Monday, August 26, 2013

Billy Graham: On Technology and Faith

I came across this TED Talk presented by Billy Graham today. It was given back in 1998, but it is still just as applicable today. What does the world's greatest evangelist have to say about technology? I think you'll find it interesting. Technology may be able to solve a lot of problems, but only God can deal with the human heart. It's worth a listen to someone who has spoken to over 2.2 billion people in his lifetime. We won't have him around much longer.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Two Views of the World

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley

In 1875 William Ernest Henley wrote the poem above that has been taken by many as a sort of personal declaration. Invictus has been quoted at graduations and funerals and, I believe, even inspired Mandela during his years of imprisonment (great movie by the way). Henley was a humanist, who believed in the indomitable power of the human spirit. His convictions come through clearly in his poem. His belief is that he alone was master of his own fate. It is the trumpet call of the "pick yourself up by your bootstraps" crowd.

It has been said that Henley's poem was intended to be a fist shaken defiantly in the face of God who who would dare to claim sovereignty over him. The poem below is, of course, a rewriting of Invictus from a different perspective. Dorothea Day was a journalist who, in her younger years, was quite enamored with the writings of Henley, but who later converted to Christianity. Her poem "My Captain" is a retelling of the same story, but from her new Christian perspective.  

Out of the night that dazzles me,
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be
For Christ the conqueror of my soul.
Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under that rule which men call chance
My head with joy is humbly bowed.
Beyond this place of sin and tears
That life with Him! And His the aid,
Despite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and shall keep me, unafraid.

I have no fear, though strait the gate,
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate,
Christ is the Captain of my soul.
Dorothea Day

On the one hand, Henley would claim self-sufficiency, Day would admit to total dependence on God. Henley appeals to the popular notion that "God helps those who help themselves," (which is not in the Bible, by the way), while Day would fall solely on the grace of God. Finally, Henley's world would revolve around what we can do by ourselves, while Day would focus on what Christ has done and what He can do through us.  

They are two very different views of the world. The question is, which one is true. As a recovered "self-made man" I would side with Dorothea. When we get to the end of ourselves it is good to know that the God who has made us has not abandoned us, nor required us to face the world all on our own. Jesus said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you," and, as the missionary David Livingstone said, "that, my friends, is the word of a gentleman."

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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Book Review: The Reason for God - Belief in an Age of Skepticism

Book Review: "The Reason for God - Belief in an Age of Skepticism," Timothy Keller, New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2008. 310 pages.

Before we begin, here's a little bit of background on Timothy Keller. He is the founder and pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan since 1989. He has grown the church to six thousand regular attendees at five services as of the writing of this book. They have also planted many daughter churches. Timothy has an engaging style, making it a part of his strategy as a pastor to deal with people's objections to the faith. This book is a natural byproduct of that commitment.

The book deals with the major objections to Christianity and belief in God that Keller has been confronted with over the course of his ministry. The introduction begins with his personal spiritual journey. Having been raised in the church, but exposed to the conservative/liberal debate within it, Keller's faith eventually became a casualty of a socially radical liberal university. He speaks of three barriers to faith which were erected in his life: Intellectual - did Christianity make sense? Personal - was God knowable? and Social - Could you believe in God and the Bible and also have a social conscience? Timothy has obviously resolved those conflicts in his mind and entered the ministry to help others do the same.

This book is really about engagement; opening a discussion about faith with those who do not believe. Keller "urge(s) skeptics to wrestle with the unexamined 'blind faith' on which skepticism is based, and to see how hard it is to justify those beliefs to those who do not share them." He also provides first-hand accounts of real people in their spiritual journey. But first he deals with objections to faith which he's encountered.

Objection 1: There Can't Be Just One True Religion
The claim to exclusivity for Christianity is one of the main reasons people gave Keller for rejecting it. This arises partly from the growing liberal value of tolerance - we don't like for anyone to tell anyone that they're wrong - and a negative view of religion in general as divisive and a root of many of the world's problems. Keller deals with this objection by first laying out the options some would propose: we can outlaw religion; condemn religion or keep religion completely private.

Keller explains the presuppositions behind each and then shows why each approach has and will fail. He then launches into an apologetic for Christianity, and a call for the church to follow the model of the early church in bringing its very best into society.

