The Mind and The Machine (Review)

Any book that combines a discussion of Raymond Kurzweil’s theory of the coming singularity with analysis of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien is probably going to be a good read.  Matthew Dickerson’s The Mind and The Machine: What it Means to Be Human and Why it Matters does not disappoint.  Dickerson’s basic question in the book is to ask whether a human can be understood as just a complex biological machine.  This view he calls physicalism, where the physical world of matter is all there is.  Dickerson contrasts this with dualism, the view that a human consists not just of body, but of body and spirit.

The first half of the book is focused on showing the shortcomings of a physicalist view.  He argues that under physicalism, things like creativity and heroism cease to exist.  Creativity is defined as the bringing of something new into existence, something original.  Heroism is making virtuous choices.  The problem is that under physicalism there is no free will.  If humans are just biological machines, extremely complex computers, we can only do what we have been programmed to do by nature or nurture.

He also argues, suprisingly, that physicalism leads to a devaluing of nature.  This appears surprising because it is often religious people, at least of certain persuasions, who are seen as so valuing the spiritual that they care nothing for the world around them.  But Dickerson says that the views of Kurzweil and others devalue the body: if we’re going to merge with computers, what need is there for the natural world?  Further, if the only things that exist are physical things, Dickerson argues than everything humans do is “natural.”  Humans, as part of nature, do natural things, whether this is polluting rivers or cleaning them.  And if determinism is true, which it must be under this view, then it is inevitable that we will do whatever we do.  There is nothing “unnatural.”

Dickerson’s third argument may be even more surprising, as he argues that physicalism gives less reason to trust in reason or science than does dualism.  In this he turns some physicalist arguments back on themselves.  Many say that humans only believe in religion as part of our evolutionary programming, it was something helpful in the past.  Yet if all our beliefs only come about out of usefulness, then the same is true of our trust in reason.  If a mind outside the physical brain is illusion, then so to is reason.

The second part of the book then goes through the same subjects, showing how a dualist perspective better accounts for human creativity, heroism and the rest.  It should be noted that Dickerson argues for an integrative dualism where body and soul cannot be separated from each other, both are needed for a human to be fully human.  This differs from a “ghost in the machine” dualism where the soul is like an entity living in the body, pulling the levers and running the show.

Overall, this is a fantastic book.  It covers a lot of ground while engaging with a variety of fields from science to literature.  Dickerson does not claim to have a knock-down rational argument for or against naturalism or dualism.  Instead his point is to ask which view better explains our existence as humans: “What I have suggested was that if humans are spiritual beings, then we ought to have some spiritual compass” (206).

To Dickerson, and I think he’s right, it comes down to assumptions.  If you assume from the outset that humans are just physical creatures and nothing more, that the brain is just the matter you can see inside a skull, then no argument for a soul makes sense.  Dickerson asks us to question that assumption.  What if we leave open the possibility that there is more to the world than what science can find, then what is physical and material?  Does a spiritual sense better explain creativity and heroism, reason and a moral basis for ecological practice (i.e., polluting the planet is wrong).  If so, perhaps there is something out there beyond the natural world.

That said, questioning our assumptions is tough.  If Dickerson can get us to do that, he has succeeded.

Finally, I did think the book slowed down near the end.  Perhaps, and this will sound bad coming from a Christian pastor, it is because that while his defense of creativity and heroism relied on the work of Tolkien, his defense of reason and science rested on scripture.  I believe everything he said about scripture is true and that there is a strong motivation in there for trusting reason and doing science.  But using scripture to support the argument in one chapter and not another seemed uneven.  It would have been better either to add scripture to the heroism and creativity chapter, or to find examples (like Tolkien) for the science and reason chapter.


Listening to People…Not Making them Objects

I recall various times throughout my life when I found myself a part of a circle of Christians having a discussion about some other person or group of people.  This discussion centered on the question: “can this group/person be a sincere or real Christian?

I read a book recently where a sentence stated, “can a police officer be a sincere Christian?”  My initial thought: Why not ask a police officer who is a Christian?

I have been in discussions where the question comes up, “can a gay person be a Christian.”  (If that question sounds odd to you, it just means you haven’t spent much time around traditional evangelicals.)  My thought has become, “can we find a gay person who is a Christian and ask?”

What has come to bother me about such discussions is that rather than inviting that group of people into our circle so that we can listen to their own story, we objectify them.  We sit around and analyze these people as if they are not real people but are instead some sort of commodity just for analysis.  You could almost say we dehumanize these people.

