Are we hardwired to believe in God?

There have been repeated studies over recent years that have suggested that humans are hard-wired for religion, including Dean Hamer’s book-length treatment, “The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired Into Our Genes.” Scientists have linked structures within the limbic system of the brain with belief in God or other spiritual realities. Charles Darwin himself acknowledged, “… a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal.”

I don’t think we can make much of such studies. Even if it could be scientifically demonstrated that we are hard-wired for faith, it wouldn’t prove that God was the one who ran the wires. The case could conceivably be made that religious belief serves an evolutionary purpose: that it was not God who wired us for faith but, paradoxically, natural selection.

Yet before we discard these studies, it might be worth asking: If God created and wired us to seek for him (an idea endorsed by St. Paul in Acts 17:27 – “God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him…”), what would that “wiring” look like? How would it express itself in real life?

If God created humans and wired them to seek him, we would expect to find religious belief virtually impossible to eradicate. And of course that is just what we find, and not merely anecdotally. Under communism, the Soviets and the Chinese made continual attempts to eradicate religious belief from their citizens, particularly from their children.

Under Mao, temples, churches and mosques were closed. Religious books were burned, clergy arrested, and children indoctrinated to believe that religion was just superstition – an instrument used by foreign powers to infiltrate and control the Chinese people. Even now, ChinaAid reports that persecution of Christians is ongoing in China and even getting worse.

And yet, after trying to stamp out religious belief for generations, China is now home to more Christians than any other country in the world. That is the kind of thing we might expect to happen, if God created humans and wired them to seek him.

We would also expect to find people praying. According to a report in The Washington Times, “Americans pray. A lot. Ninety percent have a spiritual interlude with God every day, according to a study released … by Brandeis University.”

Surprisingly, even atheists pray. According to a survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, seventeen percent of atheists say they take part in daily, weekly or monthly prayer.

Another thing we would expect to find, if God created humans, is the desire to have a right standing – to be justified, to borrow the theological term – with God or the universe or some transcendent moral standard. And indeed, we find this desire to be almost universal.

We see examples of this desire in literature and the arts (think of Shylock), but also in ourselves and in others. I have sat in jail cells with murderers, rapists, and child molesters, all of whom argued for their righteousness. They did so not on the grounds of their innocence but on the grounds that others were to blame. It was the way they were raised, it was the drugs and alcohol they used, or it was the victim’s fault. But it couldn’t be theirs. They were justified.

Not only is the desire to be righteous universal, so is the idea that an objective standard of right behavior exists, which is just what we would expect if humans were created by God. What’s more, this standard is remarkably consistent across time and cultural boundaries.

In his book “The Abolition of Man,” C. S Lewis identifies a standard of behavior that cuts across times and cultures and is accepted by both ancient and modern societies, religious and secular. From where does this surprisingly uniform code of “justified” behavior derive? A possible answer – certainly a logically consistent one – is that it derives from a just creator.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/16/14

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There is no substitute for understanding

Most drivers have no idea what happens when they turn the key in their car’s ignition. They don’t know how turning the key makes the car move. They don’t understand the battery’s role in the process, or the operation of the starter motor or how it engages the engine and “turns it over.” Nor do they know how the engine makes the wheels turn at varying speeds.

Most drivers don’t understand these things, but most mechanics do. And I, for my part, want my mechanic to understand how a car operates so that he can repair mine when it needs it. I also want my pilot to understand the basic principles of aerodynamics, my doctor to understand the musculoskeletal system of the body and my broker to understand the stock market.

An understanding of the why’s and how’s of any discipline is essential to one’s success in that discipline, and this is no less true of religion than it is of auto mechanics. Yet millions of people practice religion without having even a basic understanding of it.

A person who doesn’t understand how or why his beliefs function in real life is at a terrible disadvantage when it comes to putting those beliefs into action. He or she will likely find a substitute – ritual or right answers or emotional exhilaration – to fill the place of understanding.

Now ritual is a useful tool for those who understand the realities that underlie it, but it is no substitute for understanding. Having the right answers to theological questions is important, but even right answers cannot replace a working knowledge of how faith operates in life.

Because people who lack a basic understanding of their religion don’t know where it is leading, they often rely on their feelings to guide them. But while emotions are a good and helpful companion on the road of life, they are a lousy guide. They have no sense of direction.

People who lack a working knowledge of the faith are often reactive rather than proactive. They may be “zealous for God,” to borrow the Apostle Paul’s words, “but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” Because they don’t know how to persuade those who disagree with them, they persecute them. They’re ready for a fight but they’re not ready to be a friend.

