Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Revelation and Morality

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” Matthew 23:23-24

The value of the Bible is in its relationship to its reader. A literary deconstructionist will surely tell you that this is true of any book, but it is only in scripture that the statement has any meaning. The relationship of the message to its hearer is what Kierkegaard was looking to when he frequently cited Nathan’s accusation to King David: “You are the man!” after telling him a parable of one man stealing another man’s sheep. Too often we forget this truth. We read the stories of the Old Testament or the parables of Jesus and we consider how they might fit humanity at its broadest; we (I) often read of the continual rebellion of Israel, the rejection of the prophets, the murder of Jesus, with just a bit of smugness, as if such sins were far beyond us.

But, let it be always remembered, “You are the man!” The parable of the prodigal son? It is not about the person you know who has wandered from the truth—it is about you! The parable of the tenants? You are the one who rejected and killed the landlord’s messengers!

I don’t know how many times I’ve been stricken by this revelation while reading Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. I always begin reading with haughtiness of their failure to accept Him, and with every “Woe” Jesus utters I hear myself crying inwardly a heartfelt, “Amen! Woe to them!” And yet, somewhere in the middle, it dawns on me. “Woe to me. I am a Pharisee.”

When I read the Bible, I want it to cease being just words and to become revelation. That is, I want it to have meaning, which words by themselves do not. My first step in this is to remember this: when the Bible speaks about sin, it speaks first of all of my sin. When I read descriptions of sinful behaviors, it is to my own life that I must first look. That is what Jesus meant when he said “judge not, lest ye be judged.” It is not that we should not look seriously at sin, it is just that we should look first to our own sin.
“You are the man!”

The truth of the Bible is readily accepted by Christians far and wide, but the fact that the Bible is true says nothing about our intentions in using it; if we use the Bible sinfully, it is a stumbling block to us no matter how perfect or inspired its words. Humanists are quick to point to abuses in how Christians use scripture to condemn others, believing that they have found the great weakness of Christianity, when in fact they have only found the great weakness of Christians. We have turned the Bible from an aide to our worship into an object of worship. Karl Barth may have been right when he claimed that the Bible has become a sort of “Paper Pope” to many Christians.

Scripture may be God-breathed, but it can still be (and often is) used sinfully. To use scripture primarily as a tool for condemnation and judgment is precisely what Christ spoke out against time and again when he berated his contemporaries for understanding the words but failing to understand anything else, which led them to abide by the regulations as laid down by the scholars, but still fail to walk with God. Hosea prophesied, and Jesus quoted: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The Pharisees, who had come to worship the law even above the God who gave it, were slavish devotees to regulation, continually interpreting and reinterpreting the law, and as a result Jesus condemned them as white-washed tombs, full of worthless old bones. They worked endlessly to convince others to follow in their ways and Jesus—yes, mild, meek, peaceful Jesus—did not hesitate in calling them and their followers “children of hell.” The Pharisees had exalted the scriptures, and as a result it never amounted to anything more than words. Worthless words formed into worthless verses; verses into chapters, books and testaments. The scriptures, absent revelation—that is, absent the living Spirit of God—was nothing but a book. Dead and inert rather than living and active. A dull club rather than a piercing, double-edged sword. Worthless parchment shriveled and fading in the hot Mediterranean sun.

Yes, the Bible is alive, but still it does not change. The Bible is active, yet it has remained the one consistent idea throughout all of human history. The idea that we have a living word must never be mistaken for any of the post-modern, truth-is-relative, babble that is taught today. Still, the Bible is alive, for the Bible is revelation. While Christ knew that “Thou shall not murder” meant precisely what the words said, He also understood that, as revelation, it meant far more: the commandment is not limited to murderers; its words are meant to cut to the quick anyone with even the slightest hint of bitterness within them, which is a murderous spirit. The law was, in short, practical for all who would read it. When it is accepted as revelation, the Bible no longer simply mean what it says, it means far more than it says—a fact that is always lost on those who pick and choose passages to either love or hate and ignore the rest.

But there is another problem today that we share with the Pharisees: when the words of the Bible are worshiped and the revelation of God is forgotten, the words, ironically, do not come to mean too much; they come to mean almost nothing. Today, perhaps more than ever, we stress the impotence of language as a means for understanding the written word. Words are no longer the firm, concrete that were once put onto paper; they have been subjected to the ignorance of the deconstructionists and linguistic wranglers who have progressively rendered our universities so resoundingly ineffective at understanding human thought. My own university education offered me perhaps one skill above the rest: to take absolutely anything and convincingly make it mean exactly what I would like it to mean. The situation grows even bleaker when translation between two languages is involved; worse yet when the original language is an ancient and little-used one, such as Hebrew or Koine Greek. Whether or not we like to believe it, words—even words in scripture—can be made to say, quite literally, whatever we would like them to say. For that reason we can be exposed to debates between well-credentialed academics, both arguing from the same passage but coming to precisely opposite conclusions. One may be right and the other wrong, or they are both wrong—but the two cannot be right. The words must be allowed to mean something. 

