Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Dangers of Depending on Logic

Christians have been accused, (unfortunately [often]) rightly, as being anti-intellectual. That is to say it is common to hear people mock Christian beliefs as nonsensical. David Hume takes it so far as to say that the only ‘miracle’ in the world is that people can believe Christian doctrine. Of course, our own brothers and sisters don’t help matters when they say, “Doctrine divides; just love people” and “Science is wrong because the Bible is true” or “It doesn’t have to make sense; that’s why it’s called faith.” Such well-intentioned statements are exceedingly common but drastically flawed. Doctrine simply means ‘teaching,’ and everybody believes doctrine of a kind—we had better hope ours is sourced from Scripture, taught by the Church! Science and the Bible are not incompatible. And actually, it has to make some kind of sense, otherwise we would apparently be serving a God of whim and fancy, emotion and random. Yet we don’t. We love the God who created physics, biology, etymology, mathematics, music and everything  that is ordered… including the seemingly disordered: from the food chain to topography.

It is unfortunate that there such a de-emphasize on educating church leaders, of reading the authors of previous centuries, and of knowing the original languages; it is unfortunate that there is such commonness of deciding not to study theology, of rejecting the sciences a priori, and of finding comfort in illogical silliness and calling it faith instead of folly. These bring with them dangers: falling sway to heresy and false teaching, becoming a chronological snob, being unable to evaluate arguments in the language which they were made, failing to recognize the beauty and supremacy of Christ—pantocrator and Cosmic King, foolishness and sin. And yet there is another set of dangers that come from depending on logic.

When you depend on logic, you are declaring that your ability to reason is supreme—if God does not conform to your definition of logic, then you run the heavy risk of denying him as he is. We see this frequently all over the map: “I could never believe in a God who…” Oftentimes it’s an ethical issue like genocide in the Old Testament, tsunamis today, hell for eternity. But other times, you just redefine God: “I know what the Bible says, but God wouldn’t do that.” And sometimes you even redefine the language of Scripture confusing everyone who hears you—making them think you are a Christian when you have actually denied its essence: “Jesus is the Son of God which means that Jesus is divine [read not-the-same-as-the-Father-but-still-better-than-us].”

Hear some examples of logic taken awry:

  • If God commands us to do something, it must be possible to do, otherwise God would be unjust. Since God commands us to be perfect, it must be possible to be perfect without Christ. (the logic of Pelagius [“Pelagianism”], deemed heretical and anathematized by the Church)
  • That which is ‘begotten’ was at one time naught. Since the Father begets the Son, there was a time when he was naught—a time without the Son. Therefore the Son of God at one time did not exist, but came into existence, that is to say “he was begotten of the Father.” (the logic of Arius [“Arianism”], deemed heretical and anathematized by the Church)
  • God is spirit, not matter. Therefore, it is more holy to be spirit than to be matter. God, who is perfectly holy, cannot become less holy, and thus he cannot become matter. Therefore, although it seemed that Christ was human (that is to say ‘matter’), he only appeared thus, but never actually become united to matter. It was not he that died on the cross, but another who was mistaken for him—Christ was never upon the cross, but only ascended to the Father. (the logic of the Gnostics [“Gnosticism”], deemed heretical and anathematized by the Church)

These are only three of the many ways logic has misled well-intentioned humans into false belief resulting in their condemnation. Not because they were mistaken on a simple issue, but because they were mistaken of the essential person: God revealed through Jesus Christ. They trusted in something other than God and what he had revealed to them. They made their reason the determiner of truth, and came to worship something other than Yahweh, our Triune God. I don’t wish to write with a ‘matter-of-fact’ tone, if that’s what comes across. I want to write with sobriety recognizing that we all straddle the threshold of truth and error—worship and idolatry. We are constantly in danger, and we are all too frequently idolaters. And we are in constant need… constant dependence upon Yahweh who acts in grace toward us.

Logic and rationality are a gift of God unto mankind to help us understand him and the world he created. But we are still finite, and not just finite but fallen and created—there may indeed be times that things seem illogical or random, but they only seem so in the scope of dynamic, time-bound, existence as a finite human considers things of eternity, infinity, and divinity. Without his grace we would be destitute and destined for damnation, but with it we sit as sons and daughters upon his throne, heirs of the eschatological rational world. To that we look forward, when we will eternally be able to plumb the depths of him and his creation: always satisfied, never satiated; constantly deepening in love, holiness, righteousness, and joy. When we will study the physics of this world and others, the chemistry of things our minds haven’t begun to comprehend, they languages of nations throughout history—present there. And we will do so without idolatry. Recognizing the limits of our mind, and depending on its Creator to expand them further.

Does God’s choice of grace toward you make sense? Apparently not. But his mind is not yours, nor his thoughts. And there are reasons for which you have been recreated of which you have not the slightest clue—which may not come to fruition until two thousand years hence.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Parable for your Sunday Evening Meditation (Based on Luke 17.20-18.8)

Tonight's parable is based on Luke 17.20-18.8

The drifter wandered through the crowded park and curious heads turned his way. He’d become the town phenomenon: a homeless man whom people would willingly feed; whom women were pleased to follow; whom rich men were glad to invite home. And now here he was: grass between his feet, the breeze blowing through his matted hair, and deep-set eyes swallowing the park and its inhabitants. He found a shaded knoll and kneeled to pick a dandelion. Thirty were now surrounding him. Standing up, he looked half-surprised and three-quarters pleased to see the crowd amass. Just then, he blew upon the dandelion, and with his breath flew the breeze carrying each strand of floral fur into the air.

“So shall they be taken away,” he calmly muttered.

“Who?!” came a shout from the crowd, now fifty. He had shattered the calm, but the drifter didn’t seem to mind—
He simply smiled.

