Unapologetic — What Is the Real Proof of Resurrection?

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True or false: The truth of the entire Gospel message depends on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

I’m pretty certain that this is something that both Christians and non-Christians alike, after reading the Gospel accounts, would agree on.  If Jesus remained in the grave, a dead man, then doesn’t that make the entire account of these books a lie?

Recently I was invited to watch a lecture by Gary Habermas, a professor, historian Christian apologist, and author of various books about Jesus.  This after I had expressed a thought on how difficult this central claim of the Gospel would be to accept for a true skeptic.  Presumably, this recommendation was to help me bridge the gap between the claims and reasons to doubt them.

It seems reasonable that Habermas, an expert who believes, would come out with his best argument.  I mean, why waste an opportunity by holding the most solid proof of resurrection for a later date, right?

So, after watching, and taking notes, this is the outline of the arguments made along with my own counterpoints:

1) Most Contemporary Scholars Agree

Habermas spends considerable time talking about the changes in perspectives in the last 30-40 years in academic circles.  Apparently, most theologians are conservative now and he cites a skeptic who has warmed to even the claims that the disciples saw Jesus after his death on the cross.

However, the first thing I see, when someone uses “experts agree,” is an appeal to authority, which can be a logical fallacy if being used as evidence of a claim.  The fact that a majority of doctors had once believed that bloodletting was good therapy does not actually prove anything as far as the reliability of the practice.

So, to a critical thinker, this is a red flag.  He is starting with an appeal that is not a true argument for his further claims or at least not any more than “a consensus of scientists believe” disproves the outliers who disagree with their conclusions.

Everyone else is here, can’t be the wrong place…

But, more than that, the devil is always in the details and there is a bit of a bait and switch in his presentation.  The acceptance of any empty tomb is not the same thing as the real issue at hand which is resurrection.  It is possible that something else could explain the disappearance.  An empty tomb is not itself proof of the miraculous.

So what about this shift in thinking?  

Well, it is no secret that the Western world is falling into unbelief, Christianity is losing influence, and to the point that the ‘liberals’ may have long left the room.  In other words, it could be polarization, where nobody in the moderate middle ground survived, and thus only ‘conservatives’ see theology as being a worthwhile pursuit.

When something falls out of popular favor, like eugenics or white supremacy, then it is not really a big surprise when the hardliners are all that remains.

As a young person, I remember an Evolution versus Creation debate at a local university campus.  Such an event would not even be hosted by such an institution.  The 2014 Ken Ham vs Bill Nye rhetorical battle was held at the Creation Museum for a reason.  And it is not because either of these men are taken seriously or viewed as credible by the mainstream.

The point is most people may simply have moved on and the plurality of those remaining, the current theologians, are the fundamentalists.  There is much talk about the collapse of the center and this change Habermas mentions could be a product of that rather than anything related to the evidence.  

We also have a resurgence of flat earth theories (and the rise of Socialism on the other) which is certainly not an argument for those beliefs.  I guarantee more than 350 pages have been written in defense of Marxism and yet that does not convince me in any way, shape, or form that this ideology is the right way forward.  No, this does not prove or disprove anything as far as the resurrection, but why waste time on this kind of appeal if there’s better evidence?

2) Paul Is Generally Accepted, Even By Skeptics

Of all the writings in the New Testament those of Paul, the Apostle, are the most compelling and probably because this man (despite his own claims to the contrary) is so eloquent in his presentation.  I do find his focus on spiritual transformation to be more inviting than Mathew, Mark, or Luke.  And also his ability to be the odd one out as far as important matters of the faith.

He was a controversial figure, even in the early church, and often put on the defensive by those fighting to preserve the Jewish tradition from Gentile converts.  The account of his Damascus road encounter obviously convinced the right people of his change of heart.  And this acceptance is significant, it is at least an answer to those modern-day Pauline skeptics, namely feminists and contemporary Judaizers, who would have us believe he was in conflict with Jesus.

