We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Christ is What Really Matters

In a recent posting entitled, "Orthodoxy and Why It Matters," the evangelical pundit, Charles Colson, laments findings reported in the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey  that, "57 percent of self-identified Evangelical Christians agreed with this statement: 'Many religions can lead to eternal life.'"  (For the record, 83% of the study's mainline respondents also agreed with that statement).

Chuck Colson
Colson sees this statistic as being clear evidence of what is wrong with much of American Christianity today: it fails the test of orthodoxy.  Jesus, Colson reasons, said that he is the only way to salvation (John 14:6),  and he is either right or wrong; there's not a third choice.  Furthermore, only an absolute faith will thrive, and in order for their churches to thrive Christians need to rediscover the "essentials of the faith."  These are, he writes, the "essentials that true Christians have always believed—the minimum, irreducible, non-negotiable tenets of Christianity, without which one cannot be a true Christian, and without which the Church cannot be the Church."

Colson's essentials and his case rests on his interpretation of Jesus' apparent claim in John 14:6 that no one goes to God but through Christ.  There are some other biblical passages that seem to make the same claim, notably John 3:16.  But, inevitably, Colson has to cherry-pick passages in order to make his point.  There is no dissertation in the Bible saying that only those who believe the things he believes are saved.  The problem with cherry picking is, of course, that one can use it to prove most anything in the Bible that one wants to including the "fact" that the Bible supports universal salvation.  Luke 3:6, as one example of several such passages, quotes John the Baptist quoting Isaiah that when the paths of the Lord are made strait in Christ "All mankind will see God's salvation." (TEV)  It's clear, it's in the Bible: all humanity will be saved.  Now, Colson would say that this is a misuse of the Bible, and he would be right.  It cherry-picks a passage to prove a position while ignoring the complexities of the passage itself, which is precisely the problem with Colson's first, foundational point.  It is based on a cherry-picked passage and ignores the complexities of context and interpretation of the passage.

A better approach is to start with Christ as the four gospels portray him and work from there.  On that basis, we can make a case for universal salvation.  Christ proclaimed repeatedly that when the Kingdom comes it will be sinners, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, and the like that will sit at his table.  The orthodox of Jesus' day—the wealthy, educated, and pious elite—believed these folks to be impious, sinful people who were being punished by God, but Christ disagreed.  The very people that the orthodox believed were damned were those Christ said will sit at his table in the Kingdom.  Indeed, Colson's judgmental and, frankly, arrogant tone sounds suspiciously like the judgmental, arrogant Pharisees and Sadducees who were at tragic odds with Christ.

It is because of Christ (as well as the requirements of justice pure and simple), as I have written before in these postings, that we ordain women in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in spite of clear scriptural warrant against doing so.  Cherry-picking biblical literalists have cherry-picked reasons to oppose the ordination of women.  The example of Christ leads us, however, to reject unjust and unloving interpretations of Scripture even when its words can be used to make the case for unjust and unloving conclusions.

Colson is correct that, "Jesus Himself was very clear."  He was clear by the way he lived and in the whole body of his teachings. He was clearly on the side of those that the pious orthodox folks judged as enemies of God.  Jesus clearly saw that those whom the orthodox condemned were, in fact, his chosen people.  This is to say that Colson's basic assumption that Jesus damns "unbelievers" to eternal hellfire does not stand when viewed from the whole person of Jesus Christ, his works, his message, and his ministry.  It is not orthodoxy that matters.  It is Christ who does.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Prayer for Memorial Day

Mr. Derek Davies, a member of First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, gave the following prayer during worship yesterday at FPC.   Derek and his wife Loraine lost their son, Saemus, who was killed in action in Iraq in 2006.  Parts of it are drawn with thanks from a prayer entitled, "A Memorial Day Prayer," by the Rev. Dick Kozelka.  May God's peace rest on the families of those who have died in the line of duty, whatever their calling.  Amen.

Eternal God
Creator of years, of centuries,
Lord of whatever is beyond time,
Maker of all species and master of all history --
How shall we speak to you
from our smallness and inconsequence?

But, thankfully, you have called us to worship you
in spirit and in truth;
You have dignified us with love and loyalty;
You have lifted us up with your kindness.

Tomorrow, we remember those who have died
serving their countries in the futility of combat.
There is none of us who will not come to bereavement and separation,
when all the answers we are offered
fail the question of why did we lose so many, so young?

Please help us to honor the warrior, not the war.

Guide all the leaders, of all the nations and all the faiths, of all the world, to make decisions that result in peace, not war.
Help us, particularly the children, to pick up books and ideas and discussion, not the weapons of war.
May the children of the world find justice, prosperity and compassion.

Bless all those who suffer who are caught in war zones.
And God, lift the hearts of those
for whom this Memorial Day is not just a holiday diversion,
but a painful memory and continued sense of loss.

We believe that you will provide for us
as others have been provided with the fulfillment of those words of Jesus:
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
We pray this in Jesus' name.  Amen.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Grace & Graciousness

"I say this in true love.  I wish that those who believe in the doctrine of grace would be more gracious."

Rev. Rick Warren
quoted in "Rick Warren Addresses Critics on Doctrine, Purpose Driven Life"
May 27, 2011

Good News for Cattle is Good News for People

On May 25th, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) announced that rinderpest, a deadly virus plaguing cattle and several wild species of animals, has been entirely eradicated around the world.  The only other virus successfully eradicated worldwide is small pox, which was fully eradicated by 1980.  Although never a problem in the Americas, rinderpest has been a cause of famines in Europe and Asia since before Roman times.  This achievement probably won't get much attention in the media, but in an age when the world's population is growing rapidly, it is good news for poorer folks around the globe.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Göbekli Tepe: Religion & the Rise of Civilization

In a 2009 posting entitled, "Scientists See God on the Brain," Jeremy Hsu writes that recent studies suggest that religious thinking is linked to the higher functions of the brain and is part of our mental equipment.  Religion is not, that is, a more recent invention designed to solve one problem or another.  According to this theory of the relationship of religion to the brain, we are hardwired for religion.  It is part of who we are.

A T-shaped pillar at Göbekli Tepe
A National Geographic article entitled, "The Birth of Religion," lends some credence to this theory.  Archeologists have discovered the oldest known monumental religious center in the world, located at Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh) in eastern Turkey.  The site dates back some 11,000 years to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) era and consists of twenty or more rings of large T-shaped stone pillars, weighing several tons each, many of which are covered with carvings depicting various wild animals.  It is an amazing site.  Archeologists estimate that the construction of any one ring would have required 500 workers.  The rings were built over several millennia, with a newer ring sometimes being built on top of an older one.

