Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Church" As a Colony of Heaven In a Country of Death

Every pastor should read The Pastor: A Memoir, by Eugene Peterson.

In Ch. 16, "Catacombs Presbyterian Church," Peterson takes us to the meaning of "church." Since American Christianity has for the most part lost this, it is worth going back to Square One. Peterson here functions as a prophet. If you have ears to hear, listen.

Peterson's first church met in the basement of a home. People began calling it "Catacombs Presbyterian Church." "Church" was an underground thing. That's what the Jesus-Movement was in the first century. The powerful movement of the Kingdom of God was like a seed growing secretly beneath the soil's surface, and not like some opulent, ornate human edifice-complex blooming in full view.

Peterson defines "church." "Church is a core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not that kingdom complete, but it is that kingdom." It took Peterson a long time to understand "church" as: "a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God."

"Church" is people who witness to the Jesus-story.

People are messy. Most pastors don't stay in the mess with their own screwed-upness long enough to be part of church-forming, by the Spirit. Peterson says, "my pastors never stayed with it long enough. Maybe they concluded that there had been some mistake in the packaging of the puzzle and many of the pieces had been accidentally left out. It became obvious to them that there were not enough pieces in the pews of our congregation to complete the picture of... [an] army with banners, marching to make war against the devil and all his angels. My pastors always left after a couple of years for another congregation or some other employment. Obviously our church was too far gone in disrepair to spend any more time on it."

I grew up in Tabor Lutheran Church in Rockford, Illinois. Our pastor was Clarence Anderzon. He pastored Tabor for... 50 years. When I became a Jesus-follower he was one of the persons I knew I had to talk to. He invited me to his home and we spend several hours together. I shared my story, he listened, and encouraged me. I didn't think about it at the time, but I now see that Pastor Anderzon had great staying-power. My pastoral model was: pastor as shepherd (not as "rancher") of a congregation. A shepherd has a flock, stays with the flock, and doesn't hop from flock to flock looking for the better one. I write this in my 19th year at Redeemer. It has not all been easy, for either me or my flock. They had to get used to me! And it has been so enriching that I often thank God for connecting me with this church, these people, whom I love. Redeemer is a movement of Real Jesus-followers that Linda and I get to partner with!

However...  Real, authentic "church" has "been scrapped and replaced with the imagery of an ecclesiastical business with a mission to market spirituality to consumers and make them happy... ["Church" in America is now seen as] a business opportunity that would cater to the consumer tastes of spiritually minded sinners both within and without congregations."

The consumer-congregation strategy includes removing "pictures of the God of Gomorrah and Moriah and Golgotha from the walls of the churches and shift[ing] things around a bit to make the meeting places more consumer friendly. With God depoersonalized and then repackaged as a principle or formula, people could shop at their convenience for whatever sounded or looked as if it would make their lives more interesting and satisfying on their terms. Marketing research quickly developed to show just what people wanted in terms of God and religion. As soon as pastors knew what it was, they could give it to them."

Real Church is about:
  • what God wants, not what people want
  • what people really need, not what people want
  • a Movement, not an institution
  • the leading of the Holy Spirit, and not someone named "Robert"
Peterson writes of "the Americanization of the congregation." This "means turing each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric... This pragmatic vocational embrace of American technology and consumerism that promised to rescue congregations from ineffective obscurity violated everything - scriptural, theological, experiential - that had formed my identity as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor. It struck me as far worse than the earlier erotic and crusader illusions of church. It was a blasphemous desecration of the way of life to which church had ordained me - something on the order of a vocational abomination of desolation."

Peterson opts for the Church as a Movement, as a "terrible army," rather than "the newly franchised Church of What's Happening Now."

To pastor a real church Peterson went to Square One. "Square One here meant the Acts of the Apostles. I would immerse myself and our church-in-formation in the story of the first church-in-formation. Acts would give us a text for cleansing our perceptions from the blurring and distorting American stereotypes."

I love that way of putting it. Turn off the TV churches and tolle lege the four Gospels. Note the disconnect. Be purged of the "American Church." Re-enter the strange, earth-shattering world of Jesus.

When Peterson's underground-catacombs-basement church first met, 46 people were present. He writes: "I wanted to drench the collective imagination of my congregation in the story of church as a reliving, a reteling of the story of Jesus." Pastors - saturate yourself in the Scriptures. In your preaching, teaching, and living, drench your congregation in the Grand Narrative. View all of life through it.

Don't follow the American Way! "The American stereotype of church. Salvation is God's business. It is what God does. And then he turn it over to us [and "Robert"]. Church is our business. It is what we do. God, having given himself to us in Jesus, now retires to the sidelines and we take over. Occasionally we call a time-out to consult with God. [We open our "business meetings" with a short prayer.] But basically, we are the action. ["God helps those who help themselves" - Hezekiah 1:5.] But that is not the way Acts tells the story."

View "Church" as story. "Acts is not a manual with blueprints or a set on instructions on how to be a church. Acts is not a utopian fantasy on what a perfect church would look like. Acts is a detailed story of the ways in which the first church became a church. A story is not a script to be copied."

As I'm writing this I received a prayer request from a good friend who is laboring to rescue women out of prostitution. A women who wants to escape the sex-slave industry needs help. Some money will be needed. Please pray for this! I felt God tell me to send the request out to my church, since we are a People Movement, and are used to being moved by the Spirit. We'll see what happens. I'm expecting God to move some hearts, without the need for human manipulation or coercion. A Movement is far more exciting than an Institution; a Story more than another business meeting. We're in the story as Jesus-followers, in "Act 5" as N.T. Wright would say. The drama unfolds before us, with the Spirit leading the way. It is happening, right now. Now, not later.

One more thing: "If we don't acquire a narrative sense, a story sense, with the expectation that we are each one of us uniquely ourselves - participants in the unique place and time and weather of where we live and worship - we will always be looking somewhere else or to a different century for a model by which we can be an authentic and biblical church."

Linda and I are planted in Monroe.

Bear fruit where you are planted.

(Read the whole book. It's prophetic, and soul-and-mind cleansing.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

All-Night Prayer Meeting This Friday (4/1) at Redeemer

Redeemer
As many of you know, we have several seriously ill members in our Redeemer body. This Friday we are holding a prayer and worship meeting at the church. It will begin at 9 PM with Kelly Reaume leading us in worship, and close in the morning at sunrise (~7 AM). Throughout the night there will be times of corporate prayer, worship, individual prayer, and warfare on behalf of the people in our body who are battling serious, chronic illness. Please come for an hour, four hours, or the whole night!

