Sunday, May 31, 2009

Radical Christian: a Redundancy?

Thoughts while reading "Everything Must Change" by Brian McLaren

Often when I return home I discover that a new interesting book has appeared in the house, usually as one of my dad's current reads. This time I decided to read Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren.

I have been rather disappointed by this book so far. One frustrating part is my question of who he thinks "conventional Christians", as he dubs them, really are. Linked to this is my question of audience. In chapter 10 he contrasts the "conventional" and "emerging" views by summarizing the gospel from the two perspectives. The words he puts into the mouths of the "conventional" Christians are often mocking. He essentially says they reduce the gospel into some sort of platonic but personal thing which "produces a happier life" and saves the sinner from hell. This is of course contrasted to the "emergent" view, which allows for a much fuller reading of the whole bible.

Merriam-Webster defines conventional as "formed by agreement or compact". I think most theologians and Christian thinkers would disagree with McLaren's summary of the conventional views. Doesn't this make them unconventional? Perhaps McLaren should have said "popular"?

Word choice aside, all this talk confuses me about his audience. I have three questions: 1) If McLaren is writing to "conventional" Christians (assuming such people do exist), why insult them? 2) Would such people care enough to read all 300 pages of his book in the first place? 3) If he is not writing to these people, but instead writing to those who really do want to understand the working of God and of the church in our hurting world now, in the present, what purpose does such a sloppy (in my view) comparison serve?

It seems that McLaren is trying to show how radically different this "emerging" view is. The trouble is, all my experience so far shows me that the bible itself is a radical book. Anyone who has read the gospels recently will tell you that. For centuries, people in the church have understood this. St. Francis stripped off all his clothes to reject worldly values and then he preached to the birds (among other things). Corrie Ten Boon and many others like her forgave. Many have given their lives in service to the poor. C.S. Lewis said Aslan is not a tame lion. God is not tame, and most of those who follow at some cost him have found this out.

Yes, the good news is about personal salvation through Christ's death on the cross. But anyone who has been reading their bible can tell you that it is about so much more! Jesus himself claimed part of God's mission "of good news to the poor", to bring "freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free" (Luke 4:18) And that is just the beginning. I think McLaren is saying all this. I just don't think that what he is saying is as new and different as he is suggesting.

I realize have given a rather negative impression. I am convinced he does have some worthwhile things to say even if I don't always agree with his views or method, so I will continue reading and hopefully give a better report in the near future.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What is Good?

As I write this my mind leaps back to freshman year and I feel a bit like I am parroting Socrates in the Republic, asking about "the good". Okay, not quite. I know that God alone is truly good (Luke 18:19); he is The Good.

I'm not talking here about good on a scale from poor, average, good to excellent. I'm asking the question: "What makes up a good book, a good movie, a good piece of art, a good ____?" This good is referring to what is best, pleasing, wholesome, perfect. In the beginning, all of creation was good.

Surely we all long for what is good; we only settle for the mediocre when we have other motives, such as avoiding disappointment.

So what does make something good? In the case of a movie or a book, I usually look for several things (and I realize that even these criteria may be subjective!). The story must be well told, with some degree of creativity and artistry or excellence. In addition, it should be thought provoking. This does not necessarily mean that the movie or book has a specific intended message. Above all, it must have a good story. Many have probably written books on what makes a good story, but I remember something Donald Miller said when I heard him speak. He said that there has to be something at stake. The hero's choice to do the right thing can't be easy; the hero must risk something in order to be a hero. It's something that has stuck with me, because I think we all want our lives to be a good story. I do.

Can something be called good because it has stood the test of time? It does appear that many good stories and things like that have lasted a long time. An awful lot of bad things have done that, too, haven't they? On the other hand, some things seem to be made more perfect in their very transience. A butterfly only lives a short while.

Do those things which we call good strike a chord in us of recognition, or is that feeling one of longing for something that is outside of us?

As you can see, I have left you with more questions than answers. In this topic, however, I think that is how it should be. Shouldn't we always be asking what is good, and seeking to find that which is truly good? I am confident our search is not in vain.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Carboard Boxes Full of Treasures

"Give away all your stuff and follow me." That's essentially what Jesus tells the rich young ruler (Luke 18:22). It's a passage I've wrestled with for years, and came to my mind again as a I reflected upon this past week. After graduating from college last weekend, I packed up most of my belongings, crammed them into my family's van, and headed home. That was just the beginning. My family is hoping to put our house on the market next week, so the Realtor tells us our house (where we've lived for over ten years) needs to be organized and open. My closet needs to be half empty, some of the many bookshelves need to go, cabinets must be emptied and moved... you get the picture. This boils down to hours of packing and moving and organizing and packing and moving. Mom says our stuff has become a burden.

I've always thought it wouldn't be that hard to live with only the most necessary possessions. When I travel I happily get by on the few items that fit into my small suitcase. As long as I have enough food to sustain me, enough clothes to keep me warm, friends to be with, and most importantly, God as my portion, I am quite content. Or is there one more stipulation: that all my treasured belongings are safely at home or in my parent's attic?

