Sunday, October 31, 2010

Screaming in the Trees

It was a long and tiring Sunday, but in a good way.  I awoke at 6 am, with the deep awareness that the malaise I felt about my sermon was because it wasn't right.  It's hard for a stewardship sermon to be right in a congregation that's running hundreds of thousands of dollars in the red, and heading towards financial collapse.  What I had was too dull, too dismal, too doom and gloom.

So I went for a walk early in the crisp Virginia morning, my pup snuffing and wagging at my side.  The sky was clear and speckled with the morning pink of clouds.  The solution to my sermon struggle was shown to me almost immediately.  Rest and time with the First Book usually does that for me.  But Ellie still needed to walk, so on we went.

As we walked, I heard a ruckus up ahead in the trees.  A small band of fierce brave crows were cawing and carrying on, driving before them a single young hawk.  The hawk was a threat, a threat to them and their babies, and they would have none of it.  They bullied and harassed it into a tree.

They were suddenly joined by some impromptu allies.  A pair of bluejays materialized, ferociously sounding their hawk alarm and joining the fray.  As I walked, and the air filled with birds shouting their territorial alarms and threats, I mulled over how little difference there is between the feathered remnants of the dinosaurs and the bipedal hominids who have taken their place at the top of the food chain.
After the worship, and the bible study, and some long and hard conversations with church members about the daunting challenges facing my community, I was getting ready to hit my office to wrap some things up.  One of the elders of the Korean church...a particularly difficult human being...suddenly materialized. He seemed angry, which is not much of a surprise, given that he almost always seems angry.   "There is a stranger in the sanctuary," he said, clearly annoyed at this invasion.  "You need to deal with them."

So I raised an eyebrow, sighed, and went in.  I could see a shadowy figure in the back of the sanctuary, wearing what appeared to be a multicolored hat.  I thought to myself that it might be the young man who barricaded the building a while back, but he and I have talked and prayed together since then.  And he's not really into that sort of hat.  As I got closer, and the face became clear through the darkness of the half-lit sanctuary, I realized three things.  1)  It was a woman.  2)  She was African American.  3) I knew her.  She was the former associate pastor of my home church, who'd served my current congregation as an interim pastor years and years before.

She'd just popped in to see what had happened to the old place, only to be confronted with hostility and challenge.  She was, you know, black and a woman.   For a certain kind of Korean, this isn't just two strikes.  She might want to steal something.

I told the difficult gentleman that I knew her, and I would take care of it, and after she had let him know precisely what she thought of him (such deliciously pungent language!  In a sanctuary! Hee hee!)  I settled in with my fierce sister for a long lovely chat.

Such a strange, strange place, my church is.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Zombie Church

Pastors all across America are looking at their sermon schedules, realizing that Sunday is All Hallows Eve, and having one of two responses.  For some, it'll be time for the annual sermon reminding parents to keep their kids safe from the pernicious influence of Satanism.  And neighbors.  And fun. 

For the pastors who aren't totally and utterly uncool, though, the question is this:  how can I work zombies into my sermon?

'Cause you just gotta have zombies.  Vampires?  Well, they're just meh.  Particularly those sorry sparkly ones. Zombies are hot.  They're everywhere in our culture, a seemingly endless font of hipster delight.

Over the last few years, it's not just that I've watched and enjoyed Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.  I've heard bluegrass songs about zombies.  I've read bits and pieces of the bizarrely entertaining Jayne Eyre mashup  "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."  I've watched as one of the best games of 2010, the brilliant western-themed "Red Dead Redemption" offered up it's first expansion which you're not just a gunslinger in a western town.  You're a gunslinger in a western town...with zombies.  Like, awesome, dude.

There are zombie parties, and zombie walks, in which hundreds of folk get together to shamble down the street.

America is into zombies.   As a pastor, I'm particularly interested in zombies, because I understand congregations as living breathing organisms.  They should be.  But there are plenty of zombie churches.  What are the characteristics of a zombie church?  Here are three ways to identify a zombie church:

1)  It eats your brain.  A zombie church isn't really interested in you as a person.  Your identity as a unique child of god means nothing.  The ways you might bring your particular gifts and hopes into it mean nothing.  The thoughts in your cortex mean nothing to it.  You're just pew-filling meat and easily digestible neural tissue.  You are just this tasty thing that will keep it going as it shambles on to its next victim.  Depending on the damage that does, it will leave you either completely torn to pieces or, rarely, shambling alongside it in the search for more braaaains.

2)  It can't grow.  A zombie church doesn't ever change, outside of having pieces fall off now and again.  Living and dynamic congregations welcome change, welcome the new, growing and expanding as they acknowledge new gifts in the community.  But zombie churches just keep doing the same thing, long past the point that that thing had any life in it at all.  They repeat the same events, not as affirming ritual, but as mindless process.  They shamble through their life together, throwing one foot in front of another while animated only by a glazed hungry emptiness.

3)  It isn't really alive.  Zombie churches live for reasons that have nothing to do with the new life that comes with the indwelling of Christ's spirit.   They can be driven by hatred or group think or the hunger for material prosperity.  Those ones tend to be faster and more dangerous.  Then there are the slower, more classic Night of the Living Dead Zombie churches.  They tend to be sustained by endowments or pools of resources that let them keep doing the same things they've always done, even as they slowly rot away to nothing.   They're easier to avoid, as they tend to just gimp around in circles moaning to themselves.

So as you're out there, wandering through the desolate wasteland of American Christianity looking for a community of faith that might sustain you, just keep these things in mind.

And remember, cardio, cardio, cardio.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Crackpot Idea Number 1040: Taxpayer Allocation Budgeting

My mind is an endlessly churning font of crackpot schemes, and this morning's neural randomness involved taxes.  As I was standing at the bus stop chatting with one of the moms, we were both lamenting the impressively sorry physical condition of our schools.   I live in Fairfax County, one of the richest counties in the United States.  Our school system is arguably one of the best in the nation.

But at nearly every school in Fairfax, kids are relegated to aging "mobile classrooms," which spring up like trailer parks around the periphery of most of our schools.  My little guy has been in a trailer two years running, one whose decor is essentially that of a 1970s basement.  He's cool with it, unless it's pouring rain, in which case the kids get wet when they go to gym, or to lunch any time they need to use the bathrooms.  For that, you need the main building.  There just aren't the funds to build permanent facilities that meet the needs of the kids.  The mom lamented that she'd be happy to have her taxes go to something like that.

Here's what I found myself wondering.  Congress is notoriously, wretchedly, heinously bad at budgeting.  They couldn't balance a budget if you held a gun to their heads.  They fail, year after year.  What if...what if...citizens did the budgeting?  By that, I don't mean we sit down and go through item by item.  Instead, near the end of working through your 1040 in TurboTax 2016, you'd have a section in which every major Federal department listed.  Education.  Energy.  Environment.  Defense.   Homeland Security.  Transportation.  Then, you'd allocate your taxes across those departments based on your priorities.   Want better schools?  Ramp up that percentage.  Want to spend billions on the Joint Strike Fighter?  No?  Ratchet that bad boy down.

The budget would, well, it would directly reflect the preferences of the people.    If it gets funded, well, then it gets funded.  If not, well, so it goes.  That could work at a state level, too, I suppose.   It would link paying taxes to a new empowerment as citizens.  If something doesn't manifestly contribute to the good, well, we're unlikely to pay for it.  At a bare minimum, it would be interesting to see what that budget would look like.

