Posted by: gmscan | June 19, 2015

Is Religion Disappearing?

Politico ran a big article headlined “Religion is Disappearing. That’s Great for Politics,” by Michael Shermer  the other day. It is inspired by a recent survey by the Pew Research Center showing a surge in the number of “religiously unaffiliated” Americans.

The Pew study generated intense reaction, both defensive and triumphant. I want to look at some of the implications of the study, but let’s first dispatch Mr. Shermer’s ill-informed triumphalism.

He begins with a bang – “Before the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, most politicians kept their faith to themselves.” For evidence he quotes Harry Truman saying that he isn’t impressed by people who “publicly parade their religious beliefs,” Dwight Eisenhower being irritated by a Pastor who was bragging that the President was attending his church, and LBJ expressing support for the separation of church and state.

Apparently he missed FDR’s prayer for the D-Day invasion of Europe that included these words, “And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade” and ended with, “Thy will be done, Almighty God.”

Or that Eisenhower began his first inaugural speech with a prayer

“Almighty God, as we stand here at this moment my future associates in the Executive branch of Government join me in beseeching that Thou will make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng, and their fellow citizens everywhere.

“Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby, and by the laws of this land. Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race or calling.

“May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concepts of our Constitution, hold to differing political faiths; so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and Thy glory. Amen.”

Shermer is gratified that religious affiliation has dropped somewhat since the 1990s, noting that the Pew survey finds that the religiously unaffiliated has grown from the single digits to the “now respectable two-digit 23 percent of adults of all ages, up from 16 percent just since 2007.” But he seems ignorant of the fact that the post-war era in the United States was an anomaly in many ways. After the war the U.S. had the only viable industrial economy in the world, which led to an era of incredible prosperity and economic dominance. And the primary threat was “Godless Communism” which led to an extraordinary attachment to the church. Indeed, the Eisenhower archives reports that church membership grew from 43% of the population in 1920 to a peak of 69% in 1960. Church involvement has been slackening ever since the peak in 1960. What we are seeing today is a good old-fashioned “reversion to the mean.”

Indeed, two years ago Pew found that 37% of American adults attend church services weekly.  This proportion had held steady over the prior decade, suggesting that todays’ commitment to organized religion is not much different than it was in the 1920s.

So Shermer gets his recent history wrong, but he is no better on ancient history. He says, “The rules made up and enshrined by the various religions over the millennia did not have as their goal the expansion of the moral sphere to include more and more people.” He notes that Moses did not come down from the mountain with a mandate to convert the Canaanites to Judaism. But he completely skips over Jesus’ Great Commission –

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. ‘” (Matthew 28: 18-20)

Shermer is also a big fan of the Enlightenment, missing the idea that the Reformation had a lot to do with Enlightenment thinking. For one thing, the Reformers strongly believed that everyone should read the Bible for themselves, which advanced printing dramatically and lead to mass literacy. Enlightenment concepts like the separation of church and state were intended to keep government out of the business of the church, not the other way around. Many Enlightenment thinkers, like Isaac Newton, were devout Christians. Shermer likes the Enlightenment ideas of “equal treatment under the law,” “the equality of women and minorities,” and so on, without realizing that Scripture was preaching those principles some 1500 years before – as Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But, still, there are some disturbing things going on within Christianity in America today, though it isn’t what Shermer thinks. For one thing, Americans who decline any religious affiliation aren’t necessarily non-believers. Pew identifies 22.8% of the population as “unaffiliated,” but of that only 3.1% are atheists, 4.0% agnostic, and the rest simply don’t identify with any particular church.

But even those who self-identify as Christian may not really be Christian in any meaningful sense of the word. In 1985, Robert Bellah identified the predominant religion in America as “Sheilaism.” In his book, “Habits of the Heart,”  he writes

Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”

There are many, many people, even in the pews on Sunday, who believe that God just wants us to be nice, and if we are we get to go to Heaven. Popularity is the most important value – kind of like joining a sorority.

But there is nothing new about any of this. In an essay, “Your Own Personal Jesus,” Michael Horton writes

(Alexis de Tocqueville) concluded, “So each man is narrowly shut up in himself and from that basis makes the pretension to judge the world.” Americans do not need books or any other external authorities in order to find the truth, “having found it in themselves.” American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) announced that “whatever hold the public worship held on us is gone or going,” prophesying the day when Americans would recognize that they are “part and parcel of God,” requiring no mediator or ecclesiastical means of grace. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” captured the unabashed narcissism of American romanticism that plagues our culture from talk shows to the church.

Horton identifies this as a form of Gnosticism –,

In the American Religion, as in ancient Gnosticism, there is almost no sense of God’s difference from us — in other words, his majesty, sovereignty, self-existence, and holiness. God is my buddy or my inmost experience, or the power-source for living my best life now. God is not strange (i.e., holy) – and is certainly not a judge. He does not evoke fear, awe, or a sense of terrifying and disorienting beauty. Furthermore, all the focus on making atonement through a bloody sacrifice seems crude and unspiritual to Gnostics when, after all, the point of salvation is to escape the physical realm.

Again, nothing new. In his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” John Calvin said there is “an immense flood of error with which the whole world is overflowed. Every individual mind is a kind of labyrinth, it is not wonderful, not only that each nation has adopted a variety of fictions, but that almost every man has his own god…. There is scarcely an individual to be found without some idol or phantom as a substitute for Deity.” He worries about “the small number of those who believe,” and notes that many “ask how do we know that Moses and the prophets wrote the books which now bear their names? Nay, they even dare to question whether there ever was a Moses. Were anyone to question whether there ever was a Plato, or an Aristotle, or a Cicero, would not the rod of the whip be deemed the fit chastisement of such folly?”

This was in Geneva in 1536. Christianity has always been a minority religion. Humans have always elevated their own immediate concerns above God. Sure, there have been times when people dutifully paraded to church. Perhaps it was when there was a state religion, or when it made sense for a person in business to go in order to make business contacts (like the Rotary Club), or perhaps a crisis like 9/11 drove people to church for comfort. But how many people have actually believed that God himself became a man and walked the earth? Or that on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead? It is all contained in the Apostles Creed, which is supposed to be the unifying statement all Christians can subscribe to –

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Amen.

People may recite this in church, but how many actually believe it, compared to how many treat it as some magical incantation they are expected to repeat? I don’t know the answer, but I’m pretty sure it is less than half, maybe far less. Even in seminaries, I am told future pastors are often taught to avoid anything that is supernatural and scholars search for natural explanations of miracles – Jesus didn’t really die, he must have just been in a state of shock. Paul didn’t really encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he just had an hallucination brought on by the scorching sun or perhaps feelings of guilt. No wonder these “church leaders” are unable to convert nonbelievers, they don’t themselves believe in much. A Congregational pastor in Maine once told me that if I smile when the sun comes up I am a Christian. I thought what the hell kind of religion is that? What would I need your church for?

