Wednesday, March 31, 2010

God-Shaped Hole -- or Defective Brain?

This is DAY 6 in a seven-day discussion of issues raised on my Facebook Wall by some "non-theist" friends.

Some have put forth the contention that an evolving “God concept” in our brains somehow created the biological need for us to believe in God, which presumably means that all the biblical and social testimony of God's divine interaction with people throughout history must all be made up.

But frankly, for me, this assertion takes too preposterous an amount of “faith” (in the sense in which some have used that word) to believe. Why? One reason is Occam’s Razor … the simplest explanation usually is the best. Unless there is evidence to the contrary, I am inclined to take the historical and biblical accounts of God’s influence on human history, the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses recorded in Scripture, at face value, believing their testimony to be internally and externally consistent and that those who testified can be deemed trustworthy. It takes more faith for me to believe that somehow it’s all a big conspiracy, a big lie to get me (for whatever reason? There really isn't one I can think of that makes any sense at all) to believe in a God who isn’t there.

I simply can’t see a postulated negative motivation of all those eyewitnesses who provided their compelling accounts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Not to mention all the Old Testament prophets and others who witnessed to God’s interaction with humans throughout Scripture. What was the cost of these supposedly manufactured lies? In many (if not most) cases it was a grisly death by martyrdom. If there were recantations (“Please don’t kill me! I confess, I really made it all up!”) they’re not recorded.

And how do you explain the Apostle Paul? His dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus? You could plead insanity or some such, but as we are studying the brilliance of his logic in the book of Romans, I just don’t see it. I’ve read what crazy people write (believe me, I have), and it doesn’t ring the same.

Most of all, of course, there’s Jesus himself. He claimed to be God. These claims were either manufactured by someone, or else he was a liar, or he was deceived (a lunatic) … or they were true. And then there's his resurrection, which we celebrate this weekend. Eyewitness accounts claimed that he was raised from the dead! No one who believes otherwise has been able to produce a body to prove these accounts false.

It also seems to me there’s a logical problem with postulating that a God concept has “evolved” within the human brain. You can't have your cake and eat it, too … if this “God concept” evolved for communitarian reasons, because it had social utility, then how could some “advanced” individuals (who are really somehow smarter than everyone else) think that their rejection of this concept makes them smarter than everyone else? Wouldn’t that rejection instead be a step backwards and away from group survival?

Furthermore, even if the evolutionary hypothesis of religion was correct, it doesn't prove that God doesn’t exist. Even if our brains did evolve a God concept, we are still responsible to assess whether the claims of Christ are true or not. It's actually worse than that: the whole question of truth becomes a real problem if evolution is true, which in and of itself calls the claim to truth for evolutionary theory into doubt.

Couldn't the supposed "evolution" of a God-concept in reality be a hard-wired, God-shaped “hole” placed there by God himself, who claims that he created us and that we need to connect with him in order to fulfill our purpose?

I’ll be honest here, because another possible explanation presents itself. I confess a predisposition to suspect that every crisis of faith is more likely to find its roots in moral crisis than in intellectual struggle. As I’ve followed what has been written by at least one avowed non-theist, it looks more (from where I sit) like her personal turning point coincided with just such a slide, possibly accompanied by (or precipitated by) some sort of interpersonal trauma; rather than some sort of an intellectual challenge to her supposed faith.

But, obviously, I can’t say this with any degree of certainty, as I don’t really know her personally and have not yet seen any rational arguments or any evidence for what she claims to be true. (Frankly I'm not even sure what she claims to be true. She seems to have spent all of her energy attacking what others have said, rather than exerting herself to say anything of value.)

All I know is what she has written, and what I read in the papers, as they say.

I have read a bit on the topic of the so-called “God concept,” written by people like Richard Dawkins, Nathaniel Branden and Ursula Goodenough. As far as I have been able to tell, they all start their constructs from a presupposition that God must not really be there, that evolution alone is a more sensical explanation for all that we see. Then they seem to proceed from there. Really makes me wonder if the primary motivation for their presupposition is that they don’t like the fact the idea of God imposing his moral code on them, either.

Also, despite their utter commitment to evolutionary theory, none that I have read ever get around to addressing the fundamental issue of ultimate cause (what caused the initial proteins and amino acids to get together and align themselves in such a way as to create sustainable and reproducible “life”? what was the initial, causative agent?); but then I realize they would also claim that we theists (and deists) have been unable to answer the question, “What caused God?” I guess we’re both in a quandary.

The Bible says that God had no cause, that he simply was. (“Before Abraham was, I Am.”) I'm not going to try and explain that, my brain is far too small. But the evolutionist’s quandary is even worse. If there was no creator, then what caused us? (And the life that preceded us?) What was the initial cause of all that exists?

Christians often speak of how we are created with a “God-sized hole” in our hearts, which only he can fill. This is not a literal biblical concept (not in these words, though I think Scripture supports the idea), and to support it directly people most often quote St. Augustine’s Confessions: “You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”

It seems to me that anyone who postulates that our brains now have an (evolved) need to entertain a God concept is focusing on the flip side of this principle. Or perhaps it is simply an attempt to explain the power and influence of conscience?

