nonreductive physicalism

Friday, August 31, 2007



I've been reading Nancy Murphy's "Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism" where she uses the philosophical idea of nonreductive physicalism to argue for the possibility of miracles. She continues this exploration in "Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies". So what the heck is "nonreductive physicalism", you might ask? As the name suggests, nonreductive physicalism is the opposite of reductionism which says that all our experience can be reduced down to the smallest parts. For example, if you listen to a Bach symphony and are moved to tears, reductionism would say that this is ultimately just a chemical reaction. The music sends sound waves which vibrate on your eardrums which send a signal to your brain which causes the ducts in your eyes to secrete a saline solution. Physicalism is synonymous with materialism or naturalism. Materialism is the methodological assumption of all natural sciences, and up until recently it was assumed that this materialism was reductive, that is, one could explain things like love or awe by breaking it down into the physical explanations - chemicals, brain signals, etc and thus "explain it away".

The typical choice then is between saying
A) miracles don't happen because everything is physical
B) God breaks the laws of nature
Both are modernist choices. Murphy proposes going beyond this Liberal/Fundamentalist impasse via nonreductive physicalism which offers a third possibility. It agrees that everything that exists is made of matter and energy, but says that there are no practical, law-like relationships between levels of hierarchy. That is, there is no law you could discover that would translate statements like “Nancy is feeling awe” into a description of very specific brain states or molecular events as in the above reductive example of the person moved to tears by Bach. A state of awe of being moved by beauty is certainly caused by specific brain states and molecular transactions, but slightly different brain states and molecular transactions could instantiate awe or wonder or love in a different person, or in the same person at a later date. Really its kind of a no-brainer that the person is not crying because of chemicals, they are crying because it is beautiful and moving, and we need to have a way to make sense of those very real aspects of our human experience rather than "explaining them away" through the tunnel vision of reductive physicalism.

Nonreductive physicalism would agree with the physical description is accurate as far as it goes, but say that there is more that is going in than can be described in these reductive terms. Rather than reducing everything to physics, it says we need to realize that we can also learn things about our world and who we are from the other disciplines. Biology can tell us stuff that physics alone cannot, which is why we have both, and psychology can give us yet another level of insight. At the same time the lower level disciplines can also help the hight level ones. For example we really understood what was happening with some sicknesses after they broke the human genome on a chemical level which explained what was observable on a higher biological level (genetic defects). So we no not reduce everything into physics (the old model) rather we have all the disciplines, including Murphy says ethics and theology, each contributing its own level of insights in a nonreductive way.

So what does all of this have to do with miracles? Well, you may have asked yourself when you prayed and someone got better if it was really God, or whether their healing could be explained naturally. What Murphy says is that it could very well be both. There are always physical causal properties to miracles, but this would not mean that God was not involved, just as there would be physical phenomena when you experienced love, but the chemical would not be ALL that was happening. The love is a real part and is not explained away by the physical factors involved. Both are real. So there is no need to put religion and science in separate realms that can never meet. Personally I find this line of thinking promising for a collaboration between science and faith, and a deepening of the insights of both into who we are and how we tick.

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Finney the Feminist

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Charles Finney, the wild eyed revivalist preacher pictured here who was at the forefront of the 2nd Great Awakening was the president of Oberlin college. Oberlin is now a progressive ivy league school. My sister who went to Oberlin tells a story of a girl student who Finney confronts on campus saying, "repent child of the devil!" the girl unphased responds "Good day to you too professor Finney".

It's a cute anecdote, but one thing that you might miss is the fact that a woman is in college at all in the mid 1800's. In fact Finney's Oberlin became the first college in the world to admit women, and I might add blacks as well who were not segregated from the white students. That's in the 1850's people. Oberlin was also a part of the underground railroad housing and even liberating escaped slaves, and practicing civil disobedience in defiance of laws that required escaped slaves to be returned to their owners. Finney was outspoken in his public opposition to slavery. Finney lists a failure to confront social evil and advocate for humans rights as one of the reasons revival is hindered. Shockingly, these statements have been edited out of many Evangelical editions of Finney's work. For example V. Raymond Edmond in "Finney lives on: The man, his Revival Methods, and His Message" lists only 22 of Finney's 24 reasons that revival is hindered, renumbering them so as to make it look like Finney made no connection between the personal and the social.

