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The Bible and Me

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When I was three years old, my church awarded me with a bible for perfect attendance. It was a grown-up, King James Version, honest-to-God bible with only a couple pictures and with a place in the front to record births and marriages and deaths and with maps in the back. I was proud of it and carried it to church with me every Sunday. It said “Holy Bible” on the cover in gilt lettering, and the words of Jesus in the gospels were in red.

I couldn’t read.

I was no prodigy when it came to reading. My parents encouraged me, however, and I had a strong inner drive. I wanted to know things. I wanted to read folktales and encyclopedias and poems and newspapers and cereal boxes and recipes and catalogs and road signs and deodorant cans and essays and novels and magazines. I also wanted to read the bible. My parents bought me a collection of “I Can Read” books that went from The Cat in the Hat and Go, Dog, Go! to Cowboy Sam and The Whales Go By. They purchased a set of Collier encyclopedias, not just for me, of course, but for all of us children. I became an avid reader of books I could barely understand. When I was in third grade, I read Tarzan of the Apes. One of the characters, Professor Porter, kept exclaiming “Remarkable!” all the time. I remember trying to puzzle out what it meant. I knew what a mark was, and I decided that if something could be marked on, it must be markable. I also knew that “re-” signified repetition, so I concluded that “remarkable” referred to something that could be marked again and again. This bit of decoding work, as insightful and reasonable as it was, did not help. I asked my mom.

All these books came and went, but the bible was an absolute constant. We went to church every Sunday, and every Sunday there were stories from the bible, sermons based on the bible, people quoting the bible, and bible verses written on everything from the church bulletin to posters in the hallways. The bible must be a very important book. I tried my best to read it. I became as fluent in King James English as I was in American English. (I also consistently misspelled words that occurred frequently in King James English with the British spelling, words like “favor” and “Savior.” I spelled them with a superfluous “u.”) Over time, I found I could read and understand a good deal, although I had some peculiar misapprehensions. For example, I thought that when Jesus talked about “earthquakes in divers places” (Mark 13:8), it referred to underwater earthquakes.

Having been steeped in the King James Version bible for so long, I had much less difficulty than my peers in understanding Shakespeare. I was untroubled by the thees and thous and knew that “wherefore” meant “why” and not “where.” In high school I became a favorite with teachers because I evinced an interest in the philosophical ideas found in literature and history. Unlike most of my peers, I had a moral vocabulary, and I was articulate. When we read books like Lord of the Flies, besides being one of the few who actually read the book, I was also moved and engaged by it, so I contributed to class discussions not from any sense of duty or to get a good grade but because I was genuinely interested. Nothing warms a teacher’s heart more. My interest in moral philosophy stemmed directly from my nascent Christian faith and the time I spent reading and trying to understand the bible.

During my upper years in high school, more modern translations came into my purview. Some had been around for years, but the churches my family attended had regarded only the King James Version as authoritative. Two especially, however, the Amplified Bible and the New International Version, bore the imprimatur of evangelical scholars and began to be used in evangelical churches. The Amplified Bible helped me understand hard passages with in-text alternate renderings. What it lost in lyricism, it gained in a richness of meaning. The New International Version sought to render the text in present day vernacular English, incorporating years of scholarly research about ancient middle eastern cultures and people groups. Both translations deepened and broadened my understanding and appreciation of the bible. The Jesus Movement of the 1970s found even the NIV too staid and formal. Though many started with the Good News Translation, they quickly adopted the Living Bible Paraphrase when it came out. These sought to make the text as easy to understand and accessible as possible, a task at which they largely succeeded. The Living Bible has since been rewritten as a straight translation, bringing to bear the same kind of scholarly research that went into the NIV.

All of these translations and many more have gone into my reading, contemplation, and study of the bible over many years. Yet I am no bible scholar. I am just an ordinary man fascinated by a God whose limitless goodness and love I can barely grasp. I find traces of this God in the bible, but the genuine trust I have in him comes also from my experience of a relationship with him. The bedrock of this relationship is the knowledge that he loves me. Inconceivable as it seems, the God who dreamed up the universe with its myriad galaxies and unimaginably vast interstellar emptinesses takes a loving interest in me and how I live my life and behave toward others.

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Psalm 8:4 KJV

This God, whose very nature is love, is central to my understanding of the world and life itself. Therefore, the claims of those who deny his existence are as ludicrous to me as would be the claims of hypothetical persons who would seek to deny the existence of my wife. It is true that I can point to my wife and say, “Look! She’s right there.” I cannot do that with God. In fact, that is something he has specifically prohibited. What I can do is something far more terrifying. I can point to myself and say, “Look! He’s right here.” For he lives in me. This terrifies me because it entails a responsibility to act in the world as his ambassador, bearing his message of peace and reconciliation to anyone who will listen. He requires me to love as he loves. His love drove him to incarnation and the cross. Where might it drive me? So I live before him in fear and trembling, not at his wrath, for the sacrifice of Jesus has already turned that away, but at the terrible weight of the glory of bearing his image in my own broken being. Yet this is a weight he himself helps me to bear. So I press on as well as I can, declaring God’s goodness to an angry and rebellious world. To anyone who listens he promises life, but though he grieves for those who refuse him, he lets them exercise their freedom to go their own way.

