Condemnation Vs. Repentance

Perhaps it is not the culture that needs to repent of its failure to be Christian, but Christians who need to repent of being so lax in following Christ.

Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it before the king. And when the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his clothes.
( 2 Ch 34:18–19 ESV)

From a modern perspective, king Josiah’s response in 2 Chronicles seems difficult to understand. After all, the book of the law had been discovered as a result of a massive campaign to rebuild the temple, and move the nation away from its apostate worship of false gods. Wasn’t Josiah already doing the right thing? Wasn’t the nation already moving in the right direction? Hadn’t the government found a correct footing, and wasn’t the worship of the one true God already ascendant again?

In this context, Josiah learns the law of God, and how much the people of Israel had failed to obey God for generations. As we read the context, it seems clear that he is correct in thinking that God would rightly punish Israel for its disobedience and apostasy. Yet this seems puzzling at some level as I read.

I can think of a few reasons for this:

1) I misunderstand because I think I’m owed forgiveness. I find it difficult to understand why God would punish even after people seem to have admitted their wrongdoing and moved to make things right. Yet is this really so hard to understand? Does good work after a grievous sin change the grievous sin at all? I don’t think it does. Part of my issue here seems to be that I have so deeply ingrained the forgiving nature of God into my thinking that I have come to presume upon it. It is not so much that I think Gid is laudible because He is forgiving, but that I think he is NOT laudible if he refuses to forgive, it is as if forgiveness has become my right instead of God’s privilege.

2) My lack of understanding comes also from my failing to see a communal side to my life. Being a 21st century Canadian, I often tacitly assume the (rather insane) idea that I am an island unto myself, and that my own righteousness or lack thereof has no effect on others, and that the fialings of others in no way reflect on me. Of course, I have no right to compel righteousness in others, but how often is the lack of righteousness in those around me part of my own unwillingness to live righteously before others, and to speak of the glories of a life abandoned to God? How is the community I live in to hear of God unless I am willing to speak of Him?

Yet very little of my (admittedly pretty insular) life are without affect by the community I live in. I have food, electricity, heat, and security, all because of the ongoing work of others. The fortress of solitude is not so solitudinous that I lack television, internet, and radio, all produced by countless others. While they do it also for their own benefit, they are working on my behalf. I am also in a better position because, by in large, many of those around me assume at least a basic level of moral action. Few steal, and most respect the closed door on my apartment as a desire to be alone unless I let them in.

I have come to assume that too as my right instead of the grace of God working through the consciences of the community around me. How much more have I failed to see that I am responsible directly (not merely through the machinations of government) for the wellbeing of those around me.

3) I don’t want to understand, because it feels better to condemn than it does to repent. The very statement of this point is causing a bit of moral upset in me, because even now part of me is wanting to make this about other Christians and not me. The fact is that it is always far easier to point at others and say “you’re doing it wrong” than it does to look at myself squarely and do the hard work of thinking of how I need to change. It is far easier to stay the course and convince myself that at least I’m better than . It can even hide in my desire to criticise “Christians” or “the Church” or any other group I can abstract myself from, even as I abstractly realize I’m part of the group.

In the end, perhaps I should be reacting like Josiah and praying God will be gracious.

Keep me in coffee

The author is often highly caffeinated. Keep him that way!

C$2.00

A Quick Case for Christian Civility

It’s a difficult time to be an online conservative Christian with a strong interest in the law and politics (and a strong aversion to populism). Since the ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency, my conservative Evangelical leanings have been considered tacit support of a populist political leader who I see as acting in both immoral and foolish ways. It even leads some to accuse me of the most heinous beliefs and ideas, and attack me as evil, or stupid because I happen to be an evangelical Christian (a demographic that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump). Of course, I’m Canadian, so I didn’t vote for Trump, and was frankly thankful for not having to vote in the American election, but it seems most of my American friends on both sides of the electoral divide have decided that an Evangelical faith in Jesus Christ is somehow closely tied with American politics of the Republican brand, making those who are Christian obviously trump supporters, and those who question Trump obviously unChristian.

This is even true for conservative Christians who supported Donald Trump in the previous election. They assume that I am also in support of Trump, and are likely to accuse me of Apostasy for my daring to point out that torture is evil, and refugees should not be limited based on religious background (though to be fair, Trumps executive order doesn’t technically limit Muslim refugees, any more than Obama’s record on accepting Christian refugees from Syria was technically anti-Christian bias). Much less for the fact that a president shouldn’t be running the country via executive orders (something I also opposed when Obama did it).

