Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Aged Wisdom

"Religion provides solace for the chaos it creates." -Retired Mennonite pastor.

We can't say that about politics, that's for sure.

Religious Persecution v. Support

Mind you, in some nations certain religious groups are needing special protection, like, for instance, Feng Shui in China. And religious people are often persecuted for their religious belief that is different from the mainstream belief. Baptized Muslims are severely persecuted by families. Baha’i groups are persecuted in Iran.

This is a part of the cultural process of change. A group comes up with an innovative cultural idea that varies from the mainstream. The alternative group is persecuted, which makes them tightly knit. The persecuted group is granted sympathy by some of the mainstream culture. This grants them a semi-legitimate status, which the authorities tend not to recognize. Then the culture adopts the alternative group as their own, thus changing the landscape of the mainstream culture.

However, it is damaging to grant established religious groups protected or a special status. First of all, it circumvents the process of normal cultural change. It grants an established group the status of a persecuted group, and even more. This causes damage to the established group, in many ways. First of all, because the leaders of the group tend to be afforded the status and comforts of important leaders, they do not normally strive for truth or morality, nor are they given to the energetic exuberance that truth-seekers are known for. Yes, truth-seekers can be guilty of tunnel vision or judgmentalism, but that is how new ideas are born.

If religious leaders are striving after status and comfort instead of truth, then they tend to fall back on traditionalism and ritual, which are the real killers of religion. If a religion is only looking to the past for truth, instead of applying truth and morality to modern circumstances, then the religion is fit for only those who look to the past. For this reason, energetic groups can die as their congregation ages. They are stuck in tradition and ritual and so have nothing to offer young people. And it is this traditionalism that often destroys any positive progress and forces people to live in old ways that don’t work for the new cultural mainstream. Nor do they challenge the cultural mainstream with a better ethical perspective.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Humanity Is The Problem

Mr. Hitchens spends a lot of time resting problems at religion's door. In one section, he lists out atrocities made against children: The passing of genital herpes to newborn boys in a circumcision rite, the molestation of children by Catholic priests and female circumcision. He also mentions various wars and religious-based enmities.

I love the joke he mentioned at one point:
An atheist is walking down a street in Belfast, when a group of young men approach him and threateningly say, "Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?" The man explains that he is neither, but an atheist. Unfazed, they respond, "So. Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?"

But the joke hints at the weakness of his argument. He is putting all of these faults at religion's door, as if were religion not there, these issues would never have happened. However, the problem is not religion, but humanity.

The fight between the Catholics and the Protestants in Ireland have little to do with religion, per se, but with a cultural clash in which religion is simply the label. Hitchens mentions that the fight between the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" should better be termed "religious cleansing"-- but that is clearly not true. The clash is one of worldview, of which religious beliefs are only a part. There are values that have nothing to do with religion, and beliefs that are not taught in churches or a mosque.

Female circumcision is not a religious practice, but a tribal one, based on tribal values that have nothing to do with orthodox Islam. The molestation of children in the Catholic Church is in opposition to the practice of the church, not in accord with it. And while we can say that their practice to cease this practice was inadequate at best, the records show that they did try to stop the practice. (I'll put a post in my personally named thread about the actions at a later time) Certainly mentally ill people have used religion to further their own damaged minds, but they are not using it in an orthodox way or a proper way.

Let us suppose that religion was eradicated a thousand years ago. No one believed in God or that values come from religion. Do you think that any of these practices would have not happened? On the contrary, because they are cultural practices, not necessarily religious ones, they would have happened anyway. Women would still be oppressed in Muslim countries because it is a traditional society, not because it is a religious one. The wars that occurred would have still happened-- all except possibly the 30 years war in Europe-- because there was much more happening to cause these wars than simply religion.

Six million Jews would have been slaughtered even if religion did not exist.
The Rwandan genocide would have happened even if religion did not exist.
Slavery would have happened even if religion did not exist.
9/11 would have happened even if religion did not exist.

Perhaps there are a few things you could rest at religion's door, such as the 30 years war. Children dying because of lack of medical care. Suicide cults. The massacre at Waco. However, it could also be said that if people were able to understand these sectarian groups and talk to them on their level, then perhaps some of these tragedies could have been averted.

It is my firm belief that religion is rarely the problem for the world's ills. Lack of understanding and communication between cultures causes much more harm.

"God Is Not Great"

For the next set of posts, I'm going to be writing in response to God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchins. This may seem a little different for a theology blog, but I've been wanting to read a book from one of the recent evangelists of atheism. I wanted to read partly because of curiosity of what they had to say about religion, but also because they are offering a theological perspective, even if it is an anti-theology.

I refused to read one of Richard Dawkins' books, because in interviews I heard of him, I found him arrogant and rude, and I didn't want to be goaded into anger. After listening (I'm hearing the audio book) to Hitchins for a couple chapters, I find his arguments to be reasonable, plausible, and, most of all, polite. He is not there to mock believers, but to explain why he feels that religion is backward and even hazardous to humanity as a whole.

