Morality Does Not Have a Reset Point

According to geologists, earth’s tectonic plates are in constant flux. The seven major plates (and many minor ones) move in relation to each other. This movement has in pre-history had a significant effect on the current arrangement of the continents.

Geologists believe the plates move as much as one hundred millimeters a year. That’s about four inches. Australia has, for some reason, been moving faster than the rest of us. Since Australian GPS was reset in the mid-90s, the folks down under have moved about five feet. That’s too little for people to perceive, but it is having an effect on systems that are highly sensitive to location.

Many current and developing technologies depend on pinpoint accuracy. A slight variance in GPS coordinates can, for example, lead a driverless tractor into a powerline pole. And consider emerging technologies like shipping drones and driverless cars.  Instead of delivering a valuable package to your front porch, a shipping drone might drop it off outside your garage, where you’ll back over it when you leave for work in the morning. For driverless cars, a variance of five feet could mean the difference between running alongside an 80,000 pound steel-hauling semi and being ground to powder beneath it.

It’s a little unnerving to realize that even the earth itself, its atmosphere and lithosphere, are in a state of flux. The philosopher Heraclitus saw this a half-century before the birth of Christ. He said, “There is nothing permanent except change.” The transience of life caused another ancient thinker to say wistfully: “Would that life were like the shadow cast by a wall or a tree, but it is like the shadow of a bird in flight.”

The fact that things are always changing leads one to wonder if morality itself might change. An answer to that question depends on what is meant by morality. If morality is defined as “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior” (Webster), it is obvious that morality does change, since such beliefs have always been fluid.

In the late seventeenth century, courts thought of themselves as morally upright when (and even because) they ordered the torture and execution of convicted witches. In the mid-nineteenth century, slave-owners and even slave-marketers could be considered principled and even pious members of the community. In the middle of the twentieth century, a person could be incarcerated for up to five years for marrying a person of a different race.

Many people who are unhappy with changes in the moral code think we would be better off to go back to a previous moral code. They may be right, but bringing back the old days is not a cure-all. In some cases, the old morality needed to be changed. Owning people was morally acceptable in 1840, but it’s a good thing that is no longer the case. The idea that America needs to go back to the old days is a misunderstanding. With apologies to Donald Trump, the challenge is not to make America great again, but to make America good again –good for the present time.

That goodness is not tied to some past standard. There is not a reset point to morality, as there is on a computer. As a Christian, I don’t believe that moral goodness is anchored to a point in time, but to the timeless God. What is morally right or wrong at any given time is based on God’s character and will – the way he is and what he wants – through all time.

Christians believe that God’s character and will have been revealed, at least in part, in the Scriptures. They are God’s self-revelation, conveyed through spiritually discerning people. But even more important is God’s self-revelation through Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate revelation of God in human terms and human flesh. If we are going to make our way through the tangle of modern issues on shifting moral ground, we would be wise to orient ourselves to him. In a world of constant change, he provides a fixed reference point.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/15/2016

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The Once and Future Faith

Christianity has changed over the years. This change has not taken place in Christianity’s core beliefs, which are substantially the same as they were at the beginning. The change has happened in its outward expressions. The soul of the faith is little altered; its body has changed.

When the faith began, it was considered a sect of Judaism. Its first members were all Jews, Jewish proselytes and Gentile worshipers of Israel’s God. This remained true for years, but eventually non-Jews, including those who had never expressed any interest in Judaism, began putting their faith in the Jewish Messiah.

Crossing that border strained the early church and forced her to think theologically about the relationship between Gentiles and Jews and the relationship between both groups and God. For the most part, the transition from Jewish sect to world faith was successfully made, and the Christ-followers, both Jews and Gentiles, viewed themselves as one new people – a new humanity united by faith in the God of Jesus.

That ethnically diverse early church, unlike its later manifestations, had almost no sway in society as a whole. The church had little money, few influential members, and scarcely any property. When they met together, it was not in ornate and spacious sanctuaries but in members’ homes. Christians had no voice in civil government and Christianity was condemned as an illicit religion. During the first 250 years of the church, there were periods when Christians were routinely stripped of property, imprisoned and even executed.

