Monday, July 23, 2007

Notes for the Simply Christian Sunday School Class on Justice & Spirituality, God, and Israel

In case anyone was interested, I decided to post my notes on two recent adult Sunday School classes I led at FBC. We are going through the 10 week Sunday School course based on N. T. Wright's book Simply Christian (a great book, and a great course - highly recommended!). I actually did three sessions - one on Justice & Spirituality two weeks ago for one class and two (on God and Israel respectively) which were squeezed into a single morning yesterday. So here you are (hopefully it's understandable - they're just notes after all, though lightly edited to take time schedules and such off of them):

Simply Christian Session 2: Justice & Spirituality

* Discussion 1: What does Jesus have to do with justice, injustice, and “setting the world to rights”? Is a passion for justice integral to the Christian life? Why or why not? How, if at all, does it relate to the biblical commandment to forgive even one’s enemies?

* Discussion 2: Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love one’s neighbor. In the Old Testament God’s heart for the latter is revealed in his passion for mercy and justice. This passion for justice is revealed especially in God’s heart for the poor, minorities, the weak, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, widows, orphans, aliens and indeed all who are vulnerable or not so well off. How well has today’s evangelical church reflected God’s passion and priorities in its own? Why? How could we do better?

Puzzle: Why is there this universal recognition of and thirst for justice even when we can’t get it, either in society or in ourselves?
Christian answer: God acts justly and is passionate for justice, and we were made in his image.

Micah 6:8

Christianity teaches that this passion for justice, and God’s plan to achieve it, finds its embodiment in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the focal point of God’s call for justice within us, his passion for it and plan to achieve it. Jesus is God’s ultimate answer to injustice by taking all the injustice of the world on himself and therefore all the justice of God against that injustice. And when he completes God’s plan, all will be set aright and injustice will be done away with forever.
How does this affect a Christian’s life? Heroes of the faith passionate for justice precisely because they were Christian. Because Christ is at the center of God’s passion for justice and his solution to injustice and we are in Christ, we too find ourselves called to be agents of justice and conduits for God’s passion for it. When we pursue justice, we are more fully implementing the image of God in which we are made and more fully being conformed to the likeness of God’s Son.

Proverbs 29:7, Amos 5:21-24

What’s the scope of this concern for justice? When we are passionate for justice, we no longer care only for ourselves, our family, our nation, people like us, or even the church. Justice calls us not to be insular: not ‘just us’. This is something the evangelical church is still in the process of trying to get things right. Zechariah 7:9-10. We are to seek justice and mercy for non-Christians, the disadvantaged, and all who are not like us or who do not like us or who we ourselves do not like.

What can we do? Look up IJM, get involved in petitioning leaders about cases of injustice around the world, get involved with World Vision or other similar groups, be a foster parent, environment, above all pray.

* Discussion 3: Look at the list below of the top sellers in Spirituality on Amazon. Considering this list and the success of books like The Da Vinci Code, other “alternative” pictures of Jesus and his message, and stuff like the Gospel of Judas, what can you conclude about our culture’s relationship with spirituality?

The Secret
God Is Not Great
The God Delusion
The Freedom Writers Diary
Left to Tell
The Secret (CD Set)
Law of Attraction: The Secret of Attracting More of What You Want and Less of What You Don’t
Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
The Four Agreements (A Toltec Wisdom Book)

Right People, Right Place, Right Plan
Blue Like Jazz
Ask and It is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Dreams
The Intention Experiment: Using Your Thought to Change Your Life and the World
Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith

The Success Principle
Your Best Life Now

The Law of Attraction: Teachings of Abraham
Battle of the Mind

The Law of Attraction

The Laws of Thinking: 10 Secrets to Using the Divine Power of Your Mind to Manifest Prosperity
El Secreto (The Secret in Spanish)
~ Other notable best-sellers from the Religion & Spirituality section: Witness to Roswell: The 60-Year Cover-Up; Zero Limits: The Secret Hawaiian System for Wealth, Health, Peace, and More; Atheist Universe

* Discussion 4: How would a religion that truly fulfills our needs for spirituality differ from one that was designed to make a maximum amount of money, converts, and popularity? Are what people want in a religion and what they need the same thing?

Spirituality: that awareness that all humans have that they are made for a relationship with someone or something much bigger, much greater, than anything we humans can know by our own will.

