Sunday, December 28, 2014

Is human reason capable of knowing God from nature?

Those who study the nature of God sometimes consider: Is human reason capable of knowing God by its own light, from the natural world and from human nature? I suspect this is one of the times when we, seeking God, and arguing amongst ourselves over how we can know God -- or about how capable we may be -- manage on both sides to miss the point. Once we accept that question as a starting point, we have accepted a very questionable premise.

Both sides of the argument acknowledge that we can look at the natural world and the nature of man and deduce many things about God. We may hold to humility, and to God's place in our abilities, by pointing to the image of God within us as the source of this light of reason. We may argue that man's reason is capable, either by itself or with the grace of God of reasoning from the natural world to true knowledge of God. We may argue that man's reason is not capable by itself: our self-interest gives us the capacity for self-deceit.

But does God want our knowledge of him to be based solely on the natural world and human nature? Doesn't God ask for our knowledge of him to be based also on his acts of love, mercy, and compassion? (Even if we were to deduce God's love, mercy, and compassion from the natural world, what would that be worth if we did not see his actual actions among people? Do we overlook God's actions in the world because we do not recognize them, or because we do not value them? Or are we more interested in what our human reason can do blindfolded, and less interested in how much more we could know without the blindfold? Do we ever ask whether God has asked us to use that blindfold, or whether he considers it a useful thing to know, what we would reason about him if we overlooked his actions in the world?  And why would we place the blindfold just there, so as to hide from our view God's actions among humanity?)

Doesn't God ask for our knowledge of him to include his actions and his continuing presence in the world, rather than simply the world's existence? Doesn't God ask for our knowledge of him to be based on his promise of faithfulness? Doesn't God desire and intend that true knowledge of himself includes not merely reasoning about him but knowing him and hearing him, not only from the heavens glorifying him in the ineffable language, but in plainer words in language that we understand? Doesn't knowing God include knowing that he is not a passive and hidden God, but the living and present one? If we try to know God from reason and nature alone, either we are not that interested in knowing him fully, or we are considering a very different kind of God than the Christian God.

There is a scene in the American sitcom The Office in which one character, sitting outside the CEO's luxurious home, goes through the CEO's trash and finds clues that the man is wealthy. He prides himself on having deduced this from the trash. But he overlooked the mansion and headed for the trash; he also overlooked that he actually knows the man himself.

So in the end, my question would be: what kind of "knowledge" of God do you get by knowing God based on reasoning from the natural world? Is this the kind of knowledge of God that God wishes us to have? Is this the highest and best kind of knowledge of God? If it is not, then we must say: "Not really, we can't know God in the ultimate way from things other than God. We know God better when we approach God."

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Heaven and nature sing

Nature's sounds tend to have a rhythm, from the birds to the wind to the crickets. The lyrics of "Joy to the World", where "heaven and nature sing" have always resonated with me. Here is a collection of some verses in the Bible about nature joining in the praise of God, beginning with the Psalms that were probably the most immediate sources of the hymn "Joy to the World":

Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad,
Let the sea and all within it thunder
The fields and everything in them exult
Let all the trees of the forest rejoice
At the presence of the LORD, for He is coming,
For He is coming to rule the earth,
He will rule the world with justice,
and its peoples with faithfulness.
(Psalm 96:11-13)

All the ends of the earth beheld the salvation of our God.
Raise a shout to the LORD, all the earth,
break into joyous songs of praise!!
Sing praise to the LORD with the lyre,
with the lyre and melodious song
With trumpets and the blast of the horn
raise a shout before the LORD, the King.
Let the sea roar, and all within it;
The world and its inhabitants
Let the floods clap their hands
The mountains sing joyously together
At the presence of the LORD
For He is coming to rule the earth;
He will rule the world justly,
And its peoples with equity.
(Psalm 98:3-9)

The floods (streams) have lifted up, O LORD,
have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their waves.
(Psalm 93:3)

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the firmament shows the work of his hands.
Day unto day utters speech;
night unto night displays knowledge.
There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.
(Psalm 19:1-3)

If they should keep silence,
The stones will cry out!
(Luke 19:40)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

When Gabriel came

There are only a few times in the Bible in which an angel is named. Gabriel is named twice in the book of Daniel, and twice in the book of Luke. In Daniel, he famously introduces the prophecy of the "seventy sevens" -- the 490 years until the coming of the Anointed. Daniel meets Gabriel in this way:

While I was still speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, flying swiftly, touched me -- it was about the time of the evening sacrifice. (Daniel 9:21)
In Luke, he is first seen telling Zechariah the priest that his prayers have been heard, that he and his wife will have a child:
According to the custom of the priest's office, his [Zechariah's] lot was to burn incense when he went into the Temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the time of incense. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. ... And the angel, answering him, said, "I am Gabriel" (Luke 1:9-11; 19)
Zechariah is told that his child, not yet conceived, will fulfill the role of Elijah in the prophecy of Malachi: his child will be the forerunner of the Messiah (compare Malachi 4:5-6 to Luke 1:17).

These are not the only appearances of Gabriel, but they have some interesting similarities: Both times, Gabriel is given the honor of bringing good news related to the coming Messiah. (This occurs again when Gabriel announces Mary's blessing to her, to be the mother of the Messiah.) I wonder if Zechariah, when he found he was talking to Gabriel, might have remembered that Gabriel's last known appearance was the prophecy of the time til the coming of the Messiah, a time he would have expected was reaching its fulfillment. The similarity would have been made stronger in his mind by another aspect of the timing: Gabriel had appeared to Daniel at the time of the evening sacrifice. Here again, Zechariah seems to have been performing either the evening or morning sacrifice (when the incense is offered) at the time that Gabriel came to him. Do angels favor the time of prayer for visiting? For revealing the answer to a long-sought prayer?

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Spiritual health checkup: based on "If" by Rudyard Kipling

"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you ..." 
So begins Kipling's famous poem. Kipling's poem is said to be an homage to a man he admired greatly, who got a raw deal and handled himself admirably. It's also part of a long tradition to figure out what it means to be fully human, to live up to the human potential.

I like Kipling's approach, to draw an image of such an ideal man, and hold it up to us, and let us figure out how our reflections measure up, or whether to simply admire and grow from it. While I wouldn't reduce the gospels to it, still the writers of the Christian gospels took much the same approach with Jesus. Confucius took a similar approach with his writings on the ideal gentleman.

If Kipling's poem were a starting point for a checklist, what would that look like? It might go something like this:
  1. When I am blamed for things that are not my fault, I generally clear the air calmly. 
  2. When I am blamed for things that are my fault, I tend to apologize and fix the problem. 
  3. I trust myself. 
  4. It bothers me when people doubt me. 
  5. I have learned from constructive criticism. 
  6. I have lied about someone who did me wrong. [This one hopes you answer "no"; I'm hoping those are plain enough to the read, & I won't always indicate it.]
  7. I really hate people who treat me with contempt. 
  8. My dreams are still alive. 
  9. My dreams take priority over other things. 
  10. I like to think things through and understand the situation. 
  11. I pursue thought for its own sake; I don't often act on my thoughts. 
  12. Life's successes do not go to my head. 
  13. Life's setbacks do not get me down. 
  14. Sometimes I lose my moral compass when I'm among friends, or in a crowd. 
  15. If I had a chance to make it big, I would miss my friends but I could move on. 
  16. It is important to be down-to-earth. 
  17. I think other people's opinions are worth hearing. 
  18. Other peoples' opinions can make me doubt my goals. 
I know there are other items in Kipling's poem that might be reworked as part of a spiritual health checkup. But this serves my purpose for today.

I'm currently wondering: What other things would make good a good basis for a spiritual health checkup?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The God who kindles a spark

Before, we've looked at how the beatitudes reveal God as the one who blesses, and as the one who sees our need: the one who acts in compassion.

The beatitudes also show him as the God who kindles a spark. He sees humility, or mercy, or a peacemaker, or a pure heart, and he blesses them. He makes us hunger and thirst for righteousness. He encourages those things within us. What he starts in us is a flame, a dim reflection of him. He rebuilds the image of himself within us. The beatitudes create that desire within us to become that living embodiment of a divine spark. "The smoldering wick he will not snuff out"; instead he coaxes that ember back to life. If the image of God was originally put into us by the Word of God, then he again uses the Word of God to renew that image inside us. That is what we find happening when we read the beatitudes.

The Word of God is so much more than information for intellectual study. Rightly handled, it is transformative, planting the seed of the new creation, creating the image of God in us. That is the true work of a Bible study, or private reading, or a sermon. If the Word of God is the agent of creation, then the Word of God can be expected again as part of our renewal. The living word has in it the power of God to make us whole again. We find that at work in the passages that draw us to them.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Better Thanksgiving spiritual prep (the relatives)

For years I've been working to be better prepared for the annual Thanksgiving gathering in a family where the simmering tensions are a given. And the preparations have been helping, though again I'm hoping to take it one step further this year. This year I am taking the "do unto others" approach: where I wish other people would remember any decent or good thing I've ever done and treat me accordingly, I plan to remember a decent or good thing each person there has done, and try to find an opportunity to work that story into the conversation. So this year, I hope to uplift the people there with memories of how they:

  • made really amazing pumpkin pies
  • used to hem pants for my grandfather
  • whenever the grandparents were in the hospital, used to cheer up youngest generation with balloon-games with the hospital gloves
  • was a favorite substitute teacher
  • earned "world's most patient" status during her husband's declining years
  • danced along with the staff at Chuck E Cheese parties and made everybody smile (someone who is now old enough to appreciate that rather than be embarrassed by it)
  • followed his own sense of direction in a career choice, rather than doing what was expected
We'll see how many of these I can work into the conversation this Thanksgiving. 

