Book Review: Poor Richard’s Retirement

Aaron Clarey, Poor Richard’s Retirement: Retirement for Everyday Americans

Aaron Clarey is a consultant and independent economist who writes books that are meant to help young men and women make wiser financial choices. His approach is no nonsense, gruff, and often cynical. But despite seeming like a complete jerk, his advice which is free on his blog or youtube channel clearly comes from a big heart (for sensitive users or those who may listen w/children around, he does curse a lot). This is evident when he, for instance, criticizes parents who don’t spend a great deal of time with their children (this is a common thread in his books and podcasts and I only listen to them a couple of times a year).

I disagree with a great deal of his material, but it’s because he’s not religious and I’m a Christian. But his grasp of markets, how they work, and what personal steps are necessary for success are second to none.

That being said, if you’re a millennial, especially one who graduated college between 2007-2010, you’ve probably wondered how in the heck you could ever retire. If so, Clarey’s book has everything you need. It contains a helpful explanation of steps one can take in order to get ready for retirement, but does something a great many similar books don’t do. He reframes what it means to live a life of meaning with a personal sense of significance. The book amounts to a sort of secular explanation of Jesus’ saying that we should “…take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

I think the argument he makes, though it veers toward cynicism is worth reading in full because of its rhetorical effect. So I won’t explain it.

The practical tips he gives are excellent. His solution to the problem of retirement is ultimately satisfying (more on that below). And he does run some of the numbers comparing costs in previous generations of those of ye olde current year in a way that is helpful and potentially guilt inducing.

Worthwhile quotes:

  1. Understand this and understand this clearly. Most two-income families are: Outsourcing the upbringing of their own children To complete strangers Passing up on seeing their children grow up So BOTH parents can work jobs they don’t like While suffering commutes that keep them from their families AND stressing themselves out in the process. (47)
  2. We engage in the rat race, pursuing pointless educations, for taxing careers, life-wasting commutes, just to buy stuff, pointless material things, while abandoning anything and anybody that really matters in life.  It’s the cause of the majority of divorces in the country, the majority of unvisited parents in nursing homes, and is ultimately responsible for all the country’s financial problems.  And to throw the burden of saving for retirement on top of Americans’ inability to just keep it together, only makes an already-miserable situation impossible to bear. (48-49)
  3. It is a full – time job to go and seek out new and interesting people who are going to make your life worth living. (134)

Conclusion

Ultimately, Clarey’s essay on retirement is an admirable little book in that it accomplishes three things:

  1. Instructs you not to retire.
  2. Tells you how to retire.
  3. Subverts the present day value system.

With respect to number three, I’ll wax philosophical. One of the reasons that a capitalist style economy can work is if Adam Smith’s moral sentiments are assumed. Capitalism helps provide a wide degree of freedom to people who pursue a sort of Aristotelian/Christian/Stoic vision of the good life wherein virtue is paramount, social trust is assumed, and while the particulars of an individual’s pursuit of wealth and greatness may vary, they typically revolve around family, invention, adventure, and philanthropy. Such a system of values simply is not broadly assumed in Western Civilization, and so capital itself is perceived as the highest and total good for man.

Clarey, an irreligious capitalist, sees this problem as a source of poverty and unhappiness and attempts to solve it by reorienting the value system of his audience. For this the book is worth ten times the price. Buy it for graduating seniors, read it if you’re in college, use it to get out of debt. It’s a good book.

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practices and Positive Psychology by Christopher Kaczor

Introduction

I found out about this book from twitter, when James K.A. Smith mentioned anticipating it’s release. I had never heard of the author before, but he’s an ethics professor with his PhD from Notre Dame.

The aim of the book is stated on page 18:

In this book, I highlight the many ways in which positive psychology and Christian practice overlap. I point out empirical findings in positive psychology that point to the wisdom of many Christian practices and teachings. I also provide practical suggestions on how to become happier in everyday life and how to deepen Christian practice based on contemporary psychological insights. All of this points us toward deeper fulfillment in this life, and in the life to come. This is why I titled this book The Gospel of Happiness – because this is good news, very good news indeed (18).

