Monday, December 28, 2009

International Hot Tub: Round 4 part 4

(For newcomers, this is a debate between myself, a Christian, and my best friend Andy Snyder, a former Christian who is now an atheist. For a fuller introduction to the intent and explanation of the name of this series, please see the introduction. Though this is presented as a two party debate on one level, comments and responses are still fully welcomed to all posts in the comments section as a way to help extend the debate and bring other voices into it.)

I realize that by this point I've pretty much totally killed this discussion by cutting up my response to Andy's last argument into a bunch of pieces, making responding to me a laborious task. Let me here briefly respond to the last two paragraphs of Andy's last post, and then make a proposal for how to go forward.

First I'll deal with Andy's second to last paragraph:
“Of course there are other ostensibly plausible interpretations of these events. You've offered a common and compelling one, the one of the linear evolution of human understanding where we go from mythology, to religion, to naturalistic science. This story is forceful and persuasive, except for the fact that it offers no proof of itself. It is just as liable to the charge of total fabrication as is any meta-narrative of human or cosmic history.” So what do you make of the microwave background, Hubble’s constant, the fossil record (the Neanderthal, Lucy), spontaneous mutation, etc? These things certainly seem to be proof or at least evidence that the development of the universe proposed through the modern scientific worldview is valid.
I make no comment on any evidence for any theory of the development of the universe - that isn't really our topic. I'm fairly open minded and willing to listen to arguments for either young earth creationism (which I am admittedly not inclined toward for some of the reasons you've mentioned) or evolution over the course of billions of years, either through stable progression or intermittent leaps of mutation. However, the gradual evolution of the human species (which, again, I'm not married to) does not necessarily imply the evolution of world views from primitive (less true) to advanced (more true) states. Plenty of people are able to understand the universe scientifically on both the theist and atheist presuppositions, clearly debunking the idea that a scientific mind is an evolutionary step beyond the religious mind. Getting back to the issue at hand in this paragraph, your interpretation of people's claims of experiences of God along the lines of the human impulse to find patterns, and this evolving through mythology, to religion, to science, remains at rest on an untested presupposition of God's non-existence. The evidence for natural evolution offers no evidence for God's non-existence. Approaches to dealing with the question of God's existence by looking at theories of human biological evolution or psychology or sociology are all radically unscientific - they assume their conclusion, analyse totally irrelevant data according to this assumed conclusion, and then announce their victory. Its all a dodge. The validity of Christianity's claim that God reveals himself cannot be tested by appeals to any data outside of God (which is rather like testing Hubble's law by conducting Rorschach tests); God can only be known through God, and this only through repentance and faith in Christ by the power of his Spirit.

And, Andy's final paragraph:
On the final issue of worldviews being neutral, I propose there is a common underpinning in all cultural perspectives. Although it’s not neutral, it’s at the foundation of the human experience and is therefore a universal beginning point to evaluate any and all worldviews we might hold: humans are pattern-seeking. Whether it is Native Americans noticing the migration routes of the buffalo, ancient Athenian astrologers noticing the same shapes in the heavens reoccur year after year, or even a modern theologian looking for patterns in TF Torrance’s thought, our species universally takes notice of phenomena reoccurring and gives explanations for them. I propose that a worldview should be judged on how internally consistent its patterns to understand the world are. I not going to post my criticisms on the Christian perspective, but only want to offer this as a beginning point for comparative discussion of worldviews.
Indeed, humans are pattern seeking. As a Christian, however, I have to say that this pattern seeking activity is one of the many ways humanity seeks to evade God. The world views we construct are ways of keeping God at arms length, to be dealt with conceptually rather than personally. The more internally consistent my world view, the better insulated I am from God. This is the problem. There are several world views that are entirely internally consistent - how are we to measure them against each other? World views can really only be understood internally, so how are you, a proponent of scientific/naturalistic world view which values world views according to their utilitarian function of organizing data, going to evaluate the Buddhist world view? It too can only be understood internally and has its own set of values for world views (or so it appears from the outside). I fully grant that the "Christian world view", if such a thing there be, has the same problem - it insulates us from other ways of thinking and even from God. The answer must come from beyond humanity and all its pattern seeking; it must come from God, and it has. The cross of Jesus Christ is the final judgement on all insulating pattern seeking, revealing humanity's final inability to understand God through its own intellectual efforts and exposing all such efforts as fraught with ignorance and hostility toward God. To this end I do not propose any real or imagined "Christian world view" but only Jesus Christ as the total revelation of God, complete with patterns of thought that do not need to be sought, but are freely given by Christ in his teaching ministry as recorded in the Gospels. I am thus not interested in comparing world views but only in proclaiming Christ.

