Monday, March 29, 2010

How Big is God's Mercy?

Earlier today I read a beautiful post on facebook. It was written by a woman who had recently lost her father. At the funeral she had chosen to read the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. The parable talks about how God rewards those who care for people in unfortunate circumstances. She went on to share a story about a time when her father went out of his way to care for people in need.

The subject of this post is not that story, but one of the comments it provoked.

In the comments below the post, one person felt the need to remind this woman that the real reason why her father is saved is because he believed in Jesus.

This comment bugged me for a few reasons. First of all, the comment implies that having faith and being a good person are two completely separate and unrelated things. Secondly, the comment asserts that having faith is more important than being a good person.

The thing that bothered me the most, however, was that it felt like the commenter was putting limits on the mercy of God.

Anyone can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or visit people in prison; they don't need to believe that Jesus is Lord. On the other hand, if you really believe that Jesus is Lord, then you should be doing the things he told you to do. Otherwise, why do you call him Lord? Why should we expect God to have mercy on people who claim to follow him, but don't do what he says, and reject people who do what he asks, but don't claim to follow him?

This is a difficult topic, and I don't have all the answers. But there is one thing I will say. If there's one thing that the New Testament shows us clearly, it's that God's mercy was much bigger than people expected it to be. We can try to put limits on God's mercy, but I wouldn't expect him to abide by them.

As a final note, I don't think Christians realize how these statements sound to unbelievers. When you tell people, "The thing that really matters to God is whether or not you believe in him," most of the time they don't think, "Oh, well I suppose I should believe in God, then." Usually they think, "I guess your God only cares about you." The truth is that God cares about everyone. We need to make sure that people know that God cares about them whether they believe in him or not.

Friday, March 26, 2010

TGD: Let's Get Started

This is my first post going through Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. This series is going to be a long one. I don't want to interrupt my usual Monday post until I'm finished, so I'll be posting these later in the week, typically on Thursday or Friday. For those f you following along at home, I'm using the 2008 paperback edition. I'm going to skip the preface to the paperback edition for now. That preface contains Dawkins' response to common objections to the book. I'll refer back to it if/when I make those objections myself.

The God Delusion opens with a preface in which Mr. Dawkins describes his four main goals in writing the book. His first goal is to raise awareness about the viability of atheism as a belief system. "You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled." This message is aimed primarily at people who were raised with religious belief, but have become dissatisfied with that belief.

I don't object to this statement, although there is a flip side to this coin. Just as many people grow up religious and don't know that atheism is a realistic possibility, many people who lack religious beliefs don't know that faith is a realistic possibility. They don't know that you can be religious without turning off your brain. To paraphrase Mr. Dawkins, "You can be a person of faith who is intelligent, rational, balanced, and intellectually fulfilled."

Dawkins' second goal is to raise awareness about the power of science to provide explanatory "cranes" that help us understand the universe and our place in it. I'm not exactly sure what kinds of explanations Mr. Dawkins believes that science is capable of providing, but I don't expect to see eye to eye with him on this point. Many scientists overestimate science's reach and its explanatory powers.

He cites the example of natural selection as a "crane" that provides an explanation for the origins of life. Natural selection has the advantage of being firmly rooted in the physical sciences. Explanations that try to address more fundamental questions, such as the origins of the physical universe, wouldn't have that advantage. I look forward to seeing how Mr. Dawkins addresses this issue.

Dawkins' third goal is to raise awareness about how we refer to children of religious parents. For example, he says that we shouldn't talk about Catholic children, but rather, children of Catholic parents. I think this is a reasonable goal, especially in the case of young children, who can't possibly share their parents beliefs.

Dawkins' fourth goal is to encourage atheists to be proud of their beliefs. He talks about the stigma attached to the word "atheist" and about the discrimination that atheists face, particularly in the US. He believes that atheists need to be more open about their beliefs if things are going to change.

I'm actually supportive of his efforts here. I'm obviously not an atheist myself, but I don't think that atheists should be forced to hide their beliefs. Nor do I think they should be discriminated against.

Beside these four goals Dawkins also makes it clear that he intends to show that religious belief is a dangerous delusion. This is the central message of this book, and it's the point that I disagree with most strongly. As this series continues, we will go through this book together and I will respond to this argument as it develops.

I hope you're looking forward to it. I know I am.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Faith, Doubt and Reason Explained

One of my goals in writing this blog is to talk about the search for truth. It is my interest in discovering truth that motivates many of my posts about philosophy, religion and science.

The search for truth always begins with an idea. The idea might be true, or it might be false. We must evaluate the idea to determine which one is the case.

