Friday, February 29, 2008

A Progressive "Outed?"

I took the Scott McKnight hermeneutics quiz, and they told me I'm a progressive. I scored a 67 out of 100, and progressives fall between 66-100. Hmmm.

Shoot me now.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Do Christians Have Knowledge?

A well-written and educational post from J.P. Moreland.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Definition of Prayer

What is prayer? Simone Weil's definition is one of the more intriguing ones I've come across. I'll put it in a philosophical format. I'll call her definition the "Attention Thesis" (AT).

(AT) A subject S is praying if and only if S's attention is oriented toward God.
Is this an adequate definition? First let's get clear on an important term: attention. First, attention refers to an intentional mental state in which a person chooses to make some particular thing the object of his thought. When I choose to watch the second hand of my clock move, my attention is on the movement of the second hand. I am attending to the movement of the second hand. When I choose to imagine a cube in my mind, I am attending to the image of the cube. When I choose to think about the concept of humility, I am attending to that concept. If a thought pops into my head involuntarily, or if an insect flies across my visual field, I may notice or see it, but I am not attending to it.

Second, attenting is an action, it is something we choose to do. I cannot give my attention to something without doing so on purpose. In the case of the insect, once I have noticed it I may then choose to direct my attention to it.

Now there is an important difference between attending a thing and attending to my concept of a thing. To attend to a thing is not merely to think about it, put to pay attention to it. I cannot pay attention to the Mona Lisa if I am not in the Louvre. I can attend to my memory of it, or my concept of it, but not the thing itself. Thus, in the case of persons, I do not think we can pay attention to someone who is not present or engaged in communication with us. And even if the person is present, attention is more than merely looking at them or hearing them. We see this phenomenologically with human communication. It is possible to hear what a person says with out paying attention to them. We all know the difference, and we consider ourselves slighted when our interlocutor fails to pay attention to us in an important conversation.

So given this understanding of attention, how does AT hold up? Well, let's break it into two pieces.
(AT1) S is praying only if S's attention is oriented toward God.
(AT2) S's attention is oriented toward God only if S is praying.

To refute AT, we must show that either AT1 or AT2 is false by way of a counter-example. Can we think of a counter-example for AT1? Is there a scenario where someone is praying (to God), and yet their attention is not oriented toward God? Consdier the following: Smith is reciting the daily prayers prescribed by his church, and yet he is thinking about a report he must give at the office on Monday. Smith's attention is on his report. Is Smith praying? Intuitively, no.

Now, one might object by claiming that God's hearing a person's prayer-like words is sufficient for prayer to occur. I.e., a person can perform an utterance of certain prayer-like words ("deliver me O, Lord") without any thought of God whatsoever, and God will count that as a legitimate request. But consider the following case. Brown is watching a football game on TV. Black, who has recently committed an egregious wrong against Brown, enters the room, sits down and begins to watch the game. Brown says, "Aren't you going to apologize?" A few minutes later, Black utters the phrase, "I'm sorry," all the while gazing intently at the TV. Does this count as an apology? If not, then neither does a mere prayer-like utterance count as prayer. If someone would defend this as a legitimate apology, then I don't know what to say to them.

So then, it seems that AT1 stands up to our brief inquiry. But what of AT2? Can we imagine a counter-example where someone is focusing their thought upon God, and yet is not praying? this seems less clear. In fact, this is the key to Weil's view of prayer. She thinks any such attention would count as an act of prayer.

One objection to AT2 might go like this: I can think about God without praying in the same way that I can think of my wife without talking to her. But as I have already pointed out, thinking about a person is not necessarily the same as paying attention to them. If my wife is in Rome, and I am in Kansas City, and we are not communicating in any way, then thinking about her amounts to thinking about my memory of her or my idea of her (I am pining for her). If my wife is before me, and I am thinking of her while looking at her intently, then I am attending to her. Can I do this without any communication whatsoever? That seems unlikely, given the significance of body language, facial expression, etc. Just the mere fact that I am paying attention to her so intently communicates something, e.g., adoration or anger. I am bound to give away my thoughts by looking at her in a certain way, or being silent.

So if attending to a human being in this manner makes it extrememly likely that communication is occurring, then attending to God in this manner entails that prayer is occurring. This is because God can know my very thoughts. And if, ex hypothesi, I am thinking about him, his knowing my thoughts amounts to communication, i.e., prayer. So AT2 seems true.

Given the truth of AT1 and AT2, it follows that AT itself is true. Thus, Weil's definition stands. This is only my first pass at a philosophical treatment of prayer, so comments are appreciated.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

No Comparison

"I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: 'Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden'.'' --Augustine of Hippo
Saturday, February 16, 2008

Lookin' Good for Jesus

Unbelievable? Click the pic.
Friday, February 15, 2008

Valentine Poems by the US Poet Laureate

Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate of the United States, shares a sample of his Valentine's verse. I found them delightful and smile-inducing. You know you want to read them -- just look at the guy!


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Valentine Thoughts

Here are a few recycled Valentine's posts, plus one bonus. Gotta stay green!

Obsessive-compulsive? Try here.

Love The Office? Go here.

A Valentine to die for here.

Like Google's holiday-themed graphics? Go here for all of them
Saturday, February 09, 2008

Aristotle on Evangelism

I'm starting to think that my super-power is bringing together ideas that no one has connected before. Usually, if no one has ever brought together two ideas, there's probably a good reason. But at least part of the time I might have an original, and useful, combination. (With a power like this, maybe I could join the Mystery Men. What would my name be?)

