Friday, December 28, 2012

God Was Right


                Thinking more about what happened in Newtown. I heard about the family of one of the victims; they issued a statement that said that they were praying for the family of the murderer. That’s not the only time I’ve heard about that kind of unfathomable forgiveness. There was a lady whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She not only forgave the guy but now tours the country with him, speaking to groups about how real the dangers of drunk driving are. Every once in a while you’ll hear about stories like this, where the family of some murdered son or daughter publicly forgives the murderer.

                While I was at home over Christmas my dad and I started talking about Sandy Hook and how horrible it was. He then brought up the Biblical story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard. King Ahab wants the land of this Israelite named Naboth so that he can have a garden close to his palace, but Naboth says no. So Ahab gets and his wife, Queen Jezebel notices. She asks what the problem is and when he tells her, she says “Is this how a king acts? Cheer up, I’ll get that vineyard for you!”So she arranges for a couple of people to give false testimony saying that Naboth committed blasphemy. He’s tried, convicted and executed for a crime that never happened just so that Ahab could get some land. Naboth had family. He was a son, he had parents, and, in all likelihood, brothers and sisters, maybe sons and daughters who loved him, a wife. He had friends, people who cared for him, and suddenly he is ripped out of their hands so that some guy on a power trip, a guy who already has more land than he knows what to do with, doesn’t have to walk so far for his carrots.

                So, Elijah, a prophet of God, comes and confronts Ahab with what he’s done. Ahab begins to feel guilty and he repents, asks God for forgiveness. What happens next, though, is beyond comprehension. God forgives him.

                God forgives, it’s what He does. He is irritatingly, irrationally, maddeningly gracious, and although we can’t truly be sure of what the state of Adam Lanza’s soul is right now; we can be sure that if he had asked God for forgiveness, God would have forgiven him.

                That is nearly unthinkable.

                That is who God is.

                God is right.

                As much as we don’t want or like to think about it; murderers are humans. Just like all who sin – murderers, rapists, thieves, liars, dictators, and all the rest – they’re all humans. They all had mothers who looked down into their eyes and wondered in amazement at the life in their hands. They all had fears, hopes, things that made them happy and sad. Many of them had genetic or psychological problems that they had no control over which caused imbalances that they didn’t know how to handle. Some went through horrible and abnormal circumstances that caused them to approach reality with a psychological limp. Others were just like you or I who made one seemingly rational decision after another, following, in baby steps, a path that anyone of us, under similar circumstances, might have followed. Walk a mile . . . They are people. People that God made, who God loved, and who God died for.

                We as a society love progress. We like to think that generation after generation we are building toward something. Something good; something righteous. I believe that what we are building toward, whether we know it and admit it or not, is utopia. We all want to live in a world where we love our work, where suffering is at a minimum, where people don’t die too young, where evil doesn’t threaten our lives, etc. etc. But we will never reach that utopia until we understand, as a society, that God and His irrational forgiveness is right.

                By definition, utopia is a place where evil does not exist, or is, at least, kept to a minimum. To de-humanize is evil. To forget that criminals are humans is evil. Forgiveness is a necessary component of utopia, and we can never build that perfect society without it. Further, we cannot embody God’s Spirit if we cannot follow in His forgiveness. The parable of the servants and their debt comes to mind. We cannot rightfully call ourselves Christians if we don’t follow in the steps of Him who died for liars, thieves and murderers.

                God forgave Ahab.

                God was right.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Identity


                After observing humanity for some time, through general observation in the real world as well as watching humans portray humans in movies, on television, in books, literature, and music, I have come to believe that the way we perceive ourselves and our identity is one of the chief determiners of our behavior. My evidence is purely anecdotal, mostly from personal experience of seeing people misbehave and wondering why they did so; but I’ve come up with a theory. I will use myself as a hypothetical example. Let us say that I see myself as a smart and handsome man’s man, who is successful at his job and popular everywhere he goes (again this is a hypothetical example). This is, then, my self-image; it’s who I see myself as being; it is my identity. What happens then when I lose my job? What happens if I lose my income, and with it my friends? What happens, after that, if I meet someone else who is smarter, and or better looking than I, maybe younger, more in his prime and more on the cutting edge of new research? What happens if, one by one, all the wonderful things that I characterized myself with are pulled away from me? I have nothing; I am suddenly adrift, searching for my identity and for my value as a human being.

                This is what I see happening almost constantly all around me. People see themselves in a certain light; they have latched their identity onto certain characteristics or ideas. They know that if these identities are lost, then they will be, like my hypothetical self, lost and adrift, valueless and purposeless. Because of this, they guard their identity jealously, willing to go to great lengths to assure themselves that they really are who they think they are or who they want to be.  This can cause problems.