In writing to the Romans his basic theological treatise, Paul builds a case that some of the fundamental things that can be known about God, even “apart from the Law” (his direct revelation of his standards, designed to demonstrate to us the vast gulf that separates our character from his), are revealed about him a) in creation (nature), and b) in our hearts (what old-timers called “natural law” -- our consciences, our more-or-less innate sense of right and wrong). The unbeliever looks at natural law and says, “Oh, that’s common sense, everyone innately knows the difference between right and wrong just because that’s common human experience. Self-preservation declares that it doesn’t make sense to lie and cheat and steal and take our neighbor’s wife and do injustice and murder.” The believer, of course, looks at these same things as evidence of a standard that God created within us. He cites as evidence the fact that if natural law were not from God, we wouldn’t break it a thousand times every day, even though we acknowledge its value.

I guess you can chalk up this disparity to the difference in perspective between disbelief and faith. It always does seem to boil down to that.

The really interesting thing to me (which I’m sure could be “explained away” by brain biologists) is that our conscience convicts us even when we do these things in a way that no one else knows about, that “hurts no one else” … for instance, even when we steal our neighbor’s wife in our hearts only. To fantasize about adultery with my neighbor’s wife surely doesn’t harm my neighbor, or his wife? Right? And yet my conscience convicts me even of this secret pleasure, nonetheless.

Christ, of course, linked the two – he said that me lusting over my neighbor’s wife is fundamentally the same thing as simply taking her and having adultery. Ouch. He must not have understood the biology of the brain.

The biblical position of course is that all such sin hurts us, and pains God in that it separates us from him and is therefore an affront to his love for us. It doesn’t lessen or diminish him in any way (by definition, God cannot be diminished by our sin, or else he wouldn’t be God), but that isn’t to say he doesn’t hate it for what it does to those he loves. And that he doesn’t ultimately act to put a stop to it.

Tomorrow: We'll finally wrap this up with "God Vs. Evil." How could a loving God create, or at least tolerate, the presence of evil?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How Can One Religion Claim To Be Right?

This is DAY 5 in a seven-day discussion of issues raised on my Facebook Wall by some "non-theist" friends.

One objection that has been raised says that it is arrogant to assert that one specific religion, in this case Christianity, is “right” and all others “wrong.”

Most Christians don't assert that all other religions are completely (100%) wrong. But they do assert that the fundamental premise of Christianity, that Christ is the only way to find true peace with God, excludes all other religious systems as a whole.

This may sound arrogant to some, but I don't think it really is. First of all, many people assume that Christianity is specific to a certain culture or geography. As all things must start somewhere, Christianity got its start within a specific (non-Western) culture and geography, but it has spread rapidly over the centuries to nearly every corner of the globe. While Christianity has been sometimes (inaccurately) associated with the West, today, far more Christians exist outside of the Western world than exist inside of it. Christianity’s greatest rate of expansion most recently has occurred in places like Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.

Not that this has any substantive bearing on whether or not it is true, but Christianity is by far the largest faith in the world today, and it is also the most unique when you consider that it is the only religion that holds that it is impossible, apart from God’s redemptive grace, for people to overcome their own sinfulness and somehow work their way to God (or nirvana, or whatever). If you grant Christianity its suppositions … that God exists, is a Person (rather than an impersonal force) and intervenes in human history; that humankind is utterly sinful and lost and that we cannot save ourselves; and that God alone can save us by personally paying the price for our sin … then it makes utter and total sense that there can only be one right way.

Is it arrogant for any religious system to assert that it alone is the way to truth? To the contrary, this almost goes to a definition of a religious system. If your religious system didn’t claim to be the way to truth, and you didn’t subscribe to that claim, why on earth would you bother? That religion would become irrelevant.

So, I guess you could say, “OK then, in order for a religion to be relevant, it must be arrogant.” But I could then apply this logic to any other system of belief. Many westerners believe that democracy is the “right” system of governance. Does that make them “arrogant?” No, it just makes them act consistently with their belief system. Personally, I believe that Redline cyclocross bicycles are the best bikes made for cyclocross. Does that make me “arrogant?” I don’t think so; it just gives me a better chance of winning a cyclocross race.

It makes far less sense (as some religious systems assert) that there are many different right ways, which is on its face pure nonsense, particularly since most of those ways are mutually and logically exclusive of one another. One way must be right. If God exists, and communicates his way to us, as Christians believe to be true, then all bets are on the Bible.

I think the real issues that need to be addressed are the claims at the core of the belief system. Does God exist? Did he create the world and everything in it (including us)? Are we corrupted by sin? Did God send his son to die for our sin (because of his love for us)? Was Christ raised from the dead? If we believe these things, what should be the impact of those beliefs on our lives today? Etc.

