What do you mean God speaks?

S3Extra1: Where this series is headed, and what it's been doing

June 24, 2022 Season 3 Episode 4
What do you mean God speaks?
S3Extra1: Where this series is headed, and what it's been doing
Show Notes Transcript

The first extra episode for Season 3; the next main episode (S3E5) will go live early July.
(update: there were more delays, so I couldn't complete the new episode by the end of June as I had originally planned. I apologize for the delay!)

This episode addresses the more "meta" question about this series that I wanted to go over before releasing the next episode--what this series has been doing, how it has approached the questions and issues it has explored so far, and where this series is now heading. It also drops hints of future plans, and some long overdue thanks at the end. 

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It’s already been over three weeks since the previous episode! So, we’ve returned with an extra episode before we release the fifth episode of the third season. Welcome to "What do you mean God speaks?" This is the first extra episode of the 3rd season, “Where we’re headed, and what we’ve been doing .”

One of the difficulties I’ve had—and there are many—when writing this series is what to include, and what to leave out in each episode. There are things I want to touch on, but, they just don’t fit with the flow of that episode. Some of these are specific issues, topics, or details that I just couldn’t cover in that particular episode, while others are more of “meta” question, which is not quite about what that episode is exploring, but more about how this series is approaching or framing these topics. And these things accumulate as I write more and more episodes, and at some point, I sort of bunch them together and do an extra episode like this.

Well, in this case, there were a couple of things I wanted to go over since something like the 2nd episode of this season, but, I just couldn’t find a place to fit them. So, I was trying to do that while writing the fifth episode, but in the end, I gave up, and decided to put them separately here in this episode. There’s, of course, another reason for this episode. This is now a semi-monthly updated series, at least, according to podcast platforms, which means 2 episodes per month. But, as some of you likely noticed, the actual rate has been slower than that from this third season. Now, there are various reasons for that, including things that came up in the recent months that have been taking up additional time. But, there are also issues related to this particular season, which I’ll be getting into later. Either way, I’m still trying to return to that 2 episode per month schedule, and the first step to that is slotting in this extra episode this month, while I finish writing up the next main episode to go live a week from now at the end of this month. Then, eventually, when the other reasons for the delay are resolved sometime in the future, I am hoping to get back to the 10-day cycle of the first season…. 

Now, as I mentioned before, there are things I’ve really wanted to go over since the 2nd episode of this season. And I want to get that out of the way, before moving on with the account of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis. First of that’s where this series is currently headed. Though it’s more of a reminder really, I suppose. 

Back in the first season, in an extra episode like this one, I said that this series is trying to address a number of long-standing misconceptions or misunderstanding about some key ideas or beliefs, specifically in Christianity, and in religious viewpoints in general. People today usually misunderstand what Christianity says about God, life, morality, and so on. I also added that these misunderstanding are often about what I call the “framing” issue. What’s a “framing” issue? The example I gave was, what it’d be like if we were to read Hamlet thinking that it was a romantic comedy? In fact, what if we didn’t even have the idea of “tragedy” as a literary term? In this case, the frame with which we understand Hamlet is fundamentally flawed, so that we’d get upset at how Hamlet doesn’t get together with Ophelia, and how everyone just dies at the end, and then angrily review-bomb the whole work on the Internet. Does that sound like a stupid thing to do? Well, my point is that those of us today are more or less in a similar situation when we are dealing with the questions about Christianity. 

And that’s the key reason for the first season. The first season is all about what many of the seemingly simple statements or even words mean: what we mean by, “God,” or that “God created all things,” or “God speaks,” or that “God judges sin,” or that “the Bible is the word of God,” and so on. And hence, the title of this series, “What do you mean God speaks?” These are statements that frame the entire Christian worldview, but, most of us today don’t quite understand what these mean. Worse, we don’t understand, but we think we do. That’s because most of us have at least a partial or fragmentary knowledge of these things—things you heard from growing up in churches, or stuff you picked up on TV, movies, novels, or on the Internet. For good or bad, Christianity has had a very significant influence on the world, and bits and pieces of what it’s about, sort of hangs about in our public space, like motes in the air. And that’s a problem, because these fragments make up our knowledge of Christianity—and I’d say, religion in general— which are not entirely wrong, but just off; they’re off in seemingly small, but very critical ways. What’s wrong with that? Well, that brings us to the larger goal of this series. 

