Sunday, November 21, 2010

In Which I Attempt Too Much Apologetics

A few years ago when I was really going deeper in my faith, I became interested in apologetics, and finding an intellectual foundation for my faith. I don't actively study it as much these days, but it's still good to have answers to lots of the intellectual objections people have to Christianity. A Disclaimer: I don't think it's possible to objectively 'prove' Christianity, or else someone would have done so by now and all reasonable, intelligent people would be Christians. Since I know lots of reasonable, intelligent people who aren't Christians, I think that believing in Jesus always takes some faith--a step into the unknown, not entirely sure if it's true. The purpose of apologetics isn't to prove Christianity but to clear away intellectual obstacles people have to belief.

That said, I'm going to present one of the best arguments I've heard for the key belief of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus. It's mostly from a sermon preached at my church, Hope Community Church, plus some of my own thoughts. My pastor started with a quote from the Handbook of Christian Apologetics:
We believe Christ’s resurrection can be proved with at least as much certainty as any universally believed and well-documented event in ancient history. To prove this, we do not need to presuppose anything controversial (e.g., that miracles happen). But the skeptic must also not presuppose anything (e.g., that they do not). We do not need to presuppose that the New Testament is infallible, or divinely inspired or even true. We do not need to presuppose that there really was an empty tomb or postresurrection appearances, as recorded. We need to presuppose only two things, both of which are hard data, empirical data, which no one denies: the existence of the New Testament texts as we have them, and the existence (but not necessarily the truth) of the Christian religion as we find it today.
The basic assumption for the argument is that a man named Jesus really lived around the time the gospels say he did, he was a religious teacher who was crucified, and soon after this his followers began spreading his teachings saying he'd risen from the dead. Even secular historians from around that time who would have been all too eager to disprove Christianity admit to this much. The argument breaks the death and resurrection of Jesus into five possibilities:

1. Jesus did not die. He was resuscitated by the cool of the tomb.
The so-called 'swoon' theory. It asserts that Jesus in fact did not die on the cross and was merely unconscious when he was buried. A few days later, he came to, feeling much better, and walked out of the tomb, whereupon he began telling people he'd miraculously risen from the dead.

The key to these theories is to take them apart and examine them in detail. Consider what Jesus went through leading up to the crucifixion. He was arrested, starved, deprived of sleep, food, and drink, severely beaten, flogged (a treatment that killed some people right then), and, of course, crucified. If there was one thing Roman soldiers were good at, it was killing people. Crucifixion is one of the most horrific ways to die imaginable. Just to make sure Jesus was good and dead, they stabbed him with a spear for good measure. The swoon theory asserts that after all this, Jesus was somehow still alive, and after lying in a tomb with no food, water, or medical attention for 36 hours, suddenly felt 'much better', enough so to push aside the stone sealing his tomb shut, overpower the armed Roman guards, and go around telling people he'd been resurrected. After all that happened to him, he would have been an absolute mess, a far cry from the glorified "resurrection body" he was described as having. I doubt he would have convinced anyone he'd been miraculously resurrected. There's just no way he could have survived all that.

2. Jesus did die.
If this (much more likely possibility) is the case, there are four subpossibilities:
a. Jesus did not rise from the dead, but his disciples didn't know it.
The two most popular theories to explain this are that his disciples either went to the wrong tomb by mistake and, finding it empty, thought he'd been resurrected, or that they hallucinated.

Let's take these apart: if they went to the wrong tomb, all any of the Jews or Romans would have had to do to disprove Christianity (which they would have been eager to do) would have been to direct them to the right tomb. It's very hard to believe that during the entire rise of the early church, that no one noticed that the empty tomb the disciples found was the wrong one. (Also that everyone believed Jesus had been resurrected when no one actually saw him)

As for hallucinations: while it's certainly possible for someone to hallucinate meeting and conversing with an imaginary person, it's inconceivable for two (let alone five hundred) people to hallucinate the same person at the same time. Also, as with the other theory, all anyone would have had to do to shut the early Christians up would have been to actually procure Jesus' dead body and show it to everyone. Next theory.

b. Jesus did not rise from the dead, and his disciples knew it.
i.e. Christianity is the biggest hoax in human history. This was the theory the Jews at the time believed (Matthew 12:11-15); that the disciples stole Jesus' body and falsely proclaimed he'd been raised. My disproof of this one comes from human nature. Except for John and Judas, all of Jesus' disciples were martyred. It is much easier for me to believe Jesus did rise than to believe that anyone would live and die for something he knows to be a lie.

c. Jesus did not rise from the dead, and his disciples never said he did.
i.e. Christianity is a myth; Jesus is on the same level as Zeus. There is simply very little evidence for this theory. Nothing about the gospels is written in the "myth" style; it is presented as a series of historical events, with lots of tie-ins to the real world and real people. The gospels and epistles are very clear that Jesus really did rise from the dead, literally. The myth theory is a much more recent invention (from the last few centuries), while we have abundant evidence that Christians believed in a literal resurrection before that. And again, can you see a Greek myth-writer being martyred for his belief that Europa was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull?