The argument is fairly obvious from chapter to chapter. The chapter titles are:

  1. The Ways to Happiness
  2. The Way of Faith, Hope, and Love
  3. The Way of Prayer
  4. The Way of Gratitude
  5. The Way of Forgiveness
  6. The Way of Virtue
  7. The Way of Willpower

Dr. Kaczor looks at the relevant psychological research concerning each topic as well the Biblical and historical teachings of Christianity and shows their coherence and overlap. After he makes these comparisons he makes recommendations for personal practice.

The Bad
I really found very little objectionable in the book. Perhaps a more New Testament studies oriented definition of the word gospel would have been nice. The gospel is not merely, “good news” because it makes us happy. It is good news because it is an announcement about God’s kingdom. But this weakness is forgivable because the author isn’t a New Testament scholar. Also, it makes very little practical difference to the content of the rest of the book.

There are two formatting issues though: the book uses endnotes which are as annoying as having socks full of fire ants. Also, there is no index. An index would have been wonderful.

The Good
Where shall I begin? For starters, the book takes on Nietzsche’s notion that Christianity makes people weak, miserable, and stupid (183). Many Christians feel guilty about pursuing happiness, power, or success and I think that this comes from adopting a Nietzschean understanding of Christian ethics instead of Biblical one.

Another wonderful aspect of the book is the content of the endnotes. The amount of helpful literature cited is a great library builder.

More importantly though is the content of the book. As stated above the author means to show how positive psychology and Christian teaching over lap and offer practical advice for improving happiness. I’ll summarize the first chapter to show how the author does this so that you can see that he performs his objective admirably:

The Ways to Happiness
In this chapter, Kazcor uses Martin Seligman’s PERMA definition of happiness and shows how Christian teaching and practice, at its best, fulfills the requirements of each piece of the puzzle (21). It is important to recognize that Kaczor and Seligman define happiness as flourishing and well-being, not merely as positive emotion (as you’ll see). PERMA stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement (21). Here are summaries of Kaczor’s explanation of each.

  1. Positive Emotions
    Kaczor cites several lines of research that indicate that religious people generally have higher positive emotion than irreligious people (22-23). He does observe that Christians are “called to love God and neighbor regardless how they may be feeling at the moment” (24). He also observes that doing the right thing while experiencing negative emotions is harder. I would add that Kant would say that makes it even more moral. Essentially, Kazcor notes that since we know the our emotions impact others and how we make decisions, we are obligated to care about fostering positive emotions in ourselves in ways that are not contrary to the Christian life. In doing this, we are able to foster well-being and emotional happiness in others (26). What I wish he did observe here was that doing the right thing for our neighbor can lead to positive emotions (he does say this on pages 66-67).
  2. Engagement
    Engagement is our flow or activation of our strengths in order to accomplish some task. Kaczor reminds readers that in Genesis, man was made to “tend the garden.” With this in mind, he notes the importance of legitimate work as a way of experiencing unity with God (29). I’ve written about this  myself.
  3. Relationships
    Seligman’s taxonomy of happiness includes relationships as a “rock-bottom fundamental of human well-being” (30). Kaczor here writes about the obvious place of human relationships in the teachings of Jesus. His main focus here is Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:24). I would have added the importance of embedded personality in ancient thought is simply assumed in the Bible, so much so that while individuals are responsible for their actions, their identity is not merely related to achievements like in Proverbs, but it is linked integrally to their community associations (in Christ, the body of Christ, the church of God, etc).
  4. Meaning
    Kazcor notes that Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is better than the self” (32). Kaczor points to the subjective experience of Christian obedience in small things as a level of meaning added to people who aren’t famous for their contributions to the world (33). He also notes the objective question of whether or not anything actually has meaning and notes that Christianity claims to offer objective meaning to the life of the Christian and to explain the objective meaning of the cosmos and human existence in general. If Christianity is true, then meaning is provided for like Paul says, “your work in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
  5. Achievement
    Here Kaczor notes the importance of feeling successful for human happiness, but also notes the traps that Christian morality trains us to avoid: greed, vanity, and social comparison which are all things that positive psychology notes do not actually contribute to overall happiness (40). In my opinion, many Christians are so concerned to talk about God’s grace saving us from sin despite our failure to do good works that they fail to talk about the importance of tackling small and big tasks for God, neighbor, and self in order to be happy. But the Bible does say that with toil there is profit and with mere talk there is only poverty. Paul also approves of a certain measure of pleasure in spiritual growth (Gal 6:4).

