Archive for February, 2014

Jesus was no “prophet of tolerance”

February 17, 2014
Gagnon 5

Robert Gagnon

I’m in the middle of Robert A. J. Gagnon’s academic book The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Gagnon is a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. His book, published by Abingdon in 2001, is often regarded as the most formidable biblical case against acceptance of homosexual practice. If my fellow Methodists who oppose our church’s traditional doctrine want to make a biblical argument for changing it, they will have to wrestle at some point with Gagnon’s arguments.

Gagnon rightly perceives that Christians on the other side of the issue are eager to enlist Jesus for their cause. (In the United Methodist Church, they enlist both Jesus and John Wesley—which is odd, given that Wesley explicitly opposed homosexual behavior.) They interpret Jesus’ silence on the subject as tacit endorsement: “The collective body of Jesus tradition includes no statement to the effect that same-sex intercourse is good or bad. Some combine this silence on the subject with Jesus’ embrace of sinners and emphasis on love and conclude that Jesus would not have criticized responsible and loving expressions of homosexual and lesbian conduct. At the very least, they allege, we cannot say with any reasonable degree of certitude that Jesus opposed such relationships in principle.”[1]

Unsurprisingly, Gagnon interprets Jesus’ “silence” differently. Since homosexual behavior was condemned in the strongest possible terms in first-century Judaism (and Gagnon has already laid out the Old Testament’s opposition to homosexual practice, which was confirmed as well in extrabiblical ancient Jewish writing), “it is very unlikely that Jesus would have adopted a fundamentally different stance toward same-sex intercourse, particularly given Jesus’ general approach to the Mosaic law.”[2] In other words, Jesus tended to amplify rather than diminish the demands of the law. Think of the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said… But I say to you…”

Moreover, we can infer from Jesus’ sexual ethics what he believed about homosexual behavior. When Jesus affirmed marriage as (exclusively) a lifelong union of man and woman in Mark 10:1-12, Jesus

shows no awareness, much less acceptance, of any other pattern—even though no Jew in antiquity could have been oblivious to homosexual relationships among many Gentiles. There was no need for him to comment on whether homosexual unions should be permitted and, if so, whether his stance on divorce and remarriage should apply to them too. The creation texts authorized only one type of sexual union. It would have been a foregone conclusion for him that homoerotic relationships and human-animal unions, both proscribed in Leviticus, were unacceptable. The whole point of Jesus’ stance in Mark 10:1-12 is not to broaden the Torah’s openness to alternative forms of sexuality but rather to narrow or constrain the Torah’s sexual ethic to disallow any sexual union other than a monogamous, lifelong marriage to a person of the opposite sex.[3]

Gagnon emphasizes Jesus’ uncompromising position on marriage and divorce, adultery, and lust (see Matthew 5:27-30) as evidence that

Jesus took sexual sin very seriously—in some respects more seriously than the prevailing culture in first-century Palestine. He regarded all sexual activity (thoughts and deeds) outside of lifelong marriage to one person of the opposite sex as capable of jeopardizing one’s entrance into the kingdom of God. In relationship to our own cultural context, Jesus’ views on sex represent on the whole a staunchly conservative position. Those who find in the Gospels a Jesus who is a prophet of tolerance, who forgives and accepts all (except, perhaps, the intolerant), regardless of behavioral change, have distorted the historical reality.[4]

Gagnon addresses the three stories in the Gospels that account for the “widespread conclusion that Jesus did not think sexual misconduct was a big deal”: the woman “who was a sinner in the city” who bathed Jesus’ feet with tears and anointed them (Luke 7:36-50); the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11); and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).

Regarding the woman of Luke 7:36-50, “It is inconceivable that this woman abounding in love for God and intensely grateful for forgiveness, will now continue in whatever activity earned her the notoriety of being a sinner. Luke, who more than any other New Testament author stresses repentance, certainly could not be illustrating that repentance and transformation are non-essential features of the Christian life.”[5]

Regarding the woman caught in adultery, we have misinterpreted Jesus’ words—”Neither do I condemn you”—in a strictly figurative way: that we have no right to think negatively of the woman’s actions—and besides, we’re all sinners, too.

“Casting the first stone” then takes on a whole new meaning. It no longer means a literal stone but rather any critical stance toward a person who commits adultery and remains unrepentant. Such interpretations hopelessly distort the sense of the story. Condemn here means to “execute the sentence of stoning,” and stoning refers to real stones, capital punishment, not a moral judgment about adultery… [Jesus’] parting words to her, “from now on sin no more” (8:11), demonstrate two crucial points: (1) Jesus and the Pharisees agree fully on the evaluation of adultery as sin; and (2) Jesus expects this act of incredible mercy, this making alive again of a woman who for all intents and purposes was as good as dead (as with the prodigal son), to deter the woman from ever committing adultery again.[6]

As for the woman at the well, her repentance and transformation in response to the gospel is evident in her subsequent actions.

In sum, the stories about Jesus’ encounters with women who were considered sexual sinners do not support the conclusion that Jesus was soft on sexual sin. He did allow these women to come into close contact with him. He did not fear the stigma attached to associating with such people. He advocated mercy as a means of stimulating repentance and devotion to God rather than support the death penalty. He understood that those who were forgiven the most would stand a good chance of loving the Forgiver the most… Jesus forgave sexual sins, like all other sins, in the expectation of transformed behavior. They were to go and sin no more.[7]

In case we miss this point about “going and sinning no more,” Gagnon discusses another class of sinner whose treatment by Jesus parallels his treatment of sexual sinners: tax collectors. “Few today who would argue that sexual purity was a low-priority issue for Jesus based on Jesus’ free association with sexual sinners, would also argue that Jesus was soft on issues of economic exploitation based on his free association with economic sinners.”[8]

If Gagnon is right that we can infer from Christ’s sexual ethics that he also opposed homosexual behavior—never mind St. Paul, never mind the Old Testament—would that be enough to change anyone’s mind?

