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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label Christianity. Show all posts

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Myth of the Christian "Dark Ages"



In my college history class, I was assigned the book The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin. It was an interesting and eminently readable tome, becoming a best-seller. In what is labeled "a personal note to the reader," Boorstin states that he is a champion of the discoverer and that "the obstacles to discovery—the illusions of knowledge—are also a part of our story. Only against the forgotten backdrop of the received common sense and myths of their time can we begin to sense the courage, the rashness, the heroic and imaginative thrusts of the great discoverers. They had to battle against the current 'facts' and dogmas of the learned.1"

I believe Boorstin is correct in that for us to properly understand the momentous changes that paved human advancement we must look at the truth of historical setting and detail. Unfortunately, one area where Boorstin himself succumbs to the "current facts and dogma" that plague us today is the claim that the medieval period, when Christendom became dominant in Europe, ushered in some kind of dark ages.

 In chapter thirteen of The Discoverers (not so subtly entitled "The Prison of Christian Dogma"), Boorstin writes that Christians in the medieval period abandoned the work of discovery in order to generate simple, theologically appealing frames that were divorced from, fact. He claims "the leaders of Christendom built a grand barrier against the progress of knowledge about the earth, "and that "we observe a Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia, which afflicted the continent from A.D. 300 to at least 1300."2

The Explosion of Advancement in Medieval Europe

Boorstin's view is a popular one; the Middle Ages were a dark and regressive period for Europeans. The Church was supposedly a science-stopper and anyone who wishes to look for scientific leaps that would lead to human flourishing must at this point in history turn to the Muslims or the Orient.  But it simply is a false view. Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University, clarifies:
Granted, like the Muslim conquerors, the Germanic tribes that conquered Roman Europe had to acquire considerable culture before they measured up to their predecessors. But, in addition to having many Romans to instruct and guide them, they had the Church, which carefully sustained and advanced the culture inherited from Rome. What is even more significant is that the centuries labeled as the "Dark Ages" were "one of the great innovative eras of mankind," as technology was developed and put into use "on a scale no civilization had previously known." In fact, as will be seen, it was during the "Dark Ages" that Europe began the great technological leap forward that put it far ahead of the rest of the world. This has become so well known that rejection of the "Dark Ages" as an unfounded myth is now reported in the respected dictionaries and encyclopedias that only a few years previously had accepted and promulgated that same myth. Thus, while earlier editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had identified the five or six centuries after the fall of Rome as the "Dark Ages," the fifteenth edition, published in 1981, dismissed that as an "unacceptable" term because it incorrectly claims this to have been "a period of intellectual darkness and barbarity."3
In his book God's Battalions, Stark notes there were tremendous advancements in the technology of the day, such as swivel-axeled wagons, shoes for horses, and better harnesses.  The plow was also redesigned and farming techniques, including the rotation of crops allowing fields to rest and not become nutrient-drained were adopted.

Making Life Better for the Average Man

Putting the ability of horses with their new harnessed together with the more efficient plow had a huge impact on lifespans. Stark notes "land that could not previously be farmed, nor not farmed effectively, suddenly became very productive, and even on thinner soil the use of the heavy moldboard plow nearly doubled crop yields."4

Adding this to the improved farming techniques, Stark concludes:
As a result, starting during the "Dark Ages" most Europeans began to eat far better than had the common people anywhere, ever. Indeed, medieval Europeans may have been the first human group whose genetic potential was not badly stunted by a poor diet, with the result that they were, on average, bigger, healthier, and more energetic than ordinary people elsewhere.5
Stark offers more and more varied examples of how during the Middle Ages that Christian Europe's "technology and science overtook the world" in his book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, but this will serve us for now. The idea that Christianity was a science-stopper in the Middle Ages is nonsense. Christianity not only taught that God's word was to be discovered, but it taught that all human beings are inherently valuable and both these key concepts made the Western world the leader it is today.

References

1. Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to His World and Himself. New York: Vintage, 1985. Xv. Print.
2. Boorstin, 1985. 100.
3. Stark, Rodney. God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. New York, NY: Harper One, 2009. 66.Print.
4. Stark, 2009. 69.
5. Stark, 2009. 70.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Atheists Should Admit Christianity is Different than Made-Up Faiths



Last month, the Dublin newspaper The Evening Herald reported that fifty different official religions were given to the 2016 census takers, including one newly added category: Jedi Knight.1 This isn't really a surprise, given that since the turn of the millennium, hundreds of thousands of people across the English-speaking world have been so doing, as Wikipedia documents.2

While the number of people who list their belief system as "Jedi" or "Jedi Knight" is minute relative to the population as a whole, those that do has caused concern and not only with the census takers. The Atheist Foundation of Australia has begun a campaign telling Aussies not to mark their census with "joke answers" to the question of religion, but to mark "no religion". They even set up a web site and explain their reasoning:
What happens if I write Jedi Knight/Pastafarian?

It gets counted as 'Not defined' and is not placed in the 'No religion' category. This reduces the 'No religion' numbers and therefore advantages the religion count. While it may be funny, it is a serious mistake to answer in this way.3

Why Do You Assume Jediism is a Joke?

I think this response is fascinating because it really undermines some of the arguments atheists themselves make against the belief in God. My question is simple: why do they assume a response of Pastafarianism or Jedi Knight is not a serious answer to the faith question? What is obvious in that these answers are not to be taken seriously? What is the distinguishing feature that makes Christianity a faith that isn't a joke while Jediism is?

According the atheists, Christianity is a legend that grew from tall tales some thirty years after they were first formed. That fits with the Star Wars saga. These were incredibly popular tales that captivated the hearts and imagination of millions and now, forty years later, the Irish are marking that they are Jedi Knights. The Jedi even have a church in Wales, offering weddings and funeral services. So, what makes this different than the beliefs Christians hold today?

Christianity is Based in History

While there may be a Jedi "church" in Wales offering religious services, rational people will recognize the whole thing is kind of a put on. No one seriously believes they hold the attributes that were invented by George Lucas for the heroes of his science fiction film. Even the census respondents themselves don't believe it. Imagine those same people facing a Nero-style persecution for their identification with the Jedi faith. How many do you think would still maintain their devotion to that belief system?

The difference is that Christianity isn't based in a story without any grounding in reality. It is based on history. From its very beginning, it was the fact of the resurrection that attracted followers and changed the minds of even it most ardent enemies, like Saul of Tarsus, who couldn't deny that he saw the resurrected Christ. It changed him from a killer of Christians to an evangelist overnight.

While atheists like to claim that flying spaghetti monsters are synonymous with belief in God or mythic legends are the same as the origin of Christianity, the truth is they don't believe that to be true. Their plea that one not answer the census with something that "may be funny" but isn't what one truly believes means even the atheists can tell there's a difference. It means they need to take Christianity much more seriously than just responding with "Jesus is a myth" or Flying Spaghetti Monster memes. They certainly seem to when counting beliefs hurts their numbers.

