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Posts tagged as “Jesus and Godel”

If you’re stuck on sin, you’re missing the point

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Jesus frequently calls on His listeners to repent - to stop what they're doing, to undergo a change of heart, and to choose to do things that are better. But He also frequently exhorts His listeners to "Be Not Afraid", because He's there to help us follow Him: "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

That yoke doesn't feel so light if one is struggling with sins of addiction, or challenged by discrepancies between the traditional social mores expressed in the Bible and the truth of personal lived experience, or if one grows up in an environment that twists traditional Christianity into profound repression.

I have a close friend who struggled for years with post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the stories told in his extreme Christian community - that salvation depended on a transformative "come to Jesus" moment which he had not yet had, and the Rapture was likely to happen at any moment.

Every time he came home from school and his parents were out at the store, he wondered whether the Rapture had happened and he'd been left behind. Well, the Rapture didn't happen, and isn't going to happen, because it's both bad cosmology and bad theology, but that was no help for my friend.

He couldn't talk to anyone about his feelings because his Christian group essentially held that people were saved, or not, and the people who were saved were predestined to be saved, and those who weren't, weren't - so if you didn't have your special mystical experience, you were a bad person.

Now theology is important - whether the person in question is a Christian or an atheist, it's at first sight hard to blame them for acting on what they believe. But, as my friend put it, imagine telling slaves brought to America that their abuse was OK because their abusers thought it was right.

It's a bit much to compare being raised within a repressive group and slavery: that fails to respect the real experiences of people who endure slavery, which is worse. But, the point is, in the end, we can't give people a walk on carrying out their sincere beliefs if those beliefs end up hurting other people.

That's why I try to follow Jesus's example of examining each situation anew, looking at how individual human beings are affected by the concrete actions being done in that situation. When we're trying to decide what we should do, it can be tricky; when we try to decide for others, we can lose perspective.

That's why I believe that self-righteousness is one of the most dangerous sins. Morals are important, of course, and we can't get away from the fact that if we believe Christianity to be real, that God's will is important, and that sins that depart from God's will should be avoided, then we must teach morals.

But teaching morals is one thing, and forcing morals on people around us is another, much less taking on the responsibility to enforce morals on a whole population. Enforcing morals with laws requires violence, and enforcing them at a social level leads to repression - and victimization, like that of my friend.

That's one reason Jesus suggested that his disciples shake the dust off their shoes if a town fail to listen to their message - rather than suggesting that his disciples call down fire from the sky as at Sodom and Gomorrah. Presumably God has the budget for that, but would fail to respect the people who are there.

When all filled with righteous indignation - let's say for ark of saguement, legitimately righteous - over something that someone has done wrong, when considering our response, we should ask: is the response I'm considering itself doing harm to this person?

It's all too easy to fire off insult to insult, tweet to tweet, snarky email to snarky email. It's all too easy to propose that people whose behavior we approve of be punished. And we can't get away from punishment of misbehavior if we want a stable society. But are we doing more harm than good?

Worse, are we forgetting that Jesus wasn't just asking us to reconsider our sins, but our lives?

Jesus doesn't just preach repentance, fearlessness and a new way of thinking. He doesn't just rework old rule-bound approaches to morality in favor of an analytical, reductionist, person-centered approach. He also preaches a gospel of radical kindness and support for each other.

He preaches it in "love your neighbor as yourself". He preaches this in "turn the other cheek". He preaches it in "give to all those who beg of you" and in the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes, which bless the poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers.

Jesus is making an argument for human goodness. Christians think of God as infinitely good - a troubling statement in the presence of evil, though we can chalk it up to praise for argument, a kind of performative Christian loyalty to God, in which believers commit to saying good things about Him in all circumstances.

Constructivist mathematics provides us an out here. Do infinities exist? Well, maybe, maybe not, but we certainly can't put infinity in our pockets. But we can conceive of a series whose elements always has a successor. There's always tomorrow after today. After every number, there's that number plus one.

And no matter where we are on our journey towards God, we can always get one step closer. So, in some sense, there's infinite room for us to improve our behavior. So even if we are actually not committing any sin, there must be ways that we can improve - by trying to make the world better.

Focusing on avoidance of sin as the core meaning of Christianity misses both its point and potential, and leads to self-righteousness in perfecting our own behavior and controlling the behavior of others; but Jesus calls upon us to do more: to love one another, to comfort the sick, to feed the hungry, to do good.

-the Centaur

Pictured: David Hilbert, whose finitism is a form of constructive mathematics, a formalist program which Kurt Godel ultimately proved impossible with his Incompleteness Theorem.

What Will It Feel Like When It’s Over?

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Sometimes we can learn to do good by carefully considering its opposite. That's what C. S. Lewis does in The Screwtape Letters, a fiendishly clever little book in which an older demon advises a younger demon on how to damn a soul. Never stated to the reader: hey guys, you should, um, do the opposite.

One of the techniques that the older demon recommends is suggesting that a temptation will go away if the client gives in to it. You don't need to be a Christian theologian to recognize this is bunk, but it helps to know that behaviorist psychology has discovered a behavior that leads to a reward will be reinforced.

Well, this a problem, since the reward is produced by the behavior you're trying to extinguish, and so by the time you've done the behavior, it's too late to avoid the reward: the quick smoke, the second donut, that one more YouTube video when it's already time for bed.

But this is where the Christian concept of the "near occasion of sin". As fellow comic book artist Nathan Vargas once put it when we were getting coffee, people think they make decisions by themselves, but they don't: there were ten decisions that led to you standing here in that line, about to buy a mocha.

In the same way, ten steps lead to any given sin: driving to the convenience store to get a smoke, eating the first donut, opening the browser tab instead of closing the laptop. When the next video from Local 58 is sitting right there, man, in your queue, it's hard to resist; it's a lot easier if YouTube isn't even open.

If you really want to not do something, you should not do it: while a failure to yield a reward will at first lead to a flurry of behaviors that potentially lead to the reward - driving past the convenience store, looking longingly at the donuts, opening YouTube - eventually those behaviors will become extinct.

As comic satirist and idiosyncratic religious scholar Dave Sim once said - edited for language, Dave is not PG-13 -  if you leave it alone, it will leave you alone. This is easier if the behavior is altogether bad - for example, if you've decided to quit smoking because it's addictive - so you can stop entirely.

But the donut or the YouTube video, now, that's a pickle. You can choose intellectually dishonesty and claim that the donut or the YouTube video is always bad, but that's the evil path towards Puritanism. Sins like theft are always wrong, but sins like gluttony aren't caused by eating per se, but eating too much.

So what can we do with sins of excess and similar behaviors that aren't always wrong? Another vaguely Christian concept to consider is the wages of sin. If ten acts lead up to any one choice, ten reactions will follow it. Considering the consequences of our choices can help us understand and control them.