Are there Christians who support changing church doctrine regarding homosexuality who would do so even if they believed—suspected? feared?—that Jesus himself opposed homosexual behavior during his earthly ministry?

That strikes me as a painfully uncomfortable amount of cognitive dissonance!

One critic in the comments section of a recent blog post accused me of being a hypocrite on the issue of homosexuality: If I’m a hardliner about homosexuality, why am I not also a hardliner about divorce and remarriage?

I guess I don’t understand why you call for homosexuals to be celibate but you don’t seem opposed to divorced people (who may have divorced for reasons other than adultery) remarrying (and assumedly having sex)… By your own logic you are allowing remarried divorced people to live in their sin if you don’t speak out against what they are doing.

Have I been inconsistent on this issue? As recently as last September, in a sermon on marriage, I said the following:

Today’s sermon is about, yes, love and marriage. In so many words, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that you can’t have one without the other. They are inseparable. Last week’s scripture touched on that theme. But Jesus goes a step further in this week’s scripture to say that not only are they inseparable, they are also permanent. Or at least they ought to be.

Obviously, when we consider the divorce rate, even among Christians, it’s clear that we are failing to take Jesus’ tough, uncompromising words as seriously as we should. There’s no way to read these words of Jesus and come to some conclusion other than divorce, in most cases, is wrong. It’s a sin.

I’m not sure I can be more explicit than that!

As for remarried people “living in sin,” I’ve never heard any Christian thinker construe “repentance” in that case to mean divorcing again. Repentance would mean acknowledging your wrongdoing, making restitution as much as possible to your ex and your children, doing everything in your power to make your current marriage work, and not divorcing again.

All sexual sin—whether related to divorce and remarriage, or adultery, or homosexual behavior, or lust—is forgivable sin on the condition that we repent. As I said in my September sermon,

We are all sinners. Church is a sinner’s club to which everyone is invited. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. And even if we haven’t sinned in one particular way, we have sinned in so many other ways. When it comes to sin, none of us has any moral high ground on which to stand. O.K.? The good news is that there’s always, always, always forgiveness for us sinners who repent, and our gracious God always gives us an opportunity to start again. If you hear me say nothing else, please hear me say that. Remember God’s grace!

1. Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 186.

2. Ibid., 187.

3. Ibid., 194.

4. Ibid., 209.

5. Ibid., 215.

6. Ibid., 216.

7. Ibid., 217.

8. Ibid., 217-8.

Sermon 02-09-14: “Hearers and Doers, Part 1”

February 13, 2014

practically_perfect

Being “doers of the Word,” rather than hearers only means that we must first trust that the God’s Word is relevant for our lives today. If we’re prepared to submit to God’s Word, we shouldn’t be surprised that doing so is often incredibly difficult. As I argue in this sermon, one of the main ways in which we fail to “do” God’s Word is in the area of witness and evangelism.

Sermon Text: James 1:19-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

Well, it wasn’t much of a Super Bowl last week, was it? The only thing interesting about it was the halftime show. In case you didn’t see it, the headliner was Bruno Mars, and by all accounts he did quite well: he was singing and dancing and playing drums and jumping up in the air and falling down and doing splits. It was very impressive. Then he was joined onstage the band the ’90s band the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And when they came out everybody was jumping up and down, like this, the whole time. What if I preached my sermon doing this for 25 minutes. That would be quit impressive! But I’m already tired, so I’ll stop!

So it was impressive that the band jumping up and down and playing their instruments. Read the rest of this entry »

“Meaning of Marriage” reflection questions, Week 1

February 13, 2014

keller_study

The following questions are to be completed before the February 23 meeting of HUMC’s “Meaning of Marriage” Bible study. They cover the book’s Introduction and Chapter 1. (Click here to download these questions as a separate .pdf file.)

Introduction

Keller describes three sources for his book on marriage: his experience being married for 37 years, his experience ministering to a congregation comprised mostly of single adults in Manhattan, and the Bible. Do you think Keller’s experience of marriage has been very different from yours? Has your own marriage had its share of fiery trials? Do you think that marriage should be easier than it is?

How has his experience ministering to singles informed his book? What mistakes do single people make when it comes to marriage?

Keller writes: “If God invented marriage, then those who enter it should make every effort to understand and submit to his purposes for it” (13). These purposes, Keller says, are found in the Bible. Having not yet read the rest of Keller’s book, do you think the Bible can be like an “owner’s manual” for marriage, as Keller describes? Do you trust the Bible when it comes to love, sex, and marriage, or is it obsolete on those subjects? Are you prepared to change your marriage if you learn through this study that it’s out-of-sync with what the Bible teaches?

Chapter 1

Why are so many people pessimistic about marriage? What beliefs and assumptions motivate a large number of couples to live together first before getting married? Does it surprise you that couples who live together before marriage are more likely to get divorced? What are characteristics of the “Me-Marriage”?

What does Keller say is the surprising good news of marriage?

Did you meet and marry your “soul mate”? Where do you see evidence in movies, books, music, and on TV that finding your soul mate is important? Do you agree with Keller that our culture’s emphasis on the soul mate is a problem? If so, what do you think is most harmful about the concept?

