Saturday, December 31, 2005

Proof of the World's Impending End? Look what Dallas did.

Today the Dallas Morning News issued its traditional annual award of Texan of the year. The winner: the city of Houston. (The "proof of the world's impending end" bit is about the traditional rivalry between Houston and Dallas; Houston is the larger city but sits on coastal swampland; Dallas has all the glamor. I really never thought I'd see the day when the Dallas newspaper praised Houston.)

Really, those outside the city have no idea what we've been through this year. Right after Katrina I reported the original estimates that we had 100,000 guests from New Orleans and vicinity; we now know that the original estimate was far too low, the real number having been closer to 300,000 unexpected guests come upon us in a single week. Some went home when they could. But between Katrina and Rita which devastated neighboring Beaumont, we have now around 150,000 new permanent residents more than we had a few short months ago. To say it has been a long haul and a struggle these last months would be a stunning understatement. But Houston has always been fond of its neighboring cities along I-10, Beaumont and New Orleans, and we would never dream of turning away our guests. Most of the 150,000 still here plan on staying.

My only regret in Houston taking the top spot for Texan of the year means that we bumped Lance Armstrong down to the #2 spot in what, in any other year, would have been his year. Lance has the same Texas spirit: "I don't care what the odds are, I'm planning to win anyway."

Selected previous posts on Houston's year
August 31, 2005 with caravan of 500 buses on the way
September 2, 2005 roundup of best efforts; estimates of 100,000 guests
September 18, 2005 A look inside a megashelter
September 28, 2005: my next-door-neighbor's life saved by 4 Katrina evacuees during the Rita evacuation

So this year Houston saw the largest shelter effort in American history, followed immediately by the largest evacuation in American history (away from Houston as a Category 5 storm took aim at us), and a trip to the World Series.

The massive effort to cope with the new population is far from over. We're scrambling to increase our police force and other services. But having some recognition -- especially from a customary rival -- was very touching and welcome.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Stewardship and Sovereignty

It is an amazing thing that God should entrust the works of his hands to us. This world rightly inspires awe and wonder; yet God has put the world and its creatures into our hands (Genesis 1:28, Psalm 8:6-8). He has also assigned us stewardship or management of our homes and families, our possessions and our days. In many places God's relationship to his people is portrayed as that between a landlord and tenants from whom he expects good management, or between a master and servants to whom he has entrusted his business.

Since mankind generally rebels against God, our being in charge has been more of a curse than a blessing. In the account of man's fall -- whether you take it as allegory or as literal the point still remains -- God had already given mankind dominion in this world, had already made us in the image of God; but we were greedy for more. We didn't want dominion under God, but dominion instead of God, free from God, in place of God. When power is no longer exercised in recognition of God's dominion, power itself becomes corrupted, as they say that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.1 But it was not power that corrupted us; we corrupted it. We have developed ideas of power and its use that are alien to God. We imagine that power is used to exalt the one who has power, that the glory of the powerful is to always get his way at the expense of others. The lords of the Gentiles lord it over them. But not so with us. The great will be a servant, and the greatest will be slave of all. We know this because the Lord of All laid aside all the trappings and benefits of power to save us; he taught his disciples about being a Lord -- the true Lord, the Lord of Lords -- by dressing in a towel and washing feet. Christ keeps finding ways to get through to us. His humility and love humble us and point us the right direction about managing our trusts under God. More could be said about using our trusts in service of others, in reverence for God, and in a shrewd way ...

More in a related post about the parable of the talents: God's Investment in the World.

1 - As a case in point about how even our ideas about power are twisted, I remember a definition given me in a college sociology class: the amount of power that Person A has over Person B is the amount of resistance on the part of Person B that can be overcome by the force of Person A. Seems reasonable until you see the Lord of Lords washing feet. Then you start thinking in terms of the amount of power Person A has to help Person B, or befriend him, or otherwise be some good to him.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Living the Faith: In Search of Christian Leadership

The emergent church movement has gotten a lot of press -- including some criticism that it does not define its theology. The emergents pride themselves on being defined not by "orthodoxy" but by "orthopraxy" (right practice), the buzzword of the day.

I am sympathetic towards the call for action. But is the emergent movement the home of a new kind of Christian? Not to pick on Brian McLaren too much in his unofficial leadership of the emergents, but I see him publishing books and going on speaking tours; from where I sit he looks very much like every other person earning a living by touring and proclaiming his own spirituality. I would not dream of denying his good motives; anyone who reads his writings will quickly recognize his kindly spirit. I was just hoping that the emergent church, with all its emphasis on living the faith, with all its well-practiced digs at those who merely study and talk, would itself do something more than study and talk about how we ought to be living.

Now if McLaren or his ilk would be the one -- some visible figure in the church needs to do this -- to go down to the Gulf Coast, possibly the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain (the ghost town formerly known as New Orleans) and the obliterated towns nearby -- and help rebuild, then he would find that he has more Christians sympathetic towards "orthopraxy" than he could count. If he were to spearhead the clearing and rebuilding efforts, coordinate the numerous volunteers already there in small groups and the more who plan to come, catalog the needs and give us a webplace to sign up, call us to use our summer vacations and come through in shifts, he would be doing a useful service. For that matter, if the Archdiocese of that heavily Roman Catholic area would do the same, or the Pope would set up an effort and issue an open call for help to the Christians of North America, he would quickly find how little our theological differences divide us in times like this. Our Christian leadership seems to accept marginalization -- and it directly hinders our effectiveness in helping people.

Some people looked at the recent disasters along the Gulf Coast and lamented the failing of government; fair enough. Many have looked at the same scene and have admitted the great worth of the religious efforts; again fair enough, we were there for the Louisianans when their government was not. But I still say the church is suffering from a mind-blowing lack of leadership at the higher levels. All it would take to accomplish so much would be one leader, someone who already has our ear, to say "Let's roll" and devote the next year of his life to the effort as a national volunteer coordinator. Is anybody out there? Does anybody have the ear of someone who could pull it off?

Christian Carnival #102

This week's carnival is up at The Secret Life of Gary. My favorite of the week: Touching the Face of God over at Penitent Blogger. Maybe just because I've been reading Coleridge again ...

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Christian Art Carnival ... er, Round Up

Awhile back I mentioned starting a Christian Art Carnival, to be posted December 28th. I suppose if I got out of my theological ghetto more often, I'd have known that there are Christian art contests already. Thanks to the kind people who pointed me the right direction. Along the way I made some good discoveries -- not the least of which is that artists are more likely to insist on being paid than bloggers -- but the better finds were in the artwork.

Christian Art Contest
Artists for God already has an art competition which would make a mere carnival superfluous. Some of my personal favorites are 0 A.D. by Isaac Waupio and The Invisible Kingdom by Jason Roberts. You have to click the "Close up" button above the pictures to get a decent view. And IMHO they missed the best pick for winner in Camille Barnes' entry.

But there was more good stuff than just the art competition. I've divided up my finds into popular iconography, noteworthy amateurs, professionals, and miscellany.

Popular Iconography
Besides my own roundup, Matt Stone has been doing a roundup for awhile. He has collections of African icons, Asian icons, Native American icons and a few other categories if you have the time. My favorite of them all was a Madonna and Child by Gary Chu in Hong Kong. This Asian resurrection icon by He Qi is a close second.

I should note that, if you really want African Christian art, nobody beats Vie de Jesus Mafa. The cover page is an African rendition of the Lord's Supper. In honor of Christmas, I'd like to highlight one of the Nativity pictures. Their whole collection is well worth the time.

Noteworthy Amateurs
The blogger Alexandra at All Things Beautiful has a gorgeous original graphic to head her open-thread conversation on the Trinity. It makes my little candle look like my children's fridge art.

Poyema has a modernist / symbolic style.

Those into synergism and symbolism will enjoy Messiah Song over at BAMGallery.

Yvonne Bell also does a fresh take on icons, of which my favorite is "He Took the Cup". She might possibly belong in the professionals category ...

Eldona Hamel does some very impressive bronze sculptures.

David Hetland has a beautiful collection of murals with a liturgical emphasis.

John August Swanson's style is more of a nouveau icon approach.

For those who want to bring the art home, Domestic Church has a do-it-yourself Christmas triptych for crayons, children, and the art's ultimate home on your refrigerator. (You have to click on page 1, page 2, and page 3 separately to get the full picture of the triptych.)

