Saturday, April 30, 2011


There is a tendency among fundamentalists and evangelicals to reject every tenant of another religion simply because the other religions affirms it. In other words, “if our competition says it’s true, it must be false.” However, this cannot be the case. Islam affirms that God is merciful and all-powerful. Many evangelicals say that Islam worships a different God than we do. Well, how many all-powerful, merciful Gods can there be? Isn’t it simpler to say that we may have a different interpretation of the One God rather than denying their God altogether? Certainly, we do not want to deny that our God is one, all powerful and merciful, and we cannot deny that Muslims so affirm their God to be.

“All truth is God’s truth” is a “truism”. In other words, no matter where truth is found, if it is real, a reflection of that which exists, then we must affirm it. If we find truth about reality or God or whatever in science or in other religions, then we must affirm it. And if we can work together on the truth we affirm, then why shouldn’t we? If we find, as Bible-based Christians, that we should rule the earth with compassion toward all creatures, then why can we not work with Buddhists and environmentalists who have that same goal. We don’t have to agree with their metaphysics or their theology to work together in this one goal.

So Karen Armstrong affirms that all the major world religions have compassion in common. I want to look at that, as we read her book, but if that is a given, then why can we not affirm that? Why can we not work together with other religions on aspects of compassion? Even as many religions can work together to affirm human life, whether in the womb or children in danger of war or slavery, why can we not work together in other aspects of compassion, or even affirming compassion together?

A good goal is worth working together on, even if we might disagree on other ideals.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Science or "Science"

I'm going to start posting some reflections on Karen Armstrong's book, Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life.

Karen Armstrong is one of the most important theological historians of our day. However, her style of theological history is specificly “scientific”. What do I mean by this?

There are two ways that the term “science” is meant. First, we have the “scientific method”. This is a method of discovering truth in which one does a repeatable experiment to determine what is real. This can be done in any context that can be seen or measured in some way. Thus, the scientific method is “materialistic” in that it can determine truth in anything that can be measured. What humanity has been shocked at is how many things can be measured. From this, astronomy – the determination of the movement of the heavens—replaced astrology—the spiritual narrative of the movement of the heavens. Chemistry—the use and manipulations of elements based on atomic numbers—has replaced alchemy—elemental guesswork. And forensics—applications of the scientific method, especially DNA evidence to criminal justice—is beginning to replacing witnesses in courtrooms. In history, archeology is informing the historical stories that have been told for millennia.

There is another kind of “science” however, which is more philosophical in nature. This is the idea that only that can be measured is actually real. It is a denial of anything that cannot be measured. It is the denial of the spirit world, or at least an extreme agnosticism about a spirit world, that even if it did exist, we cannot determine the effect of it on our world. It is the denial of a history in which events that do not seem plausible occur. It is the denial of the use of language which affirms some sort of fate or personal power beyond what we see.

The interesting thing about this philosophical kind of science is that it is, in some way, a denial of the scientific method. For the scientific method, while it has theories and assumptions, it does not affirm these theories until it has been proven with experiments. Since assumptions about reality that cannot be measured cannot, by definition, be measured, then no “proof” of the reliability of such a theory is possible.

Karen Armstrong is a historian of that second kind of science. This does not mean that she doesn’t do her history well. What makes her so good is that she is a good reader of ancient texts. She is thorough and tries to be compassionate to the text. However, if the simplest understanding of the text is in disagreement with her basic materialistic interpretation, then she will seek a different interpretation. The story of the Exodus is too full of miracles, so she must create a new interpretation. In her book, The Case for God, she speaks about the need for religion, but not the fact or necessity of God as a real entity. This is because she sees religion as a primarily psychological phenomenon, as a success of the human spirit, rather than as the spirit world breaking into this world.

The main problem with Ms. Armstrong approaching religion or history in this way, is that one must deny how the original authors and the majority of religionists see the reality of their narratives. She is in the business of affirming part of their stories but denying a good portion of them as well. This may seem positive to those who agree with her materialism-only philosophy, but it does not communicate to the majority of religionists, to whom she is trying to communicate with her book, Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life.