The “Hauerwas Rule” says, “You always marry the wrong person” (p. 37-8). What does Hauerwas mean by that? How can this rule help us in our marriages?

What is the secret of marriage, according to Paul in Ephesians 5? What can the gospel of Jesus Christ teach us about marriage? What can marriage teach us about the gospel? If you were going to put Paul’s words into practice, what changes would you have to make as a spouse?

Marriage Link

Click here to listen to Act 1 of this Valentine’s Day episode of This American Life. How does this couple’s experience reflect the challenges that Keller discusses in the book? How do you feel about Kurt Braunohler’s idea of a renewable marriage contracts? What do you make of Ira Glass’s response to this idea?

Methodists aren’t allergic to God’s sovereignty (or shouldn’t be)

February 12, 2014
I'm on the right track if Lewis agrees with me, or vice versa.

I’m on the right track if Lewis agrees with me, or vice versa.

In my previous post, I took issue with a fellow Wesleyan Christian’s low view of God’s providence. My friend disagreed “wholeheartedly” with William Lane Craig’s statement that providence “rules all of life, even down to the smallest details,” and “nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event.” If this is true, he said, God is “nothing more than a puppeteer… trampling over any conception of free will.”

I hope I offered good reasons why this isn’t true: that human free will is compatible with a high view of providence. I think my friend confused Craig’s saying that God “ruled all of life, even down to the smallest details” with saying that God determined all of life, including every detail. If that were true, as I implied in my post, then God has a strange way of “determining”: since he usually does so by letting the laws of physics run their course—”letting the universe be the universe.”

No: to me, there’s an incredibly important difference between saying that God rules over the universe (the very definition of God’s sovereignty) and God determines everything.

Notice my friend wasn’t saying that providence doesn’t exist, only that there are some things that happen outside of providence—like the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl or an occasional boulder falling and flattening someone. As I tried to show in my post, however, it seems unlikely that God could afford to be so “hands-off” about certain things while at the same time fulfilling, for example, Paul’s words about providence in Romans 8:28. There are way too many consequences associated with events such as these for God not to enfold them within his providential care of the universe.

Pastorally and personally, I find it far more reassuring, when some tragic or evil event occurs, to believe that God allowed it for a reason—even, indeed, that he willed it—than to throw up my hands and say, along with so many mainline Protestants, “It’s a mystery.”

Well, I agree it’s a mystery that we don’t usually know why God allowed something to happen. But we can be confident that God has his reasons, and God allowed it to serve his good purposes.

What’s the alternative? As Christians, we already believe that God transformed the world’s greatest evil, the cross of his Son Jesus, into the world’s greatest good. Does God not also have the power to transform lesser evils in our lives and world into something good? That seems like a strange limit to place on God’s power!

Even as I write these words, some younger version of myself is objecting: “How can this [Tragic Event X] be God’s will?”

Here’s my answer: It can be God’s will because God wants more than one thing. As my friend and frequent commenter Tom Harkins often reminds me, it’s the Law of Competing Principles: God doesn’t necessarily want some tragic or evil event to happen, all things being equal. Nevertheless, given that these are the circumstances in which the world finds itself at this moment (based in part on the free choices of human beings and God’s desire, most of the time, to “let the universe be the universe”), God clearly wants this tragic event to happen more than God wants something else to happen. If not, he would have either created a different world or intervened with a miracle.

We finite human beings may certainly desire some other alternative, but what do we know? Unlike God, we’re not omniscient. We can’t begin to imagine how much more harmful our favored alternative would be than the one that God allowed to happen. So, yes… God willed Tragic Event X to happen because letting it happen beat any other alternative. So let’s trust God: he knows what he’s doing!

Does holding this high view of providence make me a Calvinist? (I suspect that this was the unspoken fear of my fellow Methodist friend.)

Why would it? Wesley himself held a high view of providence. Please remember: We’re not Wesleyans because we don’t believe in God’s sovereignty, only that this sovereignty doesn’t preclude a human being’s free choice—enabled as it is by the Holy Spirit—to accept or reject God’s gift of salvation. There’s only a very narrow kind of freedom at stake in the question, and if it weren’t for God’s prevenient grace, even that freedom wouldn’t exist. We Wesleyan-Arminians would all be nodding in agreement with our Calvinist brethren when they talk about the “T” of TULIP and five-point Calvinism. Apart from prevenient grace, Wesleyans agree that human beings are all “totally depraved,” unable to do anything to save ourselves.

My thinking on this topic, reflected in these two posts, has been greatly informed by C.S. Lewis’s appendix “On Special Providence” in his book Miracles. Like me, Lewis rejects the idea that some events are providential while others aren’t (which my friend Geoff was seemingly saying). Among other things, Lewis writes:

Many pious people… speak of certain events as being ‘providential’ or ‘special providences’ without meaning that they are miraculous. This generally implies a belief that, quite apart from miracles, some events are providential in a sense in which some others are not. Thus some people thought that the weather which enabled us to bring off so much of our army at Dunkirk was ‘providential’ in some way in which weather as a whole is not providential. The Christian doctrine that some events, though not miracles, are yet answers to prayer, would seem at first to imply this.

