Friday, February 06, 2009

Out On a Limb

So my pastor and my dad have both expressed concern that my meandering thought life is leading me to destruction. My pastor said it's only 20 percent of the time. And my dad, I think it's only when he reads this blog. Both of them seem to see my thinking as proclamations of defiance in the face of trusted authority. What seems to confuse them both is that they associate my analytical process with a lack of faith/hope, and cynicism or a skeptical attitude. I suppose this is because they perceive that most people who question their religious doctrine as openly and deeply as I do have a cynical personality or a 'bad' motive. They have lost hope, they ridicule faith, etc. I don't know if this perception of others who have traveled this thought-path is accurate or not, but I know it certainly is not the case for me. Both my pastor and my dad know me well enough to know that I'm not a cynical or angry person, and I think that's causing some confusion for them. I think it would cause confusion for anyone of great faith who sees a fellow believer deeply questioning and even rejecting some formerly shared beliefs.

It's human nature to assume that those who disagree with you do so because they lack intelligence, wisdom, experience, etc., or because of some ill temper. The purpose of this article is to attack that natural human assumption. To show that someone like me can be making these sorts of radical statements of belief or skepticism without being a Skeptic-with-a-capitol-S. As in: skepticism is not what defines or directs my thought life or religious sensibilities. I am in fact the opposite of skeptical. I am full of faith and hope. I want to believe in the Christian story. I find it beautiful and useful. What has kept me from fully embracing that story (its current orthodox rendition at least) is my inability to swallow logical paradox. That is the sole motivating force behind my exploration of other thought patterns and philosophies that are currently rejected by much of modern Christendom.

Now let me try to illustrate how someone like me, (Faithful, hopeful, desiring to be under some authority.) can say some of the things I've said on this blog. (i.e. I don't believe Hell can be eternal, and I can't make a doctrinal stand on the Trinity.)

The reason can be summed up in this illustration.

Here is a picture of two trees that represent the ways we justify our beliefs. When someone asks us why we believe x,y, or z to be true, we will justify that belief on one of these two branches. Well, actually, we will justify our belief by placing weight one or both of the branches in a mixed degree. The idea is that there are truth-claim categories such as Physical, Psychological, Religious, etc. and all of them can be placed on a continuum of consensus. By consensus I mean the broad agreement of all people in all time. For example, I think about 99.999% of people throughout history have agreed that humans exist in a physical world. Whereas about .00001% of people throughout history agree that Joseph Smith was a prophet that God spoke perfect revelation to. I'm choosing to keep my definition of Consensus as broad as possible to try to avoid the particularities of our time and place.

I chose Consensus as one of two gages that people use for justifying our beliefs. The other is Faith. What that Faith is placed in, is of course highly variable. And I've argued before that previous to faith in any sort of authority comes faith in yourself to choose that authority. But none of that is relevant to this discussion. The point is that the further you travel out onto the limb of Consensus, the more weight you must place on the limb of Faith. It could be faith in a religious worldview, a humanist ideology, a motivational guru, the network news, your own intelligence, or whatever.

When you and I are trying to justify a particular belief, we will use one of these two limbs to base the argument on. "Look, everyone knows that you can't breathe underwater!" (Consensus) Or, "I've seen some powerful evidence that all planets expand over time." (Faith that Neil Adams is correct.) "I don't think anyone can move objects with their mind." (Consensus) Or, "Jesus is God" (Faith in a theological tradition and specific interpretive historical analysis.) These examples are near the 1s and the 10s on the scale on my chart. Very much one or the other. Consensus OR Faith. But MOST truth-claims lie in-between, relying on Consensus AND Faith. I'll show this with the examples listed on the illustration.

