Toward an Evangelical Mind

Thoughts, opinions, and discussions from a group of book-ish friends. (Note: Our posts tend both to be lengthy and infrequent, bearing a greater similarity to essays than anything else. Because of this, we frequently check and reply to comments on past entries, and we invite you to not only join in on new discussions, but to reply to past thoughts. Your comments will be seen and appreciated.)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Theodicy and Suffering, Observations of an Exhausted Physician.

I sit here in the aftermath of one of the hardest service months that I have experienced. Certainly, the rigors of providing ICU care play their role in this tiredness, but even more than that, my emotions have been drained. During my time, two children have died, their bodies diseased beyond the ability of medicine to correct. We tried every drug and machine that we thought would work, pulling out all of the stops to take control of the declining physiology before us. And in the end, we said that we did all we could, and comforted the grieving families through the process of letting go of a loved one. It is never easy, this work. For to be truly present to another human being facing the ultimate things of life is only possible in the end if you feel it as well. And in pondering this, I realized ( or re-realized actually) some important truths about God's way in this world.

Many would see these events as rime examples of the ruthless indifference of our universe. "There is no God," they say, "for how could God allow such suffering in those He claims to love. If He were truly real, then He would split the sky in anger, reacing into the world to alter these painful realities." But all to often the Christian does not understand the sentiment behind these thoughts. Seeing instead a threat to their worldview, great codices of abstract though spring up to logically defend the sovereignty of God in the face of this evil. Great treatises written on the sinfulness of man and its effectsd on the world, describing how the love of God could possibly coexist with the caprice of nature. Now don't get me wrong; these works are important, and provide a solid, logical foundation for much of what we believe. But as I sit and read works of this nature, seing them if just for a fleeting instant in the light of what these families have experieced, I notice that they are not so much incorrect as off the point. For in the end, those suffering do not wish for logic, but comfort; not information, but meaning. And all too often in the mids of this, we believers forget the crucial centerpiece of our faith, the Cross itself.

Too often we forget that most of the logical structures that past generations used in defense of these positions originated not with Christ, but with Plato, Socrates, and the Greeks. Again, I am a logician by nature as well, and truth is truth, no matter who speaks it. But the abstract reasonings and categories that we use so dispassionately in our defense of the truth oftentimes lose sight of what The Truth did. Hebrews tell us that our High Priest is not untouched by our infirmities, and in Phillipians, we learn that Christ, being God, dod not see Godhood as something to be held onto, but rather suffered death for us. In this trugh, the Infinite God who became man and died for our sins and sufferings, we see the truth. God is not in heaven as we suffer, benignly looking down on our struggles. No, he is there with us. His hands, pierced with iron spikes have felt the weight of a dying universe. His heart of love, riven through with a cold spearpoint, was broken for the suffering we experiece and the suffering we cause,. And tehre, in the dark hours during which the God-Man cried out to his Father, the festering sea of a wolrd's hatred, brutality, and victimhood was taken into the heart of the Godhead itself. There to be lost in the greater ocean of His unfailing love.

And in the end, it is us who live after the resurrection, after the ascention of the Son of Man to the right hand of the Father, who remain on earth to carry this message. We have been called the Body of Christ, and if this is so, then it is our hands that remain to be pierced, our hearts that now stand to be broken by the darkness of this world. If our Master, our Head, our Lord, was called to give everything for our salvation, who are we to do less? In the end, the answer to the great question of Theodicy is neither syllogism nor argument, it is the life of a member of His body, a life willing to take up its cross and pour out itself completely so that others might live. It is a life of sacrifice, lived in imitation of its master.

In the end, I may never know if I was able to do this for those grieving families, but I know that I tried. And in the future, when I again am called to stand at the edge of death with those I have been called to serve and they ask "Where is God in this?," I pray that I may answer them in faith and truth, "He is here, and His heart breaks as does your own."

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Time and Timelessness

As I read over the past several posts of our newly rescuscitated blogging effort, I was struck by the effect that one's view of the relationship between God and Time has on discussions of both creation and God's ongoing providence. Specifically, several comments in the last post related the possibility that the Universe was created with some degree (whether lesser or greater) of "Free will", able to develop and change in ways that the creator may not have foreseen. In short, God is (or at least has enabled himself to be) affected by time. It is a view that has grown in popularity, not least because it seems well supported by such OT passages as that where Moses succeeds in "changing God's Mind" regarding the His judgement on the children of Israel becasue of the golden calf incident. It also neatly resolves some longstanding questions regarding God's foreknowledge and free will, as well as emphasizing God's historical, real interaction with us, made complete in the person of Christ.

On the other side of the discussion, however stands a long and venerable traditions of thinkers, Christian and Pagan alike, stretching from Plato and Socrated, through Augustine and the Medieval Scholastics. In these writings God is logically and scripturally seen as timeless, above the mutability and changeability of the world. "Thou Changeth Not" says the hymn. Even the words of Paul contribute to this, "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever." From this understanding we gain the knowledge of God's sovereignty, His utter control and authority over all creation, past, present and future. In it's own way, it also resolves the foreknowledge and free will debate, this time casting on the side of forekonwledge.

