Thursday, September 30, 2010

Health and Wealth Lite

By now it is more a social requirement than meaningful encouragement; we remind our friends who have lost jobs or family members that God has good and exciting plans for them. We like to quote Romans 8:28 and assume that it indicates that God is working for my good, that my good is material, and it is coming before I really feel any loss.

These are not the ways of the God of the Bible. In Genesis, God promises Abram, a 75 year old man, that he will father a great nation. It is another 25 years before Abram's wife bears a child. He sits by as Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, and then as he is jailed for a sexual assault he did not commit. He allows Satan to afflict Job with loss of property, family and health, and when Job questions his activity, he answers with an unbearable demolition of Job's authority to ask. He allows his own Son to suffer execution and then he commissions his most devout followers to martyrdom.

To be sure, God is good, and his plans are set in motion to redeem the world entire. But redemption is not necessarily for our present circumstances. We may suffer years of disease, unemployment, poverty, loneliness and laborious futility to no end that we ever understand. We cannot expect that God to actively provide for our wants, and we must remember that he does not always provide even for our gravest physical needs. Our joy is in God's presence and God's victory, and neither is yet totally fulfilled.

I have mostly lead an easy life. I have overcome great difficulties, but they have been tasks that I have chosen. And in my troubles, my true friends have not offered empty promises and optimism, they have sat quietly in prayer and in solidarity. I think that this should be our model of encouragement.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Everyone's Fault But Mine

The prevailing human explanations of the world typically have three main components: creation, fall and redemption. They attempt to answer the questions of how we got here and what the world was originally like, how that state was fouled up, and how that state, or perhaps a better one, might be attained. This structuring of worldview yields some interesting comparisons, and I think that one of the most interesting is between secular and religious views of the fall.

Let's consider three secular worldviews: Marxism, the Sanger-Kinsey sexual view and the new atheism. Marxism regards competitive capitalism as the cause of man's fall, and its replacement with cooperative socialism as its remedy. The Sanger-Kinsey view regards Christian sexual morality as the guilty party, and sexual liberation as the great human hope. The new atheists regard religion itself as the primary source of evil in the world. What these, and other secular worldviews have in common is that their proponents will admit no responsibility for the sorry state of the world. It is always some other ignorant and wicked forces who are to blame.

Now, as much as there are irreconcilable differences between the world's great religions, I think that they agree on this - all persons have a share in the fall. The primeval history of Genesis tells three stories in which humankind's attempts to make itself like gods bring the judgment of the true God upon them. While these stories place the blame with specific individuals, Christianity especially has emphasized the participation of all persons in sinning and thereby bringing about God's judgment. This sharing of blame extends even to the teachings of Buddha, who regarded human desire as the cause of suffering - Buddhism's fall.

This, in my view, explains much of the appeal of secular worldviews. It is no fun to suggest that I am a foremost cause of bad in the world. But what is even more interesting to me is the prevalence of a fall story, and of a persistence of global value judgments even in a worldview so thoroughly materialistic and supposedly so value-neutral as the new atheism. It is telling that Richard Dawkins can't simply keep his mouth shut and say that wars and suffering are the result of Darwinian competition and an indifferent universe. I cannot be sure, but this seems to suggest a strong religious impulse even among militant secularists.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Difference Fallacy

If you want to put yourself into a serious depressive state, read the comments section of any remotely controversial article on the internet. Doesn't matter if it's People Magazine or The New Yorker - the commenters are brazenly stupid. On Christian blogs and publication sites, you'll often come across shouting matches between thoughtless legalists and thoughtless libertines about whether or not a certain practice is appropriate for Christians. Eventually, the legalist plays what he thinks is the trump card - "But if we do this, then how are we any different from the rest of the world?" Subtext: And more importantly, how will I look different from the rest of the world?

Of course, Christians ought to live very differently from the rest of the world, seeking to walk each day in the presence of God, to live in gracious freedom from sin, and to work for the renewal of God's creation. But the mechanics of our lives are necessarily going to be very similar to those of other people, regardless of our beliefs. American atheists eat three meals a day, but there is no particular reason for American Christians to eat four. It isn't possible to determine that an isolated practice is sinful simply on the grounds that the world does it.

