Rant On Proposition 8

November 9, 2008

At the same time as the presidential election, the state of California voted on Proposition 8 – whether or not to amend the state constitution by adding, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Doing so passed.

Now I recognize that this issue is quite contentious in my native Christian circles. The widely-respected Focus on the Family, (though even writing the name makes me cringe) using language like states being “vulnerable to pro-homosexual forces” and warning us that “the Senate in 1996 came within a single vote of passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have wreaked havoc on American culture. This legislation would have made sexual orientation a protected class equivalent to racial minorities under federal civil rights laws.” That made me feel quite enraged, Mr. Dobson, if that’s what you want, but somehow not at the “homosexual activists”.

This reddit comment made a better point, but still not quite where I would place my views:

I am an evangelical Christian … Personally, I do believe that the practice of homosexuality is morally wrong. I also believe most abortions are wrong. At the same time, I do not believe that it is the government’s prerogative to legislate on these matters except insofar as there are scientific or otherwise objective (i.e. not moral or religious) grounds for said legislation. If demonstrable harm to society results from a certain practice, generally that’s a good reason to restrict or outlaw it. Until that is shown, however, I will not speak against the government recognizing civil unions between people regardless of what I believe the moral status of that union is. Marriage is indeed a religious institution and I believe that the government’s choice to recognize that institution as having civil ramifications is a good one. Who am I, and for that matter, who are religious organizations in general, to say that the government cannot or should not also recognize other unions in the same way?

However, I question this person’s assumptions that (1) the government acts, or ought to act objectively, and (2) the domain of religious organizations stops where government begins.

Rather, some observations:

  • There are many generally accepted laws that fall short of enforcing Christian “values”. For instance, it is not illegal to conceive a child out of wedlock, although most Christians I know would say doing so is immoral.
  • There is no one set of “values” that all Christians hold. For instance, according to the Pew Forum, even on the hot-button issue of abortion, 24% of evangelicals say abortion should be “legal in most cases”.
  • I wish to challenge the concept of “values” altogether. I would define such as moral conclusions. Would not the route taken be of more interest? I also have a huge amount of pent-up distaste at groups such as those lead by Dobson, which use the concept to make it morally unacceptable to disagree.

I thus am not afraid to say I would have voted against Proposition 8, had I been a Californian.

My original train of thought would be that marraige ought to lie outside the state’s domain. However, there are things that only the state can provide that are beneficial to married life, such as visitation rights in hospitals.

Rather, I think that since the state needs to get involved, it ought not to care who marries. I pay taxes, regardless of whether I am Christian, Muslim or Hindu. I am allowed to use the roads, regardless of my gender or sexual orientation. In the same vein, if the marriage must be a state “service” (for lack of better word), it ought to be disinterested in who I am.

Also, I see no pragmatic reason the state should care. I don’t feel allowing homosexuals to marry would endanger marriage at all, especially in light that divorce is legal and common, even in evangelical circles, (13% are divorced, not including those who have remarried, according to the Pew Forum) which is by all accounts, incredibly destructive. Should I ever get married, (cue Ryan: ha ha-ha ha) I would find divorce much more “devaluing” (if indeed I was to care) than allowing a gay person to visit their partner when they are about to die.

Perhaps if people wanted something worthwhile to complain about, officially changing the spelling of “marriage” would help a lot more.


Something that annoyed me today

November 5, 2008

Over near where I live, there has been a national news story about a missing 15-year-old named Brandon Crisp. Apparently he ran away after a spat about his Xbox, which caused Microsoft to post reward money for his whereabouts. Despite very thorough searching, he managed to elude discovery. (though apparently unintentionally) The public around here has been very involved with the story.

Anyhow, today he was found dead. This has been given great weight in news coverage, and it disturbed many people considerably after it was told at school. There seems to be a sense of great tragedy attached to this whole incident, especially now as it has ended, in the words of the media, “in the worst way possible.”

In nearly unrelated news, about a month ago, buried among the rest of the inane and asinine States election coverage was this – where now President-elect Obama promised that “we will kill Bin Laden” during one of the debates, designed to woo voters.

