Leviathan’s Summer Schedule

Hi folks,
Fishing for Leviathan will be posting on a light schedule for this coming summer and fall. I’m in a sabbatical year, and much of the work I’ll be doing will address similar issues found on this blog. Occasionally, I’ll post some excerpts from the text I’m developing in hopes that by next summer I’ll be able to announce a book release.

I’m not going anywhere, but the posts will be less frequent. Peace to you!

Downloadable Wisdom?

Just three short weeks ago, Concordia University Irvine said goodbye to 35 terrific high schoolers who came out to California to wrestle with the philosophical and theological questions posed by the Transhumanist movement (H+). One of our guest speakers was a true believer. Zoltan Istvan, the Libertarian candidate for California governor, joined us for one of the days, laying out his case for a technologically-driven future. And I have to say, the dude is approachable, likeable, and unshakably optimistic.

At lunch, I asked him what he thought the future held for educational institutions. Important because…well, I’m being paid by one. A central thesis of H+ is the progression toward ‘super-intelligence,’ the point in which computer processing speeds allow for a ‘general intelligence.’ Specific intelligence is giving a computer one task to exceed at—say, playing chess. General intelligence is far more complex. This term refers to the sum of ways humans interact with the world, from changing a tire to noticing a facial tic to using sarcasm. Second nature to humans but ridiculously complex for a box of silicon.

But, there’s more. Super-intelligence, at some unknown point, promises to gift all humans with virtually unlimited cognitive power through the use of internal computer chips plugged directly into our brains. It’s the point when we’re not totally sure where the human ends and the computer begins. Imagine Wikipedia at the speed of thought. The Library of Congress. Even the ability to play piano concertos without practice. Or Eddie Van Halen solos.

I asked Zoltan what he thought the role of the university would be in this type of future. Since knowledge is pre-packed material available for download, would the professor morph into a mentor-only role, teaching the important skills of wisdom and character-building that such information required for responsible use? You may be able to predict what his answer was:
Oh, you’ll definitely be able to download wisdom, too.’

The theory is that, once we hit a technological Singularity (where we have almost infinite data and technology) we will be in a position to parlay that knowledge into a cosmos-friendly morality that will guide each person toward their most utilitarian end.

Let’s play this out and call this the Law of Unintended Consequences Post. We’ll proceed under the assumption that this is possible—that somehow, one could download a sense of moral fortitude. For my purposes, let’s consider morals as behavioral boundaries (some marked as ‘good’ while others, ‘bad’) and wisdom as the sense to contextually apply said boundaries in virtuous living. One could be moral, yet unwise, in this set-up [1].

Issue #1: There’s no monolithic morality on which to base wise action. I’m not trying to be post-modern here. I’m simply stating a fact: One culture’s manifestation of right and wrong allows for the flying of airliners into buildings, another finds such an act reprehensible. One culture believes that eating certain foods is verboten, others not so much. The contextual nature of wisdom leads us down some weird alleyways. Does the early bird get the worm, or does haste make waste? Which is it?

Issue #2: What happens when we encounter competing claims of right and wrong? If we choose ‘Judeo-Christian’ from the drop-down menu, how are moral disputes resolved in public? After all, it’s entirely possible that a person from certain remote portions of the Solomon Islands chooses, ‘Animist-Cannibal’ from theirs. Downloading wisdom won’t prevent suffering and/or conflict if the options for self-selected wisdom remain open; in fact, it’s more likely to guarantee future discord. My hunch is that the H+ movement won’t allow for any wisdom that doesn’t already see H+ as a morally superior position.

Issue #3: The fox is in the henhouse. Only Transhumanist-friendly wisdom will be made available, for nobody would want to create a program that has, at its core, the seeds of its own destruction. In other words, if my conservative Christian ethic is deeply critical of Transhumanist forms of wisdom, there is no way such an option would be made available through download! My only option is remaining unplugged. Because all downloadable wisdoms are inherently H+-friendly, no external critique of the movement is made available. External critique and evaluation is one of the most crucial components to practical wisdom—and yet, here, it’s notably absent. Essentially, the outsourcing of wisdom divests the person of the one thing they are actually seeking!

