Monday, April 30, 2007

Is There a Uniquely "Christian" Way of Being Superior? 4-17-07

A Reflection on “Christian” Politics

In every political conflict, the feuding parties uniformly assume that they are wiser and/or morally superior to their opponents. They have to. On what other basis could two political parties oppose each other?

For example, if you oppose the Republican or Democratic economic plan, it’s because you believe it is either unwise or unfair – and this, of course, presupposes that you have more insight and/or a greater sense of justice than those who espouse whatever plan you oppose. So it is for every conceivable political dispute you could imagine. Should we have a timetable for withdrawing US troops from Iraq? Should stem cell research be legal? Should all abortion be outlawed? Should laws be passed that aim to reduce the human contribution to global warming (if there is indeed a significant human contribution to global warming)? And so on. Whatever position you assume on divisive questions such as these, you have to assume that those who oppose you are wrong either because they lack your superior insight or they lack your superior moral sensitivity.

This raises an interesting question: Does following Jesus make a person smarter or morally superior to others? Many people seem to think so, but a momentary glance at Church history and at the Church today is enough to demonstrate that the answer is “obviously not.” But even if it did, would it ever be part of our unique call as Christians to take public stands predicated on our assumed superior wisdom or moral sensitivity? That is to say, would it ever be part of our job as Christians to present our supposedly superior positions as the “Christian” position? In other words, Is there a uniquely “Christian” way of being smarter and morally superior?

It seems to me that the New Testament commands followers of Jesus to assume an opposite stance. We are to humbly place ourselves under others (Phil. 2:3-5; Eph 4.2) and to regard our own sins as much greater than other people’s sins (Mt. 7:1-5)? Of course, we may have opinions about certain political issues, and undoubtedly we think our opinion is right (why else would we hold it?). But in light of what has been said, it seems we should take great care to not claim there’s anything distinctly “Christian” about our assumed superiority. For all I know, you may in fact be wiser and more morally developed than all who disagree with you. Congratulations. But that doesn’t make your view “Christian.” It just makes you politically smart and moral.

So by all means go ahead and have your opinions about how to best fix the world. Be wise and moral, and vote accordingly. But please don’t ever label your views “Christian.”

Finally, never forget where the hope of the world lies. If anyone could fix the world with his or her superior wisdom and moral sensitivity, wouldn’t the world be fixed by now? As it is, nothing has broken the world more than people trying to fix it, doing whatever they must to defeat those they assumed had inferior insights and morality. Most of the slaughtering that’s been done throughout history has been done in the name of someone’s intellectual and moral superiority!

The hope of the world certainly doesn’t lie here. It rather lies in that small tribe of people who trust God enough to simply love others like Jesus loved them, obediently placing themselves under others while confessing that they are the worst of sinners (I Tim.1:15-16).

What About the Military? 4-9-07

I recently received an email from a person serving in the military that included this statement:

“I read your book The Myth of a Christian Nation. You should not have published this. Jesus works with military people. Our mission as followers of Jesus is to give aid to the wounded, protect the oppressed, protect our families, and kill when we have to.”

Here’s my response:

I want you to know that I sincerely respect your convictions and that I admire the courage of the men and women in our military. Nevertheless, I’d like to respond to your statement frankly if I may.

Of course Jesus works with military people. He loves and works with everyone – just as they are. So should we. The fact that he didn’t tell soldiers to get out of the military doesn’t tell us much, for Jesus hardly ever did this with anyone – including prostitutes and the Samaritan woman who was living out of wedlock with a man (Jn 4). Jesus loved and worked with people wherever they were when he happened to come upon them.

I completely agree with you when you say we’re to aid the wounded and protect the oppressed. But when you claim "our mission" also includes "protecting our families" and even killing “when we have to,” I’m honestly wondering where you’re getting your ideas. Where in the New Testament does one find anything resembling such ideas?

I know common sense and normal nationalistic sentiments teach us such things. Universal “common sense” tells us that people ought to kill, if necessary, to protect themselves, their families, and their country (and note, people generally assume this regardless of what country they’re born into). But are followers of Jesus called to be just another version of practical, nationalistically motivated, common sense? Didn’t Jesus command us to love, bless, and do good to our enemies? Didn’t he command us to turn the other cheek and never return evil with evil but rather to always return evil with good? Aren’t we supposed to give water to our enemies when they’re thirsty and feed them when they’re hungry? (cf. Rom.12:17-21). In this light, how can we justifying killing our enemies “if we have to“? We never find this “exception clause” hinted at in the New Testament.

Now, you might be thinking: “Neither Jesus nor his disciples were thinking of enemies like Al-Qaeda.” Surely he didn’t mean we’re supposed to love and do good to these sorts of enemies. As a matter fact, these were exactly the kind of enemies Jesus and his disciples would have had in mind. Jesus was talking to people who were not only threatened by vicious nationalistic enemies; they were already conquered by them. Most first century Jews despised their Roman oppressors at least as much as most Americans despise Al-Qaeda – and they were under their oppressive rule. The Romans would sometimes put dozens – in a few cases we know of, thousands – of Jews to death (usually by crucifixion) just to flex their muscle. Imagine America being conquered and ruled by Al-Qaeda, and you get some idea of what Jesus was asking of his disciples when he told them to love “their enemies” and never retaliate against them.

As it turned out, within a few decades, many of his disciples would have to watch their families be fed to lions or burned alive under Nero. Yet, rather than retaliate or "protect" themselves with violent force, these early Christians considered it an honor to follow Jesus’ example by letting themselves get crucified. In fact, the gracious way they died was one of the main catalysts for the rapid growth of the Church throughout the first three centuries. How far have we come if we think that, in the name of this savior, we could ever be justified in killing another human being?

Now, I am fully aware that many find this teaching offensive if not insane. Honestly, at times, so do I. At the same time, this insanity in an odd way “makes sense.” Think about it. How “sane” was it for the Creator of the universe to become a human, experience the guilt and condemnation of sin, and die a God-forsaken, hellish death on a cross for the very rebels who crucified him (ultimately, all of us)? We are explicitly and repeatedly called to follow this insane example! “Be imitators of God,” Paul says. “Live in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us” (Eph. 5:1-2). In essence, Jesus is saying: “Do unto your enemies what I did unto mine.” At the very least, this has to mean: “Be willing to die for your enemies rather than make them die for you.”

So yes, the New Testament’s teaching on loving one’s enemies is insane. But isn’t that precisely what we should expect, given the kind of wild God we’re following?

Obviously, this radical teaching raises many questions. For example, if no one used violence against Hitler, wouldn’t the world be Nazi by now? Does this mean that Christians should never serve in the military? And am I actually claiming that I wouldn’t use violence if necessary to protect my family and myself? Unfortunately, I can’t answer these questions right now. I’ll put them up on a separate blog sometimes in the near future. In the mean time, if you’re interested, you can find out my perspective on these and other questions in Chapter 9 of The Myth of a Christian Nation.

Till next time,

Be a peacemaker.


The Fatal Flaw in the Classical View of God 3-30-07

The “classical view of God” refers to the view of God that has dominated Christian theology since the earliest Church fathers. According to this theology, God is completely “immutable.” This means that God’s being and experience never changes in any respect. God is therefore pure actuality (actus purus), having no potentiality whatsoever, for potentiality is a power to change which, as I just said, is ruled out in classical theology. God is therefore also timeless (sequence-less), for “before” and “after” signifies some sort of change which, again, God is incapable of. Finally, God is “impassible” in classical theology, meaning that God is “above” experiencing emotion. To experience emotion God would have to be affected by something outside of himself, but this is impossible if God has no potentiality for any change. All these things were thought to be implied in the belief that God is “perfect.”

I’m currently working on a book (The Myth of the Blueprint) in which I’m trying to prove that this eternally-the-same conception of perfection has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy. (I’m also trying to show how this fed into a strand of fatalism that corrupted the early church’s understanding of free will, but that’s for a later blog). This concept of perfection comes to full fruition in a man named Parmenides, but it gained its most influential advocate in Plato who followed on Parmenides’ heels. In the Republic Plato argues that the gods must be unchanging, for all change can only be for the better or for the worse, and what is perfect cannot be improved or diminished. So, what is perfect must be completely unchanging. The argument is repeated ad nauseum by later Greco-Roman philosophers and then repeated by many early church theologians.

Think about this argument for a moment. Do you see any problems with it?

Imagine a person walking around in a very upbeat mood but who then encounters a friend who is despairing over the recent death of her child. Do you think the grief of the friend would alter the mood of this person? Wouldn’t it be grotesque if this person remained “immutable” in their upbeat demeanor while interacting with her grieving friend? Isn’t it the case that the more perfect this person was, the more deeply they’d be affected by their grieving friend? If they were in fact a perfect person, they wouldn’t be improved by this encounter, and they certainly wouldn’t be diminished by it. But they would be changed by it – precisely because they’re perfect.

This is the fatal flaw in Plato’s argument, and the fatal flaw in classical theology. The eternally-the-same and affected-by-nothing conception of perfection is completely non-relational and impersonal. It could perhaps be applied to timeless principles, but not to a personal being. Yet, from the earliest times Christian theologians applied this line of reasoning to the God of the Bible. (Actually, a Jewish philosopher named Philo who wrote around the time of Christ had already been trying to do this, and many of the early Christian theologians were simply following his lead.)

