Some comments on Biblical History

A commenter Arkenaten states in the comments to this post that:

I am always mystified how highly intelligent people like yourself maintain a Christian worldview in the face of an ever-growing body of scientific evidence that has already refuted the Pentateuch; now generally accepted as historical fiction, and is busy dismantling the New Testament.

Thanks for coming over and expressing your point of view in a polite manner.  Let me start by pointing out that you are making an Argument from Authority.  Now there's nothing inherently wrong with that—none of us can be experts in every field, and usually when the experts all agree on something, they are right.  But I do like to have some idea of what is the kind and quality of data (and the philosophical presuppositions) that the experts are basing their conclusions on, in order to have some idea about whether I should trust the conclusions.  I am not a fundamentalist, and I am open to modifying my religious ideas based on whatever can in fact be shown scientifically, but I'd like to know that it actually has been shown!

In general, our knowledge of history comes from two complementary sources, written documents and archaeological finds.  Archaeology generally tells us broad features of the movements of people and life in cities, while written sources are needed for more fine-grained biographical and cultural details.  Sometimes our various sources of knowledge conflict, and it's not surprising that the farther back we go in history, the more frequently this happens, since things become harder to reconstruct.

My wife St. Nicole was a classics major; while she was in Ireland she took a class on Celtic languages in Britain.  Apparently in that field, the linguists all swear that there have to have been pre-Celtic peoples on the British Isles, who were then conquered and assimilated by a massive migration of Celts from the continent, while the archaeologists are equally adamant that no such migration can have happened.  (I don't know if the situation has been resolved since then, but that's not important to my point.)  What this shows is that doing ancient history is HARD!  Just as in Science, the different types of data don't always agree very well, and we have to put things together the best we can.  I am not very shocked by most of the apparent contradictions involving biblical history, for the same reason that I'm not very shocked when seeming contradictions arise in other historical fields.  I figure there's a lot of stuff we don't know, and it's easy to get confused.

Heck, cosmology is a more rigorous subject than archaeology, and there, until recently, we had this problem where many galaxies seemed to be older than the universe.  (This issue has since been resolved due to the discovery of the cosmological constant, among other things.)

Now, as St. Scott points out (with many references) you can find experts with many different points of view on the subject of Biblical history.  I can see why you would think that the religious scholars are biased towards finding that the Bible is historically accurate (and I agree that many of them are biased) but what I can't understand is why you think secular scholars would be un-biased!  As St. Chesterton says:

Why should they be impartial, what is being impartial, when the whole world is at war about whether one thing is a devouring superstition or a divine hope? I do not pretend to be impartial in the sense that the final act of faith fixes a man's mind because it satisfies his mind. But I do profess to be a great deal more impartial than they are; in the sense that I can tell the story fairly, with some sort of imaginative justice to all sides; and they cannot.  (The Everlasting Man)

If a person disbelieves in miracles and prophecy, it seems quite natural that they should discount any historical documents in which these things seem to occur.  But this does not make them any more unbiased than a Christian.  And I have frequently found that, when I go so far as to ask why e.g. biblical critics believe that various biblical documents were written at late dates and by other people, I usually find that there seems to be just as much naturalist assumptions in their work, as there is bias in the other direction in the scholarship of conservative Christians.

I do not consider Wikipedia to be generally a reliable source when it comes to highly controversial religious or political issues, but the article on "biblical minimalism" says that:

Although these debates were in some cases heated, most scholars stayed in the middle ground between minimalists and maximalists evaluating the arguments of both schools critically, and since the 1990s, while some of the minimalist arguments have been challenged or rejected, others have been refined and adopted into the mainstream of biblical scholarship.

This seems to contradict the claim of Philip Davies (relayed by Arkenaten in his original comment) basically saying that the minimalists have completely routed the scholarly opposition.

Now, to discuss the specific points.  You have mentioned various time periods which even in the case of the Old Testament are a millennium apart, and I think the amount of evidence we have concerning different periods is wildly different.  Even on a conservative point of view, the Patriarchs were hundreds of years before the Book of Genesis was written, and (unless Moses receieved supernatural revelation concerning them) we can expect that the vicissitudes of oral tradition would have taken its toll.

And I agree with you that there are some serious archaeological difficulties surrounding the Exodus and Conquest of Canaan.   I'm not an expert in this area, but I gather that, although Jericho does indeed seem to have been dramatically destroyed sometime midway through the 2nd millennium BC, the most recent carbon dating suggests that it occurred around 1550 BC, approximately 150 years earlier than the traditional date of the Conquest.  The error bars for this are supposedly considerably smaller than 150 years, but who knows what kinds of systematic errors there might be in the collection of artifacts to sample, etc?  There is also little evidence of the large numbers of people migrating as described in the Pentateuch, although some have suggested that the census numbers have been inflated or misinterpreted somehow.

These are issues which should be taken seriously by archaeologists, and they do suggest the possibility of major problems with the biblical accounts, but as I said I'm used to the existence of apparent discrepancies when it comes to history.  In the broad scheme of things, these are the types of problems which often get ironed out with more data.

