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Sunday, July 05, 2015

Is Socialism "Christian"?

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

It’s common for leftist to quote the scripture above to justify their assertion that the “Christian” form of government is Socialist or Communist.  There are several major problems with this, the first being that there is no real connection between what a group of people who share an association do—in this case the believers of the nascent  Christian church in Jerusalem—and a biblical mandate of how civil government should be ordered.  The fact that the believers in Jerusalem lived economically communally for a short while (there is no indication that this economic situation persisted in the growing community of Christian believers as the church spread outside the confines of Jerusalem) in no way advocates for secular government to be established on this template.  And in reality the stories that Jesus told to illustrate his message of God’s kingdom were filled with examples of private property ownership, market economics, division of labor, and a hierarchy of pay based on merit, loyalty and productivity—all essential features of what we now call Capitalism. (I prefer to call it free market enterprise.)  Furthermore, in the few New Testament references to civil secular government the almost sole role of  that government is defined as maintaining civil order via the punishment of crime, what we might today call the criminal justice system.  

Jesus, for instance, mentions civil courts deciding monetary disputes and warns the believer to 
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.  Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:25&26) 
Also, early in Jesus’ ministry, when soldiers asked him what they should do he replied, 
Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages. (Luke 3:14) 
In other words, he did not tell them that their role as enforcers and protectors of state power was illegitimate but rather instructed them to carry out those duties in an ethical manner.  

The Apostle Peter identifies the role of secular government this way: 
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” (1 Peter 2:13&14)  
And the Apostle Paul gives the most comprehensive definition of the role of secular government—which please notice agrees perfectly with what Peter said:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:3&4)

Of course these statements are neither comprehensive nor absolute: both Peter and Paul were to find out that a time would come when those same rulers and governors would indeed punish good behavior since both men would be executed by Rome for being followers of Christ. My point is to show that both defined the central role of secular government—not as a provider for the needs of the poor or as a social equalizing force—but as the arbiter and enforcer of criminal justice and to maintain civil order.

The inevitable question then is, who is to provide for the poor, if not the government?  And the answer is, the church.  What seems intolerable to the political left about this answer is that church has always allocated its charitable provisions based on biblical principles, conditions and categorizations.  Two categories of people are consistently presented as worthy of immediate help in the Bible: widows and orphans.  Why?  Because they were truly helpless, unable to provide for their own needs.  However, for the able-bodied the Apostle Paul had this to say: 
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.  For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you,  nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12)  
As Marvin Olasky points out in his book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, this biblical principle governed Christian charity in America from colonial times until the advent of the Progressive movement in which socialist—often atheist—advocate journalists such as Ida Tarbell and Sinclair Lewis began calling for government to take over the charitable roles formerly the province of church, fraternal and other private benevolent charitable organizations.  They were remarkably successful in these calls ultimately leading to the New Deal, the Great Society and the leviathan welfare state that we now know.  

The result of this has been the destruction of democratic republicanism (supplanted by a pure democracy the nation’s founders so feared and worked so hard to prevent), the end of states rights, and the nullification of the text and original meaning of the Constitution replaced by the caprice of an activist majority of the Supreme Court. It has led to the defenestration of every limit on government once imposed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the swallowing up of an ever growing percentage of national wealth devoted to financing government, a level of personal and corporate confiscatory taxation literally unthinkable by those who risked their fortunes and their lives to cast off the tyranny of an English tax rate of about 3%.  

But it has also led to a condition in which the welfare state competes with private charity.  First it consumes funds through obscene levels of taxation that would otherwise be available for donation.  Then it debases and degrades the rules and principles by which private charities operate by offering monetary assistance without any of the categorization, accountability, or even the goals that historically governed private charity, and either forcing or pressuring those charities to drop all such qualifiers and goals themselves.

Fortunately we don’t yet live in a totalitarian state.  So far we can still speak out, we can still vote.  I find it an incomprehensible disgrace that roughly 50% of Evangelicals in this country don’t vote.  This must change if we are to have a chance of renewing the republican form of limited government our founders created, and under which we as Christians will be able to enjoy—not the freedom of “worship” that president Obama wishes to define down as the standard—but rather the “free exercise” of religion that the Constitution guarantees us.


I’ll end with Paul’s word to Timothy: 
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

More Discussions With My Buddhist Friend, Part 2

The following is part two of a protracted discussion I had on Facebook with my friend Daniel Day who is a Nichiren Buddhist.

Dan:

I did not define all the terms because I did not want to be long-winded. I defined "gods" and "devils" from a Buddhist viewpoint and explained why "Nichiren Buddhism" covers more than my own sect, so that covers where I used "vague".

The main thing you should understand about Buddhism is that it insists we must accept responsibility for all our own sufferings. Suffering is brought upon each one of us as a result of his/her own actions in the past. This also means that we have control over our own futures.

Actually, I don't have a very clear understanding of what "enlightenment" means, because I do not experience it often. Do you have a clear understanding of what/who you call "God"? I'll define enlightenment as having courage and the wisdom to accurately see causes and effects and to act and react in a constructive manner to the opportunities and sufferings of life as they come. If that sounds like vague hand-waving to you, then replace everything after the first "to" with "be good".

A Bodhisattva acts to save people from the delusions about cause and effect that lead them to suffer. Is that clear enough?

I see the law of cause and effect as a moral law governing the universe, just like the 4 (currently known) forces of nature that govern the behavior of matter/energy. But I digress.

By the way, a couple of years ago, a Christian blogger I conversed with in comments explained to me that it is impossible for human beings to be good.

Me:

Dan, let me take this opportunity to thank you for this online engagement. In the spirit of Dennis Prager who often says he values clarity over agreement, though we may never agree on these matters, I believe it of great worth that we discuss them in an effort to understand one another. Know also that I have the greatest respect for you, and admittedly, since my faith mandates proselytizing, though I do exercise an effort to convince you, it comes from a motive of good-will, not contentiousness, since I am convinced that these issues have eternal consequences.

First, I presume the Christian blogger you're speaking of was me. I confess, I don't recall saying that human being are incapable of being good--if so that was in inelegant and somewhat misleading statement on its face. The way I would put it now is that we are incapable of being good enough, and by that I mean good enough to ever expiate the bad we have done, indeed the bad that we are by nature due to corruption of human nature by the rebellion of the human race. This can be understood by recognizing that God's economy (for lack of a better word) is not likened to the spreadsheet analogy that works-based religions, such as Buddhism, Islam, and even Judaism adhere to--the idea that if your good works outnumber your bad deeds you are therefore in the moral black and can consider yourself a good person and just in the eyes of God, or the universe, or in your case, reduce your suffering in life.

God's economy is in reality akin to the legal justice system. If you murder someone, or rob a bank, or rape a woman, it's completely irrelevant that up to that time you may have lived a blameless, crime-free, or even exemplary life. All those good deeds will never cancel out that bad deed, you will never be let go because your good-deeds column far out-weighs this one crime. You are considered guilty of that crime, and what's more you will always be guilty of that crime--for the rest of your life. Even after you've been punished, served your years in prison, you will always be known as a robber or a rapist. For that matter, convicted and executed for murder, even after your death you will be remembered as a murderer. This is the hopelessness of the human condition with respect to God's economy, for as the bible tells us, "we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God."

And this is the beauty, the joyous hope of the Gospel (which literally means "good news"), that in God himself taking on human form in the person of Jesus, and paying the price for our sin and rebellion against God, we are promised not just that our sins are forgiven, but they are forgotten, that we are reborn as new people, and when God looks at us, as he will in the final judgement, he will not see our righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Jesus.

