Forgetting God

I’ve struggled my whole life with pride. Sometimes it manifests itself outwardly in the way I treat others (like that time I decided to mute a conference call, turn on the speakerphone for the benefit of my colleague, and make a few choice remarks on the exquisitely boring qualities of the person leading the call. Pro tip – when the speakerphone turns on, the mute turns off).

But most of the time pride slips its way in through my thought life. I find myself cruising along well-trodden paths of thought, reinforcing narratives about my life that are tailor-made to fend off my greatest insecurities. I  repeat these narratives often to myself, as a rosary of self-defense and self-worship.

Part of what it means to be prideful is to build ourselves false narratives that cut God out of the picture. We try our best to forget God. The old testament is full of stories about the Israelites forgetting God and then sinning as a result (Judges 3:7, Judges 8:34, Hosea 8:14). From a sinful human perspective this makes sense: why think about how you are not in control? Why remind yourself that there will be judgement, and that the true story of our life, not the narrative we’ve created for ourselves, will be told that day?

If it is in our sinful natures to forget God, what can we do to remember? How can I build patterns into my life that require us to dwell on who God is and what he has done?

I think one way to do this is to take yourself out of the race long enough to slow down and remember. To get away from everything, including those things which feed your pride. Doing this forces you to spend time in reflection.

There are many ways to “take yourself out.” John Piper stepped down from his church for 6 months to deal with issues of pride (highly recommend reading that link by the way).

I think another way is through planned times of extended reflection. Our company recently had one of these times, and I’d like to share what it was like.

Going to Big Bear Mountain

I got a taste of what that feels like “take myself out of the loop” earlier this year, when our small team of four squeezed into my suburban and drove up to Big Bear Mountain for our first company retreat. We had been working together for about a year and felt that it was time for some deep reflection and strategemagizing. We were going to be in the mountains for four days, so we brought plenty of beer, food, some more beer, and some extra beer just in case we ran out of the other beer.

Four days is a long time to be out of the loop. Especially when you’re running a business, and especially in the world of startups. Most startups don’t have time for retreats. Or for disconnecting themselves from their email. Which makes sense, since these things are pretty much antithetical to making money.

I can relate to the prevailing urge to “always be moving, reflect later” (which of course never leaves time for reflecting). Taking yourself out of the picture, even for a little while, seems to carry a great cost. But I’d argue the alternative is even more costly and dangerous (more on that below).

So here’s the first great picture:


Yep, that’s us. Deep in serious reflecting mode.

How To Reflect

During the last year, we’ve started forming the beginnings of a process for how we reflect together as a company. Our  process focuses on the creation of a simple document we very creatively call “Lessons Learned.” It’s a list of the most crucial events that have taken place since the last time we reflected (in this case, 6 months). For each event we write down a brief description of the facts, and then a list of the takeaways.

There’s nothing inherently spiritual in this process. But I would argue that there is a distinct spiritual consequence to what we are doing. Ultimately, these documents are a testament to how little of the time we’ve been in control. If we’re honest, the most important things that happened were not initiated by us – the extent of our “control” was our reaction to whatever happened, and even that’s a stretch.

Believing in Your Own Myth

Why is it important to reflect? Well, the temptation for a company is to forget the past as quickly as possible and focus on the future. But something strange happens when you don’t intentionally reflect: you start forming simple cause-effect narratives that help you explain or justify the past” “Oh yeah, we’re where we are now because we did X and it led to Y and then to Z.”

While it helps the business to have a powerful story, I always get the feeling that it’s not quite the truth: you end up taking more credit for things than you deserve. You start to think that you had it planned this way all along, and that you succeeded because of your own merit.

This is especially true if you end up being successful. You begin believe in your own myth. I’m thinking specifically here of Zappo’s founder Tony Hsieh and the truly frightening story of his $350 million project to build a utopian startup city that ended in the suicide of several of the community’s entrepreneurs. The project had it’s roots in the narrative Hsieh had built up about Zappos, and it’s drive to “deliver happiness.” To an outsider the phrase seems a bit cliche, but I imagine for Hsieh, repeating the phrase over and over again during meetings and conference presentations, and watching his company’s valuation skyrocket into the billions, a connection was made and a powerful narrative was formed.

Reflection is hard though. We shy away from honest reflection because it can be incredibly subversive – even dangerous – for the human ego. Reflection makes it difficult to lace our narratives with prideful illusions. It is humbling. For most people, this process of humiliation is unacceptable.

But I often forget that humble reflection can also be filled with hope. We experienced that in our company’s own process of reflection. While we were made painfully aware of our own lack of control, we also uncovered a startling truth: God has definitely been taking care of us through these last six months. When you muster up the courage to let go control, that’s definitely good news.

Being Alone

That leads to another great, concluding picture:

15 - 3

I think Jesus’s repeated decision to withdraw into the wilderness to be alone in part had something to do with reflection. We know that Satan tempted his pride when he was in the wilderness. Perhaps there is something inherent to nature that leads us to face our pride. Maybe it’s that nature has the same humbling effect as reflection: it forces you to face your own lack of control. The world is huge, and we are small and when you look out from a high place, you realize this.

Forgetting God

One of the last things Jesus did before he allowed himself to be handed over and executed was to ask his disciples to remember him, regularly:

“The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Pride often manifests itself as the intentional forgetting of God, and by extension, forgetting the message of the the Gospel. On the other hand, reflection and remembrance remind us of God, who he is, and what he has done for us.

Remembering gives our souls time to ask God “why?” rather than leaving us scrambling to come up with our ego-centric narratives. Remembering protects us from our pride and forces us to come face-to-face with our own weakness and brokenness, and ultimately it points us to the Cross.


