Thursday, September 27, 2007

Listen, my children, and you shall hear ...

… of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.


A new blog post. Same thing. :)

In my last post, I touched on a discussion my friend and I had. Given the different viewpoints she and I brought to the table, it was only natural that we disagreed on a majority of what we discussed. However, there were also times that I felt her responses indicated that she wasn’t really listening to me, and that got me thinking.

How do we as individuals determine whether the other person is actually listening to us?
For example, take the problem of evil argument. I’ve found that when discussing the concept of a Christian God, with the omnipotence, omniscience and all-loving characteristics, it tends to slam head on into the amount of suffering we see in this world.

Now, the common response I often see runs along the lines of simply because bad things happen in my life does not mean that there isn’t a God. The problem with this is that those who use the POE hardly ever, if at all, use their lives within that problem (from what I’ve seen). They take the lives of others. They take events like the Holocaust, or Rwanda. They may also take “smaller” events, such as the rape and murder of a five year old, and try and reconcile that into the idea of God. So to me, the response indicates that the responder didn’t listen to the question, because s/he isn’t addressing any of the points raised in the question, but rather the questioner him/herself. The responder has reduced, almost radically, the nature of the question, and made it look as though the questioner was complaining.

The other common response I see to the POE is the nature of free will, and man can choose good or evil. I may be on shakier ground here, but the reason why I feel this also doesn’t address the question involving the POE is because when evil happens to a person, that person’s free will is getting violated.

Please note: I’m not actually looking for a debate on the POE, or the nature of free will. That’s not the point of this post. The examples above are simply used to try and work through how we determine whether someone or not listens to us.

One of the ideas my friend and I were discussing is the idea of God “fixing” everything in the end, and the knowledge that it doesn’t matter if you screw up, everything will still be completed in the end. It’s along the line of the reason used for not being environmentally smart: since the second coming will occur eventually/soon, and the Earth will burn and God’s going to create a new one anyway, why bother preserving it?

I told my friend the problem I had with this entire notion is how God gets used as an “escape clause.” If you absolutely believe that God is going to completely restore creation in the end, and that it will be fixed eventually no matter what you do, will you put 100% effort into trying to fix the problem? Let’s put it this way: if I know that I’m going to get an ‘A’ on a math exam no matter how much I prepare, what are the odds that I’m going to study that much, if at all? Why would I put 100% effort into studying, if I knew that I’d pass no matter what?

Her response to this was that if one person fails to achieve something, it doesn’t mean that God is helpless. The outcome will still happen, if it is meant to.

I told her she wasn’t listening to me. And I repeated myself, as people who don’t feel like they’re listened to are prone to do. She then repeated herself and we were in a cycle for a few minutes. Then we moved to a new topic (and a new cycle. We went through quite a few cycles, actually).

So what was I basing this “lack of listening” on? I think I based it on the fact that she wasn’t repeating my ideas back to me, but going in an area that I wasn’t even focusing on. At the time, I felt that her response indicated that she missed the point, and I’m wondering if I thought she missed the point because she didn’t agree with me.

The point of my question wasn’t “How can something happen if people don’t commit 100%?” Because I feel that’s the question she was answering, as though I were discussing the outcome. I wasn’t – the outcome wasn’t my concern. My focus was on the amount of effort applied to any situation, and why you’d even bother if you knew someone else, should that someone else will it, will see it occur anyway. You can tell yourself that you will commit 100%, but going back to the math problem, how feasible is it that subconsciously you won’t? (This may have gone better if I used the math example with her – I just came up with that example in relation to this post). I was focusing on the negative aspects of certainty. I mean, she even brought up the point that life here is horrible, but that’s what heaven is for – a place where no horrible things are. But that’s too close to the idea of simply enduring this life for a reward in the next, and with that mindset, why bother trying to make this life better at all? That was what I was trying to get across: the potential dangers that lurk in the viewpoint.

Please note #2: No comments about how if a person does this, they aren’t really Christian/Muslim/human in the first place, because one of the mandates is to help the neighbor. This isn’t meant to be a discussion in that area, and overall, this example is also used to explore the concept of listening.

