Sub-Creation and Simulated Worlds

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I wish I had known about J.R.R Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation when I wrote my Video Game Theology post. I discovered it while reading The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (surely one of the longest book titles in recent memory). In a nutshell, “[Sub-creation was] used by J.R.R. Tolkien to refer to the process of world-building and creating myths. In this context, a human author is a ‘little maker’ creating his own world as a sub-set within God’s primary creation … Tolkien saw his works as mere emulation of the true creation performed by God” (Tolkien Gateway).

In my post as well as a post on Christian Art, 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.” Compare the similarities between my concept and Tolkien’s: “The doctrine of sub-creation was especially congenial to Tolkien, both as a Christian and as a fantasy writer. As a Christian, Tolkien could view sub-creation as a form of worship, a way for creatures to express the divine image in them by becoming creators” (Sub-Creation or Smuggled Theology).

Messianic Michael wisely pointed out in the comments that, of course, such worldbuilding goes far beyond fictional / entertainment-oriented constructs and can really apply to any form of computer modeling or computer simulation. Indeed! And to take it a step further, the technology which has allowed us to run increasingly complex simulations may open a door for a new wave of academic research.

Theology is supposed to be the science of God. However, theology fails to smoothly fit into the accepted standards of scientific methodology due to at least one inherent limitation: repeatability. Here is a section of a research paper I wrote for my Theology 525 class several years ago (references here omitted and available upon request):

“Despite the past, present, and future availability of sense data in which theological propositions can be empirically verified, such propositions cannot be submitted to the classic scientific method due to a lack of testability. The scientific method demands that results of empirical observations must be repeatable. The concepts of finite impingement and God’s freedom show how repeatability cannot really be applied in the observation of God’s actions into our world.

Oswalt describes non-repeatable interventions of God into human affairs which do not conform to science’s focus on “uniform occurrences of all things in all times.” Oswalt states: “Here the transcendent God is accomplishing his will through an obedient nature in a specific historic event. In a unique moment in time and space, never to be repeated, but also never to be forgotten…”  Furthermore, Erickson defines God as free. God is “not under any compulsion” and “nothing in Scripture suggests that God’s will is determined or bound by any external factors.”  The finite impingement of an infinite God into our space-time cannot be repeatedly observed like one would observe the effects of vinegar being poured onto baking soda.”

Well, for the first time in human history, by the benefit of simulated world technology, we have a chance of testing philosophical and theological propositions. Yes, we cannot view God through a microscope, but we can simulate small, laboratory-controlled versions of reality and change the variables. Molinism in a box! Who are the brave pioneers willing to step up to the challenge? Soli Deo gloria.

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Why Christianity?

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In a previous post I discussed how I had arrived at subjective certainty about the existence of God. But in the grand cosmological buffet, there are many “higher powers” that one can choose from: Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, and even the Flying Spaghetti Monster embraced by oppositional-ironic “pastafarians.” How did I personally become convinced that the Christian God, attested to in the Old and New Testaments, is the “One True God” – the interpretation of the Divine that corresponds to reality?

1. To start, there is no denying that my upbringing plays a crucial role. I was raised in a Christian home. But what does that mean? Many who were raised in a “Christian” home and/or grew up “in the Church” have turned away from the Christian religion. And others that have had no exposure to Christianity as children come to believe in the Christian interpretation of God. I must say that I viewed the early Christian influences in my life as trustworthy sources, people who non-hypocritically lived out their faith on a daily basis. Their personal lives and behavior did not contradict what they taught or believed – quite the opposite. I had every reason to believe what they were saying when they testified about supernatural experiences.

2. God most profoundly revealed himself to me during a Christian church service, through a scripture found in the Christian Bible, presented by a Christian pastor. Despite the historical, contextually-bound logos of that passage of scripture, I was directly and personally spoken to as through a rhema. My life dramatically began a process of transformation from that moment. I often have described this experience as an “epiphany,” and it may be compared to the concept of enlightenment or a spiritual awakening. Christians would commonly use vocabulary to describe such an experience as “being born again” or “salvation” or “regeneration.”

3. The inward witness of the Holy Spirit continues to affirm the central truths of Christianity and thus further bolsters my faith. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16) and, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26).

4. The Christian worldview, as expressed (non-systematically) in the Bible, presents a framework for consistently, accurately, and without-contradiction interpreting all of reality, including the existence of and belief in other so-called gods. Christianity accounts for and explains the existence of other religions and even for non-religious persons. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, “Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality — and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth.”

5. Various forms of revelation: ongoing personal experiences, the testimony of trustworthy individuals, and historical evidence all lend additional support to Christianity. The common, shared experiences of Christians around the planet and throughout history attested to in diaries, letters, biographies, sermons, verbal exchanges, and more, provide further grounding. I will seek to address the nature of revelation more in depth in future posts.

God Is

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Charting my theological beliefs must begin with my most basic presupposition: God is.

