Does God Suffer? (pt. 1)

The brutality and sheer demonic magnitude of suffering in this world (self, other, or nature-inflicted) has become inescapably visible, and it is vital for Christians to meet this reality with the spiritual strength of the monastics, the evangelistic apologetic of the Apologists, and the theological rigor of our 4th century forerunners. That last aspect is what these posts are about. While in the pews and on the corners no one will get into a technical debate on suffering like I’ll do here, these debates eventually trickle down into our day-in day-out conversations on faith. So, while this is definitely a technical kind of post, it’s still down to earth enough to follow along with, and I try to at least mention how it relates in the world of flesh-and-blood.

The Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan (click for image source)
The Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan (click for image source)

There are two general positions with regards to God’s own ability to suffer.  The first is Divine Impassibility, which means that God does not suffer in his own being (and there are differences of opinion on what exactly this means of course). This does not mean that God does not love, or have any kind of “emotions” (though what these emotions mean when we ascribe them to God is up for debate), it just means that suffering specifically, cannot be ascribed to God in-Himself, for reasons we’ll explore below. Of course, the human nature of Jesus suffered, but this experience does not transfer over into God. The second position is Divine Passibility, which means just the opposite (again, with a range of different opinions on the meaning of “God suffers”).

In the book The Suffering of the Impassible God, Paul Gavrilyuk notes that belief in Divine Passibility has achieved the status of a “new orthodoxy” and has caused a revived discussion of the issue for several decades now. Prominent Catholic priest and theologian Thomas Weinandy, among many others, has opposed this movement in theology with his book Does God Suffer?, and has stated elsewhere that “the truth that God does not suffer is at the heart of the gospel” (1). He also agrees that addressing this issue “is pressingly pertinent to the Church’s most important public task: communicating the gospel, and doing so in a culture whose dominant virtues are compassion, empathy”. My own undergraduate writing, and interim years since, have moved me to be more open to passibilism as a result of other shifts in my beliefs about theodicy, the nature of God’s providence, and salvation. This research has forced me to think more deeply about the issue, and at least understand the “classical” position much more. Still, the reasons for that position remain unconvincing to me. So, I’ll outline what it means for us to affirm that “God suffers” by interacting with 5 points that Gavrilyuk makes in the introduction to his book.

Gavrilyuk draws a boundary against the most “radical” forms of passibilism by way of five points. They are: 1) Ascribing any and all emotions to God would negate his Goodness by ascribing emotions which are “unworthy of him”, 2) for God to suffer like a human, he must become human, 3) God must suffer voluntarily, not involuntarily, or else all the classical attributes of God are at risk, 4) God’s voluntary suffering must have a purpose, and 5) if 4) is true, then God’s compassion must result in redemptive action, and thus God’s compassion does not necessarily require that He “suffer-with” us, but rather simply that He act to redeem (2). Even if compassion required suffering-with, it would also require that God be impassible in the sense that He not be “overpowered by our suffering”. (3)

With regards to the 1), almost all theologians are in full-agreement, as am I. But, my own perspective has been increasingly influenced by what is being dubbed “cruciform hermeneutics”: doing theology, or reading and interpreting scripture, with an understanding of the Crucifixion as a presuppostion. There are many scriptural passages invoked to justify this view as the New Testament’s own, but I will make one observation that I have not encountered elsewhere. The “καταπέτασμα”, the curtain to the holy of holies in the Temple, was torn as Christ dies on the cross, implying that our access to the very glory of God is through Christ’s flesh, crucified (4). Thus, not by strict logical necessity but by implication, it seems that the deepest communion with God is to be had through the Son’s death, and it seems reasonable that knowledge of God must begin with knowledge and understanding of the Son’s crucifixion, and then proceed to other things.

As an example of the revelatory climax in the Crucifixion, Moltmann notes the strange confession of the centurion in Mark: “surely this man was the Son of God”, made immediately after Christ has cried that He is forsaken by God (5). Yet this is not strange at all in this perspective. For Paul to remind the Colossians that “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified, and I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling”, and then go on to say that he came to them with “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” also implies that clinging to Christ crucified is the well-spring of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment. By Paul’s own sequence in this passage, it is only after this that we have access to “the deep things of God” (6). So, if there is anything that would require illumination of the Spirit, it is an understanding of the attributes of God. What we would call “unworthy” of God must be guided by what is undeniable on the cross and this puts the burden on those overly concerned with God’s reputation. We should ask: “What is undeniably true about Christ’s sufferings on the cross?” and then “What does this mean about God’s ability to suffer?” The development of early Patristic theology itself seemed to move in this sequence, even though their philosophical framework prevented a move toward passibilism.

To point 2), again I am in agreement. However, Gavrilyuk later goes further than that simple point and says: “the presupposition that the divine nature could itself suffer renders the assumption of humanity superfluous. If God could suffer as humans do without assuming humanity, the incarnation would be unnecessary” (7). While some passibilists may minimize God’s saving work in Jesus Christ to the point that all that we receive from God is a “fellow- sufferer who understands”, I am not in this camp. The possibility of God’s passibility is not a substitute for the Atonement, but a belief regarding His nature that is grounded in the self-revelation of Christ and Scripture. Point 2) affirms the need for the Incarnation, but it does not restrict God’s ability to suffer outside of the Incarnation, only God’s ability to suffer as a human.

Point 3) directs us to the larger theological web of “classical theism”, and is where I depart from Gavrilyuk a bit more (8).  On the one hand, I agree with point 3), but would say that just by the very act of creating a world with free creatures God has willingly entered into relationships that can cause Him to “suffer” (I’ll elaborate on what that means in a further post).  As an evangelical, I affirm that all of the scriptural titles of “eternal”, “almighty”, “all-powerful”, “ruler of all”, or that God “knows all things”, are to be believed and the source for theological reflection. The question in theology is “What other things can we say about God based on these?” In relation to suffering, we could ask: “What do those scriptural passages mean about God’s ability, but apparent refusal, to prevent suffering?”