Then he spoke again: “Do not lose heart, my friends. The day will come in which the King plucks up the weeds of the field and scatters them to the wind: only the grass will be left, adorned by tulips and lilies… not dandelions. The child plays with the weeds for the excitement they offer, but the woman adores the bouquet for the beauty it shows. How much more a living garden?”

Nonsense, or so it seemed to many. But that was the way the drifter spoke.

“There was a negligent gardener,” he continued, “who had charge of the royal garden. In this garden, a lily had made its home. But so did many weeds. Daily the weeds choked the water from this lily and stole its sun. And the lily cried out with all its meek voice might muster, begging for the gardener to tend justly, but the negligent gardener went about things the way he always had: splashing water over the entirety and never getting his hands dirty. The lily continued to cry out, and the gardener hearing the cries became greatly annoyed. One day he became so disturbed and aggravated that he knelt into soil and pulled the weeds at their roots, leaving the lily to full food and joy.”

Then the drifter whispered, “The pantocrator of earth is no negligent gardener. And yet,” his voice continued to drift, “among the weeds…how many lilies truly live?”

For others in this series, click the tag "parables for your sunday evening"

Friday, November 22, 2013

Selfish Love

Ah, love. December is the most popular month for wedding engagements—at least that’s what I’ve been told. Because I’m not yet married, you might find my theology of love to be discredited. Lack of experience and knowledge, etc. But I think C.S. Lewis would beg to differ. Today marks 50 years of celebrating his life because it is on this day 50 years prior that he was welcomed by Love himself into an eternity of self-forgetful loving, living amongst friends whom he loved, and alongside a woman he loved on earth—and surely loves more fully now. C.S. Lewis authored a well-known (less-read) book entitled The Four Loves. In his book he discusses different relationships humans have and the love revealed in them:

  • AFFECTION: family, take-for-granted, have-to-love-them, can’t-be-rid-of-them, -type of love.
  • EROTICISM: spousal, romantic, erotic, reciprocal, physical, face-to-face, -type of love.
  • FRIENDSHIP: un-biological, goal-focused, dialogical, shoulder-to-shoulder, -type of love.
  • CHARITY: self-giving, un-demanding, elected, -type of love.

A summary, though tempting is not my intent today. Nor a list of the most insightful things he says. Instead, read the book yourself. Rather, I want to propose a correction of my own view of love, and maybe yours as well—of the four, I have experience in three (and a half).

Common (mis)Understandings of Love
There are two common misunderstandings of what love is—one by the loved of God and one by lovers of others.

False Love of Others. “Do what makes you happy,” “Comment on this post if you love me,” “I loved you until you stabbed me in the back, [profanity],” “Sometimes it’s just the memories you miss, not the person,” “Let them go, if they love you, they’ll come back,” and on… and on… and on… One benefit social media brings is the recognition of maturity: back when we were teenagers, we were social thespians and our world was as small as high school grounds; but we are no longer there—hopefully. The sad reality is that the drama doesn’t end when the digits reach 20: it won’t take long listening to popular radio before the artist cries about how their love has betrayed them, about the way their lover makes them feel, about revenge, regret, despair, anger, happiness, one night, a whole life, or a thousand years. And of course there’s the new track with some of the worst lyrics I’ve ever heard including, “But last night I feel like probably ended all that/ Cause by now she woulda sent a text in all caps/ Then another one tryna take it all back/ Saying f*** you, I miss you or I hate you so much/ Cause girls only say ‘hate you’ to the guys that they love’ and 'I never cheated (I mean, maybe once, twice).'"

It doesn’t take a sociologist to recognize that expectations of love aren’t being met. It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand the expectations are for undemanding, unremitting pleasure. It doesn’t take a pessimist to see its impossibility in a fallen world with depraved humans.

False Love by the Loved of God. On the face, this false conception is multitudes more admirable: instead of being entirely focused on what the other person can give me. It sources its definition in the love of God for humanity: entirely undeserved, continually loving—even when wronged. In essence, it’s exactly what the former persons long for—as evidenced in once-CCM artist become pop star Katy Perry’s  song “Unconditionally.” It is common for Christians to define love as ‘pursuing the good of another at my own expense.’ It is common to imply and explain that ‘love hurts’ and ‘true love sacrifices all of my desires for the good of another.’

Sometimes! But not always. And if it was always, we’re in for a distressing sort of eternity: when and where our desire is out of joint with the good of another. Christian, do you mean to tell me that my desires cannot be for the good of another? Do you mean to tell me that love isn’t pleasurable? I would say you’ve forgotten there is something greater than grace. I’d say you’ve forgotten God’s intra-trinitarian love. I’d say you’ve forgotten what the new creation will be like.

Back to Lewis… and Others
C.S. Lewis recognizes that to love at all is to tempt pain; if you fear pain, wrap your heart safe and secure and hide it from everyone at all costs. Lewis experienced that pain deeply. But he also recognized the temporary threat and sensation of pain is worth the joy that comes before, after, and all through it. You see, love is only self-denial when our selves are contrary to love. “Deny yourself, and take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus spoke. But what if your self already had the beam on your back, walking to Golgotha? What if your desire was for the glory of God and the good of others—would love then be not doing what you want? That makes no sense. John Piper collapses desire and worship when he says, “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.” Is love madness? Shakespeare seems think that love without prodigality is not love at all, and that love should not be tempered—only received by another. Love accepts the grace of God, and offers it to others… but one day, in the eternal day, will there be need for grace? Or will you be loved perfectly and love perfectly? Will you have selfish desires or selfless desires or self-forgetful desires? The point of this post is to say that one day they will all be the same…

Without regard to yourself [self-forgetful] you will give of yourself [selfless] and experience the greatest joy [selfish.]

As you prepare for eternity today, may your affective love find joy in desiring good for family, and having the good realized; may your erotic love find joy in desiring good for your lover, and having the good realized; may your friendly love find joy in desiring good for your friend, and having the good realized; may your charitable love find joy in desiring good for your recipient, and having the good realized.

