Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The awfully busy God

Gerard Van Der Leun has a long and thoughtful post about why prayers are answered - or aren’t, as the case may be. Wisely admitting up front that, "We don't know much about God," Gerard basically says that God has free will as do we humans, and that,

Prayer is, in a sense, God's suggestion box; which is why many think that not all prayers are answered and why some, like the Tibetans, think that if you repeat a prayer often enough it gets noticed and answered. This irritating approach to prayer probably cost them their nation even though it hasn't shut them up. In general, it is probably not a good idea, but who am I to criticize? I'll leave that to the Dalai Lama who seems to be carrying on just fine.

But the main thrust of Gerard's piece about unanswered prayer"concerns God's work load.

He's one God who is running a very big universe. Perhaps He's got the whole thing franchised and He's running thousands of universes in a host of different dimensions, all with local variations to the main menu. We don't know. We can't know. But if you grant even one universe to this one God, you've got to admit this would be a very busy Supreme Being. Even being omnipotent and omnipresent and omniscient, You'd still have an In-Box beyond the human mind's capacity for bogglement. ...

The final upshot is that, even if God just steps away from his desk for a quick trip to heaven's free beverage machine, when He gets back he's confronted with at least 4,675,839 prayers presented as pink "While You Were Out Slips."

I submit that even the most omnipotent God cannot deal with incoming requests at this rate. ...

To me this is the most obvious reason that some prayers are answered while most are not. It's simply a question of time and resources, even for God.

Does it really happen this way? God knows.

Now, I like Gerard's writing a lot. He's a better writer than I am. I like Gerard personally, too, having corresponded with him over the years (we've never met).

All of which is an obvious preface to saying that I think he's missed the boat here. I will readily grant that prayers come to God at a rate that we can but poorly imagine - Gerard mentions the scene in Bruce Almighty where Bruce, a temporary deity, is so overwhelmed monitoring the prayer board that he freaks and hits the "yes to all" button. It causes no end of turmoil and even tragedy in the world, of course.

And I will not hide behind the old cliche that "God does answer every prayer, it's just that often the answer is no." This is true, but that's not what Gerard is getting at. He is addressing why so many prayers apparently get no answer at all. They are, as far as mere humans can tell, simply ignored.

But, "too fast, too many" is a reason I cannot accept. Here's why. The English philosopher-theologian Anselm of Canterbury, father of medieval scholasticism, postulated that God is “that than which no greater can be conceived." In philosophical inquiries that definition has withstood the test of time pretty well. (It was fiercely attacked at the time, but that's another posting.) After all, if there is a Supreme Being, then that being has to be, well, Supreme. There can be no greater.

So if God, the Creator of the universe, in unable to keep up with the workload of managing it, then I would not say that God is doing the best he can. I would say that the deity so described is not God.

Some polytheistic religions of the West did separate the Creator from the Manager and postulated that they are two distinct deities. Marcion in the second century was one of the chief intellectual figures of Gnosticism; he identified the God of Abraham as the Creator deity and the God of Jesus as a different deity. That is, the transcendent deity and the immanent deity were two deities. Gnosticism was finally overcome by the concerted efforts of early Church Fathers through strong counter-arguments.

But let us affirm here that the millennia-old traditions of the Jews and Christians is correct, that there is one deity who both created and manages the universe, and that this deity hear human prayers. For this post I'll ignore the issue that seems so important to some, whether God hears the prayers of non-Christians or non-Jews (depending on who is wondering, of course). Let me simply postulate that prayers are received by God.

Why are so many apparently unanswered? "Apparently" is a sort of dodge, of course, even though I do believe that some prayers do get answered in ways we may not recognize. But no more dodging. A couple my wife knew well a few years ago took the baby to the hospital because they found her in her crib not breathing. Life support, prayer vigils, the works. The infant died. Unanswered prayer? Definitely, and no dodging allowed that "the answer was no and God had a reason we can't comprehend." That answer lets both God and us off the hook too easily.

Besides, not all unanswered prayers are matters of life and death. I knew a Navy officer who earnestly prayed to pass her upcoming physical-training tests (maybe if she'd worked out more she wouldn't have needed to pray so much). Student pray before tests. And there is the phenomenon I've heard other pastors call the "weekly organ recital" - the Sunday listing of Aunt Erma's bad kidneys, Uncle Fred's glaucoma, and so forth.

