Saturday, June 28, 2008

Hell

Perhaps because I was a teacher, I enjoy presentations that can get past the "watchful dragons" of skepticism. I think Tim Keller does this. His recent book, The Reason for God, is a wonderful example and I eagerly anticipate reading anything else he writes.

Tim Keller on The Importance of Hell:
In 2003 a research group discovered 64% of Americans expect to go to heaven when they die, but less than 1% think they might go to hell. Not only are there plenty of people today who don't believe in the Bible's teaching on everlasting punishment, even those who do find it an unreal and a remote concept. ....
In this short essay Keller elaborates on four reasons the doctrine matters:
  1. It is important because Jesus taught about it more than all other Biblical authors put together.
  2. It is important because it shows how infinitely dependent we are on God for everything.
  3. It is important because it unveils the seriousness and danger of living life for yourself.
  4. The doctrine of hell is important because it is the only way to know how much Jesus loved us and how much he did for us.
In point 2 Keller asks "What is hell, then?" and answers:
It is God actively giving us up to what we have freely chosen - to go our own way, be our own "the master of our fate, the captain of our soul," to get away from him and his control. It is God banishing us to regions we have desperately tried to get into all our lives. J.I.Packer writes: "Scripture sees hell as self-chosen . . . [H]ell appears as God's gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves." (J.I.Packer, Concise Theology p.262-263.) If the thing you most want is to worship God in the beauty of his holiness, then that is what you will get (Ps 96:9-13.) If the thing you most want is to be your own master, then the holiness of God will become an agony, and the presence of God a terror you will flee forever (Rev 6:16; cf. Is 6:1-6.)
And later:
I believe one of the reasons the Bible tells us about hell is so it can act like 'smelling salts' about the true danger and seriousness of even minor sins. However, I've found that only stressing the symbols of hell (fire and darkness) in preaching rather than going into what the symbols refer to (eternal, spiritual decomposition) actually prevents modern people from finding hell a deterrent. Some years ago I remember a man who said that talk about the fires of hell simply didn't scare him, it seemed too far-fetched, even silly. So I read him lines from C.S. Lewis:
Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God 'sending us' to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.
To my surprise he got very quiet and said, "Now that scares me to death." He almost immediately began to see that hell was a) perfectly fair and just, and b) something that he realized he might be headed for if he didn't change. If we really want skeptics and non-believers to be properly frightened by hell, we cannot simply repeat over and over that 'hell is a place of fire.' We must go deeper into the realities that the Biblical images represent. When we do so, we will find that even secular people can be affected.
He concludes:
The doctrine of hell is crucial - without it we can't understand our complete dependence on God, the character and danger of even the smallest sins, and the true scope of the costly love of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is possible to stress the doctrine of hell in unwise ways. Many, for fear of doctrinal compromise, want to put all the emphasis on God's active judgment, and none on the self-chosen character of hell. Ironically, as we have seen, this unBiblical imbalance often makes it less of a deterrent to non-believers rather than more of one. And some can preach hell in such a way that people reform their lives only out of a self-interested fear of avoiding consequences, not out of love and loyalty to the one who embraced and experienced hell in our place. The distinction between those two motives is all-important. The first creates a moralist, the second a born-again believer.

We must come to grips with the fact that Jesus said more about hell than Daniel, Isaiah, Paul, John, Peter put together. Before we dismiss this, we have to realize we are saying to Jesus, the pre-eminent teacher of love and grace in history, "I am less barbaric than you, Jesus - I am more compassionate and wiser than you." Surely that should give us pause! Indeed, upon reflection, it is because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus' proclamations of grace and love are so astounding.
Thanks to Alex Chediak for the reference.

The Importance of Hell - redeemer.com

When we notice the dirt

Trevin Wax quotes the perfect C.S. Lewis passage on overcoming temptation.

Friday, June 27, 2008

"Unwed fathers"

From the new National Review:
Bill Cosby continues to do a world of good. With his longtime collaborator Alvin F. Poussaint, he took to the pages of USA Today for some very straight talk. “Why do we persist in blaming the black family crisis on ‘unwed mothers’?” he asked. What about “unwed fathers”? An inspired phrase. Even to hear acknowledgment of “the black family crisis” is refreshing. Cosby said, “Real men do not walk away from the mothers of their babies.”

"They had many more things on their minds."

Richard John Neuhaus reflects on the complicity of the German people in the crimes of the Third Reich. He is commenting on Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. Neuhaus summarizes Kershaw as saying about ordinary Germans that "many of them knew more about what was happening to the Jews than they would later admit, but they [Kershaw says] 'had many more things on their minds' than the fate of an unpopular minority." Neuhaus:
The Third Reich is rightly viewed as an icon of evil. This does not mean, as Ian Kershaw reminds us, that the ordinary Germans of the time are the icon of moral indifference or complicity in great evil. Then it was the Jews, the Slavs, and the gypsies. At other times, it is another class of human beings. Given the requisite mix of circumstances, which is not beyond imagination, it is an idle conceit to think that ordinary Americans would behave more nobly than did the Germans of Hitler’s day. Among any people of any time, moral courage is the exception and not the rule. There are heroes and heroines who contend against the great evils of their time, but even they must be selective. You may be devoting your life to helping the people of Sudan, but what are you doing to help prisoners of conscience in China, or to stop international sex trafficking, or to feed the hungry of Zimbabwe, or to relieve the loneliness of old people in the nursing home within an easy drive from your home? The list goes on and on.

“They had many more things on their minds.” And so do we all. Contemplating monstrous evils, such as the Third Reich, is not an occasion for preening in our supposed moral superiority but for humility, for self-examination, for renewed discernment of our duty, and for more earnest prayer for the coming of the promised Kingdom. [more]
FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » Understanding the Third Reich and Other Great Evils

Civility

In the course of responding to a certain inconsistency in Jim Wallis's political commentary, Peter Wehner says this:
....[M]any of us who are Christians and in the political and policy arena struggle with how to allow our faith to animate our political and philosophical views without allowing it to become merely an instrument to advance a narrow political agenda. Our faith, while it certainly ought to be relevant to our public lives, should be trans-political and trans-ideological. And while faith can deepen one’s commitment to certain issues, the danger is that a passion for those commitments can sometimes manifest themselves in words that cross boundaries and are meant to wound. Tough and spirited exchanges are fine; mean and ad hominem ones are not.

I have found that it can sometimes be a delicate and difficult balancing act.

We could all benefit from more examples of, and more encouragement to strive for, authentic grace and civility in our public debates. .... [more]
Faith should animate our politics - both the causes to which we commit ourselves and how we behave as we pursue our poltical goals. Religion should never be placed at the service of political goals.

