Search This Blog

Thursday, December 6, 2012

God and Suffering

Dictionary.com defines suffering as follows, “[to] experience or be subjected to (something bad or unpleasant).” If Dictionary.com is right, then suffering is as universal as it is unquestionable. That infamous serpent of long ago slithers through the lives every conscious being, eating dust and spitting out suffering in return. The sigh of a heavy heart and the echoed footsteps of a teenager all alone. The tears of those who mourn for all that they have lost and the child who hides behind the coach because her parents are drunk and fighting. The man who loses his job and sees the hungry faces of his children in his nightmares. The woman who miscarries over and over again. Those homeless on the street who suffer untempered addictions. Those who feel homeless in their own homes. The sting of a splinter or the pangs of a jammed toe. From the towering shrieks of giving birth to the moderate headache behind the eyes. Suffering is so pervasive that it is perhaps better described by what it’s not than by what it is. But even then it’s hard, for even behind smiles and forced laughs one may find a lurking suffering, a depression, a box of untalkables locked away deep in the soul. The serpent deceived us more than we could ever know, “surely, you will not die,” he said. But we would die, and that is not the least of it. “Surely, you will not suffer,” is what he should have said too. Put perhaps suffering was a word not yet even known.

So when asked to reflect upon what suffering means to me, I am left with a sort of anxiety (a sort of suffering, no less). The sort that comes when one is tasked with a job too big to take on all at once. That is because life as I have always known it is infused with suffering, such that to extricate it even intellectually is virtually impossible. Suffering is the air I breathe (in an increasingly more literal sense). Though it’s undeniable too, that suffering makes all the greatest things in my life possible. Love would mean little if I had not suffered the unloving. Compassion would have no force if I knew not pain. Faith would have no dominion if I had not felt the bitter pangs of unbelief. Hope would never surface if I had nothing at all to hope for. Mercy would be impotent if I had not suffered guilt. Forgiveness would still be in the heart of a man that was never born who died upon the beams of a tree that was never cut down. Suffering is infused in every category of my thinking that to even fathom a world without it is something only God can do. Thus, when I hear critics decry Christianity and maintain that suffering is the ultimate proverbial thorn in its side, presenting as they maintain, a decisive proof of Christianity’s falsity. I cannot help but quiver. For nothing could be further from the truth. It’s the nonexistence of suffering that would be the decisive proof of Christianity’s falsity. Christianity has long been a predictive model of suffering, holding as it does, at its redemptive center a crucified God who suffered and died. All so we could be forgiven. Forgiven? Forgiven for what?

Forgiven for all the unwholesome ways we wielded the power of our own freedom. For all the atrocities we enacted and participated. Forgiven for the children we left exposed to die. Forgiven for the rape and slaughter. Forgiven for greed and selfishness. Forgiven for the genocides we petitioned for, participated in, or idly watched. Forgiven for the lies told and the people we hurt. Forgiven for all the suffering that we brought down upon the heads of all people with ruthless and persistent indifference. Suffering is the story of Christianity, from start to finish, culminating as the exiled John proclaims, in newness absent of all that we have ever known.

We’re not the only ones to suffer, either. Creation is in bondage to suffering, as the Apostle Paul proclaimed in Romans. But a reality even more profound is that of God’s suffering. For it was God that created time and even before this ex nihilo creation God knew— knew that his image-bearers would wonder from salvation. God knew that it would be he that would have to die upon a cross through his son, Jesus Christ. We have only known this reality through the slow passage of time while God has borne it for eternity. So perhaps the serpent did not lie after all, for he said, “you will become like God knowing good and evil.” Who knew, though, that suffering was part and parcel of being like God?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Reflection on Prayer

In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions. 


1 Samuel 3:1b 

In seminary, I had to take a class on prayer and I remember being incredibly scared. Scared, as it were, of the painful reality of God's conspicuous silence. I have often characterized my spiritual life in evolutionary terms – inasmuch as it is not so much marked by sudden and complete changes as it is by slow and gradual processes. So when I first read the syllabus for this class and saw that I was pressed to seriously consider the matter of my own prayer life, I was afraid I would be charged with the arduous task of identifying which change among the thousands of minute ones is most important to me. I was afraid that after all was read, said and done I would have nothing more to say about prayer than I did before. That the God who comes in fire to some, still whispers to others, has yet found a way to speak to me. This silence of God, His utter hiddenness in my life, has never caused me to doubt His existence, or even His love. These things I never fear. I fear most that the God who came upon the clouds and whose voice renders existence from nothingness, does not speak to me at all.

I am not sure I ever thought in the past that prayer could be an expression of life's growing pains. It develops and matures and sometimes painfully so. Prayer in my life has felt a little like the days of Samuel's boyhood, a time where God's words and visions are scarce. Far from portraying myself as a little boy abandoned in a world of silence, I am simply identifying a phenomenon for which I wish I had no share. Is it not also true that the great Mother Theresa experienced a life rife with silence, wrought with darkness? Prayer to me has mostly become an expression of faith. But it is an expression that is gradually becoming richer – daily becoming informed by new experiences.

I used to understand prayer as the time we set aside to both thank God and make requests of God. This understanding is accurate but not nearly exhaustive enough. Prayer is the sum of many meaningful parts – innumerable auxiliary methods. Learning about all the different approaches and understandings of prayer has led me to the conclusion that any single definition of prayer will miss something, but I will try nonetheless.

To me, prayer is the effort we make to glimpse, if only for a moment, the divine. It is the struggle, the very strain of our ears to hear truth in silence. It is the effort of our hearts to form words of meaning without sound. Prayer is formed by our life's experiences, growing and adapting. It is the language that our souls speak and God understands. It is the praise we offer and the requests we make before “amen,” but it is mostly the stuff we say and do afterward. Prayer is in the disappointment of failure and the wounds of unsuccess. Prayer can also grow from the misery of loss and the pangs of guilt. Prayer is in the way we use our hands, or the places we put our feet. It is a lifestyle, a worldview. It is to be awestruck and speechless or afraid and trembling. It is an action, it is a passing thought. Prayer is gradual and instantaneous, borne through process and immediacy. It is scripted and spontaneous, memorized and made up. Prayer is a time alone or a community experience. It is in the surprise of wonder and the abruptness of death. It is the content of our hearts and the direction of our minds. Prayer is the manifestation of our vows, the actualization of our words – yet it is both the vows and words too. A Christian without prayer is like a potter without clay.

I have experienced a great number the aforementioned and the prayer class actually gave me new perspective about what prayer is.Though no one experience has brought me to the very throne room of heaven, many of them have given me glimpses of purpose. Many have helped me realize that prayer is not always easy – it is a struggle – and more importantly, it is a struggle for almost everyone (that, at least, is comforting). For me, prayer is mostly an experience of silence and emptiness where I petition God and praise God in faith – hoping that my prayers are heard. Still other times there is too much noise and racket caused by life’s pressures to focus. But most importantly, sometimes amidst the silence there is not an emptiness, but rather a feeling of presence. That is progress for me. To sit alone and feel as if your words are both heard and meaningful is scary and great – an arabesque of mixed emotions. To think that God is truly hearing my words and studying the innermost parts of my heart is not always comforting, it is an alarming vulnerability.

In effort to experience again such a feeling of presence, I began to experiment with new ways of trying to commune with the divine. At one point, when I was meditating in silence, straining my heart and reigning my thoughts back, trying my best to be attentive to God's presence, I was overwhelmed with peace. It was a peace that went straight to the bedrock of my confidence in God. Without words or whispers, fire or clouds, I simply knew that my efforts were pleasing to God. Merely trying can make God happy.

I will still continue to pray in all the ways I know how, consciously trying to keep God at the forefront of my heart and mind, hoping and praying that God will speak to me and I will hear it. All this so that in the final moments of my life, I will be known not just for my trying, but for succeeding. Maybe someday in the future I can answer my kids or grandkids when they ask, “do you know God?” with a cheerful smile and these words, “O yes, I know God, we have talked on many occasions.”

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fear shows us who matters...

