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Posts published in “Jesus and Godel”

Pride Isn’t Just a Sin, It’s a Distraction

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Pride. One of the "Seven Deadly Sins." Overweening confidence in one's accomplishments. Sooner or later, if you study Christian thought, you'll come across the idea that pride is one of the worst sins that you can fall into. I'd put self-righteousness over that, but, hey, the two go together.

Another common idea in Christian thought is the difference between Christian values - "the Kingdom" - and values in our society - "the World". We encounter this every year when Christians engage in performative lying about "the War on Christmas" every time someone says "Happy Holidays."

But the difference in the Kingdom and the World is important, even though hyped-up Christians imagine differences which are not there - for example, some say "Happy Holidays" just to change it up, or say "Holiday Party" because (a) the office party isn't on Christmas and (b) people of other faiths attend.

The difference is important because our society, while it might be a vast, distributed artificial intelligence of sorts, itself isn't a rational agent which follows God's will. That's up to us, as individual humans, and as we've talked about earlier in this series, us finite beings are always prone to messing it up.

So we're constantly called to rise above what our society does by default - to turn away from the values of the World, which develop through their own inertia - and to consciously choose to follow Jesus, exhibiting the kind of values He would exhibit if He were here among us.

On that note, one might imagine that Jesus wouldn't have been too wound up over whether the office end-of-year celebration was called a Christmas Party or a Holiday Party, but He might take offense at stripping Christ out of a personal Christmas Party, or - "You're celebrating my birthday in December?"

Another difference between the Kingdom and the World is the focus on self-actualization and pride in one's accomplishments. A lot of Christianity depends on overcoming our own worst impulses, which seems precisely opposite to our modern culture's increasing focus on self-acceptance.

These are not as incompatible as they seem. The world has engaged in spectacular, mind-numbing repression on a vast scale - most noticeable in totalitarian cultures, where even the language gets edited to reflect political authority - but down to the massive but almost invisible conformity forced upon us.

One of the arguments in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is "You don't raise a guy to a responsible job who whistles in the elevator!", with one character getting fired over it. I and my father, a generation and a half apart, argued over this, and he said he'd reprimand a man who did that.

My father was a great man, and he built a great business, but I'm working in a great business too, and it's filled with responsible people doing excellent jobs who've named themselves after flowers, and once I saw a very serious presentation by a very serious person wearing a Pokemon onesie.

I could go on a riff here about how we've moved past the strict IBM business culture of the 1950's and discovered that most of those surface features don't matter for doing excellent work - they were holdovers from the Victorian era, perpetuated by anal-retentive power freaks. And I'd be right.

But something has entered here, subtly, trying not to get noticed: pride. Because being right about the job part misses the real point to be made: Whether someone should get reprimanded or not, whistling in an elevator makes a lot of noise in an enclosed space. It's arguably rude and shows little self-control.

But it's hard to be open to that point if you're only seeing your own side of the argument, which may be correct, but not complete. Recently, in a virtual meeting where I'm sure at least one person was wearing a funny hat, we had an argument over whether we should support one or two pieces of software.

A very senior executive argued we should push for one; I argued to keep two (or more broadly, as many as were needed). But the executive didn't stomp on my point; in the chat for the meeting, they pointed out they agreed for that particular topic, and outlined circumstances why we might choose either path.

They even used math to justify the argument - one of my arguments, simplex math, the notion that software complexity is the square of the size of the product, so if you can support two simple things, that can sometimes be cheaper than supporting one over-complex thing that tries to do it all.

We both learned something in that meeting, because we were both open to hear it. But if either of us had been caught up in the pride of our points, that understanding would not have been possible. And the executive would have won by default, since he'd accomplished way more than me.

Some Christians take it that all pride is bad. Sometimes it even gets capitalized, like Pride, and gets a corner office. That's useful: I distinguish between the English word "pride" - being rightfully happy we accomplished something - from Pride, in the sense of excess egotism about ourselves.

C. S. Lewis once said that if a Christian was the best in the world at something, he should honestly and sincerely acknowledge it - and then forget about it, as he moves on to the work to be done for the day. And that part of the Christian journey is constantly tamping down these self-aggrandizing impulses.

I think Pride does more than lead us down the wrong path. It leads us into a state of self-absorption, where we are so convinced of our own accomplishments - and maybe we have some - and of our own rightness - and maybe we are - that we can't see the accomplishments or rightness of others.

Christians say God is infinitely good. Constructivist mathematicians say there's really no such thing as "infinite", only series which expand without limit. There's no infinite number, just a number one larger than any number choose. In the same way, no matter how good we are, there's always a way to improve.

