Now Reading…

Currently reading Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins.  I’ll post my review of it when I’m done.

On another note, I’m done applying to Grad Schools for now and am finally in a place where I can blog.  I will try to do more in the near future. 🙂

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Why I am Still a Christian (Salvific Inclusivism)

One thing that is a very real problem to people who consider Christianity, and something that I struggled with during my time attempting to be a theological conservative, is the topic of salvation with respect to people who believe differently from us.  The classic Christian position over the years and the one you are most likely most familiar with states that the overwhelming majority of people on Earth are going to be burning in Hell for all eternity and the only way to be saved from this fate is to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.

I believed some version of this as I was growing up and through most of college.  I might have quibbled about some of the peripheral questions; things like “What happens to young children who die?” and “What about the mentally disabled?” and “What if there was this guy who was born on a small island nobody’s ever heard of and his parents didn’t know about Jesus and there weren’t any missionaries coming to the island to tell him about Jesus and he had never heard of the Bible and there weren’t any Chick tracks to float up in a little glass bottle and wash up on the shore…what happens to him?”  However, whatever logical hoops I found to jump through for these people, I still pretty much thought that anybody who didn’t express an acceptance of Jesus Christ as their personal savior was riding that train on down below.

I firmly believe that it most often takes listening to people with other perspectives for us to change our own.  Late in college, I had a roommate who was Hindu.  On a number of occasions we talked about our faiths and I will readily admit my ulterior motive was to win him to my side.  Fortunately, however, I’ve never been very good at evangelism in the way I was taught it.  When I was taught evangelism, I was told that your primary motivation to listen to what other people are saying was so that you could bring the conversation back around to Jesus.  But as I saw it, that wasn’t really listening and I absolutely cannot talk to someone without listening to them.

I listened to my Hindu roommate, whose name was Anup (I am sure I’ve spelled that wrong), speak about the things he believed in and they were beautiful thoughts.  I didn’t agree with him on everything, but when he spoke about the “god” in everything I certainly understood how somebody could spend a lifetime thinking about that.  The more I have read and learned about the other religions of the world, the more I have come to appreciate their depth and the amazing amount of truth that can be found in them.  That’s not to say I am a pluralist, exactly.  I am a Christian.  I believe Christianity to be the truest exposition of the human condition among the religions.  I believe in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and that this event is the means of our forgiveness for not living up to what we should.

Where I have difficulty however, is in accepting the idea that someone who was born in India, like my friend Anup, and who was born into Hinduism and found in that religion an immense reservoir of truth, one so deep that a lifetime could be spent in its pursuit, could be condemned to eternal torment by a just and loving God because they didn’t see the need to consider another religion.  That is not justice.

There are a couple of non-exclusivist Christian responses to this problem.  The one most often vilified by conservatives is Universalism.  It states that all people will eventually end up in heaven, either because Hell is not a real place (I struggle to see the support for this in scripture) or that as C.S. Lewis stated in his book The Problem of Pain (though he was not, himself, a universalist), “the doors of Hell are locked on the inside” and people who go to Hell will eventually seek to come out.  The second of these possibilities seems more likely than the first, but I think even if it were true that people may be able to leave Hell (and I’m not sure that I don’t believe that, but I do believe that, in the end, Hell is more destruction than it is torment), many would likely cling to Hell like some cling to an abusive spouse because they are afraid to leave the devil they know.  Or like the abuser themselves, many are incapable of taming the rage inside them to accept the free offer of help.  We are all able to change, but I don’t think we all will, even under the worst of circumstances.

There is another option.  Again I return in this to C.S. Lewis for illustration.  Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are exactly what the series’ title suggests:  a chronicling of the nation of Narnia from the creation of that world to its ending.  In the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, Lewis describes Narnian heaven.  Then, he introduces a character who was a Calormen.  These were the enemies of Narnia and they had their own god who was named Tash.  However, this Calormen was in Narnian heaven.  This man approaches Aslan (effectively the Narnian Jesus) in Narnian heaven and, to paraphrase the conversation, he asks him, Why am I here?  I worshipped Tash all my life, how am I here with you?  Aslan tells him (again paraphrased), When you worshipped Tash you worshipped a Tash who was righteous and just.  You worshipped a Tash that loved good things and hated bad things.  When you were worshipping Tash, you were really worshipping me, you just didn’t know it.

