Thursday, March 31, 2011

A brief break from this series ...

Regular readers will know that I am very fond of humor. With that in mind, this current series will take a short break so as not to run together with tomorrow's special announcements.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why raise Jesus from the dead?

This continues the repost of a response to Michael Martin on Jesus' resurrection.

Mr. Martin's original article gives prominent place to one particular complaint: there is (he states) no plausible reason why the resurrection should have occurred. In the course of this response, I will discuss a number of the reasons for Jesus’ resurrection.

God's Purposes and Jesus' Resurrection

When discussing the resurrection and God’s purpose, Mr. Martin limits the discussion to theories of atonement. While I will also respond to Mr. Martin on the atonement, the discussion of God’s purpose will not be limited to atonement alone. We will also consider the resurrection in light of the view that a miracle may also be a sign which communicates a message.

In preparation, we will first recall some known facts -- our background knowledge for assessing the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. The first thing to recall is that Jesus is among a very rare group of people in the history of the world: people who founded a major religion. While this is undisputed and very likely to be relevant, Mr. Martin does not consider it in his assessment. From a simple standpoint of logic, it can easily have a bearing on whether God has any purpose in resurrecting Jesus from the dead. Another thing to recall is that, in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, previous teaching on resurrection was not especially strong, with no explicit support for it in the Torah and no other officially-recognized scriptures besides the Torah. In that day, it was an acceptable Jewish belief that there was no resurrection from the dead, with the party of Sadducees holding that belief. If the teaching of a future resurrection of all people from the dead is true, it is among the most relevant and important teachings in the history of religion. To be sure, some people had taught as if a resurrection would come. But these had not gained full acceptance as of the time of Jesus.

Jesus’ resurrection is a sign that clarifies the answers to many questions:

  1. It serves as a final answer as to whether there is life after death. As a sign, it clearly indicates that God raises the dead.
  2. It serves as a sign validating Jesus' teachings on the resurrection. It indicates that among the various teachings of what happens after death, Jesus’ teaching on resurrection is true. This is a sign of the certainty of Jesus' teaching that there will be a general resurrection in the future.
  3. It shows God’s faithfulness to his creation. From confirming Jesus' teaching of the future resurrection of all people, it follows that it is also a sign that God has not abandoned humanity to pain, meaninglessness, and death. It confirms Jesus' pledge to us that our own tombs will one day be empty, and we will rise to life again just as he rose. From this we can see the reason for the hope we have in us.
  4. It foretells the promised renewal of creation to a state of goodness that is no longer subject to death and corruption. Restoring nature to what God intended is one connecting link between Jesus’ healing miracles and his resurrection. Jesus’ work restoring nature is affirmed as God’s own purpose by Jesus’ restoration to life. Together with the background of Jesus’ other miracles restoring the sick, the blind, and the crippled, it shows that any evil, disease, death, or destruction that may confront us still cannot defeat God’s purpose of restoring us and renewing all things.
  5. The resurrection is a sign indicating the final practical resolution of the problem of evil. It is a sign showing the weak and temporary nature of suffering and death, and the truth of Jesus' promises regarding the world to come.
  6. It is a vindication of the goodness of God. If suffering, death, and meaningless had in fact been the final result of our lives, it would be problematic to maintain the reality of God's love of mankind. Instead, the resurrection demonstrates death's inability to destroy us and to undo God's purposes for us. As the generation that saw Christ raised from the dead put it, "Death, where is your victory? Grave, where is your sting?" The resurrection, as a sign of the general resurrection to come, provides a clear indication that God does value mankind.
  7. It confirms the uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth in God's purposes in the world. Among that very, very small group of people in the history of the world who have founded major religions, Jesus is unique even within that group in rising from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection plainly shows which leader to follow. It renders foolish the argument that God has not made clear which religious leader to follow.
These are clear signs given by Jesus' resurrection that would provide a clear reason for God to have raised Jesus from the dead.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Miracles, Providence, and Natural Knowledge of God

This continues the repost of a response to Michael Martin on Jesus' resurrection.

Mr. Martin makes an interesting side-trip into one possibility: if most natural events were seen as signs from God, then the non-interventionists could claim that miracles should be seen as initially probable. Martin notes that this view -- that most natural events are signs from God -- trivializes the idea of miracles; he also asserts that this view is not held by most noninterventionists.

