Oct 16 2010

A Simple Faith

Christianity can seem pretty complicated, especially if you try to pay attention. There are way too many voices out there clamoring for your attention, each with their own intricately nuanced theology (even if they avoid using the word). Raise your hands if you’ve ever tried to figure out the four or five points of Calvinism, the modes of baptism, the differences between the “tribs” and “mills,” predestination vs free-will, or what the heck “emerging” means. It seems like it’s much easier to grasp the principles of quantum mechanics than justification or the trinity.

Sometimes it can be quite confusing just trying to figure out if you’re really saved. Were you baptized the right way? Did you pray the right prayer? Do you really have “saving” faith? And, are you saved forever, or just until you mess up again?

Is Christianity really that complex? Do we need a degree to be able to grasp the Gospel? Is intellectualism next to Godliness? Thankfully, Jesus did not say, “Unless you become a Ph.D., you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Not once.

What Jesus did say was, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 18:3)” Earlier in Matthew, we read Jesus pray, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. (Matt. 11:25)”

I first remember these verses from listening to sermons as a young child, and they stuck with me. “Let the little children come to me. (Luke 18:16)” In a world where information was given to children on a “need to know” basis, here was Jesus putting children first, and telling the adults that children understand the Kingdom of God better than adults.

In the movie Hook, Robin Williams plays an older, wiser, Peter Pan, who has become so grown-up that he has forgotten who he is, and that the stories of his childhood he takes for fairy tales are really true. To save his children, and himself, he must “become as a little child,” remembering who he was, believing what he once believed.

In the adult world, skepticism is the key to knowledge; never accept anything at face value, question authority, look before you leap. Children haven’t yet learned to doubt; they simply understand that Jesus loves me, this I know.  I think that it’s not so much that children know something about God’s love that adults don’t. Rather, I think for children, God’s love is simply enough. When has God’s love simply been enough for us?

Certainly, it’s important to know a few things, like that Jesus is God’s son, and that he died and rose again to defeat sin and death forever. But, I’m not sure that the thief on the cross understood this — he definitely didn’t know about the resurrection — yet we know he made it to paradise. What did the woman at the well know about Jesus? Or what about all the people that Jesus healed?

The Bible is full of theology; that’s where theology comes from. Jesus taught theology, as did Paul and the other disciples. I’m all in favor of learning the Bible and theology. But if we lose what we had as children, we lose sight of the Kingdom.

Learn all you can. But let “Jesus loves me” be enough.

Questions:

  1. If you can, try to recall what you were like as a child of five or six. Thinking of the Gospel, what would have been enough for you?
  2. In growing and maturing, what have you lost?


Sep 24 2010

A little philosophical diversion: Why the Outsider Test for Faith fails

Okay, every once in a while I just have to comment on the ridiculous nature of certain atheists’ attempts to appear superior to people who don’t think “faith” is a bad word. I really should just unsubscribe to the Debunking Christianity blog, but it’s like a train wreck — as bad as it is, you just have to watch.

Today John once again promotes his outsider test for faith, “to test their own adopted religious faith from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism they use to evaluate other religious faiths.”

It’s an interesting challenge, to be sure. I don’t disagree that this proposal has some merit; too many Christians don’t understand why Christianity is a uniquely valid belief, and we should. As Peter wrote, we should be ready to give an answer for our faith (1 Pet. 3:15).

The problem is to do so without accepting without question another belief system in the process, which can potentially “stack the deck” against Christianity. As I’m certain I’ve mentioned before (I don’t have the energy or time to search the archives), it seems that many people who leave Christianity do so because they unquestionably accept certain facets of modernism.  Trying to make Christianity fit into a completely modernist worldview is like fitting the proverbial square peg into a round hole.

All of us in the western world have been raised breathing and eating modernism since we were born; we cannot really conceive of a different way of thinking, and accept without question that our worldview or paradigm is simply “the way things are.”  In reality, modernism is a grid developed through which to view the world. Prior to Descartes, it didn’t exist.  The Bible doesn’t conform to modernist thought, because it was not written by modernists.

This creates issues for doctrines like inerrancy, where writings from an ancient oriental culture are held to modernist standards; it is exactly like forcing a square peg into a round hole.

But, we in the west are all now modernists, whether we like it or not (even so-called post-modernists). What is frustrating for those of us who realize that modernism is not necessarily the way things are is that we can’t even analyze modernism without resorting to modernist methods.

The Problem With Modernism

This creates a problem, as explained by series of philosophers from Hume to Godel (and beyond). Hume began by challenging the core principle of causality. While we can predict based on past events that flipping a switch will turn on the lights, we can never guarantee that this will happen the next time, or prove that it was the switch which caused the lights to come on.

Kant explored this further, discovering that there must be limitations to reason itself, as reason must be limited by the limited categories of the mind. Skipping ahead, Godel showed mathematically that a system can only be substantiated by something outside the system. In other words, we can show that reason is limited and flawed, but we can never prove that it is not. So far, no one has been able to refute the basic challenge issued by Hume.

Modernism is essentially the worldview that says everything can be analyzed objectively and rationally, but cannot prove that it ever works. In other words, you must accept modernism and rationalism by faith.

The Failure of Loftus’ Outsider Test For Faith

The OTF fails because it requires someone to subject a non-modern belief system to a modernist analysis, which cannot be proven to have any validity whatsoever. The only thing it can do is to mislead someone into thinking that modernism is, in fact, the way it is.  Because the square peg cannot fit nicely into this imaginary round hole (a better analogy, perhaps, is trying to stuff the entire universe into a hat), people are left having to choose: a flawed faith in modernism, or Christianity.  It is, of course, a false dichotomy, but as we know, lies are the devil’s only real weapons.

