Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Stanley Files - On Pain

"Pain is weakness leaving the body" - Gatorade ad campaign

"Discipline is the self coming to terms with the truth that pain is often good for you" - My 59th St. Bridge Revelation

There were moments during my wilderness period where I was so keen to avoid pain that I would avoid my mentors and anyone who I knew would kick my ass about my mind's thoughts and my heart's desires. Then I realized that there's no growth without pain and if I let this become a pattern in my life, I will get nowhere. If spiritual growth, nay, if growth as a human being wasn't a priority to me, I could spend my whole life not facing the music.

I am firmly convicted by the belief that every decision you make in life does two things: It takes you either farther along the road or backwards along that same road. On one end of the road is the likeness of Christ and on the other end is hell. Everything you do will cause you to move either up or down; there are no side-steps. It's like one of those old school side-scroller video games, like Super Mario or Sonic (Note to self: good future sermon illustration); if you're not going forward you're going backwards.

The second thing I believe choice does is it determines trajectory. On that uni-dimensional road called sanctification (or damnation, depending on which way you're going), you gain momentum. There are no harmless choices, no choices you can take a break in, no decisions you can throw the towel in. In every decision you make, you are setting for yourself a precedent by which you make future decisions.

I realized that if I continued to let that antiquated, primitive, primal, animal pain-avoiding instinct guide my actions, I will end up going down towards the wrong end of the path. So I began to face the music. The truth will set you free, says Christ, but it will make you scream and whimper and beg for mercy first.

Today, I have a healthier view of pain. I try to keep the pain-avoiding instinct off unless I am lighting a barbecue grill or taking on Stanley Lee in the Octagon (ironically, it stays off when I'm talking with Stan about life things). But my experience has also opened my eyes to all the people who live like I used to. I guess I never realized this, but there are people who live their entire lives driven by only one motivation: the avoidance of pain. Like squirrels, chipmunks and the like, they scamper at the first hint of danger. What marks a small woodland creature? Cuteness and feebleness. Cuteness because they are small and weak and harmless. Feebleness because they lack the capacity to become fearsome, intimidating; they lack the ability to transcend their limits.

How do we live? There are two ways. One is to see every situation as an opportunity to grow. The other is to see every situation as a potential for pain and discomfort. These principles that govern pain and growth are applicable to our Christian lives. In church issues, it often comes out in the areas of avoiding correction and rebuke. I've seen people who are SO GOOD at doing this, that they not only avoid the situations that might bring about correction, they avoid interaction with godly people altogether. How do I know it happens? Because I was so good at doing that myself.

What marks a small woodland creature? Cuteness and feebleness. And fear. To avoid facing the music, you can't just avoid people, you also have to avoid situations that will require you to open up. You have to avoid admitting your weaknesses, your sin, your sinfulness, your dependence on God. You have to hide away every hint of fallenness away from the rest of the world. And to hide who we are is to always fear that we will be found out for who we are. There is so much insecurity in living a life like that. Every single day it plagues you like an awful smell right under your nose that you can't get rid of. That fear discomforts you, never lets you relax like a wet sock inside a tightly-laced hiking boot.

It is a pathetic existence. To live in fear of pain is to live as if you're always being chased from behind. I don't think I've completely subdued this impulse within me; it is still more natural for me to take the path that avoids pain. I still have to consciously choose the path that leads to growth, even if it means cutting off parts of my body like my hand or my eye. I now I have a willingness to do it. Growth by pain isn't the natural impulse within me, but at least I'm getting better and better at choosing it. And it definitely gets easier over time.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Dan Brown, Religion, and the Limits of Science

So I just finished reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. It took a little over a week, and reading it caused in me a similar sensation to eating crackers with vegemite spread; I felt disgust and nausea, but I just couldn't stop. Dan Brown is a good writer; there's no getting around it. He exploits the cheapest tricks in mystery writing to keep you hooked, and I still stand by my belief that there's nothing wrong with enjoying his anti-Christian, anti-organized religion fiction as long as you keep in mind that it is fiction.

