CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

On Thursday, my local newspaper ran a quarter-page article on the translation of a newly translated approximately 3rd Century papyrus which quotes Jesus as referring to "my wife." Needless to say, if Jesus had a wife, that would be news to most of church history where there is almost nothing supporting such an idea other than a few heretical texts.

But, of course, that is the question regarding the Jesus Wife Gospel (which, given the fact that it is only a fragment of a work that may be very short, should not be called a Gospel at all). Is it an heretical text or is it something worth reading? In saying, "my wife", was Jesus (if he really did utter those words) referring to his bride, the church, or to an earthly wife?

Rob Bowman on his Religious Researcher blog, has published a page which he plans to keep updated with resources both in favor of and counter the authenticity of the Jesus Wife Gospel. You can find the resource here: Karen King's Jesus Wife Papyrus. There are a number of really good articles linked (and some of the articles linked also contain links to other resources.)

My favorite article of the ones I have read so far is No, People, a 4th Century Scrap Doesn’t Prove Jesus Had a Wife which concludes with this well-written non-conclusion:

Actually the only thing it shows is that one (potential) Christian writing in Coptic in a document that is incomplete may or may not have been referring to a tradition concerning Jesus that was held by only himself or perhaps a handful of others.
In short, what it shows is that even now, when people should know better, they still are more than willing to say more than can honestly and confidently be said.

Addendum: I found a follow-up article by Rob Bowman that makes the case against Jesus being married. It can be found here: Was Jesus Married? The Historical Evidence

Scientists have been chewing over the mass release results of the ENCODE experiments for the past several days, and will doubtless continue to do so; while ID and creationist proponents hop up and down and proponents of completely non-intentional biological development scramble defensively in various ways and...

...and, frankly, at first I didn't see what the big deal was.

At first.

I'm going to assume for sake of relative brevity that anyone who is reading this page on the internet knows how to search the internet for pages to read, so if you don't know what I'm talking about, search around for "ENCODE", or click on our sidebar links for Proslogion (which tends to slant young earth creation) and/or Evolution News and Views (which tends to slant old earth creation)--you won't have to page around far to search them for discussion on it.

Very shortly, and somewhat oversimply, the project involved mapping genomes (I honestly don't recall if it was even the human genome or not, but that's irrelevant) for functionality. There are tons of technical results, but the big chewy points are (1) some scientists now claim that "genes" as classically understood turn out not to exist; and (2) 80% genomic functionality.

In regard to (1): so what? Chromosomal sequences still exist, the structures still exist, the units of the structures still exist. I guess the implication is that basic units are now larger than has previously been taught? Nucleotides are still nucleotides: a molecule of phosphor combined with either adenine, guanine, thymine or cytosine. A bunch of them used to make up a gene (which would then make proteins or protein clusters or RNA chains etc.); now a bunch of them make up a... "transcript"? Most of the transcripts are legible, some are currently not (for whatever reason or reasons). That used to be true about genes, too: some were genes, some were pseudogenes. Pseudogenes still exist but I guess they won't be called "genes" anymore (and there are fewer than most scientists were expecting).

So what's the paradigm shift?

Previously, genetic information was expected to be provided in a linear string, much like reading this sentence: there are phrases and clauses and words and they convey meaning but "etic informa" would be nonsense. In recent years scientists have been suspecting and steadily confirming that informational meaning in the genes isn't always linear, but is sometimes coded in multiple dimensions in the chromosome. A relatively simple example G would be O like reading the current sentence D and wondering D why there appears I to be D extra nonsense letters in IT. When actually there is a second interpretative protocol to the effect of "put together capital letters between phrases and clauses". But also more interpretative protocols allowing a reader to filter out the extra capital letters, and to disregard the final capitalized IT as being irrelevant, without which protocols the main sentence couldn't be read without confusion.

That's just one example; there are other types of multi-valent information coding in the genome, and not only do interpretative protocols have to exist to make them useful, protocols also have to exist to keep them from messing up each other. The ENCODE study found that these multi-valent information levels were so numerous and so prevalent that the standard expectation of reading a "gene" just doesn't work anymore.

Which is also connected to the unexpected result of 80% genomic functionality. That isn't an upper limit, either; that's just the lower limit based on conservative identification criteria. It's entirely possible and likely that functionality is higher but wasn't observed.

When the practical informational complexity of a system skyrockets enormously beyond the already significantly huge amount of practical informational complexity acknowledged to exist in the system, then that doesn't look good for theories about the systems developing by a string of many many many many non-intentional accidents and nothing more than those non-directed accidents.

To put it another way, calling a sequence a "gene" doesn't immediately get across the idea that there ought to be information in the sequence. And if there isn't information in a "gene" then it's no big deal. The sequence could be junk DNA or a "pseudo-gene".

But calling the basic sequences "transcripts" now, instantly implies that we ought to be nominally looking for information and that the original form of the sequence should be expected to contain information, so if we don't find information in a sequence we should be looking for new ways to interpret it as information (especially if the sequence seems part of an active area, which would indicate there must be protocols for discounting the apparent gibberish)--

--or we should regard the sequence as being broken. Not originally random noise accidentally generated to begin with. Broken information (whether broken accidentally or not).