References

1. "Jedi Knights Are New 'force' in Census as 50 Religions Are Listed." Herald.ie. The Evening Herald, 19 Apr. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017. http://www.herald.ie/news/jedi-knights-are-new-force-in-census-as-50-religions-are-listed-35634362.html.
2. "Jedi Census Phenomenon." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 May 2017. Web. 04 May 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jedi_census_phenomenon.
3. "Were You Born into a Religion but Are No Longer Religious?" Mark No Religion Census 2016. Atheist Foundation of Australia, 2016. Web. 04 May 2017. http://censusnoreligion.org.au/.
image courtesy Tom Blackwell and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Identifying Impostor Christianity (podcast)



What really defines Christianity? Mormons claim that they are Christians, simply another denomination. So do others who differ on Jesus' identity. What are the essentials of the Christian faith and how can we identify orthodox beliefs from heterodoxy or heresy? In this series, we will examine the clear lines separating true Christianity from its impostors.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Necessity of Humility for Racial Healing


It's no secret that racial tensions in this country are the highest they've been in many years. The different high profile shootings of black men and of police officers have raised tensions to extreme levels and both black and white Christians are trying to understand how they should respond.

It's clear that Christians should have a response. Christianity holds to a very clearly defined moral understanding of the nature of human beings as ones who reflect God's image, and the sanctity of life. Both issues are central to this crisis. Further, Christianity has always taught that differences of race, culture, sex, or socio-economic backgrounds matter little in the inherent worth of an individual (Gal. 3:28, 1 Cor 12:12-13).

I've previously written that the church should be the place where blacks can turn in their pain and fear. How we as Christians can reach out to our community and begin to promote healing is a little tougher question. Recently, I was able to attend an event hosted by Sandals Church and Pastor Matt Brown entitled "A Real Conversation About Race and the Church" that brought together several black pastors as well as law enforcement and local government officials to talk about the role of Christians in bridging the divide that seems to grow wider with each news cycle.

Stop Asserting Your Individuality

One of the more common themes mentioned by the participants throughout the evening was that of humility. Pastor Jonathan Bilima of Relevant Church told of how he would intentionally reach out to others in his community by not exercising his preferences or his freedoms, but by trying to present an atmosphere where others would be more comfortable. He said even in his church services, he would prefer more musical styles associated with traditionally black churches, he chose to "turn down a little bit of my identity in order to bridge the gap of ignorance."

I think Pastor Bilima put his finger on a key factor in reconciliation and healing. As Christians we have an amazing amount of freedom to worship and live. However, if we elevate those freedoms to be primary over the needs of another, we sin. The Corinthian church had the freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols, as that's pretty much the only meat one could buy. The Apostle Paul understood that those idols were not real gods and told them they could do so. However, he added that if their freedom to eat the meat might stumble another, they should spit it out of their mouths. He wrote "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved" (1 Cor. 10:31-33).

The Ultimate Model of Humility

Jesus modeled such humility more than anyone else. He didn't regard equality with God something to be grasped, but he humbled himself so much that he submitted to his own torture and death in order to save those who were doing the torturing and killing. He understood that placing the needs of those who were in the wrong above his rights was the only way to reach them and heal them. This is the model we as Christians are called to follow.

Certainly, the pursuit of justice is important. I do not believe we as citizens should dismiss wrongdoing. However, that doesn't mean as Christians when engaging others in conversation, even in conversations online, we should begin our conversation with calls to justice. Perhaps beginning with calls for understanding and empathy would be better. Empathizing is a great way to build real relationships because it tells the other person you value their feelings and experiences. It is one way each of us can make a difference in the lives of those who see things differently from us. It is one way we can draw each other closer to Christ instead of drawing distinctions.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Are Christians Too Judgmental? (podcast)



The most well-known verse in the Bible is not John 3:16, but Matthew 7:1—"Judge not lest ye be judged." People quote it all the time when a Christian seeks to take a stand for biblical values. But what does it mean? Should Christians "force" their beliefs on others and is it right to take stand against an immoral practice by trying to pass laws affecting all citizens?In this four-part podcast, Lenny examines these charges, showing what Jesus actually meant and why Christians must identify sin to be loving.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Christian Response to the Tragedy in Orlando (video)



The recent slaughter at the gay nightclub in Orlando Florida has sparked a variety of reactions. The gunman was Muslim, even claiming to act in solidarity with ISIS and the victims were gay. But, some blame the motivation for the murderous rampage on the anti-homosexual stance taken by Christians.

It is true that Christians have been at odds with those who lobby for things like same sex marriage. Activists have sued Christian bakers, florists, photographers, innkeepers, and others forcing them to lose their livelihoods. So, how should Christians respond in this instance? The answer is that Christians should love the LGBT so much they are willing to lay down their lives.

In this short video, Lenny looks to the instructions Paul lays out in Romans 12:9-21 and says Christians should show love. We should be self-sacrificial, even when those who would persecute you are being threatened. See why Christians should be willing to step in front of a bullet meant for another, no matter what their political stance is.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How Can We be Equal without Christianity?



Throughout the history of civilization, people have sought to understand themselves by seeking to understand their place in society. When that society was patriarchal, the most respect was given to the forefathers, especially the eldest and most direct ancestor. When societies grew into city-states, one found his place in the service to that polis. Plato divided the classes into the guardians, the warriors, and the commoners, each serving the state in a specific capacity.

This kind of understanding extended beyond Greece. Rome granted citizenship was highly valued because it gave the citizen an elevated place in the society with greater rights.1 We see cultures, such as those of Saudi Arabia or oriental nations who still adopt a hierarchical view of the individual. But the West is different. Here, we value all people as equal. In the United States, our nation was founded on the principle. What caused the nations that sprang from the Roman Empire to so drastically alter their understanding of the worth of the individual?

Changing the Measure of Worth

In his excellent book Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop answers that question by pointing to the rise of Christianity. Siedentop details how the teachings of Jesus and Paul caused a "moral revolution" in thought, moving the value of the individual from hierarchical to equal. Individual freedom becomes elevated. He explains:
Previously in antiquity, it was the patriarchal family that had been the agency of immortality. Now, through the story of Jesus, individual moral agency was raised up as providing a unique window into the nature of things, into the experience of grace rather than necessity, a glimpse of something transcending death. The individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality.2
Because the individual now holds the ability tom become immortal, one's understanding of morality is changed as well. Instead of Plato's justice being determined by how one is helpful to the Polis, morality becomes more about an individual's actions to other individuals. Siedentop argues that "the premise of moral equality requires a human will that is in a sense pre-social,"3 meaning independent of one's position within the societal structures. The only way people can do that is through faith in Christ. He continues, "Faith in the Christ requires seeing oneself in others and others in oneself, the point of view which truly moralizes humans as agents." 4

How Christianity Impacts More than Civic Status

Once the basis for moral equality is established through Christ, Siedentop then shows just how powerful those ideas become. For example, he points to Tertullian to show the radical new way of thinking Christianity offers the world:
If God created humans as equals, as rational agents with free will, then there ought to be an area within which they are free to choose responsible a free choices. Identifying such an area was at first meant to be self-defence by Christians. But soon it was also much more than that. Tertullian saw clear implications of Christian moral beliefs. "Here lies the perfection and distinctiveness of Christian goodness," he argued. "Ordinary goodness is different; for all men love their friends, but only Christians love their enemies."5
This is how true goodness comes from Christianity alone. The moral equality of all people rests in the Christian understanding of redemption. Realize, I don't know whether Siedentop is a Christian or not. His book is written from his position as a scholar of political history, serving at Oxford among other institutions. His book does not push Christian beliefs, but simply describes the paradigm shift Christianity brought upon the world. Without Christianity, moral equality cannot find its footing. Without Christianity, the value of the individual fades into how one services the state.

