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Sin Is the Broken People Society Creates

Sin Is the Broken People Society Creates →

Earlier this week, I found this post that Pastor Trey Ferguson wrote a year ago. It stuck in my mind and I’ve been thinking about it all week. I’ve heavily excerpted it, to the parts that have been making me think. (You should probably go read the whole thing; there may be other parts that speak to you.)

When personal piety alone is the key to discerning and overcoming sin, we have missed the plot.

When we fail to think of sin as something that surrounds us in both individual and communal ways, we have failed to grasp the fullness of the gospel. It is one thing if Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection were a means to teaching us self control. That news is not as good as we have been led to believe. It is an entirely different matter if Jesus’s execution (having been declared by the cooperation of a religious establishment that had begun to work in concept with an imperial state) was nullified by His Resurrection and began a movement of people who would no longer accept the status quo peacefully.

Sin is bigger than how we govern ourselves on a personal level. In truth, the sins that we are prone to committing individually are often a result of the sinful systems and environments that we have been born into. In that way, we are products of our environment. This truth is affirmed by the Psalmist who acknowledges being born and shaped in sin. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we do not have to stay that way.

In following Jesus, we can speak truthfully to and about the traditions and practices of both our religion and whoever may be governing our homeland at the time. We can say “you do not get to determine your freedom at my expense.” The way of Jesus says that wholeness is the goal, and not control. Jesus, being the Good Shepherd speaks to a flock that recognizes that, yes – sometimes our wholeness requires us looking beyond our individual desires so that our gain does not come at the cost of someone else’s loss. Liberty is not a zero sum game. Jesus speaks in a way that acknowledges the shortcomings of many current traditions (even as practiced by those with “orthodox” theologies) because the way of Jesus recognizes that traditions that do not serve the Beloved of God do not serve the God of the Beloved.

So, when I think about sin, I try to think about more than just the things we feel shame about and desire to hide. I think about the society we live in, and the many broken people it creates.

I thank God that Jesus didn’t stay dead, and that we do not have to accept such a reality as “the way things are”.

I thank God that, through Jesus of Nazareth, there is victory over sin.

What Even Is a Lectionary?

I’m posting occasional “Reactions to the Daily Lectionary”. What even is a lectionary? Let’s take it from my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

This lectionary provides a three-year series of readings for Sunday starting with the season of Advent, four weeks before Christmas Day. For each Sunday and festival, three readings and a psalm are suggested and include: a Gospel reading, an Old Testament reading, and a New Testament reading. The lectionary is a work of The Consultation on Common Texts, an ecumenical consultation of liturgical scholars and denominational representatives from the United States and Canada, who produce liturgical texts for use in common by North American Christian Churches.

Each year of the Revised Common Lectionary centers on one of the synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke. The Gospel of John is read periodically in all three years and is especially frequent in Year B.

… The daily readings provide a psalm and two Scripture readings for each day between Sundays. The foundational premise of this set of daily readings is their relationship to the Sunday lectionary. The readings are chosen so that the days leading up to Sunday (Thursday through Saturday) prepare for the Sunday readings. The days flowing out from Sunday (Monday through Wednesday) reflect upon the Sunday readings.

The Vanderbilt Divinity Library has some great resources for the Revised Common Lectionary, including calendars that you can subscribe to in Google Calendar, iCal, and Outlook as well as an RSS feed for the daily and weekly readings.

Reacting to the Daily Lectionary

Today's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.
Semi-continuous: Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Isaiah 9:18-10:4; Acts 7:1-8
Complementary: Psalm 33:12-22; Ecclesiastes 6:1-6; Acts 7:1-8

Part One

A common argument in favor of abortion is that many children would otherwise be born into poverty; to mothers who can’t afford the children that they already have; to teen girls who will be forced to drop out of school and fall into poverty, to mothers who will be forced to give up the careers or the lifestyle that they might otherwise have enjoyed.

Pro-lifers respond that every life is valuable, that someone’s hopes and dreams shouldn’t doom an innocent child to death, and that anyway being born into poverty is better than dying or never living.

Interestingly, the Preacher didn’t agree.

A man may father a hundred children and live many years, but however many are the days of his years, if he does not enjoy life’s good things or has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered; moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he.

Ecclesiastes 6:3-5

The Preacher argues that life isn’t worth living if you can’t enjoy the good things of life. The Preacher argues that it’s better to be born dead than to go through life in misery and deprivation. The still born child has more rest than the man without good things. And we know that this is true: poverty brings with it fear and stress. And stress alone can cause a host of health problems. A life in poverty can be a miserable life.

Does this mean that the Preacher would have been in favor of abortions, for children likely to be born into poverty? I don’t know. Where is the dividing line between “enjoying life’s good things” and not? Which good things? How much enjoyment? Are we talking being born into crushing poverty in a third-world country? Are we talking about being poor in America? What about being born into a war zone or during an ethnic cleansing?

The Preacher doesn’t answer these questions or provide a detailed set of criteria and guidelines. He’s not interested in telling us what to do; he wants to make us think. This passage makes me pause and consider whether the circumstances matter more than I used to think. And it makes me less certain about my own beliefs and slower to condemn others for their choices.

Part Two

It’s trendy in conservative Christian circles to slam “wokeness” and to declare that it has nothing to do with God, the Gospel, or Christianity. But “wokeness” is just being awake to the injustices of the world. And, say the prophets, you very definitely want to be awake to injustice. Tolerating injustice is bad. Very bad. God doesn’t like it when you tolerate injustice and he tends to react … poorly.

For wickedness burned like a fire,
    consuming briers and thorns;
it kindled the thickets of the forest,
    and they swirled upward in a column of smoke.
Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts
    the land was burned,
and the people became like fuel for the fire;
    no one spared another.
They gorged on the right but still were hungry,
    and they devoured on the left but were not satisfied;
they devoured the flesh of their own kindred;
Manasseh devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh,
    and together they were against Judah.
For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.

Time out! That’s all very bad. What wickedness prompted God to become this angry?

Woe to those who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
to make widows their spoil
    and to plunder orphans!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth,
so as not to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain?
For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.

Isaiah 9:18-10:4

This was prompted by God’s people being asleep to injustice against the poor, the needy, and orphans. Are you sure—absolutely sure—that you want to crusade against “wokeness”?

Reacting to the Daily Lectionary

Today's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.
Semi-continuous: Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Isaiah 9:8-17; Romans 9:1-9
Complementary: Psalm 33:12-22; Job 21:1-16; Romans 9:1-9

Much attention is paid to the sufferings of Job. I think the sarcasms of Job get overlooked. That man could roast his “friends”.

Then Job answered:

“Listen carefully to my words,
    and let this be your consolation.
Bear with me, and I will speak;
    then after I have spoken, mock on.

Job 21:1–3

The Three Deaths of Goliath

The Old Testament contains not one, not two, but three different versions of how Goliath of Gath died in battle. I learned this courtesy of Paul Davidson, at his blog “Is That in the Bible?”, writing about The Men Who Killed Goliath.

In fact, the story of Goliath—or some of the major details, at least—likely date from hundreds of years after King David.

An image of a fourth century Greek hoplite, armored, and holding a long javelin.

Historians have noted that Goliath’s description does not match anything that would have been worn by a Philistine or any other ANE warrior during the time of David; rather, his martial getup is very much like that of a Greek hoplite mercenary of the 7th–5th centuries (including the two spears and a sword — see Finkelstein 2002), and his description suggests a Homeric warrior like the heroes of the Iliad. The idea of single combat between two champions to determine the outcome of larger conflict also finds parallels in the Iliad: the duels between Paris and Menelaus, Hector and Ajax, and Nestor and the giant Ereuthalion. (Close similarities between 1 Samuel 17 and the Iliad are pointed out in West 214, 370, and 376.) This makes it further unlikely that the story is anything beyond a creative tale of heroism ascribed to David many, many centuries after he might have lived.

The story that appears last in the text (2 Samuel 21:15–22) is probably the first version that existed. In this one, Elhanan the Bethlehemite kills Goliath.

Story 3

The Philistines went to war again with Israel, and David went down together with his servants. They fought against the Philistines, and David grew weary. Ishbi-benob, one of the descendants of the giants, whose spear weighed three hundred shekels of bronze and who was fitted out with new weapons,[a] said he would kill David. But Abishai son of Zeruiah came to his aid and attacked the Philistine and killed him. Then David’s men swore to him, “You shall not go out with us to battle any longer, so that you do not quench the lamp of Israel.”

After this a battle took place with the Philistines at Gob; then Sibbecai the Hushathite killed Saph, who was one of the descendants of the giants. Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob, and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. There was again war at Gath, where there was a man of great size who had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, twenty-four in number; he, too, was descended from the giants. When he taunted Israel, Jonathan son of David’s brother Shimei killed him. These four were descended from the giants in Gath; they fell by the hands of David and his servants.

You should read Paul’s entire post. I found all of it fascinating. I’m only going to share the bit about how the second and third stories are intermixed with each other, in 1 Samuel 17–18.

One of the versions is completely missing from the Greek Septuagint, which was apparently translated from Hebrew into Greek, based on an earlier version of 1 Samuel. The later Masoretic Text includes the later version, which was apparently edited into the first story later on.

Paul Davidson separated out the version that appeared in the Septuagint and the later details from the Masoretic Text into two separate stories. As you’ll see, they stand on their own as two separate versions of how David met Saul and how he came to fight Goliath.

Story 1

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome to the Lord. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to [Ramah/Harmathaim].

Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, “See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and it will be good for you, and you will feel better.” So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.” One of the young men answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.” So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, “Send me your son David who is with the sheep.” Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.” And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. Saul and the Israelites gathered and encamped in the valley of Elah, and formed ranks against the Philistines. The Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. And there came out from the [camp/battle line] of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was [six/four] cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze and iron. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not [servants/Hebrews] of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.”

And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God. Shall I not go and smite him and take away today a reproach from Israel?” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this uncircumcised Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”

Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the man, the Philistine.