So my question now is, what should make one person’s death such a tragedy as to make people related only by proximity tear up, while another’s would be celebrated?

I think that we have a perception that a runaway teenager is innocent, and victimized by their own poor decisions or context; on the other hand, we see bin-Laden as deserving of death because he is a terrorist.

As badly as this may come across, I do not think that this distinction is justified. Bin Laden, no matter what he may have orchestrated, isn’t any more deserving of death than someone perceived as an young, innocent victim of circumstance.

However, if there are any news stories at all about communities in mourning over bin Laden’s death, if he is caught and inevitably then executed, I shall be surprised to the utmost.


On Writing, Speech, and Meaning

November 5, 2008

I have been reading some articles on the relation of writing and speech of late. One concept seemed especially interesting/relevant.

  • “arbitrariness of the sign” and arche-writing: written words don’t necessarily reference anything. If we try to trace what words mean, we need to use other words, so we never arrive at a definitive referent to a word. On a deeper level, this concerns the fundamental disconnect between subjective experiences in different subjects. This is discussed mostly by Derrida.

However, I find this doesn’t apply to speech. When speech is used, there is no concern that words have no referent, as the context of speech is always accessible, as it is imminent. If I am speaking, I can if necessary, produce physical examples of what I am talking about, if appropriate, and resolve ambiguities of that kind. I am accessible for my audience to ask me questions and clarify what I am talking about.

I see this happens because there is an overlap of context for the speaker and audience. The speaker is bringing their unique subjective experience, and communicating it into the context that the speaker and audience share. This doesn’t happen in writing because the audience’s exact context is inaccessible for the author, as the work can be given to groups with no relation to the text’s original intended audience.

So then it can be said that the relationship of the speaker and audience, by sharing their immediate context (at the very least), is what guarantees meaning to the words spoken.

I believe this can be exploited in literary interpretation to guarantee its meaning also, and I see this as already being done. By understanding the author’s context, the relationship established by such is re-established, is brought back alive, and meaning is given to the otherwise arbitrary, unresolvable symbols of writing.

In a broader sense, I am seeing that:

  • Subjectivity brings isolation
  • For there to be meaning, this isolation must be defeated.
  • Thus, subjectivity needs to die.
  • This is not possible because (1) the subjective can’t just go away, and (2) we can only interface with the world through senses, which are inherently subjective.
  • Another solution is to merge the subjectives of multiple people.
  • It is thus in this sort of relationship that meaning is derived.

I have also found the two senses of ‘meaning’ to be very related:

  • Meaning as in a referent to text in reality
  • Meaning as in rationale for life (referent to metanarrative of reality)

This is evident especially in fields like Biblical hermeneutics, as such texts seek to explain the metanarrative while being texts themselves.


On Truth

November 2, 2008

At the most basic level, I think truth describes how a statement relates to reality. This has the basic assumption that reality can be known somehow, as the concept of truth is unnecessary and worthless otherwise. However, it is just as evident that reality is a difficult thing to grasp. Kant noticed that the “thing-in-itself” isn’t accessible to us except through our senses, and I am inclined to agree with him. This makes discerning what is true or not with the preceding definition rather difficult, as we can’t even know if our senses correspond at all to reality. Again, I assume that our senses are at least somewhat accurate, as a concept of truth is meaningless otherwise.

There are different senses of the word “truth”. I am less concerned here with logical truth as that which relates to belief. Asserting “Socrates is a man” may have a truth-value, but likely doesn’t concern anyone’s belief system much. These are related closely, but logical truth concerns epistemology, not my focus here of religion-type belief.

I would like to propose that these sort of truths can be classified into two categories, depending on whether they can be verified personally or not. For instance, I can verify, to a reasonable degree, “All people die”, even without much effort. If I was a bit more evil, I could make even more certain. However, it is impossible to verify a statement like “there is an afterlife”, and still be able to contribute to the literature.

I would also propose that statements of religious truth come in coherent systems, rather than being scattered all over reality. It is rather useless if I hold, as a fundamental truth, “the sky is blue”, unless I believe other things that pertain, for instance, to the origin or nature of the sky which makes it so; truth isn’t valuable except as part of this sort of system. Such a thing has been called a ‘world-view’.

