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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

where does evolution leave god?

Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins offer their answers to this question.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

the difference

“I don’t go to church, Parson. I’m a bit turned off with the church. I’m not a Christian. I’m just a follower of Jesus.”

See the whole story from the Questing Parson.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

questions and doubts

Despite the name, Perl Monks is not a religious website. It's a computer programming forum; the monks' mission is to help novices grasp the mysterious complexities of the Perl programming language. But sometimes they teach a lot more.

For example, when an anonymous user posted a question with the title Regular Expression Doubt, monk Merlyn offered helpful grammatical advice:

I suspect you are not a native English speaker. I'm pretty sure you don't mean "doubt" there, which means "I understand, but I do not agree". You almost certainly want "question", which means "I do not understand".

For me, Merlyn's response is even more helpful, because it clarifies a larger issue I've been wrestling with for some time.

Some Christians are fond of saying that their faith contains elements of doubt. I've said it myself. For some, the doubts are a response to circumstances that make no sense; for others, the doubts are part of a long-term (possibly lifelong) struggle. Either way, it's an attempt to honestly assess the current state of our faith.

But there's something about that phrase that just isn't right.

It isn't that real Christians never have doubts. The gospels, in fact, record that even Jesus' disciples sometimes doubted:

Matthew 14:26-33
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

John 20:26-28

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

But in both cases, Jesus rebuked his followers for having doubts, and in both cases, apparently, the doubts immediately subsided.

Doubt is not an element of a healthy faith. If you read many atheist blogs, as I do, you'll see a fairly common pattern where doubts about the Christian message are the seeds that later blossom into "deconversion". You'll also see discussions on how to use doubt as an evangelization tool, to help move believers toward skepticism.

I've always thought these discussions miss the point, so far as my faith is concerned; but until now I haven't really been able to articulate why.

The difference between questions and doubts explains it, I think. I can't say I often reach the point in my faith where I understand but disagree (though I do disagree with some theologies); on the other hand, there are many things I'm unable to understand. (It may sound trite, but the more I learn, the less I think I understand.)

What I have are questions, not doubts. Maybe it's because I have a mystical or experiential faith. The God I know is beyond my ability to fully understand. I was not reasoned into my beliefs, and I will not be reasoned out of them. All I can do is dive deeper into the mystery, and questions often provide good entry points.

Questions can and do lead to a more mature faith. Genuine doubts do not. But why do some people have questions and others have doubts? That's another mystery.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

praying for bad things so god can work good

I've heard of some very misguided prayers over the years, but I don't think I've ever heard someone defend them with this kind of logic:

...he told my friend, who has a degenerative eye disease, that he was "Praying more earnestly than I’ve ever prayed in my life that God would destroy the rods and cones in your eyes so that you would go blind and only the sight that God gives you will be able to guide you."

prodigaljohn has the full story. His friend, a pastor, is committing that dastardly sin of planting a new church.

This person who is praying against prodigaljohn's friend evidently believes the pastor suffers from pride and needs to be broken. prodigaljohn considers the roots of the problem:

Sometimes, if you've come to Christ through some tragic circumstance like a death in the family or an all consuming addiction or a specific pit so deep only the light of God could find the bottom, it's tempting to think everyone needs to have that very same experience you had.

So you start to develop this weird kind of "brokenness pride." That sounds completely stupid and impossible, I know, but I think it's true. Or rather it's true of me. A few years ago I made some mistakes that no amount of intelligence or wit or temporary, "I'll do better this time, I can fix this" could remedy. In the midst of that, Christ grabbed hold of me.

And yet somehow I found a way to turn that into pride. I started thinking things like, "That guy hasn't been broken yet. Look how deep my faith is compared to his. He hasn't seen the depths of hurt or darkness I have and is still holding on to things I had to let go of. Maybe someday, he'll get broken like me and experience a real relationship with God."

There's something else that prodigaljohn does not mention. Sometimes brokenness strengthens your faith, and sometimes it weakens your faith. Sometimes you go through such a long slog of hardship that you don't want to go on living, and you wonder whether God has forgotten about you, or whether he just doesn't care. That is brokenness. And if you've ever gone through those depths, you would never wish the experience on your most bitter enemy. You would certainly never expect anyone to end up better for having gone through the experience.

And there's another thing, too. Maybe they've already been there. We don't know what pain and suffering others have experienced, or what they might be experiencing right at this moment. There's no reason to pray for bad things to happen to anyone. This world has enough evil in it already.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

denying the resurrection

Thomas at Everyday Liturgy was saddened to learn that his friend Peter Rollins denies the resurrection.


At one point in the proceedings someone asked if my theoretical position led me to denying the Resurrection of Christ. This question allowed me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the subject, which I repeat here.

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ.

But Peter Rollins is not just some liberal scholar whose "theoretical position" has led him to this place:

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

And yet, there's hope:

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

I, too, deny the resurrection all too often.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

more on faith and fear

John Meunier has some thoughts related to my recent post faith and fear.

