November 13, 2011

Theodicy Part 1: Love

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 1:10 pm

I cry to you and you do not answer me
Job 30:20a

I remember a science fiction novel, or maybe it was just a short story, from my youth. It described a planet populated by humans that had never known pain, hunger, grief or loss. They had never experienced sadness. Ever.

This state of affairs was achieved by, as I recall, an automated planetary system put in place by a now-gone super-race that had nurtured the humans’ evolution. This ancient, very advanced, and very benevolent race of overlords had been very protective of their race of humans. They did not want them to suffer, and knowing that they could not protect their humans forever, they created this system to shield them from pain long after the overlords could no longer.

If someone, say, had an accident resulting in a broken bone, drones would swoop in, mend the injury, and remove all memory of the pain from the victim. When someone died, drones came and erased the deceased from the memories of all who had known her. These robots would heal any injury or disease, and then remove it from the communal memory of the entire planet.

Then one day the overlords’ system broke, and for the first time the humans experienced pain. The story examined the shock and evolution of the people as they learned to deal with loss.

But let’s drop the fictional overlords and their protective healing and forgetting system, and just consider what our world would be like if we too never knew pain and sadness. An omnibenevolent and omnipotent God should have been able to create just such a world. Was God unable to create such a perfect world because God is not omnipotent? Or could God have created such a world, but chose not to, because God is not all-good?

What would a pain-free world look like, and who would we be in such a world?

Without sadness, we would not know happiness. Without absence, we could not celebrate presence. Without dissatisfaction, we would have no reason to strive, and hence no ambition, goals or dreams. We could not be afraid, since there would be nothing to fear. Without fear, there would be no bravery. There could be no self-sacrifice, and so no reason for altruism. Our lives would be devoid of pain, but also devoid of emotion.

Most importantly, there would be no empathy. Empathy is our ability to understand another’s emotional state, and to experience it ourselves. Without pain and loss, we would have no reason to share in each other’s emotions.

Returning to the world of my science fiction story, before the overlords’ system broke, no one is sad, but so too no one is joyous, afraid, brave or ambitious. And no one could know love. This is why God created a world in which pain exists.

God has created us in God’s image to love God and to love one another. Love is not love unless it is freely chosen and given. To be freely given, we must also be able to withhold it. We must be free to cause pain if we are free to give love. Love requires empathy, the ability to place ourselves in another’s place. Empathy requires pain, grief and loss both in the other, and in ourselves, for we can’t understand that which we haven’t experienced ourselves. Look at the outpouring of charity in the face of natural disasters around the world. Think of the time and treasure devoted to alleviating hunger and disease around the world. Think of our own lives, and the times we have comforted and ministered to our friends, family and even strangers in times of grief and loss. Could God create a world without earthquakes and tsunamis, hunger and disease, grief and loss? Perhaps. But would such a world know love?

September 10, 2011

Do We Have A Soul?

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 2:26 pm

I am finally getting around to posting a term paper I wrote for my Systematic Theology 3: Ecclesiology and Eschatology class at Fuller last year.

Do we have a soul?

© Bob Gifford.. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Calvinism v. Lutheranism

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 2:15 pm

My thoughts on this excellent article critiquing Calvinism:

To me the most important refutation of Calvinism is this: A god who willfully creates people whom are foreordained to eternal punishment with no chance to avoid it is a monster, a sadist. This is not a god to be worshiped, but a god to be resisted, rebelled against, and overthrown.

God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenificent. A monster god is not omnibenificent. The only way to square this circle is if God, although omnipotent, out of God’s omnibeneficence chooses to give us free will. God willingly limits God’s power out of love. Love does not compel love in return, but allows the freedom for it to be freely returned. This requires the risk that the love will not be returned. Adam (and Eve…let’s not forget Eve) had free will which allowed them to act against God’s will, i.e. sin, in spite of God’s love. The Fall was not that Adam and Eve sinned, it was that as a result they were kicked out of the Garden, i.e. they were separated from God’s presence, which is always the consequence of sin.

This author sounds very Lutheran when he talks about mystery. Luther did not feel the need to resolve paradox, but embraced paradox. So Jesus is human and divine, salvation is through faith but visible in works, we are in the world but not of it, we are simul justus et peccator, faith is a gift but it requires our response. We are to live the paradoxes, not construct a neat logical resolution to them as Calvin did, thereby missing the whole point. Luther was very zen. Calvin not so much.

