Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Absurdity of Life without God

Why have I not read William Lane Craig before? In this except from his book Reasonable Faith he makes the best presentation I've read of what I consider the most convincing apologetic for the Christian faith today, tackling the postmodern worldview by taking it to its logical conclusion.
Turn now to the problem of value. Here is where the most blatant inconsistencies occur. First of all, atheistic humanists are totally inconsistent in affirming the traditional values of love and brotherhood. Camus has been rightly criticized for inconsistently holding both to the absurdity of life and to the ethics of human love and brotherhood. The two are logically incompatible. Bertrand Russell, too, was inconsistent. For though he was an atheist, he was an outspoken social critic, denouncing war and restrictions on sexual freedom. Russell admitted that he could not live as though ethical values were simply a matter of personal taste, and that he therefore found his own views "incredible". "I do not know the solution," he confessed. The point is that if there is no God, then objective right and wrong cannot exist. As Dostoyevsky said, "All things are permitted."
But Dostoyevsky also showed in his novels that man cannot live this way. He cannot live as though it is perfectly all right for soldiers to slaughter innocent children. He cannot live as though it is all right for dictatorial regimes to follow a systematic program of physical torture of political prisoners. He cannot live as though it is all right for dictators like Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein to exterminate millions of their own countrymen. Everything in him cries out to say these acts are wrong--really wrong. But if there is no God, he cannot. So he makes a leap of faith and affirms values anyway. And when he does so, he reveals the inadequacy of a world without God.
I am a Christian because I cannot consistently live otherwise.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Gospel

In response to a question asking about the basics of Christianity, I inadvertently gave possibly the best succinct description of the gospel that's ever come out of me. I don't mean to blow my own horn or anything, but hey, what is this blog for? You be the judge on whether they were God's words or merely mine.
If I had to distill the message of Christianity to as few words as possible, I would say that yes, there is a God, inconceivably higher and more complex and powerful than us who authored the universe. He is the origin and example of concepts we have like truth, justice, goodness, and love. Unfortunately, though he is perfect, we are not. The gulf between our imperfection and his perfection is so great that we can't even look upon him and live, and he would be perfectly just to snuff out the life he gave us.
But the good news is that it doesn't have to be like this. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus God made a way for us to know him, the infinite creator, personally, at no cost to us. Because of this relationship our lives are transformed and we change to live more like Jesus.
So the message of Christianity is really that it's more than a message, it's a relationship. If I could leave you with anything, it would be to try and look past all the denominations, all the politics, all the tradition, all the debate, all the hypocrisy and sin of us Christians, to try to understand that relationship. None of it makes sense without that.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Correction on OWS

An addendum to my previous post on Occupy Wall Street. The purpose of that post was to criticize the protest's metarhetoric, or the manner in which it presents its goals and argues for them, as well as its assumptions about the purpose of corporations. But I think I didn't make it clear enough that I wasn't criticizing the movement as a whole or what it stands for. As I've looked at some of the hard data behind it, I've realized that OWS really is onto something. The machine of American capitalism seems to be running down and breaking, so to speak--in need not of replacement, but a tune-up and some new parts. The wealthy have increasingly been finding ways to influence politics to gain more wealth, which gains them more influence... The feedback loop has been escalating for decades and OWS is proof that many people have had enough.

So yes, I would say I agree with OWS's basic message--that the government has become too oligarchic and that corporations need restraint to serve the good of everyone rather than just their executives. I disagree with how the movement is pursuing its goals--it should focus on constructive dialogue and concrete solutions rather than just expressing rage in hopes of getting corporations to magically change their ways. I think it would make more sense for them to protest at Washington (where they have a voice) than Wall Street. (Where they don't, unless they plan on buying stock)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Free-Floating Argument Fallacy

Free-Floating Argument Fallacy: Attempting to establish an absolute property of something (i.e. morality status) by comparison with something related, with no connection to an external point of reference. Free-floating arguments may sound convincing, but are meaningless on their own. They derive their perceived meaning from assumptions held by the speaker and (presumably) the audience about the things being compared. They are often stated in the form of an observation or question, with the argument only implied. They may have a very different or nonexistent meaning to someone holding different assumptions.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

In the Name of God

Why is this prog metal gem from Dream Theater's "black album" not on my music blog? Because I have more to say than just "listen to it". "In the Name of God" is an indictment of religious extremism and a warning of its dangers. Specifically it refers to American cults that are distant offshoots of Christianity--apocalyptic doomsday cults, leaders taking plural wives, and works-based perversions of the gospel. I was listening to the album while grading tonight and suddenly the third commandment (Do not take the Lord's name in vain) came alive to me. This song is filled with examples of how to break it. Exploit peoples' faith for selfish means, live a life of hypocrisy and lies, try to convert the spiritual authority God bestows on you into worldly power, or just spread false teachings and pervert the gospel. All these are taking God's name in vain--doing things and living contrary to His character and will for our lives while maintaining the pretense of being on His side. Please know that people who do these things don't stand for God or His church.