Here Martin continues to couple the idea of "signs" only with non-interventionist miracles, addressed previously. And while I would not want to over-labor the topic of which views are more typical of non-interventionists, I’d like to mention that Mr. Martin does not address the topic of providence. It is common for Christians to have an understanding of God’s providence in which nature and certain human events are arranged for our benefit and are signs of God’s good will towards humanity. The question becomes how to distinguish miracles from simple providence, or whether there is a need to distinguish. The possibility remains that "providence" simply gets called by the different name of "miracle" when the event in question is rare.

Mr. Martin also does not address the Christian view of the natural knowledge of God. This is a commonly held Christian doctrine about how nature and the laws of nature are themselves a sign of God’s existence and goodness. The common Christian views on providence and natural knowledge stand in disagreement with Mr. Martin’s assertion that most non-interventionists do not understand most events to be arranged by God.

Given how persistent Mr. Martin is in associating "signs" with non-interventionist miracles, it seems odd that his assessment of whether something is a miracle does not include any assessment of its value as a sign. That is to say, if even Mr. Martin agrees that miracles can have value as "signs", then something's value as a "sign" can be one of our criteria for deciding if it qualifies as a miracle. On both views of miracles (the interventionist and non-interventionist), it is not only the rareness of the event but also the sign-value of the event that helps us evaluate whether it is rightly seen as a miracle. The concept of providence – that God arranges certain things for our benefit – will be useful to recall when we discuss some of the reasons for the resurrection.

Summary of discussion on miracles in general (apart from the resurrection in particular)

At the end of discussion of miracles in general, I am in agreement with Mr. Martin on one point: that miracles in general are initially improbable. But in assessing his arguments, there are instances in which Mr. Martin has left aside important aspects of miracles, such as the theme of restoring nature and the sign value of miracles that involve God actively. These omissions of Martin’s greatly affect the upcoming discussion of Jesus’ resurrection in particular. I have also included background knowledge relative to the unique strength of Jesus’ miracle claims -- as Mr. Martin has agreed that background knowledge is required to make an accurate assessment of probability. Even though Martin acknowledges that our background knowledge is essential in a correct evaluation of the probability of miracle claims, he does not address the unique strength of Jesus’ prior miracle claims at any point in discussing background knowledge. These points of difference cause us to come to completely different assessments of Jesus’ resurrection.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Miracles, Signs, and God's Intervention

This continues the repost of a response to Michael Martin on Jesus' resurrection. This responds to Mr. Martin's arguments about types of miracles, and about God's motives for performing (or not performing) miracles.

Non-Interventionist miracles and Sign miracles
In his article, Martin mentions that there may be non-interventionist miracles where God may have set up the world from the beginning in such a way as to produce a certain effect at a certain time, noting as an example the wind that parted the Red Sea in the days of Moses. He notes that such an occurrence might serve as a message or sign.

I think Martin's treatment confuses two separate topics. Whether a miracle requires direct intervention and whether a miracle serves as a sign are two separate questions. A miracle in which God actively works in nature can serve as a sign just as easily as a miracle in which God may have set up the world so that certain events would occur without any (further) intervention. The fact that God is actively working in a miracle does not preclude its value as a sign.

Reasons to perform a miracle and reasons to abstain

Mr. Martin claims that God has good reasons never to perform miracles to achieve his purposes, asserting that miracles are "an impediment to a scientific understanding of the world." This seems an unlikely argument. Miracles are rare, and as such they are not likely to interfere with our understanding the world. In actual fact many of the great scientists of the world have believed in miracles, including Jesus’ resurrection, so the known facts are against the claim that miracles would hinder our scientific understanding of the world.

Particularly, consider that miracles could not be recognized as miracles unless people already had a clear idea of nature’s regular workings. That is to say, a miracle could only be recognized as a miracle if people already had a basic understanding of the natural order. If nobody had ever noticed the natural order, they could not possibly recognize anything as a variation from that order. So on the contrary, recognizing a miracle presumes an understanding of the normal workings of nature.

Martin also asserts that the "difficulties and controversies" in recognizing miracles constitute an argument that God should not perform miracles. That seems to say that God should not do a miracle because it affords argumentative people a chance to argue. But "difficulties" are such a normal part of human experience, and "controversies" such a normal part of human behavior that there does not seem to be a reason why God should exclude miracles in particular of all the things which can be the subject of argument. The difficulties and controversies surrounding miracles may indicate that people are careful and thorough in evaluating miracle claims.