I could also say “God exists,” but I find “God is” to be a nice reflection of Exodus 3:14, where God reveals himself to Moses as “I AM.” French philosopher Descartes could only get as far as “I think, therefore I am.” God simply declares “I AM” without any qualifiers or adverbs!

As of 2010, according to the CIA World Factbook (!), only an estimated 9.66% of the world’s population were non-religious and only 2.01% were identified atheists. The vast majority of humans believe in some form of higher power or powers and so do I. My unbelieving friends believe that I believe. However, I would claim that I don’t just believe, but that I know that God exists. And this basic fact underlies all of reality.

Logically or semantically, you cannot know something that isn’t true. Although I initially believed in God because of the testimony of reliable people in my life, I came to know this experientially as God revealed himself to me. I have encountered God and am growing to know God more over time as our relationship continues. As Jesus is quoted in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice…”

I have known my oldest childhood friend since preschool. Nobody could convince me that he doesn’t exist. There is not an argument on earth that could erase from my mind the unmistakable relationship we have experienced. However, it would conceivably be possible for someone to show me a birth certificate or other information that revealed that the person I thought I knew so well was really somebody else entirely – that he had been misrepresented or had been misrepresenting himself this entire time. Likewise, I believe that individuals can experience supernatural encounters / phenomena but not necessarily arrive at accurate conclusions.

English theologian John Hick (1977, 7) talks about “simple verifiability” versus “complex verifiability.” If I want to verify that there are three apples in a basket, all I have to do is go over, look, and count them. Other things are not so easy, such as large-scale scientific hypotheses. I cannot walk over to the universe and check if Superstring Theory is true. “In such cases there may be increasing confirmation until the point of cognitive conclusiveness is reached. This is the point at which rational doubt as to the truth of p has been entirely excluded and at which the concepts of confirmation and verification coincide.”

Does a single observation suffice? Is progressive experience required? Is there a tipping point where uncertainty becomes belief, and belief becomes knowledge? I can state that I am subjectively certain that “God is.” I believe that one day this will be an objective, empirical certainty… that “every eye will see him” (Revelation 1:7).

But to quote C.S. Lewis, “I am not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology.”

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?

Basic Principles for “Doing Theology”

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Theology is the science of God, and one that primarily concerns the study of sacred texts. Religious doctrines are like scientific theories, but scripture is the objective data we scrutinize to ultimately validate or invalidate our theories. Naturally, our axiomatic assumptions, cultural biases, lenses of lived experience, and finite / depraved perspectives can distort our ability to “do theology.”

As I continue my extended theological thought experiment to discover exactly what I believe and why, I must identify some key and fundamental principles. These are assumptions that are for my purposes non-negotiable and will serve as the foundation for all that is to come – they are like a compass in my pocket that will help chart my course and get back on track when I start to go astray.

1. “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)

I have discovered that all theological attempts that do not begin with reverence for God soon go off the rails into heretical and/or blasphemous territory. This shall be avoided. We do not place God in a box to contain him nor on an autopsy table to dissect him. Attempting to discern some of the hidden things of God can be like splitting an atom.

2. “If I … know all mysteries and all knowledge … but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)

This verse does not state that understanding all mysteries is a bad thing – not at all. The only explicitly unknowable things referred to in the Bible that I am aware of are the return date and time of Jesus Christ and what the seven thunders say in Revelation 10:4. Everything else is fair game. But, I am not on this journey for the purpose of tearing others down or of pridefully elevating my knowledge over others.

3. Truth is basically defined as what corresponds to reality.

In other words, truth is whatever is actually, really real. Our perceptions, understanding, and interpretation of that reality may be flawed, limited, or in some cases non-existent. But the truth is out there! There is an objective reality totally independent of our perception and interpretation of it. It defines us, we do not define it.

4. All scripture quoted will be from the New American Standard Bible, with a couple notable changes.

I own and enjoy many different translations of the Bible, but my personal favorite is the New American Standard Bible. This is due to its higher reading level and the fact that it is the most literal of all mainstream translations. I will quote exclusively from the NASB 1995 text update to avoid picking and choosing whatever translation best fits my desired interpretation for any given verse.

However, I will be following the ESV in not capitalizing divine pronouns when there is no manuscript-evidence suggesting to do so. Also, I will translate LORD in the Old Testament into Yahweh every time, and swap in the even more literal footnotes of the NASB when available.

Prolegomena – Confessions of a Theology Geek

Clarion & Coffee

When I was younger, I assumed that the Bible was all one needed to attain perfect understanding of spiritual matters. I attended seminary for the purpose of obtaining a Masters degree in Pastoral Counseling (which I did); theology was nowhere on my radar. Instead, I found a lot of my counseling courses to be fluffy and vague, and discovered a deep love for theology that I never expected. This began a passionate affair indeed. I lay awake many a night pondering theological puzzles. I obsessively revisited and revised my Amazon wishlist with new must-buy books that I would have little time to read. Often my deepest desire was to simply sit down and discuss theology over coffee with someone, anyone who was game. One night I even forgot to shower, floss, and brush my teeth due to my preoccupation!

