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Monday, December 22, 2014

Under Attack

Christians and their faith are under attack. If there were any question of that a quick google search for persecuted Christians will provide more than enough evidence. But that is not new? That has been going on for 2000 years. What is new in the last 50 years is the attack on Christians in America.

No, Christians are not being crucified or beheaded as they are in the Middle East. But they are under attack, and the attack is becoming increasingly sophisticated. An example is a Washington Post opinion piece published on December 18. The article written by Raphael Lataster is entitled "Did the historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn't add up."

Mr. Lataster is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. His bio lists Bayesian reasoning as one of his interests, and that is where the sophistication (or false sophistication) comes in. Lataster along with many of the other antagonists of Christianity have attempted to raise the bar for knowing so high that no one, including themselves, are able to say with any certainty that they know anything, and if it cannot be known, then it cannot be real or true or reliable. That is why I like what one good old fashioned American said: "common sense is very uncommon."  It certainly is becoming uncommon in academic circles.

Epistemology.That is the branch of philosophy that has to do with knowledge: What is knowledge, and how much can we know? (See Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Increasingly people whom you would otherwise think were trained to know have assumed a skeptical position on just about everything. My professor for a course I took this summer over the Internet from Emory University is a case in point. The course title was The Bible's Prehistory, History, and Political Future.

Dr. Wright basically was floating his theory about the Bible's origins and purpose. There was so little hard evidence and so many baseless assumptions in the course that it should have been labeled an opinion piece rather than a history course. And that is my point. That is what history in the universities and in the books written by "historians"  has become.

So we come to the question of Jesus. Lataster's strategy is to quote the most extreme skeptics as if they were mainstream and the mainstream scholars as if they were marginal. He emphasizes what we cannot know rather than what we can know. So it is not surprising that he ends up with the conclusion:
"Were they [the gospels] intended to be accurate historical portrayals, enlightening allegories, or entertaining fictions? Ehrman and Casey [mainstream scholars] can’t tell you – and neither can any New Testament scholar. Given the poor state of the existing sources, and the atrocious methods used by mainstream Biblical historians, the matter will likely never be resolved. In sum, there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence – if not to think it outright improbable."

So, we can't know what the gospels are, but we can say what they are not. They are not historical. What?! Mr. Lataster, you can be skeptical about everything else, why not your own conclusion? Well, to be precisely accurate, you do qualify that with "improbable."

This was all published in the Washington Post, understand. That gives it credibility for those who read uncritically. But a closer look reveals a lack of scholarship and a uncritical dependence on one author, whom Lataster describes as an "independent historian," Dr. Richard Carrier.  Yes. I know. The Washington Post is not a professional journal and cannot be expected to maintain the same standards. But why Carrier?

Carrier's theories regarding almost everything historical are regarded by almost all actual historians as garbage. His application of Bayesian reasoning to history is one good example. No bona fide historian uses Bayesian reasoning to analyze history. Yet this marginal and biased author is Lataster's one source. Stop. I don't even let freshmen in my high school English courses get away with that.

Still the Washington Post published the piece. Why? Because it sells papers? That would have been my guess a few years ago. But then there were an equal number of articles written from the other point of view. Not so today. So my guess is because it feeds into the growing antagonism toward Christians and their faith. And of more concern, it builds support for such antagonism.

My hope is that Americans somehow are able to apply common sense to the question and are not swayed by the impressive credentials of those who admit they can't really know anything. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Scriptures

Every year as I get to the history of Christianity in the first and second century in class  I run onto those who object to the books that are the New Testament. They point out that there were other books written, other gospels. And they ask why were these not included. I find that an interesting but easily answered question.

Yes. There were other books and other gospels. Early historians of the church such as Irenaeus and Eusebius  both remark about them and quote from them at times. But both are clear that the books which we have now and have had for 1700 years in the canon of the New Testament are the books chosen almost from the beginning, certainly from the second century.

So, what of the others?  Did Constantine choose the books of the New Testament selecting those that would agree with the theology affirmed in the Council of Nicaea, the theology that declares that Jesus is equal in essence in every way to God the Father?  Did he have the others destroyed? Those are the rumors drifting around the Internet. The answer is no.

The churches collected and sifted through the writing of the first and second centuries. And they agreed in time - certainly by the end of the second century - on the writings that were genuine and inspired.

