Friday, November 20, 2015

All Truth Is Relative

Americus: That's true for you, but it isn't true for me.

Socrates: I'm sorry—what did you say?

Americus: I said, "That's true for you, but it isn't true for me."

Socrates: How could something be true for you but not be true for me? I mean, you are sitting at a table at Joe's, and I am sitting at the same table at Joe's. That's true for us both. If I said, "I am not sitting at Table 7 at Joe's at thus-and-such address," I would be wrong.

Americus: Well, maybe you would be wrong and maybe you wouldn't. Maybe the word "table" means something different to you than it does to me. But in any event, I wouldn't judge you as wrong if you said that you weren't sitting at Table 7. From your perspective, that might be true, and who am I to judge?

Socrates: Just to be clear, I'm not talking about you judging me or me judging you. I'm talking about judging whether a statement that I make or that you make is true or false.

Americus: Whatever. If that's a distinction you want to make, fine. But again, that's true for you, not for me. That's your perspective, not mine.

Socrates: What does my perspective have to do with it?

Americus: Everything is a matter of perspective. You see what you see based on where you are; you know what you know based on your view of things. No one else sees exactly what you see with exactly the same eyes from exactly the same angle with exactly the same experience backlog and exactly the same way and terms of categorizing and defining and making sense of what you see. It is totally individual, totally unique to you. And mine is totally unique to me. So how I could I possibly pass judgment on what you see? I can never see it as you. The only reasonable thing is for me to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that it is, in fact, true for you, just as what I see is, in fact, true for me.

Socrates: Well, whether that's the only reasonable thing or not, I'm not sure. But you can't really mean that you can't see the same things as I see. Look at that car out there. Now, if I got up, and you moved over to my seat in the booth and sat down where I sat, and you looked at that car, wouldn't we both agree that there is a car there? Wouldn't we both see the same car?

Americus: We might, or we might not. What you mean by "car" I might not describe as a car. I might describe it as an automobile.

Socrates: But those are the same thing!

Americus: Are they? Maybe they are the same to you, but they might not be the same to me. Who can say?

Socrates: The Oxford English Dictionary, US Edition?

Americus: That's collective opinion, but it does not describe what I see and the words I use. But I'm just messing with you. To tell you the truth, yes, I would agree that that is a car, and it is there out the window. But it is just coincidence that you and I think the same thing. I'm not saying that we can never agree about anything or that our perspectives never align. That would be ridiculous. What I'm saying is that just because multiple individuals' perspectives happen to align and agree, that does not mean that there is One True Perspective. All truth is relative.

Socrates: What's that now? All truth is relative?

Americus: Yes. I mean that whatever you perceive to be true is based on where you are standing, so to speak. And there are as many truths as places to stand. So for example, if I'm standing on one side of a river and looking at the river, I would say, "The river is flowing from left to right." And if you are on the opposite side of the river, you would say, "The river is flowing from right to left." These statements are contradictory, right? But we know that they are both true, because it depends on where you are standing. Everything is like this.

Socrates: Everything? I don't deny that some things are like that. But even in your example, we share a common definition of "right," "left," "flowing," and "river." Those things are absolutes by which we sort out how our different truths, so to speak, are relative.

Americus: Are they really absolute? Aren't they just conventional? You and I happen to agree on the meanings of "right," "left," "flowing," and "river." But that is coincidence. What if we did not? What if we didn't agree on the meaning of the words or spoke completely different languages? We would still both be true, or at least we should still each presume that the other is true and not pass judgment. Everything is equally valid so long as it conforms to one's own authentic point of view.

Socrates: Okay, but by your own assertion, that statement you just made—"Everything is equally valid so long as it conforms to one's own authentic point of view"—is only true for you. You can't assert it on me or reject my assertion that some things are valid for everyone.

Americus: Now you're getting it.


Americus: Seriously, you're getting it. My belief that every belief is true provided it corresponds to one's own perspective is true for me. Your belief that some beliefs are true if they correspond to a universal absolute is true for you.

Socrates: But if I believed that my belief in a universal absolute is only true for me, then that contradicts my belief in a universal absolute.

Americus: Yes, that is true for you too.

Socrates: (sigh) Okay, you win.

Americus: It's not about me winning. You didn't lose.

Socrates: Well, however you want to say it, what I mean is that I acknowledge that what you see to be true for you is true for you, and what I see to be true is true for me. Whether you meant to or not, you convinced me. Far be it from me to assert a universal truth and impose my own perspective on you.

Americus: That's remarkably gracious of you. I don't think I've ever seen someone think this sort of thing through and be so willing to change their mind.

Socrates: That's kind of you to say. But it's really a tribute to you making your point so well. But I want to ask you something else. Are you a gambling man?

Americus: Am I a gambling man? Not much. Every once in a while I go to the casino with friends and play a little blackjack, but it's not a big thing to me.

Socrates: Well I am a gambling man.

Americus: Really? You? That surprises me; I would not have guessed.

Socrates: It's true. Now, to be honest, I never gamble with money in a straightforward, gaming way. I've never put down money in a casino; I've never bet on sporting events or anything like that. But I take big risks based on my guesses about the future. My whole life is a big gamble.

Americus: I see what you mean. I never thought of it that way.

Socrates: Well today I want to do something that's out of the ordinary for me. I want to make a wager with you. The wager is about whether at some point tomorrow you will sit in this very booth at this very Denny's.

Americus: Which side are you going to take?

Socrates: That's up to you. If you bet that you will sit here sometime tomorrow, I'll bet you won't, and vice versa.

Americus: You know, I could be clever and two days from now claim that it was true for me that I came in here and sat down whether I believe that I actually did it or not.

