Monday, December 28, 2009
A Christian nation is one that exercises its authority in the name of Christ. Nations exercise and maintain authority by using force, but this is not how authority works in God's Kingdom. Many nations claim to exercise authority in God's name, but none of them exercise authority the way Jesus did when he came to earth.
As I have already said, no political entity can take the place of God's Kingdom. God's Kingdom is distinctly different from the nations of this world. Hence the phrase "Christian nation" is a contradiction in terms. Nations wield authority in a way that is fundamentally at odds with God's Kingdom.
As Christians our hope is not in some great Christian nation that will oppress the whole world in the name of Jesus Christ. Our hope is that the power of love and humility will one day overcome all the nations that rule by force. When we try to build a "Christian nation" we are working against God's Kingdom.
This is why I don't find it troubling when people say that America isn't a Christian nation. In fact, I find it more troubling when people try to associate political forces and institutions with Christianity. Doing so only serves to confuse the message of Jesus.
If we want to stay faithful to the message of Jesus we can't be going after political power. Jesus' message is about loving others, serving them and valuing them above ourselves. If we make it about having power over them, having the ability to control them through political means, then we're abandoning the work that God has given us to do. That's not something I'm prepared to do.
Monday, December 21, 2009
The Holy Spirit is perhaps the least understood member of the Trinity, particularly in the West. When the it comes to the holy Trinity, most people understand that the son is Jesus, and they understand that the Father is the one who sent Jesus, but they don't always understand the role of the Holy Spirit.
This is our loss, because the presence of the Holy Spirit is essential to the Christian life.
When Jesus died for us on the cross he died so that we could have fellowship with God. That fellowship is realized when the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts. The Holy Spirit is how God makes Himself known to everyone who believes in Him. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole point of Jesus going to the cross was so that we could be made ready to receive the Holy Spirit.
Jesus went to the cross so that we could be baptized in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is how God makes Himself available to us. It is through Holy Spirit that God speaks to us and it is through the Holy Spirit that God lives within us.
This is why I say that the Holy Spirit is essential to the Christian life, because through the Spirit we have fellowship with God. In a sense, this is the only purpose of the Holy Spirit; to bring us close to God. There is more to the activity of the Holy Spirit, but all of it is aimed at drawing people closer to God.
For example, the Holy Spirit transforms us, allowing us to obey God's commands. Indeed, without the Holy Spirit it is impossible to please God, but with the Holy Spirit we are able to do what God asks of us. This is one practical way that the Holy Spirit helps us to draw near to God.
Additionally, the Holy Spirit empowers us to do the work that God has called us to. Through the Holy Spirit we receive God's power in various forms. We receive these gifts so that we may bless others. We receive them so that we may extend the love of God into the world around us. In this way the Holy Spirit allows God draw near to us and to those around us.
I know that for many of us, some of the gifts on that list seem a little strange. We are ignorant about the supernatural and we like to pretend that it doesn't exist. But this is a part of who God is. Part of getting to know God is learning to embrace those things that seem weird to us, the things we don't understand.
To summarize, the Holy Spirit is what allows us to have fellowship with God in the here and now. The Holy Spirit causes God to dwell in our heart. The Holy Spirit transforms our character so that we can obey God. And the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to experience God's supernatural power here on earth.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Today I'm going to talk about a marvelous time waster. If you have anything that you need to get done today then you probably shouldn't click on any of the links below. The site I'm about to link you to can be highly addictive and incredibly entertaining.
The site is tv tropes and it's an entertaining wiki that talks about many of the common conventions of television shows, as well as books, films, comics and other forms of entertainment. It's a fun site and a great time waster.
Most people associate the term wiki with the ubiquitous wikipedia, but there are quite a few wikis out there. Wikis have a few interesting properties.
First of all, you can utilize the collaborative nature of the wiki to quickly produce a lot of content. The result is that sites like wikipedia and tv tropes have thousands of pages.
Secondly, because they are extensively cross-linked, wikis make it easy to define new terms. You just create a page describing the term and link it. If the term is popular it catches on and soon everyone on the wiki will start using it. If the wiki is possible enough the term starts to crop up in other parts of the internet as well. (I personally found tv tropes when I was reading a forum discussion about whether or not a particular character qualified as a magnificent bastard.)
For example, many of you may know that the phrase "jumping the shark" refers to the moment when a good show begins to decline in quality. But do you know a phrase that describes that moment when an initially poor show starts getting better? On tv tropes it's called "growing the beard".
The end result, at least in the case of tv tropes, is that once you start reading you'll spend hours following all of the links and learning about all of the strange tropes and conventions used in fiction of various types. Which is why I told you not to click any of the links if you have stuff that you need to do today.
I'm sorry about that.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Science seeks to make sense of the complex universe we live in. Science explains staggeringly complex natural phenomena in terms of relatively simple theories. The behavior of light and of electrons is explained in terms of quantum theory. The behavior of planets is explained in terms of Einstein's theory of relativity. These theories might not seem simple, but they are much simpler than the events that they seek to explain.
Because the goal of science is to simplify matters, scientific theories never explain natural events in terms of divine causes. Planetary motion is complex, but it is much simpler to understand planetary motion than it is to understand the mind of God. The Bible tells us that God's wisdom is unsearchable. For this reason, explaining something natural, like planetary motion, in terms of God's will is counterproductive. We end up with a theory that is more complex than the events that the theory explains.
Therefore God must necessarily be left out of any purely scientific explanation of the universe. This doesn't mean that God doesn't exist. It means that no scientific theory can accommodate an unsearchable being such as God. This is because science is only concerned with things that can be fully understood.
Since science is limited in this way, there are some things that can't be scientifically understood. Scientists study the universe and learn about it's history and about the laws that govern it. In the lab scientists can recreate the conditions of the early universe. But there's no way for scientists to study the creation of a new universe.
We can observe and study the universe as it currently exists, but we can't study the first steps of the process that formed it. We know a lot about our universe, but we don't know how it came about. In other words, what is known was formed by that which is unknown.
