Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Thinking By Dismissing

When I read articles like this I shake my head and wonder if the author sees what she has done. On those occasions in the past when I was grading papers like this, I sent them back to students with the demand that they argue ideas instead of impugn those they disagree with. The article I read was an opinion piece in our local paper, The Gazette, and is titled, “Sinking Feeling America Won’t Elect a Woman President.” The crux of the article is that the author believes voters are leaning against Hillary Clinton and toward Sanders or a Republican because they are succumbing to their latent sexism, and that Clinton’s primary problem is "that she lacks male genitalia."

Not one sentence about substantive issues like background experience in politics, positions on economics or foreign policy, (one sentence on gun control), or ideas being the reason people may not be inclined to vote for another Clinton. Not one inclination that the author believes that people may not vote for Clinton because they disagree with her ideas.

There are a few reasons to be irritated by articles like this, but let me illustrate one. The author of the article, a white female and admitted progressive, will not even consider voting for one of two Cuban presidential candidates or the last remaining African American candidate. Therefore, she is displaying some latent racism and a fear of people who have a different skin color than herself.

So there. Job done. Mud slung right back. And ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ACCOMPLISHED.

Her opinion piece is sadly demonstrative of the low state of discourse in our culture. What she did was psychologize the opinions of people who disagree with her and label them with cruel words. She claims to know the inner states of those who believe differently and then plays God and declares them to be bad people. She dismisses substance and replaces it with the symbolic. She fails to engage in the arena of ideas by prejudging her opponents as below her and unworthy of conversation. To others in her ideological world, to disagree is akin to hatred. How convenient, and how childish!

And in the process, all she did was expose her position as weak and unworthy of serious consideration.

Our culture simply will not get out of the divisive death grip we are in until people who claim to think out-loud learn how to deal with substance and ideas, and how to treat those with whom they disagree with a modicum of charity and intellectual decency.

As an example, I sat down over coffee with a new friend and ended up talking all kinds of theological details. There were times when I knew the two of us see things differently, but he clearly came to his opinions honestly. He and his wife dove deeply into Scripture and interacted with informed people on these issues and came to their conclusions. It would have been the height of intellectual dishonesty to dismiss him has having some kind of "latent" psychological issues that prevented him from seeing the clear superiority of my view. Instead, maturity and humility teach me to take him seriously and listen to what he says. Maybe what I believe needs to be strengthened or changed.

Do you support Clinton or Sanders? Great - tell me why and tell me why those ideas and plans are needed and viable. Do you believe another candidate is better? Tremendous - show me you have thought it through and have interacted with their ideas. Just stop calling mud-slinging thinking.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Preaching from Whose Heart?

“Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying, and say to those who prophesy from their own hearts…” Ezekiel 13:2

What follows this divine introduction is not good. Self-proclaimed prophets have been running about gathering crowds with the ever-popular message, “Peace! Peace!” and God has had enough of it. They speak the speech of prophets, but have only been saying what is in their own hearts to say. They did not hear from the Lord, but validated everything they said with, “thus sayeth the Lord.” And, as has been the case for thousands of years, people followed them in flocks. So it is left up to the one prophet who does not have the ear of the masses, smells a little funny from what God has recently asked him to do, and sticks out from the crowd, to speak the actual word of God.

Don’t fool yourself – the ratio of false to true prophets has probably not changed much. At the very least, the number of prophets/pastors who speak only what is in their hearts and is appealing to the masses for all the wrong reasons, is still great. If a pastor wants to avoid the traps described in Ezekiel (and there are more than one) and learn how to faithfully speak God’s words instead of their own, what should they do? Here are a handful of thoughts from someone who works at this, for better or worse, every week of his life.

Can you eliminate Jesus language from your sermon and sell it from the self-help shelf?
One of the tremendous pressures the modern pastor faces is the need to be relevant to the felt needs of the average non-Christian’s life. It is easy to feel as if the Sunday service needs to touch some kind of soft spot in the lives of people who are not coming to church, and provide enough “practical” advice for people from week to week to keep them “encouraged” and coming back. This is nothing but voluntary subjection to the tyranny of the felt needs of sinful people - the ones inside and outside the church. This is, to be frank, the Old Testament’s false prophet’s favorite sermon, “Peace! Peace!”

