Monthly Archives: November 2012

Ethical Subroutines

The picture nearby is the old Philosophy of Ethics standby. Do you pull the switch? What right do you have to pull/not-pull the switch?

This article from the New Yorker takes a look at a modern twist on that story. I think I’ve linked to the Google driver-less car before. Its a neat project and further along than we might think. Driver-less cars will become standard within my lifetime most likely. What ethical subroutine do you program in? A cat jumps out in front of the car. Does the robot driver swerve at risk to the passengers or just go bump? What do you do? Make it harder. A child runs out in the street. There is no way to stop the car. Does the robot driver crash the car injuring the passenger? What if there are three passengers? Remember that the robot driver’s decision making is much faster than a human. The human might not have time to react. The robot does. What kind of ethical subroutine do you program? Who gets to choose? GM? Toyota? IPAB?

And those might be easy compared to the real end game. All those drones that the US is using to kill foreigners and create all kinds of collateral damage…just the first wave. The drones have humans controlling them at all times. We can argue about the ethics of drones, but if we don’t like how they are used we can vote in new administrations. What happens when the US replaces the big red one with the droid army? Robot soldier in an insurgent environment like say Afghanistan. What are the ethics to be programmed in a situation where jihadist and child could both be coming around the corner?

How do you teach ethics to a machine? How do we teach them to our kids? How were they taught in the past? Right now the default switch on all of that stuff is Utilitarianism. And machines can be strict utilitarians unlike most humans who are only so in the abstract. Religion doesn’t boil down to ethics, but ethics has until the enlightenment project been seen as a subset of religion. We are entering a world where religion-less ethics are being encoded. Are you hopeful about that?

The Crews Missile

I’m sure you might have caught this letter from a “bitterly disappointed” father already.

David Brooks comments on it in a way that is meaningful. He’s using psychological and therapeutic language for something Christianity has talked about for a long time. We can change, but slowly and only laboriously. And we doing it mostly not by dropping bad behaviors but by crowding them out with good ones.

People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.

Human behavior flows from hidden springs and calls for constant and crafty prodding more than blunt hectoring. The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not with a ferocious e-mail trying to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones.

Note that “unable to escape”. In Lutheranism we have two big phrases: sinner and saint, law and gospel. We all know the law. It is written on our hearts. We just can’t keep it. We are unable to escape the law, both its accusation and its trespass. Getting real theological Christianity calls this original sin. After Eve took that apple, all the bad apples looked good. We can’t help ourselves.

The big internal break is when you stop trying to keep the law but rest on grace. When you know that you are a sinner and as long as you are in this body will be a sinner, but that God has saved you by grace. Jesus Christ released us from the penalty of the law and put his Spirit within us. That is the gospel. You are a sinner, but also a saint. And the call of the Saint is to follow Christ, to pick up the cross. What does that mean? To crucify all that bad stuff. Laboriously, bit by bit. How do we do it? I prefer what I ended last week’s sermon with. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phi 4:8 ESV) Or “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22 ESV) Or what David Brooks calls “obliquely, redirect attention toward positive things”.

Here is the difference. You try and do that yourself as Brook’s psychology language would lead you to believe you can, still trying to perform, you still fail. You are still under the law. The first two steps of AA have the truth: 1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. The Word comes from outside of us. Christ puts his Spirit within us.

The Crews Missile was an impressive piece of preaching the law. But the law does not save.

Parson Irresponsibility?

As the owner of three expensive diplomas on the wall, and the father of three young kids, and the holder of a job not known for its earning potential…I have to admit that I’ve basically made a bet with my kid’s future. I think this guy, Salman Khan, has to be right about the future of higher education.

Here’s what I think it could look like in five years: the learning side will be free, but if and when you want to prove what you know, and get a credential, you would go to a proctoring center [for an exam]. And that would cost something. Let’s say it costs $100 to administer that exam. I could see charging $150 for it. And then you have a $50 margin that you can reinvest on the free-learning side.

