Guessing Rather Than Talking

Today I got a call asking my opinion about a missionary using the term “Isa al Masih.”  The official concern relayed to me was that the missionary was using the Arabic term for Jesus Christ. The issue was not that the term is Arabic, but rather that Isa al Masih is a term that ties to a Quranic depiction of Jesus rather than a Biblical depiction. From that understanding, although the Quranic and Biblical terms point to the same character, perhaps it is wrong to say that the terms are equivalent.

Of course this is nothing new. Are Yahweh, God, and Allah the same or not? All answers are inadequate. In a sense the answer is Yes. All three point to an Abrahamic understanding of the God of Heaven and Earth. In a sense the answer is No. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic understandings of God do differ considerably. If the descriptions are different, how can one say they are the same?

For me, the best answers are “No but” and “Yes but.” A Christian might say, “No, but we are seeking to worship the same God,” or perhaps “Yes, but we don’t all necessarily know the God we worship.” The latter is suggested in Jesus’s  response to the woman at the well in John chapter 4.

I would argue that “Yes But” or “No But” also works for Jesus. Both Isa al Masih and Jesus Christ are terms that seek to reference Yeshua of Nazareth. But the terms have wildly different interpretations of who he truly is.  One can say No they are too different… but both terms seek to discover the Jesus who is.

But… do two people mean EXACTLY the same thing, ever? No. We are always translating our thoughts, inadequately, whether we are talking to another of a different language or worldview… or same.

So if one is talking about Jesus the Messiah to one with an Islamic worldview… the closest term is “Isa al Masih.” The term is inadequate but is still adequate and necessary as a starting point for dialogue.

On this first point then, I believe the missionary used a perfectly fine term.  Yet I wonder if this wasn’t the key issue. The pastor(s) concerned may not have an issue with the term itself.

The chief concern may be motivation… at least as it is guessed by others. A religion is not only a body of beliefs, but a social construct. The language we use and the actions we do (and do not do) reinforce these social bonds.

Conflicts are rarely about language we use or actions we do. Conflicts tend to spring from what they guess motivates differences, not the differences themselves.

One sees this in many situations— religious or otherwise. I have known Christians who came from non-Christian settings. For example, I have known Christians from a Muslim background. They did not eat pork and they would get some level of grief from Christians. Why? It is not because Christians must eat pork. Christians have freedom. But there is often pressure to conform to “Christian culture.” Note… I live in the Philippines where eating pork is deeply ingrained in the culture.

Some Christians, upon discovering that a fellow Christian doesn’t eat pork start asking to themselves, “If ______ is one of us, why does ______ not act like us.” I heard some joke that one such Muslim background believer must be a “secret Muslim.” And maybe they were not joking. I have had people question who I ‘really’ am because I worship differently or vote differently. We know that only God can see the heart… but we tend to think that we can as well sometimes.

Perhaps some heard the missionary talk about Isa al Masih and instead of thinking “Oh the missionary contextualizes Christ to her place of ministry” they think “Maybe the missionary is getting confused in his beliefs— maybe he is not one of us.”

The answer is simple… ask. If language exists in Yes But and No But, rather than Yes or No, and we cannot read minds and hearts, we need feedback. We need dialogue.

Of course I am guessing myself. The one I talked to just had questions only. I cannot read the hearts and minds of the people involved. I have to remember to dialogue… to seek feedback.

Dialogue in Diversity

Social Media and Toxic (Non-)Dialogue

A few weeks ago I decided to leave Facebook… mostly. I still have a few activities that require me to pop in there for at least brief moments. However, I am pretty sure that my time there will continue to decline and not return to its past.

It started in a minor way. A friend of mine on FB had shared a rather silly little cut-and-paste that humorously sought a “divorce” of “real” Americans from various people in news and entertainment (mostly) who tended to trigger political conservatives. It was mildly humorous, but overall I found it a bit annoying. I have become increasingly concerned with tribalism in US religion and politics where there is a tendency to demonize people who hold other views rather than see value in diverse perspectives.

I would have let it go but most of the comments were unabashedly positive not merely to the questionable entertainment value of the post, but the actual idea espoused underlying the humor.

There were a few comments that were less positive, and so I decided to respond in a way that was not at all supportive of the post. I stated that I disagreed with pretty much every sentence in the post (probably an exaggeration), and felt that diverse views were a healthy part of society.

