Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Best Photos of 2017

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I am no professional, and have never tried to acquire insights into the technical side of photography.  But I am captivated by beauty, and try to capture some of it in return through the camera lens.  And early in 2017 I purchased a camera with two lens (not counting my cell phone, which is not represented here) which allow me to photograph at a distance and in some darkness.  And hikes, trips to American national parks with my sons and remote parts of China on my own, and my new digs in the coastal city of Qingdao, gave me a lot of opportunities. 

Here are some of my best shots from 2017.  Enjoy.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Oh Holy Night: When the World Found Hope

Here's my Christmas post at The Stream.  It's all about the difference Christmas Morning made, influences that are neglected and unknown in most history books, certainly in popular understandings of history, but real, and have changed billions of lives for the better.  Christ was born into the world, and the world not only did not recognize him, we even refused to notice how he had fixed up our place.

Sorry I'm a bit late to link this piece here.  I was in Japan, and it was posted only on Christmas Eve, due to various factors.  But I hope you'll share this piece with your friends.  For Christians and non-Christians alike, I think it should add cheer to the season, whatever the football scores may be!

And Merry (belated) Christmas!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Profiles of Human History by Yuval Harari and H. R. Hallpike

H. R. Hallpike appears aclever man: an anthropologist who has troubled to acquaint himself from the inside with primitive societies in both Africa and Papua New Guinea, a scholar whose work covers many decades and tends to the iconoclastic.  I am hoping to read his book, Do We Need God to be Good, if I can find it in a readable format and within my price range.   He is someone I would cross swords with cautiously: clearly one does not sail in and scatter Hallpikes to the winds as one does with Dawkins and Boghossians, ten to a swipe.

Harari profiles our ancestors for his new book. 
In the New English Review this month, Hallpike published a scathing response to Yuval Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which made me glad I didn't write the book!  He expertly clouts Harari up and down the head for all kinds of foibles: confusing fiction with convention, overlooking the tremendous difference between chimps and even human babies, psycho-babbling about how we destroy nature because of latent insecurity over a previous lower status in the animal world that we forgot we ever had, giving language and math too much credit in the rise of advanced kingdoms, and most of all, for grossly over-estimating primitive man.  (Here he cites Daniel Everett's study of the Piraha people in South America, who could barely count their toes, and had no interest in the past or future -- Tom Wolfe also lauds Everett's work in his The Kingdom of Speech.  I am a bit more skeptical, recalling how Don Richardson described the language of the head-hunting, cannibalistic Sawi, also in New Guinea, as a language of scientific precision and poetic beauty and rather daunting complexity.)

Since the history of humankind is a matter of some concern to me, being notionally a member of that race (though some days I feel quite shocked to realize I have toes), and a fan of the God who chose to save it, let me tip those toes in the water, and offer a few timid corrections, as I think they may be useful.  Let me do that in the friendliest possible way: as I said, Hallpike is not a man I wish to roil.

We'll skip to Hallpike's discussion of the rise and spread of religions, which I find particularly fascinating.  The review becomes interesting here mostly for what Hallpike points out, but also where I think he goes a bit off the rail.

"His chapter on the rise of the universal religions is extremely weak, and his explanation  of monotheism, for example, goes as follows:

With time some followers of polytheist gods became so fond of their particular patron that they drifted away from the basic polytheist insight. They began to believe that their god was the only god, and that He was in fact the supreme power of the universe. Yet at the same time they continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases, and believed that they could strike deals with Him. Thus were born monotheist religions, whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war (p 242).

"This is amateurish speculation, and Harari does not even seem to have heard of the Axial Age. This is the term applied by historians to the period of social turmoil that occurred during the first millennium BC across Eurasia, of political instability, warfare, increased commerce and the appearance of coinage, and urbanization, that in various ways eroded traditional social values and social bonds. The search for meaning led to a new breed of thinkers, prophets and philosophers who searched for a more transcendent and universal authority on how we should live and gain tranquility of mind, that went beyond the limits of their own society and traditions, and beyond purely material prosperity. People developed a much more articulate awareness of the mind and the self than hitherto, and also rejected the old pagan values of worldly success and materialism. As one authority has put it: 'Everywhere one notices attempts to introduce greater purity, greater justice, greater perfection, and a more universal explanation of things' (Momigliano 1975:8-9; see also Hallpike 2008:236-65).

I think this summary is very well-put: I have been trying to teach my students recently about the Axial Age, that brilliant period across continents that produced the likes of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Euripides in Greece, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah in Israel, Buddha and the authors of the Upanishads in India, and Confucius, Lao Zi, and Zhuang Zi in China.  