As to what I mean when I say God, I like very much Ravi Zacharias's explanation: "God is the only being in existence, the reason for whose existence lies within himself. All other beings look for the reason for their existence outside themselves. God is perfect in that sense alone. He doesn't need a cause." So when we talk about God as Christians (and Jews) we are talking about the being who pre-existed the universe (which presents no logical problem in any way different than that the material universe always existed, but in reality makes more sense--more about which later), and who indeed created the universe and all in it: space, time, matter, light, human beings, etc. And because he created all things he is transcendent to all, rather then immanent in them as in nature-based religions.

Furthermore, both Christians and Jews believe that God created man for the express purpose of sharing his loving nature with them--to be in relationship with man. My prior reference to God's pre-existence being more logical than the eternal existence of the material universe has to do with God's intelligence. Everything we know about information theory tells us that intelligent information only comes from intelligence: coherent messages and information do not come from non-intelligent sources or ex nihilo.

To many the idea that a loving God created a world in which exists so much suffering is fatuous and therefore disproves that either God exists, or that he is good and loving. But this is the sad paradox of an inescapable logic: for love to have any meaning and significance it must be freely chosen. And therefore God had to create man with the capacity of freewill. And this followed to the inevitability that man would reject relationship with God, reject the morality based on God's nature, reject the worship of God, invent his own morality and in essence worship himself. Thus is the history of mankind: the rejection of God, of God's morality, the corruption of the very nature of humanity, and the millennia of misery, disease, enslavement, torture, sexual depravity, and mass murder that is the human condition--which seems to me in perfect harmony with your Buddhist belief in cause and effect.

But it is also the story of God revealing himself to man, by inspiring chosen ones through history to write the bible, by supernaturally empower others through the ages to establish God's mastery over the material world and to validate to the witnesses of the time that these men were indeed speaking by God's inspiration, to codify in clear terms his nature and his ethics, and finally his master plan over the ages to offer a way of reconciliation of man to himself. So, what I see in this huge arc of history, and in the Christian message embedded in the bible is a coherent worldview that answers--with consistency--all of the important questions that any worldview should answer: CREATION: How did it all begin? Where did it come from? FALL: What went wrong? What is the source of evil and suffering? REDEMPTION: What can we do about it? How can the world be set right again?

Dan:

The Christian blogger wasn’t you. I think that blogger has carried the Christian view to its logical end. He explained that the good that God is capable of is so much greater than the good that we are capable of that it is pointless to consider ourselves really capable of good. What a sad view of human nature, but it is consistent with the constant "You are a sinner" indoctrination that I got in my childhood and that you repeated above.

The Fall. Whether you take the Biblical story as literal or symbolic, it pins the responsibility, the fate of eternal damnation, for someone else's action on me - either Adam's action in eating the forbidden fruit, or God's in creating me, an imperfect being. Either way, it is a caricature of justice.

You will say that my sense of justice is imperfect, or at any rate, not God's sense of justice. I have no responsibility for God's sense of justice. My sense of justice is indeed imperfect, like everyone else's, but it's an enduring characteristic of mankind that we are born with a sense of justice (was that created by God or Satan?) and governmental systems everywhere, even the dictatorships, strive to justify themselves by satisfying that sense in their citizens/subjects/slaves by punishing thieves, cheaters, etc., passing over the issue that the dictatorships impose no such punishments on themselves.

I'm running out of steam for now, but will finish with this: "the important questions that any worldview should answer: CREATION: How did it all begin?" Whether that is an important question is an opinion - a widely held one, but nonetheless just an opinion, and one I don't share. I'm comfortable with the opinion that I can't know that, at least on this side of the veil.    

OK, a couple more thoughts. Here is a set of related questions that the Christian worldview does not answer. Assuming that there is some force (sloppy terminology, I'm open to a better one) for justice in the universe, i.e. it DOES matter how we live our lives, WHY: Why is there such an enormous diversity in the circumstances of human lives? "It's God's will" is hand-waving. Buddhism posits an answer to this, whether right or wrong, but without hand-waving. WHO: What happens to people who are born and die without ever hearing the Biblical message? The usual answer was, "We don't know, but YOU have no excuse."

You could say the law of cause and effect amounts to hand-waving, and how does it act if there is no Being causing it to act. Fair enough. My view is, it's a law, like the four forces that govern the behavior of matter. Does God watch every leaf to make sure it falls, every subatomic particle to make sure it moves in the proper path? The Muslims say yes, I suspect the Christians think your God has more important matters to attend to. Is it such a stretch to posit a law of justice that determines the circumstances of life?

Me:

Dan, once again let me thank you for this very interesting and intellectually stimulating online discussion.

Dan, as to your first question: of course it matters how we live our lives. The law of cause and effect is perfectly consonant with both Jewish and Christian (in essence biblical) theology. "You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess." Deuteronomy 5:33 '“Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.' Ephesians 6:2-4 "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." Ephesians 2:10 "The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people." Titus 2:14 I could go on just about all day with biblical references like this. The bible is very clear that God wants us to be good--no demands that we be good. And it is also clear that in eternity we will be rewarded commensurate to those good works we have done.

But the distinction here is between salvation and discipleship. The Christian doctrine of grace is that we are not saved by our works, but rather by the work that Christ did in his redemption of us. So for us, the "good news" of the Gospel (which is specifically this message of Christ's gift of salvation) is that it's so very easy, requiring only that we repent of self-worship and accept his gift of grace. But the next part is discipleship, and that's not so easy. As a matter of fact, it is very hard. And the symbolic language that Jesus used to characterize (admittedly hyperbolic) is brutal and even somewhat horrifying. "And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels." Luke 9:23-26 '“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple." Luke 14:25-27

Now as to why there is such an enormous diversity in the circumstances of human life, I think for the most part this is answered by the fact that the vast majority of humanity lives in nations which have either never adopted biblical principles of ethics in either their system of laws nor in their culture, nor have they adopted biblical principles of economics and monetary policy. For a complete treatment of these issues I would direct you to a brilliant book by Christian theologian Wayne Grudem and economist Barry Asmus called The Poverty of Nations. Again we are in agreement that the law of cause and effect is responsible for much of human misery and degradation. Furthermore I would assert that much of the debasement of US culture and the resulting pathologies are the direct product of the degree to which our culture has abandoned the biblical ethics and principles upon which the American project was conceived.

You rightly say that Muslim theology holds that Allah is at every instant governing the existence of every molecule of the universe according to his purely arbitrary will. From my perspective Christian and Jewish theology see the creation of the universe as following rational rules such that it is a giant clockwork that runs somewhat on its own governed by those rules and laws. This does not preclude divine miraculous intervention, but miracles, by definition, are special and rare events, else they would not be miracles but simply the way things worked. C.S. Lewis wrote a brilliant book about this called--what else?--Miracles

The thorniest question you raise, though not explicitly, is what is sometimes called natural evil: bad things that happen to people without human causation--earthquakes, Tsunamis, disease, etc. This is admittedly one of the most troubling questions to Christian theologians, and men of great wisdom have spent their lives thinking and writing about it for millennia. I will admit in my reading on the subject, I have found no completely satisfying explanation, just as I find God's answer to Job at the end of their long discourse unsatisfying. After Job's long lament and complaint against God for all the horrible things that have happened to him, God recites a long litany of his wonders and majesty, his vast intellect which created, sustains, and comprehends all things, then questions Job, "Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?" Confronted with God's infinite power and knowledge Job answers, "Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." Do I find this satisfying? No, but neither do I have a satisfactory answer. Bertran Russell famously said (with contempt), "what does a Christian say to a dying child?" Well, I've got a few ideas, but for the sake of argument let's say, fair enough, you've got a point. But my question is, what does Bertran Russell say? "Tough luck kiddo!"? "Thems the breaks!"? Is that supposed to be morally superior?