  • Begins at 9pm Friday night with worship lead by Kelly Reaume
  • Ends at sunrise Saturday morning
  • Matthew and Holly Holladay will be spending the whole night
  • Come and stay as long as you can.
  • Beverages and snacks will be provided. (Fruit Juice and bottled water for those fasting)
  • We will be contending for miracles of healing for the seriously ill.
  • Bring any CD's of worshipful healing music you have!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Greg Boyd at Redeemer in Monroe

Greg Boyd will speak at our Furious Love event:
  • Thursday, April 7, 9:30 AM
  • Thursday, April 7, 1:30 PM

Greg is an internationally recognized theologian, preacher, teacher, apologist and author. He has authored or co-authored 18 books and numerous academic articles, including his best-selling and award-winning Letters From a Skeptic and his most recent books (co-authored with Dr. Paul Eddy) The Jesus Legend, and Lord or Legend? Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma.

To register go here.

Heidi Baker at Redeemer in Monroe

Heidi Baker will speak at our Furious Love Event:
  • Thursday night, April 7, 7 PM
  • Friday morning, April 8, 9:30 AM
To register go here.


Monday, March 28, 2011

Philosophy of Religion - Oral Exam #2

Students taking the oral exam this Wednesday, March 30 - exams will be held on main campus, room A173a.

Students taking the oral exam on Monday, April 4 - exams will be held on main campus, room A153.

You will be asked to explain the following:
  1. Mackie's logical argument from evil against the existence of God.
  2. Buddhism - evil as illusion.
  3. Plantinga's Free Will Defense as a refutation of Mackie's logical argument.
  4. Rowe's evidential argument from evil against the existence of God.
  5. Wykstra's "no-seeum" criticism of Rowe.
  6. Hick's soul-making theodicy as a response to the problem of evil.

As the Four Horsemen Leave Town, an Atheist Cleans Up Their Mess

Atheist author and professor Michael Ruse and Georgetown professor Jacques Berlinerblau have recently voiced something I have thought for some time. My theistic journey is 42 years old. I've had both theist and atheist philosophy professors. The atheist ones I had at NIU and NU were, for by far the most part, welcoming of me and tolerant of my theistic views. Not only did they not attack my character and call me an idiot but they encouraged me in my studies. I have been influenced by them.


Then, recently, along came the so-called "New Atheists." What the heck is going on here?! Ruse and Berlinerblau help us out with essays that are both brilliant and funny. I actually smiled several times while reading them. Here are bullets from both. And, even though I personally think the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Ruse) have been through town but are now riding into the sunset, they've left some philosophical messes that need cleaning up. I find myself doing that in my philosophy classes. And BTW it's not only me, but atheists like Ruse are cleaning up too.


Ruse, "New Atheism: A Disaster Comparable to the Tea Party"
  • Ruse is not a "card-carrying atheist," but "I truly am a nonbeliever." When he left Christianity he vowed not to join another religion, "even a secular version like humanism."
  • Although he is a nonbeliever, traditional religion does not contribute to his nonbelief. Ruse's nonbelief is not a reaction to religion.
  • The strongest influence on his thinking was "Thomas Kuhn, especially his insistence that scientific thinking is deeply and necessarily metaphorical (something he thought was equivalent to his claims about paradigms)." Now, in me, the juices are flowing. I did my NU dissertation on metaphor theory and drew heavily on Kuhn. I argued, among other things, that current metaphor theory (metaphor is not an "elliptical simile") in its views of metaphor are similar to Kuhnian paradigm theory.
  •   Ruse thinks the problem of evil "is beyond solution." And it cannot be analyzed or understood by science. I agree with sentence 2.
  • "I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party."
  • The New Atheists have not done their homework. Ruse: "I think if you want to show that science and religion are inherently in contradiction, then you should show why people like Kuhn (and indeed Foucault) are wrong about the nature of science.  That I think is morally wrong, namely taking positions with major political and social implications, without doing your serious homework.  Just mentioning Galileo’s troubles with the Church or Thomas Henry Huxley’s debate with the Bishop of Oxford is no true substitute for hard thinking."
  • "What is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism. The least curious of them all is Christopher Hitchens."
  • The central insight of the New Atheists is: "Unless you as an atheist are willing to disparage all religious people, describe them all as imbeciles and creeps, mock every text and thinker they have ever produced, then you must be some sort of deluded, self-hating, sellout, subverting the rise of the Mighty Atheist Political Juggernaut (about which more anon)." The NH's have breathed life into those chapters in logic texts that explain things like ad hominem abusive.
  • "The New Atheists are a disaster and a danger to the well being of atheism in America. American atheists—a thoughtful, diverse, and long-suffering cohort—have seen this all before. Atheism has never been a force in American politics or cultural life and a lot of it has to do with poor choices and leadership. In fact, atheism is still trying to dig out from the self-inflicted damage caused by its mid-century embrace of American communism."
  • "New Atheism is the least intellectually rigorous form of atheism out there, much in the way Tea Party platforms are like the Non-Thinking Man’s form of libertarianism or anti-federalism." (Note: I have spent virtually no time studying the Tea Party movement. I have nothing meaningful to say either for or against it. As for intellectualy rigorous forms of atheism, they are out there. Check any philosophy of religion text used in a university. The one I use will do for starters.),
  • The New Atheists talk of secularism. But, as Berlinerblau points out, "The roots of the political ideology of secularism, as any graduate student in the field can tell you, are profoundly and unambiguously Christian. Without Christianity it is awfully hard to imagine how ideas like separation of Church and State and disestablishment could have come to fruition in the late 18th century. The New Atheists seem unaware of all this or incapable of acknowledging it and that’s because their dogma forces them at every turn to discredit anything produced within religious systems of thought. Of course, if you read some of the scholarly works cited above you will learn that atheism too is a product of religious thought. But I fear this may be too much for the New Atheists to digest in one sitting."
  • The NH's have "Unbelievable Amounts of White Dudes." "The New Atheist Movement has pulled off the impressive feat of being less diverse than the Tea Party." Come on - that is really funny no matter what side of this discussion you are on!

