Don’t carry invasive beliefs into church

There are boot brushes at the trailheads to several of our favorite places to hike, with signs instructing hikers to clean their boots. Most people want to clean their boots after hiking, not before. But these trailheads lead into nature preserves. The people that manage the preserves are hoping to prevent invasive species of weeds from finding their way into the preserve, then spreading and squeezing out the plants that are native to the area.

Maybe churches should have symbolic boot brushes outside their doors, with signs instructing worshipers to examine their beliefs before entering, lest they carry invasive doctrines into the church, where they might spread and squeeze out truths that are native to the faith.

According to a recent article in Christianity Today, invasive beliefs have entered and are continuing to enter the church. In “Which False Teachings Are Evangelical Christians Most Tempted to Believe In?” Cherith Fee Nording finds the ancient heresy Docetism – the belief that Jesus was not really human – still causing trouble in the modern church.

Nording notes that Evangelical Christians have, in response to modern challenges to the deity of Jesus, minimized the humanity of Jesus. She writes, “Too often he is the divine Son who borrowed a human body in order to teach, heal, and perform the miracles that proved his divine authority and his power to save us from sin.”

The early Church labeled this teaching a heresy and condemned it. When we forget that Jesus was and is fully human, we draw the erroneous conclusion that “because he is God, Jesus had power to be sinless and to do cool stuff. We’re not, so we don’t.”

And: “If Jesus isn’t really like us, then we are excused from being like him.” Yet this, the Apostle John writes, is the Christian’s goal and transforming hope: “…we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.”

Another contemporary heresy also has ancient roots, this time in the early second century teacher Marcion. Marcion rejected the authority of the Old Testament, and even went so far as to say the God of the Old Testament was not the God and Father of Jesus Christ. (I once heard a teacher espouse exactly this view to a group of high school students, oblivious to the fact he was spreading heresy.) Marcion’s anti-Old Testament views found a niche among anti-Semites and spread widely among early Gentile churches.

A successor to Marcion’s views is still present today, though less by intention than by attention deficit. In many churches, the story of Jesus has been completely removed from its Old Testament roots. His messiahship has been ignored, and his role has been restricted to that of personal savior, not Israel’s messiah and Lord of all the earth.

This has resulted in a highly individualistic expression of Christianity. It’s all about me –not a big surprise in contemporary western culture – getting into heaven when I die. The gospel becomes a sales pitch to prospective subscribers rather than an announcement of what God has done to redeem his fallen creatures and restore his damaged creation.

Worshipers often carry another invasive belief into the church: the belief that grace is opposed to works. This error probably has its roots in a fifth century controversy over the roles that God and humans play in salvation. When Pelagius, an influential teacher living in Rome, overstated the human role in salvation, Augustine, the famous bishop from North Africa, argued vigorously for the necessity of God’s unmerited and gracious action on human’s behalf.

But people have drawn the wrong conclusion from their debate. They have assumed that grace – God’s action on our behalf – is in conflict with human efforts. But grace is opposed to merit, not effort. Grace is, in fact, the trailhead of a path filled with good works for us to walk.

These doctrinal weeds are hard to eradicate. We should examine our beliefs from time to time, brush them off, and make sure we aren’t carrying any invasive species into the church.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, April 25, 2015

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Tomorrow may be too late

In all the class pictures that my mother kept and stored, from kindergarten on, I can find the same towheaded boy. His name was David. He was my sometimes friend and sometimes adversary. David was in nearly every class I took all the way through high school.

David and I formed a club when we were in grade school. He was the president. I was the vice president. The club dissolved a day after it was founded.

David was good with words. He used them like weapons. He would tease and poke fun until I would throw him to the ground or wrench his arm behind his back. He would say “Uncle” and stop teasing – until the next day, when it started all over again.

His ability with words came in handy. He used it to persuade his classmates to vote him “most likely to succeed.” He went off to college at Ohio State and then to graduate school. The last time I heard anything about David, he owned a chain of businesses in Florida. He succeeded.

Once when we were much younger, David produced what was then called a “nickel bag” of marijuana. That began a conversation that somehow came round to talking about God. David told me then that he intended to “get religion” someday, when he was old, “like seventy.” Until then, he intended to have fun.

I have occasionally thought about David over the years. Did he ever get married? Does he have kids? Does he still run his business operations? But mostly I wonder if he ever “got religion.” He was so sure, when he was a young man, that he would find the door open for him to turn to God when he was older. I wonder.