The thing is that Göbekli Tepe predates the development of agriculture and the rise of settled civilizations.  The people that built it were hunter-gatherers who, according to previous archeological dogma, could not build something like this.  Older theories assumed that only a large, sophisticated, agriculturally-based civilization would have the resources and technical knowledge necessary to build such an impressive site.  They were, obviously, wrong.

Göbekli Tepe excavation site
Archeologists also assumed that organized religion was an invention of later civilizations, which used it as a social control mechanism or, maybe, as a way for people to deal with the stress of civilized life.  Göbekli Tepe, however, provides powerful evidence that PPN peoples developed organized religion before the rise of civilization.  There's more: the dig also strongly suggests that organized religion not only pre-dated civilization but also may well have been a factor in its establishment.  It appears that over the centuries the builders of Göbekli Tepe had to develop new food sources and a more settled life in order to live near to their monumental, religious center.  They invented civilization so they could continue to occupy their monumental, religious center.  It may not be too much to say, tentatively, that in this case civilization did not invent religion for social ends so much as religion invented civilization for sacred ends.

That conclusion makes sense theologically.  If, in fact, God initiated and remains present in the evolution of the universe and Earth, then it is reasonable to think that spirituality and the sacred are powerful, God-given human impulses that are a part of our evolutionary heritage.  Supporting evidence comes from the study of chimpanzees, our close evolutionary cousins.  Primatologist Jane Goodall is convinced that chimps display, "an unadulterated sense of spirituality."  God, in sum, created us as spiritual beings, and the more science studies us, our past, and the realities of our universe, the more evidence of that fact it will uncover.  Amen.

The Mainline Hippocampus

A recent study at Duke University on the effects of religious affiliation on the region of the brain called the hippocampus came up with some weird results.  In a report entitled, "Religious Factors and Hippocampal Atrophy in Late Life," the researchers report that evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and those who report no religious affiliation show "significantly greater" deterioration in older people in the size of the hippocampus ("greater hippocampal atrophy") than in mainline Protestants.  As the abstract to the report notes, "Hippocampal volume has been linked to clinical outcomes, such as depression, dementia, and Alzheimer's Disease."

The researchers theorize that evangelical Christians, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation experience greater stress because of their minority status religiously, and stress is known to cause "hippocampal atrophy."  One can't help but wonder, however, if that makes sense.  The study's sample was taken from the Southeastern U.S., where evangelical Christianity is hardly a minority religion.  It was also dominated by evangelical and mainline Protestants with relatively few Catholics or people with no religious affiliation taking part.  The stress of being a minority doesn't seem to fit the situation.

One has to wonder, more generally, if the level of stress in being a member of a supposedly minority faith in the U.S. is really all that serious.  For Catholics, there may be greater stress associated with the fact that a large number of Catholics are immigrants and members of ethnic minorities, inherently more stressful life situations.  Their religious minority status might contribute to the stress, but it wouldn't seem to be a primary factor.

IF these findings are confirmed by further studies, it is hard to understand why mainline Protestants would show less hippocampal atrophy than the other groups.  The researchers are clear that social status and other factors were not involved.  The only thing I can think of is the fact that mainline Protestant worship and faith tend to be fairly cerebral (by comparison), which may have a positive impact on the hippocampus.  Mainline Protestants may be using those parts of the brain that stimulate thought and help slow memory loss more than the other groups.  It's a theory.  Or, perhaps there was some other factor involved that the research team has yet to identify.


Friday, May 27, 2011

The Spiral of Materialism

From Inward/Outward:

"The spiral of materialism is eternal and never ends.... The materialist is never satisfied. For the heart is not made full or satisfied by any, or even all, of the things that the religion of materialism and its preachers of advertising want so desperately to sell us. "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be," warned Jesus. And the treasures that lead to compassionate living are not buyable because they are less objects than they are experiences.... Greed never asks when is enough, enough? It knows nothing of limits. Therefore, it knows nothing of the true pleasures that life is about. It is utterly ignorant of celebration."

Matthew Fox
Source: A Spirituality Named Compassion

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Divorce Rates - A Government Report

A recent CNN posting summarizes a U.S. Census Bureau report issued this month. The report is entitled, "Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2009."  According to the posting, the report shows that numbers of younger women who have gone through a divorce have been dropping by as much as 20% to 30% depending on their age group.  Divorce rates for older women are going up, reflecting the previous trend of the 1970s and before when divorce rates shot up and it looked like the institution of marriage was coming to an end.  It didn't, and now it is making a strong comeback.

The posting sums up a number of factors leading to this drop in divorces.  Couples are waiting longer before they marry.  A larger number of people, furthermore, never do marry even though they are in relationships.  That is to say we no longer think that "everybody has to get married," which was the way earlier generations thought before the 1960s.  Another interesting factor is that more women are better educated and education correlates with divorce.  The higher the level of education the lower the rate of divorce.

At the moment, we have this image that our world is falling apart, but in fact in many ways it isn't.  There are today fewer wars between nations than has been the case before.  Levels of violent crimes have been dropping in the U.S.  World-wide, the number of automobile fatalities have been decreasing.  The latest word is that there may be a vaccine for AIDS within three years or so.  And it cannot but be seen as good news for our children and our society at large that families are increasingly stable and durable.  One suspects that they are also happier because there is no longer the social pressure to get married whatever.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

With Pride

On a State Visit in Great Britain
It continues to amaze me that this handsome couple could be and are the President and First Lady of the United States.  Perhaps the day will come when we have finally moved beyond racial politics and a now suppressed but still real fixation with skin color.  But that day has not yet arrived, which makes the presidential election of 2008 such a momentous one.  President Obama's substantial victory was a small but important step away from racialism.  For a moment, we transcended our politics.  The racialist fear-mongering of the so-called tea party and the ugly politics-as-usual games that have followed since November 4, 2008, do not detract from that moment.  We did good that day.  We have a right to be proud.  And I am proud that this couple represents me in the eyes of the world.

