Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why I believe in Jesus' Resurrection

I was not born a Christian: my parents were not church-goers in my early years. They did not set out to teach me anything about religion. Still, especially from my very liberal mother, I did pick up a mocking attitude. I still remember the first time when I was little when a neighbor child mentioned "God" seriously to me and to my brother: we traded a shocked look then laughed in her face. That was how I was raised. But still that attitude was more reflex than well-thought, so when another friend invited me to go to Sunday school and then church with her, I came to see. I began reading the Bible without too many preconceptions either from the mockers or the church, though I had been exposed to both at that point. Later on, my parents came to church with me for a few years, before they stopped again; I continued, my religious beliefs still tentative and forming. (It's likely that my religious beliefs will always be forming.) My religious beliefs did not come from my parents, so I consider myself a convert to Christianity.

When I began reading the Bible to figure out how it fit into the world and what I should make of it, I didn't come with any fundamentalist preconceptions about "inerrancy"; and my friend's church was not a fundamentalist church, so the idea of "inerrancy" was still unknown to me when I first read the Bible. When it came to the gospels, that didn't look like the way the authors of the gospels thought about their own writings, from what I could see. I also didn't come with the preconception that miracles must be myth or legend.

So why do I believe in Jesus' resurrection? It comes to this: the people writing the accounts of the gospels came across, like most people, as basically sane and basically honest people. People who are basically sane and basically honest are not wrong about something of that nature for that length of time. The disciples' reactions even to the resurrection come across as both honest and sane: they react with shock and disbelief at first, outright skepticism about a thing like that. Even seeing is not quite believing, at first, for something that out-of-the-ordinary. It takes awhile for them to believe their own eyes. From reading the early writings, it was more that when someone stays -- not a mere vision or phantom or hallucination -- stays and has conversations with you and eats meals with you, after awhile the reality sinks in: he's alive.

Haven't I heard the counter-challenges? Well, yes. As an adult, I've considered it a basic matter of something that we would call "due diligence" in the business world to make sure I give an honest hearing to the major different religions besides Christianity, and the major arguments for and against Christianity. And due diligence is done with my loyalty squarely on the side of reality wherever that should lead.

When it comes to the resurrection, the only substantive argument I've heard against it is, "Miracles don't happen." Many other arguments take the general form "The real explanation for the events must have been _____"; I have yet to see an argument in that format that had much merit of its own as an explanation; generally they don't have much more merit than their premise, "Miracles don't happen." The arguments that the gospels are myth or legend again generally don't have a lot of merit beyond their premise, "Miracles don't happen." But when I read the accounts in the gospels, based on what I read, I think those miracles did happen.

Why do I think those miracles did happen? A lot of it is the basic credibility of the narrators. Saying this usually results in a flurry of nit-picking about the gospels. But I've never read an account of anything, anywhere that couldn't be nit-picked. I've looked over the usual criticisms of the gospels, and haven't found anything that looks like it's relevant to whether the narrators were basically sane and honest. Remember, I don't have the preconceptions of an inerrantist. So if the narrator doesn't have a total recall grasp of every detail, or was giving the words as best they could remember instead of a word-for-word transcript like from a tape recorder -- so that someone else might have a slightly different wording of the same conversation -- that's normal for any account we have from the days before electronic recording. It doesn't mean the people writing the records were insane or rampant liars, which they would have to be if they were wrong about the kinds of things I'm looking at. If a mistake is an honest mistake -- no signs of being intentionally misleading -- and is about a peripheral detail that didn't matter at the time and doesn't matter now --  it doesn't bother me. So the endless criticisms about minute points of the gospels has seemed to be about trivial matters. It often seems nearly petty.