God is not a cosmic vending machine for which prayers are the currency. The longer I spend in the praying business, the less I pray, or see the point in praying, for God to do something, darn it and the more I pray for him to lead me (us) to do something. I pray not that God will conform to my desires or needs of the moment, no matter how pressing they may be, but that I and others concerned in the prayer-situation be conformed more to God in the likeness of Christ.

Yet there is more necessary, I think. Prayer is only one part of engaging God. Remember Lieut. Dan in the movie Forest Gump? He lost both legs in Vietnam, would have preferred to have died, and finally tracks his old subordinate, Gump, to the Louisiana coast after the war. Dan joins Gump in running a shrimp boat. One day they are caught at sea by a sudden storm and Dan remains in the mast with the whipping rain and lightning all around, raising his fist to the storm and railing against God. Like Job, Lt. Dan is unable to dismiss such a God as delusion, even though it would be so much easier to do so. Finally, Dan finds his peace with God.

So many of us decline to encounter God except in storms of life or in pro-forma occasions such as a minute of silence now and then. Yet prayer is not simply some words uttered, no matter how heartfelt or sincere. Prayer is mainly a life lived out in godly ways for godly purposes. It surely can be no wonder that God refuses to acknowledge prayers seeking his miracles when we so consistently fail to acknowledge his call to us seeking our daily service. The conundrum of life-as-prayer is that we come less and less to ask God for an "answer" as for his presence come what may. Finally we realize that God with us and us with God is all the answer we really need.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The necessity of spiritual rebirth

In the third chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus holds forth his famous discourse with Nicodemus about being born, in the Greek, anothen. Does Jesus mean being born again or from above? Nicodemus interprets the former, Jesus means the latter or he means both. Nicodemus would have understood Jesus’ observation that one must be born of water to mean physical birth. It was a common term in Jesus’ day. But Jesus means more than physical birth; he means spiritual rebirth.

In much of what passes for public discourse on religion today, “born again” is either a boast or a pejorative put-down. Who constitutes the much derided and much feared “religious right?” Ah, yes, “born again” Christians. Within their own ranks, evangelical Christians frequently sneer at any confession of faith which doesn’t include some sort of personal Damascus road experience. All in all, “born again” Christianity is heavily laden with political baggage these days in the United States.

However, Jesus made no declaration of a particular political fealty as a condition of spiritual rebirth. The discourse simply makes clear that to be born again includes a personal belief in Jesus as the one by whom the world is saved (cf. Jn. 3:15-16).Within the Wesleyan system, salvation culminates in the parousia (the end of the present age), but isn’t limited to it. Salvation is worked out here and now; the Kingdom of God is to be achieved in this life, at least in part. So “born again,” to be religiously meaningful, must include not just an assurance of heavenly life, but a reorientation in this life.

An article in the “Journal of Psychology and Theology” compared survey results between persons who said they were Christians and those who did not make that claim. It also compared attitudinal scores among professed Christians by category (born again v. ethical belief system). The study defined “born again” Christians as “those who profess a personal saving relationship with Christ,” and ethical as “those who profess to follow Christian teachings as primary” (Paloutzian, 267).

The researchers wrote they expected the ethical Christians would score higher on the Social Interest Survey, motivated primarily by Christ’s ethical teachings. It was not so.
The born again group scored higher in social interest in both age groups studied, even though they are primarily committed to the person of Christ and secondarily committed to the ethics [of Christ]. These results support the notion that born again commitment fosters greater internalization of Christian ethics.
The authors claimed their study’s results were consistent with previous research. Other significant points this study uncovered were that born again commitment is more likely to mature over a person’s life than the ethical type and that “an intense, mature and personal religious commitment fosters a sense of purpose in life and a greater concern for the welfare of others.”

I believe social-justice theologies need to recover a strong notion of personal spiritual rebirth if the world is to be transformed, oppression eliminated, racism expunged, economic injustices corrected. Jesus’ teachings are powerful tools for combating these powers and principalities of the present age, but only because they are empowered by the person of the Resurrected One. Jesus is not risen because his teachings were powerful, his teachings are powerful because he is risen. There is no gospel message without an Easter morning. There is no Easter without the empty tomb.

