More than noise?

Hopefully you'll find more than just "noise" here, but thanks Derek Webb and company for my favorite new site:

www.noisetrade.com

What matters?

"What really matters?"

Sitting at the kitchen table this morning, with my breakfast cereal digesting in my stomach, I found myself meditating on this question. It would not escape me. What causes me to care about what matters? Why do I want to give my life to that which matters? If I want to live for something that matters, then there must be something that matters.

As I meditated, journaled and navigated the deep waters of this question, I discovered that this is a question that has pervaded much of my thought for the past several years. Ever since coming to college really, but moreso over the past four years after my return from South Africa.

I realized this morning that when I find myself in a situation that seems void of joy, it is an experience that is often tainted by a feeling of tentativeness, uncertainty and a curiosity that wonders, "Does this really matter?" What I truly want is to live life with a certainty - a contentment - that says, "This matters. This is what I want to live for. This is worship. This is...life."

Jesus said that there is a real enemy - a ruler of this temporal world - who comes to steal, kill and destroy life. He does not want us to have life as God intended it in Eden. But, Jesus has come into this world that we might have life - zoe - abundant, God-filled life.

So, I ask myself, "Is God real?" Yes, I believe that fully.

"Throughout history, what has been the revelation that tells me about God?" The Bible, I believe.

"What does the Bible say is God's ultimate revelation of himself on earth?" Jesus.

So, as I sojourned through these questions this morning with several more clarifying questions in between, I ended up here: what really matters? Jesus.

My mind immediately jumped to a short word from, John, one of Jesus' closest friends while on earth.

He said, "Whoever claims to live in God, must live his life as Jesus did." 1 John 2.6

All these questions about what really matters seem to lead me to the same place. I'm sure that I will continually wrestle with questions of a specific, secondary calling in life and choices over this endeavor or that one, but as I zoom out and look at my life from the end, I know this:

I do not want my life to end with a question mark. I want it to end at the cross.

Reason for God, IX

The final objection to Christianity that Keller discusses is the belief that "You can't take the Bible literally."

This chapter is jam-packed, but I will briefly mention a few of Keller's arguments for the validity of the Bible.

"The content is far too counterproductive for the gospels to be legends."

If the New Testament gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were just books written by some misguided Jews looking too hard for a Savior, then why would they include so much content that would be very culturally counter-productive to the advancement of their "new religion?" For example, if they were making up legend and promoting a false reality, why would they say that women were the first eyewitnesses and testifiers to the resurrection of Jesus - the leader of their "new faith?" A woman's testimony was not allowed in court at that time, so why not at least say that some men were the first to witness the risen Christ?

"The literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend."

C.S. Lewis, a renowned literary critic and former atheist recognized that the literary form of the New Testament gospels was incredibly distinct from any other form of fiction written during the first century. Instead, it resembles a form of first-hand account reportage - not legend. The gospel accounts record details (e.g. numbers, facial expressions, sleeping quarters) that were not consistent with the fiction of its day.

"Don't immediately assume that the Bible can't be trusted culturally."

Keller suggests that a reader consider that their problems with some texts might be based on an unexamined belief in the superiority of their current historical moment over all others. To reject the Bible as regressive is to assume that you have arrived. Also, Keller suggests that the reader consider that bothersome passages may not be teaching what it appears to be saying. For example, slaves in the first century were treated much differently than the New World slaves that we now think of when reading about "slaves." Keller is not condoning slavery, but merely pointing out that we a culturally conditioned paradigm that may not be consistent (and often is not) with the contemporary reader of the gospels. We should enter the Scriptures carefully, in community and with an open mind to the possibility that God's ways may in fact be higher than our ways!

Reason for God, VIII

The sixth objection to Christianity that Keller often faces and thus addresses in Reason for God is the belief that "Science has disproved Christianity," or more aptly stated, "science has disproved the existence of a creator God and consequently, all theistic religions."

It is a much debated question today: are science and belief in God mutually exclusive? Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and others would urge us to believe so, but severing the two is not so easy and there are many prominent scientists of our day who are firm believers in the creator God of the Bible.