This illustrates the inclusivist model of salvation.  A Christian inclusivist believes in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice as the way to God.  The inclusivist simply doesn’t believe that the only way to get there is through a conscious profession of faith in Jesus and that sacrifice.  We believe that God’s grace is bigger than a divine reaction to a set of words spoken.  God delivers his grace on any sinner (and we all are) who God chooses, based on the criterion that God has set.  I can’t tell you if you are going to heaven or hell.  I might have a guess, but I can’t see inside you to your thoughts and motivations the way God can.  He is the perfect judge and is perfectly capable of knowing who is deserving of what fate.  This means he knows my friend Anup, the Hindu born in India who faithfully pursued that religion and had no reason to pursue Christianity.  It means he knows the atheist who was burned by people who claimed Christ, but failed in their attempt to follow his example or who couldn’t get there minds around a flawed presentation of Christian truth (because any presentation of Christian truth presented by flawed human being is necessarily flawed).  It also means he knows the lifelong churchgoer who is seeking God’s kingdom come, but his own social elevation.  God knows us and this should make us glad and be the cause of some very real introspection.

I believe that everyone who hasn’t given up is searching for the truth about the world and their lives.  I believe that everyone who searches for truth finds some.  God is big enough to sort out the rest.

I will leave the subject for now with a video created by an atheist responding to the question, “What if I’m wrong?”  I don’t agree with everything stated in the video, but I do think it is a very good presentation of the question and the situation that any non-Christian standing before God would face.

-Peace

Where I want this to go

Hey out there!  I just wanted to take a minute to share with you where I intend for this blog to go.  I intend to wrap up my series of Posts on “Why I am Still a Christian” hopefully in a couple of months.  There will be at least two more posts coming, one on Christianity in Relation to other religions and one concerning the Problem of Suffering.  Once I have posted those (and possibly others if they come to me) I will post the logical follow up to this series, “Why I am a Christian”, as an attempt to explain not simply why I continue to believe in the face of these challenges, but why I believe the Christian faith to be true and of value.  As of now I intend that to be a single post, but I haven’t started writing that yet and I am starting to think it would be smart for my posts to be a bit shorter than they have been.

So that is my plan for now.  I am sorry that I have not been diligent in posting and I will seek to be more so in the future.  Talk to you soon!

An additional note on Evolution vs. Creation

I do have a basic understanding of genetics and evolution.  I wholeheartedly believe in both.  I believe in evolution so strongly that I attempt to use it in arenas other than biology to help to explain wholly different concepts.  My position, and the position of most theists with a healthy respect for and understanding of the science of evolution, is theistic evolution.  It’s a fairly simple idea to explain, precisely because it doesn’t seek to explain too much.  Theistic Evolution, as an idea, purports a belief in God and in the findings of science concerning evolution.  I believe in both and, believing what I do about God (that he is creator and actively works in the world), I believe that God was and is active in the initiation of and the continuing processes of evolution.  God wrote the laws under which evolution, as all other physical phenomena, operates.

So now the obvious question is, “What do you make of the creation story in the Bible?  Why is that story (or set of stories, really) so different from what evolutionary scientists say about the development of life on Earth?”  The simplest answer I can give is that in writing anything one must always consider the audience you are writing to.  The creation stories found in Genesis were meant to explain how the world came to be to pre-scientific minds.  If the creation stories were to have been written in such detail as to explain that God worked through the physical processes of some kind of Big bang and the biological processes of evolution, it would have required some kind of Divine transmission of an amount of information that it has taken us thousands of years to discover and explain.  The point of the creation stories was not to articulate some kind of “How to Create the World in Seven Days” manual, but to express that God created the world through his creative might.

