Saturday, May 27, 2017

In Essentials Unity, in Nonessentials Liberty, and in All Things, Love

Our backyard, on the river
When I was growing up my parents did not allow a deck of playing cards in the house. Card-playing was wrong, it was sin. I didn't know why this was so. As a child I didn't question it or find it weird. It was when I became a Jesus-follower that I began to wonder.

I found out that, among the Finnish Lutherans of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where my family was from and where I was born, card-playing was associated with drinking and gambling. Someone who was a Christian didn't drink, gamble, or play cards.

Sociologically, that made sense to me. But I no longer felt card-playing was a sin. Card-playing lies way out on the periphery of mere Christianity. God may tell a few to avoid a deck of cards, but it is a non-essential. You can be a Jesus-follower and have a deck of cards in your house, unless God specifically (for some reason you may or may not know) tells you not to have one. Here's how I have come to view the bigger picture about such things.

For a long time I've seen the Christian faith as a set of concentric circles, circles within circles. On the outer circles we find nonessentials of Christianity. These matters may be important for a few, but do not apply to all. In the inner circle we find the heart of mere, true Christianity. If one does not affirm Circle 1 statements, then probably one is not a Christian, just as I am not now playing tennis as I'm typing on my laptop.

The set of propositions that fit within Circle 1 include:

1. God exists. (Viz., an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, necessarily existent, without-beginning-or-end, creator and sustainer of all things, incorporeal, personal agent.)
2. Jesus the Messiah is God incarnate.
3. Jesus died on a cross, was buried in a tomb, and was raised on the third day.

If someone thinks any one of these three propositions are false, then I think they are not a Christian. (Yes, I am aware (amazingly, to me) of the "atheistic Christianity" of, e.g., Paul Van Buren and Thomas J.J. Altizer. I read their books back in the 1970s. Altizer, in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, wrote: "every man today who is open to experience knows that God is absent, but only the Christian knows that God is dead, that the death of God is a final and irrevocable event, and that God's death has actualized in our history a new and liberated humanity." At this point I would argue that he has left Christianity in the same way one who travels by foot cannot be said to be flying in an airplane.)

Basic to mere Christianity is belief in God.

Also basic to mere Christianity is a recognition that Jesus is Lord, in the strong sense of being from God. Jesus is God the Son. I don't think one must fully grasp this concept to be a Christian. I'm still growing and learning such things. But mere Christianity includes the realization that one needs saving, and Jesus is the Savior.

To disaffirm the cross and the resurrection surely disqualifies one as a Christian. How odd it seems to me should someone say, "I don't believe Jesus died on a cross for my sins. I don't believe Jesus was raised from the dead. But I am a Christian." Why, I would ask? Why insist that you're playing tennis while typing on your laptop?

Central to mere Christianity are statements 1, 2, and 3. They (and some others) belong in the center circle of the Christian faith. But the statement card-playing is wrong does not belong there. It orbits on some distant curve many circles from the center.

Outwardly adjacent to and encircling the center circle of our faith is Circle 2, which involves very important issues that we should rightly feel passionate about, and upon which Jesus-followers have disagreed.

Outer circle issues are important but non-essential to salvation.
Circle 2 issues include:
  • The meaning and means of baptism
  • The meaning and means of the Lord's Table
  • The doctrine of the person and work of the Holy Spirit
  • The theology and practice of the gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • The nature and expression of worship
These (and others) are important. It's in this second circle that denominations have formed. Churches have split over these things! But while they are very important they are not, I think, essential to true Christianity. Surely if one heart-affirms Circle 1's third proposition (and, by implication, affirm propositions 1 & 2), they are a "Christian." No futher doctrinal understanding is needed. 

When I gave my heart and life over to Jesus as Lord I had no clue of the deep matters of Circle 2. So, I think we can disagree on the things of the second circle and still affirm one another as brothers and sisters in Christ if we agree on Circle 1 things. (And even things beyond the second circle, such as the age of the earth, which no one in the Bible seems interested in [while being very interested in the truth that God has made it all].)

My parents were Jesus-followers. I loved them, and did not disrespect their wish that a deck of cards not be in their home. I like the way Pope John XXIII counsels us to do this: "In essentials unity, in doubtful matters [nonessentials] liberty, and in all things, love [charity]."

Unity Is Pulling Together for the Cause of Christ

The Detroit River, in Wyandotte

When I was in a fraternity as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University, there were campus "fraternity games" every spring. The different fraternities challenged each other in athletic events. One of them was the tug-of-war.

Ten men lined up on two sides of a creek. They gripped a thick rope. They dug their heels in, leaned back, and tried to pull the other fraternity team into the creek. I loved watching this! These were big, strong guys, some of whom were on NIU's football team. One fraternity brother stood next to them and coached them, getting them to pull together, in unity. The winning team was the strongest, most-united team. Sheer strength was not enough to win this contest. There had to be a united pulling-together.

It is the same with Real Church. Sheer giftedness is not enough. There must be humble submission to one another, a united pulling-together.