If we instead think of perfection in personal terms while acknowledging that God is perfect, the last thing we’d conclude is that God is completely unchanging, devoid of potentiality, sequence-less, or devoid of emotion. Instead, if we think of perfection in personal terms, the picture of God we get is one in which he is deeply affected by his relationships with those he creates. Of course, God’s character and nature is eternally-the-same, but his experience of his creation would be perpetually changing as he relates to perpetually changing people in a perpetually changing world.

Is this not exactly the picture of God we get in the Bible? Where in the Bible is there any hint that God’s experience of the world is unchanging and non-sequential? The God of the Bible is continually acting and responding. He plans, and then alters plans in response to new situations. He rejoices, grieves, gets angry, becomes disappointed, etc… While his sense of time is radically different form ours – as you’d expect from a being who has always existed – he nevertheless relates to humans in sequence (how else can one being relate to another?).

Most important, out of unfathomable love, the God of the Bible became a human being. Talk about God having a capacity to change and to be deeply affected by another! To me, one of the most shocking – and disappointing – mysteries of history is how bright Christians, who were taught to look to Jesus to know what God is like (e.g. Jn. 14:7-9), ended up asserting that God is immutable, devoid of potential, non-sequential, and impassible. I believe it’s time to lay this misconstrued Greek concept of perfection to rest.

More "Practicing the Presence" 3-28-07

One major problem many American Christians face is that we tend to embrace a magical view of the Christian faith. We assume that if a person “prays the sinners prayer,” “surrenders their life to Christ,” and “accepts Jesus as Lord of their life,” this somehow magically “saves” them and will sooner or later magically transform them – if not in this life, then in the next. This is why most evangelical churches place so much emphasis on the “conversion experience.” The trouble is, this magical view of faith doesn’t work. Research shows that, in terms of their core values and behaviors, Christians differ very little from their non-Christian neighbors. We don’t consistently experience, and therefore don’t consistently manifest, abundant kingdom LIFE.

The truth is that the Christian faith isn’t about magic: It’s about reality. And reality is always now. The present alone is real, and the life we want to have surrendered to Christ is nothing more than a series of present moments. Kingdom life, therefore, is always in the present. It’s always now.

When you initially surrendered your life to Christ, you were not engaging in a magical ritual. You were rather making a pledge. But your pledge to surrender your life wasn’t itself the life you pledged to surrender.

Pause for a moment and think about that statement.

Again: Your pledge to surrender your life wasn’t itself the life you pledged to surrender. The actual life you pledged to surrender was the life you’ve lived every moment after you made the pledge. For the only life you had to surrender was the life you live moment-by-moment.

Think of it like a marriage. Twenty-seven years ago I looked into my wife’s gorgeous eyes and pledged my life to her. But my pledge wasn’t itself the life I pledge to her. My pledge didn’t magically give us a good marriage (if only it was that simple!). Rather, the actual life I pledged to my wife was the life I have lived every moment after I made the pledge. For the only life I have to give to my wife is the life I live moment-by-moment.

The quality of my marriage therefore isn’t decided by whether or not I made a pledge twenty-five years ago. It’s decided by how I live out that pledge now, on a moment-by-moment basis.

So too, the quality of our relationship with God isn’t decide by whether or not we made a pledge twenty-seven years ago – or yesterday. The quality of our relationship is decided by whether or not we are living out that pledge now, on a moment-by-moment basis. Whether we’re talking about marriage to another person or our marriage to Christ, our pledge is without content except insofar as we are living it out now…

In this moment…

And now in this moment.

Unfortunately, because of our magical view of Christianity, we tend to mistake the pledge of our life to Christ for the life that we pledge to Christ. We assume that our lives are in fact surrendered because we once pledged to surrender them. But they’re not. And this, I believe, is the most basic reason we don’t consistently experience or manifest kingdom LIFE.

Kingdom LIFE isn’t a theoretical reality, it’s a real reality – and reality is always found in the now. If we are going to experience and manifest kingdom LIFE, therefore, we will have to completely alter the way we consciously live moment-by-moment. We will have to wake up to the now.

Nothing could be more challenging than this, for it requires nothing less than a complete alteration of our moment-by-moment consciousness. And yet, nothing could be more rewarding than this, for this is the way that leads to LIFE.

I encourage you to try to stay awake today, consciously aware that you are each and every moment surrounded by the presence of God.


Discipleship, Moment by Moment 3-26-07

“Offer your heart to Him at every moment. Don’t restrict our love of Him with rules or special devotions. Go out in faith, with love and humility.”Brother Lawrence (Practicing the Presence of God)

To me, the most basic and most difficult challenge of being a follower of Jesus is the one Brother Lawerence (a 17th century monk) addressed in his marvelous little devotional booklet entitled Practicing the Presence of God. It’s remaining aware of God’s loving presence on a moment-by-moment basis. Every shortcoming I have as a follower of Jesus is, I believe, most fundamentally rooted in this.

Life is always lived in the now. The only thing that’s really real is now -- this moment, and now this one. So the “life” we surrendered to Christ is nothing over and above a series of “nows” strung together. Hence, our life is actually surrendered to Christ only insofar as each and every now is surrendered to Christ. This further means that the only thing that really matters in our relationship with Christ is not a decision we made last year or forty years ago to surrender our life to Christ, but a decision we make this moment to surrender our life to Christ.

And now this one.

And now this one.

I encourage you to cultivate a conscious surrendered attitude toward God each and every moment of your life…starting now.


Practicing the Presence 3-24-07

I’m trying to remind myself these days to “practice the presence of God.” Seems to me that everything – everything – depends on this. Our “life” is nothing but a series of “nows,” so the quality of our relationship with God – which is to say, the quality of our life – is determined by the state of our mind and heart this very moment…. and now, this very moment.

Brother Lawrence once said, …"we must give ourselves totally to God in both temporal and spiritual affairs. Our only happiness should come from doing God’s will, whether it brings us some pain or great pleasure"…

Lets think about this.

While the animals we are entrusted to care for (Gen. 1:26-28) are content with merely biological life, God created us humans with a longing for more. He placed in us a desperate need to experience fullness of LIFE in relation to him. This experience of abundant LIFE includes a permanent sense of unconditional individual and communal worth, profound and eternal meaning and unthreatened security. When we experience this LIFE, we have abiding joy and peace. When we don’t, we feel empty, directionless and insecure.

Only our Creator can give us this LIFE, which is why he created us with this non-negotiable need in the first place. Its a sort of internal “homing device” that is intended to continually drive us to him. He wants us to depend exclusively on him for our sense of worth, meaning and security, and he wants us to reflect this LIFE in our worship (our relationship with him), our individuality (our relationship to ourselves), our community (our relationship with others) and our dominion (our relationship with the animals and the earth). To the extent that we receive and reflect LIFE in this way, God’s dominion is manifested “on earth as it is in heaven.”

We “fall” when, instead of freely receiving LIFE from God we seek to acquire LIFE on our own. This is what the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is all about (Gen. 3). When we do this, our homing device for God gets directed toward other things, with the result that we make them gods. Instead of manifesting LIFE we freely receive from God, we use people, things and achievements to try to get LIFE. Having rejected God’s loving dominion, we set about trying to establish, protect and expand a dominion of our own. But while God’s dominion can only be carried out as an expression of fullness of LIFE, our petty dominions are driven by a futile attempt to fill a vacuum in our life.

There is no end to the gods we create out of our emptiness and misdirected homing device. People in western culture often strive for worth, meaning and security in money, possessions, sexuality and power. Whatever these people may convince themselves they believe – they may in fact be very religious -- these are the things they think about the most and spend most of their time and energy pursuing. And these are the things that make them feel most worthwhile, that give their lives a sense of meaning and that make them feel most secure.

Others futilely try to find some relief from their inner emptiness by convincing themselves they’re physically attractive or admired for their skills and achievements. They bow before a god of beauty, talent and recognition. Some try to feed their hunger for LIFE by convincing themselves they are acceptable to a particular deity by virtue of their correct beliefs or behavior – over and against all who have wrong beliefs and wrong behavior. They worship at the shrine of a god of religion. Still others try to assuage their pervasive sense of emptiness by feeling superior to others by virtue of their family name, their ethnic heritage or their national identity. These chase after the god of tribalism.

The list could go on, but the point has been made. Whatever we try to derive our ultimate sense of worth, meaning and security from is our god – regardless of what we intellectually believe.

But the gods are never satisfied. However successful we might be by the world’s standards at acquiring particular gods, we always on some level, sooner or later, long for more. We long for real LIFE. No matter how much wealth we collect, how many toys we acquire, how much fame we achieve, how much pleasure we experience or how much authority we garner, it’s never enough. All the admiration we might receive, and all the right beliefs we might embrace, all the rituals we might engage in, and all the claims to ethnic or nationalistic superiority we make, leave us empty.

We long for more. It may be manifested as a pervasive anxiety or anger. It may be experienced as a gnawing sense of alienation, depression or frustration. Or it may take the form of a deep emptiness, a relentless boredom, an on-going restlessness or profound apathy towards life. Many try to push the ache in the soul from their consciousness by pouring themselves into their work or by distracting themselves with an assortment of amusements. Others try to medicate the primordial pain with alcohol, drugs or sexual addictions. But nothing works – at least not permanently. The longing will not go away.

