Friday, March 21, 2014

Am I an Apologist? Apologetics and the Formation of the Soul

Most apologists I know are good, decent, loving people.  Still, it has come to be unpopular to describe oneself as an apologist for one reason or another. First of all, many people don't know what an apologist is. Well, a Christian apologist is one who defends the truth claims of Christianity in order to remove intellectual objections to believing Christianity is true. That's a mouthful, and there are even more thorough (and complicated) descriptions of what apologetics is.  Secondly, apologists get a bad rap.  Apologists can have, and have had, a bad reputation for being argumentative jerks.  Apologists are to argue for the truth of Christianity. This statement is true.  That's in the job-description.  Of course, it's also in the job description to show compassion, respect, and gentleness.  We have then, two ideas to tackle: the concept of being and identity that comes from one's job (or, vocation, which is a more holistic term), and the formation of the soul in the one who is an apologist.  So, what does it mean to "be" an apologist?  
Not too long ago, on the back of a pink, sparkly box, posed a doll made after the image of an oh-so-pretty, female human being with proportions and accouterments that would weigh an actual woman down with burdens too heavy to bear.  On the back of the cardboard box marketed to young girls, Barbie asks the question: "What do you want to be?"  Standing in various fashionable poses are other Barbies: there's Lawyer Barbie, Business Mogul Barbie, Doctor (not Nurse) Barbie, etc.  What do you want to be?  (God forbid that a young girl would want to grow up to be a mother.  Mommy Barbie wasn't an option).  

Now, this notion of "being" is applied to our jobs in culture, and it is of course, misguided: we all know that we are more than what we do for a living. I once knew a man in Kalamazoo who, upon being asked the question, "What do you do?" would rattle off a whole host of things he did, including various hobbies and activities, his role as a father, etc.  Humorous, but kind of a conversation stopper. It's like saying, "Your question is rather droll (remember when Fred Flintstone used to say that?), as you are obviously held captive by the thought-patterns of society.  Allow me to enlighten your dulled mind."  Even so, it's much easier to say, "I'm an electrician" and "I'm a teacher," rather than describing the job and adding that this is what you do for money.  It's just a simple use of language.  When I worked in a warehouse, my job was "cutter."  (This was my primary job.  I did other stuff, too).  But I didn't like telling people I was a cutter.  Ew.  Serial killer!  So I said, "I work in a warehouse."   

For many people, if they take pride in the work they do, or, if their work can be easily described with one word, they can use the concept of being in describing their work and their selves as one and the same.  "I'm a doctor."  That works.  But, "I work in a factory" works much easier than, "I'm a solderer."  You get the idea.  Now, the question is, Can we safely use the concept of "being" and apply it to our work as apologists?  "I am an apologist."  Yes, we can; but there are some cautions to this.  We've discussed the concept of being as applied to work and identity.  For an apologist, the same rule applies.  We also need to talk about some of the requirements of being an apologist, along with some of the dangers that come along with the apologist's task.  First, the danger.

One of the dangers of apologetics is that it often attracts men who think they have "life figured out" (this is a cliche, but it's true): if they have a certain set of arguments memorized, they are ready to tear anyone to shreds upon any chance meeting in order to proclaim the truth of Christ.  (There is a growing population of female apologists, and for this we rejoice.  The feminine component to the apologetic task will no doubt bring some much-needed balance to this testosterone-heavy enterprise.  Viva la difference).  We should all shudder at the idea of having the right arguments in place, having the right zeal to bring them, but having no discernment or compassion for those with whom we disagree. (Something about loving your enemies.  It says that somewhere.)  While apologists debate with skeptics and non-Christians, they are to do so with gentleness and respect.  Too often, it is the case that, especially among the young guns in the fold, pride and arrogance leap from the springs of zeal and ruin any semblance of the compassion of God in Christ. Some older saints wreak havoc in the Church and abroad with their arrogance as well.  That's part of the human condition, which brings us to our second point, our point of concern. 

After much soul-searching, and speaking with counselors, pastors, and other men who are deeply flawed and broken--and being restored (as I am), it seems to me that many people in apologetics are just like everyone else.  So, take a breathe-easy--this isn't a screed against anyone who wants to do apologetics, or against the apologetic enterprise.  After all, I do earn (somewhat of) a living at this also. My concern is this: you might all know the person who majors in Psychology because she herself is messed up, broken, flawed, and hurt, and she thinks majoring in Psych will help her heal.  The same goes for those who enter the pastoral ministry, or for those who enter into apologetics. 

