Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Why I Am Still A Christian

Self portrait

At the end of one of my Philosophy of Religion classes a student asked me why I am a Christian. Why, among the world religions, would I choose Christianity? My answer went like this (I'm expanding on it here). 


My Christian faith is based on the following.

1. My Conversion Experience
2. My Subsequent Studies
3. My Ongoing Experience.
I came to believe because of a powerful experience that changed my life and worldview. The result of this experience included subsequent study and increasing experience. Credo (I believed); Intelligam (I grew in understanding).

Credo: My Conversion Experience

From age 18-21 I was heavily into alcohol and drugs. I flunked out of college. A lot of things were getting ruined in my life as a result of my addictions. I was in a deep hole dug by myself. I was afflicted, and didn’t know where to turn. Actually, I didn't think I needed help.

One day I hit a low. I thought, "I am screwed up." I prayed and said, “God if you are real and if Jesus is real, then help me. If you help me I’ll follow you.” That was the last day I did drugs. 

This happened. My worldview was rocked. I attribute it to Jesus.

I see similarities between my conversion to Christianity and C.S. Lewis's conversion from atheism to Christianity. Lewis wrote:

"As the dry bones shook and came together in that dreadful valley of Ezekiel's, so now a philosophical theorem, cerebrally entertained, began to stir and heave and throw off its grave cloths, and stood upright and became a living presence. I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer. It might, as I say, still be true that my "Spirit" differed in some way from "the God of popular religion." My Adversary waived the point. It sank into utter unimportance. He would not argue about it. He only said, "I am the Lord"; "I am that I am"; "I am." People who are naturally religious find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about "man's search for God." To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse's search for the cat." (From Surprised By Joy)

The cat found the mouse. God found me. I was receptive. God exists. God loves me. 


Intelligam: Understanding What Happened to Me 

This didn't happen in a vacuum. The soil of my heart had been softening for some time. I was looking for Help. Help came. My life forever changed. What shall I make of this?
  • If this event had not happened I would not have become a Jesus-follower. I needed something experiential that could change me. It happened. 
  • I agree with William James who, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, writes: "A mystical experience is authoritative for the one who experiences it. But a mystical experience that happens to one person need not be authoritative for other people." I'm good with that. (With the exception that the mystical-religious experiences of certain other persons have carried authority with me because of, to me, their credibility.)
  • My initial religious experience ripped me out of non-reflective deism into full-blown Christian theism. I now believed in God, and in Jesus. This experiential belief had an evidential quality for me, and propelled me to go after an understanding of what had happened. 47 years later, this has not stopped. Today I am a deeper believer in God and Jesus than ever.
  • True religion (not the jeans - they are too expensive) includes experience. Theory without experience is empty. Hebrew-Christianity is essentially about a relationship with God, a mutual indwelling experiential reality. This includes prayer-as-dialogue with God, the sense of God's presence, being-led by God, and so on. And worship. 
  • Worship is experiential and logical in the sense that: If God is love, and God is real, and love is about relationship (love has an "other"), then it follows that one will know and be known by God. ("Know," in Hebrew, means experiential intimacy, and not Cartesian subject-object distance. For more see, e.g., the current writings of James K.A. Smith. See also Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga's chapter of faith as knowledge, in Knowledge and Christian Belief.)
  • I realize certain atheists claim to have no religious experience at all. John Allen Paulos, for example, in his Irreligion, claims not to have a religious bone in his body. I don't doubt this. This fact does not rationally deter me, just as I am certain C.S. Lewis's religious experiences don't budge Paulos from his atheism. (I'm now thinking of Antony Flew's recent conversion from atheism to deism. Flew was moved by the logic of the fine-tuning argument for God's existence. And the case of the famous and brilliant British atheist A.J. Ayer who had a vision and began to be interested in God.)
  • I keep returning to my initial God-encounter. It functions, for me, as a raison d-etre. Philosophically, it's one of a number of "properly basic" experiences I've had, still have, and will have. (See, e.g., philosophers like William P. Alston.)
I began to study about Christianity. I wanted to know: is Christianity true? Is there any epistemic warrant for my God-encounter experience? I changed my major in college from music theory to philosophy.

My studies confirmed my initial act of faith. Here are some things I believe to be academically sound.

