Posts tagged ‘God’

The Problem With The New York Times’ God Problem

The polemical can sometimes become the enemy of the thoughtful.  This seems to be what has happened in an opinion piece penned by Peter Atterton for The New York Times titled, “A God Problem.”

Mr. Atterton is a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University who spends his piece trotting out well-worn and, if I may be frank, tired arguments against the logical integrity of Theism.  He begins with this classic:

Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted?  If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it.  On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone.  Either way, God is not all powerful.

This is popularly known as the “omnipotence paradox.”  God either cannot create an unliftable stone or He can create an unliftable stone, but then He cannot lift it.  Either way, there is something God cannot do, which, the argument goes, means His omnipotence is rendered impotent.  C.S. Lewis’ classic rejoinder to this paradox remains the most cogent:

God’s omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense.  This is no limit to His power.  If you choose to say, ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,’ you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, ‘God can’ … Nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

Lewis’ position is the position the Bible itself takes when speaking of God.  Logically, there are some things Scripture says God cannot do – not because He lacks power, but simply because to pose even their possibility is to traffic in utter nonsense.  The apostle Paul, for instance, writes, “If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for He cannot disown Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).  In other words, God cannot not be God.  He also cannot create liftable unliftable stones – again, not because He lacks power, but because liftable unliftable stones aren’t about exercising power over some theoretical state of nature.  They’re about the law of noncontradiction.  And to try to break the law of noncontradiction doesn’t mean you have unlimited power.  It just means you’re incoherent and incompetent.  And God is neither.  To insist that God use His power to perform senseless and silly acts so that we may be properly impressed seems to be worthy of the kind of rebuke Jesus once gave to the religious leaders who demanded from Him a powerful sign: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign” (Matthew 12:39)!

Ultimately, the omnipotence paradox strips God’s power of any purpose by demanding a brute cracking of an irrational and useless quandary.  And to have power without purpose only results in disaster.  For instance, uncontrolled explosions are powerful, but they are also, paradoxically, powerless, because they cannot exercise any ordered power over their chaotic power.  Omnipotence requires that there is power over uncontrolled power that directs and contains it toward generative ends.  This is how God’s power is classically conceived.  Just look at the creation story.  God’s power needs purpose to be omnipotence, which is precisely what God’s power has, and precisely what the omnipotence paradox does not care to address.

For his second objection against God, Mr. Atterton turns to the problem of evil:

Can God create a world in which evil does not exist? This does appear to be logically possible.  Presumably God could have created such a world without contradiction.  It evidently would be a world very different from the one we currently inhabit, but a possible world all the same.  Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why He wouldn’t have created such a world.  So why didn’t He? 

According to the Bible, God did create a world where evil did not exist.  It was called Eden.  And God will re-create a world where evil will not exist.  It will be called the New Jerusalem.  As for the evil that Adam and Eve brought into the world, this much is sure:  God is more than up to the task of dealing with the evil that they, and we, have welcomed.  He has conquered and is conquering it in Christ.

With this being said, a common objection remains: Why did and does God allow evil to remain in this time – in our time?  Or, to take the objection back to evil’s initial entry into creation: Why would God allow for the possibility of evil by putting a tree in the center of Eden if He knew Adam and Eve were going to eat from it and bring sin into the world?  This objection, however, misses the true locus of evil.  The true locus of evil was not the tree.  It was Adam and Eve, who wanted to usurp God’s authority.  They were tempted not by a tree, but by a futile aspiration: “You can be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).  If Adam and Eve wouldn’t have had a tree around to use to try to usurp God’s prerogative, they almost assuredly would have tried to use something else.  The tree was only an incidental means for them to indulge the evil pride they harbored in their hearts.  If God wanted to create a world where evil most assuredly would never exist, then, He would have had to create a world without us.

Thus, I’m not quite sure what there’s to object to here.  The story of evil’s entrance into creation doesn’t sound like the story of a feckless God who can’t get things right. It sounds like the story of a loving God who willingly sacrifices to make right the things He already knows we will get wrong even before He puts us here.  God decides from eternity that we are worth His Son’s suffering.

The final objection to God leveled by Mr. Atterton has to do with God’s omniscience:

If God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know.  But if He knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from His perfection.  Why?

There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God.  As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy.  But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them.  But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.