  • Berlinerblau, while he thinks Bill Maher's "Real Time is quite good," writes of Maher's "smackdown of Islam that could just as well come from the Tea Party Training Manual." "Maher’s gratuitous assault on the Quran and Islam epitomizes everything that people hate about New Atheism. Not least of which is the know-nothing approach to religious critique. Maher’s source in advancing his critique of Islam and its sacred text? Bernard Lewis? John Esposito? Ira Lapidus? Abdullahi An-Na’im? None of the above. The authority he cited was Sam Harris." Now that...  is funny. Just think about it. Think, e.g., of Harvard using Sam Harris in a course on Islam.
  • I find this funnier. On: "The Whole Tolerance Thing: Had the New Atheists read their Locke it might have struck them that tolerance is a secular virtue too. I mention this because I spend a lot of time addressing liberal religious audiences (liberal in the theological sense, though they are often politically liberal as well). These would be the same religious moderates that the New Atheists never cease to excoriate. In Harris’ memorable words: “the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist.”" Here is someone who simply does not understand... 
  • "I have learned that they generally view the New Atheists as being every bit as loony, ignorant, and mean-spirited as the religious conservatives" they rant against. 
  • The NH's have accomplished nothing politically. "Say what you will about the Tea Party, but they get themselves elected to office. As for the New Atheists, they sell books and write op-ed pieces, but what have they accomplished politically? A few weeks back I pointed to a study that showed that not one (!) of the 535 members of the House and Senate self-described as an atheist.
  • Now watch this... and again, very, very funny. "New Atheism is not a functioning political movement. The grassroots infrastructure is nearly non-existent. The numbers are a source of constant debate, but in any case quite low. In his “Bright Manifesto” of 2004, Professor Dennett spoke of 27 million would-be Brights who were—don’t make us come back there!—poised for political action. That figure was clearly off. The only question was whether it was off by 20 million, 25 million, 26 million, or more." (I've yet to personally meet a really bright "Bright." Just calling oneself a "Bright" does not make one bright. But I've met atheists, haven't I? Yes. But the professor/scholar ones I've met want nothing to do with the "Bright" movement, just as Ruse disclaims it. An atheist can be bright. Ruse argues that the "Brights" are not so bright. And just think of the psychology of self-referential brightness. Is this not the logical implication of calling religious people idiots?)
  • So what is "New Atheism" anyway? I think it's getting old. But it's left a mess, and I do clean-up work in my classes. Berlinerblau writes: "I prefer to see New Atheism as a lucrative media platform, an agitation collective that permits a few dozen cross-promoting writers (and is there anything more amusing than One of Four Horseman giving a collegial shout out to the other Three Horseman?) to sell books and build professional networks." Note how something can be funny and true at the same time. 
  • One more (as I see it) truth from Berlinerblau: "I have never debated a New Atheist. Most of the scholars of atheism and secularism with whom I converse haven’t debated them either. For whatever it’s worth, New Atheists seem a lot happier debating religious fundamentalists than anyone else." Which is why my atheist professors dialogued with me, listened to me, explained their ideas to me, questioned things within their own admittedly inconsistent worldview, and thereby impacted me.

My Sermons On-line

If you are interested some of my sermons at Redeemer can be found here.

And on Itunes. Type in either my name or "Redeemer Fellowship." They are, of course, free.

College Students, Entitlement, and Irrationality

Monroe
Elayne Clift, in The Chronicle of Higher Education ( "From Students, A Misplaced Sense of Entitlement" ),  writes that:

"Every college teacher I know is bemoaning the same kind of thing. Whether it's rude behavior, lack of intellectual rigor, or both, we are all struggling with the same frightening decline in student performance and academic standards at institutions of higher learning. A sense of entitlement now pervades the academy, excellence be damned.


Increasingly, students seem not to realize what a college degree, especially a graduate degree, tells the world about one's abilities and competence. They have no clue what is expected of them at the higher levels of academic discourse and what will be expected of them in the workplace. Having passed through a deeply flawed education system in which no one is paying attention to critical thinking and writing skills, they just want to know what they have to do to make their teachers tick the box that says "pass." After all, that's what all their other teachers have done. (Let the next guy worry about it.)

When teachers refuse to lower standards, those students seem to resort to a new code of conduct that includes acted-out rage, lack of respect, and blame."

I've had little rudeness in my 11 years of college teaching. I find most students polite. If, however, a professor does not sufficiently "profess" then one should expect student anger to rise.

I do see:
  • Occasional complaints that my courses are too demanding, accompanied by that sense of entitlement which expresses shock that college should be so hard.
  • A great lack of preparedness to think critically. This concerns me. A tsunami of irrationality is now upon us. I don't see an end in sight to the waves of unreason.
  • Every student should now be required to take a course or two in logic and critical thinking.
  • This applies across the board, to atheists, theists, "Christians," etc. Precious few post-high-schoolers are able to evaluate anything. (I now think of our local newspaper's online "Philosophy & Religion" chat room where critical thinking has for the most part gone on vacation.)

Azusa Street As a Postmodern Revival & the Power of Testimony

Redeemer
I'm reading two killer books right now - Eugene Peterson's The Pastor, and James K. A. Smith's Thinking in Tongues.

Here's Smith on the value of giving "testimonies" in pentecostal worship. "Making room for testimony is central to pentecostal spirituality precisely because narrative is central to pentecostal identity." Pentecostal Jesus-followers assume "that their personal faith stories have normative implications for others."

Smith says "this narrative function of testimony is bound up in the very DNA of Pentecost" in Acts 2. Peter and the others makes sense "of their experience by weaving it into a larger received narrative to be able to say "this is that"; such as, e.g., Acts 2:16, pointing to Joel 2:28-32. Pentecostalism situates phenomena within narrative. Our personal stories are written "into the larger story of God's redemption." As I think N.T. Wright would say, we Jesus-followers now live out our lives in Act V of the Grand Narrative; viz., "The New Testament and the People of God."

Smith quotes Grant Wacker: "The testimony forcefully asserted that the believer's passage on this earth formed part of a magnificent drama in which cosmic good vanquished evil... Each person's private struggles somehow soared above the merely private and reappeared in a framework that spanned the millennia."

This morning at Redeemer we had testimonies. A lot of them. My associate pastor Josh Bentley asked for people to come forward and share something that had happened to them that strengthened their faith in God. A lot of good stuff was shared. Afterwards some people told me how much the testimonies meant to them. One young woman said, "When I came to church today I was down. Those testimonies were exactly what I needed to hear." My wife Linda expressed how God wove these stories into the entire worship experience. I agree. They were faith-building and encouraging, and moving. It is a good thing to be moved once in a while.

Now watch this. Can you believe what Smith the philosopher is going to do?! He is going to "now consider the philosophical ramifications of this pentecostal "understanding." I want to particularly consider the tacit epistemic commitments that are embedded in the pentecostal practice and experience of testimony, to consider the inchoate "understanding of understanding" at work in the pentecostal claim that "I know that I know that I know." In particular, I want to suggest that at work here is a kind of proto-postmodern intuition about knowledge that constitutes a *performative critique of modern criteria of knowledge - a pentecostal critique of the rationalism (or cognitivism or "intellectualism") that characterizes modern accounts of knowledge. Pentecostal practice can function as a sort of countermodernity. Thus there are elements of a pentecostal worldview that resonate with a "postmodern" critique of autonomous reason such that we might see Azusa Street as a postmodern revival."