He tackles the issue of fear from a different angle:

I saw Frank Langella, the actor, interviewed by Charlie Rose the other day. One of the great realizations of his late life, he said, was coming to understand that his fear was and is the major drive of our lives. Fear is what causes us to not try new things. Fear is what chases us into all kinds of choices and talks us out of others. It is only when we cease to be driven by fear, that we learn to love, he said.

Langella was not talking at all about faith. His savior was psychological analysis. But his diagnosis seems spot on to me.

The hitch is that we often do not properly locate the source of our fear. We experience it as a vague and amorphous presence that seems to rise up from many places. But we never quite put our finger on it. We often try to “get over it” by just pressing forward or acting as if it were not there. If we pretend it is not there, maybe it will go away.

One Christian response to this condition is to name that fear. John Wesley called it fear of “the wrath to come.”

Yes, there is that kind of fear, the fear that we must confront and overcome if we are to grow. I know a lot of people who have been driven to God because of that intrinsic fear. For other people, the catalyst has been something else. (In my own case, it was a crushing sense of loneliness.) But I won't deny that fear motivates some people to seek God.

But there is another kind of fear, the kind that is not intrinsic but imposed. The kind that leads evangelists to say, "If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?" and takes any hint of uncertainty as an opportunity to press the issue and make the sale.

John makes the point that John Wesley used fear as a conversation starter:

Awaking people to their true state was his first goal.

Now I want to preface my next remarks by saying I could very well be wrong about this, and I don't mind anyone using the comments to try to change my mind.

In Wesley's day perhaps fear of the wrath of God might have been a productive way to begin a conversation. Today, not so much. Not when we are bombarded by advertising designed to convince us that something is missing in our lives, and that the product being advertised is the solution. In this atmosphere, salvation can easily become just another product for sale to cynical consumers. If Christianity is nothing more than eternal fire insurance, it's doomed. That's not a product people want to buy. (I don't have anything beyond anecdotal evidence to support this, but it seems to me that's a common view, especially among younger people today. Or else the people I know are naturally more cynical than most.)

But a vibrant Christian faith is more than just fire insurance. It is a transformative process, a journey of a lifetime and beyond. And as Christ transforms us and leads us into lives of service, we become equipped to help prepare the kingdom of God on earth. (Yes, the kingdom of God on earth. Don't we pray for this every week in the Lord's Prayer?) Questions beginning with, "If you died tonight..." shortchange the process, leaving us focused on ourselves and some heavenly reward. I don't think that can be the foundation of a mature faith.

What do you think?

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

faith and fear

A couple of interesting posts on faith and fear, from two different perspectives:

James McGrath at Exploring our Matrix says:

Fundamentalists increasingly take measures to try to insulate themselves, and in particular their children, from other viewpoints, and in particular discussions of topics related to science or the academic study of the Bible.
Honest investigation, on the other hand, involves faith. Faith that it is worth getting to know the Bible better, even if it turns out to be a far more human and far less perfect collection of writings than we had hoped.

You can read the whole post here.

Meanwhile, Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism says:

I think there's ample reason to believe that many forms of religious belief are motivated by fear - not necessarily metaphysical fears about death or meaning, but more tangible phobias. Consider the evidence I cited, in posts like "Groundhog Day", that many who call themselves Christian consider legalized gay marriage the worst disaster that could possibly strike a society, worse than Hurricane Katrina, worse than 9/11.
I think atheists do offer an antidote to the irrational fears described above. Our solution is the simplest imaginable: the recognition that there are no gods, no demons, no hells, that there are no divine overseers standing over your shoulder with whips at the ready, that society will not be punished if we recognize the equal rights of gays, and that you will not be boiled in oil for eternity if you vote Democrat, have premarital sex, or learn about evolution in school.

You can read the whole post here.

To be honest, I think the ugliest thing about Christianity is the pervasiveness of preachers and apologists who try to scare people into the faith, and who seek to reduce their flocks' exposure to other viewpoints. But serious questioning, now that can lead in either of two directions: It can produce a deeper faith, or it can lead to the end of faith. I can understand why some people might retreat from the tough questions; nonetheless, that retreat is motivated by fear. It does no one any good to believe on those terms.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

proving the virgin birth?

Peter Kirk has a post with the intriguing title A proof of the Virgin Birth? in which he discusses a post from the Anglican Curmudgeon reviewing Frank Tipler's book The Physics of Christianity.

Tipler is, by all accounts, a first-class physicist who happens to hold the belief that science can prove the truth of Christianity. Evidently, among the things Tipler discusses in this book is the unusual phenomenon of parthenogenesis. According to a quote I've lifted from the Anglican Curmudgeon, Tipler makes this startling claim about Jesus:

I propose that Jesus was a special type of XX male, a type that is quite rare in humans but extensively studied [footnote omitted]. Approximately 1 out of every 20,000 human males is an XX male. . . . An XX male results when a single key gene for maleness on the Y chromosome (the SRY gene) is inserted into an X chromosome. One possibility is that all (or at least many) of the Y chromosome genes were inserted into one of Mary's X chromosomes and that, in her, one of the standard mechanisms used to turn off genes was active on these inserted Y genes. (There is an RNA process that can turn off an entire X chromosome. This is the most elegant turnoff mechanism.) Jesus would then have resulted when one of Mary's eggs started to divide before it became haploid and with the Y genes activated (and, of course, with the extra X genes deactivated). . . .