So, as you’ve heard in the intro of each episode, this series explores key ideas, insights and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, Christians with questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between. To do that, addressing these misconceptions is a necessary first step. But, first step means there are others to follow. It means what this series is trying to do, is to take us through a journey.

I think many things we do in life is like going on a journey. I mean, living itself is sort of like a journey—I say, sort of, because sometimes we just live, without any destination in mind, though I suppose not all the journeys have a destination. At the very least though, things like trying to learn or understand things that matter to us is like a journey. That’s true of any subject matter, really. We don’t learn things instantaneously. It’s a step by step process; say, in math, you learn about numbers, then simple arithmetic, then maybe geometry, algebra, then calculus, then the more advanced stuff. Even getting to know people, is a step-by-step process; we need to get introduced, learn maybe surface things about them, and then maybe we’ll have opportunities to hear from them what really matters to them. Learning is a journey; what we learn today is based on what we learned yesterday, though of course, this may sometimes require correcting what we learned before. Still, it’s step by step, and where we start matters.

And where do we start in this series? That’s where the words, “skeptics who want to understand religion, Christians with questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between,” come from. I think I mentioned this before, but these words describe me. It describes me at different points in my life; and even now, it describes different parts of me—how I think about the questions we are dealing with in this series. And I think it describes many of us today. In modern, and comparatively secular societies, where it seems the overwhelming majority of people listening to this series is living in; in countries like Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Denmark and Germany too it seems, and recently Indonesia, and Nepal too, religious beliefs humanity has held and have taken for granted are no longer… well, taken for granted. Or at least, it’s questioned more significantly, even by those who do hold religious beliefs. Beliefs like… that there is a god; that the world was created or formed by some deity; that what is written in religious texts, like the Bible, is unquestionably true; that religious teachings should guide our lives and practice; or that there is even such a thing as sin, or judgment. We no longer simply accept these claims—many of us outright disbelieve it. Or, as this series has been pointing out, most of us don’t even really understand what any of that really means, even while we think we do. 

Again, remember that this series is trying to take us through a journey. The first season is simply resetting the frame. Remember, I said that the misunderstanding is often the framing issues? So, we revisit the vocabulary and ideas that equip us for the journey— things that will enable us to understand what we’ll come across in our journey. So, what’s the journey? Simply put, to encounter God. Or, more mundanely, to understand religious views, like Christianity, and the world it envisions. Now, here’s why having those misunderstanding that’s not entirely wrong, but just off, can become such a critical problem. So, if what we are doing, is going on a journey, and if the starting equipment that will guide you through the journey is slightly off—so, say your compass is off, so that its North arrow is actually pointing to say, slightly to North-West, then what would happen if you were to journey toward the East coast? Well, your first steps won’t really affect you that much. But, eventually, you’ll find yourself in the Arctic, instead of say, New York, surrounded by very hungry polar bears; they’re hungry btw because we just melted the polar ice caps where they can hunt from, so, hurrah for humanity, yeah? But, that’s another issue. Anyway, that’s why much of this series is about, well, re-aligning some key, basic ideas and vocabulary. 

So, for example, the very first episode of this series pointed out that relating to God is relating to Reality as a whole, rather than to some specific entity that you invoke only when you have a religious experience, or when science fails us, or whatever. Or later in that season, I said “every truth,” is God speaking, and not only the words you read in the Bible or things you hear in churches, and so on. We needed to correct our frame, because otherwise, whenever this series is describing how people encounter God, we will misunderstand what’s happening at a fundamental level

But, after that correction, the journey is still about, well, actually going on the journey. This series is trying to describe—or imagine—a journey that begins from a point that most of us now find ourselves in: a point where we don’t believe, or at least question, religious views like Christianity. From here, this series is following a journey, which, step by step, will lead us to eventually understand what it would have been like for people to encounter, and then form a lasting relationship with God. Or, more specifically, it’s describing a journey that leads to what happened when the first Christians encountered this person named Jesus. 