Note the name of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s church – very Lutheran. It’s not a House for Sinners, and also a House for Saints. It’s a House for all who are both sinners and saints, i.e. everyone. One of my kids brought home a t shirt from a youth event with a design that, when read right side up by someone looking at it from the front, said “Sinner”. But when the wearer looked down at the front of the shirt, seeing the design upside down, it said “Saint”. For us Lutherans, paradox is a feature, not a bug of our theology.

November 13, 2010

i thank you God for most this amazing

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 6:13 pm

i thank you God for most this amazing
by e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings;and of the gay
great happening ilimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any – lifted from the no
of all nothing – human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

July 11, 2010

Random 10

Filed under: Music — Bob Gifford @ 7:59 pm
  1. Peace, Love and Understanding, Robben Ford, Keep On Running
  2. Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil), Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
  3. Granny (Live), Dave Matthews Band, The Gorge
  4. Shilo, Peter Himmelman, Skin
  5. Rock Me Baby, Memphis Slim, I Am The Blues
  6. Sweet Sixteen (Live), B.B. King, Live in Cook County Jail
  7. Minarets (Live), Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Live at Luther College
  8. Messiah Part III: No. 50. O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?, London Symphony Orchestra
  9. Like A Prayer, Glee Cast, Glee The Music – The Power of Madonna
  10. Wang Dang Doodle, Howlin’ Wolf, Moanin’ In The Moonlight

December 26, 2009

From Whence the Perpetual Budget Deficit?

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 9:52 am

We have a persistent federal budget deficit because Americans consider themselves consumers, not citizens. Hence, we want what we want. And what we want is stuff. We want stuff from the government. So no one wants any middle-class entitlements cut, or a smaller army and less interventionist foreign policy, or poorer schools. We want the economy to always grow, the prisons to be full, and the freeways to be traffic-free.

And as consumers, we want to pay as little as possible for all this stuff. No one wants taxes to increase, and any tax cut is a good tax cut because it means we get our stuff for less.

Most politicians get elected by promising us more stuff for less money. It used to be the Democrats that promised to give us more stuff without us having to pay higher taxes. So they financed increased spending and people were happy. Then the Republicans started promising us that the same amount of stuff would cost less. So starting with Reagan, they kept cutting taxes without ever quite managing to cut spending (actually, Bush dramatically increased spending). And the electorate is happy. The same stuff, or better yet, more stuff, for less.

The debt has grown under both Republicans and Democrats, but I would argue it has been far worse recently under Republicans. Just look at the national debt at the beginning and the end of each administration. Clinton ended with a surplus, but Bush blew a hole through that by giving huge tax cuts. Obama’s stimulus and TARP are not paid for, because we’re in a recession and increasing taxes would hurt the economy. It’s basic Keynesian economics that is working as it should. But the health care reform package is paid for. So between Republicans increasing debt because of tax cuts or Democrats increasing debt because of spending, I think the Democrats have been more responsible over the past 30 years.

But neither is ideal. If you want to solve the problem, then that means we have pay for what we get — every increase in stuff the government provides needs to be matched by an increase in taxes. I would be happy with a system where every year the marginal tax rates floated to precisely match the spending, as long as there was an out for economic stimulus during recessions. People wouldn’t like paying more taxes or getting less stuff, but they’d be forced to choose what government spending was worth paying for. You want to give corporate farmers subsidies? It will cost you another $x in taxes. You want to send casual pot smokers to prison? It will cost you $y.

But I would argue this alone isn’t enough. People have to see themselves as citizens, not consumers. A consumer wants what they want for as little as possible. A citizen realizes that we’re all in this together and we have to make decisions for the good of the whole country, i.e. the common good. So maybe I don’t benefit directly from a given government program, but it makes our country a better country, and is therefore worth paying for.

Of course Tea Partiers will argue that I just want to pick their pocket. That’s because they view themselves as consumers, not as citizens. They seem not to care about the well-being of the country as a whole, just their personal bubble. They don’t want to pay for stuff that they benefit from every day, like an economic system that has produced the greatest concentration of wealth in the history of humanity. They’d be happy to have poor people die in their homes from treatable diseases instead of helping to pay for their health care, because they are not members of their tribe.

But we are all in this together. And “we” in the United States means people that don’t look like us, speak like us, or worship like us. So it can be very difficult to think of the entire US as “we”, but to be a citizen demands exactly that. It means we not only pay for the stuff we get, but help pay for stuff that other people get because the common good, the well-being of the entire country, demands it.

