AI, Why I am not Worried

Elon Musk has come out saying that he considers AI (Aritficial Intelligence) to be one of the biggest threats to humanity in our time.  And he is not alone in this thinking, movies like  I Robot or Terminator have popularized this perspective for some time.
To me, AI is not a worry; but I have greatly different philosophical assumptions than Elon.  Of the people who most praise, and most condemn AI; there is a common assumption of rationalist humanism and some remnants of logical positivism.  They both assume that everything worth knowing can be constructed by human logic, and there is no need (or place for) revelation or subjective feelings.  This philosophy was more prosperous in the 50s and 60s than today, and post-modernism has definitely deflated a lot of its (over inflated) optimism; but it is still a force.  I am not going to get into the history of philosophy, and how the Enlightenment and Post-enlightenment separated reason (physics) and meta-physics (Read Francis Schaeffer’s small book if you are interested), but it is enough to say here that we have inherited a thinking that reason can suffice to  give meaning, values and purpose (whether to protect humanity, or destroy it).
This is the whole philosophical field of epistemology (how we know things) and ontology.  To put it simply, I believe that knowledge is more than just a building up of systems from a few fundamental logical postulates, but all knowledge (both physics and meta-physics) is dependent on layer upon layer of ever broader (and more complex) contexts (which I believe ultimately end/begin in the mystery of God).  In the context of computers, Tim Berners-Lee saw this with his definition of the Semantic Web (sub-note: with the shift from XML to JSON, most computer programmers have given up on this vision as being too complex for ‘productive’ work).  Much of my thinking comes out of the ontology philosophy of Barry Smith and my database/ontology work.  I have worked with AI languages since my days at McDonnell Douglas (though not much as of recent), and as we said back then: For every amount of artificial intelligence there will be an equal amount of artificial stupidity.
The Mitre Corporation (under a DARPA contract) spent millions (if not billions) on an AI ontology with little results – it was just too complex and difficult.  Google cut and ran in the other direction (forget ontologies, just crunch numbers) and made a few dollars at search before hitting the wall of needing ontology (how do you TRUST the results?  How do you define ‘fake news’, let alone sort it out!).  What I see is that AI (in its current software incarnations) is incredible and amazing in what it can do, whether machine vision or playing Go; but it is all a number crunching algorithm, that is doing some form of categorization (asking “What”) within a constrained context,. In the future I expect to see a lot accomplished in medical diagnostics and other fields doing this.  But in all these accomplishments, the success comes by defining a constrained context (that can be categorized). As long as AI stays within a context (which may be rather broad) it will be productive. I think it stumbles when the questions are of the nature of “Why?”, and fail when it comes to meta-physics (“What does it mean?”).  Almost anyone post-Kant will deny that meta-physics has any logical foundation – and hence cannot be programmed.
The problem does not go away, but I believe that AI will be of little help here.  This is the problem Google is having to confront: the issue of a self-driving can needing to reason over how to decide between avoiding a head-on collision and hitting a pedestrian.   They may be able to program this decision into the car, but I don’t think they will be able to get the car to reach this decision on its own.
Because most of these people philosophically deny a rational meta-physics, yet assume that a rational ‘physics’ can produce meaning and value; they are open to the flip side of the coin, the dystopia where the computers reason that it is best to enslave (or annihilate) us for our own good (ie. I Robot).  I can see AI systems going amock and doing a lot of damage, but it will be programming ‘bugs’ (or deliberate programming) causing drones to categorize/target the wrong ‘enemy’ rather than a reasoned philosophical decision; but not as an autonomous, reasoned conclusion.
I am convinced that as we go ‘deeper’ into knowledge we are confronted more and more with contradictory ‘facts’ that must be mutually affirmed; whether this is the nature of light as wave and particle, or the nature of God as Trinity.  This goes beyond the realm of logic, and I think is why the church focuses on virtue and relationship as the path to knowledge, particularly when we move into meta-physics.  This was the debate between Barlaam and St. Gregory Palamas; is God known by rational contemplation or ascetical effort.  As much as I have enjoyed Data and the Doctor on Star Treck, I don’t think that a computer will ever come near human qualities of virtue and vice (though I can see people trying to give up their humanity and become more like computers).
AI within narrow domains has a lot of power; but the complexity of larger scopes will cripple it, and the philosophy of meta-physics will set its limits.  But it will be interesting to follow the developments and debates.

