Why Religion? By Elaine Pagels

That was the question her parents asked when young Elaine announced she was going to enter Harvard Graduate School to study religion. A few years earlier her secular father was furious to learn that she had gone forward at a Billy Graham crusade and given her life to Christ.

Describing the crusade she attended with friends in California, she said the evangelist spoke of the national sin of racism and mentioned that the USA was the first and only nation in history to use a nuclear weapon. Although her personal religious perspective changed over the years, she never criticized Graham, and expressed gratitude for the world the experience and Evangelical Christianity opened to her.

She continued to attend a weekly Bible study with her evangelical friends throughout high school—until tragedy struck. Her close friend Paul was killed in a car accident, and her evangelical friends told her he was in hell because he was Jewish. A curious reminder of the atmosphere in which she grew up, Jerry Garcia was part of her circle of San Francisco friends and was riding in the car and injured in the accident. She believes his reaction to surviving the accident was reflected in the name he chose (from the Egyptian book of the Dead) for the new band he formed shortly after the tragic event.

Tragedy is the theme of the book. I don’t need to give a spoiler alert, because she mentions in the introduction the tragic deaths of her son and husband. The details are heart wrenching.

Reading those details was uncomfortable for me, but her main theme, her religious journey, was disquieting for me. She describes sexism at Harvard (she was first denied admission to the program because they didn’t believe a woman could persevere and complete her research), and sexual harassment by her adviser, who was not named in this book, but was in some of her earlier writings. Nevertheless, she did persevere.

Her research centered on the newly published Nag Hammadi texts, Coptic translations of secret or lost Gospels. She described her findings and those of her colleagues in the book The Gnostic Gospels. Her approach to the history of early Christianity is popularized by Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code. She believes the Gnostic Gospels represent a faith free from dogma, a faith that emphasizes free inquiry and looking within for the truth.

Professor Krister Stendahl, professor and later dean at Harvard, was one of the good guys in her story. She described telling him at her admission interview she wanted to explore the essence of Christianity. He asked her, “What makes you think it has an essence?” The group of researchers she joined came to describe various diverse Christian movements in the days before a defined dogma suppressed diversity and dissent.

I have long believed that Christianity will always be in need of renewal and reform; but I have also believed that the resources for that renewal will always be in available in the traditional sources: primarily the New Testament Scriptures, with some guidance from the church fathers, the Apostles Creed, and support from the Old Testament prophets. The numerous recent failures of various Christian leaders and the followers makes me wonder if the traditional resources are enough.

Professor Pagels is a good story teller. I listened to the audiobook version, and I had several driveway moments waiting to finish an episode. The reader was pretty good, but not perfect. She didn’t always pronounce the words correctly and sometimes paused prematurely. When Pagels spoke of a beautiful “Reformation hymn,” the reader said “re-formation.” But audiobooks are great for someone who spends much time in a car.

Growing Up Conservative, 2

Here are the rest of my reflections on my Bible college education.

Yes, we were taught a conservative view of the Bible and the Christian faith. We were taught that the “social Gospel” was dangerous. We were taught our primary mission was evangelism, winning people to faith in Jesus so they could go to heaven, rather than building schools and hospitals. We were warned about liberal theologians who were basically atheists that used religious language as metaphors. But we were not taught hate. Overall, my conservative religious education was positive and wholesome, and made me a better person.

Brother Wilson had been the founding professor at Ozark Bible College. He celebrated his fortieth year while we were students there. There was also a new, younger professor, Knofel Staton there. He was known as a dynamic speaker. He spoke nearly every weekend in different churches or conferences throughout the area. Sonja and I both enrolled in his “Introduction to Bible Study Class” our freshman year. It was an amazing class. This was before I had enrolled in the official hermeneutics class, but it was a seminar in historical and contextual interpretation.

Professor Staton’s favorite theme was unity. The church was to be a community of unity. He loved to explain agape, the Greek word for God’s love. Agape is “seeing a need and moving to meet it.” The church is a community of unity, the body of Christ through which his love flows to a hurting world. Feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, helping single mothers, sponsoring alcoholics anonymous, fighting racism, all these works of love were as valid as evangelism. He led us through Romans 16 and pointed out all of the women who were active in ministry. He mentioned Deborah in the Old Testament and called the theory that God chose her only because there were no strong men available “poppycock!”

I did a lot of reading beyond course requirements. Whenever I found a good author I ready several books by the same name. One of my professors liked Elton Trueblood. I read his book on Philosophy of Religion in conjunction with a course on the subject. A statement in that book surprised me for its direct and simple logic: “You don’t have to believe anything that is irrational.” Specifically, he was talking about Christian beliefs about hell. The statement struck me. I had somehow believed we have to believe some things that don’t make sense, as a test of faith, or because God is smarter than we are. But here is a Christian thinker who says, No, you don’t have to believe things that don’t make sense.

Along with several of my friends, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, which emphasized genuine repentance and obedience to the words of Jesus Christ. We didn’t know much of the historical background. We thought obedience meant being faithful in prayer and church attendance, avoiding pornography and alcohol, the traditional sins for conservative Christians. We didn’t realize the book was written in 1937, three years after Hitler seized power, and that for Bonhoeffer, obedience meant resistance to the ideology of Arian Nationalism, white supremacy, the idolatrous worship of a strong leader, and the compromise of the churches in endorsing “German Christianity.” Later I would make a more detailed study of all of Bonhoeffer’s major writings, especially his Letters and Papers from Prison, written while he was paying the personal cost of his following Jesus.