At first, I didn't really understand what was causing my upset intellectual stomach. I couldn't pinpoint what it was that he was doing that just made me feel so much outrage. It wasn't just how he mixes truth and fiction so well that even the blatantly unhistorical portions are mistaken as facts. It wasn't just his oversimplification of very complicated historical and philosophical ideas and trends. It wasn't the way in which he portrayed all forms of established religion and doctrinal orthodoxy as a small step away from terrorism and the way he takes moral corruption, a tragic truth in Christian religion, and blows it up into preposterous, conspiratorial proportions. I can even forgive the overuse of symbolism (even the invention of a completely fictitious discipline, "symbology") because it makes for an excellent and gripping read.

I think this time around, one of the biggest bones I have to pick with Dan Brown is the insidious way in which he defines and categorizes big ideas such as reason, science, and religion. He does not merely over-simplify complex concepts; you can make the case that things like religion and science have quite simple definitions. Instead I would frame his offense as incorrectly portraying these ideas as they relate to each other. The entire premise under Angels and Demons is that science and religion have been at war each other for epistemological supremacy (of course, Dan Brown didn't call it that because it would encourage his readers to look up epistemology and when they do, the foundation for his entire story would crumble). Science wants to describe truth one way, religion another; but both can't be right at the same time and that's why over history blood was shed, men were martyred, and atrocious acts of torture and treachery were committed by "both sides" (but ESPECIALLY religion, says Dan Brown).

I call what Dan Brown does insidious because he wields such an enormous influence over popular culture. One of the difficult things for me to realize is that not everyone who reads the book, in fact not even everyone who is reading this blog, shares the same foundational philosophical convictions as I do. And that's part of the reason why certain presumptions he makes in the book leave me with intellectual diarrhea and leave others with a profound sense of enlightenment. Even though I immediately dismiss some of his presuppositions of life as wrong-headed to the point of being stupid, I can't assume that everyone agrees with me. So, even though I am painfully aware that I am once again late to the game and everyone else has already gotten past all this hype, for the rest of this blog, I hope to illuminate(i) the underlying philosophical premise that Dan Brown and I disagree on. And hopefully it will segue well into my next blog, on faith and reason.

It's true; there was a brief period of history (modernity) in which science and religion were forced like Roman political slaves to enter the coliseum and duke it out. The reign of science and Modernity's dreams of subjecting mother nature to the omnipotent laboratory was cut short by a bloody awakening. We were startled and horrified by the realization that even science could be used for destruction and atrocity; that the propensity of humanity for evil underlined all our other endeavors and aspirations; that the line between good and evil cut across every human heart, cut across every new technological discovery and man-made innovation, and poisoned every attempt to pull ourselves out of our own depravity by the bootstraps of our cunning and intellect.

To Dan Brown's credit, he did talk briefly about the horrible things that have been done in the name of science, but my point isn't to argue pragmatics; I didn't mean to begin discussing which system of belief works better in creating peace and social harmony. My point is, the argument of science verses religion is inherently flawed. You can't compare the two because the premises on which you define these two concepts is wrong.

In his book, Dan Brown creates a situation in which the reader can entertain two questions: 1) Which is better for creating social harmony, science or religion? 2) Which is more reliable for discovering truth, science or religion? I argue that both questions are logically nonsensical. It's like asking, "What tastes better, a poem or high-definition television?" or “What's more effective in getting rid of head lice, the Pythagorean theorem or Mike Ditka?” (actually, that last one has a reasonably defensible answer).

Dan Brown's operative premise for asking the first question is that both science and religion are man-made tools for enforcing social order. Science gives us bombs and cures for diseases, religion gives us a placebo in the form of a higher purpose for living. Now which one would you rather have governing society? I venture that to make this assumption is to do massive injustice to both things. It is taking two things, both of which have nobler objectives than a mere sedation of the masses, and defining them by the uneducated popular impressions that the public have, and then forcing them to do your will.

It took me 15 minutes to write my last sentence because I didn't know how to complete the part after “It is taking two-”. Is it taking two disciplines? Two beliefs? Two ideas? Two worldviews? And that brings me to my next point. Science and religion aren't even in the same category of objects! Wikipedia defines science as a “systematic knowledge-base or prescriptive practice that is capable of resulting in a prediction or predictable type of outcome”. In the broadest category of understanding, science is a methodology. It is a set of rules that you follow in order to arrive upon a certain conclusion, within the prescribed system.