Again, why do I think those miracles did happen? A lot of it is the uniqueness of Jesus. If there is one thing that was very plain to me from reading the gospels, it was this: in Jesus' words, here are teachings that are extraordinary in their picture of holiness as a thing of beauty, desirable in a way that we might actually hunger and thirst for it. His teachings resonate with depth, power, purity, and humility, and are in words so simple that a farmer or a fisherman can not only understand but teach and live. I understood that Jesus had thoroughly earned and deserved that his teachings should be considered among the great religious teachings in the history of the planet; I still think those who have never read or heard Jesus' teachings have been deprived of a great and profound human experience. The list of people who teach religion on a world-class level is a short list. If I were to find real miracles anywhere in the world, I should expect to find them coming from somebody on that short list, and if I did not find them there, I would not expect to find them anywhere at all. That is to say, if there is such a being as "God" and if miracles are his actions in this world, then I should expect to find out more about miracles somewhere among the best of the religious teachers. If the best evidence for miracles were from someone whose life and moral thoughts were unremarkable, it would be easy to dismiss as a fraud. But from Jesus in particular? Here is a case where, if miracles would happen at all, here is a place where you could expect them. Yes, I think those miracles did happen.

For Jesus' resurrection, why do I think that particular miracle did happen? The early writings have records of Jesus' meals with his disciples and conversations with his disciples after he rose from the dead. I have mentioned briefly already that I do not see any reason to dismiss those writings as lies or the product of delusion. In the surviving records, they mention enough detail that I am convinced this is no hallucination or mistake or legend. We have the entire first generation of Christians -- however many thousands of them -- who knew these people, the eyewitnesses to the miracles and especially to Jesus' resurrection, from the disciples' years of travels to spread the news of the resurrection. Some of the people who knew Jesus in person, who saw him and spoke with him and ate meals with him after he rose from the dead, were public figures for decades afterwards and spoke of it often. It created a burst of writings on the topic in which we have many documents dating to the lifetime of people who knew Jesus that speak of his resurrection. The circle continued later with those who knew that first generation, who had themselves known Jesus' disciples, and so on. For centuries of the ever-expanding following of Jesus as a religious figure, there was not an ever-expanding list of documents that were considered trustworthy. It had to trace back to people from that first generation, to the apostles and those who had known them in person.

The opposition to Jesus (or orthodoxy, or Christianity) in modern times has been something I have looked at, in the course of my due diligence. Again, my allegiance is to reality, wherever that leads. I have looked at questions of authorship, questions of dates, alternative gospels, synoptic similarities, a few ancient manuscripts, and anything that seemed relevant to the question, "What's really going on here?" I can only hope that in my lifetime I get the chance to write down what I found when I checked the facts and evaluated the arguments, though some of that can already be found on this blog. I know I haven't heard all the details of all the arguments back and forth; but I've heard so many of them that I'd think that if there was some other major line of argument, I'd at least be aware that the argument existed. This I will say: to this point, nothing I have found changes my evaluation that the gospel writings are honest, trustworthy early accounts of Jesus' life and teachings, and miracles, and his resurrection from the dead.

I believe in Jesus because of the accounts I have read of his life, and after considering various arguments I think that these accounts are trying to faithfully record Jesus as his disciples knew him. When I believed the records of Jesus' life, it was not because I already believed in miracles and God and the Bible. Instead, whatever I believe about miracles and God and the Bible is because I believe in Jesus.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Anniverary of the High Priestly Prayer: On Reconciliation

"For those who will believe in me through their word: that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:20-21)
The divisions among Christians are nothing for us to be proud of on any day. Today of all days, as we remember Jesus' prayer before his arrest, we remember: the prayer for unity was not merely for our sake, but "so that the world may believe that you have sent me." Our divisions make people disbelieve that Jesus is from God. That's not merely a theory or a speculation. I have often talked to non-Christians, and "Which group should I believe?" comes up fairly often, sometimes as a mocking taunt meant to justify their thoughts that Christianity is worthless, sometimes as an honest expression of confusion. Our divisions have real-world consequences.

It has been awhile since I have updated the series on Christian reconciliation and divisions in the church, and that is because I need a change of format. For the earlier posts about liberal/conservative controversies, I am reasonably familiar with both points of view. That is, I can present both views well enough so that each side might see the other point of view. One benefit of arguing both sides myself was this: the person defending one side couldn't very well question the intelligence, diligence, faithfulness, motives etc of the person presenting the other side. That's a real problem in debates, and the solution was to take both sides myself so long as I had a working understanding of both sides.