In order to evaluate an idea we need only three things. We must be able to believe that the idea might be true, we must be able to believe that the idea might be false, and we must have some way of determining which is more likely.

Faith describes our ability to believe that a given idea is true, and doubt describes our ability to believe that a given idea is false.

For an idea to be meaningful, it must be subject to both faith and doubt. An idea that cannot conceivably be true, or that cannot conceivably be false, is meaningless. Any idea worth considering can be believed and it can be disbelieved.

The question is for meaningful ideas, ideas that can be either true or false, how do we determine whether the idea is true or false?

We consider the evidence. We consider our experiences. We consider our existing beliefs. We consider what it means for the idea to be true. We consider what it means for the idea to be false. Finally, having considered these things, we decide whether the idea is true or false.

Reason is what allows us to go through this process with every new idea and make a determination. Reason is what we use to distinguish truth from falsehood, and its job is never done.

Even those questions that we believe are settled must be examined from time to time.

Some people say that we should never question religious truths, but I vehemently disagree. I believe that if we don't consider the possibility that our religious beliefs are false, we render them meaningless. After all, if an idea cannot possibly be false, what does it mean when we say that it is true?

In that vein, I've started reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I will be posting my reflections on this blog as I go through the book. If you're curious about how an open-minded person of faith responds to Richard Dawkins, then keep reading. I expect it will make for an interesting series of posts.

Friday, March 19, 2010

More Thoughts on Social Justice

I want to speak a little more about the topic of social justice. I want to talk about what social justice looks like in action.

A woman from my church runs an nonprofit organization called Bridge of Hope. Bridge of Hope works with refugees living in the city heights neighborhood in San Diego. Bridge of Hope provides refugee families with food, furniture, clothing, toys and other supplies. Bridge of Hope supports these families and helps them to adjust to life in America.

What Bridge of Hope does is a great example of social justice. They care for the poor and the oppressed. They try to give these refugees a better future.

Another good example is Love146. Love146 is an organization that works to end modern day slavery and human trafficking. They also provide safe houses for people coming out of slavery. They also work to prevent people from becoming slaves and to make sure that once someone is set free they stay free.

These organizations, and others like them, do good work. This is why Glenn Beck's recent comments about social justice get to me. When he says that social justice is a 'code phrase' used by communists and Nazis, he is slandering people who work hard to make the world a better place. When he tells people to leave their church if that church believes in social justice he is actively undermining organizations like Bridge of Hope and Love146.

Glenn Beck is actually making the world a worse place, and that's what gets to me.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Engaging the Pain

How do we respond to people when they are going through a tremendous amount of pain?

Last Sunday, after church, a woman came up to me and asked me to pray for a friend of hers. Her friend was a woman who had lost her son, lost her job and was in danger of losing her house.

She was upset. She was in a lot of pain. She was grieving the loss of her son. She didn't have the resources, either financially or emotionally to deal with her current crisis.

I sat there with her. I prayed for her. I listened to what she had to say. I listened to her anger and frustration. I listened to her tears.

I offered her a few words of comfort, encouragement and support. Understandably, they didn't make much of a difference to her. I gave her the names and numbers of a few people I know who might be able to help her. I don't know if that will make much of a difference either, though I hope it does.

Mostly, I just sat there in silence and acknowledged how completely useless I was in this situation.

I know that one day, the ruler of heaven and of earth will come back, and he will wipe away every tear, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. But until that day comes there will be pain and crying and mourning and death, and I don't know how to respond. This is the dilemma we all face.

I believe that every person has an obligation to help people in need to the best of their ability. At the same time, I know that that's not the answer this woman needs. No person can give this woman her son back, or give back the years this woman has lost to grief.

Ultimately, it is up to God to restore this woman, to give back what was taken from her. Until that happens, we live with the pain. The question remains, how do we respond to it?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why Social Justice Matters

Recently, Glenn Beck told his viewers to leave their church if they preach about social justice. I don't normally pay attention to Glenn Beck, but this recent comment is particularly out of line and I want to address it.

What is social justice? Broadly speaking, social justice is the effort to create a society that is more equal, both politically and economically, for everyone. Those who seek social justice seek to help support and uplift those groups that are marginalized within a given society; for example, the poor, the oppressed, slaves, widows, orphans, immigrants, and racial minorities.

The specific term "social justice" was coined by the Jesuit scholar Luigi Taparelli in 1841, but the idea has been around for much longer than that. The idea that society has a responsibility to care for the poor and the marginalized goes at least as far back as Moses.

