Thursday, July 27, 2006

Cold Call Story: Grinding Theological Axes Over The Phone

I just got off the phone with an idiot. He found my number in association with a religious organization and proceeded to ask me if he could ask a question about the Trinity. Feeling like this might be a chance to talk through what is a hairy and sometimes difficult issue, I listened to his question. As a pastor, I have received several calls and had several conversations about difficult biblical issues, so it does not take long for me to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This guy was chaff.

He asked me a legitimate question about a single passage of Scripture that to him seemed to be the final word on the Father being the only God. I replied by saying that the entire NT deals with all three members of the Trinity as God, and that a single verse that names only one or two of them is a bad basis for determining doctrine and excluding the rest of the Trinity.

He then proceeded to lecture me about how the NT nowhere treats the Holy Spirit as God, and later in the conversation, admitted that Jesus is not God but the first created being. His hang up was neither personal nor legit-he called under false pretences to grind a theological axe and waste my time.

He refused to answer my question about why he called except to tell me he wanted to know why I was associated with this cult-like heresy. He claimed to be a Bible student, but when I asked him what his background was or where he went to school, he literally hemmed and hawed with no answer. Apparently he has hit on the truth by himself in contradiction to the history of the orthodox church. Chances are, he is either a zealous individual looking for Christians to yell at over the phone, or he is a part of some kind of school or “church” that does this as their form of outreach or training.

Besides basing his entire theology of the Godhead on a single verse, his reasoning was fraught with logical errors. For one example, he replied at one point to my appeal to 2000 years of orthodoxy that just because people believed the earth was flat for 3000 years doesn’t make it true. His rejoinder is basically right, except that 3000 years from now we will all still believe the earth is basically round. Why? Because we have really good evidence for that fact. Likewise, we have really good evidence for the truth of the Trinity over his “novel” Arianism.

He also dipped into the screed about how evil that 2000 year-old Church has been, killing thousands of people through the centuries. I replied that those actions, though horrible, have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the Church’s doctrine. He replied, “Oh yes they do!”

And the kicker is that he began demanding “a single verse” in the Bible that taught that Jesus was God, that the Holy Spirit was God, or anything close to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Take it from someone who had locked horns in “Scripture quoting mêlées” before-that would have done no good. He was clearly ready to “defeat” any verse or passage I leveled at him (I had already given him several in my opening statement-which he never addressed). So I asked him if he was ready to defeat every passage I would give him or if he would listen to any of them. His reply, “Just give me one verse!”

So, for those of you who are still stuck in the mire of the Athanatian Creed and the general orthodoxy of an evil Church, I am sorrowed to inform you have you have been duped into the clutches of a horrible cult.

I’ll see you at the next meeting.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Does God Lose Arguments?

I am in the middle of reading Leonard Sweet’s, Out of the Question…Into the Mystery, and without giving away my overall impression which shall be saved for a future review, I was just reading one section that really caught my attention.  In the context of dealing with the story of Abraham offering Isaac, Sweet brings up the topic of how often biblical characters, specifically prophets, argued with God and appeared to win their cases.  As a short list, Moses, Jacob and Abraham all argued with God and he appeared to change his mind.

In all this, Sweet’s point is that our genuine interaction with God is found in relationship and not in belief or doctrine.  In support of this point, he quotes a book by Conrad Gempf.  Gempf notes that disputing with Jupiter or Allah is likely to end badly for the human and disputing with Buddha will result in him chuckling at our missing the point of unreality.  But,

“when you start arguing with Yahweh, he smiles, rolls up his anthropocentric sleeves, and starts to look interested.  The strangest thing is that he likes losing the arguments even more than he likes winning them.”

My first reaction was, “is ‘losing the arguments’ the right way of putting that?”  Does God ever ‘lose’ an argument, and if so, what does that mean about the biblical God?

I have to admit that these passages concerning those who wrestled with God or argued with him are fascinating, certainly full of meaning, and possibly very hard to wrap our theological selves around.  So how ought I to approach these passages?

I think a first rule of thumb, contrary to Sweet’s intent, is that God never loses.  If Sweet and Gempf intend to mean that God loses arguments in the sense that his original plan is exposed as wrong, shortsighted, or faulty in some fashion by a human, then I think they may both be way outside of the biblical witness of the nature of God.

One hermeneutical rule of thumb is that we ought to interpret the difficult passages in light of the clearer passages, and it is clear in Scripture that God is omniscient.  Thus, it would not be in keeping with Scripture’s clear witness if we hold to a notion that God loses arguments in ways analogous to how I might lose an argument.

