The Paradox of Christian Environmentalism

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On many political and social issues, there is often a predictable split between traditional / conservative and so-called progressive wings of the Christian church, at least for certain denominations. Environmental activism, pursuit of clean energy, and concerns about climate change tend to be found more among the ‘Christian Left.’ Liberal-minded Christians emphasize the role of humanity as caretakers and stewards of God’s creation while conservative-minded Christians emphasize the call for humanity to exercise dominion over creation. The former are accused of worshiping a false god of Mother Nature; the latter of raping the Earth and denying science.

Paradoxically, both sides are wrong and right. Where the Christian environmentalists err is in failing to realize the total eschatological destruction of the creation they are trying to preserve. Scripture is clear that “the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire” (2 Peter 3:7) and that “the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). Again, “the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat!” (2 Peter 3:12). Some physicists argue that our universe is permeated by an ocean of Higgs field. If the value or energy state of that Higgs field changes, the Biblical scenario referenced above would indeed happen.

So no matter how hard we work to preserve the environment now, all of it will inevitably be erased from existence. The Great Barrier Reef? Gone. The Amazon Rainforest? Obliterated. The African Elephant? Extinct.

But the ultimate promise is of new heavens and a new earth, a return to the paradisiacal Edenic state – Earth 2.0, if you will. Although all physical matter in the entire universe in this current stage of reality will be gone, yet we are told that the “glory and honor of the nations” will be brought into the future heavenly city of God on the renewed planet (Revelation 21:26). But what glory and honor will remain if everything is wiped out? The Mona Lisa and Crown Jewels won’t be around. Godiva chocolate won’t be there either. What is this verse referring to?

I interpret this in part to mean that the knowledge and expertise Christians gain in this life will be carried over and useful in the age to come. Although the skyscrapers we build will not endure, our engineering and construction experience will. Although our spaceships and satellites will be long gone, our understanding of astrophysics and rocket science will be preserved. Although your favorite pizza place won’t be there, our understanding of making incredible, authentic Neapolitan-style pizza will endure (if anyone with that knowledge makes it into heaven). This same principle applies to environmentalism.

Christians should become experts in clean and renewable energy and sustainability now, because that knowledge is going to hugely benefit us in the life to come. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Who wants to be told to stay out of the ocean due to high bacteria levels? Who wants to walk around their city wearing a breathing mask because of air pollution? Who wants to suffer the consequences of radiation poisoning when a nuclear reactor fails? Who wants to see a Garden of Eden paved to make room for gaudy strip-malls? If you love fishing, sustainable fishing matters to you. If you love books, you are going to want sustainable forestry for the printing of paper. If we have the opportunity of Earth 2.0, let’s get it right from the start, especially if we are going to live there forever.

Simulated Worlds and Harmonizing the Age of the Earth

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Elon Musk believes that we live inside of an advanced computer simulation. Spoiler alert: we don’t. However, the concept of the simulated universe is a useful tool, perhaps the tool, to drive the next leap of theological advancement. See my related posts here, here, and here.

This is not dissimilar to other secular origin theories that have arisen out of skepticism and dissatisfaction with traditional Darwinian evolution, Big Bang cosmology, and philosophical naturalism that can actually be leveraged in favor of Christian creation theories. For example, Directed Panspermia is a theory that early lifeforms were deliberately transported and planted on Earth by advanced beings (extraterrestrials). Compare this to the Christian concept of life being purposefully created on Earth by an advanced being (God). Another example, The Black Hole at the Beginning of Time theory basically argues, “that our universe may have emerged from a black hole in a higher-dimensional universe.” Compare this to the Christian concept of matter and energy appearing in nothingness, originating from a higher-dimensional source outside of our physical universe.

