Thursday, February 24, 2011

Common Misconceptions About Heaven

(I don't think I have posted this in this blog)

Talk about life after death scares some people and makes most people uncomfortable. We don’t like dealing with the many different ideas that seem so contradictory, even if everyone talking about it is a Christian. Usually, someone’s idea of life after death is related to their idea of what a perfect existence is, or should be. We are all striving for some sort of utopia or perfect state that everyone can live in. In this essay, I can’t promise that there won’t be controversial statements, or things you disagree with. But it is on the internet so you can read it in the privacy of your own computer, and complain about me if you don’t like what I’m saying without me having to hear it!

There is a lot that is assumed about life after death in Scripture, and so not explicitly stated. Because of this, many people have made guesses about heaven, trying to figure out what it’s all about. But in doing this, they have misunderstood what our life after death is really about.

Heaven is a spiritual existence
Most people think that in heaven we will be living without our bodies. This makes sense in some people’s philosophy, since they think that our bodies is what’s wrong with us. The Bible makes it clear, however, that the hope of eternal life is a physical life, being restored to our bodies which are perfected. (I Corinthians 15:36-43; John 5:28-29) Our bodies now are sick and full of mental weaknesses and pains. In the final day, however, our bodies will be restored to us, but without sickness, without suffering, fully healthy, without death.
There is no perfection for us without being both a physical and spiritual being. This is how we were created—both dirt and spirit mixed into a wonderful composition of life. And our eternal life will be no different.

Heaven is where my friends go
Death is frightening and it is painful. It makes us separate from our friends and loved family much too soon. So we often say to ourselves, “We will see them again in heaven. This isn’t a permanent separation, but only temporary.” However, the Bible gives us little assurance or comfort in this. First of all, every person must be judged by God to determine whether they will live in Jesus or live in eternal darkness. And God is the one who judges, not us. If we were perfectly in tune with God’s will, like Jesus is, then we could have a good notion of who would be with God and who would not. But it is interesting that Paul, one of the greatest saints who ever lived, said that he could not judge even himself. (I Corinthians 4:3-4).

Even so, we typically do not have enough information about those we love or knowledge of God’s will to make a determination of someone’s eternal state. Everyone, Scripture says, will be resurrected. But some will be resurrected to reward, and others to condemnation. Who are we to judge, here and now, who will get one destiny and one the other? We can make guesses, but to simply say, “I know they will be with us” is a kind untruth we tell ourselves. We must instead hand all judgment to God, who is the Judge of heaven and earth.

“Heaven” is in heaven
The very name “heaven” for our life with God leads us to a misconception. The idea is that we will live with God in the clouds for all eternity is a common, even stereotyped, idea of the Christian eternal life. However, even the location of our eternal life is misplaced.

It is true that our first existence after death will be without our bodies, in heaven. We see some of these folks in Revelation 6. However, they are begging God for a change in the world. Why is this? Because their place is on the earth, transformed by God. Jesus’ second “coming” means him coming to earth, to establish the kingdom of God here. Eternal life isn’t something we are going to, it is something that is coming to us, to change the existence we currently live in.

Heaven is boring
Many people think that heaven must be boring. We see this in cartoons of heaven—sitting on clouds, with wings, playing harps. This might be some Greek fantasy of bliss, but not the Christian ideal. First of all, Jesus said that on the final day many who are not followers of Jesus would remain in the kingdom of God, if they have assisted persecuted believers on earth (Matthew 25:31-40). So this means that there will be a mix of believers and unbelievers on the earth. Secondly, the resurrected believers Jesus calls to himself will be given positions of authority to rule over the world. (Luke 22:29-30; Luke 19:15-19). This means that there will be no sitting around, bored our of our minds. Instead, the resurrection means that we will be assisting Jesus in establishing peace and justice throughout the world, not as a small part of a democratic society, but as an integral part of a benevolent monarchy. Transformation of the earth is not an instant miracle, it is, rather, an ongoing miracle which we will be a part of.

And what will we do in our time off? Well, think about our resurrected bodies for a moment. We will have bodies just like Jesus. And Jesus could transport himself, instantly, from one place to another distant place (Luke 24:31-36; Acts 8:39-40). And, remember, after the resurrection there is no death, we are immortal (I Corinthians 15:26). What are the implications of this? Well, this is speculative, but I’m looking forward to exploring Jupiter. Some others might want to explore the bottom of the ocean. At the very least, we can all get our travel fantasies in. Want to visit the ruins of Thailand?—poof!

Heaven is eternal worship of God
Some people look at certain scenes in the book of Revelation and see that heaven is filled with worship of God. This has led some to speculate that eternal life will be one long worship session. I can see some, especially worship leaders, thinking this would be wonderful, for they would be exercising their gifts all the time. However, for those of us who are less musically inclined or gifted at worship, this doesn’t sound so great.

A careful examination of the scenes of Revelation, we find the heavenly creatures not simply worshipping God, but that is simply the preamble of God establishing justice on earth. And when God does establish justice, he uses his messengers and servants to fulfill His will. This gives us a more well-rounded idea of what eternal life will be like. We will be assisting God to create justice on earth. Yes, there will be worship of God, even as there is now. But eternity is not simply about worshipping God. If God wanted creatures to simply worship Him, He could have created people to be simply worshipping creatures. Rather, God created humanity to be ruling creatures, people who would follow His will to establish His rule over all the earth (Psalm 8). Eternal life is about reigning with God, not simply about honoring God.

