lutheran church member to be the real problem — that our country and our culture as a whole endorses institutions that encourage credulity in the face of religious baloney. Even if the radical fringe weren’t throwing bombs, I’d still be asking people why the heck they believe in such patent nonsense. [emphasis mine]

Because, of course, I’m one of those average Lutheran church members. For Myers to accuse me of being gullible, after the years I’ve spent thinking, reading, challenging, doubting and rethinking, is incredibly insulting. When Myers accuses me of gullibility, he speaks of that which he does not know. He demonstrates that he is the one unwilling to consider evidence that runs counter to his opinion.

I would be totally fine with atheists and their dismissal of religious belief, except for the underlying authoritarian strain — not only are those religious people horribly wrong, but we have to do something about them! As I quoted above:

we still have universities with theology departments, and haven’t razed them to the ground and sent the few remaining rational people in them off to sociology and anthropology departments where their work might actually have some relevance.

Myers, and the Four Horseman of Atheism (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) not only disagree with people of faith, they want to eradicate religion as though it were a virus. By all means, disagree with my beliefs, but when you want to impose your beliefs on me, by force if necessary, you’re just another authoritarian. And we already have enough of those on the religious right.

October 21, 2007

Two Quotes

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:05 pm

A quote for a Sunday evening:

I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe—I believe what I believe is right.

-George W. Bush, 2001

And here’s another quote:

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

-Oliver Cromwell, 1650

August 25, 2007


Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 5:20 pm

From Andrew Sullivan:

[C]omplete religious certainty is, in fact, the real blasphemy. As he put it, “We cannot worthily conceive the grandeur of those sublime and divine promises, if we can conceive them at all; to imagine them worthily, we must imagine them unimaginable, ineffable and incomprehensible, and completely different from those of our miserable experience. ‘Eye cannot see,’ says St. Paul, ‘neither can it have entered into the heart of man, the happiness which God hath prepared for them that love him.'”

In that type of faith, doubt is not a threat. If we have never doubted, how can we say we have really believed? True belief is not about blind submission. It is about open-eyed acceptance, and acceptance requires persistent distance from the truth, and that distance is doubt. Doubt, in other words, can feed faith, rather than destroy it. And it forces us, even while believing, to recognize our fundamental duty with respect to God’s truth: humility. We do not know. Which is why we believe,

(Here’s best wishes to Andrew and Aaron on their wedding day.)

August 18, 2007

Opus: Eternally Annoyed

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 6:47 pm

This week’s Opus (click on the image below to see the whole strip):

August 8, 2007

Credo Quia Absurdum

Filed under: Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 9:27 pm

From Kierkegaard:

If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.

As quoted in Sophie’s World (p 379).

August 4, 2007

Maha: The Wisdom of Doubt

Filed under: Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 7:05 pm

Maha has been writing a series on The Wisdom of Doubt, which she has now wrapped. Given the name of this blog, I have been reading it with great interest. Maha is a former Christian, current Zen Buddhist, and as you can imagine, has a lot of interesting things to say about Christianity as well as religion in general. I highly recommend the whole thing, but there are a few of my favorite quotes:

Doubt in the Zen sense is not knowing. A Christian might use the word humility instead of doubt to mean about the same thing. Doubt means you don’t know with any certainty who or what God is, or what’s going to happen next, or how your plans for yourself will turn out, or even what happens when you die. But though you doubt, yet you trust. This is faith.

Doubt also means you are open to all possibilities, all understanding, because you haven’t filled up your head with certainty. Zennies sometimes use the phrases “beginner’s mind” or “don’t know mind” to mean the same thing. That’s why this kind of doubt is about being open. The other kind of doubt, the one that causes people to fold their arms and say religion is just superstitious crap, is closed.

This captures so well why I, a believing Christian, yet embrace doubt as an essential part of my personal philosophy.

Maha also includes a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th century Christian theologian:

When we look into the future we see through a glass darkly. The important issue is whether we will be tempted by the incompleteness and frustration of life to despair, or whether we can, by faith, lay hold on the divine power and wisdom which completes what remains otherwise incomplete. A faith which resolves mystery too much denies the finiteness of all human knowledge, including the knowledge of faith. A faith which is overwhelmed by mystery denies the clues of divine meaning which shine through the perplexities of life. The proper combination of humility and trust is precisely defined when we affirm that we see, but admit that we see through a glass darkly.

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