Archive for the ‘Letter’s to Skeptics’ Category

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The End of the Matter…Or the Beginning.

September 10, 2011

Chris– St. Augustine once wrote (somewhere) that death makes life tragic because if you have a good life you don’t want to die but you have to die. If you have a terrible life you don’t mind dying but, either way, your life is tragic.

Sally– Hmmm.

Chris– If you think about it, life is like getting into a car that you know is going to crash. You don’t know when, you don’t how, but there is a wreck coming. It doesn’t matter if you buckle up, eat vegetables, and do sit ups; the end result will be the same.

It’s a little disconcerting.

Sally– Why? The universe got along fine before I got here and it will get along fine after I’m gone. It doesn’t bother me.

Chris– Really?

Sally– Why should it?

Chris– Well, I think you’re contemplating death from a detached viewpoint. Consider the conscious self that is you being snuffed out or enveloped in overwhelming, unrelenting darkness, and you’ll begin to see why people fear death.

Nature is snuffing out our lights one person at a time until her own light sputters and dies. She began with a bang and will end with a whimper and we are her careless causalities along the way.

Nothing to do but shake your pitiful fist at the coming cold nothingness.

Sally– All of a sudden you sound like a consistent atheist. But why be so morbid? Death is a natural part of life.

Chris– Why doesn’t it feel natural? Why does it feel like an intrusion, an alien force, an enemy. We fight death because death is not a friend but a foe.

Do you ever wonder, ‘if we are solely a product of nature, why does nature (more specifically death) seem so horrible and unnatural to us’? Have you forgotten what it felt like when your Grandma passed away?

Sally– I do remember when my Grandma passed away. It was an open casket and I looked in. I regretted it immediately. The corpse in the coffin didn’t seem like my Grandma…it was almost like she wasn’t there anymore. Nothing about that experience felt natural like ‘this is how things are supposed to be’.

I guess I agree. Death feels like an enemy.

Chris– Then that is one reason why the resurrection matters. God takes on our enemy and defeats it in Christ. Death doesn’t have the final word.

St. Paul wrote, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1st Corinthians 15:55).

Some people believe that nothing happens after death because when you interrogate the dead silence is generally the response. In the resurrection of Jesus the silence is shattered; we have a word from beyond the grave that death is not the end. Life wins, Love wins, if love is received.

Nature in her fallen state is mortal and we shall out last her; she was robbed of the last word the instant Jesus left an empty tomb behind ushering in God’s first great act of new creation.

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St. Paul also writes, “If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1st Corinthians 15:17).

The Bible says the penalty for sin is death. Sin and death were alien invasions into God’s good creation.

God isn’t vindictive but sin separates us from the living God and the life that finds its source in Him, thereby, leading us to death. In this sense, sin is suicidal.

Now, the Bible says that Jesus never sinned yet Jesus dies. Why?

Here is the great wonder, the grand mystery, the glorious exchange; Jesus dies for our sins, in our place, taking upon himself the death we deserved. The barrier of sin that separates us from God is removed, the demands of Justice are satisfied, and the love of God is demonstrated at the cross of Christ.

Our sin puts us in debt to a holy God. If authentic reconciliation is to occur between Creator and rebellious creatures that debt has to be paid. God pays it himself at the cross.

Sally– I’ve heard all of that before.

Chris– Right, but know you have a reason to believe it. If Jesus died and that was the end of it he should be honored, or despised, as a martyr. But there is no reason to believe his death somehow affected humanities relationship to God.

No one believes that about Socrates.

But if God raised Jesus from the dead there is a very good reason to believe that his death atoned for our sins and through faith in him we can be forgiven and reconciled to our creator.

The resurrection would be God’s stamp of approval on the life and ministry of Jesus. I think it is safe to assume that God wouldn’t raise from the dead a man who told lies about His character, purposes and plans.

Sally– Interesting.

Chris– As long as it remains simply interesting the death and resurrection of Jesus is personally irrelevant to you.

Sally– But I’m not sure I want to become a Christian. Doesn’t being a Christian imply that other religions are erroneous and off base on some level?

Chris– Yes. If Jesus conquered the grave than religions that teach he didn’t are wrong. If Jesus rose his teaching is not human projection but divine self-disclosure. Any religious system we create, therefore, has to be shaped around this cataclysmic historical event. Christianity is the only one that is.

Sally– How exclusive and elitist!

Chris– Truth by definition is exclusive. If it is true that Jesus is the incarnation and revelation of God than it can’t also be true that Jesus isn’t the incarnation and revelation of the one true God. It follows necessarily that, ‘If Christianity is true Islam is false. If Judaism is true Christianity is false’.

Sally– But that is both ignorant and arrogant. Ignorant because how can you know which religion is right and arrogant because you claim you’re right without sufficient warrant to do so.

Chris– Let me ask you a question, ‘If Jesus rose from the dead wouldn’t that give him unparalleled authority to speak on matters like ‘life after death, who is God, what God desires, and the path of salvation’? Again, assuming that God wouldn’t resurrect a false teacher who was leading people astray.

Jesus would have authority not shared by Buddha, Krishna, Moses or Mohammed. No disrespect intended but all of those men died and stayed dead (none, other than Moses, claimed miracles). If Jesus rose he is in a category set apart and has authority to speak on God’s behalf in a way that none of these other religious leaders do.

Sally– Yes, okay, the resurrection would set Jesus apart. I see your point. But I’m still not sure…

Chris– That’s okay. Jesus rose. Not only is death defeated and sin atoned for; God has revealed himself in history through the person and work of Christ, and he will reveal himself to you if you seek Him with all of our heart.

Sally– I’m not ready.

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“The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity, I think, from the evidence offered for the occurrence of most other supposedly miraculous events” –

This statement was made by one of the premier atheistic philosophers of the 20th century, Antony Flew.