The truth is that people are not “converted” until God calls them. Missionaries know this. It isn’t the power of persuasion by the missionary that brings people to Christ, but the Holy Spirit. Still, believers can have an enormous impact on their societies, no matter their numbers. The faithfulness of persecuted Christians in the Middle East has opened the eyes and hearts of a number of Muslims. In ancient Rome, the joy of Polycarp and other Christians in their martyrdom had a profound effect on their persecutors, which eventually resulted in the entire Roman Empire adopting Christianity.

American Christians are blessed with wealth and comfort. We are not persecuted, though we may be mocked and scorned. That is not much of a burden to bear. And if mockery drives pseudo-Christians from the church, that may not be such a bad thing.

Posted by: gmscan | May 22, 2015

Christian Missions and the Spread of Democracy

It has long been evident to me that the most successful societies in the world are former British colonies – the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, and to a lesser extent India and South Africa. I have usually attributed this to the British embrace of capitalism, merit-based civil service, and widespread education.

As long as these nations followed that model they prospered, but when they went off the tracks and experimented with socialism (as India did for a while) or dictatorship (as Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, is still doing) they failed.

Now comes Robert Woodberry of the National University of Singapore to argue that I have missed the point. The American Political Science Review has published a breathtaking article by him, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.”

I say breathtaking because of the comprehensive statistical analysis underlying his argument. He doesn’t just correlate missions with democracy, he also accounts for most other plausible explanations and he looks at conditions in Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceana and even regional differences within many of these countries.

What he finds is that wherever “conversionary Protestant” (CP) missionaries went, they laid the roots for modern democracy. Often these were associated with British colonies, but not always. There were British colonies that had few missionaries and these areas were not especially well equipped for democracy, and missionaries went to places the British were not and had the same democratizing effects.

As we have seen with recent efforts in the Middle East, democracy is far more than a matter of elections. There are underlying conditions that must be met before democratization can succeed. Woodberry writes –

 “… Conversionary Protestants were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary associations, most major colonial reforms, and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These innovations fostered conditions that made stable representative democracy more likely – regardless of whether many people converted to Protestantism.”

He goes on to explain that fundamental to the beliefs of Protestants is the idea that people should be able to read the Bible for themselves. This was much less true for Catholics prior to the twentieth century. This one factor lead to a number of missionary activities, including helping indigenous people develop a written language (for the first time ever in some cases), printing Bibles and religious tracts in local languages, setting up schools to teach people how to read, organizing non-governmental (and often non-religious) associations. They also worked to reform abusive colonial governments, especially in the British colonies, where they had more influence.

None of this is to say that all Protestants were kind or enlightened. –

“Of course, Protestant economic and political elites were as selfish as anyone else. Protestant slave owners fought slave literacy, and Protestant settlers exploited indigenous people: however when missionaries were financially independent of the state, of slave owners, and of white settlers, missionaries undermined these elite co-religionists in ways that fostered democracy.”

So it wasn’t Protestantism per se that created the conditions for democracy, but the presence of missionaries who respected indigenous people enough to find them worthy of conversion. Woodberry explains –

“… Non-state missionaries moderated colonial abuses, particularly when abuses undermined conversions and in British colonies (where CPs had greater influence). To reach their religious goals, non-state missionaries punished abusive colonial officials and counterbalanced white settlers, which fostered the rule of law, encouraged less violent repression of anticolonial political organizations, and facilitated peaceful decolonization.”

Today we may think of missions as mere footnotes in the historical sweep of economics and ideology, but Woodberry argues that prior to the mid-twentieth century, “missionaries were the main source of information about life in the colonies.” They were well educated and dwarfed the presence of other organizations such as labor unions and NGOs. They had financial resources that were greater than all but the largest commercial banks.

Their interest in printing and distributing Bibles and religious tracts largely drove the growth of printing throughout the Western world and in the 19th century, Bible societies were among the largest corporations of any kind. The American Bible Society printed and distributed over one million Bibles between 1829 and 1831, at a time when the total number of households in the United States was only about three million. He writes –

“CPs printed so many vernacular texts that it forced (indigenous) elites to respond. For example, within 32 years of importing a press to India in 1800, three British missionaries printed more than 212,000 copies of books in 40 languages and, along with other missionaries, created the fonts and paper that dominated South Asian printing for much of the nineteenth century.”

Woodberry notes that the availability of printing itself was not sufficient reason for the creation of mass literacy and newspapers. China, Korea and Japan all had printing hundreds of years before Europe, they had moveable metal type long before the Europeans and they had thriving mercantile classes, but literacy was largely confined to the elite and newspapers were never developed before the arrival of missionaries in the nineteenth century.

Wherever the missionaries went, they started schools for mass education of indigenous people, often against the wishes of white colonizers. They also imported the organizational models and tactics they developed during the movements for abolition, temperance, and other social reforms back home to third world countries in the 1800s.

Finally, the Protestant missions were mostly not sponsored by the state. This gave them a level of independence from colonial rulers that made it possible for them to actively oppose abuses in several ways, especially in British colonies. The missions were financed by a broad mass of the faithful back home. These supporters could be mobilized to lobby parliament against abusive colonial governors. The missionaries generally came from reformist traditions back home and could apply those lessons with indigenous people, and the missionaries realized that colonial abuses made religious conversion much harder. As a result, wherever missionaries were most active, the colonial governments were pressed to curtail forced labor, apply similar legal standards to whites and non-whites, and allow the creation of organizations of local people.

All of this – mass printing, literacy, activism, and civic organization – created the conditions, skills and experience for local populations to better run their own affairs and participate in democratic governance independently not only of colonizers but also of the traditional elite in their own countries.

 

Posted by: gmscan | April 20, 2015

Post Modernism?

Jodie Gallo and I have been exchanging e-mails and I want to share with you his fascinating take on “post-modernism” as it may apply to theology. I think it is thought provoking and I hope you will add your thoughts.

First, I should say that Jodie and I are poles apart on politics. Yet I have deep respect for his understanding of Scripture. I find it heartening that we can share our thoughts, our questions, and our doubts without all the snark that usually accompanies social media. As he says below, we may never find “the truth” in this lifetime, but that should not prevent us from growing our understanding. Here is his post, and I will follow with my comment to him.