Ah well.  Yet another one of those ideas that will have to bear fruit in an alternate universe, I suppose.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Transitions and Process

As I've opened up to my congregation about the need for them to 1) seek new pastoral leadership, and 2) my willingness to have them seek another pastor while I work with them to help ease the transition, I anticipated that such a process wouldn't necessarily fly well.

Non-standard approaches don't tend to set well within the structures of the Presbyterian church.  They can, but getting to the point at which the broader church is willing to accept them takes some significant effort.  You have to be willing to engage in all manner of assessments and reviews and evaluations, all of which take time.  We're willing to take risks, sure.  But leaps of faith for Presbyterians tend to happen after we've carefully plotted out our trajectory, then replotted it, then done a meta-analysis of the cross-cultural literature on leaps of faith, and engaged the services of a certified leaping consultant.  This is, of course, the decent and orderly way to proceed, assuming you have all the time in the world.

Having been through that at the front end of this ministry, I'm now encountering it as I try to bring my time here to a close.  Though I'd hoped to be able to transition from my current designated status (meaning I'm here on a time-limited contract) to interim status (also time limited, but with my primary function being to help prepare the congregation for a new pastor), it looks like there is little chance of that occurring.

Both my request for a transition of status and my congregation's request to start the process of calling a new pastor were gently denied by Presbytery this last week.

I understand the intent behind this, and it's not malicious.  Heck, it's not even unwise.  This church faces some really significant hurdles, and has a pretty defined point (four years away now) when it's going to run right into a financial brick wall.  Blam.  Game over.  For Trinity, growth isn't just this thing we feel compelled to do 'cause our culture fetishizes it.  It must happen.  And lately, it isn't.  That's why I need to step aside.  Having taken a hard look at our situation, I know where Presbytery is coming from.  Some time to reflect on why things are stalled out would be very useful.

But so much of revitalization lies in energy, enthusiasm, and a sense of Christ's purpose.  I watched some of the new young leaders of the church...well...just sort of this weekend's realization that while things are urgent, nothing is going to happen in the near term future.

They may be young, but after a very constructive series of visioning retreats and open discussions, they're not ignorant of how urgent things are.  Even though I'd alerted them to the possibility that Presbytery might seek more reflective time, they're feeling disempowered and discouraged.   Having worked for five years to empower and encourage, it's hard hearing a new session member in his late 20s shrug his shoulders and say that he can see he "doesn't have much say and that Presbytery is in control of his fate."  Or another new session member lament that he's never experienced an organization that moved so slowly.  I'm sure it feels a bit like stonewalling.

That's not the intent, of course, as I will endeavor to remind folks.  Presbytery is just trying to do its job.  This process could be really useful, if it's embraced as an opportunity to grow in understanding and strengthen the church.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Temporary Shepherds

As I continue my reading for a training session I'll be undertaking next month, I'm about halfway through reading Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry.  It's a collection of short and related essays on the nature of interim ministry.

The work of intentional interim ministers is really important.  These are folks who are particularly interested in working with congregations that are in times of transition, and particularly those that have experienced some wrenching leadership changes.  I've personally witnessed the positive impacts of a competent interim on several occasions.  In the congregation where I grew up, a very capable interim led the process of healing after a brutal and divisive church fight, which involved a pastor leaving with a large portion of the congregation.  That interim's work really made a difference.  In the congregation where I interned, the pastor died suddenly, and the interim who followed on really helped refocus that church and get them back on their feet.  She was a literal Godsend.  In congregations where there has been malfeasance, a pastor whose call is re-focusing and redeveloping a communities' identity is absolutely essential.

In fact, much of the interim skillset is helpful for anyone involved in the ongoing process of transforming a church.  It's one of the primary reasons I'm taking the coursework.

As I'm working my way through this book, I'm finding a tremendous amount of useful stuff.  It's already helping me develop my ministry.  But I keep stumbling over what seems to be a major operating assumption among several of the folks who contributed to it.   That assumption seems to be that leadership transitions in congregations always require professional therapeutic intervention.  A few choice samples:
..members need to complete closure with the departed leader, taking time to express their feelings of loss, separation, hurt, disappointment, anger, guilt, or whatever strong emotions may be left over... (p.7)

Major attention must be given to issues that have surfaced in relation to the loss of a significant leader in a dynamic, living, grieving congregation.  A human system is in trauma.  All the emotions that an individual experiences in grief are present in a congregation that has suffered a significant loss...(pp. 56-57)
The "now you all need therapy before you can move on the to the next stage of your life" approach seems very wise and knowing and professional, albeit a tiny bit too Betazoid.  It has the one disadvantage of not actually being true.  Sometimes, yes, congregations do need to work out grief or resolve conflict, and need to take their time doing it.    But this is hardly the case all of the time.  It is decidedly not the case in healthy churches. 

Having watched as a lay person when a healthy pastoral relationship came to a close, I can tell you straight up that there was no weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The pastor simply let us know that he was going to leave in a few months to direct the Presbyterian Church's Ghost Ranch retreat facility.  We were, like, dude, that's so, like, awesome!  It was clearly a great match for his skills, and though he was really a blessing to the church, and well liked, we all understood.  He left as beloved as he had been while among us, with our well wishes for his journey.  The interim that followed was a good pastor, but his presence was not necessitated by grief or latent conflict.  The congregation was fundamentally healthy, and in healthy relationship with a pastor whose departure was viewed as nothing more than a fact of life.  But we still needed to have an interim.  Why?

Because unlike those who have the noble calling of intentional interim ministry, interim ministry is not something that Presbyterian congregations enter into intentionally.  It is mandated.  If you're a PC(USA) congregation, you HAVE to have an interim.  That's not because Presbyterians are more collectively dysfunctional than, say, our Methodist brethren.  Rather, it is because we have no choice.   If we don't get an interim, we'll be without a pastor for at least a year, and often longer.  Our process for calling a pastor takes too damn long.

I use that phrase advisedly, and in context.  Let me say it again: the Presbyterian process of calling a pastor takes too damn long.  The process is frustrating for churches.  It's equally frustrating for pastors seeking calls.  It is exhausting, both in terms of the time it requires and the spiritual energies it drains from communities during overlong liminal times.  It significantly increases the anxiety in communities of faith that are trying to find new leadership.  When even your denominational handbook for entering into the process acknowledges that it is frustrating and draining and intimidating, well, excuse me for going bold and all caps, but PERHAPS THAT'S A SIGN THAT SOMETHING'S WRONG.

Well-trained interims do help cushion the impact that this abusively draining and dispiriting process can have on healthy churches.  But that they are there shouldn't allow Presbyterians to delude themselves into believing we're going about ministry transitions in the right way.  We also shouldn't mask that underlying dysfunction with well-meaning therapeutic assumptions that only enable a critical systemic failure.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Violence and Wonderland

For family movie night this evening, I curled up with Rache and the boys and popped a Blu-Ray into the PS3.  It was, finally and after failing to hit it in the theaters, Alice in Wonderland.