The doctrine of perspicuity or clarity of Scripture teaches that “…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (Westminster Confession). And I would agree with the qualifier, “for salvation.” Yet, on other topics we find well-intentioned and Christ-loving people with access to the same growing number of respectable Bible translations arriving at opposite, mutually-exclusive conclusions on various points of doctrine and belief. Not only the Bible (which must be primary) but also our underlying philosophical assumptions / axiomatic beliefs come into play. Interpretation matters.

Two years ago I launched my Theology Geek blog with the aim of finding out for myself exactly what I believe and why – to build my Christian theology from the ground up. I desired to end up with a compendium theologiae novum, a summary of a new systematic theology. As I set out on this complex thought experiment, I committed to pursue objectivity. I needed (and still need) to transcend family and church tradition, tribalistic denominational loyalty, and popular beliefs originating in by-products of Christianity rather than the source. Today, I know more than I did two years ago. I know more now than I did two months ago. By the grace of God, I hope to know more next week than I do today. A lot of my mental agitation or cognitive dissonance has leveled out as my theological hypotheses have become sharpened. On other matters, I hold the various theories on this doctrine or that like a deck of cards in my back pocket, ready to shuffle and deal out as needed.

I’ve met many people who roll their eyes when somebody starts spouting off about theology. Some people have no interest whatsoever in the subject (which is fine) while others prefer to swallow the wholesale interpretation of others without exerting any effort of their own toward understanding (not ideal). Theology has been called ‘the queen of sciences.’ Josef Pieper described theology as “the study of sacred documents.” My theology professor in seminary referred to theology as “a way to worship God with our minds.” Whatever the case, I believe it is a very worthwhile pursuit. Systematic theology, for me, is the highest achievement of mankind in regards to special revelation.

Here are three reasons that you should join me on this continuing journey:

1. Theology is COOL

Proverbs 25:2 tells us that, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” Christian Theology is the one and only discipline that peers behind the veil of the weightiest metaphysical realities. Studying theology is like choosing to take the ‘red pill’ in The Matrix.

2. Theology is HARD

“Even though most evangelicals agree that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant … Word of God, sometimes groups among them arrive at contradictory doctrinal conclusions” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 22). And many of these points of disagreement are not trivial, but rather are deemed crucial by those who have debated them for thousands of years. We must stand on the shoulders of giants while not being trapped by their errors (made inevitable by their finitude and imperfections). Question everything and follow the evidence wherever it leads.

3. Theology is IMPORTANT

Bad theology has been used to justify evil acts, such as antisemitism. Individuals with good theology have been burned at the stake and drowned as heretics by those with opposing views. Theology at the highest level trickles down to the masses and impacts society. Theology is important because, ultimately, what you believe should determine what you do.

Be strong and very courageous. The truth is out there!

 

Hitting the Reset Button

Escher Hands

Welcome! My name is Justin Gabriel. I am a Christian Author, Mental Health Advocate, and Theology Geek. This blog represents a ‘soft reboot’ of my online writing presence. By the grace of God, my lifelong dream to become a published author took a giant leap forward when I signed a publishing agreement for my forthcoming novel. Acknowledging the likelihood that I may step into the light of public awareness, I wanted to launch Select Arrow with a few goals in mind:

  1. Consolidate my current (and some former) online blogs into one
  2. Bring a clear, unified voice to bear on my diverse interests
  3. Replace the formal anonymity of my past endeavors with a cohesive identity
  4. Polish and repackage some of my favorite past writing
  5. Build relationships with readers
  6. Experience less stress about maintaining and updating multiple blogs

Select Arrow was actually the name of the first legit attempt at a blog I recall launching (the name comes from a passage in Isaiah 49 and has a deep personal relevance for my life). Through the years, I’ve worked on a political blog, a satirical blog, a steampunk blog, a serialized science fiction blog, Thank You Jesus For These Pop Tarts, a blog about evangelism in Japan, Theology Geek, Crazy Church, Flatland Pilgrim, and the Organic Mental Health Manifesto (I’m surely omitting some). Now I come full circle.

The unifying focuses of Select Arrow are ‘Theology, Mental Health & Art.’ The majority of my posts will fall somewhere between those three core passions of mine. I reserve the right to blog about other things as well, so as not to experience the urge to create additional blogs as has been my pattern in the past. My former blogs will live on in new form – as categories for my new blog posts. Here is a quick category guide:

Justin Gabriel – posts about my books and myself as a writer

Theology Geek – sharing my deep fascination and love of Christian theology

Crazy Church – compassionate mental health advocacy from a Christian perspective

Flatland Pilgrim – works of art that reflect the Image of God in humankind and the ex-nihilo creativity of the Creator

Thank You Jesus For These Pop Tarts – reflections on life and culture

Kamikaze & Umeshu – Japan, Japanese people, and Japanese culture

Thank you all for joining me for this new venture. I appreciate your thoughts, comments, feedback, and dialogue. This is just the beginning.