“The happiest people I have known have been those who gave themselves no concern about their own souls, but did their uttermost to mitigate the miseries of others.”
—Elizabeth Cady Stanton


It was a dark and ominous walk. My friend Pat and I, neighbors at the time, walked side by side home after an evening movie at our local cinema. The night made more ominous by the fact that the movie we had just watched was The Ring. There is nothing more particularly scary than the demon-like antics of a small female child who hides her hideously dead face behind ratty jet-black hair. Needless to say, we were, well, pretty scared on our walk home—though neither of us openly showed it.

We avoided conversation about the movie as that would only increase the inner anxiety of having to walk home in the dark after watching a movie that freaked us both out. At one point along our long trek home we came to a park that we would always cut through because it literally cut the distance we would have to walk in half. The one problem at night, though, was that it had no lights. It was not a welcoming sight. We both paused before the black veil of darkness that lay before us. Then, without words, we both entered into the menacing heaviness of complete darkness. We talked about nothing just to remind each other that we were together—present and okay.

At one point I could see by the pale moonlight a small bridge over an even smaller creek coming up before us. I had the eerie feeling of being watched. I had that goose-bump feeling that, in all this darkness that enshrouded us, we were not alone. Because of this nagging fear I began to say something like, “I’m really glad I have my knife with me.”

Pat, who was clearly caught off guard by this sort of random interjection, said, “What in the world are you talking about?”

“My knife, I’m really glad that I brought it with me. Just in case, you know?” I said.

Again, totally confused, Pat responded, “You didn’t bring a knife, what are you talking about?”

At that point I was a little irritated that he did not pick up on the not-so-subtle hints of the intonation in my voice. We just stepped onto the bridge and I started to say something like, “Dude, I was saying that because I thought…”

And before I could finish my sentence, before I could tell him the truth about my fear, everything beneath us began to quake. A huge and ungodly noise erupted under our feet. It sounded as if some monstrous leviathan sprung out from the water below us. Then there was the scream, that high-pitched, bone-chilling scream that riveted my skull and at the time I knew not from whence it came. Though in retrospect, I think it was actually Pat who was screaming so inhumanly in my ear. It was a fight or flight situation and we both took flight.

We ran with total disregard for each other, Pat could have been dead on the bridge with some swamp monster devouring his insides and salvaging his femur for a weapon to employ on future victims. I knew and cared only about my own safety in that moment. And, as it turned out, Pat was doing the same thing. We still to this day do not have any idea what it was that we ran from.

It is a funny story for us both to reflect on, but it is also a hard reality for me to face. The reality that I am— in moments of crisis where fear is at its pinnacle—wholly selfish. It is a bitter truth to face. I do not want to be a person who, when crisis is averted, looks back at the scattered wake of tragedy and sees the hopeless mess of those who never knew what was to be helped.

Someone once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that
something else is more important than fear.”

That’s one thing I pray for. That even in the small things, here and now, I’ll learn to sacrifice myself. I want to learn to live without regard for my own selfish wants, so that in moments much larger and in crises more pressing, where fear threatens to consume me and beckons me to abandon my neighbors, others may flee, but as for me, no, I’ll stay, I’ll fight.

Monday, October 8, 2012

When Forgiveness Hurts the Most

The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, was responsible for the murder of approximately 90 women and girls. The family members whose loved ones will forever be known as the victims of Ridgway’s murderous infamy were given time to voice the hate that brewed in the deep chasms of their grieving hearts. Hate that comes naturally when we’re confronted with the brute reality of unadulterated human wickedness. 

Now, I don’t think this man should have been forgiven by the state and released without punishment. I also don’t think those angry, hate-filled family members are morally culpable or acting disgracefully. In fact, their reactions are incredibly normal and reflect the deep and abiding scars of an unimaginable tragedy. However, they seek at least a semblance of peace by sinking their roots deep in the embittered soil of hate and vengeance. But hate did not bring peace to those who had been wronged, nor was it strong enough to break the spirit of the one who wronged them. 


In the video, we see the measured tempo of a father who lost his daughter. It was the slow pace of a weary soul, burdened with grief. It was a man who bore a heavy cross that day. Who mastered his hate and did, not the easier thing, or even the normal thing, but instead, Robert Rule, father of a murdered Linda Rule, decided to forgive. The resolve of the wrongdoer was to no avail, for hate he could take, but forgiveness he could not bear. My father once told me that the one way to overcome evil is with the one force that’s stronger. Quite similarly, the one way to overcome hatred is through the one force that’s stronger, forgiveness. 


It’s a tough gospel to swallow and an even harder one to follow. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors and our enemies. Worse yet, He calls us to forgive those who sin against us. Though we’re tempted to hate those who've wronged us and wallow in thoughts of vengeance not our own, the truth will set us free. And the truth is, as often quoted, unforgiveness is the poison we drink hoping someone else will die.

Friday, October 5, 2012

You ought to donate your organs!

New legislation in New York is trying to increase the amount of donors:
New Yorkers getting a new driver's license will have to make a choice about whether to be an organ donor, a measure meant to boost sign-ups.
Quite some years ago, one of my professors drove frantically to Seattle hospital from southern Oregon. He was next in line to receive a heart that just came in. Three years before this visit to the hospital, he was given two years to live. His heart was increasingly less operable every day and, after multiple heart-attacks, bypass surgery and plenty of medication, he was going to die unless he got a new heart.

And he did get a new heart. But it was not until three days after his transplant operation that he found out to whom he owed the gratitude. It was a fourteen year old boy who was playing Middle School football. He died from a brain injury. It was the boy’s parents, in that moment of indescribable grief and undue urgency that made the decision for their son’s organs to be donated. That difficult decision to have your son, the boy you would die for, cut upon and harvested was one that expressed love for others too. It was that decision that saved the lives of five people that day. Nineteen people die every day from waiting, but never receiving, an organ transplant.

In reflecting on this situation, my professor is always struck by the sobering reality that someone had to die in order for him to live. This is not too dissimilar from the Christian story, where Jesus died so that we may live. That is why Christians have a moral obligation to be organ donors. Let even your death be an act of charity, so that when you die, others may find life.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

When God wants you naked


I was in downtown Portland with my wife and a few of our friends when a few stragglers from the annual naked bicycle run made their way down the street nearby. There were two men, fully exposed as one might rightly expect, and one woman, who also pedaled her way past us. Her bare breasts and pubic hair were clearly visible. I saw her in her nakedness just as I saw the men before her. I saw her face red with exhaustion as sweat gathered above her brows—liberation not without difficulty. Her body gave away all her secrets and all those gathered took them in only to whisper about them later.

But was she wrong in that moment? Was I? Was her flagrant display of her naked body an act of lewdness and my witness of it unmitigated lust? What of the men? Shall we chastise them also for the stumbling block they undoubtedly presented to all the unsuspecting female observers?

What about those artists who gaze upon the nudity of their subject, whom, poised in stillness, are captured in that moment on canvas and presented before the scrupulous eyes of instructors, peers and other connoisseurs of art? Shall we condemn the subject for his or her display? Shall we not also condemn the artist who masquerades such nudity under the vague notion of art?

This, I believe, is the problem of nudity. When does a man’s appreciation of a woman’s beauty become lust and a women’s display of it become lewd and sinful (and vice versa)? Is it wrong for a woman or a man to be nude in public and is it wrong for others to observe it when it occurs? What if the man or woman is, well, quite ugly? And what if he or she is attractive?

For me, the issue is relatively clear. It is wrong for me, as a male human being, to look upon another human being, whether male or female, lustfully. This can happen when the subject of my lust is clothed or unclothed. The issue then is one that resides primarily in our hearts and not in any given action itself. It is certainly perfectly fine for me to look upon my wife and desire her, but it is not similarly okay for another man to do so.

But let’s try and unpack this further and you can help inform me when I may have crossed some lines. Before I get too far along, however, let me say that I do think that men and women can use their bodies as instruments to entice others to lust. I can say that some women are exceptionally good at this and are exemplars of Paul's age old warning against being stumbling blocks for others. But my concern here is whether or not the base act of nudity is itself wrong.

