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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A God that Could be Real - Book Review

Nancy Ellen Abrams' latest book provides insight on how a naturalist and life-long skeptic could make spiritual sense out of world which she believes is necessarily closed to any supernatural entity.


From the start, assumptions are made about the character of the universe.  In the introduction, she makes two points which dominated the book: 1. "All the old views of God are demonstrably inadequate to our times (xxx)." 2. God can only be real if it is found within the natural explanations available in the universe (xxviii).

I found the book to be filled with similar assumptions that took for granted a naturalist view of the universe. For example, the Abram's assumes God could never communicate faster than the speed of light and could therefore never know everything. Why? Because she knows of no physical and scientific explanation of how this could be possible.  So, from the beginning everything is assumed, which for me makes a rather droll reading.

Where does her God come from if everything has a naturalistic explanations? Philosophy and life both provide an answer in this case.

Abram's has a background in philosophy (B.A. in the History and Philosophy of Science from University of Chicago) and employs it well to develop a naturalistic theory of God (her capitalization). Emergent properties are those properties of a new entity which are not solely explainable in terms of previously existing properties of constituent agents.  Two of her main examples are ant colonies and economic markets.

An ant colony may described as having emergent properties because the colony does things like move immense amounts of dirt and prioritizes food sources.  No individual ant is doing these tasks, the colony instead is responsible for the.  Second, an economic market has power to act and complexity which no individual participant can understand or control.

I happen to believe emergent properties are real.  Abrams' insufficiently explains emergent properties though.  She also uses some bad examples, our inability to individually understand or control either how all the constituent parts of something like a market work does not mean that it is impossible to do so. An argument from incomprehensibility is not a  very good argument in my view, at least if you are trying to maintain a purely naturalistic explanation of the world.  It reminds me in some ways of Colin McGinn's Mysterianism. In such a view, humans are never going to understand certain things completely, but we must accept them as natural.  As to ant colonies: complexity, synergy, and laws of averages may be sufficient to naturally explain the so-called emergent properties of ant colony. I do not happen to believe an ant colony actually has emergent properties.

In any case, the philosophical idea of a naturalistic God is one that emerges from the collective consciousness of humans.  This God is not omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, or most of the other omnis God is famous for in theology.  I say most because it seems at least possible that this God could be omni-benevolent from Abram's point of view.  This God is consciousness on a large scale and it has all the benefits and rose-tinted outlook you might expect from such a God.

Particularly, this God effectively works to help answer personal prayers of fulfillment and self-worth of the individual as well as spurring as on to good deeds.  This is Abrams' God which brought her through some hard times in life. In this sense, it is a helpful and useful idea. It may even be a true idea purely in terms of its explanatory power of how people who have wrong ideas of God may still benefit from them in this life.

It seems Nancy Ellen Abrams and I agree that certain things in life are valuable like health, common decency, rational thought, and a pursuit of truth.  That at least is a good thing. We even happen to agree that, "There is one magnificent cosmic origin story, and it is equally true for everyone on Earth. To know who we are, we must tell it in every language, every medium, and every generation." We don't happen to agree on what that origin story is though. Fundamentally, her book is the work of a naturalist who wants to act as an evangelist for her God.  Although it includes some rational defense of her belief, it is ultimately and simply the exposition of rational preacher trying to fill hearts and minds with something more.

This is where I believe the book fails. I cannot simply and blindly follow this evangelist's points of conjecture and just believe in faith that this natural world is all there is in existence.  It is a leap of faith I can't take.

I would recommend this book to those who are interested in the intersection of faith, public policy, scientific naturalism, and current social trends in the U.S.  In that sense, I think this book portrays an accurate picture of the world. It is not technical, instead being designed for the lay-person with a college education.

I received my review copy through Library Thing's monthly book giveaways and the generosity of Beacon Press with the assistance of Daniel Barks, Sales Assistant. Thanks to both for my review copy.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Direction

Life is always full of unexpected challenges and opportunities.  During the past couple of years, I have been surprised over and over again as I take time to review, contemplate, and assess my experiences.  The surprises usually come when I take a look at the times which I thought of as unproductive or even counterproductive.

One of the things that I have consistently noted is how I have become a much more detailed oriented person than I used to be as an early twenty something.  It is not that I am some master of organization now- that will probably never happen.  Instead, I am very aware of my own faults and I'm o.k. with them.  Being o.k. with my faults doesn't mean that I encourage bad behaviors; it just means that I am aware of them and I know how to deal with them much better.