To be honest, I had never heard of XX male syndrome before this. But here's what Wikipedia has to say about this condition:

Symptoms include small testes, gynecomastia and sterility. Many individuals with this condition also have effeminate characteristics.

Is this really Tipler's image of Jesus? I'm not sure whether to laugh or to just shake my head. But if nothing else, this provides a nice counterpoint for the hyper-masculine Jesus preached by Mark Driscoll.

It would also explain why Jesus had no children.

Regardless, such an extraordinary claim would require extraordinary evidence. And Tipler claims to have it. Evidently, analysis of blood stains on the Shroud of Turin and a lesser-known relic, the Sudarium of Oviedo, indicate…well, here are Tipler's own words, again quoted by the Anglican Curmudgeon:

The standard DNA test for sex is the amelogenin test I mentioned earlier. The Italians performed this test, which gave 106 base pairs for the X form of amelogenin and 112 base pairs for the Y form. There is a phenomenon called sputtering, which can cause the actual value obtained to differ by 1 base pair from the expected value.

The Turin Shroud data show 107 (106 +1) but no trace of a 112 base pair gene. The Oviedo Cloth data show 105 (106 - 1) but no trace of a 112 base pair. The X chromosome is present, but there is no evidence of a Y chromosome. This is the expected signature of the simplest virgin birth, the XX male generated by an SRY inserted into an X chromosome. It is not what would be expected of a standard male.

So what can we conclude from this? Nothing, really. Tipler backs his speculation with more speculation. In the 1980s a radiocarbon test dated the Shroud of Turin to the 13th or 14th century. A number of Turin enthusiasts have argued that the test was botched, but thus far no one has taken a second sample for dating. Without any positive evidence that the shroud is ancient, I see no reason to accept that the DNA from blood stains on the cloth belonged to Jesus.

And if I don't accept it, it's probably safe to say that non-Christians won't accept it either. So just who is Tipler trying to convince? Himself?

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

the bible from a new immigrant's eye

Reginald Mortha is a third generation Lutheran pastor from India, who recently immigrated to the United States. Having lived now in two cultures, he is perhaps more aware than most of us how the culture in which we live affects our reading of the Bible.

Yet the use of Scripture in the Christian tradition in India has been enriched by the influence of Hindu ideas of the sacred. For the Western church of the modern world, the idea of the sacred has become an optional spirituality.

As strangers in a new land, new immigrants may have something to teach us about fellowship, too.

I often attend an Indian immigrant church that worships on Sunday afternoons. They are a faithful and loving congregation. They are a mix of families, friends, distant relations, and strangers. They come from Wesleyan, Lutheran, Baptist, and Charismatic Christian traditions. They look after their own, no matter what their situation. They have a insatiable thirst to be the church.

Furthermore, in most third world countries, the Bible's stories are not so foreign as they are to those of us living in Western democracies:

For me, the world the Bible describes is so close to where I come from — a familiar world of pressing problems, famine and poverty, powerful landlords, and imperial forces. For most new immigrants, the poverty of Lazarus eating the crumbs fallen from the rich man's table is not just a story but an experiential and existential reality.

Read the whole article

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Barack Obama talks about his faith

John Meunier points to a transcript of an interview Barack Obama gave with Cathleen Falsani of the Chicaco Sun-Times in March of 2004, when he was an Illinois State Senator. The full transcript has been published for the first time at Beliefnet.

Several things he said resonated with me:

I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up a suspicion of dogma. And I'm not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I've got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others.

As I said before, in my own public policy, I'm very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics.

Now, that's different form a belief that values have to inform our public policy. I think it's perfectly consistent to say that I want my government to be operating for all faiths and all peoples, including atheists and agnostics, while also insisting that there are values that inform my politics that are appropriate to talk about.

I find it interesting how Obama elaborates on that last point:

A standard line in my stump speech during this campaign is that my politics are informed by a belief that we're all connected. That if there's a child on the South Side of Chicago that can't read, that makes a difference in my life even if it's not my own child. If there's a senior citizen in downstate Illinois that's struggling to pay for their medicine and having to chose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer even if it's not my grandparent. And if there's an Arab American family that's being rounded up by John Ashcroft without the benefit of due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

I can give religious expression to that. I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper, we are all children of God. Or I can express it in secular terms. But the basic premise remains the same.

In a few short sentences he explains something I agree with but have long struggled to express.

On the other hand, I think his view of sin is a little too subjective. When asked, "What is sin?" he replied:

Being out of alignment with my values.

But part of the Christian journey, as I understand it, is to realign our values.

All in all, it's a great interview. Read the whole thing.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

dawkins abandons atheism?

That's the subject line (but with an exclamation point rather than a question mark) of a recent post on Peter Kirk's Gentle Wisdom blog. But is it true?

According to a story by Melanie Phillips in The Spectator, Dawkins said this in a recent debate:

A serious case could be made for a deistic God.