Yet under these unfavorable conditions, faith in Jesus Christ spread across the Roman Empire. People were converting to Christianity in large numbers, not because they were forced but because they believed the good news about God that Christians were sharing. There were times in those first two centuries when becoming a Christian made no social or financial – or even legal – sense, and yet people were choosing to become Christians in increasing numbers.

After the Emperor Constantine decreed an official tolerance of Christianity in 313 AD, the church began to prosper materially. Christians could finally meet openly, and within twenty years church buildings were springing up. Government officials went public about their faith. The church became influential in society.

Contrast the early church’s social powerlessness to the medieval church’s social dominance. Kings and princes acknowledged their allegiance to the church. Daily life was ordered around the activities of the church. Sundays were no longer work days, as they had once been, but days for people to go to church. When the church spoke, rulers trembled, and what the church wanted, she got.

The hegemony of the church faded with the Protestant Reformation, and faded even further with the secularization of the Enlightenment. In Europe and America, Christendom’s social dominance diminished rapidly after the Second World War. Many Christians have bemoaned this loss of power while many secularist has cheered it, but both have seen it as a serious blow to the wellbeing of the church.

I’m not so sure. Though some Christians feel threatened by the loss of cultural influence, it may turn out to be the bitter pill that saves a weakened church from its addiction to power and comfort. Christians may turn their eyes back to Jesus and away from cultural clout. Instead of a mad, every-man-for-himself scramble for the American Dream, Christians may again seek God’s kingdom and discover there the riches of a relationship with God and each other.

The church will not be revitalized – “revived,” as we Evangelicals like to say – apart from change. But change can be discomfiting, even threatening. Perhaps the change the church is now (unwillingly) going through – the loss of moral authority and cultural dominance – will provide the context for a spiritual revival. Instead of an organization bloated with uncommitted members and distracted by competing loyalties, it can again be a healthy and agile body, responsive to Christ and helpful to the world.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/8/2016

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Promising a Better Future, Delivering a Better Present

The British ocean liner R.M.S. Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. As people rushed to the lifeboats, a woman passenger asked the captain what to do. The captain, according to Erik Larson’s book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, replied, “Stay right where you are, Madam, she’s all right.”

That passenger, or another like her, shouted “The Captain says the boat will not sink.” The other passengers cheered and went back to their cabins – and to their deaths. 1,198 of the 1,959 passengers aboard the Lusitania died.

Perhaps Captain Turner really believed his magnificent ship could not be sunk by a single German torpedo, or perhaps he was trying to prevent a deadly stampede. Either way it was a false hope he offered to the Lusitania’s passengers, a false hope that may have killed hundreds.

False hope is not limited to disaster scenarios. In a feature for The New York Times Magazine, Mark Lebovich writes that talk-show host Larry King intends to have his body frozen post-mortem so that he can “die with a shred of hope.” According to King, “Other people have no hope.”

Larry King’s hope in cryonics seems even less tenable than Captain Turner’s hope in the Lusitania, but humans can’t do without hope. All people hope. The question is whether the object of their hope is worthy of their confidence.

That question applies to more than cryonics. For example, it is common in the west to think of education as a nation’s principal hope. In 2010, the U.S. spent 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product on the public funding of education. That works out to something like 15,000 dollars per student in the system (when those in college and graduate school are included). In addition, parents contribute about 25 percent of the overall cost of their children’s education. It is cultural heresy to question this hope, but it is not at all clear that education has lived up to its billing.

Another great hope in the west is “the economy.” Perhaps capitalizing “Economy” is better, since it is often treated as if it were some kind of god. Policymakers sacrifice to it, just as ancient Greeks sacrificed to Zeus, and are often as confused by the actions of this god as the ancient Greeks were by theirs. The essayist, poet and novelist Wendell Berry believes the economy has been “elevated to the position of ultimate justifier and explainer of all the affairs of our daily life.” But can this god fulfill our hope?

Certainly Americans hope in politics. Every four years we convince ourselves that the right person in Washington will turn everything around – a hope that has proved demonstrably false time and again. This year, though, our perennial hope has been turned upside down, replaced by a gloomy despair that the wrong person in Washington will bring ultimate ruin. We have swung from a false hope to a false despair, on a pendulum supported by a false belief that salvation (as well as damnation) comes out of Washington.