I think that is consistent with the mission. You are taking the cost of the credential down from thousands of dollars to hundreds of dollars. And the [software] system would tell them they are ready for it. So no paying tuition for community college and then dropping out, or even finishing the whole thing and saying “Oh, I’m $20,000 in debt and what did I get out of it?”

Now you are like, “Look, there is this micro-credential in basic accounting I can get for $150, and I basically know I am going to pass before I invest that money.” That would be a huge positive for the consumers of education, and it could pay the bills on the learning side.

Now if one of the ankle-biters manages to get themselves admitted to Harvard that might be a different thing. There are two transactions going on there. Harvard is aggregating the best collection of future potential it can identify and that future talent is paying for access to a very exclusive network. Do you see education in there anywhere? Not as a primary input or output. But let’s discount that possibility for now.

After those pay to play institutions, you are left with the large state credential factories. And with government budgets going boom, and every available dollar that we can tax or borrow going to be needed to pay for Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare, anything that can offer a potential order of magnitude decrease in cost and at the same time offer a data driven credential that might be more telling than a grade-inflated gender-studies degree will be too tempting for the state to keep guarding the moat. Especially as the “youth” vote is a key part of the democratic coalition. There is an epic smackdown within that coalition between the tenured professors dependent upon the old model and the kids who don’t want to start life with hundreds of thousands of debt. The kids can only pay for one entitlement and my guess is that they pay for SSI, Medicare, Obamacare.

The upshoot is that if Salman Khan is right and I avoid the Harvard bullet, the parson does not have to eat Ramen Noodles every night starting now for the next 20 years until the last darling gets that sheepskin. Parental irresponsibility or justifiable bet?

End of An Age?

Biblical Text: Mark 13:24-37
Full Draft of Sermon

Three problems with the what the Bible actually has to say about the end times. 1) It’s real message is incredibly boring. One word. Watch. About that day and hour, nobody knows. No elaborate timelines. No warnings or signs. 2) So much of it is given to us in a language that we just don’t understand anymore. It is not that we can’t understand it. It is just that it takes either a bunch of time cross referencing Old and New Testaments and looking up apocryphal literature of the time and when you do that you get a sense of time wasted because it is boring. (I did all that and I don’t have a date or at least a Mayan calendar?!? 3) Much of it happens to refer to a historical which requires us to know history. 3a) Ok, one more. There is a deep hermeneutic question that is just really unanswerable and really is something that just can’t be brought into the pulpit.

If you want to discuss the hermeneutic question, come to bible study next week. (We started it this week and will continue next week). That question to me is to what extent can AD70 and the parts of Mark 13 that talk about it be treated in a typological way. Not typological to THE LAST DAY as that is ruled out by the text, we don’t know, but typological to churches or an End of An Age. My question in study started with what would a modern abomination that causes desolation look like. I think there are some modern parallels that don’t point to an easy future if read typologically. But, that is not pulpit type stuff because it is ultimately just refined speculation.

It does lead back though to what I did take into the pulpit – watch, be on your guard, wake up, lest when He comes suddenly, He finds you asleep. Now is the time of grace. Fill your lamps.

A Thanksgiving Homily

Text: 2nd commandment, Psalm 50:1-23, Luke 17:11-19
As Lutherans we rally around the small catechism, but there are some other catechisms out there. Rita Fedick brought an Eastern Orthodox one to bible study last Thursday. The Westminster Shorter Catechism – a Reformed work of the Calvinist strain starts off with a classic question and answer. What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. That answer captures a truth that humans have been fighting against since the start.

Our first and primary relationship, duty, orientation, end is toward God. Augustine would say, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.

And there are all kinds of diversions that we will come up with to deny that. From the simple – in the words of Billy Joel, I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints…to the complex, great theological constructs whose end is to say “God didn’t really say that” when the clear words of the Bible “are that”.