Many Christian thinkers see sin as choosing our will over God's. But if God's is good, then God's will is what's good for us - the concept we've discussed a few times before, that things are not good because they are in the law, but they are in the law because they are good.

So if that's true, bad behaviors are likely to lead to bad outcomes. For me, the matter is pretty clear with the second donut: it won't taste as good as the first, and it adds to your indigestion and waistline. Similarly with the YouTube video: the later it gets, the more tired I am the next day.

For things we have less experience with, it's harder to make this judgment call. Another friend put it this way: "When faced with these choices, I don't think about how good it will feel when I am doing it. I try to think about how I will feel when it's over."

God's will isn't about arbitrary laws which are difficult for people to follow. It's about choosing things that are good for us and the people around us, and avoiding things that are harmful to us and others. My mother put it this way once: "Don't do anything to hurt yourself."

That's hard to judge in the moment, but if a sequence of actions leads you to unavoidable regret, it's worth considering: is this God's will? If that's too hard - and it often is - just ask yourself: "How will I feel about this when it is all over?"

-the Centaur

Pictured: my mother, Susan Francis.

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.

How Philosophy Lies About Religion

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I wish there was a better word than lying for spreading false information. It's concise, charged, connected to the idea that the information being conveyed is false. But the scientific definition of "lie" isn't a false statement. We make false statements all the time, unintentionally. They're called mistakes.

The scientific definition of a "lie" is a statement intended to deceive. Intent is critical to this definition. If I tell you, "Bob's in the robot lab" because that's where I saw him last, but he's actually headed out to the barista, that isn't a lie, even though it's false: it's just a mistake.

But if I tell you "Bob's back at the office" - knowing full well that you're likely to look at his desk in the office, when he's actually taking a nap behind a closed conference room door across the hall, where you're unlikely to find him - then I've lied, even though the statement is true.

The problem is worse when we consider intellectual dishonesty. When someone puts forth a really terrible argument, are they actually being dishonest, or are they simply caught up in fallacious reasoning or even just honestly mistaken beliefs?

The truth is, people argue in bad faith all the time, and it's legitimately hard to tell - most humans are quite bad at spotting liars. Once an activist asked me to workshop a proposal he was making about a telescope built on native Hawai'ian land: he demanded ten percent of the budget go to native education.

"Isn't that reasonable?" he asked. "No," I said. "Imagine you're building a house. If you've budgeted a million bucks - half to land and half to construction, then if someone chops ten percent out of your budget, there goes your roof. No-one could agree to that even if they wanted to."

He tried various other unworkable permutations, until I finally asked, "Look, what do you want?" He thought, then said: "I want to put forth something so reasonable-sounding that no-one could oppose it, but which would be a poison pill for the telescope project. I want the telescope not to be built."

I declined to help him further. He was arguing in bad faith. To a casual observer, his proposals sounded like he genuinely wanted to help native Hawai'ian education, and was just naive about building construction: but behind that facade was a deliberate attempt to deceive.

It's hard to tell these apart. Politicians often lie, fooling mostly their own constituents; partisans assume their opponents lie by default. But the principle of charity demands that we assume the opposite: that others use ordinary words to make true statements with valid arguments about something interesting.

So, when positivist philosophers fail to extend this principle of charity to the tenets of religion, it's perhaps a stretch to accuse them of lying. I'm not even sure that they're actually being intellectually dishonest - but it is funny to encounter incoherent arguments from someone arguing that religion is incoherent.

I encountered this incoherence in an essay disparaging one of the key issues of the Great Schism that split the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Churches: the doctrine of the Trinity, or, more specifically, how the Holy Spirit "proceeds": from the Father, or from the Father and the Son.

While this was enough to fracture churches back in the day, modern theologians think this "difference" to be mostly semantic, not doctrinal. But the author of the essay went further, claiming that it wasn't simply semantics - but that both positions had some unspecified fatal flaw which rendered them unintelligible.

But this 18 page essay on what's wrong with religious and philosophical thinking never gets around to actually telling you what, concretely, wrong with this kind of thinking. I'm not going to link the essay until I can read it again to be sure, but as you may have guessed, the problem is in the author's thinking.

The author mistook his disbelief in the premises for a flaw in the arguments. Since there is no logical flaw in these arguments - and I'll get back to that - they, as they said repeatedly in the article, found it difficult to put a finger on what's precisely wrong with this and other similar kinds of reasoning.

Well, I can help you out with that: the key mistakes philosophers make about religion is the allegation that religion consists of statements that are unprovable in principle, and therefore, because these statements are unprovable, they are therefore incoherent.

One professor put it like this: A man claims they met a man in a garden. You see no-one, so they claim the man's invisible. You listen, so they claim the man's inaudible. You excavate the garden and scan the dirt with X-rays, so they claim the man's intangible. At some point, you decide, the man just ain't there.

But that's not what happened at all. That's just the procession of bad judgments that follows from the bad arguments in David Hume's essay "Of Miracles", which we took apart earlier, perhaps unfairly, because Hume didn't have Bayesian or Jaynesian probabilistic reasoning at his disposal, but it's still wrong.

To be intellectually honest, we need to be up-front and open about the moves we're making. Religious people are not like a man claiming to have met an invisible man in a garden: they're like a man with a letter in his hand from that absent friend, reading it in the garden, waiting for them to come back.

You can claim that the letter is a forgery, or that the author is dead and is never coming back. Jaynesian probability theory tells us that if you entertain a variety of alternative hypotheses, you can get trapped in a state where you never accept an unlikely proposition, whether it is true or not. And that's fine.

That's your prerogative. But it's also a choice. And choosing not to believe the premises of an argument doesn't make the content or structure of the argument invalid. It just makes it not relevant to you. Like arguments over phlogiston or the luminiferous ether, they're simply no longer relevant.

Humans suck at understanding our judgments about logical arguments. We're strongly biased to think arguments are valid if we feel good about the conclusion, and invalid otherwise. If you've internalized Hume, and wrongly exclude the possibility of miracles, any argument about the spiritual feels wrong.

But choosing not to believe in the spiritual doesn't make it impossible. Jesus Christ did or did not come back from the dead; He was or was not the Son of God; He is or is not one Person of the divine Trinity, and did or did not inspire the information recorded about Him in the Bible.

If all that is true, why, then there may be any number of technical points which need to be worked out, and there's nothing incoherent about asking the question whether one aspect of this God we barely understand has this or that relationship to another aspect, which is equally difficult.

Similar debates go on right now in quantum mechanics, where extremely subtle issues about reality and measurement are debated every day, and while they look as abstract and as arcane as any arguments about angels dancing on the head of a pin, they can get cashed out into real experiments.

If there is a Judgment Day, discussions of the Trinity will get cashed out into real experiences as well. If not, they won't. If a philosopher, in their heart of hearts, just doesn't find the evidence for the Trinity convincing, I think he can be excused for gracefully bowing out of any of those discussions.

