Don discusses the idea that the Boston Marathon bombers may have been motivated to become Islamists because it provided their life some meaning. He analyzes the various ways people respond to the void we all feel in our hearts.
Some time ago I interacted with a skeptic named Brian. Brian wasn’t sold on the biblical notion of free will, so I was trying to explain to him that God desires relationship with humans so he refused to make us robots. Instead, he gave us the ability to reject him. A healthy, loving relationship is dependent on both parties being in it because they want to be, not because they have to be. I told Brian that “God understands this and so refuses to coerce us into a relationship with him. He wants us to be in it of our own accord.” Brian replied,
Didn’t Jesus himself say that nonbelievers will be thrown “into the furnace of fire” where “men will weep and gnash their teeth” just as “the weeds are gathered and burned with fire…” (Matthew 13. 40-42 RSV) Why then throughout the Bible is there constant appeal to transcendent punishment for non-believers? Transcendent punishment isn’t coercion? The Old Testament seems to very much try to force man into a relationship with God. Placing a punishment on non-belief is as close to coercion as I can ever see.
In fact it is not coercion. To coerce (in the sense used above) is to “bring about by force or threat.” To receive money or sex, say, at the point of a gun is to coerce. The threat of death brings about the action. It is important to note here that in coercion, neither death nor the action would have occurred without the coercive intrusion. In the normal course of events, a woman attacked by a rapist wouldn’t have had sex with him or been shot. Only because some evil power entered her life is she forced to make a choice between two bad alternatives. That is the nature of coercion.
To accuse God of being coercive is to say, in effect, that He approaches us as completely independent beings and says, “Come with me or burn in hell.” The implication is that if God would just leave us alone, we could live our lives heading toward a third alternative; one that is neither with God nor burning in Hell. That is what comes to mind in Brian’s phrase “placing a punishment on non-belief.” He paints a picture of a bully God arbitrarily imposing his evil desires on a peace-loving planet.
Biblically, however, that is not the way the world is. Rather, the Earth is like a colony of children separated from their parents and wandering across a scorching desert. God comes to them and issues not a threat, but a warning and an offer. He says, “You are going to die out here if you do not let me help you. Please let me help you. I have plenty of water to drink and food to eat and shelter from the sand and the sun. I am your only hope of avoiding the terrible consequences of being out in this wasteland. Please, come to me.” Indeed, this is almost exactly what God says in many places in scripture.
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. (Isa. 55: 1-3)
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matt. 11:28-29)
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (Matt. 23:37)
This is clearly not coercion. It is a statement of fact. God created us for relationship with Him. In that relationship is life, joy, love, purpose and a lot of other great things. Because healthy relationships require freedom on the part of each participant, God gave us the opportunity to opt out and forgo all those benefits. (God couldn’t keep us close to Him by tying us up in a corner, for instance.) However, leaving God leads only one place – hell. If you will not have God, you will necessarily have the opposite of that – separation from God, otherwise known as hell. There is no other alternatives, no plethora of roads to travel. It’s either relationship with God or separation from Him. Jesus comes to shows us the way home. He doesn’t coerce or threaten, he simply warns and informs and beckons: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. Come with me.”
The Bible indicates that everyone who seeks God finds him (Deut. 4:29; 1 Chron. 28:9; Psalm 9:10; Jer. 29:13; Matt. 7:7; Heb. 11:6, for example).
But sometimes people who seem like genuine seekers simply don’t find God. I personally know many skeptics that claim to have sought God without success, and I have no reason to doubt their sincerity or their experience. They seem open to the existence of God, but they just haven’t found him. God remains hidden. What are we to make of this?
One key to reconciling scripture with the experience of these unbelievers is to clarify what it means to seek God.
In general, when a skeptic asserts that he tried to find God but couldn’t, he means that he asked God to reveal himself in such a way that his existence would be unmistakable and God simply didn’t show up. The skeptic waited for some evidence that would be irrefutable, an experience or a piece of data that would overwhelm him, and God never came through. The specifics of this are often vague and most unbelievers I’ve talked to aren’t really sure what would suffice (Do they want the Mississippi to instantly dry up? An A on the test for which they didn’t study? Sky writing every day at 4:30? Well, not necessarily, but something BIG) but the overarching point is usually the same: “If God wanted me to know him, and you Christians claim he does, then he should be able to do something more than whatever it is he is doing right now. As it is, whatever evidence you claim is available can all be easily explained away.”
The problem with this approach is that sitting back and waiting for God to do something (or asking him to do something) is not seeking; it is testing. While God promises to be found by those who actually seek him, he makes no such deals with those who demand signs. Indeed, Jesus labels such people wicked and adulterous (Matt. 12:39; 16:4).
But what is the problem with testing? After all, if God wants to be known shouldn’t he respond even to tests? Isn’t it better for God to give a specific sign of his existence to someone who wants it than to let that person continue in their disbelief? Shouldn’t he just show up and overwhelm everyone with whatever it takes to prove his existence? Why is God so heartless?
Actually, the heart is the key to answering that question. It’s not that God doesn’t have one or that he doesn’t care about man’s fate; it’s that he values man’s heart condition too much to resort to the demands these skeptics make. Let’s flesh this out with two quick points.
First, the goal of God’s revelation is not simply intellectual assent to certain propositions about his existence. God doesn’t want us to just believe facts about him. He wants loving relationship. Love requires both sides in the relationship to freely give of themselves to the other. It is an act of the will, not the mind alone. In love, both parties move towards the other. In other words, by its very nature, love involves the “seeking” of the beloved. To love God then, we have to be able to seek him. God’s “hiddenness” allows for this. If he showed up in perfect clarity and required nothing in return, it would, as Pascal noted, help the mind but harm the will by moving men to pride rather than love.