I yield the right to non-theists to examine these claims and decide, based on the best available evidence, whether they are true or false. Each of us shouldn’t be believing something (or refusing to believe something) simply because we are told by someone else to believe it (or not to believe it). We should also be careful to ensure that our beliefs aren’t being influenced by our personal circumstances. There is a lot of discomfort with the idea that if we reject God (spurn his grace, mercy and forgiveness) that he is going to reject us … even though this makes total sense, if you grant that God is who he says he is and the world is the way he says it is.

I just want to make sure the motive for the disbelief is an honest pursuit of truth and assessment of the evidence, rather than a motive of convenience and personal situation. (I.e., “I want to be my own god, and therefore cannot, must not, believe that any other God exists.”)

Tomorrow: God-shaped hole ... or defective brain?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

What About Hell?

This is DAY 4 in a seven-day discussion of issues raised on my Facebook Wall by some "non-theist" friends. Because of David’s response to me yesterday, I’ve decided to switch topics. I’ll deal with the topic of hell today. Is God really a God of love, or a vicious monster who delights in sending people to hell?

The idea of hell is a stumbling block to many because we cannot conceive of a God of love sending people to an eternity of torture or torment. This thought makes God seem vicious, capricious, even evil … none of which we can, of course, reconcile with the concept of a God of love.

The Bible (the New Testament, in particular), refers to hell, and so it is a very real concept; however, I think we have read a lot into these references that aren’t necessarily there. So I’d like to deal with several related questions, one at a time.

The first question: is God capricious, vicious, and mean-spirited? Scripture indicates very clearly that the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” Scripture over and over again refers to God as “love” personified. For instance: “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” (1 John 4:16). “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes on him may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

The overwhelming message of the Bible is that God is love. And yet God is also just. When he proclaimed his name to Moses, he said: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished …." (Ex. 34:5-7) He linked love and justice in almost the same breath. And this makes complete sense. If God loves me, I am going to expect Him to be just. If someone wrongs me, cheats me, hurts me, I am going to expect accountability. Without the ability to enforce accountability, either in this life or the next, God is to some extent going to be impotent (not God). And not capable of truly expressing love. For love also implies protection and justice. If I love my two kids, I’m not going to let one of them stick a knife into the other. I am going to try and protect them. And if one hurts the other, wrongs the other, I am going to discipline the wrongdoer. Justice demands it. It doesn’t matter that I love both equally.

All injustice is sin. And God takes sin far more seriously than we do, because he more than anyone knows exactly how destructive it is. It separates us from him, makes us hate the thought of him, makes us unable to have fellowship with him.

All sin requires justice, it requires a penalty to be paid. The fact that God is ultimately love is demonstrated vividly by Romans 5:8 – while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. He paid the penalty. Justice came down at his own expense.

And according to the Bible, faith is the method by which we accept that fact that he paid the cost, and that we cannot ever pay it ourselves. If we do not accept that God puts our sin on his tab and forgives us so that we can have fellowship with him, then our only other choice is to not have fellowship with him, to take responsibility for our sin ourselves, and to separate ourselves from him.

And I think that’s a key facet of the discussion of hell. God never sends anyone there capriciously … I think we send ourselves there.

And what do we know about the specifics of hell? Frankly, not a lot. First, it was created specifically for the ultimate rebels, the devil and his angels. (Not for people!) Second, there are a lot of metaphors for consumption used in describing hell. A lake of fire (burning), a place where “the worm” consumes and does not die, etc. We do not know exactly what the fire represents, what the worm represents. Are these physical, literal things in the material world? Probably not, because we’re talking about a spiritual afterlife.

We know hell involves “torment” … but is it the torment of physical torture, or the torment of being consumed by remorse and anguish over bad choices, over injustice, over sin undealt with? We simply don’t know.

I think uneducated people assume the former, but most educated theologians, philosophers and writers assume the latter. Frankly, many are also nihilists. Others say there is good biblical cause to hold that the soul continues to exist, but that hell is the place where the logical results of sin are played out. In the “Great Divorce,” C. S. Lewis depicts hell as an existence ultimately without law, almost like a Wild West town which keeps expanding because those who live there (who have first isolated themselves from God and thus removed themselves from his protections) keep isolating themselves further from other sinners like themselves. Ultimate and eternal isolation (self-imposed).

It’s funny, most people don’t have as much problem with the idea of someone like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin or Idi Amin or the 9/11 terrorists going to hell. Especially if your wife or daughter or best friend was brutally murdered by one of those folk. And in these cases, if there were no hell, I think most of us would have a much more significant problem with the claim that God is just. If people are allowed to choose freely (which means they must be allowed to commit injustice and evil, to molest children, to rape and pillage, or whatever), then in order for God to be truly just someone must pay for such actions. There must be accountability. Right?

And as I said in my last post, I think people go to great lengths to try and avoid accountability for their sin. The 9/11 terrorists might have been well intentioned, thinking that God would surely reward them for their actions by giving them 70 virgins in paradise, but imagine these guys suddenly discovering, upon landing on the shores of the afterlife, that God instead of rewarding them is going to hold them accountable for what we think he should hold them accountable for, the brutal murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children! Are they going to hang around God then? I think they’re going to be pretty angry at God about then.