For Smith:
  • "pentecostal testimony and experience constitute an implicit critique of rationalism.
  • "the function of story and narrative carries within it fundamental epistemic commitments"
  • "give the centrality of affect and imagination in pentecostal narrative and testimony" Smith will provide "a tentative outline for a pentecostal aesthetics."
I find all of this brilliant and illuminating. And, BTW, one of the testimonies given this morning had the person saying, as they asked God for a certain thing to happen, "I know that I know that I know" God will provide.

(I read, as an undergraduate in philosophy, J.L. Austin's How to Do Things With Words, and there learned about "performative utterances"; viz., language that does something.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Islam in Detroit - Tonight on CNN

Tonight at 8 PM on CNN there will be a special - Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door.”

I've met  area Muslim leaders and visited and toured the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn.

It is estimated that there are a half million Muslims in the Detroit area.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Is Belief in Hell Necessary for Salvation?

New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg writes:

"A good friend who read my last blog on the need to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be saved, according to Romans 10:9-10, asked me if I thought the same was true for hell. After all, if there is no hell to be saved from, what’s the point of the atonement, much less the resurrection?"

His answer is here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

America's Divorce Culture

See "Once Rare in Rural America, Divorce Is Changing the Face of Its Families."

This article says what all pastors already know; viz., divorce is rampant in America. We are a divorce culture. Even in rural, once divorce-proof counties in Iowa, the dovirce rate has increased 7-fold since 1970.

"Values have changed, easing the stigma of divorce."

In Sioux County, Iowa, “ars are washed, lawns are mowed in patterns and children are smiling,” but beneath it all lies marital chaos.

If you're a pastor and want to host a marriage-saving conference with a lot of substance and quality I strongly recommend contacting Craig Miller. We had Craig with us in the fall - it was excellent!





Nietzsche As Authentic Atheist

Coffee, in Nairobi
Adam Scarfe reviews Ian Markham's Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are Fundamentally Wrong in Ars Disputandi. I am especially interested in Markham's use of Nietzsche as exemplary of authentic atheism. I have long felt this. Here is Scarfe's explanation.
  • "Markham denigrates his New Atheist opponents as espousing a ‘cozy’ form of ‘middle-class university’ or ‘Oxbridge atheism’ (45; 27; 146), whereas he feels that the atheism of Nietzsche is far more authentic in that it truly recognizes the full ramifications of the death of God."
  • "Nietzsche was right to point out that language, knowledge, truth, rationality, morality, art, and religion must also be interpreted as chance inventions of nature, namely, as random outcomes of evolutionary processes." Knowledge, truth, and morality are thus useful "metaphysical fictions" in terms of the purpose of survival, but themselves are neither objective nor real.
  •  "For Nietzsche, knowledge, truth, and morality are manifestations of the will-to-power, the underlying drive of life to appropriate from other beings and to increase its power over its environment. Markham charges that if Nietzsche is correct, then rationality and the discourse of science, two things that the New Atheists’ emphasize so highly in distinguishing themselves from religious believers, are also reducible to the biological interpretation, and have no objective foundation." But new Atheists still believe in the possibility of the human mind to accurately describe the world, and that some worldviews are truer than others. "In short, for Markham, the New Atheists have forgotten the biological origin of rationality and science, thereby failing to consider both the full ramifications of their position as well as its logical self-reflexivity. In so doing, while proclaiming that humans have evolved through natural selection, the New Atheists na├»vely assume the God’s eye view, namely, an objective space outside of their biological makeup, thereby ‘advocate[ing] an atheism that doesn’t really challenge anything’ (146)." 
  • Our real choice is between "God and rationality," and the Nietzschean route "with a full realization of its colossal ramifications for human existence." And the latter is?: on atheism the belief that the human mind can accurately describe the world is itself a metaphysical fiction that is reducible to a biological explanation, which is about survival (and not "truth").  

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Organized Religion Will Die Out in 9 Countries?

Read about it here.

Read to the end, where Peter Berger is quoted:

"Abrams, Wiener and Yaple are not the first to predict the end of religion. Peter Berger, a former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, once said that, "People will become so bored with what religious groups have to offer that they will look elsewhere." He said Protestantism "has reached the strange state of self-liquidation," that Catholicism was in severe crisis, and anticipated that "religions are likely to survive in small enclaves and pockets" in the United States.

He made those predictions in February 1968."

Cmp. Harvey Cox's similar prediction in his book The Secular City. (Now selling for 72 cents on amazon.com.) Cox recanted here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lisa Long Preaches Tomorrow at Redeemer Ministry School

RMS student Lisa Long preaches tomorrow morning.

Worship led by Linda and myself at 9.

Lisa preaches at 9:30.

Some Problems with Moral Relativism

Monroe

Here are some thoughts on CUNY philosophy professor Jesse Prinz's essay "Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response."


Prinz writes in support of moral relativism, and against the existence of objective moral values. He says that moral relativists believe conflicting moral beliefs can both be true. They just occupy different moral worldviews.


"Morals vary dramatically across time and place. One group’s good can be another group’s evil." Sociologically this seems true. It "seems" true only because of the word "dramatically." That is debatable, as Prinz acknowledges while ultimately disagreeing with it. Some cultures like to kill for pleasure. To such cultures killing for pelasure is a moral good. Such a moral good is "good for them." OK. No problem here.


Priniz says that moral variation is best explained by assuming that morality, unlike science, is not based on reason or observation. What, then, is morality based on? To answer this, we need to consider how morals are learned. It's with this turn that he heads towards the genetic fallacy.


For Prinz, objectivist theories of morality fail. Objectivism holds that there is one true morality binding upon all of us. To defend such a view, the objectivist must offer a theory of where morality comes from, such that it can be universal in this way. But I think this is false. Having discovered objective moral values [such as Hitler's killing of six million Jews was morally wrong even though he thought it was morally right], one can reason that God is the best explanation for such values. To do this is not to provide a defense for them, but an explanation. The two are different.


Prinz thinks that the following Objectivist allegation is false: Relativism entails that we have no way to criticize Hitler. His reasoning is:



"First of all, Hitler’s actions were partially based on false beliefs, rather than values (‘scientific’ racism, moral absolutism, the likelihood of world domination). Second, the problem with Hitler was not that his values were false, but that they were pernicious. Relativism does not entail that we should tolerate murderous tyranny. When someone threatens us or our way of life, we are strongly motivated to protect ourselves."


But we cannot, on moral relativism, say that Hitler was “wrong.” Because, as Prinz has already stated, moral relativists believe conflicting moral beliefs can both be true. They just occupy different moral worldviews. I don’t see how, on moral relativism, Hitler can be "criticized." Killing Jews was, simply, “true for him.”


Prinz thinks this Objectivist allegation is false: Relativism entails that moral debates are senseless, since everyone is right. He reasons:



"This is a major misconception. Many people have overlapping moral values, and one can settle debates by appeal to moral common ground. We can also have substantive debates about how to apply and extend our basic values. Some debates are senseless, however. Committed liberals and conservatives rarely persuade each other, but public debates over policy can rally the base and sway the undecided."