This much many have already discussed, indeed for centuries, and only a man of greater chutzpah than myself could suggest that resolution could be accomplished in the next paragraphs. What I would like to do, however, is suggest that these debates may have less to do with God Himself and more to do with the nature of time. I will then suggest a third path, hoprefully to be followed by spirited discussion.

Philosophically (ie, at least according to Dr. William Lane Craig) there two ways of conceiving time, a tensed and a tenseless version. He calls these A time and B time. To make a long explanation short, A time theories postulate that the present is all that there is. In this model, the past does not physically exist, nor does the future, but only a series of present events. There are no time machines in this view, nor can their be, for there is nowhere for them to go. Time, therefore, is defined as a measure of change, what has changed no longer exists, what will be changed into has not yet occurred.

B Theory, on the other hand, regards time as a tenseless whole, a massive block of temporal duration in which all events exists like the notes on a musical score. In this view, the present is the thin slice of time in which we happen to be living, but aside from this inconvenient (albeit somewhat massive) fact, present, past, and future enjoy a peaceful coexistence. Change in this view is not in fact real, but merely apparent, an outworking of what always would have been into what now is.

Considering these it should take no vast leap of thought to discern which views of God are compatible with which views of time. But now I must ask the question, why should out view of God depend on our view of time? Should not, rather, our view of time revolve around our view of God? To this, the witty reader might reply. "Fine, so what does that look like. What do we know regarding God that could key us to the origin of time." To answer that, I refer to the entire pattern of revelation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son and the Coming of the Spirit at the Father's behest. In short, I would refer us to the Trinity.

In many ways the Greek fathers exceeded the western church in their comprehension of the Trinity. While latin scholars debated philosophic terminology in an effort to categorize the Trinity's timeless eternity, the Greek scholars spoke of that marvelous doctrine in terms of Perichoresis. Perichoresis, meaning the endless dance of Love that the Father, Son and Spirit shared in perfect harmony and utter self-giving before the worlds were framed. In short, the Greek Fathers clearly saw that God as Triune meant God as Love (Not to completely knock the latins, Augustine knew this too). What does that mean to us? It means that relationship itself is a fundamental part (if not the fundamental part) of the identity of God. I've argued this before, so I will not elaborate at present.

Fine, so what does this have to do with time. Consider this: current physics appreciates the concepts of time and space as primarily relational. I'll explain. Imagine an electron sitting along in a dark void, with no other matter present, and then ask yourself the question, do time and space exist in that context. At first you might say yes, of course. But think about it. What can the electron interact with? What can change it? (there are no other particles) Where can it go? (because of the lack of particles, any movement it makes will be into an area identical to the one it left, and so it cannot even be said to have moved in any meaningful way.) In short, for time and space to even have meaning, there needs to be at least two things present. (You may here try to argue that you can indeed picture the eelctron moving and changing, but in fact, you can only do this by projecting yourself next to the electron and observing it, thereby creating the two things necessary by accident) But we as Christians, (as opposed to mere monotheists) say more than this when we recite the creed, because we, in fact are affirming that not one, not two, but three persons existed in a perfect union of being (perichoresis) before creation.

As I close this rambling, I wish merely to suggest the corollary to all I have said. If God is a Trinity, then time and space emerge as logically necessary outworkings of the love relationship between them. That is not to say that this space and time is the same as the one that we live in. No, indeed, for our world is sinful and broken, a far cry from the perfection of that dance. But it does suggest that a completely contained Timefulness is a secondary, but necessary, characteristic of who God has revealed himself to be. And it does hint at a possible relation between the two times, Our fallen, fractured world floating as a bubble in the great sea of His present; real, free to move where it will (good or bad), yet always and forever completely surrounded by the greater time of which it is shadow and ectype.

This is not a God who is bound by time, unable to see past the cusp of present reality, to affect a future from which he is absent, as an extreme A theorist might say. Nor is this a God who build a temporal universe of such crystalline rigidity that nothing can be other than it will and all freedom is an illusion. No, this is a God who contains within himself a perfect time and space, filled with the free love of the Father, Son and Spirit. It is a God who build, out of the overflow of that love, a contingent universe of free, though completely temporally encompassed, creatures that he desired to draw into that more perfect time that is Heaven for it is Himself. It is a God who, when that world went so horribly wrong, its very relational nature turned in rebellion against him, came down into it to restore it by his own act of utter self-sacrifice. And it is a World that, in the end, when all kingdom and dominion and authority have been given to Him, will consummate into the entrance into the eternal Dance of the Triune that is at once perfect rest and perfect activity, where we will know even as we are known, and where freedom and predestiny will finally be seen for what they truly are, the same thing.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Is God in a hurry?

It goes without saying that the great debate of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries between science and faith in our culture has centered around the question of origins.

The origin accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures, which were embraced and adopted by the early Christians spoke of a powerful divine being who had called the cosmos to being out of chaos. The story speaks of His Spirit first brooding over the vast expanse of waste, and the the spark of divine power springs forth, calling forth his intention. Birds, plans, animals, all leap at His voice, created good.