Second, the goal of revelation is redemptive. God is seeking to draw us out of our current dire condition (that of rebellious and belligerent prodigal children) and draw us into the very life of the Trinity. This requires a particular type of revelatory evidence. God cannot simply show up in all his glory and say “Here I Am” because we couldn’t handle that. We don’t have faces to see him in that state yet. He has to remain veiled to a certain degree due to our sinfulness.
As such, God reveals the truth in a way that can be rejected. It’s not that truth is unavailable; it’s that it requires seeking to find it. That is, only those that humble themselves and chase after God will find him. Those that sit back and demand God cater to their whims will not.
Discovery of truth depends on the heart and will, not just the head and mind. This is why the prime requisite for finding any great truth (like God, or the meaning of life or death, or who we are and what we ought to do, or even finding the right mate and career) is love, passion, questing and questioning. Once we pursue a question with our whole being, as Socrates pursued “know thyself”, we will find answers. Answers are not as hard to come by as we think; and questions, real questioning, is a lot more rare and precious than we think. Finding is not the problem, seeking is. (p. 217)
Don compares worldviews with metaphysical naturalist blogger Matthew Ferguson, a doctoral student at UC Irvine. In this part of the conversation, Don and Matthew discuss the “mind-body” problem faced by reductionistic materialism.
In this sermon Don examines the nature of God’s love, using the history of Samaria as a case study. He argues that the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well represents Samaria as a whole and that Jesus’ interaction with her teaches us a lot about God’s heart.
Benjamin Franklin famously said that nothing in the world can be said to be certain except death and taxes. As April 15th quickly approaches, I assume most of us have recently put at least some thought into the subject of taxes. However, how much have you pondered death lately?
Chances are, not much. The topic is largely taboo in modern society (at least when it is not being trivialized in various forms of pop culture violence, a related subject we will leave for another time). We simply aren’t supposed to think or talk about dying. Indeed, the word death itself is hardly ever uttered; euphemisms are all we ever hear. People don’t die these days, they pass away or go to meet grandma or something similarly less harsh. As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “bourgeois society hides death away.” He points out that “In the United States, even funeral homes themselves devise special arrangements so as to avoid mentioning the fact of death. Something similar happens in our hospitals, where death is carefully concealed as far as may be possible.”
This tendency, notes Benedict, is embedded in, and receives support from, the very structure of our society. People no longer die at home, surrounded by family and loved ones, but are sent to institutions to be dealt with by machines and the specialists who operate them. That is because sickness and death are no longer treated as a metaphysical problems to be “suffered and borne in a communion of life,” they have become “technical tasks technically handled by technical people.” (p70) As death becomes more separate from the rhythms of everyday life, it is possible to think about it even less.
However, hiding the fact of death from our consciousness does not erase the fact that death is inevitable. As Regis Martin writes, “For all the vaunted machinery of modern medicine, the cult of idolatrous youth, the odds of dying remain pretty much the same today as yesterday….No one gets out alive.” (p54)
Keeping our thoughts on something other than death also does not make death any less important of a topic. This is what makes our imposed silence towards the topic so silly and bizarre: “What happens when we die?” is quite possibly the most important question we humans have to face. That’s because the meaning of death dictates, in a sense, the meaning of life. The answer to the question of ultimate destiny determines the purpose of our temporal existence.
For example, if the person is extinguished at death, then life is ultimately meaningless and absurd. If people are reincarnated based on the state of one’s karma, then life is about doing whatever it takes to make that return as pleasant as possible. If life is the a critical stage of soul formation that will determine what kind of existence we have for eternity based on the choices we make on earth, then making sure we make the right choices has to be our top priority. Or at least it should be.
I am not making a case here that any one of these answers is true or false, although I certainly think the evidence points in a particular direction. I am simply pointing out that to not seek an answer to the meaning of death is ridiculous.
Tax day is almost here and I trust that most of you will be prepared when the time comes. However, there is also a much more important day coming, and I’m not so confident that everyone will be ready for that, especially since man knows not his time. It is imperative that we be prepared for death. The first step is to submit to thinking about it.
As I pointed out below, Jesus’ understanding of what constitutes “the blessed life” is radically different from the world’s. The culture tells us to go our own way, for example, while Jesus teaches us to be meek and submit to the Father’s authority. In this post we will consider this divergence in two more categories of our experience: 1) The degree to which our life circumstances are meeting our expectations and desires and 2) the amount of confidence we have in our ability to control and direct your life to meet those expectations and desires.
In general, there is a close correlation between life circumstances and our self-confidence. If everything is going well, we tend to believe that we are responsible for that success and that it will continue into the future. When events take a turn for the worse, our confidence tumbles as well.
For example, in the high corner of the graph might be the college football superstar who just signed a huge contract in the NFL. For him nothing seems unattainable. In the other corner we would place the guy who took some quilting classes at a JC for a couple of years before becoming eligible for the NFL, then was paralyzed in a car accident the day before the draft. He is stuck with no marketable skills, no education, and little hope for controlling his future.
Who does the world consider most blessed? The person higher up on the graph, of course. Indeed, the whole point of many people’s lives is to try to climb up that line.
However, here again Jesus teaches the opposite. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:3-4).
Who does Jesus have in mind here? People who mourn do so because some tragedy has befallen them, generally one that is outside of their control. In other words, mourning is closely associated with life circumstances that have taken a turn of the worse. It is an attitude toward your situation. On the other hand, being poor in spirit is about your attitude toward yourself. One who is poor in spirit has no confidence in his ability to get himself into a better situation. Jesus seems to be talking about those who are at the bottom corner of the line.
One key to making sense of that is to remember how Jesus sees the world. He is focused on the big picture. As such, he understands that we are sinners separated from God and that this problem takes precedence over all others. He also knows that humans have no power to fix that on our own; we need God’s help to get back to him. However, Jesus also knows that we are prone to pride, and that we often we reject God’s offer out of foolish arrogance.
