Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Condemnation of Philosophy

Thomas Aquinas was without question the most important Christian philosopher of the Middle Ages. Drawing from the best of classical thought, he wrote vast tomes of Christian philosophy on every intellectual and theological question imaginable. His clear thinking and careful reasoning was foundational to the scholarship of centuries to come. Read far and wide even today, his works have stood the test of time.

Yet a strange event happened near the end of his life that caused him to stop writing altogether. Aquinas had a mystical vision of God, the God whom he had written and reasoned so much about in works that are still world classics, and concluded:
All that I have written appears to be as much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.
I thought of this after being interviewed again by Emery on the A Christian and an Atheist Podcast (download the mp3 here). This conversation, on Genesis, was a bit more confrontational and argumentative than before, but we covered some interesting ground. However, the mystic in me kept running into trouble with the more philosophical questions. There's no getting around it: I'm starting to get awfully suspicious of the philosophical approach to God.

Oh, not philosophy in the broader sense. The love of wisdom is absolutely essential to knowing God. No, I'm talking about the descriptions of God we get based on reason from first principles. We know, for instance, that God is the unmoved mover, that of which greater could not be conceived, the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, immutable, impassive, eternal being above all. This is God as Plato could conceive him.

Now, on the face of it, this is good stuff. My trouble isn't any sort of logical problem with any specific attribute, or really with the classical philosophers who espouse them, but rather with the overall picture of God that emerges in my own mind. Strangely, when I speak of God with such words, I somehow make him out to be rather...small.

I think of something we know, for instance - say a man. Then I need to alter the picture to fit the philosophical data. Men are moved by other things they interact with in their lives; take away every experience man has by being affected by something else. Men have certain strengths and weaknesses that define them; take away all the weaknesses, and magnify the strengths to infinity. Men often stand in various places - in a building, on a mountaintop, under a bridge; take this away so that the being exists everywhere at once. Men have certain things they know and think about; take away this small subset and replace it with infinity.

What image am I left with? A man standing in a bare white room. Infinity is utterly incomprehensible to me, and so my mind replaces it with the nearest thing we know of: nothing.

Could anything be less like the picture we find in scripture? Take the first ten chapters of Genesis. Here we have a story of God hovering over chaos, making the world, and filling it with life. He makes man to be his stamp on creation, to love him, walk with him, wrestle with him, and represent him to the rest of the world. He becomes angry with man, curses his creation, and prepares to destroy it with a burning anger that only an artist can understand for a work gone bad. He then sees a glimpse of what the work was meant to be in one of his human creatures, and decides to salvage the work after all. He soberly assesses the damage in man, and decides to hold uphold the creation while he begins a great effort to bring man to glory.

Now, an impatient philosopher, armed with his omnimax cannon, can blow the above picture to bits. God is perfect - how can he make something that goes wrong? How can he hover over chaos - he is everywhere? How can man interact with God except as a total puppet, when man is finite? How can man adequately represent God, who is infinite? Why would a perfect God curse his creation - wouldn't he know ahead of time it would go wrong? Why would a perfect artist ever have to be frustrated with his work? Why would God ever change his mind - how could omniscience see new information? How can an immutable God be angry one minute and sober the next? How is it that an impassive God lets man get under his skin?

The questions seem logically decisive, and yet I can't hep but make a qualitative objection. The details may clash with these grandiose terms, and yet the scriptural picture is far grander than my philosophical one. The subject is infinite, and yet the finite model of the scripture comes far closer than the vapid model I receive from the philosopher. For "something" is as many times greater than "nothing" as infinity is greater than "something". We worship a God who is.

In our conversation, Emery remarked that the infinite God could never know the joy of victory or the agony of defeat. For defeat must come from a desire or effort thwarted, and joy of victory comes from overcoming something truly challenging. Yet the scriptures show God as experiencing both time and time again - defeat in the frustration of man's sinfulness, of Israel's unfaithfulness, of Christ's death - and victory in creation's glory, of Israel's redemption, of Christ's resurrection. In reply, one might ask why an infinite God might not know infinite agonies of defeat, and infinite joys of victory, all wound up in the cosmic whirlwind that is his being? But the deeper answer is that, when we use these terms, we mostly don't know what on Earth (or in Heaven) we are talking about.

