The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge

willardI spied this soon to be released volume of Willard’s just today: The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. I’m a big fan of Willard’s. I don’t mind forking over hard-earned cash to get an exceptional volume, but at $152.00 (I’m not linking to the Amazon page – Why?), I’ll have to admire this book from the very distant margins of those who haven’t read it and can only suppose it’s exceptional rather than from within its pages. Happily, links to Willard’s lectures given under the same title can be found here.

Besides wondering what artistic competence is left among the cover-design folk at Routledge (one might guess based on this design that the title would better be The Disappearance of Design Sense), I did have a reaction to the summary that’s found on Amazon:

Based on an unfinished manuscript by the late philosopher Dallas Willard, this book makes the case that the 20th century saw a massive shift in Western beliefs and attitudes concerning the possibility of moral knowledge, such that knowledge of the moral life and of its conduct is no longer routinely available from the social institutions long thought to be responsible for it. In this sense, moral knowledge―as a publicly available resource for living―has disappeared. Via a detailed survey of main developments in ethical theory from the late 19th through the late 20th centuries, Willard explains philosophy’s role in this shift. In pointing out the shortcomings of these developments, he shows that the shift was not the result of rational argument or discovery, but largely of arational social forces―in other words, there was no good reason for moral knowledge to have disappeared. The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge is a unique contribution to the literature on the history of ethics and social morality. Its review of historical work on moral knowledge covers a wide range of thinkers including T.H Green, G.E Moore, Charles L. Stevenson, John Rawls, and Alasdair MacIntyre. But, most importantly, it concludes with a novel proposal for how we might reclaim moral knowledge that is inspired by the phenomenological approach of Knud Logstrup and Emmanuel Levinas….

My reaction: Emmanuel Levinas? Noooooooo!

They toil not…but then they burn?

GardenAs a teenager my parents struggled to get my brother and me to mow the lawn and trim the hedges. Over the course of my life, however, I took increasing interest in developing whatever potential our home had for growing a garden. I embraced my part with an interest that surprised even me – mowing, planting, transplanting, watering.

I daily check what Anita and I have planted. And – don’t laugh – I chat with my flowers when I water them. The bougainvillea I planted struggled at first, but with love and care, and talking to, it looks like they’ll make it. I look at flowers differently (like the picture featured here, from a planter outside the window inches from where I’m writing this note). I don’t just stare at them because they happen to come into view as I’m on my way to seeing something else. I contemplate them intentionally. I go looking for them. I don’t know what word to use other than ‘love’ to describe this, though obviously it’s not equivalent to what I feel for the people in my life. But neither is it entirely something else.

As I tended to my garden this morning, Jesus’ words in Mat 5 came to mind: “Not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these [flowers of the field].” I paused to enjoy the moment and affirm it. How true it is that these flowers are more beautiful than any man-made jewelry. The best that we clothe human royalty in can’t exceed the flowers outside my window.

However, just then my thought was disturbed by what Jesus says immediately following his statement about the incomparable beauty of flowers: “If that [the beauty of the flowers of the field] is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”

I’ve been thinking about this all morning. Perhaps it’s a bit of a philosophical abstraction, but I feel it personally. I talk a lot here about the theology of beauty, the implications of our perception of beauty, the redeeming/healing properties of beauty. Suddenly it bothered me that Jesus juxtaposes the incomparable beauty of flowers with their being discarded into the fire so nonchalantly. There’s no disagreeing that the beauty of flowers are a fleeting thing and that we have to discard them when they die. But for me there’s something to truly grieve here, and I don’t see the grief in Jesus’ comments. Even if the overall point is to reassure us that God will care for us more than he cares for the flowers of the field, somewhere along the line the reassurance became a warning: If the flowers are here today and tomorrow are tossed into an oven, what might happen to me? Maybe the beauty I constitute for God is disposable too. How would I know if God is OK with so obvious and excessive a beauty as flowers being here today and gone tomorrow?

I didn’t feel reassured. But I suppose the reassurance is in the fact that the flowers parallel not me but rather the clothes, food and shelter we seek for survival’s sake; so if we seek first God’s kingdom God will clothe and feed and shelter us (more than he does the grass of the field?). Well, OK. But then, I thought, seeing the beauty of flowers as exceeding Solomon’s is the Kingdom (i.e., is the Kingdom come in the shaping of our aesthetic perceptions and valuation of things). And that gets tossed into the fire? The Kingdom tosses the Kingdom? You might respond, “Well, those are flowers being tossed, not the Kingdom. The Kingdom is something else. It’s bigger and more important.” Really?