God & the Big Bang

"The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation.  It forces the conclusion that nature had a definite beginning.  I cannot see how nature could have created itself.  Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that."
Francis S. Collins
The Language of God,  p. 67

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Our Fish vs. Their Fish

I couldn't pass this one up.  In preparing yesterday's post on the idea of a reverse God-of-the-gaps, I came across this image (here) of the Christian fish symbol (an ancient symbol from Greek for fish, ichthys, which was taken to stand for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour."), labelled as "Truth," eating the Darwinian fish parody of the Christian fish.  The image beautifully images the current war going on between religion-ism and science-ism, a subset of the larger culture war engulfing our nation.  Somewhere on line there is probably a Darwin fish eating the Christian fish.

One side labels itself "Truth" and eats (destroys, consumes) the other.  There's no room for dialogue, no place for the old-fashioned concept of a market place of ideas—just warfare between two ideologies masking themselves as "true" religion and "true" science.  We really do need to find another way.  I guess that's the point.  Religion is about faith.  Science is about investigation.  Neither is inherently an ideology, but protagonists on both sides have turned them into battlefield ideologies.  And the rule is that war always has unintended consequences, rarely good.  We need another way.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Link of Interest

A member of First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, recently wrote an excellent letter to the editor of the Watertown Daily Times concerning the birther controversy.  You can read it at this link.  Good one, Pat!

Reverse God-of-the-Gaps

In his 2006 lecture, "The Origin of the Universe," cosmologist and physicist Stephen Hawking discusses the history of scientific views of the origins of the universe.  Until the 1920s, scientists generally accepted Aristotle's philosophical argument that the universe is eternal and without a moment of creation based on the premise that things eternal are superior to things created.  The findings of astronomy and physics, however, forced scientists to begin to change their minds, and in 1965 they obtained conclusive proof that the universe was created with the discovery of "a faint background of microwaves throughout space."

Hawking's larger conclusion is that these microwaves form a map of the sky.  He writes, "So look well at the map of the microwave sky.  It is the blue print for the structure in the universe.  We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe. "  Then, tongue in cheek, he continues, "God really does play dice."

That is to say, "God" isn't really in control of the ongoing process of creation but, rather, like a gambler rolled the dice and our present universe is what came up. Hawking has been quoted in a more recent news posting as saying, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.  Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.  It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”  Creation is a spontaneous event.  Once it happened random forces were at work.  We don't need God to explain any of this.

Let's see: science by definition excludes supernatural explanations of natural phenomena.  Hawking, as a scientist, discerns entirely natural explanations for the origin of the universe.  He sees no scientific reason for God to have created the universe and therefore God is not the creator of the universe.  He does not see, in other words, what the blinders of his discipline preclude him from seeing and therefore what he does not see does not exist.  This is nothing more than reverse God-of-the-gaps thinking.  Whereas believers have often asserted the presence of God in the gaps where science has not yet made discoveries, here we have a scientist asserting the absence of God because he doesn't see God using the cognitive tools of science, which by definition exclude God from the scientific equation to start with.  Science creates a God-gap and then scientists assert that since they don't see God therefore they don't need God to explain the natural phenomena they study.

It is understandable that large majorities of scientists reject religion, but one wishes they would just leave theology alone altogether.  Not believing in God, they make really lousy theologians.  Of course they don't see God's hand in the origin of the universe.  As scientists they can't.  As people of faith, we do.  And, actually, we are thankful for the findings of science because they only further substantiate how incredibly awe-inspiring God's creation is.  But, come on, guys (& gals), you do your science thing and let us do our theology thing.  The problem is, of course, that some scientists are engaged in a war with fundamentalist religionists and feel a need to lob their bombshells into theological territory.  All they produce for their trouble, however, is theological gibberish.

Review Notice

There is a new book review on Rom Phra Khun Reviews. The book is  Not God's Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith by Holly Ordway.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Today is International We're Still Here Day

Harold Egbert Camping
As many readers know,  ultra-conservative Christian radio broadcaster, Harold Camping predicted some time ago that the Christ's second coming was going to take place at 6:00 p.m. last evening, May 21st.  He based his prediction on a complex set of "computations" dervided from various cherry-picked Bible passages.  The computations (using the word loosely) are described in a Time NewsFeed posting entitled, "By the Numbers: How May 21, 2011, Was Calculated to Be Judgment Day."  Camping is so ultra-right wing that other evangelical and conservative groups and scholars—even those who themselves believe that the end times are coming soon—made light of his prediction.  (CNN interviewed one conservative Texas pastor who basically said that Camping is wrong, but if he's right I'm ready).

Robert Fitzpatrick - believer
One cannot help but wince at this sort of thing.  Camping's predictions (this is his second time, the first being 1994) only serve to make the Christian faith look silly.  How can anyone take this kind of religion seriously?  We don't, of course, but as people of faith we tend to get lumped in with "people of faith" like him.  His use of the Bible, furthermore, only perpetuates the misuses and misunderstandings regarding the nature of scripture that we must already contend with.  It is sad to see the Bible used to "prove" outlandish pet theories and narrow ideologies.  Finally, we can only shake our heads sadly at those, such as New Yorker Robert Fitzpatrick, who allow themselves to be duped by the likes of Camping and to invest their life savings, as Fitzpatrick did, advertising his message.

A parishioner recently asked me about the description of the last days in II Timothy 3:1-9.  He noted that it sounds a lot like things going on today.  It does indeed, but it also sounds like the 1960s, the 1930s, and numerous other periods in human history.  Honestly, the first generation of Christians were wrong about the end times, which they believed were coming soon. Apocalyptic thinking was "in the air" in their times, and they appropriated it for their faith. Their descriptions of the end times in and of themselves provide, however, are still useful to us.  They provide excellent portraits of how human brokenness affects us and our world.  It serves no purpose, however, to perpetuate this sad, silly game of predicting the second coming will come on this day or that.  Enough already.

Oh, and welcome to the Day After. Hope you didn't give the car away.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thinking About God

Prof. Stephen Hawking
In June 2010, ABC journalist Diane Sawyer interviewed the renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking.  In the course of the interview, the question of God came up, and Hawking told Sawyer that,
"'What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God,' Hawking told Sawyer. 'They made a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible.'"
He's right.  Given the almost limitless size of the universe, a human-like God who is a person in the sense that we usually understand personhood is impossible.  In biblical times, when the Earth was believed to be flat, covered by a dome from which the celestial bodies hung, and encompassed by vast oceans below and above, it was quite possible to believe that a "human-like person" could create the universe and rule it from heaven.  Hawking is correct in saying that kind of a God seems not possible.