And yet, so long as we buy the lie that LIFE can be found outside of God, we think the problem is that we simply don’t have enough. If only we had more of our god, we think, or perhaps if only we had a different god, we’d find relief from our pain, we’d feel full, alive, meaningful and secure. But it’s all a grand illusion.

We are on the precipice of LIFE when we begin to wake up to this grand illusion. When we realize and accept the utter futility of god-chasing, we are at the door of the Kingdom. When we come to understand that the longing in our heart can never be satisfied by anything the world has to offer, we are in a position where we can, if we choose, give up our idolatrous striving and return to God as the source of LIFE.

This is not merely a matter of knowing intellectually that our attempts to acquire worth, meaning and significance are idolatrous and unsatisfying. For it’s entirely possible to believe the world is empty and yet hold out a modicum of hope in finding LIFE in the world within one’s heart. Rather, the Kingdom is near only when all hope is lost in the core of our being. The Kingdom is at hand only when we utterly despair of ever finding LIFE on our own. We are at the door of the Kingdom only when we have become disgusted enough with life’s trivial pursuits and futile endeavors that we opt out of them altogether. The Kingdom is at hand not when we cerebrally believe the world has nothing to offer us, but when we chose to act on this belief and actually give up on the world, abandoning all attempts to acquire worth, meaning and significance for ourselves.

This is a choice about life, and therefore can only be made in the now – for actual life is always in the now. The relevant question is not; “Did you make a choice to give up on finding LIFE in the world yesterday?” The only relevant question is; Are you free from the futile attempt to acquire LIFE from the world now?”

Are you getting your life, worth, security and significance from your Creator this moment?

Practice his presence and be blessed.

Greg Responds to "Amazing Grace" 3-9-06

I and my friends went to see the movie “Amazing Grace” the other night. It’s a movie on the life of William Wilberforce, the Christian political activist who is largely responsible for ending the English slave-trade in the 19th century. It was a very good movie! Now, in my book Myth of a Christian Nation, I argue that Christians should take great care to separate their faith from their politics. So some people have wondered how Wilberforce fits into your paradigm? Doesn’t the good he accomplished refute my strong separation of the Kingdom of God from the kingdom of the world? This question is especially important in light of the fact that many conservative evangelical leaders (e.g. Chuck Colson) use Wilberforce’s example to rally Christians around a particular way of voting.

Let me start by saying that I think Wilberforce was one of the greatest human beings, and certainly one of the greatest politicians, who ever lived. And I don’t believe there’s any conflict whatsoever between his passionate involvement in politics and my challenge to keep one’s allegiance to the Kingdom of God distinct from politics. I’ll say two things.

First, I have never said Christians should not be involved in politics. I believe they should be involved in any way, and to any extent, they feel God leads them. Nor have I ever said that Christians should check their “faith and values” at the door when they get involved in the political process. Such a suggestion is ludicrous because everything every person does manifests his or her “faith and values” (even if one is an atheist). I simply maintain that no one should label their particular way of being involved in politics the “Christian” way.

What Wilberforce did was absolutely wonderful, but it wasn’t distinctly Christian. Any good and decent person should be against slavery. Wilberforce simply made it his life mission to inform Parliament and the general populace about the horrific realities of the slave trade, a reality to which most had been blinded. And he did it while appealing to broadly shared values in the society he had leadership within in order to motivate people to bring about needed change. This is simply good politics. So Wilberforce is a great example of the good that a passionate, wise, courageous, and smart person can do in politics. But we misrepresent Wilberforce when we use him to show that there’s a unique Christian way of voting or running a political office.

Second, it’s important that we distinguish between issues of good verses evil, on the one hand, and ambiguous issues that divide a polis, on the other. I’m aware that this distinction is not always perfectly clear-cut, but it must suffice for now. Slave trading, sex trafficking and the AIDS epidemic are examples of the first. In these cases, evil people, or evils in nature, are brutally dehumanizing other people. Here the challenge is to inform people of what’s going on while appealing to their common human decency to confront the evil head-on.

Most political issues, however, are not of this sort. They rather fall into the second camp. What economic plan will best take care of the poor? Should the government decide what the status and rights of an unborn child is or should this be the mother’s decision? What should be done about illegal immigration? On issues such as this (and there are a million), good and decent people in a pluralistic culture can and do disagree.

Now, regarding issues of good verses evil, decent people will be united against the evil once they are informed. The task, in this case, is the one Wilberforce faced. One needs to disseminate credible information to motivate good people to confront the issue. If, however, the issue is one about which decent people disagree, even when all the information is on the table, the political challenge is to build consensus by appealing to values shared by all parties while calling for compromise (a word many Christian hate, but which is absolutely essential when decent people can’t agree).

What we need to see is that, in either case, there is no uniquely Christian stance one can take – which is why I encourage people never slap the label “Christian” on their political opinions. If the issue is a matter of good verses evil, then it will be obvious to good people what should be done (once they’re informed), and appealing to distinctly Christian teachings isn’t necessary (or helpful). If, however, the issue is a matter about which good people disagree, then appealing to distinctly Christian teachings will certainly not be helpful, for the simple reason that the society as a whole isn’t Christian. In other words, the criteria politics should appeal to is human decency, not distinctly Christian teaching. This is what Wilberforce appealed to as he sought to enlighten his English brothers and sisters about the slave trade. And it is what made him a (all-too-rare) noble and wise politician. But it isn’t what made him a follower of Jesus. As a decent human being, he could and should have done all that he did even if he was an atheist.

So, in conclusion, the unique call of the Kingdom is not about how we confront obvious evils (though, of course, as descent people we are to confront evils). Still less is the Kingdom call about how we resolve ambiguous social issues, something Jesus himself never got involved in. The unique call of the Kingdom is about our individual and corporate willingness to sacrifice ourselves for all people, at all times, including our enemies.

Concerned about the "Lost Tomb of Jesus?" 3-6-07

Here’s Greg’s Top 20 Objections to Cameron’s Documentary

On March 4th the Discovery Channel aired James Cameron’s much celebrated documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” The documentary basically gives a new spin on an old discovery. In 1980, a first century tomb was discovered in Talpoit (a southern suburb of Jerusalem) that contained 10 ossuaries (that is, boxes that contained the remains of people). Six of the ossuaries have names etched on them: “Jesus, son of Joseph,” “Maria,” “Mariamne,” “Matthew,” “Judas, son of Jesus,” and “Jose” (a diminutive of Joseph). The documentary argues that it’s not coincidental that these names all correspond to figures in the New Testament. Beyond the obvious associations of Jesus, Joseph, and Judas “son of Jesus,” Cameron’s documentary argues that “Maria” is Jesus’ mother, Mariamne is Mary Magdalene who was supposedly included in the tomb because she was Jesus’ wife, and Matthew and Jose are supposedly Jesus’ brothers (or, alternatively, Matthew could have been buried in the family tomb because he was simply so close to the family).

Now, I will confess up front that I found this documentary to be so incredibly weak I couldn’t justify putting in more than about 40 minutes of extra research to rebut it. So, frankly, what follows is pretty much off the top of my head. But I offer it because I know some Christians may be losing some sleep over it when, in fact, they shouldn’t be.

So, here are my top twenty reasons for why this documentary shouldn’t be of any concern for Christians.

1. The “Jesus tomb” ossuaries were discovered over 25 years ago, yet throughout this time hardly any scholars – including the leading experts in archeology and the vast majority of non-Christian scholars – have concluded that the odds this tomb contained the remains of Jesus and others mentioned in the New Testament to be a hair’s breath above zero. That alone has got to tell you something.

2. The names on these ossuaries are all among the most common names for first century Jews. This is one of the main reasons the vast majority of scholars find the alleged correspondence between these six names and the names found in the New Testament to be nothing more than an insignificant coincidence.

3. It’s not even certain the name “Jesus” in this tomb is really “Jesus.” A few scholars think it may more likely refer to the name “Hanun.”

4. The documentary made much of the fact that Mariamne (“Mary”) is followed by “mara” on her ossuary. This was interpreted in Cameron’s documentary to mean “master” or “teacher,” which in turn was used to support linking this Mariamne with Mary Magdalene. Now, the only evidence that Mary Magdalene was regarded as a teacher comes form a fourth century Gnostic document. This is extremely poor evidence, to say the least. Even more importantly, most scholars argue that “mara” is simply an abbreviation for “Martha.” If this is the case, this ossuary may have contained the remains of two different women (possibly sisters) since we know that ossuaries often contained more than one person’s remains.

5. The association of Mariamne with Mary Magdalene is problematic for another reason: Mary was called “Maria” (not “Mariamne”) in the Gospels and early centuries of Church history. We don’t find Mary Magdalene identified as “Mariamne” until the fourth century - and that in quasi-gnostic work. This is about as tenuous as historical evidence gets. It’s the same kind of evidence cited in The Da Vinci Code to suggest Mary was married to Jesus, which this documentary also espouses. If someone is going to build a case relying on this sort of lame “evidence,” they could just as easily (and ridiculously) argue that Mary was married to Philip, since one Gnostic text from this same time period (the Acts of Philip) suggests this. The bottom line is that appealing to non-historical works that are centuries removed from the people and events they talk about puts one on very thin ice.

