Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas Letter 2012

I think I have nothing profound to say this year.  I’ve been reading some thought provoking blogs and books.  Among the books:  Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right; Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults; Chris Cooper, Run Swim, Throw, Cheat: the science behind drugs in sport; Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture; Timothy Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book; Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: how a liberated woman found herself sitting on her roof, covering her head, and calling her husband “master”. From Gawande, I learned the importance of procedure and checklists to keep organized and avoid costly mistakes.  From Smith and Snell I got a much better understanding of the outlooks of 18-23 year old emerging adults.  From Cooper I gained some depth about performance enhancing drugs.  From Smith my confidence was deepened and stretched about the humanly constructed bible we have.  From Beal likewise I better understood the history and development of the construction of the bible.  From Evans I saw how open the bible is to reading it in very different and still faithful ways.  From several: to think of the bible as a guidebook or manual for life, or as having a single view (The Biblical View, as many books proclaim) about anything important, is to do it, and God, a disservice.
                Beth has had a challenging year. She has been spending a day almost every week driving 70 miles to her mother’s to assist with her life.  At the end of November her mother had a mild stroke.  Beth’s increased involvement over the year has prepared her better to deal with the post-stroke issues.  She’ll finish another year with over 2000 miles of bicycling, much of it exploring back roads of Clinton County.  After a few years of serious talks from her physician about her cholesterol levels (and her family history of strokes), in mid-fall she decided to do something about it by better eating habits.  In just eight weeks her cholesterol went from very high to the moderate range.  She was thrilled about that.  Now she wants a new, faster bicycle and a mountain bike.
                Kevin announced his engagement to Marissa Perez, setting a wedding date for May 25, 2013 in Monticello, MN.  He bought a 1920s house in Minneapolis between Uptown and Lake Nokomis, near the light rail, occupying it in January.  It needed much work, and he got a good deal on it.  To move in, he needed a new furnace, hot water heater, range, fridge, and toilet.  Since moving in he (alone or with the help of parents and grandparents) tore out carpet, refinished hardwood floors, installed a tub-surround, painted walls, replaced all the windows, new overhead garage door and put a service door in the side of the garage, and ran electrical to the garage.  By adding 40% in materials to the purchase price of the house, it is now worth 200% of what he paid for it.
                Jayne is living with us, working part-time at the airport checking passengers in, loading and unloading baggage, cleaning the airplanes, and so on.  She is seeking full-time work in these still hard-times in Michigan.  She continues to organize disc golf leagues, participate in tournaments.  She likes taking her kayak out on the local river.  Early in the fall she went fishing with a friend and caught a couple of 16”-18” smallmouth bass.  Late in the fall she went deer hunting, got her first deer with one shot after being in the stand for thirty minutes, and three days later helped her friend butcher and package the meat.
                My job is more stressful than I’d prefer.  I am resilient.  I sometimes lose sleep thinking of what I should have done or should have said.  I try to let it go; sometimes it is hard to do so.  By the end of December I will have ridden my bicycles over 8000 miles this year, a feat I’ve never before accomplished.  Mid-summer I did my first ever bicycle camping tour: a nine-day/eight-night self-supported tour of north central and northeastern Wisconsin with five friends, riding 70-110 miles a day, each day temperatures getting into the 90s, only two nights cooling below 70.  Each day we’d have a general direction, but no particular itinerary. It was surprisingly easy to ride over 700 miles in nine days, even with the loaded bike weighing about 70 lbs. Over the summer and early fall, I got out several times in my canoe or Jayne’s kayak fishing for panfish on Muskrat Lake, with enough success.  Early November I had a high school reunion, the 36th.  It was only the first or second time I’ve seen any of my classmates since graduation.  It was rewarding and encouraging to see them.
                My warmest Christmas wishes to you,

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Divine Sovereignty Worthy of God

The title of the Sunday sermon was “If God is in control, then what?”  It was the last sermon in the liturgical year, the next Sunday being the first Sunday of Advent.  The pastor thought it a good sermon topic for ending the liturgical year.  The topic was Divine Sovereignty.  The pastor’s aim was to reconcile three issues with a notion of Sovereignty: unexplained catastrophe, undeserved prosperity of the wicked, and human free will. The key verse for the sermon was Psalms 103.19: The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.

