Thursday, April 29, 2010

Philosophy of Religion - Oral Exam 3 Information

(Monroe County Community College)

For my MCCC Philosophy of Religion students:

Monday oral exams will be held in room A 153.

Wednesday oral exams will be held in room A 173b.

The oral exam questions are:

1. Bertrand Russell's "A Free Man's Worship"
2. Nietzsche's "Parable of the Madman"
3. William Lane Craig's "The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality"
4. Alvin Plantinga's "Theism, Atheism, and Rationality"
5. The modal argument for the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human free will. See Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, "Foreknowledge and Free Will." Introduction & section 6 - "The Modal Fallacy." ("Ultimately the alleged incompatibility of foreknowledge and free will is shown to rest on a subtle logical error. When the error, a modal fallacy, is recognized and remedied, the problem evaporates.")

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Withering Dawkins

I just read Jerry Coyne's "The Improbability Pump," an essay defending natural selection. In the midst of it all Coyne mentions Richard Dawkins. Coyne writes: "In his previous book, The God Delusion, Dawkins mounted a withering attack on belief..."

Not really. When it comes to God Delusion, the so-called attack on religious belief mostly just withers. A philosopher Dawkins is not. But Coyne loves him, so he praises God Delusion, which is the worst of Dawkins.

The Biology of Religious Behavior

The current issue of Evolutionary Psychology has a review of Jay Feierman's (ed.) The Biology of Religious Behavior: The Evolutionary Origins of Faith and Religion.

Putting the Science Warriors In Their Place

U. of Pennsylvania philosopher Carlin Romano has a nice essay entitled "Science Warriors' Ego Trips" in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Romano takes on "science patriots" like philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci. Pigliucci "offers... hero sandwiches spiced with derision and certainty." Surely it is a paranoid psyche that so easily dismisses, for example, an Owen Gingerich, the Harvard scientist who "contends in God's Universe (Harvard University Press, 2006) that it is partly statistical arguments—the extraordinary unlikelihood eons ago of the physical conditions necessary for self-conscious life—that support his belief in a universe "congenially designed for the existence of intelligent, self-reflective life"?"

To his credit, Pigliucci "admits that "methodological naturalism"—the commitment of all scientists to reject "supernatural" explanations—is itself not an empirically verifiable principle or fact, but rather an almost Kantian precondition of scientific knowledge."

There's a lot more in Romano's essay. But let's stop here and pause on the above. Methodological naturalism is itself not an empirically verifiable principle or fact. In my dialogues with some who are over-enamored with "science" this point is lost. And, science says nothing about value claims over what is "bad" and "good."

Redeemer Ministry School - My Apologetics Class Tomorrow


My Apologetics class will meet tomorrow: 10 AM, Panera Bread. Coffee and bagels provided!

No 9 AM worship tomorrow.

In my class:

1) We'll talk about last week's panel discussion at MCCC.
2) I'll present William Lane Craig's metaethical argument for God's existence on the basis of objective moral values.
3) I'll share some about atheism as philosophical naturalism.
4) Please have your ideas for your class presentation on an apologetics issue out of one of your textbooks.

See you tomorrow!

(Note: We're now taking applications for RMS's 2010-2011 class. Come spend 9 months studying with me and our other incredible teachers!)

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Godthink" - The Naive Idea That All Religions Are the Same

I remember hearing, a long time ago, the idea that "All religions lead to the same thing." Or, a variation of this: "All religions are One." But when I began studying other religions it seemed obvious that they were not saying the same things, and that indeed they were many times saying opposite things. Buddhist monism is not Judeo-Christian theism is not Hindu polytheism is not Muslim anti-Trinitarianism.

Boston University's Stephen Prothero (of American Jesus), in "Separate Truths," writes that tt is misleading — and dangerous — to think that religions are different paths to the same wisdom. A lot of people from Oprah Winfrey to the Dalai Lama ("who should know better") claim that “all major religious traditions carry basically the same message.” Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the nonessentials.” Prothero says: "This is a lovely sentiment but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous."

Prothero writes:

"The gods of Hinduism are not the same as the orishas of Yoruba religion or the immortals of Daoism. To pretend that they are is to refuse to take seriously the beliefs and practices of ordinary religious folk who for centuries have had no problem distinguishing the Nicene Creed of Christianity from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism from the Shahadah of Islam. It is also to lose sight of the unique beauty of each of the world’s religions.

But this lumping of the world’s religions into one megareligion is not just false and condescending, it is also a threat. How can we make sense of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir if we pretend that Hinduism and Islam are one and the same? Or of the impasse in the Middle East, if we pretend that there are no fundamental disagreements between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?"

Such thinking is naive. Prothero calls it "Godthink." Where in the world did Godthinking come from? It came, partly, from the idea that one's own religion is the way to heaven or nirvana or paradise. How so? Prothereo says religious exclusivism caused religious violence which caused the rise of a "religious tolerance" that reimagined the world rather than described it, in the hopes of eliciting feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. That was a nice move, but inaccurate.

Prothero:  "When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison... [W]hile we need idealism, we need realism even more. We need to understand religious people as they are — not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers."

Prothero thinks that what the world's religions do share is a "starting point." From then on they begin to diverge, and do not share a "finish line." All the world's religions begin with this observation: "Something is wrong with the world." Something has "gone awry." After this universal agreement, the world religions part company as regards the diagnosis of just what has gone wrong. They depart from each other even further as they prescribe what now needs to be done to correct the situation.

"The great religions also differ fundamentally when it comes to the techniques they employ to take you from problem to goal. In Confucianism, the rules and rituals of ancient Chinese civilization foster the religious goal of social harmony. But according to Daoists, these very rules and rituals cause the human problem of lifelessness. Civilization is a vampire, Daoists claim, sucking the life out of us, depleting our qi (vital energy), and taking us to an early grave. The only way to pursue the Daoist goal of fostering life is to live in harmony with the naturalness, simplicity, and spontaneity of what Daoists call the Way."

The world religions also differ in that they "look to different exemplars - Christian saints, Hindu holy men - to chart the path from problem to goal." While there are family resemblances, "today it is widely accepted that there is no one essence that all religions share."

I agree with Prothero's skepticism re. the fruitfuolness of "interfaith dialogue" as something that will "bridge gaps" between, e.g., Christianity and Islam. Prothero writes:

"While I do not believe we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam, it is a fantasy to imagine that the world’s two largest religions are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims will magically bridge the gap. You would think that champions of multiculturalism would warm to this fact, glorying in the diversity inside and across religious traditions. But even among multiculturalists, the tendency is to pretend that the differences between religions are more apparent than real, and that the differences inside religious traditions just don’t warrant the fuss practitioners continue to make over them."