Conclusion
Over all I find the book to be a wonderful clarification of the position of Christian theology and the Biblical witness on happiness, but it is not merely that. It also functions as a defense of Christianity because it shows that Christianity is actually good for you. Finally, the book is a great book for devotional reading or for pastors to read in order to help Christians in their pursuit of Christ and of earthly and eternal happiness. I highly recommend it.

Jesus Christ and Mythology by Rudolf Bultmann: A Review

Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology New York, NY: Scribners, 1958

Introduction

Bultmann really needs no introduction. If you do not know much about him there are numerous articles available online. The main purpose here is simply to review this particular book which is a collection of Lectures he gave at Yale and Vanderbilt in 1951. The topic of the book is Bultmann’s radical method of New Testament interpretation: de-mythologizing. I’ve never heard anybody explain what Bultmann meant by this term on Bultmann’s terms. According to this little volume, de-mythologizing is the interpretation of the Bible’s mythological statements (statements which presuppose an ancient and, to the modern man, unbelievable worldview) in a way that makes them immediately relevant to the contemporary person. An example would be, “The understanding of God as creator is genuine only when I understand myself here and now as the creature of God. This existential understanding does not need to express itself in my consciousness as explicit knowledge. In any case the belief in the almighty God is not the conviction given in advance that there exists an almighty Being who is able to do all things. Belief in the almighty God is genuine only when it takes place in my very existence, as I surrender myself to the power of God who overwhelms me here and now” (Bultmann, 63). The rhetorical and theological purpose for Bultmann utilizing this interpretive method is that, “We can believe in God only in spite of experience, just as we can accept justification only in spite of conscience…de-mythologizing is the radical application of the doctrine of justification by faith to the sphere of knowledge and thought” (84). In other words, he feels that we cannot expect people to accept the statements of the Bible as true, conceptually, for that would be works, not faith.

The Good

The book helps you to understand exactly what everybody in your conservative seminary classes is talking about with regard to Bultmann’s methods. The book seems to falsify certain prejudices against Bultmann’s work that are often held by people who have not read it. In this respect it could be useful. As an aside, people I know who were actually connected to the man found him to have a warm piety and one friend noted that he really wanted to visit a church in America and witness an evangelistic service. But apart from that aspect of reading the man himself, the book had pleasant moments:

  1. Bultmann insisted that we see God’s Word as consistently demanding response. If the Bible reader is only focused upon finding the historical meaning, then there is no possibility for response. As Bultmann notes, “It is beyond the competence of critical study that I should hear the word of the Bible as a word addressed personally to me and that I should believe in it. This personal understanding…is imparted by the Holy Spirit, who is not at my disposal” (54). I don’t find myself entirely in agreement with this because historically speaking people who have studied the Scripture critically have precisely come to repentance about various issues. Now, of course the Holy Spirit makes that possible and of course that repentance is not the results of the critical study for reportage in journals and text books, but that close study makes the meaning which God inspired in the Scripture available to the student and through preaching, discussion, and writing available to the church in the form of knowledge about the text. Bultmann, though making a good point about a necessary distinction has over-corrected. Nevertheless, the Scripture, if one is claiming to be a Christian, must be seen as demanding a response of faith.

  2. The importance of presuppositions to exegesis is repeated often, especially on pages 47-50. But the point is that the questions we ask and the worldview we hold will often tend to influence the answers we get. This is also true if we expect the text to teach this or that dogma, such a presupposition ends up using the conclusion as a first premise.

  3. Bultmann, though never defining the cognitive or moral content of faith, nevertheless gives a good description of its character, “Faith is the abandonment of man’s own security and the readiness to find security only in the unseen beyond, in God” (40). This notion of faith, though it does not take into account the aspect of loyalty, does capture the nature of trust or entrusting oneself to another that is so crucial to the New Testament usage in most places, especially the gospels, Romans, and Galatians.

  4. Bultmann sides against Barth’s notion that there is no natural knowledge of God, “Man does have in advance a relation to God which has found its classical expression in the words of Augustine, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee” (52).

  5. Bultmann cares about whether or not the non-philosopher or non-historian who is thoroughly enmeshed in a modern worldview and finds miracles unbelievable can still believe the gospel. I think he’s wrong-headed in his solution, but he clearly cares about people having an experience of justifying faith in Christ (35-44). The problem with his approach is that it might be difficult for a believer who struggles to think miracles are possible to do things like pray.