Socrates: I hoped you would mention that. I'll actually spot you that. I will allow you to be the judge, from your perspective, of whether you sit here tomorrow or not. In fact, I'll rephrase the bet. My bet is that you will (or won't, depending on which side you choose) sit down at this table tomorrow from your perspective. And if you tell me the following day that it was true for you that you did or didn't sit down here, I'll take your word for it and pay my bet. Deal?

Americus: That's a really risky bet on your part! You're going to bet against what I say I'm going to do, which is risky enough, and then you're leaving it entirely to me to judge whether I did it?

Socrates: You got it. So which side are you taking?


Socrates: I'm serious! You can trust me.

Americus: Okay. I'll bet you that I will not come and sit at this booth tomorrow.

Socrates: All right. I'll bet you that you will sit at this booth tomorrow, and that that will be true for you whether or not it is true for me. Twenty dollars?

Americus: Fine. Twenty dollars.

Socrates: Excellent. Let's shake on it. Now, why did you bet that you will not sit here tomorrow?

Americus: Well, I could give you all sorts of reasons. I could say that it is easier for me not to come here than to come here; I would have to be intentional about coming here, but if I go about my usual routine for tomorrow then I will not. I could tell you that I hate going to the same restaurant two days in a row and never do it. I could tell you that I don't even particularly care for this restaurant and would never choose it myself and am only here because you asked me to come. And all of those things would be true. But I actually have an even bigger reason in this case, because tonight I am driving to Baltimore to stay in a hotel there to take a flight to Europe early the next morning, so I won't be anywhere near here all day tomorrow.

Socrates: Wow. When you lay out all the evidence for what is going to be true for you tomorrow, it makes my side of the bet look pretty bad! So I guess it's safe to say that even if you are scrupulously honest in two days, and what you tell me is true for you is honestly what you know from your perspective, there is almost no possible way that you are going to tell me that you sat in this booth anytime tomorrow.

Americus: It looks that way to me.

Socrates: Me too. So then, I want to redeem myself by making another bet.

Americus: Oh my God, are you kidding me? What is this?

Socrates: Hear me out. I bet you that at some point in the future, it will be true for you, from your perspective, that you will be standing before Jesus, the Son of God, to be judged by him for the deeds you've done and whether you accepted his forgiveness in this life.

Americus: What?

Socrates: You heard me. I'm betting that at some point in the future you will be judged by Jesus. And everybody else who has ever lived will too, but that's not the focus of my bet. My bet is about you.

Americus: Come on, man. I already told you that what you believe about God and Jesus and sin and judgment and stuff is true for you but it's not true for me.

Socrates: Oh, I know; I totally agree. I don't presume at all to make what is true for me true for you. I know it isn't true for you today. That's not my bet. I'm betting that it will be true for you at some point in the future. I'm saying that at some point in the future, you yourself, as an individual, from your own perspective, will believe it to be true of yourself that you are being judged by Jesus the Messiah for your present life. That's my bet.

Americus: Look, even if I agreed to that bet, it's a bet that I can never collect on. "At some point in the future"? If I ever claim to win, you'll just say, "It hasn't happened yet."

Socrates: That's true, but look at the other side—if I win, I won't be able to collect, because you'll have nothing to pay me, and I won't be able to do anything with anything you gave me anyway. But I'll make it easier on you. We'll make this bet inheritable by our descendants so that they are obligated. And I'll put a limit of, I don't know, a hundred thousand years. And I'll tie your judgment to universal judgment. So if in a hundred thousand years universal judgment by Jesus Christ has not occurred, my descendant will pay your descendant whatever we agree on today, if that makes any sense then.

Americus: I still think it's a stupid bet.

Socrates: Well, I think you're right, though maybe not for the same reason. So let's just make it an imaginary bet then, not one we're actually going to make. Let's pretend that we could actually collect from each other at some point. Would you take that bet? Would you bet that it will never be true from your perspective that you will be judged by Jesus?

Americus: I don't know. I don't know how what is going to be true for me in the future.

Socrates: Hold on now. Don't be so quick to doubt yourself. You were very certain a few minutes ago that it will not be true for you tomorrow that you will sit in this booth. How could you be so sure about what will be true for you tomorrow but you have no idea what will be true for you at some other point in the future?

Americus: Because I have good reason to believe what my life is going to look like tomorrow. I have good reason to know what I'm going to be doing then.

Socrates: Exactly. You have good reasons for betting on what will be true for you tomorrow. And I have good reasons for betting on what will be true for you at some other point in the future. This isn't about what is true for me. It's about what is true for you. I think that what will be true for you in the future, from your perspective, is not the same as what is true for you today, and I think I know what your perspective will be at that future point. Want to hear the reasons?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Three Striking Thoughts…

…from one Bible sentence I forgot: "With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

(1) This is very blunt about final judgment with eternal consequences commonly (though somewhat imprecisely) known as "hell." Multiple speakers in the Bible, especially Jesus, are blunt about this. In my preaching I do not talk about this often enough not-in-code.

Some say that presenting the gospel as "turn or burn" is insensitive to and therefore ineffective in our culture. They make a good point. But on the other hand, our culture's abhorrence of the idea is exactly the reason people need to hear it. If it is true, then it is highly important, and people are unlikely to stumble onto this truth by accident.

(2) Yesterday I walked through part of my town praying for the people who live in the houses and apartments I was passing and for their status as the last judgment. I'm sure most of them believe in God. They don't know that the devil does too but it's not helping him much.