Therefore, I do not seek, as the supporters of intelligent design, to say more than I scientifically ought.  I have no idea in what ways God works to guide the evolutionary path of our world.  I’m fairly certain that I cannot know.  So, I won’t say.  I believe God works in the world and I assume that means he works within evolution.  But, in the interests of good science, I won’t speculate as to how.

Why I am Still a Christian (Science and Religion)

How is it possible that an analytical, thinking person could spurn science for the fantasy world of religion?  This is the question as posed by many atheists arguing against the veracity of religion.  Do you see how the deck is stacked?  It assumes from the start that the claims of religion cannot possibly be true, so how, then, is it possible for an analytical, thinking person to spurn science for a fantasy they might like better?

Are science and religion enemies?    I think the short answer to this question is “no”.  I believe strongly in the scientific method.  In fact, I believe the scientific method is truly one of the greatest inventions of humankind.  It allows us to look at the world in a precise and objective way and learn things about it we might not have expected.  That is an important point that should not be glossed over.  Prior to the invention of the scientific method, it would have been very difficult for a person who was seeking to know the truth about the world to come to a conclusion that didn’t match up with their initial hypothesis.  The brilliance of the scientific method is in how precise it can be in discerning fact through controlled experimentation.  A doctor prior to the inception of this method might say to a patient, take the bark of a maple tree and eat it and that will cure your ear infection because they have seen someone before whose ears were hurting and they ate this bark and got better so, naturally, that must mean that maple bark cures influenza.  But now, we can set up clinical trials for any drug and measure them against control groups of people given placebos (fake drugs, usually water pills of something) and set up statistical models to show whether or not a drug really does work.  The scientific method is and has been crucial to the advancement of a multitude of fields.

I mention all of that for two reasons.  Firstly, I want to show that I understand science.  I am no scientist, and if we are to get too deep into the technical findings of biologists and physicists I will do my best to keep up, but I will be out of my depth.  I believe the argument I intend to make is on a basic enough level, that I am qualified to give it.  Secondly, I want to show that science is something I believe in.  Understanding as I do how the scientific method works, I generally trust the findings of good scientists.  I do look into the methods they used and see if the experiments they have run support the claims they make from them, but that is what any good surveyor of the scientific should do.  However, I certainly believe that the scientific method is the best means of working out an understanding of the physical world.  That said, I also believe science has limits.  If there is a spiritual realm (and of course I think there is), just as I am ill-equipped at scrutinizing the work of the biologists, so science necessarily has moved out of its depth.

Christianity is a religion that is concerned with the world we know.  It has moved great givers like Mother Theresa and great reformers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Wilberforce to work to change the worlds they knew.  However, it is also a religion concerned with the spiritual.  We are called to love God with everything we have and rely on the work of the Holy Spirit to help us to live how God wants us to live.  Science can readily speak to the workings of the physical world.  That is what it is designed to do.  But it cannot speak to the workings of anything it cannot observe.

I believe God to be a supernatural being.  The suffix “super-“ here should be defined as close to its Latin root as possible, meaning “above” or “beyond”.  Therefore, the word means that God is above or beyond (or perhaps outside) the natural world.  As such, the scientific method of observation of natural phenomena in the physical world is ill equipped to observe God or to comment in any way on his workings.  The only way the scientific method could possibly observe God would be if he were to physically manifest and show off his powers or if it could catch him in the act of performing a miracle.  The first is unlikely and we can discuss why in a later post if you’d like.  The second is perhaps even more unlikely.  It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles.  I do.  It’s just that a reputable scientist would have to capture said miracle, which would be a one in a trillion kind of event both in time and space, on some kind of device that would allow that scientist to measure said miracle repeatedly to show that it, in some way, defied the laws of nature.  Even once this had happened, human beings are masterful at explaining away anything in the world that strays from their own preconceived notions of “the possible”.  Perhaps the device was faulty or maybe the scientist is just trying to stir up some fame so he could land a book deal.

