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Thursday, April 27, 2006

god and the astronomers

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

That was Robert Jastrow's conclusion to his 1978 book God and the Astronomers. At the time, the Big Bang theory had only been firmly established for a little over a decade. In his book Jastrow describes the lines of evidence that finally forced scientists to acknowledge what many of them did not want to accept: that the universe has not always existed, and that there was a time -- even if just for a miniscule fraction of a second at the very beginning -- when the known laws of physics did not apply.

Scientists, the majority of whom had previously believed in an infinite universe, were forced to change their thinking. The Big Bang, which many scientists had dismissed as religious dogma disguised in scientific language, had won the day. The theologians, who had always insisted on a finite universe, were right.

And so it is now that cosmologists, when speaking about the early universe, often refer to "God". Still, very few of them believe in a personal deity. Indeed, Jastrow himself remains an agnostic.

In Marcus Borg's four types of faith paradigm, these scientists have assensus faith. They look at the evidence and accept the conclusions it suggests to them. As new evidence comes in the conclusions may be revised, but the methodology remains constant: Examine first, then accept the results.

This is not the faith of religious belief. No, contrary to what some churches teach, Jesus never asked any of his followers to merely accept him. Instead, Jesus asked for his disciples' trust and their loyalty, even (or especially) at times when his followers did not understand his mission -- and those times were many.

Jesus did not come to bring new knowledge, he came to bring a new way of living. He introduced the kingdom of God, in which the least were the greatest, and the sick and the poor received special care. The rules of the known universe seemingly did not apply.

If Jesus's message was revolutionary back then, it remains revolutionary today, because no earthly government and no society even remotely resembles Jesus's vision of the kingdom of God. It's certainly not for lack of knowledge; we are constantly learning new facts about our universe, our globe, our nations, our cultures, and even the individual human brain. Yet all the knowledge we can ever possess will not build us the kingdom of God.

Still, for some it is tempting to get stuck on assensus. Apologetic books like Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict and Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ examine the lines of evidence and ask the reader to make a judgment. Unfortunately, many people are not convinced by such arguments. Jeffrey Jay Lowder of Internet Infidels offers critiques of both McDowell and Strobel. Frankly, looking solely at the objective evidence, I'd lean more towards Lowder's position than that of the apologists.

The thing is, the God I worship cannot be reduced to something that can be measured objectively. God just won't fit in that box. What's more, the elements of faith -- trust, loyalty, hope, visions of the kingdom -- don't fit in that box either. Genuine faith is not rooted in the things we can see.

Empirical studies have their place; we can learn a lot from what the scientific method can show us. But as Robert Jastrow acknowledged more than a quarter century ago, empiricism has its limits. Scientists may spend decades conducting research, only to reach the same conclusion the theologians have known for centuries. And even then, the scientists may not grasp its true significance.


Sunday, April 23, 2006


As the U.S. Congress debates what to do about illegal immigration, Methobloggers Andy Bryan and John the Methodist have been having their own discussion on the pros and cons of immigration.

I don't have the answers; I don't know what policy would best serve both the U.S. interests and the people who would come here looking for a better life. But I offer this story of someone who was once an illegal alien, for whatever it is worth.

Pedro grew up in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Like most Guatemalan families, his was poor. But Pedro had a dream, and was willing to sacrifice for it. He wanted to own a bus that he could use to drive tourists around Guatemala.

He was a hard worker, but could not find work that would pay him enough to finance his dream. So, he left his wife and young children in Guatemala, and headed north. He served for a while as a mercenary for the Mexican army. After his term was up he chose not to re-enlist, so he crossed the border into the United States, where he worked odd jobs and saved up as much as he possibly could. When he had enough money, he returned to his family in Guatemala, and bought his bus.

I met Pedro in the winter of 2000 when I went to Guatemala with United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. Pedro took us in his bus from the airport in Guatemala City to the mountain village of San Juan Cotzal, spent the week working with us, and drove us back to the airport.

On paper, Pedro would probably not have looked promising as an immigrant to the U.S. He was not highly educated, and he had no desire to become a U.S. citizen. He is not the type of person who could have easily gotten a green card.