You had to be there in the late 1960s and early 1970s to appreciate Francis Schaeffer. He had a ministry in the Swiss Alps called “L’Abri Fellowship.” Wandering hippies and students on a Wanderjahr and young people needing a few days of detox would crash for a day or a month and think deep thoughts and have deep conversations with Francis and his wife Edith. These vagabond seekers experienced genuine Christian love and heard answers to their deepest questions, while being challenged with new questions. Occasionally Francis would tape record a lecture and put it in an archive. He also collected recordings from other visiting lecturers, such as Os Guinness.

Francis Schaeffer had long hair and wore Lederhosen. His voice was high-pitched and always reminded me of Truman Capote. Friends would gather his recorded lectures and transcribe them into books. And the books were eloquent. Schaeffer critiqued modern literature, philosophy, and theology, along with art and politics, and presented faith in the living God as the alternative to modern despair; He spoke of “The God Who Is There,” as a reality not just a metaphor.

There has often been an element of anti-intellectualism in conservative religion. We valued the positive contributions of Schaeffer’s thought. But he also gave us “permission” (if we needed it–yes, we needed it) to attend to great art and literature and to think serious thoughts.

At the other extreme of intellectual stimulation was a satirical journal called the Wittenberg Door. Reading it helped keep my perspective in balance. The magazine regularly lampooned icons of the evangelical subculture. But it also included serious interviews. I was introduced to Martin Marty, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and many other serious Christian thinkers and activists. A cartoon in the Wittenberg Door characterized what kind of magazine it was: a young man standing at a news stand was surreptitiously looking at its pages hidden under the cover of a Playboy magazine.

Growing up Conservative, part 1

Below is a brief excerpt from a chapter in the book I am writing. It is about my Bible College education:

Naturally, a Bible College is a conservative institution, but not in the way you might think. My professor of hermeneutics challenged us to think for ourselves, to understand the meaning of words in their historical context, in fact to take a historical and contextual approach to the text. It was from professor Seth Wilson (we called him “Brother Wilson) I learned how to read ancient texts.

He would occasionally diverge into politics. I remember him saying Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest traitor the country ever had. I wasn’t sure what he meant, because he didn’t elaborate. Once he mentioned the peace conferences at Yalta where the allies gave Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. Otherwise, I assumed it was because he thought Social Security was a slippery slide toward socialism.

Years later I took a university history course on the history and rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. We studied the history and his speeches. I learned that there wasn’t really much choice about which countries the Soviets occupied. They were already there; boots on the ground had settled it. Western Europe and America were exhausted from war and there was no stomach for a new war against communism. I also was exposed to the view that FDR had saved capitalism by mitigating its harshest failings. But it was brother Wilson’s comments that sparked my interest in learning more about President Roosevelt.

There are three features often associated with conservative religion I was never taught at Ozark Bible College. We were never taught racism. The idea that black skin is “the mark of Cain,” was debunked. We were taught that God loves all people equally.

We were never taught that the King James Version of the Bible is the original, or the only, or the best English translation of the Bible. In fact, in hermeneutics class, we had to read the original preface of the translators to the reader, in which the translators responded to criticism that they were presumptuous to revise the Bible. (If you look at the dedication page in the King James Version, it says, “other translations diligently compared and revised.”)

We were taught that we should learn Hebrew and Greek if we really wanted to know the Bible in the original language. Brother Wilson raised some eyebrows when he wrote an essay defending Today’s English Version, or Good News for Modern Man back in the 1960s. We were even taught textual criticism. I learned all about the different manuscripts and the variant readings in them my Freshman year, and was fascinated by it.

We were also spared indoctrination in the dispensational interpretation of the Bible. This is the belief that the Bible contains a blue print of the last days, that there are signs we should look for, and that we should expect the rapture of the church, when people would mysteriously disappear while driving cars and flying airplanes. We were taught that the book of Revelation was written to encourage Christians in the first century who were suffering persecution from the beast, the emperor.

A Pedantic Rant on the Translation of a Greek Word

In 1 Corinthians 1:20 Paul asks ποῦ συζητητὴς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου;

The NIV translates “Where is the philosopher of this age?”  A more accurate translation is “debater.”  Bruce Winter, in his book After Paul Left Corinth describes how the movement known as the “Second Sophistic” affected the Roman city of Corinth.

Earlier, in the time of Socrates the first Sophistic movement entered Athens.  The Sophists taught eager young men–for a good fee–the arts of being successful.  Success for these ambitious students who hoped to move quickly up the ladder in politics meant learning the art of persuasion, how to sway a crowd with moving words and convincing arguments.  It didn’t matter if the arguments were true, what does that have to do with winning?

It was on that point that Socrates disagreed with the Sophists.  How do you know what success is, if you don’t care about truth?  How can a life be called successful if it is based on sleazy manipulation?

Four hundred and fifty years later the Sophistic movement gained a new life and the Sophists came to Corinth.  A teacher would advertise a sample oration or debate (in which vicious insults was often the key to defeating his opponents) and then would enroll tuition paying students in the full course.

Once more the philosophers and the Sophists became bitter enemies.  That’s why the NIV translation in this verse is historically inaccurate.  It is also misleading.  It gives the impression that St. Paul is anti-intellectual.