When I read the gospel stories, I don’t picture Jesus and the disciples sitting around the campfire discussing whether or not some group or other can really know God.  Jesus appeared to prefer to interact and engage with people.  Jesus never treated people like mere objects, he reached out to them with care and love.

For example, did the question ever come up over whether a Roman centurion, a member of the military force occupying the Jewish homeland, could know God?  Maybe the disciples discussed such things among themselves.  Maybe they asked Jesus.  We don’t know. We do know that when a Roman centurion came to Jesus for help, Jesus helped.  We know that Jesus never closed the doors to anybody.  We know Jesus treated people like people and not objects.

What if we were better at this today.

On that note, I have really enjoyed reading popular blogger Rachel Held Evans’ “Ask a…” series.  She has found all kinds of different people, many who are the types of people Christian evangelicals tend to objectify and not listen to.  And she has given them a chance to answer questions.  You could say that this post is inspired by reading these blog entries.

I encourage you to read some of these, listen to what these people have to say.

Ask a Transgender Christian

Ask a Gay Christian

There are many more to choose from, if you’re interested.

Please Stop With the Gas Price Thing

I have seen variations of it so many times that it is beginning to drive me insane.

January 20, 2009, gas was 1.84 per gallon.  

Today it is 3.85.  

Obama is to blame.

My first reaction, when I first saw this a few months back, was to try to remember that one day in 2008 or 2009 when gas was under two dollars.  I moved back to PA at the end of seminary in 2005 and at least since then gas has been over two dollars.  Perhaps the “fact” of $1.85 gas was a lie.

Thankfully, we have Google.  I asked Goggle to show me “gas prices through the years” and the very first hit was a Historical Gas Price Chart from Gas Buddy.  Ask and you shall receive!  Thanks Google!

According to the chart, gas went over three dollars a few times in 2005 and 2006.  Then throughout 2007 and 2008 it climbed, with a few small drops, peaking in the summer of 2008 at over four dollars a gallon.  After that, it plunged, reaching a lowpoint of under two dollars right around the turn of the year.

This is the one piece of data the “Look how cheap gas was when Obama was elected” meme gets right.  But to pick that one day or week when gas was cheap without the full graph of gas prices throughout all those years is just wrong.  After all, why did gas go so high during the Bush years?  If gas prices rising during Obama’s time are his fault, are gas prices rising during Bush’s time then Bush’s fault?  Or, if Obama has no control over gas prices (as I am sure Democrats now argue), then Bush had no control when they rose during his time?

The other question is, what caused gas prices to plunge?  Since the plunge happened at the time of Obama’s election, could we not infer that there was hope that Obama would turn the economy around, which led to the prices going down?  Perhaps it was a false hope, but it is one explanation.

When I look at the graph, it does appear gas prices have been higher (over $3 average) for longer under Obama than under Bush.  So there is an argument that under Obama gas is more expensive.  It is a bit more nuanced that picking one day when gas was at its lowest in 8 years and comparing it to the peak we are in right now.  Of course, we Americans are not interested in nuance.  We are interested in factoids we can slam onto social networks.

This is not a post defending Obama.  I am simply saying, use better arguments to convince me to vote for your candidate!

A Faith Not Worth Fighting For (Review)

Should a Christian ever use violence?

It is a question that will not fail to draw a passionate response from people.  For many Christians there is no doubt about it, of course there are times when violence is justified.  To suggest otherwise is to risk being called a “wishy-washy liberal” or something even worse.  Yet it is a question that ought to be asked, for as Gandhi is once said to have stated, “The only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as nonviolent are Christians.

The book A Faith Not Worth Fighting For seeks to put forth a defense of Christian nonviolence as well as answer the toughest critiques opponents of nonviolence put forth.  In the introduction the editors state that nonviolence is not, primarily, being against violence but rather flows from the belief that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.   In the second essay the writer takes pains to differentiate a  “liberal pacifism” where pacifism becomes a political strategy from a “Christological” pacifism where pacifism is simply seen as obedience to Jesus.  This is a vital point.  Some argue that nonviolent actions can lead to the same results as violent ones and thus they are preferable.  The author rejects this point, and I agree.  Sometimes violence can solve problems in a way non-violence cannot.  Yet the Christological view is not concerned with makings guesses about what works best for a desired end, it is simply an obedience to Jesus which refuses to fight for the faith, though is more than willing to die for it.