But, Religion has caused so many Wars …

My son recently raised this issue with me, so I thought I would take a bit of time to respond.  As long as this is going to be a rather long bit of writing, I thought I might as well create it as a post.

This criticism of religion, that it is the cause of so much war, has existed for some time; in particular coming out of the Enlightenment when Europe was tired of what seemed like a perpetual state of war between, and within, countries; in particular, with the 30 Year’s War.  During this war about 8 million people died, directly from fighting or in larger numbers from disease and famine; often with between a quarter and half of the population affected.  There was a general desire to find a better way, a thinking that people could be more ‘reasonable’.  If we would just put aside our arguments and debates about theological differences, we could see our common interests and similarities (and ‘CoExist’).

As appealing as this argument is, especially in modern times that seek a strong separation of Church and State; I see it as seriously flawed on many levels, both philosophically and as an ignorance of history.

The New Philosophy on the Block

By the close of the 17th Century, Europe and England were becoming exhausted by wars.  Ever since Luther posted his Ninety-Five Thesis on the doors of the Wittenberg Church in 1517, till the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Europe was torn by ‘religions’ conflict.

It was easy for the thinkers of the Enlightenment, who saw truth as coming from reason, without the need for God or revelation; to see reason as the ‘savior’ who would spare them from such future conflicts.  They could point at the recent history of war and say ‘religion’, then point at ‘reason’ and describe the glorious (peaceful) future.  Without any history behind their philosophy, the logic could not be contradicted.

While there may have been a historical need to back off of religious issues, and try a ‘secular’ approach; the Enlightenment was not the long term solution it promised to be.  It was the writings of Voltaire that quickly ‘justified’ the French Revolution, and (along with Marx) many revolutions after that.

War by the Numbers

Looking at statistics of war and human action, the claims of the Enlightenment don’t hold up, even if the statistics are slanted by percent of population or other means to account for the larger populations today, the facts don’t match the claims.  The ‘religions’ wars of the past pale in comparison to the human destruction in the name of ‘reasonable’ people; of which Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot are just a small portion of the total.  Saying religion starts wars puts religious people off guard, but the statistics don’t support reason over religion.

Ideological Conflicts

The problem is not that emotional religions has an inherent weakness that leads them toward evil (and reason does not), the problem is ideological differences of all stripes: disagreement leads to conflict.  The real question is whether an ideology justifies violence in support of one’s position in the face of conflict, and untangling all of the motives (religious and otherwise) behind such conflicts.

Religion Then and Now

When discussing religions issues, there is a need to understand the big difference between how we commonly think of religion today, and how it was understood in the past.  Today it is almost impossible to not be influenced by Kant and Hagel (18th century), and the modern philosophy that considers reason to govern the ‘real’ world (“physics”), with religion and god are relegated to ‘belief’ (“meta-physics”).  Because meta-physics have no rational basis, they are beyond reason and application to ‘ordinary’ life.  And without any meta-physics (absolutes), all is relative.

At the time of the Enlightenment, there was an understanding that reason could produce not only science (“physics”), but also meaning and value (“meta-physics”) – of which god and religion were a part.  There was still the belief and hope for a unified field of knowledge.  Truth and absolutes still existed.  Furthermore, religion was not separated from politics and daily life.  This lack of separation was both good and bad, as there was no separation between talking religion and talking politics.

We must remember that the Roman Church was (and still is) a political state, with the Pope as its head.  It owned lands and granted ‘authority’ to governments (ie. France and Spain in particular).  It was the Reformation that elevated the individual (whether individual person, or state) over the central authority of the Pope (and the Kings who ruled by divine right – granted by the Pope).  The Reformed countries (like Holland) were not just religious Protestants, but considered political rebels from the Pope (who Spain was defending).  That the merchant class was gaining wealth (and power) over the rulers added to the conflict, and in part determined the political/religious ideology one chose.   Rights of individuals and political Republics -vs- the rights of Popes and Kings were both political and religious issues.  One could not be separated from the other.