Paul is attacking pride in human accomplishments and the idea that life is a struggle of all against all, a contest to be won at any cost and by any means.  That is what the “debater” represents.  It is also what the system he calls “the world” represents.  It’s what we used to call the establishment, the machine, or the Man.

But Paul is not attacking clear thinking or clear and effective communication.

The World Needs More Madrasas

Shari'ah Law: An Introduction

I’ve been reading about Shariah law because I don’t want to be ignorant, and the book is very enlightening.  I have learned that there is a long history of Islamic scholarship, and that there are four or five major schools of interpretation.  Some of these schools emphasize the letter of the law, while others emphasize the intention and purpose.  All recognize the historical context in which the laws arose, and all recognize to some degree the place of reason in understanding the laws.

Professor Kamali points out some plain statements in the Qur’an that are often ignored by advocates of harsh punishments.  For example, passages prescribing amputation of a hand for thieves or flogging for adultery, are followed by the words “unless they repent.”  Who wouldn’t repent for stealing when their hand was on the chopping block?

Kamali also frequently quotes the verse “there shall be no compulsion in religion.”  He also frequently discusses issues related to gender equality, supported by laws in the Qur’an and examples from the prophet’s life.

One of the most remarkable sections of the book, to me at least, was on the “Decline of the Madrasahs.”  The last two chapters of the book discuss the need for reform and challenging issues.  The decline of Islamic schools means that a generation of young Muslims is growing up ignorant of the Qur’an and the other sources of Shariah, as well as the history of Islamic scholarship. Consequently their ignorance makes them vulnerable to ignorant fanatics who recruit them for suicide missions.

In the discussion of that issue, Kamali makes it clear that Islamic law universally condemns both suicide and the intentionally targeting of civilians.

In reading this book I was reminded of a statement of Rabbi Gamaliel,

An ignorant person cannot be pious.  [http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-6.html  — the whole article is worth reading!]

I used to think this was snobbish, and I thought of Jesus appealing to fishermen, farmers, and day laborers.  But now I realize, Jesus called people from all walks of life to follow him and learn from him.  He called them to become disciples.  Jesus taught the people of the land.  In this sense, I think it is true that a Christian who willfully remains ignorant cannot be devout.

I also think of the difficulty conservative Christian centers of learning, such as Bible colleges, have in remaining conservative.  We knew a sociologist years ago who wrote his dissertation on “goal displacement” in Bible colleges.  He studied the inevitable drift away from specific doctrinal commitments and from a narrow curriculum to broader and more liberal curricula.  Most leaders of such institutions see this as a problem.  But maybe it’s not.  Maybe being narrow and dogmatic is not a virtue.  Maybe an educated person cannot remain dogmatic.  Maybe it is impossible to study the Bible (or the Talmud or the Qur’an) without raising serious questions about traditional understandings.

My colleague Wes and I went to hear a distinguished professor of genetics who has devoted his waning years to destroying something he doesn’t understand.  I asked him what background he had in the study of theology or philosophy.  He replied, “I don’t believe in fairies, so I don’t study fairiology.”

If I believed fairiology was the greatest threat to our civilization, I would study it.

Ignorance is a threat not only to civil society and peace, it is a threat to faith.  I think Hillel was right after all.

Conference Next Weekend

The Western Fellowship of Professors and Scholars meets Oct 19-20 in Manhattan, Kansas.  I will be posting the rest of the schedule, but here are the themes for the breakfast panel discussion.

1.  New Interest in Modern Pentecostalism’s Kansas Origins, Dr. Robert D. Linder

Professor Linder is Kansas State University Distinguished Professor
(Ph.D., University of Iowa, 1963): History of Modern Christianity from the Reformation to the Present; History of Religion and Politics in Europe, Australia and the United States.

Greatest quote: “History, religion, politics, baseball! These are the important things of life. What else is there?” — Professor Bob Linder

2.  Renaissance Adorations and the Black Magus: Interpreting an Iconographic Transformation, Tamica L. Lige

 Until the middle of the fifteenth century the iconography of the Adoration of the Magi remained fairly consistent, with three white kings shown arriving to pay homage to the Christ Child. Around 1450, however, a shift in representation occurred, and one of the magi was now portrayed in the guise of a black African. Scholars have put forward various reasons for the appearance of the Black Magus. One view suggests that the Magi are thought to represent the three known continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa and that the “blackness” of the Magus symbolizes his native land. A second links the Black Magus to sin and heresy due to medieval associations of blackness with death, the underworld, and witchcraft. Another examines the Queen of Sheba as an archetypal figure to the Magi and suggests that written descriptions of her blackness inspire the adaptation of a Black Magus in Adoration scenes. This paper builds on these theories, but argues that representations of the Black Magus also need to be analyzed within the contexts specific to individual works of art. To further this end, this study examines several European examples of the Adoration of the Magi through various lenses to discern meanings specific to each. In order to interpret the meaning of the Black Magus in these works, I will explore the relationship between the Queen of Sheba and the Magi, the effects of reformist ideas in Northern Europe at the time, and the role a patron’s interests play in the iconography of works they commission.

Tamica Lige, of Manhattan KS, is an Italian Renaissance art historian. Her work thus far has explored art patronage by elite families, iconography, and methodology. Ms. Lige’s interests generally surround religious works commissioned by lay patrons and range from architecture to painting.