When he made the above statement he had converted, based on philosophical and scientific arguments, to a belief in God. He did not believe in the resurrection when he made the comment quoted above.

He believes in it now. Flew passed away several years ago.

?

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The Conversation Continues…Is Jesus alive?

September 3, 2011

Sally– You know every time I raise I rival theory you shoot it through with bullet holes. You ask a lot of questions that I can’t answer. But maybe the truth is, ‘we just don’t know’. We are peering through the mist of history and our gaze is forever obscured by the passage of time. Plus, history is written by the winners; in other words, history is biased.

Maybe, we can’t know what really happened to Jesus or the 1st Christians. Have you ever thought about that?

Chris– Wow, you went poetic on me for a second. Not all history is written by the winners, just like not all ‘truth’ is what your colleagues let you get away with.

I’m not sure I agree unless you mean ‘we can’t know anything historically with absolute certainty’. In fact, I’m not sure we can know anything with absolute certainty. None of us are God. The closest rival is Chuck Norris.

Here is a question, ‘how do you even know you are were born into your family?

Sally– Are you mocking me?

Chris– No seriously, how do you know you were born into your family?

Sally– Ummm, my parents told me all about the birth. I have a birth certificate and I’ve seen pictures. I also accidently came across the birth video, which, incidentally, scarred me for life.

Chris – So your parents have never lied before? How do you know they weren’t lying when they told the story of your birth? Documents can be forged, pictures can be faked, and videos can be tampered with.

Sally- This is ridiculous. Based on the evidence I do have I’m more than confident that I was born into my family.

Chris- I agree. Based on the evidence of your parents testimony, the pictures and the documents you are more than reasonable to conclude you were born into your family, which means we can know some things about the past.

Sally- Well, of course we can. But events 25 years ago and events 2000 thousand years ago are not the same thing. Plus, everyone is born, everyone isn’t rising from the dead. If you had a video tape of Jesus rising I would believe.

Well, actually maybe I wouldn’t. Video tapes can be tampered with.

Chris– I know, I know I just wanted to see how radical your skepticism runs. Can we know anything about ancient history in your view?

Sally- Yes, I think we can. But when it comes to historiography we are talking about different levels of certainty from unlikely, to probably, to almost certain that this is what took place.

Chris- I’ll accept that. So what can we know historically that almost certainly took place in your view?

Sally– Quite a lot. For example, we know that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC. We know with a high degree of certainty that the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD. We know that Islam spread through military conquests. We know a movement called Christianity began in the 1st century within the folds of Judaism. We know the first Christians claimed that God raised Jesus from the dead. We don’t, however, know that God raised Jesus from the dead in my view.

Chris– Well, when it comes to historical investigation into events that took place in the distant past we need to look at our sources, assess their reliability, and seek to create a hypothesis that explains the events being described. There may be multiple explanations for any given event so we have to assess the relative strengths of each theory.

Historians assess competing hypothesis according to criteria like explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, illumination, degree of ad hocness etc, etc.

Sally– I’ve heard that. Does Ad Hoc mean relying on too many unsupported assumptions to justify your theory? So the more you do that the more Ad Hoc the theory is and the less compelling it becomes.

Chris– Basically.

Sally– Okay fine. How does this address the issue of the resurrection?

Chris– In our first conversation we looked at the earliest written testimony we posses about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, which included appearances to his disciples, five hundred people at once, a skeptic (James) and an enemy (Paul). This eye witness testimony is found in 1st Corinthians 15 in a creedal form that dates from within a couple of years after the crucifixion of Christ.

This is eye witness testimony from an early date. We also find some relevant information in the book of Acts and the Gospels but all we really need is 1st Corinthians 15 for our purposes.

Sally– Right, I’ll admit since we first talked I did some research about 1st Corinthians 15. Scholars do take it very seriously as reliable testimony.

Chris– Well, based on our written sources here are the relevant facts that are agreed to by the majority of scholars in the field of New Testament Studies, including atheists, Jews and Agnostics.

Sally– Wait a minute. The majority of scholars…What rubbish! I’ve heard the majority of scholars claimed by both sides for radically opposed perspectives. You can’t bully me with your claimed scholarly consensus. If brave individuals didn’t challenge learned majority opinion we would make no progress in knowledge. Consensus! Nothing but stock refuge for the intellectually timid.

Chris– Are you done?

Sally– Yes.

Chris– Look, I’m not trying to bully you. I’m not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. A lot of scholars don’t believe that Jesus rose but the majority of scholars including Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ermhan, Gerd Ludemann and E.P Sanders, will grant the facts that I will list. None of them are Christians in any traditional sense (two are atheists) but if you know the field you know they’re major players to be reckoned with.

But keep this in mind, in arguing for the bodily resurrection of Jesus I’m assuming a minority position amongst main stream scholars. For some reason liberal (in theological studies) has come to mean close minded to the miraculous.

Sally– Well, to be honest I don’t read thoroughly in the field of New Testament Studies and I ‘m not sure if I trust your comments on consensus but I’ll hear the ‘facts’.

By the way, does it bother you that most people get there ‘facts’ about Jesus from books authored by biologists and vanity fair writers?

Chris– Would it bother you if Evangelical Christians got most of their facts about biology from a lawyer, an engineer and a cosmologist?

Sally– Um, yah.

Chris– Anyways, here is the relevant data about Jesus. 1. Jesus died. 2. His tomb was found empty. 3. The Disciples claimed to have seen Jesus risen from the dead. 4. Paul was converted to Christianity. 5. James, the brother of Jesus, was also converted to Christianity. You can get all of that from 1st Corinthians 15.

Sally– Oh, okay well yah, I would probably grant those facts myself.

Chris– The only above claim that is a little controversial is the empty tomb but it is implied by the statement ‘he was buried’. All the other data, however, is basically certain as far as historical knowledge goes.