This makes it difficult for scientists to answer some basic questions about the nature of our universe. For example, why do the laws of the universe allow complex matter to form? Why was the universe initially in a low entropy state? These questions both deal with the same concern. If the universe had been significantly different from what it is now, then we would never have existed.
These facts give me confidence that God exists. The fact that the universe was formed in such a way that life could evolve suggests that it was not some random or arbitrary process. It also suggests that the universe itself is not arbitrary or meaningless, but that it has a purpose. Or, to put it another way, that God had a purpose in making it.
I think we have good reason to believe in an eternal being that created everything. Unfortunately, we can't study this being the way we study black holes or supernovas. As I said above, what is known was made by that which is unknown. Even the bible tells us that no one has seen God and that God is unknown to us.
God is unlike the rest of creation, in that he cannot be directly studied. Indeed, we would not know anything about God, except possibly that He must exist, if God had not revealed Himself to us. We cannot begin to know God unless he first reveals Himself to us. This is why I encourage people to ask God to reveal Himself to them.
I would like to conclude by clarifying the nature of faith. Some people think that faith is merely belief without evidence. I would argue that faith in God is a belief in something for which there can be no direct evidence. God is beyond our ability to understand or comprehend. Whatever we believe about God we have no choice but to believe without evidence, because there is no evidence to consider. That is what it means to have faith.
Monday, December 7, 2009
In the prior post I compared political power and authority with power and authority in God's Kingdom and I showed that there are some incredible differences. The basis for political power is force, which is used to coerce people. The basis for power in God's Kingdom is love, which is used to transform people.
If we can grasp this truth then we will realize that the Kingdom of God cannot be brought about by political means. Even if our political agenda is holy and righteous and pure and good, it can never take the place of God's own love. And no political agenda can take the place of our obligation to love others.
When Jesus came into the world He gave up His power. He allowed Himself to be killed so that we could be healed. In the same way we are asked to give up power, to lay down our agendas and love people so that they too can know the love of God and be healed.
We have two options. We can choose to follow Jesus or we can choose to pursue power. When Christians make the latter choice, several unfortunate consequences inevitably follow.
First and foremost, the message of Jesus gets obscured. The Kingdom of God is central to Jesus' teachings. If we replace God's Kingdom with a political message we lose the heart and soul of the good news that Jesus preached. The Kingdom of God isn't a nation or a system of government or a party platform. God's Kingdom is altogether different. When we let a political entity take the place of God's Kingdom, we end up with a kingdom that's not all that different from the oppressive kingdoms of the world.
As a result it becomes harder to share the message of Jesus. The message of Jesus becomes associated with a political message. Anyone who opposes the political message will usually feel some antagonism toward Jesus as well.
Of course, it isn't just outsiders who will be repelled by the political message of the church. Often times fellow Christians will find themselves at odds with "Christian" political views. This can result in groups of Christians splitting off and forming their own church. More often than not, the new church will have its own political agenda, which only makes the problem worse.
Before I finish let me just say that I don't think its wrong for Christians to be involved with politics. I just want to stress the point that God's kingdom is not a political kingdom. God's Kingdom is one of love and humility rather than political power. It is important that we remember that.
Monday, November 30, 2009
Along the way, I will begin to answer a question I posed awhile back, namely, What is the Kingdom of God?
First though, let me talk about what we usually mean when we say authority. The first definition in that link is the one I have in mind. It reads "The power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine or judge." In other words, authority is the power to govern.
In our screwed-up world authority is a results driven business. For every nation on the planet, their authority, their ability to govern, is backed by force or by the threat of force. Military force is used to guard the borders and prevent revolution, and police forces are used to enforce the laws. This isn't because every nation is evil, though some certainly are. This is because force is an effective means of controlling people and, as I've already said, authority is a results driven business.
Keeping that in mind, the Biblical definition of authority is strange and deeply counter intuitive. The Bible teaches us that the real way to exercise authority is by loving people selflessly. We wield authority when we take care of other people's needs without considering our own.
I'll give you a moment to let that sink in.
One reason why this definition seems so strange is because it is fundamentally backwards. Normally, the whole point of having authority is so that I can get other people to do what I want. Under this strange new definition, authority means the opposite of what we think it should.
Secondly, this definition is strange because it isn't especially results driven to say the least. You could love someone selflessly for their whole life without seeing any results. Love isn't an effective means of persuasion, because, among many other reasons, humans are terribly ungrateful.
Nevertheless this is how the Bible teaches us to rule. Love is the basis for God's authority in the Old Testament. Abraham first follows God because God promises to bless him. Later God leads his people out of Egypt because He had compassion on them. When God gives the Israelites the Law He expects them to obey because He rescued them from Egypt.
Throughout the Old Testament God is always promising to love and care for his people. We tend to assume that the God of the Old Testament is full of judgment and wrath. Indeed there are many times in the Old Testament where God does punish his people, but that is not how he typically reacts. In the Old Testament we see again and again that God is slow to anger and rich in love. God only brings judgment as a last resort.
In Jesus we see the loving kindness of God at its full measure. Jesus comes to Earth and ultimately gives up His life for our sake. In doing this, not only does Jesus give us peace with the Father, he also gives us an example to follow. He gives a model of what real authority looks like. He shows us what His Kingdom looks like.
Perhaps the passage where we see most clearly how the role of servant and king come together in John 13. In that passage we see that even though Jesus humbled Himself to serve them, He was still their king. Indeed he was a king because of his humble service, not in spite of it.
This teaching has a lot of implications for how Christians aught to live. It is one of the most important teachings in all of scripture. Indeed, this teaching helps to clarify a lot of what is said elsewhere in the Bible. It also serves as a powerful illustration of what the Christian way of life really is.
Monday, November 23, 2009
The first three chapters of Genesis are about God and his relationship with nature and his relationship with humanity. The core message of these chapters is that there is only one God who created everything. He created everything that we perceive with our senses. He made people to rule the earth and they lived with God in paradise. But a deceiver tricked humanity into rebelling against God. As punishment, humanity was banished from paradise, but God promised that humanity would one day have victory over the deceiver.