And even taking all this data at face value, I don't think it necessarily implies that there was no such person as Moses, nor the Pentateuch was spun from whole cloth and not based on any historical sources, nor that there was no Exodus from Egypt with accompanying miracles.  Of course, the Israelites have to have come from somewhere, and it is a bit surprising that, if they were making up an origin for themselves out of whole cloth, they would view themselves as the descendents of oppressed slaves in Egypt (not a very prestigious origin) if in fact they had always been in Canaan.

It seems perfectly consistent with everything we know (or at least, that I know; did I mention that this is not my area of specialization?) to say that most of the historical sources which went into the Torah predate the Monarchy and that its account of the Exodus is accurate in its broad outlines, perhaps with some significant distortions and inaccuracies due to later editing.  (At least some editorial comments have to date from no earlier than the time of the Monarchy.  As a Supernaturalist I'm fine with Moses prophesying the future Exile of Israel or legislating for a future monarchy, but comments like "These were the kings who reigned in Edom before any Israelite king reigned" (Gen 36:31) sure don't sound like prophecy to me!)

Also, there is some genetic evidence that (a decent proportion of) the Jews who claim to be descended from the first High Priest Aaron do in fact share a common patrilineal ancestor from around 3,000 years ago or so.

We don't have much archeological data regarding the nation of Israel until the Monarchy period, although there are extrabiblical references to an Israel starting in 1209 BC, as well as archaeological evidence for camps of a people group with new customs (e.g. circumcision and avoiding pork).  Once we reach the Book of Kings there is a lot more data.  For example, there are several extrabiblical references to King Omri, Ahab's father.

And it's hard for me to believe that the historical books about the life and reign of David are not essentially historical.  They contain lots of boring mundane trivia (including lists of various temple servants that are skipped by all but the most avid Bible readers), realistic characterizations, are open about the flaws of the heroes in a way that is viewed as highly remarkable by the historical standards of the time, and they don't even contain very much in the way of overtly supernatural events (for those skeptical of such things).  What can I say?  It feels quite obvious to me from the feel, that I'm reading genuine history when I read it.  (I feel much the same way when I read the Gospels, by the way, although they contain much more in the way of the miraculous.)  Plus David left a bunch of poems with a characteristic style with a novel degree of subjective honesty, and founded a dynasty which we have later evidence for a few generations later.  That's quite a lot.

I think only somebody who thinks that written sources are as nothing compared to archeological data should disregard this.  (To be consistent one would also have to discard most of our written historical sources about ancient China and so on.  One has to come to grips with the fact that most of our evidence about history comes from believing whatever seemingly sober written historical texts say happened.  When skeptics talk about not wanting to believe a religious story just because it is written in a book, I start wondering where they think we get the rest of our historical knowledge from...)

But once we get to the people who think everything was made up during and after the Babylonian Exile, I think it is they who are departing from reality and common sense.  The exiles returning from Babylon had to have had a pre-existing sense of national identity in order to overcome the obstacles needed to rebuild Jerusalem as a pitiful remnant.  The idea that they could be given a new foundational text at this point, having no core religious identity beforehand, is ridiculous.

How was one and the same religious text (the Torah) foisted on both the Jews and the Samaritans, who hated each other?  Recall that in the standard Biblical chronology the Northern and Southern kingdoms had been at odds for hundreds of years, since the time of Rehoboam, Solomon's son.  I've never heard any of the biblical minimalists try to explain the Samaritan Pentateuch, but perhaps I just haven't found where they discuss it.

Or why does this text focus obsessively on the idea that there are exactly twelve tribes of Israel and that it is important to include all of them, when by this time most of the tribes had had their cultural identities absorbed into either Judah or Ephraim/"Israel".  As I read through the Old Testament histories I get a strong sense of many cultural changes (the religious and cultural differences in tone from the patriarchs to Exodus, from Joshua/Judges to Monarchy to post-Exile are all quite striking to this reader).  If the histories had all been made up in one time period, one would not expect to find this stratification of concerns, most of them rather anachronistic given the concerns of the post-exilic period.

What about the numerous references to the Exodus and the Law of Moses, not just in the History books but in the Psalms (many of which predate the Exile) and the pre-Exilic Prophets?  These do not, of course, prove that these events really happened, but they do establish that they were already part of the national identity of Israel by the time of the Monarchy.

And how could archaeological evidence possibly show that Monotheism was a late invention among the Israelites?  I suppose they could dig up evidence of people worshipping pagan gods instead of, or alongside, YHWH, but... surprise!  The Bible says that the Israelites were constantly turning away from the true God to worship idols, and that it was only various revivals of prophets and kings which preserved the faith which came from Moses.  So if anything, that would only support the Biblical narrative.

And the idea that someone like Ezra could have made up a literary masterpiece such as the Torah... well, no disrespect to the inspired word of God, but if the books of Ezra-Nehemiah are any example, the literary and cultural resources of the demoralized yet hopeful returning Israelites were simply not up to that level.  Everything about the priest Ezra says methodical-revivalist, not creative-founder.  That man couldn't have invented anything so original, but he could take what was already there and turn it into Judaism.