Only the most radical historical skepticism would deny it and that type of skepticism shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Sally– Why?

Chris– Because it is consistently inconsistent (eg. the proponents are rarely skeptical about their skepticism. They espouse doubt with a certitude that would be tragically funny, if they weren’t so serious).

Sally– Ha.

Chris– I thought you’d like that. Now, you can add to the above facts: 6. The Resurrection was the center of preaching in the early church. 7. The first Christians radically redefined the Jewish notion of Messiah. No one denies that. 8. The message of the Resurrection was proclaimed in Jerusalem, were Jesus was crucified and buried a short while beforehand. Again, basically uncontested. 9. The Disciples lives were transformed from fearful doubters to bold testifiers of the resurrection who were not afraid to suffer for their beliefs. Uncontroversial.

The more you know about the 1st century the more you would be willing to grant the above statements.

So what is the best explanation for all of this data? We’ve seen that the hallucination hypothesis fails and so does the conspiracy theory. What is the one cause big enough to explain all of these affects?

Gosh, think solely of James’ conversion. What would it take for you to worship your brother? I know your brother lovingly terrorized you growing up. How many times did he ‘accidently’ hit you in the head with a tennis ball, snow ball, basketball etc, etc?

My dad fashioned a spear into wood and impaled his brother with it when they were younger (He claims it was an accident). I just went to a family reunion and my uncle was not singing worship chorus’ directed towards my deified dad.

Sally– It would take a miracle for me to worship my brother and die for that belief.

Chris– Exactly.

Sally– Thankfully miracles don’t happen. Well, honestly I’m not sure. But there has to be some smart person with a degree who could explain the above evidence without resorting to a miracle?

Chris– Sure. If you don’t believe in God a miraculous explanation is not open to you. So an intelligent atheist will use their God given brain to come up with some type of theory to explain the above data.

But the question is ‘what is the best explanation’? We are doing what philosophers call , ‘an inference to the best explanation’. We’ve seen that explanations like visions, hallucinations, and conspiracies fail to fully explain.

I mean think of the Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the five hundred, many of whom were still alive when Paul wrote 1st Corinthians 15. Paul tells the Corinthians this so that the skeptical can check it out if they really want to.

If you lied to your parents about living on campus at UBC would you invite them to visit, especially if they were already suspicious you were being dishonest and would take you up on the offer?

Sally– No, obviously not.

Chris– So if Paul is making up the appearance to the five hundred why an open invitation to check it out?

Sally– Well, I don’t know but…

Chris– If God exists the miraculous is possible, right? If you admit God, you admit the possibility of the miraculous; you have no safeguard against it. If you asked the first eye witnesses how to explain all of the above data what answer would they give?

Sally– Jesus rose.

Chris– So maybe he did. The resurrection explains all of the above facts far better than any other theory. It’s the only explanation that really works. Open the door of your worldview a crack to make room for a God who actually acts in history. Bust free from your anti-miraculous dogma that holds your wonder shackled to a flat, static view of reality.

Sally– I, I’m not comfortable with that.

Chris– We’re not after comfort but truth.

Sally– Look, here is the problem. Imagine I was a judge presiding over a class action suit where a bunch of people were suing a hospital for malpractice. A couple of patients died tragically in the same month on the operating table. It looks like mistakes may have been made by the attending surgeons resulting in the fatalities. The grieved families are suing the Hospital for millions.

Chris– Where is this going? Is this a diversion?

Sally– No. Wait for it. Let’s say I’m also on the board of Trustee’s for the Hospital.

Chris- Would that happen?

Sally- I doesn’t matter because here is the point. I wouldn’t be able to judge that case because I have a vested interest in the Hospital. I would be biased. I couldn’t approach the evidence from a position of neutrality.

Chris– Okay. I’m not sure the analogy is perfect but..

Sally– Let me finish. It’s the same with the issue of Jesus rising from the dead. It’s not like studying whether or not Nero lit Rome on fire and fiddled while it burned. If Jesus rose, I have to take him seriously. I might be compelled to change my life. That is problematic for me. I like my life as it is.

I don’t feel a God shaped void in my heart.

I don’t want a God who meddles. Look, i’m not opposed to his (or her) existence I just want ‘it’ to leave me alone. I don’t want a God who sends prophets or messiahs or whatever…

Chris– Wow. That is honest and insightful. You’ve hit on the problem with any kind of Jesus research. You can’t approach the New Testament documents from a neutral position…

Sally– Right.

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The Hallucination Hypothesis…

August 24, 2011

Setting: The Intro of an Easter Sermon

Chris the Christian- Good morning everyone! Happy Easter! Nice to see you. If you have your Bibles, or Ipods, please turn to 1st Corinthians 15.

In 1st Corinthians chapter 15 the Apostle Paul communicates to the Corinthian church a tradition that he himself received.

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1st Corinthians 15:3-7).

Here we know Paul is passing on a received tradition because he introduces it with a technical rabbinic phrase ‘what I received I passed on to you’. We also know Paul did not originate this material himself because of the grammatical structure and phrasing of these particular verses.

Where did Paul get this information? Paul gives us the most plausible answer in the book of Galatians,

“After three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18).

The Greek word translated as ‘visit’ conveys the idea of a formal inquiry. As one scholar quipped, ‘they certainly weren’t discussing the weather’. Paul almost certainly picked up the above information about the appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem while visiting Peter (Cephas) and James (both were eye witnesses to Jesus’ ministry). This meeting took place three years after Paul’s conversion to Christianity around 35 AD.

It is extremely likely that the information Paul passes on to the Corinthians dates even earlier than 35 AD to within several years, or months, of Jesus’ crucifixion. So in 1st Corinthians 15 we have Paul passing on early, authentic eye witness material to the church in Corinth.