In her article, Phillips responds with this:

This was surely remarkable. Here was the arch-apostle of atheism, whose whole case is based on the assertion that believing in a creator of the universe is no different from believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, saying that a serious case can be made for the idea that the universe was brought into being by some kind of purposeful force. A creator.

So has Richard Dawkins abandoned atheism? I doubt it.

In fact, Phillips got a clarification from Dawkins after the debate:

Afterwards, I asked Dawkins whether he had indeed changed his position and become more open to ideas which lay outside the scientific paradigm. He vehemently denied this and expressed horror that he might have given this impression.

So when Dawkins says, "A serious case could be made for a deistic God," what does he mean?

My best guess is that his meaning can be found in what he didn't say. First, he didn't say that a serious case has ever been made; he is only acknowledging that it could. Second, in saying that the serious case could be made only for a deistic God, he is in essence denying that a serious case could be made for a personal God.

Richard Dawkins has never been a friend of theism, and I don't see any reason to believe his statement last week represents a change of heart.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

becoming a christian

Robin Russell at the UM Portal describes an article from the Baptist Standard,
explaining step-by-step instructions on how to become a Christian. (Hat tip to John Meunier) After listing them, she asks,

And I wondered if a United Methodist were asked, "How do I become a Christian?" what would be the response?

A colleague here in the newsroom only half-jokingly commented: "Perhaps that's why we have problems with evangelism."

Any fresh responses out there beyond: "Um, come to church with me?"

Part of the difficulty, I think, is in the question itself. I'm reminded of the old joke, where a visitor to New York asks a local, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" The local, who happens to be a professional musician, replies, "Practice, practice, practice."

Christianity is not like building a bookshelf from a kit. You can't just follow a short set of step-by-step instructions -- Insert tab A "grace" into slot B "guilt," and you're done! No, Christianity is a transformation of the whole self, a journey that lasts a lifetime (and beyond).

And the roads that lead us there may be different for different people. For myself, it was a sense of loneliness, not the "lostness" the Baptist Standard requires, that paved the way for me to first experience God. And it was a mystical experience, not an intellectual understanding about Jesus' sacrifice, that started me along the journey.

I find the journey metaphor helpful in another way, too: If you're giving someone directions to get to your house, the first step is to find their starting point. "Go south on I-35 to the 119th Street exit," might get some people started on the right road, but it is likely to get other people completely lost.

Likewise, "How do I become a Christian?" is a highly subjective question. How they will get there is going to depend largely on where they are right now.

When the rich young ruler asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life, Jesus answered, "One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." To the thief on the cross, Jesus simply said, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."

So how do we answer someone who asks, "How do I become a Christian?" First, we get to know them, understand who they are and where they are. It is only as we build relationships with people that we can help them answer that question. Otherwise, we may unintentionally lead them away from where they need to go.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

the role of the bible

I have a confession to make: I love reading atheist blogs. I enjoy them because they challenge my faith and make me think about why I believe what I believe. They expose the irrationalities of Christianity, and remind me that the reasons for my faith are experiential, not rational.

Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism has a pair of recent posts, Making Excuses for the Bible and Instruction Manual or Chronicle?, which offer a critique of "liberal Christians."

In Ebonmuse's classification system, there are only two types of Christians: "fundamentalists" and "liberals." Throughout this post I will put the two terms in quotation marks because most Christians self-identify as neither fundamentalists nor liberals.

The difference between the two camps, according to Ebonmuse, is this:

In the eyes of the fundamentalists, the Bible (or Qur'an or Book of Mormon or whatever other text) is God's word, dictated with infallible perfection to the minds of his followers. It's meant to be the deity's instruction manual, telling human beings everything we need to know about how to live.

For liberal believers, by contrast, the Bible is not a direct pipeline to God, but a chronicle of events put together by human beings doing their best to interpret history in the light of their beliefs. God did not speak directly to his followers and tell them what to write down - or, at best, he only did so rarely. Instead, God's followers tried to discern his will in the flow of events and infer what messages he meant to convey.

Ebonmuse notes that the criticisms of the Bible atheists use against "fundamentalists" -- e.g., immoral actions attributed to God -- don't apply to "liberals." If the Bible is understood as as "chronicle of events put together by human beings doing their best to interpret history in the light of their beliefs," there is a possibility that those human beings made some mistakes.

Still, Ebonmuse contends that there are some valid criticisms to be made against "liberal" Christianity.

First: Unless they believe that God spoke to one people exclusively - and most liberal believers don't - then they should acknowledge that their own view of scripture as a chronicle implies that other cultures will also have had contact with God, and other religious texts will reflect the same interpretive process. Why, then, would a believer define themselves exclusively in the symbols and language of one particular religion? Why call yourself a Christian if just as much genuine understanding of God can be found in the Qur'an or the Bhagavad Gita as in the Bible?

These are tough questions, and different believers may give different answers. There is a wide gap between all religions are equally valid and all religions are false except mine, and I suspect most people would find themselves somewhere in between. For myself, I will readily acknowledge that some truth can be found in other religions. I've written previously about how reading the Tao Te Ching has enhanced my faith. However, my faith is still a Christian faith. I have not converted to Taoism, and I wouldn't call myself a Taoist Christian. I still believe that Christianity is the fullest expression of the reality of God.