I'm not an expert biblical critic, but I can tell when what I'm hearing seems completely out of touch with the text they are trying to explain.  These are just a few examples of the disconnect.  My wife and my best friend St. Yoaav both went to the Chicago Divinity School (like the Ivy Leagues, it was full of generally skeptical or at best extremely liberal biblical scholarship) so I think I know from their reports something of how these people think.  To a large extent I think they are pulling things out of their behinds, using anti-religious presuppositions, rather than actually following the data wherever it leads.  (A lot of them talk about "methodological naturalism", the idea that History by it's very nature can't address any supernatural claims, so they are only allowed to consider naturalistic explanations.  This is obvious circular reasoning if one then wishes to use their conclusions to refute Supernaturalism.)  St. Lewis' essay on Fernseeds and Elephants is also relevant here.

I've been focussing on the Hebrew Scriptures here; I don't really have the time to address the New Testament in this post.  But as a Christian, the Resurrection of Jesus is at the core of my faith in a way that the details of the Exodus are not.  If I were a Jew (or a Hindu) I would be quite bothered that my religion was based primarily on events too far back in the past to have much good historical data for.  But as a Christian, I can point to texts which claim to be based on eyewitness accounts to the Resurrection, at a time period for which we have much better historical data (yay for Greco-Roman culture!) than during the Old Testament period.  (Yes, I know all about the arguments that the Gospels and Acts weren't really written by Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and I don't find them convincing for reasons I've blogged about elsewhere.)

Then, after one accepts that there exists a God who does miracles, and who chose to send his Son to one highly peculiar monotheistic culture, then it seems reasonable, speaking as a Christian, to think that there must be some basis for that people's odd origin story: that God made their distant ancestor Abraham a promise, and then they were slaves, and then God rescued them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, feeding them with the bread of angels.  To prepare for that bread which later came down from heaven, for us men and for our salvation...

Posted in History, Theological Method | 26 Comments

We're back

Some of you were disturbed by the blog temporarily going off the Internet earlier today.  This was due to the domain name accidentally expiring.  It's been taken care of now, and we return to our (ir)regularly scheduled programming.

I'm in the middle of writing a post about the sun going dark during Jesus' Crucifixion, but compiling all of the historical data is hard work!  Meanwhile I've been quite busy with finishing various physics articles (and now I'm back in Santa Barbara now for a couple months for a workshop).  But hopefully there will be a new post sometime soon...

Posted in Blog | 2 Comments

Flesh and Spirit II: Original Sin

"The flesh is indeed willing, but the spirit is weak"—Jesus

A while back St. Anne / Weekend Fisher asked whether human nature is basically good or totally depraved.   I left a comment as follows:

There is no such thing as pure evil. God is pure good, and the things he creates are all good when properly related to him. Evil is always goodness twisted and perverted. It cannot exist on its own; it is a parasite on goodness.

Thus, when we say that human beings are depraved or evil, this necessarily presupposes that human nature is good. If we had not been meant for something better, it would not be a sin to fall short.

I am not sure I believe in "total" depravity, or even that I am sure what it would mean if it were true. I think it is clear that almost every person has, at some time in their lives, done something ethically good, out of love for other people, rather than hypocrisy or self-righteousness. Christ calls human fathers evil, but he also says that they know how to give good gifts to their children.

What I affirm is that (a) every part of our nature, though created good, is corrupted to some extent, and (b) we are sufficiently enslaved to sin that we are incapable of saving ourselves, but need God's gracious act of redemption through Jesus.

Also, I think people mistakenly think that because the doctrine of "original sin" applies to children, it is therefore especially about children. Children may be fallen, but adults are more so. Otherwise Jesus would not have said that you have to change and become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

But this still leaves the question I asked last time, why, if God created us good, are we all so whacked?  (OK, I used a slightly different word, but nobody called me out on it.)  The Christian answer is well known: because some dude and his wife ate a piece of fruit a while back...wait, what?

The Genesis story is full of rich archetypes and symbols, and if we treat it too literalistically and fail to notice the applicability to our present state, we're missing out on the point.  The name Adam means Human Being.  The name Eve means Life.  In other words, we are all Adam and Eve, as Paul says:

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive... (1 Cor 15:22, 44-50)

Point is, YOU are Adam, and when you rebel against God you experience what it is like to be a fallen human being.  That is when you experience shame and nakedness and the desire to justify yourself by clothing yourself with whatever fig leaves you can gather, even if it isn't always that effective.  We can tell the Genesis story about ourselves, as Paul does:

I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”  But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead.

Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. (Romans 7:7-10)

There was once, for our species perhaps as well as each individual, a time of rosy innocence before we became aware of morality as we now experience it, in the form of unattainable ethical imperatives and guilt for having disobeyed them.  At one time we lived in a state of innocence and spiritual simplicity, but then we wanted to make our own decisions and go our own way, and there were the consequences.

The way people usually tell the story of the Fall, they act as though Adam had eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Depravity and Sinfulness.  But that's not what the book says, it says the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  What's more the Knowledge is considered in itself something good, a property of God.  As the serpent says:

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4).

and on the off-chance you don't think the devil is a reliable source of information, God speaking to himself (in the communion of the Holy Trinity) says the same thing:

“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22).

Perhaps human beings were supposed to eventually receive the Knowledge of Good and Evil when we became mature enough, but we wanted to try out both good and evil for ourselves, learning about each from experience, and now we experience the moral law in the form of commands which we find impossible to satisfy, with all the resulting effects on our mental and spiritual health.

