Sunday, June 29, 2008

Celebrating 10 Years of Telecommuting

Ten years ago this month -- back in June 1998 -- I left the office and began working from home full-time. From the perspective of ten years out, it looks like one of the better decisions I've made. Saving that commute time has meant more time for my family, my neighbors, and my home. I'm there for my children when they come home from school. It's easy to arrange for a plumber or other repairman to stop by without taking extra time off work. I have the energy and the time to cook meals in the evening, something I rarely had when I was commuting to my full-time job. A child sent home from school with pink-eye? Once even such a minor thing would have cost me a day off work and jeopardized the ability to meet deadlines; now it's no problem. Working from home makes it much easier to balance home and work.

Despite the talk about full-time mothers, I suspect working at home is probably closer to the historical reality of how people arranged their lives in the past. How many people had the luxury that a woman had no responsibilities outside raising children? But for most of human history, people have both lived and worked at their own homes.

My children are still in school for a few more years yet, so I'm looking forward to several more years of telecommuting before I think about being in an office environment again. I am probably more productive at home because there are fewer distractions. But with all the advantages of telecommuting, I have to wonder: will I ever actually want to be in an office environment again? A cubicle-farm can't really compete with the comforts of home.

Reconciliation Carnival #12

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #12 is up at Pseudo-Polymath. Everyone please stop by for some edifying reading. And a big Thank You to Mark for his job hosting the Carnival.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Gospel of Mark: view from 30,000 feet

When I recently posted word clouds for the gospels, the point was a perspective-check. Is our focus right? Here is what I see when I look at the word cloud of Mark.

1. It's all about Jesus:
"Jesus" occurs more often than any other word: over 200 times. No other word appears even half as often.

2. It's full of people:
Following Jesus, you find "disciples" or the "twelve". There are "crowds" and "children", Peter, James, John. There are also Pharisees and Pilate.

3. It's an action book:
Mark is full of "ask" and "answer", "call" and "follow", standing, sitting, teaching, preaching, teaching, baptizing, hearing, and healing, full of going and giving and believing. And particularly in Mark, these things tend to happen "immediately" after each other.

4. It's full of places:
It's full of the houses where they stayed and the boats in which they fished and traveled. It's full of the synagogues where Jesus taught and the Temple. The only city that makes the word list for Mark is Jerusalem.

5. It's distinctively Jewish
There is much mention of Abraham, of Pharisees and priests, of Moses and the law, of synagogues and the Temple, of the city of Jerusalem and the sabbath.

6. It's very human
The book is full of humanity: not just the people as we have already seen but the details. "Touch" makes the top 100 word list, along with "hand" and "heart" and "head", along with eating and bread.

That gives its own view of what it means to follow Jesus. It gives an edge to the question: how are we doing on priorities?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Word Clouds of the Bible: introduction and index

If you haven't seen them yet, there are a collection of "word cloud" posts below for the four gospels.

In the last few years, "word clouds" have become popular. They are an effective way of graphing the frequency of word use in a text. They are often seen on blogs and websites as a quick indication of an author's main interests or main points.

I had a simple question: What happens when you generate a word cloud for the Bible? I wondered what insights might come to light. So far I have done five word clouds (see posts immediately below): one word cloud for each of the four gospels, and a fifth word cloud for all the gospels combined. I was interested to look them over, see connections, see things highlighted, ponder the questions raised.

Word clouds are definitely a limited tool. There is much you cannot tell, a risk of seeing a large count of trees but never actually seeing the word "forest". Still it provides an interesting snapshot of the themes and motifs running through the gospels.

As time permits, I'll continue with other parts of the Bible. (Updates have been made since the original posting. Last update 07/08/2008.)

By the way, my goal as a blogger has been to have my own topic frequency mirror the priorities of the Bible; this will give me a quick way to check myself. It might give us an easy index as to whether a given book has the same priorities as the Bible. I'd be tempted to analyze systematic theologies in that way to make an initial assessment of whether they had their priorities straight. Ah, the possibilities ...

Links to Bible word clouds:
Combined gospels
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
1 Peter
2 Peter
1 John
2 John
3 John

Combined Gospels: Word Cloud

created at

NIV text used, 100 words in cloud.

Gospel of John: Word Cloud

created at

NIV text used, 100 words in cloud.

Gospel of Luke: Word Cloud

created at

NIV text used, 100 words in cloud.