Nudity is not wrong per se

That is to say, nudity is not morally wrong in and of itself. All of us can think of circumstances where being naked is not morally wrong and, in some circumstances, quite appropriate. Almost all of my routine physicals were performed by women. I distinctly recall, with no shortage of embarrassment, the stoic face of the female nurse who performed an ultrasound on my nether-boys. These same sorts of circumstances happen with women too, where women are exposed to the prying eyes and instruments of health professionals.

Public bathing has been around for millennia and existed as a firm practice in ancient Rome during the time of Jesus. Jewish scholars were actually forbidden from living in an area were public baths did not exist! Today there are men’s and women’s locker rooms where patrons move around in various stages of undress. So it seems rather safe to say that, at the very least, gender-segregated nudity is fine.

Moreover, I think we can all easily construct some creative moral dilemmas wherein we are actually compelled to be witness to the nudity of either gender. For instance, if you are familiar with the biblical story of the Good Samaritan who aids the naked and bedraggled Jewish man, you know it can be reworked and still be just as compelling. What if a man well on his way to some pressing engagement sees a naked woman on the brink of death? Is he not morally compelled to help? I think so. It’s a troubling thing that fear of sin can cause us to run away from those in most need of our love.

The subjectivity of beauty complicates things

Many elementary school libraries are furnished with playboys, though you may not think so. I can recall the many Natural Geographic magazines that had naked indigenous men and women blazoned upon their pages. Most people recognize this as an aspect of cultural dissimilarity, inasmuch as certain cultures view nudity in different ways. But then WHY is it okay for us in a culture NOT LIKE THEIRS to view it in magazines like Natural Geographic? When our magazines are laden with naked women, we usually call it indecent, or worse, pornography. It is, I am convinced, a form of racism to say it is okay for us to view their men and women as naked but not ours.

This inevitably leads to the question of beauty. That is to say, is the act of looking at a naked person made less wrong if we are not attracted to them? I know that national geographic women aren't typically my cup of tea and seeing images of them does not leave me with a rotting knot of guilt in my stomach. But we cannot go around telling doctors to only help ugly people and artists to sculpt and paint only the most unpleasant of us. We certainly cannot go around making laws and rules that regulate nudity based on one’s appearance. For one, it would be an incredible case of discrimination. And for seconds, beauty is often different among individual observers, sometimes drastically. I’m reminded of the time my wife and I were driving to the Oregon coast and we passed a deforested, mountainous lot of land that was desolate, grey and sort of bleak. I found this to be incredibly beautiful—a sort of sad beauty. My wife totally and utterly disagreed. To her, it was nothing but ugly. Beauty cannot be legally or objectively regulated—it’s simply not possible.

But the larger issue is the fact that we often tacitly admit that there is nothing wrong with seeing a person naked who we are not attracted to. That is why we segregate locker rooms by gender, because, by and large, men are not attracted to other men. Of course, with the increase of gay rights and awareness and other gender related issues, this once fine line is increasingly skewed. Is a gay man sinning if he sees another man naked in the locker-room? No more than any other straight man, I would say. It would be wrong if the man allowed himself to dwell on some extremely strong sexual desire (or, as we call it, lust).

But this sort of strong sexual desire is not unique to some specific environment or set of circumstances. Thus this must equally apply to circumstances where nudity is deemed as appropriate. For instance, when a doctor sees his or her patient in the nude, this could become wrong if the doctor dwells on some strong sexual desire. This, unfortunately, is not unheard of.

Of course, it must be rightfully admitted that it is easier to lust after someone you are attracted to. And that seems to really be what is at stake. Can men and women alike learn to bridle their hearts and keep themselves from dwelling upon strong sexual desires? If the other is not actually trying to entice you to lust, I actually don't find it to be very hard at all. The naked bicycle riding woman, for instance, was not trying to entice anyone to lust, though many could. But then again, many could even if she were clothed!


The Bible and Nudity

It may be noted with some sadness that Jesus was, in reality, naked as soldiers cast lots for his garments. Jesus bore the jeers of those who mocked him as he, naked as the day he was born, was flogged and ultimately crucified in the public sphere. There are also instances where God commanded public nudity of his servants:

In Isaiah 20, it references God’s command for Isaiah to travel for three years in the nude. It also references that this was a sign of what the King of Assyria should do:

So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt.
This sort of mass public nudity seemingly includes all the exiles, both male and female, without deference to any sort of gender segregation.  In 1 Samuel 19, Saul is said to have stripped off his clothes and prophesied in the nude: 
And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
In the New Testament, we have the account of Peter fishing naked in John 21:
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
It seems that there is nothing inherently wrong with nudity. In fact, when you do a bible search for the word “naked,” you’ll see that it is most commonly in reference to the shame associated with being exposed publicly  Just remember that original Eden scene where Adam and Eve were naked and “they were not ashamed.” As a product of the fall, men and women became ashamed of their nudity and on what level has Christ allowed us to be redeemed from that shame, if at all? 

I’m not certain. But I do know that those protesters who took to the streets in the nude actually possessed a lot of courage to overcome our natural proclivity to fear the exposure of our bodies. I can also say their public display of nudity was nothing that prophets of God did not do thousands of years before them. I also know that the true source of the problem is within our own hearts. To combat human lust we build walls and barriers around what we perceive to be the problem. We could follow in the footsteps of the other religious group, who ensure that their women are clothed to the point where even exposing their lascivious eyes may be too much of a stumbling block for men! How is it that we conveniently ignore those cultures where men and women can walk around in virtually total undress with no observable differences in lust? The problem is not our bodies, it's our hearts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Three beliefs that will change the world...

I frequent a debate website known as Debate.org. While perusing its pages for mind food, I saw a forum post wherein someone was sharing a thought experiment. In this experiment, the user asked this: if we had the opportunity to state three and only three sentences that everyone in the world accepted as true and unquestionable, what would they be? Further, he asked how these beliefs would lead to vast improvements.

Now, do not let me fool you into thinking that I have the best three sentences. I would like to think, however, that the three sentences I will suggest here are at least better than most.
1. Christianity is true
2. Ecumenism is incredibly healthy and important
3. Violence is not an option
As for the second aspect of this thought experiment, let me briefly explain why I think this would lead to improvements and what the immediate and long term ramifications might be.

1. Christianity is True

I did not simply choose Christianity because I think it represents the best way to live and the most accurate worldview. First, I think that an entire group united under a single, unquestionable ideology would lead to far less dissension, grumbling and political unrest. Now, some may rightly point out that the United States is (though it is statistically declining) a Christian nation and it still has no shortage of all the worst things in humanity. Hate, violence, dissension and all manners of unrest are not placated by Christianity. But I think this is largely due to the fact that any notion of the US being a Christian nation is a farce. Most Americans are Christian in name only. Most of these Christians, then, do not really operate under an unquestionable belief that Christianity is true. If they did, the world would look differently.

Moreover, I chose Christianity to represent this ideology because I also value truth, and, as it happens, I believe very strongly that Christianity is true. It would not sit right with me to propose three false sentences for people to embrace as true, no matter their positive outcomes.

2. Ecumenism is incredibly healthy and important

Disagreement, however, is part of being human. Thus, as my second unquestionable dictum, I chose ecumenism.

One of the definitions of Ecumenical from Merriam-Websters is:
[P]romoting or tending toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation
If we learn to expect, respect and value these differences we have even within our united ideology, there will be far less room for the incumbent dangers of disunity. I do not like to worship in a Catholic church, but I can respect that there are those who identify more with it and feel more strongly in favor of some of their doctrines. I do not have to agree with every detail to embrace them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

3. Violence is not an option

Lastly, for safe measures, I included the dictum that violence is not an option. If unity under a single ideology and the embrace of individual differences is not enough to prevent malevolence, hatred and the decadence of a human heart bent towards the rapine of the helpless, then hopefully the explicit and unquestionable belief that violence is never an option will.

I think world peace would be the short term ramification and a global, prosperous community wherein all are well fed and clothed and enjoy the love of one another is the long term ramification. It will be then that God can look upon the earth and say once more, "it is good."