One guy (I will call him “Jay”) seemed really bothered by this response and suggested that I should not talk. I gave some vague response to this. I don’t even remember what I wrote now. He responded, that I should keep my opinions to my self, and then instead of addressing it to me, “Bob,” he addressed it to “Philippines.”

Okay, I felt like I got it. Jay felt that because I lived in the Philippines I really should not share my opinions on US politics. Strangely, I actually get that. I have Filipino friends over here that will, occasionally, express opinions about American politics that in my mind are so out of touch with what is actually going on— often reading or hearing the worst of US op-eds. Several times, I had felt tempted to tell my Filipino friends to stay out of what they don’t really understand. Thankfully, I refrained from it because I really do believe that we learn from each other. But I get the temptation to ignore people who don’t have a direct investment in a situation.

I responded to Jay that I am a US citizen and Virginia resident and serve as a missionary in the Philippines. Jay responded something about me being some liberal socialist something or other who would cause “Virginia Regulars to be rolling over in their graves.” Politically, I am rather eclectic (somewhere in the Conservative-Moderate-Libertarian range of things_. I don’t think my views would fit into the liberal or socialist side of things, but it is true that I have never tried to limit my views to any oneside of any political spectrum.

I got especially annoyed about the Virginia Regulars and their cemetery tumblings. Virginia Regulars were Confederate military. I am not an expert on the political beliefs of CSA military, but I generally thought that would be considered a good thing today to hold views that would decidedly out of synch with the Confederacy.

I wrote some smartass response somewhat clarifying my political stance and insulting Jay for jumping to yet another assumption. (It seems to be his thing.) But after about five minutes I went back on and deleted that post.

That is when I figured out a few things. These things I already knew but I got reminded.

  1. It was a bit foolish of me to make a vague sweeping response to the initial post. I was raised in a church that was part of the Fundamentalist and Separatist movements in the US. That church had (and has) many good qualities. Many people get bothered by the term “Fundamentalist” and picture all sorts of horrible things. However, for me, the FAR bigger concern is actually “Separatism.” It is a tribalizing philosophy and squelches dialogue. It is missiologically suspect and Biblically weak. I would even suggest that Separatism as a secular movement within American society is destructive to democracy. However, given a vague blanket statement actually triggers a separatist response. And of course it would. I someone responds to this post with the statement— “I disagree with pretty much every statement in this post” —- I would not take the writer seriously. It doesn’t feed dialogue, it squelches it.
  2. FB doesn’t really support healthy dialogue. It is not much better than Twitter to discuss important issues. Important issues can’t be handled with one or two or three sentences— or with a GIF or a like or a frowny face. It promotes a stereotyping of views. Also, short bursts of text done in the moment often get misunderstood and feelings get hurt and eventually people move into little echo chambers of mutual admiration societies each trying to one-up each other in greater extremes of view and attacks on others who don’t share those views.
  3. It sucks to not be understood. I remember taking our young child to the emergency room because of a bout of asthma. The nurse essentially accuses us of smoking around our child. It got us mad, especially my wife who was a nurse, because we don’t smoke, had not smoked, have no people in our house who smoke, and have never even had visitors come into our home and smoke. It is annoying to have someone come to a conclusion based on very limited information and act like they figured you out. But it is tempting to do that. Consider Jay for a minute. It is quite tempting for me to make guesses about him. He seemed to be annoyed that I was an Asian sharing opinions about America. When he found out that I am actually a (white) US citizen, he suggested that my Confederate ancestors (of whom I have none) would be horrified by my politics. It is pretty easy for me to GUESS that he is a raging racist MAWA (“make America white again”). But that would only be a guess. If I don’t like having Jay guess (extremely poorly) about my views, I should avoid doing that with him and others.

So I have decided to step away from FB. Not merely because of this rather mundane little conversation but because of years of these silly little problems.

But I do have to recognize the irony. I want healthy dialogue between different groups. I think Separatism is flawed. Yet I am separating myself off by stepping away from Facebook. I am still trying to work this out. I do believe that dialogue is valuable, but some formats don’t promote healthy dialogue. I don’t see FB as a place that promotes healthy dialogue… generally at least.

Not all formats support growth through dialogue. I recently read an article in a Jewish publication that questioned having interviews of Anti-Semites published in their Jewish papers. The reason for publishing these was to help Jews understand the perspective of those with very different views. However, I would agree with those who have expressed concern. While dialogue is a good thing, giving a soapbox for Anti-Semitic “hate speech” may not be a very effective way to promote mutual trust and growth.