On a national level, the time of exploration meant that who discovered new lands (and trade routes) increased the wealth and power of one side or the other.  Thus individual interests in religious belief were not separated from ideas about trade, wealth and national rights.  While the Enlightenment liked to place all of the blame on religion, it cannot be separated from the struggle for wealth and power.  How confusing this can get can be seen by how minorities of Catholics and Protestants could be found on both sides of a conflict at the same time; wars were not fought along clear religious lines, solely for religious reasons.

Orthodoxy and Western Christianity – Just War Theory

To properly address this argument (that religion causes war), it is necessary to not only show that religion (and Christianity in particular) is statistically marginally better than non-religious philosophies, but to examine the theology/philosophy of war.  Not just whether people fight in the name of religion, but does the tradition of the religion support such positions.

If we look at Hitler or Stalin, they not only started wars; but the justified their actions (rightfully or wrongfully) based upon post-Enlightenment philosophical positions.  Hitler appealed to Nietzsche and his concept of the ‘Will to Power‘, and Stalin built his thinking from Marx, who saw revolution and war as necessary means to their ends.  For Marx and his followers, violence was not just allowed, but necessary and expected.

By degrees, the Catholics and Protestants of Europe were different, though both appealing back to Augustine (4th/5th century) and his ‘just war’ theory.  Augustine is living at a time when the Christianized Roman Empire (in the West) is collapsing under invaders.  He is pondering the question of whether is allowable for a Christian country to defend itself against attack, and whether and when war is justified.  He carefully works through a position, defending war under specific conditions.  This theological speculation was expanded and codified over time in the West, by both Catholics and Protestants.

By contrast, the Eastern Church has never had a just war theology.  War (particularly defensive war) may have been necessary, but it was not justified or glorified.  What we know as the Byzantine Empire spend most of its history at war, fending off barbarians, Persians and Islam; it was always seen as a necessary evil – the lesser of two wrongs.  The taking of life always damaged the soul, and thus was to be avoided.  This position can also be seen in the Russian Empire.

Another difference in the East is that Church and State are never merged.  There was always an uncomfortable tension over who had the final authority, but there was also some distinction between the interests of the Church and the interests of the State; thus allowing some distinction between the interests of the Church and the interests of the State.

Reasons against War

The  Byzantine Empire went to great lengths to avoid war, resorting to negotiation and even bribery.  War was expensive, both practically and spiritually.

War is destructive, both of lives and property.  It goes against the fundamental principal that we have a creative God. We are to be like God in creating beauty, not destroying it.  Going to war defensively was permitted to stop or minimize the greater destruction of an invader; but this was the lesser of two evils, not a good that could be justified.

The second reason follows on the first: humanity is made in the image of God.  To take a life is to destroy the image of God and thus shows a further disrespect for God.

The third reason is the Resurrection.  Whether in modern times, or in the past; violence and death has been considered the ultimate solution to opposition, the ultimate demonstration of control and power.  The crucifixions of Rome were a way of saying that they could defeat rebellion and their enemies.  We see this same mentality today in thinking that a few cruise missiles can eliminate our problems with terrorists.  The resurrection was a statement to Rome (and is the same statement today) that death has been defeated, it is no longer the final solution; and all powers have been put on notice; Ceaser is not the ultimate king.  On the surface, it may appear that the martyrdom of the saints removes them as a problem, but their death does not silence them.

Rational or Ascetical Problem?

Underlying all of the above is what I see as a more fundamental problem.  Whether it is the Enlightenment, or its Protestant and Catholic pre-cursers; there is an assumption that reason (possibly augmented by Scripture) will guide us through political and moral issues.  We can reason what is a ‘just’ or ‘right’ position.  This line of thinking is still predominant today.