C.S. Lewis offers a good example of this attitude in The Pilgrim’s Regress. The main character, John, is on his way through life when he comes to a great canyon separating him from the kingdom he had been seeking. A woman, Mother Kirk, explains that the only way to get to the other side is for her to carry him. Seeing this as an insult, John refuses and sets off to find his own way. He never does, of course, and later comes to admit that Mother Kirk was right.
One of Lewis’s points here is that we are dependent creatures. We simply can’t make it on our own. Unfortunately, when things go well, we tend to forget this truth and give ourselves the credit for our success. Only when we mourn and life seems to get out of control do we even think about turning to God. Only then are we humbled enough to see reality as it is.
Therefore it is easy to see why Jesus would say that those who don’t have that success and subsequent pride are in a better spot. They are closer to realizing their need for God. While the world thinks self-confidence and pleasant circumstances are a sign of the blessed life, Jesus explains that the down and out might actually be in a more favorable position.
For example, consider the “highs” and “lows” in the following lives: at what point would we consider each person “blessed?”
King Nebuchadnezzar was the ruler of a powerful empire, a man at the height of worldly power. One day while walking on the roof on the royal palace he congratulated himself on his success: “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”
Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. 32 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”
Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.
At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. (Dan 4:31-34)
Or consider the prodigal son. He received his inheritance and “lived it up” until the money ran out. But “after he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:14-16). Then he went back and threw himself on the mercy of his father and was restored.
That restoration is what we all need. May we not have to reach the point of living like animals to seek after it.
Pope Francis broke Vatican protocol again today by celebrating Holy Thursday’s Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper at a juvenile prison, where he will kneel and wash the feet of 12 inmates. In the first week of his papacy, much has rightly been made of the Pope’s apparent humility. However, I think we should also focus on another virtue on display in these kinds of acts: his meekness.
Jesus famously taught that the meek are blessed and will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5). The biblical term for meek connotes a wild animal that has been tamed. Think of a bridled horse that is submissive to the direction of his master. To be meek in the Christian sense, then, is to operate as a servant of God, doing his will and operating for his glory only. Jesus was saying that those who give themselves over to God’s direction are in a more favorable position than those who seek to keep control over their own lives. A meek person does not seek his own glory; his gaze is lost in the eyes of the master. That clearly seems to characterize Pope Francis.
I bring this up because meekness is consistently derided in our culture. Rather than serve others out of obedience to another, we are told to take care of ourselves first and go our own way, whatever that may be. To be submissive to another is considered weak; to follow authority is considered demeaning.
For example, consider some of the more successful ad campaigns of recent years. Volkswagen explained to us that there are two kinds of people in the world: drivers and passengers. Drivers are better. Dr. Pepper assured us that the most important thing is life was to “be original” and “be you.” Dodge encouraged us to “grab life by the horns.” The common theme in these commercials was the notion that doing anything at the behest of anyone else is a sign that you are inferior and feeble. By purchasing these products, the companies claimed, you would make a declaration to the world that you are no such thing. Rather than a mindless drone submitting to the demands of others, you are a courageous adventurer, doing life your way.
The anthem of such thinking is, of course, My Way by Frank Sinatra. The song concludes:
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!
Notice the Frank doesn’t kneel. He isn’t submissive to anything or anyone. Rather, the only thing that matters is himself and his plan. As Jon Bon Jovi sings in an ode to Sinatra: “It’s my life,” no one else’s.
So is Pope Francis a weak man because he is meek? Clearly not. As even the L.A. Times reports, the Pope’s is a very effective leader and has been a force for good throughout his life.
Indeed, the ironic fact of the matter is that meekness is the key to true strength, while “going one’s own way” inevitably leads to passively accepting the demands of others.
The key is to understand that submitting oneself to God frees a person to live as the creator intended without having to worry what everyone else thinks. That is incredibly ennobling.
Consider Moses, a man the Bible calls the meekest man in the world (Num. 12:3). He could stand up to the Pharaoh and lead his people out of Egypt because he was living before and audience of one. He sought only to please his master and use the gifts God had given him. As such, he didn’t need to kowtow to the demands of the world.
In the same way, the apostles boldly proclaimed to the government officials who wanted them to stop preaching that they would obey God, not man (Acts 4:18-20). This tradition was continued by Paul and a long line of bold Christian witnesses up to this present day. (Check out Mother Theresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer for great twentieth century examples.) To be meek is not to be spineless. Indeed, meekness has a strengthening and calming effect because you can leave the consequences of any particular situation in the hands of your master. You know a horse is well broken when the rest of the herd gets spooked by something unexpected but it stays under the control of the rider; it has the ability to not follow the crowd.
On the other hand, look at what the supposedly “brave” and individualistic people do who “stay true to themselves” end up doing: exactly what the world tells them is desirable! Think again about the actual message of the commercials and songs above.
VW claimed that only drivers (strong individuals who can’t be pushed around and don’t let anyone tell them what to do) drive Volkswagens, so if you were really a driver you would drive what we tell you to drive. You would submit to our opinion and, like all the other mindless drones out there, come down and pay us money for what we have convinced you you want.” This is as far away from individuality and “out-of-the-box decision making as you can get.
In the same way, Dodge wants us to “Grab life” and submit to their opinion of what is valuable in life. (And don’t forget, it’s a top-selling truck – everyone else is buying this pickup too!) Ultimately, the call of this commercial is to be a passive clone who thinks he is a strong individual.
Then there’s Dr. Pepper. They put celebrities on the screen to encourage you to be yourself. The only message a celebrity endorsement ever communicates is this: “I do and I am cool, so if you want to be cool like me, you should do this to.” Originality and self-determination are the farthest things from the minds of these companies.
The spirit of the age that tells us to focus on ourselves turns out to be a call to be like everyone else. Notice the bland sameness of all our cultural “rebels.” If a kid tells his parents “I’m just being myself,” it’s almost a guarantee that he is actually mimicking and chasing after whatever the rest of the people in a particular group consider important. Certainly that is the case in the Bon Jovi video above.
