Friday, June 24, 2022

Can we be certain about the truth?

We yearn to know the truth, whether about astronomy, God, family history, or politics. But what is the best method to find the truth about a specific subject? How certain can we be about whether what we discover is actually true?

A modern view is that science provides the best method to discover the truth and that it can provide certainty. This view was developed and advocated in 18th century Europe following the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. This perspective obtained significant intellectual credibility due to the success of Newton's theories of gravity and mechanical motion. These theories provided highly accurate descriptions of the motion of bodies, whether that of planets or cannonballs. Science was certain, in contrast to "faith". Science provided a method to discover the truth about everything.

But, people are not planets or cannonballs. Biological cells are not cannonballs or planets. To study people, literature, biological cells, or the Triune God an approach that is appropriate to the object under study is necessary. Chemistry, condensed matter physics, psychology, sociology, and theology all involve different methods, assumptions, and concepts. This also leads to different criteria for deciding what is true, and the levels of certainty that are possible. This is now generally accepted by academics who study the history and philosophy of science. However, this view has not spread to most scientists, particularly those who are perceived as "public intellectuals." 

Newton's success is to be admired and celebrated. But it does not follow that a similar approach is appropriate for other fields of study. Neither should we necessarily expect similar levels of certainty.

In the first few pages of Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology: An Introduction  he states that theology is a "science" [wissenschaft = a discipline of study] because it seeks

"to apprehend a specific object and its environment in the manner directed by the phenomonen understand it on its own terms and to speak of it along with all the implications of its existence." 
In the next post, I will discuss in more detail why the success of Newton led to such seismic intellectual shifts. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Cooking up meaningful relationships

Last weekend my wife and I went to the movie theatre to see, The Kitchen Brigade, a feel good French movie. A gourmet chef loses her job because she cannot get along with others, particularly a pretentious and demanding restaurant owner. The only job she can get is in a canteen, cooking for a group of young African men, who are in France with precarious legal status. The movie is quite funny, the characters are endearing, and it builds empathy for the plight of refugees and immigrants. Some might consider there are elements of the "white saviour" genre trope. On the other hand, the redemption that occurs is mutual.

A while back we also enjoyed watching the movie Mostly Martha. It is also quite funny, celebrates food, makes you hungry, and highlights that relationships matter.

I had a feeling of deja vu watching the movie. I was pretty sure I had seen it before. Well not quite, my daughter pointed out that there is a Hollywood version, No Reservations. I had seen that one.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

How do we characterise this age?

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.            

A recent sermon at church by Philip McGann on Ephesians 5 brought to my attention the following passage written by Neil Postman in 1985. He reflects on whether the dystopian future envisioned by George Orwell or that of Aldous Huxley had been realised.

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. 

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Neil Postman - Foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death

This characterisation of modern life was written long before smartphones, Twitter, and Netflix came on the scene. It is even more apt today.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Capturing neighbourhood life in a civil war

Belfast is a beautiful and touching movie, that seeks to capture what life must have been like for just one family living in a Belfast neighbourhood as "the troubles" unfolded in the late 1960s. It captures the tragedy, stupidity, and humanity of civil war, violence, prejudice, and religion in its most divisive form.

The scene that I found the most poignant was when Ma and Pa (the wife and husband) argue about leaving Belfast for a better life in England. Ma says

"You an me, we have known each other since we

were toddlers. We’ve known this street, and every

street round it, all our lives, an every man, woman, an’

chil’ that lives in every bloody house, whether we like

it or not.

I like it.

An’ y’ say you’ve a wee garden for them boys? But

here they can play where the hell they like, cos

everybody knows them, everybody likes them, and

everybody looks after them.

If we go over the water, them people’s not gonna

undestan’ a word we say, an’ half o’ them’ll take the

hand outta us for soundin’ different.

The o’r half, they’ll hate us cos men here are killin

their young sons on our streets, an’ they think we

couldn’ give a shite.

Y’ think they’ll welcome us with open arms, an’ say

‘Come on in, an’ well done for stealin a house off of


The movie is a great testimony to the value of community and of family. 