With all of these theories seeming pretty unlikely, we come by elimination to the last one:
d. Jesus did rise from the dead. Christianity is true. Hallelujah!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Game for All Christians

So I just got back from a men's conference with Campus Crusade for Christ. It was basically one of the best conferences I've been at; I had fellowship with men from across the upper midwest, got to see some of the men from summer project(!), and learned about how to be an authentic man of God. I also got to step on the Timberwolves' new practice court before they did (they had just finished it earlier that day) and spent hours outside in a snowstorm wearing shorts! A good time was definitely had.

Anyway, after getting back I had a lot on my mind. Most pressingly, I had realized that all the stress and busyness of this semester had really been distracting me from God and derailing the relationship with Him I built this summer. How could I bring the craziness of my life "together under one head"? (Ephesians 1:10) Then suddenly a fully-formed and brilliant idea sprung into my head (possibly the spiritual gift of wisdom at work). I came up with a cross between a life inventory and a pen-and-paper game.

It's pretty simple. Take a piece of paper. On the top, write your overarching goal in life. (I put "God's Kingdom", but you could put other similar things like "Glorifying God" and the like. I suppose non-Christians who have a defining life goal could also do this to see how consistent they are.) From this overarching goal, maybe write some broad applications below it (like deepening your walk with God or improving your witness) and connect them. You can have subgoals inside of goals and all that. Then, on the bottom of the page, write the things you do, as many as you can think of. My (incomplete) paper looks like this:

The goal of them game is, while being as honest with yourself as possible, to connect all the things on the bottom of the page with the goals on the top of the page. Use links (subgoals) if necessary. Hopefully it will be surprisingly convicting--if something on the top of the page doesn't connect with anything on the bottom, then maybe you aren't doing something in your walk with God that you should. If something on the bottom doesn't connect to the top, then you should think about why you're doing it at all. I'm not trying to make anyone feel bad, just help you evaluate how you're living your life in relation to the mission God has called you to. I have no idea if this will help or not, but I think it's a cool idea.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

My Political Rant/Change of Heart

The following is the result of years of processing and gathering information; I thought today would be a good time to finally put all my ideas together and elucidate my political views beyond the one-word description on Facebook.

Today, November 2nd, 2010, marks the climax of the two-year cycle known as American elections. With the constant bombardment of campaign ads, rallies, activists, and calls to vote, it's impossible to ignore, especially on a college campus. Honestly, I wish I could. One of the common tactics used to pressure people to vote is to reason that if you don't vote, you have no right to complain about politics. Maybe so, but what if my complaint isn't about what such-and-such candidate is doing, but that the entire American political system is thoroughly broken, and to participate in it is to implicitly endorse it?

Let me explain--

It was at this point that, while doing research and trying to figure out what to write next, that I had a colossal change of heart that ultimately led to me voting. That said, I'm going to go ahead with most of what I was going to say first.

It's pretty easy to see that the American political machine has some serious problems. American voters, the people we trust to decide to choose our government, are polarized along partisan lines, close-minded, and uninformed. Perhaps this is why they tend to elect people like them. The increasing polarization of politics has, I think, turned discussions of policy in a more negative direction. This is evidenced by the obstructionist tactics practiced by whatever party is in the minority, all the attack ads you see on TV, and the general sentiment that "[X candidate I'm not going to vote for] is going to run this country/state into the ground!" Who you're going to vote for isn't as much the question as who you're going to vote against. We're all too eager to blame some convenient person or group of people for America's problems: the president, the ruling party, "Wall Street fat cats", illegal immigrants, homosexuals, you name it.

The truth is that we're all to blame for the spirit of partisanship that has turned American politics into a battlefield, with everyone forced to take a side of run for cover. When politics is simplified to two sides, it's just as much a winning strategy to bash the other side as to try to work contructively for the good of your own, and a much easier one. I remember a few years ago in the Bush administration when the Republicans were responsible for all our problems; now the situation has reversed along with the party in power. Nothing new under the sun. How, I wondered, could government "for the people, by the people" possibly be a good idea when people were so flawed? Had America outgrown the democracy it pioneered?

Then, barely three hours before the polls closed, it hit me. Most of my issues weren't with the system itself, they were with the people in it. And by not voting, I was making it worse. So I biked over to Seward Towers and cast my vote--only for governor, since I hadn't had time to research any of the other races and it would have been a bit hypocritical of me to vote uninformed. I knew my vote wouldn't make a difference, but the principle of it was still important with this new viewpoint of mine.

The problems with the political system itself, I realized, are surprisingly few and definitely fixable without radical restructuring. The main ones I have thus far are outlined in this article: the measures to protect minorities in Congress that once prevented the tyranny of the majority, but now mostly serve to make obstructionist tactics possible. One of the main ones is the filibuster. When I first learned what a filibuster was, I couldn't believe it was allowed, and my sentiment hasn't changed a bit. The absurdity of allowing one senator out of a hundred hold up useful debate for an arbitrary length of time by talking about biscuit recipes speaks for itself. As this chart shows, the number of cloture votes--a measure to end filibusters--has been rising since the 60s, especially in the new millennium. There are other rules loopholes that are used for the same purpose: to prevent constructive debate and progress and stick it to the "enemy" party. And people wonder why Congress doesn't do much.