I don't have a problem with Divine Sovereignty, at least how I understand Sovereignty.  My conception of Sovereignty fits exactly, it seems to me, with Psalm 103.19.  I don't understand it in the way that is typical for Calvinists.  Calvinists seem to think that Sovereignty requires, in addition to God ruling over all, that God be in detailed control of every event.  That is, they equate Sovereignty with predestination and foreordination.  Indeed an online encyclopedia of Christianity, Theopedia, defines Sovereignty of God as “the biblical teaching that all things are under God’s rule and control, and that nothing happens without His direction or permission.”  Get that?  It is “the biblical teaching,” as if there is only one biblical teaching about God’s authority, such that any other notion of sovereignty is non- or un-biblical.  The definition also adds the notion of “control” whereas biblical texts end at “rule.”

Yes, there are places in the bible that make it appear that God is in control of some details that we usually think of as under control of humans: perhaps Romans 13.1 The authorities that exist have been established by God.  But that is ambiguous between referring to individual rulers and referring to the notion of human rule and authority: which did God establish, individual rulers or the notion of human authority?  We usually think that determining who is in charge is a matter of a ballot or an appointment by a superior, not a matter of divine control.   And there are places in the bible that make it appear that God is not in such control: perhaps Psalm 2.1-3 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles’.  They conspire, plot, rise up, and band together against the Lord.  All this is in vain not because it is really God who is controlling everything; it is because God rules and they are supposed to serve God (with “fear and trembling” it says).

Why should anyone think that the notion of Sovereignty also requires God to be in control of everything?  And why should Calvinists be able to dictate what any other Christian should believe about the Sovereignty of God?

A Sovereign is a ruler, one whose law is law over a domain or region independently of whether a subject agrees with or accepts that law.  A Sovereign is not someone who controls every event that occurs within his or her kingdom.  A Sovereign is one who is the lord of that kingdom.  No Sovereign controls her or his subjects, determining every event that happens to them.  If a subject disobeys the Sovereign, or violates a law set by the Sovereign, the subject is subject to sanction.

With such a notion of Sovereignty, now applied to the Christian God, I see no conflicts between Sovereignty and human free will.  I also have no need to blame God for causing (or not intervening to prevent) wicked people from prospering in what seems a great unfairness.  As well, I have no need to blame God for causing (or not intervening to prevent) great amounts of pain and suffering seen in some unexplained catastrophes.  Why?  Because Divine Sovereignty does not require God being the cause of, or in control of, every detail of every event.  All Sovereignty requires is that God rules over all and God’s kingdom is authoritative over all other realms.

Some of the great amounts of pain and suffering are just due to there being a material world that operates with considerable regularity, following (what we call) laws of nature.  There are some things God cannot and could not do.  God could not make a material world perfect (whatever that means), at least if you hold a standard theological view that God only is perfect.  Maybe to say that some original pre-fallen creation was "perfect" simply means that it was full or complete, that it didn't need anything added to it; it cannot mean "perfect" in the sense that most folks think of God as perfect.  God also cannot make a material world with material persons who acquire a good deal of their knowledge of the world by means of the senses, of nerves, synapses and brains, and make it such that material persons could not sense pain.  If we have material bodies, they will be capable of over-stimulation.  Even if there was an Adam living someplace before a fall, if he stepped on a sharp rock he felt a pain.  I could follow a similar line of reasoning to explain how God designed a world in which benefits sometimes come to various undeserving individuals.

So I don't believe God is in control of everything.  Nor do I think God can do everything.  Nor do I think God knows everything.  And I still think God is Sovereign.  God sets the way for how humans should interact with and relate to God and their neighbors.  God may even have set the way that the universe would develop and run.  God may even enter time and space to act in special ways, the ways we call "miracles."  Sovereignty requires that God is the final, ultimate authority.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

Lastly, at least for now, while I think God doesn't know everything and isn't in control of everything, there is no event, no human choice or human tragedy that catches God so off-guard that God has to feel helpless and wonder what in the world to do.  An image I use is of chess playing (I don't know how to play chess, so this is hearsay).  It is as if we are playing chess with God.  God lets all of us make our moves (well, maybe for some or all of us there is a measure of prevenient grace so that some or all of us can freely chose to side with God who, through Christ, was reconciling himself to the world).  Whatever moves we make, even those moves that cause great pain and suffering to others—those things that I believe cause God sadness—God always has the capacity for a counter-move.  God can always win the game in the end.  When naturally caused or humanly caused evils occur, God can make things whole again.  I think that to be God, God does not always need to make things whole again.  But God can.  Or maybe God always does make things whole again, but some of those whole-makings are so far down the road that we never experience it.