——–

Hi, Greg

I’m no expert on “post modernism”. What follows is the danger of having a little bit of knowledge. It would probably get me an “F” in whatever Humanities Course teaches it these days. But that never stopped my from shooting my mouth off…

What I meant was that it is impossible to read the Bible without reading it through the lens of our own experience, culture, and language. And we always project on to it something of ourselves. This is what I think the fundamental insight of Post Modern methods is all about, and I think they got it from the insights of Modern Physics: One cannot hope to read the Scriptures objectively. But one can look at them from many angles and from the sum of those angles learn more than by reading them just the one way.

The way I see it, 18th and 19th Century Theology assumed the insights of Classical (Newtonian) Physics which say that the Universe is a giant machine that operates according to immutable Laws that can be learned and articulated. We study (read) the Universe to learn these Laws, and then if we obey them we can live better, and we can make machines of our own that operate according to the same laws, from steam engines to space ships. The industrial revolution validated that insight. In Theology, the Scriptures are treated like the Newtonian Universe, and if we study them diligently they too will tell us God’s Laws and God’s Truth.

20th Century Theology, at least after say 1945, assumes the insights of Modern Physics which tell us that the Universe is made up of interacting quantum particles whose properties and behaviors sometimes literally depend on how we study them. We can’t discern the Laws of the Universe directly because our perception of the Universe is filtered by the limitations of our sensing tools, and its properties can literally change as a consequence of our attempts at observation. Thus what we see is not reality in its pristine state, but the convolution of reality with our interaction with it. Clearly any laws we might derive from our observations are therefore subject to scrutiny, and we must always look for new ways to test, correct, and enhance our knowledge.

There is even “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle”, that says in a nutshell that we cannot know both the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time (like we can of a planet). It turns out to be a fundamental property of nature in quantum physics that nailing down certain properties denies us the ability to discern others.

In Post Modern Theology, the Scriptures are treated like the quantum Universe. We can’t really see or comprehend them for what they are. We filter them through the lenses of our own culture and language, and we project on to them our own preconceived notions of what they mean. And so we are always trying to devise creative ways to get around our own biases and lenses, to tease out of the Text its “true” meaning(s). And there are things that are permanently locked up that we can never know.

I am comfortable with that approach. There are Biblical texts that attest to it as well… ironically. In Revelation, John sees “the book”. It is sealed shut with seven seals, and it cannot be opened, its mysteries locked away, till someone worthy can be found to break them. The slain Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) is found to be worthy, and as He breaks the seals we get to see what they are: The things that prevent us from actually knowing the contents of “the book”. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, our claims for vengeance for the martyrs, and even the mysterious silence of Heaven (!). It’s really a marvelous vision, and represented often in Christian arts and crafts as a bleeding lamb holding a cross sitting on a closed book, the book having seven seals holding it shut. (Apocalyptic cults have a field day with it – usually focusing on the seals, and missing the elephant in the room: that we are still prevented from knowing the contents of “the book” ).

But there is also a Nihilistic twist in recent post-modernism that suggests that maybe there is no reality at all, or that if there is, we can never find it and so it doesn’t really matter. That “the book” is filled with empty pages. Indeed quantum physics in the last 50 years has been frustrated in its search for the ultimate law of Physics. It has reached an impasse. The deeper they look, the more emptiness they find, emptiness held together with more emptiness by mysterious math equations that are completely incomprehensible even to those who fully understand them. Truth, absolute core Truth, if it is out there, remains illusive. So the Nihilism that comes from that frustration, applied to Theology and applied to Scriptures, tells us that maybe its all a myth, a blank screen, and the only thing that really exists is our own socially constructed reality that we project on to it.

Being bi-cultural myself, I recognize how much of what we think of as reality is indeed merely a social construct, but I am not ready to go all the way. At least not to the Nihilistic conclusion that since it “all depends”, therefore none of it is real to begin with.

We just have to be patient.

Even when all we do is project on to the Heavens our own thoughts and feelings, some thing, or some one, out there, reflects them back to us, modified and enhanced, as if sung in harmony. That Mirror, that Voice, it belongs to the Who we are looking for. Or maybe better yet, looking for us. Maybe what really holds the Universe together is Life. Nobody knows what that is, but it was God’s Breath of Life, breathed into Adam’s lungs, that turned the ashes of inanimate atoms like Carbon and Hydrogen and Oxygen, and the sub atomic particles they are made of, all strung together, into a living breathing thinking feeling human being. What is “Life”? Is all of Nature perhaps actually “alive”? Maybe >that< is the missing law. Where and what is the boundary between not alive and alive? What causes it? Nobody knows, but in Christ we know we have life, and we can live life abundantly, and “death” does not get the final say.

Douglas Adams made fun of quantum physics and its effect on all the other intellectual pursuits in his radio series “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Did you ever follow it? A race of pan-dimensional beings built a super computer to find the answer to the “ultimate question about life, the universe and everything”.  It was called “Deep Thought”. The answer it found turned out to be ‘42’, which set off a quest to find the proper question that would make the answer make sense. The punch line in the end was that you cannot both know the “question” and the “answer” at the same time. Heisenberg. I happened to be studying quantum physics in college at the time, and we all found the radio series to be an immensely satisfying humorous look at the search for “Truth”.

I am comfortable with the humor, the challenges, and the ultimate mystery at the end of our rainbow search for Truth. The Psalmist pleads

Make me know Your ways, O Lord;

Teach me Your paths.

Lead me in Your truth and teach me,

For You are the God of my salvation;

For You I wait all the day. (Psalm 25:4-5 )

And Paul answers the Psalmist towards the end of Romans, practically in ecstasy:

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Romans 11:33)”

Post Modernism teaches us to be humble again, about what we think we know. And to enjoy living in the Mystery. We don’t get our arms around Truth. But maybe, if we are lucky, Truth gets His arms around us.

Jodie

——–

Jodie,

This is a beautiful piece of writing — and thinking. Thank you for it. I wonder if you would allow me to post it on my blog, either with or without attribution.

It has taken me a while to respond because of Springtime chores around here, mulching, tilling the garden, cutting back old growth, etc. Things that would once have taken a day or two to accomplish take a lot longer these days.

In any case, I find nothing here to object to, quite the opposite. I come at it from the very different perspective but agree with your balancing act. I know people who are pretty wrapped up in the Human Genome project. They once thought it would “unlock the door” to basic human biology, but are discovering the deeper they go the more mysteries they discover.

That seems to be true throughout science, as you say. There may be things we are incapable of knowing and that is fine with me. As a layman, I look around my world and am humbled by my own limits. My dog knows things I will never understand and it isn’t just her senses of smell and hearing. She knows when I am coming home even from miles away.