It was not hard to do. You can read many of these "other" writings for yourself. Early Christian Writings  has them nicely collected, at least those for which there are copies or fragments left. I've done that. I've even had high school students do that. And even they can tell the difference.

The most obvious difference is that the writings, especially the gospels, in the New Testament have a sober, realistic tone. Yes, some of the things reported are incredible, walking on water, for example. Yet they are reported as actual events. They are not fantasy. They are not myth. Even high school students can see the difference when they are placed side by side with any myth.

 They are also clear. There is no "secret messages" only the initiated can understand. Yes. Jesus used parables, but those are different from the secret knowledge spoken of in the Gospel of James or the Gospel of Thomas. Parables are stories intended to teach simple truths. The secret knowledge of the other writings is intended to separate the so called spiritually wise from the ignorant. That is never Jesus' objective in the canonical gospels.

So when I  get to the place in history where the modern scholars find some kind of conspiracy afoot, I find myself smiling -wryly.  It is true what Jesus said about revealing these things to children and hiding them from the self-proclaimed wise and learned.

Friday, November 7, 2014

What Sort of God is This?

Scientific evidence including the necessity of a cause outside the universe, the fact of the incredible
complexity and apparent  fine-tuning of the universe for life like ourselves, and the wonderful complexity of the human DNA information system recommends to us the high probability that there is a God. But what sort of God is this?

I recently read Stephen Jay Gould's essay "Nonmoral Nature." Now, Gould is one of my favorite science writers, so I was interested in his conclusion as well as his observations on nature. What can it tell us about the God who made it?  His conclusion was that we cannot derive from nature any indication about the moral character of God. His observations were all related to the pain and suffering that is fundamental to the natural world and which would be, if one chose to make the case, evidence for a immoral God. Gould does not make that case, however. His final position was that nature just is. To consider the death and pain evident in the natural world in an anthropomorphic way is to read into nature something that is not there. It just is.

Others who have written about the essay, however,  have derived more from the same evidence Gould presents. Their conclusions are that God, if there be such, is not moral. Indeed he is immoral by the standards of morality of the authors. So if God created nature and nature is vicious, would not this God be vicious also?

I lean toward Gould's position rather than the latter, but I would like to suggest that there is more we can derive about God than Gould allows. (To be fair, Gould's argument has to do with the somewhat common attempt to derive the goodness of God from nature and, at that, only a small slice of nature. It is a limited argument.)

I begin with the observation that the universe had a cause and that cause is possibly if not probably the being we call God. First, the cause had to be able to produce the universe. That would require great power or authority. Even if the cause of the universe was an impersonal quantum or energy fluctuation in a prior universe, the cause would have to be powerful. It would have to be on the scale of the Big Bang itself.

Secondly, we observe that the universe functions according to rather finely tuned and universal physical laws. In addition, these laws work together to produce a complex, well balanced, long lasting universe that has existed for as much as 14 Billion years and, we project, will continue to exist in a functioning state for at least as long. As an example, gravity, one of those universal laws, has to be quite precisely the strength it is for the universe to expand as it has over 

time. A very little stronger and the universe would have collapsed early on. A very little weaker and the universe would not develop galaxies and stars. Neither universe would be anything like ours. So, we can derive that this God who caused the universe has to have great knowledge and wisdom. 

Next, we observe that this earth of ours is a remarkable place. The conditions that obtain here are not only many and interrelated but necessary in almost every case for there to life at all like ourselves. That is called the anthropic principle. However, that alone does not make God necessary. Some scientists conclude that we are just lucky and that, in any event, if those conditions did not prevail we would not be here to observe it. Others see more going on.

About fifteen years ago biologist Michael J. Denton wrote a book with the title Nature's Destiny. His argument, well supported by factual evidence, was that there was a destiny built into the universe. That destiny would produce eventually life something like ourselves on some world much like ours. Denton was not a theist. But he was convinced that the universe by its makeup displayed some purpose. If that is so, then we can derive from nature that God, if there is such, would have to be both highly intelligent and ingenious in the design he created in the universe, a design that inevitably leads to sentient life.

As an aside, it would be interesting to speculate whether there are other worlds on which sentient life might be found. There is no reason to reject that possibility since the very nature of nature is productive of life.