The rest of the scripture follows from here. It is the story of God working through humanity to give us victory over evil and brings us back into paradise and back into relationship with Him. I know I'm only talking about Genesis 1-3, but I want to emphasize that this scripture is a vital part of God's message for humanity.
People who read this scripture often get hung up on the many details that seem implausible to us. Some people use them as an excuse to disregard the message of the bible altogether. Others insist that we must believe that creation unfolded exactly as Genesis describes, no matter how unlikely it seems. I believe that so long as we understand the core message of scripture, whether we believe that creation took seven days or several billion years isn't terribly important.
A lot of Christians will insist that it's important that we read these early chapters of Genesis literally. What most people don't realize is that ever since the beginning Christians have been interpreting these passages figuratively. For example, most Christians agree that the serpent in Genesis 3 is actually Satan in disguise (hence the reference in Revelation to "That ancient serpent".) A merely literal reading of Genesis 1-3 provides no evidence for that conclusion, yet it is a pivotal element of Christian theology. To give another example, the opening verses in the Gospel of John are a figurative reinterpretation of Genesis 1. John equates the "light" in Genesis 1 with the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Having said that, I'd like to address the question I posed at the beginning. Can Genesis 1-3 be reconciled with the theory of evolution? The main issue, as I see it, is the claim that people, plants and animals were made by God. However, this claim is not a problem if we believe that God worked through natural means, like evolution, to form each of these things. This idea isn't contrary to scripture in any way. Indeed God tells Jeshurun that He made him and formed him in his mothers womb. Here we see that God can work through completely natural means to bring about His desired end and I personally believe that that is what he did when he made Adam and Eve.
Why do I interpret the Bible this way? There are two reasons. The first reason is because I believe that God is not a deceiver. When we try to understand the natural world we should go where the evidence takes us. If it appears as though all life has a common ancestor, then either all life has a common ancestor or God is playing a practical joke on us. I chose to believe the former.
The second reason has to do with my view on the nature of scripture. I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but I also believe that that divinely inspired message was written for people of a particular time and place. As such it was written in terms that they would understand and accept. All of the strange details of early Genesis that confuse us are things that made perfect sense to the people that the book was originally written for. God was gracious to give them the message in terms that they could understand, and I believe that we have the right to interpret the scriptures and apply its message in terms that we can understand.
I hope you found my explanation satisfying or at least interesting. Feel free to comment and let me know what you think. I welcome any criticism or compliments you may have.
Monday, November 16, 2009
I've already talked about what the Kingdom of God is and why the Kingdom of God is important. Today I'll be talking about an even more challenging issue. When is the Kingdom coming?
Perhaps the most common view is that God's Kingdom will come in the future. According to this view we only truly enter the Kingdom of God when Christ returns or when we die.
If we look at scripture we will find some support for this view. Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God as an inheritance which we will receive in the future. Also, the book of Revelation speaks of the day when the kingdoms of this world shall become the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.
However, if we continue to look at scripture we will see many instances where Jesus seems to be saying that the Kingdom is about to arrive or that it is already here. He talks about people entering the Kingdom of God now and he tells people that the Kingdom of God has come upon them.
After reading all these passages it can seem a little confusing. In some it seems as though the Kingdom has already come. In others it seems as though it won't come
until Christ returns.
How do we make sense of all this? Amid the sea of seemingly contradictory statements that the Bible makes about the Kingdom of God, there are two parables that Jesus uses to describe God's Kingdom that will help us to understand what is going on.
Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like a tiny seed or like a small bit of yeast. The tiny seed grows into a bush so big that the birds of the air can build their nests in it. The small bit of yeast is eventually works through an enormous batch of dough so that the whole thing rises.
The Bible makes it clear that the Kingdom of God is here among us right now. Jesus brought it with him when he came to earth as a small, seemingly insignificant baby. Through the ministry of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit God's Kingdom has come to earth.
At the same time the Kingdom of God isn't fully here. The Kingdom of God still needs to grow and expand and do its work. In the meantime we wait for the day when we can say that, at last, God's Kingdom has come.
So to answer the question I started with, the Kingdom of God has already come, it is coming right now, and it will come in the future. I hope that clears things up for you.
Monday, November 9, 2009
One of the major teachings in the New Testament is that Christians should be united. In John 17 Jesus prays that all who believe in Him should be one. Likewise, Christian unity is a major theme in Paul's letters. Paul's letters to the Romans, Ephesians and his first letter to the Corinthians all address the issue of unity in the church.
I want to talk about how these words are lived out. I would like to talk about how Jesus' prayer has been answered. I would like to talk about how Paul's instructions are being lived out by the church. I would like to talk about these things, but I can't, because the sad truth is that the church is very deeply divided.
I should know. I'm part of the American Evangelical church. As a group, we're some of the least united and most divisive Christians around. We might talk about unity among believers, but all too often we fail to live it out, even in our local church. Even though we may say that we value unity our actions reveal a different picture.
It's not surprising that we evangelicals have a hard time with unity when you consider our history. First of all, Evangelical churches are part of the Protestant tradition, which means that we're separated from the Roman Catholic church. And ever since the Council of Trent, when the Catholic/Protestant split became official, Protestants have tried, and failed, to present a unified front against Roman Catholicism.
Very quickly, different groups of Protestants began to separate themselves, not only from Rome, but also from each other. Over time these different groups of Protestants formed many different denominations that are still with us today.
When Protestantism came to America new groups and new denominations began to form even more rapidly. You see, unlike most of Europe, America has a long history of freedom of religion. This makes it easier for new denominations and new church groups to form because the Government isn't trying to impose a single religion on its populace.
Today not only do we have hundreds of different denominations of Christianity, but we also have an increasing number of nondenominational churches. In one sense nondenominational churches can be seen as a less divisive, since they don't make the problem worse by forming a new division. The problem is that these churches are typically independent, not only from denominations, but also from each other. As a consequence, these days the American Evangelical church is broken up into thousands of tiny pieces.
