Proofs of Prophesy

It seems that primitive peoples had a god for practically every natural phenomenon. Even the culturally and academically advanced Greeks and Romans had a literal pantheon of gods to explain everything from the daily rising of the sun to the changes of the seasons. (To be sure, there were certainly ancient philosophers who did not believe in the literal existence of the Olympians. But one of the charges against Socrates was refusal to recognize the official gods of the city, so they still took that stuff seriously.) It may well be that the eventual predominance of monotheism in the western world was in part due to advances in natural philosophy.

As we humans came to understand the world better, fewer and fewer gods were needed to explain all of the individual aspects of our reality. The more we learn about the nature of our universe, the less we need myths to explain the world around us. Inevitably, some people take this line of thought to its logical limit: as human understanding increases, we find that there is no need for any theistic explanations at all.

A counter argument that has been advanced is that our growing understanding of the world is itself proof of God’s assistance. The eighth century theologian Abu Hatim al-Razi asserts that all of the great thinkers throughout time were actually prophets. Divine inspiration, he argues, is the only way to explain the genius that created Euclid’s geometry or Ptolemy’s astronomy. Knowing his own intellectual powers, he cannot believe that such tremendously insightful works can be the work of unaided humans. There is some serious appeal to that argument; I don’t see how I could ever produce something as great as Ptolemy’s Almagest.

Still, we are constantly learning more and coming to greater and greater understandings. Consequently, all great geniuses in natural philosophy are doomed to be overtaken. In the face of non-Euclidean geometry and modern astronomy, Euclid and Ptolemy look like poor prophets indeed. What good are is the prophets Newton or Darwin if their systems are sure to be found defective down the line? Can it really be divine inspiration if it invariably comes up short of later human understanding?

The final rejoinder must be that prophets never tell the whole truth or explain everything clearly. Each generation must have its own sages and prophets to build upon the divine revelations of their predecessors.  So who can say that Lobachevsky or Stephen Hawking are not also divinely inspired?

  

Beer of the Week: Odyssey Imperial IPA – Throughout Homer’s Odyssey, storms, shipwrecks, deaths, and other events are attributed to the wills of the gods. So a beer called Odyssey seems like a good choice for this post. This Imperial IPA from Sly Fox Brewing Company is delicious. The lighting in this photo is a bit off; the beer is actually more amber in color. It has a nice thick head that leaves plenty of lacing on the glass. Odyssey is quite bold, with strong, flavorful hops that totally dominate the flavor. And the hops has to be strong to cover the 8.4% alcohol. Anybody who drinks enough of this beer is surely in for an adventure.

Reading for the Week: The Madman by Friedrich Nietzsche – The famous quote “God is dead” comes from this reading. This parable(?) from The Gay Science hints at the problems of a post-religious society. The atheists in the story do not understand the ramifications of the death of God, hence the messenger of God’s death is called “the madman.”

Question for the week: Is there anything compelling about Abu Hatim al-Razi argument that all of our geniuses are divinely inspired? Or is he just moving the goalposts?

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Three for One Deal

“The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.”

That is just one expression of the law of noncontradiction. It can be put in a number of ways, but it always comes down to saying that mutually exclusive conditions cannot coexist.

This raises the first classic St. Patrick’s Day problem (the second classic St. Patrick’s Day problem is alcoholism): what is to be made of the Trinity? The trinitarian notion of God is that God is three persons in one being. The Father begot the Son, and the Holy Ghost proceeds from the two of them. Yet, the three are eternal and exist as a single God. This sure looks like a violation of the law of noncontradiction: nothing can be both one and many. Additionally, one cannot be primary and coextensive. That is, one thing cannot both precede another and be coeternal with it.

St. Patrick attempted to explain the mystery with a sprig of clover, known as a shamrock. A sprig of clover, Patrick observed, has three leaves that are all connected. Each leaf is independent and identifiable, yet they form a single shamrock. So the shamrock is both three and one. Just like the Trinity.

The shamrock example, however, is not very convincing. The leaves of the clover are separate and divisible from each other, and no one leaf is the whole clover itself. In effect, each leaf is just one part of the whole. And the mystery of the Trinity is not that simple (hence the term “mystery”.) The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are each believed both totally independent and totally united. An inescapable violation of the law of noncontradiction.

Dante’s attempt at a visual depiction of the Trinity seems more appropriate than the shamrock. Rather than describing the three persons as simple thirds of the single being that is God, Dante describes God as “three circles, Of threefold colour and of one dimension.” Each circle is simultaneously the same circle and distinguishable. He then goes on to state that “all speech is feeble and falls short” of describing the Trinity.

I dare say that he is right.

