Wikipedia has changed the task of writing the average term paper.  “Wiki-papers”, I am tempted to call some of them.  Wikipedia has undoubtedly changed the intellectual landscape by making knowledge more accessible: never before have so many cited so much with so little effort.[1]  Rock formation, Wadi Rum desert, Jordan

   Improved access to knowledge is an obvious benefit, so long as that knowledge has truth and integrity.  The bigger and more difficult question is whether and to what extent Wikipedia alters the quality of knowledge.  In this regard, the effects of wiki-technologies are more ambiguous.

  Does the collaborative nature of Wikipedia create a new virtual reality-“wikiality“-where knowledge floats and migrates through time and cyberspace on the democratic winds of unsolicited edits?  Does this lead to a shift in which subject matter expertise counts for less than the popularity of competing perceptions?  This question leads into an interesting debate, which probes the foundations of knowledge itself.  If knowledge is based in hard objective facts, will those facts consistently rise to the surface through a process of continual editing, just as the monuments of solid rock in the Wadi Rum remain standing while the surrounding sands have been dispersed by the relentless forces of erosion over the millennia?  Or will solid truths be obscured by a new wikiality in which truth itself becomes contingent upon the averaging effects of mass perceptions?

  Jimmy Wales, the “community founder” of Wikipedia,[2] advocates the position known as “neutral point of view” (NPOV), which says that the forces of democratic open editing will lead to an equilibrium, the NPOV, by removing distortions of reality, and thus wikiality provides a trustworthy path to objective truth. [3]

  No matter the outcome of the debate over the perceived advantages and disadvantages of wikiality, wiki-phenomena open up an exciting prospect for the study of knowledge generation and transfer.  In particular, I would be interested in studies of theological knowledge.  For example, what does the idea of wikiality mean for religion?  Is there a virtual world of religious beliefs that moves and shifts with changing cultural forces as more voices gain access to the knowledge base?  Is there a similarity between the Wikipedia editorial board and ecclesial authorities?  The advent of wiki-technologies would seem to open the possibility for empirical study of doctrines, both religious and secular.

  By way of example I offer one suggestion for further study-how does the concept of NPOV apply to theology? NPOV says that knowledge reaches a steady-state equilibrium.  This would seem to be similar to the second law of thermodynamics which says that extremes of hot and cold average each other out over time, and arrive at a uniform constant temperature.  When applied to the universe, this law says that given enough time, everything in the whole universe will eventually decay into a “heat death” where there is no temperature or energy gradient. When applied to knowledge, this means that extreme views of reality will cancel each other out, and knowledge will thus stabilize in a statement of objective reality. 

  In Christ however, we worship a living God, not a stable of facts.  Truth therefore is a person, a living person, and the idea of NPOV would seem to be insufficient for true theology.  NPOV might share some traits with certain creedal statements, but the endorsement of creeds comes alive neither in publications nor advisory boards of editors, but rather in worship by living bodies in communities of faith.  This why Jürgen Moltmann describes theology in terms of life:

Every Christian theology [is] a concrete theologia viatorum, a theology of those on the way, who in the differing estrangements of this world and this history are searching for the one coming truth which will one day illumine everyone.[4]

Theology takes place in the act of walking alongside each other (on the via), seeking God, and in the presence of God.  The theory of NPOV might aid academic study of the flows of doctrines, but ultimately it is not up to the task of theologia viatorum.  NPOV is more likely to reach equilibrium in the manufacture of a Golden Calf than in worship of the living triune God of grace.

[1] Well, please forgive me for saying this with a smirk, as I reflect on the exercise of grading term papers, but were you expecting to see a wiki-citation here?  See below for an example:[2] (26 June 2008).

[3] Jimmy Wales and his colleague Larry Sanger take opposing sides in this debate.  There’s a good synopsis of Wales’ Wikipedia experience in “The Free-Knowledge Fundamentalist”, The Economist Technology Quarterly, June 7, 2008, pp. 27-28.