Of course the first biblical principle that comes to mind is the scripture that says, "it rains on the just and the unjust." In other words the nature of the world that God created, running autonomously by its rational rules, means that these sort of bad things inevitably happen to everyone regardless of their moral standing. At first blush, this seems an intrinsic flaw which calls into question the goodness of God who would create such a world, and we assert that a good God would create a world without such occurrences. But the real question is, given the ultimate goals underlying God's creation, was it possible to create such a world? Both C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Problem of Pain, and recently Dinesh D'Souza in his book Godforsaken, make the case that given God's goal to create man with which he might have a relationship, not only necessitated that man have freewill, but that the kind of world (with its potential for pain) was the only possible kind God could create. This is a complex issue and these arguments are equally complex, but just to give you a flavor of them let me quote a few passages from Lewis's The Problem of Pain: "A creature with no environment would have no choices to make: so that freedom, like self-consciousness (if they are not, indeed, the same thing) again demands the presence to the self of something other than the self." "If a 'world' or material system had only a single inhabitant it might conform at every moment to his wishes--'trees for his sake would crowd into a shade.' But if you were introduced into a world which these varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will. Nor is it clear that you could make you presence known to me--all the matter by which you attempted to make signs to me being already in my control and therefore not capable of being manipulated by you." "If fire comforts that body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced. Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit."

As to your last question, this is dealt with by the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans: "For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus." Romans 2:12-16 So I have to agree with your quote, "you have no excuse!" When those who have never heard to Gospel or the Mosaic law, nevertheless assent to its truth by their intellectual affirmation of its goodness, they will be judged accordingly. Of course Paul goes on to lament the human condition of wanting to do the right thing, yet constantly failing to do it because of our sinful nature. And this is the nature of Christian mission, the desperation we all should feel to spread the good news of the Gospel all over the earth, what we call the "great commission" from Jesus himself: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19,20


More Discussion With My Buddhist Friend, Part 1

A few years ago, I had an online conversation with my Buddhist friend, Daniel Day that I turned into a two-part post on this blog.  A couple of weeks ago, I again engaged my friend Daniel, this time on the pages of Facebook.  It all started with a post of mine regarding the controversy surrounding the suspension of Phil Robertson by A&E from his show on that channel called Duck Dynasty.  Here's my original post:

First of all, A&E's suspension of Phil Robertson may be a lot of things (primarily it's stupid), but one thing it is NOT is a first Amendment issue. Phil's statements (of which I am in complete agreement) were said freely, and the government did not come and cart him off to jail for saying them. A&E is a private company and they have the right to suspend any employee for just about any reason they wish--just as we have the right to ridicule and boycott them for it.

The real issue in question here is the fact that our culture loathes and despises biblical moral truth. There is nothing new about this. It has been going on for as long as God has revealed himself through his word. Isaiah was put into a hollow log and sawn in two for telling the truth. The first human impulse that led to the fall was man's desire to invent his own morality, to be "like God." I understand this perfectly. There are so many things about Christianity and biblical morality that I wish were different. I wish my sin weren't the eternal barrier between me and God that the bible tells me it is. Why? Because I'm a sinner! I wish that God's plan through Jesus didn't have the iron-clad exclusivity that it does (and that our culture pretends that it doesn't). Why? Because it would be so much easier to get along and fit in with the culture at large. But I didn't make the exclusive claims of Christianity--Jesus himself did. So however obnoxious those claims are to the culture at large, their beef is with Jesus.

My role, as is all of us who are followers of Christ, is as Jesus himself said: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." John 15:17-19
Since this turned out to be a protracted discussion, I've once again decided to break it into two parts.  The following is part one of our discourse.

Dan:

I don't hate Jesus. What I would like, I don't say "what I want" because it's pointless to want something that is probably impossible (no insult intended), is for you to accept that Christianity does not provide the promised "peace that passeth understanding" and "joy in Christ" to everyone.

As for A&E's right to fire Robertson, you're absolutely right that they can, and that we can mock their arrogance and boycott them until they shut their mouths and stop insulting the sensitivities of the American public.

Jindahl put it well (from the Drudge Report): "Messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended".

Me:

Dan, if I were a Calvinist (which I am not) I would simply chalk your comment up to the fact that you are not one of the predestined elect, and agree with you on that basis. But since I am Armenian in my theological view and therefore have a slightly different view of human free will, let me approach it this way.

The "peace that passes all understanding" reference you quoted was by Paul to the church in Philippi when he was under house arrest awaiting his execution by Nero, and its meaning is informed by an eternal perspective, in essence a peace that defies explanation viewed from immediate circumstances because it looks to the hope of eternity and the transformation of the resurrection. This is the equation Jesus referred to when he posed the question, "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?" Jesus also warned of the price of being his disciple and advocated "counting the cost". Obviously that cost is counted by weighing whatever hardships are encountered in this short life as measured against an eternity promised to those who surrender themselves to Jesus' offer of redemption. This perspective also applies to the "joy in Christ" phrase to which you also alluded. But I agree, to someone without that eternal perspective, this seems empty and, well, ludicrous. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:19, "If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied." And in the 32nd verse, 'If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”' From an atheistic, materialistic perspective, hedonism and utilitarianism is the only thing that makes sense, and the only peace one can hope for is to be left alone to squeeze the maximum amount of pleasure one can from this short and meaningless existence.

So, my peace derives from my assurance in an eternal life awarded me in my acceptance of God's gracious gift of redemption, not reliant on my own good deeds--this is the "good news" of the Gospel, those who accept it are saved by God's substitutional atonement rather than our efforts at self justification. But I'm curious at to your source of peace. According to the reading I've done of the Buddhist worldview, there is no God, no eternal perspective, no hope of redemption, and the ultimate goal of enlightenment and the balancing out of the karmic spreadsheet is the complete annihilation of the individual's karma and its reincarnation, thus ending forever the wheel of pain that is human life. This gives you comfort? This is the idea that gives your life meaning?

Dan:

To begin with, there are slightly differing Buddhist worldviews; the Pure Land sect, for example, sees this world as defiled, and exhorts its practicioners to pray to a certain Buddha mentioned by Shakyamuni (the man we know as the historical Buddha) in several sutras (teachings, or gospels to use the Christian term) to be allowed rebirth in a Pure Land. Zen, for example, rejects the sutras as of relatively little value, and emphasizes the relationship between master and disciple as leading the disciple toward enlightenment.

It is correct that Shakyamuni did not speak of a Creator or a loving all-powerful entity. Shakyamuni and our sect often refer to "gods" and "devils", but these are of a vague nature, not specific entities. The words refer to aspects of our environment or personal tendencies that protect us and lead us toward the correct practice of Buddhism, or those that frustrate us and lead us away, respectively.

We refer to our sect as "Nichiren Buddhism" but that's vague, since several if not more sects are based on the writings of Nichiren; specifically we call ourselves SGI for Soka Gakkai International.

We do not particularly focus on personal "peace" as a goal of the practice. The experience of life can be broadly described as one of hell, hunger, animality, anger, humanity/peace, rapture/heaven, learning, self-realization, Bodhisattva or Buddhahood. The first six, "the 6 lower paths", are characterized by one being controlled by his environment. Bodhisattva means a person who devotes his life to saving others.

It is certainly not true that there is no eternal perspective or redemption. We believe in reincarnation, with the circumstances throughout each lifetime being affected by the culmination ("karma") of the choices - thoughts, words and deeds - made by the individual in past lifetimes. Redemption means expiating negative karma in a lightened form and is earned by practicing Buddhism. There is more to this than merely expiating bad karma, though. We may also voluntarily assume certain sufferings in order to lead others with the same sufferings to Buddhism.

Shakyamuni taught annihilation of the self during the first part of his teachings, but this was because the people of the time expected such teachings. He denied it later. This teaching has gotten a lot of press but undeservedly so. I assume that I will continue to be reborn in human form, or whatever passes for that on other planets, if there are other planets that support intelligent life. No annihilation, just a cycle of life and death.

There's my first cut at an answer to your questions.

Me:


Dan, I've reread you last comment about 6 times and I must confess, I'm not much closer to understanding what you're getting at than the first time I read it. You make reference to things, then qualify them by say they are "vague". In other cases you use religious or philosophical words, but in a way that seems completely undefined.