That said, both Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and Muhammad claimed to have had dramatic encounters.  Both were committed to these revelations they had received and able to convince a large body of people of these claims.  It is always amazing to me how even a fundamentalist Christian can scoff at claims of angels delivering inerrant teachings or laugh off the flight to Medina on the Burāq, all the while accepting Biblical claims.

An undeniably beautiful image, right?

In short, I absolutely believe that Joseph Smith and Muhammad existed as real people.  I also have no reason to doubt that they did not believe what they claim to believe or even that they had some sort of trip and conversion experience.  But the truth of their existence and conviction does not mean their most extraordinary claims are actually reliable.  It does not matter how many people recorded their lives or believed what they said.

So, of course, a man named Paul existed, and perhaps he did have an encounter with an apparition.  I will accept that he was brought into the church.  There is no reason to take issue with any of this.  And I’m sure, if he was indeed out there killing Christians, this was a very welcomed development.  And yet there are also those raised Christian who become Muslims or atheists.  A conversion experience does not prove the extraordinary claims of a particular religion.

3) More Sources Than Alexander the Great

Habermas spends significant time in his lecture discussing the typical criteria for accepting a source.  There is more proof of Jesus, according to what is acceptable by normal academic standards, than there is of Alexander the Great.  Which is no surprise given that Jesus arrived on the scene later and spawned a religious movement through his teaching.

And yet while most everyone agrees that George Washington was a real person, that he crossed the Delaware river, this doesn’t mean that they must accept his ideological perspective or believe the mythology about the cherry tree.  Historic texts, like reporting of events in our own time, can be almost entirely fact, yet also be embellished or just incorrect on details.  

The biggest lies are always laced with facts.  It is how so many people are snookered.  A charlatan will make many credible claims to establish themselves.  They may have credentials and compelling stories.  The New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty, won a Pulitzer Prize for his glowing coverage of the Soviet Union.  That he included many verified facts in his accounts does not mean his writing was not deceptive.

The reality is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  If I were to list off my activities for the day, that I went to Dunkin for coffee, to the gym after that, and then broke Usain Bolt’s 100 meter sprint time, would finding independent verification of the first two claims bolster the last claim that I’m now the fastest man alive?

Most of the Bible being reliable does not mean every claim being made is true.  Being correct on a million mundane facts does not prove any of the most extraordinary claims contained.  No, it does not even suggest we should be less skeptical.  Maybe this makes some of us uncomfortable, but this is a normal burden of proof that we place on those who are outside of our own belief system, why not use the same standard for ourselves?

The big difference between Jesus and other historical figures is that nobody is telling me to devote my life to Alexander the Great.  It is one thing to believe that Abraham Lincoln existed as a real person and a significant figure, and quite another to say that he resurrected from the dead and ought to be worshipped as God.

4) We Can Trace the Narrative Back

Most of the New Testament was written down long after the events took place, this is something generally agreed on by all sides, and Habermas does have an interesting response for those who would use this as a basis for skepticism.  This, I believe, is where a general consensus is good enough.  It is silly to argue that Jesus did not exist or that the narrative was entirely fabricated well after the fact.

Close is not the same as complete. Not even close.

And yet, again, this tracing narrative back, using catchy phrases to suggest that these things had been established early and then were passed along made me think of modern memes or protest chants that are created in response to real events.

Michael Brown, for example, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  Soon a phase, “hands up, don’t shoot,” became the rallying cry and is a short version of this idea that Brown was gunned down while simply trying to surrender.  However, both a St Louis County grand jury and a US Department of Justice investigation cleared the officer of wrongdoing, the actual evidence points to the teen being in a physical altercation with the officer, and the catchy chants, therefore, are not an accurate representation no matter how popular.

The thing is, if we can’t get things right even days after the actual event, does gap or no gap matter? 

It really does not.

5) Why Die For A Lie?