Or, rather, it was our culture's reimagining of that deliciously fevered Victorian tale.  It was brilliantly rendered, of course, even if we weren't seeing it in eye-popping 3-D.  It was well acted.  It was seamlessly assembled, beautifully quirky in that Tim Burton way.   Funny how that Burton flavor really hasn't changed, not since I plunked down cash to watch Pee Wee's Big Adventure at a much smaller theater in a much smaller version of Tysons Corner Mall.  So much has changed in 25 years, and yet so little...

But I found it troubling.

Not badly made, not at all.  But troubling, because it speaks to the deep difference between the culture in which Lewis Carroll wrote and the culture into which that tale has been reimagined.  The whimsy of the Carroll tales, their faerie madness, well, that was only subtext.

The story we were shown...seemingly the only kind of story we know how to tell...was utterly familiar.  It was one of war.  There are, of course, strong intimations of violence in the original Wonderland tales.  Wonderland is a place where things are not as they seem, and it's not without its dangers.  But not nearly enough for our blood-hungry palates.  Here, swords and revenge and war drums and noble heroes with vorpal swords bringing justice are front and center.  If there is not conflict, not battle, no witty quips uttered as a blade brings an end to a foe, well, honestly, we'd be bored witless.

We want to see the Mad Hatter pouring out hot cups of whupass.  We want Alice the Warrior.  It's the Alice we want to see, so that's the Alice we get.

I suppose, given our culture, I should be grateful she didn't slay the Jabberwock whilst wearing booty shorts and a tube top.  Maybe in the sequel.

It's clear, through this telling, that we no longer have ears to hear about Wonderland.  We'd much rather hear stories of Underland.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Christian America

Two recent studies have surfaced an increasing trend in the thinking of Americans.  And no, it has nothing to do with Glee.

Rather, it's that now between 42% (if a Pew Study is to be believed) or 49% (if recent data gleaned the General Social Survey is to be believed) of Americans feel that being Christian is a central element of American identity.  America is a Christian Nation, or so almost half of America believes. 

This is really quite remarkable.  As I've noted before, such thinking shows a complete misunderstanding of the nature of Christian faith.  There can't ever be a Christian nation, not in the sense of a geographic region governed by laws and sharing a common culture.  We put that to rest back with Augustine.  Christianity is not a system of government, relying on the coercive power of the sword to enforce itself.  When it becomes that, and Lord forgive us it often has, it betrays the Gospel.  

Equally troubling is the complete failure of what appears to be functionally half of our population to grasp the nature and purpose of our constitutional republic.  America is the land of liberty, dagflabbit.  We are defined by our freedom, and our respect of the freedoms of others.    The fundamental principles of our republic are conducive to the free practice of Christian faith, yes.  I am grateful for that blessing.   But they are also conducive to practicing Judaism without fear of oppression.  And to being Muslim.  And Buddhist.  And if you so choose, being an atheist.   Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and atheists who embrace and defend the liberties of our Constitution are completely American.

The inscription on the Statue of Liberty does not read "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be Christian."

Discover Your Conflict Management Style

The second of the churchy books I've been tasked with reading deals with a question that is really quite significant.  The question is:  "How do you deal with conflict?" 

This is a big one.  As much as we'd like to imagine that church is where we all gather around to eat buttered crumpets and be kind and sing happy Jesus songs, the reality is that managing disagreement is an absolutely vital skillset.  If you are somewhat conflict-averse, or have approaches to conflict that aren't constructive, then Bad Things will happen to you.  That's true in life, and it's really most sincerely true if you lead a congregation.   Having just watched point blank range as a congregation with a dysfunctional approach to conflict blew itself to pieces, I can attest to the importance of knowing how to deal with disagreement.

The book is another Alban Institute publication, this one entitled:  "Discover Your Conflict Management Style," by Speed B. Leas.  It includes a conflict style assessment tool that sorts out your conflict management preferences into a six-category typology of conflict management preference, and then lays out what each of those different categories means for how we manage disagreement.

A few thoughts:

Plus Side:  His name is Speed.  This is, in and of itself, awesome.  He's a demon on wheels, baby.

Plus Side:  The self assessment tool included with the book is useful.  It's always helpful to have an interactive component to teaching any concepts, and being able to see where your preferences lie relative to what's being presented helps reinforce it.  Knowing that you tend one way and that you've got approaches that you actively prefer really does help grasp how you're going to act...and whether that tendency is constructive.  It would be easy to skip through a book like this assuming you aren't ever going to deal inappropriately with a disagreement, and nodding your head at the wisdom without realizing you don't ever put that into practice.  The assessment tool is a good reality check.

Plus Side:  The core typology of conflict management being presented is logical and feels complete.  Each of the six approaches to conflict make sense, reflecting the spectrum of how we tend to deal with the stuff that could...or does...divide us.  They do occasionally blur into one another, and occasionally it seems that one category has morphed into two or more, but so it goes. Approaching conflict in this way seems generally constructive.  Leas has laid out a solid set of criteria, and they really are helpful in getting your head around this issue.

Negative side:  Layout Matters.   If what you're doing is writing a story, or an essay, this matters not.  But this isn't a book book.   It's only 30 pages long.   It has sections you're supposed to write in and mark up.  It's a workbook.  And as a workbook, it needs to own its workbook-ness.  If the first exercise you want folks to do is at the back of the book, and there's information you don't want them to get to until they've done that exercise, well, put the exercise first.  Or put it right after the introduction. 

It feels clumsily assembled.  That sense of structural awkwardness is reflected in the conflict inventory, which really does feel like it was laid out in WordPerfect back in 1996.   It continues elsewhere, as the categories blur into one another, as individual sections seem to start arbitrarily, with few visual cues that you've just transitioned.  It's not critical, but when you find yourself working around the awkwardness of a layout as you navigate and score an assessment instrument, it doesn't lend confidence.  It could use some editing, and a reprint after a graphic designer has gone over it for usability.

Negative side:  Conflict Context Matters.  As I worked my way through the questionnaire that was assessing my conflict management style, I found myself struggling a bit.    I'm aware that while I'm far from perfect in dealing with conflict, my own responses to disagreement tend to depend on the nature of that disagreement.  Are we working through divergent options for a new worship schedule?  Then I'm going to be "collaborative."  Am I discussing the right of women to be ordained leaders in the church?  Then I'm going to be "persuasive."  Am I dealing with someone who has been sexually harassing another congregant?  Then I'm going to be "compelling," in the way that a man-portable rotary cannon is compelling.   The booklet recognizes this in the narrative sections, and notes the ways in which different styles and approaches can be appropriate.  But I found myself longing for an instrument that somehow integrated this into itself.  One possibility would be laying out short descriptors of conflict situations of varying degrees of intensity, and then having the respondent answer questions based on that context.  That would help assess whether you're able to read a conflict environment well enough to apply an appropriate strategy.  Trying to be "collaborative" in an intractable stage 5 conflict, for instance, would be an exercise in futility.

This booklet is, ultimately, a useful tool, even if it's a bit frayed around the edges.  Though it comes out of a publishing house that focuses on church issues, it's not really a "faith" book at all.  Unlike other lightly baptised organizational literature, it makes no effort to position itself as church-focused.  I appreciate that.  It's just a general guide to dealing with disagreement and the messes of organizational life.  