I am persuaded that the problems of ‘Money, Sex and Power’, whether in the past or in the modern manifestations of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche fail to come to terms with the underlying problem of the passions.  Any time we pursue vices over virtues it will lead us down the path of conflict and war.  Our reason will be clouded and distorted to support our passions.  Instead of a ‘spiritual’ warfare where we attack our own passions and spiritual forces, we turn those passions on others; which when escalated leads to violence (by individuals, groups or nations).  Until we are in control of our passions, we will not reason correctly; but this is getting into a different topic.

Freedom and Determinism

For those who are trapped, wandering up and down the road of modern philosophy, there seem to be only two possible positions: the protesting demands of absolute freedom, or the resignation to determinism.  Whether genetic determinism (Watson and Crick), psychological determinism (B.F. Skinner) or mathematical determinism (Stephen Wolfram); rationalism logically leads one to conclude that there is no freedom or choice (other than to logically accept the position of determinism).  This is hardly even the Stoicism of the Greeks, where one is caught up in the determinism of the Fates, but is free to choose how one accepts one own’s fate.  The other position is the rejection of reason and an irrational insistence in absolute freedom, any restriction is an unacceptable oppression that must be eliminated (with violence if necessary).  This is Karl Marx’s hatred for God, because his very existence implies a limitation on us; and the post-modern insistence that we are free to define ourselves (sexually) any way we want.

While some strands of Christianity have gotten caught up in this rationalism (I am thinking of Calvinist determinism as a particular example), the Patristic traditions are more complicated; they seem to state positions (often quite contradictory) without trying to explain them.  This can be particularly evident in the prayers of the Church.  Some can sound down right Stoic:

Oh Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy Holy will.  At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things.  Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is sent down from Thee.  Grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it, direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive and to love. 

We see such contradictions in one of the Morning Prayers:

My most merciful and all-merciful God, O Lord Jesus Christ! In Thy great love, Thou didst come down and become flesh in order to save all. Again, I pray Thee, save me by Grace! If Thou shouldst save me because of my deeds, it would not be a gift, but merely a duty. Truly, Thou aboundest in graciousness and art inexpressibly merciful! Thou hast said, O my Christ: “He who believes in me shall live and never see death.” If faith in Thee saves the desperate, behold: I believe! Save me, for Thou art my God and my Maker. May my faith replace my deeds, O my God, for Thou wilt find no deeds to justify me. May my faith be sufficient for all. May it answer for me; may it justify me; may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory; and may Satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that He has torn me from Thy hand and fold. O Christ my Savior: save me whether I want it or not! Come quickly, hurry, for I perish! Thou art my God from my mother’s womb. Grant, O Lord, that I may now love Thee as once I loved sin, and that I may labor for Thee without laziness as once I labored for Satan the deceiver. Even more, I will labor for Thee, my Lord and God Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

This can sound almost Freudian, with multiple personalities.  That these are prayers implies that they are requests of a free will (“save me”), yet the freedom is asking God to deterministically do something (“save me, whether I want it or not!”).

Behind this is the bizarre idea that we are not presently free (we are not totally rational free agents), but that we are enslaved to sin; and the only way to freedom is through radical obedience to God’s will; or as practically expressed in the monastic tradition, through radical obedience to a spiritual elder.  A radical denial that is freely chosen as an affirmation to develop the freedom of one’s will.

There is no explanation here, it is mystery that can only be answered through worship.

The Field and the Road


I am becoming convinced that the paradigms of our moral philosophy have a fundamental flaw.  Traditional morality tended to be binary – something is either right or wrong, good or bad.  Modern morality denies categories of right and wrong.  In some ways this is an outworking of traditional philosophy (Plato and Aristotle), and the struggle between ‘universals’ and ‘particulars’.  Plato points up with one finger to the universals, and Aristotle’s fingers reach out to the individual particulars.  Are there rules and categories that hold for everyone, or are there only the particulars of the individual?  Do we have categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’, or is everyone free to define whatever gender they choose?

In Western tradition, the concept of categories use to be the general norm, there were some nuances and grey areas; but generally people walked the ‘narrow way’ of virtue and knew ‘right from wrong’.  Moral issues have always been debated (can war be justified?), and moral norms have always been broken (theft, murder, adultery, …), but the belief that there were moral categories endured; at least up till modern times.