Issue #4: Guaranteed loss of social capital and communal bonds. The beauty of wisdom is not the end product. If the only thing that mattered was the ability to make good decisions, perhaps downloadable virtue would be an acceptable thing. The problem is that such a view isolates maturation from the community. Wisdom, in real life, is generated in the midst of a community—usually through a sustained relationship with a mentor. I know how to respectfully disagree with someone because my Dad modeled respectful disagreement. And I watched. Over and over again. As a result, I didn’t simply receive wisdom for my future tension-laden relationships; I also grew in trust and admiration of my father. I spent time in conversation and emulation with him. Wisdom downloaded is a disembodied wisdom disconnected from the wonder of social capital. Traditional wisdom leads us to trust. Wisdom that comes without effort leads us to be cold, clinical, and alone.

. . .

Downloadable wisdom sounds pretty good, right up to the point where you think about it. It seeks an end product as if that’s the only good involved. Our society has trained us to think this way, after all. I want my product now. I want my bank transfer done now. I want Season 4 of Longmire on Netflix now.

Consider my point in other way: You ask your neighbor over to help you build a trench for your garden; it’s simply too much work for one person to do in a day. She comes over, looks over the dig-site, makes suggestions, then you get to work. Four hours, two beers, and a really good joke about two Irish priests later, the two of you admire the trench and smile. For the Transhumanist, only one good is truly present in this scene: the finished trench. For the Normalhumanist, the social goods run deep. Conversation. Reciprocal trust. Physical labor. The intrinsic rewards of a well-planned, then well-executed job. Downloadable wisdom is folly precisely because it cuts out the goods of embodied community.

 

Wisdom downloaded is a disembodied wisdom disconnected from the wonder of social capital.

Ultimately, an amazon.com-style offering of virtue cuts out the deep joys of human existence. The bonds that we create with our children are borne, in part, by the profound amount of work we invest in their moral worlds. And knowing this challenge is laid out before us, we are more likely to undertake the efforts of child-rearing far more seriously. As soon as we see parenting as a responsibility-free, somewhat carefree task, we see children (and our spouses) as disposable commodities. And that’s terrifying. It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that Zoltan and his supporters have very low opinions of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing, preferring future births be grown in external vats rather than the womb of the mother.

I suppose none of this should surprise Christians. The wisdom of the world was always unimpressive to the foolishness of God, and vice versa. Where the Greeks valued reason and intellect, God chose to become one of us: embodied, messy, and frail. Not only that, God sought to accomplish the ultimate ends of redemption through the long and slow road of a 33-year old life; it’s as if he knew that there were other divine goods to be had in the journey itself.

[1] Notice I have avoided placing Christianity into the mix here. I certainly believe that wisdom, at its finest form, is the application of God’s design to one’s life. Still, I think it’s important that there are non-religious grounds for challenging the H+ movement.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

When Leviathan Fishes for You

I have to admit, starting a blog titled, ‘Fishing for Leviathan’ without ever once writing about Jonah feels like a massive oversight.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Jonah for some time now, ever since I heard a sermon on him that hit all the usual notes: Jonah runs away from God, God sends a fish to ‘re-purpose’ him, Jonah relents and preaches to the people of Nineveh, and finally, the strange ending with no real resolution. But lately I’ve been inclined to read Jonah in a different way, one that lifts up the prophet as a truly remarkable figure. Not a coward, but a tower of faith and confidence. Rebellious? Sure. Arrogant? Without question. Authentic faith in trying circumstances? Absolutely.

. . .

Every spring, football fans across the country engage in a funny little ritual that’s one of two things: Either it’s mind-numbingly boring, or edge-of-your-seat exciting, depending on your perspective. These diehards turn their TVs to ESPN or NFL Network and wait for their favorite NFL team’s logo to pop up on the bottom of the screen along with the magical words, ‘THE PICK IS IN.’ This signals that his/her favorite team is about to add another player into the fold. Jerseys will be bought, draft grades will be given, decisions will be scrutinized … but, in the end, the player is now on the team. He’s one of us.

