Friday, August 27, 2010

Predestination and Free Will Part IV: The Results of Making a Choice

In part III of this series I asked you to consider the following questions: 1) could I really have made any different choices in my life?  Once I make a choice, are the choices that I have forsaken a real possibility?

Lets take these questions in order.

First, could I really have made any different choices in my life.  Sure, one can speculate, but if you consider my line of reasoning so far, I am not sure that I "could" have made any different choices.  I have argued that a person makes any given choice based upon what seemed "best" to them at the moment of the choice.  And I have argued that what seemed "best" is determined largely by personality and upbringing (i.e., experiences).  Let us just say for the sake of argument that I had a time machine and could literally go back and re-experience a choice in my life. But, the minute I go back and re-live the moment of the choice, I do not have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight.  I am reliving the moment just as I lived it the first time.  Would I make a different choice?  If so, why?  What changed that I deemed something else "best" at that moment.  The answer is that nothing has changed.  My personality is still the same.  My experiences in life are exactly the same as the first time I made the choice.  So, what would drive me to choose something else as "best?"  I would argue that there is not a real possibility of me choosing differently, even given a second go around. 

Sure, there are choices that I have made in my life that looking back I see I could have made a better choice.  But, we don't have the advantage of looking back and then choosing again.  We can sometimes correct bad choices, but we can never relive them again for the first time. 

This line of reasoning leads to the second question: are the options that I did not choose a real possibility?  If, as I argued above, I could not have made any different choices in my life, then are the options that I passed on a real possibility?  Were they ever a real possibility? 

(Sanity warning.  When I reach this level of my argument, my head starts to hurt and my brain starts to whirl about like a tornado.  Just thought I would warn you.  Things could get crazy).

What my logic leads me to is that the options I did not choose were never a real possibility because I could not choose any other way than I did. 

So, where does this leave me.  It seems like things are predetermined and I had no "real" choice.  It felt like I had a choice, but I really didn't.

Let me finish this post as I would have several years ago, like a good Calvinist.  A good Calvinist would probably agree with most of what I have said so far, and they would come to the same conclusions, namely, that things are predetermined.  And, a good Calvinist would say that all of these things are predetermined by a good God who has a plan for the world and our lives.  Therefore we should rest in faith in this good God. 

While this theology brought me comfort for some time, it just didn't ring true.  It makes sense to my head, but not to my heart and my experience.  This is where the fracture in my self comes in.  My logic and head tell me one thing, and my heart and experience tells me another.  I don't like to be fractured or separated,  I like to be whole?  So where do we go from here?  For next time, I will discuss the consequences of my line of reasoning so far and possible ways that I can avoid being fractured.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

KJV only

I must say, that I have never come across anyone who advocated a "King James Version ONLY" position, but in doing some youtube "research" looking for a video on the number of different bible versions that are available today, all that I could get the search results to bring up were videos on the kjv only controversy. 

I became engrossed in the videos.  I found them fascinating.  Not from a scholarly viewpoint, but from a willful ignorance viewpoint. 

Here is what a KJV only person would have you believe.

In 1611 God once and for all preserved his perfect word in English in the King James Bible.  Moreover, as a bolster to this faith claim, kjv only proponents will quote Rev. 22:18-19 which, in the kjv reads:

"For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book." 
 So, if anyone takes away from kjv or adds to it, they are in danger of plagues and removal from the holy city.

Where the willful ignorance comes in is here.  The kjv was a monumental achievement in human scholarship.  It was based upon a number of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts that represented the best in biblical scholarship at the end of the 16th century.  Often this scholarship came under fire from the proponents of the dominant bible of the time, the Latin Vulgate used by the Roman Catholic Church.  Yet, the protestants, seeking for the sources of their faith relentlessly attempted to compile the best Greek manuscripts and the best translators to translate them into English so that the common man and woman could read the Bible.  All wonderful things.

Yet, the problem comes in then saying that the scholarship in finding and compiling Greek texts had come to completeness and perfection after only about 100 years of real scholarly effort.  As a field of study biblical textual criticism was still relatively young in 1611.  Since that time there have been further monumental achievements in the field, notably, the discovery of codex Sinaiticus in mid 1800s and the discovery of many even older papyrus manuscripts.  Kjv only proponents ignore all new scholarship while at the same time basing their bible on 400 year old scholarship.  Interesting don't you think?

