Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Arguing Against Evil

"The defiance of the good atheist hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative: for if mercy and justice were really only private whims of his own with no objective and impersonal roots, and if he realized this, he could not go on being indignant.  the fast that he arraigns heaven itself for disregarding them means that at some level of his mind he knows they are enthroned in a higher heaven still."

C.S. Lewis, De Futilitate

Friday, December 06, 2013

An Atheist Talks About Salvation

Luc Ferry is a French, secularist humanist philosopher.  He writes with wonderful clarity, and his book, "A Brief History of Thought" is a kind of survey of Western philosophy.  One of the dynamics of the book that has made it so fun for me is that in one sentence he will express a significant truth with force and conviction, and with the next he will commit an egregious error or support an idea I find obviously false.  This excerpt is an example of the former:

"To reach this point [finding salvation - the theme of the book], the Moderns turned in two main directions. The first - I will not hide the fact that I have always found it faintly ridiculous, but it has acquired such predominance over two centuries that we cannot ignore it - are what we might call the 'religions of earthly salvation', notably scientism, patriotism and communism.  Unable to continue believing in God [one of his convictions of the Modern condition - we can no longer believe in God], the Moderns invented substitute-religions, godless spiritualities or, to be blunt, ideologies which, while usually professing a radical atheism, cling to notions of giving meaning to human existence, or at least justifying why we should die for them."

It is an undeniable reality of human existence - we are idolaters, and if we will not worship the One True God, we will worship any false one.  In the next paragraph Ferry borrows Nietzsche's word, 'idol', to describe these 'religions of earthly salvation'.  To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, when people stop believing in God, the don't believe in nothing, they will believe anything.

And he is right about the roles of these ideologies in the Western world.  Scientism is roughly the belief that all that there is to the world are material things, and the only source of genuine knowledge is the scientific method guided by metaphysical and methodological naturalism.  It has become, ironically, a religion for many.  Patriotism, in Ferry's sense, is the belief that our nation/culture is the pinnacle of achievement and worthy of our lives above all else.  Too many people have actually substituted their faith for their nation instead of using their theology to guide their love of neighbor.  And communism, despite all the utopian wish-dreams still attached to it, is a brutal and bloody master of human culture.  Yet, it promises the world and many are willing to become its servant.

Even a secularist recognizes the human tendency toward worship and idolatry - our need to find salvation.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Colorado Weather Right Now

Our highest high for about a 6 day stretch is projected to be about 12 degrees F.

Ding, Dong - Embryonic Stem Cell Research (should be) Dead

For years I have said that embryonic stem cell research is both deeply unethical and a scientific dead-end.  But the prevailing winds of culture were against me and I was dismissed or simply pooh-pooed.  I didn't know what I was talking about, apparently.  People up on their scientific conventional wisdom were of the mind that embryonic stem cell research was a kind of obvious magical cure for all kinds of horrific diseases (at the time, personified by Superman, Christopher Reeve, and Michael J. Fox).  Embryonic stem cells are undifferentiated human cells that could, theoretically, be coerced into any kind of adult cell and be used to replaced damaged tissue as in the cases of severe spinal injury and Parkinson's.  The promises were through the roof.

The catch, however, was twofold.  First, all the significant trials with induced embryonic stem cells created runaway tumors in their host, and in great quantities were deadly.  Secondly, the only way to harvest embryonic stem cells was to kill (or make use of donated dead) fetuses.  A baby had to die or be killed in order to pursue this highly suspect line of research.  It was an obvious encouragement for the abortion industry.

But the word on the street was that we had to do it, we needed to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into it, and that anyone who opposed it (usually those crazy Republicans and/or conservative Christians) were backwards and anti-science.  The alternative being bandied about was the research behind adult stem cells.  These are already differentiated cells (such as stomach and skin cells) that could be harmlessly harvested and then chemically induced "backwards" into the kind of pluripotency promised by embryonic cells.  But, no matter what the research showed, the scientific community's and pop-culture's money was on embryonic cells.

Very quietly, far away from the selective attention of the press, this story showed up titled, "Miracle of Science: 65 Diseases Treated With Adult Stem Cells, Biotech advances could make destroying human embryos for research a relic of the past".  The main thrust of the article is exactly what some of us have been saying for a long time - adult stem cell research is both ethical and scientifically superior.  Though the application of this research is still in its beginning stages, chemically induced adult stem cells (iPS) have real-life, verified cures to their credit, and no babies were harmed in their making.