I am happy to interact with this book, and I hope that I can express my retort in as politely and firmly as he.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

An Outline of Basic Ethical Principles

God knows how best to live, so we should listen to Him as to how He created the world to work.

1. Give Freedom
Every sentient adult is free to make their own choices, as long as they do not harm the community at large.

2. Be Responsible
“If you make a mess, clean it up”—We must correct any wrongs that we have done.
If you wrong another person, make it right in as much as you are able.

3. Community life
If you belong to a community—no matter how small or how large—abide by the rules of the community or find another community to live in.

4. Faithfulness
We must keep our promises or apologize for not doing so.
We must be loyal in a way that is appropriate in a relationship.

5. Do No Harm
Cause no damage to another unless it is for their benefit and/or with their stated permission.

6. Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do To You
Treat others as you would have them treat you, recognizing that everyone has different ways of receiving respect, help, etc.

7. Love Your Neighbor
Meet the needs of anyone you see who has needs, in as much as you are able.

8. Lay Down Your Life
Sacrifice your own needs for the sake of others’, especially for the weak who need protection.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"Virtue" v. Struggle

To speak of people as virtuous or as evil is a misnomer. Even if there are people who do evil, they also do their best to be virtuous within the context they have placed themselves. People who are virtuous often see themselves as having vices that mar their character—which is always partly true.

Aristotle labels people as having “virtue” or “vice”—simple good and evil, black and white. But he also has a label of “conscientious”—people who are desiring to live a life of virtue, struggle with it and is always slipping into a life of vice. This is the struggling person, the one who knows what he or she ought to do, fights to do it, and fails.

It is this struggle that is the key to life. The virtuous person, as they struggle against their vice or vices, they retain their virtue. The evil person, with the amount of effort and help they seek to overcome their vice, can become virtuous. Perhaps they only become a struggler, a wrestler against the evil within their soul—but that fighter is of a noble character.

Far more noble than the one who looks at vice straight in the face and claims it is virtue. Far more noble than the one who lives in vice, and shrugs and says, “It’s the way of the world, what can I do?” Far more noble than the otherwise virtuous person who makes peace with their vice, no matter how many people it harms.

It is the struggle that makes one personally noble, more than the natural bent to do good. However, it is the success in that struggle that makes someone a positive person to live with.


Response to lecture series: Visions of Utopia

Totalitarianism limits human nature to it’s social function. An individual is simply a tool for the social order. Despots tend to be idealists, without any concept of individual worth. This is in opposition to the most natural ethical law—that all mature human beings are equal, and deserves to be treated equally. Totalitarianism is for those who participate in society, for full citizens. But any individual citizen can be destroyed for the good of the whole. The idea that every human organism is a society in and of itself, deserving of respect and freedom to do good is unknown. This is to not see humanity as God created them, and is denying the gifts God has granted each individual.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Knowledge and Utopia

The proper conclusion to understanding human nature is ethics. Ethics, when done right, leads to justice. Justice, when done right leads to utopia.

The reason we do not have utopia is because we do not understand human nature, and even if we do, we do not have the strength to act in accord with everyone’s nature.

Situational Ethics

It is easy to claim that there is no such thing as the good without investigating it. It is easy to look at various contexts in which the good action is so hard to pin down, and say that the good doesn’t exist in that situation. It is easy to blithely look at various cultures and say that the good is different in different contexts and so there is no good.

It simply is not true. There is a good. It is being beneficial in relationship, whatever that relationship might be. The act of benefiting others might change, and it can certainly be complicated, but there is a good action.

Our ethically lazy self wants to deny the good. We don’t want to think about ethics because it is hard and it is complicated. We would prefer to do what is good to ourselves, which we think—wrong-headedly—we know so well. But if we are going to be good to ourselves, one of the things we must exercise is our ethical brains. We must consider what we will do to benefit others and do it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Faith and Reason

A question that was posed by one of Nels Ferre's students:

"If I simply accept faith and then reason out what follows from there, I cannot feel sure of myself. How do I know that I am not just rationalizing? If, however, I insist on justifying my faith by reason, it seems to me that I have no faith. In once case I am arbitrary and have nothing to say to all the people who start from another faith and refuse to examine it. In the other case I have no hope and driving power for a world like this!"

And I think this problem-- which is a serious issue in the church-- comes from a false dichotomy of faith and reason. Kierkegaard and others encouraged the embracing of faith without reason, as if that were enough. But we must also realize that Kierkegaard is the one whose faith included an obsession for a woman who would not have him-- not exactly the most firm faith to rest on. It is existentialism that is pure faith, not Christianity.

Christianity can be seen better in the life of Gideon. He received a word from the Lord, and it put his life and community in danger-- they were to stand against their masters. But rather than simply accept that word, he decided to test it-- with a piece of fleece and morning dew. And when the word passed that test, he tested it again, so he didn't take a circumstantial event and equate that with God's power. After it had been tested in this small way, then he took on the larger task.

This is a rational principle-- take the small instance and apply it to the larger one. In Gideon's case, setting up a chain of unlikely small events and seeing God's work means that the larger work can be done-- God is really speaking to him. It is the same with Christianity. It is because of the evidence of Jesus-- His miracles and His resurrection-- that we can claim that His larger claims-- His teaching and a utopian future-- are true.