But I want to go back to the agreement aspect – is that what we ultimately base listening on? There are quite a few bloggers who I feel “listen” a majority of the time, because when I post something, or comment in theirs, they respond in a way that indicates they understand what I’m saying. Much of this understanding circulates around agreement. It may not be 100%, but they’re agreeing with a majority of what I say.

And there are times when I feel, and I’m sure we all have, that someone has completely missed the point. We read the answer, and wonder if they even read our points in the first place. Coincidentally, these are the same people that don’t agree with a majority of what we say. So is there a correlation between those we feel listen, and those who agree with us? Had my friend and I theologically agreed, would I have felt that she had in fact listened to what I said?
I’m not saying that those who disagree are incapable of listening to opposing viewpoints. I just think it’s a lot harder to listen, because we tend to respond to “trigger” words with opposing viewpoints. Take universal reconciliation. A common response to universal reconciliation is that God is just: wrongs must be punished. Or why would someone who’s unrepentant want to be in heaven in the first place?

However, universal reconciliation is not the same thing as saying it’s okay to do whatever you want. It’s also not the same thing as saying God is unjust. But if I had someone respond to my universalistic tendencies in that God must be just as well, I would say that the person isn’t listening to me, because I never said God was unjust. I also never said that the person would always remain unrepentant.

Or take the reconciliation attempts between the idea of God being love, and the existence of an eternal hell. Aside from the whole “God is just as well” response, I also see responses in equating love with a “warm, fuzzy feeling.” Or a coddling type of love, that always lets you do what you want. With either of those responses, I would again feel as though the responder didn’t listen to me. First, because love isn’t separated from justice, and I never said it was. Second, because I never said that love coddled or was a “warm, fuzzy feeling.” However, the second clash would be a result of the different definitions of love: to me, love means that you don’t let the person do whatever s/he wants. If you do, you’re actually apathetic towards the person. If you let someone go rob a store, and say, “That’s okay, I’ll still love you,” then you aren’t loving that person at all. Love accepts you as you are, and then helps you be better. It challenges you. And it does correct wrong behavior, so that you stop doing that behavior, and stop finding joy in that behavior.

As stated, I would claim in both cases that the responder didn’t listen to me, based on their responses. I would feel that s/he was commenting on something I didn’t actually say. This would no doubt derive from the different concepts of the trigger words, such as “love,” “justice,” or “universal reconciliation.” In the responder’s case, s/he would say that s/he did listen. I think much of why I’d feel the way I would is because of the lack of agreement – but that lack of agreement stems in a large part from the definition of the words themselves.

So what criteria do we use to judge whether or not someone listened to us?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

They shall be without excuse ...

I got into a discussion last night with one of my friends, that eventually drifted into the judgement of God, and rejecting the truth. It started with a critique of the Left Behind series, in that the authors approach the human condition in that everyone knows the Truth: some accept it, some reject it.

That's not the human condition. Many people I know who don't hold to a particular belief structure do so because they find that belief structure is equivalent to 2+2=5. In no way can that be construed as rejecting any sort of Truth. That mathematical equation wouldn't even be in the running. And if someone honestly holds that the Truth is equal to that mathematical equation, then it's the height of injustice to punish them for not holding to that equation.

She then mentioned the Romans passage 1: 18-23, specifically focusing on how all will be without excuse. She had no idea how this worked in terms of someone who never heard of Jesus or read the Bible, but since it was in the Bible and she held the Bible to be true, that statement had to be true as well.

Now, I'm not deeply familiar with the layout of the world 2,000 years ago, especially when Paul was spreading Christianity to the Gentiles. So I could be off on this, and if someone who knows more could enlighten me, that would be great. But I think the "no excuse" idea doesn't quite hold up anymore, in the sense of how it's used with rejecting Jesus.