Now, as to how to go forward in this series, feeling that I might have killed it with the length of these last several arguments, let me propose the following options:

1) We consider these first 4 rounds (everything we've done so far) as our opening arguments and now proceed to pester each other with direct questions, one at a time. For instance, you pose a question briefly and succinctly; I answer it as briefly and succinctly as I can; you respond to my answer, commenting on whether or not I have adequately dealt with the question from your point of view; and then its my turn to ask you one.

2) We continue on as we have and you deal with everything I've said in my last four part response in whatever way you see fit and we just see if anyone keeps reading.

3) We proceed to final arguments.

I favour option 1 myself, but I'm open to any further suggestion you might have.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Torrance's Last Book

I'm just beginning to go through T. F. Torrance's newest and last book, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, which is part two of two collections of his lectures on Christology and Soteriology at New College, University of Edinburgh. This is a quote from the introduction written by the editor, Torrance's student and nephew, Robert Walker.
For Torrance, faith is what happens when through the Spirit we are brought to see personally that Christ had and has faith for us, that therefore we do not need to have a new and different faith in addition to his faith for us, and when we understand this then we realize that the faith we have is in fact the very faith of Christ himself which is now in our hearts by the Spirit. (lxxix)

Monday, December 21, 2009

International Hot Tub: Round 4 part 3

(For newcomers, this is a debate between myself, a Christian, and my best friend Andy Snyder, a former Christian who is now an atheist. For a fuller introduction to the intent and explanation of the name of this series, please see the introduction. Though this is presented as a two party debate on one level, comments and responses are still fully welcomed to all posts in the comments section as a way to help extend the debate and bring other voices into it.)

Andy, your third argument is made in three paragraphs. Here they are:
Third, even if I consider Christianity on its own terms, I would argue its subjects (God/Yahweh/Jesus/The Holy Spirit) have been suspiciously absent for quite some time. Simply put, theophanies have a shelf life and the resurrection of Jesus has long past its expiration date. There is biblical president for this: In John it is written,

“ ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ ” (John 20:24-29)

Here Jesus reveals two things: the need for humans to experience tangible proof of his divine claims and the difficulty to marshal belief when humans don’t have that first hand experience. Most scholars date this gospel only 60 years after the time of Jesus. That the author included this saying of Jesus implies his audience, only two or three generations removed from the life of Jesus, was struggling with his claim to be God. It is infinitely harder to believe now, as we are thousands of years and generations removed from the last significant theophany Christianity attests to. Experiencing the story, the gospel, and Christ’s ethics expressed through his church 2000 years later is not a meaningful substitute for an unequivocal biblical theophany of God. You won’t apologize for this tension and that’s fine, but neither will I for claiming a victory here.
It is undeniable that the apostles were given a gift few others received by spending intimate time with Christ, hearing not only the teachings he gave to the masses, but also his interpretation of them, speaking explicitly about his identity and mission, and appearing to them in his resurrected body. I would wish for that as much as anyone.

I'll say only two quick things in response and in denial of your assumed victory. First, your argument here is entirely subjective. Theophanies have a shelf life? How long is that? You can only appeal to what feels like a long time. For me and plenty of other Christians, the resurrection of Christ is not a theophany but the unrepeatable and eternally significant Day of the Lord, his coming in judgment and forgiveness. Yes, he has ascended, withdrawn his bodily presence, but you know ,if you did truly consider Christianity on its own terms, that this is the gracious will of God to allow an interim before his final coming for the sake of the preaching of the gospel and repentance.