What strikes me as most damaging of all of this is not the fact that it shows disagreement between people in the free world, but that both sides seem intent on simply demonizing their opposition, even when the person speaking claims to trust in Jesus Christ.

This is very likely to increase strife, not limit it…

Sadly, at least in my reading, my concern has most clearly been expressed by a legal scholar I generally disagree with:

Because if America is to avoid slipping into civil war, the people we need to keep in focus are the people who elected Donald Trump. I get that the easy way to think and talk about those Americans is to call them racists, or sexists or idiots. No doubt there are some who are those (as there are some on the other side who are each of those things too). But it is neither true nor helpful to simplify this story into good versus evil. The citizens who elected Trump are not evil. And if America is going to survive this crisis, we need to convince them first that their President should not be President. We need to show them that their own values are consistent with ours, in this respect at least.

This is good advice from a practical perspective, but much more so for Christians, whether we like Donald Trump as president or not. We are called by our Lord and Saviour to love others as we love ourselves (quoting laws from God in the Old Testament, recorded in Leviticus, no less), and very few people go out of their way to assume that their own motives are impure, so it is pointedly unChristian to assume evil on behalf of others, even when we vehemently disagree with the conclusions they’ve drawn.

Instead, we need to be the kinds of people who lovingly, but truthfully make our cases, assuming that the other person is open to reason.

When explaining what love looks like, the Apostle Paul goes out of his way to explain how love is patient and kind, and how it rejoices in truth (see 1 Corinthians 13). All of this means that it doesn’t behoove Christians of either side of this particular debate to assume the worst of people who disagree with you politically.

I would also say, given my own opinions on how the Trump presidency is shaping up so far, it might be possible for left leaning people to find allies on the other side of the political divide on the issue of this president, if only the case can be made without demonizing your perceived opponents.

Online Reading (November 9, 2010)

Welcome to reading some of the things I’m finding interesting today:

November 11: While in my present home of Korea, November 11 is “Peppero Day”, back home in Canada, it’s Remembrance day, and there is a debate this year about the white poppy as opposed to the red poppy.

Abortion and Slavery: Thabiti Anyabwile gives some ideas about making the link to abortion while not being disrespectful about one of the millennium’s (other) greatest evils.

Gay Rights and Freedom of Religion: The Daily Mail reports on a case where the two are coming into direct conflict. I have passionate opinions on this one, but it’s a difficult dilemma to say the least.

How to Listen to a Sermon: For those of you who listen to me on the itunes feed, here are some ideas on how to get something out of the preaching of a very fallible human.

Is it really beautiful?

One of the problems I’ve tended to have with materialism is how it seems to place into my own (subjective) mind (actually brain… and hence render them largely delusional as it relate to the universe itself). This isn’t only the case with my religious ideas, but also the ideas I have of good and evil, and even the idea of me.

How do I get there? After all, I don’t doubt that some materialists have every bit as high a moral code that they live by as I do, and even arch-materialists can work to do great things in the social sphere based on what they seem to think is a call to justice that is demanded of all of us. Heck, when Christopher Hitchens subtitles his book “How Religion Poisons Everything”, I think he is claiming that religion is, objectively and independent of subjective opinions on the matter, a bad thing.

The problem is, ironically, best exemplified by the use of Occam’s razor in materialism to deny the supernatural. Occam’s razor (which nicely trims Plato’s beard) is the principle that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct one. The result is that since science is more than capable of coming up with material explanations for most things, that it is rational to assume that science will come up with material explanations for all things.

What then of ideas and concepts that do not seem to be solely material, such as the existence of subjects other than me, or transcendent morality, aesthetics, or even the idea of “me”? Materialism would claim that all of these are simply the result of material processes in the brain reacting to external stimuli. ie. whatever these things are, they exist only in brains, and any seeming transcendence is simply the commonality of human experience.

This means that a painting is not itself beautiful, but instead makes me feel good (whatever “me” is). It means that torture is not independently wrong, but simply something that I find abhorrent. It also means that my most directly experienced object, since it cannot be materially experienced (namely the “I”), is simply something “I” mistake for a person when in fact it is noting more than the collocation of atoms. (at this point, if “you’re” following me, you might be giggling, as “I” am…”I”‘m guessing most people rightly find this silly).

In any case, not taking it all the way, and assuming “I” exist, which is a properly basic idea if ever there was one. The

materialist conception seems to eliminate transcendent morality and beauty because those concepts exist only in human brains.

and were human minds to cease to be, so would those concepts. The result is that nothing is evil in itself, and nothing is in itself beautiful. There is no contrast in reality between the beautiful and the ugly (just personal psychology) or between the good and the evil (just personal taste).