But back to our task. What of the that sentient and wonderfully imaginative life? It would seem reasonable to assume that the effect of a cause cannot be greater than the cause. If we think, if we are imaginative, if we have a sense of right and wrong, if we have a will, it suggests that this God who is our cause also has volition, is moral, creative, and obviously sentient. All that is to say that he is a person, for those are the characteristics that define a person.They are the features that define us as persons.

Now, what of Gould's observations about the cruelty of nature? Does nature argue that God is cruel? Gould would not take the argument that far. But he took it far enough. Nature is not immoral; it is nonmoral. The natural world other than ourselves cannot tell us about the nature of God. We, however, are moral. Does anyone doubt that? Virtually everyone makes judgments daily about the morality of the acts of others and their own. We may not agree on what is moral or immoral, though there are some basic agreements, but there is plenty of evidence for our moral nature. God, then, must be moral also if we his creations are moral.

It would be possible to go further, but at this point we can draw these conclusions about this God who is the ultimate cause. He is powerful. He is creative and imaginative. He is intelligent and wise. He is moral. He has volition. He is personal.

But of course, that picture may fit many different presuppositions. Allah, Yahweh, and possibly some of the gods of the Asian religions could fit those characteristics. So, is it possible to decide based on reasonable examination of the evidence which god is God? I think so, but that waits another blog.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

I Don't Believe

In a recent discussion with a variety of posters on the CNN website I heard over and over again that they do not believe in the existence of God because there is no scientific evidence for God’s existence. I find that particularly surprising because in my investigation over 20 years I have found that there is more than enough evidence.  

So I pondered why the evidence available was not considered evidence. 

One reason seems to be that they believe there is no direct evidence. By that they mean someone who  has seen God and whose testimony can be examined in depth for it reliability, though few of my atheist friends know what criteria to apply to a witness and to personal testimony. They are simply judging subjectively rather than applying rigorous criteria and are sure that this rebuttal would be sufficient: no one can see God, so his existence cannot be proved.

Most Christian theists would counter with the statement that Jesus, being God, was seen and we have the testimony of a quite a number of witnesses. I like that. But that begs the question: does God in fact exist. We must be convinced that there is a God before we can examine the witnesses of Jesus to determine if he is God.  So it is crucial to the argument to show that it is highly probable based on scientific evidence that God exists. 

That brings me to the second reason my atheist friends do not believe in the existence of God; they don’t believe the evidence is sufficient to prove God’s existence. I’d like to challenge that idea, but it must wait until we determine what “sufficient” evidence would be. 

In science there are few absolutes because all scientific conclusions, whether they are hypotheses, theories, or laws are based on observations and arrived at by inductive reasoning.  Because it is not possible to collect all the facts, it is also not possible to be 100% certain of the conclusions drawn from the facts observed. 

But that does not prevent scientists from creating hypotheses. They know that a collection of many facts may provide sufficient evidence for a conclusion that is highly probable, even if not absolute. In fact, a hypothesis is necessary because facts by themselves mean nothing. Meaning must be derived from facts via inference. They consider the facts they have as sufficient if the quantity of facts is large and the number of facts that might lead to a different conclusion is small. If that criterion is met, scientists conclude (or believe based on the facts) that their hypothesis is accurate. 

So, to answer my atheist friends, “sufficient” evidence for the existence of God would be facts which taken together and in a large enough number would provide a basis for the inference or hypothesis that God exists. That, of course, assumes that there are no or few scientific facts that could lead to the contrary conclusion that God does not exist or facts that could be reasonably explained by a different hypothesis. Reasonableness is, of course, the critical condition. 

So, what are the scientific facts? The first is that from observation and via inductive reasoning we are almost all convinced that everything that begins has a cause.  In fact, science would be impossible if that were not so. But we don’t need to be scientists to be convinced of that hypothesis. If we arrive home one evening to find a window broken, every one of us would look for the cause because we are absolutely convinced there has to be a cause. 

If we come upon a painted vase in the forest, we would never assume that it just appeared out of the sky with no cause. We would all ask how it got there. We would even go beyond that. We would never conclude that it exists without a cause. Every vase had a maker.  We would reasonably ask who made it. And we would expect that there is an answer. 

So too with the universe. If it is, and few would argue that it is not (and even they would have to agree that exists at the very least in our minds) then it is our expectation that there was a cause. The only exception to that is if we find the universe is eternal. (And that, by the way, is the only way to truly falsify the hypothesis that God exists.) 