                Have you ever known that guy who always has to be right, has to “know” every fact, has to win every argument? Have you ever wondered why he does that? Maybe it’s because he sees himself as “the smart guy.” If someone else is smarter than he is, then that threatens the image he has of himself. It makes him uncomfortable and he feels a need to assert himself.

                Have you ever known a boss who simply cannot, for some reason, abide any questioning of his decisions? Have you known a boss who can’t let her subordinates have good ideas? Could it be that this boss grounds their identity in success or power? Who are they if they are not successful? What do they have left if their subordinates pass them up, or make them look bad?

                Have you ever known a girl or guy whose vanity knows no bounds?  Or the girl who has to be the center of all the most important social circles? Have you ever known the guy who simply cannot ask for help?

                 A person will do a lot to defend their identity. It seems to me our willingness to destroy, tear down, suppress, vilify, or defraud others in the interest of defending our identities is the root of much of our society’s dysfunction. This tendency can, ultimately cause not only irritation and social annoyance, but pain and destruction. The problem is that there is no ability or characteristic that we can possibly claim that is not vulnerable to the encroachments of others. There is nothing by which we may define ourselves that cannot be taken away from us. Nothing except Christ.

                By creating us and declaring us to be good; and subsequently by coming for us and dying on the cross to save us, God effectively ended the argument of our worth. If God says that we are worth dying for, then we have a value that no one and nothing can ever take away. No matter what anyone does or says to us or about us; no matter what happens to us or what we are or are not able to do, Christ died for us. Christ thought enough of me and you to undergo one of the most excruciating deaths anyone can possibly endure, all with the sole aim of getting to spend time with us; with me; with you. Nothing can change that.

                How does that change your relationships? How much better are we able to interact with people when we no longer have to use, abuse, and destroy one another in futile attempts to prove our own self-worth? How might our relationships be better if we were able to come into them from the foundation of our secure identity in Christ; if we were able to stop seeing one another as threats and start seeing each other through the eyes of Christ? What kind of world could we live in if we were all able to approach each other from this standpoint? I think I’d like that world.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Time


                So, yesterday something horrible happened. Today we’re all searching for answers, for causes, for something to make some sort of sense out of it. I don’t have any of those answers.

                Some are going to dive headlong into various debates about public policy, rights, and administration. This will, no doubt, spark conversations about gun control, school policies about security, and maybe even human rights discussions concerning mental health issues, records, disclosure and therapy. These discussions are important and need to be tackled; but I don’t think that they can really address the root of what is happening in our nation.

                This year we have had three major shootings in our nation. Over the past 15 years or so, public shooting rampages have become somewhat of an epidemic.

                Two days ago I committed a sin. It was a behavior that many would not consider out of the ordinary, but for me it is a sin. This behavior hurt me, hurt my family, hurt my relationship with God, and will no doubt hurt my friends, even if they never realize it.

                My sin and this shooting epidemic are indirectly linked[1] because they are products of the same culture. We have a problem in America; and it is not our policies, our politics, our parties, our classes, or our laws. Our problem is in our hearts.

                I have found, with my own sinful tendencies, that character cannot be molded by rules and regulations. Character may be suppressed by laws for a time, but, like alcohol during prohibition, it will always find a way to express itself. We will never be able to make enough rules to change who we are; and no matter what kind of policy changes we make, new security measures we enact, or opportunities we take away, a mentally unstable individual will be able to find a way to act out on his or her delusions. I have found that there is only one answer to the problem of evil; and that is God.

                Evil is not something that is external to us. It is not embodied by Satan. It is not rooted in the oft-maligned “them,” nor is it the exclusive policy of either democrats or republicans. We cannot defeat evil through the ballot box or on the congressional debate floor. Just like the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Evil exists within our hearts; it is in us; and it is in our hearts that evil must be conquered.

                The problem that our nation is experiencing is a problem of culture. Culture is really nothing more than the collective weight of a million individual decisions made by millions of individual people in individual situations. The only way that culture changes is for those individual people to make different choices.

                School shootings are a product of our culture, and as such, they are a product of those millions of individual decisions. It is a monumental mistake to think that we as individuals are not at fault for the shooting epidemic that has gripped our nation because our individual choices are part of that collective consent, a collective complicity. My own poor choices from just two days ago are part of the tilled cultural ground from which our cultural problems grow.

