Thursday, January 29, 2015

Polanyi on the Head and the Heart

Michael Polanyi
“Proponents of a new system can convince their audience only by first winning their intellectual sympathy for a doctrine that they have not yet grasped. . . .

We can now see, also, the great difficulty that may arise in the attempt to persuade others to accept a new idea in science. We have seen that to the extent to which it represents a new way of reasoning, we cannot convince others of it by formal argument, for so long as we argue within their framework, we can never convince them to abandon it. Demonstration must be supplemented, therefore, by forms of persuasion which can induce a conversion. The refusal to enter on an opponent’s way of arguing must be justified by making it appear altogether unreasonable.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Kindle 3292.)

Scientists who suggest new systems run into opposition from those for whom the status quo is working. Often, a scientific revolution requires a new way of looking at the world for the theory to make sense. Polanyi points out that before a revolutionary scientific idea can be accepted by the academy, the scientist must convince them that his or her idea is worth considering. In other words, before he or she can win their heads, the scientist must win their hearts.

Polanyi uses an interesting word to describe this process: “conversion.”

Like the controversial scientist, we can’t convince people that the gospel is worth considering through intellectual arguments. We can’t prove our message using the “rules” of naturalism, and if we present our case assuming the existence of God we are accused of special pleading. It’s heads I win, tails you lose.

Polanyi is right that conversion begins with the heart, not the head. So, how does the church convert the heart of our world? 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What Is Truth? Michael Polanyi on Truth and Fruitfulness

Michael Polanyi
"But the long controversy between the two views shows also that this distinction is as difficult as it is vital. The difficulty is merely covered up by suggesting that a true discovery is characterized by its fruitfulness, which a purely formal advance lacks. You cannot define the indeterminate veridical powers of truth in terms of fruitfulness, unless ‘frutiful’ is itself qualified in terms of the definiendum. The Ptolemaic system was a fruitful source of error for one thousand years; astrology has been a fruitful source of income to astrologers for two thousand five hundred years; Marxism is today a fruitful source of power for the rulers of one third of mankind. When we say that Copernicanism was fruitful, we mean that it was fruitful source of truth, and we cannot distinguish its kind of fruitfulness from that of Ptolemaic system, or of astrology, or Marxism, except by such a qualification. To use the word ‘fruitful’ in this sense, without acknowledging it, is a deceptive substitution, a pseudosubstitution, a Laplacean sleight of hand.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Kindle 3211.)

Polanyi distinguishes between “truth” and “fruitfulness” for scientific discovery. Some theories are fruitful and are later proven to be untrue under other circumstances (like Newtonian physics). Just because a theory has predictive power under some circumstances, doesn’t mean that it is true.

I’ve often heard it argued that the biblical narratives are “true” in the sense that they produce results in people (religious identity, inspiration, ethical example). But I agree with Polanyi that this is more appropriately called “fruitful.” Yes, the biblical stories give us religious identity, inspiration, and ethical examples, but this in itself does not make them “true.” To be true means to correspond to reality.

What do you think? Can a story like the Exodus or the resurrection of Jesus still be “true” if it never happened in actual history? What do we mean when we say that a story is true?  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Can We Be both Passionate and Humble about Our Beliefs?

Michael Polanyi
“So we see that both Kepler and Einstein approached nature with intellectual passions and with beliefs inherent in these passions, which led them to their triumphs and misguided them to their errors. These passions and beliefs were theirs, personally, even though they held them in conviction that they were valid, universally. I believe that they were competent to follow these impulses, even though they risked being misled by them. And again, what I accept of their work as true today, I accept personally, guided by my passions and beliefs similar to theirs, holding in my turn that my impulses are valid, universally, even though I must admit the possibility that I might be mistaken.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Kindle 3177.) 

Kepler and Einstein had hunches, beliefs, and passions that guided their scientific exploration. Some of these hunches turned out to be true and some didn’t, but what made them good scientists was their ability to come up with good hunches and pursue them even though they couldn’t prove them.