For one thing, I think that Paul's idea of the world was much smaller than what we have today (well, okay, I don't think this, that's obvious. No one then would imagine how big the world was, or that there were people across oceans -- if they even knew what an ocean was). But for Paul, if his concept of the whole world was pretty much the Roman Empire and some surrounding areas. If Christianity had been introduced to all those areas, and Paul thought only those areas were "the world." However, like I said, I'm not familiar with the geographical knowledge of that time frame, so this entire example may be invalid.

Second, this verse is tied to the idea of finding God in creation. "Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he made." We know a lot more about the nature of this world, this universe, and just the act of creation compared to 2,000 years ago. What I find very interesting is that I read somewhere that 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences are atheists. If in fact creation is one of the best ways to see this divine nature, wouldn't the people who are most familiar with the creative process be leading the charge in claiming God's existence?

Third: There's a verse in chapter two about how those outside the law are judged by the law written in their own heart. And I see the "no excuse" verse reflecting that idea a lot more than I see it reflecting the idea of someone rejecting Jesus rejects the truth. To me, the no excuses seems to focus a lot more on worshiping created things, suppressing the truth, and ungodliness and wickedness. For an example, who is the ungodly -- someone who holds the right beliefs and is cruel, or someone who says the right beliefs cannot be the truth, and is kind even to his/her enemies? The person who is kind acts in such a way because she knows, in her conscience, that is the right thing to do. The "no excuses" seems wrapped around the idea of people know how they should behave, and those described in this verse are those who consistently don't behave the right way. This entire verse seems to be about those who are actively suppressing the truth, and deliberately acting in such a way as to applaud such suppression. But those are not the same people who would find a certain belief structure as 2+2=5. There's no suppressing the truth there. (I also find it interesting that in chapter two in regards to the verse of being judged by one's moral compass, Paul makes a mention of those outside the law judged by their thoughts, which "will accuse or perhaps excuse them. It just seems more and more likely that the idea of having no excuse was in relation to a specific group of people, and not applied across the board).

Fourth: the idea of rejecting God has always been a complex notion for me. I think it's easy to reject ideas or notions of who God is. I think it's a lot harder to reject God as God. Say there's a former fundamentalist who flat-out says s/he rejects Jesus, and is now an atheist. As a fundamentalist, this person was legalistic, cruel, and pretty much didn't follow the basic commands as laid out by Jesus. However, this person had the doctrines nailed down (no pun intended). Now as an atheist, the person does live by those basic commands. The person is much kinder, demonstrates more compassion, listens, does try to love every person s/he meets -- has that person rejected God? If anything, I would say that the former fundamentalist has embraced God, through repentance of a legalistic viewpoint. What happened is that the FF looked at the prior lifestyle and said that whoever or whatever God is, it's not the entity as presented by that lifestyle. Can it then be argued that the person has in fact rejected God? Or has that person rejected a false concept of the truth?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Returning the power.

"In the literature where Judaism speaks for itself, Israel's election, embodied in the giving of the Torah, is viewed as God's gracious gift. Obedience to the Torah is the proper response to the gift of the Torah, but it does not earn salvation as such. "Election and ultimately salvation cannot be earned, but depend on God's grace" and mercy."

-- Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, second edition.

"We love because He loved us first." 1 John 4:20

In Christianity, the emphasis is on God loving everyone, the undeserving, and that no one can ever be good enough to earn God's love. God's love is not a response to anything we do, and is not correlated to our actions. I think we're putting the focus in the wrong place. It has nothing to do with how good or bad we are. It has to do with power, and who has it.

When you start throwing around words like “deserve,” the word “earn” isn’t too far behind. And if you’re capable of earning something, then you’re capable of behaving in such a way that gets whatever it is you’ve earned removed. When that happens, the power ultimately lies with us -- we would then have the ability to determine when or if God would love us. God's love would be fickle, rather than a constant. And God's love would be less than all-powerful, because it would be the effect to our cause.

Rather, in saying that God loves the world, or God loves us, or that we love because God first loves us, the focus there is on who has the power – and it’s not us. We do not have the power to affect the fact that God loves us. At no point does the love ever come with an “off” switch. Much like a parent with a child, the parent loves. Period. S/he loves because this is his/her child, this is his/her creation, and the child is an expression of the parent, carrying a piece of the parent forward, only in new ways.