                I am not defined by the mistakes of yesterday, but by the forgiveness of today. We are not defined by the good we failed at, but by the good we attempted to do. I am not defined by my poor choices, but by God’s grace. We are not defined by how we have fallen, but by the one who was raised up, on a cross, for us. Now, with the after-image of evil still burning in our vision, it is time to let that forgiveness, that grace, that love flow through us and define our world; it is time to let our individual choices be determined and defined by the same love that gave itself up for us. That is the only way in which evil is conquered; that is how we change the world.



[1] I should make it clear that my sinful behavior has nothing to do with guns, shooting, depression, physical violence or anything else remotely a part of these shooting rampages.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday, December 7, 2012

Why I'm not a Particularist


                Last week I talked about pluralism and why I cannot ascribe to the idea that “all paths reach the same summit.” Pluralism is a particular religion with a particular truth claim which is, at heart, atheistic. Today, I’d like to alienate still more readers by arguing the other side of the coin. Today, I’m going to explain why I think there will be non-Christians in Heaven.

                First, the Bible sets the threshold for salvation exceedingly low:
Luke 7: 50 Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
Luke describes a prostitute who comes to Jesus and pours perfume over his feet. The Pharisee with whom he was eating scoffed at Jesus for allowing a “sinful woman” to touch him. After a parable about debts, Jesus extols the prostitute’s actions and declares that her sins are forgiven. When the Pharisee questions his authority to forgive sins Jesus speaks the above words of 7:50. What was her faith in? Was it faith that Jesus was light from light, true God of true God; that he was begotten not made? Was it that He would die on the cross and three days later rise again? No, she knew nothing of this. Her faith was the simplest and barest of hopes that she might be accepted, not because of her own righteousness, but because of God’s grace and Jesus’ mercy. Jesus did not quiz her on theology before forgiving her, he saw the faith she had in the love of God, and that was enough. Faith in the grace of God saves us.

Acts 2:21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'
Paul quotes this same passage, originally from Joel, in Romans. In Joel the promise was restricted to the survivors still left in Jerusalem after a great invasion. Peter, speaking here in Acts, extends the promise to all the Jewish people. Paul then specifically extends the promise to all people saying in verse 12 “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,”.

Pluralism says that God is like a wise old man sitting up on top of a mountain, waiting for the people of the valley to come up to him so that he may bestow upon them the gift of salvation. Any way you can scale the mountain is fine because though there are many paths, there is but one summit. I believe that this analogy has one major flaw. It gives us too much credit. We, in our sinful and broken frame of mind and body are purely unable to scale the mountain. We have fallen too far, our instincts are too base and animalistic, the mountain is too steep, and our arms are too frail. Evil is too sticky, and greed is too pervasive. There is a categorical difference between holy God and finite humanity that we are wholly unable to cross. God, however, is able to cross that gap.

The Pluralistic “God” is not a god of love; how can he be if he never raises a finger to help the penitent who seek him? The true God of love came down off the mountain to unite His divinity with our humanity, bridging the gap between God and humans and lifting us up to the summit of salvation. He made a way for us. That way is recorded in the Bible and is the content of the Christian gospel, or evangelos (good news). This is what John refers to in John 10:19
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.
So then, asks the skeptical pluralists, what of all the poor people who don’t know about the Christian gospel or who aren’t equipped to realize its truth? They are all just callously tossed into Hell? Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not the judge and it’s not my place to decide that; however, I will give you my non-dogmatic opinion.

I believe that God loved us so much that He sent His only Son to die for us. I believe that He did this for love, so that we might commune together. That said, I cannot fathom that He would love us so much as to die for us, but then turn His back because we weren’t equipped to pass a pop quiz on theology. The Bible speaks over and over again about how it is by faith that we are saved, that all who call on the name of the Lord are saved, and I wonder what that really means.

Maybe “faith in God” is not synonymous with “believing the historic story of the factual details of Jesus’ life.” Maybe you don’t need to know the name of a gate to be able to cross through it. Maybe our faith is in the grace and love of God. Maybe our confession need not be of every sin called such in Scripture but rather of our human frailty and inability to achieve salvation on our own. Maybe trust means throwing as much of yourself as you can into the hands of God, as much as you know of Him, with as much abandon as you can muster.

C.S. Lewis, in The Last Battle, tells of the end of the world when all the righteous creatures of Narnia go to commune with Aslan and the great King Beyond the Sea. As they go, they see a man from Calormene going with them, and they are confused. Didn’t this Calormene deny Aslan? Didn’t he follow the evil god Tash? Aslan says to the Calormene “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me . . . For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn.”[1]

The idea is that what truly distinguishes the believer from the non-believer is not a body of knowledge or factual acceptance but rather what is in the heart. It is the difference between those who rely on their own merit and those who rely on God’s grace and love; those who are focused on their own fulfillment, desires and goals vs. those who are focused on God’s glory, His desires, and His kingdom. It might be termed a difference between humanism and theism, or, since those terms are already used for other purposes, anthropocentrism and theocentrism.