Objection 2: How Could A Good God Allow Suffering?
Here again we find one of the most common objections to belief in the God of the Bible. If God is loving and all-powerful, why doesn't He intervene to prevent suffering? The problem with this objection is that it begs the question: on what basis do we believe that suffering and evil are wrong? As C.S. Lewis concluded, in a purely naturalistic world, we should expect that pain and suffering would be the norm. Yet we have a sense that this ought not to be. Where did that come from? We all must ask, believers and non-believers alike, where does evil come from?

For the Christian, we find the answer in the Biblical record of the Fall of Man and the introduction of sin into the world. According to Keller, "Embracing the Christian doctrines of the incarnation and Cross brings profound consolation in the face of suffering. The doctrine of the resurrection can instill us with a powerful hope. It promises that we will get the life we most longed for, but it will be an infinitely more glorious world than if there had never been the need for bravery, endurance, sacrifice or salvation."

Objection 3: Christianity Is A Straitjacket
The argument here is that since Christianity adheres to a moral code and to a source of absolute truth, the resultant religion must be the enemy of freedom. The questions that must be dealt with here are multifaceted: the nature of truth, community, Christianity and freedom. The underlying assumption here is that "true freedom is freedom to create your own meaning and purpose." It also assumes that all truth is relative, but is it?

Keller answers each of these questions, first by pointing out that, despite our protestations, we all cling to some source of truth, either objective or arbitrary - it's unavoidable. He then demonstrates that within each community there must be an underlying set of agreed upon beliefs and practices which, of necessity, are somewhat restrictive. He also shows that Christianity, far from being culturally rigid, has from the beginning allowed for cultural diversity while maintaining an adherence to orthodox faith. Finally, of freedom itself, Keller tells us that "freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions." Within Christianity we are free to be the people God created us to be.       

Objection 4: The Church Is Responsible For So Much Injustice
Here Keller identifies three issues: First is the issue of the glaring character flaws of many Christians; second is the issue of war and violence and the church's complicity; third is the issue of fanaticism - what of Christians on the fringe? The first issue is based on a misconception that Christians believe that faith in God makes them better people. It doesn't. One can find Christians at all stages of character development because behavior change is a gradual process, and church should be full of people who are flawed because they are people in process. The second issue is more troublesome, for it is obvious that a great deal of harm has been done in the name of Christ over the centuries. It is wrong and goes against the very teachings of Christ. Finally, fanaticism, tending to express itself in legalism, has pushed many honest seekers out of the church.

It is important to remember that the Bible is also critical of people who act like this. Keller reminds us that "true faith is marked by profound concern for the poor and marginalized." It's not only the church that has been guilty either. In the twentieth century the greatest cause of injustice (human rights abuses, pogroms, death camps, genocide, etc...) were atheistic regimes. This in no way excuses the church when it has been wrong, but it demonstrates that injustice is a human problem, not a Christian one. On the other hand, it has been those motivated by Christian motives who worked to end slavery, campaigned for civil rights and lead the way in social reform, often at great personal cost.

Objection 5: How Can A Loving God Send People To Hell?
With this subject, Timothy shares that many secular minds believe that it is a contradiction to believe in the equality of all people and yet believe in the concept of hell. Keller found several connected beliefs lurking beneath the surface of this one: a God of judgment simply can't exist; a God of judgment can't be a God of love; a loving God would not allow hell. At their root these are preferences. We all would prefer that there would be no hell. The first belief in particular goes against our Western sensibilities and our doctrine of tolerance at all costs. Keller goes to C.S. Lewis to demonstrate that this belief is a cultural adaptation.

As to the second and third charges, relating to the love of God, the implication is that God cannot be both judging and loving. But is that true? The Bible clearly teaches that God is both. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf says it this way, "If God were not angry at injustice and did not make a final end to violence - that God would not be worthy of worship..."

Objection 6: Science Has Disproved Christianity
The famous atheist Richard Dawkins stated that one cannot be an intelligent scientific thinker and still hold religious beliefs. Is he right? In this chapter Keller shows how the supposed war between science and Christianity exists only in the minds of those who hold certain (unscientific) presuppositions. For example, the presupposition that "No supernatural cause for any natural phenomenon is possible" is not a scientific statement, but a philosophical one. He could have done more with this chapter, but this quote is telling: "A majority of scientists consider themselves deeply or moderately religious - and those numbers have increased in recent decades. There is no necessary disjunction between science and devout faith."