Biblical view of the Universe
This being the case, some conclude that there is no God.  Some conclude that there may be a "god-principle," but there is no personal God. Tens of millions of believers of various religions, meanwhile, maintain their firm belief in a personal God.  Effectively, they still live in the tiny universe of ancient times.  They know that universe doesn't exist, but they have not adjusted their thinking about God.  When atheist scientists ridicule the notion of God, it is this old-fashioned God they find so amusing and impossible.

There is another way to think about God and the universe, however, using both modern cosmology and traditional theology as if they are the two lenses of a pair of glasses.  Together they bring God into a single focus as being at one and the same time Beyond all of our conceptions of what God might be and yet Present in ways we can experience personally.  On the one hand, it is reasonable to think that Something existed before the universe and caused it to happen—created it.  That Something, logically, is God.  On the other hand, as people of faith we know that there is also Something greater than us that still touches us in ways that can be deeply moving and personal.  We know that prayers are answered.  We know that people of all cultures have mystical experiences.  We know that there are aspects of life that cannot be explained by mechanistic evolutionary theory.  That experientially present Something is God.

When we look through the twin lenses of science and faith, then, we see God who is both Beyond and Present, both transcendently universal and profoundly personal.  Amen.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Search for the Historical Judas

"The Judas Kiss" by Doré.
 In May 2006, the National Geographic did a feature story on the newly discovered and translated Gospel of Judas entitled appropriately enough "The Judas Gospel."  For a brief moment, some thought that this new "gospel" (it's not really a gospel), which dates back to within about 100 years of Jesus, might force us to reconsider the entire story of Jesus' last week and death on the cross. The Gospel of Judas, after all, presents a very different picture of  Judas.  There he is the only disciple who truly understands who Jesus was and received special secret instruction from Jesus.  In the end, however, the Gospel of Judas proved to be a tempest in a teapot.  The last week in the life of Jesus was not rewritten.  Christians were not forced to readjust their faith.  The world went on as before.  The Gospel of Judas doesn't even actually "shed new light on history's most hated man" in spite of the claims of the National Geographic.

In an article entitled,  "Why Did Judas Do it?", written at the time, James Martin observed that all we really know about Judas Iscariot historically is that he was one of Jesus' inner circle of disciples and that he handed Jesus over to the authorities.  We don't know what "Iscariot" means although there are a number of theories (speculations, really).  We don't know why Judas betrayed Jesus.  We don't even know how he died, since the New Testament gives two different versions.  Matthew writes that he hanged himself; the Book of the Acts says he fell and blew apart.

In its own time, the Gospel of Judas was rejected by most Christians as not being a true account of Jesus or Judas.  It may have been the product of a small sect or splinter group critical of the rest of the Christian movement and its leaders. The theology in the "gospel" is different, believing among other things that the God of the Hebrews is an inferior God and that Jesus is the Son of a the highest, true God, who did not create the spiritually inferior physical universe.

What the Gospel of Judas does reveal is that a century after Jesus Christians were already divided theologically.  Early Christians understood Christ in different ways and fought with each other about their views.  That is to say that the search for the historical Judas, like the quest for the historical Jesus brings us back to the early church.  It is through their writings and interpretations that we have access to the Jesus and Judas of history.  That is why the New Testament and especially the four gospels are so important to us: they are the only sources we have for our knowledge of  Christ.

Some Sources for the Gospel of Judas

Text of the The Gospel of Judas.
Eduard Iricinschi, Lance Jenott, and Philippa Townsend, "The Betrayer's Gospel".
Pheme Perkins, "Good News From Judas?"

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Not more than about five minutes after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, a debate broke out between those who believe in torture and those who don't.  The whole debate is based on doctrines, ideology, and belief systems.  The believers avow that torture provided the Obama Administration with "key" clues that led to finding and "taking out" bin Laden.  Their evidential base is slim, but they are sure they are right.  The anti-torture folks, working from the same slim evidentiary base are equally adamant that torture did not provide any clues at all.  It couldn't have.  Torture never results in trustworthy information.  You see, it's a matter of faith between those who believe in torture and those who don't.  The actual truth of the matter hardly seems to matter.

Both sides of the debate have missed the point.  Torture is a form of violence, whether it "works" or not.  Violence has ugly, hurtful, and unintended immoral consequences.  Always.  Unavoidable.  Violence spawns violence.  It is the breeding ground of hatred and revenge.  For those naive souls who believe that in this case "the ends justify the means," it seems not to sink in that the ends and the means are the same thing.  When we practice the violence of torture, we become the violence we practice.  In some rare instances, perhaps, we do have to "fight fire with fire," but the usual way of putting out fire is with its opposite, a fire retardant.  In 999+ out of a thousand cases, the only antidote for violence is its opposite, peace.

No sane, moral person tortures another person.  The consequences to the human spirit are beyond bearing for the both the person being tortured and the one doing the torture.  It requires insanity and a lack of morality to torture—the kind of insanity and immorality spawned by violence.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Answering Dr. Mohler

In a posting entitled, "Yet Another Tragedy in Mainline Protestantism," Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, criticizes the recent decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to modify its standards of ordination so that sexual orientation is no longer necessarily considered an issue in who is ordained as deacons, elders, and clergy.  He reprimands PC(USA) for in his estimation proclaiming the Lordship of Christ but denying the authority of the Bible.  It is his contention that the Bible clearly teaches that homosexuality is a sin, and he concludes, "This is yet another tragedy in the sad history of mainline Protestantism’s race toward total theological disaster."

We see things differently, Dr. Mohler.  We see that for centuries, self-proclaimed Bible believing Christians quoted the Bible to justify their persecution of Jews.  They insisted that the Bible "clearly teaches" that Jews killed Christ and therefore deserve to be persecuted.  For centuries, supposedly Bible believing Christians quoted the Bible to justify slavery.  They insisted that the Bible "clearly teaches" that the children of Ham are inferior, cursed, and deserving of slavery.  For millennia, these same so-called "Bible believing" Christians quoted the Bible to justify forcing women into second class citizenship in the church.  They insisted that the Bible "clearly teaches" that women are inferior to men.  They may not hold positions of authority in the church nor may they voice their opinions.  We see these things, we are appalled, and we will not be bound by unjust readings of scripture.

