Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Pastor: Vital or Vestigial?

I believe things are changing enough both inside and outside the church that we need to begin revitalizing the role of the pastor in the congregation and the community.  Do pastors still have a significant role to play in a culture that prizes highly specialized and licensed scientific, therapeutic, and legal professions?  Can pastors still influence people and communities for God's kingdom?  Is it time for the pastor to learn more from the CEO than the theologian?  Do the people in the pews really want practical advice for daily living, or are they desperately in need of divine activity in their lives?  Our answers to these questions and so many more like them will shape the daily and weekly work of the pastor, the shape of our churches, and the role of the Christian in our culture today.

Without romanticizing the past, it can be said that there was a time in Western communities when the pastor was considered a leading expert on all things important.  For example, Puritan pastors started schools like Harvard and Yale.  The ranks of theologians were the same as the ranks of the pastors in the local parish.  We are still able to gain a great deal of pastoral, theological, and philosophical guidance from sermons preached in the English language 300 years ago.  Newspapers printed the Sunday sermon of the local pastor.

Things have changed,  and not for the better.  In very few circumstances is the local pastor seen in this light.  Rarely, if ever, is he or she known as an expert on human affairs and consulted as such.  If they actually are an expert on theological issues, those issues are considered so inconsequential by both the culture and the congregant, the pastor may as well be a published Ph.D. on Medieval Unicorn Literature.

Tracing this sad turn of affairs would be a complicated journey indeed, but it is useful to survey part of the cultural landscape as it is now.  With the knowledge and information explosion, there is simply more to know and the days of the "renaissance man" are probably over for good.  There can no longer be a single person out there who can be consulted on every issue.  Whereas there was a time an advanced degree covered almost every significant idea and intellectual trend, that simply isn't the case anymore.  It is impossible for a single individual to be deeply informed about every significant issue so they can speak to it wisely and creatively.  How much do you know about the international sociological consequences of fair-trade? Are the fair-trade advocates right?  Are you intimate enough with your Neo-Darwinism that you can speak to the alleged biological and molecular mechanisms invoked by its supporters?  How versed are you in current materialistic, secularist philosophy?  Have you developed a theology of the body robust enough to address the wave of homosexual activism?  And on it goes.

But it is more than just the information explosion.  There are other cultural trends the pastor and church are up against.

Western culture is simply turning more secular in its outlook all the time, turning the pastor into a de facto vestigial organ of society.  And we are not doing ourselves any favors, either.  Degrees in pastoral ministry focus more and more on simpler and simpler things, turning the theologians of our age into middle-level managers of volunteerism.  Pastors no longer carry their own torch of spiritual knowledge and wisdom into the marketplace, but have extinguished it in favor of the practical tips and tricks of mass production.  It allows us to fit in and succeed, after all.

My hopes with these posts is to lay out a vision in which the pastor is able to see their vocation as vital.  But that can't happen until the pastor transforms the way they think about their place in this world.  We cannot expect to have a sanctifying effect on the lives of those around us or the culture in which we swim unless our churches grow deeper in the wisdom and power of God.  We cannot have churches that grow deep until we have pastors who do the same.  It begins, and all too often, ends with the pastor.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Stoking the Furnaces: "It's People!"

An expressed lynch pin in the pro-life argument is that every human life is of absolute value.  An often unexpressed, but necessary component to the pro-choice argument is that some human lives are less valuable than others.  This value differentiation is sometimes put in terms of actual value and sometimes is expressed in philosophies that refuse to label some human life with terms like "human" or "person."  But no matter the form of expression the conclusion is the same - some human lives are worth less than others.

The pro-life position must hold to a principle that creates the only maintainable guard-rails for this argument: every human life is of inestimable worth.  If any human life is estimable then you can, and many do, put a dollar amount on a human being and treat it accordingly.  It has been argued over and over that without this principle in place, all kinds of incredible and bloody things become possible.  Often the pro-lifer is mocked as an alarmist, tugging emotions to make their case.  But the case is based on a simple, if often vilified, principle that keeps weak humans from becoming the targets of powerful humans.

Right now, the pro-choice position has sway in large parts of the Western world, and so it should not surprise us that some places of health and healing have gone so far as to use the remains of miscarried and aborted babies to stoke the furnaces.  It should break our hearts, but it should not surprise us.

From the article in the UK Telegraph:

At least 15,500 foetal remains were incinerated by 27 NHS trusts over the last two years alone, Channel 4’s Dispatches discovered.

