Saturday, February 14, 2015

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry has been getting a lot of attention for this YouTube clip. I don't know why. It is a fairly old argument. It focuses on a few of the most difficult examples of the problem of pain and basically acts as if all of life is full of those examples. Like every child dies of cancer or has their eyesight lost to some strange insect. The truth is these examples are shocking because they are rare. If they are the only things one can think of when assessing the whole of human existence then we have really lost perspective.

This does remind me of something Bl John Henry Newman said in one of his sermons. He said some people have shown so little interest in God or being close to God or being holy or anything of the sort that sending them to heaven would just be cruel. Heaven is about intimacy with God. It is about love. It is about purity. It is about self-sacrifice. Some people simple do not want that. They want ignore God and focus on themselves and try and use other people to pursue their own happiness. That is not heaven. That is hell. Yet that is what many have chosen with the way they have lived their life.

Fry is like that. I am not sure he is being totally honest about his innermost feelings but assuming he is it is quite striking. He comes before God. He can imagine no sense of awe. He can give God no credit for anything good in the world. All he can do is throw out the typical atheist talking points. Not really being willing to concede atheism has been proven wrong even when that is the premise of the question. For a guy like that heaven would not be mercy but would be a violation of his freedom. He really makes a very good argument for hell.

Like I said, you hear these same arguments  made over and over again. I always try try and draw them into a rational discussion. Atheists love to think of themselves as being rational but rarely react well when their beliefs are questioned rationally. In the case of the children who die of cancer I typically ask if all death is considered problematic or just the death of children. Just trying to discern the real issue. If all death is what is being questioned then Christians have a response to why people die. If death itself is not the central issue but just the fact that some people die younger and with more pain then other then that is another issue. There is something to be said on that to but it is a bit different.

Atheists almost never answer questions like that. They often response with outrage and ridicule. That is OK. Still they should admit it. They should say they don't like the fact that Christians respond with reason and logic to their raw emotionalism. Yet somehow they think of themselves as the logical ones. It is too strange.

Now you need to be careful. People make these emotional arguments and you don't know their story. Maybe they have had a child die of cancer. That is a very different situation than some guy looking for the hard cases to make his point. Then you really do want an emotional answer. The logical reply might seem cold. So throwing around all this emotional rhetoric to short-circuit the logical debate also ends up being very insensitive to the people who have actually lived the emotions. Many continue to believe in a good God. We just need to be sensitive to the fact that these are real people living these very hard realities.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Religious Extremists

Spielberg at Auschwitz Memorial
There was a statement by Steven Spielberg that made me think. He was talking about some of the recent violence against Jews. He said said one of the main sources of hatred was religious extremism. My thought was what the phrase means. It has to do with the quantity of your religion rather than the quality. That is the problem is not bad religion but rather too much religion. It suggests the solution is not to find a better religion but rather to simply believe whatever religion you have less intensely. 

I know he was not trying to make a controversial religious statement. I rather suspect he was going for the opposite. That is the point. This is the kind of thing people say without thinking about it. I should not pick on Spielberg. Any number of folks are making similar points.

It really does not make any sense. Religion is something extreme. It is the answer to life's biggest questions. What is the meaning and purpose of my life? What happens after I die? How can I know what is highest good or highest truth?  If we have answers to these questions they have to have an extreme impact on us. If a religion does not give you something to live for and something to die for then why bother with it? 

The truth is that it is the content of the religion that is the problem rather than the intensity of it. That is one of the ways to evaluate a religion. Ask yourself about the people who believe it most intensely. Are they good people or are they scary? Catholicism has its saints. There is no better way to evaluate the faith than looking at the saints. Do you want to be more like they are? 

When it comes to violence the key question to ask is if a religion respects the dignity of the human person even if that person does not believe that religion? Do Christians respect non-Christians? Do Jews respect gentiles? Do Muslims respect non-Muslims?  How well developed and consistent is this teaching? Does that religious group have a strong consensus around the idea that non-adherents do have the right to live and to put forward ideas that are offensive to their faith?

The reason Spielberg does not go there is obvious. To ask the question is to answer it. They one major religion that lacks that strong consensus is Islam. All other religions seem to have a few people who have gone nuts but very few. The vast majority of even very strong adherents do not believe in violence even against their most offensive opponents. 

Islam is a different story. From Al Qaueda or Boko Haram to ISIS to Hamas we have Muslims concluding over and over that violence is the way to go. Even extreme violence against defenseless people. It is not that they are too religious. It is that they have embraced the wrong religion. 

Spielberg can't say that. Modern society has as a dogma that all religious are the same. They give you some comfort. They give you some guilt. They give you some holidays. The trouble is it isn't true. They are not all the same. 