This is the weakest of Mr. Atterton’s three objections.  One can have knowledge without experience.  I know about murder even though I have never taken a knife or gun to someone.  God can know about lust and envy even if He has not lusted and envied.  The preacher of Hebrews explains well how God can know sin and yet not commit sin as he describes Jesus’ struggles under temptation: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).  Jesus was confronted with every sinful temptation, so He knows what sin is, but He also refused to swim to sin’s siren songs.  The difference, then, is not in what He knows and we know.  The difference is in how He responds to what He knows and how we respond to what we know.

One additional point is in order.  Though I believe Mr. Atterton’s assertion that one cannot know certain things “unless one has experienced them” is questionable, it can nevertheless be addressed on its own terms by Christianity.  On the cross, Christians believe that every sin was laid upon Christ, who thereby became sin for us.  In other words, Christ, on the cross, became the chief of sinners, suffering the penalty that every sinner deserved, while, in exchange, giving us the righteous life that only He could live (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).  In this way, then, Christ has experienced every sin on the cross because He has borne every sin on the cross.  Thus, even according to Mr. Atterton’s own rules for knowing, in Christ, God can know everything through Christ, including every sin.

I should conclude with a confession about a hunch.  I am a little suspicious whether or not this 1,140-word opinion piece in The New York Times decrying faith in God as illogical was written in, ahem, good faith.  This piece and its arguments feel a little too meandering and scattershot and seem a little too clickbait-y to be serious.  Nevertheless, this is a piece that has gained a lot of traction and talk.  I’m not sure that the traction and talk, rather than the arguments, weren’t the point.

Whatever the case, Theism has certainly seen more compelling and interesting interlocutions than this piece.  God, blessedly, is still safely on His throne.

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April 1, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Who Needs Friends When You Have God?

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A new study from the University of Michigan suggests that those who have a strong faith in God are often isolated from others.  Todd Chan, a doctoral student at the university, explains:

For the socially disconnected, God may serve as a substitutive relationship that compensates for some of the purpose that human relationships would normally provide.

This is an interesting hypothesis, but studies like these do not seem to provide consistent results.  W. Bradford Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has found that:

…religion generally fosters more happiness, greater stability, and a deeper sense of meaning in American family life, provided that family members – especially spouses – share a common faith.

In other words, contrary to what Mr. Chan found, faith in God can actually deepen and sustain relationships instead of serving as a substitute for relationships.

Certainly, there are people of deep faith who find themselves bereft of human companionship and, consequently, lonely.  The Bible admits as much, while also seeking to offer comfort and a promise of companionship to those in isolated situations:

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.  (Psalm 68:5-6)

God does indeed promise to be there for someone when they have no one.  But He doesn’t stop there.  He also “sets the lonely in families.”  In other words, He doesn’t just serve as a substitute for human companionship, He actually grants human companionship.

Christianity has always confessed a Triune God, in relationship with Himself from eternity, as the model for and the giver of deeper and better relationships with others.  This is part of the reason why Christianity first took root in the more densely populated urban areas and why it was initially less prevalent among more rural areas.  As Rodney Stark notes in his book The Triumph of Christianity:

The word pagan derives from the Latin word paganus, which originally meant “rural person,” or more colloquially “country hick.”  It came to have religious meaning because after Christianity had triumphed in the cities, most of the pagans were rural people.

Christianity first flourished in cities because those were where the largest communities of people were.  Christianity, it turns out, is irreducibly communal.

Jesus famously summarizes the whole of Old Testament law thusly:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Jesus is clear.  A relationship with God can and should lead to better relationships with others.  Regardless of what Mr. Chan’s study may assert sociologically, theologically, God is not a second-string substitute for human relationships.  Instead, a human, who had an intimate relationship with God and was Himself God, became our substitute on a cross so that we could have a relationship with God in spite of our sin.  God is not a last resort relationship when you’re lonely, but a first love relationship who promises never to leave you alone.  And there’s just no substitution for that.

September 10, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Kilauea’s Fury and God’s Promise

Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 4.08.46 PM.pngIt’s destruction in slow motion.

When Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano began erupting a week and a half ago, cracks in and around the volcano began to emerge, spewing molten lava and dangerous gas.  So far, 18 fissures have opened in the ground, 36 structures have been destroyed by creeping lava, and 2,000 residents have had to evacuate their homes.  And geologists have no idea how long these eruptions will continue.  Officials now worry that the lava lake in Kilauea’s crater will fall below the level of the groundwater, which could spark dangerous stream-driven explosions, spewing boulders – some weighing many tons – into the air.