Still trying to figure this out. Maybe we just have to accept the limitations of social media. In the end, most all of us really want to be understood— understood in our beliefs and values, and understood in our fears and hopes. It may be too much to expect to be understood on an media platform— at least until we learn to TRY to understand others in a similar way. But I think there is hope.

Back in the 1960s, the Evangelicals separated missiologically from the World Council of Churches. Each started meeting as separate entities. Both groups embraced some views that were pretty messed up, in my opinion. The Conciliar missions tended to reject the uniqueness of the message of Christ and moved from a ministry of evangelism to a ministry of presence. The Evangelicals embraced evangelism but did so by rejecting much of Jesus’s social ministry. Both sides were deeply flawed. Thankfully, there were a few (John Stott being perhaps the most well known of these) who maintained involvement and dialogue in both groups. By the 1970s the worst excesses of these groups were eroded. Both groups accepted that evangelism and social ministry are part of Christ’s call to the church. I can’t help but think that those who kept dialogue going had a role in this.

But if FB and Twitter and Reddit and other social media platforms existed back then would dialogue have improved? Not convinced. I am still trying to figure it out.

Looking For Opportunities to Change My Mind

man wearing black and white stripe shirt looking at white printer papers on the wall
Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

Vignette #1.  Today, I was looking at Facebook again. There were a lot of notes talking about how the WHO (World Health Organization) has changed their view yet again about some aspect of COVID-19 response. Tied to this is the implication that WHO is untrustworthy, and because it is untrustworthy… well, it should be defunded perhaps, or treated like an enemy, or some such thing. Hold that thought for a minute.

#2.  Each election cycle a person will run for political office. Many will, and often one such person will express a view on a hot topic. Soon after people will point out that years ago the person held very different views. From this people suggest that the politician is a liar— telling people what he or she thinks the people want to hear just to get elected.  Hold that thought as well.

#3.  I am listening to a podcast (Tripp Fuller with Jeffrey Pugh) on Bonnhoeffer. Pugh noted that Bonhoeffer’s theological and political views changed over the years as a theologian. It was noted, that many try to see a consistent viewpoint or will try to see Bonnhoeffer’s views through the colored glasses of a specific religious or political perspective. The fluidity of his views are frozen in a sort of single-perspective Bonnhoeffer orthodoxy.

#4.  More generally, I was raised up with the culturally supported perspective that women “always keep changing their minds.” I could be wrong, but I felt that the subtext of this cultural perspective is that changing minds speaks poorly to the character of women, especially as it comes to leadership.

If one just takes these four above situations, one sees four different responses to changing of one’s mind.

  • #1 Changing mind is a sign of incompetence.
  • #2.  Changing mind doesn’t really happen. Rather “pretending” to change mind is a sign of lack of integrity— an evidence of moral failure.
  • #3.  Changing mind doesn’t really happen. Understanding, at least to some extent, the views of someone at one point in time reveals someone and guides how the person can be understood at all points in time.
  • #4.  Changing mind does happen and is a sign of lack of character.

We see these show up in odd ways. Leaders are often judged poorly for being indecisive and praised for being decisive, regardless of whether the decisive move is correct and whether or not there was adequate information to make an informed decision in the first place. This is a bit of a mix of #1 and #4.  Today, a friend of mine showed (pulling in some American politics for a moment… sorry) that the first 23 blacks (African-Americans) to enter US Congress were Republicans. This was meant to show that Republicans are the more “black-friendly” or at least  the less “black-unfriendly.” Of course that is a case of #3.  If one party was good at one time, it must still be good. If one party is good today, it must have always been good.  It is the belief that continuity of structure suggests continuity of vision and purpose.

However, not only is such logic flawed, but it also hides the truth.  For example, the WHO (and the CDC) really SHOULD be changing their minds regularly. They are facing a problem that is new. As such, there is little rock solid information they can use for guidance. As such, they are somewhat groping in the dark. Despite being in the dark, governments and news media keep coming to them to get definitive answers. So they try to give good answers, but must keep changing as data flows in. This is normal and healthy.