Joan of Arc was an extraordinary young woman.  She managed to inspire her people to fight and is a wonderful icon of faith and courage.  But eventually, she fell into the hands of the English, who had every reason to hate her guts, and they put her on trial for ‘heretical’ exploits.  There is every indication that she was cooperative to the point that there was no justification for her execution and had likely been forced to violate the terms so they could kill her.

The martyrdom of the disciples of Jesus is something many Christian apologists tout as being hard evidence of the resurrection.  As in who would die for something that they know is a lie?  And this is indeed is proof of the commitment that these men had made to the Gospel message.

But let’s consider what happened to the Millerite movement when their prophecies about the Second Coming proved to be false.  Did they give up their delusion or even entirely reject the teachers that had misled them?  Some did.  But, as with Harold Camping, who spiritualized the prediction post hoc rather than admit being wrong, this is what is now the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

So why do people remain committed to something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary from an outsider’s perspective?  

It is this little thing called confirmation bias, we become emotionally attached to the things we believe and to the point of being blind to the obvious.  As the saying goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”  And people who have had their belief system falsified will simply modify as much as necessary and then move on as if nothing happened.  Why?  Well maybe because it is too hard to start from square one, to admit being wrong, or perhaps because the community and values feel too important to give up?

So, since I have my skeptic hat on, and we already know that the disciples had been looking for a literal earthly kingdom, what is to say they did not pick up and run with an alternative rather than return to the lives they had before.  I mean, even most agnostics will claim that Jesus was a good teacher, so this could be justification for building a mythology to sell this better way.  For radicals the ends often justify the means, lying is not forbidden if for a righteous cause in Judaism.

Anyhow, if backed in a corner, if you’re likely killed even if you do recant, why not refuse to go along with what your persecutors want?  I doubt Joseph Smith would have given his tormentors the satisfaction of admitting that he never had his angelic encounter.  That doesn’t make Mormonism true.  No, this is just how we are.  Pathological liars are so convincing because they believe their own lies.  What Jesus taught was revolutionary, people die for less all of the time.

Is That Really the Best We Have?

I know that I’m not going to win many fans amongst my Christian audience by giving an honest answer to the apologetics they offer.  I’m sorry, it may work for many who already buy-in, it may be enough to convert a few, but I simply cannot be impressed.

That said, I do appreciate Habermas for his admitting that the Gospels do not always agree perfectly, and also admire those who can engage in the long form of argument too tedious for my own tastes.  

Still, all said and done, these sorts of arguments can never span the gap between the extraordinary claims and the most capable skeptics.  It is nibbling around the edges of proof and really only ever evidence that is convincing to those who come in with the right presuppositions—like those claims of the miraculous as an explanation to things not yet explainable.

In his questions and answers follow-up, Habermas mentions how many do not believe for emotional (rather than rational) reasons.  He points to C.S. Lewis as someone who fell away from faith over the death of his mom before his eventual rise as a Christian thinker.  However, the same is also true for why people believe.  We want a world with purpose and meaning, and the Gospel narrative provides this.  It is harder to give up a comprehensive belief system, even if it makes no truly testable claims.

It just feels like apologetics always relies on strawman versions of skepticism.  Even if I fell totally into unbelief, I could never dismiss all of Scripture.  But I also have seen, first hand, how incapable people are at getting the facts right, how they see what they want to see and delude themselves.  I know because I’ve made the error of pursuing something, in sincere faith, that could be falsifiable and was forced to swallow the hard reality of my self-deception.

Most who profess belief in Jesus will never be so bold as to risk it all on something that can be disproven.  They believe things that are written in a book, they attribute their good fortune to God’s goodness or try to accept the bad as being loving discipline, without ever putting it to the test as they would if they had actual faith.  It is as if they hope if they never question then maybe the dream of eternal reward will come true and thus run from any chance of encountering a serious refutation.

The thing is if the resurrected Jesus needed to appear to Peter, James and Paul before they would believe, then why not appear to us all? 

Is there an answer to this that doesn’t come off like an excuse?

