Truth and Truth

BirchSama @BreakingSunday
Only an idiot believes that things which cannot be/aren’t proved to exist are facts.”

This is a statement that was recently posted on Kotaku regarding the Cristian Game Developers Conference.  The above person first stated that Christians have an imaginary friend, and then went on to make this philosophical statement about epistemology.  It is not a new statement, but one clearly defined as Logical Positivism.  Things are either tautological, like math and logic, or they are verifiable by scientific evidence.

One even mildly acquainted with logic will see a fundamental problem with this statement of course.  It is neither a tautology nor verifiable through scientific evidence that “only an idiot believes that things which cannot be/aren’t proved to exist are facts.”  This critique of Logical Positivism is not new, it is as old as the first logical mind to encounter this flawed point of view and subject it to its own rigors.  When put up to its own test, it fails.  However, if such a point of view can be shown to be so easily defeated, what is it still hanging around?

Our culture has undergone a mass transformation in values in the last few centuries.  Here I am not speaking about family or social values, about values of sex or economics, but instead about values of knowledge.  Before the enlightenment, a thing was said to be true if it bore the weight of authority, or if it showed itself through deductive argument to be necessarily true.  With less weight it was considered to be true through inductive argument, i.e. experience.   In the olden days, it was the church who stood as the great authority, and against whom the enlightenment railed.

This is not especially bad in my oppinion, as the church’s main task is to be the body of Christ in the world, spreading the good news that God has come close, tending to the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the needy, and the imprisoned.  Insofar as we ignore those tasks and instead attempt to become authorities on the composition of the cosmos, we are quite wrong.  In fact, the enlightenment still has much work to do I think in undermining the hubris of Christians who speak beyond their means.  The Christians statement, as a Christian, should be “God has come close, let us rejoice and obey His good teachings to love each other.”  All else is outside of the realm of Christian authority.

Part of loving each other, however, is telling each other the truth.  And part of that truth is logical truth.  And it is here that the enlightenment has aimed its other guns.  For the modern day shaman who says “not I, but my honest, reasonable, and mighty god” when asked about his authority, is no longer a man of logic or faith, but a man of science.  For the scientific mind is less concerned with arguments and more concerned with the evidence.  Well and good, for that is his or her job.  The scientist must not, if the evidence shows otherwise, bow to the argument of a man who can show that the sun is made of banana pudding.  The Scientist must in fact keep on with the good work of examining evidence, and leave it to the logician to show the pudding-man to be a fool on logical grounds.

Yet the work of science seems to have a tangent which is rather disturbing.  In the work of people like Hawking, knowledge is reduced to scientific knowledge in the popular mind.  I say reduced, not because scientific knowledge is a poor or paltry thing, but because it is only one of a number of kinds of knowledge.  Notice that in the expression Scientific Knowledge,  “Scientific” here is an adjective, meaning that it is only a type of knowledge, not the thing itself.

The danger here is that we begin to downplay the importance of other kinds of knowledge.  The human being is not a creature merely of evidence, but of multivalent epistemologies.  We stride through this world with knowledge gleaned from evidence, intuition, experience, and logical deduction.  In fact, the central apparatus for all knowledge is deductive knowledge, as we naturally do basic deductive logic with even the smallest experiences.

The central problem with a general feeling that scientific knowledge being the only kind of knowledge that is useful is that the idea itself is not a piece of scientific knowledge.  You cannot show, through scientific evidence, that all other information is in fact useless.  You can show that for scientific measurement, human observation is far less useful than experiments, but you cannot show that the kind of knowledge that comes from experiments is the only kind of knowledge worth having.

Thus the work of the church, as a body meant to love humanity into life through and by Jesus Christ, is in the modern age partially involved in stemming the tide of the logical positivist view.  It is not to try to usurp scientific knowledge from real scientists and stuff that into a book that is supposed to reveal the Character of God.  It is not to try to say that science is not science, but to insist that the human condition is more than empirical evidence.  If it is not, why are we bothering with science in the first place?

This is elementary argumentation for elementary difficulties.  However these elementary difficulties are rampant throughout a society which is poorly trained in clear thinking on both sides of the belief line.  Some clearer thinking will, I think, present better skeptical arguments which will in turn encourage better answers by people of faith.

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All Ye Know On Earth

Since the first assumption of Greek philosophy by the Christian Apologists of the second century, it has been continually asserted by the great minds of our faith that God is simple and not composite.  Each attribute of God stands either as a mere condescension to humanity’s faulty understanding, or as one name for the ultimate divine goodness that transcends all description.  That goodness is called by many names, Justice, Mercy, Peace, Light, Life, Truth, Beauty, and myriad more beside.  Yet from the theological minds of those like St. Athanasius and St. Thomas Aquinas, to the mystical minds of Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor, the many facets of God have been called One (though the Hesychast Gregory Palamas would go on to hypostasize the energies of God and propose another way of understanding God’s simplicity).