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.

November 9, 2009

Perfect Enemy of the Good &c.

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:12 pm

Are these people nuts?

As a passionate follower of politics, I have railed on this blog about political stupidity from time to time. I think without exception it has been about those on the right. But just to prove I’m not biased, this one is about crazies on the left.

I happened to catch a snippet of The Ed Sullivan Show on MSNBC (I’m not a regular viewer). Ed Schultz was interviewing Dennis Kucinich, who was bragging about his vote against the House health care reform bill. Kucinich talked about how we need a single-payer health care system, health insurance companies need to be cut out of our system, and this bill is a sell-out to the insurance companies. And Ed Schultz was agreeing with him that passage of this bill was not a victory for progressives.

Politics is the art of the possible. The bill passed by a narrow margin. Kucinich was the only Democrat voting against it from the left, while 38 Democrats voted against it from the right. Do Kucinich and Schultz really believe Congress could ever pass the bill they want? Do they really believe the status quo is better than a first step towards reform? Would they prefer the current bill fail rather than pass the best bill that could actually get a majority of votes in the House?

Yes, these people are nuts.

Update: Schultz and Kucinich were not talking about the Stupak Amendment, and neither am I. My thoughts apply to the based health care reform bill itself.

Update 2: Some similar thoughts from Ezra Klein.

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.

October 2, 2009

The Flaws in the Tea Party Conservative Ideology

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:34 pm

The libertarian wing of the conservative movement has two intellectual problems, it seems to me.

The first is their canard that taxes is the moral equivalent of stealing. US economic growth, i.e. our income, is to a large extent thanks to government. The low cost of raising equity capital? Government (SEC). Low friction commerce within the US? Government (enforcement of regulations means we don’t have to worry that we’re being lied to or sold worthless drugs, lead paint, tainted milk, infected meat, etc etc). The fact that we aren’t all left penniless because our banks failed? Government (Fed, Treasury, FDIC). Like the low cost of pretty much any commodity? Government (FTC preventing monopolies and price-fixing). Like being able to buy cheap plastic stuff from China? Government (trade deals). So much of our personal wealth and standard of living in the US is directly due to government.

Disagree? Let’s look at countries that don’t have such government mechanisms. Mexico, Russia, Turkey, where graft and bribes are required to get anything done. China, where the drive for profitability of party members’ companies leads to tainted milk. Every single one of the prosperous countries in the world have effective government regulation of commerce. Every one. And every country that does not is stuck in poverty.

But anti-government anti-tax conservatives don’t want to pay for what they’re getting. They’re selfish that way. They insist that what the rest of us consider “paying your own way” is “theft”. The government (i.e. the people) say that if you are going to receive all of these benefits, you’re going to pay for them whether you like it or not. And rightly so. To do otherwise would make all of us worse off. Think Darfur, where as I understand their marginal tax rates are rather low and regulatory burdens fairly light.

Problem #2: libertarian conservatives live in an either/or world, as though there are only two choices: pure libertarianism, or pure communism. Put differently, we either exalt the individual and ignore the community, or exalt the community and ignore the individual.

But it’s not an either/or proposition. We must find a balance between individualism and communalism (not communism). France, say, has found a balance that is too far towards communalism for me. Among developed nations, the US is the furthest towards individualism. I believe we should nudge it a bit towards communalism in some things, but not many and not very far. The world is analog, not binary, and I just want to turn the dial a tad to the left.

That doesn’t make me a communist, and doesn’t mean I don’t care about individual freedoms. I care very much. I care about civil liberties that many on the right are happy to sacrifice to communalism: privacy, protection from unlawful search and seizure, freedom of speech (flag burning, say), and many more. So the anti-government libertarians too are somewhere in between pure libertarianism and communism. We’re just at different points on the spectrum.

The libertarian conservatives view the left as godless, as if our political beliefs are unchristian. So is my view compatible with Christianity? Oh my yes. I want a community where people aren’t ruined financially because they get cancer, or where they die from cancer needlessly. Where, while we treasure individual liberties, we also balance them against a communal desire to care for the least of these. And we do these things together, as a people deciding these things democratically, under the rule of law. As a people realizing that we can do some things together that none of us can do alone. As a people understanding that, while we are all individuals, we all suffer or benefit from the well-being of the entire community.

The Tea Party right, however, seems to want a world in which they benefit from the vibrant and thriving society all around them, but don’t have to pay for it. Now that’s not Christian.

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