  • Good reasons can be given to believe in God.  I have, since 1970, studied and taught the arguments for and against the existence of God. I believe it is more rational to believe in God than to disbelieve.
  • The New Testament documents are reliable in their witness to the historical person Jesus. (The recent minority Facebook claim that Jesus never existed is sheer unstudied goofiness.) (See, e.g., something like Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, or Craig Keener's The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.)
  • A strong inductive argument can be made for the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. (I shared briefly about this in my response to the student's question.)
  • Miracles - I have seen many, by means of inference to the best explanation. That is, I have seen and written of events that are best explained supernaturally, not naturally.
  • Christianity is qualitatively distinct from the other major world religions. Only Christianity tells us that God loves us not for what we do or where we live but for who we are. The Christian word for this is “grace” and, to me, this is huge. The other major world religions are rule-based; Christianity is grace-based. And, in distinction from other religious alternatives, Christianity's claim is that God has come to us. These kind of things make Christianity more plausible than the other alternatives.
My initial life-changing encounter with God led to a lifetime of Jesus-following, God-knowing, and God-seeking. God did and continues to reveal himself to me. My faith is experiential, relational, and rational/reasonable. (Note: it's not without questions. Anyone who studies their own worldview will have intra-worldview puzzles. This includes me.)

For these reasons I became a follower of Jesus and remain one.


***
I describe my ongoing experience with God in two books:

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God

Leading the Presence-Driven Church

Preaching on the Kenosis This Coming Sunday

 

                                                                           (Redeemer)

I'm preaching on the Kenosis this coming Sunday at Redeemer.

My prep for this message includes:

Reading the text, over and over. Carrying it with me. Pulling it out when I have breaks, and meditating on it.

Using Gordon Fee's brilliant book Pauline Christology to go deep.

Praying the text. When God speaks to me, I take notes. Some of these will make it into this Sunday's sermon.

Expecting God to make this sermon more than human thoughts and words.

Sensing that God will take it all and activate our people with a fresh anointing of His Spirit for discipleship.


Philippians 2:5-11

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing (Greek kenosis; ἐκένωσεν ]
by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! 


Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Faith and Grace

 


The person stood in my office, looked at all the books on my shelf, and said, "I live by faith, not by knowledge."

I responded, "The opposite of faith is not knowledge. It's "living by sight.""

Another person, in another time and place, said, "I live by grace, not by effort."

I responded, "The opposite of grace is not effort. It's "earning.""

Dallas Willard writes,

"To put these ideas together, then, we make an effort to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling,” but in grace “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). It’s right that we are to make the effort to “get understanding” (Proverbs 4:5, 7), yet it is by grace that “the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (2:6)."

(In Willard, Hearing God Through the Year, p. 297)

Monday, November 29, 2021

Honor in the Real Church

 


(Weko Beach, Michigan)

Someone in my church FAMILY asked me to say some things about "honor." Here are a few ideas.

Honor is respect for other people. This does not mean you agree with everything other people say. Honor is a way of treating other people. Remember that Jesus said "Honor your father and mother." (Matthew 15:4) He does not add, "only if you agree with them about everything." 1 Peter 2:7 says, "Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor." (Even the emperor? Think about it. Do not get your ethics from the media.)

Honor thinks of other people before it thinks of oneself. Romans 12:10 says, "Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves."

Honor dignifies others. Honor does not talk negatively about people behind their back. That's called slander. Or gossip. Slander is saying something about a person behind their back that you would never say to their face.

Honor is different from flattery or sucking up to people, which are forms of dishonor. Flattery is saying something to someone's face that you would never say about them behind their back.

Honor does not gripe or complain about other people behind their back. To do that is to take what John Bevere called "the bait of Satan," and dangle Satan's bait before the ears of others.

Honor listens. Honor has "ears to hear."

Honor is a subcategory of love. Love is the great umbrella, beneath which honor is one of love's expressions. Honor is one way of expressing love.

Honor does not enable the transgressions of others. Enabling people in their failure, or in their sin, is dishonoring. 

Dishonor is disrespect. Dishonor disses others; honor elevates others.

Dishonor judges before understanding. Honor works to understand before evaluating or judging. Judging before understanding is the game of fools; understanding before judging is wisdom.

A culture of honor extends to isolated people. Dishonor plays favorites.

Honor-able people are people capable of treating others according to their true identities, as sons and daughters of God.

Real Church cultivates an honor culture. We may not agree with everything and everyone, but we never dishonor one another.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Acquiring a God-perspective on Our Government Leaders


If you are a follower of Jesus, you should view this week's political events through the lens of the Christian narrative. 

You won't get this from the media. 

Do not frame political events through the secular media. 

Do not allow this world's mold to shape you.

Acquire a God-perspective, and live and pray from there.

Pray, "God, let me see earth, through heaven."

Meditate on these Scriptures.
















When Does a Human Life Begin?