It isn’t like the creator of the universe lacked the budget.  And that the most important decision in our lives would come down to believing the eyewitness testimony of a handful of first-century men, this seems rather odd.  Don’t get me wrong either, the Biblical narrative is quite fascinating, the miracles, angelic visits, and promise of life after death to those who believe, it is wonderful. The teachings of Jesus have led to a more compassionate era. Still, the claims like the virgin birth, walking on water, and raising the dead aren’t exactly things a rational person would accept without seeing these miraculous events for themselves.

The biggest problem with the apologetics of Habermas is that it relies on a false dichotomy.  A reader doesn’t need to be able to accept that a source is perfectly reliable to believe some of it is true.  There is a multitude of possibilities as to why the disciples would go with the resurrection narrative.  First, it is much easier than saying they wasted their last few years.  Second, it sells the teachings of Jesus better than anything else.  And third, it can’t be falsified, how does anyone disprove what they claim to have seen?

The possibilities are endless.

This is not to say that the disciples were delusional or lying either.  My point is that it is too easy to see an argument as being stronger than it is.  It is annoying, perhaps, that we can’t rely on apologetics to do the heavy lifting of the Gospel, nevertheless, the only resurrection of Jesus many people will see is that which is embodied in us.  What that means is self-sacrifice and bridging the gap of unbelief with the substance of love. 

Talk is easy, actually taking up the cross is not…

Mennonite Ordinances and Anabaptist Disregard for Sacraments

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A good friend of mine, a Mennonite, was quite upset with a particular social media provocateur (who self-identifies as marginally Mennonite) and his attack on Holy Communion—which he described as being “basically symbolic cannibalism” and “a man-made ritual” that “can be left on the shelf with no deleterious consequences.”

Then he goes on to say:

“I urge all liberal-minded Mennonites to just stop eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood. It holds no salvific power. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Nor does it earn brownie points with God. Further, it’s a major turn-off to people outside the church bubble (for those who care about how the church is perceived by outsiders).”

Most Mennonites, even the mainstream ‘liberal’ types, would reject this as profane and ignorant babble. It is an attack on the very foundation of Christian practice and makes me question if this individual is truly concerned with winning people “outside the church bubble” or the future of the church. His religious ideology, having myself sampled some of his writing, seems to be: Nothing is sacred.

What is interesting about this individual is their claim to be an Anabaptist radical. This claim might rankle conservative Mennonites (especially those who see themselves as the true owners of Anabaptist identity) and yet these words spoken against sacraments are truly quite consistent with the words of a feisty Dutch Anabaptist widow (recorded in Martyr’s Mirror) in response to a question about Holy Unction. This is what she said: “Oil is good for salad, or to oil your shoes with.”

I guess nobody told her “Christ” means anointed one?

Whatever the case, most modern Mennonites do not take such a cavalier attitude towards the sacred and are a bit more Orthodox than their radical roots. In fact, Mennonites more formally reintroduced sacraments (albeit in different description) by their acceptance of the “seven ordinances” listed by Daniel Kauffman 125 years ago: Baptism with water, Communion, Footwashing, Prayer Head-Veiling for the Women, greeting with the Holy Kiss, anointing with Oil for the Recovering of the Sick and Marriage.

Kauffman’s ordinances represent a reversal of the Anabaptist woman’s hubris. He obviously saw the use of oil beyond the application to shoes and salads. But, through his use of different language and by his additions and subtractions (Women’s Head-Veils, Holy Kiss, Footwashing gave in place of Chrismation, Confession, Ordination) from the original listing of seven sacraments, he still maintained a deliberate distance from the established tradition of the Church.

What are sacraments?

Sacraments, simply put, are the “sacred mysteries” of the church. It is also important to note that Orthodox Christians, while they do recognize the seven sacraments listed by Roman Catholic, do not believe the sacraments are limited to just the seven listed and see everything the church does as a sacramental, according to to the OCA website: “All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God.”