Puzzle: Why is there this universal hunger for spirituality?
Christian answer: We are made by God for a relationship with him, both individually and together.

Ecclesiastes 3:11

Spirituality is very popular now, but people don’t like authority or organized religion and want to, individualistically, create their own spiritual religion without the supposed constraints of Christianity or other such traditions. They want it to meet their wants and needs and to do so now. They are so thirsty for spirituality and so hardened against Christianity that they are willing to drink from polluted spiritual waters.

Chesterton: When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.

Romans 1:21-23

Christian spirituality is very different.
It is rooted in spontaneity, yes, but tradition as well. A personal, individually crafted thing but one that also answers to and is involved with both a community and a history. One that involves solitary contemplation and prayer but also a life of service to the Church and the world. It is intensely practical pursuit, not an idle practice of staring at your navel and thinking good thoughts while you hum a hymn or two. Christian spirituality involves relationship both with God and the community of saints throughout history – today’s private spiritual practices without authority or constraint miss out on all of these dimensions of spiritual richness.

The heart of Christian spirituality is in the foundation of our relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. One text that I think captures the dynamic at the heart of this spirituality is Romans 8.

Simply Christian
Sessions 4&5: God, Israel

* Discussion: What do you think of when you hear the word “heaven”? How is it the same or different from the three options mentioned? What might be some of the practical implications of these differences?

Heaven and Earth: Three Options
Option One: Heaven = Earth (and so God = Creation)
Option Two: Heaven and Earth fully distinct and completely separate (and so God is distant)
Option Three: Heaven and Earth distinct but overlapping and interlocking

Though Option One has become popular in some churches, Option Two is the most influential of the non-biblical options on people today who call themselves Christians. Option Two unfortunately has had a profound influence on Western Christianity and its influence can be seen in many evangelical churches and sermons.

Salvation for Option Two is escape to another realm, heaven, where one’s immaterial soul goes to after death and where it will dwell away from the material creation and in communion with God forever. Sound familiar? This is a close relative to the old Gnostic heresy, which involved a denial of the basic goodness of creation and views God’s original creation as something that God has or will ultimately abandon as unredeemed or unredeemable. The motto: "The earth is not our home".

In Option Three, God is not a distant God who abandons his creation. Heaven is not a wholly separate realm but one which overlaps with earth. And in the biblical story, these two will be joined together permanently when Christ returns. So salvation ultimately doesn’t mean to live in a disembodied existence away from the earth, but in the end means to be resurrected and live with God forever on the earth. In option three, we will literally and completely have heaven on earth and with Christ this inbreaking of heaven onto earth has already begun – Christ himself is the ultimate overlap and interlocking between heaven and earth and so now we too can be places where heaven and earth meet and where God is present in a living and active way in his Creation. Ephesians 1:3 Ephesians 2:6 “Being in heaven” or “going to heaven” isn’t something exclusively for those who die, but in a very real and important sense on the biblical picture we are already in heaven, though not yet completely or fully – our heavenly, eternal life and communion with God has already begun. What our job is is to live and think this important truth and to constantly remind ourselves of it – salvation is future but it’s importantly present as well.

Salvation on the biblical option involves renewal of and in creation and enjoyment of heaven on earth, not the abandonment of creation and enjoyment of heaven away from the earth. Salvation is about redemption, not escape!


* Discussion: Consider the following two pictures of Jesus:
1) Jesus came with a message about love and timeless moral truths. The Jewish trappings of what he said are secondary and not necessary to consider for interpreting his universal message.
2) Jesus came with a message directed to the very specific situation of first century Jews and their place in God’s timeline. The Jewish trappings of what he said are essential to it and necessary to consider for interpreting his particular message.
Which picture best captures the Jesus of the Bible? Why? How do these two pictures relate to the three options about God and heaven from the previous session on God?

The biblical story is one of fall/slavery/exile/curse and creation/exodus/return/restoration. These are interwoven throughout Scripture and each member of one of the two categories is spoken of using imagery and terms drawn from others in that same category.
For example, Exodus = Beginning of New Creation,
Return = New Exodus = New Creation,
Restoration = Full Return = New Exodus = New Creation

The Fall and the reign of sin which accompanied it represents for the world the ultimate exile or slavery. The call of Abraham and God’s election of Israel represents the beginning of God’s great rescue plan. Israel was to be God’s means for putting things right. Genesis 12:2-3
But Israel itself was sinful, so they repeated the Fall over and over again and suffered from exile and slavery over and over again.