So then, one might ask, what is the purpose of evangelism. Tell me, if two men are lost in a forest and one has a vague notion, by the sun and stars, which direction to go; while the other has in addition to this, a map and compass; even if both make it to safety, which one will have an easier time of it? Which one will make it out quicker and be able to turn around and help rescue others? This is the difference between salvation and Christianity. I believe that you may be saved without knowing all the theological facts; I also believe that it is better to know the theological facts, to read explicitly in the Bible what God’s goals are so that we may be working towards the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.

So, last week I explained why I’m not a Pluralist; now you know why and how I am not a particularist.



[1]  C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle. (New York: Harper Collins, 1984) 205.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Why I'm Not A Pluralist


                I skimmed over one of my all time favorite books, "The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, recently for a book club and it got me to thinking about pluralism. I was going to attack this subject in the next few weeks anyway, and since it’s on my mind, I thought I’d go ahead and address it now.

                Pluralism is, in its essence, a philosophical system which seeks to harmonize the various religions of the world, seeking common ground between them. It attempts to find a single universal religion of which all other faiths can be thought of as manifestations. John Hick, in his exposition of pluralism says that “the same God who saves Christians through their response to the incarnate Christ also saves Jews through their response to the Torah, and saves Muslims through their response to the Qur’an, and saves Hindus through their response to the Vedic revelation . . .”[1] All religions, therefore, have salvific power insofar as they center on a manifestation of Ultimate Reality. The goal of pluralism is to act as a mediator between the different religions and find a way for us to stop seeing each other through hostile, right-wrong worldviews and see each other as belonging to a great family of humanity seeking to commune with Ultimate Reality.[2]

                My objections to pluralism are basically three-fold. First, I do not think that pluralism succeeds in accomplishing the goals I just outlined. To establish a common religion behind the religions, Pluralism must label certain aspects of each religion as unreal or mythological constructs of the particular culture from which it arises. In other words, these religious differences do not reflect God as He is in Himself, but only the human lenses through which we see God. If we are to accept the Pluralist vision of reality, then, we must reject doctrines such as the Trinity, for Christianity, or the final authority of Muhammad, for Islam, as factual revelations of God as He is in Himself.  Because of this, any ardent follower of any religion can never affirm Pluralism, but can only be seriously offended by it. Far from affirming all religions, pluralism denies all religions.

                Further, Pluralism, in proposing such a “least common denominator” religion behind the religions actually sets up a distinct worldview which makes exclusive truth claims that invalidate the truth claims of all other worldviews.  If Pluralism is factually correct, then Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and all others are factually inaccurate, and if any of those worldviews is correct, then Pluralism is incorrect. Pluralism itself, then, is not pluralistic. It makes an exclusive claim about reality which affords itself the same kind of moral and intellectual superiority which it finds so reprehensible in other worldviews. This first objection, then, is not saying that Pluralism is, out of hand, incorrect; but that it itself does not succeed at being pluralistic.

                Second, Pluralism, at its core, attempts to abide by the philosophy that all people are equally right, and that no concept of divinity should be thought of as “wrong.” So, in an effort to affirm all the various concepts of God, Pluralism must reject any characteristic of God that might factually contradict some other religion’s concept of Deity. For example, Pluralism cannot affirm a personal God because that would be a tacit denial of the impersonal concepts of God found in nontheistic traditions. John Hick, said “If we are to proceed inductively from the actual religious experience of humanity, rather than deductively from an arbitrarily adopted premise, then we must see theism as one form, but not the only form, of religious thought and experience.”[3] Any meaningful, positive statement about anything inherently implies that any contradictory statement is incorrect. Every positive statement contains within itself a multitude of negative statements. So you can’t say that God exists one way without saying that He does not exist in other contradictory ways. So Pluralism’s goal of affirming all religions robs it of the power to make any positive, constructive statements about God at all. The God that results can only be a vague, diluted sense of Diety.