Keller first addresses the belief that miracles are scientifically impossible, because you can't empirically prove their reality. In response, he states that because science requires an experimental model to test everything, how could a scientist test the statement "No supernatural cause for any natural phenomenon is possible."

Next, Keller looks at the question of whether or not science is in direct conflict with Christianity or the Bible. And the answer is "of course, not!" There is no reason that the findings of science, including evolutionary biology (I know, gasp!) cannot be consistent with the loving, omnipotent, creator God whom Christians worship. Yes, there is much debate within Christianity about a literal six-day creation account versus a metaphorical six-day (The sun and moon were created after "days" one, two and three) creation account, but the reality is that while we can and should develop Biblical convictions about creation, we cannot disprove the possibility that God used some forms of evolution to bring forth parts of creation. His ways are higher than our ways.

[Aside: the reality of a creative and loving God makes science and nature that much more beautiful, meaningful, captivating and hopeful. Without an omnipotent, everlasting God, is science not just a search for power? Without God, there is then no such thing as "good" - we each define "good" and science becomes a power struggle to find a piece of reality that will somehow "save us." I guess we all recognize our need to be rescued from something. If physical naturalism is the only explanation for our origin and purpose, then there are no morals, there is no justice, there is no love - we are only animals, the strong taking over the weak. Is that the story that our reality tells us, though? Why would a man jump in front of a moving train to save a stranger? Yes, I've heard an answer: because through evolutionary psychology he has learned that that action will somehow result in a greater benefit to his tribe. ]

Keller closes on a hopeful note: "We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order...Jesus has come to heal the world where it is broken...Jesus' miracles are..a promise...that the world we all want is coming."

Reason for God, VII

The next objection to Christianity that Keller addresses in Reason for God is the question, "How can a loving God sending people to hell?"

Real simple, nice and light-hearted question, right?

If you're looking for a hellfire and brimestone condemnation in the pages of Keller's book, you won't find one. Keller's response to this question is gently and respectfully discussed without compromising the absolute truth of the Scripture, and it was one of the better discussions to date in my reading on this topic.

The reality is, however, that this question is so delicate that I really don't want to wade into it in this blog post. I know, chicken, right? Not really, but if there is any conversation generated in the comments section, I would love to engage there.

What do you think? Why would such a place as "hell" exist? Could God be good, loving and just and simultaneously allow humans to dwell in a place of torment after death on earth?

Related to the subject of heaven and hell, C.S. Lewis once said, "There are two types of people. Those who say to God, 'Thy will be done' and those to whom God says, 'Thy will be done.'"

Focus

T.S. Eliot once wrote "Can a lifetime represent a single motive?"

I come to the blogosphere today thinking about the topic of "focus", after just reading a chapter on the topic in Os Guiness' book, The Call.

Our world has become a smorgasbord of choice. We are overwhelmed, overloaded, saturated and fragmented. Is focus even possible anymore?

Recently, I have found myself desiring a more focused life. In my work - vocational ministry - I am often working in many different spheres, such as small groups, public communication, mission to the poor, art and media, raising funds, mentoring, shepherding, connecting with new people. On one hand, it's great that I am getting so much exposure, perhaps helping me along as I discover God's calling. But, I often feel fragmented and diluted.

What is a guy to do in a world that worships choice and change? I enjoy change as much as the next guy! But, it seems that only one reality can lead us away from the altar of choice: Christ chooses us. Our life is to be a singular response to his Call.

While praying to the Father, Jesus said, "I have glorified you on earth by completing the work that you have given me to do."

So, I guess I have to ask myself once more, "Can a single lifetime represent a single motive?"

I think so, but it might take me a bit to get there. What do you think? Do you have focus?

Reason for God, VI

The fifth objection posed by skeptics that Keller addresses is one that has always been difficult to handle: "The Church is responsible for so much injustice."

Keller responds from three different angles: individual character weakness, the history of war and violence and finally, fundamental fanaticism.