In such an environment it's easy to see why people feel apathetic about unity in the church. With American Evangelicals broken fellowships are the rule rather than the exception.
Disunity in the church is a problem we have inherited, but that doesn't mean that we have to accept it. I believe that with God's help that we can reunite the broken fellowships and bring unity back to the church. In future posts I will be talking about how unity among Christians happens and how we can pursue it.
Monday, November 2, 2009
To that end, I offer the following advice to anyone who may be wondering whether or not God actually exists. You should try asking God to reveal himself to you. First ask for a sign that God exists or perhaps for some small miracle. Then keep your eyes open and see what happens.
Something might happen right away, but in my experience these things often take time. If you feel like nothing's happening, you can try again. If you feel like maybe something's happening, but you're not sure, try asking God to be more clear.
Some people might think that asking God for a sign like this is putting God to the test. But, so long as you're honestly seeking God, merely asking for a sign isn't putting God to the test.
To understand why, we need to look at why that command was given. God gave Israel this command after an incident in Exodus 17. Reading the passage we see that the Israelites demanded that Moses give them water to drink. Some people jump to the conclusion that they put God to the test by demanding that God perform a sign, but that's not all that's going on here.
In the text it says that they tested God by asking, "Is God with us or not?" This passage comes after God sends plagues on Egypt. It comes after the Israelites are rescued out of Egypt. It comes after they've passed through the Red Sea. It even comes after God has sent Mana to feed them. The real reason why they're putting God to the test is that, after seeing all of that, they still doubt that God is with them. They test God because they don't believe in his goodness even after all that he has done for them.
In fact, as we look through the Bible we see that in some cases, not asking for a sign can get you in trouble. In Isaiah 7, God tells King Ahaz to ask for a sign, anything he wants. King Ahaz politely declines, saying that he doesn't want to put God to the test. Isaiah takes issue with his response, and with good reason.
The whole point of God offering King Ahaz a sign is that God knows that King Ahaz is in a tough spot and is about to make a bad decision. Two neighboring kingdoms have made an alliance against Judah (Ahaz's Kingdom) and are preparing to attack. God tells Ahaz not to worry and, since he knows that King Ahaz has little faith, he offers to give King Ahaz a sign. King Ahaz refuses God and asks Assyria to help instead.
The common thread in both of those stories is that they refuse to trust God. In the former case they refuse to trust God despite everything that God has done for them. In the later case the King refuses to trust God even though God offers to perform a great miracle for him.
The last example that I want to give comes from the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 4 Satan tempts Jesus by suggesting that he jump from the roof of the temple and count on God to save him. Jesus refuses to put God to the test. This is because Jesus does trust God, and he doesn't need some dramatic, supernatural rescue to prove that God is good.
That's why I think it's okay to ask God for a sign. For people who don't believe in God it can even be a good thing. It gives God an opportunity to reveal himself, and it gives you a chance to learn that God is good and that he can be trusted.
So, does anyone feel up for trying it? Leave a comment and let me know how it goes.
Monday, October 26, 2009
I think most Christians, even a lot of evangelical Christians, feel the same way. The problem is that we don't express our beliefs as often or as forcefully as Christians who oppose science. Today I'm going to begin to explain my position and why I feel that it's well justified by both scripture and by experience.
The obvious thing to do would be to talk about evolution and the book of Genesis, but I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to do it, first of all, because that's a topic that deserves its own post. The second reason I'm not going to do it is because, while that's the hot button issue in our culture right now, that's not really what this debate is about.
At its heart this debate is really about the sovereignty of God.
For a Christian that's the only question that matters in this debate. Is God still in control or not? For some reason people seem to believe that every time scientists invent some new theory to explain how the universe works, God looses some of his power. As though scientists are somehow gaining mastery over the universe merely by understanding it.
The first thing we need to understand is that God is in charge of completely natural processes. The Bible says that he created everything and that he sustains everything. If the universe behaves in an orderly fashion according to scientific principles, it's because God made it that way. In fact, it shouldn't be surprising that it works that way because God is a God of order.
The other reason that people might think that science impinges on God's sovereignty is because scientific theories define what is and isn't possible. This is a more serious concern, especially if you believe that God can work miracles, which I do.
It's this second consideration that prompted me to write the post, Science as a Worldview. In that post I make the claim that, while science is a reliable source of knowledge, it isn't the only source of knowledge. Along with that I would also say that, while the universe usually conforms with known scientific theories, it doesn't always.
Some might argue that because I don't believe that science is always true I don't really believe in the scientific method. It's true that I don't hold scientific claims to be absolutely true under every circumstance. But I do believe that science does provide an explanation for how the universe typically works. I think this knowledge is still invaluable, even if it's not true in every single circumstance.
In any case, scientific knowledge doesn't require absolute belief. In fact, science wouldn't be able to progress if scientists weren't allowed to question accepted scientific theories. The fact that people are allowed to question science is possibly its greatest strength.
There is, of course, much more to be said about this topic. In future posts I'll be talking more about science and miracles. I'll also talk about evolution and the book of Genesis. Please leave a comment if you'd like to hear more about either of those two topics, or if you want to respond to what I've written so far.
Monday, October 19, 2009
First and foremost, the Kingdom of God is important because it is central to the message of Jesus. As I've already mentioned, Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God more than any other subject. When Jesus preaches good news to people, he's preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.
(If you don't believe me, go to Bible Gateway and search for "good news". Every time the words appear on Jesus' lips he's either preaching the good news of the kingdom or he's quoting a passage from Isaiah about the Kingdom of God.)
That right there is fairly significant. Most people know that Christians are supposed to evangelize. Some people even know that evangelism means telling people the good news. In Jesus' case, good news meant good news about the Kingdom of God. We don't usually think of evangelism as telling people about the Kingdom of God, but it's pretty clear that Jesus thought of it that way.