If Doctor Johnson was right and “Men live in hope and die in despair,” people need a hope that “does not disappoint.” That’s St. Paul’s language. That great man didn’t look to education or politics or the economy to save humanity. He looked to God. His hope was out of this world and, as such, was above its vicissitudes, yet entered this world’s pain and despair. At one point, his hope even died, only to rise again, immortal and indestructible. For the biblical writers, the difference between hope and hopelessness is an empty tomb.

Hope accompanies genuine faith, and that’s true whether faith is in politics, the economy, or God. Why then choose God? Because hope in God not only promises a better future, it delivers a better present. As the Apostle Paul once put it, “and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/1/2016

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Christians, Creation and Environmental Concerns

Christians have often been disparaged for their lack of involvement in and concern for environmental issues, and that criticism has sometimes been valid. In an article at, Ray Bohlin, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology, suggests reasons for this inattention to creation: there are other urgent matters that occupy Christians’ attention; environmental concerns have often been promoted as a “liberal issue”; environmentalism has sometimes been conflated with New Age philosophies, achieving an almost religious status.

Bohlin, however, goes on to say that Christians “have a sacred responsibility to the earth and the creatures within it,” and he’s right. According to the Book of Genesis, humans were given dominion over the earth. That does not mean God gave humans the right to exploit the earth but the responsibility to superintend it. As the psalmist reminded people, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Humans are creation’s caretakers, not its owners.

Humanity’s wellbeing has been linked by God to the wellbeing of creation. St. Paul makes this particularly clear in his famous letter to the Romans. In an unparalleled vision of the future he writes: “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Right now, says the apostle, creation groans. She is caught in an endless cycle of futility, subjugated under the iron rule of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Creation’s ultimate hope does not lie in recycling and the reduction of greenhouse gasses (though as her caretakers we should be diligent about such things). Her destiny is contingent upon the freedom of the children of God.

The astonishing biblical hope is that creation will be set free from the tyranny of entropy. No more decay. No more corruption. When I come across a non-Christian who loves creation, is awed by her splendor, at home in her vastness and devoted to her care, I can’t help but think that person ought to convert, since the Christian vision of creation is without equal.

There is an obvious love for creation in Scripture, but the biblical writers insist we haven’t seen anything yet. When creation is freed from her chains, cleaned up and presented in her beauty, it will be all joy and glory. But she doesn’t achieve that status apart from us. She achieves it with us – through us, even. She is freed into the freedom of God’s children.

According to St. Paul, the freedom of creation depends on humanity, but humanity’s freedom depends on creation’s Lord. Take Jesus out of the story and it falls to the ground. Apart from him, our future glory – and with it our hope – is gone and creation remains in her chains. St. Paul would say that our hope – and not only ours, but the hope of the world, the hope of all creation – depends on Jesus Christ.

Like creation, people need to be set free – from meaninglessness, from hopelessness, from addictions, from fears and sins. God intends his children to be free indeed. Free to be themselves – to be the people they were always meant to be.

Creation groans, and humanity groans right along with her: “we … groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” The goal has always been our adoption as God’s children, with all that it entails, including the redemption of our bodies and the liberation of creation from its “bondage to decay.” It is this that finalizes us; that confirms and ratifies our full humanity. Until then, we remain incomplete and tentative, which is why we groan.

When the sound guys at our church finish recording a sermon, the CD recorder displays one word, with a question mark: Finalize? Unless they say yes, the CD won’t play in most CD players. The final step for humanity is the redemption of our bodies. Only humans who experience it will “play” in the new heaven and new earth. But for the process of finalization to begin we must say “Yes” to God in Christ.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/24/2016

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Someday the Timing Chain Will Break

I own a 2007 Chevy Malibu. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s got me where I’ve needed to go. And it’s been remarkably reliable. Besides oil changes and a few minor repairs, I’ve not had to put much money into it – and it has over 150,000 miles on it. I’ve felt fortunate.

Until recently. A while back I noticed that the engine was laboring and the rpms were shooting up whenever I climbed a hill, even a small one. Fuel economy dropped precipitously. So I took my car to a mechanic friend to have it tuned up.

Later I had the ignition coils replaced, the fuel injectors cleaned and the oil changed. It was expensive, but I thought my reliable old car was worth it. A few weeks later, though, I turned the key, heard a whirring noise, but there was no ignition. I assumed the starter had failed and had the car towed to the shop.