And that’s where we are. The first season examined the ideas and vocabulary that will equip us for this journey, and the second season explored the primeval narratives of Genesis, which places us in the wider world where the journey begins for us. Now, we need revisit, and recalibrate, so to speak, these larger ideas and framework, or “tools” for navigating our journey, so that we don’t go off and get surrounded by hungry polar bears. What we mean by God, what we mean by God creating all things, what we mean by sin and judgment, what we mean by the Bible being the word of God, what we mean by saying “God speaks,” what it means to perceive God, what Genesis accounts of Creation, Fall, Flood, and Babel, is really describing, and so on. So with all of that set, the third season began the journey. The first season is set up, the second season is the setting, and the third season, we set out. And the thing is, even I don’t completely know how the journey will go; I mean, I obviously know the general contours, and the direction, but there are questions I’m still wrestling with, and which particular steps will lead to where, and how to take those steps, well… that’s something we’ll have to see. 

I suppose that’s part of the reason why the episodes in this season have been taking longer to write—other than the other time-sinks in the past months, that is. Much of the first two seasons was in my proper domain, so to speak. Because if you remember, my area is in philosophical theology—along with related questions like science and religion, reason and faith, worldviews, and those kind of topics. These “framing” issues are what I study, teach, and write about, and these were central to the issues we explored in the first two seasons. And they still are, for all the other seasons too—but now, there is the aspect of trying to retrace personal, spiritual journey of people that span over thousands of years, as recounted in the entire Bible. And that requires more than what I’ve been doing so far in this series. There’s also the point that Biblical scholarship is not quite my area—I think I sort of compared it before as the difference between say, economy, and business administration. Related, but different. So, to sum it all up, there are more balls in the air, so to speak. Or, more things I need to keep in mind, taking each step forward. But, I do hope that the journey, as slow as it is, will be worth it. 

What all this means though is that it poses a particular set of challenges that each episode needs to address. 

Because this is a journey, how each episode starts, is based on the prior episode. But, let’s be honest. Many of you probably skipped some episodes. If you haven’t, you likely didn’t understand some of the previous episodes, and even if you did, we probably don’t remember them. Heck, even I don’t remember what I’ve covered sometimes, and have to re-read what I wrote. And that means, I have to write out the later episodes that will sort of review people what we’ve covered so far—or at least, remind them where to review these things. And doing that in each episode takes time. That is also why first season episodes were comparatively shorter. But, obviously, I can’t just babble on about what we’ve explored in previous episodes; I need the episode to take a new step, all the while carrying everything we’ve done so far.  

Here’s an additional challenge though. Again, a huge portion of what this series has been trying to do, is to re-word, re-think, re-frame the key ideas or vocabulary, which hopefully will correct some long-standing, misunderstanding about those ideas. But, what that means is that in the later seasons, I need to be very careful in my wording so that we don’t fall back on that misunderstanding. That’s because these misconceptions, or even caricatures, are the default-go-to for how we understand what Christianity is presenting; that’s why it’s so prevalent and persistent; we tend to fall back to it without thinking. So, I need to word things so that we don’t. Did you ever notice that I tend to repeat certain phrases or words every episode? Here’s an example; “All of reality is God speaking,” or “Everything that happens—in nature, or history—is what God speaks forth.” These are there to keep in place in your mind a certain way of thinking about God and perceiving the world, which is needed to understand what Christianity—and really, theistic worldviews in general—means by God, and reality, and so on. The first episode of this third season, “What do you mean there’s no God,” is part of this too, to reinforce certain ideas that we really need, to follow the journey we’ll take from the third season onward, without misunderstanding what is going on. And yes, there are several other things that I word in a specific way, for similar reasons. Now, whether this is working, remains to be seen. 

