Sunday, February 26, 2012

Utopia vs Eden

I think it's hardwired into who we are, as people, to try to create a paradise. It's the ultimate imitation of God: as he creates a paradise, so we try to create a paradise. Our own efforts may be small: maybe it's a home or a classroom or a garden. Maybe it's a holiday dinner, a summer vacation, a Sabbath -- or some other temporary paradise. Maybe it's a work of art or music.

The ambitious try to create paradise on grand political scales: cities, states, nations -- even the whole world. A big, ambitious paradise can only work if everyone works together. So it quickly seeks legal authority to make people cooperate. If we agreed on what was good and right, there would be no need to force other people to conform. And so the big, ambitious schemes usually come to that point sooner or later, where they go into the business of identifying opponents to be oppressed, discredited, and neutralized. We find that the "paradise" has come with its own ruler, a kind of god (or idol), and a system of values that must not be questioned, along with the laws to promote those values. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Mao, Pol Pot ... are there more? They were all, in their own minds, the heroes leading in the glorious new age, though history is tending to remember them as butchers. How many times did that pattern play out in the 20th century alone? In previous centuries there were other figures, both religious and anti-religious, who tried to create paradise on earth at any price, and likewise became tyrants in a reign of terror. If we can't agree on what is good, then attaining that "good" requires oppressing those with different ideas; whatever else you may call it, it will never be a paradise; there will never even be justice.

They say that "Utopia" is the ancient Greek word for "Nowhere". It has never lasted; in many cases it has never worked at all. In stories, there are so many tales of a utopia gone wrong. In history, there are so many accounts of good intentions, good beginnings, and bad endings.

In Eden, we see some of the same themes: a paradise lost. We see how different ways of deciding "What makes something good or evil?" made the whole thing fall apart -- and involved the question of who was really in charge. But in Eden, that is told without the oppression, and without the reign of terror. There was just a sad ending: as long as there were disagreements about what is right, and what is wrong, and who is in charge -- it can't last. That wisdom has escaped us. That "tree of life" that would make it last forever remains out of reach.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Norton Anti-Virus for the Soul

Yesterday morning as the first day of Lent began, I remembered the plan I had made the night before: Since I hadn't yet decided what to give up for Lent, I would then focus on ridding my life of the first sin I did the next day. I figured the first sin of the day is probably something habitual, so it would be a fine choice.

Naturally I wasn't even out of bed yet before my first thought went astray. It was harshness, a kind of self-directed bitterness. Sure, I've been in the middle of yet one more ridiculous busy season at work. But it was getting to me. The thoughts inside my own head were turning nasty. I told myself, "It's no use job-hunting: even if I succeeded in finding something else in this economy, the only thing that would change would be the name of the person whose unreasonable demands I'd have to satisfy." (Content warning, obviously. Not healthy thoughts.) There were a dozen more trains of thought, regularly occurring, that were just as nasty if not worse. "It's just a way of venting" I told myself. But it was a way that made the frustration worse by adding hopelessness and resentment to everything else going on.
"Get rid of all bitterness, anger, rage ... malice ..." (Eph 4:31)

"The things that come out of the mouth come forth from the heart and defile a person." (Matt 15:18)

"Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks." (Luke 6:15)

And so Lent is starting out like running an anti-virus on my mind. I've identified several repeated trains of thought that are now stopped in their tracks before they really get going. I suppose those problems are "isolated" but not yet "removed". And so Lent becomes my idle-time scan, to get rid of some of the harmful things in my mind.

I'm not proud of the problems, but I'll say this: I've noticed an improvement already in the atmosphere inside my mind.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Essential Bible verses on forgiveness

  1. Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. (Psalm 32:2)
  2. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
  3. The LORD forgives all your sins, and heals all your diseases. (Ps 103:3)
  4. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)
  5. Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29)
  6. There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous who had no need to repent. (Luke 15:7)
  7. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you. For this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:28)
  8. If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)
  9. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
  10. The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.(Matthew 9:6)
  11. Take heart, your sins are forgiven. (Matthew 9:2)
  12. Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more. (John 8:11)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Moral Gerrymandering

In politics, a district is said to be "gerrymandered" if the people drawing the district lines have made improbable twists and turns solely to favor their own position and give an outcome more favorable to their own partisan interests. Generally, there is no identifiable reason for the final results other than the electoral advantage they give to the persons who are using their legal authority to give themselves an advantage -- and to put their opponents at a disadvantage.