The idea that the universe is eternal was, in fact, the conviction of many scientists a century ago. But then Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble and a host of others produced scientific and mathematical evidence that the universe was expanding. The reasonable conclusion, which virtually all now accept, is that if it is expanding there must have been a beginning.  Little evidence points to any other conclusion.

As a digression here, it once was suggested that the expanding universe would reach the end of expansion and collapse to start the cycle over again. That could mean the universe is eternal. But recent discoveries show that the rate of expansion is increasing rather than decreasing.  That means we are on a one-way trip to oblivion rather than on a round-trip to a new beginning.

If the universe had a beginning, there must be a cause. There have been a variety of causes proposed. Our universe might have been spawned through quantum fluctuations or from a prior universe. Or maybe God created it. With just these bare facts to work with those hypotheses have a low probability. But there are additional facts. What we all believe is that it had a cause.

The universe is highly complex. That is a fact no one disputes. The particular level of complexity includes a set of many conditions which are particularly finely tuned. For example, gravity could vary in only the smallest degree from the strength we now observe or the universe would either have quickly collapsed or would not have formed stars and galaxies. Gravity along with the other conditions necessary for this universe to exist as it is are facts which demand an explanation for their existence.
In the case of the laws that govern the universe, which are among the facts in the list, those laws must have their cause in something other than the universe they caused. There have been a number of suggested causes for the laws of the universe which along with gravity include entropy, the weak and strong nuclear forces and others. One is that we are just lucky. There may be an infinite number of universes in which other laws prevail, and we happen to live in the one in which these laws prevail. It would be fair to ask then for evidence for these other universes. Or maybe a highly intelligent being designed and created the universe.

The third piece of scientific evidence is the extraordinary complexity of life on this planet. All living things have DNA (or RNA). In even the simplest of living things the complexity of the DNA that directs the cells how to develop is incredible. The DNA in humans is the most complex thing we know of in the universe. 

In addition, DNA is a kind of biological code very much like written language. In other words, it is information.  Information is known only to be the product of intelligence.  And information as complex and specific as the DNA/RNA in the simplest form of life we know of is unthinkable apart from an intelligence producing it. It is like taking a million individual letters, throwing them up in the air and hoping for them to fall into place as a Charles Dickens novel. It simply won’t happen no matter how many times they are thrown. 

But what if among some of those fallen letters there is a word, suppose the. Leaving that word intact we throw the letters again. And another word appears, suppose dirty. Can’t Great Expectations be created that way?  No. The analogy fails at that point because none of those words mean anything by themselves. There is no information. So in real life it would be at least necessary for a sentence to appear from the thrown letters. Only then is there information. But even given that, there is not enough time in the universe for a meaningful book to be created by this process. At the very best there would be a mass of random letters and a very few random words which were not connected in sentences and would mean nothing. Chance cannot create  meaningful  information.

So, it is reasonable to ask how DNA came to exist and how it could be as complex as it is. There are a variety of explanations. The one most often proposed is that DNA became more complex over time via the evolutionary process by which new features are added to existing ones. We’ve seen this fails even if there is a selection process. There is not enough time and the chance is far too small. But even if we were to accept that explanation (it requires acceptance without sufficient evidence) it begs the question where the first DNA/RNA came from. 

The proposals for the beginning of what would be life are many. None of them, however, have been scientifically demonstrated. So believing any of these proposals to be accurate requires a suspension of disbelief in any critical observer. (I should say that the stance of most scientists is skepticism. Otherwise we’d still believe flies spontaneously appear on rotting meat.)

The other possibility is that God designed and directed the existence of life and the complexity of the life we know.  

Is this scientific evidence? Obviously it is. It is the very same evidence scientists puzzle over and create experiments to analyze and which they use to test hypotheses. And there is more. I have simply stopped here because this is sufficient to make the point that there is scientific evidence from which we can infer with a high degree of probability that God exists. 

To recap, the God hypothesis is a possible explanation for all of the facts I have presented. There is no single other hypothesis that does that.  That would make the God hypothesis more probable  than the others. It is not absolute proof. But that is not what science produces. However, there are two other considerations.