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Creating a Healthier Church

The first of the four churchy books that I've been assigned to read as part of a Presbytery-required Interim Pastor Training session is Creating a Healthier Church, by Ronald W. Richardson.

Written in 1996, it approaches congregational life through the lens of a pastoral counselor, and particularly through the application of family systems theory to church dynamics.   The gist of family systems theory is that human beings are radically formed by their interpersonal connections, and in particular by the deep emotional bonds they have with their families.  The responses of a particular individual can't be assessed by approaching them as a free-standing self.  To really "get" them, you need to understand the network of relationships that form them.  More or less. 

It's not a bad read, and there's some good practical learnin' in it.  Of course, it tain't all daisies and butterflies, neither, so here are some of my reactions to it.

Plus Side:  It's quite practical.  Understanding a church requires that you come to terms with the dynamics and relationships that form it.  In both the anecdotal framing narratives Richardson uses and the processes of congregational assessment he presents, there's the potential of some real learning about the messes that can impact congregations, and some solid ways out of those messes.

Plus Side:  It pegs Congregational Anxiety as a major issue.  In my experience in my own congregation, and from what I've witnessed elsewhere, communities of faith can be driven totally batty by anxiety about what might happen.  In the absence of trust within the community, or the presence of real distrust of those viewed as "outside," a church can become just one big mess of rumors and infighting. 

Plus Side:  It identifies the need for congregational leaders to be non-anxious presences.  If you get all riled up whenever conflict or disagreement arises, and don't try to remain graciously positive and objective, you'll make an absolutely poopy pastor.  That doesn't mean moping about apathetically and/or distancing yourself from your community.  But it does mean that you aren't deep in the fray.  You need to be able to constructively differentiate yourself from conflict if you're going to be a healing force within the church. True dat, thought I.

Negative Side:  It gets a bit chartish and jargony.  Apparently, whenever two people talk about another person or concern, they are "triangulating."  So there are triangles.  And everyone has a network of influences, so there are these sample matrix thingys that map out their social networks and relative connection.  Yeah, some people are visual thinkers, and they need this.  But human interaction and the formative power of our relationships are just too complicated and dynamic to effectively map out this way.  The maps would constantly change and I'm not quite sure, from a practical standpoint, why it's even worth bothering including them.  The language used also and inevitably reflects the jargon of that particular strain of therapy.  A healthy community, for instance, is supposed to avoid being "fused," which means we're supposed to be emotionally differentiated from each other.  I get the point being made, but sometimes the language becomes a bit clumsy.

Negative Side: God isn't really a factor.   This tends to be one of the major sticking points I have with books that approach congregations primarily as human networks or organizations, and this book is no exception.  The frame of reference is family systems, and the paradigm from which institutional dysfunction is addressed is fundamentally that of psychotherapy.  I appreciate the tools of secular counseling, and can see their value in a wholistic approach to church life.  But I found myself consistently and repeatedly reading this and wondering where in the Sam Hill the role of the Holy Spirit was in this approach.  Mention of God is made intermittently, and once it is suggested, you know, that prayer might be helpful sometimes.  Bible stories and verses are smattered about, with varying degrees of exegetical depth.

But the focus remains primarily organizational dynamics and family systems.  The tools of faith, and the idea that God is active and present in the life of the church, well...that's secondary, sometimes to the point of seeming invisible.

Overall, this was worth my while.  There were plenty of tools and teachings that really do speak to the sprawling messes that can overtake low-functioning congregations.  My only and primary issue is the tendency to be so immersed in the professional language of the secular field from which it springs that it doesn't couch congregational health in terms of the Paraclete. 

That's a non-trivial variance in emphasis.  Still, the insights here are good ones.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Churchy Books

As I move towards (God willing) a new chapter in my life as a student, I'm anticipating a significant increase in the amount of reading that I'm required to do.  I always read, of course.  I love reading, be it hard sci fi or philosophy or Christian mysticism or one of the wonderful books that trickle down from my wife's longstanding book group.  Such admirable and sophisticated taste, those women have.  Whether it be for pleasure or just part of my compulsive tendency to learn, I gets me plenty o' readin'.

But since I got my M.Div. oh so many moons ago, there's a genre of books that I've not really cracked all that much.  It's what I like to call the "Churchy Book."  Meaning, it's a book that's written by Christians, for Christians, but doesn't explore faith per se.  Instead, such books talk at great lengths about the dynamics of being church.  What does it mean to be church?  What does it mean to lead a church?  How can we assess the health of churches as organizations?  Such books contain metrics and measures.  Charts and graphs.  Hey...why are you wandering off...

Honestly, I don't mind these books.  Heck, I know people who write them.  I like those people.

But sometimes, I wonder how much all that writing about churchy stuff gets to be "inside baseball" talk.  Instead of singing about the joys of the game, some of what I've read is the Jesus equivalent of four guys sitting in the SportsCenter analyzing baseball contract negotiations for an hour. It makes us feel smart and aware know this stuff.  But the crack of a well struck ball or a blindingly perfect pitch or the athleticism of a leaping catch aren't anywhere to be found.  People who aren't already into the game would quickly change the channel.

Now that I'm diving into a 30 hour training program for pastors who specialize in managing transitions, and then starting doctoral work, I'm going to have to read a whole bunch more in this genre.  Rather than rely on my somewhat spotty neural network to record my responses to those books, well, I might just pitch out some of my insights and critiques here.

So I'm apologizing in advance. 

Monday, October 18, 2010


I've always walked a fair amount.  It helps keep me centered and fit and helps me at least pass for sane.  So it was a source of some dismay this spring to discover that our new puppy didn't make the best hiking companion.  Long leisurely meditative walks are hard when one arm is attached to a creature that seems intent on heading in any direction but the one you're heading in, and the other arm is attached to a bag of poo.

Now that my dog is reaching the point where she's got a tiny bit more focus, and will walk with me rather than roaring off like a squirrel-seeking missile every 15 seconds, I'm finding my Monday morning rambles through neighborhoods and nearby woods have returned.

This morning as I wandered through the bright briskness of a Virginia October, I found myself noting the absence of something.  Back when I was a kid, my parents had an apple tree in their front yard, right outside of my window.  It was quite productive, and one of the primary yard tasks I had as a teen was to collect the best of the tart green apples for the occasional pie, and to rake up the rest for composting.   It was also an amazingly friendly climbing tree, one you could scamper up easily.  In the summer of 1989, a big storm took it down.  It felt like a loss.

I make a point of mixing up my walk routes, wandering through neighborhoods in such a way that I'm always exploring somewhere new.  But though I've hit most of the nearby neighborhoods, I see pretty much no fruit-bearing trees.  There aren't apples.  There aren't pears.  There aren't cherry trees.   I don't see blackberry vines, or raspberry vines.  Virginia soil is perfect for these fruit, and yet my neighborhood seems devoid of it.

I suppose it's a bother having to clean up, or feeling obligated to make preserves and pies.  We're just too busy.  We're willing to spend endless hours mowing and trimming, or perhaps growing tomatoes or zucchini.  But fruit?  Apparently, at least in my neck of what used to be the woods, we don't have time for it.  It's just not part of our suburban desert.

So we get our apples under bright florescent light, wrapped in plastic, sprayed with pesticide, trucked in in bulk.

