Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Where was God when ..."?

After certain kinds of tragedies, there is often some discussion about why they happened -- in particular, why God didn't prevent them. "Where was God when ..." some tragedy struck?

It's an odd question in some ways. It's typically asked after man-made tragedies -- such as killing the innocent -- which God forbids. Often enough, we have a confused situation in which people blame God even though he forbids such an attack, but do not blame the people who carried out the attack. In some cases -- such as 9/11 -- we see people blame the victims or the victims' government as if the attack were a matter of justice on some level, and yet still blame God for allowing the attack which was deemed justified. That's not a consistent and sensible approach to justify the attacker but condemn God for allowing it. And it does nothing to honestly stand up against that kind of darkness, much less shed any light on the deeper issues of how (or if) God works for our good.

The "Where was God?" approach ignores God's prohibition against taking an innocent life, and still blames God when it happens. I'll set aside the atheists who take advantage of a tragedy to sow doubt, and mention: some may raise the question because they want to hope in God. But when it comes to God's approach to evil, they want more than opposition, they want prevention.

We may long for a world without tragedies. As long as there are people in the world who justify hatred, who encourage rage, who make excuses for killing the innocent, there will be tragedies. What if God were to take out these people before they act? But I am not convinced that pre-emptive strikes are justified. If we blame God for anything that looks like judgment or punishment against people who have clearly done wrong, how much more would we blame God for acting against people who had not done wrong yet?

Those of us who are Christians start with the basic view that God is good. So it makes sense to look for God's goodness always, especially in the face of evil. The "Where was God?" argument assumes more than God's goodness, though; it assumes that God should solve problems in a certain way. I don't know that God's approach is about preventing tragedies so much as rendering them meaningless in the long run: he raises the dead. He makes the wounded whole again, and wipes away the tears. All the harm done will come undone.

I picture Jesus' crucifixion, where we have criminals facing execution, and some onlookers taking satisfaction that evil was being stomped out, one evildoer at a time. Where was Jesus? He was giving hope to the dying. And forgiving the executioners.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Evangelism of Ambassadors

We are Christ's ambassadors, called to be peace-makers in this world, to build fellowship and tear down the walls of division. The work begins within our own minds, our own hearts, as we root out any bitterness, rage, or malice and in its place sow love. As ambassadors we are strangers in a strange land. While we may have hours that are quiet or private, there is no public setting where people are not judging us -- and Christ -- by how we as ambassadors conduct ourselves. I will make some quick and obvious points before continuing to the real point of this post.

As evangelists, as ambassadors of peace, there are messages and conduct that undermine us and discredit us. 
  1. Justifying ourselves
  2. Elevating ourselves
  3. Accusing others (including its cousin fault-finding)
  4. Belittling others
  5. Anger or fits of rage (so-called righteous anger is usually self-righteous anger, and there is nothing righteous about it)
There are messages and conduct which further our message:
  1. God forgiving us and others
  2. Elevating God
  3. Forgiving others
  4. Lifting up others
  5. Love, joy, and peace
Why, then, on reading Christian writings -- whether on-line or in print -- do we see ourselves willingly rushing away from things that further our message, towards things that do not? What about the temptation to put down others and gain at their expense is so attractive to us? What is there about anger, or sarcasm or mocking, or displays of contempt that make us think these are suitable tools of disciples of Christ? What about forgiving others is so elusive to us? What about giving the glory to God is so foreign to us?

The answer is our own sinfulness, I expect. We see humility as a loser's virtue for when we aren't accomplished enough to merit pride. But pride is a decoy virtue that lures us away from our better intentions. Prestige and recognition are bait for a spiritual trap. It is humility that is the basis of friendship, fellowship, brotherhood. It is the basis for all relations based on mutual kindness in which each person enjoys giving and receiving compassion and respect. Without humility there is no peace, there is no forgiveness, there is no reconciliation, there is no fellowship.