But then this is the problem I've had whenever I've read about Eastern religions. The use of words such as ineffable, enlightenment, and spiritual, which, from the context of their use, leave me scratching my head and wondering what the hell is being talked about, and I'm left with the nagging suspicion that this sort of language is used in this undefined way as a way of infusing it with an air of authority and profundity by verbal presdigitation. For instance, from the Christian perspective, when I use the word enlightened I'm very clear that I'm speaking of the removal of that which is obscuring our apprehension of the truth of Gospel and to larger extent God's word, such that biblical references are made to people having eyes to see, yet not seeing, or eyes blinded to the truth, or prayers that our eyes be opened. The language and symbolism are all consistent.

But when you use the word enlightenment from a Buddhist perspective what exactly are talking about? You mentioned that Bodhisattva means devoting oneself to saving others. Saving them from what? When I talk about someone being saved, I'm clearly talking about them being saved from the wrath of God which is their default status unless they avail themselves of the redemption provided by the substitutional atonement of Christ's death on the cross: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:36 NIV)

Sunday, September 09, 2012

My Father's-in-law Eulogy

The following is the eulogy I gave on September 9th, 2012 in the memorial service we held for my father-in-law, Richard L. Throckmorton, 1928 - 2012.

I first met Dick Throckmorton in 1975 in Colorado Springs. His claim to fame in my eyes was that he was the father of the woman I was falling in love with and whom I was soon to marry. He was a much different man than my father. I come from a family of nomads: my father was, for most of his life, an itinerant preacher, as was my older brother, and I was destined to be the same. I had already spent some of my childhood and most of my adolescence in a tiny travel trailer with my mother and father as they held revival meetings in little pentecostal churches across the country. Dick, on the other hand was a tradesman, a union electrician who had lived and raised his daughters in the same house in Colorado Springs for close to 20 years. His path was about as foreign to me as one could get, and our first conversations were marked with hesitancy and perhaps even suspicion of one another.

Yet despite those wary beginnings, it was Dick's path--the path of the calm dependable tradesman--that I ultimately followed, rather than my own father's. And so, while I still loved and respected my own father, it was more often Dick who served as my example of the craftsman, homeowner, financial planner, crew supervisor, and other roles that I was to take on in my life; roles that Dick filled before me, but none of which my own father did.

But of course no one's life is quite as straight-forward as it first appears. Dick's own father bore some similarity to my own in that he too was something of an itinerant: an oil-field welder who traveled from one drilling rig to another every few weeks. Their years in the West Texas oil fields in the depths of the Great Depression were hard ones in which Dick and his older brother, Bud, would trap quail and hunt rabbit and squirrel with a .22 rifle, providing the family their only meat. By the time Dick was 9 or 10 the family moved to Brazil for Dick's father to work in the oil industry starting there. When the family moved back to the states 5 years later, Dick was speaking Portuguese as his primary language and had to somewhat relearn English. Bernard, Dick's father, had always dreamed of owning a farm, so upon returning to the United States, he took the money he had saved from his Brazilian windfall, and purchased a farm in Fairbury, Nebraska.

In a few years Dick's mother and father took their youngest son, John, with them down to Caracas, Venezuela--once again to work in the oil fields of that country, leaving Bud, Dick's older brother, and Dick back in Fairbury where Dick finished high school. Bud joined the Army and soon found himself fighting for his life in the Battle of the Bulge. Dick finished school, then joined the Army himself just as the war was ending. He was sent to Korea and finished his 2 year hitch driving truck, and was honorably discharged just prior to the start of the Korean conflict.

When Dick returned to the states he joined up with his best friend whom he had met in the Army, Wally Windscheffel, and the two of them went through trade school on the G.I. bill to become electricians. After graduating Wally convinced Dick to go with him back to his home of Smith Center, Kansas where there was a great push to finally bring electricity to rural Kansas. Wally and Dick started their own business together--T-W electric, and thrived for a number of years wiring the homes and farms all around Smith County.

It was on Dick's first arrival at Smith Center that he met Wally's cousin, Norma Jean Beckman when he rented a room in the boarding house Norma's parents owned and ran. Within 5 months Norma and Dick were married. Their first 3 daughters, Brenda, Jane, and Nanette were born there in Smith Center. But once the houses and farms were wired in the area, the work dried up and T-W electric disbanded. Hearing that there was work in Colorado, he went to Colorado Springs, which seemed like paradise after Kansas, applied for and secured a job as a lineman for the city.

There were triumphs as well as bumps and interruptions along the way. An accomplishment of note: while general foreman of linemen for the city Dick proposed to coworkers that they start a credit union, which they did with Dick as the president--it was Colorado Springs' first credit union. Later he quit his job with the city and tried his hand at direct sales, selling Salad Master cookware for a short while, but soon went back to construction as a union electrician. A few years after Nan and I were married and I had moved us back to my home ground here in Oregon, the long construction boom in Colorado had finally ended and work was sparse in the Springs. Dick found out that work was plentiful here and before we knew it, they had sold their house in Colorado Springs and moved here to Oregon. Dick continued in his trade and prospered, ending his career before retiring in 1992 as general foreman for EC, the largest electrical contracting firm in the state of Oregon.

Those are at least some of the facts of Dick Throckmorton's life, but they in no way begin to tell the full story of the man, the husband, the father, the grandfather, the great-grandfather, the father-in-law, and the friend that we all knew and loved. So let me now turn from the mere facts of his life and try to recount the truth of his life.

He was a man of what these days we call the "greatest generation", infused with the values that shaped our country, that endured, with little complaint and considerable resilience, the hardships of the Great Depression, that fought and won two World Wars. He had a work ethic such that when he worked for the city of Colorado Springs and coworkers found him after he had fainted, upon medical examination, it was discovered that he had pneumonia--he had been working while sick because of his sense of obligation, his sense that the homeowners of Colorado Springs were counting on him to get their power back on. He was a man of great generosity. After he retired he spent many years giving his own time and spending his own gas picking up and delivering donated food and goods for the Portland Rescue Mission and he served as the Prayer Support leader for Good Samaritan ministries. He was a man of exceptionally good humor, always friendly and open. He told me once that he loved meeting new people, talking and joking with them. Though not a musician himself, as I am, he loved music. I'll never forget when I first met him the thing he seemed most proud of was his audio-file level (and quite expensive) home sound system and extensive and eclectic record collection. And I have a fond memory of going to the Portland symphony with him and Norma to see Mel Torme. He never smoked, and drank with great moderation--perhaps a glass of wine, or at the most two on a holiday; never hard liquor. I never once heard him utter a single profanity or a racial slur. He was a devoted husband who lived faithfully with the wife of his youth--as it says in Proverbs 5--for 54 years until her death from leukemia. And with the wife of his later years, Marjorie, until his own death. He was a loving father to Brenda, Jane, Nanette and Sondra, and the testament to the depth of his love for them, and their love for him, is this: I have heard not a single story of a harsh word, a hard feeling, a bad memory, or any hint of limitation or equivocation in their feelings for him. Consider how rare this is. He took great joy in and deeply loved his grandchildren. My son Nigel was his first.