Today we seem to be caught in a strange blend; rationally wanting to follow Kant and Hagel, giving up on universals and seeing only the existence of particulars, the only truth is the truth that I perceive at this moment (ie gender identity).  This is irrationally thrown together with an absolute belief in an undefined  ‘social justice’ that is intolerant of any opposition (while demanding ‘tolerance’ of diversity!).

Such a state did not come about from nothing, but rather is a reflection of a long philosophical history.  I find this history best captured by two people:  Franz Brentano (as translated and explained by Barry Smith), and Francis Schaeffer (in Escape from Reason).    Brentano sees the history of philosophy as going through a series of cycles, starting with Aristotilain realism, having a growth of development, then declining into skepticism and finally mysticism.  I agree with him, but would go further and say that rather than a repeating cycle it is a spiral, that ever tightens and becomes more restrictive.  Schaeffer sees the history of philosophy as a series of struggles between Plato’s universals and Aristotle’s particulars, with the progressive death of grace, nature, freedom and rationality.  Philosophy, up until Kant and Hagel, sought a unified knowledge that would logically unite ethics and science.  Kant and Hagel brought about the ‘death of philosophy’ by separating mathematics and logic from meaning and values.  You could measure and define mathematics, chemistry and physics; but there could be no discussion of their meaning or value.  Meaning and value were a personal, subjective faith; hence, outside rational discussion.  I can have exhaustive statistics on arrests, deaths and other social and psychological events; but while screaming for ‘social justice’ and stopping ‘hate’, without definitions there is little or no agreed upon, articulated policy of how to change it  (other than a Utopian faith in revolution).  Our moral collapse is merely a reflection of a larger philosophical collapse.

When Kant and Hagel created ‘modern’ philosophy when they separated reason and faith (physics from meta-physics), they did not set out to destroy philosophy, but thought they could save it with a new dialectical approach.  They were willing to sacrifice a ‘unified field of knowledge’ in order to preserve human autonomous reason.  We are now facing the unintended consequences of this choice.

Before ‘modern’ times, philosophers would argue where the ‘stake in the ground’ should be driven.  They would disagree, pull up the stake,  and move it to different places in the field where they thought it belonged.  There was debate, and continual moving of the stake, but agreement that the stake should be somewhere within the field (although its exact boundaries were not defined).  This created an environment in which rational debate over values could exist, and a broad (though fuzzy) agreement over what the field (domain) of discussion covered.

With modern thinking, there is no stake or field.  Everyone has their own stake, and they march from ‘now’ to the future, down the road and over the horizon to the (assumed to exist) place where they think the stake belongs.  There is absolute, existential, certainty that the stake belongs there; and nothing can be allowed to get in the way of the ‘progress’ to get there.  The universals and particulars have not gone, but manifest themselves in the rhetoric of the ‘left’ turning down the road of socialist collective (universal), or turning to the ‘right’ for individual (particular) freedom and autonomy.  Plato and Aristotle are no longer walking about talking with each other; but are marching in opposite directions, with no means of dialogue.  Both the Democrats and Republicans (in the United States) have departed the field of discussion and compromise, to head down their respective roads, and confront (with stake wielding violence if necessary) anyone who stands in their way.  This is where we end up in logical positions that are absurd: age (or gender) is an individual state of mind, therefor if I am chronologically 16 years old, but perceive myself as 21, I should legally be allow to have a drink in a bar. It is my perception and my choice, who are you to call me wrong (you ageist bigot!)?.

I envision a needed return to the field, but not to the way it was.  Everyone looses their stakes, as there is not one (unknown) correct place to stand that is logically or individually determined. The stakes are placed as a safety perimeter bounding the field.  Anywhere within the field is a legitimate place to stand and talk, though people may want to shift locations due to changes in time and weather.