We reject such readings in light of the person of Jesus Christ.  We are convinced that God in Christ is just, compassionate, and intends peace for all of humanity and for creation.  In the person of Christ, we see a man who allowed a woman to sit at his feet as a disciple and included women in his inner circle of followers.  We see a man who touched lepers with a healing touch.  We see a Jewish man who spoke with a Samaritan woman and otherwise showed amazing acceptance of Samaritans.  He did not look down on the poor or the sick while the pious folks of his day despised Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors and other "sinners."  They judged women inferior.  They judged the sick as having done something evil to deserve their illness.  Jesus did not.  He looked on these "sinners" with compassion and sought to free them from the pharisaical chains of the pious.

We understand that some words in the Bible can be read in a certain way to justify persecution of Jews, blacks, women, and homosexuals.  We also understand that most of those words can be read in more than one way, and while you choose to read them in a way that justifies persecution we choose to read them in ways that justify compassion and justice.  We have friends and members in our churches who are faithful, committed Christians and who also happen to practice alternative lifestyles.  They tell us they did not choose their sexual orientation, and there is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting what they tell us.  Simple justice, in sum, required this change in our standards of ordination.  Christ's example gives us the motivation to do so.

If all of this is a tragedy that impels us toward "total theological disaster," then we embrace (celebrate, actually) the tragedy and the disaster.  But that isn't the case.  We remain followers of Christ, committed to realizing the Kingdom, and certain that we have taken one very small step in his name and under the inspiration of the Spirit in that direction.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Worship Attendance in Britain

It is widely understood that attendance at Christian worship and participation in church life is dwindling across Europe and much of the English-speaking world.  The statistics for northern Europe are especially grim.  But now comes word of a reversal in the decline in Britain.  The Church of England has just released data showing that worship attendance in its cathedrals rose by 7% last year and has been growing steadily for a decade at a rate of about 4% per year.  Mid-week services, special services, and baptisms have all shown similar growth. The Rev. Lynda Barley, Head of Research & Statistics for the Church of England, is quoted in a news release as saying,"The ministry of cathedrals is valued by many people. They have a treasured place in the heart of the nation and are actively used at key moments in individual lives and on public occasions."  That may well be, but it does not explain why attendance at cathedral worship is growing so steadily and significantly in the face of general decline elsewhere.

Is this growth an anomaly?  Does it portend a change in worship statistics generally for all churches in Britain?  We don't have answers to these questions at the moment, but something is going on in Britain worth keeping an eye on.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Beyond Suffering

A recent posting about the Rev. Adam Hamilton, brings to mind again one of the most difficult questions we face as Christians.  What role does God play in human suffering?  Hamilton is a Methodist pastor in Leawood, Kansas, and he  has recently published a timely book on God and suffering.   The posting describes Hamilton's struggle to understand the death of two close friends while he was in seminary.  He could not believe that God was punishing them and rejected the idea that God wanted them to "come home early."  In the wake of their deaths, he began to study the doctrine of divine providence, God's role in history generally and our personal lives in particular.  Recognizing that there are no easy answers to the question of suffering, Hamilton comes to what seems to be a "karmic" ("what goes around comes around") conclusion.  We live in a universe of cause and effect where there are unavoidable consequences for our actions.  The role of God is not to get us out of things but rather to help us work through them to better endings than we might have otherwise expected.  There are miracles, but in the course of things the daily miracles are those in which people of faith under the leading of the Spirit win through pain, suffering, and tragedy to a better place.

Suffering is a fact of life that, ultimately, we do not understand.  Why is the universe constructed this way?  Why does our particular biosphere here on the Earth involve so much "natural" violence, suffering, and things eating things?  Maybe someday we will gain an understanding of these things, but we haven't yet and aren't likely to any time soon.  What we have come to believe is that there is purpose to our suffering.  It is not in vain.  Indeed, it sets a course for our Christian lives, namely to be a people who lighten the loads of others, helping them live with and through their pain.  Pain shared is so often transformed, somehow, into something much more than merely pain endured.

God has created a universe in which suffering exists and physical pain is necessary.  We have to have pain to survive because of the warnings we get from our pain.  Individuals who cannot feel pain are at much greater risk than the rest of us.  Their "pain free" lives are not to be envied.  And, according to our Christian understanding of things, God submits God's self to the same experiences of pain that we go through.  Pain and suffering touch God as they touch us.  And out of the death of pain and suffering God brings resurrection—a renewal of life, of hope, and of purpose.  Why it has to be this way, we don't know.  We do know that there is something Beyond pain and suffering, which we have experienced in our lives from time to precious time.  Amen.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Capitalism & Christianity

According to data published by the Public Religion Research Institute, a "plurality of Americans believe capitalism is at odds with Christian values."  As the graph (taken from the news posting) shows, some 44% of Americans agree with the statement that capitalism is at odds with Christian values while 36% disagree.  The report notes that a large number of Democrats agreed with the proposition while a less substantial but still large number of Republicans did not.  Independents were split nearly evenly on the question.

The data published on the PRRI website also shows that roughly six in ten Americans believe that the growing gap between rich and poor is one of the biggest problems our nation faces.  Even more (about 2/3rds) agree that wealthier Americans should pay more taxes than the rest of us.

These results are remarkable given our society's overwhelming commitment to the capitalist economic system, at least in principle if not in practice.  They also reinforce the sense that conservative and liberal Americans tend to live in significantly different worlds.  Our views on such things as economics and our understanding of our faith are both driven by our larger worldview.  The tragedy is that we are even less able to talk across the gap between us than were previous generations.  We all know this is true but don't seem to be able to do anything about it.

Stephen Prothero on Bin Laden and Jesus

Stephen Prothero makes some hard points in his posting entitled, "My Take: Poll on bin Laden's death reveals a disposable Jesus." It's worth a look.

Arctic Ice

Al Jazeera recently posted an article entitled, "Arctic Ice melt alarming," based on a report issued by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), an agency of the Arctic Council of nations, which includes the U.S.  According to the article, the last six years have been the warmest in history in the Arctic, and the Arctic ice cap is melting much faster than previously projected.  Within 30 to 40 years, the Arctic will be nearly ice free during the summer with dramatic consequences for the global environment.  This is not just a concern for a few tree-hugger types who have a "thing" for polar bears.  The Arctic melt-off is going to contribute to an equally dramatic rise in the sea level, which already threatens to sink coastal areas around the world and thus create hundreds of millions of climate change refugees in the decades to come.