The Human Will: Shackled and Redeemed

We often do not pay much mind to our habits, especially innocuous ones like brushing teeth or checking the weather before deciding what to wear. Habits entail those behaviors that have become relatively automatized, so they can be executed with ease and efficiency. Cognitive resources in turn become freed up and can be devoted to more effortful, deliberate thinking. But here’s a disquieting thought: in reality, a wider swath of our behaviors, which should otherwise be subject to deliberation and possible revision, tends to land on the habitual side of this automatic/controlled spectrum—if we’re honest with ourselves.

Think about the last time you or someone you know started gossiping about others, almost effortlessly. Or, think of someone quickly launching into an unchecked, villifying tirade or tantrum. Indeed, we seem to be too good at falling into habitual patterns of thought and action. Sayings in English reflect some awareness of this fact. When attempting to account for erratic or harmful behavior, we’ll say things like, “S/he just couldn’t help it.”

This comes to a head in the case of more severe addictive and compulsive behaviors. Those who suffer from drug or alcohol dependence, as specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), will openly acknowledge the destructive effects of their addiction, but also claim it’s incredibly difficult to inhibit their drug-seeking behaviors. In the past decade or so, research in psychology and neuroscience has begun to shed light on the neural bases for these powerful and seemingly inescapable compulsions. The brain’s reward system, which usually promotes healthy and adaptive reward-seeking behaviors (e.g., acquiring food and drink, selecting a mate), effectively gets hijacked when drugs take on affective and motivational value. Then, the perfect storm of sensitization (i.e., a lower threshold of activation when a drug cue is present) and tolerance (i.e., diminished responses to the drug after repeated exposure and intake) occurs, severely compromising one’s ability to resist the impulse to seek out the drug.

In discussing the topic of drug addiction here, I hope to illuminate a wider issue about the will and nature of the human heart. That is, the reality of sin has penetrated even into our neurochemistry, such that our God-given capacity to freely decide between different courses of action becomes constrained and sometimes threatened altogether. Now, a captive will does not mean it is no longer free. But, this dire example screams of the need for an all-encompassing change whereby the human heart is renewed and no longer prone to destructive, compulsive ruts of thought and behavior. Although a very learned man and righteous in the eyes of many, St. Paul saw this need in himself when he was writing to the Roman church: “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Later in the same letter, he admonishes his audience to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2).

How is this transformation possible, especially given the unshakeable nature of habits and addiction? In Jesus Christ, we are entirely new creatures, with re-fashioned hearts that enable us to freely love God and others. God, speaking through prophet Ezekiel, made the following radical promise that finds its consummation in Christ:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God (36:26-28).

The human will is indeed fragile and fickle, but the hope of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ freely and willfully chose the brutality of the Cross, so that our wills and capacities could be redeemed and re-purposed in such a way that we can freely respond to the amazing love of God in Christ.


“I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.” – Psalm 118:17

Khadra al-Kassasbeh presses her forehead against mine. The 90-year-old grandmother is so close I cannot see her eyes. She touches my cheeks and kisses them, hunched over and whispering, “You are his mother too. You are his sister, you understand. God bless his soul and God give you a thousand healths, you understand.”

I don’t understand, really, because I don’t have a grandson. I didn’t raise my son and his sons under olive trees on green hills in Karak. I have never lost a family member in war. I cannot fathom how it would feel to bounce a baby boy in my lap, watch him grow up strong and tall, hear him calling me jidda, grandma, and then watch him burned in a cage on the Internet.

I don’t think I’d believe it was real.
I hardly believe it is real even now.

Jordan is filled with hurt this week. I don’t feel a right to hurt along with the country because I am a foreigner, an outsider, a listener catching snatches of pain at its outskirts. I have tried to understand every event unfolding in this region. I watch all the videos, track all the deaths, think hard about different narratives, political motives, historical contexts and propagandistic purposes. I consider what makes people angry and desperate. I imagine myself or my father in an Iraqi prison, imagine my family members tortured and killed without reason, imagine watching my country torn apart, myself running out of money, more and more burdens heaping on my chest with no breath or hope to keep me upright – in my imagination, radicalization is not so far-fetched. I see why fear and hurt turn into hate. I see how I might pick up my passport, sneak onto a flight and fling myself toward a preacher’s promise of meaning, self-sacrifice and worth.

But this, I can’t understand.

All week long I’ve heard the word shaheed. Muath al-Kassasbeh, the Jordanian pilot who was shot down, captured then killed on video, is shaheed, a martyr, they say. He is shaheed of the nation and of truth, of Jordan and Islam and humanity and goodness, say the newspapers and radio and television and posters all over town. Thousands of people prayed and marched in downtown Amman with posters of his face, calling for death to ISIS and blessing to the martyr’s soul. Hundreds gathered in Karak for three days of mourning, filling a Bedouin tent in the same place where Muath held his wedding six months ago. The king honored his family with a visit as his father spoke to the crowd: “Muath is not just my son. He is our son, the country’s son, martyr for our nation.” Fighter jets roared overhead, coming back from anti-ISIS bombings in Syria. Muath’s neighbors and relatives cried. Young men pushed to the front of the crowd, shouting that they wanted to be shaheed as well. “Let us join the military. We will give ourselves. We will be like him.”

I am an outsider, but I feel the hurt. Karak’s people are kind and hospitable. They open their homes at a second’s notice, begging strangers to stay, stay for ten minutes, stay for three days, drink coffee, have tea, be with us, be together, be filled. Khadra al-Kassasbeh whispers blessings into my cheeks, and I am angry that anyone would want to hurt her. I spend an afternoon with Muath’s wife and sister, hearing their stories, then I go home to write. I am filled with adrenaline from reporting, eager to get the story out, but when I’m finished I still don’t understand. I am sad. I wake up at 5 a.m. and cry.

LORD, I pray. Why would You want Your children to die? Back in the Kassasbeh house, two family friends are trying to comfort Muath’s sister and wife. “For sure he is shaheed now,” they murmur. “For sure he is in paradise, he is happier, he is well.” The holiest people we know have all prayed for him, they say. The imams at al-Aqsa, in Mecca and Medina, thousands in downtown Amman, hundreds of thousands around the world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, they have prayed! He is shaheed, he is happier, he is well.