References

1. "civitas". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 17 May. 2016
http://www.britannica.com/topic/civitas.
2. Siedentop, Larry. Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism. Penguin Books, 2014. Print. 58.
3. Siedentop, 2014. 64.
4. Siedentop, 2014. 65.
5. Siedentop, 2014.76.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Finding Christian Hope in This Election Cycle



Today is the National Day of Prayer and I know a lot of Christians who are praying for this country more than ever before. Principled people are faced with two choices for leading our country, each of whom has acted in ways demonstrating a complete lack of moral grounding. As one young evangelical mom told Senator Ben Sasse, "I want to cry. I disagree with Hillary Clinton on almost every single thing – but I will vote for her before Trump. I could never tell my kids later that I voted for that man."1 As I said yesterday, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift where the abandonment of truth and community standards for individual desires is coming home to roost.

Like the lady above, a lot of people I talk with are feeling more and more hopeless. They don't want their daughters sharing a bathroom with a grown man, yet even the courts are demanding we ignore the reality of biology over something that is not yet defined or testable. They worry about their kids and the kind of world they will inherit. For people of faith, it will definitely get harder. What's a Christian to do?

There is hope to be found in the events we see today. It's a very specific kind of hope, one that comes about as the result of hard times. Paul explained to the Romans how hope is developed in the Christian:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
This is the hope of the New Testament. It isn't a hope of changing circumstances. Because of our great blessings, we've mixed up the hope spoken of by the apostles with hoping that easy times are ahead. But that isn't the way the Bible uses the word.The Bible teaches that this world is corrupt and needs to be judged. It isn't a hope in a political figure who will move things in a particular direction. We know that no one is good but God alone. The hope we have is that even as the world gets darker and our struggles more difficult, God will use those to develop our reliance upon him alone.

As the world gets darker, I do have more hope. I can see how the lines are being more clearly drawn than before. I can see how it may soon cost every Christian something to claim the name of Christ. That won't be easy and I don't wish pain upon anyone, but it will make people take their beliefs more seriously than it has in the past.

The hope we have is a hope that God will at one point put everything right again. In the meantime, I cling to the fact that God will be working in me to produce the endurance and good character he desires me to have. I trust in him and my hope drives my ministry. Not simply hope for a future event but faith in his providence leading each of us today and every day, even when it looks crazy out there.

So rejoice today, Christian. If God is real then there is hope to be found.

References

1. Sasse, Ben. "An Open Letter to Majority America." Ben Sasse Facebook Page. Facebook, 04 Mar. 2016. Web. 05 May 2016. https://www.facebook.com/sassefornebraska/posts/593031420862025

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

We Don't Need to Recreate the First Century Church



The world in which we live is loud, distracting, and difficult. Attention spans are decreasing and the influence of secular society seems to loom ever larger in our lives. Many believers feel it is becoming harder and harder to honestly live out their Christian faith properly.

Moreover, the Christian church as an institution isn't immune from the influence of the culture. Churches today struggle with balancing a proper worship time with congregational participation. Pastors worry about how much theology they can present in their sermons before it becomes too "heady" and a "turn-off" for the congregant. They also want to figure out just which ministries they should be offering and how much technology should play a part in the worship service.

Given these stresses, it shouldn't be surprising that a common refrain heard in Bible-believing churches is the church needs to simplify. It needs to go back to its roots and look a little bit more like the first century churches. After all, those churches were started by the apostles, making them somehow more pure than the rather complicated practices the modern church adopts in the 21st century.

In fact, there was a big push to return and do church "the way the apostles did it" in the early 19th century, a movement known as Restorationism. It spawned several denominations such as the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ1. More recently, the Jesus People movement in the 1960s sought in some way to do the same thing, and the very recent house church trend claims to be "a return to first-century Christianity in its simplest form."2

The Problem of Purity

Perhaps you have heard someone say something like "we need to return our church experience to the way the first Christians did it." I've heard the statement from both pastors and congregants. But, I think there's an awful lot being assumed in such a statement. In fact, the first century churches were no more pure than those of today.

Let's begin by looking at what we know about the first century churches from the Bible itself. Several of our New Testament books are letters written to Christian churches of the first century and they give precise details on the real world problems those churches wrestled with. The church at Corinth, which was founded by the Apostle Paul himself, seems to be an absolute mess. There was a scandal rocking the assembly since one of its members had begun sleeping with his father's wife (1 Cor. 5:1). Further, because different members thought the pastor they liked best was the one who should be authoritative, Paul said this caused "jealousy and strife" among the congregation (3:3). Doesn't that sound pretty familiar?

The Corinthians had other struggles, such as the more "mature" members believing they were somehow better than their newer brethren on the matter of what they could or couldn't eat (8:1). Pride and selfishness had even crept into even the celebration of the Lord's Supper (11:21-22). They had already reduced communion to something it was never meant to be, even getting drunk during the service.

Problems Throughout the Churches

Lest we believe that Corinth was some singular exception to the rule in the early church, the Bible gives us ample evidence of other churches wrestling with various problems of their own. The Galatians were teaching some bad doctrine and thought only those who followed certain Old Testament precepts would be considered true Christians. The letters that Jesus dictates to John in the book of Revelation outline a slew of problems facing the churches in the first century, including wooden doctrinal adherence without love, accepting false teaching without discernment, allowing the cultural heresies to infect the church, operating on only dead works, and even being completely spiritually dead, holding on the only the name of Christian. James rebukes the church for quarreling, gossiping, and showing partiality. Even in the book of Acts, the church continually wrestled with what to do about the divisions between those who were Jewish converts and those who were Gentiles.

Main Thing Stays the Same

All of these examples serve to show that the first century church wasn't a panacea. Christians of the first century had as many struggles, complications, personality battles, and confusion as the church does today.They battled issues of sexual sin within their ranks as well as without. They had problems with pride. They mixed up what was cultural convention with what was essential doctrine. The first century church was very much like the 21st century church. Their problems were simply couched in the milieu of their time.

This shouldn't be a surprise to us. The Christian church of the first century was comprised of people and people are very, very fallible. I recently heard one non-believer say one of the reasons he isn't a Christian is because there are so many divergent opinions and practices within Christian denominations and secondly, there are many examples of injustice done by Christians on their fellow man. I cannot argue with either of these points; both are true.

