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Two humanitarian giants sit for a week to discuss "joy," while a third writer audits the conversations: the result is this book.
The occasion for the book is the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday. He has invited Desmond Tutu with a benign vengeance. Four years earlier, when this, the 14th Dalai Lama, was invited to Tutu's 80th birthday, South Africa refused to grant the Dalai Lama a visa. Tutu was outraged, saying the government was "worse than apartheid." Now, at last, they get together, a long journey for the archbishop who is battling prostate cancer. The topic for their conversation: how may one experience joy in this troubled world?
What impressed me most by the book was not what was said, but who said it, and how playfully Tutu and the Dalai Lama interacted throughout the dialogue. When Jesus said to allow the children to come to him, "for of such is the kingdom of heaven," he elevated childhood. When you become really mature, as are these two men, you can afford to act like a child.
They respect their philosophical and faith differences (Tutu, a Christian, and the the Dalai Lama, a "nontheist" Buddhist), all the while laughing with and at each other mischievously. From one of their earliest encounters, apparently, the Dalai Lama enjoyed grabbing Tutu's cap and wearing it himself. While Tutu insists he cannot imagine Jesus sending the Dalai Lama to hell, the Dalai Lama insists he prefers to go to hell, where there are more people he can help.
According to the narrator (who is Abrams), the book is structured like a three-layer birthday cake (a fitting metaphor, for the occasion):
In addition, a useful appendix ("Joy Practices") is included, providing practical guidance on maintaining joy. The practices are a series of meditations, several of which nearly anyone could practice, independent of his or her beliefs.
As is true with all cakes, this one is a matter of taste: the middle layer may appeal to some readers, although, with few exceptions, I found the references to science frequently interrupted and diluted the true merits of the book (the teachings and the stories).
At one point Abrams himself recognizes the possibility that some people prefer a two-layer cake. The Dalai Lama was stating that humans, being social animals, must pay attention to each other's needs in order to be happy, that is, to keep an inner equilibrium. At that point he mentions a study of mice where, if one were wounded, another would lick the wound. At this point Abram's writes, "The Archbishop laughed at all of this discussion of mice and the need for scientific justifications for what, to him, was so obviously at the very core of our humanity" (254).
The core of our humanity is the important focus in the book. Grossly oversimplifying the teachings of the book: the Dahli Lama and Tutu agree that "mental immunity" is necessary to prevent oneself from being terrorized by reality. The Dalai Lama says this is gained by learning to avoid destructive emotions; Tutu says it is achieved by tempering one's faults with a generous application of mercy; they both agree that reframing our personal (and global) experience in a new, wider perspective mitigates being overwhelmed, becoming obsessively negative, and ultimately losing our joy. Some personal suffering may, ten years from now, prove to have shaped us into compassionate people that we would not have otherwise become. Internationally, we hear of daily tragedies, both natural and social. We also hear of hundreds of people joining to rescue and heal the injured (but it requires discipline to focus on this).
Perhaps the most important ingredient for all reframing is paying attention to others. This habit supports both the ability to realize one is not alone in one's sufferings and, better, to forget about oneself in acknowledging the value of others. For Tutu, death is an acceptable end. He had a beginning, a middle, and will have an end, all the more acceptable because his departure will make room for others.
The complete list of virtues that lead toward joy (and help structure the concluding "Joy Practices") is stated in this way: "As our dialogue progressed, we converged on eight pillars of joy. Four were qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance. Four were qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity" (193).
One way to appreciate these pillars is to consider the way their opposites separate one from others and, in the process, separate one from joy. Without perspective, we see the costs and the benefits of existence relative to ourselves primarily, and to the groups of humans with whom we identify, thus pitting us at odds with the rest of the world (whom we do not know). Without humility, we cannot see the grandeur of life—as C.S. Lewis wrote that one cannot see anything above if one is constantly looking down on everything. Without humor, we become heavy, recalling G.K. Chesterton's statement that "Satan fell by the force of gravity." Humor makes us light enough to dance (at least verbally). About acceptance, the archbishop explained, "'We are meant to live in joy . . . this does not mean that life will be easy or painless. It means that we can turn our faces to the wind and accept that this is the storm we must pass through. We cannot succeed by denying what exists'" (224). By denying reality, we are constantly disappointed, courting bitterness and anger.
Even more clearly alienating would be the absence of the "qualities of the heart." Whereas forgiveness implies some act of untying or releasing, a lack of forgiveness involves a perpetually binding relationship to one's enemy. Ingratitude ignores all the people who have contributed to our lives, including ancestors, carpenters, tailors, teachers, farmers, sanitation engineers—the people on whom we depend the most yet forget the most easily. Since we live in a world where widespread suffering is a fact, the refusal to suffer with others (i.e. to be compassionate) exiles us to a world of petty cares and pleasures. Stinginess, if that can be considered the opposite of generosity, precludes building emotional bridges with our time, money, and affirmation. In short, the absence of these pillars leaves us prisoners in Paul Simon's lyrics, "I've built walls / A fortress deep and mighty / That none may penetrate / I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain / It's laughter and it's loving I disdain."
Obviously, the man who oversaw the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in South Africa and the man who at a young age had to flee the country for whom he felt and feels the most responsibility have much to say about these eight pillars, having lived them in many respects for many years. We should listen.
 As an example of an exception, "A more recent study conducted by researcher Johannes Zimmerman found that people who more often use first-person singular words—I and me—are more likely to be depressed than people who more often use the first-person plural—we and us" (200).
Even here, though, the causality is not questioned (though perhaps it is in the recent study): those who are depressed, which literally means they live under an unbearable weight, would be more likely to talk about themselves. The relationship is obviously circular, in that case, but it is not described that way. In the example of this study's summary, I trust the point being made, not because of the summary's persuasiveness, but because of personal experience and the assumption that singular pronouns, dominating one's thinking, would likely increase one's sense of isolation.
 There is some justification for the inclusion of science, in that the Dalai Lama shares an interest in its bearing on spirituality.
What I found lacking with the scientific interjections were (1) the lack of detail in the scientific summaries, and (2) the consequential absence of problematizing the scientific discourse—such as a discussion of the difficulty of isolating causes where human emotions are involved, the methodologies employed in the studies, and the counterarguments to the conclusions. The book was obviously avoiding academic appearances, but the relevance of science to the humanities would have been served better if the material were relegated to lengthy endnotes…available for those interested and detailed for those skeptical.
last updated: 2018/02/10
Many years ago at the University of Colorado, I sat in a graduate course in Latin with Martin Albl and can assure the readers that he is characteristically accurate in translation and scholarship. Couple this virtue with his penchant for clear writing and The Essential Guide proves to be a very useful introduction to the cultural influences that color fifty biblical topics, ranging from food to holiness to women. Alphabetically arranged, the book provides a few pages to each of these topics, cross referencing other "articles" that are related.
The theory of scriptural inspiration underlying the Guide is that humans, who were subject to their times, expressed their vision of God and God's workings with the literary, historical, and cosmological tools (and biases) at hand. The Guide avoids all discussion of higher criticism, putting its focus on the things described in the Bible and how they reflect certain cultural trends at the approximate time of their writing.
The "Bible" is defined by the Roman Catholic canon (meaning that books such as Maccabees and Tobit are included in the discussions). While the Guide is a Catholic publication, the inclusion of these books is called for no matter one's concept of the canon: Greek mythology is drawn upon as a source of cultural information; a fortiori the deuterocanonical books. Moreover, outside of a handful of comments on Catholic interpretations, the book maintains a denominationally-neutral view (excluding dominations that take the Bible as a direct transcription of God's thoughts).
The pre-publication reviews stress the usefulness of the Guide for new believers and students. No doubt it is primarily directed to that audience, and, if read at the beginning of one's interest in the Bible, would prevent overreactions to, and/or overly ingenious defenses of, certain biblical passages. That said, it's a useful book for anyone.
Perhaps a wider intended audience would have licensed the author to tease out interpretations from passages that are too readily taken at face value. The best example occurs in two articles, "Atonement" and "Sacrifices and Offerings." We read in "Atonement" that "The concept of atonement was prevalent in ancient religions and was closely connected with sacrifices offered to the gods. In Greek and Roman religions, animals were sacrificed; human sacrifices occurred in the Aztec and Canaanite religions" (21). Again in "Sacrifices and Offerings" we read " . . . offering such sacrifices was essential to virtually all religions throughout the ancient Mediterranean world" (112).
Behind those two statements lies a long and bloody history of humans and animals being killed collectively by humans who believed that god required—and was satisfied by—the death of a victim. At this juncture, a book devoted to showing the influence of culture on sacred writings could question the compatibility of blood sacrifice with the father of Jesus. But instead of questioning, the Guide smooths over the fact that "killing an animal on an alter seems bizarre to us today" by drawing analogies to individuals who choose to sacrifice themselves for a cause (i.e. soldiers) and by suggesting that, because our (human) sense of justice is satisfied by the death of an evil doer, so must God's sense of justice be satisfied.
Questioning the sacrificial tradition could show how the Jewish-Christian scriptures record a long but successful departure from the world of blood sacrifice.
First, animals were substituted for humans. This fact is mentioned by the Guide, citing Abraham and Isaac ascending Mt. Moriah, only to find that God provided a ram to prevent Isaac from being sacrificed. The Guide goes further, to show that Jesus' concept of hell was taken from "Gehenna," a "valley that runs southwest of Jerusalem," where, in earlier times, "children were offered in this valley as burnt sacrifices to the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal" (12). The Guide (and much Christian thought) stops there, however, not considering that perhaps the crucifixion was more complicated than being simply one-more-finally-satisfying sacrifice to God.
Second, the next departure moves from animals to inanimate objects, even to intangible elements. And this, hinted at in the book of Jeremiah, is what we find in the New Testament, the command being to offer the sacrifice of praise, nothing more: "By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. . . . for with such sacrifices God is well pleased" (Hebrews 13). According to Romans 13, we are to be "living sacrifices" (quite the opposite of the ancient sacrifices).
After moving to animals, and ultimately toward praise, why, one must ask, would the Judeo-Christian tradition return to human sacrifice? Could the cultures that produced those bloody practices have been in better tune with God than the Jews? Could the ancient cultures have presciently prepared the tools for human redemption, tools that could be brought back to use at just the right time according to God's desire? I doubt it.
If humans-to-animals-to-praise is the true trajectory in the Bible's treatment of sacrifice, the crucifixion demonstrates that the violence arose entirely from humans (Romans and Jews in an unwritten pact of cooperation) while the suffering was entirely that of the son of God, whose father is perfect, causing the sun to shine on the evil and the good. That the death ended a very bad lineage and history is clear, but the appetite that motivated the death was human. The fact that the death turned out to be exactly what would end the sacrificial world is appreciable, but not to be confused with the "justice" of that world.
Having written all that, I return to the fact that Mr. Albl wrote a book for students, mostly Catholic students. He wasn't looking to reform tradition, just to clarify it, and he succeeded at that.
last updated: 2016/08/04
Paul Davies is both a knowledgable and a good writer. He understands physics and (Judeo-Christian) theology. The case he makes is that an understanding of physics is important for thinking about God, no matter the conclusions, because physics both expands and limits the rational horizons for theology. Often the book assumes that, whether or not God is involved, the universe is a rational, predictable set of affairs. However, in light of quantum mechanics, which apparently seem neither rational nor predictable, big exceptions are made.
The "new" physics with which the book is concerned developed during the 20th century and are associated with names such as Bohr, Heidegger, and Einstein, along with others such as Freeman Dyson, Alan Guth, Ludwig Boltzmann, Hugh Everett, and the apparently ever-useful Max Planck. Models of origins, especially the singularity of the big bang, are considered in light of gravitational theory and quantum mechanics. Being published in 1983, the book of course does not take into account the new, new physics of succeeding decades.
The test to which Davies subjects aspects of the universe can be summed up by the question: Can these things occur on their own (immanence) or do they require an external cause (transcendence)? Most often the answer is the former, that the immanent conditions, fueled by the irregularities of subatomic particles, are sufficient in themselves to account for both the organization and the disorganization of the universe. Most of these discussions are what Davies calls "reductionist" analyses.
When Davies turns his attention to "holistic" syntheses, the skepticism toward divinity lessens considerably. By analogy, he argues that, just as a novel could never be understood by its constituent material elements (paper and squiggles of ink), so the universe is not explicable by its constituent elements. The mind is not reducible to the brain, just as meaning is not reducible to orthography.
The book makes no dogmatic conclusions, although in the Preface the author states, "It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion. Right or wrong, the fact that science has actually advanced to the point where what were formerly religious questions can be seriously tackled, itself indicates the far-reaching consequences of the new physics" (ix). That said (with the vagueness of the word "religion" invoked), I've read the book several times and, as a result, carry about with me some awe but only a minor consideration appreciation of God that I had not already gained in much more depth from reading the gospels. Davies could have subtitled the book A Prolegomenon to the Book of Nature.