Hints of this oneness are scattered throughout scripture, from the blatant statement in the Shema, to the possible meanings of YHWH, to the mystical and mysterious statements of the Alpha and Omega, and the God in whom there is no shadow of turning, the Lord who is One is One in all things.  His goodness is His being, and the fact that He is is identical with His beauty.  God, Three persons, yet simple, not composite, yet community.  Gregory of Nyssa goes as far as to call this mysterious oneness, this mysterious light of God, a darkness, since we cannot see through it.  The mystery of God’s Oneness is not only enough for a single image of God to contemplate for a lifetime, but for the whole community of Images to contemplate for eternity.

It is then with joy that I consider a perspective that is novel to me, the question of the aesthetically best ending to the Christian story.  Dr. Richard Beck has posted on Two Friars and a Fool regarding this question, and concludes that the best ending is in fact that all people shall turn to God; all will be reconciled.  My response here is not in manner of a critique of his argument, for I fundamentally agree with his conclusion.  This short response is intended to address the nature of the question itself.  Does the question regarding aesthetics really apply to the Christian worldview?

As mentioned above, the question of God’s beauty is ancient and well established in both the theological and mystical traditions of the church.  However, in the west our central image of God has been for the last thousand years, not the lovely resurrected Christus Victor, but the Anselmian Crucified Christ.  The Divine Slaughter, not the Beatific Vision has been the subject of our art and our aesthetic for a millennium, and any question of Christian aesthetics must grapple with the bloody dying God.  There is more of The Passion than Paradise in our western concept of Divine Beauty.

Thus, there will be those who insist that Dr. Beck’s image of beauty is quite foreign to the divine concept of the subject.  They will perhaps suppose that, given the blood of the cross, God’s beauty is vicious, terrifying, and most certainly not “nice.”  Thus the question of what we simply think is beautiful is undermined by the divinely revealed beauty on the cross.  God’s beauty, they might argue, is what we would at first call ugly.  Referencing Isaiah, they would insist that there is nothing to draw us to the cross, nothing comely or appealing.  This is the beauty of God, horrific in its most perfect expression.

To this perfectly workable assessment of western Christian aesthetics, I propose the following responses.  First, Dr. Beck’s use of Biblical texts is more proper in understanding Christian beauty than a world influenced by Anselm and his Reformation disciples.  Whole strains of Christianity have been fortunate in not adopting the model proposed in Cur Deus Homo, and have retained the beauty of Christ as the one Risen, not the one dead.  This is a far more ancient and consistent expression of Christian beauty than what has become corrupted in the West.

Secondly, the Cross is beautiful not because of the death that sits thereon, but because of the One who has descended into death.  He is beautiful, and no power in heaven or earth, not even death may make Him ugly.  He, by His love (that is to say, by Himself) makes death beautiful by descending into it for us, and thereupon destroying it and rising with beauty far beyond what we could imagine before.  The aesthetics of the cross are that the cross and all it represents, the horrors of torture, the abuses of power, the objectification and disregard for the human form, and ultimately the master that fashions them all, Sin, are all overcome by the beauty of the one who dies on it.  He is beautiful, death is not, and death is swallowed up in victory.

Thirdly, the beauty of God is not wholly “other” to us such that it might ever be what we call “ugly.”  We can see this in the morality of God, which is never what we would call “evil.”  We might think it foolish, think that it is ridiculously naive, but it is never evil.  We innately recognize the good for what it is, just as we innately recognize beauty.  God’s beauty is above and beyond what we consider beautiful, but it is in fact continuous with it.  It is continuous because all beauties derive their loveliness from God’s beauty.  Thus we cannot discount the aesthetic question regarding eschatology because we believe that God’s beauty overrides our own.  It does, but not by contradicting it.  It sits like a proper lord on his throne, not like a foreign usurper, to borrow an image from C.S. Lewis.

Thus, the question of Christian aesthetics regarding the Eschaton is wholly valid from a theological point of view.  Lady Julian of Norwich, Pseudo-Dionysius and others would agree that it is valid from a mystical perspective.  These two great pillars of Christian Epistemology stand readily together maintaining that when we ask questions of Christian Truth, we must also ask about the Beauty of the Truth as well.  George MacDonald, that great Scottish writer and preacher, whom all American Christians who love C.S. Lewis owe an everlasting debt to, once said “You cannot think too well of God.”  This is not only true of facts about God, but of God’s beauty, and the Beauty which is shared with us through the Incarnate Word, the epitome of all we know of God on earth.  And behold, it is with us even until the end of the age!