Heaven is eternal bliss
For most people, their idea of eternal life is perfection. There is little difference between many Christians’ idea of heaven and a Buddhist Nirvana. It is eternal happiness, with no pain or sorrow, in unity with God, and there is no difficulties or mistakes.

The Scriptural idea of heaven isn’t as blissful as all that. Yes, it says that in the end there will be no tears (Revelation 21:3-4). But this really means that there will be no death or grieving for death, and a government that creates perfect justice. This doesn’t mean that there will be no pain. If we step on a nail, I hope it causes us a little bit of pain so we don’t have a bunch of stuff sticking into us. Mistakes will be made, but hopefully they will be corrected. We will probably be just as apt to make errors in our speech then as now, but we will be more likely to apologize for our mistakes and more likely to be forgiven. There will still be work, still be challenges, still be goals—this is the implication of ruling and the need to rule. But it will be work that suits us, challenges we can meet and goals that will be fulfilled. This isn’t exactly bliss, but it will be a life worth living.

Heaven is after we die
One of the strangest statements Jesus makes is that the future is now here, with us (John 5:25; Matt. 10:7; Luke 17:21). Jesus told the poor disciples that the kingdom IS theirs, not will be. And Jesus was preaching about the immediacy of God’s future. Certainly we can see how this is true in Jesus’ day. Jesus was the king and the presence of the future, so wherever Jesus was, the kingdom existed. But Jesus also said that His Spirit would rest on his people when He left. So, instead of having on representation of the kingdom on earth, Jesus left a hundred. A hundred people who would establish Jesus’ mercy to others, establish pockets of His justice and do miracles as Jesus did (John 14:12-21).

Thus the kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed. It is small at the beginning, having only one or twelve representatives. But over time, that seed of the future will grow and expand. The whole earth will be covered by this future only when Jesus arrives, but the work of mercy and justice and peace must be established now.

The big difference is that if we attempt to create pockets of Jesus’ mercy and justice, we will be persecuted for it, even killed. We have a hard time getting the resources we need for it. We have to convince others to join us in establishing Jesus’ peace. In Jesus’ future, we will have all the resources we need. We will never be harmed for doing what is right. And we will not be overwhelmed by the task. But even so, we can have a taste of that future now. Now is the day of salvation, now is the time to work together to create pockets of heaven, so we will be ready for it when it comes.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Is Jesus The Only Way To Heaven?

This question is usually asked by Christians who are having a hard time believing that most people in the world are going to hell, or they can’t accept the arrogance of the statement that Jesus could possibly be the only way. In our world of pluralism and multiple truths, it just doesn’t seem socially polite to evangelize or to insist that Jesus is IT.

There is also the idea that all religions basically teach the same thing. If by that one means that they all teach “do unto others as you would have them do to you”, that is basically right. Most philosophies and religions teach that moral principle. But does this mean that they are the same in all aspects of their religion?

But we have to realize that if we say that Jesus is one of many ways to heaven, then we are not only putting words in Jesus’ mouth, but also in the mouths’ of all other religions and belief systems. This is assuming that all other belief systems want to be right with God, or that they want to go to heaven. To know this, we have to not just guess at what they want, but we have to look at it.

Now I would recommend each one of us looking at the major religions themselves and finding out what each one says is the salvation they are looking for and how to get there. But, honestly, I doubt many of us would even take the effort to look up Islam, Hinduism, etc on Wikipedia to read each article, let alone reading each holy book or the philosophy of the thousand forms of beliefs. So, to make it easy, I have listed a number of significant worldviews below, their main goals and a general statement of the means to reach that goal. If you belong to one of these belief systems, I apologize for my brevity, but this IS a short tract.

Jesus’ goals – forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, security on judgment day, preparation for living in God’s future utopia
Jesus’ means—a life of trust, dependence and faithfulness to God, setting aside that which would be good for you in this life

Buddha’s goal—To escape the endless cycle of recurring death and suffering
Buddha’s means—Separation from desire through various disciplines

Hinduism’s goals—To live at peace with the spirit world; to release oneself from the system of karma
Hinduism’s means—To live part of one’s life as detached from the world, in accordance to the basic rules of life.

Islam’s goals—To live among God’s people in submission to God; to live among God’s people in paradise after one dies.
Isalm’s means—To establish communities in submission to God in which his people can live and thrive.

Judaism’s goals—To live as a people chosen by God, separated to Him; to hasten the coming of God to earth.
Judaism’s means—To live according to the Torah, as understood by the rabbis.

Psychoanalysis’ goal—To live a life that is contented and at peace.
Psychoanalysis’ means—Therapy toward living a self-actualized life

The American Dream—To live a life of comfort, security and health in this life.
The American means—To have education, a good job and a secure government.

The moralist’s goals (e.g. Henry David Thourau)-- To live life at peace with oneself, others and creation.
The moralist’s means—To do well to all things, so they will do well to you.

The scientist’s goals—To discover all that the human mind can discover on its own.
The scientist’s means—Discovery by objective, repeatable experiments.

Christianity’s goals-To have our sins forgiven; to live in heaven after we die.
Christianity’s means—To believe in Jesus and to live with Jesus’ people.

Here are some observations I have made in looking at these, and other, belief systems:

1. Looking at these different paths, we can see that they don’t all go to the same place. Some want a better life now, some want a better life later, some want to be a people, some want to be individuals. If they don’t have the same goals, how could we expect them to have the same goals?

2. We can also see that they have radically different means. This only makes sense, if they have different goals. If one wants to be detached, it makes sense to surrender all desire for things. But if one desires to live with God, then one must be faithful or submitted to God.