Imagine going to the only place you can go to try and escape God … and discovering everyone else who has gone there for the exact same reason. And by “everyone else” I am including the company named above.

The fact is, of course, that this is a lot of speculation, and we simply don’t know. Yet. A friend of mine I was discussing this question with told me that he sided with the nihilists. But I laughed when he said: “But I really don’t want to test that theory.”

And I think that really is the point. Our future is in God’s hands. He has the power. As a result of progressive revelation I think we probably know more about the afterlife now than they did in Old Testament times. But do we know all there is to know? I would say rather there is probably a lot more that we don’t know than that which we do know. The point to me is, in light of what we don’t know, who are we trusting with our future? Ourselves? Or a God who loves us so much he was willing to die for us?

I mentioned at the onset that the idea of hell is a stumbling block. In Luke 12 Jesus was talking to his disciples about the same religious hypocrites who would ultimately end up crucifying him (the ultimate injustice – torturing, crucifying the most innocent and sinless person who ever lived, for sins that he did not commit … who are the vicious and capricious ones in this story? Is it God, or us?).

Anyway, Jesus said: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

David, in your comment yesterday, you said: “What I found was that the God of the bible was not the caring loving God that I had been told. He was a jealous mean spirited person who would kill men women and children anytime his so called children disobeyed him.” You said you could not respect a God who used fear in his demand to be followed and worshipped, rather than love.

Actually, if this were true (that God kills everyone who disobeys him), we’d all be dead. I disobey God frequently. I would never survive. The truth is found in the numerous Scriptures that tell how patient and longsuffering God is with us. It is His kindness, the Word says, which leads us to repentance.

I agree with you completely, at least the part about not being able to respect a mean-spirited deity. There are lots of people, evil people, who rule by fear rather than love. The religious hypocrites of Jesus’ day were in that number; today, I think the Taliban provide a good example, and I will use them for our purposes. They oppress women, bomb schools, and torture and kill any who oppose their authority. There is no such thing as “free will” in Taliban society. They want to rule (not serve), and to enforce that rule with fear. They are close kin to the religious hypocrites of Jesus' day.

But when it comes to whether or not God loves us, I think you and I are reading different Bibles. Or at least reading the same Bible through dramatically different filters.

If God were like the Taliban, I’m with you 100%, I wouldn’t want to love and serve Him either. I would look at a passage like Luke 12:5 and be very afraid, and very angry.

But look at the context. Obviously referring to God, the passage says, “fear him who, after the killing of the body, has the power to throw you into hell.” The word “fear” clearly has different shades of meaning. Whenever in Scripture it is used to say “fear God,” it is used in the sense of “have a great deal of respect for.” And this makes total sense: God is the creator of life, He gives it, He can take it away. We all know that. He has a lot of power, by definition. He is God. He also has the power to determine what happens to us, according to this verse, after our material life has ended. What happens to our soul. And that really is a lot of power. That power makes him worthy of respect. If he didn’t love us, if he didn’t have our best in mind, we would truly be up a creek without a paddle. He would be much worse than the Taliban, holding a gun to our head. We would need to be very, VERY afraid of him ... but could not be expected by any reasonable person to love him with our free will.

But the Bible consistently says the opposite! Even the passage above concludes with Christ's appeal to us to not be afraid of God (which is a totally different concept, like being afraid of the Taliban because they will hurt you simply to impose their dominance). Talking about how God even values common sparrows, Jesus assures us: “Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” He cares about us so much he knows the number of hairs on our head. He knows us intimately -- our fears, our struggles, our emotions, our pain. He cares intimately and deeply.

The whole message of the Bible, beginning to end, is that God cares more deeply about us than we could possibly know. “For God so loved the world that He gave …” Of course we should totally respect him (fear him), simply because that makes complete sense. He created us for his own purposes; we will ultimately only be happy and fulfilled when we seek to fulfill those purposes.

But should we be afraid of him because he is capricious and vicious and goes around throwing people into hell? That’s utter nonsense. If you’re reading that into the Bible, you are not reading what it’s saying, just what others may be telling you it’s saying.

Now, in light of this, let’s look at your analogy about our children playing on the freeway. In your analogy, "God’s so-called children" are playing on the freeway, with traffic speeding toward them, and a seemingly unconcerned God writes them a letter and says “don’t do that.” Then leaves them to get squished.

But that doesn’t fit with what the Bible reveals. In Genesis (when God first creates his children), he warns them very clearly about the dangers of playing on the freeway. But they do it anyway.
So, what does God do? Does he just send them a letter and then close his eyes?

No, instead he himself comes down, runs out onto the freeway, and stops traffic with his body. That’s what “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son” means. He sacrifices himself because of his love for us.

And I think he has a right to hope we take that sacrifice seriously. All children grow up. If, when we grow up, knowing how seriously he loves us and how much it cost him to protect us from the ravages of the freeway, if we refuse to listen and keep on going out and playing there, it seems to me there must some day come a point where our blood falls on our own heads.