The story is essentially recast in the next chapter. Here God gets his hands dirty, so to speak, the action is not focused on his voice, but on his work. he "fashions" man from the ground, breathes live, "plants" a garden.

The distinctive image is of an active, working, creative God, planning and executing His desire.

Wrightly, or wrongly, when our imaginations visualize the story, what springs to mind is something very different from the slow creation we see around us. We imagine giant forests pushing themsevles up in the span of an hour, fish suddenly teeming in the sea at the crackle of a word, popping from nothing...ex nihilo. It comes as no surprise, therefore that when science in the 19th century began to describe a different process of the development of life...well there was a bit of tension.

In the light or retrospection, however, it is fitting to ask ourselves - why do we bristle at a "slow" creation?

How could God, omnipotent, powerful, imaginative be content to sit and wait for random mutations to turn an amoeba into a man? Even if he was guiding the mutations himself, why couldn't He have just created man from the beginning just as He wanted? (Of course, this is the same brand of argument that tackles the question of evil by saying, "Well if God thinks evil is so evil, why doesn't he just get rid of it?")
I think it forgets several important points
1) There is a difference between growing vegetables yourself, and going to the store and picking up veggies mass grown for you. The process of growing, caring, nuturing the food contributes to its flavor in ways that can't be expressed. However, there is a certain satisfaction to "doing it yourself" that I believe is universal. Just because God COULD have created man in one "POOF" or "AB-RA! CADA-BRA!" does not mean that he necessarily would have wanted to. In fact I think our intuition tells us the oposite.

2) We tend to imagine God as a very stuffy know-it-all. Simply because God has the potential to know anything does not mean that he has to CHOOSE to know everything. Part of the act of creation was self-limiting - once he made the universe, He had made a decision - the universe WAS that way, by His choice, and by definition he had chosen the THAT option over any another. Similarly, we imagine that he necessarily planned every minute detail over creation, down to the shade of brown of the grass in my lawn on Friday, October 26th of the hyear 2018. Quite frankly, that seems a bit silly to me.

God can be soverign and omnipotent, and still give himself the opportunity to be surpised. Personally, I can't think of a more interesting thing to do with a universe than to set up a system by which an intricate structure of genes and proteins would self adapt and simultaneously solve the enormously complex problem of survival a billion different ways over billions of years. Put another way, when God looks at a Duck-billed Platypus, I think He has a good laugh, not because he planned it as a joke for humans, but because it's a beautifully ridiculous miracle, which he intended, but did not necessarily "design". I believe God left room for creation to surprise Him.

Ah, there's the rub. When we speak of "Intelligent Design", what comes to mind but God the great architect with blueprints, and a compass, and a measuring rod. Now, that's not to say that design wasn't involved in the universe, but the universe itself seems to testify to a degree of artistic interpretive freedom given back to the universe as a gift. I think there were indeed layers of the universe where God "measured twice and cut once", but I also beleive there were entire realms where he was more like Jackson Pollack, casting the paint upon the canvas in wild smatterings of color, and then stepped back to say..."Ah...It is good!"

3) To use software development terms, we too quickly mesh together the implementation phase and the instantiation phase of the universe. When I design a software program it does not execute during the time when I am writing the code. Put another way, in the lifetime of the program time does not go by until I command the program to RUN. However, that does not happen until the program is complete. Only when all of the code has been written beginning to end, does the first line of the program spring into "life".

J.R.R. Tolkein captures this separation of implementation and execution well in the Silmarillion. There, Illuvatar first gives the Ainur the music of his creation which they sing into being. During this singing, the creation is corrupted, in its deepest levels by the discord of Melkior. Illuvatar works to subvert the dark song of Melkior with a new strain, and when the song has been completed the Ainur are surprised to realize that Illuvatar was merely showing to him his intentions for the world. It still lay fallow and void. The execution of the plan was yet to take place though the design and marring was fully formed.

Incidentally, this nicely illustrates a way in which the marring of the creation could have prefigured even the Big Bang itself. It also changes the trajectory of our usual interpretation of Genesis, for here man is not necessarily viewed as arriving in a perfect world which he is responsible for marring. It rather points to God's intention that man, made in his image, will emerge as the hope for undoing the disaster done to world. He will be given the power to understand the world, and restore it. God intervenes, plants a garden, and puts the man in it, with the summons to fill the world, subdue it, take care of it, put it back to rights. Of course, in this scenario, evil invades Eden, man rebels, and joins forces with the evil already rampant in the world, until the second Adam comes and finally does what the first Adam was meant to do - set loose the project of setting the worlds to rights.

To make a further comment on this scheme, theologically it fits nicely into Tolkeins worldview. Illuvatar deigns not to destry the world planned through the music, despite it's marring, but to work to subvert the effects of the evil, and in the end glorify himself through the greater good that results through defeating the evil. In this scenario of evolving life on Earth, the darkness of "nature, red in tooth and claw" is countered by the emergence of rational man with a capacity to seek God from the bloody eons of death struggle for survival. When man himself rejects God and descends into pride, selfishness and fratricide, God again overcomes the evil by subversive action from the inside (the Incarnatin) rather than destroying his creation outright from the outside.