Objection 7: You Can't Take The Bible Literally
Keller draws on his own student experiences for this chapter, recalling how many of his college courses caused him to question the reliability of Scripture. It was when he began to do research on his own that he realized how little evidence there was for this revisionist school of thought. The influence of this skeptical view of Scripture has been waning in recent years. Anne Rice, who converted to Christianity after a successful career as a novelist, wrote that "I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I'd ever read." Keller goes on to deal with the typical challenges to the reliability of Scripture, providing solid reasons that the Bible can be trusted historically and culturally.

He quotes C.S. Lewis, who just happened to be a world-class literary critic, as saying: "I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like I know none of them are like this. Of this (gospel) text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage... or else, some unknown (ancient) writer... without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative..."

In the remaining chapters of the book Keller moves from a defensive posture to providing a positive case for believing, including chapters on:
  • The Clues of God
  • The Knowledge of God
  • The Problem of Sin
  • Religion and the Gospel
  • The (True) Story of the Gospel
  • The Reality of the Resurrection
  • The Dance of God
Even a synopsis of these would take up considerable space but, suffice to say, the book is worth reading, whether you are a skeptic, a seeker or a Christian wanting to deal with some questions. It's not an accident that this book hit the New York Times bestseller list. I'll end with a great quote from Keller: "Jesus's life, death and resurrection was an infinitely costly rescue operation to restore justice to the oppressed and marginalized, physical wholeness to the diseased and dying, community to the isolated and lonely, and spiritual joy and connection to those alienated from God. To be a Christian today is to become part of that same operation, with the expectation of suffering and hardship and the joyful assurance of eventual success."

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Monday, August 05, 2013

What is Truth?

During a series I taught recently on apologetics, one of the follow-up questions dealt with the subject of truth. They asked whether the definition of truth was important to the defense of the Christian faith and, if so, what is truth? We could spend a few weeks on this question, but I'll do my best to answer satisfactorily.

Firstly, the definition of truth is vital to the defense of the Christian faith, as it is to any worldview. This question of truth is at the root of many of the disagreements taking place today and, in fact, throughout history. We can begin with a simple definition: truth is that which conforms to reality, fact or actuality. But this statement will often lead to more questions. What is reality? These word games are often played by the disingenuous and argumentative.

I like the approach that Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias took at a university Q and A. One member of the audience asked Ravi, "How do you know that I exist?" Ravi smartly replied, "And whom shall I say is asking?" Much of the debate over truth is simple semantics; and arguing over words. At the end of the day, each of us must live in the real world, a world where truth is objective, and not something arbitrary.

We can look at logic to help us to understand truth. For example, the law of non-contradiction tells us that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. I cannot be home, and not be home. One of those statements may be true, but not both at the same time. We can apply this principle to our discussions of faith.

Our modern world has taken a position called cultural relativism -  the view that all beliefs, customs, and ethics are relative to the individual within his own social context. In other words, “right” and “wrong” are culture-specific; what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another, and, since no universal standard of morality exists, no one has the right to judge another society’s customs.

The problem with this statement is that it's not liveable, and we judge people's customs all the time. We speak of human rights and tell nations that they must respect them. Why? Why must China respect human rights when they believe that collective rights trump individual rights? Who are we to tell them that they are wrong? What of women's rights? The rights of the child? Without a belief that there is such a thing as absolute truth - without a standard - we are all simply left shouting our opinions. 

Each of us believes in truth or we would make no factual statements. Otherwise we could never be believed. Part of our problem is that we have lost the ability to debate logically and thoughtfully. We say things like, that may be true for you, but it's not for me. Like Winston Churchill said, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” But if truth is something real and concrete, it matters.

In dealing with Christianity this is particularly important, for Christianity is a faith based on history. We believe that Jesus Christ came, lived, died and was resurrected at a specific place and at a specific time in history. These are truth claims, and they matter. They are either true or they are not. If the claims of Christianity are not true, it should be placed on the rubbish heap of human ideas along with myriad other religions. But if it is true - it changes everything.

C.S. Lewis wrote of this in Mere Christianity: “The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort. Now a clearly maintained distinction between what the Faith actually says and what you would like it to have said or what you understand or what you personally find helpful or think probable, forces your audience to realize that you are tied to your data just as the scientist is tied by the results of the experiments; that you are not just saying what you like. This immediately helps them realize that what is being discussed is a question about objective fact — not gas about ideals and points of view.”