Following God, on the other hand, leads to radical individuality. Each person has particular gifts, and God desires to allow us to use them. The truly meek have the power, then, the make the biggest difference in the world. This gives me great hope that Pope Francis is going to do a great amount of good.
Do you think much about the big questions of life? Do you spend much time considering why we are here or what has gone wrong with the world? Have you examined various answers to possible solutions to that problem or wondered how we should live as a result? Do you have a well thought out notion of what happens when we die?
I find it very interesting that for many people, the answer to all these questions seems to be “No.” They don’t have answers to the big questions, nor are they interested in pursuing any. Rather, they go through every minute of every day either busy with work and social duties or plugged into some form of entertainment. Even those spare minutes in line at the DMV are spent checking Facebook and playing Angry Birds. These folks simply don’t contemplate life’s biggest questions, ever.
Isn’t that odd?
Blaise Pascal certainly thought so. Speaking from the perspective of a continually distracted person, he scornfully wrote,
I know not who sent me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am terribly ignorant of everything. I know not what my body is, nor my senses, nor my soul …
As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I only know that on leaving this world I fall for ever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be everlastingly consigned. Such is my condition, full of weakness and uncertainty. From all this I conclude that I ought to spend every day of my life without seeking to know my fate. I might perhaps be able to find a solution to my doubts; but I cannot be bothered to do so, I will not take one step towards its discovery. [Pensees 29]
Why wouldn’t a person try to understand what life is all about? It seems as if there has to be something wrong here. As Doug Groothuis points out, a refusal to think about life’s biggest questions is “an indication of something unstable and strange in the human condition. Interest in, or an obsession for, entertainment is more than silly or frivolous. It reveals and moral and spiritual malaise begging for an explanation.” (367)
One aspect of that explanation is acedia. As Kathleen Norris defines it, acedia is “an ancient term signifying profound indifference and inability to care about things that matter, even to the extent that you no longer care that you can’t care.” She likens acedia to spiritual morphine: “You know the pain is there but can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.”
However, acedia is not like a drug is the sense that it is something outside of us that might affect us if we let it. Rather, it is a sin that will control us if we practice it.
Indeed, acedia is a very serious sin. Joseph Pieper summarizes: “In the classical theology of the Church, acedia is understood to mean “trisitis saeculi”, that sorrow according to the world” of which Paul says, in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (7:10), that it “produces death”. This sorrow is a lack of magnanimity; it lacks courage for the great things that are proper to the nature of the Christian.” (54)
In other words, acedia is a lack of bravery to be the person God created us to be. It is a willful refusal to be the noble, holy, and righteous creature that we are. Rather than boldly follow Jesus into the heights of life in the trinity, those who practice acedia cowardly allow the ways of the world carry them along, all the way to the hell.
So although it is often associated with sloth, acedia is not really about being lazy. One can work very hard in life while being afflicted by acedia. In fact, acedia is one cause of the workaholism associated with our age. People who long to avoid God’s design for their life often do so by staying busy with work. Pieper notes: “The indolence expressed by the term acedia is so little the opposite of “work” in the ordinary meaning of the term that Saint Thomas says rather that acedia is a sin against the third of the Ten Commandments, by which man is enjoined to “rest his spirit in God”. Genuine rest and leisure are possible only under the precondition that man accepts his own true meaning.” (59)
It is a refusal to do just that that keeps many people from even broaching the subject.
I arguedbelow that pagan myths and non-Christian religions can contain truth and therefore believers should be careful not to go to extremes in trying to deny parallels between Christianity and other faiths. However, that does not mean that all religions are on par with Christianity. Jesus is absolutely the only way, truth, and life.
Nostra Aetate offers a balanced view in this area. Even as it affirms that truth is found in other systems, the document notes that the Church is duty bound to proclaim Christ, “in whom God reconciled all things to himself” and “men find the fullness of their religious life.” The last part of that sentence is an important key to understanding orthodox Christianity’s approach to other religions: they must be understood in relation to Christ because he is the full self-revelation of God and as such is absolutely unique. Indeed, unique is not an adequate term to describe Christianity because it insinuates that Christianity is just a myth with different characteristics than the rest. That doesn’t quite capture what I am saying here. Christianity is not just a different religion; it is transcendent over the other religions. It is a different kind of thing altogether. The myths are man’s feeble attempt to explain the divine. Christianity is the divine come down to man.
As Fulton Sheen points out, transcendence “does not consist in proving that Christianity is better than any other religion, but that it is above comparison. Transcendence is a ‘change of degree, order, and species’…Transcendence does not imply that Christianity must bear no resemblance to pagan religions, because similarities do not prove the same cause; nor that Christianity enjoys truth and all other religions are in darkness, but rather that it has historical superiority over them” (241). Sheen is saying that while pagan myths result, at least in part, from man’s attempt to understand the knowledge of God found in creation (general revelation), Christianity is all about God’s special revelation in time and space.
C.S. Lewis refers to the Christian revelation of God coming down to earth in time and space as “myth become fact.” In his wonderful sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis eloquently summarizes the major theme of these last few posts:
The Divine light, we are told, “lighteneth every man.” We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story—the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth. And the differences between the Pagan Christs (Balder, Osiris, etc.) and the Christ Himself is much what we should expect to find. The Pagan stories are all about someone dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when. The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named Roman magistrate, and with whom the society that He founded is in a continuous relation down to the present day. It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other. It is like watching something come gradually into focus; first it hangs in the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in first century Palestine. This gradual focusing goes on even inside the Christian tradition itself. The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical—hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becomes more and more historical. From things like Noah’s Ark or the sun standing still upon Ajalon, you come down to the court memoirs of King David. Finally you reach the New Testament and history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate. And “incarnate” is here more than a metaphor. It is not an accidental resemblance that what, from the point of view of being, is stated in the form “God became Man,” should involve, from the point of view of human knowledge, the statement “Myth became Fact.” The essential meaning of all things came down from the “heaven” of myth to the “earth” of history.