However, as Christians we understand that it isn't the practices of the church we hold as the standard for life, but the example of Christ. It is our love and devotion to the one who sacrificed himself for our salvation that knits us together as a community. In that aspect, Christians of the first century and Christians of the 21st century are identical. We both worship the Son of Man who alone became the propitiation for our sins and who rose again on the third day. We recognize that we are sinners deserving to die but we have been reconciled to God. In that, we are as close to the apostles' teaching as the first century church was, and we can walk confidently forward in our faith knowing that is the model one must follow to be authentic.

References

1. Mallett, Robert. "Restoration Movement." The Christian Restoration Association. The Christian Restoration Association, 2003. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
2. Henning, Jefferey. "The Growing House-Church Movement." Ministry Today Magazine. Charisma Media, 31 Oct. 2000. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Another Way Christianity Changed Everything: Human Freedom



People want to be free. In fact, most of the battles now fought in the culture wars are about individuals who feel they have not simply a desire but a right to express their individual freedom as to who they are and how they are seen by others. The transgender bathroom fiasco is a prime example of this.

It is their right, they demand, to present themselves as they personally wish to be presented. They maintain that neither culture nor tradition should trump who they are as individuals and they're pursued various legal strategies to assert individual rights as real and inviolate. But where do those rights come from?

In one sense I agree with the battlers. Culture, tradition and even government cannot bestow rights (properly understood) upon people. Any right that is granted by an institution is not an inviolate right by definition. If the state can create and bestow rights upon an individual, then the state can take those rights away. Such "rights" amount to privileges that the state allows one to exercise.

In fact, throughout much of human history, the individual was subservient to the group. In his book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, scholar Larry Siedentop outlines how all cultures prior to Christ were first built around the family unit which expanded to the city-state, the polis.1 He writes how the Greeks saw devotion to the welfare of the city as the highest virtue. Rome demanded devotion to the emperor and the empire. Conformity to the powers that be was the only thing that made one a worthwhile citizen.

So what changed? Where did this idea that the state should be respectful of the rights of the citizen more than the citizen must conform to the needs of the state come from? Siedentop states plainly, it is Christianity that declared such a radically new concept to humanity:
Paul's vision on the road to Damascus amounted to the discovery of human freedom—of moral agency potentially available to each and everyone, that is to individuals. This 'universal' freedom, with its moral implications, was utterly different from the freedom enjoyed by the privileged class of citizens in the polis.

In his conception of the Christ, Paul brings together basic features of Jewish and Greek thought to create something new. We can see in a famous passage from his letters, the letter to the Galatians, dating from about twenty years after Jesus' crucifixion. Paul uses Jesus' emphasis on the fatherhood of God to insist on the brotherhood of man and, indirectly, to proclaim his own role as apostle to the Gentiles. 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' Paul's 'one' signals a new transparency in human relations. Through his conception of the Christ, Paul insists on the moral equality of humans, on a status shared equally by all. And his great mission becomes the salvation of individual souls, through sharing his vision of the Christ - a vision which makes it possible to create a new self.2
Paul grounds his view of humanity as valuable because each individual bears the image of God. People are not simply material beings. If they were, then they could be measured by their value to the group. But as individual image bearers "conventional social roles—whether of father, daughter, official, priest or slave—become secondary in relation to that primary role."3  This stands in stark contrast to how all other cultures saw themselves by either their position in the public sphere and their position within the domestic sphere, which Siedentop explains "was understood as the sphere of the family, rather than that of individuals endowed with rights. The domestic sphere was a sphere of inequality. Inequality of roles was fundamental to the worship of the ancient family."4

It is Christianity that makes any sense of individual rights at all. Without a very specific Christian theology of man, the assertion that human beings are equal and each person has rights is as meaningless as holding that individual cells have certain rights without respect to the body as a whole.  There is simply no other way to anchor the rights of human beings.

I don't agree on the bathroom issue. I believe it is ludicrous to think that one's desire can overrule reality. No matter how convinced an anorexic is that she is fat, the reality is her self-starvation is endangering to her person. The biology of her body is in conflict with her self-concept. Similarly, those with gender dysphoria are at odds with their biology. Restrooms serve a very utilitarian function, wholly built to serve human biological needs. Separating bathrooms by biological sex bathroom doesn't violate one's rights because it is our biology that makes us human. Sex is a real differentiator and shouldn't be ignored. But even more importantly, how can anyone consistently argue for their rights against Christian theology when it is Christian theology that provides the very foundation for having rights at all? The contradiction is striking.

References

1. Siedentop, Larry. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. S.l.: Penguin, 2014. Print. 25.
2. Siedentop, 2014. 60.
3. Siedentop, 2014. 62.
4. Siedentop, 2014. 18.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

How Sci Fi Smuggles in a Godless Humanity (video)


Our media shapes our culture in many ways. Popular television and film can offer viewpoints that are antithetical to Christian beliefs. Sometimes this happens overtly. Other times it's more subtle.

In this short clip, Lenny highlights two key filmmakers—Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek and Joss Whedon who created Firefly and several wildly popular Marvel features—and demonstrates how their worldview leaks onto the screen, influencing their viewers.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Evangelism Needs to Become More Intellectual


There exists a fairly popular instruction for pastors that when they prepare their sermons, they should strive to "put the cookies on the lower shelf." In other words, the sermon needs to be simple with points easy to grasp by all.

I agree that it is important to communicate clearly. Part of that is to help parishioners by approaching take complex ideas and breaking them up in such a way that they can be apprehended by most of the congregation. However, I fear that the drive to "put the cookies on the lower shelf" has been over emphasized. I've seen many Bible teachers who are afraid of being "too intellectual" or presenting difficult concepts because their congregants may not "get it." As a result, much of the preaching on Sunday mornings have been dumbed-down from what the average church goer would have experienced a century or two ago.

Of course, not all ideas given in the Scriptures are able to be easily digested. God's orchestration of the conquest of Canaan is one example. The role that women play in New Testament churches is another. Concepts such as believers being predestined yet having the freedom to choose to follow Jesus is a third. All of these are directly taken from the scriptures and if one is to take in the whole counsel of God, these ideas must be addressed.

The Intellectual Needs Jesus

My concern is not simply liturgical; it is also evangelical. There is real danger in not demonstrating an intellectually robust faith for the intellectuals who are influential in shaping the ideas of a culture. James Davison Hunter makes a salient point:
Imagine, in this regard, a genuine "third great awakening" occurring in America, where half of the population is converted to a deep Christian faith. Unless this awakening extended to envelop the cultural gatekeepers, it would have little effect on the character of the symbols that are produced and prevail in public and private culture. And, without a fundamental restructuring of the institutions of culture formation and transmission in our society-the market, government-sponsored cultural institutions, education at all levels, advertising, entertainment, publishing, and the news media, not to mention church-revival would have a negligible long-term effect on the reconstitution of the culture. Imagine further several social reform movements surrounding, say, educational reform and family policy, becoming very well organized and funded, and on top of this, serious Christians being voted into every major office and appointed to a majority of judgeships. Legislation may be passed and judicial rulings may be properly handed down, but legal and political victories will be short-lived or pyrrhic without the broad-based legitimacy that makes the alternatives seem unthinkable.1
To support his claim, Hunter points to one of the biggest victories of Evangelicals in the last century – the temperance movement. Christians had both political representation and a significant portion of the voting public behind them to pass a constitutional amendment. However, it proved a miserable failure.