Maybe a good place to begin when looking at these kinds of passages is the exercise of God-given free will combined with an obedient relationship with God.  If I am sure God never mistakes the effects of his actions and the set of current circumstances, then I am inclined to believe that ‘arguments’ with God are more about the display of human will and affection than of genuine argumentation.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe Abraham was sincerely debating God over Sodom and Gomorrah, but because God’s ‘original plan’ was not wrongheaded, then I might more easily believe the conversation was intended to bring out Abraham’s affection for Lot and other humans than it was to correct God.

Nothing easy about these passages.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Logical Extension of Pluralistic Secularism?

Dutch Court OKs 'Pedophile' Political Party

In this story we learn that a Dutch court refused to ban a political party from registering whose platform is to lower the age of sexual consent from 16 to 12. Of the three known members, one was convicted of sexually molesting an 11-year-old 20 years ago. The reasons for this ruling sound very American.

"Freedom of expression, freedom ... of association, including the freedom to set up a political party, can be seen as the basis for a democratic society," Judge H. Hofhuis said in his ruling. "These freedoms give citizens the opportunity to, for example, use a political party to appeal for change to the constitution, law, or policy."

According to the judge, voters are the final moral authority when it comes to political parties and the laws of the land.

"It is the right of the voter to judge the appeal of political parties," he said.

There were dissenters to the ruling to be sure, and their objections ranged from their view that children had the right not to be presented with this political view to the further harm the very existence of this party could do to past victims of pedophilia and sexual abuse.

Noteably missing from the story's presentation of the opposing opinion is the moral evil of pedophilia. The legal stance was about rights and harm (and certainly rightly so), but not about inherent morality.

This appeal to rights is ubiquitous in our own culture as well, and though it may or may not lead to the establishment of the 'Americans United For The Sexual Liberation of Minors' political party, it does not have the power to prevent it either. We have come to a point in our cultural psyche in which 'rights' are the last word on any contested legal issue, and all one needs to do in order to have their way is to claim a 'right'. For some reason, that appeal seems to have the force of divine utterance for us. It is more powerful than moral arguments, but as we see in this Dutch case, it cannot settle an inherently moral issue.

The opponents to the Dutch ruling are right that children have some kind of right to be protected from pedophiliac political propoganda, but in a world comprised of nothing more than competing claims to 'rights', children have no more right to not be raped than rapist have to rape children. So who decides? Well, judges do. And it is not surprising that in cultures that value pluralism and tolerance, judges will tend to rule on the side of more tolerance and not less-we are multiplying rights instead of limiting them, no matter what they are.

That reality, however, leades to inherently absurd realities. Because our Western European cultures are becoming more and more relativitstic and natrualistic all the time, we end up living in cultures that believe on some level that pedophiles have a 'right' to be a political presence and that children have the right to not be subjected to their message. Think of San Francisco during the NAMBLA parades. The absurdity is we believe that two contradictory 'rights' should be public realities at the same time when one of them is clearly morally abhorrent. Oftentimes the way we release this mental and moral pressure cooker is we claim that NAMBLA has the 'right' to march and that parents have the option, if they so desire, to keep their kids inside during the parade of depravity. "Just decide not to watch," "Change the channel," we argue believing that that absolves us from our moral namby pambyism.

What needs to be regained is a public square that is not afraid of drawing moral distinctions. Pedophilia is evil, and it is a moral good to protect our children from the actions and messages of its proponents. Hence, in a morally centered pluralistic society, the rights of the children outweigh the rights of the molesters and they should be refused the right to form public politicial parties.

Dostoyevsy was right. Despite every complicated and extended attempt to prove him wrong, he was right when he put these words in the mouth of Ivan, "When God is dead, everything is permitted."

A culture built on nothing but a pluralism of rights is literally absurd. A culture built on rights adjuicated by a supernatural, objective, and enduring source is reasonable, healthy, moral, wise, and utterly necessary.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Christianity and Consumerism

Leadership Blog: Out of Ur: From Lord to Label: how consumerism undermines our faith

This is a great excerpt of an article regarding the current state of Christian consumerism. The author states:

When we approach Christianity as consumers rather than seeing it as a comprehensive way of life, an interpretive set of beliefs and values, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express identity....Approaching Christianity as a brand (rather than a worldview) explains why the majority of people who identify themselves as born-again Christians live no differently than other Americans.

The author's opinion is that idolatry may not be the primary problem as much as "living to consume" is at the core of the corruptive influences of consumerism. The article reminded me of de Tocqueville's warning that democracy/capitalism, though the best form of government, can distract people from "heavenly mindedness." In other words, we are distracted from the deeper matters of our souls by our material booty.

Despite all her current shortcomings, the Church can and should be a bastion of soulishness and virtue. We can still be a place where the soul is fed above the promptings of our consumer-trained felt needs.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Destroy Life To Create It

Embryonic Stem Cells Turned Into Sperm

In an ironic twist of science, embryonic stem cells have been used to create sperm and give birth to live mice, most of which grew to adulthood. So which is it-is the product of sperm and egg a life in the womb, or is it fodder for scientific research? If embryos have to be destroyed to gather their stem cells, is it a major conceptual lacune on the part of the scientific community to see the beginning embryo as fodder and the end result as life?

