God, Suffering and Salvation

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I have complete sympathy for atheists and agnostics.  I’ve wrestled with questions my entire life and whether or not there is a God is always one of them.  But the one thing that I can’t understand is being angry about human suffering, from a rational basis, if God does not exist.  If there is no ultimate good, no greater purpose or meaning to life, on what basis do we make a moral judgment about suffering?

Okay, let’s back up a second.  I’m here at my local establishment drinking another Long Island, one of many since the death of Uriah, and it hasn’t given me an answer as to why he would die of cancer at twenty-four.  The medical diagnosis is simple enough.  He had cancer.  The aggressive kind.  It started with the lump on his ankle during boot camp.  I still have the picture on my phone taken out of morbid curiosity and never dreaming it was a death sentence.

Uriah and I, despite our difference in age, got along in a way that only cousins do.  He was like me.  We didn’t simply accept those easy cliché answers.  He was someone who was both determined and also full of doubts.  He was also the six-foot tall and better version of everything I ever was.  The best part was that I could claim some of his success for myself given that I had encouraged him to continue his college education, telling him that it was better to keep going than to live a life of regrets.

Watching Uriah sacrifice a leg only to have the cancer be found in his lungs a year later. It was a gut punch.  I think I stopped praying, at some point, because I just knew what the prognosis was.  

The hardest part, however, is that Uriah was not the first of his family that I had to carry out of the church on a cold winter day.  His parents had already lost one of their children to a seizure disorder.  His two other siblings are severely disabled and will need constant care.  Judy, his mom, is an incredible woman and has extraordinary faith.  Ed too has great strength of character.  And neither of them wastes any time feeling sorry for themselves despite losing the one healthy child they had to this terrible disease.

Where was God?

When my little Saniyah died, unexpectedly, it was a really big struggle for me.  It took me years to get my feet back under me again, spiritually and emotionally speaking, and I had both doubted my own faith along with the existence of a loving God.  The death of Uriah, along with my disappointments with those whom I put my trust in, and my long wait for Charlotte, have really tested me the past few years.  But, I have those who need me to be strong this time around and, for this reason, have had to push back against falling into despair again.

Nevertheless, I totally get why someone who has encountered suffering in a personal way is angry and denies the existence of God on this basis.  I mean why would this kind of pain and loss be allowed if there is an all-powerful good in the universe, right?  Why would God not intervene and stop this all rather than let us go through such terrible experiences?  It doesn’t make much sense, does it, that we should be left so lonely and struggling if God is good.

However, if we eliminate totally God from the equation, then we dismiss religious morality and must acknowledge that there is nothing written in the fabric of the universe that says our existence entitles us to good feelings.  I mean, as far as evolution goes, pain is more or less a survival tool, a feedback system to tell us what to avoid.  Feeling sad about the death of a friend or family member is, by this logic, a malfunction. 

In this harsh environment, where everything is out to kill us, why would we ever expect anything more than suffering?

The moral reasoning that makes this bad, if you are truly an atheist, is nothing other than a construct.  In terms of pure biology, it is good that fire hurts or we might burn our arms off.  That is pain for a very practical and utilitarian purpose.  Undeniably good if there is such a thing.  But what reasonable good is there in mourning those already dead?  No point in crying over spilled milk, right?  A totally rational being would simply move on to the next social resource and not be so attached or sentimental.

Being upset over suffering and death, if there is no God, is irrational.  And, if there is a God, like that of Christianity, then suffering and death are exactly what we’re promised in this life.  Sheesh.  Did you read the story of Jesus and how he was betrayed, beaten, and then unjustly killed in the most brutal fashion all as part of a redemptive plan?  If you actually believe in eternity then why be angry about a few years living out this rich narrative we call life? 

At the very least, how can we judge anything, especially a fictional character, on the basis of a moral standard that doesn’t exist? 

If there is no God, then there is no basis for morality either.  That too, including the idea that suffering is bad or pleasure is good, is entirely a construct.  Pain is good in some circumstances, it protects us from injury and causes us to change behavior in ways that are beneficial.  In other words, without the discomfort of hunger or thirst, we would not correctly prioritize our life.  Pleasure can be bad when it makes us eat too many donuts and become diabetic.  So how does one truly know that their own interpretation of these signals is the correct one?