Because isolated truths aren’t worthwhile, truths are considered together in these world-views. Religions are comprised of coherent world-views containing many co-dependant truth-claims. While it is possible to adopt for oneself only part of one of these, any religion wanting to convince anyone of its truth-claims must show that it is thoroughly true, with both its verifiable and non-verifiable parts.

For instance, I don’t believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Before I would accept the FSM’s truth-claim that the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world, which is non-verifiable, I would need a good reason as to how the Flying Spaghetti Monster predated the invention of spaghetti. Because I am unconvinced when I can verify its truth-claim, I find no reason to believe it about that which I cannot be certain of.

The most applicable application(!) of this for me is Christianity. Christianity makes a number of truth-claims, often what I feel is too many, and believing that Christian truth is worthwhile and beneficial for everyone, I would like to see a Christian truth-claim that is convincing.

However, I think my own argument needs to be undermined when discussing Christian truth. I would like to argue the (admittedly speculative) point that Christians can’t claim truth in these sense at all.

Claiming that one has ‘the truth’ is incredibly strong, and I firstly don’t think anyone can say this rightfully, and secondly think it more of a claim to superiority. I see it as an assertion my judgment is innately superior than yours, as you have chosen wrongly whereas I have not. Whatever I experienced to arrive at my conclusion is more important than however you got to yours.

I believe such claims can rather only rightfully be made by God himself.

One could object that since we have the Bible, given by God, we have The Truth accessible. However, the vast majority of the Bible is not so suitable as a book for quoting The Truth out of – the Bible is not a list of true statements, rules, or anything of the sort. Rather, it is a narrative, both in content and in overarching themes. This article by N.T. Wright (which deals with the related issue of Biblical authority, and is a very good read), put it nicely:

… How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative? It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you. But what would you do if, instead, he began ‘Once upon a time…’?

I think God, by doing this, is rather relating his experience (if God has something of that sort), that of reality, to us. The truth is God’s, he alone can understand it, and he alone can give any comprehension of it. And going even further, I don’t think we can say truth even exists independent of relationship with God.

Therefore, I don’t think we can say to ourselves, or anyone else, that “I have the truth from God”. Rather, I think we ought to point people to relationship with God to find what knowledge of his truth he gives. However, this is not to say that other people can’t help one listen or interpret it.


Thanksgiving (see Gloating)

October 13, 2008

Today being Thanksgiving here in Canada, there has been more discussion about our abundance of material things, and how we ought to thank God for giving them to us.

As well obvious, there is lack of almost nothing here. Many families are celebrating their good fortune with dinners of unusual size. Even the homeless in the city are well-fed. Though things aren’t exactly as they ought to be, saying so is being overly picky.

At the same time, I read an article yesterday, describing people in Haiti that are so poor as to literally eat baked mud, for lack of anything else.

However, I would propose that those with excess have been given the greater problem, for they, empowered with wealth, cannot let things be, as it is the epitome of injustice to withhold another’s necessity. There is something disturbing about eating huge dinners while other people eat mud.

And sometimes I fear thankfulness is even a celebration of inequality. Perhaps an analogy would help my explanation:

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up; it grew up with him and his children. It ate his same food and drink from his cup, and it would lie in his arms, as it was like a daughter to him.

The rich man, living next door, held a great feast one day. There was foodstuffs of all kinds, and the meat of choice was lamb. Seven lambs he slaughtered for he and his friends to eat with relish. Now seven lambs were too many for the banqueters; there was a great quantity of meat left over. The rich man fed it to his dogs.

The poor man, insulted greatly by the rich man’s sense of worth, looked on this with overwhelming disgust. The rich man and his friends conversed about how glad they were not to be a poor like him.

It troubles me that we put emphasis on being thankful alone. It seems like another way of us asserting how much more blessed we are than those Haitians, and therefore how much more favoured in God’s eyes we must be. We eat fancy meals to convince ourselves we have excess wealth to make ourselves feel assured of our worth. We thank God in prayer that he spared us from being like the rest of the world, being his chosen fortunate ones.