The church must reach out to the intellectual in the academy as well as the builder on the job site. Both need saving. But if we only present Christianity in the most basic idioms, what will be their assumption about the faith? Instead of seeing the robust, historic Christian tradition that birthed the writings of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Pascal, and many others, they see a feeble and childish view of the world.

I don't believe every sermon must feel like a college lecture. But offering one sermon a month that stretches the congregation and tackles some of the more complex ideas within Christendom wouldn't be a bad idea.

In the book of Hebrews, the church is rebuked by the writer for not being able to handle more difficult matters of theology. "For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Heb. 5:13-14). Paul also rebukes the Corinthian church similarly: "But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh" ( Cor. 3:1-3).

How are we reaching the intellectual with the Gospel? How are we growing our church members into mature believers who can digest solid food? Keeping the cookies on the lower shelf may be fun for the congregation, but it might simply mean we're short-changing their intellectual nutrition.

References

1. Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.46.
Image courtesy Jelllserrine - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30609111

Friday, January 08, 2016

Using Ultimate Evil to Answer the Problem of Evil



Why would an all-good, all loving God allow so much evil in the world? This question, what is known as the Problem of Evil, has been one that both believers and non-believers have wrestled with for much of Christian history. Christians have appealed to God's desire for mankind to have free will as the primary reason evil can exist at all.

Still, atheists will object to the fact that any God that would allow so much evil or certain acts that we recognize as so tremendously evil would be inconsistent with the God defined in Christianity whose primary attribute is love. Is the belief in an all-loving God incompatible with horrendously evil acts in the world? In order to better understand God's relationship to evil, I think it is helpful to look at what we can think of as the most extreme example of evil and see if the belief in the Christian God makes any sense.

What Would Count as Incredibly Evil?

To figure out what counts as a heinously evil act, let's narrow our choices a bit. First, I would argue that intentional evil is worse than accidental or natural evil. For example a person contracts cancer and suffers to degree X. If the cancer was natural we would look upon that suffering as bad. If the cancer was from negligence, we would hold the perpetrator in a certain level of contempt. But if the cancer was intentionally caused, that holds a higher level of seriousness. Intentional evil is a greater evil than unintentional evil.

Even within intentional acts there are degrees of evil. We rightly look upon murder as an evil act. As a though experiment, think of a 35 year old female victim who was murdered by a gunshot to the head. The killer is apprehended and placed on trial. If this was an indiscriminate act, such as a drive by shooting, one would rightly demand a certain level of punishment for the crime. However, if it was found that the victim was kept alive for several hours so the killer could enjoy himself torturing her, our view of the crime would change. It is more evil to torture and kill a person, especially for pleasure, than to simply kill them and walk away.

Secondly, I would argue murder is probably the most evil act one can perpetrate upon another because it robs an individual of one's most valuable asset, which is life itself. By taking a life, a perpetrator has robbed his victim of a future and the victim's friends and family of an irreplaceable asset. If one doesn't see human beings as intrinsically valuable, then the problem of evil is a functional one .Human beings are simply resources like the rest of the planet and cancer can be compared to any other natural resource. The problem of evil goes away at that point. But if human beings are intrinsically valuable, then they are different from the rest of the natural world. Their value rests in their existence. Therefore, to take away their existence is to do something uniquely evil, something more evil than any other act.

The Suffering of the Innocent Compounds Evil

Thirdly, the suffering of the innocent is held as more tragic than the suffering of the non-innocent. Suffering as a consequent to wrong actions is many times seen as "just desserts" in people's eyes. But causing the suffering of a child who may be considered ignorant of the world's workings is considered more heinous. This concept seems to be behind the questions I receive about God allowing young children to have cancer or other diseases. They appeal to children to imply the innocence of the one who is suffering.

Innocence is also important as we are talking about an all-knowing God. What if God allows a certain amount of evil or suffering in the life of a sinful person to show that person the ramifications of sin? It may be that an all-knowing God would use a sinful person's suffering to draw his or her attention back to himself. But if an innocent person suffered, then one can legitimately question how God could ever allow such a thing to happen.

The Most Evil Act Demonstrates an All-Loving God

I could go into more detail on my points above, but I will leave them as they stand now for brevity's sake. I lay all this out in order to develop what could be considered one of the most evil acts in history and see if we can measure how such an act could be perpetrated and still be compatible with the belief in an all-loving God. As I've noted, an intentional crime of murder against the innocent there the innocent suffer prior to death for no reason other than the enjoyment of the perpetrator is probably the most evil act one can think of. If the Christian God would stop any kind of evil, certainly he would begin with this kind of evil. This is evil with a capital "E" and certainly deserves God's attention. Does it make sense to believe in a God who allows this kind of evil to happen?

Yes it does. In fact, we have a very real historical example of just such an evil being perpetrated and we find that God not only doesn't stop it, but he allows it for very specific purposes. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth we have the epitome of the innocent individual. Christians hold that Jesus was not merely one of God's creatures but God Himself incarnate. That places his value even above those of humanity. Christianity also holds that Jesus was completely innocent and free of sin. He not only was born innocent as a baby, but he accomplished what no other human being on earth could, he remained sin-free even as an adult.

However, God allowed the most innocent and most valuable person to even walk the earth to suffer the most hideous evil of which we can conceive. Why would God allow such hideous and blatant evil to happen? Christianity tells us it is because God wanted to reconcile all of humanity to himself. As John 3:16 says "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that if you believe on him you will have everlasting life." This means, given the free will of creatures, it is not inconsistent for an all-loving God to allow even hideous evil acts to occur. The crucifixion of Christ is the most evil act human beings could perpetrate and yet God allowed it to reconcile those very human beings back into a right relationship with him. Without that evil act, we would never have that opportunity. It is the cross that proves that God not only understands the problem of evil, but he's taken the brunt of it. He then answered it by rising again.

It isn't inconsistent that the God of Christianity allows evil to exist in this world. Rather, the cross proves God can leverage the evil of this world for his purposes, making the end result (reconciliation with God and redemption from hell) a better condition than if the evil itself never occurred.

Only Christianity holds the answer to the problem of evil.

Monday, December 28, 2015

2015 Top Ten Apologetics Blog Posts



2015 has been an incredible year for articles and issues requiring Christians to think. From the Planned Parenthood video exposé to atheist memes to natural disasters, there were plenty of questions that needed answering and topics to discuss.

Below are the top ten most popular posts for 2015 from Come Reason's Apologetics Notes. As I began to publish daily, there was a five-fold increase in readership. Some of the articles are specific to news events of 2015, others are general questions about the Bible. All will hopefully help you in your pursuit of truth.

With no further adieu, here are the top ten apologetic posts of 2015, from #10 down to #1.