Traditional Christian thinking was reasonable, but not rationalistic.  While Aristotle insisted on the law of non-contradiction (A != -A), Christian thinking started and ended in mystery – the unknowable.  God is one God, but exists as three persons.  Christ is incarnate, he is both fully God and fully man.  These understandings became the stakes that defined the perimeter of the field.  One person could emphasize the unity of God, as long as they did not deny the three persons; another could emphasize the difference of the persons, as long as they acknowledged the unity of essence; and any place in between is also acceptable.  The Church councils identified already existing boundaries (what was the nature of God), and carefully placed stakes at these locations; the stakes did not make the boundaries, but visibly marked them for all to see.  The heresies of Arianism and Modalism were truths taken to a logical extreme, wanderings down a road beyond the boundaries the stakes identified.

This is where conversations about ethics and politics will be strolls around the field; an agreement on where the stakes are, but difficult discussions about where one should stand at any given moment.  The stake on one side says to be a generous giver, without asking whether the recipient is worthy; the stake on the other side says that if a person does not work they should not eat.  How do we stand between charity and responsibility in any given situation?  We need economic sufficiency and ecological responsibility; how do we decide whether to cut a forest or protect the trees?  The church is hierarchical (with God at the head) and conciliar (with every person in the image of God); how do we avoid dictators or mob rule?  These issues have no single answer, and different positions have been, and may be, necessary under different conditions.  Determining the position of the moment requires thought and discussion, as well as compromise.  The only wrong answer is when one sets a path down the road and strays outside of the staked boundaries.




White Privilege

I have debated with myself on whether I should write this post, since an article in the Huffington Post  got me thinking more seriously about the issue.  Some might say I am incapable of writing on the subject (since I am a white male), but I don’t believe the ‘ad hominid’ fallacy that my genetics prevent me from being logical.

This is a difficult issue, because it embodies a lot of emotion and experience in addition to a long philosophical history.   Anyone who denies the pain and suffering based upon racial and gender differences has to have a very narrow experience of life.  I do not want to minimize the real pain, both individual and social, but I would like to try and separate the reality of the pain from what is presented as the ‘obvious’ cause and solution.

The woman in the article sites a number of personal experiences when she felt singled out and abused for her race and gender.  For some there were clear connections (racial slurs), but not in all cases.  Not having been there, it is hard to deny her conclusions, but I begin to get uncomfortable when she starts ascribing almost all of her interpersonal hurts to ‘white privilege’.

I don’t want to start a debate of ‘my hurts are worse than yours’, but what do I ascribe my hurts from bullying in high school to (or am I not allowed to claim ‘discrimination’)?  Before I started high school, my parents moved to a small southern Indiana town.  One day, a teaches was visiting our house and said, “You are not from around here, are you?”  When asked why they said this, the response was, “You have too many books.”  I felt an outside minority much of the time, and there were days when walking down the school hall someone would randomly punch me in the back, or throw things at me.

My point is not to deny racial and gender problems, but that the problem is bigger (but not less).  Differences threaten people, whether the differences are racial, nationalistic, gender, economic or culture.  There is a fear of the different, that turns to hatred; and while it starts out between large groups, it eventually divides individuals and can even internally tear a person apart.  I don’t think that the philosophical solutions that are going around in recent times are willing to grasp this complexity; it is not just ‘my group’ that has a problem, but it is universal.

One of the problems I have with ‘white privilege’ is that I see it as the most current manifest of a long philosophical history of trying to identify the root of evil.  Ever since the Enlightenment, when the traditional Christian doctrine of ‘the Fall’ was rejected in favor of wanting to affirm the goodness of all humanity, there has been an effort to identify a new cause of evil.  Rosseau wanted to blame civilization for our ills, the ‘noble savage’ was his ideal of a person free, wise and good in a state of nature.  Freud ascribed our problem to sexual repression, and Marx blamed economic differences between the bourgeois and proletariat classes.  Modern leftist view hold that our problems (inner city or international) are the result of poor education and economic opportunity.  With ‘white privilege, it is now DNA that is the popular deterministic cause.

