Faith, and the Complexities of Being Human

According to the Pew Research Center, while “the vast majority of Americans still believe in God … there are strong signs that many are less certain about this belief than in years past.” Pew’s research is dependent upon what is known in probability theory as “The Law of Large Numbers,” which states that, given a large enough number of trials (in this case, surveys), the results will be close to the true value.

Pew’s research requires interviews with thousands of people to obtain a result that is representative of the general population. But what if, rather than asking 1,000 different people about the state of their faith, they were to ask the same person about the state of his or her faith 1,000 times, say over a period of ten years?

I suspect that there would be times when the person was “absolutely certain” (to use Pew’s language) of God, and other times when he or she would be less certain, or perhaps even doubtful. Such a result would be in line with our experience of faith and the complexities of being human.

Humans are, from a Christian theological perspective, complex. They are multifaceted or, more properly, multilayered. Humans don’t just have bodies. They are bodies. And yet, they are more than their bodies. They are also mind. But they are more than their minds; they are also souls. And soul itself is transcended in spirit. Each human being is, as G. K. Chesterton once described the Church, “larger on the inside than … on the outside.”

What this means, when it comes to faith, is that a person’s confidence in God (or at least his or her awareness of it) can increase or decrease in certainty, depending on where the person is in his or her development. That person’s development depends in turn upon a great many factors, not least of which is God himself.

Because people are multi-layered, a person can believe one day and doubt the next. But that’s not all: he can do both almost simultaneously. He can be traveling the highway of faith one moment and fall into a sinkhole of doubt the next. That sinkhole, however, is not something outside himself, but a place in himself where faith has not yet developed.

The classic expression of this is found in the Bible itself. A concerned father brought his ailing son to Jesus and pleaded, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responded, “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.”

“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’”

There can be no doubt that the father’s faith was real, but almost in the same moment he appeals for help with his unbelief, which was also real. There was room in the man for both, and there were significant patches of his interior landscape where faith had not yet taken root and grown.

As someone who has been privileged to accompany people on their spiritual journeys, I’ve seen the same kind of thing happen many times. Our experience of faith is not static but dynamic. We are not human beings exactly (at least, not yet) but “human becomings.” From where we look out of ourselves today we may not see God, but if we travel a little further in our “becoming,” we will. While the discovery of areas of unbelief can be troubling, it can also be helpful. It allows a person to choose faith, to act on it, and see it grow.

The dynamic nature of belief is not only exhibited in religious people, but in all people, even atheists. Around the next corner on the highway of doubt a solid rock of belief might be blocking the way. Elizabeth King provides a good example in her Washington Post article titled, “I’m an atheist. So why can’t I shake God?” Likewise, David Bowie described himself as “not quite an atheist… There’s a little bit that holds on.” Even Richard Dawkins runs occasionally into those places where his doubts are cast into doubt.

That’s the nature of being human. But it is the nature of God to help humans to believe even in the midst of their unbelief.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/21/2017

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The Gap Between the Self We Imagine and the Self We Are

There is more to any person than he or she realizes. As C. S. Lewis put it in the sermon he titled, “The Weight of Glory”: “You have never talked to a mere mortal…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

Thinking of the beauty and complexity – the richness – of a human life, I recently shared these words at the funeral of a retired teacher who was part of our church family:

“You knew Barb, but God’s knowledge of Barb exceeds yours to a greater degree than yours exceeds that 151 word obituary [that appeared in the paper]. Barb was deeper than you realize; a deep mine, filled with rich treasures. The things most people noticed – her compassionate spirit, her hospitality, and that ever-ready giggle – were like primroses and daffodils growing around the entrance to the mine. Barb herself knew only the main shafts, but God knew the treasures that were buried in the depths.

“Or knows. I’ve been speaking in the past tense, but God knows us in the present.  “He is not the God of the dead but of the living,” Jesus said, “for all are alive to him.” Barb is, I believe, more alive now than she has ever been; more alive than you or I. And those treasures that were hidden in her are still present, waiting to be discovered. You see, when God designed Barb, he placed within her a magnificent store of treasures, even though he knew that only a fraction of them would be discovered in this age. That pleasure of discovery will still be ours … and hers … and God’s, and there will be an eternity to admire and enjoy them. That’s how God planned it.”

There is often a large gap between the self we imagine and the self we are. The audio file linked below is about closing the gap – growing closer to our true selves.

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Holy Communion

What happens at the Communion Table is rich and full of mystery. As people try to sort through the various explanations – Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, Real Presence, Zwingli Memorialism, and more – they sometimes miss a simple but powerful truth: the Lord’s Supper is a covenant meal. First century participants would certainly have understood that, but it is all too easy for us to miss it. The covenant aspect of Holy Communion is consistent with any of traditional views but one can hold those views without regard for the meal’s covenant roots.

Here is teaching that might help make sense of what we do when we come to the Lord’s table. Just click on this link  and then click the sermon titled The Resistance.