Now, I don't think it's wrong for a messed up, broken, flawed and hurt person to major in psychology in order to find healing.  God bless her, and pray she finds restoration.  And for those who want to be counselors; well, to be a good counselor, you have to know something about human nature, and that means knowing the junk that's not only inside others, but inside you.  To the point: many hurt people, when they become Christians, or when they get turned on to apologetics, will use apologetics to get out their frustrations against the world abroad, including against fellow Christians.  They want to "be" an apologist, because they find their identity in it.  "I'll show them!"  It could be for many reasons: to find security, comfort, power, or a whole host of things.  For me, the temptation is, "People used to say I was stupid." (This is true, in fact; I used to tell myself that, too).  "I'll show them.  I'll be the best arguer around!" This temptation doesn't manifest itself so glibly or clearly in my own soul, but it's there.  Temptation to pride often works in a much more subtle way.  Oh, it's so much more subtle. Albeit, that's the temptation, and if I unpack it, the aforementioned sentence is the boiled down goods.  The blind subtlety.  That's the insidious nature of human pride!  Apologists get tempted this way, and this is the number one temptation.  Pride.  These questions in the next paragraph, I hope, will be helpful in beginning the diagnostic process of getting real with ones' soul, for pride is tangled in a web of other needs in the soul that only Christ and satisfy.   

Are you an apologist?  Do you, or do you desire to, make a living (even partially) at it?  Why?  How do you handle rejection?  Criticism?  Where do you go for comfort?  What do you do to relieve stress?  Do you have any addictions?  Do you have any addictions?  Unhealthy habits?  Do you have an unhealthy, i.e. sinful "happy place"?  Do you use apologetics to hammer people over the head and to make you feel worthy, praised, or admired?  Do you have a problem with your temper?  Are you a bully? Arrogant?  Angry? Could you use some counseling? (News flash: we all could use counseling, so the answer is yes). None of us are immune to this kind of thing.  Some of us have more issues than others.  Only you can say if this is you.  Or, ask these questions to your spouse, or your pastor, or to a close friend. Often times, arrogant people are hurt people.  When these people want to be Bible scholars, pastors, and apologists, they can then use the Ultimate Authority--with which no one can argue--to bully people into praising them for their intellectual power, obeying them due to their counsel, and serving them because of their expertise.   That's sick, isn't it?

The problem with pride in insecure people who want to be pastors or apologists (or anyone whose task is influencing others by means of information sharing) is that these things will fragment a person so that their words will not match up with their feelings.  What I mean is this: when we tell people about the love of God for them, but we don't really, deep down, believe God loves us, then there will be a lack of congruence in our message, and often times, people who are listening to us will also lack the congruence necessary to entrust themselves to our message.  For example, I met with a couple of men recently who admitted to me that while in ministry or seminary, they had succumbed to years of porn addiction.  This addiction comes from a lack of security that is only found in Christ.  

Addictions are about security, comfort, significance, and dealing with pain--pain that is often decades old and reaches to childhood; often it is childhood trauma: some kind of abuse.  Jesus Christ offers Himself to us as our only comfort (the meaning here is "strength" from the Heidelberg Catechism).  Our fallen human nature resists, in its brokenness, and its rebellion, this strength, consolation, and rest found in Christ and Christ alone.  The reasons for this resistance are too many to flesh out here.  

So then, to be a good apologist means having ones' security in Christ, and having a noble character, and being patient with others when you detect their flaws.  This need is especially notable given the vitriol offered in online forums. Christians should, above all, display the utmost of honor, respect, and patience with non-Christians, and with fellow Christians.  How are we doing so far?  I'll leave you to ponder your own actions in the presence of the Lord.  