If most people would think a few minutes about these matters, while they might initially feel very uneasy and even unwilling to say so aloud, I do think they would tend to agree with me.  On the one hand, they want to mouth the mantra "God is in control of everything."  After all, on a list of good and proper things for contemporary Christians to affirm, “God is in control of everything” is about the same status as “God communicates to us through the Bible” or “God loves everyone.”  Nonetheless and on the other hand they (at least secretly and in their private moments) think that God does not control everything, that they really do make choices, that bad and wicked things are not controlled by God.  I think they'd be better off dumping the mantra "God is in control of everything" and instead just stick with the mantra "God is Lord over all."  And Lords, as we all know, do not control their subjects; yet the subjects have to answer to the Lord and should Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling (Psalm 2.11).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Inerrancy: Who Cares?

I’ve heard from Peter Enns, Ben Witherington, and Roger Olson (do a google search to find their blogs) how evangelicalism seems to want to hold onto inerrancy as a dogma (not just doctrine or opinion).  To hold it as a dogma is to claim it is essential, a “must believe” in order to be a properly right-believing (i.e. orthodox) Christian.  It is of the same status as, for example, the Apostle’s creed.

 Yet in actual practice inerrantists kill it by a thousand qualifications, sometimes resulting in a claim "inerrant in all it teaches (or taught) in its original autographs."  In other words, we get to determine what the inerrant teaching is.  We do that by applying interpretive principles to try to divine the author’s original intent, or try to divine what God (who is regarded as having inspired the writing, and is taken by some to be the ultimate author of the text) intended to teach.  And that sort of move, I can imagine, can be used to defend whatever teaching one wants to dogmatize.  For in the end the interpreter often claims about that interpretation, “this is not what I am saying, this is what God is saying.”  And sometimes, maybe too often, it gets used as a club to beat others into submission. Such a strategy fuels the Nietzscheans among us who claim that “truth” is nothing more than power and domination in disguise.   Can't we imagine someone (maybe they need to have some sort of scholarly credentials)  taking some passage that states what strongly appears to be a falsehood and divining what the original autograph (or God) might have said or meant such that it (the original) expresses something true or correct or factual?  They have to save the bible we have from falsehood.

Then, too, it seems they will need to save the Jesus we have from falsehood. In  Mark 2.25-26 Jesus is recorded as stating that David and his companions took consecrated bread and ate it, during the time when Abiathar was the high priest.  Yet in 1 Samuel 21.1-7, Ahimelech is recorded as the high priest.  Lots of options here (at least five I can think of), two of which are a) the writer of Mark put a falsehood into the mouth of Jesus, b) Jesus stated a falsehood and the gospel writer reports accurately what Jesus said.  Much has been written on it, some of it I find very entertaining.

Rather than having to save the Bible (or Jesus) from error, why not just hold the view that Jesus stated a falsehood?  Does Jesus have to be a know-it-all—not in the negative sense that that term is often used?  Does the doctrine (I think it is a doctrine, not a dogma) of the sinlessness (the theological term is “impeccability”) of Jesus entail that he made no mistakes?  Should I think that whenever Jesus was playing the first century equivalent of baseball, he batted 1.000, never made a fielding error, always made it home without getting called "out"?  Or that when he was learning how to spell, or do mathematical calculations, he never made a mistake?  Or that when he was cutting a board for his dad, he never forgot to “measure twice, cut once” and never made a wrong cut?

If you are willing to accept that Jesus stated a falsehood, you don’t have to think that Jesus told a lie (at least not in the Mark 2.25-26 claim).  I define a lie as "a) intentionally communicating what you believe to be a falsehood, b) when the person to whom you are communicating it expects or deserves what you believe to be the truth, c) in order to gain some advantage for yourself against that person."  Let me give a couple of weird examples; I state the weird ones to show some of the qualifications in the definition I gave.

The first example is one in which I knowingly tell a falsehood to gain an advantage for myself but it is not a lie. Two dozen years ago on a warm January night, I was in a city park with two friends enjoying 60 degrees in January and a six-pack of beer.  We were breaking the law by being in the park after dark and by having alcohol in the park.  [Side note: I loved it in St. Paul where the city and county parks had signs posted stating “No alcohol, except beer and wine.”  I guess that is shorter or clearer than “Alcohol permitted, just not the hard stuff”].  I saw a police car driving into the park by where my car was parked and where we were standing under the clear but warm January sky enjoying our conversation and beer.  I told my companions, “put your open beer down, at least six feet away from you.”  Three of the six-pack were unopened in the carton at my feet.   When the policemen pulled up with their flashlights out, one asked what we were doing in the park.  I responded “enjoying the beautiful, unusually warm night.”  He asked if we knew the park was closed at night.  I said no.  He told us it was a safety issue, and we shouldn’t be in the park at night for our own safety.  He then asked if that beer was ours, and I said no.  He then asked if we’d pick it up and put it in the trash can nearby.  I said sure, and when I picked up the carton with the unopened three, I said “officer, these three aren’t opened; is it okay if I put them in my trunk?”  He responded “sure.”