And finally, though not raised so, he was a man of faith. He adopted his wife's Lutheranism, followed her into the charismatic movement, and back to Lutheranism until he remarried, then attended the Methodist church with Marjorie. All his daughters went through Lutheran confirmation. He served, on and off, on the board of Ascension Lutheran Church in the Springs, and his youngest, Sondra, he sent to an Evangelical parochial school in Canby, Oregon. I can tell you that he attended church on Sundays almost without fail, first with his wife and family, then, after Norma passed away, by himself at our Savior's Lutheran in Lake Oswego, and after remarrying, here [at the Oak Grove Methodist Church in Milwaukie] with Marjorie. But of course simply going to church is not really any indication of anything other than consistency to convention. I can't say with any specificity what his doctrinal beliefs were because he never discussed them. My real sense of his beliefs come mostly from his prayers at family functions. What I can say is that those prayers revealed his belief in a God with whom he was intimate in the same sense that is stated in Romans 8:15 "...but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, 'Abba, Father!'" Abba, being an Aramaic word for father that is a term of affection only used among immediate family. A genuine feeling of relationship with God was conveyed in those prayers, a relationship that I'm confident bore him upon his passing to the presence of his savior, his Lord, and his loved ones who made the journey before him. That relationship, that faith, will afford him a reward for the work, the honor, the steadfastness, the good humor, the generosity, the fidelity, and most of all the love he exhibited in his very well-lived life. And for that, we who loved him rejoice.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The New Morality, part 2

Last month I dealt with the emergence of a "new" morality in American culture; one that has abandoned any sacred text or divine authority as its governing basis in favor of one central defining criteria: feeling. That this new morality based on feeling is ascending to dominance in our culture, and even in a growing percentage of Evangelical Christians--especially among the young--I would assert is unassailable. But what does this mean for the future of the country, and the future of the American Church?

Already great social changes have occurred in the United States as detailed brilliantly by Charles Murray in his recent book, Coming Apart wherein he analyses the behavioral, economic, and demographic changes in white America since 1963, just before President Kennedy was assassinated. The results are sobering and, in some cases, horrific, especially within what he calls the New Lower Class. In all the categories of what he defines as the founding virtues, industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity things have drastically deteriorated. Deteriorated to such a degree that Murray posits we may have already passed a tipping point, and certainly if present trends continue, we will pass a tipping point at which the American project will end. Not that we will no longer be a rich and powerful nation, but that the founding virtues that made America unique in the countries of the world and singular in human history will have deteriorated in the popular American culture such that that uniqueness will disappear and the American experiment will have been deemed a failure.

Looking at the founding virtues listed by Murray--industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity--it should be obvious that they all proceeded from biblical moral truth, and therefore much of their deterioration is due America's increasing abandonment of biblical morality and its acceptance of the new morality of feeling. But since I started this commentary in my prior post as a response to the question of same sex-marriage, and the normalization of homosexual behavior in general, let me focus on that particular.

Whenever the question of same-sex marriage comes up advocates inevitably ask opponents this question: "but how will it hurt your marriage?" And of course the answer is that it will not hurt my marriage, nor any other marriage already in existence that is already based on biblical principles. But if enacted it threatens the continued existence of marriage, and threatens to alter the way we look at many other essential elements of our culture and society--and here is how. First a brief history lesson.

As the first form of ethical monotheism in recorded human history Judaism was unique in its claims that God was distinct from nature. In the pantheistic religions the gods were immanent, a part of nature, and ethics was not part of religion, only sacrifice and worship. Yahweh, however, was transcendent to nature. He pre-existed nature, and nature was merely his creation. He demanded ethical behavior based on His own good and perfect character, which He called "holiness" (literally meaning separate, distinct, set apart). Almost all of the ritual law of the Torah (circumcision, dress, diet, food preparation, etc.) all exist to reinforce this concept of separation and distinction. There are other distinctions identified in scripture that predate even the law, first enumerated in the creation story: the heavens from the earth, the waters from the dry land, the plants from the animals, the human from the animal. But one of the most important distinctions is between male and female. The male/female distinction actually serves in many places throughout scripture, both Jewish and Christian, as a simile for the difference between and God and man: God as the husband and an unfaithful nation of Israel as an adulterous wife in several prophetic writings; Christ as a husband and the Church as his bride in numerous places in the New Testament.

But more than just metaphorical use is made of the male/female distinction. Different sets of behaviors and expectations are codified between the male and female all through scripture. Very clear roles and boundaries are delineated, all based on this distinction. And the Jewish and Christian cultures are by no means unique in this. Every culture in human history has recognized the male/female distinction and developed a plethora of differing forms of dress, divisions of labor, legal obligations, ritual and other social constructs based on this biological difference. Even in our present age of feminism, we still recognize this distinction in law and culture: we still bar our female military personnel from serving as combatants; we still have separate bathrooms for men and women and make it illegal for members of the opposite sex to use the bathrooms designated for the other.

The central identifying characteristic of marriage in every period of history and every culture on the face of the earth is that it's a bond between a man and a woman, a ritualized social connection with a host of attendant responsibilities and privileges encompassing the biological imperative of the unique function that only that bond can produce: creating children. If we recognize this truth at the heart of marriage, we can see that the concept has a teleology: in other words, when we use the word "marriage" we are not just using a word that we can define this or any other way, we are rather describing something that already exists in nature. In other words, the word "marriage" is descriptive not prescriptive, and therefore if we redefine the word, we are only changing the meaning of the word, and not the thing we first used the word to describe: you can call your grandma "Chevy", but that doesn't make her a car.

But of course this is what the present move in our culture--supported by the "new morality"--is trying to do. And the way this is being done--and the reason it has far greater destructive implications than just to marriage--is to eradicate this fundamental building block of civilization: distinctions. The core assertion of the same-sex marriage project is that there is no difference between men and women-- other than biological--and that the biological difference is so insignificant that it should be ignored. This is taken to such an extreme under this system of thought that proponents maintain that sexual identity itself should not be determined by biology but rather by--and if you're still skeptical of my initial premise of the "new morality", this should settle the argument--the feelings of the individual. As I've written before, this is why the misuse of the word gender has come into common usage: to disconnect sexual identity from biology. (To recap: gender is not an attribute of human beings, but rather of words: i.e., words--especially in the Latin-derived languages--are attributed with masculine or feminine gender, were as human beings are of the male or female sex.)

Consider the ways in which advocates of the "new morality" are trying to eradicate distinctions:
1. PETA, and many others are teaching that there is no hierarchy between human or any form of animal life.
2. There is ever increasing reluctance for adults to require children to address them with traditional honorifics of respect (Mr. Smith or Miss Jones) but rather by their first names, indicating an inexorable weakening of the distinction between child and adult.
3. It is rare to see any sort of even self-imposed dress code in an ever-expanding range of social situations--church, high school graduations, up-scale restaurants, even wedding receptions--indicating weakening distinctions between those social contexts and any other day or situation.
4. The pervasive use of even egregious profanity in public, men to women, and adults to children, indicate the fading of the distinctions of appropriate social context, private and public, sacred and profane.
5. Universities and colleges all over the United States are experimenting with bathrooms that have no sexual identifier--in other words, one bathroom for everybody.
6. The feminist movement has fought for decades in this country to remove all distinctions between the sexes in Federal and State law. They have also fought vigorously to overturn the US military proscription against female personnel serving in combat.
7. The fight for same-sex marriage, based as it is on the premise that there is no meaningful distinction between men and women, by implication also assert that there is no meaningful distinction between fatherhood and motherhood. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that either one of them (as long as the other is in place) can be viewed as completely unnecessary.

Dennis Prager has said that same-sex marriage is the most radical social experiment in which we have ever engaged. We simply have no idea what the implications could be on civilization of removing all these fundamental distinctions. But the possibilities are terrifying and seem bound to further disintegrate the connecting tissue of our social order, especially considering how the "new morality" has already deteriorated the American character. I don't know how effective the American Church can be in retarding this process, or in influencing the greater culture back to biblical morality, but one thing seems certain: we will have no effect and no influence if we too abandon biblical morality and, out of a sense of inclusivity, capitulate to the "new morality".

