Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Don't doubt, just believe.

I find myself dealing with a sense of frustration of late, and I think it’s bleeding into my online “tone.” One of the difficulties I have with religious claims is that it ultimately comes down to a matter of faith. How often have we heard that it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the answers here, they’ll be available in heaven? Or a contradiction in the Bible isn’t really a contradiction, even though it appears that way? It just requires more study, or will eventually be a non-contradiction in heaven. If someone has doubts, they are to pray to God until those doubts are removed. I’ve seen some of the methods used to harmonize the Bible and they don’t work for me for two reasons – some are a huge stretch, and if the same principles were applied to another religious text, I don’t see that the harmonizations would then be accepted. Rather, the harmonizing would be seen as … well, along the lines of grasping at straws.

Am I stretching the point? Perhaps. But I doubt it. It’s along the same lines as saying that another religious text can’t be from God because of all the violence, and yet saying the Bible is divinely inspired and directly from God, even though the same type of violence is in the Bible. Violent acts that would persuade someone that the book wasn’t of divine origin in any other context.

The standards just seem to be relaxed when applied to religion (well, to be more precise, conservative Christianity), and that’s the frustrating part. Take a math equation – you can’t say to someone that they don’t need to actually resolve the contradiction, or it will be revealed at a later time, or having the answer doesn’t matter. You do need to solve that contradiction, or the math equation doesn’t work. If you’re basing lives on that equation, you’ll get those lives killed. You can’t tell someone to pray to remove the doubt: the doubt is removed through receiving an answer that either proves the equation, or shows that the equation needs to be re-worked.

Or determining that someone is good: we do that based on lifestyle and behavior. If someone kills another person over a pair of shoes, we would conclude that person A is a bad person. However, when I’ve asked others how they determine that God is good, it pretty much comes down to “God is good because He says He is.” Okay, but that is not the method we use to determine if a person is good. (There have been variations onto this, in that God’s very nature necessitates Him being good. But we know this based on … God saying so, because God is the one who describes what His nature consists of).

And this is after I’ve asked how one determines that one is actually following a good God. What criteria is the judgment of good based on? And before anyone starts saying that I’m imposing my own fallible moral code onto God, I’m not. I am taking what Jesus says is good – behavior that Jesus says is just like God’s behavior – and checking if that is consistent behavior throughout the Bible.

The resolution to this is basically to just have faith. And that reasoning works for a lot of people, and they find it acceptable. Herein lies the problem, though: the people who say to just have faith are the same people laying claim to an absolute truth, and that those of us who aren’t like them need to have this absolute truth right away.

A claim of absolute truth should be associated with the idea that the person has researched, and investigated all sides. I don’t see this coming from those who say to just have faith. Rather, I see the investigation as skewed: all facts are interpreted through an already-established paradigm, and rather than doing independent research, one relies on others for facts.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Does God truly forgive?

From the dictionary, forgiveness is: to give up resentment of or claim to requital for. b: to grant relief from payment of. 2: to cease to feel resentment against (an offender)

Penal substitution is essentially Jesus punished in everyone's place in order to satisfy God's justice. Through this process, humanity can receive forgiveness.

I suppose the first question that arises is this: is forgiveness truly forgiveness if the "pound of flesh" is measured out first? If someone kills your child, and so you kill that person's child in turn and say to the person that you now forgive him/her, have you truly forgiven that person? Or is the forgiveness based on punishment, and what is due to you as the wronged party?

For me, I tend to see forgiveness as not only releasing the negative emotions, but relinquishing any claim to compensation for the wrong act. Jesus mentions this a lot, in that one is to forgive, and not seek vengeance. If vengeance is sought, and then forgiveness is granted, forgiveness becomes dependent on satisfying the vengeance.