When [the man/Goliath] looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And David said, “No, but worse than a dog.” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.

The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give your carcasses and the carcasses of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone penetrated through the helmet into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.

When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. The troops of Israel and Judah rose up with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as [Gai/Gath] and the gates of [Ekron/Ashkelon], so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron. The Israelites came back from chasing the Philistines, and they plundered their camp. David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armor in his tent.

Story 2

Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years. The three eldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle; the names of his three sons who went to the battle were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah. David was the youngest; the three eldest followed Saul. For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.

Jesse said to his son David, “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers; also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See how your brothers fare, and bring some token from them.”

Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. David rose early in the morning, left the sheep with a keeper, took the provisions, and went as Jesse had commanded him. He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage, ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him.

All the Israelites, when they saw the man, fled from him and were very much afraid. The Israelites said, “Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. The king will greatly enrich the man who kills him, and will give him his daughter and make his family free in Israel.” David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” The people answered him in the same way, “So shall it be done for the man who kills him.”

His eldest brother Eliab heard him talking to the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David. He said, “Why have you come down? With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.” David said, “What have I done now? It was only a question.” He turned away from him toward another and spoke in the same way; and the people answered him again as before.

When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him.

The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him.

David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine.

So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand.

When Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this young man?” Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.” The king said, “Inquire whose son the stripling is.” On David’s return from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand. Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?” And David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”

but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him; as a result, Saul set him over the army. And all the people, even the servants of Saul, approved.

The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand; and Saul threw the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice...

…because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul.

Then Saul said to David, “Here is my elder daughter Merab; I will give her to you as a wife; only be valiant for me and fight the Lord’s battles.” For Saul thought, “I will not raise a hand against him; let the Philistines deal with him.” David said to Saul, “Who am I and who are my kinsfolk, my father’s family in Israel, that I should be son-in-law to the king?” But at the time when Saul’s daughter Merab should have been given to David, she was given to Adriel the Meholathite as a wife.

So Saul was David’s enemy from that time forward.

Then the commanders of the Philistines came out to battle; and as often as they came out, David had more success than all the servants of Saul, so that his fame became very great.

Therefore Saul said to David a second time, “You shall now be my son-in-law.”

This entry was tagged. Analysis Bible

Love Thy American Neighbor

A congregation of White men and women worships at First Baptist Church in the town of Luverne, Alabama.

This article—and this passage—has lived in my head, since I first read it, nearly 4 years ago. If you’ve talked politics with me, I’ve likely mentioned it at least once.

A Jewish theologian once asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. Jesus responded by giving his own twist on the Shema.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

How do American Christians hear, understand, and follow Jesus’s words? Let’s check in with some good, Christian, God-fearing folks from rural Alabama.

God, Trump and the meaning of morality — The Washington Post

Linda nodded. It wasn’t just Muslims that posed a threat, she said, but all kinds of immigrants coming into the country.

“Unpapered people,” Sheila said, adding that she had seen them in the county emergency room and they got treated before her. “And then the Americans are not served.”

Love thy neighbor, she said, meant “love thy American neighbor.”

Welcome the stranger, she said, meant the “legal immigrant stranger.”

“The Bible says, ‘If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me,’ ” Sheila said, quoting Jesus. “But the least of these are Americans, not the ones crossing the border.”

To her, this was a moral threat far greater than any character flaw Trump might have, as was what she called “the racial divide,” which she believed was getting worse. The evidence was all the black people protesting about the police, and all the talk about the legacy of slavery, which Sheila never believed was as bad as people said it was. “Slaves were valued,” she said. “They got housing. They got fed. They got medical care.”

Luke tells of a situation in which another theologian quoted the Shema to Jesus, as the qualification for gaining eternal life. Then he wanted Jesus to praise him for how well he was following this commandment and asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” That’s when Jesus busted out the story of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.

When Jesus finished telling the story, he asked a question of his own.

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

When it comes to being Jesus’s people, there is no distinction between neighbors and American neighbors. There is no distinction between strangers and “legal immigrant strangers.” These good, Christian, God-fearing folks from rural Alabama don’t know their Bible and don’t know the love that Jesus taught, lived, and died for.

If “they will know that we are Christians by our love”, what are we to make of this rural, Alabama church that only shows love to people like them, and that disdains and fears everyone else? What are we to make of the great mass of American evangelicals who live like them, love like them, worship like them, and believe like them?

Choose You This Day: Aftermath

The Council was caught off guard by our request and asked if they could talk it over before making a decision.

We waited for two weeks before getting the final answer. They initially thought that we were overreacting to seeing an American flag or two in the sanctuary. Their feelings changed after finding photos of last year’s service. Seeing the photos reminded them of how over the top the display was. Several of the people on the Council had also been uncomfortable when they came into church that Sunday morning.

After looking at the photos, reviewing our written request, and talking it over, the Council came to the same conclusion that we did. They made a decision that future services can acknowledge patriotism, but will be much more restrained. Only one or two flags in the sanctuary. And while we won’t sing patriotic anthems, the Lutheran hymnal does have some approved patriotic hymns that the worship leaders can use.

We didn’t hear the Council’s decision until Sunday, after attending the Memorial Day service. We didn't know what to expect when we walked in, and were pleasantly surprised by what we didn’t see. There was only one flag in the sanctuary and it was tucked into a back corner. We sang a patriotic hymn, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. We had a short video commemorating those who died in uniform. And that was it.

Best of all, the message was based on John 17:20-26 and focused on the need for all Christians to be one, free of divisions, so that the world will know that God sent Jesus to show God’s love to everyone, everywhere.

Choose You This Day

Last year, I walked out of the church on July 4th Sunday. When my wife and I walked into church, we immediately noticed the explosion of flags around the organ and piano. We both did our best to ignore it. She was more successful than I was.

I hit my breaking point when we started singing “My Country, Tis of Thee” and I saw that the background of the slide had a soldier saluting the flag. I walked out and skipped the rest of the service.

For the past year, we’ve been talking, on and off, about that service and how much it disturbed us both. We weren’t sure what to do about it, but we knew that we didn‘t want to go through another service like July 4, 2021. I definitely didn’t want to walk into another patriotic service that I’d just have to walk out of.

We finally decided to do the most obvious thing and talk to church leadership about it. We wrote down our concerns and the reasons for them, then worked with a friend to turn it all into a specific request. We joined the May meeting of the Congregational Council and read it to them.

Our Request

We would like the Council to keep the church free of patriotic symbols and imagery, around July 4th and every other week. Without casting aspersion on those who put up the flags in the past, who almost certainly thought nothing of it, we feel that such symbols and imagery are blasphemous here.

Jesus told Pontius Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world. It’s separate from this world and it’s above every earthly power. Every nation ultimately bows to Jesus. When we allow American flags and imagery to force their way into the church, when we allow patriotic songs to replace religious songs, it’s inarguable that America is intruding on God’s space and demanding our allegiance!

A pastor that I learned from in college referred to Christians as ambassadors for God. That we are the presence of God in our daily lives and should demonstrate God’s first importance everywhere we are. That’s stuck with me ever since. You’re not gonna see the British embassy putting up American flags on July 4. They represent Britain first, last, and always. Christians should take that as a hint.

The Church should be the vanguard of the Kingdom of God, and not aligned with any race, ethnicity, or nationality. The Sanctuary should be a true sanctuary, where all believers regardless of background or national origin or earthly loyalty can worship together free of national divisions.

What Scripture Says

Isaiah welcomed the foreigner to God’s House and said it was “a house of prayer for all peoples”. Jesus said he would gather all the sheep into His flock and “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” He told Pilate, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” and “my kingdom is not from here.”

Paul echoed this, multiple times. For him, it was a theme that followers of Christ became something new, something set apart from their original heritage and loyalty.

To the Colossians:

“you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God … you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, enslaved and free, but Christ is all and in all!”

To the Corinthians:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

To the Galatians:

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

In 1 Peter, the author also says that people who follow Christ have become a separate nation.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

In Closing

For a very long time, I’ve thought of the church as a place where God’s people can worship as one, setting aside our other loyalties for an hour or two. Speaking bluntly, when I walked in last July 4th and I saw our church bathed in patriotic decorations, I felt sick to my stomach. Consciously or not, RLC was betraying its mission and allowing God’s House to be turned into a pep rally for America.

We would like the Council to keep the church free of patriotic symbols and imagery, around Memorial Day, July 4th, and every other week of the year.

While talking to the Council, I paraphrased the Scripture passages that had shaped our thinking. After talking to the them, I emailed the request to everyone and included the unabridged passages.

Isaiah 56:6-8

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath and do not profane it
and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar,
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel:
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.

John 10:16

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

John 18:35

Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Colossians 3:1–17

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

… you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, enslaved and free, but Christ is all and in all!

1 Corinthians 10:31–33

So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage but that of many, so that they may be saved.

1 Corinthians 12:12-13

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Galatians 3:27–29

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

1 Peter 2:4-10

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

This honor, then, is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner,”

and

“A stone that makes them stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

Revelation 5:9–10

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to break its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.”

Revelation 7:9

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Up next: How did they respond to our request?

The Saltless Christianity of Bethlehem Baptist

Bethlehem Baptist Church, the church that grew to prominence under Pastor John Piper, is convulsing. Jean Hopfensperger has the story and I have a few thoughts.

What’s been happening?

Three pastors have abruptly resigned this summer from Bethlehem Baptist Church of Minneapolis, signaling “a painful and confusing moment” at a megachurch that gained national prominence under longtime pastor John Piper.

The pastors cited several reasons for resigning, including how the church’s leadership council has handled race and diversity issues, and what one labeled a “bullying” and “toxic” culture toward those who hold different opinions.

At least one of the pastors said he was disturbed over the council’s refusal to distance the church from remarks about abused women by the incoming president of the church’s college and seminary.

“I believe our leadership culture has taken a turn in an unhealthy direction as we try to navigate conflict and division,” Meyer wrote in his July resignation letter. “Institutional protection can go too far when other viewpoints are unwelcome.”