For example, I recently realized I was not taking an accurate view of myself and the way I spent my time.  There were times when I was far too optimistic and rosy, and there were times when I was way too hard on myself.  So, when I realized this I decided to start doing some specific disciplines again.

First, I started a journal.  Each day I take some time to fill a notebook with what I have done with my time.   Accomplishments, prayer, conversations, and daily events now litter my notebook. It is even starting to be a habit I look forward to each day. At first it was annoying, but now I can see areas of growth and areas which I need improvement.

Second, I started taking a picture of something ever day.  My focus with every picture is to find something which explains a little part of my life.  Visually recording these things helps me bring some cohesiveness to the fractures I sometimes feel with my time.

Finally, my prayer life has become more regular.  There are several parts to it but two of my focuses right now are praying for opportunities for me and my Christian friends to share Jesus, and a regular confession and lament over sin.  There have been times when I didn't take either of these parts of my prayer life as seriously, and I know that my relationship with God and other people have floundered.  Praying in this way helps me stay on course.

I'm not sure where God is going to take us next, but we will be ready for it. These disciplines are helping me to submit to God regularly and joyfully. It's not necessarily comfortable, but it is freeing and peaceful.


It could be compared to taking a long road trip. Rarely are such trips completely cushy and comfortable.  Still, memorable roads trips always deliver amazing experiences, even when they are subtle and long in the uptake.  

In my twenties, I wanted shorter trips so I could get somewhere quick. Usually this was somewhere I wanted to go, somewhere I had fantasized about. Right now, I'm ready for the long haul...ready to find out where the road takes me.  Surprises aren't a bad thing. 

It's o.k. if we don't get there right away. We'll get there though. We just need to keep going in the right direction. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Great Conversation Starter - Considering Hate

I love it when a good conversation starts. You can tell when it happens, each party engages the other with animation and without animosity.  Passion meets intellect while a back and forth ensues. This book is a great way to start one of those conversations.* 


While reading, I found myself having one of those conversations internally with the authors of the book. The authors come from a very different perspective than my own, and this would not typically be a book I would just pick up and read.  However, by forcing myself to consider their perspective through the discursive nature of their book, I have been able to expand my own response to the issues therein. 

Considering Hate presents a counter-cultural narrative on how to combat violence and hate within America.  Although most people view violent acts as atypical aberrant acts, the authors make the case that violent acts are more typically the expected outworking of a hate filled society.  Hate as such is not the visceral, internalized feelings of those on the fringe of society. Instead, it is the product of a society which allows itself to be divided into groups of those who belong and those who are outsiders.  In this breakdown, outsiders are seen as less than human and for this reason acts of violence are perpetrated against them in order to further humanize the group in control.  

The main trope of the book, seen as an example on the cover, is that of love and hate as opposing sides of the same culture.  The image comes from the films The Night of the Hunter and Do the Right Thing. In each of these films, love can only conquer hate by using equal measures of control, domination, and power to overcome hate.  The problem with this metaphor may be found in its continuity with the culture of hate.  How can a culture of hate be overcome with a love founded on the same assertions of dominance? In particular, preference for being part of one group and not another becomes the only reason for calling one type of action love and another one hate.

Within this context, the authors develop their case for the current inculcation of a culture of hate within American.  Deeply embedded within our media lies an undercurrent of violence.  The authors point out many examples from popular culture to illustrate this point. Throughout the book, fear is shown to be at the root of this culture of harm and hate. The recent growth and development of the prison state emphatically points to this facet of American culture. 

If overcoming love with hate through an overwhelming show of opposite force is not the answer, then what is the solution?

Responsible action motivated toward healing, reparation, reconciliation, and transformation of the underlying conditions must change our society.  In order for this to happen, those who create harm and violence must begin to work not only to end these actions but also to heal those wounds.  Primarily, this must be done by ordinary people because this is a societal problem not a leadership one.  In particular, if violence is the norm because we are a violent society, then we must work to change what society is if we want to be less violent. Leaders of our society are only as powerful as they are endowed to be as a reflection of our state of being. 

The authors make a strong case for acts of intentional care and compassion. Only by reaching beyond our fear in love can we transcend hate.   When we conquer our fear by seeing and treating other people groups as people, we may be able to transform our society into one of justice.  