So does the Penal substitution theory, which dominates conservative Protestantism (and possibly branches of Catholicism?) violate forgiveness as it's commonly identified? After all, God doesn't forgive unconditionally. Someone still had to be punished before that forgiveness was granted to people. God didn't simply relinquish any claims of satisfaction -- those claims were fulfilled in Jesus, in delivering that required 'pound of flesh.'

The only reason, under this atonement theory, that God doesn't punish people is because Jesus was punished. And to me, that violates the definition of forgiveness, because God didn't give a need for satisfaction, God didn't "cease" to feel anything about sin. The only reason why he ceased is because the person's punishment was still meted out, only not to the person.

That's not forgiveness, that's a transaction. It becomes an 'if-then' statement, it becomes a system of rewards, and paints a rather poor picture of how God forgives. I'm not even sure you can say it's unconditional forgiveness, because quite a few conditions were set before forgiveness even took place.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Sola Scripture.

About five years ago, I read the New Testament from the book of Matthew to Revelations for the first time. I mostly did this because I was starting to get into conversations with one of my Baptist friends, and it was involving Biblical matters. I figured since I disagreed with her on pretty much all theological stances, I should at least have a good idea of the book she was using: especially since I was using it, too. :)

Now, I have never believed in the Trinity. As she is a Baptist, she does, and that is one of the things we discussed. It’s another reason why I read the Bible, because I figured if the Trinity is a ‘make or break’ case for Christianity, it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

After completing the New Testament, I could see what verses were used to support the Trinity, but was also left with an incredibly unsettled feeling. Part of it was because of the following:

John 10:30 of “I and my Father are one” is often used to show that Jesus was claiming to be God. However, the support Jesus uses of that statement when the Jews try to stone him is from John 10:34: “Jesus answered them, “Isn’t it written in your Torah, “I have said, “You people are Elohim’”” If He called ‘elohim’ the people to whom the word of Elohim was addressed [and the Tanakh] cannot be broken, then are you telling the one whom the Father set apart as holy and sent into the world, ‘You are committing blasphemy’ just because I said, “I am the son of Elohim’?”

Jesus does not say that he is God in that statement – the Psalms he pulls from, where God addresses others as ‘Elohim’ is proof of that, because other humans are addressed as gods. (There’s also the fact that there’s no definite article in front of ‘theos’ where the Jews say he’s claiming to be God, and thus the interpretation runs ‘You are claiming to be a god’).

When the fact that Jesus later prays that his disciples be as one just as he and his Father are one is added into the mix, then the “I and my Father are one” completely loses any Trinitarian support for me.

There’s adding what Paul defines as the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15: what he received was that Christ died for our sins, in according with the Tanakh, he was buried, he was raised on the third day in according with the Tanakh and was seen by Peter, the Twelve, more than 500 and him. Nowhere here is part of the ‘good news’ that God becoming flesh. There’s also the sense that given that Paul was Jewish, to go from a Unitarian God to a Trinitarian God should’ve been much more apparent in his letters, and flat-out stated, given that this is a big reason why the Jews regard Christianity as polytheistic (and they were willing to die for the belief in the one God – this is a striking change, and yet there’s nothing). But there’s not, and even in his prayers, he is praying to the Father through Jesus Christ, or directing his prayers to the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ – and yet in today’s churches, the prayers are directed to Jesus, not the Father.

There’s Acts, where what’s proclaimed in the second chapter is that Jesus was a man demonstrated to be from God, and such.

There was the sense from other Trinitarian verses that there were a multitude of explanations for them, many of which were simpler than the Trinity. All of this combined with my sense that the Trinity itself was incredibly vague, led me to do much research.

I’m currently in the process of reading The Divine Truth or Human Tradition? A Reconsideration of the Roman Catholic-Protestant Doctrine of the Trinity in Light of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures? By Patrick Navas (not a Trinitarian, as one might guess), and he put into words why I was so unsettled after reading the New Testament for the first time.

Sola Scripture is essentially that all Christian beliefs and practices must stem directly from the Bible. The second coming does this. The resurrection does this. Jesus dying for sin does this – all are clearly and explicitly stated in the Bible.