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Cultivating a heart like God

What should the life of a Christian be like? Is there a "normal" Christian life? How does one balance prayer, contemplation, and action? Over the past two thousand years, many have wrestled with these questions, both theoretically and practically, and provided diverse answers. My friend and fellow "Holy" ScribblerCharles Ringma, reflects on his own struggles, in A Fragile Hope: Cultivating a Hermitage of the Heart. In 2016, he took a six-month sabbatical and spent much of the time in a hermitage in the Australian bush, and published his reflections in Sabbath Time: A Hermitage Journey of Retreat, Return and Communion.

A Fragile Hope is the reflections of Charles motivated by feelings that on returning to a "normal" life, filled with responsibilities and distractions, he has struggled to re-create some of the special time at the hermitage. He provides a helpful summary of this book in the Afterword (page 103). 

...the Christian life is about entering into a transformative relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit. This relationship reorients us to become more and more like Christ and more and more engaged in gods concern for our world. 
But living this way is a huge challenge, for it calls us to ongoing conversion away from stubborn self-determination and futile self-sufficiency and towards greater humility, dependence on God's provision, sustanence, and direction for our lives. This means that we are called into a constant relationship with and attentiveness to the God who both nurtures us and sends us into the world. 
This journey has nothing to do with progress or status, but rather an ongoing encounter with the One who is the very source of life, who is everywhere present in our world, and calls us to intimacy and service.
This call invites us to build a hermitage of the heart. Such a hermitage is not a place, but a disposition. It is a tapestry of existence, a fabric of life, a way of being. It is who we are in both the inner recesses of our being and our engagement with others and the world. 
Such a hermitage is both a gift and a task. It is a gift from the ever-brooding Spirit, who brings to us the riches of Christ, and it is a task that we shepherd and steward as we engage those around us. 

Charles is vulnerable in the book, humbly and honestly sharing his struggles. He is eighty years old, has spent his adult life following Jesus, and by "worldly" standards, has had a "successful" Christian life. He started Teen Challenge in Australia, completed a Ph.D., has published many books, and taught in leading seminaries in Asia and in Canada. But, here you see some of his discouragements, doubts, despairs, struggles, and failings. He wrestles with his own inner turmoil, his own sin, and with God, particularly his feeling that God fails to act to reform the church and to create a more just world.

Charles shares how he has benefitted from a diversity of voices from the past two thousand years, including the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Chapter 5), Francis (21), Ignatius (26), Benedict (14), the Celtic monks (9), and the Anabaptists (18). These brief engagements help put our twenty-first century struggles in historical context and may whet the appetite to engage more with some of these diverse and ancient traditions. 

The limitations of some metaphors for the life journey of a Christian, particularly the medieval ladder and pilgrimage are pointed out. But there should be movement: upward, inward, and outward. The journey involves moving toward God, nurturing our inner being (soul), and towards others.

There are many dimensions to the hermitage of the heart. Here are a few.

"Liminality is experiential, a sort of no man's land, where previous certainties have collapsed, and new certainties have not yet swum into view." (page 86).

Be a God botherer; not about personal circumstances, but bother God about the state of our world, and why God does not act in our world. There is a beautiful and heartfelt, song of lament, by Charles on pages 18-19.

Engage the ordinary and seek God in the ordinary.

Life is messy. Engage it but do not be consumed by it.

Hermitages are places where hermits lived. A hermitage has come to symbolise a special place where an individual may withdraw from the world and possibly encounter God. Although advocating a "hermitage of the heart", Charles still advocates for the spirituality of place. The purpose of "sacred" places "is not to contain God in some way, but to focus ourselves in relation to God" (page 32). 

How did the book challenge me personally? Unlike Charles, I am reluctant to reduce my activism and spend more time praying. I still have the naivety and hubris to think I can make a real difference.

The book is brief and could be read in a single setting. It is easy to read but deep and dense. It is better to read it slowly and return to it. There are 28 chapters in one hundred pages. Just reading a chapter a day is a good approach.

Aside: I was intrigued to know the genealogy of the "hermitage of the heart" metaphor. I discovered that at the same time last year  Hermitage of the Heart: 40 Days to Peace, Prayer, and the Presence of God by John Michael Talbot was published.