There is a complication with this, though. I once asked (well, kind of threw it into an already too long e-mail over theological differences) an evangelical friend about this notion, and said one of the difficulties I have with the “inherent sin” and so forth is that if standing before God, and hearing about God, it makes me ask, “Is there anything about me that’s lovable? What is it inside me that You love? What produces that?”

Her response was that God’s love isn’t dependent on us, but on God.

She missed the point I was driving at, but that’s because I wasn’t clear. One of the difficulties in saying that nothing you do produces God’s love is that it can lead to the idea that God has no choice in loving humanity. It’s like an addictive compulsion and perhaps, given a choice, God would prefer to not love humanity. It's an abstract love, that really has no personal connections. A rock would have equal weight in terms of God's love.

While I do think that nothing we do can alter God’s love, I do think that the production of God’s love is dependent upon us. This is possibly paradoxical, but let’s go back to the parent/child example. The parent’s love of a child simply is, but it is dependent upon knowledge of that child (not necessarily existence, because the child could die, but the parent’s love would not). Without the child, that particular aspect of the parent’s love wouldn’t be. And yet without that love, the child wouldn’t exist (granted, this example is limited to those who actually wanted a child at one point).

Therefore, the thing inside us that God loves is the very fact that we are created. We carry tremendous potential for good, we can demonstrate pure life, light, love in this world, as we were created to be. The very thing that God responds to when loving His creation is everything He put into His creation in the first place. That is precisely why we cannot be responsible for activating or shutting down God's love: we had nothing to do with those original qualities.

One of the reasons I’ve heard for why the Trinity must be true is that God’s love had to directed “outwards,” otherwise it became a selfish love. Therefore, the love was directed towards the three Trinity members. I don’t think this is the case. Even without the Trinity, God’s love would still be directed “outwards.”

God is omniscient. Is there ever a time when God does not know you? Expectant parents love the child in the womb – they know nothing about this child, what it will be like, and yet they still love the child. God, being omniscient, knows everything about you, like you’ve already lived your life. And if God is infinite and eternal, and had no starting point, then we have been known eternally. There was never a point at which God was not aware of us, down the last little DNA strand.

Do we need to exist in this time/space in order to be loved? Does God only love us after we are physically born here? No, because then that love once again has an on/off switch. So if God has eternally known us, then hasn’t that love always been directed outwards?

Now, this doesn't meant that you can do whatever you want, because God always loves you. The best relationships I see that are based on love are relationships of improvement. We are awed and amazed that this person, who is full of goodness and grace and light, loves us. Clearly, if this person who has all these qualities loves us, then there is something of those qualities that the person responds to -- and to me, that would make me want to search myself to see how those qualities could be cultivated, and how the bad qualities could be eliminated. What I glean from the Bible is you take the best human relationship you have and increase by a factor of millions, and it makes you want to be what God sees in you that much more.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Jesus vs Paul, Round One.

“Both Jesus and Paul taught salvation by faith, leading to spiritual rebirth and alliance with God’s purposes. But while these were, for Jesus, freely available from the God who knows how to give his children what they need (matt 5:6; 7:7-11), with Paul, salvation had to be arranged: there was a mechanism of salvation. Christ had to be made sin, had to be handed over for our transgressions. For Jesus, faith is primarily trust. This is present in Paul, but what dominates is an intellectual component, namely belief – assenting to certain soteriological facts: “Believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (Rom 10:9); “become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted” (Rom 6:17).

…”For Paul, Christ is a mediator, not a proclaimer, of salvation. Jesus’ own emphatically stated parables about faith, honesty, and growth may be fine wisdom teaching, but they are hardly the essence of salvation for Paul, which is “Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). A proclaimer of salvation is an apostle, and he never calls Jesus an apostle. For Paul, one dies to the Law not through the teachings but through the body of Christ (Rom 7:4). And so Jesus the teacher becomes Jesus the type, and a type needs to be interpreted.

