Tagged: faith

Why God should not be left out of the search

I finished reading The Christian Delusion ed. by John Loftus recently. I had a number of disagreements with chapters in this book, but the most prominent one is with how Loftus articulates his “Outsider Test for Faith” (OTF). He frames it in an extremely unreasonable way (strange, since people of Loftus’s rank often make reason the king of everything, nearing the point of worship). Initially, he says that ince there are many cultures and religious viewpoints people are born into, there’s a likelihood yours is wrong, and you need to examine it as though you were an outsider from that religion. Fair.

But he goes on to say, “I’m asking believers to change their assumptions and/or become agnostics. This is what I call the ‘default position.’” (Kindle Locations 1036-1037), And  “The only thing we can and should trust is the sciences. Science alone produces consistently excellent results that cannot be denied, which are continually retested for validity.” (Kindle Locations 1050-1051).

This is bad epistemology. Is agnosticism axiomic? To overcome cultural biases and subjective opinions to find Truth, does one need to leave aside belief in the transcendent totally and be a pure naturalist? Does a Christian have to stop believing in God, the Bible, prayer, and everything else to find if the Christian faith is true? Does a Muslim need to do the same (except stop believing the Quran)? Or a Sikh? Or any other religious person?

While I think the concept of an Outsider Test for Faith is actually a good idea (which, contra Loftus, could pass Christianity) when researching religions, I don’t think you can make blanket eliminations of epistemologies like that. You must avail yourself of whatever epistemology the religion you’re studying holds dear to determine  the truthfulness or falsity of it – if not, your race horse is dead out of the gate. You don’t even give it a fighting chance. By throwing out a religion’s epistemologies to use only your personal, narrow, western, culturally defined epistemology (science), in effect you’ve already decided the religion is not true prior to your journey of study, making your study no longer objective, and therefore subjective and biased. Mr. Loftus is parameterizing the discussion to the philosophical position of Atheism and Naturalism, throwing out entire ways of knowing something as invalid already, a priori. This is anti-intellectualism on level with the worst of religious fundamentalism.

You should use the epistemologies inherent within the Christian faith, and see whether they hold up to their own standards, besides scrutinizing those epistemologies themselves to see if they fit with all the others.

Christianity has something to say about how you find truth, and it would be unfair in any test of the veracity of Christianity to leave these out: prayer, seeking God, the spoken revelation of God (the Bible itself), the work of the God’s Spirit on the human heart,  prior assumption of a revelatory God, and of course the broader epistemologies of reason, experience, etc. that are also found in the Bible.

But this goes for testing any faith. For Islam, you need to avail yourself of Islamic epistemology. Same with Buddhism and the others. Without doing this, it’s like testing to see if Einstein’s E = mc2 is really true but taking out m. Or saying I’m going to test if evolutionary theory is true but you can’t have natural selection, or biology, or genetics considered at all. You never even give the belief system a chance.

Loftus says, “With the OTF I’ll argue that we should adopt a skeptical predisposition as best as possible prior to examining the evidence, if we adopt any predisposition at all” (Kindle Locations 939-940). This reminds me of Philip Johnson’s comment, “One who claims to be a skeptic of one set of beliefs is actually a true believer in another set of beliefs.” This is very true in the typical Atheist’s case. He’s already swallowed the antisupernatural bias of the Academy, believing in naturalistic evolution as the explanation for the universe, existence and everything else. Radical skepticism doesn’t go far. Even skeptics believe in something. Can’t we be both cautious/skeptical and open-minded?

Now, what I’m saying is hotly debated, and it’s no easy thing to develop a model for how to test whether a certain religion is true.  But this is not all. There’s another way Loftus frames OTF that is even more indefensible: He assumes an agnostic position on God’s existence in the OTF.

I’m sorry, but belief in God doesn’t equal religion. Belief or assumption that a god exists is totally independent of a particular faith! A simple theist/deist “outsider” to a faith who desires to search and examine that faith should not leave his belief in a God’s existence at the door. As many philosophers have argued, belief in some Deity can really be a properly basic belief, just as I believe reason exists and that I was not born as a clone in some science experiment. Many people who were not religious believe in some sort of God, at least the God of the philosophers (Aristotle, Spinoza, etc.). As John Dicksonwrites, the arguments and pointers to the existence of a Deity (Deus) are so strong, it’s a “fundamental” belief. He adds, “Where believers of the various faiths part ways is in the particularization of the Deus… Deism is common sense.”  Atheists may not agree, but if we’re developing an Outsider Test for Faith that anyone can use to test a religion, this is significant. If you are a deist or theist searching various religions to discover if God has spoken or not, then prayer to God, seeking his guidance, and contemplation of what he could be like are all vitally important.