Former care and counseling pastor Bryan Pickering, who also resigned, went further and claimed there was “domineering leadership, spiritual abuse and a toxic culture.”

interviews and correspondence with the departing pastors and congregation members point to several underlying issues.

One stems from church officials’ response to a “racial harmony” task force in 2019, which analyzed the diversity of the church’s leadership or lack thereof, and made numerous recommendations to recruit and retain members to the council, made up overwhelmingly of white men.

Task force members wanted the 85-page report to be sent to the congregation, but it wasn’t. Some elders charged the report was influenced by Marxism and critical race theory, task force members said. The elders now say the report will be released.

“We believe that in the absence of biblical clarity, ethnic harmony becomes a ‘wax nose’ that we can shape and twist any way we like,” according to a Council of Elders statement. “We simply cannot allow politics or secular culture to define our terms or determine our beliefs.”

Hold up. There is an absence of Biblical clarity on the topic of “ethnic harmony”? I would have thought that Revelation 7 succinctly summarized God’s perspective: “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

Likewise, talking about “the sins of racism” or spousal abuse from the pulpit was not welcomed, Pickering said.

I can understand that. When people are hurting and the culture outside of the church is talking about the ways in which people have been hurt, abandoned, and attacked, we absolutely would not want to give anyone the impression that the Bible might have anything relevant to say on the matter. Taking a stand could offend someone. And that someone might be wealthy and influential. Better to keep quiet and preserve our relationships with the powerful.

Another flash point occurred after church members became aware of Bethlehem College and Seminary President Joe Rigney’s appearance on an episode of “Man Rampant,” an Amazon Prime video series hosted by controversial religious figure Doug Wilson. In a discussion about what to do when a woman reports physical abuse to a pastor, Wilson and Rigney stressed it was important not to immediately believe her until they’ve heard the abuser’s side of the story.

Yes! The woman was probably mouthing off to her husband, neglecting her most important responsibilities (such as catering to her husband’s every whim), or voting for the wrong people. Regardless, she likely had it coming and once you’ve heard his side of the story you’ll understand exactly why he was justified in hitting her.

Upset church members introduced a motion at a Council of Elders meeting this year, asking that the full council “make a written, public statement separating the views expressed by Joe Rigney in Man Rampant from the views and teachings of Bethlehem Baptist Church.”

A council member who had given the episode a five-star online review threatened to resign if the motion passed. It was tabled.

Of course it was. Whatever else American evangelical Christians are, they’re moral cowards. It’s more important to coddle the powerful and defer to their feelings than it is to take a stand for truth and righteousness.

Church leaders declined to sanction a seminary professor who had been accused by a dozen students of abusive behavior. An investigation later determined there were no legal violations.

Oh. No legal violations. Professors can act like any kind of asshole that they like as long they don’t actually break the law. A seminary professor certainly has no higher moral or ethical standard that they should live by. All of those fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—are for other people.

Stokes attributes some of the tensions and resignations at Bethlehem to the impact of the nation’s climate of polarization.

“You talk about racial issues too much, and some people will say ‘I’m leaving the church,’ “ he said. “You don’t talk enough about racial issues, and people say ‘I’m leaving.’ “

So he admits it: people will leave regardless. The only thing you get to choose is why people will leave and what you’ll stand for. Stokes is on the side of standing quietly by while evil is done, being complicit in that evil, and retaining the good opinion of both the evildoers and those who don’t want to hear about the existence of evil.

I believe Jesus had something to say about this as well.

“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

How a Sean Feucht worship service convinced me I am no longer an evangelical

D.L. Mayfield wrote about her recent experiences as both an evangelical Christian and a Black Lives Matter supporter. How she feels is how I feel. I felt like I knew what I believed and that the subcommunity that I grew up in believed the same things. Then George Floyd was murdered and civil rights supporters started organizing Black Lives Matter protests. And I found out that many of “my people” cared more for White nationalism than they did for Biblical faithfulness and love.

How a Sean Feucht worship service convinced me I am no longer an evangelical

One can’t simply wish or pretend away what they are, I thought. Even though I felt confused, heartbroken and betrayed by the marriage of nationalism and Christianity I saw on full display in my community, that didn’t make me a sudden outsider. I simply was an evangelical; I had been born one — a home-schooled pastor’s kid who went to a Bible college to be a missionary — and I would remain one (until I got kicked out, I joked with my friends).

As a freelance writer who wrote primarily for evangelical audiences, I thought maybe I had a unique opportunity to evangelize my own people. They were, after all, the ones who raised me to love God and read the Bible, to become a disciple of Jesus. Surely they might be open to seeing how their views on immigration, police brutality, war, unchecked capitalism, the prison industrial complex and more might be at odds with the message of Jesus?

I should have believed my community when they told me over and over again exactly who they are.

Her experience attending a Christian counter-protest disguised as a concert just emphasized the gulf between her Biblical beliefs and their nationalist, White-supremacist beliefs.

Just standing on the edge of the worshipping crowd was enough to draw the ire and attention of many folks. For almost two hours I was constantly confronted, yelled at, livestreamed, prayed over and told I was not a real Christian (for the record, I was simply holding a sign that had a Bible verse on it).

I was not prepared for how much worse this would be than tear gas. I was not prepared for the pit in my stomach as I saw the thousands of Christians gathered, without masks, triumphantly singing songs to God, hands in the air and all eyes turned toward the worship leader on stage.

The person leading the event, Sean Feucht, has a mass of curly blond hair and is known for being opportunistic when it comes to marrying politics with worship leading. Feucht, a vocal Trump supporter and former congressional candidate, has been raising money to travel to spots in the United States where horrific deaths at the hands of police have taken place or where long-term protests in support of Black Lives Matter are going on. He sings happy songs about God being on his side, the speakers turned up to full volume in order to literally drown out the protesters’ cries for justice.

I knew almost every word to the songs the group was singing — but I could not bring myself to sing along.

Surrounded on all sides by people with arms raised high, eyes closed, joy and certainty shining on the faces of the true believers, it hit me: We read the same Bible, and we all call ourselves Christians. But we are not singing to the same God. I could no longer pretend otherwise.

This entry was tagged. Christianity Racism Black Lives Matter

Veterans Day Is Not a Christian Holiday

I've been growing and evolving my religious beliefs and political positions over the past 15 years. I may have changed the most in my attitude towards the American military and the hero worship that American evangelicals have for our military. I grew up in a conservative household, in a Navy town. I was surrounded by active duty and retired members of the military, both in my extended family and among my friends' parents and my parents' friends.

Our church was typical of many. Every July 4th, we'd celebrate America and its armed forces. Representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines would carry their service's flag down to the front of the church, as the service's march was played. The American flag would be prominently honored as well. Every Veterans Day Sunday, we would ask all members of the military to stand, to be honored for their service. I thought this was only just and right, as America was a Christian nation and these men and women protected us and helped to enact America's will and — by extension — God's will.

That's all changed. I can't abide churches mixing the worship of God and the worship of American military might. Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God. Our first allegiance should be to God. If He is a jealous God, as we say He is, we shouldn't be bringing other powers into His church, to praise, honor, and venerate. God's house should be holy — set apart to God and God alone.

I've also become a peacenik. I no longer see American military might as a good thing and I no longer see the demonstration of American power as something to desire. Violence is violence and we should always mourn it and do everything we can to prevent it. In Foundation, Isaac Asimov's character Salvor Hardin says that "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent". I'm idealistic enough to believe that's true. I haven't become a full-fledged pacifist, but I do believe that we should avoid military force unless we've truly exhausted every other solution and we have no choice.

In that light, I read Brian Doherty's recent article for Reason.com, "No More Vietnam Syndrome". Here, he's talking about the results of America's military efforts since 9/11.

After September 11, 2001, the U.S. military fully re-entered the world stage. The last 17 years have seen a variety of wars, quasiwars, and ongoing interventions with a mix of shifting rationales, from revenge for the attacks to spreading peaceful democracy in the Middle East to targeting specific bad actors to simply helping our Saudi allies as they work to reduce Yemen to a charnel house. None of these more recent efforts have worked out well on a geopolitical level. Meant to end Islamic terrorism worldwide, our post-9/11 warmaking multiplied it. A 2007 study by NYU researchers found that the average yearly number and fatality rate of terror attacks rose by 607 percent and 237 percent respectively after we entered Iraq in 2003. If you exclude violence in that country, the increases were still 265 and 58 percent; most jihadis in subsequent years were radicalized by the invasion itself.

Meant to crush Al Qaeda, our interventions have expanded its breadth and numbers; meant to create stable democracies in the Middle East, they've helped reduce Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen to the same sort of chaos that bred the terror in Afghanistan that began this whole bloody, pointless process.

These various post-9/11 foreign policy failures have cost our debt-riddled nation at least $1.5 trillion in direct costs, according to a recent Defense Department report, and more than $5 trillion in ancillary costs—such as interest and future veterans expenses—according to a 2017 analysis by the Watson Center at Brown University. In constant 2018 dollars, the Defense Department will spend this year in excess of 50 percent more than it did in 1968.

But the more hideous cost—especially poignant for those who remember the cries of "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"—is in lives. That same Watson Center study estimates that there have been 370,000 deaths from direct war violence since 2001; 200,000 civilian deaths; and over 10 million people displaced by the harm to property and municipal functionality. Alas, this human and social misery is obscured by consistent, deliberate use of bloodless rhetoric. American foreign policy professionals and pundits somehow manage to look at our costly failings and the world's suffering—all that money, all that death—and think the answer is that the U.S. military should have done more, and smarter, and harder.

If only the lessons of Vietnam, or even of Iraq, would actually stick. We can't expect the aftereffects of this century's foreign policy sins to be short-lived. Laos still suffers dozens of deaths a year because of 80 million unexploded bombs left behind by the Vietnam War. The casualties of our drone wars may be their own variety of unexploded ordnance, as generations grow up in the literal and figurative shadows of insufficiently discriminating robot death machines in the sky, courtesy of the United States.

