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Monday, May 14, 2012

The Kingdom of God is Like a Weed...

Here is the familiar parable of the mustard seed:
Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.”
The common interpretation of this passage seems only common sense. The kingdom of God is represented as this small and seemingly insignificant seed that grows into a fullness that is by orders of magnitude greater than the meek smallness of its beginning. This interpretation finds convenient manifestation in the history of Christianity itself, that started in a remote part of Palestine and now boasts unparalleled demographics. But is there something more to be said than just it starts small and ends big? I think so.

I believe firmly in the Bible's timeless meaning and application for today's Christian. But this timeless meaning is often best discovered and understood when we understand the deep profundity of the message within its historical context. So what did this image of the mustard seed mean to an average Mediterranean Jewish peasant? Pliny the Elder was a 1st century Roman author and naturalist who wrote in his encyclopedia, Natural History, about the horticultural nature of the mustard seed.

...[A]nd mustard, which has so pun- gent a flavour, that it burns like fire, though at the same time it is remarkably wholesome for the body. This last, though it will grow without cultivation, is considerably improved by being transplanted; though, on the other hand, it is extremely difficult to rid the soil of it when once sown there, the seed when it falls germinating immediately.
Some have referred to the mustard seed as a "noxious weed," and Pliny seems to agree with this interpretation, inasmuch as he depicts the mustard seed as something that is notoriously hard to rid the soil of and spreads immediately after being planted. So choosing to cultivate a mustard seed always comes with the everpresent danger of destroying the entire garden in which it is planted. Moreover, there are some exegetical problems here, because the mustard seed actually grows to be a three to four foot shrub, not a large, regal tree. Jesus would have known this, and he could have very well chosen a seed that actually turns into a tree (as Ben Witherington III points out), but there must have been something very particular about this mustard seed that conveyed the appropriate message of the Kingdom of God.

Imagine the image this presents to a first century Jew. The image of a seed that grows wildly and freely on its own. A seed that, even when cultivated, is thoroughly difficult to maintain and, by virtue of the rapidity of its germination and its natural endurance, roots deeply in the soil and threatens to take over the entire garden. This is not exactly an ideal horticultural image. But Jesus makes it worse. What does he say happens to this seed? He says that this seed, at full growth, brings with it shade and invites birds to nest in its branches. These are sort of romantic or beautiful notions in a historically detached way. But they were hardly very beautiful or romantic to a first century Jew, who depended on his or her garden receiving plenty of sun and farmers for millenia have built all kinds of contrivances geared at keeping birds OUT of their garden, why in the world would they willingly plant something that invited them IN. Just remember what Jesus said in the Parable of the Sower, in Matthew 13:3,4:

And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up.
So the meaning of this text seems to stretch far beyond the superficial notions of smallness to bigness. Instead, as I take it, when you choose to plant the Kingdom Seed in the garden of your life, it will quickly threaten to undermine everything else you have planted there. It will become something that, if you let it (and sometimes even when you don't), will take over your life. So if you only think about Jesus on Sunday, consider the Kingdom Seed and where you have planted it (or have you planted it at all?)? And for those who seek to plant the Kingdom Seed in the garden of their life, take heed, for this seed, when grown, will overshadow your other gardening ventures and will threaten their very roots; it may even be deadly to your other crops. This Kingdom Seed represents something similar to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about Christ's call on the believers life: "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die."

So it seems that the historical context of the mustard seed reveals a lot about what it means for believers today. Yes, the seed is small and grows into something big. But it is also deadly to your plans, undermines your other ventures, invites in your enemies and when rooted, demands your very life.

Friday, May 11, 2012

To Know Away Your Freedom?

I have always been fascinated with the nature of God’s attributes or at least the attributes we commonly assign to God (whether or not He actually possesses them notwithstanding). In fact, a large portion of the philosophy of religion is dedicated to discussing these attributes and their suspected logical inconsistencies. One particular issue among the pantheon of issues is the question of whether or not God’s foreknowledge is compatible with human free will. That is to say, if God knows exactly what you are going to do before you do it, are you really free in respect to the action? If God knows what action you are going to perform before you choose it, are you not then logically determined to do that action? Let’s look at some trivial action like, say, God knows that you are going to pick your nose in private tomorrow at 12:32 PM. Now, if God knows that you will pick your nose at 12:32 PM tomorrow, we must also affirm that it MUST be the case that you pick your nose at 12:32 PM tomorrow. And of course, if it must be the case, you have no possibility of refraining from the action of picking your nose and thus can in no way be said to be free in respect to the action of picking your nose tomorrow at 12:32 PM. If God is truly omniscient, he knows all the actions you will perform ever and totally, meaning that you must perform all the actions that God knows and thus are not free in respect to any of the actions you perform! This is theologically dangerous and in observable discord with other theological doctrines we often hold as true (e.g. God’s perfect goodness).