I guess my question is: How’s the passing of such beauty (the perceiving of which is the Kingdom) into the oven shape our understanding of beauty and the way we’re to value it?

The beef is back on

So I guess the beef is back on

So I guess the beef is back on, just toss it in the wok – flame
Blazes and amazes, but they never on the block – game
Is always played pettily with no rules, it’s no shock – shame
Upon the industry that can’t tell the times, a broken clock – name
Me one rapper that’s talkin honestly bout the real story,
Bout the horror flick called Fascism, full of blood and gory,
Pullin out the straps on innocent mothers, aimin Gunz like Cory,
Then braggin on the Gram about the “war” and all its glory;
“Make America Great Again” chant of the next Trumpster hire,
Little knowin the guy’s close to combustion like a dumpster fire,
Willing to spit the false gospel of an even falser Messiah,
Needle’s already in the red, but he’s ready to take it higher;
Briar patches fillin up scary white rabbits,
While Nanaw done lost her healthcare and “She’s Gotta Have It”;
Word to Spike Lee, they might dislike me,
Even try to fight me, but they will never slight me,
Slight of hand with the reality, David Copperfield
Droppin bombs on illusion, with a kiloton whopper yield;
In the wreckage I hope to find us a kernel of truth,
To stop the wildfire of doublespeak from burnin the youth.
Speakin of kids, I heard about 1500 missin,
Torn from mothers and others, cryin and kissin,
Screw hearin about a couple-o wealthy egos dissin,
Please open your third eye and inner ear and just listen;
What have we become when we become so indifferent to pain,
I wish we cared more about our kids, indifferent to fame,
Betsy Ross in heaven cryin tears of Purple Rain,
The circle of stars she made is nothing but a circle of shame.
America, time to live up to your promise of hope,
Instead of Blue oppression, Red blood, and White lines of coke,
Nationalistic fires and destruction you continue to stoke,
So when God brings the rod of correction we’ll get more than a poke.

(Dwayne Polk)

Love in the Void

Weil1I’m ashamed to confess that as much as I admire every quotation from Simone Weil (pronounced ‘vay’ in French) that I’ve run across through the years, I have not taken up her work directly to get to know her thought. To begin correcting this mistake, I thought I’d pick up a quick read to sandwich in between other things. I happened upon Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us, a selection of passages chosen by Laurie Gagne (St. Michael’s College) from three of Weil’s writings. If you are not yet familiar with Weil, I hope Gagne’s introduction reproduced here (a bit longer than my normal post) will entice you to change that.


The writings of philosopher and mystic Simone Weil first appeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s—the period after World War II characterized by a widespread desire to return to normalcy in Western societies. Having defeated the “great beast” of totalitarianism, the liberal democracies concentrated on creating the good life at home. In America, especially it was the golden age of the middle class: a comfortable, even affluent lifestyle seemed within the reach of everyone. Given this context, it is not surprising that Weil, who had died in 1943, quickly achieved legendary status among a whole generation of countercultural intellectuals and spiritual seekers. Her writings are radically, vehemently anti-bourgeois, as was her short, intense life. Christians are atheists alike seemed to find in Weil a corrective to the burgeoning consumer culture that threatened to stifle the life of the mind and the soul. The French philosopher Albert Camus, for example, known for his depiction of a moral landscape without God, praised this lover of God extravagantly, calling her “the only great spirit of our time.” The equally atheistic literary critic Susan Sontag, writings in the New York Review of Books in 1963, allowed that Weil was fanatically ascetical and given to “noble and ridiculous political gestures” but confessed that she was “moved” and “nourished” by Weil’s “seriousness.” “In the respect we pay to such lives,” Sontag wrote, “we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world….”