Gavrilyuk’s final two considerations are fair, but seem to be responses to philosophical objections that, in my opinion, are not compelling in the first place. The statement, “Many compassionate actions do not require emotional identification with the sufferer” is true, but does not fully answer the scope of questions raised by asserting that “God’s compassion is simply His action”, or, what is more difficult to believe and not addressed, that “God’s love does not correlate to His ability to suffer when those He loves (in this case humans) are suffering”. One is again compelled to look at the scriptural testimony in texts like Jeremiah 8:21 “Because of the crushing of the daughter of my people I am crushed”, and here the suffering of the people has been brought about by their own disobedience!

Gavrilyuk’s conclusion to all of this is modest: “Divine compassion may or may not require divine suffering. At any rate, it certainly entails a measure of impassibility, which in this case means God’s ability to vanquish our misery” (emphasis mine). However, the implication Gavrilyuk draws from this that “…there is no prima facie case for the concept of an emotional and suffering God over against that of an unemotional and non-suffering God”, is, in my opinion not true (9). The arguments he presents are helpful qualifiers of impassibility, but it would seem to me that the Crucifixion decisively puts Christian theology in a position where we must work our way out of complete passibility, and that it as an a priori assumption for us that God suffers, somehow, someway.

1 Weinandy, Thomas. Does God Suffer? <http://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/11/does-god-suffer&gt;
2 Even though it derives from the Latin for “suffering-with”. Gavrilyuk references a passage in Against Praxeas that I will address below
3 Gavrilyuk, Paul L. The Suffering of the Impassible God. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 6-7.
4 Heb. 9:12, 6:19, 10:20, all scripture quotations are taken from the New English Translation at netbible.org
5 Moltmann, The Crucified God. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 193-194.
6 1 Cor. 2:10
7 Gavrilyuk, 159
8 ibid, 6. “..in human experience we distinguish between suffering that comes against our will and that which is accepted voluntarily….the admission of such ‘accidents’ in divine life would be equivalent to denying that God is omnipotent and omniscient. This would lead, in turn, to a thoroughgoing revision of classical theism.” “Accidents” as used here is a technical term which means something like “contingency” or “non-essential attributes” of God’s nature.

Is This the Best Possible World?

If the classical formulation of the Divine Attributes as exemplified by Thomas Aquinas or, in a less systematic way, Augustine is true, and God is indeed immutable and atemporal, then the following statement must be true:

Either this is the best possible universe God could have created, or God chose to create a world with more suffering and evil than it had to have.

Does it have to happen that way?
               Does it have to happen that way?

We can argue for this fairly simply. Christian scripture states that God had a purpose for creating the universe. If that purpose could have been achieved by creating a world with less suffering and evil than the one which actually exists, that would mean that God chose to create a universe with more suffering and evil than was necessary to achieve His purposes. One cannot respond to this that “He must have had a reason that we don’t know about”, because whatever that reason is, the same question could be asked: “Could there have been a universe with less suffering which fulfilled that reason?”

Eventually, if we hold this view, we must come to say that there was no possible way that there could have been less suffering & evil in the universe. Because if there was, and God did not create this other possible universe, then it would mean that God intentionally created a universe with more evil & suffering than was necessary, for no reason whatsoever.

Now, Scripture reveals some sweeping claims about the purpose of the universe:

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.” Romans 11:36.

Ultimately, the universe is made for God’s glory and His pleasure, some add that God’s sharing the divine love is the central plan of creation. Taking either or both of these, what I have said above is still unacceptable.

Do we really believe, despite all the language of scripture indicating that the world is in disorder and in many ways plainly against God’s character and goodness61, that God could not have created a world where less evil happened and where His purposes were still accomplished? Well, if we believe that God foreknows, or foreordains all things, we really have no other choice. He saw every single detail of it coming (or “sees it eternally”), and had (or “eternally has”) total control over the path that He set in motion.

These are the conclusions.

Two fixed points for Christians should be that 1. God’s love is prima facie equal towards all humans he has created, and 2. God truly wants for every single human being to enter into a restored relationship with Him. I’m not just repeating the “God hates the sin but loves the sinner” mantra. I don’t even know if that’s always true without qualification. But, I believe that the scriptural witness stands clearly in favor of Christ’s death on the cross as being a redemptive act for all people. Here is a sample of the witness in favor of those fixed points.

“34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him.” Acts 10:34

“17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who is unbiased and takes no bribe, 18 who justly treats the orphan and widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothing. 19 So you must love the resident foreigner because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:17-19

“7 Respect the Lord and make careful decisions, for the Lord our God disapproves of injustice, partiality, and bribery.” 2 Chronicles 19:7

“16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” John 3:16-17

“21 But if the wicked person turns from all the sin he has committed and observes all my statutes and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. 22 None of the sins he has committed will be held against him; because of the righteousness he has done, he will live. 23 Do I actually delight in the death of the wicked, declares the sovereign Lord? Do I not prefer that he turn from his wicked conduct and live? …

31Throw away all your sins you have committed and fashion yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why should you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no delight in the death of anyone, declares the sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” Ezekiel 18:21-23, 31-32

“10 “And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what you have said: “Our rebellious acts and our sins have caught up with us, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?” 11 Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil deeds! Why should you die, O house of Israel?’ Ezekiel 33:10-11

“1 First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people… 3 Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, 4 since he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time.” 1 Timothy 2:1, 3-6

“8 For “physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way. It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.” 9 This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. 10 In fact this is why we work hard and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of believers.” I Timothy 4:8-10

“3 Above all, understand this: In the last days blatant scoffers will come, being propelled by their own evil urges 4 and saying, “Where is his promised return? For ever since our ancestors died, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation…8 Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. 9 The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9

“1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One, and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world” 1 John 2:1-2

These verses attest unilaterally that God does not desire the eternal death of any human being. How, in light of these passages, is that earlier conclusion tenable?

