Ambition … Virtue or Vice? Revisited

The Merriam-Webster dictionary online defines ambition as (a) an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power (b) desire to achieve a particular end. This is viewed as a virtue in much of our culture – certainly in academia. Ambition is also considered a virtue in the church. Perhaps most significantly in the view that “bigger is better.”

But is ambition a virtue? Should it be viewed as a virtue from a Christian perspective?

What role does ambition play in our church? What role should it play?

I’m skeptical. It seems to me that ambition is playing with fire. It is not inherently negative, in fact it is good to have goals and to work for those goals with perseverance. But ambition uses people, destroys relationships, and destroys community. Ambition is intimately coupled with envy, pride, and perhaps greed. We are fully embodied creatures and ambition feeds on our chemistry and biology and it shapes our natural responses, it is addictive.

I’ll go one step further. Ambition, although not always clearly recognized and acknowledged as such, wreaks havoc in the church. Sexual sin, despite the attention payed to it, is of less significance if we consider impact on community and pain caused. The difference in impact is primarily because we recognize sexual sin as sin – there are consequences. In contrast we often value and reward the result of ambition. We brush under the rug or rationalize away its impetus in envy and pride. This is a spiritual problem and a physical problem.

We are, I believe, fully embodied souls. Sin is a product of mind and will, but it is a fully embodied mind. I’ve posted on the embodied nature of sin before and borrow from those posts to start this discussion. This is background and necessary insight into the direction I would like to consider thinking about ambition. And yes, it is related to science.

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Creeds Within the Canon

Creeds are not strictly extra-biblical. There are a number of statements within the pages of Scripture. These don’t start with the phrase “I believe” or “we believe” but do represent concise statements of doctrine and belief. The first such statement is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength

The NIV indicates alternative translations of the first verse here. The Lord our God is one Lord; or The Lord is our God, the Lord is one; or The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. The Shema, as this is called, teaches that the only God for Israel is YHWH and they are to worship no other. Israel is defined as the people of God. It may also teach and has been read as teaching monotheism. The importance is strengthened by verses 6-9 that follow:

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and the similar passage in 11:13-21 are in the mezuzah on doors of Jewish houses and apartments today. There was one at the apartment we lived in when on sabbatical in Jerusalem (an excellent teaching moment). Michael Bird ( What Christians ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed) notes that “The Shema described the essential elements of Israel’s faith in a short summary statement.” (p. 18) This is what creeds do.

Both Jesus and Paul affirmed the Shema. Jesus called it the most important commandment (Mark 12:29) and added the command to love your neighbor as the second most important. Paul alludes to it in a short creedal statement he includes in 1 Corinthians 8:6 when discussing food sacrificed to idols. To belief in one God he adds belief in one Lord. The verse reads like a formula known in the church.

Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. Continue reading

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Math + Theology = ?

What does math have to do with theology? Andy Walsh, Faith Across the Multiverse, makes some interesting connections. The logic of mathematics can help us think more clearly about theology. In Chapter 1 (the second chapter since he starts with 0) Walsh explores paradox, logic, math, and the way we view the world (this is where theology comes in). This is a fascinating chapter that considers the Bible, Math, Geometry, Paul Revere, the Matrix, the X-men, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Contact … and gets us to consider some very important points about God and the nature of our faith in God. If this chapter is an accurate indicator of what is to come, the book should be an excellent conversation starter. I will highlight only a few points that particularly struck me as I read the chapter.

Human language is vague and ambiguous. Yes it can be used to communicate clearly – but this is not what always happens. Math uses axioms, rules and proofs to avoid ambiguity. “Math helps us communicate precisely about abstract ideas, which is why I think it can help us wrap our minds around abstract qualities of God and our relationship with him.” (p. 26) There is a reason why many current Philosophy professors were math majors as undergraduates (a fact that surprised me when I first realized it.) Math is great preparation for Philosophy.

Axioms. Math, with its careful logic and precise rules, teaches us that we need to start with unprovable axioms. Every system starts with some assumptions taken to be true. From these initial postulates a wide range of other propositions can be proven. Math also teaches us that in any construct some conclusions, even if true, will be unprovable. There is a proof of incompleteness …

Remarkably, not only did the proposed basis for math fail to be proven complete, it was actually explicitly proven incomplete; some questions were demonstrably unanswerable. A simplified explanation of the proof of incompleteness is that you can create an expression whose meaning is essentially “This expression cannot be proved:’ And yet, since it is built up from proven expressions according to the rules of the language, it should be considered proved. In other words, what was proved was the unprovability of the statement. This essentially rendered that expression undecidable, meaning there is no way to know if it is true or false, given the axioms we chose. (p. 31)

One example Walsh uses is the distinction between Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries (although he doesn’t use the word Euclidean). Two lines are defined as parallel if they both intersect a third at right angles. We commonly think that parallel lines remain equidistant and never intersect. But this is an axiom, not a provable fact. The axiom defines a flat space. It is perfectly logical to construct geometries where parallel lines may intersect or diverge – these define a curved space. Both kinds of geometries are useful. In fact, the geometry of curved spaces turns out to be far more useful in physics than the geometry of flat spaces (image credit NASA). But … the truth of some statements about parallel lines and other objects depend on the nature of the geometry chosen, i.e. the axioms on which the logical framework is based. These axioms are chosen, they are not “self-evident” or provable.