The flow of lava is nearly impossible to stop.  Its temperature checks in at around 2,000 degrees, which makes dousing it with water ineffective.  Because the lava is so heavy, diversion channels also do not tend to work.  The lava will simply flow over them.  Residents can only stand by and watch in horror as melted, red-hot rock destroys everything it is path.  David Nail, who lives on the gentle slopes of Kilauea in Leilani Estates, had his home consumed by a 20-foot tall pile of lava.  “All we could do was sit there and cry,” he explained.

Natural disasters such as this raise a perennial question about faith: why, if there is a good God, would He allow such terrible disasters to happen?  Christianity is unique in its approach to this question because it not only seeks to grapple with this quandary philosophically, but to empathize with people who have to endure the pain wrought by natural disasters personally.

Christianity teaches that the overall sinfulness of humanity affects and infects every part of creation.  The sinfulness of humanity is why earthquakes topple communities and hurricanes flood them.  The sinfulness of humanity is why severe weather strikes the south and volcanoes erupt in the west.  Because of sin, creation, to borrow a memorable phrase from the apostle Paul, “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22).  In this regard, the natural disasters we experience are anything but natural.  Instead, they are a result of an alien sinfulness first thrust onto the world by our forbearers, Adam and Eve.  Thus, nature doesn’t like these disasters any more than we do.  Natural disasters are painful to nature, just as they are to us.

With all of this being said, Christianity also doesn’t just wag its finger ignominiously at the sinfulness in humanity for causing the suffering of humanity.  Christianity teaches that God is in the midst of suffering.  At the heart of Christianity is the cross – an agent not only of deep suffering, but of cruel torture.  Christianity teaches that God came into suffering through His Son and endured the ultimate suffering as He bore the sins of the world in His death.  Though we may not have all the answers to why God allows suffering, we do have a promise that God is deeply familiar with suffering.  He suffers with us.

When Moses receives the Ten Commandments on top Mount Sinai, the scene looks downright volcanic: “The mountain…blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness” (Deuteronomy 4:11).  The Israelites at the base of the mountain who saw what was happening on the mountain, understandably, “trembled with fear” (Exodus 20:18).  And yet, for all the fear Sinai’s violent eruption may have caused in the people who saw it, Deuteronomy also reminds us that “the LORD spoke…out of the fire” (Deuteronomy 4:12).  Sinai may have been spewing fire and ash, but God was there, speaking His words to His people.

Kilauea is not Sinai.  I highly doubt anyone will come striding down Kilauea after its eruption with a couple of stone tablets in hand.  And yet, just as God was present with the Israelites camping in the shadow Sinai, God is also present with the Hawaiians living in the shadow of Kilauea.  And the words that He spoke at Sinai to Israel, He still speaks to us today: “I am the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:2). God still invites us to be His people so He can love us as His children.  Of this, every Hawaiian – and every person – can be assured.

May 14, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Down Syndrome, Life, and Death

Baby Feet

When Eve gives birth to her first son, Cain, she declares, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man” (Genesis 4:1).  With these words, Eve acknowledges a fundamental reality about conception, birth, and life in general:  without God, the creation and sustentation of life is impossible. Each life is a miracle of God and a gift from God.

Sadly, this reality has become lost on far too many.  Life is no longer hailed as something God gives, but is instead touted as something we can create and, even more disturbingly, control.  The latest example of this kind of thinking comes in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Ruth Marcus, the paper’s deputy editorial page editor, titled, “I would’ve aborted a fetus with Down syndrome. Women need that right.”  Ms. Marcus explains:

I have had two children; I was old enough, when I became pregnant, that it made sense to do the testing for Down syndrome.  Back then, it was amniocentesis, performed after 15 weeks; now, chorionic villus sampling can provide a conclusive determination as early as nine weeks.  I can say without hesitation that, tragic as it would have felt and ghastly as a second-trimester abortion would have been, I would have terminated those pregnancies had the testing come back positive.  I would have grieved the loss and moved on.