[4] Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), pp. 60-61.

natural theology and the via negationis

       The heavens declare the glory of God;                                                  the skies proclaim the work of his hands.         Psalm 19:1

fingerprint I’ve always loved the night sky.  The ebullient stars and the lugubrious black depths between them beckon thrilling attention to the grandeur of nature.  At the same time, this grandeur invariably reminds me of a reality so far beyond our comprehension that I could never hope to fathom God.  Psalm 19 captures this numinous moment in which we apprehend the glory of nature.  No matter whether we believe in God or not, and no matter which “God” we believe in, this verse speaks truthfully regarding the moment of apprehension. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has caught the eerie, wispy tendrils of a dark interstellar cloud being destroyed by the passage of one of the brightest stars in the Pleiades star cluster. Like a flashlight beam shining off the wall of a cave, the star is reflecting light off the surface of pitch black clouds of cold gas laced with dust. These are called reflection nebulae.

If the stars, and indeed all of nature, speak of the glory of God, then what can we learn about God through nature?  This is the perennial question of ‘natural theology’: If God has left his fingerprints upon the creation, then what do these fingerprints tell us about God himself? With ever more powerful telescopes, microscopes and DNA sequencers, we peer ever more deeply into the heart of the cosmos, learning more about creation and life itself as we go.  But can we really know God by looking at his fingerprints?  After all, the psalmist stops short of saying that the heavens reveal God in person; rather, they reveal his glory, his magnitude.

If we limit our knowledge to observations of nature, allowing no quarter to any self-revelation by God in the form of the Bible or Jesus Christ, then we will be confined by the limits of human reason and senses to make sense of things.  This is the essence of ‘natural theology.’  Philosophy and metaphysics become our guides, and these tools have led to widely varying conceptions of reality-stoicism, Epicureanism, humanism, nihilism, utilitarianism, naturalism and deism, to name just a few-each with its own self-ratifying internal logic and self-judged coherence. But to what “God” do these conceptions lead?  We might say these have led to many ‘gods’, each defined on the basis of human perceptions and reason, but to one unique God they have not led.  Rather, if natural theology is to make any comment on the one God, it will necessarily be through the via negationis, that is, the “negative way”.  This way proceeds by making statements about what we can not know or say about God, because God’s ways are inscrutable and his being too immense for our puny brains to fathom.  He remains forever “cloud hidden, whereabouts unknown”, according to the mystical wisdom of the Tao.

Indeed, there is a long-standing respect in Christianity and many other religions for the value of the “negative way”.  St Augustine acknowledged the impossibility of scientific description of God when he said, “We can know what God is not, but we cannot know what He is.”[1]  Thus, he admitted, “I speak only so that I not be required to remain silent.”  In this confession he seemed to anticipate Wittgenstein’s bon mot: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  This is the path of the via negationis in theology-to articulate that which God is not, because our language and reason are incapable of saying what he is.  This is the only scientific path open to natural theology.  Other paths lack internal consistency, and thus must be ruled out as un-scientific.  This is the spirit in which Karl Barth objected to natural theology, not for any failure of its powers of observation or reason, but because it ignored the rigorous limits of its own self-imposed logic in via negationis whenever it ventured to make positive statements regarding the one God, the God known through the history of Israel, Jesus and the Bible:

When perceived in its epistemological significance, this means that we are unable to achieve through our own natural powers and capacities the cognitive union with God which true knowledge of him requires.[2]

Thus for Barth, natural theology (theologia naturalis) remains inescapably shackled by the handcuffs of the via negationis, which constrains knowledge of God to the abstractions of human reason; whereas revealed theology (theologia revelata) is never shackled in this way.  Revealed theology rather proceeds from positive knowledge of God as the self-revealing One:

We cannot ask: “Is God knowable?”  For God is actually known and therefore God is obviously knowable.  We cannot ask about an abstract possibility of the knowledge of God.  We can ask only about its concrete possibility as definitely present already in its actual fulfillment.[3]

True knowledge of the true God is positive knowledge, actualized by God in self-revelation.  This knowledge is revealed in Jesus.  It is historical and concrete knowledge of the sort that lies beyond the horizon accessible by the paths of abstract metaphysical reasoning.  It is grounded in “nothing other than the concrete and unique story of Christ.”[4]

So, we can learn much about glory, immanence, and immensity through nature, seeing the “fingerprints” of God therein.  But if we are to move from description of the attributes of those fingerprints to knowledge of the one true God, and not away from Him into abstractions and ‘-isms’, then we must meet the person to whom the fingerprints belong: Jehovah, Emmanuel, Holy Spirit. 