I'm also reviewing some of the holiday preparations from prior years:

Though when it comes to backhanded compliments, it seems that ultimately, if I'm expecting backhanded compliments, I should go armed with honest and earnest compliments about the others, or stories that build up the other people. It might set a better tone and prevent the insults, or (if not), still "bless those who curse you".

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Seeing God ... and seeing anyone at all

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. - Jesus

The most beautiful of all blessings is reserved for the pure in heart: seeing God.

Here, among all the blessings that Jesus proclaims, is one blessing that I do not think could possibly be any other way. If we are small and self-centered, we don't even see the people around us, not really. If our lives are all about ourselves, then it's not just the words of God that we don't hear, but even the words of the person talking to us. "He who has ears, let him hear" could be a fair warning whenever anyone is talking to us. Whenever we are self-centered, we do not see our neighbor, we do not hear our own family, we do not notice the person sitting next to us. The beginning of a pure heart is to love our neighbor. The stronger we become in love, the more we are able to see what is around us -- to see who is around us. (There are ways in which love is blind, but hatred is much blinder. And indifference is nearly defined by willful blindness.)

As for seeing God: God's presence is all around us, but when we become impatient or frustrated we do not see it. It is in our quieter and kinder moments that we notice it. Even in this world, the pure in heart see more.

And in the world to come ...

Sunday, November 09, 2014

The God Who Sees Our Need

Before we've looked at the Beatitudes and Jesus' message of the God who blesses. The Beatitudes are also Jesus' message of the God who sees our need. The beatitudes show God's focus on the downtrodden and burdened, on those who mourn, on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness -- on those distressed by the injustice of the world, on the persecuted. Luke's edition shows God's focus on the poor and hungry. Jesus does not begin his preaching with a message of God's commands. He does not begin with a message of our guilt or our need for reform. He begins with a message that God knows our sorrows, that he sees our affliction. He proclaims God's concern and God's love. More than that, he proclaims God's promise of restoration.

The basis underlying so much of Jesus' teaching is the coming kingdom of heaven. One parable after another seeks to capture the image for us, to explain some aspect of what the kingdom of heaven is like. But here in Matthew's gospel, Jesus is shown beginning his teaching ministry by explaining the kingdom of heaven in plainer words. He proclaims a new creation, and a world filled with the blessings of God, where injustice and hunger and mourning are a thing of the past. For here and now, we have Jesus' word that God knows what it is we endure.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Controversies in the Church: Is there a purgatory? (The dilemma of indulgences)

In this post, rather than directly tackling the question of purgatory, I'm instead exploring how it ties into the related practice of granting indulgences. Why would I approach purgatory from the side issue of indulgences? Because the questions in my mind show that there are some things about the doctrines that I simply don't understand. It seems best if I should try to find understanding with the questions that I already have, before moving forward with a next step. 

So "purgatory" (roughly speaking) is a place where, according to Roman Catholics, those who die in the Lord go to be purged from the stains of earthly sins. I have heard it explained as a penalty for sin or as a purification to cleanse the soul (or both). We'll come back to that in a moment, after we look at "indulgences". I should also mention: Purgatory is often portrayed as unpleasant or painful. 

And "indulgences" are the Roman Catholic church's grant of remission or pardon, including shortening the time in purgatory for the dearly departed. 

Here are the things that don't make sense to me, looking at those two doctrines side by side: 

If "purgatory" is necessary in order to cleanse the soul, then how can that time be shortened and still do the necessary job of purification? If someone were released from purgatory before being thoroughly cleansed, could they enter paradise? Or if the necessary job of cleansing the soul were complete, why were they still in purgatory? We might even ask, if they were still in purgatory after being cleansed, was it simply as punishment? And if they remained as punishment, then where is the forgiveness of sins? 

Or if someone were to say that purgatory is not painful or unpleasant -- then where is the benefit of indulgences at all? Why would we want early release, if purgatory were not painful? 

So to sum up: If we say the time in purgatory is endured out of necessity, then how can there be any change in the duration? Or if a change in duration is a mercy that can be done and still meet the need, then why is that mercy not always shown, since we've already agreed it meets the need? If we say that time in purgatory is not endured out of necessity, then why is it done at all? 

These are the questions in my mind about purgatory that are raised by the church's claim to grant indulgences. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Special: The Befriended Monster

There's a problem with writing "monster movies": there aren't that many monsters left. It's not that we disbelieve them too much; there's always that "willing suspension of disbelief" that is the entry price for a good story, and we gladly give it. But at this point, we've befriended all the major monsters. Friendly ghosts? That's been done long since; Casper was ages ago, and Nearly-Headless Nick is just one of the more recent entries in the series. Friendly vampires? Twilight has enough of them to make a vampire soap opera. Friendly werewolves? Definitely, Twilight and Harry Potter again have the territory well-covered between Jacob Black, the Wolf pack, and Remus Lupin. The old Adams Family and Munsters were just an early act in a now-expected storyline. Wicked has a sympathetic retelling of the Wizard of Oz's Witch of the West. Even Godzilla isn't that bad, once you understand his motives. (Godzilla as an apocalyptic vengeance on man has some small similarities to the beasties of the Book of Revelation.)

So what do you do when you need a monstrous character? Well, humans have enough monstrous traits, and the other monsters were often projections of our worst selves. So storytellers generally turn to humans for their monsters. Many a story contains a "surprising" revelation that the monster is, after all, human. Environmentalists tend to write stories where humanity or industrialism or capitalism is the monster, or man is the disease that needs to be eradicated. People of a political bent tend to create caricatures of their political opponents and show them as monstrous. Or (based on J.K. Rowling's statements), people she has personally disliked over the years appear in Roman-a-clef format as distasteful characters such as Gilderoy Lockhart, or odious ones like Dolores Umbridge. (Honestly, Lord Voldemort has more a sympathetic backstory than the stand-ins for some people the author once knew.)

But what if -- what if we haven't taken "befriending the monster" quite far enough? What if the human monsters also could be understood? What if, once you understand where they're coming from, they're not quite as monstrous as we supposed? What if prejudice has blinded us, or a personal bad experience has tainted our thoughts? Why is it, again, we're so certain we shouldn't listen and seek understanding?

Once we listen to "the monster" and try to understand, the monster tends to become more human. And if we decide not to understand or listen ... well, it's easy to miss the scarier point of the "surprise" revelation that the monster is human: the monster might be us.

So here's to Halloween. It's the night where we pass out lots of candy to all the ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches, dragons -- and neighbors -- that we might see. And for that, it may well be my favorite holiday.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"It is impossible that God should produce a being like Himself"

"It is impossible that God should produce a being like Himself" - Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part III Chapter XV
When we talk about the question, "Is there anything that God cannot do?", sooner or later we come to the question: Are there things that are genuinely, absolutely impossible? For example, a thing cannot be both a triangle and a square; that is self-contradictory, and so it is impossible. If something is impossible, then even God cannot do it, and it is not considered any kind of shortcoming or limit to God. Instead, it is considered a property of reality: a thing is itself, and not something else.

Maimonides says it's "impossible" for God to produce a being like Himself. This is based on his assumptions about what it means to be God. But would a Christian share those assumptions? We'll leave aside, for the moment, any specific question of the identity of any other being or beings that might (or might not) be like God, and instead consider the hypothetical question: If it were possible, what it would mean?

So: Can God "produce" a being like Himself? God Himself has not been produced, so the very fact that the other being is "produced" would mean that this other being is, in some ways, not exactly like God. And the differences do not end there, differences that come simply from the fact of being produced rather than self-existing. In philosophy, God is sometimes spoken of as a Necessary Being, or as the Necessary Being. But for any being that God produced, that being would probably not be Necessary in the same way.

But imagine if God did produce a being like Himself in other respects. If God produced another being like God -- inasmuch as another can be like, while being produced, and not in the same way Necessary -- what would it mean for the concept of God, and what it means to be God? If He is no longer entirely alone, if He is now capable of fellowship and relationship -- then God has expanded what it means to be God. Has he altered the equation of the universe? Are fellowship and companionship now part of what it means to exist? Has he changed the foundation, whether the idea of Necessity has such a key place in our world and in our understanding of it, since he has done something so foundational that is so clearly not Necessary?