With all of the attention global terrorism has received recently, it's worth noting that terrorism poses nowhere near the threat to the future that we are facing in global warming.  The social dislocation will be massive.  Yet, somehow, we just cannot come to grips with it all; and is so often the case, those who have the power and wealth to deal with the challenge are those who are least affected by its consequences.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review Notice

There is a new book review on Rom Phra Khun Reviews. The book is  Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by by Kathleen Norris.

An Important Moment for Presbyterians

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been debating the question of the ordination of gays and homosexuals for decades.  Its position was that only those who are celibate or in a marriage between a man and a woman could be ordained to any office in the Presbyterian church.  Changes to that position have been voted down repeatedly over the years.  Now, that has changed.  On Tuesday, May 10th, the Presbytery of the Twin Cities voted in favor of Amendment 10A to the Book of Order, which amendment removes any reference to sexual orientation from our denominational standards for ordination and leaves to the presbyteries and local churches the right to determine who they will and will not ordain.  (Local churches ordain elders and deacons.  Presbyteries ordain clergy.)  With its vote the Presbytery of the Twin Cities became the 87th presbytery to vote in favor of Amendment 10A, which means that it has passed the requisite number of presbyteries.  Having been approved by the General Assembly in 2010, it now becomes our denomination's law.

This is a welcome change.  Homosexual individuals and couples have long provided important, faithful leadership in our churches.  It is a matter of simple justice that they have the same opportunities of service as ordained leaders available to the rest of us.  I have supported this change because its is just and Christ-like.  Jesus consistently brought to the center those that others tried to push to the margins.  While this decision is going to cost PC(USA) still more members and churches, it is a good thing we have done.

See the news posting, "Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approves change in ordination standards," at pcusa.org. and a letter to the churches from the Office of the General Assembly for further information and insights. And for the media's treatment of this news story see the posting on CNN.

Osama bin Laden & the Kingdom of God

For some Osama bin Laden's death has brought "closure," for others there seems to be real triumph.  The reaction in the Middle East has been mostly, "Don't bother us, we're dealing with much more important things."  Some Pakistanis are defensive, others are defiant.  There have been, of course, the threats of mass destruction sung to the old tune of "Death to America."  Some Republicans have been almost gracious, others have had to swallow bile.  The Administration has quietly milked this cow for all its worth—with some dignity but a clear note of self-satisfaction.

In the religious media, meanwhile, there has been a much more subdued reaction to bin Laden's death—less talk of justice, of closure, of success and more of a sense of the inherent ongoing tragedy of 9/11 and the violent decade it spawned.  It's not that religious Americans are less patriotic but, rather, that they measure their patriotism in different ways—and with a much more mixed sense of loyalties.  Bin Laden's death seems, in a faith context, to have accomplished much less than  it did in a political or military context.  It was much less of a successful operation because, fundamentally, it didn't achieve justice or peace.

The death of Osama bin Laden did not achieve justice.  He was not tried by a jury of his peers but assassinated in a military operation of debatable international legality.  As we listened to various relatives of the victims of 9/ll, it is not even clear that for many of them it achieved closure.  They spoke with many different voices and expressed many different feelings.  Short term, we have been warned that the U.S. is less secure because of his death, and the jury is still out on whether or not it will make much difference in the war on terror, so-called.  It is hard to see how it makes the world more peaceful even by the world's narrow understanding of peace as "not violence."

The bottom line, for us as Christians, is that this death does not bring us closer to the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom is built on justice and peace.  There is a reason why the God of the Old Testament demanded vengeance as his sole right.  As long as vengeance is in human hands, the cycles of hate do not come to an end.  The other thing about God in the Old Testament is that he was "slow to anger" and quick to forgive, which is why divine vengeance is the only dependable kind.  It does not proceed by violence and has a whole different standard for "pay back."  In our context, in sum, there is little if anything to cheer about in bin Laden's death—much to be sad about.

Along these lines, please also see Erin Lane's posting, "Mourning the Dead."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A North Country Litany

Although written by a poet of the prairies, Kathleen Norris, this brief prayer/litany is apt for the North Country of New York as well.

Cold and chill, bless the Lord
Dew and rain, bless the Lord
Frost and chill, bless the Lord
Ice and snow, bless the Lord
Nights and days, bless the Lord
Light and darkness, bless the Lord.

     - from Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1993), p. 25.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Look Into My Eyes

Look into my eyes!
Look into my eyes, what do you see?
Giggles – smiles
Little toes – a little nose

Look into my eyes, what do you see?
Curiosity – adventure
Fast feet – pulling the cat’s tail

Look into my eyes, what do you see?
School – homework
Makeup – boys- phone calls all night long

Look into my eyes, what do you see?
First crush- First date
First kiss- First heartbreak

Look into my eyes, what do you see?
Special someone – love at first sight
Dinners for 2 – relaxing in the moonlight

Look into my eyes, what do you see?
Broken spirit – bruises, heartache
My fault – I’ll do better

Look into my eyes, what do you see?
Fear – loneliness
Despair – no one cares

Look into my eyes, what do you see?
Forgotten – withdrawn
Utter darkness – suicide attempt

Look into my eyes, what do you see?
New beginnings – spirit set free
Strength – endless possibilities

Look into my eyes, what do you see?
 The heart of a survivor
Inspiration to others – My sister, my friend

By Tracey Koss (with her permission)
An Award-Winning Poem
April 2011

Thank you, Tracey

Sunday, May 8, 2011

To Claim the World as Creation

In his book, The Seven Pillars of Creation (Oxford University Press, 2010), author William P. Brown uses scientific knowledge to expand, interpret, and rethink the meaning of the Bible for our time.  He discovers numerous “points of contact” between science and scripture and concludes the book with these thoughts about the importance of seeing the universe as God’s creation:
To claim the world as creation is not to denounce evolution and debunk science.  To the contrary, it is to join in covenant with science in acknowledging creation’s integrity, as well as its giftedness and worth.  To see the world as creation is to recommit ourselves to its care, not as the fittest, most powerful creatures on the animal planet but as a species held uniquely responsible for creation’s flourishing.  It is to celebrate the inalienable beauty and dignity of all living kind and bear witness to God’s manifold creation.  It is also to bear witness to creation’s groaning as the ground suffers from deforestation, mountaintop removal, toxic dumping, and rising temperatures.  To see the world as God’s intricate, intelligible, surprising, sustainable creation is to return to wonder and go forth in wisdom, such that “the mountains and the hills…shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (Isa. 55:1-2).
Spring in the North Country reminds us that the mountains and hills do burst into song with the return of life, and we can indeed all but hear the fields clap their hands with young crops promising a bountiful harvest.  In the North Country, we also witness the steady erosion of God’s creation and feel the responsibility God has planted in us for this tiny corner of her vast creation.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Nature of the Bible (5)

