Recalibrating When Life Goes from Tranquil to Terrifying

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One of the many reasons we resent trials and suffering is because it upsets our equilibrium. We feel rudly thrust from our well-ordered, secure lives into uncertainty where we feel less able to stand on our own two feet.

We might claim our security rests in God, but the reality is we spend much of our time [consciously or unconsciously] dwelling in the security of our jobs, our finances, our luck, friends and family and our knack for making good things happen.

But when the unexpected occurs and we are suddenly thrust out of our complacency, we find ourselves desperately trying to latch onto something, or someone, who can alleviate our suffering and return us to our precious equilibrium.

The truth is, we were never really independent and self sufficient in the first place. Any thought that we are is pure delusion. We are every bit as dependent upon God in the good and tranquil times as we are in the difficult; we just don’t realize it.

When suffering is no where to be found, when the stars are aligned and all is right in our universe, we believe ourselves independent; we are secure, and our felt need for God is muted.

Think about how often we are conscious of our breathing: we take for granted there will always be plenty of oxygen for us to take in and our lungs will function as they ought without expending any special effort. But introduce just the tiniest disruption into the breathing process and watch how quickly we go from tranquility to terror. Those afflicted with asthma know what this feels like.

Our times are in His hands. But far too often, I live, operate and process as though I am merely sharing the reins to my life with Him. And sadly, I don’t even do as much as share, but rather I grab the steering wheel and relegate Him to the backseat. I might toss out the occasional question here and there when I need a course correction, but for the most part, as long as the road ahead is well lit and paved, I’ve got things well in hand.

I’ll call You if I need You.

When those difficult times come and I throw myself at His feet seeking deliverance, strength and wisdom, it often takes a while to recalibrate my equilibrium. I first have to deal with and confess the reality that, for the most part, I go through my days distracted and charmed by other, lesser gods. So those first few steps of complete and total dependence always feels a bit foreign to me.

The reality is, if it is not God who is at the center of our affections, then we are placing our confidence in something else, someone else. No matter how good and secure we believe our situation, no matter how pleased we are with ourselves and our ability to successfully navigate this life, we each have our secret stash of idols we often fall back on when life feels less certain. One of the real blessings of difficult times can be that these idols are exposed for the frauds they’ve always been.

Soren Kierkegaard says spiritual pride is the illusion we are competent to run our own lives, achieve our own sense of self-worth and find a purpose big enough to give us meaning in life without God. I don’t question that. I’ve seen that truth played out in my life and in the lives of friends and loved ones again and again. I’ve preached that to others. I’ve staked my life, my eternity on that reality. But I have to come to grips that no matter how dependent I believe myself to be upon God, no matter how grateful I am for the many blessings in my life, there remains in me fragments that seek glory and security independent from Him.

I am left then with a choice: do I embrace the truth that every trial, every difficulty and every obstacle was allowed by God to discipline me as would a loving father and is meant for my ultimate good (Hebrews 12:3-11), or do I regard it as an unwelcome interruption into my otherwise orderly, comfortable life?

Do I really believe my times are in His hands?

There’s a verse in one of the Psalms, and this is roughly paraphrased, where God says, “you come to me when you are afraid and need deliverance. That is all well and good; I am your refuge in the storm. But if you will seek me just as diligently when times are good then you will have the opportunity to sit at my feet and learn from me.”

There is such sweetness, such richness in the knowledge that our Father longs to have us just sit with Him, and receive His blessings, His wisdom, strength and goodness.

I am so grateful that He is my refuge in the storm, my comforter the times I am overwhelmed. But I long to grow in the first-hand knowledge of Him as teacher, friend and my true Father.

That’s the invitation to all of us: in His presence there is joy everlasting!

Why Believe in Human Rights?

FA5D12B4-1F80-4323-B03D-D6FB71B65C1CNot long ago, I watched pastor, author Tim Keller give a presentation to the employees of Google where he talked about his best-selling book, A Reason for God; Belief in the Age of Skepticism [watch here].

Keller was there at the invitation of the tech giant to participate in their ‘Google Speaks’ series, notable over the years for hosting a diverse swath of some of the world’s most influential thinkers, musicians, journalists, scientists, writers, and the like.

[To give an idea of just how diverse: this same group that gave a platform to Keller (3xs), has also hosted celebrated journalist [the late] Christopher Hitchens (1x) and scientist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins (3xs) — easily two of this generation’s leading voices in what has become known as the “New Atheism.”]

Keller looked at the topic of belief/skepticism from a number of different angles and perspectives. But what I found most interesting is what he had to say about the legitimacy of Human Rights. In making the argument that HR makes more sense if you credit God as their author, he relies heavily on the reasoning of writer, lawyer and atheist Alan Dershowitz.

In his essay ‘Where do Human Rights Come From?’, Dershowitz says human rights is essentially a belief that humans are so worthwhile that we each have certain inalienable rights that shouldn’t be trampled upon. He then asks, “why should we believe in that?”