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Beer of the Week: Primátor Stout – Guinness (both original and draught) has already been featured on this blog. So this St. Patrick’s Day beer is a stout from another part of Europe altogether. This Czech beer pours a very, very dark brown and has a head of large, tan bubbles. The mouthfeel of this surprisingly thin. As it warms, though, this beer really shows its rich malt flavor. Not bad at all.

Reading for the week: Paradiso, Canto XXXIII by Dante Alighieri – After a journey through hell and purgatory, the pilgrim Dante makes it to and through heaven to see the very face (or circles) of God. Not included in this reading is the 4th Sphere of Heaven, where the pilgrim Dante see Boethius. In a recent post on this blog, it was noted that Boethius was put to death by the order of King Theodoric the Great. Theodoric, as it turns out, was not a Trinitarian. He was a follower of Arianism, a heterodox view that Jesus, as “begotten God”, is not co-eternal with God the Father and the Holy Ghost.

Question for the week: Paradiso ends with the the pilgrim Dante’s “desire and will” being acted upon by “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” I take that “Love” with a capital “L” to be God Himself. Is it better, or merely oversimplifying to think of God as Love itself rather than as a Trinity?


Perpetually Prolonged Pleasure

The night before Thanksgiving, I visited the Lutheran church where my friend’s father is the pastor. His sermon, as one might expect, was about giving thanks. Specifically, he argued that one of the principle advantages of giving thanks is to prolong enjoyment of the blessing. Taking the time to enunciate what one is thankful for effectively draws out the enjoyment of it. Giving thanks beforehand allows one to enjoy the anticipation. Giving thanks afterwards allows the enjoyment to linger. Giving thanks during forces one to focus on what is enjoyable. The sermon really rang true to me. Also, there was a pie social after the service.

The desire to extend enjoyment indefinitely is a constant factor in my day-to-day life. I have watched countless re-runs late into the night rather than go to bed and “give up” on the day. I also have looked for reasons to have another beer rather than stop drinking. The bulk of this blog post, in fact, was written late at night as an excuse to stay up and have another beer rather than go to bed and end my enjoyment of the day.

I not only attempt to drag out time; I am a great hoarder of consumable goods. Halloween candy lasted for months in my childhood because I was keenly interested in prolonging my enjoyment from it for as long as possible. When there is good beer in the house, I ration it carefully. As I mentioned in an earlier post, an elderly Australian man once mocked me for how slowly I consumed a glass of Coopers. He was not a beer drinker himself, so my efforts to explain the purpose of savoring a good beer were wasted on him.

Attempts at prolonged enjoyment are not always successful. I have also let things go to waste rather than accept the finality of their enjoyment. I have let my tea grow cold rather than finish it and accept that it is gone. When I was little, I had toys that I would hardly play with for fear that they would break and thus end my enjoyment. I grew out of nice clothes that I had barely worn since I did not want to risk staining or tearing them. When I was small, I would use my roller-skates only occasionally to minimize the chances that they would get scuffed or damaged. One day, they no longer fit. I had tried so hard to preserve them for future enjoyment that they had become no use to me at all.

No pleasure can be extended indefinitely, but there is usually the option to prolong the enjoyment somewhat by patience and focus and thanksgiving. In the end, a fine touch is required. Neither let the beer grow warm and unpleasant, nor gulp it down without savoring.

Perpetual IPA

Beer of the week: Troegs Perpetual IPA – If only this beer could be enjoyed perpetually. Troegs Perpetual is a lovely golden IPA with a nice foamy head. The aroma is dominated by sweet floral hops, but the bitterness of the hops is very well balanced with nice malt body.

Reading for the week: Gorgias by Plato, lines 493d-495b – A crucial question that this post does not address is whether prolonging pleasure is actually a good thing. In the dialogue Gorgias, Socrates makes his interlocutors squirm by forcing them to address whether even the most base and immoral pleasure seeking can be considered good.

Question for the week: Are efforts to prolong pleasure at odds with an ideal of “taking life as it comes”?


A Pointillist Theology

A high school religion teacher once remarked to me that the only proof of God’s existence that she needed was to look out the window. “How could anybody look upon the wonder of creation,” she wondered incredulously, “and not believe in God?” I was not convinced.