Pride isn't just placing our will over God's. Pride internalizes our accomplishments and so aggrandizes our selves. Furthermore, it's  a particularly hard sin to overcome as that self-aggrandizement serves as a blinder to information that might contradict that inflated self-assessment.

Pride isn't just a sin. It's a distraction from turning towards the right path.

Fortunately, Jesus is always there for us to follow.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman.

Who are you doing it for?

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One of the things I find about Christian media is that even a bad essay, story or movie is likely to have a kernel of truth in it. Not that Christian media can't be badly done or bad theology - far from it - but it's almost like, perhaps, the inspiration of the truth is likely to shine through into the text.

People who publish Christian literature encounter this all the time: many people who submit their writing feel that it is divinely inspired, down to the last word and letter, but the truth is, whether the authors are inspired or not, their texts are often filled with typos and bad grammar, or simply need development.

But there's still likely to be good stuff in there. In an earlier essay I mentioned The Last Temptation of Christ, which does a better job of anything I've seen of humanizing the struggle of Jesus, who was both divine and man. And that includes The Passion, described by Pope John Paul II as "it is as it was."

But The Last Temptation also has the character of Jesus uttering his "break the cycle of evil" speech to Judas, which is the best justification for "turn the other cheek" that I've seen, as well as a revisionist interpretation of Judas as the super-apostle whose betrayal of Jesus helped fulfill Jesus's mission.

That interpretation certainly isn't biblical, but in the context of the story, having two characters on opposite poles - Jesus, the uncertain Messiah, Judas, the certain Zealot - enabled the filmmakers to explore the heart of Jesus's teachings and his sacrifice in a very personal way.

Another example is The Passion, which feels like a live re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross. But  knowing that the hand shown hammering the nails into Jesus's flesh is Mel Gibson's hand, the director, intended as a stand-in for all of us, reminds us of the purpose of Jesus's sacrifice for our sins.

Another such movie is Prince Caspian. I prefer The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a movie, but even though I liked it, the betrayal, sacrifice and resurrection depicted in that book or movie always struck me as a bit forced - C. S. Lewis being a bit too blatant about the allegory he wanted to convey.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, has a similar flaw when one character says "Things never happen the same way twice," which might be news to the author of Ecclesiastes 1:9: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

That was a transparent excuse for C. S. Lewis to write himself out of the plot hole where he'd created the same setup for a battle as the previous book but wanted it to be resolved a different way. From a craft perspective, the correct approach is to re-arrange the book's events to create a different climax.

But despite these flaws, the movie - I don't remember if this is in the book - has the brilliant line, "Exactly who are you doing this for, Peter?" when Peter makes a bad choice out of self-aggrandizement. Again, I felt like this was heavy handed - but it made an important point.

In Christian theology, God created the universe; God is infinitely good; and ultimately doing God's will, not our own, is the difference between doing good and falling into sin. Doing God's will doesn't mean you can't go get a drink of water when you're thirsty, but it does mean you need to think about your purpose.

We take on many projects in our lives - for me, building a robotic navigation stack, or working on a 21-book novel series, or completing a webcomic - or working on a Lenten series explaining my theology in terms that might possibly make sense to other human beings who don't live inside my head.

But these things are not God's will by themselves. Not that they can't be consistent with God's will - I use projects that have a religious nature, be it service on the church Vestry, writing a Lenten series, or writing books religious characters - as a way to expose me to and hopefully draw me to God.

But consistent with is not equal to. Take the Dakota Frost, Skindancer novel series, on the surface about a magical tattooist, but also about a Christian in a world of monsters and magic. I've learned a lot from the situations I put Dakota through, and developed my own ideas of radical forgiveness from that.

But finishing those 21 books - I've got 3 published, and 4 more written, with drafts going far out - is just a temporal task in this world. Even if it is a good work, that's not going to get you into heaven, and if you're doing a good work for a wrong reason, it will rapidly go bad on its own.

So "Who are you doing this for?" is a key question we should ask ourselves. Are the things we have committed to things that we're committed to for the right reasons? Because, no matter how far down the path we have gone, if it is the wrong path, Jesus will be waiting there to show us the right way.

-the Centaur

Pictured: A random centaur, because there are centaurs in Narnia.

Jesus Doesn’t Wait

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So! The Catholic Church recently refused to bless gay unions on the excuse that "God can't bless sin." No big shock, if you've been following the development of Catholic theology over the last, say, 2000 years - which, of course, is an explanation, not an excuse; the decision was still wrong.