Am I an apologist?  Well, I work for a campus ministry called Ratio Christi (Latin for "The Reason for Christ").  So, I can say that I am an apologist, yes. But why is it that I myself shy away from this title?  Pure and simple, it is because I don't want to come off as prideful or "All head, no heart," as the (false) caricature is often libeled against apologists.  Secondly, it is because not many people know what the word "apologist" means.  They think it means saying your sorry for something.  (Well, I've done plenty of that in my life, too.  Ha).  Well, so I'm an apologist.  And strictly speaking, an apologist sets forth arguments to support the truth claims of Christianity.  This is a different calling than say, pastor, counselor, or elder in a church.  Working with college students in training them in apologetics could, for the sake of argument, rest solely in that course of discipline.  Life doesn't really work that way, though, as dealing with people means dealing with the whole person.  Dealing with the whole person means handling issues of the soul, and the stuff we mentioned earlier: messed up, broken, flawed, and hurt people.  Rebellious people.  While is it true that strictly speaking the task of an apologist in training others is in teaching them the facts, arguments, evidences, and so on, it is also true that the apologist is dealing with a whole person, and not just a single category that exists in that person in abstraction from the other things that make a human being whole.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Oxham's Razor and Atheism

From my last post "Why Atheism is Attractive," which the Grand Haven Tribune was kind enough to publish in their on-line opinion column, I received this comment on my blog:

"Friend, you're trying to make it complicated, but it's not. Atheists don't believe for a simple reason. There is no reason to assume the existence of a god to explain the existence of the universe as we understand it. Occam's Razor."

The comment was from "Anonymous."  I lament the fact that so many people think they can leave such comments on a blog without showing the necessary courage it takes to attach one's name, and hence, once's identity to the public domain.  Sadly, such is the case with our neurotic society when people don't have the intestinal fortitude to actually do so.  Worse, Internet atheists are an all-too-common adherent of this type of umbrage against Christianity.  My first suggestion to internet atheists is this: use your actual name.  Otherwise, please do not engage with the arguments.  Show some courage!  And show some thoughtfulness, rather than ranting on about such things as weighty as the existence of God and the moral underpinnings that motivate atheism. (I've since removed the "Anonymous" feature from the comments section.)

Ok, so now to brass tacks.  The question of God's existence is really not as simple as punting to Ockham's razor, as if that settles the question.  Hardly.  The good William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349) was a monk anyway, wasn't he?  I find it strange that an idea which was set forth by a man who was influenced by his Christian worldview is used against him.  At least one reason Ockham set forth the Razor is because he was stemming his beliefs from a Christian worldview, a worldview that believes God is a God of order and of simplicity.  

Ockham's Razor, also known as the principle of parsimony, is that when considering a question or given situation which requires an investigation into a matter in order to draw a conclusion about what has occurred, we do our best to remember that the simplest explanation is usually the best one.

So, let's apply the Razor to Anonymous' comment.  Atheism requires Naturalism to be true (Naturalism is the idea that Nature is all there is).  So, if Naturalism is true, then Naturalism should be able to explain

  • the origin of the universe 
  • the origin of life
  • a standard for good and evil
  • a rubric for ultimate meaning in life 
  • a purpose or plan for history 
Naturalism cannot do any of these things.  Either the Universe is eternal, or it is created.  Big Bang cosmology teaches that the Universe came into existence some finite time ago, wherein matter, space and time sprang into being.  Naturalism cannot explain how matter, space and time came into being. Minus 1 for Naturalism.

Naturalism cannot explain the origin of life, nor can it explain the origin of human life.  How did organic life come from inorganic material?  When there were gasses forming the early universe, how did these form together to make a living organism?  Ask the biological evolutionists, and they'll admit, they don't know.  Take a look at the Cambrian explosion, for example, and we see the *explosion* of novel body plans that arise from the Pre-Cambrian layer, the latter of which has mere, simple-celled organisms.  All of a sudden (!), in the Cambrian layer, we have the arrival of incredibly diverse animals and body plans that defy the gradualism of Darwinian evolution.  Minus 2.

Naturalism cannot offer a standard for good and evil. If Naturalism is true, then morals are relative, and each, individual person decides what is right in their own eyes.  If you want to know that that looks like, read the newspaper, or the Book of Judges.  If Nature is all there is, and there is no transcendent moral law, given by a Person, then ethics becomes a matter of personal interest and taste.  We have no grounds whatsoever in judging a moral act as filthy on the one hand, or noble on the other, given Naturalism.  If Nature is all there is, then all we are is a bunch of animals.  And what do animals do in the animal kingdom?  They devour their mates, destroy their own young, destroy the lame and the weak, and compete for success to the destruction of any other animal that gets in the way.  Now, some animals do noble things: they hunt together, or they mourn for their human masters (German Shepherds do this).  Other animals, like ducks and geese, help the injured.  But if our ethics are to mimic Nature, then who is to decide which animal to follow?  And this is just what we have in our society today: we have noble people, and we have total scum to rape, molest, rob, steal, kill and destroy.  Without God's law, we are doomed to our own personal tastes, and only brute force can keep people from doing what the majority doesn't want them to do.  North Korea. Minus 3.