All of that is highly speculative, but it points to a proposition, that when we make quick assumptions about what timeline God lives in, or what the spiritual realm actually looks at, we are stepping beyond our ken. Even taking illustrations from our own fledgling attempts to create universes through fiction and software, we can at least understand the complexities involved with the interaction of creator and creation. Fundamentally, there is a barrier separating the two that can only be crossed by the creator. Hamlet can know nothing of Shakespeare. Mario can know nothing of Miyamoto unless the author and designer write themselves into their own stories. Which of course is exactly what Christians claim happened 2,000 years ago....

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Evolution, A Much Misunderstood Word.

Hello, it's certainly been quite some time before we last posted. Our apologies, as we both had numerous accelerating issues in our personal lives (i.e. Children) that rightly demanded out time and attention. But now, it is our hope that we will be able to get rolling again, and that more thoughtful and weighy posts will be forthcoming.

There has, over the past several years, been no end of disputed between those who believe in the special creation of the world (particularly those who would locate it temporally at around 4000-6000 BC), and those who believe that the world was formed over billions of years in a continuous process that many call evolution. While, as always, time and space constrain what I am able to speak of here, my goal as a scientist, a physician, and an evangelical Christian, is to clarify exactly what evolution can and cannot mean. This is not trivial, for whenever I discuss this issue with other believers, I am continually struck with the great variety of meaning that the word can contain. This is made even more an issue by the fact that some of those meaning are incompatible with Christian Belief, indeed with Theism in general, but the bulk are not.

That last sentence was a fairly big statement, and I'm sure there is a bevy of individuals out there who would accuse me of heresy. Let me say first then that as I go about defining this term, I am taking as my statement of faith regarding origins the first sentences of the Nicene Creed. I use this because i believe that the creed is Biblical, accurate, and a touchstone for Christians of all denominations.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

This is what I intend to use as the basic core belief of the Christian faith regarding creation. Of course one can speak of compatibility with the Genesis text, but I do not have time to address this today (I may later) Suffice it to say that, as far as I am concerned, there are many valid interpretations of what Genesis 1 is intending to convey (Day-Age, Young Earth, Framework hypothesis, Days or Proclamation, etc). But most of us are familiar with at least some of these. Where the unfamiliarity lies in the evangelical worls is with what evolution really means.

In fact, evolution means many different things to many different people. It can mean the process known as Microevolution, whereby species and populations of animals alter there genetic makeup over time as a response to a changing environment. Most everyone believes this, Christian and Non-Christian alike, and so I will not address it today. This is not under dispute. We now get into more murky territory, however.

The next definition I would propose is the far extreme, the concept that man, the animals, indeed the cosmos itself, developed from simple origins by a process of goal-less natural selection operating on essentially random materials. This is the Darwinian thesis taken to an incredible extreme, and is, in fact what most creationists refer to when they speak of evolution.

But consider that there may be some intermediates between these two. Consider that this extreme case may infact be a confusion between a process (continuous development of great complexity from simple origins) with a mechanism (Darwinian selection). Consider as well that the process itself is not in conflict with the first sentences of the Nicene creed. After all, how do we believe that the universe operates today. Do we, as Christian Theists, truly buy the idea that natural law is a separate entity operating above and beyond the universe, regulating it in clocklike fashion, and that all else is meaningless chaos unless God specifically steps in with a miracle? That kind of God is compatible with the deist position, the disinterested watchmaker, or perhaps even with the Gnostics, who divorced matter and spirit to the point where GOd was loath to touch the physical world, but that kind of God is not Christian.

No, our God is one whom, in the words of Lewis, "Likes matter because He invented it." He is the God who we read cares for each individual sparrow if it falls. He is a God who is at once trancendent and other, but also immanent, lovingly shaping each aspect of His world so that all is done in accordance with his plans. This can even be seen in the effects of human free will and sin, for does not the New Testament say that "All things work together for good to them that love God."

It seems to me that those that vigorously defend special creation (as opposed to creation in general) are threatened by the concept of a God who does not accomplish his greatest works by discontinuous miracle. But this threat is, in the end, for a God who is intimately involved with the continuing story of each separate part of his creation, giving it meaning and guiding it where he wishes it to be, is a far more sovereign and mighty God than one who sets up the universe at the beginning and then lets it go until a further discontinuous event is required to add some new component. I am not in this for a moment suggesting that creation is not a miracle, but I am saying that that miracle need not manifest itself as a discontinuity in nature to make it miraculous. Consider even the parting of the red sea, which Exodus says was accomplished by a mighty wind. The outcome was both miraculous and meaningful, but natural agency was used and there is no implied discontinuity.

That was a fairly long diatribe to make what is, in the end, a simple point. It is not evolution that is anti-christian, but the mechanism of evolution. With due regards to all Christian darwinists out there, I will go on record as saying that it is the darwininan mechanism in particular, which elevates combat, competition, and selfishness to the level of prime creative forces, which do offer opposition to a Christian worldview. The common descent of species, the age of the universe, the development (from a natural view) of complexity from simpleness do not, precisely because the Christian God is not limited to moments of discontinuity to do his work, but instead infuses all of the created order with His purpose as He endeavors to bring all things, even those that war against him in sinful pride, into submission to Christ.