The Trinity is not. That is what I found so unsettling about the New Testament. Take any concept of the Trinity and try and find it in the Bible: co-equal, same substance, God the Son, God Incarnate, Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, the Father as the first person of the Trinity, God-man and so on.

As one scholar say:

“As early as the 8th century, the theologian St. John of Damascus frankly admitted what every modern critical scholar of the New Testament now realizes; that neither the doctrine of the Trinity nor that of the two natures of Jesus Christ is explicitly set out in Scripture. In fact, if you take the record as it is and avoid reading back into it the dogmatic definitions of a latter age, you cannot find what is traditionally regarded as orthodox Christianity in the Bible at all.” -- Tom Harpur, For Christ’s Sake

Which is the situation I ended up in when reading the New Testament for the first time. And the book didn’t just quote from this scholar, but from all sorts of Trinitarian scholars who admitted that it is not clearly or explicitly taught in the Bible. He also went through the different ways in which the Trinitarian verses are interpreted, but many of them seem to re-write what the verses actually say, rather than letting the verses speak for themselves. The author himself offered interpretations that seemed simpler, honestly, and were along the lines of what I was already thinking before reading the book.

For example, everyone’s favorite: John 1

“When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was [Also translated as ‘the Word was God’ The Greek grammar gets fun here, in terms of the lack of definite article and such. I would advise looking up both viewpoints, as they’re too long to type here]. The Word, then, was with God at the beginning, and through him all things came to be.”

First problem: how is God defined in this paragraph? When it says that the Word dwelt with God, God cannot refer to the Trinity, because the Word is considered part of the Trinity. So it must be God the Father. However, if it goes on to say that the Word was God, then ‘God’ used there can no longer refer to the Father, because the Word is not the Father. It can’t mean ‘trinity’ because the Word is not the Trinity. So it would be construed as the Word was ‘God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.’

However, the verse itself is no longer standing on its own. Outside qualifications have been applied, including the definition of ‘God’ changing between the two lines.

Second concept: God first created in Genesis, through speaking. “And God said, Let there be light.” This completely ties into God’s Word being at the beginning (of our concept of time, and thus at the beginning of the creation of this finite reality), because the first thing God did was speak, and through that Word, all was created.

Just for fun, another one from Philippians 2

“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” It goes onto say he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, humbled himself, obedient to the death and because of this, God exalted him and bestowed upon him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, every tongue should confess he is Lord to the glory of the Father.

Okay, first – it does not say that at the name of Jesus, everyone worships Jesus. It says at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend and confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of the Father. This gives the Father glory, which is why everyone is doing the action.

Second – the concept of form. I know Trinitarians often go with the idea of 'essence'. I disagree, because the word itself goes with outward appearance in the other circumstances. The verse also later says that the son takes the form of a slave – outward appearance. He never takes the ‘essence’ of a slave, but human likeness and appearance. The use of the word ‘form’ is supposed to build off each other, and thus remain consistent.

Third –When I first read this, I didn’t read it as Christ was equal with God, but rather Christ wasn’t going to grasp/seize/try and gain something not previously possessed in terms of equality – he was going to do what Adam did not do, which was grasp at the equality. The whole verse is basically about humility. Plus, if Christ is co-equal with God, then how can we have the same attitude as Christ? Considering ourselves co-equal is simply not done. The whole point of the same attitude is humility/obedience, and part of that is not seizing at equality with God.

Fourth – it simply says that Christ emptied himself. Emptied himself of what? Emptied himself to the point of humility, so that he didn’t seize/grasp equality with God?

Fifth – Christ and God are separate here. Christ is exalted precisely because of obedience, and thus God gave him a name above all other names. Why would any of this be necessary if Christ was already co-eternal? To me, the straightforward reading is that Christ was exalted because of his actions and obedience to God, and was not exalted prior.