Naturalism gives no meaning in life.  If Nature is all there is, then we're all going to die some day, and that's that.  There may be a finite meaning for you, but the Universe will collapse and no matter how noble someone is, or what achievements they accomplish, it'll all be forgotten.  There is therefore no ultimate meaning to anything, given Naturalism.  You can "make your own meaning," but so what?  You're gonna die, and your works will die with you.  Nothing really matters.  Freddie Mercury was right, if Naturalism is true ("Nothing really matters to me...").  No meaning is found, because there is no infinite being to ground our meaning in the transcendent.  Meaning comes from eternal life and from a source, and Naturalism supplies none of it. Minus 4.

Naturalism has no telos (goal).  The only goal for human history, given Naturalism is to survive and "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die."  The Universe will end, and there's a cold, death awaiting us all.  There is no grand purpose, meaning, or goal of history.  There is no life after life, or life after death. Minus 5.

So, Naturalism has a tall order in providing a simple reason for our existence, our purpose, human ethics, history's goal, and personal fulfillment and meaning in life.  If you want to punt to Ockham's Razor, good luck, because it's all you've got.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

How Much Evidence Do I Need in Order to be Justified in my Belief in the Bible?

Let us say Bill is a churchgoer who works fifty hours per week at a local penitentiary.  Bill has a lot of stress on his job, dealing as he does with manipulative criminals, and when he comes home from work, he must help with dinner, cleanup, and with putting the children to bed.  Before this, he plays with his children, and after dinner, the family enjoys fellowship and devotions from the Bible, replete with catechism, prayer, and a song.  It is now late, and Bill and his wife decide, before collapsing into bed, to watch the latest documentary on A&E’s “Mysteries of the Bible,” where scholar Pete, who claims to be an orthodox Christian (say, he devoutly subscribes to the Apostle’s Creed), says there is no evidence whatsoever for the Exodus, and that the Old Testament account of the event written in the book with its namesake is a myth, and is best understood as a theological and moral lesson. 

Upon seeing the program, Bill experiences an “epistemic crisis” (his wife, fortunately, fell asleep during the program). Bill knows his Bible well, and reads throughout it how it seems as if the people of God have always believed in the historicity of the Exodus, as is told in the entire Tanakh and in the New Testament as well (especially 1 Corinthians 10:1ff.).  Bill wonders, “How could scholar Pete, who is an orthodox Christian, say the Exodus never happened, and why would he say such things?”  Meanwhile, Bill understands that the New Testament is chock full of allusions to the Exodus event in the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus, in Jesus’ life (baptism and temptation in the wilderness, choosing of the twelve, sending out the seventy [the seventy elders of the desert sojourn]), death (Jesus is the Paschal Lamb) and resurrection (he transfers his people from the power of darkness to the kingdom of light [Col. 1:13]).[1]  

Bill is therefore vexed in his mind, as he now doubts other parts of Scripture as well: was Jesus wrong about Moses writing the Pentateuch?  Or, was Jesus accommodating to the peoples' ignorance of these things? Since Bill has a healthy respect for experts in the field, he wonders what he should do.  The question before him concerns his epistemic duty and how may he obtain to epistemic virtue and ease in light of his epistemic crisis?   Here's the important thing for Bill: he has his limits.  He simply cannot afford, in terms of income, time, and energy, to read all of the critical, biblical scholarship (CBS) out there before he makes a decision on whether to believe in the historical reliability of the Exodus account.  He may involve himself in a life-long habit of collecting and reading CBS, but do both epistemic duty and virtue demand that Bill suspend judgment at this point about the historicity of the Exodus until he has read all of the relative literature?  How is it even possible to sift through all the written data?  The shelves are stacked with a "new insight" into the life of Jesus or the Bible every day, it seems, from some expert who has  "fresh insight" or a "new perspective" or a "key to the lost secrets" of the Bible.  What's a hard-working man to do? 