6. The inscriptions on these ossuaries are in three different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. One has got to wonder why? This may suggest that, if this is in fact a family tomb (see below), it is a multi-generational tomb, and this significantly damages the thesis of Cameron’s documentary. It’s also significant that the Mary whom this documentary identifies as Mary Magdalene has her inscription in Greek, while Jesus, who is supposed to be her husband, has his inscription in Aramaic. This is not at all what we would expect if, in fact, these two were man and wife. In my humble non-expert opinion, the variety of inscriptions, combined with other factors (see below) indicates that this most likely was not a family tomb. And if it wasn’t a family tomb, the statistical argument this documentary relies so heavily on (which is weak in the first place) is shot to pieces.

7. Speaking of inscriptions, it’s significant that they were all done in a very sloppy, careless manner. Jews typically collected the remains of a buried person and put them in ossuaries a year or more after they died. If Jesus’ family and friends had a year to plan his entombment, wouldn’t they have taken a bit more care inscribing his name on his ossuary? In fact, since dignitaries were usually given ornate ossuaries (cf. the ossuary of Ciaphas the High Priest), wouldn’t we have thought Jesus’ ossuary would be a little more ornate than the others? As it stands, Jesus’ ossuary is perfectly ordinary.

8. Only wealthy families could afford family tombs, but Jesus’ family was poor.

9. As I mentioned earlier, two of the ossuaries identify the person whose remains it contains by associating them with their father (that is, Jesus son of Joseph and Judas son of Jesus). Now, this was a common practice among Jews from Judea. In the area around Galilee, however, people were identified by their hometown. Unfortunately for the documentary’s thesis, Jesus’ family was from the area around Galilee, not Judea. Hence we would expect an ossuary containing the remains of the biblical Jesus to read, “Jesus of Nazareth” (as the Gospels record it), not Jesus “son of Joseph.”

10. Family tombs were customarily built in the family’s hometown. So, if Jesus’ family could have somehow acquired enough money to purchase a family tomb (see #8) we would expect it to be in located in Nazareth, not a suburb of Jerusalem (Tolpoit).

11. The documentary struggles trying to fit Matthew into its thesis that the Tolpoit tomb is the lost tomb of Jesus, for there’s not one shred of evidence that Jesus had a brother by this name. The documentary tries to argue for this possibility, however, by noting that the genealogy of Mary in Luke (ch.3) is “consistent with” her having had a son named “Matthew,” since we find variations of “Matthew” in her family tree. This is true, but it would also be true for any number of genealogies of other first century Jewish women. Remember, “Matthew” (and variations of it) was a very common name. Not only this, but there’s no evidence I know of that supports making an appeal to the names of ancient relatives even relevant. Did Jewish families generally look into their very distant past when deciding names for their children?

12. Perhaps realizing that the case for Matthew being Jesus’ brother is pretty weak, the documentary entertains the possibility that Matthew was Jesus’ disciple mentioned in the New Testament (and the traditional author of the Gospel bearing his name). Now, one might immediately wonder why Matthew would have been included in Jesus’ family tomb instead of other disciples who (according to the Gospels) seemed to have a closer relationship with Jesus (e.g. John). But even more importantly, this concession completely screws up the documentary’s thesis that this was Jesus’ family tomb. For once we grant that one of the ossuaries contains the remains of a non-family member, we undermine any grounds we might think we have for identifying any of the ossuaries as belonging to family members. In other words, if Matthew might not have been a family member, why should we feel compelled to conclude that Maria or Mariamne or Jose were family members? Maybe they too were just close friends of the family? And once we’ve come this far, it’s clear we no longer have any grounds for identifying this as a family tomb in the first place! In fact, since “Jesus” was an extremely common name among first century Jews, I don’t see why we should even feel compelled to accept that the Jesus who is the “son of Joseph” is the same Jesus who is identified as “the father of Judas.”

13. The only brother of Jesus the Gospels tell us anything about is James. We also learn about this brother of Jesus from two references to him in Josephus’ writings. Why isn’t his ossuary in the tomb? About three years ago a person claimed to have found a first century ossuary that had inscribed on it, “James, the son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Some scholars think it is authentic, others not. I suspect it is, but whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that, whether authentic or not, it it wasn’t in the Talpoit tomb. Nor could it have come from the Talpoit tomb, since it’s a different kind of ossuary and contains a different kind of inscription compared to the ossuaries in this tomb. So whatever we make of the James ossuary, the point stands that the absence of James in the Talpoit tomb is evidence that this was not the tomb of Jesus’ family.

14. The DNA sample from the Jesus ossuary didn’t match the DNA from Mariamne’s ossuary, suggesting further that this was not a family tomb. Amazingly, the Cameron documentary tries to use this fact to prove that Mariamne must have been the wife of Jesus! This is as arbitrary a leap of faith as I can imagine. Why Jesus’ wife? Why not Jose’s or Matthews or Joseph’s wife? Or, why not simply suppose she was a family friend, like the documentary admits Matthew may have been? Then again, why assume this was a family tomb in the first place?

15. In the Gospels, no one except hostile witnesses (see Jn 6:62) identified Jesus as “the son of Joseph.” In fact, he’s identified as “the son of Mary” (Mk 6:3), which is very unusual and possibly significant in its own right. First century Jews were usually identified by their father, not their mother, even after their father was dead. (It was an intensely patriarchal culture). The fact that the Gospels report Jesus being identified by his mother plausibly suggests that Jesus’ own town folk didn’t buy Mary’s story of the virgin birth. In any case, it’s extremely unlikely Jesus’ friends and followers would have buried him with the inscription “son of Joseph.”
16. Concerning the ossuary containing the remains of “Judas, son of Jesus”: folks, if Jesus had an son, he would have been held in high esteem in the early Church and we most certainly would have heard about him. As it stands, there isn’t so much as a hint that Jesus had a son (or a wife for that matter).

17. If this tomb included the remains of Jesus and his family, it would have instantly become a shrine and devotees would have made pilgrimages to it. We know of shrines and pilgrimages to much lesser Jewish and Christian figures in the ancient world. Yet, there’s not one shred of historical evidence so much as referring to this tomb.

18. Now, perhaps the reason why there was no shrine constructed on this site is that it was a ‘secret” tomb. But why then does the tomb have a symbol drawing attention to itself on its entrance? Additionally, if this was a secret tomb, it means Jesus’ family and friends were intentionally covering up the truth about what happened to Jesus. Is there any evidence Jesus’ family and friends were devious? And what motivation would they have had to carry out this deceptive act?

19. If the remains of Jesus were in the Talpoit tomb, the “resurrection appearances” of Jesus would have to have been of a purely “spiritual” nature (like hallucinations). Unfortunately for this thesis, the Jews of this time had no conception of a disembodied resurrection. Also, the Gospels uniformly report a physical resurrection (e.g. Lk 24:39).

20. Finally, if the remains of Jesus were in this tomb, the Gospel’s empty tomb stories have to be judged to be completely fictitious. But a) there are many strong arguments supporting the general historical reliability of the Gospels, and b) how are we to imagine the earliest disciples passionately preaching a fictitious message they know will invite persecution (which it did)? Is there any evidence the earliest followers of Jesus were this deceptive (for they intentionally preached a lie) and stupid (for they got themselves killed for it)? I know of none. Indeed, I can’t think of a historical hypothesis that is more implausible than this one.

So what do I think about Cameron’s “The Lost Tomb of Jesus? As fiction it’s right up there with the Da Vinci Code and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The only sad thing about all this is that Cameron and his cadre seem to be thinking they’re actually doing bona fide historical work. They’re not.

Reflections on a Costa Rican Vacation 3-1-07

“Pura Vida”
Costa Rican phrase that is widely used meaning
“Pure life” or "This is living!"

Last week, Shelley (my adorable wife) and I along with our small group (Greg and Marcia Erickson, Dave and Terri Churchhill, and Alex and Julie Ross) vacationed in Costa Rica. Terri was diagnosed with pneumonia the day before we departed and spent most of the time recuperating. All the girls struggled with itchy bug bites (for whatever reason, I wasn’t bitten once). A Scorpion bit Marcia. Julie stepped in six inches of liquid excrement (we laughed so hard we could hardly breath) stepping off a curb. Alex got locked in a hot, smelly, nightclub bathroom for 45 minutes (again, we could hardly breath). It wasn’t quite “Pura Vida” all the time in the Garden of Eden, especially for poor Terri.

Despite these facts, it WAS a wonderful vacation. Here’s the highlights:

* Every afternoon, when the sun was a bit less intense, we went to the beach -- the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been to. Most of us spent a good deal of time boogie boarding. It was a riot. After six years of trying to boogie board, I was finally getting the hang of it…the waves were IDEAL! The water was so warm, even Shelley decided (for the first time!) to give it a try. In sharp contrast to me, she was an instant expert, riding her first wave all the way into the beach! (Life is not fair). My favorite memory from this vacation was watching Shelley and Julie acting like giddy adolescent girls as they caught wave after wave on their boogie boards.

* The sunsets and evening stars were awe-inspiring.

* Marcia (to her lasting credit) joined the guys on a zip-line tour through a Costa Rican rainforest. We glided above the treetops on cables that connect to platforms on taller trees, seeing the forest from a spectacular bird’s eye view. The guides pointed out various plant life and animals of the rainforest.

* Every afternoon the house we stayed at was surrounded by, and somewhat invaded by, dozens and dozens of monkeys! They were adorably mischievous. At first we weren’t prepared for these little thieves, and they raided our open-air kitchen taking all our fruit. Another day we hiked through Manuel Antonio National Park and came upon a herd of monkeys (or family? or tribe? what do you call them?). One bunch was tenderly picking insects off each other. It was so cute. One actually came down to us and let Marcia (our official small group paparazzi) get within inches of him as he nonchalantly posed on a branch.