The myths of pagan religions and cultures are shadows of the real thing. It is transcendent over religion in that it fulfills religion. This is why Jean Danielou can state that
there is, for religious man, no better way of being faithful to his religion than to adhere to revelation. This is why conversion to Christianity is never an infidelity for the pagan. This point should be emphasized over and over again. The pagan will keep all the religious values of his paganism, but he will find in Christ the response to all this his desires called for. As St. Paul says, this God for whom he was groping but only through shadows and symbols, this God comes looking for him to give Himself to him, and to reveal to him what he is. (24)
In this vein, Karl Rahner calls Christianity the “absolute religion,” (301) because only Jesus can bring participation in the divine life. He is not just another religious leader, but the one in whom all religions are judged and find their fulfillment. Pope John Paul II speaks along these lines in answering the question of why there are so many religions in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (80-81). He refers to Nostra Aetate in noting that men turn to various religions to answer life’s biggest questions, but all men “have one ultimate destiny, God, whose providence, goodness, and plan for salvation extend to all” and that even as the Church can affirm the “semina Verbi (seeds of the Word) present in all religions” and a “common eschatological root present in all religions,” the “Church is guided by the faith that God the Creator wants to save all humankind in Christ Jesus, the only mediator between God and man, inasmuch as He is the Redeemer of all humankind.”
In my last post, I argued that there is no need to deny similarities between Christianity and other religions. I also promised a post or two on the fact that Christianity is also very distinct from other religions. Here is the first.
One unique aspect of Christianity is the type of knowledge that it claims to provide. Christianity offers relational knowledge of an immanent and personal being while all the other religions offer impersonal and abstract knowledge of ideas, principles, a vague and unidentifiable force, or a distant but personal deity . In other religions, the goal is to know about the divine as we know about gravity. In Christianity the goal is to know God as we know our parents, friends and spouse. The “godly” characteristic most emphasized in other religions is transcendence, while the God of Christian revelation emphasizes his immanence (while not downplaying his transcendence).
For example, R.P. Dunoyer notes that the religions of Japan, including Shintoism and the various Buddhist sects, seem incapable of rising above human horizons to contemplate a personal God (122). They are stuck with abstract and impersonal notions of the divine. Shintoism, for instance, “does not have the slightest notion of a spiritual interior life, of an intimate dialogue between man and his God” (102).
In another case, the Allah of Islam is primarily known by a host of names that express different aspects of his greatness. Muslims recite the names of God as a spiritual devotion, meditating on the various abstract qualities that he possesses (omnipotence, mercy, compassion, etc.)
When studying this, I was struck by the contrast between what a Christian and a Muslim would mediate on. While Christians also focus on God’s character qualities, they do so within the context of remembering what God has done and is doing in history. Psalm 77 is a model for many other Psalms and offers a good example of this. The Psalmist asks for God’s help as the one who is known for his love, mercy and compassion, (Psalm 77:7-9) but then provides support for those judgments by mentioning the miracles God has done in history, including bringing his people through the Red Sea during the Exodus (Psalm 77:11-20. The intimate knowledge that comes through shared experiences is unique to Christianity. As one booklet on Islam points out, “Islam holds that God is transcendent in a way that precludes the kind of intimacy he shows with mankind in the Bible” (20). The lack of depth and closeness of relationship between God and man in Islam means that the primary truth of the universe, namely that God is love, is missing from their theology. “Love is the keynote of Christianity that Islam lacks” (27).
As Pope John Paul II wrote, the theology of Mohammed and his followers is a reduction of Christian theology. It is a movement farther away from the intimacy of Christian revelation. “Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only majesty and never Emmanuel, God-with-us” (92).
The fact that God has not remained outside of the world is a major focus of a Jean Danielou article about the uniqueness and superiority of Christianity to other religions. He notes that the one of the major novelties of Christianity is that its adherents place their faith in an event, not an ideal or philosophical proposition or anything else (150). God is known and is known to be trustworthy based on his intervention in time and space. No other religion speaks of the eternal as breaking into the temporal in this way. This is unique to Christianity and finds its perfection in Jesus. I really appreciated Danielou’s insight into the fact that this intervention actually “gives time consistency and transforms it into history” (150). I think this helps explain much of the difference between Western Civilization and the rest of the world. The West has been built on a linear, apocalyptic view of time. That is to say that we have believed that time has a purpose and is headed toward a final and irrevocable culmination. We believe in history and take it seriously. This view is explicitly and uniquely Judeo-Christian. Societies built on other worldviews, with their views of time as cyclical or meaningless, simply do not live the same way. They do not understand history as the West does. Unfortunately, the West is losing this understanding of time as it sheds and denies its Christian underpinnings. Now our children are taught that time as meaningless and “History is bunk” (Henry Ford), just one more symptom of our regressing and dying age.
Indeed, both John Paul II and Danielou point out that non-Christian religions and theologies are only valuable as a pre-cursor to Christianity and any acceptance of them after receiving the light of Jesus is indeed a regression. The pope notes that Islam, for example, reduces God’s revelation and sets it aside to return to a more primitive view of the divine (John Paul II, 92). Danielou refers to pagan religions as “out of date” in that they served a purpose leading up to Christ, but now should accept their status as forerunner and accept that Jesus is their fulfillment. That is why conversion from another religion to Christianity will always be a “rupture.” Christianity purifies whatever errors the other religions have fallen into and consecrates whatever truth they contain, assuming its value into Christ (Danielou, 159).