So, Aristotle makes a keen observation about persuasion in his Posterior Analytics. He uses the term "demonstration" the way we might talk about an argument. "Principles" refers to the premises (I think) and these are just the basic starting points of your argument.

"Anyone who is going to have understanding through demonstration must not
only be familiar with the principles and better convinced of them than of what
is being proved, but also there must be no other thing more convincing to him or more familiar among the opposites of the principles . . ."
Here Aristotle is simply telling us that when we want to demonstrate something (like the gospel) to someone, we won't be able to persuade them to accept the conclusion (that they need to give themselves to Christ), unless they agree with the claims we used to build up to that conclusion. What are these building-block claims (for the gospel)? (1) That human beings were created by God for a relationship with Him; (2) that apart from that relationship, they cannot experience true life and happiness; (3) that the only means to restoring this relationship is through faith in Christ and his redemptive work.

Again, there's nothing revolutionary here. But by considering these ideas in a fresh way, we can refresh and sharpen our perspective on evangelism. So what are the implications for us? First, when talking to someone, you might ask them whether they agree with these basic claims. If they don't, then there isn't much hope (at this moment) of leading them to Christ. They simply aren't ready. Whether you hold a Reformed or Arminian view, the principle is the same. Either the Holy Spirit needs to do some plow work, or that person needs time to come to see their need.

Second, we should look at each of these basic claims as conclusions that need to be argued for themselves. We should be ready to explain and defend these claims with Scripture, reason, scientific evidence, etc. After all, the Holy Spirit seldom works ex nihilo with a non-Christian. The Spirit takes our words (especially The Word) and arguments and uses them to persuade.
Third, when we share the gospel, we should try to start from ideas that non-Christians are likely to accept. Here are a few possibilities:

(1) That the world is ultimately unjust and needs to be made right
(2) That no one lives up to even their own standards of morality
(3) That good and evil are real and not illusions
(4) That history is moving toward a conclusion and that our lives have purpose
(5) That human beings are more than just meat-machines
(Those are just off the top of my head. Feel free to add more in the comments. )

So, to sum up, we shouldn't be banging our head into the proverbial wall when a friend, family member or coworker just won't accept the gospel. Until the Spirit (often through you) leads them to the truth of the basic premises of the gospel, they will never accept the conclusion. So spend less time repeating the conclusion to them, and more time persuading them of the premises.
Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Is the Bible Fiction??

Here's what I want to know: Did the events described in the Bible (such as Jacob wrestling with a "man" all night in Genesis 32) actually take place? In other words, could they have been recorded with a video camera?

I've been engaged in some conversations recently that have had the effect of exhuming this troubling question. Is it possible that some narratives, such as the one in Gen. 32, might be "just so stories," or stories written to explain certain facts about Hebrew culture or tradition? The account about Jacob wrestling with God, for instance, explains why "to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip" (32:32).

There are so many questions we could ask here. I'm going to try and keep it from getting out of hand. I'm not going to deal with the literal--figurative distinction. That's really a question of literary style and doesn't get to the heart of the matter. I'm also going to avoid talking about whether a story is true or false, since only propositions can be true or false. Stories are either historical or fictional or a mix, at least as far as I can tell.

So, did the events in Gen. 32:24-30 actually take place as a matter of historical fact? That is difficult to know. I dare say that most evangelicals trust that they did. Why? Because we think that Genesis portrays them as historical. In other words, we believe that the author of Genesis intended to communicate that these were historical events.

Now this last step is crucial because it implies a certain approach to interpretation. My view, and I think this is the traditional evangelical view at least, is that our goal in interpretation should be discerning the author's intent. To be more specific, let me offer a definition of "textual meaning."

Textual meaning: that which the words and grammatical structures of that text disclose about the probable intention of its author/editor and the
probable understanding of that text by its intended readers.(1)

So here's the bottom line for me: if it is probable that the author intended the narrative to be taken as fiction (by his intended readers), then I'm ok with it being fiction. If it is probable that the author intended the narrative to be taken (by his intended readers) as historical, then I'm not ok with it being fiction. (Let me add this caveat: I recognize that many narratives are a blending of several literary genres, which means that they might contain historical and fictional elements.)

Another question that might be raised is the following: "But how can we possibly know what an author who lived 4,000 years ago intended? All we have is the text." Fair enough. But just because we can't have certainty about the author's intentions, it doesn't follow that we can't know or at the very least have a very good idea about his intentions.

But regardless of the author's intent, what is it that leads us to doubt the historicity of these accounts in the first place? In some camps I believe there is a flat-out anti-supernatural bias. Now, I could be accused of having a supernatural bias. That's probably true. But my view is that when reading the Bible as an evangelical Christian, there should be a presumption of historicity. The stories in the Bible should be considered historical until shown otherwise -- the burden of proof is on the skeptic. This seems like the right view for the traditional, faithful believer.

So, reagarding Genesis 32, if it can be shown that:
(1) The probable intention of the author was that the narrative should be taken primarily as fiction, OR
(2) There is compelling biblical or extra-biblical evidence against the historical view,
THEN I would be willing to adopt a fictional view.

(1) This is from my lecture notes from my Hermeneutics class with Walter Russell, PhD. at Talbot School of Theology.
Saturday, February 02, 2008

Dust, Wind, Dude

We're reading Plato's Theatetus in my intro class. I thought this would provide some good historical background on Socrates.