The reader would do well to remember the theme of each chapter—or be willing to flip through the book—because in the concluding chapters lie frequent references to "chapter 3" or "chapter 4," a form of shorthand that can only blur matters unless these themes are identified in the reader's mind. Accordingly, what follows is a summary of the chapters of this book which "is primarily intended for the general reader, both aetheist and believer, with no previous knowledge of science" (viii).
Skip to chapter . . .
1. Science and religion in a changing world: While religion finds intellectual change difficult as a result of assumptions being challenged and at times overthrown, science embrace change. A theory is not a theory if it cannot be falsified. Ironically, science has changed our lives on the level of technology, but "the vast majority of people do not understand scientific principles, nor are they interested," which is why in a (presumably British) bookshop one looks for books on astronomy and finds them scattered among The Bermuda Triangle and Chariots of the Gods. Both science and religion have a social dimension. Both often fail. Religion has and does in certain forms inspire violence and cruelty. Science makes advances in medicine and at the same time weapons of mass destruction. The new physics (while creating those weapons) has also awakened the mind of the scientist to a less mechanical, more mystifying universe, one amenable to religious considerations. In contrast the "life" sciences, with their focus on cellular and neurological activity, seem willing at time to dispense with the mind altogether.
2. Genesis: The universe likely arose from a big bang about 18 billion years ago, the sun being a late comer 5 billion years ago. Space is not a large pre-established emptiness, but it, like matter, arose out of the big bang (the singularity), with the result that physicists do not conceive of the expanding universe containing galaxies moving through space. Rather, the galaxies are moving as space itself stretches. Time most likely resulted from the big bang, although Davies argues there is no logical reason to insist that the universe had a beginning (as opposed to being "infinitely old"—the "old" betraying the concept itself). With the 1965 discovery of primeval heat radiation, the concept of a big bang that started everything (energy, matter, space and time) gained further popularity. While the big bang and the statement in Genesis (God spoke, and said, "Let there be light") appear compatible, again, there is no logical reason why one would support the other. They may be simply similar on a superficial level. The chapter also discusses the second law of thermodynamics, and the inevitable heat death of the universe as it cools down, resulting in entropy, the disorganization of matter.
3. Did God create the universe?: This question is not answered. Instead, philosophical underpinnings of "create" and "universe" are explored.
This is not the most lucid chapter, or at least it may trip up the reader who is more concerned with answers than questions. After establishing the possibility that matter can be created (caused) by (natural) energy alone, Davies takes a detour into a critique of causality. The problem with the detour is that the previous chapter assumed causality to be a valid framework, allowing for the plausibility of the big bang. Now Davies questions causality not only because Hume and Russell did, but because quantum mechanics subjects causality to doubt.
Along with the detour comes the habit of Davies to consider various scientific explanations of the universe and its elements at the risk of undermining points or models he has previously established. This multiplicity of explanations is of course germane to science but it requires the reader's flexibility, so that only in retrospect can the reader piece together what might be gathered as Davies' best bets, the ones that survive temporary challenge from conflicting points of view. It appears that he thinks matter was created at the release of energy with the big bang, but that most of matter was canceled out by antimatter, with only one-billionth of the protons surviving. While this ratio seems absurd—that the entire universe results from such a reduction in numbers—it is not so different from the number of sperm that are spent for only one to fertilize an egg, suggesting that nature may be more wasteful than we think reasonable.
Once the discussion recovers from the causality detour, the chapter continues to explain how energy can occur without an external cause—or at least the author proposes such a possibility. The discussion of self-generated energy does not find an angle of repose, morphing instead into the notion that the universe may be an excretion of a disconnected, underlying stratum of existence. To this point, Davies says, a theological "purist" will object that the underlying stratum itself requires an explanation for its existence. To me, however, it did not require much rigor or purity of reason to suspect that the underlying stratum was by no means an answer to the question of origins.
The drift of the chapter might be summarized as pointing to two errors: the temptation to assign to God agency for events that physics will some day discover in nature and the temptation of physics to account for "creation" on purely physical grounds but failing to account for the source of the physical laws themselves.
4. Why is there a universe?: The chapter picks up, again, causality, what Davies calls the contingency argument for creation. This time the analogy of a being in a 2-dimensional plane is utilized. The being is unaware that someone in a third dimension is shooting equally-spaced bullets into the 2-dimensional plane. From the point of view of 2-dimensions, a series of equally spaced holes appear, one after another. This regularity suggests that each hole causes the next hole. The outsider (in 3-dimensions) knows this is not the case, that an entirely different mechanism is causing the holes. Similarly, what physics has established as regularities and causes may be independent events willed by God or by another entity.
The contingency argument is not refuted but is transmuted into a discussion about the simplicity of a divine mind versus the complexity of the universe. The initial point of view is that it is more likely that infinite simplicity would give rise to finite complexity than the reverse. However, this position gives rise to the possibility that the initial state of the universe was one of simplicity (at the singularity), giving rise to its own complexity.
The basic dilemma confronted from this point on pits the ever-cooling, ever-disorganizing state of matter according to the second law of thermodynamics against the highly organized universe in which we live. If the big bang were the moment of maximum heat, then the cooling process would have occurred—early on—at such rapid rates that the entropy would be higher than what we observe. The dilemma is resolved by the paradoxical role of gravity. While gaseous material with little gravitational pull reaches an undifferentiated level of high entropy, gravitating gasses do the opposite. Over time the clusters of gas, drawn by gravity, form into great clusters, resulting in galaxies and black holes. Having established that, with known physical constraints, the present universe is possible, without external causality (assuming the singularity arises from immanent conditions, if such a state of affairs is possible).
5. What is life? Holism vs reductionism: Interestingly, when Davies turns from physics to biology, his writing becomes exceedingly clear. Perhaps biology is easier to explain, or perhaps I'm more receptive. The main contention of the chapter is this: "In the case of living systems, nobody would deny that an organism is a collection of atoms. The mistake is to suppose that it is nothing but a collection of atoms" (62). It is more than a collection of atoms because it is explicable only as a holistic concept: the complex organization of the atoms exhibits something more (a living thing) than simply the constituent parts. By the same token, "vitalism" or the belief that an additional "life-force" is added to the atoms to make them alive, is unnecessary. The change in organizational complexity is sufficient to explain the difference between animate and inanimate matter. There are no dog-atoms or cellular-atoms—they are atoms all the way down.
The primordial soup from which most scientists believe life arose once the earth cooled sufficiently presents no theoretical difficulties. However, the leap from primordial materials to DNA and RNA molecules is statistically so unlikely that it must give one pause. Something—an infinite universe that instantiates every statistical option, a divine creator, something—must be hypothesized to make that leap.
At this point the chapter could (and, I think should) end, but the author glances at extraterrestrial life. He states that, if life somehow is bound to develop, given the right chemical situation (thus beginning to hedge on the statistical improbability of DNA and RNA), then the universe is likely rife with living beings. However, he admits, there is no empirical evidence of alien life. This statement is followed by the remark that the major religions pay little or no attention to the role of alien life . . . as though they they would attend to that possibility while terrestrial question and problems daily remain unsolved.
6. Mind and soul: Starting with Descartes' conundrum of explaining how the mind interacts with the body, and the body with the mind, this chapter seeks to avoid two extremes: first, the materialistic viewpoint that the mind is nothing more than the neurological firings of the brain—i.e. that the mind does not exist; second, the idealistic viewpoint that assume only mind exists, relegating the physical universe to nothing more than perception. The way out provided by the chapter is that the mind is an abstract set of operations and not, as Descartes considered it, another substance. By analogy, "the statements 'there exist rocks' and 'there exist Wednesdays' are both correct, but it would be meaningless to place rocks and Wednesdays alongside each other and discuss their interrelation" (82). Rocks, in this case, might be brain cells, and Wednesdays thoughts.
The advantage of freeing mind from the substance duality is that it can be considered a system of its own—a series of thoughts causing thoughts. The mind may be influenced by sensory perceptions but is not dependent upon the body. Accordingly, just as a novel normally consisting of typed letters may also exist as voice waves on magnetic tape, the mind, normally supported by the brain, might be hosted by another environment than the brain (perhaps the presence of God). This "functionalist" view of the mind allows that minds may exist in non-human beings, and possibly even computers. While this variability may seem anti-religious (de-centering humans), it also allows for the existence of the mind apart from the body, as for example it might exist in a non-corporeal heaven. I appreciate the concluding note of the chapter which speculates that, even if our minds do survive the death of our bodies, most of us do not want the whole mind persisting in an afterlife, not at least "the greed, jealousy, hatred and so forth . . . ." (87)
7. The self: By the self, the author primarily refers to the mind, not to be confused with the brain. This chapter is a prologue to the next one, defining mind further as a holistic phenomenon that cannot be equated to the biological mechanism for thinking (the brain), cannot be restricted to being human specific, but can be (theoretically) moved from one medium (the brain or a machine) to another (resurrected brain or replacement machine).
The following quote introduces the identification of self with mind and provides an example of Davies' writing at its best:
When dealing with other people we usually identify them with their bodies, and to a lesser extent their personalities, but we view ourselves quite differently. When someone refers to 'my body' it is in the sense of a possession, as in 'my house'. But when it comes to mind, that is not so much a possession as a possessor. My mind is not a chattel: it is me. (88)
One specific property of the human mind that receives attention is its ability to think about itself, i.e. self-reflection. Knowing something is usually coupled with knowing one knows something, and that reflection can be repeated: one knows that one knows that one knows something. How machines can develop this consciousness of consciousness is not entirely clear to me, and perhaps not to Davies, either.
The chapter then moves from self-referential thinking to paradoxical thinking, so that the declaration, "This entire book is false," creates a loop from which there is no logical escape: if every assertion in the book is untrue, so is the declaration, and if the declaration is false, then not all the statements in the book are false.
The discussion of paradoxical utterances leads into a discussion of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem which in turn is used to bundle together observations about the mind as being a convolution of hierarchical levels, with the result that object-subject and brain-mind dichotomies break down to something metaphorically like a Möbius strip, which is not what it seems to be. The discussion suggests that there are paradoxical truths that a machine cannot, in the words of J. R. Lucas, 'produce as being true' although the human mind can see them as true (94).
In addition to the possible difference between human thinking and machine calculation, here, the chapter touches on the significance of incomplete knowledge allowing for a kind of free will, since any indeterminate state must be resolved by some kind of a leap rather than a purely logical step.
One goal of the chapter seems to be to show that there is nothing simple about thinking, and that assigning the ability to "think" to machines such as computers cannot be done without accounting for the paradoxical complexity of the mind. Not as a corollary, but as an ancillary discussion, the chapter frees the mind from needing the mechanism that initially sustained it (i.e. the brain), with mixed results concerning religion. The freedom of the mind from the brain may support the doctrine of life after the death of the body, but if that were true, the mind of other animals could also persist similarly. The obvious mechanism for supporting the mind in a new environment would be a new body, such as the one promised in Christianity on the day of resurrection. To this extent the chapter glances at a way in which the new physics (used loosely to include math, computer science, and artificial intelligence) may be compatible with—if not demonstrative of—an important Christian teaching.
None of the definitions or discussions of the mind emerges from the chapter as definitive. Mind is not the brain, but somewhere in the discussion it is claimed that the mind influences the brain and the brain in turn influences the mind, making the separation of the two seem unlikely. The paradoxes that the mind is capable of entertaining suggest a superiority of the mind over machines, but we are then reminded that we can never step outside of our minds in order to understand them, putting us in a similar position as computers. The chapter admits that the mind (and our sense of self gained through memory) does not lend itself to reductionist thinking (the forte of physics) but instead to holistic thinking. However, in one respect, the reductionist gaze of physics really does shed light on understanding the mind. That one respect is quantum mechanics, the focus of the following chapter.
8. The quantum factor: Perhaps the kernel of this book, quantum theory is the branch of physics that lends itself most thoroughly to discussions of God. If, as Heisenberg and Bohr (among many others) maintained, the behavior of subatomic particles is affected by the observer of their behavior, physics suddenly expands its domain from reductionist examinations to holistic explanations. The chapter summarizes a series of tests (some performed in the laboratory, some in the mind) that demonstrate the uncertainty principle of quantum theory. Schrödinger's cat, used to illustrate the role of the observer, lives or dies according to the influence of the observer. On a more demonstrable level, the detection of light as a particle (for example a photon) requires losing detection of a wave. Reality manifests itself as a result—rather than a cause—of the observer's perceptions (those perceptions depending on the decision to measure a location rather than a velocity).
The chapter hints at, but does not assert, the possibility that all existence is determined by the role of observers, the obvious candidate for the majority of the observations being God (and not 20th century physicists). I find it surprising that, while Davies refers to a variety of philosophers, including Locke and Hume, that he does not mention George Berkeley in this connection. Berkeley, in the 18th century, claimed that only that what is often thought of as matter can only exist when being perceived.