3. Jesus’ path is unique. First of all, it is counter-intuitive. He insisted that suffering is necessary to obtain peace in the long run, for in this way God would see our sorry state and give us what we do not have. All other ways basically are insisting that whatever life you pursue, that is what you will obtain. Jesus doesn’t disagree with this (he who lives by the sword will die by the sword”), but he says that if one wants to obtain God’s fullest, best blessing, in this life and the next, one must surrender oneself now. To lose is to win. This is unique, and unheard of among religions and philosophies.

4. Interestingly enough, in both goals and means the closest pair is Jesus’ way and Islam. Muslims, in looking clear-eyed at Jesus, often says, “This is too hard, and unnecessarily so, as well!” But this is the disagreement between Muhammad and Jesus. Muhammad sought a middle way, such as the medieval Roman church, a way easy enough to include everyone who chose or were born into their society. Jesus, however, made it clear that the way to God’s fullest blessing isn’t easy, nor could be. The goals are similar, but the means of obtaining these goals are different. So this is a basic question of who is right—Muhammad or Jesus? From this Christian’s perspective, it is only Jesus who was resurrected from the dead…

5. One might note that I placed Christianity and Jesus in separate categories. For the most part, most Christians agree with the Muslims that Jesus’ stated way is too difficult. So they build communities, nationalities, theologies and philosophies that transform Jesus’ gospel into something more palatable. Perhaps they claim that his salvation is simply “going to heaven” instead of being resurrected into the kingdom of God. Perhaps they see the means of salvation as “easy believism” or simple acceptance of a church’s teachings instead of Jesus’ way of life. But this is the reason that Jesus said—and continues to say—that the way to life is narrow, despite that there are more Christians in the world today than any other belief system. Because, ultimately, even Christians have a hard time believing what Jesus said.

What is the answer?
If you are looking for the salvation that Jesus’ offers—
An escape from karma through God’s grace
The Holy Spirit—God himself—to assist current living
A good life in God’s kingdom
-- Then Jesus is the only means to obtain that salvation.

If you want something else—
A good life in the here-and-now;
A way of escaping reincarnation;
A general spirituality without a real life in God
-- Then perhaps Jesus isn’t the one you are looking for.

Can only Christians Get Into Heaven?

Here's a video of a text written by John Shore, a Christian writer.

Christian vs. Non-Christian

The basic point of the video is this:

Christians assume that unless one becomes a Christian then one cannot enter into heaven. The passage often used for this is Jesus' statement, "No one comes to the Father except through me." The video makes the point that all this means is that Jesus is the gatekeeper to heaven, the bouncer at the door who decides who gets in, but it doesn't talk about what the conditions of getting into heaven are. One way or another, it doesn't say that becoming a Christian is the means of getting into heaven.

To go beyond the video now, let's look at another passage Christians often quote to speak of their exclusionary right to get into heaven. "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved." (Act 4:12 NAU). This verse is speaking about Jesus and how Jesus is the one authority to grant salvation, which is, passage to God's presence, heaven. This passage speaks of Jesus' authority to allow people to obtain salvation, and that this ability is exclusive. But it does not mean that being a Christian is the only way to obtain permission through Jesus' authority.

The problem is that Christianity is not a simple submission to Jesus' authority. Rather it is a whole social construct. It is one way of being submitted to Jesus, but it is not the only way. A lot of people use "spirituality" to speak of a way to God that isn't institutionalized. And, let's face it, Christianity has had two thousand years of institutionalization. To make the demand that one be a "Christian" is not a simple belief in Jesus, but a demand to participate in the institutional church. Just as the requirement to be "born again" has little to do with Jesus' requirement to be "born of the Spirit", but to be a certain brand of Christian. The term "Spirit-filled" as it is used by Pentecostals and Charismatics today has little to do with the connection to the Spirit Jesus spoke about, but rather is about a social construct developed over the last century.

What we need to realize in evangelism is that we are trying to make an introduction, not get someone to sign a membership card to a club. We want to introduce a person to another real person whose name is Jesus. After we have made that introduction, we have no right to say what is going to happen to that relationship. We may want it to go a certain way, and we can pray for that, but really, it's out of our hands. It's up to the two persons involved to determine what will occur within that relationship.

But if we insist that getting into heaven is being a part of our exclusive club, then we are making the same mistake the disciples did when they approached Jesus, saying, "There's some guy casting out demons in your name, but he isn't a part of our group." Jesus told them not to stop him from doing miracles, but said, "Whoever is not against us is for us." Let's not be socially exclusionary. The point is Jesus. Not the brand of Jesus, the club of Jesus, the church of Jesus-- it's just Jesus.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ethical Principle #1-- Grant Freedom

Every single person wants to be good, to at least feel like they are good. But we are only as “good” as our Creator says that we are. He is the manufacturer, and so we have to live according to His instructions or else our warranty will run out and we will be, literally, “good for nothing.”

Yet you placed humans just under the gods and gave him your glory and ruling power!
You established humans to rule over your creatures and everything is under their feet—
The living creatures, the animals, the swimming things and the flying things.
Yahweh, our Lord—Your name is ruling throughout the earth!

Psalm 8

One of the first thing God did right after humans were created was to give them sovereignty. Sovereignty can be one of those tricky theological words until we realize that it just means “rule” or “kingship.” God put humanity in charge of the earth. Specifically humanity is in charge of every creature on the earth. Every animal, even fish, is under the rule of humanity as a whole.

But if we are in charge of every single animal, this means that we are in charge of ourselves as well. Humanity is in charge of itself. This implies a certain amount of rule. Parents are in charge of children. And governments are in charge of larger groups of humans in certain places.