According to her opinion piece, Ms. Marcus’ concern over whether or not a woman should be able to abort a child with Down Syndrome comes, at least in part, because of HB205, a bill introduced by Utah State Representative Karianne Lisonbee, which would ban doctors in that state from performing abortions for the sole reason of a Down Syndrome diagnosis.  Ms. Marcus passionately defends her position, going even so far as to conclude:

Technological advances in prenatal testing pose difficult moral choices about what, if any, genetic anomaly or defect justifies an abortion.  Nearsightedness? Being short?  There are creepy, eugenic aspects of the new technology that call for vigorous public debate.  But in the end, the Constitution mandates – and a proper understanding of the rights of the individual against those of the state underscores – that these excruciating choices be left to individual women, not to government officials who believe they know best.

Ms. Marcus admits that choosing whether to keep or abort a baby based on certain physical traits or genetic anomalies has “creepy, eugenic aspects.”  But such moral maladies are not nearly unnerving enough for her to even consider the possibility that some sort guardrail may be good for the human will when it comes to abortion.  The ability to choose an abortion, in her view, is supreme and must remain unassailable.

Ms. Marcus flatly denies what Eve once declared: “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”  She has exculpated herself from the moral responsibilities intrinsic in the front phrase of Eve’s sentence and has left herself with only, “I have brought forth a man.”  She has made herself the source and sustainer of any life that comes from her womb.  And as the source and sustainer of such life, she believes that she should have the ability to decide whether the life inside of her is indeed worthy of life, or is instead better served by death.

Part of what makes Eve’s statement so intriguing is that it seems to be pious and prideful at the same time.  On the one hand, Eve acknowledges that God is the giver of life.  Indeed, Martin Luther notes that Eve may have believed her son “would be the man who would crush the head of the serpent”[1] – that is, she may have believed her son would be the Messiah God had promised in Genesis 3:15 after the fall into sin.  On the other hand, what she names her son is telling.  She names him “Cain,” which is a play on the Hebrew word for the phrase, “I have brought forth.”  Eve names her son in a way the emphasizes her action instead of God’s gift.

Countless years and 60 million American abortions later, this emphasis has not changed.  Maybe it should.  As the fall into sin reminds us, human sovereignty is never far away from human depravity, which is why our demand to be able to choose death never works as well as God’s sovereignty over life.

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[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 242.

March 19, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The International Hurricane

As Hurricane Irma tore across the Atlantic, it had its sights set on ___________.

How you fill in this blank depends on where your focus lies.  For most of us in the states, we saw Irma targeting Florida.  Floridians themselves might have gotten a little more specific.  Hurricane Irma had its sights set on:  Key West, Marco Island, Naples, Fort Myers, and, even though it is on the other side of the state, Miami.

But, of course, Irma affected – and devastated – more than just our nation’s southeastern-most state.  Cuba, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Virgin Islands, and Antigua and Barbuda, among others, were all hit.

In a piece for NBC Nightly News a week ago Sunday, Joe Fryer tugged at the heartstrings by showing a parade of pictures of those overwhelmed by Irma’s wrath while delivering a monologue:

These are the faces of Hurricane Irma – victims who found themselves in the long path of a heartless storm, forever connected by what they’ve endured.  Looking at the damage, it’s impossible to tell which territories are American or British, French or Dutch.  The hurricane did not discriminate.

Mr. Fryer reminded us that the story of this hurricane cut across peoples and nations, islands and mainlands, nations and territories, rich and poor.  Irma indeed did not discriminate.  Irma was sweeping in its devastation.

Sweeping problems need sweeping solutions.  Mr. Fryer ended his piece on Irma by musing: “The human spirit – every bit as powerful as the storm.”  This is certainly a sweet sentiment.  And, in one way, I suppose I agree.  The human spirit that has been on display across the regions now affected by two major hurricanes – Harvey and Irma – has been indefatigable.  People are determined to recover from these storms.  But as much as the human spirit may help us recover from storms like these, it does not help us restrain storms like these.  We cannot turn a category 4 hurricane into a sunny day.  We cannot steer the “cone of uncertainty” we’ve heard so much about over these past few weeks in whatever direction we might like.  The human spirit may be strong, but it is not omnipotent.

But we know Someone who is.

We know a God of whom the Psalmist writes, “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed” (Psalm 107:29).  And we know a Man of whom the disciples ask, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey Him” (Mark 4:41)!  We know Someone who has power that the human spirit does not.  We know Someone who has sweeping solutions to the sweeping problems of this world.