Why is this important? Beause for too long discontinuous creationism has been used as a litmus test of Biblical Christianity. Remember this, "That if you will confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." That, and not interpretations of Genesis, is what unites us in the One Body.

Perhaps I'll get a chance to write more regarding Genesis later.


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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Alive and kicking...

The scandal of "Toward an Evangelical Mind" is there are no posts on "Toward an Evangelical Mind"... we're working on it actually, and we are planning to shake off the old blogging cobwebs and hopefully return to a sense of regularity with posting in the very near future.

Brand new parenthood will do that to you I guess!

At any rate, apologies for the long delay - why don't we call it a sabbatical?

Good stuff (we hope) coming soon.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

War Of Words

With the subways and buses on strike for the last three days, the sidewalks and streets have been unusually crowded here in New York. What normally took 20 minutes by subway, took over an hour and half by foot, in the cold. With so many people in so much of a rush the week before Christmas, words flew like arrows and were basically people horns.

People horns in the crowded street. Angry words between a husband a wife, father and daughter, brother and sister… people at work. Beyond this, and even louder- deafening silence. Words and their absence can and do either hurt or heal, promote or steal from God’s glory.

Below is a quote from Paul Tripp’s book, War of Words:

“What moves and motivates everything we do [and say] is not a submission to God’s will and a burning desire for his glory, but our own set of personal desires and dreams. We are excited about the king because we see Him as the most efficient delivery system for those dreams. You can tell what really excites us when we fall into discouragement…”

In this book, Tripp discusses how our words are a reflection of our hearts. In Galations 5:13-18, we see that there is a war for our hearts:
13You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
Based on this he surmises that winning the war involves recognizing the destructive power of words. It means exporing our freedom in Christ, saying no to the sinful nature, speaking to serve others in love, speaking in step with the spirit (ie. speaking in a way that reflects His work in me and encourages his work in you), and speaking with a goal to restore (ie. having a restoration agenda shape our relationships, see Gal.6:1-12)

We fail to win the war and don’t speak in gentleness and humility because we forget who we are and our dependence on His grace. Tripp reasons that our words always express the worship of something or someone. Through this book, light on my communication in that great caldron of all spirits- marriage, has been cast. The coldness and apathy of my heart (whose default is to shrivel in to a selfish clod of ‘me’) is revealed through an observation of it’s words, or the lack thereof.

In fighting the war of words, the battle in my heart has revealed to me it’s loyalty. When I meditate on why I love God, I see the shallowness therein. Do I follow him because of what he can do for me? If so, do I really even love Him? Would I be content to just be in His presence for eternity? This Christmas season, on the crowded streets, at work, in cramped stores, and in my young marriage, the war will continue. What a privilege it is to fight to glorify Him in my heart and enjoy Him forever.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Symbol and Reality

Recently, out church has begun a study of Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline. For those of you out there who have never read it, it is a book that deserves every ounce of the praise that has been heaped upon it over the years. Having read very few of Foster's other books, this study immediately inspired me to purchase another, simply titled Prayer, which is every bit as good as the other. Amidst the wealth of insights provided by these works, one single point seems to jump out at me time and time again, an insight into one of the prime downfalls of my spiritual life. It is this: Often I spend too much time getting to know things about God rather than actually getting to know Him. I write this in the belief that I am not alone in this failing.

By nature, I am a man of words and thoughts. I enjoy few things more than a good idea properly defenced, and take an almost visceral pleasure in friendly discourse and reasoned debate especially as it applies to Theology and Scripture. "What's wrong with that?" you might ask, and the obvious answer is nothing. It is good to care about the nature of God, the Universe and Mankind. It is good to discuss spiritual things in an intellectually rigorous fashion. And yet there is a danger here, for it is far too easy to stop at the level of the discussion itself, and to confuse the concept with the reality.

As we humans think, we construct words to serve as pictures for what we are discussing. The word "bread" represents a oblong chunk of baked wheat and yeast. The word "chicken" represents a common barnyard fowl used as food. This becomes even more necessary in the sciences, for here many of the realities are so small or so far away that direct experiential knowledge is impossible. After all, who is able to see a "quark," or "neutrino", who is able to look up from beneath the rings of Saturn or swim in the fiery surface of the Sun? For these, the symbol itself may be the closest we can draw to the reality. When we reach the realm of Theology, however, this progression quickly becomes dangerous, for as the hymn says God is "Immortal," and "Invisible," and this invisibility can induce us to unconsiously place him in the same category as subatomic particles. We reason that because his attributes make him unperceivable by our own efforts, then the best we can do is discuss him in the symbolic abstract. This is a lie.