But calling those discussions incoherent is wrong, I think it's intellectually dishonest, and it sure feels like lying. I don't know that the people who hold that are actually lying, so I extend the principle of charity: and yet ... If you don't believe, just say you don't believe: don't argue your opponents are incoherent.

-the Centaur

Pictured: E. T. Jaynes, author of Probability Theory: The Logic of Science.

Coveting is the Least of Your Worries

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Coveting is distinctive among the Ten Commandments in that it is a thought crime. For those not familiar with the Ten Commandments, they're a set of guidelines from God in Exodus and Deuteronomy in the Bible. How the guidelines break into "ten" is up for debate, but the rough outline, loosely interpreted, is:

  1. God is the Lord of everything.
  2. Don't have any other Gods.
  3. Don't misuse God's name.
  4. Keep the Sabbath holy.
  5. Honor your parents.
  6. Don't murder people.
  7. Don't commit adultery.
  8. Don't steal things.
  9. Don't lie in court.
  10. Don't covet your neighbor's stuff.

The first command is a statement of God's authority; the second through the ninth are involve some kind of action - making an idol, cursing a blue streak, shopping on Sunday, dressing up like a bat, killing Bruce Wayne's parents, making off with the Lost Ark, telling Tom Cruise he can't handle the truth.

But coveting is different. You don't have to physically do anything, like take your neighbor's nice new car: you just need to think about it. Jesus goes even further in Matthew 5:27-28, suggesting that if you look at a woman with lust, you've committed adultery with her in your heart.

Seems harsh, but I've heard priests speculate that God's reasoning behind these challenging passages is that coveting is really bad for you. It's not just that coveting your neighbor's house, spouse or possessions is a gateway to theft or adultery, it's that it puts your brain in a bad state.

Coveting is "yearning to possess something": possessions themselves are things which can possess us if we are not careful. But there's nothing wrong with wanting something per se: you can want a soda if you're thirsty, a better car if you're in the rat race, the four walls of your freedom if you're a monk.

But coveting someone else's possessions - not wanting a house to keep up with the Joneses, but wanting your neighbor Jones's specific house - is the problem. Coveting the possessions of others puts us in mental conflict with the people around us, which can lead to real conflict.

So even though it seems innocuous, coveting is a pitfall which is important enough that God wanted to warn us about it. But in a way, that makes coveting a very obvious pitfall. Unfortunately, coveting is just one of the ways that our human brains can go wrong with regards to our view of the people around us.

One of the modern "technologies" that humans have developed for maintaining the health of our minds is cognitive behavior therapy, a collection of experimentally tested cognitive and behavioral psychology techniques, designed to improve our well-being by detecting and correcting bad thought patterns.

These "cognitive distortions" can be self-destructive - thoughts like "I'm not good enough" - but they can just as easily be self-serving - "Everything would work out if they'd just listen to me." These self-serving narratives have the advantage of making us feel good about ourselves - but they don't better ourselves.

When we interact with other people, a healthy mental response keeps things in perspective. Someone speaks over you in a meeting, which happened to me a lot today; but you recognize that there are simple explanations involving no bad intent (as it turns out, my internet was flaky, and my voice kept cutting out).

But when cognitive distortions kick in, simple events like that can get overgeneralized ("This always happens to me"), magnified ("They didn't hear me at all"), can swamp out positives (like forgetting the good stuff) and can lead to catastrophizing ("Everything is going to hell in a handbasket").

These distortions aren't accurate, but they enhance the intensity of the events, worsening our stress levels - but, paradoxically, making it feel a relief when the events are over, giving us a bit of a dopamine hit for surviving the encounter, leading to the distortions growing stronger and stronger.

Cognitive distortions can turn into internal narratives, which can turn a momentary event into a years-long obsession. On one volunteer project, our group leader took offense when the previous leader tried to boss me around. I'd barely remember this, if our group leader didn't bring it up every time we talk.

Loving your neighbor as yourself is hard. But Jesus also says in Matthew 5:44 that you should love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Jesus clearly meant this to be directed at real enemies, people who've harmed us, but it applies with equal force to people who we just think have harmed us.

Loving your enemies is really hard if those enemies exist only in your own mind, because your cognitive distortions will twist anything that they do into something that is evil - like in politics, where partisans disbelieve anything the opposition leader says, even if he's reading the time off of an atomic clock.

But learning not to covet is like ... training wheels for eliminating cognitive distortions. It's good and healthy to want a sandwich if you're hungry. It's not so healthy to want someone else's sandwich. Perhaps that won't motivate you to take it. But you might think they got the better deal.

Even in something as petty as who gets the best slice of the cake, we can build tiny slights up into a tower of resentments. Techniques such as "one cuts, the other chooses" may be game-theory optimal, but we are rarely in situations where these techniques can always be applied.

So the solution starts with us. Don't covet your sister's slice of the cake. Don't resent your coworker's "DAYYMNN" sportscar. (No, really, it is VERY jawdroppingly nice). Don't covet your neighbor's spouse. Learn to distinguish between wanting to improve your situation, and envying the situations of others.

Building the cognitive tools we need to avoid self-serving narratives is hard, because each person's mind and situation are unique. Fortunately, we can start with something easier, something both easy to detect and easy to fix, by following the tenth of the Ten Commandments: do not covet your neighbor's stuff.

-the Centaur

Pictured: John Watson, founder of behaviorism.

Raise Your Oxen on the Sabbath Day

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raise your oxen

Keeping with the Sunday theme of a day of rest, let's keep this short. Jesus once said:

And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day? [Luke 14:5]

To help me observe the Sabbath, I attend Mass, perhaps read a section of a religious book, and try to avoid shopping (or even to have groceries / packages arrive on Sunday, if I can).

But sometimes errands gotta err. And Jesus points out that the Sabbath was made for us:

And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath. [Mark 2:27]

And so one way to take your day of rest is to deal with the things which are like your oxen in the well - those things in a metaphorical pit which will keep getting worse unless you make them better.

-the Centaur

Suitcase Words and Sloppy Theology

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hofstadter headshot

If you're a working scientist - if you work day-to-day in domains not well understood enough to engineer solutions from known principles, if collecting data, generating theories, formulating hypotheses, and testing them are your bread and butter - then religious arguments often seem pretty crappy.

It's not that scientists can't make terrible mental gaffes, of course - they're human, like everyone else. But there's a certain mental discipline necessary for doing real science well which surpasses even the rigor expected in the philosophical and rationalist communities. We just don't know as much as we like.

And while some theology, regardless of whether you buy the premises, is based on solid argument - even though he lacked modern tools of valid argumentation, Aquinas is no slouch - vast swathes of religious thinking is based on a particular kind of garbage: reasoning from analogy.

Again, don't get me wrong: analogical reasoning is indispensable. Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter built his career by demonstrating the power of analogy in thought. At one talk, his host said something like, "We'll join you at coffee hour after we drop Doug's books off at my office slash study."