The Corner on National Review Online

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Lord God

Greg Gilbert at The 9Marks Blog calls attention to a new rather fun program, which he describes here:
There are lots of people out there playing with Wordle, a program that creates "word clouds" out of large sections of text, giving prominence to the words that are used more often. Endless fun to be had with this. (HTJT)

Here's the entire ESV Bible.
The Psalms.
The ESV New Testament.
The Psalms in Hebrew.
The image on the right is of The Psalms as done by Wordle. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Church Matters: The 9Marks Blog

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

No other way

In another report about the Pew survey I referred to below, Fox News reports that:
America remains a nation of believers, but a new survey finds most Americans don't feel their religion is the only way to eternal life — even if their faith tradition teaches otherwise.

The findings, revealed Monday in a survey of 35,000 adults, can either be taken as a positive sign of growing religious tolerance, or disturbing evidence that Americans dismiss or don't know fundamental teachings of their own faiths.

Among the more startling numbers in the survey, conducted last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: 57 percent of evangelical church attenders said they believe many religions can lead to eternal life, in conflict with traditional evangelical teaching.

In all, 70 percent of Americans with a religious affiliation shared that view, and 68 percent said there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their own religion.

"The survey shows religion in America is, indeed, 3,000 miles wide and only three inches deep," said D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist of religion. ....

If by "their religion," the evangelical attenders mean their own denomination or church, the view expressed is defensible - they are merely saying that there are other Christian traditions that remain within orthodoxy. But if they mean something broader than that....

Rick Moore at HolyCoast, quotes the only person whose opinion matters and then suggests why believers may be ill-informed about their own faith:
Although he wasn't surveyed by Pew, someone else had an opinion on the subject of how to find eternal life:
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. [John 14:6, KJV]
Even in The Message, the most watered down paraphrase Bible out there the text still seems pretty clear:
Jesus said, "I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. [John 14:6, The Message]
I think you can probably chalk up the confusion demonstrated in the Pew poll to the wishy-washy feel-good preaching that has taken over many of our evangelical churches. Everyone is trying so hard to be "relevant" and "topical" that their teaching has become pretty useless. Various seminar-tested church models build churches with lots of people, but don't build people with lots of actual spiritual knowledge.
Update: Get Religion weighs in on what question "evangelical attenders" may have thought they were answering. First, the question that Pew asked, and then the concern:
[IF RESPONDENT HAS A RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION, ASK:] Now, as I read a pair of statements, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right. First/next: My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life, OR: many religions can lead to eternal life.
I am being a bit picky here, but I suspect that if you asked a lot of people that Pew Forum question today, they would think of the great world religions. But many Christians would think more narrowly than that. Not all. Not many, perhaps. But some. What is your religion? I’m a Baptist, a Nazarene, an Episcopalian, a Catholic. Can people outside of your religion be saved? Of course. This is not the same thing, for many, as saying that they believe that salvation is found outside faith in Jesus Christ. There are others who might have a “dual covenant” view of Judaism, but not apply that belief to Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Buddhism, etc.

Other Christians may believe that, somehow, all people will — in this life or the next — face some kind of spiritual decision about Jesus being “the way, the truth and the life.” But if you asked them if that means that only Christians will “be saved,” they will say that only God can know that. It is highly unlikely that they will say that the Bible is wrong or that centuries of Christian teaching are wrong. Yet it is unlikely that all of them — even Billy Graham — will be strictly dogmatic about what THEY know about eternity. How do they answer this Pew question?
FOXNews.com - Americans: My Faith Isn't the Only Way to Heaven - Local News | News Articles | National News | US News, HolyCoast.com: 3,000 Miles Wide and 3 Inches Deep, Pew views: Questions about Oprah America » GetReligion

"Irrationalist on the big questions"

Michael Novak is interviewed by First Things about his new book, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers. It would seem to complement the kind of argument for the faith Tim Keller makes in Reason for God. Novak on why atheism seemed inadequate:
At times in my life I have been driven toward atheism, wanted to become an atheist. Was left in the dark about God, felt nothing, nada. But none of the various sorts of atheism I encountered (and these were many) seemed intellectually satisfying. All felt—to me, at least—like dodges. Any line of questioning that brought pressure on atheism was simply defined out of existence or at least treated as irrelevant. For example, the question “Why is there something, not nothing?” was ruled out as a question that cannot be answered by science, therefore meaningless. That is much too easy. And so with other questions.

Many of the books responding to the new atheists emerge from evangelical or other traditions that root their belief in feelings, sentiments, or experiences of conversion. I have never found this approach helpful in my own case. I want to go as far as reason will take me. This is the principal difference between my book and others. I seek a reasoned path, a way rooted in reason—a path through the very structure and constitution and methods of human understanding.

To my mind, our understanding of God emerges from our questions about our own understanding.

It certainly seems like our conscience comes from a light over which we are not master, a light greater than ourselves, which often faults our own behavior down to its roots far below the surface of our rationalizations. It certainly seems as if the questioning of our own long-held assumptions, and the relentless probing of our comfortable beliefs about ourselves, comes from somewhere within ourselves—but greater than ourselves and not subject to our own self-deceptions. Thinkers since Plato have discerned this, quite rightly—you can test it in your own experience.

So mine is a book about reason’s path to God. Whether at this task reason succeeds—or fails.

The thing that makes me most curious: Why do you find atheism unsatisfying? Take the typical atheism of a university professor or of the literary world. Why doesn’t it grab you?

To me it seems a contradiction to insist that all things flow from blind chance and then to go on calling oneself a rationalist. Irrationalist on the big questions, rationalist on the things amenable to science, and something like “emotivist” on matters of practical choice and ethics. In the perennial inquiries of the human race, this mix doesn’t add up.

I can understand why atheists invent a heroic image for themselves—Bertrand Russell’s Prometheus, or Dylan Thomas’ raging against the night, or Sisyphus, or even Milton’s Lucifer refusing to “serve.” But all this seems to be striking a literary prose to cover up the emptiness of meaning in human life. .... [more]

FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » No One Sees God

Monday, June 23, 2008

Theistic atheists?

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Pew survey has found that:
Americans overwhelmingly believe in God and consider religion an important part of their lives, even as many shun weekly worship services, according to a national survey released today that also found great diversity in religious beliefs and practices.

Ninety-two percent of those interviewed for the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey said they believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit, and 58% said they pray privately every day. ....
In the same survey, though, we learn that even among atheists, 21% believe in God [see below] and 6% believe in a personal God. It would seem that many atheists are as shaky in their self-identification as are many of those who identify themselves as Christians.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Euthanasia of the weak and the sensual"

Michael Coren in the National Post reviews an exhibit at the Canadian War Museum about "those scientific ideas that gave a grimy intellectual veneer to the Nazi genocide." Among them:
The most vociferous and outspoken of the socialist eugenicists was the novelist H. G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. He argued in best-selling books such as Anticipations and A Modern Utopia that the world would collapse and from this collapse a new order should and would emerge.