The sister and wife say nothing.

I don’t say anything either, because I don’t know what happens to people after they die. I only know that I hate Death. It feels haram, blasphemous, senseless and cruel. The young men rush forward, crying to be made martyrs. I feel their anger but wish they wouldn’t go.

LORD, I pray. I can’t find the words for my questions.

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, I wonder if his disciples called him a martyr. I wonder if they sat in the dark on the floor, staring past each other’s faces, saying, “For sure he is happier now.” How dark it must have felt, how heavy the night, how thick the air pushing against their chests and breaths. I wonder if they were gripped with an urge to destroy something – the computer screen with a grandson shriveling into ashes, the world with its hemorrhage of pain, the cross dripping vinegar and blood, or their own selves, heaving for air and light.

The word shaheed shares Arabic roots with the meaning, “to witness.” Yushahid means “he watches.” Shuhada means “certificate.” A shaheed dies in testimony. But I sit with Muath’s wife and she tells me that he wasn’t sure about the airstrikes. Muath didn’t want to kill innocent people, she tells me, especially other Muslims. He’d wake up early before every strike and pray two extra raka’s at the dawn prayer, she says, asking God to keep him from causing death. The morning he was captured, Muath’s wife says, he’d asked the Lord for foggy skies.

If I’d been a disciple of Christ when He died, I don’t think I’d have understood. “He’s a martyr,” I might have mumbled. “He’s left us for Paradise.” But it would hurt.

I am awake at 5 a.m., turning Death over in my head, asking why God would want martyrs spawning martyrs, death making hate, birthing fear, calling young and strong and beloved children to throw their lives into flames. I am quiet, and then I hear.

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup,saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

I told you that I’m leaving, Christ said to His disciples. I am going, I am going, I am leaving, I will be gone, He said, but they could not understand where, how or why. Do not fear, take heart, trust in Me, He said. I am going, but I love you. He knelt and scraped the mud off their feet.

It took days before they saw Him again, longer before they understood. I am the good shepherd, Jesus said. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. My sheep listen to my voice: I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.

I find words for my prayers. Ya rabb, thank You for Your witness. Ya rabb, You did not abandon us. Ya rabb, You were shaheed to the truth that You see us and love us, we who are frail, we who are tangled in our hollow boats and empty fishing nets. You are shaheed and yet victorious, the One and only One who caught the senselessness of Death and burst through it with spring and morning. You are the One lifting birds to sketch Glory in the air, the One drawing mountains into swells of indigo praise. You died to prove that You loved us, and then You lived.

Make me a witness too, I pray. There are festering poisons inside me that I beg of You to kill. Fear is gnawing at my spirit, anger stifling its breath. Pride will freeze me into stone and hurt is ticking toward self-destruction.

In the early morning, I ask God to cut these things away. Nail them on a cross. Burn them in a cage. Shear Your sheep that we might die to ourselves, but live in witness to a Shepherd who is alive. Make us humble. Make us meek. We press our cheeks to those around us, whispering: God is still here. God has come that we may have life, and have it to the full. God loves us. God still loves us. God will make us living sacrifices. God will make us shaheed, help us die only to live, help us find a second life.

God is our Shepherd. We shall not be in want. He will help us to love one another.

Being a Good Husband (Yea, you know you want to click)

So yea, the title was a bit misleading. I know all of you were really hoping that I secretly got married and was going to spill some sagacious advice on marriage, but unfortunately, that is not the case … I’m hoping to shed a little light on animal husbandry, something that I’ve started thinking about more and more ever since my love for cooking really blew up. While we traditionally think of cooking as all the actions that happen after you’ve obtained your meat/vegetable/other food product, such a mindset is incomplete (I’ve definitely had this mindset for the majority of my life). The restaurant industry is quite ahead in this area; there’s a strong understanding that food which is treated with respect in both the pre- and actual-cooking process, it just plain tastes better. Many restaurants build strong relationships with local farms and chefs are actually out there to see and understand how the animals/plants are raised with care. Unfortunately, when it comes to the average home cook, we can’t always do this, and the animal husbandry industry can take advantage of this through factory farming/industrial agriculture that produces cruel conditions to the animals.

“Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” (Proverbs 12:10)

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:26)

Avoiding and preventing animal cruelty seems like a pretty normal Christian thing to support. I mean … even without the verses above or considering the Genesis dominion verse (Genesis 1: 26) and what dominion means, it seems like the “right” thing to do. Preventing the unnecessary suffering of a living being just seems like something that most people can get on board with. So given this pretty reasonable stance and, on top of that, a clear call from God to take care of the animals on this earth, is there anything we can do? I mean after all, most of us aren’t in the animal husbandry industry. Surprise surprise, my answer to the question is “yes!” But I’m not going to go into that for this post. It will probably come up when I do a post on some of the intersections of food and economics. For this post, I want to just share some reflections on a particular case of (potential) animal cruelty.

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. (1 Corinthians 6:12-13a)

A few weeks ago, the ban on foie gras in California was lifted. For those who don’t know, foie gras is the liver of a duck or goose.[1] While I’ve never had it (I did get to touch it once when I was externing at the restaurant), foie gras is, to many, the Holy Grail of fine cuisine. Perhaps the best analogy to think about is that bacon could be considered the “layman’s foie gras?” It’s rich, fatty, buttery taste/texture goes deliciously with just about anything. Anyways, such a description probably doesn’t even do it justice.

So if such a food is so delicious, why would there be a ban on it? A quick search will yield countless results. The main controversy behind foie gras is that its production relies on the force-feeding of the goose until its liver has become severely bloated. What this process, also known as “gavage,” looks like in practice is as follows, several times each day the geese are gathered and a long metal or plastic tube is shoved down each goose’s neck and then food is pumped straight into the goose’s liver. Watching this process can certainly be discomforting, and on top of the discomfort the geese must feel during the force-feeding process, there are other bodily discomforts that they also face because they are artificially bloated.