But the basic rule of God is freedom with some exceptions. We are to live in freedom with one another.

The basic rule of freedom is this:
Every sentient adult is free to make their own choices, as long as they do not harm others.

Let’s take this apart:
Freedom—Freedom is the ability to rule oneself. This means that one makes his or her own choices for oneself. These choices could be good, could be bad, but one is free to make them. This does not mean freedom without consequences. Everyone’s choices has consequences. Every action we do determines our future. And just because we have freedom doesn’t mean that we are well-informed. But what we choose is dependent on ourselves.

Sentient adult—Not everyone should have freedom. Children are too limited in their understanding to have freedom. They don’t understand that cars and hot stoves can kill or burn them. They don’t understand the basic rules by which any society lives by. Thus, until they have some basic understanding, their freedom must be limited. Some adults, in the same way, will never have the understanding of others, they are, in essence, perpetual children. If that is the case, then their freedom should also be limited.

Harm Others—This is the only real limitation to freedom for adults. If we harm others, especially in our community, then someone has the responsibility to limit our freedom. Freedom is purposely curtailed if one opts to use one’s freedom for the harm of people.

Moral principle:
We must allow others the freedom they have.
If everyone has freedom to make their own choices, then we must have a moral obligation not to limit what freedom they have. This does not mean that an agreement cannot be reached to limit one’s freedom—see below. But it does mean that if an agreement is not made, and if a person is not harming another, then freedom must not be limited. This is a difficult principle to live by because we want people to live the best way they can, and sometimes we think we know better what they must do better than they do. Even if that is true, we do not have the right to force people to live according to our ideals.

The best example of this is God Himself. God sees that people are self-destructive, but He does nothing about it, except warning. Speech by itself is not limiting freedom, but God rarely uses his almighty power to limit others from destroying themselves.

Thus, in dealing with others, we must not manipulate, control, lie to or otherwise limit others’ freedom to do what they want to. Again, the only exceptions are if they don’t know any better—they are like children—or if in their choices they are harming others.

Harming oneself
Should we limit people’s freedom if in their freedom they are harming themselves? To harm oneself might be in opposition to the principle of harming others. Even though one is not the same as the other, to harm oneself IS to harm a human being. Should we limit harm to oneself? Each society seems to have different answers to this question. Usually there is a list of personal harms that are accepted (eating junk food, smoking), while others that are not (suicide, some kinds of drug use). So societies make their own choices.

But as a personal choice, we need to remember that harming ourselves is often a moral choice because it effects others. If we allow ourselves to be harmed, but we are to care for children, the children will be harmed by our choices for ourselves. Others will be emotionally harmed if we kill ourselves, no matter if we tell ourselves otherwise. So generally, the moral choice is to curtail our own freedom for the sake of others. But making this choice does not limit our freedom at all because it is still our own choice.

Agreement to limit freedom
We can make the choice to limit our freedom for a long term. Contracts are made to pay for services rendered—this means that we receive a service or good and we lose the freedom to use our money in other ways. We can make an agreement with an employer to work for him or her for a period of time a week, which the employer agrees to pay us certain amounts of money. This is a long term arrangement which limits our freedom, but one in which we have the freedom to annul to obtain more freedom.

We may feel like slaves because our livelihood depends on the employer, but the fact is that we have other choices, just perhaps not so many that allows us to live the lifestyle we expect or want. But, again, it is our freedom to choose that lifestyle or another, such as being homeless.

Homeless people may feel limited because their lifestyle is illegal and they feel that they have no choice but to live on the street. Freedom in this context is complicated. Homelessness demands a certain freedom, but it also thrusts one to live freely when one may not want to live with so much freedom (i.e. without employment). So it could be that forced homelessness, while seeming more free, is actually the least free lifestyle.

The important aspect of agreeing to limit our freedom is the freedom to opt out of that agreement with few limitations. But if one’s survival depends on the limitation of freedom, are we really free to opt out of it?

Mentally Illness
People who are mentally ill are adults and they have (often) full knowledge of consequences of their actions. In their freedom, they seek to do actions that could be self-harming or just socially unacceptable. Yet they make these choices because they see the world in a different way than society around them. Perhaps they see harms that others do not, or perhaps they see certain people or acts as being more harmful than others do. Should these people be treated as children, or as adults?

In the ancient world, they were considered adults that made strange choices. Modern societies, for the most part have chosen to treat the mentally ill as children, unable to make choices for themselves. In that case, the mentally ill are committed, or placed under the authority of a government agency.

Different worldviews
A similar issue is the issue of differing worldviews. An excellent case for this is abortion in the U.S. Some see fetuses as human children, thus requiring protection and a requirement for limiting the freedom of others from harming them. Others understand the fetus as a potential human, but not yet human, so harming them is not an issue. Which worldview should be able to determine the freedom other’s have?

Actions that lead to harming others
Another complication is having the freedom to do something that is known to indirectly cause harm to others. For instance, one might want to give a dog the opportunity to run in the yard. But if we know that the dog will jump the fence and then bite someone else, then should that freedom be limited? The answer to almost all societies is that if an action is known to cause harm to others, then that freedom should be limited.

But what if it is different in different cases? Some people, when they get drunk, they get abusive. Others, most, do not. Some people, when they use drugs, steal. Others do not. Should everyone be limited from these activities because of the harm of a few? Or should each case be taken separately? Most societies make general principles—i.e. drinking is okay, drunk driving is not—that limit one’s harm, but allows freedom.