For other modern uses of art, there are clipart galleries such as Watton on the Web.

And that's it
If you know of other good sites and artists, please drop me a note.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christian Humanism?

"I believe in man," I have seen a secular humanist write. That was especially ironic from one who said that mankind's horrific evils were reason to reject belief in God. Christianity values humanity made in the image of God, even if that image is now tarnished; but we are at odds with this humanism's naive optimism about the human condition and its faulty evaluation of what brings out the best in mankind. And should mankind have the position on the top of the pedestal where we tend to put ourselves? Here I will sketch out not exactly a Christian humanism but a few points about why following Christ makes for better humans than such humanist systems.

Mankind's problem with evil
Mankind is responsible for more acts of hatred, spite and oppression than can easily be counted. As followers of Christ, we start with an honest acknowledgment that mankind has done horrible things and (contrary to the relativists) that these things are genuinely wrong. We are also instructed to resist the temptation to scapegoat other people, but instead to honestly search our own hearts and minds for the evil that lies there and for our part in the problem of evil.

The relativists who do not acknowledge anything as genuinely good or evil have a problem deciding on a direction away from evil and towards good. How can someone decide what is "better" without a concept of good in the first place? As Christians, we are in a stronger position to make progress by having an objective concept of good and evil. We are also in a better position to assert mankind's worth even in the face of our real problem with evil, already having an understanding of mankind's condition that acknowledges both the good and evil within us. Secular humanists sometimes deny that mankind has a real problem with evil; the problem is often scapegoated onto religion. In the twentieth century, the anti-religious crowd had a larger following than ever before, and the anti-religious leaders (Stalin, Mao) or anti-Christian and anti-Jewish (Hitler) perpetrated some of the worst atrocities the world had yet seen. (Somehow, there are still people who are unaware of Hitler's stated plan to eliminate Christianity, or the systematic persecutions of Christians who resisted his church takeover. To say the least, it is strange that these things are still news to some.) We Christians would be suffering some kind of amnesia if we did not remember the abuses of our own religion at times. We must acknowledge that those named above likewise abused their anti-religious prejudices and/or atheism. The point is this: the facts show that the "blame religion" theory of human evil is nothing but scapegoating, a convenient prejudice dressed up nicely in the hopes of gaining a respectability which has not been earned.

When it comes to our faults, the worst in mankind tends to happen when people have convinced themselves that they could not be part of the problem, so it follows that someone else must be the problem with the world. When such a basic mistake takes place, oppression and atrocities are likely to follow. This temptation affects all camps; but humanism's premise that mankind is essentially good leaves it little defense against that problem within its own ranks. The assumption of mankind's enduring goodness leads people to turn a blind eye to humanity's tendency towards evil, making it especially easy to overlook our own faults. This blindness to our own faults is one of humanity's worst and most enduring problems. In this, Christ's pointed reminder to "first look at the log in your own eye" is a healthy corrective to this human blind spot, one that could be applied even more often with good results. Aside from the blind spot about homegrown evil in our own camps, the premise of mankind's basic goodness also leaves little room to address the more general problem of evil, a problem that is not acknowledged to exist in the first place.

Mankind's highest and best
Though mankind stoops to some horrifying lows, it also soars to some impressive highs. Mankind has painting, sculpture, literature, music, architecture, philosophy, mathematics, and an impressive array of sciences to our credit. The best of mankind is motivated by a passion for beauty, for excellence, for the eternal, for truth, for knowledge. To "excel" is to strive to go beyond -- and here is one of the largest weaknesses of humanism. Humanism puts mankind on top of the pedestal already; there is nothing higher so there is little to inspire, little to draw out the best in us. Secular humanism in particular denies that there exists a great quest, a great meaning which is beyond us; relativism denies the objective reality of beauty and truth and goodness. Some humanists imagine that a well-constructed, peaceful system of government and economics is likely inspire the best in us; Christians likewise aim for good systems but do not suppose that peace and prosperity of themselves lead to any great inspiration.

In striving for excellence, again the followers of Christ find ourselves at an advantage. Christ inspires us by the simple fact of being greater than us. It is no accident that Christ is the inspiration behind a vast body of music, literature, architecture, philosophy, painting, and sculpture for the last two thousand years of mankind. It is not just in the field of the arts where Christians have produced significant works. In humanitarian works and innovations, we are inspired by Christ's teachings to love mankind in practice; Christians have led the way from innovations such as Braille to institutions such as the Salvation Army and the Red Cross (in which, to be fair, other religions and secular nations have now joined in acting out the teachings of Christ, such is their universal appeal). In mathematics and science, the Christian values of honesty and devotion to truth, along with the Western Christian scholastic emphasis on study, research and systematization, made the Western Christian lands a natural place for the sciences to flourish. The Reformation emphasis on finding the truth by study and research rather than reliance on authority didn't hurt there either.

I know it's a fair criticism that I've barely scratched the surface of what could be said about humanism; I'm trying to keep to a reasonable length for a blog. It would also be a fair criticism that I have only contended that we beat humanists at their own game but have not yet contended for the reality of Christianity or God's own role in our transformation; I have posted on those topics before and plan to again, but it is beyond the scope of what I'm writing today.

In closing I'll ask two questions of humanism: Is man better off with himself at the top of the pedestal? And has he earned that place?

Silly Survey

You Are Thai Food

Trendy yet complex.
People seek you out - though they're not sure why.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Aslan Seminar (Humor)

What if there were an Aslan Seminar, similar to the Jesus Seminar? Here is a letter from a Narnian skeptic:
"... And all that outrageous nonsense about Aslan being good. Why you'd think they'd completely forgotten about all the barbarity. He fought a real battle -- and killed talking beasts -- at the Battle of Beruna. How do you think they felt, being mauled by lions and impaled by unicorns? What utter nonsense to think of Aslan as some kind of hero, considering his bloody record. Not only did he maul people at Beruna (and order his troops to do the same), but he also mauled a girl riding horseback in plain peacetime once. He seems simply to have a taste for blood, like any other wild animal."

"The story about his having been killed and raised again is obviously a fiction. What witnesses were there other than Susan and Lucy? And they were both tired, befuddled, and grief-stricken, and seeing events in dim light too, even by their own accounts. Not only that, but Susan and Lucy themselves are problematic; we can't be entirely certain they even existed. No, we simply must dismiss the whole thing as nonsense concocted to try to salvage the hopelessly-damaged reputation of the bloodthirsty savage, Aslan ...

Saturday, December 24, 2005

"Love is not a feeling" -- oh really?

I was debating whether to post such a semi-surly post here on Christmas Eve. By the time I was done typing, I saw that it was basically a rant. But this one has been bothering me for a long time, and its thought was going to interfere with anything else I tried to write so I figured I'd better just get it over with.

I have lost track of how many times I have heard Christian leaders (and their followers) comment on the greatest commandments: Love the LORD your God ... Love your neighbor ... and fairly quickly say this: "Love is not a feeling." I googled for posts where "love your neighbor" and "not a feeling" were posted together. Hundreds of them, and that's only the ones containing those exact phrases. Naturally google doesn't count the dozens of times I've heard it in sermons and Bible classes.

Excuse me, but: YES, love is a feeling. It's worth noticing that love is more than a feeling: it's also our decision, our action, our gift from God. But I think "love is not a feeling" is one of the most wrong-headed pieces of nonsense that we tolerate in the church as if it were wise. We love with "heart, mind, soul, and strength"; this is for God and also for our neighbors, since love of God and love of neighbor cannot rightly be separated. We love not just with mind, soul, and strength, but with heart also.

Can you command love? Well, the law does command love so obviously you can. Does it make sense to command love? In the sense that the law shows what God really considers the fulfillment of righteousness, it makes sense. Does anyone expect love to be generated in obedience to a command? Of course not; in this case the law shows us how wrong-hearted we are. It shows how little we actually appreciate God and neighbor that such love is not already present in us. The lack of love highlights our sinful hearts plainly. And the fact that we can limp along without love in our hearts ("love is not a feeling") but still manage the actions as an effort of will, this is a step in the right direction, but a halting and imperfect step that rightly should embarrass us with its pathetic and cold-hearted nature.

If there's one thing worse than not loving our neighbors, it's pretending that we love our neighbors when we don't because after all "love is not a feeling." Nonsense. We're sinners. We have fallen short of the glory of God. We do not love either God or neighbor as we should. And loving our neighbors -- yes, with our hearts too -- is God's desire for us.