Dershowitz presents the following possibilities:

a. Maybe HR exist because we believe God made man and endowed him with great worth. But as an atheist, Dershowitz rejects that idea and so moves onto the next possibility.

b. Maybe HR can be found in nature? But Dershowitz answers that everything we see in nature contradicts what we feel and instead screams “survival of the fittest”, where the strong eat the weak: the bird eats the worm, the snake eats the bird and the elephant tramples on the snake. Keller adds if we took our cues from nature, mankind would be even more terrifying than it already is and our lives would be like that movie ‘The Purge’, where one day a year people are allowed to do whatever they like without fear of consequences (judging from the trailer, apparently what they like to do most is killing one another). Humans care about the individual a lot, nature not so much. Dershowitz concludes that he sees no moral law in nature; it is unique to us humans.

c. Mankind creates HR through legislation. HR certainly makes sense for the continuance of society, otherwise there would be anarchy. But Dershowitz dismisses this possibility as well. If the majority makes the rules, irrespective of some preexisting moral law, then what happens when the majority turns cruel and capricious? In other words, genocide is only wrong because we say it is. But what if the majority believes genocide works for the best interests of the community? Nazi Germany. The Aztecs. U.S. Army slaughtering Indians. South Africa (and so on and so on). If you believe HR is owed to the will of the populace, there is no other authoritative voice.  So if 51 percent of majority takes away the rights of the remaining 49 percent, who is to say they are wrong?

Dershowitz says he doesn’t believe society creates human rights and he doesn’t beIieve it is found in nature. He doesn’t believe in God, so what does he say?

Human rights are just there BECAUSE.

He actually says a bit more than that. Dershowitz says HR are the result of a species that, through trial and error, has arrived at certain agreed upon “wrongs we want to avoid repeating.”

Yes, that’s crazy simplistic, but I guess the same could be said about anyone who credits God as the author of right and wrong. Of course, just because an answer is simplistic is not, by itself, sufficient reason to dismiss it as credible any more than it is to give greater credence to an answer because of its complexity.

If you believe HR are a product of the evolutionary process then its purpose is solely to propagate our species. How then do you explain benevolent acts that don’t further our race, that don’t advance the macro, but simply help a single individual — often at the peril of the greater good? For example, if we made decisions simply for the continuance of society, we would invariably head down a path where it’s justifiable to eliminate those whose net contribution is a negative one. Strictly from a pragmatic viewpoint, it makes a lot more sense for the community to euthanize the sick, the weak and the infirmed than it is to prop them up.

Keller concludes by saying the existence of human rights doesn’t prove the existence of God; it just makes more sense.

No matter how you slice up this argument, as long as you believe in the “rightness” of human rights, but reject the idea those rights have an author (i.e. God), then you are stuck.

You’re stuck.

Because the only logical defense of HR as a byproduct of evolution is to somehow embrace the sacred and the secular at the same time. To believe that HR exists, unmoored from the will of the populace, and independent from nature’s base inclination, is to somehow ascribe to it a preternatural status that starts to sound suspiciously a lot like God.

‘The Magnificent Defeat’

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I am a collector of quotes. I am drawn to those that are clever and pithy as well as those able to express an age-old truth in an unexpected and original way. This quote, from author and theologian Frederick Buchner, is more of the latter. Buchner has written more than 30 books and is known and appreciated far beyond the theological world, including The New York Times and the National Book Foundation, where he was once a finalist for the National Book Award. He is 92 years old and lives in New York City.

The Magnificent Defeat, by Frederick Buechner

The love for equals is a human thing — of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.

The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing–the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.

The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing–to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints.

And then there is the love for the enemy — love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.

In the Beginning

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Reasonable (though admittedly biased) Assumptions About a ‘Beginner’

I think it’s safe to assert there is wide-spread acceptance in the scientific community our universe had a beginning.

What has far less acceptance however, is the belief that beginning had a ‘Beginner’ — Someone or Something — that caused that beginning to occur.

For some, the question is not a relevant one. Stephen Hawking said before the Big Bang, time didn’t exist. And if time didn’t exist, he reasons, then there was no time in which a Beginner could exist, much less create. Richard Dawkins has speculated our own universe could be the result of some science experiment from a more advanced race from a galaxy far, far away. It’s an inventive idea but it doesn’t get us any closer to resolving the dilemma of who or what began the beginning; it just kicks the can further down the road (i.e. who or what began the advanced race that began us?).

Despite their confidence that God “is not”, it strikes me they leave themselves an out — of sorts. The rules of logic dictate you can’t prove a negative. In other words, no one can say with 100 percent certainty “there is no creator.” Nearly ten years ago, Dawkins was part of a small group that helped fund a series of advertisements on London buses with the following message: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Dawkins stated he preferred the wording “There is almost certainly no God”. But comedian Ariane Sherine (who penned the slogan), convinced Dawkins by allowing for the possibility that God could exist, he is not compromising his own convictions but is, in fact, upholding the highest ideals of science and critical thinking.

Dawson conceded. But he must have felt like he got the last word when he countered that if logically you can’t disprove god’s existence, then the same can be said about “the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas.”

[BTW, the same rules of logic apply to the believer as well. Just as the athiest can not disprove beyond a shadow of doubt that “god is not”, neither can anyone prove conclusively that “he is.”]

Since even the leading voices in a movement built around God’s non-existence are willing to concede the possibility (however remote) they could be wrong, it might be interesting to explore that train of thought a bit further.

Purely as a thought experiment, imagine this extremely remote possibility is true: there is (or was) a Beginner. But before anyone, myself included, veers off into any one religious camp, let’s see if we can test out this hypothesis with the following constraint: if all we knew about this Beginner is the Big Bang, then what, if any, reasonable inferences can we make about this entity that would withstand the scrutiny of the fiercest skeptic?