Tomorrow: Isn’t it the height of arrogance for one specific religion to claim it has the corner on truth?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Seeking “Proof” Vs. Progressive Revelation

This is DAY 3 in a 7-day discussion of claims that non-theists made when I posted a quote about faith on my Facebook wall.

When asked what it would take for him to believe, one of my friends responded that he would have to see God do a specific miracle. He mentioned a specific type of miracle (seeing a severed limb magically reattached), but I assume that any one of a number of other sufficiently dramatic miracles (such as raising someone from the dead) would also suffice.

This reminded me a little bit of Christ’s story about the beggar Lazarus and the rich man, in Luke 16. I’m sure you know the story. In life the beggar suffers, while the rich man enjoys easy street. After death, the tables are turned. The rich man realizes that it was all true, there is justice and judgment after all, so he appeals to Abraham to raise the beggar from the dead and send him to his five brothers to warn them. Abraham replies: Why? God has already spoken his warning through trustworthy individuals, Moses and the prophets.

“But no,” the rich man pleads, “if one rises from the dead, then they will believe.” Abraham says with finality: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

The irony in this passage, of course, is that it was Christ himself who was raised from the dead and sent back to us. So, are we convinced? Do we now believe?

For better or worse, I think the nature of biblical faith is the opposite of what we would like it to be. We would like to see “irrefutable proof” and we claim if we see it, then we will believe. At some point, in this life or hereafter, my faith tells me that we will get our proof. But Christ said that true faith was like a mustard seed. Even if it’s small, you invest it. You stake yourself on it. Then it grows larger. God proves himself to be what he is: trustworthy. After such an investment, your faith gets a little stronger. You say, “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief.” The journey is two steps forward, one step back. True faith starts small, is an investment of trust based on what we know, and grows from there.

As a dad, I can think of a good analogy here. I love my daughter dearly. I’m sure there have been times when my daughter doubts this. Let’s say, in a moment of doubt, my daughter came to me and said, “Dad, if you really love me, please buy me a Corvette.”

Now, could I buy her a Corvette? Yes, though I would probably have to mortgage my house. But I could do it. Is my love for my daughter worth a Corvette? Absolutely, it is worth more than all the Corvettes on the planet.

But would I accede to her request and buy her one? Of course not. Why not?

Because I know a Corvette would not be good for my daughter. It’s not what she really needs. Love is about doing what is best for a person. She needs to trust in the truth of my love for her. As her dad I am going to continue loving her and investing my life in demonstrating that love in real and healthy ways. But it’s a two-way street. In order for her to benefit from that love relationship, she needs to trust me. She can choose to walk away at any time. And I know quite well that even if I yield to her demands and buy her a Corvette, chances are that’s not really going to say “I love you.” In fact, it may say the opposite. She is probably going to walk away anyway, and when she does, the Corvette will actually end up being an albatross around her neck.

Does that make any sense? I’m sure you see that it does, although you may not think it’s a suitable analogy. I don’t know, exactly, why God provides more “proof” in one circumstance and why he requires more trust in another, but I do know something about the nature of faith, and I do know that it is good for us.

The fact is, God may or may not respond to demands for proof. Let’s assume for a moment that he did a miracle like what you are asking about. You say you would believe. But WHAT would you believe? That he exists? Big deal, there are a lot of people who believe that and do nothing with it. (The Bible says the even the demons believe … and tremble.) Would you then feel duty bound to “follow God?”

If so, I think you can understand that your motive in doing so would not be entirely pleasing to God. Sort of like my daughter agreeing to tell me she loves me only if I buy her a Corvette. Hmm.

If God’s desire really is what he says it is (reconciliation and intimate fellowship), then it remains unclear how him doing this amazing miracle upon your demand would actually achieve that goal.

The fact is, God is God and nowhere does he lead us to believe he is in the business of pulling rabbits out of a hat just to satisfy our curiosity. If it’s “proof” you’re looking for, I think you’d be wiser to take seriously the extremely compelling arguments that are influencing skeptics like C.S. Lewis. Cosmological and teleological arguments in particular are gaining traction with recent advances in scientific knowledge, such as Big Bang theory and the complexities of the human cell.

One career atheist (Antony Flew) repudiated a lifetime of writings and reputation to admit that he had changed his mind. He was considered at one time to be one of the two most prominent philosophical atheists of the twentieth century. But at the age of 81, Flew shocked the world when he renounced his atheism because “the argument for Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it." In his same 2004 interview, Flew shared, "It seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger than it ever was before."

What I do know is that God will respond only in his timing. He is God, we are not. Personally I think that we will be better off listening for a still, small voice, than we will be for waiting for the overwhelming roar that thunders in the midst of the storm.

I can only share from my own life experience, and from what I believe to be true because I have received it from trustworthy sources. I realize full well that telling you about my experiences introduces the same dilemma that you have when considering whether or not to trust the Bible. You would have to trust me, or else my experience would be meaningless to you. Am I trustworthy? You know far less about me than you do (already) about God.