Putting it another way, you can make a transcript of random radio signal noise from the sun--people actually do that for various purposes, mainly having to do with cryptographically coding information. But it would be bizarre to call the random radio signal noise itself a "transcript".

"Transcript" implies some kind of intentionality, or at least some kind of useful information: random radio noise isn't itself information until it's useful for coding and decoding information. But information is a main scientific forensic evidence for detecting intentional causality.

A blood stain from a dead person that spells out a recipe for baking a cake may have been written by a crazy person, and it might technically be possible (if unspeakably improbable) for it to have come about by a sequence of accidents. But a forensic investigator who sees the message is going to rule out "accident" pretty quickly.

Especially if the apparent gibberish in the recipe turns out to be a code for baking a blood pie, too.

Plus a different code of apparent gibberish for the addresses to send the pie to.

Plus a different code for instructions on what blood to use (namely the dead persons').

And a different code, made out of sequences of letters in areas that aren't in other ways apparently gibberish at all, for who exactly should be the one to deliver the blood pie.

And completely different sets of all those codes for the cake, too!

Now, admittedly, if a crime scene investigator brought such an orgy of information to his captain, the captain might start to suspect that the investigator was rather oversensitive to detecting information where it wasn't really there. But if the solution solved numerous problems of the apparent gibberish that was casting doubt on whether the appearance of a cake recipe drawn with the blood was real, that would start to look suspicious in favor of intentionality again.

If the CSI officer added, "Oh, did I mention little machines are reading the letters made of blood and are behaving in ways consonant with the instructions, including in regard to the apparently gibberish letters?--which is how we realized we ought to be looking for meanings in the gibberish?"... that point (assuming the little machines demonstrably existed, of course), the debate about whether the blood pattern was an unintended series of accidents would be over.

Maybe the debate about whether the person died of unintentional causes, too.

Granted, that situation might be evidence that a Marvel Comics supervillain, not just a garden-variety sociopath, was on the loose! Or it might be evidence that a supervillain was tampering with a system set up by Mr. Fantastic or Dr. Strange (leading to results like a blood pie being sent to the victim's family, as well as a tasty healthy cake being made of reasonable ingredients elsewhere).

But that's a colorful illustration of what the ENCODE results amount to.

ID theorists, including creationists (of various sorts) who expect ID, can predict the existence of lots of information and even some broken information. The general expectation would be that apparent gibberish is actually information encoded in an unexpected way, or gibberish generated by accident after the original encoding. Even information added to a basic background of random gibberish would work; by the same principle in reverse, even a little information occurring in a basic background of random gibberish would be evidence for intentionality and thus for intelligent manipulation of the material. (Keeping in mind that structured patterns are not the same thing as information, although information may always require structural patterns of some kind. Seashell sorting from wave action on a beach is a structural pattern but not information per se, although a rational agent can produce information about those structural patterns, using those patterns as data.)

Non-ID theories aren't set up, and maybe can't be set up, to expect informational sequences, "transcripts", to be the fundamental expectation of what a string of particulate building blocks should be. Much less are they currently set up (and maybe can't be set up) to deal with multi-valent levels of informational encoding in the development of the supposedly non-intentionally developed systems.

The ENCODE results indicate that scientists should no longer regard the basic background of biological structure as random gibberish, with acknowledged but relatively small amounts of information to be explained somehow (whether by the same process of random gibberishing or by intentional design). Scientists instead should regard the basic background as ordered information, with a further expectation that any actually random gibberish is broken information--but also that apparently random gibberish is more likely to be coded information we haven't identified yet.

And that sure puts the scientific right of way in favor of ID theorists. It's a whoooooooole lot easier to explain the development of broken information by relatively small amounts of random accident (or even intentional tampering?!!?), than to explain the development of massive amounts of coherent multi-valent practically eventful information (information routinely put to practical use, or rarely used except in special case situations yet still for practical effect), by those same random accidents.

Whether that will still be the situation next week or month or year or decade or century, only more study can say.

It's safe to say that many Christians have an ambivalent stance towards paranormal activity. Many Western Christians have been culturally conditioned to posit a stark dichotomy between two realms: the natural world, which they define in terms of the everyday, humdrum, physical reality we experience most of the time, and the supernatural world, more or less limited to God and angels. If they allow for the possibility in our day and age, they take miraculous healings and visions to be signs of God's direct intervention in human affairs, with immediate evidential value in arguing for Christianity. Further along towards the charismatic end of the spectrum, demonic influence and exorcisms may enter the picture.

This world-picture is problematized, however, by the fact that seemingly supernatural occurrences, including dramatic healings, visions of the departed, precognitive dreams, etc. are not confined to Christian saints or even Christians in general. In fact, they're not even confined to religious believers. Protestants have a hard time making sense of Marian visions and well-attested healings at Lourdes, while Christians in general have a hard time with miracle reports associated with mystics of other religious traditions, as well as supernatural happenings which seem to have no religious context whatsoever. If precognitive visions can only come directly from God, what was he doing granting one seemingly at random to a young woman several hours prior to an explosion at a chemical plant in Flixborough, England, which did not even result in any lives being saved, much less confirm anyone in their faith or achieve some other theological desirable?