Well, in order to obtain epistemic virtue, Bill, out of his own sense of duty, reads two books written by evangelical, “Bible-believing” scholars: one, On the Reliability of the Old Testament by Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, and two, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition, by professor of biblical studies and archaeology at Wheaton College, James K. Hoffmeier.  Now that Bill has read these two scholarly tomes which both testify to the veracity (or plausibility) of the Exodus account, using all the best tools of CBS, is Bill now justified in believing as he always has before watching the program on A&E? 
But ah, Bill’s friend Bob the Skeptic[2] reminds Bill that while Kitchen and Hoffmeier may have their say on the subject, surely Bill needs to be fair and read “the other side.”  Bob the Skeptic is placing Bill back onto square one, in his epistemic crisis: that Bill surely has not encountered all of the evidence and research available (does not have “direct access”), but only the “biased opinions” of “fundamentalist scholars.”  And now, the volumes, journal articles, etc. pile up in the catalogues of Bill’s mind and overwhelm him.  How much evidence is needed for Bill and other members of the laity who desire to believe the Bible as inspired and historically reliable in order for them to be justified in doing so? 

Bob the Skeptic confirms Bill’s epistemic crisis by citing philosopher Richard Feldman, who writes, “It is extraordinarily difficult to state in a general way the conditions under which a body of evidence provides evidential support for a belief.”[3]  Accordingly, no amount of evidence is going to give Bill peace of mind.  Bill now has two problems: first, even the evangelical scholars say the Exodus account is plausible[4] (in contrast to certain), and second, CBS says the Exodus certainly is not plausible at all; in fact, it didn’t happen.  Or if it did, it was a mere migration, happening over eons of time, or it was a “mnemonic event,” meant to impress the ethos of the postexilic Israelite community of a proper memory in search of communal identity.[5]  Bob then suggests to Bill that he place belief in the Exodus account in the bin of skepticism in order to be intellectually honest and epistemically virtuous, based on that “fact” that there is insufficient evidence for Bill to be epistemically justified in believing in the historicity of the Exodus account.  We can state Bill’s predicament technically with the help of philosopher Paul K. Moser whose work on the nature of evidence as it relates to knowledge is helpful here:
For a person, S, to have knowledge that p on justifying evidence e, e must be truth-sustained in this sense: for every true proposition t that, when conjoined with e, undermines S’s justification for p on e, there is a true proposition, t¹, that, when conjoined with e & t, restores the justification of p for S in a way that S is actually justified in believing that p.[6] 

On Moser’s proposition (he is attempting to resolve the Gettier problem), Bill would be justified in believing the historicity of the Exodus account given that the “true proposition ” is fused with other evidence that Bill has for believing the historicity of the Exodus account.  If Bill receives “truth proposition” t, such that “in all the Egyptian and Sinatic desserts, there is no trace of a mass of 2 million (or 200,000 or even 20,000) people who traversed on a 40-year journey some 3500 years ago” as it were, then Bill, upon obtaining t in his cognitive faculties, lands himself in an epistemic crisis.  But, if Bill later obtains to t¹, such that “a careful reading of the Hebrew text of the birth narrative [of Moses] reveals that a number of words used are of Egyptian origin,”[7] and given that this propositional knowledge obtains using the tools of philological investigation, then Bill is justified in his belief that the Exodus account is historically reliable (p).  This is because, as Moser states, restores the justification of p for S (Bill).  But what if there is, following t¹, a counter-proposition, t², such that is a rebuttal of

The stacking of evidence in order to obtain justified true belief places Bill in similarity to the problem of the infinite regress common to classical foundationalism.[8]  Here, Bill finds himself back to square one of the epistemic dilemma.  What should he do?   Moser’s solution is that a healthy epistemology of justified true belief with have a fourth condition of “evidential truth-sustenance”[9] “that is sustained by the collective totality of truths”[10] which are themselves to be countenanced by “varying strengths in notions of propositional knowledge.”[11]  Moser further adds that “These strengths are determined by the accessibility qualifications on the set of relevant knowledge-precluding underminers.”[12]  Moser’s idea of having a defense against epistemic underminers fits with Reformed Epistemology’s defensive position of “properly basic” beliefs of the “great things of the gospel” (Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, etc.), and having acceptable rubrics for establishing the evidence required for justified true belief as well as having fulfilled epistemic duty and obtaining epistemic virtue. . 