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Life Is the Result of a Long Choosing

It used to be common to hear a new convert described as someone who had “got religion.” Occasionally one hears that phrase still. It makes religion sound like a disease. One gets religion like one gets a cold or a cancer. It happens to some people but not to others.

The trouble with this description, besides casting religion in an unfavorable light, is that it overlooks the role of personal choice. Admittedly, religious conversion involves more than the convert’s choice—God’s choice, for example, is even more important than the convert’s, and other people have a role to play as well—but the convert’s choice is nonetheless critical.

And that’s exactly what one would expect. After all, a person’s volition – his or her faculty for making choices – is an essential part of the conversion process. For this reason, forced conversions are always inimical to genuine spirituality and are counterproductive to the practice of faith (something ISIS has yet to learn).

Personal choice in conversion (at least in Christianity), is crucially important, and yet what a person is choosing is not obvious. Is she choosing to go to heaven when she dies? Is she choosing to believe certain doctrines about God and what he has done? Is she choosing Jesus for her teacher and leader? Is she doing all these things at once?

In my own experience, the first stage of conversion was founded on the thoroughly self-centered choice to avoid hell. That choice was the trailhead for my journey but not, thankfully, its terminus. I have gone on to see and desire many other things: to know God better and love him more, to become the true and complete person God intends me to be (to his glory and my joy), to bless others as one who is learning to do life the Jesus-way, and more.

Since making that first (admittedly) self-centered choice, my world has expanded dramatically, and it has done so in proportion to my own growth and change. I see so much more now than I did then and, because I see more, my ability to choose has grown. People sometimes criticize religion for limiting people’s choices. My experience has been just the opposite. Faith in God through Jesus has opened to me possibilities I otherwise would not have known existed.

Any description of conversion that ignores the role of personal choice fails to do justice to the scriptures, and yet the convert’s understanding of the choice he or she makes often varies from one person to the next. That leads one to wonder if there is any essential component, a sine qua non, to conversion.

Does conversion begin with one universally mandated choice? No, because conversion does not begin with a choice. It begins with a revelation, a new thought, a call beckoning one further in and further on. In other words, it begins with God.

Yet even though conversion does not begin with everyone making the same choice, it eventually leads everyone to the same choice: to confess (in biblical parlance) “Jesus is Lord.” This is the critical point in the conversion process. If a person, confronted with that choice, refuses to make it, the process will come to a halt. It may resume, but only when that choice is made.

All this takes for granted that conversion is more like a process than an event. Near the beginning of the process, a person turns (and is turned) to God with faith, but it doesn’t end there. That first choice opens the door to a multitude of others. The process of conversion proceeds along the line of those choices, converting a person from one loyalty to another, from one value system to another, from one worldview to another. Conversion is, to borrow Wendell Berry’s wise words, “the result of a long choosing, chosen and chosen again.”

The conversion process is not scheduled for completion in this lifetime. At present, the worksite is often littered with debris. But it will be worth it. When the process is complete – or, to be at once more precise and more biblical, when the person is complete – the convert will not only confess Jesus is Lord but will live Jesus is Lord.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/7/2017

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Is it Time for a New Morality?

Attitudes about the morality or immorality of various lifestyle choices are in constant flux. It may be that opinions about what is morally acceptable have always been fluid, but the current of change is moving faster today than ever before.

The increased speed of change is arguably related to society’s connectivity through broadcast and social media and to its lack of connectivity through the more permanent institutions of family, church and community. Today’s Americans are exposed to a continual storm of public opinion, and many no longer find refuge in home or church.

According to recent Gallup polls, what Americans think is moral or immoral has been changing across all age groups. The number of people who believe it is morally acceptable to view pornography has jumped by 30 percentage points in little more than a decade, including nearly half of those between 18 to 34.

Acceptance of premarital sex in general and sex between teens in particular has risen dramatically since 2002. Having children outside marriage, once under strong moral prohibition, is no longer even regarded as a moral issue by most people. Americans today are far more likely to grant the morality of gay and lesbian relations than they were just a decade ago.

Opinion shifts regarding issues of human sexuality are most obvious, but there have also been significant changes of opinion regarding non-sexual matters. For example, more people now consider doctor-assisted suicide to be a morally acceptable option. Fewer people regard the use of embryonic stem cells as morally unacceptable.

It is not just that people are accepting, frog-in-the-kettle like, behaviors that were once considered morally reprehensible. They are also rejecting behaviors that were once considered morally acceptable or at least neutral. Using ethnically insensitive language is now considered a serious moral failure. A growing number of people see the death penalty as morally reprehensible. The number of Americans who consider medical testing on animals to be immoral has increased by 14 percent since 2002.

What was once considered grossly immoral by most of the population now enjoys moral acceptance and, conversely, what was once considered normal by most people is now regarded by many as immoral. The North Carolina bathroom law is a case in point.

Based on the fluidity of moral opinion in history, some people have concluded that morality is a merely human construct and is entirely subjective. Others maintain that the great body of moral beliefs has remained consistent over time, suggesting an objective morality exists that transcends human opinion. They argue that moral beliefs are like the ocean. The surface is often roiled and undulating but the great depths remain the same.