For some reason, the fence in my back yard suddenly looks like it might just be the ideal place for a blackberry planting or three come spring.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Jesus Fail

As one of the few Americans who still reads a print newspaper, I tend to pore through my Washington Post over a cup or three of coffee.  Much strikes me, but I'm particularly drawn to interesting faith-related niblets. 

Today, the moment of Jesus in the Post came in a conversation between two women.  They were both from Tennessee, members of the community where a man's house was allowed to burn to the ground because he'd forgotten to pony up his seventy-five bucks in fire-department service fees.  Their conversation went thusly:

Neighbors are torn over the incident.  Retired teacher Laura Davis rushed to see whether the Cranicks needed help but wants a world in which "people suffer the consequences" of their actions.  A friend challenged Davis to think about what Jesus would do.  "I don't know that he'd put it out," Davis said.  "I don't know what he'd do."
One could always assume that Ms. Davis isn't Christian, but then again, it is Tennessee.  It's deep Bible Belt, and pretty much ain't nobody not Christian in them parts.  Or nominally Christian, anyway. 

Here, we have evidence that Christian ignorance of the core teachings of Jesus goes rather deeper than flailing on the recent Pew survey.  Not knowing about key figures in the Reformation or the philosophical underpinnings of Catholicism is one thing.  But honeychild, if you can't figure this one out, you've failed as a Christian.


Because when Jesus was asked where the rubber meets the road when it comes to following him, he pitched out this little story.   Perhaps you've heard of it.  It's about this guy who chooses to care for an Israelite who foolishly walked a road alone and got himself in a mess of hurt.  It's terribly obscure, of course.  But it is, nonetheless, something that speaks to the heart of what Jesus taught.  If you see someone suffering, you help 'em.  It's a fundamental duty of every human being, one that Jesus couldn't possibly have made any clearer.

But it's probably not what she's been taught.  Many churches in Tea Party country, I'm sure they don't really preach about it at all.    Not very "pull yerself up by yer bootstraps."  It's so off message.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Boundaries of Faith

A week ago, I moseyed on over to a quite lovely meeting of local pastors/religious leaders in the Bethesda area.  It was a reasonably eclectic bunch of folk, drawn primarily from the denominational traditions.  There was Methodist representation, several Presbyterians of different denominations, UCC folk, and a couple of Unitarians.

As we began, the pastor who'd convened us to schmooze and share and support one another noted with regret that he'd tried to get rabbis and imams, too, but had only managed to snag Christians.  To which I thought, but did not say, are Unitarians here. 

Unitarians cannot really be accurately described as Christian.  Some are.  But the denomination itself doesn't view itself that way.   I thought it might seem unwelcoming to note that, though, so I let that thought hang in my brain for about half a second, before one of the Unitarians made the point of offering that correction herself.

Self-definition can be such an important part of faith.  Which is why, over the last few weeks, I've followed with some bafflement the case of a teen in North Carolina.  She was booted from school because she has a nose ring, and nose rings violate the local school policy of autocratic conformism.

Her response, which was taken up by the ACLU and apparently has now worked for a local judge, was to say that piercing and body modification were her religion, and by not allowing her to wear a nose ring, the school system was violating her rights to religious expression. 

Note, here, that it isn't that her religion implies that piercing has a particular symbolic significance.  The Church of Body Modification is a non-theistic group that believes that piercing and tatooing and scarification are the goal of human life and self expression.  Oh, and some of them like to hang themselves from the ceiling from hooks in their flesh.   You can check it out at the website of the Church, although, really, ouch.  And ew.  Again, this isn't theistic.  It does not serve to express anything other than the act itself.  They just view doing decorative and/or painful things to their bodies as their life purpose.

So what I gets me to wondering is, well, is it a religion?   Yeah, they're really into it.  But if something has no theistic or transcendent overtones, and no cohesive philosophy other than a shared interest in a particular it faith?   If it is, why wouldn't some motorcycle clubs be a religion?  If Harley Davidson defines your existence and sense of self-identity, there'd be little difference between that and tattooing and piercing.   If you live to play World of Warcraft, and view it as defining you on some fundamental level, could that be considered a religion?  Could you sue a school system for blocking access to WoW, and thus depriving your of your rights to practice your faith?  I know plenty of folks who'd like to try.

I also wonder that whenever I see atheistic or humanist groups included as part of an interfaith gathering.  Having suggested in past in conversations with atheists that the depth of their convictions is functionally faith, I know that suggestion is not well received.  Yet there are humanist chaplains.  A strange thing.

What are the boundaries of what is and is not faith?  Are there any?

Friday, October 8, 2010

M-Theology, Ethics, and Metanoia

"You mean," said Lucy rather faintly, "that it would have turned out all right - somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?""To know what would have happened, child? No. Nobody is ever told that...but anyone can find out what will happen ."
Given the impossibly vast and absurdly convoluted scope of being suggested by The Grand Design's M-theory, any reasonable or insightful person will be left a bit stunned.  The universe that flows forth from M-theory and other multiverse cosmologists is utterly and bafflingly confusing.  How can we say one thing is better than another, or one path is better than another, if everything that can ever possibly be exists?

It can leave you feeling that not only is there not hope for purpose in being, but it also leaves room for such an immeasurable number of ways things can go horribly, impossibly bad.  Looking out at the horrors that are, and knowing that they could be...and may be...far worse...this is a terrible, paralyzing thing.  As, perhaps, is the awareness of how infinitely far we are from realizing our ideal state of being.

But so it goes.   As sentient and self-aware beings, we know good and evil, joy and sorrow.   Having tasted that fruit, we have none of the blissful ignorance of foulness that would be our Eden.

But what do we do with that knowledge?

We are created free to choose, and there's weight to that.  If, as M-theory holds, our choices functionally form a new stream of being, and from that stream of being flow forth myriad and infinite other streams, then our choices are not irrelevant.  They are immense.  Knowing this, how are we to act in the face of this terrifying freedom?

Faced with an infinite array of possible choices, and the weight of choosing, the only way to step away from despair or cynicism is to make those decisions based on our knowledge of the good.  Here, faith is required.  Faith has always been necessary to pick through the thicket of competing values, even back when spacetime was nice and linear and cozily deterministic.  You can, of course, have faith in many things.  But without faith in that which transcends self and clique and tribe and nation and species, we make decisions that can be based on a "good" that is "good" only in the contingent sense of self or culture, and that might be harmful or destructive in ways we just can't see.  It's a bit like shopping at WalMart, or fishing the seas until they are lifeless deserts so we can all eat at Red Lobster.

Christianity, and Jesus in particular, tells us that those decisions involve repentance, because the Kingdom is at hand.  Repentance is a word many folks are uncomfortable with.  It seems to imply a wagging finger, and a disdainful, judgmental look, and someone clucking that we've been very naughty.  I tend to prefer the Greek word that was originally used by the authors of the New Testament, as the Gospel was spread throughout the Roman Empire:  metanoia.  That's what we translate as "repentance," but if you break it down, its got another spin to it.  Meta means, roughly, "after."  Noia comes from a root meaning "knowing," or "knowledge."   Repentance is what we do, and how we act, after we are grasped by and transformed by God's understanding.  God's understanding is, after all, love.

We turn away from those options that involve brokenness and horror and darkness.  We close off their possibility for being.  We move towards that which brings reconciliation and hope and light, and in doing so open up new realms of possible joy.