In the Old Testament Law, which was written by Moses, God's people are instructed to care for the poor, widows, orphans and foreigners. This instruction is repeated in several different places throughout the Law of Moses.

This theme of social justice is picked up by the prophets, who frequently criticize Israel and Judah for oppressing foreigners and not taking care of the poor. Nearly all of the Old Testament prophets touch on this theme. The book of Amos deals almost exclusively with the theme of social justice.

When we enter into the New Testament things only become worse. Jesus frequently commands his followers to share their possessions with people in need. The book of Acts, which describes the history of the early church, tells us that people in the early church shared all of their possessions with one another so that everyone's needs were met.

Glenn Beck also warned his viewers that they might lose their right to read all the passages of the Bible. If Glenn Beck had actually exercised that right himself, then he would know that social justice is not a minor issue for Christians. It lies at the very heart of scripture and of Jesus' teachings.

Glenn Beck's show provides a great example of what happens when you mingle politics and religion. Having a conservative pastor tell their congregation how to vote is bad enough. Having a political pundit tell his audience where they should go to church is even more disturbing.

Glenn Beck is telling his audience not to follow the teachings of Jesus because they don't fit with his particular political agenda. This is a disturbing trend, to say the least.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Living It Out

I recently read a post on Pastoralia titled, Why the Bible is Insufficient for Mission. In it he talks about the fact that the Bible is losing relevance in our culture. He says that scripture is no longer seen as authoritative by most of the culture, and if we want to interact with people outside the church we can't rely on people acknowledging the authority of scripture.

When I read that I immediately realized that what he was saying is true. At the same time, I began to lose confidence in what I'm doing here. I started to realize that what I'm doing here just isn't working.

I quote scripture quite a lot on this blog. I even went so far as to write a post explaining why I quote scripture all the time. I'm beginning to understand that if I keep doing that, then the only people who read this blog will be people who share my respect for the authority of scripture. And what's the point of that?

So what do I do? How can I share the message with people who no longer believe that it is true?

The answer he gives is simple. The answer is to live it out. Instead of telling people what the Bible says, we should demonstrate it with our lives and our actions. Instead of telling other people to devote their lives to Christ, we should show them what it looks like to live a life devoted to Christ.

So in the future, I plan to spend less time on this blog talking about theological issues and more time talking about how to live a life devoted to Christ. I'll still touch on theology and scripture, but my goal is to focus on more practical matters.

As always, feel free to let me know what you think.

Monday, March 1, 2010


As far as words go, evangelism has a pretty bad reputation. For many it is a source of fear, shame, embarrassment and awkwardness. In my case the word brings up feelings of anxiety, nervousness and even a slight amount of dread. Why does the word evangelism bring up such strong negative emotions in people.

Before I answer that, I'd like to talk about what exactly evangelism is. Evangelism is sharing the good news about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The hope is that the people hearing the good news might come to believe in Jesus.

Of course, not everyone who hears the good news believes in it. Many Christians feel that it is their obligation, when sharing the good news, to convince as many people as possible. Their evangelism starts to turn into a debate or a sales pitch as they attempt to win over as many people as possible.

This leads to pushy evangelism strategies that create so many of the awkward moments that evangelism is famous for.

The truth is that I've been guilty of this as well. On more than a few occasions I've entered into debates with people who don't believe in Jesus in a futile attempt to persuade them.

The question is, why do we do it? Why do we push so hard to convince people to believe in something that they just don't agree with?

In my case I do it because I don't trust God.

Let me explain myself. I came to believe in God because he was very patient with me and very generous toward me. He waited patiently until I was ready to believe that Jesus was the risen Son of God who died so that we might have peace with God.

I came to believe in God not because I was very smart or because I was a great person. I believed because God loved me. God loved me because I needed it, not because I had earned it.

This unasked for, unearned and unconditional love of God is what Christians call grace.

Here's the problem. I know that God has acted this way toward me, but for some stupid reason I don't believe that he will treat everyone else the same. I run into trouble when I start to think that God, the same God who showed me an incredible degree of kindness, goodness, patience and gentleness, will turn around and be cruel, wicked, impatient and harsh to everyone else.

Certainly that is not the case. God is the same now as he was then. The God who had grace enough for me will have grace enough for those who come after me. I didn't believe the good news the first hundred times I heard it. God didn't hold it against me, and he won't hold it against the people I choose to share the good news with.

Knowing that, I know that I don't need to put pressure on people. I don't need to twist their arm to get them to agree with me. I'm free to wait for an appropriate time and place, let people know about Jesus, and, unless they want to know more, I can shut up afterward. It's much less awkward for everyone involved.