What I have seen keeping us from taking these statements of scripture as unqualified and univocal, as would be most natural, are one of two things. One is simply a theological commitment to something like atemporality and immutability, which imply that God must know all human choices “before” (or eternally) they occur in time, and thus obviously God cannot really desire things which He has “decreed” or “eternally foreknown” would not happen. Rather, this interpretation would say, those passages above are general valuations of things that God would see as good, but that He’s chosen not to accomplish. I think that this explanation is in the end totally unwarranted, unnecessary, and ultimately casts doubt on our view of God. I am using my language here of course, but to believe that God did not decide to do something (e.g. save all humans), or things, which not only we see as good, but that He Himself has said He wants (e.g. Ez. 33:11, and others above) is to believe that God’s character is not one of complete goodness. To avoid this conclusion, again we would have to resort to the one earlier:

Either this is the best possible universe God could have created, or God chose to create a world with more suffering and evil than it had to have.

The second hindrance to Christians taking the verses above as “univocal”, or literal, when they use the pronouns “all”,  “none”, “the whole world”, etc., are other scriptures that seem to indicate that God has in fact decided which individuals will be saved and who will not, so the scriptures that describe God’s desire for all to be saved “cannot” be univocal. This sort of foresight also seems to extend to the crucifixion of Christ, as though God had planned for Adam to sin and thus planned that Christ would have to come and die, and that all sins which have occurred, must have occurred. If we recall, this would also imply that the way the world is, though it’s not “the way it’s supposed to be” in a moral sense, actually is “the way it’s supposed to be”, in the sense that God created the world with full-inerrant knowledge that this is the way the world would play out. Though I cannot treat all of these verses in depth, I want to offer some different ways of looking at the most frequently cited passages for this belief in the next post.

A Devout Atheist & Suffering

I just attended a forum with guest speaker Vanessa Zoltan, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, where she spoke about her “devout atheism”. The forum was jam-packed with Christian seminarians interested in hearing and learning from someone who was willing to come talk openly about her Atheism, what it means, and what it does not mean.

Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum
Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum “Devout Atheists: A Closer Look at the Non-Religious Experience”

Vanessa’s story was fascinating, and I’ll mention one thing that struck me before moving onto the most moving point.

The first thing of interest was her position towards “the Sacred”. Vanessa has a well-developed sense of how humans can take things and treat them as “sacred”, and how we then learn from them just by taking that posture. As opposed to a Christian’s assumption that the reason that, say, the Bible inspires them and challenges them is that God is working in them or through it, Vanessa sees this possibility inherent in any sufficiently complex piece of writing, and stemming more from the human potential for these things which only needs the instigator. In her own experience, she took the book Jane Eyre and for months treated it as a sacred text, learning and growing into a better person through it. I find it fascinating that this term “the sacred”, which is now used rampantly among Christians, is so flexible and broad that an atheist can apply it to her own experiences. It reminded me of the analysis that Allan Bloom made of the term in The Closing of the American Mind and how its’ roots are solidly in Nietzche and the atheistic German school of philosophy. In this culture, despite the reduction of our attentions to only value 140 character quips, we talk too much,  in language whose meaning we do not explore, and thus, we talk about we know not what.

The second thing that struck me was her emphasis on suffering. Vanessa was raised Jewish and growing up she literally did not know one-single elderly person who was not a Holocaust survivor. For her, belief in God was absolutely impossible in the face of what her grandparents and all of their friends suffered. She relayed how she visited Jewish Temple still, but how the prayer “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” was offensive to her, not because of what it said, but because this was often the prayer that the Jews would make right before they were gassed to death. As she put it during our Q & A “Either God was not looking, or there is no God.”

This moved me profoundly because my own theology has undergone dramatic shifts which sometimes, it seems to me, only atheists, or those who do not believe in God, seem to grasp fully. Most of those shifts revolve around suffering.

In the “Classical” tradition of theology, which most Catholics and Protestants have inherited, God’s “essence” or “being” does not suffer. Suffering, it is assumed, means that one is not in control, because if one could avoid suffering, why wouldn’t they? Thus, it is impossible for God, who is the most powerful being, to be impacted and suffer from anything that happens in his created order. Obviously, this seems to fly in the face of the revelation of God in Christ, but theology has its’ ways (and I appreciate them, even though I disagree with most). In addition, the Classical statements of the divine attributes, which imply that God foreknows (Arminian) or “foreordains (Calvinist) all things which will occur, ever, implies this fact:

“Either this is best possible world, or God deliberately created a world with more evil in it that was absolutely necessary”.

I’ll argue for that point in my next post, but assuming that is true, we can easily see how it flies offensively in the face of anyone who not only has suffered, but who empathically suffers. This is more than just suffering yourself. If you find yourself deeply affected by the suffering of others, as I suspect Vanessa has, it is not only your own experience which you must find a worldview to explain, but the suffering of your friends, of people who have been murdered and never found, violated and never consoled, people whom you have never met, but are able to mourn for at the thought of these disturbing realities. What Vanessa’s talk helped me realize was this:

While many branches of the Christian tradition are not yet ready to even touch the inherited understandings of God as immutable, impassible, and atemporal, there is a whole world of hungry lost souls waiting to hear that, possibly, God did not create the world with depression, suicide and rape as just a necessary part of what some would call “his incomprehensibly deep and beautiful design”; that, perhaps, God is not just “outside” of the universe, in his timeless, spaceless, impassible, moment-less “perfection”; but rather, as I think is clearly revealed by Jesus Christ on the cross, that He has fully entered our suffering, and is calling us to step into His kingdom as He finishes the war on death, suffering, and all that causes the Vanessa’s of the world to turn their face from Him. This invitation, and the image of God we’re given through Christ, is what I live for.