If God were to produce another being like Himself, and if the point is fellowship and love -- if the point is that it is not impossible to be like Him -- then that may alter what it means to exist in our universe, to be a part of our universe. It may also alter what it means to understand our universe.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Controversies in the church: The Basis of Doctrine

I have long wanted to return to the series on controversies in the church, but have reached a point where I do not know both sides equally well, having never seen some of them from the inside. This post is an attempt to move forward all the same, with a simplified format that makes some progress possible. The hope is that, if readers comment or later reading expands my knowledge, more could be added. 

The controversy: The Basis of Doctrine

One of the largest controversies in the Western church -- at the heart of the divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics -- is the question of how the church forms its beliefs and teachings. On the Roman Catholic side, the view is that the Church wrote Scripture as an instrument for teaching. On the Protestant side, the view is that the Scripture records what the apostles taught. In the earliest decades of the church there is very little difference between those views because the earliest decades were marked by the apostles and those who learned directly from them. But as the voice of the apostles faded from living memory and was preserved in writing, the two roads diverged.

The basics:

Roman Catholics

(From the outset I'd like to be clear: I would be glad for suggestions from Roman Catholic readers if there is any way in which I can be more accurate about their teaching.) On the Roman Catholic view that the Church wrote Scripture as an instrument for teaching, it follows that the Church has the key position in deciding what is taught and how it is interpreted. The Roman Catholic church claims the continuing authority to develop teachings, and to teach them with the same authority as Scripture: the authority of the church.


There is some variety among the Protestant groups about the exact role of Scripture, but in general there is agreement that the Scripture records what the apostles taught. This is not to say that all books were written by apostles, but that all books were written in the earliest church and were faithful to what the apostles, still contemporaries, were teaching. The church has the duty to remain faithful to what the apostles taught, neither adding to it nor subtracting from it.

The weaknesses:

Roman Catholics

Rome does claim the authority to go beyond what is written in the Bible. But does the Church have authority to go against something in the Bible? The question becomes more interesting if we view the Bible as a record of what the Church taught. If the Church wrote the Bible as a teaching instrument, then why would there come a time when the Church needed to teach something different? If the authority for the Bible is the Church, and if the authority for the later teachings is the Church, then how and when and why did the teachings of the Church change?

There are other kinds of questions too, that involve either questions of church practice or questions of actual historical events: Since Peter was married and is considered the first Pope, why can't other popes be married? Or if nobody ever asked Mary whether she remained a virgin until the end of her life, on what basis is there a teaching involving that?


The most obvious Achilles' heel of the Protestants is the doctrine of the Trinity. While it is easy enough to find verses that support the idea of the Trinity from the Bible, and it is common to extrapolate the Trinity from those verses, the fact remains that the Trinity is nowhere explicitly taught in the same way as things like the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. If the Trinity is accepted without being explicitly taught, why not other things?

Another, less obvious issue again has to do with questions of changing doctrine. Take, for example, the previous discussion of controversies over creation and evolution: many Protestants have decided that it is a mistake to believe in a literal six-day creation. Is that "literal six-day creation" to be considered a mistake in the Bible, or a mistake in the early church's interpretation? On the view that it is a mistake of some kind, how does someone hold that view without savaging those who hold to the ancient interpretation (or, as those groups would say, hold to the plain meaning of the text)? Is there any way to come to an authoritative agreement over interpretations of the Bible, if the authority resides in the Bible or the apostles or God but not in the church? Is there any way to preserve unity with those who disagree?

Common Problems

In the early years of the Christian church, the two views were not so different: whether the Bible teaches what the church teaches, or whether the church teaches what the Bible teaches. At this point, while Roman Catholics and Protestants have gone down their different roads, we are both meeting the same kinds of problems. Some problems have to do with changing teachings: the question of whether we should change, and on what authority. Other problems have to do with claiming that there is an unchanging basis, in the face of these kinds of changes. And the question of making a change is a question that both groups face: if we don't have some unchanging basis, then what defines us?

As Christians, we are ultimately Christ's people. But can we agree on what that means for what we teach?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dark Nights of the Soul

I cry out, O God, but you do not answer. I stand up, but you merely look at me. (Job 30:20)
It's easy to understand why Job had a "dark night of the soul". He had enjoyed many blessings: prosperity and family and health -- and respect. The blessings were all taken away. He suffered punishments or curses or destructions that he had not deserved. His accuser had wondered: Had Job only loved God because of his easy life? So every shred of ease and comfort was taken away from him. But there are those who have easy lives who still have the same despair:
Meaningless, meaningless. Utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless! (Ecclesiastes 1:1)
This is often thought to have been written by King Solomon. He had wealth, power, ease, prestige, home, family. He had achievements to his credit. His name and reputation would long outlast him. He had every worldly blessing. And he found them all meaningless.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1)
Now that may be the most famous of all the dark verses of the Bible. King David may have voiced it first, but most strikingly, Jesus voiced it from the cross.

When we don't talk about the "dark nights", I think we do ourselves and each other a disservice. We think we're alone. We don't realize that the dark nights may actually be where we have the most company.
A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3, on the Messiah to come)

(For those wondering -- the occasion for writing is a friend at church who pulled me aside this morning because he has been going through a season of dark nights. And he knows that I've struggled with that too, so he knows he can talk to me when he is going through it himself.)

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Teenage Sunday School: Introduction to Revelation

How do you introduce teens to a book like Revelation? We covered things like:

Basic orientation

  1. There is not complete agreement on what the book of Revelation means. There may never be complete agreement on what it means during the course of human history. 
  2. The book of Revelation was not accepted in the earliest days of the church. One reason was its use by various "doomsday" groups. It's necessary to take peoples' predictions of the end times with a grain of salt. 
  3. It is symbolic, and to some extent mysterious. It is presented as a vision, and not everything in that vision is explained. 
  4. It is a very visual book. (After like the third time that a keen insight had been offered by one or the other of the two brothers in my class who are manga artists, and a similar number of "puzzled" episodes from the verbal-thinkers, I pointed out: because the book is largely filled with images and imagery, the visual thinkers have the edge here over the verbal thinkers. That their usual roles in class may be reversed while we study such a visual book, as the people who think in pictures may well understand faster than the people who think in words.)

Introduction to Number Symbols

Asked them to name symbolic numbers in the Bible. We discussed 3, 7, 12, and 40. (We'll get around to 4 and 10 later; this is was meant as an introduction to the idea of symbolic numbers.)

  • Examples of 3: Trinity, "Holy, Holy, Holy": 3 as symbolic of God and holiness. 
  • Examples of 7: Sabbath. (Also: sabbath year, Jubilee, 70x70 of the wait for the Messiah; 70x7 of Jesus' forgiveness). The theme of blessing, rest, forgiveness. Also the sevenfold Spirit of God. 
  • Examples of 12: Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve apostles. The basic idea is the people of God. 
  • Examples of 40: 40 days and nights of rain, 40 years in the wilderness (Israelites), 40 days in the wilderness (Jesus). The theme of purification, judgment, repentance, dedication. 

Mentioned to them that some things were also in numeric code. They were all familiar with the simple children's code where 1=A, 2=B, 3=C and so forth. Mentioned that there were parts where a similar code seemed to be in use for the identity of the big villain of the piece, whose number was 666. That there was a "letters for numbers" scheme in Hebrew, and in Greek, and in Latin -- which makes it even trickier to figure out what the "666" may have originally meant.

Exercise: The Letters to the Churches

Because we had done an awful lot of talking, we did something participatory next, which meant not taking the text completely in order. Each student was assigned one of the letters to the 7 churches to read silently, and as they read the letter, they were to look for two things:

  1. How is Jesus described in the letter? Look at the beginning of the letter where it describes who it is from. 
  2. What is promised to the people who hang in there through the hardships and overcome? Look towards the end of the letter where it says, "To him who overcomes, I will ...". 

We then went around the room twice: first, each person said how Jesus was described in their letter. Mention that the way Jesus is introduced in each letter is related to the message that each individual church is receiving. (For instance, in one letter where Jesus is described as more angry-looking than others, the text of the letter includes that the church needs some serious correction, kind of a "kicking-tail-and-taking-names" kind of letter.)

Next, each person related the promise that was given in their letter. Afterwards, asked for comments about peoples' favorite promise.

Images and Concepts from the Letters

We spent some time discussing the images and concepts from the readings:

  • manna (God's providence, lasting food, Jesus as bread of heaven)
  • tree of life (eternal life)
  • being blotted out of the book of life (judgment)
  • double-edged sword (usually refers to God's word. Sword as a defense for the good and a danger for the evil -- both between people and within ourselves)
  • Hades (Greek origins and borrowed here, land of the dead where people were waiting for the end of time)
  • Second Death (wait on that one, don't want too many spoilers for the end of the book)

Here the keen contributions from the visual thinkers were the plainest. We also talked about how images can mean more than one thing, that in some ways images can carry more meanings than words. With words, sometimes we try to be precise and mean exactly one thing. With images -- and the images used here all have a long and rich history -- they'll find that one image carries all the meanings of the thing itself, and all the histories where it has ever appeared, along with it. The use of images gives the book multiple layers of meanings from the same verses. Just because you have found one meaning in an image, you may not have found them all.