In our time, too, when religion—really, fundamentalist religion—has once again emerged as a force in world events, Simone Weil’s writings have again been invoked, this time to distinguish between true religion and false religion or idolatry. In Gravity and Grace, Weil uses the language of idolatry to describe the way that religion can become destructive. There, we read that “idolatry comes from the fact that, while thirsting for absolute good, we do not possess the power of supernatural attention, and we have not the patience to allow it to develop.” So convinced was Weil of human beings’ susceptibility to idolatry that she came to emphasize the necessity of non-action, or waiting for grace, as the starting point for responsible action in the world.

Rowan Williams, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, writing in the aftermath of 9/11, noted the importance of Weil’s concept of “the void,” calling it a “breathing space,” a moment, created by catastrophe, when we are open to God and others. Like Weil, Williams believes that all too often we waste these moments by filling them up with our attempts to make God fit our agendas, in religious language that is “formal or self-giving.”

Never dreaming that she would be subject of all this attention so many decades later, Simone Weil died in 1943 at the age of thirty-four, the time of life when most young people are hitting their stride in work and relationships. Commitments have been made, sometimes vows have been taken, and there’s often a mortgage to cement the young person’s ties to a particular place and way of being for the next fifty years. Even today, when people travel the globe and change jobs frequently, maturity still means some measure of “settling down.” In the brief time tat she had on this earth, Simone Weil constructed a life that was antithetical to time-honored standards of worldly success. She sought to uproot herself from everything—her parents’ solicitousness, the comfortable surroundings of her childhood, and even the normal benchmarks of academic achievement—to which she might form an attachment. Her goal was an untrammeled heart—the necessary condition, she believed, for knowing the truth. We can chart her life according to the turning points in this passionate quest. The body of work she left us—virtually all of it published posthumously—is the fruit of an anguished, but ultimately luminous spiritual journey.

Born in 1909 to a Jewish family in Paris, Simone Weil had a privileged, extremely intellectual childhood. She and her older brother, Andre, who was widely regarded as a prodigy (he became an internationally recognized mathematician) would memorize long passages from the classics of French drama and play complicated math games; this before she even went to school. At the Lycée Heni IV, under the tutelage of the well-respected but non-conformist philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier, her intellectual vocation seemed confirmed. He judged her short essays outstanding and predicted a brilliant career for the high-minded young woman. However, at the age of fourteen, she went through a deep depression during which she even thought of dying, convinced, as she writes in her spiritual autobiography, of “the mediocrity of her natural faculties.” The comparison which her brother, she says, had brought her “own inferiority to home” to her. It wasn’t the lac of outward success that she lamented, but rather the thought of being exclude “from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides.” She suffered this way for months, until the conviction suddenly came to her that anyone can enter “the kingdom of truth reserved for genius,” if only “he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention on its attainment.”

This insight, that truth (which included, for her, “beauty, virtue, and ever kind of goodness”) is accessible through the heart’s longing opened up a spiritual as opposed to a purely intellectual path for Weil. She was, at this point, agnostic. She had never read the Gospels, but her discovery, she says, amounted to the realization that “when one hungers for bread, one does not receive stones.” Confirmed in her quest, Weil made other choices during her teen years that seem to have set her on the solitary course from which she never diverged. She embraced the spirit of poverty and “always believed and hoped that one day Fate would force upon [her] the condition of a vagabond and a beggar.” Her classmates caller her “the Red Virgin” in jest, but her commitment to chastity and decision not to marry were adopted deliberately. “The idea of purity,” she explains, “with all that this word can imply for a Christian, took possession of me at the age of sixteen…when I was contemplating a mountain landscape.” She never wavered in this commitment. The unconventional turns her path took are in part explained by the understanding of vocation at which she arrived during this time: “I saw that the carrying out of a vocation differed from the actions dictated by reason or inclination I that it was due to an impulse of an essentially and manifestly different order; and not to follow such an impulse when it made itself felt, even if it demanded impossibilities, seemed to me the greatest of all ills.”

Impulses such as she was describing are not a matter of following the ego’s desires, however, insistent. Instead, they spring from the point of transcendence in us – the soul – which tends unerringly toward eternal truth. Trusting this tendency, instead of more rational considerations, resulted in a decidedly unspectacular teaching career for Weil. After graduating highest in her class from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, she taught at girls’ schools in the French countryside from 1931 to 1938. A lightning rod for controversy because of her extreme opinions, she became embroiled in conflicts with school boards, who strongly objected to the social activism she could not resist undertaking.