  1. I exist. Most people in most cultures in most times accept this idea without hesitation or thought. Descartes famously declared proof for this statement in his pithy, "I think, therefore I am." Hardcore Buddhism denies that individual selves exist, but I think that very few Buddhists actually live according to that precept. While there is almost universal consensus on the issue, I still think there is the slightest possibility that "I" could be wrong about it. So I think it requires an ever-so-slight amount of Faith to accept it. As you can see on the diagram, "I exist" sits on the thickest part of the Consensus limb and the thinnest part of the Faith limb.
  2. There is a physical universe. Again, while denied by some religious and philosophical traditions, the vast majority of people agree with this. It takes very little Faith in anything but your senses that a physical world exists. Very few of us walk off cliffs or jump into fires because we 'know' they exist and would affect us in a negative way.
  3. Our senses give us accurate information. Now, emerging research over the past hundred years or so has been eroding this foundational precept. (Such as Gestalt psychology discussed in my last post.) Quantum physics theories make it even worse. BUT, and this is a big but: in our day-to-day lives, we all operate under the assumption that everyone sees the same red stoplight that we do, (But there are exceptions.) and if we smell smoke, there is probably a fire. (But there are exceptions.) So while we need to have some faith that our senses are accurately reflecting our world, the experience of living with other beings that confirm our senses can lull us into a false sense of security. So we tend to rely on them even in cases where they should be doubted. (Optical illusions, mirages, hallucinations, and a variety of Gestalt principals that can lead to bigoted attitudes.)
  4. Moral claims. This is where things start to get really nuanced. Because there are many, many moral claims that have a very broad consensus, such as 'Don't kill.', 'Don't steal.', etc. But this should not fool us into assuming that ALL moral claims are universally accepted. Being in a time and a place where women have rights, and slavery is considered evil, should illustrate this well. We modern First World inhabitants are in the minority on these issues. If a time-traveler from 500 A.D. visited us, they would be shocked by our crazy moralistic attitudes on these things. And we would demand that they follow our moral code. Many modern Muslims find our entire societal structure to be highly immoral. Our economic style, governmental structure, dietary customs, etc. This is why I put this category near the middle. Some moral claims are nearly universal, but many are very culturally specific.
  5. Aesthetic claims. Honestly, I don't know if this should be before or after moral claims on the Consensus limb. There are definitely some very observable, repeatable human reactions to specific aesthetic stimuli. The Golden Ratio shows that appreciation for specific proportions are nearly universal. But culture plays such a HUGE part in determining an individual's aesthetic sensibilities. Most people in my generation in my country can't stand opera. But that is an art form that countless generations in many nations developed to an extremely high degree. So much work and cultural capitol went into cultivating opera that it's a real shame so many modern people actually find it horrible. And I'm sure most opera aficionados would recoil even more so at listening to my favorite music. So making a claim such as, "Opera is the most beautiful form of expression!" has to rely on Faith (in the superiority of your –and your culture's- aesthetic sense) more than on Consensus. I think the current modern art culture actually operates on the assumption that Consensus is bad, and Faith in the taste of their subculture is the primary measure of justification.
  6. Political claims. How people ought to organize ourselves and build our culture is a question with as many answers as there are people. Every nuance has some reason in the individual's mind. Because every political premise is based on multiple assertions that can be answered multiple ways. Are all humans equal? In what way? Does equality mean they should have equal rights? Should the smartest be the leaders? Or the most popular? How should religion and government interact? What should the state do, and what is the citizen's responsibility? And there are a million more questions, and all have a million possible answers. So when someone says "The Democrats have it all wrong and the Republicans have it all right.", or "Anarchy is the only fair system!" You know there is a lack of thought going on. The reason that I didn't put political claims further out on the limb is because we have a long, detailed history of how citizens have fared under different government types. So there is some hard data that can be pointed to and used as an example of what has worked and what has failed. The problem being that there are a trillion factors at work in any society, and the government is only part of those factors. So just because Communism has lead to drastic failures and human rights violations in every place it's been tried, some other factors were surly involved, so you can't completely blame the states.
  7. Religious claims. There are about 10 major religions currently in existence, and many thousands of minor ones. Take history into account and the number is much higher. How can anyone claim universal Consensus on a religious claim? Clearly, Faith is the major source of justification for all religious claims. "I know Jesus is God because He said so and I believe it!" I'm going to come back to this category of claims in a moment.
  8. Personal revelation. Every prophet and most leaders have to justify their claims based on their own private interpretation of something. Whether it's a voice in their head, a hunch, or a reading of the stock market, Faith in their ability to interpret something is key. Only time can tell whether a personal revelation is accurate or not. And one's track record is used to add further credence, or Faith, to their claim.