To show then that we don’t have this lack of humility, I believe that it is very necessary to live in a generous way. Living generously then means that I am not the prime beneficiary of my work – I work to better the lives of others, and afterward use what I need to maintain myself. With such an understanding of resources, I am not morally trapped by having much, because it is not primarily for me.


Re: A Salvific Paradox

September 1, 2008

The solution to this can be rather elegant.

The problem with the argument lies in the presumption that one’s salvation can be denied, exchanged, etc. at one’s will. The person’s salvation needs to belong to them.

However, this is not the case. Salvation is God’s, and it belongs to him even when bestowed on a person. Thus it is being rather presumptuous to wish to do whatever one wants with it. The saved person has no intrinsic right to their salvation.

Thus, as it is impossible for anyone to barter with their salvific status, one should not be guilty about not using it to obtain salvation for others. One may as well want to trade their ability to fly so that someone else might have a purple unicorn.

Incidentally, this gives the same philosophical benefit that Duckett wanted out of his argument.


A Salvific Paradox

September 1, 2008

I stumbled upon Craig Duckett’s excellent site a few days ago. Most of the material of interest there pertains to his rejection of Christianity, maintaining there a list of reasons he is not a Christian, and the story that got him to this point.

While I disagree with his conclusions, one of his arguments I find rather perplexing and vital:

  1. Only if one is a Christian will they enjoy eternal bliss in heaven. Others will suffer eternally in hell.
  2. A Christian is called to live a life of love, following e.g. Jn 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (ESV)
  3. Thus an ethical Christian must lay down their eternal life for their condemned friends.

Duckett had such a friend, in fact many, perish in the unsaved state. M was one of his best friends who died in a car crash. His expression of point 3. is this:

Dear Heavenly Father:

Although I am content with the knowledge of You and feel the presence of Your love in my heart, I could never be content in Heaven knowing my friend M was suffering in Hell. I could, however, be content in Hell knowing M was in Heaven. So, God, here’s the deal. Let me take M’s place in Hell. I know Jesus was supposed to do this, but He didn’t do this if M is in Hell. I know what I’m asking and I know precisely what this means. I’m asking this with open eyes. Because, don’t you see, God? How could I accept Heaven with M in Hell? I could not! It would be Hell for me. But I could accept Hell knowing M was in Heaven. I would rather suffer an eternity of physical torture than to live with the mental anguish of knowing my friend was in Hell while I enjoyed the fruits of Heaven. How could I enjoy anything? What kind of person would that make me? And M doesn’t even have to know how it was done, Lord. The deal that was made. He never has to know what I did for him, that I traded places with him, that I took on his punishment. I don’t need acknowledgment or recognition or thanks. I don’t need anything from him. I just want to save him! Please, God! Please! Allow me to take M’s place in Hell! Please take back my Salvation and give it to M!

But he later realizes even this is not enough. He summarizes the argument himself well in his expression of it:

Dear God:

I realize that it isn’t enough that I am willing to take a friend’s place in Hell. As hard a decision as this may be, it is still relatively easy since it is offered on behalf of a friend and loved one.

On the off-chance that all are not saved and that some will be condemned to Hell I must be willing in my heart to take each of their places as well, even that of my worst enemy. Since I am only one person, it is impossible for me to offer to take all their places. If Jesus already accomplished this, if all are saved, then glory! Hallelujah! He is truly the savior of all mankind. If not, then the only ethical thing for me to do is to return my salvation, to reject it on moral grounds, as long as anybody is condemned to Hell. In other words, God, if even one person is damned then consider me damned as well. What kind of person would I be to accept heaven knowing others are suffering in Hell? The only ‘Christian’ thing for me to do is to reject my salvation, to hand it back to You, and forfeit my place in Heaven.
If there is a Hell, then it would be wrong of me to consent to Heaven while others suffer. If there is a Hell, then I want no part of Heaven. If all are not saved, then take back my salvation and send me to Hell with them. It would be immoral and shameful of me to accept Heaven under these conditions. It would be worse then the worst sin imaginable. I would have proven myself the very worst kind of person. No, send me to Hell as well. It would be the only way I could live with myself.