But again, if conflicting moral beliefs can both be true, what is the point or hoped-for outcome of having “substantive debates about how to apply and extend our basic values”? Why would we want to do that? Or, would we feel we should do that since one group’s basic values are wrong?


Prinz also rejects this Objectivist allegation: Relativism doesn’t allow moral progress. He reasons:

"In one sense this is correct; moral values do not become more true. But they can become better by other criteria. For example, some sets of values are more consistent and more conducive to social stability. If moral relativism is true, morality can be regarded as a tool, and we can think about what we’d like that tool to do for us and revise morality accordingly."


But is “social stability” good? Surely not good for everyone, since not everyone believes so. So to say that “some sets of values are more consistent and more conducive to social stability” seems no different than saying some weather conditions are more conducive to producing thunderstorms. OK. But so what? Surely a thunderstorm is not an improvement over previous weather conditions. When a thunderstorm comes one does not say “Now we’re making progress.” The very idea of progress makes little sense if there is no shared goal towards which we are progressing, and which we all value. Therein lies a problem with moral relativism; viz.; talking of “progress” without a shared goal that is objective.


He concludes:


"Relativism does not entail tolerance or any other moral value, but, once we see that there is no single true morality, we lose one incentive for trying to impose our values on others."

If moral relativism were true, then of course. Therefore, we should not try to impose our moral values on a Hitler.

Monday, March 21, 2011

What Preaching Is & Is Not

Our house, built in 1863
Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5: When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

The new Jesus-followers in Corinth were enamored with brilliant, eloquent speakers. Paul didn't bring that to the table when he preached. Some said of Paul: “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” (2 Cor. 10:10)

Paul was a lousy speaker. He preached, and his purpose was not to be on TV. We had a pastor in our community many years ago who thought he was a great preacher. Call him Pastor John Doe. (Not his real name...) His church actually put this advertisement in our newspaper: "Come to our church and hear Pastor John Doe preach!" The ad included a photo of Pastor Doe in a powerful preaching pose. (Let your imagination wander here...)

Once Paul was teaching in an upper room in Troas. Paul had to leave the next day, so he talked on and on until midnight. (Acts 20:7) But Paul was boring. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. (Acts 20:9) Imagine living in Troas in the first century. Someone asks, "Who did you hear preach last night?" Answer: "Paul." Boring! And dangerous.

What did Paul bring to the table? A message. Paul was the bearer of a message. Nothing more, nothing less. If the message is significant and important and even life-changing, the package the message comes in means nothing.

Our house was built in 1863. I think that's when our shingles were put on, too. Our roof was leaking. There was no way we could afford a new roof on our house. I just prayed we would make it another year. Our old farm house had only one gutter on it which was installed, I think, by General George Custer himself (Custer's home is a few hundred yards away from ours). I called a local roofer to give me an estimate on the ancient gutter. He came over and looked at it. He then said, "I'm a follower of Jesus, and God told me to give you a new roof." When he said this he didn't shout, he didn't pull out a handkerchief and prowl back and forth on our front lawn grunting the "hoop," he didn't speak in Shakespearean English, he didn't pause dramatically, he wasn't especially eloquent and didn't strike me as exceptionally brilliant. But he had a message from God, and delivered it to me. I called Linda outside and told her. We both had tears in our eyes. A month later the roofers came. I look at this roof nearly every day and thank God for that man.

It's all about the message, not the medium. The message of "Christ crucified" was what Paul brought to the table. With it came a demonstration, not of human ability, but of the power of God.

Preachers are only the bearers of the message. That message, from God, is earth-shattering. Real preaching delivers a word from God. That's all that's needed. And that's all Paul resolved to know.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Redeemer Ministry School Spring Trimester Begins This Week!

Redeemer Ministry School's Spring Trimester begins this Tuesday.


If you are not a full-time RMS student you can still take inidividual classes. If you are interested in one of the following classes please call the Redeemer office (734-242-5277).

Tuesday, 9:30-1 - Kingdom of God III: History of the Moves of God. Taught by Josh Bentley.

Wednesday, 9:30-1 - Apologetics. Taught by John Piippo.

Thursday, 9:30-1 - Worship III: Creativity in Worship. Taught by Holly Benner and Gary Wilson.

Thursday, 5 - 7 - Leadership. Taught by Jim Hunter.

(In this Wednesday's Apologetics class I will answer the question: How Can a Loving God Allow People to Go to Hell?)

Next Sunday at Redeemer

Monroe
Next Sunday morning at Redeemer I will be preaching on 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. I LOVE THESE VERSES!

I'll be studying them all week. I'll carry them with me and pull them out and read them often. I will meditate on them. When God speaks to me I'll write it down in my journal. I will pray these verses. I need to hear God spoeak to me through them. And I'll turn to commentaries on them by N.T. Wright, Craig Blomberg, Gordon Fee, Fee again, Richard Hayes, and Ben Witherington.

I invige you to join me. If God speaks to you about them or through them shoot me an e-mail. Let's see what God will do!

Which reads:

1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.

Rob Bell &... Purgatory?

I've read Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I agree with him on some things, and disagree on others. That's perfectly OK with him because likes dialogue, and that's good. It is a good thing for Jesus-followers to be in dialogue with one another. 

Rob writes: "Some communities don't permit open, honest inquiry about things that matter most." This is true. There are indeed Christian communities where no questioning or wondering about one's faith is allowed. Thomas could doubt. We can't. Bell says: "There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous." True. For Jesus, that is. For people, it's a different story.

The year was 1980. I am pastor of First Baptist Church in Joliet, Illinois. I was teaching a Sunday evening Bible study on the book of Revelation. We talked about different views of the Second Coming of Christ. Whereas at one time I was uncritically accepting of Hal Lindsay's eschatology in his Late, Great Planet Earth, I had changed my mind. The change came from actually studying Scripture. I shared, on that evening, that I disagreed with Lindsay, and thought another view and interpretation of Revelation was more accurate.

That was when the attack came. A man named Bill (not his real name) was so angry with me that he came and stood directly in front of me, placed his face a few inches from mine, and yelled so loud at me that the veins on his neck were exposed. I was, to Bill, Satan incarnate! When Linda and I left that evening, I was shook. Couldn't we just talk about this? For Bill, no. No dialogue about this one was allowed. I was branded, by him (but not the others who were there), a heretic.

Rob has the right to dialogue and question. Why freak out about this?

As I read the book I found some things, for the sake of dialogue, that I disagree with. Here's one.