I urge you to keep this issues mind in future elections, especially the national ones in two years, as they are fundamental to how everything else gets handled. One can only imagine how much better the government could function if Republicans and Democrats would stop trying to nullify each other and actually cooperate as they could before becoming so polarized. A quote from the article on how this might work:
"The irony is that getting rid of the rules meant to ensure bipartisanship may actually discourage partisanship. Obstructionism is a good minority strategy as long as it actually works to stymie the majority's agenda and return you to power. But if it just means you sit out the work of governance while the majority legislates around you, your constituents and interest groups will eventually begin demanding that you include them in the process. And that's as it should be: we hire legislators to legislate. We need a system that encourages them to do so."
As for the problem of people, there is no solution that will magically make American voters geniuses and politicians selfless, but you can do your part. Stay informed about current events and the candidates, come up with your own opinions, stay open-minded, get into dialogue with others (especially those you disagree with!), and vote for the candidate you believe will be best for the nation/state.

Monday, November 1, 2010

This Semester

Well, I guess I haven't posted anything on my blog in almost two months. What a crazy semester it's been! It's about time I posted an update.

So, this semester I decided to take 19 credits. Since I took 20 pretty easily next semester, I figured I should be able to handle this along with my job and being vice president of Middlebrook Hall. What I failed to realize was that, whereas I only took one class in my major last semester, I decided to get caught up this semester by taking four. Three of which turned out to be incredibly difficult. Big mistake.

So the upshot was that about a week ago, I was involved in two major group projects and a complicated programming assignment, and falling behind on them all. This semester has been humbling. School has been challenging in the past, but it wasn't until this semester that I actually discovered the limits of how much I could do. I've been used to always having enough time to get A's in all my classes and have plenty of time for fun stuff and a social life. This semester I literally haven't had time to do everything and have had to make sacrifices. At once point I think I barely had a free moment for an entire week. This is extremely mentally taxing.

The biggest single factor of this, I realized, was my algorithms class, which is taught by a professor who seems to think that failing (at the current rate) over half his class is a good teaching method. Apparently he could get investigated for that, especially since it's a required course. One can only hope. Every programming assignment for this class took over 30 hours of solid work and consumed multiple entire weekends. With so much other scheduled stuff with 19 credits and two group projects, my schedule filled up alarmingly quickly.

Long story short, I dropped that class and have been much happier and less stressed ever since. Without that massive time drain, even my two group projects seem less intimidating and with some effort I'm getting back on track. (With my classes, at least; my social life is still struggling...but hey, I always get plenty of sleep, so two out of three, right?) All this leads me to an important lesson this semester taught me: Know and respect your limits. Even if you don't think you have limits, you do, and I don't envy the time that shows them to you.

The other thing that has made this semester so crazy is the realization that, despite my major being in computer science, my passion lies elsewhere. Namely in technical theater, a subject I discovered almost by accident more than halfway through high school. Let me explain what I mean by passion: increasingly through my career as a CSci major at the U of Minnesota, I've felt somehow different than other CSci majors, like I'm behind them in terms of my knowledge and skills. I readily learned what they taught us in class, but I could never figure out how to apply anything to practical programs. I was kind of embarrassed that my roommate this year, who is a mechanical engineering major, knows a good deal more about Unix and general programming than I do!

Then my algorithms professor (the very same one) made a comment after our first programming assignment that made everything clear. He basically said that we were expected to have taught ourselves the programming skills necessary to do the assignment--presumably for no reason other than curiosity and our interest in the subject. I realized that this was also probably how my peers had gained so much more practical knowledge than I had--while I was spending my free time reading or playing games, they were hacking.

I had mistaken being good at computer science (or just being a diligent learner and logical thinker) for having a passion for it. I easily comprehended what I was learning in my classes, but I had no motivation to go beyond what I was being taught. I didn't notice this in my introductory-type classes, but by junior year it's become undeniable.

By a weird coincidence, the morning I was starting to write this, I saw an article on the Magic: The Gathering website (which I still frequent, despite no longer playing) about "the power of passion." In it, lead designer Mark Rosewater said this:
If You Want to Be Happy, then Make What You Do Something that Makes You Happy.
While this might sound simplistic, I believe one of the greatest causes of unhappiness is a lack of understanding of this life lesson. Many people are unhappy simply because they do not prioritize doing things that make them happy. They chase things they think can bring them happiness (money, fame, etc.) rather than focus on the actual things that make them happy.
The truth of Mark's words speaks for itself. Given a lucrative job as a software developer or a position as an electrician in a local theater that pays half as much, I know which one I'd pick. Money can't buy happiness. So my second lesson is sort of a rehashing of Mark's lesson: Do what you love, not what you're good at. (If you love what you're good at, lucky you.) This applies especially to high school students preparing to enter college, a period in which I made many decisions that I'm not seeing the effects of. Unfortunately, it's too late for me to change majors, so I have to force myself to stick to it until I graduate.

So that's my big update post about how this semester is going. Starting next time, back to the random musings on God and which brand of detergent is best and such.