9. Time: The chapter begins: "Two great revolutions gave birth to the new physics: the quantum theory and the theory of relativity" (119). The theory of relativity proves that both space and time are relative, not absolute as our experiences suggest. The greater the gravity the greater the changes in time, until, in the case of a black hole, a kind of unspiritual eternity emerges. Time stops in the hole whereas as it has continued (and passed away) outside the hole:
A black hole, therefore, represents a rapid route to eternity. . . . Once inside the hole, [a hypothetical space traveler] will be imprisoned in a timewarp, unable to return to the outside universe again, because the outside universe will have happened. He will be, literally, beyond the end of time as far as the rest of the universe is concerned. To emerge from the hole, he would have to come out before he went in. This is absurd and shows there is no escape. (123)
Because time slows down for faster moving objects, there is no universally fixed "now" or even past or future. In theory, a person waiting for a train, looking at the clock, will see a different time from a person passing through the station on a high-speed train, looking at the same clock. In fact, one person's present may be another person's past and another person's future, depending on the speed at which each individual is moving. This plasticity of time (which correlates with changes in space) suggests that time is a mental construct and not a property of the material universe.
As with the measurement of quantum changes, the measurement of changes in time occur on a very small scale. Human experience may never observe such changes, but the new physics argues they occur. To the extent their occurrence helps define reality, they must be taken into consideration when the question of religious definitions of reality are considered in light of science.
Building on the assumption that time is a psychological rather than a physical state, the chapter raises the question of whether or not God can participate in time. If God can, that shows a limitation because God's "time" or "present" or "now" would no longer be universal, but particular to God being limited to a specific place and motion. This limitation removes God's classical attribute of omnipotence. If God, however, is outside of time, God can have no involvement with actions that presuppose temporal bearings, such as thinking, planning, and feeling.
The chapter ends at this point, without considering the distinction made in the New Testament's book of Hebrews. This letter states that (only) through the incarnation does God become capable of feeling and suffering. That is, God participates in time in the person of Jesus. How a God outside of time can engineer any event inside time (such as the incarnation) is problematic, but at least this distinction allows for God to be both outside of and inside of time. It may be worth pursuing, and it certainly would help inform theological discussions that tend to reduce God to either being outside or inside of time.
10. Free will and determinism: Newton's discoveries appeared at the time to dismantle arguments for free will because for every cause there exists a prior cause. Accordingly, any human decision can be traced back to the multitudinous causes that led up to that decision, including one's childhood, diet, experiences, and previous "choices."
On one hand, quantum theory appears to overturn Newtonian determinism, placing uncertainty at the center of the subatomic world. On the other hand, the theory of relativity appears to counteract quantum theory: because time is relative, the end of time (or of any series of events appearing to unfold in time) has already occurred, rendering the prior quantum-level causes to be predetermined by final observations. This particular paradox the chapter puts to rest by stating that simply because an outcome is known does not imply in the strict sense that human freedom was not exercised along the way, and that this freedom was made possible by the fact that the human could not see the ultimate outcome and was thus operating within a range of viable choices.
A second paradox is introduced when quantum theory is tentatively accepted as having restored free will. Because quantum theory, the argument goes, establishes an arbitrary (and uncertain) trajectory on the lowest level of reality, no one can claim that a series of events has been caused, in the strict sense, by a series of prior causes. At the bottom is the uncaused and unpredictable behavior on the subatomic level. However, if that is the case, then the individual, whose mind is allegedly performing acts of free will, is actually completely out of control. The arbitrariness of nature that on the surface guarantees free will actually removes it. The mind can no more make an intelligent decision about a neuron firing than it can make an intelligent decision about any highly speculative and variable process.
To this paradox, the chapter adds the complication of multiple universes. Assuming every human choice actually does change reality and determine the outcome of a subatomic process, Davies claims that many scientists believe each of these decisions splits the universe into two, so that in one universe, the one I am conscious of, I drink coffee, but in the split-off universe, of which I'm not conscious, the other "me" drinks tea, having chosen that alternative. If this theory of multiple universes is correct, there are as many universes as there have been human choices. The author does not focus on that mind boggling aspect. Instead he introduces the multiple universes to emphasize, again, that what appears as free will is in fact not freedom: if every option is chosen, albeit in the process creating different universes, no freedom is exercised. It is meaningless to ask someone to decide whether that person wants to go and stay or stay and go.
In the end, the classical paradoxes of discussions of free will are acknowledged, and to them (which seem insoluble already) are added the paradoxes of quantum mechanics and relativity, leading the author to state, "The problems seem unsurmountable" (143).
11. The fundamental structure of matter: Only one sentence in this chapter refers to God, and this in light of the earliest moments of time, the "supergravity era," when the universe was majestically simple, before it cooled, expanded, and became complicated. "The universe would have been merely a collection of ultra-simple components — the raw materials from which God fashioned all of space, time and matter" (160).
Thus, while God may receive nominal credit as the creator in this chapter, it is the symmetries of subatomic particles that get most of the attention. If the chapter assesses itself as a "sketchy survey of the elaborate and mind-stretching work currently being undertaken to expose the ultimate structure of matter," then this present summary is no more than an annotation of the chapter's title. The fundamental structure, it turns out, is one of symmetries—not only geometric but also symmetries in movement, charge, and other aspects of subatomic particles.
When the Japanese physicist Hideki Yukawa discovered quanta in the nucleus of the atom (similar to earlier discoveries of quanta among the electrons), his mesons (aka pions) were only harbingers of a legion of subatomic particles, as well as particles of particles. Among these are leptons and hadrons, neutrinos and, perhaps most mysterious, quarks. On one hand, the discovery of so many particles so transient in nature detracted from any recognizable structure in matter. But eventually the behavior of particles became simplified, both through the recognition that they were easier to define at higher energy levels, and through the application of gauge symmetries. It seems now (at the book's publication in 1983) that it is within reach of physicists to formulate a superunified theory that would collapse the complexities of both quantum mechanics and gravitational forces into one elegant and relatively simply theory.
12. Accident or design?:The argument from design occupies this chapter. On one hand, Darwin's The Origin of the Species introduced a lasting counter-argument against the notion that because something seems to be created intentionally by an intelligent designer it must, indeed, have been. The accidental basis of natural selection (mutation followed by rejection or selection) demonstrates that, given time, nature alone can design, that the designer is immanent in the raw materials rather than transcendant. On the other hand, the organization that arises from natural selection presupposes a high level of organizing power (negative entropy) in the universe.
Though the spontaneous appearance of order will not conflict with the second law of thermodynamics so long as compensatory disorder is generated elsewhere, it is clear that no order at all could exist unless the universe as a whole started out with a considerable stock of negative entropy. (166)
What are the odds of starting out with "a considerable stock of negative entropy"? Before answering that, the chapter notes that "the probability of a random choice leading to an ordered state declines exponentially with the degree of negative entropy" (167). The greater the order the greater (exponentially) the required negative entropy. "For example, the probability of a litre of air rushing spontaneously to one end of a box is of the order [10 to the tenth to the twentieth (two layers of exponents)] to one, where the number 101020 stands for one followed by 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 zeros!" (167) Those are the odds of one self-organizing liter of air. The odds of a self-organizing universe are much greater (101080). The odds are so great that some kind of scientific explanation is called for, unless the origin of the universe is to be handed over to theologians exclusively.
Davies summarizes three scientific hypotheses—or at least scientific conjectures—that might explain the odds against which the universe has arisen.
First are logical positivism and the strong anthropic principle, both minimizing the relevance of discussing the significance of probability. What we know is that the universe exists, and that is the starting point, not some other possibility. If it were not a universe capable of organizing itself in order to host intelligent life, we would not be considering it, and so it is, therefore, self-selected, no matter the odds.
Second are those that posit multiple-universes, existing either sequentially or simultaneously. Either way, given enough rolls of the dice, so to speak, the right combination will eventually come along. By definition, multiple parallel universes—and for that matter, sequential ones, too—cannot be observed and therefore fall outside of an scientific verification (except on a theoretical level). This puts them alongside God as objects of faith or disbelief.
Third is the contention that, because the universe is expanding, it is moving from a state of high entropy (the undifferentiated energy at the big bang) to low entropy.
At first sight such an approach seems doomed to failure. Does the second law of thermodynamics not state that (fluctuations asie) order can give way to chaos but not vice versa?
It does indeed, but one has to look at the small print. Strictly stated, the second law is intended to apply only to completely isolated systems. Obviously any portion of the universe, however large, is not isolated, because it is in contact with the surrounding portions. More important, the entire universe is subject to the famous expansion, and this external disturbance can make all the difference. (175)
The real difference comes as late-breaking news in the chapter: the universe cooled too quickly for the low-entropy hydrogen to be converted to high-entropy iron, with the result that "it is evidently unnecessary to suppose that the universe was created in a remarkably ordered state after all" (176).
The chapter leaves the matter at this point, suggesting that there are ways to explain the improbability of the highly unlikely universe. None of the explanations struck me as compelling, but that is perhaps because when the path of least resistance leads to a theory of divine origin, I am too easily content. Or, perhaps, the improbability is something even scientists have a difficult time explaining, being a break point where the numbers are so staggering no truly compelling hypothesis has been formulated.
13. Black holes and cosmic chaos: In spite of his ending the previous chapter with thumbs up toward a self-organizing universe, Davies complicates matters by introducing the role of gravity: "when it comes to the concept of gravitational order, physics is floundering" (177). (Obviously, Davies is more interested in problematizing the cosmos than in explaining it.)
Gravity is "the weakest of nature's forces, but being cumulative in power [it is the dominate force] on the large scale" (177). Davies goes on, "Assuming that the relationship between entropy and probability extends to the gravitating case . . . it is overwhelmingly more probably that it [a random distribution of gravitating matter] will form a black hole than a star or a cloud of dispersed gas" (178). Our universe, however, is filled with stars and clouds of dispersed gas. In short, the odds of a self-organizing universe coming about under the influence of gravity are (according to Roger Penrose) estimated to be 101030 to one.
In addition, the "large scale structure and motion of the universe is equally remarkable" since parts of the universe as so distant as to be untouched by each other's light, suggesting that there is no causality to explain the (nevertheless) similar structures of these parts.
Having made another great case for the improbability of the universe, Davies puts forth a series of explanations:
While God seems too easily dismissed, the chapter ends with the Most Problematic Aspect of All: the numerous constants built into the physical universe, so numerous and so necessary that the author concludes, "Perhaps future developments in science will lead to more direct evidence for other universes [thus making this one the result of a nearly infinite series of universes], but until then, the seemingly miraculous concurrence of numerical values that nature has assigned to her fundamental constants must remain the most compelling evidence for an element of cosmic design" (189). That said, if the author is true to his problematizing vein, the final four chapters will derail any such conclusion.
14. Miracles: If miracles are defined along the lines of Aquinas' definition as "something 'done by divine power apart from the order generally followed in things,'" (190) their existence might circumvent the arguments in favor of—and against—the existence of God, providing definite knowledge of "God's existence and his concern for the world" (191). After a few important definitions, the chapter provides a fictional dialogue between a scientist and a (rather dogmatic) believer, only to conclude, "Miracles are something that most scientists would rather do without" (197) being auxiliary to the elegance of a purely natural universe.
The chapter itself seems to be something Davies would rather do without, since it provides only ad hoc comments on miracles, drawing parallels between some miracles and some experiences claimed to occur with aliens, as well as briefly suggesting that more people would prefer to credit ESP and the power of the mind, rather than the power of God, for extraordinary events.
The chapter could have undertaken a search for one bona fide miracle (according to Aquinas' definition), knowing that just one miracle, only one, would be needed to re-frame the entire discussion of God and the new physics. In this respect, the burden of proof is on the skeptic who must insist that not even one such miracle exists. The chapter, however, does not travel that road.
15. The end of the universe: The first half of this chapter comprises my favorite part of the book: a narration of the end of the universe according to three scenarios. The first two involve the expansion and cooling of the universe (at different rates, either rate involving billions of years). The third describes "the big crunch," whereby the universe begins to contract back to a singularity, in many ways the reverse of the big bang. It would do these pages an injustice to summarize them, so majestic are the descriptions.
All of the scenarios convey the beauty and futility toward which physical existence is hurtling. Any of them could be used as a gloss on Jesus' "the sun [shall] be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken" (Matthew 24:29).
After those pages, the chapter begins to stray from the topic. First, artificial intelligence is proposed as a possible mechanism by which humans could prolong their existence. Coupling artificial intelligence with advances in technology, Davies proposes that life could be prolonged long after humans, as we know them, would have gone extinct. In this respect, the discussion is prescient, written long before a computer beat one of the world's greatest chess players or, equally astounding, a different computer beat the world's greatest Jeopardy contestants. Similarly, the ability of technology to change the course of nature is being realized increasingly as the underlying cause of global climate change, albeit a negative example of technological influence.