"People throughout the world whose minds were adapted to the big-scale conditions of the new time. A naturally and informally organised educated class, an unprecedented sort of people." A strict social order would be formed. At the bottom of it were the base. These were "people who had given evidence of a strong anti-social disposition", including "the black, the brown, the swarthy, the yellow." Christians would also "have to go" as well as the handicapped. Wells devoted entire pamphlets to the need of "preventing the birth, preventing the procreation or preventing the existence" of the mentally and physically handicapped. "This thing, this euthanasia of the weak and the sensual is possible. I have little or no doubt that in the future it will be planned and achieved." ....

In the United States socialist writer Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and the mother of the abortion movement, called for a radical eugenics approach as early as the first years of the 20th century. She wrote of the need for "a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring. It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them. Herein lies the key of civilization." .... [more]
I recall that when my denomination was first considering taking a firm position against abortion, some of those most emotionally against adoption of the resolution were theologically liberal. I vividly remember one of them recounting his visit to a nursing home for the retarded and physically disabled with the implication that it would have been better if they had not been born. An elderly gentleman wrote me a letter informing me that my grandfather certainly would not have agreed with my anti-abortion views. He may have been right about that. Turn of the 20th century theological and political liberalism [Progressivism] seems to have been perfectly compatible with racism and eugenics. Witness, for instance, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Buck decision.

Socialists made eugenics fashionable

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"All Christians believe all this...."

Reading the interview referred to in the last post sent me back to The Reason for God. Keller spends the first half of his book raising doubt about the usual objections to Christianity - asking the skeptics to be skeptical about what they take for granted. The second half is called "The Reasons for Faith." In between, in what he calls an intermission, he defines what he means by "Christianity." Here is part of what he says:
From the outside the various Christian churches and traditions can look extremely different, almost like distinct religions. This is partially because the public worship services look so different. It is also because…Christianity is the faith that is most spread across the cultures and regions of the world. Therefore it has assumed an enormous number of different cultural forms. Another reason that Christians look so different from one another is the great theological rifts that have occurred over the centuries. The first great division was between the eastern Greek and western Roman church in the eleventh century. Today these are known as the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. The second great schism was within the Western church, between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

All Christians who take truth and doctrine seriously will agree that these differences between churches are highly significant. They make a major difference in how one's faith is held and practiced. Nevertheless, all Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians assent together to the great creeds of the first thousand years of church history, such as the Apostle's, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds. In these creeds the fundamental Christian view of reality is laid out. There is the classical expression of the Christian understanding of God as three-in-one. Belief in the Trinity creates a profoundly different view of the world from that of polytheists, non Trinitarian monotheists, and atheists, as I will show in Chapter 13. There is also a strong statement of the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ in these creeds. Christians, therefore, do not look upon Jesus as one more teacher or prophet, but as Savior of the world. These teachings make Christians far more like than unlike one another.

What is Christianity? For our purposes, I'll define Christianity as the body of believers who assent to these great ecumenical creeds. They believe that the triune God created the world, that humanity has fallen into sin and evil, that God has returned to rescue us in Jesus Christ, that in his death and resurrection Jesus accomplished our salvation for us so we can be received by grace, that he established the church, his people, as the vehicle through which he continues his mission of rescue, reconciliation, and salvation, and that at the end of time Jesus will return to renew the heavens and the earth, removing all evil, injustice, sin, and death from the world.

All Christians believe all this—but no Christians believe just this. As soon as you ask "How does the church act as vehicle for Jesus's work in the world?" and "How does Jesus's death accomplish our salvation?" and "How are we received by grace?" Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians will give you different answers. Despite the claims of many to be such, there are no truly "generic" nondenominational Christians. Everyone has to answer these "how" questions in order to live a Christian life, and those answers immediately put you into one tradition and denomination or another. ….
This is very much like C.S. Lewis's "mere Christianity" or what most of us would call "orthodoxy." The doctrinal differences that divide us into separate denominations are important [or, at least, many of them are], but their importance is in addition to - not instead of - what make us all Christians, and separates us from those who hold other creeds.

"Believe it because it's true."


Christianity Today interviews Tim Keller, author of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, which has reached the New York Times non-fiction, best-seller list. I've been reading it and like it a lot. CT says "Many readers are saying that the book provides satisfying answers to the questions that churched and unchurched people commonly raise about Christianity." Two exchanges from the interview:
You reject marketing apologetics like, "Christianity is better than the alternatives, so choose Christianity." Why?

Marketing is about felt needs. You find the need and then you say Christianity will meet that need. You have to adapt to people's questions. And if people are asking a question, you want to show how Jesus is the answer. But at a certain point, you have to go past their question to the other things that Christianity says. Otherwise you're just scratching where they itch. So marketing is showing how Christianity meets the need, and I think the gospel is showing how Christianity is the truth.

C.S. Lewis says somewhere not to believe in Christianity because it's relevant or exciting or personally satisfying. Believe it because it's true. And if it's true, it eventually will be relevant, exciting, and personally satisfying. But there will be many times when it's not relevant, exciting, and personally satisfying. To be a Christian is going to be very, very hard. So unless you come to it simply because it's really the truth, you really won't live the Christian life, and you won't get to the excitement and to the relevance and all that other stuff. ....

Many Christians say that the rationality of Christians' faith is not the obstacle for unbelievers; they reject Christianity because of what they see as bad behavior and toxic attitudes.

There are always three reasons people believe or disbelieve: the intellectual, the personal, and the social.

It's typical of postmodern people to say belief is all cultural, conditioned by your community.

Perhaps there was a day in which Christians thought that you evangelized largely through intellectual argument, but now I hear people saying, "No, it's all personal. If you're going to win people to Christ you just have to be authentic. You have to just reach out to them personally. You can't do the rational." In other words, Christians are saying the rational isn't part of evangelism. The fact is, people are rational. They do have questions. You have to answer those questions.

Don't get the impression that I think that the rational aspect takes you all the way there. But there's too much emphasis on just the personal now.

Maybe you know I'm a 57-year-old man. You'd say, "Of course you'd say that." But I'm knee deep in 20-somethings. So it's not like I don't know how people are today. [more]
Thanks to The Christian Mind for the reference.

Tim Keller Reasons with America | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Thursday, June 19, 2008

God and King

Joe Carter offers "Six Thoughts about Jesus" and they are interesting thoughts. One of them:
"Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat," said John Mark Reynolds, "He's probably a monarchist." When I first heard that at GodBlogCon several years ago I thought it was clever; now I find it to be a profound insight. Jesus constantly talked about the Kingdom of Heaven. So why do so few Christians talk about it? One reason, I believe, is that we are now all republicans and democrats (small-R, small-D) and simply don't understand what Jesus is talking about. We may use the term "Lord" and "King of Kings" but - unlike the vast majority of people throughout history - we do not comprehend what it means to live under the reign of a king. We need some remedial training on how to live as subjects in a kingdom. We may be justified in rejecting the divine right of kings to rule but we cannot be justified if we reject the rule of our divine king.
Monarchies have subjects, not citizens. Subjects don't vote for their leader; they obey him. In human polities, this is risky because our leaders, whether elected or not, are fallible, sinful beings. "Put not your trust in princes." As Churchill noted, the advantage of democracy is only in comparison to all other forms of government. When your King is God, the only risk in obeying Him is temporal and temporary.