But of course, Stephen Hawking, who has assured us that we no longer have any need to believe in God, also asserts that philosophy is dead. Obviously, Hawking’s reason has met its limitations.


Aug 28 2010

Even in the Darkest Moments

For children, as you may recall, the world is a very unsettling place. Parents often take the place of God for children, which is one of the reasons I believe God invented them. Parents model God to their children. Parents, though, are all too human (I’m a parent, so I am painfully aware of this fact); sometimes they let us down. However, I understood early on that while parents and other people can and will fail us, God never fails. He is perfectly trustworthy, always, even when it seems He isn’t listening.

Of course, the reality about trusting God is that you don’t need to do it — or at least it’s quite easy — when everything is going well. When we really need to trust God, it’s typically because we’re in some kind of crisis. Either we are fearful of the future, or we are fearful of the present. We find ourselves in some situation where we know we lack control, and distrust our own ability and the abilities of those around us.

The rest of the time, we probably don’t even think about trusting in God; we can take God for granted. Even when we think we are trusting God, often we are merely trusting in something we can see, and imagine that God is standing behind the scenes, pulling strings like some invisible Geppetto. For example, I can trust God for my finances because I happen to have money in the bank. If that were not the case, I’m sure I’d look at life a bit differently.

I do hate when my ability to trust in God is really tested. The first time I can recall really having my faith challenged was the day before my fourteenth birthday. We were having a terrible rainstorm, and I was in our entryway trying to keep rain from pouring under the door, when my aunt came bursting in. Within a few moments we understood that my uncle had been in a terrible car accident at an intersection about a half-mile from my house. Had it not been storming so hard, we probably could have heard the impact and could have seen the crash site (I lived on a country gravel road). Of course, had it not been raining so hard, my uncle may have seen the other car coming.

I recall sitting in our car outside the hospital emergency room, praying harder than I had ever prayed in my life that my uncle would be okay. Eventually, my parents came out to tell me he had been dead at the scene.

At that moment, I was confused. Could we or could we not trust God? Why were my prayers completely ignored? I don’t recall how I eventually worked through the issues, but I do know that my faith in God remained, even if I never understood why God didn’t save my favorite uncle.

Trust is like grace; you aren’t aware of how much you need it until you need it. The whole concept of trusting God would be moot if we didn’t have the need to trust in God. Because we live in an imperfect “world, with devils filled” that “should threaten to undo us,” as Martin Luther wrote (A Mighty Fortress), our ability to trust will be tested. This is not to say that God “tests” our faith to see whether He’ll save us or not. Rather, I think it’s like testing a parachute — you only really know it works after you’ve jumped out of the plane.

I am not claiming any kind of unique ability to trust; in fact, I’ll claim the opposite. I admittedly am a very weak and often undisciplined person. I have never been “religious” simply because I fail at it so miserably. I require loads of grace, even to get through one day. Part of the grace that I have been given is the knowledge that God is there, and that I have to trust Him, no matter what.

I am often unable to put on that strong, “man of faith” persona that some people expect from Christians. I don’t think trust requires us to be brave or strong at all. Trust by definition requires us to be weak, to recognize that we’re completely helpless without God. There are times when I am totally freaking out. I have occasional panic attacks. I have suffered from nearly every stress-related condition you can think of. However, deep down I know without a doubt that God is there, and I have no choice but to trust Him, even — or perhaps especially — in the darkest moments.

Questions:

  1. Think back to your childhood; how did you learn to trust?
  2. When has your ability to trust been really put to the test?


Aug 26 2010

Trust And Obey

In Sunday School, we used to sing this song:

When we walk with the Lord
In the light of his word,
What a glory he sheds on our way!
While we do his good will,
He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
~ Lyrics by  John H. Sammis, 1846-1919

It’s a very interesting little song. If you look at the words, you can see that it would be easy to give the song a legalistic twist so that the message becomes, “If we don’t trust God enough and fail to obey Him, He won’t abide with us.” Unfortunately, far too many of us have been subjected to this kind of bullshit, which is definitely a contradiction to Romans 8:38,39. Fortunately, no one close to me saw fit to pile this kind of legalism on me as a child. There were a few legalists in the area, but I knew enough to be able to shake off their craziness.

The message of this song, as I understood it as a child, is this: We can obey God, because we can always trust Him. If we ask for bread, He won’t give us a rock (Matt. 7:9). Obedience is not so that God will be happy with us, obedience is so that we will be happy. Our lives simply work better when we operate according to God’s direction.

This, of course, is one of the main messages of the Old Testament. It seems that nearly every story, from Adam and Eve to Noah, Abraham and Moses, repeated this theme – God could be obeyed, because He could be trusted.

There’s an old story that I’ve heard over the years about a hiker who falls off a cliff only to grab on to a lone tree branch sticking out over the abyss. The hiker begins screaming, “Help! Is anybody up there?”

After what seems like hours, a booming voice answers, “I’m here.”

“Who are you?” the hiker yells.

“I’m God.”

“Can you help me?”

“Yes. First, let go of the branch.”

The hiker takes several moments to consider this, and finally yells, “Is anybody else up there?”

God is not capricious. He doesn’t ask us to jump through hoops or make sacrifices simply for His amusement. Sometimes obedience is so we can accomplish one of the “good works” that God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10); often, however, I suspect it is simply for our own good, so that we avoid or be rescued from our own “cliff-hangers.” In other words, it’s so we can enjoy abundant, happier lives.

Being able to obey – even when it seems our only option – is sometimes difficult. However, if we know God and believe that He loves us, and that He can be trusted, it becomes easier to “let go of the branch.”

Questions:

  1. Are there circumstances in your life where God is asking you to let go of the branch?
  2. What, if anything, is preventing you from letting go?