The first is the inability to test the hypothesis as we usually can with a scientific hypothesis. However, there are many scientific theories that have been tested only by applying the test of probability to what we have observed. We generally accept those theories until the phenomena can be explained better another way. That is why the stance of science is always a bit tentative and never absolute.

Finally, there is the question of how God might have done this. What was the mechanism of creation?
The best answer to that is, I believe, an analogy. An author creates a world as he writes a novel. He creates characters to live in that world and he creates the events that happen in the story. Where do they come from? They come from mind. He wills them to be. They exist in the mind of the author before they are ever given a kind of life on the pages of a book. They exist in the mind of the author even if they never are written.

In a similar way, God can be conceived of as the author of this story that is our life and our universe. We and all that is are the result of his willing it to be. And that is what the Bible tells us. It says that God spoke and things came into being. 

That challenges the idea that reality is the material universe we are acquainted with. The characters in a story are not real, after all. They are only imagined. Taken a little further, it suggests that the only non-contingent reality is God. It is interesting that recently there have been theorists who have noticed the similarity between the universe and a digitally created game, a game in which the characters have no reality of their own, but that must wait another blog. 

As a conclusion to this discussion, the scientific evidence convinces me that the God hypothesis is the best and most probably.  But that leaves me with only the existence of God. It would be interesting to reason what sort of God might have created the universe and life within it. That will be the subject of a future discussion.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Setting the Record Straight

How are Christians to respond to homosexuals? New legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is having an impact on many businesses run by Christians. Christians have been forced to think through that question to an answer that is both biblical and kind.

It is clear that God loves all regardless of who we are. He loves all regardless of our sin, and we all are sinners. If God loves all, then it is incumbent upon us to love all.  That includes heterosexuals, homosexuals, and those confused about their sexual identity. It includes murderers, child abusers, liars, the greedy, the sexually promiscuous, and, yes, sexually active homosexuals. We naturally discriminate between sins, making some more serious - and unforgivable - than  others. God does not. Paul writes,
"everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence. But by the free gift of God's grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free." (GNT)
So the first rule we must follow is to love. But that still leaves us with the problem of how to deal with the sin.

If we have a neighbor who is a serial killer, love would lead us to call the police. It would be the loving thing to do both for our neighbor and everyone who might be in danger. If we have a neighbor who is a thief, we would do the same - out of love. But those are both recognized as crimes in our society. What about "sins" that are not crimes?

The truth is that Christians have a poor track record here. We overlook some sins and focus on others. We in America are inclined to consider divorce, for example, as regrettable, but not a sin. The Bible would say otherwise. We think of gossip and gluttony undesirable, but not sin. Yet they too are regarded as sin in the Bible. We overlook most lies, even excusing them in ourselves, yet lying is clearly a sin. Yet when it comes to homosexuals, we instantly call out their sin. If we overlook some sins in ourselves and call out sins in others, that is hypocritical.

We need our thinking corrected. But the solution is not to overlook sin, either in ourselves or others. It is to confront lovingly. But when and how?

My wife and I have both had friends and co-workers who were sexually active homosexuals. Neither of us felt it appropriate to confront them with that sin. There might be a time to do that, a time when we could lovingly do that, but we never felt it was the right time. There were bigger issues. None of these people were Christians. Their bigger need was to know that God loves them, and we decided that loving them was our role.

Of course, if they were to respond to God's love, the sin would need to be dealt with. It would stand in the way as every sin does of any relationship with God. That would be the time to speak. Sin needs to be repented of and forsaken if anyone is to walk with God, be that sin pornography, hate, stealing, lying, or homosexual relations.

Those are simple biblical principles: love and lead that person to the Savior and when it is time urge them to repent of their sin. The pressing issue because of the recent legislation requiring no discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is HOW to love the sinner without approving of the sin.

Specifically, can I as a Christian photographer participate in a same-sex wedding? Would that be participating in what is a sin? Can I as a baker participate by providing the wedding cake? Can I as a pastor participate by performing the ceremony? Those all have been real issues for real people in the last few years.

The law says if you are providing a service to the public as a businessman, you cannot refuse to do so on the basis of sexual orientation. But what of our conscience?

Each Christian in those situations must decide. Many Christians have chosen to kindly and without intending any offense decline to participate in those ways. It has cost some of them long drawn-out lawsuits, fines, and the loss of their businesses. So be it. Jesus said that we would suffer persecution if we walk his path. He did. Why should we expect otherwise.  