In Acts 15, the Christian Church is meeting in Jerusalem to debate and discuss whether or not Gentiles should have to follow certain old rules of Israel.  Specifically, there are some Jews who are teaching, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).  Peter, himself a Jew, speaks into this debate and asserts that God does not “discriminate between us and them, for He purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9).  Peter says that whether a person is Jew or Gentile, they are purified from sin in the same way – by faith in Jesus Christ.  God does not give different paths to purification to different people because God does not discriminate. He purifies all the same.  He has a sweeping solution to the sweeping problem of sin in this world – faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.

The God who is sweeping in His solution to the problem of sin is also sweeping in His love for the people who struggle through the effects of sin.  Just like Hurricane Irma did not discriminate in its destructive power, God does not discriminate in His love and care.  He sees every lost life in Cuba, every now-homeless person in the Bahamas, every hungry soul in Turks and Caicos, every exhausted worker in the Virgin Islands, every forgotten resident in Antigua and Barbuda, and every hurting family Florida, and He says, “I care about that and I have come into that through Jesus.”

A hurricane that hurts the world needs a God who loves the world and a God who can still the storms of the world.  And we have a God who does and a God who will.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“In front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.” (Revelation 14:6)

September 18, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Hurricane Harvey and Human Selflessness

The news in the wake of Hurricane Harvey just seems to get worse.  18 counties in Texas have been declared federal disaster areas.  Meteorologists are calling the flooding in Houston a 500-year event, though they admit that, by the time all is said and done, the effects of this storm may be closer to a 1,000-year event, or perhaps even bigger. In Beaumont, a toddler was found was shivering in the water, clinging to her drowned mother.  Scenes and stories like this are simply heartbreaking.

Of course, for every heartbreaking story, there are hundreds of heartwarming stories.  The picture below shows Cathy Pham, holding her sleeping baby, being carried to safety by a member of the Houston SWAT Team.

Then there was Spiderman who took some time to visit some of the children who were sheltering at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Images like these have made many people wonder out loud: Why can’t we always act this compassionately toward each other?  Why can’t we put the differences that normally divide us aside and come together like the Coastal Bend, Houston, and the Golden Triangle have?

On the one hand, it’s important to remember that the selflessness we see demonstrated in tragedies like these is not quite as universal as it can first appear.  Disasters bring out the best in many.  But they also bring out the worst in some.  From looters looking to pillage the possessions of displaced homeowners and damaged businesses to storm chasers who run from disaster zone to disaster zone trying to turn a quick profit off of beleaguered survivors by overcharging for a service and performing it poorly, or, sometimes, even not at all, there are still plenty of slick characters who will gladly trade the virtue of altruism for a windfall from opportunism.

In an article for Slate that has been widely criticized, Katy Waldman offers a somewhat cynical take on the staying power of human goodness, writing:

Humans may possess inherent goodness, but that goodness needs to be activated. Some signal has to disperse the cloud of moral Novocain around us. Some person, or fire, or flood, has got to say: now.

Ms. Waldman has serious doubts whether the goodness we see now in Texas can last beyond the storm.  The selflessness we’ve seen, she says, has only been activated by the terrible trials people have had to endure.  Once the trials pass, selflessness will ebb.  Sadly, she might be right.  But she doesn’t have to be.

One of the most compelling stories in the Bible is that of Job.  Job was a man who had it all, and then lost it all – his house, his cattle, his children, and even his health.  Job’s story recounts his struggle to come to terms with God’s faithfulness and providence in the midst of his suffering.  Throughout his terrible ordeal, Job maintains that he has done nothing to deserve the calamities that have befallen him, even boldly demanding to speak with God to protest his circumstances: “I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God” (Job 13:3). Throughout Jobs’ protestations, however, God remains silent – until He doesn’t.

At the end of the book, God speaks:

Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures My plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell Me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:1-7)

God’s basic point to Job is that even when life feels unfair and God seems either absent or incompetent, He is neither.  God really does know what He’s doing.  He really does have a plan.  And He really is quite competent at running the universe, for He put the universe together in the first place.

What is especially important for our purposes, however, is not only what God says to Job, but where God says it: “Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  Job’s stringent sufferings have constituted a personal storm of epic proportions.  But God has been there with him in the storm the whole time.  Out of the storm, God speaks.