Six Thoughts About Jesus - the evangelical outpost

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Freedom from religion

Intolerance once again raises its ugly head in my city - a city whose university once celebrated "sifting and winnowing." From the Journal-Sentinel:
A group that promotes the separation of church and state has asked Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) to end the state Assembly's 160-year-old practice of opening sessions with a prayer.

In a letter to Huebsch today, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation said the prayers often "proselytize and advance the Christian faith" and exclude non-Christian and non-religious legislators, aides and members of the public. The group said that an analysis of videos of 16 prayers led by representatives over a one-year period showed that 15 were explicitly Christian. As a result, the prayers are unconstitutional, the group said.

"Legislators and clergy routinely invoke the Christian diety, ‘Jesus Christ,' as well as the ‘Holy Spirit' and Christian prophets and saints," the letter said. "Many of these ‘prayers' are nothing less than sermons meant to proselytize and advance the Christian faith to the Wisconsin general public."

Huebsch spokesman John Murray said Huebsch hadn't seen the letter yet, but would look at it and consider the request.

The Assembly has opened its meetings with a prayer since the state was founded in 1848, .... [more]

I have never understood how hearing someone pray coerces the hearer. I have lived in Madison almost all of my adult life. Consequently, I have heard any number of people, in private conversation and speaking publicly, express views on politics and religion with which I strongly disagree. And yet, somehow, they have failed to change my mind. If the Freedom from Religion group are right about the potential influence of just hearing something expressed, then there must be an extraordinary number of feeble-minded people about with very weak religious convictions. Thomas Jefferson voluntarily attended regular Christian worship services held in the new United States Capitol, and yet retained his distinctly heterodox theological views.

I am convinced that the anti-religious among us are less interested in protecting people from "proselytizing" than in prohibiting the "free exercise" of those who do believe in God. The secularizers will not stop until the public expression of orthodox belief is silenced. Liberals, especially Wisconsin Progressive Liberals, once believed that the cure for speech they disagreed with was more speech, not less.

Thanks to Badger Blogger for calling my attention to this story.

Group asks Assembly to stop opening with prayers, calls them unconsitutional - All Politics

Sabbath Recorder July/August 2008

The July/August, 2008, Sabbath Recorder is available online here as a pdf.

This month's issue of The Sabbath Recorder includes an article by Jim Goodrich of North Loup, Nebraska, about public service. Two quotations:
I believe strongly that everyone has some civic responsibility. It may not be to hold office, but those of us who are eligible should at least vote.

It may be your vote that enables Christians to hold positions of authority in government. It may be your vote that prevents those with a “humanist” agenda from gaining power. It may your vote that defeats laws that undermine the church and family in your community and nation. [....]

Positions of service should never be taken lightly. Wherever you find your place in public life, it is important to focus on the directive from Paul to the Colossians: “And whatsoever you do in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Col. 3:17).

There is also a fine article by David Gushee, from the Associated Baptist Press, titled "How are Christians accountable to each other?"

And much else.

The Sabbath Recorder is the magazine of the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference and has been regularly published in some form since 1844.

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Firefox has become even better - and it's free. Download Firefox 3.0 here or by clicking on the logo.

Creation or chaos?

Insight Scoop discusses a book containing Pope Benedict's discussion of issues raised by evolution with several of his former students. It quotes him on the fundamental issue:
Ultimately it comes down to the alternative: What came first? Creative Reason, the Creator Spirit who makes all things and gives them growth, or Unreason, which, lacking any meaning, strangely enough brings forth a mathematically ordered cosmos, as well as man and his reason. The latter, however, would then be nothing more than a chance result of evolution and thus, in the end, equally meaningless. As Christians, we say: I believe in God the Father, the Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in the Creator Spirit. We believe that at the beginning of everything is the eternal Word, with Reason and not Unreason
Insight Scoop | The Ignatius Press Blog: Reuters praises "Pope Benedict's evolution book"

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

God is not silent

In an important and very good reminder, Jared Wilson denies that God is ever silent:
...[Q]uite frequently he doesn't speak to us the way we'd like him to or...he doesn't say what we want to hear, but neither scenario is the same thing as him not speaking at all.

What I propose is that God seems silent because he is broadcasting on a frequency that we are not tuned to receive him on. ....

1) God speaks through creation. ....

2) God speaks through pain.
The irony of this truth is that it is in our pain that we are most tempted to think God silent. In our hurt/grief/suffering, we are most tempted to doubt, to believe he has abandoned us. (And the other side of the irony is that when everything is great and peachy, we are most tempted to not care if he's there or not.) ....

When we experience pain, God is speaking to us and telling us that something is not right. It reminds us of sin and the fall. Which is not to say that our pain is a result of our sin; I'm not saying that when something goes wrong it's because we've done something wrong (that's the prosperity gospel talking there). I only mean that pain reminds us - vividly, tangibly - that we are in need of redemption. ....
3) God speaks through Scripture.
God speaks primarily through Scripture. And any other way we may hear God will not contradict or add to Scripture.

This point sort of goes without saying, and I was tempted to make it my only point.

I have experienced the weirdness of sitting in a small group discussion where people have lamented not hearing from God, all of us with open Bibles not eight inches from our noses.

Where this agonizing need for special revelation and the "secret, personal will of God" comes from, I don't know, but it's neo-gnostic tripe that has only exacerbated the biblical illiteracy of the Church.

We don't hear God in Scripture for a variety of reasons:
a) because we are unfamiliar with it and undisciplined
b) because we have not been raised or trained to "feel" Scripture
c) because our preachers treat Scripture like the Reader's Digest or Bartlett's Book of Quotations. They don't present Scripture as transformative and vital, but as merely informative and "helpful."
d) and perhaps most likely: because when we read Scripture, it says things uncomfortable or objectionable to ourselves and our desires. (Which by the way, means it's working.)
4) God speaks through the Gospel being lived out.
I'm not talking purely about preaching the gospel but about preaching the gospel in word and deed. I'm talking about the Beatitudes here, the entire Sermon on the Mount. I'm talking about the picture of kingdom life. Walk, not just talk. ....

Our good works glorify God in heaven. Our light should shine before all men. Imagine how loudly our world would think God to be speaking if more and more of his worshipers purposed to make the good news manifest in their cultures.