Here are just a handful I think are worth considering:

Powerful. There are no words in the English language to adequately describe the power it would take to create a universe.

Mysterious. In many ways, this exercise raises more questions than conclusions: Why did this Beginner begin? Was there a purpose behind its beginning? Was the Beginner created? And if so, who created him, or her (or whatever)? Or if not created, did the Beginner always exist? And if the Beginner has always existed, how is that even possible?

The Beginner likely exists (or existed) outside of what we know to be observable nature. Just as we would not look for or expect to find the artist inside his or her own painting, it is reasonable we shouldn’t necessarily expect to find this Beginner inside its own creation. So the idea that unless a Beginner is “proven” or “discovered” (a condition commonly put forth by atheists before they will believe) — much like the discovery of a new chemical compound or a previously unchartered island in the Pacific — may not be the definitive slam dunk they believe it to be.

Precise. The universe gives every appearance there is a design, a blueprint, a purpose behind creation. There is a preciseness and order that, should we stop and consider, is pretty awe inspiring. “We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that, I am extremely grateful.” — Stephen Hawking

Smart. Really smart. There is great intelligence evident throughout the “design” of creation. When we dissect any of man’s most impressive technological and scientific achievements, we rightly stand in awe of the innovator/scientist/etc. The discovery of the double helix and the twisted structure of DNA is considered one of the greatest milestones in the history of science. Its co-discovers, James Watson and Francis Crick, are celebrated to this day as the founders of microbiology. We can do no less [and certainly a great deal more] with the designer and creator, of not only DNA, but also of Watson and Crick.

Earth is … unique. This Beginner, as far as we can tell, appears to view earth differently than the other planets. Granted, when you consider the vastness of the universe, our sampling size is a small one. But still, until we discover otherwise, you gotta go with what you got. And what “we got” is a planet that is unlike anything else in our solar system. When you consider the unique confluence of chemicals, the shape of our planet, the uniqueness of our orbit and proximity to the sun (to name but a few) — all necessary to create and sustain life, it is difficult to come up with a plausible argument that earth and our sustained presence is anything less than a miracle of the highest order. Whether we credit chance as the author of this miracle or an actual creator, “something” had to thread a pretty small needle to pull it off.

There’s “something” about us humans. This Beginner also appears to have a special regard for US (i.e. you and me). This planet is not only dominated by humans, but there is no another species that comes close to man in challenging his supremacy. Only humans have the physical and mental wherewithal to reason and to build an infrastructure on this planet that organizes and creates systems so our species may flourish above all others.

“Above all others” is an important distinction because we see in nature the ability to organize and create is clearly not limited to us humans. From the vast complexity and organization of an ant colony to the sheer inventiveness and sound engineering of a beaver dam — we see this ability to invent and create throughout nature.

Perhaps a better example of what makes humans unique might be our love for the aesthetics, where we seek to capture that which is wondrous and lovely in nature or in our imaginations and recreate it in our own worlds. Whether it’s an artist capturing a seascape in oils, a director capturing his vision on film, or a homemaker arranging freshly-cut flowers in a vase, our desire and drive to create, simply for the pleasure of it, appears to be uniquely human.  And if the drive to create and love for beauty is inherently human, can we not trace those same qualities back to our Maker? If there is a Beginner, then it’s certainly reasonable to infer that given the rich and diverse tapestry of life here on this planet and the wonders of the observable universe, this Beginner has a broad, colorful and inventive palette.

Provider. This planet we occupy strongly suggests this Beginner wants to provide for its creation. There are countless examples where the “blueprint’ (for lack of a better word) for planet earth includes not only the beginning of life, but its sustainability as well (sun, water, oxygen, the body’s ability to heal, reproduction, fruit and vegetables from the earth; etc).

Personal. Beyond giving humans the capacity to reason, the Beginner also apparently gave us the capacity to feel, to form attachments and to act compassionately. It’s reasonable then this entity would possess these same qualities. How so? Well if the Beginner is cold and impersonal, it doesn’t really follow it would create man to know and experience emotions [particularly those we consider the most desirable] with which it is completely unfamiliar. Again, my aim here is to only make inferences that are “reasonable.” I’m trying — as best I know how — to steer clear from making definitive statements.

This Beginner has standards for human behavior. On this point, I would certainly understand if the skeptic would cry “foul.” Clearly my assumptions have abandoned what is reasonable and are now squarely in the realm of ideological bias. Perhaps, but first hear me out.

I’ve already suggested the Beginner appears to favor human flourishing. If that is the case, if you look at how humans form attachments to one another, build friendships, families, communities, societies, etc., it’s also reasonable to assume this creator hard wired into our design a sense of oughtness, a morality, and that morality would reflect its own. How so? Taken strictly from a pragmatic viewpoint, kindness, charity, forgiveness, honesty, fidelity, compassion, are a great deal more conducive to human fluorishing than selfishness, cruelity, hate, murder, lying, cheating and exploitation.