Many aviary experts, however, argue that gavage actually doesn’t produce additional harm to the geese for two reasons. 1) Geese have a different type of neck/esophagus that was naturally built to handle swallowing large objects whole, and 2) fowl naturally store a lot of fat and being fed such large quantities of food doesn’t cause extreme discomfort. While I’ve never been to a foie gras farm, based on some of the videos I’ve seen and accounts I’ve read, at least at the better foie gras farms, it doesn’t seem like the geese are harmed in any way worse than what you would traditionally see on farms for other animals.

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1: 27)

Conventional wisdom says that this force-feeding is necessary for foie gras production because otherwise, farmed geese would not have such an enlarged liver that was as fatty and buttery and delectable. But is such force-feeding really necessary? I was recently introduced to a “this American Life” segment on natural foie gras that was being raised in Spain by a man named Eduardo Sousa. The segment can be found here and a similar Ted Talk here, both with chef Dan Barber explaining his experience going to this farm and what he saw. (I do highly recommend listening to either of these whenever you have some down time or on your next commute to work. It’s just a very fascinating story.)

At this farm, which Eduardo believe is the only completely natural foie gras farm in the world, Eduardo’s philosophy is to let his geese live as naturally as possible, to the point that are even free to just leave. The fences are built in a way such that there is only an electrical current on the outside, so as to protect the geese from predators. There is absolutely no force-feeding; the food is simply all available naturally throughout the hundreds of acres of farm space. When asked how the geese can have such large livers Eduardo explains that geese have a natural inclination to find abundance of food and generate reserves of fat. Normal domesticated geese sense that they are in their master’s control and will not freely eat. By creating an environment that is so free and abundant with food, Eduardo’s geese will fulfill their natural desires to gorge on the food. Additionally (and I am shocked by this), when wild geese fly south, Eduardo’s geese will call these wild geese to come down and enjoy the abundance of food on the farm. These wild geese willingly come onto the farm, mate with the domesticated geese, and even stay!

Naturally, such an unorthodox way of raising foie gras does incur a cost. Just to name a few of these: the land-to-geese ratio is much higher than the average geese farm, meaning higher costs for fewer geese; the geese are free to leave if they choose to do so; even when the geese gorge on the available food, their livers still won’t reach the largest sizes that force-feeding can produce.

“Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can govern this people of yours, which is so great?” (2 Chronicles 1:10)

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” (Matthew 25:21)

Every time I think about the topic of foie gras, I feel extremely conflicted. I can get on board with the arguments that aviary experts make about gavage not being cruel, so long as the other farming conditions are acceptable. And yet, the act of force-feeding is just not natural and must be inferior to an option that allows the geese to naturally grow and experience life. Additionally, this action is for a food that’s considered a luxury, not an everyday food. … I really don’t know when it comes to this specific topic. It seems … passable, but nowhere near optimal …

What’s fascinating as I hear about Eduardo’s natural foie gras, though, is just how much there is an understanding that everything he produces comes from God. Two things comes to mind, first, in response to the fact that Eduardo loses out on foie gras production by giving the geese so much freedom and such great living conditions, Eduardo states that he views this as “God’s tax.” Second, when asked about giving his foie gras to the chefs of the Spain, Eduardo says that chefs don’t deserve his foie gras (which btw, was described by chef Dan as so amazing/transformative that he would say it was like eating Eduardo’s foie gras was the first “real foie gras” he ever had). When chefs use foie gras for a dish, it’s about them, rather Eduardo wants to present his foie gras as an expression of nature and as God’s gift and reward for doing good work.

As I think about these points, it makes me think that the way I consider the question of animal cruelty in animal husbandry needs to profoundly change. The conversation should not simply be about minimizing animal suffering while maximizing food product to be sold, but should be a positive one that asks how farmers can best raise their animals such that the produced food product glorifies God. Such an understanding of what it means to raise animals for food (and vegetables) seems so distant from the vast majority of what is done today with the industrial agriculture and factory farming. In some ways, it’s almost unimaginable what it would look like for this aspect of food to change such that it is no longer about producing the particular type and quantity of food we want to eat, but about producing food in the way God would see fit. But, Eduardo’s farm gives me a glimpse of what it means to glorify God when working with food, and I hope and pray that God will also give me more glimpses in the future.

[1] From now on, to cut down on words, I will just refer to geese.

The Birth of the American University

Probably one of the most significant shifts in the way we think about higher education today has resulted from the widespread questioning of the secularization thesis which had long held sway over the way we conceive of the history of higher education. The thesis, in the academic context, typically maintained an inverse relationship between the advance of science and continued adherence to religious beliefs. In other words, as science progressed and continued to shape and improve our lives, the need for religion in people’s lives would decrease and eventually disappear. In keeping with this narrative, histories of higher education in the United States have tended to focus on various episodes which would demonstrate the slow working-out of the secularization principle as institutions such as Princeton University (formerly The College of New Jersey) morphed from religious colleges deeply shaped by colonial piety to “secular universities” which trumpet the values of critical thinking, societal improvement, and progress.