Martin asserts that miracles "impede, mislead, and confuse", but this seems to be the opposite of actual the case. Consider this: one common view of a miracle is as a "sign" -- something that leads, guides, and explains. If a miracle has value as a sign, then by definition it communicates a message and gives understanding. When Mr. Martin acknowledges that a "sign" is a valid view of a miracle, and further argues that the reason or purpose of the resurrection is a factor in deciding whether to believe it occurred, he unintentionally acknowledges that miracles may in fact be significant and purposeful, the opposite of his claim that they impede, mislead, and confuse.

In contrast to Mr. Martin’s views that God has good reasons never to perform miracles to achieve his purposes, it is worth noting this: if God’s purposes include letting people know that there is something beyond the natural law, then he has near-compelling reasons to perform miracles, as the plainest way to show that there is something beyond the natural law. It is difficult to imagine how God would cause us to recognize the reality of something beyond natural law without showing us an example; this example would be seen as a miracle by definition. It is interesting to see the anti-religious claim that God never shows any clear reason to believe that he exists -- but then dismiss the possibility that miracles serve exactly that purpose.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Miracles and Nature

This continues the repost of a response to Michael Martin on Jesus' resurrection. It addresses the question whether miracles are rightly defined as a violation of the laws of nature. It goes beyond whether we want to let the anti-religious define religious terms for the conversation, and continues on to whether that is actually a fair-minded characterization of specifically the miracles of Jesus.

Martin begins his detailed discussion on the improbability of miracles with the assertion that a miracle is "traditionally" defined as a violation of a law of nature. This definition is possibly traditional among the anti-religious, but probably not among the religious and, more specifically, it is not exactly a traditional view among Christians. A fair review of the subject of miracles – especially in an article such as Martin's about Jesus’ resurrection – calls for a look at Christian views as well.

The clear majority of the recorded miracles of Jesus are miracles of healing. A miracle of this type is better classified not as a violation of nature but as a restoration of nature. When we consider blindness, deafness, lameness, or being crippled, these are not in fact the normal state of nature but a problem afflicting nature. When Jesus is recorded to have healed and made whole, the result was a return to the normal and healthy state of nature. Christian writers from Athanasius to C.S. Lewis have noted this.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hume's Argument Against Miracles - An Irrational Stance?

This continues the repost of a response to Michael Martin on Jesus' resurrection. This section deals with Martin's treatment of David Hume's argument against miracles. The general question under consideration is, "Is it ever rational to believe in a miracle? Aren't alternative explanations always more likely?"

When discussing the probability of miracles, Hume’s argument against miracles is often mentioned. Michael Martin does not subscribe to Hume’s argument, but he does cover it in passing; I will do the same here. Martin mentions different ways of understanding Hume’s argument against miracles, and considers the right understanding of it to be this: for any possibly-miraculous event, some other explanation is always more likely than a miracle; so that while a miracle is not impossible, belief in a miracle is always irrational.

Looking at that view of miracles, is that view itself rational? To say that something is possible, but that belief that it happened is irrational -- that is a misclassification, a serious exercise in bad judgment. Such a view would necessarily result in the non-recognition of the possible whenever it occurs. It necessarily leads to a willful denial of evidence or distortion of facts when what is possible – a miracle – does in fact happen. Someone who cannot see this inconsistency does not have much credibility trying to instruct others on what is rational.

Please note that this comment is not directly about Mr. Martin, who mentions that he does not subscribe to that view himself and goes on to contrast his own view with Hume’s. I am referring only to this interpretation of Hume’s argument, and those who do not see the logical inconsistency -- the irrationality -- of affirming that a thing may happen but denying the rationality of ever believing that it has happened.

I would also disagree whether some other explanation is always more likely than a miracle. An exception would occur when no other explanation of the events is possible without resorting to the distortion of facts. As we noted above, distorting the facts is an inherent risk in this irrational anti-miracle view. If a proposed alternative explanation distorts the facts, it is lacking as an alternative explanation of those facts; it does not merit the same consideration as a view which accounts for the facts without distortion. The view that a miracle occurred is more reasonable than a distortion of the established facts; or, from the other side, when any alternative explanation requires distortion of established facts, that is the point at which it becomes increasingly rational to believe a miracle -- and increasingly irrational to disbelieve it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How can we assess the likelihood of a miracle?

This is the first part of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73. At the time this response was written in the spring of 2005, Mr. Martin's article was being reprinted that spring in a book by Prometheus Press. I know that some people in both camps do not like to discuss miracles in terms of probability at all, considering them either as a "given" or as an "impossibility" but not as something to be studied or evaluated. For this series, both of those moves will be viewed as begging the question. Rather than sticking with the usual raw presuppositionalism of the two camps, we will ask, honestly, how we can assess if a miracle was likely.