And it's wrong, from a Christian perspective, despite the Bible's condemnations of homosexuality. As Christians, we're obligated not just to read the Bible and take it out of context to support our social taboos, but to look at the traditions of the Church - and the findings of rationality.

In the case of homosexuality, reason speaks quite strongly: on the one hand, homosexual orientation appears to be very likely innate and is highly resistant to change; on the other, fundamental judgments on relations between individuals should be based on consent, respect, and mutual benefit.

This sounds very modern and utilitarian, and maybe it is, but it's derived from an understanding of the Christian faith as a Catholic faith, applicable to everyone, and from an understanding of morals as being derived from what is good for all the individuals involved - maybe all is lawful, but not all is expedient.

That last bit is important. While we've come to understand we need to treat all individuals with respect, and that just because a relationship fits traditional social norms doesn't mean it is healthy - sin exists in heterosexual relationships in the form of abuse - we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

On the principle that things are not good because they are in the law, but they are in the law because they are good, many scholars think that Old Testament prohibitions against eating certain foods and injunctions to be clean were designed to prevent food poisoning.

In the same way, Old Testament prohibitions against sexual immorality reduced the spread of venereal disease and discouraged children being born outside of stable homes - which is why the Catholic Church's opposition to contraception is, in many ways, precisely backwards.

Speaking as a bisexual man, I'm glad that our modern model of sexual relations shows greater respect for each individual human being's sexual expression than the one expressed in the Old Testament, but I can't help but wonder whether those prohibitions were a crude hammer to stamp out a disease vector.

Our bodies are designed to work in certain ways by evolution; our human minds can hack this to enable two people with differently wired lovemaps to have fulfilling relationships. But doing that was harder, and more error-prone, in the days prior to modern medicine and modern contraception.

More generally, whenever we try a new way of doing things - be it as simple and uncontroversial as a new way of cutting bread, or as complicated as trying to provide adequate medical, social and relationship support to individuals with gender dysphoria - it takes time to get it right.

And religion hangs on to traditional 'truths'. That's what it does. That's what it's for. So it doesn't surprise me that the Catholic Church isn't quite ready to bless gay unions. Even though Pope Francis doesn't believe he should be judging gay people, actually blessing their unions would be a big change.

It reminds me of the controversy over the Episcopal Church's first gay bishop, Gene Robinson. This rocked the Episcopal Church in a split known as the Anglican Realignment. While the main Episcopal Church has continued in love and continues to bring people to Christ, at the time, however ...

One of my churches in Greenville considered splitting off. Most churches I attended discussed it. At one such meeting, my opinion was asked. And as you might expect, my opinion ain't that simple. Because a Bishop not just a priest with a funny hat - they're held to a higher standard.

Bishops are successors of the Apostles. They're expected to lead a faith community. And in 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul lays out a list of qualifications: "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker ..."

The list goes on. It's all good stuff, suggesting that bishops should be people of morally upstanding character. And so what's the problem with making a gay man a bishop? Not, to me, the traditional prohibitions against homosexuality ... but that the Church hadn't figured out how to marry them yet.

Not that a bishop had to be married, of course, but at the time, gay people who wanted healthy fulfilling relationships had to go outside the relationship forms blessed by the Church. So consecrating a gay man at the time meant asking someone to take a vow which conflicted with their committed relationship.

I said as much to the priest I was talking to: that bishops were supposed to uphold higher standards of behavior, and if we wanted to elect a gay bishop who was in a committed relationship, we should develop an understanding which supported marriage rites for gay people and make sure the relationships work.

"So I'd wait until we'd worked out rites for gay marriage before electing a gay married bishop," I said ...a and then blurted, in a sudden flash of inspiration: "But Jesus wouldn't wait, of course. He'd just go ahead and do it, if it was a good thing. So maybe we should just go ahead and do it."

Yes, it makes a lot of sense - if you listen to Paul's very reasonable statements about bishops, if you come from our traditional background which not only didn't have support for homosexual relationships, but which only contained condemnation - to "wait" to "work out all the details."

But Jesus wouldn't wait: if it was good, he'd go ahead and do it. Jesus is the man who'd pull the oxen out of the well on the Sabbath day, who'd help the Samaritan woman despite the local prejudice, who'd tend to the wounded man on the road despite the religious differences.

And so, Jesus is the man who'd bless gay unions, or marry two gay people, or consecrate a gay bishop. Jesus would be completely comfortable doing this, because Jesus would also be completely comfortable calling out any of these people - or their straight counterparts - on bad behavior, asking them to repent.