(Steps back off of soap box.) I feel better. Next time I hear someone say that, I'll be better prepared for a calmer disagreement, more prepared to challenge the continuing repetition of something false and damaging. Take care & God bless.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Christian Counseling: Psychological Problems and Spiritual Solutions

Adrian Warnock is stirring up a conversation on Christian Counseling where he invited thoughts from readers.

First, I would not want to ignore or deny the role of actual physical and medical roots of certain psychological problems. For those familiar with the U.T. sniper many years ago, he had a physical abnormality in his brain. There is no doubt that some psychological problems are medical, having a physical or chemical basis. While counseling is not going to resolve a biological problem, it can help with other types of problems.

In this conversation I'm assuming the context of Christian counseling: a Christian counselor and a Christian seeking help. At the risk of repeating what other people have surely noticed, here are some thoughts on how Christianity can build mental health. I'll keep them brief:

Problems with acceptance of reality
Perfection in this world is an unrealistic goal. Jesus tells us, "In this world you will have trouble." On a Christian view, imperfection does not interfere with something being truly valuable in God's sight. There is a framework of hope that expects God will keep his promise to redeem us and this fallen creation. In light of this, we can more readily admit that things are not as they should be or as we wish.

Problems with self-control
Everybody who tries to lead a holy life struggles with self-control at some point. This includes both addictive behaviors and other "loss of control" scenarios such as rage or abusive behavior. Christ insists on both forgiveness of sins (God remembers that we are only dust, fragile and frail) and on putting our whole-hearted efforts into turning our backs on sin. The Christian is encouraged to make repentance a daily struggle. Consciously turning away from destructive things and turning towards God are a way of life. As a practical matter, Christianity recognizes that the struggle against a problem may well be life-long. The constancy of Christ's love, the depth of his forgiveness, and the firmness with which he insists that we turn our backs on sin are all necessary for a struggling person to maintain perseverance and hope.

Problems with guilt
Christ's forgiveness is the antidote to the poison of guilt. A person's reluctance to accept their own forgiveness finds its answer in the cross of Christ. There is nothing we have done which would have demanded a more horrible or severe penalty than Christ has suffered. Christ's sacrifice for the sins of the world is the healing of our wounds. This also makes honesty about our faults less frightening.

Problems with self-acceptance
Christ befriended the despised of society. He didn't consider it a problem even when they were despised for good reason. Every once in awhile a person may think, "If people knew such a thing about me, they would despise me." That may even be true. But Christ came to seek the sick, those who need a doctor, and to heal them.

Problems with acceptance of others
Have you ever had an irritating, obnoxious, or annoying person amongst your coworkers or family? The acceptance of others begins with knowing that Christ values the person and died for them; he came for the lost, the sick, and the unrighteous. Acceptance of others is also helped by the honest knowledge that we have real faults ourselves. In accepting and loving someone who has real faults, we simply do for other as we would have them do for us. For those tempted to deny the reality of faults in people they love in order to maintain love, this provides a healthier framework for seeing the reality of the fault but keeping it in perspective.

Problems with resentment
Resentment, stewing on wrongs of the past, is a problem with forgiveness; likewise bitterness. These are mind-corroding emotions. Forgiveness does not mean that the wrong was really ok. Finding an excuse is not granting forgiveness, but denying the need for forgiveness. Christianity allows us to take an honest look at the actual wrong done, making no excuses, yet still helping with forgiveness through the cross of Christ.

Problems with grief
Grief over the deaths of loved ones can cause a long-term struggle. The resurrection of Christ and Christ's promise that he will raise us up at the last day are the only genuine consolation in the face of death. The fact that things may never be the same again can be faced squarely and accepted as part of the cross that we bear. The fact that memories are an inadequate substitute for a real person is also faced honestly.

Problems facing mortality
As grief over others' deaths can plague us, so can fear of our own death. Christ's resurrection means that the rational response to thoughts of our own death is to trust Christ, who promised he would raise us up at the last day.

Problems with stress
The background of a Christian's approach to stress is trust in Christ's statement: "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart; I have overcome the world." Even the worst defeat and damage are, in the end, reparable. God does not promise an easy life, but he does promise both his love and his redemption.

Problems with meaninglessness
It is a common experience for Christians to read Jesus' teaching on the sheep and the goats and know inside themselves what it is they hope to do for God in this life. Christianity encourages us to devote ourselves to practical action to help where help is needed most, acting in simple ways that are within our reach, as Christ has taught us. Christianity also teaches us not to despise the humble and simple things; the first people we care for are within our own families.

No doubt there is more room for discussion under every point. But in short, Christ's life, death, and resurrection provide an objective basis for hope, honesty, perseverance, compassion, and love. The Christian counselor has a far more profound way of helping someone than merely advising them to try again. They can offer them legitimate reason for hope and for perseverance, even in the face of a life-long struggle.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Vastness of God, the Smallness of Man

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place -- what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4)
It seems like God has better things to worry about, doesn't it? The universe is so vast and we are small; it is so glorious and we are lowly. God's greatness, to our natural thought, means that he should have no particular concern for us. Which just goes to show you how far wrong our natural thought can lead us. The Psalm quoted above continues to say how God has blessed and honored us. Jesus tops even that:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father. Even the very hairs of year head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:28-31)
God is not ashamed to be concerned with things even smaller and less important than we are. He does not think it too lowly or trivial for him to be mindful of sparrows. To a much greater extent he does not think it too lowly or trivial to be mindful of us. If we understand his greatness the way Christ describes it, we have assurance that for one so great as God, caring for us is no problem at all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Disert Paths of Mysticism

For those following along, Disert Paths has also been running a series on Christian mysticism. I have not yet interacted with those posts and wanted to pick up on some of those thoughts.

After Dr. P. showed a basis for mysticism in theology and exegesis, he continued to my favorite post in the series, Methods of Encounter. He has lots of good recommendations there, from meditative prayer to fasting to the essential but underpracticed discipline of internal silence. My own most common practice is meditating on a Scripture reading. How is this different from simply reading Scripture? That depends on how you normally read Scripture, I suppose. The meditative reader stops and ponders, puzzles and prays. Meditation on Scripture wrestles with the passage a little bit, not setting the goal of achieving a conclusion but aiming to make sure that every facet has been seen and understood, its thoughts being made part of our own thoughts. A meditative reading does not see Scripture as information alone, but also as the life-giving food which God gives us to sustain us (Deut 8:3, Matt 4:4). The mind is active, questioning and probing, but is not permitted that detached arrogance over its subject which is the mind's peculiar temptation. The mind interacts knowing that it may be required to grow and transform to encompass the thoughts of him who says "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways." (Isaiah 55:8)

For what it's worth, I find that meditational Scripture reading is among the most practical and well-grounded approaches. In contrast, an approach of mentally entering a spiritual realm hoping to hear the voice of God has certain risks (as Dr. P. has mentioned) and temptations along with it. This world is a spiritual realm already, we just tend not to notice. If you want to hear the word of God plainly, you've probably already got it on your nightstand or bookshelf and it serves as a steady and grounded focus for meditation. Trying to receive a special revelation of the word of God leads to a temptation to manufacture an experience or revelation, a temptation to self-deception in mistaking your own thoughts for God's (Jeremiah 23:16). Meet God at the word he has already spoken and be content with it. If you happen to hear more, remember to test what you have heard (1 Thess. 5:21), not receiving it uncritically, though still holding on to the good. Meeting God in a companionable silence or a reverent silence also has much to recommend it.

Dr. P. included a link in his post to a site that explains meditational reading well. I recommend the site, but it does remind me of one of the "problems of mysticism" I forgot to mention: the enfatuation with foreign languages and obscure terms unfamiliar to the average reader. I remember enough of my Latin that this site doesn't bother me until it comes time to recommend it to the general reader. Likely the writer is just steeped in a culture where that is acceptable. But for those just passing through, the whole "dress it up in fancy phrases, preferably in Latin" thing can be "off-putting" as they say. It helps recall the ancient roots of the practice and the site has a good, in-depth walk-through of how to read contemplatively. For some people such "dressing up" might help with the sense of reverence; for others it actively interferes with it, making it seem arcane and out-of-touch and lending to the suspicion of being artificial or contrived. In reading that site, it may help to remind to yourself, "the Latin jargon is just a nod to the ancient roots of this discipline." Developing the practice is well worth the time.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Merry Christmas Meme

Darrel Pursiful of Disert Paths has started a "Merry Christmas" meme. He gave me a great Christmas present by way of a very generous review of my blog. He was very lavish with the praise and I'll have to admit that my head was in the clouds until I started trying to think about my next post, still half-finished in the Drafts area. (And Susan, until today I didn't even know you knew I had a blog, thank you for the kind comments.)