But they don't hear him and we don't hear him because we aren't really following him. We are just putting his nametag on our own ambitions and aspirations. We've settled for gospel information and not pressed further into gospel transformation.
5) God has finally spoken through His Son.
My contention is that many times our begging God to speak is done with a discontentment over or a forgetfulness of the fact that all the important things God would have us know about himself were said in the offering of himself, in the sending of his Son and the Son's atoning work.

The author of Hebrews writes, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe."

With his very words, God created everything there is out of nothing. And the new creation begins with the very Word of God becoming flesh. Jesus is the Word, the very voice and proclamation of God. And when the Word announced from the cross the words, "It is finished!," he meant it.

This has been said to God and over us, a declaration that all of our questions, our searchings, our fears, our failings, and - most deeply, most importantly - our sins have been spoken to, answered, shouted down by Jesus Christ.

We don't hear Jesus because we either want Jesus plus something else, or we want something else entirely.
The Gospel-Driven Church: He is There, and He is Not Silent

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hope is better than optimism

Merriam-Webster defines "theodicy" as "defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil." "It’s the familiar conundrum: In view of all the evil in the world, if God is good, he is not omnipotent; and, if God is omnipotent, he is not good," as Richard John Neuhaus summarizes the argument. Neuhaus is commenting on a review of Bart D. Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer.

Neuhaus:
Most thoughtful Christians have at one time or another found themselves entangled in the theodicy conundrum. Without going into great detail, the key problem with the conundrum as stated is that it assumes we know who or what is meant by “God.” It is as though we have a job description for the position of God and then decide that none of the applicants fills the bill. ....
Neuhaus quotes from David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, a book he recommends.
“God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills. But there is no contradiction in saying that, in his omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendence of time, God can both allow created freedom its scope and yet so constitute the world that nothing can prevent him from bringing about the beatitude of his Kingdom.

“Indeed we must say this: as God did not will the fall, and yet always wills all things toward himself, the entire history of sin and death is in an ultimate sense a pure contingency, one that is not as such desired by God, but that is nevertheless constrained by providence to serve his transcendent purpose. God does not will evil in the sinner. Neither does he will that the sinner should perish (2 Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 33:11). He does not place evil in the heart. He does not desire the convulsive reign of death in nature. But neither will he suffer defeat in these things.

“Every free act—even the act of hating God—arises from and is sustained by a more original love of God. It is impossible to desire anything without implicitly desiring the infinite source of all things; even the desire of the suicide for the peace of oblivion is born of a love of self—however tragically distorted it has become—that is itself born of a deeper love for the God from whom the self comes and to whom the self is called....

“Until that final glory, however, the world remains divided between two kingdoms, where light and darkness, life and death, grow up together and await the harvest. In such a world, our portion is charity, and our sustenance is faith, and so it will be until the end of days. As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but the face of his enemy. Such faith might never seem credible to someone like Ivan Karamazov, or still the disquiet of his conscience, or give him peace in place of rebellion, but neither is it a faith that his arguments can defeat: for it is a faith that set us free from optimism long ago and taught us hope instead.

“Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away and he that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”
FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » Theodicy and the Narrow Escape Syndrome

Friday, June 13, 2008

An anniversary

George B. Utter
Kevin Butler, the editor of The Sabbath Recorder, notes an anniversary:
It happened at No. 9 Spruce Street, New York City, on “Fifth Day,” June 13, 1844. Under the leadership of Editor George B. Utter, the first issue of The Sabbath Recorder rolled off the printing presses.

The five-column weekly newspaper carried articles on religion, happenings among Seventh Day Baptist mission fields, and national news, including an article from the Baltimore American about Morse’s magnetic telegraph that had just been perfected. The writer was thrilled to be able to convey the news from the Democratic convention in Baltimore to Washington, as soon as it was announced.

We’re thrilled to be able to share our anniversary with you on this “Sixth Day” in 2008. Just don’t look for coverage of the Democratic convention this summer. God bless, and let’s keep connected!
SDB Exec: June 2008

Envy

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Ex 20:17 (ESV)

Theodore Dalrymple:
We are enjoined, when we suffer or feel unhappy (which are not necessarily quite the same thing, of course), to consider those who are yet worse off than ourselves. This is supposed to relieve and console us, but it rarely does. The most that it achieves is to make us feel guilty that we are so miserable over comparative trifles when others have so many worse travails than ours; and this in turn makes us feel more wretched than ever. Moreover, there is a curious moral assymetry at work: while the thought that there are always people worse off than ourselves is supposed to be edifying, the thought that there are always people better off than ourselves is not. Indeed, it is the very reverse, a powerful stimulus to resentment, the longest-lived, most gratifying and most harmful of all emotions.
When I think of those worse off than me, it does not induce guilt - it does put my pitiful complaints into perspective. But I very much agree with his second point.

The Pains of Memory - New English Review

Thursday, June 12, 2008

If I should die...

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
And if I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

That was the prayer I learned to say when I was a child. This version of the prayer dates back at least to the 18th century. Wikipedia quotes two more modern versions as replacing the last two lines with:

When in the morning light I wake,
Teach me the path of love to take.

and
Guard me Jesus through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.

John Mark Reynolds comments that "Contemporary Christians worry that the story of the crucifixion may be too intense for children. Death is uncomfortable to our consumer driven and decadent popular culture. There is nothing we can buy on late night television to cure it. It is the end of our choices and our pleasures. It cannot be defeated...."

Talking about death is considered morbid. We are insulated from death in ways unknown to people in any other time in history and in most of the rest of the world today. And yet it is as unavoidable for us as it has always been for everyone else. Reynolds goes on to write:
The end is coming. This makes me sad of course. I am quite happy and have no desire to die, but die I must. It is more certain that taxes. After that?

After that best reason, divine Revelation, and experience says that after that comes the judgment. The universe has not been nice to humankind, but just. The universe is not fair, but fiercely good. The other side is not going to be Disneyland with fully effective safety devices, but full of goodness, truth, and beauty.

That means full of awe and terrible with splendor.

And I have mucked up and muddled through far too often to trust in my own good works or have confidence that my soul is, in itself, ready for such unadulterated joy. My wiring for pleasure is too little and the current of goodness too great for any such easy hopes.

My hope is in God. I really might die before I wake. These few paragraphs may post after I am no longer around to edit it. I hope not, but I do not know. This much I know:

The small and safe little world of secularism which pretends that this life is all there is cannot be for me.

Would that I could believe that this were true!

Would that death were sleep . . . but perchance we dream . . . and what dreams may come! Instead what evidence we have suggests that this life is not the end, but the beginning of a bigger reality. There is no reason to think our experience of this reality is not (as Plato would say) more intense than that one in which we find ourselves now. Our little fences and moral compromises would be blown away like prim fences in a cyclone of goodness.

Best to have learned to be one with that powerful coming wind.

Hope?

There is none in our certain death or in the mere fact of an afterlife. (No exit! What a dreadful thought!) There is hope only in the greater fact of a good God.