Politicians should change their minds. People grow and times change. Admittedly, it would be good if a politician can explain what led him to changing his mind. This is not because it is wrong to change one’s mind. Rather, changing mind can evidence being a political hack who sways whichever way the breeze blows— or it can evidence a thoughtful person who analyzes, learns and grows. It would be helpful to know which is the case.

Bonnheffer kept changing in his politics and theology. That is good and healthy. A good theologian is a changing theologian. Millard Erickson in his book on Systematic theology descrbes several characteristics of good theology. Three of them (putting them in my own words) are that good theology is (a) Contemporary, addressing the questions and concerns of the present context, (b) Practical, provides wisdom as to how to think and act in ministry, the church, and broader society, and (c) Addresses knowledge from outside of theology. Since knowledge changes, context changes, and circumstances change, theology can and should change, and so theologians should change.

According to one study I saw (sadly, cannot remember the source, so you can research it yourself to be sure I am not wrong, or confused) found that men change their minds as much, or more, than women. It is just that they tend not to vocalize the vacillations of thinking as much. One could then argue that women should not be blamed for changing their minds, but rather men should be blamed for poor communication. OR… why blame at all. Affirm communicating uncertainty AND affirm quiet reflection. But most of all, affirm that we are all learning and growing.

So… Keep learning, keep reflecting, keep questioning. Embrace new ideas as a potential friend rather than a dread enemy.

COVID Musings

The following is the Conclusions of the book I finished during COVID-19 quarantine here in the Philippines. The book is Missions in Samaria.

Conclusions

I am writing this during the COVID-19 pandemic.Samaria Front Cover On one side the disease drives us apart. It places us in our own homes, physically distanced and masked. We may live in voluntary quarantine, or in enhanced quarantine, or in lock-down. And yet it can also tear down barriers. When faced with a common curse, if you would prefer such language, we begin to identify the commonality that we have as human beings. Before, we may focus on our differences, but the common enemy can lead us to recognizing our commonality. It can drive reconciliation.

Yet it doesn’t have to happen. The Roman threat did not really bring the Jews and Samaritans together. Today, we still find many people trying hard to make barriers higher— blaming political, national, or ethnic groups for the virus and the suffering we are undergoing during this disease event. Self-labeled Christians appear to be as prone to this as anyone else. Nations are being blamed for the problem, right or wrong. But clearly wrong is the temptation of some to blame people of certain ethnicities tied, no matter how loosely to those nations. If a common experience, a common enemy, cannot bring us to break down our prejudices, what will? And as Christians, if the example of Christ of building bridges (to Samaritans, Gentiles, publicans and sinners, to religious elite) cannot inspire us as Christians to do likewise, than what would inspire us?

Perhaps this is a good time— many of us have some time right now— to think about what are our Samarias? Who are the Samaritans in our lives? How can we be different in the future to reach out to them, tear down barriers, and create beautiful moments of reconciliation, regardless of the fear and anger that appears to dominate our society. There was a study that came out a few years ago that looked at various forms of written media, in the English language for approximately a century. The researchers identified different feeling words and their prevalence. The researchers discovered that most feeling words declined over the decades, except one. That one is FEAR. It grew throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. Fear is a God-given emotion. We are called upon to have courage through fear, rather than called to not feel fear. One of the great fears is “Fear of the Other.” <Endnote 13>

However, when Jesus spoke to His disciples, now described as Apostles (“sent out ones,” ambassadors/missionaries of Christ) Jesus said that they will receive power from the Spirit of God. From there they would be able to serve in their apostolic role as missionaries, witnesses of the good news of Christ, starting at home (Jerusalem), and Judea (moving out into the broader neighborhood), and Samaria (those people you once wanted fire from heaven rained down upon) and even to the ends of the world (the most terrifying and alien places). In all of those places, God will already be there waiting for them, and providing power for them.

I don’t believe God has changed in this. Do you?

The Cheshire Church

The following is a quote from the book by James F. Engle and William A. Dyrness, “Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?” (InterVarsity Press, 2000).

Who can fault legendary evangelist Dwight L. Footnotes: The Cheshire CatMoody, who captured the mood of evangelicals at the end of the nineteenth century in his declaration, “I look upon the world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.'” In other words, all hopes of transforming society with the gospel were dashed, in his eyes, until Christ’s return in glory, leaving only one option, the lifeboat— a single-minded focus on evangelism as the mission of the church.