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56 NIV)

Of the sacraments, Communion (called the “Holy Eucharist” (the word ‘eucharist” means thanksgiving) is the “sacrament of sacraments” for Orthodox Christians and the center of Church life.

Holy Eucharist is simply taking Jesus at his word:

And [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:19-20 NIV)

Jesus clearly calls the bread his body and describes the cup as being the “new covenant” in his blood.

It is interesting that many Protestant fundamentalists—who pride themselves in being Biblical literalists, and modern self-identifying Anabaptists—who insist that they take Jesus at his word more than others do, come to passages like that above, then suddenly start to hem-and-haw and try to explain around what is plainly said.

Perhaps their discomfort is the same as is described in the following account:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:32-66)

With this, Jesus went from being an interesting teacher to being some kind of mystical weirdo and possible lunatic. It is also little wonder that pagans brought accusations of child sacrifice and cannibalism against early Christians. (Sorry, Charlie, it takes no creativity whatsoever to agree with sacrilege that dates the 2nd century AD and it is not a big surprise if this “hard teaching” continues to turn people back from outside the Christian bubble.) Not everyone can believe this claim then nor do all believe now. But that is what Jesus said and is what the faithful have taught for two millennia. The bread and wine encapsulate the sacred mystery of human relationship with the life-giving Spirit and this practice of Holy Communion is a necessary part of the Church together being the incarnation of Christ.

Human knowledge and personal ideals cloud spiritual discernment.

The presumption of absolute knowledge, which is the cardinal sin of the rational spirit, is therefore prima facie equivalent to rejection of the hero—to rejection of Christ, of the Word of God, of the (divine) process that mediates between order and chaos. (“Maps of Meaning,” Jordan B. Peterson)

Unbelief takes many forms. Not everyone leaves the fold when faced with something that seems irrational to them. We know Judas remained on the margins despite his disillusionment with Jesus and his doubts eventually led to betrayal. We also know Peter’s faith seemed primarily a delusion about an earthly kingdom where he would be at the side of an important political leader and the unwillingness of Peter to accept the ultimate sacrifice (and of his personal ideals) led to denial and a sharp rebuke from Jesus:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns. (Matthew 16:21‭-‬23 NIV)

The suffering and death of Jesus was something Peter couldn’t reconcile with his own ideals. It was a horrible ending to his hopes that would need to be fiercely resisted. Peter treats Jesus like I would a friend who is depressed and needed a pep-talk. Unwittingly he used the same reasoning that had tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus faced a hard choice, he needed to be courageous, focused on his mission, and face death head-on—but Peter was encouraging him to take the easy way out in the same way Satan did earlier.

Peter was guided by his personal ideals and Judas by his human rationality—both men failed to understand the divine mystery unfolding before them—both presumed incorrectly and neglected possibilities that went outside of their own established knowledge.

The whole Gospel narrative is centered on Jesus dying on the cross and conquering death. From a rational standpoint, why couldn’t God just have forgiven our sins and granted us eternal life without sending an icon of himself in the person of Jesus? Surely God can identify with his creation without having to go through a physical manifestation for himself, right?

Was it symbolic?

Was it necessary for our salvation?

Perhaps both and more.

But, whatever the case, we don’t know why there needed to be an “image of God” (Colossians 1:15) or why our salvation is tied to Jesus having the experience of a very literal physical death. All we know is that this going through the motions was important to Jesus and therefore we should not be surprised when our faith requires our participation in rituals that we do not understand. We go through the motions of Baptism and Communion, not because of anything we can prove through human logic and reasoning, but simply because we believe in Jesus and accept a reality bigger than ourselves.

Saying something is *only* symbolic undermines the reason for doing it. One way to rationalize around sacraments is to divide the sacred from the symbol. That is to say, some attack the idea of sacraments by declaring the ritual part of them to be “only symbolic” and deny any actual value in the going through the motions. If that were true, then we should take the advice of provocateur and cease all activities that might make outsiders feel uncomfortable. I mean, if a practice is only symbolic and our ultimate goal is to win converts, why not?