Now, I do think that most of our practices, even the mundane ones, should be infused with recognition of God's grace. We may eat same food as the unbeliever with thankfulness to God, but we eat with thankfulness to God. We speak the same language, but we speak truth. Our excretory activities, however, are probably identical. We can use the idea that we must be different from the world as incentive to evaluate how and what we do, but it does not by itself say anything about how to make that evaluation.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Christian Hedonism

It's only mid-September and already I've felt the first signs of the onset of winter. I relish this day every year, the first time I can really anticipate winter nights tucked away from the elements, book and drink in hand. I like pleasure. In a better world, there would be no need to say this, but Christianity has an unfortunate history of regarding pain as inherently virtuous, pleasure as probably evil. A better theology of creation regards pleasures as good gifts of God, pain as the unfortunate byproduct of sin, but a problem that will soon be overcome. My prescription for Christian hedonism:

-An attitude of thanksgiving: We recognize that everything that we enjoy is a manifestation of God's grace. We give thanks to God for what he has given us.

-A practice of moderation: We recognize that certain pleasures can become vices, and lead us to foolishness, laziness and neglect of our responsibilities, and so temper our indulgence. We abstain when we are not capable of moderation. We recognize that by statute and by God's command, there are restrictions about when it is right to enjoy some things.

-A willingness to work for enjoyment: We recognize that some pleasures, particularly aesthetic pleasures, require concentration and exertion to enjoy. We recognize that faculties of enjoyment are themselves gifts of God, and are most glorifying to him when fully developed. We concede that we must sacrifice easy pleasures for difficult ones, but we are hopeful that difficult pleasures are more enriching and satisfying than easy ones.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Nothing New in the Origin Debate

Stephen Hawking's new book "The Grand Design" is causing a fair stir among people who are unfamiliar with Hawking's earlier writings and the cosmological argument for the existence of God. A portion of the book is excerpted here. Frankly, its conclusions are only a small step from what he's been writing at least since A Brief History of Time - strong anthropic principle collapsing into the weak one, postulation of a multiverse that accounts for fine tuning, possibility of spontaneous creation - he's at least suggested all of it before. Hawking's earlier works often invoked the language of God and creation, but it always sounded to me like a very Spinozan God.

The argument itself is entirely question-begging. If there is indeed a physical law that predicts the possibility of spontaneous creation, then where did that law come from? Should it be regarded as an uncaused cause? Why is regarding it as eternal and uncaused more reasonable than placing a mindful creator in this role? These are the same questions that one should ask every time someone claims that a new variation on origin theory shows that God is redundant.

And one need only ask these questions if the theories that Hawking cites are correct, which is extremely uncertain. Hawking was, in his prime, a monster of a theoretician, who predicted the existence of several astronomical phenomena before any empirical evidence of their existence came to light. The trouble with the multiverse theory is that it doesn't seem to meet the basic scientific criterion of falsifiability - what evidence could hypothetically be produced that would show that the theory is incorrect? Moreover, are the theories that predict a multiverse uniquely capable of explaining other phenomena and physical laws? If not, then why choose these theories and carry the ontological baggage of the multiverse? Why should we think that the different components of the multiverse all have different laws if there is an overriding law for all of them that allows spontaneous creation?

Hawking probably addresses at least some of these latter questions in the book, though I'm fairly certain that we've already seen all the philosophy it contains. He's never been inclined to give more than a paragraph at a time to metaphysical considerations, and there's no reason to think that he's giving them any more thought now.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Banality of Sin

"The Good News doesn't make any sense until you know what the bad news is, and the bad news isn't that we have a few harmless peccadilloes and we screwed up on the way between high school and college or whatever—it's deeper than that. It's unrelenting." - Bill Mallonee

I have some pretty good weeks. I study the Bible several times. I pray nightly and thoroughly. I am kind to most of the people I meet. I avoid gossiping. I might even do something to help someone else. How in these weeks do we avoid self-righteousness? How do we continue to identify as sinners?

Even in my best weeks, I recognize that there is a part of me that is fundamentally opposed to the commands of the gospel. I see lust for glory, fame, wealth. I see opportunities for service wasted. I see anger and impatience. I see a part of me that wants to sin for the sheer sake of sinning.

Many Christians surpass the obvious vices. When we pray for forgiveness, we ask "For what?" Pride sets in, and with it a view that there are good people and there are bad people. The notion that we are responsible for crucifying Christ begins to seem absurd. We must learn to regard sin not as acts but as a state of rebellion that we cannot fully let go in this life.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Two Models of Seeker-Sensitivity

The question arises in every serious-minded congregation - how best to present the gospel to a culture whose view of the Christian faith is often hostile, often ignorant. I dub one common answer to this question "evangelical gradualism." The idea is that most people will respond poorly to straightforward evangelism, they must be coddled into the church. They must be made comfortable being in church building or being among Christians before they are ready to hear Christian teaching. Once they are comfortable in these settings, they are ready to here a light Christian message, probably one that is practical and therapeutic, one that addresses their very real problems, but without the controversial baggage of Christian belief. The hope is that the cumulative effect of spending time with friendly Christians and hearing good, moral messages with allusions to basic Christian teaching will provoke the potential convert's curiosity, leading them to learn about true Christian doctrine, and eventually, to make a profession of faith.