He invited me to pass along the Christmas cheer to two other blogs, preferably ones that are smallish and might like a traffic boost. So that means not you or you or even you since you probably have way more traffic than I do and all five of my readers already read your blogs. It's likely enough that the blogs I'm tagging also have more traffic than I do since I don't bother with stats ... but I am tagging: (see next posts)

Merry Christmas Metacrock

Darrel Pursiful tagged me with his new Merry Christmas meme.

Meta is the first friend I made on-line and has been with me through thick and thin for nearly a decade now. Don't let the dyslexic spelling fool you, he's done his homework in apologetics. His Doxa website has an incredible amount of original writings on it, product of Meta's decade or so of active on-line Christian apologetics. Highlights include the resurrection pages, the King Messiah pages, and the historical Jesus pages. His blog, like his website, often delves into new ground and original thought such as his recent post on God's love as the basis for being, motivation for creation, and basis of morality. Awesome post. It needed saying and he said it well. He makes a valuable contribution to the Christian blogosphere.

The celebration continues
You're invited to tag two other bloggers that you enjoy reading and wish them a Merry Christmas with a link from your blog and a comment on theirs.

Merry Christmas Steven H.

Darrel Pursiful tagged me with his new Merry Christmas meme.

Sven first caught my eye back when he was doing some of those on-line quizzes. He put out the theology quizzes that were all the rage for awhile earlier this year. If I had seen a "quiz of the year" award, those would have gotten my vote. He has a great sense of humor, which is probably his strongest suit of all. My favorite of his recent posts shines the spotlight on the theological watchdog phenomenon. He has a passion for honest conversation and writes with earnestness. He's willing to tackle controversial material and willing to stand his ground against pressure-tactics. He has good instincts theologically.

Now, it was not part of the original meme but I thought I'd mention: if I were to really go Christmas-shopping for you (SH), I'd have gotten you A Short History of the Atonement from my favorite Christian book order firm, Eighth Day Books. Why would I recommend it? Because you're obviously interested in the subject and you obviously like to read; natural fit.

The celebration continues
You're invited to tag two other bloggers that you enjoy reading and wish them a Merry Christmas with a link from your blog and a comment on theirs.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The beginning of wisdom

Wisdom and "philosophy"
The love of wisdom is supposed to be "philosophy", if you believe the advertisement implied in the origins of that word. But "philosophy" as a formal study has not had much interest in whether people in general conduct their lives with wisdom. It has become an eclectic discipline aimed at elevating the knowledge of its students, not a benevolent one aimed at elevating the lives of the lowly. So we find ourselves (commonplace complaint) in an "advanced" age where many of us can truly say our parents and grandparents lived more fulfilling lives.

Christian philosophers have had a lot to say on traditional topics of philosophy such as truth or the nature of reality. But for the ultimate Christian philosophy, the most important wisdom is knowing God. I'd like to start with a quote that most philosophers would run from as fast as they could manage:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)
Fear and Reverence
Have you ever played a game of dueling definitions over that verse? One person says "fear" means "fear" then the other person says "fear" means "awe and reverence." Then a drive-by atheist says "See, your religion is just about fear and intimidation and oppression, and have I mentioned lately that everything wrong with the world is your fault?"

But one of my themes in this blog is that we Christians have too long self-censored to appease the atheists. I hope to encourage other Christians to ignore petty sniping based on misunderstandings of our Scriptures (some of them wilfull), and to get on with living Christian lives. To which end I'm not planning in backing off in the least.

So back to "fear" and "reverence." In my years in the workforce, which is a good many by now, I've had only one boss years back that I would say that I "feared." (This does not count the few that I thought were borderline insane.) And the thing was, he was an undisputably fair man and it never crossed my mind that he would treat me unfairly. Neither is fear a very natural emotion for me when it comes to a boss; cooperation yes, boredom occasionally; but this was a bit of a new experience for me. He was at the top of his game, someone that I picked up tips from whenever I could. As for work ethics and integrity, I was impressed with him and took him as a role model. Only once did I ever see him become angry with someone, and it was well-deserved. A few times I saw him show people the door and terminate their jobs, and again it happened only when plainly deserved. He wasn't a harsh person either, but when it was called for he had no qualms about doing what was necessary.

Why exactly was I afraid of him? It wasn't because he was unfair; I never heard a soul charge him with that. It wasn't because I was slacking; I never heard a soul charge me with that either. It was because I never heard him make a criticism which wasn't fully justified. Some people you can blow off their criticisms; "consider the source." But not this one. Again, "consider the source." If he'd had something to say against my work, it would have bothered me because I would have had no doubt that he was right. My respect for him -- and the fact that it was thoroughly earned -- oddly enough was the only basis on which I actually feared him. That was the tie between respect and fear, even in a boss who was just an outstanding though doubtless fallible professional.

Likewise, the idea of God as the final judge of history gives people a "fear of God." Again, the problem is that we know his criticism will be justified, the judgment will be true. That makes it more frightening, not less. If it weren't for mercy, forgiveness, and redemption, everyone would have to despair.

To the Christian, knowing God begins with knowing that he is God and we're not; that he is holy and we are not; that he is above reproach and, as much as we hate to acknowledge it, we are not. As "fear of condemnation", the fear of God is based in our faults heightened by the contrast with his holiness. But our reverence is based on his holiness and excellence alone, without the shame of our faults. In this sense, fear of God is a thing of this fallen world, but reverence will endure into eternity.

Thinking more clearly about fear
A quick word is in place about fear: determining when it is rational, when it is healthy, and when it is legitimate (for even a rational and healthy fear can be abused). Most people seem fairly clear on the difference between a rational fear and an irrational fear, based on whether the object of the fear is actually dangerous. But even a perfectly rational fear can still be received in ways that are healthy or unhealthy. Received in an unhealthy way, fear can paralyze and render helpless, or it can lead to a panic in which the actions taken do more harm than good. A healthy reaction to fear drives us to take action about the danger. This action requires thought but still moves in a timely way, knowing that real dangers will not wait until we're ready for them. Some people imagine that the only irrationality with fear is by being too afraid, but this is not the case. When there is a real danger, then inaction is the irrational course; then inaction is an evidence of disdain for life and well-being, not an evidence of wisdom or courage. When fear is mastered and brought to brave action it is called courage; when rational fear is ignored and tamed to inaction it is foolishness. One of the habitual mistakes of our times is to mistake lazy or irrational inaction for courage and open-mindedness.

Even such a quick-sketch survey of rationality and fear would be lacking without mention of the exploitation of fear. Unfortunately, the abuse of fear is not unusual, and fear is among the tools of first choice of the unscrupulous. Fear is at times abused to produce the paralysis of the small hunted animal; this is manipulative and oppressive. There is also a manipulative use where people incite fear in order to drive people to an action that then appears wise and brave. This abuse can happen even with rational fears. When fear -- or the answering action -- does not suggest itself to our own minds but is instead recommended to us by a third party, a review of the reality of the danger and the fittingness of the action is in order, in the same way as when fear and action present themselves to our own minds.

In continuing the discussion of "fear," it is to be understood that I am discussing fear in the sense of a rational and healthy fear, the kind that leads to a rational and healthy action in response to a real danger.

The beginning of wisdom
Both fear of God and reverence for God belong to the "beginning of wisdom" in this world. They both teach us humility. They both teach us respect for God. They both tend to open the mind towards learning and instruction just as their opposites, false security and irreverence, tend to close the mind. Of these two, fear tends more towards action, while reverence tends more towards a peaceable gladness. This is not to say that fear or reverence is better, but it is to say that each has a legitimate place. Separating fear and reverence from each other would lead us wrong quickly, as we will see.