People who don’t understand why they believe what they believe are likely to leave the faith when things get tough. They “have no root,” as Jesus put it. “They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.” Leaders who substitute emotionalism or doctrinal correctness or entertainment for understanding do themselves and the churches they lead a great disservice.

The Bible places heavy emphasis on the value of understanding. The letter known as First John, short as it is, has no fewer than 32 references to knowledge. The biblical writers considered the possession of a “full knowledge” or a “complete understanding” of who God is and what he wants to be essential to a life well lived.

The great evangelist Paul was not satisfied simply to win converts. He wanted his converts’ faith to be characterized by insight and understanding. He expected their love to “abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” He prayed that they would have sufficient “wisdom and understanding” to cooperate with God’s actions in the world.

As far as St. Paul was concerned, a clear understanding of the faith was not an option. It was a necessity. More than that, it was a treasure. He describes it as “the full riches of complete understanding.” His great co-worker, the Apostle Peter, also prized the knowledge of God. He considered it the channel through which comes everything a person needs to live a good life.

Christianity’s emphasis on knowledge and understanding should not surprise us, since its greatest commandment is to love God “with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength.” What should surprise us is the lack of understanding that characterizes so much of the twenty-first century church, and our seeming acquiescence to that state.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 19, 2014

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And We Thought We’d Ordered Prime Rib

When we would sit down for our evening meal, my dad, who was an old Leatherneck, would often say, “Well, you see what you fought yourself to.” His combat metaphor was meant, I think, to impress on us the idea that dinner was a reward for doing our duty. It was, however, a metaphor that failed to inspire every time my mother served liver and onions.

To those who fought in support of the sexual revolution in the sixties and seventies, we can now say: “Well, you see what you fought yourself to.” They were expecting prime rib. They got liver and onions.

The sexual revolution took place within the context of a major cultural shift. Gains were certainly made, but history suggests that much was also lost. The ideal of social, political and economic equality that fueled the sexual revolution was entangled in the practice (or malpractice) of “sexual freedom.” Women mistakenly believed that their liberation required them to be as sexually irresponsible as the men they disdained.

Now, generations later, the sexual tsunami generated by the social earthquake of the sixties is still wreaking havoc. Sexual irresponsibility (and the disrespect that inevitably accompanies it) has become the norm. Daily life has become sexualized. Preteen girls dress (to borrow a term from Bel Mooney of The Daily Mail) like “minihookers” on their parents’ dime and with their encouragement. “Girls as young as four,” psychotherapist Susie Orbach has written, “have been made bodily self-conscious and are striking sexy poses in their mirrors which are more chilling than charming.”

What must today’s grandma – who joined the sexual revolution in 1970 because she was angry about being objectified by men – think about that? Consider this: in the wake of the sexual revolution (since 1975), the pornography industry’s revenues have grown a thousand percent, almost entirely by objectifying women. We now live in a culture where women’s bodies are exploited by a sexualized media for commercial gain. In that what they call liberation?

Another consequence of the sexual revolution has been the breakdown of the family. According to the CDC, 41 percent of all U.S. babies are now born to unmarried women. For many women, this has not led to equality but to a permanent underclass status, as they raise children without a father’s help or financial support. It is even worse in the black community, where 72 percent of babies are born to unwed mothers, a fact that columnist George Will called the “biggest impediment” to progress among African Americans.

Just prior to his first term, President Obama addressed the problem this way: “We need fathers to realize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception. That doesn’t just make you a father. What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child. Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”

Mooney writes that many young women were “conned by the talk of freedom into abandoning all self-respect. The sad thing is young women today are still being conned – victims of the pervasive sex industry which uses ‘liberation’ as a mask for degradation.”

The sexual revolution has harmed women, devastated families and sustained an industry that objectifies young women’s bodies for money. But it has also done something else. It has, quite unexpectedly, devalued sex. The act of sex was once considered sacred by cultures around the world. Now it has been trivialized as a commodity, an article of trade, a plaything for pre-teens. The result will eventually be a generation with a diminished interest in sex.

The only way – as unpopular as it might be – to restore to sex its profound meaning is to restore it to its proper place in God’s order; to keep it in a place where it is cherished, treasured and protected; that is, to reserve it for marriage.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 12, 2014

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Life of Joseph sermons now available

Check out the From the Pulpit page for a link to the latest series of sermons (and my foray into a narrative preaching style.)

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Use the Right Tools for the Job

 

Millions of people have experienced the value of a rich and healthy spirituality. Yet everyone knows someone whose religion has not only not helped him, but has made him worse. How is it that one person finds treasure in religious belief when another does not?