While few would echo the words of Moody and his contemporaries today, we still hear a distinct but largely unrecognized carryover. Ever since the late 1800s, dominant evangelical voices have called for accelerated church planting to evangelize the maximum number of unreached in the shortest possible period of time. The return of Christ became the dominant motivation for missions— only this return would bring about the transformation that the gospel required. The only human effort required was an announcement of the message. ….

There never has been a dispute that evangelism is indispensable as the first step in making disciples in all nations, but now voices were heard calling for the first time for completion of world evangelization in this generation. It would almost seem as if the future world and the ultimate victory of Christ had become dependent on human initiative. Little wonder that evangelicals were quick to embrace the wonders of a technological age and to mobilize Christian resources in an unprecedented way. In the process, it became tempting to disregard the essence  of the Great Commission …. where it is abundantly obvious that human efforts are futile, or at least inadequate,without the convicting, regenerating and sanctifying role of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, among those who referred to themselves as evangelicals, there was almost total silence in response to God’s call for social justice to alleviate the burdens of ignorance, poverty and hunger, racism, the loss of cultural identity, and other forms of oppression (Amos 5:21-24, Luke 3:10-14; 4:18-21). Oss Guinness prophetically observed that the outcome of this silence is a church that has lost its impact by becoming “privately engaging, socially irrelevant.”

Guinness uses the analogy of the Cheshire Cat in the famous story Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. In this fable, the cat gradually loses its identity until all that remains is its famous lingering grin. So it is with the church, which by and large now has only the ‘lingering grin, ‘ a surface indicator of a privatized faith without moral and social impact. In so doing, the church has dug its own grave, while the smile lingers on.

(Pages 64-65.  Os Guinness quote is from “The Gravedigger File”)

Can You Do Good Pastoral Counseling With Bad Pastoral Theology?

I decided to move some articles from an old blog of mine on Pastoral Theology. That is why some of my posts here are more about pastoral counseling and theology rather than “classic” missions. But since I am in missions and am an administrator at a pastoral counseling center, it is not NOT missions. 

I think this is a good question. I believe the answer to this question is YES!! I have certainly seen people who do a good job with pastoral counseling whose pastoral theology seems… inadequate. Pastoral Theology is Cyclic, Reflective, and founded on a good Theological base and on Experience.

So what are a couple of risks to pastoral counseling when one has poor pastoral theology?

  1. One’s pastoral counseling role is limited. This is if the reflection side is limited by poor or limited theology. Consider the case of Naaman the leper in the Bible. In the story, the servant girl of Naaman was able to give some wise guidance to him through his wife that there was a man in Israel who could help him. It seems as if she did not know much more than this. She did not know his name, or location. Possibly she did not know that much about the Mosaic Law or of ethics… but she knew what she she needed to tell in that specific occasion. Later in the story, other servants of Naaman also give some wise counsel. They were not even people of the Jewish faith, presumably, but they drew from good sagely wisdom that was well established in the Near East at that time. If Naaman was willing to do great tasks on the uncertain hope to be healed, why not do something easy if asked (that may take just a wee bit of humility)? These people were able to give good (pastoral) counseling but most likely their range of effectiveness would be limited.
  2. If one was doing something wrong in pastoral counseling, it is likely that one would perpetuate the mistake over and over again. The inability to learn and grow in this case would be due to poor reflection. One does not learn and grow. The story that comes to mind was a church I used to attend where at the prayer meeting, different ill people would be brought up to be prayed over. Many of them were considered to be “terminal cases.” However, in the prayer the request was that they be fully healed (not healed through death, but healed from death). The prayers were actually not so much a request but a demand. “God you said that you would do whatever we ask you to do, so we declare _________ as healed by the power of your name.” Ironically, several of these prayers were followed in a matter of days by that person’s death. I kept waiting for the members of the group to dwell on the fact that their seemed to be a powerful disconnect between their theology of God (the idea that God has obligated Himself to subvert His will to our will whenever we choose) and what God actually did.

So, Yes, good pastoral counseling can be done by those with poor pastoral theology. However, I believe that good pastoral theology increases the range of one’s pastoral counseling skills, and decreases the amount of repeating the same errors.

The Mumu in the Mirror

Some time ago, I was at a person’s house. I don’t know the person that well— more of a friend of a friend. That person, I will call “Deb” for the purpose of this story, took me to a mirror in her house and asked me to pray. She had seen a “mumu” (one of the Philippine terms for ghost) in the mirror, and wanted me to pray that whatever is in the mirror, or is being seen in the mirror would go away. (Talking later to some others, two more people had noted seeing something similar in that mirror.)