Whatever is pointed to as the potential cause (economics or white privilege), there is a common pattern:

  • The person or group suffering is a victim, who is not responsible and limited in being able to bring about change.
  • Someone, or something, else is to blame.  The problem is in the system or someone else.
  • The solution is to remove any privilege or advantage, bringing everyone to the same common level (usually the lowest common denominator).
  • It requires government force, or group violence to change (or eliminate) the problem.

While the logic may be new, the attitude is embodied in old humor.  It reminds me of the old Russian joke about a poor peasant who’s only cow has died, and he sits in despair staring at his neighbor’s cow.  His guardian angel feels sorry for him, and asks God what can be done for him.  God tells the angel that he can grant the peasant one wish.  The angel goes to the peasant and asks him what he wants, “Do you want a new cow, do you want a horse?”  The peasant looks at the angel and says, “No, I want you to kill my neighbor’s cow.”

While economics and opportunity are contributing factors, I think that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn more correctly understood the fundamental problem when he said

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956


Atonement: Wright and Florovsky

I had thought that NT Wright’s views on atonement were moving toward traditional Orthodox thinking (see my previous post on Wright’s book), but I was never sure I had found a full Orthodox exposition on the subject until a dear friend (and better theologian) pointed me toward the review of Fr George Florovsky titled On the Tree of the Cross.

Some Orthodox want to make an absolute opposition between Western and Eastern theology, seeing one as legal and the other as organic; is the problem sin or is the problem death?  There are priests I have met who will deny that Orthodox believe in atonement (of almost any form, let alone Anselm’s substitutionary atonement).  I have fought this either/or thinking, and tried to see it as a both/and position, with different emphasis.

This collection of essays is causing me to rethink my position.  I have been Orthodox for over 30 years, but it seems I still do not have ‘the mind of the Church’.  This book is an affirmation of my both/and thinking, though it pushes the affirmation of all sides stronger than I have.  What I find challenging is how the theology is done; the starting point is neither scripture nor systematic theology, but liturgy.

While the Church Fathers are frequently cited in the articles, there is an acknowledgement that different ones have different emphasis (and omissions).  The ‘mind of the Church’ cannot be found in one Father or another because there is a diversity of thinking, and it is too easy to selectively pick through them to justify one’s own position.  It is liturgy that has a slower development in which the faith and practice (lex orandi lex credendi) comes together.  It is here that atonement is not addressed (only) in Pauline theology but more in priestly actions and the words of Hebrews.

While I appreciate the careful scriptural work of Wright (and many Orthodox could use more of it), it is this liturgical theology that always takes my breath away.  The final result of theology is not admiration of my thinking, but worship; worship of the redeeming and atoning God.  The other beauty of liturgical theology is that while systematic theology wants to rationally divide and categorize (did the ransom get paid to Satan or to the Father?), liturgical theology is more poetic, allowing ideas to be jumbled together and thrown against each other, and left in a confusion of mystery.  Jesus was a baited hook that deceived the fish of Death (ie. allusions to Jonah), and after being swallowed makes Death vomit up all those who had been held captive until then.

Maybe a better scholar could find some differences between Wright and this book on Florovsky, but I found them very complimentary: scriptural exegesis in light of first century Judaism combined with patristic writings and liturgy, a wonderful combination; Glory be to God.

Freedom of Religion

Are you for it, or against it?

As an Orthodox Christian, I am for religious tolerance.  When ,William Seward talked the United States government into buying Alaska from Russian in 1867, the Civil War had recently ended and people were looking to Westward expansion – and concerned about Indian uprisings that would interfere with ‘progress’.  To most people, the Alaskans were another native American threat that needed to be managed via the ‘Pennsylvania Plan’: removing native children from their families and villages, put them in Protestant boarding schools which forbid them to use their native language and practice their customs.  What they didn’t realize was that due to Russian Orthodox missionaries, Alaska was more literate than the ‘lower 48’ at that time, with some natives captaining and navigating ships that circumnavigated the globe multiple times.  Unfortunately, their appeals to Congress to protect their religious freedoms were ignored, with disastrous results that impact the people to this day.  (for a history of this time, see Fr. Michael Oleska’s Alaskan Missionary Spirituality).

With this past as a part of my ‘faith tradition’, I am still not sure I agree with the modern understanding of religious freedom.

