Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Conflicted Memorial Day

Hope you all had a happy Memorial Day. (Isn't that something of a misnomer -- a happy time remembering people killed in war?)

Memorial Day honestly leaves me conflicted.

On the one hand, I am very happy I live in a country where I’m free to engage in my own "pursuit of happiness” (as in “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”). I also appreciate the fact that I live in a country where the governed people get to choose (to some degree) who governs them. For all its flaws, I think democracy is better (though not more scriptural) than dictatorship. And I can’t help but appreciate the young men and women who have laid down their lives to protect this way of life. I benefit from their sacrifice, so it seems appropriate to remember them.

On the other hand, my Lord’s words and example have taught me that it's better to love your enemy, do good to them, pray for them, and bless them than it is to ever kill them. I’ve been taught to never retaliate but to always return evil with good. I’ve been taught that violence is cyclical, and that if you live by the sword you’ll die by the sword. By submitting myself to this teaching, I’ve come to actually see its wisdom and beauty. I’ve come to see the taking of human life as demonically arrogant – demonic, because it expresses hopelessness in another, which is the opposite of love (I Cor. 13:7), and arrogant, because only the giver of life can justifiably take it.

To be honest, I’ve now come to see war as sheer insanity, and every fiber of my being revolts against it. I’ve gotten to the point where I’d rather die than participate in any of this, for any reason. And I grieve for all who do participate in it, for any reason. The fact that I personally benefit from some of the killing, because some of the killing is (at least is theory) supposed to protect the “American way of life,” doesn’t alter this assessment. Jesus is my Lord, not the American way of life. My allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. (And, in any case, as a white person I continue to "benefit" from the often barbaric and dishonest conquest of my ancestors over the American Indians and the enslavement of blacks -- but this doesn't mean I should approve of it).

I know some readers will immediately wonder, “But what about Hitler? This sort of thinking would let evil take over the world," etc. Some may in fact experience outrage at my (Jesus') suggestion that violence is never appropriate for Kingdom people. Some may see it as positively un-American and cowardly! In response, I'll simply say six brief things:

1) I totally understand and even empathize with the objection, and the outrage. But Jesus’ way of life is SUPPOSED TO BE scandalous to the world. The earliest Christians refused to fight in wars to defend the Roman empire and refused to pledge allegiance to the Roman empire. And this was one of the reasons they were despised and martyred. I think this is how it's SUPPOSED to look.

2) To act on the fear of evil taking over by killing one’s enemies rather than doing good to them is to simply say that Jesus was wrong and to reject him as Lord in this area of our life. This is not what a faithful disciple does.

3) We who have committed our lives to Christ are called to be faithful, not practical. Jesus’ choice to die rather than defend himself with violence is our example, and his choice certainly didn’t look practical on Good Friday.

4) The notion that we can “save the world” or “fix the world” through violence is the a lie that has fueled almost every war – and it has never, in the long run, worked. Every attempt to save or fix the world through violence simply ensures that violence will raise its ugly head again in the near future.

5) The idea that we can and must "save the world” or “fix the world” through violence is predicated on a mistrust of God's providence. Do we believe in the providence of God or not? Whether we obey him when it seems impractical to do so reveals our faith -- or our lack of faith.

6) I grant the obvious -- that this world is the kind of world where it seems that violence is necessary. Common sense usually sides with the violent. But Kingdom people are called to manifest a different world: a world in which God reigns; a world that reflects the character of the loving savior rather than the vicious roaring lion. No wonder the New Testament tells us we're supposed to be fools.

So yes, memorial day leaves me conflicted. I want to stand in solidarity with those who have lost loved ones in wars defending the American way of life. I want to respectfully acknowledge the depth of their sacrifice and acknowledge that I personally benefit from their sacrifice. But I also want to revolt against the demonic arrogance of violent-tending tribalism, manifested on all sides of any war, that makes bloody wars seem unavoidable. I want to scream, "There is a much better way to live. It’s the way of Jesus. It’s the way of self-sacrificial love. It’s the way of non-violence."

God bless the families of our fallen soliders. God bless the families of the soldiers on the other side. God bless the families of the innocent victims caught in the cross fire. And God bless all of us by influencing our leaders to end this war, and every potential future war. Maranatha.