Second, you are not without tangible evidence and experience of God in this interim period. God is present in his church through the Spirit as he was present in the flesh of Christ. He is as perceivably real now in us, the church, as he was then in Christ's flesh. Your judgement against Christ is truly your judgement against us, against our truthfulness, clear mindedness, will against self-delusion, and faithfulness. You can certainly make this judgement, there is no lack of warrant for making it, but in making it you must certainly also make it against yourself. Do this. Judge me a self-deluded liar, but only if you are willing to judge yourself to the same degree. Then, in that state of solidarity in judgement with me and the church, tell me if God is not real in me and in the church in spite of, through, and above our weakness and sin. Put your fingers in Christ's wounds as you see them in us - are they not there? Do you truly see nothing of the Spirit of the risen Christ in me? I don't appeal to my own righteousness, but of the visible and tangible presence of God in me and in all the church despite our total unrighteousness. You are not without evidence.

I'll give the last word here to Peter:
2 Peter 3:3-18 3 First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. 8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. 11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. 14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 15 Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. 17 Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
One more post to come and then I'll hand it back to you.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Another Thought on Scripture

In continuation of the conversation from yesterday about where a statement on Scripture should go in a church's "What We Believe" statement included on their website, I'd like to pose a question.

Specifically in contrast to Islam, to whatever degree those of us that are Western non-Muslims understand that religion, how does Christianity respond to this question: In God's love for humanity and desire to be known, loved, and obeyed by them, what has God given the world?

My interaction with many Christians suggests that they would say the Bible. Of course they would say that he has given us his Son as well, but this would be understood as God's way of satisfying his justice in forgiving our sins, not making himself known. To make himself known, much of evangelical preaching and teaching suggests, God has given us a divinely inspired and infallible book. If this is true, if the most important thing for us in knowing God is a book, then how is Christianity any better than Islam?

For me, our firm answer to this question must be that he has given us his very Self in coming to us as a man in Jesus Christ and uniting us to him through the Holy Spirit so that we are given to share in his humanity, including his mind so that we may know the Father as the Son knows the Father (1 Cor 2:6-16). Yes, the Bible is totally irreplaceable as the authoritative guide to knowing God in Christ, to test our thoughts and actions in light of Christ, and to guide our hearts to him through the proclamation of his acts of salvation within our history. However, we must say that without knowledge of Jesus Christ the Bible is utterly useless. It gives us absolutely no knowledge of God if we neglect its central exhortation while we read it, the exhortation to follow and worship Christ as Lord. Our reading of the Bible is only meaningful if done in pursuit of knowledge of Christ as Lord. Therefore, it seems to me that by every standard, Christ and his gospel must come first in any statement of Christian faith, whether ordered by importance, procession of logical argument, or protection of orthodoxy. Let Christ be our all in all. Let everything we do, including our reading of the Bible and acknowledgement of its authority, be only in service to him.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Don't Judge a Church by its Website: "What We Believe"

I just did a quick survey of the web sites of 10 evangelical and pentecostal churches in Santa Cruz county, scanning their "What We Believe" pages for one factor: where did they put their statement on Scripture. Being honest, I was totally surprised. I expected to find it as the first item of belief, followed by the persons of the Trinity, and then usually something about sin and salvation, heaven and hell, the church, etc. The survey actually came out half and half; only about half of those churches put their statement on Scripture first, the other half putting something else, four of which had some kine of statement about God first (one of which was in the form of the Nicene Creed, which I think is rare and awesome for an evangelical Protestant church!) and one of which had something about the need for spiritual community.

Why is this important? Because there is something just totally wrong about a church putting its belief in the Bible above their belief in God/Jesus Christ. It borders on blasphemy. Yes, as evangelicals we are Christians committed to the Bible, yet we are not chiefly concerned with the Bible but with Jesus Christ; the Bible is not an end in itself, but the message about Jesus Christ.

So why are these churches putting the Bible first and what should they be putting first? It seems to me that they put it first because they believe that you have to deal with how we can know about God before you can deal with who God is and how he has saved us in Jesus Christ; that is, they believe you have to deal with theological epistemology before you can deal with divine ontology or soteriology. More important than that, putting the Bible first in a church's statement of beliefs reflects a belief that the question of how we can know about God isn't fully answered in Jesus Christ himself, the Word become flesh among us. For sure, the Bible needs to be in those statements, but I think it should below any and every statement about God himself, probably being somewhere in there with the church and sacraments/ordinances, which are just as integral to Christian faith as the Bible is (we could quibble on the sacraments, but I'll stand behind saying that the church is as important to the propagation and deepening of Christian knowledge as the Bible). This is my take on why the Bible is first for so many churches, but it might be partial or skewed. Anyone want to venture an alternative theory?