This means that we must make more limitations ourselves. If we know we can cause harm to others indirectly, then we must avoid that harm ahead of time. We cannot depend upon the law to determine all of our ethical choices. Freedom means doing what is right ourselves because it is right, not because someone is telling us to.

Fearing Harm
Often we are afraid that if we allow others freedom in some area, then we are allowing ourselves to be harmed. For instance, I might be afraid that my son will hit his sister unless I keep him away from her. Or, more broadly, a society might fear that another race will do them harm unless they keep them oppressed (such as Jews in Nazi Germany, blacks in the United States). However, it is exactly this kind of situation that the law of freedom is given. It seems so much safer to limit other’s freedom, or we might think it is to their benefit. But fear of harm is not the same as proven harm. The only time we should limit the freedom of another is when they have proven that they would harm, not just because we fear it. And even when we limit freedom, we should do so only to the degree in which the assured harm would be prevented.

Ethics and Theology

According to Scripture, you cannot separate ethics from theology. They are completely intertwined. I am not saying that an atheist cannot do good. Of course they can. And so can those with incomplete theologies. God has placed good in every man. The possibility of doing good exists in every human being. And, of course, so does the possibility of doing evil. Every person, without exception, has the possibility of making excuses to ignore doing the good they know they should do, but do not want to.

Thus, this conflict tears apart every person. Paul described it when he said in Romans 7 that “the good I would do, that I what I do not. And the evil I would not, that is what I do.” Of course, sometimes we choose the good and we are proud that we have done so as well. We have the desire to do good and the desire to do evil all mixed up within ourselves, and so we often deceive ourselves to convince ourselves that the evil is the good, the good is the evil or at least that it is excusable to do the evil. What is good and what is evil? Let’s leave that to another essay. The question is here, how do we know what is and what is evil. When we are in such a state of confusion within our minds concerning the ethical, how can we make a decision?

Well, we have to surrender to an ideal that is outside ourselves. We have to trust that an outside entity has the right capacity to determine good and evil and we place our trust in that entity. Some trust in law, some trust in law enforcement, some trust in a justice system. However, the systems of humanity, it seems, are just as confused as any individual human. Some trust in a philosophy or an ideal. Some trust in the Bible, and find that the Bible can be used to justify people’s morality as much as any other book or philosophy. Some trust in religious leaders, until they find out how faulty those leaders are.

And some trust in theology, especially a theology that has ethics. Even the Bible, however, warns about theology that accompanies bad ethics. How does theology and ethics combine to a complete philosophy of life?

1. Bad morality means bad theology (Psalm 73:1)
“The food has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.” This “fool” is not the atheist who denies God on principle. Rather, this is the evil individual who wants to not be held responsible for his own actions. He denies God due to his moral lapse, rather than on evidence. To act in an evil way is to ultimately deny God or to deny the God who supports what is good and true. To excuse the evil one does is to surrender oneself to disbelief in the true God.

2. Bad theology leads to bad morality (Mark 7:5-13)
But more often is the case when ones strict idea of God leads one to do evil. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day couldn’t admit that Jesus was doing good, because he disagreed with their theology. The good person is rejected by those with incomplete theology. Bad theology gives people excuses to do evil. They will use their principles of religion or philosophy to do what they wanted to do for themselves, in rejection of others. People starve and are persecuted and are tortured and die because of bad theology or philosophy everyday.

3. Good morality overcomes bad theology (Matthew 12:1-7)
Jesus could look at people’s actions and see their bad theology. It doesn’t matter if their exegesis is correct and their logic is perfect: if a person’s theology allows the homeless to sleep in the cold, allows the hungry to starve, allows anyone to be tortured, allows one to be destroyed in the name of God- that theology is not true. Theology is what theology does. And the truth of theology is seen in either the good or the evil that is done. Jesus’ theology begins and ends with love. Thus, any theology that is not of love is not of Jesus.

4. Good theology leads to good morality (Luke 10:25-37)
However, if we correct our minds to focus on what is important—Loving God and loving our neighbors—then we will do what is good. Sure, we may not get the details right. Perhaps we will get the nature of God wrong. Perhaps we will worship at the wrong church or temple. Perhaps we will call ourselves by the wrong name or hold to the wrong presuppositions. But if we focus on what is right, the right love, the right action, then our theology will work itself out, eventually. Mind you, it is difficult to get that right. This is why Jesus is here to help us get on the right path with God. In the end, though, if we are focused correctly in Jesus, we will love. And if we love, we will understand God better than if we think.

Love triumphs over intellectualism.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Science, Materialism and Truth

Josh: (Lecturing to his students in a forest) Science is the king of current metaphysical thought. If it is proven by science, then it is true. And if something is true, that something becomes the basis of all other truth, whether proven or opined. We may disregard this study or that, but the method of science is honored above all truth. And it has its significant place. The scientific method is a way of discerning between truths by careful observation. It is the finest of all human philosophies, and the main discoverer of the world around us.

What is science? What is the methodology which we honor above all? It is the proving of truth through repeatable experimentation. The scientist—no matter what age or social class or economic backing—performs an experiment with an expected outcome. Perhaps the outcome occurs, or something unexpected occurs, so either truth is affirmed or it is discovered. Even if there is a variety of outcomes, then a chart is made, indicating probability. You can’t lose with science.

The problem, however, with having science as the center of our metaphysics, is that all that is significant, the basis of all truth, is the observable and the experienced. And we tell ourselves, then, that all that is really important in our lives is that which we can experience, and that which is material. Only the sensible is sensible and the non-material is immaterial.