It's not helpful, and even harmful, to Oprah-sync the world religions. Prothero concludes: "[B]oth tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting."

Prothero gives us a nice piece of work. Read it in its entirety.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The 19th Annual Wheaton Theology Conference | April 16-17, 2010

There is a feast of New Testament scholarship here, with video and audio presentations of the lectures and sermons at the recent Wheaton Theology Conference. The theme: "Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright."

The presenters + topics:

  • Richard Hays - Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth 
  • Marianne Meye Thompson - The Gospel of John Meets Jesus and the Victory of God 
  • N.T. Wright - Chapel Message 
  • Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat - 'Outside of a Small Circle of Friends': Jesus and the Justice of God
  • Nicholas Perrin - Jesus' Eschatology and Kingdom Ethics: Ever the Twain Shall Meet
  • Wright, Hays, Walsh, Keesmaat, Thompson, and Perrin -  Panel Discussion
  • N.T. Wright - Jesus and the People of God: Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies and the Life of the Church 
  • Kevin J. Vanhoozer - Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and in Protestant Soteriology
  • Jeremy Begbie - The Shape of Things to Come? Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies
  • Markus Bockmuehl - Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died?
  • Edith Humphrey - Glimpsing the Glory—Paul's Gospel, Righteousness and the Beautiful Feet of N.T. Wright
  • N.T. Wright - Paul and the People of God: Whence and Whither Pauline Studies and the Life of the Church

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tonight at Newport Beach Cafe

Kellie Robinson leading worship & Scott Davidson preaching tonight 9pm @ Newport Beach Cafe.

"Why Do Bad Things Happen?" Discussion

The Monroe Evening News has an article on the "Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?" panel discussion at Monroe County Community College last evening.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More Americans & Brits Believe in Heaven Than 10 Years Ago (+, on the fallacy of "evidentialism")

I liked Dinesh D'Souza's Life After Death: The Evidence." Johann Hari thinks it's "preposterous." Hari, in "Heaven: A fool's paradise," is scandalized by data that shows "81 per cent of Americans and 51 per cent of Brits say they believe in heaven – an increase of 10 per cent since a decade ago. Of those, 71 per cent say it is "an actual place"." We can't, suggests Hari, get over the idea of the "pearly gates."

Hari's is a long article, but here's one Hari-idea that reveals a lot to me. He writes: "[T]o believe in heaven you have to make "a leap of faith" – but in what other field in life do we abandon all need for evidence? Why do it in one so crucial to your whole sense of existence?"

The correct answer is: we believe tons of things without "evidence." The fallacy of "evidentialism" is seen in the extremely famous words of atheist W.K. Clifford: "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." (The Ethics of Belief, 1879) Clifford was wrong, as shown by (again) Alvin Plantinga, who has the ability to prove anyone wrong. For example, we believe the laws of logic are true, but cannot provide evidence for their truth, since to do so one would have to employ the laws of logic. Or, we believe there is a world perceived by our senses that is external to us. Note that we believe this non-evidentially, since to provide evidence by our senses that we sense a world outside of ourselves is circular, hence non-evidential. Or, you believe "1+1=2," but have this belief sans evidential reasoning. (Unless you are "Dr. Math." But even if Dr. Math has proven this, probably you cannot and never have, thus you believe "1+1=2" as something properly basic.)

Back to Hari. I believe in "heaven," but in an essentially non-evidential way. Because I believe the noetic framework of Christian theism is true, this gives me "warrant," or "grounds," for my belief in an afterlife. The "afterlife" is a rational belief on Christian theism.

In short, Hari's evidentialism badly leads him astray in his pearly-gate essay.

Yoga Is Essentially a Hindu Religious thing

(Hinduism's "Lord Shiva") has this interesting article, written by Hindu professor Aseem Shukla, on the necessary connection of yoga with Hinduism. Shukla is dismayed that yoga has been co-opted by Christians and Jews and embraced by Abrahamic religions. Shukla writes:

"Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste -- the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you. Then they close their eyes and focus their minds with chants of "Om," the Hindu representation of the first and eternal vibration of creation. Arrayed in linear patterns, they stretch, bend, contort and control their respirations as a mentor calls out names of Hindu divinity linked to various postures: Natarajaasana (Lord Shiva) or Hanumanasana (Lord Hanuman) among many others. They chant their assigned "mantra of the month," taken as they are from lines directly from the Vedas, Hinduism's holiest scripture. Welcome to the practice of yoga in today's western world." In other words, American yoga-practitioners don't have a clue as to what they are really saying and doing, and from Shukla's Hindu perspective this is not right. It reminds me of being in Bangkok just before Christmas and seeing a mall filled with Christmas decorations, and Thai people shopping with no clue about Christmas, as understood by Christians.

"The severance of yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises millions of Hindu Americans from their spiritual heritage and a legacy in which they can take pride." Hinduism, says Shukla, is "a victim of overt intellectual property theft." There has been a steady disembodying of yoga from Hinduism.

Shukla does not think yoga is only for Hindus. He does think that cutting yoga off from Hinduism's spiritual roots misses what it has always been all about.

Shukla concludes:

"Yoga, like its Hindu origins, does not offer ways to believe in God; it offer ways to know God. But be forewarned. Yogis say that the dedicated practice of yoga will subdue the restless mind, lessen one's cravings for the mundane material world and put one on the path of self-realization--that each individual is a spark of the Divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths--that their God awaits the arrival of only His chosen few at heaven's gate--since yoga shows its own path to spiritual enlightenment to all seekers regardless of affiliation."

Shukla says practicing yoga will make a Christian a better Christian. But if, as Shukla claims, a practicer of yoga is connected to Hinduism's spiritual roots whether they acknowledge it or not, then I think Shuklas misunderstands Christianity. For those of us not interested in practicing Hinduism, yoga is something to be avoided.

If the Ontological Argument Is Sound, the Non-existence of God Has a Probability of Zero

(Gull, on Santa Monica pier)

William Lane Craig, in one of his recent debates, pulled out Plantinga's modal version of the ontological argument (OA) to do, as Craig said, something different. This fascinates me. I think, in my philosophy of religion courses, the ontological argument is the one that most captivates my students.

When I teach next fall my plan is to shift from teaching Anselm's version to Plantinga's modal version. With Craig now using it, I see a tiny renaissance on the horizon.

Michael Tooley, in his SEP essay on "The Problem of Evil," mentions the OA. Tooley writes: "Relatively few philosophers have held, of course, that the ontological argument is sound. But there have certainly been notable exceptions — such as Anselm and Descartes, and, in the last century, Charles Hartshorne (1962), Norman Malcolm (1960), and Alvin Plantinga (1974a, 1974b)." Then, Tooley says something I admit to never really thinking about re. the OA: "If the ontological argument were sound, it would provide a rather decisive refutation of the argument from evil. For in showing not merely that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect being, but that it is necessary that such a being exists, it would entail that the proposition that God does not exist must have probability zero on any body of evidence whatever." Of course! So, the amount of and kind of evil in the world could not be used as evidence against God's existence.