What sentences would you offer?

Friday, September 21, 2012

C.S. Lewis was inconsistent...


In fact, many theologians were and are inconsistent in the very same way that Lewis was. For my master’s work at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, I am writing a thesis on omnipotence and the Trinity. The major premise in my thesis is the identification of what I perceive to be a theological inconsistency between conceptions of omnipotence and conceptions of the Trinity. What I mean by this is that many theologians when talking about supposed paradoxes of omnipotence, something like, “can God create a stone too heavy to lift,” appeal to a certain conception of God. That is, many theologians will say that God cannot do the intrinsically impossible. In fact, in the Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis says precisely that:
His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.
Moreover, Lewis and others maintain that this is decidedly not a limitation on what God can do because the intrinsically impossible are not actions at all! They are, as Lewis describes, non-actions. However, what I have observed is that these same theologians, I imagine unknowingly, will shift gears, so to speak, when discussing the theological implications of the Trinity. I will discuss this a bit more as we go along.

In my thesis, I will identify two categorical understandings of omnipotence: the Cartesian formulation and the Thomistic formulation. The Cartesian formulation insists that God is absolutely omnipotent, inasmuch as whatever can be phrased as an action (and perhaps even that which cannot) is necessarily possible for God to do, even that which is logically impossible. Rene Descartes famously argued that all truths are contingent truths. What this translates to is that all things we perceive as being true no matter what, things like 2 + 2 = 4 or that things cannot be both true and false in the same way at the same time, are actually ONLY true because God has made it that way. That is to say, these truths are contingent, or depend upon the prior action of God. Quite to the contrary, on the other hand, Thomas Aquinas favored a more limited and epistemically accessible alternative. This alternative insists omnipotence is characterized by having the ability to bring about any logically possible state of affairs.

At this point, it will be helpful to clarify what it is I mean by epistemically accessible. Here it may be helpful for you to picture a traditional target with a bull’s-eye. Now we can take the circumference of this target and multiply it by the radius squared, this, of course, will give us the entire value of the targets surface area. Imagine that this finite surface area represents the entire range of possible knowledge, that is, it represents the entire field of that which we could ever possibly know. The bull’s-eye and the areas near it represent things we know very well and are, perhaps, very easily known. The closer we get to the outer edges of this target, the more difficult, nebulous, and complicated this knowledge becomes. Now, outside of this target area entirely is an infinite range of knowledge that is impossible for us to know (at least in this lifetime). This means that things can be logically possible, like the existence of another universe where bananas grow on vines, but also completely inscrutable, meaning it is completely outside of our ability to know. So when I refer to something as epistemically accessible, I mean that this is something we can know. Similarly, when I say something is epistemically inaccessible, I mean that this is something that is inscrutable—completely outside of the area of possible knowledge.

Here is where I begin to identify a sort of epistemic inconsistency between the aforesaid doctrine of omnipotence and understandings of the Trinity. Lewis characterized the sort of ineffable nature of the Trinity in this way:

Now the Christian account of God involves just the same principle. The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings - just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God's dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it.
Now it seems clear that Lewis, in defending the cogency of the doctrine of the Trinity, appeals to areas outside of our epistemic access. This is clearly seen in his assertion that because of our dimensional limitations we simply “cannot imagine” or “fully conceive a Being like that.”

Descartes said it like this:

It is easy to dispel this difficulty by considering that the power of God cannot have any limits, and that our mind is finite and so created as to be able to conceive as possible things which God has wished to be in fact possible, but not to be able to conceive as possible things which God could have made possible, but which he has in fact wished to make impossible.
Lewis seemingly makes similar claims in his fictional work too, though here he is defending God’s ability to do miracles. One of the characters in the third book of Lewis’ space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, answers a question regarding God’s alleged breaking of natural laws in a very similar fashion:
It is not contrary to the laws of nature…You are quite right. The laws of the universe are never broken. Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws; whereas they are only the remote results which the true laws bring about more often than not; as a kind of accident. 
To be fair, Descartes and Lewis may not be saying precisely the same thing. Descartes maintains that the laws are as they are because God has made them as such, while Lewis maintains that our human capability to discern the laws is extremely limited by our epistemic access. What Lewis does is he supposes that we have these sorts of local generalizations of reality that may or may not accord with God’s true laws—laws that are in this human state of existence outside of our epistemic area of access. The practical outcome, however, is virtually without difference. Thus, the reason that the Trinity is not intrinsically impossible is because, according to Lewis, it actually accords perfectly with the true laws of the universe that exist outside of our epistemically accessible region. What follows is the idea that, even though some states of affairs seemingly defy our local generalizations of reality, they actually have not defied true natural laws. Descartes said something eerily similar when he maintained that:
In general we can assert that God can do everything that is beyond our grasp but not that he cannot do what is beyond our grasp. It would be rash to think that our imagination reaches as far as his power.
So while Lewis may be in many respects advocating something different than the Cartesian formulation, its theological and philosophical ramifications are virtually the same. The inconsistency that I see is that Lewis appeals to epistemically accessible natural laws to defend the idea that God cannot do intrinsically impossible things—a perfectly sane, Thomistic approach to the problems of omnipotence. However, in his defense of the Trinity, he appeals to epistemically inaccessible natural laws in order to prevent the Trinity from being intrinsically impossible.

The problem here can be laid out clearly. In Lewis’ defense of God’s omnipotence he asserts two premises to reach an obvious conclusion:

(1) God cannot do the intrinsically impossible according known natural laws.
(2) Actions posited in certain omnipotence paradoxes are intrinsically impossible according to known natural laws.
However, in his defense of the cogency and coherency of the Trinity, Lewis asserts two different premises:
(3) God can only do the intrinsically possible according to unknown and unknowable natural laws.
(4) The Trinity is possible according to unknown and unknowable natural laws.
The problem here is pretty clear. The major premises (1) and (3) are not compatible and cannot be true simultaneously. That it is to say, the Trinity is intrinsically impossible according to known natural laws, contra (1). Similarly, the only reason that God cannot, say, create a rock too heavy to lift, is because it is intrinsically impossible according to our known natural laws. However, what if these logical laws are only local generalizations and only a faint look at ultimate reality, a reality where entities contradict on occasion and, if the occasion is right, are both true and false simultaneously. That is to say, his appeal to a sort of 4th dimension and its incumbent epistemic inaccessibly renders his Thomistic approach to omnipotence without force.

The real question becomes, is there a way of maintaining a Thomistic understanding of omnipotence without undermining the mystery of the Trinity? I actually don't think there is, but perhaps research will change my mind.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Beginning again...


My wife listens to a lot of sermons by Jamie Winship. I do not. Not because I don’t like them, but mostly because I’m not nearly as accomplished at being able to listen and absorb that sort of information while doing other tasks. When I do something, I typically commit the most important aspects of my attention to that one thing. But one day when we were driving to an outlet mall about 45 minutes from our home, we listened to one of Jamie Winship’s sermons on “identity.” He’s a great story teller and so it shames me little to admit that I only remember the stories he told. In one story he recalled of his time on the police force. He and his partner went to an apartment complex for some sort of disturbance call (I don’t remember all the details of these stories). They met a woman who, by Winship’s assessment, was demonically possessed. I won’t make any truth judgments on the situation, because, well, I can’t. However, one thing that this woman did was name the details of Winship’s partner’s life. The woman possessed, somehow, knowledge she could not have feasibly possessed at that time. This “naming,” as Winship labeled it, caused his partner to lock-up. The sacredness of his identity lay exposed and the sacrilege of his being “named” by this demon empowered woman was paralyzing.

I haven’t thought much at all about that story until recently. In a completely different set of circumstances through totally dissimilar means, I felt “named.” I felt like for the first time someone dug up the bones of everything I’ve hidden and laid them before me and called me to make a reckoning. I was reading a book called The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer. At one point in the book when he was trying to explain with some clarity the meaning of identity, he freely admitted that he could think of no better way to accomplish this goal than through story. He told the story of two men with nearly identical upbringings but who nevertheless responded differently to the pressures of higher education. One of the characters, Eric, hid away the insecurities brought about by higher education and learned to speak and act like an intellectual, but, as Palmer explains, “always felt fraudulent among people who were, in his eyes, to the manor born.”