As a Christian — not as an American, but as a Christian — are you proud of these results? Can you truly look at them and say that America was "doing the Lord's work"? I can't. I supported the Iraq War in 2003, but I don't support it now. There is nothing to cheer in the ongoing military operations in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria, and in Yemen. And there's certainly nothing Christian in what the U.S. military is doing around the world today. Let's stop pretending that there is, let's stop treating Veterans Day as a church holiday, and let's stop confusing patriotism with religious devotion.

Christ, the Church, and Pat Robertson

Christ, the Church, and Pat Robertson →

It is past time for Christians around the U.S. to make it abundantly clear that Pat Robertson is not one of us and does not speak for us.

When my wife and I married, we were very consciously thinking of these types of scenarios when we promised fidelity "in sickness and in health".

This week on his television show Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said a man would be morally justified to divorce his wife with Alzheimer’s disease in order to marry another woman. The dementia-riddled wife is, Robertson said, “not there” anymore. This is more than an embarrassment. This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

...

Sadly, many of our neighbors assume that when they hear the parade of cartoon characters we allow to speak for us, that they are hearing the gospel. They assume that when they see the giggling evangelist on the television screen, that they see Jesus. They assume that when they see the stadium political rallies to “take back America for Christ,” that they see Jesus. But Jesus isn’t there.

Jesus tells us he is present in the weak, the vulnerable, the useless. He is there in the least of these (Matt. 25:31-46). Somewhere out there right now, a man is wiping the drool from an 85 year-old woman who flinches because she think he’s a stranger. No television cameras are around. No politicians are seeking a meeting with them.

Does the Doctrine of Election Trouble You?

Does the Doctrine of Election Trouble You? →

Z posts an illustration, about the Christian doctrine of Divine Election.

“After giving a brief survey of these doctrines of sovereign grace, I asked for questions from the class. One lady, in particular, was quite troubled. She said, ‘This is the most awful thing I ever heard! You make it sound as if God is intentionally turning away men and women who would be saved, receiving only the elect’ I answered her in this vein: ‘You misunderstand the situation. You’re visualizing that God is standing at the door of heaven, and men are thronging to get in the door, and God is saying to various ones, ‘Yes, you may come, but not you, and you, but you, etc.’ The situation is hardly this. Rather, God stands at the door of heaven with His arms outstretched, inviting all to come. Yet all men without exception are running in the opposite direction toward hell as hard as they can go. So God, in election, graciously reaches out and stops this one, and that one, and this one over here, and that one over there, and effectually draws them to Himself by changing their hearts, making them willing to come. Election keeps no one out of heaven who would otherwise have been there, but it keeps a whole multitude of sinners out of hell who otherwise would have been there. Were it not for election, heaven would be an empty place, and hell would be bursting at the seams. That kind of response, grounded as I believe that it is in Scriptural truth, does put a different complexion on things, doesn’t it? If you perish in hell, blame yourself, as it is entirely your fault. But if you should make it to heaven, credit God, for that is entirely His work! To Him alone belong all praise and glory, for salvation is all of grace, from start to finish.” —Mark Webb

This entry was tagged. Christianity

Can I Thank God for That?

Can I Thank God for That? →

Kevin DeYoung posits an interesting question and a different way of thinking about Biblical “grey areas”.

I’ve learned over the years that the simplest way to judge gray areas in the Christian life like movies, television, and music is to ask one simple question: can I thank God for this? (We are to give thanks in all circumstances, right? )Not too long ago my wife and I went to the movie theater to watch one of the summer blockbusters. It was a fun PG-13 movie, and you’d probably say it didn’t really have any bad parts. But it was very sensual and suggestive in several places. I got done with the movie (yes, I watched the whole thing) and thought, “Can I really thank God for this?” Now, I’m not a total kill-joy. I like to laugh and enjoy life. I can thank God for the Chicago Bears, Hot N’ Readys, and Brian Regan. But I wonder if after most of our entertainment we could sincerely get down on our knees and say, “Thank you God for this good gift.” Something to think about.

This entry was tagged. Christian Living

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (Ch4)

Image

Welcome back. We're way off-schedule here, but still moving along. Here's what we've covered so far in Geisler and Turek's 12-point argument for Christianity:

1. Truth about reality is knowable. (Actually, we've shown it's impossible to know if this is true, but also that it doesn't matter, so Geisler and Turek are OK here.)

2. The opposite of true is false. (No argument from us.)

3. It is true the Theistic God exists, as evidenced by:

3a. the Cosmological Argument (I agree, but ironically the Bible doesn't)

Meaning today we're tackling the authors' second line of evidence for God's existence:

THE TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT

As Geisler and Turek tell it, the classic argument goes like this:

  1. Every design has a designer.
  2. The universe has a highly complex design.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a Designer.

Some might quibble with the authors' phrasing - Kyle Williams charges, "The words ‘design’ and ‘designer’ are so closely related that the first premise is a tautology, the second premise begs the question, and the conclusion, therefore, is meaningless." - but I personally think the authors' meaning is clear enough to where we can get on with it. After all, Geisler and Turek can afford to beg questions since they will be devoting the next three chapters to answering them.

Yes, you read that right: the next three chapters. Settle in, it's going to be a long one.

Though to be fair, if any subject of Christian apologetics deserves such in-depth treatment, it's undoubtedly the old T & A.

For at least two at least two big reasons:

First, if you Fundamentally believe and take literally the Bible's Creation Account (previously discussed), you can't let stand all the scientists' talk of natural forces gradually building us into the species we are today. That would invalidate part of God's Word, which would put the entirety of the Good Book in doubt. So I hear, anyway.

Second and perhaps more importantly, the Teleological Argument is vital theologically to every church save the Universalists'. Since the fact is that even if God did reveal himself through miracles to a bunch of Jews two or three years ago, He certainly hasn't revealed Himself to everybody else, it's necessary for God's existence to be evident simply from the natural order of things. Otherwise, there's no good reason for God (read: Christians) to blame them for not believing in Him. That's not a big problem for "Calvinist" Christians, who at the end of the day don't think a good reason is necessary to torture someone eternally, but it's a serious issue for the rest of us.

So there's an awful lot riding on whether Geisler and Turek can make a good case for the T.A.

Pity them for it, because there isn't one to make. The Teleological Argument, as we shall see, is flawed to its very core.

THE ANTI-THEORY

The problem with the Teleological Argument is exemplified by the modus operandi of its main defenders in the United States, American Christians who comprise the "Intelligent Design Theory" (IDT) movement. The movement's purpose - and I will try to give a neutral definition here that is nevertheless true - is to very pointedly use only scientific facts to back up its members' belief in a higher being's design of our cosmos, in hopes they can get God mentioned again in American school systems. A lot of IDT advocates believe in the Bible's account of our world's creation in seven days. Others believe God simply guided the natural processes which produced life here on Earth. Geisler and Turek's I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist is actually a fair example of the approach, even though it doesn't exclusively deal with scientific questions.

However, since Geisler, Turek, and their fellow Christians understandably have no idea where to begin explaining the mechanics of speech-triggered omnipotent power, the practical function of their work is to be what in politics you'd call a "party of obstructionism", arguing against others' solutions while having jack-all to contribute themselves. Less than a minute of subjecting any Christian to the Socratic Method should be enough to make clear their arguments all spring from the informal logical fallacy of arguing from ignorance. In short, they represent not theory but anti-theory.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but a great illustration was brought before the Kansas Board of Education during its semi-recent trial of the IDT. Advocates of the IDT were compared to those people who once theorized that, since we didn't know how Egyptians could build the Pyramids with their primitive technology, aliens must have helped them.

As you might expect, believers in the IDT take issue with this characterization. The preeminent William Dembski claims to have "an explanatory filter" for pinpointing the fingerprints of our designer on this world - specified complexity - and IDT hero Michael J. Behe thinks he's proven, a la Sherlock Holmes, that the Theory of Intelligent Design simply must be true because nothing else can account for what he's named irreducible complexity. Geisler and Turek also raise the "Anthropic Principle" in Chapter 4. We'll give all of it a fair hearing starting with this post.

And with all this introduction out of the way, let's get to dissecting

CHAPTER 4: THE ANTHROPIC PRINCIPLE

Geisler and Turek's argument in Chapter 4 is that the Anthropic Principle proves the validity of the Teleological Argument. According to them, the Anthropic Principle is:

just a fancy title for the mounting evidence that has many scientists believing that the universe is extremely fine-tuned (designed) to support human life her on earth.

But it's actually:

the philosophical argument that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it.

If this doesn't strike you as a brilliant insight, I don't blame you; I'm not overly impressed either. Geisler and Turek find it revelatory, though, for just how precise conditions have to be to support the conscious life in question (namely, us). And they spend most of the chapter trying to drill into us an appreciation of same, using the famous story of the Apollo 13 crew's survival to illustrate the "anthropic constants" (conditions required for our existence - for instance, Earth's oxygen levels remaining at a steady 23%) necessary for us to live. They then climatically assert that the chance of 100+ of these conditions all simultaneously converging is virtually zero, so Someone must have planned it.

The short answer to all of the above is that it's an argument from incredulity, which is only a variation of the argument from ignorance. Christians rightly object on this same ground when atheists calculate how many religions and permutations of those religions exist or have ever existed and then jeer at the improbability of a Christian's beliefs being correct. But let's address Geisler and Turek's claim more thoroughly anyway.

There are multiple ways to do so. I might note that trying to mathematically divine the chances of highly complex events has always been bupkis, since the various factors' relations to each other not only complicate matters, but often simplify them as well. For instance, I have no idea what the likelihood is of gravity existing (nor does anyone - so we've just put paid to the whole issue right there, haven't we?), but I do know that the power of gravity makes it much more likely - even almost certain - that various materials will be pulled into orbit around larger bodies. The ramifications of other universal laws similarly preclude any conditions other than those we observe. And never mind the probability of these various principles existing in the same universe, Since we have no idea how they might relate to each other (scientists have long searched for a great "Theory of Everything" to explain it), we can't say whether or not it's improbable they're all here. Maybe they're a package deal.