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Review (of sorts) of Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution

I’m taking a (much needed) break from my work on The Myth of the Blueprint and my related insatiable obsession on ancient Greek philosophy. I’m going to spend the next few months working on a book for Zondervan on what I consider to be the revolutionary movement Jesus came to unleash in this world. (Hint: it doesn’t look much like the American Church). I think I’m going to entitle this book something like Revolting Beauty: A Manifesto for Kingdom Revolutions. It’s a sequel (but really a prequel) to The Myth of a Christian Nation. In this latter book I spelled out what the Kingdom is not (e.g. a religion or political party). In Revolting Beauty Zondervan wants me to flesh out what the Kingdom IS.

In a nutshell, I’ll argue that the Kingdom is a movement that revolts against the powers by being beautiful, refusing to participate in the ugliness of the world system. And the Kingdom is a movement that manifests a divine beauty that will, in significant respects, be revolting to those conditioned by the world’s system. In other worlds, the Kingdom always looks like Jesus, displaying the beauty of God’s love on the revoltingly ugly cross as he vanquishes the powers of evil that oppress this world.

ANYWAY, in preparation for this work I’ve been tapping into people who seem to have a similar vision of the Kingdom. The research I’ve done thus far is very encouraging. There REALLY IS a grass roots Kingdom movement sweeping our land – and the globe.

Undoubtedly the best book I’ve read so far is Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. I heartily recommend reading it. This young man has got the vision and is living it out in a community he started in the Philadelphia area called “The Simple Way.” The book basically tells his story – which is, I must say, beautifully radical. Also, Shane is a superb writer (for this informal genre).

Let me just say this about the specifics of the book—I found myself saying a hearty “Amen” to about 93% of the book (which is not typical for me). I even said “Amen” to things I’m not yet living—which means I was convicted. (You will be too. Believe me). But what I like most about the book is the 7% I find myself disagreeing with (this is typical for me).

Here’s my area of disagreement in a nutshell. While Shane is very clear on how the Kingdom of God is distinct from all forms of the kingdom of the world, and while he is admirably critical of people on both the political right and left who think they’re more righteous because of how they vote and who have too much buy-in on the political machinery, Shane is nevertheless big on staging political protests. Indeed, this is one of the major things Shane does, and he’s gotten himself arrested numerous times.

Now, I think this is perfectly fine and cool. But what’s challenging is that Shane seems to think this form of protest is an essential aspect of his Kingdom activism. His disclaimers not withstanding, at several points it seemed to me (I could be wrong) that he thought this was a rather unambiguous way for a follower of Jesus to weigh in on political issues. I’m not sure Shane fully appreciates the complex ambiguity involved in all politics.

For example, toward the end of his book Shane tells the story of how he sat toward the front of the 2004 Republican convention and then, when G.W. Bush stood up to speak, he took off his Republican-looking outfit and exposed a shirt with writing on the front and back saying things like “Woe to the Rich…and Blessed are the Poor.” He then began to shout these verses while President Bush tried to speak.

Not surprisingly, he was removed by security guards. He avoided being arrested because, when they asked if he was a protestor (which is not allowed) he responded, “No, I’m a prophet.” They didn’t know what to do with this, probably thought he was a flake, and so they mercifully let him go. (What’s odd is that Shane elsewhere has some negative – and insightful – things to say about political protestors (ch.11). Confusing.)

Now, I’m personally not a super huge fan of the Bush administration, and I’m totally okay with people publicly saying whatever is on their mind at any National Convention. Have at it. But is this really Kingdom activism? Did Jesus ever do anything like this? Isn’t this form of protest giving the political enterprise a bit too much credit – like should we Kingdom people really EXPECT them to care about what the Bible says, or what some heckler in the front rows says the Bible says? Couldn’t this sort of violation of proper etiquette be considered arrogant and rude – something Paul says love never is (I Cor. 13)? Would Shane have done this at a Democratic convention? If not, does this mean Shane thinks the Democrats care more about the poor than Republicans?

In any event, it seems to me the New Testament presents a bleaker picture of government than what a protest would presuppose : ALL governments are viewed as part of the kingdom of Satan – the Babylon of the Book of Revelation (e.g. Lk. 4:5-6; Rev. 13; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; I Jn 5:19). We are to revolt against this, of course. But I’m not sure Shane’s way, in this instance, is a Christ-like way.

At the same time, Shane’s book was a strong challenge for Kingdom people to enter into solidarity with the poor. (This, in fact, is the book’s strongest point). And it got me to thinking that there may be a viable form of Kingdom protest built into this solidarity. Without claiming any superior wisdom or moral insight into how to run the world, when people are going hungry we simply identify with them and scream WE ARE HUNGRY. We help give a voice to those whose voices are easily ignored – because we’ve now made their voice our voice and vice versa.