Now I'm off on another rabbit trail - here goes. If it could be proven (inductively, of course) that, most probably, Jesus of Nazareth never existed, then all intratextual analysis and argumentation used to debunk Christianity would be inconsequential. It would be sheer futility to spend time arguing that Jesus never rose from the dead if one has already admitted that he never existed. The probability of the resurrection of Jesus on the non-existence of Jesus is zero. The only reasons to engage in "Jesus" or "Christian" studies would be sociological (sociology of religion) and historical (history and literature of religions. My rabbit trail looks like this.

1. The OA is sound.
2. Therefore, neither the existence of evil nor anything can be used to disprove the existence of God.


1. Jesus never existed.
2. Therefore, the probability that Jesus rose from the dead is zero.

Tooley concludes: "A more satisfying response to the ontological argument would, of course, show not merely that the ontological argument is unsound, but precisely why it is unsound. Such a response, however, requires a satisfactory account of the truth conditions of modal statements."

If you're interested, see Robert Maydole's hyper-dense essay "The Ontological Argument" here. (pp. 553 ff.) Maydole concludes: "Ontological arguments are captivating. They convince some people but not others. Our purpose here was not to convince but simply to show that some ontological arguments are sound, do not beg the question, and are insulated from extant parodies. Yet good logic does not convince sometimes. Other times, something else is needed." (586)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Panel Discussion on the Problem of Evil

I have been busy lately! Last week I agreed to help develop the spiritual formation component at Payne Theological Seminary. This will involve some teaching, coaching, and web development. I'm on Payne's faculty now!

On Thursday I'll be one of the six panelists in the panel discussion on the question "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Joining me with be an atheist, two Buddhists, a Muslim, and a Roman Catholic who has a Ph.D in philosophy. MCCC Meyer Theatre auditorium. 7 PM. April 22.

On Wed. morning I've asked our RMS students to think about how they would respond to that question. On Thurs. morning I'll share with our RMS II graduates on the same. I love doing this kind of thing - should be fun!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Philip Yancey Talks About the World Trade Center (ca. 1995)

I'm reviewing some books prepping for my Sunday sermon on Jesus before Caiphas (Mark 14). The Temple leaders are powerful. Jesus stands alone before them. They are threatened by him. Philip Yancey, in The Jesus I Never Knew, writes: “Jesus represented a threat to the Law, the sacrificial system, the temple, kosher food regulations, and the many distinctions between clean and unclean.” (198)

Then Yancey gives a hypothetical situation to explain life from Caiphas' perspective:

"Jewish leaders had trouble getting witnesses to agree on the exact wording of Jesus' statement, but their alarm is understandable. Imagine the reaction today if an Arab ran through the streets of New York City shouting, 'The World Trade Center will blow up, and I can rebuild it in three days."

Yancey's book was published in 1995.

Prayer & Power - Tonight at Newport Beach Cafe

In Luke 5:16 we read that "Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed." Tonight at Newport Beach Cafe I'll be teaching on the relationship of solitary prayer and power to heal others.

Holly Benner will lead worship.

9 PM.

Human Trafficking in the U.S.

(The Vasquez-Valenzuela family held two young girls inside this apartment when they weren’t working the streets. The windows were nailed shut so the girls would not try to escape.)

A friend connected with the FBI made me aware of this recent human trafficking arrest.

Some "girls—some as young as age 12—were smuggled into the U.S. from their village homes in Guatemala. Their impoverished parents were told that their daughters would be working in restaurants and jewelry stores in California and would earn good wages that could be sent back to their families.

Instead, upon arriving in Los Angeles, the girls were taken to have their eyebrows tattooed and their hair colored and then forced to work the streets as prostitutes. It was one of the biggest human trafficking cases we’ve ever investigated, and when it was all over last year, nine defendants known as the Vasquez-Valenzuela family went to jail—with the ringleader receiving a 40-year sentence...

“These girls and women were physically beaten and were held in apartments so they couldn’t escape,” said Special Agent Tricia Whitehill in our Los Angeles Field Office. “Members of the Vasquez-Valenzuela family would sleep by the doors with knives,” Whitehill added. “So not only were they physically held captive, but they were also under constant threat.”

Here is from the FBI's Human Trafficking website:

"It's sad but true: here in this country, people are being bought, sold, and smuggled. They are trapped in lives of misery—often beaten, starved, and forced to work as prostitutes or to take grueling jobs as migrant, domestic, restaurant, or factory workers with little or no pay. We’re working to stop human trafficking—not only because of the personal and psychological toll it takes on society, but also because it facilitates the illegal movement of immigrants across borders and provides a ready source of income for organized crime groups and even terrorists."

Here in Monroe we're 15 miles north of Toledo. Toledo ranks "fourth in the nation behind Miami, Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas in arrests, investigations, and rescues of children involved in the sex trade." (Toledo Blade, March 14, 2010) It is "estimated that as many as 1,800 people may be trafficked in Ohio at any given moment."

To be part of the rescue effort, go to

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Antony Flew - Feb. 11, 1923 - April 8, 2010

As an undergraduate philosophy major way back in the 1970s I read Antony Flew's classic essay "Theology and Falsification." There I met the "parable of the gardener," a story meant to argue for atheism over theism.

Then, many years later, Flew became a deist - he came to believe in a God. This development sent some atheists spinning to explain how one of their champions, arguably the most famous atheist in Europe, left his atheism.

The obit in The Telegraph says:

"When Flew revealed that he had come to the conclusion that there might be a God after all, it came as a shock to his fellow atheists, who had long regarded him as one of their foremost champions. Worse, he seemed to have deserted Plato for Aristotle, since it was two of Aquinas's famous five proofs for the existence of God – the arguments from design and for a prime mover – that had apparently clinched the matter.

After months of soul-searching, Flew concluded that research into DNA had "shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved". Moreover, though he accepted Darwinian evolution, he felt that it could not explain the beginnings of life. "I have been persuaded that it is simply out of the question that the first living matter evolved out of dead matter and then developed into an extraordinarily complicated creature," he said.

Flew went on to make a video of his conversion entitled Has Science Discovered God? and seemed to want to atone for past errors: "As people have certainly been influenced by me, I want to try and correct the enormous damage I may have done," he said."

Can We Get At the Historical Jesus?