For what it’s worth, I have seen a small handful (a half dozen) of what I consider “medium-sized” miracles. Situations which demonstrated to me the evidence of God’s very real presence in a divine way. I am discounting both “large” miracles (limbs reattached or people raised from the dead … although I have met someone I trust who accounted such a story), which I have not seen personally (yet); and “small” miracles, like the joy of a flower unfolding in the morning sun, which I see nearly every day.

Well, given the general absence of sunlight in the Pacific Northwest, I take that back about the flower unfolding every day. But you get my point.

To tell the truth, in God’s economy, I’m not sure he makes any such distinction in between miracles or various sizes … these are for my own purposes only. I won’t bore you with the details of my half dozen miracle experiences, unless you are really interested. Suffice it to say, each entailed prayer, and what seemed to be very clear and unmistakable answers to prayer. Any one of these answers certainly could have been deemed a “coincidence” by a skeptic.

I think that’s the nature of faith; if I choose not to believe a report, or that God is behind something that I have witnessed personally, I can say, “Oh, that was just a remarkable coincidence.” A true skeptic can discount any degree of coincidence, even if it’s Lazarus emerging from a tomb in grave clothes after a few days. (He must not have really been dead, eh?)

Each of my “moderate miracles” therefore required some degree of trust. I prayed; it sure seemed like that prayer was answered. Am I going to trust that it was so?

I think that’s how (on this side of heaven) God usually works. The reattached severed limbs are few and far between. People are (occasionally) raised from the dead; trustworthy witnesses tell us so, while others shake their heads in disbelief. We can’t all see this for ourselves, that just doesn’t make sense. (For one thing, it would require too many dead people!)

So, are we going to believe the trustworthy witnesses’ accounts of the big miracles? Are we going to believe the medium-sized miracles aren’t mere coincidences? Are we going to look for and appreciate the small miracles? All these things constitute our test of faith. That’s the way things are.

In the meantime, God makes unconditional promises that you can test for yourself. Here’s one: “If we seek him with our whole heart, we will find him.” I am claiming that promise, seeking him (to the best of my ability) with my whole heart. As a result, my life so far has been a process of him revealing himself to me, little by little each day. This may sound mystical, but the reality is that it is far more practical than mystical. It didn’t start with seeing a severed limb restored, and I’m really kind of glad it didn’t. Jesus told doubting Thomas, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not yet seen, but still believe.” Was Jesus just trying to trick us into submission? I don’t think so, it doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy he was. (Is.) I trust that he said this simply because it’s true.

Wait … wasn’t Jesus asking for “blind faith” here? No, I don’t believe so. Rather, he was simply suggesting we exercise faith based on what has already been revealed to us. Job said (near the end of his excruciating trial), “My ears had heard of you before … but now my eyes have seen you.” Please realize that at the beginning of the book of Job, God had commended him as one of the most God-fearing men of his day … and this was only on the basis of hearing (listening to the reports of trustworthy witnesses), before his eyes had ever seen God.

The biblical principle here is that our faith is blessed with progressive revelation. The mustard seed grows when planted.

Without apology, I want to be in the group of the blessed.

Tomorrow: Isn’t it the height of arrogance for one specific religion to claim it has the corner on truth?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Relationship Between Faith and Obedience

This is DAY 2 in a 7-day discussion of claims that non-theists made when I posted a quote about faith on my Facebook Wall.

One reason I think it’s harder for me to really trust God, is that trusting him, according to the Bible, requires a much more intimate obedience. He demands things like “deny yourself” and “take up your cross and follow me.” I fail at these unpleasant tasks every day, but he asks me to try nonetheless. When I do fail, he requires that I confess, that I acknowledge the failure before him, which entails an uncomfortable degree of humility. I am supposed to repent, or to work my way backward to the point where I went wrong (took the wrong path off the straight and narrow way, in the metaphor of The Pilgrim’s Progress) and start again on the right path.

That’s a challenge, because everything within me wants to object: “No, I’m better than that, I shouldn’t have to be so wrong all the time, I should be able occasionally to do what I want and not have to crucify that particular choice or desire.” Wanting to be our own gods is, after all, what got us into all this trouble in the first place. It’s a hard habit to break.

I bring this up so early because I think it’s a fundamentally important point in this discussion. As I observe the objections of various so-called non-theists I see a lot of human pride (unrepented-of) masquerading as intellectual objection. “If God will only do this to prove himself, I will believe in him.” Or “I think our brains are biochemically wired to believe in a God who isn’t there.” (Unspoken: “Therefore I can do whatever I want and not be held accountable.”)

Both of my non-theist friends claim that they were once believers. Given that assumption to be true, they have each revealed in their own writings a specific point in their journey where they launched out onto what would be considered (in the context of the faith they once embraced) a wrong road. Like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress -- like all of us do from time to time -- they got off the straight and narrow.