“Paul never says “your faith has saved you,” as Jesus did, since he is sure it was the Messiah’s ultra-significant death that actually saves; rather, faith means accepting this teaching … Paul could never say “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt 5:8), for there are not pure in heart in Paul’s view. There is no immediate and free access to God by the meek or the pure. Access to God required an intervening transaction on behalf of wretched humanity: “Christ died for our sins (1 Cor 15:3). Faith needs to believe that.

“Jesus was willing to use the innocence of children as a sign of the kingdom. For Paul, there is none innocent, and trust itself is not to be trusted since “the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom 7:19). Paul’s is a religion of catastrophic conversion; Jesus’ healthy-minded religion is not understood. For Paul, there are only extremes: profound enslavement or unexpected redemption, being lost in sin or being dramatically rescued.

“…. We are dealing with two entirely different instincts about God and access to God. Jesus, with fully adult know-how and lack of illusions, is able to say that a sincere and childlike faith opens the portals of heaven. There really are some truth-hungering, merciful, and “utterly sincere” people, who “will be filled … will receive mercy … will see God” (Matt 5:6-8)

“We have reached a state in theological development when we need to acknowledge that the Bible is full of diverse viewpoints and admit that it is not likely to be a transcript straight from the mind of God, though it may indeed be the heavily filtered human reflection of the mind of God, a record of the gradual and partial human reception of God’s initiatives.”

Problems with Atonement, Stephen Finlan.

The first time I ever read the Synoptic Gospels straight through, I was surprised at what was in them -- because most of it didn't seem to be taught in traditional Christianity. Faith in Jesus isn't the overriding factor, and they are heavily work-based. I found this startling, considering the actual words of Jesus were in these three Gospels. But when you look at "what we believe" statements from churches, do the majority of the quotes pull from the Synoptics? Or do they pull from Paul and Company, with a smattering of the Gospel of John?

Then I got to John, and pieces came together. Then I read Paul, and it all clicked. Much of traditional Christianity does seem to be pulled straight from Paul, and anything in the Synoptics that disagrees with this is re-interpreted so that everything fits in one neat pile. For instance, the Sermon on the Mount, where it says "blessed are the peacemakers, for they are called the children of God." To me, that seems clear-cut. Peacemakers = children of God. I would think the crowds listening would understand it as such. Or telling people, in the present tense, that they *are* the light of the world, or the salt of the Earth. Again, clear-cut.

I read somewhere that the Sermon actually applies to Christians almost "after the fact." It would apply to them after they accepted Jesus as their Savior, and could say how one should live after receiving salvation.

Okay, if we're going with the timeline of Jesus preaching for three years, and this is placed relatively early in Matthew ... even if it takes place during the last year, what are the odds that the crowd understood it to apply at a later date? Does anything in the Sermon itself even hint at that? Wouldn't the crowd have rather gone home, and raved about what the man teaching with authority said, and what it said about their relationship to God?

Another idea I've heard is that the Sermon is designed to show one how sinful they are. But again, that's almost reading Pauline theology back into the Sermon. Yes, it makes mention of you kill someone by hating them, and looking at another person lustfully is committing adultery. But to me, that's not showing how hopeless one's situation is, it's showing that it's not enough to just act right. Good actions start from good motivations. You want to stop lusting after the opposite sex while married? It takes more than just making sure you don't look at someone, it requires eliminating the lust at the source -- at the inside. Any murderous act starts in the heart. If you hate someone, you are, in a way, mentally stripping them of their humanity. It's easier to kill what you hate, because you're already killing them inside your heart.

Besides, the Pharisees as interpreted in the Gospels were already going around condemning anyone who wasn't like them left and right, and Jesus had quite a few words for that. Why then would people find Jesus so riveting if he were doing the same thing?

I originally read the book to get a better grasp on all the atonement theories -- and I recommend it for that alone. It also helps show how influential Paul's letters were in designing atonement theories, and how the later Christians tended to stick with just one metaphor, whereas Paul used a combination.