The Underground Railroad in Kansas: Cooperation of God’s People, Karre L. Schaefer

 We will explore the little-known Underground Railroad in Kansas. Recently, scholars have found that contrary to original belief, African-Americans ran most of the Underground Railroads in the Eastern United States. However, as usual, Kansas is unusual.

Because of the lack of African-Americans in Kansas, the Underground Railroad was run by white Americans. Mostly, these consisted of various Protestant denominations who joined together to help African-American runaway slaves escape to Canada and Mexico.

Congregationalist members, such as the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church, while believing that the United States was an authority in place by God, chose to run the UGRR contrary to that authority. Working with the Quakers in Harveyville and other churches, an alternate route was created to throw the slave-hunters off track as they traveled up and down the well-known route. These men and women who ran this railroad believed they did so by authority of God Almighty. This was no small thing – harboring a fugitive slave in Kansas meant immediate death. This Railroad is a case where God’s people put their lives on the line so that others could be free. I will leave us considering whether we would do the same thing.

Karre Schaefer is a graduate student in the Political Science Department at Kansas State University. After receiving her BA in history, she set out to explore why people did what they did, and found herself concentrating in Political Thought. Ms. Schaefer combines political thought, religious thought, Biblical principle as well as enlightenment to seek answers to why social movements occur and their long-term effects.

Philippians 1:2-11

1:2 Timothy joins Paul in a customary but genuine prayer for the Philippians to experience God’s grace and peace.  Grace is God’s love in action, empowering, uplifting, redeeming, and enabling us.  Peace is the state of harmony and well being that was God’s original intention for all his creation.  These blessings come from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who are inseparably linked together.

1:3-6 Paul now adds his own prayer, though Timothy of course would join in spirit and add his amen.  I thank my God at every memory of you, or “every time I remember you.”  Paul no doubt continued to observe the Jewish practice of having set hours of prayer every day, but he also “practiced the presence of God,” living his life in a continued awareness of God’s presence.  In this sense, it is possible to pray without ceasing, to pray with one’s eyes open, to pray short prayers specifically for others whenever you think of them.  Prayer for others is not a burden but a joy, and since we cross paths with so many others we can never run out of people to pray for.

When we pray for others, we are sometimes disappointed and we may wonder “What good does prayer do?”  Prayer is first of all a way of caring, a way of sharing someone else’s burden.  It is also true that sometimes surprising things happen when we pray.  Prayer is also a way of tuning our hearts to God.  As we become more experienced in prayer and walking with God our prayers will become more and more in line with God’s desires, and we should expect to see more and more of our prayers answered.

Paul is thankful for the community’s participation (koinoniain the Gospel from the first day until now.  Koinonia refers to the spiritual fellowship we have with each other and to the active participation and sharing in an activity.  When Paul first came to Philippi he received hospitality from Lydia and the jailor, and many other unnamed believers.  They had also contributed financially to Paul’s mission in other places and had continued that support in his imprisonment.  They had experienced the blessings that come from the Gospel.  They had shared the Good News with their neighbors and continued to do so in spite of opposition.  The Gospel is the news of what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ God had fulfilled the promises found in Isaiah:

You who bring good tidings to Zion . . . lift up your voice with a shout . . . say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”  See the Sovereign LORD comes with power . . . He tends his flock like a shepherd (Is 40:9-11).

Paul had seen the evidence of God’s work in their hearts, and he was convinced that God would finish what he started and they would be found strong and faith on the day when Jesus Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, to renew the earth, uniting heaven and earth, to call the wicked to account, and to reward the faithful.

Salvation is God’s work, and God can be trusted to finish what he starts.  A Christian should never be presumptuous–God expects us to participate in what he is doing in our lives.  But we should never be anxious.  We have good reason to have confidence in God.  It is true that we can never see completely into another person’s heart, and that people often surprise and disappoint us.  But we can see on people’s faces and in their actions a consistency in spiritual growth (or lack thereof).  Paul had seen the reality of their faith and has good reason for confidence in them personally.

1:7 Therefore he adds, it is right for me to think this way for all of you because I have you in my heart.  Greek is often more precise than English, but in this case it is more ambiguous.

Paul uses an infinitive construction in which the subject and object both use the same grammatical form (the accusative), so the last clause could also be translated, “because you have me in your heart.”  A painfully literal translation would be “because of the to have me in the heart you.”

The immediately following context would support the translation “because you have me in your heart,” but recent research into the usage of infinitive clauses tends to support “because I have you in my heart” as the translation.  Both ideas are true, but Paul probably had one in mind.

Paul’s confidence in them is based on the personal relationship he has with them and the knowledge he has of their character.  They have been partners with him in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel as well as in his imprisonment.  The work of the Spirit of Christ in their lives manifested in “the fruit of righteousness” is the confirmation of the Gospel.  Their confession of faith and steadfast faithfulness is their participation in the defense of the Gospel.  The best apologetic is a believing community from whose lives flows the love of God.

1:8God is my witness” is an oath.  Paul evidently did not see this as a contradiction of Jesus’ words “let your yes be yes.”  Paul uses this kind of oath when he wants to express something strongly, sometimes when his motives or truthfulness has been challenged.  Here the physical separation caused by his imprisonment causes a frustration that leads Paul to say, “God is my witness how I long for all of you with the passionate affection of Christ.”  The Greek word splankhna, refers literally to the organs in the chest (lungs, spleen, liver, etc.) where emotion is deeply felt.  Metaphorically it conveys intense compassion or affection, so I have translated it “passionate affection.” Maybe “the passion of Christ” would convey the idea just as well.