A quote from the end of the book is illustrative at this point:
"It is impossible to explore questions of goodness without a willingness to witness, examine, and resist brutality and inhumanity." (pg. 142)

The authors, Whitlock and Bronski, do a fine job of putting their case forward in an approachable and understandable way.  At the end, I found myself wanting to engage in dialogue with those I may disagree with on social, economic, or political issues.  A good book will do this, despite any reservations one may have with particular issues in the book.  In fact, working through these disagreements in dialogue is the hallmark of a democratic society. 

As a Christian, I love having books challenge my perspective and bring me back to Christ.  Do I endorse everything in this book? No, but that is typical of many books.  Did this book make me think and re-evaluate my approach to violence, hate, justice, compassion, and goodness? Absolutely. I think that makes it a profitable read for discerning Christians.  After all, Christ calls us to serve and love, not control and hold power over others. 

For any adult, I would encourage them to read this book so that conversations may happen.  I believe people want to think they are good people. If we are to be a society that concerns itself with the issue of goodness we must be willing to carefully consider the case for a new type of love, one based upon what may be unfamiliar in giving up our power and position. 

And finally, quoting from Barry Lopez's "Eden is a Conversation" piece:
"Conversations are efforts toward good relations." (pg. 138)

May we be people who have good relations with others.  


*My thanks to Daniel Barks at Beacon Press who sent me a free review copy of the book, Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics by Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski. Also, thanks to LibraryThing for facilitating the giveaway of review books like this one. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I Hate Resolutions

Resolutions rarely do anyone any good.  The new year is a great time to celebrate something new, something exciting, and a different way of approaching things. Resolutions are a dumb idea though.  Why would I say something like that? Because most people never follow through on resolutions.

If I say I resolve to do something, but never take an action I can still say I made a resolution.  It's the equivalent of having good intentions. Good intentions, by themselves, are worthless.  It's a similar thing to when someone says, "Oh, he's a really smart guy, he just never gets anything done."  Who cares how "smart" you are if you can't follow through with it.

Some Christians might ask about when Jesus talks about the interior life, i.e. in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  For example, if Jesus says that looking at a woman with lust is the same thing as committing adultery with her, then isn't Jesus saying our intentions are important? Yes and no. Define your terms! The intentions we ascribe as being "good intentions" are usually just fleeting thoughts.  These thoughts are only good intentions when we act on them.  We will return to those in just a minute, but suffice it to say that good intentions can only be good when follow through with action.

So what would be the big deal with thinking a certain way about a person of the opposite sex then? When we engage in malicious or sinful thoughts we are actually performing an action.  As Christians, the first specific action includes a willful disobedience to the work of the Holy Spirit.  When we choose to follow Christ as his disciples, we are gifted with the presence of the Holy Spirit. He encourages us to live in right relationship with God and other people.  At this point, we all know that God calls us to fidelity and faithfulness.   When we choose to indulge lust and other sinful thoughts we are changing the character and shape of our souls.  The Holy Spirit wants to form in us a Christ shaped soul, and we are literally changing it into a sin shaped soul!  Paul refers to this in Galatians as following the flesh or sarx, but I would simply say that it is becoming sin-like in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Ouch.

The reason good intentions are meaningless is that we are already filled with the capacity to do good things once the Holy Spirit indwells us.  There is no added value to our thoughts which are already good by the very nature of the Holy Spirit.  The meaning comes when we submit those thoughts to the person of the Holy Spirit and act on them in some way.

So, what about those cases where I have what would normally be called a good intention but something prevents me from following through on it? For example, let's say I want to clean part of the house before my wife comes home so that she has less stress tonight.  However, my children ending up getting sick and I am prevented from doing the cleaning.  In order for this good intention to carry any meaning I must attach an action to it- for example telling my wife or a good friend what I was planning.  Why does this telling change anything? It helps hold me accountable so that I will actually do what I said I will do. Then, when I am afforded the opportunity I will follow through with the rest of the action. If I fail to follow through when I have an opportunity, then we see what kind of intention I really had.

Resolutions and intentions only matter in terms of our actions.  By the way, this is how we form habits, but that's a post for another day.




Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Joy to the World

The Western Christmas season is upon us yet again.  I really struggled with the idea of making a Christmas post or not, but here you go anyway. My main reason for struggling with the idea is that most of the posts I read are tired, worn-out, and redundant (no offense meant to any particular bloggers- I might have a jaded opinion). Hopefully, this isn't one of those.