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logic mathematics philosophy race racism science

Fundamental Diversity

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“That’s just what I complain of,” said Humpty Dumpty. “Your face is that same as everybody has—the two eyes, so—” (marking their places in the air with this thumb) “nose in the middle, mouth under. It’s always the same. Now if you had the two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance—or the mouth at the top—that would be some help.” Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter 6, Lewis Carroll.

“The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.” 1 Corinthians 15:41

When I was learning about our solar system in school some 40 years ago, I remember seeing artist conceptions of the planets and their moons. The planets, for the most part, were featureless globes, varying one from another only in  color and size. Of course, Jupiter had its red spot, and Saturn had its rings, but there was no telling Neptune from Uranus or Mercury from Mars. The moons all looked the same, drawn after the manner of the only moon with which we were familiar, pocked with craters, rocky, and desolate.

What a difference 40 years makes!

Now we know a good deal more about other planets and their moons. Pick up a modern textbook about our solar system, and you will see much greater variety in the depictions of other planets and moons, especially the moons.  You’ll see images of Io, orbiting so close to Jupiter that tidal forces keep it hot enough to melt rock. It is covered with volcanoes, some ejecting plumes of lava as much as 500 km above the surface. Or you might see Europa, nearly craterless, but covered with fissures and cracks hundreds of kilometers long. You might also see Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, covered with a thick, cloudy atmosphere composed mostly of nitrogen but with enough methane and ethane in it that scientists speculate that combustible rains might fall on its surface. The moons in our solar system are so varied, from tiny Deimos orbiting Mars to Ganymede orbiting Jupiter, that it hardly seems right to call them all by the same name: moon.

The fact is, moon is an abstraction for natural satellites orbiting a planet. The process of abstraction always ignores differences and emphasizes similarities. One feature that distinguishes humans from other animals is an amazing capacity for pattern recognition, for an ability to abstract similarities and treat the abstractions in ways that uncover still more similarities, which in turn are further abstracted. This process is fundamental to human understanding and knowledge. It can’t be sidestepped or avoided. It is how we understand.

It is also responsible for many of our failures to understand.

For example, racism (or sexism, or any form of bigotry) can be characterized by abstracting information about a group of people different from ourselves often based on limited (or even no) direct experience and extrapolating that information to the entire group. My uncle, for example, who died many years ago, was in the Philippines during World War 2. While on patrol one evening, he was beaten and robbed by a group of African American soldiers. From this experience he conceived a terrible hatred for all African Americans. But why African Americans? Why not soldiers? Well, he himself was a soldier and knew he would not do as these soldiers had done. Due no doubt to other cultural influences of which he may have been only dimly aware, he seized upon skin color as the one defining characteristic that separated this group of soldiers from other soldiers of his experience and allowed himself to hate an entire group of people based only on their skin color.

Racism is an easy target since it is now almost universally despised. What about this sentiment from a recent Facebook post I saw:

If a group of workers organize to demand fair compensation, conservatives call it “communism”.
If a group of executives organize to buy politicians and manipulate markets, they call it “capitalism”.

Notice how it tars all conservatives with the same brush and refuses to see any differentiation among them. They are all the same. They are all contemptible. Of course, I could have just as easily used an example disparaging liberals or Democrats. We are all too willing to impute to our opponents the most self-serving motivations while claiming that we and our friends are motivated by love and justice. We are individuals, but they are an anonymous collective.  We are real people; they are manifestations of the hive mind.

But I began with astronomy, and I want to return to the physical sciences to pose a question: What if electron differs from electron? What if quark differs from quark? What if the fundamental particles that we treat as abstractions (in part because we can detect them only indirectly or not at all) are as individual as different people? One consequence is that science can never explain everything, not even in principle. Science must abstract qualities like mass and charge from reality, treat them mathematically, and make predictions based on the mathematics. The process of abstraction ignores individual differences. It must; two things cannot be similar unless their differences are minimized. No matter how complete our knowledge of reality or how accurate our models, we can never capture everything in a system because the very act of creating a model requires that we ignore some of the information. In fact, we could say that reality is characterized by this fundamental diversity. No two real things are ever exactly alike; being exactly alike is a hallmark of the artificial, of the mass produced—though even here reality intrudes and causes slight variations in the things we make. The ideal of what is made is exact correspondence to an idea in the mind of the maker, and the idea is always an abstraction.

There are consequences for philosophy, too. Kierkegaard sharply criticized Hegel for trying to create a fully integrated system that would explain all of reality. He pointed out that every arena of knowledge has its own appropriate vocabulary, precepts, and arguments that both define and limit that arena. Extending any arena of knowledge to make it universal also makes it into a kind of madness. It’s not that the project can’t be done; it’s that insisting on completeness and consistency does violence to fundamental human experience. A misplaced faith in the power of reason leads to madness because reason fundamentally deals with abstractions, not with realities. So reason is good and essential to understanding, but it must not be allowed to insist on understanding everything and making everything fit into its systems. For everything can be made to fit, but only by a Procrustean solution—stretching some things and lopping off others.

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