The same effect takes place in morality. Often, "right" and "wrong" are gerrymandered in favor of each person's perspective. "Right" -- what is "in bounds" -- may mean nothing more than "the set of goals or virtues I am pursuing"; "wrong" may mean nothing more than "the things that really bother me, or that my opponents do" -- those are out of bounds. The problem, again, is that it's self-serving and partisan. (Can anything like that possibly be genuinely moral?) It is a truly rare situation in which all the good is on one side. More typical is that each side has gerrymandered "good" and "evil".

The original "gerrymander" -- the one that inspired the name, looked a little like a salamander. When we gerrymander good and evil, what does the picture look like? The lines we draw for "good" are typically a flattering self-portrait, and our picture of "evil" becomes a caricature of our enemies -- often a malicious one.

And in that fatal move, morality loses all its power to transform us, to guide us, to heal us, or to inspire us. It loses its power to win over our opponents. Gerrymandered morality is impotent. Morality can only transform us when it is an image that is better than we are -- that is, the image of God.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What makes a blog a Christian blog? Or a sermon a Christian sermon?

I have been pondering for some time, "What makes a blog a Christian blog?" and a related question, "What makes a sermon a Christian sermon?" There are many blogs written by Christian laymen and women that I consider good Christian blogs -- and others written by pastors or theology professors that don't seem Christian. And of course vice versa, though that one is hardly a surprise. So the question had been on my mind.

I asked for the thoughts of long-time blog-neighbor Martin LaBar because he has written about similar subjects. He was kind enough to respond at length:

On what makes a blog Christian:
  • A Christian blog must glorify God
  • A Christian blog must be excellent
  • A Christian blog treats readers, commenters, sources [and, I'd add, opponents] the way the author would want to be treated, and the way Christ would treat them

On what makes a sermon Christian:
A Christian sermon is a discourse, relating to or derived from Jesus or Jesus's teachings.

Many thanks to Martin for lending some insightful thoughts. What would you all add? Do you all struggle with similar thoughts and questions?

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Is there such a thing as "masculine" and "feminine" virtues?

I wonder where society got the idea that there is a set of "masculine" virtues and a set of "feminine" virtues. As best I can tell, the Bible has no such distinction. Everybody is called to a life of virtue, and we don't get a pass on any of them. There are no optional virtues. Courage is often considered a masculine virtue -- but women face death just like men do; it's not like we women can afford to sit that one out. In the Bible, Paul's instructions to be patient and kind, or to show gentleness and respect, don't come under the heading of responsibilities of wives; he's speaking to everyone at that point. Jesus has commanded all of us to love each other; it's not like the men can skip that one. It makes me wonder what kind of distorted personalities people would have if we tried to live up to (down to?) the recommended set of virtues for one sex.

I'm not saying men and women are the same. Vive la difference, as they say. I'm saying that the idea of "masculine virtues" and "feminine virtues" is not really how the Bible speaks about virtue.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

There Are Seven Basic Plots - Or Maybe Just One

Some people say there are only seven different stories in the world -- though different people have different lists of what those seven stories are. There's the romance, the quest, rags to riches, growing up, defeating the monster, facing death, and rebirth. Or sometimes we define stories by their conflicts: man against man, man against nature, man against God, man against society, man against woman, man against himself, man against destiny.* (We sure enjoy being against things, don't we?) Sometimes we group these stories into broader groups like tragedy and comedy.

But what if they all have one underlying theme: Am I good enough? Am I good enough to win someone's affection? Am I skilled enough, brave enough to defeat the monster / enemy? Am I resourceful enough, determined enough to complete the quest, or to escape fate? Or the opposite side: Am I bad enough that everything I touch will fall apart? Am I doomed from the outset by some flaw beyond my control? Am I a hero or a villain, a success or a failure? If character is destiny, what is mine?

The best stories also point to something we know by instinct: there is only a thin line separating the good guy from the bad guy. The villain is really our long-lost brother. Or the person we met as a stranger and treated badly was more important to us than we ever could have guessed -- we would have acted very differently if we had known the truth. All of us, at some time, have been the villain in someone else's story -- or maybe even in our own.

The people who followed Jesus told a different story: not that our character is our destiny, but that God's character is our destiny, and God is good. They said that the bedrock reality of the universe is not all of the conflict, but God's love for what he has made, and his faithfulness to what he has made. And that the question of our character -- our aching hope to be good enough -- is to be satisfied by the imprint of God's own spirit on our own, God's own image on our own, strengthening and deepening day by day. It changes how we see the world, and ourselves, and "the villains".

* Some lists have "man in the middle" instead of "man against destiny"; I've found several variations of the basic list.