Monday, May 26, 2014

They Seem To Be Used Interchangeably

Hermeneutics: the art of analyzing and interpreting the meaning of text. This is a key element to discovering what it true according to the Bible and vitally important to developing Christian doctrine.

The title of this article, They Seem To Be Used Interchangeably, is often offered as an argument for accepting some types of doctrinal conclusions. That is to say that where a couple of different words are used in similar contexts, whether the two words mean precisely the same thing bears some relevance on determining the meaning of the passage.

There are two common examples from scripture. One is when “love” translated from two Greek words, “agape” and “phileo”, in the common American reference to them. Another example are the Greek words, “psyche” and “pneuma”, translated as “soul” and “spirit” in similar contexts respectively. In the “love” argument, the difference in doctrinal conclusions is whether or not to make a distinction between God’s love and the love of the world. In the “soul and spirit” argument, the difference in doctrine has to do with whether man is made up of three parts: “body, soul, and spirit”, or only two parts: “body and soul/spirit”.

One of the problems I have with making such sharp distinctions is that such argumentation ignores the subtle nuances of interpretation when words overlap in meaning but are not precisely the same. I’ll offer here a couple of neutral examples of what I mean.

I have used in the past a stark example of how words can appear interchangeable but mean completely different things. I drive a red Ford Focus. It’s a common car and gets good fuel mileage. That means that it’s relatively cheaper to purchase, maintain, and operate than many other cars. What if I say of my car, “My car is red.” What if I say again later that, “My car is a Ford Focus.” If you knew what the word “red” meant, but had no idea what “a Ford Focus” was then perhaps you might be inclined to conclude that “a Ford Focus” was the color “red”. Perhaps you thought to yourself and realized that the two statements might be referring to two different categories. You would be correct, but you could still get into trouble if you though to yourself that all Ford Focuses were red. Using such a stark example, I hope you can see how both are obviously silly conclusions.

I have a more subtle example that brings this observation to bear on the hermeneutical argument. In my town of Statesville, NC, West Front Street is an industrial development serviced by a train that runs between the industrial properties. I can say one of two things that mean the same thing. I can either say, “There is a train that runs along West Front Street,” or I can say, “There is a railway that runs along West Front Street.” Both statements refer to the exact same thing. All I have done is replaced “train” with “railway”, and both terms refer to the system of rails, cars, and engines that transport goods to and from industries along West Front Street.

But let me use those very same terms in another statement. I can either say, “We need to do maintenance on the railway, “ or “We need to do maintenance on the train.” These two statements mean somewhat different things. The first statement indicates that we need to go out and repair or renew some segment of the tracks on which the train runs. The second statement indicates that we need to repair or renew some aspect of the cars or engines that run along the rails. While these terms can be used interchangeably in one context, they refer to somewhat different things in another. I say “somewhat different” because the terms are still related.

It is for this reason that I hold this argument suspect in biblical hermeneutics. If I observe similar usage of different terms, I will observe how they are used. If there is sufficient reason to conclude in one place that they are referring to the same thing, then so be it. However, I won’t presume that two terms always meant the same thing in every context. For the examples I have given, I believe it is a logical error to conclude that different terms used as referents to the same thing in one case will always refer to the same thing in other cases, especially if a doctrinal conclusion hinges on it.

Being Strong and Delicate on Sin

When dealing with the sins of brothers and sisters in Christ, we must be both strong and delicate.

We must be strong on sin.

That is to say that we must be clear on what sin is. This goes two directions:

First, we must understand what particular sins are. Unrepentant sinners typically don’t like for their sins to be called sins. They will be angry. They will consider your recognition of their sins as a sin in and of itself. They will persecute you, if possible, for calling out their sins.

Second, we must understand the nature of sin as part of the nature of fallen man. It’s not enough to point out individual sins, but we must understand that those individual sins are fully seated in the identity of sinners. We must be clear that we are all sinners in this way. The only difference is that those who have faith in Christ are forgiven based on his work on the cross and are subsequently reconciled with God.

But it’s precisely because of this point that we must be clear on what sin is. If we don’t get sin right, we don’t get the gospel right. If we don’t get the gospel right, we fail to convey the truth of it to those who are yet perishing in their sins. Without the truth of the gospel there is no way they can have enough understanding to have faith in Christ. It is precisely recognition of sin that brings recognition of our need for Christ. So we must be clear about sin.

We must be delicate with sin.