This insecurity altered Eric in a way that caused him to “[listen] for weakness rather than strengths in what other people said. He argued with anyone about anything—and responded with veiled contempt to whatever was said in return.”

As much as I hate it, I must claim it. I’ve been named. That’s me. And since I plan to start back up on blogging, I thought it only judicious to name myself before any future posts so that everyone knows what I’m working on and can aid me in the processes necessary for claiming new and better things for myself.

So a little about me. I am often wrong, though I’ll do everything in my power to never admit it. I try to ignore situations where I feel like I don’t have an answer. When pressed, I sometimes make them up. It is utterly ridiculous how tremendously hard it is for me to say, “I don’t know.” Forgive me when I am mean, rude or otherwise short-tempered in how I deal with things. It typically means one of two things: (1) I genuinely believe that what is being said is so observably stupid that it warrants verbal bludgeoning, or (2) I fear you may be right (or more clearly, that I may be wrong) and thus rely upon the posturing of intellectual superiority. Unfortunately, I cannot aid in discerning which one I am guilty of because I spend too little time in self-reflection to often know it myself. I can only hope the careful reader will remind me of when I’m guilty of the latter, and perhaps encourage me to use more appropriate methods for the former.

With that said. I look forward to using this blog for my entertainment, learning and, hopefully and possibly, yours too.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Kingdom of God is Like a Weed...

Here is the familiar parable of the mustard seed:
Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.”
The common interpretation of this passage seems only common sense. The kingdom of God is represented as this small and seemingly insignificant seed that grows into a fullness that is by orders of magnitude greater than the meek smallness of its beginning. This interpretation finds convenient manifestation in the history of Christianity itself, that started in a remote part of Palestine and now boasts unparalleled demographics. But is there something more to be said than just it starts small and ends big? I think so.

I believe firmly in the Bible's timeless meaning and application for today's Christian. But this timeless meaning is often best discovered and understood when we understand the deep profundity of the message within its historical context. So what did this image of the mustard seed mean to an average Mediterranean Jewish peasant? Pliny the Elder was a 1st century Roman author and naturalist who wrote in his encyclopedia, Natural History, about the horticultural nature of the mustard seed.

...[A]nd mustard, which has so pun- gent a flavour, that it burns like fire, though at the same time it is remarkably wholesome for the body. This last, though it will grow without cultivation, is considerably improved by being transplanted; though, on the other hand, it is extremely difficult to rid the soil of it when once sown there, the seed when it falls germinating immediately.
Some have referred to the mustard seed as a "noxious weed," and Pliny seems to agree with this interpretation, inasmuch as he depicts the mustard seed as something that is notoriously hard to rid the soil of and spreads immediately after being planted. So choosing to cultivate a mustard seed always comes with the everpresent danger of destroying the entire garden in which it is planted. Moreover, there are some exegetical problems here, because the mustard seed actually grows to be a three to four foot shrub, not a large, regal tree. Jesus would have known this, and he could have very well chosen a seed that actually turns into a tree (as Ben Witherington III points out), but there must have been something very particular about this mustard seed that conveyed the appropriate message of the Kingdom of God.

Imagine the image this presents to a first century Jew. The image of a seed that grows wildly and freely on its own. A seed that, even when cultivated, is thoroughly difficult to maintain and, by virtue of the rapidity of its germination and its natural endurance, roots deeply in the soil and threatens to take over the entire garden. This is not exactly an ideal horticultural image. But Jesus makes it worse. What does he say happens to this seed? He says that this seed, at full growth, brings with it shade and invites birds to nest in its branches. These are sort of romantic or beautiful notions in a historically detached way. But they were hardly very beautiful or romantic to a first century Jew, who depended on his or her garden receiving plenty of sun and farmers for millenia have built all kinds of contrivances geared at keeping birds OUT of their garden, why in the world would they willingly plant something that invited them IN. Just remember what Jesus said in the Parable of the Sower, in Matthew 13:3,4:

And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up.
So the meaning of this text seems to stretch far beyond the superficial notions of smallness to bigness. Instead, as I take it, when you choose to plant the Kingdom Seed in the garden of your life, it will quickly threaten to undermine everything else you have planted there. It will become something that, if you let it (and sometimes even when you don't), will take over your life. So if you only think about Jesus on Sunday, consider the Kingdom Seed and where you have planted it (or have you planted it at all?)? And for those who seek to plant the Kingdom Seed in the garden of their life, take heed, for this seed, when grown, will overshadow your other gardening ventures and will threaten their very roots; it may even be deadly to your other crops. This Kingdom Seed represents something similar to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about Christ's call on the believers life: "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die."

So it seems that the historical context of the mustard seed reveals a lot about what it means for believers today. Yes, the seed is small and grows into something big. But it is also deadly to your plans, undermines your other ventures, invites in your enemies and when rooted, demands your very life.


Friday, May 11, 2012

To Know Away Your Freedom?

I have always been fascinated with the nature of God’s attributes or at least the attributes we commonly assign to God (whether or not He actually possesses them notwithstanding). In fact, a large portion of the philosophy of religion is dedicated to discussing these attributes and their suspected logical inconsistencies. One particular issue among the pantheon of issues is the question of whether or not God’s foreknowledge is compatible with human free will. That is to say, if God knows exactly what you are going to do before you do it, are you really free in respect to the action? If God knows what action you are going to perform before you choose it, are you not then logically determined to do that action? Let’s look at some trivial action like, say, God knows that you are going to pick your nose in private tomorrow at 12:32 PM. Now, if God knows that you will pick your nose at 12:32 PM tomorrow, we must also affirm that it MUST be the case that you pick your nose at 12:32 PM tomorrow. And of course, if it must be the case, you have no possibility of refraining from the action of picking your nose and thus can in no way be said to be free in respect to the action of picking your nose tomorrow at 12:32 PM. If God is truly omniscient, he knows all the actions you will perform ever and totally, meaning that you must perform all the actions that God knows and thus are not free in respect to any of the actions you perform! This is theologically dangerous and in observable discord with other theological doctrines we often hold as true (e.g. God’s perfect goodness).

If this is true, then we have a fundamental problem with respect to holding both God’s foreknowledge of future events and the free will of human beings as simultaneously true. If the above argument is sound we must do one of three things: (1) be willing to irrationally affirm a contradiction of terms, (2) dispense or redefine omniscience (God’s all-knowing nature), or (3) dispense with human free will (as a significant branch of protestant theology does in fact do).

Those who would affirm (1) are perfectly comfortable with a God who exists outside the scope of logical principles (like early Rene Descartes) and thus openly embrace theological paradoxes, tension and blatant contradiction (I for one know a professor of this persuasion). Unfortunately, any reasoning with persons in the aforesaid group is utterly impossible as all meaningful conversation necessarily depends upon the existence of logical uniformity. Many would argue that (1) is simply an incoherent position and is thus typically just ignored (as I will ignore it now, though perhaps not judiciously).

Those in the second group may adopt any varying form of God’s knowledge, some severely limiting its capacity, while others adopt what is now known as “Open Theism.” This belief says that God knows all that is logically possible to know. Future events of beings with free will, by virtue of not yet existing, are not possible to know. Thus, it is not a limitation of God’s ability to say he does not know the future events of humans, because there is nothing yet TO know. This is an interesting view and it has some very articulate proponents. It is not without its observable shortcomings however. If scripture is to be a reliable guide to discerning God’s attributes, we see a God who not only has your hairs numbered and makes habit of knowing the outcomes of future events, but we also see a God who has knowledge of counterfactuals:

If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. (Matthew 11:23b)

This stretches God’s omniscience further than even traditional notions, as it dictates that God does not only know all past, present and future states of affairs, but also all states of affairs that COULD have been had any given event been different. All things that could have been but are not actually are known as counterfactuals. The problem that this presents to the open theist position is that these counterfactuals exist in the same way that future events do—inasmuch as they do not exist but God still somehow knows them. Unless a substantive difference can be shown between counterfactuals and future events, we have no more reason for believing that God does not know future events than we do counterfactuals.