Are we able to do the same with theology? Are we able to have convictions about universal truth and yet maintain the possibility that we could be wrong? Does epistemological humility demand dispassion, or can we balance conviction with a post-critical worldview? 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Which Comes First: The Solution or the Evidence?

Michael Polanyi forgot more
about math than I'll ever know.
“Gauss is widely quotes as having said: ‘I have had my solutions for a long time but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.’ Though the quotation may be doubtful it remains well said.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Kindle 2679.)

In Personal Knowledge, Polanyi argues that a good scientist (or mathematician in the case of Gauss) always has a gut feeling about why things are the way they are. This gut feeling drives experimentation. Thus, scientific knowledge is never truly objective. 

I love the quote by Gauss and I think that is what I do with theology—I get a gut feeling that something is true and then look for (and often find) evidence in the Scriptures and in life. I think this is part of growing as a student of the Scriptures and as a theologian. You start to suspect that things are true of God and then you look for them and notice things that you never noticed before. 

Ever done that before?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Subjectivity, Science, and Theology

Michael Polanyi wrote about
physics and used big words.
“It is a travesty of the scientific method to conceive of it as a process which depends on the speed of accumulating evidence presenting itself automatically in respect to hypotheses selected at random.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Kindle 709.)

Polanyi points out that in the scientific method, hypotheses do not arise objectively, but are created by scientists. Tests of these hypotheses are also not random. A scientist who tested random ideas with random tests would not be a good scientist. Thus, the scientific method does not rest objectively on reason, but also on subjective human judgment. (This is okay to Polanyi because personal knowledge is legitimate.)

First, what do you think of Polanyi’s critique of the scientific method? Is that a worldview-changer?

Second, this makes me think of theology. Our systems don’t come out of a vacuum, but start as ideas of men and women trying to make sense of God’s revelation. Texts and experiences are subjectively elevated over others as “proof” of a system (why is Romans so important?). In the end, can we separate the theology from the theologian? Is that a problem?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Does Theology Need Predictive Power? Polanyi on Personal Knowledge

Michael Polanyi was smarter than you.
“One may say, indeed, quite generally, that a theory which we acclaim as rational in itself is thereby accredited with prophetic powers. We accept it in the hope of making contact with reality; so that, being really true, our theory may yet show forth its truth through future centuries in ways undreamed of by its authors. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries of our age have been rightly described as the amazing confirmations of accepted scientific theories. In this wholly indeterminate scope of its true implications lies the deepest sense in which objectivity is attributed to a scientific theory.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Kindle 180)

Scientists value theories based on their power to predict results in a laboratory. Newton’s theory of gravity was valued because it was able to predict the motion of the planets. Einstein’s theories were valued because they could predict results in cases where Newton’s theories were insufficient.

Instead of theories about “how the universe works,” theologians come up with descriptions of “who God is” and “how He works.” Often, these descriptions are based on the Scriptures, though reason, history, and experience play a role in the forming of theology.

But how often do we approach our theology as a theory in need of justification by real-world predictive power, as opposed to dogma alone? In other words, is it enough for a theology to have Bible verses in support of it, or must good theology describe the world as it actually is? Often we value theology solely on how many verses it can account for; predictive power and correspondence with the real world are not part of the equation.

Here’s an example: when I was in college and seminary, I was taught a theology of sanctification that attempted to be wholly grace-based with no room for human effort. (So far, so good.) But, if growth is wholly a result of God’s grace, how do people change? I was taught that James 4:6 (ESV) was the key: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” The key to growth, therefore, was humility. In humbling ourselves before God and confessing our inability to change, we open ourselves up to God’s grace and the power to change. 

Thus I was taught and thus I believed.

Until I was challenged to put this theology to the test in real life. A counseling professor challenged me to pick something about myself that I wanted to change, and to use my theology to change.

I did. It didn’t work. And it was the beginning of a theological shift for me.  