You see, what I've realized this week is that it's one thing to think about living for God, unhindered by material possessions. It's another thing to actually give away that comfy sweater I wear on the weekends, or that set of dishes for special occasions, or that box of items from my childhood, each of which are tied to memories. And what about all those things which were gifts? Somehow it doesn't seem right to give them away again, especially if we use or enjoy them, or if they remind us of a dear friend. It seems that Jesus doesn't ask everyone to give away all they own, but he did ask that one man to do so, and I often wonder what exactly, if not that, he asks of me.

Jesus and his disciples discuss how it is nearly impossible for a rich man to enter God's kingdom. Then Jesus says something which encourages me: "What is impossible with men is possible with God." (Luke 18:27) We really can't do this on our own, but God, the all-powerful God, will graciously reach out to help us.

Despite this graciousness on the part of our Lord, shouldn't we also at least try? By just living in the way that I am most comfortable, trusting God to change me and free me from my attachment to things, I am pretty sure I am "cheapening" God's grace (to borrow a concept from Deitrick Bonhoeffer). I need to pray that God will change me, and to practice things like generosity. This isn't works righteousness. This is recognizing my tendencies to be selfish and hoard things unless I discipline myself otherwise, and pleading my need for grace.

I think these thoughts also apply to how we spend our time, but I talked about that on March 9th. Will you join me in this struggle? It is my prayer that, twenty years from now, through His grace I will find it easier, rather than harder, to give away anything and everything as I follow Christ.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Quantum Mechanics (Part II) Uncertainty and an Unfortunate (?) Cat

Today I will briefly comment on some of the most commonly referenced (and likely most misunderstood!) quantum ideas in popular culture.

You may have seen the play/film Copenhagen, about Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. The play mostly investigates the idea of psychological uncertainty; not only do memories claim different 'facts', but even the attitudes and memories of the persons involved change with each retelling. This is compared to the uncertainty principle of QM, in which the momentum (closely related to the speed something is moving) and the position of a particle cannot be exactly specified. While this is a good film, the definition of uncertainty leans more toward the English language use of it (not able to know something for certain) rather than the mathematical definition.

According to the theory of QM, electrons are best described by wave functions. For waves on a pond, the medium being "waved" is water. For sound, it is air. For electrons, it is probability density. Particles are described by waves "superimposed" on top of each other, with the peaks and valleys of some waves sometimes adding and sometimes canceling each other out. The direct result of this method of describing matter is the precise mathematical relationship:
∆x∆p≥ℏ/2
which reads: "the uncertainty in position, times the uncertainty in momemntum is greater than or equal to h-bar over two" While this is a strange and important result, it doesn't mean that we have reached a limit of understanding; rather, we have seen that the universe behaves in this predictable way which includes a fixed uncertainty.

You may have seen this talk by Rob Bell from "Everything is Spiritual", in which I believe this idea of uncertainty is taken a bit too far:

While it is interesting to compare our understanding of God to his creation, it is dangerous to say that there is something about the physical world that it so mysterious that "all [scientists] can come up with" is something they cannot "conquer or put in a box". You see, scientists are not trying to conquer anything. They are trying to describe and understand the wonders of the natural world. It is fun to draw parallels between God and the forces and energies of nature, but we must be cautious of saying we have found something only explicable by God. What will happen when this "gap" is filled in by some deeper theory? Let's not lose our sense of wonder, but let's not get overzealous with our theology.

Schrodinger, trying to understand and explain this idea of adding or "superimposing" wave functions and how this relates to the uncertainty principle, came up with his famous cat-in-a-box illustration:

Of course, this is just an illustration and wouldn't actually work in real life, but it does explain a little bit about how weird this understanding of matter really is. Isn't it wonderful that our world is so complex and surprising?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Whatever is Quantum Mechanics? (Part I)

I frequently get blank looks when I mention Quantum Mechanics, so I thought I would take a moment this week to explain what it is, without actually going into the actual theory of it. The benefit of your reading this will be that, in addition to understanding my life a bit more, you will probably find that quantum will pop up in unexpected places and you will at least be intelligent about it, if not find that it helps you understand our world a bit better. Out of curiosity, and because it is often a good place to start when looking at things on the most general level, I checked what Wikipedia had to say about the topic. Here is what I found:
Quantum mechanics is a set of principles underlying the most fundamental known description of all physical systems at the submicroscopic scale.
Have you finished reading that three times? It's a bit of a mouthful, so I will try to make it more clear. Quantum mechanics explains how atoms behave. Atoms make up most of what we see every day, so QM (as I will refer to it from now on) explains why things (matter, mostly) are the way they are.

QM is surprising. For centuries, it was thought that Newtonian physics (what you learned in high school) explained the world we see. In fact, Newtonian physics is a pretty good approximation that explains our world. But if you get down small enough, things start to become weird. Imagine something moving down a hill, for example: me when I'm rushing to class in the morning. It's all one continuous motion of moving-down-hill-ness. As I go down the hill, I gain speed because the energy I had just by being at the top of the hill is being turned in to "kinetic" energy. Electrons are not like this. They are more like someone leaping down stairs. The energy still changes, but it is done in stages, with each stage having a fixed distance between it and the previous one.

This brings us to why it is called Quantum mechanics in the first place. Think of our English word "quantity". Matter and energy comes in discrete quantities, or quanta. If you think about this for a bit you will realize how surprising this really is.

*****

Next week, if you are interested, I will talk more about things of which you may have heard, such as "the uncertainty principle" and "Schrodinger's Cat".