                Third, pluralism can ultimately only be atheistic. There seems to be a basic difference between how Pluralists speak and think, and how Particularists speak and think. It seems to me that Particularists think about various religions as various scientific theories, like Heliocentrism and Geocentrism. It’s impossible to hold to both of these theories at the same time because they contain many mutually contradictory propositions. Pluralists seem to think about religions more like old legends, or as one friend said recently, as languages. To this friend, different religions are cultural expressions of divinity, just as languages are cultural expressions of ideas. Following a religion is like speaking a language; and so, it is as ridiculous to say that you can only adhere to one religion as it is to say that you can only speak one language. Or again, a Pluralist might study religions in the same way one might study cultural folk tales or poetry, as cultural expressions of our common humanity that help you to see universal truths in new light. They are true in the same way that the stories of King Arthur, or of Shakespeare, or Greek myths are true.

                For me, however, the analogy fails. Words from different languages may all point to the same idea but only because the words, in and of themselves, don’t carry any propositions along with them. A rose by any other name smells as sweet; and it is not the words we use that contradict one another, but the ideas to which they refer. You may very well call God Allah or Brahmah, Shiva or Ganesh but as soon as you use those names to propose certain factual realities, Pluralism falls apart. Indeed, the only way that Pluralism works is if God does not factually exist. As soon as you propose a God who factually exists, you propose a God that exists in some way but not others, who is characterized by some things and not others; you move into the realm of fact and fiction, of accurate and inaccurate, of right and wrong. Pluralism cannot ascribe to any particular factual instance of God because that instance may contradict some other concept of the divine. The only way to maintain that all concepts of God are valid is to deny that any of them actually point to some objectively existing reality, but that they merely point back inward toward the human who conceived. Pluralism cannot, therefore, maintain that all religions are true, but merely that all religions contain truth. Pluralism must be a version of atheism to hold together.

                So, if Pluralists don’t actually believe in a real, factual God, then what do they worship? Because of its least common denominator God is so vague, there is nothing in God or about Him worth centering on. The only thing left to center on is humanity itself. And that is just what pluralism ultimately does. It fails to focus humanity on God, and succeeds only at focusing us on ourselves. Hans Küng, another Pluralist, says that a religion is valid and salvific “insofar as a [it] serves the virtue of humanity, insofar as its teachings on faith and morals, its rites and institutions support human beings in their human identity, and allows them to gain a meaningful and fruitful existence, it is a true and good religion.”[4] Notice how he fails to say anything about Ultimate Reality here, only humanity. Pluralism removes God from the religious equation and substitutes humanity.

                I believe in God; I believe that He factually exists and that my role as a human is to serve, submit to, and glorify Him. Ultimately, I want to commune with God, and that is why I am not a Pluralist.



[1] John Hick, “John Hick: The Theological Challenge of Religious Pluralism” in Christianity and Other Religions: Selected Readings. Ed. by John Hick and Brian Hebblethwaite. (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001). 165-166.
[2] ibid, 164. He wants us to see salvation as an actual change in men and women from natural self-centredness to, in theistic terms, God-centredness, or in more general terms, a new orientation centred in the Ultimate . . .
[3] ibid, 167.
[4]  Hans Küng, “Hans Küng: Is There One True Religion: An Essay in Establishing Ecumenical Criteria.” in Religions. 134.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Heaven and Hell


What is Heaven like? What is Hell like? The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology defines Heaven first as the Physical Sky and subsequently as the “Divine Abode” as the “dwelling place of God and his attendant beings.” Hell, on the other hand, is the “abode of the dead,” where unbelievers and sinners will be punished for their misdeeds. But what really defines these two destinations?

                In Revelation chapter 21 and 22, Heaven is described with these words:

21:3 “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them”

21:10-11 “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.”

21:22-23 “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.[1] The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”

21:25 “On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.[2]

22:1 “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life[3], as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb”

22:3-5 “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”

As I read these verses the one overwhelming characteristic of Heaven that jumps out at me is the presence of God. Remember that Biblically speaking, Heaven is, primarily, the abode of God. Also remember that God is the Absolute, He is existence, He is life; also remember that God is Trinity and His decision to exist as community weaves communion into the fabric of what it means to exist. So eternal life does not just mean living forever; it means direct and unmediated communion with the One who is life, with God.