Since the genetic evidence suggests that there was never a time in which the early homo sapiens population was smaller than about a thousand or so breeding pairs, it seems that we can't take literally the idea of only 2 human beings (even leaving aside the question of where Cain's wife came from!).  But I believe that the primary point of the Genesis story is to speak to the reality of the human situation, not to give a factual, literal account of what happened in the past.

Yet given that human beings were created to be in communion with God, but we now find ourselves alienated from him, we can deduce that there must have been some actual set of prehistoric events by which this happened, but because it happened in prehistory we don't know the precise details, just the aftermath.  So in that sense the Fall is indeed also about something that happened a long time ago, even if it is recapitulated in each generation (just as Evolution is also recapitulated in each generation, as the traits which were useful in the past manifest once again).

We also have the Tree of Life in the story.  Apparently if human beings had remained in communion with God (a state known as Original Justice) there would have been no need to die.  Given the laws of physics and biology as we know them (which have certainly been operating for a long time before human beings arrived on the scene) this would have required supernatural intervention.  But if touching the body of Jesus in the Gospels allowed supernatural healing to sinners, why should immortality not also have been available to sinless beings in full communion with him?

After people fell, how did the badness get transmitted to later generations?  Well the absence of immortality and spiritual communion with God doesn't really need to be explained, that's kind of the default position given the loss of Original Justice.  As for more specific morally undesirable traits, they are presumably passed on through genetics and culture, the same way we inherit everything else.  Of course it would have required many generations for our genetics to adapt in response to cultural changes (Lamarck was mostly wrong), but it has been a long time since then.

Also, a large part of our evil fleshly impulses are just our animal nature, evolved through natural selection by our pre-human ancestors prior to the Fall.  These fleshly impulses are not bad per se, since we are supposed to be spiritual animals in the image of God.  But once the Fall disrupted our communion with God they got out of control and started causing problems.  If we had remained under the control of the Spirit of God, our animal impulses would be holy as well as spontaneous, and thus part of our blessedness.  Or if we were still just animals, who had never known better, we would still have the innocence of animals.  A cat is morally innocent when it plays with a mouse, not because that is morally wonderful but because it doesn't know any better.  But now we know better (or else ought to know better but are in denial), and it pains us to experience our own worst impulses.

While some animals seem capable of embarrassment or shame at times, so far as I know we're the only animal to frequently feel shame just at the thought of having a body.  That's pretty weird!  It's also why most of us wear clothes even when it's not needed for protection.

This animal/evolutionary origin for most of our evil fleshly impulses seems a lot more plausible to me then simply being inexplicably cursed with evil-rays as a punishment for having eaten a fruit once.  (What do you get when you combine Christianity with evolutionary psychology?  Christianity, of course...)

Of course we aren't personally responsible for the fact that we are born in a morally problematic state.  But we do need to take responsibility for who we are, as best we can, to control the damage.  And while none of us were doing the right thing, God himself took on responsibility for the human condition by uniting himself to human nature in order to redeem it and make holiness and sanctity possible.

A couple more quotes to round out the discussion.  The first is from the rationalist blogger (who happens to also be a psychiatrist) Scott Alexander discussing the politics of "trigger warnings":

...I think [the essay he's responding to] contains a false dichotomy: privileged people don’t have any triggers, oppressed people do. You guys are intact, I am broken. But truth is, everybody’s broken. The last crown prince of Nepal was raised with limitless wealth and absolute power, and he still freaked out and murdered his entire family and then killed himself. There’s probably someone somewhere who still believes in perfectly intact people, but I bet they’re not a psychiatrist.
A Christian proverb says: “The Church is not a country club for saints, but a hospital for sinners”. Likewise, the rationalist community is not an ivory tower for people with no biases or strong emotional reactions, it’s a dojo for people learning to resist them.

Now Scott isn't a Christian, but he's sensible enough to steal good ideas even if they come from the Church.  Likewise I encourage my readers to steal all the good ideas from rationalism! Take all thoughts captive for Christ (2 Cor 10:5), to prepare for the day when the splendor from all the kings on the earth will be brought into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24).

The concept of Original Sin understood properly is equalizing, not dehumanizing.  As St. Chesterton wrote:

We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things...

Christianity spoke again and said: "I have always maintained that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own nature to rust or to rot; I have always said that human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; I call it what it is—the Fall."

I have spoken of orthodoxy coming in like a sword; here I confess it came in like a battle-axe. For really (when I came to think of it) Christianity is the only thing left that has any real right to question the power of the well-nurtured or the well-bred. I have listened often enough to Socialists, or even to democrats, saying that the physical conditions of the poor must of necessity make them mentally and morally degraded. I have listened to scientific men (and there are still scientific men not opposed to democracy) saying that if we give the poor healthier conditions vice and wrong will disappear. I have listened to them with a horrible attention, with a hideous fascination. For it was like watching a man energetically sawing from the tree the branch he is sitting on. If these happy democrats could prove their case, they would strike democracy dead. If the poor are thus utterly demoralized, it may or may not be practical to raise them. But it is certainly quite practical to disfranchise them. If the man with a bad bedroom cannot give a good vote, then the first and swiftest deduction is that he shall give no vote. The governing class may not unreasonably say: "It may take us some time to reform his bedroom. But if he is the brute you say, it will take him very little time to ruin our country. Therefore we will take your hint and not give him the chance." It fills me with horrible amusement to observe the way in which the earnest Socialist industriously lays the foundation of all aristocracy, expatiating blandly upon the evident unfitness of the poor to rule. It is like listening to somebody at an evening party apologising for entering without evening dress, and explaining that he had recently been intoxicated, had a personal habit of taking off his clothes in the street, and had, moreover, only just changed from prison uniform. At any moment, one feels, the host might say that really, if it was as bad as that, he need not come in at all. So it is when the ordinary Socialist, with a beaming face, proves that the poor, after their smashing experiences, cannot be really trustworthy. At any moment the rich may say, "Very well, then, we won't trust them," and bang the door in his face. On the basis of Mr. Blatchford's view of heredity and environment, the case for the aristocracy is quite overwhelming. If clean homes and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power (for the present at any rate) to those who undoubtedly have the clean air? If better conditions will make the poor more fit to govern themselves, why should not better conditions already make the rich more fit to govern them? On the ordinary environment argument the matter is fairly manifest. The comfortable class must be merely our vanguard in Utopia.