Citation: Paloutzian, Raymond F. et. al. “Conversion Experience, Belief System, and Personal and Ethical Attitudes” Journal of Psychology and Theology, 6:266-275, Fall 1978.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Connecting with non-religious people

Not long ago I attended a seminar at Hendersonville 1st UMC on connecting with non-religious people. Some of the points made I found somewhat dubious, such as the claim that "Jesus broke away from his religious tradition for a higher good," which I addressed in more detail here.

But here are some points worth thinking about:

  • Do we present Christianity as a system of beliefs or a way of life? John Wesley said that one may affirm the truth of one, 20 or 100 creeds and yet have no saving faith at all. Faith that saves is not "believing beliefs," not the mere assent to propositions. It is, said Wesley, a conviction wrought in one's heart that in Jesus Christ, all that is necessary for our salvation has been accomplished and that there is no life apart from him.
  • Don't present Jesus as the answer to problems but as the lover of souls. The deepest need of human souls is not problem solving, but the search for meaning. If you have never read Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, I urge you to order it and read it as soon as you can.
  • Do we have a passion for Christ, or a passion for the church? When we substitute passion for the church rather than for Jesus, we start to prize order, routine and predictability. Jesus said (John 3):
    "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
    The Spirit-led church will often appear unpredictable! As I preached last May,
    We will never thrive with top-down leadership, where the pastor and committees decide what the ministries of the church will be, then nominate and elect members to carry them out. We will thrive with ministries that emerge from Spirit-led disciples who are mostly self-organizing.
    Unchurched people are not looking for organizational excellence, but a church that is trying, for all its imperfections, to be "worthy of the calling to which it has been called." That means our passion must be for Jesus mlore than for one another.
  • We should be about attraction, not promotion. This is linked closely with communicating Jesus as a lover of souls. What is it about our faith life and practice that will attract people of our community and make them commit to it along with us, rather than simply participate in an event? Church promotion gains only participants, and very temporary ones at that. If we understand that we should attract people to commitment, not mere participation, then our own self understanding will change.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Let's hear it for hypocrites!

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on how to connect with non-religious people. That's the new term for describing the folks we used to refer to as the unchurched. The presenter had arranged for four self-described non-religious people to form a panel for us. Curiously, to be called "non-religious," all but one attended a Christian church and the fourth followed Buddhism. In the Q&A they tried to clarify that what they meant, by calling themselves non-religious, was that they rejected the in institutions of religion, the formally-organized structures of denominationalism, and by strong implication, the basic tenets of historic Christian religion as well. Jesus, it seems, is whomever you wish him to be, rather than a first-century Jew of a particular context and religious heritage. (I wrote about that issue here.)

But at one point the panel and other attendees generally agreed that one of the main reasons the unchurched are well, unchurched is because church people are such hypocrites.

Alexius: Well, Paul, the reason I won't join your new church here in Corinth is because there are so many hypocrites in it.

Paul: We always have room for one more.

The hypocrisy excuse for staying away from church has got to be the oldest there is. Which only proves what Mark Twain observed, "When you don't want to do something, any excuse will do." And to borrow one of Yogi Berra's malapropisms, If people don't want to come to church, nobody's going to stop them.

But I say, "Hooray for hypocrites!" If you're a hypocrite, you're just my guy or gal.

"Hypocrite" is derived from the Greek, "hypókrisis," or "play acting." It was the description for actors in the Greek theater and refers even more specifically to the masks that certain actors wore to denote different roles, multiple roles being quite common in ancient Greek theater. Members of the chorus - a sort of on stage narrator group - also often wore masks to correspond with the mood, emotion or tome of what they were singing or narrating.

So a hypocrite is literally a "mask wearer," one who hides who s/he really is. It is, as the Greek denotes, play acting. Jesus had a lot to say about play actors, and none of it good.

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, part of the Western Wall of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed in 70 c.e. by the Romans. The Western Wall is all that remains of the Temple. Today, Jews of all religious convictions go there to pray. I prayed there, too, the same day I took this photo in October 2007.