There is a parable in Antony Flew’s book There is a God which describes a small community of people on an island that is entirely cut off from the outside world.  The people of this island have no more reason to think that there are other people outside the island than I do for thinking that there may be aliens.  One day a working, solar-powered satellite phone washes up on the beach.  The inhabitants of the island examine it and notice that if they push the buttons on this device in the right order then it produces voices.  The scholars on this island study the device further and manage to create an exact replica of it that is the same in every possible way and when they push the buttons on this replica it also produces voices.  The scholars conclude that this exact combination of materials, when put together in this way, produce voices.

At some point, the chief of this village gathers together all the scholars who have studied this device and he tells them that he has a new theory about it.  He says that he thinks that the device is a means of communication with beings outside of the island and that even though they cannot understand whatever language these beings are speaking, that they are attempting to communicate.  He thinks that the scholars should study the device further to see if they can use it to learn more about the outside world.  The scholars laugh at the chief saying that there is no reason for them to expect that there is anything beyond the island.

Flew uses this parable to ask the question, “What would have to happen for an atheist to change his/her mind?”  Few people would suggest that the scientists were right in this story, but one can certainly understand their point of view.  Their entire world was this island.  Just because something strange comes out of the water is no reason to suggest that there are other people somewhere else who created it.  That would sound perfectly insane to these people with their own set of life circumstances.

Sometimes I hear people argue that religion is just a bunch of silliness.  They say that a belief in God is just the same as a belief in faeries or pixy-dust.  One prominent atheist claims its all a bunch of “woo” (stunning philosophical argument, I know…).  My view is that the belief in an intelligent creative force who has an interest in the workings of his creation is not the same as a belief in faeries.  I would say that a thousand years ago, no one understood exactly what stars were and why they shined or moved in predictable patterns in the sky.  It was the general assumption that the sun rotated around the earth and nobody had any clue as to how.  These things were known as great mysteries of our world.  The scientific method has taken these “mysteries” and made them explainable phenomena.  We should not discount the existence of the metaphysical simply because we have no means of measuring it.  It would have been no more correct for someone, prior to Galileo’s telescope, to discount the belief that the stars were big balls of burning gas or that the earth, in fact, circled the sun.  We cannot empirically observe the supernatural.  Because of this, religion necessarily sounds strange and mysterious.  That, in itself, does not mean it should be discounted.

I don’t believe science and religion must of necessity be enemies.  I don’t believe that science is inferior to religion (or, obviously, vice versa).  They speak to differing areas of our experience.  Science seeks to explain the physical workings of our world.  It can create instruction manuals for how flowers bloom and stars shine.  As I have said, the scientific method is among the most brilliant philosophical inventions of humankind for explaining what we can observe.  Science, however, can do very little more.  Philosophy can, informed by science, but answering abstract questions is not science’s purpose.  Religion, by design, seeks to explain to us that “inexplicable other”.  What is love?  Why do we love one another?  What is beauty?  Why do we seek out and desire something more than what we have?  Is there an over-arching purpose to all of this?  Is it good?  I have heard people argue that science can speak to these issues, but I am all but certain that philosophy is the only secular arena with a real shot at it.  As a quick note on non-theistic philosophy, though there are philosophical answers to these questions based on science, they all lack the depth that I think the experience of these concepts would suggest and require.

Any well thought out religious faith, particularly one with a metaphysical component, requires two things:  philosophical introspection and simple reliance on experience.  The first part primarily includes scientific and moral considerations and amounts to the question, is it possible for this belief to be true?  That second part is one of the biggest problems people of faith have in dialogue with people who aren’t.  Secular people, in many cases, have so ingrained in themselves the sense that it is not possible that there is anything beyond the natural world, that many times they refuse to see anything otherwise.

When a true naturalist says to me, “isn’t it incredible that atoms bouncing off of other atoms and a series of biological and chemical processes creates a forest where I can walk and smell the cool air as pine needles crunch underneath my feet” I have to say, yes.  It is incredible.  So incredible that I find myself utterly incapable of believing that the awesome majesty of nature is the sum of an admittedly very complex series of biological, physical and chemical equations.