Scripture tells us things we are only now beginning to understand — the Big Bang, that time is mutable, that there is existence outside of our known universe. And I agree that we read Scripture through our own cultural lens. Most of Jesus’ parables, for example, were not telling us how to run our day to day affairs, but what the Kingdom of God is like.

I bristle when people use “science” as a cudgel. Science is wonderful in revealing to us the majesty of the natural world, but science has never had a lock on “truth.” Today’s science tells us how wrong yesterday’s science was, and tomorrow’s science will make us all look like fools. But we have an impulse to discover (at least those of us in the West — other cultures seem more content with acceptance). It is hubris to think we have arrived at understanding. Our understanding will always be partial.

But the same is true with theology. We will never understand God, and thank God for that. What a small God He would be if we COULD understand Him.

So, again, thank you for your very thoughtful insights.

Greg

Posted by: gmscan | March 26, 2015

Recent Books

As you know, I am an avid reader. I get most of my information from the printed page, and I like my books printed so I can make marginal notes, underline, and dog ear them. I don’t worry about preserving the binding. I CONSUME books.

Since I came to Christ I have been reading Christian books a whole lot. I will discuss a few below. But now and then I try to take a break and read something completely different. So, the last time I was at Sam’s Club a book by Dean Koontz popped out at me. I like Dean Koontz a lot. He has replaced Steven King as my favorite horror author. I like his Odd Thomas series and have read most of those. But this book is called “The City,”  and Koontz hasn’t written much about urban environments. Most of his settings are suburban or rural. So I thought it would be interesting.

It is. It’s a fun read, which I won’t bother describing here. Except for one thing – I may try to escape Jesus, but He won’t let me. Not that this book is explicitly Christian, but one of the essential characters is an angel called Miss Pearl by the protagonist, a boy named Jonah Kirk. She feeds him prophetic dreams, leads him to his gift, which is piano playing, and bolsters him when he needs it most. Here’s an example –

She sat silently beside me for a while. Then: “If you trust me, believe what I’m about to say, it’ll help you in the darkest times.”

Speaking into my hands, I said, “What is it?”

“No matter what happens, disaster piled on calamity, no matter what, everything will be okay in the long run.”

I spread my fingers to filter my words. “You said you can’t see the future.”

“I’m not talking about the future, Ducks. Not the way you mean. Not tomorrow and next week and next month.”

Frustrated, I said, “Then what are you talking about?”

She repeated, “No matter what happens, everything will be okay in the long run. If you believe that, if you trust me, nothing might happen in the days to come to break you. On the other hand, if you won’t take to heart what I’ve just told you, I don’t expect things will turn out as well as they could.”

This is a conversation that might have taken place between Jesus and Paul before he set out to convert the Gentiles. It is a truth known by the Egyptian Christians who were beheaded by ISIS. It is true for all of us believers. No matter what happens, everything will be okay in the long run.

This was supposed to be a break from my Christian reading. Oh, well. So what are the Christian books I was taking a break from?

Well, I read Charles Colson’s “The Sky is Not Falling.” This was Colson’s last book before his death. It is meant to buck up Christians as they deal with the growing secular attacks on Christianity in the United States. I learned a lot here, especially about some of the recent court decisions. One example was a 2006 ruling by a federal judge against Colson’s Prison Fellowship. The judge decided that evangelical Christianity is somehow not protected by the First Amendment because it is a fringe cult distinct from other Christian faiths such as Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Greek Orthodoxy, and other denominations such as Lutheranism, and Presbyterians. He said it tends to be “anti-sacramental” downplaying “baptism, holy communion or Eucharist, marriage, (and) ordination…” Colson comments that his Baptist friends will be quite surprised to hear this.

Colson urges Christians to reassert orthodoxy, work to change the culture and the political climate, and most of all live fruitful lives within their own communities. These sound like pretty thin remedies, except for the knowledge, as Dean Koontz wrote above, that everything will work out in the end. God guarantees it.

But Colson references quite a few other books and that is how I came across “God’s Battalions,” by Rodney Stark. This is a detailed history of the Crusades and my reading it was timely given President Obama’s citation of the Crusades as equivalent to Islamic terrorism at the National Prayer Breakfast. He was, of course, wrong as I describe in my write-up in The Federalist.

Then I needed something more uplifting. Fortunately my wife, Nancy, had bought me “The Grave Robber,” by Mark Batterson for Christmas, and that was just what I needed. It is very well written and uses the seven miracles of Christ as described in John’s Gospel as a jumping off point. He then describes how reflections of these miracles still happen all around us today. I talked my men’s group into studying this book, so I get to read it again.

Speaking of Nancy, I also read her new book Mikha’el  several times as she was writing it. This is the best thing she’s ever written. It is the story of a young girl who has prophetic and disturbing dreams that seem to come true too often. As she grows, she comes to realize that she is being guided by the Archangel Michael who has protected her from harm her entire life so she can play a critical role in the coming battle between good and evil.

I then turned to “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand.  Here’s another book I didn’t expect to be particularly Christian and I thought I would check it out since the movie was so well reviewed. It is, of course, the heroic story of Louis Zamparini, an Olympic running star who becomes a flier in the Pacific Theater in World War Two. He is captured by the Japanese and has a horrific experience in their POW camps. I haven’t seen the movie, but I understand it omits what is the most important part of the book. After the war, he has a terrible time adjusting to civilian life and becomes am abusive drunk until his wife gets him to go the a Billy Graham revival where he turns his life over to Jesus and spends the rest of his life ministering to troubled teens in California. This is easily the best non-fiction work I’ve ever read and, while it is thoroughly documented, it reads like an action-adventure thriller.

Finally I read Jonathan Edwards’ “Religious Affections.” (There are many, many editions of this book, Here is a link to Amazon’s list, though the edition I read doesn’t seem to be included)  This is an abridged edition published in 1984 by Multnomah Press and edited by James M. Houston as part of a series of “Classics of Faith and Devotion.” The editor has updated archaic language and shortened sentences and paragraphs to make it more readable to today’s reader. The result is really wonderful, though still not an easy read. It was written to moderate some of the fervor that came out of the Great Awakening of the 1740s and restore a more Biblically-based spirituality among believers. Edwards’ meaning of the term “affections” is not how we use the term today. He means something like passion, but less intense and emotional.