  1. How Would Stephen Fry Answer His Own Challenge to God?
  2. Planned Parenthood is Selling Body Parts. Here's What You Can Do
  3. Why Would a Loving God Allow the Earthquake in Nepal?
  4. Secularism isn't a Neutral Position
  5. Why Would God Command Women to Marry Their Rapists?
  6. Six Errors Jesus Mythicists Repeatedly Make
  7. Responding to Atheist Critiques of Christian Hypocrisy
  8. No, Christmas Is Not Based on a Pagan Holiday
  9. What Were the Crusades? Busting Some Myths
  10. How to Quickly Debunk the Horus-Jesus Myth

Sunday, December 20, 2015

What Does "Thou Shalt Not Judge" Really Mean? (video)


One of the most often quoted verses in the Bible is also one of the most misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike. Just what did Jesus mean when he commanded his followers not to judge in Matthew 7? Does this mean Christians cannot criticize any action by someone else? No; the command was focused on another idea prevalent in Jesus' day.

In this short video, Lenny explains how Jesus' listeners would have understood his words and how we can apply them today.



Image courtesy Jonathunder - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

No, Christmas Is Not Based on a Pagan Holiday



Christmas is a much-beloved holiday, celebrated by billions of people across the globe. In the U.S. Alone, the Pew Center reports that nearly 96% of the population celebrates Christmas, including eight out of ten non-Christians, including atheists, agnostics, and those who have no faith commitment.1 However, Christmas is also a uniquely Christian holiday; its core message is about a personal God taking humanity upon Himself and stepping into the world to redeem sinful human beings who could never redeem themselves. The Christian message is inescapable.

I believe the love of Christmas coupled with the loathing of Christianity is one reason why atheists continue to repeat the claim that Christmas is a repurposing of a pagan Roman holiday. Two of the most popular pagan holidays put forth are the celebration of Saturnalia, which honored the Roman god Saturn, or the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, that is the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun." Both of these celebrations were held in the second half of December, making them somewhat close to Christmas.

Looking at the History of Christmas

The claim that the roots of Christmas are pagan is one I hear over and over again, especially in December. The idea isn't even new. The New England Puritans, who valued work more than celebration, taught such.2 Puritan preacher Increase Mather preached that "the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that 'Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian.'"3

When one digs into the actual history however, a much different picture arises. There are two ways to approach the question: one is to see how December 25 became associated with the Nativity, which is how the early church would have referred to the day of Christ's birth. The other one is to look at the celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Either approach shows the dubious nature of the claim that Christmas has pagan roots.

Much of the thrust of the "pagan Christmas" claim rests on the idea of a Christianized Rome trying to convert a populace that wouldn't want to give up its feast traditions, akin to the practice of churches celebrating a "Harvest Festival" instead of Halloween. Yet, scholars like Yale University's T.C. Schmidt are finding the marking of December 25 to go much earlier in the Christian history.

When translating Hippolytus' Commentary on Daniel, written just after AD 200, Schmidt notes that five of the seven manuscripts contain December 25 as the date for Jesus' birth and another offers the 25th of either December or March.4 Clement of Alexandria in this same time offers the date of March 25 as the date of the incarnation, that is the conception of Jesus, in his Stromata (1.21.145-146).5 Both works tie the idea that Jesus's death would have happened on the same day as his conception.

Christmas and Easter are Linked

This is the key to the December 25th date. As Thomas Tulley works out in his book The Origins of the Liturgical Year, there was a belief within the early church that the date of the death of Jesus would also reflect either his birth or his conception.6 Augustine wrote of this, saying "For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th."7

St. John Chrysostom in his writings goes ever further by noting that the Angel Gabriel's announcement of Mary's conception happened while Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Luke 1:26). Chrysostom argues that Zechariah's service was the Day of Atonement, thus making the conception of John the Baptist happen in the fall. Add six months and Jesus's conception lands in the spring, e.g March 25. I don't know that this calculation is historically accurate, but it does show how much the early church tied the events together. The idea of randomly choosing a pagan date seems a pretty big stretch.

Here's the thing. If Christians were recognizing the birth of Christ by the beginning of the third century, does it make sense to think that this was a fourth century invention to sway the Roman populous over to Christianity? Christianity was gaining ground in the time of Clement, but it was by no means out from under the shadow of persecution. It also wasn't borrowing much from pagan customs at the time. So why believe they would do so for this date?

In order to get a fuller picture, we must look at the Roman holidays and their histories. You can read  that post here and part three is here.

References

1. Mohammed, Besheer. "Christmas Also Celebrated by Many Non-Christians." Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 Dec. 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/23/christmas-also-celebrated-by-many-non-christians/.
2. Schnepper, Rachel N. "Yuletide's Outlaws." The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 15 Dec. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/opinion/the-puritan-war-on-christmas.html?_r=0
3. Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Print. 4.
4. Schmidt, T.C. "Hippolytus and the Original Date of Christmas" Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 21 Nov 2010. Web. http://web.archive.org/web/20130303163053/http://chronicon.net/blog/chronology/hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas 16 Dec 2015.
5. Schmmidt, T.C. "Clement of Alexandria and the Original date of Christmas as December 25th." Chrinicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 17 Dec 2010. Web. http://web.archive.org/web/20120822053409/http://chronicon.net/blog/hippolytus/clement-of-alexandria-and-the-original-date-of-christmas-as-december-25th/ 16 Dec 2015.
6. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. New York: Pueblo Pub, 1986. Print. 91ff.
7. Augustine of Hippo. On the Trinity, IV, 5. Logos Virtual Library. Trans. Arthur West Haddan. Darren L. Slider, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2015. http://www.logoslibrary.org/augustine/trinity/0405.html.
Image Courtesy Adam Clark and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Throwing Out the Riches of Christian History


After the discovery of gold in California in 1849, the American west was bristling with gold fever. Prospectors were traveling to both California and Nevada seeking to strike it rich. By 1859, much of the surface gold had been retrieved from the area around the Carson River, but two prospectors, Patrick McLaughlin and Peter O'Riley, sought to mine deeper into the hillsides. 1

They used rockers to extract some gold from shallow deposits, but continued to be vexed by a bluish-black clay that kept clogging their mining equipment. This "annoying blue stuff" had been plaguing miners for over a year, as the equipment had to be continually cleaned of the heavy, sticky stuff so it could be discarded.2 What they didn't realize is they had been throwing away a fortune. When the clay was sent to an assay office in Grass Valley, CA. it was found that each ton of the material would yield $876 in gold, but it held nearly $3,000 in silver! 3 Because the miners only knew about gold, they had been throwing away a fortune.

I think Christians can sometimes suffer from the same problem. It is no doubt that all believers revere the Bible as God's word and it is the most valuable thing we have to know and learn from God. Yet, many Christians only focus on the Bible and they don't learn about the rich heritage of Christian history. Christians of past ages have studies, learned, and argued for their faith even as we do today. They have already worked through manty of the difficulties that we believe are modern in nature and they offer a wisdom and insight into the scriptures that shouldn't be overlooked.