Not only is this narrative completely wrong, but it has also seriously affected the way that Christians have tended to approach the task of scientific research by framing the question in terms of “faith” and “science”. Whereas those who touted the secularization thesis tended to see the former as disappearing as the latter gains ascendency, Christians engaging in the latter tend to take an apologetic stance which insists that the two are somehow “compatible”. This, however, tends to obscure the very real philosophical and theological issues at play in the social practice of science. Even if the practice itself – after the innovation of making physics without metaphysics possible with Boyle’s invention of experimental science [1] – may be metaphysically minimalist (i.e. one merely needs to commit to some form of “methodological naturalism”), the who, what, where, when, why and how of practitioners engaging in the practice is often quite theologically fraught [2]. In the words of Abraham Kuyper, “Does not everyone who practices science as a man and not as a measuring stick view things through a subjective lens and always fill in the unseen part of the circle according to subjective opinion?” [3]

This becomes increasingly clear once we actually go back to the history and take a look at how various important figures in the history of higher education conceived of their work. Take, for instance, the “Father of the American University”, Daniel Coit Gilman (1831-1908). Gilman played a crucial role in the founding of Yale’s Sheffield School of Science, was essentially the founding president of what is today known as UC Berkeley, the founding president of the Johns Hopkins University – the first genuine graduate school program in the US, meaning that a huge number of the first generation of Ph.D.s given in the U.S. stemmed from his school – as well as the founding president of the Carnegie Institute (which funded scientific research). Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard (yes, the Charles Eliot of the Harvard Classics fame), admitted that it was not really until Gilman’s Johns Hopkins came along that Harvard’s graduate program actually figured out what it was doing [4].

Gilman was a man possessed with great singular vision, a vision which would forever leave the landscape of higher education in the United States changed. Before Gilman, American higher education was dominated by various denominational colleges which saw their role as the formation of the next generation of societal elites by inculcating them with the knowledge of the classical tradition. The idea of the “liberal arts” – those studies taken by those who are “free” of the need to labor for their livings – was that of the mastery of a particular body of knowledge which would provide the leaders of society with the common sensibilities with which they would be able to govern and serve. As such, lectures would be supplemented with “recitations” in which students would be tested on how well they were retaining and understanding the material which they were being taught.

Gilman, on the other hand, possessed a quite dynamic vision for the great universities of the future. In the aftermath of the failure of the religious and intellectual elite to broker some kind of solution to the slavery problem, he proposed a move away from the formation of classes of college graduates towards a focus on excellent individuals – from whatever background [5] – who would give their lives to the advance of Science. Instead of merely passing on knowledge, universities now had the role of advancing it via research. Instead of the recitation, one would now build the university around the experimental methods of the laboratory. Thus, the Johns Hopkins University would begin, not as an undergraduate institution, but as a graduate school, with the undergraduate college only added later as a result of popular pressure from the citizens of Baltimore. From the beginning, the advance, conservation, refining, and dissemination of knowledge would be the aim of Gilman’s new university, which would stand at the center of an entire network of new scientific institutions made possible by the philanthropy of the nouveau riche – libraries, museums, academies, technical schools, and scientific societies. These would, in Gilman’s words, orbit around a strong university as “planets around the sun”. What, for Gilman, was the significance of these new universities?

It is a reaching out for a better state of society than now exists; it is a dim but an indelible impression of the value of knowledge; it is a craving for intellectual and moral growth; it is a longing to interpret the laws of creation; it means a wish for less misery among the poor, less ignorance in schools, less bigotry in religion, less suffering in the hospital, less fraud in business, less folly in politics; it means more study of nature, more love of art, more lessons from history, more security in property, more health in cities, more virtue in the country, more wisdom in legislation; it implies more intelligence, more happiness, more religion. [6]

Interpreting the laws of creation. Less bigotry in religion. More religion. Historians of higher education in the clutches of the secularization thesis have tended to interpret these and other similar statements made by Gilman and his fellow university builders in the late 19th century as mere rhetoric made for the sake of winning the support of the yet-pious populate while secretly pushing the science that would put an end to such superstitious nonsense. Gilman and his companions did indeed seek to combat dogmatic religion, but they did so by articulating an alternate theological vision. Indeed, as historian D.G. Hart argues, Gilman preached an “intellectual gospel” that did for the natural sciences what the “social gospel” would do for the social sciences – articulate a theological justification for them that would stand roughly in continuity with the religious background of American evangelicalism while adapting to developments in science such as that of evolutionary theory [7].

From Gilman’s perspective, he and his colleagues were standing at the dawn of another new era in theological development. Theology, once dominated by dogma, was given a shake-up in the Renaissance with the re-introduction of the study of the classics into the university curriculum. Now, the sciences were clambering for a hearing. And just as the dogmatic theologians persecuted those influenced by the classical learning at first (i.e. the Reformation), now the defenders of the classical education would persecute the sciences. He and his friends believed that they were in the midst of witnessing “the most striking evolution of morals and religion in the history of our race” in which the legends and myths of Dogmatic Theology were being swept away in favor of a purified form of Religion centered around scientific criticism and the “comparative method.” In the words of his Yale classmate Andrew Dickson White,

The races dominant in religion and morals have been lifted from the idea of a ‘chosen people’ stimulated and abetted by their tribal god in every sort of cruelty and injustice, to the conception of a vast community in which the fatherhood of God overarches all, and the brotherhood of man permeates all. [8]

The language of the “fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of man” should be familiar to anyone who has passing familiarity with what would eventually be known as “theological liberalism” at the dawn of the 20th century. While it would be unfair to label Gilman a “liberal”, he certainly shared the sympathies of the proto-liberal movement known as the “New Theology” at the end of the 19th century which drew inspiration from the revised Romanticism of Horace Bushnell, the evolutionary theory of Joseph LeConte, and the preaching of the popular pastor Lyman Abbott. At the core of Gilman’s convictions was not that science was compatible with theology, but rather, that the work of scientific research was theology.

The wisdom of God was not to be discovered by reflection on Jesus Christ – in other words, in Christology – but by the study of nature. Indeed, whereas Paul of Tarsus would sing a paean of praise to Christ, the wisdom and knowledge of God in whom, for whom, and to whom are all things, Gilman would sing his hymns to Science, mediator between God and man. Where Paul would declare that it was the cross of Christ which has broken down the “dividing walls of hostility” between men, Gilman would declare that the study of comparative linguistics

has broken down the middle wall of partition between kindred races and kindred studies; …it has taught us that the study of language is one study. As man is the same in all ages, the history of man is one in all ages. [9]

In a speech on the new word that had arisen to describe the new task of study, “research”, Gilman would offer his gloss on the Nicene Creed:

The study of nature has usurped the throne of human authority… so that many men of many minds find in an ancient Credo the best expression of their knowledge and their faith: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible.’