Paul is advocating that the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples, his brother James, 500 people at one time, and Paul himself. The entirety of Christianity rests on the truthfulness of this claim (1st Corinthians 15:14-18).

So did Jesus rise from the dead? Or did the disciples have a collective hallucination?

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The sermon drones on, and on and on….The preacher begins to sound like the teacher from Peanuts. After the third finally the preacher finally finishes. Afterwards Sally the Skeptic approaches Chris the Christian.

Sally- Can I speak with you about the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus? I have a lot of questions.

Chris- Sure, I would love to have a conversation about Christ.

Sally- Great. I thought you raised an interesting question in your message. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Is that true? Not is it nice, is it metaphorical, but is it actually true? Did it happen?

I always wonder about Christians. I have friends who are believers and they seem like imminently reasonable people. Than they walk into church and check their brain at the door. Next thing you know, you have to remind them that when people die they stay dead. How can you say Jesus rose from the dead?

Why not just ascribe to a collective hallucination? That explanation is far more reasonable.

Chris- That’s a good question. I always think it is humorous when the skeptic asks the Christian ‘hey, don’t you know that dead people don’t come back to life’? We know. That’s why it was a big deal when Jesus did.

Sally- But people don’t naturally rise from the dead. Science has proved that.

Chris- We needed science to prove that dead people stay dead? We didn’t already know that people naturally stay dead when they die? If the resurrection happened I’m pretty sure it was a supernatural act of God.

Sally- But what is wrong with believing the disciples simple had a hallucination of Jesus after he died. Perhaps, the Jesus apparitions were the result of grief, fear, stress, or whatever else is conducive to those types of experiences.

Chris- Well, let me give some background. Philosopher Gary Habermas has read nearly everything written about the resurrection over the last 30 years in a multitude of languages (English, French and German I believe). This includes over 3000 books on the resurrection written by Atheists, Agnostics and Christians. Based on this extensive research he has documented that virtually all scholars believe that the disciples saw, or experienced something that they thought were appearances of the risen Christ.

According to Habermas if the scholar denies a bodily resurrection as an explanation for the appearances of Jesus they usually take refuge in some sort of hallucination hypothesis. It is important, therefore, to assess whether or not a hallucination theory is a viable alternative to the Christian belief that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Sally- Ha. Well I agree with those scholars who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I doubt there is enough evidence in the world to overturn my disbelief in Jesus being raised on the third day.

Chris- Well, we’ll get into the evidence but first lets talk about some significant problems with the Hallucination Hypothesis.

Sally- Fire away.

Chris- Okay. (1) It doesn’t explain why the tomb of Jesus was empty. A tomb with the decaying remains of Jesus would quickly quench any enthusiasm that resulted from a hallucination or a visionary experience.

(2) It doesn’t explain why the disciples used the word ‘resurrection’ to describe what happened to Jesus. In 1st century Judaism resurrection meant a transformed physical body. The first believers had other language at their disposal to explain visions, ghosts, or religious trances. If they had a vision (which the skeptic would call a hallucination) than why didn’t they use visionary language (See Acts 10:9-18, 12:12-18). Why did the disciples say that God had raised Jesus from the dead? Why not say they had a vision of Jesus ascending to God or something like that?

(3) It doesn’t explain the conversion of James, who was a skeptic, and Paul who was an enemy of Christianity. They were not predisposed to have visionary experiences, or hallucinations of Jesus.

(4) Jesus appeared to groups of people. Group hallucinations do not occur. Hallucinations are private events. The research on these events clearly bears this out. For example, Navy Seals during hell week are prone to experience hallucinations due to lack of food and sleep. One Soldier reported that an Octopus waved at him; another grabbed an oar and swung it dangerously overhead to hit the jumping porpoises. Lastly, one soldier jumped into the water because he was certain a train was coming straight for him.

What is significant about these hallucinations is that they were private events accessible only to the individual having the hallucination. No other navy Seal saw the waving Octopus.

Can you climb inside my dream and share it with me?

Sally- No. I guess not.

Chris- Well, you can’t do that with hallucinations either.

Sally- Right, well are you done?

Chris- No I have three more points to make. (5) The appearances of Jesus happened at different times amongst different people with different psychological makeups (this is another reason why group hallucinations do not occur).

(6) The disciples preached the resurrection in Jerusalem, which was a short, simple walk away from the tomb of Jesus. The enemies of Christianity could have produced the body and the movement would have been over regardless of how powerful the hallucinations were. The whereabouts of Jesus’ tomb was common knowledge because it belonged to a prominent man, Joseph of Arimathea.

(7) Hallucinations do not often (at all?) radically transform people’s lives in a positive manner. In the above example of the Navy Seals none of the soldiers hallucinations drastically changed their lives. In fact they came to disbelieve their experience based on two factors a) Those things don’t happen. b) Their fellow soldiers didn’t see the hallucinations.

Why weren’t the disciples talked out of their hallucinations for the same reasons?

Sally- I’m not sure.

Chris- Also, think about this: The resurrection appearances of Jesus radically transformed the disciples lives and they were willing to die for their belief that God raised Jesus physically from the dead.

Sally- wait a minute. I’ve heard there is no good evidence to suggest the disciples died for their faith.

Chris- Untrue. There is multiple, early historical sources indicating that James (the disciple), James (Jesus’ brother), Peter (the leader of the disciples), and the Apostle Paul all died for their faith. We not only have the New Testament but the writings of Josephus and the writings of Clement of Alexandria. Josephus talks about the death of James (the Lord’s brother) and Clement talks about the martyrdom of Peter and Paul (I’ll send you the quotes via email).

Sally- Okay.

Chris- More reasons could be offered as to why the hallucination theory doesn’t adequately explain the appearances of Jesus and the birth of Christianity but the above (when taken together) is sufficient to sink the Hallucination Hypothesis.