 I thank Charles for the gift of a copy of the book. Last month we discussed it at our theology reading group, with Charles present.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Why can't we talk to one another?

 There are many things to be concerned about in this tumultuous world. I am hesitant about people who claim there is one big issue or problem that we need to fix in order to create a better world. Yet, here I will suggest an issue that is an obstacle to moving forward as a society on a wide range of issues, whether it is racism, economic inequality, abortion, climate change, vaccines, refugees, or political polarisation, ...

In the Western world, we have lost the art of conversation. We can't talk to one another anymore, particularly about controversial issues. We don't seem to be able to have civil and informed dialogue. This is happening at all scales, from families to groups of friends, churches, and national political discussions.

A major cause of the problem is smartphones and more specifically social media. Unless we learn to manage each of them, from the individual to the national level, I fear we are moving towards a dark era of chaos, instability, violence, and authoritarianism.

In order to see the problem from several different angles, I want to explore the following questions.

What is the evidence that there has been a significant decline in civil discussion?

What might be the causes of the problem?

Why does this matter so much?

How does this problem reflect innate human aspirations?

What is a theological perspective on these aspirations?

How might the problem be addressed?

Let me begin with the first question.

What is the evidence that there has been a significant decline in civil discussion?

The problem may be most acute in the U.S.A. Political polarisation was increasing before Trump and solidified by him. Extended families who normally enjoyed one another's company discovered that family gatherings were fraught and dreaded. The "culture wars" have spilled into school board meetings: some have moved from being boring bureaucratic affairs to shouting matches. On the national level it has become difficult for Congress to pass any legislation, even a budget to keep the government running, regardless of who is in power.

The comments sections on online newspaper articles seem to be a mixture of the inane, cruel, irrelevant, condescending, ... with opponents trading insults. Facebook discussions, even among "friends", too often degenerate into uncivil arguments that are informed by hearsay and conspiracy theories.

What might be causing the problem?

I don't want to be naive and deny the problems of the past or romanticise the past. There have always been elements of society that have engaged in discussion that was uncivil and ill-informed. Political debate has too often been superficial and polarised. However, smartphones and social media have escalated these problems and tendencies to a whole different level. Why?
The medium through which you communicate can have a significant effect on the quality of the communication. In face to face communication, you are aware that the person you are talking to is a living breathing human being, just like you, and with feelings, thoughts, aspirations, and sensitivities. One does not just communicate with words but also with the tone of voice, pauses, eye contact, and body language. It is not just what you say but how you say it. These elements of face to face communication increase understanding and empathy, and moderate anger and hostility. Conversation partners respond to one another in real-time, providing the opportunity for clarification, short-circuiting the possibility to stew over and misinterpret the content or intentions of your partner.

These important elements of face to face communication are completely missing in social media, decreasing the accuracy of communication, empathy, and awareness of the humanity of the conversation partner. Sometimes they are just a name, even a pseudonym, seen on the screen of a smartphone. 

Social media also presents the problem of "echo chambers" and misinformation. You can choose your sources of information and who you have conversations with. You can avoid engaging with people who have different views to you or with information that you do not agree with or may challenge your views.

Hopefully, I will come to the other questions soon.

Feel free to weigh in with your own perspective. Do you think this is a major problem? What is causing it? How might it be addressed?

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The story of just one homeless man

 My wife and I watched the movie, The Soloist, based on a true story of how a journalist for The Los Angeles Times became friends with a homeless man, who was a gifted musician and plagued by mental illness.

Several important things were captured by the movie.

Every homeless person is a human, just like anyone else. Each has a story: both before homelessness and during it. Each has gifts, struggles, and aspirations. They need to be treated with dignity and respect.

The privileged should not try to "rescue" the homeless, particularly out of a sense (conscious or unconscious, stated or unstated) of superiority, virtue, guilt, or desire for validation.

Homelessness is a tragedy.

Homelessness is a complex issue with many dimensions: personal, political, economic, social, health, spiritual, ... 

Just because simple solutions do not work does not mean that we should give up.