* As a group we don’t do much on our vacations. We mostly relax and hangout. We’re lards (as we call each other). We sit around and eat, talk, laugh, tease, philosophize and/or argue with each other. Being quasi-autistic, I often have my nose in a book while the rest of the group interacts, and it says something about our group that this offends no one. (Others on occasion do the same thing). My friends know me and accept me for who I am, in all my eccentricities. In a world where most people live in loneliness, I feel incredibly blessed to have friends like this.

* I managed to get about half way through all the writings of Philo of Alexandria in these 8 days (he wrote a lot!). Philo is important to a book project I’m working on (The Myth of the Blueprint), as he was a Jewish thinker around the time of Christ who tried to fuse biblical teaching with platonic and stoic philosophy. A lot of the church fathers took their cues from him, and in this way Philo contributed a good deal to the gradual replacing of a biblical warfare model of God and his relationship with the world with a Hellenistic blueprint model.

Yet, in keeping with my present obsession with Platonic Forms, the thing that was most on my mind this vacation was the beautiful way reality balances form and freedom. There’s structured spontaneity and spontaneous structure everywhere, and it was screaming at me this whole vacation.

For example, the waves of the ocean are so regular, and yet each one is completely unique and, in its own way, manifests the radical contingency and spontaneity that permeates the cosmos. This is what makes waves so interesting. Had anything in the history of the cosmos been slightly different than it was, any particular wave might have been different than it is. For the brief moment it exists, each wave puts on display the structure and creative contingency of creation.

The same thing is true of the rainforest. I delighted in the bizarre randomness of some of the vine-configurations, for example. Why did this particular group of vines grow in the completely unprecedented way it did? An ultimate explanation would require an omniscient understanding of the history of the cosmos, for had anything in creation been slightly different than it was, the vine configuration might have been completely different than it is. And yet, the configuration isn’t totally random – which is why it can be identified as a vine-configuration. It shares in the structure (the Platonic Form?) all vines have, yet it does it in its own radically unique way. This balance of form and freedom is what makes the rainforest so interesting and beautiful.

Everything – every single thing! – displays this dance of form and freedom. While the insects of Costa Rica were a bit of a nuisance they also manifest the cosmic balance of form and freedom in a most awe-inspiring way. For example, Greg Erickson and I were hiking in the rainforest one afternoon when we came upon a magnificent spider resting in the center of its web. The sun hit this heavenly masterpiece in such a way that it acquired an almost fluorescent quality as it shimmered in the tropical breeze. Every detail of this intricate saucer became clearly visible to us.

As we gazed in awe upon this site, it occurred to me that its beauty is rooted in the way its structure displays contingency -- or, to say the same thing a different way, the way its contingency displays structure. A virtual infinitude of contingent, creative complexity lies behind this intelligently designed web. Innumerable variables extending back to the beginning of time could have easily rendered this particular web different, or non-existent. In fact, the chances of Greg and I happening upon this particular web at this particular time were infinitesimal small, measured against the cosmos as a whole throughout history. And yet here we were, in this moment, enjoying this infinitesimal improbable beauty. And the beauty was all the more beautiful because it was all so utterly improbable.

This is the dance. It consists of creative spontaneity and freedom amidst structure, and structure amidst creative spontaneity and freedom. And it permeates every centimeter of reality. Each particular insect, plant and animal, and each grouping of insects, plants and animals, participates in it. And each experience of these things participates in it. The contingent structure of the eyes and ears and brain that intersects with the contingent structure of a particular slice of reality in any given moment exhibits form and freedom. And it’s all awe-inspiring if you think about it, precisely because none of it had to be exactly the way it is.
Reality. It’s a dance. And we’re all part of it. Pura Vida!

Do it with passion.

What Should we make of the Lost Tomb of Christ? 2-28-07

Just this morning I read in my newspaper that the Discovery Channel is going to air a documentary this coming Sunday entitled “The Lost Tomb of Christ,” produced by James Cameron (of Titanic fame). I’m posting this “response” as a sort of “head’s up,” and I ‘m going to stick my neck out and offer a critique before I’ve even seen it – based only on what I read in the paper and was able to find on internet over the last hour. This isn’t the normal or best way of going about things, but I’m doing so because a) these sorts of sensationalist documentaries catch some people off guard and shake them up pretty badly if they’re not prepared, and b) from the little I ‘ve been able to learn about this documentary, and from what I know about first century Jewish cultural practices, the thesis of this documentary doesn’t really deserve any more attention than what I’m here going to give it here.

The documentary will apparently argue that scholars have discovered the remains of Jesus and his family! It turns out that, not only did Jesus not rise from the dead, he was married to Mary Magdalene and had a son (named Judas).

Dan Brown’s gotta be loving this!

Actually, there is no new discovery to report. This is rather nothing more than a highly sensationalized, guaranteed-to-make money, astoundingly uncritical, new interpretation of an old discovery. The discovery this documentary is based on actually happened in 1980, when a tomb was discovered in a suburb of southern Jerusalem. It contained 10 ossuaries (small caskets used to store decomposed remains). One ossuary contains the inscription “Jesus, son of Joseph” and another “Judah, son of Jesus.” (There’s apparently some dispute over whether the inscription really says “Jesus,” but lets assume that it does). Other ossuaries contain references to Mary and Martha. On this basis, the documentary claims that buried in this tomb are the Jesus of the Gospels along with his wife, son, and other family members.

If this thesis is proved true, it could perhaps have some theological consequences. (Ya think?)

At the same time, I’m honestly not worried. Here’s five brief objections that immediately come to mind.

1) “Jesus” and “Joseph” are two of the most common names for males in first century Jewish culture, as are “Mary” and “Martha” for women. The fact that we discovered a tomb with a Jesus, Joseph, Martha, and Mary associated together is about as surprising as finding a Jim Johnson, Mary Anderson, and Sue Olsen in a Minnesota graveyard. It is statistically insignificant. Hence the claim that these names refer to biblical characters is arbitrary.

2) If Jesus’ family and friends buried him in this tomb, and knew he was the biological son of Joseph, they obviously would have known that the message they (and the other early followers of Jesus) were preaching was a lie. But this requires we accept that the earliest Christians were preaching - and laying down their lives for – a known fabrication. I can think of no historical hypothesis more implausible than this one. Consider also that among these early disciples was James, the brother of Jesus. What could possibly motivate a man to make up such stories about his own brother and then be willing to die for them (we know from Josephus, as well as the New Testament, that James was martyred in 62 AD).

3) The theory that this tomb contains the remains of Jesus and his family requires not only that we accept that the earliest Christians were liars; we also have to believe they were profoundly stupid. Why? Because they left their fabricated story (for which they were willing to die) open to refutation by inscripting this “truth” on these ossuaries: Jesus didn’t rise from the dead and he had an earthly father. I see no evidence that the earliest disciples were close to being this unethical or idiotic.

4) The documentary will apparently appeal to DNA evidence. This really surprised me. What could DNA possibly tell us as it concerns the identity of the people buried in this tomb? It could at the most show that the people in the tomb are related to one another, but this would hardly be surprising since they’re all buried in the same family tomb! DNA evidence certainly couldn’t show that any of these folks have anything to do with the Jesus (or any other figure) of the Bible. We would need to have Jesus’ DNA, independent of the tomb discovery, in order to compare it with the DNA of the folks in the tomb. But this, of course, we do not have. I honestly suspect the DNA stuff will be introduced just to give the documentary a more “scientific” feel (I’ve seen this ploy used on other documentaries on the Discovery Channel. It seems to legitimize the project, even if it’s irrelevant to it).

5) It was customary for first century Jewish males to be buried in their hometown or in the town of their forefathers. Jesus’ ancestral line comes through Bethlehem and he grew up in Nazareth. So why on earth would he and his family be buried in Jerusalem? Also, we learn from a fourth century historian (Eusebius) that many people would visit the shrine of James, Jesus brother – and it wasn’t at Talpiot, where this family tomb was unearthed. Yet, if this was the burial site of Jesus’ family, this is precisely where one would expect to find James buried.

I’m sure that after I watch this documentary I’ll have much more to say. I seriously doubt I’ll have anything to detract. This honestly strikes me as just one more example of the kind of shock-the -world and expose-the-“truth”-about-Christianity hype that comes along at least once a year. It almost always relies on people being utterly uninformed about history.

The documentary’s one redeeming quality is that it might get people thinking and talking about Jesus. And this provides we who are followers of Jesus an opportunity to share the very compelling historical reason we have for believing Jesus did not remain in the tomb and that he is, in fact, the revelation of God and Savior of the world.

God is Not Frozen 2-15-07

As many of you know, I’ve been “ just a bit” obsessed with Plato lately. (I’m working on a massive book project that will be called The Myth of the Blueprint, and this is part of my research). It’s been great fun and very enlightening. I can’t believe the extent to which this single philosopher set the direction and tone of western philosophy and theology – for the better and, at times, for the worse. I want to share with you one example of how he influenced later thought.

The Timaeus is a work that Plato wrote that expresses key platonic ideas in a mythic form. Toward the beginning of this story Plato states the basic question this work is going to address. “What is that which always is and has no becoming, and what is that which becomes but never is: (Tim. 28a)? This question contains one of the most influential – and, in my opinion, one of the most disastrous – philosophical ideas of all time.!