Rob's idea is that "God’s love is so big that the invitation to God’s grace may extend into the next life so that all could be saved." (See Mars Hill's Q&A here.) Rob writes: "Much of the speculation about heaven - and, more important, the confusion - comes from the idea that in the blink of an eye we will automatically become totally different people who "know" everything. But our heart, our character, our desires, our longings - those things take time."


I think not. When Rob uses the word "may" then, of course, it "may." But that is speculation. And, I think, unfaithful to the text. So is "heaven" a purgatory? That I will enter heaven in the spiritual and psychological and even bodily (?) condition in which I die on this earth? That I'll be as troubled during my initial heavenly existence as I was the last moments on earth? While this is logically possible, I see it as textually improbable.

This sounds a bit like theistic philosopher John Hick, who argued for earth as a place of "soul-making." But not heaven.

Will I get ticked off at you while I am in heaven, with God, in the fullness of the Age to Come? Will not the next life be a face-to-face encounter with God, as opposed to our current see-through-a-glass darkly" existence?

The texts Bell cites in support of this, with words that sound confident, do not support this reasoning. It is... itself... speculation.

Rob often does a good job of going to the actual biblical texts. I don't think he can strongly support the idea of a kind of purgatorial state in the afterlife. I think he takes the awesome truth of God as Love and works too hard to logically extend this into an orthodoxy that is, textually, way too generous.


One more thing. I love Rob Bell.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Godfather of Porn Comes to Church

Some of us have followed XXXchurch for some time, even downloading their anti-porn accountability software on our computers.

My friend Andy just sent me a link to this video that has Ron Jeremy, who is known as "the Godfather of Porn," dialogue with XXXchurch pastor Craig Gross, in a church worship service.

Jeremy and Gross are friends, and travel and speak-debate on college campuses.

It's a good watch.

And, if you're struggling with porn go to XXXchurch's website for help.

Worship & Prayer Tonight at Redeemer - 6 PM

TONIGHT...SATURDAY NIGHT


WORSHIP INTERCESSION NIGHT @ REDEEMER!

6:00-8:00 PM

We will spend time in worship and interceding for the coming Furious Love Event happening April 6th-9th.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

(More on) God, Earthquakes, and Tsunamis

William Lane Craig, in Hard Questions, Real Answers, asks re. the problem of evil, "What about natural evil?" From a Christian noetic framework we can answer this way.

First, "it is important to see how inextricably intertwined natural evil is with human, moral evil." If there were no human, moral evil there was a natural evil event such as a drought in Ethiopia, then the world would rush to the aid of the people there to prevent famine. "The wealth of the world would be largely redistributed, instead of being hoarded in the materialistic Western nations, As a result, disease would greatly diminish, medical care would be more readily available, and people would live in decent housing instead of shacks or shoddily constructed tenement houses that are demolished in natural catastrophes."

Yes, terrible natural evils would still be with us. Accidents would still happen. But if there were not human, moral evil, many natural evils would disappear or be greatly reduced. We would, out of love and care, make room in our relatively earthquake-free areas for people who live in the "ring of fire."

Second, "a world of containing gratuitous natural evils may be necessary for people to come to a knowledge of God... Perhaps it is just a fact that only in a world containing pointless natural suffering would people turn to God. Who knows? It may be that God has created a world containing natural evils that don't contribute to any higher good in this life but which serve as the context in which He knew people would freely believe and trust in Him."

Third, "God may have simply created a world operating physically according to certain natural laws and then, for the most part, sat back and let nature run its course." It would not be wrong of Him to allow natural evils, "for in the afterlife He rewards with an incommensurable good those who endure in faith those natural afflictions."

Here it would be good to read for yourself the examples Craig adds to explain this kind of reasoning. But note this. One accusation against Christians is that the existence of an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God does not rationally cohere with the existence of natural evil. Craig writes, re. this: "Since the problem is being presented as an internal problem for the Christian, there  is illicit about the Christian's availing himself of all the resources of his worldview in answering this objection." Of course the atheist does not believe in an afterlife that contains an incommensurable good. But this is a claim within the Christian theistic worldview. This claim helps me make sense of the existence of natural evil. The real, underlying issue to then be debated is re. the theistic vs. atheistic worldview.

My Apologetics Class at Redeemer Ministry School Tomorrow

Tomorrow (3/16) I'll begin teaching my Apologetics class in Redeemer Ministry School.
We'll meet at Panera Bread at 9:30 AM. NO WORSHIP TOMORROW.

RMS students get treated to coffee and bagels.

I am going to teach on: How can we explain the earthquake and tsunami and all the devastation in light of our belief in God? Why would God allow such a thing?

Monday, March 14, 2011

God, Earthquakes, & Tsunamis

Monroe
In my MCCC Philosophy of Religion classes I am now teaching the section on the argument from evil against the existence of God. I think the free will defense adequately answers the problem of moral evil. But what about the problem of natural evil? What about, e.g., the recent devastating events in Japan where largest earthquake ever recorded hit and then triggered a tsunami? As I’m now writing this thousands of deaths have been confirmed, with surely more to follow. If there is an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God, where was he and where is he in all of this? Does this catastrophe and others like it argue against the existence of the God of theism?


Sadly, this catastrophe is not some new kind of thing. History is filled with natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, tornados, and diseases such as smallpox, malaria, polio, and cancer. Add to this congenital disabilities such as muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. We see the results of accidents and injuries such as drownings, burnings, etc. etc.. As I write millions around the world are facing starvation. Theists such as myself ask “God, how could you permit such things?” Atheists cite such examples as arguing against the existence of the theistic God.

Most people try to make sense of life when gratuitous suffering strikes them. Recently, I’ve found William Lane Craig’s two chapters in his book Hard Questions, Real Answers helpful. Here’s a summary of his reasoning on the problem of natural evil. As always, read these chapters for yourself to get a fuller picture. (All quotes from Bill’s book unless otherwise indicated.)

The question is: “In light of the quantity and nature of the suffering brought on by human or natural causes, how can it be that an all-powerful, all-good God exists?”

Bill distinguishes between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. The former concerns how to give a rational explanation of God and evil; the latter concerns how to comfort those who are suffering from such evil. Bill’s focus is on the intellectual problem of evil.

The intellectual problem of evil can be formulated in two ways; viz., either as an internal problem or as an external problem. The internal problem is about whether “the Christian worldview is somehow at odds with itself.” Is there an inner tension within the Christian worldview? The external problem concerns providing evidence against the truth of the Christian worldview.

The internal problem of evil takes two forms: the logical version and the probabilistic version. I’m going to pass on the former for now. Bill deals with it. I’ve written about it on my website. It’s mostly understood, even by atheists such as William Rowe, that the logical argument fails to disprove the existence of the theistic God.