Jesus never heckled Caesar, nor did he try to tweak his program in any other way. His Kingdom is not of this world. But he did expose the ugly injustice of the world simply by virtue of the way he identified with those crushed by the world’s system.

THAT, I think, is a viable form of Kingdom protest. And I thank Shane for helping me think this through.

Long live the Revolution!


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pure Grace and Free Will

I received a question the other day that I get quite often, so I'd thought I'd share it with you all. It was from an Arminian-turned-Calvinist who basically wondered how salvation can be by grace apart from works if salvation hinges on whether individuals choose to be saved or not. If we have to choose for or against God, then doesn't the credit for our salvation ultimately go to us? Along the same lines, doesn't the Bible teach that no one can choose to confess Jesus as Lord unless empowered by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3)? If this is true, then it seems the ultimate reason why some are saved and some are not can't be that some choose to confess Christ while others don't. It must rather be that the Holy Spirit empowers some and not others. And so it seems God chooses (elects) who will and will not be saved. I have found that many people who are Calvinist are so because they think that this is the only view that gives God all the glory for saving us. (For a time when I was in Seminary, this was the argument that kept me a Calvinist -- as much as I hated other aspects of the theology).

This may surprise some, but I STILL find the Calvinist argument from grace to be very persuasive. The Bible does teach that salvation is completely by grace, not works. And it teaches very clearly that humans wouldn't will to be saved on their own, apart from the Holy Spirit. Left on our own, we are "dead" toward spiritual things (Eph 2:1, 5), and corpses can't do much of anything last I checked. To come to Christ, the Father must draw us.

If it was true that humans had enough life, goodness, or intelligence to choose God on their own, and if the reason that some were saved and some not was because some chose God on their own and some didn't, then I see no way one could avoid the conclusion that the reason some are saved and some not is because some are better or smarter than others! So saved people, give yourself a nice pat on the back!

At the same time, it seems just as clear that God does not pick and choose who will be saved. He doesn't want anyone to perish but wants all to enter into eternal life (2 Pet 3:9; 2 Tim. 2:4-6). Jesus died for the sins of every person (1 Jn 2:2). So, any line of reasoning that leads to a portrait of God as less-than-universal in his love and less-than-universal in his desire to save people must have something wrong with it.

As I see it, the mistake in the line of reasoning that leads to the Reformed doctrine of election is the assumption that God's grace must be IRRESISTIBLE. (This is the "I" of the famous Calvinistic Acronym TULIP). It's one thing to say that humans WON'T believe in Christ without the Holy Spirit and quite another thing to claim that with the Holy Spirit humans MUST believe. As I put aspects of the biblical narrative together, I am led to the conclusion that God wants everyone saved and the Holy Spirit is working in every person's heart to bring them into salvation. (The issue of whether people need to be brought to the point where they CONSCIOUSLY choose Christ to be saved is a separate matter). But the Holy Spirit will not work COERCIVELY. A coerced love is not a genuine love. So it is that through the Bible we have warnings NOT TO RESIST the Holy Spirit (e.g. Acts 7:51; Eph 4:30; Heb 3:7-8). The Holy Spirit will bring us to the point where we CAN believe, but never to a point where we MUST believe. So, if we DO believe, it is all credited to God's grace, working through the Spirit. If we refuse, however, it's our own fault.

Does this view in any way compromise the claim that salvation is 100% by grace? Does it leave room for anyone to take any credit for their salvation? I don't see how it does. Consider this analogy.

Suppose that salvation is dancing to God's beautiful music. God graciously places us in a room with two loud speakers and begins to play his music. Surprisingly, we rebel, cup our hands over our ears and begin to sing our own songs to ourselves, dancing to our own music (representing the fall and our on-going sin). God graciously does not give up on us, however. He graciously turns the music up louder, but we continue to rebel by covering our ears harder and singing louder. He turns it up louder and louder, but we persist in our rebellion. God then graciously puts two more speakers in the room playing them at full volume, and when that fails, he puts in ten more, and then a hundred more, and so on until the room is wall-to-wall speakers, playing at full blast. Incredibly, all these gracious overtures just make us resist more forcefully. Yet, God continues to want us desperately to dance to his beautiful music, so in the most remarkable act of grace imaginable, and at great sacrifice to himself (representing the Incarnation and death of Christ), God himself comes into the room and begins to personally do everything possible to get us to lower our arms and dance to his music. Weeping and pleading, he himself pulls at our arms to lower them from our ears. We all resist...but finally, his relentless love wears some of us out. We begin to hear the music. We see his relentless love. And we begin to dance.