If you gave someone who had no knowledge of Christianity, who was essentially a blank slate, a Bible, they would reach the conclusion of the second coming, and dying for sin, and the resurrection, and Jesus being the Son of God. What that person would not walk away with is any concept of the Trinity as understood today. The person may or may not reach the conclusion that Jesus is God, dependent on how they read the use of the word god in the Tanakh (as in, Moses is referred to as ‘elohim,’ the angels are referred to as ‘elohim’ other people in Psalms 82 as ‘elohim’). But shouldn’t the person be able to, if sola scripture is sufficient enough to reach all doctrines of Christianity? Shouldn’t the Trinity as it is just leap off the pages?

Note: I am fully aware of all the verses used to support the Trinity. Before anyone responds with one of those verses, asking how I would interpret it, I would ask that they either try to locate this book, or another book that deals with the concept of the Trinity from this viewpoint. Or look at the verses again, and see if there’s another possible interpretation behind them. Or just look at different Bibles, to see the variety of ways in which those verses were translated. If you have done so, and wish to comment, okay. But please indicate in your comment that you have an understanding of the alternative interpretation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Saved through Grace

If living in the Western civilization, you'd basically need to live under a rock to not at least be passingly familiar with the concept of saved through grace, and how it's pulled from Ephesians 2:8.

However, I'm wondering how much of that is taken in the correct context. Here's the verse in full: "For you have been delivered by grace through trusting, and even this is not your accomplishment but God's gift. You were not delivered by your own actions; therefore no one should boast. For we are of God's making, created in union with the Messiah Yeshua for a life of good actions already prepared by God for us to do." -- Complete Jewish Bible, Ephesians 2:8-10.

I get how this translation is saying how no one earns their salvation. I don't see the corresponding factor that nothing we do has any merit, or that people are incapable of earning the salvation. Rather, what it's saying is that any good work one does is a result of God's making. If God made us to do good works, then we didn't independently generate those good works. Therefore, we can't take credit for them, because their not of our devising. They were 'already prepared' for us to do, and we were simply doing what we were created to do.

I also think Paul is unto an important idea here: that no one should boast. If in fact people could rack up enough brownie points to 'earn' heaven, then the good works become a chore, almost. They cease to be good because there's an expectation of reward. Which act is the good one? Someone who returns a purse simply because, or someone who returns a purse because there's a $500 reward? If that is applied in salvation: which person is good -- the person who helps the neighbor just because, or the person who helps because that gets him/her 200 points closer to heaven? The good work then becomes motivation by selfish interests.

The other problem with boasting: it's too often tied to pride, and that one person has an ability the other lacks. Given human nature, if salvation was a matter of doing enough to earn it, think of how quickly that would descend to: "I did 300 more good works than you did, so God likes me better." Or "I'm more worthy of salvation than you."

Instead, Paul almost seems to be saying to not worry about the works. They're already prepared for us, and they're taken care of. We're doing what we're supposed to be doing. Just relax and let go.

However, in a way, works do still 'save' people. Not by the concept of works earn salvation, but that good works demonstrate how grace works in one's life. Works are a way of expressing love, gratitude, compassion, light, and show that one chooses a life away from sin.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Holding God accountable.

I've been reading some different posts, in terms of reconciling the amount of suffering in the world with an all-loving, just, good, omnipotent God. You know, the usual problem of evil.

I'm going to pull from what one blog posted. Marie, at http://www.unbelieveanot.blogspot.com/
said the following:

I am reading a book about the war in Bosnia. Here is a passage...

"For a moment I could see nothing in the smoky gloom. My torch began to flicker, dimmed and died. I beat it back to life on my thigh and looked again. Three women looked back at me. They were kneeling in a small box-shaped pit sunk into the stone floor, huddled together in fear, their arms and hands entwined in support. Normally the hole would have been used to store grain and covered with the wooden trapdoor that now lay upright on its hinges behind their backs. It would have been the ideal place to hide. Close the lid and the pit would be nearly invisible. There would have been just enough room for three people to lie beneath it. What gave them away? I wondered. A cough? A sob?