Monday, December 15, 2014


As the calendar closes in on Christmas the church calls us to focus on Mary. Particularly the conversation between the angel Gabriel and the blessed virgin.
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
The text is very rich and very familiar. It is the second appearance of Gabriel. Luke has just finished telling us about his appearance to Zachariah. The juxtaposition of the two stories highlight some important differences. Gabriel appeared to Zachariah, a priest, in the temple, next to the altar of incense, during a very solemn liturgy. It is the holiest most religious context you can imagine. Mary is a virgin, from a small town, in an insignificant region of Israel, a nobody planning to marry another nobody. 

The word virgin is used over and over. That is coupled with the word kecharitomene which is translated as "full of grace."  This is a word we have trouble translating because it is a superlative but in Greek they don't use superlatives as easily as we do. So when a word meaning "filled with grace" gets made superlative it is quite something. It means she could not possibly have more grace than she has. That her graciousness could not be more intensive and it could not be more extensive. She is not just a virgin. She as pure as pure can be. 

Mary gets this. That is why it says she was greatly troubled and wondered what this could mean.  She knows this greeting just so powerful. Then Gabriel assures her it is OK. He says she has found favor with God. This is also amazing. Again, contrast this with Zachariah. He is an old priest performing the holiest ritual of his life and Gabriel punishes him for his lack of faith. So God is not that easy to impress. Yet this young virgin has found favor with God. 

Then it comes, the huge promise. You will have the most amazing child. Someone who would be king forever. It could only be the Messiah. Only one problem, Mary had not had sex and by implication was not planning on having sex with Joseph either. How could she have a special child when she had given up motherhood? Was she supposed to discard her vow of virginity? 

The answer was just so amazing. The Holy Spirit was to impregnate her. He was not going to have sex with her like gods in Greek mythology did yet there is some pretty powerful intimacy implied in what will happen. So intimate that the child would be the Son of God.

This has to blow Mary's mind. God not only physically working in your body but becoming the father of your child. When a man has a child with a woman God expects that man to be there for her in a special way for the rest of her life. How much more so will God be with the mother of His child? That is just so much to contemplate.

Mary does not have to grasp it all to give an answer. She knows that whatever is from God is something she wants. No conditions. No clarifications. Just an unconditional Yes. Beautiful. 

We say Yes to God but often struggle when it gets to personal. We don't get that it means facing our deepest fears and surrendering our favorite ideas and repenting of our pet sins. We tend to resist when that becomes clear. For Mary the personal nature of the task was very clear and she did not resist at all.

The good news is if we imitate Mary's Fiat then we will also receive, in some form, what she received. The Holy Spirit can come upon us and the power of the Most High can overshadow us. Then we can bring Jesus into the world in our own way. This is why Mary becomes the model for all of us. She shows us what being a New Testament Christian is all about. It is about blessing the world with the very presence of Jesus.   

Saturday, December 13, 2014


12 Years a Slave was one of the movies Sony Exec Thought Obama Might Like
The recent controversy about Sony executives and their racist e-mails is quite telling. What did they say? They suggested that Barak Obama might like movies that have starred black actors and have themes around slavery. Is that racist? By some definitions Yes it is. They art treating someone differently based on his race. Yet is it really evil? Racism is only evil when it values a human person less based on race. People from different races are different. They often grow up in a different subculture and they connect with different stories. Not all of them but many of them. This is a good thing. Diversity in people groups is something that enriches society. 

So movie executives thinking a black man would have a stronger reaction to certain movies because he is black is not wrong. Yet they took pains to keep this conversation secret. They laughed at it not because it was funny but because it is the sort of conversation you can't have in polite company. It was laughter that happens when you point out the elephant in the room. The man is black. That is likely to effect the way he views our art. Yet we can't acknowledge that because the topic is taboo. 

All of this is confirmed in the way the media reacted to the e-mails being made public. The exact same words were used to describe these e-mails as were used to describe the issues around policing and blacks. Here in Canada the CBC labeled labeled the e-mails racist in the headline with all the baggage that word carries. It shows a real problem in drawing correct moral distinctions. A black man is killed by police. A black man has some assumptions made about his movie tastes. Same thing right

The trouble is we cannot have a decent discussion on race unless we can make these distinctions very strongly. The idea that any distinction based on race is immediately and unthinkingly painted with the blackest moral brush means we can't talk about it rationally. The issues around the police killings are very serious issues. The first rule when talking about serious issues is to avoid confusing them with less serious issues. If the distinctions get lost then you end up with a lot of good thinkers refusing to comment for fear of being labeled a racist. 

A big problem ends up being the media. When they have a choice between printing intelligent responses and inflammatory responses they tend to focus on the latter. It tends to flatten everything. The strongest language gets used by someone and ends up in every headline. That is sad because I think there are some things that show very disturbing racism and some things that just don't. The fact that they all get the same reaction is quite disappointing. The press knows exactly where to go to get the outraged reaction. Once they get the quote then the discussion is over. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Who Are We Not?