Visit any one of a hundred football blogs on draft day and you’ll be vaulted to the great heights and plunged into the shadowy depths of that wonderful linguistic volcano, Mount St. Hyperbole. My favorite fansite, Blogging the Boys, comments on all things related to the Dallas Cowboys. My team. After this year’s first round draft pick (a guy named Taco, believe it or not), this normally cordial blogosphere exploded.

‘Why didn’t they draft T.J.??? He was there for the taking!’
‘Miserable waste of a pick. He’s horrible.’
‘I hate Jerry Jones.’
‘He doesn’t have enough bend around the edge!!! What are they thinking?’
‘I’m not eating tacos for a year in protest! …umm, make that a week!’

All coming from dudes who have Cheetos stains on their t-shirts; t-shirts which may or may not cover their hairy belly buttons. Ironically, the Cowboys’ second round pick goes by the phonetic nickname, “Cheetoh.”

We’re all experts, aren’t we? It’s easier to chuck rocks from the cheap seats than it is to admire the hard work and dedication that these young men pour into their craft. Or, even better, imagine how perspectives would change if, just for one day, they had to strap on pads and go head-to-head against these mammoths.

Kind of like our usual approach to the prophet Jonah.

Here’s why Jonah is quickly becoming my favorite of the Old Testament prophets.

Jonah knows himself. Yes, he runs from God’s calling in the most literal way possible, taking a boat in the exact opposite direction of God’s call. My kids do this when they know they are in trouble, dashing upstairs and hiding under the covers in a mess of tears and snot. But Jonah has a steely-eyed nerve to him. This is not the flight of the fearful, but rage of the righteous (and/or rebellious). He sleeps during a calamitous storm, in spite of the vomit-inducing rocking of the waves. Once awakened, he speaks straightforwardly and simply to the sailors: ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’ He wouldn’t jump. He had to be thrown. Such was his resolve against the great evil of Nineveh and his lack of compassion upon their fallen condition, not just his stubbornness against the great calling of Yahweh himself.

Jonah knows God. He knows him. After trudging around Nineveh with the world’s worst sermon, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,’ Jonah burns against the character of God—precisely because he knew him. ‘O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I know that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.’

Oh, to know God and to understand his will for my life as Jonah knows! I get vague, blurry pictures of God’s calling. Jonah knows the play-by-play, as if he’s playing chess with God and sees fifteen moves ahead. To criticize Jonah for running is like criticizing LeBron James for a turnover. Sure, it’s bad and we’ll all know it, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The presence and character of God runs so deep in Jonah’s bloodstream that he is compelled to move. Move in the wrong direction, sure, but move nevertheless.

Jonah gets a foretaste of Paul’s great mystery. This is one of the very few instances in the Old Testament when God’s grace moves in and about peoples who were not Jewish. On Jonah’s warning, the people of Nineveh are pierced to the heart with repentance, turning from ‘their evil ways’ (3:10). Consider how startling this would be to a Jew, born and bred into the foundational belief that God had chosen one people to be his own. Now, God has opened his gaze to the heathen. Unthinkable.

Paul speaks of this in the New Testament as something so remarkable and inconceivable that it’s essentially a part of the mystery of God. ‘[The mystery of Christ] is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, member together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus’ (Eph 3:6). Gentiles. Who knew?

I’m not saying that the residents of Nineveh all of a sudden became followers of Yahweh. Nor do I have any definite conclusion about their long-term fate. Rather, I want to point us to Jonah’s words yet again (with a little reading between the lines): ‘Lord, I knew you were so compassionate upon the people of this earth that you would give grace even to those who don’t even remotely know you as I know you. Lord, I know your forgiveness is present to those who repent—Jew or Gentile. That’s why I ran.’