The one thing that we should not do is retaliate in hate or seek to hurt. Jesus did not. We should not. He continued to love those who murdered him. We can do the same in our much less serious trials.

We do live in America, however. And like Paul who at times called upon his rights as a Roman citizen when he was mistreated or falsely accused of a crime we have rights. We can call upon our rights. We have the right to speak in opposition to the direction our society is taking. We have the right to exercise our faith as we see fit. We have the right to challenge the legality of legislation that forces us to violate our conscience and biblical principles.

If we do, however, we must do so without vitriol or violence.  Martin Luther King Jr. provided a model for us of non-violent protest. He was willing to take the abuse and go to jail for the principle of freedom. And it is our privilege to do the same. And it may come to that. Being careful to let love be always at the forefront of every response.

Friday, October 17, 2014

No Way

Would Jesus Ok Same-sex Marriage? That was the question posed in the title of an article on recently. You can probably guess the answer: Yes, of course. However, you will never believe how the author Jay Parini arrived at that conclusion.

Parini, whose credentials include a book about about Jesus but no apparent training in biblical exegesis, bases his argument in part on a passage in Matthew 19. I would use the same passage to argue the opposite. Let's compare Parini's analysis of the passage with mine. He begins with Jesus' teaching about divorce.

"Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

"And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The only comment Parini makes is that this was the basis for "Christian bias against divorce - a bias that has, necessarily, eased in the past century..." He skates over the truth that was the foundation of Jesus' argument: "God made them male and female and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife...'" That was God's purpose for men and women from creation, Jesus declares, and he argues that this purpose should not be destroyed by divorce.

There can be no basis for homosexual marriages here. Quite the opposite. Though Jesus did not address the issue directly, the logical conclusion would be that homosexual marriage is a perversion of God's original pattern because it is not a union of a man and a woman.

Parini then goes on to quote Matthew 19:10-12. It is his only attempt at a biblical argument.

"The disciples said to him, 'If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.' But he said to them, 'Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.'”

The argument goes this way: This is a difficult passage, he agrees, but it allows, because of the way the word  eunuch is used in other non-biblical Greek texts, for understanding the "eunuch who has been so from birth" as a gay man. This is, he claims the context of the passage and determines the meaning.

He goes no further. He doesn't attempt to argue that being born gay exempts that person from the pattern of marriage being one man and one woman God gave in creation. He simply makes the statement that the passage may refer to gay men. And it may, but that does not support Parini's thesis that Jesus accepts homosexual marriage.

Need it be said that this is terrible exegesis. Context is, of course, important. But the most important context is the passage itself then the whole of the Bible's discussion of the topic then the meaning of the word used outside the Bible. Parini reverses the order and ignores the immediate context and the larger biblical context altogether.

The immediate context is the question the disciples had about how sacred  God holds marriage. (Remember in the passage Jesus quotes from Genesis God's purpose is that men and women will marry and will marry someone from the opposite sex and that their marriage is to be regarded as sacred.)  Jesus answer is that, yes, marriage is sacred. But sometimes not marrying is the necessary choice. Then he gives three groups who may properly choose not to marry or who may not be fit for marriage: first, people who are incapable of sexual union between a man and a woman, next people who have been made incapable by castration, and finally those who choose not to marry for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The point here is there are some who are not included in the expectation that all will marry.

Apparently Parini expects the reader to draw the conclusion from the fact that some are eunuchs from birth that homosexual unions are acceptable. But there is nothing in the passage implying that there is a third alternative, such as marrying someone of the same sex. The simple conclusion is that eunuchs are the exception to the general rule that marriage is for everyone.

But let's broaden the context. Let's consider Paul's teaching on the topic. In Romans 1 Paul writes of those who turned away from God and whose hearts were darkened. Among the consequences of that darkening was this:

"For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error."

This should be enough to establish that homosexual unions are perversions. They are contrary to nature as God created it. They are dishonorable. And they are sinful.

There are other passages equally clear, but this will do.

The answer to the question would Jesus approve of homosexual marriage is no.

This is not a condemnation of homosexuals. Perhaps they are born that way; perhaps they are made that way by men. There is no condemnation for being who you are. But it is a condemnation of homosexual unions. If homosexuals wish to live in accordance with God's purpose, they must choose not to marry, just as those do who sacrifice marriage for the kingdom of God.