However, we might object to this notion.  It seems here that we are saying that in Bill’s case of evidence and counter-evidence (t...t¹...t²...tⁿ), in order for Bill to have justified true belief regarding p, Bill needs to be on a continual plane of evidence compilation regarding his belief in the historical reliability of the Exodus.  How might this be any different from an internalist approach to justified true belief?  But, if Moser is correct that the evidence for p is “truth sustained,” and if Bill can use proper techniques for investigation, then he should be justified in believing p. 

In support of this concept of “truth-sustainability,” historical scholar Gary Habermas offers four criteria of historical epistemology that may be used for obtaining justified true belief when he cites Oxford university professor Richard Swinburne.  These four criteria are: our own apparent memories, the testimony of others (either spoken or written), physical traces left behind that may point to the event in question, and the application of scientific principles.”[13]  Clearly the latter three can be plausibly applied to the event in question, and can serve as Moser’s “truth sustaining” exemplars of Bill’s cognitive apparatus, providing Bill with epistemic ease.  So far, if Bill holds to an externalist account of justified true belief, he has fulfilled his epistemic duty by investigating the relevant data (by reading Kitchen and Hoffmeier) as this data has been compiled in accordance with Swinburne’s recommendations for historical epistemology.  Thus, the work of Kitchen and Hoffmeier serve as “evidential truth-sustenance” for Bill and he is therefore justified in knowing he has done his epistemic duty, he is justified in having his epistemic ease, and for Bill, epistemic virtue obtains.

So yes, Bill can believe in the historicity of the Exodus account simply by virtue of believing the Bible for one, and secondly by reading believing scholars like Hoffmeier and Kitchen because of the evidence they provide for Bill.  Bill can be open to "hearing the other side."  And he should be open.  But, his trust in the Bible's historical veracity should not be held in check or dismissed to the dust bin of skepticism until he has read all of the relevant literature.  If that were the case, Bill would never be able to make a decision about what to believe about the Exodus, or anything, for that matter.  

*This post is part of a paper submitted for a class on Epistemology in the graduate program at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC for professor Dr. J.T. Bridges.

[1] For a thorough study of New Testament allusions to the Exodus, see R.E. Nixon, The Exodus in the New Testament, December 4, 2013. 
[2] Who among the Christian fold that dares to speak to apologetic issues such as “Science and Faith” and so on, hasn’t heard from a friend or family member, “You need to read the other side”? 
[3] A Companion to Epistemology, 121.
[4] In Israel in Egypt, Hoffmeier writes, “It is my contention and the purpose of this book, that in the absence of direct archaeological or historical evidence, one can make a case for the plausibility of the biblical reports based on the supporting evidence.” (preface, x).  Kitchen, in Reliability of the Old Testament, concludes his book with a more user-friendly quip, writing, “In terms of general reliability--and much more could have been instanced than there was room for here--the Old Testament comes our remarkably well, so long as its writings and writers are treated fairly and evenhandedly, in line with independent data, open to all,” p.500.  This notion of plausibility fits well actually, within the framework and modus operandi of RE. 
[6] Ibid, p. 158. emphasis mine.
[7] Hoffmeier, 138.
[8] It should be noted that Moser is not a foundationalist, but an evidentialist.  See his Knowledge and Evidence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). 
[9] Moser, 159.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Gary Habermas, “Historical Epistemology, Jesus’ Resurrection, and the Shroud of Turin,” p. 2. Located at  Accessed December 6, 2013.  

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why Atheism is Attractive

Look at the trees, and observe the effects of the wind.  Look at the sky.  Does it seem friendly to you?  Does it seem silent?  Does it frown?  Is there anything (God) that brought it into being?  If so, can God be known from these observations?  If you feel angst, or if you feel alone, or if it seems that often times, God is rather silent, you are not alone.  Perhaps you are observing trees, wind and sky, and nothing more.  Maybe it's a good day to be an atheist, after all.  Maybe the silence in the natural order is the silence of God, too.  And the silence means no one is there. 