For some of the other controversies, I don't have a clear idea of why people take the other side. Based on the times when I've heard people attacking my own point of view, I'm fairly sure the other side likewise doesn't have a clear idea of the beliefs of my own side. But debates tend to go badly, often beginning with mistaken ideas about what the other person thinks, and unkind guesses as to why they believe it. It's not unusual for each side to assume bad faith, bad reasoning, or bad motives on the part of the other side.

So I'd like to try a new format for controversies/reconciliation series. I'll start (after the festival of the Resurrection) by putting together a basic, simple statement of what I think the other side believes on a certain controversy, and follow it with a simple pair of questions:
  1. Is that what you believe? 
  2. (If yes) Why do you believe it? (If no) What would be more accurate?
After we see how that works out, I'll figure out how to go forward from there.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Why average Christians take the theologians with a grain of salt

This is not the kind of post that is easy write. I think that people who study theology academically should be encouraged in that pursuit. What better thing is there to do, what more fulfilling quest is there than to know God? But sometimes it may be helpful for those who "do theology" to see why exactly the average person in the congregation takes them with a grain of salt.

This post was sparked by a recent post by Ken Schenck, who sounded as though he wanted very much for the average Christian to take to heart some things from academic Biblical studies, in order to correct "ten common mistakes", as he said. I should say from the outset: this post is not a rebuttal, but more of a "laity perspective". I write with the hope that the theologians might see how things look from a different viewpoint, particularly the viewpoint of the various life-long Bible students in the pews.

Mr Schenck's post rounded up ten points about modern Bible scholarship that "have not fully trickled down to the popular level". (Oh dear, I thought, when I read that.) So I thought it might be good for the professional scholars to get something of a running commentary from the other side of that trickle, to appreciate the other point of view.

It's tempting to get distracted by the haughtiness -- literally -- in the "trickle down to the popular level" kind of thinking. In fact, I think it's part of the issue of why academics don't have a wider audience -- or the perspective that comes with interacting with more viewpoints. But it's not the best place to start when asking the academic to rethink a thing or two. With that in mind, let's imagine for a moment that everything assumed in "trickle down to the popular level" is completely legitimate, and focus instead on this one assumption in particular: the assumption that the current round of academic scholarship -- especially when it reaches near-consensus -- ought to be accepted fully. Here's a question for the scholars, strictly as academics: Has there ever been an age whose scholarship was fully accepted without any modification by the ages after it? Is there any age, or scholar, that you agree with completely? If not, why should the current scholarship be fully accepted now? If we're interested in insights in scholarship, then the next insights in scholarship are likely to come from listening to people who have spotted the various weak places in the current scholarship. Thinking there are no weak spots in the current scholarship is wishful thinking at best.

Two quick notes about trends in modern scholarship, since they are part of the picture here. First is that modern scholarship leans towards "throwing out the baby with the bathwater". That is, whenever a previous generation needs to be corrected, the current generation tends to over-correct and err in the opposite direction. Second is the trend of political correctness, or interpreting things with a goal of being accommodating or inoffensive. Obviously, no person of good conscience would make a goal of being offensive. But if we're working with material that wasn't meant to offend, then we can have a goal of accuracy without having a legitimate charge made against us. Anything that leaves aside accuracy is a distortion, no matter how well-intended. With that in mind, I'll take a brief tour of Mr Schenck's list. There are some items that I'd wholeheartedly agree with and others not so much; that isn't the main point. My point here is to show a theologian about that "grain of salt" and why the "popular" level doesn't always accept the current round of scholarship. My notes are written with that in mind. The numbered points (bold and italics) are Mr Schenck's; the comments below each are mine.

1. The Jews were not trying to earn their salvation by good works.

Mr Schenck does a better job than most of being accurate with his words here; some go so far as to make a blanket statement that Judaism is not legalistic and does not involve works-righteousness. Note Mr Schenck's careful wording of "not trying to earn their salvation by good works". When Jews of Jesus' day or Paul's day thought about their good works, based on what records we have, they weren't thinking in terms of "earning salvation" in the way that we might mean.