It would take a miracle to resurrect it.

Sally- I thought you invited me to dialogue about the ‘resurrection’. That was a monologue. Look, if this is what our ‘conversation’ is going to look like, I’ll bow out now. I can get talked at in school and at home. I’d prefer to do something else with my free time.

Chris- You’re right I’m sorry. Meet with me tomorrow and I promise that I won’t bull doze you with my over zealous pontificating.

Sally- Okay, fine. But no monologue! Or it will take a miracle to resurrect this conversation.

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God the Gardner

August 8, 2011

I’ve never gardened in my life until this past week. My wife and I inherited a small back yard with a planter’s box overflowing with weeds from the previous owners. It was a gardener’s worst nightmare.

But with the help of family, we rolled up our sleeves and tackled the chaotic mass of weeds, plants, and floundering flowers. It wasn’t an easy job, but it was worth it. The end result was a beautiful garden.

Theological Reflections:

God is a gardner in Scripture. Think of the Genesis Creation account. Day 1 and 3 correspond to the creative activity that takes place in days 4 to 6. God creates a space and than He fills that space with His handy work. God is bringing order out of chaos.

Isn’t that what a gardner does?

Our lives are often a jumbled assortment of intertwined fears, worries and anxieties (not to mention pride, bitterness and resentment.) These ‘weeds’ choke out the abundant life that Jesus wants us to experience and cause our lives to be unfruitful. God plants good things in us through his Word but when these good things try to grow and bear fruit, these unruly ‘weeds’ choke the life out of them.

Often, we are aware of these ‘weeds’ (and if we’re not, our friends or spouses remind us of what they are) and we try to deal with them by mowing them over only to have them grow back a few short days later.

Thankfully, God is a good Gardener who wants to pull the weeds out by the roots. God’s not after behavioral modification, He is into internal transformation. God goes after the root of the problem, our rebellious, selfish hearts; the inward curvature of the sinful will, which feeds incessantly on self, needs to be resurrected and reoriented towards our Creator God. This is the redeeming work of Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

God’s fashioning a space within every believer that he wants to fill with his glorious presence. The Spirit of God is hovering over our lives right now wanting to bring order out of chaos, beauty out of brokenness, and harmony out of the discordant, discombobulated jumble of emotions and sinful behaviors that sometimes seem to dominate our lives.

What are the ‘weeds’ that are choking our joy, peace and abundant life in Christ?

Maybe these ‘weeds’ are masquerading as inner commitments that we’ve made unknowingly with the enemy of our souls. The Holy Spirit can reveal what these inner commitments, or inner vows, are:

I will never be loved.

I can’t be forgiven for this.

I’m a failure.

I’m worthless.

I will never succeed.

There is no point to my life.

All the above are common agreements, or inner vows, we make unwittingly with the enemy of our souls that bear bad fruit in our lives and need to be renounced.

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I realized long ago that there is a lot of need in the world; an overwhelming amount. Darfur, Haiti, Somalia, the environment, the girl in youth group who is cutting herself (the list goes on and on). I started erecting barriers around my heart to protect it from all the need because I didn’t want to feel all the hurt in the world. I made an inner vow that I would only care up to a certain point.

I was protecting my heart from hurt, which means I was protecting my heart from love, which means I was protecting my heart from God. I need God to knock down the walls, or uproot the ‘weed’s that keep me from feeling things deeply.

I need God to heal my heart by breaking it for the things that make His heart break.

I need God to do some gardening in my soul. Invite God the Gardner to begin His pruning work. Freedom Session is a good place to encounter God the Gardener.

He’s been working on me.

John 15:1-7

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Pain and Parenting

August 4, 2011

Twice in his young career as a human being my son, Kaeden, has dipped his fingers into his Daddy’s piping hot Coffee. On both occasions, pain filled cries erupted from his mouth. I would like to think that he’s learned a valuable lesson about the World of Coffee, but I doubt it because if he had the chance, he would do it again.

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A few days ago, Kaeden was standing in his crib with two hands placed firmly on the railing to keep his balance. First, he removed one hand with a triumphant smile. He was still vertical. Emboldened by his initial success he removed the second hand.

For a wild moment, victory was at hand. He had done it. Days of toil and struggle had finally paid dividends. He stood on his own two feet without anything holding him up.

It lasted two seconds.

Then he did a face plant into the railing of the crib. Once again, he experienced this thing called pain. Eventually, he will learn to fear it.

Is pain a gift?

I once saw a book entitled, ‘The Gift of Pain’. The book looked like a pain to read so I didn’t bother and now I’m suffering without the answer.

If pain is a gift, it’s one that I’m disinclined to unwrap. Pain is often treated as a foe but seldom welcomed as a friend. I understand why; the annoying thing about pain is that it hurts.

In a North American culture enamored with comfort, to suggest pain is anything other than an enemy is an open invitation for ridicule. If pain is a gift, why do we medicate it? Why do I (the author of this blog) have a medicine cabinet filled with Tylenol and Advil? Why do I pop pills like pez from a pez dispenser whenever I’ve got a headache? Why do people drink away emotional distress?

More seriously, how is the pain experienced by a person dying of a terminal illness a gift?

C.S Lewis once famously wrote in his book, ‘The Problem of Pain’, that “God whispers in our pleasures but he shouts in our pain. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world”.

Okay. Fine. But once God’s woken us up can’t the pain subside? Sometimes it intensifies long after God has already gotten our attention.

What would you say to a friend who continued to dump buckets of water on you long after you had awoken with a start from your slumber? Would you respond with some form of hostility? I doubt you would be very happy with the first bucket, even if you were in danger of sleeping through an exam, or an important appointment.

‘Dude, wasn’t there another way to get my attention, or wake me up? After all, you’re a pretty resourceful guy.’