For all interested in Historical Jesus (HJ) studies there's a good dialogue going on at, with Scot McKnight leading off, followed by N.T. Wright, Craig Keener, and Darrell Bock. McKnight thinks we should drop HJ studies because everyone ends up making Jesus into their own image. Wright, Keener, and Bock all disagree with McKnight on this. As do I. While acknowledging that self-projection always happens to some degree in any kind of scholarship (except for, arguably, logic and pure mathematics), one need not go over the skeptical abyss and proclaim that nothing can be said about the HJ. That particular methodological position is itself a projection that fits within a certain theological framework. In other words, if McKnight is correct, then his own projection-theory is itself, perhaps, a Feuerbachian kind of projection.

Surely we can dimiss the ultra-right-wing theologian who makes Jesus into an "American Jesus." Jesus was a Jew. So to come to grips with, e.g., Second Temple Judaism, as Wright does, helps us get at the historical Jesus.

Caiaphas' Ossuary

(The cemetary on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, heading down to the Kidron Valley.)

I'm preaching this Sunday out of Mark 14:53-65. Jesus is brought before the High Priest Caiaphas and members of the Sanhedrin.

It's instructive to note that Caiaphas was an actual person, in history. On August 16, 1992, the New York Times ran the story of the discovery of Caiaphas' ossuary, and the family cave-tomb he was buried in. The article reads: "Israeli archaeologists are used to stumbling across the touchstones of early Christian and Jewish history. in the Mideast, it is a common occupational pleasure. But even they were a little amazed when an elaborate cave on the edge of the Judean desert near Jerusalem turned out to contain the family tomb of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who presided at the trial of Jesus."

But was this ossuary that of the Caiaphas in the Jesus-story of Mark 14? In Princeton scholar Jame Charleworth's Jesus and Archaeology, Craig Evans has an essay entitled "Excavating Caiaphas, Pilate, and Simon of Cyrene: Assessing the Literary and Archaeological Evidence."  Evans cites Jewish historian Josephus's reference to "Joseph Caiaphas" and "Joseph called Caiphas" (Antiquities 18:4:3, #95). In November 1990 workers in Jerusalem's Peace Forest (a mile south of the old city of Jerusalem) accidentally discovered an ancient burial cave in which one dozen ossuaries were found. Two of the boxes bear the name, written in Hebrew, "Qapha." One of the bone boxes has "Yehoseph bar Qaipha" on one end, and "Yehospeh bar Qapha" on one side. This particular ossuary contains the bones of a 60-year-old man, two infants, a toddler, a young boy, and a woman. Evans writes: "it could be the ossuary of Caiaphas the high priest, to whom Josephus refers to as "Joseph Caiaphas." For Evans, underline the word "could."

Today the "Caiaphas" ossuary, which is ornate and well-preserved, is in the Israel National Museum in Jerusalem. The skeletal remains were buried on the Mount of Olives. Evans writes: "In the nearby 'Akeldama' field and ravine, the tomb of Annas (John 18:13, 24), the high-priestly father-in-law of Caiaphas, may also have been identified." (Ib., 327) Evans further states that "several archaologists have identified the Yehoseph bar Qaiapha of the ossuary with the Joseph called Caiaphas of the narratives of Josephus and the New Testament Gospels... Spelling agreement with the rabbinic traditions noted above and especially with Josephus, who alone in the literature tells us that Caiaphas's full name was Joseph Caiaphas, has convinced these scholars that the identification is probable. Indeed, Dominic Crossan and Johnathan Reed have said with confidence: 'There should be no doubt that the chamber was the resting place of the family of the high priest Caiaphas named in the gospels for his role in the crucifixion, and it's very likely that the elderly man's bones were those of Caiaphas himself.' " (Ib., 327).

But Evans has doubts. Some argue that the 'Qayapha' reading is "difficult and improbable." (Ib., 328) "Part of the difficulty is the relative rarity of the Qayapha' name, which results in inadequate data for comparative analysis, as well as the poor quality of the ossuary inscriptions themselves, making certain idenfication of the [Hebrew letter] yod, as opposed to the [Hebrew letter] waw, very difficult. The Caiphas reading the the identification of this ossuary name has not been conclusively ruled out, but we must recognize how tenuous it is." (Ib., 328-329).

Evans, in his book Jesus and the Ossuaries, says other reasons to question that this ossuary was that of our biblical Caiaphas include: 1) "the crypt in which the ossuary was found is not on the level of ostentation that one would have expected to find in the case of a former high priest and son-in-law of Annas, the most influential high priest of the first century" (107); and 2) "it seems strange that the ossuary containing the remains of such an important person, who served for nearly nineteen years as high priest, would display such poorly incised inscriptions" (Ib.).

Richard Bauckham, in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, believe the ossuary is probably that of the high priest Caiaphas. (82) Witherington (here, 191), Blomberg (here, 427-428), and Habermas (here, 48) agree.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Redeemer Ministry School - God in the Old Testament (and More)

(RMS student zip-lining through the forest.)

This morning in my RMS Apologetics class I:

  • Presented a Buddhist answer to the problem of evil in the world
  • Did the same for a Muslim answer to why there is evil in the world
  • Presented an atheist answer to this issue
  • Presented Paul Copan's essay on the God of the Old Testament - Are His Commands Evil?
  • Handed out textbooks and gave an assignment to make a ten-minute presentation on an apologetics issue found in one of the books you have selected to read
  • Asked the students to think about how to answer the questions "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Next Wed., in class, I'll ask the students how they would answer this - then, I'll give my response.

"Problem of Evil" - Online Essays by Christian Theists

I just stumbled upon this very nice collection of essays by Christian theist-philosophers on the problem of evil against the existence of God.

I checked out the first essay by Marilyn McCord Adams (Yale). I've got Adams' book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. She's a brilliant scholar, and this essay summarizes points from her book. Consider this, for starters. Adams states that, in framing the "problem of evil" in relation to the God of theism, it is important not to characterize God as follows."It does the atheologian no good to argue for the falsity of Christianity on the ground that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, pleasure-maximizer is incompossible with a world such as ours, because Christians never believed God was a pleasure-maximizer anyway. But equally, the truth of Christianity would be inadequately defended by the observation that an omnipotent, omniscient egoist could have created a world with suffering creatures, because Christians insist that God loves other (created) persons than Himself."

See also Daniel Howard-Snyder's  "God, Evil, and Suffering." Howard-Snyder argues that every argument from evil against the existence of God fails. Howard-Snyder's The Evidential Argument from Evil is still, I think, the best one-volume collection of diverse essays available.

Nice stuff. And, for people like myself who keep philosophically studying this issue, this collection is a gift.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Religious Experience

(Sunset, Warren Dunes State Park (Michigan), Lake Michigan)

My conversion from weak deism to Christian theism began with a "religious experience." I was in a social fraternity at Northern Illinois University, living with three of my fraternity brothers. I was a music theory major, played guitar in a couple of bar bands, drank a lot, and did drugs nearly every day. I never thought about God. I never prayed, even as my life was falling apart around me.