Paul says that people "who do not know God" are in danger. That might be a useful element in a  conversation about spiritual things. "I believe in the President of the United States in the sense that I believe that there is such a person. But I don't know him. Even if I studied and learned a ton about him, I still wouldn't know him. Do you think it's possible to actually know God?"

(3) In those homes I passed, I also suspect that most of them believe "the gospel of our Lord Jesus." In my town there's better than 50% odds that if I asked a random person, "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died and rose again, that your badness can be forgiven and that you can have eternal life because of him?", that person would agree.

But not nearly as many people in those homes obey the gospel. They do not live differently because they believe those principles than if they did not. This is another valuable element in a spiritual conversation: "If we don't obey the message about Jesus, we are still in danger."

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Only Repeatable Event from History

Why learn history? Why does it matter? The adage that whoever is ignorant of history is doomed to repeat it—ignoring at present what precisely the statement means and whether it is true—implies at the very least that historical knowledge is worth acquiring as a necessary ingredient for shaping our future into a desirable outcome. Why should we have any confidence that historical knowledge can (indeed, must) help us to do this?

The proverb cited above assumes the negative: the situation in the past was bad because of what people did; if we learn what they did, we may choose to do otherwise; if we do otherwise, we will not end up in the same bad situation that they did. Maybe, maybe not. But I would like to look at a positive rendition of the same principle. Let’s assume that the situation in the past was good because of what people did; if we learn what they did, we may choose to do it too; if we do, then we will end up in the same good situation that they did.

Take for example your friend who says to you, “I went to Joe’s Restaurant, and boy, was it ever good!” You think, “I’d like a dining experience that makes me as happy as my friend is. If I do what my friend did, I’ll get what he has.” So you ask him questions—when are they open? where are they located? and so forth. And you take his advice: you do what he tells you to do.

Seems reasonable, right? We do it all the time, every day, every time we take anyone’s advice to do anything.

This might, in principle, apply to historical knowledge about situations of greater impact on comfort or pain, for more people than the individual, with wisdom gathered from longer ago and further afield, than the case of your friend who went to Joe’s. However, when we try to apply it we run into some problems.

First, is there any experience in the past that we truly want to repeat? We can find features of almost any place, time, and culture that we would like to experience in our near future. But in those same situations there are invariably features that we do not at all wish to experience. But can the features we desire exist apart from the whole complex of the situation of that place, time, and culture? To use an analogy, can we take one gene out of the whole strand and splice it into the present for the desired outcome without the undesirable parts of the strand and without harmful side effects? Maybe we can, maybe we can’t; maybe with some things but not with others. But it seems dubious.

Second, even those conditions in the past that we think we want, would we actually like them once we had them? Maybe, maybe not. In the case of the friend who went to Joe’s Restaurant, he might have very different tastes from us. We might go to Joe’s and have the same experience objectively but experience it very differently subjectively if we don’t like the same foods that our friend does. And what if we don’t have the same experience? What if service is inconsistent? What if our friend is prone to exaggerate?

On the other hand, the better we know our friend, the more we could trust him. We might have experience that shows that we do like the same things that he likes and that he does not exaggerate. But how do we do the same character vetting, so to speak, with people who lived in the past? How do we know that we would like what they thought was good? And that leads to still another problem—very often, probably most of the time, people in the past (like people in the present) did not focus on what was so good about their situation but what was bad. We might look back and say that they had it pretty good in one respect, but they generally do not testify to it being so good. What if our hopes are too high?

Third, how do we know how to get what they had? Assuming that people who experienced our desired situation in the past were conscious of it and did enjoy it, did they have a prescription for how to arrive at it? Did it come about by their effort or the effort of previous generations? Or did they sort of fall into it by dumb luck? And even if they did have a prescription that they would give us if they could, how much faith do we have that they are correct? For example, a group in the past might say that they were so prosperous because of their faithfulness to tradition, but is that really the reason for their prosperity? Another group might say their prosperity came because of their devotion to individual liberty, but is that so? In other words, can we trust that people living in any given time know enough about how they got where they were to be able to give an account of its causes?

Fourth, if we knew the causes if past success, if we believed the prescription of the ancients, could we possibly replicate it? The causes may have been—probably were—complex and/or enormous. To use an analogy, we might know that strong winds cause big waves, but that does not mean we can move the air.

So there is much reason for skepticism—or at least some major hurdles to overcome—in order to restore what we like from the past. But there is one past situation, and probably only one, in which this hope is fulfilled: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

This is not because Jesus’ resurrection gets a special pass to evade the rules that apply to all other past situations. To the contrary, it is because the event of his resurrection is uniquely competent to pass all the tests.

First, do we want to repeat Jesus’ resurrection? I certainly do. There is no complaint here about wanting one aspect of it and not another. It is not as though I want my body to be raised but my mind to be elsewhere or vice versa. It is not as though I want to be raised from the dead but with a different sort of body than he had or suited to different purposes. The totality of eternal life—not just perpetual living, but a qualitatively different life that extends perpetually—is plenty appealing to me. I want what he’s having, and don’t change a thing.

Second, would I actually like it once I had it? This is the trust issue—can I trust that what Jesus found desirable and what his followers who knew him and saw him raised found desirable is what I too would desire? It is possible that I might be deceived, yes. But I do not think so. I cannot imagine how a self that is impervious to death, weakness, pain, and attack, that is radiantly glorious and exudes peace and joy, could have any downside—or at least any downside comparable to the downside of life as we know it. In other words, if I got it, I might not care for it, but it seems well worth the risk.

