A conversation with John Zmirak

Today on Twitter, I had a little chat with John Zmirak. Dr Zmirak is a Roman Catholic layman who holds strong opinions about more or less everything. I’m always curious how people justify their opinions. In Dr Zmirak’s case, I’m curious by what exactly he has in mind when he appeals to the tradition of the church. In our conversation, I inadvertently put him on the spot so that he wound up presenting himself in a less flattering light than he deserves, but I still think I might want to look the conversation up again. So  here is a link to it.




A logical God?

Probably the least popular of all the familiar arguments that are from time to time offered to prove the existence of God is the Ontological Proof.  Here is a one-paragraph synopsis of Saint Anselm’s version of the Ontological Proof, taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The first, and best-known, ontological argument was proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th. century C.E. In his Proslogion, St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived—i.e., God—exists.

Even believers tend to react to the Ontological Proof with distaste and irritation.  So it was rather interesting when, in 2013, German logicians Christoph Benzmüller and Bruno Woltzenlogel Paleo proved that Kurt Gödel’s demonstration that the basic axioms of Logic K, a form of modal logic developed by Saul Kripke (the “K” in “Logic K” stands for “Kripke,”) imply that the Ontological Proof is sound.

Logic K is not the only possible system of logic, so this implication does not by itself prove that God exists.  What makes Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo’s work so interesting is that Logic K is an extremely simple system, especially as compared with a system like arithmetic, which as Gödel himself showed is infinitely complex in its basic axioms.  The reasoning we use in practical life adds manifold layers of complexity to propositional frameworks such as those of formal logic or mathematics.  If something as specific as monotheism can come springing out of something as spare as the basic axioms of Logic K, then the idea that any form of rigorous intellectual activity can be neutral regarding the kinds of questions monotheism is supposed to answer becomes tenuous.

That is not to say that our cultural formation precedes our intellectual activity, and so that all of our systematic reasoning is infused with the particular circumstances of the society in which we were raised, often in ways of which we are unaware.  It would no doubt be true to say this; however, it is a statement that rests on the findings of the social sciences, expressed in language that has grown up in the development of those sciences.  And the social sciences themselves derive their authority from their status as products of rigorous intellectual activity.  If all such activity is already implicated in theology, then an attempt to confine the implications of Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo’s work to areas already explored by the social sciences is an attempt to minimize the scope of the problem.

A God who holds the world record for eating the most skateboards is greater than a God who does not hold that record

xkcd 1505

Nor is it even to say that as we develop a system of reasoning we are condemned to stack the deck, consciously or unconsciously, in favor of our own religious commitments.  Aristotle grew up in a society in which monotheism was an alien phenomenon which, on those rare occasions when it would be mentioned, was regarded with undisguised contempt. Yet, as such Muslim and Christian commentators on Aristotle as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Thomas Aquinas showed many centuries ago, Aristotle’s logic works best when it is applied to a monotheistic universe.  Aristotle himself would no doubt have regarded this as a reductio ad absurdum of his work, and would have gone back to the drawing board to produce a new system of logic, one that fit with what he regarded as the real world of multiple gods and other beings whom it was obligatory to worship.  Perhaps he would have succeeded in creating such a system; he was Aristotle, after all, and was as well equipped as anyone has ever been to accomplish such a thing.  But as it happens, he never had occasion to try, and for two thousand years Aristotle’s logic was the prevailing system in the world from India to Ireland.

When Aristotle’s system of logic was in favor, the work of men like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Thomas Aquinas gave compelling grounds for accepting monotheism.  That Aristotle, as a polytheist from a resolutely polytheistic culture, could not be accused of stacking the deck to produce a system that supported monotheism, certainly added to the force of these grounds.  Nowadays, Aristotle’s logic is obsolete, and so one could hardly expect logicians to become monotheists simply because the Medieval Scholastics found in it support for monotheism.

Still, that it is monotheism that jumps out, not only from a logical system constructed by a rabbi’s son like Saul Kripke on the basis of a metaphysics constructed by vaguely Christian thinker like Leibniz, but also from a system constructed by the thoroughly pagan Aristotle, does make it difficult to claim that the relationship between monotheism and systematic reasoning is entirely an illusion resulting from indoctrination in monotheism.  It is likely that the idea of a single deity who is the supreme creator, ruler, and judge of the world is a sort of default position built into the whole project of codifying the rules of logic.