(You might think the above analogy is a caricature of Lewis’ thought expressed in the quotation. You’d be right).

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If I wanted to argue that pain is a gift, here are some things that I would say:

(1) Pain is a warning sign that something is wrong with us. Many people have been spared a heart attack because of the warning signs of chest pain. Lepers are often hideously disfigured because the disease doesn’t allow them to feel pain. As a result, a leper patient can burn themselves without realizing it, walk on a broken foot without noticing, or have a serious infection without seeking treatment, leading to horrendous disfiguration.

(2) Pain can push us to discover the inestimable worth of Christ. Pain strips away all earthly comfort. Pain causes us to long for God’s Kingdom to be fully present and suffering and sorrow to be done away with. Pain reminds us that the world, in its present state, isn’t our forever home and we need not get too comfortable here.

(3) Nerve endings are a gift. Without pain, pleasure would be impossible. As a result, the same sun that warms my face can burn my skin.

(4) We live in a physical world where pain seems like an unavoidable necessity. If I can hug, I can hurt.

(5) Much of our pain is the result of free will. Many diseases we suffer are the result of poor health choices that we’ve made. Much of our emotional pain is the result of someone sinning against us. Free will is a good thing but buried within the gift is the potential of evil. Without free will; however, love and virtue would be impossible. I can’t imagine living in a loveless world and love requires a uncoerced choice and, unfortunately, so does evil.

(6) Pain can mold our character in a positive way. Affliction is a harsh school master but its lessons are often ingrained deeply into our character. It can deepen us and teach us compassion, empathy and humility in ways that pleasure cannot, if we’re willing to bow our hearts under its rod. Have you ever met a child who was given everything and shielded from all hardship? Do you want that baby sitting job? I rest my case.

(The above points have been made in more detail by many different authors (See Norman Geisler ‘If God, why Evil’?, C.S Lewis ‘The Problem of Pain’, or Phillip Yancey, ‘The Gift of Pain’).

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There is also the issue of animal pain to deal with. Author Michael Murrey in his book, ‘Nature Red in Tooth and Claw’, distinguishes between 3 different levels of pain:

(1) The first level is ‘Information bearing neural states produced by noxious stimuli resulting in aversive behavior’. This level of pain is experienced by insects like Spiders, or Praying Mantis’. Basically it means that insects don’t have a subjective (or conscious) experience of pain they are simply reacting instinctively to their environment (at this point you may think I’ve tricked you into reading this blog with cute pictures of my son. You may feel how he looks… sorry).

(2) The second level of pain is ‘a first order, subjective experience of pain. This is pain that higher animals, like dogs, bears, or Liger’s experience.

(3) The third level of pain is ‘a second order awareness that one is oneself experiencing pain’. This type of subjective awareness is connected to the pre-frontal cortex in the brain. The pre-frontal cortex is not shared by an other animal (other than ‘humanoid primates’).

Therefore, a conscious awareness of pain in the uniquely human sense of ‘I am the one enduring this gut rending sensation’ is only experienced by human beings. Lucky us. That pre-frontal cortex in the brain is a real pain. But it does make you feel better if you’ve ever witnessed a pet suffer because their experience is of a different quality than ours.

To attribute to an animal, or an inanimate object, the same experience of pain that a person suffers is to commit the logical fallacy of Anthropopathism which is ‘ascribing human feelings to non-human entities’.

Our family has shed tears over the death of animals. Kaeden may one day cry for a pet that has gone to be with Jesus. It’s nice to know that animals don’t experience agony in the same way that we do because they lack the pre-frontal cortex in their brain.

But let’s be honest, we are most concerned with our own hurt and the hurt of those we love.

It grieved my heart as a Dad, to watch my son shed tears because he burnt his hand in my coffee, especially considering that I created the context in which he experienced pain. If I hadn’t been holding him, he wouldn’t have gotten burnt. Curiously, he also wouldn’t have experienced the closeness with his Daddy that he wanted.

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Back to C.S Lewis. In a book published years after ‘The Problem of Pain’ called ‘Grief Observed’, written after the heartbreaking death of his wife, Lewis wrote,

“What do people mean when they say, “I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist”?

A good dentist might hurt to heal and a good God might do the same. Here’s the bottom line:

God allows us to experience pain. Either there is a purpose for the pain or there isn’t. If there isn’t a purpose for the pain, I don’t see how God can be good. Since we have independent reasons, in spite of pain, to believe that God is good (namely the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the witness of the Holy Spirit in our lives) I choose to believe that pain has a purpose in the hands of a sovereign benevolent God.

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Because of the 6 reasons listed above I think, with proper perspective, pain can be a gift but beyond a certain point it is hard to receive it as such. Perhaps it would be better to say, ‘pain in itself is not a gift but the conditions that allow us to experience pain are.’ Or ‘Pain is not good in and of itself but it can produce good in our lives’.

It seems, however, some suffering is the unfortunate result of living in a fallen world and to call it a gift would do a great disservice to the person bowed under it’s agonizing, oppressive load. With certain chronic pain, or terminal pain, there comes a level of intensity or longevity that causes pain to transition from a potential blessing to a distressing burden. I believe fervently that God can use even this type of pain for good but it’s sometimes difficult to see how in the moment.

In those times our great comfort is that the glories of heaven will far outweigh our trials on earth. The Apostle Paul suffered from chronic pain and he wrote,

“Our troubles are small. They only last for a short time. But they are earning for us a glory that will last forever. It is greater than all our troubles” (2nd Corinthians 4:17 NIRV).

If we’re tempted to think Paul doesn’t understand pain, read 2nd Corinthians 11 and 12 and we’ll be quickly robbed of that illusion. Paul chose to place his earthly suffering on a scale with the eternal glory waiting for him and found that God’s promise outweighs the pain.