Two of the women were in their twenties, the third was an old lady. Someone had shot her in the mouth and her shattered dentures cascaded with her own teeth down her front like mashed melon pips. One girl had been shot repeatedly in the chest. It was difficult to tell whether the other had her throat cut or been shot; a great gash of blood cresented her neck. The expression on their faces had survived the damage. It was so clear. A time-valve that opened directly on to those last moments. So you saw what they saw. I hope beyond hope that I never see it again."

He also describes a man whose youngest daughter was raped beside him when he was on his death-bed. -- end quote from Marie's blog.

Those experiences are suffering, and they are evil. Plain and simple. It would be hideous of anyone to approach those people and say that it is all part of God's plan, and God's plan is good, and that God loves them so much.

The standard response to this is free will. That the above is a consequence of God giving man free will. Unless, of course, one is a Calvinist, and if that is the case, there's no issue. The problem with the free will argument is that it comes across as God valuing free will above all else. If someone decides to kill me and succeeds, my free will wasn't respected. The murderer's was. My free will was overridden by somebody else's.

Everyone has the freedom to make a choice, yes. But the freedom to make a choice does not coincide into the freedom to act on that choice. If our child is about to make a poor decision, we stop the child from using his/her free will. If an adult is about to commit a crime and we know about it, we are to report that adult, and thus stop the adult from acting on his/her free will. If we do not, we are held accountable for that crime, in the sense that we did nothing to stop it.

So wondering about evil in comparison to the Christian God is valid. Take the current situation in Darfur. It is very, very hard to hold onto any concept of justice in the world when atrocities like that occur. If you think about it enough, it can lead to questioning one's faith.

What's the most interesting part about those questions is the response it generally creates. Marie isn't the only one questioning, Slapdash is going so as well. Here's what I've seen so far.

Common response one: God isn't a genie, and only gives us what's best for us. Simply because you personally have had some bad things happen in your life is no excuse.

Problem with that response: The focus of the question is on situations such as Darfur. It has nothing to do with the individual, so that the response does is change the focus of the question and then attack the questioner as prideful and sinful. But this is attacking the person, rather than addressing the topic.

Common response two: God gave you free will, so you might choose something that's bad, but God also wants to make sure that you choose to love him, if you decide to do so.

Problem: Again, the focus shifts to the individual, and any bad things that might happen to the individual. It completely removes Darfur from the equation, and how the free will of those victims is violated over and over again. This has nothing to do with my free will, and again is attacking me, rather than addressing the topic.

Common response three: Who are we to question God, who is so far above us?

Problem: If you don't question God, how do you know you're actually following God? More to the point, how do you know you're following a good and just God, unless you ask questions? Otherwise, you run into the whole 'I was just following orders' mindset, and we've seen where that can lead. Plus, would you say this to a Holocaust survivor?

Common response four: God's ways are mysterious, and we're just a blip on eternity.

Problem: If God's ways are that mysterious, then again, how can you know anything about God? And if the whole point of this life is to get us to the right location in the afterlife ... what do you use for proof? If God is in fact not saving people from situations such as Darfur when people are praying, what guarantee is there that God would answer prayers in terms of getting to heaven? Or that the concept of salvation is correct? And again -- would you say this to a Holocaust survivor?

Common response five: Man is sinful, and this is the cost of his rebellion. We deserve nothing less.

Problem: This is a horrific viewpoint, holding all of humanity accountable for the actions of two people, and it's pretty much what a man who hits his wife or children would say. Also, would you say that someone who survived the Holocaust deserved that? Would you say that to the survivor's face?