Whitehead sagaciously surveyed the philosophical boundaries of science and discerned that the success of science lay in its foundation:

It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher.’[5]

There are two essential ingredients here-rationality and the personal God, Jehovah, who gives that rationality positive meaning, freeing it from the bonds of the via negationis.  This latter ingredient is recognized by the prophet who also stood under the glory of the night sky and rather than acquiescing to the limits of abstraction, discerned its meaning in knowledge of the one true God who can be named:

He who maketh the Pleiades and Orion, and turneth the deep darkness into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night; who calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: Jehovah is his name.  [Amos v.8]

[1] De Trinitate.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (T&T Clark, 1990), p. 143.  Torrance insightfully concludes: “[Barth’s] struggle with the problem of natural theology is also a struggle for rigorous scientific method in theology”, Ibid. p. 145.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, pp. 63-4.

[4] CD, IV/1, p. 75.

[5] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1925), p. 18.

 talking points…

Eustace: “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”                Ramandu: “Even in our world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”   

Ramandu, the “retired” star, imparts age-old wisdom to Eustace, the smart school-boy, in C. S. Lewis’ tale, Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Close-up of white dwarf stars at center of Milky Way galaxy (Hubble, NASA)

What is a star?  Is it a huge ball of flaming gas?  Or is it a piercing point of light that skewers the darkness of night with a fire that sears the apprehending soul?  Yes.  And, No.  One definition strives for quantifiable exactness, while the other revels in the sensation of something too awesome for words.  Both descriptions say something true, and yet each falls far short of reality. Both answers might fairly be deemed “Star-Talk”, that is, talking about stars with the intent of saying something important.  But of course, as the wise old Ramandu knows from first-person experience, a star itself is more than either answer can express.

Theology is like that too.  We might as well call it “God-Talk”.  We can use all kinds of language to describe God: in terms of metaphysical attributes, personal qualities, and worshipful encounters, and of course there are the names recorded in the Bible.  Do any of these words tell us who God is?  Yes.  And, No.  Yes, but only in the event of his self-disclosure, and not in the power of our language to contain Him or define him.

For God-Talk to succeed in its goal of expressing something important, requires a posture of worship, in which we recognize God as the one who makes himself known.  Otherwise God-Talk too quickly devolves into metaphysics, psychology or philosophy, setting aside ultimate reality in the pursuit of a self-referential coherence.  Likewise, Star-Talk can devolve into physics, and set ultimate reality aside in the pursuit of a coherent self-referential mathematical language.  This is not to deny the validity of the physics and math; they are not false; they are true.  We need them, and value them for their coherence.  It’s just that they don’t capture ultimate reality.  To know what a star is, the scientist needs to apprehend the star, not just talk about the star.  God-Talk is like that, too.

Has God stopped creating, or is he still at work as Creator?  The creation is clearly complete in some important sense, for “on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” [Gen. 2:2].  Yet in another sense we know that God is still at work, as Jesus said in explanation for the miracle of healing he performed on the Sabbath: “My Father is still working, and I also am working” [John 5:17].  Herein lies another beautiful paradox of theology, another paradox which seems to deny the simplicity of either/or questions.  The question of God’s on-going activity in the creation seems to demand an answer in the form of “both/and”, in order to sustain two paradoxical truths: God finished the creation and rested, and yet the creation is made new by the trinitarian living God.[1]Baptism of Jesus

This paradox expresses the heart of the debate over the idea of “continuous creation” – the idea that God is still actively exercising creative power.   As a scientist-theologian, John Polkinghorne reads “the book of nature” as providing strong evidence for the on-going creative activity of God:

The scientific recognition of the evolutionary character of the universe has encouraged theological recognition of the immanent presence of God to creation and of the need to complement the concept of creatio ex nihilo by a concept of creatio continua.  Continuous creation has been an important theme in the writings of the scientist-theologians.[2]

Continual creation also finds support in trinitarian theology, for the doctrine of God would seem to require some form of on-going creative activity, if we are to avoid the reductionist idea of God as the maker of a “clockwork universe”-a god who created the cosmos and then stepped aside to let it run on its own.  This is the basic idea of Deism: that God has stopped working.  We reject this notion based on the witness of Jesus as still alive and working, both during his ministry in Palestine, and now through the Holy Spirit: He is yet alive, and is the one who says, “See, I am making all things new” [Rev. 21:5].  God also spoke through the prophet: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” [Isaiah 65:17]. 