I think the free will defense answers the probabilistic argument re. moral evil. I will focus on the probabilistic argument re. natural evil. Bill deals with all of these in Hard Questions. I am personally most interested in how he handles the problem of natural evil as providing an inductive (probabilistic) argument against God’s existence. Given theism, why does God permit natural evils like earthquakes and tsunamis to occur? They seem, to us, pointless and gratuitous. What can we say about this?

First, we should not isolate the problem of natural evil from the bigger picture. Craig says that “a Christian could actually admit that the problem of evil, taken in isolation, does make God’s existence improbable.” We Christian theists can ourselves wonder and ask “Why this?” But we do not need to, indeed should not, isolate the issue of natural evil from evidence that is relative to God’s existence. And what evidence would that be? Craig cites:

• The ontological argument for a maximally great being

• The [kalam] cosmological argument for a Creator of the universe

• The fine-tuning argument for an intelligent Designer of the cosmos

• The noological argument for an ultimate Mind

• The axiological (moral) argument for an ultimate, personally embodied Good

• Evidence concerning the person of Christ

• The historicity of the resurrection

• The existence of miracles

• Personal existential and religious experience

Craig writes: “When we take into account the full scope of the evidence, the existence of God becomes quite probable…. [T]he scales are at least even or tipped in favor of Christianity.”

Again, taken in isolation, natural evil poses a problem for theism. But that doesn’t make God’s existence improbable. When the total scope of evidence is considered “the scales are at least even or tip in favor of Christianity… If one insists that God exists, then there is no problem that this belief is improbable relative to the evil in the world.” Craig writes: “Even if God’s existence is improbable relative to the evil in the world alone, that does not make God’s existence improbable, for balancing off the negative evidence from evil is the positive evidence for God’s existence.”

Second, we don’t ourselves have reasonable epistemic access to judge whether or not God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting such evil. We cannot be certain that moral and natural evils really are pointless and gratuitous. Maybe they fit into the bigger picture. “According to the biblical scheme of things, God is directing human history toward His previsioned ends. Now can you imagine the complexity of planning and directing a world of free creatures toward some end without violating their freedom?” Assessments of probability with regard to evil can be very difficult and even impossible. “Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us – but we are simply not in a position to judge.” There are “inherent cognitive limitations that frustrate attempts to say that it is improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting some particular evil.” As philosopher Stephen Wykstra has written, we do not have reasonable “epistemic access” to judge such things.

Third, on Christian theism the chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God. God’s role is not to provide a comfortable environment for us, His human pets. (See John Hick’s “soul-making theodicy.”) “Many evils occur in life which may be utterly pointless with respect to the goal of producing human happiness; but they not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper knowledge of God.” “It may well be the case that natural and moral evils are part of the means God uses to draw people into His kingdom.”

Fourth, humanity is in a state of rebellion against God and His purpose. Jesus-followers are not surprised at the evil in the world. On the contrary, we expect it. And, on a Christian worldview, “there is a realm of beings higher than man also in rebellion against God, demonic creatures, incredibly evil, in whose power the creation lies (1 John 5:19) and who seeks to destroy God’s work and thwart His purposes.” So, as a Jesus-follower, I am not surprised that there are moral and natural evils. Remember that the encounter with Satan lies at the heart of the Jesus-story. Greg Boyd, e.g., in Satan and the Problem of Evil, makes a case for demonic activity influencing natural events.

Of course this is all foolishness to many. It was once foolishness to me, too. But whether or not there are demons is a function of one’s worldview. And within the Christian theistic worldview which I embrace, powers of evil exist.

Fifth, God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternal life. Paul, e.g., suffered from natural disasters like we do. He apparently had a debilitating illness. He was involved in three separate shipwrecks. While traveling through the Roman Empire “Paul was constantly in danger from both human enemies and natural disasters.” In his own words he suffered “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger.” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5) And yet Paul was not bitter towards God. Because he believed that the sufferings of this present life could not be compared to the glory that was going to be revealed to him in heaven. (Romans 8:18) Craig says that “one reason the problem of evil seems so intractable to us today is because we no longer live in this perspective.” If we believe that we only go around once in this life then we will grab for all the gusto we can get. If God exists, and this life is the only life there is, then it seems hard to understand why there would be any suffering.

Sixth, the knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. “What C.S. Lewis called “the weight of glory” is so great that it is literally beyond comparison with the sufferings we endure. “Thus, the person who knows God, no matter what he suffers, no matter how often his pain, can still truly say, “God is good to me!” simply by virtue of the fact that he knows God, an incommensurable good.”

What, then, can the Christian theist say in response to natural evils like the recent earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan?

• This event was truly horrendous and sad. Our hearts and prayers go out to all those who are now suffering loss.

• That such events have happened and will happen does not contradict a Christian worldview.

• Why did God allow this particular event to happen? I don’t know. Because, for one reason, I am not the all-knowing God. I can say this without an internal-worldview contradictoriness, since within any worldview there are unknowable and unanswerable things. Atheism is no exception. Epistemic access is limited no matter what the worldview. Craig says, “If the Christian story is true, then we don’t need to know.” I think it is true. So while I may want to at times know I don’t need to know. Note: this is not “blind faith.” It is, for me, a reasonable faith based on proofs I find convincing re. God’s existence, the evidence for the historical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and past and ongoing personal experience with God.

• We must not isolate such examples of evil from the bigger picture we hold to independently of such evil. For example, Linda and I lost one of our sons at birth. I held his dead body in my hands. I don’t think I have ever felt such pain and grief. This did not shake my faith in God. In fact, our testimony was this: If we did not have God to turn to in a time like this, what would be do? Probably I would be an alcoholic or drug addict. I have met many, many people who have responded to catastrophe in this way. In fact, the early Jesus-followers of the Bible responded this way, too.

• I remember Romans 8:18. This was one of the very first Bible verses that got into me. It’s not only in my head, it’s in my heart. I consider that the present sufferings I am going through are not worthy of being compared to the glory that will be revealed to me in heaven. I believe Christ rose, historically, from the dead, and that I can partake of his resurrection. I do not believe this life is my only life.

• The point of the whole thing, on Christian theism, is to know and be known by God. God loves us. Our calling is to love God in return. This is what we were made for.

• In spite of life’s present losses and suffering I have experienced the love of God, to me. As William James knew, such personal religious experience have a noetic quality. They have the right to be “absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come."

• I agree with theistic philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder, who points out that “the problem of evil is thus a problem only for the person who finds all its premises and inferences compelling and who has lousy grounds for believing in God; but if one has more compelling grounds for believing in God, then the problem of evil is ‘not a problem’.” (Craig; citing Howard-Snyder’s The Evidential Argument from Evil)

Redeemer Ministry School Students Preaching Tomorrow

You are invited to come to our sanctuary tomorrow morning (3/15) to hear RMS students Serena Robinson and Danielle Willingham preach. This fulfills their assignment in my RMS Preaching/Teaching class.