I pray Kaeden grows to believe this. But when all my philosophizing and theologizing ceases, all my boy knows is that it hurts to burn his fingers in Coffee.

My son isn’t old enough to understand.

I’m not sure that his Daddy is either.

But I trust my God who died for me.

I pray Kaeden still trusts me, even though I allowed him to burn his fingers, because I really love him and would die for him if it came to that.

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Morality, tolerance and Postmodernity

July 4, 2011

I’m doing my Masters at Trinity Western University (Acts Seminaries). One of my professors is Christian Apologist and author Dr. Paul Chamberlain. Below is a review I did of one of his chapters from the book, “Talking about Good and Bad without getting Ugly”.

The issues discussed in this paper are extremely relevant in our culture.

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Allan Bloom wrote a book called, ‘The Closing of the American Mind’. In the book he presents this scenario to his students:

In the 19th century when the British colonized India they outlawed the practice of Sati. Sati refers to the custom of burning widows on the funeral pyre of their husbands. Were the British right to outlaw this practice?

The students found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. If they agreed that the British were correct in outlawing the practice of widow burning they would be inadvertently affirming a moral standard that overarches all cultures and peoples. They would be advocating the right of British colonialists to impose their morality on the Indian populace.

However, if the students contended that the British were wrong in outlawing Sati it would offend their deepest sensibilities about the dignity and value of women.

The students were, in a sense, trapped by their own relativistic morality. With the above example Bloom was forcing them to confront the inconsistencies inherent in their moral understanding. They didn’t want to force their morality on other people but at the same time they really did feel like certain acts are morally repugnant and should be forbidden.

This brief case study leads to a plethora of philosophical and ethical questions, ‘is morality objective’? Or, ‘is morality relative to the individual as in the modern perspective, or is it created in community, as in the Post Modern perspective? Is it always wrong to impose your morality on another person? Is morality constructed or discovered? Are good and evil meaningful categories anymore?

Dr. Paul Chamberlain begins to tackle some of these issues head on in his chapter ‘Redrawing the Map’. In ‘Redrawing the Map’ Dr. Chamberlain introduces us to two fictional characters, ‘Isaac’ and ‘Michael.’ Isaac and Michael are university students who engage in a dialogue about morality. They represent incompatible viewpoints. Michael presents a Post Modern understanding of morality while Isaac embodies a more modern, or perhaps traditional, approach to moral questions.

The chapter begins with a reference to September 11th, when Terrorists hijacked airliners and flew them into the World Trade center and the Pentagon, killing thousands of civilians. This atrocious act of terror shocked the world and led to many heated discussions about religious extremism, as well as good and evil.

The attacks on the World Trade center act as a launching point for Isaac and Michael’s discussion on Morality. As stated above Michael represents the Post Modern perspective. He contends that the ideas of good and evil are simply cultural conventions that change from society to society (pg. 18). From our western perspective September 11th was a great evil but from the prospective of some Islamic extremists the attacks on September 11th were the will of God. September 11th is to be celebrated not condemned from their perspective. Who’s to say they’re wrong and North Americans are right?

According to Michael, this type of moral imposition of values on another culture or person represents enormous hubris and ‘moral imperialism’ (pg. 19). Moral Imperialism should be resisted in all its various manifestations even when discussing issues as emotionally charged as September 11th.

It is better to replace words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ with softer nomenclature that lacks the same type of imperialistic tendencies. For example, words like inappropriate and unacceptable would be more appropriate and acceptable when discussing morality. The acts of terrorists (or heroes depending on your perspective) should really be described without stark moral terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The most Michael can say about September 11th is that he personally finds it repulsive and reprehensible.

In the dialogue Michael recommends replacing problematic terms like good and evil with a less troublesome word: tolerance. He believes that we should promote tolerance and individual rights for all people. This involves trying to steer away from anything destructive to human flourishing like discriminating against other people, or elevating our morality to a God like status where we force other people to bow down at the alter of our own culturally conditioned values.

Isaac finds himself reeling from the new moral perspective that Michael is presenting. In his view, evil is evil and it’s as simple as calling ‘a spade a spade’. Good and evil are recognizable and can be labeled accurately from culture to culture. However, Isaac is ill equipped to respond to Michael’s Post Modern perspective and the strident Socio-cultural relativism he is aggressively advocating.

What do you think?

Part two is below…

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Part 2: Morality, tolerance and Postmodernity

July 4, 2011

This is the second part of the paper discussing the issues of morality and tolerance.


Inconsistencies in ‘Michael’s’ approach

At this point in the chapter, Dr. Chamberlain explicitly adds his voice to the fictional conversation. He points out that the moral landscape is changing dramatically. The culture’s verbiage has moved from words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to other more culturally acceptable terms like ‘tolerance, individual rights, minority rights, social consensus and discrimination’. Michael’s position reflects this cultural shift. The author then makes the point that these ‘buzz words’ shouldn’t fool the reader because “they signify no less denunciation than the old terms” (pg. 23). For example, Discrimination and intolerance are still treated as serious moral offenses in a Post Modern culture.

The author then proceeds to point out the inconsistencies that are inherent in Michael’s moral position. For example, in the second dialogue Michael condemns Isaac’s imposition of his moral values on their fellow students preceding a rambunctious party that took place the previous night (pg. 24,25). The author points out that Michael is being extremely hypocritical in his approach. In telling Isaac not to impose his moral views on people, Michael is himself imposing his moral views on Isaac. Michael’s position, therefore, is ultimately self-refuting. In saying, ‘you should never impose your view on another person’ the speaker is doing the very thing he forbids’.

Like many aspects of Post Modern thought Michael is guilty of self-referential incoherence. He is holding up a mirror to Isaac while refusing to look at his own reflection. He is accusing Isaac of moral imperialism while engaging in his own Post Modern version of it. With every word of condemnation, Michael forcefully utters, he is steadily cutting down the tree upholding the branch he is sitting on.