This I do know. If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee Lord my soul to take.
If I Should Die Before I Wake . . . | The Scriptorium Daily: Middlebrow

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Morning prayer

My voice shalt Thou hear in the morning, O LORD;
In the morning will I direct my prayer unto Thee, and will look up.
Psalm 5:3 [KJV]

The Confessing Evangelical quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible on the benefits of prayer in the morning:
.... Prayer in the early morning is crucial for the whole day. Wasted time of which we are ashamed, temptations to which we succumb, feebleness and lethargy at work, disorder and indiscipline in our thoughts and in our intercourse with other people - these more often than not have their cause in the neglect of morning prayer.

The ordering and arrangement of our time will be more positive when it is the outcome of prayer. Temptations which the working day brings with it will be conquered if there has been a real encounter with God. Decisions demanded by our work will come more easily and readily when they are made not in the fear of men but simply before the face of God. “And whatsoever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men” (Colossians 3:23). Even mechanical tasks will be carried out with greater patience, when they are recognised as tasks laid on us by God. Increased energy for work will be ours when we have asked God to give us today the strength our work requires.
Thanks to Mark Olson for the reference

Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » The blessing of morning prayer

Your freedom ends where my nose begins

Jennifer Roback Morse explains why "same-sex marriage" is not just a concern of those who oppose it on religious grounds. "Live and let live" is one thing, but the creation of this new marital status demands greater and greater intervention by the state - and less and less freedom. Extended excerpts:
Advocates of same-sex “marriage” present the idea as a step forward for tolerance and respect. But recent developments place that interpretation very much in doubt.

Legalizing same-sex “marriage” is not a stand-alone policy, independent of all the other activities of the state. Once governments assert that same-sex unions are the equivalent of marriage, those governments must defend and enforce a whole host of other social changes. ....

Legalizing same-sex “marriage” has brought in its wake state regulation of other parts of society. The problem is sometimes presented as an issue of religious freedom, and so, in part, it is. But the issue runs deeper than religious freedom. ....

If same-sex couples can marry each other, they should be allowed to adopt. Anyone who says otherwise is acting against the policy of the state. If same-sex couples can have civil unions, then denying them the use of any facility they want for their ceremony amounts to unlawful discrimination. When the state says that same sex couples are equivalent to opposite-sex couples, school curriculum will inevitably have to support this claim.

Marriage between men and women is a pre-political, naturally emerging social institution. Men and women come together to create children, independently of any government. The duty of caring for those children exists even without a government or any political order.

Marriage protects children as well as the interests of each parent in their common project of raising those children.

Because marriage is an organic part of civil society, it is robust enough to sustain itself, with minimal assistance from the state.

By contrast, same-sex “marriage” is completely a creation of the state.

Same-sex couples cannot have children. Someone must give them a child or at least half the genetic material to create a child. The state must detach the parental rights of the opposite-sex parent and then attach those rights to the second parent of the same-sex couple.

The state must create parentage for the same-sex couple. For the opposite-sex couple, the state merely recognizes parentage. ....

Public schools in California are soon going to be required to be “gay friendly.” A doctor has been sued because she didn’t want to perform an artificial insemination on a lesbian couple. A private school is in trouble for disciplining two female students for kissing. All in the name of supporting the rights of same-sex couples to “equality” with straight couples.

The fact that opposite- and same-sex couples are different in significant ways means that there will always be scope for the state to expand its reach into more and more private areas of more and more people’s lives. ....

Advocates of same-sex “marriage” insist that theirs is a modest reform: a mere expansion of marriage to include people currently excluded. But the price of same-sex “marriage” is a reduction in tolerance for everyone else, and an expansion of the power of the state. [more]
Thanks to Ignatius Insight Scoop for the reference.

Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ and the Persecution of Civil Society

God's side

In the midst of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.” That, precisely, is always the attitude a believer must take about politics.

At beliefnet's "Blogalogue" Jim Wallis and David Klinghoffer begin an exchange titled "How Would God Vote?" Klinghoffer, who recently authored How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative initiates the dialogue. Some excerpts:
Liberals and conservatives alike have claimed the mantle of religious authorization for their views. There’s a debate, however, that needs to be had. Americans have so far avoided clarifying the politics of the Bible on a systematic issue-by-issue basis.

That’s where I come in. My book, How Would God Vote? Why The Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative, takes the top 20 political issues of our day and applies the wisdom of the Bible to each of them – from health-care and immigration reform to global warming and Islamic terror. Taking the Bible seriously is more than a matter of accepting theological abstractions or ritual obligations. It implies an entire worldview, a deeply conservative one. ....

If we were to try to crystallize the lesson from ancestral wisdom that underlies all the seemingly unrelated political questions dividing Right from Left, I would say it has to do with moral responsibility and agency, whether human beings are captives of Nature or whether they are free.

The most important word in any discussion of the Bible must be “commandment.” God commands us to choose right over wrong because we are not captives of Nature.

Almost every liberal view can be explained as deriving from skepticism about whether people are truly responsible for their actions. ....

Let’s start our debate somewhere concrete and practical. Conservatives, like the Bible, oppose high taxes because people should be responsible for deciding how to spend their money. This year, the average American will pay 30.8 percent of personal income for taxes of various kinds.

Yet Genesis 47:24-15 equates a tax rate of 20 percent with the condition of being a “serf.” In 1 Samuel 8:15-17, the Jews are warned not to ask for a king because he’ll turn them all into “slaves,” imposing a tax burden of 10 percent!

A great tragedy recounted by the Bible, the rebellion of the northern kingdom of Israel against the southern kingdom of Judah, was occasioned by the onerous tax burden imposed by King Solomon’s callow son and heir, Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:1-19).

Low taxes mean a minimal state, which, in turn, clears an arena for free moral action. Of course there are exceptions. The Bible isn’t libertarian. Where a policy (like legalized narcotics) would cripple the free exercise of the moral personality, God would be against it. Where it would allow the victimization of the truly helpless (abortion), there too the Bible would have us draw a line. [more]
Klinghoffer is a Jew, so most of his biblical argument will be from the Hebrew scriptures.

Wallis will respond. The comments section should be interesting, too - there is already one that raises the issue of the Jubilee year.

Blogalogue - Debates About Faith

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Membership

Southern Baptists, at their convention this week, are considering several resolutions about "regenerate church membership." In preparation for the discussion, the Baptist Press presented a couple of articles on the subject including one reporting the views of David Dockery:
A church membership roll that runs two to three times the number of people actually involved is a symptom of a much-deeper problem - one that strikes at the heart of what it means to be a Baptist church and a follower of Jesus, says David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn. ....

"Not that a concern for numerical growth or efficiency is wrong in any way at all," Dockery said. "It was probably quite unintentional at first, but slowly, almost unconsciously, a greater disparity has developed between our reported total membership and the actual number of active and participating members in our churches.