Moreover, Jesus himself seems to be a trustworthy individual. His life and his death reveal a sharp contrast between himself and the humans around him. He seems, quite simply, to be a much better person, perhaps immeasurably so, than any other human in his world or in mine. If I can trust some people around me to however limited a degree, I ought to be able to trust Jesus too.

Third, do I know how to get what he has? Again, the answer is yes. Jesus taught extensively, and his followers who spent the most time with him did too, about how to achieve the eternal life that he gained. Did they know what they were talking about? This is where the magnitude and the uniqueness of the desirable condition that Jesus exhibits play critical roles. If Jesus truly did rise from the dead this way, to which so many witnesses attest, then he achieved something that is absolutely unequalled. There is nothing to compare it to. That strongly suggests that there is nothing to compare him to. Where did the power come from to raise him from the dead? He says it was his Father, God. It certainly came from somewhere. No one else has an alternative explanation. If there was an alternative explanation, that would be one thing, but without that alternative it seems wise to trust the one person who experienced it and to do what he says.

Fourth, can I do what he says? Indeed I can, because Jesus’ prescription is limited only in part by large historical trends affecting masses of humans. For the most part, it just applies to me. Yes, I need to hear the story and the prescription, and that is outside my control. But once I do hear, then it is up to me what I do with it, and no external forces can violate or interrupt that (though they may be affirming or hostile toward it). And his prescription is astonishingly doable. He simply wants me to renounce my life—the thing I want to exchange anyway—and trust him that he will get me what he has that I want if I want him to. Every other instruction that he gives is simply the most rudimentary actings-out of what it is like to have the thing that I say that I want in the first place.

Is it possible for any person from any time, place, and culture to reach back and have access to that life of Jesus? Can the outcome be produced in our future wherever we find ourselves? It can indeed, because Jesus not only rose from the dead but ascended into heaven, as itself was observed by human witnesses and explained by angelic ones (who in turn can be trusted, because their announcements about Jesus’ resurrection were proven valid by the human witnesses later). By ascending into heaven, the life that Jesus has that I desire is located beyond the vicissitudes of change in this world. He took that human life into a realm that cannot be violated and that is equally accessible to all places and times. Furthermore, he said that that realm is coming here to replace this one in some form—all of this world, all places, times, and cultures.

The resurrection of Jesus is the one truly and uniquely replicatable event, the one historical situation that we may desire with confidence, being sure that our choices in the present may reproduce it for ourselves.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How God Wants You to Complain

Nobody likes whiners. Most of the time, in most of the ways that people whine, God doesn't like them either. There are multiple examples in the biblical Book of Numbers where God's patience after decades of providing for the needs of his people, the Israelites, is finally exhausted. Their repeated complaining provokes him to kill some of them off now and again to drive home the message that their ingratitude is a very bad idea. In fact, it's a heinous sin.

So it is surprising that in some parts of the Bible God welcomes and even encourages complaining to him. One example is Psalm 89. It's pretty remarkable that God's Spirit moved a man to take him to task in a pungently accusatory way.

The psalm does not start out that way, however. In fact, it begins with praise with a special (and crucial) focus on God's faithfulness:
I will sing continually about the LORD’s faithful deeds;
to future generations I will proclaim your faithfulness [v. 1].
Then the psalmist further tips off where he's going to go with this psalm by quoting God as saying,
"I have made a covenant with my chosen one;
I have made a promise on oath to David, my servant:
'I will give you an eternal dynasty
and establish your throne throughout future generations' " [vv. 3-4].
 Then the psalmist swings back to extended, magnificent, picturesque praise:
O LORD, sovereign God!
Who is strong like you, O LORD?
Your faithfulness surrounds you. . . .
Equity and justice are the foundation of your throne.
Loyal love and faithfulness characterize your rule [vv. 8, 14].
Having thoroughly established his profound regard for God's faithfulness, the psalmist poetically retells the story told in 2 Samuel 7 (and 1 Chronicles 17) of how God made an everlasting promise to support, defend, and prosper King David and all his royal offspring. In the psalmist's words, God said,
"I will always extend my loyal love to him,
and my covenant with him is secure.
I will give him an eternal dynasty,
and make his throne as enduring as the skies above" [vv. 28–29].
What if David's descendants act wickedly and prove themselves unworthy of this promise? God asserts that this contingency may have short-term negative consequences, but it in no way nullifies his promise—he will, on the whole, make David's line succeed no matter what they do:
"I will punish their rebellion by beating them with a club,
their sin by inflicting them with bruises.
But I will not remove my loyal love from him,
nor be unfaithful to my promise.
I will not break my covenant
or go back on what I promised" [vv. 32–34].
Then suddenly the psalmist grinds the gears. The psalm shrieks,
But you have spurned and rejected him;
you are angry with your chosen king.
You have repudiated your covenant with your servant;
you have thrown his crown to the ground [vv. 38–39].
He's just getting started. The psalmist says "you have [done]" or "you are" thirteen times. He is accusing God of blatantly violating his agreement. The disasters that have struck Israel are not random occurrences or the sole fault of surrounding nations. These are God's fault.

This is the substance of a "covenant lawsuit," as modern scholars call the ancient phenomenon. When things go bad in Israel, other biblical laments express contrition, acknowledging that God justly brings calamity because Israel has sinfully violated its covenant with God. That is because the covenant between God and Israel made through the mediation of Moses entailed voluminous responsibilities on Israel that the people did not keep.

But the covenant God made to David and his line is different. In that covenant David had no obligations. God took on all the obligations. So despite the sin of Israel and even the sin of David's descendants who reigned wickedly on his throne, the psalmist has no compunction about laying all the blame at God's feet. God never gave himself a way out of keeping his promise. In fact, he specifically detailed his expectation that David's sons would act badly. His promise is entirely independent of that fact. Therefore, in the eyes of the psalmist, God has failed in his duties.