Even though I don’t agree with his interpretation of ethics (as he is essentially wanting to take on God in ethical argument), he has a point, a serious one, that uncovers a paradox:

  1. If I am a Christian, (at least begin to) love everyone as myself. As a Christian, I am saved into eternal bliss.
  2. If I love everyone as myself, this includes the unsaved. But in love, their eternal suffering is mine too. Therefore, either:
    • I ask to be condemned with them, and if that isn’t granted,
    • I am in eternal compassionate anguish even if I am in heaven.

Is there a resolution to this, or am I within the wrong paradigm?


Psalm Translations Suck

August 25, 2008

I am disliking more and more the way the Psalms are mangled in our Bible translations.

When working with the Psalms in the Hebrew, one feature that stands out distinctly is a sense of rawness, not crude, but brutal and unfiltered honesty. The psalms are the direct outpourings of the hearts of the poets, and carry force and depth because of this.

However, this is lost in many translations in their smoothing of the text.

For example, we have Psalm 70, written by David. The content points to him being in quite some distress because he is being hunted down.

The first phrase of the Hebrew can be translated (and unusually directly) like this:

God, to deliver me,
Lord, to help me,
hurry up!

We can easily observe several poetic features which are present in the Hebrew (even if you can’t read it):

  • The names of God come first in each clause.
  • The parallelism between the first two lines is really, really obvious as they share the verb.
  • The tone is simple and direct. There are only five Hebrew words here.
  • The reader can see it as somewhat close to what they would say in such a situation. It isn’t Shakespeare.

But in these areas I have grievances with the translations I have around me.

My preferred translation, the ESV, puts David’s plea as follows:

Make haste, O God, to deliver me!
O Lord, make haste to help me!

The parallelism is preserved by keeping the verb constant, but this does sound (almost exactly) like Shakespeare. (read it aloud!) I think the eloquence harms this much – it sounds practiced rather than brutally honest, and the recognizability is completely lost.

The TNIV says thus:

Hasten, O God, to save me;
come quickly, LORD, to help me.

I actually don’t mind this one as much. The verb coming first helps the tone stay urgent, and the consistent sentence order helps it stay parallel. However, it still isn’t something I could envision myself saying.

And I shall include the Message’s version also:

God! Please hurry to my rescue! God, come quickly to my side!

I really have no idea where Peterson got those verbs from. Disregarding that (if possible), it is very recognizable and east to identify with.

I know I’m being very picky here, but because most people need a translation to interface with the Scriptures, it is so important that it be transparent and enjoyable.


Some Egypt Videos

August 24, 2008

Visiting St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai:

Wadi Natron Coptic monastery; includes a great but completely incomprehensible example of Coptic Chant at the end:

Series on (unofficial) persecution of Christians in Egypt, again with some Coptic Chant at the end of the last video:


Reflections on Sacrament

August 24, 2008

Today was Communion once a gain at church; I recently gained the privilege of participating in such.

In my readings of Catholic theologians in my look at Catholicism and RO, sacrament has a meaning for me perhaps beyond that mentioned in the Christian Reformed forms – sacrament is the place where the physical and transcendent are intermingled.

This mirrors the balance in the place of the church. The church gathers for things like prayer and sermons and Bible study, but needs also to be involved in meeting the physical needs of its surrounding community and elsewhere. With too much emphasis on either side, the church becomes warped.

And this, in turn, is like the peculiar makeup of human beings themselves, a mixture of transcendent and physical.

Thus, sacraments, especially Communion, emphasize the odd tensions in all of these. Communion is a remembrance of Christ’s death, a way of tangibly experiencing him physically, while he is in a transcendent place. It is an expression of union and solidarity with the church of all times in all places, as one Body of Christ that together celebrates the Sacrament. It also expresses the bond between people, as exists in both planes. It fulfills the participant’s inner need by being a very human activity, existing in both planes.

Quite interesting.


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