  6. Finally, Bultmann has a mystic’s eye for practicing God’s presence in the otherwise closed causal system of the modern world. His interpretation of Scripture, in this respect, is very similar to the allegorical method of old. Scripture is not just a series of dusty fables, no matter how dated certain passages seem, but it is the book through which God speaks to the church. Thus, the word heaven becomes a way of seeing God as transcendent of our world and circumstances (20). Any passage of Scripture is a call to love others in daily experience (43-44). God’s action is something that can be trusted even when we are in circumstances that clearly seem to betray our belief in God (64). It’s good stuff.

  7. Bultmann does note that he believes that the preaching of the church is true and rooted in an historical (and true) event. This event: Jesus Christ. Which for Bultmann is a summary for the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and present reign of Christ (80).

  8. It’s also very short. I read it this afternoon.

The Bad

  1. Bultmann bases a great deal of his book on a now dated conception of Jesus’ eschatology (11-19) [Dated doesn’t mean wrong, though I do disagree with his point of view, but those looking for something academically advanced won’t find it].

  2. He leaves, largely, the content of Christian obedience (enemy love, fidelity to other Christians, care for the poor, etc) and the Christian gospel (resurrection, atonement, etc) out of his explanations. That may be because the audience would know those things, but it would be easy to mistake Bultmann’s theory of faith with existentialist “openness to existence” without concrete referents in Christianity.

  3. Bultmann is similarly open to charge number two because he wants to say that God’s actions in history cannot be historically known because they cannot be proven to be done by God. But they can be reasonably believed to have happened and thus reasonably believed to be done by God, if one thinks God to be real. The point being that he opened himself to the criticism that he taught that Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t matter because he makes it seem so unknowable. But he doesn’t leave it entirely unknowable. He essentially says, “Try it out” about the truth of the gospel. Which is pretty cool, I guess.

  4. The book is couched in existentialist language that would be mostly lost on readers today.

  5. Bultmann’s perspective is so truncated in these brief lectures that it is too easy to misunderstand.

  6. The average American is more of a supernaturalist than anybody in Germany would have been in Bultmann’s day, so the book is not entirely relevant to many preachers that I know.

Conclusion

The book would only really have value to pastors and teachers who read quickly or to scholars whose job is to study not only the New Testament but the history of its interpretation. A clever seminary professor could apply its best ideas in course lectures with footnotes to give Bultmann his due without requiring this particular book as a text.

Eric Johnson’s Proposal for Christian Reading

 

Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal[1]

Below is a summary of Johnson’s rules for Christian reading. It’s a useful part of his book. Because these are my own words, anything poorly stated is my own fault, not Johnson’s.

  1. The goal of Christian reading, even leisure reading, is conformity to Christ. Therefore what and how we read matter.
  2. The Holy Spirit is the Christian reading light. This metaphor indicates that while reading, the Christian is cooperating with the Holy Spirit in coming to have self-knowledge, knowledge about what is being read, knowledge about the author, knowledge about the world, and knowledge about God.
  3. New Christians should ask wise guides for help in reading, both what to read, and how to understand it.
  4. There is a natural hierarchy in the texts we read:
    1. The canon of Scripture.
    2. Classic texts of the Christian traditions.
    3. Other quality texts (I would add, classical texts of one’s national, ethnic, or intellectual tradition).
    4. Inferior texts that aren’t worth reading.
    5. Bad texts which draw the readers from what is true, good, or beautiful.
    6. Banned texts, some texts are simply justifiably censured and censored.
  5. Non-Canonical texts need to be read with trust and suspicion.
  6. Reading non-Christian texts wisely increases wisdom and is therefore worthwhile.

References

[1] Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (InterVarsity Press, 2007), 222-226.

Simplify: a review

Back in 2008, I saw a review for Simplify by Paul Borthwick over at Internet Monk, back before Mike Spencer died. I bought the book immediately. I found that despite its price tag ($16.99), it contained a wealth of valuable information. It’s exactly what it says it will be. A book about the practical side of simplifying your life, especially with respect to finances and time. I read it as soon as I purchased it and starting applying its principles. My wife then read it (I lent it to her before we were even dating). And it has helped us to live rather simply. It’s principles are worth revisiting periodically. I was reorganizing my library (it must be done often because I always pull volumes off the shelf and lazily put them wherever I can reach), and saw it and reread it.