But I digress. The age of the Earth is a point of Christian contention between Old-Earth Creationists and Young-Earth Creationists and, at times, between Christians and non-Christian scientists. In my current thinking, the only two coherent arguments that have been advanced which satisfy evidence found in both General and Special revelation is the Day-Age Theory and the Ideal-Age Theory (or Apparent-Age Theory) of creation. The Day-Age Theory states that each day or “yom” of creation is really a period of time, so that creation is then completed in six periods of time or stages rather than literal 24-hour days in a calendar week. The Ideal-Age Theory states that the universe was created with all the hallmarks of age: Adam had the body of an adult male, trees had rings, distant stars as well as the light particles between them and the Earth were created simultaneously, etc. For a good discussion from Wayne Grudem on this debate, go here. Both views have adamant advocates and detractors, and neither are without difficulties.

Using the concepts of Simulated Worlds or Simulated Universes, we can actually harmonize these two conflicting views. Let’s look at the world generating process of the computer game, Dwarf Fortress. I am pulling the next section whole cloth from Wikipedia:

The first step in Dwarf Fortress is generating a playable world; only one game can be played per world at a time. The player can adjust certain parameters governing size, savagery, mineral occurrences and the length of history. The map shows symbols representing roads, hills, towns and cities of the various civilizations, and it changes as the generation progresses.

The process involves procedurally-generated basic elements like elevation, rainfall, mineral distribution, drainage and temperature. For example, a high-rainfall and low-drainage area would make a swamp. Areas are thus categorized into biomes, which have two variables: savagery and alignment. They have their own specific type of plant and animal populations. The next phase is erosion—which the drainage simulates. Rivers are created by tracing their paths from the mountains (which get eroded) to its end which is usually an ocean; some form into lakes. The salinity field defines oceans, mangroves or alluvial plains. Names are generated for the biomes and rivers. The names depend on the area’s good/evil variable (the alignment) and though in English, they are originally in one of the four in-game languages of dwarves, elves, humans and goblins; these are the four main races in any generated world.

 After a few minutes the world is populated and its history develops for the amount of in-game years selected in the history parameter. Civilizations, races and religions spread and wars occur, with the “population” and “deaths” counters increasing. The ticker stops at the designated “years” value, at which point the world can be saved for use in any game mode. Should the player choose to retire a fortress or gets defeated, this world will persist and will become available for further games.

So, here you have an example of a simulated world that does not pop up instantly, but rather develops algorithmically and procedurally. But this process, which covers an incredible stretch of in-game time, takes only a few minutes of outside-game time or real time. To put it another way, in our higher-dimensional world, we experience the acceleration of lower-dimensional time for a set period, and then a more normalized lower-dimensional passage of time when the world generation ends and the game begins.

So, a harmonization of the Day-Age and Ideal-Age theories of Christian creation might be as follows. During the process of creation, the universe did not appear pre-fabricated, but rather developed procedurally. For example, light emitted from distant stars had to travel through the vacuum of space, the Grand Canyon slowly eroded, etc. However, all of these events occurred at an accelerated pace. We might say that a higher-dimensional measure of time (the Transcendent Time’s Arrow? Multiversal Standard Speed?), was increased, while all the processes remained at the same relative speed to one another within the physical universe. For example, the speed of light stayed the same relative to other physical processes, such as radioactive decay, but all were greatly accelerated relative to a measure of time external to this physical universe.

In this way, you could have what would ordinarily take millions of years accomplished in a much shorter period of time, and the higher-dimensional acceleration would go unnoticed in the lower-dimensional world because of in-universe relativity. I am not saying that I personally hold to this view, but hey, if an old PC running Windows 98 with 256 ram can do it, why not God?

On Revelation – Apocalypse Now

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The word ‘revelation’ found in New Testament passages such as Luke 2:32, Romans 2:5, Galatians 1:12, Ephesians 3:3, and Revelation 1:1 (to cite a few examples) is the Greek word apokálypsis. You do not have to be a Greek scholar to recognize the English word ‘apocalypse.’ However, in English we have come to associate apocalypse with the cataclysmic end of the world. In reality, apocalypse means uncovering or unveiling.