Bible translators tell amusing stories about where in the anatomy emotions are perceived to be experienced in different cultures.  Some peoples say “I love you with my kidneys,” for example.  (The expression found in the KJV certainly is not help for today’s readers.)

1:9-11  Paul summarizes his personal prayer for them:

  1. that your love may overflow more and more.  Here agape expresses a deep concern for the well being of other people, their spiritual as well as physical well being, now and into eternity, that unconditionally seeks their best interest, while respecting their integrity as free and responsible individuals.  Believers are commanded and empowered to love one another and to love their enemies with this kind of Christ-like love.
  2. in all knowledge and ethical sensitivity.  The word aisthesis (whence the English aesthetic) indicates perception, insight, and moral sensibility.
    • A rabbi dealing with an ethical issue today illustrates this kind of sensitivity with a parable: “A woman comes to me with a question about a chicken).  I ask her to tell me about her life, her family . . . ”  What he means is that he will not apply a cookie-cuter ruling to everyone.  It depends on the need of her family and her financial resources.  If they are a poor family, rather than letting the children go hungry, the rabbi will find a way to make the chicken kosher.  If she is wealthy he will say, “just buy another chicken.”
    • The teaching in the Bible is written to help us form this kind of ethical sensitivity.  It is not to give us dueling verses or a weapon to bash people over the head with.
  3. so that you will think critically and make the best decisions,
    • The verb dokimazo means examine, test, prove, or approve; ta diaphoranta the things that are distinguished, excellent, preferred.  In the context of “knowledge and ethical sensitivity” Paul is referring to critical thinking and learning from experience.
    • Love that overflows needs to be guided by wisdom, knowledge, experience, and critical thinking to produce results that really benefit the ones loved.
  4. and so you will be pure and blameless in the day of Christ,
    • Clear thinking and wisdom that comes from experience will also help followers of Christ examine their own motives and actions so they can avoid self-deception and falling into harmful patterns of behavior.
    • On the day Christ is revealed to the world, there will be no partiality: regardless of religion and nationality every person will be held accountable for the life he or she has lived.  All will have to answer how they have responded to the gifts and opportunities they have been given and to the needs they have faced or avoided.
    • Those who turn to God and seek forgiveness can be assured of receiving it.  However, we would hope to have more to show on the day of judgment than a blank slate.  How have we treated those considered “least” by the world but “brothers or sisters” by Jesus?  Have we loved God with pure hearts?
    • There is a paradox here, of course.  Those who do the right thing from pure motives will be rewarded: but having pure motives means not seeking a reward.
  5. filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ and returns to the glory and praise of God.
    • Through faith we are united to Christ and his righteousness becomes ours.  We are “counted righteous” by God and, as we become aware of the presence of Christ in our lives, we become more righteous in our motives and behavior.
    • The fruit of righteousness is the natural outgrowth of a relationship with God.  It consists of qualities such as “love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, gentleness,” the renunciation of violence or revenge, seeking to live at peace with all people, and similar Christ-like behaviors, attitudes, and commitments.  See Rom 12:9-21; 14:17-18; Gal 5:22-23.
    • God is glorified when hurting people are healed, when those who are lost are found; when people find wholeness and salvation through a relationship of faith and love with God through Jesus Christ, when children, women, and men understand and respond to God’s love for them.

“Not Even Wrong” is an expression Christopher Hitchens was fond of.  I believe the original expression was “not even false.”  The idea comes first from analytic philosophy, according to which some statements are true, others are false, and others are merely nonsensical.  This idea was taken over into science where it led to the idea that a theory must be testable and, at least in principle, “falsifiable.”  If there is no way a theory could be tested and produce a result that is either true or false, it is “not even false,” it is a worthless theory.

In this sense, two ideas commonly asserted by the aggressive atheists of this new millennium are not even false.

  1. The first is the idea that faith and reason are irreconcilable opposites, that faith requires one to leave his shoes and his mind at the door.  In fact faith requires critical thinking.  I don’t want to promote stereotypes, even positive ones, but everyone knows Jews have been disproportionately overachievers in academics.  Could it be because centuries of debate over the meaning of the commandments in the Torah have created a culture of critical thinking?  Could it be that teaching that study (even secular study) is an act of devotion to God have created a climate that values the intellect?
  2. The second is the idea that Christians serve God out of cringing fearor for base motives of a future reward, that they live a life of drudgery mindlessly following rules and regulations first formulated in the bronze age.  This total misunderstanding of the motivation for Christian behavior so misses the point that it is not even wrong, it is not even close to reality.
    • Unfortunately there are Christians who share the above misunderstandings.  Religion in general does poison nearly everything, it constantly distorts the reality of the relationship God desires to have with us.  From Genesis to Revelation, the prophets and apostles of God fight against religion as it is actually practiced by most of mankind in their day, including those who understand themselves to be the people of God.