Is there any answer to the proposition that those who have had the best opportunities will probably be our best guides? Is there any answer to the argument that those who have breathed clean air had better decide for those who have breathed foul? As far as I know, there is only one answer, and that answer is Christianity. Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man's environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest—if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this— that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. ("The Eternal Revolution", Orthodoxy)

In my previous post in this series I was talking about the goodness of being created with male and female bodies, and somebody asked me what I think about transgender people.  So I provided my viewed-as-hate-speech-on-many-college-campuses opinion that it is morally wrong to dislike or mutilate your own body, even though the people in question may find it quite difficult to think in a different way.   But I also said that it was just a more extreme example of the type of body-image problem that we ALL struggle with.  Christianity, while it is willing to call particular acts sinful, problematizes any use of the word to stigmatize anyone, since after all Christ had to die for my sins as well as your sins.

I read an article once which had a list of derogatory language and insults, and in addition to the usual suspects, things like the N— word (which apparently these days is so contaminated by evil-rays that you can get in trouble for using those letters in sequence, even if you put it in quotation marks as something somebody else said, without actually using it to refer to anybody or anything) included the word "sinner".  Because that is a derogatory word used to refer to gay people, just like "fag" or "pansy" or something of the kind.  The barely concealed goal was to reclassify the Christian church as a hate group.

Except that's not how the word "sinner" is used at all.  I would be very surprised if, when Grand Dragon of the KKK got a bunch of white supremacists together for one of their meetings, he started beating his chest and crying and saying "We are all N—'s, every last one of us!  No matter what color skin we have, we have all have black hearts.  Before you judge your neighbor, consider first how far you yourself fall short of perfect whiteness when you fail to love your colored neighbor as yourself!"  In this case I would think that he was using the words "white" and "black" in a different way than I would expect a hate group to use them.

Sinner is indeed a derogatory word, but one of the key attributes of this word in Christianity is that it applies to everyone, and that you aren't allowed to use it to refer to anybody unless you bear this in mind.  This is not to say that all sins are equally bad; that is total nonsense which deprives the word of any meaning at all; there are plenty of Bible verses which quite explicitly say that some sins are worse than others.  But all sins come from a root cause that is present in all of us, and you'd have to be morally retarded (oops, another derogatory word) not to sympathize, given that we all struggle with the same things.  Except that, once again, we are all morally backwards when it comes to self-righteousness and looking down on others, that's part of the problem.

On my bookshelf I have a section for Heretics, books which I own that contain serious distortions of Christian teaching.  Some of these books, I agree with the title even though I disagree with almost everything inside of them.  One of them is The God who Risks, by John Sanders.  Another book with a great title is The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes.

I don't recommend either of these books, but the title of the second one makes an important point.  It's an interesting fact that Jews don't make a big deal out of the story of the Fall in Genesis, it's not really a central theological point for them even though it's right near the beginning of the story.  It's only after Jesus rose from the dead, and the idea of a new human nature became solidly founded, that we have a platform to go back and criticize the old human nature we all have.  Paul talks about Adam so much because he needs something to compare to what Jesus did.

Christian theology centers around Jesus and the Resurrection (a thing which happened in historical times i.e. during the period of written evidence).  Our attitude towards Adam, the Fall, and our fallen neighbor must be recalculated in light of this new glory.  That's why it isn't a bummer to learn you've been wrong the whole time about how you've been living.  A fish can't really tell it's swimming in water until it learns to fly.

Update: I answered some of the questions in the comments below in
Questions about Adam.
The grand conclusion to the series is here:
Flesh and Spirit III: Easter Sermon

Posted in Theology | 23 Comments

Rainbow Gravity

In the past week, I received two emails from some folks concerned that a speculative physics proposal called "rainbow gravity" eliminates the Big Bang and hence the beginning of the universe.  They are worried that this undermines Christianity.  Presumably if two different people living in different countries took the trouble to email me about it, there are hundreds of people out there, equally worried about it, who didn't bother to email me.

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Now I already wrote a big long series about whether the universe began and I don't want to repeat everything again.  But let me say a bit more about the virtue of faith as it relates to scientific inquiry.  As a scientist I think it is a real shame if, when Christians learn about Way Cool New Science, their first instinct is to doubt their faith and wonder if the new stuff undermines what they believe about God.