Is There a Reason the Universe Seems Fine Tuned for Life? Pt. 3

This is the last in a series of 3 posts,  and a long one. All posts were taken from an essay I wrote in 2009. You can read the previous posts on my homepage, or just read on!

I said that the reason the multiverse hypothesis arose has more to do with metaphysics than the data. Why do I say this? Because it is a commitment to materialism and a defense of the “Anthropic Principle” that underlies the theory. Examine this statement from Max Teggmark:

Cosmologists infer the presence of Level II parallel universes by scrutinizing the properties of our universe. These properties, including the strength of the forces of nature and the number of observable space and time dimensions, were established by random processes during the birth of our universe. Yet they have exactly the values that sustain life. That suggests the existence of other universes with other values (1)

So, first, Tegmark (and many others) assumes that the birth of the universe is a random occurrence (“established by random processes”), this automatically excludes the possibility that there was a Creator with a purpose for creating it. Then, he infers the presence of other universes to circumvent the implications of design in our universe with zero evidence. I realize the quote above is not an exposition of his research method, but it is a pretty straightforward summary, and this criticism stands no matter what data is collected. This is why Van Inwagen writes that the choices between whether the origin of the universe is “Chaos”, or a “Mind” (interpreted, to me, as a creator), “can be emotionally attractive to certain people” (2)

Is not the most natural explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe that it has actually been fine-tuned? I’ll address two concerns that may provoke knee-jerk reactions against this conclusion. One is that we cannot “scientifically” verify the existence of a Creator, the other is that belief in a Creator is somehow irrational.

earth_med

In addressing the first concern, can we “scientifically” verify the existence of a multi-verse? No, but nonetheless many physicists are bent on validating it. Leonard Susskind has stated “It would be very foolish to throw away the right answer on the basis that it doesn’t conform to some criteria for what is or isn’t science” (3). I agree with Susskind but wonder why this truth is not also applied to the answer that the universe is in fact the product of a Mind, a Creator? Perhaps because of the second concern, that belief in the existence of a Creator is somehow irrational. This is a hard concern to address in a short post, because I don’t expect a majority of people to be able to give an air-tight definition of what makes a belief “rational”, but I’ll take it to mean that someone is “warranted in their belief about something”.

I will borrow an argument from Plantinga and apply it to this problem. The argument is essentially this “…the existence of other minds is, for each of us, a sort of scientific hypothesis” and if we believe that there is enough evidence for us to believe in other minds, there is enough evidence for us to believe in a Designer. I cannot deal with all the details of this argument, but will give a general sketch. “Minds” here means something like a conscious, emotive, thinking individual.

We believe there are other minds (other people who think and feel) because it is “more probable than not on my total evidence”(4). What is our total evidence? Plantinga calls it “analogical evidence”. We can use any emotion as an example. Take pain, when I do anything in a set actions “x” (say scream and hold my arm, or moan and hold my stomach) it is usually because I feel pain in that part of my body. Other human bodies do the same things I do when I feel pain. Therefore, when other human bodies do those things it is probably because they also have minds and feel pain as well.

But, how do we confirm that other human bodies’ actions actually have a mind behind them and not just rest on “probably”? We never directly experience others’ emotions or mental life. The only emotions and mental life we experience are our own. If we base our conclusion solely on what we absolutely know, we would have to conclude that “I am the only mind in existence”. Because of this, the existence of other minds is doubtful on strict logical necessity. But does this make it irrational for us to believe that there are other minds? No, because we may rationally hold beliefs without absolutely certain modes of gaining evidence for them.

The argument further states that the proposition “The author of the universe is an intelligent being” has support on “teleological evidence”. This evidence would be all the values that we referred to in the first post. The fine-tuning is there, and we can infer the existence of a Creator from observing that the universe resembles other things that are created by intelligent beings. There’s no undisputed evidence for the existence for a Creator (in the same way that one could dispute the existence of other minds). Plantinga thus argues that the existence of a Creator is as probable on the relevant evidence of the teleological argument, as the proposition “There are other minds” is probable on the evidence relevant to the analogical argument. Though this does not show that “the two are on a par…there is nothing to choose from between them so far as evidence or reasons go; the teleological evidence is the evidence appropriate to the teleological argument”(4).

The final move is to ask: If we took analogical evidence from our first-person experience, like the argument for other minds, how probable is the existence of a Creator? Well, just about the same. On analogical evidence, one can say: “The things I create are the product of an intelligent being, me. The universe resembles these things in that they are suited to produce specific results. I did not produce the universe. Therefore probably the universe is the product of another intelligent being.”

So, it seems that this hypothesis is as probable on the teleological evidence as it is on analogical evidence. This is now the conclusion: If the existence of a Creator (call this “p”)is as probable on the teleological evidence as the existence of other minds (call this “m”) is on the analogical evidence, and (p) is just as probable on the analogical evidence as it is on the teleological evidence, then p is just as probable as m is on the analogical evidence. To end this, Plantinga states that

…there may be other reasons for supposing that although rational belief in other minds does not require an answer to the epistemological question, rational belief in the existence of God [the presumed creator here] does. But it is certainly hard to see what these reasons might be. Hence my tentative conclusion: if my belief in other minds is rational, so is my belief in God. But obviously the former is rational; so, therefore, is the latter

Now let’s tie this all together.

The universe seems to be fine-tuned in so many ways that it compels us to explain why it is the way it is. The answer that “we shouldn’t be surprised by how the universe is because it’s as improbable as any other possible universe”, as we have seen, does not stand up to scrutiny. The answer that the universe could not have been any other way seems very unlikely, and the possibility of an infinite among of universes leads to absurdities. Even if the multiverse was a verifiable hypothesis, the question could be raised “Why does this ‘field’ have the properties that fit it for generating random cosmoi?” One may just ask the questions further “Why is it there”, “Where did it come from?” The possibility of a Creator seems to actually have more weight because, as Plantinga pointed out, if we already believe in other minds, the belief in a mind responsible for fine-tuning is just as rational. So, I end with my belief that the universe is actually the product of a Designer, and this is more probable than any alternative explanation of the facts.