I find it very difficult to conceive an intermediate class of events which are neither miraculous nor merely ‘ordinary’. Either the weather at Dunkirk was or was not that which the previous history of the universe, by its own character, would inevitably produce. If it was, then how is it ‘specially’ providential? If it was not, then it was a miracle.[1]

So, Lewis says, we face a choice: abandon providence altogether, and with it a belief that God answers prayer, or figure out how all events are providential. So, Lewis writes,

it follows that all events are equally providential. If God directs the course of events at all then he directs the movement of every atom at every moment; ‘not one sparrow falls to the ground’ without that direction. The ‘naturalness’ of natural events does not consist in being somehow outside God’s providence. It consists in their being interlocked with one another inside a common space-time in accordance with the fixed pattern of the ‘laws.’[2]

It’s then Lewis’s burden to show, in greater detail than I’ve gone into, how God can direct without determining, and without ever abrogating human free will or the efficacy of prayer.

In a nutshell, Lewis argues, since God stands outside of time and knows all the prayers that human beings would offer under given circumstances—in what Lewis calls the “eternal Now”—God is creating a world that has built into it as many of these answers to prayer as will serve God’s good purposes.

I especially like this:

When the event you prayed for occurs your prayer has always contributed to it. When the opposite event occurs your prayer has never been ignored; it has been considered and refused, for your ultimate good and the good of the whole universe. (For example, because it is better for you and for everyone else in the long run that other people, including wicked ones, should exercise free will than that you should be protected from cruelty or treachery by turning the human race into automata.)[3]

1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 283-4.

2. Ibid., 284

3. Ibid., 294.

Nothing happens outside of God’s providence

February 11, 2014

In the comments section of my provocatively titled blog post a couple of weeks ago, “God cares who wins the Super Bowl,” my friend and fellow Methodist Geoff disagreed with me—at least in part. He wrote:

On the other hand, I whole-heartedly disagree with William Craig’s idea of providence as that which “rules all of life, even down to the smallest details. Nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event.” This, in my mind and reasoning, goes the opposite direction of deism, reducing God to nothing more than puppeteer and trampling over any conception of free will (something as a Arminian-Wesleyan I have trouble swallowing). If this is pushed to the radical extreme, it gets into “God caused tragedy X because Y” territory.

I understand where he’s coming from: we Wesleyans are so keen to defend human free will against all deterministic threats that we tend to mistake even good things—like the biblical doctrine of God’s providence—for such threats. And we react. It’s as if we have a spiritual autoimmune disorder. (Sorry, I watched way too much House.)

Geoff writes: “If this is pushed to the radical extreme, it gets into ‘God caused tragedy X because Y’ territory.” If you’ve read any of my reflections on Tim Keller’s latest book, you may have noticed that I’ve emphasized two points: First, there’s an important difference between God’s allowing something to happen and causing something to happen. He allows human beings to make free choices, for example, even when those choices cause great harm.

What’s God’s alternative? A world without human free will is a world in which love is impossible. God wanted his image-bearers to love, even though the price of love was sin and evil. To God’s infinite credit—praise God!—he paid this price in full with his own life on the cross.

I’ve also said that while the difference between “causing” and “allowing” is important, it doesn’t let God off the hook for evil. Every time something evil happens in our world, God chooses to allow it to happen. God could always intervene to stop it. In fact, at any moment in which an evil event is happening, there are likely people praying that God would intervene to stop it, and he doesn’t.

What are we to make of God’s decision not to intervene?

And here is the second point I’ve emphasized throughout my posts on Keller’s book: Unless we believe that God makes arbitrary decisions, we must believe that God has good reasons for allowing some tragic or evil event to occur, even if we have no idea what those reasons are. Moreover, it stands to reason that we can’t know all or most or even a tiny fraction of the reasons. Remember Keller’s analogy using the “butterfly effect”?

With this in mind, I don’t find the following illustration from Geoff persuasive:

So, theoretical case. Rain waters spend centuries beating against a cliff face, loosing a boulder through erosion. Gravity pulls on that boulder over time, and eventually the combination of the two sends the boulder plummeting towards the earth and strikes a person, who dies. Total random accident from a human perspective. Now, the view of providence above says that God caused or allowed this to happen because of reasons we don’t know. Omniscience says God would know that rock would fall and kill that person. Ominpotence suggests God could have just stopped that rock in midair if God wanted to. What if God’s reason for not stopping the rock is that it fell simply because of the laws of physics that God set up in the first place? In other words, God’s purpose in that moment is for the universe to be the universe.

My first objection to Geoff’s illustration has to do with the butterfly effect. If God is going to be “hands-off” about one boulder falling on someone, is God also going to be hands-off about the many consequences of this event? As I wrote in my reply back to him,

That person who gets struck by the boulder doesn’t get struck by the boulder in a vacuum. Like the famous butterfly effect, who can imagine (except God) the nearly infinite sequence of cause and effect this one event triggers? It’s so much more than God letting one boulder fall. Even limiting the scope of this thought experiment to the effects it has on the lives of this person’s immediate family and friends, for example, imagine how significant this one person’s death might be. When does God’s providential care kick in? At what point does God intervene to do something other than merely let the laws of physics run their course?

In other words, if God has any providential role in our world, it’s hard to see how he can let even one event—like a boulder falling on someone’s head—occur outside of his providence.

One problem with people like John Piper or Pat Robertson telling the world why God allowed some horrible event to happen is not only that it’s pastorally unhelpful in that moment, it also shows a lack of humility: How can we possibly know why God allowed this or that to happen—why he granted this petition but not that one? We see through a glass darkly. Isn’t it enough, instead, to simply assert, when the time is right, that God is in control, that he is enfolding even tragic or evil events into his good purposes, and that he is always transforming tragedy and evil into good.