In his wonderful Philosophy of Religion, Fulton J. Sheen expounds on several false assumptions underlying many studies of comparative religion. Here is a major one: is is commonly believed that the Divine and True Religion must be different from all other human religions. This is false, but I find it pervasive among both believers and skeptics, and hugely problematic.
For example, I often interact with those who think that if a biblical story has mythical elements or similarities to any non-historical religious tale, then the biblical story must be non-historical as well. The Christians who believe this spend their time trying to show that Christianity is completely different from pagan myths, sometimes having to stretch to ridiculous intellectual extremes to deny some of the obvious parallels. The skeptics who accept it emphasize these similarities as proof that Christianity is unhistorical, also working from the false premise that these parallels debunk biblical religion.
Both of these groups need to realize that it is entirely possible for a story to have mythical elements and similarities to non-historical tales and still be historical reality. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis rightly realized, in Christianity, myth became fact. Christianity is the fulfillment of the pagan myths. Christianity is that for which the pagan religions yearn. For example, there is a concept of redemption in many religions and pagan myths. Christianity also is focused on redemption. Does that mean Christianity is false? Of course not. The reason so many religions speak of redemption is because mankind actually needs to be redeemed. Christ is the one redeemer.
As such, Christians need to be willing to recognize the similar redemptive themes in many religions, and skeptics need to be willing to admit that these similarities do not rule out the historicity of Christianity. We don’t need to deny the history for the myth and at the same time we don’t need to deny the myth for the history.
That is not to say that there are not clear differences between Christianity and other religions. Sheen does an excellent job of explaining the transcendence of Christianity, but that is a point I will leave for another post.
[box] HORATIO [After interacting with a ghost] O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
HAMLET And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.[/box]
Is there more to life than meets the eye, or less? In the debate between the Christian worldview and contemporary skepticism, this is often the question.
For the average skeptic, the answer is less. The Christian, on the other hand, says more.
Your skeptical philosophy narrow reality, at least knowable reality, for what we usually think it is, while Hamlet’s philosophy, and Shakespeare’s philosophy, and mine too, expands it. You say that most thoughts are to be debunked; but I say that most thoughts are shadows to be followed until we find the realities that cast these shadows. You say that most of what we take for reality are not real things outside the cave of our minds at all, but only shadows on its interior walls. But I say that there is far more “out there” than there is “in here”, more in reality than in our cave of appearances.
For example, it has seemed quite obvious to almost everyone for all of history that humans are moral agents made up of matter and spirit that live in a multi-faceted universe containing various types of supernatural beings. Christianity accepts this as accurate. Skeptics, however, believe that these impressions are illusory. Other senses that are deemed unreal include those experiences in which we “love,” “hate,” and “make decisions,” as these are nothing but physical processes in our body. Our world is flatter and less complex than what it seems to be, it is claimed
What are we to make of this claim? Many have pointed out that it is self-refuting and unsupportable, something I’ve talked about indirectly before and will perhaps address more fully here in the future. For this post, however, I’d like to offer Alice von Hildebrand’s take on it. She claims that the “nothing but” approach to interpreting reality is simply lazy. It is to blindly accept unsupported and simplistic assertions rather than dig deeper.
Von Hildebrand points out that this debunking process consists primarily in reducing higher things to lower things, a reduction that usually
operates in favor of the lower entity, the one calling for less intellectual effort. The mind has been reduced to the brain, not the brain to the mind, and this despite the fact – as Descartes has conclusively shown – that one could err in thinking that one has a brain, but one could not err in thinking that one has a mind since one must have a mind in order to make mistakes.
Von Hildebrand goes on to argue that there is a “spiritual law of gravity” that consists primarily in “shunning the effort required to perceive the nature of certain objects,” and as a result, of endorsing an interpretation of the universe that is far from self-evident but is justified because it is empirically verifiable. But, she asks, why should love be considered an illusion, or a sublimation, but sex as the “real” thing just because it is subject to laboratory investigation?
Denis de Rougemont echoes that point by arguing that the “superstition of our time” is to take whatever is lower as the more real. “In the whole, the nineteenth century never felt greater self-satisfaction than when equating the superior with the inferior, the mental with the material, and the significant with the insignificant. It called this ‘explaining’”.
Fulton Sheen calls this a “positivist prejudice” and notes that those who want to explain of all reality in this way fail to distinguish between a method (how one investigates reality) and a doctrine (how one interprets and understands reality). It is one thing to study the physical aspects of reality. It is quite another to assert that reality is only physical. Reality has many facets which are worthy of consideration. Just as an optician should not pronounce judgments on an entire human body after an eye exam, skeptical neuroscientists should not jump to conclusions after recording brain waves, for example.
We would rightly call such an eye doctor foolish. Would it also be correct to suggest that, in making such bold and unfounded claims, he exhibits a certain amount of intellectual sloth?
The Sacred and the Profane is a classic work of scholarship that provides strong evidence in support of a Christian worldview. Mircea Eliade’s study of the history of religions builds on and strengthens Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, in which Otto argues that religious experience is wholly different than natural experience. Both books present a strong case against the atheistic position that religions are the result of naturalistic processes rather than a response to an objective supernatural reality.
For example, Eliade shows that the sacred is not the same as the profane, nor can it be explained as the result of the profane. Also, his work supports the the notion that Christianity is the fulfillment of other religions and transcendent over them, rather than just one more in a long line of religions. We will look at each of these themes briefly.
The Objective Reality of the Sacred
Skeptics of religion argue that mankind’s religious impulses are a product of natural processes. If that is the case, an analysis of what mankind considers sacred and profane should show that the profane encompasses the sacred. In other words, the evidence should support the idea that the profane gives birth to the sacred; that the profane is foundational, solid, and immovable while the sacred is arbitrary, amorphous, and transitory. However, as Eliade’s survey shows, the evidence leads to exactly the opposite conclusion.