If you want some entertainment, do a youtube search for "kjv only" and you will find hours of fun.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Rain Falls on the Just and Unjust Alike

And it comes out of nowhere.

Yesterday was forecast to be 104 degrees and sunny.  Yet, while I was teaching in the afternoon, all of a sudden the sky opened up and emptied its contents on Waco, Tx.  Baylor got hit pretty hard, but nothing compared to my neighborhood. 

I knew things were not right when the street lights were out near my home.  As I drove along, I started to see downed limbs, and behold, downed trees.  I pulled into the gas station to fill up and the power was out. 

I started to fear what might have happened at my house. 

I drove home along my street and the same story, downed limbs and trees littered the pavement.

As Jesus tells us, the rain falls on the just and unjust alike. So, how did I fare?  The tree in my backyard was split in two. 

Yet, I did not fare as bad as some of my neighbors.  The cottonwood tree next door was split pretty bad and the beautiful crape myrtle three houses down was destroyed. 

I only lost a lousy hackberry tree in my back yard.  It really was a pretty useless tree.  It is was in the middle of the yard, provided no shade for the house, and was not all that pretty. 

My neighbors lost gorgeous trees in their front yards.  There really is no theological point here, only that I feel lucky I lost as little as I did.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


If you, like me grew up going to Sunday School on Sunday mornings, what do you remember?

If you are like me, you don't remember theories of the atonement.  You don't remember Paul's discussion of the flesh vs. the spirit.  You don't remember the instructions to Moses on how to build the ark, or on the theology of Job. 

No, you remember the stories.  You remember Moses crossing the red sea, Samson bringing down the Philistine temple, Daniel in the Lions' den, Jesus clearing the temple, Paul on his missionary journeys.

Stories have a way of capturing our imagination in a way that propositional language do not, that is why the stories stick with us.  That is why Jesus taught in parables. That is why I am glad that the Bible, in its essence is a story.  It is not an instruction manual, but a story of the people of God and their journey on this earth. 

Today I begin another semester teaching the Bible to my Baylor freshmen, and I get to share with them that story.  I love my job!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Free Will and Predestination Part III: Why do I consider some things "Best"?

Before I jump in on part three of three of this series, I would like to direct your attention to my wife's recent blog posts (Part 1, Part 2) on an equally interesting metaphysical question about what makes up a human, that is, are we made up of body, soul, spirit, mind, heart, gut, etc...  It is actually a phenomenal couple of posts. 

In part II of this series I made the following claim:
"When a person is faced with a choice, they choose the option that, for them, at that moment seems best."
In this post I would like to dig deeper to consider the really big question, why do I consider some things "best."  Or, to put it another way, why do I choose what I choose.

This really is the biggest question in this matter as it cuts to the very heart of the debate, do I choose because I was predestined by God, or do I master my own reality?

So, why do I think some things best?  Why did I choose to get up this morning before dawn and take a half an hour long walk?  Why did I choose, not only once, but twice, to attend Baylor for my education? Why did I choose to marry my wonderful wife?

All of these questions can be answered by saying that at the moment of those choices, I chose what I thought was "best."  But why?

The answer to this question is complex.  As I have studied the matter more, I have learned how influential two factors are: 1) my personality, and 2) my upbringing.

For example, if I am faced with a choice of going to a busy downtown club to have a drink with with my wife, or to sit at home on the couch and watch a good movie with my wife, nine times out of ten I will choose the latter.  This is because my personality is introverted.  I get energy from being alone or with a small group of friends.  Large groups of strangers sap my energy (luckily my wife is the same way).  But what about the one time out of ten that I choose to go to the club?  It usually has to do something with my upbringing.  Lets modify the situation slightly and say that the invite to the club came from a longtime friend whom I have not seen in a long while.  Then I will go to the club.  Not because it is really all that appealing to me (my personality), but, my sense of loyalty and responsibility to my friend jumps in.

Now, if you look back at my first post, you will see that I had very little, if anything to do with either my personality or my upbringing.  Sure, I have influenced it in small ways, usually by the choices I have made, but only in small ways.  Much of my personality was determined genetically by my parents (whom I did not chose), and by my upbringing (which was determined by my parents).  So, in many choices, factors that I had no control over determined my choices.  They are still my choices, and I am fully responsible for them, but the amount of control I have over them is sometimes illusive.