Character weakness

It may feel like a straw man response, but the reality is that Christians are not perfect. We are saved by sheer grace, not by our good works. The Church necessarily attracts and is filled with broken people. After coming to faith in Christ, one does not immediately become a Mother Theresa. That said, there are many who have worn the name of Christ, but have not lived it or have likely never been indwelt by his Spirit.

Religion and Violence

Christopher Hitchens rightly argues that many religions often "transcendentalize" ordinary cultural differences so that opposite parties feel they are in a cosmic battle between good and evil. Historically, violence has resulted in different forms. But again, even as a corporate character weakness, the proclivity toward violence in the history of Christianity is not an aberration among all human society. Countless regimes have carried out untold violence due to their own "trancendentalization" of some other concept.

Fanaticism

We've all seen people waving signs that say "God hates &*#$%" or passing out literature condemning to hell everyone wearing improper clothing. These actions by a small proportion of misled, overzealous individuals who appear "over-committed" to their faith have caused many to wave off Christianity altogether. The problem, Keller says, is that these "fanatics" are not so because they are over-committed to Christ's gospel, but because they aren't committed enough. Yeah, that's right. The good news of Christ is one that is based entirely on grace. So, these "fanatics" are not fanatics of Christ's humility, grace, mercy, love and acceptance.

Keller separately addresses the slave trade which many have chalked up as one of the greatest blots on "Christian" history. But, Keller points out that in Britain and in the New World (and similarly in apartheid South Africa), the loudest voices against the slave trade were in fact Christian activists.

After posting five of the seven objections thus far that Keller addresses, I am wondering, what are some that you have asked or faced?

Reason for God, V

The third objection posed to Christianity that Keller addresses is "Christianity is a straightjacket."

Because our faith is one that is grounded in absolute truth, another way to think about this one is through this question: "Is a belief in absolute truth the enemy of freedom?" We do live in a society that worships personal freedom, so this is a worthwhile question.


Keller asks: Is freedom a "place" we eventually hope to find ourselves where there is no ultimate purpose for our existence, but only a purpose to define our own existence and live for our own pleasure?


This question of the existence of absolute truth and ultimate purpose is one that undergirds much of our political and social squabbles. So, some would say that truth claims are actually power plays for Christians to just get their own way. Unfortunately, many "Christian" leaders throughout history have used truth claims as power plays. But, we must dig deeper beyond the tarnished image that these individuals have portrayed.


Regarding truth, can we always explain away everything? As C.S. Lewis said, "It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque." The point of seeing through something, he says, it so see something concrete beyond it.


French philosopher Foucalt admitted that some truth-claim is unavoidable for us. But, do the truth claims of Christianity serve as a straightjacket for followers of Christ?


Keller argues that there is no such thing as a totally inclusive community. Every community has a set of beliefs or parameters. That does not mean, however, that those boundaries can not be good.


Some say that Christians are culturally rigid, we live in a cultural straightjacket that cuts us off from accepting all peoples. However, this could not be further from the truth. Every major religion, with the exception of Christianity, has virtually maintained a singular geographical center of adherents. However, Christianity has been so adaptive to such contrasting cultures that it is almost difficult to believe. From Jerusalem, to the Mediterranean, to the Roman Empire, to Northern Europe, to North America, and now today to the global South and East(South America, Africa, Asia), the "center" of Christianity has spanned the globe.


It has been argued that secularism has been more destructive of local culture than, even the history of Christianity (yes, we remember Colonialism).


Coming back to morality and freedom, Keller gives an example. For someone with a musical aptitude, in order for them to excel in their gift, they must practice and practice at the cost of many hours of doing other activities. I heard a 14 year old violin player recently - she was unbelievable - and she practices something like five hours a day. In order for that person to accomplish greatness, they had to make a deliberate choice to lose their freedom.


Does it follow then that boundaries, beliefs - absolute truth - could in fact provide more freedom and greatness than relativism? Keller says that freedom "is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us."




iPhone

Today is the day - the release date for the updated iPhone. I thought it appropriate to share a couple images that I made for a talk we gave at Saturday Night Grace over a year ago.