But there is hope! The word of God is powerful! It is sharp as a double-edged sword! We are called, not just to read or hear the word, but to do it; to allow the word to shape our lives by the power of revelation. Absent this power, the words of the Bible are fair game. It would not take a brilliant manipulator of language to use the 8th commandment to justify a theft because of some loophole in the ancient Hebrew leads us to believe that “steal” no longer means what we, for thousands of years, have so presumptuously assumed. But rest assured: that same thief will be undoubtedly stand condemned before the words of Christ, who proclaimed in no uncertain terms that scripture amounts to more than just words on paper; it is revelation, and as a result its words do not mean less than they seem to, but far, far more. 

Now, the problem with arguing matters of morality using the scripture is precisely this problem with words. The condition of our hearts is not to read and to accept, it is to read and refuse; it is to seek any conceivable way out of condemnation; to heroically search for loopholes or conditions or contradictions that might call a hard truth into question. It is to reinterpret the scriptures in such a way that we might simultaneously seek our own pleasures, following our own idols, while keeping our consciences clear.

In the name of justifying activities we know in our hearts to be sinful we diligently scour the scriptures like a chemist, searching for ingredients to make a clever new concoction that satisfies our need. On the opposite side of things, in the name of judging others we may create endless lists of morality—do this, don't do this, respect this, shun that—and follow these lists to the letter as zealous legalists with nothing truly good in our hearts. But both of these methods utterly fail to capture the meaning of scripture, for neither reflect the truth: that the identity of God's people—then Israel, now the church—is not wrapped up in rewriting scripture or legalistic squabbling over what is and is not sinful. It is based entirely in repentance—an about-faced renewal of the heart.

To offer the most obvious example of our present day: the reason that there tends to be so much virulent debate over a topic like homosexuality (both within the church and without) is that it is generally accepted that we are a culture defined, in large part, by sexuality. In the eyes of secular society, a great portion of our worth is derived directly from what sort of partner we can attract; how many and how often. Sexuality is currency, without which a person is seen as impoverished and in need of governmental assistance, for how is one expected to mean anything in this world without the bliss of human intimacy? How can a person be reasonably expected to refuse (or be refused by others) their most innate desires? Our sexuality has been transformed into our God; we have made it our primary identity.

As Christians, then, devoting ourselves to the scripture is not about memorizing lists of sweeping condemnations, but about a personal evaluation of the heart. To be both a “hearer and a doer” of the Word of God is to sacrifice our identity as seekers and consumers of earthly pleasure and temporary bliss and to seek a healthy relationship with the One who gave us our sexuality in the first place. One could go back and forth in a debate about what, exactly, the Bible has to say about a sin like homosexuality, but in the end, such debates are worthless, for the sin is not homosexuality; it is apostasy and idolatry. It is the act of seeking fulfillment in something other than God. That is the message Christ was trying to proclaim to first century Israel; that was the great failing of the Pharisees (as it is to many of us today).

The debate over what is and is not sin in our world has got to change. In Christ there is true freedom, but in order to experience that freedom we must sacrifice our own idols, do an about-face, and follow Him. To recognize that the Bible is about us, and that we need to first recognize our own failings and seek real repentance. Anything other than this is sin.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Church and the Pursuit of Happiness

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” – United States Declaration of Independence

These words, penned by Thomas Jefferson, are hardly a matter of controversy. Rarely, outside of those few who still subscribe to some form of tyranny or another, will anyone be heard arguing against the very basic notion that a nation ought to be founded on the principle of freedom; fewer still would, or should, argue that a nation ought to do anything at all to stifle its citizens pursuit of happiness.

As a political doctrine I take no offense to the Declaration of Independence. As an assertion of basic freedoms it is practically unmatched; it is used to affirm very basic principles of government—that a citizen and a government are separate; that a government does not exist to control the people, but to protect and to enable individual success. I even understand when this principle is abused in an effort to support certain viewpoints that I happen to oppose. Of course there are reasonable limitations that have to be placed upon any such unrestrictive doctrine; if it makes a person happy to kill his neighbor that is, of course, not a pursuit we are likely to oblige. If it makes a person happy to steal another’s property, it is only the rare, freewheeling judge and jury who might grant leniency when the defendant decides to quote Jefferson on the stand.

I certainly understand the value the world places on the pursuit of happiness, and I understand that it really is a good thing. What I object to—what I really cannot fathom—is when the church comes to the very strange belief that it might go well with them if they hold to the same thing.

This is one of many ways that the doctrines of a church ought to have no overlap with the doctrines of a nation. Just as I can assert that the communism practiced in the early church ought never be considered a valid principle for governing secular society, so also it should be stated emphatically that the church ought never be tempted to teach its members to pursue their own happiness.

To a Christian, after all, the pursuit of happiness should be seen as a great contradiction. It should, at the very least, be recognized as an enigma—for the Christian ought to know that happiness is not a thing that can possibly be pursued. If anything, we could say that happiness has already pursued and overtaken us, and that we are foolish to think that anything could work the other way around.

Christianity is really not the solemn, quiet religion that the secularists make it out to be; the content Christian is not really the opposite of the giddy drunkard or the self-fulfilled womanizer. The Christian simply knows a great secret: That he needn’t go searching about the world, wandering back and forth in it, in the pursuit of happiness, contentment or fulfillment. He needn’t any politician to tell him that he is free to pursue his happiness. For the Christian, happiness is intrinsic. “Man is more himself,” wrote Chesterton, “when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live... Joy, which is the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.”