Religion is like a house with many rooms, some opulent and others dingy. The treasure does not lie in the structure itself, but in finding the riches within it – but especially in meeting the owner.

Consider the following scenario: You’ve purchased a farm and have heard from people in the neighborhood that the old man who lived there before you kept all his money in hiding places around the farm. He died in a car accident, and no one was ever able to find his money. Rumor has it that hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonds and cash are hidden in metal-lock boxes somewhere on the property. Now if you wanted to search for that, what tools would you use?

A metal detector? Probably. A shovel? Sure – and maybe even a backhoe. Perhaps you would want a surveyor’s map of the property, and a deed that showed where all the out-buildings once stood. You’d surely want a flashlight. You would want the best tools for the job.

Now let’s say that you’ve been going to church for a while and you have heard that it is possible to find an even better treasure in a relationship with God: his favor, his guidance and a continual sense of his presence. You can search for these things and find them, but what kind of tools will you need for that search? What are the most important tools of the trade?

The first essential tool is prayer. The Bible repeatedly links the idea of searching for God to the practice of prayer. People who are serious about the search for God pray, and they pray a lot. Those who neglect this tool will be unsuccessful in the search.

But like any tool, if you don’t use it as it was designed to be used you won’t get the results it was intended to provide. I was once in possession of a tool that looked like a miniature vise, but I never found out where it came from or what it was used for. I’m sure it served a meaningful purpose, but it never served it for me because I didn’t understand how it worked.

So with prayer. It is the essential tool in the searcher’s toolbox, but it is not much good if we don’t know how to use it. The Bible contains plenty of practical advice on how to pray, and every searcher would be wise to begin with Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 6. St. Paul gives helpful instruction in Romans 8. The Psalms are a prayer book worth pondering, and helpful examples of prayer can be found in Ephesians 1:15-9 and 3:16-19, Philippians 1:1-11, Colossians 1:9-12.

Prayer works best when used with the other indispensable tool for the search, the scriptures. One of the great searchers, the prophet Daniel, modeled the use of prayer in conjunction with scripture. He says that it was while reading the prophet Jeremiah that he turned to the Lord and sought him by prayer.

Not only did meditation on the Book of Jeremiah lead Daniel to seek God, his prayer was filled with scriptural ideas and images. The “covenant of love” language he used came straight from the Book of Deuteronomy. Passages from the Law of Moses are evident. In fact, nearly every sentence in his prayer grows right out of some biblical passage. It is clear that Daniel had immersed himself in biblical revelation. Prayer and Scripture go together like a hammer and nail.

Fasting is another search tool. It is not a spiritual pry-bar used to move God, as often thought, but a means of humbling oneself. Humility is a pre-condition of the search. God avoids the proud and, no matter how hard you search, if he is avoiding you, you’ll never find him.

Seeking God is a lifelong pursuit. Even when you possess the best tools, and know how to use them, you must persist with determination. The casual searcher will not succeed. The committed searcher will not fail.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/5/14

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Your Short Story’s Place in God’s Long Story

Americans love the Bible. But they love the Bible like they love an ideal, not like they love a spouse. They know the Bible is important; they believe it provides inspired guidance for a life well lived; they hold it in reverence. But the truth is they don’t hold it very

According to Religion New Service, almost 90 percent of Americans own a Bible and 80 percent deem it “sacred.” Yet in a year’s time, a majority of Americans only read from the Bible four times, and the under-thirty crowd reads from the Bible less often than that. This in spite of the fact that 61 percent of Americans say they wish they read the Bible

Doug Birdsall, former president of the American Bible Society, compared the issue to America’s obesity problem. “We have an awful lot of people who realize they’re overweight, but they don’t follow a diet … People realize the Bible has values that would help us in our spiritual health, but they just don’t read

Some people try reading the Bible, like they try dieting, but soon give it up. They complain they can’t understand the Bible. They find its size and variety of genres intimidating.

They start in Genesis and read the stories of creation, of Noah and the flood and the choice of Abraham as God’s redemptive agent, and find them interesting. But then they come to the blueprints for building the worship tabernacle in Exodus, and they can’t understand what that has to do with their lives. And when they reach the purity regulations in Leviticus, they give up. The Bible seems to be a randomly diverse compilation of texts.

If God meant the Bible to be a revelation of who he is and what we need to believe, why give us stories, blueprints and regulations? Why not give us a statement of faith – the ten essential beliefs we must affirm to get to heaven? Why not write a job description?