Ultimately, none of the common responses deal with the matter on hand: why is there so much unrestricted evil in the face of claims about God. All of the responses turn the focus back to who is asking the original question, and lets God almost slide off the hook, letting the original problem dangle. And by accountable, I don't mean yelling at God about how everything is his fault. I mean accountable in holding God accountable to claims that God utters, as we would do for anyone. If God says that his character is all-loving, and all-just, what support is there for that, and can we see support of that in the world today?

Basically, the situation in terms of Darfur, or any other atrocity on that scale is essentially holding God accountable to what is said about him/her. If we are told that God is all-powerful, can we then be pointed to a demonstration of that power? Can we see prayers be answered by an all-loving, or just God, in order to back up the claim of God's characteristics? If we can't see a full-scale demonstration of that here, what validity do we have for holding onto a blissful paradise in the next life?

This post has nothing to do with anger, and nothing to do with pride. It has nothing to do with demanding that God answer my every fulfillment. It has to do with a sense of frustration in watching people asking honest, heart-felt questions, and watching the answers attempt to rip them apart without ever addressing the actual problem. I have a great deal more respect for someone who does hold to this view of God and says to me that they don't know why so much evil is allowed, but that they've experienced what the Bible has promised, compared to someone who smugly informs me that I'm a spoiled sinful person who simply wants my own way and God is all-good and such. Because I'm not asking on my behalf: I'm asking on those who have no voice, on those who seem to be put here only to suffer. It also has to do with the fact that if someone wants me to honestly evaluate their answer, they need to honestly answer my question, and not shift the topic to something self-focused. My life is incredibly blessed compared to about ... well, most of the world. Almost all of the world, actually. I am very aware of this, and grateful for this.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Does Christianity re-define monotheism?

Monotheism: the doctrine or belief that there is only one God.

I know very little about Judaism, and even less about Islam, but from my understanding, they do consider Christianity to have shades of polytheism. Or consider it to be outright polytheistic.

This is completely understandable. When one says that a religion is monotheistic, the expectation is that there is one God only, and that God appears as a constant. In Christianity, it's difficult to say that God appears as a constant. There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Nothing in the definition of monotheism says that a monotheistic God can be one, and yet exist as three others, or ten others, or one hundred others. Granted, there is little that says this can't happen, either. But when you start referring to more than one entity as God, you're usually drifting towards polytheism.

Christianity gets around this problem by bringing out a previously unheard of concept: God existing as one, yet as three persons, all which are unified in will, power, knowledge, and so on. But in a way, Christianity can come across as wanting to have its cake, and eat it, too. It wants to follow the, "Here, Oh Israel, the Lord God is one" and yet keep the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as God. I can understand why the other two Abrahamic religions would find this polytheism. Given how they use monotheism, there's no room for the concept of the Trinity. If you have two beings with the same type of power and divinity, then you have two gods. That's how it's been throughout history -- at least, from what I've seen. The whole point of monotheism was to start ending the concept of more than one God.

Christianity seems to approach the table saying, "We are monotheistic with the Trinity, and that is acceptable." But is it really? Or is Christianity saying that we have to accept their monotheistic claims on their terms, rather than a set standard, or an objective term? Whereas Islam and Judaism approach the table with their perception of God that matches a set monotheistic standard.

It just seems that Christianity is monotheistic because they say so. For instance, let's turn this around. Say Christians followed a god known as Allah, and Islam had the concept of the Trinity. Can anyone honestly tell me that Christianity would accept Islam as a monotheistic religion? I highly, highly doubt it.

Also, before people start throwing out verses that "prove" the Trinity, I would ask that those people investigate how the concept of the Trinity first came about. There is a reason why there was no official Trinitarian creed until the 4th century. Paul and Peter and the lot didn't suddenly go around saying how God was a Trinity. It's a concept that took time to develop, in order to reconcile the divinity of the Christ with the concept of one God. And even after the Council of Nicaea, it still wasn't happily accepted by everyone. The Trinity is also something that is not clearly or explicitly taught anywhere in the Bible, and I'm pulling this justification from trinitarian scholars themselves.