I am rather agnostic when it comes to things like this. There are people who believe in ghosts and people who do not believe in ghosts. Trying to sound smart, perhaps, I like to say that I believe “phenomenologically” in ghosts. That is, I believe people see or experience something that they describe as ghosts… but I don’t know what that phenomenon really points to. I am not convinced that praying against a mirror would change that phenomenon.

This situation reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague in the area of pastoral counseling. I was asked whether I would ever recommend a form of therapy that I did not believe in. My answer at the was a bit convoluted. However, if I wanted to simplify it a bit, I would say the following:

  • I would not recommend a therapy that I believe is inappropriate or unhelpful.
  • However… I would not try to prevent a person from using a therapy that he/she thinks would be valuable, UNLESS I believe that the therapy is clearly harmful

This second point is based on the realization that of the four primary indicators of a successful therapeutic treatment, only one of the four is the general effectiveness of the the therapeutic method itself. The others (I am doing this by memory right now… I will double-check later) are the competence of the therapist in the treatment, the relationship between the client and therapist, and the faith the client has in the treatment process (the “placebo effect”).

So, bringing it back to the mirror. I don’t know what Deb and the others saw, and I don’t know what needs to be done to make sure that they don’t see it again. I am not going to gainsay a method based on my own ignorance. I also know that Deb places a fair bit of trust in me as a religious practitioner to be of help. Further, I am pretty sure that whatever I do, it is unlikely that my actions would make things worse (although I cannot guarantee this).

So what did I do? Actually, a friend of mine was with me with more experience in these types of prayers. I asked him to pray. However, I did not simply ask him to pray that no one sees a mumu in the mirror. I asked my friend with me, a pastor, to pray a blessing on the house (including the issue of the mirror and the mumu). Some day, I should ask if the problem is now gone.

I think this answer fits into the category “do no harm.” That being said, one goal is to get the client not to rely on the religious professional, but to understand that she has access to God. I want God to be her God, and the God of her house.

“Idea Tribes” and “Pravda”

Maybe it has always been this way, but there seems to be an increase of intolerance in recent years. Yes, I know that in many things— race (maybe), sexual orientation, and lifestyle choices— there seems greater tolerance. But intolerance of divergent viewpoints seems greater. I could be wrong, but it makes sense. We are group-creating creatures… we create cultures. Cultures are tied to shared beliefs and behaviors. Therefore, the notion that all taboos are going away seems doubtful. As we tear one down, we build up a different one. It seems as if we are creating “Idea Tribes” and create a culture around such ideas. I occasionally will drop in on some of these Idea Tribes on social media. I don’t do it very often,  but it is useful as an ethnographic investigation to see how such groups interact and create patterns of identification. I am blessed in that I have online friends who are in nearly the full range of (American and Filipino at least) political positions, and with a considerably broad variety of theological positions. Because of this, it is pretty easy for me to pop in on the Calvinists, or the MAGA folk, or the Complementarians, the Anti-Trumps, the Skeptics, and the Anti-vax’ers. (Many many other groups out there of course).  Occasionally I will drop a comment… but not too often. Some take the comment with grace. Others get triggered (so weird that the people who complain about others getting triggered are so susceptible to being triggered… a form of projection perhaps?).

Pretty much all such groups embrace something that years ago was called PRAVDA. Pravda is the Russian word meaning “truth.” However, it was also a newspaper that served, in part, as the media arm of the USSR. As such, the term “pravda” came to be used as a slang term for “the official truth.” All groups claim to seek truth, but in reality they seek pravda. That is, they seek a shared concensus of what is defined as truth by the group. As such, this pravda is useful to identify the boundaries of the group (who are “Us” and who are “They”). It may also come to be treated as worldview truth. That is, it is presumed to be truth and therefore is used to build off of to discover new truths, and test proposed truths.

One of the fun things to do is to see how some people will so actively seek to develop such Idea Tribes. In other cases, Idea Tribes already exist, and people wrestle in trying to get their idea tribe to take one shared view on a hitherto unexplored new idea.

One such is the response to COVID-19.  COVID-19 is a fact. It exists It is spreading. It is the truth. But truths are not that useful for defining groups. Usually, it is pravda. Pravda can be questioning facts (conspiracy theory groups, for example). More often Pravda is associated with interpretation of facts (What does it mean in terms of our group’s identity) or response to facts (How then should we respond).  It, further, may establish a battle of values (which is the lesser evil or the greater good).