The main thing I want to point out is that words get more nebulous the further you go out on the Consensus limb. They become vaguer and more open to interpretation. When we talk about morality or politics, and say "the greatest good for the greatest number" one has to ask how 'good' is defined. When one is in the field of art criticism, and reads descriptive words like 'transcendent' or 'mundane', these can be interpreted many different ways to mean many different specific things. Most people 'get' what is being said in a general sense, but that does not mean the words couldn't carry different connotations or nuance than what was read into them. Then, further out there we have a religious claim, which is pretty much a giant ball of nebulous words. "There is no god but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet." Can mean about one million things depending on how you interpret each of those words. What is a god? What is Allah? Who was Mohammad? What is a prophet? How are we to respond to a prophet's message? Is this claim backed up by anything further down the branch of Consensus?

How about "All is One."? All what? Matter, space, time, something beyond these things? One what? Is 'all' a bunch of parts of One? And on it can go.

"Jesus is God." So here is one I've raised all my questions about previously. And my problem is not that I deny this statement, it is only that in trying to apprehend solid definitions I found too many potential answers to be able to give the statement 'concrete' meaning. See, language is a bunch of symbols to begin with. We can all agree that making our throat, voice box, tongue, mouth and lungs produce the sound "apple" is symbolic for that particular type of fruit. An apple can be verified, quantified, and despite the differences between the varieties, most people can recognize one when they see it. But once you leave the realm of inanimate objects, the symbolic nature of language becomes increasingly vague and requires additional symbols (words) or context to help a listener triangulate some sort of meaning from the combination of symbols. (Good writers –unlike me- can use a minimum amount of words to express complex concepts.) You could picture this process like the classic Milton Bradley game, Battleship.

In Battleship, you have to guess where your opponent's boats are. You give the coordinates (A-9, J-2, etc.) and if you guessed right you put a red dot on your map, if you guessed wrong you put a white dot. As your map fills up with more and more white dots you hone in on your enemy's boats.

Now, in a real conversation, most of those 'white dot's' of non-meaning are filled in for you by context, body language, etc. If I say, "I'm going to kill you." But it was right after you killed my character in a game, and we are both smiling and laughing, and we have a history of a comfortable relationship, you would have a pretty good idea that I'm not actually threatening your life. You wouldn't have to feel me out by interviewing me with questions such as: "So are we close friends?" "Are you angry right now?" "Are we playing a game?" etc. Also, the possible meanings of "I'm going to kill you!" are fairly limited. So the map of possibilities would be smaller than the standard 100 square Battleship map. Let's say it's only a 5x5 grid with 25 squares. The boats in Battleship vary from 2 to 5 squares in length, and since the possible meanings of my utterance are pretty small, let's use the smallest boat in the game: the Patrol Boat, with only 2 holes. (symbolizing two facets of meaning) So given the established context of a friendly videogame duel, let's ask two possible questions that will help find the true meaning of the statement. First, "Are you actually angry?". D-1 (I'm randomly assigning these squares.) Miss: white peg. Second: "So you're totally joking?" A-5. Miss: white peg. Our game of Battleship looks like this:

Knowing those extremes are not the full meaning of the statement, we can begin to narrow in on it. "We're still having fun?" B-4. Hit: red peg. Now we have part of the true meaning. But there is more boat to sink! "Are you a bit frustrated?" B-3. Hit: red peg. We have sunk-the-Patrol-Boat / fully-comprehended-the-meaning-of-"I'm going to kill you!".

Given the complexity of the human mind and communication this two-part meaning is probably over-simplified, but hopefully you get where I'm going with this. I'll do one more example before I tie this into religious claims.