But there is a risk of carrying this idea of continuous creation too far.  We must keep in mind the sense in which the creation is “finished”, and not contingent upon our human freedom or any random sequence of events. Oliver O’Donovan rightly warns against the mistaken ideas of voluntarism and historicism which imply that human will and behavior are changing the course of God’s creation:

Classical Christian theology took trouble to distinguish between the ideas of ‘creation’ and ‘providence’. … The modern faith in ‘continuous creation’ is merely the latest form in which forgetfulness of this dialectic between order and contingency betrays itself.[3]

By rejecting continuous creation outright, O’Donovan seeks to avoid the slide into relativism which makes our moral judgments arbitrary.  Such relativism occurs if we conceive of the moral order as an evolving function of human choices, rather than as a pre-existent reality established by God at the Creation.  Thus O’Donovan warns: “Creation as a completed design is presupposed by any movement in time.  Its teleological order … is not a product of the historical process.”[4]  With this slide to relativism in mind, O’Donovan rejects the variety of humanistic existentialism that would imply the moral order is a creation of our own imaginations.  O’Donovan thus asks the rhetorical question:

 “Is cosmic order really present in the world, or is it imposed upon reality by the human mind?”[5]

But is this a false dichotomy?  Are we really forced to choose between moral order and existential relativism?  And does relativism really result from the doctrine of continuous creation?  That dichotomy seems to unfairly paint the idea of continuous creation into a (heretical) corner.  Indeed, there is an equally unfair false dichotomy awaiting us  in the opposite direction, if we deny too aggressively the possibility of on-going creation.  The problem is that a categorical denial of the possibility that God is yet active as a creative presence in the creation is tantamount to Deism. Such a move into Deism supports natural theology within a doctrine of God.  Here’s why: If there is no sense in which we may conceive of God as being actively at work in the creation, then we might as well base our doctrine of God on observation of the natural and moral order within the creation. In other words, knowledge of the natural would lead us to understand the mind of God, if we were to presume that God is no longer at work in creation. Polkinghorne recognizes the risk of heading too far in this direction:

 … [A]notion of continuous creation may be expected to go beyond a deistic upholding of the universe in being, for so strong a concept seems inadequately realized in terms of the God of natural theology alone, who is simply the ground of cosmic order.[6]

Thus, we conclude that the either/or alternative of continuous creation vs. relativism is a false dichotomy.   We do not need to deny God’s on-going creativity in order to sustain a coherent doctrine of objective moral order.  Rather, the challenge is to formulate a doctrine of God that encompasses both the possibility of continuous creation and the objective reality of moral order which displays God’s teleological purpose for the creation, without moral reality becoming contingent upon the whims of history brought forth through human freedom. Such a doctrine of God is entirely within the scope of trinitarian theology, for the mystery of participation in Christ encompasses both God’s freedom and human freedom.  This is the biblical witness to the interplay of God and human wills as being within the power of the Holy Spirit.[7]

Polkinghorne offers the helpful suggestion that kenosis provides a fruitful approach to understand the interplay of human and divine freedom:

[T]he Creator’s kenotic love includes allowing divine special providence to act as a cause among causes.[8]

Our doctrine of God can thus remain robustly immune from the dangers of polarizing statements either of (a) existential relativism as a necessary implication of continuous creation; or (b) natural theology as a necessary condition of the objective reality and teleological completeness of the of the moral order.  The “trick”, if there is one, is to sustain the mystery of inescapable paradox in the biblical witness to participation in Christ as the walk of faithful obedience and worship of the Triune God of Grace.[9]  Paradox is unavoidable in Trinitarian theology, and attempts to dispose of the paradox lead us away from the mysterious heart of our relationship with God.  We give Polkinghorne the last word here:

Kenotic theology is inevitably paradoxical theology, for it is founded on the concept of the humility of God.[10]