Religious Cults

There are cults in religion too. The word cult comes from the same Latin root that brings us culture and cultivate. The Romans cultivated both their fields and their gods.
In religious studies the words “cultus, cultic, cult” refer to formal rituals or acts of worship. All religions have cultic aspects, in this sense of the word. Ritual movements, words, and the handling of sacred objects, among other things, make up the cultus of a religion.
Practitioners of a religion believe they achieve some sort of contact with the divine, sacred, or transcendent during the enactment of the cult. Outsiders might call it magical thinking. In a catholic or orthodox liturgy the “cultic” elements (in the academic sense) are obvious: sacred vestments, incense, and the transformation of ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
In pentecostal church services believers speak in heavenly languages and receive divine healing. In a baptist service lost sinners recite a sinner’s prayer and are born again, transformed forever by the power of God.
When I was a student, back in the seventies, the word “cult” was being used in the sense of a new, unorthodox, and dangerous religion. The primary emphasis was on the deviant beliefs and practices of these religious cults.
In the nineteenth century, several new religions emerged in America as the young country was expanding westward: Christian Science, the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses, various Mormon sects, and Seventh Day Adventists sprung up. These were groups that were usually considered cults back when I was a student. They had in common the complete rejection of traditional Christianity and new revelations and sources of authority.
But in the 1970s and ’80s we began to become aware of newer religious cults, many of them splitting off not from Christianity but from Eastern religions. People became more concerned about the sociology of these groups than their theology.
Cults became religious groups that exerted extreme control over their members. The greatest fear of parents of college-age students was that their kids would fall victim to a cult.
The most gruesome example of the extreme social control practiced by cults was mass suicide of the followers of Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana.

. . . more to come

My Experience with Cults

I came out a while back on Facebook and admitted to belonging to a cult.

My kids suspected it almost twenty years ago when I started wearing lycra cycling shorts, which back then had a chamois pad made from real leather, by the way.  When I built my new bike this summer and found a killer deal on the top-of-the-line, Campagnolo  Super Record carbon crankset with ceramic ultimate level technology bearings that spin in Cronitecht steel races, I realized there was no need to hide it any more, no covering it up with black tape.

I have joined the Campy Cult.

(By the way, google “campy cult” and you are likely to get “Rocky Horror Show, campy cult classic.)

Campy Crank

Ceramic Ultimate Level Technology

I admit it’s a bit ridiculous for me to have elite racing equipment on my bike.  Kind of like Danny DiVito thinking if he wears the same shoes as Michael Jordan he can beat him in a slam dunk contest.

Bicycling Magazine in the current issue (December 2011) has a great article on the Campagnolo company, one of the last hold outs against the pressures of globalization.  While everyone else is chasing cheap labor and outsourcing production to the far east, the family owned company continues to use highly skilled, well-paid craftsman in Vincenza, Italy.

It used to be that nearly every rider in the Tour de France–always the winners– used Campagnolo components.  But that changed with Lance Armstrong.  Never faithful to the women in his life, he was steadfastly monogamous in his loyalty to his sponsors.  Shimano parts worked well enough for him to win seven championships.

When Campy first came out with a ten-speed set of rear sprockets, Lance continued to win with only nine cogs in the rear and waited patiently for Shimano to introduce their own ten-speed cassette.  We devotees of the classic Italian components concede that Lance was just that good–he was able to win on inferior equipment (with one gear tied behind his back, you might say).

We just hope the company survives the coming economic Armageddon in Italy.  As one cycling legend said in the Bicycling article, “I’d rather walk than ride anything else.”

I’ll be back in a day or two with a report on the other cult I’m in danger of being drawn into . . .

Cloning Scandal in Kansas

NCAA officials are

investigating reports

that the University

of Kansas used cloned athletes to win the Big-12 Championship and advance to the “elite 8.”

A reporter searching the high school records for  Marcus and Markief Morris, the famed “Morris twins,” revealed a surprising fact: There is no record of Marcus or Markief attending high school.  Instead there was only one name–Mark Morris.

Anonymous sources from the university of Kansas Medical School mention suspicious cloning activity around the years 2004-2008.

A spokesman for coach Bill Self says the Jayhawks “deny the allegation and defy the alligator.”  Further, coach Self adds, even if it were true it violates no rule.

We have the original rules, written by coach Naismith himself.  There is no prohibition of using cloned athletes.

Meanwhile, there are also reports of suspicious activity in the genetics lab at Kansas State University.

Coach Frank Martin has been quoted as saying,

KU obviously had an unfair advantage with two Morrises.  If we had two Jacob Pullens, we would have been unstoppable.

What is heresy?

Strictly speaking, a heretic is one who causes divisions in the church by teaching an aberrant doctrine in an attempt to draw followers after himself.  A person who privately holds some views or entertains discussions on issue not considered orthodox is not a heretic until he becomes divisive about it.

What is heresy? One definition would be a doctrine that has been condemned by a council.  The Fifth Ecumenical Council is often thought to be a condemnation of universalism, because it condemns the teachings of Origen by name.  But the specific issue was Origen’s belief in the preexistence of souls; it was his belief that these souls would be restored to their original state that was condemned by the council.

The Council never condemned universalism universally, in all its forms.  The Council never mentioned Gregory of Nyssa who taught a form of universalism but whose theology was otherwise orthodox.  In fact Gregory is still considered on of the greatest fathers of the church.  (See Robin Parry’s discussion)

On the other hand, the council of Orange specifically condemned the teaching that God predestines anyone to evil:

We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.

Historians say this statement was specifically directed toward those who teach “double predestination,” i.e., the belief that some have been ordained by God to reject his grace.  They of course did not condemn Augustine by name even though many believed this was implied by his teachings.  Otherwise the council of Orange fully supported Augustine against Pelagius.

Still, by the standard of church councils, we have to admit that universalism per se has never been condemned as heresy, but the doctrine that often passes by the name of Reformed theology has been given the official anathema.