The other challenge is, of course, the continuity of each episode. This series is actually something like the first draft of a book I’m writing. I say, “something like,” because a podcast series is very different from a book. Hearing the content, in episodic manner, over a long period of time, is a very, very different thing from reading a book more or less at your own pace. It doesn’t help that each episode goes live at a snail’s pace. And “hearing” something is different from “reading” it. Believe it or not, when I describe some difficult ideas or issues, I try to keep the wording simpler; it’s much harder to catch the words when you’re hearing, then when you read it. At least, that’s what I find. 

Anyway, the plan is that the first three seasons, “What do you mean God speaks,” “Genesis,” and “Those who wrestle with God” will be put together into a single—fairly hefty sized—book. Assuming I can find a publisher that is. My previous publication was a set of long, challenging hurdles of reviews and waiting. So, may God help me! With a book, it’s easier, comparatively speaking, to keep the different parts continuous with each other when you’re writing a book. With a podcast series, I have to somehow in each episode do a call-back to the previous episode—and remind people what we’ve covered. BTW this is why very likely, the book I write will have somewhat different structure and order than this series.  

Of course, the book will have some new content, but the big difference is that, I’d have had more time to think about what I’ve covered so far and clarify what I said. What you’re hearing in each episode of this podcast is, as I said, the first draft. Well, not quite, because greater portion of the time I spend writing an episode, is from revising and rewriting things, so, it’s more like the third draft or something. But, you know what I mean: there is a very set amount of time I have before I have to record them and put it out there. Yes, even for a series with loose release timing as this! Time of months or even a year since writing the draft gives you a newer, wider perspective. You can say things differently, and hopefully more clearly or thoroughly. You’ve considered the topics from more angles. You catch things you haven’t before, or come up with new insights. This will then go into the book. In the podcast though, how this plays out is that I will often bring up questions or topics I covered in the previous episode, or even episodes in previous seasons, when they are relevant; but, I will say it differently, or present some new thoughts on the matter. Here’s one example: in the second season, I said that I was still trying to figure out what it means for individuals in the earlier chapters in Genesis to live for centuries; then, sometime later, I observed how we, even today, tend to represent entire eras with individuals whenever we think about a time long before our generation. So, in the case of past U.S. presidents, Biden or Trump are individuals, but say, Roosevelt, or Lincoln, or Washington, are not just individuals, but also represent an entire historical era. Then, I brought this up, way later, during the third season where we linked Noah’s generation to Abraham’s. So, in a sense, when you’re listening to this series, you’re listening to how my thoughts are unfolding in real time, more or less— whereas, in a book, you get more of a finished package, so to speak. 

Ok, I didn’t mean to talk about the book this long. Why was I talking about the book? Oh yes, the challenges of writing each episode. So, another challenge, of course, is who I am writing for, which brings up how I approach the more… contested questions in this series. “Skeptics who want to understand religion, and Christians with questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between,” covers a fairly large range of people. What does that mean when I write each episode? 

I’m not sure people have noticed, but I do try to keep this series non-polemical. What do I mean by that? I usually don’t spend a lot of time going over why this or that view is wrong. Now, yes, I indeed point out some misunderstanding or misconceptions about significant beliefs or statements in Christianity. What I mean is that whenever we come across topics that have, let’s say, well-drawn battle lines between different sides, I tend not to take clear sides, or spend much time putting one side or the other down.