Gospel of Mark: Word Cloud

created at

NIV text used, 100 words in cloud.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Gospel of Matthew: Word Cloud

created at

NIV text used, 100 words in cloud.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The other resurrections

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain fo the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matthew 27:50-53)
Many times we -- comfortable moderns with a safe distance from the Bible -- take some of the things said by the gospels with a grain of salt. After all, if all the miraculous signs recorded at Jesus' death and resurrection had really occurred, wouldn't someone else have mentioned them?

Actually, other people did mention them; it's just a sign of our own unfamiliarity with the early church that such questions get raised. Here I'd like to spend a little time reviewing the mentions made of some of the miracles at Jesus' death and resurrection, focusing on documents written before the Council of Nicea. This is not an exhaustive list of the material, either; I consider it more of a "highlights" document containing some but not all of the materials readily available in the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF).

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch
Antioch was an important center of early Christianity. Peter is reckoned as the first Bishop of Antioch, having taught there before he went to Rome. Ignatius, third bishop of Antioch, was a student of John the apostle, and was reported to have been made Bishop of Antioch by Peter. Of writings that survive and are attributed to him, seven are commonly reckoned as legitimate and authentic writings. From those letters of his reckoned as legitimate:

Letter to the Magnesians, Chapter 9:
… that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master – how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, being come, raised them from the dead. (ANF Vol 1 p. 62)
Letter to the Trallians, Chapter 9
He truly assumed a body, for ‘the Word was made flesh,’ and lived upon earth without sin. For says He, ‘Which of you convicteth me of sin?’ He did in reality both eat and drink. He was crucified and died under Pontius Pilate. He really, and not merely in appearance, was crucified, and died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. By those in heaven I mean such as are possessed of incorporeal natures; by those on earth, the Jews and Romans, and such persons as were present at that time when the Lord was crucified; and by those under the earth, the multitude that arose along with the Lord. For says the Scripture, ‘Many bodies of the saints that slept arose,’ their graves being opened. He descended, indeed, into Hades alone, but He arose accompanied by a multitude; and rent asunder that means of separation which had existed from the beginning of the world, and cast down its partition-wall. (ANF Vol 1 p. 70)

Sextus Julius Africanus
Africanus was a Christian historian born around 160 A.D. and living til around 240 A.D. He lived for a time in Jerusalem and in Emmaus. Speaking of Christ, he writes of the miracles associated with Jesus' death and resurrection, even citing non-Christian contemporary historians on their notice of various miracles:
As to His works severally, and His cures effected upon body and soul, and the mysteries of His doctrine, and the resurrection from the dead, these have been most authoritatively set forth by His disciples and apostles before us. On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of is History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the Passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? … Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Ceasar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth – manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? (ANF Vol 6 pp. 136-137)

Eusebius the Historian
Eusebius of Caesarea's greatest contribution to the church may well have been his extensive quotes of earlier documents, many of them now lost to us and preserved only by him. He preserves a record of a conversation involving Thaddaeus, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus:
And Thaddaeus said: For the present I will be silent, but, because I have been sent to preach the word of God, assemble me to-morrow all the people of thy city, and I will preach before them, and sow amongst them the word of life, and tell them about the coming of Christ, and how it took place; and about His mission, for what purpose he was sent by His father; and about His power and His deeds, and about the mysteries which He spake in the world, and by what power He wrought these things, and about His new preaching, and about His abasement and His humiliation, and how He humbled and emptied and abased Himself, and was crucified, and descended to Hades, and broke through the enclosure which had never been broken through before, and raised up the dead, and descended alone, and ascended with a great multitude to His Father. (ANF Vol 8 p. 653)