I think it's a lot healthier to be able to learn new and amazing things about the world—the world that God created—without worrying that every new discovery will undermine your religious beliefs and make it so you have to be an atheist.  I would like to propose that it is a virtue for a Christian be able to learn new things about the world, and to keep an open mind towards new discoveries without continually engaging in the torture of nagging doubt and worry, so that scientific discovery starts seeming like a hostile force.  That is not the confidence which comes from faith.  A happily married wife shouldn't spend all her time worrying (without good cause) that her husband is cheating on her whenever he goes off on a business meeting.

Even if it were established that there was time before the Big Bang, that would not establish that God did not create the universe.  Perhaps the beginning of the universe was in fact a long time before what we think of as the Big Bang.  Or perhaps we need to be flexible about what we mean by creation, and say that God created a universe which goes back infinitely in time.

Don't get me wrong; I am an evidentialist.  I think people should only believe in things for which there is enough evidence, and that merely being consistent with the scientific data is not (by itself) strong evidence.  But I also think that there's more than one type of evidence, since we have the historical records of Christ and the inner testimony of God's Spirit to help us.  Your personal relationship with Christ obviously does not consist primarily of speculation about what happened (or didn't happen) before the Big Bang.  If Christianity is important enough to worry about, that's because it's relevant to your personal life, not just to scientific questions.

If you are solidly rooted in Christ then you don't have to be ''tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching" (Eph. 4:14).  That in turn gives one the ability to explore new knowledge with a feeling of freedom and security (and paradoxically this probably puts you in a better position to know whether Christianity is true or not, then constantly worrying about it all the time would).

But is rainbow gravity in fact Way Cool New Science?  Let's explore and see.

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My correspondents were concerned by an article by Sarah Knapton which appeared in two slightly different forms in the National Post and Telegraph.  These in turn appear to mostly be cannibalized versions of this article, which in turn describes the article "Absence of Black Holes at LHC due to Gravity's Rainbow" by Ahmed Farag Ali, Mir Faizal, and Mohammed M. Khalil.

However, there is nothing about the Big Bang in these last two links, so Knapton must have done some some additional investigation.  It is true that Faizel also wrote another article suggesting that rainbow gravity might avoid the Big Bang.  (But more likely she got this information from a Scientific American blog article based on arXiv:1308.4343).

Knapton's article belongs to a long and venerable tradition of journalists taking the marginal, speculative ideas and making it sound like they are taken seriously by the scientific community.  She states that

Scientists at Cern in Switzerland believe the particle accelerator, which will be restarted this week, might find miniature black holes at a certain energy level.

This could prove the controversial theory of “rainbow gravity” which suggests that the universe stretches back in time infinitely with no singular point where it started, and so no Big Bang. The theory was postulated to reconcile Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which controls very large objects, and quantum mechanics, which affects the tiniest building blocks of the universe. It takes its name from a suggestion that gravity’s effect on the cosmos is felt differently by varying wavelengths of light.

This makes it sound like Ali, Faizal, and Khalil are located at CERN (which they are not), that many researchers at CERN take the idea of rainbow gravity seriously, and that there is some sort of epic "controversy"-battle taking place between those who believe it and those who don't.  But the reality on the ground is that most particle physicists and quantum gravity researchers probably haven't even had this idea show up on their radar screen.  (Now the multiverseThat rises to the level of being controversial.)

Sentences like:

Scientists believe they could find the first proof of alternative realities that exist outside ou[r] own universe.

make it sound as if the scientific community takes something seriously, when actually it just means that somebody (with a science job) wrote a article (with equations) proposing it—and that they have at least one coauthor, since the noun "scientists" is plural!

The Scientific American article is a bit better.  It correctly states that

The idea is not a complete theory for describing quantum effects on gravity, and is not widely accepted.

but then immediately thereafter we have the inevitable "at least 2 scientists are willing to indulge in speculation" construction:

Nevertheless, physicists have now applied the concept to the question of how the universe began, and found that if rainbow gravity is correct, spacetime may have a drastically different origin story than the widely accepted picture of the big bang.

Unfortunately, these types of inflated articles make it difficult for non-scientists to tell which new ideas in science are actually taken seriously or not.  How can non-scientists tell whether something is legit?  The fact that the article made it through the peer-review process of a top journal?  (Hold on for a moment while I stop laughing.)  While peer-review tends to filter out the worst crackpots, quite a few lemons still manage to get through.  Conversely, good articles are frequently rejected, although this is mitigated by the tactic of simply submitting to enough journals that one of them accepts it—but this tactic is also open to authors of bad papers!

What makes good science is observational support, elegance, precise models, and so on.  Unfortunatly non-scientists usually have to take the word of the scientific community about the extent to which any given proposal meets these tests.

(Honestly, given the awfulness of pop-science venues in this respect, I would say if you aren't a scientist, it's probably best not to take any new scientific idea you read in the news all that seriously, at least not until you find out that a broad cross-section of the relevant experts believe in it.  It's a better use of your time to learn about the Way Cool Old Science which has already been established!)