Can a sermon be helpful, encouraging, and practical? Of course it can, but how do you get there? Scripture by itself, and expounded well, can very encouraging and practical. Colossians chapter 3, for instance, is all about how to live life in every relationship and every season of life, but it does not begin with the felt needs of people or Hallmark holidays, it begins with the Owner’s Manual written by the Inventor and Creator of human life and relationships.  And the message of sin and grace is always valuable.

And what of the passages of Scripture that simply cannot be pigeonholed into “encouraging” categories? You need to preach and teach them. People need to hear them. The Church needs to learn how to hear them.

If you can eliminate all the “Jesus language” from your sermon and sell it from the self-help shelf, you probably need to rewrite it.

Do you read dead Christians?
They just see things differently than we do. Many of them faced opposition that most of us can only imagine, and it clarified the gospel in their writings and sermons. They may preach on good financial stewardship, but it begins and ends with sacrificial giving for the cause of the church and the gospel. They may preach forgiveness and grace, but it is often in the context of the realization of sin and disobedience.

They may be dead, but they are far from irrelevant to our theology. Most Western pastors are, like nearly everyone else around them, steeped in their Western culture to the point where it is hard to see other theological points of view. How might a Syrian Christian talk about Philippians 4:13? We already know how someone who lives a pretty comfortable life talks about it, how about someone who does not? Or someone who lived faithfully in a drastically different world from ours 1000 years ago? Certainly they have just as much claim on the text as we do.

Reading dead and faithful Christians helps fight our chronological snobbery. We gain a larger perspective on how the Word of God makes its impact in the lives of God’s people when we read them.

Do you read Christians you disagree with?
There are plenty of them. It’s almost overwhelming. There must be reasons for that. Just like the faithful Christian who lived centuries ago and absorbed Scripture in ways I could not imagine, these faithful souls are doing the same. So, when they are faithful to the God of Scripture, I need to learn to take them seriously and hear what they have to say before I ignore them and pass on.

This habit is, in fact, an act of humility and open-mindedness, both of which are virtues.

When was the last time you preached through a book of the Bible, verse by verse?
I cannot think of anything more effective for helping me avoid Ezekiel’s trap than being forced to read an entire book of the Bible out loud over time from behind a pulpit. Someone might hear something interesting and ask me later, “Why didn’t you talk about that?”

Does expositional preaching assure faithful preaching? Of course not. The pastor’s heart is still a human heart that wants very much to say what it wants to say. But it at least puts me in a place where I have to begin thinking about preaching the “whole counsel of God” and coming to terms with things I don’t like or understand.

Expositional or not, preaching should begin and end with the Word of God instead of, as we saw with Ezekiel’s warning, what is already in our human hearts.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Bonhoeffer and the Word of God Incarnate

"It is wrong to suppose that there is so to speak a Word on the one hand and a Church on the other, and that it is the task of the preacher to take that Word into his hands and move it so as to bring it into the Church and apply it to the Church's needs. On the contrary, the Word moves of its own accord, and all the preacher has to do is to assist that movement and try to put no obstacles in its path. The Word comes forth to take men to itself; the apostles knew that and it was the burden of their message....Now the burden of their testimony was simply this - the Word of God had become flesh, it had come to take sinners to itself, to forgive and to sanctify. It is this same Word which now makes its entry into the Church. This Word makes flesh, this Word which already bears the whole human race, can no longer exist without the humanity it has assumed. Furthermore, when this Word comes, the Holy Spirit comes, showing to Christians, both individually and corporately, the gifts of the incarnate Christ to man. He produces faith in his hearers, that they may discern in the preaching the entry of Jesus Christ."

Monday, February 15, 2016

Economic Issues are Moral Issues and Should Be Treated as Such

Arthur Brooks, the President of AEI, contends that Conservative economic and political policies will do the best good for the poor when they are implemented, but that they are unlikely to find wide appeal because Conservatives are bad at getting their message across.  The bulk of “The Conservative Heart” is dedicated to unfolding this first premise, and then helping people who believe in these principles learn how to communicate them in ways that address the moral issues people care the most about.