 


(Frost on car window)

"An amicus curiae (literally, "friend of the court"; plural: amici curiae) often referred to as amicus brief is defined as the legal brief where someone who is not a party to a case assists a court by offering information, expertise, or insight that has a bearing on the issues in the case. The decision on whether to consider an amicus brief lies within the discretion of the court. The phrase amicus curiae is legal Latin and its origin of the term has been dated back to 1605-1615. The scope of amicus curiae is generally found in the cases where broad public interests are involved and concerns regarding civil rights are in question." (From Wikipedia)

One of the legal briefs accepted by the Supreme Court in the coming Dobbs case regarding abortion rights concerns the following.

(From the brief.) 

"Amici curiae are biologists who work at colleges, universities, and other institutions in 15 countries around the world.

The fertilization view is widely recognized—in the literature and by biologists—as the leading biological view on when a human’s life begins... An international survey of academic biologists’ views on when a human’s life begins reported 96% of 5,577 participants affirmed the fertilization view. 

Fertilization, generally, marks the beginning of a sexually reproducing organism’s life and, specifically, marks the beginning of a human’s life, as it is the point at which a human first comes into physical existence as an organism that is biologically classified as a member of the Homo sapiens species."

When someone asks me why I am against abortion, my response is: Because I am against killing an innocent, defenseless human being.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

An Atheist Tries to be Thankful to Something

(Flowers in my front yard)

I often have a feeling, a sense, of gratitude that leads me to say, "thank you." I experience existential thankfulness for life, for being alive. My very existence is a gift. 

As a Christian theist my words of thanksgiving are addressed to God. God, thank You... so very much! 


For an atheist things are different.

Ronald Aronson, Professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University, wrote an essay called "Thank Who Very Much?" The reason for the question mark is that, as an atheist, Aronson feels "thankful," but because God does not exist he wonders just who or what he should thank.


Aronson believes a person can be legitimately thankful without either: a) belief in a God; or b) falling into existentialist absurdity. What's his alternative?


He writes: "Think of the sun's warmth. After all, the sun is one of those forces that make possible the natural world, plant life, even our very existence. It may not mean anything to us personally, but the warmth on our face means, tells us, a great deal. All of life on earth has evolved in relation to this source of heat and light, we human beings included. We are because of, and in our own millennial adaptation to, the sun and other fundamental forces."


So? For Aronson, one can feel gratitude by "acknowledging one of our most intimate if impersonal relationships, with the cosmic and natural forces that make us possible." An atheist can show gratitude "to larger and impersonal forces." Because "we derive our existence from, and belong to, both natural forces and generations that preceded us, ... it is just possible that we will often feel connected [to such forces and generations], and often grateful."


Aronson says that when we gather together with friends on one of those snuggly holiday nights, we may be overcome by "a warm, joyous, comfortable feeling, even a moment of well-being - but to whom or to what?" The answer is: "Obviously, to natural forces and processes that have made our own life, and this reunion, possible."


So, thank you strong force, thank you weak force, thank you electromagnetic force, than you gravity, thank you evolution. Thank you particles, protons, neutrons, electron, quarks, and dark matter. 


Good night, moon.

For me, this attempt to find some object of gratitude sans God doesn't work. I'll take the following dichotomy: either God, or Camus-ian absurdity. Aronson's idea sounds like a spiritless animism (which is, of course, a contradiction). 


Thankfulness, if it is to have any meaning at all, requires inter-personality. I experience innumerable moments of gratitude, but have never felt like thanking the wall of my house for holding up the roof. Thanking "impersonal forces," no matter how "large" they are, is no different than walking outside and thanking your lawn for being green. See again Camus, Sartre, and a host of atheistic existentialists who write on the absurdity of moral feelings, purposive feelings, and so on.


To say "Thank you" only makes sense if there is someone who can or could have responded, "You are welcome."


Aronson the atheist feels thankful. I do not doubt this. As an atheist, he doesn't want his thankful feelings to be absurd. But thanking impersonal forces is absurd, like thanking your stuffed teddy bear for loving you. 


The raw truth remains: No God = no ultimate meaning. Such is the logic of atheism, on which there is nothing, no one, to thank.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Gratitude Links + Thanksgiving Declarations

                                       (Redeemer sanctuary)
 

It's the day before Thanksgiving Day. Be thankful!

Gratitude is greater than bitterness. Thankfulness is better than resentment. 


Colossians 3:15 says:

Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.

A heart of thankfulness positively affects one’s entire being. Some scientific studies confirm this. Here are some of them.

From “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier” (Harvard Medical School)

  • “Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
  • Dr. Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania) says most studies on showing gratitude to others support an association between gratitude and an individual’s well-being.
  • Gratitude can improve relationships. “For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.
  • Gratitude is associated with emotional maturity.
  • “Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier, or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.”