As for what should be first, I suggest following the historic creeds by going Father, Son, Holy Spirit and then proceeding with other matters (sin, salvation, Bible, church, baptism, communion, Christ's return). What do you think? Maybe I should craft a Draw Nigh "What We Believe" statement and offer to sell it to churches...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Don't Judge a Church by its Website

Since leaving California for Aberdeen my interest in and passion for church ministry has continued to grow. Feeling the distance from my home, I've spent some time looking around the church web sites of several churches, my own and many of the others I know of through friends who go there or work there, mostly churches in Santa Cruz county, but several in the San Francisco Bay area. I've made and continue to make several observations about these web sites I'd like to share in a new series I'm calling "Don't Judge a Church by its Website".

Before I start, however, I feel the need to establish that I don't mean to be overly critical here, but I also don't think my job as a theologian is necessarily to congratulate the church for how well its doing all the time but to challenge it in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

That being said, I'll start with a positive: for most churches I know, their website is probably the worst thing about them. That really is a positive. It means that what is actually going on among the people as they fellowship and learn together through the Holy Spirit is most likely far more biblical, healthy, and Christian than their websites might lead one to believe. So many church web sites, especially those of churches in Santa Cruz and other coastal towns, are so desperate to appear relevant, hip, and life changing that I have a difficult time taking them seriously. I'll talk more about this under specific topics as this series progresses, but at this point I want to re-emphasize that I think the shallow spirituality exhibited on so many of these web sites is not fully indicative of the level of understanding, commitment, fellowship, and practical living of the Christian faith at most of the churches these web sites represent. This comes from much experience at my own church, which I think has an amazing vitality and commitment to the gospel despite its blind spots, which are serious and fairly openly exposed on its web site, but also from interaction with several pastors and friends in other churches. As this series progresses I will take aim and challenge the way these churches represent themselves (without naming any names of course) on their web sites, and I do believe these representations tell us something at least about the thinking, strategy, and values of these churches, but ultimately it is the Spirit that is giving life to our Christian communities, not our thinking, strategies, or values. Therefore, we ought to have a freedom to challenge the thinking, strategies and values thrown up on these web sites without fearing that we are in any way impugning the spiritual vitality, Christian commitment or orthodoxy of the churches.

These thoughts are works in progress so please feel free to offer your own input.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Barth on Human Resistance to Truth

Reading Barth, this paragraph (yes, this is a single paragraph) struck me as speaking powerfully to recent discussions in the Hot Tub. Its a lot to wade through, but it speaks powerfully of the real obstacle to knowing the truth in God: us.