We live in dark times. This is no age of saints. So it takes only a little effort to shine as lights. God, grant us wisdom and willingness to walk your paths.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Separating Authentic from Inauthentic Jesus Tradition

Over at CADRE Comments, Joe Hinman was responding to "The Bayes Craze" in atheist polemics, and he mentioned a common anti-Christian claim:
"[T]here are no reliable criteria for separating authentic from inauthentic Jesus tradition."
While the claim is fairly common, it is also so badly mistaken that I'd like to respond again, at the risk of being repetitive. I've previously done some research and posted summaries on this blog about objectively measurable ways for evaluating different accounts of Jesus to determine their historical value. These methods can be done by computer and do not depend on the evaluator's preferences. To recap:
  • The real Jesus was Jewish. When evaluating the accounts of Jesus, the more Jewish context there is, the more authentic it's likely to be. This can be measured in the prevalence or lack of reference to Jewish Scripture, Jewish national heroes, synagogue worship, Jewish religious holy days, trips to the Temple, Jewish controversies, Jewish religious traditions, and the like. It can also be measured by loan words from the original context and languages, or phrases recounted in the language in which originally spoken.
  • The real Jesus lived in Judea and the key events of his life took place roughly around year 30 of our era, in Roman-occupied territory. When evaluating the accounts of Jesus, the more we have of first-century Roman-occupied Judea, the more authentic it's likely to be. This can be measured in the prevalence or lack of reference to Roman occupation, Roman officials, first-century money systems in use in that time and place, and first-century events. 
  • The real Jesus lived in the geographical world of that era. When evaluating the accounts of Jesus, the more geography there is, the more authentic it's likely to be. This can be measured in the prevalence or lack of reference to cities, towns, rivers, lakes, valleys, hills or mountains, traveling, modes of travel, neighboring territories, and at the micro-level by reference to landmarks or particular peoples' homes.
  • The real Jesus was a physical human being. When evaluating the accounts of Jesus, the more physical context there is, the more authentic it's likely to be. This can be measured in the prevalence or lack of reference to everyday physical events like eating, drinking, sleeping, hunger, thirst, tiredness, looking at people, picking up things, standing up, sitting down, and all that type of thing that shows a physical context of physical beings. It can also be measured by the prevalence or lack of reference to the physical context of our surroundings such events happening at day or night, the weather being being hot or cold, whether a food crop is in season or not, passing storms, and the like. 
There are other criteria to be mentioned as well, but these are some of the most obvious and most easily measured. Anyone who reads the various accounts of Jesus -- both inside and outside the New Testament -- will quickly come to see that some documents are more grounded in a Jewish context, in first-century Roman-occupied Judea, in a physical world involving physical human beings. In fact, some documents are several orders of magnitude better grounded than others, with a far better claim to authenticity. The more a document's contents are grounded in the appropriate time and place and language and culture and physical world, the more we'd evaluate it as an authentic record of its time and place.

Here's the thing: I've run those analyses, and I know the answers; it leaves me with full confidence in the authenticity of the canonical gospels as the best sources on Jesus. Anyone with a computer and texts of the various documents could do the same. The fact that the scholars of the various Biblical studies departments haven't done a similar study leaves me with exasperated doubt about the authenticity of Biblical studies scholarship.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

"Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind" Meets Some Other Touchstone Verses

When Jesus was asked which command was the greatest, he said it was this: that we love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. It's easy to think of love in terms of heart, or possibly in terms of strength if we're trying it by will-power without much help from our hearts in some situations. Sometimes I wonder, "What part does each play?" Sometimes I find myself thinking: it doesn't help much to break it down; the point is we love with all that we have. At other times ... Well, this is one of the other times when I'm curious whether it would help to see the part played by each. And so I've taken some of the other touchstone verses of the Bible, and looked at whether each thing seems like a way to love with heart, soul, strength, or mind, in hopes that I'll see other ways to increase in love. I should mention: I take it as given that all these touchstone verses instruct us in how to increase our love. 
  • Characteristics of love: patient, kind, not jealous, not boastful, not proud, not rude, not self-seeking, not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, takes no delight in evil, rejoices in truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Kind, not jealous, rejoices in truth
Not boastful, not proud, not self-seeking, takes no delight in evil, hopes all things
Patient, not easily angered, bears all things, endures all things
Not rude, keeps no record of wrongs, believes all things

  • Sevenfold spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear of the Lord, joy in His presence. (Isaiah 11:2-3)
Joy in His presence
Fear of the Lord
Wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge

  • Taking off the old self: Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, and every form of malice. (Ephesians 4:31)
Get rid of bitterness
Get rid of bitterness
Get rid of rage, anger, brawling
Get rid of slander and malice.

  • Think on these things: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good reputation, if there is any virtue, or anything worthy of praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Whatever is lovely, of good reputation, worthy of praise
Whatever is honorable, just, pure, worthy of praise
Anything of virtue, worthy of praise
Whatever is true
Think on these things

Some of these of course could have been placed differently. Still, when I find that my heart isn't cooperating it's good to know how to help it along with my mind or strength, and vice versa.