The chapter then wanders from referring to intelligence as a way of prolonging existence to referring to it as a possible cause for the organization of the universe, not the intelligence of a transcendent God but intelligence as the dominate force inside the universe, something contained within space and time. Whereas the book treats UFOs and aliens with skepticism earlier, it now entertains theories of a kind of local or finite god, an alien power that could intervene to prevent the end of the universe. "This [supermind] would not be a God who created everything by supernatural means, but a directing, controlling, universal mind pervading the cosmos and operating the laws of nature to achieve some specific purpose" (210).
Much more elegant, to me, is Austin Farrer's maxim that God makes his creation make itself. It posits no conflict between God and nature, and it avoids placing time and space in a place ontologically superior to God.
Whatever the purpose of the tangent to a demi-god, the chapter recalls its topic in the final sentences, stating that eventually "the organization that we now perceive is inevitably destined to decline to a level where the cosmos would bear no resemblance to its present lively phase. Only a supernatural God could truly wind it up again" (213).
16. Is the universe a "free lunch"?: This chapter usefully summarizes the book's arguments in favor of the ability of physics to explain the existence of the universe without taking recourse to an external entity (i.e. God). While not all the answers have been provided by physics, the chapter gives physics that benefit of the doubt, assuming that, over time, the answers will be provided.
The "free lunch" refers to the universe coming out of nothing (not even out of God's mind), something for nothing on the level of quantum mechanics. The chapter concludes on the remaining question: from where comes the ultimate law of physics (a "magnificent mathematical theory") that gives rise to this something-from-nothing? That is the business of the final chapter to answer.
17. The physicist's conception of nature: Among other things, this chapter offers cautionary advice to the non-scientist. For example, science hungers for new facts that will challenge, perhaps destroy, its theory, making room for a better theory, whereas religion remains apprehensive about new information. Religion, being based upon historical knowledge, often knowledge it considers divinely revealed, stands to lose something if new information contradicts the revealed knowledge. In this respect, science has the upper hand: it has no prejudice against information. Religion, by contrast, might spend a significant amount of energy disputing or avoiding information.
In addition, the chapter emphasizes how science depends upon mathematics. If one does not understand mathematics, one cannot appreciate first hand the elegance of the theories that preoccupy physicists. Accordingly, the new physics are esoteric and cannot be readily criticized by those who cannot comprehend them.
After quoting several physicists and mathematicians on the beauty of the universe (in terms of symmetry and logic), Davies raises again his theory of a God that exists within (and not beyond) the universe. If panentheism is the belief that God is both greater than the universe and yet interpenetrates it, Davies' theory is pantheistic. God is coextensive with the universe. In Davies' words, just as the brain is the medium of the human mind, so "the entire physical universe would be the medium of expression of the mind of a natural God" (223). At this point, I wonder what might be the advantage of referring to "God" and not "the universe."
It is, I see in retrospect, the natural God that Davies' earlier discussions of holistic truth anticipated. The novel cannot be understood by the physical ink, but by the code that the ink conveys. Similarly, the universe cannot be understood by its atoms but by the intelligence that informs their behavior. The crux to this analogy, however, is that one can ascribe the intelligence to either a self-sustaining law of physics (the law that sums up all other laws) or to a transcendent being who thinks "the law" and calls it so, but who will also continue to exist even if "the law" entails the eventual elimination of the universe.
If anything in the book disappoints me, it is the notion of "a natural God." Whether a super intelligent alien or a mathematical principle that possesses some self-consciousness, a natural God is exactly not the transcendental being that I assumed in the title God and the New Physics. Although this natural God may be the olive branch Davies is offering to establish a rapprochement with non-scientific believers, it's certainly not the God that both believers and atheists alike designate by the three letter word.
 However, an extended quotation is in order: "As for the dead stars themselves, there is plenty of further activity in store, but the time-scale is greatly increased. As the burnt-out remnants mill around the galaxy, from time to time collisions will occur. Black holes will tend to swallow up any stars, or other material that they encounter, and if, as some astronomers believe, there is a huge black hole at the centre of our galaxy, it will grow progressively larger. The orbits of the stars will slowly decay due to the emission of gravitational radiation — wavelike ripples of space that sap the orbital energy of all massive objects. Over an immensity of time, the stellar remnants will tend to drift closer and closer to the galactic centre, eventually to sacrifice themselves to the insatiable monster hole. Some dead stars will escape this fate as a result of fortuitous encounters with other stars which knock them out of the galaxy altogether, to roam in solitary confinement in the vastness of intergalactic space" (202)
The logic of Miracles is stunning. Within this framework, C. S. Lewis creates more than a work of apologetics. Exploring ways in which the supernatural may exist, he provides a vision of a different, better reality than the one our senses alone provide. Rarely do I encounter someone who takes human reason and logic as seriously as does Lewis, and rarely does he display this thinking as well as he does in Miracles.
Writing as a philosopher, Lewis deftly allows scientific knowledge into his argument. In one long paragraph toward he beginning of chapter 3, "The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism," he summarizes the relation of "sub-natural" quantum mechanics to Newtonian nature better than other books might do in a chapter or more. He suggests that quantum mechanics, if true, represents something indifferent to natural law, something that could form the basis for a different conception of nature as being the self-producing, self-contained, law-governed entity it is assumed to be.
Lewis explicty chooses not to follow an argument dependent upon quantum theory. But his brief engagement with the theory contrasts refreshingly with God and the new Physics (Davies). From a philosophical perspective, God and the new Physics ends about where C. S. Lewis' Miracles begins. In Chapter 17, Davies construes the mind of God as a cosmic consciousness that encompasses but in no way transcends the universe. Positing this purely immanent divine consciousness, Davies fails—if Lewis' argument is sound—to defend the validity of rational thought in a universe that constructs itself through a singularity. He fails because any consciousness generated by the universe alone would be subject to the laws of that universe and, being subject, would not possess the freedom that logic provides in being our arbiter between truth and falsehood.
Miracles rests upon the line of reasoning it continues to establish in chapter 3, "The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism." So important is this chapter that it was fully revised and enlarged in the 1960 revision. If successful, the argument allows one to conclude that there is at least one thing independent of the natural order. This thing—human reason—possesses an existence of its own. Although not a "miracle" in the sense that readers expect (and Lewis later provides), rationality is beyond nature, and in this respect is super-natural.
Lewis assumes (by definition) that a naturalistic universe is a self-contained, fully determined entity with no external support or agency working upon it (i.e., no miracles). He finds a crack in this universe in rationality: the ability of humans to qualify and clarify thoughts according to the rules of logical coherence. Not that every inference is true (since either the logic or the facts underlying the inference may be incorrect), but every inference assumes and describes a mental event that cannot, by definition, arise solely from the neurological and chemical agency of the brain. If, indeed, thought were, along with the rest of the universe, fully determined by antecedent events, then thought would remain nothing more than compulsory reactions to one's environment. If thought were fully dependent on neurological antecedents, then there is no basis for proofs. Each proof, in that case, would simply assert its own confidence in its veracity without any appeal to a higher standard, such as logical coherence. An argument against reason is self-contradictory and is therefore unable to usefully participate in the discussion between materialists and supernaturalists.
Since the whole of the book rests on chapter 3, it is worth discussing his revision of chapter 3. After explaining the independence of logic from natural, deterministic causes, Lewis realizes he must confront rebuttals from evolutionists.
For argument's sake, Lewis entertains the possibility that not God, but evolution developed what we call rational thought&developing that thinking on pragmatic grounds alone. Pragmatic grounds have the advantage, for the naturalist, of making the claim, "It is useful," without having to support the claim, "It is true." Accordingly, it could be that over an immense amount of time, conclusions we think we make through logical inference are no more than the result of a coincidental agreement between our pseudo-logic and our environment. The right guesses (being determined by chemical/neurological reactions), according to this scenario, would accumulate over the ages to form what strikes us (falsely) as rational truth. It would be false to accept a purely pragmatic trend in thinking as rational truth because it lacks an explanation for its own explanation. Put differently, it lacks an explanation for its own power to superimpose on inanimate causes a theory that rises above them.
Lewis refuses to accept this explanation. He takes his evolution seriously, but not as authoritatively as he takes his logic. It is logic that says not only that some relation is true, but that it is always true. Simple empirical observation could never obtain the conclusion that something is always true, only that it appeared true at one or more historical moments. Lewis insists that rational thought is structurally different from typical cause-and-effect relations. While natural events can be broken down to a series of causes and effects, rational thoughts must be broken down to a relation of ground and consequent. If a man experiences pain because he steps on a nail, the nail is the cause of the pain (causal relation). If we know a man is in pain because of his scream, his scream is the ground and our knowledge of his pain is the consequent (logical relation).
Where cause-and-effect meets ground-and-consequent we have the human condition. It occurs on the boundary between nature and supernature. Each thought must be the result of some cause in order to exist in nature, and yet each thought must be connected as a ground and a consequent in order to claim an understanding of nature:
Unless our conclusion is the logical consequent from a
ground it will be worthless and could be true only by a fluke. Unless it
is the effect of a cause, it cannot occur at all. It looks therefore, as
if, in order for a train of thought to have any value, these two systems
of connection must apply simultaneously to the same series of mental
But unfortunately the two systems are wholly distinct. To be caused is not to be proved. . . .
Acts of thinking are no doubt events; but they are a special sort of events. They are "about" something other than themselves and can be true or false. Events in general are not "about" anything and cannot be true of false.
The co-incidence of the dynamic connection between cause and effect, on one hand, and the logical connection between ground and consequent, on the other, is of chief interest to the argument. To the extent each thought is an event in nature, it causes other thoughts, but they do not necessarily arise from a logical relation. The relation can be merely associative. However, "one thought can cause another not by being, but by being seen to be, a ground for it" (Chapter 3). This is the thinking that arises from outside nature and is in a very modest sense supernatural.
This argument from reason provides a logical framework for the rest of the book. From this framework, one could examine historical evidence of miracles without prematurely concluding they do not exist as a result of a foregone assumption that they can not exist. The role of rationality also provides not an analog, but an anagoge for the incarnation—not just a mental picture of the incarnation but a lower, more generalized form what is a higher, more specialized act of something from outside entering into human existence.
Once a supernatural event, such as rational thought, is admitted, the reasonableness of any particular supernatural claim can be considered. Those who believe in the supernatural need not believe in miracles, for they may find them unnecessary and artificial to a degree that a deity should never stoop. This is not Lewis' view, however, insofar as some miracle "fit" with the natural order. The miraculous may speed up a natural process, condense it, or expand it, but the miraculous is never out of character with nature.
In the next chapter, "Nature and Supernature," he summarizes what I have attempted to explain: "The distinction we have to make is not one between 'mind' and 'matter,' much less between 'soul' and 'body' (hard words, all four of them) but between Reason and Nature: the frontier coming not where the 'outer world' ends and what I should ordinarily call 'myself' begins, but between reason and the whole mass of non-rational events whether physical or psychological." Much thinking can be understood as originating within nature, such as sense perceptions and emotions. It is only reason (and later he places morality as a type of reason) that cannot be the result of deterministic causes. Put differently, reason is a self-sufficient cause that calls into question thinking that is governed by nature. When nature affects our thinking, such as through fatigue, disease, or alcohol, thinking becomes more chaotic. But when our rational thinking affects nature, it becomes more orderly. Rational thought, accordingly, bears an unsymmetrical relation to natural events.
If this brief summary is dissatisfactory, I am not surprised. Hopefully, it gives the flavor of the argument. After all, it took Lewis a significant revision and extension of his original edition to make his case, at least to his satisfaction.
To the extent the unique status of rationality is proven, the rest of the book follows fairly smoothly, and, for me, persuasively. If reason exists, then we all experience something beyond nature (i.e., beyond the self-sufficient totality of the universe). If something-beyond-nature, why not an intelligent creator?
Lewis, though, is too good a polemicist to leave his ultimate conclusion unquestioned. He discusses, first, whether nature would be amenable to extraordinary events from the outside. He then discusses whether a respectable creator would interfere with nature.
Concerning the effect of an external (i.e. miraculous) cause on nature, Lewis shows that a miraculous event, while originating outside nature, is, once within nature, subject to the laws of nature just as if it had originated within nature. His primary illustration—and indeed the crux of the book—is the incarnation. Conception may come from outside, but every developmental step of the foetus, child, and young man is subject to natural laws. In this respect, the event is absorbed by nature. A miracle possesses a different origin from the long train of causality that reaches back to something like a singularity, but once this cause enters nature, it remains subject to the laws in a way that reinforces them.