"What is truth?" It certainly cannot be expected to encounter man as a phenomenon which is immediately and directly illuminating, pleasing, acceptable and welcome to him. He would not be who he is if the promise of the Spirit came to him easily and smoothly. The gate through which it comes to him, if at all, is not wide but strait, and its way to him is not broad but narrow. Basically, it is in harmony with him and it speaks to his innermost self. For it tells him about the reconciliation of the world to God which has taken place in Jesus Christ, about this as his own justification and sanctification, about the new birth which it implies for him, about the freedom and peace of his true being as a new man in Jesus Christ. Yet telling him of these things, it is a new and strange and unsettling message compared with what he is in himself apart from this being of his in Jesus Christ, and with what he thus regards as pleasing, acceptable and true. It lacks the brightness and radiance which might cause it to seem true and acceptable. Indeed, the new man in Jesus Christ of whom it tells seems to be wrapped in obscurity compared with the old whom we know so much better and with whom we are naturally well acquainted. We need to pierce the obscurity, to penetrate the alien, threatening and uncomfortable aspect under which the truth draws near to man, if we are really to see it as the truth. We need to do something which is not at all self-evident, namely, to become other people. In the first instance, it does not address us; it contradicts us and demands our contradiction. Hence it does not commend itself. It is not welcome but unwelcome. It would certainly not be the truth if it did not have the tendency and power to pierce that obscurity, to penetrate that first aspect, to change us and therefore to open us to itself. It would not be the truth if the newness and strangeness in which it first encounters us were no more than the hard shell of a sweet and very precious kernel, if its aim and impulse were not to make perceptible and accessible to us the joy and peace of our true being as new men in Jesus Christ. But it would also not be the truth if it won us for itself by any other way than that of a powerful Nevertheless and Notwithstanding, if it did not encounter us in that hard shell, if it served up that insight on a platter, if it disclosed itself to us cheaply and otherwise than in a desperate conflict of decision. Things gained in this easy and self-evident way might well be kindly and good and even true within the sphere of a creaturely life, but they would certainly not be the truth of God. And they would be distinguished from this by the fact that they would entail no unmasking of man, no exposure of him as a liar, and therefore no summoning of him to a knowledge of the grace of God, to faith and obedience. That this is so in the case of the truth of God is grounded in the fact that this is identical with the true Witness Jesus Christ as the revelation of God's will and work for man enacted in Him. The glory of this Mediator, however, is a glory which is concealed in its opposite, in invisibility, in repellent shame. This Witness does not encounter man in a splendour which wins him easily and impresses him naturally. Raised from the dead by the power of God, He encounters him in the despicable and forbidding form of the Slain and Crucified of Golgotha. It is as the One whose way leads and ends there that He is the Reconciler of the world to God, the justification and sanctification of man. It is with Him as this One that our life is hidden and secured in God. And it is as this One that He comes again, revealing Himself in the world which moves to this end and goal and therefore in our sphere of time and history. The Word of the cross is thus the light of life, the saving revelation of God, the promise of the Spirit, in which He visits and accompanies and encounters man. It is as the Word of the cross that it has and exercises this power, and therefore primarily in this context the power to unmask the man of sin as a liar. To whom could it possibly appear welcome, acceptable or even tolerable? As it is this Word from which we think we can only turn away in rejection in view of the menace of its form, it is obvious that we should try to escape from it in falsehood, accepting instead a truth or untruth which it is easy to hold and affirm and which has the advantage that it enables us to think that we can avoid exposure. We can only think this. For in face of this Word there is for man, no matter what he thinks, no possibility of escape or concealment.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

International Hot Tub: Round 4 part 2

(For newcomers, this is a debate between myself, a Christian, and my best friend Andy Snyder, a former Christian who is now an atheist. For a fuller introduction to the intent and explanation of the name of this series, please see the introduction. Though this is presented as a two party debate on one level, comments and responses are still fully welcomed to all posts in the comments section as a way to help extend the debate and bring other voices into it.)

Now lets tackle your second paragraph. Here it is:
Second, even if I’m open to the supernatural, I see no reason why Christianity should be given special consideration above all other claims of the supernatural. Couldn’t your second paragraph just as easily ended with “Enter the prophet Muhammad” “Enter Buddha” “Enter Apollo” etc? All religions are realities presented as both sensible and intelligible; I don’t understand why we should skip straight to Christianity and ignore other major claims to the supernatural.
Why should Christianity be given special consideration? This seems at first a daunting question because it implies a few corollary problems. Either we should give full consideration to each and every religious claim in the history of mankind, which no one has time for, or we should consider none. After all, if one was right, shouldn't it stand out in an obvious way so we don't have to waste our time with all the others? We might devise some kind of filter to thin it down a bit, like only deal with religions which claim at least 10 million adherents; this would reduce it to about 6 religions, but that standard arbitrarily presuppose that a true religion will be big and modern. Why shouldn't the one true religion be ancient and forgotten? But then, what exactly is a religion anyway? We all assume we mean the same thing when we say the word so that statements like "All religions are realities presented as both sensible and intelligible" can have meaning, but do they?