From what I’ve observed in myself and in others, unbelief stems from disappointment when things do not go as expected.  It is about who is in control.  We can cling, in our own arrogance, to this notion that the universe should bend to our will.  Or realize that our own perceptions, based on senses which are not very reliable and a brain prone to making mistakes in judgment, are not infallible or ever actual truth.

The thing is we only ever know if suffering is good or bad if it is properly contextualized if we understand the end.  For example, feeling the burn of exercise is good pain because it is what accompanies muscle development and so we embrace this.  So what is the real context of our life?  To what end, or for what reason, did we become conscious?  What is behind this ‘accident’ if it is one? 

How do we contextualize our existence enough to judge what is good or bad?

If there is such a thing as an eternal reward, that would change the calculus, right?  It would mean that all pain can be gain, and all suffering can draw us closer as much as it drives us away because defining the moral character of any experience depends on the end.  I am willing to subject myself to many hardships if the reward is big enough.  No, this doesn’t take away the question of why we must go through here to get there.  But seeing past our immediate feelings is pretty much the only way to make progress.

Angry is a feeling, not a guide for life…

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

C.S. Lewis

People don’t walk away from Christianity for rational or scientific reasons.  Sure, they may guard their emotion-based unbelief behind a wall of post hoc justification.  But the reality is that they’re upset about something.  They had expectations and are now disappointed and acting as wounded people do.  It’s just strange that anyone at all Biblically literate would suddenly lose faith over our suffering when that’s literally the only we’re promised in this life.

What really doesn’t make any sense is why anyone would rather suffer with no hope at all of eternity.  If God is dead, then nihilism is the logical next stop and that life has no real meaning or purpose.  But the suffering does not go away simply because we’re angry at the giver of life.  No, it will only intensify and become a spiral of despair.  Our salvation is in our understanding that, smart as we may think we are, we’re truly quite ignorant and even our most ‘concrete’ reality is not real:

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you. 

Werner Heisenberg

For those who don’t know who that is, Mr. Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1932, for the creation of quantum mechanics.  Materialism, despite the zombie corpse of this thing staggering on, died with the discovery of things in defiance of this entirely too simplistic conception.  Sure, this kind of physics is well-beyond most, but it does support a notion of reality that requires a Universal Perceiver (as described in this article) and we could call that God.

So, if you’re actually serious about science, then the hard science of physics is the place to start and, with its mathematical origin and proofs, is much less likely to be clouded by emotion one way or another.  We can’t run from God.  But we may need to leave behind the baggage of our own misconceptions and learn the value of true repentance.  Maybe Uriah died, and went to his reward, so some of us would have our flawed thinking broken and seek our salvation in Him?

Maybe some of us are just too stubborn, or too needing of control being in our own hands, to admit we can’t save ourselves?

I’ll tell you this.  The universe, without God, is an infinitely dark and lonely place.  It is that starring abyss of which Friedrich Nietzsche warned, the existential horror H.P. Lovecraft describes.  Highly intelligent men, both of them, and understood the implications that come with true unbelief in God.  You will not escape your suffering simply by denying that the Divine all-powerful good exists.  No, rather you will just remain in that hell of your own creation.

Postscript: Questions Remain

I still grieve Uriah, as I do Saniyah, uncle Roland, and others that seem to have been taken before their time. I’ve long struggled against sources of trauma much more basic, the lack of unconditional love in the church that could make up for my shortcomings, and much of that is unresolved. At the time of my writing, the impossibility is something yet to be fulfilled. I do not have answers for any of this nor do I expect to. I’m not the arrogant kid who argued with his high school biology teacher, not a Bible-thumping fundamentalist at all, and yet must believe.

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…

Do People Get What They Deserve?

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In a non-zero-sum game everyone can be a winner.  It is a non-competitive or competitive circumstance where all participants can achieve optimal results and be successful.  In an abundance of resources and opportunities and assuming equality of abilities this is the case.

zero-sum-game is a circumstance where when someone gains another loses. This is true of sports where there is a score kept and a winner and loser at the end. It can be true of the marketplace when two people desire the same property but only one can possess it. It is true of any limited resource.

The right-wing or conservatives prefer the non-zero-sum explanation.  They assume that all things are equal besides effort then they are free to look the other way at those who have not achieved what they have.  This is not always uncaring or completely cold-hearted either—these people have worked hard, often have overcome obstacles (while playing by the rules) and believe others can as well.