This is an analogy, of course, and so it only imperfectly reflects the way in which God saves us. But it's helpful in getting at the question we're presently wrestling with. Would any of those who were finally won over to God's music be inclined to credit themselves for their dancing? After all their rebellion and all God's grace, would anyone attribute their dancing to their innate intelligence or goodness? Would they not rather testify that the only reason they eventually danced to God's music was because God was relentless in his grace and wore them out with his love? Would they not say that they're dancing was 100% God's doing? I don't see how it could be otherwise. And yet, as strong and relentless as God was toward toward them, he did not coerce them.

This view is not without its mystery, but it's not the mystery of why God would irresistibly chose some when he could have just as easily irresistible chosen all (while telling us he WANTS all to be saved). The mystery in this view is how anyone could, and why anyone would, continue in their rebellion. This is the unfathomable mystery of iniquity. Whatever I make of this mystery, it seems more biblical and less problematic than the mystery of a selectively saving God. And the last thing it would ever do is make me feel righteous for being set free from its dominion.

Think about it.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Is the Kingdom Invisible?

Traditionally, Christians have often made a distinction between the “visible” and “invisible” Church. It was a way of differentiating between the Church the world sees, which presumably includes people who are Christian in name only, and the true Church that only God knows, which includes all true disciples. The notion that the true church is invisible is useful as a way of reminding us that no human is in a position to ever judge who is and is not “saved.” But if it is interpreted to mean that the kingdom of God is invisible – that no one can really tell when it is or is not present – then it’s completely mistaken.

There’s simply nothing invisible or ambiguous about the kingdom of God. It always looks something like Jesus, dying on Calvary for the people who crucified him while praying, “Father, forgive them.” When God reigns, it always manifests Calvary-quality love. The kingdom is present whenever people are getting their life from Christ alone and therefore are increasingly looking like Jesus, doing what Jesus did, and obeying what Jesus taught.

When people refuse to retaliate, choosing instead to return evil with good as Jesus and Paul taught us, the kingdom of God is present. When people love their enemies rather than fight them, bless those who persecute them rather than curse them, and pray for those who mistreat them rather than trying to get even, the kingdom of God is present. When people choose to serve rather than to be served and to be killed rather than to participate in killing others, the kingdom of God is present. When people choose to put the interests of others before their own, to forgive even after multiple offenses, and to invest their own time and resources in serving others, the kingdom of God is present. When people befriend the friendless, feed the hungry, house the homeless, serve “sinners” rather than judge them, and work to bring healing into people’s lives and relationships, the kingdom of God is present. And when we choose to live in a way that ascribes worth to animals and the earth rather than simply using them as a means of gratifying ourselves, as the Bible commands (Gen. 1:26-28), the kingdom of God is present.

This is what God’s LIFE looks like when it is manifested “on earth as it is in heaven,” for this is what Christ looked like when he came down to earth from heaven. While this kingdom doesn’t draw attention to itself with the world’s customary fanfare, it most certainly is visible. One can’t help but notice it, for in a self-centered, angry, violent world such as ours, this sort of Calvary-quality love can’t help but stand out.

The Calvary-quality love that sets the kingdom apart is impossible for non-kingdom people to replicate with any consistency. Indeed, as long as a person clings to the “natural” fallen way of doing life, believing life can be found in false gods, they will not find kingdom LIFE attractive or reasonable. Nothing could be more unnatural, painful, and impractical than serving those who intend to do you, your tribe, or your nation harm! It’s only “natural” to look out for oneself, defend one’s self interests, fight for one’s nation, and kill if necessary to keep from being killed--which is why most people instinctively live this way. It’s why the history of the human race is largely a history of cyclical, mindless carnage.

But to those who have become sufficiently disgusted with the emptiness and perpetual conflict of this supposedly “natural” way of living, Jesus’ radically different way of doing life sounds like LIFE, and it is attractive. Only those who know they are sick long for what the physician has to offer. Only those who have given up trying to get life on their own hunger for the LIFE that comes from God. And when they begin to receive this LIFE, it begins to transform them into the self-sacrificial, loving image of Jesus.