Read Paul’s words in Galatians 1:11-12 with a simple translation change, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”

When theologians talk about revelation they are primarily concerned with the following question: how can we know anything about God at all? If God is transcendent, or infinite, or outside of the created cosmos, how can finite, mortal creatures approach him or discover something of his nature?

John the Apostle was fond of pointing out that “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18a; also 1 John 4:12a) and “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). So how can we discern a God that is “invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) to us? The answer is that God has to pull back the veil, let us peek behind the curtain, and reveal a part of himself.

Humanity cannot reach a knowledge of God completely on their own. But what about general revelation and the associated natural theology, in which individuals discern attributes of God from what has been created? We must admit that God has given human beings the ability to sense and perceive as well as minds capable of understanding and reaching conclusions. Therefore, even our most “independent” observations and conclusions are only possible because God first allowed their possibility by the decisions he made when designing and creating us.

Video Game Theology

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In a previous post I argued that humanity directly reflects the image of God when we engage in creative acts – when we bring something good into existence out of “nothing,” we are intentionally or unintentionally imitating the work of the ultimate Creator. This divine reflection reaches its apex when our art involves worldbuilding.

We find worldbuilding in visual mediums such as film, television, and graphic novels, but these are ultimately static worlds, and the audience members are passive participants. Worldbuilding in nonvisual literature is more dynamic, forcing the readers to actively visualize the world in their imaginations. Still, worldbuilding in video games is the closest parallel we have to the creativity of God.

Picture this: a brilliant Programmer designs a self-contained ‘reality’ in which other freewill agents (players) can interact. There are clear design parameters to this game world and limits to what the players can do within the world. That being said, the players can do anything they want within those parameters. Following the Programmer’s design, there are goals or intended ways of playing that lead to success in the game. Some players, despite taking diverse and individualized paths, seek to achieve these intended goals, and their creative ways of doing so may delight the programmer. Some players love the experience so much that they send fan mail to the Programmer and celebrate the good creation, even as they seek to exercise mastery within in.

Other players may ignore or violate the design and purpose of the game, resulting in mutual frustration for the Programmer and players. Perhaps the players grief and harass other players, try to undermine the integrity of the program itself, or otherwise violate the terms of service. Such players, if not willing to come around, may receive permanent bans from playing the game. Even if a fantastic new game update or expansion is released, the permabanned players will likely not be able to enjoy it. For all types of players, although experiencing the game world through their digital avatars, there is a clear sense that the players exist beyond the confines of the game world, that their consciousnesses will endure regardless of what ultimately happens to their in-game avatars.

Even the Programmer, preexisting the game world and being separate from it, can interact with the program on multiple levels, even through the use of an avatar (likely with certain advantages). The Programmer can interact with other players in a “meta” way, or in the game itself through the avatar. Having full knowledge of the game world, the Programmer’s actions serve as an example of how the game is meant to be played and what other players are truly capable of accomplishing. Regardless of the level of interaction chosen, the Programmer has the right and ability to change and suspend the rules and “physics” of the game world whenever desired, for whatever reason. God mode, anyone?

If any of this seems interesting to you, I highly recommend checking out The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (2011); the discussion of simulated universes in Chapter 10 is worth the price of admission alone.

Theology truly is a science, and theologians should act more like scientists. One problem is that theological theories have seldom been testable. Simulated worlds can change that. Interactive simulated worlds have the capability of being laboratories for testing philosophical, existential, ethical, and theological propositions in ways that have not been possible in generations past. This is especially true for simulated worlds that allow for emergent behavior or emergent gameplay, like Second Life, Minecraft, EVE Online, Dwarf Fortress, and other examples.

Are we not all players in the structured sandbox that God designed?