However, the left-wing or progressives tell us, and rightfully so, that it is not that simple.  We can certainly say “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” and yet what does one do when life gives you rocks?  I suppose then you throw the rocks at those telling you to make lemonade?

Those who argue that life is largely a non-zero-sum experience and that those who put forward an adequate effort are too quick to dismiss differences in circumstances—they often do not appreciate providence of their own advantages enough.  Sure, people reap what they sow, but can we assume that everyone has the same soil, seeds and weather to work with?

Do people get what they deserve?

We like the idea of karma, that people get what they deserve and everything we have was somehow earned.  This absolves us of responsibility to those with less and allows us to enjoy our advantages in life without guilt.  This is an explanation of things that works for those who are relatively successful and have basically gotten what they want.

Many religious people, to cover for their lack of compassion, go a step further and assume that disability and disaster is a result of sin.

That is why Job’s friends added insult to injury and accused him of having some hidden sin because of all awful things that happened to him.  They were wrong for their assumption that he deserved what he got.

People getting what they deserve is not the reality that Jesus describes.  When asked who’s sin caused a man’s blindness he answered that it was nobodies sin and used the opportunity to bring glory to God by healing the man.  He also used a couple events as a basis for a rhetorical question and answer:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1‭-‬5)

His answer seems to go directly against those who try to attribute calamity to God’s judgment and see success as a sign of God’s favor.  He muddies the water for the sanctimious religious elites with their simple (and often self-congratulatory) black and white explanation.  He defies their people should get what they deserve logic:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43‭-‬48)

It is interesting that the parallel account in the book of Luke uses “merciful” rather than perfect.  Assuming that they are both a paraphrase of the actual words of Jesus and accurate (as opposed to one being unreliable) we can probably combine the two ideas to approximate the correct message.  I believe we are to be perfect in our mercy or perfectly merciful like God.

The message that seems clear in the teachings of Jesus is that nobody gets what they deserve.  He says that unless people repent they too will perish—that neither sunshine nor rain is distributed by who deserves or does not—and with this undermines those who want to put all blame for failure on the individual.

Furthermore, there is no excuse for indifference.  Even our enemies, people who deserve our contempt for things they have done, we are told to treat as we do those who are deserving of our love.  We are to be perfectly merciful because we can do nothing to deserve God’s love and yet are loved despite that.

That is the essence of the Gospel, to do unto others, not as they deserve, but we want God to do to us.  We will be shown mercy we we show mercy and judged as we judge.  If we live by the sword then we can expect to die by it as well.  If we forgive others then we will be forgiven by God.

If nobody gets what they deserve, then what?

Truly believing in the goodness of God is not about crowing on social media when things go right.  No, that is only triumphalism covered in religion and brings no glory to God whatsoever.  Again, some good people suffer terribly for their righteousness while many evil people in the world are both materially and socially successful.

A big bank account or beautiful girlfriend is not proof God’s goodness or else Job’s friends would have been right to torment him further trying to find a hidden sin.  Success is only proof that circumstances tilted in favor of the outcome you desired and attributing it to God’s favor is only to dance on the backs of the bruised.

True thankfulness to God is using the means we are given to help others.  Those with loaves and fishes didn’t thank God loudly then gorge themselves in the presence of the hungry crowd.  No, they responded to the call of Jesus, gave up what many would argue they were entitled to through their foresight and by their sacrifice we have the miracle of five thousand being fed.

It is on us to be an answer to prayer using the means provided to us, being an answer to prayer—that is our thankfulness to God.  Your success or failure in an endeavor says nothing about God’s plan.  Only your willingness to step out in real faith, the faith of going outside of comfort zone and sacrificing for those who deserve judgement, is evidence of God’s goodness.

True repentance is realizing that you deserve nothing and treating others as if they deserve all of your love.  If we truly appreciate God’s grace we will show it in humble actions of service rather than pompous claims of God’s goodness to us.  It was the Pharisee who stood on the corner thankful to God at the expense of others and was condemned for his pride—he knew nothing of God’s goodness:

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)

Sadly many conservative Mennonites and other religious fundamentalists are like that Pharisee.  Even in their thanking God they are self-congratulatory and can barely hide their self-righteous pride under the pretense of praise—evidently they forget pride is the first sin.  In context of the passage above it was the man who prayed “God have mercy on me, a sinner” who left justified before God.