But the deeper problem with Harrari's comments here is that he ignores the awareness of God found in many primitive cultures.  If the "invention of God" was based on either new mercantilist ideas, or an Axial Age, why can it be found (as Andrew Lang and Wilhelm Schmidt first observed, and Win Corduan recently confirmed) in so many of the simplest cultures?

"One of the consequences of this new cultural order was a fundamental rethinking of religion, so that the old pagan gods began to seem morally and intellectually contemptible. Instead of this naively human image of the gods, said the Greek Xenophanes, 'One God there is . . . in no way like mortal creatures either in bodily form or in the thought of his mind . . . effectively, he wields all things by the thought of his mind.' So we find all across the Old World the idea developing of a rational cosmic order, a divine universal law, known to the Greeks as Logos, to the Indians as Brahman, to the Jews as Hokhma, and to the Chinese as Tao. This also involved the very important idea that the essential and distinctive mental element in man is akin to the creative and ordering element in the cosmos, of Man as microcosm in relation to the macrocosm."

These, too, are sound observations, though the concept of a universal God and moral order should be seen as revivals not sui genesis (pun intended) innovations.  God predates modern society culturally, if not ontologically -- though I think both. 

One example is the Chinese Dao.  The concept of Dao gained metaphysical meaning already in the most ancient classics, but before it attained the status described in this paragraph, the Chinese had long worshipped the Supreme God by the name Shang Di.  (Or, later, Tian.)  China's universal theism dawned long before her Axial reforms: indeed, the theism may have helped inspire the reforms.  (Read Mozi on how since Tian is love, men should also be loving, for instance.  And there are hints of that in Confucius and Zhuang Zi.) 

"Intellectually, the idea that the universe makes sense at some deep level, that it is governed by a unified body of rational laws given by a divine Creator, became an essential belief for the development of science, not only among the Greeks, but in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As Joseph Needham has said, '. . . historically the question remains whether natural science could ever have reached its present stage of development without passing through a "theological stage" ' (Needham 1956:582).

Needham was the great Marxist historian of Chinese science.

"Against this new intellectual background it also became much easier to think of Man not as a citizen of a particular state, but in universal terms as a moral being. There is the growth of the idea of a common humanity which transcends the boundaries of nation and culture and social distinctions of rank, such as slavery, so that all good men are brothers, and the ideal condition of Man would be universal peace (Hallpike 2016:167-218).

Here I can only nod my head in agreement.  I think while the Chinese theistic concepts were less radically reforming than the Jewish prophets and of course Jesus, they often pointed in the same direction.
"Harari tries to create a distinction between 'monotheistic' religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and 'natural law religions', without gods in which he includes Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Stoicism, and the Epicureans. From what I have said about the concepts of Logos, Hokhma, Brahman, and Tao it should be clear that his two types of religion actually had  much in common. In Christianity, for example, Jesus was almost immediately identified with the Logos. The Epicureans, however, do not belong in this group at all as they were ancient materialist atheists who did not believe in natural law of any kind  . . . "

In addition, there was a strong upgrowth of something very close to monotheism in at least Taoism, Confucianism, and Stoicism, and in passages of the Lotus Sutra and elsewhere, even at times in Buddhism.  Stoics like Cleanthes and Epictetus were often quite theistic and even prayed to God, indeed.  Paul quickly found a common language with them, as Acts 17 reveals.  And Christians recognized Dao as a synonym for Logos when they translated the Bible -- correctly, I argue here.  

"Harari says that at the beginning of the sixteenth century, 90% of humans still lived in 'the single mega-world of Afro-Asia', while the rest lived in the Meso-American, Andean, and Oceanic worlds. 'Over the next 300 years the Afro-Asian giant swallowed up all the other worlds', by which he actually means the expanding colonial empires of the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British. But to refer to these nations as 'Afro-Asian'  is conspicuously absurd, and the whole concept of Afro-Asia is actually meaningless from every point of view. The general idea of Eurasia, however, does make a good deal of cultural as well as ecological sense, not only because it recognises the obvious importance of Europe, but because of the cultural links that went to and fro across it, so that the early navigators of the fifteenth century were using the Chinese inventions of magnetic compasses, stern-post rudders, paper for their charts, and gunpowder, and were making their voyages to find sea-routes from Europe to China and the East Indies rather than relying on overland trade.