That is not a philosophical argument.  There is nothing remotely concrete about what I just said.  A scientist would try to explain to me that, as I stand in that forest neurons fire in such a way as to release certain chemicals which induce a perceived state of pleasure (I’m sure I butchered that explanation, but that’s not the point).  The fact is that, even though I understand that this is true and these physical processes do occur, it doesn’t explain the sensation, just the functioning of that sensation.  A scientist can tell me how the sensory perceptions of the trees and the leaves enter my brain and how the brain reacts to that stimuli and, perhaps, I can explain what experience that produces in me and all that can be written down and factored into a technical explanation of the experience, but it cannot answer for me the question, “what is beauty?”  It doesn’t explain the interconnectedness that I feel, as if I am a part of something bigger than myself.  It might in a technical way, tell me that I am part of an ecosystem and that I, in some way, contribute to it, but it cannot answer the question, “what does this world and everything in it mean to me?”  That is not in the make-up of science.

Science and Religion explain differing aspects of the human experience.  Though they may occasionally overlap, these two disciplines are different.  Religion should not attempt to make pronouncements on areas in which science is best equipped to comment like, for instance, the shape of the earth and of what the sky is composed (though I realize religious people often do this ).  Scientists should not attempt to make pronouncements on areas in which they have no possible jurisdiction, for instance anything that is not physically observable.  Once we have arrived on these grounds, the discussion of the existence of God can more properly commence.

Lord Jesus Christ hit by car…

I wonder what the punishment is for this??

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37015837/ns/us_news-weird_news/

Because it’s been a while…Exegesis!

Howdy!  I hit a patch in my school work where I had a thousand things to do all at once (admittedly hyperbolic, but the spirit is true).  I will soon post part two of my series Why I am Still a Christian on science and religion.  For now, I will post a bit of what I’ve been banging my head against the wall about recently.  It is an exegesis paper (exegesis = fancy word for interpretation of a piece of scripture) on 2 Timothy 3:12-16.  It relates fairly strongly to my previous post on Biblical Interpretation.  It’s pretty technical and might just bore you to tears, but I know you just cannot go a week without hearing from me…here you go! 🙂

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Context

Paul’s second letter to Timothy is set near the very end of Paul’s life as he is imprisoned (2 Timothy 2:9) and not expecting to live much longer (2 Tim. 4:6).  This letter, part instruction and part valedictory, is less concerned than 1 Timothy with church order and more with personal instruction for Timothy’s ministry.  The primary theme is one of standing strong in the face of trials and persecutions.  It should not be surprising such things might be on Paul’s mind while in jail, and his imprisonment certainly provides a powerful backdrop to the message he is intending to communicate.

2 Timothy 3:12-16 comes at the crescendo of this letter.  Just before, he has used his own life as an example for Timothy to follow, reminiscing, though perhaps not fondly, on the persecutions he faced in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra.  God has saved him from all of them, he says.  (2 Timothy 3: 10-11)  At this point Paul describes the trials that Timothy and any communicator of the gospel must face and the correct response to those difficulties.  (2 Tim. 3:12)  He points out that there will be evil people and imposters seeking to derail his ministry.  (2 Tim. 3:13)  He implores Timothy to face these trials with the truths he has learned firmly in mind and remembering from where he learned it.  (2 Tim. 3:14)  He, then, lifts up inspired scripture as a means of instructing, building in the faith, and testing what is and is not true according to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  (2 Tim. 3:15-17)  These verses serve as a summing up of what Paul wishes Timothy to remember when he is gone and what the largest portion of the letter is all about.

2 Timothy 3:12

This verse is directly preceded by Paul writing of the terrible persecutions he has faced.  He then applies those same kinds of trials to any who wish to live godly lives.  It is clear that, to Paul, being a Christian and living a life as God would have one live it is a dangerous prospect.  To Paul, living the way God wants a person to means enduring in tribulation.  This idea is magnified by the context in which it was written:  Paul was at that very moment undergoing persecution.  Paul was imprisoned and expecting death.  This is the kind of thing Paul had come to expect and he wished Timothy, and any with whom Timothy might share the letter, to know to expect the same.