Like any book filled with essays by various authors, this one has highlights and low points.  Pacifism is shown not to be “passive” but instead to be a nonviolent way of being active.  War and violence in the Old Testament, the passage in Romans 13 about submitting to the governing authorities, and the apparent violence of the book of Revelation are all dealt with.  So too are statements of Jesus that could be taken as allowing violence, such as when he says he came not to bring peace, but a sword, and when he turned over the tables in the temple.  This leads into one of the flaws with the book.  Many of these essays on biblical topics come in the second half of the book.  I think they should have come earlier, laying a foundation for the more topical essays.

I appreciate how the writers, for the most part, were respectful and kind to those who disagree.  It may be surprising to some readers to see pacifists, who oppose war, talking about honoring soldiers.  The theme throughout was that even if the contributors think that Christians ought not be soldiers, it is impossible to not recognize that those who are soldiers are making a sacrifice.

That said, there are a few times when a bit of arrogance and legalism creeps in.  In the chapter on whether Christian pacifists ought to reject the police force, the statement was made along the lines of “can a sincere Christian serve in the police force.”  I made a note, “why don’t you ask a sincere Christian who is a policeman?”  Any book on ethics runs the risk of portraying those who follow the ethics promoted as the “real” or “serious” Christians while everyone else is not.  This book for the most part did avoid that, but not completely so.  Clearly there are plenty of policeman and soldiers who are sincere Christians; I have many dear friends who are both.  Wherever one falls on this issue, I don’t want to presume to question someone’s sincerity of faith.

Overall, this book is incredibly challenging and sets forth a clear case for Christian nonviolence.  Through the years I have come much closer to the belief that Jesus intends for his disciples to be nonviolent.  Yet I still have serious questions and while some were answered by this book others remain.  Christian pacifism at times appears to separate from the world too much, to create too much a sacred/secular dichotomy.  I am not sure that violence ought not be used to defend others (and there is a whole chapter on this).  As a Christian I may be willing to risk my own life, but I am not going to allow someone to harm my daughter, if I can stop it.  One of the contributors bought up how opponents of pacifism often use such extreme examples (what if you were being raped?) and questions why.  Yet it makes sense to bring up extreme examples, those are the ones that put your convictions most to the test.

So I came into this book very sympathetic to Christian pacifism and after reading it I am moreso.  But I still would not consider myself a pacifist.  I am sold that Jesus calls us to be nonviolent and this ethic flows from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  I certainly think the evangelical Christian subculture in America is way too in love with violence and a good dose of pacifist ethics may be what we need.  And I am pretty sure that in situations where we feel violence is the only solution, Jesus himself would probably not use violence.  If Jesus won the greatest battle ever won by dying on a cross, and Jesus calls us to do the same, when could we ever use violence?  Probably never…

And yet…and yet I just can’t go the whole way.  To use the example, if someone tries to kidnap my 1 year old daughter, I am going to do all I can to stop him.

Along the same lines, I don’t think I could call myself a Christian pacifist anyway, in good conscience.  It is easy to claim to be one living where I live.  I could post anti-war and anti-violence things on Facebook, engage people in online debate and so on.  But to say you are against violence in all situations when you live in a situation where you may never face violence yourself seems disingenuous (and I am not in any way implying the authors of this book are disingenuous!).  The bigger question for me, and why I love the title, is am I being Christ-like, nonviolent, in my interactions with people?  Do I use verbal violence? Do I tear my enemies down?  Am i willing to lose an argument for the sake of helping the other person?  In other words, my beliefs about physical violence are less relevant, at least in my current time and place, then my words and attitudes.


An Evening Filled with Questions about God

Last evening on campus CSF had a “Spiritual Discussion Forum.”  It is a place where students can come and present questions about anything related to faith, religion, Christianity and Jesus.  We had about 15 students attend, all of whom would identify as Christians of one variety or another: Catholic, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, etc.

My hope would be that when we do this in the future we can work hard on advertising, partnering with other student groups on campus and in general getting the word out so it becomes a time for all sorts of people to sit in a circle to discuss, and even disagree, with respect and genuine love.

Reflecting on last night’s gathering, I think it provides a good window into the questions Christian students on a secular university campus tend to ask.

I have heard there are a few thousand “unreached people groups” with no knowledge of who Jesus is, what happens to them when they die?

How do I know when I have heard from God?  What can I do to hear from God?

Who created God?

I have heard that the Bible has been translated so many times that what we have now is different from what was written.  Plus, I have heard there are books left out.  Why read or trust the Bible if this is the case?

How can you know if you are loved and accepted by God?

What makes Christianity different or better then other religions?

What should Christians think about homosexuality? (A whole myriad of questions relating to this topic)

Overall, it was a fun night.  Sitting with a group of students, talking about these sorts of things, invigorates me.  I look forward to the next time we can do it.

What questions would you add to the list?  