 

Simplify: 106 Ways to Uncomplicate Your Life

The downside to the book is that everything in it is available free in thousands of online articles or sites like Wiki-How. But the upside is that all the useful information is available in one volume in a format which could easily be used for family reading time, church study groups, or accountability/holiness meetings with other Christians.

One of the funniest things about the book is that the author suggests it may not be useful on the back. As a sincere question, it’s a helpful reflection. As a sales pitch, it’s genius.

Anyway, the book offers helpful advice for saving money, uncomplicating your life, and managing your time. I highly recommend that you read it with your spouse, read it before you get married, or read it as a sort of guide to subtle but helpful pathways out of bad habits.

4/5, highly recommend unless you’re willing to look this stuff up online.

Review: Baby’s Very First Library


Got this for my daughter. Don’t be fooled. It’s not a book. It’s a series of books starting with Baby’s Very First Bedtime. 

The adventure starts at night with the moon. This is fitting as reality seems like a dream. Am I awake, sleeping, in between? These experiences of the transcendent and the transitory are fundamental to being human! The story also includes toothbrushes, a trip to the stars for future scientists, self-referential breaking of the forth wall, and finally the exhausted protagonist going to sleep.

The next book is about mealtime, as though the young dreamer escaped from the prison of reality into a dreamscape of delicacies and delights. From this book a child not only learns implicit information about the life-cycle of many creatures starting with an egg and growing from there, but encoded in the story is a deep reflection on etiquette and nutrition. For instance, the only food that is shown eaten is a cookie, but only one bite is taken, indicating that the other foods, untouched (unbitten) by processing are a healthier choice. The bowl appears before the spoon. Portion, serve, then eat. Indeed! And endless abyss of learning and leisure awaits!

The third book, “Baby’s Very First Animals Book” opens with a bang. It juxtaposes nature’s sweetest animal (the lamb) with its most violent (the penguin…seriously look up penguin gang behavior…or spare yourself and don’t). Next it shows the mouse and the cat, rabbit and lion, monkey and chicken, duck and dog. Each showing the Jungian dualities within each of us, our ego must choose between persona and shadow…whom do we choose to be? In this book you find Nietzsche and The Iron Giant rolled into one mega epic.

For the finale: Baby’s Very First Colors Book. Here baby learns that all things end. The sun comes up, just as the moon in the first book. But two of the characters, ice cream and snow man must melt in these conditions. This is sad, but it reminds us that joy is fleeting in most conditions. The story ends with a beautiful fish being hunted (haunted?) by a black cat. Does it pounce? We’re left with a cliffhanger. Why? We must choose. Our children must choose how the tale ends each day of our fleeting lives, as we, like snowman, may melt at any instant!

Five out of five stars. Would read again! Bravo!

Btw, my wife sells this brand of books here:

https://m.facebook.com/Usbornewithavery/?ref=bookmarks

Book Review: Stuart Ritchie’s Intelligence: All that matters

Stuart Ritchie, Intelligence: All That Matters. (Hodder & Stoughton, Kindle Edition 2016).

As an educator and leader, I try to stay up to date on research into personality and human potential. But sometimes I cannot keep up with recent findings. Stuart Ritchie’s new book helped fill the gaps.

Dr. Ritchie is a post-doc researcher at the University of Edinburgh where he is researching the development/decline of intelligence across the life span.

The point of the book is essentially to clarify the facts of the case with reference to intelligence:

“The research shows that intelligence test scores are meaningful and useful; that they relate to education, occupation and even health; that they are genetically influenced; and that they are linked to aspects of the brain. (44-45)”

Through the book Ritchie deftly explains the research with reference to each of these issues. For me to go through how he shows this would make the book superfluous. But some of the most interesting points are:

  1. The differences between male and female intelligence are not in terms of the average, but in terms of the outliers. The mean IQ of men and women is roughly 100. But men skew more toward very low IQs and very high IQs. More men are significantly below average and more men are significantly above average (1226).
  2. While eugenicists were interested in early IQ research, the earliest intelligence scientists were interested in helping the less intelligent to succeed. Not only so, but just like the Nazi discovery of a connection between smoking and cancer, the findings of the early eugenicist IQ researchers have been supported by later research (1192).
  3. Multiple intelligences theory isn’t backed by current scientific research (355).
  4. “Nevertheless, we’re lucky that the tools for raising intelligence – which might partly have caused the Flynn Effect – seem to be staring us in the face, in the form of education.” (1168-70)

