Monday, September 28, 2009

What is the Nature of Scripture?

I've already mentioned that I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired. Today I would like to take some time to talk about what I mean by that. I want to talk about the nature of scripture and the role that God played in its creation. This is an important question to consider because how we believe divine inspiration works can have a big impact on how we interpret the Bible. Without a good understanding of what we mean by "divine inspiration" it's impossible to understand how a divinely inspired text aught to be read.

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

How to Disagree Respectfully

Today I'm going to talk about American politics. Now, honestly I don't like to talk about politics. Political conversations deal with complex issues that people often feel passionately about. As a result political discussions can quickly turn ugly. In fact, that's what I want to talk about; how to keep political conversations from turning ugly.

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

What is the Kingdom of God?

It is an easy question to ask and a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Of all the topics Jesus touched on, he talked about this one the most. So it's not surprising that how we, as Christians, answer this question can have a profound impact on our theology. How we understand the Kingdom of God impacts our understanding of God, the gospel, eschatology, faith, politics and a whole range of issues. So, how do we answer this question? Today I'd like to talk about a few of the most common answers to this question.

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

Science as a Worldview

Today I'm going to talk about metaphysical naturalism. Simply put, metaphysical naturalism is the belief that everything that exists is natural. Natural, in this instance, refers to anything that can be studied scientifically. The assumption here is that everything that exists can be studied scientifically. In other words, this is science as a world view.

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.