The church that dares encourage its members to pursue happiness, each in their own way, is a church that has quite clearly never understood the nature of happiness, for it has somehow mistaken the temporal, in which happiness is futile and fading, for the eternal, in which happiness is inward and indistinguishable from joy. Such a church has really sought to undo the drama of the temptations of Christ! For what was the temptation to turn stones into bread but the temptation to place the temporal above the eternal, to feast now and ignore the later...? The Devil offered Christ nothing more than a moment of earthly happiness—a temptation just as direct as an offer to a philanderer of his choice of lovers.

Many churches in recent years have failed in this very particular and very important regard (just as, in many other regards, churches have been failing throughout history). We are all sinners, of course, but the fact that a man had to die for our sins mean that we ought never be proud of them, and we certainly never ought to convince the church to accept them! Needless to say, not only are certain sins being tolerated within the body of Christ, but they are being celebrated!—for certain sins offer the impression to the weak minded that they are nothing more than men and women pursuing their own happiness, non-traditional places though their happiness might lead them. Sinners are no longer driven to repentance; they are driven to the altar in holy matrimony.

How can one obtain the status of Pastor or Priest—titles that one expects to go hand-in-hand with theological training and, one hopes, devoutness—and yet utterly miss such a fundamentally scriptural doctrine? Faith is not a means of obtaining happiness—not in this world, at least.

When the author of Hebrews offers his beautiful account of the great men and women of faith in the Old Testament, how does he conclude his account? “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth,” and, again, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us...”

What about the Bible could possibly lead us to believe that earthly happiness is our ultimate reward? Time and again men and women are reminded to have eternity in mind and to reject their impulses toward earthly security and happiness. But true happiness is not the fulfilling of our every desire, just as true pleasure is not the momentary giddiness of a strong drink or the brief impulses of eroticism.

G.K. Chesterton says that this “religion” of happiness and pleasure seeking, “is the carpe diem religion; but the carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people. Great joy does not gather the rosebuds while it may; its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose that Dante saw. Great joy has in it the sense of immortality; the very splendor of youth is the sense that it has all space to stretch its legs in.”
Likewise, Malcolm Muggeridge, writing near the end of his life, offered an intriguing observation on the source of true happiness: “I increasingly see us in our human condition as manacled and in a dark cell. The chains are our mortal hopes and desires; the dark cell is our ego, in whose obscurity and tiny dimensions we are confined. Christ tells us how to escape, striking off the chains of desire, and putting a window in the dark cell through which we may joyously survey the wide vistas of eternity and the bright radiance of God’s universal love.” 

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Miracle of the Church

Miracles are intriguing things. They engage the imagination in much the same way that parables engage the mind.

Because of this, it is common to hear Christians appeal to the miracles of the Bible as evidence for both the existence of God and the rightness of the Christian faith. It is common to hear Christians point to the novelty of turning water into wine or the sheer audacity of walking on water to demonstrate the deity of Jesus; it is, after all, unthinkable that anyone should refuse to believe in a man whose actions disregard the most basic principles of chemistry or scoff at the notion of liquid viscosity. Only a man who was also God could transform a few pieces of bread and some fish into a meal for thousands; only the Son of God could still a storm with His words.

But we must be cautious. These miracles may be miraculous to the Christian, but the forgotten fact is that the miracles of the Bible are far too removed to serve real apologetic purpose.
As Christians we can marvel at serving a God who can part a sea, rain fire from heaven, or choose to destroy a city with either fire and brimstone or the sound of trumpets, but we must be aware that these stories are less than worthless to anyone who does not already believe. Just as the Apostle Paul said that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” this may be applied equally to any of the other miracles of the Bible. For it should go without saying that to disbelieve in God is undoubtedly to disbelieve in His miracles. No secular humanist will ever be swayed by the assertion of even the most heartfelt Christian that Jesus once made money appear in a fish’s mouth or cured blindness with mud. Those who disbelieve in God do not merely believe in a natural law, but in a natural law that is, by definition, immutable. Rules, to the naturalist, are not proved by the exception; they are proved by the fact that no exception exists. How could any such skeptic be expected to accept the presence of events which, by definition, ignore such laws? If miracles could be explained, after all, then they would cease being miracles altogether. True miracles are not just difficult to rationalize, they are impossible to rationalize, therefore making them truly beneficial to only two groups of people: those who witness the miracles firsthand and those who already believe in them.

Then are miracles without value to the non-believer? Far from it! Though the apostolic age of great public miracles may be in the past, it just so happens that two of the greatest miracles performed by Jesus Christ are ongoing. These great circumventions of the law of nature were not just momentary glimpses into His deity, but are enduring and undeniable even after two thousand years.