Let's say we are reading a page from a book where Sam says to Bob, "I love you." And you don't know who Bob is, or Sam's relationship to him, or the character's tone of voice, or their facial expressions, or the preceding conversation, or their views on love, or, or, or… you would have to shoot in the dark to guess what Sam meant by those simple words. Imagine the true meaning of those words (I love you.) as a Battleship (That's the four-hit boat) hidden somewhere on the author's side of the game board. Now I'll use a normal 100 square board since we don't know the context. You guess coordinates with questions for the author.

For the B-10 square you could ask, "Is Sam a female?" No. Miss: White peg. Ok, so probably not a romantic exclamation.

For the 2-F square, you could ask, "Is Bob related to Sam?" No. So you can rule out familial affection as the True Meaning of the statement.

Here's what the game board looks like so far.

For the sake of time, let's say we get lucky and Hit with this question on C-7: "Is Bob smiling?". Yes. So with that Hit, we have more clues to build a thesis. Bob was probably not being sarcastic, or rehearsing a play. We know now that any adjacent square can be another Hit, so we guess B-7: "Is Bob joking?" No. Another white peg.


But now we know the True Meaning/Battleship must be either horizontal on the C-line, or extend vertically along the 7-line.

D-7: "Is it brotherly love?" Yes. Hit. Now we know the boat extends downwards and can pretty easily fill in the rest of the Battleship/True Meaning.

E-7: "Is Bob grateful to Sam?" Yes. Hit.

F-7: "Did Sam save Bob's life?" Yes. Hit. Let's skip how I made that leap and for the sake of brevity, let's leave it at that and move on to applying this metaphor to religion.


Let's look at the theological doctrine that states: "Jesus is God." It's based on several verses, mostly statements that Jesus is reported to have said. I'll pick one of them and do my Battleship thing to it. Let's look at John 10:30, a simple enough utterance from Jesus that made the Jewish establishment upset enough to pick up stones to kill Him. He said: "I and the Father are one." (NIV) "I and my Father are one." (KJV) "I am one with the Father." (CEV) In Greek: "ἐγὼ καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ἕν ἐσμεν."

Like my first example: "I'm going to kill you!", we have a good idea about the context of the statement. So that fact goes towards keeping the game board / possible meanings small. Like the second example: "I love you!" we don't know what sort of body language or facial expressions Jesus was making, and we are working from a document rather than experiencing the moment. So that fact goes towards making the game board / possible meanings large. Unlike both examples the statement in question was uttered 2,000 years ago. And it was said in a different language. And it was stated in a very different culture. All of these factors mean the possible meanings / game board should be huuuuge. But I will grant that a LOT of work has gone into understanding the world and time and culture that Jesus inhabited. So it's not like we are completely shooting in the dark here. I think the biggest clarifying agent we have on our side is the Old Testament which expresses the thought-world that His culture embraced. Jesus quoted it often, and ties Himself and His work to it frequently. We also have a lot of good source material from His culture that is not related to Christianity. Jews were very active and wrote a lot of stuff contemporary with Jesus. These are all inroads towards clarifying this statement. Although we need to also remember that Jesus was not a typical Jewish prophet. (as much as the secular and liberal Biblical scholars would like to put Him in that box.) He was a part of His time, but also very much outside of it. He was brining in new ideas and concepts that radically challenged the thought-world of His people. So we can't paint Him as a typical Jewish teacher, but I think we modern conservative Christians tend to swing too hard toward the other extreme of disembodying His words and deeds from the context of His time, place and culture. This, I think, gives us a false security that our English translation of Him can be easily ascertained, as one can clearly see the motives and meaning of our favorite book or movie character.