With COVID-19 it is interesting to see that many groups, since they haven’t really dealt with a pandemic before, do not have a shared belief (pravda) so we find Idea Tribes struggling with it. Some of these battling Pravdas are:

  • It’s a Chinese plot.  (Interpretation of facts)
  • We should let the virus run its course (Response to facts.  Darwinian approach)
  • It is the judgment of God (Interpretation of facts)
  • We must meet as a church in defiance to Law (Interpretation and Response)
  • We must obey the Law and support fighting the virus (Interpretation and Response)
  • We must invigorate the economy even if it leads to some people dying (battle of values)

What is funny is how many will try to look open-minded and share a controversial article or video. But then they share another article or video of the same type… and then another and another. Eventually it is clear that they are not being open-minded. They are cherry-picking data to try to sway the group to incorporate their viewpoint as part of the dogma of their Idea Tribe.

One will quote a “leading epidemologist” or a “registered nurse” or a “respected physician” or an “anonymous Chinese witness”. The stream of articles from (sometimes dubious) sources keeps coming in hopes that their view is accepted.

I know as a former mechanical design engineer, there is likely to be a wide range of beliefs within design. The underlying facts remain unchanged. We have Newtonian Physics, Maxwell’s Laws, and the Laws of Thermodynamics. These don’t change… but how to apply them requires certain viewpoints. Do we emphasize performance? quality? economy? flexibility? speed? durability? aesthetics? marketability? Good people can differ about that. Good engineers can vary widely in how to design something because of these perspectives (either personal or corporate perspectives).

In epidemics, does one prioritize human life? economy? liberty?

In epidemic response, is it better to let an illness “burn itself out” or stretch it out so as to be able to ensure that the health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed?

We live in a weird time where we have a weird mix of Modernism (trust the experts) and Post-Modernism (trust our own subjective experiences). Both have their problems. Post-Modernism tends to reinforce Idea Tribes— those whose subjective views align. Decisions tend to be made based on what we want to be true, rather than what is. Modernism has problems as well. Experts are also subjective, limited, beings. Modernism can easily devolve into a battle royale of experts, or a democracy (55% of leading experts concur that…).

In such a time, how should we respond? In some ways, I don’t know. As Christians I do think we have to look to Christ for guidance. I don’t think Jesus would prioritize economy over human life, or prioritize who should live and who from the herd can be thinned-out. But for some other things, I think it best to stay cautiously open-minded. We should not squelch divergent viewpoints. We can also withhold judgment when that is useful. I live in Baguio City, Philippines with a very strict “enhanced quarantine.” Some of my friends online support a more laissez-faire policy. Baguio City has had no new cases of COVID-19 in 9 days, while the laisser-faire places I have looked up are not doing nearly so well. So I feel justified to think that the plan for Baguio City is correct… but I must also accept the possibility that new facts may come out later that would challenge this view.

 

 

 

 

 

The 21st Century Church and the Quarantine

I am stuck (safely) at home in the Philippines. My family was supposed to fly to the US tomorrow, but we are under “enhanced quarantine” here and we had to cancel our flight.

Therefore, I am working on my book, “Mission to Samaria” during this time.

Here, church gatherings are ended for a now. Some argue whether to defy legal mandate. Some point to the early church and passages to obey God not man. Others point to passages that suggest that obeying government leaders IS obeying God. I don’t believe one should pick one part of the Bible while rejecting another. Faithfulness to God involves honoring our leaders, but still recognizing that we are ultimately judged by our honoring God, NOT the leaders.

I also know people who say that moving church gatherings from big buildings to small home gatherings is right and good because that is what the early church did. But that is flawed in two ways at least. First, we are called by God to be the 21st century church NOT the 1st century in the 21st century. Second, the primitive church met in houses out of economic and political necessity, not as an ideal. In fact, the early church first tried to gather on the temple grounds until driven out.

I do think that the early church is a model for us but in a different way. They showed how to endure in a hostile political climate. They gathered and communicated in creative ways, not being tied down to set structures. They defied government when they had to, but also tried to minimize the animosity.