Just as it does not follow from the fact that Logic K rests on axioms which, taken together, imply the existence of God, that God in fact exists, so it would not follow from God’s status as a default hypothesis of formal logic that God in fact exists.  Like all other human activities, formal logic is a byproduct of any number of particular and contingent circumstances, starting with the biological adaptations that enabled our ancestors to survive, continuing through the particularities of our cultural backgrounds, and continuing through the countless vicissitudes that make it possible to distinguish the life of one individual from that of another.  It may well be that formal logic, mathematics, and the sciences, pursuits in which only a small minority of the people in the world today and only a minuscule percentage of all the people who have ever lived take an interest, will ultimately prove to be trivial matters sharply limited in their ability to cast light on the weightiest matters.  Perhaps the sorts of things most people find more interesting and which a majority has always found to be more interesting will prove to be more powerful aids to understanding, or perhaps systematized reasoning in the forms we now know will ultimately turn out to be relatively trivial preparations for some new form of understanding that awaits us in the future.  Perhaps neither of those things will happen, but we will simply come to accept a tendency to monotheism as a not-very-interesting shortcoming inherent in projects to codify the rules of correct reasoning.

Of course, monotheism is also a minority pursuit in the overall picture of humanity.  At no point in the history of the world has a majority of the human race been monotheistic in its views.  Today Christians, Muslims, Jews, and members of other monotheistic groups are probably more numerous than ever before, yet they still comprise well under half the world’s people.  What is more, monotheism seems to have been invented only once, in Babylon during the Captivity, while polytheism, animism, ancestor-worship, and other religious orientations all likely arose independently in many times and places.  In that context, monotheism looks like a freak occurrence.

It is that very freakishness that makes the recurrence of monotheism at the roots of logical systems a matter of interest.  If something so particular can keep cropping up wherever people make their most intense attempts to be general, what oddities might come out of the far more complicated sets of axioms that underlie applied reasoning?  In the light of what Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo have shown about Logic K, we could hardly be surprised if hidden somewhere in the axioms of trigonometry were a recipe for kosher chicken soup, or for that matter if a description of the Loch Ness Monster were encoded somewhere in Newton’s Laws of Motion.

The argument from design at its best

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, philosopher David Hume concluded that the classical arguments for the existence of God, even if they were logically sound, would not in fact prove what believers want to have proven.  The characters Cleanthes and Demea set out to demonstrate to the existence of God, and find themselves unable to satisfy their friend Philo.  After Cleanthes has made the case for believing that the orderliness of the observable world demonstrates that it is the creation of a supernatural being, Philo responds with a series of conclusions that follow at least as logically from Cleathes’ arguments as do the conclusions which he would like to draw.  The final item in this series is the following:

In a word, CLEANTHES, a man, who follows your hypothesis, is able, perhaps, to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance, and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology, by the utmost licence of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him. You justly give signs of horror, DEMEA, at these strange suppositions: but these, and a thousand more of the same kind, are CLEANTHES’s suppositions, not mine. From the moment the attributes of the Deity are supposed finite, all these have place. And I cannot, for my part, think, that so wild and unsettled a system of theology is, in any respect, preferable to none at all.

This passage came to mind when I read yesterday’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  Zach Wienersmith has sharpened Philo’s hypotheticals a bit:

Paul Elmer More fans, take note!

Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) and Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) were the co-founders of a school of thought known as the “New Humanism” or “American Humanism.”  These literary scholars sought to establish that a particular set of propositions about morals and psychology could be found in the most respected books of many of the world’s great literatures.  Babbitt was an irreligious man, but he dutifully included the Bible on his list of Great Books; he took a serious academic interest in early Buddhist writings, and late in life began a study of Confucius.