Here are some ways to cultivate gratitude on a regular basis.
·        Write a thank-you note.
·        Thank someone mentally. (“It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank the individual.”)
·        Keep a gratitude journal. I make lists of things I am thankful for and carry them with me.
·        Count your blessings.
·        Pray. “People who are religious can use prayer to cultivate gratitude.”


Research reveals that gratitude can have these benefits.

  • ·        Gratitude opens the door to more relationships.
  • ·        Gratitude improves physical health. “Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and they report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences.”
  • ·        Gratitude improves psychological health. “Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a leading gratitude researcher, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.
  • ·        Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. “Grateful people are more likely to behave in a prosocial manner, even when others behave less kind, according to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky. Study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.”
  • ·        Grateful people sleep better. “Writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Spend just 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed, and you may sleep better and longer." 
  • ·        Gratitude improves self-esteem.(Acc. to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.)
  • ·        Gratitude increases mental strength. (Acc. to a 2006 study in Behavior Research and Therapy, and a 2003 study in the Journal of Personality and social Psychology.


From “Giving Thanks: The Benefits of Gratitude” (Psychology Today)
·        
Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough “point out the benefits of expressing gratitude as ranging from better physical health to improved mental alertness. People who express gratitude also are more likely to offer emotional support to others.

·        “Expressing gratitude in your daily life might even have a protective effect on staving off certain forms of psychological disorders. In a review article published this past March (see below), researchers found that habitually focusing on and appreciating the positive aspects of life is related to a generally higher level of psychological well-being and a lower risk of certain forms of psychopathology.
·        Increase your gratitude-ability by looking for small things to be thankful for.
From “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” (University of Berkeley)

·        It’s easy to take gratitude for granted. “That might be why so many people have dismissed gratitude as simple, obvious, and unworthy of serious attention. But that’s starting to change. Recently scientists have begun to chart a course of research aimed at understanding gratitude and the circumstances in which it flourishes or diminishes.”
·        Recent studies on people who practice thankfulness consistently report a number of benefits:
·        Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure;
·        Higher levels of positive emotions;
·        More joy, optimism, and happiness;
·        Acting with more generosity and compassion;
·        Feeling less lonely and isolated.

From “Thanksgiving, Gratitude, and Mental Health” (Psychiatry Advisor)
Gratitude can have a positive effect on a person’s emotions in four significant ways.

·        First, gratitude magnifies positive emotions by helping us to appreciate the value in something; thus gaining more benefit from it.  

·        Second, it blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, and regret - emotions that can destroy happiness.  

·        Third, gratitude fosters resiliency.

·        And lastly, gratitude promotes self worth. 


·        
  • Gratitude is good for your heart. “According to a recent study at the University of California, San Diego, being mindful of the things you're thankful for each day actually lowers inflammation in the heart and improves rhythm. Researchers looked at a group of adults with existing heart issues and had some keep a gratitude journal. After just two months, they found that the grateful group actually showed improved heart health.”
  • ·        You’ll smarten up. “Teens who actively practiced an attitude of gratitude had higher GPAs than their ungrateful counterparts, says research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.”
  • ·         It’s good for your relationships. “Expressing gratitude instead of frustration will do more than just smooth things over—it will actually help your emotional health. Expressing and attitude of gratitude raises levels of empathy and abolishes any desire to get even, found researchers at the University of Kentucky.”
  • ·        You’ll sleep more soundly. “ Writing in a gratitude journal before turning in will help you get a longer, deeper night's sleep, says a study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.”

*****
DECLARATIONS of THANKSGIVING

THE SCRIPTURE

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians 4:6)

THE DECLARATIONS
    
My heart is filled with thankfulness because I am encountering God’s goodness and enduring love. (1 Chronicles 16:34)
·       As I listen to worship music I find I cannot stop giving thanks to God. (2 Chronicles 5:13)
·       As I share with others what God is doing in my life, my gratitude overflows onto them. (Psalm 9:1)
·       Today I am approaching God with thanksgiving, music, and songs. (Psalm 95:2)
·       I never fail to remember how God has rescued me. (Psalm 118:21)
·       Sometimes I wake in the night and find myself saying “Thank you” to God. (Psalm 119:62)
·       I see God transforming deserts into gardens, causing joy and gladness to flourish in my soul. (Isaiah 51:3)
·       I am being supernaturally delivered from sin and darkness. (Romans 7:25)
·       I live each day with a victorious mindset. (1 Corinthians 15:57)
·       An ocean of God’s grace is overwhelming me, causing an overflow of thanksgiving that glorifies God. (2 Corinthians 4:15)
·       God is using me to supply the needs of the Lord’s people, resulting in many expressions of thanks to God. (2 Corinthians 9:12)
·       As I remember my brothers and sisters my soul is saturated with prayers of thanks for them. (Ephesians 1:16)