Saturday, August 23, 2008

Coding as Subcreation

In my last post, I mentioned the connection which both Lewis and Tolkien drew between magic and technology, based on Tolkien's distinction between Enchantment and Magic.

Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and speculator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practiced, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills. ("On Fairy Stories", p. 73)

Modern programming languages, I would say, seem to sit on the border between enchantment and magic, desire and control. The world in which programmers live is somewhere in-between the Primary and a Secondary world. On the one hand, writing code does impact on the primary world in ways that The Lord of the Rings does not. Software very nearly always attempts to control something, whether words or messages or advertisements, and in this sense it is more like Magic. The primary goal of software is generally neither beauty nor the arousal of Desire. As any commercial developer can tell you, most software is not all that beautiful and most features, it turns out, are not desired.

That said, there are important ways in which coding is closer to Enchantment than Magic. Like Tolkien's own fantasies, code is a world accessed entirely through language, and like a work of literature, it depends on its reception and use by a third party for its impact. Composing a page in HTML is a little like writing a poem and having the images appear in front of you; but it's even more like writing a poem and having the images appear in front of the poem's reader.

With the example of HTML, another similarity between enchantment and coding arises. While coding is not usually primarily focused on beauty, beauty is nevertheless an important part of a programmer's world. Sometimes this is only in the sense that a functional user interface should have something of elegance and simplicity to it. But sometimes, the code itself (not just the user interface it creates) can achieve an elegance of form which is reminiscent of Heidegger's description of a Greek temple.

The temple's firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air. The steadfastness of the work contrasts with the surge of the surf, and its own repose brings out the raging of the sea. Tree and grass, eagle and bull, snake and cricket first enter into their distinctive shapes and thus come to appear as what they are. ("Poetry, Language, Thought", p. 42).

This may seem an exaggeration, but the comparison is apt in several ways. Good code has good architecture: like a Greek temple, it solves recurring problems in classic ways. But good code not only solves problems, it makes clear for the first time what the problem actually is. When someone asks you to create an application to solve a problem for them, it's normal that they don't really understand what they want. They know that they have a problem, but they can't define it clearly. It's only through the course of building the application, showing it to the person who requested it, receiving feedback, and finally in giving them what they wanted but never quite asked for, that it becomes clear what the problem actually was. Heidegger nods at this process when he says that "τεχνη is a mode of αληθευειν" – technology is a way of being truthful. "It reveals whatever does not bring itself forth and does not yet lie here before us, whatever can look and turn out now one way and now another" (The Question Concerning Technology, p. 13).

I should note, finally, that even Tolkien harbored some hope that the Enchantment which underwrote his subcreational art might eventually find expression in the Primary World. In his delightfully poignant allegorical short story "Leaf by Niggle", he describes what the reader must imagine is Tolkien's own life. Niggle, an artist with troublesome neighbors and unwelcome responsibilities, has a vision of a leaf, and tries to paint it, but soon discovers that this leaf is connected to a tree, and this tree to other trees. Before Niggle has managed to get more than a middling start on his painting, he's called on a journey, and through a sort of purgatory, eventually finds fulfillment in helping his troublesome neighbors. When Niggle is finally released from this purgatorial convalescence, he discovers, to his amazement and delight, that the leaf – and tree – and forest – and mountains – that he had only barely glimpsed in his painting, had achieved a reality of place and beauty beyond his imaginations. "Niggle's Parish," it was eventually called, and as the "Second Voice" in the story remarks, "It is splendid for convalescence; and not only for that, for many it is the best introduction to the Mountains."

I don't know that the beauty or the truth of code will ever be useful, or very useful, as an introduction to the Mountains: its beauty and truth are more akin to physics than to literature. But all grace is gift, and the gifts of grace have been received in stranger ways.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Subcreation vs. Cocreation

As I've been walking through my books on technology lately, I've periodically run into the phrase "co-creation". I'm not entirely sure where this phrase comes from, but I've heard it associated with Philip Hefner and his work on a theology of technology. It's showed up in other places like this post from pomomusings, and this dissertation from John J. Hardt.