The smaller to the greater also applies to our personal experience, like Gideon. When we see circumstances that are led by God in a small way-- are needs are met after prayer again and again-- then we can apply this to larger and larger circumstances.

This is a practical sort of reason, and it is reason that applies to relationships in general. Where does faith come in? First of all, it is seen by applying the smaller context to the larger one. To follow the logic--Jesus did miracles/Jesus said that the world would be changed/The world will be changed-- is a logic that requires faith. Just because you can "prove" that Jesus did miracles, it is still a step of faith to apply that to the whole world. Thus, the smaller to larger step is a step of faith.

Secondly, faith is seen in trusting in God's power and faithfulness. If a friend of mine promises to give me ten thousand dollars, that doesn't mean that he has ten thousand dollars to give. And even if he does have the ten thousand dollars, that doesn't mean he'll keep his promise. Thus, in any relationship, there is a measure of faith or trust. Christianity is all about what God MIGHT do based on what He has done in the past. But we still have to have faith that God will do what He said, and we have to have faith that God is as powerful as He claims.

Thus, even if our Christianity is completely based on reason, to accept the full package-- the teaching of Jesus-- we must have faith.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Ethical Principle of Faithfulness

“Any city or house divided against itself cannot stand.” Matthew 12:25
Any human connection is based upon trust. This trust is not another acting in an ethical way, but acting in a predictable, reasonable way. If no one acts in a trustworthy manner, then human community cannot exist.

Faithfulness is keeping promises
But let your statement be, 'Yes, yes ' or 'No, no'; anything beyond these is of evil. Matt 5:38
If we make a verbal statement to act, it commits us to that act. To avoid the act, or to refuse to do the act is a violation of trust. If trust is violated, then community is broken down, and the trust will not readily be given again.

Faithfulness is loyalty
The LORD gives his own reward for doing good and for being loyal. (I Samuel 26:23)
Loyalty is to act in a socially responsible way to another in relationship. Primarily, it means that if we have a relationship with another, we will not violate that relationship by acting in a way that undermines the relationship, or that violates the trust of the other.

The action of loyalty is dependent on the relationship (e.g. I Peter 2)
Every relationship has it’s own social rules of loyalty, which are usually unspoken:
The loyalty of an employee is to do work for the employer. The loyalty of an employer is to provide for the employee. The loyalty of a spouse is sexual fidelity. The loyalty of a parent is to provide for the needs of the children. The loyalty of a citizen is to submit to the rulers. The loyalty of a ruler is to bring security. The loyalty of a friend is to assist in times of crisis

Small acts of faithlessness count
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matt 5:28
If an act of disloyalty or unfaithfulness is small, it may seem to be insignificant—“It didn’t really hurt anyone.” However, small acts of disloyalty are an indication of the disloyalty that one holds within itself. That which is small will eventually display itself in something greater and more significant.

Faithfulness is acting in a trustworthy manner in accord with our word and with our relationship to others.

Can someone make a promise for someone else?
A person can only make a promise to the degree that they have the ability to control or be responsible for another’s actions. A parent can perhaps make a promise to a neighbor that her son would never break the neighbor’s windows again, if they are sure that they can control her son’s behavior. But the same parent cannot promise the judge ten years later that her son will be in court on time, because his behavior is out of her authority and ability to control. Freedom comes first.

Is anyone required to keep a promise for someone else?
Again, if one is responsible for another, then their loyalties become the one’s responsible loyalties. A parent is responsible for the actions of their son. But even family ties cannot ethically imply responsibility. An adult daughter should not be responsible for her father’s debts with her own money, nor the other way around. One may take responsibility for another’s commitments, but that would be a gracious gift, not a responsibility.

What if you are unable to keep a promise/retain loyalty?
More often than not, we place ourselves in circumstances in which we do not have the resources—either physical, mental, financial or otherwise—to keep a promise or to fulfill a loyalty. The best thing to do is to think through the circumstances ahead of time to see if you can actually keep the promise or the loyalty that you are committing to. Saying “no” is difficult when someone is asking you for a favor, but it is better than breaking your word and your trust.
If a promise must be broken, then the trust is broken and we must recognize that, admit it and take responsibility for it. Only on the basis of full repentance and forgiveness can trust be established again.

Are there promises implied without words?
Absolutely. Whenever we enter into a relationship, we make promises. When we hire someone, we promise to not abuse them or harm them. When we have a child, we promise to care for the child, the best we can. And if we ignore those implied promises, then we are prosecuted by the law, for the law recognizes those promises. If we have a friend, we imply that we won’t tell undermining stories about them. If we do gossip about them, then our friend will say, “I thought you were my friend?” Because the friendly actions we had toward them implied that we wouldn’t do anything to harm them.
This does not mean, though, that everyone has the same idea of what implied promises consist of. We may think that having a friend might also mean receiving calls at three in the morning. Well, it doesn’t imply that, but some may think it does. In this kind of case, we may have to reconsider our idea of what our relationship implies.