Given the radical freedom with which we have been created, our guide in acting for the optimal good...and even for being able to say meaningfully what "good" is...lies in our ability to see those choices as our Maker sees them.  In the manifold providence of the God that knows all things, including the Way of love through the chaos of our terrifying freedom, lies the path and the choice that will bring the greatest joy.   That's true in every moment.  With our reason, with our emotions, and with the radically defining existential purpose that flows from faith, our ethical response to a universe in which our choices matter infinitely is to seek that Way.

If we want to see the good happen, then we need to be transformed by it, guided by it, and in faith participate in it.   That there may be deeper horrors and evils on other paths means nothing.  We have chosen to turn away from them, and to freely participate in shattering them.  That there may be greater perfections and joys than we can imagine should only be a source of rejoicing.
"Of course..," said the Faun.  "The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets.  The inside is larger than the outside."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

M-Theology, Free Will and Determinism

One of the most longstanding issues in Christian theology is the tension between divine sovereignty and free will.  In one corner, you have Presbyterians like my bad self.

We Calvinistas have argued...quite logically...that in order for God to be God in any coherent sense, the Creator must be all knowing and all powerful.  Nothing whatsoever can happen without God having a hand in it somehow, because to imply that would suggest that God is not either omniscient or omnipotent.  Predestination, with it's assumption that God has foreordained those to be saved, is one of the necessary theological results.  Double predestination, which takes that and flips it to the hell-side, is another rather less pleasant result.

Then there's the "everything is God's will" correlate argument.  If God is completely sovereign, and all actions flow forth from God, then I'm just doing God's will when I down my sixth single malt whiskey of the evening.  If God is all powerful, then there's no way I could even raise it to my lips without his say-so.    So...cheers!

It also means that God wills all sorts of far deeper narstiness.  Like, say, the killing fields of Cambodia.  Or the Holocaust.  Or Jeffrey Dahmer.  All part of the plan, baby.  All part of the plan.

On the other side lie those pesky, pesky Baptists and possibly a Methodist or two.  They argue...quite logically...that a God who created human kind absent free will would not be a God we could meaningfully worship.  Without our free and unfettered assent to God, coming into right relationship with God would be meaningless.  What's the point of repentance and the transformation of our life if we're just a puppet?  How can we be in relationship with God if that relationship involves no choice on our part? 

So what matters is that we assent, that we repent, that we wander up weeping to the altar for the twenty-seventh time this year to renounce that demon-whiskey.  We have to choose to be baptised, or it has no meaning.  But...if our will is what matters, and it is for us to choose whether we follow God or not...then God is powerless over us.  And if we can choose against God's will, then God is not all-powerful, not the Almighty, not the font of all being.

We have us a little conundrum.  Or, rather, we had.

Hawking and Mlodinow, along with the other theoretical cosmologists who posit a multiverse, may have accidentally resolved that argument.  The presumption of M-Theory is that the real nature of creation is the actualization of every possible thing.  This quantum-theory presumption is important, but not only because it gives a place for heaven and establishes that God is a likely aspect of the multiverse.

It also means that the God who created all things can do so without in any way limiting our free will.  Within the infinitely manifold providence of M-Theology creation, we may choose to act however we wish.  God sets us into an M-theory creation fully and completely free.  We are given the right to follow any path we choose, while the story of what happens to us as we set our feet down any of those paths remains known to God, even before we've taken that first step.

A theology that integrates this view of creation into itself lifts the dark weight of deterministic horrors that seem antithetical to God's nature.  It also retains free will, as fully and meaningfully as it can be retained as a concept.  It does that while fully affirming God's creative and sovereign power, and the deep significance of our response to God.

This, as I have said before, is non-trivial.   At a bare minimum, it's one less thing to pointlessly fight over.

So does this mean where the rubber hits the road?  How does this speak to our day-to-day lives as moral and ethical beings, given the choice of figuring out how to work our way through the fuddliness of an incredibly complicated existence?

Further up, and further in...

Westboro Baptist Church is Good For America

Today, the Supreme Court begins considering Snyder v. Phelps, the case of the father of a slain veteran who is suing the insular and legendary Westboro Baptist Church.  He accuses them of inflicting emotional harm on him and his family by engaging in one of their trademarked anti-gay demonstrations during the funeral of his son.

Though it's a bit painful, because I understand the depth of that father's suffering,  I tend to side with the Phelps clan in this, for two reasons.  First, I think "offense" is a dangerous precedent to set as a metric for restricting free speech.  Here, we're not talking physical assault, physical disruption, or trespassing.  We're talking demonstrating within the bounds of legality.

Let's say, for instance, that I am demonstrating against a war which I believe is unjustified.  If my actions give offense to someone who supports that war, should they be restricted?  In the United States, the answer is no.  Or has been.   And must still be. 

Second, and more significant, I think Fred Phelps and his feverish brood are instruments in the hand of God.  Their brand of prophetic performance art has made them known worldwide, and for good reason.  They have a powerful unifying impact on every single community they enter.  As they sing their brilliantly simple offensive songs and wave their iconic offensive signs, they remind us of the most important values of this nation and of Christian faith, of our tolerance and mutual forbearance.   I watched this at work myself, as I provided a Christian witness in counterprotesting them when they came to do their thing at my local high school.   Rarely have I felt such a sense of unity, or seen young people so willing to embrace the essence of the the point of holding up signs provided by a complete stranger. 

I'll go further.  No single ministry in the United States has done more to further the acceptance of gays and lesbians by our broader culture.  Listening to their carefully scripted hate, we're reminded of the divisive fulmination on the far right about gays and lesbians and culture wars.  As the Phelps take this fulmination to its logical extreme, their actions remind us that this is not something any of us really believe.

If a troupe of radical progressive Christian performance artists were looking to find a way to shock America into doing a gut check about who we are and what we believe, and to open us to being tolerant of gays and lesbians as fellow human beings and citizens, you couldn't do a better job than the Phelpses.  If you were looking for a way to remind Christianity that no matter what its political or theological leanings, it needs to manifest grace in everything it does, well, they pretty much rock that one too.  Westboro Baptist is a powerful, powerful social justice ministry.

For that, they deserve our thanks, and the permission of a free society to continue to annoy us into being our better selves.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

M-Theory, M-Theology, and the Nature of God

Hawking and Mlodinow have, in establishing that the nature of the universe involves a functionally infinite array of different universes, inadvertently given viable rational ground for the existence of God.  But...err...which God?

The scope of the M-Theory universe is dizzyingly, immensely, terrifyingly vast, and contains the possibility of almost anything.   Among the panoply of possible modes of being, getting to a being that is omniscient and omnipotent is conceptually easy.  Such a being would be inseparable from the processes of creation that blort all things into reality.  It would be a self-aware and endlessly generative Reality Engine.  But is this the God that Christianity claims is the source and font of all being?

Such an entity easily passes muster as the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle, or the distant, abstracted Clockmaker of Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment Deists.   It's also precisely the sort of entity that might have I Am That I Am on its nametag at this year's Higher Being Society Annual Convention. 

So we can kinda work our way to a Creator, immortal, invisible, in light inaccessible, hid from our sight.  But though we may love that old hymn, this isn't enough.  Does the God of M-Theology manifest the single primary defining characteristic of the God Jesus kept on about?  Can we point to such a Creator and assert that God is Love?