But does that amount to denying the existence of a legalistic side, or sidestepping the issue of whether it played a part? Legalism -- and works-righteousness -- were definitely portrayed in the New Testament as a force to be reckoned with in the Jewish community of the day, and that is a thing that modern scholars tend to sweep under the rug in embarrassment. In fact legalism and works-righteousness are fairly constant themes or debates in religion, almost anywhere, almost anytime. Christianity is hardly exempt from the same. Imagine there being a really clear set of guidelines for exactly what you had to do to be right with God. How many people would leap at the chance? We would hardly care if there were 10 things we had to do or 613 of them, just for the clear and finite expectations that legalism promises.

Was legalism a live issue in that day? Who can forget Jesus' famous send-up of the people who tithed the spices from their herb gardens but forgot justice and compassion and faith, and his comment that they strained at gnats and swallowed camels? Between the comments of Paul about how he and his fellow Jews did seek righteousness by works, and the number of run-ins Jesus had with people who had something to say about why the disciples didn't keep this or that rabbinic law, or those who questioned how Jesus could dare to perform a miracle when it was the Sabbath, we know that legalism and works-righteousness were live issues. So why would some scholars bend over backwards to say differently, or others carefully word a thing so as not to address that particular question?

Here's the thing: as Mr Schenck mentions in his introduction, "[t]he reappraisal of Judaism was inspired by the Holocaust ...". Translated, that means that if we say "Judaism had a legalistic streak" (or had legalistic groups, or that works-righteousness was accepted in some circles) then we get accused of anti-Semitism and get compared to murderous genocidal maniacs, so we do anything at all in order to avoid that horrible smear. Here's an instance where, to the pew-sitter, it looks like the trend to political correctness has caused some of the academics to sacrifice accuracy, to set aside faithfulness to the texts as we have them. There's nothing particularly anti-Semitic about noticing the legalistic and works-righteous streams in Paul's and Jesus' contemporaries. The early church was hardly exempt from the same, and you can find that in Paul's writings too. Mr Schenck's tasteful maneuvering around the topic is a step up from the more common denial that there was any actual works-righteousness or legalism at work. It looks like there is a scholarly trend to re-interpret certain texts out of a well-intentioned wish to be sensitive and responsible. But there's no legitimate need to revise or self-censor. There is nothing in Jesus' comments about the hypocrisy of legalism that is actually dangerous. There's nothing unusual to human nature in being drawn to legalism and works-righteousness, and no need for us to disown the early arguments on the topic that are recorded in the New Testament.

The current scholars have pointed out that, in previous ages, scholars may have been so caught up in the events and arguments and sensitivities of their own day that they retroactively read things into Paul other than what he was saying. I'd have to mention: that's still a risk.

2. Paul did not struggle with a guilty conscience, either before or after he believed in Jesus as Christ.

Then why did Paul sound so much as if he struggled with a guilty conscience? He called himself the "worst of sinners". He famously lamented, "the evil that I do not intend, that is what I do ... oh wretched man that I am." Paul's struggles with his guilty conscience have been a consolation to people through the ages when we have the same struggles. The more the average person sees scholars making claims that don't square with the Bible on the nightstand, the less the average person is likely to accept scholars' comments about the Bible on the nightstand.

3. Paul saw works as an element in final salvation. What he did not believe were required for justification were "works of Law," especially those aspects of the Law that separated Jew from Gentile (e.g., circumcision).

Again, "Oh dear." There have been literally centuries of conversations about this one. (Though calling them "conversations" may be a polite euphemism in some cases.) I think I'll save most of the comments about this and address them under item #5, which is closely related, so as not to repeat too much. I'll just say here: it would be ironic if Mr Schenck's point #3 here, "works as an element in final salvation", sent Christians back to square #1,"trying to earn their salvation by good works". I don't know Mr Schenck well enough to have any idea whether that is what he intended, but the general flow of some of his points could easily be seen that way. 

4. Romans is not primarily about how to get saved but about how the Gentiles can be included alongside the Jews in the people of God.