The king was supposed to be Israel’s representative and take Israel’s job on himself and to be responsible to see that Israel completed God’s job given to them. But the kings were themselves sinful and suffered from the same fate as their people. Messiah was to be the one king to change this – to go through exile and the consequences of sin and then to experience a return from that condition on Israel’s behalf so that Israel might have a full return from ultimate exile and thus have their job fulfilled by this promised king. Restoration of Israel in the person of Messiah meant fulfillment of Israel’s job and thus the setting of things to rights for the whole world – healed relationships and justice, true spirituality, and the full beauty of creation as God intended it. Heaven on earth. We as Christians, of course, believe that this Messiah was none other than Jesus.

Isaiah 49:1-7

Replies ad infinitum

Here is a reply to my reply to a reply to my reply to a paper. And my reply to that reply to...wait, where was I?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Politics Trumps Facts In Editorial Hostile To Administration

The title of this post is meant to poke a bit of fun at an editorial by one Cynthia Tucker you can find here on Yahoo! News, which is entitled "POLITICS TRUMPS FACTS IN ADMINISTRATION HOSTILE TO SCIENCE". I don't often post on things like this, but I just saw this and these kinds of things really annoy me, whether it's coming from the Left or the Right. Now, granted, some of the stuff she says here is, if true, probably damaging and might be a case of politics "trumping facts" or "trumping the hard facts of science", whatever that's supposed to mean. But by no means all. In fact, the stuff that does seem damaging might even be seen as cases of "facts" of science trumping "facts" of science - opinions of some scientists (those who dissent from the views of others on global warming, for instance) trumping those of others. In such a case, it might even be charitable to interpret the administration as shaping its political views to the views of those scientists it treats as more trustworthy or shapes it with the idea in mind that issue X is indeed controversial despite protestations to the contrary by the vocal majority. Not that that's probable, but it's at least conceivable - and this editorial does nothing to rule out such explanations but automatically demonizes the admistration.

"Unpersuaded by the broad scientific consensus that endorses evolution, the president has argued for teaching the phony science of so-called intelligent design, arguing that "both sides ought to be properly taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about." "

That intelligent design is "phony science" is disputable and the fact that something has a broad scientific consensus does not make it true or beliefworthy. That something scientific enjoys a majority assent among scientists working in that field means that, all else being equal and in the absence of other relevant considerations, we are justified in believing it (though even with this, many philophers of science would disagree). But where all else is not equal and where there are many scientific and extra-scientific considerations to take into account, the fact that some theory enjoys such wide assent no longer means it can be treated as automatically justified or true. It may be science (and opposing theories might not count as "science" even) but it doesn't follow that that is what ought to be believed. This editor seems to be falling into a blind scientism where all truth is mediated by "science" and "science" alone and where all authority over fact and truth is governed by the majority opinion of scientists, scientism's infallible priests and prophets.

The rest of the editorial is typical rhetoric - it's not even about science at all, yet it's implied that it is and that if you disagree you're being unscientific or "going against science". It says,

"And he has stood firm against the advance of embryonic stem cell research, a promising avenue that might eventually lead to cures for such maladies as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's. Stingy with his veto pen, the president has exercised it only three times -- two of those to block measures to broaden federal research on embryonic stem cells.
Last month, the president clung to a dubious rationale that values the "lives" of embryos, about the size of a pencil-point, over the lives of full-fledged children suffering with juvenile diabetes. His argument is even less rational if you consider the fate of the vast majority of leftover embryos: They will eventually be destroyed. Apparently, it's perfectly acceptable to dump those blastocysts in the trash. But using them to cure hideous diseases? That's unacceptable, according to Bush's moral principles. "

These issues are about ethics, not science - it's one ethical or political view versus another. To use it as an example of politics trumping science is simply dishonest, though unfortunately often effective at persuading people. Yes, embryonic cell research might lead to cures, but it might not - it's not a sure thing (in an example of the other side really putting scientific fact to one side, it's often spoken of as if it was certain that this research is going to save thousands of lives and improve the quality of everyone's lives). Nor is it mentioned that there has been success with adult stem cell research and, even though it is not quite as promising as embryonic stem cell research, it still has a chance of doing the same sort of stuff but without the ethical costs or controversy. Instead, the picture is painted thusly: those against embryonic stem cell research are against curing people of disease. If that was what is really going on, that would indeed be awful. But, again, it's incredibly dishonest when people, predictably, put things that way. Those against the research are not against curing disease - they're against killing or causing harm, no matter who it might be, including embryos.