The second reason it's important it is the first thing that Jesus tells us to pray for. When Jesus teaches his followers how to pray, he gives an example prayer that we call the Lord's Prayer. As you can see, in it, the first thing he prays for is for God's Kingdom to come. And Jesus' early followers probably prayed like this several times a day.
The third reason it's important is because Jesus tells us that our first priority should be to seek the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells his followers not to worry about food or clothing. He tells them to seek God's kingdom and let God take care of the rest. This is a bold teaching that really underlines how important the Kingdom of God really is.
The Kingdom of God is important because, as Christians we are called to tell people about the Kingdom of God, pray for God's Kingdom to come and seek God's Kingdom ahead of everything else. In other words, the whole Christian life revolves around the Kingdom of God. If we have a flawed or a deficient understanding of God's Kingdom it impacts everything we do as Christians.
That's why I think it's important for believers to think about what the Kingdom of God truly is. More than anything else, it's the one concept that shapes the whole religion.
Monday, October 12, 2009
If you'd read either of the two links you would know the most common answer. Knowledge is, "Justified, true belief." When we say that we know x, we mean that we have good reason to believe that x is true. There are some problems with that answer, but it's a good start.
The nice thing about this definition is that it's simple. We all know what beliefs are, and I think we all know what truth is. The interesting question is, what counts as a justification? How do we know that our beliefs are justified? That's the question I'm interested in answering.
First of all, there are some beliefs that seem to be self evident. These beliefs don't have a clear justification. These beliefs are our basic assumptions about how the world works. Some of these beliefs can be almost invisible. They're so basic that it doesn't even occur to us that they might be questioned.
For example, most of the time we assume that our memories and our sense perceptions are accurate. We know that at times both can be deceived, but under normal circumstances we don't need to provide an explanation for why our senses and our memories can be trusted.
Another example is logic. If you've taken a logic course, then you've probably been taught that logical arguments are truth-preserving. Most people accept that that is true without the need for any further justification. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how someone would provide further justification for that belief.
The interesting thing about this first class of beliefs is, just because something seems self evident to us doesn't mean that it actually is self evident. If you and everyone around you shares a similar belief system then it is natural to assume that those beliefs are self evident. For this reason I think it's good to interact with people with radically different beliefs. They keep us honest and force us to examine our beliefs.
Of course, most of our knowledge isn't self evident. Most of our beliefs require some form of justification. Loosely speaking, these justifications can come in one of two forms.
First of all, some of our beliefs are justified logically. We start with those beliefs that we consider to be self evident and we use some form of logical reasoning to discover additional truths.
Secondly, some of our beliefs are justified by experience. Assuming that we can trust our perceptions and our memories they can be a rich source of knowledge.
In practice, most of the things we know represent a synthesis of our basic assumptions, our reasoning ability and our perceptions. All of these factors come into play when we talk about what we know.
The problem is that these are complicated issues and we don't all address them the same way. The result is that two different people can end up having very different beliefs, even if they're both very smart and they both think things through very carefully.
What about you? What assumptions do you make about the world? What roles do reason and experience play in shaping your beliefs?
Monday, October 5, 2009
That being said, I'm going to do so anyway. The first reason is because, as I said in my post about eschatology, I think that the term can reasonably be applied to any beliefs about the future that affect how we live our lives in the present. The second reason is that, while Star Trek is a work of fiction, in many ways it represents Gene Roddenberry's vision of what life in the future would be like. The third, and most important, reason is because it's an interesting thing to think about.
I think we can talk about the eschatology of Star Trek in terms of a few major claims that the show makes about our future. The first claim I want to talk about is the claim that technology will one day solve all of our problems. This claim is common in a lot of science fiction writing. This sentiment is best expressed by the maxim, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Out in space there are still problems, but even those are often solved by the correct use of their technology. The shows and movies make it clear that on Earth, problems like violence and poverty have been solved centuries ago. The message is pretty clear. If we want to make the world a better place, we should invest our time and energy into developing new sciences and new technology.
The next claim is one that comes up less often, and they aren't always consistent with it, but it sometimes get mentioned that within the Federation they no longer use money. This is likely related to the first point. If technology has eliminated all of our problems, including scarcity, then it makes sense that traditional economic models would all be out the window.
Of course, when they say that in the future we won't be using money anymore they're making a significant statement. The implication is that Capitalism is a flawed economic system and someday we'll realize that we're better off without it. The present day implications of this belief are a little less clear, since there aren't ever any detailed discussions about economics in the twenty-fourth century. At the very least, though, it seems to suggest that our current economic system is flawed and that we should be looking for a better alternative.
The last claim I want to talk about is that in the future most people won't take religion seriously. This isn't true of the original series, but in Star Trek: The Next Generation it's pretty clear that religious beliefs like Christianity are viewed as backwards superstitions. Some people may hold on to beliefs because of tradition or to provide moral guidance, but nobody seems to believe in a God who answers prayers.
When religion comes up, the main characters will often say that the people of Earth used to be religious, but they have since outgrown such silly superstitions. The implications of this belief are pretty clear. Gods and spiritual forces don't exist, and the people who believe in such things are irrational. Furthermore, society will be better off when no one takes those kinds of beliefs seriously anymore.
It's an interesting view of the future and when I was growing up I tended to agree with it. Obviously my views have shifted quite a bit since then. Watching Star Trek these days is interesting because it shows me how much my opinions have changed over the years.
I'm interested to hear what you have to say. What do you think of Star Trek's vision of the future? How does it line up with your beliefs about humanity's future?
Monday, September 28, 2009
I think that most people, by default, hold a view that I like to call the stone tablet theory. The term comers from the book of Exodus, in which God gives Moses a stone tablet with the Law of God already written on it. The stone tablet theory is the assumption that the whole Bible was written this way. The idea is that the whole Bible is a message directly from God to humanity. It's truths are timeless and universal, and it's human authors are mere mouthpieces who faithfully pass the message, exactly as they heard it, to us.