To the Christian, the greatest of Christ’s many miracles is undoubtedly His resurrection from the dead; not just a physical body returning to consciousness like Lazarus, but the pure, unchangeable body of a King ready to take his throne. It is one of only two miracles (along with the incarnation) for which there is a holiday that has overtaken the world. To those who believe that it happened as described, there is no more joyful cry than that of “He is risen!” for if this is true, then it is not only Christ who has been freed from the grave, but we as well. Now, says Malcolm Muggeridge, “After his death on the Cross, we are told, he was seen by the disciples and others on numerous occasions; the stone in front of the tomb where he had been laid was found to have been removed, and the tomb to be empty. These are matters of legitimate historical investigation; what is not open to question is that today, two thousand years later, Christ is alive. The words he spoke are living words, as relevant now as when they were first spoken.” Indeed, the first enduring miracle of Jesus is that He is alive today; it is miraculous that His words have not lost their meaning; He is still worshiped as God in an age when such a thing should be unfathomable; He died, and yet He undeniably lives.

The second miracle is, in some sense, the very same as the first, though it is one that might be more readily understood. This is the miracle of the church. The church—the living body of Christ on Earth—is perhaps the most overlooked miracle in the world, though it is no less miraculous than the raising of the dead. Augustine of Hippo considered it a miracle as early as the fourth century: “...the very manner in which the world's faith was won is found to be miraculous if we consider it. Men uninstructed in any branch of a liberal education, without any of the refinement of heathen learning, unskilled in grammar, not armed with dialectic, not adorned with rhetoric, but plain fishermen, and very few in number—these were the men whom Christ sent with the nets of faith to the sea of this world, and thus took out of every race so many fishes, and even the philosophers themselves, wonderful as they are rare.” If the continued existence of a church founded in such humility was so remarkable even in the fourth century, how much more profound must it be after sixteen hundred more years?

But it is not just that the church has survived—certainly there exist devout pockets of long-thought-dead mythology and every form of paganism that ever caught the hearts of men. Cults and sects come and go and sometimes remnants remain far longer than any would expect. No, it is not just survival, it is that the church, born from the humblest imaginable circumstances, proceeded to conquer the world with its message. It is not remarkable that there are loud, unshaven men on street corners with provocative signs or that there are devout ascetics in caves in the desert; it is that the growth of the church has meant both the rise and the fall of great governments, the subject of historic works of art and unfathomable conquests.

Still more remarkable, the miracle is not just that the church has conquered, for the hearts of men are fickle enough that such things can happen—it is that Jesus Christ insisted that it would happen long before it did.

The world may question the validity of Jesus’ words all it likes—we may even argue about whether or not the man even existed in the first place—but there can be no question that the sayings bearing his name were first put to papyrus long before there was any reason to believe that this little Jewish sub-sect would become anything of note. There is no doubt that by the end of the first century it was well known that Christ affirmed: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” There is no doubt that, before the church ever made it as far as Rome, Jesus declared to his disciple: “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Whether these were the words of a God or not, they were words that, centuries later, have been left unshaken.

The audacity of Christ in declaring that His message would survive Him first began to circulate among a bold, but persecuted church trying to gain a foothold within the greatest empire the world has ever known; there were signs of encouragement in the growth of these communities, but there was nothing to suggest that the gospel should have the power to, not only conquer the empire, but to survive, and even thrive, long after the empire collapsed.

To the first churches in Asia Minor it must have seemed an unbelievable thing that the Apostle John should prophecy not just the survival of their diminutive communities of believers, but of a thriving church that would overtake the world: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the lamb!’”

To the reader who does not yet believe, I can only suggest that they look more carefully at the history of the church, for it has survived and thrived beyond all reason, and in perfect accord with the assertion of Christ. And to the reader of faith, who already believes in and is encouraged by the many miracles of the Bible—to the one who bears witness to the continued miracles of the church and the resurrection—I say this: “God is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness.” We can take solace that the last and greatest promise of Jesus continues to hold true: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Human Nature and the Beatitudes

“And He lifted up His eyes on His disciples, and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven...’”
                                                            Luke 6:20-23

Rejoice when hated? Take pride in poverty, hunger, and sadness? Of the many teachings of Jesus, the “beatitudes” are some of the most beloved, but, quite frankly, also the least understood.

The entire Sermon on the Mount stand as one of the few philosophical statements from Jesus that receives almost universal acclaim as being “good”, even to those who think very little of the man who gave it. Critics who cast endless dispersions upon those who follow Christ, regularly concede that there is some value to be gained from these particular teachings. And yet, unless one believes that Jesus was the Son of God, the Beatitudes amount to nothing.

How can any of these statements possibly be accepted by those who do not also accept Christ? How can anyone holding fast to a humanist worldview, believing in humanist philosophy, hold any regard for a sermon that makes an absolute mockery of all human ideals and utterly disregards the observations of human philosophy? The stream of seeming contradictions that make up the Sermon on the Mount absolutely cannot be appreciated by any true philosopher of man, and it should prove positively idiotic to the social Darwinist.

The poor humanist cannot possibly believe that there is anything “blessed” about their poverty, and they certainly cannot believe in the foolish promise of, not just financial security, but an entire kingdom! The hungry humanist demands bread now, not some casual promise of future sustenance! The mourning humanist cannot imagine how anyone could possibly offer the promise of future laughter!