As for the last argument that embryos aren't important, it's a nonstarter. For one thing, what does size have to do with moral importance? Are we to treat babies or small children (or midgets or dwarfs for that matter) as of less importance simply because they are smaller? To treat all people equally and refuse to kill one innocent person for the sake of another is about human decency and rights - it has nothing to do with valuing one life over another as the editorial indicates. That's just incredibly wrong-headed - equality and respecting of human rights does not mean valuing one life over another!

When the editorial talks about the fate of the embryos, that is indeed unfortunate and is an issue that has been sorely neglected by the pro-life movement. But why does she talk as if the administration or people against embryonic stem cell research are okay with that? So far as I know none of them have expressed such a view and I think they would all be against such a waste of human life. The fact that something is going on and I haven't tried to stop it yet doesn't mean that I approve of it or that that thing is acceptable. Perhaps the argument is that the embryos are going in the trash anyway, so we might as well use them for research. But that's not a very good argument either. That's like being in Nazi Germany and approving of the execution of Jews and other undesirables for medical experiments since "they're all going to die anyway" in the gas chambers. That's a morally abhorrent argument to make and if that's what's being claimed here, I can't see much of a relevant difference.

Ultimately, this editorial is a prime example of what happens when partisan politics trumps clear thinking. It's an example of waving around the word "science" as a kind of magic word to get people to join your own side and hate the other - all without actually dealing with real science or the issues actually involved in it or really stopping to consider whether any of this has much of anything to do with science in the first place.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Couple of Comments on Gregory Boyd on Relativity Theory

In a recent post on his blog, Gregory Boyd says the following (in comments about the recent Quincy Science and Theology Conference):

We all know thawt Relativity Theory stipulates that the NOW of every finite perspective cannot be absolutely correlated with the NOW of any other finite perspective, since WHEN an event happens depends on WHERE you are, and HOW FAST you're traveling, relative to the event in question. Yet, each finite perspective has ITSELF as a NOW, and this NOW has a real "before" and a real "after." So the universe is comprised of all finite perspectives with their own NOW and their own "BEFORE" and "AFTER." (In relativity language, each perspective has its own "time cone").Now, if we believe in an omnipresent God, God would be internally present to, and thus contemporaneous with, each finite perspective, and thus each NOW. God could therefore have -- indeed, MUST have -- a "NOW" that synchronizes and integrates ALL finite perspectives. Thus, for God, there is an absolute NOW that encompasses all NOWS. So even with Relativity Theory, I argued, God and the universe are moving forward from a real past to a real future...

But none of this actually works given Relativity as it stands (you could, of course, decide to reject Relativity as being literally true but that would be a different move, though more common). When Boyd talks about "perspectives" the only thing I can think of that he might mean is a space-time point or a space-time point considered in a particular frame of reference (given what he says about perspectives having an absolute earlier and later there really isn't much else he could mean in the context of Relativity Theory). But then, if God's NOW is just the
combination of all NOWs and each perspective is its own NOW then God's NOW would just be the whole space-time universe. How do you get a real past and future just from that or any movement from one to the other? This isn't to say that there is no past or future or anything that might be called "flow" (I think there is, though I think the tensed version of this is incorrect). It's just that Boyd's idea doesn't seem to get him anything like what he might want.