So, it appears that my logic is leading me toward some sort of determinism.  Factors over which I had no control have determined a large part of who I am and what I choose.  But, before I go there, I want to talk a little bit more about the importance of the choices that I have made. 

So, for next time, consider the following questions: 1) could I really have made any different choices in my life?  Once I make a choice, are the choices that I have forsaken a real possibility?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Free Will and Predestination Part II: Why I Choose What I Choose

At the end of the previous post, I asked you to think about the following question: why do you choose what you choose?

This is a profound question.  It is interesting sometimes to stop and think, before you make a choice, why you are making the choice you are.  This also works retrospectively, asking why you made a certain choice in the past.

I think I have come up with an answer that is universal.  I have tried this out on my students, and once they have understood what I mean, they have been unable to find fault with my answer.

So, here is my answer: When a person is faced with a choice, they choose the option that, for them, at that moment seems best.

Now, this is a fairly simple answer, and the biggest problem that people originally find with it is a quibbling with the word "best." Keep in mind, I am using the term best not in an absolute sense, as if all choices were "best."  Rather, it is in a very relative and subjective sense, that is, what "seems" best to a person at a given moment. 

Take a student example: A student's alarm goes off (and if the student is typical he or she has pushed snooze for some time), but the alarm goes off and it is the latest that they can get up and make it to class.  There are two options: hit snooze or turn the alarm off and miss class, or roll out of bed and make it to class.  I would argue that whatever choice a student makes, they think it will be "best for them."  Now, this is not in an absolute sense.  A student who sleeps through class probably did not do what was "best" in an objective sense, but to them, at that moment, it seemed better to roll back over and go to sleep.  "Best" to the one student was instant gratification and "best" to the other was delayed gratification (probably a better grade). 

Take another objection I get, and that is when someone does something truly selfless that can bring no good to them and may even hurt them.  Are they choosing what they think is "best" at that moment.  I would still argue yes.  Why?  Well, I think that even the most selfless and perhaps even self injuring acts have a motivation that cannot always be seen.  In fact, I do not always think it can be seen to the person making the choice.  But, I expect that a person makes such a choice for any number of "rewards."  Perhaps the selfless act will gain him or her respect among the public or among friends.  Perhaps the person is seeking eternal rewards in heaven.  Who knows, but I still think that all choices are made on the basis of what seems "best" at the moment.

I think this line of reasoning also holds for people with self destructive behaviors.  An Alcoholic, even though he or she has seen the destruction alcohol brings, still, at that moment of choice thinks that he or she is doing what is "best" at that moment.  They might regret it a second later, but when the choice was made, they thought it "best."

Any quibbles with my definition or ways to improve it, leave a comment.

For next time, let us go even a little deeper to the next level of questioning:  If my reasoning worked here, then the really big question is why do I think certain things "best."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Free Will and Predestination Part I: Free Will

I have debated much about where to start with this huge issue.  There really is no one place that just jumps out at me as the perfect starting place, so, let me start with the issue of free will and why I don't like the term.

Free will is a term that is tossed about yet rarely defined.  I tried an exercise in my religion class last semester and I asked my students to define the term. 

The answers came back something like this: "Free will means that I can do anything I want."  Or, "Free will means that I have to freedom to choose anything at any time."  I was not surprised by these answers and I think that this is vaguely what most people think this term to mean.  I find that definition problematic for several reasons.  First and foremost is that it is not thought out.  It did not take long for me to convince my students that, if that was their definition of free will, then none of them has free will at all.

Here is what I mean.  There are so many things in life that a person has no choice about whatsoever.  Let's start with the most basic, but perhaps least obvious question, and that is whether to exist at all.  None of us had a choice as to whether we wanted to be born.  Given that choice, would everyone choose to exist?  I don't know, but I suspect that there are some who would choose not to exist. 

The second matter that none of us had a choice about is where and to whom we were born.  None of us chose our parents.  Depending on who you are and who your parents are, you might have been tremendously blessed, or unfortunately cursed.  Yet, this one non-choice determines so much of the rest of one's life.  Did your parents raise you with good values that have allowed you to become successful and happy in life?   Did your parents save money to send you to college?  Did your parents teach you how to socialize properly which is so necessary for getting along in this world?