It’s not that I think he will find the door locked. I’m just not sure that, after all the other doors David has walked through, he will be able to find the door at all. I am even less sure that he will still want to find it.

This is the dilemma for people who put off turning to God. God is ready, eager even, to welcome them back, but the longer they ignore him, the harder it is for them to want to come back. Some, like King Saul in the Bible, find at the end of their life they cannot muster the desire to turn to God. Worse yet, some find they cannot want God to be God.

After spending a lifetime ignoring God and denying his claim on one’s life – or even denying his existence – can a person still turn to God? Without a doubt, a person can still turn to God. Does it happen often? About that, I am doubtful, but it does happen.

Anthony Flew, the Oxford analytical philosopher and son of a Methodist preacher, spent most of his career as an apologist for atheism. Though he attended C. S. Lewis’s Socratic Club at Oxford, he rejected Lewis’s arguments and went on to author books advocating an atheist position. Then at the age of 81, Professor Flew shocked the philosophical world by announcing that he had become convinced of the existence of God.

The Bible has its own story of a late-in-life conversion. One of the men executed alongside Jesus, whom the biblical writers describe as a robber and a criminal, turned to Jesus shortly before his death and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is extraordinary on many levels, not the least being that he was capable of expressing faith in the last minutes of his life. The Bible, it’s been said, provides one story of a death-bed conversion to keep us from despair, and only one story to keep us from presumption.

So is it ever too late to turn to God, to open oneself to spiritual truth, and start a new kind of life? As far as God, “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth,” is concerned, it’s never too late. There is no objective obstacle that can prevent a person from coming to him, whatever his or her age. But the subjective obstacle of a deep and engrained resistance to God may prove insuperable. It is for this reason that St. Paul urges, “Now is the time … now is the day of salvation.” Tomorrow may just be too late.

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A difficult truth to face

Many years ago, an acquaintance approached me and said, “Hey, I hear you’re having a baby!” And I said something like, “That’s good to know. I hadn’t heard that.” Now having children is really good news. I have three and they have been and remain one of my greatest joys. But on that day I didn’t accept the good news from my acquaintance. I didn’t believe that we were really having baby. I reasoned that my wife would have told me before telling him.

Imagine, though, that I had believed this person because he was my wife’s doctor. I would have said, “We’re going to have another baby?” Then, after they revived me, I would have gone home and kissed my wife and started buying baby furniture and car seats and enrolling for Lamaze classes. We act in accordance with what we believe.

That’s a truth that is difficult for people to face. I recall a presidential candidate from past campaigns. He had a seven-figure income and was constantly spouting platitudes about helping the poor. But when his tax records were made public, it turned out that he had given less to charity than I had. His tax return called his oft-stated convictions into question.

Because we cannot help but act in accordance with our beliefs, every person’s life is a theological statement. Its theology may be confusing and even bizarre, because we are capable of simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, but it will nevertheless be consistent with our beliefs. Whether the beliefs are consistent with reality is another matter altogether.

This principle applies to both personal and public life. Consider, for example, how this principle applies to the public square. From all appearances, the Obama administration has hoped to relegate personal beliefs to private life. It is fine for the family of Hobby Lobby shareholders to have religious beliefs—on Sunday morning. Just don’t let those beliefs dictate operational procedures from Monday to Friday.

Such an approach deeply misunderstands the nature of belief. In fact, it cynically assumes that people don’t really believe what they say they believe. The idea that a people’s deepest beliefs can be banned from the public square contradicts reason and history. It is simply fantasy.

This principle is even more obvious in private life. Take, for example, the man who says, “Going to church is important.” He went to church as a child, sent his own kids when they were children, and can even quote the Bible on the subject: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” But he now rarely goes to church.

What are we to say about such a person? We can say (as might have been said of the candidate whose tax return didn’t match his rhetoric) that he either does not believe what he says he believes or that he holds contradictory beliefs that cancel out his sincere belief.

If the latter of these alternatives – that he holds contradictory beliefs – is true, then he the kind of person St. James had in mind when he wrote, “…he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” Simultaneously held contradictory beliefs will inevitably lead to instability in life and relationships.

The good news is that our belief system is not sealed. It can, and almost certainly will, change. Of course this could also be bad news, if the changes do not bring our beliefs into closer alignment with reality.