We see this in Philippians 2:1-2, one of the most beautiful unity-passages ever written. It says:

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

We are strong in the Lord. We pull together, for the same cause, the cause of Christ.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Uninterested, Uninvolved God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, argues Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option, has won in the West; Mere Christianity has lost.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is, argues U of Notre Dame's Christian Smith, the de facto, default religion of American teenagers today. MTD's core beliefs are:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Smith writes:

"Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etc. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people."

The God of MTD is "one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in our affairs—especially affairs in which we would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance."

I meet MTD-ers all the time in my MCCC philosophy classes. Some even think they are Christians, or that the worldview of MTD is the worldview of Jesus. The reason for this is that, while MTD is not an official, organized religion, MTD is "colonizing" other religions. Think now of the alien in the astronaut's body who is waiting to bust out of his chest.

Read Smith's entire article for the details. See also Smith's book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

One more quote from Smith:

"When teenagers talked in their interviews about “grace,” they were usually talking about the television show Will and Grace, not about God’s grace. When teenagers discussed “honor,” they were almost always talking about taking honors courses or making the honor role at school, very rarely about honoring God with their lives. When teens mentioned being “justified,” they almost always meant having a reason for doing something behaviorally questionable, not having their relationship with God made right."

For Smith's research project see National Study of Youth and Religion. 

Secularism Rules in Western Churches

Duck family in my front yard

I am reading The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher.

Dreher says the culture wars are over, at least in the West. The sexual revolution and the technological revolution have won.

The American Church was not prepared for this. "The public square has been lost." (P. 9)

Most American churches have succumbed. C.S. Lewis referred to the secular world as "enemy-occupied territory." The enemy is now within the camp, ruling over hearts and minds. Most churches are not safe places for followers of Jesus. They are "mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others." (P. 10)

Dreher writes:

"Not only have we lost the public square, but the supposed high ground of our churches is no safe place either...  The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything, everything, even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves. As conservative Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner has said, “There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian. It is a new epoch.”" (P. 9)

"Don’t," warns Dreher, "be fooled by the large number of churches you see today... If the demographic trends continue, our churches will soon be empty."

I am working on my book Leading the Presence-Driven Church. My concluding chapter is, "God's Presence Will Win the Day." I believe this. I'll argue for: 1) decolonization; and 2) return.

Dreher writes, "many of the churches that do stay open will have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where the “Christianity” taught there is devoid of power and life." (P. 10)

Needed: God's power and life. Not human staging and hype.

Dreher writes about how Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has colonized the Church.

So far Dreher's book resonates with me (except perhaps for his negative evaluation on the Reformation).

Thursday, May 25, 2017

How to Formulate a Christian Perspective on Same-Sex Unions

Cloud formation, Monroe County

What about the morality of same-sex unions? For a Jesus-follower the question is: Does God affirm sex-same unions? Here are the steps to take, as I see things. (BTW - our culture has already decided on this one. But in matters of Christian understanding, the moral pronouncements of the prevailing culture are irrelevant. This remains a discussable issue among Christians.)

This process is a slow-cooker. In my case it has spanned four decades of thinking, studying, researching, dialoguing, and praying. You probably do not have the time to do this. But note this: If you are mostly unfamiliar with the literature, then do not hastily judge me. (Like, "How hateful John is!")

Here's the template. 


On a scale of 0-10, how authoritative is the Bible for you (with '0' being no authority, and '10' being fully authoritative). This is the first matter that must be discussed, without which there will be no meaningful outcome.


If the Bible has no authority, or very little authority, then the Christian discussion is over.

However, I am interested in the person who gives the Bible little or no authority. I want to ask them:

"What text (narrative) is authoritative for you? Have you thought about this?"

Again, if someone goes to Step 1a, then the intra-Christian discussion is over. But, since everyone has a worldview, a narrative they live by, what is theirs?

After years of teaching philosophy, I have concluded that few people understand and evaluate their worldview. And note: the rejection of all worldviews is itself a worldview. Like, e.g., the rejection of all metanarratives is itself a metanarrative (contra Foucault, et. al.).


To say that the Scriptures have great authority is to say they guide and influence our faith and life.


We must handle the Word of God correctly, or rightly.

To do this requires study. Two good books on how to interpret the Bible are:

That is, to enter more fully into this discussion at this point, one should have some understanding of principles of biblical interpretation. Everyone cannot invest decades of study into this. But it helps avoiding horrendous mistakes in reading the Scriptures. For example, context is important in the interpretation of anything, to include interpreting the Bible. Because a text without a context is simply a pretext to say what you want the text to say.


This is the question for follows of Jesus who give the Scriptures great authority.

As Craig Keener writes, "My primary vocation is as a Bible scholar, and I need to explain the text faithfully."

Correct. The issue here is: what does the biblical text say, as opposed to what we might wish the text would say.

This is why, e.g., what the prevailing cultural wisdom says is irrelevant to the interpreting of the Bible, and any text, for that matter.


The person who ends up here must justify their interpretation of Scripture, and conclude that God affirms same-sex unions. They might find themselves agreeing with people like Dan Via (presents view #2) and Matthew Vines, et. al., for example.


The person who ends up here must justify their interpretation of Scripture.