I am convinced that the word "religion" is useless and basically meaningless (Steve Holmes, lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of St. Andrews, has a great discussion of this here). It seemingly allows us to assert that different "religions" can be held parallel to one another and compared, but these comparisons, at least when comparing Christianity to something like Buddhism, invent and impose alien categories that neither Christianity nor Buddhism holds internally, In the hands of post-modernism, the notion of a daunting plurality of religions has created a smoke screen where Christ doesn't have to be dealt with because there are so many other Christ's applying for the same job that to pick just one would be totally random. I think this is basically what you're doing with this question. You have to deal with Christianity because you have been raised as a Christian and because I and tons of others around you testify to the truth of Christ. Deal with the claims of Buddhism when the lives and wisdom of Buddhists around you compel you to, rather than take on a seemingly infinite set truth claims which all exist merely 'out there'. Is this an arbitrary standard? I don't think so. It just means that we don't deal with abstractions of concepts, but the beliefs of people we can know and walk alongside and ask. However, even though I think the question you pose here is a fabricated dodge of the real issue, I'll deal with it anyway.

Assuming such a plurality of supernatural claims, why should Christianity be given special consideration? First, I'll throw my hat in with C. S. Lewis and others who are careful to insist that to be a Christian does not mean one thinks all other religions, if such a thing there be, are necessarily wrong about everything. I myself do find some of the teachings of the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Ghandi, Malcom X, and even Carl Sagan to be helpful and true; however, they offer truths revealed by human insight, observation, and intuition, rather than the Truth of God's self-revelation, found only in Christ.

Second, and this may seem a technical point but its important, it is not Christianity per se but Christ, who reveals himself as Lord over all humanity and thus all religions, including Christianity, that must be given special consideration.

So rephrasing the question, why should Jesus Christ be given special consideration over possible christs? Could the second paragraph of my last post just as easily end with "Enter Muhammad, Buddha, or Apollo"? Only by blindly assuming the legitimacy of the word "religion" and thus ignoring what makes Christ totally different from the rest. For the sake of argument, I can see 5 categories of what we'll call religious figures, though I remain convinced that these categories are of seriously limited usefulness. In the first category are those like Moses, John the Baptist, Muhammad, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Joseph Smith, and Tom Cruise. None of these men ever claimed to be God. Actually, all were insistent that they were not God. They presented themselves as mere men who either brought a message from God or had discovered something true about the supernatural somehow. Much of what some of these men has taught is true and good, but it doesn't make them a replacement for Christ.

In the second category are those like Apollo, Ra, Thor, and Ganesha. These are mythological figures who fill a perceived gap between some higher, prior god who is their ancestor, and our world. Their significance to those who believe in them is not historical, that is, they are not seen as coming into human affairs within history and substantially changing anything, but explaining certain cosmic, agricultural, political, or personal cycles in a distinctly timeless way.

In the third category are those like Gilgamesh, Hercules, Romulus and Remus. These are demigods, or supposedly historical figures who are born of the union of a human and a god. Some have made comparisons here to Christ, but they are ridiculous. None of these presents himself as the final union of God and man; they are better spoken of as half-man, half-god than as fully man and fully God as is true with Christ. There is also the serious deficiency of historical testimony to be considered in these cases. They are myths that you don't believe in any more than I do and for totally different reasons than you don't believe in Christ.

In the fourth category are the Hindu avatars of Vishnu, particularly Krishna and Rama. The literature telling of these heroes, the Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively, give us plenty of reasons to assume these figures are not historical or if they were, their memory has fallen prey to the exaggerations and fabrications of myth and legend. (palaces with millions of windows, armies with millions of elephants, and monkeys that talk, fight, and can leap from India to Sri Lanka). There are significant theological differences between them and Christ, such as their not taking the curse of human weakness and death on themselves to free us from it, and their not accomplishing a once and for union between God and humanity in their flesh, but the similarities seem more important here. They represent a recognition that gods are unhelpful to humanity if removed from us in some metaphysical realm, something the Buddha recognized too, though he concluded that we just don't need them. Instead, the Hindu stories of these avatars represent the need and longing of humanity for the gods to get off their clouds and come among us.