Who am I kidding...I'd love to have one. :)

Reason for God, IV

The second objection to Christianity that Keller addresses is the ever-popular question, How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?

In this post, I will not even get one toe into the depths of this timeless, difficult question posed to Christ-followers. Actually, Keller argues that this question is more of an issue for already-Christians, rather than non-yets. But it is still a very popular objection to faith in Christ.

Many philosophers of our day have agreed that just as goodness in the world does not prove God's existence, they have also agreed that evil and suffering can not disprove God. The assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil and therefore a supposed good God could not exist hides another premise that if suffering appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless.

If you ask around, you could easily find someone who has gone through a period of suffering and come out better on the other end. Keller shares some stories of this vein, and also points to the life of Joseph in the Bible who became a powerful and influential leader in Egypt, second in command, only after enduring some - to the casual observer - "pointless" suffering.

Keller then argues that suffering may be, if anything, evidence for a God. Former atheist, turned Christian, C.S. Lewis stated that suffering provided a better argument for God's existence than against. "How had I got this idea of just and unjust? What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?"

Keller says that the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death and destruction of the weak, so on what basis can an atheist judge the natural world to be unjust or evil? Now, to their defense, I think the problem of suffering question is posed to question how our God could actually be good rather than why is there suffering period, but it is a reasonable question, nonetheless.

Keller then moves on to discuss how through Jesus, Christians discover that God put himself "on the hook" of human suffering. Consequently, Christianity does provide resources for making sense of evil and suffering. Keller also addresses the idea that Christian beliefs just provide consolation in the midst of suffering, but actually our faith holds to a restoration that will right everything that has been wrong and "everything sad will become untrue."

Reason for God, III

I am still plowing through Keller's Reason for God and as usual, I'm finding it much easier to keep flipping its pages as opposed to taking time for reflection. I really need to develop a better rhythm of reading, studying and reflecting when I pick up nonfiction. I digress.

After my last post, I realized two things. One, I need to keep these posts much shorter. Two, I need to preface these posts with an apology to Keller. I have no doubts that I might be doing him a disservice in these summaries, but I am trying my best to remain true to his thoughts as I post some *hopefully* succint reviews of each chapter.

The last section of the first objection chapter, There Can't Be Just One True Religion, deals with the solution that some propose: to keep religion completely private.

Contemporary political scientists, sociologists, etc have argued that in public sector conversations, one should "not argue for a moral position unless it has a secular, nonreligious grounding."

Is that even possible? Does such a all-inclusive code of ethic, removed from any absolute truth, even exist?

Should "religious people" be forced to leave behind a part of themselves when entering public dialogue? These are significant questions to be wrestled with, especially in light of the current presidential race.

If we zoom out and define religion, Keller says it is a "set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things" that we should spend our time on - our "master narrative." It follows then that everyone argues a position from their "narrative", even if it is an implicit "religion."

Are there "neutral and objective arguments" that would convince everyone in the political arena that we must not starve the poor? No, says Keller.

Keller argues that we cannot find neutral ground, because there is no neutral ground and we should not therefore be expected to leave behind, or privatize, our "religion." Everyone has an implicit code of ethic, whether they argue it from an evolutionary psychological position or from the Quran or from the Bible.

He touches on this in more depth in later chapters.

End of an era

I can't believe it.


I am finally going to separate from my pickup that I have driven since I turned 16. Almost ten years.


Honestly, it is kind of a relief to move on from ole red. Amber and I are downsizing to one vehicle, simplifying things a bit, hopefully.




If you're interested in checking out the details of my "For Sale" posting, you can look at it here.


It's a total chick magnet.

Reason for God, II

After his introduction on doubt, Keller begins the first section of Reason for God with a look at the seven most common objections to faith in Christ that he has received in his years at Redeemer. The first of these objections is "There can't be just one true religion."