Hofstadter whirled, smiled, and said, "At your office slash study. Beautiful." Beautiful, because his host had illustrated precisely what Hofstadter had shown in his talk: that we use analogy constantly in our day to day reasoning, case in point: an office slash study is a place used for work and to store books.

Everyone knew what he meant, and that's the beauty of the analogy. But just because we understand his off-the-cuff comment doesn't mean it's a meaningful foundation for a science of "office slash studies" - it was a convenience category, useful for calling something out, not for drawing firm conclusions.

Unfortunately, Christian "apologetics" leans heavily on analogies. In God in the Dock, C. S. Lewis said that Islam is the greatest of the Christian heresies, and all that's best in Judaism survives in Christianity. Well, that's cute, and it may even make you think, but it's bunk if you know the histories of the religions.

All too often, Christians use analogies about Jesus, their faith, and the world to argue for one point or the other - but then go beyond it to act as if those analogies were real. This is how Augustine got in the trap of arguing for forced conversions for "pastoral" reasons, forgetting about the real people being abused.

One such analogy is behind the idea that "food dulls the soul." This is a relatively obscure theological point, I admit - as J. K. Rowling might say, we're pretty deep in wand lore here - but it illuminates both the positive value of this kind of reasoning and the pitfalls inherent in this kind of imprecise reasoning.

"Food dulls the soul" is a concept - from Lewis or Miller, elaborated by a local priest - that if you find yourself backsliding into a sin you thought you'd conquered, check your diet over the last twenty-four hours: it's likely that you had a big, hearty - dare I say gluttonous - meal which softened you up.

The general idea is that the Devil assails a poorly defended point - it's easy to accidentally overeat - before attempting deeper corruption. The proposed theological mechanism is that "food dulls the soul" - focusing you on your body, detaching you from your spiritual connection, making it easier to sin.

I've observed this. The overall phenomenon is real. The explanation even has a grain of truith in it. But as stated, the explanation is garbage. True-sounding garbage: the precise phrase would be specious bullshit, statements that sound true but which are simply made up to suit the author's purpose.

For the soul is the form of the body. At very the least, it's an eternal Einsteinian record of every event that ever happened to you in the mind of God, and at the most, it's an eternal, indestructible spiritual essence under the total control of the Supreme Being of the Universe.

The soul is the form of the body. You can't separate it from the body. You can't be born without it, or sell it to the Devil, or cut it away with a subtle knife. If you hop in the transporter, or get transported to the grid, your soul will go with you, no matter how convoluted the episode. Commander Data would have one.

And so: you can't "dull" the soul. That would be like wearing out the number five: it's not even wrong, it's incoherent. And yet, something rings quite true about this idea - to the point that I recognized the immediately. What gives, then? This is a problem well known to artificial intelligence researchers:

"Soul" is a suitcase word.

In The Emotion Machine, Marvin Minsky defines "suitcase words" as words with a whole cluster of meanings we carry around like a suitcase. My favorite is "consciousness," which packs in attention (I was conscious of the noise) to wakefulness (I lost consciousness) to sensation (conscious experience).

When that priest discussed "food dulling the soul," he was engaged in a bit of sloppy theology to convey a subtle idea. The soul should be reserved for the theological soul - which has a precise definition to keep us out of trouble - but it's a stand-in for our intellects, our hearts, our spirits, our state of grace.

The theological soul itself can't be dulled, but we humans as rational animals can get in a very animal state, where we are focused on this world to the exclusion of the next. Our rationality become reactive; our spiritual senses can get dulled; our actions are in touch with our bodies, not our spirits.

Whether the Devil literally exists or not, whether we are tempted by spiritual forces of evil or whether we're simply vulnerable to engaging in locally greedy policies rather than appropriately delaying gratification to gather greater reward, we can get in a mode where we're self-satisfied.

And when we do - when we overfeed our bellies, or underfeed our spirits - that's when we are vulnerable to falling into deeper problems. Like the "office slash study" where Hofstadter's books got dropped off, "food dulls the soul" is an analogy, a stand-in for a whole cluster of related ideas.

Much of Christian apologetics and spiritual advice falls into this category. Specious bullshit is too unkind for this kind of analogical reasoning when it is used in its proper fashion: as a roadmap. This kind of theology is technically untrue, but may be useful, guiding us in the general direction of the good.

Feynman once said "the sole test of any idea is experiment". But is it? Astronomers might disagree. Even though telescopes put on space probes are called "experiments", they aren't: they are instruments for gathering observations. Astronomy is an (almost) purely observational science.

But even though it isn't strictly true as stated, Feynman's maxim is nevertheless useful - a bright, clearly visible sign that can guide us away from deadend a priori thought-mazes and towards evidence-grounded a posteriori theories which are falsifiable.

The same can be said of many theological maxims. Food may not technically dull the soul, but it can get you into trouble. Islam isn't a Christian heresy and Judaism isn't contained within Christianity, but the faiths do exist in a relationship which is fruitful for Christian thinkers to seriously consider.

But, while they may be useful, these maxims aren't literally true. So be careful with the theology you encounter. It may be a useful crutch for your thinking, but don't swallow it whole or try to build castles atop of it. At best it will leave a bad taste in your mouth, at worst buried in a pile of sand.

That last bit isn't true either, but hopefully you get something out of what I mean.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Douglas Hofstadter.

Truth and Holiness

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darwin headshot

Back in the day, I had both a "Jesus fish" and a "Darwin fish" on the back of my car (as I recall, it was an Isuzu Rodeo, a nice car but nowhere near as reliable as my beloved Nissan Pathfinder or my seemingly unkillable Toyota Prius). I also had a "Cthulhu fish" fridge magnet which I had as a joke.

But I wouldn't have put a Cthulhu bumper sticker on my car, because the school of fish on that bumper were not a joke (though I admit I enjoyed the smidge of irony) but instead represented a sincere advertisement of my beliefs - and while it's a fun story, Cthulhu doesn't cut that mustard.

You're reading a Lenten series, so I hope it's apparent that I'm a Christian; during this series, I mentioned that once I thought of becoming an evolutionary biologist. To some Christians, these things seem hard to fit together, as many Christians are dead set on sticking to the cosmology of the Hebrews.

But the stories told in Genesis are wrong, at least as cosmology, geology, biology or history. The meaning behind the misleading Catholic term "myth" for some stories in the Bible is that stories are inspired by God and teach important truths, even if they aren't precisely accurate histories.

Despite some people's attempts to treat the Bible as a fax from God, our understanding of God has progressed since the books of the Bible were written by their authors, collated by early Christians, and ultimately approved by the early Catholic Church.

For example, the Trinity - the notion that the one (1) God manifests in three distinct "persons", Father, Son and Holy Ghost - doesn't appear directly in the Bible; we developed that understanding over time. But it's the most important Christian doctrine. You can't understand Jesus as the Son of God without it.