While Babbitt included sacred texts in his studies in an attempt to show that there is a form of moralism that is compatible with many religions but dependent on none of them, More took a different approach.  He had a strong, though vague, religious leaning; after youthful studies of the Upanishads and other holy books from ancient India, he settled into Anglo-Catholicism.  By far the most popular of More’s books in his lifetime was The Sceptical Approach to Religion; I suspect its popularity is based solely on its title.  While the rest of his books are written in a remarkably clear, easy style, The Sceptical Approach to Religion is largely unreadable.  Intended as a work of apologetics, the book consists primarily of disavowals, qualifications, and backpedaling of every sort.  The Sceptical Approach to Religion appeared in 1934, the year after Irving Babbitt’s death.  I suspect that if the notoriously pugnacious Babbitt had been alive to give his opinion of the book, More would never have dared release such a mealy-mouthed production.

Although The Sceptical Approach to Religion presents readers with an extraordinarily murky version of More’s religious ideas, his most sustained scholarly work, the five-volume treatise known as The Greek Tradition, paints a clearer picture.  The full title of the series is The Greek Tradition from the Death of Socrates to the Council of Chalcedon (399 BC to 451 AD.)  Its thesis is that the development of ancient Greek philosophy beginning with Plato found its logical culmination in the debates at the Council of Chalcedon and the doctrines that emerged from those debates.  The study has its eccentric aspects certainly, and shows its age.  Nor can a nonbeliever quite take More’s thesis seriously.  Nonetheless, I can say that it has repaid me well every time I’ve read it, for all my skepticism.

Now we have a new book that apparently reflects a research program similar in scope, if not in theological purpose.  Marian Hillar, a professor of philosophy and biochemistry* at Texas Southern University, has published a book called From Logos to Trinity: The Evolution of Religious Beliefs from Pythagoras to Tertullian (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.)  A review of the book by Patricia Johnston of Brandeis University was recently sent to members of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South.  Professor Johnston writes:

In this sweeping review, Marian Hillar attempts to trace the development of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, from the early pre-Socratic philosophers to Tertullian, with a special focus on Philo (20 BCE–50 CE), Justin Martyr (115–165 CE), and Tertullian (160–225 CE).

Paul Elmer More would have been alarmed at that part; he objected to the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that early Christians thought of the Holy Spirit as something on a par, not with God the Father and God the Son, but with the communion of the saints or other expressions that might very well name something of great religious importance, but that no one thought of as one of God’s Persons.  Still, More had some reservations about Justin Martyr’s orthodoxy and thought of Tertullian primarily as a notorious heretic, so he might not have found it too hard to believe that they were precursors of Trinitarianism.

*Professor Hillar was a medical doctor before earning his philosophy Ph.D.


The other day, Rebecca Solnit (a.k.a. America’s National Treasure) wrote a column for TomDispatch that The Nation‘s website picked up.  The title is “Men Still Explain Things to Me.”  Ms Solnit tells a little story about a strange man who responded to some comment she’d made about photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge by chastising her for not having read a new book about Muybridge that had come out earlier that year.  It turned out that the book he had in mind was River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, by- Rebecca Solnit.   Ms Solnit’s friends repeatedly tried to tell the man that the woman he was scolding for not knowing the book was in fact its author; that didn’t slow him down a bit.  Ms Solnit gives other examples of men shutting women down by loudly and persistently “explaining” to them.  Acknowledging that not all men use this passive-aggressive technique and that those who do use it  sometimes use it against other men, Ms Solnit mentions that young women nowadays call the technique “mansplaining.”

Ms Solnit posted this piece shortly before a truly spectacular example of mansplaining burst into public view and briefly dominated the US political news cycle.  US Congressman Todd Akin, Republican of Missouri, is his party’s nominee for the US Senate from that state in this year’s election.  In response to a question from a television interviewer, Mr Akin said that he did not believe that abortion should be legal.  Asked about women who become pregnant as the result of rape, he said that he would not make an exception for them, in part because he believes that such a scenario is rare.  “The female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down,” he said, launching into an explanation of physiological processes that, according to him, prevent women who are the victims of what the congressman called “legitimate rape” from becoming pregnant.

In the aftermath of Mr Akin’s remarks, several prominent Republicans, including presidential nominee Willard “Mitt” Romney, criticized him harshly.  At this writing, it is unclear whether Mr Akin will remain a candidate.  A Google search estimates over 900,000 results for “Akin vows to stay in race”; usually candidates vow to stay in a race shortly before they announce their withdrawals.