There seems something analogous here to the physical sciences. Whether it is the wave-particle duality of light, or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, we have seen how simplistic models and absolute claims must sometimes give way to paradox in understanding deeper realities. Holding two vastly different pictures in tension is often the closest way for us to get at the truth.

And so with God. In scripture we are given a gift beyond measure. We are given something far deeper than a series of abstract statements. We are given a story. We are given a drama that unfolds and expands and progresses, until we find ourselves even now taking part in it. As Chesterton said, it opens to us not only incredible heavens, but what seems to some an equally incredible earth, and makes it credible. We accept it; and the ground is solid under our feet and the road is open before us. For the story fits the lock - it is like life.

Of course any real philosopher will protest loudly that what I really take issue with isn't philosophy at all - but sophistry. He'd surely be right. A disciplined, humble philosophy is an invaluable tool, and I'd hate to genuinely lose all the treasures of classical thought. But then Socrates himself said that the greatest knowledge he had gained was the scope of his own ignorance. And so the glory of God must shatter our models and our philosophies, and show us something far grander than we'd ever thought possible.

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Friday, October 19, 2007


The people of Israel finally have a king over them who unites the twelve tribes under the reign of a single dynasty. The story explores the tension between serving the Lord as king and having to submit to a human monarch, as Saul slides further and further into rebellion. But God himself chooses the shepherd David, a man with a heart after his own, to carry his lambs in his arms. Thus begins the golden age of Israel, where the great king David is the standard by which all others will be judged.

Volume One
  1. The Lord is King (1-6)
  2. Serving Two Masters (7-12)
  3. The Man Who Would Be King (13-15)
  4. Height and Heart (16-20)
  5. The Wrath of Man and the Righteousness of God (21-26)
  6. The Fall of Saul (27-31)
Volume Two
  1. An Unfading Crown of Glory (1-10)
  2. The Heart of Man (11-12)
  3. Absalom, Absalom! (13-19)
  4. Ruling in the Fear of God (20-24)

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Ruling in the Fear of God (II Samuel 20-24)

The end of Samuel feels a bit like an appendix to me. Here we have a bunch of seemingly unrelated items that didn’t really fit in the main stream of the book (though I would have probably inserted the psalm in chapter 22 somewhere before the incident with Bathsheba if I were the editor). There are two rather troubling stories tucked away here that exemplify what made David a man after God’s own heart.

The first is an incident concerning Gibeon. Apparently Saul had tried to wipe them out, even though Joshua had promised to spare them. Now Israel is facing a famine from the Lord in retribution for Saul’s mistreatment of that people. For the sake of justice, David orders seven of Saul’s sons (sparing Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth) to be handed over to the Gibeonites to be executed, strung up, and exposed to the elements.

But Rizpah, the mother of two of them, watches over the bodies day and night to chase away any animals that might desecrate the corpses. It is the last bit of kindness the poor women can offer her dead sons. David hears of it, and, deeply moved, orders the bodies to be taken down and buried with royal honor with Saul and Jonathan.

It’s a picture of David’s awkward relationship to Saul. The Lord had rejected Saul as king of Israel, while Saul continued to commit atrocities more and more worthy of damnation. The fall of his house to David was just and inevitable. Yet Saul, for all his faults, was still the Lord’s anointed. Upon satisfying divine justice, David refuses to demonize his fallen opponents, opting to honor Saul’s reputation beyond the grave.

The second story involves a plague as punishment for a presumptuous censes by David. There are many troubling elements to the story, not least the fact that the Lord himself incites David to take the censes because he is angry with the people for some other reason. Nor is it clear why exactly taking a censes is such a grave sin.

The Lord then strikes Israel with a plague (no doubt substantially altering the censes numbers) while David looks on:
Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father's house.”
The prophet Gad tells David to make an offering to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. Araunah tells David to take the land and the oxen free of charge, but the king refuses. No, the offering must cost him something. He is the king, and these are his people.