Jonah’s certainly not a coward. He’s vigilant and zealous. And he knows God to a far greater depth than I know him.

We’re nervous meeting our neighbors. Jonah says plainly to people who hate him, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land’ (1:9).

We pray only when we’re desperate, hoping that God will answer us. Jonah talks to God as if it’s his rabbi, mentor, and friend. ‘From the depths of the grave I called for help and you listened to my cry’ (2:2b).

We speak about faith yet often know very little about God, assuming our pastors will do the hard work of reading and interpreting his Word for us. Yet Jonah knows precisely who God is by first-hand experience and yearns for a day when his face can look again upon the Temple (2:4, 7).

. . .

At some point in the future, I’ll be running from God. I’ll be looking for a one-way ticket to Tarshish (hopefully, not on United). Yet, in my rebellious flight, my present hope for that future version of Joel will be that God will be the same God he was to Jonah, slow to anger on Jonah’s sins and gentle with his rebuke … and that I’ll know God then as Jonah knew him. I’ll rest in the absolute reality and sure knowledge that God can pull me from my pit precisely because HE IS compassionate, slow to anger, quick to relent, and gentle in discipleship as he turns my face back toward the temple.

When the leviathan from the deep starts swimming after my boat, my great hope is that my confession will remain intact, ‘I am a Christian and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land. Now, throw me overboard.’ Such a plunge may be the fire that prepares the metal for shaping. For discipling.

I would prefer to love wholeheartedly the task set before me by God. But, I’ll take it if his love is so great that he would swallow me up and bring me back to himself and my calling through other means.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

You Only Live Twice

The Easter chaos has ended.

After two days of Easter feasting with my extended family in Bakersfield, Tiffany and I braced for the long journey back to south Orange County. Googlemaps politely informed me that the trek was only 170 miles, but Googlemaps has never seen the Oesch kids in Sugar Mode. After all of the stops, breaks, and…yes…even changing flat tires (the epic 2015 nightmare), the trip usually tops out at an oh-so-wonderful four-and-a-half-hours.

This year was different. The kids were asleep, the parents were awake (enough), and the roads were clear. I feel like I can count on my hand the number of times my wife and I have been able to have a long, thoughtful conversation without interruption. When we hit Grapevine, Tiffany looked over and took advantage of the opportunity by asking, ‘What’s your favorite Bible story?’

Such a simple and wonderful question. I just started rattling off a few possibilities, quickly realizing that I love different passages for different reasons. Unexpectedly, the first one I mentioned was Paul’s time in Athens, recorded in Acts 17.

Paul spends the necessary time to acknowledge, even appreciate, the cultural influences of the people he wishes to engage. As a fellow who has been known to wander in and out of art galleries from time to time, I can envision the slow thoughtful stroll of the apostle moving to and fro between the marble sculptures of ancient Athens. A troubling walk, to be sure, when a shepherd sees sheep that have gone astray.

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you (Acts 17.22-23).

In his words to the Areopagus, Paul never once surrenders the primacy of the gospel message. And yet, he’s willing to appropriate the insight and clarity of Greek cultural artifacts. This is amazing to me. Paul actually quotes pagan philosophers/poets in support of his Christian apologetic later in his discourse.

Sometimes false prophets proclaim deep, profound truths. Sometimes they can uniquely observe the filth in the fishbowl.

Louis CK is one of my favorite comedians precisely for that reason. Sure, he’s crass and taboo-breaking. One minute he has me laughing out loud on a crowded plane flight, surely interrupting seat 15C’s attempt at breaking her personal best Sudoku time. The next minute, he says something that is so utterly repulsive that I instinctively turn the volume down … in my headset.

In his most recent Netflix special, he opens with the following two topics for his stand-up comedy routine: Abortion and Suicide.

Everyone laughs when he introduces the topic of abortion because they’ve expected Louis CK to talk about all the things no one wants to talk about. He delivers on that front in spades. Yet I also think that Louis CK is running intellectual rings around the people he’s entertaining. They’re laughing at his quirky delivery, his penchant for employing just the right metaphor, his ability to say one thing then disagree with himself two sentences later. But I think he’s feeding them potent medicine with the candy. He sneaks kale into the brownies.