A couple of interesting pieces have appeared in response to this matter.  On The Nation‘s website, health columnist Dana Goldstein contributes a handy guide to “How the Body Reacts to Sexual Assault” (spoiler: not by spontaneously producing contraceptives.) Ms Goldstein explains that ideas about sexual response that are not informed by biology lead many people, victims of rape among them, to draw distinctions between women who are more worthy or less worthy of support and respect after sexual assault.  These distinctions, Ms Goldstein argues, turn rape exceptions to abortion bans into a means by which other people can exercise unwanted control over a woman’s body.  As such, they reenact the original offense.

And at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner writes a fascinating analysis of “The Theological Roots of Akin’s ‘Legitimate Rape’ Comment.”  Mr Akin is an outspoken member of the Presbyterian Church in America (or PCA,) the second-largest Presbyterian denomination in the USA.  Unlike the larger and quite liberal Presbyterian Church USA, the PCA is fiercely traditional both in its general theology and in its views of relations between the sexes.  Posner cites a series of PCA position papers on abortion which mirror Mr Akin’s remarks very closely.  They even go into detail about the unlikelihood of pregnancy resulting from rape, details unsupported by documentation.  Ms Posner links to a column by Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic; Ms Franke-Ruta describes some of the political infrastructure that has been developed to popularize the idea that rape rarely causes conception, including a group called “Physicians for Life” which seems to consist of physicians who trained and practice in some parallel universe.   A parallel universe which sends representatives to the US Congress, for some reason.

John S Wilkins’ “Evolving Thoughts”

A year and a half ago, in September 2010, blogger John S. Wilkins posted something I meant to remark on here.  A response to the public discussion going on at the time about Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design, it was titled “Stephen Hawking and the Creation of the Universe.”  Mr Wilkins’ point was that, while some presented Professor Hawking’s book as presenting an argument against the existence of God, the argument Professor Hawking actually presents tells only against a theology that was discredited in the nineteenth century.  Once mathematicians demonstrated that simple processes could yield complex and stable systems, the Enlightenment theory of the universe as a grand machine and of God as the grand machinist, a view expressed in, among other movements, deism, lost its logical warrant.  Mr Wilkins closing paragraphs read thus:

Can we come up with a deist god that is consistent with the modern physics? One way is called “block universe” theory, and I have discussed this before. Any deity that is not themselves bounded by ordinary causal relations and time is able to set up a universe that does things causally even if that universe is unpredictable within spacetime. But this is rather more like the traditional theist God, only without all the intervention. In losing the Laplacean deist god we find ourselves back with the Augustinian-Thomist deity. If you think it matters. I’m a block theorist for other reasons than theology, but the option is there if you need it.

A universe that can “create” itself is a state of affairs that is actualised, and may very well be actualised by a deity that desired it. The notion of cause has been so stretched and modified that it is almost unrecognisable, but there is nothing I can see that is self-contradictory about it, and so I conclude that Hawking, if he’s being reported correctly, has disproven a view of God that had currency solely among scientists and philosophers who were still Enlightenment thinkers.

Now somebody will tell me that the book is more subtle and interesting than that. Which is what these posts are for…

I bring this up now because Mr Wilkins has announced that both his blog and his Twitter account are likely to be dormant for a time, since he’s out of work and short of funds.  If you have profited from his temperate and learned posts on biology, the philosophy of science, and the case for agnosticism, you might consider donating money to him.  If you haven’t read him and are interested in the natural world, philosophy, science, or religion, or if you simply enjoy hearing a calm and rational voice, you should have a look.  Even if you don’t decide to help him financially, I’m sure your reading of his blog would bring both satisfaction to him and fresh intellectual stimulation to you.

The smallest and the largest

In 1968, designers Charles and Ray Eames released a short film called “Powers of Ten.”  Here it is:

Here’s a tribute to the film that appeared as xkcd #271:

There’s something I occasionally wonder about.  People sometimes say that hearing about the scale of the universe at its largest makes them feel small and unimportant.  On that scale, the earth figures as a minuscule portion of a solar system that is itself a minuscule portion of a galaxy that is in turn a minuscule portion of one of countless clusters of galaxies in the universe.  When I hear that remark, I think about the scale of the universe at its smallest.  Tiny as our world is in comparison with the deepest reaches of the sky, how large do we bulk in comparison with the smallest units of the submicroscopic world?