Enter Jesus Christ, uniquely, supremely, and gloriously among all of the other so-called religious figures. He belongs with those in the first category as one who is unquestionably historical, but against them as one who sets himself over them as not merely bringing a message about God or the supernatural but as one who is God among men and women, the Supernatural invading the natural. Unlike those in the second category, he is not remote but near to each one of us. Unlike those in the third and fourth categories, he is not the product of human imagination or longing, but of God, seen above all in his resurrection from the dead into an incorruptible body, ascended and sitting at the right hand of the Father, a claim made of no other figure. The combination of these historical claims with the remarkable historical proximity of the documents recording the events, their publication coming within a generation of Christ's life, testifies to Jesus Christ's uniqueness against other supposed christs. He alone has brought God into the intelligibility and sensibility of our human sphere by being God in his very flesh, making the imperceptible perceptible to us, and speaking as God of himself in human words, making the transcendent and inconceivable conceivable to us. There is no other like Christ.

Let me say a bit more about sensibility and intelligibility. By the sensible I mean realities that are approachable through sense perception, and by the intelligible I mean realities that approachable through reason or intellect. Thus the chair I'm currently sitting in is sensible while 'chairness' is a solely intelligible concept. Deism presented God as wholly intelligible, not sensible. There is some good reason for this; God is totally beyond the physical universe he has created and therefore it is faulty to search for him within it. Rather, its lack of inherent explanation for itself ought to point our minds, not our eyes, beyond it. The problem here is how do we know that the god we thus come to believe in does not exist only in our minds? This seems to be the god you're attacking, the god of the gaps, the god who is arrived at through questions like "how did we all get here?" or "do you know where you'll go when you die?". Christianity cannot have this god (though it often does); the God of the Bible created everything, the sensible AND the intelligible out of nothing and therefore cannot be arrived at through the use of either faculty. The God of the Bible is only known because he has by grace alone chosen to reveal himself to humanity, to make himself both sensible and intelligible by taking human flesh and human reason on himself through Incarnation (again, I see no other "religions" making this claim). When his disciples beheld his physical human presence and heard his voice, they beheld and heard the voice of God in a unique unity of the sensible and intelligible mediating knowledge of the imperceptible and unintelligible. That is to say, God actively makes himself known within our sensible and intelligible sphere, though he himself is neither sensible nor intelligible, being totally beyond our reach.

One final point. Everything I have said about the uniqueness of Christ above takes for granted the legitimacy of "comparative religions" which I previously denounced. As a Christian, that is as a believer in Christ, I am bound to say that these comparisons are all shaky at best and the real reason Christ should be given special consideration is that he alone is Lord. I have given you some distinctions between him and central figures of other so-called religions according to the assumptions of the field of study known as comparative religions or cultural anthropology, but this cannot ultimately be why he is Lord and the others are not. He is Lord because he is Lord. That is the only way it could be. We can only know him as he reveals himself to us, and in revealing himself through grace he judges all of our attempts to find him on our own terms apart from his grace by constructing comparative criteria and setting him alongside other christs. He reveals himself to us all as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He has to be dealt with because he presses himself upon all of us to be dealt with as no one else does. He knocks on the door of our hearts even now.

More to come. Next time I'll deal with what the unity of the sensible and intelligible in the historical Jesus means to us now, removed from him by two thousand years.

Monday, December 7, 2009

International Hot Tub: Round 4 part 1

(For an introduction to the intent and explanation of the name of this series, please see the introduction. Though this is presented as a two party debate on one level, comments and responses are still fully welcomed to all posts in the comments section as a way to help extend the debate and bring other voices into it.)

There is simply too much here to deal with in a single post, at least one anyone would want to wade through. So I'll do a few separate posts. On with the first.

Openness to the supernatural ought to be the natural result of recognizing our limitations. By supernatural we mean what is beyond nature, or more explicitly, what is beyond the physical universe that we are all contained within and a part of. Within the universe we can describe all kinds of relationships and experiences, tangible experiences that indicate objective realities. But the universe gives no explanation for itself. It can't. No self-contained field of relationships can explain its own existence; it can only explain the realities within it. To explain the field itself, reference must be made to something beyond it. As I understand it, this relationship is reflected in the fact that arithmetic, while working fine internally, can not be used to prove its own legitimacy but must defer to algebra to validate it, which then must defer to calculus to validate it. Thus each self-contained field of math is open upwards to levels of reality beyond its nature (super-natural) for its own justification. Likewise, it is the fact that your tangible experiences and the universe they rely on offer no explanation of themselves that ought to lead you to a profound sense of their limitations, which in turn ought to produce an openness upward to a reality beyond the physical universe from which it must derive its meaning. (To clarify, this is NOT the classic cosmological or 'first cause' argument for the existence of God because I'm not here arguing the existence of God, only a basic openness to allow God to reveal himself.)