He does not go on to confess faith in Jesus in the next line. Nor the Holy Spirit. Though if one asked, there is no doubt that Gilman would readily affirm faith. The election of Christ and the fellowship of the church, however, did not play a huge role in Gilman’s theology. Indeed, having replaced Christology with the study of the world – nature and history – there is no need to wade into divisive sectarian controversies over theological details such as Christology when one can merely appeal to what everyone can see in common – the world around us. In making this move, Gilman was by no means innovating. Indeed, he was merely re-articulating the Enlightenment synthesis that had already dominated American colleges as early as the American Revolution in a new form. Instead of teaching theology, on which various Christians disagreed, America’s early evangelicals (this is a comprehensive term that includes both theological conservatives and liberals who inherit the tradition) emphasized moral philosophy and natural theology/apologetics instead.

Unhinged from Christology, Pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit) took a different turn as well. Instead of being centered about the church, all mankind (gender-specific language intended) was brought into a “brotherhood” for the advancement of “civilization”. Yet, in a way, this was merely a further development of the Halfway Covenant of the Puritan state-church synthesis which was, in its turn, a legacy of Constantinian Christianity. Instead of a distinction between the church and the world grounded in an already-but-not-yet eschatology, Gilman and his colleagues would operate from a post-millenial conception of the progressive organic “evolution” of the kingdom of God through the course of human history and culture. There is good reason that today’s academy is dominated by conversations about the legacy of colonialism vacillating between affirming the goods brought about by modern “civilization” and condemning the arrogance of Western imperialism. The very foundations of the American university are grounded in a vision for a universal church of mankind’s progress and civilization.

Science, politics, economics, and religion all fused together into Gilman’s vision of a better humanity. The truth of America’s first great “secular” universities is not that they were without theology, but that they were dominated by a particular one, one that blinded itself to its own background and presuppositions. Little wonder, then, that the university would experience “secularization” once the first generation of scholars, aware of their religious motivations, died off. There is, as such, no non-theological answer to the question of “faith and science”. Any Christian who wants to adequately get at the roots of the problem will need to deal with the reasons why the various positions eventually adopted were ultimately adopted. For the American church, this means, at the very least, grappling with the legacy of the Enlightenment, the question of the relationship between church and state, and slavery. In doing so, one finds oneself confronting theological issues that have gone unresolved as far back as the Reformation and, indeed, perhaps even as early as the formulation of the Nicene Creed.

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they must be asked. The solution to bad theology is not no theology, but good theology. If, at the heart of America’s research universities is a particular theological vision of Christian participation in science, only an alternative vision will suffice. Only thus will we move beyond the “faith and science” dispute and the benign attempts of various Christian apologists to resolve the issue without really hitting to the deep theological presuppositions at the heart of the question.


[1] Historians of science Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer discuss the political/epistemological implications of the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. The fact that we see the former as a scientist and the latter as a political theorist despite the fact that both were engaged in political and epistemological reflections goes to show how much our contemporary debate is shaped by the results of the kind of sphere differentiation that is made possible by the victory of Boyle’s paradigm, in which his “metaphysically neutral” experimental method triumphed over Hobbes’ “metaphysically laden” natural philosophical approach. See Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985).

[2] One of the more fascinating attempts to understand modernity can be found in Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1991), in which he suggests that modernity attempted to build society based on a nature-culture distinction that would differentiate between various spheres in society in which various principles would hold sway, but that this differentiation remained blind to the way in which various “hybrids” continued to cross-contaminate spheres such that they never completely operated according to their supposedly purifying principle. In other words, while we often think of politics, science, economics, religion, etc. as demarcating different sectors of society in which differing principles reign (i.e. economic principles in the market, scientific principles in science, political principles in politics, etc.), this has never been the case. Science has always been economic, political, and religious. And the other spheres as well, despite the fact that we try our hardest to police the boundaries between them. (Note: This blog roughly divides into categories which have stemmed from such a modern synthesis).

The problem with most attempts to reconcile faith and science (indeed, the very metaphor of “reconciliation” itself ought to be suspect) is that they have essentially bought into this “modern” division of labor and see their task as trying to demarcate exactly where the boundaries between two different realms lies. These strategies fail insofar as they continue to share the same assumptions as the view(s) they wish to contest. Any genuine attempt to do justice to the issue will need to bring many of the categories with which we use to interpret our history into question and try to more faithfully trace out the various neglected dimensions of our contemporary existence.

[3] cf. Kuyper’s essay “Common Grace in Science”.

[4] His words in a speech given in honor of Gilman’s accomplishments. “[T]he graduate school of Harvard University, [which] started feebly in 1870 and 1871, did not thrive until the example of Johns Hopkins forced our faculty to put their strength into the development of our instruction for graduates. And what was true of Harvard was true of every other university in the land which aspired to create an advanced school of arts and sciences.”

[5] The democratizing impulse present in Gilman would become even more pronounced in his friend, Andrew Dickson White, who would become the founding president of Cornell and a key player in orchestrating the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act that would establish most of the land grant universities that make up today’s State universities.

[6] See Gilman’s inaugural address as president of Johns Hopkins.

[7] See Hart, D.G. “Faith and Learning in the Age of the University: The Academic Ministry of Daniel Coit Gilman” in The Secularization of the Academy ed. George Marsden and Bradley J. Longfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 107-145.

[8] White, Andrew Dickson. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, reprint edition (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978), 394-395. I have benefited from Mark Noll’s short essay on the figure: Noll, Mark. “Science, Religion, and A.D. White: Seeking Peace in the ‘Warfare Between Science and Theology’” The Biologos Foundation, accessed Dec. 16th, 2014,

[9] cf. Gilman’s inaugural address as president of the University of California.