The Bill of Rights defines religion as one of the ‘inalienable rights’, something that cannot be taken away because it is not something given to us by the government; it is a part of ‘how things are’ as given to us by the Creator (which is not defined).  Like much of the founding of the government, this was a compromise that leaves many (if not most) less than fully satisfied.  This was also a position of the federal government; not state government, for many of the states individually supported specific religions. Massachusetts financially supported local Congregational churches as late as 1830. It was Virginia that lead the way in tolerance, under the influence of European Rationalists and Protestant values, with support from minority groups like the Baptists (who theologically separate church and state).  This policy gradually became the norm for most states.

There was however, never a complete open toleration of all religions and religious practices.  Human and animal sacrifices are not permitted, as well as polygamy and child brides.  At times various native american practices have been outlawed (Ghost Dance and peyote).  In the last 150 years, many practices that were forbidden are now legal.

Modern thinking about religion is vastly different from the time of the Bill of Rights, and the modern Structuralist (Rationalist) approach, and post-modernism, while affirming religion, significantly redefine it, and ultimately destroy it.

Ever since Kant and Hagel, meaning and values have been pushed into an ‘upper story‘ where all meta-physical, meaning and value are considered to be non-rational. As Nietzsche put it “God is Dead”, so god is no longer a source for meaning or values.  This is the undisputed belief of modern thinking (both Structuralists and post-modernism).  Religion has changed from doctrines, practices and beliefs to a personal, internal spirituality (see Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion for a good discussion on the changes to the definitions of science and religion).  For modern Rationalists (Structuralists) the concept of religion is something to be disposed of as meaningless (sort of like Unicorns).  Post-modernists are willing to affirm religion, as long as we obey the bumper sticker and “Coexist”, but affirm it as long as we are willing to let them deconstruct any particular religion and let them redefine so that any ‘teeth’ of value and meaning have been pulled.  By definition, religion has nothing to say regarding practical issues such as abortion, marriage or sexual practices.

Since god is dead, religious freedom (along with any other rights) are no longer something inalienable, as there are no metaphysics and values ‘out there’.  Governments that follow this modern thinking may make laws affirming rights (such as abortion and gender identity), but at the expense of defining them as something the state grants, and hence can also take away.

The problem I face as a minority philosophy in this country (ie Patristic Orthodox Christianity) is how to affirm tolerance, yet also see the need for limits.  Any talk of sacramentality (ie: God working through and being reflected in the creation) sounds to many people an lunacy.  I want tolerance, as I want the freedom to express and live out my values (even as I mournfully watch others exercise their ‘freedom’ to destroy themselves by disregarding those values).  In some ways, I am not too concerned about the future of Christianity, as it started under Roman rule; which was no friend to anyone challenging Ceaser’s authority and divinity.  I don’t think it is likely that human sacrifice will be re-introduced soon (unless one puts abortion in that category); however, my real fear is what will happen to this ‘tolerant’ country when it encounters pre-Kantian thinking that is not tolerant – in particular I am thinking of certain threads of Muslim theology.

I need to be careful here as Muslim theology is somewhat diverse and varied.  Accusing all Muslims of terrorism is similar to blaming a Baptist or Quaker for the Crusades.    Yes, there are devout, peaceful Muslims; but don’t confuse Sufi with Wahhabi (the latter being a particular focus of concern).  Saudi Arabia is quite willing to use western tolerance to fund mosques wherever they can, but it is not a reciprocal policy that is open for the West to build churches in their country.  They will take advantage of our tolerance, but are less free to give it back (ie, to ‘Coexist’).  Orthodox Christians have a long and complex history with Muslims.  Mohammed was given protection by St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, and in return he gave them a document of protection.  Yet there are innumerable saints who were martyred under the Ottoman Empire and are still martyred to this day in many places.  It is a complex issue that requires more than a blog to resolve.

I want freedoms and tolerance, but I also see the legitimate need for limits.  We need boundaries to protect us from each other.  The problem I face is that such conversations (of having limited freedoms) has no coinage in modern thinking.