Love Is The Basis of Ethics

I know a woman who had an abortion when she was young. The infant wasn’t the product of rape, it just wasn’t the right time for the couple to have the baby. Abortion, in this case, was being used for birth control. Since it had just been legalized, why shouldn’t she take advantage of it? Years later, however, that decision haunted her and she considered that she had killed her only daughter.

A number of years ago I met a professional drunk who was homeless. He was interested in whatever help we would be willing to offer. However, he had clearly already lied to my wife and I and he, frankly, had an obnoxious personality and smelled of wine processed through his pores.

A woman who had stayed in our house for years has been struggling with drug addiction for years, but she is losing the fight. She won’t work in the house or pay rent and gets angry when I approach her about it.

This is the kind of stuff that ethics are made of. Difficult situations. Some small and some large. Libraries have been created on the ethics of abortion, homeless, drug addiction, homosexuality, war, adultery, marriage and much more. When we think about these issues philosophically, we make one ethical choice, but when we face them in real life, we might very well make another.

In philosophy, there are two names that come to the forefront of ethical thought: Mills and Kant. John Stuart Mills taught that the basis of correct moral decision is happiness. Decide what makes the most people happy over the longest period of time, and that is the correct decision. Kant thought that the basis of ethics is duty. If we know what we should do, the right thing, then to do anything else is unethical. However, neither can be completely true. If a friend of mine experienced a death in the family, my empathy doesn’t make either of us happier, but isn’t it more right to feel for him than to not? If my duty is to not lie and obey government, does that make it right for me to tell the Nazis at my door that the Jews are hidden under the panel in the dining room floor?

The heart of right action is in the heart of human existence and experience. And human experience is found in the midst of others. Most of these others are human—we come out of our mother’s womb, live in a community, learn with children, connect with neighbors, buy from retailers, read the words of authors, work with co-workers, care for pets, have sex with lovers and hopefully, die with family. Since our whole life is spent with others, then the heart of the most basic decisions—that of right and wrong—also has to do with others.

But what is the nature of our relation with others, of life in general? The basic experience of all life is need. We are all a gaping hole needing to be filled. Three meals a day. Six cups of water. Sleep. Health when we are sick. A kind word. A good talk. Support when depressed. A good story. The needs perpetuate without end—the basic truth of life. And we spend our time filling these needs. We get a job so we can get money to meet our needs. We remain in long term relationships to meet our needs. We purchase things—a comfortable bed, a good book—to meet the needs of rest and pleasure.

To see ourselves as full of need, constantly being fulfilled, is to see us as life. And if this is what life is, this is what every living being is on the planet. Around every single one of us is another gaping hole, another sponge in constant need of filling. Yea, not just one, but many, hundreds, millions, even billions. Some of us pretty much meet our own needs. But for every one that is self-sufficient, there are a thousand or a million that are not. Every child is in need of raising until they are grown. Every spouse is in need of the love of their partner. Every ill person is in need of the care of another. Every destitute person is in need of assistance. And every person is in need of another to talk to, to obtain respect from, to love and to be loved.

This is the true foundation of ethics. Not the partnership of command and submission. Not the limitations of pleasure. Rather the recognition that everyone’s need is the equivalent of our own. And that even as we are in need of others to meet our need, we must live our lives to meet other’s needs. Not as a duty, although it can be considered a responsibility. Not as a part of our own pleasure, although we can find joy in it. Rather, we meet needs because it is a part of life, part of the community we live in.

To see the other’s need and to recognize it as a part of one’s own; to not only observe the need, but to feel it; to meet the need of the other and so be completed oneself—this is love. It may sound like co-dependency. But codependency is acting toward the other’s hurt, and so establishing one’s own hurt as well. Love recognizes true need, not just felt need, and fills the gaping hole. Love never turns away. Love does something.

And this is the good life. The life of love.

The woman on drugs on our house? We confronted her, but didn’t force her to leave until she had another place to be. On her own, she still struggles with addiction, but is on the road to recovery. Without basic structure, she would never succeed.

The homeless drunk? He stayed in our house one night and we found that his screaming in the middle of the night was not good for the rest of us to be able to sleep. But we had him come to dinner. And the next night he came again. The night after, he brought another homeless friend. And now we feed a hundred and fifty people a week, friends with them all, bringing love and hope to street folks and the mentally ill, meeting all the needs we can.

And, finally, the woman struggling with her decision to have an abortion? That was my mother. It was my potential sister she decided to not have. She did not need my forgiveness, as willingly as I would be to give it. She needed the forgiveness of God and of the baby. But in receiving welcome, support and hope from those around her, she experienced the forgiveness of God and her fourth child.

Love truly does conquers all evil, which makes it the most powerful substance in the universe.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Basis of Ethics

In looking at human nature, one finds that our context is created by the social. From the moment of one’s conception, on through the birth and growth, the human is dependant upon others for survival, for love, for knowledge, for expression. A human is not only not truly human, but not even alive without another human. All else that a human needs is found to be necessary in society. To be secure in sleep, one must have another human to watch over one. To grow food, one must obtain seed from another human. And, for most of us, human society is so pervasive that we don’t even notice it anymore. All the benefits and all the ills we find in our lives are, for the most part, found in other human beings. Sometimes it is in the creation of humans, but it is all human. Surrounded by humanity, the context for beauty, then is other humans. For human nature is bound to other humans.