In the third group, one is committed to denying the existence of libertarian free will. There is no contradiction with God’s foreknowledge if we simply reject the notion of free will and accept a form of fatalism or determinism, wherein all actions of a person are determined by some prior state of affairs. Many Calvinistic individuals or those of a more Augustinian background reject human freedom in their hyper-emphasis of God’s transcendent sovereignty over humanity.

I do not like any of the above compromises. And, the thing is, I don’t think any of them are necessary. We are not actually under any obligation to accept the underlying notion that human free will is incompatible with a foreknowing God, even though it very much seems that we are. Let’s break it down:

(P1) If God knows that tomorrow you will perform action X, then you must perform action X tomorrow.

(P2) If you must perform action X tomorrow, then you have no freedom to refrain from action X.

(C) It follows from (P1) and (P2) that any actions that God foreknows renders you, or any subject that can be replaced by you, not free in respect to those actions.

This seems right. But as the famous Christian Philosopher, Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, it is based on confusion. (P1) can actually be read two separate ways that yield two entirely different meanings. The difference is slight so pay close attention. (P1), call it here (P1a), can mean that if God knows you will perform X then it is necessary that you perform X. That is to say, the outcome is necessary such that it could not have been different. (P1a) is what must be true in order for the conclusion to follow. But there is an alternative, call it (P1b). (P1b) says it is necessary for what God knows to be true. So if God knows you will perform action X tomorrow, you will. This is more trivially true, inasmuch as it is true not just of God, but of anybody who knows things. If I know that Paul is a bachelor, it will be the case that he is a bachelor (or I did not know it). The difference is that it is not necessary for Paul to be a bachelor, he could in fact be married if he so wished (in which case I would instead know that he was married). So the difference rides on the idea that though it is necessary for what God knows to be true (which is true of any subject capable of knowing things), it does not mean that what he knows is necessary.Thus, God knowing in advance what action you will perform does not make that action a logically necessary one, wherein you could not refrain. It instead shows that God knows the outcomes of freely willed actions.

Does this work?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

What is impossible for God?

Lashes bore into his skin with ruthless indifference, leaving mangled, sanguine flesh to hopelessly cling to his back, like a colored leaf to an autumn branch. Even then, death whispered in his ear a taunting call for surrender, but he would not submit to it, not yet. Spit on and mocked—his message rejected—blood from a thorned machination forced as a crown upon his head warmed a brow furrowed in pain. Forced to carry his own death upon his back, he bore the heavy burden of a timbered cross to Calvary. The dull thud of nails as the swift swing of a mallet drove them through the bones and flesh of hands that delivered healing and feet that walked upon the waves, could not be heard over the jeering crowd.

As he dangled brokenly on the cross the crowd grew louder in their mocks and their lust for death intoxicated them. Through exhaustion and paroxysms of pain, this man pleaded, “Father, Daddy, Abba! Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then it started, with a few last whispers, even the greatest grew too tired, too weak and his eyes fell from heaven and he was no more, nothing but water and blood. And death only smiled. Then, in the grim finality of death, there was only silence. Perhaps only the ancient words of Solomon lingered: “everything is meaningless, everything is meaningless under the sun…”


But Solomon did not know about that early Sunday morning. For under the sun of that Easter day, a rumble came from the grave. Nobody knew that God could die, but he could. Just not for long. For out of the grave arose a savior, flesh and all. Death now just a petty thing, no sting, no victory. The choked plea for forgiveness made on the cross now made manifest in the open arms—scarred as they are—of the Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.

So when you have trouble in your life and all feels hopeless and impossible. When your only friend is brokenness and the cold breath of defeat is nigh and taunting in its whispers, remember this day. For words of impossibility are empty to God, as empty as the grave he abandoned. Because our savior, he has risen.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Can we talk about gender roles?


Gender is an extremely sensitive subject. But what’s even more emotionally charged and socially taboo than the former, is the latter: talking about gender roles. How do we have honest dialogue on this subject without regressing to a form of primitive hate mongering? Is it alright that I believe that in my relationship to my wife I have certain responsibilities that she does not share in and vice versa? Is it okay that I believe that who we are as husband and wife are not equal shares of the same thing, but rather equal shares of something totally different, but radically complimentary? Many well-meaning persons today don’t think so. In fact, by their standards, I’m nothing short of a chauvinistic pig that is stuck in the Iron Age of patriarchal dominion. It doesn’t matter that there is no material, historical, or cultural basis for assuming functional equality of the sexes, because, well, it just doesn’t matter, end of story.

But there really is a problem here and we need to talk about it. This is how I see it. It’s like the feeling you get when fitting together those first two pieces in a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The fluidity of how they fit, radically different in shape and size, yet designed with the utmost precision to fit in a fashion so perfect that the person who pieces them together says, “ah, yes, now that is a perfect match.” But what if instead of 1000 different pieces you were given only two. Two pieces of the exact same size, shape and same rounded curvature. Sure, the outward aesthetic pattern on the top of the piece could be different, even drastically so, but functionally they are the same piece. What if you were then left with this feigned optimistic remark, “make it work.” But you know, just as I know, that those pieces, they’ll never fit together and any attempt to do so will include nothing short of force.

That is how I see the problem. Men and women are functionally different beings. We’re functionally different anatomically, biologically, neurologically, historically and, as I see it, spiritually. But that is not what post-feminism is teaching. Post-feminism teaches that men and women are equal in functionality. That we perform things equally and with equal measure of effectiveness. From here, there are at least two distinct frameworks that the concept can be viewed through: a secular or a religious. In a secular framework, the chieftain of all intellectual inquiry is science and its respective method. When we come to the subject of gender roles from this perspective, we really have no material argument for gender equality specifically or even egalitarianism generally.

Science has demonstrated that men and women respectively have deeply entrenched and fundamentally different personality characteristics. Science, far from eliminating long-held gender stereotypes, has made quite the practice of confirming them.

A new analysis of a survey of 10,000 people found that each sex has firmly entrenched characteristics, with women showing more sensitivity, warmth and apprehension than men. In contrast, emotional stability, dominance, rule-consciousness and vigilance are more typically male characteristics.
Neurologically, men and women excel in radically different parts of the brain, Men do have 10-15% larger brains, but this is generally inconsequential when dealing with actual IQ. What is interesting however is that men have larger portions of the brain that they excel in, like areas attached to left-brain thinking: math and logical analysis. Women excel in language and, due to thinking through things with both hemispheres of the brain, tend to involve emotion and feelings in analyses and decision making.
Universally, men tend to score higher on certain specialized skills, such as spatial awareness. In the real world, that means they might be better at reading maps or navigating. Women score higher in terms of language development and emotional intelligence.
Nothing is wrong or bad in any of this of course, but it does seem to support the hypothesis that men and women are functionally different and, as I see it, complimentary. Men and women respectively, achieve similar IQ’s on average, but they do so using entirely different portions of the brain. Our general characteristics and overall brain functionality are utterly distinct and cannot be said to operate equally.

Historically, there has always been a traditional division of labor among men and women. Given that men have on average about 40-50% more upper body strength, even if we account for the on average difference in body size, it’s of little wonder why men dominate fields that require manual labor and feats of strength. Conversely, women dominate fields that require high levels of nurture, empathy and emotional wherewithal, like the stay-at-home mom, nursing or caregiving.

A favored hypothesis in the evolutionary story of men and women expresses that our early hominid ancestors finally became bipedal (walking on two legs) as the man found it to be a way to carry more food to the female and thus win her as a mate. Men have a long history—evolutionary and otherwise—of trying to impress their female counterpart by providing for them and protecting them.

So when I was still looking for a potential life mate, I was expressly interested in women who were not career-oriented, were not concerned with higher education and had a desire to be the primary caregiver to future offspring. I wanted a woman who would willingly be led by me. One can say that my thinking is backwards and wrong, but one cannot point to any material evidence within a secular framework to prove it.