Those who know they are undeserving do not boast in God’s goodness towards them.  No, they share it with others by helping carry the burdens of others who were less fortunate than themselves.  True faith is not about bragging about things we do not deserve—it is about our self-sacrificially serving those who do not deserve.

Perhaps God is not multiplying our effort today, like he did in the Acts church, because we pretend to be thankful for His goodness in our words and yet withhold grace from those whom we feel do not deserve?

Maybe God could turn our zero-sum game into an over-abundance when we let go of our own calculations and plans to trust Him?

So, anyhow…

Shut up about your good life—people already know!  Instead, thank God by being an answer to prayer to someone who didn’t have your advantages.  

Actions speak louder than words.

Truth and Hypocrisy

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In the midst of this age of information overload is it any surprise that deep thinking people give up on the idea of discernable truth?

Competive and contradictory claims assail us from all angles. Advocates on all sides are seemingly equally convinced that they see more clearly than those who of a different perspective. 

We would be persuaded, they say, if we just opened our minds, examined the facts fairly and were honest with ourselves.  But, despite their confidence, to me often all sides seem to lack a clear perspective and bring a bias that is only obvious to those on the other side.

Hypocrisy in Action

How is it the same people who want to string up leaders as war criminals are the same who demand only compassion and understanding for a woman who aborts a life because pregnancy is inconvenient?

How is it that gun owners and passionate pro-lifers are some of the same saying that we should judge all Syrian refugees as a potential terrorist and protest to keep them out rather than value them as individuals as they demand for themselves?

Everyone is convinced in their own minds.  Everyone believes that they think rationally and most can give reasons for what they believe.  But somehow everyone, including some very smart people on both sides, cannot agree on everything and oftentimes we vehemently disagree.

Even those who claim the same religious texts as their guidebook to life arrive at vastly different conclusions about what it says—often with perspective each claiming they are authentic and the others are the imposters.  Both come with carefully crafted theologies and neither side shaken from the moorings of base assumptions that lurk somewhere outside the realm of their conscious thought.

Muslims see terrorism as the result of western intervention.  They can point to the fact that terrorist organizations like Islamic State and al-Qaeda were nurtured to life or a direct consequence of foreign policy decisions of the United States of America.  Many Americans, by contrast, see radicalization as a genetic flaw of Islamic faith and downplay their own responsibility.

We tend to see only the noble intentions of those who share our own particular ideological alignment.  The same people who demand absolute accountability for others are often the most creative at manipulating the evidence in order to absolve themselves of even shared guilt.

Meanwhile, with a smug satisfaction (that I cannot know is genuine or facetious) I sit here thinking I know something and maybe I do?

Could it be that none of us can claim to have a complete picture of the truth and that all of us share some in creating this flawed reality?

I know it is more comfortable to assume our perspective is infallible and the we ourselves have no major fault.  It is easy to outsource blame for the problems of the world, wash our own hands of responsibility, and pretend it is moral to distance ourselves sanctimoniously.  However, isn’t that exactly what is wrong with the other side?

I say we all resolve all the more to clean our own side of the street.  Lead the world by making no excuses and being an example.  If you wish for people to be open to your own perspective try to see theirs.  If you do not wish to be judged wholesale by the actions of a few bad actors then do not judge others that way.

Truth in Action

I believe there is truth to be found, but it is not something we profess so much as what we practice.  The truth is the love that we live and not a proposition that is only possible when others do our bidding.  Truth is our walk in consistent love not our words in hypocritical judgment.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:1-5)

Do we give up on describing truth?  No.  I believe that there is some value in trying to put truth into words and arguing for what we believe is right and good.  However, we must always speak in humility and be as brutal to ourselves as we are to those who see things differently.

Vaccination and Causes of Nepal Earthquake

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There was an earthquake in Nepal several weeks ago.

Most would probably agree that earthquakes are caused by sudden movements in the earth’s crust and are satisfied with a scientific explanation.

However, some are not satisfied with that and turn to more creative interpretations of the ground shaking phenomenon.

One man, an Iranian cleric, claimed earthquake is linked to promiscuous women and gave Islam as the solution.  Another woman, a Hindu, offered this explanation: “Rahul Gandhi eats beef and goes to the holy shrine without purifying himself, the earthquake was bound to happen.”  And, finally, a US pastor, wrote linking topic of pagan shrines and the earthquake.

So, three different people representing three different religions and three different reasons why the earthquake happened.  However, all three have in common a similar logic.  They share an idea that one thing was happening (promiscuity or meat eating or paganism) and therefore the next thing (an earthquake) thing happened.  It is the logic of correlation implying causation.