Some quotes from the article:

They have learned how to reprogram adult cells so that they can do many things an embryonic cell can do. No human embryos are destroyed in the process. Along the way, embryonic stem cells—just a decade ago hailed as the future of medicine—have largely been bypassed. Some researchers still use them, but for now, the future belongs to adult stem cells and iPS cells, which are adult cells genetically reprogrammed to express specific genes.
Every year for the past 10 years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded more adult stem cell research compared with embryonic research. For 2012, NIH grants totaled $146.5 million for embryonic stem cell research, but $504 million for adult stem cell research—a difference of $357.5 million. And the belief that adult stem cells are more promising than embryonic stem cells for therapies is now largely mainstream.

And later, the researcher highlighted in the article notes this about the debate in the past:

Hess said that the early 2000s brought fierce public debate over the ethics of destroying human embryos to acquire stem cells. Researchers and advocates for the use of embryonic cells promised that scientists would discover a miracle cure for Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. "There was a lot of magical thinking going on," Hess said.

This "magical thinking" was so bad that Charles Krauthammer, himself confined to a wheelchair, called out both Reeve and Fox for selling false hope to a lot of vulnerable people.

Part of what is so interesting about this to me is that there was a time when people were being coerced into a point of view based on conventional wisdom and emotion, and almost nothing else.  Their voting habits were being scrutinized on the basis of whether they were going to vote "pro-science" and for embryonic stem cell research, or if they were going to side with the troglodytes and be "anti-science."  It was a big, public deal.  It embarrassed a lot of people into a view they did not hold personally.  And it was all false.

You used to hear a lot about embryonic stem cell research.  Will you hear anything about its demise? No.  Why?  The research is a really big deal and really does have all kinds of promise, so why?  In more cases than not, it might be because to report on the truth now will embarrass those who misrepresented it in the past.

Is it possible for the scientific conventional wisdom to be dead wrong?  Of course it is, and most people who consider themselves "scientific" or scientists of one kind or another would agree.  But they agree in principle.  Disagree with one of their currently held talismans, and you better have thick skin.

Does the work of science have built in fail-safes that are supposed to correct for false views and present views as accurate or true based on research and evidence?  Again, theoretically, yes.  But it doesn't always work that way, in fact, I might argue it almost never works that way on the pop-culture level of science.  Either you believe what the force of conventional wisdom believes or you will become the target of unrelenting personal smears.  And it should be noted that when a point of view begins defending itself with the ad hominem argument, its defenders either have not thought through their reasons for belief or there aren't any to be had.

And, finally, I find it provocative that a point of view on this scientific issue 10 years ago which was informed by good Christian theology alone has turned out to be supported by the research.  Could it be that accurately comprehending and articulating orthodox Christian theology is a clearer, long-term guide to truth in life than scientific conventional wisdom?

Well, now it's time for the long knives to come out.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Pastor as Missionary

I am a member of a denomination that built itself through an emphasis on evangelism, especially
overseas/missionary efforts.  As a result, in the 100 years since our founding we have become the world's largest Protestant denomination.  There is a simple reality about us - we send out a lot of missionaries to all kinds of difficult and exotic corners of the earth to spread the gospel.

Since I was a kid I have had the privilege of getting to spend time with some of these extraordinary people.  Now, when I was young and we ate a meal with a missionary to Africa I was admittedly more interested in my French fries than them, but thankfully times have changed.  As a pastor I again have the chance to spend time with them and I have learned to ask probing questions and listen intently to what they have to say about the establishment and life of the Church beyond our American and Western borders.  More often than not, I talk with Americans and Westerners who have had their vision of the church radically changed (maybe more properly "broadened") by their non-Western experience and their commitment to other cultures.  They see the world and the church differently than most of us Westerners do, and I think the differences are significant.  The church is growing "over there" (by leaps and bounds, actually), and it is languishing here.  The church is thriving through all forms of persecution "over there" and we struggle mightily with each change in our political winds.

What do they know that we don't pay attention to? How does the church get built and grow in places hostile to the message and lifestyle of the gospel?  I am interested.  And I think I see a few answers coming from their work, both explicitly and implicitly, that the American Pastor needs to learn.

Whether you like it or not the cultural landscape underneath the American church's feet is changing radically.  Our culture is becoming - some would argue has become - more post-Christian than it has been in a very long time.  As a result I think we have a lot to learn from those who faithfully and fruitfully proclaim the gospel around the globe.  The role of American pastor looks more and more like the role of missionary.