Now, according to my definition, did I lie?  I say no; I intentionally said what was false but not a lie.  How so?  The officer believed that we were not trouble-makers.  If I had responded truthfully, he might have had to issue a ticket, or even arrest us.  That would have created a lot of work he did not what to do, taking time that would be better spent on other matters of public safety.  He did not expect the truth; indeed he did not want the truth.  He wanted us to get our stuff and leave the park.  According to my definition, no lie.

The second example is fictional, in which I tell the truth but in doing so I tell what counts on my definition as a lie.  Suppose that on September 11, 2001 at my 10 am class I want to see if I can get the students to want to cancel the class because I was lazy and hadn’t prepared well.  So I make up a story, saying that just before I left my office I saw on an internet news site that some planes just crashed into some buildings in New York, killing all passengers.  One of the buildings has collapsed, and the other is expected to.  This is a horrible disaster.  The news report said that this is believed to have been carried out by terrorists, that we should be on the alert, especially if we are in a building with a large number of people.  The students panic, they want to get out.  Class ends.  I chuckle to myself that they bought my story.

In this case, while the truth was told, it was a lie.  How so?  I intentionally communicated what I believed to have been a falsehood (it was, coincidentally true, unbeknownst to me) to people who expected what I believed to be the truth, and I did so in order to gain an advantage for myself against them.

Given my definition of a lie, I don’t see Jesus as telling a lie in Mark 2.25-26.  He tells a falsehood probably believing it is true, but he isn’t doing so in order to gain any advantage over others.   It wouldn’t shock me if Jesus told a lie or two sometime during his life.  It would shock me if he hadn’t lied a few times as a child.  It is similar to my claim that the impeccability of Christ does not require that in the first century version of basketball he never missed any shot he took.  Even I could beat Jesus in arm wrestling.  I think I can believe that without having to accept some version of an Arian view that Jesus was a mere human who became the Son of God at the baptism by John the Baptizer, symbolized by the Spirit like a dove descending on him (after which, on this theory, he would have been incapable of lying, even if still capable of being beat at arm wrestling).

An inerrantist might accept that Jesus stated a falsehood (but no lie), and still maintain the inerrancy of Mark 2.25-26 by claiming that it is inerrant in what it teaches.  The inerrantist then has to employ interpretive principles to claim that the intent of the passage is not to teach about David, or about who the high priest was at some specific point in history.  The intent is to teach about some deeper significance of the Sabbath.  To me, that version of inerrancy does sound like a death by a thousand qualifications.  Furthermore, I can get that interpretation (that Jesus is teaching something about what the Sabbath is for) without having to accept inerrancy.  And at that point, why not just give up on inerrancy?

Why not?  Because it is a boundary marker.  It marks where all members of one's theological club stand, thinking only they have orthodoxy on their side, with anyone not in the inerrantist club standing on the errant, almost certainly heretical, heterodox side.  It is, in my view, inflating an opinion, or perhaps a doctrine, into a dogma.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Embarrassing Christians

Sometimes it is embarrassing to be a Christian.  I’ll give just a couple of examples.

Driving north on US 127 heading toward Mackinaw, at mile 203 there is a sign along the side of the highway saying “Jesus come into my heart.”  Well, this is not exactly embarrassing, at least not in itself.  But when I first saw that sign, perhaps ten or more years ago, I thought that the person who put that there thought that every person who drove by the sign and read or pronounced the words, even just in their head, were thereby “saved.”  That is probably not true at all.  It is the thought that occurred to me.  Just suppose that was the motivation of the person who first put the sign there.  Is there really something mysterious or magical about pronouncing in English the phrase “Jesus come into my heart”?  Imagine the large majority of the world’s population who do not read English.  Or imagine a non-English speaker driving by the sign, able to pronounce English words without knowledge of the reference of the words.