Blend desire with perfection.

Related posts:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Complex Ethics

Is lying always wrong?

Think of the last movie you saw. Who was the good guy? Who was the bad guy?

Which is greater: to kill or to let live? And what if killing results in saving the lives of your family; to let live results in their rape and death? And what if killing results in the lives of your family but the loss of the lives of thirty others?

Feel the Tension
I bet that you answered question 1 with ‘yes,’ and then questioned yourself: remembering the last time you told a ‘white lie,’ or more seriously remembering people who hid Jews during the Nazi regime.

I bet that the last movie you saw had a good guy with severe flaws—probably a criminal past too—who rebels against the laws; and I bet the bad guy was the one who followed all the rules, was clean and kempt, and probably told a lot of truth.

And I bet that in the final questions you answered, “Let live! Kill! Ugh!—why does there even have to be this possibility?! Why can’t everything be good?”

Ethics are complex. Immanuel Kant, many years ago, came up with a theory of ethics called the “Categorical Imperative.” In the theory he states that lying is always wrong 100% of the time. Many commentator and ethicists have noted that Kant has no way of resolving conflict between competing moral imperatives. Of course, Kant isn’t the only one who has composed a theory of ethics, and he isn’t the only one who has problems in his theory. Consider William James’ pragmatism: the right thing is the one which achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And yet what is “good”? Aristotle’s theory of ethics has much to commend it, particularly in his view of discipleship to be taught the good, and in his attempt to bring pleasure and good to convergence; but what of his “Golden Mean” where the good is to find the happy medium between two extremes—is an extreme never to be preferred?

There is Augustinian Ethics aptly summarized in “Love God, and do what you will.” But that has been hijacked by moral relativists to sanction illicit sexuality, fraudulence, and other sinful actions. And it is somewhat abstract regardless. So what are we to do with these blurred lines—the grayscale of heroes, conflict of interest, and insatiable desire for the good, beautiful, and true?

Inherent Justice
The only reason we struggle with these questions, from a Christian worldview, is because we have an inherent sense of justice. We have a desire for shalom—peace absolute and unfettered; perfect and eternal. Why? Because we were created in the image of God for perfect and eternal communion with him in a community of love with others. You and I have a sense of ‘ought’ and ‘ought not.’ The difficulty arises by our own hand on account of the fall which we partook of with our first father and mother—you and I live in a sin-ridden world with things out of joint.

Sometimes the right answer is the hard one.
Sometimes the easy thing is the right thing to do.
Sometimes the right thing isn’t even an option.
Sometimes it’s because our previous choices limit our current ones.
Sometimes our current choices promise only to further a hole—even if they’re the right thing.
And yet… even at this our hearts know this itself is not the way it ought to be.

We ought to be able to choose and to choose rightly—for the good choice to always be clear, and for nobody to get hurt in the process. But that’s not the way things are. And that’s not right. And we’re the ones to blame.

But there has to be a way forward. We can’t simply wallow and call, “Woe is me; woe is us.” We can't simply sit in disillusionment and be content to live a nihilism not fit for humanity—that’s not living: it’s simply existing.

The Way Forward
Cornelius Plantinga Jr. proposes the seed of an ethics system in describing sin as “culpable shalom breaking.” He goes on to pose a question, and it is only a question: which act breaks shalom: telling your friend/spouse the dress is unflattering, or extolling their beauty? I’ve paraphrased his actual question for two reasons: one—to recognize that sometimes ‘beating around the bush’ may avoid shalom-breaking while achieving the greater end; and two—to build upon Plantinga’s thought and show that ethics is not actually about what not to do.

Let me explain. Should you eat pizza or salad? Don’t feel guilty for wanting the pizza. A salad may not be possible, or you may be allergic to raw tomatoes (but not sauce); and in fact pizza has been shown to provide a lot of nutrients (provided it’s the right kind of pizza). Regardless of your choice, you must eat to survive. And both choices are a good choice.  Is one better than another? Most likely. But a marathon runner won’t survive on a salad for lunch and dinner. So maybe the pizza is actually better. Calories, after all, aren’t a bad thing—no matter what that magazine at the checkout stand tells you. By now, you think I’m sidetracked, and that pizza has nothing to do with ethics. I dare say you’re wrong. For two reasons.

Reason 1: Food directly affects your body. Your body is a gift of God. Ethics is about relating in shalom toward others. Shalom finds its primary reference point in Yahweh. The things that you eat have implications on your perspective of God’s creation of your body. What’s more, God has designed our bodies to work a certain way. Undernourish, malnourish, or overnourish your body, and there will be physical complications which may lead to your inability to care for family members, to engage in disaster relief, to be an example of health to children. Your food choice directly and indirectly determine your ability to ethically live.

Reason 2: Food reminds us that there are several good options. Chicken or beef? Chicken is healthier, unless you suffer from iron deficiency. Soymilk or Almond Milk? Both have calcium, both are tasty… both are good for you… unless you have an estrogen surplus. And what about 2% milk and 1% milk? Or whole milk? Or coconut milk? Just milk leaves us with numerous choices (but don’t forget about how finances plays into these choices). All of these choices are good, and some are better than others for certain reasons: finances, health, cows. But let’s say you can choose any of them, which do you choose and why? I hope that the ultimate reason is “because I want to” or “because I like the taste.” In other words, “It brings me pleasure.”