Even if nature can admit the supernatural, can a respectable creator dabble with nature? The response is that random interruptions in the natural chain of events would not represent a creator worth attending to. The fittingness of miracles justifies their existence. The miracles of the New Testament have a homologous relation with nature (all wine is made of water, physical healing is what bodies do, bread multiplies as grain grows, etc.). So, yes, a nature-respecting creator could inject events into the natural realm, particularly if the intent from the beginning was to inject the creator itself into the creation as a human.
However roughly this summary outlines the argument, it behooves anyone who seeks to rationally accept or reject miracles to consider it in detail. While good counter-arguments can and have been made, fallacious ones are precluded along the way in several chapters. Chapter 10, "'Horrid Red Things'," for example, tackles the relation between Christianity, the miraculous, and metaphor. It does so in this way. First, it admits that for Christianity, the miraculous is essential, whereas, "All the essentials of Hinduism would, I think, remain unimpaired if you subtracted the miraculous, and the same is almost true of Mohammedanism. But you cannot do that with Christianity. It is precisely the story of a great Miracle. A naturalistic Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian."
Next, it admits that on the surface Christianity presents a local heaven, a father, and a son—the stuff this life (and not another) is made of. The argument moves to the role of the imagination. The obvious stumbling block of Christianity to the modern mind is its primitive imagery, and not necessarily its thinking. To imagine and to think are two different things. Simply put, at best I can imagine only about a dozen objects at once (a couple of die with sixes up—but even then, I'm probably imagining two things and attributing 6 dots to each). But I can extrapolate the meaning of "10,000" without ever being able to picture it. As with numbers, so with cosmology. We may picture something pastoral when we picture heaven (a cabin by a lake with nice people sitting on the deck), but we know better. We know it's just a picture that neither validates or invalidates our belief that a better existence awaits us.
All talk about things that lie beyond our senses is metaphorical. Economics and psychology are filled with metaphor. Christianity is too. A modern person may admit this truth, but at the same time feel the urge to reject or change the Christian metaphor, making it less conspicuous. Thus, in the hands of someone unable to recognize the metaphoricity of all discourse (and not just religious discourse), "energy fields" replace spirits, great flashes of light may replace the throne of the King of the Cosmos, and cosmic consciousness replace the mind of Christ. Words such as "ineffable" and "inaccessible" replace "heaven." All the while, one is still thinking in metaphors.
None of this is to say all metaphors are equal. Often, Lewis sides with the Biblical choices, but he admits the early Christians probably did not consider the apparent contradictions of their metaphors. "The difficulty here is that they were not writing as philosophers to satisfy speculative curiosity about the nature of God and of the universe. They believed in God; and once a man does that, philosophical definitiveness can never be the first necessity. A drowning man does not analyse the rope that is flung at him, nor an impassioned lover consider the chemistry of his mistress's complexion" (chapter 10). Over time, the church corrects naive conceptions of God and the universe. (Obviously, it is often too slow at that business.)
What the church should not correct—and what Lewis' book stands in opposition to—is effacing the miraculous outlines of the faith in order to replace them with a generalized religion that a naturalist might feel comfortable with, an interplay of symbols and moral sentiments that have some value but depend very little upon the gospel texts for their existence.
By the end of the book, the miracles of the New Testament are categorized according to miracles of the old creation and the new creation. Those of the old creation repair or mimic the natural order. Healing the sick falls among these.
Those of the new creation anticipate the new natural order established by the resurrection of Christ which—to any who have read the gospels carefully—retained many elements of the old (a substantial body that could eat and drink) as it introduced elements of a new order (where recognition of identity seemed conditional and the density of walls variable). It is the new creation that remains the final focus of the book, with some imaginative forrays into an existence that (1) is barely outlined in the gospels, (2) is misconstrued in popular traditions (as pure spirituality), and (3) is unavailable in liberal theology that interprets the resurrection as symbolic of things that can and should be enjoyed in the natural order (renewal through forgiveness and hope). For Lewis (and for many passages in the New Testament), the resurrection heralds a new order that, when fully realized, will bear a relationship to the present somewhat as a visit to a forest bears a relation to a painting of that forest.
In the original (1947) edition, chapter 3 was named "The Self-Contradiction of the Naturalist." In the 1960 revision, the argument was expanded and more carefully qualified, with the result that chapter 3 received the new title, "The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism." Throughout this review, I cite the 1960 revision of the book, and, as a result of my copy being digital, I refer to chapter locations, not page numbers.
While Lewis doesn't admit
this, there may be some metaphors worth refining, particularly
patriarchal ones. However, with a binary distinction such as sex, for
anything gained, something will be lost. But certainly, not every
metaphor need be exclusive.
While not attempting to update the metaphors of the New Testament, Lewis is, indeed, a metaphorical writer. Being an analogical thinker and a literary critic, he frequently takes recourse to literary and artistic metaphors, and for good reason. The human act of creation, while expressing itself in innumerable ways, is easily analysed in a painting (where rules beyond rules are followed) or literature (where a good character is inspired by the author but explicable in terms of the setting and the plot).
last updated: 2017/12/09
Who would have thought that a Christian-turned-Jew would write a book
on the New Testament that would inspire my faith in the gospel?
My initial interest came from the title, The Reluctant Parting—poetic, thoughtful, selected with care. Then the subtitle, How the New Testament's Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book, provided what turned out to be a perfectly clear idea of the book's subject.
The book's two chief merits are: (1) it fulfills the subtitle's
scope, taking each New Testament book and examining the Jewish
underpinnings to the book
(2) it provides nuanced summaries of the arguments behind many passages in the New Testament, capturing the author's point better than sermons and Christian teachings often do.
While I do not share Galambush's skepticism toward the veracity of the New Testament, I assume she share's my respect for her skills as an able expositor of what is now considered Christian scripture.
The book is worth reading—so much so that I will forgo an attempt to belabor its merits when they can readily be found on nearly any page, such as this passage from her summary of the Gospel of Mark:
In the maelstrom of the First Revolt, Mark writes to create a new coherence, a new symbolic world wrought from the symbols of the world's end. The heavens have been torn open, the temple destroyed. But far from signifying the end of God's reign, these are the very portents of its beginning. The human world is blind to God's work in its midst, but human blindness, even hatred and desertion, are powerless to impede his coming. (58)
The reader can see the book's style in this single quote:
For the remainder of this piece, I'd like to address the roles of rhetoric and inspiration. Galambush looks at the New Testament primarily as an elaborate rhetorical framework. This framework provides a space for writers to re-work information about Jesus into a message that reflects the writers' own lives. Taken this way, the New Testament speaks, not an unfiltered universal truth to the ages, but a carefully crafted message intended to persuade the authors' local audiences of a specific tack to follow in order to remain faithful to the revelation of Jesus, even as the passing of time threatens to dull that revelation.
By contrast (though not mutually exclusive), as a piece of inspired writing, the New Testament surpasses the particulars of its authors' mental and social limitations, achieving more universality than they intended. Their literary allusions and rhetorical strategies, while useful, did not create the world they described, but instead described the world their story had created.
Galambush, taking both a scholarly and a Jewish point of view, does not allow for divine inspiration in the composition of the gospels and the letters. She takes as one starting point the need for those who do believe Jesus is the Son of God to stake their claims in a way that shows the claims to be an extension of Jewish history while at the same time shaping the claims to encourage Gentile conversions. Another starting point is the relationship among Jewish sects at the time (including Pharisees, Sadducees, and occasional messiah figures) and between Jews and Romans (who are breathing down the necks of the Jews, encouraging them to dispose of leaders who may represent a Jewish rebellion against Rome).
Because of the Jewish identity of the New Testament authors as well as the assumption by these writers that Jesus was providing a continuation of their Jewish identities, Galambush is situating her reading of the New Testament in fertile ground. No matter one's faith or skepticism, the Jewish concerns of what she refers to as the "Jesus movement" illuminate many passages of the New Testament that easily escape interpretations that focus exclusively on values that are transcendental and, being universally true, explicable in terms of modern assumptions.
She draws attention to the undebatable (but often under appreciated) fact that the followers of Jesus were often not concerned with non-believing Jews but instead with those Jews who both claimed to have faith in Jesus and to insist on continuing the rites and prohibitions of the Jewish faith. Here lies a large piece of her argument about how Jewish writers created a Christian book. Reluctantly, in an attempt to keep the Gentile converts assured of their new identity, the writers edged away from Judaism until their message reached a point of no return. Jews who had ignored Jesus would continue in their tradition, and Jews who had followed Jesus would find him increasingly the Messiah taken most seriously (numerically, at least) by the Gentiles.
In sharp contrast to her historicizing is the type of Christian interpretation that assumes the New Testament was divinely inspired in a way that enhanced the writers' abilities. This interpretation credits to the text more design and accuracy than perhaps the writers were aware of during the act of writing. For this kind of Christian interpretation, more of the message of the New Testament is taken at face value. If the Pharisees, being outshone by Jesus, are conspiring against his life, then...they are. For Galambush, the alleged authority of the Pharisees is not credible and neither is the animosity depicted as existing between them and Jesus. Therefore, it makes good historical sense to her to attribute the conflicts to a projection of the writers' own circumstances. Writing roughly between 70 and 110 C.E., the gospel authors are experiencing conflict with the Pharisees, and they validate their circumstance by positing it as a conflict undergone first by their leader.
Taking the texts of the New Testament as having purely human origin has the advantage of explaining better the passages that are an effluence of a writer's personal concerns and values. For this reason, Galambush is able to do more with Paul's letter to Philemon than most Christians can. Many other instances arise in her book where her historicizing illuminates otherwise opaque passages. Her explication authenticates the writers, not as inspired, but as thinking, passionate men—something their original readers probably took for granted but which is often ignored in Christian circles.
Taking the texts as having thinking, passionate writers who are also capable of being guided by a divine light as they write—if both approaches were combined the reading would of course differ from Glambush's. She explains the birth of John the Baptist in this way:
Any reader who has heard of Sarah and Abraham recognizes the reference [alluded to by the childlessness of Elizabeth and Zechariah], and expects God to bless the couple with a child. Luke provides the requisite miracle . . . . (80)
If, however, the writer had been inspired by God to write about a divinely inspired event (preparation for the entrance of the Son of God into the world), such passages would not necessarily be reduced to human terms. Sarah and Abraham would exist, not as a motif that had to be followed, but as a prelude to a second miracle that allowed the path for Jesus to be made straight (by getting people to look in the right direction at the baptismal waters, and by absorbing the violence of Herod for a while). Charges of anachronism would no longer be applied exclusively to the New Testament but would also be applicable to the modern readers who project onto the text their own historically limited view, one of extreme skepticism as things stand today.
Writing from a modern Jewish perspective, the author is deeply concerned about the use of the New Testament as a means of vilifying Jews. Although such a use of the New Testament strikes me as fully hypocritical, the abuse has occurred and probably will occur again. Thus, where I read accusations that the Jews killed Jesus as descriptions of a specific group of religious leaders in a specific locale at a specific time, the author sees a universal indictment being made. Where I see the Jewishness of those who plotted against Jesus as incidental, the author sees the Jewishness as stereotypically misleading. Where I see the important thing being the violence of the community directed against one more victim, she sees the violence of the texts being directed against the same old victim, the Jews. The last thing I'd want would be for either the Jews or the text to be scapegoated again.
last updated: 2014/05/04
Not having read him extensively, I've always thought Abraham Heschel (1907-1972) a writer who could be appreciated by followers of the Torah and of Jesus, alike. A Jewish philosopher, he wrote with great respect for the Torah and the rabbinical traditions. He also marched next to Martin Luther King, Jr. in one of the Selma civil rights marches (1965). And in this book, he echoes Jesus, writing, ". . . the Sabbath was a union that no one could disjoin. What God put together could not be set apart" (52).
The central concept of the book is that the first six days of the week allow humans to build and achieve things in space, whereas the seventh day is set aside to allow humans to appreciate time. The difference between the two modes of being is great. Space, and all its belongings, are temporary—easy to engage in, being visible and tangible, and easier, therefore, to be misled by. Time, by contrast and by Heschel's definition, is eternal and is the palace where we meet God. It is also the palace where rest and celebration replace ambition and labor. Not the rituals, but the psychology and the spirituality of the Sabbath are the primary concerns of the book.
I recommend the book for anyone who, independent of their attraction or rejection of ritual and tradition, seeks for a calmer, more meaningful life that is not governed by pace but by a balanced rhythm. It is fairly short, and even brief if one chooses to skip the middle chapters on the allegorical meaning of Rabbi Shimeon's life. This allegory is carefully explicated, but for those who do not savor that way of thinking, the conclusions in the final chapters are compelling apart from the allegory that leads up to them.
Following are a few of Heschel's memorable aphorisms:
Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. . . . The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. (14)
The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. (27)
If God is everywhere, He cannot be just somewhere. (81)
One good hour may be worth a lifetime; an instant of returning o God may restore what has been lost in years of escaping from Him. (98)
The book offers a bridge between the drive for occupying space and the necessity of allowing time to be an end in itself. When we control space we are bound to things, and time evaporates; when we submit ourselves to time, we are courted by eternity, and space becomes silent. "To men alone time is elusive; to men with God time is eternity in disguise" (101).