A month ago I was visiting a relative for a weekend and went to church with my relative.  I’ve attended church with them a few times, and almost always get annoyed with something.  But this time it started well, and I thought it would be a great church service.  The congregation sang a mid-20th century hymn “Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul.”  After the hymn, the pastor said that the point of becoming a Christian is not to avoid hell, escape this earth, and get to heaven.  The point is to bring heaven down to earth, to make our earthly life and surroundings more heaven-like.  Nice, I thought.  This guy has read N.T. Wright too.  Later, the sermon was on anger.  For this week, the sermon was on divine anger.  Apparently the previous week he had spoken about human anger.  In reviewing that, he said the biblical texts do not proscribe anger.  But there are lots of warnings and cautions about human anger.  When we get angry, the emotion can incline us to do something that is proscribed.  We are just not very good at handling anger.  So far, so good.

In the sermon, he addressed several biblical texts that refer to God being angry, and the pastor wanted to identify several things that get God angry.  At one point he quoted Matthew 5.22: “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”  He proceeded to tell the congregation why they should read only the King James Version because other versions leave out “without a cause.”  For instance, the New International Version: “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment,” with a footnote between “sister” and “will” saying that the Greek text has just adelphos (“brother”) but not adelphia (“sister”), but that nonetheless the text means it to refer to all people, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, orphans, anyone.  In the same place is a footnote reporting that some Greek manuscripts add “without a cause.”  He stated that the King James Version is the only correct Bible, that the New International Version suggests that anyone who is angry, with or without a cause, is subject to judgment, and that is just plain wrong.  It is only if you are angry without a cause that you are subject to judgment.  Fine and good; but do you need to believe that the King James Version is the only correct bible to believe that?  Furthermore, think of the consequences of believing that the King James Version is the only correct bible.  If you lived before 1611 it was tough luck for you.  If you read and speak only Japanese, or Spanish, or anything but English, tough luck.  If you understand contemporary English, but not Elizabethan English, tough luck.  If you were Jesus, or Peter, or Paul, and spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and Greek, well, whatever bible you were reading just wasn’t up to snuff.

It gets better or, rather, worse.  He identified the Matthew biblical text in his discussion of God’s anger because he then wanted to go on to show that all the instances in the bible of divine anger (he said something like 90% of the references to “anger” in the bible refer to divine anger) were with cause, were justified.  While talking about the things that make God angry, God’s justly caused anger, he at various times in his sermon discredited nearly every church within two miles of that church.  For instance, in speaking about God’s anger over human excessive pride, he referred to a sign in front of a church down the road (those in themselves are often embarrassing, the goofy things they say).  It said “You are awesome.”  I remembered seeing it as we were driving to the church, in front of a Nazarene church.  When I saw the sign, I took the reference to be God.  But the pastor, in the sermon, took it to be referring to people.  Did he give them a telephone call and ask?  I doubt it.  He said “you are not awesome; you are sinners, full of wickedness.  Whatever goodness you have is fully and only imputed by God.  Churches that teach the nonsense that you are good, that you are awesome are so wrong they have to be avoided.  You come to our church to find the truth about what you are.”  In the sermon, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics were all singled out for leading people astray.  Apparently one thing that does not make God angry is when Christians denigrate other Christian groups and believe theirs has the corner on the truth (or if they are a Four Square Gospel church, they probably have all the corners on the truth).

For a final example, I am in a reading group of guys that meet Friday mornings at a restaurant.  The book we are reading is kind of boring, kind of repetitive.  It is #2 on the Christian best-seller's list; not sure why.  The guy's main thesis or thought is that if you are not fully committed all-out on-fire for Jesus in every area and aspect of your life, you are not really a follower of Jesus, you're only a fan.  None of this "my heart, Christ's home" idea, where we might have Christ in the front door, over time we let him into various rooms, but sometimes or forever we keep him out of certain closets.  None of this, as Anne Lamott says, “God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay like this.”  None of this "just as I am, without one plea."  In fact in one chapter he talked about an unmarried couple living together who came to his church. During an altar call they came forward to accept Jesus, and were told upon making a commitment to Christ that the first thing they needed to do was to stop living together.  So they stopped going to that church.  I am never sure what the first thing a person needs to change when they come to Christ, but having a legal document in order to live together is likely not #1.  That kind of attitude comes through in the book.  Not much grace, not much patience for a christian walk or marathon.  No, it is a christian 100 yd dash from initial commitment to fully there.  If only it were so easy.

I know.  I’ve just been an embarrassment to you as I have just embarrassed myself.  I’ve denigrated other Christians.  I’ve talked as if I understand what is good, proper, and true, and used my perspective on the good, proper, and true to judge others.  Not just judge, but sentence and execute.  Yes, I am pretty firmly committed to being less dogmatic, less judgmental, more open and accommodating.  I want to exhibit a generous, not stingy, orthodoxy.  And I am pretty dogmatic and judgmental about that.