Here we see John the Baptist giving testimony. Often testimony is about who we are. We tell people we are Christians and we tell them why. This testimony is mostly about who John is not.
A man named John was sent from God.He came for testimony, to testify to the light,so that all might believe through him.He was not the light,but came to testify to the light.
And this is the testimony of John.When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?”He admitted and did not deny it,but admitted, “I am not the Christ.”So they asked him,“What are you then? Are you Elijah?”And he said, “I am not.”“Are you the Prophet?”He answered, “No.”So they said to him,“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?What do you have to say for yourself?”He said:“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,‘make straight the way of the Lord,’”as Isaiah the prophet said.”Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him,“Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”John answered them,“I baptize with water;but there is one among you whom you do not recognize,the one who is coming after me,whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”This happened in Bethany across the Jordan,where John was baptizing.
People wanted to know if John was the messiah. He said No. It was important for the gospel writer to note this because there were some groups of people following John the Baptist even in the late first century. The church wanted to encourage those people to become Christians so they highlighted the fact that John himself pointed to someone greater than he was. He pointed to Jesus.

He even went too far in terms of denial. He denied being Elijah. Yet he really was. Jesus said that the prophesy that Elijah would come as a forerunner to the messiah was referring to John the Baptist. So he was a prophet and really was Elijah in the relevant sense that it was being asked. So he erred on the side of humility. 

There is often a confusion between humility and boldness. We think humble people are those that never make any waves. They labor behind the scenes and you don't notice them. John the Baptist is not like that. He made a lot of waves. He is a strong preacher. He draws crowds. He gets religious leaders to leave Jerusalem and come down to the Jordan to see him. He even had the courage to talk about King Herod's sexual sins,something that eventually got him executed. He was no shrinking violet. Yet he was humble. 

You hear this today. People say we should be more humble meaning we should not make definitive statements about God's will. We should not call anything sinful or disordered. That we should not suppose we have the truth. We are just people and not God. 

Yet it is precisely because we are not God that we must speak. We don't have the right to decide that this or that part of God's word is too offensive or too uncertain. Humility is about being who we are. We don't have the truth. The Truth has us. It does not mean we never confront anyone. It means we choose to fight God's battles and not our own.

This also fits with the second reading from 1 Thes 5. 
Brothers and sisters:Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.In all circumstances give thanks,for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.Do not quench the Spirit.Do not despise prophetic utterances.Test everything; retain what is good.Refrain from every kind of evil.
I found this quite interesting because many of these verses are quoted in widely different contexts. Seeing them all together was surprising. Yet humility is the constant theme. Why do we pray without ceasing? Because we are wholly dependent on God. It is not an impossible rule to follow. It is a mindset that makes the Christian life possible. 

Give thanks in all circumstances. This verse was quoted in a book called The Hiding Place about a Nazi concentration camp. Can we give thanks there? The point is not to give thanks for the fleas as they did. The point is to know God is there and give thanks for that. If you see His presence in the fleas that is great. If you don't then just trust that God is there and give Him thanks.

Don't quench the spirit. This is often used in Pentecostal circles when arguing against church authority. Obviously the spirit is on my side and the pastor had better not reign me in at all or he will be quenching the spirit. Actually the spirit is what should reign you in. Legitimate church authority is one way He does it. 

Test everything. Again this is often applied to others but not to yourself. When we lack humility we think we need to test everything but our own ideas. Somehow it is obvious those are completely in line with God. .

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Eric Gardner and Broken Windows

There is a philosophy of policing called Broken Windows that played a role in the Eric Gardner incident. It relates back to some research on buildings and cars. It found that when one broken window on a car or a building was not repaired the result was catastrophic. The toleration of that brokenness acted like a signal to the whole community to disrespect that property. Soon the car or the building would be vandalized or robbed. People would not pick up liter around it. It very quickly became a worthless thing because people thought of it as a worthless thing. The root of that thinking was the one broken window. 

Now I have heard this research used in reference to our spiritual life. If we have one sin in our life that we ignore or even if a community has one visible sin by one member they ignore then it can be like that broken window. The opinion of that person or that community drops a lot not because the sin is serious but because everyone knows it should be dealt with and it is not being dealt with. That says more than the sin itself. So we should deal with broken windows in our life. If we are in positions of leadership we should deal with broken windows in our community. We need to deal with them promptly because the way people think about you and the way you think about yourself is on the line. The damage done can be quick and dramatic.

So what does this have to do with policing? Apparently police in New York were referencing the same research to justify a policing policy that focused on not tolerating minor crimes. It was used a few years ago when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor and was widely seen as a major success.  The murder rate in NY dropped by more than 50% saving thousands of lives. 