It isn't the traditional forms of our society that determine whether a relationship is good or bad: it's our decision to follow Jesus, to turn to the good, and our recognition that, in the Catholic faith, we must treat each person with respect, to love them as we would be loved.

If an union is homosexual, and is a healthy source of strength and joy between two committed partners, then it's a good thing, and God can bless it. If an union is heterosexual, but is a diseased source of conflict between abused partners, then it isn't a good thing, and God is not likely to bless it.

Though Jesus will always be there, ready to point towards a better way.

He's just not going to wait for the rest of us to get started.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Gene Robinson.

Keep Holy the Sabbath Day

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As it says on the tin. I know this is riffing off some of my earlier titles, but even though I have a lot of work to do for the move, I made a deliberate effort to build the rocking chair and outdoor end tables I'd bought a week or so back, hose and mop off the courtyard porch, set them up, and chill out with a few books prior to dinner. It was only twenty minutes of "rest", but it sure did feel good.

Almost like there is something to this "the Sabbath was made for Man" idea.

-the Centaur

Pictured: A quick illustration. Nothing special. Illustrator remains harder to use than Photoshop.

Lawful but not Expedient

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paul headshot The Old Testament is filled with rules and regulations - reams of them scattered through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, and then fleshed out further in Deuteronomy. And Jesus said that He didn't come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. But not so fast. Even though Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that nothing would be struck from the the law until "all was accomplished," elsewhere, He said the law and the prophets were proclaimed - past tense - until John, and since then the Gospel has been proclaimed, and everyone's trying to get in. What's this mean? And how do we fit this in with the fact that Jesus reinterpreted the law all the time? The key comes from this comment by the Apostle Paul: "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." This phrase is part of a longer explanation by Paul of principles that Jesus demonstrates by example. Both Paul's arguments in Corinthians, and Jesus's frequent rebuttals of the Pharisees, both reject strict applications of the law in favor of appeals to focus on what's good for everyone involved. I've argued before that Jesus's approach to the law is surprisingly modern and scientific, focusing not on whether someone is strictly obedient to the letter of the law but instead on what various acts do to people. Food passes through the body, and so doesn't make us unclean; but bad thoughts do. Paul's approach is similar, suggesting that believers resolve disputes not with lawsuits but by arbitration by fellow Christians, and that people who are hurting themselves or others with greed, theft, idolatry, lust, or betrayal are committing sins against their own bodies, which should be sanctified for God. While both Paul and Jesus condemn various behaviors, we shouldn't take those as an exhaustive list. That's the whole point of the passages: just because something isn't listed on that list doesn't make it right, and conversely, treating Paul or Jesus's examples as Pharisaical commands misses the point. In Catholic theology, this kind of thinking is called having a "scrupulous conscience" - taking the law as a very literal set of rules which we should follow to the letter, like a roleplayer in a D&D game trying to argue with the gamemaster about whether a given spell would or would not slay a crystal dragon. But what's printed in the rules of D&D - no matter how specific, regardless of edition - takes second place to what the gamemaster wants to run in his campaign. Similarly, Jesus and Paul want us to develop our own moral imagination, so we can decide, as Jesus did, that it's okay to rescue an ox on the Sabbath. To unpack this, the laws of the Old Testament are ceremonial, civil and moral. Ceremonial law had to do with Israel's worship, which Christians think pointed ahead to Jesus's coming, became obsolete with his Resurrection, and were arguably - though disputedly - set aside in the Incident at Antioch. The civil laws of the Old Testament, like the declaration of a jubilee year or the rules for managing slaves, had to do with a society which is very different from the one we have today, and even though they're described as being eternal laws, few Christians think we should apply them all strictly. Moral laws, like the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandment (which is normally associated with Jesus, but is also present in the Old Testament) retain their force. Not coveting, lying, cheating, stealing, or murdering remain as problematic for us today as they were back in the day. Jesus's ministry, especially the Sermons of the Mount and the Plain, both adds to and takes away from our understanding of these Old Testament laws. He reinforces some old laws, reinterprets laws like divorce, and provides new examples that set a higher standard. And yet, He still says the law wasn't going to pass away until everything is fulfilled - a fulfillment which many people take to mean His Resurrection. But I think there's more to it than that. Jesus was God, and taught with authority, so for him to emphasize the law, even as he went beyond it, meant something. Paul again provides us the key. Perhaps it is true that all things are lawful now, but not everything's good for us. And on the principle that things are not good because the law says so, but that the law says so because things are good for us - we should study the law and use it to guide our understanding. Yes, we no longer celebrate a jubilee year. Yes, the Jewish dietary restrictions are no longer relevant. Yes, the Biblical attitude to homosexuality is grounded in the prejudices of the cultures at the time, and shows neither a correct understanding of human sexuality nor a Christian respect for individual persons. But it's worth understanding why these were laws in the first place. It's worthwhile to consider canceling debts. It's worthwhile to consider whether our diets are healthy. It's worthwhile to consider our expression of our sexuality and ask whether it is building up our tearing down our lives and the lives of our partners. All things may be lawful in the Christian faith if the most important point of Christianity is believing in Jesus and choosing to follow Him - but that can be a difficult path, so it's worth reviewing our lives and asking whether we're making it easy to follow Him, or throwing stumbling blocks down for ourselves. -the Centaur Pictured: the Apostle Paul, interpolated from three early paintings and the only physical description of him that I know of: of middling size, with scanty hair, large eyes, a long nose, and eyebrows that met.