Our Creator is not an inanimate thing, nor a mere concept; He is a person. (Three Persons in One Being to be precise) Even more than this, he wants to communicate with and relate to us. In the words of Francis Sheaffer, "He is there and He is not silent." Beyond all of our symbols is a Reality that wishes us to be filled with himself in a present commmunion, and all of our discussions about God, all of our long treatises on the Incarnation and the Trinity avail us nothing if they do not assist us, or pave the way for others, to enter this present experiential relationship of intimate communion. It is this truth that Foster's works have reimpressed on me, for in the realm of experiential Christianity, he stands as a giant in the faith.

It is easy to fall back. It is easy to leave that place of divine presence and power and settle again for the concepts we have made to speak of Him. It is easy, in short, to "have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof." And yet the results are worth the effort. What Physicist would not give anything to be able to directly perceive the subatomic world he has so long studied? What astronomer would not sell all her goods to stand for one hour on an alien world, basking in the light of a star that until then she has only seen as a faint dot of light? These may be impossible wishes for the scientists, but the Christian is in a different position. He has been invited to taste and see the Divine Subject of his studies, invited to a real mystical communion with the life of the Trinity that he has so painstakingly defined. In the end, this is why we were created, this is what our life is for and about, yet so often we stand in our own way.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Unquiet Grave of Metaphysics: Reading the Bible for the Love of God

Reading the Bible for the Love of God is not a book one might immediately associate with philosophic controversy. Indeed, it seems more the title that one would give to a devotional or short study guide. But that is exactly what it is not. Another thing it is not is a book that I would recommend.

The theme of the book seems inocuous enough; that it is not adequate to treat the Bible as the "Words of God", rather it should be treated as the "Word of God." This may seem a confusing statement, and trust me, it definitely gets more confusing, but initially I interpreted it as an attempt to guide us away from a "bibliolatry", where the individual words and statements of scripture are worshipped rather than the God who inspired it. To state it simply, if the Bible is a window on the mind of God, Bibliolatry focuses on the window to the exclusion of the light on the other side. Another name for it is legalism. If the book left it here, it would have functioned as a needed corrective, and all would be well. But this is not the case.

To illustrate, I will take as an example the story of Adam and Eve. The book initially discussed how we should be reading this story as God's message to us, talking about how we each are an Adam or an Eve, and of how his account mirrors the manner in which we each fall into sin. So far, so good. But the book takes a definite turn for the worse, for the author then proceeds to state that because of this application, it is therefore unnecessary to deal with the actual accound. According to him, if we wish to view it as complete myth, derived from Babylonian sources with only its moral structures altered, it is irrelevant to the purpose of the Bible. This is where his understanding of the Bible as the "Word" rather than "Words" of God comes in, for if treating it as the Words of God means ascribing some factual content to it's narrative, treating it as the Word of God means "what does it mean to me." Don't get me wrong. The message that the Bible speaks to each one of us individually is vital. But to reason from this to the irrelevance of its factual contents seems more than a little hasty. In fact, it seems a move based more on the prevailing spirit of the age rather than any logical sequence. I refer, of course, to the spirit of Postmodernism

Philosophers (at least current philosophers) generally divide human thought into three periods that correspond to how Truth is understood. In the Premodern period, both physics (the study of the natural world) and metaphysics (the study of the that which is above nature) were given footing. It seemed self-evident then that a heirarchical supernatural order must lie behind nature. During this time, Theology was regarded as the king of the sciences, for how could nature be understood unless the invisible reality on which it depended were understood as well. But then came the Enlightenment, and as it swept through Europe a new dream for mankind was established, the dream of a completely rational (read physical) explanation for everything. Thus, with the dethronement and death of metaphysics was the Modern age born.

The modernist experiment was a huge success in many ways, leading to great advances in science, technology, and medicine. But scientists have long known that the claims of modernism cannot in the end be entirely correct, for ever since Einstein replaced Newton, ever since quantum physics replaced determinism, the fact that the physical universe is not as explicable on its own terms as we wanted it to be has become increasingly, if grudginly accepted. Even at the popular level there is a sense that knowing that the How of things as revealed by Modernism cannot replace the desire to know Why. It was thus that the Postmodern era was born.

The Postmodern era is an era of confusion. It is an era where irrationality is accepted as the underlying state of things, an era where each man and woman, if he or she would find meaning in a meaningless cosmos, must create that meaning for themselves. To the postmodern, there is no ultimate truth. Physics has been seen to be ultimately incomplete, and metaphysics is long dead, therefore the universe is accepted to be in a state of purposeless flux in which rationality is in the mind of the beholder. That was a rather long diatribe to get to my point, but necessary if the true problem with this book is to be appreciated, for Reading the Bible for the Love of God takes this confusion for granted. Based on this as an underlying assumption, it offers the Bible as a means to find that personal Why and then leaves it there, ignoring the fact that the Bible claims to be so much more than that.

Indeed, the Bible claims to be more than just a story, it claims to be THE story. It is the story of the Triune God, the Uncreated One who stands beyond all time and space. It is the story of the Universe, the handiwork of that magnificent being. it is the story of humanity written large, our fall into darkness and our failed attempts to climb out of the pit on our own. It is the story of Christ the Son and his appalling act of sacrifice by the hands of his creatures, bearing of the darkness that was ours and rising again in glory. Yes, the Bible is a window not to be worshipped in its own right, but the One whose face shines through that clear pane is as real, or perhaps moreso, than the sun on a cloudless day. It his He who wrote the grand story of our universe, not us.