One night I was playing in my band, somewhere in the Chicago area. I was on stage, and the thought came to me: "I have a problem." My drug-using roommate had recently said the same to me. When he told me this I laughed it off. Coming from him, I thought it was ridiculous. Now, on stage, I was thinking that he was right.

A few weeks after that thought, my roommate invited a campus ministry leader to talk with us about God and Jesus. We planned some questions to ask him, including a "big question" we knew he'd never be able to answer. That night we listened to this person talk to us about God and Jesus. Then we asked him our questions, including the big, unanswerable one (whatever it was). His response was: "I don't know the answer to that question." Then he said something that forever changed my life. What he said was: "I don't know the answer to that question. But I do believe there is a God, and that God loves you."

My world was rocked. An inner revolution had begun inside of me. In that moment a clarity came over me and I knew, beyond a doubt, that God existed, and that God loved me. For three days (a good biblical number, right?) I wrestled about what to do with this. My resistance to becoming a God-follower was mainly due to my fear about what my friends and fraternity brothers would think of me. Actually, a lot of my problems were because of my fear of what others thought of me. So I chose to follow God, which was important for two reasons: 1) I now had a life-purpose; and 2) I finally made a choice that was not a function of what others thought of me.

I had a religious experience. A God-encounter. I see it as an indisputable fact that, historically, this was the moment when my life was forever changed. I see it as disputable that what happened to me was an encounter with God. Some will dispute this. And inwardly, I have disputed it because of my training as a reductionist (cf. B.F. Skinner's claim that science can reduce all mystery to knowledge). But the overall sense I have is that, on that day, God came to me, experientially. As I write this, I do not doubt it. Nor am I repressing doubts about this, in denial about this, or feigning certainty for the sake of giving some kind of personal testimony that might convince others.

I am certain it will not convince a number of people. The fact that this happened to me and that I perceive it as being from-God does not serve as an argument, to others, for the existence of God. I don't expect others to be convinced that God exists on the basis of my experience. Equally, I am existentially unmoved by the doubts of others. Such is, often, the nature of religious experience. I think it's also the nature of nonreligious experience. For example John Allen Paulos, in Irreligion, claims to have no sense of a God. I don't doubt this. But Paulos's non-sensing of God does nothing to cause me to question my sensing of God, just as my sensing of God has no effect, I presume, on Paulos. He would think my experience could have nothing to do with God since God does not exist; I think any moments of Einsteinian wonder have to do with God.

I think an atheist's non-experience of God could existentially validate their atheism. In the same way my experience of God validates my theism. As it should. And no apologetic is given either way. So, a few things about the nature of religious experience.

According to William James, "religious experiences are significant because they form the root of religion." (Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach and Basinger, Philosophy of Religion, Fourth edition, 35) If this is true, then without religious experiences persons are not really religious. I think I have met people like this. Their "faith" is only theoretical and intellectual. There are forms of Christianity that emphasize the intellectual-theoretical to the point of disparaging the experiential. For example, the classic "Four Spiritual Laws" place "feelings" as being the caboose at the end of the spiritual train. For James, experiences are located in the engine room. It is precisely my ongoing spiritual experience that fuels the engine of my spiritual train. It seems as if I've got the God-gene.

Religious experiencing is important in Christianity. Philosopher William P. Alston, in his essay "Religious Experience as Perception of God," writes: "The main function of the experience of God in theistic religion is that it constitutes a mode, an avenue, of communion between god and us. It makes it possible for us to enter into personal interaction with God... And if God exists, there is no reason to suppose that this perception is not sometimes veridical rather than delusory." (In Ib., 57) As Kierkegaard knew, religious truth is deeply subjective and personal. SK writes: "Here is a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing person." (Concluding Unscientific Postscript; in Ib., 113)

(See also some things I have written about non-discursive experiences - here, and here.)

Beware “prideful sipping from the poisonous cup of international fame and notoriety”

(Store window in Ann Arbor)

John Piper is taking an 8-month leave of absence to fast from book-reading, sermon writing, sermon preaching, blogging, Twittering, article-writing, report-giving, paper-reading, and speaking engagements. Piper's reality check guiding question is: "What will happen in my soul and in my marriage when, to use the phrase of one precious brother on staff, there will be no 'prideful sipping from the poisonous cup of international fame and notoriety'?"

Now that is a great question. And, I hope Piper doesn't turn on his laptop to see my affirmation of his choice. "Notoriety" can become addictive. Anyone reading this, who has gained even the slightest bit of public acclaim, should take notice. Public acclaim is like a drug. Ask yourself: who, or what, would I be, if no one paid attention to me? Answer this question, and you begin to get at your real self.

Isn't the biblical idea that all honor and acclaim should go to God, and when this happens we should be very pleased? Therefore beware of preachers or teachers or writers or whatever-ers who become "popular." A drug is being injected into their spiritual veins that will be hard to come off of. I see Piper's spiritual move as God calling him into a detox unit because his spirit has become polluted.

Piper writes of being "famous," and the toll this has taken on his marriage:

"As I have stood back in recent months and looked at my own soul—my own sanctification, my own measures self-denial or self-serving—and my marriage and family and ministry patterns, I have felt an increasing need for a serious assessment—a kind of reality check in the light of God’s word. Am I living in the mindset and the pattern of life that Jesus calls for here in Mark 8:31-38, especially in relation to those I love most?

On the one hand, I love my Lord, Jesus; I love my wife and my five children and their families. These are the supreme treasures of my life—my Lord, my wife, my children. And I love my work of preaching and writing and leading Bethlehem. Indeed, I hope that the Lord gives me at least five more years as the pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem. That’s my dream. And that’s my plan, if God wills.

But on the other hand, I see several species of pride in my soul that, even though they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël and others who are dear to me. Noël and I are rock solid in our commitment to each other, and there is no whiff of unfaithfulness on either side. But, as I told the elders, “rock solid” is not always an emotionally satisfying metaphor, especially to a woman. A rock is not the best image of a woman’s tender companion.

In other words, the precious garden of my home needs tending. I want to say to Noël that she is precious to me. And I believe that at this point in our 41-year pilgrimage together the best way to say it is by stepping back for a season from virtually all public commitments."

Ironically, when Piper emerges from this hiatus, he may be more popular than ever. The solution to this is found in is own words: "As I have stood back in recent months and looked at my own soul—my own sanctification, my own measures self-denial or self-serving—and my marriage and family and ministry patterns, I have felt an increasing need for a serious assessment—a kind of reality check in the light of God’s word. Am I living in the mindset and the pattern of life that Jesus calls for here in Mark 8:31-38, especially in relation to those I love most?"