In his introduction Mr. Martin outlines an argument which begins plausibly enough: that a miracle claim is initially improbable, and in light of this, miracle claims should be disbelieved unless the evidence is strong. I agree that miracles of the kind we're discussing are not events we see every day, and that miracle claims should be evaluated with a fair hearing given to skepticism. But are all miracles equally unlikely? Mr. Martin acknowledges that miracle claims should be assessed relative to our background knowledge and to the probability of alternative explanations. Let's look first at background knowledge.

Probability and Background Knowledge

How likely is it that I could perform a miracle? To stick with our method, we would assess the probability of a miracle claim in light of background knowledge. In my case, some important background knowledge is that I have never done a miracle, never claimed to have done a miracle, and have never had anyone say that anything I did was something supernatural. Everyone who knows me in person would agree with that. It is right to conclude that the probability that I would do a miracle is very, very small. Given the right background knowledge, the probability that I would do a miracle is negligible, really.

But what about another example, such as a leader at any of the various touring ministries that claim to do miracles? If our ideas about probability really have anything to do with our background knowledge -- rather than begging the question by presupposing the answer -- then the first thing we should do is look at that background knowledge. Who can say they actually saw a miracle? Where is their account of what happened, and are they willing to stand behind its truthfulness? If people were healed, then who knew those people beforehand, whether they were really sick or disabled in the first place? Where are they now, and have they really recovered? What are their names and where do they live? Were there any hostile witnesses, and what do they say? Were any of the miracles investigated? If past miracles done by a person could be solidly supported, this would increase the plausibility of the claim of a future miracle associated with the same person.

In the case of Jesus, some of his healings are recorded as taking place in crowd settings or while traveling, so that the people recording the miracles may not have known the exact identities of the people who were healed. But other miracles involved people who were known. One person raised from the dead was the twelve-year old daughter of Jairus the synagogue ruler. One blind man who received his sight was Bartimaeus from Jericho. One of the sick healed was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Another person raised from the dead was Lazarus from Bethany. Other healings either took place with hostile witnesses present or prompted an investigation from those hostile to Jesus. A man with a crippled hand was healed in a synagogue on the Sabbath in front of hostile witnesses. One of the blind men healed in Jerusalem was a well-known beggar; his healing on the Sabbath resulted in an investigation on the charge of Sabbath-breaking.

We know the view of those who followed Jesus; the New Testament records that for us. But what did Jesus’ enemies make of all this? The Talmud records that official charges against Jesus included practicing sorcery (Sanhedrin 43a) – that is to say, performing supernatural acts. Even his enemies were not able to dismiss the evidence that these supernatural things had actually occurred even with access to the people involved; yet because of their opposition to Jesus they construed these healings as somehow evil.

What happened to the people who had been healed? The early Christian writer Quadratus mentions their continuing witness value:
Our Savior’s works were always there to see, for they were true – the people who had been cured and those raised from the dead, who had not merely been seen at the moment when they were cured or raised, but were always there to see, not only when the Savior was among us, but for a long time after his departure; in fact some of them survived right up to my own time. (quote preserved in Eusebius’ History 4.3).
When we review the background knowledge for whether a future miracle claim is plausible, we find that Jesus is already surrounded by miracle claims that are far stronger than the average miracle claim. Unless claims of similar strength could be made for "miracles" which did not actually happen, we must consider at least the possibility that the reason for the unique strength of these claims is that they may in fact be true. I will comment more on the relationships between Jesus’ earlier miracle claims and the resurrection when specifically discussing Jesus' resurrection rather than miracles in general.

Some skeptics try to dismiss the issue of Jesus’ miracles by saying that the people belonged to such an unenlightened time and such a superstitious age that their reports simply cannot be believed. This type of move seeks to place miracles in the dustbin of history, and is meant to shut down an honest look at miracles rather than continue it. Yet no matter the ancient Roman world's lesser state of advancement, they still knew the difference between blind and sighted, crippled and whole, dead and alive. If someone blind from birth received sight without medical intervention, even in our modern age we would likely consider the possibility of a miracle; the state of advancement of society has not changed our evaluation of that.

It is also important to remember that there were people present in that day who were hostile to Jesus and who were motivated to dismiss any evidence which made Jesus appear unique. The opponents of Jesus who were his contemporaries did not manage to refute the miracle claims and ended by conceding that supernatural things had happened, reinterpreting the miracles as evil acts of sorcery (see Sanhedrin 43a); Jesus’ modern opponents lack comparative credibility in trying to claim that such things never happened when their predecessors who lived in Jesus’ day could not do the same.