In the dark, violent, self-centered world in which we live, this kind of transformation doesn’t stay hidden for long.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Jesus' Example of Lobbying Against Gays

(warning....satire ahead)

This past weekend in the Saturday paper I found a lovely article that reports that both the House and the Senate approved a bill that would make violence against gays simply because of their sexual orientation a "hate crime." This bill, if it became law, would put anti-gay violence on the same level as religious or race motivated violence. Punishment for official "hate crimes" tends to be more severe than for just random acts of violence. So, the law would help protect gays. Not surprisingly, the newspaper article said that George Bush is receiving PRESSURE FROM EVANGELICALS to VETO the bill. Some Evangelicals are apparently afraid that the passing of this bill is a step in the direction of making it a punishable crime to refer to homosexuality as a sin. And, of course, we need to protect our rights.

Now, followers of Jesus are called to imitate Jesus, as I recall (Eph 5:1-2). In this light, taking this public stance makes sense, doesn't it? I mean, Jesus does this sort of thing a lot in the Gospels, doesn't he? Passing laws not only against gays and prostitutes and tax collectors, but against protecting these sorts of people. Surely this sort of religious-political behavior is all over the place in the Gospels, isn't it?

That's probably why sinners like gays and prostitutes and tax collectors avoided Jesus like the plague -- just like they do the Church today (e.g. Mt. 11.19; Mk 2:15-16; Lk 15:1). This was also probably how Jesus kept his reputation so untarnished, especially among religious folk like the Pharisees (e.g. Lk 7:34). Not only this, but this was no doubt why Jesus was so well known for his political posturing against various sin groups. He had his followers putting pressure on Caesar and Pilate all the time to make life tough on these select groups of sinners (Jn. 18:36). Paul certainly made judging those outside the church a high priority in his ministry (I Cor. 4:3, 5; 5:12). This is also undoubtedly why Jesus told his followers that, even though they may not be perfect, at least their own sin was a mere dust particle in comparison to THESE sorts of sinners, whose sin is a big log by comparison (Mt 7:1-3). No wonder Jesus talks so much more about homosexuality than greed or self-righteousness or the need to love our enemies.

Beyond this, its obvious that Jesus spent a lot of time involved in politics to protect his own rights -- especially the right to call certain kinds of people sinners (Jn 8:3-11, 15). Let us follow his example. He was, after all, just being practical. Why should he have to go to prison for exercising his right as the Son of God to call some group of people sinners, for crying out loud? Probably the only reason he eventually got crucified, despite his persistent interest in defending his rights, was because the government of his time wasn't as good as ours and didn't give him enough power to defend himself. If only he'd had the means of protecting himself, he'd surely have taken it (Mt 26:53)!

All of this totally explains why religious people loved Jesus so much and why those worse-than-other-sinners groups of people despised him so. I've always wondered about that.

So -- let us who call ourselves Evangelicals imitate Jesus' example and rise up in our superior righteousness and fight for our rights while blocking laws that help protect gays!!!

Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war. It's worked so well in the Inquisition and Crusades. Why stop now?

For they'll know we are Christians by our laws, by our laws. Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our laws.


ps. If you didn't check the proof texts I cited in my little essay, you might want to. It will clarify a few things.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Objections to Petitionary Prayer 3

Over the last couple days I’ve reviewed two objections to petitionary prayer raised by a second century pagan philosopher named Maximus of Tyre. Today I want to examine his third argument. In the fifth paragraph of his fifth oration, Maximus argues that petitionary prayer is useless because “[d]estiny is a tyrant, unbending and supreme” and “tyranny brute force reigns supreme.” The point is that, if one believes that all things are determined by a cosmic force (“destiny”) – or God – then, according to Maximus, it simply makes no sense to pray. It’s like Doris Day sang long ago: “Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be.” Nothing can be altered from the path it is destined to take. It really makes no difference whether things are determined by blind fate or by a personal God. The point is, things are (one way or another) predetermined at the time a person is making their request. And this, Maximus argues, simply means that the request can’t make a real difference in what comes to pass.

Now, there is a response to this argument that some in the ancient world offered. Ancient Stoics – and later, St. Augustine – tried to get around this problem by saying that some things are “co-fated.” (Because of its pagan connotations, however, Augustine refrained from using the word “fate”). That is, it may be fated (or “predestined,” in Augustine’s terms) that a certain person will recover from an illness. But it may be that the fated means of this person’s recovery is a friend’s prayer. So a person’s prayer is co-fated with another person’s recovery, as the end is co-fated along with the means to that end.