(1) Tegmark,
Max.
Parallel
Universes.
Scientific
American.
May
2003.
 <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=parallel‐universes&gt;.

(2) Van
Inwagen,
Peter.
METAPHYSICS.
Westview
Press.
2009

(3) Brumfiel,
Geoff.
Our
Universe:
Outrageous
fortune.
Nature.
January
05
2006.
 <http://creationism.org.pl/groups/ptkrmember/filozofia‐ przyrody/2006/document.2006‐01‐30.0746182444>.

(4) Plantinga, God and Other Minds

Is there a Reason the Universe Seems Fine Tuned for Life? Pt. 2

In my last post, I gave a very general explanation of how the universe seems fine tuned for life. This is not a matter of biological fine tuning (though evolutionary models are a whole separate issue which, so far as I can tell, lend themselves to the same kinds of questions), but fine tuning of the most basic laws of our universe. You’ll have to read that post to follow along with what follows.
carina-nebula-1920
Van Inwagen believes that we have no reason to prefer either the “creator” hypothesis or the multi-verse hypothesis, but I disagree.

There are two possible scenarios in the multi-verse hypothesis. One is that there are a limited number of possible cosmos, the other is that there are an infinite number.

There are serious problems with proposing an infinite number of actual cosmos, infinite we might say. This excerpt from an article in Scientific American sums them up well:

The most popular cosmological model today predicts that you have a twin in a galaxy about 10 to the 1028 meters from here… The estimate…does not even assume speculative modern physics, merely that space is infinite… There are infinitely many other inhabited planets, including not just one but infinitely many that have people with the same appearance, name, and memories as you.”(1)

This was still a misrepresentation of the state of affairs among physicists at the time, but still, the problem of proposing that there are an infinite number of universes is that if the above scenario is true, we come up with ludicrous situations. If it is true, there is bound to be a universe to match absolutely any possible scenario we can think of. Consider this one posed by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom in his book Anthropic Bias:

“When black holes evaporate…things such as boots…have some finite probability of popping out…there is thus a finite probability that a black hole will produce a brain in a state of making any given observation…even “uninhabitable” universes can con taint the odd, spontaneously materialized “freak observer”…It is even logically consistent with all our evidence that we are such freak observers”

While Bostrom’s last sentence would make absolutely no sense if the scenario he just described is actually the case, since there would be no “we” to speak of, the fact is that this scenario leads us straight into the worst kind of skepticism, the kind that is existentially untenable. You might be the freak observer, and everything around you is simply the state of your brain. It could be the case that there are no laws of physics, most of what you think you know about the world would be false, and there’s no way to verify it because you cannot “get out” of your experience as this singular observer. You cannot bring in your memories to ward off this possibility, because they are part of that moment, or moments, of spontaneous existence. It is impossible to live with the skepticism implied in this hypothesis.

But, what if there a limited number of universes, an extremely large amount of them? Well, string theorists have been at the forefront of the multi-verse hypotheses because the strong theory model of physics “yields a gargantuan number of models: about 10,500, give or take a few trillion”(2). For Leonard Susskind (a founder of string theory) an proponents of the multi-verse, each of these different possibilities in the model is an actual existence universe somewhere. But there is one huge hurdle facing the multi-verse hypothesis in any form. David Gross, a Nobel prize winning theorist put it simply: “It’s impossible to disprove”(3). Gross further claims that because we have no way to get out of our own universe and falsify whether there are others, the theory itself isn’t science (ibid). He isn’t alone either.

Lisa Randall at Harvard claims “You really need to explore alternative before taking such radical leaps of faith”. Astronomer Bernard Carr says that the reason Gross (and presumable other scientists) do not support the multi-verse hypothesis is that they see

“science taking on some of the traits of religion… In a sense he’s correct, because things like faith and beauty are becoming a component of the discussion” (ibid).

This will get to the heart of the issue “Gross believes that the emergence of multiple universes in science has its origins in theorist’s 20-year struggle to explain the finely tuned numbers of the cosmos” (ibid). Because of this, Gross and others are actually at work to find some way to refine the equations of string theory, and discover a “theory of everything”, which would exclude the multi-verse hypothesis, but at the same time weaken the plausibility of a Creator of the cosmos. In response to this, string theorists like Susskind have said that they may be “looking for meaning in a meaningless set of numbers” (ibid). Which leads us back to where we began; it is a fact that the universe is fine-tuned for life to exist. Corey Powell, a senior editor of Discover magazine, interviewed Leonard Susskind and makes this keen observation

Susskind embraces the megaverse interpretation because it offers a way through the intelligent design challenge

I believe that anyone who looks at the same facts squarely in the face will be blown away by the universe’s suitability for life. The reason that the “multi-verse” interpretation has emerged is not an empirical one, it is metaphysical.

In my next post, I’ll elaborate on how that is obviously the case (if it’s not clear already), and on an argument that I believe gives belief in a creator much more plausibility than mere emotional appeal. 

SOURCES

(1) Tegmark,
Max.
Parallel
Universes.
Scientific
American.
May
2003.
 <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=parallel‐universes&gt;.

(2) S.
Powell,
Corey.
THE
COSMIC
LANDSCAPE
String
Theory
and
the
Illusion
of
Intelligent
 Design.
The
New
York
Times.
Jan
20
2006.
 <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/20/news/20iht‐booksat.html&gt;.

(3) Brumfiel,
Geoff.
Our
Universe:
Outrageous
fortune.
Nature.
January
05
2006.
 <http://creationism.org.pl/groups/ptkrmember/filozofia‐ przyrody/2006/document.2006‐01‐30.0746182444>.