Ever since the age of five, when she had refused to eat sugar, having heard that it was denied the soldiers at the front, Weil had exhibited a desire to identity with those who suffer. (Simone de Beauvoir, a classmate of Weil’s at university, says that when she heard that Weil had burst into tears on hearing about a famine in China, she envied her for having “a heart that could beat right across the world”). In Le Puy and Auxerre, Weil’s first two teaching assignments, she took up the cause of the workers, writing articles for leftist journals, marching and picketing, donating most of her salary to the purchase of books to be used in workers’ study circles, and providing free lessons to all comers. Reportedly, her students at both schools loved her, but in each place, Weil was dismissed after only one year.

A break from teaching gave Simone Weil the opportunity to be one with the workers quite literally. She obtained employment at a succession of factories in Paris, including the Renault automobile plant. Proposing to study the conditions of industrial workers, she immersed herself thoroughly in the factory environment; the experience was transformative. Physically, it undermined her health. Weil had always been delicate and subject to migraines, but her headaches increased during her year in the factor. Mentally, it was excruciating. She could not endure the pressure of assembly line work, nor its indifference to the individual. Her vision of life as oriented toward the ideal was replaced with a permanent awareness of the void, of death. “As I worked in the factor,” she writes in her spiritual autobiography, “indistinguishable to all eyes, including my own, from the anonymous mass, the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul. Nothing separated me from it, for I had really forgotten my past and I looked forward to no future, finding it difficult to imagine the possibility of surviving all the fatigue.” Up against death we are powerless. Weil says that in the factory, she “received forever the mark of a slave” and “since then, I have always regarded myself as a slave.”

Paradoxically, Weil derived tremendous spiritual benefit from her time in the factory. Her new consciousness, she says, turned her in the direction of Christianity. Prior to her factory experience, Weil had believed that we progress toward truth or the good through our own efforts—by obeying the heart’s impulses, as we have noted, and by focusing all our energies on the good we desire. Her awareness of powerlessness in the face of death, however, made her realize that at a certain point on the spiritual journey all we can do is wait. By accepting death and powerlessness, without denying the heart’s longing, we position ourselves to receive the good. Christianity teaches that the good comes to us.

Weil would begin to learn this firsthand. She went to Portugal with her parents to recover from the shattering experience of factor work One night, inn a little fishing village, she observed a procession of fishermen’s wives making a candlelit tour of all the ships, singing “ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness.” Touched to the core of her own heart, she came to an insight: “Christianity is pre-eminently the region of slaves,” she thought, slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.” [Tom here: What would Nietzsche say?]

Weil returned to teaching in 1935 at a lycée at Bourges. In 1936, she trained for action on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, but due to an accident—she scalded herself by stepping into a pot of boiling oil—she never saw combat. Back in France, she taught philosophy at the Lycée Saint-Quentin, but in January of 1938, she took sick leave from her job and never returned to teaching.

The frustration and debility Weil experienced in her outer life at this time was paralleled by an impasse interiorly. In her spiritual autobiography, Weil says that she “persevered for ten years”—before and after her time in the factory—“in an effort of concentrated attention that was practically unsupported by any hope of results.” But beginning with a visit to Assisi in 1937, she had a series of spiritual breakthroughs. Still an agnostic, Weil, now twenty-eight, had never prayed, but in the chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, once frequented by Saint Francis, “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” In 1938, she spent Holy Week and Easter attending the services at the Benedictine abbey in Solesmes. Her headaches were raging, but by an extreme effort of attention she was able, she says, “to rise above this wretched flesh…and to find a pure and perfect joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and the words.” In this experience, she said, “the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all.”

These experiences were the prelude to the climactic moment of her life. A young Englishman at Solesmes had introduced her to the works of seventeenth-century metaphysical poets and she formed the habit of reciting the poem “Love,” by George Herbert, whenever her headaches were particularly intense. During one of these recitations, she tells us, “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.” As if defending the authenticity of the experience, not only to Jean Perrin, the Catholic priest to whom her spiritual autobiography is addressed, but also to herself, she says that “neither my senses nor my imagination had any part” in it; she only felt “in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” Weil was completely unprepared for this encounter with Christ. Having never read the mystics, she had never conceived of the possibility of a “real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.” This experience, not surprisingly, led Weil to rethink many of her intellectual positions. It also raised the question of baptism.