And, worse, Matthew’s gospel adds something even more profoundly foolish to this list of blessings: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God,” and, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Humanist like these words; they repeat it to themselves over and over, reveling in the gentle warmth of their sentiment; they might even quote them from time to time to support their own arguments. But make no mistake—these statements are absolutely absurd! The meek may be praised, but no rational human could believe that the destiny of the meek is that of conqueror! Not even the greatest writer of fiction could make believable the image of a meek, passive monk conquering the throne of the earth by the force of his gentleness. That the meek might inherit the earth is something that everyone would like to hope for, but which only the Christian can truly believe.

Human nature, as the honest philosophers point out, does not lead toward meekness. It is not to glorify poverty or hunger. It is certainly not to rejoice in persecution or hatred. The honest philosophers of man—Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Jean Paul Sartre are among the few—admit the truth: without God there is no real value in meekness. The destiny of the peacemaker is destruction at the hands of the warmonger; the poor and hungry must necessarily die to make way for those more fit to live. Peacemakers will inherit nothing but the right to be trampled underfoot by the warmongers. This is how things have existed for thousands of years, and the truth shows no signs of changing any time soon.

Christ alone knew that the path to human happiness was for men to behave contrary to our nature; thus, in Christianity, the poor (Matthew adds “poor in spirit”) and hungry truly are blessed, even though the rich might have the power; the peacemakers truly are blessed, even though the warmongers trample them under foot; the meek truly are blessed because of the promise to inherit the earth, even though today it is without question that the proud and the haughty that rule our nations and command our armies. The humanist may like to preach only peace and love, but the reality of the world is that peace and love are weaknesses; the will to achieve power and the willingness to ignore the plight of our fellow men is what allows for success in the world. It is impossible to deny the truth that survival does, in fact, belong to the fittest—and there is really no context in which the poor, the peacemakers, or the meek could be seen as the fittest.

The beatitudes do not amount to “good ideas by a good man.” How can one possibly find value in the promise of inheriting the Kingdom of God without first believing in God? How can one believe in the promise that the mourning shall be comforted when they can simply open their eyes to the reality of this world and see the countless despairing, uncomforted individuals dying each day? I do not believe that the evils of the world ought to lead anyone to reject God; but I strongly believe that they ought to be enough to convince us to reject the foolish notion that Jesus, if nothing more than a human philosopher, had good ideas.

As a human philosopher, Jesus Christ demonstrated an absolute inability to understand humanity; he was no better than any seminar prophet or self-help guru of the 21st century. As the Son of God, however, Jesus Christ offered humanity the only real hope it will ever know. The beatitudes amount to either terrible, delusional ideas of a man who never understood his own species or they amount to the true words of a God who alone offered the miracle of saving men from themselves.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Christ and Mythology

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? ... Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’ ...the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars -- and yet they have done it themselves.’” -Nietzsche

Nietzsche was right. Christianity really ought to be dead by now. Indeed, as Chesterton noted, Christianity has died, many times over: “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

If Christianity was just another form of mythology (a pejorative that the secular humanist clings to hopelessly when discussing the Bible), if it was just another superstition, then, yes, it really ought to have died out by now just like any other myth. It ought to be as disbelieved as any other superstition. The fact is that, unless they are being brought to life by authors or Hollywood screenwriters, almost every mythology that arose coextensively with the birth of Christianity have not just seen their followers dwindle—it has seen them literally drop to zero. There is no one, literally no one, who argues that Greek or Roman mythology might be more than myth. There is no one, literally no one, who would pray to Thor or Odin; who would worry about offending Ra or Osiris. The Celtic druids are not merely in hiding; they are extinct. Their temples and statues have been overrun by moss and are steadily crumbling into the earth.

Nietzsche was right in the 19th century when he thought that Christianity was in some trouble. Like the first centuries after Christ or the period of reformation, theological crises were commonplace then, and it could even be said that, in a sense, Christianity was dying. One would have expected the trend to continue, as trends often do, and yet the 20th century saw a number of revivals, and even today there are vast pockets of society wherein the Christian faith is growing, not just in terms of demographics, but in terms of devotion. Nietzsche could never have believed that a preacher like Karl Barth would come along and renew theology, or that preachers like James Stewart or Billy Graham would arise and that countless millions would still be willing to hear a message that has not changed in more than two thousands years. There is a strange truth of Christianity that says that a generation of apostasy does not have to lead to a generation of greater apostasy. In any mythology, and even in most religions, when one generation abandons their beliefs, the avalanche has begun and in the next generation this apostasy will be heightened. Why should a son ever come to believe in something that his father has abandoned? In Christianity this is precisely what has happened, time and again.

Christianity is different, not only because it is true, but because it is believed to be true. The Greek and Roman myths were not merely abandoned, they had really never been believed in the first place. Yes, perhaps they had been believed inasmuch as a deist or agnostic might hold some vague notion that a god may have some form of existence, but they had never been believed as one believes in the world. Faith is a conviction of the unseen; myth is the hope for a daydream. Faith is a discovery, myth is a creation.    