Faith & Advent, Angels, Superstition, Weed.

Advent season is upon us, and Jeremy finally returns to writing for the Gospel Worldview Blog. Perhaps it’s in anticipation of the New Year and those dreaded resolutions. (If I recall correctly, I think I had something purposefully vague like “write more often” in my short list last year…) Maybe it’s also that I feel like I’ve had something to say for a long time but haven’t had the discipline or mental energy to sit down and do it. It could also be that I’ve been inspired by discovering a friend’s posts about life here in the inner city of North Philly – posts I find hilarious, but also thought-provoking. I wish I could write like that.

But enough self-conscious reflection about my actual sitting down and writing. Too much more of this, and it’ll feel like i’m trying to imitate a Dave Eggers novel.

Advent is a concentrated season of reflection on the incarnation. It’s also a season where we emphasize hope, and try to practice it. People also talk about love in this season – “Love was Born on Christmas Day,” as Christina Rossetti poetically put it (wait what? Hm…gotta think about that a bit…). Not as many people talk about faith. Faith seems to be more Hebrews 11 territory. Or maybe the book of John, or even Romans. We don’t teach about those passages so much during Christmas time in Christian churches. During and leading up to Christmas, we talk about the beginning of Luke or Matthew, maybe even pop open Isaiah 9 or Micah 5.

I want to talk about faith.

What does real faith look like? How is it connected to beliefs? If it is “by faith” that we are absolved of our sins and made right with God, what does “faith” mean?

This morning, a young guy came to our church’s morning Bible study and prayer time. He lives only about a block away, but we hadn’t seen him in a while – since about the middle of the summer. He’s a chill guy in his mid-20s (Ok, so I clearly need to work on my descriptions of people…). Came to Philly from Puerto Rico not long ago. As we were starting our Bible study, he told me why he was back:

“I wanted weed this morning but I couldn’t find any of it. Man, that was God talkin’. He wanted me to come back over here for church.”

He confessed that he’d been recently addicted to Heroine; honestly, only three days clean. I back-calculated: that means he’s been clean since Saturday. I had stopped by his place on Friday to pick up his little brother for a youth church event, and we had chatted a little bit. Maybe God used that short moment that we talked (as I waited for his little brother to put on his jacket and get out the door), to remind him of God’s presence, I thought to myself.

He continued:

“Last night I was prayin’ and I felt that flavor on me, you know. That flavor that’s like…God telling you something.” I nodded.

Yeah. I know that flavor, I thought to myself. I’ve experienced it before too. I experience it a lot. It’s that conviction that I receive as I pray that God would remove my sin – the conviction that God is pleased with my prayer. That ineffable thing I feel when I pray in hope for God’s kingdom to come, and I somehow just know that it is happening, that God has listened to my prayer. It’s that sense of God’s special love for me that I get sometimes when I’m doing something that’s really hard for me to do and that I really don’t like doing – “picking up the cross,” you could call it.

He felt that flavor. And somehow, he knew it was God. But not only did he recognize it was God, he responded – waking up early today to come to morning prayer.

He told a bunch of other stories about times he’s experienced God’s special touch, stories involving guns and cops, demons, drugs. I believed him about these stories – not just that he felt that he experienced those things, but I believed that he was right: those things were really God’s revelation of himself to him. God really was speaking to him in those experiences, I thought. Instead of responding with a default attitude of suspicion that relegates these types of stories to the “superstition”/folk religion box, I saw these stories as testimonies of authentic experiences of faith. Experiences from God.

Maybe part of it was that since the beginning of this advent season, I’ve been reading about a lot of “supernatural” (although I’d prefer the word “wondrous”) sorts of things that occur when God shows up to dwell amongst human beings: an angel appearing to a young virgin and telling her she’s going to conceive a son, and an awesome one at that; hosts of angels making an appearance to a bunch of shepherds grazing their sheep (Have you ever wondered: did the sheep see it too?), that spectacular star that guides a bunch of sages traveling from the East to come honor this baby with gifts worthy of a king.

Maybe I believed with this guy that those experiences were really experiences from God because of my own recent “touched by an angel” experience. In a time when I cried out to God and needed his confirmation of his presence, guiding hand, and protection, he assured me of his presence in a wondrous – yes, even angelic – way. Not angels singing in the sky, not an angel delivering me a message, but, I believe, angels nonetheless.

So I haven’t talked that much in this post about faith yet (maybe I’ll need to save that for a future post…), but suffice to say, it is these kinds of lived experience of faith that I see a lot here in the inner city – experiences which I would likely in the past have readily dismissed off-hand – that have gotten me thinking about the nature of faith. Not a lot of people here, I would say, have what I would consider a robust theological system of beliefs about God. In fact, a lot of their beliefs about Jesus are problematic. But, their experiences of God, I think, are real (or, at least, many of them). Of course, I’m not endorsing a blanket assumption that all peoples’ self-understandings of their experiences of God are authentic, but as I’ve listened to people here and lived here, I’ve come to see the need for me to refine my understanding of what authentic faith is. These people are following the same Jesus I’m following. They’re trusting the same savior I’m trusting, experiencing the same God-with-us that I’ve experienced. Some of their beliefs will have to change over time, and I hope my church is a part of that. But their relationship with God, I’m convinced, is one of authentic faith.

So then, what is it that we have in common? What is authentic faith? Sometime, I think I’ll try to take a look at all the uses of the word faith (which Roy Clouser does a decent job of here), but for now let me take a stab at it here:

Authentic faith recognizes God’s very presence (Immanuel – “God with us”) in the person of Jesus. It hears the promises of God’s messengers, and takes them to heart, treasuring them. It recognizes when God is using certain things – like times when you can’t find drugs to get high on, or experiences of that Holy Spirit flavor – to wake you up Spiritually and get you back in church. It recognizes that when that drunk driver who was about to run over you narrowly misses at the last second, it wasn’t blind luck: it was because, for those who take refuge in the Most High, God’s angels won’t let their feet strike even a rock.