Introduction to the Vision

We went back to the earlier part of the book and read the introduction to the vision. They all picked up on how many things mentioned in the introduction had also been brought up again in the letters. Some discussion of the "angels of the churches" and different ways that could be understood. How a lot of the imagery -- like the robe and the sash and the lamps -- went back to Moses and the tabernacle. How, as the lessons continue, they will often see images that have come up before in other places in the Bible.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Just for fun: Gracepoint versus Broadchurch

I made a few predictions before Harry Potter book 7 was released, and I got more right than wrong. So I'll try again here.

I am an unapologetic devotee of the groundbreaking, profoundly moving British crime drama series Broadchurch. It is the mostly deeply and thoroughly human crime drama I've ever seen. As Fox kicks off the official first episode of the American remake this week, I plan on watching that as well. (David Tennant is reprising the lead, though without his usual Scottish accent. The rest of the characters have been recast.) They say there's a different ending, hinting at a different killer. Here are my thoughts on the likely differences in the two shows.

Warning: While there aren't full-fledged "spoilers" in here for either series, there is some open speculation here about "whodunnit" in the American version which I have obviously not seen yet, and that does contain some information about who didn't do it in the prior British version. So don't read if you don't even want hints.

There are some things that they simply had to change if they were going to do an American remake. The dad's best friend won't be named Nigel, and probably nobody will poach pheasants or own a crossbow. Those things just wouldn't work if the story were set in the U.S. It was also predictable that the cast would have a little more racial variety over here, since the U.S. has more racial variety than the U.K. (The crime affects the Solano family in the U.S., where it was the Latimer family in the U.K.)

Other things that probably wouldn't happen in a U.S. remake:

  • The lady detective crying so often. That's not simply against some PC etiquette for how professional women are portrayed; it's also fairly unrealistic for how an American lady detective would handle herself in the professional world. 
  • The minister being portrayed positively. Most U.S.-based shows, if they portray Christians at all, portray them at least somewhat negatively. Think Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, or Angela Martin from The Office. 
  • The lady detective having huge and glaring blind spots that compromise her professional judgment, as part of the plot. While blind spots could happen to anyone in the real world, it's somewhat against PC etiquette for how professional women are portrayed on TV or in film, especially if their blind spot relates to them being somewhat emotional and naive. (As we have already seen in the previews for Gracepoint, in the U.S. version the lady detective does not get passed over for a promotion at the hands of a lady supervisor, but at the hands of a male supervisor, and does not react by pouting in a bathroom stall.)

As it affects the crime and "whodunnit" though:

There were only 3 strong suspects in the British version (er, ok, 2 strong suspects and the surprise of who really did it). If they're going to change "whodunnit" for the American version, you can bet they won't change both the race of the actor to non-white and then make him the criminal too; that's not likely to happen. So my bet is that, in the U.S. version, "whodunnit" will be the other remaining suspect: the Christian minister. (The main pro -- and the main con -- of that choice are the same thing: given some of the undertones of the crime, hanging it on a preacher or priest would be predictable.) But another con: dramatically, the preacher is a far weaker choice for "whodunnit" than was made in the British version, where the killer was known and trusted by quite a few people, which led to some amazing reactions as the town realized who had actually committed the crime and how they had trusted the killer. In the British version, the innocent-but-suspected vicar is somewhat of an outsider. So while it would have been shocking if he had done it, still not to the extent as when the true killer was revealed. If they want to keep the absolute thunderstruck reaction of having known and thoroughly trusted the killer, if it's the preacher then they'll have to make him more of a part of the action, or risk losing all the drama when people realized that they knew the person who did it. I actually hope they keep the original identity of the killer in the U.S. remake. Some of the character arcs and relationships were deeply affected by the killer's identity.

So that's my best guess (and wishlist) for how Gracepoint might unfold.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Learn to love our neighbor: The most basic forms of love

As Christians, we're on a mission to join God in loving the world. So when we talk to someone or meet someone, where do we start? What are the most basic starting points for building love? Here are a few:

  • Noticing someone: If we look past someone without seeing them, without recognizing their importance, we have not loved them. If we recognize another person, notice them, consider their worth, then that is a simple form of love. So even taking time to acknowledge someone is a form of love. Jesus may have been pointing this out to us when he reminded us to greet other people, and not just those who love us in return.
  • Recognizing the good in someone: If someone has made an effort, developed a skill, or has a natural gift, it is worth recognizing. When Paul tells us, "If there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things," we might also think enough to mention it to the person who inspires us. It may be just an extension of what Paul wrote on love, and thinking on these things may develop an eye for kindling love.
  • Recognizing ourselves in the other person: Any two people have something in common. We all share our humanity. If the foundation of love is loving others as ourselves, and the foundation of mercy is treating others as we want to be treated ourselves, and the foundation of justice is likewise built on the idea that we are all alike and should be treated alike, then it follows that one of the keys to understanding, to all of love and justice and mercy, is to recognize ourselves in the other person, and them in us.
  • Understanding: There are few gifts that touch us as much as when someone else understands us. It may be that they take the time to listen to our life story, or take the time to ask how we are and actually listen to the answer. It is the first way in which we fulfill the command to share each others' burdens.
  • Warmth: There is a simple hospitality of spirit that Jesus demonstrated to us, something that drew people and made them feel welcome, and at home, simply to be in his presence. In every home that feels like home, there is a warmth and an acceptance that is the heart of that home. We take that spirit into the world with us. 

If you all were to leave comments helping me figure out what else I could add to the list, I'd be grateful.

Take care & God bless

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Martin Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ

It isn't often that I write about a piece of fiction; I believe this is the first time I have ever quoted the thoughts of the director who made the movie adaptation of a piece of fiction. But when reading Roger Ebert's biography of Martin Scorsese, I chanced across some comments by Scorsese about the book The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Scorsese's film version stirred controversy, to say the least. It has been many years since I saw it, and I have not read the book, so I'm not sure how faithful Scorsese was to Kazantzakis' vision. I wanted to share his comments because I was surprised -- and touched -- by Scorsese's view of the original book, and particularly his view of Jesus' last temptation on the cross. Below is an excerpt from an interview between Scorsese and Ebert. (Ebert came across as harboring some resentment, dislike, or antagonism towards his own Roman Catholic upbringing; Scorsese did not come across that way so much; he was likewise raised Roman Catholic. That tension was a recurring theme in the biography; it does play out here in a minor way in the interview.)
Scorsese: We just wanted to make him [Jesus] one of us, in a sense. ... Christologically correct, they call it, that Jesus is God and man in one. That's the one thing we assume, okay, bang, we go in with that and Kazantzakis too, you know, in the book. And the idea that, if it's man, then he has to be afraid of dying. 
Ebert: And he has to be capable of lust. 
Scorsese: And he has to be capable of everything. And what I thought was so great -- so great -- about Kazantzakis's book was that the last temptation is not for riches or whatever; it's just to live the life of a common man, to have a family, to die in bed and that sort of thing. It's almost a love that he has for mankind, you see. The love that he has for us. That's the idea. And in order to die he has to know what we go through. If he doesn't know what we go through, what good is God, you see.  
So what did the fully human Lord think about, when his enemies taunted him to come down from the cross, and he had begged for the cup to pass from him? I think that Scorsese was right about this: it is possible that there was a last temptation born out of love for us, and love of life, and fear of death. It's what it means to be fully human.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Teenagers and some thoughts about "Honor your father and mother"

My regular readers will know that I teach a teenage Sunday school class. Today's main consideration was "what the law of God is really for" -- where God so loved the world and we join him in loving the world; where God does not ask us to bow down to him (rather than the idols) but asks us to do right by our neighbors; where we are called to build a good life, build a loving family, build a community that is secure and supportive and stable; where God gives us the pattern that enables us to do that.

But in a class of teens, the call to "honor your parents" deserved a moment's consideration. Younger children can have a very deep trust in their parents, and a deep dependence. As teenagers, that's changing. The class is full of people who are either young adults or within a short time will become young adults. I asked for a show of hands how many of the teenagers could name one thing -- anything -- that they now did better than their parents. As I kept naming the hobbies and interests of my students, and began including things like working electronics, soon every hand in the room was raised. And I mentioned that by now, all of them had seen their parents make mistakes; it's human, and everybody makes mistakes. (I should add, by now I expect everyone has asked their parents a question to which they don't actually know the answer.)

So with the naive trust of a child now ruled out, a teenager is going to look at their parents as more human, closer to equal. (It does help to look at them as equal, and not give into the temptation to dismiss them as worthless simply because they're imperfect. We are all imperfect too.) So these  teenagers still living at home may need some thought about why to trust their parents' judgment. We considered experience: that the teenagers may be young adults, but they're newbies, and newbies make mistakes. We considered that parents have had years and years to see how certain things work out in the real world, and do have a better idea about how some things work out in real life. And if they're trying to teach you something, it's because they want to spare you learning it the hard way.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

A brief response to "10 Theories About Who Really Wrote the Bible"

A lot of traffic has been directed to this blog lately by a writer who has linked one of my posts on early church scholarship. While I appreciate the link, the materials in the incoming post contains a mix of well-known material and things that seem biased and inaccurate. Here is a quick response. The numbered / bolded items are the claims being made in the incoming article; below each are my notes.