What philosophers, theologians, and yes, biblical prophets call "the hiddenness of God" is a troublesome one.  If God is there, why isn't he more obvious?  Why doesn't he show up and appear to me, or at least say something to me?  Even a whisper would suffice, but there's nothing.  Maybe you've heard of other people who've had dreams and visions of Christ, or of God, but you have had no such luck.  You have heard of other people experiencing miraculous healing, but your own body is wasting away, and you've buried two friends just this week.  You have friends and family with cancer, and yet there are reports in Africa and Asia of the miraculous.  The dead are raised, the blind receive sight, tumors disappear.  But not for you.  What gives?   You are suffering loneliness, heartache, and physical pain as well.  If any time is a good time for God to show up, it's now. 

Perhaps you gave up on the notion of God long ago.  Perhaps, because of your loneliness, heartache, and suffering, you are tempted to give up on God and just "live your life."   Or, maybe you're like Ivan Karamazov: you don't reject God, but you reject the world he has made.  God is absent, God is silent, and in your mind, God is unjust as well.  There's too much pain, too much evil, and too much loneliness and heartache in this world for you to believe God is either there, or that he really cares and is good.

I feel like that sometimes.  I struggle.  It starts on the intellectual plane, and settles in my soul, putting me in a malaise.  The intellectual questions of providence and evil, predestination and free will envelope my mind in a dark blanket, leaving me dull.  I then despair at the attempt to reconcile these paradoxical notions.  Yet, my intuition tells me that of course God is good.  The Bible says he is good (and I believe the Bible).  Further, the idea of a God that is both good and evil (cosmic dualism) is nonsense.  A schizophrenic god is a contradiction and an impossibility.  No, God is good.  But how is he good, in light of all the aforementioned maladies?  But, but but....

The attraction of atheism is, I think, more than an exercise in academics.  Darwin may have made it intellectually satisfying to be an atheist, but he didn't remove God altogether.  Theistic evolutionists believe in God, follow Christ, and live happy lives.  No, I think atheism is attractive for many people (not all people) because of the hiddennes of God, and for unanswered prayer.  Have you ever read Job?  It really seems unfair of God to allow Satan to crush Job the way he did.  I'd like to sit down with the Lord and tell him how I think it was wrong.  However, the end of Job says, "Who is this that darkens my council?"  Who am I to question God?  You see the quagmire?  I want to ask God some serious questions and tell him honestly what I think, and how I'm feeling.  But if I do, will God show up in a storm and tell me to brace myself like a man, for now He is going to ask me some questions?  I may as well soil myself now and get it over with.

Perhaps it's this existential angst of paradox that drives people toward atheism. 

In my struggle with divine providence and evil and the goodness of God, I decided to pray.  Jesus says to close the door of your room and pray to your Father, and your Father who sees you in secret will reward you.  This is what I did.  I went to the bathroom and sat down on the small bench near the bathtub.  Looking out the window, I expressed to God how I felt.  "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love."  The hymn-writer of this song knew this pain as well.  It is the pain of feeling like drifting away from the only source of life.  "To whom else shall we turn?  You alone have the words of eternal life."  So the disciples said to Jesus after he asked them, "Will you turn away, too?"  People were turned off by Jesus' words because he made an odd mention of eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  Good Jews don't do that!  That's pagan practice.  "Will you turn away, too?"  No Lord.  You alone have the words of eternal life.  Where else can I go?

So I did just that.  I told the Lord just how I was feeling.  It felt courageous, but I was a bit scared, too.  We are, in fact, to fear God, you know.  God loves those who fear him (somewhere in the Psalms it says that).  I do have to say that getting honest with the Lord was rewarding, and Jesus' words rang true.  I was blessed after praying to the Lord for only a few minutes.  Getting alone with God and dumping your pain, fear, and hurt on him is truly helpful.  People often say, "He's big enough, Chris.  He can handle your charges against Him."  Well, that seems a little cliche.  "Big enough."  What does that even mean?  How about compassionate enough, or patient enough?  There is the storm though: who darkens my council?  Not I, Lord.  Lest I be like Job, and cover my mouth.  Still, I did express my fears and doubts, and all that, and I'm still alive.  I felt peace, too.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Raw and Real Cussin' Female Lutheran Pastor: What's Not to Like?