Are not the awe-inspiring beauty and order the universe even more awe-inspiring if they are organic rather than miraculous? That is to say, isn’t nature more impressive than creation? Creation could have been anything that God chose, but nature had to be the way it is. Rather than focusing on the single miracle of creation, why not focus on the ever-accumulating individual discoveries of the world around us? If God created the butterfly instantly and miraculously, that would not make it any more beautiful. But the fact that the butterfly evolved over millions of years and is the distant progeny of the first spark of life, that is beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Nietzsche would say that my teacher had an “old fashioned eye” that preferred “beautiful, decorative, intoxicating and perhaps beatific” myths to “simple truths, ascertained by scientific method.” But reason and scientifically discovered truths are every bit as beautiful as the old world views and aesthetics. In fact, they are even more beautiful. This is because the old views are static and limiting, but the “the richness of inner, rational beauty always spreads and deepens.”
Fiddlehead Kölsch

Beer of the week: Fiddlehead Kölsch – Fiddlehead ferns are a neat example of naturally occurring logarithmic spirals. Their geometric (near) perfection can be viewed as proof of an ordered universe. The quality beers from Fiddlehead Brewing Company are also proof of an ordered universe. This pale, cloudy ale has a soft, round bouquet with hints of pineapple. Although it is not overly hoppy, it is surprisingly bitter for its style and aroma. This is certainly a good beer, but for my taste the hops leave the mouth feeling a bit too dry in the end.

Reading of the week: Human, All Too Human, Appreciation of Simple Truths by Friedrich Nietzsche – Reading leads to reading. Reading Emerson led me to read Greenough and Landor. Reading Mencken led me to read Nietzsche. And reading Nietzsche led me to read more Nietzsche. This paragraph of Human, All Too Human directly follows the reading from two weeks ago.

Question of the week: Are the ideas of creation and evolution truly opposed?


Miracles, Schmiracles!

I went to Catholic primary and secondary school. Being a non-Catholic and something of a free-thinker, I occasionally caused my Religion teachers grief.

One such occasion was the result of a multiple choice test question:

Jesus came especially for ____________.
A. the poor
B. the rich
C. the Jews
D. none of the above

I answered D. none of the above. I’d always heard that Jesus came to save everybody.*  The answer that my teacher wanted was A. the poor. The Catholics have a doctrine called “the option for the poor”. My teacher knew the phrase, if not its origin or meaning. As a result, I was unable to get partial credit for my answer, even though I could explain why my answer was the right one. I could even explain how answer C was also correct. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus says specifically that he came for the Jews and refers to gentiles as dogs:

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.

Another religion class run-in occurred when one of my teachers learned that there is a bush that produces volatile oils. In the summer, in hot climes, the oils sometimes ignite and burn away without damaging the bush. My teacher proudly proclaimed that this was surely the type of thing that happened in the story of Moses and the burning bush. This was proof that the Moses story is real!

I pointed out, however, that if the burning bush is explained rationally, it loses all of its meaning. In the Bible, the burning bush is a miracle, not a horticultural oddity. If the story is about a guy witnessing an interesting plant doing what interesting plants occasionally do, who cares? For the Moses story to have an impact, the burning bush has to be a miraculous.

I’ve seen this same thing done with the crossing of the Red Sea and the Seven Plagues. Some people take these explanations as proof that the Biblical accounts are real. But explaining the miracles does not make the story more believable, it only makes the story less meaningful.

 

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Beer of the Week: Long Trail Belgian White – Although there is technically a few weeks of summer left, this sure feels like the end. There are still summer beers to be had though. Light, refreshing wheat beers are a popular summer choice. This unfiltered wheat beer is much like most other wheat beers I’ve reviewed: cloudy, sweet, citrusy. But there is something about the flavor that I can’t quite put my finger on. I think that the coriander that Long Trail uses imparts an earthy finish that I does not work for me.  Overall, I don’t think I like this beer very much.

Reading of the week: Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Joseph Priestley – This letter, from the author of the Declaration of Independence to the man who discovered oxygen is, predictably, very interesting. The topic, however, is not politics or science; it is religion. In the letter, Jefferson outlines a project to compare the moral teachings of Jesus to those of ancient philosophers. In so doing, he would leave out any miracles or divinity and view Jesus as a philosopher rather than a messiah.

Question of the week: Questions of divinity and miracles aside, how do the teachings of Jesus hold up when compared with the teachings of ancient philosophers?

*One Lutheran pastor I knew held a particularly interesting (and thoroughly heterodox) belief: Jesus died for the forgiveness of all sins, even those not confessed or repented. The logical conclusion is that all people are saved. And, what’s more, salvation cannot be lost or avoided. There is nobody in hell because God has forgiven all sin, even the most vile or obstinate.


“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”

My college experience included a mandatory music tutorial. Singing was a big part of the class. Everybody was required to learn and sing works by Mozart, Palestrina and, naturally, St. John’s alumnus Francis Scott Key.