Is There a Reason the Universe Seems Fine Tuned for Life? (pt.1)

These posts are excerpts from an essay I wrote in 2009 on topics that have come full circle. It’s not super-technical philosophy, but has some arguments I thought were kind of creative (even if over-simplified). More and more the “multiverse theory” or  “Everett interpretation” of quantum mechanics  has come into vogue, a theory that, I argued here, is one of the worse options for explaining the universe we live in.

The teleological argument gives an answer to the question: “What explains the apparent ‘fine tuning’ of the universe that makes it a place suitable for the existence of human life?” Some versions of the argument also claim to answer the question, “Is there a purpose to the existence of human life?” The argument’s answer to both questions is that the universe was purposely designed by a volitional, intelligent Creator (or, many creators, though this seems to go yet another step beyond Ockham’s razor and belief in a creator, arguably, already violates this principle), and at least one of the Creator’s intentions was that the universe be hospitable for the existence of intelligent life. By implication the question of “purpose” would be connected to whether there were any such ideas in the Mind from which the universe was birthed. I will look at alternative explanations to the presence of fine-tuning, objections to the Creation hypothesis and reasons for why it is the better explanation.

Before we go on, what do we mean by the “fine tuning” of the universe? Physicist Stephen Hawking put it this way in A Brief History of Time:

The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and electron…if the electric charge of the electron had been only slightly different, stars either would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or else they would not have exploded…there are relatively few ranges of values for the numbers that would allow the development of any form of intelligent life”

These are the sorts of things that the teleological argument attempts to explain by saying “The reason why these things are so, or happened as they did, is because a Creator purposefully brought them to be.”

Now, what are some objections to this explanation? The first one I’ll address goes something like this: “There is no reason that this universe was fine-tuned because the fact that all these laws are as they are is as unlikely as any other set of values for those laws. The only difference is that if they were different we wouldn’t be here to notice” (Van Inwagen, Metaphysics, 190). Metaphysician Peter Van Inwagen gives a good reply to this objection by providing a way to guide our determination of whether something came to be by utter chance or if something explains its’ existence. I’ll paraphrase the principle:

Say a possibility, call it (x), is actualized (meaning it happens) out of a large set of possibilities that are exhaustive (meaning there are no other possibilities),  inconsistent (only one of these possibilities can be true), and all are about equally probable. If we can think of an explanation for why (x) actualized and “no parallel explanation” would apply to the other possibilities, then we cannot off-handedly say that it was a matter of chance that (x) was actualized (Van Inwagen, 191). 

Applying this to the teleological argument we can say that (x) is the universe we live in with all of its constants. It is one out of a large number of possible universes with different values for their fundamental constants. We can think of an explanation for why this universe was actualized: An intelligent agent who, among other possible motives, wanted intelligent life to develop purposefully designed it. Could a parallel explanation be applied if other universes were actualized? No. At least as a general rule no,  because most of those universes would not allow for life to develop, and almost all would not have developed any kind of intelligent life, and still less would have allowed for anything remotely as complex as the human body. So we cannot just assert that it’s as statistically improbable that any other universe exist, and that our universe existing requires no further explanation because of this.

A second objection Van Inwagen cites is the possibility of discovering a “theory of everything”. What this means is that there may be some law of physics that makes it so there is no other possible way for things to be, and so there is no need to invoke a Designer (192). He states, I think accurately, “The motivations of those physicists looking for an ‘only possible theory of everything’ are pretty clearly aesthetic and metaphysical…the existence of such motivations should not be taken to imply that there is any evidence that reality is going to cooperate with them” (194). Hawking is actually doing work now on discovering this so called “theory of the universe (Folger, 4). The biggest contender at the moment is string theory. “But it has one huge problem: its fundamental equations have a near-infinite number of solutions, each corresponding to a unique universe” (4). At the moment, the “theory of everything” is still elusive, and String Theory is flexible enough to be used in support of an alternate hypothesis.

This alternate hypothesis is that our cosmos may be one of a vast array of other cosmos that actually exist now (Van Inwagen 202). Referring back to the “principle” I stated in response to the first objection, this belief implies that even if that principle is true, we are not in a situation where it applies. The reason is that those other universes that we said are “inconsistent” with the one we live in, are actually real universes, not mere possibilities. If it is the case that we live in one universe among many then it is “a statistical certainty” that some are “suitable abodes for life” (202).

In the next post, I’ll give a few reasons why the existence of a creator is the better hypothesis.

Additional Source:
Folger,
 Tim.
Stephen
Hawking
Is
Making
His
Comeback.
Discover.
September
11,
2009.
 <http://discovermagazine.com/2009/jul‐aug/11‐stephen‐hawking‐is‐making‐his‐ comeback>.

C.S. Lewis on Reading Old Books & Theology

Unknown C.S. Lewis’ Introduction to “On the Incarnation” by Athanasius: “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, at that the amateurs should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Plato the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read “Symposium”…The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers fact to face…But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism… This mistaken preference for modern books and shyness of the old ones is nowhere more prevalent than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are not studying St. Luke, or St. Paul, or Augustine, or Aquinas… Now this seems to me topsy-turvy…If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said… Every age has its’ own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristics mistakes of our own period…None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books… Not, of, course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us… To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

Church Fathers & Greek Philosophy

Last Fall I took an intro course on Church History called, “The Church to the Reformation“.  Two questions I was asking throughout that course were:

1) “How much did Greek philosophical concepts actually affect the theology of the Church?”
and
2) “How much of that was a good or bad thing?”

Currently I’m in a different course on the “Christological and Trinitarian Controversies”, reading lots of the primary sources where the Church Fathers hammered out what they believed about Jesus and the Trinity. My answers will probably become more nuanced as I study, but, given that course last Fall and what I’ve read up to now, my answers to the two questions above are something like this:

1) Greek philosophy (particularly Platonism), created a framework in the minds of many of the Church fathers about the nature of God, a framework which they built much of their theology on, and thus a framework we have inherited.