The article contains this required plug about the potential of embryonic stem cells:

Stem cells have the potential to develop into any tissue type in the body and could therefore be used to develop a wide range of medical therapies.

Someday, we will all no doubt be saved through the sacrifice of our children.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Moral Fascination vs. Moral Exemplar

A recent interview in the Mars Hill Audio Journal with Carson Holloway piqued my curiosity regarding morality and Naturalism/Materialism. Holloway’s interview focused on the inability of Darwinistic Naturalism to support a flourishing political or cultural ethic. Holloway argued that if we remove God from our metaphysic, we eliminate everything that flows from His existence, including a robust theory of human nature and ethical grounding.

At one point in the conversation, Meyers (the host) and Holloway dealt with how Christianity and Darwinistic Naturalism might view Mother Teresa. The both argued, and I agree, that without a non-natural grounding for ethics Mother Teresa is a moral fascination and not a moral exemplar. If our material self is all we have to gauge ethical behavior, we might say that some form of an “ethical median” is normal and natural in the strictest sense of the word. Additionally, unusual moral behavior, such as Teresa’s, which is overly charitable and unnaturally beneficent, is nothing more than non-normal behavior. Her behavior can be described as “charitable” or “altruistic,” but both those terms and their synonyms lose all normative force; they are merely descriptive and not prescriptive.

In the rubric of Naturalism, a father can point to Mother Teresa and tell his son, “She is altruistic,” and it is nothing more than a description of behavior. Logically speaking, he cannot wish his son to rise to her level of morality, or hope that his own ethical shortcomings can be alleviated by her example.

If, on the other hand, as under Christian theism, there is a non-natural standard of ethical behavior, what “comes naturally” to me, or what the “ethical median” is in my particular culture, can be gauged and judged as either better or worse. Our father can point to Mother Teresa, say the same thing to his son, and mean that he wishes his son to be “as good as that.” If nature is all we have, ethical terms are descriptors; if Christian theism is true, ethical terms have normative/prescriptive weight.

All this to say that Christian theism accords with our deep intuitions about describing Mother Teresa’s behavior. Very few of us would imagine that tales of her story and lifestyle are nothing more than descriptions of a moral freak of nature; we naturally and rightly take ethical terms to have prescriptive force.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Taming The Trinity

That whole “Trinity” thing is getting a little outdated and needs to be punched up for our postmodern, enlightened times.  Thank goodness for a delegation within the Presbyterian Church (USA) who have offered some alternate references to the Trinity beyond the traditional moniker of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  The LA Times provides this explanation of the proposal and several reactions within the PC(USA).  The author of the article, K. Connie Kang, says:

…leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) are suggesting some additional designations: "Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb," or perhaps "Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River."

Then there's "Rock, Cornerstone, and Temple" and "Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation and Dove of Peace."

The phrases are among 12 suggested but not mandatory wordings essentially endorsed this month by delegates to the church's policy-making body to describe a "triune God," the Christian doctrine of God in three persons.

A reaction from a pastor:

The Rev. Mark Brewer, senior pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church, is among those in the 2.3-million-member denomination unhappy with the additions.

"You might as well put in Huey, Dewey and Louie," he said.

That is how it struck me as well.  The crafters of the document respond:

Daniel L. Migliore, a member of the committee that spent five years crafting the report, said critics miss the point.

"What we are speaking of is supplementary ways of referring to the triune God — not replacements, not substitutes," said Migliore, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.

And the primary reason for proposing these supplementary references to the Triune God?  Because the traditional formula is patriarchal.  The LA Times article contains this explanation and quote from the document:

Written by a diverse panel of working pastors and theologians, the report noted that the traditional language of the Trinity portrays God as male and implies men are superior to women.

"For this and other distortions of Trinitarian doctrine we repent," the report said.

Wow-the Church is now repenting for language that refers to God taken straight from Scripture.  This belies the deep penetration of postmodern philosophy amongst the drafters of the proposal.  Postmodern philosophy places the entire value and truth of belief within communities and sees power as the greatest evil on earth.  As a result, if something smacks of the exercise of power, and patriarchy is the devil of postmodern power, it must be opposed.

So it is not too shocking that a delegation from within the PC(USA) has gone to this kind of length in order to repent for what is a total misconstrual of biblical language and theology.   Never mind the fact that the Bible is not patriarchal (in the exercise of power sense of the word).  What must be paid attention to is our culture’s current tide of sensibilities and we need to “repent” of those pieces of Scripture and orthodoxy that may offend those.