Alexander of Alexandria
Alexander of Alexandria died around 328 A.D. and so is not, like Thaddaeus, in a position to know for himself what happened in those days. But he does show that in the early church, the teaching of those others raised from the dead and the other miracles associated with Jesus' death and resurrection was taken for granted. If, as Africanus records, the earthquake and darkness were common knowledge and common memory even among the pagans, then we may better understand the early church's boldness in this.
For when our Lord was suffering upon the cross, the tombs were burst open, the infernal region was disclosed, the souls leapt forth, the dead returned to life, and many of them were seen in Jerusalem, whilst the mystery of the cross was being perfected; what time our Lord trampled upon death, dissolved the enmity, bound the strong man, and raised the trophy of the cross, His body being lifted up upon it, that the body might appear on high, and death to be depressed under the foot of flesh. Then the heavenly powers wondered, the angels were astonished, the elements trembled, every creature was shaken whilst they looked on this new mystery, and the terrific spectacle which was being enacted in the universe. Yet the entire people, as unconscious of the mystery, exulted over Christ in derision; although the earth was rocking, the mountains, the valleys, and the sea were shaken, and every creature of God was smitten with confusion. The lights of heaven were afraid, the sun fled away, the moon disappeared, the stars withdrew their shining, the day came to end; the angel in astonishment departed from the temple after the rending of the veil, and darkness covered the earth on which its Lord had closed His eyes. Meanwhile hell was with light resplendent, for thither had the star descended. The Lord, indeed, did not descend into hell in His body but in His Spirit. He forsooth is working everywhere, for whilst He raised the dead by His body, by His spirit was He liberating their souls. For when the body of the Lord was hung upon the cross, the tombs, as we have said, were opened; hell was unbarred. The dead received their life, the souls were sent back again into the world, and that because the Lord had conquered hell, had trodden down death, had covered the enemy with shame; therefore was it that the souls came forth from Hades, and the dead appeared upon the earth. (ANF Vol 6 p. 301)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Discernment and divisions in the church

In analogy to Abba Moses’ instruction, one might propose that the origins of any one of these divisions arises from the work or activities of the Spirit, Satan, or Man. One would expect that the latter two are the ones which, if one supports ecumenical movement, should be the ones we actively oppose. How should we discern the difference between these, if indeed that is even a thing we should attempt? Is the motive behind the division a thing which we should discern as we try to heal that same division? Is such a discernment (or claims to the same) today even useful?

Mark chose an excellent topic for this current Christian Reconciliation Carnival: discernment. I think I'd want to start here:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven, but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. (James, end of ch. 3)
So wisdom brings humility, and humility brings mercy, and among us sinners mercy is shown most naturally by those who understand that we ourselves sometimes need correction.

Discerning the spirit
Discernment: sifting the wheat from the chaff. The mote in our brothers' eye is a tempting target for our discernment; the log in our own eye, less so. So what, then, is the spirit behind that kind of discernment? As for the wheat and the tares, we're warned that our discernment is simply not up to the job: when we lack discernment, we are guaranteed to pull up the good with the bad together, destroying them both.

No doubt I will surprise somebody speaking this way. There is a time and a place for discernment turned outward. But not, I think, before discernment turned inward. If we want to "discern" the reason why we're right and the other person is wrong, that is not the best of discernment. If discernment is self-serving, there is no love; if it is self-justifying, there is no mercy. James gives us some good guidelines for checking ourselves: if we have the appearance of wisdom but not the fruits of wisdom, it is time to re-examine our "wisdom".

Restoring gently
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you slil fulfil the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load. (Paul, start of Galatians 6)
If we are comparing ourselves to someone else, that is not discernment. And I have to say that every church body I have ever seen, or ever visited, or ever belonged to, and every internet apologist I have ever read for their own favorite group, discerned themselves in comparison to another church body that was lesser in their eyes. Each group rushes to put down the other, and the mote in the next group's eye figures prominently in the sermon and catechesis of their neighbor. In this way we think highly of ourselves. I have to wonder: What in the world would we think of ourselves if we had to compare ourselves to God's standards rather than to our fallen neighbors? And would we still treat our fallen neighbors quite the same way?

Knowledge puffs up
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (Paul, start of I Cor 8)

How many church programs are built around opportunities to increase our knowledge? How many around opportunities to increase our love? I've seen both, to be sure. But I think that knowledge is often emphasized over love. The programs that promote knowledge, in my own church, are explicit and designed. The things that promote love are more happenstance, the pains of everyday life that we share with each other. Is there a more excellent way? Can we harness that hard-won knowledge to find it? If not, all that knowledge is worth nothing.

And so I would want to end where I began:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven, but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. (James, end of ch. 3)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A critique of Bart Ehrman's thesis on orthodoxy: part 1: Second Temple Jewish monotheism