Ebonmuse continues:

Second: What are the liberal believer's criteria for deciding whether a given verse reflects God's message or human error? Since they don't credit all parts of scripture with equal truth, they must have some way to decide which verses to follow and which ones to disregard. In most cases this process is guided by the believer's own moral intuitions and by the moral progress society has subsequently made. Now that we know slavery, racism and sexism to be evils, modern liberal theists disregard the parts of their text that teach these things. Other verses which have better stood the test of time are assumed to be true lessons from God.

If this is true, it is surely an indictment of "liberal" Christianity. If our faith is grounded in nothing more than reading modern morals back into the Bible, then why do we need the ancient text? We might as well drop the pretense that the Bible means anything at all.

Indeed, Ebonmuse urges us to do exactly that:

However, once you've come this far, what do you need scripture for at all? Clearly, once a theist has reached this point, their own conscience is a superior and perfectly sufficient guide.

But here is the fundamental flaw of that line of reasoning: Christianity is not merely a system of ethics. If the Bible is a chronicle, it is not just a chronicle of one ancient mideastern people's grappling with their collective conscience.

The Bible does contain teachings about ethics -- I'm not denying that. But it also contains the story of God's interactions with God's people: First with a chosen people, the Jews; then through Jesus an invitation to everyone to participate in the unfolding story.

The stories of Jesus' birth, for instance, are not written as an example of good behavior that we should emulate. But what are they? Should we take them as a literal history of events of one miraculous evening long ago? Are they a romanticized tale to cover up Mary and Joseph's unexpected out-of-wedlock pregnancy? Or maybe an allegory using symbolic language to proclaim Jesus' messiahship?

I would suggest that for Christians to faithfully read the birth stories, we must not merely accept the answer that seems right to us -- whether we are "fundamentalists" or "liberals" -- but to wrestle with what God is saying to us through these stories. We might be surprised at the direction God pulls us if we move beyond the original intent -- whatever it was -- and make Jesus' story a part of our own lives.

Ebonmuse continues:

The final useful line of argument is one that works equally well against believers of all stripes. Namely, by what evidence do those believers conclude that their particular text reflects the will of God, in whole or in part? What makes them so certain that the text reflects any divine influence at all, rather than simply being the product of men, some of whom were benevolent and kind and some of whom were vindictive and cruel? Liberal believers acknowledge that the authors of scripture were wrong about many things. How do they know that those authors weren't also wrong about the existence of God?

Again, I can't speak for others. Personally, I believe God exists because of my own experience with the holy. The Bible played no part in convincing me that God is real. If I didn't believe for other reasons, I don't think I would get much out of the Bible. So why do I believe this text reflects any divine influence at all? Simply this: Jesus' story does resonate with my own story. Since that night God first became real to me, the Bible has shaped my life and transformed who I am.

Are there parts of the Bible that I believe didn't come from God? Certainly. But there are parts, too, that have shaped me even when I didn't like what they said.

I've been very brief in this post -- perhaps too brief. Each of these sets of questions deserves a much more thorough answer than I've given here. If I have time, I'll try to look at each in more depth.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

the radical center

Last month Andy Bryan wrote a post, Unclaiming the Center, in which he responds to a friend of his who thinks the solution to divisiveness in the church is for liberals and conservatives to look for common ground in the center.

Andy replies:
Sounds neat, but it doesn’t work for me; I am not in the center, I am liberal. I am an honest-to-God “progressive.” If you are going to label me, label me left wing.

...for me, the solution to the divisiveness in the church is not to artificially move to the center purely in order to find common ground. That would not be authentic to who I am, nor to whom any of us are.

Call him liberal, but don't even think about calling him wishy-washy.

He makes some good points in his post, and I urge you to read the whole thing if you haven't already.

Nevertheless, I tend to disagree with his main point. I think it is vitally important that we do look to reclaim the radical center. But perhaps this disagreement is more in perception than in fact. I may be using the word "center" differently than either Andy or his friend are using it.

As I understand them, "liberal" and "conservative" are political terms that have spilled over into other areas of our lives. In American presidential politics, it is customary for candidates to play up their "liberal" or "conservative" credentials during the primary season, to appeal to the party's "base," then to "move to the center" as the general election approaches, to try to appeal to a wider range of voters.

This can be represented by the following image:

The black part of the line represents the center, and the white parts represent the liberal and conservative wings. Under this paradigm, Andy is correct that liberals (or conservatives) are not being authentic if they try to "claim the center" as a common ground.

But it seems to me that this entire paradigm is missing something.

A few weeks ago my wife took our 4-year-old son to the farmer's market and let him buy something with his own money. He spent a quarter, and got a home-grown peach.

Normally, when he eats fruit from the grocery store, he will eat a little bit from one side and leave the rest. So when they were in the car, and Nicki heard, "I'm done," from the back seat, she didn't expect him to have eaten the whole peach. Yet when she reached back for the remains, he handed her just the pit.