I’m not a hedonist. I’m not an Epicurean. I’m a God-loving, eschaton-pursuing human. And ethics isn’t always about a right and a wrong. Sometimes it’s about a good and a better. You woke up in the middle of the night, what do you do?
Option 1: Pray
Option 2: Go back to sleep, enjoying the rest your creator has given you

Why is it that we think God is always waiting for us to choose the wrong thing? Why is it that we so often tend to think of ethics and choices in a 2D plane—you can only go left or you can go right? When will we stop creating false dichotomies, and start living in a 3-dimensional world—where choices abound… many bad ones tempting us, and many good ones calling our name? What will you do tomorrow evening? Bible study? Dinner with old friends? Fasting? A romantic date? Reading that new book? Writing that one that’s been on your mind? Which one is right/ which one is good? All of them! Which one will you do? That’s for you to decide—not a decision overshadowed with guilt and uncertainty: it’s one for you to decide with rejoicing that God has given you the opportunity to choose and that whichever you choose will help in preparing you for eternity with him.

Stop looking at things as left and right; start looking at things as good things, better things, and best things. Start viewing the world you live in and the choices you make with an eye to the glory of God in anticipation of an eternity living and loving him and his people.

Soon to come:
Complex Ethics Part 2: When You're Invisible
Complex Ethics Part 3: Pleasure
Complex Ethics Part 4: Ethics in Eternity
Water, Wine, and Whiskey
Exaggeration as Truth

Monday, November 18, 2013

Finite Perspectives: War

When you awake in the morning, view the world as war.

You are a soldier. You are an infantryman trained in combat, deployed on a lifelong battle, ever straddling the precipice of death. You are a warrior. You are not a civilian. You are not to be distracted by civilian affairs—entangled in the frivolous pleasantries that confuse your identity: this is not your home, this is not your land; you are behind enemy lines, and the enemy is out to kill you.

This is not a war waged with weapons of steel and iron, blade and ammunition; no Kevlar will protect you from the tactics of the adversary. In fact, you don’t have to go looking for the firefight…it will knock on your door—from the inside. You have spent too long in this land, and the shrapnel from your bloody life remains lodged in your organs, threatening your very being from the inside out. Post-traumatic stress? No. Post-lapsarian sinfulness. At one time, you were an agent of the enemy: trained in his tactics and comfortable in his barracks. Unless you stay sober-minded, constantly aware of the attacks from without and within, you will defect. An AWOL soldier is always welcomed back, but he carries with him the increased bloodlust the enemy has him given. So stay alert.

You are at war.
Your enemy prowls around—the expert of guerrilla warfare. He will spot you in the open, when none surround you; he will sneak behind you, as you go about your way, with a dagger in his hand, or a bomb upon his chest. But solitude isn’t his only ally. He can blend in with your friends, and garner trust until the opportune moment. He can lurk in the halls of past memories and stand ominously above future hopes. Your enemy is at large. He prowls around like a lion, he skulks like a dragon, he slithers like an eel, and takes to flight like a raven. He is seeking you. That he may devour—that he might snap his jowls upon your neck, and remove your trachea; that he might poison your heart and cause a slow, painful death. His tactics are many, his encumbrances few.

You are engaged in battle.

Pray for your life, soldier, for he—the supreme commander—will come to your aid. He has armies of angels at his every beck and call; his jurisdiction runs from East to West, and he moves with speed upon the wind. A sword protrudes from his mouth, and he will fight for you. For he has recruited you into his army. The ones who hate you for allegiance to him are his enemies more than yours. The battle is not against flesh and blood; the battle is against everything dark which threatens light, life, and love—the battle is against wickedness which derides beauty, truth, and mercy—the battle is against death, and death will receive death itself.

Take heart, fellow soldier. You are not in this war alone. Stand side by side, sheath by shield with your brothers who war alongside you. Together, at the command of the supreme general, fight against sin and death wherever it is found—even within your own selves. Look back to D-Day when Christ defeated death and sin in his birth, life, death, and resurrection. Look forward to VE-Day when Christ will use the sword of his mouth to restore peace to the earth. In that day, the war will cease, the peace will ensue, and you will have rest with celebration.

Pray for strength to survive the trench today.

Others in this series:

Water, Wine, and Whiskey

In light of CT's recent article on alcoholic drinks, and the recent boom in craft beer (also noted in the former article), I thought it might be helpful to bring an historical perspective into the fray. (The following text was an historical-ethical-devotional written for a small audience in early 2013.)

            I know we’re touching on a touchy subject when we mention alcohol. It’s touchy because some like to have a beer or whisky, some enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, and some have been left without a father either mentally or physically because of alcohol. The spectrum is wide and the consequences varying. What’s more, most have already made up their mind concerning alcohol, and will not be convinced one way or another. [While I was pastoring a Conservative Baptist Church, I preached upon John 2. I was expecting quite a bit of dialogue post-sermon concerning the wine--I even encouraged the congregation to speak with me about any questions they had. I was quite surprised to note the expressions of the congregation as I preached about the wine, and how it was a sign of blessing and enjoyment--not a face looked smug or disgruntled; and nobody approached me afterwards to confront me or ask me questions. It was at that point that I realized, this congregation lives in a military city with 85% of the men having been involved in some military role. The occupational culture had overridden (or tempered) any Conservative Baptist culture concerning alcohol consumption.]

            What many are not aware of, however, are the historical engagements and abstinences of alcohol. It would surprise some to know that monks and friars were the primary distillers, brewers, and sellers of alcohol in the Middle Ages. They needed wine for the Eucharist, and made much of it. They brewed beer to drink, which was particularly helpful for their otherwise scant diet. And they sold the excess to help fund affairs of the church. Alcohol had a large role in the church for quite some time.

            The United States prohibition movement in the 1800s and 1900s sought to put an end to alcohol abuse and its consequences. Some have tied the zeal of the prohibitionists to the recently successful push for gender equality [that the recent ethical success RE: gender left the people wanting another challenge to surmount]. This is likely true, but this doesn’t mean that prohibition is invalid. What does the Bible say about alcohol use? The certain truth is that drunkenness is sinful—believers are to be controlled by the spirit, not by the effects of alcohol. There are many regulations concerning wine and “strong drink.” Most of these are warnings about overuse; there are some occurrences where full abstinence is required, as in the making of a vow, or the entering into the Holy Place. But there are also places in Scripture where alcohol is encouraged: Paul encourages Timothy to drink some wine, Jesus commands his disciples to remember him every time they partake of his supper (which includes wine), Jesus turned water into the best wine.