Jesus is Everywhere – and for Everyone

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Something I neither hide nor advertise is being part of the BDSM / fetish / leather community. Perhaps that's obvious to anyone who's read my novels, but I still miss Atlanta's great fetish club, the Chamber, where goth-industrial music used to play until 4 in the morning - and where I met my future wife.

That scene wasn't for everyone. Costumes sparkled, music pounded, lights flashed, dancers crowded, and onstage were spectacular shows, like a workman "cutting" a dancer out of a chastity belt in a shower of sparks. (Not really - the sparks were made with a grinder against an added block of metal).

This was a great place to go and unwind after a long week at graduate school, for even at 1AM I could head down to the Chamber, watch the dance floor until until my nerves started to unwind (I rarely drink, so this took at least half an hour) and then join in for a couple hours of dancing before close.

The Chamber was a place I could, briefly, forget all the worries of my graduate studies and have fun in a very mildly transgressive way. But to me, the only norms worth transgressing are purely social ones, not moral laws, so I never let down my boundaries. And, thankfully enough, I always had a guide.

One of the great things about the BDSM community is its focus on respect and safety. Many of the things that people enjoy doing are dangerous, and so the community is built on the principles of "safe, sane, consensual" - don't do dangerous things, stay in your right mind, and act with your partner's consent.

Not everyone from outside the community respects these standards, and if you aren't a person who goes out to "normal" bars and dance clubs a lot - why would I have? I rarely drink - the behavior of people from outside the community - the games that they play - can be a little surprising and upsetting.

Once, a few years before I met my wife, I was dancing at the Chamber and a girl started dancing with me. After a few minutes, the girl's apparent boyfriend came up and shoved me. Put mildly, this ain't typical behavior for the Chamber, and it very quickly became clear he was trying to start a fight.

But I'd thrown off his first shove with a sweeping Taido block, and turned away, dancing. I was there to dance, not play childish games, and I'd never been so over a pair of people in such a short time. The guy shoved me again, but I blocked again, continuing to dance. After half a minute, they lost interest, and left.

Now, my martial arts training helped here - while Taido is based on turning defense into offense, three of its broader rules are: "If you think there's going to be trouble, don't be there. If there's trouble, don't be there. And the mind, body, and spirit are one: be dignified by this unity and you need fear no insult."

The point of that last, arcanely worded bit is easy to lose, so let's unpack it a bit: Your mind is a part of your body, and your body is one with your eternal spirit, which cannot be damaged by mere words. So if someone insults you, don't let it get to you; rest in the calm of your spirit instead.

In other words, turn the other cheek.

It's been years since then, but in the moment in which that shove slid off my block and I turned away - and a fight did not immediately follow - that I recall recognizing the wisdom of turning the other cheek. I'd heard about this phenomenon in Taido class a number of times, and now I was seeing it in real life.

While I'm not telling you not to defend yourself, violence begets violence - as the character of Jesus said in the Last Temptation of Christ, "If you don't change the spirit first, change what's inside ... [then even] if you're victorious, you'll still be filled with the poison. You've got to break the chain of evil ... with love."

Even in places that we might not expect to find him, Jesus is there. In a movie based on a book banned by the Roman Catholic Church for sacrilege, in a martial art designed to turn defense into offense, in a mildly-transgressive nightclub, even in the attack of a drunk jerk - Jesus is there, ready to guide us.