[1] This need for a balanced “both/and” answer brings to mind the humorous observation of Colin Gunton regarding the task of theology: “To seek ‘balance’ as a primary end in theology is to court boredom, if not disaster; yet imbalance can also be catastrophic.  Such are the difficulties of the discipline.” Act & Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes (Eerdmans, 2002), p. 20.  We shall see in this paper how imbalance can be catastrophic to the doctrine of God, and we shall seek to remain unbalanced enough to avoid boredom.[2] John Polkinghorne, “Kenotic Creation and Divine Action”, in The Work of Love: Creation and Kenosis, ed. John Polkinghorne (Eerdmans, 2001), p. 95.

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Eerdmans, 1986), p. 61.

[4] Op. cit., p. 63.

[5] Op. cit., p. 67.

[6] The Work of Love, p. 96.

[7] The interplay of divine and human spirits, as well as the inter-relationship among the Trinitarian Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has long been a foundation of Christian theology.  The concept of perichoresis dates back to the Cappodocians (esp. Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus) as a description of the ‘relation between the divine and human natures in Christ.’  For an insightful explanation of perichoresis, see T. A. Dearborn, “God, Grace and Salvation”, in Christ in Our Place: the humanity of God in Christ for the reconciliation of the world : essays presented to James Torrance, eds. Trevor A. Hart and Daniel P. Thimell, (Paternoster, 1989), pp. 265-293.

[8] The Work of Love, p. 104.

[9] J. B. Torrance has definitively expressed the doctrine of God in these terms in Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Paternoster, 1996).

[10] The Work of Love, p. 106.

Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture to the science faculty at Regensburg (12 Sept. 2006) stirred up a lot of controversy, which unfortunately obscured the point of his talk on “Faith, Reason and the University”.   His topic echoed the question posed by Tertullian some 1800 years ago- “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”[1] Tertullian’s point was that philosophy can be a tool of heresy, as Paul warns against: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe,? and not according to Christ.” [Col. 2:8].

Temple of Hephaestes, AthensWith respect to the Pope’s address to the scientific community at the university we might rephrase the question as, “What indeed has Regensburg to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, what can science and philosophy have to do with faith?  While the admonitions of Paul and Tertullian with respect to heretical philosophies remain perennially valid, there are indeed a lot of reasons for the Pope to invite faith into a dialog with science and philosophy which is not heretical.  The reason is reason itself.  The academic disciplines share reason with faith.  Reason as a whole is part of the creation established and sustained by God.  Thus the reasonableness of faith, and reasons for having faith in reason at all, are foundational for  all intellectual pursuits.  Science and faith are naturally brought into dialog by their shared desire to understand the creation.  As Colin Gunton reminds us:

Christianity is a philosophical faith, at least in the respect that in its main streams it has never renounced the conceptual task: the task of making clear in what manner its gospel is true, and true in the same sense that other things are true-for example the concepts and formulae in which natural scientists give accounts of their discoveries.[2]

The need for this dialog becomes obvious when we face the big questions of life which science fails to address:  ethics and value, human experience and meaning.  This is why I see ethics at the heart of the matter when it comes to the dialog between science and faith.  This is the realm in which Athens and Regensburg each have something to do with Jerusalem – of course there is little gained from dialog with heretical philosophies, as Tertullian warned against; but rather, the value comes from an openness to seek the whole realm of reason by every gift of intellect and every discipline of study that God has given us.

Benedict XVI notes two errors which can derail this dialog – it can fail either by sliding into a subjectivism which leads to “sheer impenetrable voluntarism”, or by falling into the trap of “the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable.”[3]    Thus, the twin perils which threaten the integration of faith and reason are voluntarism on the one hand, and empiricism on the other.  Dialog between faith and science collapses when either of these ‘~isms’ prevails, because neither of them can sustain the wholeness of reason.

Likewise, our ethics also collapses if we ever base moral knowledge on either voluntarism or empiricism; neither of these can bear the weight of ethics.  We seek therefore an approach to ethics that validates both the internal reality of personal experience, and the external reality of the created order.  This tension between the internal and external aspects of reality lies at the heart of evangelical ethics. 

[1] Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum, vii (“On the prescription of heretics”).  This passage continues: “What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians?”[2] Colin Gunton, Act & Being, (Eerdmans, 2002), p. 21.