I might also point out that just because it's improbable conditions have developed in a manner suitable for our kind, that does not mean other conditions would have been unsuitable for any kind. Different rules might have just resulted in different lifeforms.

Putting aside the statistical stuff, though, I think it's most important to call Geisler and Turek on how baldly they're overselling this universe's suitability for our people. The unique "anthropic constants" of Earth can be seen, in fact, as the exception that proves the rule of the cosmos's lack of consideration for us. Our home represents almost nothing of the universe's total, ever-expanding space, yet it's the only hunk of rock of which we're currently aware on which our species is capable of surviving - and even here, people seem to forget, it's been a tough road to hoe. A lot of our planet isn't inhabitable or is just barely so. When we arrived, it was also full of predators trying to eat us, and we could barely farm enough food to survive. Natural phenomena still knock down our homes and kill us by the thousand.

Earth is not the ideal homeland Geisler and Turek make it out to be. Things have only been as good as they are on this planet for a very limited time, too - a blink of an eye in geologic terms. For most of its existence, Earth has been completely uninhabitable, and forecasts are that it will be again "soon". Unless we become a space-borne people before it does, the story of our species will parallel that of the short-lived sperm whale in Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Of course, it shouldn't be necessary for us to flee a planet designed expressly for us, so one should question why the Designer, if He exists, has done such a shoddy job. As Geisler and Turek are Christians, I feel comfortable their answer is that our world was designed to be perfect, but we ruined the design by sinning.

That "theory" is interesting to consider, since it reminds us of Christian theology I don't think is really heard anymore. Man clearly lacks the power to modify his world through his own choices. What agent, then, changed the earth and its inhabitants after Adam and Eve sinned? The common summation of the process is that "Sin entered the world" (from Romans 5:12), implying that "Sin" in fact a malevolent, immaterial force. Just as God warned Cain, Sin was crouching at the door, waiting for us to crack it open so it gain access to Creation and ruin everything! But no: this is just fanciful anthropomorphizing of a concept. Sin is not simply one more member of Christianity's rogues gallery.

A little more Bible reading leads us instead to the real culprit: God. His alterations to His own design are right there in Genesis 3:16-19:

To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Not only does God clearly make it hard to earn a living on this planet in the above passage, but it can also be read as Him imposing the punishment of death on us all. This fits in with the prevalent idea of God meting out death as the going wage for sin.

If you don't agree with that interpretation, you must at least agree God indirectly kills us in the next few verses:

3:22 And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.

But I am rabbit-trailing.

To review: materialist atheists believe this world is the result of impersonal cosmic phenomena, evolutionary processes, and natural selection. This is why the universe has made so little room for us and been so scandalously and unfairly brutal: it wasn't made with us in mind. What we do enjoy of it, we enjoy because we have successfully adapted to it as a species.

Au contraire, say Geisler and Turek. Quite the opposite! This planet must have been made with us in mind, since we are so improbably suited to it - and the extent to which we are clearly not suited for it simply suggests the degree to which that Designer means to make things hard for us.

I don't think there can be debate as to which of these two theories is more egocentric, but I'll leave it to you which requires more faith.

I don't really want to do that, of course, but I have no choice. I can't reach through this screen and throttle you until you pick the obvious answer.

NEXT: We can actually move right along to Chapter 5, as the remainder of Geisler and Turek's fourth chapter demands no rebuttal. The authors spend the remaining pages of it sermonizing on how contemplation of the vastness of space can help us understand, if only slightly, the majesty of God. They base this Sunday School lesson on Bible verses, even though they're still quite a few steps from proving that source's validity. If that sounds intriguing to you, you'll have to buy the book.

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (Ch3, P2)

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Welcome back. Here's where we're at in Geisler and Turek's 12-point argument for Christianity:

1. Truth about reality is knowable. (Actually, we've shown it's impossible to know if this is true, but also that it doesn't matter, so Geisler and Turek are OK here.)

2. The opposite of true is false. (No argument from me!)

3. It is true the Theistic God exists, as evidenced by:

3a. the Cosmological Argument. (I agree, but ironically the Bible doesn't)

Now that they've proven the universe had a beginning, Geisler and Turek reach this chapter's selling point. Quoth they:

"In light of all the evidence for a beginning of the space-time universe, the Beginner must be outside the space-time universe." (92)

And according to them, that "Beginner" must be:

  • self-existent, timeless, nonspatial, and immaterial (since the First Cause created time, space, and matter). In other words, he is without limits, or infinite.

  • unimaginably powerful, to create the entire universe out of nothing

  • supremely intelligent, to design the universe with such incredible precision (we'll see more of this in the next chapter);

  • personal, in order to choose to convert a state of nothingness into the time-space-material universe (an impersonal force has no ability to make choices).

What "Beginner" could possibly fit all these criteria?

Only God, of course - but that's not particularly a problem for us, since of the four characteristics Geisler and Turek identify here, only the first is of any certainty. Sure, the First Cause must have been outside of our universe, but there's no way to tell how "powerful" it was (a match isn't very powerful on its own, but lying next to a tank of gas it commands respect). And Geisler and Turek won't be showing us evidence for the universe's intelligent design until Chapter 4, so they can scarcely cite it now. As for the idea that the First Cause must be intelligent because an unintelligent force couldn't choose to create our universe, that's simply silly; since we have absolutely no idea how our universe's multiple dimensions interact with other dimensions, we have no way of knowing how necessary the ability to choose was for Creation.

As for what alternative to God might be "self-existent, timeless, nonspatial, and immaterial", allow me to introduce you to:

THE MULTIPLE-UNIVERSE THEORY

There are multiple versions of the Multiple Universe Theory (As you might expect! Ha!), but the concept at its most basic is that our space-time universe is one of many and that other universes may have different laws governing them than we do. So while logic would seem to dictate that our space-time universe requires a beginning, it may well be that another universe is eternal, and that universe has given birth to ours (or given birth to a universe which has given birth to ours, etc.).

Actually, Geisler and Turek themselves introduce us to the theory in I Don't Have Enough Faith, but they strangely wait until Chapter 4 to do so, rather than including it in this chapter's list of atheist explanations for the Big Bang.

Which is not to suggest they don't have an answer for it. They do:

"First, and most significantly, there's no evidence for it! The evidence shows that all of finite reality came into existence with the Big Bang. Finite reality is exactly what we call 'the universe'. If other finite realities exist, they're beyond our ability to detect... That's why this multiple universe idea is nothing more than a metaphysical concoction - a fairy tale built on blind faith..."

It's just the most breathtakingly hypocritical answer you can possibly imagine.

I shouldn't have to tell you why. In fact, I don't even believe Geisler and Turek need to have it explained to them how, absent any other evidence, it's just as easy to suggest an eternal, non-material, alternate universe as an eternal, non-material, omnipotent, omniscient being.

I do, however, think it's worth explaining why it's not simply just as easy, but easier to suggest another universe than a god. And for that, I'll need to employ two tools: the Principle of Analogy and Occam's famous Razor.

The Principle of Analogy, somewhat related to the Principle of Uniformity raised by Geisler and Turek (but not until Chapter 5), is basically a rule of thumb for judging the likelihood of claims about facts and events. The idea is we should compare any new claims to our own knowledge of past and existing trends. The claims which most conform to what we know already are most likely to be true.

Everyone uses this principle to navigate through life, of course, because there's really no alternative yardstick to use. Everyone, of course, also ignores this principle at some point for volitional reasons. And yes, sometimes people follow the principle and are wrong, and sometimes people don't follow it and turn out to be right. The principle of analogy's just a rule of thumb, after all.

What's more, it's mildly subjective. Two people may have different experiences with a third person, giving them two different viewpoints on how likely it is that third person would do something wrong.

All those caveats made, however, it bears repeating: no alternative yardstick exists.

Occam's Razor is even easier to explain as a concept: it's the idea that the best explanation for anything is usually the simplest explanation accounting for the most evidence. Of course, accounting for evidence can make even the most simple explanation available to us very, very complicated, but there you have it.

OK: let's apply these principles to the respective likelihoods of God and a different universe. What is immediately clear is that God is a more alien and complicated concept to our experience. We are at least certain that such a thing as a universe can and does exist. Yes, an everlasting universe with different physical laws does seem pretty out there, but every difficulty we encounter in conceiving one is also met when we try to conceive God, and in imagining Him we must also wrap our head around the existence of a personality of a far greater complexity than our own. Compare the number of question marks another universe creates versus the number brought up by a Supreme Being and there's really no contest.

CONCLUDING CHAPTER 3

While Geisler and Turek manage to convince me the universe had a First Cause, so far they haven't given any good reasons for why that First Cause must be a god. To be fair, though, we're clearly not meant to take the Cosmological Argument as stand-alone proof, but as the first of four lines of evidence, with the other three to be detailed in Chapters 4-7. We'll jump into the second line on Wednesday.

Ere we do, however, a few final notes on the chapter which I don't feel are worth full blog posts.

_ Eins_:

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Since his name and likeness have become inseparably linked with Science itself in our culture, Dr. Albert Einstein's personal beliefs about God have themselves become a "football" in the ongoing debate between theists and atheists, with each side arguing Einstein shared their world view - the illogical, but very human assumption being that whichever side Einstein was on, Science must be on. For the record, atheists were right. Einstein himself got so sick of theists misappropriating his name that he released this statement:

"It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

Chapter 3 of_ I Don't Have Enough Faith..._ worrisomely begins, "It was 1916 and Albert Einstein didn't like where his calculations were leading him." So I felt grimly certain as I continued reading that they would make the infuriating error of suggesting he was a theist.

I wasn't prepared for what I found instead. The following, merrily bizarre sentence made me laugh out loud:

"Although Einstein said that he believed in a pantheistic God (a god that is the universe), his comments and statements admitting creation and divine thought better describe a theistic god."