Can fear of God be a good thing, or bring about wisdom? (One of the ancients would laugh to hear that question; it was an obvious thing to them that the fear of God was a good thing.) Those who fear God tend to be wiser about sexual responsibility, wiser about drugs and alcohol. Many of the widespread and serious social problems of today are directly rooted in drugs, alcohol, and sexual irresponsibility. A parent's problems with drugs, alcohol, and sexual irresponsibility often have direct consequences for their children by way of poverty and educational problems. Or as the Psalmist said thousands of years ago, "The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple." (Psalm 19:7)

As for fear of God, if we paint God as a cosmic bully we have done more than just defame his character unjustly, we have also lessened the true fear of God. The true fear of God is not based on accusing God of capricious peevishness, but is based on the rightness of his judgments and the goodness of his character, being unwilling to have shamed ourselves or to be in the wrong before him. The difference is whether the real problem is in God's character or in ours. Our response is also different. If the problem is wrongly located in God's character then the choices are to knuckle under to a tyrant (or, in the case of many atheists, to rebel but see yourself as a freedom fighter against oppression). If the problem is correctly located in our own character, then action is to seek a purity and holiness like his, and to seek his mercy.

Apart from fear, does reverence teach us anything? Its wisdom is to appreciate what is good. If our faults are the basis of our fear, then God's goodness is the basis for our hope. In that, our reverence for God strengthens our hope. It follows that a false teaching of the fear of God, one that denies God's goodness, completely destroys hope.

Reverence also gives us strength. As they say, "The joy of the LORD is our strength." Those who have no reverence for God's goodness are not likely to be celebrating it. Those who have nothing to celebrate are defeated already.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Apologetics and Earplugs

The Dawn Treader is musing, over at CADRE Comments, on why the church needs apologetics even when the lost won't listen.

It's true enough that the church benefits from apologetics, and it's true enough that it's rare for the lost to listen. I also am sure that the author of the original piece has a point when he mentions that the will to do what we want (and nevermind God) is often the driving factor away from God.

I think the #1 problem with apologetics is that it's sometimes seen as our only tool, when actually it's just a prelude or accompaniment to evangelism. Apologetics does not convert people just as the defense on a football team typically does not score points. If the problem is the intellect, then apologetics is just the thing. But if the opposition to Christ comes from the will, then it's time to switch to evangelism. If the atheist thinks of God as a cosmic bully, he will act in self-preservation and display hatred, treating arguments irrationally because the desired direction is "away from God" regardless of the "facts" argued for God's existence. The only antidote to this is Christ, and especially the cross of Christ.

When I read the article, I couldn't help thinking that as much as there are some genuine hammerheads in the skeptic row, it's unhealthy to always only look at what the other side is doing wrong and never look in the mirror, so to speak. We find a legitimate fault in many of our hearers and then we quietly give ourselves a free pass; funny, that's basically what we accuse them of doing and think it unfair. If we look in the mirror a little bit, here are some things that would make our apologetics more effective:
  1. The Bible says over and again that the first-line of winning over unbelievers is living pure and holy lives. If we are not a visible light to those around us, if they do not see our good works, then they will not glorify our Father in heaven.
  2. In humility, remember that we ourselves are occasionally part of the problem. It's human nature; everybody is part of the problem sometimes. If we can never see it in ourselves then we're blind and conceited.
  3. Remember that we're doing this for God. If we fly into a rage during a disagreement or treat other people with contempt, we've lost credibility for God even if we're right on the facts and logic.
  4. Care as much about them as about being right. "If I understand all mysteries but have not love, I'm an annoying and senseless noise" (Paul, I Cor 13, paraphrase).
  5. Stop bashing fellow-Christians to score points with the unbelievers. I'm sure the skeptics find that entertaining; I doubt they find it appealing. How well does it demonstrate a Christ-like spirit?
  6. Deal with our own lunatic fringe firmly but not hatefully. Speaking of those Christians that are beyond the pale, remember that every group has its lunatic fringe and we're no exceptions. Jesus instructed us to approach people with whom we have a problem directly.
  7. Know when to switch to evangelism. The good news is Christ: Real forgiveness for real sins; real resurrection after real death. It's simple, it's true, and it's the only thing in the world that can legitimately keep despair at bay.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Faith, works, and Rahab

Q. If "faith without works is dead" then where does a prostitute stand?
A. Right next to Abraham in the "works hall of fame".
Was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? (James 2:26)
Of course Rahab's righteous work included lying (Joshua 2:5-6); her righteous works were tainted and open to criticism. And James plainly states that this all happened back when she was still a prostitute, making no mention himself of any future reform after that date.

It is a misuse of James to try to make him a spokesman for "earning salvation by clean living." When he speaks in his own words, he tells you himself: "I will show you my faith by what I do." (James 2:18)

The message that can change someone who has given up in life is not "Try harder." It is "Your sins are forgiven."

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The task and theme of theology

I've recently become a reader of Faith and Theology by Ben Myers. Reading his favorite posts, I saw one on the task and theme of theology. Amazing how differently people can think of "theology". Here are my thoughts on the task and theme of theology, playing off Ben Myers' points somewhat:
  1. The task of theology is to know God, which is to say to know him by fellowship and not by mere analysis.
  2. The theme of theology is the communion of God with man.
  3. In content, this means knowing the Word of God joining with humanity in Christ.
  4. In content, this also means knowing the Holy Spirit transforming us into Sons of God and temples of God like Christ.
  5. This fellowship with God is "grace"; it is proclaimed in the work of God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
  6. Therefore the task of theology is to restore us to fellowship with God by the knowledge of Christ, leading us to become a sanctuary for God's Spirit in this world.
Which just goes to show that different premises lead to different ends.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Virgin Birth: How the new creation meets the old

Last post we looked at how the prophecy of the virgin birth is in accordance with the Jewish view of all prophecy being Messianic. Now for a look at this question: Why a virgin birth?

Some anti-Christian diatribes have long insisted that the virgin birth was taught because either God or his followers are anti-sex. That's a strange accusation considering the very first blessing from God to man listed in the Bible is that man should "Be fruitful and multiply." (Genesis 1:28). Orthodox Christianity has a high view of sexual intimacy and the holiness of the physical bond and the power to create new life; these are noticeably lacking in the secular view.

Here are two of the themes that the Bible itself draws out in connection with Jesus' birth:

A new creation
Since the ancient genealogies listed Adam as "son of God", none since could claim that -- until Jesus, who could likewise claim God himself as father. To the original Jewish audience, this is an echo of creation. It shows Jesus as the beginning of the new creation, of the new heavens and new earth that had been foretold. His birth announces him as the "second Adam". Paul picks up on this theme of the new creation beginning with Christ.

What of the old creation?
If Jesus is supposed to be like Adam, then why not create Jesus from the dust to be the beginning of an entirely new creation? To create from the dust would be to make a new human race. That kind of creation would be alien to humanity as it exists. This kind of "new creation" would replace the old; when the former things pass away, there would be no trace of what had gone before. But Jesus is the beginning of the new creation from within our own humanity. As Paul writes, "born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law." He does not come to replace us, but to redeem us. The promise of Jesus being born of a woman, like us, is that we will likewise be transformed into this new kind of humanity -- also become "sons of God" through what Christ has done for us.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Messiah: The Talmud on Messianic Prophecy

The charge is sometimes made that the New Testament makes improper use of the Hebrew Scriptures, forcing certain passages into service as Messianic prophecies when originally they were not intended to be such. A look at another ancient Jewish writing, the Talmud, sets the record straight and sheds new light on Messianic prophecies.

Of course, whenever three theologians are together, there are four opinions among them. This article is no demonstration that a certain view of a certain Scripture must be held; in fact in reading the Talmud there are very few views that are held without any difference of opinion. The purpose of this is simply to show, with references, that the Messianic interpretations of those who wrote the New Testament were in line with acceptable and traditional thoughts of ancient Judaism.

The Messianic Scriptures
The Talmud related an ancient Jewish approach related to interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures:

“All the prophets prophesied only for the days of the Messiah” – Berachoth 34b

And again

“All the prophets prophesied only in respect of the Messianic era;” – Sanhedrin 99a

Did everyone hold this view? Not necessarily; there is also an opinion that all prophets prophesied on behalf of those who would marry their daughters to scholars. (Just remember how many scholars were involved in writing the Talmud and it makes more sense.) While the comment about scholars was probably intended as humor – actual examples of its application are rare at best – the point is not a unanimous view. Very few views are ever held unanimously. The point is that interpreting all prophesy in light of the Messiah was an accepted ancient Jewish tradition with many examples of its kind.