            Some have claimed that the wine in the Bible was heavily diluted with water and that ‘strong drink’ was always outlawed; they go on to say that any alcoholic beverage today would be considered ‘strong’ by biblical standards. Is this true? Difficult to say. We do know that alcoholism is a problem in our society today, and that it can lead to abuse, divorce, death, dependency, and other things. But computers lead to pornography, adultery, divorce, gambling, dependency, covetousness, laziness, and other things as well. We could do this with most things: guns, food, cars, medicine, cinema, etc. But we can also point to the good in all these things: computers enable more efficient work, connections to the church at large, and many other things. Alcohol allows people to enjoy the creativity of God in creating drinks of varying flavors and complexities while allowing the drinker to relax.

            So what about you? The reality is that we live in such a world that those around you have been harmed by alcohol abuse; maybe you yourself have. If you enjoy an occasional drink, do so to the glory of God—admire him and his providential hand, but do so in an environment that won’t harm those around you; and don’t look down on those who don’t. If you have an aversion to alcohol, for whatever reason, then stick to water, but don’t look down on those who take some wine. Love God and love others, and do it with wisdom and humility, considering others better than yourself.

Additional articles, not written by me:
"How Monks Revolutionized Beer and Evangelization" shown me by Riayn Guinan
"The Story of God and Guinness"

"The Philanthropists: Arthur Guinness"
"Dealing with Alcoholism" by Ed Stetzer

Friday, November 15, 2013

An Open Letter to Atheists with a Theodicy of Sorts

Dear Atheist, Agnostic, or Critical Thinker,

            I don’t presume to know every difficulty and discrepancy that keeps you from embracing the Christian faith; or even if difficulties and discrepancies play into it whatsoever—perhaps you just think it’s foolish. I don’t presume to be able to answer every argument you posit or to be able to hold my own against your renowned orators—perhaps you are the spokeswoman herself. And I don’t presume to be able to match intelligence and dialect with Tim Keller, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Justin Martyr. However, here is one thing I do, though presumption is yet not its name: I do believe that you are guilty of a type of circular reasoning.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard or read an argument against the existence of God by use of “the problem of evil.” You’re aware of the argument in some form:

1.      God is good
2.      God is powerful
3.      Evil exists

“Only two are logically compatible.” I understand the argument, and of course it is a powerful one—why else would it promulgate so much discussion. After all, when something is controversial, it is controversial for a reason. For now, my contention isn’t that you have no philosophical explanation for evil. Nor is my current qualm that you don’t accept the Christian’s faith that there is a greater end to be had in apparent badness. I can reason alongside you some practical explanation of evil and some sense of injustice at tyrannical means for ‘the greater good.’ Rather I am writing to inform you that I believe you are trying to have your cake and eat it too (whatever that phrase actually means).

You see, your description of the problem of evil is understandable, but you also follow another line of argument seemingly distinct from it. You seldom relate the two, but hold them up as a one-two punch seen to decimate the Christian faith. What is the argument concerning which I refer? Your outspoken decry of penal [forensic] substitutionary atonement. As Evangelical Christians we believe that the wrath of the Father was poured out upon the Son for our redemption and reconciliation.  Yet, you do not accept this. You claim ‘divine child abuse,’ or fallacious logic (that God can pour wrath upon God for the sake of God—all the while forgetting our belief on God’s Triune nature). You think that we are degenerating into Neanderthal animism and that we have to appease a vicious Ego with human sacrifice.

Not only have you misunderstood us, but you are begging the question. I understand that you don’t normally see it this way, but that’s because for you they seem like two different issues; for us, however, they are integrally related.

You see, we know that evil exists. This is a problem! But our best answer to the problem is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Some of you deny that a man named Jesus even died. Most of you deny the possibility of a substitutionary death. All of you deny that Jesus is God. Understand us, though: we do not deny the existence of evil; we believe it is ever present in the world as we know it—even an Augustinian philosophy of evil as privation of good (championed in the alleged Einstein anecdote of the student and professor) recognizes its prevalence. We recognize evil and say that God maintains goodness and power by vanquishing evil by his death and resurrection.

We believe that God is eternal and infinite in perfection and power, goodness and glory. We believe that humanity was created to bear the image of God upon the earth—relating to him, to others, and to creation appropriately. We believe that every wrong action is evil, and in so doing we recognize more evil than you do. We believe that every action is evil because it is an act of rebellion: dethroning the King of the universe and placing you in his stead. We believe that because God is eternal and infinite, I have committed an eternal and infinite crime requiring eternal and infinite retribution either by absorption in the eternal and infinite GodMan Christ Jesus or in the eternal and infinite torment: hell. We believe that the Son willingly gave his life as payment for your life: being born, living, and dying—the cycle of every man, woman and child—so that your life might be counted as his. We believe that this is applied to you in covenant relationship by faith. We believe that this could not be done without the cross and garden tomb because the economy of the goodness of the universe would have been illegitimated (in other words, God would not be good and powerful!). We believe that evil is not the end of the story; that the resurrection of Jesus purchased and promised the eternal peace and goodness of the new created universe.

You see, you claim that evil exists. Then you say that you are not evil. You say that God doesn’t care that evil exists. Then you become irate when we say that God cares more than you do: he died for you. You say that evil should be stopped and punished. Then you say that hell is offensive. You say that God should stop people from doing evil. Then you say that God can’t command or force us to do something. You say that people are bad for hurting you. Then you say that you had good reasons for what you did. You say that your actions ‘aren’t that bad,’ and by doing so you give evil a bye and encourage it to continue. So if you say that your actions aren’t bad, then stop saying that evil abounds. Either you are doing wrong or evil isn’t as common as you think. But you cannot say that God doesn’t care about evil then turn around and cry “Foul!” when we say he does. And he cares about yours too. Particularly. Singularly. And he has promised to get rid of it by his death and resurrection.