But rather than repent (turn and go back, find the right road and start over) they have apparently (so far, and insofar as I can tell from what they have written) persisted in pushing forward on the wrong road. The Bible reveals that this kind of behavior has the effect of numbing us to the voice of God in our lives. We are shouting him down. To our perspective it seems that his voice grows quieter and quieter, until eventually we can’t hear it at all. “There must not be a God,” we conclude – and is that with a tone of relief?

Our study in Romans convinces us that, ironically, we all -- even the Billy Grahams and Mother Teresas among us -- in so many ways and every day, turn down the wrong road. And it is all very easily forgiven (easily in the sense that the enormous price has already been paid, and God is simply waiting for our honest confession of failure). In a moment of lust King David, “a man after God’s own heart,” claimed for himself the wife of a man who was a loyal follower. To cover up his adultery he had this loyal follower secretly murdered. For an entire year (described in Psalm 32) he persisted on a road of hiding this sin, while it burned a hole in his heart. Finally, confronted dramatically by a friend about his sin, he came to another critical crossroads. He could persist down the wrong road, or he could turn and go back. The story can be found in 2 Samuel 12.

God does not force himself on any of us, and King David had the choice of saying to Nathan: “Off with your head!” Instead he chose to repent: “I have sinned against God.”

If you're not astonished by what happens next, you don't get the gravity of the story. Nathan says to David, “Your sins are forgiven.” Just like that. What? That was way too easy. His sin was so grievous!  No matter, the price was paid, it was a done deal.

Yes, there were still life consequences. There always are, which is the nature of sin -- it hurts us and others around us. That’s why God hates it so: sin creates pain all the way around, and separates us from him. But the thing is, it wasn’t about David. Yes, he was a sinner. It isn’t about us. Yes, we are all sinners. It’s about God, and the price he was willing to pay to put us back on the right path … if we are willing to be put.

My point is this: God is constantly making his appeal to us through whatever means he chooses to make it: Repent! Believe in your heart, confess with your lips. Turn back to the straight and narrow. Start again. God’s mercies are new every morning.

I’m talking to myself … I have to do this every day. So it’s not hard for me to ask you (“dear reader”) to do the same thing. I honestly don’t believe any of you so-called “non-theists” out there are any better off – or any worse off – than I am. We are all in this storm-tossed boat together.

That said, I will next address some specific points raised in the various things I read which both of my non-theist friends wrote, so please tune in tomorrow for my take on why it doesn’t make sense to demand “proof” from God.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

DAY 1 (cont): So Here We Go … How to Define “Faith?”

First of all, please let me assert (in response to a veiled criticism leveled on my wall) that what I have to say is probably NOT going to be “new” information to anyone. If it was, I would actually suggest cause to doubt its veracity. New things are rarely true things. So, if you’re looking for something new, you can probably stop reading here and spend your valuable time elsewhere.

That said … the debate on my Facebook wall began when one individual (understandably) objected because he thought I was talking about “faith” as many in our contemporary society seem to understand it. To wit, according to the second of eight definitions which comes up on www.dictionary.com, faith is:
belief that is not based on proof: “He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.”
Many express this more clearly by using the phrase “blind faith.” But in general, this is just one definition for faith, and not a good one, in my opinion. I don’t believe this is primarily the kind of faith that God is looking for or that the Bible is talking about. Rather, the first definition offered by Dictionary.com I feel more accurately portrays the kind of faith the Bible is talking about:
confidence or trust in a person or thing: “faith in another's ability.”
That was the point of the Courson quote on my wall. That’s the kind of faith that we exercise (usually without a lot of forethought) in our doctor who writes a prescription, or in the pharmacist who fulfills it. We trust them, because of their credentials, because of their reputation (the testimony of others we trust), because of our participation in a system which hasn’t yet let us down, and because of personal experience (they haven’t let us down yet). We trust them for any one or a combination of good reasons.

My first friend objected that, in my analogy, he could always go and check out his doctor’s credentials, proving whether or not they were valid. He implied he didn’t have this ability when it comes to God. But my point about faith wasn’t that he could … it was that he doesn’t. How many of us have ever researched our doctor’s diplomas?

Moreover, I think you can (and should) investigate God’s credentials. I think that’s the whole point of apologetics. Do God’s claims make sense? Are they internally and externally consistent? Non-theists and skeptics from time immemorial have launched journeys to do this, seeking to disprove the validity of God’s claims, and have wound up believers instead. My favorite example, of course, is C. S. Lewis.
For the skeptic, I think one of the most revealing verses in all the Bible is found in the 29th chapter of Jeremiah:
10 This is what the LORD says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile."
God is speaking specifically to the Hebrews who have been exiled to Babylon. But I think verse 13 (which is echoed elsewhere in Scripture) is a key, universal principle that applies to everyone. God is available to be found by all who seek him with their whole heart. All honest and ardent seekers, searchers after the truth, will be rewarded by discovering the divine, according to this promise.

Back to the Courson quote: I think this wouldn’t be so powerful (to me) if the person of God, as the Bible testifies to it and as those who have sought him and found him have experienced, were not so much more trustworthy than the person of our doctor or our pharmacist. The quote made me wonder why we (why I) struggle to trust and obey God, when I have much less of a struggle trusting and obeying my physician (who is, in my reasoned opinion, in reality much less trust-worthy).