More problems…

Here is another curious aspect of Michael’s Post Modern position. He finds words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to be highly problematic and when challenged to replace these words he chooses the word ‘tolerance’ and the concept of individual rights.

This seems to imply that the word tolerance isn’t as problematic as words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’. But what does Michael mean by tolerance? The word used to mean ‘I don’t agree with a word you say but I will respect and defend your right to say’. Or, ‘I think that you’re wrong but I will treat you in a respectful manner’. The Christian ethic takes tolerance a step further; I won’t just tolerate you I will love you and actively seek your good .

From Michael’s application of the concept of tolerance he seems to mean, ‘You can’t say that anybody is wrong’. Or, ‘to claim that you’re right and I’m wrong is intolerant, naive and arrogant. Michael’s usage of the word reflects the Post Modern mood and its understanding of tolerance.

This new understanding of tolerance represents a highly muddled state of affairs that is difficult to tolerate. If nobody is right and nobody is wrong what is there to tolerate? The word tolerance becomes functionally meaningless if we’re not allowed to think or say that anyone is wrong. If ‘tolerance’ becomes synonymous for ‘agreement’ there is nothing left to tolerate. I don’t have to tolerate my wife’s love for the Canucks. We both agree that the Canucks are awesome when they win.

Amen.

Defining tolerance correctly isn’t the only problem. In addition, how can tolerance be consistently applied? In our culture we seem to be very intolerant of those who are intolerant all for the sake of tolerance. Certainly, we shouldn’t tolerate everything. We shouldn’t tolerate the sex trade or child abuse, should we? Clearly not! Also, discrimination (another buzz word) isn’t always a bad thing. We should discriminate against drunk drivers by penalizing them for getting behind the wheel. What morally sane person would disagree with that?

Upon reflection, it seems that tolerance and discrimination are linked (necessarily) to our morality and what we think is ‘good’ and what we think is ‘evil’. Why would we uphold tolerance and individual rights as a virtue? Because we think tolerance is good and intolerance is evil. We can erase the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ from our cultural discourse but we can’t escape their hold on our lives.

All of the above to say the word tolerance is no less problematic than terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil’, given Michael’s understanding of morality. Every question that Michael asks in his attempt to invalidate objective morality and the categories of good and evil can be asked about tolerance. Who decides what we should tolerate and what we shouldn’t tolerate? What one culture tolerates may be different than what another culture tolerates. There are some cultures that are intolerant towards tolerance. Should we tolerate them? Isn’t our western ideal of tolerance our own cultural imposition on the world? It would seem so.

Now, another question that should be posed to Michael is, ‘from within what World View do you affirm the importance of tolerance and the dignity of the individual’? Does he do so from within the folds of a Secular, Naturalistic worldview? If so, how does his idea about human rights and dignity flow logically from an evolutionary perspective that thrives on the strongest devouring the weakest? Is his view of human dignity consistent with the story of origins he has chosen to embrace? An evolutionary worldview can feed the fire of racism and it lacks the moral resources to consistently condemn one people group oppressing another in the struggle to survive; this world view can lend itself to the very attitudes and actions he wants to avoid.

Or does he affirm individual, human dignity from an Eastern perspective that puts little emphasis on the individual person because personality is an illusion? Michael should be forced to confront these questions and justify his own moral believes about tolerance and human rights.

In the chapter ‘Redrawing the map’, Dr. Chamberlain flushes out some of these flaws in ‘Michael’s’ Post Modern perspective on morality. Clearly Michael needs a more adequate means of addressing the pressing moral issues of our times. He needs a moral framework that he can live consistently within. Michael seems to want to embrace and advocate an objective moral standard that can be applied to all peoples, in all places, otherwise his comments about promoting tolerance and human dignity don’t carry the moral weight he wants them to.

However, at the same time he wants to retain a Post Modern perspective on morality that is relative to people and cultures. As a result, Michael finds himself in the same dilemma that confronted Allan Bloom’s students when considering the Indian practice ‘Mati’. Michael is unable to live consistently with his own understanding of morality .

A supra-cultural standard of morality

It seems that we need a supra-cultural standard of morality by which we can coherently affirm human dignity and values like tolerance. The Judeo-Christian narrative provides one. We are made in the image of a God who is infinitely valuable which in turn gives value to every human being who has ever lived. Genesis 1:27 provides us with an objective moral standard by which we can condemn racism, injustice, oppression, terrorist activity as well as converse meaningfully about moral progress.

Christianity would provide Michael with an objective moral framework from which he can aggressively and graciously advocate for human rights and tolerance (in the proper sense of the word), without lapsing into the inconsistency or self-referential incoherence that plagues the Post Modern perspective on morality.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Dr. Chamberlain’s chapter on ‘Redrawing the map’ shows us the beginnings of a way forward in addressing issues of morality in a Post Modern context. His dialogical approach embodies an apologetic to the mind and the imagination that strikes a powerful cord with our cultural concern about human rights and the oppression of people. This approach is, perhaps, more effective than the approach of philosophers like WIlliam Lane Craig, who present arguments for objective morality in syllogistic form. For example,

1. If God doesn’t exists objective moral values don’t exist
2. Objective moral values do exist
3. Therefore, God exists

The above syllogism is sound in that the conclusion follows logically and necessarily from the premises (if they can be defended). However, this approach may be unappealing to the Post Modern palate. The question incumbent on us as Christians in a Post- Modern culture is, ‘How can I present the same argument in story form or within the context of relationship and conversation?

Sean McDowell wrote that, ‘Modernity is truth without relationship and Post Modernity is relationship without truth’. The dialogue format weaves together both relationship and a search for truth and as such, provides an effective tool for reaching a Post-Modern person. God help us.