In Christ, my Righteousness,
E.J. Boston

(Emmanuel James Boston)

Righteous Christianity and You

Righteous Christianity and You. That’s the title of this post, and the point implicit within it isn’t that you are or aren’t righteous, Christian, but that another who is not you may yet be a righteous Christian. But perhaps that’s too many short words, so here I’ll spell it out:

You are not the standard for righteous Christianity; Christ is.

You may very well be righteous and moreso as the days pine on,

But the same can be said of her. And him.

When you entered into covenant relationship with God, you surrendered yourself. As Russell Moore has taught us, true Christianity doesn’t invite Jesus into your life, it begs to become subsumed into the life of Christ. You have identified yourself as Christian, Believer, Disciple, or whatever the newest ‘early church’ term is. But Christianity is the family name, you are the family member; Christianity is the blue whale, you are the parasite who feeds of its life. When you became a Christian, the Church world didn’t reorient its being to your every theological whim and social ethic. There are fellow believers who are not like you.

I know the thought that runs through your mind at this point. It’s something like, “Yeah, but at least I…”                       I know that’s your thought because it is my thought too. And to some extent, some small measure, you are speaking truly: there are some things you do and understand which others fail to. Everything you believe, you think is true—otherwise you wouldn’t believe it. And yet, there are some things which really, truly, in fullness of reality, are actually not a matter of right/wrong, true/false, good/bad, Christian/pagan. The sad thing? I tend to think that even in these areas, I have a capital on Christianity: my preferences are preferred by God. But deep in my soul, God the Holy Spirit has been teaching me: I am not the standard of righteous Christianity; Christ is; Not everybody must look, think, laugh, and act like me to be saved by the grace of God into a faithful covenant relationship in the kingdom of God.

I’m thinking back to a morning I sat with my girlfriend in a local coffee shop. A group of high school-aged boys came in to do a Bible Study together. I should have been encouraged! Instead, I was skeptical and critical, looking for reasons to criticize and mock them. As if that was the way to fulfill the commandment of loving one another. As if Christ didn't suffer the wrath of the Father to bring me into communion with him and humanity. As if I wasn’t once in high school; studying a chapter of a Pauline epistle; struggling with social maturity along the way. And though the lesson was learned that morning, I would be ashamed to know the exact moment it was again forgotten.

Do not make your study group conform to your image of Christianity—they are made in the image of God being transformed into the image of Christ in righteousness. Do not expect your pastor to live Christianity the way you do—in doing or not. Do not quote “You will know a tree by their fruit” in order to console your dark soul as you castigate fellow believers. Recognize the beauty of diversity which God has endowed humanity.

You cannot expect people to be made into your image. That’s idolatry.

Not all Christians look like you.

Some enjoy art. Some enjoy food. Some enjoy reading. Some enjoy writing. Some enjoy fashion. Some enjoy coffee. Some enjoy beer. Some enjoy off-roading. Some enjoy soccer. Some enjoy movies. Some enjoy home. Some enjoy travel. Some enjoy video games. Some enjoy campfires. Some enjoy alone-time.

I pray that you are sanctified and that today pushes you further into our Triune God. I pray that you are righteous in part, and tomorrow you will be righteous in more.

"I'm Better Than You" by Tim Challies

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Humor as Truth

The other day we thought about how exaggeration can be truth. But what about humor and jokes? You and I simply assume humor and don’t question whether or not it is a valid way of thinking about life. But doesn’t Scripture say to abstain from coarse joking? And isn’t it true that the reason jokes are funny is precisely because they are not true: they detail something that is not; they capitalize on the incongruous or unexpected. This is the way with wordplay, puns, comic stories, stand-up one-liners, and even knock-knock jokes. Not only these, but even slapstick humor occurs when something unexpected happens—particularly something that should not happen: does a shovel belong in Curly’s face? No. Is it there? Yes. Enter stage right: laughter.

In fact, you often hear Christians say, “God has a sense of humor,” or “When you plan, God laughs.” But where do they get this from? Is it Scripture? God’s laughter in Scripture is one of mocking the wicked… it’s a condemning laugh, if you will.

Are not Christian believers to pursue truth? Feel the tension with me: Jesus Christ is truth, and it is the lovely, the admirable, the true upon which we are to set our minds. Shall Christians cease laughing and instead pursue stoic solemnity?



Some Insight from Augustine
In our discussion of exaggeration, I mentioned Augustine. That section finds immediate pertinence here:

We call things false because we see in them a resemblance to the true.…Reason: [That] which I call untrue, is found in those who lie. They differ from those who are deceptive, in that everyone who lies wishes to deceive. For masques and comedies and many poems are full of lies, but their purpose is to delight rather than to deceive; and nearly everyone who tells a joke is telling a lie. But one is rightly called deceptive or deceiving, if his or her goal is to deceive someone. Those who do it not in order to deceive, but just make something up, no hesitates to call liars, or if not that at least tellers of lies.
Reason: …A thing is called false if it tries to be something and fails
Augustine: What you say is correct. But I am surprised that you exclude from this category those poems and jokes and other falsehoods.
Reason: Because it is one thing to want to be false, and another to be unable to be true….these things are in some way true precisely because they are in some way false, and their being true is supported only by their being false in another way….Then if some things are helped to be true by their being something false, why do we so greatly fear falsehoods and strive for truth as for some great good?

Excerpted from Augustine’s Soliloquies, Book II: 7,12 – 10, 18, translated by Kim Paffenroth.