Reading the Talmud, we see that all kinds of Scriptures are interpreted with Messianic interpretation. The passages considered Messianic included a great many which did not specifically refer to Messiah, and this was considered not just tolerable but also right. When Ruth, ancestress of King David, has leftover grain, this is seen to prefigure the days of the Messiah (Shabbath 113b). Teachings of the meals to eat on the Sabbath are interpreted as having special importance for the Messianic era (Shabbath 118a).

What does this mean? It means that the New Testament usage of the Hebrew Scriptures was true to the traditional methods and interpretive precepts of ancient Judaism. It is therefore legitimate interpretation to read passages such as “Out of Egypt I shall call my son” as Messianic. Likewise, it is legitimate interpretation according to ancient Hebrew practice to read “The maiden shall conceive and bear a child” as Messianic. It is worth remembering that it was the ancient Hebrews who considered it right to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the Messiah, even when the immediate meaning was not directly about Messiah. This was no late innovation specific to followers of Jesus. More importantly, it was not seen as a distortion of the texts to interpret them in a Messianic light.

Specific Messianic Prophecies
Aside from the vague prefigurings such as Sabbath meals and Ruth’s leftover grain, what are some of the specific things that were expected of the Messiah? Are any passages more directly about the Messiah?

There is an interesting discussion recorded in Sukkah 52a starting with the passage “the land will mourn” (Zechariah 12:12):

“What is the cause of the mourning? — R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained, The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, and the other explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.”

The question is raised, “It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son.” – Sukkah 52a (Scripture referenced is Zechariah 12:10, part of the same passage originally being discussed)

Those who hold to the view of the slaying of the evil inclination also discuss their view. It is interesting to note that, in their discussion, they never object to the idea of the Messiah being slain.

The discussion continues in the same passage of the Talmud:

“Our Rabbis taught, The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), ‘Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee’, as it is said, I will tell of the decree etc. this day have I begotten thee, ask of me and I will give the nations for thy inheritance. But when he will see that the Messiah the son of Joseph is slain, he will say to Him, ‘Lord of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life’.’As to life’, He would answer him, ‘Your father David has already prophesied this concerning you’, as it is said, He asked life of thee, thou gavest it him.” – Sukkah 52a (Scriptures referenced are Psalm 2:7-8, and Psalm 21:4.)

Another discussion focuses on different views of when and how to look for Messiah’s coming:

“R. Alexandri said: R. Joshua opposed two verses: it is written, And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, whilst [elsewhere] it is written, lowly, and riding upon an ass! — if they are meritorious, with the clouds of heaven; if not, lowly and riding upon an ass.” – Sanhedrin 98a (Scriptures referenced are Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 9:9.)

Few of the conversations are as tightly-focused as this. When looking at passages that are directly Messianic, it is more plain how they apply to Messiah. When we look at secondary interpretations, it becomes less plain. Christians in particular will enjoy reading an ancient discussion on calculating when Messiah will come and how long the earth will endure. One commentator uses the following passage in this discussion of the duration of the world and the coming of the Messiah:

“After two days will he revive us: in the third day, he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight.” – Sanhedrin 97a (Scripture referenced is Hosea 6:2)

The commentator himself, while seeing Messianic implications, does not interpret this in the same way that a modern Christian would. But based on the Messianic view of Scripture, we can see in this passage how Jesus could say that the prophets foretold he would be raised from the dead on the third day.

According to ancient Jewish principles of interpretation, any passage of Scripture might contain a hidden mention of Messiah, and that knowledge should be sought out. In short, the Messianic view of Scripture is valid and directly rooted in accepted practices of ancient Judaism.

Originally blogged on CADRE Comments 04/07/2005

Friday, December 09, 2005

Problems with Mysticism

As I mentioned at the beginning of this series on mysticism, a number of criticisms can be leveled against it and some of them are legitimate. Here are some of the more blatant ones.

The "John the Baptist" fallacy
John the Baptist was a holy man. He lived in the desert, wore strange clothes, and ate strange food. But living in the desert, wearing strange clothes, and eating strange food does not make you holy. Dedicating your life to showing people Christ, the way to God -- that is a holy life. Strange food and strange clothes and deserts have nothing to do with it.

The "eccentric" fallacy
Some very holy people, turning their backs on the world to serve God, are seen as eccentric. That does not mean that being eccentric is a sign of holiness. Turning your back on worldiness to serve God is a sign of holiness. Acting bizarrely, speaking strangely, or having odd manifestations are not in themselves anything to be proud of. A follower of Christ does not call attention to himself or herself but to Christ, and actively avoids doing things which bring discredit on the name of Christ.

The "unusual experience" fallacy
Mysticism is not defined by a strange experience of something you have never seen before and cannot understand. It is awareness of God's presence in the things you see every day. As Jacob said in Genesis, "Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it." To know it, understand it, appreciate it -- these are the tasks of a mysticism that is healthy and well-grounded in reality.

The "holier than thou" fallacy
Mysticism is not a special elite club dividing Christianity into haves and have-nots. Mystical experience is allowing yourself to dwell on the holy realities of God. There is not a Christian who does not experience this to some extent. Anyone who uses spirituality as a form of one-upmanship just doesn't understand Christian spirituality very well.

The "ecstatic, cheerful, glad" fallacy
Spirituality encompasses all of human experience, not just the happy times. Spiritual experience can involve profound gladness or ecstasy. It can also involve deep sorrow, shame and repentance, exhaustion and despair, or an aching knowledge of distance from God. Most often of all it involves an emotionally low-key state, a quiet time of pondering. Honestly, many people have such hyped-up expectations that they find the experience itself disappointing. It is dedication that makes people return to meditation again and again. It is apparently a common temptation to try to manufacture "ecstasy". This makes for a shallow and forced experience that is not genuine.

"Heart and Soul" v. "Mind and Strength"
As mentioned in an earlier post, systematic theology tends towards forgetting heart and soul in favor of mind and strength; this has been a weakness of systematic theology that leaves a distorted, not-fully-human, not-fully-godly result. Mysticism often has the opposite tendency to forget mind and strength in leaning towards heart and soul. Likewise the result of the split is not fully human and not fully godly. Mysticism can tend towards the emotional and forget discernment; it can tend towards the mysterious and forget the truthful. Our approach to God cannot afford to be merely "balanced" bouncing between extremes (say that five times fast); it has to be integrated. Until then, our "systematic theology" will be dry and our "mystical theology" will be a portrait painted in swirling pastels without form or substance.

False goal of "being spiritual" instead of following Christ
Mysticism cannot be a goal; it is a means. If we lose sight of Christ, then we easily get lost. Mysticism, rightly used, is another way to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

Some of the problems associated with mysticism are not unique to mysticism. In too many religious endeavors, people forget that even religion and holiness can be misused. There is a temptation to be undiscerning when people have their hearts in the right place (or did in the beginning). There is a forgetfulness of sound guidance and good advice in favor of excitement. Mysticism may be especially prone to these problems when it has to assert its way over against an "intellect-only" approach. Some beginning mystics naively (and very wrongly) think of the intellect as only a "criticizing spirit" instead of their God-given tool for discernment in these things.

It is dangerous to seek after "the mystical experience"; real mystics do not seek that but seek God. In real mystical experience, all kinds of emotions may attend you. It's a beginner's temptation in religion to try to be always only happy. A good look at Scripture will show this as shallowness, not maturity. The "experience" depends partly on each person's temperament, partly on the particular meditation of the day, and partly on whether you're well-rested enough and free enough from distraction to really dwell on what you are considering. Some may dwell on the goodness of creation, a passage of Scripture, an event in the life of Christ, regret over some evil they have done, pain over the troubles in their lives, or "whatever is true and right and noble" as the case may be. Seeking knowledge and love of God is the right aim.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Faking Tongues: Tests, Testimonies ... and the Point

In my curiosity about how widespread "faking" may be, I looked around the 'net and saw a few things. The most interesting to me were 1. people who had quietly arranged to test a "tongue translator" (unknown to the translator, of course) and 2. personal testimonies of confessed fakers, some now ardent atheists but others just in more mainstream branches of Christianity.

Lost In Translation
A fellow fluent in Hebrew visited a charismatic service and recited a portion of the Old Testament in Hebrew from memory. The translation given by the "Spirit-Filled"? Not even close. (Search for 'Gerry Matatics' on the page)

A recording is made of a service where tongues are spoken and a translation given. Later, the same recording is played back for "Spirit-Filled" translation again. Same results? Nope. (Search for 'test of the interpretations' on the page)

Confessions of Fakers
There were too many of these to cite them all, but here is a sampling:

"But I know that I used to fake it. I gave in to pressure from a minister and my mother-in-law and I convinced myself that I wasn't just saying gibberish words, but I know I was." -- posted by 'The Dork Night' (Have to love that pen name, but who am I to talk.)