2) It was not all bad, but some of the influences which were least supported by scripture are still considered “primary” in Christian theology today.

Mosaic of the beheading of Justin Martyr (click for source)
Mosaic of the beheading of Justin Martyr (click for source)

Here are some excerpts from the introduction to the texts, and they give good examples of those two points:

…the Apologists of the second century, Aristides, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tatian, and Theophilus of Antioch…shared a common concern to present Christianity to the Greco-Roman culture of their day in such a way as to defend Christianity against the charge of atheism. To the educated classes of the Greco-Roman world, they insisted that the truth of Christianity is that to which the pagan philosophers pointed…A special debt was owed to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who taught that the divine Logos had spoken through the prophets and had been the subject of the theophanies of the Old Testament….(emphasis mine)

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 3). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

So, there this idea of “general revelation” that some of the Church’s earliest theologians held. They thought that, in some senses, Greek philosophy had been discovering truths which pointed to the one true God. While I don’t think they are necessarily wrong, the question is which things pointed to the one true God? On the other hand, which things pointed away from Him?

This identification of Christ with the Logos allowed the Apologists to insist that Christianity was faith in him to whom the Old Testament witnessed and to whom the pagan philosophers indistinctly pointed. It also offered an explanation of how God, unoriginate, eternal, and nameless, could be involved in a changeable world.

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 4). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

The Apologists utilized a picture of a man putting forth his thought and spirit in external activity. This representation allowed them to recognize, although dimly, the eternal plurality in the Godhead and to show how the Word and the Spirit, truly manifested in space and time, could also be within the being of the Father… The Apologists set the future course for trinitarian theology and enabled Christianity to take seriously the presuppositions of Greek philosophy.

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 5). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Those excerpts illustrate one example of how I think the Apologists imported ideas which were unbiblical. The question of “how God, unoriginate, eternal, and nameless, could be involved in a changeable world” is only a serious problem if you assume certain “presuppositions of Greek philosophy”. Those presuppositions could be true, they could be false. The God of the Old Testament already showed He was intimately involved with his creation, and the biblical idea that God is “changeless” applied not to the metaphysics of his being, but his character, or his overarching will (for more on this check out a great short post at the Reknew blog).

Another example would be the difficulty the early church had in understanding how Jesus could have suffered, and yet still be the divine “Logos”. Platonic metaphysics are notoriously hierarchical, and thus to think that God would actually “suffer” or experience the things of human life required some serious theological acrobatics. In this sense, the Church inherited some theological problems which only arose because of the underlying Greek metaphysics, typically Platonic. Since the apologists were trying to relate Christ TO their culture, it seems like some of them conformed their explanations of God to the dominant system of thought. We can’t necessarily blame them for it either, because we often do the same today, to our peril!

I’m excited to explore these early controversies, but I think it’s worth remembering that we should look to scripture for our understanding of God, even while we may use language, or even ideas, which are not directly from scripture. It’s also good for me to remember that despite differences of theology, the fate of the early church fathers was frequently that depicted in the mosaic of Justin Martyr above, and we should never enthrone our understanding of scripture, to the place of scripture, as the church so often does.

The Weak, Seek

Over the past few weeks I’ve shared the story of my conversion with several people, and it reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now. My conversion came at the lowest point of my life, and as such it exemplifies certain negative stereotypes which people have of religion in general, whether it’s faith in Jesus or something else. The one I want to address here is the idea that religious belief in general is a “crutch” for those of us who are just too weak to face the struggles of life alone.

The prejudice runs something like this: Few people are able to stare the meaninglessness of life in the face and create their own destiny, become gods, but those who do are truly strong. A more spiritual version of this is the idea that one can simply find “within oneself” the resources to sustain one’s life, and that there’s a sort of divine power which we need to access, and we will not be seeking resources to live from outside of ourselves. For those who turn to reliance on a power outside themselves or others, well, they’re just a little weak. The conclusion to be drawn is that, if that last sentence is true, then it somehow should count as negative evidence against these beliefs.

Now, I can only address this from the perspective of a disciple of Christ, but the general response is the same: the conditions under which people come to see something as true has little bearing on whether it is true, or not. For example, it may be only while I am watching a graphic film about factory farming that I conclude the industry’s practices are immoral, but just because I was queasy when I came to the conclusion doesn’t mean it isn’t true. This must be assessed on other grounds. Similarly, individuals coming to faith in times of duress is a circumstantial piece of information that does not determing whether their belief is true.

For Christians however, these observations are meant to confirm our faith. They are not meant as evidence for those who do not believe, but their existence is given robust explanation in scripture. There are two ways that I have been thinking of this.

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (click image for source)
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (click image for source)

The first is that Jesus Christ’s most famous sermon states in no uncertain terms that God specifically blesses those who the rest of the world would consider “unfortunate” or “weak”, in the exact kind of ways which many “weak” believers would hope. Consider the beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spiritfor the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousnessfor they will be satisfied.

Blessed are the mercifulfor they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heartfor they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakersfor they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousnessfor the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of meRejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heavenfor they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way.

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6:24-26, we see another sermon (or perhaps the rest of this one) combined to contrast Jesus’ attitude towards those whose assurance that they are living well rests on their level of comfort:

But woe to you who are richfor you have received your comfort alreadyWoe to you who are well satisfied with food nowfor you will be hungryWoe to you who laugh nowfor you will mourn and weepWoe to you when all people speak well of youfor their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

In other words, all of the observations used against faith birthed out of suffering, were acknowledged by a Jewish Rabbi over 2,000 years ago, and his followers have always known this is how the world seems to work.