A peach pit is a better metaphor than a political campaign, I believe, for the radical center of the Christian faith.

Here we don't have two fringes at opposite ends, just a solid inner layer with a protective outer layer. The outer, fleshy part of the peach actually provides the nutrients necessary for the seed to grow -- or for a four-year-old boy. One way or another, though, the flesh will be consumed, and only the core will remain.

The core of the Christian faith can be found in the gospels, throughout all of Scripture, and in the ancient creeds. That's not to say that there is nothing more to Christianity than this. The church is one body with many parts, and God calls each of us to fill different roles.

But whether you're anti-oil or anti-abortion, and regardless of how important you personally think those issues are, those are not the essentials of the faith. Likewise, Christianity is not primarily about creationism, fair trade, gay rights, or even a living wage. Our faith may inform us about those issues, but we are almost certain to find ourselves at some point fellowshipping with those who hold different views.

That's when we need to affirm the radical center -- the core -- of our faith. If we cannot fellowship with those who hold differing views on the peripheral issues, we've failed to understand what Christianity is all about.

Unless I'm misreading him, that's essentially what Andy is saying too. So perhaps I don't disagree with him after all.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

in defense of arminianism

A blogger who uses the name "The Preacher" has an interesting post entitled Making Jehovah into a Lovesick Girl. He asks, "Can I submit to you, that this is exactly what we do when we preach an Arminian gospel?"

The answer is no. Perhaps that's how it appears to Calvinists. And, truth be told, I think I actually heard the gospel presented like this once or twice by well-intentioned but misguided youth leaders back in my teenage years. But to reduce God to a lovestruck girl hoping to be invited to prom, waiting for us to make the first move -- that's a distortion of genuine Arminian theology.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Arminianism is often defined in opposition to Calvinism. Calvinism, as I understand it, teaches that we have no say in our salvation, that it's completely God's decision. Perhaps a Calvinist might assume, by contrast, that Arminians believe that salvation is entirely in our own hands.

But defining any idea solely in relation to a competing idea is the easiest way to distort it. In fact, Arminianism shares with Calvinism the foundation that human nature is sinful, and that, left to our own devices, we could never achieve righteousness.

Arminians departs with Calvinists on the extent of God's grace. Calvinists believe that God's grace is limited to a predetermined group of people, the elect. Anyone not in this group is doomed.

Arminians believe, along with 1 Timothy 2:4, that God "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." We believe, along with Titus 2:11, that "the grace of God has appeared to all." We believe, along with Romans 2:4, that "God's kindness is meant to lead [us] to repentance." We believe, along with Philippians 2:12-13 that as we "work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling," we recognize that "it is God at work within [us]."

Arminianism is not the opposite of Calvinism. Arminians don't believe we are the authors of our own salvation. We don't believe God's love is merely a product of pubescent hormones running wild. We don't believe God is so helpless as to pine over unrequited love.

Instead, we see God's grace at work in the world. This grace that has appeared to all, not just to a select few, is known as prevenient grace. That's not the grace that saves us, but it does enable us to respond to God. So even though we don't have it within our nature to choose God, we have something within us that is not part of our own nature.

Our very ability to choose God is itself a gift from God.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

he is risen

After the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices to go and anoint the body of Jesus. Very early on Sunday morning, at sunrise, they went to the tomb. On the way they said to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" (It was a very large stone.) Then they looked up and saw that the stone had already been rolled back. So they entered the tomb, where they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe -- and they were alarmed.

"Don't be alarmed," he said. "I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here -- he has been raised! Look, here is the place where he was placed. Now go and give this message to his disciples, including Peter: "He is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him, just as he told you.' "

So they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

- Mark 16:1-8

It is fashionable among theologians and "historical Jesus" scholars to assert that the empty tomb is a late addition to the resurrection stories. The followers of Jesus experienced something powerful, something life-changing, and had trouble finding the words to express it.

Classical historians who look at the gospels -- even if they don't believe in Christ -- tend to reach the opposite conclusion.

But in the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike -- and even perhaps of the disciples themselves -- are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.

- Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew

Mark, as we have seen, had heard that the three women saw it together. But according to John, the first to see it was Mary Magdalene all by herself. Either of these reports is likely enough to represent the authentic occurrence, since the early Church would never have concocted, on its own account, the statement that this most solemn and fateful of all discoveries was made by women, including a woman with an immoral record at that. Perhaps John's version is the original one, and the other women were added to the story later to make it less shocking.

Who had taken the body? There is no way of knowing. Mary Magdalene thought at first that the cemetery gardener had removed it -- whereas the Jews, not unplausibly, maintained that it had been taken by Jesus' own disciples. At all events it was gone. And because it was gone, and no one knew where it was, this made it easier for people to believe, three days later (a period equated with scriptural predictions,) that they were seeing Jesus alive again and returned to the earth, risen from the dead. The Resurrection is the subject of some of the greatest pictures ever painted, but there is no actual description of it, and nobody claimed to have seen it happen. Yet those who believed that Jesus had appeared to them on the earth after his death have their alleged experiences recorded in a number of passages of the New Testament. Their testimonies cannot prove them to have been right in supposing that Jesus had risen from the dead.

- Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels

Those testimonies are varied, but generally fall into one or more of four categories:

  1. Apperances of the Jesus the disciples knew and recognized

  2. Apperances of a Jesus the disciples did not recognize

  3. Appearances of a Jesus who can appear and disappear at will

  4. Apperances of Jesus in a vision

In the first group is John 21, where the disciples see Jesus at the seashore, and Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?". Also in this group is Matthew 28:16-20, wher e Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee and gives them some final instructions. Jesus' conversation with Thomas in John 20:24-29 also fits into this category.

In the second group is the story of the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-32. The two disciples walk and talk with him but do not know it is him until the very end. In John 20:14-17, Mary Magdalene at first does not recognize Jesus when he appears to her at the tomb.

The walk to Emmaus also fits in the third group, as Jesus vanishes once the disciples recognize him. Also in this category are stories in John 20:19-23 and Luke 24:36-43 telling of Jesus appearing to his disciples inside a locked room. In the Luke account, Jesus then proves he is not a ghost by eating a piece of fish. Jesus' conversation with Thomas mentioned above can also fit in this category, as he had once again appeared inside a locked room.

The most famous example in the fourth category is the appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, recorded in Acts 9 and repeated with slightly different details in Acts 22 and 26. The most vivid example is the vision given to John of Patmos, now known as the book of Revelation.

It is impossible to reconcile every detail of all the apperances. In Matthew 28:10 Jesus tells the disciples to return to Galilee, but in Acts 1:4 he tells them not to leave Jerusalem. In some gospels, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, but in others he doesn't. No matter how we put the pieces together, there are elements of the resurrection experiences that must remain a mystery to us.

But for a secular historian like Michael Grant, the only mystery of that first Easter morning is: Who took the body? The great irony is that the empty tomb can be utterly convincing as a historical event, yet utterly unconvincing as evidence of the resurrection. By itself the tomb proves nothing.

That may be at the root of liberal attempts to minimize the importance of the tomb. Because, for the disciples, it was not the disapperance of the corpse that transformed their lives, it was the reappearance of the living Christ. It was the fact that he returned to them, many times and in many ways. And he continues to be present in the lives of Christians even today.

That's where we find the meaning of the resurrection. Christ is alive! He has conquered death, and he will be with us to the very end of the age.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

faith and authority

Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I have not seen it myself. I could not prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority -- because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.

- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

It's not uncommon for Christians to claim, in discussions with atheists, that life requires us to take some things on faith. I made that claim myself a few posts back.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says something similar, but different. He makes the same argument, but doesn't call it "faith". Instead, by using the word "authority", Lewis alludes to something that we might easily forget. Trusting in someone as an authority is not the same thing as having faith in that person. Certainly trust is an element of faith, but like intellectual assent, it is not the whole.

Just as Jesus did not tell his disciples, "Believe in me," he also did not tell them, "Trust in me." His command to them was, "Follow me," a much more radical calling that would disrupt their careers and in many cases lead to their deaths. That kind of faith requires a much greater commitment than a mere trust in his authority.

To put it another way, I could quite easily accept someone's authority to describe New York City or the Solar System or the Norman Conquest, but I'd be very reluctant to follow that person to my death.

But as Bonhoeffer put it, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." Christ does not simply expect his followers to accept his authority, any more than he simply expects us to give a mental assent to the doctrines about him.

When Jesus said, "Love your enemies," he just might have had in mind something like this response to last week's shooting at an Amish school:

"As we were standing next to the body of this 13-year-old girl, the grandfather was tutoring the young boys, he was making a point, just saying to the family, 'We must not think evil of this man,'" the Rev. Robert Schenck told CNN. "It was one of the most touching things I have seen in 25 years of Christian ministry."

Now that takes faith.


Monday, September 04, 2006

why i believe

In the comments to my last post, Albert asked the following question:

I'm sure we could find a secular humanist who shares many of your same ideals like working on the problems of the homeless. So tell me, what additional meaning do you derive from framing your ideals within a particular religious framework?

It's a reasonable question, especially in light of my statement in the same post that actions matter more than beliefs. If I can work on the same issues without believing in God, why bother with all the strange doctrines that were developed centuries ago by people who didn't understand the world the way we do now? If actions matter more than beliefs, why believe?

In one sense, the question doesn't make sense to me. It's like asking, "Since we all come from different towns, why even have a home town?" We all come from somewhere, and we all have a framework for belief.

So, as I said in my own comment, the only answer I can give is a subjective one. I have never found apologetics convincing anyway, and I don't think I could create a convincing argument myself. What follows are my own answers, based on my experiences.

Why God?

With the remarkable advances we've made in this age of science and technology, why believe in God at all? Is is rational to believe in the 21st century that this world is governed by supernatural forces, when science can give us natural explanations for nearly every phenomenon? Why not trust in human reason instead of ancient mythologies?