Ultimately, Reading the Bible for the Love of God is a victim of its desire to be relevant. It attempts to be meaningful to the postmodern individual, but ultimately misses everything else in the process. Such is often the result when one tries to meld the zeitgeist with that which avowedly stands against it. The simple fact is that the reports of the death of metaphysics were grossly exaggerated, and like that of Another, its tomb also stands empty.

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Identity Crisis

Last week I gave a talk at the Graduate Christian Fellowship group that my wife and I attend. The topic was the challenge to Christianity that “The DaVinci Code” presents. Now the sticky thing with “The Da Vinci Code” is not its egregious historical fallacies. Those can and have been proven by many authors, Christian, and secular historian alike, to be at best extremely sloppy historical reconstructions, and at worst made up gibberish.

The pull of the book is not in its historical details but in its redefinition of Christianity, and what it purports to offer in its place – a self focused inner divinity movement. The hijacking of ancient Gnosticism and the fusing of it with modern relativism and neo paganism is a scratch that fits our cultural itch perfectly. The ascetic Gnostics, consumed as they were with metaphysical hierarchies of aeons and demiurges, seem to bear little resemblance to the neo-Gnosticism running rampant in our culture. Namely the Gnostics cared a great deal about what you believed, in fact, correct belief was the way to true spiritual liberation – only by appropriating and understanding the right mystery could you find life.

The modern rage is very different. As Elaine Pagels aptly puts it in her book “Beyond Belief”, it is not about what you hold to be intellectually true, but what you experience. The experience of God, detached from creed, is what drives the neo-Gnostic movement (though calling it a movement seems a little silly since movements tend to be defined by their creed and their leaders, while this mode of thought denies both and appeals to experience.)

I think the draw of neo-Gnosticism for the modern seeker has nothing to do with an authentic search for the real Gnostics. Rather, I think it finds in Gnosticism a movement (which in the ancient context it certainly was a movement with leaders and creeds) that Christianity soundly rejected, and therefore seems appealing to a culture which desires to throw off the shackles of Christianity. But only some shackles. Neo Gnosticism thought retains vestiges, subversions of the most appealing Christian principles. The canonical New Testament locates our worth by the sacrifice of Christ, the price by which we were redeemed, and the status conferred upon us as the new Covenant people of God. Modern neo-Gnostic thought finds our worth located on the inside, something we carry with us, but are unaware of until we find it. Our worth is in our identity, with us all along until we realize it.

Of course, this kind of thinking makes the Christian focus on “sins” and “repentance” all the more unbearable to modern sensibilities. After all if our default setting is “valuable”, then the only barrier to realizing that worth in our failure to comprehend it, our failure to get in touch with that inner nature buried inside of us. The only sin is to constrain ourselves from full self expression. And thus the spirit of the old Gnostic thought comes to life – while they old Gnostics would have said, “The world is evil, but secret wisdom can set you free”, the new Gnostics will say, “You are good, and by experiencing your own goodness you will be free.”

Subtle, appealing to a consumer culture eager for validation, for quick fixes, for self-justification, it is an anti-Gospel if there ever was one. The yearning for self knowledge is a common one, and yet, when elevated to the status of the primary search, it becomes the most dangerous idol ever erected. After all, the story of Genesis recounts a tree in the garden, a tree of knowledge from which, after eating you can become like a god. If there were ever a Gnostic story in the Bible that would be it. And yet, the agony of death lies in its fruit. To solely search for identity within is the old search, the search of death, by which we become joined in futility with our ancestors Adam and Eve.

It is not that the Gospels deny a desire for self knowledge – they just point it in a radically different direction. The one who saves his life, who “finds” it will lose it. The one who loses his life with find it. Take up your cross and follow. Die to self, to the futile self-search. Die to your self expression, to your actualization. Die to anything that seeks to control you and to find you. Die to your desire to find your own agenda. Lay down your arms, lay down your anxieties, lay down your desire for power, lay down your desire to put your life in “order”. Follow me. Follow me. Follow me. The call runs throughout the pages of the gospel, echoing deeper and deeper as the path grows steeper. When we throw open the door to the one who knocks, and the eternal light shines into the dusty chambers of our souls, we find not self-validation of our goodness, but reason for self-abasement. Like the apostle Paul all we counted to our credit truly seems rubbish, and we cry like Peter in the boat, “Away from me Lord, for I am a sinner.” It is not a statement of how well we have been following arbitrary rule which cramp our style. It is a recognition of our state, of our dirty hands, specked with murderous spots that do not come clean even with the deepest scrubbing. It is the recognition of frailty, or weakness, of loneliness, of deep need that cannot be sated by whistling in the dark, or telling stories about how deep down we are special. For in heart of hearts, we know that we are not.

It is a hard message for this generation. For any generation. And yet, in the ruined wrecks of our lives, there is one who would enter that dusty room, and eat, even as the room is unveiled for the wreck that it is. And as he breaks our moldy break, and eats it with us, we realize that from him the light was emanating all along. And we recognize him, for he still eats with sinners today as in time gone by. And he calls the things that are not, as though they are.