I don't mean to say that the Bible isn't a message from God, or that we aren't meant to understand it. I simply want to say that the reality is somewhat more complicated. The Bible actually consists of several books written over a span of more than a thousand years. The books are written by many different authors using several different styles, and the books are written for different groups of people. Most importantly, none of the books in the Bible are written specifically for 21st century Americans.
All of these factors affect how we read and understand the books of the Bible in some way. When I say that I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired I mean that the original message and meaning of every Biblical text was given by God. The key to interpreting scripture is to understand what a text meant when it was originally written. Once we have determined the text's original meaning, to the best of our ability, we can then try to apply that meaning to our own lives. But if we skip that first step we risk missing the meaning of the text altogether.
Not only will we miss the original meaning, but our reading will be affected by all of our assumptions about what the text should mean. These assumptions will skew our reading of the text in subtle ways. In the end we will have the impression that we understood the text perfectly when, in fact, we may have completely misunderstood the text. This is a serious concern for those of us who consider the Bible a holy text. If we are committed to living our lives according to what the Bible says, then we should be just as committed to making sure that we understand it correctly.
This also means that we should be careful not to accept other people's interpretations of scripture at face value. If someone presents us with an interpretation of scripture we've never seen before, we should check their work. We should try to understand how they've arrived at their interpretation. At the very least we can screen out the more ridiculous interpretations this way.
I'll write more about how to interpret scripture in the future. For now I want to ask, what is the most obviously false interpretation of scripture you've heard?
Monday, September 21, 2009
For those of us who are Christians, I believe that in any conversation we should try to show respect to the people we're talking to. This is an important rule to keep in mind when we talk about politics because often times, when these sensitive issues come up, we feel that it's more important that people agree with us. I've seen so many people, Christians included, talk about politics in a way that is disrespectful to their political opponents. So today I'm going to talk about how to be respectful when having political conversations. This post is aimed at Christians, but I think other people might find the advice to be helpful as well.
First of all, don't say things like, "I don't believe he's really a Christian." This statement is usually directed against politicians (like President Obama) although sometimes it is directed against groups of voters (like people who opposed Prop 8 in California). As a politically liberal Christian, this is an issue I can relate to. When George W. Bush was in office I often felt this way about some of his policies. One time I remember complaining with a friend about President Bush and the friend simply said, "Yeah, but he's still family." I think this is an important thing to keep in mind, that as Christians we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Now, I'm certainly not saying that you can't criticize people who claim to be Christian. I think it's okay, and even healthy, for us to talk about how we think Christians should behave. We can say things like, "I don't think Christians should support Roe v. Wade." I have often said that I don't think Christians should support torture. It may seem like I'm splitting hairs here, but there's a world of difference between saying, "I don't think Christians should support gay marriage," and, "If you voted against Prop 8 then you aren't really a Christian."
The key difference is that when you say that someone who claims to be Christian isn't really a Christian, you're passing judgment on them. You're saying that they're either a liar or a hypocrite. But passing judgment is God's job and not yours. God can see a person's true character, but you can't. He's the one who gets to decide whether or not someone is really a Christian, not you.
This brings me to my next point, which is, don't say things that aren't true. This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but in today's society it's not as easy as it seems. There are many questionable or unscrupulous news sources that will pass along information that is misleading or just plain false. This is easy to solve, though. Just spend a little time on Google and fact check your sources before you use them in a political debate. This way you're not embarrassing yourself or passing along bad information.
The last point I want to make is this: when in a political debate, talk about facts that can be verified, rather than opinions that are unverifiable. For example, I recently saw a discussion online where someone said that they didn't believe Obama was Christian because he seemed too arrogant. This was frustrating, because not only did they claim that Obama was not a Christian, but their reason for doing so was entirely subjective. To me Obama seems like he's a pretty humble considering that he's the leader of the free world. He certainly doesn't seem any more arrogant than the last President.
When you limit the discussion to verifiable facts, it's a lot easier to establish a common ground. When you decide to argue about things that are entirely subjective, usually there isn't any common ground. Without a common ground the argument often degenerates quickly. Unless you want to throw insults at the other person, your only real option is to just agree to disagree.
Hopefully some of you found this guide helpful. Does anyone else have some suggestions for how to have more polite political conversations?
Monday, September 14, 2009
First answer: The Kingdom of God is a political kingdom. According to this view, the Kingdom of God is a place where God exerts his power and authority, either directly or indirectly. A common aspect of this view is the expectation that God will reward the righteous and punish the wicked. This is a view that often motivates Christians to seek political power. Interestingly, this view was also foremost in the mind of Jesus' original audience and many of Jesus' teachings are meant to address this viewpoint. Jesus wanted his followers to understand that the Kingdom of God is not primarily a political Kingdom.
Second answer: The Kingdom of God is a religious group. People who hold certain beliefs or identify with a certain religious group are members of the Kingdom of God. This group might be large (everyone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God) or small (everyone in my particular sect). Either way, in this view, the emphasis is on evangelism and conversion. If the Kingdom of God consists of everyone who belongs to your religious group, then you want to bring more people in so the Kingdom can grow. This view also tends to place an emphasis on the individual. The Kingdom comes one person at a time as people convert, so individual decisions to believe are important.
Third answer: The Kingdom of God is a moral condition. In this view, the Kingdom of God consists of people who do what God wants them to. In this view, the emphasis is on people's behavior. This usually means that you want people to uphold some kind of moral code. This code can be simple, like, "Love God and love one another," or it can be very complicated with a lot of seemingly arbitrary rules, like, "Women must wear hats." In either case the goal is to convince people to uphold this moral code. This is also pretty individualistic, although the moral code usually addresses how we treat others, so it's less individualistic than the previous answer.