I haven't yet read anything by Hefner (though I'm confident I'll be doing so), but my very initial take is that co-creation is the wrong description for how our work fits in with God's work. Whether you're a Calvinist, an Arminian or a Pelagian, clearly there's some sense in which we cooperate with God. The real issue is how we describe that cooperation and how appropriate and helpful those descriptions are. The image suggested by "co-creation" is that we are somehow standing next to God, on more-or-less the same terms, and helping God in His work. (I'm not sure that this is the direction Hefner takes it, but it seems implied by the prefix.) From my theological perspective, that image leads in exactly the wrong direction. Indeed, it seems awkwardly close to the sort of "secular theologies" that I've never bothered to take seriously, because, well, they're so damned silly. Among other things, the image of "co-creation" fails to distinguish between the Hebrew words ברא (bara') and אשה ('asah): the first is used in the Old Testament exclusively for the divine ex nihilo and is used only with a divine subject; the second is closer to "forming", and can be used with either a divine or a human subject. To co-create seems almost pantheistic: it implies that God is dependent on human action, and when He acts, His actions are in some fashion parallel or coordinate with ours, rather than on a totally different level.

My preference is for the term "subcreation", which has its origins in J. R. R. Tolkien's writings. He describes it, for instance, in his essay "On Fairy-Stories":

[When an author creates a believable world] what really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful 'sub-creator'. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. (p. 60)

The idea that a human could be a "subcreator" was exceedingly important to Tolkien, and significantly influenced his understanding of the relationship between God and human culture. In his poem "Mythopoeia" (addressed to a still unconverted C. S. Lewis), Tolkien writes:

Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
And keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
Through whom is splintered from a single White
To many hues, and endlessly combined
In living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
With Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
And sowed the seeds of dragons – 'twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
We make still by the law in which we're made.

In other words, because human beings are created in the image of a Creator, they have the right and the desire to create "Secondary Worlds", worlds which exist first in our minds and then in our art. We have used this right sometimes badly and sometimes well, but either way, it remains our birthright: "We make still by the law in which we're made." Even in Paradise, when the Iron Crown has been disenthroned:

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
And poets shall have flames upon their head,
And harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
There each shall choose for ever from the All.

It is (fallen and unfallen) human nature to make, to create things. But any human act of creation (אשה) takes place using delegated authority, it takes place under God, not alongside God.

This leads to two key differences between Tokien's idea of "subcreation" and my understanding of how "cocreation" has been interpreted.

The first is that subcreation "chooses for ever from the All". In other words, humans can never create ex nihilo. Even in Paradise, we will create by selecting and choosing from "the All", from God. Just as the fairy-tale creator selects images and themes from "the Great Cauldron of Story" ("On Fair Stories", p. 54), so all human creation is, at some level, only a rearrangement of existing material or existing ideas. Both our right to create, and the materials of our creation, are provided by God. We do not stand next to God and create, but work under him, under his authority. Nor is what we create at the same level as God's creation. His work is to create the Primary World; to the extent that our work approaches creation and not merely formation, our right and responsibility is to create Secondary Worlds.

The second difference turns on the distinction Tolkien makes between Magic and Enchantment. Magic, Tolkien says, is based on the desire for power and control: it is "self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician." As Lewis puts it in The Abolition of Man, "For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious – such as digging up and mutilating the dead" (p. 84). It is Magic in this sense which, I think Tolkien would say, sits behind the "cocreational" justification of technology. In contrast, the true mark of subcreation is Enchantment, which is about desire and not control. "In this world it is for men unsatisfiable, and so imperishable. Uncorrupted it does not seek delusion, nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves" (p. 74).

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Are Computers Things or Devices?

In his book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Albert Borgmann makes a crucial distinction between "things" and "devices". A thing, he says, is an object which exercises a "commanding presence": it is to some extent an end in itself and it requires an active and skilled response from us. A device, in contrast, is disposable, in the sense that it's irrelevant that the object be this object, and hence is valued primarily for instrumental purposes. "A thing requires practice while a device invites consumption" (Power Failure, p. 31). Borgmann would call the piano in our living room a thing, and the entertainment center in our family room a device.

I would add to this that the same object can be a device or a thing depending on how you treat it. To take one example, sometime around 1930, my grandfather ordered a fly rod from Sears and Roebuck. He kept that same rod, fished with it, repaired it, and tended to it for nearly 80 years. He recently donated it to my father for his "museum", the (large) room in my parents' house which my Dad uses to celebrate the material culture of his youth. My Dad mounted it on a background of black velvet, and surrounded it with pictures from the 1940's featuring that same fly rod.