Everything in our life can be deconstructed or explained away as meaningless. Why go to work when everything we accomplish will eventually vanish into dust? Why stay faithful to marriage knowing that sooner or later the end will come and the commitment is forgotten? All of the joy and purpose a person finds in life, depending on perspective, can be reduced to electrochemical activity in the brain and lacking in any true substance beyond that. Reason and logic are useful in debates, but they do not provide an antidote for feelings about the futility of the human experience nor answer the question of why to live.

To say a sacrament is only a symbol is like saying a baby is only a colony of cells or math is just numbers and nothing more. Our lack of understanding the significance of something doesn’t make it any less necessary, valuable or sacred—it only makes us ignorant and unwilling to transcend our own knowledge. From a rational perspective, does being dunked or drizzled in water do anything besides make someone different degrees of wet? Why bother to Baptize, take Communion or do anything if it is only symbolic? If salvation is not at stake and if there is no spiritual healing or real benefit, why even bother to go through the motions?

In Scripture, healing is often tied to physical objects and absurd actions. It is one of those curious patterns throughout the books of the Bible. People are saved from ailments and forgiven by God through various rituals. Like that time when the Israelites were complaining about basically everything, then started to get bitten by venomous snakes, and begged for help:

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:8‭-‬9 NIV)

There is also the story of Namaan, in 2 Kings 5:1-19, who had leprosy and to be healed he was told to do something that makes no sense:

Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. (2 Kings 5:10‭-‬14 NIV)

Both of those Old Testament cases required “skin in the game” and tied an individual’s healing or salvation to their performing a specific act. There is no rational explanation as to why someone would be healed of leprosy by dipping in a particular river nor why looking at a brass object would cure a person of anything and yet that is what we read.

So what about the New Testament?

This same pattern of healing through odd and seemingly unrelated acts continues. We read how Jesus mixed spit with dirt to heal someone’s blindness (John 9) and how a woman’s touching of his garment healed her:

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matthew 9:20‭-‬22 NIV)

Note: Jesus didn’t tell her she was silly for believing that touching his clothes would heal her or otherwise correct her action. No, she is commended for her faith and immediately healed. And, this pattern of healing through actions—through laying on of hands and involvement of objects—did not end with Jesus either. We read about it in the book of Acts as well:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11‭-‬12 NIV)

Perhaps we are more sophisticated than they were and thus can dispense with this kind of sacramentalism?

Truly, if there is no spiritual value to it, why should we even bother going through the motions of Baptism, Communion, etc?

We can try to turn church life into a totally rational experience and do away with all the mystical nonsense. We can re-label sacred mysteries—call them symbols, ordinances, ceremonies, signs or whatever. We can minimalize the sacraments and continue to water down their significance, condition ourselves in a way that will make the keeping of these practices optional, downplay partaking of the body and blood, do it only twice a year—eventually stop attending services altogether because it is irrational.

A church without sacraments is not a church.

The complaint of Protestants and Anabaptists was not completely invalid. Roman Catholicism had blurred the lines between sacrament and their own institutions and systems. Unfortunately, this led to an overreaction that did not always distinguish well between what was corrupted and the sacred mysteries themselves. The end result of this “reformation” has been disastrous disunity and disintegration of the church—which is not a sign of spiritual life.

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve entered into Orthodoxy is the strong emphasis on church unity and incarnation. The emphasis is on the special spiritual connection between all Christians (past, present, and future) through partaking of the sacred mysteries together. It is, in fact, through sacraments that the church becomes necessary in the life of the individual. Baptism, Communion, Chrismation, Confession, Ordination, anointing with oil and Marriage are things we do together as a church and underscore the need for God, the things he has instituted and each other.

If the only point of sacraments were only to push against our own human rationality (which is often faulty and is always finite) and seek what is greater, then there is great value in them.