Honestly, though the M-playing field has gotten a whole bunch larger, I don't think that's any more difficult an assertion to make than it was back when the universe was only our little linear sliver of spacetime.  The disconnected, unmoved, unfeeling, utterly uncompassionate god-cog of Deism has always been inadequate conceptually, and the One Step Beyond we've taken into the multiverse doesn't change that.

The assumption of a being that is "impassible," meaning beyond the passions and feelings of humankind, is one of the underlying presumptions of most Greek philosophy about the nature of deity.  The Stoic logos, for instance, is neither personal or "feeling."  But the omniscience we suggest as a necessary aspect of such a being incorrectly approaches knowledge as abstraction.  Our human assumption is that an eternal, all-aware being would know things as we know.  We assume that our Creator knows us in the same way that even though I'm sitting in my church office, I know the wall in my living room is red.   Or through our symbolic forms of language or mathematics. 

But this is such a limited way of knowing.   Omniscience has always seemed meaningless absent knowledge that isn't just conceptual in character, but that is ontological in character.  Meaning, the Maker knows all things...knows the same essential way that you know that you now exist. Right now.  As you read this.

Though it's beyond our capacity for grasping, such a being's level of awareness would annihilate any meaningful distinction between itself and others.  In forming us, it knows us, and approaches us as not an it, or an "other," but as a "Thou." 

This being is and always has been the heart and goal of faith.  If love...the highest gift of our our yearning for participation in the other, and compassion for the other, then within the probabilistic boundaries of a functionally infinite multiverse, our capacity for reason can give assent to the possibility of what faith has always known.  That to which faith cries out, O God, is and always has been, love.  And now that faith is evidently necessary to understand the infinitely manifold providence of creation as it actually is, and infinite love can be discerned streaming up from that probability fountain, well, gosh.  Quantum cosmology and the deep yearning of Christian mysticism seem finally united.

But what does this mean for us?  What does M-Theology do for the way we live our day-to-day lives?

Further up and further in...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Hawking: Atheism Is Dead

The challenge posed by Hawking's M-Theory to God isn't that it assumes that God doesn't exist.  In fact, given the actualization of all possible being that is an essential component of Hawking's summation of quantum physics, a being that we'd recognize as functionally indistinguishable from God has the real possibility of existing.  Eternal.  Omnipotent.  Omniscient.  A being that manifests all those omnis, up to and including a 1980 Dodge Omni, has the likelihood of being true.

If M-Theory holds, this is necessary.

Hawking, atheistic though he may be, has scored an own goal.  Taken at face value, M-theory means the end of atheism.  Or, perhaps to be more fair, it is the point at which the...what's the word...claxonic certitude of both classical and neoatheism and the findings of theoretical physics part ways.  Into the atheistic version of theodicy, into that modern-era cry that There Is No Empirical Evidence, You Morons, there is inserted from M-Theory reasonable doubt.  Let the jury take note.

One can still, of course, be a committed agnostic.  Or one could hate the idea of God, refuting God for the sheer cussedness of it. Or one could reject the idea that God has any relevance to human life, or to our spacetime.  But if you attempt to definitively state that God does not exist, what you say is radically undercut by what M-Theory's insights into the nature of the universe tell us.

The M-theory challenge for theists ceases to be whether God exists.  It is, rather, the last of the three questions above.  What would be the relevance of God in the cosmology that Hawking proposes? Hawking clearly believes that the infinitely random and generative character of reality at a quantum level is in and of itself sufficient for existence.  Everything springs into being because it must.

From his cosmological premise, Hawking would be required to cede that among the 10500 possible permutations of physics that spring forth from singularity might be a self-contained, self-aware, and functionally infinite being that met all the checkbox criteria for God.  Heck, he and Mlodinow are willing to overtly say that somewhere, somehow, there exists a moon made of cheese.

But what he would be unlikely to cede is that such a being would be the Creator.  Even if God exists, such a God would be no more relevant to the broader swath of being than my left nipple.  Yes, it has to be part of being.  But so does everything else that might possibly be. 

This "God" would be impressive, but ultimately just another wacky bubbling output of the seemingly absurd physics that underlies all existence.  It would not be the Creator, but rather a part of the fabric of M-Theory existence, not the first cause, but part of the result.  And if this god-thing is part of the result, well, it's not really God in the way that theists or the world's religious traditions conceptualize God.

To this very logical objection, there is a solid theistic response.   The presumption of causality works just fine within the linear flow of our spacetime, but breaks down completely once we step outside of it.  If you have an Anselm 2.0 God that is eternal, unchanging, all-a-knowin' and a-doin', such a God would be aware of and part of the generative process of bringing all existence into actuality.  Even if generativity can be theoretically asserted as necessary in the quantum mechanic randomness of existence near singularity, parsing such a being out from the processes of that generativity would be meaningless.  As Hawking and Mlodinow note, time does not exist near the moment of singularity.  If a form of being is not bounded by time, then it can't be caused.  It has always been that process.  The two things cannot be said to be different.  In the beginning, both were. One was with the other, and one was the other.

That sounds oddly familiar.

Where that gets us theologically is to a being that can be described meaningfully as a Creator, arising from nothing.  But this is only a slightly larger version of the Deist creator, or the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover.   Yes, the clock is waaay more complicated and a teensy bit wackadoodle, particularly that universe made entirely of hampsters, but it's still the Clockmaker God.  Distant.  Dispassionate.  Sadly autistic, utterly unmoved by joy and unphased by suffering. 

What could such a God possibly have to do with the God asserted by Christian faith?

Further up and further in...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stephen Hawking Has Proven That God Exists

Although it is alluded to throughout the Grand Design, its core argument against the concept of God lies in Hawking and Mlodinow's interpretation of the nature of the multiverse and the quantum mechanics at play in the early universe. 

The arguments are as follows.  The nature of the universe, say they, is such that it generates all possible structures, physics, and spacetimes.  The number of possible options within the universe is, they suggest, functionally infinite, being at a theoretical minimum of on the order of 10500 potential realities.  That means that while we might see intricacies and divine order in our universe, there are also quite literally billions of sad, stumpy universes that collapse in on themselves or disperse like cosmological flatulence a picosecond after coming into being.  This, according to Hawking, refutes the primary concept of intelligent design, by which one determines the necessary existence of God based on the elegance of the structures of physics.

The second argument from quantum theory is that the multiverse is sui generis, meaning it is self-creating.   Noting that subatomic particles behave in ways that imply they actualize all possibilities, and that at some point near Big Bang singularity the universe existed only at the subatomic level,  Hawking and Mlodinow suggest that it is this characteristic that causes the creation of all potential being.  Again, this is interpreted to indicate that God is not necessary in such a system. 

This is understandable, but it is hardly the only option.  Honestly, what they've done here is amazingly, strikingly, marvelously compatible with belief in God.  If M-Theory holds, it is perhaps the closest science has come to affirming some of the fundamental tenets of faith, and in particular the necessary existence of God.  With only the tiniest bit of conceptual aikido, just the gentlest redirecting touch, it becomes M-Theology.  

Let's take a look at that, why don't we?