Given that God transformed the greatest evil imaginable—the crucifixion of his Son—into the greatest good imaginable—the redemption of this sinful world—no lesser evil in our world is any match for God.

My second problem with Geoff’s illustration is that it overlooks the fact that God can have more than one purpose in allowing that boulder to fall. Yes, by all means, one of God’s purposes in that moment is to let “the universe be the universe”—to let the laws of physics run their course. God usually “lets the universe be the universe,” doesn’t he? Otherwise, miracles would happen all the time! “Letting the universe be the universe” says nothing about God’s providence.

For example, God could have fashioned the world in such a way that an unnoticed pebble in the man’s path would have tripped him up before he reached the spot at which the boulder hit the ground, thus saving him from being crushed. In either case, whether the man lived or died, God would be “letting the universe be the universe,” all the while respecting the man’s free will, except in one case the man’s life would be saved. Saving his life would be no miracle—the laws of physics weren’t countermanded, after all—yet we can say that God’s providence saved it.

But make no mistake: even if the man were crushed, his death would not happen outside of God’s providence—even though God didn’t directly cause that boulder to fall; God was merely “letting the universe be the universe.” Nevertheless, because of providence, the man’s death would serve God’s good purposes.

As C.S. Lewis argues in an appendix of his book Miracles, God’s providence is at work in every event. (I’ll have to say more about Lewis’s argument in a later post.)

So, getting back to my original point: the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl because of God’s providence. And the Denver Broncos lost because of providence.

Sermon 02-02-14: “Sin and Temptation”

February 8, 2014

practically_perfect

In Part 2 of “Practically Perfect,” our sermon series in James, I talk about “tests” again—except this time about those tests that we fail. The Bible calls these failures sin. It might seem overly negative, and certainly out of step with our culture, to focus on sin. But if we don’t first hear the “bad news” about sin, we won’t be able to comprehend the good news of Jesus Christ, who came to save us from our sins!

Sermon Text: James 1:9-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

About once a month, I have recurring nightmares that have to do with being back in high school or college. These kinds of dreams are very common. Maybe you’ve had them too. One of mine goes something like this: I’m back in college. I signed up for a class at the beginning of the semester that I had no interest in whatsoever. And the truth is, I blew off the class all semester long. I haven’t attended the lectures. And I haven’t done any of the homework. I have no idea what’s going on in the class. And suddenly here it is, the end of the semester: it’s time to take the final exam. And I’m completely unprepared. So much so, in fact, that I don’t even remember what lecture hall or classroom the class meets in.

It’s at this point that I wake up and breathe a sigh of relief. Because if I didn’t wake up, I would surely fail the test.

In this week’s scripture, James continues to talk about tests that we face—and he talks about tests that we fail, and why we fail them. Read the rest of this entry »

Evangelism for everyone!

February 7, 2014

conspiracyofkindness-CoverYears ago I had a boss, a district superintendent, who recommended that I read a book on evangelism called Conspiracy of Kindness, by Steve Sjogren. It’s “old” in Christian book circles—published in 1993, updated in 2003. Unfortunately, I didn’t read it back then. I wish I had!

Today, I’m sure there are many more fashionable books on the subject—I’ve read at least a few of them! But none of them has blown me away like this one.

Like most books on evangelism, Conspiracy of Kindness makes me feel guilty. If you’re a Christian who grew up in an evangelical church like me (Southern Baptist, in my case) you probably know that feeling of guilt. You know you’re supposed to share your faith, or share the love of Jesus Christ, or invite someone to church, or do something related to witnessing. And chances are you don’t feel like you do it often or well enough.

If you’re like me, witnessing usually feels embarrassing, awkward, risky. You fear rejection. (And I’m writing as someone who was even lousy at dating because I was afraid to ask girls out!) So you mostly don’t witness—at least intentionally. You hope some of that good old “lifestyle evangelism” seeps through your pores, but you’re not sure.

So, assuming you haven’t numbed your conscience yet through your unfaithfulness to the Great Commission, you probably feel guilty about it.

While I agree with the cliché often attributed to St. Francis (“Always remember to preach the gospel. And if necessary, use words.”), even preaching the gospel in this way—through actions more than words—should be a deliberate act, at least until doing it becomes second nature. We should pray to do it, plan to do it, prepare to do it, expect to do it.

Witnessing will still happen by accident, of course. But I’ve found that it doesn’t happen very often that way. Isn’t that your experience?

And herein lies the strength of Conspiracy of Kindness: It makes evangelism so easy I think even could do it!

Here is Sjogren’s approach: take a small group of church members, go outside the church and into the community, and perform small, free, no-strings-attached acts of kindness for people.

He gives dozens of examples of this type of service: giving out soft drinks to passersby on hot summer days; washing windshields in shopping mall parking lots; cleaning toilets at local retail establishments; washing cars; raking yards; handing out bottles of Gatorade to cyclists and joggers at the local park. It could be any number of other things—be creative! But it’s all free of charge. No donations accepted.

Yes, people will be suspicious. Yes, they might think you’re crazy at first. When they ask, as they inevitably will, “Why are you doing this?” His team’s response is, “We’re doing this free service project as a practical way to show God’s love.”

And that’s all the talking, and all the interaction, that’s required.

Of course, sometimes the act of kindness will lead to something more: According to Sjogren, some people begin weeping when offered an act of kindness. Some people ask for prayer. And, yes, sometimes people will even want to pray to receive Christ.

But Sjogren emphasizes that we don’t worry about the results. We leave that up to the Holy Spirit. He’s the one in charge.