What do you think about this? Is there a role for predictive power in theology, or is it enough to be a rational system? If predictive power is important, what kinds of things can be used to measure the value of a theology?  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Improving the Bible

Erwin Raphael McManus
In our preaching and teaching the Bible, do we ever feel the need to “clarify” the text to let people know that it doesn’t really say what it appears to be saying? On page 80 of The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus shares this funny story about an interpreter trying to “clarify” one of his talks. He writes:
“I remember in Germany once stopping the interpreter in the middle of my talk and challenging him in front of the thousands in the audience. I was certain that he not only had not translated what I said but had in fact reinterpreted my words and said quite the opposite. So I stopped, stepped into this uncomfortable moment, and asked him a simple question. It was really more of a statement. ‘You didn’t say what I just said, did you? In fact, you said the opposite of what I said. You just said what you thought I should say, but not what I did say.’ 
After a long pause, he acknowledged that I was exactly right. Afterward, he asked me onstage, ‘How did you know that?’ 
I’m not completely sure how I knew. But I do know that I have a pretty good sense of how an audience will respond when a certain statement is made. The statement I made was somewhat controversial. The response of the audience was immediate and willing adherence. I knew that thousands of Germans would not respond in such a positive way to what I had just said. Interpretation is far more than language; interpretation goes to essence. Interpretation is the translation of the soul.”
How often do we do this with God?

When we teach the Bible, how often do we reinterpret it to say what we think it should say, not what it actually says? Like when a passage doesn't fit into our theological system? Or when our heroes of the faith do things that are neither heroic or faithful? Do we need to "correct" these passages?

The Bible is the word of God. But it's also unsettling in places. It's offensive in places. It creates tension. This is God teaching us to wrestle. Instead of shoehorning the text into our sensibilities, let’s form fuzzier sensibilities about revelation.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Wounds, Scars, and Stories

Erwin Raphael McManus
I have scars on my abdomen from some major surgeries I had when I was a teenager. Sometimes people ask me about them, and I wish I had a cool story to explain them—maybe a motorcycle accident or a knife fight. But, no. I have a genetic blood disorder that required the removal of my spleen. That’s it. That’s my story.

On page 77 of The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus relates scars to stories. He writes:
“But there is another kind of uninteresting person. It is the person who has suffered, and that suffering is all they know. They are trapped in their pain; they wallow in their despair; they are all wounds and no scars. All they can talk about is their pain. Life is suffering, and the suffering does not make them empathetic. They have no room for the pain of others. Their pain fills their entire universe. They are not interested in your story; they are not interested in your wounds; they are not interested in your pain. They are interested in you only if you are interested in them. They become emotional transients, nomadic wanderers moving from one person to another as each person unwittingly feeds their self-absorption, at first not realizing they do not want to find a way through their pain but only to trap others in their own endless suffering. As uninteresting as the person who has never suffered may be, this person wins the prize. It’s hard to tell a great story if we remain in chapter one. 
Beyond despair their must always be hope; beyond betrayal there must be a story of forgiveness; beyond failure there must be a story of resilience. If the story ended at the cross, it might be a story worth telling, but that story could never give life. Only the Resurrection makes the Crucifixion what it is for all of us who are marked by the cross.”
I love the phrase, “they are all wounds and no scars.” I have never thought of a scar like that. A scar is a good thing because it tells the story of a wound that has healed.

But what about McManus’s words about people who refuse to let their wounds become scars: “It’s hard to tell a great story if we remain in chapter one”? Is that the essence of a good story—the process of wounds becoming scars?

It makes me think of the famous scene in John when the resurrected Jesus appears to the eleven and he shows them the wounds in his hands and in his sides. “The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (John 20:20 Jewish Annotated New Testament). His resurrected body still has the wounds. He will always evidence the cross.

This implies that we will carry our wounds around in glory. What that looks like I don’t know. The blind will see and the lame will leap for joy, but they will still have their wounds. And what does that look like for other kinds of wounds—the wounds of betrayal, abuse, loss, and shame? What will those wounds look like?