Those who study logic recognize the potential logical fallacy.  The correlation does not imply causation in this case nor does it in others like it.  It is completely possible that the earthquake would have happened regardless of what people did or did not do.

And, until a person can provide good research that links one to the other, it is not reasonable to conclude a link exists between earthquakes and immorality.

Blaming Vaccines For Childhood Developmental Problems

Vaccines have become fodder for the same type of thinking that blames immorality for a geological phenomenon.  If a child is vaccinated and later a disability or medical condition arises some parents will attribute it to the vaccines.

Parents trust their own perception.  From what they can recall the problems did not begin until after the vaccination and therefore must be somehow linked to the vaccine.  In their search for a link, many will take anecdotes as evidence and proof of a link.  Unfortunately, even a hundred anecdotes showing one thing happened after another is proof of nothing besides sequence of events and not even suggestive of a causal link.

It would be no different from me telling a story of how a friend changed the oil in his car and two weeks later the engine blew up.  Sure, there could be a link between an oil change and problems that develop later in a few cases.  For example, if the mechanic left the oil plug loose, the plug fell out, the oil drained and, without lubrication, the bearings seized.

However, that doesn’t mean a recent oil change caused the headlights to burn out in your own car.  Even if a dozen other people had mechanical breakdowns happen within weeks of an oil change there’s still no proof of a link.  And the same is true of vaccines and disabilities or medical conditions that develop later on.  The link we make between two events is not proof that one caused the other.

Yes, there is possibility vaccines have side-effects, many solutions do have unintended consequences, but that doesn’t justify the assumption that anything that happens after a vaccination is caused by the vaccination.  A link needs to be established that explains step by step how one leads to the other or it is nothing but speculation.

A Desperate Search for Explanation Leads Misattributed Blame

It is understandable that a parent would blame something like vaccines for anything bad that happens afterward.  The idea of sticking a child with a needle seems unpleasant and unnatural to begin with.  Add to that the general mistrust of educated people and profitable endeavors in some circles.  But, be that as it is, sometimes seemingly healthy children hide problems that would develop later on whether they vaccinate or not.

I know a family who had a child that appeared healthy and later died after a series of seizures.  Since the problems started some time after being vaccinated they decided not to vaccinate their future children.  Their unvaccinated second child was completely healthy.  If I stopped there that could be mistaken as evidence.  But, sadly, it wasn’t that simple, their next two unvaccinated children developed similar problems to the first vaccinated child.

Most of us probably understand the absurdity of trying to pin the blame for an earthquake on eating meat or un-Islamic behavior or pagan shrines.  But many do make the mistake of confusing correlation with causation in other areas.  We need to be aware of our own vulnerability to this type of thinking and be on the lookout for the fallacy: Correlation does not imply causation.

As enticing as an explanation is, bad logic does not trump good science, and we need to know the difference or we will be blown about by the winds of our feelings and intuitions.

Sailing Beyond Safe Waters

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I’ve been on a journey of faith.  I have left the comfortable waters and ventured to territory of expectations where few would dare to go. 

Many people claim faith.  But oftentimes what some call faith is actually the safe harbor of religious tradition and cultural obligation.  They never go beyond what is reasonable to themselves or their peers, they live within reasonable boundaries and never question the limits of their own reasoning or grow beyond it.

It requires a small degree of faith to sail in a harbor and some skill too.  But, going beyond the harbor, sailing beyond the navigational charts, trusting that inner compass of promised lands over the horizon and beyond sight, that requires true faith.  It is a faith for a journey that can’t be planned in advance, a journey where provisions could run out, where there is no shoreline to see, where storms arise and hope can seem distant or even an impossibility.

Some days I do long for the simplicity of that harbor I left before starting this journey.  I pray that my faith will lead me to the place of solace that promised to be right over the horizon.  It becomes hard to believe your own eyes when a sight of land at a distance has too many times before become a mirage.  The food has become stale, the rations have been diminished and the ship has been in better repair.

Storms of fear and doubt come and go.  It is hard to distinguish friend from foe in a place where true colors are often hidden and only discovered after a cannon blast has ripped a hole in your side.  There are days of pleasantness, a good tailwind and clear skies.  There are days of fog, days of doldrums, dark nights, moments of terror and times where all seems hopeless.