This particular false prophet is busy at work laying out a simple truth. He’s communicating a fundamental ethical dilemma on a profound level, shaming his crowd—and perhaps himself—by laying out the bare naked options when considering something like abortion. According to Louis CK, either abortion is simply the dispelling of unwanted junk (his language is a bit more colorful) or it’s murdering babies. You do not get to hide in the lukewarm equivocating middle zone; it simply does not exist. It’s either one or the other. [caution: coarse language]

If you watch Louis CK carefully during this show, he occasionally reveals his mastery over the audience with a knowing smirk. His art has multiple dimensions. At the top is basic comedic entertainment–he knows how to make you laugh. Just below the surface is devastating social commentary (that is directed toward the crowd itself!) He uses misdirection to lay out a terrifying reality to the delighted crowd, and the crowd’s laughter confirms his achievement. They don’t even know that they are the joke. He has essentially made them admit that abortion is murdering babies. Louis CK, in a stroke of genius, joins the crowd in solidarity … offering reasons why this barbarism is necessary.

For the orthodox Christian, abortion is horrifying. Abortion is the endgame of a death-laden culture. Western secular culture has operated with a single-minded determination to eliminate all forms of theological tyranny for the precise purpose of destroying any form of virtuous living. The culture may be cloaked in flowery language of ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ and ‘choice’ but once you strip away all the aesthetics, the dominant cultural message is this: Yes, you have our permission to destroy yourself.

No restrictions on sexual behavior. You may destroy yourself and others in this way.

No restrictions on drug use. You may destroy your physical self, too.

No social mores on language, decency, or virtue. You may destroy yourself and bring society down as a whole.

Louis CK recognizes the endgame and, to his credit, takes the position that’s nothing if not consistent. He concludes, ‘Life isn’t that important.’ If life isn’t that important, then the moral law that protects life and society may be discarded as window dressing. If God does not exist, everything is permissible.

For your Easter reflection, consider this false prophet’s words. Of course, I am not defending his conclusion that abortion should be left to the sole discretion of the mother—but I am asking us to consider the stark choices we are left with in this day and age:

Either we are people of life, or we are people of death.

Either we sacrifice ourselves to preserve life in its dignity, or we choose our own path to destruction.

Either we worship God and submit, or we worship ourselves and act accordingly.

. . .

No one wants to hear that they are a willing party to death. But unrestricted freedom will always drive one to that end.

For Christ-followers, we’re more than people of life. We are people of the resurrection. We hate death so much that our central claim as Christians rests in hope that those things that were once wholly dead can be made alive again. People of the resurrection recognize that a man’s heart naturally bends toward death, and therefore, we submit ourselves to an authority who can reshape, remold, re-bend our heart toward the Life Giver.

Being under authority is the single doctrine that the contemporary world cannot tolerate. It’s also the only possible avenue toward meaning and value. Being under authority subdues the ego while dignifying the person. It murders you and heals you in the same instant.

People of the resurrection consider life as precious, so their lives are naturally imbibed with a sense of duty to others. Christianity necessarily cuts across the grain of the pagan culture, speaking that this life matters because we have been given responsibility for it as creatures of the Creator. The Christian life calls for service, even rejoices in it. That’s what living people DO because that’s who living people ARE. Our living bodies bear the witness of Christ’s death and resurrection (II Cor 4) as the central feature of our identity. Indeed the call of the Christian is to be conformed to the likeness of the Son; the Son who lived, died, and lived again. He IS risen.

Bearing this identity gives us supreme freedom, a different kind of freedom, to proclaim God’s truth and go boldly into a world that is filled with false prophets seeking when and where we can appropriate a culture’s insights as useful to the kingdom. Free to fear God, free to serve one another … that’s a full to-do list. But you’ve got time.

After all, you only live twice.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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