If this is true, then we have a fundamental problem with respect to holding both God’s foreknowledge of future events and the free will of human beings as simultaneously true. If the above argument is sound we must do one of three things: (1) be willing to irrationally affirm a contradiction of terms, (2) dispense or redefine omniscience (God’s all-knowing nature), or (3) dispense with human free will (as a significant branch of protestant theology does in fact do).

Those who would affirm (1) are perfectly comfortable with a God who exists outside the scope of logical principles (like early Rene Descartes) and thus openly embrace theological paradoxes, tension and blatant contradiction (I for one know a professor of this persuasion). Unfortunately, any reasoning with persons in the aforesaid group is utterly impossible as all meaningful conversation necessarily depends upon the existence of logical uniformity. Many would argue that (1) is simply an incoherent position and is thus typically just ignored (as I will ignore it now, though perhaps not judiciously).

Those in the second group may adopt any varying form of God’s knowledge, some severely limiting its capacity, while others adopt what is now known as “Open Theism.” This belief says that God knows all that is logically possible to know. Future events of beings with free will, by virtue of not yet existing, are not possible to know. Thus, it is not a limitation of God’s ability to say he does not know the future events of humans, because there is nothing yet TO know. This is an interesting view and it has some very articulate proponents. It is not without its observable shortcomings however. If scripture is to be a reliable guide to discerning God’s attributes, we see a God who not only has your hairs numbered and makes habit of knowing the outcomes of future events, but we also see a God who has knowledge of counterfactuals:

If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. (Matthew 11:23b)

This stretches God’s omniscience further than even traditional notions, as it dictates that God does not only know all past, present and future states of affairs, but also all states of affairs that COULD have been had any given event been different. All things that could have been but are not actually are known as counterfactuals. The problem that this presents to the open theist position is that these counterfactuals exist in the same way that future events do—inasmuch as they do not exist but God still somehow knows them. Unless a substantive difference can be shown between counterfactuals and future events, we have no more reason for believing that God does not know future events than we do counterfactuals.

In the third group, one is committed to denying the existence of libertarian free will. There is no contradiction with God’s foreknowledge if we simply reject the notion of free will and accept a form of fatalism or determinism, wherein all actions of a person are determined by some prior state of affairs. Many Calvinistic individuals or those of a more Augustinian background reject human freedom in their hyper-emphasis of God’s transcendent sovereignty over humanity.

I do not like any of the above compromises. And, the thing is, I don’t think any of them are necessary. We are not actually under any obligation to accept the underlying notion that human free will is incompatible with a foreknowing God, even though it very much seems that we are. Let’s break it down:

(P1) If God knows that tomorrow you will perform action X, then you must perform action X tomorrow.

(P2) If you must perform action X tomorrow, then you have no freedom to refrain from action X.

(C) It follows from (P1) and (P2) that any actions that God foreknows renders you, or any subject that can be replaced by you, not free in respect to those actions.

This seems right. But as the famous Christian Philosopher, Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, it is based on confusion. (P1) can actually be read two separate ways that yield two entirely different meanings. The difference is slight so pay close attention. (P1), call it here (P1a), can mean that if God knows you will perform X then it is necessary that you perform X. That is to say, the outcome is necessary such that it could not have been different. (P1a) is what must be true in order for the conclusion to follow. But there is an alternative, call it (P1b). (P1b) says it is necessary for what God knows to be true. So if God knows you will perform action X tomorrow, you will. This is more trivially true, inasmuch as it is true not just of God, but of anybody who knows things. If I know that Paul is a bachelor, it will be the case that he is a bachelor (or I did not know it). The difference is that it is not necessary for Paul to be a bachelor, he could in fact be married if he so wished (in which case I would instead know that he was married). So the difference rides on the idea that though it is necessary for what God knows to be true (which is true of any subject capable of knowing things), it does not mean that what he knows is necessary.Thus, God knowing in advance what action you will perform does not make that action a logically necessary one, wherein you could not refrain. It instead shows that God knows the outcomes of freely willed actions.

Does this work?