I have an idea that this approach to evangelism will become a part of what we do at Hampton UMC. I imagine I’ll even be referring to Sjogren’s book in my upcoming sermons on the Letter of James.

Olympic champion talks about beating cancer

February 7, 2014

scott_hamilton

 

Just in time for the Winter Olympics, champion skater Scott Hamilton offers this testimony about how his Christian faith enabled him to cope with a pituitary brain tumor.

Debating God and science

February 6, 2014

In the wake of Tuesday night’s debate between Bill Nye “the Science Guy” and young-earth creationist Ken Ham, I noticed many of my clergy colleagues on social media linked to our United Methodist Church’s position on science and faith:

¶ 160 F) Science and Technology —We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology. We recognize medical, technical, and scientific technologies as legitimate uses of God’s natural world when such use enhances human life and enables all of God’s children to develop their God-given creative potential without violating our ethical convictions about the relationship of humanity to the natural world. We reexamine our ethical convictions as our understanding of the natural world increases. We find that as science expands human understanding of the natural world, our understanding of the mysteries of God’s creation and word are enhanced.

In acknowledging the important roles of science and technology, however, we also believe that theological understandings of human experience are crucial to a full understanding of the place of humanity in the universe. Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible. We therefore encourage dialogue between the scientific and theological communities and seek the kind of participation that will enable humanity to sustain life on earth and, by God’s grace, increase the quality of our common lives together.

While I agree with much of this statement in principle, in practice “science,” as popularly understood and debated, often makes claims that far exceed its authority. I suspect that every time a new Gallup survey shows that nearly half of Americans don’t believe in evolution, Americans are rightly reacting against these claims. Heck, I don’t believe in evolution if one consequence of doing so means accepting the philosophical materialism that says, in so many words, “See… we don’t need God to explain anything that happens in the natural world.”

Many of us mainline Protestants have swallowed this lie—that any appeal to God for something so prosaic as explanations is resorting to the dreaded “God of the gaps.” Don’t we Christians know that science is rapidly filling those gaps, and once science has figured everything out, what room will be left for faith? So liberal Christians—going all the way back to the “father of liberal Christianity,” Friedrich Schleiermacher—insulate themselves from this fearful prospect by saying, “God is over here in this non-overlapping compartment, science is over there in that non-overlapping compartment—now can’t we all just get along?”

Needless to say, I believe we’ve ceded way too much ground to science.

First, it’s understandable that science has been successful in describing our natural world without resorting to God, because science rules out God before it begins its work. William Lane Craig explains this nicely in this podcast on creation and evolution:

Science seeks only natural causes of the phenomena in the world. It is part of the methodology of science to simply look for natural causes of the phenomena that it investigates. Therefore, supernatural explanations of phenomena would simply be methodologically excluded from the pool of live explanatory options. So, if we had a body of empirical data to be explained, the natural scientist will assemble a pool of live explanatory options to choose from and methodologically he would include in this pool of live explanatory options only hypotheses that are appealing to purely natural causes. That is not to say that there are not non-natural or supernatural entities that exist that might provide other sorts of explanations but simply that methodologically these don’t enter into the project of science. The project of science is to find the best natural explanation of the phenomena that it seeks to explain. So these supernaturalistic hypotheses wouldn’t even come into consideration – they are not even in the pool of live explanatory options. This would hold for the Christian scientist as well. The Christian scientist must be methodologically restricted to naturalistic explanations.

There is an important difference, Craig argues, between this “methodological naturalism,” which constrains scientific inquiry to consider only natural causes, and “epistemological naturalism,” which says natural causes are all there are. By all means, as the Methodist position says, scientific descriptions of the universe, constrained as they are by methodological naturalism, aren’t in conflict with theology. I hasten to add, however, that scientific descriptions, by their nature, will always be inadequate to describe reality.

Craig says that many scientists justify their epistemological naturalism by appealing to science’s “success” at describing reality. In other words, as Hawking and Dawkins have both said, science is so good at describing reality that we don’t need to resort to anything else—be it philosophy or theology.

About this, Craig writes:

What I would say to that is that that goes no distance whatsoever in showing that science is the only source of knowledge and truth. What it does is show that natural science is the best way of discovering truth about the physical world. It is what will give us knowledge of the physical world. But to say that, therefore, there are no ethical truths, there are no aesthetic truths, there are no mathematical or logical truths, and there are no metaphysical truths (like that the past has existed longer than 5 minutes or that the external world is real) would be, I think, an overly restricted theory of truth and knowledge. We can know things even though they can’t be scientifically proven. And, indeed, this kind of epistemological naturalism would actually undermine science itself because science is, itself, permeated by assumptions that cannot be scientifically proven. So if you adopt this view, it would in fact undermine the very project of science.

Craig describes the presumptuousness of epistemological naturalism using this nice analogy:

The philosopher Ed Feser gives a wonderful analogy.[7] He says imagine you have a metal detector which is so calibrated that it will detect anything metal – it is so infallible that it is the best metal detector you could find. He asks, “Would that prove that there are no non-metallic objects? That the only things that exists are metallic things?” Well, obviously not. And that is exactly the same error that the epistemological naturalist is making. Because his metal detector, so to speak, is so good and so efficient at discovering empirical physical truth he concludes there is no other kind of truth and that there is no other source of knowledge. That is as silly as the person who thinks the metal detector would show there are no non-metallic objects. That would be epistemological naturalism.