False expectations of an "ass-kicking Messiah," the devil is a "damned liar" and other, similar mouthfuls accompany pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber's verbal repertoire.  My brother sent me a story about pastor Nadia from NPR, and at first, I wondered if this was another NPR way of promoting the liberal side of Christianity, which tends to demythologize the meta-narrative of Scripture in favor of a post-Enlightenment rationalism that eschews the miraculous, the reality of sin, salvation in Christ, and other orthodox, Christian tenets.  Wrong.  Not only that, but there is much about what pastor Nadia is doing that is right.  In a word, pastor Nadia is raw and real; plus--she's orthodox! At least, that's the impression I get so far.

First, pastor Nadia recognizes that typical church for both conservative and liberal Christians is an "Elks Club with the Eucharist."  I think she means mostly liberal churches here.  Here's the context from the article on NPR:
"What she and her church are trying to do, she says, is simple and radical: create an authentic Christian experience without the pretension that can come with church.
"I think people's tolerance for bullshit is at an all-time low," she says."
She nails it.  That's the statement of the year, right there.  Church is in so many ways, an Elks Club with the Eucharist.  At least, at typical mainline Protestant churches it is.  The same can be said of many conservative churches as well: Show up in church clothes, nod and smile, attend a worship service--and this is the most important point--the sermon must be a gentle, encouraging, pat on the back, and never, ever, ever, offend anyone at all.  After getting a good fix of this easy-does-it elixir, you nod and smile some more, go home and eat, watch football, and never get authentic or real with anyone for the rest of your life.  This is the "b.s." Nadia is talking about of which people have low tolerance.  If that's all church is, why bother?  People long for authenticity, community, and relationships that foster "getting real" with a view of personal and communal well-being. 

Here are some good things that pastor Nadia is doing:
  • Singing the liturgy and hymns a capella.  This is good because it fosters a high, communal sense of worship among the people, where everyone is singing together, for good or for ill.  It's the "ill" part that fosters community, because it's flesh and bone with no frills.  Additionally, using the liturgy and hymns ties the people into the historic Christian faith.  Can't argue with that, friends.  This is especially true as a contrast to the happy-clappy rock songs with shallow theology and zero historic resonance sung in so many evangelical churches.  
  • Sitting in a circle during church.  Again, community.  God is a circle, don't you know?  Without beginning, without end.  And, people are facing one another, like community groups often do.  When you face people, you get to see them, raw and real.  This is opposed to sitting in rows, where everyone is staring straight ahead.  The circle creates an ethos of shared community and shared sensibility.  This is a time of worship, cleansing and healing.  
  •  Everyone reads Scripture and serves the Eucharist.  Community in action during worship, cleansing and healing through the shed Body and Blood of Christ.  Where is it written that pastors alone are to administer the elements?  Reformation time, friend: we're all priests now.  
  • Pastor Nadia tells it how it is.  In her sermon on Adam and Eve and the Serpent, she says the devil is a damned liar.  Truth!  Pastor Nadia is not afraid to drop a few bombs here and there.  That's my kindof Christian.  Paul had a pretty earthy mouth too, you know.  Have you read Philippians 3:8 lately (Paul's, "I consider all things as skubala [excrement] compared to knowing Christ")?  Or Galatians 5 (Paul's "I wish they would go the whole way and castrate themselves!")?  This reminds me of the time I was teaching at a Christian school and a mom got upset with me because I taught the 8th grade class about the theological implications and beauty--yes beauty--of circumcision.  "Can you tell me about circumcision without getting icky, Chris?"  That was the question I had to answer in a private meeting.  Yes ma'am.  I wonder what pastor Nadia would say?
  •  I love this lady.  Heck, I don't even believe in lady pastors.  I could be wrong about my reading of that text. Where is it, 1 Timothy?  Even if I'm not wrong, I don't care.  Sometimes, you just have to be a pragmatist, and pastor Nadia is doing the work of a pastor for people that would never step into an Elks Club in order to have the Eucharist.  I know, I know.  You've heard that argument before: "Church X is so cool because they reach people that would never step into a normal church."  I already told you it's a pragmatic argument, so get over it. 

    My kindof church! 
  • One last point or two: I don't know what her views are on sexual purity.  Albeit, what this pastor is doing rightly is asking people to get real and raw with their inner junk, their shame, their brokenness, rebellion, and pain.  That is precisely what does not occur at an Elk's Club, even with the Eucharist. 
Here's Nadia's web page.

Here's the NPR story.

Here's a great sermon on Adam and Eve and the Serpent.  Her sermons are usually 10 minutes long.


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