Connected to the non-choice about our parents is the factor of personality, which plays such a large role in how and why each of us makes choices.  Without getting into the nature/nurture question, I assume that we inherit our personalities in large part from our parents.  Part of this comes through on a genetic level and part is formed through our upbringing.

One last non-choice that determines so much of our reality and future choices is the place in which we were born.  I was born in a middle class town in America.  This afforded me a great number of choices, such as a good education, good choice of colleges, a life of relatively good health care, a life of moderate luxury.  And, perhaps most importantly, being born in America, I was offered the choice to become a Christian. 

Contrast my situation with someone born, say, in a poor village in India.  The choices were just greatly reduced.  Education might be a struggle, if there is any option at all.  College is probably not a real possibility.  Health care is probably lacking.  Luxuries are probably unheard of, and by inheritance one becomes Hindu.  Marriage is probably arranged. All of these choices were made for the individual before he or she was even born. 

The second reason I have a problem with the term "free will" is because I see no real reason to use it, at least not from a biblical stand point.  It is not a biblical term.  The Bible uses the terms will, and choice, and freedom, but these are not joined into one overarching term "free will." 

Yet, since the term free will is generally accepted, I can use it, but I must say that it is a deeply limited free will.  What I think I could agree to is to say that we all have relative levels of free will.  Some people are more limited in their freedom of choice than others.  Yet, no one has absolute free will, on the level of my students' definitions.

In the next post I will talk about choice.  Before my next post, be thinking about the following question: "Why do you choose what you choose?"  I think this is a profound and self searching question that gets at the very heart of this issue. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Chesterton and Predestination

I sat down the other night and opened G.K. Chesterton's classic Orthodoxy for the first time (actually "opened" is a misnomer since I was reading it on my shiny new iPad, Yay!!!).  Don't ask me why it has taken me so long to finally read some Chesterton, but it has.

Anyway, in his first chapter he makes a claim that seems counter intuitive.  He claims that people do not go insane from too much imagination, but rather from too much reason and logic.  This seems counter-intuitive because of the popular image of the crazy artist or poet.  Yet, reading Chesterton's argument, I must say I was convinced.  He talks about how most poets and storytellers, contrary to their popular image, are indeed quite sane.  Instead, he claims, it is the mathematicians and the philosophers who go insane.

He cited one person, William Cowper, whom Chesterton claims is the greatest modern English poet, and also was very mentally unstable.  But, his mental instability came not from his poetry (which actually allowed him to hold on to sanity), but rather from his logical struggle with the doctrine of predestination. 

This logical struggle with the reformed doctrine has also gripped me at times in my life, and I must say, if I follow the logic far enough, I do teeter on the brink of losing my mind.  Therefore, I am going to begin a series of posts on the doctrine of predestination and free will which I hope will clarify things for me, and hopefully will be helpful to any who chose to read it.  Pray that I do not go insane.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Too Much of a Good Thing

Why do we not listen to Aristotle more often?  He warned us to follow the golden mean.  That even good things taken in excess produce bad results.  So, why do we resist. 

Brooke and I got away this weekend for a much needed retreat.  We skipped town, headed down to San Antonio, ready for a weekend of fun and relaxation.

We ate at a wonderful hole in the wall Mexican restaurant on Friday night called "Taqueria Vallarta."  We went to bed early because we were exhausted and ready for an early morning getting up to the Guadalupe river for a river float.

We got on the river before 10:00 because the river tubing place ran a 2 for 1 special before 10:00.  We got our tubes and our drinks and sunscreen and headed out. 

The minute we jumped into the water we realized that before 10:00, without the Texas mid-day heat help, the water was actually freezing.  Yet we got used to it, and soon, we were loving life.  The sun was rising fast and the heat was coming in, yet the river kept us cool.  Apart from a few rapids, we were in relaxation bliss.  It was a three hour float, and by the second hour we kept looking at each other and saying things like, "is this heaven," "This is so nice," "why don't we do this more often?"

Toward the end of the float we asked ourselves, "how about another trip down the river, we have time." 

Here is where Aristotle's golden mean comes in.  Things were perfect, and we should have left it at that.  Not only did the second trip become much more crowded, the Sun became much more intense.