What's important to point out is that science is a system. It is consistent and coherent. Working within the system produces dependable results. But it also presupposes that there are certain questions and conclusions that can be asked which operate outside the scientific system. What that means is, there are certain questions regarding life which science is not meant to answer. You can ask a chef how to make a poached egg, but you can't ask him to explain the chemical process of denaturing the egg proteins when heat is applied. You can and he might know, but his answer will be outside the discipline of cuisine. In the same way, you can ask a scientist why a baseball hit by Barry Bonds will land in McCovey cove instead of flying into space and he'll explain to you stuff about the gravitational force. But if you ask why there is gravity, he cannot, by virtue of the limits of his discipline, answer that question.

My point is, if you direct enough “how”s and “why”s to science, you'll inevitably solicit a frustrated throwing up of arms reaction followed by an aggravated, “That's just how it is!” And THERE you encounter the limits of science. Science does not have an answer for why every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It cannot answer why there are four fundamental forces and not three or five. It cannot tell you why energy cannot be annihilated but only converted to other equivalent forms. The most that a scientist can do when faced with these questions is offer a poetic speculation in awe and wonder, and refer to the inter-connectivity of these first principles in all areas life.

In understanding this point, whether you agree with it or not, it is important to distinguish the questions that science has not answered yet and the questions that science by the definition of its own system cannot answer. I am totally down with the whole idea of the inevitability of the scientific progress in answering our questions, just not ALL questions. You're right. We were stupid to think that the earth was the center of the universe. We were stupid to think that the heavens were a canopy and that God literally pitched a tent over the earth. But these kind of discoveries are different categorically from the answers that truly echo in the human heart. Does it satisfy your bones, secular humanist, that a star is a flaming ball of gas? Are you pleased with your discovery that love is a certain psycho-biological state?

In C.S. Lewis' book The Abolition of Man, he describes people who reduce all knowledge into scientific categories as “men without chests”. They have satisfied their intellectual thirst but for those who do have chests with hearts, after their victory they feel a deep hollow emptiness; a gripping loneliness and a sense of alienation and exile as they emerge into their new world, a world divested of illusions and lights. In this world, any question that science cannot answer must not be relevant to live. And therefore meaning and significance is abolished. Purpose and normative living was ejected out into the deep cold of space. Ethics is pragmatic but ultimately unfounded. Concerning the abandonment of value judgments, Nietzsche wrote,

“Indeed, we philosophers and 'free spirits' feel, when we hear the news that the is dead, as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the love of knowledge is permitted again the sea, our sea, lies open again, perhaps there has never yet been such an open sea” (Human, all too Human)

But in his prophetic brilliance, he also realized that this freedom was cold and vacuous; a freedom humanity was not meant to have. We've been untethered from the sun, and now we're plunging continually through space in all directions, backwards, sideways, and upwards:

“We have left the land and have embardked. We have burned our bridges behind us – indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity.... Woe, when you fell homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom – there is no longer any land”

I lament my inability to resist the temptation to sidetrack into my favorite philosopher in all the land. I venture that science is incapable of answering the same questions that religion answers, and vice versa. When religion tried to answer scientific questions, Galileo was scandalized and the church was disgraced. But when science tried to answer religion's questions, people quickly realized that the world it created was neat and orderly and cold and barren. We left Eden and quickly realized that the world was harsh and unsuitable for humankind, who didn't even have fur for warmth or fangs for hunting.

I conclude by stating that religion and science was never at war; at least not until the foolish humans pit them against each other by locking them in the Octagon, with disastrous results. Science is not in the same category as religion. It is perpendicular to her. Science can be used for immense good or devastating evil, but one thing it cannot be used for is telling us why we're here and what our ultimate purpose is.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Why Christians can have nice things

It took me a really long time to realize that if something is desirable, even pleasurable, it doesn't necessarily mean it is a bad thing. How tragic is our state of fallenness, that we consider good things to be evil in a world that God created and called "good" on the first day?

“Before the Lord God made man upon the earth He first prepared for him by creating a world of useful and pleasant things for his sustenance and delight. In the Genesis account of the creation these are called simply `things.' They were made for man's uses, but they were meant always to be external to the man and subservient to him. In the deep heart of the man was a shrine where none but God was worthy to come. Within him was God; without, a thousand gifts which God had showered upon him.” - A. W. Tozer, The Blessedness of Possessing

Idolatry had from the beginning been humanity's sin. The heart of idolatry is mistaking gift for Giver. When we take the treasures around us and elevate them to the status of God, that is idolatry. But the punishment is contained within the sin. The Διὸ παρέδωκεν, the “therefore God gave them over”of this sin is that we would cling with fervor onto something that is not meant to last; something that moth and rust destroy; something that will ultimately be lost with time. The self-contained punishment of God for our idolatry is that we would suffer loss and despair when that which was fleeting finally is gone.