For example, in his discussion of sacred space, the author notes that sacred space is always considered the “really” real part of the universe, while non-sacred space is ambiguous and without structure (20). That is to say, the sacred is the solid, fixed point from which all else is oriented, while the non-sacred is a formless expanse without essence. Profane space is characterized by chaos and homogeneity and relativity (22) while sacred space is ordered and distinct and moral. When reading this insight I was reminded of The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. That story takes place in a “landing area” between Heaven and Hell in which people are given a choice regarding which place they would like to live for eternity. Heaven is portrayed by Lewis as the real and solid place, while Hell is small, indistinct, and wispy. This matches up nicely with Eliade’s observations.
Given these descriptions, profane space is unlivable. It does not provide a context within which anything can be accomplished, because, as Eliade rightly notes, “Nothing can begin, nothing can be done, without a previous orientation – and any orientation implies a fixed point” (22). As such, one never finds man living a completely profane existence. No matter how much he has tried to live without religion, “the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behavior” (23). He cannot get rid of everything sacred because the profane does not provide him with a basis for his existence or a means of living it out.
I would add that in the same way, the profane does not provide a basis for the existence of the sacred. If ultimate reality is profane (chaotic, homogenous, and relative), there is no way that it could produce a reality that is ordered and fixed. The ephemeral does not encompass and account for the eternal. On the other hand the eternal can encompass and account for the ephemeral. If ultimate reality (the “really real” part of our existence) is sacred, it makes sense that profane aspects could also exist. Light can account for darkness, darkness cannot account for light.
Eliade shows that sacred space is understood as a place where the eternal meets the temporal, where the divine dwells with the merely human. This type of space would make no sense in a reality that is actually and only profane. If reality was profane, mankind would not have the necessary foundation upon which to construct a “sacred” reality. On the other hand, if reality is both sacred and profane, it makes sense that man would have spaces to indicate where the two spheres coincide. The idea that religions, and the sacred spaces that are an integral part of their observance, are a result of a purely profane world does not match up to the evidence of our experience.
This principle can also be seen in Eliade’s discussion of the construction of sacred spaces. Continue reading →
Jesus’ death and resurrection is a huge obstacle to belief for many seekers and skeptics. They don’t understand why Jesus would have to die in order for God to forgive us or what it is about blood sacrifice that makes salvation possible. Indeed, their gut reaction is to be revolted by the idea that the Jesus’ crucifixion somehow triggered God’s willingness to provide a ticket to Heaven.
For example, a popular internet atheist has posted a “One Question Challenge to Christians:” Why does blood sacrifice make anything better? We wouldn’t have respect for a tribe that throws virgins into a volcano, why should we respect a god who requires “a bloody, sadistic human sacrifice just to be persuaded to forgive us.” If God wanted to forgive us, couldn’t he just do that without having anyone killed? Could you please explain the mechanics of the situation to me?
Likewise, Christopher Hitchens was flabbergasted by what he perceived as the call to follow a god who subjected his son to a vicious death in order that Hitchens might be forgiven:
Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life…..(p. 209)
How does this make any sense?
In response, the first point to make is that these skeptics have too narrow a view of salvation. They seem to view it as a one-time legal transaction in which sinners are forgiven. As I explain at more length here, salvation is about much more than forgiveness: it is the creation of new life. Frankly, if salvation was simply and only the legal forgiveness of a debt, I think the skeptics would have valid concerns here. However, it isn’t. Salvation is about making us into new, righteous people, not giving unrighteous people a new name.
That still leaves us with the question of what the cross accomplishes in this process, but at least we can start with a more accurate soteriological foundation.
So how does the death and resurrection of Jesus result in new life for us? Continue reading →
Don preaches about the parallels between some of the major events in biblical history (including the flood and the crossing of the Red Sea) to show that God’s overarching purpose in redemption is not just to forgive people, but to create (and re-create) for himself a family.
I recently read a skit in a children’s curriculum book about the work of Christ on the cross. The instructions went something like this: First, choose a kid from the audience that you are sure does not know that much about Christian theology. Have him come to the front of the group and explain that he has been selected to take part in a test. He will be asked a question and if he answers correctly he will receive a bowl of candy (or some other prize of your choosing). However, if he gets the question wrong, he will get a pie in the face. You then ask the child to define substitutionary atonement. When he is unable to answer, start preparing the whip cream in a plate for the big event. However, just before you hit him with it, a person from the audience (someone you have pre-arranged) should jump up and run forward, offering to take the child’s punishment on herself. You then smash the pie into the substitute’s face, explaining that, in the same way, Jesus was our substitute. He took our penalty on the cross.
Now, I suppose I can see some small glimmer of truth in this skit, but it is overshadowed by the fact that the instructor – the God figure – comes across as so capricious and unfair. Think about what the child at the front would be thinking. If he is anything like me, it would be this: “What did I do to deserve to be sitting here? How am I supposed to know what substitutionary atonement means? What does that have to do with anything anyway? Why should I get a pie in the face for not being able to answer correctly? And what sense does it make for someone else to take a pie that neither of us deserves? The whole thing is silly and pointless.”
The kid would be right. The whole thing is silly and pointless because it is completely arbitrary and unjust. The rules were made up by the instructor and impossible to pass, the punishment bore no relationship to the “offense,” and the solution to the made-up “problem” was similarly random. The whole situation was contrived. The skit writer made the instructor seem capricious. God is not like that.
I won’t take time to discuss the specific problems with the skit writer’s view of atonement here; I bring this example up simply to point out that the whole premise of the curriculum is flawed. It makes it seem like God’s story could have been fundamentally different, that God could have defined sin in a different way or made the punishment for sin something different than it is, or come up with some other means to save man than having Jesus die on the cross.
This is false. Taken to its logical ends, this notion distorts the biblical witness and makes it pointless to try to make too much sense of God’s actions or find a unity of purpose to God’s story. It makes it seem as if God does stuff for no other reason than he decided to do it and there is no essential rhyme or reason to the whole project.