This psalm may be written after the return from exile—which demonstrated that Israel was forgiven for its sins—but with the Davidic monarchy still unrestored. In any case, it is startling that God would inspire a man to write an infallible accusation against God's faithfulness!

Or is it? The psalmist went on at length about how faithful God is. And that may be the indicator of a godly complaint.

When the Israelites of the exodus generation complained it came from a position of doubt. They doubted whether God was able to help them. They doubted whether God wanted to help them. They doubted whether God would keep his promises even while God was in the very act of making good on those promises.

The author of Psalm 89 is exactly the opposite. He complains from a position of faith. He believes wholeheartedly that God is faithful. He believes that God made a promise to David. His complaint presumes that God is acting in contradiction to his words and in contradiction with his very nature. Far from denying God's word, the psalmist calls God back to it. This is who you are, God! he says. This is what you said! But the present circumstances don't line up!

This is the complaint that God welcomes. It's griping and moaning over the fact that circumstances do not square with God's character and his revelation about himself and his intentions. God delights in us indignantly badgering him to get with his own program. It shows that we believe that he and his program are for real—that messed-up circumstances need to turn upside down while God simply needs to be who he is.

Friday, June 19, 2015

"How Long, O Lord?": Grieving for the Martyrs of Emanuel AME Church

It is becoming apparent that the massacre of nine members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC during their Bible study was a hate crime. The disturbed (at best), evil (at worst) murderer explicitly intended to ignite a race war that he was convinced blacks would lose, resulting in apartheid or (one must suppose) their extermination from American soil.

Reports indicate that the gunman, Dylann Roof, shot up the members of the Bible study because they were black. No evidence has been publicized that he killed them because they were Christians.

Nevertheless, their fellow Christians of all colors and ethnicities have good reason for viewing the fallen as martyrs for Jesus Christ.

The word martyr comes from the Greek word for "witness." It acquired a technical meaning in the ancient church for those who died for their faith, because when threatened with death they publicly bore witness that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and was a Lord superior to Caesar. They chose their confession over their lives.

The existence and history of the Black Church in America is suffused with believers great and small who followed Jesus Christ at great personal risk.

Some slave preachers learned to read so they could learn and preach the Bible even when it was illegal and would have resulted in horrific punishment.

Slaves and freedpeople formed their own churches outside of white control (like Emanuel) so they could be free to worship God with abandon and proclaim the whole message of the Bible—including parts that their masters wanted them to avoid, like the exodus of Israel from slavery.

During Reconstruction, churches formed the social engine of black uplift and the institutional home of former slaves who demanded equality with whites. A century before the Civil Rights Movement, churches successfully taught their members to combine faith in their dignity as God's image-bearers with peaceableness. Black Christians extended astounding forgiveness toward the whites who oppressed them as slaves and continued (often viciously) to resist their claim to full humanity with its civil and social implications.

The core of the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century consisted of black Christians who concluded that to approve of white supremacy tacitly by accommodating it was to bow the knee to a racist idol. They peacefully chose to stop cooperating with that demonic system in order to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.

The members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church were slain while reading God's word. Whether the murder thought about it or not, there was a certain odd fitness to his act. Satan hates justice and the equality of the human family and true freedom, and all of those principles are contained in the word of God and arise from the word of God.

Even the large number of religiously apathetic people today who support such principles are the unwitting heirs of a centuries-long liberal heritage with roots in Christianity. Much of that heritage and many of its adherents have rejected Christianity, but not the members of Emanuel.

They know that justice, equality, and freedom belong to the kingdom of God and are found in Christ. They know that the Bible is more subversive of oppression and more supportive of justice than any other literature. They know that Christ is King and that their voices will never be silenced.
Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given. They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Each of them was given a long white robe and they were told to rest for a little longer, until the full number was reached of both their fellow servants and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been [Rev. 6:9–11].
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven saying,

“The salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the ruling authority of his Christ, have now come,
because the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
the one who accuses them day and night before our God,
has been thrown down.
But they overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
and they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die” [Rev. 12:10–11]

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Few Things God Is Looking For . . . and Why Occupation Probably Isn't One of Them

A few months ago I finished a doctoral thesis on a man named Mansfield French. In the nineteenth century, mostly in Ohio, New York, and South Carolina, French was an educator who founded and served institutions of higher learning; a pastor and traveling revivalistic evangelist; a leading magazine publisher in what is called the Holiness Movement; and an abolitionist who ministered among former slaves as a missionary supervisor, army chaplain, and Freedmen's Bureau officer, lobbied the federal government on their behalf, and ran for U.S. Senate. I called French "a model of multivocational ministry," and I examined what enabled him to engage in such a diverse array of activities over a single ministry career.

Because of this study, vocation has been on mind a good deal in the past year. There are a good many people, including a good many Christians, who think nothing of the meaning and implications of what they do for work. I should note that this neglect is not always bad—it is much better to be godly at work and never think about what you're doing than it is to think much about vocation but not actually to be godly. But for some of us, Christian and otherwise, we just can't help thinking about it. The question, "What am I supposed to be doing?" is an itch that does not go away (unless we can confidently answer, "What I'm doing right now," as some of us can at times), so we keep trying to scratch it.

This restlessness also is not always bad, in particular if it drives us to listen to God and get to know him with persistence, patience, and humility. But it is worthwhile to keep this vocational question in proper perspective.