When a person becomes a Christian, he ceases to allow his mind to create a world as he wants it and begins to discover a world that God has created for him. It is not creating the savior that we desire, it is discovering the Christ whom we need. This is what has led to the otherwise unaccountable survival of Christianity through the many moments when it really ought to have died. This is what keeps sons coming back to the faith even after their fathers fall away; it is what leads to revivals when the world thinks we ought to hold a funeral for God; it is what leads to awakenings long after Christianity seems to have fallen asleep. If there was no more Christ in Christianity, the faith would certainly have been killed off long ago, swallowed up by the incorporeal nonsense of Gnosticism or the worldliness of the Manicheans and then killed entirely by the cultures of the world.

This ought to be seen as remarkable! That Christianity has managed to survive, that churches grow and that non-believers become believers and that the faith thrives most under the greatest persecution, is one of history’s greatest contradictions. Chesterton likened Christianity to a river—an independent flowing of fresh thought that is racing unstoppably toward the salty sea of culture and, yes, myth. “Some expect it to go down in a cataract of catastrophe, most of them expect it to widen into an estuary of equality and moderation. In other words, most moderate people thought that faith like freedom would be slowly broadened down; and some advanced people thought that it would be very rapidly broadened down, not to say flattened out.”  

To Christianity, the delta—the place where river and sea meet—should not be considered the life of the sea, but rather the death of the river. When a tiny stream of fresh water meets an infinite ocean, it is the fresh water that is made salty. The vast ocean swallows the river whole. Even the mightiest river—one that has carved canyons in solid stone and swept both away man and beast by its deadly currents—is rendered impotent the very moment it touches the vast ocean.

The river of Christianity has somehow (and by this I mean “by the power of God”) collided with the sea and yet remained a river. No, much more than that! It has made the sea less salty! Though moments have arisen that have seen the river disperse, losing ground to the mighty tide, let it be known that the faith is not subject to entropy. Though creation itself may be groaning for redemption, not so the river that cuts its way through the ocean—it is the church that carries the great promise of redemption to a groaning world. In the church is held the mystery that, though an entire generation may seem to slip away and the faith may appear to fail, the next generation may very well bring about an awakening. The river, though cutting through the ocean, might in fact grow stronger, sweeping the sea along in its path. It is not necessary that periods of darkness must prefigure periods of even greater darkness; they may, in fact give way to glorious light!

Christianity may be called untrue, but it cannot be called a myth, because it is a thing that has been believed and it is a thing that has swept its way into the world while remaining pure. While every myth is swept away easily by the changing tide, Christianity alone marks the place where the river at last begins to overcome the sea.

This is a thing to be believed! What if we truly lived as if it was the sea whose identity was threatened by exposure to the river? What if we understood that it is the world that must flee from the church in order that their addictions and idols might be spared, rather than the other way around?

This boldness is the great promise of the gospel, and it is a truth borne out by history. Christianity lives and thrives and has been regularly walking out of its own grave for two thousand years, following in the footsteps of its founder.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Christ and Philosophy

Of the most effective attacks on Christianity, the most common today seems to be the attacks from those who oppose “religion” in its most general meaning and proceed to argue against the concept of “god” in the most abstract sense, arguing against one by arguing against another. An argument against Hinduism, then, is an argument against organized religion, hurting the Christian as much as the Hindu. This form of attack (like so many) is, of course, disingenuous when applied to any religion, but is even more profoundly wrongheaded when applied to Christianity, for Christianity cannot be compared with the religions of the world.

I could scarcely begin to describe the myriad ways that Christianity is unique, and not only among the religions of the world (that much has been said time and again). Far more interesting to me has been the revelation that even as a general philosophy of man, it is unique among philosophies. And I do not mean “unique” in the watered-down and inane sense that there might somehow be different “stages” of uniqueness, nor do I mean that Christianity is only unique by a matter of degree. I mean it in the definite, exact sense of the word: Christianity is unique. It is not just to be differentiated among the world's religions; it stands absolutely alone. It does not merely offer an alternative to other philosophies; it is really the only philosophy.

Philosophers see themselves as the observers of mankind. They see themselves as theater-goers observing the many acts of a sweeping play, every scene filled with equal parts comedy and tragedy. It is a performance of such depth and magnitude that every member of the audience might take something different from it—they, having seen the very same play, might come to a multitude of conclusions, all of which seem, in some sense, true, but are really contradictory. Some will give rave reviews to the performances of the actors; others will have endless criticisms for the dialogue or the set construction or the direction. Philosophers have witnessed the same performance time and again; it is not the play that changes, it is their views of it that change. Philosophers provide a haughty, pretentious audience, and it all stems from their belief that they have somehow stepped outside this farce themselves, looking down from a private box, musing after the strange behavior of strange creatures they could never understand. The philosophers have forgotten that the stage extends to them, as well; they have forgotten they cannot abandon their humanity for the sake of their philosophies, just as no historian can ever step outside of history.

Christianity, on the other hand, is the only philosophy grounded in objective absolutes rather than human ingenuity; it is, in other words, the only philosophy not rooted in failure. Secular philosophers pride themselves not in understanding things fully, but in understanding them slightly better than other philosophers, which can only mean that they do not understand things at all. The same could be said for the pursuit of science, which is not to understand things perfectly, but to understand things better than those who came before. Even among the philosophers and scientists there is rarely any pretension of knowing everything, and there is a tacit acceptance of the limitations of knowledge. Not so with Christianity.  