Now a Christian framework asks men and women to do something further, it asks them to marry. It asks them to make sacramental vows with God to one another. It asks them to treat one another in very particular ways. Wives are called to submit to their husbands and men are called to lay down their lives for their wives. These biblical characteristics of a man who says, “let me lead you, protect you and if necessary, die for you,” are scientifically shown to be fundamental to the male gender. Conversely, the woman who says, “let me care for you, love you and nurture you,” is merely expressing something fundamental to her character. These biblical roles that men and women have are attested in our very natures themselves. So when a woman seeks independency through higher education and a career, she should know that she has, by virtue of shunning the natural proclivities of men, severely limited her prospective marriage pool. There will be no shortage of men willing to sleep with her, but there will be a verifiable shortage of men willing to marry her—because that is decidedly NOT what a man wants out of a woman. This post-feminist trend of female independent career women has its socially observable drawbacks too.

If a host of studies are to be believed, marrying these women is asking for trouble. If they quit their jobs and stay home with the kids, they will be unhappy ( Journal of Marriage and Family, 2003). They will be unhappy if they make more money than you do ( Social Forces, 2006). You will be unhappy if they make more money than you do ( Journal of Marriage and Family, 2001). You will be more likely to fall ill ( American Journal of Sociology). Even your house will be dirtier (Institute for Social Research).
Not only that, the statistical likelihood of infidelity goes up by orders of magnitude, “...married professionals looking for adulterous affairs has nearly 600,000 members, and women looking for extra-marital sex outnumber men by 3½ to 1. Most are married with children, aged between their early 30s and mid-40s, and pursuing a well-paid career," (emphasis mine). The pertinent fact not being that career women specifically (or even women generally) cheat more than men, but that the majority of those women seeking extramarital affairs (at least on the largest UK website dedicated to such Illicit Encounters) were career oriented. 

All this and we still have not mentioned how children suffer when left in daycare during crucial parts of their development.

So all in all, you can say that men and women do not have gender roles or are exactly equal, that’s fine, just recognize that it is a belief without any material (secular) or scriptural (religious) basis. By consequence, this leaves very little room to call me an antiquated, misogynistic pig. Men and women are not equal, they're radically different. And that doesn’t bother me, probably because it's true.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Views of Hell - Part 3

I do not think it is entirely too presumptuous to say that the conditional/annihilationist view of Hell situates itself upon the premise of being prima facie more compatible with the Christian conception of an all-loving God. Though this view also boasts its own scriptural support, such support is largely secondary (or tertiary) in respect to the views compatibleness with logic and Christian notions of love and justice. This is not to say that the other views operate apart from expressed notions of logic, merely that the C/A view requires less logical epicycles in order to arrive at its conclusions.

The issue primarily turns upon the notion of infinity or eternality. The seemingly temporal crime of unbelief, under a traditional view of Hell, is to be met with an ostensibly cruel and infinitely long punishment of conscious torment. While no C/A opponent denies that hell exists—to them it is an unquestionable reality—all of them question the nature of hell. The horrific scene of everlasting suffering of body and soul, where the plight of the damned brings ecstatic delight to the ascended saints who behold it, is untenable for a mind committed to mercy, love and divine justice. The scene that proponents of the C/A view reject is nowhere more potently expressed then by the revered 18th century protestant theologian, Jonathan Edwards:

Hell is a spiritual and material furnace of fire where its victims are exquisitely tortured in their minds and in their bodies eternally, according to their various capacities, by God, the devils, and damned humans including themselves, in their memories and consciences as well as in their raging, unsatisfied lusts, from which place of death God’s saving grace, mercy, and pity are gone forever, never for a moment to return.

Scriptural Support for Conditional/Annihilationist view of Hell

Proponents of this view argue that the traditional view of the nature of hell is simply unscriptural and logically impractical. They do not deny the reality of hell (as many Universalists do) or that the ultimately impenitent sinners will indeed suffer there, they simply assert that the most theologically coherent, scripturally cogent interpretation of hell is that of final destruction rather than endless torture. You see brief shimmers of this idea in C.S. Lewis’ approach to hell when he refers to it as the “outer rim where being fades away into nonentity.” That is to say, Hell is not a new beginning of immortal, torturous existence, but a phasing into nothingness.

The Old Testament lays the groundwork for the vision of Hell that is portrayed in the New Testament. Firstly, it typically refers to Hell as a place of final destruction (see Psalm 37). Hell in the OT was translated Sheol (literally grave). The conveyed idea was absolute death and nonexistence. Isaiah 5:14 portrays it as Death itself with mouth wide open:

So Death will open up its throat, and open wide its mouth; Zion’s dignitaries and masses will descend into it, including those who revel and celebrate within her.
Jesus was not light on the topic of Hell and was potent in his warnings regarding it. He was, however, not explicit regarding the details. What we do see echoed in Jesus and other New Testament writers is the same idea of Hell as destruction and absolute death. For instance Jesus warned that we should fear God because he is the one who can destroy both body and soul in Hell (Matt. 10:28). Jesus was no doubt harkening back to the words and sentiment of John the Baptist who envisioned the impenitent wicked as chaff about to be burned (Matt 3:10, 12). The imagery is familiar, as Jesus also warned something similar in Matthew 5:30 when he referred to the wicked being thrown (as garbage) into the fire. This illustrious imagery resonated with the original audience as it was in reference to the valley outside of Jerusalem where sacrifices were given to Moloch and where garbage burned during the time of Jesus. The image of weeds or garbage being burned was a common one (Matt. 13:30, 42, 49-50), and it is hard to imagine how the original audience could interpret such imagery as representative of eternal suffering. Weeds burned up and were no more. Thus, this imagery seems to indicate the final destruction of the wicked by God.

Paul was less illustrious and more direct in his proclamation of hell as final destruction:

2 Thessalonians 1:9: They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (See also Gal. 6:8.)
1 Corinthians 3:17: If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (See also Phil. 1:28.)

Paul was clear that Hell was a place of ultimate termination of life. It was the finality of death, the permanency of destruction. Paul stated this clearly when he spoke of the destination of the wicked thusly: “Their destiny is destruction” (Phil 3:19). This sentiment is not unique to Jesus and Paul, but is expressed all throughout scripture. Peter even says that false teachers who have denied the Lord bring upon themselves “swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1, 3). Peter speaks of the “destruction of godly men” in 2 Peter 3:7, seemingly echoing the same Pauline sentiment that hell is not a place of eternal conscious torment, but rather of swift and everlasting termination.

Philosophical Roots for the Traditional View of Hell

It seems absurd to believe that there is no valid basis for interpreting Hell as a place of final and permanent destruction of the human person. In fact, the argument against this view typically stems, not from a scriptural standpoint, but an early Hellenized philosophical stand point. The view of the immortality of the soul is deeply rooted in early Greek philosophy. This view had a prominent influence on the early Christian understanding of the soul and has continued to survive through the ages. Naturally, this belief has provided the lens for how Hell is interpreted. If the soul is necessarily immortal, then there could be no such destruction of personhood in Hell, as the annihilationist is suggesting. As I believe any earnest study of the Bible will show, there is no such understanding of the natural immortality of the soul to be found. God’s gift of eternal life has always been a gift, and if we relegate it to necessity, we have, perhaps, denigrated this gift and have wrongly assumed that we are naturally immortal.

The Pros and Criticism of the Annihilationist/Conditional view

The pros of the annihilationist view are many. First, it is a more viable view in relationship with our common sensibilities as human beings. It makes more sense considering our notions of divine Justice and Love. Furthermore, it presents earnest seekers with a viable alternative to the either/or dichotomy between the traditional view of Hell and Universalism. The vileness of the traditional view of hell is a weapon in the hands of enemies to the Christian faith and has, in many ways, silenced sensitive Christians on the topic all together.