For some of us, the question of "What am I supposed to be doing?" (or "How much?" or "Where and with whom?") can loom over us with what seems like epic significance. We might be very afraid of making the wrong choice (of occupation, workplace, college major, etc.) that will doom us to frustration, failure, and/or meaninglessness. Or we might continually be roiled within where we are currently planted, unsure if we are missing out on what we are supposed to do or instead frustrated at the closed doors in the direction that we think we are supposed to go. We think that if we are not set right then we will get to the end of our life having wasted it uselessly with nothing to show for it.

That right there is the problem hidden under the surface of our yearning to do the right work, even if that yearning is mostly genuine, mostly composed of love for God and people and not of lust for self. The stakes seem enormously high because of our faithlessness. Deep down, we do not really believe in the age to come. Like any worldly person (most consistently a physicalist) we believe that this life is all there is: we really only have one shot at it.

If we are truly Christians, however, we know that this is not all there is. While most Christians (would that it be all of them) recognize that what we do in this life is terribly important because of its ramifications for the world to come, not only for ourselves but for all those around us, we still must be careful not to blow certain details out of proportion. For some of us, occupation may be one of those details.

I understand this by means of my one and only experience as an athletic coach, when I coached my son's teeball team of four- and five-year-olds. I did not stop coaching because it was a bad experience—far from it. In fact, it taught me a valuable lesson: God is really not expecting much from us.

When I say that God is not expecting much, I do not mean that God has low standards. I mean that he has very high standards about only a very small number of very basic things. Other than those few things, I don't believe that he is terribly concerned.

Coaching four- and five-year-olds in teeball requires one to teach extremely rudimentary things, because, by and large, they know NOTHING. A number of my players literally could not throw a ball, period. That's not to mention knowing how to catch a ball and how to swing a bat (and how and where to stand when swinging a bat). And then the rules of the game itself and what to do in what situation in the middle of play (for example, after you hit the ball, RUN—no, THAT WAY)—that was as obscure as quantum mechanics to these kids.

So imagine yourself in your first-ever coaching experience, and you're with a group of four- and five-year-olds, and you're beginning to figure out what you've gotten yourself into. What are you looking for? What do you want from these kids?

Only a few simple things. Will they do what I say? Will they do it when I say it? Will they have a good attitude when they aren't allowed to do what they want to do? When told to do something they can't do, will they try? Will they learn?

Notice that athletic talent is not on this list. At this point, at this level, it does not matter. At this level, no one is keeping score. There are no wins and losses. (Who would watch it if there were?) Also, these kids are small—they are going to grow a great deal before they are really playing at a high level, and we cannot tell now who will be a good athlete then.

Consider further that the things that you tell the kids to do and how they respond in that first practice have no bearing on what position any of these kids will be playing when they are eighteen or twenty or twenty-five, if they are still playing at all. Moreover, these kids do not even know what baseball is, not really. Even if you told them, "When you're in varsity, you'll be a shortstop," they would have no idea what that means. (They might ask, "What's 'varsity'?")

Now imagine that on this teeball team, the first practice is actually a tryout. At the end of practice, there will be a cut—some will continue on to play baseball for many, many years, while others will never play again. Now you are beginning to grasp what this life is in comparison to the world to come.

This entire life that we live in these bodies, however many years that we have, is no more than the first teeball practice of a group of four- and five-year-olds. It is the beginning of a series of practices and games that lead eventually to a major-league-caliber season that never ends. All God has been looking for for these thousands of years of human existence is who really wants to play. I can only come up with five simple questions that he is asking, five things that he is looking for in people:
  • Do they recognize me?
  • Do they want me?
  • Do they love what I love and hate what I hate?
  • Do they trust me?
  • Will they do what I say?
Each of these questions is profound and the manifestations of them in our lives are enormously complex. I do not mean to offer a reductionistic, half-inch-deep view of religion. I merely assert that at root, these things are the few that God wants from people. Anything and everything else, any other command or instruction, derives from them.

Notice that what we do for a living is not on the list. Not directly, anyway—it can be strongly affected by loving what God loves and hating what God hates and even by doing what he says. My point, however, is that if God has us spend this whole practice throwing a ball against a wall, it does not mean that we will be a pitcher in the major leagues. We might end up a designated hitter instead (except that in eternity there will only be the National League, so forget I said that).

If you are privileged to look back on your life one trillion years from now, your profession today, no matter how important for God's kingdom even, will not be what you see. You will be serving then in a vocation that is absolutely incomprehensible to you right now, and far more important as well. All you will see is what God is looking at today: can he coach you?

I should also point out that the default answer to each of God's questions for each person on earth is "No." Fortunately, God is not satisfied with that answer, so he intervenes to alter people's dispositions so that the answer might be "Yes." Are you altered? If you want to be, it may already be happening. Make sure.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Contrasting Approaches to Reading the Bible

I have observed two basic approaches that people take to reading the Bible. And the more learned and scholarly the people are who read it, the more pronounced these two approaches appear and the higher the contrast between them.

One approach is like a prospector searching for gold nuggets amid a welter of silt and rock. The reader sifts through the material, discarding the impurities, accretions, and distracting substances to find the comparatively few precious elements in the texts.

The other approach assumes that the entire thing is pure gold. The problem is that the reader is visually impaired and handling the material in a dim room. Therefore the gold is sometimes hard to see—the luster of much of it is not bright, and sometimes it does not look like gold at all, but the reader believes that it still is.

In the first approach the defect is in the material handled. In the second the defect is in the handler and the environment (the world) in which it is handled.

In the first approach, the reader critiques the word and alters it. In the second the word critiques the reader and alters her.