It is commonly thought that Progressives care more for people (polls show that people overwhelmingly give the edge to Progressive politicians on the “they care for me” score even when the same people disagree with their policies) while it can be shown that Progressive policies have been bad for the poor and for the working class. On the other hand, Conservative economic principles have nearly always been better for the poor and increasing their social standing, but they are rarely implemented due to this political climate where the compassion edge is given to the Progressive ideas. How can this change? Brooks argues that Conservatives not only need to have the courage of their convictions, they need to start seeing these economic issues as moral issues. It is popular, for instance, to champion the poor by advocating for raising the minimum wage. That sounds compassionate, but when it is raised, it is the poor worker who is laid off and hurt. Why continue advocating for it? Additionally, perpetual welfare wealth transfers have long-term negative effects on individuals and families, so why not advocate for welfare reform with a work requirement?

It may appear that The Conservative Heart is a policy wonk book intended to unfold economic policies in pretty dry and laborious fashion. The truth is very different. Brooks is himself deeply concerned for the poor, the working class, and the health of the family. He argues convincingly that our economic and political systems need to adopt Conservative principles in order to reverse many of the negative trends and bring health back into so many corroded parts of our culture. He says, “Conservatives are in possession of the best solutions to the problems of poverty and economic mobility. Yet because we don’t speak in a way that reflects our hearts, many Americans simply don’t trust us and are unwilling to give us the chance to implement those solutions” (pg. 15). The goal, as he says over and over, is not the creation of millionaires and billionaires, it is the infusion of opportunity, dignity, and family strength back into the economy.

Brook’s book is a wonderful survey of how economic policies affect the poor and the working class, and is a tremendous presentation of Conservative principles. From several surveys of economic research, to fascinating case studies, to a discussion on how to best communicate these principles, this is a wonderful case for the Conservative heart.

If you thought my review was helpful, please say so on Amazon.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

On Worshiping The Same God

A friend of mine helped me think though some issues regarding whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The issue is currently a hot potato in some circles because of professor Harris, her comments regarding wearing a hijab, and Wheaton’s reaction. It seems to me that the simple understanding of the issue is that Christians and Muslims (and all other worshipers of drastically different religions) believe in different Gods, but my friend raised a point held by the Catholic church and many philosophers and theologians that is helping me clarify the issue for myself.

[In addition to that, I have removed a previous post, not because I disagree with my conclusions, but because I have decided I was a bit strident. In reading several of the reactions against Wheaton’s actions against Harris, some of them have become simply disingenuous. Some are talking as if NOBODY EVER has actually held the ridiculous belief that Muslims and Christians worship different gods. I didn’t want to be one of those kinds of voices. So I wrote something much more involved and hopefully more thoughtful.]

This point of view is that Christians and Muslims believe in the same God and that this is the most obvious understanding of this issue. In two recent articles, both written by respected theist philosophers, the position is defended with the argument that Christians believe there is actually only one God, so therefore everyone who believes in God or worships God believes in the same God, but has different beliefs about that God [Beckwith, Rae]. And Protestant theologians, one no less than Mirislav Volf in a recent article and several tweets, have expressed the same opinion. It is commonly accepted, and not controversial in many circles, to say that two people can have two different sets of beliefs about the same thing or person (and one of them even be very wrong) and for both of them to be referring to the same thing or person. Two people can "point at" the same thing/individual, have conflicting accounts of what attributes belong to them, and yet refer to the same thing/individual. Both articles linked above raise this point and give examples.

My position is still that Christians and Muslims “believe in different Gods,” but that statement needs some work to make sense in light of the Same God (SG) position described above. I want to try to make two basic points, the second leading to a third. First, which is the simplest understanding of what two people believe - that they believe in the same God though with conflicting accounts, or that they believe in two different Gods? Second, what is the theological data we have to work with in the Christian scriptures? And third, what of worship and conversion?