This limits the scope of significant reality to that which our eyes can see and to what our hands can touch. This is unfortunate. For we forget how much we, as humans, cannot know and can never experience. We, in our pride, neglect our limitations. Since that which we can experience is all important, then that which is beyond our understanding is insignificant.
But if that is the case, then it is unimportant that Ken’s mother died of unknown causes, because it is outside our sphere of knowledge. And Ken’s grief and love for his mother is insignificant, for we cannot open Ken up and observe his emotions with a microscope. Yes, it is within Ken’s experience, but since his experience is not material and not within our scope of experience, it is insignificant for the rest of us. Perhaps our observation of his experience can be significant to us because that becomes our experience, but the initial experience of it is significant to no one but Ken. Thus Ken is isolated, alone. Unloved. All because we believe in the experienced rather than the unseen.

The problem of science as the metaphysic of the age is not that of minimizing the unsensory, but also that of signifying the material. In our lives, that which is important is the material we can experience, the experience we can repeat. We have all become scientists of our own lives, experimenting with that which gives us experience. That which gives us a positive experience we tend to repeat, while that which we find negative we set aside. Then we base our actions on this personal utilitarianism—measuring our pleasure and diminishing our pain, creating repeatable actions that give us the best life.

However, we fail in our experimentation, mostly because we have neglected the unknown, unseen forces in our lives—our connection with others. We have an unseen relationship with every person we meet. We experience their experience—to a lesser degree, but it is still real. The emotion they feel, we feel. The joy another experience is, to a degree, experienced by us as well. The sorrow another has is sucked into our hearts, and we have no choice but to experience that sorrow. It is unseen, undiscovered, yet as real a force in our lives as the sun that shines and the air we breathe.

To focus on the material in our lives to grant us joy or sorrow is to deny the much more powerful force that is around us—the ebb and flow of human emotion around us. If we think that we can obtain happiness through a computer screen, the isolation we have becomes a more powerful reality and we go insane trying to push it aside. If we think that we can obtain happiness through a drug, we do so only by hiding ourselves from the human experience, by clouding the reality. And if we try to close the door to this ocean of emotion by politeness and social conventions, we soon find the edges of our door becoming damp, and the cracks widening by the pressure of the tide and soon the door bursts open and the emotions overwhelm us, dragging us down to the bottom.

We cannot fight or control the sea. All we can do is learn to ride it.

John: Is science truth?

Josh: It is an aspect of truth. But not all truth is significant.

John: So are you saying that science is insignificant?

Josh: Not at all. It is important for a smoker to know that cigarettes can cause lung cancer. But how important is it for us to know the names of the internal organs of the jellyfish? For some that might be important, but it is not important for the majority of people.

John: So some studies are important, while others are not.

Josh: Correct. We must determine not only what is true, but what is importantly true.

Pete: How can we know the difference between that which is important and that which isn’t? After all, all we have is a huge accumulation of knowledge, that which is fed to us or that which is discovered on our own, but how are we to sift through all that to determine the significant?

Josh: First you must know who you are in your community. Significance can only be found in context.

John: So you are saying that what is true is only found in context?

Josh: No. That which is real remains real. But if reality shifts, then the significance of one reality lessens and another becomes greater.

Nate: So, Josh, are you saying that the most significant truth is the immaterial, undiscovered truth?

Josh: Again, we must remember the vastness of that which we do not know. There is an infinitude of potential knowledge, yet both our knowledge and our potential knowledge is finite—a thimbleful of understanding amidst an ocean of reality. Much of that reality is insignificant to us. Much of the thimbleful is significant. But doesn’t it stand to reason that we are actually missing the majority of truth that is important for us to know? So if we limit important truth to that which is observable or experienced, then we are dismissing so much that is actually significant.

Thomas: But how can we know that one aspect of unproven truth is more important than another? Like you said, not all truth is significant for us, and a vast majority of truth is unseen, unproven. This means that the majority of unproven truth either is insignificant or it is actually misleading—not a truth at all. Is not all unproven truth like pulling out jellybeans from a bag—some are good and some are bad, but you don’t know until you prove it by experience?

Josh: Unless you have someone who has been in the bag and can hand you the best candy of all. (Hands him a chocolate kiss). After all, there are those around you—unseen, unknown—who have already seen and experienced that which you have longed for all your life, but have never known. If you find the true master of reality, you will find the significant truth.

Thomas: What do you mean, “master of reality”?

Josh: Remember, dear students, the path of peace, and you will be on your way to truth.

Finding Happiness

One of the most forgotten of the greatest Biblical themes is that God created the human body.

God made us to have desire for food, pleasure in sex and a drive to be ambitious. He made us to be attracted to other humans, to find babies adorable and to be angry at injustice. Gathering in communities, gardening, governing, and having possessions are all a part of God’s plan. They are all a part of God’s created order.

God wants us to have a happy life. This is what salvation is about. To be able to live, contentedly, in God’s created order, with everything we need. Life should be simple, graspable and joyful. This is the basis of salvation, what God offers every human being.

However, God didn’t only make us to be happy, for happiness is a goal, but it is not the whole of what is being human. Yes, God made us to have pleasure, but He also made us to feel depression. God made us to govern, but He also made us with fear. God made us to be attracted to that which is deeply unlike ourselves. He also made us with the capacity for boredom, so that when we finally find the perfect, we find it ultimately insufficient.