On the other hand, I think abstract arguments like this are a bit of a dodge and a waste of time. What ought to produce openness to the supernatural is your personal experiences of your limitations, the struggle with your personal nature which we all endure, our inability to fully determine ourselves, to do what we know is right and not do what we know is wrong. It is in our sin that God really finds us, not in our intellectual recognition that he might actually be there.

But even here there is a problem; ultimately it should not be either our abstract reason or personal experience that leaves us open to God, but God himself that opens us up to him. The attitude that demands a reason to be open to this is the very pride and arrogance God must save us from, and judge in the saving. This attitude reduces God to a concept to be considered rather than the Almighty who must be faced. Accordingly, I cannot give you an argument for why you ought to be open to God; the only alternative is to be closed and no truth can come from that.

The claim that taking Jesus' teachings seriously is anachronistic and fails to take seriously the modern scientific world view is faulty because this very claim fails to take seriously the fact that the modern scientific world view changes nothing about Jesus' teaching. Let me say that another way: Jesus' teachings had to do with the relationships of humanity to God, to each other in their personal, political, economic, moral, and familial dimensions, and to the world God has placed us in; he didn't teach physics except the scientifically foundational principle of creation out of nothing, ex nihilo. The progress of modern science can make no judgement on Jesus' teachings because it does not and cannot address them; they have entirely different subject matter, methodology, and authority; the progress of modern science has no corollary in something like a progress of modern morality or civility or culture.

You are formally correct in saying that Jesus never directly addressed himself to atheism; however, materially, Jesus was constantly addressing himself to those who had no real experience of God, giving true objective experience of God in his very presence and address as God. As I've said earlier, he taught his disciples the reality of the kingdom of God and poured out his Spirit on them, enabling them to do the same for others. I am hopeful to do the same for you. In my presence (being on another continent not withstanding) and friendship in the Spirit of faith in Christ, it is my hope that God will open you up to his presence and activity in your life and yours in His. Either way, the reality of millions upon millions of lives who have been changed and brought into contact with the living God up to this very day through the teachings and deeds of Christ read in the Gospels overwhelms your claim of their irrelevance and anachronism.

More to come...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Torrance on Knowing God

In my excitement that the new 2nd volume of T. F. Torrance's posthumously published lectures on Christology, Atonement, will be out soon (in the UK - I think its already out in the US), I'm re-reading the 1st volume which came out last year, Incarnation. Here is a choice selection to mull while I procrastinate in responding to Andy in the International Hot Tub:
We must learn here to think with God always in the centre. God speaks in such a way as not to be brought under our rubrics and estimates. He meets us as the Lord. He saves us and we know we are in his presence. Here our knowledge of God, our theological judgments are not self-centered, but are called out of us as matters of acknowledgement and obedience. We are confronted with the majesty of God and surrender ourselves to him in adoration and devotion. That is why faith insists that what believers do is to let themselves be told by the Word, by Christ himself, allow themselves to be determined by Christ who confronts us in his word, and acts upon us – so that the judgments of faith are not those which believers make according to what they already know, but those which are formed in them as they are obedient to what is presented to them. God summons us, and we obey. He authenticates himself to us and we acknowledge him. He confronts us with a divine act of majesty which creates and forms in us a perception appropriate to what he is, and we are controlled by it. He establishes himself in our human knowing in a way according to his nature, and does not allow our knowing of him to be halted by our normal limitation and capacities – for he upholds us from below and enables us to know what is beyond our natural capacities, and what we acknowledge is an act of adoration and glorification of God. But it is as sinners that we encounter Christ, and as sinners that we are summoned to hear his word and to yield to it the obedience of our minds, so that when we know and obey him, that is a reversal of our disobedience, and involves a decision against ourselves, contrary to our self-will. (35-36)