Being clear on sin doesn’t mean fully appreciating every little sin we commit. Even in the Law of Moses, sacrifices were offered for the forgiveness of sins that people were not aware of. Paul addressed people who had already come to faith with the revelation of sins they were committing unawares up until that time. As we go through life walking with Christ, spiritual growth necessarily entails learning of sin s we have been committing that we are now able to be discipled about effectively. The Holy Spirit, who guides us through this process, knows when to reveal sins to us in due course of our life as Christian believers.

As we live in community with other believers, and at home with Christian families, we must necessarily bear each other’s sins delicately. That is, if we are to agree with the Holy Spirit, we need to be sensitive to his guidance in pointing out the sins of others lest we reveal a sin before its time. Some obvious sins must be dealt with swiftly. Others must take time and an understanding of how that sin fits in with the development of another. If we are strong in minor sins and swiftly deal with them too early, a Christian who is not mature enough to handle certain sins may become undone or develop a resistance against dealing with sins and become weak in recognizing sin instead of stronger.

More could be said on this, but it is best to stay in prayer for your brothers and sisters in Christ to whom you have been given to live in Christian fellowship that you have guidance from the Holy Spirit to handle sin wisely, with both strength and delicacy, understanding that you should be also undergoing the same growth in other areas.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Is God In Time?

If you want a good radio program to listen to each week, you should listen to Greg Koukl’s program
produced by Stand to Reason. He addresses some of the current events from the standpoint of a Christian apologist and he is always thought-provoking.

It’s trite say that I don’t always agree with him on everything. However, it’s of a matter that I disagree with him that I want to address. This episode can be accessed here.
Click on the link at the bottom of the short article listing what topics he discussed to download and listen to the program. In the list, caller #3 brought up a topic about whether or not God is in time. Greg’s response is that he is in time. To support this assertion, he asked a question: “Does God count?” If you answer no, then you must affirm that there is something that God cannot do. This appears to contradict the omnipotent nature of God. If you answer yes, then counting requires time for that kind of sequential reasoning. The caller was stumped by the question at least for the duration of the call and Greg used the lack of response from the caller to elaborate on his point somewhat.

I know a little bit about time. I majored in physics and particularly excelled in special relativity. I also studied philosophy later on. From that perspective, I can say that philosophical considerations of time are burdened by the generalization of the flow of time as experienced macroscopically. That is to say that all of us as human beings living on the surface of planet Earth experience the flow of time in a generally uniform way. We make exceptions for time zones and the perception of time due to situational circumstances, but when an hour passes for me, it can be said that an hour passes for everyone else. When we think of a long time, we might think of a span of years out our lifetime, or even centuries or eons of history. As long as time has always passed the same as it has now, our imaginations can do a pretty good job of providing an accurate assessment of what happened. When we think of time, that’s what we think of.

So is God in time? Answering that question requires that we have an accurate concept of time. While the concept of time that I mentioned above is not entirely inaccurate and typically helpful in carrying out our everyday lives, it’s not helpful in addressing whether God is in time or not.

So we need to answer another question first: Is there a more refined understanding of time that we can know? The short answer is yes. The long answer involves discussing what that understanding is and how it pertains to the question of whether God is in time or not.

First of all, this understanding has not always been known. The implication is that this understanding is not important for having faith in God or understanding what is important about him. Previous generations didn’t need this understanding. The scriptures don’t go into detail about this although there is enough information to hint at the refined information while using normal experience to convey God’s relationship to a fallen creation as Creator, Provider, Redeemer, etc. We can know THAT God is involved with the world without understanding HOW God is involved with the world.

What we know about time is brought to us by testable and observable science. Now science cannot give us knowledge with absolute certainty. It can only give us knowledge that has a likelihood of being true based on a set of predetermined criteria. That which is testable and observable, like devising carefully planned laboratory experiments to test hypotheses, yields the highest likelihoods. That which is observable but not testable, like the social habits of gorillas in the wild, yields a high level of likelihood if conclusions are restricted only to what is observed. Many scientists make speculations based on non-testable observations or employ non-observable assumptions in the initial conditions of their experiments and call it observational science. Things like global warming or the age of the universe fall into this category. The likelihood of these speculative conclusions cannot be determined. Therefore we assign terminology such as “educated guess” or “professional assessment” to these kinds of speculations. The conclusion of someone trained in a field is reasonably more likely to be right about something than someone not trained in that field. However, I will reiterate, we have no way of measuring such rightness. In other words, we have no way of knowing for sure.