The traditional view would criticize the C/A view as not interpreting the imagery of Hell in a literal sense. Moreover, others argue that the conditional view of immortality inaccurately interprets the passages that interpret hell as death and destruction, pointing to passages like Hebrews 9:27-28, that illustrate judgment happening AFTER death (meaning, of course, that it cannot be assumed that death itself is judgment). The aforementioned criticism, however, may miss the point that the Annihilationist is actually making. Proponents do not refer to death of the physical body itself as judgment, but that hell itself, as second death, is not the cessation of the physical body but the absolute destruction of the human soul.


Clark Pinnock, an outspoken advocate of the C/A view, reflected on this issue of why the doctrine of Hell is continually being questioned:
In a recent book defending the traditional view of the nature of hell, Robert Morey complains that in every generation people keep questioning the orthodox belief in everlasting conscious torment, even though the basis for it has been laid out time and again in books like this. The explanation for this is simple: Given the cruelty attributed to God by the traditional doctrine, it is inevitable that sensitive Christians would always wonder if the doctrine is true.
I think Pinnock makes a valid point. And perhaps he's also right that the best alternative to the traditional notions of Hell is the C/A view, given that it accomplishes what the metaphorical view tried to do, yet still maintains a view of hell's actual existence, defending it against the scripturally untenable Universalism. 

A Thought on Seminary

I am in seminary. And I have a few problems with it. Many seminaries, far from being factories of the unity and ecumenism they preach, are mills of division, equipping their students with sharpened stones to kill and dissect scripture and study its entrails like ancient haruspices. Teachers and students alike, froth at the mouth and slobber over the theological pedants of antiquity some of whom are self-righteous and hypocritical prigs, others are redeeming lights whose actions in history are studied and admired but not replicated, at least by students of higher theology. In our punctilious pretensions as learned seminarians, we mock and defame less educated Christians as “fundamentalists” (a term that has irreparably condescending connotations thanks to its continued pejorative use among “intellectuals” or liberal Christians). What makes this all the worse is that in the same hypocritical-breath we praise unity and call for a utopian ecumenism. 

The only fault of fundamentalists is that they simply draw a line in the proverbial sand and maintain that they will yield not an inch more to modernity and its holy empiricism. In many ways, such a high view and commitment to scripture and an unyielding faith against the forces of scientific pretension takes more strength and religious fervency than those more liberal Christians who have yielded all to modernity and postmost-modernity and sacrificed faith upon the secular alter of decadence and decline. Many so called fundamentalists love Jesus very much and are zealously working to mitigate social ills and are bound by conscious and scripture to alleviate the suffering of the poor and marginalized. This is not to say that fundamentalists are not wrong on many theological points, it is only to say that these differences should not be considered so polarizing.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

John Wesley and Calvinism

I am not a Methodist but I do have a deep appreciation for its founder, John Wesley. There is nothing that pleases me more than his sharp critiques of the Calvinistic notions of predestination and other consequences of Calvinistic assumptions. Let me give a brief overview of Calvinism for those not familiar with the theological distinctions:

Classical Calvinism is marked by a strict adherence to five primary theological points, acronymically presented as TULIP. To skip only to one of these points would do injustice to that point, given that all five points are logically tethered to one another. The first point is known as (T) Total Depravity. This depravity marks man's total inability to do good apart from God. We are dead in our sin. This inability logically inhibits our ability to respond to God's gracious sacrifice. Therefore, (U) God's Unconditional Election is necessary for salvation. God must choose, before the foundation of the world, the inheritors of salvation – implicitly dooming all others to hell by virtue of their non-election. Of course, the non-elect need not be efficaciously involved in the sacrifice of Jesus, leading to a (L) Limited Atonement, an atonement made only for those who were chosen. Given humankind's total inability to respond, those who were chosen and efficaciously involved in the atonement must also be unavoidably drawn to God by way of God's (I) Irresistible Grace. The four aforesaid points inevitably culminate in the (P) Perseverance of the Saints. That is to say, those who are chosen and drawn will never lose their salvation since such salvation is wholly a property of God's work and not humankind's.

When refuting Calvinist doctrines of particularism, he avoided analytical or philosophically sophisticated approaches in favor of analogical ones – making his work accessible to less sophisticated crowds. For instance, in a renowned summary of his views, Predestination Calmly Considered, Wesley said the following:

Our blessed Lord does indisputably command and invite 'all men everywhere to repent' [Acts 17:30]... But now, in what manner do you represent him while he is employed in this work? You suppose him to be standing at the prison doors, having the keys thereof in his hands, and to be continually inviting the prisoners to come forth, commanding them to accept of that invitation, urging every motive which can possibly induce them to comply with that command; adding the most precious promises, if they obey; the most dreadful threatenings, if they obey not. And all this time you suppose him to be unalterably determined in himself never to open the doors for them, even while he is crying, 'Come ye, come ye, from that evil place. For why will ye die, O house of Israel' [cf. Ezek. 18:31]... Alas, my brethren, what kind of sincerity is this which you ascribe to God our Saviour?
The aforesaid is a prime example of the heart of Wesley's criticism of Calvinism. Wesley was certainly willing to embrace tensions and mystery in regard to the character of God (I am thinking the Trinity and hypostasis). He was not willing, on the other hand, to accept the deplorable human contrivance of the insincerity of God. Like the above analogy, how in the world can we imagine that God both sincerely begs for us to escape from sin's prison all while he is unilaterally holding the door (from which we would escape) shut.
Wesley found himself in the midst of a dynamic but strong Calvinistic theology in England. Calvinism became a battle point within Wesley’s own ranks and even his close friendships (e.g. George Whitefield).Wesley's understanding of salvation is particularly well attested because of his criticism of Calvinistic soteriology (understanding of salvation). Moreover, Wesley does not mask his vituperative disgust for what he considers blasphemous doctrines. Indeed, in Wesley's famous sermon, Free Grace, he retorts that Calvinism,
...destroys all [God's] attributes at once: It overturns both his justice, mercy, and truth; yea, it represents the most holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust. More false; because the devil, liar as he is, hath never said, "He willeth all men to be saved:" More unjust; because the devil cannot, if he would, be guilty of such injustice as you ascribe to God, when you say that God condemned millions of souls to everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, for continuing in sin, which, for want of that grace he will not give them, they cannot avoid: And more cruel; because that unhappy spirit "seeketh rest and findeth none;" so that his own restless misery is a kind of temptation to him to tempt others.[1]
Wesley was intuitively aware of the a priori presuppositions that propelled Calvinism, namely particularism and an unconditional notion of salvation. It is these assumptions that dictate how a Calvinist reads the Bible, consequently leading to interpretations that seem unaligned with plain readings of the text. Wesley illumined these presuppositions when he said:
Indeed, the two latter points, irresistible grace and infallible perseverance, are the natural consequence of the former, of the unconditional decree. For if God has eternally and absolutely decreed to save such and such persons, it follows, both that they cannot resist his saving grace, (else they might miss of salvation,) and that they cannot finally fall from that grace which they cannot resist. So that, in effect, the three questions come into one, "Is predestination absolute or conditional?" The Arminians believe, it is conditional; the Calvinists, that it is absolute.[2]
Wesley challenged the presuppositions of an absolute and unconditional predestination based on the very language of biblical revelation. Wesley insists that biblical language, with its warnings and conditional imperatives, simply does not permit the Calvinist hermeneutic. He further challenges this doctrine on the bases of what it does to the image of God. It turns Jesus into, “ ...[a] hypocrite, a deceiver of the people, a man void of common sincerity.[3]” If God superimposes His will upon your own – if ever you had a will of your own – it seems more like a form of cosmic rape than it does an act of goodness. For Wesley, then, it was a holistic understanding of scripture and God's relational interaction with humankind that informed his assumptions. While, quite oppositely, it seems certain a priori assumptions are what inform Calvinist readings of the text. It was critical assessments like this that did not endear him to his Calvinist contemporaries. In fact, it was sermons like the aforementioned and the feelings held therein that proved to be the proverbial thorn in the side of ecumenical attempts. Nevertheless, Wesley's strong condemnation notwithstanding, he viewed Calvinists as brothers in Christ who merely held to malformed doctrines. And I agree.

1. Wesley's, Free Grace
2. “What is an Arminian?” Works (Jackson)
3. IBID