Within our own nature is our own demise. God created us to desire happiness. But he also made us inadequate to the task of obtaining it. We are incomplete, self-contradictory. Every time we discover our happiness—we fall in love, we take a bite of the perfect food, we accomplish our most important goals, we hear a song that matches our souls—within that happiness we find a blemish. And that blemish grows until our unhappiness becomes greater than our original happiness. Then we must go on an odyssey for the next happiness. The search never ends.

So we have to find something complex that will fulfill our needs. We usually find that in a societal complex. Perhaps a job, perhaps a family, a church, an intellectual community, a government. It takes us some time to run the gauntlet of any complexes. And we find happiness for a time. But in the end, our assurance that we have truly found happiness in the community rings empty in our ears.

There is no food big enough to keep us happy. There is no marriage big enough to keep us happy. There is no truth big enough to keep us happy. There is no society big enough to keep us safe, give us justice, provide us pleasure, and continually grant us peace.

The world is not enough for our happiness. Peace is not to be found on earth. Only God is big enough to grant us perpetual contentment.

A lot people see Jesus as some happy pill. As if God is some kind of serotonin injection, applied directly to our brain. We must remember, God created us to be in this circumstance to begin with. God is the first to admit that our search for happiness must pass through depression, anxiety, frustration and hopelessness. And God is not directly the answer.

God, rather, is our help. God is our guide and shield. God is our hope, but not the answer in and of itself. God is our answer, who leads us to the life which is contentment. For this reason, obtaining a relationship with God is not the end, but the beginning.

God is an artist who takes trash and creates something beautiful with it. But the artist gathering trash is not the act of beautifying, in and of itself. The love of trash does not leave trash as trash. This process of creating beauty requires tearing, burning, shaping, gluing, painting, covering, protecting.

Even so, us being put into Jesus’ kingdom through baptism isn’t what makes us happy. Rather, stepping into Jesus is an acceptance of the process that God puts us through. The end of this process is our peace, our happiness. But before this process is over, we must delve deep into a broken heart, tears of repentance, severed relationships, acceptance of other’s hatred, moving from our home, struggling with temptation, surrender of our possessions, anger at injustice, and the shame of mockery.

This is the human condition. And by God’s direction, we will obtain His goal for us—happiness, contentment, peace. If we would but accept this. As long as we can live for a time with just hope. Only with that grasping at straws will we ever experience the reality.

Let us turn to God, and ask for help. Allow that help to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death, as long as His staff leads us. Surrender to Him and so let suffer for the joy set before us.

Loving God

From “The Maxims of the Saints” by Archbishop Fenelon
Translated by H.R. Allenson, edited by Steve Kimes

There are many ways to love God. At least, there are various feelings which go under that name.

First, there is what may be called selfish love. This is a love of God which originates solely in regard too our own happiness. Those who love God with no other love than this kind love Him just as the miser loves his money, and the sensual man loves his pleasures. These attach no value to God except as a means to an end: the gratification of their desires. Such love, if it can be called that, is unworthy of God. He does not ask it, and He will not receive it.

Second, there is another kind of love that doesn’t suppress our own happiness as a motive to love God. However, this love requires our happiness to be a subordinate to a much higher motive: a desire for the glory of God. It is a mixed love, in which we regard ourselves and God at the same time. This love is not necessarily selfish and wrong. On the contrary, it is correct when we put our love for ourselves and our love for God in the correct position. In this way we would love God as He ought to be loved, and love ourselves no more than we ought to be loved. This kind of love is unselfish and right. This is the love most often spoken of by Jesus.

However, there is another kind of love of God. This mixed love described above can become a pure love of God. This can happen when the love of self is lost, though not absolutely, in regard to the will of God. Even mixed love can become pure love when the two loves, of ourselves and of God are combined rightly.

Pure love is not inconsistent with mixed love, but it is mixed love carried to it’s true result. When this result is attained, the motive of God’s glory expands itself so that it fills the mind. The other motive, that of our own happiness, becomes so small, and it so recedes from our inward notice that it is practically annihilated. At this point God becomes what He ever ought to be—the center of the soul. God is then the Sun of the soul, from which all its light and its warmth proceed.

We lay ourselves at His feet. Self is known no more—not because it is wrong to notice and desire our own good, but because the object of desire is withdrawn from our notice. When the sun shines, the stars disappear. When God is in the soul, who can think of himself? In this way we love God, and God alone. And all other things are in and for God.

Whoever has attained pure love has also attained all the moral and Christian virtues. For all the virtues: temperance, self control, restraining from sexual pleasures, truth, kindness, forgiveness and justice—are all included in holy love. Love will develop and show itself in all of these forms. St. Augustine remarks that love is the foundation, source or principle of all the virtues.

Replacing God for a Culture War

God is a mystery of another world. God is Spirit, another substance, another entity, a person that we can relate to, but can only understand through symbol and metaphor and the broadest of concepts. God is separate from this world, as different from this world as a cow is different from an amoeba. God is a part of Himself, which before creating this universe created the spirit world for His essence to dwell in, although nothing can hold Him.

We, however created by God and in God’s image, are creatures of this world. From the instant we are born, possibly before, we are swimming in the substance of our world, breathing in the ideas, experiencing its vision, consuming the smells and tastes around us. All that we experience is not just created by God, but created by humanity. The sea of humanity is not only the mass of people, but the crowd of human creations that we cannot escape. This force, as pervasive as gravity or air, is culture.

The culture we are raised in and live in is not just something we live in, but it lives in us. Even as our soul is united with our body, our being is infused with culture. Every thought we think is a cultural thought. Every act we perform is a cultural act. Every word we speak is a cultural word. The unique ones are never a culture of their own—at best they are a sub-culture of one, but still reacting in one way or another to the culture or cultures they know and remain a part of, even if absent.