This flash animation from Cary and Michael Huang, released a couple of days ago as a followup to a similar project they put out in 2010, takes us from the Planck length, which is evidently the smallest size a thing can be, up to what theorists currently suspect is the total size of the universe, which extends at least 7000 times as far as we will ever be able to see.  The latest theories hold that the total size of the universe might be about 1.6 times 10 to the 27th power meters.  That theory may be as mistaken as all the previous theories about the same thing have been, but it’s the best we have going at the moment.   So, if that theory is correct and you were to lay humans end to end, the number of them you would need to stretch from one end of the universe to the other would be 28 digits long.  The Huang brothers note in their animation that the total height of all living humans is much shorter than that, of course; in fact, if we were all to lie down end to end we would only reach about 1o million kilometers, only about 1/15 of the way from the earth to the sun.  Even if all 100,000,000,000 humans who ever lived were to be reincarnated and join us, we would still reach less than 15 billion kilometers, which would barely get us from one side of the Solar System’s Kuiper Belt to the other.

So, compared to the largest scale of structure in the universe, we are indeed quite small.  But let’s take a moment and look at the smallest scale of things in the universe.  The Eameses stopped their exploration at the level of the proton.  In 1968, there wasn’t much point in trying to delve deeper.  Since then, science has made advances.  The Planck length is 1.6 times ten to the minus 35th power meters; so, if you laid the shortest possible objects end to end, the number of them it would take to stretch from one end of your body to the other would be 36 digits long. A 36 digit number is of course bigger than a 28 digit number, vastly bigger.  So our size is much closer to that of the entire universe than it is to that of an object that exists on the scale of the Planck length.  The 2010 version of the Huangs’ flash animation illustrated this dramatically, with a human symbol standing well to the right of the center of the zoom bar. If contemplating the scope of the universe as a whole makes us feel small and insignificant, does contemplation of the Planck length make us feel large and mighty?

Perhaps it does.  If it doesn’t, I can think of two possible reasons.  First, it might be that the feature of astronomy that gives people the feeling of smallness and weakness is not the size of the structures astronomers study, but the fact that those people don’t understand what astronomers are talking about and don’t feel confident in their ability to figure it out.  That sense of smallness is not likely to be relieved when the conversation turns from light-years and dark energy to yoctometers and the quantum foam.

Second, it might be the legacy of monotheism.  When we visualize the universe on the largest scale, we imagine ourselves to be standing outside it, taking it in at a glance.  To minds formed under the influence of a belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present Creator God, such a visualization is clearly an imitation of God.  In such an imagination, it shows an awesome power to zoom in and find individual humans, to number the hairs on their heads (between 50,000 and 200,000, according to the Huang brothers) and keep an eye on the sparrow.  On the other hand, to look up from the level of the Planck length may not suggest much to such a mind.  It’s true that medieval theologians like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas developed ideas about angels as one-dimensional beings who had the power to assume visible form as the situation required; to those titans of Scholasticism, the idea of two-dimensional strings vibrating at the smallest levels of scale in the universe and forming the basis of the physical world might have been extremely interesting.  Still, to the extent that people think about angels today, it’s in terms that neither Albertus nor Thomas would have recognized as rational, or even as Christian.  Aside from a few eccentric philosophers like Massimo Cacciari and the late Mortimer Adler who maintain an interest in the Scholastic conception of angels, the only people who bring them up nowadays seem to be those who believe that the souls of holy people become angels.  For the Scholastics, this would have been rank heresy.  They believed that angels represented an order of creation separate from humans, who may operate within time and space on occasion, but who are not generally subject to the passage of time or extended in three-dimensional space.  Humans, they held, were destined either to be resurrected in perfected bodies, as Jesus had been, or to be cast into Hell.  In either case, we would continue to be three-dimensional beings of something about a meter and a half in height.  I can’t see what motive believers in the Hollywood-derived conception of the afterlife would have for attaching any special significance to a view of the universe that looks up from the smallest scale, and indeed they do not seem to be excited about the submicroscopic world.