Ernest Tubb, Hank Jr., and others had a country song a few years back, “I Guess We Should Have Left Him Alone and Let Him Sing His Song.”  One line keeps ringing in my mind (it sounds better when I can hear the tune),

If we don’t like the way he sings, who’s gonna cast the first stone?

Bell’s Hell

I suspect that Rob Bell’s new book will prove more subtle than MacArthur’s.

Maybe it doesn’t take much of a prophet to say that.

Here’s what I am betting Rob actually will say, in his book Love Wins.  I take a clue from a book by my former teacher, Lynn Gardner.  In Commending and Defending Christian Faith, he summarizes St. Augustine’s views on the final destiny of each of us:

In the end of time God will give people what they love most–sharing his presence or eternal separation from him.

In this way of thinking, it is possible that “love wins” could mean hell is an option for those who prefer to live without God.

This was also Dante’s view.  In his inscription on the gates of Hell one reads,

Primal love made me.

G. K. Chesterton said hell is a tribute to the dignity of man.  C.S. Lewis summarized this view, saying there are some who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and some to whom God will say, “Thy will be done.”

What these ways of thinking about hell have in common is that they see it not as an arbitrary punishment but as the consequence of God giving humans free choice.  In Dante’s vision of Hell the choice of sin and the punishment of sin are the same thing.

God loves us enough to let us have our choices and to let our choices be meaningful.

I think something like this is what Rob Bell will present as one possible option of what hell could mean.  I think he may well present as another possible option the real possibility that love really will win. God will find a way to reach every human being with his love and bring even the most hardened sinner to repentance, reconciliation, and redemption.

Hell, a place of punishment, could be a means to bring about this change of heart on the place of hardened sinners.  This was hinted at by many of the Eastern fathers.  The Scottish author George MacDonald, who so greatly influenced C.S. Lewis,  said,

God will not conquer evil by crushing it under-foot-any god of man’s idea could do that-but by conquest of heart over heart, of life over life, of life over death, of love over all.

I believe that no hell will be lacking which would help the just mercy of God to redeem his children (more here).

The great biblical commentator William Barclay agreed with his fellow Scotsman.  He cites the  Greek fathers Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, and refers to several passages in the New Testament (more here).

I think Rob will say there are a variety of options for understanding the final outcome that are compatible with the teaching of Scripture and the character of God.  I think he will say none of us can know for certain and humility behooves us.  What we do know is that we can trust God to have a solution that is consistent with his wisdom, power, and love.

I like what Scot McKnight said,

If there is an eternity, and I believe there is, and if there is a judgment, and I believe there is, then let us keep the immensity and gravity of it all in mind and refrain from flippancy, gloating, triumphalism — and let it reduce us to sobriety and humility and prayer (Jesus Creed).

[For a review from someone “who actually read the book,” check out Greg Boyd.]

Reviewing Books I Haven’t Read

I’m going to “review” a couple books I haven’t read yet–or rather I’m going to comment on the main idea of a couple of new books, based on the authors’ presentations elsewhere of the contents of their books.

I heard a sermon by John MacArthur last week on the radio driving home after a visit with the grandchildren on the theme of his new book Slave; I assume his own words are a fair representation of his views and a fair summary of the conclusions he reached in his book.  If you missed the sermon last week, you can see a You Tube promo for the book by MacArthur himself.

I tell my students, if they are going to review a book they should actually read it.  So I won’t call this a review.  I will call it a presentation of my on thoughts on the same topic.

The other book is not out yet–Rob Bell’s Love Wins on Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedRob Bell also has a You Tube Promo of this new book.  Many people have already judged the book, some favorably, others with condemnation.  A pastor in Minnesota dismissed the book and its author with a tweet, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  (More here)

I am going to try something even bolder than reviewing a book without actually reading it–I’m going to predict what the author’s conclusion is.

But right now I have to go teach hermeneutics to my students.

More than a Reaction

Kit-Kat and I read David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions over the weekend.

In some ways, the title is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that the book is merely a reaction to Richard Dawkins and his buddies like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.  I suspect that the work was already underway when pop-atheism books became best sellers.  Hart does make some reference to these authors, mainly to point out their lack of philosophical sophistication as, for example, when Dawkins  asserts that

“natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence.”

Hart responds,

The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all.

The real point of Hart’s book is indicated by part of the subtitle, “The Christian Revolution.”  The book is primarily a historical essay on the influence of the Christian Gospel.  Hart is not primarily defending the church as an institution or Christendom as an ideal civilization.  He is tracing the influence of the Gospel’s revolutionary ideas that each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth.

Had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for his brethren . . .

Had we not inherited a civilization based on these beliefs, we would never have come to believe in human rights, economic or social justice, or the basic human dignity.

Hart describes the basic brutality and inequality inherent in the classical civilization that Christianity replaced.  Then he describes the unspeakable horrors brought by the secular societies that replaced Christianity–the more than 100 million victims of mass murder in the 20th century.

In the process of his narration, Hart corrects many myths about Western history, including myths about witch hunts, the ignorance of the middle ages, and the antagonism between the church and science.

One essential difference between the Christian vision of reality and the post-Christian version is the definition of freedom.  In the Christian vision freedom means the opportunity to develop one’s true nature, to become what one is meant to be.  In the secular, post-Christian world, freedom means the arbitrary and spontaneous exercise of one’s choice, free from all restraints.  When secular rulers began to exercise their will uninhibited by the restraints of conscience, the results became genuinely horrendous.