"I have faked speaking in tongues (the glossalalia sort) for that reason...I felt I had to." -- posted by 'Beautiful Dreamer'

"Yes, I have unfortunately faked a manisfestation out of being put under tremendous pressure from the pastor to see evidence of his prayers working." -- posted by 'Ontheroad'

"I decided if God wasn't going to give me a prayer tongue, I'd give it to myself.
I started to move my lips maniacally and emitted a noise that made my voice sound like an LP spun backwards. I made it sound like an average prayer tongue -- nothing too flashy. My prayer partners bought it and started thanking Jesus for sending the Holy Spirit through me to speak His words. People started crying and hugging me. I cried too and kept making the babbling noises as I hugged my peers.
That's right, I faked it." (See p. 20)

The Point?
The last guy I quoted turned away from Christ. He didn't pinpoint the change at the day he started faking his religion -- but I would; that was when a radical shift became inevitable, necessary, and merely honest. And a large part of his faking was being pressured to fake. His own fault? Of course; nobody put a gun to his head. His leaders' fault? Of course; it is not even Scriptural to expect everybody to speak in tongues and, given that it's listed among the lesser gifts of the Spirit, is not a reasonable measure of being "spiritual"; given the prevalence of faking and conscious self-deceit, it's not a reliable measure of having the Holy Spirit.

You can only rest your assurance of salvation on one thing: having Christ. Assurance by "speaking in tongues" is false assurance, and this false assurance will eventually fail you. If you really have the Spirit, you know the Spirit's message: Christ (see the record of the first outpouring of the Spirit at the first Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection). The real assurance is this: "God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; He who does not have the Son of God does not have life." -- 1 John 5:11-12

When people are turning away from God because they are cynical over fakery in Christian circles, it is more necessary than ever that we clean house. Other peoples' well-being is at stake.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Speaking in Tongues: How Widespread is Faking?

I know I'm not supposed to ask that. And I am certainly not claiming that all people who speak in tongues are faking; how would I know? But sweeping any problem under the rug only makes it worse, and I suspect that this one has become a sizeable problem.

Here are some things I have noticed:
  1. I personally know someone who admits she faked speaking in tongues to "get along" in a Pentecostal setting;
  2. This same person was not intending to "fake it" but, when the leader saw she did not speak in tongues, the leader took it upon himself to privately coach her into speaking in tongues;
  3. I found out that this was not exactly a one-of-a-kind incident when I read this post mentioning a Pentecostal leader coaching people into speaking in tongues at an entirely different time, place, and setting.
  4. Adrian Warnock (who would likely disagree with this post, btw) recently mentioned that one draw to "spiritual gifts" is as an answer to the question his Calvinism simply cannot answer: "But, the question remains, how can I KNOW that I am one of the chosen ones?" In response, I suppose a true gift of tongues would settle the question of whether you have the Holy Spirit; but it also tremendously increases the pressure to "fake it" if you believe you have no evidence of your own salvation outside of this.
Consider this quote from the above-linked post by Paul Whiting (who, by the way, is still noticeably fond of the Pentecostal movement)
Unfortunately, my conversion-initiation didn’t follow the script the Pentecostal church I went to expected of me: I didn’t pray in tongues. So to remedy that defect, a church leader took me to a room behind the baptismal font and told me to repeat "she blah blah blah" after him until it "flowed naturally." I couldn’t do it.
Because those who do not speak in tongues are typically seen as less spiritual -- some will dispute even the salvation of those who do not speak in tongues -- the pressure to pray in tongues is substantial. The fact that the leadership was involved in both these cases makes me wonder if this is a systematic problem. The fact that privacy was involved in both these cases makes me think that it happens to far more people than is generally realized. To me, all of this at least suggests the possibility that there is a large amount of faking going on, and that it is kept quiet. And again the fact that modern "speaking in tongues" bears a striking resemblance to babbling also lends to this suspicion. Based on off-the-record conversations, I have reason to believe the problem is widespread.

I am not a "cessationist" in that I'm sure God will give what gifts He wants when, where, how, and to whom He pleases. Neither am I any kind of anti-Pentecostal. But as Christians, it falls to us to clean up our own houses before we evangelize. What do you say, Pentecostals? Ever heard of anybody faking? Did someone coach you the first time? Ever feel pressured to do the "tongues" thing? Ever doubt the reality of the gift? Or have you always been completely sure of its reality in your life?

Update: Related post on people who have tested the tongues and translations, or admitted they were faking.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The "Apophatic" Branch of Mysticism

"Apophatic" Mysticism
It's regrettable that systematic theologians used an obscure word to classify Apophatic Mysticism. Apophatic Mysticism is rooted in humility about what we can know and the realization that all of our systems are, after all, completely unable to do justice to an understanding of God. Its basic premise is that, no matter how great the human mind, it simply cannot grasp God in all His fullness, all His glory, all His might. This view is grounded in Scripture, reason, and the history of the church. Scripture's teaching that we do not yet know fully also has implications for systematic theologies.

Some Basic Writings
The foundational work of this branch of mysticism is Concerning Mystical Theology, for which the author is disputed but is known as Dionysius the Areopagite or Pseudo-Dionysius, the name or inspiration being taken from Acts 17:34. One source for this branch of mysticism is Paul's evangelistic speech in Athens in which the author's namesake Dionysius first believed (see Acts 17), where Paul notices that there is a statue dedicated "TO AN UNKNOWN GOD." The idea of "the unknown God" resonates in that there is always more to God than we have grasped; that is the starting point of this conversation. In justice I would like to point out here that Paul said to the Athenians, "What you worship as unknown, I will now proclaim to you." He then proclaimed the transcendent God who created heaven and earth, and proclaimed Christ. The "unknowing" approach, by itself, is incomplete. Still, it is easy for us to appreciate that God is beyond us. There is a part of us that ponders what is still unknown.

The most familiar modern work that treats this subject is probably The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, in which Vladimir Lossky proves that the Western church does not have an exclusive on dry and tedious approaches to theology. Lossky's work offers some good insights while the language is sometimes thick theologianese. For the present topic the chapter "The Divine Darkness" is worth the read.

Basic Practice
But after all that acknowledgment of what we do and do not know, what exactly is apophatic mysticism? The apophatic approach fully respects the hiddenness of God. It reviews each image of God we try to construct in our minds and recalls: this is not God. It is a conscious acknowledgment that our image will always fall short of God and, if it becomes our focus, is then an idol which separates our worship and our thoughts from God. Some of us may think of idols as childish images of God like "the bearded old man on the throne." True enough that this risks idolatry in its way. But our systematic theologies also run the same risk of idolatry if we focus on the system, the image of God that we have built in our minds, rather than on God Himself. These systems likewise run the risk of being wrong images of God which separate us from him rather than leading us to him. Our mental images or artwork -- or systematic logical images -- can point us in the right direction if they reflect God and if we remember that they are not fully accurate pictures of God. The apophatic approach looks at each thing and consciously reminds itself, "Neither is this image fully like God." Ignorance leads to humility and to continual striving for better knowledge. Assumption of knowledge has the opposite effect.

But talking about apophatic theology like this gives the wrong idea that it is merely an intellectual honesty about the limits of what we know. While this is both necessary to spiritual health and true, it is not a complete picture. This branch of mysticism recognizes the awe and reverence for God himself that comes from a sustained focus on his status as "the unknown God" who is beyond what our minds can grasp. We look at all of our approaches to God and see how they are like God -- and set them aside as we see them fall short. After one false image after another is considered, pondered, and set aside as inadequate, there is nothing left but God Himself. As one of my favorite 19th-century mystical songs put it, "Most ancient of all mysteries, before thy throne we lie." (Federick William Faber)

Limitations and Perspective
If the "unknowing" approach becomes an exercise in denying what we know then it has gone too far. If it remains an exercise in acknowledging that "we know in part, we prophesy in part ... now we see through a glass, darkly" then it is a healthy corrective to our boasting of having a complete knowledge (or complete "systematic theology" if you'd rather). Paul says our knowledge is incomplete; it follows that a system cannot have filled in all of the blanks, organized and categorized everything we would wish to know. This is no complaint against rigorous knowledge; it is honest acknowledgment of what has been revealed and what has not; it makes careful study all the more necessary.