Of course, despite their harmful impact, these negative aspects of human character are in abundant supply.  What reasonable inferences, then, can we make about a Beginner whose creation — while often magnificent — is so deeply flawed? The first and most readily available answer is if the creation is flawed, then so must be its creator. But these are human beings we are talking about, not smart phones. And unlike the smart phone whose flaws can be fixed via a system upgrade or replaced with the next model, human flaws have proven throughout history to be remarkably resilient (anyone who requires evidence of this statement could use a refresher in human history and in current events). Talk about your slow downloads: if there is an evolutionary fix to our bad behavior, it’s certainly taking its sweet time getting here.

This dilemma of whether the blame for our character flaws can be laid at the feet of our designer, or whether we humans are responsible for our own moral short-comings is as old as recorded history and won’t be resolved here. That said, in another posting I do take a stab at it, as well as trying to address the larger question of how an all-loving, all-powerful God could allow evil and suffering (“If God, Then Why?”).

All I’ve tried to do here is tease out an idea of a Beginner by using some of the same logical constructs a scientist might make in testing a hypothesis. Though truth be told, I’m no scientist. So maybe it’s more accurate to say my assumptions are more reflective of those of an (amateur) philosopher.

I should also acknowledge what the reader likely surmised before they finished reading the very first sentence: my teasing out has a bias and so the assumptions I laid out were intended to confirm that bias. That said, my bias [that the most credible explanation for the existence of life is that of a creator] has no bearing, one way or the other, on the truth.

My intent here is to hopefully jump start a conversation and perhaps challenge the skeptic to take a second look at their own biases, test out their own assumptions and determine for themselves just how reasonable they may, or may not be.

Grading Our Lives on a Curve

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

No matter what any of us believe about God, for some reason, it still matters greatly to us (or most of us, any way) that we believe ourselves to be basically, good people. In fact, I would go as far as saying that we derive a big chunk of pride and our sense of self by how good we judge ourselves to be.

You can agree or disagree with that statement, but give yourself a minute or two to see if it doesn’t resonate, at least on some level, in your own life.

Here’s what I find most interesting about that statement (assuming, for a moment, it is a true one): we don’t make that judgement about ourselves in a vacuum but strictly in comparison to others.

This is not an original thought.

In his classic best seller ‘Mere Christianity’, C.S. Lewis wrote more than 70 years ago that “pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”

Consider a few illustrations:

1 The high achiever takes pride in how hard they work and how much they achieve. They can’t help but look down on those who don’t work as hard as they do and don’t have as much to show for their efforts.

2 The progressive: takes pride in the charities they support; the way they vote, their compassion for the disenfranchised; the issues they care about, and the candidates they support. They do many good things but they can’t help but look down on and judge those who are not as charitable, or are not progressive in their politics.

3 The conservative takes pride in their moral imperatives. This is who they are. This is where they derive their sense of self. They are proud and confident in their beliefs. But they can only be proud and confident in their beliefs if they look down on those who think differently than they do.

4 The moral and/or religious take pride in their piety and how well they follow the rules (at least in comparison to others).

Most believe if there is a God, we get to go to heaven if we live a relatively good life. It’s certainly what I grew up believing. If I thought about it (which I admit wasn’t all that often), I believed our lives were judged on this giant Bell Curve where our good deeds were measured against everyone elses. And by everyone else, I wasnt thinking of the Mother Theresas of the world, but of the really bad people: the Hitlers, the murderers, the guy who invented the speed camera.

But according to the Bible, the good/religious person who thinks they are building a resume and that God will accept them because they are better (or not as bad) as the “other guy”, are as spiritually lost as everyone else. In some ways, even more so because they labor under this false security that they are already in the club!

Let me try to illustrate: imagine we are passengers on a slowly sinking luxury liner. By all outward appearances, everything appears as it ought: the sun is shining, seas are calm and the ship seems to be functioning perfectly well. The steward just handed you your favorite drink. You have a really good book in hand and you’re looking for a lounge chair in the perfect location and spending the next several hours reading and maybe later, a nap!

So the decision to leave the seemingly safe and secure confines of the ship to face the uncertainty of your fate in a tiny lifeboat is not one easily made. In fact, until you actually feel the boat start to list, it may be an impossible one. But if we wait until then, it could be too late.

If you read the Gospels (these are the four eye-witness accounts of the life of Jesus — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), you’ll see that Jesus directs his most severe anger at the religious leaders of the day because they were telling people the only way to earn God’s approval was to obey all the rules and to be better than the other guy. As long as they can check off all or most of the boxes of the religious/good person (i.e. go to church; pray; donate; don’t commit any grievous sins) then they’ve paid their dues; God has to accept them.

But Jesus paints a very different picture of our situation. He says our life, our soul, like the luxury liner, is in imminent danger. And we need to get into the lifeboat.

Now.

The Christian narrative tells us that behaving badly, from the kind that makes headlines to that which “merely” offends, is the result of a world that has declared its independence from its maker, either by shaking a fist denying God’s very existence and claim on our lives, to a more nuanced, passive indifference where our concept of god is more comfortably “re-imagined” and we create for ourselves a malleable, but socially acceptable moral code.

The spectrum of bad behavior is long and varied, but it can be argued the same DNA from which springs forth murder, can be found in different doses, lesser strains with the seeds each of us plant every day of gossip, lying, envy, resentment and malice. The prophet Jeremiah writes in the Old Testament the “human heart is desperately wicked, deceitful, who can know it?”

Whatever your belief, it is hard to refute if it were possible to cure what ails the human heart, you would cure much of what plagues humanity.