Indeed there is light inside, and that light is the life of men. Yet it must be invited in. Having believed the lies of the serpent along with Adam, we are desperate to believe that the capacity for the light is within ourselves, and yet, if that light inside is darkness, how great is the darkness. We do have an identity – we are children of God. It is an identity that all the soul searching of a lifetime cannot truly fathom, till we exclaim how high and wide are the depths of the love that has called us its own, and made us its own.
The message of the Gospel is a scandal – a scandal that resonates most strongly in the places where it is most familiar. But the validation our culture craves so much cannot be bought by merely following rules, and it cannot be bought by throwing off rules and searching within. It can only be found by coming to our sense, and seeing that it would be better to be a servant in our master’s house than to continue to grouse among the pods for those the pigs have not spoiled. And so we return, humble, meek, broken by life, and in the midst of the tears pouring down our face, we can dimly make out the image of a figure running towards us with arms outstretched…

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Goodness of God, Righteousness as Relationship.

When I was a boy, my parents hung a simple scripture plaque on the basement wall over my childhood bookshelf. It was a simple black background with two scriptural phrases in white italics. The first was "God is Love," but just below that ran the quote "God is Light." Quite simple in design, this plaque nevertheless uniquely conveyed two of the most vital attributes of God. In a previous post I spoke of God as Love, and hence, as relationship, with the eternal dance of the Trinity serving as both source and object of that divine affection. Now I wish to attempt the same for light, or, to interpret the metaphor, I wish to do the same for the Goodness, the Righteousness of God.

Before I begin, it is important to state my views on an important facet to this discussion. Goodness is a fundamental attribute of God. While few would take issue with this statement, I have nonetheless run into a peculiar explanation of how that comes to be that I think needs to ne stated before I can continue. Some view the Goodness of God as secondary to his sovereigty, conceptualizing God is Good as God defines what is good by holy decree. Now, on the surface this is true, of course God's decrees are just, but beneath it lurks a subtle misconception, the idea that God is arbitrarily good, that He chooses and decrees what is good from many alternatives, as we might choose a pair of pants or our dinner. Nothing could be further from the truth. God's goodness is an intrinsic part of His character.

I first realized what this meant as I read C.S. Lewis's conversion account. In it, he speaks of his childhood fascination with the Norse myths, and in particular their account of the end of the world. Unlike our more upbeat notions, the Norse were depressingly morose, believing that in the end Odin (their king of the gods) would fall, and al creation be plunged into darkness. But rather instilling a need for psychotherapy, Lewis claimed that thid story taught him about the Goodness of God, for he realized as he read it that even if the darkness won, it was still right (in that context at least) to follow Odin to the end of the world. In short, he was good even if he wasn't all powerful. Thankfully this won't be an issue with us, as God is certainly Omnipotent, but even if he weren't, even if the adversary would win in the end, it is still right, still just, to follow Him. His Goodness does not depend on his power. It just is. With that prelude, I can begin.

To get back to the plaque. As I pondered it the other night, a question that I had never dreamed of floated through my mind. The question was this, Can Goodness exist in a vacuum? Or, in other words, is it possible to be truly Good without anyone or anything to be truly good to or with? And so I looked for what Goodness meant in the Bible, to see what light it could shed on this question.

The Ten Commandments are often regarded as a keystone of morality, and if each one is looked at, it is easy to see that each involves two persons, the one committing the infraction and the one infracted, so to speak. Now, that other person isn't always human. In fact, the first tablet is largely about our actions toward God. Either way, it seems clear that the Goodness they describe (or closer to the mark, the badness they prohibit) always involves a relationship.
The New Testament drives this point further home, for when Christ is asked about what the centerpoint of the Law is, he replies "Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself." I can add nothing to this.

It should be obvious now where I am going, for if Goodness is, in the final analysis, relational, then a God of intrinsic Goodness must contain relationship as a fundamental part of his being. In short, He must be Triune. God is Good because within Himself he fully defines the statement made by Christ. He in fact loves the Lord with all his Heart, Soul and Mind, for the Father ever loved the Son, and the Son likewise the Father, with that Love ever manifest in the person of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, he loves his neighbor as himself, for his Neighbor is Himself. In fact, if this is a true idea, then it may be that all the personal attributes of God proceed from his triune nature. This has far reaching apologetic implications. Think about it. If this idea bears scrutiny and turns out to be correct, then it is not possible to speak of a Unitarian God who is intrinsically Love and Light, you might as well speak of a square circle or claim that two plus two equals eight.

If, as I said, the idea bears scrutiny. As I look back voer this pos, I realize that I have been writing in a very definitive tone. The truth is, these ideas have greatly advanced my appreciation of who God is and what He has done. They have only served to increase my desire to worship the One who made all things, and in whom perfect Love and Righteousness meet and embrace. But I could be wrong. And so I invite comment and discussion. Read this, think about it, tell me if you agree or disagree and why. My desire in this, as in all things, is to be sharpened by the words of other believers as iron sharpens iron.

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