How then can we know God, who is so apart from this world, and we are so inseparable from it? The only way to experience the greatest of all Aliens is to have the superior intelligence teach the lesser one. To understand the best of who God is, we need to have it explained to us in cultural terms. We have no reference to who God really is, but God patiently presents himself in terms we can appreciate and understand. How God wants us to live is encased in culture. And when we relate to God, whether in worship or in prayer, God kindly allows us our cultural expression, for we have no other.

The difficulty is that culture is not a rock foundation on which our ideas are based, but culture is in constant flux. It is an ocean, that as soon as you have determined a pattern of water flow or of hot and cold streams, it shifts, or there is a hurricane and everything changes. With each generation, culture makes a major shift again with minor shifts happening all along. And if a single culture is divided, then it becomes two, distinct, unique cultures within two generations, and never can they be united again without irreparable harm.

Because of this, our relation to God changes. That which one generation holds as the truest form of worship, within two is completely rejected. The worship itself has not shifted, but the mode would be unthought-of by all previous generations. The communication of how we live must change, for the good life of one culture could be evil in another and visa versa. In one context, it is good to give money to beggars, while in another it is death. And even our understanding of God himself, wrapped up in an ancient culture, becomes an enigma, uncovered only by those who have knowledge of the ancient culture, and that only in the most vague way.

God continues to display himself. He is not limited by time, by changing contexts or by unused languages. He continues to speak, and yet He does not neglect his older speech. But that speech is transformed, born again, renewed. It is both old and yet strangely new. It’s old context and life still lives and it lives again. Yet God can only be understood by communication that comes from God himself. Because He is fundamentally unknown, that which we know about Him, as vague as that is, must come from Him, not our own culture, our own thoughts. For God is beyond our thoughts, never being of our culture, as much as He uses our culture.

The difficulty we have about God, however, is trying to grasp Him only through His communication, and not through our own. Alongside the God that dwells in the Spirit world is a god, in the semblance of the former, that is a creation of culture. This god (in reality, gods) is very real in the minds of humans, more real than the true God of heaven. But this god is real because it is a part of culture, a part-and-parcel of “real” life, everyday existence. And this god can use the same ancient revelation and mode of modern communication in order to take the place of the God who existed before time.

This god promotes religious prejudice. This god limits himself, even as he makes claims that are vast. This god is everyone’s friend, and yet he creates enemies and has his people kill them at their pleasure. This god places himself in philosophical concepts of Trinity and Sovereignty, Prime Mover and Anti-Flesh. This god becomes a part of patriarchy, of empire, of rebellion and of complete independence. So a culture of human theology is created, and shifted and soon there are many theologies and many truths about god, all equally inadequate. And they can all say, “We have as much truth as the last theology,” and it is true, for none of it is based on revelation, but on speculation.

And then this god makes demands to shape and warp culture into his own image. His followers become advisors and judges and lawyers and politicians in order to control the passage of culture. He imposes his own limits and laws, his unique principles and precepts become the law of the land. Other cultures fight against this trend, and the followers of the god say, “You are opposing god! You are evil incarnate!” Yet the true God waits on the sidelines, allowing the culture war to play out.

Other cultures to whom God is revealing Himself in a unique way become the evil cultures, in opposition to god, no matter how close some in those other cultures are to the true God. The followers of god do not have understanding of God, so they cannot see Him at work. So the strong culture of god makes war with the other cultures—often destroying the communication of God there. The god of a culture is never the critic of the culture, for the culture itself becomes the god. And anyone or anything that changes the culture is trying to change god. Yet God never changes. He waits, continuing to communicate, continuing to love and critique all equally, for all need support and all need change.

To overcome god, we must restore God to His place. We must re-discover the revelation that God has given—both ancient and modern—and take such revelation seriously. We must not hear it for what we want it to say, but allow it to speak for itself. For it is the best understanding of God we have. We must allow Jesus and the prophets and apostles speak. And we must listen.

In listening, we must do two things. We must first create principles of the cultural communication to have ideas that surpass culture. And then we need to embed the concepts back into culture, otherwise they are words with no life. We must see how revelation is in agreement with culture, and when it opposes culture, remembering that God is beyond all culture, not taking sides, but is only on the side of Truth and Love. God is no respecter of persons, upholding one culture above another, one human ideal above another. So God has both a message of approval and of change for every culture, equally.

If we truly want to see God, then we must look for His communication to other cultures as well, in ways that we would not have expected. And when we find God in the other culture, in the context of that culture, we will know more of Him than we ever would have in one culture.

And we must never automatically reject another’s worship or communication with God or ethical pattern until we understand how they are trying the context of what they are doing. We fear and reject that which is unfamiliar—that is the human pattern. But to grasp God, we must go beyond the human as God does. God’s revelation, one might notice, has few items that are condemned in comparison to the limitless variety of the human experience. The variety, obviously, is pleasing to God, and so we must accept it, wherever it comes. And if a particular mode of variety is displeasing, then God will correct it, if we would but trust it.

But we must be rid of god. We must be rid of the cultural idol we have created in our own image. We can often recognize this god when he says, “We must not speak this way. We must not act this way. We must not love this way. We must not restore this way.” God rarely says these things. But god will demand destruction of the other, will limit variety at every incarnation of it. We know that god has reared his ugly head when each of our congregations look the same, worship the same, act the same and always knows what the other congregations are talking about. In God there is natural conflict—but in God there is the craving of accepting so that we all might achieve the One in many.