Christians have long held the key to philosophy, for ours is a philosophy not originating in human observation, but originating outside of humanity. A man cannot fully understand himself without first forgetting that he is a man; but Christian philosophy originated with a God who is separate from man, but who also became man; a God who knows man’s heart both from the outside and from within. This powerful truth has been wielded by men and women of all ages and with varying degrees of education, beginning not with the educated elite, but with lowly fishermen and tent makers. The poor and the humble have been speaking more common-sense notions on philosophy than the richest and most educated since long before we bothered to keep track of these things. Ever since all philosophy found its ultimate meaning in the incarnation, the most reasonable philosophers have been those that recognize the utter futility of philosophy itself, for the philosopher, with his endless degrees and his almost worshipful devotion to language, will inevitably spend the course of his life in trying to understand why a man should decide to do what he does, while at no point recognizing that he really ought to just ask himself. 

Secular philosophy begins by asking a question about human behavior; why, for instance, should we be so driven by greed or power? Why are we so afraid of death? From these questions are devised increasingly clever (and, consequently, increasingly less likely) explanations and algorithms that seek only the broadest possible generalizations. All of man’s actions are driven by a will to power, a will to live, a will to procreate, etc. Once the philosopher discovers the ultimate driving force of man, all of his decisions will somehow come to make sense at last. But as philosophers stumble about in the darkness looking for the light switch that might finally illuminate the mysteries of man, Christians are free to sit in the comfortable warmth of a bright sun that has been shining all along; an oasis to which I may freely invite others, for there is room for all.

Christian philosophy alone does not begin with an observation of man, but begins instead with two principles: sin and grace. The scientist, like the philosopher, will tell you never to begin a principle, for a principle must always be based on observation and never the other way around. One should never begin by saying that the stars are made of chicken soup, because there is a very good chance that, once we learn how to study the stars, we will most likely discover that chicken soup is nowhere to be found. The secular philosophers are very much more in tune with the scientific method—observe, hypothesis, theorize, observe, re-theorize. That is all well and good, but only until one realizes the strange truth that the presumptuous principles of the Christian faith have for thousands of years offered a perfect description of man, while the philosophies of men seem to come and go on every changing breeze of fad and folly.

Christians are also blessed with a perfect philosophical text. Secular philosophers have wasted countless volumes in defining the abstract principles of humanity, decipherable only to those who have learned the language, while the Bible stands alone as the most complete description of man ever assembled. Alone among ancient literature, the Christian scriptures offer man in his most primal, vulnerable state, as a sinner desperately in need of grace; as a fallen being in desperate search of salvation but unable to procure it for himself. There is no thousand page philosophical tome that comes close to equaling the 42 chapters of Job in explaining hardship, suffering and injustice. There are no expressions of joy, sadness, brokenness, humility, gaiety, loss or victory that can equal the Psalms. There are no modern histories of any race of men that equals the Pentateuch, both in describing the fickleness of man and prescribing a cure. There are no works that are so candid about failure, no depictions of life so honest about difficulty, no religious tract as blunt about its difficulties. The Bible stands alone.

Every human philosophy is built on truth; but it is only ever a partial truth. They are based on observations of man rather than the whole man. The truth of philosophy is always overshadowed by its inadequacy, simply because it tries to make man a rational creature, whose choices can always be explained. It is strange that the philosophers who carry on this tradition, who seem so sure that humanity can be explained, seem to have never stopped and looked at themselves; to observe their own strange decisions and inexplicable actions. A secular philosopher who bothers to look at himself will recognize quickly that he is the best evidence against his own philosophies. Philosophers can wax on and on about the condition of man, but until they recognize that man is best defined by his relationship with God, their words and insights will pass away. They will never stumble upon anything as lasting or insightful as the words of King David: “What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

Monday, April 1, 2013

Blessings from Blasphemy

The Literature of the Heretics, pt. 9

Why, as a faithful Christian, should I ever have concerned myself with what professed non-believers—professed opponents to belief itself—have to say about my religion?

Too much of my life has been spent in devoted attention to the things I agree with and in denial of the opposition. But of course it has. This makes sense. It is easy and refreshing to read words and arguments that only serve to reinforce the things that I hold as important, and it takes far more of my attention, with the potential for far more mental anguish, to expose myself to challenges. Why not just ignore them?

I entitled this essay "Blessings from Blasphemy," but in this I don't mean to imply that one receives blessings from the act of blasphemy, nor that blasphemy should be encouraged for the purposes of blessing others. What I mean is that, though of course I would prefer it if the world as a whole was suddenly aligned to my beliefs (even though I am inclined to enjoy myself in disagreement—I would gladly give it up for the sake of such unity), as long as there are those who vehemently deny the things I believe in, there are certain benefits to be gained by, at the very least, hearing them out—benefits that, I believe, make the entire endeavor worthwhile. 

I can easily point to the two most direct blessings:

First is the blessing of knowledge. It is important to face the arguments made against even our most dearly held beliefs, for the simple fact that we claim our beliefs to be true. If we believe in truth, then our truth ought to withstand the arguments against them. I understand those who avoid the opposition simply because they do not, in a general sense, like conflict, and this I understand (to a certain extent), but to avoid the argument altogether is to admit a lack of faith.