"Harari's next major turning point in world history he refers to, reasonably enough, as  'The Scientific Revolution'.  Around AD 1500 'It began in western Europe, a large peninsula on the western tip of Afro-Asia, which up till then played no important role in history.' (272) This is a unconvincing assessment of a region that had been the seat of the Roman Empire, the Christian Church, and Greek science which was one of the essential foundations of the Scientific Revolution. Harari's opinions about how this got started are even less persuasive:"

To be fair, the Greek world straddled the frontier between Europe and Western Asia, and can reasonably be included in the Middle East, as could much of Rome (the most fertile regions were in the east).  And until the Muslim conquests, most of Christendom was still outside of Western Europe., or probably Europe as a whole.  And skeptics like Harari seems to be don't usually recognize the glories of the Middle Ages, though I expect Hallpike is more aware. 

The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has above all been a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important question. (p 279).

This is a statement whose truth is not immediately obvious, and he justifies it as follows:

Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known. The great gods, or the one almighty God, or the wise people of the past possessed all-encompassing wisdom, which they revealed to us in scriptures and oral traditions (pp 279-80).

These traditions may have claimed to know all that was essential to salvation and peace of mind, but that kind of knowledge had nothing whatsoever to do with pre-modern traditions of science. In Europe this meant Aristotle and Greek natural philosophy but about which, astonishingly, Harari has nothing at all to say anywhere in his book. Apart from a willingness to admit ignorance and embrace new knowledge, science . . . 

I don't know exactly where these religions state that "everything that is important to know about the world was already known."  Both authors might try reading the questions God poses in Job, and contemplate the role pious believers played in inventing modern science.  (Even so hard-core a skeptic as Richard Carrier points out that ancient Greek scientists often worked in science to glorify the God whom Greeks were coming to believe in even before Christianity arrived.  And Carrier actually is an expert on that topic.)   

The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance - they both said 'I don't know what's out there.' They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries. And they both hoped that the new knowledge would make them masters of the world (pp 316-17).

Botany was actually of quite minor importance in the early stages of modern science, which was dominated by studies of terrestrial and celestial motion (Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton), and by chemistry which involved the revival of Greek atomism. And Columbus, to take a useful example of 'a colony-seeking naval officer' knew quite well what was out there. He knew that the earth is round, and concluded that if he sailed west for long enough he would find a new route to the East Indies. So when he reached the islands of the Caribbean he was convinced that their inhabitants were 'Indians' and never changed his mind. I think we can perhaps do a little better than Harari in explaining the European origin of modern science. 

Indeed.  All those men were also pious Christians, along with the founder of modern chemistry, Robert Boyle, and several of them were apologists who actively sought to glorify God in their work, as Carrier says some ancient Greeks did.  Let's keep that factor in the mix as we seek a less silly explanation than that Harari apparently offers.   

"Greek science was dominated by the belief that reason, and particularly mathematics, was the true path to knowledge and its role was to be the tutor of the senses, not to be taught by them. The idea of performing an experiment did not really exist, and the great Alexandrian engineer Hero, for example believed that water pressure does not increase with depth.  He defended this belief with an ingenious theory from Archimedes, but ignored the practical experiment of taking a glass down to the bottom of a pool where it could easily have been seen that the water rises higher inside the glass the deeper it is taken. Aristotle's theories of terrestrial and celestial motion, and Ptolemy's elaborate geometrical model of the heavens, for example, were seen as triumphs of reason, and were inherited by the medieval European universities who began a critical study of them. The importance of Greek science, however,  was not that it was rightit contained fundamental errorsbut that it presented a coherent theoretical model of how the world worked that stimulated thought and could be tested."

This may be a little simplistic.  I don't think the Greeks, including Aristotle, were entirely innocent of empirical impulses, nor that they never acted on those impulses.    

"The Islamic world had transmitted much of Greek science to medieval Europe, and Aristotle in particular was greatly admired by Muslim scholars as 'The Philosopher'. But under the influence of the clerics Islam eventually turned against reason and science as dangerous to religion, and this renaissance died out. In rather similar fashion, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian closed the philosophy schools of Athens in 529 AD because he considered them dangerous to Christianity. But while in the thirteenth century several Popes, for the same reason, tried to forbid the study of Aristotle in the universities, they were ignored and in fact by the end of the century Aquinas had been able to publish his synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology in the Summa Theologica."

I don't think the Islamic world was as responsible for saving ancient science as this gloss supposes.  Stark argues that Nestorians and Jews did much of the actual research and transmitting.  
"This illustrates a vital difference between Europe and the other imperial civilisations. Whereas the Caliph and the Byzantine Emperor had the authority to impose intellectual orthodoxy, in Europe the Popes could not enforce their will on society, and neither could the secular authorities, because there were too many competing jurisdictionsof the Holy Roman Emperor, of kings, of free cities, of universities, and between church and state themselves."