On this one, I think the scholars are on solid ground: trying to bring the focus back to what Paul was actually saying, which risks being lost in the debates (&/or street-brawls) over the question "How do we get saved?" The point here is made as a decree, though; Mr Schenck doesn't give enough information for a person to evaluate that claim. (For the record, I think the question of including Gentiles was a large part of Paul's point in Romans. It's not that I disagree, but that the "decree" approach isn't persuasive. Though in fairness, the original isn't intended as a piece of persuasive writing.) I think Romans also shows noticeable signs of Paul having something like a Jewish identity crisis, as he works through how to view Judaism and the Torah in an age where Gentiles are included in God's people without being Torah-observant.

5. The Law in Romans is the Jewish Law, not some abstract moral law.

This is oversimplified. It will strike a false note with the many people who are familiar with these verses: "When the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness ..." (Romans 2:14-15). So there are people who know a counter-example to the assertion made above, who know of a time in Romans where "Law" alternates in meaning between Jewish law and other law within the same train of thought.

The larger comment I'd make comes when we put #3 back into this conversation -- remember I said I'd get back to it here under #5 -- about the "element of works in salvation", and that side-bar on #3 that opens room to suggest that works of the Law may possibly be required for salvation if they're not Jewish distinctives like circumcision. When we discuss the law, we could picture first Jesus and then Paul as having a new perspective on the Law, and on what it means to fulfill the law of God. Paul goes on at some length in Romans and in other writings about the death of the law, freedom from the law, living by the Spirit against which there is no law, and love as the fulfillment of the law. Some of Paul's more memorable passages are when he builds on Jesus' teachings about love.

"Love fulfilling the law" ... that's deeply unsatisfying to the inner legalist in us all, who would rather beg for 10 clear rules. Is love really that challenging for us? Yes it is. It's still the real fulfillment of the law. The temptation to legalism can apply regardless of whether we have in mind the Torah, or a subset of the Torah, or an abstract moral law, or any other type of moral performance standard. Without love, any of the above becomes an exercise in straining gnats and swallowing camels, all in an attempt to justify ourselves.Without love, what exactly remains besides legalism and work-righteousness?

6. Paul did not change religions when he believed on Christ.  He probably changed Jewish sects. All the early Christians saw themselves as Jews. The Gentile converts saw themselves as converting to a form of Judaism. It would be more accurate to speak of Christian Jews than of Jewish Christians in the earliest church.

This one is well done. It is reasonably solid end-to-end, with only the hint of over-generalization. It restores your faith that there are some solid insights in scholarship.

7. The Pharisees were all strict but they were not all legalists in the sense of only caring about rules for their own sake. Jesus puts them in the "healthy" and "righteous" category, at least initially, in several parables. Some of them became believers without leaving Pharisaism.

Here, there is so much promise: examples and citations are hinted at, which would be welcome in a situation like this. But they aren't given. The point could have been made more strongly by mentioning enough detail for the Bible students in your average congregation to identify the references, or by giving the references themselves. That may go against the decided format for the original post; more on that in the conclusion.

8. New Testament theology is theo-centric (God the Father centered) rather than Christocentric.

This one is not just overstated, it is misleading.

Here is the overstated part: If you look at word usage frequency in the New Testament, in the NIV text that I found (hope it's accurate/complete), we have the word "God" appearing 1341 times, "Jesus" 1261 times, "Christ" 523 times ... or for the AV (KJV) it's 1370, 983, and 571 respectively. Of course "Jesus Christ" appears together sometimes but not always, making it trickier to tell who gets more mention. So from a viewpoint of who gets more focus-time, if the Father has more it's only by the slightest amount so that "theocentric rather than Christocentric" would be an overstatement. Once you add together the different ways Jesus is referenced (Jesus, Christ, Lord, savior, lamb, etc) it's likely that Jesus gets at least as much focus as the Father (though again, if it is more it would be by a narrow margin). Aside from a statistical measure of focus, there is also the matter of the authors' stated focus points: "Fix your eyes on Jesus" ... "I resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified", "these words are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ" ... are only a few of the times where the author's point for the reader is about the importance of Jesus.