Why do people suffer? Happy question, I know. I think there are several reasons for this, but the main amount of human suffering in the world is caused by other humans.  Well, what about the people who suffer because of a natural disaster or a random accident? I still think many of those could be prevented if humans, as a whole, could actually love one another. Most people know by now that the limit on human resources isn't necessarily caused by a strict limit on those resources. Instead, greed, corruption, and hostility often limit the amount of resources shared among people groups. This leads to inability of people to avoid things like monsoons, build proper housing, and get access to clean food and water. I could go on with how our sinful nature affects us individually and globally.

In the midst of this, Christians see the need for Christ, especially at this time of year. Christ calls us to live sacrificially for others.  By this love, we hope to share Christ.  We want to transcend materialism, physicalism, and the downright ugliness of selfishness that surrounds us and indwells us all too often.

So, here are my suggestions for remembering and living joyfully this Christmas season. As always, these are written with myself in mind just as much as anyone else. 
1. Give until it hurts. Use your commodities like you live to give them away- money, time, and friendship (see #4 below). 
2. Review what it is that actually hurts. This C.S. Lewis quote from Mere Christianity can help you get started:
“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures exclude them.”
3. Pray in a sacrificial manner. Try setting your alarm for the middle of the night and getting up to pray for friends, family, coworkers who need Christ.  Give up a couple meals this month to fast and pray for Christians who are suffering. 
4. Treat your friendship like a commodity people need. I know this could be taken in a weird way, but we already treat our friendship as a valuable thing. We withhold it from people if we don't like them or we are tired of them. Conversely, we give it to those we deem worthy of it because they have earned our trust. What if instead of the Law of Diminishing Returns living in the back of our minds, we just became friends with other people sacrificially. I don't mind thinking of economic terms- let's just turn those economics upside down with the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. 
5. Trust Christ.  I don't have all the answers, but I really believe I know the One who does. It is time for me to start living like  I know Christ.  This kind of trust is the essence of joyful living. It also explains why it is not a euphoric or happy feeling, although those feelings may happen at times.  
6. Be cheerful. So, what is good cheer then? It is a willingness to help others without complaining. It is an ability to listen without judging.  It allows us to spend time, energy, and resources on others without an expectation of return.  All these things together form a cheerful disposition.  It also means we don't force Christ on others during this time or approach them from a position of power, arrogance, or control. 

I really believe we can celebrate Christ this Christmas. As a Christian, He has done immeasurably more for me than I could do for Him.  I can truly celebrate, Joy to the world! 

And now, the words to my favorite Christmas carol by Isaac Watts:

Joy to the World , the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.


Luke 2:8-12 (GNT) 

There were some shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone over them. They were terribly afraid,10 but the angel said to them, “Don't be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people. 11 This very day in David's town your Savior was born—Christ the Lord! 12 And this is what will prove it to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Monday, November 24, 2014

Three Books and a Few Thoughts on Reading

Three of the books I recently finished reading are:
1. With by Skye Jethani
2. Ordinary by Michael Horton 
3. After you Believe by N.T. Wright

I selected each of these books independently of the others, but they ended reinforcing similar enough principles I thought it wise to cover them in one post.


First, each book comes from a different perspective and tradition on the Christian faith. With comes from an evangelical, Ordinary is by a Reformed theologian, and NT Wright composes as an Anglican.   Despite these differences, each of the authors ends up addressing what Christian faith looks like in the long haul.   For this reason, I believe these books are best suited for someone who is ready to move on from the basics of Christianity to a longer path of obedience. 

Next, each book does a good job of making a unique contribution to discipleship literature.  In Ordinary, a case is made for the regular practice of Christian community.  Instead of seeking new methods as our identity, the local church must be committed to the original and simple institutions of the early church - i.e. communion, prayer, fellowship, and scripture.  When we realize the radical message of Christianity must be dependent on Christ alone, we give up trying to define ourselves in terms of our radical works. 

In this respect, With assisted me in thinking about the actual working out of personal discipleship.   The purpose of Skye's book is to help us give up life under, over, for, or from God and instead hold to a life of discipleship where we are in constant communion with God. Ultimately, this is about heart change. Being with God changes our perspective on the ordinary because it is here we find our satisfaction rather than in our attempts to control.