Fourth answer: The Kingdom of God is a social condition. In this view, the Kingdom of God consists of people treating each other fairly. This is similar to the theory that the Kingdom of God is a moral condition. To explain the difference, let me tell a story. Imagine that a dictator of a small country is oppressing millions of people. One day, the dictator sees the error of his ways and decides to stop oppressing all those people. If the Kingdom of God is a moral condition, then the dictator entered the Kingdom by acting morally. If the Kingdom of God is a social condition, then his formerly oppressed subjects entered the Kingdom because they're now being treated fairly. In contrast to the earlier views, this view is pretty collective. It is also a view that is mostly concerned with the condition of the world.
Fifth answer: The Kingdom of God is a spiritual outpouring. The Kingdom of God is the place where God's Spirit resides. In this view the Kingdom of God is characterized by the work of the Holy Spirit. This can include things like signs and wonders, miraculous healings, people speaking in tongues, and other strange phenomena. It can also include more subtle things like feelings of joy or an awareness of God's presence. This view tends to emphasize experience over reason and, from the viewpoint of outsiders, is one of the strangest.
Considering each view on its own, I think it's pretty clear that none of them offers a complete picture of the Kingdom of God. Most Christians hold a view that is a combination of the above views. For example, groups like the Moral Majority hold a synthesis of the political view and the moral view. They use political power to try and elect representatives who will legislate their moral code. Liberation theology, on the other hand, represents a synthesis of the political view and the social view. They seek political power to correct social injustice in the world.
This week, I'd like to ask two different questions. If you're a Christian, what view of the Kingdom of God do you think best reflects your views? If you're not a Christian, which view seems the most reasonable (or the least crazy)? I look forward to your responses.
Monday, September 7, 2009
I bring this up in the hopes of clarifying some of the issues that come up whenever people discuss conflicts between scientific and religious truth. Many religious people feel the need to reject or ignore the conclusions of science because of their faith, while many atheists claim that a scientific understanding of the world rules out a traditional understanding of God. Both of these beliefs are rooted in the same fallacy.
That fallacy is the assumption that if science is a source of knowledge then it must be the only source of knowledge. The important thing to realize is that this isn't a scientific claim. Even if we believe that everything that science teaches us is true, we can still believe that their are other truths available that are beyond the grasp of science.
In fact, most people accept that other kinds of knowledge can exist along with scientific knowledge. The clearest example I can think of is mathematical knowledge. Mathematical proofs are arrived at using a completely different method than scientific theories. Most people accept that scientific and mathematical truth can exist side by side, even though they represent two radically different approaches to uncovering truth.
When people start to consider religious truths; however, it's a different story. There are probably several reasons why this is so, but the simplest explanation is that, as a rule, religious truth doesn't play nice. Religious truth is almost always the most controversial kind of truth. Moreover, unlike science or math or any other discipline you might care to name, religious truth always defines a person's world view.
This is a good reason not to try and teach religion in a public setting, but it's a poor reason to give up on religious truth altogether. Too many people look at the many different religions of the world, and at the controversy surrounding religious beliefs, and they decide it's not worth trying to figure out.
The reason why religious debates are so controversial is because people's world views are at stake. Since a person's world view informs all of their other beliefs these arguments can become very passionate. And because world views define a person's basic assumptions about reality it is incredibly difficult to find common ground.
The thing to understand if you adopt metaphysical naturalism as a world view is that, at the end of the day, it's just another belief system. The choice isn't inherently more rational just because you chose to look to science as the only source of truth. In fact, the only choice you're making is to ignore every other source of truth that might be out there.
Hopefully reading this will help to clarify some of the debates concerning science and religion. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think.
Monday, August 31, 2009
"Is God Really Good?" is the central question raised by the book of Job. This book presents us with a situation that seems completely unreasonable. From the beginning of the story we know that Job is an upright and blameless man, entirely devoted to God. As the story progresses Job faces a series of incredibly harsh trials. First he losses all that he has, including his servants and children, and then he is afflicted with a terrible disease. For those who believe in God's goodness, the story is completely outrageous and it forces us to face our doubts.
In the story we see how Job's friends respond to Job's suffering. When Job complains that his situation is miserable and that God is being unfair, they respond by telling Job that it must be his fault. They believe that God is just, and they know that Job is suffering terribly, therefore they conclude that Job must have committed some secret sin that warrants the punishment he is receiving. Their understanding of God does not allow for someone who is as righteous as Job is to suffer as horribly as Job has.
Job's friends are very reasonable people with a very reasonable kind of faith. The problem is that when they are confronted with an unreasonable situation, they behave very unreasonably.
I'd like to compare Job's response to his suffering, with the response of Job's friends to Job's suffering. Job's friends say that God is righteous, so they accuse Job. Job maintains that he is righteous, so he accuses God. I think Job's response is the better of the two. Job's response offends God, but the response of Job's friends offends both God and Job.
There is one character who speaks in the Book of Job whom God does not rebuke in the end and that is the character of Elihu. Elihu rebukes Job for making accusations against God and he reminds Job of God's glory, power and righteousness. He doesn't claim that God's punishment of Job is just, but he does say that God is just.
I don't think that Elihu's response is perfect. I certainly wouldn't use it as a model for grief counseling, but I think he does show us a better way to respond.
When we see suffering in the world, there is a temptation to provide an explanation. When we give in to this temptation we become caught on the horns of a dilemma: either these people who are suffering are evil, or God is evil. We become caught in this trap because we are trying to provide a reasonable explanation to an unreasonable situation.
This is why I think that the book of Job is helpful. By presenting us with an unreasonable situation, the book of Job forces us to confront our doubts about God's goodness. And in the end, the only way we can believe in anything is by confronting, and answering, our doubts. Reading Job's story gives us an opportunity to be open about our doubts and see if God will answer them.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Eschatology is a branch of theology concerned with the final events of human history and the ultimate destiny of the world. Christian eschatology is concerned with the second coming of Christ, the ressurection of the dead and the final judgement. Perhaps the best known example of Christian eschatology is, sadly, the version presented in the Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. I'm not a fan of that view, but that will have to be a topic for a future post.