The main trouble with "Absence of Black Holes" is that it's a combination of two different speculative ideas (each with individual problems), and together they become even worse.  I don't want to call this paper crackpot exactly, but let's just say that it has a very, very small probability of being correct.  The main ingredients are:

1) Rainbow gravity (which seems to have originated from something called "Doubly Special Relativity") is an idea based on very speculative quantum gravity models suggesting Special Relativity should be modified for particles with energy very close to the Planck scale, 10^{16} TeV, when quantum gravity effects become important.  The idea is that the spacetime seen by different particles should depend on how energetic those particles are.

Unfortunately nobody knows how to make this model into a mathematically consistent field theory (like every other successful fundamental theory to date).  So they just make crude approximations, like proposing that the geometry felt by a particle at a given spacetime position depends on its energy, by means of a function f(E) (which they just make up rather than actually deriving it honestly from any deeper theory).

But simultaneously measuring (a) energy-momentum and (b) spacetime position conflicts with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, so this is hard to reconcile with quantum mechanics even though it was inspired by quantum gravity.  It seems that these theories would have to be fundamentally nonlocal.

2) Large Extra Dimensions.  The idea here is that there are additional dimensions, besides the usual 4 spacetime dimensions we see.  One has to explain why we can't see these dimensions normally; in this particular approach one says that ordinary matter fields are stuck on a 4 dimensional membrane and that only gravity can propagate in the extra dimensions.

This has the effect of strengthening gravity at short distances, and could conceivably even lower the Planck scale to smaller values, perhaps even to a few TeV.  Of course it was no conicidence that people were most interested in models in which the Planck scale was moved to energies accessible to the LHC, thus making people excited by the possibility of seeing things like quantum black holes experimentally!  (Nobody gets a Nobel prize for saying that we will never observe quantum gravity effects because the energy scales are much too high.)  This was also an extremely speculative idea, and what's more, after turning on the LHC we haven't yet seen any black holes or anything like that.

The sane conclusion to draw, of course, is that probably there are no large extra dimensions (or if there are, the Planck scale is still considerably above what we can see).  These authors instead propose that if rainbow gravity is also true, the minimum size of black holes might be bigger, explaining why we haven't seen them yet.

I was going to write a more detailed critique, but I find that Sabine Hossenfelder has already done most of the work for me.  She writes that:

In rainbow gravity the metric is energy-dependent which it normally is not. This energy-dependence is a non-standard modification that is not confirmed by any evidence. It is neither a theory nor a model, it is just an idea that, despite more than a decade of work, never developed into a proper model. Rainbow gravity has not been shown to be compatible with the standard model. There is no known quantization of this approach and one cannot describe interactions in this framework at all. Moreover, it is known to lead to non-localities with are ruled out already. For what I am concerned, no papers should get published on the topic until these issues have been resolved.

Rainbow gravity enjoys some popularity because it leads to Planck scale effects that can affect the propagation of particles, which could potentially be observable. Alas, no such effects have been found. No such effects have been found if the Planck scale is the normal one! The absolutely last thing you want to do at this point is argue that rainbow gravity should be combined with large extra dimensions, because then its effects would get stronger and probably be ruled out already. At the very least you would have to revisit all existing constraints on modified dispersion relations and reaction thresholds and so on. This isn't even mentioned in the paper.

That isn't all there is to say though. In their paper, the authors also unashamedly claim that such a modification has been predicted by Loop Quantum Gravity, and that it is a natural incorporation of effects found in string theory. Both of these statements are manifestly wrong. Modifications like this have been motivated by, but never been derived from Loop Quantum Gravity. And String Theory gives rise to some kind of minimal length, yes, but certainly not to rainbow gravity; in fact, the expression of the minimal length relation in string theory is known to be incompatible with the one the authors use. The claims that this model they use has some kind of derivation or even a semi-plausible motivation from other theories is just marketing. If I had been a referee of this paper, I would have requested that all these wrong claims be scraped.

I also briefly looked at the other article by Faizel about avoiding the Big Bang, and it seemed just as ad hoc as any of the other papers on this subject, and I wasn't convinced it makes sense.  I don't think we should expect to find any pots of gold at the end of this particular rainbow.

Posted in Physics, Reviews | 6 Comments

Flesh and Spirit I: Creation

"What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit." — Jesus

I want to talk about something which is essential to the Gospel, yet widely misunderstood.  It has to do with the relationship between our flesh and our spirit.

Clearly we have both of these things.  We know we have a physical body, and we know we have something like a mind or inner self, with a personality, consciousness, and also deep subconscious mysteries that we do not fully understand.  Our mind has to deal with various urges and desires which come up from the physical or animal side of our nature, but we also have a sense of ourselves as rational and spiritual beings.  We have both a body and a soul.

I think this is all obviously true no matter what we decide about the philosophy of mind.  Leave aside the metaphysical questions, I think we know that all of this is true from our experiences as human beings (if I wanted to be fancy I would use the word phenomenology here).  Materialists assert that the mind is just another name for certain arrangements of matter, specifically the neural network in our brains.  For the purposes of what I have to say, my response is who cares?  That doesn't change the fact that we experience ourselves as having a more physical and a more mental part.

Suppose you fall to the ground upon hearing some devastating news, and a sympathetic materialist philsopher walks by.  "Are you okay," he says?  "My body feels fine," you say, "but my heart is broken."  Somehow he knows what you mean.  There is no need for him to reply: "Technically, your mind is part of your body, and oh by the way you should have said brain instead of heart.  We now know that the heart pumps blood, it doesn't think."