Maximus doesn’t consider this response, and a lot could be said for and against this argument. For the moment I will just register my opinion that I don’t think it carries much weight. As a number of ancient philosophers (e.g. Carneades) argued, among others problems this view seems to seriously weaken the significance of what it means for something to be up to us. In the Stoic/Augustinian view, the decisions of people – including the decision to pray or not – is reduced to being nothing more than a falling domino in a virtually infinite chain of falling dominoes. It’s true that, if the domino of your decision to pray doesn’t “fall,” the domino of another person recovering from their illness won’t fall. Hence the Stoics (and St. Augustine) could say, “If you don’t pray, the person won’t recover.” But it’s also true that the domino of your prayer has to fall, given that the whole chain of dominoes has been fated (or predestined) to fall exactly the way it in fact falls. So really, nothing is left up to us to decide. Or better, all that we decide has already been decided for us (whether by blind fate or by God) from all eternity. Nothing now hangs in the balance of our decision. And in this sense, I think Maximus’ argument has some force.

Against this, the Bible repeatedly depicts things as genuinely hanging in the balance – in the present – on whether or not people pray. In Ezek. 22:29-31, for example, the Lord was planning on bringing judgment on Israel, but he told Ezekiel that he “looked for someone… to stand in the gap” to avert this disaster, but he found no one.

Now, if it was from all eternity a foregone (fated/ predestined) conclusion that no one would be found to “stand in the gap,” one has to wonder how God could with any degree of integrity tell Ezekiel that he looked for someone to “stand in the gap.” Can you genuinely look for something you eternally know isn’t there – or worse, that you yourself predestined not to be there? This passage, and many, many others like it, suggests that when the Bible tells us things hang on prayer, it means things are really hanging in the balance at the time the command is given.

Right now, our prayer can change the course of events – as can our lack of prayer. And this, in turn, requires that neither our past, nor our future, is under the “tyranny… of destiny.” Our hats should go off to Maximus of Tyre for helping us appreciate the incompatibility of petitionary prayer with a view of God and/or of reality that doesn’t allow for genuine freedom of choice.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Objections to Petitionary Prayer 2

A couple days ago I reviewed the first of several objections to petitionary prayer that a second century pagan philosopher named Maximus of Tyre raises in the fifth of his Philosophical Orations (entitled “On Prayer"). Maximus’ second argument is even stronger than the first, in my opinion. Let’s look at it.

Comparing God to a wise doctor and humans who pray to patients making requests of this doctor, Maximus says; “If [the request] is efficacious [that is, beneficial] the doctor will give it unasked; if it is dangerous, he will withhold it even when asked.” The point Maximus is making is that, on the assumption that God is all good, it seems that if a person asks God to do something that is best to do, God would do it even if the person hadn’t asked. (What else does it mean to say that God is “all good” except that he never refrains from doing the best thing?) For the exact same reason, if what a person is petitioning God for is something that is not best, it seems God will not do this thing despite the fact that he was asked. For again, an “all-good” God never does anything that is less than the greatest good. So either way, Maximus argues, bringing requests before God is futile.

Do you see a flaw in this argument? It’s found, I believe, in the limitations of the doctor-patient analogy. If our relationship with God could be exhaustively defined as a doctor-patient relationship – that is, if the sole purpose of our relationship with God was to get cured from a disease – then Maximus’ argument might hold water. But from a New Testament perspective, God doesn’t want to relate to us simply to get us healed. He wants to relate to us because he simply loves us. The highest good that God is aiming at is an eternal, marriage-like love relationship with humans who reign with him over the earth forever (2 Tim. 2:12 Rev. 5:10; 20:6).

If this kind of relationship is what God is aiming at, it changes everything. It’s true that an all-good God must by definition always do the best thing. But the biblical understanding of the highest good being a reciprocal love relationship not only allows for, but requires, mutual influence between God and humans. If humans are to be genuine co-workers (1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 6:1), co-rulers (2 Tim.2:12) and marriage partners (Jn 3:29; Rev. 19:7; 21.2; 22:17) with God, we have to have the ability not only to be impacted by God, but to impact God. What kind of marriage relationship is it if one partner is not in any respect influenced by the other partner? In what way could a one-way relationship be called a co-partnership and co-rulership? Of course, the relationship between us and God is not symmetrical. He is Lord, we are not. But it is nevertheless reciprocal. God impacts us and we impact God.