However, enough Christian literature has been written about idolatry and wiser men than I have preached powerfully against it. I am interested in the antithesis to idolatry. What is the opposite danger? It is monasticism. It is a complete denial of earthly pleasures. Jesus never said, “do not enjoy treasures on earth”. That command is very different from “do not store up treasures in heaven” Treasures on earth are still that. They are meant to be enjoyed. They are the thousand and one gifts that God showered his children; gifts that were meant to be delighted in; gifts that were meant to direct worship back to the Giver.

Earthly treasures are vehicles by which God's children enjoy and treasure God. A gift is of worth to the degree that it points to and magnifies the One who ascribed its worth; the One who is by nature of infinite worth. Like a rainbow that leads to the pot of gold at the end, gifts are beautiful and enjoyable; but they are a means. God is the end of pleasure.

But this isn't the understanding of many Christians. Many sincerely pious but severely misled Christians believe that the less you enjoy life, the more you are glorifying God. If you are loving life, nurturing other hobbies, sharpening skills in other things, doing anything other than sitting at home and reading the Bible, you are committing idolatry. Isn't that the attitude that we have sometimes? How do we enjoy God, how do we treasure him and him alone; how do we worship him in the throne of our hearts? Only by reading Scripture and praying. It's not worship if you do something else. It's not worship if you enjoy life.

How is that treasuring God? I would like to say that those who live in denial of earthly pleasures are guilty of sinning against God. How? Because their actions undermine the goodness of Creation for the enjoyment of man. Their attitude throws the Lord's gifts back at him and declares them unworthy. And furthermore, the sheer dissatisfaction of living such a life of denial will inevitably lead to a deep-seated resentment in their worship of God. “Why is treasuring you so difficult, Oh Lord? I have given up everything for you, and life sucks now”

The person who lives in pious denial will eventually be crushed to death between a rock and a hard place. Anything they desire that is of the world will seem like idols by default. When they try to enjoy it, they feel guilt and shame. But when they say no and hide from it, they find that what they treasure isn't a treasure at all. “Oh Lord, if you are all I need, why did you make sports so fun? Why did you make video games so enjoyable? Why did you make the opposite sex so desirable?”

On the one hand, we have the temptation to turn gift into idol. On the other, we have the misguided notion of denying all gifts completely. So what is the aufhebung, the dialectic sublation of these two theses? The answer, at least practically in our Christian lives, is to get rid of the gifts and true joys that take away from your passion for Jesus. Those things that are prone in your life to become idols; those things that your heart desires more than their makers; those things must go. BUT, those gifts and true joys and delights that fuel your passion and love for the Lord, keep them and be thankful for them. To the degree that an earthly treasure increases your delight in the Lord, to that degree keep the treasure and glorify its Maker.

Take stock, Christian, of the treasures in your life. Which ones bring you into deeper delight and worship of its creator. Which ones take you farther from him?
Ultimately, a sign of deep spiritual maturity is the ability to guiltlessly enjoy earthly treasures in the context of God's gifts. The pursuit of academic excellence; a successful business; an art or work of art painstakingly perfected; the companionship of a girlfriend or boyfriend; the satisfaction of beating a video game; the elation that comes from achieving an athletic goal. All these things are gifts. They feel good because they're supposed to feel good. Our Father knows how to give gifts. He knows that we like fish better than snakes or stones. And those who are confident in that truth can truly enjoy life. In the end, those who are gripped with the goodness of God, who are confident in the security of their true, eternal, secure, heavenly treasure; they will not be afraid of going after what they desire.

It took me a long time to learn this. For a large part of my Christian life, I wasted away in despair; not understanding why not having any gods before Him made life suck so much. It was only after I worked all this out that I could guiltlessly live and enjoy. It was only after I made this realization that I could have nice things, do fun things, have a girlfriend, and all while give thanks to God that these gifts, though fleeting they are, are in my life.