I think being here in the inner city has grown my faith and helped me to better understand this season of Advent.

What do you think?

Separation and Cosmic Love in the Tesseract

When you love someone, whether that someone is a child, parent, friend, or spouse, suffering will sometimes come in spurts, other times all at once, but it is a raw, inevitable reality. And needless to say, an obvious cause for suffering is explicit harm that hurts the lover or the beloved. I do not make light of that kind of suffering, especially when patterns of abuse and co-dependence trap two people in a stasis that only the grace, love, and forgiveness of God can break. However, and in my 27 short years that I’ve walked this beautiful, broken world, I am led to believe that separation from one’s beloved is a much deeper suffering—often plunging both the lover and beloved into a pit of despair and irresolution.

Yet, the Judeo-Christian story should at least give us pause and ideally a living hope on which we can stand and from which we can stare brokenness and separation in the face and shout, “You will not have the last word; this is not the end!” Across the pages of Scripture, an epic drama unfolds in which we encounter a loving Creator God who relentlessly pursues His beloved to minimize the cosmic separation created by the beloved’s chronic unfaithfulness—ultimately at the cost of Himself being beaten and brutally executed on a Roman cross. That first Good Friday was anything but good, for the very Tri-unity of God was cosmically and violently ripped, with the Father and the Son experiencing a harsh separation infinitely more intense than we can ever fathom.

With this in mind, I cannot help but think that God cannot and will not sit idly by as the separation between Himself (lover) and fallen humanity (beloved) dis-integrates into chaos, apparently sealed by the finality of death. With God Himself being a relation of three Persons, any ruptures in the relationality of the Universe must go against His very nature and His intentions for this Universe to reflect the inherent relational nature of his being. So, what is God’s answer to reconciling humanity to Himself and people to one another?


Specifically, the incarnate love in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel accounts there are events and utterances that repeatedly shock us with the radical, inclusive love of God that Jesus embodied. But you’d be hard pressed to find a more illustrative example of love than Jesus’s reaction to the death of Lazarus. It was haunting, beautiful, and so…human:

“….Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her sobbing and the others with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?”

“Master, come and see,” they said.

Jesus wept. [And they] said, “Look how deeply he loved him.”

-The Gospel of St. John

The combined anger and heart-rending pain Jesus expresses here is not only a signal of how much He loved Lazarus, but also of how much this death-induced separation is an affront to the Ever Living God, in whom every creature lives, moves and has being. We know that despite the grief and loss that was keenly felt by Lazarus’s family, friends, and Jesus Himself, that is not the end of the story. Christ, in the privileged position of having both human and divine natures, was and is not limited by the patterns and constraints of biological and physical laws, to which any other human being must accept and succumb. Fueled by his deep love for Lazarus and the goodness of life, Jesus resurrects him from the cold, lifeless abyss of death. This kind of love has true power, power to effect changes in our spatio-temporal realm because it points to the God of Love, who, in and through Jesus “upholds the Universe with the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3).

*          *          *

Where else do we see this kind of love that is cosmic in scope, yet so real and palpable as once-dead human flesh that has been revitalized and restored? Funnily, I think we get a picture of it in Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. Nolan paints a not-so-distant, future earth where most natural resources have been exhausted and the surviving humans lead a frugal, fearful existence marked by a “just get by” mentality. Humanity’s days are numbered, at least on earth. The protagonist, Cooper, along with a team of scientists leave our solar system to probe the feasibility of colonizing other worlds. Their precise mission is incredibly daunting: after a two-year journey from earth to Saturn, a wormhole will take them to a distant star system where there are several candidate planets. One catch is these planets are proximal to a dying neutron star that is being consumed by a black hole. This black hole distorts the surrounding space-time, creating intense time dilation effects. In turn, Cooper and the rest of the crew will not age as quickly (normally) as everyone else on earth.

Cooper is depicted as a devoted, loving father who holds out a promise to his daughter (Murph) that seems awfully difficult to keep: that he will survive this epic, intergalactic journey and return to her. Of course, he’s probably consumed with great fear and doubt as he faces potential eternal separation from his daughter, should the mission face any setbacks or mishaps. When her father makes this promise, Murph protests fiercely. She is enraged and feels that her father is abandoning her.

*          *          *

Although the movie is visually stunning and sets a new bar in the space science fiction genre, Nolan uses human elements as the engine to drive the plot forward. In doing so he asks the audience two key questions: (1) What if human beings, in their current state, are limited by their experience of four dimensions (3 space, 1 time), and are maybe meant to experience and pass through others? (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12); and (2) What if love is the mechanism by which we may be able to access and ascend to higher dimensions?

In an incredibly trippy but nonetheless poignant scene in the film, Cooper finds himself in an awe-inspiring three-dimensional structure called the tesseract, which affords him the ability to perceive time as just another spatial dimension. The confines of the tesseract are tantalizingly transparent and reveal Murph in her bedroom at a multitude of time points. Just like Jesus outside the tomb of Lazarus, Cooper is angry because he is separated from his beloved daughter and wants nothing else but to be with her again. Also like Jesus, Cooper is in the privileged position to access multiple dimensions of reality to which humans aren’t otherwise privy. In a final desperate act, he attempts to reach her by shrieking her name and pounding at the edge of the tesseract, which in Murph’s room is the back of her bookshelf. He is able to successfully manipulate the gravity in the room to communicate with her, and she realizes that it is not a gravitational anomaly but her father reaching out to her from another realm. By the end of the film, we learn that the love between a father and a child has saved the human race.

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

-St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians

Love is where we came from. And love is where we are going. When we live in love, we will not be afraid to die. We have built a bridge between worlds.

-Fr. Richard Rohr