I’ve been pondering connections between David Bentley Hart and Nirvana this afternoon. As in, the band, not the state of blissful detachment from desire and suffering. Apparently, psychologists have discovered that our musical tastes begin to take shape as early as age thirteen or fourteen and by the time we’re in our early twenties these tastes are locked into place pretty firmly. One study indicated that “popular songs released when you’re in your early teens are likely to remain quite popular among your age group for the rest of your life” and that many of us stop listening to new music entirely after around age thirty-three. This probably explains why I struggle to appreciate the throbbing, migraine-inducing EDM that drifts up from my son’s corner of the basement. Read more
Posts from the ‘Epistemology’ Category
A thought experiment for your Tuesday afternoon.
Scenario A: You’ve been experiencing pain. Maybe it’s arthritic knees or chronic migraines or the fallout from an injury. You go to your local clinic. The building is sterile and clean. It is filled with all kinds of humming machines, urgent activities, and the myriad accoutrements of a modern, technologically advanced health care facility. Your doctor is well-groomed and wearing a white lab coat. On her office wall hang impressive-looking degrees from prestigious universities. She analyzes your symptoms, perhaps does an X-Ray or an ultrasound. Images are produced, diagnoses pronounced. Your doctor writes a prescription on official letterhead and sends you off to the pharmacy where you encounter a few more white lab coats, a bit more buzzing technological efficiency. Eventually, you depart with a sealed bottle of pills with detailed instructions on the label. Read more
I sat in on an attempted proselytism the other day. It was in the chapel at the jail. One of the young women had been pontificating about how she didn’t really believe in God, but she figured there was probably a higher power that was orchestrating things down here. Life was mostly about merging with the energy of the universe and nature and discovering how everything’s connected and all religions basically say the same thing and that it’s all about love and peace (she said this after introducing the word “perping” to my lexicon and talking about how sometimes it’s just so much fun!). She was, in other words, a well-tutored member of the burgeoning SBNR (spiritual but not religious) category of the post-Christian West. Read more
A brief follow-up to last week’s post on the experience of reading Jordan Peterson. The response, whether in online conversation or private correspondence, was largely as I imagined it would be—a mixture of disgust and delight with not much in between (although there was some, it should be gratefully noted). So it goes. Delight and disgust are the lingua franca of the digital age. But I wanted to at least gesture toward a question I alluded to (but did not address) in the post: Why is someone like Peterson popular now? Read more
I’ve been reading Alan Jacobs’ little book How to Think over the last few days. It doesn’t contain anything particularly new, but it has been yet another reminder of just how bad at thinking we often are and are becoming, particularly in the digital age.
Jacobs does not paint a flattering portrait. Reactionary ideological sloganeering easily and often replaces careful, nuanced thinking about difficult issues. More often than not, the things we think are determined less by actual investigation and weighing of evidence than by our need for social belonging and our desire to have an “other” to define ourselves in opposition to. We are yanked around by emotional reactions and impulses and then tell a rational story to reframe our views as the result of logical analysis. We are masters at lying to ourselves about why we think the things we do, at taking shortcuts when we can’t be bothered to deal with complexity, and at regurgitating platitudes in the confident expectation that this will be affirmed by the people we seek to impress and the groups we hope to belong to. All in all, according to Jacobs, we’re not nearly as good at thinking as we think we are. Read more
Human beings spend a lot of time arguing about whether or not our beliefs are true. Even in these strange days where “I feel like” seems to have replaced “I think that” as the ultimate, ahem, trump card in a given dispute (how can you argue with a feeling?!), we still invest a fair amount of intellectual, emotional, and rhetorical energy into arriving at truth and convincing others of what we believe to be true. Even amidst of the mountain of lies that can sometimes seem to overwhelm our socio-political discourse, the truth of the matter still seems to matter to us. Read more
There’s a well known scene in the 2006 cult classic Nacho Libre where Nacho, a hapless monk who aspires to be a Luchador, and Esqueleto, his emaciated unbaptized sidekick, are in conflict about life and religion and fame and fortune and why they’re so terrible in the wrestling ring. At one point, Nacho blurts out, “I’m not listening to you—you only believe in science. That’s probably why we never win!” The scene is funny because the characters are hilarious (it’s especially amusing to watch Nacho’s attempts to “baptize” his unsuspecting partner in the changing room before one of their matches). It’s also funny because I think many of us have a sense that even in popular discourse, science and religion debates often fail to attain much loftier heights of nuance and sophistication than the banter between Nacho and Esqueleto. “Science” and “religion” function like two bumbling Luchadors theatrically slugging it out in the ring before mostly ignorant throngs interested in little more than baying for blood. They are competitors for the same territory in our hearts and minds. One must win and one must lose. Read more
The most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true.