Marcel Duchamp, Calvinist

Tonight, Mrs Acilius and I were watching TV.  The program was a documentary called Paris: The Luminous Years. In a video clip from the 1960s, Marcel Duchamp said every visual artwork was a collection of shapes and colors.  The essence of art lay in the artist’s choice of these shapes and colors.  One set of shapes and colors was as eligible for this choice as another, and the actual production of the artwork was purely incidental.  Once the artist had made his or her choice of shapes and colors, the “art” is complete.

Mrs Acilius (who posts on WordPress as “Believer1“) said something about this.  “I think art is freedom.  When I paint a plate, I know that I’m painting it with fingers that have cerebral palsy.  So I have to start by accepting the fact that the picture I have in my mind is not going to be the same as the picture on the plate.”  We talked about this.  I asked her if she was saying that art wasn’t just something that happened in the artist’s mind, or just the finished product, but was to be found in the process, in the difference between what she was trying to do and what wound up happening.  She confirmed that she was saying that.

A plate by Mrs Acilius

I told Mrs Acilius that the difference between her and Duchamp reminded me of the difference between Calvinism and sacramentalism in Christian theology.  Duchamp’s idea that art is art simply because the artist has decided so, and that the events that take place in the physical world subsequent to that choice have no bearing on its status sounds rather like the Calvinist idea that the Elect are the Elect simply because God has decided so, and that events that take place in the physical world subsequent to his free election have no bearing on their status.  Her idea, by contrast, sounds like a form of Christianity that regards salvation as inseparable from particular forms of matter and particular events in time.

The Mrs is a Quaker; unlike the classical believer in the Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican versions of Christianity, Quakers typically reject ritual.  They do, however, embrace sacraments.  Quakers do not practice baptism by water, not because they think it puts too much of God in the physical world, but because it puts too little of Him there.  Believing that the soul can encounter the Holy Spirit under any circumstances, they see the whole world as the scene of baptism.  Likewise, in their meetings for worship they do not have a ritual sharing of wine and bread, not because they lack communion, but because in their shared silences they make their fellowship a communion, and their whole persons an altar on which it is consecrated.  They do not make lists of sacraments, such as the traditional seven sacraments of Western Christianity, not because they deny that God interacts with humanity through matter, but because they believe that He interacts with us in more ways than we can count or foresee.  So when the Mrs puts an emphasis on the unpredictability of the artistic process, she is using categories familiar from the theology of her religious tradition.

The Nice Creed

In the June issue of Chronicles magazine, Philip Jenkins wrote a very interesting piece about the Revised Common Lectionary.  A lectionary is a table of holy writings that are prescribed to be read in church or temple on particular days; the Revised Common Lectionary is the product of a collaboration among many of the largest Christian denominations in the United States and Canada. Throughout the English-speaking world, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants hear the readings appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary in their services.

Jenkins asks us to imagine a new Christian denomination, one founded with a close eye to market research.  This denomination might find a stumbling block in the Bible.  How might they clear such a hurdle?  “Our focus groups tell us that many modern people do not like or do not understand large portions of the Bible, about half the book in fact, and we want to serve their needs.  The God we preach is, above all, Nice, and the scripture must focus on that paramount reality.  So our church has produced a new version of the Bible, carefully selected for Niceness, and edited to remove the half of the material that modern readers find difficult, unpleasant, or thorny.  That is our belief- or as we call it, our Nice Creed.”

While this imaginary Nice Creed might be very different from the series of statements known in various times and places as the Nicene Creed, it would have a distinguished historical lineage.  Marcion of Pontus, a major figure in the early development of Christian thought, was so troubled by the many passages of the Jewish scriptures that depict a vengeful God Who takes a particular interest in one chosen people that he decided those scriptures were describing a different God from the world-redeeming, grace-giving God of Jesus and Paul.  Marcion did not deny the truth of Judaism, but claimed that while the Jewish God created the universe and the Messiah would come and establish a millennial kingdom for the Jews, the God of Jesus was quite another fellow, and Jesus Himself, though He were Savior of all humanity, was no Messiah.  No church today claims Marcion as an inspiration; all that express an opinion about him call him a heretic.  But the Revised Common Lectionary elides, in Jenkins’ words, “exactly those Old Testament elements that most repelled that ancient heretic.  What remains in the text is an acceptable Bible Lite.”