Parini, though he makes this brief and rather offhand reference to Jesus and the Bible for support, does not really base his argument on the Bible. Rather he bases it on the changing opinions of men, quoting and misquoting among others Jimmy Carter and the leaders of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches who have endorsed homosexual marriage. Maybe the title of the piece should have been "Does the Modern Religious Establishment OK Same-sex Marriage?" Had that been his thesis, his answer, sadly, would have been accurate; they do. But Jesus? No way. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

ObamaCare and Common Core

For our own good and for the good of those who are unable to improve their own lives the government has taken on that role. The government, for example, is making sure that everyone has health insurance. That is good news for those truly can't afford health insurance and for those who can't find an insurance company that will insure them. It is bad news for those who for reasons of their own or because they can afford to pay for their health care would not choose to buy health insurance. But the problems do not end there. The Affordable Care Act will ultimately limit the health care available to many who now have excellent insurance and care.

It has already limited my options. I am on Medicare. Medicare sets limits on the amount it will pay health care providers. The result has been to reduce the number of doctors who will accept me as a patient. I am relatively healthy at the moment. So I don't need much in the way of health care. But the chances are that one day I will. The big question is whether I will be able to get the healthcare I will need. Right now getting through the system of primary providers to be able to see a specialist is so time consuming that any critical problem will likely not receive attention before it becomes too big to adequately treat.

The same is true of the Common Core State Standards for education. The CCSS as it is known attempts to establish standards for the English (ELA) and math curriculum and to make those standards the same across the United States. As with the Affordable Care Act, there is good news for some. In many schools the standards for English and math are low. Students are graduating from high school without the skills or knowledge base to succeed in college. And across the country standards vary so much that a student transferring from a school in New York probably will not be on the same page as the new school in Nebraska. The CCSS bring those schools into sync with one another.

The other benefit is there is a new emphasis on preparing teachers for the more rigorous environment of the CCSS classroom. Teacher training is light years ahead of where it was when I graduated from college. But there is bad news as well.

The bad news is that many excellent schools with creative curricula and high standards are being forced into a one-size-fits-all curriculum that is crippling the creativity of the teachers. But that is not the worst of the CCSS. Performance on the national standards are tied to federal funding for schools. That pressures schools to teach to the tests that are given to access performance. Since those tests are given in every grade and repeatedly throughout the year, almost all the instruction will be teaching to the tests. The cascading consequences are that school administrations, teachers, and students are living with continual stress, something that is similar to test anxiety. And after all that, fewer students are succeeding. The standards have been raised before the quality of instruction has adapted to the CCSS. That will result in fewer students succeeding rather than more.

So what has this to do with Christian worldview? Our worldview includes the conviction that every person is an individual and that every individual has personal responsibility for his or her life. ObamaCare and the CCSS make the government the caretaker and forces students and all of us, in regard to health care, into a system that promises maximum benefits at the lowest cost but which, in fact, reduces the benefits to those who are most likely to find a way to succeed on their own. And reduces the incentives to do so.

ObamaCare and the CCSS are socialist answers to problems that are best addressed by individual effort and enterprise. The better solution is to allow the government to subsidize health care for those who cannot afford it - as it has been doing - while allowing the free market to provide health care insurance on every level for those who wish to buy for themselves the level of insurance they want.

In the case of the CCSS, raising the level of student success is vital for our nation. But to do that by limiting the best students is counterproductive. One answer seems to be charter schools that provide creativity and flexibility free from the burden of standardized tests and set students free to rise to their potential. There are schools like that. They are schools where teachers and administration believe in students and allow them opportunity to explore and grow rather than forcing them into a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

It is amazing what a student can accomplish when she is set free. However well intentioned, CCSS will not do that. I think it is a mistake turn in American education just as I think Obamacare is a mistaken turn in healthcare.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rethinking the Church

What is the church and what should it be? There have been more than enough books in the last few years attempting to wring some sense out of those questions, and I don't pretend to be able to do better than the biblical  scholars and those who are on the fronts lines in re-imaging the church have done. But I do have a perspective that may be a little different. My thesis is that we have examined the church from the wrong end of history. And because of that we misunderstand key New Testament truths.