One way to get a fish to recognize the water it has been swimming in is to take it out of the tank.  Missionaries from the West to other parts of the globe have the privilege of that experience being thrust upon them.  American pastors born and raised in the American culture now have the responsibility of self-imposing this culture shock.  We are accustomed to a certain set of broad values, to a way of talking about people and things that pervades the way we view them, a way of talking about the value of other cultures that tints our perspective, and to ways of presenting the gospel that may have more to do with a diminishing cultural milieu than we recognize.  If things are changing around us, and I believe we would be naive to think they are not, we must come to terms with two things: our foundational identity formed by Christ alone, and the new shapes and forms of culture around us.

The Reestablishment of Church as Culture
The conversation about the relationship between Church and culture is vast, complicated, fascinating, and necessary.  But my simple addition to the current conversation is that pastors must begin to see church life, not as an extension of the culture around them, but as an alternative culture.  The church is a culture-making institution in this world guided by Christ that cannot isolate itself or leave culture to secular elitists.  This vision of the role of church and pastor in culture is necessary for our impact in our developing post-Christian world, but it cannot be spelled out in great detail by me for you.  You, pastor must learn to do the serious and probably hard work of getting to know the city and community around you in order to become the kind of influence Christ can empower you to be.

Be it implicitly or explicitly, the people in our pews have learned to take their cultural cues from political debates, their favorite form of media, their technological entrapment, television and entertainment.  And they take some of their spiritual cues from the cultural cubicle that is their church.  Their attendance is spotty and the influence we have on them reflects their unconscious priorities.  It will take a radical new vision of the church to turn things around, and it must begin with the pastor pulling themselves out of their theological stupors.

Lifetime Commitment
I believe the age of the short-term pastor is finished.  At least is should be.  We can no longer have the impact we need to if we hop from congregation to congregation every few years looking for that place that "fits" us just right, recognizes our leadership potential, pays us what we are worth, and is larger than the last place we served.  Our culture needs no more spiritual carpetbaggers.  It needs long-term pastors who are willing to sink roots, make friends, build families, suffer losses, endure hardships, celebrate joys, and die well among the same group of people.  It is obvious that churches need pastors, it needs to become obvious to us that communities need pastors.

In my experience with overseas missionaries, those with the greatest impact have taken the time to get trained, learn the culture, and plan on spending as much time on the field as they can.  In years past they simply "packed their coffins."  They literally left for the field with their belongings packed in their coffins.  They had every intention of staying there until God called them home.  Contrast that with what is often a self-obsessed evangelical celebrity pastor culture and then wonder aloud about the progress of the church "over there" as compared to here.

I Belong To A Denomination...On Purpose

Every year about this time I, along with all my fellow Assembly of God ministers, am asked to renew my credentials.  This means I do a few things - I update personal information, pay my annual dues, and reaffirm my agreement with our Doctrinal Statement.  I have done this for years (15 to be exact), but this time it gave me a reason to reflect on a couple of things.

I pay to be a part of a denomination - to be precise, we are a "cooperative fellowship."  When I first interviewed to receive my credentials I was asked what the local denominational authorities existed to help me with.  I had no idea.  But 15 years later I have grown to appreciate what the network of pastors, ministers and missionaries means to my vocation.  In addition, I have seen the benefit of accountability and restoration in the lives of many pastors who would not otherwise have it if they were on their own.  Many younger ministers begrudge their annual dues, but I have grown to appreciate what they represent and facilitate.

In broader terms, there is benefit in belonging to a specified network of relatively like-minded ministers.  It is true that we all belong to the Church universal, but if that is the only group of church leaders we belong to we will belong to nobody when push comes to shove.  We are human and we need support, friendship and fellowship on incarnational, not theoretical, levels.

But with denominational specificity comes doctrinal specificity.  And here, there arise a handful of issues.  Through the years I have wrestled with a few things: the culture of my denomination as opposed to its theology, doctrinal specifics my denomination has traditionally regarded as central that I do not, and a few specific areas of potential disagreement with the statement itself.

As to the culture of the Assemblies of God, there is a broad spectrum of church expression given the missional and entrepreneurial DNA of our denomination.  But that does not mean that there have not been times in my ministry life when leadership has strongly implied that if I am not doing things their way I am doing them wrong.  But as a wise leader once told me, "The beauty of the AG is that I can listen to those things and then go home and do church the way God built me to do church."  This piece of advice kept me from leaving more than once while I listened to cultural pressures from pastors different from myself.

As for doctrinal disagreements, my study and convictions have aligned me with our Statement of Fundamental Truths, though my sense of what is primary is a little different than our traditional formulations.  This does not keep me from being a part of the AG.  What it does is provide an encouragement to be a part of the theological growth of the movement.  If I agree broadly and feel there are areas of growth in specifics, why not be a part of the movement and help build it from within?  I don't know of a reason not to.

I went ahead and renewed again this year, and I think it will be a good thing.