On the other hand, other ideas we have discarded. Even within the Bible, we see debates between sincere believers, such as the rejection of Jewish dietary rules for Gentiles in Acts of the Apostles. Doctrines like the divine right of kings and the proper treatment of slaves have been abandoned.

Now, science is familiar with this process. Some scientific ideas were bad from the get-go. The Earth was never at the center of the universe, matter isn't composed of four elements, and the motion of projectiles can't be explained by an "impulse" that slowly runs out: these ideas were never right.

Other ideas - like the Earth being round, matter being made of atoms, or light being made of waves or particles - started off right. Now, Earth isn't perfectly round, and atoms aren't perfectly indivisible, and tiny things are weirdly both waves and particles - but these ideas were on the right track from the beginning.

There's very little that science can "prove" to be true. All science is based on observation, generalization and experiment, and new experiments could show nuances that could force us to throw out our ideas - the technical term for this is "defeasible" reasoning - likely outcomes which might be true.

This is a natural outcome of the probabilistic reasoning that underlies most of our formal reasoning apparatus (and might even explain some of the inner guts of cognition as well): unless something is absolutely certain, conclusions founded on it can't be absolutely certain.

The best you can hope for, as far as proofs go, is to develop theorems of broad applicability. Physicists argue from symmetries, which enable vast regions of deduction from very few premises. Computer scientists use the theory of computation, which applies to a broad category of possible universes.

But, between our observations, our generalizations, our experiments, our theories, and our theorems, science has come up with a few things we can count on - the Earth is round, matter is made of atoms, and at the speed and scale experienced by humans, the Newtonian approximation to mechanics.

Science doesn't have definitive truths, but it is an engine for seeking it - for expanding the regions we think are probable and discarding the ideas which contradict experiment or each other. "The sole test of any idea open to observation is experiment" is the best tool we have for reaching truth - in any area.

That's why I put the Darwin fish with its cute little feet on my car: to represent the search for truth. But science is not enough. Science, by itself, is amoral: it can tell us what exists in the world, but it can't tell us what to do with it. That's where ethics, morals, religion and spirituality come in.

You can go far without invoking the supernatural. Philosophers argue that you can't go from an "is" to an "ought" - to argue from what exists to what to do about it - but this isn't quite true. Ayn Rand points out ethics are judgments about what's good for human beings, so we're not free to pick any ethics we like.

But as we discussed earlier, no individual human being experiences enough to make accurate ethical judgments on their own - nor are we guaranteed that our society has experienced enough to make our ethics accurate either. And if there really is an afterlife or a spiritual realm, experience won't cut it.

If there is a God, then we rely on Him to inform us about the spiritual dimension of the universe which either exist in the afterlife we haven't yet reached or are part of the cosmic nature of the universe which we don't have the stature to grasp. And this information - this Revelation - is therefore special.

This is the reason early Jews and Christians wrote down their experiences, and the reason the early Church collated it and preserved it. It's the reason fundamentalists treat the Bible as literally true, and the reason I treat the Bible as primary source material.

Ethics come from the spiritual dimension of the universe, and are ultimately holy. What we should do is determined by what is - and who - is behind it. Choosing the right action isn't just a good idea: it's seeking holiness - it's choosing to follow God. And that's why the Jesus fish was on my bumper.

I say "truth and holiness" - with the truth first - because truth must come first. I don't believe in Jesus because I think He's holy; I think He's holy because I believe the stories about him are true. And while parts of the Bible that are myth, to me the Gospels (and Acts) are my primary source about Jesus.

But once you understand the truth, you need to decide what to do about it. And like the cosmology of the Bible was modified by on our current understanding, there are principles in the Bible that have needed refinement as we learn more about the world. But it's important to start there, every time.

Truth, and holiness: first find out what's true, then try to do the right thing, treating the good as sacred.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Chuck D.

You Can’t Prove Anything With the Bible

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james sketch

While Christianity means following Jesus, the starting point for that journey today is the Bible - whether you're a fundamentalist who takes the Bible as literal truth, or a Catholic who views it through the lens of dogma and tradition, or a rational theist like myself who treats the Bible as primary source material.

But one thing you can't do with the Bible - even if you're a fundamentalist and thinks it's literally true, or a Catholic who believes in the richness of orthodox doctrine, and especially not a rational theist - is actually prove anything with it, not without breaking the meaning of "proof".

Perhaps I'm oversensitive about this point. In colloquial language, proof can just mean evidence offered to reach a conclusion: you can offer your driver's license as a proof of your identity, gather facts to prove innocence or guilt, offer those proofs as trial to help a jury reach a conclusion.

But that's not the way that people used the word "proof" to argue about the Bible when I was growing up, nor is it the way that I've seen people use the word around me to argue for their beliefs. Those people use the word proof like this: "You should believe X, same as me, and I can prove it with the Bible!"

The most egregious example I heard was a Catholic priest at Christmas mass give an enormous list of Catholic doctrine - mostly, political doctrines - which they then followed by the extraordinary statement that all of these things logically followed from the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But the theology of the Catholic Church - four hundred pages of catechism in my 1983 copy, near nine hundred in the 1994 edition, thirteen hundred pages in McBrien's Catholicism, or 1500 pages in the latest edition of Denzinger - do not logically follow from the hundred thousand words of the Gospels and Acts.

You can take the Gospels on faith. You can take the Bible to be mythical truth, like the Catholic Church does, or to be literal truth, like fundamentalists do. And, guided by grace, you can build a theology on it. But you cannot use it as a foundation for logical argument, for the text requires interpretation.

The Bible consists of around seventy books with a wide variety of content - myths, histories, stories, songs, proverbs, parables, essays, biographies, letters, and prophecies. These texts are not written with sufficient precision for them to serve as axioms for logical argument - nor were they meant to.

The reason is simple to understand: axioms for logical argument must be atomic, with meanings that are completely self-contained to serve as bases for logical deductions; but the meaning of any particular passage of the Bible must be taken in their textual, historical and religious context.

This isn't an argument for relativism or for radical textual analysis, but the simple point that even the shortest sentence in the Bible, "Jesus wept," has a meaning which can only understood by reading the story in the text that surrounds it - and every act of reading is an act of creative imagination.

Researchers in artificial intelligence have discovered that reading even the simplest possible stories generally requires inventing novel concepts that don't yet exist in the mind of the reader. Each reader must recreate within themselves knowledge contained in the stories, knowledge they don't yet have.

And they recreate that information based on what they already do know, and so will idiosyncratically create their own unique interpretations of the concepts of the story. Perhaps this is why different Christian groups I encounter seem to read the Bible in such different ways.

Now, most groups of Christians I know are convinced that there is one true way to read the Scriptures. One friend once claimed that there was "only one true interpretation" - despite coming from a tradition that claimed each Christian was responsible for their own interpretation of the Bible. And yet ...