Notice this: Plato’s question presupposes that “that which always is” must be devoid of any “becoming” -- which means, “that which truly is” can’t come into being, can’t change in any respect, and can’t perish. His question also presupposes that “that which becomes” never truly “is.” So, things that come into being, change and eventually perish never really exist.

What this means is that, in Plato’s view, the perpetually changing world we live in is not really real. The only thing that is really real is that which is absolutely unchanging. This is part of what Plato means when he describes the world of time and change as “a moving image of eternity” (Tim. 37d). As a moving shadow of a tree is to a real tree, so our physical world of time and change is to real reality. The physical world of time and change is a quasi-real moving shadow of a different, more real, eternally-the-same world.

Now, for Plato this eternally-the-same real world was a realm of abstract ideas that he called “Forms.” But later Platonists and Christians identified this realm with God, and the “Forms” as God’s ideas. Two things result from this.

First, God must be thought of as eternally unchanging. Nothing about God, including God’s knowledge and experience, can ever change in any respect. God can’t experience one thing one moment, and another thing another moment. Rather, God must experience all of time in one eternal now. This is where we get the very common assumption that “God is outside of time.”

Now, every verb ascribed to God in the Bible – including the teaching that God responds to prayer, is affected by the world, and became a human being – contradicts this frozen conception of God. The whole Bible narrative presupposes that God has a real “before” and “after,” and that God not only affects the world but is affected by the world. And yet, because of Plato’s influence, this frozen eternally-the-same conception of God has the dominant conception throughout Church history. In fact, it constitutes the essence of what is called “the classical conception of God.”

Second, identifying God as “that which truly is” implies that every thing that transpires in the world of time and change must simply be a “moving image” of God’s will. History simply reflects the eternally-the-same will and knowledge of God, it doesn’t contribute to it. This is what I call “the blueprint worldview,” for in this view everything in time follows an eternal “blueprint” in heaven. When in the face of tragedy people instinctively recite mantras like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Nothing happens by accident,” they are reflecting this platonic, blueprint, worldview.

Now, I would argue that its very hard to reconcile this view with the Bible. Yes God brings a purpose to everything (Rom. 8:28), but the Bible doesn’t teach that everything happens because of a divine purpose. Rather, the Bible teaches that God is against a lot of things that happen, for they are evil. It’s also very hard (impossible, in my view) to reconcile this platonic, blueprint view with free will and with the fact that the world is filled with nightmarish evil, which is why the philosophical and theological literature spent trying to accomplish this reconciliation could just about fill a university library. But my point right now is that the only reason we have these problems in the first place is that we have inadvertently allowed ourselves to come under Plato’s assumption that “that which truly is” must be devoid of “becoming.”

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Why should we assume that “that which truly is” must be devoid of all becoming or that “that which becomes” cannot truly exist? Why must God be frozen? Why can’t God change, be affected, be responsive, etc… precisely because he “truly is”? What, after all, is so imperfect about “becoming”?

Obviously, God can’t come into being or go out of being. God can’t “become” in that sense. But that is simply one kind of change. There’s other kinds of change that are not only compatible with perfection, but required by it. For example, if one person changes their demeanor in response to another person’s suffering, that is not evidence of a defect in that person. It’s rather evidence that they are a loving person. So too, if God is love, as the Bible teaches, shouldn’t we expect God to be the most changing being because he loving responds to all people at all times. This is the opposite of a deity whose frozen in eternal sameness.

Plato has a lot of great insights. I love reading him. But when it comes to thinking about God and time and change, I encourage you to take your cues from the Bible, not Plato (and thus not traditional theology insofar as it’s influenced by him). The true God is not frozen!

Mankato Debate with Dr. Robert Price 2-11-07

This last Thursday night I had a debate with Robert Price at Mankato State University on the topic, Who is Jesus? This is the sixth time I’ve debated Robert Price on the historical Jesus! As has pretty much been the case every time I’ve debated Dr. Price, the auditorium was packed. In fact, they had to open up an extra section to accommodate the people.

Dr. Price is a former evangelical Christian (he used to work with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) who is now a rather well known member of the Jesus Seminar and a prolific critic of traditional Christianity. He is as sharp and as well read as they come, and he ‘s honestly the most formidable “opponent” I’ve ever debated. I guess this is one of the reasons I enjoy debating him. It’s a bit like playing a public game of chess, but with historical arguments instead of chess pieces. One might argue the stakes are a bit higher as well. I also just like Bob as a person. He’s…well…“unique.” For example, he’s an atheist, but he still loves going to church and taking communion! Bob and I banter back and forth vigorously, but I don’t think we ever lose mutual respect for each other.

Who won this debate? I did, of course!!! Just kidding. I obviously believe I have the better arguments (and I’ll try to post these on the site sometime this week), but I’m sure the answer to this question depends on who you ask. Still, if the result of the debate is that a few people (or a few hundred people) think a little bit more deeply about the historical Jesus, then I can’t help but believe that the ultimate “winner” is the Kingdom of God. And if this debate in any way contributes to even one person coming into a relationship with the living Christ, then the debate was worth the effort a trillion times over.

Remain aware of his unbroken presence,

My Philosophical OCD 2-5-07

Sorry I haven’t been very consistent in blogging. This time I’ll blame it on the fact that I’ve been completely obsessed with Plato’s Forms lately. I’m reading Plato’s works and writing stuff on Plato like a madman. And, to be honest, I find it hard to get motivated to write on anything else.

Here’s a confession. I honestly think I have a slight tendency toward OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Okay, maybe a bit more than a “tendency.” It’s not the kind of OCD that leads a person to be obsessively ritualistic about things – like having to do everything in threes, or having to count everything, etc. (See Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets for a classic illustration of typical OCD). And my OCD tendency doesn’t interfere much with my life. (So please, no one e-mail me with your “cures” for OCD. I honestly don’t want to loose mine [see below]). My OCD isn’t ritualistic. It’s philosophical.

It’s like this: I get a philosophical idea or problem in my head and for weeks or even months at a time it takes effort for me to not think about it. I think about other things, of course, but the idea or problem is almost always there. It’s like background noise in my brain. Sometimes it can start to feel like everything is an interruption to my thinking, reading and/or writing about the philosophical idea or problem. I often get kind of manic about the idea or problem during these obsession periods, going for days – and sometimes weeks – where I average only three to four hours sleep a night (I survive on ten-minute naps when this happens). I wake up at around three in the morning and the excitement about the idea, or the consternation about a philosophical problem, won’t let me go back to sleep.

Now, part of me really loves this OCD characteristic. I think it enables me to probe into ideas and problems deeper and more thoroughly, and it empowers me to get a lot of work done in regards to the idea I’m obsessing on. Most of my book writing occurs in these manic periods. But this philosophical OCD can also be rather irritating. No matter what else is going on in my life, the philosophical idea or problem tries to squeeze into my brain like an uninvited guest. It’s like there’s this uncontrollable part of my brain that tries to process everything in life through the filter of whatever philosophical idea or problem I’m thinking about. It tries to relate everything to the idea or problem.

So, as I said above, my present obsession is Plato’s concept of the Forms. (I’ll blog about what “Forms” are later… I hope). Consequently, this OCD part of my brain tries to investigate how this or that conversation illustrates the Forms; how this or that movie relates to a problem with the Forms; how this comment, or that event, or the way this person laughs is relevant to this or that particular aspect of Plato’s theory, etc. It’s like all of life gets painted in my head against the canvas of the idea or problem I’m thinking about. Or, to use a different analogy, its like I mentally superimpose all this philosophical chatter on everything else that’s going on in life.

Of course, I don’t usually let other people know that this weirdness is going on in my head, because a) there’s rarely a socially appropriate reason to; b) with the exception of my wife and close friends, people would probably think I’m totally nuts (whereas my wife and close friends already know this, so it doesn’t matter); and c) people I’m socially interacting with might get offended, since it can sound like my mind really isn’t “in the moment” with them.

Now, I say it can “sound like” I’m not really in the moment with other people, because I honestly believe that my philosophical OCD tendency doesn’t make me any less “in the moment” of a particular social interaction. In fact, I honestly believe it helps. It’s true that part of my brain is doing something that others in the social interaction aren’t doing, and this, I suppose, breaks some sort of social rule about what it means to be “in the moment.” But, on the other hand, this part of my brain that is doing something others aren’t doing makes me more, not less, attentive to what’s going on “in the moment.” It’s not that I don’t hear what a person is saying because my mind is “elsewhere.” No. My mind isn’t elsewhere. It’s here. I truly hear what others are saying. It’s just that I also hear how it relates, or doesn’t relate, to the Forms.

And now you all probably think I’m nuts.

I’m fine with that. You see, being nuts relates to Plato’s theory of the Forms by manifesting something of the deficiency of contingent being in relation to the Form of psychic wholeness…

Blessings to ya’ll

Racism: Why Whites have Trouble "Getting It" 1-25-07

I'm a member of a special task group on racial reconciliation that consists of a dozen or so pastors from around the Twin Cities. We've been meeting periodically for the past year or so in order to strategize how to help the Church of the Twin Cities as a whole move forward in racial reconciliation. The other day we were discussing what we thought was the main obstacle(s) to the Church becoming a reconciled, diverse, community—one that manifests the truth that Jesus died to "tear down the walls of hostility" between people groups (Eph 2:14-15). I shared with the group my conviction, which is that the main obstacle to reconciliation in the Church in America is that the majority of white people don’t "get it." What's worse, the majority of what people don't know that they don't “get it.” Worst of all, the majority of white people don’t really know that there’s anything to “get.”