I say this next not to "balance it out" but to complete the picture: when Jesus is recorded as saying "I am the way, I am the truth, I am the light" -- are those Christocentric or theocentric? The answer is not as obvious as it may look. Consider: "I am the way" to what? = to the Father; "I am the truth" about what? = about the Father; "I am the light" to see what? = to see the Father. And we can figure that's where he's going by his next phrase, "no one comes to the Father but by me." When I ask if those statements are Christocentric or theocentric, my point is that the question -- assuming that either/or point of view -- forces something onto the text that distorts it. When we separate things out that way -- when we split "theocentric" apart from "Christocentric" as two different things and make it an either/or -- then we are not thinking about Jesus and the Father in the way that Jesus himself asks us to think about him and the Father. Which leads directly to ...

Here is the misleading part: the New Testament as a whole does not discuss Christ and the Father in such a way that permits us to make some sort claims about the focus being on "God rather than Christ" (or vice versa, "Christ rather than God"). Making that distinction threatens to miss the whole point of the incarnation, the whole point about which so much of the New Testament was written.

9. The best approach to understanding the historical Jesus locates him within first century Judaisms on a trajectory to the early church (double similarity).

Again, here is a solid thing that restores your faith in scholarship ... except for the part where this is presented as correcting a mistake. Keep in mind that something that seems so obvious -- Jesus' Jewish context -- was overlooked or denied at times before. The phrasing about "first century Judaisms" is a current trend in scholarship about how to recognize that there were different Jewish groups. The parenthetical remark about "double similarity" shows that Mr Schenck's comments are addressing other scholarly discussions about how to evaluate whether something is historical. So a couple of times there, it seems Mr Schenck's audience for this one is scholars -- a point that matters fairly directly when we consider the next question.

Keep in mind that it was obvious to a great many Christians that Jesus' life is understood in Jewish context. So who exactly thought otherwise? Mr Schenck is addressing scholars and scholarly trends here, with his nod to "first century Judaisms" and "double similarity". "First century Judaisms" in popular knowledge mainly works out to Pharisees and Sadducees, both active groups in the New Testament. Even though that popular knowledge is simplified down to what is needed for ordinary purposes, it is at least on the right track: the average person didn't seriously question whether Jesus should be understood in a Jewish context. Being "simplified but on the right track" puts it one step ahead of some of the scholarship that was insisting Jesus' sayings were more authentically from Jesus if they bore no similarity whatsoever to his Jewish context. That scholarly trend amounted to denying that Jesus should be understood in Jewish context, and it worked out badly. The mistakes here being corrected are not popular ones: they're scholarly and academic ones which the popular level largely rejected. It is not always wrong for the popular level to reject scholarly proclamations. They can be faddish,  biased, or simply not thoroughly considered.

10. The earliest Christians did not see ethnic Israel as replaced but in a temporary state of unbelief.

This one is not untrue as far as it goes, though it's definitely only part of the picture. Another part is that the New Testament writers also talked about how ethnic Israel was no longer the exclusive people of God, that the Gentiles were now heirs of the promise too, and also belonged to the chosen people. Again, because "[t]he reappraisal of Judaism was inspired by the Holocaust ..." we find scholars treading very lightly. In the big scheme of things, "God has a covenant with all people, not exclusively the Jews" shouldn't be seen as anti-Semitic. But if a scholar is labeled as an "anti-Semite", no matter how unjustly, it can have devastating consequences for the academic's career. Many scholars understandably bend over backwards to avoid that attack. We in the pews have some sympathy for the hostile environment in which the Christian academic writes; there is some sense that the scholar can't necessarily discuss some topics or defend certain points for fear of reprisals, or that some subjects are such a minefield that they're being left alone. But the plain fact is that, every time an academic self-censors to the point of avoiding a legitimate topic, that very act of avoiding a legitimate topic adds to the general view that academics are best taken with a grain of salt, considering their circumstances.