This type of approach, like all focuses on the hiddenness of God, must be balanced by a return to how God has revealed himself: in creation, in Scripture, and most directly in the Incarnation. The way in which we know God most fully is through Christ. The apophatic branch of mysticism, like many other parts of Christian life, cannot stand alone, but makes a valid contribution to our understanding.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Knowledge of God: Meditation on Christ

This is a continuation of a brief series on Christian mysticism. The previous parts included a look at scholastic and mystic approaches to knowing God and a look at the legitimacy of a mysticism based on creation.

But the mysticism based on creation, while legitimate of itself, can only take you so far. It cannot tell you everything you need to know about God; it cannot tell you God's disposition towards mankind. God's full message comes in Christ. Any mysticism -- as any other Christian study -- is not on solid ground if Christ is not the foundation.

Meditation on Christ
As the mystical view of natural theology allows room for awe and wonder and the like, in the same way the mystical view of Christ-centered theology allows for actually appreciating Christ with all our being, not simply analyzing Christ as an object of study. For those who are not used to any mystical approach to Christ, it may be easier to show than to explain the difference. I'll sketch out two brief meditations on the life of Christ. Afterwards we will have a basis for commenting on the approach.

Example Meditation #1: The Message of Creation fulfilled in Christ
Astrologers have long tried to find the secrets hidden in the order and beauty around us. They're a bit of a running joke these days. But the Bible tells us that once -- just once -- a few of them actually got it right. Once, some of them really did find the message of creation. "The heavens declared the glory of God" and they heard it. They left their star charts and went to see ... a small child they had never met in the unremarkable town of Bethlehem. And they were content. Out came the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their quest was fulfilled.

Example Meditation #2: "Now I can die content"
A wise old man, renowned for his righteous life, was waiting out his last years in the Temple. He was seeking the Desire of Nations that the prophet had foretold would come before this Temple was destroyed. This righteous old man had been promised that he would live to see that promise fulfilled. When the child Jesus was brought to the Temple, he said that he could now die content. The Liturgical churches still repeat his words each week: "Lord, now let your servant depart in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen your Salvation ..." All this over an infant. I think that should have merited its own verse in the song "What Child Is This?"

Meditation and Mysticism
When you look at the examples above, depending on your background, you may or may not see much difference between this and what you are used to doing when you consider Scripture. If your approach to Scripture already gives legitimate place and welcome to this type of meditation, then it is already in some sense mystical. Some might object, "No, no, mysticism is something weird, alien, disconnected, misleading" -- but that's only the worst, most illegitimate forms of mysticism. A Christian mysticism bases itself on Scripture, on creation, and most particularly on Christ. This type of study allows for the mind to do more than just dissect; the mind is also allowed to marvel at the things that deserve it.

A solid Bible study will not be analysis alone; neither will it be meditation alone. There are different useful analysis tools such as histories, word studies, and concept outlines that help us know Scripture better. Lord help us if we ever put them aside. But there is a tendency to think that the best Biblical reasoning is the type that builds systematic theologies; this is a mistake. The best Biblical reasoning is the type that uses God's word in the way that God asked it to be used, for which "systematic analysis" scarcely scratches the surface. Systematic analysis is a tool, not a goal. Meditation is another tool, likewise not a goal in itself. Theology is knowing God, not forming systems. Knowing God is our goal, and God is only revealed clearly in Christ. Therefore Christ is the foundation and chief study of the best theology and the best meditation.

Next I'll look at how the "apophatic" branch of mysticism is a healthy corrective in our knowledge of God. I may also take up other themes in later posts, such as mysticism and a view of the recent cessationist/non-cessationist debate or abuses of mysticism/fraudulent mysticism.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

A Thoroughly Christian Mysticism: A Holy View Of Creation

A Holy View of Creation
The heavens declare the glory of God. The firmament proclaims the work of his hands ... -- King David (Psalm 19)
One line of reasoning that shows the rightful place of Christian mysticism is based on creation. When creation is viewed as holy, mysticism is simply allowing ourselves to see this, to know it by experience and by appreciation, not merely by analysis. Beauty, awe, and wonder are a fitting part of our experience in this world; when we ignore these things we lose something valuable.

Creation and God's Character

Beyond seeing the world as good, we also see traces of God's character displayed in the things he has made. His creation shows forth his attributes. Creation, in some measure, reveals God's mind.
Why do we dream in metaphors? We're trying to hold onto something that we couldn't understand ... couldn't understand ... couldn't understand. -- Seal
Everything that God made is a partial revelation of God. Everything in creation is a metaphor of sorts, and has meaning beyond itself about the One who made it. Rocks, hills, trees, stars ... each thing stirs a memory of God in its own way. In every park or seashore you can hear the "echoes of Eden" as the mystically-inclined might say.

Sometimes I have looked at writing that was penned in a foreign script and have just admired its beauty and incomprehensibility. We see the beauty, we perceive it must have meaning, but we haven't grasped it. It's tantalizing, it's mesmerizing. If everything that God made is a partial revelation of God, then creation itself is like writing in a foreign script. Every tree or rock is a glyph, a symbol pointing us to God.

David understood when he saw the night sky. "The heavens declare the glory of God ... they pour forth speech, they display knowledge ... there is no language where their voice is not heard."

Everyone's spiritual quest is trying to decipher this language. We're all code-breakers, all mystery-solvers, all beauty-lovers. We all see the words of God -- words-made-creation in nature, or words of the prophets. Awe is a rational response of the soul that sees the wonders of creation. Rejection of mysticism is a rejection of steeping ourselves in the awe and wonder of the world, which are a proper part of our worship of God.

This is the second part of a series of posts here on thoroughly Christian mysticism. The previous part contrasted mysticism and scholasticism. The next part will address the basis of mysticism in Christ's incarnation; the part after that, the "apophatic" branch of mysticism. I may continue the series to explore mysticism in relation to the recent cessationist/non-cessationist debate on gifts of the Spirit.

Darrel Pursiful is also posting his thoughts on mysticism over at Disert Paths. I'd encourage you to pop over to his blog and give him a read. He takes the approach of building the scholarly framework for mysticism, a much-needed endeavor for the renewal of Christian mysticism.

Friday, December 02, 2005

A Thoroughly Christian Mysticism: Mysticism and Scholasticism

Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it. -- Jacob (Genesis 28:16)
There are many individual things that can be picked apart and criticized in the history of Christian mysticism; some of the criticisms are legitimate. Then again, there are legitimate criticisms against anything with a long enough history. The question is not whether there have been absurdities or abuses; the question is whether there is a healthy stream of Christian mysticism. Here I will set out the basic view that mysticism is a rightful part of the soul's experience of God. Heart and mind and strength have their place in our faith. But without the soul, the heart tends towards a shallow and tyrannical emotionalism, the mind tends towards dithering or dryness, and strength tends towards power or futility. In setting aside mysticism, we have lost something valuable. Our appreciation of God has become less than it was meant to be.

Mysticism is the appreciation of God, an appreciation experienced within the soul. As such, it is more than merely tolerable in the Christian life; it deserves welcome. It is an appreciation which most people (even some atheists I've known) admit to experiencing on occasion, even if the disreputable name "mystical experience" is not spoken. It includes awe and wonder, humility and reverence among its aspects.

Such things are nearly ignored by most systematic or scholastic approaches to God. Note that mysticism is not opposed to the intellect. Instead, it is on intellectual grounds that mysticism is opposed to the worse parts of scholastic theology. Mysticism questions scholasticism for an unfittingly dry approach to the Holy of Holies, for its "salvation by systems" theories which tend to sideline the cross of Christ, and for its predictable descent into trivialities and arguments. Scholasticism tends assume that if you have made a system by which to understand something then you have understood it correctly, and that the best way to understand something is to make a systematic analysis of it. Mysticism would mention that, aside from the question of whether the system is truly correct, and aside from the fact that God is beyond our powers of analysis, there is a larger question at stake: is classifying facts about God necessarily the same as getting to know Him? There is a risk of interacting with facts about God, but never coming to face to face with God Himself.

Over the next few posts, I'll introduce two lines of thought on a thoroughly Christian mysticism, one line of thought based on creation and the other from Jesus' incarnation. I'll also include a few comments on one particular branch of mysticism, "apophatic" mysticism, and its rightful place in a healthy appreciation of God.