It's a bit staggering to realize that God has made us as Christians His representatives to the world--His image-bearers. Those who don't know God form their view of what He must be like from watching us. With all the abuses of religion that have happened in the past fifty years, it's hard to blame people who have become hostile to the church and want nothing to do with God. Obviously no one can perfectly represent God, which is why it's important to work towards developing Christlike character and to be honest about times when you fail to live up to His image.

A Tale of Two Covenants

After a few political interruptions, it's time to continue my post trilogy on the Old Testament and its relation to today, previously started in Why the Old Testament?. This time I'm specifically going to talk about what is meant by the terms "Old Covenant" and "New Covenant", which you've no doubt heard if you've spent time in theological circles. First off, what is meant by "covenant"? The word simply means a formal agreement of some kind--like a treaty or resolution today. Specifically, one between God and people. Covenants could be unilateral (basically a promise made by one party to another, requiring no action on the receiving party's part) or bilateral (some kind of conditional agreement or exchange between the parties).

There are quite a few covenants in the Bible besides the two main ones I'll be dealing with in depth. The agreement between God and Adam in Genesis 2:16-17 is a covenant of a sort; in exchange for obeying God's one command not to eat from a certain tree, Adam got eternal life and a true, personal relationship with God. (Can you believe he broke that covenant? Stupid Adam) God makes a unilateral covenant with Noah after the flood not to destroy the world with water again. (Genesis 9:11) In Genesis 15 promises to make Abram's offspring as numerous as the stars.

But there is one covenant that dominates most of the Old Testament, simply referred to as the Old Covenant or just "the law". It was made between God and the Israelites (descendants of Isaac) during their escape from slavery in Egypt. God promises to deliver them from oppression to a land of their own. (Exodus 3:7-8) On the way from Egypt to the "promised land", God gives the Israelites laws telling them how to live rightly and in relationship with God. If they keep the laws, God promises that they will be his treasure among all the nations (Exodus 19:5-6), that they will receive great material blessings (Leviticus 26:3-13), and that they will live rather than die like their ancestors. (Exodus 18:5) In short, God offered the Israelites salvation by works--if they live rightly and obeyed God's commands, they would gain eternal life. This is the essence of a system of legalism.

When I speak of the failure of the old covenant, then, it's important to realize that this has nothing to do with any deficiency in God (who is perfect) or His holy and perfect law. The deficiency is in us. Even after God spelled out the terms of His covenant with His Israelites, they continued to doubt and disobey Him. Not one of the Israelites, who had been given God's law and His blessings, was able to carry out the human side of the Old Covenant; everyone turned to sin and fell short of His standard of perfection. (Romans 3:23) Under the Old Covenant, no one is counted as righteous or worthy of salvation, we all break God's law and deserve to die. And God would be perfectly just to sentence us all for our disobedience.

If you understand this, then you are completely ready for the New Covenant, also known as "the gospel". "Gospel" means "good news", and in light of the Old Covenant it really is the best news imaginable. John 3:16 has possibly the most compact description of the gospel in the Bible:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Allow me to break this verse down and put it in terms of a covenant (sorry about messing with the order):

For God: The first party of the covenant is, of course, God--the same God who lifted up the Israelites and made the Old Covenant with them.

the world: The other party--namely, us. This covenant isn't just between God and a specific group of people, but it's open to everyone.

that he gave his only son: God's end of the bargain wasn't cheap--He had to give up His beloved son.

 should not perish but have eternal life.: The ultimate benefit of the New Covenant is the same as that of the Old: if we satisfy our end of it, we won't die but have eternal life in God. The best part, however, is what our part of the gospel deal is...

that whoever believes in him: That's it. We don't have to meet any standard of behavior, memorize and obey any set of laws, meet a church attendance quota, walk X little old ladies across the street, reach level 5 of Kohlberg's scale of moral reasoning, or anything like that. All we have to do is believe. It's the complete opposite of the Old Covenant. Under the Old, no one could be saved because everyone sins; under the New, everyone can be saved for free!

so loved: The New Covenant exists solely because of God's love. He would have been just to condemn us all to death and close the book on the human race after we blew it. But instead we can receive eternal life in exchange for nothing but our faith.