For example, 94% of the Book of Esther is missing from the Revised Common Lectionary.  While the lectionary leaves in the story of the hanging of the wicked Haman, it leaves out the revenge the Jews took on his people, a revenge that left 75,000 dead.  This is the foundation story of the feast of Purim, and is important enough to Jews today that worshipers ritually make noise in temple when Haman’s name is mentioned.  But it certainly isn’t Nice.  So out it goes.

Jenkins puts it thus: “In terms of the ordinary experience of Christian Church life, the Book of Esther has ceased to exist.  So has the Book of Ezra (not quoted at all in the lectionary); so have Judges, Leviticus, Nehemiah (each represented by one meager passage.)”  Even worse is the selective editing within passages.  “A passage will be cited as (for instance) ‘Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18’ without any explanation of what has vanished from that chapter.  Just what was in verses three through eight?”  Jenkins gives some examples of passages which are seriously misrepresented by selective editing of this sort.  For example, this lesson gives us the first verse and a half of chapter 24 of Joshua, then jumps to verses 14-18.  What’s wrong with verses 3-13?  Jenkins explains that “these omitted verses recount the conquest and destruction of the Amorite and Moabite peoples, the annihilation of Jericho, and the ethnic cleansing of the seven peoples of Canaan.  Leaving out that section, we imagine the rival peoples listed in this chapter as armed enemies in battle, not as civilian targets for genocide.”  Definitely not Nice!

Jenkins two closing paragraphs make his point very forcefully, I think, so I’ll quote them in full:

Why should we worry about this radical purging of the biblical text? After all, Christians are not forbidden to read the troubling texts on their own, either in a private context or in a common study group.  Yet having said this, many such groups like to use the lectionary as a guide for such activity, either using the texts for the coming Sunday, r else linking the study to a sermon.  Ordinary readers are free to pursue Joshua, Ezra, and Deuteronomy, but how many do?  If you are a faithful church attendee- a Catholic or Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopalian, Lutheran or Mennonite- the odds are that you will simply never encounter some of the Bible’s most challenging passages, texts that must be understood if we are to see that work holistically.  Jesus, after all, was really Yeshua, and He shared His name with the ancient warlord we call Joshua, the book of whose deeds has virtually disappeared from church usage.

The worst feature of this far-reaching excision of troubling texts is what it suggests about the churches’ attitude toward their ordinary believers, who must be protected from anything that might call them to question the orthodoxies of the day.  God forbid they might hear these texts: They might be induced to think.

I am one of those who would be glad if there were nothing in the Bible encouraging war, or genocide, or slavery; if it spoke out consistently and clearly in favor of equality between men and women, of a mindful relationship with the natural world, of the rights and dignity of sexual minorities; if it fit easily into a scientific worldview and a liberal democratic political system.  These are some of the values Jenkins would classify among the “orthodoxies of the day,” and of course they are that.  I don’t mind being called orthodox.  But it is simply false to pretend that the Bible really is that way, and Jenkins deserves commendation for speaking out against the infantilization of “ordinary believers” implied in the Nice version of the scriptures presented in the Revised Common Lectionary.

In the same issue, Aaron D. Wolf marks the 400th anniversary of the “King James Bible.”  Wolf has fond memories of his fundamentalist boyhood and of the 1611 Bible as a presence in that boyhood, but now that he has left fundamentalism behind and become a more traditional sort of Christian he is constrained to point out some of the limitations in that translation.  I hadn’t known just how dependent the 1611 translation was on William Tyndale’s earlier translation.  Evidently 83% of the New Testament and 76% of the Old Testament in the 1611 translation comes verbatim from Tyndale, and the rest was shaped by the influence of Tyndale’s approach.  As a Lutheran in an England whose established church was still subordinate to Rome, Tyndale was put to death for heresy in 1536, but it would seem he managed to get the last word.