Now, never mind that Einstein never claimed to be a pantheist, or admitted the existence of "divine thought". What's amusing is the petulant comment at the end that, even though the Avatar of Science regrettably wasn't a theist, what he said sure sounds more theist than atheist.

Reading that, I just can't help imagining a bitter girl muttering to another, "Fine, the dress is yours. But I look better in it." It's fabulous.

Zwei:

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Speaking of misappropriation, Geisler and Turek also heavily suggest in this chapter that the Big Bang Theory is somehow theist property. In fact, just judging from what they've written in this section, you might be forgiven for thinking atheists have always found the Big Bang Theory as odious as they do Young Earth Creationism.

As someone who grew up in the same Southern Protestant culture the authors are representing, I don't even have to do research to know that the divide presented by Geisler and Turek here - of Christians and the Big Bang Theory on one side, atheists with their Steady State on the other - is a complete fabrication. If you don't want to take my word for it, though, just google the words "Big Bang Theory Christian view". The top entries that come up will be articles by Protestants decrying the theory as one more lie from Satan.

Yes, the Big Bang Theory was first proposed by a theist - a Roman Catholic priest, in fact, who personally thought it a religiously neutral idea (and his church would later come to agree, thus displaying a commendable openness to evidence coupled with a lack of recognition for the need for consistency). He also did propose it at a time when most secularists believed in an eternal universe and yes, a number of disagreeing atheists accused him of injecting his theology into his science.

But begging your pardon, so what?

It's one of the stranger ways Christians think that I've encountered, even as a Christian myself, but for some reason (or rather, no reason) they seem to think any scientific discovery made by a Christian is a feather in their faith's cap, or even one of many "points" scored to be compared with the number of discoveries made by nonbelievers.

"Most Western science is built on discoveries by Christians!" you hear them say. "Copernicus? Christian. Galileo? Christian. Einstein? He sounded like one."

Sometimes the point of their listing these names is to prove Christians are capable of good science. No atheist ever seriously charged otherwise, but there you have it. Other times the point seems to be that the discoveries of great thinkers are somehow inseparable from their beliefs about God, as if the Theory of Gravity only makes sense so long as you're the same sort of monotheist as Sir Isaac Newton was. Which is bonkers.

By no logic is an atheist "borrowing from" Christianity by accepting the Big Bang Theory or any other concept previously understood by the religious. Yet that's clearly what Geisler and Turek imply, again and again, in this chapter.

Drei:

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Finally, Geisler and Turek cap off the whole chapter with the "really good question": "If there's no God, why is there something rather than nothing?" (94)

Another question shows how not-so-good it really is: "If there's a God, why is there a God rather than no God?"

At some level, it's all arbitrary, Guys.

Chapter 4 starts Wednesday.

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (Ch3, P1)

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Since we all know how hard it is after a good, long holiday to get back into the swing of things, let's start this series's return to form by refreshing ourselves on where we are in I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist's 12-point argument proving Christianity. Thus far we've learned:

1. Truth about reality is knowable. (Actually, we've shown it's impossible to know if this is true, but also that it doesn't matter, so Geisler and Turek are OK here.)

2. The opposite of true is false. (No argument from me!)

Leading us to their third assertion,

3. It is true the Theistic God exists, as evidenced by:

3a. the Cosmological Argument.

You're probably already familiar with the Cosmological Argument. If not, Geisler and Turek ably summarize this very old proposition (Plato and Aristotle were using it) on page 75, using the following syllogism:

_1. Everything that had a beginning had a cause.

  1. The universe had a beginning.

  2. Therefore the universe had a cause._

It goes without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway - I'm just that kind of person) that the "First Cause" which Geisler and Turek have in mind is God. Only at this identification do they actually part company with many atheists. Most nonbelievers today accept the validity of the C.A.'s conclusion, as well as the evidence Geisler and Turek use to support it.

Strictly speaking, this means I really shouldn't have any problems with this step of their argument, right?

Here's my dilemma. Technically, the answer is no. Geisler and Turek prove to my satisfaction the universe had a cause. Not only is their logic inescapable, but their proof at least seems undeniable to my eyes: the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the universe's constant expansion, the observation of radiation from the Big Bang, and Einstein's Theory of General Relativity all point to a beginning for our little reality.

But: while I don't mean to spoil anything for you here, the twelfth and final assertion which Geisler and Turek will make in I Don't Have Enough Faith... is this:

12. Therefore, it is true that the Bible is the Word of God (and anything opposed to it is false).

And if that's so, then all of the evidence Geisler and Turek use in this chapter is nullified; the great climax of their 12-point argument pulls its own feet out from under itself.

Because the Bible's account of Creation doesn't agree with the Big Bang Theory. Not at all. Even in the slightest.

IN THE BEGINNING

There is perhaps no story in the Bible as badly understood by modern readers as the Book of Genesis's tale of how our world was made.

This is in part a problem of education. For instance, when the very first verse in the Bible reads, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (NIV), the modern layperson should be forgiven for mistakenly thinking "the earth" refers to our planet or "the heavens" refers to God's kingdom above.

But the larger problem is that we are taught to take the account as the unvarnished truth. Since none of us can do this (accepting the text as it's written presents far too much difficulty for any educated adult today) but we also can't call the account untrue (most people have too much invested in the Bible being right to allow for its being wrong), we "rewrite" the story in our heads so as to lessen the cognitive dissonance we have to experience in order to agree with it.

Let's look again at the Bible's first verse, and add to it the second.

_1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters... _

Taken completely literally, those verses already start raising questions for the modernist. If the earth was formless and empty, how is there water - especially "the deep"? But as a Christian, I didn't mind because I easily (and I thought, reasonably) paraphrased the verses in my head in such a way that the troublesome terms became metaphors. "In the beginning God created our universe and our world. Back then, Earth wasn't around. There was only the deep obsidian of starless Space. The Spirit of God hovered in this black 'ocean'."

Then I just completely ignored the fact that God never creates literal water in the story but is soon manipulating it and strangely putting storing some of it above a gigantic dome He calls "the sky". Like most believers, I was really pretty apathetic about the particulars, at least whenever they weren't under attack from skeptics, so my personal rationalization of the Creation Account didn't require much polish. I just needed to figure it out enough to believe it.

My view of the text has since changed primarily because one day I gave myself permission to not believe it if it didn't convince me, then set out to obtain an educated answer. It didn't take much investigation afterward to learn that the reason God doesn't create water in the Book of Genesis is because throughout the Middle East, it was once commonly held that water has always existed. "The lifeless waters of chaos" are the eternal, uncaused element in Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian mythology. The task of the Creator(s) is always to master these waters and bring forth life in their midst. The Babylonian god Marduk, for instance, creates the world by killing the ocean goddess Tiamat and splitting her in half.

So assuming the Hebrews thought similarly to their neighbors, which is very likely considering both the text of Genesis and the influence those civilizations had on Israel and Judah, it's pretty easy to imagine the Bible's point of view on what the universe looked like before God created our "planet": just pretend you're underwater, and so deep there's absolutely no light by which to guide yourself.

The light problem, of course, is the first to be fixed by God.

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.

5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

Then God creates some space in which to work:

6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.”

7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so.

8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And now the Bible has just defined the parameters of our world; ours is the place in the universe God has protected from water with an occasionally leaky dome.

9 And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so.

10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

The trick God pulls in verse 10 - bringing forth land out of water - is extremely important thematically for the rest of the Bible. When in the Book of Exodus a "sea of reeds" splits apart to allow God's people passage, God is applying His signature move, the power over water which identifies Him as the Creator. It's the ultimate expression of His divine authority and thus, a fitting finale for His war with the Egyptians.

But I'm in danger of digressing, probably because I like literature a lot more than I like science and philosophy a la carte.

Above is the proper interpretation of how the world began in the Bible, its plain meaning to anyone reading it without an emotional need to make it square with modern science. Geisler and Turek undoubtedly disagree, but they are wrong. Yet regardless, they haven't mentioned the Biblical story of Creation in this chapter, only the Cosmological Argument, with which I can't find any particular fault. So should I give them a pass?

If only for the sake of continuing this series, I suppose so - but more and more, I'm wondering if I'm justified in my suspicion that Geisler and Turek are basically trying to pull an "end run" here. Such a strategy would certainly square with their immature conception of philosophical argument in general.

If so, though, it won't work. Logic can't validate something that's self-evidently false, as many Biblical assertions are. When logic seems to do so, you've only proven your logic's faulty.

We'll conclude Chapter 3 next post.

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (Ch2, P3)

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Author's Note: Read comment after post.

First, some housekeeping.

The question of whether I'd be able to keep up my posting schedule on this series during Christmas vacation finally resolved itself for me today, when I realized that no, I haven't a snowball's chance in Hell of keeping it on track. So be it known that a one-week hiatus herein begins, hopefully concluding with a new post on the 29th.

If you're Christian, think of this as one less atheist making war on Christmas.

And with that, let's wrap up Chapter 2 of I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist.

WHEN LAST WE LEFT OUR HEROES...

As I mentioned when we began it, Drs. Geisler and Turek have devoted the bulk of Chapter 2 to simply explaining why logic and evidence are the best guides to one's beliefs. They don't really believe this, of course, but I do, so I'm not inclined to argue. There's also some stuff in this section about agnosticism, but we've already covered that while talking about Chapter 1.

Strictly speaking, then, it's unnecessary to talk about Chapter 2 at all, buuuuuuuuut Geisler and Turek happen to make within it a few by-the-side and implicit suggestions which, while lacking any real bearing on the authors' main 12-point argument, are so wrongheaded they demand objection. So I'm, y'know, objecting to them.