Pedro came to the United States for a time because he saw an opportunity here, an opportunity that was not available to him in his home country.

Whatever policy Congress adopts regarding immigration, it ought to have provisions to help people like Pedro, who are simply trying to make a better life for their families. If there is work to be done, and people willing to do the work, we ought to open our borders enough to let them in.

And that's all I have to say about that.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

god hates shrimp

And he's not too crazy about clams, either. See this website for details.


Monday, April 17, 2006

left and right hands

Recently at Wesley Blog, Shane Raynor posted about a speech given by Mel White. White is the founder of Soulforce, a gay-rights organization.

As so often happens with topics like this, the comments have deteriorated into a religious right vs. religious left flamefest.

My own comment was:
I agree with Josh that these political labels don't do us any good. When we label ourselves or others as "religious right" or "religious left" we are putting our political affiliation above our faith. I'm no better than anyone else about it; I find myself falling into that trap more often than I'd like.

I don't know what it is going to take, but I'd like to see the body of Christ come together. We've gone far beyond the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing; the left hand and the right hand have taken up arms against each other. Surely this isn't what Jesus intended for us.

There was a time, back in my teenage years and early twenties, when I called myself a conservative Christian. Then I went through a phase in my late twenties and early thirties when I called myself a liberal Christian. Now I don't know exactly how to label myself. The theological worldview quiz classifies me as emergent/postmodern. I don't really like that label. Still, a dislike of labels is one of the characteristics of postmoderns, so maybe I do fit there.

Politically, I lean toward the Democratic party. But increasingly within the last several months I'm seeing the importance of remaining loyal to Christ first, and relegating political ideology to the back seat. Political parties won't save us. Politicians can make a difference in our lives, for good or ill, through the policies they promote. There are some things the state does very well, some things it could do well but doesn't, and some things it should stay away from. I don't want to get into a detailed discussion about what goes into each category. Suffice it to say that there is a necessity for government in an orderly society, and a necessity for personal freedom.

That said, I think that for Christians looking to build the kingdom of God, the state can seem to be an appealing ally. In a nation that at least ostensibly promotes freedom for all, it can be easy to fall into the heresy that our freedom comes from the state. Mel White, in his speech, suggested that the Constitution is more important than the Bible, because without the Constitution we don't have the freedom to read the Bible. On the other side of the aisle, politically involved pastors like Jerry Falwell (who happens to be Mel White's former boss) argue that same-sex marriages pose a serious threat to traditional marriages. In Falwell's view, the state must curtail freedoms to keep people from misusing them.

Jesus never saw freedom as something the state could give or take away. When religious leaders tried to trap him with a question about paying taxes to Caesar, he cleverly turned the question around. Borrowing a coin, he asked, "Whose image is on the coin?" Then he added, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

It's not an accident that Jesus used the word image. The implication is, the Roman coins may bear Caesar's image, but we are made in God's image. Give the mammon to Caesar, but give ourselves to God.

That, it seems to me, is a healthy starting point for healing this self-inflicted wound in the body of Christ. If we remember first that we belong to God, that we are made in God's image -- and just as importantly, that other people are made in God's image, even if they disagree with us, then maybe we can move past this left/right split and start an honest dialogue. Maybe nobody will change their mind about the issues, but perhaps we will change our minds about the people on the other side of the discussion.


Monday, April 10, 2006

you'll never believe this

This is big. Bigger than the Gospel of Judas. Bigger than The Da Vinci Code. Big. And you heard it here first.

One of my friends has a cousin who knows someone who lives across the street from an elderly gentleman whose niece works with a man whose wife is taking an archaeology class at a certain community college. It just happens that one of her classmates went to Gaza last year and met a shepherd who told her of the most amazing discovery. While looking in a cave for a lost sheep, he found an ancient manuscript with the title Magic Secrets of Jesus of Nazareth, Volume 2.