First, I'd like to say that I don't think reason and mythology (or science and religion, if you prefer) are mutually exclusive. Sure, reason can answer a lot of our questions, and solve a lot of problems. But there's a whole realm that is outside the scope of reason, even without appealing to God. Science may explain why the sky changes colors as the sun nears the horizon, but it won't answer why we think sunsets are beautiful. Granted, neuroscience may one day explain exactly what is happening in the brain as we look at a sunset, but that's not the whole story. Science may explain how our brains are functioning as we listen to music, read a poem, or look at a painting. But that's not going to tell us what art is, or why we appreciate it.

Along those same lines, despite one scientist's claims to have discovered a God gene, science can't really tell us much about the supernatural. In fact, by definition, the scope of science is limited to the natural world. Anything that is beyond nature is simply not testable by science. The rational response is to remain agnostic. And if we were purely rational beings living in a purely rational world, we would have no reason not to choose the rational response.

But is that the kind of world we live in? Consider an analogy from mathematics. In the early 1930s, Kurt Gödel discovered one of the most startling properties of mathematical logic. Dubbed the Incompleteness Theorem, Gödel's proof demonstrated that no system of mathematical logic could be both consistent and complete. The theorem can be explained in non-mathematical terms thus:

Within a given system of logic, it is possible to construct self-reflexive statements, that is, statements that make statements about themselves. If we construct a statement (S), that states (S) cannot be proved true, what can logic tell us about (S)?

Either (S) is true or it is not. If it is false, then it can be proven true, and thus is true even though it is false. That would make the logic system inconsistent. A statement cannot logically be true and false at the same time. On the other hand, if (S) is true, then the system cannot contain the logic to prove it. We may know intuitively that it is true, but we cannot know it according to the rules of logic. To find the answer, we must step outside the system.

Gödel's theorem does not tell us anything about the existence of God, but it does tell us about the world in which we live. It's a world where logic will never give us all the answers.

So if I'm going to make sense of some of my experiences, I shouldn't necessarily expect to find a logical explanation. I'm not denying that reason has a lot to teach us; I just want to recognize its limits.

Do my own subjective experiences prove the existence of God? No, but then I'm not trying to prove God's existence; I'm only trying to explain why I believe.

Why Christ?

So that's why I'm a theist and not an atheist. But, of all the religions in the world, why Christianity? Is it just because I grew up in a "Christian" part of the world? If I had been born in the Middle East would I be Muslim today?

Those are difficult questions, and if I look honestly at my faith journey, I must admit that my culture and my upbringing have played some part in shaping my beliefs. I have no doubt that if my experiences had been different, I would believe differently.

I also know that my beliefs have been shaped by mystical experiences and by chance encounters that have made a sudden impact on my faith journey. Are these the result of God calling to me, shaping the course of my life? I believe so. But why would I have these experiences when many people don't? I can't answer that, other than to say it's not because I merit favorable treatment.

And that leads me to my next point: I believe in grace. Regardless of the cultural element in my religion, I am drawn to Christianity because of this belief in unmerited favor. No matter who we are or what we've done, God gives us better than we deserve. I can't describe how liberating this concept has been in my life. All I can say is that, as I've seen examples of it in my own experience, I have come to believe very strongly in grace.

Which leads into my next point: As I've traveled on my journey of faith, I have seen how the biblical story meshes with my own life. When I read about Jacob wrestling with God, or Isaiah being humbled by meeting God in the temple, or Amos's preaching about social justice, or Jesus's proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God, or, yes, Paul's teachings about grace, it resonates with my experience. And not just the Bible, but the history of Christianity speaks to me: I feel some form of kinship with St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up physical comforts to have a richer spiritual life; with Dorothy Day, who struggled for many years before finding God's; with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero, who stayed loyal to the call of Christ in the midst of turmoil in their nations, though it cost them their lives.

I won't pretend I have the level of faith any of these people had. But their stories resonate with my own. In that sense, subjectively speaking of course, I find truth in both the Bible and Christian tradition.

Can a person find the same sort of truth elsewhere? Certainly. So who is right and who is wrong? Isn't that what religion is all about? In a word, no. It's not fundamentally about being more right than anyone else. It's about responding to God's call and being faithful to that call, however the call comes and wherever the call leads.

Why Methodist?

I grew up attending the United Methodist Church, but I didn't learn much about its teachings or its distinctive focus. In high school I became friends with a bunch of Pentecostal kids, and for a while thought I should become Pentecostal too. Then I went to a Lutheran college, where for the first time I got a real appreciation for God's grace. As I left college I tried to sort through my beliefs and find a church where I fit.

Surprisingly, my journey led me back to the United Methodist Church. I've alluded above to the four sources from which I've learned about God: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Surprisingly, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement over 250 years ago, identified these same four sources for learning about God. They are known in Methodist tradition as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Maybe I absorbed this framework in childhood without realizing it.

But it's not just the doctrinal framework that I find meaningful. Wesley also stressed the importance of putting faith into action. And that leads me back to where I began: Actions are more important than beliefs. Despite my own journey of faith, which has led me deeper into Christianity, I can join with those who have different theologies (or none at all) to work toward a common cause. Perhaps, if God is calling me to accomplish a goal, then the other people working toward the same goal are being called by the same God.