One of the most pernicious of those diversions is Psalm 50 or 9 of 10 lepers. “Not for you sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.” The majority of the lepers went to the priests as Jesus and the law told them to do. And we should be clear here – God doesn’t say don’t do these things. The Psalmist doesn’t have God saying stop those sacrifices. Jesus tells the 10th leper to go. And elsewhere Jesus would say things like “you ought to have done [the tithe requirements] without neglecting justice and mercy and faithfulness”. Jesus was not against ritual itself – we baptize, we eat the Supper, we absolve sins, all at His direction. What he was against was magic by his name. The use of the name of God not toward our end…but toward our ends.

What you might be asking is how this eventually gets to a warm-fuzzy thanksgiving homily?

Well, I think it has to do with two types of stories we tell ourselves, a current kids movie and which of those two stories the best of American History likes to tell. One story we tell is the glory story. We’ve overcome, we’ve accomplished, by our knowledge, skills and abilities we’ve won the day and taken the medal.

There are traces of the glory story in American history. Anytime you hear Teddy Roosevelt talking about the man in the arena he’s telling a glory story. Both candidates in this past election like to tell glory stories. “I won” just might be the summarizing quote of a presidency. And Ayn Rand’s John Galt floated around team red. All narratives of glory.

Wreck-it Ralph, at the start is a simple glory, the Video Game Bad Guy Ralph wants to win a medal. And he’s told of a game where climbing and destroying things gets you a medal…two things he’s very good at. So he game jumps to “Hero’s Duty” and takes his medal.

The other story is the thanksgiving story – the one about grace. It would be easy to tell a glory story about the pilgrim’s journey and how they overcame oppression and won their rights and land by their heroism. But that is not how they talked about it. From the letters of Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony talking about the first Thanksgiving…”And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” Likewise in 1789 after the Revolutionary War and the Adoption of the Constitution, a glory story might be in order. But the act of the inaugural congress, proposed by Rep. Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, reads “to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

Just to let you know that our fundamental arguments haven’t shifted that greatly, the act was originally opposed in Congress for three reasons: 1) Rep. Aedanus Burke of South Carolina objected on the grounds that a Thanksgiving was too European. He “did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings” 2) Rep. Thomas Tudor Tucker, also of South Carolina, raised two further objections. “Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?” he asked. “If a day of thanksgiving must take place,” he said, “let it be done by the authority of the several States.” And 3) Proclaiming a day of Thanksgiving “is a religious matter,” he said, “and, as such, proscribed to us.”

As with things of grace “the Thanksgiving resolution passed—the precise vote is not recorded.” President Washington issued the proclamation starting with these words, “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God…”

As for Wreck-it Ralph, I’ll just say it has a great ending that is in perfect accord with the last verse of Psalm 50 – “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me, to the one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God”.

Glory stories are tempting, but they are ultimately hollow. Glory fades. That was not our end. Our end is to glorify God. “I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” is what the psalmist records.

The call of the gospel is to give thanks for the salvation of God. To order our ways rightly, in accord with the way we were created. We were created to tell stories of grace – stories of the deliverance of God, of the salvation of God…or as the Westminster Catechism would say of the enjoyment of God forever. Because unlike glory which fades, God’s grace in Jesus Christ is eternal. Amen.

The Gospel is a Proclamation (but even Jesus gave the sign of Jonah)

Joe Carter actually advances a “gotcha” argument. Which is really hard to do. He’s commenting on GQ playing gotcha with Sen. Rubio, but it goes far beyond that to real insight. Week in and out the preacher produces a sermon. And the core of any sermon is a proclamation. The simplest form of that proclamation is that Jesus is Lord. But we don’t exactly get what that means all the time. There are a bunch of other metaphors that the bible uses to talk about the proclamation. Jesus rose victoriously (Christ the victor). Jesus died for our sins (Christ the sacrifice). Jesus is the long expected prophet. Jesus is the bread of life. And a bunch of others. We call that bag of metaphors the gospel or taken out of Greek the good news. That proclamation is thrown out for faith to be awakened or the Spirit residing in us to respond to the truth.