What does Mark 8:31-38 say?

"He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life[c] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels.""

I have always felt that pastors and preachers and Christian teachers and musicians and artists and creators should have these priorities rock-solid in their pattern of living:
1. Spend much personal time with God, alone on his presence, to be spoken to and shaped by God, and to find one's ultimate trust in God.
2. To spend much time with family - with your spouse and children if married; with family and perhaps just a very few close friends who know you and love you enough to tell you the truth.
For me, if someone is not doing #s 1 and 2, I could care less about how wonderful a speaker or musician or teacher or book-writer they are, because - probably - they are addicted to their own glory, though meager it is.
I am now stopping to pray for John Piper, and that #s 1 and 2 will be regained and secured in his spirit.
As for myself, and for you, beware “prideful sipping from the poisonous cup of international fame and notoriety.”

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Betrayal (Tomorrow Morning at Redeemer)

Tomorrow morning at Redeemer I'll preach on the story, as recorded in all 4 gospels, of Judas' betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. I've poured a lot of hours into this message. Judas is one of the most-written-about minor figures in the Bible, and a lot of ink has been spilled speculating about him. There are a couple of themes I will especially be drawing out. And, as usual, I have learned so much in sermon preparation this week that I feel I could spend an entire year in this story!

Pray for Thailand...

(A shop window in the opulent Siam Paragon mall in Bangkok. "Red shirt" political protesters shut down this mall for the last six days.)

My profile picture was taken when I was in Bangkok last November. Today Thailand is in trouble. 15 killed so far, hundreds injured, probably more to come. There's great political unrest. Pray for our friends Jeff and Annie, their family, Nightlight...

Flannery O'Connor

Here's a nice essay on the hyper-brilliant Flannery O'Connor. It was my privilege and blessing, in the 1980s, to be introduced to and read most of O'Connor's works (thank you W.P. & S.B.). In O'Connor we see the supreme value of the fictive imagination in conveying things that the steel nets of "literal" language cannot express.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Tonight at Newport Beach Cafe

Tonight we resume meeting at Newport Beach Cafe! Worship will be led by Luke Jaskowiak and Josh Bentley preaches - 9pm.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Fear, Trembling, and the Unfinished Business of Sozo

(Door, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem)

Life is the task of a lifetime. Kierkegaard satirizes people who think they come to a point where they have finished life. He writes:

"When they have arrived at a certain point in their search for truth, life takes on a change. They marry, and they acquire a certain position, in consequence of which they feel that they must in all honor have something finished, that they must have result...  And so they come to think of themselves as really finished... Living in this manner, one is relieved of the necessity of becoming executively aware of the strenuous difficulties which the simplest of propositions about existing qua human-being involves." (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 18-19)

C.S. Lewis describes life after life on earth as a continual growing "further up, further in." Paul encouraged us to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling." Kierkegaard picks up on this and writes his book Fear and Trembling. Faith, for Kierkegaard, is "the task of a lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in days or week." (F&T, 5) A good part of Kierkegaard's work is motivated by his antipathy to Hegel's idea of a logical "System" that achieves perfect rational clarity.

Faith, for example, is forged through trials. One continues to believe in spite of an Hegelian logic that tells us otherwise. Faith, by definition, means to step forward into the nonlogical (deductive-wise, that is). Logic strives to resolve paradox (dialectically, as in Hegel); faith embraces it to achieve its object. Abraham, for Kierkegaard and Judeo-Christianity, becomes the "father of faith," as he acts against all Western logic in moving to sacrifice Isaac. Paradox, trial, and logical uncertainty become the crucible that forges people of faith.

This does not happen in some instant. It takes all of life to become a person of faith. Even Jesus "grew in wisdom and stature." Sozo-ing is not simply making some "decision" to follow Christ; it is more an experiential reality to be entered into and lived out as one actually follows Christ, rather than a theory to be rationally believed in.

Live daily into the knowing and experiencing of Christ.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Tuesdays With A.W. Tozer

(Bolles Harbor, Monroe, MI)'s "Out of Ur" will be featuring the thoughts and writings of A.W. Tozer via Margaret Feinberg. Check every Tuesday for the next several weeks.

Tozer had no seminary education but was a deep and profoundly insightful Jesus-follower. I've read The Pursuit of God and The Knowledge of the Holy, and would do well to revisit them in the future.

Feinberg writes: "Though he lacked formal theological training, Tozer became a pastor of a small church and continued to pastor for more than four decades. What made Tozer extraordinary was his approach to prayer and faith. He became enthralled by God in a way few men or women do-though many hope to. In his first editorial, he wrote: “It will cost something to walk slow in the parade of the ages, while excited men of time rush about confusing motion with progress. But it will pay in the long run and the true Christian is not much interested in anything short of that.”"

Now that... is beautiful...

Feinberg adds: "Simply put: Tozer makes me hungry for God."

Me too.

Peter Hitchens's Story - From Atheism to Christian Theism

Peter Hitchens, brother of atheist Christopher Hitchens, brings out his new book The Rage Against God this June.

Here's from the book's back cover:

"Here, for the first time, in his new book The Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens, brother of prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, chronicles his personal journey through disbelief into a committed Christian faith. With unflinching openness and intellectual honesty, Hitchens describes the personal loss and philosophical curiosity that led him to burn his Bible at prep school and embrace atheism in its place. From there, he traces his experience as a journalist in Soviet Moscow, and the critical observations that left him with more questions than answers, and more despair than hope for how to live a meaningful life. With first-hand insight into the blurring of the line between politics and the Church, Hitchens reveals the reasons why an honest assessment of Atheism cannot sustain disbelief in God. In the process, he provides hope for all believers who, in the words of T. S. Eliot, may discover 'the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.'"

How the New Atheism Contributes to the Interest in Theism

Madeleine Bunting has a piece in today's Sydney Morning Herald called "Atheists win a battle but may lose the war." Richard Dawkins and others, in spite of Dawkins's "sheer philosophical illiteracy," has actually helped to make "God" popular and discussable again. Bunting writes: "Perhaps New Atheism's publishing success is a case of winning a battle and losing the war - the main religions are currently experiencing massive expansion across most of the world."

Bunting says: "The great mistake the atheists made is to claim that religion started out as a clumsy stab at science - trying to explain how the world worked - and is now clearly redundant. That misses the point entirely: religion is not about explaining how an earthquake or flood happens; rather it offers meanings for such events." Yup. But note, please, that out of Christianity much science came and continues to come, from Kepler's idea that studying the heavens was studying the mind of God, to Francis Collins's reading the "language of God" in DNA. I have seen this up close and personal, in the lives of the many actual scientists who are friends and fellow Jesus-followers.

Bunting says: "The paradox of New Atheism is that in its bid to make religion unacceptable, it has contributed to making it a subject that is worth talking about again."