There are two basic problems with this approach. The first is that the gospel that visitors perceive will probably not be distinct or compelling. Someone who attends a string of church social events is likely to see church as a social club. Someone who hears a string of light, moralistic sermons will see the Christian faith as a means of getting one's life in good working order as defined by 21st Century America. The problem is not so much that these things are bad, but that they are available elsewhere. The church should not try to compete with the rest of the world along the lines of entertainment, sociability or the promise of self-help. It will never win. The second problem is that a diet of these sorts of socials and sermons tends to distort the views of believers, choking their own growth.

The second model of seeker-sensitivity recognizes that what the world lacks and desperately needs is truth and grace. It recognizes the urgency of communicating the gospel to people who may only step into a church once in their lives. It recognizes that most visitors will not be fluent in the language of the Christian church. It also recognizes that trying to scare the hell out of people is likelier to yield resentment than repentance. A service that follows this second model will be rich in Christian truth, but will strive to present that truth in a way that non-believers can easily understand, defining basic terminology, conversing with contrary views. It strives to avoid unnecessary offense but recognizes that the Christian message is inherently offensive. And it accepts that no matter how clearly the gospel is presented, many people will still reject it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Last Word on Hipster Christianity

I read Brett McCracken's Hipster Christianity this week and while it was certainly a worthwhile read, I have very little to say about it that I didn't say in earlier posts. I reaffirm my remark that my home church is dealing with completely different issues from what McCracken describes, and praise it for avoiding the ploys of the "Wannabe Hip Churches" that McCracken describes.

Dirty Words, Dirty Mouths

In one of the most famous and hilarious routines in American comedy, George Carlin claimed that there are such things as bad thoughts and such things as bad intentions, but no such things as bad words. Much of the humor in Carlin's routine lies in his dismantling of the hypocrisy of media censors who are happy to portray all sorts of vice, violence and horror so long as certain syllables do not come from the television speakers. His judgment of hypocrisy is correct, as are most judgments of hypocrisy. But I argue here that Carlin is wrong in his judgment that there are no bad words.

James is insistent upon the primacy of speech for the Christian. "If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless," he writes. So pure speech is important. In Ephesians, Paul prohibits "obscenity, foolish talk (and) coarse joking" among believers. So we now have some idea of what doesn't constitute pure speech. Now, it is extremely foolish to think that avoiding swear words is the extent of keeping a rein on one's tongue. We have all known horrid gossips, braggarts, liars, hypocrites and false teachers who carefully avoid uncouth words.

There is a sophomoric argument (one that I used to advocate) that says that yes, there is such a thing as sinful speech - it is of the kind just described. But a word is just an conglomeration of sounds arbitrary infused with meaning, arbitrarily designated by humans as foul, and so its utterance is not really wrong. The argument is obviously absurd; all words are collections of sounds arbitrarily given meaning by humans, and sentences are collections of words, and their meanings arise from arbitrary human rules of grammar and semantics. So, if the argument holds for words, it must hold for sentences too. But clearly, as most proponents of the argument would admit, there are certain sentences that it is wrong to utter, so there is no reason why it cannot also be wrong to utter certain words in certain contexts.

To spin the argument in a positive direction, we must agree with Paul that there is such thing as obscenity and foolish talk. Now, there are certain words that, because of meaning, phonetics, history and cultural judgment, jettison our statements and conversations into the realm of obscenity and foolish talk.* And so it is generally not appropriate to use these words.

I do believe that there are times that call for coarse conversation. There are times of extreme frustration, sadness and moral outrage that, in my opinion, call for extreme language. I had intended to include a list of examples of appropriate swearing, but that would be all that readers would remember from the post. Ask me my opinion of Joel Osteen some time.

Finally, as you may have guessed, I condemn myself as much as anyone with this post. My language is clean only in comparison to that of mainstream hip-hop. This is, however, a very easy issue to be very self-righteous about, and I think that many people who live and work among Christians don't realize how very easily and unconsciously bad language becomes a habit. Despite my foul mouth, my understanding of the issue has changed dramatically in past years, and my language is much cleaner than it once was and that, I think, is a very big step.

*This is true whether or not those in our company are offended by foul language. It coarsens conversation in any company - that's why bad language holds such fascination even in places where everyone uses it.