For the next several years, Weil’s life, which to that point had been taken up in the great political struggles of the day, took an inward turn. She wrote about the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Russia, but her chief focus was religion. She read the Gospels and was immediately convinced that Jesus is God, but she also studied classical texts from non-Christian religions, finding resonances therein with her own unexpected mystical encounters. She had always loved the Greeks, but now as she read her favorite authors—Plato and Homer—she found the former to be a mystic and the latter to be “bathed in Christian light.” Indeed, she found “intimations of Christianity” throughout Greek literature, from the early myths through the great tragedians. This confirmation of the universality of mystical experiences like hers, coupled with the Catholic Church’s exclusive claim to be the vehicle of God’s presence in the world, was the greatest impediment to her joining the church. It pained her that the church was catholic (universal) “by right but not in fact,” having condemned so much in the world and throughout history that was good. She explained to Perrin, who greatly desired her baptism, that her place was not inside the church, but “on the threshold…at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity.”

Another obstacle to becoming Christian, for Weil, was the church as a social structure. She feared the collective enthusiasm of Christians, noting that it had blinded even saints on occasions—an egregious example being those who approved of the Crusades. She admitted that her own temperament was such that she would be highly susceptible to the emotion of “church patriotism,” going so far as to say that “if at this moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans signing Nazi songs in chorus, a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi.” Weil’s rejection of church membership on these grounds is in line with her lifelong dedication to purity of heart. She acknowledged the need for the church as a social structure if it were going to exist in the world at all, but could never regard participation in it as anything other than a compromise with her own spiritual vocation. In her New York journal, written just a year before her death, she puts it quite categorically: “The virtue of humility is incompatible with the sense of belonging to a social group chosen by God, whether a nation or a church.”

When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Weil fled with her parents to Marseilles, in the unoccupied zone. She developed deep friendships with Christians there, but held to her decision to remain outside the church. Offered lodging in the home of one of her Catholic friends, she chose to live in a shed on his property instead and spent her days in the fields doing exhausting manual labor. By night, she filled notebooks with her mystical vision of reality. What particularly engaged Weil during this period was the question of how to reconcile the love that God has for us, which she was experiencing more and more deeply, with the horrendous suffering that so many people have to endure. The year in the factory had taught her that extreme, soul-crushing suffering—what she calls “affliction”—is real and its existence, in a world created by God, seemed scandalous to her. “It is surprising,” she writes, “that God has given affliction the power to seize the very souls of the innocent and to take possession of them as their sovereign Lord.” Only the Passion of Christ, she believed, could overcome this contradiction. The perfect love of Jesus on the cross reveals the presence of divine love in the midst of affliction. By remaining open to divine love when we are afflicted ourselves, we participate in Christ’s redemptive act.

With the war ragging, Weil also reflected on the use of force. In her earliest writings, in the 1930s, she had championed pacifism. Now she renounced it, referring to “the criminal error I committed before 1939” (when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia) “with regard to pacifist groups and their actions.” Weil admired Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, but believed that it should only be used when truly effective; that is, when its proponents radiate the power of love so strongly that their cause Is irreversible. Otherwise, she proposed, the responsibility to protect innocent human life supersedes the commandment against killing. If a soldier is willing to die in the service of the good, Weil asserted, he has the right to kill when war is necessary. Dismayed by the capitulation of France to Hitler, she supported the French Resistance wholeheartedly. In July of 1942, she accompanied her parents to New York. As Jews, they were in danger under the Vichy regime, but she knew that they would never leave France without her. Four months later, however, she returned to Europe; she had contacts who would enable her to work with de Gaulle’s Free French in London.