Still, one has little choice, one must continue to sail on in faith because the harbor is too far gone to return back. You continue ahead knowing only in your heart that is land ahead.  It is a faint glimmer of hope in a vast empty ocean, but it is a hope that cannot be lost. 

So I continue in faith…

What is God?

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“The question is: is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science ‘God’, but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions.”  (Stephen Hawking)

Professor Hawking is one of the most intriguing men of our time.  He is known for his work in the field of physics and was popularized by a book, “A Brief History of Time,” that reached a broad audience.  He is undoubtedly a brilliant mathematician, he can reconstruct the universe in his mind using numbers and formulas, and has basically proved that the universe (including time) had a definite beginning.  But Hawking is agnostic, he sees a big impersonal ‘God’ when he looks into the expanse of space and is probably right about what he sees.

A Small View of God

Many people (religious fundamentalists and atheists especially) subscribe to a small view of God.  They confine God to simple ‘black and white’ human moral or logical thinking (theirs) and essentially demand a God on their level.  But if God is the creative force behind the entire universe, then God is bigger than the universe and also bigger than any of the concepts of morality or logic in the universe.  A big concept of God is a God that transcends universal moral categories and exists above or beyond all human reasoning.  A God bigger than scientific law or religion.

Finding God in Our Humility

Picture humanity as an infant, this earth as our playpen and the universe the house over our heads.  We can see the room, we can speculate about other rooms and theorize about some sort of reality beyond house.  We know house is predictable, the temperatures fall between certain parameters, schedules are somewhat consistent and yet we see through a foggy window that there could possibly be more than the house we are in.  God is like the parent who can come and go, lives beyond the playpen and our childish mind.

Finding God Beyond Our Own Dimensionality

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But my concept and understanding of God goes beyond that have a celestial parent or personality.  I believe Biblical personification of God is simply an attempt to explain what is inexplicable.  Still, I do believe God can give himself personality to relate to us and is more than some vague life force or abstraction.  I believe God is a spirit or mind, but one that dwells beyond the rules of science that govern the dimensions of this universe.  In other words, God sees the Tesseract of our limited dimensionality and exists beyond all dimensionality.

Finding God Beyond Material Reality

I know this might not appeal to those with the materialism perspective who do not feel inclined to accept reality beyond their ability (or the ability of their scientific instruments, mathematics and logic) to see.  But science has many limits.  We cannot scientifically prove our own consciousness exists and still accept it as reality.  Not everything of our reality is provable by experiment or calculations, some things we must just know and accept as reality, the reality of our consciousness one of those things and the idea of greater consciousness another.

Finding God Beyond Cold Calculation

“Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.”  (Stephen Hawking)

Professor Hawking and other theoretical physicists seek a ‘unified theory’ for their science, an explanation for the paradoxical discoveries that upset a simpler idea of the universe, but the day it is found (if these ‘dice’ were left within our reach) there will be more questions unanswerable by science.  Questions of why, of purpose and morality are probably beyond math.  Why we do not believe it is immoral for a cat to eat a mouse, both sentient beings, the cat remorseless, and yet to kill becomes an issue of morality for us.  Why care if the weak are exploited?

A Unified Theory of God

We are sentient, we are also moral creatures and our morality needs to enter the grand equation or we are left with little more than cold calculus that starts with star dust then ends with the heat death of the universe.  We know there is something more just as we know we consciously exist and therefore we need a bigger view of God than Hawking’s.  We need a God so big he can be personally involved or, in other words, a unified theory of an intimate and big God.  Consciousness, morality and science offer us a place to start a pursuit of God, but we need to pursue further…

The Personal and Intimate God

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”  “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”  The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”  Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”  (John 4:19-26 NIV)

Looking Backwards and Beyond the Universe for God

Many search for God, but do they look in the right place to find God?  The religious are like this woman who met Jesus, they seek God in physical objects like places, rituals or books.  The scientific mind looks further out, they search the universe for answers down to the tiniest particles and up to the lights of the sky.  But both are looking outward to find God and truth.  Could it be our mind is the closest possible connection we could ever have to the realities beyond the material, mathematical and time universe?

Finding God in the Moral Mind

If the entire universe can be compressed to the size of a point as small as the period at the end of this sentence, then a God big enough to be simultaneously small is not such a big leap.  So perhaps Hawking, like that woman talking to Jesus, is looking in the wrong direction to find the person of God?