The Sabbath, being defined as a day that is not only good but holy, provides a portal to eternity. Each individual occupies space exclusively, with the result the human relations are rivalrous, and our attention becomes frozen on what (and who) is—and is not—ours. In contrast, the entire race can share the same time, with the result that everyone can share will all their praise.
While many of us are not committed to the Sabbath with either the rigor or the eagerness extolled by this book, we all find ourselves stalked by time. But it is not time that stalks us; it is the lack of time. Each effort to buy time, whether through another finished task or another, faster electronic communication—each effort uses up the time for which we increasingly thirst. The book invites us to let go of time, to stop seeking to control it, and thereby to finally appreciate it and the eternity that stands behind it.
last updated: 2009/09/27
If you have read The Shack, the following quote may echo your reading experience:
But the reader should be warned neither to expect a story nor to judge the book as such. Basically . . . the narrative outline advances the argument by providing the leads and transitional matter in the schematic conduct of the discourse. The voices in this enquiry are for the most part undifferentiated tonally, and bear labels chiefly in order to give a semblance of dramatic interchange to rational demonstration, and thus to lighten proofs.
That description was written 49 years before The Shack was published, and is part of Bertand H. Bronson's introduction to Samuel Johnson's The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. The point is that The Shack shares something in common with other fictional works concerned more about certain ideas than about creating a fully nuanced world in which the actors might take control of the plot and lead it where they will. A kind of "dream vision," The Shack may disappoint any reader who is not in the mood for the priority of sentiment over ideas, as well as of ideas over character and phrasing. It does not have, alas, the quotability of Rasselas with its Johnsonian eloquence such as, "Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures."
What The Shack does offer is an imaginative detour from the rutted pathway of traditional Christian discourse to a fresher expression of (mostly) traditional discourse, landscaped with terminology that would not have been fashionable prior to the nineties. At times the words "relationship" and "relational" permeate the dialogue therapeutically. But that form of therapy became popular for a generation of westerners who were acutely aware of their inability to maintain relationships. And, similarly, The Shack addresses the root question of our inability to know our Creator, something that is seemingly either so basic as to not need instruction, or so far-fetched as to not merit discussion. And, yet, the need persists.
Readers may find themselves disagreeing with the book's theology. In fact, it seems that many readers feel a need to state that they did not agree on all points (although who would think they had?). But few readers who finish the book—except by assignment—will disagree with the importance of the quest the book portrays. Why, otherwise, finish the book?
The book offers a vision of a kinder, gentler God than the one often preached in many Catholic or Protestant circles, at least wherever the concept of the final judgment is conveyed. In a less elegant manner than CS Lewis' The Great Divorce, The Shack invites the reader to consider that the distance between humans and God is a specifically human orientation and that there is nothing in the divine promoting that distance.
This concept of an unfathomable love is something worth exploring, whether one does it through The Shack or in his or her own imaginary journey. If it is a valid concept, it is an absolutely important one in the long run.
At this point, my review ends, and what is left is a biographical note with its own imaginative turn. Prior to reading The Shack, I read an article that quoted various readers' reactions, among whom was a prominent Pastor of a prominent "church" that I had thought was an organization that would have welcomed a book like The Shack. Far from it, this Pastor denounced the book for being dangerous and something to be avoided. Of course denunciations like that get movies and books higher on the best-seller lists, which is probably not what this Pastor intended.
At any rate, I mentioned to one of my friends that I was quite surprised this Pastor had denounced the book, and I was curious to read the book to find out what was so repugnant. At that point something like The Great Misunderstanding crept into our dialogue. Although my friend claims he did not say this (and I believe him, since he should know), what I heard was, "That's because the book puts that Pastor in hell."
Accordingly, I bought the book and read it, wondering how this easy going God was going to put the Pastor in hell. Toward the end of the book, I realized my expectations were skewed. But on reflection, I think the book could have afforded such an ending. I think this because whether or not we believe that the concept of hell that Jesus described applies to this life only or also to the next, it is a concept tied closely into how much grace we offer others.
In this ending—not that I'd want to wish this fate upon anyone—the main character would have returned from the shack and attended a popular fellowship, one where he could meet with the Elders and share his experience, somewhat as Paul did when he eventually met Peter and John.
During this meeting, not the book, but the main character would suffer complete castigation and rejection from the Elders, finding himself fully invalidated by the Christian leaders, and in a position worse than his initial state. Not only had he disclosed the secret of his miserable state, the culmination of years of guilt and months of grief, but he was left now without the only hope he had ever encountered.
And then the secret of heaven would be revealed, that heaven welcomes those who welcome others, excluding only the exclusive.
The narrative would zoom out on this character, Mack, as he was being expelled by the Elders. The reader would see Mack, collapsing to the ground beneath the weight of his discouragement. Across an expanse, perhaps a large parking lot, inside a building, would be the Elders, conferring with each other, affirming their response to Mack. But the temperature in the building would rise, and rise. They would find themselves in an unbearable heat, and would finally realize that this was more than a heating and ventilation problem. This was their judgment day. They could open the door and ask Mack for a second chance, or they could not.
The word "church" should be voluntarily banned in English since it has lost its ties to the original Greek word, "ekklesia." The Greek word refers to the "called out" ones who have left the institutional system of false authorities for the intangible leading of the spirit. The word "church" refers to the "called in" ones who are finding security within an institutional structure.
last updated: 2009/04/05
One night I had dinner with a man (not John Ubhal) to whom I was being introduced by a mutual friend. As we sat down, the stranger quickly entered into conversation. Within five minutes, he had informed me that the virgin birth was a myth and that political conservatives were—as I recall...it's been years—intellectually inferior beings. Around that point, I said, "Outside of the fact that I disagree with everything you've said so far, I think we shall get along well." And we do, years later.
Enter John Ubhal and his book, Thou Shalt Not Believe. They place me in a position to review a book by a friend with whom I disagree on nearly everything the books says. That pronouncement is an overstatement, but if one names a book about Christianity Thou Shalt Not Believe, one surely must be braced for a few rebuttals. I would hope that our friendship would continue and that as few readers as possible would allow this book to shape their understanding of the New (or Second) Testament.
The main contentions of the book are simple. Do not believe in Christianity. It is neither true nor good.
Christianity is not true because, among other difficulties, some of which reach back to the Old (or First) Testament, the historicity of Jesus is hard to establish. The only documents treating his life in detail are the documents in dispute by Ubhal. Only the Roman historian Josephus, in The Antiquities of the Jews, makes a fully supportive, non-Christian report about Jesus:
And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. (127)
Ubhal dismisses this record on the grounds that "there are significant problems with the historical reliability of this passage, the most glaring of which is that not one Church Father prior to Eusebius (late 3rd to early 4th century CE/AD), including Origen, Jerome, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Justin Martyr, ever mentioned this passage, despite its immense polemical value" (128). Ubhal follows Josephus with a few additional citations to other Romans (Mara Bar-Serapion, Pliny the Elder, Tacitus, and Eusebius). He concludes that about "all that can safely be said about Jesus" is that he "was a historical person who actually lived in the Roman province of Judea in the first century CE" and was crucified (134-135).
Consistent with this thinking, Ubhal rejects the claim that Jesus rose from the dead in a very dismissive manner: "There is no independent corroborating evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, so there is every reason to believe that the early Christians merely borrowed this motif in order to propagate their nascent religion among Gentiles" (32). To anyone interested in Christianity or Christ, this claim is perhaps the most important the book makes. It is both significant and bombastic:
Neither Ubhal nor I were there, in Jerusalem, around 33 CE, and, so, really, neither of us knows what happened. He has "every reason to believe" the claim of the resurrection was a hoax. I have many reasons to claim it was genuine, including those that take the narratives seriously: the disciples didn't expect the resurrection and had to be converted to accepting it themselves, with the result that an entire community of believers in ancient Israel and Macedonia based their faith, their fellowship, and their sufferings on the veracity of the claim. In short, they believed the apostles.
Concerning the historical record for the existence of Jesus, Ubhal rules out the synoptic gospels and the gospel of John as reliable sources because "there is little independent corroborating evidence for their claims" (115). This requirement of "independent corroborating evidence" raises the question of the rules of evidence that are allowable to Ubhal. As soon as a document claims Jesus was both historical and supernatural, the document is inadmissible. On one hand, I understand the desire to have evidence provided by skeptical and/or indifferent writers. On the other hand, I do not see how the absence of a skeptical report that nevertheless agrees with the gospels is necessary.
When Ubhal states, "And again, their [the disciples'] testimony is unreliable because their primary goal in writing their various works was to convince people to convert to their nascent religion" (135), I wonder what kind of testimony Ubhal expects. It would be anachronistic to assume written communicators (mostly scribes, historians, statesmen, poets, and dramatists) in the first century CE were reporting on every claim made by rabbis and messianic zealots. It is also a difficult thing to be party to a crucifixion, whether one is a Jew or a Roman (or both), only to later document (or allow documented) the upsetting fact that the crucifixion failed (and with it the motivating religious and justice systems). It seems to me that nearly any report verifying the resurrection would involve a conversion, resulting in an already tainted account by Ubhal's standards.
Ubhal (and many others) would like a preponderance of secular evidence supporting the claims concerning Jesus—or silence altogether. A tacit statistical model emerges in the argument: The story is both "improbable" (134) and, in the hands of Josephus, "unlikely" (128). Some unspoken percentage of likelihood underlies these statements. Presumably there's a threshold at which point a sufficient number of historians weigh in on the controversy favorably, and at this point the claims can be taken more seriously.
Contrary to relying on measures of likelihood, it has always seemed to me that one of the strongest arguments on behalf of Christianity is how improbable and unlikely the appearance of Christ is. If this holy thing—this incarnated voice of God—truly lived on earth in the body of a human, the visit would be the least probable event imaginable.
Early on, Ubhal declares that the First Testament is littered with instances of divine violence that are, to any feeling individual, shockingly intolerable. I do not entirely disagree with this. There are many passages that I can in no way imagine Jesus participating in, except in order to protest. Ubhal takes the criticism much further, "Yet while the God of the Old Testament is almost unfathomably cruel, the God of the New Testament is even crueler still" (56). He continues, "In fact, the New Testament is one of the most demented collections of writings ever penned by human hands" (56). Rhetoric has replaced reason at this point, but for what reason? Because of hell.
The heart of Thou Shalt Not Believe is that, if you do believe, you are believing in an omnipotent being who, not unlike Calvin's worst thoughts, actually enjoys putting people into hell. Not only that, even if this being doesn't enjoy it, this being remains guilty of designing an eternal punishment instead of designing a better existence altogether. Worse than the worst dictator in North Korea, this being disallows the one thing North Korea allows: one's ability to die. Instead one is consigned to a lake of fire forever, no dying allowed (67).
These are dreadful concepts, but let me pause here to acknowledge one of Ubhal's great merits: he takes the Bible seriously enough to reject it. Many of us who one way or another claim the Bible reveals the creator and redeemer of the universe have not thought hard enough about this problem of hell, and to that degree, we are in no position to dismiss Ubhal for overreacting.
Proceeding cautiously, I do not want to glibly skip over the hell question. In isolation—as it is in this book—it presents a stumbling block to most modern readers who take time to notice it. A stumbling block, yes, but the entire edifice, no. Ubhal focuses almost entirely on hell, as if that were the centerpiece of the gospels and of the epistles (letters written by certain apostles). He overlooks massive qualifications and characterizations of the Father, Son, and Spirit that, to most Christians, transcend the naked concept of hell. From Jesus' individual interaction with the woman at the well to Paul's assertions that Jesus descended to hell and ascended to heaven in order that he might fill all things and, in filling all things, share them with everyone who believes—from these and other points of view, Thou Shalt Not Believe omits so much from the discussion that I find nothing more than an ugly caricature of the Christian message in the book.
This caricature arises from the author's hermeneutic. He brings to the biblical texts certain rules of interpretation that guide and, really, constrain the discussion. He insists that the Bible be read literally, which of course means that once the denotation of the words is established, the intended meaning is non-negotiably established also. If I tell my roommate to get lost, the hermeneutics of this book insist I really want this roommate to lose track of his location, as well as to be concealed from being found by others. One can understand how quickly a purely literal reading of any text can efface the nuances of a narrative, resulting in a list of often contradictory and / or vapid propositions.
When subjected to a literal reading, the Bible resolves into a highly regulative and punitive document, particularly when its passages are selected with a bias toward proving it is bad. There is no interpretive leeway, not even if a nuanced interpretation lends itself to greater consistency within the text. In this respect, I would agree with Ubhal: Yes, if you must read the Bible this way, particularly the gospels and the epistles, then, agreed, one should not believe.