Besides—and this is my second point—science doesn’t come close to “filling the gaps” for which supposedly weak-minded Christians appeal to God. This was a central theme of that David Berlinski book I blogged about: scientists, along with everyone else, ought to be very humble about what we think we know about our universe. Contrary to popular belief, we simply don’t know much.

One gap that science can’t explain, for example, is why the universe appears finely tuned to support life. As Craig explains in this podcast:

Earlier in discussing the fine-tuning of the universe, we saw that in order for life to exist anywhere in the universe there has to be these exquisitely finely tuned constants and quantities present in the Big Bang as initial conditions. These initial conditions are required for the existence and evolution of life anywhere in the cosmos. In the absence of the fine-tuning of these initial conditions, there would not even be galaxies, there wouldn’t be stars, there wouldn’t be planets where life could evolve and exist!

Any explanation for fine tuning that people like Stephen Hawking put forward in the name of science is metaphysical—which is beyond the realm of science to know. As our Methodist statement says, “We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues.”

As Craig argues, however, even a finely tuned universe necessary to support life—however improbable that is—isn’t sufficient for explaining life.

These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the existence and evolution of life. In order for life to originate somewhere in the universe, other conditions have to be in place and these also turn out to be astronomically improbable.

If you are like me, you were probably taught in high school or in grade school that the way that life originated on earth is through chemical interactions in the so-called “primordial soup.” Chance chemical reactions in the early oceans, perhaps fueled by lightning strikes, originated living organisms. Back in the 1950s, a graduate student named Stanley Miller was able to synthesize amino acids in the laboratory by passing electric sparks through a methane gas in one of his experimental apparatuses in the laboratory. He was able to obtain amino acids by electrical charges passed through the methane gas. Now, amino acids aren’t alive but proteins are made out of amino acids and proteins are found in living things and so the hope was that somehow the origin of life might be explained on the basis of these chemical reactions. You might be saying to yourself that that seems like a pretty big extrapolation – he was able to get amino acids, amino acids make up proteins, proteins are found in living things, therefore living things can be explained through chemical evolution. I would agree with you – I think that is a pretty big extrapolation and is really something that goes so far beyond the evidence as to be a non sequitur. But, nevertheless, that is what most of us were taught, right? In the primordial soup that covered the earth, in the warm oceans or else perhaps in pools that were isolated, through lightning strikes and chemical reactions, somehow primitive life was birthed and formed.

What you may not know is that all of these old chemical origin of life scenarios have broken down and are now widely rejected by the scientific community.

The bottom line is, “science,” as it’s popularly understood, overpromises and under-delivers. While science is good at explaining what it can explain, that leaves out way too much reality. Re-insert God into the mix, and things make much more sense.

Around the blogosphere

February 4, 2014

Or at least the small corner of which I happen to read…

satans_downfallLast year, Roger Olson’s writing on the subject of Satan and spiritual warfare helped convince me that I had shirked my pastoral responsibility to educate and warn people about the dangers we face from the principalities and powers. In earlier posts, he recommended Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, which I’d also recommend to anyone. It’s out of print, but I bought a used copy through Amazon.

This week, Olson wrote another post on the topic, “Where in the Devil is Satan (in Modern Theology)?” He writes:

Few evangelicals will outrightly deny the reality of a personal power of evil called Satan or the devil. When you ask people many say “Oh, I read The Screwtape Lettersyears ago.” But you get the sense they (average  North American evangelicals) haven’t given the subject any thought since then (if even then). (I suspect many people read Lewis’s classic much as they read his fiction.)

I’ll freely admit my own guilt and complicity in this neglect. I grew up on a form of evangelical life that made Satan very prominent and lived in fear of him and his power—even though pastors, evangelists and Sunday School teachers often said “Greater is he that is in you….” I just wasn’t so sure about that because of how much they talked about the devil and his power—sometimes more than they talked about Jesus!…

I suspect many evangelicals in North America have simply over reacted to the over emphasis on Satan and demons in certain circles around the fringes of evangelicalism. And, really, the main reason I’m talking about this is to raise a question about that—our tendency to over react to extremes to the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater…

In order to avoid dualism, many intellectual Christians have abandoned Satan altogether or absorbed Satan into God (or at least God’s will and plan). I, too, want to avoid dualism, but I don’t know how or why Satan is real and powerful and “the prince of this world.” All I can say with confidence is that he is a conquered enemy of God who is still causing a great deal of chaos. Why God allows it, I don’t know. That’s God’s business. That he will eventually take away all of Satan’s power and free us from his influence lies at the heart of biblical hope.

keller_bookScot McKnight’s blog includes an interview with Tim Keller about his most recent masterpiece, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. If I haven’t convinced you to read this book by now, you’ll never be convinced.

Here, Keller discusses one of the book’s prominent themes.

Moore: It is common for people to get tripped up by the conundrum about the impossibility of God being both all-loving and all-powerful.  He may be one of the two, but He can’t possibly be both or there would be no suffering.  Not surprisingly, God’s wisdom, which changes everything, is always left out of the supposed dilemma.

How can we grow in our confidence of God’s wisdom when we are suffering?

Keller: There are two ways to grow in confidence in God’s wisdom.  The first may sound strange—we need to be less confident of our own wisdom.  This may be very hard for modern people.