So, the defining characteristic of Heaven is not wealth, mansions or gold; it isn’t even security, health or pleasure. The defining characteristic of Heaven is the presence of God. Wherever God is, that is Heaven. Being in God’s presence, then, is to be in the presence of all those things which characterize God: light, life, truth, beauty, joy, peace, love, contentment, etc; but all of these are dependent on God’s presence. Heaven is the world of God’s shalom because His presence defeats and drives out all evil.
            Hell, therefore, must be defined by God’s absence. As God is not there, neither are any of those things which emanate from God. Hell is, then, darkness, death, ugliness, depression, chaos, hatred, restlessness, etc. It is ridiculous to want to go to Hell to be with a loved one whom you are sure will be there because A) there’s a good chance that Hell is characterized by solitude (since God is communion) and B) if you do find that loved one, you will hate each other, for love is contingent upon God.  
Hell, properly understood, does not allow for this.[4]            
One question that I’ve received about my definitions of Heaven, Hell, and God, is about continued existence in Hell. If God is life and existence, then how do people continue to exist in the absence of God. Remember when I talked about God as absolute, I said that God gives us a measure of autonomous existence. This enables us to exist within God without being subsumed by God’s existence.[5] Our reality is grounded in God’s over-arching reality, but we are able to exist independently of God.

Next week, I’d like to go deeper into the nature of Heaven as a the Kingdom of God which is both already here and not yet consummated.



[1] Think of the old temples of Judaism, needed to mediate the presence of God to the people, and filled with that presence like a cloud. Now there is no more mediation needed for the people of God can commune with God directly and immediately.
[2] There is no shadow or night in Heaven, which means that light is all surrounding, all encompassing. Where does that light come from; well, no sun is needed because God is the source of light, which is to say that God is all surrounding.
[3] Biblically speaking, water is a symbol which may commonly represent the Spirit of God.
[4] The Far Side © Gary Larson
[5] Langdon Gilkey uses this logic to avoid either dualism on the one hand or monism on the other.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Good and Evil, Sin and Righteousness

                The last few weeks, I’ve been talking about God, His nature and His characteristics. Last week, in particular I showed that God is to be equated with existence itself, that He is The Absolute; while the blog before that I discussed God’s Triune nature. This week, I’d like to move forward from God’s nature to that reality which depends on God’s nature. Specifically, I’d like to discuss the natures of good and evil.
                If God is the ultimate something, and evil is the opposite of God, then Evil must be defined as the ultimate nothing. Evil is non-existence. Where does this lead us? Evil, properly speaking, doesn’t exist. It’s not that it’s a myth, it’s that it exists in a state of non-existence. It exists in the same way that nothing, the void, zero, or darkness exists. It exists, but, properly speaking it exists as the absence of something else. Pure evil is not malevolent, it has no personality, and it is not out to get you. Pure evil doesn’t tempt because pure evil is pure and absolute nothingness. It has no mind, no heart, and no will with which to crush you. Evil is nothingness, it is non-existence.
                The effects of evil might be better thought of as entropy. Entropy is the scientific term used for the tendency of all things to break down into less and less complex systems. The dissolution of metal by rust, or decomposition, or cracks in brick walls, these are all evidences of entropy. It is the impersonal force in the universe that pulls all things toward nothingness. I am not saying that entropy is malevolent, I’m saying that evil is not malevolent, and describing the effects of evil as entropy.
                So, first and foremost, evil is the opposite of God, which is to say that evil is non-existence. What does this tell us about sin? It tells us that God did not sit in Heaven at the beginning of creation and arbitrarily pick out random behaviors to be forbidden. Sins are those actions which are consistent with the nature of evil. That is to say that sinful actions are those actions which destroy. Murder is a prime example of this principle, but every other sin may be defined in the same terms of destruction.
                At the end of last week’s post I pointed out that God’s freely chosen Trinitarian nature inserted community into the nature of existence; and I said that it was important. Here’s how it’s important. If God exists as community, and evil is the antithesis of God, then evil is the antithesis of community. As evil, by nature, destroys, so, by its nature as the anti-God, it also focuses on destroying relationships and communion. Think about the Sermon on the Mount; think about the ten commandments. Can you think of a single sin that isn’t primarily relational? Murder, adultery, lust, hatred, idolatry, blasphemy; all of them are, by nature, relational. They might be thought of as relational and societal entropy.
                On the flip side, what is righteousness? Growing up, I thought that righteousness was an end unto itself; that the goal of Christianity was to be a good person factory spitting out righteous people who behaved righteously. I was wrong. Righteousness is not an end, it is a means. Just as Sin can be defined as that which breaks down community, righteousness is that which builds community up.[1] Righteousness kept to itself is not righteousness; righteousness that does not affect the world around it, that does not let its light mingle in and alleviate the darkness, is simply wickedness disguised. Righteousness, to be righteousness, must be relational, encouraging those around it, and building up relationships into God’s vision of Shalom.