One factor that causes miracles in general to be considered improbable is that solid claims are in fact so rare; on the other hand, a history of solid claims involving one person changes the probability for that person. If our knowledge of Jesus is part of the background knowledge used to check the probability of the resurrection, then the strength of evidence for Jesus’ earlier miracle claims would form a stronger background when we look at this final and ultimate claim, when we assess the probability of his resurrection. The previous miracle claims had such strength that when people came to see Jesus, they often came expecting a miracle.

Link erosion (site maintenance note)

Sometimes I have linked to off-site articles; over the years, there has been some link erosion when sites go off-line or change their terms for hosting files or articles. The next few posts up will be a re-post of an article I wrote some years ago where the original is no longer in place due to link erosion.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"But the LORD was not in the earthquake" (I Kings 19:11)

And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave.
Earlier today I chanced across the writing of someone commenting on the earthquake in Japan who said that natural disasters are caused by God. That was said without any qualification at all. I'd like to offer a different perspective.

Are disasters ever caused by God? I think Christians would generally agree that at least sometimes they are. Consider the sack of Jerusalem which Jesus predicted would fall on the city and the generation that had rejected him, and how Jerusalem was destroyed not long afterwards. It didn't even have to be a natural disaster. God can arrange events so that even armies of idol-worshipers could serve his purpose.

But I must object when someone looks at an earthquake and says, "The LORD is in the earthquake." The LORD wasn't in Elijah's earthquake. It does no good to say "God is omnipresent" -- he still wasn't in Elijah's earthquake. Had he stopped being omnipresent? Not at all; but God still wasn't in the earthquake. He was in the still, small voice. Those who look for God in the earthquake are going to miss that still, small voice. Those who are drawn to God's power -- or feel obliged to proclaim and defend God's power -- can miss that he often chooses gentleness. When we see God in the earthquake, it's only a short step to blaming the victims, becoming Job's comforters to those who may not deserve such treatment. And we miss that God may not have been in the earthquake. So through the earthquake, wind, and fire, it takes discernment to realize that the voice of God may be the still, small voice.

Jesus reminded us that disasters are not necessarily God's retribution.
Or those eighteen people upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, do you think that they were sinners above all men in Jerusalem? I tell you: they were not. (Luke 13:4-5)
Jesus leaves us free to see the cause for that tower's collapse as simply gravity. I think he also leaves us free to look for the cause of the earthquake in natural causes.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Lent: Love keeps no record of wrongs

  • "That's the third time on this one project that she's ignored my emails until past the deadline when an answer could have possibly helped."
  • "That's like the fourth time in a row she either "lost that last email" or "needed clarification" after waiting a week or two to respond." (Actually not the same person as before ...)
  • "That person makes everybody wait every single day; it's driving me nuts."
  • "And they never give me any useful ideas for a gift. I have to guess and hope."
  • "Can you believe what a nasty thing that person did awhile back, when my kids were still small?"
It's Lent again, so I'm looking for one of my habitual sins to try to break free of. Unfortunately I have plenty of those. But it struck me that keeping a record of wrongs is against the law of love, as Paul teaches, "Love keeps no record of wrongs."

But don't a few of those things need to be addressed? Of course they do; and letting resentments pile up is not "addressing them". It's like a pile of clutter in my mind, or like an endless to-do list that never spurs any action but only resentment. I have been taught better; I know that the way to keep resentments from building is to address the offense as it happens, as Jesus said, "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone."

Do I imagine it is better not to say something? Do I imagine it is unkind to speak up? Well, if it really is something I would do best to overlook, then let me really overlook it and not keep a record of it. And if it is something I should not overlook, then how is keeping quiet any different than being irresponsible? Once, when I was very young, I would not have trusted myself to make things better instead of worse; but these days I have enough practice with confrontations that I doubt I would botch the job so badly.

So for this Lent, I hope to not keep a record of wrongs, but to either truly forgive or truly address it.