Thomas Fleming isn’t a particularly humorous author, at least not intentionally, but his column did make me chuckle this time around with this story.  He meets a man.  “‘Been to church’?  he asked.  Dressed in a suit at 10:30 on Sunday morning, I was forced to admt the fact.”

Chilton Williamson writes about industrialization.  He grants that the industrial revolution was in a sense inevitable, so that “the question of whether men should have created industrialism is a meaningless one, the kind of modern question-putting Chesterton deplored.”  Still, t’s clear that he wishes he could answer the question in the negative.  “Industrialism has two ultimate tendencies.  One is to subdue nature and to exhaust it, while ruining it as a home for man, as well as for the thousands upon thousands of other species that industrial activity has driven to extinction, not least through the explosive growth of the human species that industrialization has made possible.  The other is to subdue and exploit man, while progressively marginalizing him in the workplace and in society as a whole by mechanization, and finally replacing him altogether with robotic labor.” Williamson doesn’t mention Eric Gill, but Gill’s critique of industrialization seems to be behind this remark and his suspicion that “industrialism, in both human and natural terms, is patently unsustainable, and that its eventual collapse is therefore guaranteed.”

In the flesh?

Most Sundays, Mrs Acilius and I can be found in a Quaker meeting down the street from our home.  She is a member of that meeting and a convinced adherent of the brand of Christianity associated with Quakerism; I’m not a member of any religious group, nor am I convinced of the truth of any religious doctrine.  The Friends are a likeable bunch, though, and I always feel that my time among them is well spent.

In  many ways, the Quakers are a group apart from other Protestants.  Not in all ways, however.  For example, like many mainline Protestant denominations the US branches of Quakerdom are currently rumbling with disputes about the status of homosexuality.  In some areas of the country, these disputes have gone very far.  The venerable Indiana Yearly Meeting, which has been going since 1821, is apparently considering a proposal to dissolve itself so that the local meetings affiliated with it can sort themselves into pro- and anti-gay groups.  Other yearly meetings may be approaching a similar point.  That means that Quaker denominations that have already made their minds up about the issue are facing the prospect of reorganizing to accommodate refugees from the divided groups.

Because I hear about this controversy quite often, I took a keen interest in Eve Tushnet’s notes on a talk that Christopher Roberts gave at Villanova University a few years back.  This bit especially piqued my interest:  “* CR: Progressive theology of marriage separates creation and redemption–for progressive, pro-gay-marriage theologians, sex difference is about creation/procreation and is private, while redemption (linked to marriage?) is ecclesial but unisex. ”

Roberts’ view of  “Progressive theology,” as Tushnet relays it here, reminds me of a problem at the heart of the sacramental theology of Quakerism.  The Quakers have traditionally held that the sacraments of baptism and communion are entirely “inward”; that is to say, what makes them holy is nothing to do with the physical elements of a ritual, and everything to do with supernatural events involving the soul and the Holy Spirit.  So, most Quakers do not practice an initiation ritual involving water, nor do they take wine and bread together in meetings for worship.

I haven’t read deeply on these topics.  If I were to study the arguments that have been made for and against Quakerism over the 350 years that the Friends movement has been underway, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some old writer who thought he had reduced Quaker sacramental theology to absurdity in this manner: 1. Quakers hold that the sacraments of baptism and communion are entirely supernatural, and that no particular physical act or material form is necessary to complete them.  2. Quakers do not deny that marriage is a sacrament.  3.  Quakers do not provide any reason to regard the sacrament of marriage as radically different from other sacraments.  4. To be consistent, Quakers must therefore hold that no particular physical act or material form is necessary to complete the sacrament of marriage.   5. The difference between male and female is known to us through particular physical acts and material forms, and in no other way.  6.  Therefore, Quakers have no grounds for insisting that a marriage requires a male and female body for its consummation.

Nowadays, many Quakers might accept this line of argument, and might proclaim that they are following in the tradition of the weighty Friends of the past when they endorse same-sex marriage.  Many others continue to resist it.  I’m not at all knowledgeable about Quaker theology, but it might be interesting to learn what sorts of arguments are exchanged in this matter.  If you happen to have knowledge I lack, I invite you to comment.