[1] Not just any community, it’s goal is the Shalom of God, which I talk about in greater detail here

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Absolute

                A few posts ago I started concentrating on the subject of God and His being. We started with a simple definition of the word “God” and talked about traditional Christian characteristics of God. We then moved on to discuss the Trinity. Today I’d like to talk about God as The Absolute.
                When I speak of The Absolute, I’m talking about that which is at the very core of reality itself. I’m talking about that which is behind and defines the laws of physics, that which defines existence, that which gives meaning, purpose, and value structure to the world we perceive ourselves to exist in. I would like to argue that God is The Absolute, that He is identical with existence itself.
                The crux of the argument comes from the divine attributes of omnipotence and infinity. If God is limited in any way, by anything, then He is neither omni-potent nor infinite (infinite literally meaning “without limits”). So we must affirm that even such basic concepts as space, time, and existence are contingent on God without defining or limiting Him. If God should choose to defy the laws of physics, or of space-time, or of existence itself, then He may, for He is God.
                Paul Tillich affirms this, saying “The being of God cannot be understood as the existence of a being along-side others or above others. If God is a being, he is subject to the categories of finitude, especially to space and substance. Even if he is called the “highest being” in the sense of the “most perfect” and the “most powerful” being, this situation is not changed. When applied to God, superlatives become diminutives. They place him on a level of other beings while elevating him above all of them . . . Whenever infinite or unconditional power and meaning are attributed to the highest being, it has ceased to be a being and has become being-itself. Many confusions in the doctrine of God and many apologetic weaknesses could be avoided if God were understood first of all as being-itself or as the ground of being.”[1]
                Now, at this point, some might argue that space-time might be considered to be a reality along side of God, but which He has complete control over. They might argue that reality is distinct and co-eternal with God, but that it does not impose itself on God. This doesn’t work, though, because, as Langdon Gillkey attests, if anything is co-eternal with God, then its very existence “everlastingly stands over against God, limiting His sovereignty and rule over existence.”[2] Any co-eternal personality, material, idea or principle imposes itself as a qualification on God simply by the fact of its existence apart from God’s will. In other words, if God didn’t will reality into existence, but came upon it as it is, then God would not be able to define reality, which undermines His omnipotence. For God to be unlimited, omnipotent, and infinite, then all existence must depend on Him. God is the foundation of reality; He is existence itself.
                I find it helpful to think about this in a couple different ways. Neither of these are altogether correct, but I think they make the concept more comprehensible to me. First, I think of God like an author, and history as His novel. Reality is the setting for the story and we are all characters in it. So, by analogy, God is to reality as Tolkien is to Middle-earth. The one major difference between God and Tolkien, of course, being that God is able to grant to His characters some measure of autonomous existence as centers of free will. We are able to move and act and be according to our own wills here within the story, within God’s being, which is existence.
                Second, I think of matter and energy and how they can be neither created nor destroyed and I wonder what cosmology might come about from the assumption that matter is, in its most basic indivisible form, simply pieces of God’s imagination, and energy simply a manifestation of God’s Spirit. The universe and all reality become a part of God’s body, so to speak (This is not pantheism, this is panentheism)
                Either way, the point remains, for God to be unlimited, eternal, omnipotent, and infinite, He must be identical with existence as The Absolute. If there is no Absolute, then there is no God; if there is no God, then there is no Absolute. As a result, any ultimate meaning or absolute value must come directly out of the nature and will of this Absolute God; for without Him, there is no ultimate or absolute. God cannot be judged against a measure of what is just, because He is the standard of justice.
                John D. Zizioulas points out another interesting implication of this idea. God is existence itself. God has freely chosen to exist as three persons in communion. As God’s nature determines and defines existence, this freely chosen relationality is woven into the fabric of what it means to exist. Communion becomes a necessary part of what it means to exist, and relationality is written into the definition of being.[3] That’s important, and it will come up later. Next week I’d like to think about how God’s nature as The Absolute affects how we think about evil.


[1] Paul Tilich , Systematic Theology Volume I: Reason and Revelation Being and God (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951) 235. Please don’t hate me for quoting Tillich, I am not a Tillichean and I have serious disagreements with other aspects of his theology. I just happen to think he’s right on target here.
[2] Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth: The Christian Doctrine of Creation in the Light of Modern Knowledge. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985) 48.
[3] John D. Zizioulas Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1985) 41.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

FYI

Just to let everyone know, I won't be posting this week as I attempt to get my thesis into its final form. The due date is the 18th, so I may not be posting next week either. I'll start back up as soon as I can, thanks for your patience as I finish up my degree (hopefully!)