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Why You Need the Creed

As I mentioned earlier this summer, I am preparing for an adult education discussion class on the Apostles’ Creed as an introduction to Christian doctrine this Fall. The primary resources for this class are the Bible (of course) and four books on the Apostles’ Creed: Primal Credo by Derek Vreeland, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed by J. I. Packer, The Apostles’ Creed by Ben Myers, and What Christians ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed by Michael Bird. Over the next several months I will post on this topic on Thursdays as I prepare to lead the discussion on Sundays. Comments from readers are welcome, and one reason for posting before rather than after the class. The first class is this coming Sunday and thus the first post in this series is today.

All four of these books, but especially Michael Bird’s, begin with a defense of creeds in general and of the Apostles’ creed in particular. The defense is necessary because many Protestants claim to stand on the Bible alone, seeing no need for the creeds. Derek Vreeland (Discipleship Pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri) notes the importance of the Apostles’ creed as a stabilizing agent in his spiritual journey – wisdom he was first introduced to by his college advisor (at a secular university no less). “The Apostles’ Creed serves as an extremely useful confession of the essentials of the Christian faith. The ancient church has given the creed to the modern church as an indispensable gift.” (p. 3) Christians need to know some theology – and the Creed is a good way to teach this theology. Continue reading

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A Short History of Purpose in Biology

Denis Alexander in his new book Is There Purpose in Biology starts with an outline of the history of thinking about Purpose and purpose in biology in the West and Middle East. Capital P Purpose is a metaphysical concept relating to design and teleology, small p purpose is uncontroversial – eyes are for seeing, mouths for eating, and wings (usually) for flying. He starts with the Greeks and Romans before moving to Islamic thought in the early middle ages and returning to European Christendom in the late middle ages and beyond. The discussion is interesting in its own right – but also in the context of our recent meander through The Lost World of Scripture by John Walton and D. Brent Sandy.

That Denis starts with Aristotle comes as no surprise. As he says “No account of purpose in biology could possibly exclude the writings of Plato’s student Aristotle, whose ideas still do much to frame the discussion right up to the present day.” (p. 19) Aristotle found Purpose running through nature and biology and was thoroughly human-centered. Denis quotes from Aristotle’s On the Parts of Animals and Politics, “everything that Nature makes is means to an end.” and “If therefore Nature makes nothing without purpose or in vain, it follows that Nature has made all the animals for the sake of man.” (p. 20) Aristotle, however, had no vision of a creator God. This Purpose was internal to Nature. His “Unmoved Mover” was used by later Christian thinkers to point to God – but this, Denis argues, was not Aristotle’s view. “Final causes for Aristotle are intrinsic principles of intelligibility, not in any sense active agents of anything.” (p. 21).

Later Greeks and Romans did see a divine hand (or many such hands) behind the world in which we live. Arguments from design to purpose were made by Cicero (106-43 BC) and Galen (129-210 AD). Cicero wrote “So how can we doubt that the world is the work of the divine intelligence? We may well believe that the world and everything in it has been created for the gods and for mankind.” (p. 23 from The Nature of the Gods, Alexander cites Emerton, Science and Christian Belief, 1989, 1, 129-147 for the quote.)

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Safe to Ask?

This is the final post on The Lost World of Scripture by John Walton and D. Brent Sandy. The book has been thought provoking and I highly recommend it to anyone who is struggling with the nature of Scripture as well as to those who are not. I guarantee that it will get you thinking. This isn’t the last word on the subject – but it is an excellent contribution.

John and Brent conclude with a set of questions that are safe to ask. In fact, more than safe. I’d say that many are healthy and necessary to ask.

It is safe to ask whether our doctrine of the authority of Scripture has become too enmeshed in apologetics. Our doctrine of Scripture should focus on what we believe, not serve as a tool to convince the unbeliever. “Much of what we believe about the Bible cannot be proven even to ourselves, let alone to skeptics.” (p. 306)

It is safe to ask whether some formulations of biblical inerrancy are faithful to biblical revelation itself in the historic understanding of the church. In many cases inerrancy is formulated in a thoroughly modern way to address modern concerns. We can safely question these formulations. John and Brent again “affirm biblical inerrancy properly understood.” (p. 306) But this commitment does not require blind assent to every formulation out there. Even the Chicago statement must be nuanced and reconsidered (my point – not John’s or Brent’s). Continue reading

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Faithful Conclusions

As I read the last section of The Lost World of Scripture by John Walton and D. Brent Sandy it became apparent that there was more than one post worth of material here for us to chew on. John and Brent begin by listing some safe and some unsafe conclusions concerning Scripture and biblical authority. Here “safe” means within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy and a high view of Scripture as an authoritative revelation of God. They are not presenting a finalized set of principles for biblical interpretation but a set of ideas for consideration, discussion, research and reflection. These are talking points for the church.

It is safe … The following is a summary of the discussion by John and Brent although I have reordered some of their conclusions.

It is safe to believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture. John and Brent are committed to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture (although inerrancy is applied to the intended message as we will see) and affirm the verbal, plenary (i.e. unqualified, absolute) inspiration of Scripture. Even variant wordings, event orders, and emphases can be inspired to convey the intended message. We don’t need to harmonize to protect Scripture from error.

God spoke words, not simply ideas. … Faith communities validated the words received and it is those words that we affirm as inspired.

Divine truth was revealed in speech and action. The source was God, not humans; they could not have come up with this on their own. Jesus himself was and is the quintessence of divine revelation, the personification of the Father’s communication in human form. …

Further, Scripture is the product of plenary inspiration. God is the source of all of Scripture. Because God breathed it in its entirety, he is the source event for variant wordings [including those among the Gospels]. (p. 295)

Going beyond this … Continue reading

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