Bart Ehrman is one of the most recognizable voices today representing a certain scholarly perspective. This post is the first part of a two-part critique of Ehrman's thesis that Christian orthodoxy is ultimately meaningless and arbitrary. Part 1 will critique his thesis from Jesus' and his disciples' involvement in Second Temple Judaism. Part 2 will critique his thesis from the perspective of ancient Christian writings. (By the way, Part 2 will have to wait until after my next crunch time at work, so it may be a few weeks.)
But the alternative forms of Christianity in the early centuries of the church wrestled over much larger doctrinal questions, many of them unthinkable in most modern Christian churches, such as how many gods there are (one? two? twelve? thirty?); whether the true God created the world or whether, instead, it was created by a lower, inferior deity; whether Jesus was divine, or human, or somehow both; whether Jesus' death brought salvation, or was irrelevant for salvation, or whether he even died. (Bart Ehrman in Lost Scriptures, 2003 Oxford Univeristy Press, p. 1).
This is Bart Ehrman's opening salvo on the first page of his book, Lost Scriptures, something of a companion book or sequel to Lost Christianities. He follows up on the next page with his take on the formation of the Christian consensus:
These beliefs, and the group who promoted them, came to be thought of as "orthodox" (literally meaning, "the right belief"), and alternative views -- such as the view that there are two gods, or that the true God did not create the world, or that Jesus was not actually human or not actually divine, etc. -- came to be labeled "heresy" (= false belief) and were then ruled out of court. Moreover, the victors in the struggles to establish Christian orthodoxy not only won their theological battles, they also rewrote the history of the conflict: later readers, then, naturally assumed that the victorious views had been embraced by the vast majority of Christians from the very beginning, all the way back to Jesus and his closest followers, the apostles.
Now, is Ehrman suggesting that Jesus and his apostles taught the existence of two gods (or twelve, or thirty), or that we cannot know whether Jesus taught one God, or two gods, or twelve, or thirty? Unless he is suggesting something of that sort, then his mention of all that is -- to say the least -- out of place in his argument. Is he suggesting that Jesus and his apostles weren't rooted in Jewish tradition of the Second Temple period? Or is he suggesting that the Jewish tradition of the Second Temple period wasn't completely decided about monotheism? Perhaps he's suggesting that the Jewish followers of Christ had some variant teachings about whether God was actually the creator of the worlds?

But unless he is suggesting exactly that, then even he would have to admit that the teachings that trace back to Jesus and his apostles are, on the question of how many gods, monotheistic. Unless Ehrman is suggesting that Christ and his apostles taught the "other creator" theory, then even he would have to admit that the teachings that trace back to Jesus and his apostles are, on the question of the creator, in favor of the one true God also being the creator. On the question of whether Jesus died -- unless Ehrman is suggesting that one of Jesus' apostles taught that he never actually died, then even Ehrman would have to admit that the teachings tracing back to the apostles are decided in favor of Jesus' real, physical, historical death on a cross under Pontius Pilate. Likewise as to the teaching on whether Jesus was actually human; does Ehrman suggest that the teaching that Jesus wasn't actually physical and human traces back to Christ and the apostles? And if not, then the teaching that traces back to Christ and his apostles is of Jesus' real humanity.

The simple fact of Jesus' and the apostles' Judaism in the Second Temple era gives us overwhelming reason to believe that they were monotheists. The same fact gives us overwhelming reason to believe that they held that same One God to be the creator of heaven and earth. Likewise even if one of the Jews should have taken Jesus for a prophet or a sorcerer, there would still have been unanimity about his humanity amongst those who knew him, and about his death. Absent is any credible suggestion that Jesus and his followers held different views on any of these things. To review what Ehrman had said:
Moreover, the victors in the struggles to establish Christian orthodoxy not only won their theological battles, they also rewrote the history of the conflict: later readers, then, naturally assumed that the victorious views had been embraced by the vast majority of Christians from the very beginning, all the way back to Jesus and his closest followers, the apostles.
But if Jesus and is followers were Second Temple Jews -- and they were -- then we have overwhelming reason to believe that orthodox view of one God, and that one God as the creator, does in fact trace to "the very beginning, all the way back to Jesus and his closest followers."

One thing which Ehrman does not appreciate -- and in fairness to Ehrman, he is in good company as many scholars have not fully appreciated -- that in the earliest days of the church, in the face of all these conflicting views which, as Ehrman mentions, actually were floating around -- there was already underway something that I will call the Very First Quest for the Historical Jesus. From our vantage-point, we probably have a greater knowledge of Judaism than many of the pagans who met Judaism in depth for the first time when they began to follow Christ. And as much as it's in bad taste to quarrel about religion, we do have to affirm that Christ and his apostles, as Second Temple Jews, were definitely on the side of one God (not two, or twelve, or thirty), and of that same One God creating the world, and of Jesus' true humanity, and of Jesus' true death. I do not see any rational dispute on these particular things as to what Jesus and his disciples originally taught. The findings of the Very First Quest for the Historical Jesus shaped what we now know as orthodoxy, and the orthodox views on these subjects gained prominence by the simple means of being right about what Jesus and his disciples actually taught. Orthodoxy was, in its early days, nothing else than the Very First Quest for the Historical Jesus.