So, here we are, a day and a half later, both groaning and grunting with every move because our scorched skin ails us.  Even with plenty of sunscreen, the last day and a half have been largely miserable because neither one of us could say no to "too much of a good thing."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Power of the Rhetorical Question

I live in Waco, Tx, a fairly conservative city in the midst of a very conservative state, and on I 35 between Dallas and Waco, there is an interesting billboard.  I was not able to get a picture of the billboard, but found pictures of the same message on a google image search.
 The billboard near Dallas actually combines the two messages.

This billboard demonstrates the power of the rhetorical question.  These two questions are not supposed to be answered.  They make a point.  They reinforce what the audience is already predisposed to believe, and they do so in a striking and forceful fashion.  The rhetorical question elicits a response from the audience.  It makes the audience own the answer.  Placing this statement in question form is more powerful than just leaving it as a statement.  The two questions are better and more forceful in question form than if the billboard were to say, "Obama's hope and change sucks!" or "I really miss George Bush!"  Inviting audience participation makes the comment resonate on a personal level.

This billboard, standing in the midst of an already conservative state, conveys its simple message using the rhetorical figure: rhetorical question.  One thing about this figure is that it works.  Perhaps that is why, of all of the figures of speech used by the Lukan Jesus, the rhetorical question is his favorite.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Rhetoric for Sundays

Check out this post which is from my other blog. I thought this was a good way to introduce my professional blog.  I will be posting "Rhetoric for Sundays" on both of my blogs.

This is the first in another recurring post in which I will discuss some issue regarding the modern church's message.

In this inaugural edition, I want to speak about labeling in church buildings.  Specifically, I would like to note the name of the sanctuary in a church I visited yesterday for a wedding. 

As you can see from this wonderfully professional photograph, this church has renamed the Sanctuary "The Family Room."

Now, I must admit, I was a little judgmental of this church when I first walked in.  It has been some time since I have been in what one might call a "mega church," or even a large church, one that is greatly concerned with growing its numbers.  In fact, I do not even know if the desire to grow numbers was at the heart of this sanctuary naming decision.  Yet, everything about the church was foreign to me, from the coffee shop in the lobby, the receptionist desk, the computer kiosks to check in Sunday School children, the leather chairs in the waiting room.

In all of this, what struck me most was the name of the Sanctuary.  Lets take a moment to think about the rhetoric behind this naming.  I assume, that whoever renamed the sanctuary, "The Family Room" thought that "Sanctuary" was too Christianese and too intimidating.  Sanctuary implies holiness, right.  We don't want people to think that they have to be holy to enter the Sanctuary.  Lets make it a little bit more inviting.  Lets call it "The Family Room."  We, as a church are a family, and this is where we gather.  Yes, that sounds very inviting.

Now, lets bring in one more rhetorical aspect of this renaming, namely, that it is dripping with irony.  What is the connotation of family room for most people.  Yes, I assume it is where most families gather in their homes.  But, what do they gather around?  Yes, again, the Television.  The Family Room in most homes is the entertainment room.  I certainly do not think that was in the mind of those renaming the Sanctuary, but the irony is fantastic.  And, sure enough, walk in this church's "Family Room," and what do you find?  Two giant projector screens.  So, what was meant to be a welcoming name and message to visitors, becomes exactly what it really is, namely, "this is the place where our family comes to be entertained."

Is that what the church should be saying?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

August and the Promise of Better days to come.

Summer, and specifically the beginning August is my most hated time of the year.  It is when the heat sets in, and here in Texas, it really sets in.  I did not grow up in Texas, and though I have lived here for over ten years now, I still am not accustomed to the heat. Here is the forecast for the next six days, according to my iPhone weather app: 103, 104, 103, 101, 99, 102.  It is sad when 99 sound nice.

Aside from the heat, it also means that I have not been teaching for almost three months.  I love teaching my college students.  This year has been especially hard.  I graduated with my Ph.D. in May and have been unable to secure a full time teaching position.  Luckily I have been assigned to teach two sections at Baylor this Fall and one in the Spring.  This keeps my resume current, and also, I get to start teaching again after the Summer drought.

But, today I am happy because I am typing this post from my new office at Baylor.  Getting my own office means several things.  First, it is a foreshadowing of things to come, reminding me that I will indeed be teaching again.  Second, it gives me an air conditioned place outside of my house to do my research.  I can do research at my house, but the temptations to nap or play video games, or anything but work are much greater at home. Third, its an office. An office, like I'm actually a professional or something.  Well, I guess I am, I have the letters after my name, but its nice to be reminded that those are more than just letters.