Thus, the foundation of ethics is not personal-- such as happiness, pleasure or duty-- but rather social. Ethics is all about relationship. One can do or not do any given action, but what makes that action right or wrong, good or bad is how it relates to others. That is the essence of human ethics-- how one's action effects others.

And this is not limited simply to other people, but to all that surround us with thought-- our family, friends and even people far away whose products we purchase, but also God and animals. Ethics relates to every action done in every relationship.

We may say then, "Well, if there is no relationship, then there is no ethical principle to follow." And, in theory, that may be true. But even alone our actions have ethical consequences. I can be by myself when I set my wife's personal letters on fire, but it is certainly an action that relates to ethics. And even what I think and meditate on, although in the seclusion of my own mind, if that meditation ever becomes an action, no matter how slight, then it enters into the realm of ethics. And since all of our actions are based on our thoughts, who is to say that any thought is not ethical?

And, on a theological basis, who is really alone? Angels and God watch us all the time-- there really is a big brother and its the spirit world! And so every action effects our relationship with the spirit world, like it or not. Thus, every action is ethical in some way.

For this reason, we must consider ethics carefully. It isn't some side philosophical subject. Rather, it is a practical, everyday human activity. One which many humans prefer not to consider at all, to their own demise.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Judgment, Cheap Grace, and Mercy

Judgment is immediate. It demands the quick decision and the sentence is as swift and demanding as a guillotine.
Mercy is slow. Mercy takes its time, deliberating, mulling over options. Mercy is often second-guessing itself, repenting of former decisions as repentance is made known.
Cheap Grace is careless. It cares not what the issues are, and is as swift in its decision of forgiveness as judgment is of condemnation.

Judgment is simple. Black and white, clear cut, no recourse, no compromise. Judgment sees all situations from a demanding, no fills position.
Mercy seeks truth—no matter how messy. It deliberates, considers, ponders, discusses—but not without a goal. Mercy plods, the tortoise who wins the race, slow and steady. Mercy understands that truth cannot be found in a headline, but in a feature article based on many interviews.
Cheap Grace triumphs the ignorant. There is no need for determinations, deliberations or decisions. The decision has already been made—freedom and blessing for all, no matter what the situation.

Judgment focuses on the law as a principle. “The law is a standard which once broken cannot be mended. It is the Humpty Dumpty of God. It is an ancient china doll, needing to be placed behind glass—protected, served, and loved from a distance.” But the law of judgment is cold, hard and sharp as a steel blade. Judgment claims to be for the good of society, but the only one who benefits is Judgment itself.
Mercy loves the law as a benefit to others. The law is to “love your neighbor,” thus mercy is the heart of the law. The law is to train us in mercy, to see the Other as the beneficiary of all of our actions. Mercy considers the well-being of all—even the law-breaker. Mercy’s law is comforting, light, for it always seeks the benefit of all.
Cheap Grace discards the law. “The law was a plaything of youth, but is to be set aside as unworthy of consideration. Grace has set aside all law, especially the law of Jesus, as unworthy of God.” Cheap Grace claims to speak for Mercy, but denies the heart of God.

Judgment demands recompense. Judgment seeks equity to the cost of the action of the law-breaker. “You broke it, you pay for it.” It seeks a balanced account book for which each debit has its equal and opposite credit—the coin of which is blood and dishonor.
Mercy pursues reconciliation. Mercy can lead to dishonor, should repentance be the flip side of that coin. Mercy pleads for restoration, constantly seeking an ingathering together for all the saints.
Cheap Grace rejects cost. Cheap Grace points to Calvary and claims that all had been accomplished there. Cheap Grace ignores the man who said, “All who would follow me must take up their own cross daily.” Cheap Grace demands no personal cost, no change, no death, no discipline, and so gains no gift, no new creation, no life, no restoration.

Judgment has no escape. Once judged, there is no exit. The sentence is irrevocable, the differences irreconcilable, the community ununitable.
Mercy offers an out—repentance. The one who has harmed another—and so has defied the law—has an opportunity to be brought back under the law. To repent, to reconcile is the extent that Mercy demands, and will seek any way to achieve that goal.
Cheap Grace is unconditional forgiveness. It is spiritual bloodletting—seeking to heal the patient, while ignorantly killing him. Cheap Grace sees no need to gather in, to restore, for there was no separation.

Judgment demands payment from the lawbreaker. As the law suffered, so must the criminal. As society was harmed, so must the harmer. Judgment claims the lost deserve nothing, and so gives nothing.
Mercy sacrifices. Restoration also has a price, and the merciful takes that price on oneself. Mercy pays whatever the cost so the sinner can be restored. Mercy groans in prayer, endures attacks, forgives debts against it, pays debts against others, sacrifices its comfort, its family, its friendships, its resources, its very life—all for the sake of the lost.
Cheap Grace gleefully ignores cost. It is the thief, stealing from God’s honor. Cheap Grace receives no payment, demands nothing, gives nothing, since there is no debt incurred. Cheap Grace celebrates at the foot of grace delivered, but ignores the call of grace transferred to others. Cheap Grace requires nothing and so gains nothing.

