Month: May 2010

What I Did This Week

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This week, I assisted at the historic Orthodox Episcopal Assembly of North and Central America, the first such meeting in more than two centuries of Orthodox Christian presence on this continent. To read my impressions of the event, see these two posts from the OrthodoxHistory.org website:

Internet Discourse and the Fear of Death

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When I was studying Hamlet in college (which I did several times, being something of an addict for that story, despite my claims at The Tempest being my favorite of the Bard’s plays; I once took a class in which we spent three weeks on “Who’s there?”), if there is one thing I learned that the poor Dane learned too late, it was this: We all die. Indeed, we are all dying. The play is essentially Hamlet’s attempts to come to grips with this truth, but not before his inability to deal with death deals quite a lot of death in the meantime. Funny thing, that.

As such, when I was recently dared into an online debate by a 70-year-old atheist regarding the basis for my religious belief (as if anyone believes in “religion”), it occurred to me more than once that perhaps this pastime must be something like playing golf is for many people, an amusing distraction to bide the time until admission to assisted living, hospice, and then the cold, hard dirt itself. What does a 70-year-old atheist want with trying to convince a priest that he’s necessarily mentally deficient by virtue of believing in something beyond what his eyes see?

But it seems that so much Internet discourse runs along these lines, making the assumption that those involved must have all the time they could ever want. This assumption reveals itself typically with the claim by one of the conversants that, unless the other is willing to engage him and hash through all that stuff with him, he must be a coward, ignoramus, etc. If someone walks away, he is of course admitting that he is wrong. It is never believed when one says that he has been through all this before and doesn’t particularly want to go through it all again. He is not, after all, immortal, and he has things he wants to do before he dies.

The Scripture actually tells us that sin itself is often the result of the fear of death. Fear of death in our own day typically manifests itself in two ways, an obsessive emphasis on the physical body by means of dedication to pleasure, healthcare, etc., and the atemporality of (the usually unspoken) assumption of immortality. That is, either we fear death by trying to extend and enlarge our physical life as much as we can, or we fear death by denying its very reality. (And often, we do both.) In the case of much Internet discussion, the latter is the typical characteristic.


I must admit to having fallen into this trap on many occasions, but I am more often constrained from doing so lately by having more things to do and (most frequently) by being tired of the expectation that I engage in the same back-and-forth with another person who was not there when I did it before. No doubt he’s done it before but hasn’t tired of it yet. We might be accused of a lack of evangelistic zeal when not wanting to dive yet again into this same quagmire of endless oneupsmanship, but even the Lord said that sometimes it’s necessary just to move on. Some make it their mission to keep trudging down these paths, and perhaps that really is their mission.

As for me, though, I’m going to die someday—perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps sixty years from now. I’ve already got my funeral home picked out, though I do still have some work to do on picking a cemetery plot.

Samuel Johnson’s Foot

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The great lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson, who it is said was once asked how he knew something was real. In response, he walked up to a tree and kicked it. This is a proper and robust environmentalism cum epistemology.

The following is an excerpt from a much longer talk I wrote but did not deliver, as I learned the day before the event that it was desired that I deliver a very different sort of lecture. The essential thrust of the talk, written for a mixed audience of both believers and unbelievers, was to prepare them to receive the Gospel, in this case, specifically by encouraging them to look at knowledge as something that is not mainly information but participation. This talk is titled “What is Truth?”

I have an atheist friend who believes that it should be illegal for parents to expect their minor children to follow their religion. When I asked him why he believed that, he said that it was because the kinds of claims that religion makes are inherently non-falsifiable. If you’ve not encountered the term falsifiable before, I won’t annoy you with a complex philosophical definition, but you should at least know that it refers to a truth claim that could be proven true or false by anyone.

An example of a falsifiable truth claim is that Barack Obama is currently the president of the United States. The evidence to prove or disprove that claim is fairly available to all, assuming, of course, that we are not trying to thwart the Secret Service. A non-falsifiable truth claim would be something like this: Zeus is the ruler of all the gods. We do not have the gods at hand to interview as to whether their fealty has indeed been sworn to Zeus, nor are we likely to be able to get Zeus himself to speak in front of a congressional committee, to offer testimony regarding the part he plays in Olympian politics.