In this light we can see where Maximus’ reasoning is wrong, and how it is that our prayers genuinely make a difference to God and thus to the way events unfold in the world.

Maximus has one more argument against petitionary prayer we need to examine. It has to do with predestination. I'll get to that in the next few days.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Objections to Petitionary Prayer 1

For the last two years I’ve been immersed in ancient Greek philosophy, reading as many original sources as I can (e.g. the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc.). It never ceases to amaze me how so much of the issues philosophers confronted more than 2000 years ago continue to be relevant issues today. For example, lately I’ve been studying The Philosophical Orations of a certain second century A. D. platonic philosopher named “Maximus of Tyre.” In one “oration” (Oration 5, “On Prayer”) he presents several rather cogent arguments against the idea of petitionary prayer – arguments that are still worth wrestling with today.

One argument Maximus brings up is that when people petition a god, they’re trying to get the god to change his mind (repent) about something. Against this Maximus argues: “Change of mind and repentance are … unbecoming to a good man, let alone to a god.” The reason change is unbecoming, Maximus adds, is that change can only be for the better or for the worse. But a god, he holds, can neither be improved or diminished.

The argument that all change can only be for the better or for the worse and thus that we can never ascribe change to God (or gods) goes back to Plato’s Republic (book II). This premise quickly became a standard argument among philosophers. We even find it echoed in a multitude of early Christian writings. It actually lies at the foundation of the classical Christian doctrine of “divine immutability.” But, as Maximus is pointing out, there seems to be an inconsistency in holding to this understanding of the changelessness of God while also engaging in petitionary prayer. If God can’t change in any respect, then God’s will can’t be affected in any respect. In fact, even God’s experience of the world can’t change in any respect – which is why the classical Christian tradition ended up following the platonic tradition’s view that God must be timeless (devoid of sequence). God experiences the totality of history as one utterly unchanging “eternal now.” If this is so, what possible difference can petitionary prayer make? Nothing can possibility be altered. The facts of what will come to pass are eternally settled in the unchanging mind and experience of God.

The problem with this argument, as I see it, is with the standard platonic assumption that all change must either be for the better or for the worse. It seems to me this assumption is simply wrong. Some kinds of change don’t improve a person’s character or wisdom, but simply express the character and wisdom of a person. For example, a perfectly loving parent would certainly alter their happy disposition in response to their child’s sorrow and would (within wise limits) alter their plans in response to their child’s requests. This change would not improve their character or wisdom– for their character and wisdom, we are supposing, are perfect. Rather, this change would express their perfect character and wisdom. In fact, if they refused to change in response to their child, we wouldn’t say they were perfect in their wisdom and character.

So too, if we believe that God is perfect, unchanging love, it seems we must accept that God is perpetually changing in response to his children. His ability and willingness to be genuinely affected by us doesn’t improve or diminish him: it simply expresses his perfectly loving character and his perfect wisdom. And in this conception of God, there’s no problem whatsoever with the concept that our communicating with God impacts him and makes a difference in the world.

Yet, this was simply the first of several arguments Maximus raised against petitionary prayer. Check out the blog in the next few days if you’re interested in seeing my response to some of his other arguments.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

What a reading-addicted pathetic egghead reads

Hey bloggers and bloggettes,

I occasionally get asked, "What ya reading these days Greg?" So -- since I've committed myself to sprinkling in academic reflections with random "me" stuff -- I thought I'd tell you.

But -- be warned -- the stuff that interests me bores most people silly.

Okay, starting with most recent and going backward... a week or so.

On the plane OUT to Michigan to talk at Mars HIll, I read Rob Bell's VELVET ELVIS. I figured if I was meeting Rob I should know something about what he wrote. This isn't the genre I normally hang out in, but I really liked this book. It was clever, funny, but most of all insightful. The dude has the vision of the Kingdom. I love it. But the book nothing much to say on either Velvet or Elvis.

On the plane way BACK from Michigan I read a book I randomly bought about four months ago because it intrigued me. It was by William Stringfellow and its called AN ETHIC FOR CHRISTIAN AND OTHER ALIENS IN A STRANGE LAND. Wow... what an incredible hard hitting little read!! It was written in 1972, but it might as well have been written in 2007 -- it is THAT prophetic. He argues that America epitomizes the Babylon of the book of Revelation. One of the most insightful and trenchant critiques of American culture I've ever read. I of course don't concur with everything he says -- but I wish all overly-patriotic Americans would read this book.