The take away of the book is basically this: Intelligence, which can be measured by IQ, matters. The books that claim that hard work is more important than IQ are likely mistaken. Also, education appears to actually increase people’s IQ. This part is really important and while Ritchie never mentions him, it coinheres nicely with Arthur Whimbey’s research on training people in sequential problem solving and slowly improving their processing speed.

If you’re an educator, psychologist, parent, or political science major, I recommend that you read this book.

Hedonism, Love, and Goodness

The things that shape who we are and how we think are pluriform and sometimes mysterious. This is especially so in the age of the internet stuff that may disappear forever after you read it. Every once in away, the Internet sends it back to you.

Around 2008-2009, I was quite depressed. And while I was still known for being a social butterfly at work and school, and many people even called me for advice (I remember distinctly two women with doctorates in psychology contacting me for relationship advice), I was languishing. There are probably three main reasons for this:

  1. Many of my friends had moved away, gotten married, or achieved opportunities I had never managed.
  2. I worked between 3-5 part time jobs to pay for grad school at any moment and so I got very little exercise or sun light. My academic nature and lack of sleep made it easy to substitute books for exercise. I also couldn’t afford a gym membership anywhere except a giant mega-gym that operated like a night club and prohibited squats, chalk, and grunting.
  3. I was lovelorn. During this time period, I fell in love, really hard, with two women. And because of that I felt like I had lost every ounce of the charm that had helped me make friends and ask girls on dates effortlessly before that. It was like I developed a speech impediment or a sudden physical handicap when I communicated with either of these women.

Essentially, because of certain failures of courage, mindset management, and personal care I found myself ignored by women right during the stage of my life in which I had, apparently, subconsciously decided to get married.*

Now, during this time, I had gotten really into reading Hans Balthasar, and I read his book Love Alone is Credible.

I searched online for any commentary on the book and found a quote on a blog [utterly devoid of theological interest in the academic sense], lost to the sands of time, “Never compromise on love. It’s the only thing that isn’t bullshit.” I’ve since found the blog through a retweet of the quote with a link to the 2008 post. It’s a great quote (the other material from the post varies in quality), and while the author clearly means erotic love, the point still stands. But, as any depressed person would do, I read other another post from the blog. The other post I read was about the author’s personal philosophy. That was relevant, since I was a seminary student working at a corporate coffee shop and therefore talking to atheistic armchair philosophers all the time. The author advocated a godless hedonism:

 

Imagine you had incontrovertible proof that there was no afterlife. No supernatural entities. No heaven or hell. No otherworld. No reincarnation. No forevermore.

No second chances.

Imagine there was no moral accounting after death of your actions on earth. No supreme being to judge your soul’s worth on the scale of divine justice. No reward or punishment. No appeal to omniscient authority in matters of good and evil.

There was only the endless black void at the moment death. The infinite silence. A complete surrender of your consciousness as the last pinprick of light extinguishes. All your thoughts, your feelings, your sensation, your memories… you… wiped away clean to merge with the great nothing.

How would you live? Given this proof of the finality of death, and of the expectation of nothing once dead, what is your personal philosophy?  

His answer to the thought experiment is this:

My answer to the philosophical question I posed above is hedonism. It is the only rational conclusion one can draw faced with the premises I presented. When there is no second life or higher power to appease; when our lives are machines — complex misunderstood machines cunningly designed to conceal the gears and pulleys behind a facade of self-delusional sublimation, but machines nonetheless — grinding and belching the choking gritty smoke of status-whoring displays in service to our microscopic puppetmasters… well, there can be only one reasonable response to it all. It makes no sense to behave any other way unless you never questioned the lies.

My own answer to the thought experiment is that if I try to imagine the world without meaning he described (advocated?), I come up blank. Why? If love isn’t bullshit, then there is meaning beyond the chemical soup and system of mechanical pulleys and levers he imagines us to be.