 In fact, many of the supposed "new" arguments against God have been addressed centuries ago. For example, take the Richard Dawkins quote from his 2002 TED Talk: "We are all atheists in most of the gods humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."4 This is merely rhetoric, and it isn't new.

 In the second century AD, the Christian Athenagoras wrote to the Emperor of Rome complaining about how Christians are being unfairly persecuted. One charge leveled against them was that Christians were atheists, because they didn't believe in the pantheon of Gods. Here's Athenagoras' reply:
As regards, first of all, the allegation that we are atheists—for I will meet the charges one by one, that we may not be ridiculed for having no answer to give to those who make them—with reason did the Athenians adjudge Diagoras guilty of atheism… [for he] openly declared that there was no God at all. But to us, who distinguish God from matter, and teach that matter is one thing and God another, and that they are separated by a wide interval (for that the Deity is uncreated and eternal, to be beheld by the understanding and reason alone, while matter is created and perishable), is it not absurd to apply the name of atheism? …since our doctrine acknowledges one God, the Maker of this universe, who is Himself uncreated (for that which is does not come to be, but that which is not) but has made all things by the Logos which is from Him, we are treated unreasonably in both respects, in that we are both defamed and persecuted.5
In his letter to the Emperor, Athenagoras rightly refutes the charge of atheism with respect to the Roman gods as absurd. The Christians do believe in an uncreated being who is the source of all other things. Therefore, Athenagoras demonstrates the ridiculousness of the argument that not believing in Roman gods would make one an atheist "among other gods." That isn't what atheism means. It means one believes in no god of any kind whatsoever. To claim that I am an atheist concerning "most of the gods" is as much an error as claiming Dawkins is a creationist because he believes most of our modern technology has been intelligently designed. Athenagoras refuted Dawkins' point before 190AD!

This is simply one example of the riches that await the Christian who seeks to study the history of Christian thought. While the Bible is spiritual gold, we ignore far too much silver simply because we don't take the time to dig in and see how valuable such studies can be. Don't make that mistake.

References

1. James, Ronald. "Comstock Mining District." Online Nevada Encyclopedia. Online Nevada Encyclopedia, 20 Apr. 2009. Web. 09 Dec. 2015. http://www.onlinenevada.org/articles/comstock-mining-district.
2. Speed, James. "Discovering the World's Greatest Silver Properties." The Magazine of Wall Street. Vol. 21. 13 Oct, 1917. 212. Web.
3. James, 2009.
4. Dawkins, Richard. "Militant Atheism." TEDTalks. TED Conferences, LLC, Feb. 2002. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_dawkins_on_militant_atheism?language=en#t-801650.
5. Athenagoras of Athens. "A Plea for the Christians." New Advent. Kevin Knight, 2009. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Who is God? Infinite, Personal, Transcendent



In his masterful book The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, James Sire begins by explaining Christian theism, and there he starts with the basic attributes of God. As Sire notes, it used to be that everyone knew what the concept of God was within the western world, but that cannot be taken as true any more. People think they know what the concept of the Christian God entails, but they either misunderstand or leave out key characteristics. In the passage below, Sire offers a definition of the God of the Bible and then unpacks it:
Prime reality is the infinite, personal God revealed in the Holy Scriptures. This God is triune, transcendent and immanent, omniscient, sovereign, and good.

Let's break this proposition down into its parts.

God is infinite. This means that he is beyond scope, beyond measure, as far as we are concerned. No other being in the universe can challenge him in his nature. All else is secondary. He has no twin but is alone the be-all and end-all of existence. He is, in fact, the only self-existent being," as he spoke to Moses out of the burning bush: "I AM WHO I AM" (Ex 3:14). He is in a way that none else is. As Moses proclaimed, "Hear, 0 Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD" (Deut 6:4 KJV). SO God is the one prime existent, the one prime reality and, as will be discussed at some length later, the one source of all other reality.

God is personal. This means God is not mere force or energy or existent "substance." God is personal. Personality requires two basic characteristics: self-reflection and self-determination. In other words, God is personal in that he knows himself to be (he is self-conscious) and he possesses the characteristics of self-determination (he "thinks" and "acts").

One implication of the personality of God is that he is like us. In a way, this puts the cart before the horse. Actually, we are like him, but it is helpful to put it the other way around at least for a brief comment. He is like us. That means there is Someone ultimate who is there to ground our highest aspirations, our most precious possession-personality. But more on this under proposition 3.

Another implication of the personality of God is that God is not a simple unity, an integer. He has attributes, characteristics. He is a unity, yes, but a unity of complexity.

Actually, in Christian theism (not Judaism or Islam) God is not only personal but triune. That is, "within the one essence of the Godhead we have to distinguish three 'persons' who are neither three gods on the one side, not three parts or modes of God on the other, but coequally and coeternally God." The Trinity is certainly a great mystery, and I cannot even begin to elucidate it now. What is important here is to note that the Trinity confirms the communal, "personal" nature of ultimate being. God is not only there-an actually existent being; he is personal and we can relate to him in a personal way. To know God, therefore, means knowing more than that he exists. It means knowing him as we know a brother or, better, our own father.

God is transcendent. This means God is beyond us and our world. He is otherly. Look at a stone: God is not it; God is beyond it Look at a man: God is not he; God is beyond him. Yet God is not so beyond that he bears no relation to us and our world. It is likewise true that God is immanent, and this means that he is with us. Look at a stone: God is present. Look at a person: God is present. Is this, then, a contradiction? Is theism nonsense at this point? I think not.

My daughter Carol, when she was five years old, taught me a lot here. She and her mother were in the kitchen, and her mother was teaching her about God's being everywhere. So Carol asked, "Is God in the living room?"

"Yes," her mother replied.

"Is he in the kitchen?"

God's goodness means then, first, that there is an absolute and personal standard of righteousness (it is found in God's character) and, second, that there is hope for humanity (because God is love and will not abandon his creation). These twin observations will become especially significant as we trace the results of rejecting the theistic worldview.1
One point that Sire makes in his summation at the top that he didn't draw out beneath is that God is the prime reality of all things. So many people today make the mistake of including God within some larger reality of existence. That's what fosters questions like "If God is the answer to 'who made the universe' then who made God?" That's a category error. God is the starting point. Without God, existence doesn't even make sense.

I highly recommend Sire's book. It's a great way to understand how worldviews affect not only how one views God, but how it changes the way one interprets all of reality.