Judgment never forgets. It is the elephant of virtues. It never trusts, never believes, never forgives, never restores. Judgment says “Once a sinner, always a sinner.”
Mercy gives the benefit of the doubt. Mercy does not forget, but allows complete restoration, a rebuilding of trust. Mercy believes in new creation, a new life, which has nothing to do with the old.
Cheap Grace always trusts, even the hypocrite. It always believes, even the liar. It always forgives, even the unrepentant. It accepts everyone and everything—except God’s truth.

Judgment is Satan. Judgment is the accuser of the brethren, the murderer of humanity for the sake of a bloodless law. It is the prosecutor seeking the death penalty.
Mercy is Jesus. It is the self-sacrificer, the reconciler to God, the perfect sacrifice. Mercy is the one who said, “Go and sin no more,” “The one whom the Son sets free is free indeed,” “I have come to seek and save the lost,” “Unless you repent you will likewise perish,” “I have not come to call the righteous but the sinners to repentance,” “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.”
Cheap Grace is the Flesh. It is self-seeking, self-upholding, self-deceptive. Ultimately, it upholds what is abhorrent to God as the will of God. They practice sin and gives approval to those who practice it.

Judgment is a liar. It claims that God does not forgive, sees the sin and not the sinner. It denies the power of God to change the one in Jesus. It is lost, for it has forsaken the mercy of Jesus. Those in the power of Judgment will die by God’s hand—“Judge and you will be judged.”
Cheap Grace is a liar. It claims that God’s standard is flexible, and so non-existent. It loves the lost to such a degree that it cannot be separated from the lost. It causes the lost to remain lost, and so dead. Those in the power of Cheap Grace will die by God’s hand—“Whoever does not obey the Son will not see life.”
Mercy is the truth of God. It upholds the law, which is to love all. It demands love, even as it offers love. It demands forgiveness, even as it offers forgiveness. It demands sacrifice, even as it sacrifices. It demands purity, even as it offers purity. It demands devotion to God, even as it offers devotion to God. “Be imitators of God, and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”

Mercy stands with God over against Judgment and Cheap Grace

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


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If You're Happy and You Know It...

Aristotle claims that the basis of all ethics is personal happiness. By this, he doesn't mean pleasure or bliss, but satisfaction of life, contentment. This is partly in agreement with Jesus, for Jesus always persuades others to good action because of personal reward, one's ultimate happiness in the long run.

However, Happiness is found, Jesus says, not in one's individual action, but in one's action in community. Thus, Aristotle finds happiness to be found in the mean-- the perfect balance between extremes. Jesus finds happiness in love-- in offering a benefit to the other in community. Happiness is not something that one obtains personally, as if it were something one can seek and achieve personally. Rather, it is a gift that one receives from others. This does not mean that everyone will grant the gift of happiness-- not everyone will grant forgiveness, healing, pleasure, peace or security. Some, in fact, grant the opposite, attempting to take happiness away from others.

Jesus says, however, that rather than only seeking out one's personal benefit-- only being with those who promote personal happiness-- rather one must seek out those who need happiness and grant it to them. This makes our lives a mix of joy and sorrow, for not everyone will receive the happiness we wish to grant to them. This is why we must make our happiness dependent on one relationship alone: our relationship with God. God alone truly desires our happiness and wishes us to possess happiness as a lifestyle. And so in our relationships on earth we must grant happiness and we must seek happiness from God.

There is still one caveat of this process of happiness. God, as our Creator, understands that we are in a place of confusion and that our minds are not right. From the environment we live in and the imperfections of our body we are not in a state to truly appreciate full happiness. Rather, our happiness is often dependent on first having a lack of happiness. Our current happiness is not a consistent state, but it is a place of contrast. We are almost never "happy", but we can be "happier"-- we are only content in comparison to where we once were. Thus, God has granted that our lives be filled with challenges, temptations, persecutions and difficulties. In this way, God leads us into only occasional happiness.

However, God promises that ultimate happiness is to come. He calls this "eternal life". This is a permanent state of happiness, which we can only experience when we are in a world system that helps us achieve happiness and we have bodies that allow us to experience that permanent state of happiness.

Happiness is ours to obtain-- but we must wade through a huge pile of shit to get to it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Justice and Mercy

Aristotle’s concept of justice is granting the equal between persons. For instance, in a goods exchange, there must be an equal amount of goods—by either using money as a medium or by making sure that the goods exchanged were of equal value. Also, in terms of a punitive justice, there must be an equal punishment to the crime done. This is called reciprocity. That every action done to another—whether good or evil—there must be a reciprocal action done to them. By this means, everyone who gives to the poor should have an equal good done to them, and for every sweat shop, the owner should be fined and it granted to those being oppressed. That would be reciprocity.