Three Surprising Activities That Make Me Feel Closer to God

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Intimacy with Christ is perhaps the single most worthwhile thing that any person can seek. And, as we are commanded to love God with all of our heart, soul and strength, there are different ways of drawing close as there are different degrees of proximity. For me, the trifecta for such abiding intimacy is worship, prayer, and reading the Bible (in that order) – exponentially increased if I remove myself to a “secluded place” as in Mark 1:35. Those may be obvious spiritual methods; in this post I will describe three surprising activities at the level of the soma (a physical body, which all living things in our universe have) that, for me, foster a subjective feeling of closeness and deeper appreciation of God.

1. RUNNING

I am not much of a runner. I can’t remember the last time the Nike running app on my iPhone was activated. Running always seemed masochistic to me, and it wasn’t until my wife suggested a Couch-to-5k plan as a potential shoulder-to-shoulder bonding opportunity that I reluctantly began to enjoy the activity.

Besides the eventual endorphin release, putting on my brightly colored running shoes and hitting the pavement brings to mind the many, many analogies found in scripture that compare the Christian life to running a race.

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” (Hebrews 12:1).

“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” (2 Timothy 4:7, ESV).

I also can’t help but think of Olympic athlete Eric Liddell as depicted in the film Chariots of Fire. “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.”

2. DRINKING WINE

I am also not much of a wine drinker. I dabbled in and enjoyed the fine Pinot Noir that comes out of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. I have been to a few wine tastings. I even read the book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar. Still, nobody would confuse me for an oenophile. If I have any beverage of choice it is coffee, hands down ( I recently identified coffee as one of my core seven life interests). Also, I lived in Asheville, NC – “Beer City, USA” – for many years and was exposed to local craft beers that would make the snobbiest of Belgian monks green with envy. What’s more is that my current day job precludes my consumption of any alcoholic beverages.

But still, drinking wine makes me feel closer to God.

Jesus was a fan of wine. Our Lord and Savior’s first recorded miracle involves transmuting water into wine (John 2). His opponents actually accused him of being a drunkard (Matthew 11:19). This was real wine, not “grape juice” as some have attempted to twist the biblical language to fit human traditions.

Growing up in a very “low church” setting, I did indeed drink store-bought grape juice in a tiny paper cup and eat a cracker for Communion (I can’t bring myself to refer to an ounce of grape juice and a cracker as the Lord’s Supper). I have even heard a former youth pastor joke about offering purple Gatorade and potato chips. Although I am not a proponent of “means of grace” sacramentalism, I have a strong sense that Evangelicalism’s Communion resembles very little the Last Supper that Jesus spent with his disciples in the upper room. In contrast, I have a sense of reverence whenever I visit a Lutheran service and dip my bread into a goblet of wine, feeling the slight alcoholic sting of the “blood of Christ” on my tongue.

What interests me most are the words of Matthew 26:29: “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my father’s kingdom.” There is an actual promise from Jesus to his disciples that he will pop a cork and drink wine with them during his coming kingdom. Drinking a glass of wine makes me remember this promise and look forward to spending time with my God.

3. BIRD WATCHING

What? Did you say bird watching?!? Fifteen years ago I would have ranked bird watching one step above stamp collecting as the most boring and unmanly hobbies of all time. So what changed? First, I saw the Academy Award-nominated documentary Winged Migration. Second, I visited the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. Third, I began to notice interesting birds such as wild turkeys, owls, and even a massive turkey vulture near the places I lived in North Carolina. Those events helped me appreciate the diversity of ‘little feathery animals that fly around’ significantly more. On a fun factor level, bird watching can tap into the same treasure-hunting impulse as letterboxing and geocaching.

More recently, the Campus Pastor at my work has repeatedly commented on the deep impact his mother’s advice had on him as he grew up: “Look at the birds…” She would reference Jesus in Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your father” and Luke 12:24, “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds!”

To combat worry and fear, this boy’s mother would recall the Word and enjoin him to spend time in nature contemplating God’s design and goodness. These memories were so meaningful to this Pastor that if he were to plant a new church he would affix the name Sparrow Ridge to it, out of every possible name one could choose. I too am learning the art of quieting myself and appreciating God’s creation, allowing his General Revelation to speak to me and remind me of my father’s ways.