Friday, June 03, 2016

Elon Musk, Paul's "document" to Galatia, Andrew Pettegree's Brand Luther, and Kant's Apperception of Reality

Paul’s letter to the Galatians likely ranks as one of the most important documents of all human history. It didn’t just change the people of Galatia—it accomplished a seismic shift in the relationship between Judaism and emerging Christianity, and established in nascent form a doctrine central to the church and especially to the Reformation—justification by faith apart from the works of the law. This is not to say that this letter clearly defined such a doctrine, only that it initiated a millennia long inquiry into the nature of the doctrine.

It’s a passionate letter. It may be an angry letter. It gives us Paul, warts and all. It’s a glorious letter, and none of us are unaffected by it. Hearing it in worship, preaching on it, offers the opportunity for us to explore how the gospel became the gospel, how the good news central to Christian faith can be comprehended with remarkable clarity, even as it requires faith to trust that grace is grace all the way down.

I'm always curious about the relationship between media and our perceptions of the world. I've been pondering documents and letters as mediums not only for communication, but actual cultural change, perhaps even with the power to shift reality itself, because I've been reading Andrew Pettegree's Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe--and Started the Protestant Reformation. Pettegree's book will itself not leave you alone in your assumptions about the Reformation and Luther. It's a wild book.

So Elon Musk said something pretty funny this past week, that there’s basically a one in a billion chance that we are in “base reality.” He puts the odds on our being in some advanced civilization’s “simulation.” 

It’s not surprising he would say this, on one level, because for quite a while now Western civilization has wondered if there is anything beyond our perception of reality. As early as Kant (or perhaps most influentially in Kant), people have thought that perhaps we can’t know reality itself, only our perception of it. 

Kant's philosophical inquiry into the mind's apperception of reality has had a profound influence on contemporary cognitive science. Basically, there is a difference between our representations of reality and reality itself, and in Kant and much of philosophy that follows after him, there's a long debate about where one can achieve a transcendental apperception of reality that gives us "reality itself" or the thing in itself.

Since Musk is kind of into computers, and lots of technology geeks tend to think computers are like our mind (it's actually quite amazing how much our models for things like computers tend to mimic our current brain models)  it’s no surprise that Musk and others take the Kantian supposition and apply it to computer modeling. 

In other words, just as Kant didn't believe one could achieve a real representation of reality outside of the apperception of the mind itself, Musk finds it unlikely philosophically speaking that there is a "base reality" outside of the apperception of the world itself if all worlds are really just our models/simulations of them rather than the thing in itself.

And what does all of this have to do with Galatians? Well, although most people don't really spend a lot of time reading Galatians, and wouldn't think to put it on a short list of the things that have influenced them the most, the truth is Galatians really is that important. In other words, all of our perceptions of things are so indelibly influenced by this little letter of Paul that we are not even aware of the extent to which it influences us. Like Musk's conversation about computer simulations, or Kant's questions about the minds influence on our perception of reality, our entire worldview is so influenced this 3098 word magna carta of Christian liberty that there's actually a one in billion chance that one could extricate oneself from its influence.

Which is a long and geeky argument for reading and engaging the letter, hearing sermons about it, studying it, and talking about it with friends. 

If you’d like to hear some good news, of God’s freeing work in Christ, the power of faith, inspiration for the kind of spirited love the community gathered in Christ can live as an extension of God’s own love, then join us the next five weeks, June 5th through July 3rd, for a summer series on Becoming the Gospel at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

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