In contrast, when my brother and I wanted to go fishing, Keith had his assistant buy four or five fishing poles and some gear, and had them sent up to his cabin. When we arrived, we took the wrapping off a couple of them, strung them up, strapped them onto our four-wheelers and took off; when we returned, we threw the two we'd used back on the same shelf where the other two (still in their wrappers) were sitting, and have never looked at them again.

Clearly, my grandfather's fly rod was a thing, and my brother's fishing poles were devices. I suppose you could argue that my grandfather, in attaching such importance to his fly rod, was more materialistic than my brother and I, who clearly attached no particular importance to ours. If so, it's a sort of materialism that is higher and not lower, more ethical and not less, closer to the divine stewardship we are supposed to exercise over the world. As C. S. Lewis says, it's possible to be below certain temptations.

But I got to wondering where computers fit on this spectrum between things and devices.

Of course, there are many people for whom computers are simply devices. They use a computer because it lets them send and receive emails, or check Facebook, or update their blog. Their computer has no commanding presence, and only instrumental value.

But there are many other people who see their computer as something completely different – the sort of people referenced in this xkcd cartoon, for instance:

There are many people for whom computers (and associated technologies) call forth precisely the sort of active, learned, practiced response that Borgmann associates with things. The open source movement can succeed only because there are hundreds of thousands of people around the world who attach the same emotional value to their work on, say, the Linux kernel, as Yitzhak Perlman attaches to his Stradivarius. Some people, of course, create web sites only to make money, but many others do it out of a labor of love, for the sheer beauty of the thing (here, for instance). I don't know any programmers who write code for a living only because it's the easiest way for them to make money. Nearly all of them love the art of coding, read books about programming in their spare time, and engage in extensive arguments about the best way to architect a system. These debates are disparagingly termed "religious arguments", but I think the description is telling: programmers find a meaning and significance in their code that goes beyond its instrumental value.

In his computer software engineering classic The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks writes:

The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and re-work, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures . . . Yet the program construct, unlike the poet's words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.

The typical explanation for why programmers fall in love with computers is control: geeks like to code because it allows them to inhabit a world without contingency. There may be something to that, but I think there's something more going on as well. Nothing human is that one-sided, and coding is clearly a human activity. Going with Fred Brooks, I think programming is better understood as another exercise of the imago dei, an attempt at subcreation by creatures made in the image of a Creator.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

“…an account of…”

I received my MA in Theology from Fuller in 1992, and I've been formally involved in academic study only peripherally over the 16 succeeding years. Since I've jumped back into reading more theology lately, I've noticed a particular phrase that keeps showing up: "an account of". I don't recall this being nearly as widespread back in the early 90's, so I'm wondering where it's come from, and why it's achieved such ubiquity. I don't recall that Calvin, for instance, ever self-consciously gave "an account" of anything – and for that matter, I don't recall that more recent folks like Pannenberg or Barth used the phrase anything like as extensively as it's used today.

To give you just one example, in the 21 pages of chapter 11 of Hauerwas' The State of the University (2007), the word "account" shows up some 36 times, in settings like:

Will what I have to say about "the secular intellectual world" confirm the opinion many of you have that I do not have an adequate account of "the natural"? (p. 166)

Stout's account in principle does not require that Christians (or other traditions) abandon their self-7nderstanding in order to participate in Stout's democracy. Which is to say that there are possibilities in Stout's account that are not yet fully worked out. (p. 178)

Or two random examples from the previous book on my list, Brent Waters' From Human to Posthuman (2006):

What the shorthand 'modern' designates is a currently privileged account of the way the world is, while the shorthand designation 'postmodern' refers to the contestation of this privilege by insisting that no such account is possible. (p. 32)

George Grant provides a philosophical account of destiny for explicating these emergent and convergent qualities that are particularly pertinent to the context of a late liberal technoculture. Grant's account presupposes late liberalism's endemic historicism and nihilism, which was examined in chapter two. (p. 126)

I take it that that "account" functions in these settings as a synonym for "explanation", "elaboration" and "justification". To provide an account of an idea, a cultural feature, or a doctrine, I'm guessing, is to explain how it fits into a larger setting and how it relates to other features or ideas, to describe its historical sources, the structure of its internal logic, and its practical implications. And somewhere in there, I think you probably get around to arguing that the idea is true (or that the cultural feature in question is to be affirmed or criticized).