References

Sire, James W. The Universe next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1997. Print. 28-30.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

'Secular' Nations are Coasting Off Christian Fuel



"No one need fear that the Titanic will go down. Even though all her former compartments and bulkheads were stove in by the iceberg, she would still float indefinitely. She might go down a little at the bow, but she would float. I am free to say that no matter how bad the collision with an iceberg, the Titanic would float. She is an unsinkable ship." 1

Those words were offered by P.A.S. Franklin, Vice President of the International Mercantile Marine on the morning of April 15, after reports started coming in that the R.M.S. Titanic stuck an iceberg and was in need of rescue. Franklin assured the public that would be rescued. Of course, his assumption was completely wrong, as was the Titanic's captain who proceeded at full speed even though the Titanic had received six separate warnings of heavy ice before she was struck. Captain Smith, a seasoned leader, knew of the ice in the water before he left port.2 Both men were assuming future success on their past history. Smith even previously said that modern shipbuilding had "gone beyond" any condition causing a ship to sink. 3

Christianity is What Shaped These Societies

I offer the example of the Titanic not to berate the assumptions of the men above, but that they should serve as a caution. Today, we recognize such statements as hubris, perhaps even ridiculous but hindsight is easy. When I read things like Phil Zuckerman's claim that secular societies fare better than religious ones, I have to shake my head. Zuckerman offers several statistics, both on a state level within the U.S. and on a global scale comparing 'secular' nations to those whose citizens are religiously engaged and concludes that on many different benchmarks, such as economic indicators and reported levels of happiness, the secular nations are better. Scandinavian countries are held high in Zuckerman's writings as prime examples of secular nations. While that may be a debatable point, I will grant that for all practical purposes, the Scandinavian nations have a dominant secular population.

I've already discussed the first problem with the claim: what counts as 'better?' Today, I want to take on the heart of the matter, though. These secular nations (and the less religious states Zuckerman offers) are as successful as they are not because they've turned secular, but because of the centuries of Christian history and values that have shaped them into what they are today. It is the Christian tradition that has made the Scandinavian countries value all people as equals. Before Christianity, the Viking culture saw pillaging monasteries of far off countries acceptable and slavery was part of the business. It took some 150-250 years for the Scandinavian nations to convert to Christianity, and during that time the culture gradually changed to adopt Christian principles.4

Jumping to Conclusions

The length of time it takes to change a culture fits appropriately with sociologist Robert Woodberry's findings on how Christian missionaries positively affected third world nations. What makes his study so significant is that Woodberry has researched his claim so carefully no critic can find a hole in it. You can read more here, but as Christianity Today summarized:
Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.

In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple—if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.5
Zuckerman has offered his criteria for "better" by using measures like a nation's democracy, the equality of women, or its level of literacy. But these are results of the Christian worldview. So are education, the value for children and orphans, and the idea that all men are created equal. The secular nations that Zuckerman highlights have had a long history of Christianity as their primary societal driver. There simply has not been enough time for secular values that Christians warn of to do the damage they can ultimately inflict.

Once the Titanic struck the iceberg, it didn't sink right away. It took over two hours before she went down and in the immediate minutes after the hit, I would imagine certain crew would still have voiced the same hope as P.A.S. Franklin. Their assumptions were equally wrong. I've shown how the so-call model secular nations have devalued life already. The question for us today is where will this new secularism take us when enough time has passed for the culture to be drowning in it?

References

1. "She Cannot Sink, Says Official of White Star Line" The Evening World (New York, NY) 15 Apr. 1912, Final ed.: 1. Print. PDF version available at http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030193/1912-04-15/ed-1/seq-1.pdf
2. Elverhøi, Peter. "There's a lot of ice out there, old boy." Acquitting the Iceberg. Encyclopedia Titanica, 15 Oct. 2013. Web. 04 Nov. 2015. http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/acquitting-the-iceberg~chapter-6.html.
3. Butler, Daniel Allen. Unsinkable: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 1998. Print. 48.
4. Stone, Ryan. "The Long Goodbye to Scandinavian Paganism and the Christianization of Three Realms." Ancient Origins. Ancient Origins, 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 04 Nov. 2015. http://www.ancient-origins.net/opinion-guest-authors/long-goodbye-scandinavian-paganism-and-christianization-three-realms-002212.
5. Dilley, Andrea Palpant. "The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries." Christianity Today. 1/8/2014. https://www.disciplenations.org/media/CT-Article-On-Missionaries-And-Global-Democracy.pdf  Accessed 6/9/2014.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Deconstructing the "Atheist Nations are Better" Meme



Yesterday I wrote about a spate of memes on the Internet that assert countries with atheist majorities are faring better than those whose cultures reflect a religious majority. In that article, I distinguished that the concept of "better" is used pretty loosely, as suicides and the value of life itself seems to be much lower in Scandinavian counties offered as examples of secular states. Today, I'd like to approach some of the other problems with the assertion to provide a fuller response to those who would believe such hype.

Secularism is not Atheism

It must be mentioned at the outset that many of the memes out there are not accurate in their presentation of the facts. For example, the Iceland meme defines Iceland as an "Atheist majority population." According to the CIA World Factbook, the population of Iceland is actually "Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (official) 73.8%, Roman Catholic 3.6%, Reykjavik Free Church 2.9%, Hafnarfjorour Free Church 2%, The Independent Congregation 1%, other religions 3.9% (includes Pentecostal and Asatru Association), none 5.6%, other or unspecified 7.2% (2015 est.)."1 Taking the Nones and the unspecified together, it means 12.8% of Iceland's nearly 332,000 citizens don't identify with any religious group.  That isn't even close to a majority.

The question changes if one makes a distinction between a secular culture and an atheist culture. Even sociologist Phil Zuckerman, from whose research most of these ideas were taken, tried to be a bit more careful in his definitions, defining an atheist as "someone who doesn't believe in God and/or finds the very concept of God meaningless or incoherent" and a secular person as "someone who is non-religious, irreligious, or generally uninterested in, indifferent to, or oblivious to religious beliefs, activities, and organizations."2 As Zuckerman rightly notes, there are a wide range of beliefs, self-identifications, and even overlapping views. So, while Iceland may have a population that is uninterested in religious beliefs (we don't know if that's the case as no statistics are provided in the meme), it cannot be claimed to be atheist.

Selective Sampling

In another article written for Psychology Today, Zuckerman claims "those democratic nations today that are the most secular, such as Scandinavia, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, etc., are faring much better on nearly every single indicator of well-being imaginable than the most religious nations on earth today such as Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador, Yemen, Malawi, Pakistan, the Philippines, etc."3 Interestingly, why did Zuckerman include the qualifier "democratic" in his assessment of secular nations but not of the religious ones? What about the human rights of the citizens of China or North Korea? Here, he doesn't say, but he does mention it in his other work. There, Zuckerman admits such nations "do miserably on various indicators of societal well-being" but he blames this on the dictatorships themselves.4 He may very well be right, but then what to do with including nations like Colombia and Yemen in the list above?

Also, while Zuckerman's article is written to counter what he says is a charge by "religious conservatives," the claim is too broad.  I don't claim that being religious or a belief in God is all one needs for a society to thrive. It is specifically Christian ethics and a society influenced by a Christian worldview that we must discuss.  Islamic nations have a whole host of other problems they must deal with.

In the next article, I focus specifically on the conclusion offered by Zuckerman that countries like the Scandinavian nations are faring better due to their secularism. For now, know that such claims rely more on assumption than fact.

References

1. "Iceland." CIA World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency, 28 Oct. 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2015. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ic.html.
2. Zuckerman, Phil. "Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions." Sociology Compass 3.6 (2009): 951. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.
3. Zuckerman, Phil. "Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-secular-life/201410/secular-societies-fare-better-religious-societies.
4. Zuckerman, 2009.

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