The second way in which this counts as further confirmation for the Christian faith is that the entire New Testament unambiguously declares that the world is under the influence of the spiritual enemies of God, and that their rule (called the “kingdom of darkness”, or “kingdom of the world”) is one of deception. Specifically, a theme for Jesus is the deception of riches. It seems as though the fact that the world’s well-of seem to feel less in-need of God is an intentional ploy by the enemies of God. Here are just a few more passages to confirm this:

1 John 5:19 “We know that we are from Godand the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

Matthew 13:22 “The seed sown among thorns is the person who hears the wordbut worldly cares and the seductiveness of wealth choke the wordso it produces nothing.”

Luke 12:19-21 (Here Jesus is finishing a parable) “And I will say to myself, “You have plenty of goods stored up for many yearsrelaxeatdrinkcelebrate!”’ But God said to him‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from youbut who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ So it is with the one who stores up riches for himselfbut is not rich toward God.”

1 Timothy 6:7-10 “For we have brought nothing into this world and so we cannot take a single thing out eitherBut if we have food and shelterwe will be satisfied with that. Those who long to be richhowever, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of every type of evilsSome people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.”

So, my final word is to those who may find themselves in weakness, in suffering, in poverty, and like Job are asking “Why do the wicked go on living, grow old, even increase in power?”

The reality of suffering and injustice were forever placed into the experience of God’s own life, and He knows what it is like.  “For we do not have high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses“, the author of Hebrews says. Jesus’ death puts on display the reality that the world is simply not just. The beautiful hope which we recently celebrated on Easter is that God is making all things new. In light of the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection, we have assurance that he is able to resurrect us. This world’s order is passing away, and this short life will not be our last. When we awake, it will be to a reign of peace and love “for the former things have ceased to exist.” Today, I encourage you to take his words to heart:

“In the world you have trouble and sufferingbut take courage – I have conquered the world.”

Palm Sunday Reflection: True Kingdom, True King

Jesus enters Jerusalem, by Giotto (click for source)
Jesus enters Jerusalem, by Giotto (click for source)

This past Sunday my church community had a service centered around the Triumphal Entry and Mark’s account in Mark 11. I was really blessed by the sermon and the worship centered around Jesus as our King, the Messiah delivering all humanity from its’ own rebellion, from death itself and the devil. A question which I think we should think deeply about is “How were the Jewish expectations of the Messiah wrong, and how were they right?” Of course, different sects of Judaism would have different expectations: Zealots would be expecting an outright revolt, and with some speed! Perhaps others expected an organized, but slow movement towards full-scale war against Rome. I’m no Jewish scholar, just extrapolating. I want to offer one specific way that I think Jewish expectations were right, and another specific way (connected to it) that was wrong. Both of these have deep implications for followers of Jesus today, and we might be ignoring their logical conclusions.

One way in which I think their expectations were right, is that the Messiah would be political. What I mean is that prophecies about the Messiah were intimately connected to the throne of David, and the Messiah would change the power structures of the world in drastic ways. More specifically, the Messiah was to do something that would permanently establish freedom for Israel. As seen in Mark 11:10, the crowds were calling out about Jesus:

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David

In connection to this, Christians rightly point out that Jesus’ kingdom was “not of this world”, as he would say to Pilate several days later. But, we shouldn’t leverage this statement beyond its’ intention. It does not imply that Jesus’ kingdom is not supposed to have political ramifications! Jesus himself would quote deeply political prophecies, and one story in particular connects to the way in which I think Jewish expectations were wrong. In Luke 4:18-30, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth and reads a prophecy from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon mebecause he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poorHe has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blindto set free those who are oppressed,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is all that Jesus quotes, but look at the rest of the passage! I highlighted the words which are tangible and almost impossible to simply interpret as “spiritual”.

They will rebuild the perpetual ruins and restore the places that were desolatethey will reestablish the ruined citiesthe places that have been desolate since ancient times. “Foreigners will take care of your sheepforeigners will work in your fields and vineyardsYou will be called‘the Lord’s priests, servants of our God.’ You will enjoy the wealth of nations and boast about the riches you receive from themInstead of shameyou will get a double portion; instead of humiliationthey will rejoice over the land they receive. Yes, they will possess a double portion in their land and experience lasting joyFor Ithe Lord, love justice and hate robbery and sin. I will repay them because of my faithfulnessI will make a permanent covenant with themTheir descendants will be known among the nations, their offspring among the peoplesAll who see them will recognize that the Lord has blessed them.”

Jesus goes on to say that this prophecy is about Him, and everyone there is shocked, because he’s a hometown boy! It’s Jesus’ response to their unbelief that he is the Messiah, and their response to him, that really enlightens the Jewish attitudes about this “Son of David”:

“There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elishayet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard thisall the people in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got upforced him out of the townand brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was builtso that they could throw him down the cliff.

Woah there, maybe an over-reaction no? The Jews were rightfully expecting a political Messiah, but they were wrongfully expecting a political Messiah only for the Jews. Because Jesus was here explicitly approving the behavior of Gentiles, and judging the behavior of Jews, he caused a riot and was almost killed! It is unlike other kingdoms in that it is transnational. 

Lastly, I mentioned how Jesus’ statement “My kingdom is not of this world” can be stretched to imply that his kingdom is not relevant for politics, for how human societies organize themselves. Another mistake is to forget about the second-half of that statement

If my kingdom were from this worldmy servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is,my kingdom is not from here.

So, it seems to me that Jesus’ kingdom is deeply political, but not of this world. It’s political in the sense that it is the formation of a new community of people, a new “nation”, unrestricted by national borders and operating together in every sense that all other “nations” operate. The kingdom of God is in the world, but, it is not of the world, because the way it operates does not look anything like how “normal” governments operate, specifically by the fact that we do not use violence. The Kingdom of God should be a catalyst for forming peaceful, alternative, transnational political systems. It involves land, justice, forgiveness, peace, and good news for the poor.