Since the Enlightenment, science has been fundamentally empirical.  The scientific understanding of reality has been firmly locked into what can be seen and observed and touched and tasted, to the measurable dynamics of nature.   If it cannot be observed, science has told us, then it is not real, and asserting that there is anything outside of our spacetime has been declared delusional.  We theists, who with a few pantheist and panentheist exceptions tend to conceive of God as existing outside of our reality, well, we're just a widdle kwazy. 

With M-Theory, that has all changed.  At a basic level, this assemblage of quantum theoretics affirms that beyond our universe, beyond what can be seen, there lie all sorts of ineffable marvels that defy even the structures of our physics.  M-Theory, backed by the thrumming power of vast underground accelerators and complex and elegant computer modeling, with all the certitude of scientific observation leaning it's way, affirms the existence of the supernatural.   Beyond our reality, there are immeasurable heavens, says Hawking.  And immeasurable hells, adds Mlodinow, looking a bit spooked.

This is a nontrivial shift in scientific cosmology.

But what about God?  What place does a Creator have in this cosmological system?  Clearly, Hawking and Mlodinow do not believe that it is required.  The infinite generativity of quantum mechanics at the point of singularity are sufficient for them.   Yet, again, they seem very slightly oblivious to the implications of their assertions.  What they are proposing doesn't make God unnecessary.  Quite to the contrary.  M-Theory makes the existence of God defensible from a rational and scientific standpoint.

In my previous blogging on the intersection between multiverse cosmology and theology, I've noted that M-Theory removes the only rational objection to an ancient proof for the existence of God.   That proof was offered up by a 10th Century Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he argued that God was "that than which nothing greater can be conceived."  Because we can conceive of an omniscient, omnipotent and eternally self-aware being, and because something that exists is greater than something that does not, God must exist.

It's a pretty argument, but the problem with it is obvious.  We can think of plenty of things, wonderful, amazing things, that don't exist.  We can imagine that we have our very own flying car.  We can visualize an America that is financially solvent.  We can imagine that Hamas and Likud watch futbol together and roar with laughter.  Within the finite boundaries of our cold, hard reality, there are plenty of things that don't exist, no matter how desperately we want them to.  Just because God is possible, doesn't mean that God actually is.

But with M-Theory, that objection falls away.   Hawking and Mlodinow are really, really adamant about this.  Quantum mechanics tell us that every possible thing exists.  And if all potentiality must by necessity be, then God must by necessity exist.

So Hawking has accidentally given us scientific grounds for belief in the transcendent.   He has also, inadvertently, suggested that God...meaning a being that we'd generally say meets that an entirely probable part of that infinite, eternal, transcendent reality.

The logical question then arises:  what would be the relevance of such a Being?  Hasn't Hawking shown that reality just up and creates itself?  Yeah, maybe there's a God, but so what?

Further up and further in...

Friday, October 1, 2010

Resistance is Futile. Hawking Will Be Assimilated.

The concept of the multiverse has been resisted by nearly every corner of Christianity.  Catholicism has renounced it, although not at the level of the Papal See.   The Young Earth Creationists over at Answers in Genesis haven't said much about it, other than to scratch their heads, mumble confusedly about them newfangled theories, and go back to building their new animatronic diorama of Jesus riding a velociraptor into Jerusalem.

Some gracious and highly intelligent Christians who have embraced a scientific worldview do struggle with the concept, because it seems to subvert the things about this spacetime that they see as evidence of God's design.  I'm thinking, in this case, of folks like NIH Human Genome project director Francis Collins, who sees God's work in the marvelous and intricately interwoven dynamics of our spacetime.  He's not wrong, of course.  I see God at work in creation too, and for many of the same reasons.  But I think, ultimately, that clinging to the idea of a single linear spacetime will prove as pointless as assuming that the earth is flat, or that it is at the center of the universe.  There are some concepts we can let go without doing damage to our faith.

I think when folks like Collins assume that a multiverse is antithetical to Christian faith, they are responding that way for two reasons.  First, because the atheistic scientific proponents of the multiverse present it as by necessity atheistic, and second, because we haven't from the standpoint of faith fully explored the theological ramifications of a multiverse cosmology.

It is that first assertion that needs some non-reflexive testing against the core assertions of Christian faith.  Is a multiverse axiomatically atheistic?   One of the strengths of Christianity as a living faith is that it can incorporate into itself anything it encounters, so long as that thing is not antithetical to the purpose of the Biblical narrative, our view of our Creator, and the essence of what Jesus taught.  Some things, like totally stealing the practice of having an evergreen indoors, are trivial.  Other things, like the use of Aristotle's concept of substance by Tertullian and the Cappadocian Fathers to philosophically frame the relationship between Jesus and God and Spirit, well...that's a bit less trivial.

For reasons I've explored frequently in my blogging over the last five years, I hold that the insights of quantum physics and M-theory are entirely compatible with both theism generally and Christianity in particular.  Hawking and Mlodinow do not see it that way, and perhaps it's a bit cruel to take their candy.

So let's sample it.  Give it a lick.  See how it tastes.  The first question that has to be asked about M-Theory is this:  does it obviate the need for a God, or disprove God's existence?

Further up and further in...

How God Plays Dice

The first of the challenges to faith posed by M-Theory is the apparent randomness in the structures underlying the universe.  The Grand Design takes a good hard look at quantum mechanics, and notes that the model that best represents the nature of subatomic particles suggests that they seem to exist everywhere they could possibly exist.   Meaning, if a subatomic particle is moving from point A to point B, it does so in a straight line.  It also does so in a curve.  And a wildly squiggly and embarrassingly unfunny Family Circus kid-coming-home line.   It also does so by way of taking a bus up to New York to see a revival of Cats, and then coming back.  All of those options occur, but only one is observed.  For subatomic particles, there's no one, simple, straightforward, deterministic path or location in space time.  What ends up "happening" is completely unpredictable.

This means, according to Hawking and Mlodinow's interpretation of the bleeding edge of physics, that our spacetime is fundamentally random.  There is no design, because everything that has arisen has done so because of tiny random variances at the subatomic level, and their echoes in the larger visible structures of our universe.  Einstein once famously rejected the idea of randomness at the foundation of all existence by saying," God does not play dice with the universe." 

Well, says Hawking, hate ta tell ya, but that's exactly what is going on.  God does play dice with the universe.  The whole thing's a crapshoot.

So according to M-theory, everything is random, and could just as easily not have occurred.  Therefore, one might argue, the existence of a Creator who has an intent for our universe or provides purpose and meaning in life can't be defended.  It's just, like, totally random, dude.

But here, Hawking seems to have forgotten the most revolutionary assertion of M-theory.   The universe is not just our time and space.  It is every possible time and space.  It includes realities that may not involve time at all.  It involves dimensions in which the laws of our physics are replaced by other, impossibly alien laws.  It may even involve versions of our own space time in which Glenn Beck is a force for good, though that stretches even my credulity.

Sure, God plays dice.  But according to M-Theory, he rolls a one.  And a six.  And snake eyes.  And gets a Yahtzee.  And makes his saving throw against poison, even though he's only a level one magic user with a constitution of 5.

A multiverse in which every potential possibility is by necessity expressed is cannot be described as random.  It is, rather, complete.  It is utterly thorough.

Precisely what one might expect when an omniscient and omnipotent player sits down at the table to play.