Finney was also controversial because he allowed women to speak publicly in his revival meetings. Oberlin allowed many women to have the education that would further the feminist movement (ie women's suffrage) including Lucy Stone who was famous for keeping her "maiden name" in marriage, and Betsey Cowles who went on to be president of the Second National Women's Rights Convention of 1851. If that is not enough, Finney's Oberlin were also mostly vegetarians, and into health food. At the time that meant they followed the health advice of Syvester Graham - the inventor of the Graham Cracker. This involved abstinence from alcohol, cafeene, tobacco, and other "stimulants". If you's like to read more of this, it is documented in detail in "Discovering an Evangelical Heritage".

All this draws our attention to the fact that the split between progressive social justice and Evangelical personal faith are a rather recent phenomenon that dates back to the rise of Fundamentalism in the 1930's. For centuries, for such major Evangelical figures of the American revivals and awakenings such as Finney and Wesley, social justice, caring for the poor, prisoners, and marginalized, opposing violations of human rights and social evil and other such "liberal" causes were considered to be an integral part of what holiness meant in the life of a person who had been born again.

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The Two Christianities

Friday, August 24, 2007


Throughout Christian history there have been two definitions of what it means to be a true Christian. One representing the established institutional church focusing on holding onto tradition and orthodoxy, where ascribing to correct doctrine is the true test of whether one is a Christian; and the other representing renewal movements and a revitalization of personal faith, and seeing being born again and having a relationship with God as the heart of Christian faith. We can see both of these competing definitions within Evangelicalism. It is easy to think of certain groups that one could apply either focus to. For a while I thought that the "correct doctrine" was descriptive of how Calvinists understood faith, but I think that is incorrect. Even within Calvinism we find both - people focusing on correct doctrine like Charles Hodge, and others focused on a relationship with Jesus like Charles Spurgeon.

More often than not one finds both of these diverging emphases internalized in a single individual, producing a sort of theological "multiple personality disorder". For example, an Evangelical may insist on the need to adhere to correct doctrines such as the infallibility of the Bible, and declare that anyone who denies these “fundamentals” cannot call themselves a "real Christian". However, if one were to ask this same person whether the heart of Christianity is not in fact much more in knowing Jesus in a personal relationship, they would fall over backwards to agree with you. They may still insist that correct doctrine is vital, but not claim that salvation hinges on it. To those on the outside Evangelicalism seems to be focused on adherence to doctrine, to those on the inside it is focused on relationship. So why are we giving people this false impression of what the heart of faith is about?

Donald Dayton suggests that the problem is that the people who represent the public voice of Evangelicalism - those behind the microphones and writing books - are predominantly white intellectual men with a strong Calvinist background, whereas the opposite is true of Evangelicals "on the street". Historian Douglass Sweeny agrees,

“White men are in the minority, few evangelicals are intellectuals, and evangelical beliefs seldom conform to a standard Calvinistic worldview. In fact a simple head count of evangelicals, both here and around the world reveals that most of us hail from lower-class, “Pentecostal” religious traditions (a blanket term Dayton uses in opposition to “Presbyterian” and that refers broadly to Arminian, Wesleyan, Holiness, and/or Pentecostal Christians, people who rarely resonate with the words of Calvinist intellectuals).”

As a result, Evangelicalism, being largely a folk movement rooted in personal faith which is continually reforming itself, has not for the most part produced theologians who can express the heart pulse of ordinary Evangelical faith, but instead have been much more influenced by the doctrinal battles that characterize the academic and political world - for example getting caught up in the Fundamentalist vs Modernism controversy. In this vacuum, Evangelicals looking for a way to express their faith will simply “borrow” the doctrinal statements formulated by these non-representative voices, creating a theological “Frankenstein” by sewing a dogmatic head on to a relational body. Take a look at the doctrinal "statement of faith" posted on your church's website for instance, and notice that very little is said about a relationship with Jesus or living in grace, and instead it is filled with definitions (the Trinity, the infallibility of the Bible, etc.) that while correct formulations, seem detached from what a vital living relationship with God is about.

My intention here is not to propose a relational faith that is divorced from biblical fidelity and orthodoxy, but rather to draw attention to the fact that the way we Evangelicals have learned to convey our faith theologically does not seem to capture the rich relational aspects that it is inwardly characterized by. What is needed is to develop doctrine and theology that arise out of the reality of our relationship with God, and foster a community of people characterized by Christ-likeness and grace. The choice then is not ultimately between doctrine and relationship, but to have right teaching that is rooted in and characterized by right relationship with God and others. In this, relationship - loving God and others - is primary. Right doctrine arises out of right relationship. Placing doctrine over relationship on the other hand leads to not presenting the heart of faith in a loving relationship with God to those outside of our faith, but instead showing them a religion characterized by self-righteousness, condemnation, legalism, and a heartless Pharisaical faith that is in opposition to biblical teaching.