Maybe the wounds will become scars.

Scars tell a story. We wonder about pain and evil and why they are a part of God’s plan. Maybe this is the reason. Maybe we will carry our wounds in glory, but we will carry them as scars. When we see each other’s scars, we will be reminded of the world fallen from God and we will be reminded of redemption. Maybe the scars will be the way that the gospel continues to be proclaimed forever.

The scars on my abdomen are super lame. But they are part of my story and I embrace them. I have other “scars” that tell better stories. But maybe I don’t have to think of these scars of evidence of hurt, but of evidence of healing. Scars aren’t wounds. Scars are former wounds that have been healed. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Love and Failure

I was at a budget meeting the other night, and the elders were debating whether or not to fund one of my ideas. They were intrigued by its potential, but there was significant expense and a lot of unanswered questions. The discussion moved toward cutting the idea until more research was done.

When it was clear that my idea was headed for the round file, one of the elders spoke up and suggested we set aside the money for the idea, so that if the research found it to be unfeasible we could spend it on something else “creative and risky.” Without thinking, I agreed and said out loud “Yes. I am all about doing things that are creative and risky.” Every eye turned to me. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing to say at a budget meeting.

But I stand behind what I said. Most good things in life involve risk. And risk often results in failure. But failure and pain are part of the well-lived life. On page 77 of The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus writes:
“In life I have found two kinds of people to be the most uninteresting. (Is it okay to admit that there are people who are uninteresting?) The first is the person who has never suffered. It is still surprising to me, but I have met people who have told me that they have never suffered, they have never failed; they have lived a life absolutely devoid of pain and disappointment. Living as long as I have, I have discovered that people who live these Teflon lives have only managed that outcome by living a life without risk, courage, passion, or love. We cannot love deeply or risk greatly and never know failure or disappointment. Not even God was able to pull that one off. Love never comes without wounds; faith never comes without failure.”
(Because I know that you are curious, the other most uninteresting person to McManus is the person who is so consumed with their own suffering that they cannot consider the pain of others.)

I love the thought that God’s love came with risk. My seven-year-old asked me the other day if God was going to kill Satan some day. When I said yes, he asked why, if God was strong enough to kill Satan, didn’t He just kill him in the garden.

Good question. He could have.

I have to think that in some way the story of fall-redemption-glory is in some way better than glory alone. In some way, the pain and the scars and the suffering are making a better world. (This doesn’t make them “good”; we still call evil what it is.) I confess, I don’t know how that will be, but I believe it will be.

What do you think? Is it possible to love deeply and never know failure?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Hope, Dreams, Poverty, and The Gospel

Is the gospel just about justification and the future, or does it offer us hope for real life? Does it offer us freedom? One pages 52-53 of The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus notes the relationship between dreams and freedom. He writes:
“One of the unexpected discoveries during my ten years of working with the urban poor was how poverty changes a person. Not always but far too often, physical poverty drives us to a poverty of the soul. I knew when I walked into a world of impoverishment that I would meet people who lacked food and shelter and education. I knew that I would spend my days with individuals and families who had been deprived of their basic human needs. I knew that centuries of oppression and injustice had robbed them of much of their dignity, opportunity, and freedom. What I didn’t know was that the weight of poverty had stolen from them most of their capacity to imagine a life better than the one they had always known. 
I quickly realized that it was essential for me to do the basic work of helping people solve the real problems of their daily struggle. I needed to help them find a place to live, a job that would pay their bills, and the skills necessary for a better life. But most important, it was critical that I somehow find a way to help these individuals, whom I had come to care so much about, learn to dream again. People only become slaves when they have lost their dreams. I am certain that every master knows this. You may have people in chains, but you don’t own them until you have stolen their souls. If they dream of freedom, your power over them is an illusion. Even Paul makes this nuanced distinction in his letter to the Galatians, when he says that even if the son is an heir, as long as he is a child, he still lives like a slave. Until the voice that guides us declares our freedom, nothing and no one in the world can make us free. As long as the voice that defines who we are declares our freedom, no one and nothing can hold us captive. Which leads to the critical question: What is the narrative that guides us?”
I love the line: “People only become slaves when they have lost their dreams.” That is so true. I have been poor and I have worked among the poor. One of the things I noticed working among the poor is that the main difference between the temporarily poor and the chronically poor is hope.