But of course, I don't share Ubhal's hermeneutic. He inherited it from Christian and other traditions that do an injustice to the spirit of the law, concentrating entirely on the letter of the law. While I won't attempt to explain the references to hell in the Second Testament (and couldn't), I would say that the testaments contain much more than those references, including statements of God's unqualified desire that all people be saved, Jesus' continuous siding with the underdog (metaphorically of course), and Paul's assertions that, though through one man's disobedience, sin and death entered the world, through one man's obedience, life should come to all people. This list of good news could go on, and probably should.
In addition to the literalism is the assumption that the Bible speaks with one voice. It is a voice that Ubhal disagrees with, but it is monotonic and frozen in time. It involves no possibility for change or variation, such as for later scripture to correct earlier scripture, or for a prophetic utterance to trump a historical perception.
Attached to the ability scripture to correct itself is the assumption (that may be made but not acknowledged in many circles) that the revelation of God's nature is progressive. Take, for example, the role of sacrifice in the Bible. We know that nearly every religion involves sacrificial rites in the beginning, often starting with human sacrifice. In the Bible, what starts as small blips of light, such as the substitution of a sacrificial ram for Abraham's son (Genesis 22), grows brighter by the point in the Second Testament where the acceptable form of sacrifice is both praise (Hebrews 13:15) and a "living sacrifice" (as opposed to a dead one) (Romans 12:1). The light is radiant when Jesus, being crucified, says, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Clearly, Jesus is not letting Pilate or the Jewish leaders assume he deserves to die. While dying, the magnanimity of Jesus resounds when he says to the criminal being crucified next to him, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Thus, the earliest threat from Genesis that if one eats from the tree of life, on will surely die (Genesis 2:17) is transformed to the promise of life to a criminal dying on a tree of death.
To my hermeneutic, Ubhal may apply some colloquial terms he uses, such as "copout" and "sugarcoat." But I protest. One need not be a liberal theologian (Ubhal uses the word latitudinarian) to admit that language, being polysemous and flexible, invites more interpretive space than fundamentalist literalism allows. There must be a middle road, and I think most of us find it in our daily readings and conversations, where we read between the lines and watch the body language for further meaning. Language can at times be figurative (and there are a variety of figures of speech) without reducing Jesus to being no more than a symbol (as some consider him).
Similarly, one can believe the scriptures are inspired (God breathed) without insisting they all represent God with equal clarity. The Second Testament states as much, "In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:1-3). The "exact representation" simply was not available in the beginning of the Jewish tradition, and that is neither a fault nor an oversight. It is a part of the history of humanity.
There's a way to read the First and Second Testaments as linguistic constructs that employ different levels of literalism depending on the purpose of the discussion. Hell can be a reality (now and then) and yet need not be 212 °F and have yellow scum around its shores. Hell can be the presence of extreme regret or the absence of light, but it need not be something the Father of Jesus desires any being to be subjected to. It is a mystery that we should neither ignore nor obsess over. Similarly, the resurrection of Jesus may not be something I can explain biologically—who could?—but it may be the pivotal point at which the human race was given a chance to become a new race. It could be the antithesis of and the antidote to hell.
As already touched upon, Thou Shalt Not Believe omits so much of the content of the Bible that it amounts to a caricature. But it does include more than simply the scriptures about hell. The book also includes many of Jesus' hard sayings concerning divorce, riches, purity, and non-violence. Often Christians would rather not think about these sayings, just as Ubhal claims. Some of these sections on the hard sayings, as well as some ad hoc discussions about various proofs for God's existence, are useful and fall outside any criticism from me.
What is really missing, from my point of view, is the role of the Holy Spirit in the gospels and the epistles. Any discussion of Christianity that doesn't mention the role of the Spirit as a paraclete (an advocate who protects the believer from condemnation) and as a teacher is failing to portray an important counterpoint to the dark passages Ubhal relies on extensively. It has never been on the merit of textual criticism or, closer to Jesus' day, on the basis of mass appeal that disciples followed Christ (not for long, at least). It was a result of being drawn to him, and being enlightened about him, so that his words could become words of spirit and words of life (John 6:63).
The role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the interpretation of the Bible and the interpretation of Jesus himself cannot be overstressed, and I'd be remiss not to mention it a bit further. It was, after all, revelation and not simple fact checking that Jesus affirmed in Peter in this passage:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 16:8-17)
Perhaps if we considered the Second Testament in its entirety, we would be stunned into silence. Perhaps we would wonder where all the divine fire has gone or how to find it. But few of us would think that God is on a mission to doom his creation to failure and then punish it with hell as a result. And we should not think the task of finding our way is ours alone.
Thou Shalt Not Believe formally concludes on page 267, but then continues with something like an afterword, "My Personal Experiences with Christianity." While I'm not suggesting Ubhal rewrite the book, I wish this had been the opening chapter or possibly had been expanded to comprise the entire book. It is incontrovertible, being autobiographical. It is priceless, being personal and vulnerable.
It portrays a child who grew up appreciating Christianity as "wholly positive" (270), being exposed to it in Lutheran churches. At the age of 12, his view began to change. First he was introduced to the concept of hell and then, in spite of being in a Lutheran setting, was told that "salvation is difficult and is based primarily on one’s works" (270). By the age of 13, Ubhal was convinced that the apocalypse was imminent and that the likely followup was being cast into a Lake of Fire, as described in the Book of Revelation. It was not only a fear of others going to hell but, in his words, a fear of himself going to hell: "Yet no matter how hard I tried to adhere to what I understood to be Christianity’s moral precepts, I feared I would be damned as one among billions of 'sinners in the hands of an angry God' holding us over hell and waiting to drop us in (to use the imagery of Jonathan Edwards)" (272).
His fear of hell motivated him to attempt moral perfection, which, among other things, invited bullies to take advantage of his attempt to turn the other cheek. All of these disturbances were overshadowed at the age of 15 by feeling he "had been possessed by the devil or another demon" (272). An internalized voice of guilt and condemnation drove him nearly crazy. He alternated between seeking God's help to sinking below the waves of dispair. At this time, he writes, "I told a few people about my experiences at the time in very vague terms, as I knew that any specific description would likely lead to psychiatric therapy or even institutionalization" (273).
The sense of possession left him when he abandoned the eschatology that focused on hell, but new bouts of fear and depression arose as he studied the gospels, finding in them a rigor and morality that he had no hope of obtaining. The result was to fear "the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (275).
His interpretations of the scriptures did not change much throughout these years. Even in the present tense he writes, "In fact, if the New Testament is trustworthy, Christians should feel near-continuous guilt for failing to live up to God’s expectations and should feel gratitude to God for forgiving their sins when he absolutely does not have to do so" (280). It was simply the abandonment of the entire enterprise that gave him peace. He is now "relieved there is no rational basis for believing the New Testament" (280). Although free from some of the darker convictions (such as of possession), between high school and several years of college he oscillated between despair and guilt, on one hand, and confidence and optimism (even in Christianity) on the other.
By the time he graduated from college, he was done with Christianity, but not with the guilt he had contracted through it. His foray into Theravada Buddhism, he realized, left him with guilt, too. From this point, he ventured into mystical experiences, which perhaps cannot constitute one's daily bread (arising unpredictably and sporadically). While they provided a higher reality, they—being rooted in monotheism—did not offset the pain his earlier monotheistic beliefs had caused, and so he finally abandoned his perennial monotheist worldview (290).
Toward the goal of freeing himself from guilt, he therefore wrote Thou Shalt Not Believe, which at the time of its completion provided him the distance necessary to be protected from the pernicious effects of Christianity.
The account is incontrovertible, being his account of his internal life. One of the greatest ironies of history, from my point of view, is that the faith that was intended to set people free from guilt is, for many, the source of guilt. Countless sermons, books, and institutions fuel this fire. A friend of mine says forgiveness is not good business, but sin is: it keeps people returning (for the wrong reasons). I for one am sorry Ubhal felt so alone and tortured for so many years.
 This review is not based upon a Kindle purchase but on a review copy given to me. However, the review copy appears to be the print file for the book (available in electronic and hard copy), so the page numbers should match.
 John Ubhal is a pseudonym, possibly of Welsh and Gaelic origins.
 If I were to review the book on Amazon, I'd rate it as a very readable book—which it is, whether one is eager to find the next disagreeable assertion or something more positive.
 While the fact does not cause me to doubt (my faith never having arisen from statistical probability), I understand Ubhal's comment that, "if 500 people really had witnessed Jesus in the flesh after his resurrection, as Paul claimed in 1 Corinthians 15:6, it would have been too incredible to keep quiet, even in educated Roman circles" (135). The number 500 has always puzzled me, not because of the lack of documentation, but because it is so unexpected. For the most part, the post-resurrection Jesus kept to himself, making himself visible to only the disciples (which included others besides the apostles, such as Mary Magdalene). Who these 500 were and the circumstances under which they saw Jesus in his post-resurrection state (which was not a normal state by any natural measure)—this remains a puzzle.
 The "Book of Acts" in the Second Testament provides a rare glimpse into the thinking of at least one individual who (1) stood outside of the community of Christians, (2) was aware of their claims, and (3) did not feel compelled or able either to falsify or verify their claims. The opinion of the Jewish teacher, Gamaliel, is recorded as follows:
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. hen he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:34-39)
 Ubhal senses this as he concludes his arguments, writing, "Others will regard my viewpoint with curiosity because they do not think of Christianity in the terms in which I have presented it. They may even think that the version of Christianity I have presented is a straw man" (267).
 Ubhal's hermeneutic is sincere and does not arise as part of a rhetorical stance. If it were part of a stance, it would be bad rhetoric. Those who share Ubhal's fundamentalist literalism are seldom going to read a book entitled Thou Shalt Not Believe. Their literalism, which is often accompanied by a desire for an unshakable, fixed truth in which to believe, would deter such an act.
 By contrast, even within the Second Testament (let alone between the testaments), I am always juggling one statement against another. The juggling is not arbitrary, but has evolved over time by learning what are the most encouraging and instructional points. This hermeneutic must evolve over time because of the paradoxical relation between the part and the whole: the entire text (such as a novel or the Bible) cannot be understood apart from its individual sentences. However, the individual sentences cannot be understood apart from the entire text. The result of the paradox is that one must frequently suspend judgement and keep reading, reviewing, and revising one's interpretation.
 To this proposition Ubhal may agree, but only with derision: the fact that God makes us need Jesus is, to him, a further example of his totalitarian nature.
 Having said these sections in Ubhal's book escape my criticism, I note in passing that when Ubhal stresses the gospel of Luke's insistence on poverty and being without property (Chapter 19 "Some Blatant Examples Of Christian Hypocrisy"), he fails to mention that in Luke 10, Jesus enters Martha and Mary's home and he never insinuates that there is anything wrong with them owning a home in which to live. A reader of Ubhal's book who was ignorant of the Bible would never guess such a passage existed.
last updated: 2017/11/19
Almost everything I appreciate about the three temptations of Christ derives from this book. Working with the account in Matthew, the author draws parallels between Christ and Moses, which in turn lead to a contrast between the failures of Israel and the success of Christ in the wilderness.
Just as Moses fasted 40 days, so does Christ. Moses does so to address three of the Israelites’ sins: bitterness about eating bread, tempting God about water, and, in Moses’ second fast, worshipping an idol (16-17). When Christ fasts, he is tempted to make bread from stones, tempted to tempt God to save him, and, finally, tempted to worship the devil, the ruler of the world, an obvious form of idolatry. If Christ overcomes these temptations, he then corrects the repetitive and crooked past in order to create a different future.
Such passages from the pentateuch enable Farrer to tie the baptism of Christ into the temptation scenes, reading them as a coherent whole. The baptism of the Israelites into the water and the cloud are revisited as Christ’s baptism in water followed by the descent of the Spirit upon him. This resemblance draws attention to the presence of the Spirit hovering over the water at creation, another instance where the voice of God spoke, saying there should be light. So in Christ’s baptism the Spirit descends, the voice speaks, and it is good, it being the beginning of a new creation.
These types of connections typify Farrer’s thought and, likely, the thought of the writer of Matthew, whose gospel is most clearly tailored to Jewish readers. The temptations, simply put, make more sense when read in this context rather than as an anticipation of the modern readers’ situation.
The book demonstrates what a philosophical mind, exercised in the literary practice of close reading and informed by a background in biblical hermeneutics, sees when it reads the gospel of Matthew.