For the Christian, the ultimate expression of truth is found in the Bible; in Jesus who said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life..." (John 14:6). Jesus made this statement as God in the flesh, God who provides the absolute standard by which everything and everyone is measured. Here is a divergence between Christianity and many of the other world religions. Jesus claimed to be the way, the truth and the life. Christianity claims - and evidence backs this up - that Jesus rose from the dead.

Islam, on the other hand, claims that Jesus was never crucified, contrary to the evidence. Many religions claim that Jesus was simply another in a long line of teachers sent from God. Yet he himself claimed otherwise. To believe both is to violate the law of non-contradiction. Many today would claim that Jesus was simply a good man and a gifted teacher. Yet his claims to Deity would certainly nullify the "good man" claims. And what of the resurrection?

To find our way around this we must explain the numerous eyewitness accounts, the growth of the church in hostile environs, the conversion of antagonists like Saul of Tarsus, the willingness of the disciples to die for a lie if they knew otherwise. We also must ask why the Romans or the Jews didn't produce the body of Jesus if they had it. Witness the radical changes in culture brought about by followers of this Jesus, and ask yourself if he was just a man.

This question of truth is not a new one. In fact, over 2,000 years ago there was an encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, a Roman Governor. It's found in John 18:37-38 - Jesus was dragged before Pilate to defend himself to the Roman ruler. Jesus said,  “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Pilate famously replied, “What is truth?” Perhaps the truth is that only those who are honestly looking for it can find it. 

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Friday, August 02, 2013

Redefining Success

How do you define success? There are many different definitions. Some measure success by the bank account balance, house size, or number of toys. Others would look at the letters beside their name, the recognition of peers, or plaques on the wall. Still others would simply look around them and gauge success by comparing themselves with their neighbors. What about you?

For many, it's probably not something that is consciously done, but rather, success would be what makes them feel good about themselves. So, again, for some success is a rare thing indeed. There are many who I have encountered over the years who hardly ever feel good about themselves.

I've thought long and hard about this subject over the years, and done a lot of striving and struggling to reach what I thought were worthy goals. More often than not, in my younger years, I was trying to reach some arbitrary benchmark. "I'll be successful when I get my first real job," or "when I get married... have children... buy a house... get out of debt, earn a promotion, etc..."

At one point I realized that a great part of my struggle was in trying, in my mind, to measure up to what I believed my father expected of me. That always seemed to be a moving target. For a great many men that I speak with, that is a common refrain. We fathers, while usually well-meaning, have a hard time communicating to our children that we love them and are proud of them. The result is a lot of men with driven personalities for whom enough is never enough. But that's a different subject.

A number of years ago I actually sat down and reflected upon what it meant to be successful. How is it defined? How is it measured? How do we know that we've achieved success? I realized that we can't begin with this question, or we are driven again to arbitrariness. It really leads to an existential question, why are we here?

The answer to this question frames the question of success, and the answer comes from one's worldview. For many who believe that we humans are simply the byproduct of the impersonal + time + chance any answer to this question must, of necessity, be purely subjective. We define success for ourselves. The problem with this self-definition is that the payoff for achieving success is fleeting, followed by the question, "now what?"    

But for those who believe in a Biblical interpretation of reality, our reason for being leads us back to a Creator God who made us on purpose. He made us for Himself and intended for us to live our lives in relationship with Him. The Westminster Larger Catechism  states that "Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever." This ancient teaching reminds us that we are not here to serve ourselves.

When Jesus was challenged by some of the legalists of his day to tell them what was the greatest commandment in the law, he replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40) So, Jesus tells us that the chief aim of our life is to walk in proper relationship with God.  

I have a definition of success that I've used for many years now: success is finding what God wants me to do and doing it. This, of course, begins with relationship. God wants us, first and foremost, to be reconciled with him. If we have never come to the place where we've acknowledged our sin and our need of God, that is the first step to take. Everything else flows out of that. God, who created us, knows what is best for us. We are to live our lives in such a way as to maintain that relationship.

I often have people ask me, "how do I know what God wants me to do?" My response is that most of God's will for your life and mine is revealed in Scripture: how we ought to live, treat others, handle our money, etc... When we are exposing ourselves to God's Word and spending time in prayer we learn to hear his voice - maybe not in an audible, weird way, but he still speaks to us. For a good book on the subject, read Bill Hybel's book, "The Power of a Whisper."  

I like this definition because it grounds my life in ultimate reality. This is God's world, after all. History is His Story. He calls us up into that greater story to play our part. I hope that, when I've come to the end of my life, I can say with the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." This, to me, will be success.

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