The programme, which will air tonight, found that parents who lose children in early pregnancy were often treated without compassion and were not consulted about what they wanted to happen to the remains....

One of the country’s leading hospitals, Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge, incinerated 797 babies below 13 weeks gestation at their own ‘waste to energy’ plant. The mothers were told the remains had been ‘cremated.’

Another ‘waste to energy’ facility at Ipswich Hospital, operated by a private contractor, incinerated 1,101 foetal remains between 2011 and 2013.

What was at one time considered a ludicrous warning (that severe and gruesome things will happen to people and with their remains if the pro-choice movement has their way) has become reality.  It has never been a slippery-slope argument to say that the pro-choice position will lead to things like involuntary euthanasia (already happening in parts of Europe), or now the desecration of infant bodies without the consent of their parents.  It has always been a logical extension of the principles and values at the heart of the pro-choice movement.

On a related note, doesn't anyone ever read Jonathan Swift's, "A Modest Proposal" in school anymore?

Isaac Newton - That Anti-Science Intelligent Design Wacko

A little clarity on what Isaac Newton thought about his science and his God. Excerpted from Evolution News and Views by author, Jay W. Richards.

"Here's how Newton explains the orderly movement of the planets around the sun in the General Scholium:

But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions: since the Comets range over all parts of the heavens, in very eccentric orbits. For by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the Planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detain'd the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these being form'd by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed Stars is of the same nature with the light of the Sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems.

In other words, the intricate clockwork of our Solar System and any other star systems that may exist required a master clockmaker. Indeed, Newton goes much farther than modern intelligent design arguments. He argues that the astronomical evidence points inexorably to the transcendent and all-powerful God of theistic belief."

Also note, "Sir Isaac Said What?"

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Pastors Becoming Comfortable in an Uncomfortable Culture

Recently Thom Rainer posted some thoughts on "Ten Areas Where Pastors Need to Be Trained for the 21st Century."  There are a lot of good things to think about in the list, but two stuck out to me as being of particular value for the American pastor to figure out right now:

2. A non-Christian culture. Our nation is fast becoming a non-Christian nation. While we lament the relative decline in the numbers who follow Christ, we must also accept the reality that those in our community cannot be assumed to be like us, or to hold our values.
 3. The decline of cultural Christians in churches. The Pew Research project confirmed the dramatic increase in the numbers of people who have no religious affiliation. For our churches, this development means that most people do not feel cultural pressure to attend churches. More and more, those who are there are convicted Christians and not Christians in name only.

A quick moment's reflection on these two items should lead us to a sobering conclusion - if they are true we must relearn how to engage the culture around us.  And I believe they are true.

American Christians and pastors need to become more comfortable in a culture that is less and less comfortable with them.  I believe we still have a mandate from God - we might associate it with the Cultural Mandate (Gen 1:26) - to impact the world around us for the good and glory of God.  But we just can't rely on the 'same-old' way of doing and seeing things.  More and more, Christianity is foreign, misunderstood, and disliked in our culture.  So now we strive to make it native to new generations and powerfully true.

Secondly, we can no longer rely on our simple presence in a community to be a draw to those who don't attend.  Rainer is right that fewer people feel any kind of compunction to attend church (they need to come back for their kids' sake, they need to at least be Creasters, the Church can help them through a serious crisis, etc.).  So, the church needs to learn how to earn its place in the community.  I believe a church can be the health and heartbeat of a community and city, so now we need to be proactive about becoming exactly that instead of expecting people will assume we already are.

Can I put it in these terms? The entrepreneurial church, not in doctrine but in vision, will survive and eventually learn how to thrive.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Chronic Pain

Chronic Pain

Day dawns
Hope rises
Pain comes
Neck bows
Work belabors
Day done.

Night falls
Hope gone
Job undone
Pain stays
Sorrow joins.

I need
His will
His grace
His strength
For the next

Day dawns.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

An Argument Putting Pressure on Atheism

This is a wonderful interview with a leading philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, who is also a Christian, about rationality and atheism, "Is Atheism Irrational?"  The title is designed to catch our attention, to be sure, but it isn't that far from one of the arguments Plantinga makes (briefly in the article, and in greater detail other places, video, book).  The article ends with a summation of his argument, but it covers a handful of other topics as well.