Today's orthodoxy has the same task as orthodoxy has always had: seeking the real Jesus so that the key questions can be answered: Who is Jesus? Is he only human or is he also divine? What does his death mean for us? What does the cross mean for salvation? These are the depths of theology, the questions over which multiple views still wrestle as they have since the beginning of the faith, since Christ first pressed the question: Who do you say that I am? But this second type of question cannot be answered by looking at Second Temple Judaism alone; it requires a closer look at the actual contents of what we know about Christ in particular. That is the subject of part 2.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Do Christians Sell the faith short? Part 4: The Table of Contents

Dr. Platypus has written a piece on how Christians sell the faith short, looking at the contents of a church hymnal as a barometer of their beliefs. He's got a point.

On a related note, I have to say: that is my favorite thing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship. I may not agree with him on every interpretation, but he lets God set the table of contents, as the book moves down the Sermon on the Mount and lets Christ set the agenda for our thoughts.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The credibility gap

Something Bill said over at Thinklings got me started thinking. He was quoting someone on climate change:
I’ll believe climate change is a crisis when the people who say it’s a crisis start acting like it’s a crisis.
I enjoyed that for its own point. It made me laugh: Exactly!

But on the rebound, I started thinking: that's a good way to sum up my point with my recent posts on how Christians sell Christianity short. I know a skeptic of sorts who says (basically) he'll think about taking Christianity seriously when the Christians start taking Christianity seriously.

You know the questions you hear sometime, "if you could meet one famous person and ask one question ..."? I know a skeptic who told me that he really wants to meet one of the big-name televangelists, and he would ask him: "Do you believe in God? No, really, do you believe God exists? Because if you really believe that stuff, how can you sleep at night? Aren't you worried what he'll say about your life?" (He figured the more dishonest types should have trouble sleeping at night if they really believed a day of reckoning were coming.) And it's not just the big-name televangelists or the pedophile priests who give us big-name headaches. It's the cumulative effect of all of us, when the time comes between choosing what is right and what is easy, far too often choosing what is easy. I don't want to minimize forgiveness: my life depends on it. I just wish we didn't use it as a cop-out.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Do Christians sell the faith short? Part 3: Sexual integrity and abortion

In my school days, I noticed something disturbing about the Christians I knew -- even myself. Now, I knew a lot of people on different sides of the major social issues. Back then (as now), Christians were taking fairly harsh criticism from certain camps for being pro-life and for insisting that sex was reserved for marriage. "Should a woman be punished the rest of her life for a single mistake?" people asked about abortion. "If we're living together, that doesn't hurt anybody; you all should mind your own business!", couples would say. The Christians often seemed embarrassed and defensive.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why in the world Christians should be embarrassed. Any faith that can stand up and say without shame that human life is sacred -- and that children are a blessing rather than a punishment -- this is a faith which has reason to hold its head high. Christianity can say to the over-eager couple: "Who gets hurt? You do. You involve your hearts and lives and sign a lease contract on the basis of a hormone-based relationship, and the one who gets hurt when it falls apart is you." But the Christians are often embarrassed. We were not standing up and saying, "Marriage is to save you from being that broken-hearted -- from being over-involved with someone who wasn't right for you. Why would you want to be that involved with someone if you don't know if you're right together? How many years before you're cynical? How long before you stop trusting? How many things will you do that you wish you could take back?"

Instead, we Christians often show little appreciation for the strength of our own position. What we call "morality" is God's way of creating a livable world and a life we're glad to have. "Morality" says our sexuality is meaningful, that children are worthwhile, that the burdens are outweighed by the blessings. Too often, we Christians cower in the corner.

In this light, I think I will always remember two particular days: one day in high school when a friend of mine asked me for an opinion on whether she should go all the way with her boyfriend; I "didn't want to offend her" so I "let her make her own decision" -- I sat on the fence. And another day a good few years later, after the same friend was cynical and broken-hearted and had had two abortions, and she reminded me about that day when she had asked whether I thought she and her boyfriend should go for it. She told me: she had been hoping I would talk her out of it.

