November 17, 2018

Escaping the Wilderness – Why have I changed my theological positions?

As I have been exiting the “Evangelical Wilderness”, I have been taking stock of where I fit with some of my theological beliefs. Some of the areas where there is variance between what I believe and what others believe are in the table below. I am solidly in the right hand column in all of these topics.

Bible Inerrant Inspired
Theological Framework Calvinism Arminianism
Holy Spirit Cessationists Charismatic
Origins Creationism Theistic Evolution
Gender Roles Complementarian Egalitarian
Worship Style Liturgical Extemporaneous

I didn’t always used to be in the right hand column. In fact, the church that I grew up in would have been in the left hand column for five of the six items. It hit me earlier this week that there is a pattern here. The two columns can largely be classified by two words “Orderly” versus “Flexible”. (There may be better synonyms, feel free come up with better categorizations.)

Let’s go through the list and see how they fit this classification.

Inerrancy vs. Inspiration

Granted advocates of Inerrancy also hold to Inspiration. Often they will use the phrase “Plenary Verbal Inspiration”, meaning that the inspiration is fully authoritative, and inspired right down to the choice of words that are chosen. I hold to a view of inspiration that is considerably less strict than that, that God used very human vessels to convey his thoughts, and that these human vessels did not feel at all constrained to shape the words they heard to fit their audience. That is why we see Matthew talking about the “kingdom of Heaven”, while Mark uses the expression “kingdom of God”. Their concern was relaying the message in a way that their hearers could understand and process. As we read through the Gospels I could point out many examples of this.

Calvinism vs. Arminianism

One is rooted in God’s unchanging character and his sovereignty, the other in the response of Human beings.

Cessationist vs. Charismatic

One says that the Holy Spirit no longer gifts people in “charismatic” ways. The other says that that is putting God in a box, and that God can and does choose to gift his people in different ways.

Creationism vs. Theistic Evolution

The first says that all species on this earth were created by God as they exist now during three specific days of a seven day period (Days 3, 5, and 6). The second says that God created life and that that life has constantly evolved and changed over roughly four billion years.

Complementarianism vs. Egalitarianism

The first points back to created order and that man was created head of the family. The second points to giftedness, and that God may choose to gift people in different ways and that they should serve according to their giftedness.


Liturgical vs. Extemporaneous

The former points to a set order that is to be followed in a cycle with set scripture readings and prayers. The latter looks to variation in worship, though to be honest Extemporaneous is rarely done well and ends up looking like a cheap version of Liturgical. Michael Spencer wrote a whole series on this.

Summary Thoughts

Here is what hit me earlier this week. The differences can be summed up in two letters. “J” and “P”. You may recognize them as the final letters in the Myers Briggs personality type indicator. While Myers Briggs has been somewhat discounted, it got me wondering. Have my theological choices been largely been a product of my personality or personal preferences. Is it just coincidence that many denominations are largely in one column or the other.

Then Wednesday’s Post came along with this humdinger.

Haidt (along with Richard Beck) have convinced me that when we take a stand for “truth” or “morality,” we are primarily revealing deep, fundamental visceral and emotional feelings and then using rational arguments to justify our “righteous” position. Furthermore, those who are on the more “liberal” end of the spectrum react intuitively to different things than those on the “conservative” end. (Chaplain Mike)

Christiane provided us with this amazing quote, and a translation for those who do not come from “la belle province” or “le beau pays”

Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait point.

The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing.
(Blaise Pascal)

Interpreting this for myself, it makes me wonder if most of my reasons for the theological changes I have made are because of the way I am wired. If I had been wired differently maybe I would have been quite happy to stay in the church of my youth. Conversely, perhaps those who are raised in traditions like the one I am currently in, and who crave certainty in their innermost being end up in those churches that promise more of that. And perhaps there are those who find they do not fit, and chose to chuck the whole church thing altogether.

I added one other row as I was finishing writing this post.

I will call the category “Overarching Guide” for lack of a better word.

Overarching Guide Truth Grace


Is it no wonder that I say “I like to err on the side of Grace”?