Where is the Outrage?

Does anyone remember Terri Schiavo?  She had suffered severe brain damage and was unresponsive: her husband asked the hospital to remove the machines that were keeping her heart pumping, but her parents clung to the hope that she would recover.

Pro-life conservatives were outraged that the courts finally ordered the hospital to follow her husband’s, rather than her parent’s wishes.

I am pro-life.  I don’t believe in killing people unless it is absolutely necessary, or in letting them die due to neglect when it is in our power to save a life.  I don’t believe in unnecessary abortions, unnecessary wars, capital punishment, the excessive use of force by law enforcement, or passing by on the other side of the road when someone is dying.

I think we should always give the benefit of the doubt to life.  I don’t believe you can put a financial value on a human life.  I don’t believe we as a nation (or any of the the fifty states) will ever be in such economic distress that we will have to make the decision to let people die.

When Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed, many political commentaries called it an “execution.”

What do you call it when the state of Arizona cuts off financial support for people who need transplants? These are people who want to live and are capable of making their wishes known.  One is a father of six children.  Wouldn’t pro-life, pro-family people want to keep him alive?

If the state of Arizona is too poor to keep him alive, can’t the federal government step in with a minor bail out?

I don’t think anyone should exploit the tragic massacre in Tuscon for political purposes.  But maybe we could take the opportunity to express our support to the state and say,

We are all Arizonians now.  Let us help you take care of your citizens who need life-saving surgery.

More Illogical Nastiness

I still want to remind everyone to visit the Iwig web site and do what they can to save the farm.  In the meantime, I’m still discouraged by the meanness I am seeing in primary race for senate in my state.

One candidate is now accusing the other of wanting to grant lower in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants.

That sounds reasonable until you apply a little logic.

Who are these “illegal immigrants” who want to take advantage of our educational opportunities?

They are graduates of our state’s high schools who were brought here as children by their parents who came here without permission, seeking jobs they were told “Americans won’t do.”

What law did the children break?

They were brought here by their parents.  Did they have a moral obligation to turn back and cross the border alone in the other direction.  The parents broke the law and were aware of the risks and the possible consequences.

The children went to school, did their homework, obeyed the rules they understood, and now want to go to college.  The only home they now know is the state where they graduated from school.  How is it to anyone’s advantage to deny them an education?

Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have a chance if he were running in the current political climate.  After all, he granted amnesty in 1986 to undocumented workers and their families.

The Nasty Campaign

I live in a one-party state; at least when it comes to the race for the senate, and the primary campaign has really gotten nasty.  One of the candidates accused his adversary of wanting to give constitutional rights to terrorists.

The first casualty of politics is logic.

I see two problems with the underlying premise that terrorists should not be given constitutional rights.

1.  Who decides who is a terrorist?

Unless there is some sort of due process or oversight, there are only two options–the civilian branch of government or the military: either the president or the commanders on the ground.  I can’t believe that conservatives, given the fears they have of the president, would want to give him the power to declare someone a president and make him disappear without any kind of public notice.  And it has been proven that in the heat of battle, and lacking a knowledge of the language, the military has made mistakes.

2.  Who gives us our rights?

It is un-American to believe that congress gives us our rights.  According to the Declaration of Independence, we are granted inalienable rights by our creator.  Those who live under a monarch may believe their rights are granted by the king; those who live under organized atheism may believe they are granted by the state; but our heritage tells us human rights are granted by the creator and the role of government is to protect these rights.

But now some politicians want us to believe that there is a class of people who are entitled to no rights at all, neither the rules of war nor the laws of our land.  Once defined by the undefined authority as terrorists, they have no right to a trial or protection from torture.

Whatever happened to the idea that if we let terrorists make us abandon our own ideals, they win?

Hunger Games

I have just finished reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and hope to follow with a review in the next couple days.

I learned of the book from the Wabaunsee County Book Club, who invited me to attend their meeting later this month.  They learned of it from Kansas State University’s new book program.  They hope to have all faculty and freshman students read the book this year, and even offer a study guide for faculty.

For now I will say the book was easy to read and fast paced and gives you plenty to think about.

How (Not) to Pick a Church

Radio personality Glenn Beck doesn’t say you have to join his church and become a Mormon, he simply says you should run from any church that has the words “social justice” in its website.  He says “social justice” are code words for Nazi, Fascist, and Communist policies.

The conservative Christian magazine Christianity Today disagrees on what social justice means.  CT says it is simply the application of Christian principles of compassion, fairness, and human rights–beliefs that come from the heart of the gospel.

Maybe the word “social” is redundant.  Justice implies conditions involving more than one person, and so is inherently social.  The prophet Micah declared there are only three things God requires,

To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Amos, another prophet from the 8th century before Christ declared,

Let justice roll on like a river.

Jesus criticized those who obsessed over the observance of religious minutiae, but neglected the weightier maters of the law:

justice, faithfulness, and mercy.

Wikipedia Trumps Snopes

Ben Witherington is not sure whom to believe.  His mother sent him a note from an individual who just learned from Wikepedia that Snopes.com is a mom and pop operation, not some vast news bureau or research institution.  And the writer learned that liberals try to discredit conservatives.  Ben is not sure he is buying the Snopes conspiracy theory.

Thucydides was right, most of us are too lazy to do any real research and get to the truth of an issue.