 So, if we no longer accept the platonic Bible—perfect, infallible, and inerrant—where does that leave us? Here I must speak personally, because the journey away from an infallible Bible is a very personal one for me and it has to do more with what I affirm than reject. I do not believe that the Bible is the capital "W" Word of God because I do believe that Jesus of Nazareth and he alone is the Word of God—see "The Nature of the Bible (1)."  The Bible is a witness to the Word.  To the extent that the Spirit uses the Bible to touch hearts, it is inspired.  To the extent that the Bible provides a spiritually compelling and true portrait of Christ, it is authoritative. For me.

Faith starts with God in Christ, walks with God in the Spirit, and seeks to walk in the direction of the will of God as revealed in Christ.  The Bible is a useful tool to these ends.  I don't see how we can do without it.  As a young Christian, the Old Testament prophets, particularly Amos and Jeremiah grabbed my attention with their bold, uncompromising call for justice in a hard, unjust world.  I learned from them that God takes sides and loves the poor and oppressed with a special love.  It was an easy jump from there to the God of the Exodus, the "I Am" who called Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead an inconsequential tribe of slaves to freedom.  In the light of the Old Testament, Jesus came to make a special kind of sense.  He continued the prophetic tradition.  In his teachings and his healing ministry, he exemplified its deep concern with justice—for a Kingdom that is bound by no prejudices where women stand with men and Samaritans with Jews as equally loved, equally valued in the sight of God.  It is a Kingdom where political influence and great wealth are dangerous barriers to the salvation of our whole race.

In the end, again speaking just for myself, I realized the whole debate over a perfect Bible is a waste of time.  I really could care less.  The power (the inspiration!) of the Bible is its witness to the God of Israel and God in Christ.  That is its authority.  Cold, legalistic demands that I believe in something obviously false to me—a perfect Bible—only get in the way.  The beauty of the Psalms are their own witness.  The vision of the Kingdom in the Book of Isaiah is in and of itself powerful.  Amos is amazing!  I Corinthians 13, Galatians 5:22-23, and other equally moving New Testament passages stand on their own authority.

Of course, there are many unanswered questions.  There always are.  It is our questions that make life interesting and somedays even exciting.  As best as I can understand it, the purpose of the Bible is not to answer all our questions but to introduce us to the God of Israel and Christ—and then to give us aide, comfort, and sometimes challenges on the Way.  You see, its not a matter of believing in the Bible but of learning to trust the God who is revealed there.  Amen.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Nature of the Bible (4)

In response to David Philips' essay, "The nature of the Bible," which defends the Bible as the Word of God, we have seen that the Bible is not the Word of God, big "W" but, as the Confession of 1967 says, it is "the word of God written," small "w".  Christ is the Word of God, and the Bible is a witness to Christ.  It is subordinate to him.  Inspiration in the Bible does not mean the Bible is perfect but rather that God is creatively at work, present; inspiration does not result in perfection but in new or renewed life.   At heart, the view that the Bible must be perfect in order to be authoritative reflects a Greek philosophical tradition that became current in Western Christianity well after the books of the New Testament were written.

In sum, the view that the Bible as the Word of God must be perfect, infallible, and inerrant is but one way to understand the Bible.  It has a history of its own going back tens of centuries to a time when the church learned to adapt its understanding of Christ to the religious and philosophical thought of the Roman Empire.  It is an ancient, honorable "artifact" of our ability to think about Christ in new languages and cultures, which many of us find in no longer compelling.  Platonic Christianity clings to a world that we no longer live in and that, for us, no longer even exists.  While we don't understand why many faithful Christians continue to find it meaningful, it is clear that they do, and as best we can we try to honor that fact.  We really don't intend to scandalize and upset them, though obviously we do.

But, in any event, we need to move on.  Just as those who first turned to Platonism did so seeking fresh insights and new ways of thinking about Christ, so in our scientific age with its vastly enlarged universe and incredible insights into reality we seek to do the same thing—learn again how to see Christ with the eyes of our time.  We have been given two eyes to help us do so: the eye of the Bible, our original faith document, still spiritually compelling today; and the eye of our scientific age, intellectually compelling in our day.  Our prayer, the prayer of every generation, is that with our two eyes we can see Christ, the Word, clearly and in focus for our time.  Amen.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Nature of the Bible (3)

In response to David Philips' essay, "The nature of the Bible," which defends the Bible as the Word of God, we have seen thus far that the Bible is not the Word of God, big "W" but, as the Confession of 1967 says, it is "the word of God written," small "w".  Christ is the Word of God, and the Bible is a witness to Christ.  It is subordinate to him.  In addition, the biblical understanding of inspiration as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with the idea of perfection.  It means, rather, that God is creatively at work giving new or renewed life.  The Bible is inspired because it gives witness to the life-giving, creative work of God.

Phillips links the authority of the Bible to its perfection.  He writes, "Because the Bible is God's Word and is without error it is the supreme authority for the Church."  He notes that there are many, whom he labels heretics, who do not believe that the Bible is uniformly perfect in all of its parts.  He is particularly perplexed by so-called "open evangelicals" who "are not prepared to accept the Bible is true in all its detail."  From his perspective, Phillips can only conclude that if the Bible is not entirely true "in all its details" then either it is not entirely the Word of God or God has authored an unreliable scripture and is also unreliable.  These conclusions are unacceptable to him, obviously.  The issue for him, then, is: "Is the Bible the Word of God in its entirety or is it not?"  His answer is, "Yes, it is."

By this way of thinking, either the Bible is perfectly true throughout or it is not.  If it is perfectly true then it is reliable and authoritative.   If not, then none of it is reliable—all or nothing.  Phillips' arguments sound logical and persuasive—so long as we accept the platonic philosophical view of reality that subsumes them.  According to Platonism, the real world is the unseen world of perfect universal forms not our world of imperfect copies of the universal.  In the Christian version of Platonism, the Bible is lifted up to the level of a perfect universal form, and as such it must be entirely and completely perfect.  Platonism does not allow for a mixing of imperfect earthly forms and universal perfect forms.  The Bible, hence, must be one or the other.  Western Christianity has long been dominated by this platonic, dualistic form of thinking about the Bible in particular and Christian faith generally.