Unfortunately, this bad theology is keeping skeptics away from God. Rather than revealing a loving father graciously and consistently working to draw people into the relationship for which they were created, the skit above portrays an arbitrary and capricious God with a bit of a mean streak who could never be trusted. How can we ask an unbeliever to follow someone like that?
I often talk with atheists who believe that matter is all that exists and that we live in a closed system of naturalistic cause and effect. In other words, they hold to some form of philosophical naturalism.
I won’t detail the full argument here, but one of the logical consequences of this materialist worldview is that humans have no free will. If matter is all there is, people don’t actually have the ability to make a choice between cereal and a bagel for breakfast; we just chow down on whatever the myriad of physical variables in our past determined that we eat. Indeed, everything we do is the result of a long chain of reactions that we had no control over, from breathing to committing murder.
As such, argue those that accept this truth, we must rethink our moral judgments of people. After all, if someone had no choice but to be a criminal, we shouldn’t treat them as if they were culpable. We should take a more therapeutic approach, trying to adjust their behavior rather than punish them for doing evil. For example, Sam Harris, in his recent book Free Will, is quite explicit in denying culpability even to sexual predators: “All rapists are, at bottom, unlucky – being themselves victims of prior causes that they did not create” (p46).
Harris follows the logical consequences of his worldview to a greater extent than many of his fellow skeptics, and I applaud him for it. Most are not willing to go that far. They may understand that determinism is a logical consequence of naturalism, but they don’t want to abandon the concept of morality and personal responsibility completely. Even those that might dismiss some criminals as “unlucky” don’t extend that judgment to everyone who does “wrong”.
For example, I have yet to hear an atheist wave off the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church as simply the result of “bad luck.” Skeptics are generally very zealous in their condemnation of the priests who perpetrated this evil as well as the hierarchy that covered it up. They also, it seems, feel a certain moral superiority to the wicked child molestors, a view that is blatantly unwarranted in a deterministic universe.
Further, skeptics commonly chastise believers for making a stupid choice in accepting religion, an action the atheists clearly think they were smart enough to decide against.
To try to keep the cognitive dissonance to a minimum, then, these skeptics try to retain the language of choice and free will while still holding on to materialistic determinism.They claim that we can still have “choice” and “responsibility” within a deterministic worldview and therefore we are justified in making judgements and accepting praise for doing the right thing.
Conversations with these folks can be frustrating. In my experience, this is generally how they go:
Don: Within your materialistic worldview, humans don’t have choice and therefore can’t be held responsible for their actions.
Atheist: Not true. We do have choice. It is materialistic process involving innumerable variables and inputs that result in an action that we call a “decision.” Ultimately “choice” is akin to what happens when a thermostat flips a furnace on. Many variables come together to produce a result. That action is a choice.
Don: What you just described is not choice.
Atheist: Of course it is. Why are you not getting it? [They describes the same process again.]
Don: That is not choice. It’s what happens when a thermostat flips the furnace on. Thermostats don’t make decisions.
Atheist: OK, it is not free choice, but it is choice. We are just using the same word to represent a different reality. The term is used this way in academia all the time. It’s like saying the sun rose at 5:30. The sun didn’t literally rise, but it still rose. It’s figurative language. We may not have literal choice, but it’s still choice. I am fully justified in calling what happens in a determined universe “choice” and therefore am justified in making moral judgments on people who make wrong choices.
Don: Could you explain your understanding of what happens when we make a “choice” using more literal language?
Atheist: That would be “a tangle.” [In other words, no.]
I encounter this kind of sophistry often, so let’s take some time to break down this encounter.
My debate partner claimed that it was fine for him to keep using the word “choice” to describe what happens in a closed system of cause and effect because words can have more than one meaning and can be used figuratively as well as literally. OK, let’s see if he was using language properly here. We’ll start with a quick analysis of the use of symbolic or metaphoric language in describing reality. Continue reading →
I recently read about a new Christian ministry that is making great inroads into a previously unreached subculture of American life. It’s called the Association of Christian Car Thieves (ACCT) and has opened chapters in 14 major American cities over the past 2 years. According to its website, the organization offers Bible studies, prayer groups, and summer camps for those who steal automobiles.
At first I thought this might be a ministry to prisoners and ex-convicts, perhaps something akin to Prison Fellowship. I assumed they taught folks how to live without resorting to taking other people’s property. But no. This group is not about instructing people not to steal. It’s about helping them live good Christian lives as thieves. “God loves us just the way we are,” said an ACCT spokesperson, “and at the same time God requires excellence. We want these guys to be the very best at what they do and use the gifts that God has given them. We teach them not to bury their talents in the ground. They should try to be the best thieves they can be.”
But isn’t there a commandment against this kind of behavior? Maybe, but that doesn’t bother one accomplished Los Angeles robber: “I’m as Christian as the next guy, but when I go out to jack a Porsche, I leave God at home. I’ve got a job to do.” An up and coming teenage prospect from Miami adds, “Listen, people lose their cars all the time. They get in accidents, they can’t locate their vehicles in the mall parking lot. How do you draw the line between what is an acceptable way to lose your car and what’s not. I’m just trying to provide for my family. Sure, some people may be against what I do, but out here in real world, you gotta get things done. God is all about getting things done. That’s what my ACCT chaplain told me.”
OK, of course none of the above is true. The absurdity of such a “Christian” approach to ministry should be clear. Christian theology simply does not allow for either a) stealing cars or b) thinking that Christian morality can be applied only in certain parts of one’s life. There is no place in a Christian’s day for “leaving God at home” while one spends some time living contrary to biblical teaching. There is no area of endeavor that is exempt from living a virtuous and holy life. Jesus didn’t say, “Be like me except when you are at work” or “Be holy except on weekends.” Christians are to be a light to the world every moment of their existence.