Catholics complain Protestants ignore the plain words of Scripture in which Jesus gives spiritual authority to Peter and his descendants - which is the source of the authority of the Pope over the Church - or the words that indicate that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the literal body and blood of Jesus.

Protestants complain Catholics read into the plain words of the Scripture things that are not there - interpreting the metaphorical language of the Last Supper to be literal - or read out things that are there - like ignoring the existence of Jesus's brothers and sisters to preserve the doctrine of the ever-virgin Mary.

You might be able to build a theology on such a foundation. And, if guided by grace, you might even be able to build a true theology on such a foundation. And that theology itself might contain logical arguments. But those arguments rest on your interpretations of the Bible, not the Bible itself.

Actual logical arguments require a funny kind of paradox in their application. Mathematics is repeatable reasoning, an act of creative imagination that builds tools which enables one person to build an argument which another person can reproduce precisely. But this repeatability comes at a terrible cost.

Logical arguments need axioms which are unambiguous within the context of their formal language - even though they are not precisely defined in the real world. And the conclusions you draw from those axioms are true only within the context of that language, even if they have a broad scope of application.

Points and lines in Euclidean geometry have a precise meaning in relationship to each other, but are "undefined terms" with respect to reality, only qualitatively described. This enables us to use the proofs of Euclidean geometry for a vast variety of practical applications, even though ideal "points" do not exist.

And even though Euclidean geometry doesn't describe the real world at all. Space is actually curved - not a barrier for mathematical analysis, though it is more complicated - and intermixed with time; but the more precise details of the Einsteinian space-time continuum don't show up at normal human scales.

But it does show a deeper truth: if an argument is rigorous enough to be logically true, that truth is restricted to the formal realm, and may not correspond to reality; if an argument is grounded in reality, its truth is contingent upon evidence which can be overturned, and cannot have the force of a formal proof.

In the early days after Jesus's ascension, Peter thought he had it all worked out, following both Jesus and Jewish law. But God spoke to him in a dream, making Peter realize that the old rules weren't appropriate for new believers, leading to a decision to no longer require all of them.

We build elaborate theological structures on top of our interpretations of the Bible. But insofar as they're based on the Bible, they're not proofs; and insofar as they are proofs, they're not guaranteed to apply to the Bible. We need to be humble about what we can prove, to leave room for the Spirit to work on us.

-the Centaur

Pictured: King James. Yeah, that King James, commissioner of the King James Bible.

Ayn Rand and the Catholic Religion

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rand headshot

At first glance, Jesus Christ and Ayn Rand seem as far apart as possible. Jesus founded the world's largest religion; Ayn Rand founded Objectivism, a prominent atheistic philosophy. Jesus sacrificed His life for our sins; Ayn Rand is the self-described "arch-apostle of selfishness."

But one thing Objectivism and Christianity have in common is the importance of every person. To Ayn Rand, each individual human being is an independent entity whose rights are derived from their status as a rational human being - and the foundation of morals is respect for the rights of those individuals.

Morals have a parallel foundation in Christianity. Each human is a rational animal - a being with intellect and will, one who can come to believe in Jesus and choose to follow them. Whether those beings choose to do that or not, the foundation of ethics is treating those individuals as an end in and of themselves.

That's the meaning of the word "catholic" in "one holy, catholic and apostolic church" in the Nicene Creed and the name of the "Roman Catholic Church": catholic, meaning universal, meaning, embracing all believers, open to all. Christianity isn't for a specific group: it's for everyone.

There are obvious differences between Objectivism and Christianity. Objectivism is based on the evidence of existence; Christianity is based on a foundation of faith. Objectivism rejects the idea of an agent as an explanation for existence; Christianity places the agent God as the logical ground of being.

In Objectivism, the individual is sovereign; in Christianity, God is sovereign. In Objectivism, pursuing your own values is the ultimate end goal of your actions; in Christianity, pursuing your own will over God's is a sin, and is one of the biggest stumbling blocks we need to overcome.

The biggest difference, of course, is their attitudes towards altruism: Objectivism rejects self-sacrifice as evil, whereas Christianity places it as its highest good, founded as it is on the greatest self-sacrifice of all, the Son of God's death on the Cross to blot out the sins of all mankind.

But this last difference is less of a difference than it first appears. Objectivists are not altruistic, but they are benevolent: trying to make the world better for human beings. Christians should focus on the Kingdom of God rather than the world - but to do so, we must love our neighbors as ourselves.

This Great Commandment, this fundamental respect for others as equals to ourselves, is all too easily forgotten in Christianity when we fall prey to one of Christianity's greatest sins: self-righteousness. Jesus told his disciples to shake the dust off their sandals and move on if people rejected the Gospel.

Three and a half centuries after Jesus, Saint Augustine was recommending religious persecution for people who refused to convert to Christianity; eleven hundred years after, that had devolved into the Inquisition; fifteen hundred years after, it perhaps hit its nadir in the witch trials.

God is more than capable of giving every human being the experiences they need to choose whether or not to believe in Him. He's got the budget for it. And while He wants us to witness to good news about Jesus to help them believe, He doesn't need us to do that - and doesn't want us to do it by force.

Forcing others to conform to our beliefs is precisely the opposite of casting the dust off our sandals. Forcing others to conform to our beliefs is precisely the opposite of turning the other cheek. In those circumstances, that's when I turn to the Great Commandment - but sometimes, I need a little help.

That's where the clarity of Objectivism comes in. Saying "love thy neighbor as yourself" is poetic, but open to a lot of interpretation about what that "love" really means. If we instead ask the very specific question: Am I treating the other human being in this transaction as a unit? we can get somewhere.

Each person is a rational being, an independent agent, an end in and of themselves. Ethics consists of making decisions which are good for those people, not for abstract concepts or groups - which is where Augustine went wrong, by putting "pastoral" concerns over letting individuals make their own decisions.

The temptation in dealing with the other - the jerk, the liar, the thief, the guy who leaves his shopping cart catty-cornered blocking off two parking spaces - is to demonize them, to see them as evil. But this is a kind of fundamental attribution error - blaming behavior on people's nature, rather than circumstances.

Some people fail to put the shopping cart back because they're oblivious; others don't care; and yes, there are people who do it because they're deliberately trying to be jerks. The action is the same - whether it's an asshole trying to tick people off, or a harried mother whose baby's diaper has exploded.

There is real evil in the world - but it rests in the actions, not the people. People, in and of themselves, are not evil. They may do evil - they may have committed sins - but in the end, they are people, individual human beings, worthy of respect - concrete units, not instances of abstract groups or concepts.

Remembering that people are people, worthy of respect as people, is paradoxically hardest when the person's beliefs are different. You want to go after the jerk in the parking lot. But you also get outraged at the political opponent, or the person whose philosophy or religion are different. They're so wrong!

Yet they're still people. And so, when the question arises, I ask myself: am I thinking of this person as a member of a class - as an asshole, or a political opponent, or a religious one - or as a concrete unit, as a rational being who has the same right to their own life that I do - and the same right to make choices?