One might posit that both are possible, that one could approach the biblical texts as imperfect things read by imperfect people in imperfect situations. In that case the critique and alteration goes both ways.

That is logically possible, but in practice I believe it to be rare if it ever happens at all. At least one reason for this is that human beings powerfully oppose being altered deeply. (Even the most flexible and adaptable of people, for example, oppose any attempt to make them inflexible and nonadaptable on certain matters.) Therefore, when the text demands something tough—a major behavioral sacrifice, or an even more imposing relinquishment of one belief or opinion for another—the option of identifying that text as impure (textually obscure, culturally bound, politically motivated, from an unreliable source, self-contradictory, etc.) is too alluring. The path of least resistance is impossible to resist.

I take the second approach instead. The reasons for this are complex, and I do not intend to get into them here. But you can find part of them in this old post.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Leave It to Satan

Last month a bill called the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act emerged out of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee with unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats. The bill would bolster law enforcers' tools against perpetrators of human trafficking—the horrendous, outrageous modern-day slavery that majors on child labor and prostitution—and create a fund to help those rescued.

Two weeks ago, however, as debate on the Senate floor was about to begin with the bill assured of easy passage, some Democrats challenged a provision in the bill that prohibited money from the fund to be used to pay for abortions for five years. This language, known as the Hyde Amendment, has been included in a variety of laws passed by Congress for the last four decades (and, according to some, has loopholes wide enough to drive a truck through).

In previous legislation, however, the prohibition runs on a one-year renewable term, but in the current bill the term is five years. This expansion was enough to send Democrats to the barricades, accusing Republicans of surreptitiously sneaking the language in, despite that the wording had been in the bill from the very beginning. With Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women whipping the Democratic caucus into shape, forty-three senators voted successfully to block the bill from coming to the floor for a vote, effectively killing it unless Republicans removed the abortion-related language.

We are at a point in history where no Democrat on the national level is allowed to depart from pro-choice orthodoxy (just as no Republican is allowed to raise taxes) if they don't want to be exiled by the party to electoral Siberia. But for many Democrats, their antipathy toward the Hyde Amendment comes from deeply held principle.

Take California Sen. Diane Feinstein, for instance. She grieves over vivid memories of the sentencing of women who went to abortion doctors or even mutilated themselves before abortion became legal because they believed they had no other recourse. Feinstein, like many a 1970s-era feminist (and others of later vintage), generalizes the plight of those women to half the human race. "It is our reproductive system. In a sense this has been a battle for our identity," she said in debate. "There are many of us who believe this is one small step for womankind."

Republicans immediately went on the defensive, believing that to give in to the Democrats' demand would grant a victory to the most radical of pro-choice partisans. Many refused to remove the Hyde Amendment on pro-life principle; seemingly all refused on the grounds that it would give the Democrats an easy victory. Accustomed to hardball, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that the confirmation of Attorney General appointee Loretta Lynch, which has already been languishing for months, will not receive a vote until the trafficking bill passes—in the far-fetched hope, presumably, that President Obama will therefore intervene to change Senate Democrats' minds.

Isn't this just like Satan. All senators oppose the oppression of slaves, so he exploits the fact that half hate the oppression of women and half hate the oppression of the unborn, with the result that all of them—women, the unborn, and most of all slaves—remain just as oppressed as they were in the first place. One can only imagine how the Evil One gets off on this stuff.

For the record, I believe that Senator Feinstein is sincere. I believe that I might even learn something from her about sexist oppression. I also believe, however, that her reasoning is morally grotesque. I fail to see how it safeguards women's reproductive systems to annihilate girls' reproductive systems (and the rest of their bodies) before they are born. I fail to see how an oppressed woman becomes liberated by oppressing the person inside her. And I fail to see how a woman (or a man, for that matter) achieves her identity by winning the power to have sex without having children. In the case of women who are forced by wicked men to have sex by blunt or subtle pressure (like sex in exchange for food), there is indeed a screaming need for liberating justice, but abortion does not accomplish it. If anything, abortion compounds the oppression.

That does not mean, however, that the GOP ought to fight Feinstein and the Democrats tooth and nail. Their fear that it gives the pro-choice lobby a victory that will make it even harder to roll back the slaughter of innocents is legitimate, but it plays right into the Devil's hands. There will not be less injustice in the world because Senate Republicans refuse to strike the Hyde Amendment. There will only be more—more women and children sold into slavery and violated in every imaginable and unimaginable way.

I think if you're a Republican senator in this situation, you vote for an amendment to remove the abortion language from the bill even while you publicly excoriate the Dems for having to do it. And I think if you're a Democratic senator, you vote for the bill as is and start looking for work for when your term ends (or try to make lots of friends by bringing home lots of pork).

You do it not because you like it and not because you can't think of plenty of reasons why it's a bad idea. You do it because you recognize a ploy of the Father of Lies when you see it and you refuse to let him win.

Friday, January 2, 2015


First, I'm back. I have written very little on 1st Corynthians for several months, because my writing capacity has been maxed out on a doctor of ministry thesis that blew way beyond what it is supposed to be. You can learn more about that project in a prior post (which does not perfectly describe either my subject or the project as it turned out, but it comes close), and I am sure that I will talk about it here at some future point(s). Meanwhile, two hundred thousand words later, I am trying to find myself again, and apparently that includes finding this blog.

I have never known how many readers I have had, but periodically I have been humbly gratified to get positive feedback from someone. If I have been useful to regular readers, please accept my sincere apology for the silence, if there's anyone still out there. We'll see how much I put out in 2015.