In her book Apparitions, Healings, and Weeping Madonnas, Lisa J. Schwebel helpfully suggests that a more sophisticated approach to the paranormal is needed among Christians. Drawing on the insights of Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, the essence of her proposal is that, rather than being closely associated with God and the spiritual realm, the paranormal needs to be 'naturalized', and understood to be just as much a part of the 'ordinary' world we live in as rocks falling and plants photosynthesizing. In other words, in addition to distinguishing between 'ordinary' and 'extraordinary' or 'special' divine providence, we also need to distinguish between paranormal happenings and divine miracles, the latter being a subset of the former. It is not enough that something 'supernatural' happen in order to identify God's direct intervention. Based on our best evidence, paranormal happenings and abilities seem distributed without regard to religious affiliation or standing, suggesting that such abilities are 'natural' human faculties and not necessarily indicative of any special divine grace, manifesting instead whenever certain psycho-biological conditions are met.

Having 'demythologized' the paranormal so to speak, in the rest of the book Schwebel draws on parapsychological research to propose alternative explanations of some of the phenomena listed in the book's title. With regard to visions of the recently deceased, for example, she proposes a middle ground between their actual manifestation in some sort of ethereal body, which she finds hard to make sense of (why are the deceased wearing clothes? what are those clothes made of?) and dismissing them as hallucinations: telepathically induced visions in which the 'signal' comes from the mind of the departed person while the seer supplies the sensory environment and remembered images of the departed, who often appear as the seer remembered them from a previous time. A similar explanation may apply to visions of specifically religious figures, such as the Virgin Mary or other departed saints, where the departed mind is that of an ordinary person, while the communication is given a religious cultural context by the seer. Physical happenings such as weeping statues may be similar to poltergeist phenomena, often triggered subconsciously by a 'focal agent' nearby under the right conditions.

Schwebel also examines the relationship between precognition and prophecy, which I thought was one of the most fascinating and insightful portions of the book. Biblical prophecy is "rooted in a God-centered view of history, and their intent is a value-laden commentary on that history," whereas precognition is often just a fragmented glimpse of a (possible) future with no context or moral evaluation. Divine prophecy "involves communication, not merely representation; interpretation, not narration; integration, not fragmentation; moral direction in the present, not manipulation of the future. It preserves freedom; it does not bind people to a predetermined fate. It builds confidence and hope, not insecurity and despair." (pp. 99-100) Prophecy aims fundamentally at moral transformation and is a call to action, not just an announcement of future news stories.

If many phenomena formerly thought to be evidence of God's direct intervention instead turn out to be manifestations of 'natural' abilities, how can we recognize God's special action in the world, which we might define as divine action which displays God's presence and character in a more transparent way than ordinary events? Schwebel points us to an event's meaning and significance rather than its paranormal characteristics:

The origin of an event or the truth of a revelation is ultimately judged by the spiritual transformation (or lack of it) that results from it and not by examining its form or structure. If special events are events that mediate the relationship of God to the world, then any event can be experienced by a believer as an objectification of God's love and presence. It can be special. The fact that, over time, certain kinds of events seem to facilitate this experience more clearly than others, suggests that some aspects of God's original self-communication in nature are more evocative as signs than others, and also that human nature is so constituted by God as to be open to them...Whereas many people interpret special events based on a supposed divine intervention from the outside, Christians are directed to understand them within the context of God's original, all-encompassing, self-communication in grace." (pp.173-175)
Overall I found this to be an extremely helpful book on the relationship between Christianity and the paranormal. For one thing, it once again debunks the stereotype that the paranormal is only convincing to the gullible and those prone to wishful thinking. The truth is, as Schwebel documents, Christians have been some of the most erudite, sophisticated researchers of the paranormal, such as Pope Benedict the 14th who wrote four volumes on how to investigate miracles that could lead to canonization, drawing upon the best science and research of the day (Schwebel recounts a particularly amusing example of how he used common sense and Sherlock Holmes-style deduction to debunk one particularly silly alleged miracle).

I am not convinced by all her analyses and explanations of allegedly supernatural events, and I am not as confident as she is that all such events have analogues outside Christianity. It seem pretty clear, for example, that Jesus was a uniquely powerful healer and wonder-worker, even if healings occur outside the Christian context. However, I think she is right to call for the naturalization of the paranormal. Aside from the benefit of allowing Christians to study parapsychology and comparative religion without fear of the implications for their faith, it can also help us regain a sense of God's presence in everything that happens, not just 'special' events. There is a danger that, if we only view supernatural events as religious, we lose sight of the sacramental reality of the whole world as God's creation. Ultimately, Christianity is not an otherwordly religion. We are not to focus our attention on some spiritual realm, to the neglect of the earthly one. On the contrary, this is the world God cares about and this is the world in which he became flesh. While special visions and other signs and wonders can be uniquely powerful manifestations of God's presence and can be incredibly encouraging, ultimately they will serve their purpose if they turn us back to our everyday lives and activities with a renewed love of God and increased ability to discern His presence everywhere.

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