Most white people I know sincerely believe they live in a country that is, for the most part, a land of equal opportunity that is mostly free of racism. Yes we all see the occasional overt racism that erupts now and then in America, and most of us are genuinely revolted by this. But we tend to see these events, and the attitudes behind them, as rather atypical of America as a whole. And yes, most of us white folks know at least a little bit of the shocking statistics of disparity in America (e.g. young black males are statistically more likely to end up in prison than go to college). But, given our operative assumptions about America, we whites often either refuse to believe these statistics or, more commonly, we find ways to explain them away.

I honestly don’t for a moment think this is because white people are generally racist. I believe most white folks genuinely despise racism, so far as they understand it, and sincerely believe they are anti-racist, so far as they understand it. It’s just that they don’t understand it very far. Our awareness is stunted because our life-experience tends to blind us to racism as a subversive structural issue.

My own life serves as an example of this. I grew up with a very progressively minded father. He strongly supported the civil rights movement and was one of the pioneers who fought to include African Americans in the Tire Union in the 1950s. I watched my father wail when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, and I heard him incessantly curse George Wallace and other “stupid *&*% damn southern racists” throughout my upbringing. My point is that my own upbringing positioned me to be, at least on a conscious level, as free of racism as I could be. But I now see that, despite all this, I still didn’t “get it.”

Evidence of how little I “got it” is that I was genuinely surprised (and discouraged) when the church I founded and pastor (Woodland Hills Church) continued to be an almost exclusively white church for the first 10 years of its existence, despite my continual preaching that racial reconciliation is one of the central reasons God became a human and died on the cross. I honestly thought that if you simply announced to the world that you believed in the equality of all people and that God wants the church to be multicultural, it would happen. But I was wrong. I didn’t get it. And the reason is because, while my heart was in the right place, and while I had some head knowledge of race issues, my life experienced had barricaded me from the real issue—the systemic, structural dimension of racism.

What I lacked, and what most white people lack, was a context where I was forced to notice something that almost all non-whites have to notice every day of their lives: namely, the reality of racist walls pervading the structure of our culture. As a white person, I didn’t have to deal with these walls. You see, for all our insistence that America is the land of equal opportunity, there is in fact a stratified “pecking order” of privilege that is largely structured by one’s access to power, social class, ethnicity, and even gender. We might think of it as a pyramid of privilege. The higher up the pyramid you are, the fewer walls you have to maneuver around. The lower down the pyramid you are, the more walls you have to maneuver around.

Here’s how I diagrammed it at the pastors meeting:

There are, of course, many variables that affect where one finds oneself on the pyramid – including how hard one works, how frugal you are, how talented you are, etc. This is why there are many exceptions to the observation that race is the primary determiner for where falls on this socially stratified pyramid, and also why the exceptions are usually rather noteworthy (e.g. Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, etc.). But, all other things being equal, whites (and especially white males) enjoy the privilege of being at the top of the socio-economic pyramid. This isn’t surprising, really, since America was founded (conquered) by Anglo-Europeans, and it has from the start been structured to their advantage. This is what is commonly known as white privilege.

All of this means that, among other things, whites can move around freely and not bump into the walls that increasingly box people in, the lower one goes down the pyramid. And this is why, all other things being equal, whites have trouble “getting it.” We simply aren’t aware of the walls. Indeed, many of us deny there’s even a pyramid that we’re at the top of. This is, after all, the land of equal opportunity. By virtue of the racialized structure we benefit from, we are, on a structural level, protected from the walls of racism. For all our sincere intentions, we are sheltered from a whole world of experience that non-whites, in varying degrees, are forced to live in. It is therefore hard, if not impossible, for many of us white folks to grasp, with any depth, the extent of (for example) racial profiling, red-lining, and job discrimination that non-whites experience. It’s simply not on our radar screen.

The radically different “worlds” of those who move freely at the top and those who confront walls toward the bottom was graphically illustrated during the O.J. Simpson trial. Close to 90% of African Americans thought O.J. should be acquitted. Close to that same percentage of whites thought he should be found guilty. It was an amazing moment in our history, uncovering the usually hidden chasm between the different life experiences of whites and blacks.

During this trial I asked a close African American friend to explain to me how so many African Americans thought the case against O.J. Simpson was not sufficient to prove guilt. I was genuinely nonplussed. I didn’t “get it.” He proceeded to tell me about his experience as a black boy growing up in the Bronx. On three different occasions, he watched his father get beat up and humiliated by white police officers for no legitimate reason. “You can see why its not hard for me to believe that officer Mark Furman, a known racist, planted all that evidence against O.J., ” my friend told me. “And so it goes for a good many black folk.”

As a white guy, I’d never bumped into that wall. So the idea that a police officer would risk his entire career to bring down a famous black man seemed ludicrous. To black people who have had loved ones abused by police officers, or who have themselves been abused, the suggestion wasn’t ludicrous at all.

A coin dropped in the slot (or at least began to drop in the slot) that day. I began to “get it.” I’d had many acquaintances with non-whites before, but this was the first time I was close enough to hit a wall with someone. If white people are going to “get it,” I am convinced that this is how it is usually going to happen. Seminars and classes and books on racism are good and necessary. But in the end, I believe it’s going to come down to relationships. The racist system is structured so that we don’t notice the walls all around us—walls that are too invisible for most of us white folks to notice on our own. Not only that, but we benefit from not noticing the walls, for to notice them makes a demand on our life.

For us whites to really wake up to the reality of the thick, oppressive, demonic, but (to most of us white people) invisible walls that pervade our culture, we must develop peer relationship with non-whites who will call into question some of our most basic assumptions about American culture, and perhaps about ourselves. This is not easy. It certainly doesn’t happen by cultivating cross-cultural relationships where non-whites are once against in a position of dependency on the whites. The relationships that whites need (if there’s any hope of them “getting it”) are relationships premised on equality, mutual trust, and respect.

It might seem artificial and odd – even perhaps quasi-racist – to seek out a friendship based primarily on race. Yet, this is precisely what I would like to challenge all white people to do. Even if you are sure you already “get it.” If you have never significantly shared life with a non-white person, I strongly suspect you don’t. Even if your upbringing and education was uniquely anti-racist, as mine was, it’s far more probable than not that you’re blind to a racialized world that benefits you and oppresses others.

If the church is ever going to significantly manifest the beauty of God’s diverse humanity, it’s going to take place one life at a time. Reach out. Cross ethnic and culture lines. Watch how it challenges your paradigms, enriches your life and expands your worldview.

At some point, you just might find that you truly begin to “get it.”

Whether They Know it or Not, Everybody is at Heart an Open Theist 1-15-07

(Or, How to Drive a Calvinist Crazy!)

Hello faithful bloggers. Hope your 2007 is going well so far.

Here’s something to ponder: Whatever a person may theoretically believe, they act like the future is partly open. It’s not their fault. For, as a matter of fact, there’s no other way to act.

Think about it. Every time we deliberate between options on the way toward making a decision, we assume (and we have to assume) that a) the future consists of possibilities and b) that it is up to us to resolve these possibilities into one actuality (that is, our concrete decision). It’s utterly impossible to deliberate in a way that manifests a different set of beliefs.

Go ahead and try it. Right now, think about a matter you need to resolve. Consider your possibilities and weigh your options. Now, try to do this without presupposing that these possibilities are genuinely real and genuinely up to you to resolve. You may consciously believe that the fact of what you’re going to decide has been “out there” for an eternity in the mind of God, but you can’t act on this belief as you deliberate. In fact, you act against this belief in your very act of deliberation.

What makes this interesting is that it’s something of a truism that we reflect our true convictions more by how we act than by what we say or even think (for our conscious minds are frequently deceived). If I truly believe my car is rigged to explode when I started it, for example, and if I truly believe life is worth living, then I will not get into my car and start it. If I profess these two beliefs and yet get into my car and start it up, you’ll know that I’m either insincere or self-deceived in professing one or both of these beliefs. Again, the truth of a conviction is rooted in how we act, not in what we say or think.

If this is so, does it not follow that everybody – including those who adamantly deny it – really believes the future is partly open? Just watch them deliberate. It’s obvious.

So, go ahead and deliberate about what you should believe about the nature of the future. Is it open or exhaustively settled? Weigh all the philosophical options carefully. But realize that in the very act of deliberating about what you should believe, you’re already manifesting what you already believe.

At heart, you, like the rest of us, are an open theist!

Father, Forgive Them 1-9-07

Luke 23:34: Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Could anything be more shocking and yet more beautiful than this prayer?

After being whipped, beaten, crowned with thorns, repeatedly mocked, spit upon, sneered at, and pierced with spikes through his wrists and ankles, while slowly suffocating as he hung on the cross, and as he was experiencing the nightmarish weight of the sin of the world upon him, Jesus assumes his tormentors are ignorant and prays for their forgiveness on this basis! When I recall that the one praying this is also the Creator of the universe, I am led to the conclusion that this is the single most shocking and single most beautiful sentence ever spoken in all of history. And it reveals the single most beautiful character and single most beautiful image of God in all of history.