Though it might seem a bit esoteric, eschatology is actually an important area of study because what we believe will happen in the future affects how we live our lives now. Especially because, as Christians, we believe that we will live to see that future. So, while eschatology is primarily a theological term, I think one can see how the term might be applied to other belief systems. After all, many people have beliefs about the future of the world that affect the way they live their lives now. To illustrate this point I'd like to give a few examples.
The most obvious example that I can think of is the widely held belief that carbon dioxide causes global warming. The concern is that unless we quickly reduce our CO2 production we will face global climate change, which would lead to disastrous consequences. Industry leaders and policy makers are starting to make choices that don't make sense unless you believe this is a real possibility. This is just one example where beliefs about future events can impact the way we live now.
An historical example of a belief system with an eschatological component is Marxism. Karl Marx, the founder of modern communism, didn't just believe that communism was a good idea. He believed that the fall of capitalism was historically inevitable and he believed that it would eventually give way to a utopian, classless society. By providing this vision of the future, Karl Marx gave his followers something to strive for, which may help explain why his beliefs have had such an impact upon history.
For my final example I would like to talk about the technological singularity. The belief is that one day humans will be able to acheive greater-than-human intelligence through artificial means. Once this happens those intelligences will be able to develop even greater intelligences. This will cause all technology to advance in ways we cannot possibly predict. The interesting thing about this belief is that, while many assume that the singularity will be a good thing, others have pointed out that it could just as easily be a disaster. Since the core concept is that these changes will be unpredictable there isn't really any way to know for sure.
I hope I've given you an understanding of why it's important to analyze our beliefs about the future. For anyone, whatever their worldview may be, beliefs about the likely course of future events can have a big impact on the way they act now. Even if we believe that those events are far off they still color the decisions we make on a day to day basis. For that reason alone we should think carefully about what beliefs we hold about the future and where those beliefs come from.
What do you think? Are you thinking of an eschatological-type belief that I missed? Do you want to offer your thoughts on the ones I mentioned? If so, please leave a comment.
Monday, August 17, 2009
Specifically I would like to talk about the concept of an omnipotent deceiver as it is presented in Rene Descartes' famous work, Meditations on First Philosophy, written in 1641. Even if you've never read anything by Descartes I'm guessing you are probably familiar with the concept. The omnipotent deceiver is a hypothetical person who is supremely powerful and intelligent. They are able to confuse a person's senses and thoughts so that that person can no longer be certain of anything. Anyone who has seen the film, “The Matrix” has a good idea of how that might work.
When Descartes tells the tale, however, the deception is perfect. There is no Morpheus to tell you you're dreaming and no blue pill to wake you up. There is no way for the subject to know that what he experiences isn't actually real. It is an intriguing idea and it forms the basis of Descartes' arguments in “Meditations.”
I want to talk about where I believe Descartes may have gotten this strange idea, assuming that he didn't have access to twentieth century science-fiction blockbusters of course. In “Meditations” he brings up this concept as a device to push skepticism as far as it will go. It might just be a contrived thought experiment used to advance the argument, but I believe that this concept is drawn from the life experience of Descartes himself.
Before “Meditations” was published Descartes had been working on a scientific text that, among other things, argued that the earth revolves around the sun. Descartes decided not to publish this text when, in 1633, Galileo was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for publishing a work that argued that the Earth does indeed revolve around the sun.
At the time of Galileo's trial, Descartes was a Catholic living in a protestant country. He had enough faith in Catholicism not to convert despite the persecution he faced. At the same time he was intelligent enough to know that the evidence supported the idea that the earth goes around the sun. Given that the ruling caused Descartes to set aside four years worth of work I think it's fair to say that it had some affect on him.
What if Descartes had stopped to consider the possibility that the church was right, that despite all evidence to the contrary the earth holds still and the sun revolves around it? Descartes might have considered that God was actually a mighty deceiver who is able to provide false visions that lead men to false conclusions, not only about the heavens, but also about the very ground they stand upon.
In “Meditations” Descartes struggles with the idea that God Himself might be an evil deceiver. When we read the book in this light, the omnipotent deceiver is more than just an unusual thought experiment. It illustrates the core problem of believing that God conceals the truth from us instead of revealing it to us. The problem is that no knowledge is certain, so it is impossible to truly believe anything.
Descartes argues that because God is good we can trust that he will not deceive us. For Descartes belief in God forms the basis for a rational, scientific investigation of the universe instead of acting as an obstacle to such investigations. I, for one, think it's a belief that the church should embrace. You can let me know what you think in the comments below.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Before I begin, however, I would like to take some time to talk about myself. My name is Jimmy Bennett. Since I was little I have had a love of both science and science-fiction. In high school I became interested in philosophy. During college I studied computer science. I converted to Christianity late in my college career after I recovered miraculously from a nearly fatal car crash. Currently I attend a Vineyard church in San Diego. Recently I completed a two year leadership training program offered by the Vineyard. This program is meant to be a kind of seminary lite for Vineyard leaders.
Now I'll try to briefly summarize my beliefs so that you can know where I'm coming from when I write. First and foremost I am a Christian. I believe that Jesus died and was raised again to restore our relationship with God. I have an orthodox view of the trinity, believing that the Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are all equally divine and totally united. I believe that the books in the protestant canon are all inspired by God. Lastly, I believe that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world just as it was during the time of Acts. Later on I will talk more about each of these things in depth.
Having said that, I don't believe that such a faith is fundamentally opposed to science. Scientific theories, including the theory of evolution, give us valuable insights into how the created universe works. I consider it a tragedy that so many people, both Christian and non-Christian, believe that the Christian faith and science are fundamentally incompatible, so you can expect that this topic will receive a lot of attention in this blog.
Last of all, I'm a bit of a geek. I enjoy playing video games and role playing games. My intention with this blog is to focus on more intellectual concerns, but along the way I might touch on my other hobbies and interests.
So thank you for reading this. If there's anything I've written above that interests you, or if there are any topics you want me to write about, please leave a comment below. I'd like to write about the things that people are most interested in, and I'd like to facilitate some dialog on these issues. But I can't do that without your help, so please leave a comment and let me know what you think.