As usual, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

The Number of God

The Number of God

The number of God is 137.  What? Huh…? No, really, it’s a scientific fact according to this article in Big Think.  The number, known as the fine structure constant or simply “α” has baffled scientists since the 1800s.  It is a number derived from combining three of nature’s most fundamental quantities: the speed of light, the electric charge carried by a single electron and Planck’s constant of quantum mechanics. In symbols, that’s c, e and h.  If you multiply Planck’s constant by the speed of light and divide by 2π times the electric charge carried by a single electron—squared, the units cancel each other and you get the dimensionless number 137.  For historical reasons, the inverse is often used and it is precisely 1/137.03599913.

What is ‘α’ good for? It is used to measure how strongly charged particles such as electrons interact with electromagnetic fields. For example, it determines how quickly an excited atom emits a photon.  Like other physical constants, there is an Anthropic Principle involved—small, nay minute, changes in either direction and we wouldn’t exist to talk about it.  We’ve covered that topic before here at Internet Monk. I know for some of you, anthropic principle arguments are utterly facetious and unconvincing, but bear with me a little bit, and lets share in the awe and wonder of the universe, whether you think it’s all coincidental or all pre-planned.

My friend, David Heddle, a physicist at Christopher Newport University, points out, there are some fascinating observability coincidences. It’s like the universe is fine-tuned for doing science. Observability coincidence #1: Because of accelerated expansion, we’re in an era of maximal observability. Distant galaxies will begin to “blink off”; their light will no longer be able to reach our telescopes. “This is the first time in cosmic history that light from the most distant galaxies has reached the Milky Way—G. Veneziamo, Sci. Am., May 2004”. Observability coincidence #2: Location (safe between spiral arms—away from where the density of stars would disrupt the sun’s orbit. There is also too much radiation in these areas) gives us a window to the heavens. In a spiral arm, ambient interstellar dust would make it impossible to see outside the galaxy. In the bulge, there’d be no night. Observability Coincidence #3: Our moon (at this moment in history) provides for almost perfect solar eclipses. Solar eclipses provided the first test of General Relativity. Study of the chromosphere, made possible by solar eclipses, has benefited our knowledge of astrophysics. Observability Coincidence #4: The sun’s spectrum peaks near yellow. For whatever reason (design or evolution or both) our eyes are most sensitive to (near) yellow. This does not explain, however, the lucky coincidence that our atmosphere is also (narrowly) transparent—which permitted the development of science.

So 137 is another one of those “lucky coincidences” that seem to propel science forward.  Since the early 1900’s, physicists have thought that this number might be at the heart of a GUT, or Grand Unified Theory, which could relate the theories of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and most especially gravity.  The Big Think article notes:

Physicist Laurence Eaves, a professor at the University of Nottingham, thinks the number 137 would be the one you’d signal to the aliens to indicate that we have some measure of mastery over our planet and understand quantum mechanics. The aliens would know the number as well, especially if they developed advanced sciences…

The constant figures in other situations, making physicists wonder why. Why does nature insist on this number? It has appeared in various calculations in physics since the 1880s, spurring numerous attempts to come up with a Grand Unified Theory that would incorporate the constant since. So far no single explanation took hold.

The fine structure constant reminds of the “Fibonacci sequence”, also known as the Golden Ratio.  The Fibonacci sequence starts like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55…and so on forever. Each number is the sum of the two numbers that precede it. It’s a simple pattern, but it appears to be a kind of built-in numbering system to the cosmos.

The Fibonacci sequence can be seen in:

  1. Flower petals
  2. Seed heads
  3. Pinecones
  4. Fruits and Vegetables
  5. Tree branches
  6. Shells
  7. Spiral Galaxies
  8. Hurricanes
  9. Faces
  10. Fingers
  11. Animal bodies
  12. Reproductive dynamics
  13. Animal fight patterns
  14. The uterus
  15. DNA molecules

The question is “WHY”?  The famous physicist Richard Feynman is quoted as saying:

There is a most profound and beautiful question associated with the observed coupling constant, e, the amplitude for a real electron to emit or absorb a real photon. It is a simple number that has been experimentally determined to be close to -0.08542455. (My physicist friends won’t recognize this number, because they like to remember it as the inverse of its square: about 137.03597 with about an uncertainty of about 2 in the last decimal place. It has been a mystery ever since it was discovered more than fifty years ago, and all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it.) Immediately you would like to know where this number for a coupling comes from: is it related to p or perhaps to the base of natural logarithms?  Nobody knows. It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the “hand of God” wrote that number, and “we don’t know how He pushed his pencil.” We know what kind of a dance to do experimentally to measure this number very accurately, but we don’t know what kind of dance to do on the computer to make this number come out, without putting it in secretly!

Is it all just fascinating coincidence that we pattern-seeking monkeys just seem to recognize?  Or is God giving us, or any other intelligent life in the universe, a clue to recognize his creative hand?  “God is a pure mathematician!” declared British astronomer Sir James Jeans.  God throws the number that holds the Universe together. said Jeffery Phillips.  The Nobel Prize winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) was obsessed with it (the fine structure constant) his whole life.  He famously quipped, “”When I die my first question to the Devil will be: What is the meaning of the fine structure constant?”

Oh… by the way… Pauli died in Room 137.

That’s a Bad Idea (1)

Autumn Welcome. Photo by David Cornwell

This is a book about wisdom and its opposite.

• Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt

• • •

I am a big fan of Jonathan Haidt. We did a series of reflections on his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion back in July, 2017. The Righteous Mind is one of the most important books I’ve read on how people think and reason morally, and why we tend to live in different “moral matrices” such as the political “left” and “right” in America.

Haidt (along with Richard Beck) have convinced me that when we take a stand for “truth” or “morality,” we are primarily revealing deep, fundamental visceral and emotional feelings and then using rational arguments to justify our “righteous” position. Furthermore, those who are on the more “liberal” end of the spectrum react intuitively to different things than those on the “conservative” end. Finally, this intuitive moral reasoning has social aspects which bind us together into tribe or teams and blind us to those who reason from different instinctive roots. As Haidt writes elsewhere, “Part of what we do when we make moral judgments is express allegiance to a team. But that can interfere with our ability to think critically. Acknowledging that the other side’s viewpoint has any merit is risky—your teammates may see you as a traitor.”

I found Haidt’s analysis enormously helpful in this polarized age in which we live. It helped me more fully understand where people are coming from when they express their values, and it is hoped that will continue to help me as I engage in conversation both with those who agree and disagree with me.

Jonathan Haidt has partnered with Greg Lukianoff to produce another book. This one is called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

This book is about ideas, particularly a few bad ideas, that are being widely disseminated throughout our culture. These bad ideas, according to the authors, appeal to our basic instincts in ways that cause us to develop bad mental habits and unhealthy social behaviors.

Greg is a First Amendment attorney who advocates for academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus as the head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Much of the impetus for this book grew out of changes he witnessed on campus cultures across the U.S. Jon’s work on “consensual moral matrices” — the “echo chambers” we often find ourselves in where we only hear and act in ways that reinforce our group’s perspective and lead us to act in ways that can be unintelligible to outsiders — shows how some of these bad ideas have grown in influence.

Here is their overview of three such ideas:

This is a book about three Great Untruths that seem to have spread widely in recent years:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

While many propositions are untrue, in order to be classified as a Great Untruth, an idea must meet three criteria:

  1. It contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures).
  2. It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being.
  3. It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.

The Coddling of the American Mind (p. 4)

Before the book came an article in The Atlantic that raised a lot of discussion and controversy. Critics of Lukianoff and Haidt accused them of being “grumpy old men” who were simply engaging in the perennial bashing of the younger generation by their elders. But they are careful to going beyond a surface critique of “political correctness,” instead identifying how a culture of “protective vindictiveness” has seriously limited speech on campuses and led to truly pathological thinking and behavior.

I encourage you to follow the link and read the article in The Atlantic as a way of entering into today’s discussion. Next time we’ll start discussing the “bad ideas” or “untruths” the authors say are infiltrating our lives and making us less prepared to live mature lives of wisdom.

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