There is one other area of knowledge that we can use. This is theoretical science. Theoretical science uses the conclusions of testable science to develop either untestable conclusions or testable hypotheses. When a theoretical scientist adds a single element of speculation, (s)he crosses the line into speculative science. As long as theoretical calculations remain based solely on testable conclusions, the likelihood of the theory being true is fairly high. The knowledge of time that I will explore here relies exclusively on testable and theoretical science.

Parenthetically, as materialism is not provable, I am not given to it. It is assumed that the material world will behave in predictable ways. Otherwise, testable science is irrational. However, the material world can still behave in predictable ways while there is yet more to reality than the material world. During anomalous events where something other than the material world affects the material world, even testable science is unreliable. This is not germane to this discussion and I won’t discuss the ramifications here, but it bears mentioning in any discussion of testable knowledge.

From testable science, we know that time is affected by relative motion. The faster something goes relative to something else the greater the differential between their respective temporal frames of reference. That is if you saw a clock speed up to close to the speed of light, you would observe that the time on the clock slows down relative to the watch on your own wrist. There’s a paradox that will bake your noodle, to quote a popular movie: that is that if someone else were traveling with the clock, they would observe your watch moving more slowly than the clock they were with. Now, in one respect, this is merely an observational effect. That is to say that you both are actually experiencing the same passage of time, but the light from each of you takes longer to get to the other because of the change in distance.

However, there is an actual differential in the passage of time. In a famous experiment, synchronized atomic clocks were sent on flights in different directions. When they were brought back together, the time between them was different. Another observation was made in the engineering of the cathode ray tube. This tube was the display device that made the first television technology possible and has been used until the recent advent of LED, plasma, etc screens. An in the tube and electron gun is used to fire electrons onto a screen where pixels would be illuminated by the electrons. In order to aim the electrons at different pixels on the screen they would be fired through a magnetic field that would change their direction. The field had to be calibrated precisely. The engineers at first calibrated the field according to a uniform passage of time. However, it wouldn’t work. The electrons weren’t going where they were supposed to. They discovered Einstein’s theory of relativity and applied a transformation formula to account for a difference in temporal frame of reference between the moving electron and the stationary tube apparatus. It worked and has worked since. Therefore, some differential in time must be in play.

And it makes sense. It has been tested and observed that the speed of light is the same regardless of the difference in movement between the source of light and the measuring apparatus. This has become a governing principle of special relativity. That is to say that if you were in a car with the headlights on and you approached the speed of light driving forward, light would not build up in front of the car as you continually caught up with the light emitted from the headlights. As far as you could observe, light would continually move away from you at the speed of light. For an observer standing on the side of the road in the distance, light would reach them from the car at the speed of light, not at the speed of light plus the speed of the car. The only way to account for the constant speed of light is to adjust the passage of time for car and stationary observer. Time would pass more slowly for the car than the observer.

Now, this is difficult to think on in macroscopic terms because we simply don’t experience such dramatic speeds. But on a subatomic level, these speeds are normal. The movement of a subatomic particle is the energy that it has. If it absorbs energy and increases to a level of motion that approaches the speed of light it will appear to the particles surrounding it as though it slows down, or looses energy. Given the laws of thermodynamics, the energy cannot be lost in a system, which includes a single temporal frame of reference. So what happens to the energy? This question, in particular, pertains to electrons that whiz around the atomic nucleus with alarming speed. When energy of some sort is absorbed the by electron, it increases in speed such that it appears to lose energy relative to the rest of the atom. With the loss in energy, it drops to a lower orbital shell and emits a photon of light perpendicular to the plane of centripetal movement. The photon travels for a time according to the distance between the atom of origin and the particle the photon hits. The energy of the atom is absorbed by the receiving particle.

To theorize from the perspective of the frame of reference of the electron, the distance between the electron and the particle that its lost energy is transferred to is nullified. There is no photon to the electron. There is only the receiving particle. The photon is like an accountant that equalizes the difference between extremely diverse temporal frames of reference. In fact, the same formula that describes the difference between temporal frames of reference can also be used to describe the difference in distance between temporal frames of reference. At this point, time and distance become interchangeable.

This effect is extremely common. The light hitting your eyes as you read this is following this same course. The radio signals that you use in your wifi, your cell phone, and countless other devices in this world, are using photons of electromagnetic radiation that follow this same pattern of temporal accounting. There are so many particles of electromagnetic radiation crisscrossing your body at any given moment, that your experience of time is a tapestry of temporal extremes homogenized into a single macroscopic temporal experience. This is such an astonishing thing to consider that scientists have speculated that there is only one electron in the universe and shares its existence throughout all things by virtue of its extreme temporal experience.