So why am I spending any time with her work at all? First of all, because she is an important voice. She is, in a sense, creating a new religion. A religion which denies the spiritual, which has been attempted before, but never has anyone had such ecumenical support for this idea. This approach will not be accepted by the majority of religionists, but the broad base of support from different religions is interesting.

The other interesting aspect of her work is the attempt to have a moral agreement between all the major world religions. And the foundation of this moral agreement—compassion—is an essential basis for two of the religions in question: Buddhism and Christianity. Because of this, I am interested to explore what she says and whether it matches, or even comes close to, biblical Christianity.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Deepest Poverty

From one of John Chrysostom's sermons on Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man:

Do not tell me that he [Lazarus, the poor man] was afflicted with sores, but consider that he had a soul inside more precious than any gold or rather not his soul only, but also his body, for the virtue of the body is not plumpness or vigor but the ability to bear so many severe trials. A person is not loathsome if he has this kind of wounds on his body, but if he has a multitude of sores on his soul and takes no care of them.

Such was that rich man, full of sores within. Just as the dogs licked the wounds of the poor man, so demons licked the sins of the rich man; and just as the poor man lived in the starvation of nourishment, so the rich man lived in starvation of every kind of virtue.

Knowing all these things, let us be wise. Let us not say, "If God loved so-and-so, He would not have allowed him to become poor." This very fact is the greatest evidence of God's love: "For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves and chastises every son whom He receives." And elsewhere it is written: "My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation. Set your heart right and be steadfast."

Tell me, if you see any robber-chief prowling the roads, lying in wait for passers-by, stealing from farms, burying gold and silver in caves and holes, penning up large herds in his hideouts and acquiring a lot of clothing and slaves from that prowling, tell me, do you call him fortunate because of that wealth? or unfortunate because of the penalty which awaits him? He may not have been arrested, handed to the judge or thrown in prison, but he eats and drinks extravagantly, he enjoys great wealth. Nevertheless, we do not call him fortunate because of his present visible goods, but we call him miserable because of his future expected sufferings.

You should think the same way about those who are rich and greedy. They are a kind of robber lying in wait on the roads, stealing from passers-by, and burying others' goods in their own houses and banks as if in caves and holes. Let us not therefore call them fortunate because of what they have but miserable because of what will come, because of that dreadful courtroom, because of the inexorable judgment, because of the outer darkness that awaits them.

Let us call fortunate not the wealthy but the virtuous; let us call miserable not the poor but the wicked. Let us not regard what is present, but consider what is to come. Let us not examine the outer garments but the conscience of each person.

James says: "Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?"

The blasphemer of God is the one who claims God by doctrine and belief, but denies Him in his lack of love. Those who have greater resources have the greater responsibility to help those in need. Those who do the greatest injustice by keeping their great wealth for themselves, but blame the poor for their poverty, are those who will be greatly punished by the great Judge of all.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Homosexuality in the Bible

Lately there has been a huge controversy about same-sex marriages and homosexuality in general. Some would say that Bible opposes homosexuality and thus it must be staunchly opposed. Others say that the Bible’s stance on homosexuality is culturally irrelevant, and must be seen from a different angle. Others think that the Bible doesn’t actually oppose homosexuality. Who is right? I don’t want to write an extensive paper on this, but let me see if I can summarize what the Bible does say, clearly. In a sentence, here is my position: “God loves homosexuals without condition and just because a person has a sexual orientation doesn’t mean they are a sinner; however, the act of homosexual sex is a sin that must be repented of.”

1. Homosexuality is a sin
The two obvious passages in the New Testament are Pauline. Romans 1 says that homosexuality is a sin and I Corinthians 6 claims that two classes of homosexuals will not enter into the kingdom of God. I Corinthians 6 has a pair of words that would be literally translated “homosexual” and “soft one”, but would best be translated today by the terms “butch and femme”. In the ancient world, homosexuality was commonly practiced by older and younger men and a patronage model had homosexuality as a significant aspect, which is specifically what Paul is referring to, not prostitution.