So says Alain de Botton, philosopher, writer, and founder of an organization called “The School of Life,” a kind of church for atheists. de Botton started the school out of a conviction that religions have a few useful traditions, rituals, and practices that are worth borrowing and adapting in the ongoing project of becoming kind and fulfilled and generally decent human beings. The truth of the matter doesn’t really matter. What does matter is whether there might be some useful things to salvage from these historical traditions as we continue the steady march of secular progress. Read more
Confirmation bias: the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the past few weeks have afforded you a few opportunities to observe humans behaving badly on the Internet. Maybe even more than a few. The Syrian refugee crisis has polarized people—particularly Christian people, sadly—in a way that few issues that I can recall have. Ever since, “the post” and the many unpleasant responses it generated, I have a rapidly expanding email folder full of often very kind messages from people around the world that often begin with something like, “I’ve been so discouraged lately by the things I’ve been reading about the refugee crisis online…” Read more
I got into the car this morning in a bit of a surly mood. A few things hadn’t gone as I had anticipated the previous day, I had received an unwelcome email that morning, and I was behind on sermon prep. Again. I stabbed the key into the ignition only to be greeted by the ear-splitting strains of the local top 40 station that my wife and daughter were, evidently, listening to on the way home from their evening activities last night. The part of the song that I was forcibly subjected to heard before frantically locating the combination of knobs that could lower the volume and/or change the station went something like, This is my fight song, take back my life song… Read more
I’ve been thinking about doubt over the past few days. It started when I read a recent piece over at Pete Enns’ blog about a pastor who confessed his doubts about the existence of God in front of his congregation. It continued when a friend pointed me in the direction of The Liturgists podcast, and particularly the episodes where the host (Michael Gungor) and co-host (Mike McHargue, or “Science Mike”) discussed their de-conversion and reconversion narratives. Especially interesting was the shape of the faith that was eventually returned to. Gone was the black and white faith of their evangelical upbringings. In its place was a postmodern faith more comfortable with grey, increasingly open to mystery, and less certain about the doctrinal content of orthodox Christianity.
After one of the warmest winters I can recall in southern Alberta, we were greeted on Easter Sunday with snow. So much for the springtime resurrection metaphors, I suppose.
Which is fine. I’ve never had much use for the resurrection of Jesus as a metaphor anyway. At least not as just a metaphor. As I read through the four gospel accounts of the resurrection last week, again and again I was struck by how utterly unprepared and bewildered and terrified the first witnesses were by this turn in the story. The early church was literally shocked into existence, dragged reluctantly and confusedly from an empty tomb into the landscape of new creation. I think those first witnesses would find all of our enlightened “resurrection as hopeful metaphor” language rather amusing. At best. Hope was something they had pretty much abandoned, until it showed up, wounds and all, and stared them in the face. Read more
This morning, I’m shaking out the cobwebs after a delightful week spent out in Winnipeg with the students, staff, and faculty at Canadian Mennonite University as pastor in residence. It was a week full of chapel talks and forums and lunchtime discussions and devotionals and informal conversations with students in the campus cafe and a whole host of other interactions and opportunities that have gotten all jumbled together in my weary brain. I feel a bit like a wrung-out rag, but in a contented, satisfied, grateful sort of way. It’s good to spend oneself in good ways with good people.
During my last chapel talk, I reflected a bit on the experience of being back on a university campus, about the memories it triggered, and about what advice, if any, I might give my younger university self from the vantage point that I now occupy a few years down the road. The following is a lightly edited version of some of what I said yesterday morning. Read more
Religious fanaticism is, regrettably, front and center in our collective consciousness again in this the summer of bad news. Whether it is Iraq or Israel/Palestine or other places around the globe, many people are quick to point to the role that religion plays in stoking the flames of violence and hatred.
And whenever there is violence associated with religion in the news, we can expect to see articles like “The God Effect” over at Aeon Magazine. The piece, written by Patrick McNamara, seeks to locate the religious impulse in dopamine levels in the brain. There is, according to McNamara, a fine line between “benevolent saints” and “murderous fanatics.” And dopamine, apparently, is one of the main triggers for when this line is crossed. Read more
In Jesus Christ God has promised to every human being a new horizon of possibilities— new life into which each of us is called to grow in our own way and ultimately a new world freed from all enmity, a world of love. To be a Christian means that new possibilities are defined by that promise, not by any past experience, however devastating.
— Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory
I have many conversations with people who find it difficult to believe or people who barely believe or people who want to believe but can’t or people who are embarrassed to believe or people who look down in condescension at those who believe or people who are just bewildered that anyone could believe in something like God or resurrection or hope or any kind of future that is radically dissimilar to the present. This is the shape of our life and imagination in the post-Christian west. Read more
I spent last night at Tuesday L’Arche prayer night. It was a celebratory night in honour of a new leader taking over here in the Lethbridge community, so there was lots of food and laughter, singing and smiles. I don’t get out to these prayer nights nearly as often as I would like to, but whenever I do, I am struck in a new way by the simple profundity of this community of people of all kinds of abilities who are committed to living together, sharing life and love, participating in the good news of the gospel of peace and hope. Read more
Over the last few months, I’ve been following a blog by former Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell. The blog is called Year Without God, and chronicles Bell’s decision to take a break from God, walk away from the church, and try living like an atheist for a year. I have more than a few reservations about the project itself (I’ve written about them here), but it has been very interesting to ride along with Bell in the post-church, post-God landscape. Read more
Hockey is Canada’s Religion! So blared the headlines yesterday after the second of our nation’s triumphs with skates and sticks on the Sochi stage. For much of yesterday, Canadian media outlets were aglow with videos and tweets and updates about brave, patriotic Canadians getting up at ungodly hours of the morning and braving frigid temperatures to heroically make their way to the pub (sometimes, without even the lure of alcohol, if you can believe it!) to watch the big game. There were even heartwarming video clips of mosques and churches that decided to show the game before morning worship. The overall mood was exultant. This is what it means to be Canadian, we rehearsed to ourselves over and over again in myriad ways. Read more