Thus, falsifiable truth claims are the sort of thing that can be scientifically, objectively proven, while non-falsifiable truth claims cannot be addressed within the context of objective science.

My friend is, of course, quite sincere in his belief that children should not be subjected to participation in non-falsifiable truth claims. There are, however, a number of problems with his position that parents should be prohibited by law from teaching their religion to their children and encouraging their participation in it. Such a law would, for instance, make it illegal for Roman Catholics to have their babies baptized or for Jews to circumcise their sons on the eighth day after their birth. But even aside from the disturbing political issue of suggesting that the state is a better arbiter of parental practice than parents, there remains the question of why it is that only falsifiable truth claims should be taught to children.

Anyone who has ever tried to raise a child knows that most parenting time is not spent on falsifiable truth claims. Indeed, claims such as “It is good for you to stop hitting your brother” are not provable by scientific means. In fact, science might suggest that hitting your brother is an excellent idea, because it helps to keep you in control of his toys. This sort of thing could be said about any moral claims, and although we take many of them for granted, such as the Golden Rule, there really is no hard science which demands that we live that way. In fact, science never says that we ought to live one way or another, but childrearing is precisely about teaching how one ought to live.

The truth of our human existence is that the noblest, most powerful, compassionate, beautiful, and remarkable things in life are almost never undergirded by purely falsifiable truth claims. So why would we want to deprive children of these things, even if we were capable of totally shielding them from such experiences? Who better than loving parents to feed children not just with physical nourishment but nutrition in what is at the heart of humanity? (Of course, loving parents are an inherently non-falsifiable phenomenon!) But supposedly, this is the best way to apprehend the truth without religious or philosophical bias, so that only facts may be known.

What underlies this whole approach to knowing the truth is the notion that truth is a piece of information. If truth is, indeed, only information, then of course it can be reduced to the category of fact. Much of our culture’s behavior is based on this characterization of truth, which is why studies and claims clothed in the language of science and fact are given so very much stock in public discourse, while appeals to higher, nobler kinds of truth typically find their way into the public square only in terms of sentiment. But when we mean business, when we’re being really serious, then we bring out the falsifiable truth claims. That’s when we want men in white coats doing something called “science,” giving us something we call “facts.”

One of the underlying assumptions of our modern idea about truth is that it should be objectively true, no matter what anyone’s particular subjective experiences tell them are true. That’s why we have peer-reviewed scientific journals, so that other scientists can check on the claims of their peers. But underneath this model of knowledge is the idea that we can know things simply by observing them. If we are somehow personally involved in the experiment—for instance, by using ourselves as test subjects—then the results are suspect.

Yet the reality of human existence is that most of us do not solely take up supposedly objective, distinterested means in order to make decisions and live life. For instance, it is unlikely that any of us conducted stress tests on the floor currently beneath us in order to make the decision that we would stand and sit upon it without fear that it will collapse under us in the event of an earthquake. And I doubt that geologists were consulted before this evening’s lecture to determine by means of the scientific method whether there would be an earthquake. And I must confess that I did not ask for a copy of this building’s blueprints to assure myself that the roof would not fall in, should that earthquake in fact take us entirely by surprise.

Setting aside for the moment the incredible difficulty in using the scientific method to predict earthquakes—how, for instance, does one do a controlled experiment on the North American tectonic plate?—the precariousness of our situation from a supposedly scientific point of view should give us pause. Just how do we know that this building will not suddenly send us all quickly to meet our Maker, Whose existence by definition is a non-falsifiable piece of information? We really do not know, at least not in scientific terms, and even if we were to undertake all the possible tests that could be done to try to assure ourselves that this place is safe, conditions would change so much in the meantime that our results would almost necessarily be obsolete before we could sit back and enjoy them.

The end result of all this nonsense is that attempting to live life according to purely “scientific” standards of knowledge would end up in a sort of annoying paralysis of analysis. We simply don’t have the mental or computational power to figure out all the possibilities. And even if we could, how can we say we absolutely know for certain that our own senses are not fooling us when we read the data?