If , like me, your knowledge of Jonathan Edwards was a brief mention in school of his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” this work is an eye opener. Far from a fire and brimstone preacher, Edwards was thoughtful and gentle. The greatest religious affection in his view is love. He writes, “The Scripture speaks of no real Christians who have an ugly, selfish, angry and contentious spirit. Nothing can be more contradictory than a morose, hard, closed, and spiteful Christian.” But even here, he is kind and forgiving, and adds, “Yet allowances must be made for our natural human temperament with regard to this as well as to other things.” We are all far from perfect, but with grace we are growing to be more Christ-like all the time.

He also anticipates some of what Bonhoeffer would write 200 years later, “But a true Christian can delight in religious fellowship and conversation, yet he also delights to retire from all fellow men and converse with God in solitude.” He notes that even Jesus (or especially Jesus) needed to often step away from the disciples and the crowds to spend time alone with the Father.

I also read an e-book published by Modern Reformation and edited by Michael Horton on “The Many Faces of John Calvin.”  This was frustrating because it seemed the various contributors each had their own axe to grind and were trying to stuff Calvin into their own boxes. So, my next project is to tackle John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” (Again, there are many editions available)  Wish me luck.

Posted by: gmscan | January 24, 2015

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

Fortress Press

I just finished reading a new translation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” It is well worth looking at.

If you don’t know already, Bonhoeffer was the greatest Christian martyr of the 20th Century. He was executed by the Nazis just before the defeat of Germany in World War Two for participating in a plot to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was also a great theologian and pastor. He was a founder of the “confessing church” movement that resisted Nazi attempts to rewrite Christianity. The Nazis wanted to drop the Old Testament and turn Jesus into an icon of Aryan superiority. Their hatred and persecution of Jews was both genetic and religious. They didn’t accept that any Jew could become a Christian. Most of the churches in Germany went along with this — some enthusiastically, others were just cowardly and wanted to work “within the system.”

Some time ago I read Eric Metaxas’ terrific biography “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” but this is the first I’ve read of Bonhoeffer’s own writing. He is a fabulous writer, but more than that, his thinking is fresh and vibrant even sixty years after he wrote it.

I was especially struck by how he sees Jesus everywhere and in every Christian. We are each human, of course, but Christ is alive inside each of us, and Bonhoeffer sees the Jesus within us – not figuratively, not metaphorically, but actually. Maybe this is not a new thought to you, but it is to me. I have tended to view Christians as people who believe — some half-heartedly, others whole hog — but that belief resides in the mind as an understanding. But to Bonhoeffer, we are partly Christ in fact. He is growing within us, and the longer we follow His way, the more he grows.

So, Bonhoeffer addresses the Christian community as a grace allowed by God. He writes –

“The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the Cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the exclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work.”

What a stunning thought to the American mind! We have always been, at least nominally, a Christian nation. Being a Christian is no great challenge for us. It is the default position, it has been what we were expected to do. Of course Bonhoeffer was living among Nazis and the Nazis tolerated Christians only if they replaced the Cross with the swastika. He says –

“It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace.”

He cites “the imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands” as examples of isolated Christians. Think of the house churches in China or the underground believers in Muslim lands reading smuggled Bibles. It would be a joy for such followers to be free to worship with each other in public and without fear.

So, we experience “incomparable joy and strength” when we meet with other believers. But, “what is an inexpressible blessing from God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trampled under foot by those who receive the gift every day.” It is easy to forget that this gift can be taken from us at any time, so “let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts.”

Bonhoeffer uses his experience in running an underground seminary to model what an ideal community of Christians might be like. I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but briefly, he deals with the following –

Community

Bonhoeffer is very concerned about people who bring their own expectations into a Christian community. Such people can deaden the community by measuring it against some subjective standard and criticizing it when it doesn’t match up. He sees this as narcissism (though he doesn’t use that term) – “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.”

He is especially critical of pastors who find their own congregations lacking – “Pastors should not complain about their congregations, certainly never to other people, but also not to God.”

He says that, however challenging it may be, God has placed us in a particular situation for a reason and we need to set aside our pride and listen to what God is saying about the situation.

I’m not sure I completely buy this, since I myself left a PCUSA church for one that I believed was more faithful to Scripture. But I left only after much prayer, so God may have placed me in the church to be exposed to apostasy and God may have wanted me to leave it as a witness to others. Many others left that church after I did, so perhaps God wanted me to set an example for these others.

The Day Together

Bonhoeffer says when we awake we should be still and let God have the first word of the day – “The early morning belongs to the church of the risen Christ.” I like this idea — that the rising sun belongs to the Risen Son. Bonhoeffer says, “Scripture reading, song, and prayer should be part of daily morning worship together.” Now, keep in mind that Bonhoeffer was coming from the context of running a seminary where a group of students were housed together. Obviously most of us do not live like that, and community worship is not possible for us first thing in the morning. Still the idea of starting each day with Scripture and prayer is something we all can do.

He especially likes the idea of reading and praying the Psalms first thing in the morning. Bonhoeffer argues that the Psalms are the prayers Jesus prayed, and were written in anticipation of Christ. Not all the Psalms apply to us personally, but we should still pray them because they all apply to Jesus, so we are praying not to Jesus but with him. Like the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms will show us how Jesus wants us to pray.

He never falls from his focus on Jesus. This is unlike the modern American focus on what God is or will do for us. Bonhoeffer writes –

“It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, in God’s son Jesus Christ, than to discover what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment.”

Now, I don’t agree with everything Bonhoeffer says. For some reason he objects to singing in harmony and prefers unison singing, kind of like Gregorian chant, I guess. He dismisses bass and alto voices as calling “everybody’s attention to their astonishing range and therefore sing every hymn an octave lower.” Sorry, but some of us have voices that have to be an octave lower or we wouldn’t be able to sing the melody at all. It isn’t vanity.

He deals with a whole lot of other topics that I won’t go into here – communal meals, work, evening prayers, the need for alone time even when (or especially when) living in a community.

Confession

But there is one topic I want to focus on a bit. He calls on Christians to confess their sins to each other, quoting James 5:16, “Confess your sins to one another.” This is something I know many people are very uncomfortable with. He says, “Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone in our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners.”

This is beautifully written. He says, “You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner. Thank God for that; God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” He says, “Sin wants to be alone with people. It takes them away from the community…. Sin that has been spoken and confessed has lost all its power.”

He urges us to confess our sins to another Christian. Not to make a big show of it, but do it privately, in confidence. He clarifies, “Does this mean that confession to one another is a divine law? No, confession is not a law; rather it is an offer of divine help to the sinner.”