At another event, I decided to leave because my new boots were killing me. Grabbing a soda at the bar on my way out, I struck up a conversation with a nice dominatrix, who - and it's really hard to convey how completely platonic this act was - massaged the tip of my boot to make the pain go away.

We talked for half an hour, until a friend dropped by and enthusiastically started telling us about a new development in their relationship which sounded, um, doomed. I and my soda-and-boots buddy listened, increasingly concerned, when finally, the dominatrix diplomatically asked, "Is that really what you want?"

Our friend didn't listen, and ended up having serious problems in their relationship. But what really struck me in these encounters is that all of the traditional social taboos of our culture had fallen away - we were at a fetish club in outlandish costumes - but the teachings of Jesus were still there and as alive as ever.

The costumes were outlandish, but the people in the club were not characters in our internal dramas: they were people, who deserved to be treated like people - and who were trying to live to that standard.  Fixing the kink in my boot was not a transaction - it was a Samaritan kindness to a fellow human being.

And the principle that motivated our concern for our friend was seeing that friend not treat their partners with the same respect they'd expect in return - a failure to love your neighbor as yourself. Our society's traditional relationship norms were absent. The principles of Christianity were present and alive.

These events - the not-fight in the bar, the quiet voice of concern for a friend taking a wrong path, the rubbing of a boot, so like the washing of feet - started to convinced me that Jesus was everywhere, even in the places that our traditional society thinks would exclude Him. But Jesus will not be excluded.

The Christian faith is a catholic faith - for everyone. And if the key to following Jesus is not where you are on the path of goodness - for God is infinitely good, and is not impressed with our good works, even if we are - but what direction you're facing, then Jesus is there for you on the path, to point the right way.

Even if the music is loud, and some of the people around you are shouting.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Willem Dafoe, portraying Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. And the phrase "neither hide nor advertise" refers to things that I talk freely about if they come up, but which I don't make a special effort to bring up on their own, as opposed to, say, robots. By the way ... robots, robots, robots. Robot.

The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives

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One stumbling block many scientifically minded people have with accepting Christianity is the false doctrine of biblical literalism. This bad idea, that the Bible is literally true, is not compatible with the Bible's errors in cosmology, geology, meteorology, biology, psychology or even history.

If you believe in the Big Bang - and I do, until a better scientific hypothesis presents itself - you might give some credit to the Bible for God saying "Let there be light!". But this is a pretty thin correspondence to our modern understanding - actually, whether that understanding is religious or scientific.

Both the Big Bang theory and modern Christian theology assume the world was created from nothing - ex nihilo. But Genesis describes a formless earth, vast dark waters, and the Spirit of God hovering over them. But in Christian theology, God made Creation from the outside, in Eternity, beyond time itself.

This idea isn't nonsense - it's similar to the creation of spacetime out of more abstract algebraic entities in certain grand unified theories of non-commutative geometry - but it isn't literally, in the Bible. Instead, it developed through the sincere discernment of the faith leaders Jesus asked to guide his Church.

When we project our modern sensibilities on the Bible, we easily make mistakes. A fundamentalist seeking certainty in the face of scientific advances projects a "literal" truth upon the words that simple understanding of the text supports and neither the authors nor the curators of the texts meant.

Similarly, a scientist who seeking empirically tested theoretical models projects onto the Bible something that wasn't even conceptually present when it was written. Modern hypothesis testing wasn't invented until the 1000's, and didn't crystallize until the work of Francis Bacon in the 1500's.

Similar problems occur with the Bible's understanding not just of cosmology, but geology, like the Flood,  or meteorology, like the storehouse of wind, or biology, like the creation of animals, or psychology, like Paul's explanations of homosexuality, or even history, like much of the Biblical history of Israel.

The discovery of a destruction layer at Jericho - and the debate about whether it fits the time frame of the fall of Jericho in the book of Joshua, which according it to radiocarbon dating, it does not - shows that the Old Testament may have some correspondence with history, but it's loose at best.

And yet, loose correspondence to history is not no correspondence. Richard Feynman once said that uncertain phenomena are like images seen through a dirty windshield; if the image isn't real, it will wash away as you wipe away the dirt; but the image becomes clearer as you study it, it's a real phenomenon.

The Old Testament is muddied by age and history. But what about the New Testament? The New Testament is not filled with histories written centuries after the events they describe; it's filled with letters and testaments written by people in the orbit of Jesus, or, in a few cases, actually knew Jesus.

Peter undoubtedly knew Jesus, and some scholars believe that he wrote the First Epistle of Peter; so we might have in this book a direct record by someone who knew Jesus; but even scholars who contest this suggest the book was written no later than 81AD, roughly fifty years after Jesus' death.