Jesus’ idea of justice is different, however. His idea of justice is the justice that will be established on judgment day, and if one is simply reciprocal, that is not justice enough. Jesus says, “If you only love those who love you, what good is that to you? Even gentiles love those who love them.” In other words, Jesus looks are reciprocity and say that it is a limited sort of justice, but not the sacrificial kind of love Jesus would call characteristic of those of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ justice is not to grant one equality according to one’s actions, but to grant an amount according to another’s need. In other words, we need to give whatever excess we have to those who do not have excess (Luke 12:33). We need to grant honor to those who lack honor (Luke 14). And this meeting of need has to happen not according to a code of reciprocity—we give to those who give to us—but instead it is even to those who have done hateful things to us, our enemies. Jesus’ kind of justice is meeting the needs of all, even if they don’t deserve it.

This isn’t the justice we see today, nor have we ever seen it. In our system, justice is hard, unyielding, only giving when it has received, and strictly punishing no matter how much a person has changed. In Jesus’ concept, justice is not in opposition of mercy. It is justice and mercy walking hand in hand, along the same path. It is granting an opportunity for repentance, and offering full forgiveness for it. It is the poor having all their needs met. It is our enemies, while still hating us, granting us blessings because of our generosity.

Which system would you rather live with? I suppose, if you were wealthy, you'd want reciprocity because that would mean you'd never lose your wealth unless you did something stupid. But if you were poor, you'd want Jesus' form, because it would mean your needs would be met.

In the end, I don't think it matters much which is the most effective. Because come God's judgement, it will be Jesus' form of justice that we will be judged by.

Aristotle's Ethics

I’ve been listening to lectures by Father Joseph Koterski on Aristotle’s Ethics, and it’s taken up quite a bit of my thinking time on theology, so I’m going to respond to that for a while.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Reading the Bible for What It Says

This is going to get me in trouble. A standard idea of Protestant Christianity is the inspiration of Scripture, and evangelicalism firmly holds to the inerrancy of Scripture. This could be the view of Luther, and is certainly the view of Calvin, Ericson, and almost all evangelical theologians. I have an alternative viewpoint. This is what’s going to get me in trouble I think.

I believe that the Bible is completely accurate in what it says it is. First of all the Bible is 66 books, written by many authors. It doesn’t say in the Bible that Moses wrote the first five books. In fact, a simple reading would indicate that Moses didn’t write the Law, although there is a possibility that he compiled the writings that made up Genesis. I believe that the Bible should be read for what it actually says, and not on what people want to impose upon it.

What the Bible actually says is not that every word is God’s word. Rather, the Bible is a collection of human experiences about God. From an objective standpoint, it is a lot of ancient historic data about the relation between human beings and God. It contains God’s word—in that God spoke to people, and that speech is occasionally transcribed, but it is not completely God’s word. It is full of human perceptions, locked within the ancient culture, and it contains many assumptions and even some errors. The main point of what it is speaking about is accurate—these are the stories of the people who had experiences of God. But this doesn’t mean that their perceptions were always accurate. Also, it is easy to misinterpret the ancient ideas as being more than what they intended.

I fully believe in the Bible—I believe that it is what it says it is. Nothing more. More specifically, I believe in Jesus. I believe that the gospels are what they say they are—testimonies of those who saw and heard Jesus, transcribed by those who heard these testimonies. And I believe that what Jesus said about himself is accurate—That Jesus alone is the only one who truly understands God and can best describe God and His desires and intentions for humanity. Better than Moses did, as great as Moses was. Better than Abraham, although Abraham is the trailblazer for faith. Better than Paul, although Paul is the earliest interpreter of Jesus we have, and so an important witness.

But those who claim more for the Bible than it claims itself, I think they are deluded and are deluding others. Those who claim more for the Bible, in the end are trying to claim more for their theology than can accurately be said. Those who look at what we do have of God’s revelation of Himself, and claim more for it than is there, will also claim more about God than can be claimed. Those who do not see theology as a science, but as some guess work, or community forum is not interested in truth. They are interested in something else. Perhaps they are interested in majority opinion. Perhaps they are interested in being right. Perhaps they are interested in their set of ideas. But they aren’t interested in simply listening to God and doing what little He said. And if that’s the case, I don’t really feel that their word should be taken as “God’s own truth.”

Friday, March 5, 2010

What About Atheists?

There are a growing group of people that denies the possibility of revelation, who call themselves atheists and agnostics. Are they “lost”? Not in the biblical sense, where “lost” indicates those who once were in the fold of the revelation-community and have strayed outside of it. These who deny the possibility of revelation have this belief, more often than not, throughout their adult life. Nor do most of them seem “lost” in the sense that there are deep questions in their lives that seem unanswered. There are many philosophies that have made God unnecessary for the meaning of life, and those who have denied revelation have attached themselves to these. Nor are they “lost” in that they lead less fulfilling lives than religious people. While there are some benefits that religious people have—a greater sense of community and often a deeper sense of peace—in general, the lives of unbelievers reflect the lives of believers, and believers have a greater chance of becoming unhealthy in their religious belief and using that belief to harm themselves or others.