Wright is one of my favorite writers, and this book was no exception.  Although his slightly pedantic style can wear on me at times, in this book he winsomely crafts a middle road for the Christian life between legalism and antinomianism. Christian virtue becomes not an end in itself, but the product of a life lived regularly with God.  I think the common thread should be obvious between the three books at this point. 

In conclusion, none of these books on its own would have been a stand out classic. They are all good books, but they have their faults.   However, together these three together reinforced the importance of integrated discipleship. The flaws of individual perspectives can be crippling and distracting when I read.  While reading these books in tandem, the flaws were heavily outweighed by the complementary nature of the books. So, here are some things I've learned through the process, in addition to the things I'm thinking about long-term discipleship.

1. No one tradition has all the answers to a well-formed Christian principle, whether it by discipleship or any other important aspect of the Christian life. 
2. Reading more than one book at the same time can have benefits.
3. Particularly, reading with an awareness of the concepts, applications, and practical perspectives which may complement each other helps gives a deeper appreciation and useful of each individual book. The sum of the whole is greater than the distinct parts.
4. The Holy Spirit can work in ways I may consider mundane, such as my book choices. It is important to submit even those things in prayer to God.
5. My reading should be a regular and simple practice which benefits God's church. 

Overall, thinking about what I have learned has given me new perspective on Philippians 2:3-4, 
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (NIV)

When I read and study in the future, I want it to be even more for the glory of God, in service to His church. God continues to teach me excellent things and I must continue the process by living out in humility what I learn. 






Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Ministry Cave

If you've ever read the Harry Potter series you know how terrible and lonely caves can be.  The main antagonist in the story arc, Lord Voldemort, used a cave to hide some of his darkest secrets. It was there he tortured other children as a child. It was there he hid many of the dead bodies of people he had murdered, and he used their undead corpses as protection for a part of his evil soul.

In Plato's Republic we are greeted by the Allegory of the Cave. The cave is the place where ignorant men remain ignorant about the true nature of the world.  The cave really isn't a good place, as the Good is something outside of the cave.  Much more could be said about this little parable.

Suffice it to say we don't want to live in caves. They are dark. They are lonely. They isolate us from the warmth and clarity of the sun.

Being in vocational ministry is an isolating place. It can often feel like being in a cave.



It may not be the most isolating vocation, but it has to be one of them. I'm sure being a doctor, psychotherapist, or mortician may all be equally demanding emotionally and spiritually. However, I only know my experiences related to professional ministry.

Sometimes you have weeks that seem like they aren't going to end. The apparent setbacks pile on top of each other as if they have a personality and are eager to bury you.  At times like this, ministry can feel like a dank, dark cave on an island in some forgotten, arctic sea. Every time you feel like you deal with the next gust of chill wind, another one comes to knock you down.

So, how do I deal with it?

1. Christ alone.

If I value myself, my work, or my relationship to any of it by the outside factors (i.e. the setbacks) then I'm stuck in the cave and I'm never getting out.  Every time one of these things hits me, I realize it's time to pray. One of the simple prayers that brings me back into the presence of Christ is St. Patrick's shield or breastplate prayer:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I also pray for mercy based upon the sinner's plea in Luke 18:13. This leads me to my next point.

2. Perspective.

I'm a sinner saved by God's grace. God didn't need to love me, but He chose to because of His nature.  This changes everything.  "My" ministry isn't mine because even my life isn't mine anymore. I am Christ's- redeemed by Him and for Him. 

3. Reinvigorated clarity.  

When setbacks inevitably occur in ministry, it helps me to clear away the cobwebs of distractions and ambiguous purpose.   I am in ministry to help equip believers grow in Christ and introduce others to Christ.  Anything that hasn't helped with this dual purpose is not worth pursuing.  

4. Talking it out. 

Finally, I spend time with other believers who I can share my struggles with in a healthy way.  Staying positive and staying away from gossip are two of the marks of healthiness within these relationships. It doesn't mean I pretend everything is OK. It does mean we communicate clearly, assertively, and with grace. 

Of course, there are things I will never be able to share as far as details or names of those things getting me down within ministry. This would be a breach of trust.  However, I can and should share how I am doing and whether I am trusting Christ. This type of mutual confession is good for the soul and good for the church. 

This post helps remind me of my own calling as a disciple and as a minister.  I guess I couldn't sum it up better than Paul as he reminded the Roman church to work out their interpersonal stuff with love. 

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 
(Rom. 12:2)

Time to let Christ drag me on out of this cave and into the sunlight.  Let's overcome some evil today.