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Evangelicals and Social Action

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I've been doing a lot of thinking about why we Evangelicals are so behind on issues of social justice. In "American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving" sociologist Christian Smith conducted a nationwide survey and hundreds of detailed interviews with Evangelicals and found that the problem was not that we Evangelicals don't care about social justice or the poor - we overwhelmingly do. The problem had to do with how we view social change from within the lens of personal conversion. Over and over Smith found Evangelicals expressing the idea that real change needed to come "from the inside out", meaning that rather than reforming things on an institutional level, we believe that change should happen one person at a time, and as that person - say the CEO of a company, or a politician - has Christ in their life that this will lead them to acts of voluntary benevolence. This is not only a popular opinion, it has been expressed by many prominent thinkers and theologians with Evangelicalism for decades.

One contemporary example of this is Greg Boyd in his recent "Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church", Boyd takes on the current marriage between Evangelicalism and Conservative power-politics arguing that because all politics operate through the principle of coercion and control, they are opposed to the kingdom of God which operates individually “from the inside out”. Boyd advocates using “power under” to serve and support rather than “power over” to force and dominate without achieving any inner reform. There is much to admire in Boyd's stand - his advocacy of social welfare and care for the needy, his compassionate stance to those others judge, his rejection of violence, his critique of Conservative power politics co-opting the Gospel - but in the end what is lacking in Boyd's perspective is a guiding ethic that would offer a kingdom of God prescription for structural and institutional change that goes beyond mere individual transformation leading to voluntary benevolence.

What is absent from the Evangelical imagination, both in its leaders and laity, is any concept of a social or political ethic to guide these converted politicians, public officials, or CEO's in their work towards addressing the structures and systems that perpetuate societal injustice and suffering. Because Evangelicals view sin in the terms of individual failings, they are largely unaware of the systemic and institutional aspects of the social world. For example, a person caught in a cycle of poverty will not be able to escape it simply because they have been born again. Their conversion may effect them inwardly and personally, which can have a profound impact on the debilitating effects of poverty to a person's self-worth, which can lead to a host of self-destructive behaviours. However as important as these personal factors are, they do not change the external social structures that keep a person trapped in poverty. Similarly, if a CEO of a company is converted, this may lead to them refraining from dishonest or unethical business practices, but it will not effect the larger competitive world in which their business operates. So if that economy operates - as ours has in the past - on slave and child labor, an individual business owner who abstains from these practices is placed in a significant economic disadvantage in that market unless those social evils are addressed.

In "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Globaal Economy" Kevin Bales says that in fact child and slave labor is a part of today's global economy, and asks what we can do about it. The solution as you might have guessed needs to involve both us personally, as well as address the issue on a structural level. These slave companies in developing countries operate outside the bounds of law, and are not afraid to use ruthless violence to protect their profits. Companies who do business with them - say retail chains in the US like Nike or The Gap - opperating on the logic of economic profit say that they need to buy the cheapest product to stay completive. So they turn a blind eye to where the product came from, as long as the price is right. But public pressure can make a difference. When the public became aware that major retailers like Nike and The Gap were using slave labor in sweatshops, these companies were forced to change their practices because of consumer pressure.

One example Bales gives is Rugmark. If you own an oriental rug, there is a good chance it was made with child slave labor. Rugmark works with retailers to guarantee that rugs are made without slave or child labor. In order to get a "rugmark" label, the retailers had to agree to not use slave labor, and strict independent monitoring is set up by Rugmark to ensure compliance. Additionally, the retailers agreed to give 1% of the profit towards development projects. With that money, Rugmark set up schools for the children who were either former slaves or vulnerable to slavery. This way rather than simply shifting the slave market to another product, they worked to change the societal conditions that make children potential victims in the first place. Major retailers in the USA and Europe signed on, including Otto Versand Group, the largest mail order retailer in the world.

It is a complex issue that involves both our personal involvement and addressing the social structures that perpetuate the problem. That's the reality of evil in our world, and we as Evangelicals need to learn to think about applying the Gospel to the problem of evil on that kind of large scale as well. We need to move beyond a message that only addresses people as isolated individuals and think through what it would mean for Jesus to be Lord in all of life.