Now I know many of you are skeptical from the start, especially because this sounds like an urban legend, "friend of a friend"-type story. I understand your reluctance. But frankly, it's a matter of trust. I say, if you can't trust your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, acquaintances, complete strangers, or some guy with a blog, then who can you trust? And if you'll look closely, you'll see that each person in the list has one of these relationships with the next. Therefore, it is safe to assume that this is fully trustworthy information. And of course you can trust me on this: They don't let just anyone publish stuff on the Internet, you know.

Anyway, the manuscript goes into detail about how to walk on water (know where the stones are), how to feed 5000 with five loaves and two fishes (hide extra fish and bread in your sleeve), and how to turn water into wine (be sure the wedding guests are really drunk). The cut-and-restore-the-ear trick has a very clever secret that I won't reveal here. Unfortunately, such feats as healing a man born blind, curing leprosy, and raising the dead are not described. Perhaps they can be found in the still-undiscovered Volume 1.

A book about this amazing discovery is due to be published early next year. It's called The Magician Code, and the movie rights have already been sold.

Anyway, this college student is going back to the Middle East this summer for more research. She's going to need some financial help, and that's why I'm posting this. If you have any extra money, let me know and I'll give you her address. Better yet, just send the check to me and I'll make sure it gets where it needs to go.

And after you've sent me your money, email this to ten of your friends. I thank you, and my friend's cousin's acquaintance's neighbor's niece's coworker's wife's classmate thanks you.


Friday, April 07, 2006

this rising from the dead

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

- Mark 9:9-10

In Jesus' day, many Jews were looking for the coming of the Messiah who would kick the Romans out of Judea and usher in a new Jewish kingdom. For Jesus' followers, Jesus himself must have been a prime candidate. They looked forward to the day he would sit on the throne.

Jesus himself never seemed comfortable with that role. After Peter professed his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus tried to change the subject:

He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

- Mark 8:29-31

And when Peter tried to correct him, Jesus called Peter "Satan". Perhaps the disciples can be forgiven for not wanting to press the matter further. So if they were confused about the meaning of this rising from the dead, I don't blame them for not asking Jesus for clarification.

Fortunately we, with the benefit of hindsight, know exactly what Jesus was talking about. Or do we?

For some, this rising from the dead is simply a matter of historical fact. Jesus died and was buried, but on the third day the stone was rolled away and the tomb was found empty.

Mark's gospel ends the story at that point, and frankly, if that's the only gospel we had, I would not be impressed. There are a lot of reasons a tomb could be empty. Perhaps the body was moved, or perhaps the women were looking in the wrong place. If the empty tomb were all we had as evidence, this rising from the dead wouldn't amount to much.

But it's not all we have. Something happened to Jesus' followers. They said he appeared to them again. Somehow these encounters transformed them, gave them a boldness they had never known before. And it wasn't just the twelve, but others as well.

A man named Cleopas was walking to Emmaus with a friend when a strange man approached them and walked with them. They talked with him on the road, then invited him into their home. It wasn't until he blessed their bread that they recognized him as Jesus.

Years later, a guy named Saul was traveling to Damascus when he fell down and had a vision. His life, too, was transformed.

Throughout the years, countless others have been transformed by encounters with this same Jesus. This rising from the dead is not simply a matter of a disappearing corpse. The empty tomb may have been a stunning surprise for the women as they arrived with burial spices, but what makes the resurrection special is its transformative power, something that can't be easily quantified.

Jesus wasn't the Messiah King his followers were expecting. He inaugurated a different kind of kingdom, defined not by political boundaries but by transformed hearts. He did it not by going to battle against the Romans but by defeating death itself, enabling us to truly live.


Monday, April 03, 2006

the most perplexing parable

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

- Luke 16:1-9

I'm re-reading all four gospels for Lent this year. That means two or three chapters a day, which means reading relatively quickly. But some passages -- like the one above -- just stop me.

The first time I saw this parable, back in my college days, I thought it was a joke. Some rogue translator had snuck a parody into Luke's gospel.

But no, it's genuine. Some translations say "worldly wealth" instead of "dishonest wealth", but the essense of the parable is the same.

So what does it mean? Does Jesus really want his followers to make friends by means of dishonest wealth? Of all the passages in the Bible that puzzle me, I think this one puzzles me the most.