At this point I have long laid out my cards on the table. I'm with Keener (and N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Tim Keller, Robert Gagnon, Wesley Hill, et. al) when he writes: "I believe that the biblical passages about homosexual behavior are fairly clear... most exegetes, whether they agree personally with Paul or not, still regard Romans 1 as disagreeing with homosexual practice... I would be happy to be persuaded otherwise, but so far it continues to appear to me that this is where the exegesis strongly points."

The Presence of God Advertises Itself

Wilberforce, Ohio
A.W. Tozer, in The Pursuit of God, writes:

"Every age has its own characteristics. Right now we are in an age of religious complexity. The simplicity which is in Christ is rarely found among us. In its stead are programs, methods, organizations and a world of nervous activities which occupy time and attention but can never satisfy the longing of the heart. The shallowness of our inner experience, the hollowness of our worship, and the servile imitation of the world which marks our promotional methods all testify that we, in this day, know God only imperfectly, and the peace of God scarcely at all. If we would find God amid all the religious externals we must first determine to find Him." (Tozer, The Pursuit of God, Kindle Locations 128-133)

We don't need to promote God, right? I mean, if it's really God that shows up and inhabits the house, the word will get around just fine without advertising. People will ask, "How was church today?" You will answer, "God made an appearance."

The presence of God advertises itself.

Focus on God's presence and your church's advertising budget will shrink to $0.

Because you don't have to advertise a fire.

Join Me at the Holy Spirit Renewal Conference - June 25-29

Holy Spirit Renewal Conference
Coming Soon ~ June 25-29 
Teamwork couple hikers success in sunset mountains accomplish with arms up outstretched. Young man and woman on rocky mountain range looking at beautiful inspirational landscape view Gran Canaria Canary Islands.

There's a whole new world waiting to open up to you this summer at the
Holy Spirit Renewal Conference, Green Lake, Wisconsin.
Come and receive strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
Great is God's faithfulness!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

There Probably Was a Global Flood

Image may contain: outdoor

See the New York Times, "Looming Floods, Threatened Cities."

“I don’t think the biblical deluge is just a fairy tale,” said Terence J. Hughes, a retired University of Maine glaciologist living in South Dakota. “I think some kind of major flood happened all over the world, and it left an indelible imprint on the collective memory of mankind that got preserved in these stories.”

I Don't Believe in Fairies Either (On the Conceptual Confusion of Unlearned Atheists)

Image may contain: drink and outdoor
Small Plates restaurant, Detroit

David Bentley Hart, in The Experience of God (Yale University Press), writes something related to my post "It's False That an Atheist Just Believes in One Fewer God than a Theist Does." Hart states (pay attention here):

"At a trivial level, one sees the confusion in some of the more shopworn witticisms of popular atheism: “I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden,” for instance, or “All people are atheists in regard to Zeus, Wotan, and most other gods; I simply disbelieve in one god more.” Once, in an age long since vanished in the mists of legend, those might even have been amusing remarks, eliciting sincere rather than merely liturgical laughter; but, even so, all they have ever demonstrated is a deplorable ignorance of elementary conceptual categories." (Hart, The Experience of God, p. 33)

When you do a philosophy degree, you regularly meet, interact, and dialogue with atheists and theists. In all my years of studying I never heard one of my atheist professors compare their God-disbelief with fairy-disbelief, or disbelief in Zeus. The proliferation of these silly quotes are the result of not-so-brights invading the intellectual atheist camp. It's embarrassing! (Remember atheist Michael Ruse's embarrassment at Richard Dawkins's God Delusion?)

In the real discussion about God's existence or non-existence these quotes mean nothing. Let me help the unscholarly atheist out of their conceptual confusion by quoting Hart once again.

"Beliefs regarding fairies are beliefs about a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional shape and rational content as beliefs regarding one’s neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all." (Ib.)

If you understand that ,then you've been set free from all those cute quotes about fairies, Zeus, Osiris, "my invisible friend," the Flying Spaghetti Monster," "we atheists just believe in one less god than you," and so on and on and...

Seeking Knowledge, or Just Doing Research?

Image may contain: 17 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor
Linda's piano/vocal students - May 2017

In my college Logic classes I told my students that critical thinking helps us arrive at the truth or falsity of statements (claims, beliefs). We want to know if our beliefs are true.

I loved talking with students about logic and truth. Many of them had never heard such talk before, and seemed confused by it. They were especially boggled by the idea that, in logic, if a statement is true, it is true for everyone.

For example: Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This statement is true, which means: the described state of affairs obtains. If it obtains, it obtains for everyone. Thus, regarding statements, there is no "true for you, but false for me" discussion.

Logic is a tool that can help us evaluate and formulate what we can know. It is precisely this claim to knowledge that troubles students, since it seems arrogant. Dallas Willard (USC Prof. of Philosophy) understood this. He wrote:

"It is not irrelevant that contemporary institutions of higher education see themselves not as knowledge institutions, but as research institutions. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, when people no longer believe in truth, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in research." (Willard, Eternal Living: Reflections on Dallas Willard's Teaching on Faith and Formation, Kindle Locations 1273-1278)