10. Moses did not write the Pentateuch. 
I think most scholars are in agreement on that, though some will hold out that Moses played a part. Parts of it seem to trace back to the code of Hammurabi. There are some interesting hints in the Talmud about the time and place of editing. We don't have a completely clear view of how the documents of the Pentateuch were written.

9. The Documentary Hypothesis
The idea of multiple sources and/or editing of the Pentateuch is generally accepted by current scholars.

8. Deuteronomy Originated As Royal Propaganda
This section is close to a conspiracy theory, with "propaganda" and forged documents being "deliberately planted". Of course you can't disprove the "planted document" theory at this distance in time, but that is not the same as being credible; that part reads like a smear-job presented as a conjecture. To demonstrate the point, consider one thing: even if we imagine that the king took the "found document" and had his people add some notes to it and distribute it, that could just as easily be attributed to devotion and good management as to ulterior motives. At what point do we find it justified to question other peoples' motives and assume the worst as a given?

7. Daniel Is 'Prophecy-After-The-Fact'
A good number of scholars agree on that, and would peg the genre more as an apocalyptic-style political commentary for those parts. (Some others think differently, if they take a different view of the date of writing.) But if it were an apocalyptic-style political commentary written after the fact, the timing of the release would have made it fairly clear that it was no prophecy. It wouldn't have been a case of the author trying to "pass himself off as a genuine seer" (again the thinly veiled accusation of dishonesty); that could hardly be done successfully about events now past. The point, at that date, would be about the come-uppance of the enemies of God and Israel, more than some sort of effort to make a reputation as a seer.

6. The Gospels Are Not Eyewitness Accounts
Here the author really piles on the bias, though in ways that are common enough on internet forums: calls the Biblical gospels "anonymous", "religious advertisements", and asserts (incorrectly, when we consider the epilogue / affidavits section of John) that they never claimed to be reporting events they themselves saw. But the gospels don't seem to have been anonymous by the standards of their day. The idea that the writings had no authors attributed until the second century may be based on the first written accounts we have about the gospels dating from the second century, which is not the same thing at all as the earlier readers thinking they were anonymous, and does not mean that a scroll circulated as "Matthew's" or "John's" (etc) was somehow of unknown origin. And calling them "advertisements" suggests a materialistic/profit motive, or insincerity and self-interest, which I haven't seen good reason to take seriously. (On the point about "Lord" and Christology, some quick points of interest: When Matthew's conversations show people calling Jesus "Lord", it seems to be how he translated the "Rabbi" parts in Mark, which isn't actually a Greek word; not all the "Lord" parts of Matthew are meant as Christological. Also, given that Mark opens his gospel by applying a quote about the LORD (Jehovah) to Jesus, it's doubtful whether Mark's Christology was all that low. Things aren't always as straightforward as they seem.)

5. Matthew and Luke Plagiarized Mark
Again the slanted presentation: they shared source materials. Given that Luke and Mark were co-workers along with Paul at certain points, I would be surprised if Mark didn't give his consent to the re-use. The author of that piece does work around to the point that Matthew and Luke are expanded and more accurate, but not before he has leveled charges of intellectual dishonesty at them which he never retracts.

4. The Lost Gospel Q
Yes, there are large numbers of scholars who note that Matthew and Luke shared source material, and hypothesize a source called Q. (Luke made it plain enough he was using all the existing material he could find, like a good researcher should.) It's going a little bit far talk about Q's "recovery"; though there have been worthwhile efforts to reconstruct it based on things in Matthew and Luke but not Mark. Going beyond that to hypothesize that Q's authors believed Jesus to be a wisdom-teacher only whose death had no salvific importance ... is going further than the material will really take you. Remember how Q was reconstructed? It omitted things already found in Mark. So we wouldn't know whether Q also contained material that was in Mark, such as the passion narrative, because the "reconstruction" excludes anything that was already in Mark ... like the passion narrative and empty tomb.

3. Simon Magus And St Paul Were The Same Person
Seriously? At least the author of the article acknowledges in his early remarks that this is not accepted by mainstream scholars and is "more speculative", though I think the author calling it "radical" gives it more dignity than it has earned. I really can't buy the series of long stretches it takes to turn Paul's letters (from a man well known to the early churches, who addresses his friends by name in letter after letter) into the works of Simon Magus.

2. The Pastoral Epistles Are Forgeries
Again with the emotive terms that contain accusations of dishonesty and deceit. There has been lively debate about whether all the letters are authentic, to be sure, or whether we should simply expect Paul's style in a personal letter to be different than when writing to a whole congregation for public reading. If someone had been trying to ride on the coattails of Paul's authority, why write private letters instead of public ones? Wouldn't they get more mileage out of public letters? Why not advance their agenda or their personal reputation in the letters? Why write to Timothy and Titus, who knew Paul well personally and were more likely to detect a fraud? (I'm half-surprised the author didn't suggest these other letters were by Simon Magus. Imagine if the supposed forger had added a little bit about, "And I'd like to commend to you my friend Simon Magus ...")

1. John Did Not Write Revelation
The scholars in the early church figured that there were multiple Johns involved. It was a common enough name. And apocalyptic literature was nothing new. Revelation retains a strong Jewish flavor, to the extent that I've read some Jewish commentary that speculates whether Revelation's author served as a priest while the Temple still stood. While Revelation has a lot of distinctly Christian notes, it seems to be firmly in the Jewish apocalyptic tradition. That's to be expected when so many of the Christians were, at that time, Jewish Christians.

So that's the other side of the story, if someone wants to compare notes and make up their own mind.

Take care & God bless

By the way I'm typing this up fairly quickly. As I spot typos, I'll come back and update.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Teenage Sunday School: Different ways of thinking about right and wrong: The Pharisees v Jesus

In this week's Sunday school lesson, the teens class considered different ways of thinking about right and wrong, tracing some classic examples of the Pharisees v Jesus, from handwashing before meals through to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This lesson was designed for a 45-minute time slot.

Introduction: Ways "Morality" can go wrong

 We're used to thinking of "morality" as something good. It's meant to be good. The whole point of "morality" is to be good. But it can go wrong sometimes. I'm going to name some ways in which people try to act "good" in a way that is not really all that good. Can you spot the problem with:

* Tattle-tales
* Goody-two-shoes/teachers' pets
* One-upping other people
* Games of "Gotcha", waiting for other people to make a mistake

Allow around 10 minutes for class discussion on that, and guide as needed. Let the students figure out on their own as much as they can. (Are the people involved trying to be good? To look good? To look better than someone else? To use rules as a way to make other people look bad?)

Application (about 5 minutes)

We've talked about some different ways that people abuse the whole idea of morality.

  1. Which ones annoy you the most when people do them to you? (I had everyone in the room answer that one. Got a variety of answers on it.)
  2. Which one is the most natural trap for you to fall into yourself, if you're willing to say? (I let them keep it private, though asked them to give it some thought so that they knew the answer themselves, even if they didn't care to share.) Those with siblings sometimes admitted to doing the tattle-tale thing.

Mentioned that these are the thing that give morality a bad name. Asked if they had ever met someone who distrusted the whole idea of morals, of right and wrong, because of problems like that. (Generally the younger teens had not met someone like that, but the older teens had.) Pointed out that it was a real problem, that there are people who distrust the whole idea of right and wrong because of how people abuse it.

Bible readings: The Pharisees

Assign each of these Bible readings to a student, and tell them: the same question will be asked about each reading, and the question is: What's wrong with the way the person is trying to use morality?
  • Mark 7:2-5 (The Pharisees against Jesus on his disciples and handwashing before meals)
  • Luke 6:1-2 (The Pharisees against Jesus on his disciples picking some grains as they walked past, on the Sabbath)
  • Luke 6:7-11 (The Pharisees against Jesus for healing a crippled man on the Sabbath)
  • Luke 8:9-14 (The Pharisee thanking God that he's not like other men)
  • Matthew 23:23-24 (Jesus on the Pharisees tithing their mint and dill while neglecting the big picture; straining gnats and swallowing camels)
I had each person read out loud and then answer about their own reading (what was wrong about the way they were using morality?) in order to get fuller participation.

Notice that when God shows up, it's the people playing the morality games -- generally the more "religious" people -- who objected and had a problem with him.

General questions for the class. They were defining morality in terms of washing hands, counting mint-sprigs and dill seeds, things like that.

  1. Why would they focus on such piddly things?
  2. Even if you did that kind of thing perfectly, would it ever help anyone?

What Jesus says is most important

Matthew 22:35-40: Jesus answers a question about what's most important in the law

But if someone is the type to count their dill-seeds to make themselves right with God, what would they do with "Love your neighbor"? We actually find out, Luke recorded it for us.

Luke 10:25-37 Parable of the Good Samaritan

  • Who were the different kinds of 'bad' people in the story?
  • Who was the good one?
  • At the end, Jesus asked: "Which one was the neighbor?" Looking back at the reading, what answer was given to Jesus' question?
  • Did this kind of "morality" make a difference in someone's life?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pet Theory: Our hearts and minds grow in proportion to ...