What was true of Job’s storm is true of Hurricane Harvey.  With so much human suffering on display in the headlines and on our television screens, it can be tempting to think God is either absent or incompetent.  But He is neither.  God is in the storm.  This is why, for all the suffering we see, we see even more selflessness.  God is in the storm, leading people to help each other through the storm.

This is also why Ms. Waldman’s contention that when a storm subsides, selflessness wanes doesn’t have to ring true.  Human selflessness in the midst of extraordinary suffering is not a result of suffering, but a gift from God.  Suffering may be a vehicle through which God reveals human selflessness, but suffering itself is not the source of human selflessness.  God in the storm – and not the storm itself – is the true source of our selflessness.  And though God is in the storm, He is also beyond the storm.  He will be there when the floods of Harvey have dried and the recovery and reconstruction projects have reached completion.  Which means that the kind of selflessness that has been so beautifully on display in this storm can last long beyond this storm.

Hurricane Harvey has put on display the divine gift of human selflessness.  And we have liked what we’ve seen.  So let’s make sure this precious gift doesn’t go back into hiding once Harvey fades from our headlines.  After all, if places like Houston can be wonderful because of people even when things are terrible because of weather, imagine what things could look like on a sunny day.

I’d love to see.

September 4, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Tenuous Time

Church Steeple

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  As Christianity faded from prominence in the West, a secularized culture was supposed to emerge to take its place that was more tolerant, more enlightened, more harmonious, and less politically polarized than any other society in the history of the world.  But as Peter Beinart explains in an excellent article for The Atlantic, what has emerged as Christianity’s western influence has waned is nothing of the sort:

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.[1]

Beinart goes on to explain how the traditional battle lines between conservatives and liberals have shifted in the wake of this irreligious surge.  Specifically, with regard to the spiritually skeptical alt-right, Beinart notes:

They tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation…

The alt-right is ultra-conservatism for a more secular age. Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil. As a college student, the alt-right leader Richard Spencer was deeply influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously hated Christianity. Radix, the journal Spencer founded, publishes articles with titles like “Why I Am a Pagan.” One essay notes that “critics of Christianity on the Alternative Right usually blame it for its universalism.”

It turns out that as faith allegiances have crumbled, a universal concern for others in the spirit of the Good Samaritan has too.  Christianity’s cross-ethnic, cross-cultural, and international appeal has proven too much for the self-interested – or, perhaps more accurately, self-obsessed – spirit of our age.

As Christians, we must think through this irreligious political surge and provide a faithful witness in the midst of it.  We also must be prepared to live in a very tricky tension because of this surge.  As Rod Dreher explains in his newly released book, The Benedict Option:

Faithful Christians may have to choose between being a good American and being a good Christian.  In a nation where “God and country” are so entwined, the idea that one’s citizenship might be at radical odds with one’s faith is a new one.[2]

Dreher’s analysis of the tension between being a citizen of a nation and being a child of God is true, but it is also somewhat amnesic.  He is right that there is indeed an increasing tension.  But he is wrong that this tension is anything new.  Tensions between God and government have been longstanding, even in our society.  And these tensions should not surprise us.  It was a Roman governmental official, after all, who approved the request for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Government has, for a great portion of history, had a problem with God, especially when people put Him before it.

The New Testament understands that this tension between God and government will never be fully resolved, at least on this side of the Last Day.  While we may give to Caesar what is his, God also demands what is His, and when what Caesar wants contradicts what God wants, conflict ensues.  Just ask Daniel, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or the apostles.  Our calling, as Christians, is to resist the urge to comfortably resolve this tension, whether that be by condemning this world and cloistering ourselves off from it or by compromising our faith for the lucrative perks of political power.  Our calling is to live in this tension both faithfully and evangelically – holding fast to what we confess while lovingly sharing with others what we believe.

Beinart concludes his article:

For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.

Yes, indeed, it is worse – which is why we, as the Church, need to offer something better.  We need to offer something loving.  We need to over something hopeful.  We need to offer something reconciling.  We need to offer something that continually and conscientiously questions our nation’s nearsighted political orthodoxies for the sake of a time-tested theological orthodoxy.  We need to offer Jesus, unabashedly and unashamedly.  This is our mission.  I pray we are up to it.

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[1] Peter Beinart, “Breaking Faith,” The Atlantic (April 2017).

[2] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (New York:  Sentinel, 2017), 89.

April 3, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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