Sacraments bring us together, they give us a common identity and point us to truth beyond our own understanding. In the various examples of miraculous healing in Scripture there was often no logical connection between the action taken (or required) and the result. They didn’t know how it worked, they simply had faith, obeyed and were healed. Perhaps the only way to gain spiritual understanding is to let go, to stop depending on our own limited knowledge and start to depend on something that is greater?

Perhaps it is to counter the heresy of Gnosticism, both ancient and modern?

Whatever the case, to try to rationally explain a sacred mystery entirely misses the point. Furthermore, there is no need to separate or distinguish the healing God does in our lives from the sacraments themselves. We know that the thief on the cross was saved just for saying “remember me” and his faith in Jesus. But that doesn’t mean our own faith won’t require us to sell all we have like the rich young ruler or dip in a muddy river like Naaman. It doesn’t mean we can replace sacraments with our mere mental assent to a proposition and be healed or saved from our sins either.

The words of Jesus are useless to those who do not have faith and, likewise, sacraments are of no benefit to those who do not believe in them. The church should welcome all who wish to repent of their sins and participate in the sacred mysteries. But it does not seem at all reasonable or rational for the church to cater to those who do not hope to transcend themselves, their own experience and knowledge.

In the end, one can call sacraments by any other name and still have a church—but a church without sacraments is really only a social club and not a church.

What We Believe, Does It Matter?

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What we believe matters.  What we believe changes our reality.  Belief matters because it changes the way we act.  If a person believes something they will live in a way that reflects the reality of their mind and work to create that reality.

If I believe I am disadvantaged, discriminated against or am cut off from a path to success, then I have also excused myself from making a full effort to overcome.  However, if I believe success is achieved by meeting challenges and adversity without making any excuses, then my trying may overcome the obstacles.  If I believe success comes from hard work and perseverance I will actively pursue it rather than wait around for my fate to be determined by my circumstances.

In practical or pragmatic terms it is better to believe there is hope.  Hopeless people go through the motions of life, they hold back because of their cynical attitudes and when their lack of effort results in failure they take it as proof of determinism.  When we believe things cannot be changed we are actually promoting that end.  There is truth to the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We can build positive or negative feedback loops depending on what we believe and how what we believe changes the way we act or react.

Some saw only giants…

What we believe changes how we view the evidence.  In the Bible there are multiple accounts where perspective had practical consequences.  There is the story of twelve Israelite men sent to spy on Canaan (Numbers 13) who saw the same evidence differently.  Ten of the twelve saw only impossible odds, plead their reasonable case against the promise, convinced the multitude to fear and doomed themselves to wandering.  However, two of the twelve saw victory over the obstacles and they did eventually see the promise fulfilled for them.  Unfortunately, because of the unbelief of others, even their fulfillment was delayed.

With a negative perspective could very well be robbing ourselves of a chance for success.  But, not only that, we may be robbing others as well because we aren’t giving our full potential.  When we take a fatalistic ‘it is what it is’ attitude towards something what we are actually doing is saying that we are unwilling to take steps to change what ‘is’ and make it better.  It is not an acceptance of reality, no, it is an excuse to be mediocre.  It is justification of our being indifferent rather than taking steps in faith to change circumstances for ourselves or others.

Cynicism and skepticism seem to be the ‘gods’ of our time.  And, while I am an advocate for critical thinking, I desire to use it as a means to strengthen humanity and not to destroy faith in the better.  I am not arguing in favor of foolhardiness.  I do not believe faith in the future is an excuse to be ignorant or unaware.  But, what I am saying is that we need to shoot for the impossible or we won’t even live the best of the possible.  It is the faithful who should be leading the way towards the ideal and without compromise or fear.