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Trinity simplified (somewhat)

I’ve always been one to impulsively take up impossible non life-endangering challenges just for the fun of trying; so, it should come as no surprise to my past Rook partners that I should attempt to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, and why the Christian church holds to it so strongly, in laymen’s terms, in under two single space pages. Here goes nothing.
The Doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly attested to in the Bible; this has led many Christians to suspect that it was an imposition of Greek philosophy over the Biblical revelation. I don’t believe this to be true; instead, it seems just the opposite to me, and here’s why.
First, the tradition of Judaism is strongly monotheistic. Deuteronomy 6:4, arguably one of the most important sentences in all the Torah for Jews says this “Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This is subsequently quoted by Jesus in Mark 12:29 “The first is this ‘Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.’” Paul backs this up in 1 Timothy 2:5 saying “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men.” The Biblical record is clear that there is only one God; and that that God is one.
The New Testament, however, reveals another piece of the theological puzzle. John 1:1 and 14 say “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This chapter is a clear statement of Jesus’ divinity. So, if there is only one God, that God is one, and Jesus is God, then who is Jesus praying to in the gospels? Was he just acting? Are there multiple Gods?
In the first few centuries after Christ, the church was forced to deal with this question. There were several alternatives suggested. One was that there is in fact one God but that one God goes by three different names (a theory called Modalism); another was that there are three distinct gods; still another that Jesus is not God, only like God; and there were others like these. The problem with all of these theories is that they end up denying the revealed word of Scripture. To hold that there are three different gods denies Deuteronomy 6:4; to hold that Jesus was anything less than God denies John 1:1.[1] Modalism makes a better argument; but it still falls short. First, Modalism makes the incarnation into a hoax. If Jesus was just another name for God, if He was God, and all of God, then what happened on the cross? We couldn’t possibly have killed God; and that makes Calvary and our salvation a sham. This doesn’t even take into consideration Scriptural passages that reveal Jesus speaking to the Father, and the Father interacting with the Son. Thus, even Modalism denies Scripture. These, along with every other attempts to logically resolve the twin theological themes of Scriptures – The Lord is one and Jesus is Lord – can only end in denying one or both of these and other Scriptures. This is because they are giving priority to logic over revelation.
If God is so much bigger than we are; if He is truly infinite and we are finite, then it only makes sense that God shouldn’t make sense to us. We should not be able to reduce the idea of God down to something that we can comprehend; if we can, then our idea of God probably isn’t accurate. One of the necessary attributes of God is that He is transcendent; if He is transcendent then we cannot possibly approach or understand Him on our own. He must reveal Himself to us; and His revelation must be given priority over our logic. If God is bigger than we are, then we shouldn’t understand Him. Therefore, if He reveals Himself to be something that we don’t understand, then we shouldn’t force His revelation to mold around our logic. The doctrine of the Trinity is logic’s submission to revelation.
God has revealed himself to be one. He has also revealed that Jesus is God, that the Father is God, and that the Spirit is God. His revelation indicates that these three modes of God’s existence are three distinct persons who interact with each other, not just different names for the same person. This simple collection of Scriptural revelation, taken together, is the doctrine of the Trinity in its most raw form. The doctrine is not so much a working out of logic, as it is an open ended acceptance of paradox.
This is the doctrine of the Trinity: God is one being, and three persons. An interesting note on this phrase; the original Greek wording is mia ousia, treis hypostasis. Word for word, this means “one being, three substances.” What is interesting is that, in Greek, ousia and hypostasis were synonyms. That would be like saying, in English, that God is one person, three individuals; or that He is one material, three stuffs; this reveals just how paradoxical of a statement this sentence really is. He is not simply one or three at one time or another; He is one and three at the same time. A more in depth explanation is pictured at right.
There is one God. The Father, the Spirit, and Jesus Christ are all God; but the Son is not the Father or the Spirit; the Father is not the Spirit or the Son; and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son.
If this makes sense to you, then you’re not thinking about it right. This does not make logical sense.  But this is what God has revealed Himself to be, and if we are to be faithful to God and to His Scripture, then we must take Him at His word.
So, in conclusion, the importance of this Doctrine is in our need to remain faithful to God’s revealed word. The nature of the doctrine is as a submission of human logic to the divine revelation of an infinite God. The explanation of the Trinity is that He is one person, and three individuals.


[1] I realize that some of my readers may have the training and background to know that there is some disagreement about the use of John 1:1 to argue for Christ’s divinity. For my argument concerning this debate please see the page in the sidebar “John 1:1.”

Regardless, however, of whether you take John 1:1 to read “and the Word was God” or “and the Word was a god” you must still reconcile the idea of Christ’s divinity (for either way, God or god, John is saying that Christ was divine) with Deut. 6:4 and the monotheistic tradition of Judaism into which this statement was made.