Also, when I say we have both flesh and spirit, I don't necessarily mean that they can be separated in a clean way.  Our physical condition affects our mind, which in turn controls our body.  Our bodily desires cannot be experienced until they enter our mind.  There's not necessarily a clear-cut distinction between where one ends and the other begins.  But even if it's a continuous spectrum, we can still label the two ends of the spectrum, and decide how we feel about each of the two ends.

So what should we think about our physical or fleshly self?  This is a key distinction between Christianity and several heretical off-shoots such as Gnosticism or Manicheeism.  These sects taught that the physical world was evil, and that human beings are basically souls trapped in bodies.  Matter is evil, spirit is good.  Many Gnostics even claimed that the creator of the physical world was a lesser, evil god several emenations removed from the true God.  If this is true, then salvation consists of being rescued from our physical or corporeal nature.

But Christianity could not disagree more.  Matter as such is not evil, nor is it morally neutral, it is fundamentally good!  We believe that the physical universe is intrinsically good and glorious because it reflects the infinite splendour of the one who created it.  Seven times he calls it good; three times he blesses it:

God saw that the light was good...

God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good...

The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good...

God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night.  He also made the stars... And God saw that it was good...

So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.  He blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.”...

God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good...

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
___So God created Man in his own image,
___in the image of God he created him;
___male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”...

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good...

Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

If this were not enough, we also know that the Word of God became flesh, that he physically rose from the dead, he communicates his flesh and blood to us through a physical sacrament, and that on the Last Day he will raise all of our bodies from the dead.  The Incarnation and the Resurrection show that God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament: he continues to bless the physical, corporeal, material world.

The implications of this for our self-conception could not be greater.  It means that we must resist as a damnable heresy the idea that we are souls trapped in bodies.  We are meant to be physical.  We must treat our bodies with respect and strive for integration between our souls and our bodies.  They are part of who we are.  If we think of ourselves only as "souls", we will be continually frustrated by our inability to live up to our own prideful perfect image.

Most people struggle with shame, and with various body image problems.  The first step is to recognize that our body is indeed created good by God—I'm not saying that a merely intellectual affirmation is a magic bullet, but it's a start.  Instead of restricting our sense of identity to the smallest that it can be, a speck of consciousness in our skull, we must extend it to the extremities of our body.  Even our spouse's body if we are married.  (Note that all Christians are married to Christ, whose physical body in turn includes all of us in the Church, whether on Earth or in Heaven).

With respect to human faculties, we must accept the rule that every constitutent part of human nature is good.  We cannot identify any part of ourselves, e.g. our capactity for anger or sex, or our ability to rule over Nature, and say that this is evil.  It was created good by God.  We may corrupt or twist it by sin, or it may be stunted by disease or deformity, but the original plan and purpose was good.  Even if our anger leads us astray 99% of the time, we cannot say that anger, depression, anxiety, pain, pleasure, or joy are inherently bad.  Jesus experienced all of these feelings.  Admittedly he chose to remain celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of God, but Genesis 1-2 makes it clear that God blesses sex and fertility.

And yes, this includes gender.  God created us male and female, each one in the image of God (who, you will notice, speaks of himself in the plural at this point).  Although our salvation in Christ does not depend in any way on gender, the details of our personality are influenced in countless ways by our particular makeup, and our gender will remain eternally part of who we are.  This is good.  Of course, the things which humans have in common are more important than the things which separate us.  But we cannot give up on entirely on gender distinctions (like some Gnostics tried to do) simply because people have often used them to oppress people.  If gender roles seem oppressive, that is because they have become distorted by sin, not because they are inherently bad.  Men, embrace your masculinity!  Women, embrace your femininity!  (I don't mean the sterotypes or false generalizations, but the truth of who you really are.)

Our spirtual self is also obviously good and noble, even if sometimes it seems to be more trouble even than our corporeal self.  Still, it is what makes us human.  Even if we attempt to live as if we were merely animals meant for pleasure, we will never succeed.  I don't just mean that it can't lead to satisfaction (as the book of Ecclesiastes points out) but also that people can't help but turn even simple ethical nihilism into some sort of weird affected ethical game.  We are human beings, we can't help it.  As the Bl. Simone Weil said, "Man would like to be an egoist and cannot.  This is the most striking characteristic of his wretchedness and the source of his greatness."

So if we were created good, then why are we all so royally fucked up?  (Pardon my French, but I cannot think of an equally potent and apt word to describe the human condition.)  That will be the subject of the next post in this series.

But let me just say now that for a long time the Church has over-empasized the faults of the physical world, and embraced a severely ascetic mindset.  This was wrong, as it implicitly denied (what was theoretically admitted as doctrine) that the world was created very good.  But we are now so hedonistic as a culture, even in the Church, that we are not likely to make the same mistake.  In the present day we are much more likely to fail to see the need to crucify the flesh with its desires and passions!  (Gal. 5:24) Seems like a total contradiction with what I said before, doesn't it?  But without this you cannot be saved, so it's a bit of a shame no one talks about it much these days, because it is an essential part of the Gospel which has the power to save you.  More on this to come.

Next in series: Flesh and Spirit II: Original Sin

Posted in Theology | 12 Comments