Now, my purpose this evening is not to engage in a lengthy discursus on epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that examines how we know what we know, but I do think it’s worth at least asking ourselves just how we really end up living life, how we make decisions, and how we live with them, especially since there’s really no logistical way to put all our eggs in the “science” basket that our society claims to revere so faithfully.

What we usually think of as a “scientific” philosophy of knowledge is not really science, anyway—it is a philosophical outlook known as positivism, that all knowledge must be based only on empirical sense experience. Yet some of science’s greatest advances, such as Einstein’s theories of time and space, as well as most of quantum physics, are not credible by positivistic standards, instead requiring leaps of imagination and intuition which are beyond what empirical means can yield. And credible scientists hold such things to be true.

The truth is that we all end up functioning mainly on trust. We trust that this floor is solid. We trust that there will not be an earthquake in central Pennsylvania tonight. We trust that the architect and the general contractor responsible for putting this building together did their job correctly. We act on this trust, despite not having the sort of information that we probably really “should,” at least according to the exacting standards of the scientific method. (So anyone whose concern for our safety has been sufficiently raised and would like to exit the building now is welcome to do so.)

Earnest Contention

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This past weekend, I had two occasions on which I might have been said to go into “apologetics mode.”

In the first (which was not really apologetical, strictly speaking), it was a study circle led by Roman Catholic theology and philosophy professors with their students, discussing Roman Catholic theology. I ended up speaking entirely more than I had intended, especially considering that those folks didn’t go there to hear an Orthodox Christian cleric telling them about Orthodox Christian theology. But I was encouraged to attend by an Orthodox couple who regularly participate, and the leaders of the group were encouraging regarding my contributions and even invited me to return. I doubt I interested anyone in Orthodoxy by my words and/or presence, but I did at least get for myself a slightly better picture of where that theological sector of Roman Catholicism has gone. (In some ways, I am heartened that some of them seem to have moved closer to Orthodoxy, but I really do not know how the whole institution could do it in any permanent fashion. After all, once the genie of development of doctrine has been let out of the bottle, how does one put it back in? With us today, perhaps, but somewhere else tomorrow. Certainly somewhere else yesterday.)

The second occasion was a dinner invitation, which included a rather sudden assault by one of the other guests on the Orthodox tradition of the limitations on ordination, specifically, regarding gender. In that discussion, my interlocutor was approaching things from an essentially Marxist perspective, that hierarchy within the Church must be understood to mean inequality, that ordaining only men meant that women were “substandard.” In that conversation, although I tried my best to explain what the Church’s purpose is (i.e., to become saints, not to become clergy), I don’t think I really made much headway, especially since it became clear that my conversation partner only wanted to deal with this one datum, ordination and gender, and not with the larger context of Christian life in which that datum is made meaningful.

In both cases, I was reminded that earnest contention for the faith means not only discussion (as with the study circle) or straight-out apologetics (i.e., defending against attacks, as with the dinner invitation), but at its heart means seeking the salvation of those involved, both those directly involved and those who may be listening. Sometimes, that may mean suggesting something for consideration. Or, it may mean rebuking.

I am really not, at heart, an apologist (despite what some folks may think from the O&H podcast), but I do try to be a teacher, if I can. In all cases, there is a context in which the discussion is occurring, and that context is critical. I should not (and do not) speak the same at a discussion circle whose purpose is to discuss Roman Catholic theology as I should at a class whose purpose is for me to teach Orthodox theology or to criticize non-Orthodox theology. I should not (and do not) speak the same with a person who is not interested in the core data of the Christian faith but questions it as I should with someone who is a committed parishioner who questions it, or even with someone who is not yet a parishioner who is exploring the faith.

In the end, though, our witness to our faith should be vigorous and borne up by serious prayer, both private and corporate. But we have to witness to it. We can’t just roll over and say, “Well, that’s just how it is” or delude ourselves into thinking that Orthodoxy is not substantially different from some other theology. There really is a coherent, distinctive Orthodox Christian way of understanding our God, our life, and our world. I think the overall weakness of our witness in this age is due mainly to our collective refusal to dive deep into our own theology, not just by study, but by serious doxological and ascetical engagement. That is, we are not particularly effective missionaries because we are not particularly effective Orthodox Christians.