Once I accept that person as a person, my values say I should love them as myself - and love, to me, is taking on other's goals over your own. This isn't quite the self-sacrificial cartoon version of altruism that Ayn Rand criticized, as I have many other values which I will not and should not compromise.

But Christian values come first. Ayn Rand helps me to remember that people are not abstract characters in my internal mental drama, but real, concrete, existing human beings - and once I remember that, Jesus Christ can help guide me to treat that person as my neighbor, and to love them as myself.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Ayn Rand. I had a trouble capturing her rotation, as this essay set her spinning in her grave.

Apologize for Christianity? Why, Never!

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lewis headshot

Christianity has all sorts of weird words: Primum Mobile, Eucharist, Paraclete; there are other words which are used in weird ways, like adoration, adoption ... and apologetics. "Christian apologists" doesn't refer to people who are apologizing for Christianity: it refers to theologians trying to defend it.

As I hinted at last time, in a worldview where belief in God rests on faith as a free gift of grace from God, Christian apologetics are both indispensable and unnecessary, essential and impossible. Christians are called on to spread the Gospel, with the knowledge that no rational argument can ever convince.

That hasn't stopped people from trying, though. The greatest Christian apologist of the past two hundred years, full stop, is C. S. Lewis, author of not just the Narnia series but also great apologetic works like The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce and The Abolition of Man.

And so, while Lewis's works have moved me greatly, I often find his works have holes in their hearts. The brilliant G. K. Chesterton, author of In Defense of Sanity, is even worse; his favorite trick is to turn common ideas into paradoxes to make a point - frequently at the cost of intellectual honesty.

I've heard it said that Chesterton argued that all great things contain paradoxes, because at the heart of everything is the paradox of the cross: a tool of condemnation turned into salvation, death turned into life, failure, humiliation and defeat turned into success, glory and victory.

And this is perfectly good Christian theology - and consistent with Godel's incompleteness theorem that we discussed earlier. Most Christian religions assert that at the heart of the faith are mysteries that cannot be fully understood, just like Godel showed that all systems of thought have ultimate limits.

But it's unsatisfying for a rationalist, even a Christian one, for it means that many Christians - even as they are sincerely trying to do their best to spread the Gospel the best way that they know how - are at the same time committing to statements that are at best foolish and at worst lies.

And if you are tempted to retort that it's good to be foolish in the name of the Lord, like David with his tamborine, I want to be super crystal clear that I don't mean the good, faithful kind of foolishness, but a performative, "bad faith" foolishness in which people pretend things are other than what they are.

You've met the type. The street preacher with the specious comeback; the televangelist who carefully edits his stories to play his position. The new "friend" who, when they find out you are a Christian, asks "Why don't you come to my church?" with the words "instead of yours" hanging in the air.

For a Catholic growing up in the south, in Greenville, South Carolina, hometown of Bob Jones University, this was particularly irksome. As a child, I was buttonholed by street preachers across the street from BJU, who'd pester me on subsequent weeks on whether I'd read the pamphlets they shoved on me.

If these people find out you believe in evolution, whoo boy, the volume gets turned up to eleven. I aaalmost ended up going into evolutionary biology as my field, and I can't tell you how many bad arguments I've heard about why evolution won't work. No, not bad arguments - meaningless.

But it wasn't just evolution. Many of the arguments which were forced upon me were purely theological. One argument really stuck with me - a true Chesterton style paradox, what at first appears to be a nearly meaningless argument which nevertheless captures an important truth about Christianity.

Call this "argument" the Cross over the Chasm. The idea is that in the beginning, God and Man were united, but Adam's sin caused the Fall, creating a chasm that cannot be bridged. Man can try to cross the chasm with good works, but fails; God can try to cross it with grace, but grace doesn't reach either.

But that's where the Cross comes in. While the arm of good works can't reach, and the arm of grace can't reach; but you can write Jesus vertically between them, and turn those two arms and the word Jesus into a cross that bridges the gap. Jesus's sacrifice on the cross bridges the gap between god and Man.

Now, what's bad about this Cross over the Chasm episode?

By itself, nothing, but in the moment, what happened was this: a friend found out that I was Catholic, and decided to "show" me the true role of Jesus in religion - except of course, in the mind of people like him, he doesn't have a religion, but a close personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Never mind that this "argument" doesn't actually "show" anything - at best, it's a mnemonic for a few bits of theology which are perfectly consistent with Catholic doctrine. (Many people in the Bible belt who are upset about what Catholics supposedly believe don't realize there are fewer differences than they think).

But the real problem is that people who act like my friend did there are both implicitly rejecting the faith of fellow Christians - and lying about their own faith. Religion is the word we use for someone whose close personal relationship with an invisible person is a vital part of their worldview. Denying that is a lie.

And denying the faith of a fellow Christian is attacking that faith. I also have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ - which, in humility, I'd never describe as close, because it's never as I'd like, a relationship I'm always trying to improve, with the help of His grace; but I do believe and I choose to follow Him.

That's super hard, and we don't need to throw stumbling blocks up for other believers. For a Christian, other Christians should not be our theological enemies. And so, while I don't believe in buttonholing Christians to get them to convert to other branches of Christianity, I think it's good to ask:

What was good about the Cross over the Chasm episode?

Well, first off, it's a really clear mnemonic for really important theology. It's a great little story which clearly shares important truths about Christianity: humanity and God are separated, but reaching for each other in works and Grace, and Jesus - and His sacrifice - is the mediator that makes union possible.

It's not at all a logical argument, but the story has stuck with me for years. Had my friend come up to me, enthused, about this new metaphor, rather than presenting it as one more argument against my faith (!) even though it didn't contradict my faith (!!) it could have acted as a bulwark, not a stumbling block.

More importantly, at least my friend was trying to share the Gospel. Once a woman told a televangelist she didn't like how he was spreading the Gospel. He asked how she was spreading it. She replied that she wasn't spreading it. His response: "Well, I like how I'm doing it better than how you're not doing it."

I'm acutely aware that many people don't want to be proselytized, and that's their prerogative, of course - I know from experience I don't enjoy it myself. I far prefer the Episcopal "Tea with the vicar OR DEATH!" "Oh? Well, tea please" to any amount of street preaching or personal buttonholing.

But, if you are interested in the Christian faith, know that ultimately, rational argument will fail.

A paradox - a mystery - lies at the center of the faith: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." While I'm  comfortable with this idea, sometimes it takes a Chesterton paradox - or a sketched diagram of a cross - to break through the rational so that the free gift of grace will start working.

-the Centaur

Pictured: C. S. Lewis.

Pascal’s Wager and Purchasing Parsley

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pascal headshot

Hang out with philosophers or theologians long enough, you're likely to run into "Pascal's Wager": the Blaise Pascal's idea that you should believe in God, because if He exists, betting on Him wins you everything and betting against Him loses you everything, whereas if He doesn't, you lose nothing.