[3] “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”, lecture at University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006.

Alethiometer, the imaginary “truth-o-meter” featured in The Golden Compass (c) Scholastic Ltd.  “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” [John 8:32]

There’s a poignant scene in the movie Golden Compass.[1] Lyra, a 12-year-old wise beyond her years, is handed a magical mechanical instrument which looks like a golden compass. This “compass” however is not designed to point to true north; rather, it points to truth. By manipulating its clock-like hands and dial the operator can read the true answer to almost any question of past or present reality (tellingly, the compass is not much good for any questions about the future). It’s called an “Alethiometer”, from the Greek word for truth – aletheia. Thus, it’s a “truth-o-meter”.

Having never seen an alethiometer before, Lyra is frustrated in her first attempts. Then a wise elder in the art tells her, “You must approach as if it were alive.” With her new-found recognition that truth is alive, Lyra quickly masters the art of alethiometry.

I wonder if Lyra ever stopped to think about what it means for truth to be alive. What kind of truth is this living truth? Is the truth, 2+2=4, alive? Or how about the truth that water freezes at 0 degrees C? Is that kind of truth alive? It’s not patently obvious why we should need to approach those truths as being alive. We seem not to find a lot of life in such cold facts; rather, we find life in an entirely different set of questions. We find life in questions that require discernment and awareness of how it is that we can know something. For example: How do we know right from wrong? How do we know that we love or are loved? How do we know who we can trust? Or even, how do we know that we are alive? These are truth-seeking questions that can be answered only as they are revealed in our lives.

I would put ethics in this realm of living truths. Ethical questions cut straight to the heart of being: they have no truth apart from the life of a living creature (you or me) who can apprehend them and wrestle with them. If it were not so: if ethical questions could be relegated to a book of arithmetic facts, like 2+2=4, then we wouldn’t need to be alive to give them meaning. We could set up a computer program that would run the rules of ethics. That is not a very life-giving idea of truth; nor is it a very live-giving idea of life!

What makes truth alive is relationship. A scientist discovers life in a truth when she or he approaches in a relationship which admires and respects nature. We all find life in truths that reveal who we are and how we shall live. So the alethiometrist was right – truth is alive. It’s not mechanical like a golden compass. Truth exists where there exists a living relationship to reality. That’s the meaning of life. It’s the answer to the deepest epistemological question: “What is truth?” (cf. John 18.38).

[1] Based on the novel His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman. Pullman’s novels have attracted controversy because of his stated deliberate attempt to defeat religious faith: “My books are about killing God,” he says. (quoted by Jeffrey Overstreet, 30 November 2007, in the article at Christianity Today International website:

Moonrise over the Wadi Rum desert in present-day Jordan.  What is it about the desert that makes it a spiritual place?  From Abraham, to Moses, to Jesus, the desert defines crucial moments in spiritual growth.  No sooner has Jesus been baptized and the witnesses have heard the voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”, than he is driven by the Spirit into the desert wilderness.  He is alone there, but for one other voice – the devil’s. [Luke 3:22; 4:1-14]As Luke reports these things, he pauses to tell us who Jesus is – He is “the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of …” and so on… for a whole page of genealogy. [Luke 3:23-38].  These are important historical details, and they do indeed tell us who Jesus is.  In order to know someone it helps to know where they come from; it’s usually one of the first questions we ask, to learn who their people are, and from what roots they have grown.

But we can’t really know a person from merely from genealogy.  And so, with his very next sentence, following this family history, Luke reports that Jesus was led into the desert, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days.  Now we see more clearly who this Jesus really is.  The devil gives Jesus the chance to prove who he is, to prove he is the Son of God, to prove he is the beloved and anointed one who comes in power.

And what does Jesus do with this opportunity?  He turns down the offer.  He says no.  He has the opportunity to save himself from hunger, and at the same time to save the world from doubt.  And he turns it down.  He chooses not to show anyone who he is by such actions.  He chooses not to prove that he is the Son of God.  And in that choice, which represents abject failure in the eyes of the devil, and in the eyes of the Grand Inquisitor,[1] and potentially in our own eyes as well, Jesus reveals who he truly is, for he is not defined by our ideas of how he might exercise his power.  He is not defined by the devil’s gambit.  Nor is he defined by our wish that he might prove his glory and deliver the world through main force.  He is not defined by anything we can think of for him to do for us.  No, he derives his identity from none of the above.  His identity comes rather from the one and only desire of his heart – to be his beloved Father’s Son.  His identity rests entirely in this relationship.