Let's look at some other roadblocks. Whoever heard, passed on, and ultimately wrote down this statement was undeniably biased. (As everyone is.) They clearly believed and loved Jesus, and had developed doctrine about Him, translating His acts into a coherent story. That story that grew into Christianity may or may not be an accurate one. (I believe that you can disconnect the efficacy of Christ's work from our interpretation of it.) So, unless you start with the premise that every word of the original manuscripts of what would become our Bible were absolutely accurate representations of what was actually said, (an impossibility unless Jesus actually spoke the words in Greek.) we have to grow the possible meanings / game board to account for the possibility of a biased misinterpretation. We also have the problem that we don't actually have the original manuscript. We have a copy of a copy of a copy, etc. meaning there could be simple human error introduced at any of those stages. (Yes I know the story of how exacting and excruciating the copy process is believed to have been in Jewish communities.) Additionally, we have 2,000 years of doctrine evolution that informs the 'simple meaning' of this phrase. We are on the other side of some pretty major developments in human thinking patterns, such as those brought on by the renaissance, the enlightenment, scientific revolution, industrial revolution, modernism, the technological revolution, and into the beginning of an information age. To blithely assume that we can get into the head of a man on the other side of all these things seems dangerous to me.

In my estimation, based on all these factors, it seems to me like the possible meanings / game board would need to be at least 100 x 100 squares. But I don't have the time to make more art, so I'll leave it at a 10 x10 grid. Plus, leaving it this size will be more inclusive for those who hold to Biblical inerrancy. So we'll just ignore the possibility of manuscript corruption, biased interpretation of the original authors/story tellers, and any sort of lingual peculiarities that could muck with the translation. So I'll put a Battleship (representing what Jesus really, truly meant) on the grid (representing all possible interpretations.) No wait. Actually I won't. Because putting a boat on the board where we could see it would contradict the point of this metaphor.

My analogy has a bit of a hiccup here, because unlike my previous examples, I don't know how 'deep' or multifaceted Jesus' statement was. But this does bring up the fact that the larger the boat / how complex the meaning is, the fewer wrong answers / misses there will be on the grid. So "I am one with the Father." Could be a two-hole boat, or a 50-hole boat. We just can't know how complex He intended the statement to be. Was He layering multiple meanings? Was He weaving in traditional understandings while simultaneously upending those understandings as He seemed to do so often? Could He have been speaking poetically, metaphorically, meaning to illicit intangible emotional responses rather than logical deductive responses? Well, since we don't know, I'll just use the four-hole Battleship, that way I don't have to make more art.

Now the whole point of my carefully crafted analogy is to show that it is unreasonable to insist that there was one meaning that Jesus could have had, and that we know it. There are just too many squares on the game board to make that claim. Unless there is a way to exclude most of those squares. And this is exactly what my conservative, evangelical, orthodox brothers and sisters who are very sure that Jesus meant, "I am 100% human and 100% God." attempt to do. And they do this with a mechanism I will call Utility. As in: "He must have meant –>insert orthodox opinion here<- because every other option doesn't work." The idea that something "doesn't work" is a very malleable concept, open to many interpretations. Which is exactly why it's a great rhetorical devise. Work for what, exactly? Salvation? Can that be measured and confirmed? Work for keeping the institutional church alive? Are we sure that's necessary for God's kingdom to advance? Work for making people behave in a godly manner? How many people do you know that have heterodox views that are more immoral than those in your church? If most heterodox individuals ARE immoral, how can you tie that exclusively to their specific doctrinal beliefs? Because the concept of an idea "working" is so nebulous, I can't accept that as an imperative or proof that an idea is sound.

Another way to rule out squares on the game board / limit the possible meaning, is to claim logical inconsistencies with the rejected possible meanings. The irony is especially heavy with this particular quote, considering the orthodox position is predicated on a paradox. I don't care how you dress up an idea in the robes of religious lingo, a paradox is a contradiction. A equals nonA. That in itself should be enough to cause us to at least consider that maybe, just maybe, Jesus meant something that doesn't contradict. Isn't it worth at least exploring? Well, the problem there is that when you question one foundation stone in the building, all the rest of the building is called into question. But the deep question I have is about how necessary that 'building' even is. (By building I mean the institution of the church.) I think everyone who is passionate about Jesus and His message and work can agree that when He talked about the Kingdom of Heaven, we really want to get as close to that as we can. We want to manifest it in our lives and affect other people with it. The Kingdom of Heaven that Christ describes is an upside-down kingdom, happening here and now in our hearts, minds, and actions. Yet we try to shoehorn it into a very rightside-up institution. We've written dogmas that inform doctrine that inform rules that keep our institutions well-defined and keep people well-defined: in or out. Aw crap, I got totally derailed again!