Because exposure to new ideas can change our belief system, we ought to be aware of the ideas to which we are being exposed. We must keep in mind that the TV sitcom we’re laughing at expresses a belief system. So does MSNBC and Fox News. And so does the Bible. It is to it that I have turned again and again, not primarily for the comfort it gives but for the reality I find in it – a reality that has stood the test of time and addressed the complexity of life in this world.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/11/2015

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Questions at the heart of the gospel

In the four Gospel accounts of the life and death of Jesus, no one ever used the word “resurrection” to describe Jesus’s return from death, neither the ancient writers nor the people whose words and actions they reported. This surprised me when I first realized it, and surprises me still. They talk about how Jesus rose from the dead, but they avoid using the one word you would expect them to use: “

Why not? The answer, I think, comes in two parts, the first of which is very straightforward: The Gospel writers did not use the word “resurrection” because the men and women in the story they were narrating did not use it. The fact that the writers refrained from using a word that was immensely important in the vocabulary of the early church speaks volumes about their intention to faithfully represent what really happened.

Some modern scholars think that everything theological in the Gospels – especially those things that point to the deity of Jesus and his status as the Messiah – were later concocted by the Church and written into the Gospels in an act of historical revisionism. These scholars believe that none of the miracles, including the resurrection, really happened. They think the Church later invented them as a way of elevating Jesus’s status and validating their

But if that’s the case, how is it that none of the Evangelists succumbed to the temptation to describe the climax of the story, the central event of the Christian faith, as “resurrection?” This is an overlooked and remarkably important evidence for biblical

But that brings us to the second part of the question. Why didn’t the people in the story – Peter, John, the apostles, the women disciples – refer to Jesus’s return from the dead as “resurrection?” Resurrection was a core doctrine of most first century Jews, one to which people deeply resonated. So why didn’t the people who first related what happened think to use it? It’s the even surprising that, after the fact, the frightened chief priests, didn’t use the term

The answer is once again straightforward. In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s return from death, the disciples hadn’t yet grasped the enormity of what had happened. The Gospel writers tell us about an empty tomb, but they do not expound a doctrine of the resurrection. Now that doesn’t mean that the first disciples didn’t really believe Jesus had risen. They did. Nor does it mean they thought Jesus had risen as a spiritual force or a powerful memory, as people do when they point to their hearts and say of a dead spouse, “He’s still with me – right here!”

No, the disciples believed that Jesus died. He was stone-cold, dead as a doornail, dead. And they believed that after three days he came back to life. He was alive again – walking-talking-eating-drinking alive. But during those first days, they did not yet realize that this meant Jesus had been resurrected. In their minds, resurrection was an entirely different matter.

So even though Jesus rose from the dead and his friends knew it, they didn’t immediately think of that as resurrection. In their minds, when “the” resurrection happened, everyone who had ever died would be raised from the dead – the righteous to eternal life and the unrighteous to eternal death. For the disciples it took time and instruction (most importantly from Jesus himself) for the enormity of what had happened in that garden tomb to sink in. Jesus had not only come to life again after being dead, as remarkable as that was. Death had been defeated and the resurrection – the coming to life of everyone who had ever died – had already begun.

The resurrection of Jesus does not merely mean that there is life after death. His disciples and most people around the world already believed that (and still do). It meant that God had broken into human affairs, the ancient promises were being fulfilled, and the world was being changed. It meant that God’s long awaited kingdom had arrived and that “Jesus Christ our Lord” had been “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/4/1015 under the title, “Important Evidence for Biblical Authenticity.”

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Don’t shrink-wrap the truth

I suspect that if any of the “new atheists” were to describe to me the God they don’t believe in, I would congratulate them for not believing and explain that I don’t believe in that God either. The God they reject is, as far as I can tell, a caricature of the God of the Bible. He is a composite sketch taken from misunderstood or misused texts, and from the confused opinions of professing believers.

For one thing, the God that unbelievers often reject is, like all caricatures, too simple. They make the God of the universe into a one-dimensional character. Even primetime TV does a better job depicting believable characters than most atheists do depicting God.

The God revealed in the Bible and, even more so, through the person of Jesus, is anything but one-dimensional. The Bible reveals a God who both loves people and hates evil, is just and merciful, is kind and stern. In fact, there are a number of biblical passages where these various facets of his character are presented within the same verse.

So when a critic says, “I don’t believe in a God who wants to send everyone to hell but changes his mind because a perfectly innocent man volunteers to take their place,” I say, “Hear, hear!” I can’t believe in that kind of movie-bad-guy God either. The God revealed in the Bible is far more interesting and mysterious. When we find it hard to believe in Jesus’s God, it is almost always because he is more and better than we imagined, not less.