And this is the point where Mr. Carter’s article is really good. Proclamations are usually followed with attempts to back them up. When I say Jesus died for our sins a natural question is why can I say that? My natural tendency would be to say lets look at the story. 1) Jesus claimed he could do this. 2) He gave that authority to the apostles. 3) He rose from the dead. That last point is the proof of his statements (i.e. the sign of Jonah). I could just as easily quote the Nicene creed – “I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins”, and say that this has always been the church’s teaching for 2000 years. Both of those answers to “Why?” are different and would/should be valid to different people.

Finding out which “whys?” resonate with people and using different ones is at the same time: a) respecting them and b) respecting the truth. A story way of saying this might be that paying attention to the “whys?” is the difference between the street preacher and the spiritual director. One flings out truth to largely deaf ears. The other seeks to let that truth illumine the life of the person under their direction. Figuring out when to be each is important.

Some Pictures

Last Things meet First Things

Biblical Text: Mark 13:1-13
Full Sermon Draft

Eschatology or Last Things circles back around to first things, the alpha meets the omega. And right at the base if first things is identity – who or what do you see yourself as? Do you emerge from a random universe, a brief flowering of dust that will go back to dust having done nothing other than move some dust around? Are you unknowing about such things, better to eat, drink and be merry. Or are you the special creation of a personal God who knew you before you were formed? Who you think you are will have a big influence on where you think you are going.

But being sinful creatures, even if we mentally have our first things in line with truth, we are often drawn to temporal replacements for that identity – the temples of this world. They are big and impressive and often cohesive and can be good, but not even the temples are a first thing. If they obscure our identity as a Child of God, its got to go. We so easily latch on to created things to build our identity. Jesus’ warnings, and the roiling turmoil of the birth pains, are reminders to watch. To remember whose we are. And to remember whose promises we can trust.

The struggles of the last things are a sharing in the sufferings of Christ – The First Thing. God did not choose works or any other means to save us, but he chose faith. A faith that the cross is actually the victory. That a death is actually the life. That God can be found in the depths just as surely as the heights. That God has shared everything that is common to man. Last Things are not so much a peering into the future, but an appeal to faith that the glory of God is concealed, is held, in the present tribulations. That God has not abandoned us, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. For we hold this eternal treasure in jars of clay.

Jars of Clay

If you have a mathematical or science background this post is fascinating: Your Body Wasn’t Built to Last.

Of course theology got there a long time ago:
Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” (Gen 6:3 ESV)

The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty (Psa 90:10 ESV)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2Co 4:7 ESV)

A Different Interesting Story – R. A. Dickey

You should follow this link to a great piece of journalism. (Its the WSJ so it might be behind a paywall, sorry). Of the major sports, baseball is really the only one that offers up stories like R. A. Dickey. The story as written though has a major religious ghost. Dickey is a Christian. The quote below and what the writer tip-toes around only resonates really deeply when you put it in the context of that faith. He once had the stuff, but the stuff wasn’t enough. Glory was elusive. It only came when he started throwing a pitch that even the pitcher doesn’t really know where it ends up. Law and gospel. Go read the story.

Robert Allen Dickey of Nashville and the New York Mets won the Cy Young Award on Wednesday. He is 38 years old. To say there are miles on his career is to reduce his life into a bad country song. This is more complicated than that. Dickey was once one of those naturals, a baseball superstar in the making, but then it all swerved, cruelly. A big contract was offered and revoked. He spent season after season stifling in the minors. Major-league stops were short and painful. Dickey worried about money, about providing for his family. Hope began to fade, in the slow and almost unconscious way that hope slips away…

But it wasn’t just that. Dickey revealed himself as a human being. With co-author Wayne Coffey he wrote a deeply honest book with an abstract title, “Wherever I Wind Up.” In it he talked about sexual abuse he’d suffered as a child, the pain he’d endured, his anguish and self-doubt and failures as a husband. This was very different from the usual jock pablum. Dickey embraced his truth, and it appeared to liberate him on the mound. He was the best reason to root for a bad team.

As his career season progressed, he was almost introspective about it, proud of the work but as bemused as anyone. When he won his 20th game, Dickey offered a quote that just hung in the air.

“I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a self-made man,” he said.