At its core, Christianity is a restoration project where God seeks to restore the relationship between himself and his creation. And it is only within the context of that relationship that God can heal the human heart.

The Blind Scientist

3C472407-252C-4D1A-BB8C-B6AAEC5B9412I find present in the atheistic world view this idea there is something grand and mysterious about our beginnings and so they ascribe to the universe, mankind, our DNA, characteristics and traits that take on deistic-like attributes.

Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene” — that only humans have the ability to act in ways contrary to our makeup and do good — is significant in that — whether he acknowledges it or not — he is bestowing a metaphysical will and a conscience to microbiological matter.

At one point earlier in his life, Stephen Hawking appeared to allow room in his thinking for the possibility of a creator, but later decided the grandeur of physics rendered that possibility “unnecessary.”

Still, he and many of the other great thinkers of our time struggle to adequately describe that grandeur without at least alluding to the idea the universe gives every appearance that behind its splendor, there appears to be intentional thought, a plan; A design without a designer.

“We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that, I am extremely grateful.” [Hawking]

But what is even more significant is these men of science, who boast they are free from the childish trappings of faith, are comfortable placing their confidence in the infinitesimally minute chance that life and order came out of some random, chaotic, inexplicable act of nature.

They might not use the word nature, but whatever noun they do choose for the sheer utility of it, they offer very unscientific-like explanations to circumvent certain foundational truths, including the one that says every for every beginning there must be a cause because something can not come from nothing.

Hawking resolved the dilemma of what proceeded the big bang simply by declaring “time didn’t exist.” And if time did not exist, he reasons, “then there is no time for god to make the universe in.” In his mind, this simple syllogism resolves the issue for all … time.

Atheists dismiss god out of hand simply because the idea is too ridiculous for a serious mind to even contemplate. And while they have somehow made peace with the fact there was such a thing as a beginning without expending too much energy on contemplating what proceeded that beginning, they don’t extend that same courtesy to God: “If there is a god,” they mock, “then what was his beginning? Who created him?”

To be fair, the concept of eternity — that something or someone has always existed — is a head-scratcher for all of us. But probably not dramatically more so than how today’s technology would be perceived by someone who lived in the dark ages.

We measure out our lives in years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds.  Every human who has drawn breath has an expiration date. So it’s not all that perplexing our thinking is bound to and constrained by this concept of time; it’s all we have ever known and therefore can understand. But theology says that God exits outside of time: “a thousand years are to Him as a day and a day is as a thousand years.” In other words, time is irrelevant to an eternal God and it only has utility and consequences to us finite humans.

Is any of this proof there is a god? Of course not. But then neither are any of the theories put forth by atheists prove that he “is not.”

One of the better lines of reasoning I have heard on this topic is illustrated by this simple thought experiment:

  1. Imagine a circle.
  2. Now imagine the area contained within that circle represents the entirety of all the knowledge in the universe, that which is known and that which is unknown
  3. As you consider the enormity of all that is contained within that circle, of what percentage would you say you have knowledge? Let’s say you consider yourself a pretty smart human and you give yourself a score of five percent. Draw a pie slice in your circle that represents that five percent.
  4. Now consider the smartest person who ever lived. For the sake of this exercise, let’s say the answer is Albert Einstein. Of what percentage of the circle would you say Einstein had knowledge?  Let’s be really generous and say 10 percent. After all, we’re talking about the smartest guy who ever lived.

If the smartest person who ever lived has understanding of only ten percent of all the knowledge in the universe, then that leaves an awfully big chunk of that circle that is unknown. Is it possible then, that God exists in that unknown chunk of knowledge?

How could any reasonably intellectually honest person answer anything other than, “yes, of course it is possible”? Even if the answer is “yes, but…”, this illustration, if nothing else, presents a challenge to the unshakable confidence of the atheist. And yet, confidence is the very hallmark of atheistic thought. Otherwise, without it they would do well to stop calling themselves atheists and instead acknowledge the possibility their world view more closely resembles that of an agnostic.

Richard Dawkins has heard this or similar arguments before but casts them aside. He reasons that if a god could exist outside of that what is known, “the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies.”

By giving the tooth fairy the same consideration he would give to a creator, Dawkins makes it clear he has no interest in devoting serious thought to a subject he views with contempt. It’s a clever retort, but an intellectually dishonest one as well. This is particularly evident if you’ve ever heard him speculate — quite comfortably, in fact — that perhaps life on this planet is the result of a science experiment by some intellectually-advanced race from a galaxy far, far away.

Again, none of what I am offering here proves there is a god. Just as it is possible a god could exist outside that what is known, I also have to allow for the possibility that he does not. My goal here is much more modest, and that is to explore the idea that the roots of atheism are planted in soil that bares a closer resemblance to faith and ideology than to science and reason.

The atheist can’t find God for the same reason that a thief can’t find a policeman.” Author Unknown

 

 

Evangelicals, Where is Your Faith?

1A907DE6-48D8-44D0-BE74-036CC8A2EF66By David French

(May 2018) This feature originally appeared in National Review (Nov. 10, 2017). This piece speaks so well, so pointedly, to what is becoming the entrenched public personna of evangelical Christianity, where we care more for political power and winning the “culture wars” than we do the cause of Christ. 