P.S. Let me give attribution to Dennis Prager for the argument of distinctions and Greg Koukl for the teleology of marriage.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The New Morality, part 1

In response to the state of North Carolina amending its constitution to preclude state recognition of any marriage other than that between one man and one woman, Christian author Rachel Held Evans published a piece on her blog which you can access here. In her piece she bemoans the fact that, as she puts it, American Evangelicalism is "winning the culture war, but losing a generation" of the young. Her basis for this assertion is, first, research done by the Barna Group in which they questioned Americans ages 16-29 what words or phrases best describe Christianity; the first response was "antihomosexual." Her second source is a couple of books by David Kinnaman, "unChristian" and "You Lost Me" in which he says that one of the top reasons 59% of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends.


Ms. Evans, I'm afraid, is completely wrong in her assertion that Christians are winning the culture war. The amendment to the North Carolina constitution may represent one small political victory, but it is only that--a political victory, not a cultural victory. The statistics she quotes regarding the opinions of young Americans are indicative that on the cultural front we are indeed losing.


Her second error can be found in this quote from her piece:
My generation is tired of the culture wars. We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.
Why would she, or anyone else for that matter, think that Christians believe they are advancing the Kingdom of God by voting to preserve traditional marriage? Jesus very clearly said that his kingdom was not of this world which is why his disciples would not engage in armed insurrection to save him. When I vote in favor of Biblical values, I do so not to advance the kingdom of God, but to preserve the social order of my country; because I understand that the abandonment of these values will--and has--lead to the debasement of is culture and the degradation of its community. This is a divine command, often called the cultural mandate; but it is not a command to advance the Kingdom of God, but rather a command by God to build a culture on Earth with the resources He has given. This cultural mandate is obeyed when we work at our jobs, when we raise a family--and when we exercise our political responsibilities to structure our laws and society according to Biblical moral truth.


The greater question of the culture war and the appalling statistics of attitudes toward Christianity by young Americans (including those raised within Evangelical Christian homes) is a crucial issue faced by the Church today. My assertion that we are losing the culture war is to a large extent based on the statics that Ms. Evans highlights in her piece as well as the work of sociologist Christian Smith presented in his book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. A synopsis of his findings can be found here. Smith, after exhaustive interviews of American teens of faith found them, in the vast majority, incapable of articulating even the most basic concepts of the religion in which they were raised, and, regardless of the home religion, holding to a sort of vague concept of God Smith dubbed "Moral Therapeutic Deism." The gist of this “moral therapeutic deism” goes something like this: “God wants me to be happy and wants me to be good. He mostly leaves me alone unless I’m unhappy or in trouble, then he’ll sort of help me out somehow. Good people go to heaven.” These nebulous ideas are apparently consistent across most faiths in which American teens are raised including all forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hindu. Notice that within this concept no reference is made to any Holy text or transcendent system of ethics—just, “God wants me to be good.” And this raises the essential question: how do American youth define “good”?


Further work by the Barna Group points to the answer. Here is a quote from an article citing their research on American trends with respect to morality (you can access the complete article here):

We are witnessing the development and acceptance of a new moral code in America," said the researcher and author, who has been surveying national trends in faith and morality for more than a quarter-century. "Mosaics [below aged 25] have had little exposure to traditional moral teaching and limited accountability for such behavior. The moral code began to disintegrate when the generation before them - the Baby Busters - pushed the limits that had been challenged by their parents - the Baby Boomers. The result is that without much fanfare or visible leadership, the U.S. has created a moral system based on convenience, feelings, and selfishness.
"The consistent deterioration of the Bible as the source of moral truth has led to a nation where people have become independent judges of right and wrong, basing their choices on feelings and circumstances. It is not likely that America will return to a more traditional moral code until the nation experiences significant pain from its moral choices.


Here we come to the crux of both the loss of the culture war and the loss of the youth generation to the Christian Church because of its identification with Biblical moral truth. What has happened is that starting with my generation--the Baby Boomers--and progressing--and intensifying--through successive generations of Americans, the country is abandoning traditional and Biblical morality and inventing a "New" morality. This new morality is completely detached from any guiding principles that informed Judeo/Christian morality or even other traditions of morality proceeding from Islam, Hinduism, or even Buddhism--namely sacred texts or a concept of morality emanating from divine command. Rather, this new morality is based on feeling, in essence the mood, whim, and sensations of the individual as they occur moment to moment. Not only is no reference made to any sort of transcendent code or ideal, many young people today seem incapable of making such evaluations, so bereft are they of such concepts. In a radio interview with a researcher studying this phenomenon, I recently heard him tell his host that when his young research subjects were asked when they last confronted a moral dilemma, they most often were confused by the question and would reply with a story such as being frustrated when they wanted to buy something from a vending machine and found that they didn't have enough change on them to make the purchase. Consider this shocking reality: they did not have the intellectual tools to even think in moral categories. Therefore their judgements are based on how their choices (or the choices of others) will make them feel. If an action makes them sad or angry or hurts their feelings, or the feelings of those for whom they care, that action is deemed "bad".


If this seems overstated consider the language used by Ms. Evans:

Most feel that the Church’s response to homosexuality is partly responsible for high rates of depression and suicide among their gay and lesbian friends, particularly those who are gay and Christian… We know too many wonderful people from the LGBT community to consider homosexuality a mere 'issue.' These are people, and they are our friends. When they tell us that something hurts them, we listen. And Amendment One hurts like hell… Amendments like these needlessly offend gays and lesbians, damage the reputation of Christians, and further alienate young adults—both Christians and non-Christian—from the Church.

Even Ms. Evans seems completely unconcerned with Biblical authority concerning this issue, choosing instead to merely separate people into two groups who have differing views, and pleading for group A not to hurt the feelings of group B.


Dennis Prager, writer and long-time radio talk show host, has for many years gone to high schools and colleges to speak with young Americans on issues of morality and ethics. He often recounts how that for more than 20 years now he has presented his young audiences with the following ethical question:

You are passing a body of water and see that a person who is a stranger to you and your beloved pet dog or cat are both drowning. You can only save one, either the stranger or your pet. Which would you save?

Mr. Prager says from the beginning of when he began posing this question, the majority of teens and young adults answer that they would save their pet—because they know and love their pet; the stranger is just a stranger. Furthermore, Mr. Prager says the percentage of the young who answer this way has consistently gone up over the years.


This is where we now find ourselves: in the midst of a culture war whose battles may often be fought in the political arena, but whose real source of conflict is two opposing forms of morality struggling for ascendancy. The out-workings of this new morality in our culture, legal system, and society—as well as our churches—I will deal with in my next post.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Answer to "What Would Jesus Cut"

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine, asking for my opinion, gave me a copy of an article by perhaps the foremost representative of the Christian left, Jim Wallis. Following is a reprint of Wallis' article with my point-by-point comments. The article will be indented in block quotes, interjected by my comments in normal text.
This is Not Fiscal Conservatism. It’s Just Politics.
by Jim Wallis 02-24-2011

The current budget and deficit debate in America is now dominating the daily headlines. There is even talk of shutting down the government if the budget-cutters don’t get their way. There is no doubt that excessive deficits are a moral issue and could leave our children and grandchildren with crushing debt. But what the politicians and pundits have yet to acknowledge is that how you reduce the deficit is also a moral issue. As Sojourners said in the last big budget debate in 2005, “A budget is a moral document.” For a family, church, city, state, or nation, a budget reveals what your fundamental priorities are: who is important and who is not; what is important and what is not. It’s time to bring that slogan back, and build a coalition and campaign around it.

The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, says he only really cares about his budget deficit; however, it now appears that he proudly sees himself as the first domino in a new strategy for Republican governors to break their public employee unions. (We are already seeing similar actions in Indiana, Ohio, and New Jersey.) Governor Walker’s proposed bill is really more about his ideological commitments and conservative politics — which favor business over labor — than about his concern for Wisconsin’s financial health.