I agree. Which is why, for me, I am happy to see atheist signs on buses. When I write that, I mean it - no need to psychologize me on that one and argue that I am now trying to use some silly "reverse psychology" so as to get atheists to think "O my (non-) God! Our signs are actually encouraging theists, so we must remove them immediately!" No. It makes my philosophy classes so much more interesting. Yet I will add, sadly, that in spite of the relative media attention to the bus signs and the clattering of the New Atheists, most of the students in my classes have still not heard of them. I have ideas why this is the case...

Anyway - thanks to the New Atheists, "God hasn't attracted this intensity of debate in decades." And that...  does make the philosophical life a lot more fun.

One Can't Use "Ontological Argument" Reasoning to Prove the Existence of a Maximally Great Pizza

(Gino's East Pizza in Chicago. It falls just short, gratefully, of a maximally great pizza. I can barely look at this picture without salivating. It is: the world's greatest pizza.)

William Lane Craig here comments on his recent debate with atheist philosopher Victor Stenger. Craig presented a version of the ontological argument for God's existence. Stenger critiqued it by saying that, using the same kind of reasoning, one could prove the existence of a maximally great pizza.

Initially, because I am a pizza connoisseur from the Chicago area who has been transplanted into the pizza-barren-wasteland of Southeast Michigan, I am interested in the idea of a maximally great pizza. But Craig's response tells me I should not be so interested, since a maximally great pizza would be a necessarily existing pizza and, therefore, could not be eaten. If that is true (which it would be, as regards a maximally great pizza), then it would not be a pizza, since an essential attribute of "pizza" is "a food to be eaten."

Craig's point is that the idea of "maximally great pizza" is fundamentally incoherent. It's just Gaunilo's mistake again, re. his "perfect island." Neither islands nor pizzas nor any contingent things have intrinsic maximums. So Stenger's criticism of the ontological argument fails.

Saving the Humanities

(University of Michigan)

Peter Conn has written a helpful, guiding piece called "We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities." The bottom lines include:
  • University humanities departments are shrinking.
  • Adjunct professors are growing in numbers; tenured faculty are diminishing (anyone who teaches at a college or unversity easily sees this).
  • "Full-time tenured and tenure-track jobs in the humanities are endangered by half a dozen trends, most of them long-term."
  • The "University of Phoenix" phenomenon ("for-profit education") is growing. "According to a report in The Chronicle in February, 7 percent of all American postsecondary students attend for-profit institutions. Presumably, like Phoenix, all of those colleges and universities depend mainly on part-time faculty members."
  • Getting a job with a Ph.D in the humanities is harder than ever.
  • University humanities departments are not responding to these and other threatening conditions.
As for me, way back in the 1970s, when I was checking out Ph.D programs in philosophy, I walked into a university philosophy department and saw a sign that warned me about the meager job market for persons with philosophy degrees. I kept that in mind, but went for it anyway. The humanities were in my bones. As Conn writes, the humanities "lie near the heart of mankind's restless efforts to make sense of the world. Debates over war and peace, justice and equity: From the uses of scientific knowledge to the formulation of social policy, the humanities provide a necessary dimension of insight and meaning." Note: "meaning" is found in the humanities, not the sciences.

Though jobs may be few, I consistently see, in the students I am privileged to instruct every semester, a deep desire to talk about the Big Questions. For example, I just finished giving 60 10-minute oral exams to my philosophy of religion students. A number of them tell me how interesting and meaningful they find our class discussions as we talk and teach about God (existence/non-existence), evil (as problematic for God), meaning (nihilism; teleological thinking), ethics (moral values: objective/subjective), neurophilosophy (mind/brain matters; qualia; dualism), and free will. Just yesterday a few of my students told me they would like to major or minor in philosophy. These deep issues remain important. What is it to be "human?" Hence: the Humanities.

See Conn's 5 recommendations for graduate programs in the humanities.

The Fact of Pluralism Is Not Epistemically Problematic

Dinesh D'Souza says: "If you happen to be born in Afghanistan, you'd be a Muslim. If you happen to be born in Tibet, you'd be a Buddhist. That's true, but what on earth does that prove? I happen to have been born in Bombay, India, which happens to be a Hindu country. The second largest group is Muslim. Even so, by choice, I am a Christian. Just because the majority religion is one thing doesn't make it right or wrong. By the way, [this] is equally true about beliefs in history or science. If you are born in Oxford, England you are more likely to believe the Theory of Evolution than if you are born in Oxford, Mississippi. If you are born in New Guinea you are less likely to accept Einstein's Theory of Relativity than if you are born in New York City. What does this say about whether Einstein's Theory of Relativity is true? Absolutely nothing." ("Our Inescapable Pluralism," fn. 5)

In logic, "truth" is a function of statements. A "statement" (or "proposition") is a sentence that is either true or false. The truth or falsity of a statement is independent of its cultural situatedness. So we see that in logic texts issues of sociology, anthropology, and psychology have little or no place in evaluating arguments. The fact that there are multiple competing theories does not change this. Indeed, any and every theory faces the "problem" of the fact of pluralism. But this fact does not pose an epistemic obstacle to the search for true theories.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Redeemer Ministry School - The Problem of Evil

In my RMS Apologetics class this week I will be introducing RMS students to the "problem of evil" as it relates to the existence of God.

I will also address the issue as to whether or not "religion" is intrinsically evil. We'll look at how R. Dawkins, S. Harris, and C. Hitchens present this, and show their reasoning to be popular (in a small way) but false.

(WANT TO STUDY WITH ME FOR 9 MONTHS IN 2010-2011? Join me, our incredible teaching faculty, and other students for nine months that will change your life. See Redeemer Ministry School.)

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Sadducees (not the Pharisees) Denied Resurrection & the Afterlife

In my message at Redeemer this Easter morning I mistakenly said that it was the Pharisees who denied resurrection and the afterlife. That was a mistake. The Pharisees affirmed the idea of resurrection, the Sadducees denied it.

N.T. Wright says: "In the postbiblical period, the Jewish group known as the Sadducees famously denied the future life altogether. The Sadducees, according to the first-century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus, held that “the soul perishes along with the body” (18.16)... "Resurrection” is not simply death from another viewpoint; it is the reversal of death, its cancellation, the destruction of its power. That is what pagans denied, and what Daniel, 2 Maccabees, the Pharisees and arguably most first-century C.E. Jews affirmed, justifying their belief by reference to the creator God and this God’s passion for eventual justice."

(Thank you Jeff B. for pointing this out to me!)