In New York, Weil had penned a prayer which some commentators refer to as “the terrible prayer.” She asks to be so identified with Christ’s suffering that what is left of her is an empty shell of a human being: “That I may be unable to will any bodily movement…like a total paralytic. That I may be incapable of receiving any sensation….That I may be unable to make the slightest connection between two thoughts.” Whatever knowledge and love she possesses she asks to be “stripped away, devoured by God, transformed into Christ’s substance and given for food to the afflicted whose body and soul lack every kind of nourishment.” The prayer indicates that in her own being Weil wants to resolve the contradiction between human suffering and divine love. By becoming totally emptied of self, through the acceptance of affliction, there would be, she thought, a pure exchange of love between God and the spirit of God within her. The extremity of suffering depicted in Weil’s request is disturbing, yet it reveals not the masochism which some have suggested, but rather the ultimate expression of her lifelong desire to know the truth. This desire has become, at this point, the desire to be one with God. It is the expression of her soul, and the enactment of the soul’s desires, as we know, can do violence to the self. What lover, in the fevered ecstasy of her love, has not proclaimed her desire to die for the sake of the beloved?

Working for the Free French in London, Weil certainly seemed intent on dying. She asked to be sent behind enemy lines as a covert operator, but her classically Jewish looks and physical awkwardness rules that out. Another plan was for a corps of front line nurses: unarmed, she and other intrepid souls would brave enemy fire to treat the wounded. (When the idea reached General de Gaulle, he is said to have exclaimed, “elle est fou!”—she is crazy.) Weil’s literary production was significant during her time in London. Besides the usual reports and memoranda, she wrote The Need for Roots, a treatise addressing the problem of how to rebuild French society after the war. But the whole tie, she was like a mother distraught because her children are suffering while she is kept from them. Just as she had at the age of five, she fasted to practice solidarity with the men at the front. This time, though, she refused not just sugar, but nearly everything, restricting herself to what she believed to be the rations of those on the front. It is likely that she ate even less. During the summer of 1943, she contracted tuberculosis, and in late August she died, being too weakened by malnourishment for her body to recover. The attending physician declared her death a suicide, but in the context of her whole life’s journey, we can say that she died of an excess of love.

Since her death, Weil’s life and work have been the subject of praise and controversy. She has been labeled “anorexic” and “self-hating”; her religious sense has been called that of a life-denying Gnostic. Susan Sontag writes, “No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom nor would wish it for his children nor for anyone else whom he loves.” The purpose of this volume is neither to hold Simone Weil up as a paragon of spiritual understanding and Christian discipleship, nor to pass judgment on her distinctive spiritual journey and mystical writings. Instead, it will, I hope, quicken in the reader that sense of the eternal which Weil had to an extreme degree. Her gift to all those sincere in seeking the truth is the way she points to the reality of God. Like all mystics, she reminds us that our souls will not be satisfied with anything else. While others have used music and poetry to convey this discovery, Weil expressed it through a life of self-discovery, Weil expressed it through a life of self-denial. She wanted nothing about herself—in her life or in her writings—to distract from her role as witness. Thanks to her, those of us not similar focused can catch a glimpse of “that transcendent kingdom” which she came to know.

If we hesitate to emulate, or even to approve of, Weil’s path and her ideas in their entirety, still her intensity in the pursuit of the truth should fill us with gratitude. She discovered, much to her surprise, that her pursuit of truth was, finally, the pursuit of Christ. In this, she points a way toward Christ for those who struggle with institutional religion, showing that Christ makes himself known not through dogma or obedience to religious authorities, but to those who follow the deepest desires of their hearts.

No, not that scapegoat

180px-The_Scapegoat,_film_posterI was thinking through the letter to the Hebrews in light of Girard’s early opinion that the author, though a Christ-follower, had nonetheless lapsed into a violent-sacrificial reading of the gospel. Girard later admitted this was rash and conceded a non-sacrificial reading of the letter was possible, though he never described how such a reading should proceed. I happened upon Hebrews 9.22 which states that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” and recorded my thoughts in the margins:

“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” does not mean sacrificial blood is the price paid to make forgiveness possible. Shedding of blood is the offense needing forgiveness, not a means to forgiveness, but forgiveness is manifest in the bearing of the offense. It is forgiveness, then, not justice, which must be seen to be done. Unless our violence is seen to exhaust itself upon the One who in turn forgives, forgiveness is not manifest. The Cross is where forgiveness is revealed not where it is achieved. In other words, you cannot demonstrate that you forgive someone their violence without suffering that violence, but this is very different from saying you suffer the punishment their violence deserves.