The last of these suggestions involves a short anecdote on pages 54-55 involving internationally-renowned Christian apologist Dr. Ravi Zacharias. A professor confronts Dr. Zacharias and tells him that:

"...you're using 'either-or' logic. In the East we don't use 'either-or' logic - that's Western. In the East we use 'both-and' logic. So salvation is not either through Christ or nothing else, but both Christ and other ways." (54)

As you might expect, Dr. Z coolly proceeds to show the professor the error of his ways, proving that

"despite what the relativists believe, things work in the East just like they work everywhere else. In India, just like in the United States, buses hurt when they hit you, 2+2=4, and the same gravity keeps everyone on the ground... Truth is truth no matter what country you come from." (55-56)

All simple, well, and good, you might say. But in taking time to refute "Eastern logic", I think Drs. Geisler and Turek are not only engaging in typical misrepresentation of their enemies' ideas, but also quietly denying an important fact about Christianity itself: that it is at root an Eastern religion, with an awful lot of so-called "Eastern logic" ingrained into it.

WESTERN LOGIC VS. "TRANSCENDENTAL NONCOGNITIVISM"

It's easy to understand why most of today's Christians don't think of their religion as "Eastern". Most of them are themselves born of the West, just for starters, and this has long been so. Today's politics (not to mention our increased knowledge of world geography) have also resulted in the modern land of Israel becoming an honorary member of "the West", much like Japan. And of course, Western ideas have had such an influence on Christianity's development from such an early stage that whatever the religion may have been at its beginning, it's probably only accurate to describe it as Western now.

Nevertheless, Christianity first sprang forth as a sect of Judaism, the religion of a people of the East, and consequently an awful lot of discussion in the early Christian church was devoted to trying to balance the Eastern-style theology of Christianity with the Western-style thinking of the people who ended up adopting it. In fact, one can trace the very origin of Christian apologetics to the need for early Christians to come up with responses to the questions and accusations of "Greeks" who found Christian concepts bizarrely illogical. One can also say that I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist and this corresponding blog series are part of the continuation of that same conflict. Our debates are the latest rounds in a long fight between the traditions of Athens and Jerusalem that apologists like Geisler and Turek are determined to marry, just as were their predecessors Origen, Justin Martyr, et al.

To see the family resemblance between Christianity and its Eastern cousins today, however, we need to know what "Eastern" logic really is. Geisler and Turek typically provide only enough information to fashion a straw man they can easily bat aside, so let's look instead to a gentleman named James Quirk, who's written a pretty good summary about what he calls "transcendental noncognitivism". He writes:

A key theme of Eastern traditions, including Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, and Taoism, is the idea that transcendental truth cannot be apprehended by the conceptual, logical, dualistic human mind...

Transcendental noncognitivism, then, is the recognition that the ultimate nature of reality, the Absolute, or "God" is fundamentally ineffable - beyond conceptual and logical comprehension. This conclusion itself, however, is not illogical - on the contrary, it is generally the culmination of an intensive logical process which brings logic and conceptual thought to the very limit of their applicability. To discover the trans-logical, trans-rational nature of reality is itself a logical and rational outcome. Under this approach, it is logic which leads to faith, rather than away from it, as it often does in the West. Far from being some strange process of magical thinking and incomprehensible occurrences as is often imagined by both Western critics and New Age adherents, the mystical process is in fact a deeply logical and rational one - at least until the very moment when logic and rationality must finally be transcended out of sheer necessity.

Am I the only one who sees a similarity between the above explanation and a number of things Christians say when they inexorably arrive at the limits of their ability to describe God and other divine concepts? I even recall our own webmaster Joe once pontificating: "If we could understand everything He did, would he be God?"

EXEMPLI GRATIA

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No good? Maybe we need an example. Let's talk about a core tenet of Christianity that is clearly contradictory in the same way as a number of "Eastern" religious ideas.

Frustrated by his perception I don't understand the laws of logic, my reader Steve recently started listing the various laws in a comment. One of the laws he mentioned is the Law of Identity. To let him put it:

A is A and not non-A

Cat (A) is Cat and not non-cat (non-A)

Is this true or is this false? is a cat a pickle? is a cat a dog? is a cat a sandwiche? or is a cat a cat? This is the law of identity.

A neat and tidy summary, I think. In light of this Law of Identity, however, what are we to make of the person of Jesus Christ?

Because I am pretty much certain that Steve, being a Christian, believes Jesus Christ was both fully man and fully God - an idea theologians refer to as the Hypostatic Union. I can be sure of this because the concept is very mainstream: as much as Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians disagree with each other, they'll all nod their heads if you mention Jesus was and is simultaneously human and divine. And be sure to note: "Jesus' two natures are not 'mixed together,' nor are they combined into a new God-man nature" (CARM). Neither is He a spiritual schizophrenic, a man possessed by God as some are said to be possessed by demons. No: Jesus possesses two natures commonly described as being "attached" to each other, yet He is the Word of God become flesh, which suggests transformation. In short, He's 100% God, but He's also just a guy.

There are no meaningful answers to the questions that raises. The folks over at CARM (Christian Apologetics Research Ministries) have tried to help us understand by including a table in their own article on the Hypostatic Union that's meant to "help you see the two natures of Jesus 'in action'", but all it clarifies is the incoherency of the concept. Jesus knew everything (John 21:27) yet grew wiser as He became older (Luke 2:52)? The "fullness of the deity dwells in Him" (Colossians 2:9) but "He has a body of flesh and bones" (Luke 24:39)? It makes no sense, even after you've made all the distinctions between "natures" and "Persons" and "senses" and "essences" the apologists ask you to.

It's only fair to note Geisler and Turek don't agree. However, it's also fair to note that when they briefly discuss Jesus' two natures in I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (in Chapter 13, and here let me apologize for getting ahead of the book; I'll try not to do it again), they don't provide any half-decent explanation either.

Know what, though? Many Christians I know are OK with that, just like they're OK being monotheists worshiping a Trinity. There's even an alternative term some of them use for the Hypostatic Union which gets across the incomprehensibility of their belief: "the mystical union".

A term of which I suspect their Taoist cousins in religion would approve.

A LAST QUESTION

To recap, Messrs. Geisler and Turek take a few pages in this chapter to explain why "Eastern logic" doesn't work, so it can't be used as an excuse not to accept the "Western logic" they mean to deploy in favor of Christianity. However, they have either forgotten or wrongly believe Christianity doesn't depend on a little "Eastern logic" of its own. The point at which "Eastern logic" becomes necessary is beyond the scope of their book, however, so this problem doesn't derail our discussion of it.

It does, however, leave me a wee bit curious.

Here's why:

With I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, Geisler and Turek hope to prove the Bible is true by using only logic and evidence. If they can do that, of course, they don't just win a debate over the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy; by default, they also win every other debate against Christianity, so long as the relevant points are easily identifiable within the Good Book. Right? Right. After all, if they've proven the Bible is true, they don't have to prove God is good; they just have to show where the Bible says God is good.

Yet some Biblical doctrine, like the Hypostatic Union, is clearly illogical - or "transcendentally noncognitive", don't you know. So, is their plan simply to say of such things, "Well, we proved the Bible is true. So even though this doctrine is illogical, you have to believe it because we've logically proven the Bible is true?"

In other words, are Geisler and Turek hoping to use "Western logic" to prove the "Eastern logic" of their doctrine? It certainly seems like it.

Surely that creates an impassable loop of contradiction, though. The Bible cannot logically be true if it contains illogical ideas.

Which happens to be exactly the contradiction that Christian apologists like Dr. Zacharias like to throw in the faces of "Eastern logicians".

As Drs. Geisler and Turek write on page 56:

People will try to tell you that logic doesn't apply to reality, or logic doesn't apply to God, or there are different types of logic, and so on. But as they say such things, they use the very logic they are denying. This is like using the laws of arithmetic to prove that arithmetic cannot be trusted."

Well said.

NEXT: We start Chapter 3 on the 29th.

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (Ch.2, Part 2)

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Sorry about being a day late, Folks. Traveling.

Last post, I endeavored to show why atheists, despite often being accused by Christians of having "volitional reasons" (ulterior motives beyond sound reasoning) for not believing in the Christian God, have far less motivation to believe what they do than your average churchgoer.

Many Christians, of course, will automatically discount the points I've made. What's interesting, however, is that many of them will justify doing so by noting that I was clearly writing with strong emotion.

Why would that possibly matter? It's not that they think strong emotions invalidate arguments. Rather, they have been taught, as a staple element of their religion, that all arguments for and against Christianity are ultimately beside the point.

In my first post concerning the central proposition of I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, I expressed surprise that two believers in Biblical inerrancy would agree with skeptics that one should believe whatever theory best explains the available evidence. I was, of course, being facetious; I know that Geisler and Turek are just pretending that they think logic and evidence are the most important arbiters of belief. What they really believe, as do the overwhelming majority of Christians, is what preeminent apologist Dr. William Lane Craig proclaims in his own book Reasonable Faith, which is notably addressed to believers rather than I Don't Have Enough Faith's more skeptical audience:

Unbelief is at root a spiritual, not an intellectual, problem. Sometimes an unbeliever will throw up an intellectual smoke screen so that he can avoid personal, existential involvement with the gospel... [Your attitude to the unbeliever] should be something like this: "My friend, I know Christianity is true because God's Spirit lives in me and assures me that it is true. And you can know it, too, because God is knocking at the door of your heart, telling you the same thing. If you are sincerely seeking God, then God will give you assurance that the gospel is true. Now, to try to show you it's true, I'll share with you some arguments and evidence that I really find convincing. But should my arguments seem weak and unconvincing to you, that's my fault, not God's. It only shows that I'm a poor apologist, not that the gospel is untrue. Whatever you think of my arguments, God still loves you and holds you accountable. I'll do my best to present good arguments to you. But ultimately you have to deal, not with arguments, but with God himself."

Dr. Geisler is on record as agreeing with this view. He once said:

I commend to you that disbelief is not rational; it's volitional. Disbelief is not because people don't have enough brain power; it's because they don't have the will power.

So you see, when Messrs. Geisler and Turek say us nonbelievers "often" make their decisions based on volitional grounds, that's just a bone thrown our way for the sake of continuing discussion. To their minds, we have nothing but volitional reasons which we've disguised with intellectual objections. Every argument against Christianity is in truth just a skeptic's dishonest excuse for not bowing to God's authority.