Although ethicists have not been able to come to agreement on the nature of morality, it is hard for anyone to deny that humans are moral beings through and through. In the 1950s, many people (including ethicists) considered homosexuals to be moral degenerates. In the second decade of the 21st century, many people (including ethicists) consider homophobes to be moral degenerates. What remains true, however, is that humans cannot escape the sense that some things are right and some are wrong. Whether new morality or old, there is always some morality.

Some biologists have tried to explain this inescapable moral compunction through evolutionary theory, though many ethicists have found their explanations philosophically unsophisticated and unconvincing. Even if evolutionary theory could explain how behaviors came to be considered right or wrong on prudential grounds, it fails to provide a bridge capable of supporting the weighty transition to genuine moral values.

It is highly unlikely that an evolutionary past could push us into our current moral state. It is also doubtful that morality has simply been thrust upon us from above by the threat of divine judgment, for this too would reduce morality to nothing more than prudent self-interest.

That’s not the morality we know, which always develops relationally. At its core is the longing to be right with others, including (most notably) the Creator. An evolutionary past cannot push us into morality nor can divine fiat pressure us into it, but God’s gracious invitation to relationship and to wholeness can draw us to it.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/31/2016

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The Day That Christmas Died

The so-called “War on Christmas” has been prosecuted for the past few years around the United States. It started with community leaders removing nativity scenes from town squares because of complaints from non-Christians, mostly atheists. Then came Walmart’s notorious instruction to employees to wish people “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” Last year, when Starbuck’s changed the design of their holiday cup (which changes every year), some people saw it as another sneak attack on Christmas.

Whether any of this denotes a war on Christmas is a matter of debate. Non-Christians think their Christian counterparts need to stop being so paranoid, and some Christians agree. The popular Christian author Rachel Held Evans made light of Christians who feel persecuted because someone wished them a happy holiday rather than a merry Christmas: “You are not being persecuted,” she wrote. Yet others disagree, claiming that the “War on Christmas” is just one battlefield in a larger war on Christianity.

Is there really a war on Christmas? It is hard to be sure. We may be witnessing an intentional assault on Christmas or we may just be seeing the collapse of Christian traditions generally, brought on by stress or old age, crumbling like a medieval cathedral. That is just the kind of thing Malcom Muggeridge predicted in his prophetic lecture series from 1978 entitled “The End of Christendom.” As Christendom collapses under its own weight, valued traditions will inevitably fall with it.

Whether we are currently living through a “war on Christmas” may be up for debate, but there can be no debate that Christmas has been victimized by war in the past. It was on December 25, 1647 that Christmas was reportedly killed.

“Christmas” (probably an assumed name) was a demonstrator in Ipswich, England, who had taken to the streets to protest a law passed in June of that year that made the celebration of Christmas a punishable offence. “Christmas” was reportedly killed by police in the ensuing riot, just as Christmas had been reportedly killed by an act of Parliament in the House of Commons.

In London on that same day, a crowd of laborers decorated the water tower with holly and ivy. When the police ordered them to disperse and they refused, troops were sent in to quell the riot. On that same day in Canterbury, where Christmas celebrations were an integral part of the city’s identity, rioters smashed the windows of shops that opened on Christmas Day.

The war on Christmas had begun eighty years earlier in the anti-popish Kirk of Scotland. There was a truce in the early 1600s, but it broke out again with a furor in the 1630s. In 1642 there was a genuine civil war between the king and Parliament, in which the royalists upheld the celebration of Christmas and the Parliament, led by Cromwell and others, rejected it.

The fascinating thing is that both sides, the pro-Christmas demonstrators and the anti-Christmas legislators, insisted that their views represented a biblical perspective. Unlike the current so-called “war on Christmas,” this one was being waged by so-called Christians. The celebration of the birth of Christ had become the occasion of violence against Christians, and had done so without any help at all from antagonistic “heathens.”

If we are indeed going through another war on Christmas, it is hardly the first. Christmas has been attacked by Puritans in England, by atheists in France (who referred to it as “Dog Day” after the revolution), by Soviets in the wake of Red October, by Chinese communists and many others (including, incidentally, the City of Boston during the late 17th century).

What should people who care about Christmas do when they see its importance being challenged? They should remember the distinction between Christmas and the event it celebrates. Throughout history, the celebration of Christmas has been marked by absurdities from within and violence from without. It has experienced the ebb and flow of popularity. But the event it commemorates stands undiminished. No assault on Christmas can ever undo what has been accomplished through the birth of Christ.

And that’s something to celebrate.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/24/2016

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Need Help Getting Ready for Christmas?

If you’re been wrapping presents but haven’t really wrapped your head around Christmas yet, you might want to listen to the Christmas sermons from Decembers 4 (The Story Behind the Story), December 11 (The Man from Heaven) and December 18 (The Counter-Attack). You can listen here.

Merry Christmas!

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