I'm hoping that the above may help the academics see why the people in the pews take academia with a grain of salt. Was there regret, in the scholar, that only a trickle of information comes down to the popular level to correct their mistakes? In the case of Christians, the "popular level" generally means congregations. In every congregation I have ever attended, you find a significant number of lifelong Bible students, people who are very familiar with the Bible. The format of the original post is simply a list of things where the scholar believes the common perception is a mistake, and what the scholar believes is right. I think there might be better reception of the ideas if they were delivered with examples and supporting details from the Bible. The reason for this goes beyond engaging the reader -- though that is a part too. There is also the matter of respecting the audience enough to think that they can evaluate things for themselves, if given the chance. Of course a post like that would take far more time to develop, and it raises the question whether the academic considers that a good use of time. Again, in fairness, everyone's time is limited.

The situation reminds me of my Sunday school class. In order to get the students to participate, I ask lots of questions. Every once in awhile, their answers surprise me. Sure, at times they surprise me in a way that doesn't impress me. I doubt I'll ever forget the class that said God was omnipotent, omniscient, and omnivorous. I think I've mentioned before: the students who said "omnipotent" and "omniscient" didn't impress me too much more than the one who said "omnivorous"; they were all parroting instead of thinking, only some were parroting with more skill than others. It's the risk of asking people to take our word for what to think; it's better if they understand why people think it. While the occasional silly answer does happen, more often they are seeing things from an angle that I don't, and so have the potential to see something I've missed. Most teachers have had the experience of learning something from their students, growing from that exchange. Despite the differences in education and experience, the students can and do have insights. If I talked down to them, not only would they tune out what I said, but I'd miss out on what they thought, too.

Updated 3/17/2013: spelling

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Faith, love, and gardening?

The Bible compares our spiritual lives to living, growing things: we are like trees planted beside streams of water. Time and time again, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to living, growing things: a mustard plant, a farmer planting seeds, a field of grain. And, he teaches us, it's by the fruit that you know the tree.

It wasn't until after I started gardening that I realized: a lot of plants never bear fruit if you plant them alone. One blueberry bush won't do you much good, or one pecan tree, or one corn plant. One plant by itself might not produce much: in fact, it might not produce at all, if there isn't another to cross-pollinate. For corn, you do best with rows and rows, all close enough that they catch the pollen blowing in the wind from each other.

That's a little bit what church is like, and Bible studies. Everything that brings us together as Christians makes us more fruitful, more productive. In the Bible, Paul famously listed the kinds of "fruit" of a spirit-filled life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. How can a Christian grow in love, or produce love, alone? Love by its very nature is connected to another. (Given that love is good, it follows that "It is not good for man to be alone.")

If you don't mind me being a little playful, we could almost look at congregations of believers in churches -- seated in pew after pew after pew -- as row crops. And once we're pollinated, we go back to our homes and jobs to bear fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. And maybe, just maybe, when we bear fruit -- another seed will be planted.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Repentance: Sinners Anonymous?

Most people have at least heard of "Twelve Step" programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. While alcohol may not be the thing we have trouble with, I have to wonder if the general approach would be helpful to other problems. Someone would have a sponsor or mentor, would disciple someone else and be a disciple, would be accountable to someone else for tackling a problem, would meet regularly to support each other. It seems like it might be useful for any spiritual problem that we struggle with.

What would my 12-step group be? Sarcastics Anonymous? Depressive-Thinking Anonymous? Way-Too-Analytical Anonymous? I'm sure the people who know me best could suggest others. There's no reason everyone would have to share the same struggle; we each have our own.

Churches have Bible study groups, prayer groups, fellowship groups, service groups ... why not 12-step groups? Here are the 12 steps, according to Wikipedia, with some very slight changes to make it broader than just alcohol: 
  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol sin - that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The references to God "as we understood Him" is Christian, if that is how we understand Him.

I didn't have to cross out "alcohol" and "alcoholics" very often; the steps could apply generally to any spiritual struggle. When we try to tackle a spiritual problem, we could really benefit from taking steps #8 and #9 seriously. In order to make a change, we need to open our eyes when our actions harm people and actually set about fixing things. This is is not merely trying to earn favor or get some credit back. It makes us more aware of the effects on those around us, giving us additional incentive to resist. It is also actively unlearning the bad habits, developing a better way, restoring the love, and reconciling the relationships.