It was argued in both Rae’s and Beckwith’s articles that the simplest position to hold is that two worshipers are pointing at the same God and yet hold differing beliefs about that God. My intuition is exactly the opposite. In one article written by a theologian who happens to be a convert from Islam to Christianity, he said his first intuition about this issue was that when converting he was still worshiping the same God but with a different understanding, but the more he came to know the God of the Christian Bible he changed his mind. Rae and Beckwith argue that in order to hold the position that we worship different Gods, one would have to do some pretty significant semantic work and even develop a robust theory of worship and how it works.

It seems to me that the semantic work is applied one step beyond the assertion, "they believe in different Gods." The conclusion, “they believe in different Gods,” can be arrived at by a very simple question like, “do you believe Jesus is God?” The rebuttal is the semantic move, "No, in fact, because Christians believe there is only one God, they actually worship the same God, but often attribute different attributes to God." The rebuttal relies on the train of thought that because two people can apply different attributes to the same person and still refer to the same person, and that there is actually only one God, these religions are pointing to the same God in different ways. But what if they are not pointing to the same God, but using the word "God" to talk about what they believe in? This, it seems to me, is just as easily the case, and can be discovered given some fairly straightforward inquiry regarding what different religions sincerely believe about what they refer to when they talk about God. Using one example cited in the articles linked, it is entirely possible for two people to talk about "Thomas Jefferson" using different attributes, and given the chance to point to the person they mean, they will point to two different people. In this case they both used the same word/phrase as their referent, but one (maybe both) were actually wrong about the referent, not the attributes. Pointing to two different Thomas Jeffersons has its theological equivalent in describing conflicting and contradictory attributes of God.

Referring to the same thing with different attributes is not the only way people disagree. They can refer to two different things with the same attributes or two different referents with overlapping attributes. To reduce religious propositional conflict to just the first form of difference might oversimplify the situation.

In addition, some semantic work might need to be done to explain how the phrase, "believe in," works in order to support the assertion that Muslims and Christians "believe in the same God." The articles linked above deal with the "same God" portion of the phrase, and I am sure someone somewhere has worked on the first phrase. Whether someone has or not, it needs to be done. Belief, roughly speaking, is an internal adherence and some significant level of commitment to a proposition. Christians and Muslims propose very different things about God, so from the start it should be pretty easy to see that they literally do not "believe in" the same God. Now are we at a place where the burden of work is on SG to tell us why two people who believe in different things actually believe in the same thing whether they say so or not?

Second, the theological data, it seems to me, allows for both to be possible.

"You shall have no other gods before me." God, Exodus 20:3.

Thinking primarily about a theology of idolatry, the worship of idols seems to be treated in two broad fashions in Scripture. First, it is the case the God warns against worshiping him so badly that a person has slipped into idolatry (Malachi 1 and 2 are examples). In this case, we may be able to say that two people can worship the same God and say they believe in the same God while at least one of them has so perverted worship that they have slipped into idolatry.

But the second, and what seems to be the primary warning, is idolatry in the sense that people literally worship other gods. In this case people can worship things, other people, themselves, or spiritual beings as god. In any event, the theological data regarding idolatry is focused in the first of the Ten Commandments, "You shall have no other gods before me." The commandment is not (and I don't believe can be interpreted to mean), "You shall not assert false attributes to me when actually worshiping me." The biblical worldview posits a universe of spiritual beings that humans have often mistaken as "God" and believed in and worshiped as gods. So, of course, people can believe in/worship different gods in the sense that they attribute ultimate divine worth to beings who are not God. They have been doing that for millennia.