Enough of that. During my desperate struggle to finish my thesis I put off many things large and small. One of the small ones was deciding what to do with a free six-month subscription to Christianity Today. Now, many people (I assume or at least hope) read CT to get out of it . . . well, whatever good things they get out of it. I don't really know, because historically the main thing that I get out of it is a prodigious catalog of successful American evangelicals whose abiding flaw is that none of them is myself.

I don't suppose—no, I do, I just feel guilty for supposing—that the magazine exists to define a list of important people by making them subjects of articles and interviews, quoted sources, and bylines. To me, however, CT (and a lot of other things) becomes what my beloved friend Ted Kluck calls "ego porn"—perfect artifices that excite covetous lust, fantasies not to be realized in one's own life. One masturbates to it by posting something in the comment feed that everyone will love or by tweeting to one of the important people hoping for a response. Like masturbation, it doesn't "work," and even when it does, there is no substance and no afterglow, only an empty hunger for more.

Not that I know from experience or anything.

I got to thinking about greatness today, specifically about where I would wish to be great if I could. I remembered something about becoming great in the kingdom of heaven, so I decided to check into that again.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:19 that "anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." So if I really want to be great, my ambition must be to do everything the Bible says as Jesus and his apostles frame it for "the Israel of God" and to teach others to do the same. Interesting.

Later in Matthew (11:11-12) Jesus talks about John the Immerser and calls him at least as great as anyone else "born of women"—pretty impressive, since the greatest person in that category is Jesus himself. But then Jesus points out (as I translate it) that John is so great "although the one who is inferior in Heaven's government is greater than he is."

This isn't a remark about John being the best of the Old Covenant, but the least participant in the New Covenant is better than he is, although many have interpreted it this way. Rather, it is a sad observation that as lofty as John is in God's government, people who are of no importance in the coming age appear to be superior to him in today's ranking system. That is why, Jesus goes on, "the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it." People are the kingdom, and those in so-called high places forcibly took away the kingdom when they threw John in prison and led Jesus to the cross and persecute our brothers and sisters around the world today.

Point? Human beings are horrible judges of greatness. This disturbs me about American evangelicalism. (Note that by the modifier "American" I am referring to a sociocultural entity, not the abstract beliefs and values that this group shares in common with other groups.)

The evangelical subculture's proximity to the center of cultural power in my country has fluctuated over the centuries. Evangelicals have never quite dominated (although in the 1840s and '50s they came close), and therefore big shots in the evangelical subculture have rarely been big-time in the wider culture. According to what Jesus says about greatness, that's quite all right.

But, people being people, it comes naturally to us on the periphery of cultural influence to form an alternate, ingrown pecking order centered on basically the same things that the world values—power, reach, comeliness, charisma, and close acquaintance with others who have them—instead of obedience. That's not to say that the people whom we consider important are not obedient—I hope and (want to) assume that they are. It's just that their obedience is not why we consider them important.

The overwhelming ease with which humans do this comes home to me in Jesus' third remark about greatness in Matthew. "At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' He called a child, had him stand among them, and said, 'I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven' " (18:1-4). The phrase "turn around" is actually passive—you are turned around, or as the NASB renders it, "converted." You have to be turned into a little child even to enter the kingdom of heaven, much less to become great.

I automatically think of my youngest child, a four-year-old, when I read this. Don't misunderstand: he is not a moral role model. He can be willful, destructive, and violent. But in one area he is perfect: he is utterly unpretentious. He is totally unaware of who the greatest is and he never thinks about it, and he certainly does not wish to be the greatest himself.

And that is where I am stuck, because I am acutely aware of greatness and have oodles of ambition to be the greatest. Jesus tells me that if I want to slake my thirst for greatness, I must be so altered that I am unconscious of greatness. And then, when greatness is foreign to my psyche, when I don't care or even much notice, then I will become great in the one valuation that matters, that of the kingdom of heaven.

I haven't decided yet whether to get Christianity Today (and I don't want advice about it, by the way). But I know that if I was like a little child it would be an easier decision to make, since it would be neither a trap nor a training. It might just be a great magazine, and I might just be great.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (5)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's, the last one, comes from my friend Jeremy. The first, second, third, and fourth posts are here.

Thanks, Cory.

One of the things that troubles me so much about the proliferation of guns is that even people that you might ordinarily consider the "good" guys have bad days, or more likely moments of bad judgment. Just a couple examples from Florida recently: the former cop in the movie theater who killed the young father sitting front if him for texting . . . during the previews. Here was a guy who had trained and practiced for his entire career who had a serious lapse in judgment. And, unlike a lapse if judgment when you're playing baseball, when guns are involved there is a loss of human life. The other case was the guy at the gas station who confronted some kids about their music, thought he saw something, and unloaded a weapon into the car. No gun was found in the car, but more people were dead. I think it's just too great a responsibility to expect people to make life-and-death decisions in a split second depending on if they "feel threatened." In the home is a different matter: except if someone believes in Santa, I can't think of a good reason that someone would be trying to break into another person's house. The idea of keeping the military in check is one that doesn't really resonate with me (maybe I need to watch Red Dawn). I always assumed that if the military really felt like it, they possess weapons so far beyond what the average person can acquire that resistance would be an exercise in futility. A friend of mine who is at Penn State worked on some naval projects a few years back and told me that if I knew what the military had, I would be freaked out. If it ever got to that point, I think we'd all be up the proverbial creek.

One last thing: we do have a real life example of a one-time gun-owning society that went cold turkey. Australia severely restricted gun ownership and require everyone to register their guns after what I think was a school shooting in the 90's. The only result has been that Aussie kids don't have to practice lockdown drills. I know that would never fly here, but I wonder if the death toll will ever change people's minds.