Platonic dualism and its concept of perfect universal forms is a Western philosophy that doesn't arise from the Bible itself.   If we keep our eyes open for it, not even the God of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is perfect in this platonic sense.  In Genesis 3:8, for example, God walked in the Garden of Eden in the evening looking for Adam and Eve.  God did not know where they were.  Later in Genesis, God saw how evil the human race had become, "And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." (Genesis 6:6)  There are quite a number of Old Testament passages that say that God changed God's mind or regretted an action.  For the ancient Hebrews, the thought that God took a physical form, didn't know some things, and could have a change of heart were not problems.  God was still the Lord, Creator of the Universe, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—their God.  The children of platonic Christianity, however, can't accept the whole premise and so must rationalize away this non-platonic, admittedly ancient understanding of God.

In sum, Phillip's argument that the Bible must be perfect in order to be authoritative is based on a particular Western philosophical tradition.  If we accept the tradition, we accept the premise.  However, if we approach scripture from another perspective, the premise no longer holds.   And, just so we are clear at this point, Phillips draws his philosophical assumptions not from the biblical traditions of the Hebrews or the first generation of Christians but from Greek philosophy.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ask a Pundit—or Flip a Coin

This is one not to be passed up.  Hamilton College has just published the final report of a class project conducted by five students. The paper, "Are Talking Heads Blowing Hot Air? An Analysis of the Accuracy of Forecasts in the Political Media," analyzes the accuracy of the predictions of 26 political pundits.  According to the Executive Summary, the students found that only six of the 26 pundits were more accurate than flipping a coin.  Four were actually less accurate than 50-50.  The most accurate by a large margin was Paul Krugman who scored an impressive 88% accuracy rate in his forecasts for the study period, September 2007 through December 2008—partly because he is a leading economist and only made economic forecasts.  In other words, he was talking about something he actually knew something about.  But, taken as a class, the political pundits can tell us no more about future developments than flipping a coin.

What a shock.

The Nature of the Bible (2)

The Bible is not the Word of God, big "W" but, as the Confession of 1967 says, it is "the word of God written," small "w".  Christ is the Word of God, and the Bible is a witness to Christ.  It is subordinate to him.

We turn now to another key notion in David Philips' essay, "The nature of the Bible," the idea of inspiration.  Phillips states that the Bible is "what God has spoken."  It is inspired, by which he means that it is "God breathed," that being the biblical meaning of inspiration.  Phillips then makes an inference that seems crystal clear to him.  Because the Bible is the Word of God, therefore, it is without error.  He writes, "The character of the Word of God as infallible or inerrant derives from the very character of God Himself... the Bible is accepted as utterly true and utterly trustworthy because of the character of its author."  God, he says, "is true in his very character and therefore His Word is Truth."  In sum, the Bible is True, inerrant, and infallible because it reflects the nature of God, who is by definition Unblemished Truth.

The inference is that the Bible is perfect because it is "God breathed.".  Phillips is correct to define inspiration by the term "God breathed," which comes from the second account of creation in the Book of Genesis.  It says there, "Then the Lord God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it; he breathed life-giving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live." (Genesis 2:7)  In the Psalms, God's breathe gives life not only to humanity, but also to all of God's creatures (Psalm 104:30).  The New Testament also speaks of inspiration as being an indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  In the Book of Acts, the Spirit filled the earliest Christians (Acts 2:1-4), Samaritan believers (Acts 8:17), and the Apostle Paul (Acts 9:17).

The gift of the Spirit has been given, that is, as the source of life for every living creature, for every person, and it has been given to the church.  In these cases, inspiration had nothing to do with perfection.  Inspiration signifies, rather, God's presence, giving life to what is dead physically or spiritually.

The affirmation that the Bible is inspired, in sum, means that it is another channel or vehicle for God's presence.  Through it God reaches into our lives in much the same way the Spirit touches human hearts.  Just as one Christian can be the channel for God's reaching into another person's life, so the Bible touches our minds and hearts.  Like churches, it can mediate the one true Word of God, Jesus Christ.  And like any other created thing, it can be abused, misused, and misconstrued.  It is inspired.  It is authoritative.  There is nothing in the Bible itself that requires us to infer that the Bible must be perfect because God is perfect.  Quite the opposite.  The biblical precedence shows that there is no link between inspiration and perfection.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Nature of the Bible (1)

David Philips, writing in the journal Crossway (Winter 2003 No. 87), published an essay entitled, "The nature of the Bible" defending the view that the Bible is the Word of God—inspired, infallible, inerrant, and uniformly true in all of its parts.  His views are widely held among many Christians around the globe, so much so that many consider them the only "right" understanding of the Bible.

There are other ways to understand the Bible, however, and while they are roundly condemned by biblical literalists, such as Phillips, they deserve to be heard in the market place of theological reflection.  This post begins a series of brief responses to Phillips' essay, which the reader is urged to read first.  The goal here is not to convince anyone that they are wrong in their view of the Bible so much as to offer an alternative to those who may find biblical literalism less than spiritually compelling and intellectually satisfying.

An alternative view of the Bible as the Word of God begins with the meaning of the phrase, "the Word of God," which Phillips uses repeatedly as short-hand for his understanding of the nature of the Bible.  It is, for him, the Word of God.  Starting from that premise, his arguments for biblical literalism make perfect sense to him and tens of millions of others.

The opening words of John's Gospel state that, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)  In context, the Word of God here refers to Jesus Christ and no one or nothing else.  The  "Word of God," capital "W," is Christ.  The Bible thus is not the "Word of God."  Christ is.  As the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s Confession of 1967 states in paragraph 9.27, "The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written."  The Bible is "the word [small "w"] of God written."  It bears testimony to Christ and, we would add, to God's work with and through the People of Israel.  Its testimony is inspired by the Holy Spirit, unique, and authoritative.

If we insist that the Bible is also the capital "W" Word of God, we in effect give it a status equal to Christ.  In our alternative view, the Bible is clearly not equal to Christ.  It is not in and of itself divine.  It was created and as such is not the equal of the Creator.  Seeing the Bible as being created and subordinate offers us the opportunity to see it in a different light.  More tomorrow.