I stopped in later to see what was going on. My friend met me with the words, “Oh, Shayne,” and the kind of look a doctor gives you when your mother has had a heart attack and isn’t expected to recover. “It’s the timing chain,” he explained. The upshot: the upper half of the engine needed to be rebuilt. It took 2,400 dollars, but I got it on the road again.

Sometime later I was on the road in Chicago, merging onto I-294 from I-90. A wall of traffic was approaching, so I pushed the pedal to the floor to get out in front of a speeding semi. It was barreling down on us when the Malibu suddenly lost power. I could almost hear the truck driver swearing as he slammed on his brakes. I limped off onto the shoulder and onto the I-55 entrance ramp. Four hours and 630 dollars later, I had a new catalytic converter and manifold.

It occurs to me that the Malibu is not the only vehicle I have with a fair number of miles on it.  Metaphorically speaking, my body has also passed the 150,000 mile mark. It’s been a reliable body – not anything fancy – but it’s got me where I’ve needed to go. Besides food and a few minor repairs, I’ve not had to spend much on maintenance. I feel fortunate.

I’ve attempted (for a while now, anyways) to take care of my body. I eat well, try to get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. But I know that my body, like my car, will encounter more problems as it racks up the miles. Maintenance costs are bound to go up, and time in “the shop” is sure to increase. Someday the timing chain will break.

I’m not one of those guys who trades in his car every few years. I get everything out of a car that I can, and I intend to do the same with my body. But imagine what the world would be like if medical science were to reach a place where it could provide body trade-ins. The rich would always be operating the latest model. Only the poor would try to make their bodies last.

Were this fantasy ever to become reality, the importance of the body to human spirituality might be forgotten. The body plays an enormously important role in an individual’s spiritual formation. It is with the body that spiritual disciplines are performed. It is in the body that habits are engrained, choices are made and character is shaped – for good or ill. The body, both when it is at peak performance and when it is ready for the junkyard (or graveyard) plays a vital role in a person’s spiritual development.

The biblical writers celebrate the gift of the body and take it seriously. Body hatred, often found in religion, it is antithetical to the Scriptures. The Bible sees the body as a good and powerful gift. Admittedly, it can be misused and even be poised to do evil, but it can also be used to love God and others. St. Paul summarized the biblical view of the body this way: “The body is … for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/17/2016

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You’ve Got to Believe It to See It

There is in Christianity an emphasis on faith that is, to my knowledge, unequalled in any major religion. In most religions, faith is presupposed. In Christianity it is demanded. In general, religions can be summed up with a set of propositions its followers believe, but Christianity is summed up in a person in whom his followers trust. As such, a Christian cannot be characterized solely by fixed beliefs about God, but by a dynamic belief in God.

The need for faith does not end when a person decides to become a Christian; that is, when he or she decides to trust and follow Jesus. Faith is not a passport that gets you into the heavenly country, and then is no longer required. It is more like the currency that is used in that country. Everything a person does in the kingdom of God requires faith.

The Christ-follower moves through life by faith. Four times in Scripture we are explicitly told that the righteous (those people accepted by God) live by faith. No one, no matter how long a Christian or how advanced in spiritual formation, outgrows the need for faith. The Christian life, as St. Paul put it, “is from faith to faith” (Romans 1:17, literal translation).

There is a fascinating example of the importance of faith in the Gospel of John. Before raising Lazarus, Jesus had to tell his disciples the sad news that their friend had died. Many of us have borne that difficult duty, but I doubt any of us ever did it the way Jesus did. He said, “Lazarus is dead and I am glad…” Imagine the shock waves that rolled over the disciples as they heard that their friend was dead and that their master was glad. But Jesus continued: “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe.”

How important belief must be if Jesus was glad that Lazarus’s death afforded his disciples an additional opportunity to believe! And consider who those disciples were: not novices, but apostles. They had been with Jesus night and day, were among the first to believe in him and to declare him Messiah. They had seen him calm a storm, feed thousands with a boy’s lunch, and give a congenitally blind man back his sight. And yet Jesus rejoices that these men, who had been with him and believed in him longer than anyone else, were going to have yet another opportunity to believe.