Thus we come to a statement someone recently used on me to try to claim the rationality of his belief structure:

“Can’t we just say the garden is beautiful, without attributing faeries to it?”

He apparently wanted to mean that there was no need to credit a ground to the beauty of the garden, just the bare fact of it. But my response is that he has already appealed to “faeries” in claiming that beauty is a proper descriptor of the garden rather than simply his experiences of the garden. That I choose to think about that ground, and indeed have a name for it (God), has already been assumed in the statement.

Of course, no one needs to take my route. Maybe morality, beauty, subjectivity (and if you think about it, logic, mathematics, reason and even knowledge itself) really are just modes of human thought that are not true of the universe itself, but only categories we humans find useful. Maybe Occam’s razor really should be used as a law of reason, rather

than simply a priciple. Humanity has had large groups already in that camp (many forms of Zen Budddhism for example).

Such a route seems unlikely to further science or society, however, since the simplest explanation of the universe is still (as it was in first year philosophy) solipsism. In this case Occam’s razor seems to be instead a guillotine.

In the end, I think that our experiences should only be attributed wholly to delusion with evidence that it is, in fact, delusional.

It is for that reason that I would say that Handel’s “Messiah” really is beautiful, that evil really is fundamentally wrong, that reason really talks about the universe and not simply the categories of data that enters my sense receptors, and that there is real good in the world (not just things that are good on opinion).

Theories, Facts, and Truth

“Yeah, well, evolution is only a theory”

“Yeah, well, so is gravity”

I’m sure many people have heard an exchange similar to this one at some point in the past. It is one of the most common, and most misleading exchanges possible in debates about scientific ideas.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t have a dog in this fight. There are conservative Christians I agree with on many things who also support some form of evolutionary theory, and Christians who I agree with on many other issues who are opposed to any form of evolutionary theory. To be honest, my background is not in the biological sciences, so I simply do not have enough understanding of the raw data.

My problem with the above exchange is that it is at best misleading, and at worst betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of theories.

Both statements are, however, true (as far as they go).

A theory (at least as I understand it), is a useful (often predictive) reasoned explanation for the factual data which can be observed in the world. That is to say, the theory is a method of interpretation of experience. While such things ARE open to debate, the way to disabuse a theory is to provide a competing theory that deals with observable data (facts) in a better way.

An example is the copernican model of the universe. Some said that the earth was the centre of the universe, Copernicus said the sun was. Copernicus had a simpler theoretical model to deal with the data, and so his theory was seen to be closer to the truth. Unfortunately, neither theory is true, as thanks to further observation, we now believe that our entire solar system (including both sun and earth) to be on the outer edge of a galaxy speeding away from a central point that was “the big bang”. The facts that were observed at the time, though, led to the conclusions Copernicus made.

The problem with the statement “well, it’s only a theory” is that it is often used to say that it’s okay to attack the theory in its entirety simply because it’s a theory. It’s as if the speaker believes that a theory is nothing more than an opinion, rather like the preference for classical music over jazz. That is not what any scientific theory is, and so the statement that it is “just a theory” is misleading.

One would think that the main question is to get to truth. We want to know if the theory accords to reality; we want to know if the theory is true.

So the best response would be something akin to “yeah, it is. So what? Is it true?”

However, misunderstanding in the popular imagination is often compounded by the response, “yeah, so is gravity.” The intended implication here being that disagreeing with evolutionary theory is somehow akin to denying that things fall down.  In case I miss the point, one person I was speaking to added the phrase “things still fall down”.

We would all say, “of course”. The problem is that the fact that things fall down is not technically the theory of gravity. Stuff falling down(or rather, bodies of mass tending towards one another) is a FACT . Gravity is the theory used to explain that fact.

When applied to evolution, we see how this parallel is misleading. Evolutionary theory is a theory designed to deal with the fact that we presently have many species of life that to greater or lesser extents, resemble one another. Given that that resemblance is aided by similar evidences in the fossil record of species of apparently increasing complexity over time, and that extinctions seem to follow a pattern, the theory (or theories) of evolution get proposed to account for the facts we have. Evolution is, I am told, a very good theory that has a mass of predictive power. That said, the theory of common descent of species diversified mainly through the engine of natural selection is a theory, it is not a fact. It is an interpretation of the observed data, not the observation itself.

Again the question is one of truth, not of fact. Does the theory resemble reality? Does the theory make sense of the facts?

The person who advocates for evolution is not necessarily claiming a simple opinion, nor is the person questioning evolution necessarily questioning facts.