This, quite simply, is the best news in human history. My church has a slightly longer, but comprehensive statement of the gospel:
Through faith in Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven of our sins, welcomed as sons and daughters, and empowered by His Spirit to live lives that reflect His goodness and love. 
 There are so many directions I could go exploring the depth and riches of God's grace in light of the gospel, so many different angles by which to look at it, all of them pleasing. This is what most of the letters in the New Testament, particularly Romans and Ephesians, like to do. But for now I'm going to stay focused on the Old Testament. So to close this post I'm going to tackle the question that would have been on the mind of any first-century Jew grasping the gospel for the first time: "How does this fit in with the the law?"

This is a theological point on which some well-meaning and thoughtful Christians disagree. Particularly, the Dispensationalist view (which I still don't claim to really understand) apparently distinguishes itself by its view on the relationship between God's covenants. But in Romans Paul gives us plenty to go on to find an answer. He hits this topic repeatedly in chapters 4-8. The core thing that makes the New Covenant work is our identification with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Somehow, when we believe, we are united with Christ in His death and resurrection. (Romans 6:5). Our symbolic death with Christ sets us free from the law as explained in Romans 7:1-6 and by His life we receive life apart from that provided by the law under the Old Covenant. Romans 8:1-4 is a great summary:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
God's law, though good and holy, cannot save anyone because we all sin and fall short of its requirements. By taking our sins upon Himself and giving us His righteousness in exchange, Jesus allows sinners to be justified before God by the standard of the law, not by works but by faith.

So the answer is that the law of the Old Covenant is still in place, and if it were possible to go through life without sinning then we could be saved by our works. But this is impossible; faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation. By faith Christ's righteousness is attributed to us and the law's demands on us are satisfied. In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus explains that He has come "not to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them". At the same time He says that "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of Heaven". God's standard of perfection has not been lowered, it is Christ who lifts us up to meet it.

So that's plenty of theology for now. In the next and final post in the series, I'll explore a practical implication of all of this: what exactly is the relation of the OT law to Christians today, if we aren't saved by obeying it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Modest Proposal to Improve Political Debate

In a bit of the same vein as my previous post, here is a list of word which I think, if banned from public discourse, would tremendously improve the American political conversation, at least in the short term until people come up with new ones.
  • Wall Street
  • Main Street
  • Elite/Elitist
  • Fat Cat
  • Take America back
  • Barack Hussein Obama
  • Agenda
  • _____gate
  • Sarah Palin
  • Death panels
  • Obamacare
  • The 1%

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Us Versus Them

If you're been following the news much lately, you've surely heard about the "Occupy Wall Street" protest that's ongoing. Thousands of people are taking to the streets of Manhattan to protest...something or other. I wasn't sure of their goals until I read their statement. A related trend is stories from "The other 99%" from people struggling to get by in life, implicitly contrasted against the luxury the top 1% of America's wealthy presumably live in.

First, a quick aside from what I remember from economics class. Much of the protest is about decrying the perceived selfishness and greed of "Wall Street". (A convenient geographical metaphor for faceless corporations) The OWS statement specifically mentions "corporations which place profit over people, self-interest over justice..." They expect too much from businesses. We expect businesses--and individuals--to act in their own self-interest. The purpose of businesses is, first and foremost, to make money, not to improve their community or the environment or anything. (Unless this is what they're making money for doing)

Obviously there are countless ways for this to go wrong, as we've seen, which is why business needs regulation, so that we can expect corporations to also behave ethically and legally, which is often not the case. But the simple pursuit of profit is to be expected from businesses, not decried. Companies aren't beholden to public opinion but to their stockholders and their profit margin--the best way to make a statement to a corporation isn't a protest, but a boycott.

But that's just a minor correction. What really troubles--even frightens--me is the "us versus them" mentality I see behind both of these protests. It's an incredibly explicit, even objectively decidable division--"us" is the bottom 99% of earners in America, "them" is the top 1%. As history has shown over and over, painting the situation like this is one of the best ways to motivate people. Forget trying to learn and understand the complicated economic truth behind the recession--the super-rich are bleeding this country dry!

Occupy Wall Street is an example of the anger that blaming your problems on an external source can foster. I'm afraid of how ugly having all these disgruntled people in one place could become. If you're concerned about the direction America is going like the OWS protesters, know that positive change can only come if people start thinking rationally, compassionately, and above all, constructively. As one wise Jedi Master said, "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."