Acts 15 has three sins that gentile believers must avoid: idolatrous items, eating blood and sexual immorality. These three items are a summary of Leviticus 17:1-19:18, which means that the whole of the law the gentiles were asked to obey are in these three chapters. As for “sexual immorality”, this is defined specifically in Leviticus 18 as including, incest, homosexuality, bestiality and sex with ones wife while she is on her period. Jesus also speaks of “sexual immorality” as a sin which keeps one from the kingdom of God and we can assume that he defines that idea with the same passage in Leviticus.

This should really not come as a surprise to anyone, although it may be disappointing to some. The most serious scholarship on the topic is by Robert Gagnon, who wrote Homosexuality in the Bible, and he concludes that the Bible clearly says consistently that homosexuality is a sin, although he questions the church’s practice toward homosexuals.

We need to understand, however, what sin is and is not. Sin is an act that separates one from God. It is an act that God finds unfavorable and prevents an open relationship with Him, unless we repent. However, sin is not “evil” in and of itself. I find someone’s practice of public nudity unacceptable and I won’t be with them as they practice it, however I will not find that particular practice “evil”, unless it is accompanied by unwanted sexual conduct of some sort. It is unacceptable to me, but not necessarily “evil”. Even so, there are sins that are unacceptable, but not necessarily “evil”. A person grows up worshipping idols and so continues this practice. This is unacceptable to God, and thus a sin, but that person could generally be a good person that is confused about how to worship God well. Even so, a person involved in homosexuality might be a sinner, but not necessarily evil.

2. Any certain sexual orientation is not a sin
We need to make it clear as well that the Bible is not speaking of a sexual orientation when it speaks of homosexuality. In other words, a person can come out of the closet as a homosexual, but this does not mean that the church has the right to call that person a sinner. A Lutheran pastor was found going to a support group for those struggling with same sex attraction. Many of the members of his church wanted to fire him. But cooler heads prevailed, recognizing that the man had sexual desire, even as many have sexual desire for someone who is not their spouse, but a temptation or a desire is not, in and of itself, sin.

Many have lived their whole lives having the sexual orientation of homosexuality, and this without sin. As well, many have acted upon their desire, perhaps many times, and repented of these acts and received full forgiveness. God does not look at the desire of a person as who they are, but their acts that they have not repented of.

3. Homosexual orientation could be granted by God
Romans 1 imply that homosexuality is caused by idolatry. Paul is not saying that a certain homosexual was originally an idolator. Instead he is saying that a people of idolatry would see homosexuality as a struggle. In fact, God would visit homosexuality on a society as a result of idolatry. This is a punishment of society, for this would reduce population, which is a blessing in Scripture. Thus, it is quite possible that Scripture actually supports a person to be born with a homosexual orientation.

A genetic orientation, however, is not an excuse. Many heterosexuals have an orientation toward adultery, but this does not excuse their actions. Others have an orientation toward abuse or drunkenness, but it is still sin. I do not want to say that homosexuality is as bad as these other sins or better. I simply say that we are all born with certain desires and that doesn’t give a moral green card for them.

4. Homosexual sin is no worse than heterosexual sin
Some would say that homosexuality is a worse sin than others. Paul, however, makes it clear that homosexuality is simply one sin among many. And, in fact, it might be argued that the sins of greed or slander or judgmentalism are far worse than a sexual sin.

It is interesting to see Paul’s argument all the way through in Romans. In Romans 1, Paul agrees with Jewish preachers who say that gentiles are awful sinners. He liberally lists out the sins of the gentiles—unbelievers—and says they are worthy of the judgment of God. For the next two chapters Paul then describes the sins of the Jews—the believers—and points out how they are actually worse. The Jews have the law and therefore the Law was written to them, which means that the judgments of the Law really specifically apply to the believers, not to the unbelievers. And this is because the Jews are just as much breakers of the Law as the gentiles (Romans 3:19-20).