Developing Our Thoughts
Augustine lays firm bedrock for us, but since his aim is to determine the eternality of the soul, he doesn’t dwell long enough to answer our question about humor fully. He shows us that precisely in being false, some things are true. If you agree with that premise, then you can agree that a joke, precisely in being a false depiction (read ‘subjective construal’) of reality, can be true in what it attempts, even while it is not true as a description (read ‘objective essence’) of reality. But still that is only half of it. Just because by being false it is true does not mean that we are to accept foolheartedly.

In fact, a full-hearted acceptance of humor would indeed be fool-hearted because it is undeniable that some forms of humor can cut down rather than build up. Some humor belittles the glory of God and the image of God in man. But how much humor can we accept, and why can we accept it?

We find the answer in something else Augustine says, though admittedly, we have to alter his intent. Augustine states through ‘Reason,’ “Then if some things are helped to be true by their being something false, why do we so greatly fear falsehoods and strive for truth as for some great good?” The bolded words are all referring to the same thing. We might paraphrase: ‘if jokes are true by the joke’s being false…’ This we can certainly agree to, and already have. But if we alter the antecedent, then we come up with this: ‘if reality is shown to be true by jokes being false, why do we so greatly fear falsehoods (jokes) and strive for truth (strict description) as for some great good?’ We might also include Evey Hammond's wisdom from V for Vendetta: "Artists use lies to tell the truth while [deceivers] use them to cover the truth up."

Is this our answer? Does it satisfy our question? I believe it does. Not only the “why” but the “how much.” You see, humor highlights the incongruous. Jokes depict a reality that is not the way it is, but what’s more jokes depict a reality that is not the way it ought to be. Insomuch as a joke highlights the good and desirable, we ought to embrace and encourage it. Are jokes harmless? No… they either harm pride, arrogance, and sin; or else they harm goodness, glory, truth, and love. Like most things: there is no neutral ground; you must ask yourself the question: do I make jokes to highlight God’s goodness in creation and to stimulate hope for the new heaven and new earth, or do I make jokes to question and critique God’s wisdom andprovidence? Or again, ask yourself, do I make jokes to laugh at my flaws and point myself back to Jesus, or do I make jokes to highlight my competence and ability over and against others.

Is the Christian allowed to laugh? Yes, absolutely. The Christian can and should laugh, and perhaps they should even have the greatest sense of humor since they are acquainted with Truth himself. Joke and jest, and build the kingdom of God with your humor. Destroy sin, mock Satan, lighten the load of pride. Pay attention to the world around you and laugh about the way things are. All the while pointing to the way things should be. Do it with a heart of love and compassion. Do it with joy. Love the truth, and laugh off everything that isn't.

Scripture references involving humor:

List compiled from Elliot Ritzema’s article “Humor” in John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz, eds. TheLexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).


Monday, November 4, 2013

Exaggeration as Truth

We all have friends that exaggerate the truth. Unless you are that person, then everybody diminishes the truth. They are the ones who tell you why today was the best day or the worst day in all of history. They are the ones who imagine and retell yesterday’s events as if a hidden camera should follow them around to catch every instant on national television. They are the ones we roll our eyes at. They are the ones we sometimes disbelieve. And yet… exaggeration can indeed be true, or rather truth.

You see, Hyperbolic Hannah and Apocalypse Adam understand something about communication that we often forget. The conveying of truth isn’t simply a matter of relaying defensible data. It’s about something more. The conveying of truth strives to give the effect of the truth. So while you and I might be more precise with the history of an event, by exaggerating the details Hannah and Adam are attempting to make you feel what happened. Compare:

I ran a marathon.
I almost died running around the entire city!

Most likely they didn’t almost die. And most likely they didn’t traverse the city limits. But with their statement you get to feel a portion of what they did. Which one is more true? Both. It simply depends on how you look at it. And it might do some good for Christians to remember that truth involves effect and feeling: "If you're going to bore people, don't bore them with the Gospel. Bore them with calculus, bore them with earth science, bore them with world history. But it is a sin to bore people with the Gospel" (Howard Hendricks).

Something is true or genuine if it is accomplishing its intended end. So a reflection in a mirror is a false you but a true image—at least that’s what St. Augustine says. A joke is a false reality but one which highlights what ought to be true reality. An exaggerated story is a false history but a true experience.

Consider for example sections of Scripture that include hyperbole or exaggeration: will the trees actually clap? Maybe… but do people actually have a log stuck in their eye? Probably not. Of course, you could deny that these fit into the category of exaggeration, and you could deny that exaggeration is a form of truth; you can go on criticizing everyone who speaks thus as liars. Just remember to condemn yourself for the last time you said, “I’m starving.”

Exaggeration isn’t boy crying wolf.

Exaggeration is the little old lady swallowing a fly.

Humor as Truth

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Finite Perspectives: Exile

When you awake in the morning, view the world as exile.

You are a nomad. A pilgrim. This is not your home. You are on a journey. You are going somewhere. But you can’t be there yet. You have been exiled in this land, and forced to live out years upon years in this land. It’s a strange land. It’s different than what you know. You are familiar with love, joy, and peace, but this world is rife with hate, depression, and conflict. And yet you cannot simply escape from this world. You must live in it. And while you live in it, you know it is best to marry, have children, work, and enable this land to prosper as much as possible because in its prospering, you will receive benefit. To die would release you from exile, this you know; and yet to remain is to participate in mother-land in a way you cannot do once dead: you can awaken others to their true home.

The people that you talk with, walk with, eat with, laugh with—they have no desire to leave. This is all they know. Their family is here. Their comforts are here. Sure, it has problems, but it is home.

Sometimes you will want to settle down. You will be tempted and teased to set up camp and build something lasting. You will invest in the things around you so that your time is comfortable. You will attach yourselves to them because you think that doing so will give you dual-citizenship,maintaining the benefits of your home while adding the pleasures of a new home. But this is not your home.