Reflections on how to love God and neighbor with heart, soul, mind, and strength ... 

I have a pet theory: Our hearts and minds grow in proportion to how many people we honestly admire. Sometimes I dream of achieving great things, and work towards them. But even if I should achieve my wildest dreams, I hope I never become so full of myself that I don't admire other people more. It would be so small. Some people seem embarrassed to admire other people, as though admiring someone is unbecoming, or somehow lessens their own prestige. I couldn't disagree more. Admiration -- looking at another person, finding their excellence, recognizing it, being truly glad for it -- is the kind of stuff that expands our hearts. And as it expands, it grows stronger, more able to love. Our capacity to love, to take delight in the world, grows larger. Permitting ourselves to enjoy an honest delight is refreshing. And with this permission we grant ourselves, and with practice, the eye becomes more capable of seeing the good in others. Our understanding of other human beings, their thoughts and their accomplishments, increases. Striving to appreciate everything that makes someone worthy of notice, worthy of respect -- this builds in our mind habits that will be put to good service with other people as we go along in life.

Jesus teaches us to consider love as the foundation of what is good. But love has been sentimentalized and trivialized to the point where people hesitate to speak of it as a topic worthy of serious consideration. Admiration has likewise been corrupted into fawning or obsession; it is time to reclaim a more healthy view of it, with a rightful place for esteem and enthusiasm. It seems to me that admiration is one of the more basic aspects of love, one worthy of remembering, and one worthy of practice.

We start as children by admiring people we see as heroes. And we begin by admiring those who are easy to admire. But as we mature in the skill, we become able to recognize the good wherever we find it, and be honestly glad for it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Is love is blind? How it sees the good in us all

(Some thoughts on how to meet another person, and to view each other.) 

They say that love is blind, and there is some truth to that. Love keeps no record of wrongs. That is why love can see good things in another person that a less sympathetic view will overlook. If love keeps no record of wrongs, on the other hand hatred takes no notice of the good that has been done.

Of course there are other options besides those two. Indifference overlooks good and bad together. But what about a determined, impartial scrutiny to weigh the good and the evil in another person? Wouldn't that give us the clearest view? The clearest view of what, exactly, though? That approach sets us up as the judge. Are we that sure of our own impartiality? Are we that sure of our own purity and wisdom? Does the lack of humility there weigh against such self-confidence? What about the lack of compassion? And would we want others to view us so unsympathetically? Do we owe anything to our shared humanity to take a kinder view as a starting point, rather than to meet another person with a determination to weigh them in the scales before we recognize their worth? Do we owe anything to the Lord who made them, to the image of God within them, to trust that within them is the potential to be that child of God, as good as we are if not better?

When we have to choose an approach to another person, the wisest approach is love, and the humblest approach is love, and the kindest approach is love. The one that gives us the clearest view of any good in the other person is love. And the most constructive approach -- the one that helps build up the other person -- is love.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The paradox of morality

If a person aims at morality for his own sake, it is self-serving and can never be moral. He has given not only faith but all of holiness, morality, and religion a bad name, which at times even stains the name of God. For those who want to become better people, it is an easy thing to become self-adorers, admiring our own works and purity, failing to admire others, and so becoming small and petty by the very path it seems should lead beyond that.

If a person instead aims at loving his neighbor, he would make every effort to add to his own store of goodness, kindness, patience, gentleness, and self-control; he will dedicate himself to be found welcoming, friendly, and given to hospitality; he will think of others more highly than of himself. In all this he will pursue the heart of faith, will in his own flesh and blood live out the holy teachings, will run and overtake the one whose self-seeking faith is satisfied with lesser goals.

In this he will be not only like Paul who with good reason numbered himself among the sinners, but will become more like Christ, who was likewise numbered among the sinners, who made no move to justify himself, valuing those he loved more than his own reputation. We should watch ourselves that we do not become the type of moral person who does not care to be numbered among the sinners; that is not the way to follow Christ. If we are not numbered among the sinners, who exactly do we love?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

God chose weakness

When God acts in this world, he often chooses a way that surprises us: he often chooses weakness.

God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. (I Cor 1:27)
  • When God chose a patriarch for his ancient people, he chose a man so old you'd expect he could no longer have children, and his wife who was beyond the years of childbearing.
  • When God chose to wrestle with Jacob (or to send an angel to wrestle with Jacob, for those who believe that is the best interpretation), he chose a human form that was no stronger than Jacob's. In fact, the form chosen was so equally-matched to Jacob that the wrestling match lasted all night. That is to say: God isn't trying to overpower us. Does anyone doubt he could overpower us if he wanted, that God could be an irresistible force? But at times like that, it looks like he has no interest in overpowering us.
  • When God chose one of Jesse's sons to be the king of Israel, he chose the youngest.
  • When God wanted to speak with the prophet who was fleeing for his life, he sent a still, small voice. He made a point of showing that he rejected the more powerful alternatives of earthquake, wind, and fire.
  • When God chose an apostle to the Gentiles, he chose Paul, a man who later counted himself  "worst of sinners" in those days before God called him. 
  • When God made Paul his chosen instrument, he did not remove all of Paul's physical infirmities. Not only did God decline to heal Paul despite his prayers, he also told him,
    "My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is perfected in weakness." (2 Cor 12:9)
  • When God chose the parents of John the Baptist, he chose the old man Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who was barren. 
  • When God chose a mother for Jesus, he chose humble Mary. 
  • When God chose a birthplace for Jesus, he chose some sort of place where the animals stayed. 
  • And to cap them all: When God chose the redemption of the world, he chose the cross. 

And Paul explained it:
The foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. (I Cor 1:25)
Why wouldn't God use his strength? I think it's because "overwhelming force" is not the right tool for every job. You may have heard the saying, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, then you treat everything as if it were a nail." But we're not a nail, and God has more tools than a hammer.

Update: Martin LaBar has a poster on the topic, and has kindly granted his permission for a link::

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Religious experience: Rethinking how our lives touch others

If religious experience can be reproduced, that has implications for how we live. Some few of us may be great artists who could communicate a religious experience in that way, but I think the greatest of spiritual gifts may be the most common, and most under-valued. Consider that some of the most poignant of timeless moments can be conversations, times when peoples' lives meet in profound ways, when people recognize themselves in each other. Or they can be simple moments of kindness that leave us changed. True fellowship is a profound experience.

We are each involved somehow in creating a measure of the holy somewhere in this world, for ourselves, for our families, for our neighbors. When we think of following in Christ's footsteps, we see the way he touched other peoples' lives. I think that, in some ways, our challenge in this world is more than simply having a religious experience, even of the quiet and everyday type. Our quest is not merely to acquire religious experience as religious consumers in the world. From what I can tell from reading the gospels, many people acted as though being with Jesus was itself a religious experience. I think the challenge is to be that unfailing warmth and trustworthiness, so that our homes and our lives become other peoples' profound moments of fellowship. The greatest gift one person can give another is love. It transforms not only the giver but the receiver as well. There is something about being loved that lifts us up and reflects worth and dignity. There is something about being loved that gives us strength and hope. That is what God does for us, what God does for the world. This is what he calls us to do for each other. When our fleeting "peak experiences" have gone, this is what makes the lasting substance of our lives.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Religious Experience in Art and Literature

Is it possible to capture or reproduce a religious experience?

There are some common themes in religious experience. As we've seen before, one of those is nature. Nature, in its unspoiled state, is an essential part of what makes "paradise". The nature-triggered religious experience may involve recognizing the paradise within nature, perceiving the holy or the timeless quality of what we see. While religious events and spiritual retreats are held in natural settings to increase the background perception of holiness, that is not quite the same as capturing it.

Some authors may have recorded a religious experience in a way that it can be re-experienced by the reader. There are some well-received authors who have done a respectable job, such as Coleridge and Tolkien. Tolkien, for example, describes nature so vividly that someone with a good imagination could have a nature-based religious experience from his description. Even if reading does not trigger a "peak experience", the reader may still have a quiet and persistent sense of the holy.

Likewise a painter or musician may attempt to capture a religious experience in such a way that it can be re-experienced by others. The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah seems to have captured some of the essential traits of a religious experience in such a way that many people have a sense of the holy when listening to it. When it comes to Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, the words manage to form one part of the experience. They convey the sense of timelessness ("forever and ever ... "), the sense that God's benevolence is the ultimate power in the world ("For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth"), that any trouble we have in this world is a small thing compared to the world to come ("King of kings, and Lord of lords!"). There is some artistry in portraying a sense of underlying unity as all the different voices join in the one song, but with slightly different timing, so that you don't lose the sense that there are a series of different voices joined together. The music is also crafted so as to reinforce those messages, and enhance the sense of an intricate beauty, where beauty is also an underlying motif of religious experiences.