Right off the bat, we can see this original version of the wager is an intellectually dishonest argument: you don't "lose nothing" if you choose to believe that God exists and He doesn't. At best, you're being credulous; at worst, if you're being cynical about your belief, you're sacrificing your intellectual integrity.

Pascal backs off from all or nothing a bit as he's trying to dig himself out of the hole, claiming that he's comparing infinite gains of eternity in heaven against finite losses you can experience here on Earth. Some may have sincere trouble in believing, but he argues they should try to convince themselves.

Now, let's be fair to Pascal here: if you read his original text, he wasn't actually trying to convince atheists to believe per se, but instead, trying to show that the world is too uncertain for logical proofs of the existence of God, but we're probably better off acting like God exists, in case it moves us to faith.

Unfortunately, Pascal died before he could fully explain himself: the wager appears to be the introduction of a book on the value of faith that he never finished. But, like a philosophical zombie, the argument has continued its life, hollowed out from its original intent, eating brains in every new generation.

Let's slay this zombie, shall we?

Pascal's wager first appears to be an exercise in game theory: a mathematical formalism for analyzing the best choices in games. In this case, you are playing a game against the Cosmos. Your move is to believe, or not, and the Cosmos's "move" is whether God exists, or not.

[Now, the theologically savvy among you might feel like pointing out that God created Creation, and is not a part of it - which is why I used Carl Sagan's more inclusive formulation of the Cosmos as "all that is, was, and ever shall be," and I'm going to run you off with a broom if you argue about what "is" means].

This leads to a simple table: your choice of belief times the existence of God. If He is, and you choose to believe: payout plus infinity; choose not to believe: payout minus infinity. If He is not, whether you choose to believe or not, the payout is zero, or at least finite. Pick the cell with the highest value.

The emotional force of this argument is strong - for the believer - for, in decision theory, we should weigh the probability of one cell against the other, and intuitively, unless we judge the possibility of God to be literally zero, the infinite payout of the God-exists column dominates finite payouts of God-doesn't.

Mathematically, that's, um, specious at best - it looks true, but it's not a valid decision-theoretic argument. First off, Pascal put infinity in the God column specifically to outweigh any possible finite payout, but technically, we can't multiply infinite quantities by finite quantities this way.

Now, when it comes down to the question of whether infinities are actually real, or just a bad metaphor that leads people astray, I'm firmly ready to go to infinity - and beyond! But, technically mathematically, most of the time "infinity" is just a stand in for "this process can go on indefinitely without a limit."

As soon as you admit that the payout of Heaven might be finite for the purposes of modeling, then the probability assigned to the "God exists" column can be set so low that the "God doesn't" column becomes attractive. But that gets us no further than Pascal and his strict (zero-probability) unbelievers.

To me, the key flaw in Pascal's wager is what physicist E. T. Jaynes called the "mind projection fallacy": assuming that the constructs you're using in your mental models exist in reality. That's how Pascal can even put the wager to someone in the first place: he sets up the board and says "you must wager".

But the gameboard Pascal sets up doesn't exist in reality, and there's no reason for someone else to model the problem the same way. A student of religion might add columns for different views of God: Jesus who saves, Zeus who's a jerk, the Great Electron, which doesn't judge, but just is, whoa whoa.

Equally well, a student of epistemology might add many columns for belief: strict disbelief, partial belief, certain belief; an evangelical might add columns for "the hope so's" and "the know so's". Even the probabilities of columns are up for grabs. We've got a matrix of confusing possibilities.

This flaw in the wager, like the flaws in much science and folk psychology about belief, is that we do not reason about facts provided by others according to the models in the other's head: we reason about the claims that others make about facts, which we internalize based on own beliefs - and trust of the other.

Even in the simplest form, moment you start counting the columns of the wager as beliefs, the infinities disappear: there's only a claim of infinite goods in heaven, and a claim of infinite punishment in hell - and a claim that the alternative yields you only finite rewards.

And those claims are mixed in with everything else we know. As a mathematical exercise, the self-contained four-cell version of the wager has a maximum payout in the "believe in a God who exists" cell; as something that corresponds to reality, the cells of the wager start to leak.

Mathematics is an abstraction of reality - an act of creative human imagination to create repeatable forms of reasoning. I'm on the side that there is an actual reality behind this repeatability of mathematics, or it would not work; but applying mathematics to any particular problem must leave out certain details.

This is leads to the law of leaky abstractions: the notion that, no matter how good the abstraction, sooner or later it is going to fail to model the world. Forget game theory, decision matrices, and probabilities: even something as simple as the mathematical concept of number can break down.

One of the reasons I haven't published my tabbouleh recipe is that it's hard to quantify the ingredients - two bunches of parsley, four bunches of scallions, six tomatoes, two cups of fine bulgur, the juice of a lemon, etc - but since tomatoes are of different sizes, that "six" is a messy number.

But at least tomatoes come in integral quantities. Parsley comes in bunches, which are not just of different sizes; they're composed of individual stems, picked from different plants, which have different degrees of growth, freshness and wilt. Parsley needs to be cleaned and picked to use in tabbouleh.

Sometimes, you need to buy three bunches of parsley in order to end up with two. That's the law of leaky abstractions for you: you have to purchase parsley in integral units of bunches, but the bunches themselves don't correspond to the quantities that you can actually use in your recipe.

Picking beliefs for use in our minds is far more complicated than assembling a heritage Lebanese salad. There are thousands of potential facts affecting any given problem, more intertwined than the branching leaves of those leafy greens; but like them, some are fresh and edible, others black and wilted.

This was the actual point of Pascal's argument, the one he hoped to expound on his unfinished book. But the wager, because it's a mathematical abstraction - because it's repeatable reasoning - has lived on, a zombie argument which purports to give a rational reason why you should believe in God.

Ultimately, we need to carefully winnow through information that we get from others before incorporating it into our beliefs; there is no royal road to convincing anyone of anything, much less God. As for belief in God, many Christians think that must ultimately come not from reason, but from grace.

Fortunately, God gives that gift of belief for free, if we want it.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Blaise Pascal.

Make Holy the Lord’s Day

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make holy the lord's day

To make sure my Sabbath remains a Sabbath, and since responsible people are still working remotely because of the pandemic, in lieu of writing an essay, I'll use that time to watch recorded services from Saint Stephen's in-the-Field instead (note these were filmed at our sister parish St. John the Divine).

If you haven't "gone to Mass" today, I encourage you to take a devotional.

Stay safe, seek rest, and God bless.

-the Centaur

Pictured: a graphic. Wow, Illustrator is ... so unnecessarily hard to use, and the Illustrator community seems filled with a small contingent of strangely unhelpful people who can't seem to realize there are other drawing programs out there and legitimate reasons to question why Illustrator does Illustrator.