Jesus: King of the Trill


I will always be thankful, filled up with gratitude,
Living the beatitude, changin’ up my attitude,
On another latitude,
Still in his presence
Living in his Energies (he can keep the Essence);
When the skies of my life turn grey,
And the winds turn hurricane causing trees to sway,
I will never look away, I know I will be okay,
Cuz the Shepherd got this sheep – in his lap my head I lay,
And I look around and I see the pain, I ain’t blind,
Seems like all people know nowadays is how to be unkind,
But I look past all the frowns to see invisible crowns,
And by the Spirit, I am down
To be the Bride, no gown;
Ima thank the Lord continually, it is his will;
Stop fightin’ my fears, for I know they are his kill,
Stay grateful, pass my cares to the Lord like a bill.
Word to Bun B: Jesus is the King of the Trill.
And I thank You!

(Dwayne Polk)

Christians in Westworld


I’m surprised to find myself this month involved in the same discussion with different people in separate venues. The topic is AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the theological/ethical implications of the emergence of conscious/self-aware robots. What would that say about what consciousness is? Would it be a de facto proof of what philosophers call the computational model of conscious (that all conscious states are reducible to non-conscious, pre-intentional, material processes in the brain)? What would AI say about what it means to be a human being? How would it effect our understanding of the image of God freely bestowed by God upon human beings?

Deep waters.

I want to share a reply I gave to one person who asked me about this. I’m floating this out for comments and am still in process myself. But I confess I don’t at all feel threatened by the possibility of computer’s achieving conscious states, though I agree with David Bentley Hart that it’s impossible. But I don’t know that one can demonstrate its impossibility the way one demonstrates that 2 + 3 = 4 and not 7, and so remove all rational grounds for doubt. My reply reads:

Back to your concern re: AI. I think you were especially concerned about ethics and epistemology – not knowing how to treat an instance of AI that was indistinguishable from a human being.

David Hart doesn’t think conscious/self-aware AI is achievable. Whatever complex forms of (so-called) behavior computers are able to achieve, it never rises to the level of conscious self-awareness. We’ve talked about Hart’s reasons. I agree with him. And for the sake of argument, let’s say Hart is right. But let’s also say we can’t know he’s right, i.e. we can’t absolutely foreclose upon the possibility that he’s wrong. And let’s also assume technology is able to produce robots who simulate the conscious experience of human beings. I’m just thinking out loud.

So – back to your question. What dilemmas does this present us with? Let’s imagine the worst – let’s go with full-on Cylons who can copulate with human beings and bear half-breed children. I want to explore one possible answer, and that answer is: So what? Given a Christian worldview, God is transcendent and life-affirming. Why can’t we be unconditionally life-affirming in whatever circumstances we find ourselves given our limitations and ignorance?

Even in circumstances where we know we’re relating to what is other than human, we still ‘care’, ‘love’, and ‘converse’ in some measure. My cat Sheba is all over me right now. I talk to her. I ask her questions: Ya hungry? How was your day? Feeling OK? Wanna play? We all engage our pets on this level. But what are we doing? It’s like part of being human is the desire to humanize everything. And not just sentient creatures like Sheba. I also talk to the fruit trees and flowers I plant whenever I water then (in a St. Francis sort of way!) Am I insane? Don’t think so. We could get into the details and ask at one point does addressing and showing kindness to less than human conversation partners become enmeshed with recognizing and conversing with God who is present in all things sustaining them, but that wouldn’t itself answer our question.

So if we possess a worldview that is life-affirming and benevolent to all life forms – what’s the problem with us making room for Cylons? Will God fault us for being more generous than he is? Will he fault us for extending relations to life-forms that do not in fact engage us on the deepest metaphysical level which only God can discern? Is that kind of misrelation a devaluation of things? To be indifferent and cruel to lesser beings (however we view that) is still inhumane.

There may be a hidden contradiction in this scenario. Assuming Hart is correct but we can’t prove it, and assuming we can inter-breed with Cylons and bear a new species of intelligent being – what would the status of my half-breed kids be to God? I mean, do I get to heaven someday only to discover that my Cylon wife and half-breed kids literally ‘no longer exist’ since they were just batteries in great packaging? What if I didn’t know my wife was a Cylon who didn’t qualify? That would be a total bummer – because it would mean a huge part of my loving and giving essentially disappears and is unredeemed by God. Relations that constituted my life’s joys end up not being a part of my continuing story with God. That would suck. But (for the sake of argument) it would only suck because I thought it was something else. So here I want to explore the answer: So what? What fault is there in assuming the highest and best of whatever ‘other’ is before me, an ‘other’ whose deepest irreducible teleology I’m incapable of discerning?