After all the remarkable things the apostles had seen, why would Jesus be excited about a new opportunity for them to believe? He wouldn’t be, if faith were nothing more than an arbitrary requirement for entrance into heaven. These men had already believed and had a place reserved for them in heaven. Yet Jesus rejoiced over the prospect of them believing again. What is it about belief that makes it so valuable?

Clearly belief, whatever else it is, is not an arbitrary requirement placed on humans by a self-obsessed God. Faith supplies something that nothing else – reciting a creed or praying five times a day or hopping on one foot – can provide. The very act of believing God does something in a person that nothing else can do.

The reason for that lies in the nature of belief. Trusting God cannot be an unaided act performed to meet a religious obligation, because trust always involves at least two people. It is a collaborative act. In the act of belief, trust meets trustworthiness, faith meets faithfulness. Trust opens the door of one’s life to another and, when that other is God himself, transforms those who have it.

Religious rituals alone, no matter how commendable, are incapable of that. Each time a person trusts God, he or she is transformed a little more into the person he or she was meant to be. That’s why, when people asked what was required to do God’s work, “Jesus told them, ‘This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.’” It is the foundation of everything else.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/10/2016

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Peacemakers Can Change the Calculus of Violence

This article is not meant to be controversial, though it does address a controversial topic: guns, mass shootings, the gun lobby and the anti-gun lobby. I offer no solution to the current debates over gun legislation and am not even sure there is one.

Both sides of the debate are entrenched in their positions and unwilling to change, which is what happens whenever fear frames a debate. After every shooting spree, the anti-gun lobby exclaims, “We have to do something!” and the gun lobby replies, “What you’re suggesting won’t help. In fact, it will only make things worse.” And both sides make legitimate points.

A political compromise seems remote, and even if one is found it will not solve the problem of violence. So rather than adding one more voice to the din, I want to address religious people generally and Christians in particular, on whichever side of the gun debate they find themselves. My concern is not legislative but moral, not political but spiritual.

After last year’s horrific attack in San Bernardino, Dr. Jerry Falwell, the president of Liberty University, called on students to take a concealed weapons permit course offered at the college. He went on to imply that if some of the people killed in San Bernardino had a conceal-carry permit – “…if they had had what I’ve got in my back pocket right now” – they would not have died.

That comment was guaranteed to stir the political pot, and perhaps that is what Dr. Falwell intended. What he went on to say, though, was ill-advised and unwise. He said, “I’ve always thought, if more good people had conceal carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in killing…. Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”

When a furor erupted over this comment, Falwell tweeted that his critics knew very well that he didn’t mean Muslims in general, but Muslim extremists. Still, the idea of the president of a Christian college talking about ending Muslims and exhorting Christians to “teach them a lesson” is profoundly disturbing, especially in the light of the anti-Muslim rhetoric sweeping the country.

Even if we take Dr. Falwell’s comments as he says he meant them (and I think we should), they undermine the biblical instruction to be people of peace. Whether one carries a gun or not, fights for second amendment rights or demands restrictions on gun ownership, if one is a  Christian, he or she should be known as a person of peace.

The biblical teaching is impressive. Christ’s followers are to “make every effort to do what leads to peace.” Further, St. Paul tells Christians, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” With everyone, not just Christians and not just Americans, but with everyone. God has called the people of Jesus “to live in peace.”

The Christian message is called “the gospel of peace” and Christians are to be ruled by the peace of Christ. The deity Christians worship and obey is known as “the God of peace.” The Bible teaches that this God has made peace, and has done so – it is worth noting – through sacrifice rather than through force.

Christians have been called to follow God’s example and be peacemakers. Jesus blessed those who make peace and promised that they would be called the children of God. Why? Because they bear the family resemblance. Christians are not only called to live at peace with others, but to facilitate peace between those who are opposed to each other.

For Christians, peace begins with reconciliation with God. Once a peaceful relationship has been established with him through faith in his Son, a state of inward peace becomes possible. And those at peace with God and with themselves have the ability to bring peace to others.

If guns – whether controlling them or carrying them – are the solution to violence in America, then there is reason to despair. But such a view is a gross oversimplification. What will change the calculus of violence is not gun ownership or gun control, but people – people who know, seek and make peace. And the people of Jesus are uniquely positioned to lead the way.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, September 3, 2016

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