And that was a theological difference between Christianity and Islam: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's."  But I agree (as does Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman) that political pluralism within an overarching Christian culture allowed competition and progress in Europe, as something similar had inspired progress in late Zhou China, Israel, and Greece.

"It is highly significant that this interaction between scholars and artisans also occurred in the intellectual atmosphere of 'natural magic', the belief that the entire universe is a vast system of interrelated correspondences, a hierarchy in which everything acts upon everything else. Alchemy and astrology were the most important components of this tradition, but by the thirteenth century Roger Bacon, for example, was arguing that by applying philosophy and mathematics to the study of nature it would be possible to produce all sorts of technological marvels such as horseless vehicles, flying machines, and glasses for seeing great distances. It was not therefore the admission of ignorance that was truly revolutionary, but  the idea that science could be useful in mastering nature for the benefit of Man."

Let me add an amusing note here.  Bacon, a Franciscan friar, has a narrow lane named after him in Oxford.  I once asked the secretary at St. Ebbes Church which lies on that very lane, if Bacon had once lived nearby.  It turned out she had no idea who Bacon was, even though she worked on his alleyway!  Ignorance per se really is not bliss, nor is "admission of ignorance" per se a great sign of progress.  But I did interpret such ignorance in the heart of R. Baconian Oxford as happy evidence that the English are not that far ahead of Americans even when it comes to their own remarkable history. 
(Skip Galileo)

"Throughout the book there is also a strange vacillation between hard-nosed Darwinism and egalitarian sentiment. On one hand Harari quite justifiably mocks the humanists' naive belief in human rights, for not realising that these rights are based on Christianity, and that a huge gulf has actually opened up between the findings of science and modern liberal ideals. But on the other hand it is rather bewildering to find him also indulging in long poetic laments about the thousands of years of injustice, inequality and suffering imposed on the masses by the great states and empires of history, and our cruelty to our animal 'slaves' whom we have slaughtered and exterminated in such vast numbers, so that he concludes 'The Sapiens reign on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of'. But a consistent Darwinist should surely rejoice to see such a fine demonstration of the survival of the fittest, with other species either decimated or subjected to human rule, and the poor regularly ground under foot in the struggle for survival. Indeed, the future looks even better for Darwinism, with nation states themselves about to be submerged by a mono-cultural world order, in which we ourselves are destined to be replaced by a superhuman race of robots. It has been rightly said that

Harari's view of culture and of ethical norms as fundamentally fictional makes impossible any coherent moral framework for thinking about and shaping our future. And it asks us to pretend that we are not what we know ourselves to be - thinking and feeling subjects, moral agents with free will, and social beings whose culture builds upon the facts of the physical world but is not limited to them (Sexton 2015:120).

"Summing up the book as a whole, one has often had to point out how surprisingly little he seems to have read on quite a number of essential topics. It would be fair to say that whenever his facts are broadly correct they are not new, and whenever he tries to strike out on his own he often gets things wrong, sometimes seriously. So we should not judge Sapiens as a serious contribution to knowledge but as 'infotainment', a publishing event to titillate its readers by a wild intellectual ride across the  landscape of history, dotted with sensational displays of speculation, and ending with blood-curdling predictions about human destiny. By these criteria it is a most successful book."

I am a sucker for a good "damn with faint praise" line, and that last one is a killer.  Still, I am almost seduced into buying Harari's book, if only to bat its batty ideas around from another angle.  I am more inclined to buy Hallpike's, if I can find it in print. 

Still, all in all, the work of both gentlemen reinforces my feeling that we have a crying need for a new universal history from a strong and informed Christian perspective.  If I live long enough, and find the resources, I hope to write such a history, in one volume or possibly two.   

Friday, December 08, 2017

The 100 Best Christian Books Ever!

What are the 100 best / most insightful / most important Christian books ever written? I googled "great Christian books" and found no great answers.

First I wrote my own preliminary list of 75 or so.  Then I asked for input from the people at Christian Apologetics Alliance, grabbed some good suggestions from the list Brad Cooper discovered at Church News (some of which I had thought of, but wanted independent confirmation before I bit down), and the following list emerged.  Sorry if I didn't include your suggestion: "So little space, so many books," to paraphrase one of the truest bumper stickers that ever cushioned a rear-end collision.  Even so, no doubt I have overlooked many brilliant works: that's what the comment section is for, to educate the present blogger.  (I'd love to dig into Christian bookshelves in Africa, Korea, Eastern Europe, India, or other neglected portions of the globe to see what great literature has emerged.  And there are some books here I haven't read yet.)