But the letters of the Apostle Paul are more certain. At least seven of them are very likely authentic - letters written by someone alleged to have been metaphorically knocked off his horse by a revelation from God. Whether you believe that's true or not, these letters are a window into the early Church.

This is important because of another stumbling block people have with Christianity: the Resurrection of  Jesus appears to have been a late addition. The Gospel of Mark, written around 70AD, roughly forty years after Jesus's death, originally ended with the empty tomb, with no appearances of Jesus.

If this is the most important story about Jesus, these people ask, why is it a late addition? Seems like it was made up. But in the book Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, Reginald Fuller unpacks an even earlier and better attested First Narrative of Jesus's Resurrection.

In First Corinthians, a letter to the church at Corinth, written by the Apostle Peter at or shortly after 53AD - only twenty years or so after Jesus's death, we have the very First Resurrection Narrative that we know of, recorded in 15 Corinthians 3-7. It's brief, but describes at least five appearances of Jesus:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins and not against all, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

In his book, Fuller drills deep into these narratives, analyzing in detail the parts of this text and how it suggests, based on a textual analysis of its wording, that Paul was collating information from a variety of traditions about the appearances of Jesus and presenting them as a coherent narrative.

But what I want to drill in on is that first sentence: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received." Elsewhere, Paul insists his knowledge of Jesus came from direct revelation ... but here, he appears to let on that he received some information from the Christian community.

This kind of tell is used in biblical scholarship as a sign of true information. If someone's spinning a tale to make someone look good, they often leave out the nasty bits. If someone includes some embarrassing information - like Jesus's death, or Paul's receipt of information - it may be a sign it really happened.

I'll grant that Paul may have received a revelation of the divinity of Jesus on the road to Damascus. But the details of who Jesus appeared to in the community of believers at Jerusalem likely came from those believers themselves ... and Paul tells us a little bit more about this in his letters as well.

In Galatians - another authentic letter of Paul's, written in the 40's, roughly a decade after Jesus died - Paul dates his conversion to the mid-30's; given that Jesus died in roughly 33AD, this means Paul likely converted sometime between 34 and 36 AD - one to three years after Jesus's death.

But Paul didn't know Jesus when he was alive, and met Jesus in a revelation. To get at what the early Church thought, we need instead to look at what Paul describes himself as doing. In Galatians 1:18, he claims to have visited Peter in Jerusalem, three years after his conversion.

Put these things together. Less than ten years after Jesus died, Paul recounts an earlier story of meeting Peter, somewhere between 4 and 6 years after Jesus's death. Whether Paul learned about Jesus's post-resurrection appearances from God or Peter, at the least, Paul and Peter were on the same page.

That means the First Narrative of the Resurrection doesn't date to twenty years after Jesus' death: it dates to five years after Jesus's death, and was consistent with the teachings that the community of people who knew Jesus - and Jesus's chosen rock to found his Church, Peter.

Paul, who we believe existed, and who wrote slightly embarrassing things about himself in his letters that lead us to think they were true, describes a meeting with Jesus's right hand man only five years after Jesus's death, where the community was already telling stories of post-resurrection appearances.

In fact, if we believe Paul's testimony that he'd already been preaching up to three years earlier after his conversion, and that he was proclaiming the same faith as the people he once persecuted, then these stories were already circulating in the persecuted community as early as one year after Jesus's death.

We can use the scientific method to try to scrub away the historical inaccuracies of the Bible. We can use Christian theology to identify the true myths embedded in these recorded stories. But when we use the tools of historical analysis, there's an image that refuses to be scrubbed away: the Resurrection.

Whether you believe in it or not, the Resurrection of Jesus - and his appearances after - are attested by the First Resurrection Narrative, and that, along with the other letters of Paul, show that the Christian community was already telling these stories within a few years - perhaps one year - after He died.

The story of the Resurrection was not a late addition: it was there from the beginning.

And it will not be scrubbed away.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Reginald Fuller.

Radical Forgiveness and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

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Here's a pickle: If you could tell someone only one thing about Christianity, what would it be? Many Christians believe God already gave us the answer in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

This hits all the highlights: God, the divinity of Jesus, the sacrifice of the Resurrection to redeem the world, the importance of belief; the promise of eternal life. That's why you see John 3:16 on t-shirts and bumper stickers: in one sentence, it sums up the spiritual - dare I say cosmic - essence of Christianity.

We've touched on another important one, the Great Commandment, John 13:34: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." This version of the  Golden Rule appears in all the Gospels, so it must be pretty important.