There are some Bible stories that really stick with you. Here’s one that’s challenged me my entire life:

Centuries before the birth of Christ, the tiny and vulnerable kingdom of Judah faced an existential threat from the Assyrian empire. The prophet Isaiah’s message to the Judean king, Hezekiah, was clear: Trust God for your salvation. He alone can and will protect his people. The demand for trust was so absolute that Isaiah unequivocally condemned any quest for a military alliance for protection. 

His words echo through the ages: Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord. 

Consider the challenge here: A king is told to shun a military alliance with a pagan power and to face death and destruction alone, trusting solely in God’s deliverance. 

I never forgot the lesson. I remembered the admonitions of Sunday-school teachers, my Bible professors at college, and my pastors: Christians, never forget, our ultimate hope is in the Lord. Be wary of an alliance with evil, even when the need seems overwhelming. 

Obviously, these fools didn’t understand the importance of electing a junior senator from Alabama to fill out a partial term of office. Sure, Hezekiah faced the Assyrians, but by golly we face Doug Jones. We’ve got no choice but to ally with a dangerous, unfit man — a man who proclaims Christianity while systematically violating the law, seeks to deny the most basic civil rights to his fellow citizens, and now faces heavily sourced and corroborated claims of past sexual misconduct with minors. 

I keep hearing these words from Evangelicals: We’ve got no choice. The Democrats are after our liberties. They’re seeking to destroy our way of life. Some even go so far as to say that even if the allegations against Moore are true, they’ll still hold their nose and put him in office to keep Jones from serving three years in the Senate. 

I’m sorry Evangelicals, but your lack of faith is far more dangerous to the Church than any senator, any president, or any justice of the Supreme Court.

Do you really have so little trust in God that you believe it’s justifiable — no, necessary — to ally with, defend, and even embrace corrupt men if it you think it will save the Church? 

Though I didn’t agree with the decision to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I also didn’t doubt the sincerity of Evangelicals who expressed real worry about putting the awesome power of the presidency in Clinton’s hands. But what now? There’s no defensible argument for choosing the “lesser of two evils” in Alabama. Yet I see friends and allies excuse and even defend sins in Moore (and Trump) that they’ve never, ever excused or defended in any Democrat. And for what? To win the news cycle? To gain influence? This disease is spreading, too. 

The Family Research Council, to its great shame, invited Steve Bannon to address it’s so-called “Values Voter” conference. Bannon, by his own admission, helped make Breitbart a “platform” for the vile alt-right, a violent and viciously racist movement that has time and again threatened even the FRC’s Christian friends and allies. What crisis could possibly demand an alliance with such a man? 

I’m beginning to realize that countless older Christians misled their kids and grandkids. They said that moral character matters in politicians. They said they were building a movement based around ideas and principles, not power and party. They said those things right up until the moment when holding firm to their convictions risked handing Hillary Clinton the presidency, and at that point the dam broke. Now, they’re willing to sell out for a lousy Alabama Senate seat. 

The bottom line? Through word and deed they chose to trust bad men and not a holy God. Some apply double standards, granting the benefit of the doubt to ideological allies even as they condemn their opponents. Others distort biblical stories to rationalize their alliances. It was bad enough to see Donald Trump compared to King David. Now we have to endure an Alabama official’s comparison of Roy Moore to Joseph. Yes, I know there are many instances in which godless kings did good things for God’s people. God can turn the heart of any man. But there is a vast difference between seeking favor from an unrighteous ruler and choosing, defending, and embracing the same unrighteous ruler from the start. 

Evangelicals, you’re putting people like Donald Trump and Roy Moore in office. You’re declaring to the world, “He’s our man.” In graver times, God’s people have demonstrated much greater faith. We stumble when the stakes are comparatively low. Our failures will come back to haunt us. There will be woe to those who’ve compromised with evil through lack of faith. A reckoning is coming. May God have mercy on us all. 

S*** Town Theology

60539034-5A2A-4637-B76C-E4D5511CF722Spiritual take-aways from the latest podcast by the ‘Serial’ team

(July 2017) One weekend this past spring, my wife and I traveled to Charlotte and back to visit our son at school. This is a 16-hour roundtrip that cries out for some serious diversion, such as a book on CD or a podcast. We ended up going with a recently released podcast by the same team that produced the last two Serial broadcasts.

The program left a profound impression upon me that speaks directly to my own church’s discussions about how to be a relevant presence in our community. It also provided for me a compelling theological argument for why Christians need to go above and beyond political correctedness in seeking and embracing diversity, not only on Sunday mornings, but throughout our week.

That’s some pretty good theological take-away from six hours or so of listening to a story so profane and bereft of any goodness or hope, that my initial response wasnt spiritual but instead it sent me into 36 hours or so of feeling somewhat depressed. 

The podcast is the true story of the goings-on in Woodstock, a small town in rural Alabama that offers up a fairly unflattering slice of humanity (the podcast is aptly entitled “Shit Town”). The protagonist, John B. McLemore, is this brilliant restorer of antique clocks, and whose expertise is renowned far beyond the confines of his hometown to throughout the United States and even Europe. He is also this profane, bitter, emotional train wreck of a human being who provides much of the story’s narrative by spewing rants at the town he calls home and the larger world around him. It is revealed later in the story that he was gay; a revelation that only added to his sense of isolation and alienation in the rural South.

John never refers to Woodstock by its official name but only as ‘Shit Town.’ He tosses the name out so frequently, so matter-of-factly, that after a while, it became for me the town’s actual name. 