This goes the same with unbelieving homosexuals and the church. The church has the Bible and so is required to follow the Bible. They are the ones who are to be judged according to its tenants. Unbelieving homosexuals without the Bible are not held by the same standard and while they still may practice sin, they are not judged as severely as the believer who acts knowingly according to their sin that they ignore and do not repent of. So the believer should treat the unbelieving homosexual with care, not with disdain.

5. Homosexuals must be loved by the church
Finally, Jesus loved and loves all sinners of every stripe. Homosexuals, just like every outcast, every sinner, should be welcomed and loved by the church. The church should gently speak of the sin of homosexuality, but only alongside of the sins of greed and hatred that are rampant in the church. We must repent of our sin and we must love those who sin. This is the way of Jesus. Thus, we must reject no one, despise no one because of their sin. Rather, we should care for them for it is only by God’s grace that any of us are saved. If we display judgment instead of grace, we are not acting as ambassadors of God’s mercy, but as agents of the Accuser.

Sex in the Bible (Not the Fun Stuff)

As I have already stated, C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, summarizes sexual mores in this way: “Either marriage with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.” We've talked about the difficulties of the term "marriage" and we've talked about how God made sex and attachment to another inseparable. What we haven't discussed is what C.S. Lewis is missing in his statement on Christian sexuality, and this is the part that we sometimes get in trouble with: the kinds of partnerships that are forbidden.

Biblical sexual mores are based on Leviticus 18. That's where almost all the laws of sexuality come from, and it is the reason why Paul talks as much about sexuality as he does. We may wonder why a passage in the Law, let alone Leviticus, is the center of New Testament morality in one subject.

Inappropriate sexual behavior is summarized by one Greek work in the NT, porneia. This word is often translated "sexual immorality" or "fornication", but in sum, it basically means "sex that God doesn't want us to have." However, there are so many different kinds of sexual behavior, what kinds of sex falls under this category. We get a hint in Acts 15.

Acts 15 has to do with a controversy between evangelists in the church who were trying to determine whether Gentiles had to become converts of Judaism before they could be admitted as members of Jesus' church. It was concluded that Gentiles did not have to, but that there were certain aspects of the law they needed to adhere to. These areas are summarized as follows: "We write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood." (Act 15:20)

These areas, in order, summarize a portion of Leviticus 17-19. And chapter 18 is the summary, or, if you like, the definition of "porneia". Jesus uses this term and, again, Leviticus 18 is the best and almost only passage to summarize what sexual behavior would be unacceptable.

One other aspect we need to remember is that the early church is only asking Gentile-- most of us, if we want to be precise-- to follow three aspects of the law, because it is God's law. To refrain from eating blood; to avoid things that connect to idolatry and to refrain from the sexual practices forbidden from Leviticus 18.

Leaving the NT behind, why is Leviticus 18 significant? Because it describes why, exactly, God is setting the Canaanites aside. Because their sexual practices are out of control. Thus, this is a standard God holds both to Gentiles as well as Jews. There are only a few actions that fall under this category:
-Oppression of the poor (Psalm 82)
-Sexual immorality (Leviticus 18)
-Enslaving a race or nation (Amos 1,2)
-Killing a human being (Genesis 9)-- the only law for beasts as well as for humans
-Excessive violence (Obediah and all the prophets)

So what, exactly, is sexual immorality? According to Leviticus 18, it is the following categories:
-Incest: specifically marrying the first order of family, even if they are step-siblings or -parents. First cousins aren't specified-- and the list is really specific.
-Sex with one's partner when she is on her period-- this probably has to do with taking in someone's blood
-Sacrifice to Molech-- which is usually regarded as sacrifice of the firstborn child

That's it. Not rape-- that's excessive violence. Not sex with children-- that's oppression of the poor. Not masturbation-- that isn't mentioned as a sin in the Bible. Not pre-marital sex-- although the assumption in the law that a sexually active couple will get married and is, in some way, already married.

If Christians were truly humble, they would focus on the issue of sex while one partner is on her period. It is mentioned almost as much as homosexuality is in the Bible. But no, Christians, nay, all people, focus on the "other" the odd man out, so to speak. And that's homosexuality.

Let's focus on that in the next post.