It is not difficult to endure poverty for a season. I lived for two years on $2.13/hour + tips when I was in graduate school. My life was hard, but I made it because I knew that it was just for a season. Eventually I got married and then graduated and was able to break out of poverty.

But life for the poor can be a vicious, hope-killing cycle. When there is no clear way out of poverty, it is tougher to endure the hardships. It’s natural to turn to drugs, alcohol, or other compulsive behaviors to escape the pain, shame, and anxiety of poverty. These decisions make it harder to escape poverty and the cycle escalates.

One of the most beautiful parts of the gospel to me is the hope that life can be different. Yes, because of the cross, Jesus offers us forgiveness of sins and the hope of resurrection and life with God in the future. But I think we evangelicals can be preoccupied with guilt and forgiveness. The gospel is bigger than that.

My wife and I once visited a woman from my church who was in the hospital for a failed suicide attempt. Because of her situation, she was at risk to lose her kids. Brooke and I sat with her and offered her support, but she turned the conversation to God: “Why did God make me like this?” She asked with tears in her eyes. “I have tried everything and I cannot change. Why would He make me like this?”

At that moment, guilt and shame and forgiveness and heaven and hell were nowhere on her radar. Her kids were all that mattered. All she wanted was to be able to change and live a life that would allow her access to her kids.

Does the gospel have any hope to offer her?

I think it does. Yes, the gospel is about forgiveness, but it’s also about life. Life now. Through the Spirit, God offers us our future life with God in a real but not complete way now. It’s a foretaste of what is to come. We don’t have to be slaves. There is hope for change.

What do you think? How important is hope? What kind of hope do we have through the gospel?  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Erwin McManus on Creativity and Feedback Loops

On pages 45-46 of The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus tells the story of playing basketball with a friend who was 6'6. Despite the guy's height advantage, he refused to get open under the basket. He would set a pick but then wouldn't look up for the inside pass. Frustrated with the missed opportunities, McManus confronted him on his play. The guy defended himself, saying that he was just setting a pick, not trying to get open underneath. McManus writes:
"I responded, 'I know you are setting a pick. I also know you can make eye contact with me when you are setting a pick. You don't want the ball underneath. You don't think you're open. You're 6'6. With your reach, it makes you 7'6. On this court you are always open. I need you to make eye contact. I know that you're a guard and you're used to playing outside, but somewhere in your life someone told you that you were small and you believed you were small, and now you are playing smaller than you are. Here you are big. What do I need to do to convince you that you aren't small?' 
His response caught me off guard. He said, 'That's what happens to you when your younger brother is 6'10. You are small, so you learn how to play outside.'"
McManus's friend was caught in a feedback loop. He was told he was small, so he learned to play outside. By doing so, he developed outside skills. When people praised him for his outside skills, he continued to develop them while his inside skills atrophied. Eventually, he couldn't play inside. The feedback loop was a self-fulfilling prophesy: he became small. 

This guy's story is not unique. I saw these same kinds of feedback loops in my childhood. I excelled in math and was discouraged in the arts. I remember two specific instances of teachers telling me I couldn't write (3rd grade and 9th grade). As a result I withdrew from all of the arts and emphasized math and science. I was further affirmed and I further developed. It wasn't until I was a senior in high school that I realized my love for the liberal arts (and my hatred for physics!) and I walked away from STEM subjects forever.

What are some ways we create these feedback loops in church? Who are we discouraging? How do we break the cycle?