One biting example,

"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others."
That is, the men Jesus referred to made a show of praying in public so that they would gain the respect of others for being so pious. (Please note that public praying was quite normal in ancient Judea and is still done now in Israel. And it is the imperative practice in Islam. Christians pray in public, too, mainly at worship services, but also other occasions, say, the Indy 500.)

Jesus admonished his hearers that they should pray in private, so that God would hear them privately. His meaning, I think, was that prayer should be God directed, not human intended.

But no matter how you cut it, Jesus was pretty harsh on hypocrites. So how can I be rooting for them?

Because hypocrisy requires the hypocrite to believe in something or someone outside himself. Hypocrisy requires an aspiration to something higher or better than oneself. That is the meaning of the folk saying, "Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue." Hypocrisy is an imperfect, deficient attempt to be better.

Thankfully I have known very few non-hypocritical people. They were insufferable. They were entirely self centered, self directed, self oriented, self focused and just plain purely selfish. They recognized no cause, entity or belief higher than themselves, their own desires, wants or needs. You can see, I'm sure, that it is impossible for such people to act hypocritically because they are always looking out for No. 1 in every situation. They never pretend they are acting in someone else's interests. They don't seek others' approval because they don't fundamentally care about others or what they think.

Very, very rarely is this kind of person to be found in a church (or a synagogue, either, I would imagine). The church-attending hypocrites over which the seminar attendees clucked-clucked so sadly are not actually hypocritical in the usual meaning of the word: "a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess." Yes, they fall short of what they intend, but their striving is real, not phony, and they try to do better. If they are hypocrites, then so was St. Paul.

It is deceit that makes hypocrisy what it is. The true hypocrite wants others to think better of him/her than is actually justified. Absent this deceit, there is no hypocrisy, just error or human frailty. That's what the hypocrisy-excuse people don't understand - or pretend not to understand - about church people. What may appear to be church people's hypocrisy is almost always just simple failure to meet the standards of our faith rather than deceit. Why? Because the standard is so high:
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28).

You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... (Matthew 5:43-44).
There are many such examples. So I say that if our churches are filled with such "hypocrites," then let's have many more. Vice is easy, virtue is hard. It's no hypocrisy to fall short of a very high standard and such an excellent goal. And I would suggest that the hypocrisy-excuse people have largely chosen the easy way over the hard way, and choose to call that virtue. So who are the hypocrites? Well, we always have room for one more.

So however we fall short of the standards of our faith, and fall short we certainly often do, we nonetheless seek a "more excellent way" and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on towards the goal.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Does an ancient stone cast doubt on Jesus' resurrection?

Should I call my bishop and lay down my ordination orders? Some are now claiming that Jesus' disciples just made up the whole Easter-resurrection story by appropriating a century-old legend that the angel Gabriel was supposed to have said rebel named Simon, who was killed by the Romans in 4 BCE.

The source of this quotation is an ancient stone tablet upon which is written (not engraved) 87 lines of text.
JERUSALEM: A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

The tablet, probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan according to some scholars who have studied it, is a rare example of a stone with ink writings from that era in essence, a Dead Sea Scroll on stone.

It is written, not engraved, across two neat columns, similar to columns in a Torah. But the stone is broken, and some of the text is faded, meaning that much of what it says is open to debate.
There is no reason to believe that the stone is a fake. Despite the fact that sections of the text are obscure, the pile-on to prove that the stone somehow disproves Jesus' resurrection has already begun. I got an email just this evening from a PR guy asking me to interview two novelists who think the stone buttresses their claims that not only is the story of Jesus resurrection a fraud, the Church has known it all along. Sound familiar? It should, since that premise is one of the hoariest of religious fiction. Quite literally, "nothing to see here, move along" when it comes to this unoriginal attempt to knock over orthodox Christianity. This is, in fact, the exact premise of Robert Ludlum's 1976 novel, The Gemini Contenders:
A train winds through Italy towards the Alps with a precious cargo on board. The cargo is a box containing papers that could destroy the Christian world.
Ho hum. But back to the stone. Time Mag quotes Israel Knohl, an expert in Talmudic and biblical language at Jerusalem's Hebrew University:
But, as Knohl told TIME, maybe the Christians had a model to work from. The idea of a "dying and rising messiah appears in some Jewish texts, but until now, everyone thought that was the impact of Christianity on Judaism," he says. "But for the first time, we have proof that it was the other way around. The concept was there before Jesus." If so, he goes on, "this should shake our basic view of Christianity. ... What happens in the New Testament [could have been] adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."
Okay, so? Now, to be fair to Knohl, he does not say that the stone's presumed text (there is more than one way to translate it than Knohl's way) disproves Jesus' resurrection, only that the idea of a messianic resurrection existed before Jesus was even born. And the idea of a suffering messiah is found in the Isaiah 53.