Okay, over the two days preceeding this one I read The ORATIONS of Maximus of Tyre, a second century Platonist philosopher. This would bore most people to death but it excites the living daylights out of me because it provides such a clear expression of the dominant philosophy that influenced the early Christians in the direction of the blueprint worldview. Also, Maximus presents a couple of interesting arguments against the efficacy of petitionary prayer that I'll be interacting with in a couple of future blogs.

For a couple days before that I was reading AMMONIOUS AND THE SEABATTLE -- this is part of a commentary by a fourth century (as I recall) Aristotelian philosophy on Aristotles famous work "De Interpretatione." It concerns Aristotle's view of the truth value of statements about future contingents. Ammonius (and other philosophers like the Neoplatonists Iamblichus and Proclus and Boethius) were SO CLOSE to discovering that statements about what "might and might not" happen have a truth value as well as statements about what "will and will not" -- and that if the "might" is true, the "will and will not" statements are BOTH false. SO close -- and yet, because of a fatal assumption they make about the nature of knowledge, they are SO FAR. (In essence, they mistakenly assume that whether something is known as necessary or contingent depends on the nature of the KNOWER instead of the nature of what is KNOWN. Since God is necessary, they thought, he can know future contingents in a necessary and timeless mode).

Sorry...I'm getting kind of academic again, aren't I Marcia (she probably quit reading when I got into the future contingency stuff -- LOL). Anyway, the work REALLY excites me because it serves up a softball I think I can hit out of the park with the LOGICAL HEXAGON (I think I have an essay on this somewhere on my site for the two of you who care).

Okay, sorry. sorry.

The day before I read Ammonius' commentary I read ALCINOUS: THE HANDBOOK OF PLATONISM -- another second century work I love for the same reason I loved Maximus of Tyre.

Do you see how totally pathetic I am? I get up most mornings between 4:00 and 5:00 AM excited to read this stuff... and at least three or four days a week I've put in 10 to 12 hours.

Finally, for two days before that... about a week ago, I read JM Rist's PLOTINUS: ROAD TO REALITY - a very good book on one of the most important philosophers in the ancient world -- for it was his philosophy, more than any others, that influenced St. Augustine and thus (in my humble opinion) helped get Christian theology so far off track.

And now you know why you should never ask me "What ya reading these days Greg?"

Unless you're having trouble getting to sleep.


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

from one of the admins


marcia here....i work with greg at christus victor ministries...administrative and photograhy. you won't hear from me much on this blog but sometimes i need to defend myself with those that follow this blog. i love working with greg...but let me tell you it's NOT easy!

greg thinks rosie is boring?...look in the mirror GREG BOYD!!! people think he's so smart and we as his friends and colleagues sit at his feet listening to his endless ramblings about plato and other who-evers! ok...so he is smart but he's also VERY normal and we just want his "normal" side to come out in his blogging too!

p.s. i happen to enjoy rosie's blog...she is SO funny and insightful...NEVER boring!!! greg boyd and dump truck...you don't know rosie!

well, he does look academic here but notice we're not at his feet.


welcome to my new blog

Heh folks,

We've got a new web blogger page site thingy whatever.... do you like it?

Thanks to Jen Halverson the wonderful for setting this up!

To be honest, I don't get this blogger thing at all. (some of you noticed I'm sure). I'm sure its because I'm almost 50. Marcia and Greg Erickson and Jen and my wife have been showing me blogs so I learn what blogging is. They say I haven't really got the hang of this, since I'm too academic and don't give enough bits of my self. But the blogs they showed me seem silly. I mean, we went to Rosie O'Donnell's video blog (for example) and it bored me to death. Why would anyone take 10 minutes out of their finite, quickly ending life to listen to her and two friends talk about absolutely NOTHING? I don't get it?

Anyway, they say I need to be MORE RANDOM. Just think out loud. I've heard the same thing from several other people around the country . So... I'm NOT going to stop posting academic thoughts now and then, but I AM going to try to be more random.

Here's one... I saw Rocky VI the other night in a hotel at 2:00 cuz I couldn't sleep.

The movie wasn't terrible, but it did help me go to sleep. So thanks Rocky.

here's another random thought... I spoke at Mars Hill last week. LOVED IT. Loved the Church. And loved Rob Bell. what an interesting artistic out-of-the box thinker. They've got the vision for the Kingdom! Praise God.

Okay, enough randomness for now. Later.

And Jen is wonderful.