If we let it, the beauty of this prayer, directed toward us (for our sin also put Christ on the cross) has the power to heal and transform us completely. But it also presents us with a breathtaking challenge – one we can only hope to fulfill as we’re transformed by the beauty of God’s grace. We are repeatedly commanded in Scripture to follow the example of Jesus in all things (e.g. Jn 13:35; Eph 5:1-2; I Tim 1:16; 1 Pet 2:21, cf. I Cor 11:1). We are commanded to “have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had” (Phil 2:5, cf. I Cor 2:16). But this means that the attitude Jesus revealed toward his enemies (including us) is the attitude we are to have toward our enemies, as well as to all other people. However heinous or threatening a person’s behavior may be, we are to assume that “they don’t know what they are doing.” And we’re to petition God for their forgiveness on this basis.

Nothing could possibly run more counter to the attitude that comes most natural to us in our fallen condition than the attitude Jesus reflected in his prayer. (This, undoubtedly, is one of the reasons the Lord gave us this example). In our fallen state, we most naturally replicate the original sin that pervades the rebellious human race. We “eat of the knowledge of the tree of good and evil,” which is to say, we put ourselves in a position of judgment. (For more on this, see my book Repenting of Religion). In our fallen state, we don’t instinctively assume the ignorance of others, especially if they are harming us. To the contrary, we usually assume their full responsibility and judge them accordingly. Moreover, instead of pleading for God to forgive them, we are more inclined to feel righteous as we plead with God to exact vengeance upon them. Our “natural” fallen response to our enemies is not at all reflective of God’s attitude toward us, as reflected in Jesus’ prayer on the cross.

I encourage all of us to strive to cultivate the mind of Christ, especially in this area of assuming the ignorance of others and praying for their forgiveness on this basis. Of course there are special occasions and relationships where it is appropriate and loving to assess the responsibility of others (though it’s never appropriate to make a negative judgment about another’s intrinsic worth). When serving as a juror in a court of law, for example, or when parenting a child, one needs to try to accurately assess the extent to which another knew what they were doing. But in all other circumstances, and with regard to all other people, we are commanded to imitate Jesus, including the attitude he reflected toward his enemies on the cross. However heinous a person’s behavior may be, and however threatening a person’s behavior may be, we are to refrain from judgment, assume their ignorance and hope and plead for their forgiveness.

This is perhaps the most difficult act of discipleship we could ever engage in. It directly confronts the very foundation of our fallen nature (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Yet, this is a key to unlocking the beauty of the kingdom in our life. Though it always gives the demonic illusion of empowerment, there is in reality nothing more life-negating than our judging impulse. As we by God’s grace learn to refrain from judgment and instead hope and believe the best in others (I Cor. 13:7) while praying for their forgiveness, the love of Christ is unleashed in our hearts. The beauty of Jesus’ prayer then begins to become a beautiful reality in our life. We experience a depth of joy and freedom that we otherwise would not experience.

I encourage us to cultivate the shockingly beautiful attitude of Christ on the cross. For Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who threaten our nation; for the terrorists and soldiers who kill our sons and daughters as well as the predators who harm our children; for all those who do harm to us and our loved ones; let us strive to follow the beautiful example of Jesus and pray:

“Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

Now! 1-2-07

Happy New Year everybody! I hope the year has gotten off to a good start for all of you.

Typically, people use the beginning of the new year to evaluate their lives, make resolutions about how they’re going to change, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this (especially if it works!), but to be honest with you, I’m not much of a fan of this sort of thinking. There’s a number of reasons why, but the most important one is that I believe an over-emphasis on one particular commitment day may distract us from the most important factor that brings about change in our life: namely, living in the present moment.

Think about this: your life is nothing except a series of present moments strung together. Life is always in the now. Everything else is an abstraction. This now – right this second – is the only thing that is really real… and it just passed. Now this moment –right now – is the only thing that is really real. And so it is for the sum total of your life. You see, the quality of your life is nothing over and above the quality of the “nows” that you live. And this now – not January 1st 2007, nor January 1st 2008 – but this now is the only now you can do anything about.

So, in this light, the only important resolution is the one you’re making now… and now… and now. Resolve to live this moment fully awake…and now this one. Resolve to remain conscious of God’s loving presence pressing in on you this moment… and now this one. Resolve to remain aware of your central mission to love God, yourself, and all other people this moment, and now this one… and now this one.

We can’t “live in love as we are loved “ (Eph. 5.1-2) in the abstract. We “live in love as we are loved “only insofar as we are receiving and manifesting love in the present – right now… and now.

So, I really don’t care what you did or didn’t pledge on January 1st. I just remind you – as I am continually reminding myself – to stay awake, not in “this coming year,” but simply in “this present moment.” For this year, like every year, is nothing over and above a series of present moments. And the only one that is real is this one… and now this one.

Stay awake.
And be Blessed.
Matt. 6:34.

What's Open & What's Not 12-31-06

Here’s a question someone e-mailed me a few days ago. People ask various versions of this question quite often, so I’m blogging my answer just in case any of you out there in cyberspace are interested in my response.

This person wrote:
“You believe that the future is partly open. You’re writing has pretty much convinced me this is true, but I’ve still got some serious questions about it. For example, how does anyone determine what part is open and what part is not? If we can’t determine what is and is not open, isn’t the concept of an open future really an empty concept? And if we can’t know the extent to which the future is open or not, how do we ever hold ourselves or anyone else morally responsible for their actions?"

Great set of questions! I’ll make four brief comments in response.

1. We can be confident the future is settled, to the extent that the Bible depicts the future as settled. This, of course, assumes you’re confident that a)—the Bible is divinely inspired and b)—that your interpretation of the Bible is accurate. Also, to the extent that we can be confident God isn’t going to fundamentally alter the laws of physics, we can assume that all aspects of the future directly entailed by these laws are closed. In other words, to the extent that science can accurately predict the future, the future is closed.

Conversely, to the extent that the Bible depicts the future as open (which it does all over the place!), we can be confident the future is open. This again assumes you’re confident that a)— the Bible is divinely inspired and b)—that your interpretation of this aspect of the Bible is accurate. Also, to the extent that we deliberate about decisions, weighing the different possibilities before us, we may assume the future is genuinely open. Indeed, we need to presuppose it’s open in order to deliberate about it (which is why I argue that everybody presupposes [and thus unconsciously believes] the open view of the future is true, despite the fact that they may sincerely think it’s false!)

Beyond this, I honestly don’t think we can know much. In fact, though we have to presuppose the future is open whenever we deliberate about various courses of actions we might take, we really can’t know the extent to which our own future is truly open. We don’t know the extent to which our thoughts and actions at any given moment are genetically and environmentally determined. And if we can’t even know this about ourselves, how much less can we know this about anyone else?

2. Our inability to confidently determine much about the future in terms of what is and is not open doesn’t mean the concept of an open future is empty, any more than it implies that the concept of a partly closed future is empty. In fact, if you think about it, this way of reasoning would eventually lead to the conclusion that all concepts about which one isn’t omniscient are meaningless – which of course is absurd.

3. While we can’t ordinarily know in any concrete way the extent to which our future (or anyone’s future) is open, this doesn’t negate the important principle that the future is open to the extent that a person is morally responsible for the way they resolve possibilities. In other words, we are morally responsible for our actions insofar as we could have done otherwise.

Now, it may be the case that at the time a person performed an action they couldn’t have done otherwise due to the way their character had been solidified. Yet, as Aristotle understood so clearly 2400 years ago (as described in Nicomedian Ethics), this person may still be responsible for their action if they themselves were responsible for developing their character the way they did. In other words, the fact that a person can’t now do otherwise regarding a particular course of action doesn’t excuse them if they once could have done otherwise. The guy who now can’t help but to spend his kid’s milk money to get high on meth is still responsible for his actions, because he made the morally responsible choice go down a path that led him to this pathetic bondage.

4. As a principle, we can know that a person is morally responsible for that about which they could have done otherwise. But if we remember that we can’t even know the extent to which our own future is open, this means we can’t know the extent to which any person is actually morally responsible for what they do. But why should this bother us? We’re not to judge anyone – precisely because God alone knows the extent to which they are responsible for what they do. Paul said he didn’t even judge himself, and I’m convinced this is why (I Cor. 4.3).

Now, of course society needs to judge people for legal purposes, and so it is a jury’s duty to decide the extent to which a person could have avoided doing what they did. But as believers, we’re to know that we can never judge.

I find it helpful to walk with the following mindset. While I don’t judge myself, I assume that my future is maximally open while assuming that other people’s futures are maximally closed. That is, if I am deliberating about several options, I assume that these options are genuinely possible and that my future, at least in regards to these decisions, is open. But with regard to other people’s actions, I assume that, however things appear, they couldn’t have done otherwise (unless, of course, I’m serving on a jury where I have to guess differently).

Here’s my rational for this assumption: with regards to my own actions, I have to act on the assumption that I’m free to make genuine decisions. As I said earlier, there’s no other way to deliberate except by presupposing your decision is genuinely open and up to you to resolve. And in regards to other people’s actions, I’m forbidden to judge them anyways, so what good does it do to assume they’re responsible? I find that living in this reality empowers me to take total responsibility for my life, on the one hand, while freeing me from my fallen addiction to judgment, on the other.

Let us take responsibility for our lives, relinquish responsibility for judging others, and humbly acknowledge our massive ignorance at all times.