There are different kinds of laws in the Bible: those that would stop us from doing harm and those that would have us seek and pursue what is good. I have to admit that here I am still on the beginner's laws, where I would need to stop being part of the problem. That will clear the way to love people better.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Order of Worship from Romans: Orders of Confession

Paul's letter to the Romans has a lot of good material for framing a worship service more directly from Scripture. Here are two orders of confession from passages in Romans directly dealing with our sin and God's graciousness:

Order of Confession #1 (from Romans 2 & 3)

P: Brothers and sisters, God's name is blasphemed among the unbelievers because of us. (Romans 2:24)

C: We who preach against stealing -- do we steal? We who say people should not commit adultery -- do we commit adultery? We who teach others -- do we not teach ourselves? We dishonor God by breaking the law. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 2:21-23 with 3:23)

P: But now the righteousness of God is made known; and in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, as it is written, "The righteous will live by faith." (Romans 3:21-22 with 1:17)

C: Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him. (Romans 4:7-8)

Order of Confession #2 (from Romans 7 & 8)
P: We know that nothing good lives in us.

C: I have the desire to do what is good, I cannot carry it out. The good that I want to do is left undone. Instead, I have done the evil that I had not wanted to do. We have been unwilling servants, owned by our sins; we have been prisoners of the evil that is right there with us. (from Romans 7:14, 18-19, 21, 23)

P: But there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. You are set free from the law of sin and death. As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame, for "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Romans 8:1-2, 10:11,13)

C: If God is for us, who can be against us? Who will bring a charge against those whom God has chosen. It is God who acquits; who is he that condemns? Jesus Christ, who died -- more than that, who was raised to life -- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

P: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

C: Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present or the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31, 33-35, 38-39)

Friday, March 04, 2011

Beyond "bailout morality"

I had an on-line discussion once with an ex-Christian who caricatured Christianity like this: in Christianity, "we suffer because we are basically broken, bad people, and we don't follow the rules."

That's not the Christianity I know. True, we don't follow the rules (at least not as well as we should). But the rules, at the core, are to love God and neighbor. That is at risk of being belittled as some sort of unthinking authoritarian conformity rather than the greatest joy in life worthy of our wholehearted pursuit, to live it full of love.

I think many people start life with that same view of morality: there are rules to be followed. Following the rules will keep us out of trouble -- at least, out of trouble with the people who set the rules. And we are more likely to turn to the rules for help after we've gotten ourselves into another fine mess, just as we are likely to pray more often when things are bad. Bailout spirituality, bailout morality. At this stage of spiritual growth, morality may seem like a burden to be put down when it seems too heavy, a cage that traps us and is meant to be escaped.

As we see more of what happens to those who cast aside the supposed burden of morality, we gain an appreciation for how much wisdom there is in the good. Morality becomes less of a burden, more of a shield against the evil in the world, more of a foundation on which to build something good. It becomes something we may take up willingly, deliberately, thoughtfully, even gladly. This is all without any claim that we manage it perfectly; only that we begin to see that there are rules that are not at all arbitrary but are intrinsically right, and genuinely wise, and lastingly beneficial. There is delight and enthusiasm in the Psalms, how the value of enduring righteousness is greater than gold. It becomes possible to love what is good.

The rule-based morality -- what is commanded, what is forbidden -- only gets us so far. Jesus taught a huge leap forward from this type of thinking. He taught us that the highest in morality is love. Or as St Paul rephrased, "Love does no harm to our neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." And love of God is higher still than love of neighbor.

If the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, I'm starting to wonder if the love of God is its ultimate goal.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

What did we lose in the fall?

Have you ever really thought about what the fall has done to our sense of right and wrong? I'm not talking about any punishment or curse. I'm talking about the story of Eden, about the act of stretching out our hand to eat from that tree. The tree was knowledge, wasn't it? Knowledge is good, isn't it? If we had loved knowledge for its own sake, I wonder very much what would have happened; there are those who say that God would have given us that knowledge at the right time.

But we didn't want knowledge for its own sake. We had no interest in knowledge as knowledge. We wanted it for power and status, so we could be like God. As long as we want knowledge for power or status, we will never use it rightly. We already made it plain why we wanted it, what we planned to gain from it, how we will use it.

Look very carefully at exactly what kind of knowledge was supposed to be given: the knowledge of good and evil. That is to say, knowledge of morality, knowledge of ethics. We set out to gain "moral knowledge" in order to gain power and status. It was an intrinsically perverse action, taking up morality because we thought we could use it to gain something. The morality we gained was tainted. Our knowledge of good and evil was imprinted with our decision: the ultimate good in our eyes was not quite what it should have been. And time after time when the call for "morality" goes out, we see that we are still using morality to gain status and power.

There truly is good, and knowledge of good and evil. But so long as we take the "knowledge of good and evil" in order to use it for our own gain, we will never be able to see it. Right and wrong have to be re-thought from the foundation.