When culture determines our take on Scripture, everything is fair game and orthodoxy becomes meaningless in a whirlwind of fads and sensibilities.

(Thanks to: Apologia Christi)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Students Fail At Virginity

A recent study by Harvard found that the majority of students who pledge virginity (read “True Love Can Wait” and similar campaigns) recant and are sexually active within a year. They also found that the details of who actually pledged and who subsequently had a sexual encounter was hard to pin down. It says:

The analysis also found that 52 percent of adolescent virginity pledgers in the 1995 survey disavowed the virginity pledge at the next survey a year later. Additionally, 73 percent of virginity pledgers from the first survey who subsequently reported sexual intercourse denied in the second survey that they had ever pledged.

The author concludes that adolescents' self-reported history of sexual intercourse is an unreliable measure for studies of the effectiveness of virginity pledges.

It appears that the guilt factor makes this kind of study difficult, possibly to the point of being too erratic to draw clear conclusions from. But I am not surprised that the stats on students who fail in their virginity pledge might be more than half. Anecdotally, as a minister engaged with youth during the time of the “True Love Waits” campaign, I can vouch for the study’s results.

Some analysis is available in a recent Breakpoint, and an op-ed piece in the NT Times by Lauren Winner (need a subscription to read). Colson and Winner point out a couple of items that help to explain these sad results. First is the pledge’s reliance on an individual’s will power, and second is the apparent failure of teen’s communities in supporting the pledges.

The first reason is a solid theological one. We American evangelicals still believe, all too blindly, upon our individual powers of the will. We still believe, in the face of overwhelming social and theological evidence that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” False. Paul tells us over and over that our wills are not only broken, they are turned against God and a Christ-like lifestyle. Any simple pledge to do something as dramatic as remain (or “newly become”) a virgin until marriage needs to contain theological backing and biblical support.

The second reason, the failure of the community, is another indictment against the contemporary church. Most youth groups today are nothing but adolescence maintenance and surrogate parenting. When teenagers graduate from high school and their youth groups, they are woefully under prepared for both college and adult life. Because they have been incubated in youth groups that keep them at a 13-year old theological level, it is no wonder they fail so spectacularly when they exit the incubator.

To be sure, there are youth groups that are the exception to the rule-if that is you, then do what I do and blame “the other guy” or “that other youth group down the street.”

I would like to add to this mix the complete lack of spiritual formation and discipleship of youth in our churches. It is crucial when it comes to the practicalities of life that young Christians learn the theology of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Do we attempt to teach them the Christian virtues? The fruit of the Spirit? Do we create atmospheres where the entire body of Christ is encouraging spiritual maturity or where we unwittingly endorse the chasm between adult Christian faith and the Youth group?

Monday, July 03, 2006

"Truth and the New Kind of Christian"

I recently finished R. Scott Smith’s book, Truth and the New Kind of Christian. In it, Smith tackles the theological and philosophical underpinnings of postmodernism, what is sometimes called post-conservative evangelicalism, and the Emergent church movement. In many significant ways, we discover in his book, they are all of the same family.

Ultimately the book is very well done, written in an irenic tone (one of the back-cover endorsements is by Tony Jones, one of the Emergent leaders Smith engages and critiques), and is finally an overwhelming critique of the postmodern philosophical underpinnings of Emergent.

Philosophically, Smith’s work is aimed at the postmodern language games endorsed and played by post-conservatives and Emergent authors. Smith knows whereof he speaks. He deals fairly with their works, as far as I can tell, and concludes that they all assert the philosophical belief that we are all “within” language and can’t get out.

At this point it is worth noting that most Emergent reactions to that kind of assertion is that they are only engaging in dialogue, are not trying to take a hard-and-fast position on something so philosophical, and therefore are not susceptible to that kind of critique. But, as Smith so adeptly and trenchantly notes, “I propose, however, to show that their views are inconsistent with orthodoxy, by trying to take their views more seriously and consistently than I have seen them do.” (pg. 143)

One critique in his book I had not run across before was the charge of idolatry. If reality for every individual is the result of linguistic and/or communal construction (as he shows they believe), then we cannot know God as he really is, but instead we construct him through our language. Hence, postmodern Christians “must be idolaters” (pg. 145) because they cannot but make God in their own image. If either there is no objective reality or we cannot know objective reality, God cannot be revealed; he must be constructed, thereby violating the first two of his own Ten Commandments.

The conclusion? A Christian faith that is postmodern in its theology is far from orthodox and leads to these kinds of absurd conclusions.

It is one thing to reflect seriously on postmodernism as a descriptive context for certain segments of our culture (I still don’t believe it is as all-encompassing as sometimes described) and as a pastoral exercise. The step from cultural description and pastoral concern to ecclesiological prescription, however, is completely unwarranted and ultimately disastrous.