Throughout history, people struggled with suffering and asked God ‘why?’ all the way back to Job.  But virtually no one on record thought suffering and evil made God’s existence impossible until the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  Why the change? By the mid-18th century the earliest forms of secularism had begun to develop.  In the past it was assumed that if God was infinite and ineffable then his ways would have to be beyond our comprehension.  So evil that was inexplicable to us—made perfect sense.  If there was a God who created all things—of course he would be infinitely wiser than we are and we could never have the insight to call him on the carpet for how things are going in the world.  But the modern belief was that all truth could be discovered by human reason.  As we got larger in our own eyes and more sure that we understood how the universe worked, and how history should go, the problem of evil became so intolerable.

But this was all to a great degree because of our own hubris.  If we can recapture that bigger view of God and the more realistic view of our own limitations, it would be easier to trust God’s wisdom.

The other way, of course, is to look at the Cross.  There we see something that, to the onlookers, appeared to be a defeat.  God had abandoned the best hope of the world. How could God bring anything good out of that?  But we have the vantage point such that we can get at least a glimpse of the infinite wisdom of the Cross.  If God can work his wisdom in suffering like he did in Jesus’ life—he can do it in ours as well.

Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, pointed his readers to this post by Andrew Comiskey on the problem of gay marriage:

It shows no dignity to our fellow humanity to ‘high five’ bad moral decisions. We can still love others while disagreeing with their choices. In fact, disagreeing with ‘gay marriage’ is much more costly today than blessing it. Young people who applaud gay weddings are not lampooned as haters and bigots. Rather, they are extolled as loving and tolerant, on the ‘right side of history.’

The core issue, however, is not ‘gay marriage.’ What has been lost in this debate is the truth that something is wrong with homosexuality. We no longer understand moral disorder in the context of same-sex attraction. Power brokers of all sorts have successfully brainwashed a generation into believing that being gay is natural and good, not disordered in the least.

Of course, our gut reaction is a bit different. Most wonder if an intense longing for one’s own gender isn’t a little off, and if the ‘wedding’ of same-gender friends is really a marriage at all. Still we stifle that hunch for the sake of being ‘nice’ to gay people. Perhaps it is not so much that we are loving as we are cowardly.

Finally, on the same subject, I listened to last Sunday’s sermon by fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli, who attempts to analyze homosexuality from a Wesleyan Quadrilateral perspective. Micheli supports changing our church’s traditional stance. I credit him for talking about the issue (as part of a sermon series he’s been preaching on marriage). Nevertheless, while he purports to stand above the fray in this sermon, the game is rigged. Here was my initial comment that I posted on his blog, to which he replied. (Click on image to expand.)

micheli2

To which I wrote the following:

“Fairly fair”? By your score, it was 3.5 to 0.5 against the traditional position. That’s a laugh. You wrote as if the only reason we have our traditional position is because of a few stray verses here and there, mostly in Leviticus (as if just because it’s in Leviticus it no longer applies). Isn’t the Great Commandment also in Leviticus? Is that no longer binding?

What about Genesis 2 and Paul’s echo of that in Romans 1? What about Jesus’ affirmation of marriage between man and woman in Matthew 19? Reason itself seems to affirm that given complementary nature of our sex organs, God intends for sex to be a gift shared between man and woman only. (And before you bring it up, anal sex is physiologically harmful.)

It’s unlikely (and science certainly doesn’t prove) that people are “born gay,” but what of it? People are born with all sorts of congenital illnesses, many of which are fatal. You hardly prove your point that because people are born a certain way, that’s the way God intends.

Regardless, you don’t contend with the New Testament’s affirmation of celibacy as a viable and blessed way to live.

You’ve surely heard or read people like N.T. Wright demolish the idea that “Paul couldn’t have imagined lifelong, monogamous homosexual relationships.” In fact, they existed in Paul’s day, philosophers wrote about them, and Paul was a smart guy.

But not just Paul… What about every other Christian thinker until about 1971? See, that’s the weight of tradition that you haven’t contended with. Why did all these otherwise smart, compassionate Christian saints fail to imagine that homosexuals could live together in lifelong, monogamous relationships? Why did none of them question the biblical teaching?

And would you really have us believe that prior to the 20th century, no one imagined that some people had a relatively fixed same-sex sexual orientation—even if they didn’t use the word “homosexual”? That seems incomprehensible to me.

You know that arguments from silence (“Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.”) are spurious. First, we have no idea what Jesus did or didn’t say about it. It’s not recorded in the Gospels. Second, given that we know for sure that first-century Judaism outlawed homosexual behavior, we could as easily interpret Jesus’ “silence” as a tacit endorsement of the status quo.

You also know that while Jesus loved and accepted the marginalized, he didn’t do so without the demand for repentance of sin.

You talk a lot about love, but you never concede that if homosexual behavior is a sin, it would be unloving not to warn people against it—to recommend change (which is possible in many cases, especially with lesbians) or celibacy.

All that to say, you haven’t been close to “fairly fair.”

In case you’re not Methodist, the Quadrilateral says that scripture is our primary authority guiding Christian belief and practice. We properly read and understand scripture through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.

By the way, Wesley himself never talked about a Quadrilateral. Some Wesleyan scholars in the 20th century argued that it was implicit in the way he did theology. Seems reasonable enough, although it doesn’t say all that much, and it’s nothing unique to Methodism: the Anglican tradition of which Wesley was a part speaks of a trilateral source of authority, leaving out experience.

Regardless, contrary to the way Micheli speaks of it, the Quadrilateral is not a four-legged stool (which will always wobble). It’s a three-legged stool. The “seat” is scripture, which is supported by these other things. So, even if Micheli made a slam-dunk case using tradition, reason, and experience (which he didn’t), none of these three sources of authority get a veto over the Bible.