Despair and Sin

After some discussion, I’m finding that I have to explain what I mean when I say that the rarer form of unprepared heart for the Gospel is despairing sin.

Recall that my central understanding of the Gospel is that is at heart about the glory of Jesus Christ and the reign of His kingdom (Matt. 4:23). Jesus Christ rules over all things (Rev. 11:15), and that rule is evidenced both in wrath for sinners, and just mercy on some that was purchased on the cros (Rom. 9:22-23).

The problem for the exceedingly rare despairing sinner is not the conviction that they are sinners. They already have that. The problem for the despairing sinner is that the rule of a just omniscient God comes as bad news to this person. They are in rebellion to such a God, and know that they are, and so upon learning that there is such a God, despair because they cannot hope to measure up.

Unless their hearts are prepared, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for their sins is going to simply be too good to be true. They will prefer to have some mediating priesthood or action, or something, so that they can be sure that God is actually for them and not against them.

Biblically, this is the group Jesus and the apostles had the most success with at the get go. The only thing that the Spirit needs to convince such people is the love of God and the objective truth of Christ’s death and resurrection for their sins. In societies with a strong basis in an objective morality, the preaching of God’s love through the cross will be effective.

However, this group is very rare in modern culture. In fact, I’ve only ever met a handful of this group. In order to be in this group you have to have enough of a background that would convince you both of the reality of objective morality and that you are in transgression of that. Since the first step is openly denied in modern western culture, it is going to be rare to find people who are convinced that they are in transgression of it. What few that do get past that step, run up against the modern imperial I, and the belief that the objective morality is personally defined (thus everyone is always completely moral, since they define morality).

That is why I believe that Phariseeism is the far more common opposition to the Gospel in modern hearts, and why I believe that the current focus on the truth of God’s love to the exclusion of God’s wrath is probably doomed in modern society.

Depraved

anthony_hopkins_hannibal_lecterOftentimes I find myself having to explain my understanding of Christianity. This is mainly because my theology doesn’t quite fit most of what I see operating here in Newfoundland. It’s quite common in some parts of the world, just not here.

Last weekend was one such instance. Somebody asked me after Church to explain “calvinism”, which for me means an explanation of the doctrines of grace. When I explain these ideas, some people hear it with joy, others respond as I did when I first heard it (what an evil understanding of salvation).

For the sake of clarity, though, I’m going to go through the five points, why i believe them and what that means practically.

The first point is that I believe people are depraved. I am included in that “people”.

This means that i think people do not in themselves seek to do the right thing, and even when they do the “right thing” as seen by outsiders, it’s for the wrong reasons. This means that while I think people stumble into “good” acts from time to time. people cannot be good in and of themselves. 

Of course, I see that the Bible teaches this. Just 2 examples:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”  (Romans 3:10b-3:13).

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)

More importantly, with very little reflection on my own motivations at any given moment, even as people praise me for doing something good (and even as I do things that are seen as good), I can tell that my heart is not really aiming for the good of others, much less the glory of God. In and of myself I am really not a good person.

So what does this mean?

1) Christians are not in themselves more righteous than unbelievers, or even people who openly embrace their sin. We are in ourselves on an equal footing. This means that when we tell others who do not believe that they are evil and going to hell, we need to be careful that we don’t get (or give) the idea that because we are saved we are any less evil in ourselves. We could not embrace God any more than the unbeliever could, and we were saved by God while we were still enemies of His. 

2) Christians need to pray for unbelievers that we talk to, as much as preach to them. Conversion is an act of God, not of ourselves. This means that the goal in evangelism is to make the Gospel clear, not to make them believe it (we can’t do that). they are depraced and incapable of coming to Christ unless God leads them.

3) Christians need to be thankful to God for our salvation. Not in a lip-service kind of way, but because we actually are completely dependent on God for our salvation, not on our superior intellects, reasoning skills, superior faith ability, or indeed anything else. In ourselves we are depraved. We are saved by Jesus at all levels.

4) Finally, Christians should be freed from the silliness of pretending that we are righteous. We should not embrace sinful behaviour, but since we are depraved, we shouldn’t be surprised when once in a while sin creeps up in ourselves or others, and we shouldn’t be shaming when it does. We simply need to call one another to repentance and act in grace, not because we are better than those we call to repentance, but because we are saved by Christ.

In the end, the realization that we are in ourselves not good, and incapable of coming to God on our own is not simply a downer, but a fact that once remembered avoids the pride that so easily ensnares Christians, and reminds us that in Our faith we do not ask people to look at us for the ultimate value of our faith, but to Jesus Christ.

soli Deo gloria