What I mean is that we have looked at the church through 21st century eyes rather than 1st century eyes. Yes, in many cases we've looked at the church in Acts and the epistles with the goal of discovering and  appropriating the genius of the early church, but we've failed to see the church's connection with God's plan and means in the Old Testament.

Peter didn't make that mistake. In his sermon on Pentecost he connects the coming of the Holy Spirit to the prophecy of Joel. He sees what was happening as a continuation of  what God has been doing rather than a brand new thing. So what had God been doing?

It was God's purpose that the Israelites be a witness to God in the world. Abraham and his family were to be a blessing in the world. Moses says that as the Israelites follow the laws God has given them, other nations would take note of the goodness of those laws. They would be attracted to the God who wisely gave them. And the Israelites were to welcome the stranger, and in Jonah, care about even their enemies.

But they did not. They built walls to keep the world out. They saw the world around them  as the enemy.

So God expelled them from the land. For seventy years they were captives in Babylon and were from Babylon scattered around the known world. We see a bit of that picture in the book of Esther. Still they created little Brooklyns isolating themselves from the world around them. Not realizing that the Messiah was to be a world king, not just their king.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Jews saw the Messiah as a national savior who would throw off the bonds of the Romans and bring in a renewed kingdom. But that was not who Jesus was. Though his mission was first to Israel, his eyes were upon the world. He was a Messiah of peace with God and then peace among men, and for that they killed him. He was not the Messiah they wanted.

But God was not finished. His purpose to take the message of his love to all still stood. He would call others to the task - the church. And so Jesus' commission to his disciples in Matthew 28 is "make disiples of all nations."

But wait. (That is what he said, literally.) Wait in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high. He spoke, of course, of the Holy Spirit. But that's where our 21st century thinking gets a little weird. We fail to see that the coming (anointing) of the Holy Spirit is as much an Old Testament thing as the mission.

In the Old Testament, prophets were anointed, kings were anointed, priests were anointed, both by the Holy Spirit and symbolically with oil, giving them authority in the eyes of people and spiritual power to accomplish the task God had given them. This Pentecost experience was no different.

In order to accomplish the mission of taking the gospel to the world effectively, the disciples needed the anointing of the Spirit. God gave that to the disciples gathered at Pentecost and, as Peter promised, to all who repented and were baptized - and to everyone who has ever been added to the church. It is not a second blessing experience. It is THE blessing - though we may have to recover our understanding of the anointing and faith in the promise of God.

The sign of that anointing was similar to the sign of ecstatic utterance given to the prophets of old - the disciples spoke in tongues. Additionally, as a symbol of the promise made by John the Baptist, they were baptized by fire as tongues of fire appeared above their heads.This experience was not new. Many prophets experienced something miraculous as a sign of their anointing.

What was new was the fact that ALL who believed received the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The experience of tongues that accompanied this anointing was repeated several more times as new groups of people were joined to these first Jewish Christians. But speaking in tongues was not something that every new believer experienced. It was not necessary. The Holy Spirit had been given.

But as part of the anointing every believer did receive one or more of the gifts of the Spirit. These were necessary Spirit empowerments for fulfilling their mission. Yes, some like the Corinthians turned them into competitive games, but that is a misuse. It is not God's intention. This too is not unlike the experience of  men and women of the Old Testament upon whom the Spirit came giving them the ability to  accomplish their mission.

What was new was that every believer was anointed and gifted. Now the purpose of  God that all the world hear thre gospel of his  love could be accomplished.

And it was. Believers and Apostles took the message of the gospel to the far corners of the known world by the end of the first century. In succeeding centuries ordinary believers and apostle-missionaries have taken the gospel to nearly ever tongue and tribe and people and nation. The church is doing  what Israel refused to do.

What the church fails to recognized is that the gifts of the Spirit are God's enabling of that mission. The mission is prior. The gifts enable. What some have done is deny the gifts, relegating them to the past. That discourages their use in the mission. Others have elevated certain gifts and made them signs of the Holy Spirit's filling, but have left them there. Again the connection to the mission is severed.

God is patient. Our failures have not prevented him in accomplishing his ends. But how much more might we be used in his mission if we understood the point of the Spirit's anointing and gifting?

The early church understood and were used mightily. I have to think that we might be as well if we were to understand and believe.