And so this desert place, where Jesus says “No”, is the place where the grand unspoken “Yes” of his true identity gives him the strength, hope and love to be who he really is.

This is the power of the desert – to strip us of all the details and entanglements, temptations and opportunities which we so often use to define who we are.  But the job and the paycheck do not define who we are; nor do the grades or the medals; nor do the praises or criticisms. No, none of the above.  The Yes’s that define us are the relationships that we hold most dearly in our hearts – the relationships defined by life, not by genealogy. And the one relationship that defines us most completely, the relationship that reveals the single-most core of our being, is the relationship with God the Father through Jesus the Son.  This relationship tells us who we are – God’s daughters and sons, made so by Jesus who reveals who he truly is by refusing temptation in the desert.  Jesus is the one who shows us who we are truly meant to be.

[1] I have commented below on the Grand Inquisitor in “The Temptation of Christ(ianity)”.

The movie Golden Compass opens with a quick, professorial tutorial on the metaphysics of multiple universes, in which anything can happen, and eventually even does happen if there are infinite universes.  From there we are led into a magical world of adventure in which people can be separated from their very souls.  Let’s set aside this incoherent and troubled definition of “soul” for the moment, and consider the premise of multiple or infinite universes.  This fascinating idea comes straight out of the pages of current scientific journals.  Brilliant Nebula

Dennis Overbye, writing in the NY Times sums up this modern school of thought succinctly:

According to the [theory] called eternal inflation, an endless array of bubble or “pocket” universes are branching off from one another at a dizzying and exponentially increasing rate. They could have different properties and perhaps even different laws of physics, so the story goes.[1]

This is an outcome of the mathematics of probability that physicists have devised to explain how fluctuations in matter, energy and space itself could possibly form new universes like bubbles in a stream of time.  If you wait long enough, anything could happen, and eventually does happen, when the math yield infinite possibilities.

What then is real? We may ask in the oldest of philosophical questions.   Is this world, this universe, real?  Are they all real?  Or are they all simply fluctuations predicted by math?  It strikes me that this view of the universe fits quite comfortably with Plato’s philosophy.  For Plato, the ideas themselves were the reality, not the various material instances of them which we encounter in this life.  Likewise, in the case of a “multiverse” in which every idea “happens” somewhere, in some “universe”, how could we say that those happenings were really real?  The equations underlying the multiverse might be the real reality, but the happenings and instances themselves would somehow be “less real”.  You end up with degrees of reality,[2] as it were, in which case some things are less real than others.

But don’t worry, the physicists have not all lost their minds; most of them would agree with Steven Weinberg who says, “These kinds of speculation are fun, but they are not science, yet.”  Weinberg repeats the one-liner of the late great Caltech Nobelist Richard Feynman, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”[3]

As preposterous as the multiverse seems, it does raise the question of why we should believe there is anything special about this particular universe, this particular world, and this particular life.  What difference would it make if we believed there were infinite universes instead of just this one? 

It makes all the difference in the world… A multiverse of infinite universes would strip all life of meaning.  Every world would become an “un-universe”, a non-universe reduced to unreality, because every decision and every history would be refuted by a an infinite array of counterexamples.  Is this any way to live?  After all, how can any of this world be real if there is another universe next door where I am doing and saying and believing in any number of different things?

An un-universe is not a very interesting place to live.  This one is far superior.


[1] Dennis Overbye, “Big Brain Theory: Have Cosmologists Lost Theirs?”, NY Times, Jan. 15, 2008.

[2] For a good treatment of this idea, see Vlastos, G., Platonic Studies (2nd ed., Princeton, 1981), pp. 58-75.

[3] Dennis Overbye, “Laws of Nature, Source Unknown”, NY Times, 18 December 2007.