This raises another point that Rae mentioned in his article. He stated that to assert that religions worship different gods would require a well-developed theology of worship. While that ought to be done regardless, I wonder if the case is exactly the opposite. The debate right now is about Muslims and Christians, and seems to be fuzzy around the edges because they are both Abrahamic faiths. Add Judaism to the list, and it seems fairly easy to say that these religions worship the same God, just differently. Given SG can we justifiably take it another step to say that Hindus and Christians worship the same God? If so, then Hindus substitute billions of gods with conflicting personalities for the unity of the Christian deity. That difference is pretty drastic, and worship in those two very different faiths would need to be explained to hold to SG. What about belief systems that straddle the religious/philosophical fence such as Buddhism and Confuciansim? In these systems ultimate reality is at direct odds with Christian beliefs about ultimate reality, leading some to even label these systems as atheistic. And yet (at least Buddhism) has a form of worship and beliefs about ultimate reality and salvation. How can both worship the same God? That would need to be explained. Then, at the extreme end of this train of thought is atheism. Atheism has been described as a kind of worship by both theologians and thoughtful atheists, and not without merit. If atheists worship (human potential, science, technology, transhumanism, etc.) and Christians worship, then SG implies that they worship the same God.

Are we at a point with SG where there is an inherent conflict, if not internal contradiction? A Christian who says there is a God and an atheist who says there is no god both worship the same god.

This raises a fascinating question for me- what about conversion? Does a convert believe that they are now worshiping the true God as opposed to a false god? Or do they believe they are worshiping the same God, only now they are worshipping more properly? And if SG is true it seems we are stuck with saying that in reality they were worshiping the same God all along and this seems incongruent with how both the OT and NT treat other religions and the move from one to another.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Correcting the Scoffing Fool

Proverbs 9:7-8 “Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you."

Our first reaction to a passage like this ought to be a self-reflective question like, “How do I respond to correction and reproof?” I should begin by wondering about myself instead of immediately thinking of everyone I think is a fool. Does my reaction to legitimate correction incur anger or hatred toward the one who corrects me, or does it begin a process of self-improvement, and even thankfulness and love? If I am not open to correction, I may think of myself as basically perfect and not in need of correction, even if I do not think in those exact words.

A second insight from a passage like this is that proper correction from people who love us and/or are wiser than we are – or simply see something we do not - is part of growing in wisdom and maturity. We ought not journey on toward Christ without people who can speak into our lives about areas we may be blind to, or areas that are too sensitive for us to deal with personally. I am an imperfect person subject to a range of faults and I should learn how to react when I hear good correction. (I don’t like this anymore than anyone else, and I receive good correction more often than I would like.)

A third reaction can be something like this: It may be better to watch as the storm passes by, does its damage, and see if anyone is willing and ready to help pick up the pieces of wasted lives and ruined time. In the heat of the moment, or in the throes of passion, or in the wave of powerful cultural mythologies, people are often completely deaf to correction. And more than that, they are often hostile to an opinion that is simply different than the one they find fashionable at the time. Sometimes all you have to do is say something like, “I disagree,” and that is enough to get you labeled as a hateful ignoramus who needs to get with the times. But Solomon shows us that this is nothing new and that you really might do better keeping your mouth shut and waiting for the wise person to show up or for wisdom to come crashing into someone’s life.

This is hard to do, however, when we watch parts of the church do this. There are plenty of well-meaning individuals who, for all kinds of reasons, neglect wisdom and truth for powerful mythologies and label their causes as “what Jesus would be doing right now.” But cultural conditions are such that they may not receive correction. After all, they have the weight of conventional wisdom at their back, so why listen to voices preemptively categorized as unintellectual or outdated?

So, in the end, I need to first discern whether I am the scoffing fool, and then patiently pray for those who will not now listen to wisdom.  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

At Advent May We Never Fail To Be Thankful

Trafalgar Square Tree

While preparing for Advent this week I ran across this beautiful story I had never heard before. Every year Norway sends a tree - a huge tree often groomed for years - to England to say thank you for their role in preserving and liberating their nation during WWII. For years they waited under tyranny for their freedom to come, and once it did they have never failed to say thank you.

During Advent we are reminded that we wait in the now and not-yet. Our world is broken and full of sin, but the Messiah has come. Abundant life and freedom have been given to whosoever believes in him for this life now. Jesus the King was born. And yet we still wait for the complete coming of his kingdom when he will reign in righteousness and justice, and of his peace there will be no end.

Advent allows us to never fail to be thankful for what has been given, and what is promised and sure to come.

HT: Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, The Time Is Now