Thus, any exhibition of strong emotion only confirms to Christians like them that my resistance to Christianity is the result of some personal grudge. Perhaps, they think, this wound for which I am blaming God instead "giving it to Him" goes all the way back to the Lord not saving my parents' marriage. Maybe it was His refusal to cure my grandmother. Or was I sexually abused? Y'know, it could be I would just feel so guilty about my sinful activities that I've decided to relieve myself of the pain by pretending God's not real.

Thing is, the Christians aren't entirely wrong here. If I'm honest, I do have a volitional reason for opposing Christianity.

That's right, yeah: I admit it. Ya read it here first. I am ticked. Carryin' around some hurt inside.

I'm mad - justifiably so - that I spent the first quarter-century of my life believing Someone existed who didn't; that I put myself through a lot of anguish I didn't have to endure because I thought that was what this Person wanted; that as a result I missed out on opportunities I will never have again in this one chance I possess to live; and that my former brothers and sisters in Christ can be so unfair as to suggest, after I did everything they asked, that my heart just wasn't in it.

And this outrage isn't solely directed at the Christian faith and its leaders, either. To some extent, I'm also put out with myself. I look back on my time in the church and I regret telling completely unloved wives they should stay with their deadbeat husbands. I regret when I dismissed nonbelievers' experiences in the same way many Christians now dismiss mine. I contributed to other people's pain in those instances, and fully believing I was right to do so at the time doesn't absolve me. Let me tell you, there are several people to whom I feel I'm going to have to apologize next time we meet.

Conventional wisdom with which I basically agree says I should untangle myself from such negative emotions as soon as possible. Let it go. Put it in the past. Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch even writes in his introduction to Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years that he fondly remembers his time as a believer even as he continues to spend his life studying those ex-beliefs, which is a level of peace I find almost excessive but guess I wouldn't mind achieving, if indeed my personality is capable of it. Regardless of what "peace" means for me, I think venting and investigating my thoughts about Christianity is in fact a step toward it. Everyone who has made peace with something started by talking about it.

So instead of doing something else with my time, I'm going to quote rather liberally from an article by Dr. Robert Price (entitled with typical cheekiness "By This Time He Stinketh") to explain the folly of Craig, Geisler, Turek, et al.'s take on nonbelievers.

Craig... freely admits his conviction arises from purely subjective factors, in no whit different from the teenage Mormon door-knocker who tells you he knows the Book of Mormon was written by ancient Americans because he has a warm, swelling feeling in his stomach when he asks God if it's true...

It almost seems Craig has embraced a variant of the Double Truth theory sometimes ascribed to Averroes, the Aristotelian Islamic philosopher... Can it be that Craig is admitting he holds his faith on purely subjective grounds, but maintaining that he is lucky to discover that the facts, objectively considered, happen to bear out his faith? That, whereas theoretically his faith might not prove true to the facts, in actuality (whew!) it does?

... But what might first appear to be a double truth appears after all to be a half-truth, for it is obvious from the same quotes that he admits the arguments are ultimately beside the point. If an "unbeliever" doesn't see the cogency of Craig's brand of New Testament criticism (the same thing exactly as his apologetics), it can only be because he has some guilty secret to hide and doesn't want to repent and let Jesus run his life. If one sincerely seeks God, Craig's arguments will mysteriously start looking pretty good to him, like speaking in tongues as the infallible evidence of the infilling of the divine Spirit.

Dr. Price identifies this as "[committing] the fallacy of ad hominem argumentation even while projecting it onto the opponent."

He's right. And it's one Christian apologists need to drop if they are to be taken at all seriously by nonbelievers. Ad hominem assertions are not by definition wrong - sometimes it's clear that a person is being dishonest about where he or she is coming from (like Geisler and Turek in I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, just for example) - but to incorporate into your religion a blanket statement to that effect about everyone in the world who doesn't agree with you, regardless of their countless different reasons, is transparently self-serving sophistry. Once you add to it the notion that evil spirits are probably involved in holding closed the doors to heathen hearts, you have a view of other people only slightly more respectable than a mental patient's paranoid suspicion everyone around him is a robot.

To the credit of Drs. Geisler and Turek, they understand this at least well enough to only touch very lightly upon it in I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Thanks to their forbearance, we can at least pretend for the remainder of our reading that Geisler and Turek really do believe one's beliefs should match the evidence at hand. A conceit on which both the book and this blog post series depends.

Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (Ch. 2, Part 1)

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_Posting a wee bit early, 'cause I'm packing tonight and traveling tomorrow. _

We may be able to get away with speeding through Chapter 2 in no more than three posts. Most of it's just Geisler and Turek explaining the various reasons people have for believing religious claims and why the only good reason to believe a theory is because it best fits available data. They won't get any argument from me there.

If I were a less contentious man, in fact, we could probably skip this chapter altogether, since there's no point within it directly relating to G&T;'s 12-step argument that I'm unwilling to accept. But as they set out their perfectly sound arguments for why we should uphold only logical beliefs, they also touch on a few ideas held by "fundamentalist" Christians which are not only worth discussing, but also just kinda stick in my craw. So I'm going to take this opportunity to shake my fist at them.

ULTERIOR MOTIVES

The first of these ideas is that atheists choose not to believe in God for what Geisler and Turek refer to as "volitional" reasons, i.e. personal motivation.

"Many beliefs that people hold today are not supported by evidence, but only by the subjective preferences of those holding them. As Pascal said, people almost invariably arrive at their beliefs on on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive." (54)

They say something similar back in the introduction:

"Although few would admit it, our rejection of religious and moral truth is often on volitional rather than intellectual grounds - we just don't want to be held accountable to any moral standards or religious doctrine." (36)

It will not surprise you that they are referring to atheists. They (and the majority of Christians, in my experience) believe that:

"Belief requires assent not only of the mind, but of the will. While many non-Christians have honest intellectual questions, we have found that many more seem to have a volitional resistance to Christianity. In other words, it's not that they don't have evidence to believe, it's that they don't want to believe." (30)

Let me just say here and now that this is utter stercus tauri - and a case of what psychologists call "projection" if ever there was one.

If anyone has the motivation to will themselves into believing something untrue, it's the Christian, not the atheist.

PASCAL'S SCALE

Geisler and Turek mentioned Pascal earlier. Let's go back to him.

As you probably know, Pascal is famous for his rather calculated decision to embrace the tenets of Christianity. He said that one should be a Christian because if you turn out to be wrong, you've lost far less by living the life of a Christian than you're bound to lose if you end up a mistaken atheist. After all, the Christian stands to lose some opportunities for fun and a portion of his income, but the atheist stands to lose eternal life (or rather loses the chance to enjoy it somewhere other than in a fiery netherworld).

Though most atheists (and Christians) reject his appraisal as an unsound reason to join a church, there can be little doubt Pascal correctly valued the respective promises of the two world views. By no remotely sane calculation are atheists more optimistic about the future than Christians. Whatever freedoms atheists gain by rejecting religious regulation of his lifestyle, they do surrender far greater benefits (or the promise of them) in return. They lose the comfort of having a great celestial guardian over them who will one day right every injustice they suffer. Instead they have to simply suck it up when faced with this world's evils, even though crimes are a thousand times more terrible to behold when your world view allows for the possibility the perpetrators might never be punished and their victims never compensated. They also lose the easy answers to the existential dilemmas that bedevil everyone else on the globe. Atheists have to decide for themselves what their dreams are, then run the risk of failing to obtain them in this life - with no hope of a second chance in another.

And oh yeah, did I already mention...? THEY HAVE TO RESIGN THEMSELVES TO DYING. That's an absolutely traumatic experience which the majority of Christians can't appreciate. Their theology neuters the concept.

The supposed sacrifices entailed in converting to Christianity - "[changing] thinking, friends, priorities, lifestyles, or morals" (30) - are a clear joke in comparison. They're also greatly exaggerated. When Norman Geisler writes "Christianity is free, but it can cost you your life" (30) I can only imagine he's thinking of Christians who live in the (non_secularized_) parts of the world extremely inhospitable to their presence. Those Christians, however, are a comparative minority, and the dangers they face are not unique - or even typical - to Christianity. In fact the great majority of Christians live their lives basically unmolested, in the comparative safety of their like-minded communities, living lives not vastly different from their fellow countrymen.

Now, you can say Christians who live unremarkable lives are wrong to do so. You can say they are not living up to Jesus' example. For the purposes of this discussion, that only strengthens my argument. It says quite a lot that atheists are unwilling to convert to even a supposedly watered-down version of Christianity, one divested of its most unattractive qualities.

Let me add also, concerning the so-called sacrifices involved in becoming a Christian: having to "[change] thinking, friends, priorities, lifestyles, or morals" (30) isn't only a problem faced by the religious convert. Every atheist who has "deconverted" from his or her faith, like myself, has had to make the same changes. What's more, new atheists don't necessarily have a ready alternative to their religious community available. Whether or not you believe Atheism is just another belief system, it's certainly not just another religion. No unified community of atheists really exists, much less an institution central to the life of every atheist, a la the Christian's church or the Muslim's mosque. This can make it much more difficult to meet new friends with similar views.

So can we toss the idea right now that your average atheist is simply shying away from the great burden under which Christians must struggle for the sake of Christ?

DOUBLETHINK

Actually, I doubt very much we can. Toss the idea, I mean.

The fact is, most Christians already understand the majority of what I've just written, and they speak often amongst themselves about how horrible it must be to not know Jesus. Shoot, evangelists among them talk to nonbelievers about it. It's part of the pitch. "Come and find rest."

As if to prove my point, Christian friends and family have recently been circulating around versions of Steve Martin's "Atheists Ain't Got No Songs" - which, let me just add, I do find funny.

(But you remember why the funniest jokes are so funny, right Guys? It's 'cause they're true.)

So why are Christians still talking about atheists' "volitional reasons"? We'll talk about it next post.