This is the first use of a liberal/leftist trope--that conservatives favor business over labor. It's a convenient accusation that coincides with leftist narratives that go all the way back to the earliest socialist movements: they care about the poor and working man, the right is all about exploiting the working man (otherwise called "labor") and further enriching the ownership class/investment class. However, when contributions to the respective parties is analyzed over the last several election cycles it's clear that the vast majority of big business and super-rich contribution has shifted to the Democrat party. The statement that the Republican party is the party of big business and the rich is simply incoherent now.
Thousands of working-class Americans are now protesting in the streets of Madison and have made this a national debate. Even protesters in Egypt are sending messages of hope (and pizzas) to the Wisconsin demonstrators.

The Republican governors’ counter parts in the U.S. House of Representatives are also not cutting spending where the real money is, such as in military spending, corporate tax cuts and loop holes, and long term health-care costs. Instead, they are cutting programs for the poorest people at home and around the world.

This is where I started to get frustrated. He had a link on one of these statements that I thought would take me to a break-down of the "cuts" (which from what I've read are really just reductions in the planned growth of programs) but after following it (and others) it proved to be just more statements in other blog posts of his on his own web site that have not a single attribution to any document or proposal or study that can be verified. So why should I take anything he writes seriously?
This is also just political and not genuine fiscal conservatism. It is a direct attack on programs that help the poor and an all-out defense of the largesse handed out to big corporations and military contractors. If a budget is a moral document, these budget-cutters show that their priorities are to protect the richest Americans and abandon the poorest — and this is an ideological and moral choice. The proposed House cuts, which were just sent to the Senate, are full of disproportionate cuts to initiatives that have proven to save children’s lives and overcome poverty,

which initiatives? He names not a single one. I'm dying for him to 1) name at least one government program being cut and then 2) prove that it HAS saved lives and, more importantly, "overcome poverty."
while leaving untouched the most corrupt and wasteful spending of all American tax dollars — the Pentagon entitlement program. This is not fiscal integrity; this is hypocrisy.

The "most"? Really? More wasteful and corrupt than Medicare/Medicaid? This statement is both fatuous and absurd.
U.S. military spending is now 56 percent of the world’s military expenditures and is more than the military budgets of the next 20 countries in the world combined. To believe all that money is necessary for genuine American security is simply no longer credible.

Considering that those other countries have gutted their own militaries in favor of increasing their welfare states--to the point that it is bankrupting their economies--and that as a result the United States military has become the de-facto policeman of the world, providing security for the world shipping lanes, the movement of oil and goods throughout the world, providing security for unstable and fledgeling democracies, it seems perfectly credible to me.
To say it is more important than bed nets that prevent malaria, vaccines that prevent deadly diseases, or child health and family nutrition for low-income families is simply immoral. Again, these are ideological choices, not smart fiscal ones. To prioritize endless military spending over critical, life-saving programs for the poor is to reverse the biblical instruction to beat our swords into plowshares. The proposed budget cuts would beat plowshares into more swords. These priorities are not only immoral, they are unbiblical.

Wallis and his organization "Sojourners" represent the most visible element of the Evangelical left, a minority variant of American Evangelical Christianity. What Wallis fails to say--but what explains his statements concerning the military--is that he is an absolute pacifist in his interpretation of the Bible. Now while pacifism does have a long tradition in Christianity, it has never represented a majority view nor, I would assert, an orthodox view. Just war theory has predominated in Christian theology, in both Catholic and Protestant variations, throughout the 2 millennia of its existence--and in the more than 3 millennia of its Judaic predecessor. One of the major differences between Judaism and Christianity is the Christian view of secular government; the Jewish scriptures make no provision for such whereas the Christian scriptures acknowledge both a separation between secular and church government and a definitive role for secular government. Jesus delineated the difference first by saying, "Render to Cesar that which is Cesar's and to God that which is God's," and the apostle Paul defined the role of secular government in his letter to the Roman church:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7 English Standard Version)

Notice that Paul seems to define the central role of secular government as the bearer of the sword, in other words the administration of police and military force. Obviously the above scripture presents some challenges to a democratic republic such as ours in that the scope of government can be decided and changed by its citizenry. But most Evangelicals agree with the founding fathers of this country: that government should be limited. Our Constitution seems to agree with the above scripture (and essentially disagree with Wallis) that the central task of government is police and martial in nature judging by its preamble, "to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense...".
Now some members of Congress seem to want to force a government showdown over all this. They are saying there will be no shared sacrifice for the rich, only sacrifices from the poor and middle-class, or we will shut down the government.

This is nothing but an unsubstantiated accusation, or rather a libel. NO ONE has said there is to be no shared sacrifices.
The only people whose lives have returned to normal in America are the ones who precipitated our financial and economic crisis in the first place. They have all returned to record profits, while many others are still struggling with unemployment, stagnant wages, loss of benefits, home foreclosures, and more. These representatives are claiming that we should restore fiscal integrity by protecting all the soaring billionaires, while forcing the already-squeezed to make more and more concessions.

Let me offer a word to those who see this critique as partisan. I’ve had good friendships with Republican members of Congress, but not the kind who get elected by their party anymore. But let’s be clear, when politicians attack the poor, it is not partisan to challenge them; it is a Christian responsibility.

The entire two previous paragraphs are filled with demagogic hyperbole designed to inflame class warfare and inspire feelings of "righteous" indignation at Republicans. The "Americans" who precipitated our financial and economic crisis were the members of Congress who forced the banks into making loans to people who could never repay them through the mandates of the Community Reinvestment Act and thereby lead to the invention of financial instruments such as sub-prime loans and mortgage-backed securities which eventually corrupted the entire banking system, and the federal banking regulators who allowed and perhaps even encouraged the banks to loan against ever smaller reserve ratios. He gives no example--and I can certainly think of none--of representatives protecting billionaires or attacking the poor.
This is wrong, this is unjust, this is vile, and this must not stand. Next week, thanks to your support, look for a full-page ad in Politico signed by faith leaders and organizations across the country that asks Congress a probing question: “What would Jesus cut?” These proposed budget cuts are backwards, and I don’t see how people of faith can accept them. And we won’t.

Wallis rightly asserts that it is a Biblical and Christian concern that the poor should be helped; where he is wrong is his belief that this is a governmental concern. Caring for the poor and needy should be strictly the province of the church and private charitable organizations (but preferably the church)—not the federal government. It’s a testament to how moved Christians are by this truth that the Americans—and specifically Christian Americans—give more in charity than any other group in the world—despite the fact that more and more of what had been the province of private charity has been taken over by federal agencies. This appropriation of charitable roles by governmental agencies has had a devastating effect on charitable giving in the welfare states of Europe. All of this is well documented in Arthur C. Brooks’ book,
“Who Really Cares: the surprising truth about compassionate conservatism."

The root of this problem is the Christian left’s long standing propensity to apply Biblical principles meant for the micro (i.e. personal) to the macro (i.e. government). One of the central proof texts for pacifism is Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek.” But of course this is a micro/personal principle that simply makes no sense for governments. If Jesus meant this on a governmental level, why would he not have instructed soldiers to leave the army, instead of merely telling them, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay,”? (Luke 3:14) And of course turning the other cheek refers to personal insult, not attempted murder. Also, the "beating swords into plowshares" reference refers to the earthly kingdom of Christ which he will establish after the battle of Armageddon in which He will slaughter the armies of rebellion with the word of His mouth. (Revelation 19:11-21)

For further reading, see Mark Tooley's article in American Spectator, or my post on this blog, How Would Jesus Vote?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mom's Eulogy



Yesterday, we had a memorial service for my mother, Nancy Mitchell, who died a week ago Friday, February 11th. Following is the eulogy I gave for her.

In 1980 popular science writer Carl Sagan produced a multipart series broadcast on PBS called "Cosmos." He introduced the series with these words, "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." This, of course, is the premise of the materialist: that human existence is reduced to matter--only that which can be touched, tasted, smelled, seen and heard.