Plantinga addresses an area in which most atheists, especially those heavily influenced by "New Atheists," seem to have declared a win simply by intellectual fiat.  They don't see any evidence for God, therefore their reasonable conclusion is atheism - that the God of the theists doesn't exist.  Plantinga, however doesn't buy that simple move.  He makes the case for atheists making their case.  It is a belief about what is true in the ontology of the universe, so they don't get off the hook by simply saying they don't see evidence for God.  They need to supply their own evidence for the belief.

Plantinga addresses a very common objection to theism, the "problem of evil," but he deals with that well in terms of what is reasonable to believe about the kind of world we live in and the kind of conclusions made by intellectual honesty (my words, not his).

And eventually he addresses his argument that materialism, and atheism for the sake of materialism, makes the belief in atheism (really, any belief about the truth of things) irrational.

I have seen a few atheists dismiss Plantinga's arguments as a kind of question begging, but this only highlights their need to understand the arguments better than they do and go beyond the often simplistic triumphalism they exude.

To whet your appetite for the argument, here is the conclusion:

So if you’re an atheist simply because you accept materialism, maintaining your atheism means you have to give up your belief that evolution is true. Another way to put it: The belief that both materialism and evolution are true is self-refuting. It shoots itself in the foot. Therefore it can’t rationally be held.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Exclusive Tolerance, Pt 2

I think it is necessary to address a current and powerful idea about belief that seems to be in the air we breathe.  This idea has two complimentary components: 1. The only really acceptable belief is that if you do good things you are OK, and, 2. Anyone who believes a person needs to hold to a particular set of beliefs to be OK is hateful.  By “OK” I mean morally or religiously OK, as in either “saved” in its religious connotation, or “morally good” in a general cultural connotation.  

The second face of this idea is especially destructive.  It is the conflation of disagreement and hate.  It no longer can tell the difference between two people having a difference of opinion and the emotion of malice of one toward the other.  Once we unpack this problem, we see it also creates an ad hoc barrier between a person and knowledge.  If knowledge is, roughly speaking, a justified grasp of reality, and people reduce their differences to expressions of an emotion they have ruled out the deeper possibility of reaching an accurate grasp of an idea.  They have necessarily ruled out the truth of the matter helping to settle the disagreement.

As an interesting note to the current sociological expression of this idea, the hate is only perceived in one direction.  Imagine a teacher and student disagreeing over the answer to, "5+7."  Applying the current form of this idea about belief, the student is able to dismiss the possibility of him being wrong about the sum, and chalk the whole thing up to his teacher's hatred of him.  But, in a destructive twist of irony, the teacher (who is right) is not able to apply the same emotional standard to the student - she is not allowed to say the student simply hates her.  This is not only a hypocritical standard of judgment, it is deeply destructive in that is shields a person from what really matters - the truth of the matter.

We normally don't get angry with each other over the sum, "5+7."  We do get angry with each other over moral and spiritual matters.  So, in order to address this conflation of emotion and disagreement, I want to use the math example as a guide to talking about deeper things.  We think (generally speaking), the student would be wrong to conclude their answer of "13" is their emotional right, and that the teacher is simply expressing hate when she tells him he is wrong.  And we think this we because we still have (though it is arguably corroding) a sense that math and science are both knowable truths by everyone no matter their culture or background.  In other words, math and science are objectively knowable and applicable to all people.  The difference, then, between how we handle mathematical sums and moral judgments is in our belief about their truth value.

If mathematical truths are "out there," then we can all talk about them knowing that we are not casting personal aspersions toward each other when we disagree.  "Only emotionally unstable terrorists believe 5+7=13!"  We know, on some level, the truth of the matter is not up to us but is up to the universe - we know reality constitutes truth.  We have, however, accepted the claim that moral and religious truths are not "out there," but rather are within us - we are the makers of our own moral and religious truths.  Thus, when we disagree we are not appealing to an objective third thing, we are disagreeing on a personal level.

If this is true, one solution is to recapture the better sense of what makes moral and religious claims true or false - reality itself.  If we do this, then at least on one important level we have removed the truth-maker of religious claims from personal preference and put it back where it belongs.  Either God exists or he doesn't.  Either God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself or he wasn't.  These are claims on reality not on what sooths my psychological make-up.

Now none of this addresses an individual's emotions when they discuss differences of belief.  After all, the things we believe about religion and morality are usually very deep and important things to us and it can be easy to be emotionally invested in them.  But it disconnects the truth of the matter from how you or I feel about it!  Putting claims like, "God exists" back in the realm of public knowledge gives us really good reasons to reject the current cultural trend of projecting distasteful emotions upon people with whom we disagree.