I understand the hesitancy a Christian might feel in facing up to those who seriously question their beliefs—especially those as highly regarded as Hitchens or Dawkins, who can lay claim to countless souls “won over” from religion to non-religion. I can understand the hesitancy because I have most certainly felt it myself. No one enjoys giving audience to a person intent on destroying the things they hold dear, but this fear absolutely pales in comparison to the joy that comes in the knowledge that the arguments we have feared are, in fact, worthless. We fear these men because they are learned, only to discover that even the greatest university educations have not enabled these men to understand the faith they deride. They tear apart religion like vultures at a carcass, but when they come to Christianity, and especially the cornerstone of Christianity in Christ, they find their beaks dulled against the same impenetrable wall that has devoured argument for centuries.

There is a sense of indescribable freedom in discovering that the monster one has been afraid of was, all along, harmless as a kitten. I don't think this holds true for everyone, of course; some are more prone to be swayed by clever argument than others (and though I don't believe either Dawkins nor Hitchens to have many substantial arguments, there is no doubt that they have a talent in being clever), but for those who do truly understand the substance of Christianity, it is wonderful to discover that their arguments have no real foundation; that their true effectiveness lies in lumping every “religion” together and destroying them as a whole because Christianity taken alone can withstand every arrow. 

The second of the blessings one can receive from this sort of blasphemy is even more important, and that is the blessing of awareness. It is important that we know what we believe; it is equally important to know how others see what we believe. Christians are meant to be the image-bearers of God on the earth, and there is no doubt that this is a job that, more often than not, we mangle until it is unrecognizable. If the heretics have one talent that stands above the rest, it is the talent of pointing out the many flaws of God’s people—and these are flaws that Christians need to be aware of!

The terrible fact is that not every argument made by the heretics is untrue. Not every complaint about religion is unfounded. As I read through the works of the heretics, especially Hitchens’ God is Not Great, I found myself nodding in agreement far more often than I would have liked. Christianity may, at its heart, be truly good, but that certainly does not mean that Christians are even remotely good. We must never fall over the same stumbling block that has been hindering Christianity for thousands of years, which has seen Christian after Christian struggling to defend the indefensible; to offer an account as to why some travesty or another was actually justifiable. If the scriptures have taught us anything, it is that, first, everyone is capable of acting horribly, and, second, that God can somehow use us for good without condoning our evil.

In addition to pointing out the sins of our past, the heretics can make us aware of some of the ridiculous claims Christians still have a tendency to make which, quite frankly, makes it difficult for us to be taken seriously. As just one small example of this, I uttered a heartfelt “amen!” when Dawkins wrote that, “...in greater numbers since his death, religious apologists understandably try to claim Einstein as one of their own.” This may not bother many as profoundly as it bothers me, but it is indicative of a larger point. Einstein was emphatically not a Christian, and he was emphatically not a Jew in any orthodox religious sense, yet I myself have heard Christians claim that he was somehow a ‘spiritual light’ among the ‘darkened’ scientists. True, Einstein was known to turn the occasional wispy, spiritualistic phrase, but he was in no sense religious. For that matter, if I was Dawkins I would also have noted that Christians do the same thing with Thomas Jefferson, who I would consider one of the great opponents to Christianity this country has ever seen. Words and phrases that vaguely smack of religion do not make one a Christian and it does not help our cause to try and lay claim to individuals simply because of their celebrity.

Dawkins is also correct in saying: “The other thing I cannot help remarking upon is the overweening confidence with which the religious assert minute details for which they neither have, nor could have, any evidence.” Absolutely. Christians (much like scientists) are far too quick to claim certainty on matters where certainty is simply not possible, whether it be an historical item or a doctrinal point. Reading the heretics reminded me that there are points where it is perfectly acceptable to be unsure, lest I be seen (rightly) as undiscerning.

These are just a couple examples of situations where the heretics have it right, and where Christians ought to be humble enough to learn from them. Christians need to be more intellectually honest and much more open to criticism, not bristling in anger every time a non-believer points to some error or another. We need to be aware of how we are seen by others, “...that by doing good (we) should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (1 Peter 2:15)

Finally, I want to close this series with a quick note about my choice of words (something that probably should have been mentioned at the beginning): I've had some questions about why I chose to use the word "heretics" in regard to the authors I have been dissecting—there is the sense that the word might cause undue offense. It is a fair question, and the answer probably begs for an essay by itself, but to summarize, I will simply say this: a heretic is nothing more than a person who is at odds with religious orthodoxy. No one would dare argue that either Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins venture anywhere near orthodoxy with their thinking, no one would call them fence-sitters or ‘semi-orthodox’. Not only is it fair and accurate to refer to them as heretics, it is a label that they really ought to wear as a badge of honor, as I might if someone labeled me a ‘fundamentalist’. For the word to be controversial, it really has to be applied to one believer by another. When one Christian calls another Christian a heretic it is a very serious matter—it should rightfully be considered offensive and reason for great debate. When a Christian refers to a secular humanist as a heretic, he is only using the most obvious word in the world.