Easter Morning, Merton, and Metaphor

(Door, in Jerusalem)

Thomas Merton writes:

“The grace of Easter is a great silence, an immense tranquility and a clean taste in your soul. It is the taste of heaven, but not the heaven of some wild exaltation. The Easter vision is not riot and drunkenness of spirit but a discovery of order above all order – a discovery of God and of all things in Him. This is a wine without intoxication, a joy that has no poison hidden in it. It is life without death…." (The Sign of Jonas, 297-298)

I like how Merton puts this metaphorically. His metaphor is rooted in the certainty of this great historical truth. Significant historical truths always give rise to metaphorical fruit. This sort of thing has been, and remains, one of my great interests.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

A "Resurgent" Atheist Movement of 300

I'm sorry, but this brought a smile to my face. :)

CNN has, as one of it's headlines, "Atheists Cite Resurgence as They Gather on Easter Weekend." The article reads: "While millions of Christians worldwide will celebrate Easter this weekend, David Silverman has other plans. Silverman will join about 300 atheists in a Newark, New Jersey, hotel ballroom to proclaim another message: The atheist movement in America is growing." So, were there 299 at last year's meeting?

"300"??!! At the "36th annual American Atheists National Convention." (We'll have 400-500 at my church tomorrow. Should I announce "We won?")

I quote, from the movie "300":

"So my king died, and my brothers died, barely a year ago. Long I pondered my king's cryptic talk of victory. But time has proven him wise, for from free Greek to free Greek the word was spread that bold Leonidas and his 300, so far from home, laid down their lives, not just for Sparta, but for all Greece and the promise this country holds. Now, here on this ragged patch of earth called Plataea, Xerxes hordes face obliteration! Just there the barbarians huddle, sheer terror gripping tight their hearts with icy fingers, knowing full well what merciless horrors they suffered at the swords and spears of 300. Yet they stare now across the plain at 10,000 Spartans commanding 30,000 free Greeks! Ho! The enemy outnumber us a paltry three to one! Good odds for any Greek. This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny, and usher in a future brighter than anything we can imagine. Give thanks, men, to Leonidas and the brave 300! To victory!"

Note: A year ago I was sitting in Panera Bread when our county's Atheist Society had its meeting three tables away from me. They were snickering about people who believed in God. There were three of them.

Free E-book On the Resurrection of Jesus

Biblical Archaeological Review offers a free e-book "Easter: Exploring the Resurrection of Jesus."

See especially N.T. Wright's article "The Resurrection of Resurrection." Some Wright quotes include:

  • "Christianity was born into a world where one of its central tenets, resurrection, was universally recognized as false. Except, of course, in Judaism."
  •  In Judaism the concept of resurrection is "a late arrival." "Clear statements of resurrection are extremely rare. Daniel 12 is the most blatant, and remembered as such for centuries afterwards: "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." Daniel is, however, the latest book of the Hebrew Bible."
  • The Sadducees "famously denied the future life altogether."
  • The Sadducees held that "the soul perishes along with the body."
  • "The clearest statements of resurrection after Daniel 12 are found in 2 Maccabees, the Mishnah and later rabbinic writings."
  • "Resurrection does not mean 'being raised to heaven' or 'taken up in glory'... 'Resurrection' is not simply death from another viewpoint; it is the reversal of death, its cancellation, the destruction of its power."
  • "The early Christian hope for bodily resurrection is clarly Jewish in origin, there being no possible pagan antecedent."
  • The early Christian belief re. 'resurrection' is: "the overcoming of death by the justice-bringing death of the creator God."
  • "For early Christians, resurrection was seen to consist of passing through death and out the other side into a new sort of bodily life." See Romans 8:11. Wright says: "This is a radical mutation from within Jewish belief."

Friday, April 02, 2010

Easter Week: Further Up, Further In

(Linda and I, at Caesarea Philippi north of Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean Sea)

Do I love the things this week brings? Yes. Yesterday was, for me, an extended meditation on the cross-event of Jesus, using the Gospel stories + some current texts by Craig Evans and N.T. Wright to assist me. At one point yesterday, I confess, I began crying while contemplating Jesus, who is my Rescuer. I am, and will be, always grateful for the redemptive work Christ has done and continues to do in me. The fruit of this continues to be that I find engaging in redemptive work on behalf of others the most rewarding experiences of my life.

There is a greater and greater converging point happening for me. Today through Sunday I am personally fathoming the depth of what Paul writes in Philippians 3:10 - "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death."

Me too. More than ever. This spring marks 40 years of following after Jesus. It's been an adventurous, imperfect, enriching experience that I would not trade for anything. I think of C.S. Lewis's attempt in the Chronicles of Narnia to describe heaven, not as a static place, but as a never-ending movement of "further up, further in."

When Paul writes about "knowing" Christ, it's instructive to remember that, for him, "knowing" is relational, not theoretical. It is like a husband who knows his wife, and vice versa. As a result of being married to Linda for over 36 years I "know" things about her that no one else could know. (Philosopher of science Michael Polanyi called this "tacit knowledge.")

To know Christ, now and in the days ahead, more deeply. My heart cries out, "I want to know you, Lord."

Religious People Are More Generous, More Gracious

Robert Putnam's American Grace is coming out soon. Putnam famously wrote Bowling Alone. Putnam's book is reviewed at by Michal Gerson.

Gerson says American Grace is going to make some people unhappy, since it will show that, "against the expectations of hard-core secularists, Putnam asserts, "religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens." They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more socially engaged than the unaffiliated."

In our community, as regards our huge and successful efforts to see that no one goes without food and a meal every day of the week, it's a 100% "religious" (Christian) effort. Our church is one that has been at the forefront of this very good thing. I've many times served with our people and others in our Godworks Soup Kitchen meals. And, I remember inviting a local leading atheist, in a private discussion, to serve with me. He refused. Of course that's a very, very small sampling. But it appears that Putnam, of Harvard, finds what's happening on our city to be close to the norm.

Gerson: The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: "If this is religion, I'm not interested." The social views of this younger cohort are not entirely predictable: Both the pro-life and the homosexual-rights movement have made gains. But Americans in their 20s are much more secular than the baby boomers were at the same stage of life. About 30 to 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated (designated "nones," as opposed to "nuns" -- I was initially confused). Putnam calls this "a stunning development." As many liberals suspected, the religious right was not good for religion...

...But Putnam regards the growth of the "nones" as a spike, not a permanent trend. The young, in general, are not committed secularists. "They are not in church, but they might be if a church weren't like the religious right. . . . There are almost certain to be religious entrepreneurs to fill that niche with a moderate evangelical religion, without political overtones."
This rings true to me. The 70-100 philosophy students I teach every year, while incerasingly uninterested in Christian and religious politics, are overwhelmingly, even phenomenally, interested in "religious" things like talking about God, spirituality-issues, and so on. My interaction with college students has generated countless phone and personal (over coffee :)) conversations.