"The result is that we developed two categories that are foreign to the New Testament: non-resident members (those who held membership in the church, but have moved away from the meeting place of the church) and inactive members (those who are on the membership rolls who no longer attend the congregation with any sense of regularity)."

Without ignoring the importance of numerical growth or efficiency, Southern Baptists "need to refocus on what it means to be a Baptist church, what it means to be a member of a Baptist church, along with the importance of faithfulness and maturation of church members," Dockery said. ....

"We need to rediscover the importance of what it means to be a faithful, covenant member of a local Baptist congregation," Dockery said. "We need to reflect again on the biblical teaching about the new birth and discipleship and develop new member orientation processes for those who desire to join our churches.

"We need to highlight the foundational matters of church membership," Dockery added. "We need a fresh understanding of the Gospel; the relationship of saving faith to sanctification, maturation and spiritual faithfulness must be recaptured. Beyond this, we also must recover the New Testament's teaching on church discipline." ....

"We need to ask questions about how we count members and report them as churches, as associations, as state conventions and as a national convention, but these questions must begin at the local church level," he said. "We want simultaneously to affirm the Baptist doctrine of regenerate church membership and the Baptist doctrine of the autonomy of the local congregation." [more]

It is a discussion appropriate for every Baptist church, Seventh Day Baptist churches included. It is likely that we have, on average, more non-resident members than other Baptist denominations simply because not every believer in our doctrinal distinctive is going to start a church in the place to which they move. There is also a reluctance among family members to have a relative struck from the rolls even though they may not have entered a Seventh Day Baptist church for many years.

Baptist Press - Dockery: Spiritual issues at heart of debate over 'total membership' statistic - News with a Christian Perspective

Southern Baptist diversity

Trevin Wax:
In David Dockery’s book Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, he lists seven different groups of conservative Southern Baptists:
  1. Fundamentalists: hard-lined people who often have more in common with “independent” Baptists than with the SBC heritage.
  2. Revivalists: true heirs of the Sandy Creek tradition, including their suspicion of education.
  3. Traditionalists: heirs of the Sandy Creek theology, including the strong commitment to evangelism and revivalism, but affirming of education.
  4. Orthodox Evangelicals: an irenic group that looked to Carl F. H. Henry and Billy Graham as models. This group wanted a theological course correction, a commitment to the full truthfulness of the Bible, serious intellectual and cultural engagement, while interacting with all who would claim to great orthodox Christian tradition.
  5. Calvinists: a group that wanted to reclaim aspects of the “Charleston” theological tradition. They have much in common with the “Evangelical” group above. Sub-groups include “Nine Marks,” “Sovereign Grace,” “Founders,” and others. Most among this group no longer tend toward isolation as in years past.
  6. Contemporary church practitioners: a group of pastors who wanted to find new ways to connect with the culture, resulting in new models for doing church, including “Willow Creek Models,” “Saddleback Models,” “Missional,” and even some “emergent church types.”
  7. Culture Warriors: another group of conservatives who desire to engage the issues of culture and society. This group includes a variety of approaches including “church over culture,” “church transforming culture,” as well as “church and culture / social justice types.”
One of the reasons I love the Southern Baptist Convention is because of the healthy tensions I see represented in our diversity. Each of these subgroups of conservative Southern Baptists has something important to add to our theological consensus. [more]
Trevin Wax goes on to comment on what each of the groups contributes to Southern Baptists. It is an interesting taxonomy of the dominant movement within that denomination. Of course there are Southern Baptists outside the conservative "consensus," who don't fit neatly here. My - much smaller - Baptist denomination is at least as varied.

7 Types of Southern Baptists « Kingdom People

Fastest growing religion?

Roger Kimball:
Quick: what is the fastest growing religious movement in the United States? No, not Islam, but the Church of Environmentalism. It is a low church, adamantly non-ecumenical, but aggressively proselytizing. More than a decade ago, the philosopher Harvey Mansfield observed that “Environmentalism is school prayers for liberals.” How right he was. But I wonder whether even so astute an observer as Professor Mansfield foresaw just how widespread, and how passionate (as in Yeats’s “the best lack all conviction, the worse are full of passionate intensity”), the Church of Environmentalism would be in the early 21st Century.
Roger’s Rules » A few thoughts about America’s fastest growing religion

Sunday, June 8, 2008

"Blowin' in the wind"

From RightWingBob, a Catholic priest, Robert Barron, comments on two Dylan songs, arguing that all of Dylan's music is permeated with scriptural allusions. He makes a good argument and you get to hear some Dylan, too:


RightWingBob.com » Sunday note

Friday, June 6, 2008

SDB World Federation

This year the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference USA and Canada will host the sessions of the Seventh Day Baptist World Federation. The SDBWF will meet the week before the General Conference sessions in August. World Federation delegates will also attend Conference and many will take advantage of the opportunity to visit some of our churches.

The World Federation meetings are not yet fully funded and they ask for your help to ensure that delegates - especially from less affluent parts of the world - will be able to attend. They need to raise $30,000. If you can contribute, please make the check to "Seventh Day Baptist World Federation" and mail it to the Treasurer of the SDWF: Luan Ellis, 614 Pleasant Valley Rd., Alfred Station, NY 14803. Obviously the need is immediate. The SDBWF sessions will be in late July and travel plans need to be finalized now.

Your prayers are needed too: that all travel and visa issues will be resolved, that the sessions will be useful for those who attend, and that the needed funds can be raised.

"Imagine"

Are religious wars really about religion, or do religious justifications simply provide a moral veneer for other less acceptable motives? Alan Jacobs thinks the enemies of religion put too much faith in the protestations of those who claim to be killing for God. From "Too Much Faith in Faith" in this morning's Wall Street Journal:
If there is one agreed-upon point in the current war of words about religion, it is that religion is a very powerful force. ....

Is it, though? Was Alan Wolfe right to emphasize, in a recent article in The Atlantic, the "unique fervor that religion inspires"? I have my doubts, and they begin with personal experience. I am by most measures a pretty deeply committed Christian. I am quite active in my church; I teach at a Christian college; I have written extensively in support of Christian ideas and belief. Yet when I ask myself how much of what I do and think is driven by my religious beliefs, the honest answer is "not so much." The books I read, the food I eat, the music I listen to, my hobbies and interests, the thoughts that occupy my mind throughout the greater part of every day - these are, if truth be told, far less indebted to my Christianity than to my status as a middle-aged, middle-class American man.

Of course, I can't universalize my own experience - but that experience does give me pause when people talk about the immense power of religion to make people do extraordinary things. When people say that they are acting out of religious conviction, I tend to be skeptical; I tend to wonder whether they're not acting as I usually do, out of motives and impulses over which I could paint a thin religious veneer but which are really not religious at all.

Most of today's leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting in these matters. ....

If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It's not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it? ....