Bible Archaeology Review has posted both the Hebrew text and an English translation online. It's mighty thin gruel to make such as grand a banquet as Knohl and some others are cooking up. Here are the lines in question, as presented by BAR:
7. Who am I(?), I (am?) Gabri’el the …(=angel?)… […]
78. You(?) will save them, …[…]…
79. from before You, the three si[gn]s(?), three …[….]
80. In three days …, I, Gabri’el …[?],
81. the Prince of Princes, …, narrow holes(?) …[…]…
82. to/for … […]… and the …
83. to me(?), out of three - the small one, whom(?) I took, I, Gabri’el.
84. yhwh of Hosts, the Lord of(?)[ Israel …]…[….]
85. Then you will stand …[…]…
86. …\
87. in(?) … eternity(?)/… \
All the rest - that the presumed angelic prophecy was given to or in description of a Jewish rebel against Rome named Simon, whom the Romans killed in 4 BCE, and that the unintelligible gaps refer to Simon's resurrection - all that is simply speculation and interpolation. However, Knohl will have a news-covered presentation later today in Jerusalem to explain his hypothesis.

Furthermore, as practically any Christian who has attended Sunday School for more than a month can tell you, the Jews' belief in the resurrection of the dead was deeply rooted by the time of Jesus. Not all Jews believed this, notably the Sadducees did not, but most did, notably the Pharisees.

To the apostle Paul - a "Pharisee's Pharisee," by his own description - it was the general resurrection of the dead that was of primary importance. Jesus' resurrection was important, for Paul, only as it related to the general resurrection yet to come. Hence, Jesus is the "first fruit" of the general resurrection, the pathfinder and the proof that God's promises are true. if someone had said to Paul that there was already a concept of a dying and rising messiah before Jesus came along, Paul would have almost certainly have answered that God was no doubt preparing the people for the message of the resurrection of Jesus so that they could more quickly embrace his rising as God's seal of promise.

Knohl does make a very important point, related at the bottom of the IHT run of the story.
Knohl said that it was less important whether Simon was the messiah of the stone than the fact that it strongly suggested that a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus. He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus makes numerous predictions of his suffering and New Testament scholars say such predictions must have been written in by later followers because there was no such idea present in his day.

But there was, he said, and "Gabriel's Revelation" shows it.
This is a crucial point. As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington puts it,
Most radical Jesus scholars have argued that the passion and resurrection predictions by Jesus found in the Gospels were not actually made by Jesus-- they reflect the later notions and theologizing of the Evangelists.

But now, if this stone is genuine there is no reason to argue this way. One can show that Jesus, just as well as the author of this stone, could have spoken about a dying and rising messiah.
Knohl continues,
"His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come," Knohl said. "This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel."
Where does Knohl seem to get the idea that Jesus' passion and rising are unconnected to the redemption of Israel? Not from the Gospels, which present Jesus as weeping precisely because he realizes he will not bring about Israel's redemption. Furthermore, more than anything else, the long line of Jewish prophets had excoriated Israel for the sinfulness of the people, which they usually describe in graphic detail. That the redemption of Israel can be somehow unconnected with the forgiveness of the sins of the people is simply unsupportable by the Jewish Scriptures. Furthermore, Jeremiah's prophecy to which Jesus specifically related his suffering and resurrection says, at the end, "I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more."

In short, I agree with Dr. Witherington (and implicit in Knohl's words) that the stone's (disputable) text reinforces that the quotes of Jesus in the Gospel in which he speaks of his own death and resurrection are true quotes rather later retrojections. The stone seems to confirm, rather than rebut, the Gospel accounts.