There is, in the best of art or literature, something profound, something that transcends. And for some artists who are drawing on the depths of the holy for their inspiration, that art itself can communicate the holy.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Christianity v. religious rule-keeping

There are people who think of Christianity as a system of religious rules. That's surprising to me: Reading the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, and Paul after him, Christianity at its foundation contains a direct challenge to the whole system of religious rule-keeping. It openly questions the value of time-honored religious traditions. It points out the risks of thinking there is something spiritual about rule-keeping. And here, I would not say that rule-keeping is seen as "nothing" -- since "nothing" could be harmless. Rule-keeping is discussed as something far worse than "nothing". In the New Testament, there is plain discussion of the problem of religious rule-keeping as a temptation to pride, an excuse for cruelty, a "respectable " mask for the self-righteous, an occasion for arrogance. It shows how rule-keeping can blind us to the human need for mercy. And that last may be the worst of all: as Christians, we are asked to be the face and voice of mercy in this world.

What about the Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt not murder" and "Thou shalt not commit adultery" and all that? Well, nobody who is determined to be the face and voice of mercy in the world is going to murder someone or sneak around with their wife or husband. That's a lot different from thinking you get brownie points for not being a murderer or a homewrecker. "The rules" are there to safeguard and protect a good life. The more we want to make things good for people all around us, the less we need to be told not to steal their things or lie about them behind their backs -- and the less we think we deserve some sort of special recognition merely for not being evil.

Once we have grasped the law of mercy, the wisdom of kindness, then we'll recognize those "rules" as tools meant to implement that kindness. Beware if you hear of someone telling you to keep the rules for the sake of your own perfection. Keep them for the sake of your neighbor.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

As we forgive (Or: About that class reunion last night)

This is a personal piece and, while in the end it is ultimately uplifting (I think), I should warn the reader that there is strong content. (I suppose some material may not be suitable for children either.) And for those of you who know that I keep my on-line privacy, and keep my real name out of the picture when I can, there is one place where my maiden name is blanked out in favor of my initials (A__ A__ here means me, not a 12-step organization).

I went to a high school class reunion last night. (This is not a pre-scheduled piece; it was last night.) I'd debated for awhile whether I would go. I was really hoping to find some old friends that I'd lost contact with over the years. But since I had lost contact with basically everybody, why go in the first place? I decided that the chance to find some old friends, even if only to say hi for the night, would be the deciding factor.

But I found myself wondering, "What if Steve and Jimmy are there?" At first I pushed the thought aside but the thought pushed back harder. Really, what if they were there? I'd have to be mentally prepared for that. Oh, in the big scheme of things, all they did was shoot off their mouths and say something cruel. But it is the most cruel thing anyone has ever said to me. It's actually on the short list of the most cruel things I've ever heard of one human being saying to another. In the years since high school, I've sometimes asked myself what I would say if I ever did see them again. And in general, I don't spend time thinking about what they said. But when things are dark -- well, you know how ugly memories are opportunists: they wait until you're feeling low to make themselves heard. I probably wouldn't be telling this story today except for one thing: I went to the class reunion last night, and Jimmy was there.

So what exactly was it that Steve and Jimmy said? Well, it goes back to the first semester of our freshman year in high school, and the (less secret by the day) neighborhood secret that during the semester I had been kidnapped by a pedophile, and it hadn't gone well for me. The news was spreading around school and I was getting sideways looks in the hallway, whispers behind my back, all that kind of thing. But Steve & Jimmy weren't whispering. In fact, on the way to our math class one day, they walked behind me and staged a conversation in loud voices -- as if they wanted to make sure that I overheard.
The one said, "Hey, did you hear that A__ A__ was raped? Funniest thing I ever heard!"
The other laughed back, "Yeah, she's so ugly, who the hell would want to rape her?"
(Cruel enough to take your breath away for a moment, isn't it?) I don't actually know which voice was Steve and which was Jimmy; I doubt it matters. But the rest of our time in high school, I can't remember either one speaking to me again, or looking me in the eye.

So we're past the ugly part of the story, the cause of the content advisory at the top, and the reason why I was wondering what exactly I would do or say if I saw Steve or Jimmy at the reunion. On the one hand, what they said truly was inexcusable. On the other hand, they were fourteen, same as I was. By now, I know exactly what it's like to say or do something that I wish I could take back. So I made up my mind that, if there was some genuine regret or remorse from them (instead of doubling down), that I was perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones.

I spent the drive to the reunion (maybe a 20 minute drive) focused on more important things. Reunions have a bad reputation for people trying to judge the success of your life. So I was mentally rehearsing ice-breakers, ways to make it clear to people that I was there because I was glad for a chance to see them again. The preparations paid off several times. I ran into one of our classmates who had dropped out; I said she looked happy now and the rest hardly mattered. She held her head a little higher after that. Another classmate had a husband who had died tragically young, another had a job she wasn't proud of, so I just focused on making the rounds and making sure people knew whenever I had a kind memory of them, and looking for the low-key kind or encouraging word about where their life was right now. I ran into such a long list of people I was glad to see again, and collected the occasional contact information from old friends.

The "elephant in the room" -- everybody knew what had happened our freshman year -- only half-way came up one time. I ran across someone I had really thought was the cutest guy in the school, back in middle school ("before all that..."), but I didn't think he knew I existed. He spotted me and came over to me and said -- with more enthusiasm than I'd have expected -- that I looked great. I just thanked him and shrugged it off and said life had been good to me. For a second -- just a second -- you could see the shock ripple through him, that he was genuinely taken aback and he hadn't thought to hear me throw out a comment like that. So there was an awkward moment as he froze and looked at me in disbelief. But he recovered fairly quickly, and his ever-present grin came back, and we caught up on old times.

And then, towards the end of the night, as I finally made it back to one corner of the room I hadn't visited in awhile, there was a group of people I hadn't met yet, and it included Jimmy. I'd been meeting people with handshakes or hugs depending on how well I knew them. So as I got to that group I started with the handshakes, and ended up shaking hands with Jimmy as well as the rest of the group. He introduced himself, and I said I remembered him (in a voice that was so normal that it would have surprised me, a couple of hours previously, considering the last thing I remember him saying to me before that ...). He almost immediately distanced himself from the group that I'd just joined. And -- really, they were his friends, not mine; I hardly knew them. So I didn't stay long there, and moved on to another part of the room.

It could have been kind of anti-climactic, really, except that it was such a relief to be done with it. I wondered briefly if he had moved away from the group because he remembered what he said all those years ago, or whether he might have forgotten the whole thing ... or whether he just didn't like me then and still didn't like me now. And I realized that it simply didn't matter to me anymore.

The next time life is low and the ugly memories come back, it feels like that one memory has been disarmed. I looked Jimmy in the eye and shook his hand and spoke to him. And whatever else I might think about it, at least it went better than the previous time we spoke. At some point he'd become less of a nemesis and more just a person who I knew in high school.

This morning, praying "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive ..." I felt a strong sense of peace.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mystical "experience of unity" in unexpected places

Some people who study mystical experiences have worked to identify the key characteristics of such an experience. What makes an experience "mystical", and what do they have in common? While the definitions are not always fully agreed on by all people, one of the commonly-mentioned features of mystical experience is an "experience of unity".* (Hinman, The Trace of God, p 13). In this experience of unity, "we both become one with the Absolute, and we become aware of our oneness" (Hinman, p13 quoting James).

Is there any real sense in which we are one with the Absolute?

I'd invite the Christian reader to consider a selection from a passage well-known to most Christians as "the parable of the sheep and the goats" (Matthew 25). The Son of Man comes in power with the angels to judge the world. He explains to the blessed: "I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink ..." (and so forth). He explains to the condemned, "I was hungry and you did not feed me, thirsty and you did not give me a drink ..." (and so forth). Both groups react with complete puzzlement. This is the Divine Judge! When have they ever seen him? When has he ever been in need? Both groups have a similar reaction: "When did we ever see you hungry? ... When did we ever see you thirsty?" And the ultimate surprise for both groups: "Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (or "did not" in the relevant places).

Here is the "experience of unity" turned on its head. It is not a tale of the mystic having a grand moment in which he experiences (or imagines) unity with the Divine. It is the Divine saying that it's true, that there is a unity between the Divine and us that is deeper than we imagine. "If you welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick or the prisoner, you have done it for me." And they have "done it for him" more than in the shallow sense that the Divine was merely the motivation while another person received the benefit. No, the Divine claims to be the one who was hungry or thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner, to whom we show kindness ... or to whom we do not. If the "experience of unity" seeks to be grounded in something that people trust, then the words of Jesus show us how that "experience of unity" looks from the other side of the divide. He also explains how that unity means that we cannot look at our neighbor with indifference.

Another unexpected place where I ran across the "experience of unity" lately was at a blog-neighbor's post on Gaps at the Dinner Table (in which he and some other physicists had dinner, and their conversation turned to God-of-the-Gaps v. Multiverse-of-the-Gaps). One of the dinner companions mentioned "that Monotheism is the ultimate example of a unification hypothesis—explaining diverse things in Nature based on the operation of a single principle." There is a view on which, believing that monotheism is true, we would not be surprised that a transcendent / divine experience often reveals the underlying unity of things. It's a case where, on the premise that monotheism is true, we could reasonably expect an experience of the divine to reveal an underlying unity. 