Now, I do take specific positions on different issues, obviously. I mean, how can you not? But, any position that this series argue for, will rarely draw from something beyond the scholarly or scientific consensus on any given issue. So, in the 2nd season, the things I bring up about the ancient Hebrew understanding of the world, or how, say, the book of Genesis was written, or what the current scientific understanding of the universe is, are widely accepted by those working in that field. You can contrast this to say, how I bring up the question of the multiverse, or the fine-tuning of the Cosmos. These have been issues of genuine contention. Is the universe fine-tuned for complex matter, life, and so on? Well, yes, there’s little question about that. But, does that mean there must be some Creator that fine-tuned the cosmos, or does that mean there is multiverse, or that there’s some deeper underlying laws of physics we don’t know? That’s up for debate, at least, philosophically speaking. And if you remember, this series described this debate briefly, because it is a genuine, respectable, debate. But, you may also remember that I did not take sides; I was rather ambivalent about the entire thing. Now, it was the same when I mentioned the debate between the different groups of biblical historians—the debate between the maximalist and the minimalist views about the historicity of the Genesis account of Abraham’s family. Well, if you have to pick a side, scholarly consensus does lean toward the minimalists, but it’s still a live debate. But, I didn’t take side there either. Now, I do state the current consensus among the scientists for the former, and historians for the latter. But, what this series point out is the more fundamental, “framing” issue—yes, there is that “frame” question again. 

With the question about historicity in Genesis, this series asks, what Christians mean when they want to say that Abraham’s family are historical. Now, I do not merely ask, whether Genesis is presenting “history,” as we mean them today; other biblical scholars ask that too. This series is pushing for something more—something deeper—I hope. I ask, in what ways is historicity important for the Christian faith, and in what ways it is not? I ask, is the kind of “historicity” that historians are demanding of the Genesis account of Abraham’s family, the same kind of “historical,” that Christians are concerned with when they are reading about Abraham’s family? And if you remember, I suggested that they are not quite the same thing. But, then, what do they mean? So, it’s again a frame question; it’s a deeper question than the minimalist-maximalist debate about whether the specific account in Genesis is a straight-forward historical account. But, it’s also a question that I hope has a greater ramification in how people are impacted by these stories—that the lives of these people, Abraham, Sarah, and their children, become real to us: relatable, believable, living breathing people.

Ok, let’s go back to that example about the fine-tuning debate. Again, I did not take sides there because this series already covered a more fundamental point, which framed the entire debate this way. And that happened way back in the 1st season, where we explored what Christianity means by saying, “God created the Cosmos,” or “All things come into being, through the Logos of God,” or “God speaking.” And in that frame, from the Christian perspective, any of the positions in the debate can be true. If laws of nature that govern the universe are fine-tuned for life, that’s the Logos of God, that’s what God is speaking. If there is some deeper, fundamental laws of physics, that explain why our universe seems fine-tuned, that’s the Logos of God, that’s what God is speaking. If the laws are such that they generate a multiverse, that’s the Logos of God, that’s what God is speaking.

By the way, that example just now raises another specific tick, that marks this series. Did you notice that I sometimes pair certain phrases, side by side, as if they are the same thing? In that example, I link “laws of nature,” with “the Logos of God,” with “God speaking.” This is because, if you remember way back in the 1st season, in the 2nd episode, “Why we should aim higher than tolerance,” I said that trying to present the thoughts or views of one worldview to those with a different worldview, is very much like translating a very difficult language. Simplistic translation often mess things up and cause a huge misunderstanding; you need to keep in mind how the words are used in different contexts, and come up with something that is equivalent and appropriate. 

Now, those who listen to this episode may hold different worldviews. Some may be skeptics. Some may be religious. Some may be Christians. Even if you are Christian, you likely live in a very secular society, where the way you think and perceive things are very, very different from the worldview in which Christian ideas and beliefs are properly understood. So, I translate. To be specific, at some point in this series, I explain certain key ideas or beliefs, hopefully in ways that make more sense to those of us living today. Then, whenever I refer to those ideas or beliefs again, I will in a sense, repeat the same idea, but with different words, which are translations—translations into words that are more familiar in different worldviews, say from Christianity, to more secular outlooks, and such. So, “God speaking,” can be “reality,” or “everything that happens,” or the Laws of nature,” or “the Logos of God.” Or, judgment of God, can be, “what God unfolds in response to our action,” or “what our world becomes due to what we do,” and so on.