The trouble is it takes a lot of police to do that. So how can you afford it? You focus on neighborhoods where the crime rate is high. Guess what the racial makeup of those neighborhoods is like? The police were already giving Blacks and Hispanics more attention for whatever reason. Now you are asking them to go into their neighborhoods in bigger numbers and enforce relatively minor laws more strictly. What could go wrong? 

The truth is that communities can be kept from chaos with cops or consciences. Using cops to do it will be quite messy. Using conscience is far preferred. The trouble is you have to go into the community and make a moral argument. Our society does not know how to do that. You have to convince the residents of this community that policing laws like cigarette sales more aggressively is a good idea. That there is a moral good that will be accomplished by doing that. If they are not convinced of that then it will just feel like a police state. 

It works the same way in the church and in our personal lives. If the church community is not convinced that a moral good is being done by excluding people in irregular marriages from communion then the policy will seem like a power trip from the church hierarchy. On a personal level, if we are not convinced that dealing with sins promptly and decisively is a good idea then we are going to feel abused by anyone pushing us to do that. 

Good must come from the heart. If it is imposed from the outside it can be fine for a while but the heart must change at some point or it won't be sustainable. Either we will go back to evil or we will resent whatever forces are preventing us from going back there. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How We Read The Bible

Called to Communion has a huge post up that is a review of a huge book. The book is called Politicizing the Bible. It is an analysis of history and philosophy. It is by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker. One of the commenters on the post said it is for the eggiest of the eggheads. He has a point. There is 400 years of historical data to analyze and they do get into the details. Even the post takes a while to read.

Still the point it makes is huge. It digs into the precise issue that exists with so much biblical analysis. How doe we approach the biblical texts? What assumptions do we make? Do we even know that we make them? That is the key. Lots of people think they are approaching the scriptures in the only rational way you could approach them. Actually they are making huge philosophical assumptions they have never bothered to examine.

Like the title says they do see political motivations in the way people approach scripture. Yet that is not what concerns me. I am more worried about what those presuppositions are and how we can get people discussing scripture to at least recognize what they are. The two main ones they identify:
The two . . . presuppositions that contribute the most to achieving this aim through exegetical method are the bias against the supernatural and the notion that the core of Christianity is moral rather than dogmatic. A critical approach and a deeper knowledge of history do not produce these presuppositions, we shall argue. Rather, the presuppositions determine the way that exegetes are critical and the way they use history. We hope to make this clear to the reader as the following chapters unfold. . . . This union of tools with secularizing presuppositions constitutes what is almost invariably meant by the historical-critical method
If you talk to anyone about biblical scholarship you see these assumptions on display. The anti-supernatural  presupposition is the most obvious. They approach scripture already convinced that none of the supernatural events described in it could possibly be true. That begs what should be the central question. Is it true? The scriptures are in large measure an account of supernatural events. A lot of the stories have no reason to be there except that they describe a miracle. That is the central message. God is revealing Himself to man and we know it is legit because these miracles occurred.

The bulk of modern scholarship does not even consider this message. The assumption is that somebody somewhere somehow invented all the miraculous elements of the story. Yet this is not just one or two stories. The gospels have miracle accounts throughout. So does the book of Acts. This is one reason you see scholars focusing so much on the epistles. They can't make any sense of the gospels. If every miracle claim is a counter-factual assertion then it is difficult to imagine who wrote them and why. It is more difficult to imagine why anyone in the first century took them seriously. 

When you ask people about their assumptions some will point back to Hume. Hume said miracles were infinitely improbable and therefore no amount of evidence would overcome that because natural evidence can only be finitely improbable. The trouble is that takes as a premise that miracles are infinitely improbable. It does not explain why people find that premise so plausible. To find that out we need to go back further than Hume.

In fact, this book goes back much further than Hume. It begins with William of Ockham back in the 14th century. When most people try and find the beginnings of modern scientific humanism they start at around 1700. This book ends at 1700.  The idea is to go deeper. Not to ask how modern philosophy flowed out of the Age of Reason but rather asking what presuppositions the Age of Reason is based on and where did they come from? 

Showing people the source of ideas does not prove those ideas wrong. Yet it does beg the question of whether this process could have or should have gone any differently. This is especially true when you see that many of the major players were  not motivated by a desire for truth but quite often it was a short term political goal they were most concerned about. 

What flows out of this is criticism or the criticism or perhaps skepticism of skepticism. That is to ask whether it makes sense to demand proof for every detail and to reject those that don't pass the test. What you could do is allow the whole thing to stand or fall on its own terms. That is asking whether the story the bible tells is true. If it is then the various pieces of it do not need to be verified independently. They can be deemed trustworthy because the source ultimately is God.