Unbelieving Christians…

There are many who claim to believe that the fantastic claims of the Bible are true and yet few who seem to accept the full implications of what doth dwell therein.  It is subtle, it often hides under cloak of theology or spiritual language, but underlying this ‘appearance of godliness’ (2 Timothy 3:5) is a heart of unbelief and doubt.  I can tolerate defeatism outside the church, but within the community of faith defeatism is inexcusable, it is spiritually dangerous ground and robs of us of our full potential as people of faith.  There are three areas where I see Christians accepting defeat and in the process defrauding themselves and the world.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

The Bible tells us all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and that to set the stage for our understanding a need for saving grace.  Yet that is NOT an excuse to continue in sin. (Romans 6:1) The mentality that will lead to spiritual victory is that which seeks to overcome sin rather than wallow in excuses for sin.  I can hear the chorus of “yeah, buts” in protest.  I know all the excuses because I have made them.  To those making excuses by citing religious tradition and theological exemption, read Mark 7:13.

Ironically, it is sometimes the same who attempt to apply the letter of their own law or tradition, who justify their own personal and group shortcomings.  They strain on gnats and swallow camels (Matthew 23) sowing the seeds of their own failure.  All have sinned.  Sin is falling short of perfect love.  We need grace for our own failings and need to show grace as those shown grace.  However we aim for perfection because to aim for less we are actually sabotaging our full potential and will likely feel need to justify ourselves by pointing out the failures of our neighbors.

To those I have judged for their sins while not dealing completely with my own, I apologize and offer my repentance.

“This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,     your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9)

This is the prototypical prayer Jesus offered his followers.  It is commonly referred to as the “Lord’s prayer” and recited religiously.  But, if one were to consider the implications, it should change our expectations and how we live.  There are two things we can assume, a) we could assume we are to pray this as mere wishful thinking, or b) we can take it literally and do our part to bring heaven to earth in faith.  It is an unfortunate feature of popular eschatology that seems to dampen the enthusiasm of some to make a positive contribution by a presumption that it will not make a difference what we do.

When we see the world with a rental car mentality we cease to take care of it as a gift from God.  Worse, too often this attitude is not just negligence towards the environment, but it also seeps into our attitude towards people and we become as Jonah sitting waiting (even hoping) for the judgment of the polluted and imperfect world.  To have that perspective is to extinguish our potential as a salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16) and deprive our neighbors along with future generations of a better world.  We are essentially tying the hands of God (goodness) when we accept a corrupt world.  It is our job as people of faith to swim against the current and bring heaven to earth.

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly  I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”  (Mark 11:22-24)

The passage above, a refrain repeated in the Gospels. It identifies the real root of our low expectations and the root of our low expectations is a heart of faithlessness.  We do not see the full potential of God’s love for us because we do not believe, pray in belief and act in full faith.  This cynical faithless attitude is the same that prevented Jesus from doing works he was doing among others who had faith (Matthew 13:53-58, Luke 4:14-30, Mark 6:1:6) and it is a spirit still alive today in religious circles today.  It is a spiritual ignorance, it is an idea that boxes in God by our own understanding, and limits our full potential.

Beware of what you think you know lest you repeat the same mistakes of those who limited not only themselves but also those who were with them.  Faith is not fatalistic.  Faith is a mind set on success in all areas of life, having a heart that believes all things are possible and acting with a will to overcome impossibility.  It is an attitude without fear of giants, not deterred by walls or oceans and has hope in all people.  It is with this kind of faith that the promises of God are made real as experiences today rather than a mythology in the past or a delusion about the future.

The radical faith…

I say, instead of spreading unbelief or doubt, and instead of living in doom or despair, become open to the better possibility and act to make it a reality.  I’m not saying to be ignorant of suffering, nor that life is all sunshine and rainbows for those with radical faith.  No, if anything, with higher expectations comes a greater burden; a person who believes does not sit idle waiting for the future to come to them.  A person with faith is more active and vulnerable.  Still, those who try and stumble occasionally are better than those who spiritualize their defeatism and never act practically to bring what is better into reality.

“In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.   But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (James 2:17-18)

Believe and live life an abundance rather than be resigned to fear or failure.  Be wise, be aware and live in faith.

Go bring heaven to earth.

Make no excuses.