What questions are you surprised are not on the list?

The Numbers Game and Investing in One Life

Every semester in campus ministry is a new adventure.  Students from the previous year have moved on, either graduating or transferring to University Park.  A new influx of students comes in.  The community that forms in CSF and on campus looks and feels different.  It is always a bit exciting and a bit nerve-racking going into the new year.

CSF had our first large-group gathering this past Thursday night.  In terms of numbers, we had a smaller group throughout last year than we had in previous years.  Because of that, fewer students were returning this year then usual.  And many of those returning students have classes during our primary meeting time.  I was left wondering, will anyone show up for praise and prayer and Bibles study?

Now I try not to be a numbers guy.  I do not brag about our numbers when they are large and I try not to let myself get down when our numbers are small.  This is mostly because I do not believe that the number who show up at one meeting a week is the most revealing thing about a Christian community.  A large group could be quite cliquish, doing little good for the large community around them.  A small group could be incredibly outgoing and service-oriented.

In other words, I am less concerned with how many people come as with how many people those who do come can influence.

That said, I was very happy that this past Thursday the number who showed up blew away my expectations.  It was probably our largest group in a couple years.  The vast majority were new people.  My prayer is that these students form a tight-knit community, always welcoming and open to others, and also with a heart to serve and love the campus.

As I think about the number who showed up, I also think about churches in the area I am friends with that have young adult Bible studies.  Each year a couple churches contact me about their young adult groups, asking me if I can invite students.  I am hesitant.  The reason I am hesitant is that over the years I have noticed something about college-aged Christians – they will go to as many Bible studies and church gatherings as they can.  On Sunday they’ll attend church, during the week they’ll attend the two activities CSF does, then if they can fit it in they’ll be more than willing to go to other church activities on a Friday or Saturday.

So if a local church wants to increase their numbers, I can probably help them do that.  But it rings hollow to me, and probably to them, if it is just committed Christians adding one more Christian gathering to their schedule.

What I would love to see local churches do is simple: come to campus.

Sit in the library and read magazines.  

Drink coffee in the Cyber Cafe.  

Maybe even eat dinner in the dining hall.  

Be present.  

While here, pray for students.  

Be open to the Holy Spirit’s leading to engage them in conversation.

I am actually quite shy.  Those who know me would disagree, because I am not shy with those who know me.  I am shy with people I don’t know; it is not in my nature to strike up conversation with strangers.  Yet over the years as I have hung out on campus, usually in the same place day after day, I have had opportunities to talk with students.  Just by being there, by being a familiar face, you will earn the opportunity to connect.

At the end of the day, this will not lead to a great increase of numbers in the local church.  Spending time on campus like this might lead to you talking with one or two students.  If you’re lucky, you might really influence one.

But what is more important: getting Christian students who already attend three or four Christian gatherings a week to come to one more, or reaching out to one student who is not connected to Christ at all?

I think the answer is clear.

Books, Parenting, Vaccines and Some Politics (Recent Reads)

What Kind of Book Reader Are You?

Do you start a book, read it straight through, then move on to another?  Do you just have books around because you like how they look, but you don’t really read them?  Do you only read at bed-time?    Do you hate to read?  This fun article helps you discern which type of reader you are.  I am not sure where I fit.  I think I would be considered a multi-tasker, as I tend to have a couple books going at a time.

What Matters More to My Kids’ Future: Their School or Quality Time with Parents

Teachers are amazing, but even good teachers can only do so much.  How to improve education in America is a debate that will always draw passionate opinion.  After all, everyone has been to school and thus has an opinion.  Are teachers to blame when kids fail?  Does that make them “bad” teachers?  Would it be better if schools had more money for resources?  Should kids spend more time at school?

This article demonstrates that the most important thing is time spent with parents.  Involved parents do more to improve students education than any other factor:

Mayer found that the things that make a difference are relatively inexpensive: the number of books a kid has or how often his family goes to museums. She argues that all the other stuff — summer camps, tutors, trips to Paris — are like upgrades on a Lexus. They’re nice to have but immaterial when it comes to getting from one place to another.

Of course, this does not diminish the importance of good teachers.  It just means that teachers are not miracle workers.  They can do a fantastic job between 8 AM and 4 PM each day, but kids succeed whose parents help the rest of the time.