The church today has options like at no other time. We can meet virtually, we can move and communicate, and we can create communities in almost any circumstance. We can share our faith in words and deeds like no other time in history as well. It is a wonderful time to creatively support the good task of protecting lives.

We need to develop the 21st church, not cry that the 20th century church is under attack. We can learn to do this from the 1st century church… Not by repeating what they did, but seeing how they creatively had dealt with impediments.

The Turing Test and IRD

crm-turing_test

I have never been a fan of the Turing Test. Alan Turing (1912-1954) proposed a test for determining whether and artificial intelligence can think “like a human.” The test suggests that if a person was communicating with an AI and was unable to distinguish whether or not he was talking to a computer or a person, then one would see the computer as thinking in a manner that a human was thinking. Essentially, if the external behavior is similar to a human, one should assume the internal mechanisms driving that behavior is similar. This is a deeply flawed premise (as the Chinese Box thought experiment has demonstrated), showing that what may appear to be internal intelligence is simply may simply be the intelligence of the outside programmer.  That problem with the Turing Test is well understood.

But there is an even more fundamental flaw as far as I can see. It is the fact that we try to see personality patterns in the words that come our way— even patterns that don’t actually exist.  It is much like how we tend to see faces or other patterns in random dots on a wall, or in the stars in the night sky.

A great example of this is in a video on Artificial Intelligence, put out by the Youtube channel “VSauce.” Only a part of the video relates to this post. It can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZXpgf8N6hs&vl=en

In that video, there was an experiment that mimicked the old show, “The Dating Game.” Female contestants would ask questions of three eligible bachelors on the other side of screen. The answers would be transferred to the host to be read to the woman. Bachelors #1 and #3 were human, but bachelor #2 was a computer program. So, for example, the first female contestant would ask what his body was like. He responded with one word— “toned.” The woman thinks that he is a bit full of himself. When she asks bachelor #2 the same question, “he” responds, “I have two arms, two legs, and one head.” She decides that he has a weird sense of humor. As different women go through the questioning, some end up preferring Bachelor #1, and some Bachelor #3. But two of them preferred Bachelor #2… the computer. Why was this? Some found the answers of the computer to be intriguing, or demonstrating a strange sense of humor. This was a mistake. They were overlaying emotions and personality on a computer simulation that had neither. Even the ones that chose bachelor #1 or #3 were also incorrectly inferring personality in the computer. Some thought the prosaic answers as being condescending or snarky. This was likewise not true.

Why does this happen? As noted above, we look for patterns, and much of those patterns are based on guesses and past experiences. One female contestant determined that bachelor #2 was just like one of her ex-boyfriends. The fact was that the two had absolutely nothing in common. Some answers of #2, however, reminded her in some ways to answers she might get from her ex, and so she embued the answers with her ex’s personality. All of them did this to some extent. Inferring personality, thought processes, and motives from words is a very uncertain art.

So what does this have to do with Interreligious dialogue (IRD)?

When speaking to a person committed to and immersed in a different religion, we are talking to a person who has some serious differences in worldview. They are not aliens or completely inscrutable. However, they hold to perspectives that may seem quite alien to us. We then are affected by several things in these conversations:

  • We are affected by religious prejudices, both positive and negative, that make us guess “what is really going on” inside the other person. It is much like friends of mine who accuse politician A while excusing politician B while possibly even commending politician C for the same identical behavior. They determine the motivations and morality of the person through political biases. Sadly, our prejudices are often dangerously wrong— often leading to demonization of “them” while not holding “us” accountable.
  • We look for commonalities that may not exist. Similar language may suggest similar values and meanings incorrectly.
  • We look for differences that may not exist. Different language may suggest different values and meanings incorrectly.
  • We are affected by transference, seeing similar behaviors and language to someone else one knows may lead one to assume that they are similar. Suppose for example, one meets a Hindu who does not eat meat due to religious convictions. Or perhaps one is talking to another person who chooses to maintain a vegetarian lifestyle because of health issues or having concerns with the meat industry. Maybe talking to one or both of them reminds one of a neighbor who thinks that all omnivores are immoral and stupid. It is easy to presume that their attitudes and values are very similar, when they are not.

This is part of the reason that in both interreligious dialogue and in intercultural encounters, one should be slow to judge. We are generally incompetent judges of what is going on inside of others. When Jesus said, Judge not lest ye be judged, I believe it is not simply an issue of love or mercy, it is also a statement of competence. We see the external, but only God sees the heart.