I encourage you to reject this poison and refuse to engage in this kind of immature dialogue.  Talk about the truth with wisdom and love instead, trying to draw nearer to the truth yourself and help others along the journey.

Part 1

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Exclusive Tolerance, Pt. 1

After the inter-faith panel discussion was over, he caught me and we had a quick and spirited conversation about something I said.  “When you say that, you exclude me,” he said.  At one point I responded to a question about unity in my church by paraphrasing Paul when he said, “Here [in the church] there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ.”  The panel I was on was brought together to talk about issues facing the family, issues we all basically agreed upon, but this one comment caught a Jewish psychiatrist as unnecessarily exclusionary.

His reaction is educational for me.  I, as a Christian who holds to exclusive truth claims, need to learn how to hold to the truth wisely and at the same time address this kind of reaction to what I believe.  Is it bad for me to exclude anybody?  Was I really excluding anybody, given the topic of that afternoon’s conversation?  Can I still work with him (which I might get a chance to do) on things we agree about while maintaining my set of particular beliefs?  Is it really up to me to defend the notion of holding to “exclusive” beliefs (whatever that means)?

In order to address his concern, I think it is necessary to address a current and powerful idea about belief that seems to be in the air we breathe.  This idea has two complimentary components: 1. The only really acceptable belief is that if you do good things you are OK, and, 2. Anyone who believes a person needs to hold to a particular set of beliefs to be OK is hateful.  By “OK” I mean morally or religiously OK, as in either “saved” in its religious connotation, or “morally good” in a general cultural connotation.

This Janus of a belief is an intellectual poison.

The first face is, seemingly, a very kind and tolerant belief.  After all, it purports to allow all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds "in" as long as they hold to some general sense of morally good behavior.  The truth is far more ugly than that, however.  The problem starts with determining who gets to say what is morally good in this general and vague sense.  For instance, the Christian faith has a very strong historical and philosophical sense of what a good moral life looks like, and yet many significant components of this point of view are not only left out of our modern sensibility, they are outright rejected as morally destructive.  In the place of these "traditional values" are offered a plethora of modern ideas of moral goodness, none of which ultimately cohere or withstand a great deal of scrutiny, but which have the one virtue of being believed by a fair number of influential and powerful people.  We have, thus, a coerced moral opinion holding court in culture with no particular ability to support itself with robust philosophical or historical defense.

So, if we have to make a determination of who gets to set the moral norms and enforce them, we are left with a couple of general options.  The first would be a belief in and pursuit of what is actually morally true, and secondly, an imposed set of moral norms decided upon by the current set of the culturally powerful.  The enforcement of either option is determined by the nature of the option.  In the first, reality enforces itself over time, and in the second, propaganda and power become popular tools.

By the very nature of things, any view of the world that is not dependent upon reality for the truth of its claims will need to use tools like power and propaganda to spread its gospel.  If cultures set norms, the only way to enforce those norms is for culture to become so overwhelming that it silences and marginalizes dissenters.  It really doesn't matter how congenial their story sounds, or how open-handed the reasons sound, in the end if the value of a set of moral claims is based in a cultural consensus, the only way to maintain it is to enforce it.

This is not to say that those who have made extra-cultural appeals have never used coercion.  Quite the contrary.  But they don't need to, and the cultural relativist does.

Secondly, it is simply true that we are all trying to convince others of something (or everything) we believe.  Some of us are proactive about it, others not so much.  But in honest discussion we are all positing a set of ideas we think true, or at the very least better than other ideas, and we would be happy if others felt the same way we do.  But, "Wait," you say, "I simply want people to get along and follow a simple moral code where they do what they like and don't harm anyone in the doing."  And plenty of people believe something very much like that, and do so in the spirit of getting along.

Do you want me to see things that way, or not?  Even if your claim is, on the surface of it, a claim for toleration of belief and action, it is a particular claim on how you want me and others to believe about what others believe.  You are exclusive in your tolerance.  But, that's OK.  There is nothing wrong in holding to a set of beliefs and wanting others to see things that way.  The hypocrisy creeps in when you hold to exclusive claims and then claim you are the only one who doesn't.

So, claim #1 is as exclusive as any other claim.  It just does not recognize it, and thus creates an intellectual and moral barrier between the believer and the truth of the matter.

Claim number two is even more insidious - it proactively creates hate-filled divisions between people.