Although every single student was required to take this course, rumor has it that some professors refused to teach it on philosophical grounds. Their objection was not that it was an unfair requirement or that the forced singing was cruel; their objection was that the music was too good. These professors were non-Christians, and since the bulk of the music we studied was religious, they were concerned that the beauty and power of the music would break down their rational defenses against religion. Being forced to listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion over and over might undermine their reason and and convert them. Music is that powerful.

Nobody seemed concerned that listening to Don Giovanni over and over might turn them into amazing lovers.

Beer of the Week: Warsteiner Premium Verum -“Verum” means “truth”. Whether the name implies that it is “truly premium” or a “true pilsner”, I do not know. Perhaps the meaning could be that this is “true beer”. Although a bit light on both smell and flavor, I could get behind the claim that this is “true beer.” This seems like a very solid, if not exceptional, European pilsner; and to me a good pilsner is true beer.

Recording for the Week: Ave Verum Corpus by Wolfgang Mozart – Instead of a reading this week, there is an audio recording. There are plenty of wonderful pieces of music that I could have used to illustrate the point about the power of music, but I could not pass up the opportunity to pair Premium Verum beer with Ave Verum Corpus. Not being able to understand Latin is no defense against the power this piece of religious music. The music is so beautiful that the words simply must be right; how can something so wonderful be wrong?

(Then again, the titular “magic flute” in Mozart’s great opera has been claimed by some to be little more than a thinly veiled dick joke. So beautiful music doesn’t always carry with it profound truth.)

Question for the week: Almost everybody has felt music effect their mood, but has it ever effected your reason?


The First Shall Be Last

I recently read an article about a Quaker church picketing Wendy’s because of the company’s failure to sign an agreement with a farm worker’s union to pay more money for tomatoes. Why, you might ask, should a company voluntarily pay more than market price for produce? The answer is simple, to keep from getting protested. The concept is sold as “stopping the exploitation of migrant workers,” but there can be little doubt that when the pen meets the paper, the agreement is strictly about public relations and extortion. That is, extortion in the form of: “if you don’t pay us, we will picket your restaurant.”

I would like to pause here to address the bile I’ve surely raised in some of my readers. First, I am simultaneously grateful that I have never had to pick tomatoes in the Florida sun and very appreciative of the men and women who do that job every day. Second, I definitely support unions as a free association of people with a common interest. I also support the concept of peacefully protesting. The First Amendment covers both of these and it is good to see people exercise their Constitutional rights while they still exist. (The fact that union king pins often end up exploiting workers just as much as anybody else and the dangers of protests giving way to mob mentality and vandalism are simply unfortunate realities that must be contended with.)

But all that isn’t what I want to write about. What really interests me about the news article is the focus on Quakers. Quakers, as it happens, are among my favorite Christians. They were also a favorite of Leo Tolstoy’s. Quakers are peaceful and educated, and they also founded my home state. However, they seem to have forgotten their parables. The article claims that the Quakers were protesting “unequal pay in the fields.” In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus tells a story about a man who hired a number of workers to pick fruit in his vineyard. (“Why does that sound familiar?” you wonder.) Well these workers labored for varying amounts of time, but when it came time to pay them, everybody got the same amount. Those who worked all day were understandably miffed. But the landowner laid down some heavy logic on them:  they don’t have a legitimate gripe with the landowner since they had freely agreed to work for that pay. They have no right to be upset at the landowner for not paying them more because they hadn’t been tricked or coerced in any way. They got exactly what they had bargained for.

Beer of the Week: Apostel Bräu – The text of the Gospels doesn’t make it clear that Jesus told his parables to the Apostles over a tall glass of beer, but I think it is heavily implied. Apostel Bräu is clearly not the same as the beer the Apostles would have had since it only dates back to 1713. Like almost all German beers (regardless of the truth of the matter,) the makers of Apostel Bräu claim to brew in accordance with the traditional German Purity Law or Reinheitsgebot. With these appeals to tradition, the beer’s name, and the “stained glass” design, the can evokes thoughts of the old brewery/monasteries. Unfortunately, this beer is no match for a true abbey beer. The beer itself seems quite modern in the sense that it is bland and inoffensive. It is not bad, just absolutely unremarkable.

Reading for the Week: The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15) – Of course the parable isn’t really about economics. The point of the parable is that heaven is not earned through righteousness in this life. The righteous therefore should not begrudge the wicked their salvation; the salvation of the wicked is a greater mercy and more fitting  for a benevolent God. But I prefer the economic lesson: there is nothing unjust about a voluntary transaction between informed, free parties.

Question for the week: I think that the interpretation of the parable in the paragraph above (that heaven is not earned) is thoroughly in keeping with the teachings of Luther. But seems likely to rub some sects the wrong way. What other meaning could that parable have?