Indeed, if love bears the marks of a single aspect of live that isn’t bullshit, isn’t a lie, and is worth pursuing, then the matter of meaningless matter must be questioned. Is life actually meaningless or is this feeling of melancholy a salve for my own conscience? Perhaps the lie is that we’re just machines of no consequence in a heartless universe. If love isn’t bullshit, it’s implied that love is true and if there is truth, then perhaps beauty and goodness are real, too. This is an important implication, for if truth, goodness, and beauty are real, then it is perhaps the case that pleasures beyond the reach of mere pleasure seeking exist. Pleasure is a good, but what happens when the intellect attains to contemplation of goods beyond the mere stimulation of dopamine and serotonin? And what of beauty? Love entails beauty. If there is transcendent beauty, enjoying it may require that we move beyond the mere act of feeling pleasure in the moment.

Ultimately, if it’s true that love really isn’t bullshit, then the meaningless universe is opened to the possibility that there is meaning in the universe rather than artificially imposed upon it by our illusory consciousness (if you’re conscious of your consciousness being illusory, what is what of what?).

Love isn’t bullshit, but on the evidence of that, it appears that neither is the cosmos.

*Note: After I went through a fairly rigorous period of trying to improve myself, I did end up getting married and love, indeed, is not bullshit.

Book Review: The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers by Eleonore Stump

The Book

Stump, Eleonore. The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, 2016.

Stump’s volume The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers deals with a question that has vexed many for centuries: is the God argued for by philosophical theologians the same being in the pages of Scripture. Atheists will often answer: no. Some Calvinists also answer: no. And open theists frequently say no.

The Problem

It’s important when claiming that a contradiction exists between assertions to understand the meaning of the assertions. The three apparently contradictory assertions are:

  1. The God of the Bible is personal, dynamic, responsive, and active.
  2. The God of the philosophers is being itself (not a being and not a person), uncaused, and timeless.
  3. The God of the Bible is the God of the Philosophers.
Stump solves the problem with Aquinas

Stump uses the writings of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most widely read philosophical theist but also a prolific Bible commentator to show that these three assertions can be reconciled and that, indeed, it’s the understanding of God’s simplicity and eternity that can make sense of the Bible’s picture of God.

Her main picture of this is the book of Jonah. She observes that if the classical picture of God as the uncasued cause is true, it is difficult for many to see how the picture of God in Jonah could also be true. The Lord responds to Jonah’s prayers, changes his mind, has conversations with Jonah, and so-on. She responds to these charges by explaining Aquinas’ doctrines of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the individual Christian, God’s eternity, God’s immutability, and God’s simplicity.

Holy Spirit

For Stump it’s important to acknowledge that Aquinas believes in the Trinity as well as God’s eternity, immutability, and simplicity. What this means then is that Aquinas believes that the Holy Spirit is eternal, immutable, and simple. Aquinas taught that the Holy Spirit and the person of faith are in a relationship “close enough and intimate enough to be thought of as a uniting in love (49).”

After this she observes that one solution to the apparent inconsistence is to suppose that there are “two Aquinases.” But she points out that Aquinas’ writings don’t hold up to the charge of that he is guilty of “so great an inconsistency (55).”

So for Aquinas, the closeness of the Holy Spirit to the believer in time and the deity of the Holy Spirit indicate that he saw the personal God of Scripture and the God of the philosophers as one and the same being.

If in Aquinas’ view the Holy Spirit can have close personal, responsive relationships with human beings in time, what explanation of the attributes of God (immutability, eternity, and simplicity) make sense of this?

Eternity

Here, Stump argues that “nothing about God’s eternal knowledge of future events rules out human free will…(70).” Her argument is against the idea that God’s eternity (persistent timeless existence) precludes any coherent notion of God’s interaction with beings in time. She utilizes an argument from analogy using one of my favorite books, Flatland, to show how it is possible for time to be present to God all at once (62-63). I’ll leave it to her to explain it to you in the book.

She also uses the psychological concept of “shared attention” to explain what it might mean for God to be personally present with individual persons while being eternal in nature (71). God can also answer prayer “because of prayers” without answering them after the prayers or based on foreknowledge. I found that argument satisfying.