I’m going to say something that Atheists and Christians should agree on: The question of God is the most important question anyone can ever think about. Atheists are obligated to agree with this statement. Otherwise, why are atheists spending their lives writing books and debating the issue? Therefore, is it not reasonable, while contemplating whether or not God exists and the nature of this God, to pray? How harmless is it to say “God, if you’re there, help me find you? Where are you?” This requires some faith, at least as much to say that if there is a benevolent God, then he will answer me if I ask him.

I can be an outsider to every religion, every faith, but still believe in a Deity, because no religion has a corner on simple theism or deism. Therefore, if I step back and examine my own religion as an outsider in an attempt to be objective, I need not throw out God. If I’m justified in believing in the existence of a Deus for other philosophical and scientific reasons independent of religious dogma, then I can use prayer to this Being as part of my OTF. The idea of an OTF is a good one. But an OTF model that throws out potentially valid epistemologies is flawed. It will not lead you to Truth. And isn’t Truth the whole point?

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Review of ‘The Jesus I Never Knew’ by Philip Yancey

I’ve been listening to the audio version sporadically over the past month. Just finished it today!

This isn’t an academic theological treatise, but contains a more devotional quality of reflections on the Christ of the Gospels. Yancey brings in his personal journey to grasping Jesus as well as some of the journeys of others, including literary greats such as Leo Tolstoy and Shusaku Endo.

Yancey’s journalist background is obvious. He is great writer! He paints stunning word pictures and presents the profoundness of Jesus with power and impact. He works his way through Christ’s life chronologically, picking out highlights, insights, and general truths from Jesus’ birth to resurrection, telling many anecdotes along the way.

Yancey seems to enjoy emphasizing how different the true Jesus is from our expectations. He gives criticism of those who have misunderstood Jesus  – including himself. Yancey has a humility and self-effacement throughout. This makes his contentions with others ( The Christian Right, Revolutionaries, etc.) tied to looking at ourselves to see how we impose our own expectations on Jesus to make him fit us, rather than making us fit to Jesus.

Yancey also gives considerable attention to the problem of suffering and evil, something about which he has written extensively already (Where Is God When It Hurts, etc.). He stated the problem very well and notes how Jesus answered it superbly.

I didn’t care for some things in the book. For instance, he seems to have pacifist interpretations of certain verses, something with which I would respectfully disagree. Calvinist folk wouldn’t like his discussions on free will, which I would admit is a little over-stated at times.

That said, the book is an easy and pleasant read that exalts Christ and attempts to look at Him for who He really is. I came away in awe of God, which makes it de facto a good book. I would recommend it to anyone.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“If Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.” (quoting Walter Wink).

“The only time Jesus met with powerful political leaders, his hands were tied and his back was clotted with blood. Church and state have had an uneasy relationship ever since.”

“The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous. And if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact, he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Faith does not spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith ” Theodore Dostoevsky.

“Jesus miracles, they note, do not usually contradict natural law but rather replicate the normal activity of creation at a different speed and on a smaller scale.” (quoting C.S. Lewis).

“Jesus knew that spiritual disease has a more devastating effect than any physical ailment. Every healed person ultimately dies. Then what? He had not come primarily to heal the world’s cells, but to heal its souls.”

On reading in the Gospel about holy week: “[E]ach time I feel swept away by the shear drama. The simple, unadorned rendering has a grinding power. I can almost hear a base drum beating dolefully in the background. No miracles break in, no supernatural rescue attempts, this is tragedy beyond Sophocles or Shakespeare. The might of the world, the most sophisticated religious system of its time allied with the most powerful political empire arrays itself against a solitary figure – the only perfect man who’s ever lived. Though he is mocked by the powers and abandoned by his friends, yet the gospels give the strong ironic sense that He Himself is overseeing the whole long process. He has resolutely set his face for Jerusalem knowing the fate that awaits him. The cross has been his goal all along. Now as death nears, he calls the shots.”

“As Jesus used supernatural power to set right what was wrong. Every physical healing pointed back to a time in Eden when physical bodies did not go blind, get crippled, or bleed nonstop for 12 years, and also pointed forward to a time of recreation to come. The miracles he did perform, breaking as he did the chains of sickness and death give me a glimpse of what the world was meant to be, and still hope that one day God will right its wrongs. To put it mildly, God is no more satisfied with this earth than we are. Jesus’ miracles offer a hint of what God intends to do about it. Some see miracles as an implausible suspension of the laws of the physical universe, as signs though, they serve just the opposite function – death, decay, entropy, and destruction are the true suspension of God’s laws. Miracles are the early glimpses of restoration. In the words of Yorgan  Multman, ‘Jesus healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world. They are the only truly natural things in a world that is unnatural, demonized, and wounded.”

