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?