Nothing in way of summary can demonstrate the book’s richness. Written for non-specialists, it nevertheless requires concentration, each sentence adding something new to the discussion. The following paragraph, already touched on in this review, provides an example of this rich textual analysis of Matthew’s account:
[At Christ’s baptism] the rending of the heavens [by the voice of God] is the most obvious symbol of divine event; it is not, however, the most significant. Before the Voice itself speaks, the Spirit or Breath of God descends over the waters. This had not been recorded to have happened since the world was first created. When there was nothing but a restless chaos, and darkness over the abyss, ‘the Breath of God fluttered on the face of the waters and God said, Let there be light.’ The Baptism, then, is a second birth of light, a new creation of the world. (28)
While it is clearly stated in Matthew that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, it is easy to mistake the temptations as taking place in another location. Still in the wilderness, Christ is taken to the temple, still in the wilderness, Christ is taken to a “very high mountain” (Matt. 4:8, NIV). Farrer, neither dogmatically a literalist nor a demythologizer, sticks to the text in these matters. He assumes both that the temptations take place in the mind of Christ (where else can temptation occur?), and that the scenario presented is indeed consequential, symbolically and realistically. To give into the temptation, howsoever mental, would be a betrayal of Christ’s devotion to God and, finally, an act of idolatry.
I recommend the book for anyone interested in understanding the role of the baptism and temptations of Christ. I also recommend it for anyone interested in what a close analysis of intertextuality meaning can produce.
last updated: 2015/12/05
Few books leave me so engaged and disappointed as this one. It raises many fascinating aspects of the brain and mind, and, at the same time, it removes almost all the specificity of every religion it discusses, reducing to the lowest common denominator religious experiences, homogenizing them, and, eventually, taming them to a general category called spirituality.
In addition to its survey of how the brain processes information, the book would be useful to those who think all mystical experiences are irrational (purely delusional). However, for those with a firm belief in God, the book's main argument may appear superfluous, reaching for extraneous arguments to conclude the obvious: if God exists, God will not go away from our consciousness because our consciousness is capable of sustaining a pursuit of God. The book uses a maximal amount of neurological information to obtain a minimal amount of religious insight.
Note on authorship: The authors Newberg and D'Aquili are medical doctors. D'Aquili died before the book was fully written. Vince Rause is a co-author, who also co-authored Miracle in the Andes.
The argument: the authors are neurologists who study scans of the brain while individuals are undergoing mystical meditations. From these scans, along with a scientific understanding of how the brain works, the authors argue that the mystical encounter or mental experience results from the wiring of the brain. The separation of the lobes into left and right, according to the book, allows only partial, fragmented information to be passed between the hemispheres, each with a perceptual strength (verbal-analytical on the left, spatial on the right). When the fragments no longer conflict with each other, the brain accepts the information as valid (whether in mundane transactions or mystical encounters). This validation provides one element of the consciousness that the subject accepts as genuine. It is important to the argument to stipulate that the partial information inherent in a mystical experience need not disrupt the operations of the brain which is always functioning with partial information, insofar at the two lobes can provide only fragments or hints to each other.
In addition, two centers (one toward the front of the brain, one toward the back) work together to either define or blur the sense of self. What the book calls the "orientation association area" (part of the parietal lobe) locates the individual in space. Not only is this important on a practical level of allowing locomotion, balance, and navigation, but it also allows the individual to distinguish between him-/herself and the Other (the outside, whether animate, ranging from animals and people to conceptions of God, or inanimate, including the range of exteriority from the ground and furniture to the cosmos). The other center, "the attention association area" (prefrontal cortex), provides intentions and will.
According to the theory, when an individual meditates, the attention association area either focuses exclusively on an icon, concept, or other expression of a divinity, or it focuses on excluding all thoughts. The former "active" meditation would include Jewish and Christian practitioners, and the later "passive" meditation would include Buddhists. Either way, this exclusive concentration would deprive the orientation association of information. If this deprivation were maintained, the individual would lose its sense of spatial identity, pushing it toward a loss of distinctiveness concerning inside-outside, self-other, and, I assume, time. At this point, the activity of the attention association area would supply—in fragments—a concept of divinity or nirvana, which would complement the fragments of disembodiment provided by the orientation area. The combined fragment, being complementary, would provide the brain (or, by this point, the mind) with an acceptable version of reality, which would strike the meditator as not only awesome, blissful, and overwhelming, but also as true. This experience of the ineffable instantiates the mind's ability to transcend itself, to align itself with a reality for which it cannot account.
This summary of course glosses over some variations. For example, the book argues that active meditation of Jews, Muslims, and Christians can never obtain the perfect "Absolute Unitary Being" brought about by passive meditation of, among others, Buddhists. From the book's point of view, the Absolute Unitary Being is preferable in that it collapses completely the distinction between the individual and the rest of existence.
Finally, the book happily notes significant differences between mental states that are generally accepted as signs of mental illness and those meditative states that are consistent with (and often contribute to) the health of individuals, both personally and socially (107-113). This section is both useful and important for the overall intentions of the argument.
Criticism: As mentioned at the start, I think anyone aware of the intricacies of any religion would feel the value of that religion is undermined by the level of abstraction applied to the religious experience, a level that is admittedly a hypothetical state of affairs occurring among neurons. The treatment qualifies as reductio ad absurdum from the point of view of the practitioner. It cannot be otherwise, I suppose, since the thesis is based upon the activity of blood concentrations in various parts of the brain. Such evidence of God provides a thin conceptual outline of any divinity, and, as far as I can tell, still proves only that the experience seems valid to the individual, not that it is by any means an indicator of any supernatural force.
The authors claim that, while they began with materialistic assumptions, the materialistic data—the state of the brain when the difference between the individual and the cosmos is collapsed—"left us no choice but to conclude that the mystics may be on to something. . . " (140). They authors claim that "deductive reason" urges them to credit the mystics with "something that is truly divine" (141). The closest deductive reasoning I found was the argument that the reality that seems the most real is the most real, as illustrated by dreams: in a dream, waking life is assumed to be real; in waking life, a dream is assumed to be illusory. The mystics persistently claim—long after the trance has ended—that the mystical encounter was more real than all the reality they know otherwise. It's worth noting that this logic is based upon human experiences and not upon the neurological distinctions made throughout the book.
The neurological structures laid down in the book show that a mystical experience is plausible, but do not show that such an experience necessarily corresponds to any kind of divinity. The state of enhanced attention and decreased orientation could mark a neural circuit overload, rather than a neural circuit enlightenment. The overload would arise from the individual seizing an idea or image so large (i.e. the sublime) that the mind becomes absorbed with the idea. This focus, in depriving the orientation area of information, could achieve the bliss associated with a divine encounter. The beneficial outcomes—the peace and joy—of this state may result from the cathartic effect of letting go of one's worries and fears, at least for a few minutes.
In short, the assertion that those who meditate experience a "realm of being more real than the material world" (140) doesn't follow from the science (as far as I can tell) but from the predilection of the scientists to marry empirical science with a universal mysticism.
Finally, there are several omissions that struck me in the book, which I will touch on briefly. It was a surprise to read about myth without reference to René Girard, just as it was a surprise to find no reliance on linguistics insofar as the origin of language and language acquisition seem intrinsic to the phenomenon called "mind." Girard would prevent primitive humans from being figured as young children whose lack of understanding creates stories in lieu of scientific explanations. He would challenge, successfully, I think, the assertion that "religions, in their crudest forms, began as the attempt to influence powerful spirits with sacrificial gifts—as if the sacrificial impulse arises automatically with no respect to social cataclysm. Language theorists would counterbalance the notion that thoughts occur apart from language, that "once such a category [of animals] has been formed, other parts of the brain can give that category a name—in this case, 'canines'" (49).
In addition, the premise of the book, that limited, neurological interactions can register both tangible-physical activity and transcendental activity would be sharpened by reference to C. S. Lewis' essay on "Transposition." (The book quotes C. S. Lewis at length on the fact that every symbol for God lends itself to idolatry.) In "Transposition," Lewis argues that the neural system comprises a medium that cannot, of itself, distinguish between the source of influences that may be as disparate as a problem with digestion, on one hand, and the sickness one feels upon falling in love. The lower medium—the neural network—is source-agnostic, and only other sources of information can provide the distinction, that what is "happening in the lower medium can be understood only if we know the higher medium" (The Weight of Glory, 100).
Perhaps I do the book an injustice. It does raise important, interesting issues. For neurologists, it marks a daring foray into dangerous territory. But in the process, it does injustice to notions such as God and transcendence that are not reducible to a feeling of awe, bliss, or one-ness. In varying degrees, religions may provide something useful for the extended periods of time before and after the mystical experience. The mystical experience will, after it subsides, be interpreted a variety of ways by the subject, and for this interpretation, the subject may find some symbols, myths, and scriptures more accurate than others (just the conclusion the authors hoped to avoid).
last updated: 2016/04/13
This book offers an antidote to all those who have been poisoned by a pessimistic view of God's interest in—and ability to redeem—every human being, no matter where or when that person lived. It puts the "good" back into the news about Jesus, who is represented as the clearest representation of the God who in all times and places beckons people to follow the light they have been given.
"Sinners are not in the hands of an angry God" (177) the book concludes, after showing multiple ways to meet your Maker whether or not you have been exposed to an adequate portrayal of Christ. Where there is wrath, it is the anger of a loving Creator who sees his creation ignoring what is best for them and instead destroying each other. A person who seeks to do right and to honor God apart from the Christian tradition(s) is in a far better place than a person labeled as a Christian who eschews the opportunity to seek the Creator.
In times past, it was perhaps not so troublesome to think narrowly about Christianity, in exclusion of the merits of other religions. But, as the world is shrinking as a result of global communication, it is absurd to ignore the claims and values of other religions. This book urges Christians to open up dialogues with members of other religions, to look for grace and truth wherever they occur, and to openly share what is so appealing about the life of Jesus. In this way, Christians may be delivered from bigotry and those in other religions may be exposed to something truly worthwhile in the gospels.
Neither a universalist, nor a restrictivist, the author seeks to show that from the beginning God planned for the salvation of humankind. In executing this plan, God spoke to various people and nations in whatever way possible, and that these intentions were furthered, not countered, by the coming of Jesus into the world. When the purpose of God is understood in this way, then hell is logically understood as "not the prison from which people are longing to be freed, but [as] a sit-in where sinners have barricaded themselves in to keep God out" (180).
In addition to undoing the damage of overly pessimistic, conservative evangelical thinking, the book also insists that religious pluralism ignores important differences between religions. Not all religions are equally true or noble. Even if God has spoken to various people in various cultures, it does not follow that the voice was as clear or as final as it was when it declared Jesus the "son in whom I am well pleased." Just as there is nothing arbitrarily exclusive about the salvation offered by Jesus, there is also nothing arbitrarily dispensable about his role in the human future.
It is fashionable and politically correct to preach a loving God who cares infinitely about every human being, independent of that person's lifestyle or beliefs. This concept thrives on an ethical sensibility that is shared by many of us who have no patience for bigotry or pettiness projected on a divine plane. However, the book suggests (but doesn't develop) the assertion that this appealing portrayal of God arises from the Christian revelation:
Ironically, the proposal of theological pluralism, which would undercut the normativeness of Jesus Christ, removes . . . at the same time the very basis for knowing God as personal and gracious, loving and forgiving. The paradox lies in the fact that the universality of God's love is known through the particular event of the Incarnation. One can only be sure there exists a gracious and loving God if it is the case that Jesus Christ is Lord (45).
While I recognize that this assertion is not beyond dispute, it strikes me as a worthwhile inquiry. Before Jesus there was talk about a just and loving [if not personal] God, but the signal-to-noise ratio was usually pretty low. One does not always see the source of light itself but what the light illuminates. Similarly, our conception of a truly loving God (if there is a God at all), may be much more indebted to the words and actions attributed to Jesus in the gospels than to any other single source. Think about how God or the gods come off in ancient creation myths; in Greek and Roman myth, religion, and tragedy; or in the other ancient eastern and African faiths. Do not we gain something from the Sermon on the Mount, something that establishes a perfect Father who does not reciprocate evil for evil, who causes the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous?
I think we do.
last updated: 2009/05/30
René Girard never to my knowledge needed his name attached to what is now called mimetic theory, but his contributions were so central that separating his name would be like separating Sigmund Freud from psychoanalysis. Mimetic theory in its purest form is a-theistic, rooted as it is in the immanent conditions which make human culture possible. It is a scientific hypothesis, not a creed. That said, it finds easy application to, and support from, the New Testament. It's particularly useful for understanding the gospel accounts of Jesus' death and the role of his Father in that death. The best expression of this aspect is found in Book II of Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World (French, 1978; English translation, 1985).
While I make no attempt to cover the literature published in the field of mimetic desire, I am in the process of reviewing a handful of books, many of them by authors whom I have been fortunate to meet, particularly in the 1990s. Some of the best of the mimetic thinkers have moved on to the next life, particularly Raymund Schwager (2004), Robert Hamerton-Kelly (2013), and René Girard, himself (2015, weeks away from his 92nd birthday, which happened to be December 25).
An informative obituary for René is here.
last updated: 2017/01/22
Created 2008/06/07, Last updated 2018/02/10©
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