I hope I never again forget that there is a human price tag to being unwilling to be unpopular or to be called names. I hope I never again forget that the point of morality is that God is trying to bless us with better lives.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #12: Call for posts

Mark at Pseudo-Polymath has issued the official call for posts for Christian Reconciliation Carnival #12. As the topic of the month, he has proposed an interesting call for discernment as for the causes of the divisions in the church.

I'd like to encourage anyone who reads this to take a shot at it and put in their two cents' worth on Christian Reconciliation. Submissions on this or other topics on Christian Reconciliation are due by the end of the day Friday 06/20/2008. Please post your thoughts and drop an email to the Carnival Submission mailbox.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Do Christians sell the faith short? Part 2: is "faith" defined as "the evidence of things not seen"?

This post continues the excellent conversation Dr. Pursiful started this past week. I mentioned that since God raised Christ from the dead, therefore we know God exists. Dr. Pursiful picks up with the most common response that I hear when I mention it:
More importantly, if that were the case then I’m no longer sure what faith is. It certainly isn’t “the evidence of things not seen” anymore if clear-cut evidence existed right in front of all our eyes.
Exactly: we do, in fact, have radically different definitions of faith. Faith, I would submit to you, most commonly means trust. Consider something Jesus said at the Last Supper, in two different translations:
Ye believe in God; believe also in me. (AV)
Trust in God; trust also in me. (NIV)(John 14:1)
When he is talking to people face to face, what on earth does it mean for someone to be called to have faith in him or believe in him? Think about it: if faith is defined as the evidence of things not seen, then how in the world can Jesus be discussing faith in him with people who see him face to face? But he is not asking people to believe he exists or some set of theological propositions; he is asking people to believe he is trustworthy. "Faith" is used to mean "trust" very often in the New Testament.

Consider this: the "Faith Hall of Fame" in Hebrews 11 also uses "faith" to mean "trust":
By faith Abraham, even though he was past age -- and Sarah herself was barren -- was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who made the promise. (Hebrews 11:11)
Here "faith" means "figuring that God will keep his word." Our faith, then, is our confidence in God, which includes confidence that he will keep his promises. That is how faith comes from hearing the word of Christ, as Paul said to the Romans: it is through hearing of Christ that we know God is faithful and trustworthy. When someone shows us that God is trustworthy, we trust him. That is faith. That is also how faith is "evidence of things not seen": if we trust someone, then their word is good enough for us. It's as if, at work, some Employee of the Month type said they'd get the job done; everyone would take it for granted from there -- when dealing with someone who keeps his word, that word is all we need. Replay in your mind the conversation (from a distance) between Jesus and the Roman centurion: "I say to someone 'do this' and he does it", and Jesus said "I have not found such faith in all of Israel." Faith, again, is shown as figuring that someone is trustworthy.

For the record, I believe that "the evidence of things not seen" was never intended as a definition of faith and is not a definition of faith at all; I believe it is a description of how faith behaves when all we have is a promise of things not seen. When all we have is a promise of things not seen, then "faith" (the trust in the one who made the promise) is what takes effect. However, if "the evidence of things not seen" is faith, then Peter, James, and John didn't have "faith" in the resurrection since they had seen the risen Lord; neither did they have "faith" in Christ since they had seen Christ. If "faith" is based on non-evidence, then the thousands of people who personally saw Jesus perform miracles did not have "faith" in Christ as such, though we might suppose they had "faith" that Christ would return.

By now I am hoping I have made the point: I do not believe that "the evidence of things not seen" was ever intended as a definition of faith, and I believe it leads us to problems interpreting the words of Christ and the words of the apostles -- not to mention some problems in theology -- if we take it as a definition of faith rather than a description.

Why do I discuss this under the heading of selling the faith short? Because that definition of "faith" is then only meaningful if it occurs with a lack of evidence, absence of evidence, or even contrary to evidence. Over the years I have even heard a few people -- though not Dr. Pursiful -- discuss "faith" as if it were their own merit or decision or contribution towards salvation, as if they got bonus points for a "leap of faith" -- so that their own faith was significant only if Christianity were not credible. And so certain Christians reliably proclaim that Christianity is not credible on its own, so that their "faith" (of that sort) is then meaningful in that way. That kind of message I find directly opposed to the message that I would send and I believe the New Testament sends: that Christianity is credible, and that God has shown himself in Christ, and that faith -- i.e. trust in God -- comes from hearing what Christ has done.

The different places you get from defining a single word differently! But then again, "faith" was always an important word.
My life on her faith. -- Othello.