Linda and I will lead worship from 9 - 9:25 AM.

Then Serena and Danielle will preach.

Thank you for you prayers for them!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Avail Yourself of the God Positioning System


Monroe County
 I remember, as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, reading Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea. I read it on the recommendation of one of my favorite philosophy teachers, Michael Gelven. Gelven really knew his existentialism, and I was attracted to its themes of meaninglessness and absurdity in light of the absence of God. Even though I had recently come to believe in God, I was convinced that the atheistic existentialists had it right about life's "meaning" in light of God's non-existence. That is, if God did not exist, then everything is possible (since there are no objective moral values). Existentialists, reacting to Hegelian-type rationalism, emphasized the limits of human reason. Human reason, on atheism, has serious, big-time limitations.

One of the novel's characters never left me; viz., that of the "Self-Taught Man." He spends his life in a library with the goal of reading all the books in alphabetical order. By doing this he thinks he can learn all there is to know. This is a foolish task, because he spends a lifetime but never even gets out of the letter 'A'. Everything the Self-Taught Man knows he has gotten from a book. If it's not written in a book, then it's not real for him. His obviously failed attempt to know everything is absurd, as is life for Antoine Roquentin, the main character of Nausea.

One time, 25 years ago, I made a trip to my favorite bookstore in the world. It's the Seminary
Co-op Bookstore at Chicago Theological Seminary, which is next to the University of Chicago. I almost did my doctoral work at U of Chicago Divinity School (but chose Northwestern U.) At that time U-C's divinity school had these professors: Paul Ricoeur, Martin Marty, Langdon Gilkey, and David Tracy to name a few. They had all influenced me, esp. Ricoeur. On a visit to U-C I was introduced to Martin Marty. I was in on office. His desk was piled with books. I thought, "This is my kind of environment!" U-C's divinity school used the Seminary Co-op Bookstore as their own. This bookstore had the ultimate feast of theological and philosophical texts, unlike any other I had ever seen. There is a lot of learnedness in this place and I want to swim in it.

On that day, long ago, when I walked into my kind of bookstore, I had an "Antoine Roquentin Nausea" experience. (Really, a mini-nausea experience, not one of full-blown existential angst.) I looked at all these books, old ones and brand new ones, and saw that, among the thousands of academic texts, I had read very few. There was the table with all the new publications, displaying books holding recent research and  fresh reasoning. Of the books on that table I had read not one. I felt ignorant. I am, and we are.

Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset once called scientists "learned ignoramuses." He wrote, in The Revolt of the Masses:

“Previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty; but neither is he ignorant, because he is ‘a scientist’, and ‘knows’ very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus...a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line....That state of ‘not listening’, of not submitting to higher courts of appeal which I have repeatedly put forward as characteristic of the mass-man, reaches its height precisely in these partially qualified men.”


We are all, more or less, learned ignoramuses. We're all, when it comes to knowledge, partially qualified. And that, I am certain, is an understatement. We may have moments when we feel we know a lot. These moments are delusions.

I have met a few people in my life that I found truly brilliant. One was Reginald Allen. Arguably he was the greatest Plato scholar in the world. Which meant he was also one of the top Aristotle scholars in the world. I was one of six Northwestern U. doctoral students in his seminar on Aristotle's Metaphysics. I knew I was in for something special when the occasional N.U. professor dropped in just to hear Allen lecture and teach. One day, e.g., the brilliant philosopher Ed Curley sat in the class. We sat around a large wooden table, in heavy wooden chairs, with the walls lined with books. Dr.Allen would walk in and begin to teach. He knew the entire thing in its original Greek. I thought, "I have never seen anything like this before." I was in the presence of human brilliance. And I liked him as a person, too. But in reality he was but another learned ignoramus like myself. No one was more learned in ancient Greek philosophy than he. That being said, I cannot assume this qualified him to change a light bulb, much less to play like Yo-Yo Ma or do brain surgery

This morning I preached on 1 Corinthians 1:10-25. The new Jesus-followers in the Greek city of Corinth were greatly enamored by the human intellect and eloquent, humanly wise orators. They would debate, among themselves, the beauty of the teachings of Paul, Apollos, Peter, and even Jesus. They engaged in boasting about the virtues of each. Into this Greek environment comes Paul with his upside-down message of "Christ crucified." "Christ crucified" was a logical contradiction to both Jews and Greeks. It functioned as an oxymoron, like "Microsoft works" or "Anarchy rules." "Christ crucified" makes about as much sense as "boneless ribs."

Into this big-time teaching-and-learning environment comes Paul, himself no dummy, with a message that's looking foolish in terms of "learned" people. God did it this way, Paul said, so as to frustrate the intelligence of the intelligent. (1 Cor. 1:19) Even the weakest sophia of God is far superior to the sophia of persons.

From the POV of Jews (who wanted powerful, Exodus-type signs) and Greeks (who wanted "ideas" packaged in eloquent, culurally acceptable speech-packages) "Christ crucified" was insane. It was "foolish." "It was," writes N.T. Wright, "the craziest message anybody could imagine." In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul insisted that this core message, which in itself was the power of God and the wisdom of God, not be dressed up in the clothing of intellectual and cultural respectability so we won't be ashamed of it. We are not to seeker-sensitize "Christ crucified." If we do, it will lose its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17)

We don't know everything, see everything, or understand everything. We don't even come close, right? But God does.

A few years ago Linda and I traveled from Monroe to Columbus to attend a funeral. It was in a town east of Columbus. We had never been in that area before. Our son Josh asked if we'd like to borrow his GPS. That sounded like fun to me. We typed in the address and took off. When the British voice (which sounds more intelligent to me than other voices) said "Turn right in 400 yards," I obeyed. The GPS took us straight to our destination. I thought it would even tell us where to park in funeral home's lot. But on the trip home something happened.

I like to take different roads and see places I've never seen. Linda does, too. So I pressed "alternate route" and off we went. We were driving on a place we'd never been before and the GPS said, "In 400 yards, turn right." But that did not feel right to me. Stop here. How could I know? I had never been in this place before. So I ignored the British voice and went straight. "Turn around in one mile." Then, "Turn around." Then, "Turn around, you ignoramus!" Linda did not use these words on me as I drove on.

We got lost. Finally I submitted to the voice that had a global perspective. We headed back to Monroe.

I am an ignoramus. "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth." (1 Corinthians 1:26) Even if we are "wise by human standards" we still know very little.

If there was no God then would be time to despair as the nausea sets in. But God came to us in the form of a person. I now see this as a brilliant idea, as the sophia of God. If I trust in and submit to him, and not in my own very-partial understanding, he will make straight my path. (Proverbs 3:5-6) There is a God Positioning System available to us. Avail of it.