Immutability

Immutability is the doctrine that God does not change or is not caused to change. Stump shows how Aquinas’ understanding of this doctrine does not mean that God cannot respond to prayer or respond to different circumstances in time. Her analogy is that God can at time one (t1) tell Jonah that he will destroy the Ninevites in 40 days from (t1)  and 40 days from then (t2) keep them from destruction upon their repentance in one simultaneous (because of God’s eternal nature), complex (because the results are experienced in time by us) act of will (76).

Simplicity

The notion of God’s simplicity is, at its base, the idea that God is being. Or, as my friends and I concluded in high school, “God doesn’t just exist, God is existence itself.” Now, weirdly, my debate team friends and I didn’t find a problem between saying, “God is existence” and “God exists.” But many philosophers, for good reasons, find those two statements contradictory. One, for instance, is that if God is God’s own nature, it appears incoherent to claim that God can choose between “x” and “not-x.” Why? Because God cannot do other than what God does because God is God’s nature. Stump argues that Aquinas’ understanding of the intellect as always active allows for the idea that God can act because of knowledge which God comes to actively without being acted upon (thus being passive).

Implications

Stump’s reflections on the implications are really quite good. I’ll leave you with a few sentences:

  1. If God is eternal, then God’s having assumed human nature is not something characteristic of God at some times but not at others. It is something characteristic of God always. (100)
  2. The person who wept over Lazarus was God-God in his human nature but still God. And the grief that gave vent to those tears is also always present to God. If it were not so, there would be succession in God; and then God would be temporal and not eternal. (101)
  3. Perhaps more importantly, it [the doctrine of divine simplicity] provides a metaphysical grounding for an objective ethics because it can ground morality in God’s nature, as distinct from God’s will. (101)

Conclusion

The book was brief, pleasant, cogent, and helpful. I highly recommend it for anybody who wants to understand Aquinas, the relationship of philosophy to theology, or who wants to reflect upon God’s relationship to time.

Dallas Willard on the Beatitudes

Dallas Willard’s understanding of the Beatitudes:

It will help us know what to do—and what not to do—with the Beatitudes if we can discover what Jesus himself was doing with them. That should be the key to understanding them, for after all they are his Beatitudes, not ours to make of them what we will. And since great teachers and leaders always have a coherent message that they develop in an orderly way, we should assume that his teaching in the Beatitudes is a clarification or development of his primary theme in this talk and in his life: the availability of the kingdom of the heavens. How, then, do they develop that theme?

In chapter 4 of Matthew we see Jesus proclaiming his basic message (v. 17) and demonstrating it by acting with God’s rule from the heavens, meeting the desperate needs of the people around him. As a result, “Sick folk were soon coming to be healed from as far away as Syria. And whatever their illness or pain, or if they were possessed by demons, or were insane, or paralyzed—he healed them all. Enormous crowds followed him wherever he went” (4:23–25 LB).

Having ministered to the needs of the people crowding around him, he desired to teach them and moved to a higher position in the landscape—“up on the hill” (Matt. 5:1 BV)—where they could see and hear him well. But he does not, as is so often suggested, withdraw from the crowd to give an esoteric discourse of sublime irrelevance to the crying need of those pressing upon him. Rather, in the midst of this mass of raw humanity, and with them hanging on every word—note that it is they who respond at the end of the discourse—Jesus teaches his students or apprentices, along with all who hear, about the meaning of the availability of the heavens.

I believe he used the method of “show and tell” to make clear the extent to which the kingdom is “on hand” to us. There were directly before him those who had just received from the heavens through him. The context makes this clear. He could point out in the crowd now this individual, who was “blessed” because The Kingdom Among Us had just reached out and touched them with Jesus’ heart and voice and hands. Perhaps this is why in the Gospels we only find him giving Beatitudes from the midst of a crowd of people he had touched.

And so he said, “Blessed are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’—when the kingdom of the heavens comes upon them.”

Or, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.” This, of course, is the more traditional and literally correct translation of Matt. 5:3. The poor in spirit are blessed as a result of the kingdom of God being available to them in their spiritual poverty. But today the words “poor in spirit” no longer convey the sense of spiritual destitution that they were originally meant to bear. Amazingly, they have come to refer to a praiseworthy condition. So, as a corrective, I have paraphrased the verse as above. No doubt Jesus had many exhibits from this category in the crowd around him. Most, if not all, of the Twelve Apostles were of this type, as are many now reading these words. (Willard 99-101)

Works Cited:
Willard, Dallas The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (Harper Collins, 1997)