Tomorrow: The real reason I think we find faith so difficult.

The Great Faith Debate – DAY 1

Today I am starting a week-long blog series designed to address questions raised on my Facebook wall by two friends, both avowed “non-theists,” who began debating each other after I posted a quote on the nature of faith.

The young adults group my wife and I are blessed to be a part of (despite the fact we don’t meet the criterion of being “young”) is studying Paul’s letter to the Romans. I believe God has been speaking to us through this study about the nature of faith … about how Abraham was the father of many nations not simply because he was the first Jew, but because God reached out to him with a promise, and he responded in faith. He believed God, and that faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness,” establishing the pattern for the rest of us (many nations) who desire to claim all God has for us, to be in relationship with him, to “seek him while he may be found.”

While studying Romans 4 I listened to a sermon by one of my favorite pastors, Jon Courson of Applegate Christian Fellowship. Something he said about faith jumped out at me so I quoted him on my Facebook wall …
So you're a skeptic, and say you don’t believe in faith?

You go to a doctor whose name you can’t pronounce. He has degrees on his wall that you have never yourself verified. He gives you a prescription that you can’t read, and you take it to a pharmacist that you have never met. He gives you a chemical, a drug that you ...don’t understand. And he puts it in a bottle you can’t open!

It’s faith, man! People practice faith continually, every day.

The question is, if you can have faith in the doctor whose name you can’t pronounce, and take without hardly thinking about it the medicine he prescribes, then why can’t you exercise faith in the God who created the universe (and you in it), the One who loves you so much that he came to this earth and died in your place … who simply asks you to accept that historical, verifiable, undeniable fact and its implications?
- Pastor Jon Courson (Applegate Christian Fellowship), teaching on Romans 4

Actually, to be fair to Pastor Jon, that’s not a precise quote. I inserted the first sentence, as an introduction. And to be honest, I wasn’t really talking to non-theists … I was talking to myself, addressing my own frequent failures of faith.

I did think this quote cut through a lot of the clutter about the nature of faith, which I think (from a biblical perspective) is really a very simple concept that people are often mistaken about. And I also thought it was a clever quote, especially the part about not being able to open medicine bottles. I really identified with that.

So I put it on my Facebook wall, hoping it might bless other faith-journeyers as it blessed me.

I find it ironic that this quote, intended to encourage people like me who struggle to walk by faith, fired a debate between friends who both think faith is delusional. Most of their salvos have actually been on the interpretation of various passages of Scripture, even though these two individuals both say they don’t believe in God and don’t respect the authority of the Bible. If that’s not ironic, I’m not sure what is.

The sad part is that these are both people I like, and a part of me hurts for what they have experienced in their lives and how they have responded to it and the place it has apparently taken them to. They are, after all, two among my 553 Facebook “friends!” (Sorry, I’m trying to be funny. It’s not working, is it? You gotta love Facebook.)

Anyway, reading through what these two friends posted made me realize how crucial it is, when writing about something this important, to define your terminology and make sure you are communicating as clearly as you can. I promised both I would respond as I intend to do here and seek to address various important points they raise. I am not trying to “convert” either of them, although it occurs to me that God makes a clear point of depicting how ardently he both pursues sheep who have wandered away from the fold, or waits eagerly by the road to kill the fatted calf for a prodigal son returning home. Therefore I won’t hesitate to encourage each of these individuals to repent, to turn around and seek their Father’s love and forgiveness once again.

One has questioned, based on Heb. 6:4-6, whether it is even possible to reconvert the deconverted? I hope so, but I am not sure … the good news is that, even if such reconversion is unlikely, it’s not because God rejects the deconverted; Rom. 5:6 says that “at just the right time” Christ died for the ungodly … and a deconverted person is no more ungodly than any of the rest of us, as far as I can tell. Jesus still loves you so much He died for you. Truth!

But I do respect their right and capacity to make their own choices as intelligent adults. I mainly just want to express life as I see it through my own lens, correct what I believe are misperceptions in their statements, and contribute light (rather than heat) to the discussion which I initially (unwittingly) launched on Facebook.

Because this response is fairly lengthy, I am going to post it in seven (or possibly more) parts …
  • This introduction
  • A proper definition of the word “faith” as it is used in Scripture
  • The relationship between faith and obedience
  • Seeking “proof” and seeing a lack of faith from God’s perspective
  • Addressing the issue of a plethora of faiths
  • What about hell?
  • God-shaped hole, or defective brain?
  • Why does God allow evil?
I am presenting the first two parts today, then hopefully one part per day thereafter. I may also post more parts or a final conclusion if there are additional objections or questions we need to deal with.

Please jump in with your comments, questions and suggestions. Just keep the tone civil and respectful! I don't mind if your comment is critical ... just if it's uncivil or uncouth.

This is the type of issue I think we can all have an adult conversation about, quite nicely, if we really try.

Next up: How should we be defining “faith?”