Again, I’m just thinking out loud. I don’t think debates over the possibility of AI are beside the point. I’m just wondering what we could discover about the possibility if we approached it by assuming it was true then going from there. Would we not be able to live in the present moment and offer unconditional love, to whomever or whatever, in the best and highest mode of expression that we are capable of?

I’m not sure I see a problem here. If Cylons really are possible, so be it. It wouldn’t disprove the existence of God. But if we imagine God unable to handle Cylons were they to come along, we’re imaging a non-existent God, not the transcendent ground of all being who is able to weave together whatever our technologies throw at him and do so without tragic remainder. Remember, God is the summum bonum, the highest good and greatest beatitude and as such the end/telos of all things. So whatever comes to be is possible, and whatever being is possible derives its possibility from God. If Westworld is possible (since we’re imagining it so for the sake of argument), then God would be God in Westworld just like he is in ours,  for there is no imagining ourselves outside the transcendent reach and goodness of God, no conceivable world in which I could find myself unable to relate to myself and the world around me in ways that reflect the life-affirming goodness and grace of God. If that world happens to include AI, so what?

The historical Paul

I’ve been chatting with my good friend Dwayne who has been a part of practically every post I’ve put up on this blog since its beginning. Dwayne follows a few people that I’d like follow more closely but don’t because, well, Dwayne keeps up with them. Bart Ehrman is one. Sam Harris is another. They both recently came together on Harris’ podcast “Waking Up with Same Harris” (Episode 125). The episodes posted summary:

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks to Bart Ehrman about his experience of being a born-again Christian, his academic training in New Testament scholarship, his loss of faith, the most convincing argument in defense of Christianity, the status of miracles, the composition of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, the nature of heaven and hell, the book of Revelation, the End Times, self-contradictions in the Bible, the concept of a messiah, whether Jesus actually existed, Christianity as a cult of human sacrifice, the conversion of Constantine, and other topics.

Quite a bit to cover. I wanted to zero in on Paul’s conversion because its relevance has partly to do with facts whose historicity aren’t in dispute: Paul’s existence as a Christian apostle and his account in the NT of having encountered the risen Jesus. But leaves us with something to explain, and I thought Dwayne’s note to me was worth sharing.

Sam Harris asked the right question of Ehrman after talking about Paul’s conversion: How did Paul relate to the Apostles/Disciples of Jesus? Ehrman mentions that things were more contentious than people think. But Ehrman left out important facts we glean from Paul’s accepted letters which we would do well to ponder.

(1) Paul is convinced he experienced the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus, the same Jesus that the disciples knew and lived with. Recall that three years after his conversion, Paul stays with Peter (to whom the risen Jesus also appeared, says Paul) for fifteen days. Paul also talks to Jesus’ brother James. Paul leaves this meeting and doesn’t meet up with Peter again for another fifteen years.

(2) Paul also claims he was taught the gospel from Jesus, not from men.

We know that Peter and James believed Paul’s story. They are convinced Paul did experience the Jesus they knew. But we must ask: What can explain their being convinced of this? What could have convinced Jesus’ own disciples that Paul had indeed encountered the risen Jesus they had lived with? Peter heard something from Paul that did the convincing? That something Paul shared that removed Peter’s doubts. Who knows what this was? But imagine you’re Peter meeting the arch-enemy of Christians, a man who has been persecuting Christians and now claims to have met the risen Jesus. You are one of Jesus’ Twelve disciples and a leader of the emerging Church. You certainly are going to ask Paul some hard questions. It’s going to take some convincing for you to welcome this terrorist into fellowship.

Point is, Peter’s acceptance of Paul and his gospel as authentic, given who Paul was known to be, has to be credibly explained – not just that Paul had an inexplicable, incommunicable experience or a “crisis of conscience,” but that Peter and James were convinced by Paul that his experience was an encounter of the same Jesus they followed. Somebody would have to give me a completely naturalistic explanation of Paul’s conversion that explains how Peter and others were convinced Paul had indeed experienced the risen Jesus they knew in order for me to have doubts about the resurrection.