He also reports on this:

But the main topic for the day was what science has to say about the nature of time. Among the many things Robert said was that there are 7 indicators in science (as we presently understand it) that suggest that the flow of time from the past to the future is real. (This is very important since the flow of time has for the most part been considered superfluous for the physical sciences, since most equations work forward or backward. Prediction and retrodiction are essentially the same).I don't have time to explain these, but for those who are curious, these 7 arguments are:
1) Cosmological: Evidence of the big bang suggests the universe is moving from a start in the past to a finish in the future.
2) Radioactive: Light and sound diverge outward but don't converge inward.
3) Thermodynamics: Disorder increases over time. (This is the famous "Second Law of Thermodynamics").
4) Gravitational: Black holes absorb all matter in a one way motion. There are no "white holes" that reverse the process.
5) Subatomic: Anti-kaons (the anti-matter of kaons) disintegrate faster than kaons.
6) Measurement: The collapse of the quantum wave is irreversible.
7) Psychological: People uniformly remember the past and anticipate the future. (This one, of course, is not a strictly scientific piece of evidence, but perhaps Mann included it simply because its a phenomenon that needs explaining.)
...At one point Mann seemed to suggest that Special and General Relativity Theory entailed a "block view" of the universe (this is the view that the past, present, and future are timelessly present as a sort of settled block. The flow of time, in other words, is not real ).
Of course, all of those things do indicate that there is flow to time - they simply do not, however, indicate that there is flow in the sense that tensed theorists like Boyd want there to be. What these things indicate is that time has an arrow, but that doesn't have much to do with whether there is a block universe or not (if by "block universe" all we mean is the view that all times are equally real, existent, and determinate - this may not be exactly what Boyd has in mind, though I'm not sure what else he might mean since a block universe in this sense does not have all times being "timelessly present"). Again, nothing here to write home about from the perspective of a tensed theorist or open theist.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Helm on Wright on the Order of Salvation

In a recent post to his blog, Reformed philosopher of religion Paul Helm discusses how N. T. Wright's (who is also self-avowedly Calvinist and Reformed) view of the order of salvation differs from the more common order that is popularly maintained by many in Reformed theological circles. He cites the typical order as follows:

a. Regeneration/effectual calling
b. Conversion, including repentance and faith
c. Justification
d. Sanctification
e. Glorification

Wright's order:

1) Divine foreknowledge
2) Divine 'marking out ahead of time'
3) Calling - summoning to turn from idols and serve the living God through the word and Spirit, bringing about believing submission to Jesus as the risen Lord, dying with him and rising to new life in him through baptism. Faith is the first fruit of the Spirit's call.
4) Justification/Vindication. God's verdict – his authoritative declaration of what is in fact the case - consequent upon the event(s) that constitute the calling, a declaration that the one called is in the right (forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus) and a member of the true covenant family of believing Jews and believing Gentiles.
5) Sanctification
6) Glorification - the final declaration, foreshadowed in the earlier justification, sharing the glorious rule of Jesus as Lord.

If find these contrasts a little strange, since Helm leaves (1) and (2) out of the 'typical' Reformed list. But no matter. What is interesting is that Helm claims that "If Bishop Wright has a controversy with the Protestant tradition, as he says that he has, then there is little that is new about his own proposal, even though it may be founded upon a novel account of what St. Paul really said. It’s the old, old story; a moralistic declension from true evangelicalism." From the tone, I think Helm believes that the 'if' clause of that first sentence is indeed satisfied and that Wright has backslidden from "true evangelicalism" (whatever that is supposed to be). But I'm really not sure what is moralistic about Wright's ordering or even bad about it at all from a Reformed perspective. Presumably it has something to do with the fact Helm keeps coming back to that on Wright's view justification comes temporally after faith and calling. But why that should matter at all, once one understands what Wright means by "justification" (and Helm himself spells this out), I'm not sure. Wright does believe that our salvation is by grace alone and not from anything we do - faith is a gift from God, not something we come up with ourselves to earn or otherwise procure salvation. In Wright's terminology, "justification" is more like a recognition that one is in the right because of what God has done. In Helm's, "justification" is more like making someone to be in the right and it is what God has done. Using Helm's more usual Reformed definition, Wright's view does look more moralistic or bad from a Reformed view of things. But use Wright's and there's nothing unkosher vis-a-vis the Reformed spirit at all. So what's my verdict? I think Helm has unwittingly condemned Wright for saying something he didn't say, using words to mean something he didn't mean, to express a view he didn't express. If we understand Wright in the Wright way (excuse the pun - this is like the umpteen millionth time it's been made), however, there's no problem.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Discussions About A Recent Post

Philosopher Alan Rhoda has responded on his blog to my earlier post on his (co-authored) pro-open theism paper in Faith and Philosophy. So it's a reply to a reply. And to get the discussion going even further, I've issued my own reply to his reply to my reply to his paper (whew!). Check out the discussion here.