In fact, on the most foundational level of matter, the difference between matter and energy becomes interchangeable. Energy, therefore, is a material thing. This is how we were able to develop atomic energy by converting matter directly to energy. At this point, matter doesn’t consist of a tangible substance as we would understand it, but it consists of form itself. For my non-materialist brothers and sisters, it consists of the very thought of God.

And so time and distance are part and parcel of the matter and energy contained within them. You cannot have time and distance without matter and energy. You cannot have matter and energy without time and distance.

I have written all that to arrive at this final conclusion. If God is immaterial, he cannot be in time. At the very least, he cannot be in time as we know it.

So what do we make of Greg Koukl’s argument in the form of the question, “Does God count?” There is a theological statement in the Bible that bears considering: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” While many theologians don’t consider God as Creator to be an attribute of God, I do. While creation adds nothing to him, I believe the very fact of creation to be absolute. As such, God as Creator is an absolute attribute. He creates because he is creative. And creation bears his attributes in many different ways so as to glorify him. He magnifies himself in creation. Creation doesn’t materially exist on its own, but every particle of matter and energy with the smallest iteration of time and distance is upheld by the mind of God. God doesn’t count in order to know. God counts in order to create, and what he creates is temporal. If this is true, Greg’s question refutes his implications. God’s counting is the source of temporal creation, not the result of it.

I hope you were able to follow along this far to the end of a longer article than I like to read, much less write. But I hope it has been well worth it for you.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Do Not “Just Be Yourself”

A popular and almost cliché admonition is to “just be yourself”. The admonition stems from the observation that many people are obviously disingenuous in their social interactions. We run into a salesperson who smiles and uses ploys to get us to buy something we don’t want or need. We may meet a politician who we know is just pressing flesh and flashing a polished smile to get our vote. We meet an individual from the wealthy side of town who we know is just being cordial and hopes to get away from the riff-raff and back out to the golf course or whatever other thing wealthy people do all the time. Or perhaps they are being nice to hide the fact that they have some nefarious intent in mind, like Mr. Potter from A Wonderful Life. Those sorts of encounters leave a bad taste in our mouth. It’s easy to conclude that disingenuous people either don’t like people “like the rest of us” or that they are out to get us somehow.

So if we are counseling someone who wants to make a good impression on someone else, we might say to that person, “Just be yourself.” The idea is that the person we are counseling is really a good person and if that person doesn’t try so hard to be liked, his or her natural personality will be winsome on its own merits. If that person tries to be disingenuous then other people will pick up on it and be turned off by it.

There’s a flaw in this reasoning. Now it makes sense to a degree. After all, most people in our circle of friends come off as genuinely decent people… to us. But few of us are truly what we seem. If you have children, you know the importance of discipline. If you look at Internet forums or comments on YouTube or controversial blogs or news articles, you will be treated to a spectacle of human depravity. The effect of absentee conversations between strangers tends to lower the social expectations that make us civil people. Reading the comments on YouTube, for example, is akin to reading the old bathroom wall. Most of the comments are nothing more than vile graffiti. But what is in the well of the heart of an Internet user comes up in the bucket of the keyboard. Sometimes I just want to be snarky and hammer back with a sarcastic, “Don’t hold back. Just be yourself. Tell us how you really feel.” People are not basically good.

Neither are all people overly winsome. In fact, some people are socially awkward if not just plain creepy. What about people with mental disabilities or conditions like autism? Would they be more winsome if they were themselves?

And what is the purpose of school? We go to school because we are not satisfied with who we are as a reflection of our level of education. We desire to change in a beneficial way. And indeed acquiring knowledge affords us the capacity to increase our wisdom or status. Now it’s not a bad thing to be ignorant, but it’s a better thing to be knowledgeable and even better to be wise. We don’t make the leap without submitting to a regime of education.

Who we are is a result of situations both evil and benign. Most often, we need to change and continue to change in order to grow as an individual. That means we need the discipline of education and the discipline of civil discourse. Therefore, discipline yourself and seek to be disciplined by those who have become what you hope to become.

Also, understand that not being yourself and following the old adage to “be yourself” in the way it is intended are both moral admonitions. Do not be disingenuous so that you might unfairly benefit from your relationship to others, but present yourself appropriately that others might benefit most from their relationship with you.