The town folks, or at least those depicted in the story, are racists; have multiple children with multiple partners and spend their free time high or drunk or both; getting into fights, and trying to stay out of jail. I would imagine there is kindness and redemptive acts in this town, but that would have thrown off the producer’s narrative.  

John saves his harshest commentary, however, for the church. He remarks at one point there aren’t enough schools to accomodate the town’s meager populace, but they had 95 churches. Why, oh why would you have 95 churches in a town no bigger than a postage stamp?! It’s never explained, but it’s reasonable to assume that over the years there were petty arguments, discord, and the inevitable falling outs. And so people would go off to start their own church. And of course, there would have to be churches for white people and churches for black people because, God forbid, we would actually worship together.

No wonder the protagonist railed against the church; who could blame him? There was zero evidence any of these churches were making a whisper of a difference in this town. When John dies, there’s a powerful scene where we listen to a recording of the actual funeral service and we hear the pastor speak scripture and words of comfort over a man who was an atheist. The emptiness and bitter irony of a Christian burial for a man who disavowed any possibility there was a God, in front of a sparse audience of friends and family who were there, for the most part, to best position themselves to get their hands on the deceased’s alleged fortune, was played to with great effect.

After some time to reflect, the resulting sadness I felt after listening to the podcast is tied, at some level, to the irrelevance (or animosity) I know many feel toward the Christian church. 

We are decades removed from a culture where church attendance was assumed. In a way, that’s not such a bad thing. One of the things that most struck me when I gave my life to Christ 38 years ago, is there exists a sharp distinction between “Churchianity” and a relationship with Jesus Christ. I got the very real sense that many church goers attend out of some sense of duty or obligation and that churches and pulpits are filled with people who think they are in good stead with God when the reality is they are no closer to God than the guy who sleeps in on Sundays and plays golf. 

That means the lines between “in Christ” and the world should be more distinct and God willing, fewer will be deluded into thinking they are right with God simply because they attend church and they are a “good person.” 

So we are smack dab in a “post-Christian society” (whatever that means). But rather than despair of that reality and rant and rail at the immorality that permiates our culture, I think it presents an opportunity for the church to present to the world an authentic representation of Christ. 

But before that can happen, we first have to stop. 

WE HAVE TO STOP.

We have to stop giving the devil so much ammo with which to discredit the Gospel.

We have to stop presenting this false caricature of Christ to the world where Christanity is identifed more with political parties and accumulating power than it is with loving our enemies and praying for those who don’t agree with us.

We have to stop loving riches and fame.

We have to stop being afraid of embracing those whose stories, cultures and skin color differ from our own.

We have to stop engaging in vain and empty arguments.

We have to stop demonizing those whose views differ from our own.

We have to stop living secret, unaccountable lives.

We have to stop driving/walking by and ignoring those in need.

We have to stop letting the world and culture shape us.

We have to stop judging others for the very things for which we ourselves are guilty.

We have to stop treating the resources God has given us as our own.

We have to stop gossiping and tearing others down.

We have to stop thinking that we have earned or can earn God’s approval.

We have to stop comparing ourselves to others.

We have to stop being afraid of mere man and his opinions.

We have to stop our coarse joking.

We have to stop flirting with and indulging in sexual immorality.

We have to stop taking in entertainment that poisons our mind and dulls our conscience.

We have to stop. NOW.

We have to stop acting like our time on this planet is not fleeting and we have endless days before us. That’s not only delussional but it’s just plain dumb.

We have to stop thinking we can live by the Spirit without having our minds, our hearts renewed every day by the Word of God.

We have to stop living as though we are ‘masters of our universe’ and denying the reality we were bought and paid for with a great price. 

And as we stop, we also have to START.

We have to start seeking the Lord with all of our strength, all of our heart, all of our mind; all that we got.

We have to start humbling ourselves before God.

We have to start asking God to give us a heart for the things for which His heart is inclined.

We have to start loving our neighbors as well as we love ourselves.

We have to start being thankful and generous with all God has given us: our time, our resources, and our very lives.

We have to start walking by faith and not by sight.

We have to start welcoming the stranger living among us.

Start seeking justice and loving mercy.

Start building bridges.

Start being peace makers.

Start to stand in the gap and intercede for the broken, the lost, the lonely, the imprisoned, the widow, the orphan, the sick, and the poor.

We have to start being salt and light in a world that is lost and wanders around in darkness, bumping its collective heads on vain and empty philosophies.

And together, as we collectively fall on our knees before God, repent and seek Him with everything we got, and as we start stopping and start starting, we will see revival. We will see, as Tim Keller says, sleepy Christians wake up, nominal ‘Christians’ get converted, and large numbers of people, once hostile or indifferent to the Gospel, come to Christ. 

Well Whatdya Know; I Really Didn’t Build That!

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I remember a speech President Obama gave a few years ago in which he was trying to make the point that none of us would have the privileges we enjoy if not for the government. Out of that speech came a catch phrase that infuriated free-market conservatives everywhere: “you didn’t build that.”

To be honest, I wasn’t all that crazy about what he said either.

Essentially, his point was this: you know that business you started and now has 200 employees…you didn’t build that. You needed highways to deliver your product. You needed to live in a free society that allows you to pursue your dreams; you needed police and a fire department for protection; and so on.