Is religion powerful? I suppose it often is. After all, if people were not religious - or, to take a Gibbonesque view of the matter, if people did not want to be thought of as so - no one would use religious language to promote political or social or ethnic goals. That those seeking to acquire or keep power do use such language, and regularly, indicates that religion has influence. But the idea that without religion people would stop seeking power, stop manipulating, stop deceiving, is just wishful thinking of the silliest kind. Though it may seem ironic for a Christian to be saying this, it's time to talk less about the power of religion and remember instead the dark forces in all human lives that religious language is too often used to hide. [more]
Too Much Faith in Faith - WSJ.com

Thursday, June 5, 2008

"Sir," said he, "you know our will is free, and there is an end on’t."

Samuel Johnson is remembered most for his dictionary and for his personality, thanks primarily to James Boswell's biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson. At Policy Review this morning, Henrik Bering describes Johnson - and Boswell on Johnson - in an article that provides a good introduction to a man who is at least as interesting in who he was as for what he accomplished - and his achievements were great. On Johnson in argument:

When “talking for victory,” Johnson was not the most gentle of men: Conversation was an intellectual discipline for him, a jousting match, the purpose of which was to come out on top. “Sir, treating your adversary with respect, is striking soft in a battle,” he noted at one point. Boswell recounts that Johnson once dreamt someone got the better of him in a contest of wit, only to realize upon awakening that in the dream he had been supplying both himself and his antagonist with arguments and punch lines, much to his relief.

In the words of Oliver Goldsmith, “there is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” This he might do, for instance, by accusing his opponent of being drunk and beyond the reach of sense. (Johnson at this time only drank water or lemonade and consequently believed everybody else was drunk out of their skulls.)

Johnson would also happily engage in sophistry and argue the opposite of what he believed just because it was a difficult position to defend, something he would never do when writing. At the end of a performance, he would blow like a whale as if contemptuous of his opponent’s puny powers of reasoning. One member of the circle was so frequently subjected to Johnson’s drubbings that he became known as the “literary anvil.”....

Boswell himself certainly comes in for his share of hits. Certain topics were likely to produce this effect: free will versus predestination, the alleged happiness of savages, and death. “Dr. Johnson shunned tonight the discussion of the perplexed question of fate and free will, which I attempted to agitate. Sir, (said he,) you know our will is free, and there is an end on’t.”

Johnson’s impatience with these perpetual questions, with all this “what and why,” on one occasion made him explode: “What is this, what is that, why is a cow’s tail long? why is a fox’s tail bushy?” At another point, Johnson told Boswell bluntly, “Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I am sick of both.”

Once, after having suffered a particularly brutal drubbing, Boswell complained that he did not mind being “tossed and gored” when among friends, where he landed safely on the grass, but he did mind it when among enemies. Johnson immediately apologized.

Accordingly, Boswell compares Johnson to a “warm west Indian climate” with “a bright sun, quick vegetation, luxurious foliage, luscious fruits,” which “sometimes produces thunder, lightning, and earthquakes in a terrible degree.”

Much of the time, Johnson himself was blissfully unaware of the effect he was having on people: Thinking of himself as “a very polite man,” he occasionally wondered “how I should have enemies, for I do harm to nobody.” To Boswell’s suggestion that his manner might hurt “people of weak nerves,” Johnson snapped: “I know no such weak nerved people.” And when Johnson on another occasion, “stretching himself at his ease” and “smiling with much complacency,” remarked, “I look upon myself as a good humoured fellow,” Boswell gently corrected him: “No, no, Sir: That will not do. You are good natured, but not good humored.” [more]
Samuel Johnson was a Christian, and, like most of us, was unconscious of many of his faults. Unfortunately, he suffered all his life from depression, and that robbed him of much of the joy of the faith. He is recorded as doubting that God could possibly forgive as great a sinner as himself and had a terror of death and Hell. Bering:
The central, controlling image of Johnson in the Life is thus that of a heroic figure battling his demons and keeping them at bay: “His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Colisæum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which, like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drove them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.”

Boswell carefully recounts Johnson’s various ways of “preventing his mind from preying on itself”: by walking to Birmingham, by studying mathematics, by conducting experiments, by avoiding being alone and, as he could not moderate, by staying away from drink for long periods. “He could practice abstinence, but not temperance.”

What is particularly moving is Johnson’s moral fortitude, his constant striving for self-improvement, as seen in the many passages Boswell quotes from Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations. In Johnson’s view, a person remains basically the same throughout life, the child being the father of the man, but that does not mean that he should give up trying to improve.
Johnson composed many prayers. This is one he wrote after the death of his mother:
Almighty and most merciful Father, look down with pity upon my sins. I am a sinner, good Lord, but let not my sins burden Me for ever. Give me the Grace to break the chain of evil custom. Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth; to will and to do what thou hast commanded, grant me to be chaste in thoughts, words, and actions; to love and frequent thy worship, to study and understand thy word; to be diligent in my calling, that I may support myself and relieve others.

Forgive me, O Lord, whatever my Mother has suffered by my fault, whatever I have done amiss, and whatever duty I have Neglected. Let me not sink into useless dejection; but so sanctify my affliction, O Lord, that I may be converted and healed; and that, by the help of thy Holy Spirit, I may obtain everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

And O Lord, so far as it may be lawful, I commend unto thy Fatherly goodness my father, brother, wife, and mother, beseeching thee to make them happy for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.
Hoover Institution - Policy Review - The Ultimate Literary Portrait

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fathers

The novelist, Andrew Klavan, was invited to tell a story to a class of fourth-graders in what he identifies as a "slum school." The kids gave him rapt attention.
“Don’t take it personally,” the teacher told me brusquely. “It’s just that they’ve never seen anyone like you before. A man—obviously tough—who’s not a gangster.”

I don’t know how tough I am—they were fourth-graders; I guess I could’ve taken most of them in a fair fight one-on-one—but that’s not what she was getting at. Her point was that you have to take just one look at me to see what, in fact, I am: an unapologetic, because-I-said-so, head-of-household male. They used to call us “husbands” and “fathers” back in the day. That’s what these kids had never seen.

The teacher told me that she once had to explain to the class why her last name was the same as her father’s. She dusted off the whole ancient ritual of legitimacy for them—marriages, maiden names, and so on. When she was done, there was a short silence. Then one child piped up softly: “Yeah . . . I’ve heard of that.”

I’ve heard of that. It would break a heart of stone.

Beating poverty in America nowadays is largely a matter of personal behavior. Get a high school diploma, don’t have kids until you’re married, don’t get married until you’re 21, and you probably won’t be poor. It also helps if you work hard, show up on time, act courteously, and avoid anything felonious.

But where are these kids going to learn such things? It’s the stuff you just sort of absorb in a healthy, traditional, two-parent home, and that’s exactly what they’re missing. If they learn what they’ve lived, they’re done for—the girls too likely to “come out pregnant” like their mothers, the boys to be underemployed and maybe even do time. [read it all]
City Journal