What was I talking about? Oh right, limiting possible meanings to ensure that one's doctrine is the only possible thing Jesus could have meant. Let's see… I've noted the method of claiming utility, and claiming logic to rule out squares. I'm trying to think what else I've done in the past to defend doctrinal statements… Ah yes. Another way to limit possible meanings is to point out that if Jesus meant y instead of x, then there would be internal inconsistencies within all of scripture. Of course this argument can only exist inside the world of inerrancy. (The view that 100% of our Bible is 100% correct in every way.) While I'm no longer an inerrantist, I still think this method for limiting possible meanings is inadequate even within those strictures. Because even a hardcore inerrantist admits that there is room within his interpretation of scripture for poetry, metaphor, and the like. And so the idea of a "plain meaning" becomes more elusive when that wildcard is in play. Further expanding the possible claims that an inerrantist must face is the fact that there are many different branches of Christianity filled with inerrantists. They all disagree with each other about the "plain meaning" of many passages. So to hang your specific interpretation of Jesus' words on the idea that "This is the only interpretation that can fit within all the rest of Biblical revelation." Is to ignore the fact that all the rest of Biblical revelation is ALSO prone to other interpretations.


So, this is my justification for keeping the Battleship game board wide open. I don't find the arguments of


  1. Utility
  2. Logic Inconsistencies
  3. Internal Inconsistencies
  4. Or "Plain Meaning"

to be convincing enough to make the game board smaller. Thus, I see "I and the Father are one." And all Jesus' similar statements to be a hugely open to interpretation. The practical ramification of this is that I will not make a doctrinal stand on the issue. To do so, seems to me, like making one guess in a game of Battleship and declaring yourself victorious regardless of whether or not you hit your opponent's boat.

What if the reality was more like this?

Now I'm not saying this IS what Jesus meant. And even if I was, all those questions I marked as 'hits' could be pulled apart and reinterpreted! Remember, my whole point is that we CAN'T know what Jesus meant. I'll refresh the reasons now.

  1. Language is symbolic. When we talk about symbols (Such as entities, experiences or events that we have never experienced) its symbolic nature is compounded.
  2. Most words carry different meaning or meanings depending on context, body language, culture, etc.
  3. When multiple words that can carry multiple meanings are used together the number of possible meanings for a statement expands exponentially.
  4. When words are translated part of their meaning gets lost.
  5. When words are old part of their meaning gets lost. (Check out Shakespeare, then multiply that by 3, then add translation after a generation of oral transmission.)
  6. Factor in your own biased desire for the words to mean what you want them to. (Obviously this applies to the ardent secularist as much as to the orthodox faithful.)
  7. Remember that your culture and institutional momentum has indelibly burned a particular interpretation into your mind. And they could be wrong.
  8. Modernist Christian faith in inerrancy could be misplaced.
  9. It's possible that Jesus did not want some or any of His statements to be comprehended.
  10. It's possible that Jesus wanted to be misunderstood. (As He specifically told His disciples.)


C.S. Lewis said about Jesus' claims:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

And I can agree with this. But while also pointing out that what Jesus meant when He said "I am" and "I and the Father are one." Etc. could mean something other than orthodox understanding.

In conclusion, my deepest desire is to be honest about where my Truth Claims come from. To be modest when appropriate, and bold when appropriate. I want to be consistent. I want, of course, to be right. But I know my limits keep me humble about that possibility. I would love for others to follow my lead in laying aside their insistence that they KNOW this or that Truth. Claims that divide Christians from non-Christians, Catholic Christians from Protestant Christians, Evangelical Christians from Mainline Christians, and so on. I would love it if we could soften our resolve to control beliefs with doctrines and lists, and hardened our resolve to influence belief with loving action. This to me is the power of the Kingdom of Heaven, this is what makes me passionate about Jesus. The more we make the Kingdom of Heaven look like the kingdom of man with laws, edicts, impressive buildings, walls, exclusion, and the like, the smaller it gets.

I think it would help if we all recognized that we are out on a limb.





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