You are in bondage in a foreign country. You are a prisoner-of-war.

Sometimes you forget that a war wages around you. You know that someday the war general will come and rescue you, but that day is not today, at least… maybe. The natives around you speak a language you hardly know: language of ridicule and mockery; language of hate and subjectivism. They mistreat you. Sometimes to your face and sometimes off-handedly just within ear-reach. Sometimes you pretend to act like them and for a while they believe it, but they ridicule your friends and family; and eventually they find out—you are not one of them. You are one of the others.

You champion the song of the lamb who was slain for he is holy. But your words are senseless to those around you, confusing and illogical. A slain lamb means nothing in this country, nothing but meat to eat. And yet you know something deeper, something truer. In your country, the slain lamb is a lion, and in your country the slain lamb means life infinite and eternalfull of joy and feasts. At times you wonder how you can sing the song of salvation in this foreign land. So at times, your song turns to one of war and vindication—at times you champion the song of Lion who will rescue you and bring you home on wings like eagles. Your songs give you courage as often as you hum them or belt them out for all to hear.

You are an exile. Destined to live years in this place.

You are an exile, and this is not your home.

You are an exile, and you wander the earth craving family… but what’s more

Others in this series:

What Does Your Pastor Do Post-Sermon on a Sunday?

Church is over. The singing has ended, the happy greetings have begun (or been escaped). You have just sat through 40-minutes worth of one spiritual leader telling you about God revealed through Jesus Christ. This was consummation of a week of study. Yes, he does other things like visit sick people and counsel marriages, but in this one hour he is given the opportunity to proclaim the message God has for his people. So, you wonder, what does he do now?

First your pastor prays. Sometimes before he even gets off the stage. He prays to the God whom he just spoke on behalf of, and he asks God to forgive him for the ways in which he failed. He asks God to help the congregation to forget that statement that was a little too close to the line of heresy or of ill-humor. Then he asks God to continue working the truth of the passage into your heart and to flow into your actions. Your pastor prays, and primarily for you.

Second your pastor breathes. Deep in and deep out. Some might call it a sigh. Some might think it means he didn’t want to be here or preach, but this breath rather is one of resignation to the will of God: Huff-sigh, “I’ve done my task, and I trust you to fulfill your word.”

Third your pastor smiles and looks around at the people. The first grateful person makes their way to him and thanks him. He nods and is grateful. He looks around at everyone else and wonders if there’s anyone he should talk to. Specifically, but they all seem to be enjoying their conversation partners. He talks briefly with some people; he is glad for the church community, but he feels no need to participate in it at this time.

Fourth your pastor leaves. Usually the last one to go, he is probably glad to be in a quiet car—unless he has little children who are chattering and laughing, then he is glad to be with his family.

Fifth your pastor eats lunch. It may be with his family; it may be with someone who invited him to lunch; but your pastor eats.

Sixth your pastor naps. He is tired from the service, most likely. He is glad to finally hit the bed and sleep.

Seventh… if there is an evening service, your pastor prepares. This isn’t to say he didn’t prepare earlier in the week, but most of his time has been devoted to preparing the message for the morning. He uses some time to refocus his mind and prepare for the evening service. If this is the case, the eighth step would be to teach at the evening service, and if not then the other “seventh” or here,

Eighth he relaxes. Whatever that means for your pastor—for some it means talking with family or friends. For some it means watching television. For some it means reading a book with a cup of coffee. Your pastor relaxes, enjoying God and his good gifts; trusting God that things are progressing right along God’s eternal purposes.

Ninth your pastor sleeps, and gets ready for Monday. The hardest and easiest day of his week is over—it’s the day that requires the most, but is likely the most joyful. He concludes it, and prepares for the week ahead.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Finite Perspectives: Introduction

An infinite God in infinite wisdom made finite humanity. One thing finitude entails is the ability to hold limited ideas, emotions, and actions together at one time; in other words, one thing finitude entails is the inability to hold unlimited ideas, unlimited emotions, and unlimited actions together in our being at one moment. This is good for us—particularly because we are sinful and our ideas, emotions, and actions are tainted at best and cataclysmic at worst. It’s a good thing that your unrighteous anger doesn’t cloud your decision to buy a gift, etc. Sam Storms notes, though, that imperfection is not the only reason we are finite—we will continue to be finite in the New Creation.

That being said… you began today with a finite perspective of the world. Good! At least hopefully. Your perspective can be good or bad, true, false, incomplete, askew, appropriate, complicated, and any other adjective your mind conjures.

What is the first thing you set your mind to, or the first thing you shoved into your ear drums and eye sockets? Oftentimes, those become the contacts with which you see the world for the day. That’s part of the reason many pastors encourage “early morning devotions.” Of course you’re not bound to that mistaken thought, but you have to recognize it in order to change it. What did you wake up today with? Was it, “Thank you, God,” or “Agh! I’m late!” or “Stupid work, stupid school, stupid people”? The grace of God is sufficient for you; ask forgiveness for your sinful attitude and believe. But then change your attitude.

God gives us the categories with which to interpret the world. Gratitude is only one aspect… and probably a tint or qualifier rather than the lens itself. Some prominent categories the Word of the Holy Spirit gives us are:
  • A Marathon Race
  • A War Zone
  • An Exile from the Homeland
  • A Kingdom of Darkness vs. Kingdom of Light
  • Meat…
  • A Furnished Home
  • A Temple
  • A Garden
  • A Death March
  • A Marketplace
  • A Fishing Boat

We’ll be taking one of these at a time and spending some time training our mind to view the world and the things in it in the various ways God has presented it. I don’t promise a new post every day, but we will get to them soon enough. If I’ve forgotten a biblical lens, leave a comment and let me know. If you have a preference for which I write about first, also let me know. I’m looking forward to it, to opening and having the world opened to me in new ways.