It’s a picture of David’s relationship to Israel. Though he is often a great example for them to follow, he also embodies their national sin in his personal choices. And thus his repentance is their own. He is authorized to wrestle with God on their behalf, and say, like any good sea captain to his superiors, “the actions of my crew are mine, and mine alone.”

Oh Israel, here is your king! He judges your wickedness and rebellion, while offering the rebels redemption beyond the grave. He takes your sin upon his own shoulders, calling for God to punish himself on your behalf. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Absalom, Absalom! (II Samuel 13-19)

All is not well with the house of David. His oldest son, Amnon, has his eye on his half-sister Tamar. With the help of a friend, he arranges for her to be alone in his room. Amnon then wrenches Tamar to the bed and rapes her. King David is furious with his son, but he doesn’t punish Amnon because he’s his firstborn and heir to the throne (and also perhaps because David is ashamed of compromising his own integrity).

This injustice plants the seeds of rebellion in the heart of Tamar’s brother Absalom. In defense of his sister’s honor, Absalom treacherously murders Amnon. David then banishes Absalom, who bides his time for many years. He eventually comes home to Jerusalem, and begins plotting to overthrow David himself.

Absalom is a handsome, charming man, with long flowing hair, riding around the city in a chariot. As newcomers arrive at the city for the king’s judgment, Absalom makes a habit of greeting them at the gate:
Absalom would say to him, “See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.” Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.
Absalom soon declares himself king and raises an army at Hebron. David is forced to abandon Jerusalem, leaving only ten concubines to keep the palace. Once again, he is in the wilderness fleeing for his life. When Absalom arrives, he sets up a tent atop the palace and ravishes David’s concubines for all to see.

This crafty deception, casting doubt on the character of the rightful king and urging the people to rebellion, is absolutely primeval – reminiscent of the serpent himself. Absalom has murdered his brother (Cain) and uncovered his father’s nakedness (Canaan).

David, on the other hand, goes into exile, tears dropping onto the mount of olives as he leaves the holy city. The true king is rejected by his people and by God. A Benjaminite named Shimei comes out and pelts David and his entourage with stones, cursing the whole way. Though his generals suggest killing the insolent fool, David lets him keep harassing him. He is bearing his own shame and sin before the Lord for taking the wife and life of Uriah. His son is visiting his own sin upon him.

Absalom pursues David across the Jordan where the armies meet in a great battle. David's forces crush the rebels, scattering them in all directions. In a stroke of poetic justice, Absalom, in his haste to get away, ends up dangling from a tree by his long hair. Joab lands three spears in his chest, while his men hack the prince to death.

A messenger brings news of victory to David, expecting a reward. But when David hears the news, he bursts into tears, bawling:
O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!
Joab quickly lays into David. His grief is an insult to the men who risked their lives to fight for him. Joab is right, of course, so David does his best to composes himself and honor his loyal soldiers.

Yet there is something worth mentioning even if it is couched in one of David’s flaws. Here is a father who loves his son passionately, even though he is in a state of rebellion against him. How he would gather his son under his wings, like a hen with her chicks, if only Absalom were willing!

And so, as he returns to his city, pardoning even the sin of Shimei who had cursed the Lord’s anointed, David is more than a representative of Israel exiled for his sin. He is an image of the God who loves them, willing to give his own life for them, even as he reluctantly crushes their rebellion.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

An Atheist Interviews Me on the Book of Job

I had the wonderful opportunity yesterday to be interviewed on the A Christian and an Atheist podcast, by a thoughtful and courteous atheist named Emery. It was a great conversation that I thoroughly enjoyed.

If any of you have been dying to hear what my voice sounds like, this is your lucky day! I apologize in advance for the less-than-stellar audio quality coming from my end - it's the fault of my slow DSL connection. Download the mp3 here.

For some reason the show has me wrestling with the responsibility of words. One can now directly play back statements of mine on very deep matters that were made live. Thinking back on what I said, I think even now there are things I might put differently. But that's how spoken words are - they are often a little clumsy - so I suppose we all need to show each other grace and go out of our way to really try to understand someone before judgment.

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