[His quote was taken out of context and wasn’t not quite the socialist manifesto Republicans tried to make it out to be. But this is not a political post. For those who want to read the entire quote, here’s the link.]

He made that statement during the 2012 presidential election and I haven’t thought about it since until recently.

As I write this post, things at work are flourishing. Everyone is getting along and we are performing at a very high level; our year-end numbers paint a very pretty picture. News of our success has traveled beyond the confines of our office to clients and peers and I find myself on the receiving end of a lot of praise.

And even though I am quick to deflect praise to others and I talk about how “I am blessed”, inwardly I consider how clever I am and how I must be this great leader.

This is coming from the same guy who just a few months earlier, in the midst of wrestling with conflict in the office and criticism from board members, felt like a miserable failure.

But that feels so long ago. I am now in a very different place where, in subtle ways, I begin to see myself as the author of my own success and I am less dependent upon God.

Whenever this change in perspective occurs, I typically remain blissfully unaware until something comes along that threatens my equilibrium. Whether it’s a critical remark that somehow makes its way back to me, or a change in circumstances, I am suddenly, painfully aware that this secure world I’ve built for myself is an illusion.

All those “great” decisions I’ve made over the years?  They could have so easily gone the other way. I think about the dozens of people I’ve known over the years who are a lot smarter, work a lot harder, but for whom success has been elusive.

Soren Kierkegaard says spiritual pride is the illusion we are competent to run our own lives, achieve our own sense of self-worth and find a purpose big enough to give us meaning in life without God. I don’t question that. I’ve seen that played out in my life again and again. I’ve preached that to others. I’ve staked my life, my eternity on that. But I have to come to grips with the reality no matter how dependent I believe myself to be upon God, no matter how grateful I am for the many blessings in my life, there remains in me fragments that seek glory independent from Him.

So, I’ve started to adopt Obama’s meme whenever I think about any success I’ve enjoyed at work: I didn’t build that; God did. At first, I confess the words did not did not come easily to me; instead they felt forced and unnatural.

Am I to receive no credit for our success?

But as I stuck with it, it started to click for me: any smarts I have, any good that I’ve done; I didn’t create me. There are literally hundreds of things that turned out right that could have just as easily gone south or fizzled out.

Obviously, as I look back on my working life, not every decision I made turned out the way I had hoped. There were plenty of losses to go with the wins. God is just as present in those times of failure as He is when the sun is shining and all is right with my world. In fact, I would argue — the Bible would argue — His grace is even more present in those times of trouble.  Because it’s in those times when we are shaken out of our lethargy and our idols are cast down and shattered at our feet that we have the chance to grow in trust and mature.

This is not a post about prosperity, but identity. And it’s the identity that seeks it’s validation from God, and not from man, that can know real peace, real security, regardless of the circumstance.

What to Make of Right and Wrong

 

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An excerpt from ‘Mere Christianity’ by C.S. Lewis

(November 2017) This is just the first chapter where Lewis makes a fairly effective argument against any idea that ‘right and wrong’ are merely social constructs. But he’s just getting started here. This is a very short book that was originally a series of BBC broadcasts Lewis made during World War II. If you are at all intrigued with what you’ve read here, I would urge you to read the book. I just looked on Amazon and there are hundreds of copies priced as low as $1.99. For the first 10 who request a copy, I’ll happily send you a copy. All you have to do is email me your address (mch909296@gmail.com). 

Every one has heard people quarreling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?”—”That’s my seat, I was there first”—”Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm”— “Why should you shove in first?”—”Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”—”Come on, you promised.” People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.

Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: “To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise.

It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.

Now this Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature. Nowadays, when we talk of the “laws of nature” we usually mean things like gravitation, or heredity, or the laws of chemistry. But when the older thinkers called the Law of Right and Wrong “the Law of Nature,” they really meant the Law of Human Nature. The idea was that, just as all bodies are governed by the law of gravitation and organisms by biological laws, so the creature called man also had his law—with this great difference, that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it. We may put this in another way. Each man is at every moment subjected to several different sets of laws but there is only one of these which he is free to disobey. As a body, he is subjected to gravitation and cannot disobey it; if you leave him unsupported in mid-air, he has no more choice about falling than a stone has. As an organism, he is subjected to various biological laws which he cannot disobey any more than an animal can. That is, he cannot disobey those laws which he shares with other things; but the law which is peculiar to his human nature, the law he does not share with animals or vegetables or inorganic things, is the one he can disobey if he chooses.

This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it. They did not mean, of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are color-blind or have no ear for a tune. But taking the race as a whole, they thought that the human idea of decent behavior was obvious to every one. And I believe they were right. If they were not, then all the things we said about the war were nonsense. What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the color of their hair.

I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behavior known to all men is unsound, because different civilizations and different ages have had quite different moralities.

But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own. Some of the evidence for this I have put together in the appendix of another book called The Abolition of Man; but for our present purpose I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him.

You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.

But the most remarkable thing is this. Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining “It’s not fair” before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties do not matter, but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there is no such thing as Right and Wrong— in other words, if there is no Law of Nature—what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?

It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table. Now if we are agreed about that, I go on to my next point, which is this. None of us are really keeping the Law of Nature. If there are any exceptions among you, I apologize to them. They had much better read some other work, for nothing I am going to say concerns them.