There's a couple of big problems with this idea, though. The first is that no one can really live that way. Even the most primitive cultures understand that life is more than chemistry and meat, that thoughts are more than electrical impulses in a brain. The most cosmopolitan urban sophisticates who profess a distaste for "organized religion" will nevertheless declare themselves "spiritual"--even though they couldn't begin to tell you what they mean by it. So what are they saying? They're saying that they understand, if only on an intuitive level, that we are more than our bodies and our brains.


The second problem with materialism is that it's self destructive--and by that I mean the idea destroys itself. Even the high priests of materialism--the scientist class--never look too closely at its philosophical underpinnings for fear of being crushed by its own cornerstone. So the acrimonious atheist Daniel Dennet may call Darwinism a "universal acid" that dissolves away religion and traditional ethics, but stops before seeing that, as C.S. Lewis wrote, "If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true and no reason to suppose my brain composed of atoms." Even Carl Sagan, immediately after assuring us that life is only matter, goes on to say, "Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us -- there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries." You see what he's doing here? He's using mystical, almost religious language and imagery to give the material universe an illusion of spirituality.


Now, so far I've described two categories of people: 1) people who understand intuitively that there is a spiritual dimension to human life, but don't understand--or for the most part even care to think about what it is, and 2) those who deny that there is a spiritual dimension to human life, but nevertheless act as though there is. But there's a third category: those who know there is a spiritual dimension to human life, and understand its nature. Let me read this story from the Gospel of John, chapter 4:

When Jesus knew that the Pharisees heard He was making and baptizing more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were), He left Judea and went again to Galilee. He had to travel through Samaria, so He came to a town of Samaria called Sychar near the property that Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, worn out from His journey, sat down at the well. It was about six in the evening. A woman of Samaria came to draw water.

"Give Me a drink," Jesus said to her, for His disciples had gone into town to buy food.

"How is it that You, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?" she asked Him. For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.

Jesus answered, "If you knew the gift of God, and who is saying to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would ask Him, and He would give you living water."

"Sir," said the woman, "You don't even have a bucket, and the well is deep. So where do you get this 'living water'? You aren't greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and livestock."

Jesus said, "Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again. But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again, ever! In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up within him for eternal life."

"Sir," the woman said to Him, "give me this water so I won't get thirsty and come here to draw water."

"Go call your husband," He told her, "and come back here."

"I don't have a husband," she answered.

"You have correctly said, 'I don't have a husband,' " Jesus said. "For you've had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true."

"Sir," the woman replied, "I see that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, yet you [Jews] say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem."

Jesus told her, "Believe Me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know. We worship what we do know, because salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."

The woman said to Him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ. "When He comes, He will explain everything to us."

"I am [He]," Jesus told her, "the One speaking to you."


Can you grasp the absolute confidence with which Jesus speaks? He begins by declaring that he can give a "living water" from God that will impart eternal life, an obvious allusion to the eternal attribute of the spirit, then immediately roots his authority to make such a claim in the physical realm by disclosing tangible details about the woman's life that he could have no way of knowing. He continues by affirming the spiritual nature of God and explains that, while the Samaritans may worship on an intuitive level, the Jews worship from knowledge because God revealed His nature and His law to Jews. The written revelation of the law and prophets came through the Jews, and God's plan to redeem and reconcile man came through the Jews in the person of Jesus, which brings us to His most astonishing declaration: "I am He, the One speaking to you."

The Gospels are filled with such jaw-dropping statements by Jesus, which is exactly why C.S. Lewis wrote:
You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.


So, first of all, we can have confidence in our understanding of the spiritual because Jesus authenticated his words by performing the miraculous. As he said in John 10:38,
even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.
And we have the account of His words and miracles passed on by eyewitnesses, the truth of which the men who wrote them maintained even as they were tortured to death in an effort to make them deny it.

Secondly, the Bible tells us very specific things about the nature of spirit, so when we speak about our spirit, or God being a spirit, or "spiritual" things, we have a clear set of properties and attributes in mind: non-material, invisible, eternal, yet containing the true essence, personality, and constitution of the individual. When Jesus said, "God is spirit," we understand that he is telling us that God is not a physical, material, and finite being but rather eternal, supernatural, and transcendent.

We find in the Bible that the spirit, or the soul if you will--they are Biblically interchangeable terms-- can live without the body, but the body cannot live without the spirit. It's this capacity of our personal essence, our thoughts and memories and experiences, of that which makes us an individual to live on after our body dies which gives us our greatest hope. And by hope I don't mean something like wishing, I mean assurance and the comfort of expectation. I mean a peace born from the absence of fear.

So the Christian has the assurance that our spirits or souls retain our identities. We won't be subsumed into some sort of hive mind or cosmic consciousness as the pantheist believes. We will one day be reunited with our loved ones and we will know them -- as them -- and they will know us -- as us. This is one of the ways in which we share in the likeness of God: that we are distinct personalities. I will see my father again. I will see my brother again. I will see my mother again and we will remember. We will remember the times, when we lived in San Diego just down the street from the zoo and would go almost every week, and all the times we went to Sea World and the Scripts aquarium in La Jolla. We will remember when we would watch all of our favorite TV shows together, "Johnny Quest" "Outer Limits" "The Twilight Zone" and "Star Trek." We will remember when we lived in Phoenix in a motel and had no TV, and so every evening Mom would pop up a big batch of pop corn, and make a pitcher of lemon ice tea and read aloud to me from classic children's books. We will remember all the times we sang duets together in church. We will remember the time, when I was only 15 and had my learner's permit, that I drove all the way across the United States, from California to Florida as I followed Dad pulling the trailer and Mom sat next to me as the adult driver. (I'm sure that must have been illegal.) We will remember those and the thousands of other things that were our shared experiences.

To the materialist death is the worst of horrors. It is oblivion, a clanging iron door shut on existence, an absolute final end to all that you ever were, are, or ever will be. It is terror whose only mitigation is when it serves as a cessation of great pain. But to the Christian death is an end to one kind of life transitioning to another. Rather than a closing door, it is an opening door, as though passing from one room to another.

As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:55
"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?" And in Philipians 1:21 "For me, to live is Christ, but to die is gain."

But the fact that the soul is immortal is, according to Biblical truth, a two-edged sword for it teaches us that there are two distinct, indeed opposite conditions in which that immortality will be experienced. Jesus himself had a lot to say about this and was very specific about it. The wonderful thing--the beautiful thing--is that Jesus assured us that if we put our trust in Him, if we accept the amazing gift of His redemption that He offers us, we can experience that immortality fulfilling all the desires we were created with for knowledge, beauty, joy, and love--and we will do it bathed in the light and presence of our creator.

I think the specifics of that existence are beyond our capacity to comprehend. But let me say that all the imagery used in the Bible is meant to convey beauty, peace, and contentment. If you had to sum it up in one word it might be: paradise. And so, in the account of the crucifixion in Luke Jesus turned to the thief who defended him from the insults of the other thief and told him, "Today you will be with Me in paradise." That's the promise of Jesus, that's the assurance to the Christian: with God. In paradise. Forever.

My mother understood this well, in fact had a rare empirical knowledge of it. She had become a Christian as a teenager, but as a young woman had, during a surgery, a cardiac arrest and became one of the first to have the now well documented "near death experience" with all its classic hallmarks: traveling through a tunnel, emerging to a bright light, the sense of God and her loved ones waiting for her just beyond a vail of light, until her heart was started again and she was brought back. For her death held no sting, no fear, only a promise.

I want to end with this amazing and uplifting story that Mom's hospice nurse, Karen Jackson, told us the morning of her passing. Two days before she died she had one of her rare lucid moments. Karen told us that Mom's face lit up and she said, "He was here."

"Who was here, your husband?" Karen asked, because Mom often talked about Dad, who has been gone now for 25 years.

"No, God," said Mom. " Is it okay if I go with him?"
Karen said she was very moved and told Mom, "If you're ready, yes, you can go with Him."

And, of course, that's exactly what happened: God came to her, and she left with Him.