2 Timothy 3:13

In this verse, Paul specifies types of trials Timothy should expect to face.  There are echoes in Paul’s use of the word “imposters” of his earlier writings concerning the false teachers Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim. 2:17-18).  In encountering the fights of his day, Paul is seeing very clearly what the future theological fights and divisions would hold for the church and that one must hold to the truth in the midst of such things.  An interesting historical point is that the false teachers Paul is speaking of called themselves “progressives”.  The Greek verb used in this verse is prokopsousin which is the future-tense, third-person plural of the verb prokoptw meaning “I progress”.  This is a clever play on words Paul is using to suggest that these teachings and false beliefs mean something.  Much more than any theological fight, the text suggests Paul to be worried over the conduct which may be based in bad teachings.

2 Timothy 3:14

When Paul tells Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and understood”, he is continuing the thought from the previous verse, not merely asking Timothy to keep believing what he has believed or even, simply, to continue teaching as he has taught, but that he must continue living out those teachings.  He asks this, telling Timothy to keep firmly in his mind “from whom” he learned what he has learned.  The tivōn from para; tinōn is the genitive plural of the relative pronoun for “who” or “what”.  It is generally translated as “whom”, meaning that Timothy should remember what he has learned from Paul and those teachers associated with him.  It could also be translated as “what”, by which he would be referring to holy scriptures.  Some credibility may be leant to this idea by the fact that the next three verses are entirely concerned with the use and usefulness of the holy scriptures.

2 Timothy 3:15

It should be noted that Timothy was supposed to have been Christian from childhood.  In fact, according to Paul, Timothy is a third-generation Christian (2 Timothy 1:5).  He would have grown up in this faith, which is starkly different from Paul and the other apostles.

The scriptures Paul refers to are likely the Hebrew scriptures, however many of the letters of the apostles had begun to garner similar kinds of authority and it is possible these are to be included.

2 Timothy 3:16

The word theopneustos is a hybrid of two words, one being theos and the other being pnew.  Theos means God.  Pnew has more shades of meaning, but effectively it means “I blow” or “I breathe”.  This is why the translators of the NIV translate it literally as “god-breathed”.  There is a danger in that translation, however, that one may read into the word “god-breathed”, the connotation “god-spoken”.  Those arguing for biblical inerrancy will often suggest that Paul, in saying “All scripture is god-breathed” is saying that God spoke the words of scripture and, effectively, the authors simply dictated.  I won’t say here that may not be true, only that these verses of scripture do not say go so far.  Pnew has multiple senses of meaning all relating to blowing or breathing out, but never any relating to speech.  The translation might well be made “breathed out” or “breathed into” by God.  Considering this the more common translation “inspired by God” is the better, less loaded term.

There is a major textual issue as to whether or not the kai; is actually meant to be there, as several major texts do not have it.  This has a serious effect on the meaning of the verse.  With kai;, Paul has said, “All scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching…”.  Without it, the verse is, “all God-inspired scripture is beneficial for teaching…”.  In one, all scripture is inspired for the uses listed.  In the other, only the God-inspired scripture is useful.

Regardless of these issues, the thrust of the verse is that Paul wants Timothy to make use of scripture for “teaching, rebuking, correction, and training in righteousness.”

Concluding Observations

In summary, this passage of a letter from Paul to Timothy is a set of final instructions to one of Paul’s most beloved disciples.  Paul doesn’t know if he will see Timothy again and these are the things he wants to say if Timothy can’t make it to him (2 Timothy 4:9).  He wants Timothy to know what Timothy will endure.  He wants him to know that false ideas and teachers will crop up and they will lead many people astray.  He doesn’t want Timothy to be among those led astray.  Finally, he wants Timothy to know that he can fall back on the teachings of Paul and those associated with him, and just as much if not more importantly on the holy scriptures, which were inspired by God for the purpose of knowing what is and is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul wants to leave a path for Timothy to follow in the future.  These five verses, and the letter in which they are included, are the blueprint Paul is leaving for Timothy and for every Christian to follow him.