It seems to me that this phrase reflects an interesting epistemological shift, in that it seems to presuppose a post-foundationalist epistemology. A paper, article or book that advocates idea 'x' by "presenting an account" of it doesn't so much argue that 'x' is true based on reasons 1, 2 and 3. Rather, the author argues for the idea by explaining its significance, situating it within a larger world of ideas, and showing how it helps to explain those ideas, or makes them more interesting, or simply provides more interesting questions to ask. The world of discourse assumed by this phrasing doesn't seem to involve syllogisms or classical logic, but rather the sort of "confirmation holism" that Quine made famous. That's probably an over-generalization, but based on the sort of arguments I'm actually seeing presented, it doesn't seem too outrageous.

Given that the academy is nothing if not self-critical (maybe even self-referential), I have to imagine that I'm not the first person to have noticed this. Does anyone know of any research or thinking that's been done on this?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Christian Learning

I think I need to read John Henry Newman's The Idea of a University (or here).

Having grown up in a strongly pietistic denomination (the Assemblies of God), in a reasonably anti-intellectual American culture, I've never been able to take for granted the connection between academic study and Christianity. But at the same time, as the former valedictorian of my high school class, and a summa cum laude graduate of both my BA and MA programs in theology, I have a natural predilection towards study and a firm belief in its value.

This means that, in the abstract, I can usually express the value of academic study fairly well: after all, we are called by God to exercise a dominion over creation, and presumably that means understanding the human cultures, histories, traditions and even theological formulations which are a part of God's creation continua. (Hauerwas, in an off-hand comment in The State of the University, helpfully connects Christian learning up to eschatology, the other end of theology: "Christians had no choice but to develop a robust intellectual tradition" because "what has occurred in Jesus Christ is cosmic, 'unsurpassed and unsurpassable', revealing what was previously hidden" [p. 125].)

The problem comes when I start trying to connect this theoretical understanding with what I actually see of the current state of academic study. Even theology, which is supposed to be rooted in the Church, seems very often to have little connection with the Christian life. To an outsider like myself, many of the debates seem pointless, and many books and articles are written in language that could only charitably be described as English. How very different were the voices of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther or Calvin! Their voices were like giants, and the deep rumble of their bass could be understood throughout the earth. The proceedings of the AAR sound like so many chittering mice in comparison.

It's been refreshing, therefore, to read Stanley Hauerwas' take on The State of the University, and more specifically, on the state of Christian theology within the academy. He's been able to provide a much more detailed and nuanced diagnosis than I could, but he's clearly concerned with many of the same issues. His fundamental idea (elaborated in previous books, and bearing a marked resemblance to MacIntyre's thought) is that knowledge must serve the community in which it is established, and more specifically, that Christian knowledge must be firmly rooted in the faith and practices of a Christian community. The modern American university fails this test rather badly, and the theology it produces is not always much better off.

Theology should never be done to pass muster in the university. Theology must be done in a manner that glorifies god and serves God's people. It has always been my conviction that when theology is so done, those in the university will take notice because what we have to say is so interesting. (p. 31)

Which is why I need to read Newman. Hauerwas quotes more extensively from Newman than from any of his other interlocutors (with the exception of Alasdair MacIntyre), and many of Newman's ideas (as translated through Hauerwas) seem spot on to me. I'm hoping to find in Newman a sense of, well, exactly what I want to accomplish if I go back to school.

On a side note, I enjoyed this entry in the index of The State of the University (p. 218):

neo-Constantinianism, 172
neo-neo-Constantiniamism, 172
neo-neo-neo-Constantinianism, 173
neo-neo-neo-neo-Constantinianism, 173

You gotta love a book like that.

Hauerwas’ Theory of Interfaith Dialogue

I'm reading through Stanley Hauerwas' The State of the University. On pp. 58-59, he retells an encounter with a process theologian in Arkansas who was unimpressed with Hauerwas' stress on Christian particularism. The process theologian observed that Hauerwas had no theory that would enable Christians to talk with Buddhists. Hauerwas responded:

I, however, apologized for being deficient of such theory, but asked, "How many Buddhists do you have here in Conway? Moreover, if you want to talk with them what good will a theory do you? I assume that if you want to talk with Buddhists, you would just go talk with them. You might begin by asking, for example, 'What in the world are you guys doing in Conway?'" I then suggested I suspected that the real challenge in Conway was not talking with Buddhists, but trying to talk with Christian fundamentalists. We should also ask whether we have anything interesting enough the Buddhist would even want to talk about with us.