If you find this idea alien, as many Protestants do (after all isn’t confession a Roman Catholic ritual?), you have never been to an AA meeting. Members of AA are not shy about confessing their many, many sins to the rest of the group. And guess what? People do not react in horror. They are far more likely to laugh with recognition, because we have all done that and worse. We are amazed at how stupid and irresponsible we have been and we are grateful that we do not have to be that way any longer. I should add that having other people laugh at our transgressions also mitigates the shame we feel, it frees us from the burden of carrying our shame alone.

And, isn’t that what Jesus promised us? He said —

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Isn’t the burden most of us carry the burden of sin and shame?

Bonhoeffer, concludes this section by writing –

“To whom should we make a confession? According to Jesus’ promise every Christian believer can hear the confession of another. But will the other understand us? Might not another believer be so far beyond us in the Christian life that she or he would only turn away from us without understanding our personal sins? Whoever lives beneath the cross of Jesus and has discerned in the cross of Jesus the utter ungodliness of all people and of their own hearts, will find there is no sin that can ever be unfamiliar.”

Posted by: gmscan | November 28, 2014

Enriching My Prayer Time

I’ve been in Receive mode rather than Transmit mode for the past few months. It was time for me to just shut up and listen. I’ve been listening to people who know a lot more than I ever will about what Jesus has done and continues to do in our lives.

One of these is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the organizers of the “Confessing Church” movement during the Hitler Regime in Germany. Hitler, of course, insisted that Christian churches swear allegiance to him and reject the Old Testament as Jewish propaganda. In the face of this, Bonhoeffer wrote a very short book, “Prayer Book of the Bible,” that argued the Psalms were essential to Christianity. In fact, he said that the Psalms are the prayers Jesus himself prayed.

Even on the Cross Christ was praying the Psalms. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” are the opening words of Psalm 22. “Into your hands I commit my spirit” is an essential line from Psalm 31.

Bonhoeffer says that, while many of the Psalms may not fit whatever we are experiencing at the moment, we should pray them anyway because in doing so we are praying with Christ, not just to Him. Like the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is showing us how we should pray to the Father, because it is the way he himself prayed to the Father.

Immediately after reading Bonhoeffer, I came across an interview with Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian (PCA) Church in New York City. He has just written a new book, “Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.” He talks about praying the Psalms –

“I came to see that the Psalms are extremely important for prayer. Perhaps that is because I read a book some years ago by Eugene Peterson called Answering God. He makes a strong case that we only pray well if we are immersed in Scripture. We learn our prayer vocabulary the way children learn their vocabulary — that is, by getting immersed in language and then speaking it back. And he said the prayer book of the Bible is the Psalms, and our prayer life would be immeasurably enriched if we were immersed in the Psalms. So that was the first step.”

Keller, like Bonhoeffer, is also very big on meditation. He says –

“(I)t diminishes our prayer life that our hearts are cold when we get into prayer. Without meditation, you tend to go right into petition and supplication, and you do little adoration or confession. When your heart is warm, then you start to praise God and then you confess. When your heart is cold, which it is if you just study the Bible and then jump to prayer, you are much more likely to spend your time on your prayer list and not really engage your heart.”

I’ve always been a little dubious about meditation, probably because I associate it with Transcendental Medication and Buddhism. I thought you had to try to clear your mind of all thought and enter into some kind of trance. But this is not what Keller and Bonhoeffer mean by it. They mean clear your mind of distractions, yes, but think about what you have just read (in this case, one of the Psalms) and listen for God’s further word to you.

In other words, prayer is not just you talking to God, but also listening to what God has to say to you. You need to be quiet and receptive so you will have the ability to listen.

These ideas have transformed my evening prayers. Now I get on my knees, read a Psalm, think about what I have read, and listen for God’s reply. I don’t always get a reply, but it still gives me a chance to absorb the wisdom and emotion of the Psalm. Only then do I speak my own prayer and it is a lot more natural to include those elements of adoration and confession along with thanksgiving and petition.

I feel myself becoming a quieter and more patient man now. And now I look forward every day to the time I have carved out to spend alone with my Father.

Posted by: gmscan | June 26, 2014

The PCUSA Becomes a Parody

 

UPDATE: “Parody” turns out to be an apt headline. Some of the examples posted on the “Naming His Grace” blog turn out to be just that. To get the latest, go to http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/

Unfortunately all of the rest remains true, alas.

—–

At its recent General Assembly in Detroit, the Presbyterian Church (USA) became a mockery of Christianity. If there is a Lefty cause anywhere, you can bet the ol’ PCUSA will embrace it. But it is more than politics. The denomination has also adopted a 1960s style hippy love-in culture with an “if it feels good, do it” message.

First the politics –

Divestment from Israel.

The Denomination voted narrowly to divest from three companies doing business with the Israeli government — Motorola, Caterpillar, and Hewlett-Packard. By itself this doesn’t sound that bad, although all three are outstanding companies that pay excellent wages to American workers and help our balance of trade problems. But it came in the context of the PCUSA’s distribution of two blatantly anti-Semitic documents – The Kairos Paper, which I’ve written about here,  and the even worse “Zionism Unchained.”

Virtually the entire American Jewish community, even the left-leaning J Street, has expressed alarm and outrage at these actions, but the PCUSA was unconcerned. The rabid anti-Semites in the denomination are complacent about hundreds of Christian girls being kidnapped in Nigeria, about soccer fans being slaughtered in Kenya, about a Christian mother being imprisoned in in Sudan, and Christians throughout Syria and Iraq being executed. It chooses to focus instead on the only democracy in the Middle East protecting itself from terrorism. See this article  and this.

Homosexual Issues

First it was ordination of homosexual pastors, now the PCUSA has overwhelmingly endorsed performing same-sex weddings, violating the clear instructions of Scripture. Sure, attitudes in the United States are changing, but Christians are not supposed to conform themselves to “the world,” but help conform the world to God. Our job is not to make ourselves more popular with the passing fancies of secular society, but to witness to the Word of God, no matter the cost. See this article  and this.

Abortion

The PCUSA has one of the most radical pro-abortion positions of any organization I have encountered. I have written about this before.  Now it has even refused to support a resolution condemning the murder of babies who manage to survive and abortion – the kind of activity that sent Kermit Gosnell to prison. See this article.

All of this is tragic, but it turns into comedy when we look at some of the groups finding homes under the PCUSA umbrella of “Worshipping Communities.” Viola Larsen cites some in her “Naming His Grace” blog including these –

Bi-Cycling For All

A place to find and know God for the bi-sexual community while emphasizing the unitarian concepts embodied in the primary geometric symbol of bicycles, round wheels, round gears, and a chain connecting the unity of the drivetrain. We will work diligently to advocate for full inclusion of bisexual individuals into the life of the church, including ordination, bisexual marriage equality, and recognition that Jesus was bisexual.