“In a sense, the paired thieves present the choice that all history has had to decide about the cross.”

“The problem of the church is no different than the problem of one solitary Christian. How can an unholy assortment of men and women be the body of Christ? I answer with a different question – how  can one sinful man, myself, be accepted as a child of God? One miracle makes possible the other.”

On the cross: “In the most ironic twist of all history, what Satan meant for evil, God meant for good…  In that act of transformation God took the worst deed of history and turned into the greatest victory.”

To Whom shall we go?

Reading through John for my Gospels class, I resonated with John 6.68-9, a verse I’ve cherished for quite some time.

It’s after a showdown between Jesus and a crowd. Jesus had just fed thousands with bread and fish in an awesome miracle, but many looked to make him a King against the Romans – an attitude missing what Jesus was trying to do. Jesus slipped away to Capernaum to teach at the synagogue, where they finally found him and asked to be wowed with some free bread. Jesus identified Himself as true bread, His own flesh, which gives life: “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (6. 54). But they didn’t get it. It’s a metaphor for believing in Jesus who gave His life so He could give eternal life.  But they’re thinking cannibalism. So folks hiked it out of there:

“As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away too do you?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6.66-69)

The twelve were confused too. The scoffing words of these other guys who abandoned Jesus must have sounded pretty right-on. He’s nuts! Doesn’t make any sense! Plus, the sway of majority opinion, as A.B. Bruce notes “Mighty is the power of sympathy! How ready are we to follow the multitude, regardless of where they are going!” (145)* It’s the same today. In our limited minds we’re confused with what Jesus says in the Bible, with what other people say, with what’s happening in our lives, why God is allowing it, or causing it, etc.

But Peter’s answer cuts through all of that.  I love Bruce’s treatment on this event, which I’ll follow: Peter reflects 3 anchors that helped the twelve ride out this storm: “Religious earnestness or sincerity, a clear perception of the alternatives before them, and implicit confidence in the character and attachment to the person of their Master.” (148).

1. The twelve were very ordinary guys, and in many ways sort of stumbled along in trying to follow Jesus — often dense, lacked faith, and prone to say stupid things. But they were sincere. Jesus had said as much, that everyone who is sincere in seeking truth and learning about God will come to Him (John 3.21, 6.45).“Their concern was not about the meat that perisheth, but about the higher heavenly food of the soul” (148), something Jesus had.  The Greek text even emphasizes “eternal life” by placing it  ahead of the verb, literally reading “words of eternal life you have.”

2.The disciples had nowhere else to go — after going with Christ this far. As low as things were with Jesus, nothing else compared. Their John the Baptist was killed and would only point to Christ anyway, hypocritical religious people offered no hope, and the crowds didn’t offer any real alternatives. Bruce notes that anyone tempted to renounce Christianity should

“pause if he understood that the alternatives open to him were to abide with Christ, or to become an atheist, ignoring God and the world to come; that when he leaves Christ, he must go to school to some of the great masters of thoroughgoing unbelief.” (151)

Today that would be Richard Dawkins, Bart Ehrman, Oprah, Tom Cruise… all of whom leave much to be desired when compared with Christ.

3. Christ! Once they were immersed in Christ, they knew He was it. No going back:

“Such implicit confidence as the twelve had in Jesus is possible only through intimate knowledge; for one canot thus trust a stranger. All, therefore, who desire to get the benefit of this trust, must be willing to spend time and take trouble to get into the heart of the Gospel story, and of its great subject. The sure anchorage is not attainable by a listless, random reading of the evangelic narratives, but by a close, careful, prayerful study, pursued it may be for years. Those who grudge the trouble are in imminent danger of the fate which befell the ignorant multutide, being liable to be thrown into panic by every new infidel book, or be scandalized by every strange utterance of the Object of faith. Those, on the other hand, who do take the trouble will be rewarded for their pains. Storm-tossed for a time, they shall at length reach the harbor . . . the cardinal facts and truths of the faith, as taught by Jesus in the Capernaum discourse, and as afterwards taught by the men who passed safely through the Capernaum crisis. May God in His mercy guide all souls now out in the tempestuous sea of doubt into that haven of rest!” (154)

They were confused and looked like fools to everyone else, but they were convinced eternal life is found in no one else. If there is any such thing as eternal life at all, it’s in Jesus. If anybody has eternal life to give, it’s Jesus.