The short answer is: had God given us a job description we would, at best, have been his employees. If he’d given us a statement of faith, we would have signed on the dotted line, and felt like we’d done our duty. Such written works may have informed our thoughts and directed our actions, but they would not have brought us into a loving relationship with God. Yet that is something the Bible, with all its diverse genres, has done for millions of people.

The Bible, from beginning to end, is a revelation – a self-revelation – from God. It is a long story comprised of short stories, poetry, wisdom and apocalyptic literature, and prophecy. The grand, overarching story recounts how God faithfully keeps his promise to rescue and restore his creation, which suffers from life-threatening, self-inflicted wounds. In the Bible we find out who God is, what he cares about and what he is doing.

But why include so many stories that seem only tangentially related to the main storyline? Particularly, why include dingy stories like the patriarch Judah’s dalliance with a prostitute or King David’s adulterous affair? Why relate the ugly story of a woman’s dismemberment at the hands of her lover or of a drunken father’s incestuous relationship with his daughters? Why all the blood and gore of battles, and the devastating destruction of war?

Stories like these, along with many others that surprise unsuspecting readers, are in the Bible because the Creator chose, at the onset of his great cosmic project, to allow his creatures the honor of working as his collaborators. They bring their short stories into his great story and, when they do, he weaves them into his magnificent storyline.

The array of biblical stories, some recounting glorious heroism, some disturbing evil, remind the reader that God can take any story his creatures submit to him and use it to advance his storyline. The crucifixion of Jesus is the most notable example of God’s ability to make everything that happens serve his story. It proves, as St. Paul wrote, “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/28/2014

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Accidents happen … or do they?

I experienced a funny coincidence when looking to purchase a new mattress. I had done my homework, investigating different manufacturers online, looking at reviews and reading what the experts say. My wife and I comparison shopped several mattress stores and then went to the mall, where the best-known brand of air beds had a retail store.

Having done my homework, I thought an adjustable air bed might be the best buy for us, but after looking at dozens of mattresses, we were confused. The cost of the air beds was more than I wanted to pay, and yet several friends had been extremely satisfied with their purchase.

After talking to the salesperson and lying on several beds, we left the store to weigh the pros and cons. As we walked and talked, we wandered into a book store. While my wife was exploring, I went to the poetry section and picked up a new (at the time) book by Billy Collins and read the table of contents. The poem titled “Hell” caught my eye.

The title and first line read: “Hell. I have a feeling that it is much worse than shopping for a mattress at a mall…” I laughed at the coincidence and hurried off to show my wife.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a coincidence as: (1) “A remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection”; or (2) “The fact of corresponding in nature or in time of occurrence.” The former suggests the co-incidence of events is accidental – they are “without apparent causal connection.” The latter merely notes the correspondence, making no mention of its cause.

What is the person of faith to make of coincidences? Clearly he can affirm the second definition in the Oxford Dictionary, but can he accept the first? Are there such things as accidents?

This is really a question about the kind of world we live in. Is everything that happens brutally constrained by the laws of physics, operating both in the world around us and the world within us – in our bodies and brains? This view, known as materialistic naturalism, suggests that everything that happens around us and in us – even our thoughts and moods – are the result (and are only the result) of the interaction of the laws of nature on the matter of which we and our universe are composed. According to this view, nothing ever happens by accident.

Another view, which might be labeled general theological monergism (in contrast to special monergism, which confines itself to the spiritual regeneration of individuals), suggests that everything that ever happens in the universe, from the birth of a galaxy to the birth of a baby, happens because God chooses for it to happen. As in materialistic naturalism, this view holds that nothing ever happens by accident.

In both these views, an ultimate power (either God or the laws of physics) determines every single thing that happens. A third view loosens but does not remove the restraints of an ultimate power. It sees a complex interaction between matter and will and between God’s will and human will. This view holds that God created the cosmos with a degree of elasticity that allows for real choice, though it makes clear that the elastic will only stretch so far.

According to this view God retains control, both overall and in specific instances, though he allows his creatures to make decisions for themselves, even ones he would rather they not make. He provided room for the exercise of choice in the very act of creation, because he knew that people could never be fully human without it. Only thus could they be made in his image.

In this view God conducts the orchestra, but he does not play every instrument. He has given that honor to his creatures and won’t take it from them. So does that mean that accidents happen? It means that the results of choices (and the results of the results of the results of choices) will often be beyond any power but God’s to predict – or correct. If you want to call that an accident, feel free. I call it an extraordinary gift from a wise and loving Creator.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/21/2014

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