But, the way I approach these questions also imply something else. This series is simply trying to articulate how we can understand the core beliefs of Christianity, and I suppose to some extent, theistic religious beliefs. Remember what core beliefs are? We explored that in the 5th episode of the 1st season. See why I said the 1st season is about equipping us with the basic ideas and vocabulary? Anyway, one of the things that episode points out is that Christian positions we encounter are particular iteration or articulations of these core beliefs. They can be articulated differently, and that is what this series is doing. They are still the same core, but one way of understanding it, can draw upon, or integrate, different things. The one that is being worked on in this series, and presented to you in each episode, is one that will try to take account of current consensus on scientific view of the world, or historical findings, questions and objections from our modern world and so on. Some other articulations may not be able to. But, all of them are still projects of understanding the same core. 

Why am I bringing this up? Well, this is the reason why this series don’t quite dwell on the more… popular—and I’d say more click-baity, and attention drawing—debates. Is the universe 6000 years old? Creationism or evolution? Is Genesis literally true about say, the global Flood? Or, for this season, is everything in the account of Abraham’s life, straight-forward history of what exactly happened, literally, rather than say, a retelling and even an adaptation of older stories, that will draw upon deeply moving imagery and metaphor at times? Now, if you listened to the series, you know which position this series takes—that’s because it is taking serious account of modern, scientific and scholarly conclusions. But, it does not join in on that flame war, so to speak, simply because the purpose of this series is about understanding the core

So, let’s say, we were all completely wrong on say, our scientific findings and such. We find, to our utter shock and surprise, that we were somehow mistaken, and the universe is 6000 years old, or that the Flood physically covered the whole planet. Nothing that this series was trying to grapple with, and understand, have changed. Nothing that is core to what this series was trying to present about the Christian worldview, or what people have thought about God, and Creation, and such, changed. How the universe, and all things came to be, is God speaking. It just happened to have come about in 6000 years. Our world does unravel in response to what we make of the world, and that is what God brings it about. It just happens that this unraveling came about in a literal, physical Flood. God still speaks to Abraham, Sarah, and their children, and their lives are guided by that voice, and they come to learn, step by step, Who is speaking to them, as they journey on in their lives. It’s just that how this long inter-generational process happened, was much more literally described, event-by-event, than this series had imagined. The core is still the same.

So, in that sense, there isn’t really anything significant at stake for this series to grapple with these positions. If they turn out to be wrong—which is the current consensus in the scientific or scholarly community—that is fine. This series is working out a different way of understanding and articulating Christianity. If they turn out to be true, against all odds, that is fine too. Only thing that is not fine is how we deal with our differences. 

I suppose that’s another reason why this series don’t spend lot of time coming down on a side in a heated debate. The biggest reason, as I said, is that we’re usually concerned with more fundamental, “frame” issues. But, the other smaller reason is that too often, those debates kind of devolve into “pull down your opponents at all costs,” kind of thing. And I don’t find that to be a very fruitful kind of thing to do.

So, until then, this series will do what it has done. Hopefully a little faster! And also later, with a Book version of this series. And eventually, if there are people who can help out, YouTube version too. That we will have to see though. 

In the meanwhile, please join me next time, as we explore how Abram and Sarai deal with their expanding relationship with God, and how they, along with another character, Hagar, wrestle with what it means to receive and hold God’s promise. 

And please support this series, by following, subscribing, and sharing this series with others, and by rating it on your apple podcast platform. You can also support this series at buymeacoffee.com. The link for that is in the episode description.

 And I wanted to add some long overdue thanks:

Thank you for all those who rated this series, all five stars! Though most of that is from Canada, so if listeners from other countries can do so too, that’d be wonderful!

Thank you specifically to Mark, Brian, and Jonathan, for your written reviews!

Thank you also to Alex, Riley, Johnny, Kelvin, and Mark for your additional support, as well as those that didn’t leave your names!