I begin with the obvious top choice, then follow in order of the author's last name.

(1) The Holy Bible. ("Author disputed."  Taken as a single volume, and I would make this choice even if I were NOT a Christian, I think.)
(2) Brother Andrew, God's Smuggler
(3) Anselm, Cur Deus Homo / Prayers and Meditations
(4) Aquinas, Summa Theologiae.
(5) Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word
(6) Augustine, City of God.
(7) Augustine, Confessions.
(8) Barth, Church Dogmatics
(9) Bede, Ecclesiastical History
(10) Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
(11) Boswell, Life of Johnson
(12) Brand, Pain: The Gift No One Wants
(13) Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre
(14) Brooks, Who Really Cares?
(15) Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress.
(16) Burke, Notes on the Revolution in France
(17) Butler, The Analogy of Religion
(18) Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization
(19) Campolo, The Power Delusion
(20) Chaucer, Canterbury Tales.
(21) Clement of Alexandria, Stromata.
(22) Chesterton, Orthodoxy
(23) . . . , Everlasting Man
(24) Coles, Children of Crisis
Image result for christmas carol(25) Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict / Loving God
(26) Dante, Divine Comedy
(27) Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
(28) Dickens, Tale of Two Cities
(29) . . . Christmas Carol
(30) Donne (poems)
(31) Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
(32) Dream of the Rood. (Author unknown.)
(33) Ellul, Propaganda
(34) Eusebius, Church History
(35) Farquhar, Crown of Hinduism
(36) Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity.
(37) Golding, Lord of the Flies
(38) Greene, The Power and the Glory
(39) Grimm Fairy Tales.
(40) Kuhn, By Searching
(41) Girard, The Scapegoat
(42) Goforth, Goforth of China
(43) Herbert, Complete English Poems
(44)  Hopkins (poems)
(45) Hugo, Les Miserables
(46)  Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
(47) Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
(48) Julian, Revelations of Divine Love
(49) Justin, Dialogue With Trypho
(50) Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God
(51) Legge, James: The Religions of China: Confucianism and Taoism Described and Compared with Christianity
(52) Lewis, Mere Christianity
(53) . . .  Abolition of Man
(54)  . . .  Four Loves
(55) . . . , Till We Have Faces
(56) . . . , Chronicles of Narnia
(57) . . . , Surprised by Joy
(58) . . . , Screwtape Letters
(59) Lin Yutang, From Pagan to Christian
(60) Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration
(61) Macdonald, Phantastes
(62) Mangalwadi, Book of the Millennia
(63) Milton, Paradise Lost
(64) Murphy, The Owl, The Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimm's Magic Fairy Tales
(65) Newman, Apologia
(66) Origen, Contra Celsus
(67) Otto, Idea of the Holy
(68)  Packer, Knowing God
(69) Paley, A View of the Evidences of Christianity
(70) Pascal, Pensees
(71) Peck, The People of the Lie
(72) Percy, Lost in the Cosmos
(73)  Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief
(74) Ricci, The Truth about the Lord of Heaven
(75) Richardson, Peace Child
(76) . . . , Eternity in Their Hearts
(77) . . . , Lords of the Earth
(78) Ritchie, Spirit of the Rainforest
(79) Satyavrata, God Has Not Left Himself Without a Witness
(80) Schaeffer, He is There and He is not Silent
(81) Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Ivanovich
(82) . . . , Gulag Archipelago (I regard The First Circle as his greatest novel, but it contains little Christian content . . . maybe at the end.)
(83) Stark, For the Glory of God
(84) . . . , Discovery of God 
(85)   Stott, The Cross of Christ
(86) Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
(87) Ten Boom, The Hiding Place
(88) Tolkien, Lord of the Rings.
(89) Tolstoy, Death of Ivan Ivanov (War and Peace and Anna Karenina are greater, but less Christian)
(90) Tozer, The Pursuit of Holiness
(91) Underhill, Mysticism
(92)  Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life
(93)  Weil, The Need for Roots
(94)  Wesley, Journal
(95)  Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity
(96)  Williams, Descent of the Dove
(97) Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (or the series)
(98) Wurmbrand, In God's Underground
(99) Yuan, 神州 (China's Confession)

(100) Silence?  Tristam Shandy?  Wrinkle in Time?  You choose.