This is the question of exclusivity. "There can't be just one way to God", "Jesus can't be the only way", etc, etc. Keller agrees that one of the major barriers to world peace, is in fact "religion." When you share a common set of beliefs with others, you naturally feel a superiority to those outside of that community who believe differently. The response to religion is then to either outlaw, condemn or intensely privatize it.

Outlaw
Keller states that the trajectory of thinking for many years has been that the more scientifically sophisticated and more able to understand and control our environment, our need for religion would diminish. But this "secularization thesis" has been largely discredited. Relgious affiliation is no where close to diminishing all over the globe. In fact, Keller mentions, that it isn't even the secularized, thin Christianity that is growing, but a robust faith with belief in miracles and authority of Scripture.

Condemn
Here, Keller gets into some finer detail, because this ethos is becoming more common as our culture polarizes, becoming both more secular and more religious.

"All major religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing."
How anyone ever makes this argument with a straight face is beyond me, but it is somewhat common. Someone who claims that the doctrinal differences between Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Christianity, etc. are negligible and they all worship the same God is merely developing their own different doctrine as they refute the doctrinal differences between the other religions.

"Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth."
Alas, we find the famed Elephant illustration. You may be familiar with it. Several blind men come up to an elephant and each touches a different part, coming to a different conclusion about what type of object the elephant is. The leg makes it to be thick, like a tree. The ear makes it seem thin and flat. The tale makes it seem snake-like. The illustration backfires because the one who sees this all happening is one who is not blind himself and must be able to see the whole picture.

"Religious belief is too culturally and historically conditioned to be 'truth.'"
Here we find a claim that because we are all "locked into our historical and cultural locations, it is impossible to judge the rightness or wrongness of competing beliefs." Again, the claimant is exempting himself from his own razor. If I were born in Morocco, wouldn't I be a Muslim? Well, if the secularist were born in Honduras, might he be Catholic?

"It is arrogant to insist your religion is right and to convert others to it."
Keller points out that is is certainly a mostly Western idea that it's problematic to believe your religion is "best." It is deeply rooted in Western self-criticism and individualism. When someone claims that a Christian cannot make exclusive claims to a superior knowledge (it's not really superior, but) and that God is unknowable, is not that claim a "religious belief" in itself?

I think I'll save Keller's thoughts on "Privatization" for my next post...


Reason for God

I just started a new book, The Reason for God, by Tim Keller. If you aren't familiar with Keller, he is pastor of Redeemer in NYC, a church that is known for connecting with a broad cross section of New Yorkers - poor, wealthy, yuppies, artistic, multicultural.

I thought I'd make some posts related to the questions that Keller discusses in his latest book. I think I will enjoy this book because it is a very contemporary (copyright 2008), accessible apologetic, but it does not abandon orthodoxy. Ever since reading I Sold My Soul on Ebay, I have been thinking more actively about our age of skepticism and how a Christ-follower can intellectually, lovingly and respectfully engage others on the many current objections posed.

Keller opens up by addressing the topic of doubt, which is absolutely foundational for any discussion of apologetics. If we have not honestly acknowledged and wrestled with the doubts of our own faith (if think you don't have any, then take some time to think on that one), then it will be difficult to have an intelligent conversation with a skeptic.

"People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic."

We cannot hold beliefs because we simply inherited them (which is why college ministry is particularly interesting, because so many new students are grappling with this inheritance issue for the first time). Struggling with our own doubts is a process that will undoubtedly lead us to a stronger and more respectable position, Keller says. He also argues that all doubts, however skeptical or cynical they may seem, are really a set of beliefs.

"You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B."

Keller goes on to urge Christians to wrestle with their personal and the culture's objections to our faith. As Peter says, "always be prepared" to give a reason for the hope that you have!

Keller shares three stories of transformation from his congregation of individuals who have wrestled with their doubts, moving from a secular position to a position of faith in Christ, and then he closes the intro by reminding us that Jesus responded to doubt by challenging Thomas to not acquiesce in doubt, and he responded elsewhere with a blessing to the man who honestly acknowledged his doubt and unbelief.