Clay and Iron

Phil Shepherd, the “Whiskey Preacher” recently had a short video posted to Two Friars and a Fool, regarding what he calls a “posture of clay.”  Such a posture is described as one which allows us to be molded and shaped by God, one that allows God to shape us into new forms so we might be used for new things.

The central message of the Whiskey Preacher’s talk is one I fundamentally agree with.  One of the most disturbing things that I have seen as a student of Theology is the stagnation of thought that permeates many minds who find a particular stance and then cease to expand their understanding of the broader and ever new voice of the Church throughout time and location.  Our understanding of what it means to be Christian, what it means to relate to the Incarnate Word who spoke in a language and culture not our own, who has been interpreted by billions in languages and cultures not our own, must be open to voice after voice who cries out “I know Him too!”  Thus we must allow our theology to be fluid, moving, and adapting, growing and every growing to see more and more of God, hear more and more voices of the Image of God who all have something to add to the great chorus of the Christian Tradition.

This involves not only what we believe to be true, but also in how we express our worship.  We must be willing to change, must be willing to take from God’s hand as it is given.  I remember when our church was flooded several years ago, and we were “forced” to take up residence in a Methodist church down the street.  Some of the congregation grumbled, thinking it humiliating, some thought about how uncomfortable it was to have to have our mass in an unfamiliar building.  I strove to see the event as an abundance of grace, in which our Methodist brothers and sisters shared Christian charity with us, and we were able to receive it.  I also saw it as a way of God breaking us of the all to0 Episcopalian tendency to love our buildings in the wrong way, not as transitory and convenient and often beautiful places of worship, but instead as “the house of God” with all of the expectation of permanence that that entails.

So I agree that we must be always ready to take from the hand of God what God is offering, right then, and not to batter it away with our own assumptions about what God is capable of handing out.  However, there are some points that I would like to address with Shepherd’s view that I think are of some concern.

First, there is nothing here about the Imago Dei.  Human beings are made to be particular images of God, not merely tools that are reshaped and recast to be whatever the whim of God might be at any given time.  I am a particular image of God, undergoing the master craftsmanship of the most excellent artisan imaginable.  It is very true that the image that I think I am may not be the image that the great Master has in mind for me, but let there be no mistake, He has an image in mind.  The Lord is not willy-nilly shaping a theologian one day and a pop-star the next.  I am being made into the image of God that God has specifically, uniquely, and eternally in mind for me.  There may be bits that are coming along very well, and God wants them to set, and others which are in need of more water, more Spirit, to be more malleable.  If I try to dampen the first, I am not doing the will of God.

As well, to address a question asked by Two Friars over Twitter (on July 7), this applies in many ways to how we interpret our central doctrines, but not to the truth behind the doctrines.  I was having a conversation the other day with a wonderful friend of mine who is a Roman Catholic Priest.  We were discussing the use of the words “Father” and “Mother” for God.  He was insisting that as Christ taught us to refer to God, so we must continue to do.  Thus, Christ refers specifically to the first person of the Trinity as Father, and we should not change this.

As we discussed it, we turned to the concept of historical context.  The word Jesus used for Father had a particular meaning in His day that did not merely extend only to the generative aspect of the first person of the Trinity to the Second.  Along with it is the idea of nurturing, love, kindness, and goodness.  We know this because of the particularly familiar way of referring to God not simply as “Ab” but as “Abba.”  I suggested that if we want to get to all of the meanings packed up in “Abba” we may, in our present day, especially to cultures where caring fathers are incredibly rare, need to use the word “Mother” as well to convey what is hidden in Christ’s “Abba.”

This must all be done, in my opinion, with a certain level of fear and trembling, for we break with the great traditions of the Church when we do so.  Yet, for the needs of those who have never known a father, but have had the steady rock of a mother, the Truth of Christ may truly abide in such language.

And thus there are things we must take a posture of clay about, but we must not be malleable in our affirmation of that truth packed in Christ’s teachings, and in the mysterious Triune God who stands behind them, speaking through them.  We must not mince words that this Jesus, the Jewish Rabbi who looks nothing like our Aryan Jesus displayed in so many churches, is still the God of the Universe, incarnate and hypostatically united, God and Man.  For these are the feet of iron which keep us from crumbling.  These teachings, infinitely expressible in the tongues of men and women throughout the ages, are solid foundation of Christian faith, hope, and love.  To be men and women of clay is good, but to have feet of clay, as scripture has shown us, is to be very poorly made.