This is a great example of the refreshing humor I'm beginning to find in Hauerwas, but he also makes a great point. It's less important to have a theory about how interfaith dialog can happen than to just go talk to each other. Hauerwas is very clear that this does not mean giving up on one's Christian (or Buddhist) beliefs, nor does it mean that we must engage in the sort of sloppy thinking that leads to proclamations like, "All roads lead to God." And it certainly doesn't mean that we don't try to convince the other person of the correctness of our views. It just means that we should talk, talk hospitably and respectfully, and that worry about the theory is a secondary concern.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Genetic Engineering and our Dependence on Technology

I haven't done enough reading in the ethics of genetic engineering to have any real sense for the issues that are being discussed in that field. But I've been thinking this thought for a while, and I've never actually heard it addressed, so I thought I'd toss it out.

One of the things that people worry about with human genetic engineering is that we'll be mucking with our gene pool in artificial ways, a prospect most people find unsettling for reasons that aren't generally specified, and perhaps aren't specifiable.

I don't know what the right answer here is, but one thing that should be noted in any discussion of human genetic engineering is that we're already mucking about with our gene pool in ways that are obvious once they're pointed out. The 20th century advances in medical technology have allowed lots of people to survive who would previously have been weeded out of the gene pool.

Lest I appear hard-hearted, let me hasten to point out that I'm one of these: I've had trouble with my ears all my life, I've had numerous surgeries to (partially) correct these problems, and I've been told by various doctors that were it not for these surgeries, it's quite likely that the mastoiditis which has given me such trouble would have eventually spread to my brain. In addition, I have a susceptibility to strep throat that, were it not for modern antibiotics, would probably have had me pushing up daisies some years ago. I'm very grateful that I'm not now six feet under, but from a genetic, evolutionary perspective, folks like me are precisely the problem. A hundred years ago, a set of genes like mine would have died out before they could get passed on, with the result that the next generation wouldn't have to put up with these problems. But these days, because of our dependence on technology, problematic genes are getting passed on routinely, ensuring that the next generation will be even more dependent on technology than we are today.

I should note that this particular tendency has been observed in other settings. According to Fred Lanting, wild dingoes are almost completely free of hip dysplasia: natural selection ensures that this particular trait doesn't get passed down. But a colony of wild dingoes bred in captivity for 40 or so years (without the pressure of natural selection) showed that a "substantial portion" of the captive dingoes suffered from hip dysplasia. I can't think of any reason why the same thing isn't happening to human beings.

I can't swear that this analysis is correct, though it makes sense to me. I don't know how quickly our gene pool is degrading, but it seems likely that it is in fact doing so, and that it's just a matter of time before the vast majority of human beings will be all but incapable of surviving without significant technical assistance. Entropy always tends to increase, Newton said, and without the pressure of natural selection, the entropy inherent in the human gene pool will increase more quickly than we expect.

Assuming for the moment that this is accurate, what are our options here? None of them sound particularly appealing, but for very different reasons.

  1. We can continue down the current path, letting the human gene pool deteriorate, constantly supplementing its decline with increasingly sophisticated "external" technologies (such as surgery, antibiotics, artificial limbs and organs). In a dozen or so generations, the human race would be nearly cyborg in reality, if not appearance.
  2. We can address the problems in our gene pool by letting survival of the fittest take its course. This isn't really even thinkable, of course: if we can help someone with medical problems, we're morally obligated to do so.
  3. We can address the problems in our gene pool through genetic engineering. Presumably this wouldn't be through "eugenics", but through appropriately targeted gene therapies. The practical problems are many, of course: we don't have words to describe just how complex the human genome really is. We're at least decades and maybe even centuries away from being able to diagnose and fix the sort of "minor" genetic problems that I suffer from, let alone the sort of body sculpting you read about in science fiction novels. But there is at least one theoretical advantage: once we fix a particular problem, it will more-or-less stay fixed: the fixed genes will automatically get passed on to the next generation. If we ever get the technology figured out, we could presumably fix the decline of the human genome.

Not many folks are really passionate advocates of this last approach: human genetic engineering is a technology perched atop a rather slippery slope. It's not real likely that we'd be able to stop with "fixing the decline": as Ellul pointed out, technology that can be used almost certainly will be used. If we have the ability to give our children (never mind ourselves) super-human intelligence, super-human strength, or greatly extended lifespans, I think we certainly will.