    When I was a kid, the ads in Boy’s Life magazine fascinated me, especially the ones selling the mysterious creatures called Sea-Monkeys.  Just add water and these creatures come to life! So the ads claimed. I couldn’t believe it.  How a living animal could be dried up like an old carrot stick, shipped through the mail, and then magically come to life in a bowl of water in my kitchen.  I figured it had to be a hoax, false advertising, or a waste of money, and I never ordered any of the plastic-wrapped sea creatures.I understand the life cycle of the brine shrimp “Sea-Monkey” better now, but I still don’t believe in “miracle by mail-order”.  There’s another type of miracle though that is not so easily explained-the miracle of faith.  How does someone come to believe in God, and what’s more, to communicate with God?  Is this just one more pseudo-miracle to be explained like the Sea Monkey? Is it a matter of wanting to believe (like Freud argued), and then trying to believe (like gurus teach) until we feel we believe, and then start to believe that we believe? If that’s the way faith works, then it really is no more miraculous than a Sea-Monkey, and we really can bring something dead to life by “just adding water”. That would be a pseudo-miracle, not a real one.

Brine shrimp, aka, “sea-monkey” when in state of cryptobiosis.  Size: a few millimeters.

If God is real however, then faith is a likewise real miracle, not a fake one.  And if faith is a real miracle, then it has to be God’s doing, because we can’t pull the trick off by ourselves. We can’t produce the “mail-order miracle” for ourselves by “just adding water” or any other type of recipe.  Karl Barth understood this well, in describing how faith happens-

A sheer miracle must happen to him, a second miracle in addition to the miracle of his own existence, if his life shall be a true Christian life, which is a life within the hearing of God’s Word.  This miracle is the office of the Holy Spirit.[1]

It’s a miracle, because God, in the office (or, “the action”) of the Holy Spirit, must do it.  We can’t do it by just adding water or any other special sauce we can concoct out of our own personalities or will-power.  And because God’s miraculous action takes priority, it would also seem to be an on-going process, not a once-and-for-all miracle that took place in our past:

… God’s revelation must be ever increasingly becoming the voice of the living God to us, seeing that God is continually saying to us what he said by the mouth of prophets and apostles once for all, so too the outer and inner constraints of our existence must be ever acquiring the character of divine indications, duties, and promises through the divine speech to us.[2]

Notice here the emphasis Barth places on the participles becoming and acquiring, to indicate the present and continual active, living role of God in the acquisition and apperception of divine speech.  Without this living presence of the living God, there is no miracle, and faith lies as dead.

It’s not the non-living water that brings the Sea Monkey to life; rather, it’s the life that was already in the Sea Monkey’s body to begin with, though it lies dormant.  Likewise, it’s not non-living water from our own hands and efforts that brings our faith alive; rather it’s the living water of Christ that makes us alive in a new way as we are born anew of the Spirit.

[1] Karl Barth’s 1929 lectures published as: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: the theological basis of ethics, translated by R. Birch Hoyle (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) p. 11.[2] Ibid., p. 9.

   Sir Edmund Hillary celebrates work with Sherpa people on behalf of the American Hiimalyan FoundationI met Sir Edmund once about ten years ago, at a dinner with the American Himalayan Foundation, a charitable organization that supports humanitarian projects among the Sherpa people whom Sir Edmund loved.  It was a memorable moment for me, but certainly not for Sir Edmund.I remember how gracious Sir Edmund was to me, a complete stranger.  He warmly received my introduction, tolerated my inconsequential dialog, and posed for a picture with me.  He displayed a humble gentleness that I have also encountered in my meetings with the first American to summit Everest, Jim Whittaker, and his rope-mate Gombu, a Sherpa man related to Hillary’s rope-mate Tenzing Norgay.

These giants of climbing history are humble.  My own miniscule climbing experience has taught me this much — mountains make you humble.  Mountains reveal the power and majesty of a creation that strips us of all pretension. Perhaps Hillary, Whittaker, Gombu and others in their league have faced risks of fame down here in the land of media circuses and chicken dinners on white table cloths, but the mountains do not present that particular kind of risk.  Mountains make us more human, because they make us more aware of our place in comparison with the size of creation and its Creator.

Along with unknown millions, I add my humble salute to Sir Edmund, and the fine example he set for the rest of us.

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