And

Fellowship for All Species

The Fellowship of All Species gathers to worship the Creator of All— not just the human species. We will work for full inclusion of all animal species into the life and witness of the PC(USA). Our desire is to recognize that every living, breathing creature upon this earth is welcome in the church and can serve the church in varied and unique ways, giving witness to the Creator.

Have I told you how grateful I am that the Spirit came and freed me from this preposterous bunch of heretics?

Posted by: gmscan | May 29, 2014

God and Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking ends his book, “A Brief History of Time,” by writing –

“However, if we do discover a complete theory (of everything), it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists.  Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.”

The problem with that thought is that we already know the mind of God, or at least the part that He is willing to reveal to us. We know it through His Word, the Holy Scripture.

But, then Christians and Jews already knew most of what Hawking reveals in his book. For thousands of years we have known about the Big Bang, we have known that time is mutable, we have known that there was a common mother and father of all humanity, and we have known that there exists a Creator and a Heaven who are outside of our universe and not subject to the natural laws that rule the universe.

Science is just beginning to catch up, and bully for them. But they are coming at the truth reluctantly, desperately trying to avoid the obvious conclusions, as Hawking illustrates in his later book, “The Universe in a Nutshell.” God must be having a grand time watching all this unfold. But, then, He knew it would. After all, He gave us the tools that would lead to these conclusions.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I was in the first grade our class discussed what causes the sound of thunder. I proudly raised my hand and gave the answer my mother always told me – it is the sound of clouds bumping into each other! The class started laughing at that stupid answer and I felt humiliated. Many years later I discovered that she was actually pretty close to the truth, it is indeed caused by the movement of air particles. Thunder is produced by the rapid expansion of air resulting from being suddenly superheated by the lightning. My mother had given me a version that a very young child could understand.

So it was with Scripture. God did not provide mathematical proofs – we didn’t know much about advanced calculus at the time. He gave us a narrative and asked us to trust Him. Thousands of years later we are finally coming to understand what He said.

So, let’s look a little more closely at some of these ideas.

The Big Bang.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth waswithout form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”  (Genesis 1:1-4)

Hawking was one of the originators of the idea of a Big Bang, along with Roger Penrose. This is the idea that the universe is expanding and if we follow it back in time it will collapse into nothing, before which there was no time and no matter. They coauthored a paper in 1970 that “proved” it mathematically. He writes –

“There was a lot of opposition to our work, particularly from the Russians because of their Marxist belief in scientific determinism, and partly from people who felt that the whole idea of a singularity (the Big Bang) was repugnant and spoiled the beauty of Einstein’s theory. However, one cannot really argue with a mathematical theorem, so in the end our work became generally accepted and nowadays nearly everyone assumes that the universe started with a big bang singularity.”

It is notable that scientists, and not just Marxist ones, resisted the idea because it gave credence to the Scriptural explanation. They held on to their “beliefs” because of a nostalgic attachment to the “beauty of Einstein’s theory.”

Hardly sounds like the fearless quest for truth as science is often portrayed. But Hawking includes many similar examples of established scientists resisting new ideas. He even includes a brief biography of Galileo, which indicates it was not the Church as much as “the Aristotelian professors” which were hostile to Copernicanism. Indeed, the Church supported his work in writing and publishing his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.”

It should be noted that Hawking himself is currently moving away from the Big Bang idea, arguing that using quantum mechanics it is possible that the universe is in a sort of endless loop without boundaries of any kind.  I must say that I don’t find the argument persuasive (as a layman and not a mathematician). He goes into this in his second book, but to get there he needs to invent concepts like “imaginary time” and “infinite histories” of the universe. These ideas may work mathematically, but they defy any kind of sense that I am familiar with. For example, we might have infinite futures, but how can there be “infinite histories” within any definition of the word “history?” History is what did happen in fact. There can be alternate explanations, but there cannot be alternate events.

Hawking himself acknowledges some of the problems. He writes –

“There is no more experimental evidence for some of the theories described in this book than there is for astrology, but we believe them because they are consistent with theories that have survived testing.”

And he gives a fairly lengthy caution about the limits of science –

“In 1931 the mathematician Kurt Godel proved his famous incompleteness theorem about the nature of mathematics. The theorem states that within any formal system of axioms, such as present day mathematics, questions always persist that can neither be proved nor disproved on the basis of the axioms that define the system. In other words, Godel showed that there are problems that cannot be solved by any set of rules or procedures.

“Godel’s theorem set fundamental limits on mathematics. It came as a great shock to the scientific community, since it overthrew the widespread belief that mathematics was a coherent and complete system based on a simple logical foundation. Godel’s theorem, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and the practical impossibility of following the evolution of even a deterministic system that becomes chaotic form a core set of limitations to scientific knowledge that only came to be appreciated during the twentieth century.”

The lesson, to me, of Hawking’s evolution is that he is following the math down a rabbit hole of nonsense. He says later in the book –

“A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested. If the predictions agree with the observations, the theory survives, though it can never be proved to be correct.”

Given that principle, Hawking has left “good theory” far behind and is now in the realm of pure speculation. That is fine, speculation can be fun, but it is no longer science.

Mutable Time

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2Peter 3:8)

The idea that time is not a constant has been well established for a very long time. Hawking cites an experiment conducted in 1962 that showed that a clock at the top of a water tower ran faster than one at the bottom, consistent with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. A man who went deep into space at near the speed of light would return much younger than his twin who stayed on Earth. Hawking discusses the implication of this on our understanding of God and cites Augustine reminding us that God is not subject to time – “Time is a property only of the universe that God created,” writes Hawking.  God is not of this universe, so He is not subject to the natural laws that govern this universe, i.e. He is “super natural.”

It is interesting that Hawking returns repeatedly to God in his writing.  He says, for instance –

“It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as an act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”

And –

“With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene to break these laws. However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started – it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off.”

I would comment that God may not “usually” intervene to break these laws, but He does from time to time. These times are what we know as miracles.

But Hawking just can’t quite accept that conclusion, so he continues –

“So long as the universe had a beginning we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither a beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”

And, again, this is where he gets into concepts like “imaginary time” to wriggle out of the conclusions he himself has arrived at. Is this really so very different than the Soviet scientists who rejected Hawking’s original Big Bang discovery because it violated their Marxist ideology?

There is more to be said here, but this post is getting too long. I will get back to it later.

Posted by: gmscan | May 8, 2014

Bondage of the Will

My men’s group has been reading Martin Luther’s “Bondage of the Will.” The version we have was published in 1957 and translated by James I. Packer and O.R. Johnson.