The GOP’s Moral Creed

I have really been enjoying reading John Fea’s blog.  Fea is a professor of history at Messiah college.  As a historian, he brings a helpful and important understanding to the political conventions.  His point is that the Republicans talked a lot about America being a moral nation, and this is difficult to square with their huge emphasis on individualism:

The GOP used its convention to tell a story of ambition, rights, and personal freedoms.  All of these things are good and deeply American, but a healthy society cannot be sustained on these ideas alone.  Moreover, the Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Andrew Carnegie vision of the American dream fails to recognize a fundamental fact of history, namely that people–even Americans–have struggled to make this dream a reality.  Certainly people have contingency to direct their lives along the paths they want to go, and this is something that makes America unique, if not exceptional, in the annals of modern history, but we cannot ignore the fact that people are also shaped by the circumstances of their past. We are not autonomous individuals.

I do not think I heard the word “common good” at any point during the GOP convention.  I heard nothing about the cultivation of a civil society in which people learn from their differences and forge a national community.  It was all personal stories of rising from poverty or the working class to “make it” in America.

Of course such rhetoric will work well among people who do not like government intervention.  And it works particularly well when you are trying to unseat a president who believes that the government has an active role to play in people’s lives.  But such a view of America only gets the Founders half-right.  As the grandchild of immigrants, a first-generation college student, a son of the working-class, and a beneficiary of the American Dream, the message I took away from the GOP convention left me hollow.  I think it would have left the Founders hollow as well.

Fea criticizes the Republicans, but he moves on to criticize the Democrats also.  In a recent post titled, Abortion, Democrats and Change over Time, he talks about how the Democrats have become more and more pro-choice over the years.  He even includes a link to an article reporting Democrats are not open to dissent in their party.  This refusal to even aknowledge a pro-life position makes me doubt whether I could vote for the Obama this year (though, I don’t think I can vote for Romney either, for other reasons of course).

Love Your Neighbor, Get Your Vaccines

This ties in well with my previous post on whether Christians are anti-science.  One of the least fun things about being a parent is taking your baby in for shots, holding her as she screams (though, Junia is a trooper and does not cry much).  Vaccines are not fun.  But they are more fun then polio, measles and other diseases that used to kill tens of thousands annually.  I am very grateful to live in a time when science has created vaccines for so many deadly diseases, and I cannot understand why some do not get their kids vaccinated.

Real Church in a Social Network World = Relationships (A Book Review)

I’ve wanted to read a book by Leonard Sweet for years. A good friend of mine studied under Sweet for his Doctor of Ministry degree and has always spoken very highly of him. Along with that, I’ve noticed Sweet’s work throughout the years, often making a mental note to pick up this or that book one day. But I never got around to it until now.

I am glad I did.

Real Church in a Social Network World is a small book that says a lot and serves as a good introduction to Sweet’s work. The big theme throughout is that Christianity is not about adhering to a belief system, instead it is about living in relationship with Jesus Christ.

Sweet’s argument is that a church based on things like belief and propositions is a stagnant church. Contrast this with a focus on faith, which requires the whole person (as opposed to belief which just requires your head) and mission which is movement, action and discovery.

It is easy to get tired of the game that much of American Christianity appears to be. Sometimes being a Christian gets tiring. Am I doing enough? Is my theology right? Am I sharing my faith enough? This is the sort of book that makes me want to be a Christian. It moves me from the inside out, pressing me to want to follow Jesus, recognizing that I am unconditionally loved, and to do something in the world.

It is quotes like this that invigorate me:

“Your heart is a pretty small package to stuff Jesus into. We are being called to become part of the body of Christ and to join in Jesus’ ongoing ministry in the world.”

“Jesus did not come to earth so that later generations of his followers could prove a point. He is the point.”

“Christianity has much less to do with being ‘right’ than it has to do with building right relationships – the strong protecting the weak, the rich serving the poor, the insiders making room for the outsiders.”

If you have grown weary of a Christian life that seems to only be about getting the right doctrine and theology, then this book may be for you. This book will help awaken you to the vibrancy of a life lived in relationship with Jesus Christ. It is not that theology and belief do not matter at all, and perhaps Sweet could be accused of devaluing them too much. After all, when talking about things like “Jesus” and “mission” you are making theological statements. What you believe about these things flows into how you live. But in a Christian culture that seems to over-emphasize belief as the most important thing (believe the right thing so you can be among the good people going to heaven…), this book serves as a helpful corrective.

The only negative I would give here is that this book does not flow like a tightly-written book could be expected to. This is no doubt due to the fact that this book is a collection, with sections drawn from three of Sweet’s other books. The last 1/3 of the book is from his forthcoming book, Viral. It is almost like a cliff-notes version of Sweet’s work, put together by Sweet himself. The good: it makes me want to read his next book. The bad: it makes me want to read his previous books even less, after all, I’ve gotten the gist of at least three of them.