What, then, is there lost in denying revelation empirically? First of all, there is a loss of a potential set of data for truth. Those who deny revelation deny the possibility of a spirit world or being contacted by a spirit world. Should the monotheists be correct, and the creation of this universe is sourced by personal entities from another universe, then some of the most essential data to the purpose and functioning of this universe is rejected. Also, denying revelation is ultimately denying the possibility for life after death. This may not be bad in and of itself, unless they are wrong. Then the consequences could be tragic.

The worst consequence of the deniers of revelation is the public square that acts as if religion doesn’t exist, or if it does, it is simply unhealthy. To deny religion is to deny the motivating force of the majority of humanity. To dismiss religion as the worldview of the ignorant is to misunderstand and to reject the main perspective of most of the people in the world. This creates a separation and an ignorance of others. From this perspective of denying the understanding of the majority of the world, is to encourage the kind of public policies that cause the destruction of humanity, it is to refuse to listen, it is to render people in general as insignificant.

Worldviews aren’t some box. You can’t put a worldview as “historic” or “antiquated” if most people still believe it. There are many understandings of how the world works and the most balanced perspective is to understand them all, even if you don’t believe them all.

Whatever the case, the deniers of revelation are not the enemies of the monotheists. We should pray for them and prepare our children for facing such points of view. Most of all, we need to train ourselves to understand as many points of view as possible. Only then will what we believe makes sense. We do not do this simply for apologetic reasons, but mostly for the sake of clear communication.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Psychosis of Religion?

“Side by side with the decline of religious life, neuroses grow noticeably more frequent.”-C.J. Jung

There has also been a recognition by many analysts that mental health is connected to religious thought. Some have decided that religion must be eliminated completely from the context of the mentally ill for their mind’s sake. On the contrary. If religion plays a part in, say, a schizophrenic’s life, then the mentally ill person must be granted a context of healthy religion so that they can know the difference between their made-up religion and the real thing. If a religious mentally ill person is granted no religious context, they continue to affirm their own unhealthy religion, thus deepening their psychoses. But if they are corrected, gently, with the truth about God, then their whole life could be transformed by healthy beliefs and practices, still affirming their connection to the spirit world and God in a way that supports people around them.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Community Theology

In a discussion of doctrine and theology, a group of pastors identified three qualities that are significant in the determination of what is proper theology in any community:

1. Scripture
2. Community dialogue
3. Authoritative leadership

All three of these components are essential in determining doctrine in a community, but they must be placed in their proper place.

Scripture is essential, but the clearest truth of God is found in Jesus, not in the Hebrew Scriptures or even in the various epistles. To focus on the Bible as a whole is to encourage dissent, for the Bible can be used to prove any point of view. But to center one’s understanding on the life, death, resurrection and teaching of Jesus is to have clarity and agreement in theology.

Community Dialogue:
It is essential to hear different points of view, and only through hearing various understandings will we understand our own point of view. However, a theological dialogue must be centered on that which gives true understanding—a Jesus-centric understanding of Scripture. If we discuss theology in general or how our theology is understood from the world’s or church’s perspective, we stray from truth about God and rest only on speculation. Authoritative doctrine must not rest on speculation, but on an agreement on Jesus. It is also important that community dialogue be the means and not an end in and of itself. Endless speculation is pointless and accomplishes nothing. In doctrine we must be seeking God’s truth, which is singular. If dialogue is the goal, then we do not accomplish true understanding, but a community exercise of futility.

Authoritative Leadership:
When a community is in agreement about God’s truth, then there is a place for leadership to uphold that standard of truth. But authority can go in a couple wrong directions. First, they could authoritatively support speculation instead of that which is based on a Jesus-centered understanding of Scripture. Just because a majority of the community believes something, that doesn’t make it authoritative doctrine. The cultural beliefs of the congregation and the authoritative doctrines must be distinguished by leadership, especially if they are using any form of church discipline. Secondly, leadership, in the use of church discipline, must be fair and gentle. They must judge with a right judgement, understanding clearly the perspective of one who is questioned. They must give many chances for repentance. And any discipline must be done with gentleness and mercy.

Moving Right Along...

Okay, we're done with The Knowledge of the Holy. Good stuff, but time to move on. So, for a while, I'll be reading essays from Readings in Christian Theology, vol. I edited by Millard Erickson. I won't begin from the beginning, but I'm doing readings from his section on Revelation. No, not the book, but the idea of God revealing Himself through the Bible. If you want to read about the book, check out my blog on Revelation: An Illustrated Commentary.

For the next few blogs, I'll be posting about a conversation myself and some other Mennonite pastors had about theology. Then I'll begin posting from Erickson's Readings, beginning with Kenneth S. Kantzer's "The Authority of the Bible".

Since we are in "meta" mode, I'd like to mention briefly about my series of postings on The Law. I think I mentioned in a comment that they are intended to be read as a whole, not any as an individual part. Sometimes I get an idea in my head and it takes a while to state the whole thing. Sorry if you find my posts too long or dull. Other blogs have shorter posts. But when discussing theology, I like to get a whole idea out, if I can.