There is nothing mysterious about the God that critics reject. He is easily understood, flat, and a little dull. But it should be an indication to us that something is wrong when the God under discussion is easier to understand than the creatures discussing him.

A God who evokes no wonder is not the God of the Bible, the God Jesus revealed. The Bible repeatedly uses words like “wonder,” “awe” and “amazed” to describe the effect that God has on people. A boring God is not “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

How did skeptics come up with such a one-dimensional God? I’m afraid they got it from us, from believers who have watered down the strong drink of biblical truth into a pabulum of easily digestible and explainable theological propositions. The biblical authors made an announcement (a gospel), while we give advice. They frequently broke into praise; we frequently break out principles intended to guard belief and modify behavior.

I once had a teacher who was gifted at reducing almost anything in the Bible to five points, from the entire biblical story to what transpired on the cross to the deepest nature of humanity. He could have been the author of “God for Dummies.” I find now, after many years have passed, I cannot remember even one of this five-point systems.

The teachers I do remember, the ones who have shaped my life, sometimes simplified the complex data of life and faith by contracting it to a few points, but more often they expanded my mind to see a bigger world and a more glorious God than I had yet imagined. The great teachers always call us to live in the light of great truths. Instead of shrink-wrapping the truth, they grow their students.

Everyone who has actually inspired me to seek God and live a life that enables me to know him has presented to me a God worthy of worship. Those teachers, some well-known and some not, had discovered a God worth knowing and a Christ worth following.

This, it seems to me, is just what the contemporary atheists have missed. When they blaspheme their Gods, I do not flinch. When they pull down a God of their own making, I applaud: that God was just standing between them and the real one, either blocking their view or hiding them from his. For, in a twist worthy of this remarkable story, we humans are not so much God-seekers as God – the real God – is a people-seeker.

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Who gets to say what is right and what is wrong?

Who gets to say what is right and what is wrong? Is there such a thing? And if there is, on what basis can anyone claim the moral authority to judge it?

Those questions underlie a recent and very public debate. When the New York Times published Fort Lewis College Professor Justin McBrayer’s op-ed titled, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts,” the Times website fielded nearly 2,000 comments.

In his piece, McBrayer wrote that an overwhelming majority of college freshman “view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” He found the source of this belief in public school curricula designed to meet Common Core standards.

To this assertion, Daniel Engber writing in Slate, responds, “It’s total crap.”

Engber faults McBrayer on his methodology, claiming that he relies on “the philosopher’s favorite tools: anecdotes and intuition.” He then argues that surveys of students and young adults show that younger children believe in moral absolutes before entering their late teens, then fall into a moral relativism until they reach their thirties.

According to Engber, these survey-based studies prove that Common Core has nothing to do with the descent into moral relativism. If it did, wouldn’t younger students also be moral relativists? And besides that, studies suggest that students who were in college fifty years ago, long before the introduction of Common Core, were already more likely to be morally relativistic than were their elders or juniors.

I think Engber succeeds in refuting the idea that Common Core is the primary cause of moral relativism among college freshman. Still, the all-or-nothing approach he takes is ironic, given that he faults McBrayer (and philosophers in general) for adopting an absolutist view of things. From his all-or-nothing vantage point, Engber cannot see that Common Core might be a contributing factor to relativism among the young, even if it is not the primary cause.

It is fascinating to me that McBrayer, the “absolutist,” appeals to reason based on experience to construct his case, while Engber (whom I take to be a relativist) repeatedly appeals to a higher authority to support his views. It is just the opposite of what one would expect.

To what authority does Engber appeal? This is the most interesting feature of the dispute, and the one that best identifies the differences between them. Engber appeals to the authority of the pollster and the survey-taker. He gives no credence (at least in this essay) to either Church or reason. The weight of authority rests upon the shifting opinions of the general populace, as discovered by the social scientists and “experimental philosophers” who conduct the surveys.

This suggests that the real difference between McBrayer and Engber and the philosophical camps they represent is not that one believes in right and wrong and the other doesn’t. The real difference lies in the source of moral authority to which they turn and on which they rely.

In the past, the Church and/or the Bible was the source of moral authority for western civilization. If the Church or the Bible said it was wrong, it was wrong. Then came the Enlightenment, when God was relieved of the obligation of making moral pronouncements. That duty fell to human reason. Yet the luminaries of the period, men like David Hume and Immanuel Kant, were nevertheless convinced that reason could discover and declare moral certainties.