So let us, with Peter and the rest of that small band, hold on to following this awesome Person, Jesus Christ. He has words of eternal life.

*All quotes fromThe Training of the Twelve (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1988).

Questioning God with Japan’s Disaster

Whenever a natural disaster happens there is always questioning of where is God. Some immediately say without a pause that the disaster was an act of God’s wrath against sinners and perhaps dance in happiness over it (as a recent viral youtube video showed). Others scream there is no God and proceed to insult this supposedly non-existent God as sadistic, horrible, mean, wicked, etc. Both of these responses are rather wrong-headed, but the real answer remains difficult to comprehend. When things like this happen, I myself am grieved and beseech God quite a bit about it, knowing that God is love and even “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33.11). It helps to know God is grieved too, even if it were an “act of God” for judgment.

If reading this CNN article and looking at the pictures of the wreckage, death, and suffering doesn’t break your heart, you don’t know the heart of God. It gave a good summary of the events – but the pictures! I looked at them all and was very grieved.

The best short article I found on the issue is from Gotquestions.org “Why Does God Allow Natural Disasters, i.e. earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis?” By all means read it.

But I will say this: in the uncertainty of events like these, there are some things we do know, and can take hope in – God is good. We have been given more than enough proof of that. As Jesus points out, God allows the sun for the evil and good, the rain for the just and the unjust (Matthew 5.45). People are given so many good things in life, and even the very poor; but credit is not given to God far too often. Still, God is “kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6.35). We know from Scripture that some natural events are specifically sent by God (the storm over Jonah’s boat comes to mind), but it’s also arguable that the disastrous weather patterns we have today are because of the advent of evil in the world and are allowed by God in this temporary age of fallenness until He returns to redeem all things.

But there is one thing that makes any condemnation of God most obviously bankrupt – the fact that God Himself visited earth in human form and suffered along with us. He experienced all the pain humanity experiences, in order to save them by dying on a cross. Yet people still reject Him! I think God has much more of a right to question our love than we do to question His. What’s more, many good things can come out of natural disasters – in Haiti many people believed on Christ and are thus eternally saved because of this temporary earthquake. I hope Japan will see the same.

We don’t know all the answers, but we do know that God does. And God guarantees this fallen world will be redeemed someday, and evil banished. All we can do is trust Him.

Inquisition in Alabama?

“Alabama Gov. Apologizes for Controversial Religious Remarks”

New Governor Robert Bentley said in a speech that only those who have accepted Jesus Christ are his brothers and sisters, while those who haven’t are not. This has created harsh criticism, and he has given an apology for offending anyone. Now, I’ll grant the critics that perhaps this wasn’t the best place or time to say something like this, but the critics are doing something far worse – they’re essentially both insulting his faith and calling on him to deny his faith.

Bill Nigut of the Anti-Defammation League seems incredulous that “Christians are part of an exclusive relationship he [the Governor] has with his brothers and sisters and the rest of us are not.” With all due respect to Mr. Nigut, the Bible teaches this in many places. Now, there is a minor sense in which all people are brothers and sister by being human and descended from Adam, but the dominant, major sense of brotherhood is those who are of the spiritual family of God in Christ. Jesus himself said this quite clearly (Matt. 12.46-50). 

Mr. Nigut or anyone is entirely free to disagree with Jesus’ way, but shouldn’t be surprised. This is what our faith teaches. Christianity belongs to a category of religions called “exclusivist.” Islam belongs to the same category and some forms of Buddhism. This isn’t unusual. Religions teach what they teach, and in the US people are guaranteed by the constitution to hold to whatever religion they desire, even if they are public servants. But what shocked me more is what Nigut said next,

“An apology is only meaningful if it is consistent with a sincere understanding of what a person has done wrong. If Gov. Bentley were to say: ‘I realize I was wrong that we are all brothers and sister, and not single out only the ones who believe in Jesus Christ.'”

Is Mr. Nigut guilty of the very thing he accuses Gov. Bentley? He says this man’s religious beliefs are “wrong” and expects this man to deny his beliefs. I’m not sure of the religion of Mr. Nigut, but he seems to be exclusivist as well, that only those who agree with his doctrine of all people being brothers and sisters are right, and those who disagree are wrong.

What Mr. Nigut should have said is that saying such a thing in that time and place is wrong, or better, inappropriate. That is a valid point of discussion since the Governor is a public servant and represents people of all faiths. But to attack him for his beliefs and demanding recantation? This is nothing less than a verbal inquisition.