But even if you don't buy the idea of a normative human nature (which I think I do), nobody really likes the idea of their genetic makeup being deliberately and specifically programmed by someone else. Written well before genetic engineering became a possibility, I think C. S. Lewis' Abolition of Man is nevertheless a fairly accurate prophecy of what will happen if we aren't very careful with these technologies. If we can meddle with our descendants' intelligence, will we also choose to meddle with their sense of morality? On what basis would we do so if we're convinced that morality is just a combination of social and evolutionary pressures? From this perspective, what would constitute a better or worse morality, and on what basis would we decide?

"If any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have preordained how they are to use them… The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future…. Man's conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men." (The Abolition of Man, pp. 68-69)

But as morally ambiguous as the third option is, I know of even fewer people who would be advocates of the first or second.

I'm not here trying to decide which of these approaches is the right one. I don't like any of them. But if I have any contribution to make to the argument, it would be to point out that the debate isn't about "genetic engineering" in the abstract. It's a choice between various unpalatable options: we have to pick one of these three. There is no neutral choice.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Backpacking at Dorothy Lake

For my Dad's birthday in July, I offered to take him on a backpacking/photography trip to a location of his choice. We ended up going to Dorothy Lake and environs, and spent a couple days hiking around, taking pictures, cooking steak and bacon. I haven't seen my Dad's pictures yet, but a selection of mine follow.


More here.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Few More Thoughts on Exclusion and Embrace

I just finished Miroslav Volf's book Exclusion and Embrace, and on the whole, I was favorably impressed. There's a tremendous wisdom in Volf's writings: he's balanced and reasonable, widely read and explicitly Christian and orthodox. A couple very random notes on the book follow.

First, Volf certainly constructs a theology: he doesn't take the older (Protestant) view that a theology is to be discovered by comparing and contrasting the relevant Biblical texts. He certainly takes the Bible seriously, though his use of Biblical texts is creative and suggestive as well as exegetical. He doesn't so much seek to discover a theology as to create one: thoughtfully, prayerfully, with wisdom and an eye towards the Christian tradition, with a sense of how it must be used in both Christian and non-Christian frameworks, but he's nevertheless still building, and just as there is more than one way to architect a building (or a computer program), so he would presumably acknowledge that there is more than one way to construct a valid theology. (Of course, just because there is more than one way to construct something doesn't mean that every way of constructing it is legitimate.)

Second, one of the things that most impressed me about the book was the thoughtful and creative way that he engaged thinkers with whom he fundamentally disagreed. It was striking, for instance, just how often he quoted Nietzsche: some 25 or more times, if the book's index is accurate. Although Nietzsche and Volf could not be further apart in either method or worldview, Volf manages to do more than just quote Nietzsche to disagree with him. In almost every instance, he finds something to affirm about Nietzsche, some aspect of what he's saying that is true, or at least points towards the truth. I noticed Volf's frequent references to Nietzsche right away, but it took me almost halfway through the book to realize what he was doing. The point of Volf's book, of course, is that we must make space within ourselves even for our enemies, that we must will to embrace our opponents, even evil-doers, before justice can be truly served. In dealing with Nietzsche, Volf does a remarkable job of modeling just how that process can work.

And finally, as you would expect from anyone who has an interest in issues of oppression, Volf is a convinced though not a radical feminist. He makes the common claim (denied by folks like C. S. Lewis) that there is nothing of gender in God, and he moves beyond this to say that we can learn nothing about gender roles from observing the Trinity at work. Disagreeing with Karl Barth, who argued that human males image the maleness in God, Volf writes:

All specifically masculine or feminine content of the language about God stems exclusively from the creaturely realm... We can find in our notions of God only those things about femininity or masculinity that we ourselves have placed into these notions. Since God is beyond sexual difference, there is nothing in God that can correspond to the specifically fatherly relation that a man has toward his progeny. A human father can in no way read of his responsibilities as a father from God the Father... Whether we use masculine or feminine metaphors for God, God models our common humanity, not our gender specificity... Again, God does not model gender identity. (pp. 170-172)

At first I thought Volf was denying the analogia entis (a fairly common thing to do these days), but as I thought more about it, I don't think he was: he's just denying that gender is a part of it. And as to whether we can learn anything about gender roles by observing God, I was really only able to come up with one clear Scriptural counter-example. Paul is very clear that we can learn about what it means specifically to be a husband or specifically to be a wife by observing Christ's relationship to the Church, His bride:

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:22-27)

A second possible counter-example might be Ephesians 3:14-15:

For this reason, I bow my knee before the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.