But neither the principles of reason nor the canons of Scripture control today’s moral high ground. Rather it is the cannons of current opinion, roaring deafeningly through omnipresent media. And, disturbingly, it not just current opinion but the forecast of future opinion that directs private conduct and public policy. It was once true, as the author of Judges wrote, that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” but now the media tells us what is right in everyone’s eyes. That is not the rule of law, but the tyranny of popular opinion.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/21/2015

A few additional thoughts: If the final paragraph in the article above accurately portrays the situation in America today, it will not be the philosopher or the priest to whom people are listening, but the pollster.

The philosopher and priest work from sources of authority in which they have confidence: from natural and/or special revelation. The pollster and experimental philosopher also work from a source of authority in which they have confidence: the revelation of public opinion.

Special revelation comes from God through prophets and apostles. Natural revelation comes through reason. But from what source (or sources) does public opinion come? Certainly not from the Church or the Academy.

And what are the themes of this new revelation? Old age is disgusting; youth alone is beautiful; one must follow his or her feelings and desires to be authentically human; truth changes with the times; humanity’s corruption will be cured through education; morality is not in any way fixed, but evolves with human wants and needs; and many others.

In this current climate, men and women who believe what Jesus believed, do what he said, and live like he lived will “shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:15). There are no quick fixes for our situation. What the world needs is truth; truth that is not merely proclaimed but lived.

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Fascinating: the role of emotions in human life

Would Captain Kirk skip out on Mr. Spock’s funeral? Not on your life. So when William Shatner, who played Kirk in the Star Trek franchise’s television show and movies, missed Spock actor Leonard Nimoy’s funeral, people were outraged.

No, Kirk would never miss Spock’s funeral; but then, the writers wouldn’t let him. This time Shatner and Nimoy weren’t handed a script. They had to play this drama out as it occurred. Shatner, who was at a fundraiser in Florida, explained that he would not be able to attend the funeral and announced that his daughters would be representing the family.

But Trekkies weren’t buying it, and reacted in a very un-Spock-like manner. They called Shatner names, including “Captain Jerk.” It was, as Mr. Spock might have said, “very illogical.”

And “fascinating.” Where does this loyalty and love for a fictional character come from? Wherever it comes from, it started early. When Star Trek first aired in 1966, Nimoy thought the show was unlikely to amount to anything. He was as surprised as anybody when fan mail – most of it addressed to “Mr. Spock” – began pouring in.

People loved Spock. Could it be that they identified with his ongoing battle to keep his emotions under control? And wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone waged the same battle, if everyone endeavored to be as emotionless and logical as Mr. Spock?

Probably not. God gave us emotions for a reason. For one thing, emotions help us make decisions. People who have lost their emotions due to orbito-frontal brain damage have found it impossible to make decisions, even small ones. It takes more than logic to make a decision. There’s a reason that Spock, the embodiment of logic, does not sit in the captain’s chair. For that you need someone who has feelings.

Feelings are not auxiliary to human life. They’re standard equipment for the human model. We need them. Without them we are defective.

But that doesn’t mean that feelings are all that matter, as so much modern art and literature suggest. Film writers love to tell us that the only way to live authentically is to follow our feelings, even when they’re destructive to relationships and morals. And on TV, parents are always telling their lovesick adolescents that they will “know” (translation: they will feel) when the time is right to have sex. As if every libidinous teen’s feelings are intrinsically reliable.

Feelings are an important part of what makes us human, but assigning feelings the responsibility of directing our lives – a serious theme in Existentialism, but also a recurring them in popular culture ­– is a fool’s game.

When a person’s life is directed primarily by feelings, it will soon be in a shambles. When his feelings become his identity, life will spin out of control: addiction, broken relationships and instability will characterize him. Feelings play an important role in our lives, even in decision-making, but if they’re all we have to go on, we are in big trouble.

Feelings are like a thermometer, but we often treat them as if they were a thermostat. We think we can somehow adjust our feelings without changing the conditions that gave rise to them in the first place. But if we try to change our feelings without changing the conditions that generated them, we are doomed to fail.

Feelings are not under our immediate control. (This is entirely demonstrable: just try telling yourself not to be afraid when you hear a strange noise in the middle of the night.) Positive feelings can be cultivated, but only by changing our thoughts and circumstances.

Rather than trying to change our feelings, either by will power or by pharmaceutical power (though the latter is sometimes appropriate), we would do better to focus on changing the conditions – relational, spiritual, vocational, physical or other – that underlie our feelings.

To that Mr. Spock would surely fold his arms, nod his head and say, “Logical.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/14/15

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