* There is some suggestion to elevate the "experience of unity" to the one essential feature of mysticism, but I'm not convinced that is warranted. The Lukoff study cited (Hinman, p 14) identifies common characteristics of mystical experiences in a fairly comprehensive way without mentioning an experience of unity. I wonder if the experience of unity is similar to the role of nature in mystical experiences: a common feature, but not an essential one.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Religious commitment and health, well-being, quality of life

In Hinman's recent book, The Trace of God, he cites studies that compare religious and non-religious people and their quality of life. Here he relates a study by Gartner and Allen:
The Reviews identified 10 areas of clinical status in which research has demonstrated benefits of religious commitment: (1) Depression, (2) Suicide, (3) Delinquency, (4) Mortality, (5) Alcohol use, (6) Drug use, (7) Well-being, (8) Divorce and marital satisfaction, (9) Physical Health Status, and (10) Mental health outcome studies ... The authors underscored the need for additional longitudinal studies featuring health outcomes. (Hinman p 89, citing J. Gartner, D.B. Allen, The Faith Factor: An Annotated Bibliography of Systematic Reviews and Clinical Research on Spiritual Subjects Vol. II, emphasis added)
Here I want to focus on a distinction that Gartner and Allen make. While most of Hinman's book focuses on religious experience, here Gartner and Allen trace the health benefits of religious commitment. And Hinman's book then tries to determine how much of the health benefit of religious commitment is due to the rules and behavioral norms of the religious group (what Hinman terms "sin avoidance"), how much is due to social factors, and how much is due to other factors.

Given Hinman's approach, he reviews the academic studies from the social sciences that work to separate the "sin avoidance" aspects of religion, the "social connectedness" aspects of religion, and the remaining aspects of religion. For example, the studies might compare religious and non-religious people, controlling for people who likewise don't smoke, or are regularly involved in social settings. Hinman's focus is on the "remaining aspects of religion" that are left over after controlling for "sin avoidance" and social connectedness. But I'd like to take the other path there, and consider that religious commitment calls for both "sin avoidance" and "social connectedness", and the effects that will have on health, well-being, and quality of life.

Let me first tackle some objections: Why is that worthy of consideration? Why couldn't an unbeliever just adopt the same "sin avoidance" (healthy life-choices) rules, and build the same social connectedness? In theory they could; in practice they generally don't. The difference between groups is such that the studies had to correct for it and control for it: religion promotes certain healthy behaviors, and atheism has no mechanism to promote the same, so there will be a difference. This difference is worthy of consideration because it is a legitimate way in which organized religion (which might as well be the bogeyman, according to some) actually sets up the social structure to ensure long-term health benefits and improve the quality of life. In the same way that Hinman argues that the long-term personal benefits of religious experience are what you would expect if God were involved, likewise the long-term, society-wide benefits of religious commitment are what you would expect if God were involved. (More will be said in an upcoming post about the usual atheist charges that organized religion is a cesspool of evil. For now I will simply say: If that were really so, why would the studies show that religious commitment is associated with higher ratings of health, well-being, and quality of life?)

Couldn't someone argue that conventional morality was adopted by the various religions simply because it works well and produces these benefits? Well, you certainly could argue that, but that does amount to arguing that organized religion is responsible for promoting society-wide programs to improve health and quality of life -- and that these positive benefits were attributable to the dreaded so-called "authoritarian" rules of the religion. (It also amounts to admitting that the modern determination to throw out these quality-of-life measures is hardly "progress".) Is it merely ideology that says the "sin avoidance" aspects of religion aren't worth considering when looking at religious benefits? It is through those much-maligned rules that religion achieves a measurable portion of the benefit of health, well-being, and quality of life. A similar argument could be made for social connectedness: many religions actively promote social connectedness along with related items like stability of marriage and harmonious relationships with other people. All of that is part of the quality of life. If health improvement and quality of life are built into the religious system, why should those benefits be discounted simply because they come from a disapproved method (religious rules, norms, or gatherings) rather than from an approved source? If someone has religious experience alone, without commitment, they may still be missing the real and measurable benefits that come specifically from religious commitment.

On a possibly-related note, Hinman's book mentions that the people who had religious experiences sometimes had long-term positive effects (it was life-changing), and sometimes did not. I would be curious what caused some people to have longer-lasting positive effects than others. Did it matter whether the people had (or found) a religious framework that could help them interpret the experience? Did religious support, religious commitment, or religious community make any difference to whether that experience was perceived as important, and had a lasting effect on their lives?

Friday, July 04, 2014

Independence: It's what makes liberty possible

I don't write on this kind of topic often, but for 4th of July I'll make an exception.

A young child is a dependent: they need other people to get their food and keep them safe. And because someone else takes care of them, someone else also tells them what to do: You can eat this but not that, you can stay awake this late but no later, you can not use certain words.

Governments have routinely claimed that same kind of power over their subjects, viewing them as dependent. Sometimes they stacked the deck so the people were dependent who could have taken care of themselves. In time, some of the people realized, "I could take care of myself if the government weren't standing in my way."

America's experiment was independence: giving free rein to the people who believed, "We can take care of ourselves." This land saw immigrants from all over the world who took up the challenge of independence: people who believed in themselves and were willing to take some risk, who believed the average person has the ability to take care of ourselves. (The famous communist slogan, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need", only works if the average person can meet the average need, with a little margin to spare. America took that premise and showed that a controlling, micromanaging government is really unnecessary when things are done right.)

Our country's early days showed genuine independence. I'm fairly sure some of my great-grandparents built their homes with their own hands. I know that at least two of my grandparents grew their own food, as they grew up on rural farms. They did not live like that because the whole system had collapsed, but because "the system" that we depend on wasn't even there yet. They knew how to take care of themselves. And when we take care of ourselves, it's not the government's business what we do with every detail of our lives, or every dollar we earn. Independence is what makes liberty possible.

Many people are worried about the loss of liberty in America. It's a legitimate worry. But the reason it feels like a trap -- like we can't see the way out -- is because we have already lost much of our independence. While my ancestors built their own homes with their own hands (and didn't have to go into debt for it), these days you're hardly allowed to build your own home. Government agents will line up to demand fees and permits, and claim the right to tell you whether your plans meet their standards. And while 150 years ago the average person probably knew how to build their own home, in our days of "better education", people generally don't know how to provide for their basic needs of putting a roof over their heads and food on the table. All this is progress, supposedly. People even make jokes about not having a "green thumb": many people are so poorly educated about things that matter that they cannot grow a plant successfully.

I'd encourage those of us who are worried that the government has claimed too much power, or worried that "the system" will collapse, to take a real stand for liberty: work for independence. (People mock that idea as backwards and rustic, all the while lamenting that the world isn't more "green" or "sustainable". It would be more green and sustainable, if everyone knew how to grow a plant.) And if the government is involved in arranging for your health care, how long is it before they gain the power to tell you what to eat and drink, since they are responsible for your health? In the end, the only thing that makes liberty itself sustainable is independence. And independence means taking responsibility for our own lives.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Religious Experience" and the World of Nature

Does God leave any sign in this world that he is out there? Does he leave a footprint, a track, a trace? Hinman's recent book, The Trace of God, reviews a number of studies on religious experience. I'd like to concentrate here on just one trend: that one of the most common triggers of religious experience is an experience of the natural world.

My first point is this: If we consider that God is the cause behind the natural world in any sense -- use what language you like, whether you think of God as "Creator" or "Ground of Being" -- then we would expect to find the trace of God in the natural world because God is the cause behind the natural world. I think this is a common experience. "Religious experience" has a whole range of different levels of intensity, from the ecstatic religious experience or peak experience on the one end, down to a quiet sense of the holy. This sense is often experienced in a place that is wilderness. The poet Coleridge made this connection, between what is "savage" (wild) and what is holy: 
A savage place! as holy and enchanted ...
(Coleridge, Xanadu)
The Psalmist of the Bible drew a connection between the natural world and a sense of the holy, which in his tradition is associated with the glory of God:
The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19)
And in this, both Coleridge and the Psalmist speak to what is a fairly common human experience: the sense of the holy in the natural world. The point here is simple: If God is the cause of the natural world, then we would expect to find the "trace of God" there. This is not an argument from "experience of the holy" to an act of Creation. It is more a comment directed to religious people that, on the view that God caused the world, we should expect to find traces of him there, and feel a closeness to him there, more than in a man-made setting. Consider how often religious retreats choose natural settings, and how often monasteries and holy places of various different religions are in the wilderness or at least surrounded by nature. These are testimony to how effective it is to heighten the religious sense by regaining our connection to the natural world.

My other point is this: It is not spiritually healthy to be too far removed from the natural world. As the world becomes more urban and more citified, has that been a contributing cause to the increase in atheism? The atheists I'm sure would object that any modern increase in atheism is due to "progress". Perhaps; but perhaps it is also -- at least in part -- due to decreasing religious experience in everyday life, as people are removed from natural settings in which they experience the holy.