This is at least one possible translation of it, and if accurate, it would imply that human fatherhood is a shadow or a reflection of God's divine fatherhood, with echoes of neo-Platonism. But you could also render "εξ ου πασα πατρια ονομαζεται" as "from whom his whole family derives its name" (as the NIV does), and that takes some of the force out of my argument.

Caedmon’s Dinner Redux

Caedmon – our personal hobbit – was having an odd day today. He ate hardly any "second breakfast", and refused to eat any lunch. He ate a normal amount for "second lunch", but when dinner came around he was famished. He ate two slices of cheese, half a hot-dog, and then three bowls of blueberries.

After dinner he took a bath, and then had his standard bedtime bottle, which he drank completely.

I was cuddling with him for a few minutes before putting him down when I noticed he was, well, hiccuping, or something like that. That went on for 15-20 seconds.

Then it all came back, like a bad debt.

The first wave of formula, blueberries and hotdog washed all over my shirt, shorts and the chair.

Caedmon turned to look at me, astonished.

The second wave exploded directly onto my face.

I hurriedly moved him out to arms length.

The third wave drenched my arms, his sleep sack and the carpet.

Poor Caedmon dangled for a few seconds, as stunned as I was, then started to cry.


I comforted the poor guy, then dropped him off in the bathroom, stripped down to my shorts, and proceeded to clean up. A new onesie for the over-eager hobbit, some quick cleanup of the larger pieces, and Caedmon back in bed, I was finally able to take a shower. But I'm not sure the smell or Daddy's trauma will be leaving anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Thinking about God in an Age of Technology

I'm working my way through George Pattison's book Thinking About God in an Age of Technology. Apart from his strange fascination with radical theologies (a fascination for which I have very little sympathy), I'm finding it helpful. If nothing else, I'm taking note of the thinkers and theologians with whom he's interacting: it's a reasonably good start at a map of the various theologies of technology that have been proposed. Not surprisingly, there's more there than I realized. That's good, as I'm hoping to do a dissertation on the topic at some point, and I was hoping that the ground wouldn't be entirely unplowed. Still, it seems like there's a fair bit of work remaining to do on this topic.

I may have more to post on Pattison's book later, but I'll leave it now with an interesting note. On pp. 51-56, he offers his criticisms of Ellul's critique of technology, and Pattison's criticisms can be reduced to saying, "It isn't all that helpful."

Can Ellul offer more on the plane of human action and value than a kind of negative dialectic, a critique of the present in the name of an impossible and humanly unattainable freedom? If technology is charged with a totalizing tendency that sucks all phenomena into its infernal machinery, is this not a projection of Ellul's own Barthian method, namely, the reduction of the phenomena in their entirety to a single category (in this case 'technology') that is then used as a name for the kingdom of this world, for everything that is not and is intrinsically and essentially opposed to the Kingdom of God? Is there anything here one could lay hold of as a concrete strategy of resistance of transformation?

Now, I have to agree with him that this is a weakness of Ellul, or at least, of the very little bit of Ellul that I've read. But I find it curious that Pattison doesn't seem nearly as interested in attempting to understand whether Ellul's critique of technology (never mind its theological or practical ramifications) is true. For what seemed to me obvious reasons, the questions that struck me as I was reading Ellul centered on whether his critique was accurate. Does technology actually have the absolutist tendencies that he claims? Will it really "suck all phenomena into its infernal machinery"? Is there really so little hope that we can escape its power? And of course, the answer I came up with (here, here, here and here) is, "I don't think so, for the following reasons". But Pattison seems more interested in how Ellul can be used than in whether Ellul is right.

I only noticed this about Pattison's treatment of Ellul because I had recently been engaged in a similar project: but it makes me wonder if a lot of academic writing suffers from precisely this lack of concern over the status of the truth-claims of the literature with which it's engaging. It certainly seems to me that a position should be dismissed because it's inaccurate and fails to correspond with the reality it's trying to describe, not because it's unhelpful. But perhaps I'm operating with an excessively naïve and optimistic epistemology.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Ingalls Lake

Todd Keller and I spent a couple days this weekend up at Lake Ingalls, just north of Cle Elum. It was great weather for photography: enough clouds to even out the light, enough sunlight to make it interesting. On Saturday, we did a non-technical ascent of Ingalls Peak (~7600 feet), but mostly what I'll remember is the opportunity for pictures.


More here.