But it appears in Leviticus 19:18 too: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." And this starts to get closer to one of the most important things I think Christianity teaches: the need to forgive.

Paul puts it this way in Romans 12:19: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it<sup class="footnote" style="font-size: 0.625em; line-height: normal; position: relative; vertical-align: text-top; top: auto; display: inline;" data-fn="#fen-ESV-28249a" data-link="[a]">[a] to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'" Well, that's cute, and I agree with it, but Paul is still talking about doing good to your enemies transactionally, to get something out of it.

We might call this "selfish altruism": doing good for our own benefit. See Romans 12:20-21: "To the contrary, 'if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.' 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

Paul's key point is overcoming evil with good. But we can do better. "Reciprocal altruism" in evolutionary biology occurs when organisms pay a penalty when interacting with another organism, which can't explained from pure selfishness, unless the organism expects its counterpart to repay the favor.

Reciprocal altruism is the next level of altruism, but it's fragile: in it, agents quit cooperating at the first betrayal. But scientists studying how societies remain stable when filled with selfish agents have found that there are even better strategies, like "tit for tat," which, despite its name, is even more cooperative.

The Prisoner's Dilemma is a microcosm of cooperation that game theorists use to study altruism. In it, two prisoners are being interrogated separately for a crime. If neither rats out the other, both get off with a misdemeanor; but if one fingers the other, the snitch gets off scott free and the rube goes to prison.

The so-called "rational" response to this doesn't work: each agent acting independently would rat out the other, and both end up in the clink. What works is "superrationality": making your choice assuming everyone's seeking the best outcome for everyone, and both prisoners walk with a slap on the wrist.

Superrationality has been compared to Kant's "categorical imperative": only act on principles that you would want to be universal laws. The challenge with this is that correct superrationality requires not only that you're perfectly rational, but also that other agents reason in precisely the same perfect way.

In real life, not all agents are superrational, and the tit-for-tat strategy suggests that you cooperate until betrayed, but then hit back only once, cooperating if your opponent returns to the fold. This enables you and your opponent to learn how cooperative each other are, and perhaps to develop cooperation.

Scientists studying models of human societies think that strategies like tit-for-tat altruism are literally mathematically necessary to keep societies stable in the presence of the occasional defector who wants to defect in the Prisoner's Dilemma. So tit-for-tat altruism is actually doing good for everyone's sake.

That's all well and good, but Jesus asks us to set an even higher standard than that. From Luke 6:27-29: "But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also."

In this famous passage on turning the other cheek, Jesus asks us to do several important things which climb up past the transactional all the way up to the spiritual. Yes, he says do good to those who hate you - the kind of transaction recommended by Paul and the scientists who study social cooperation.

But he goes beyond that to the emotional: love your enemies - take their goals on as your own. To the spiritual: bless those who curse you - wish them well. To the intercessional: pray for those who abuse you - ask God to help those who are hurting you.

Like both the Apostle Paul and students of the evolution of cooperation, I think this is good for us, and good for the world too, and that's why Jesus asks us to do it: Jesus wants us to look past pure transactions and to think how we can make the Kingdom of God real here on earth.

I interpret this to mean we should forgive everyone. Priests I respect - and the tradition of mighty men of valor in the Bible - suggest that there's room to respond in defense against violence when lives are at stake, but beyond that, once the shouting is over, we should forgive and move on.

I call this radical forgiveness - the principle that, unless there's an active fight happening actually right now, we should forgive the sins of others, no matter how grievous the crime, no matter how much it pains us. This isn't just good for the world, or good for us transactionally, but just ... good. Good for our souls.

I gave the philosophy of radical forgiveness to Dakota Frost, protagonist of my Skindancer urban fantasy novels. In it, Dakota is repeatedly challenged by weretigers, vampires, and fire magicians, and while she gives as good as she gets, as quick as she can, she does her best to forgive those who have hurt her.

Most of her allies in the series are people who, at one time or another, have pushed her away, screwed her over, or even assaulted her violently. Not every threat can be glossed over, of course, but in the series I try to show how the practice of radical forgiveness could realistically build a better world.

I have tried to put radical forgiveness into practice myself. I'm ... not always great at it: some people make themselves hard to forgive. But whenever I've had the opportunity to practice radical forgiveness, I've always been rewarded with less stress, stronger relationships, and a better situation in life.

Almost like the things Jesus calls good are things that He knows are good for us and the world.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Robert Axelrod, author of The Evolution of Cooperation.