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Problems with the Penal System

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I'm becoming increasingly aware of how ill equipped our criminal justice system is to deal with many of the problems in our world. One poignant example is the mentally ill. In the 1980's the mental health institutions that had housed people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia were shut down, and these people were left to fend for themselves. Large numbers of them now make up the homeless. Because prison is the "institution that can't say no" many of these people end up in jail. Not for commiting crimes, but for basically acting crazy. If you have not seen it yet, there is an excellent Frontline documentary detailing this that you can watch online. They tell the story for example of a man with paranoid schizophrenia who goes into a 7/11 and is arrested for "disturbing the peace", being paranoid he freaks out when the police come and resists arrest. In jail he is uncooperative and "acts up" so in the jail system he is punished by being put in solitary confinement. This of course makes his condition worsen. This escalates until eventually he is is transfered into a maximum security prison all for an original petty crime. Not only is the prison system that is focused on punishing people the wrong place for someone with a mental illness, it is also completely unfair to the people who work there who are not trained to deal with such cases. Imagine how you would feel if someone hurled their own feces at you in a psychotic fit.

I've been reading about other examples of the inadequacy of our penal system as well in "Not for Sale". For example, girls who are kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery are often arrested for solicitation instead of being treated as victims of abuse and rape. Likewise, runaways are commonly put into juvenile detention. Because of this setup when a child sexual slavery ring was discovered, the abused and abducted girls were going to be put into detention cells. Luckily several members of a local church volunteered their homes for the girls to stay in. With this same kind of thinking, people who were trafficked as slaves into the USA are deported, often right back into the hands of those who sold them. The problem is not with the individual people in the criminal justice system. The problem is systemic: the way the institution is set up, it treats these victims as if they were criminals, and does not look for the signs of human trafficking.

The good news is that many people are working to change the system, to offer shelter, mental health services, safe houses, re-integration, rehabilitation programs, vocational training, restorative justice, drug rehab... as well as working for reform in our legal system, training of police to notice signs of modern slavery, and so on. In short, our penal system focused on punishment is slowly moving towards real justice that makes things right.

Part of that does need to involve laws and penalties that will protect children from these predators. Once you start opening your eyes to the hurt in our world, you also find that we humans are capable of profound evil. I don't want to minimize that. But Jesus died for sinners like that, and prayed for those who had just whipped and beaten him bloody and nailed him to a cross "forgive them Father, they know not what they do". Those words become all the more shocking when we really confront the profound evil in our world. We want to hurt back those who hurt others. As a father, I know I do. A parental rage boils within me when I hear such horrific stories of what people do to children. Jesus seems to have had similar feelings. Yet as Paul says in Romans, that part of us the seeks to accuse the evil in others comes back to accuse us as well. We have all been hurt, and we all have hurt others, sometimes profoundly. We need a way to deal with the brokenness and evil in our world and in ourselves that works towards restoration of the broken, including protecting the vulnerable.

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Calling Pt 2

I'm reading through Not For Sale by David Batstone. Here's a quote on calling that stood out to me:

"How do you find your vocation? You locate where your passion meets the needs of the world. The first part of that equation is to engage yourself in those activities that you feel you are put on this earth to do. The second part of that equation is to carry out those activities so as the benefit others. The world is filled with unhappy people who are doing work that they do not care about, all for the sake of making more money or because they are trying to fulfill someone else's dreams."

I'm still chewing on that.

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Blogging thru Wikiklesia

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Wikiklesia book seems to be off to a good start. It's gotten some rave reviews like this one from Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired Magazine,
"The hive-mind of Christianity speaks! It brings news of the future. Uttered like a prayer retrieved from the year 2030, spoken in a new tongue, a new form. Listen!"
For those of you who would like to get a sample taste of the stuff in the book to whet your appetite, Paul Walker at Out of the Cocoon is blogging through every chapter of the book, including the one by yours truly on Theology As Art. So go check it out, and then buy the book. It's for a great cause since all the proceeds go to supporting the Not for Sale campaign to end modern slavery in our world. It's available now as a download (PDF) and as audio from Lulu, and within the next few weeks will also be available there in paperback. Here's a list of all the books author's with links to their sites:

Andrew Jones
Andrew Perriman
Bill Kinnon
Bob Hyatt
Brad Sargent
Brother Maynard
Calvin Park
Cynthia La Grou
Cynthia Ware
David Hayward
Derek Flood
Drew Goodmanson
Ed Brenegar
Heidi Campbell
Jo Guldi
Joe Suh
John La Grou
John Sexton
Br. Karekin Yarian, BSG
Katharine Moody
Kester Brewin
Len Hjalmarson
Matt Reece
Michael Lissack
Mike Morrell
Mike Riddell
Peggy Brown
Rex Miller
Rick Meigs
Scot McKnight
Scott Andreas
Scott McClellan
Scott Ragan
Stephen Garner
Stephen Shields
Steve Scott
Steve Knight
Stuart Murray Williams
Thomas Hohstadt
Wild Grace


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Calling

In studying the Atonement I've had to dig down deep into our own human brokenness, why we are hurt and hurt each other so much, what separates of from God and life. As I have done this I have encountered story after story like the one of Kelsey in my last blog entry, and I have found myself drawn towards the huge problem of evil and suffering in our world.

I don't know about you, but a real roadblock I encounter in trying to address these problems of abuse, starvation, modern slavery, abortion, AIDS, genocide, and homelessness is that it all seems to overwhelming. What can I as one person do, especially if we are to understand these problems as not only individual but structural and work towards change on both a personal and institutional level? So I've been reading stories of what individuals are doing to try and get my head out of the rut of helplessness and to open my imagination. Right now I reading stories of modern day abolitionists in the book "Not For Sale" who are working to free people from the Hell of human traffickings. Each person found a way in their own circumstances and their own ability to make a radical difference. But it also involved real risk and sacrifice and courage to respond to the call of justice i their lives. So I'm asking myself, "what is God calling me to do? How can I find my place to invest my life and fight for love and justice with the gifts I have?".

Here I am Lord. Send me.

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The Kelsey Shelton Briggs Story

Saturday, August 18, 2007

This made me cry

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54% Say Impeach Cheney

Sunday, August 05, 2007


Recently Bill Moyers interviewed conservative constitutional scholar Bruce Fein who wrote the 1st article of impeachment against president Clinton "because he was setting a precedent which placed himself above the law." But Fein, who served under Regan and has been part of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation says he thinks Bush's crimes are far more severe,

"Bush's crimes are more worrisome than Clinton's because he is seeking more institutionally to cripple checks and balances and the authority of congress and the judiciary to superintend his assertions of power, his claim to tell the Congress they don't have any right to know what he's doing with relation to spying on American citizens, using that information any way that he wants in contradiction to a federal statute called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He's claimed authority to say he can kidnap people, throw them into dungeons abroad... without any political or legal accountability. These are standards that are totally anathema to a democratic society devoted to the rule of law".

You can see a video clip of that interview here. According to a recent poll, a majority of American's agree that Cheney should be impeached (54%), and just under half (45%) favor impeaching Bush. The focus on Cheney is significant because he is seen as being in the driver's seat on international policy. There has been a long list of abuses of power and lawlessness one can point to: policies of illegal torture, holding people imprisoned indefinitely with no legal representation (many of which have turned out to be innocent), illegal wiretaps, defying Congressional subpoenas with "executive privilege". The list goes on and on, but it seems what has broken the camel's back in the minds of many American's is the President's commuting the jail sentence of Scooter Libby for his involvement in the Valerie Plame affair.

What is particularly striking is that the public reaction and call for impeachment appears to be going beyond party lines. It is not a red/blue thing, it is simply a moral thing, and American's are alarmed at how this administration consistently places themselves above checks and balances in every other branch of government and the Constitution. The issue is not about punishing a President for his misdeeds, it is about setting a shocking precedent of abuse of power and lawlessness. John Nichols, chief Washington correspondent for The Nation writes,

"The stakes are enormous: If Bush and Cheney are not held accountable, this administration will hand off to its successors a toolbox of powers greater than any executive has ever held... The Founders intended impeachment less as a punishment for officeholders than as a protection against the dangerous expansion of executive authority. If abuse of the system of checks and balances, lies about war, approval of illegal spying and torture, signing statements that improperly arrogate legislative powers to the executive branch, schemes to punish political foes and refusals to cooperate with congressional inquiries are not judged as high crimes, the next president, no matter from which party, will assume the authority to exercise some or all of these illegitimate powers".

I find the fact that the American people are saying no to abuse of power and lawlessness encouraging. What I am less hopeful about is whether the Democratic majority in Congress will have the backbone and moral courage to actually do something about it.

update: Dennis Kucinich has introduced a bill into the House to impeach Dick Cheney for high crimes and misdemeanors. House Resolution 333 currently has 16 co-sponsors:
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA), Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ), Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), and Rep. Al Wynn (D-MD).

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