It’s quite a slog and we have discovered what limited vocabularies we have. I’m afraid the translators also like to show off how erudite they are, using obscure words when simpler one would do just fine. Plus, they use King James for all the Scripture quotations and that is alien to our ears these days. So, in reading the book we needed three hands – one for the book, another for the Bible, and a third for a dictionary.

Still, I’m glad we are doing it. This is one of the most important books of Christian theology ever written. It anchors the Reformation’s understanding of justification and salvation and contrasts starkly with the Roman Catholic tradition then and now.

In fact, just the other day I heard Bill O’Reilly explain that he performs good deeds in order to earn his way to Heaven (that isn’t quite how he put it, but close enough). I would wager that most modern Christians share his view – God rewards you for being good in life. The better you are, the more certain your reward.

It is fascinating that this is precisely the attitude Luther was contending with 500 years ago. His book is entirely a rebuttal of another book, the “Diatribe” by Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus was a moderate reformer, and thought Luther was going too far, both in theology and manner. As the translators note in their very useful explanation of the controversy, Erasmus believed Luther was a “destroyer of civil, religious and cultural harmony and order.”

And so he was. Luther’s book goes well beyond being just a theological explanation of his views, to insulting and demeaning Erasmus on nearly every page. Luther is a master of sarcasm and he is contemptuous of the “harmony and order” Erasmus was defending.

You can see the sarcasm and contempt clearly in Luther’s response to Erasmus on this very issue of harmony and order. He writes –

“What a fulsome speaker you are! — but utterly ignorant of what you are talking about. In a word, you treat this discussion as if the issue at stake between us was the recovery of a debt or some other trivial item, the loss of which matters far less than the public peace…. You make it clear that this carnal peace and quiet seems to you far more important than faith, conscience, salvation, the Word of God, the glory of Christ, and God himself. Let me tell you, therefore – and I beg you to let this sink deep into your mind – I hold that a solemn and vital truth, of eternal consequence, is at stake in this discussion….”

When it came to speaking the truth of the Gospel, Luther had no interest in sugar coating or sanitizing his views to avoid offending people.

And what are those views? First and importantly, Luther was not saying man has no free will at all. He writes —

“… man should realize that in regard to his money or possessions he has a right to use them, to do or leave undone according to his own free will — though that free will is overruled by the free will of God alone, according to His own pleasure. However, with regard to God, and in all that bears on salvation or damnation, he has no free will and is a captive, prisoner and bondslave, either to the will of God or to the will of Satan.”

In other words, you are perfectly free to decide what you will have for lunch today or what movie you will go to tonight, though God may call you to do something else. But you are completely unable to save yourself from damnation. Only God may do that.

This idea raised quite a bit of debate among our men. Some of us can’t shake the feeling that we have to do something to earn our salvation. At a minimum, we have to answer when God calls. But Luther says, no, not even that – the only reason we say yes rather than no to God’s call is because the Holy Spirit has already infected us and given us the ability to say yes.  Without that, we would go on our merry way and pay no attention to the calling.

What, then is the point of Christ’s command to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth? Aren’t we educating people about the Good News and preparing them to accept God’s call? Yes, perhaps, but we are only the Lord’s instrument. People are receptive to the preaching only because God has already made them receptive. It has nothing to do with us, or our powers of persuasion.

This is so hard for us modern Americans to accept, accustomed as we are to think of hard work as the way to get ahead in the world and enjoying the rewards that come from it. This is why my favorite parable is Jesus’ description of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Some got to work early in the morning, others showed up around noon, and still others didn’t start until just before quitting time, but the boss paid them all the same wages. This would be no way to run a business. It makes no sense in the world. But Jesus isn’t talking about the world, but the kingdom of Heaven. The reward of salvation is available to all no matter how hard they work. It is not their effort but God’s grace that determines the reward.

This difficulty is not confined to modern Americans. Luther quotes Erasmus as asking, “If there is no freedom of will, what place is there for merit? If there is no place for merit, what place is there for reward? To what will it be ascribed, if man is justified without merit?”  Luther cites Paul in his answer – “There is no such thing as merit at all, but all that are justified are justified freely, and this is ascribed to nothing but the grace of God.” 

Now, Luther also says there is nothing wrong with doing good, in fact it is commendable. But it is a grave mistake to think it equates with God’s righteousness –

“I should grant that free will by its endeavors can advance in some direction, namely in the direction of good works, or the righteousness of civil or moral law, yet it does not advance towards God’s righteousness, nor does God deem its efforts in any respect worthy to gain His righteousness.”

And, again –

“We know that man was made lord over things below him, and that he has a right and a free will with respect to them, that they should obey him and do as he wills and thinks. But our question is this: whether he has free will God-ward, that God should obey man and do what man wills, or whether God has not rather a free will with respect to man, that man should will and do what God wills….”

As the beasts are to us, we are to God.

At the end of the book, Luther answers Bill O’Reilly almost directly –

“I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want free will to be given to me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavor after salvation; not merely because in face of so many dangers and adversities and assaults of devils I could not stand my ground… but because even if there were no dangers, adversities, or devils, I should still be forced to labor with no guarantee of success….  If I lived and worked to all eternity, my conscience would never reach confortable certainty as to how much it must do to satisfy God. Whatever work I had done, there would still be a nagging doubt as to whether it pleased God, or whether he required something more.”

Adam’s (and Lucifer’s) sin was to think he could be like God and make his own decisions about good and evil, right and wrong, salvation and damnation.  Humans still think we can go out and find God of our own effort. That is what most religions believe. Luther knew we cannot, which is precisely why Christ came to us. And that is the essence of Christianity.

Posted by: gmscan | April 18, 2014

It is Finished

Last night at Maundy Thursday services, our pastor read from Isaiah (53:1-10)

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation,  who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?

And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

I can’t hear these words without also hearing Handel’s Messiah in my head. Handel intended his oratorio to be performed during Lent, not Advent, and it is far more appropriate for Easter than Christmas.

I have always especially loved the chorus, “All we like sheep,” dancing, bouncing, and carefree, followed by the soaring and mournful, “And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Long before I realized I was a Christian I would choke up when I heard this music.

But it is breathtaking how this prophecy was fulfilled at the cross – “he opened not his mouth,” “he was pierced for our transgressions,” “they made his grave… with a rich man…”

In this town, the YMCA closes for Good Friday and holds an early morning service. This morning, they read from John (10: 10-18)

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.

No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.  This charge I have received from my Father.

He did it. God’s prophets predicted it and Jesus fulfilled it. He laid down his life of his own accord to save his sheep from the wolves. It is done. It is finished.

Praise be to God.

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