Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Why I don't want to come to your church"

Christian Conversation About Five Tough Topics

Index of relevant post at the bottom.

I'll host sessions exploring the topics of the rest of this post, with a focus on how to engage unchurched people in Christian conversation, each Wednesday, Oct. 6-Nov. 17. We’ll start at 6:30, after the family meal. I hope you will come and join in!

Did you know that the fastest growing religious group in America are people severing ties with a church, or maintaining their separation? One in six American adults say they are not of any organized religion, many more than that for young adults. More than one-fourth of Americans say they don’t even want a religious funeral.

Where does that put us? In many ways, it puts us increasingly into the same sort of environment that the apostolic and early churches found themselves—a culture that resists the Gospel and is even sometimes hostile to it.

The worst and most faithless thing Christians could do is adopt a bunker mentality and write the unchurched off. That isn’t what the early church did, and Jesus never told us to proclaim the Gospel only to those who say they want to hear it.

On Sept. 21, I spent the day at a seminar sponsored by the Tenn. Conference called, “Spiritual Conversations.” How do disciples of Jesus engage people who do not know Christ in a meaningful way that opens up paths of God’s grace into their lives?

From this seminar and previous study, and my own spiritual conversations with non-Christians, I think there are five main barriers to the Gospel’s acceptance by greater numbers of Americans. They are:

1. Do your own thing.

Our culture increasingly denies that there are objective standards of morality or right living. People believe that they both should and can decide for themselves what is right or wrong and that one person’s opinion is pretty much as good as another’s. One result is that the Bible is not nearly as highly regarded in the general culture as it once was. Increasingly, people are turning to “spirituality” in lieu of “religion,” and spirituality is highly individualistic and opportunistic.

2. Christian claims are intellectually unsupportable.

Much about the Gospels strikes vast numbers of people as scientifically absurd and plain nonsensical. It is partly our fault! Over the last few decades, churches have often shied away from the fact that Christian faith is founded upon the supernatural power of a God who can be illuminated, but not described, by scientific insights. Instead, we have made Jesus’s resurrection more a matter of metaphor than of historical fact.

3. The evil in the world.

This is one of the toughest problems of Christian faith in the minds of non-Christians. If God is indeed all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, then why does God permit the innocent to suffer? This question admits of no easy or glib answers. Even people of devout faith often do not know how to address it in dialog with another.

4. Christians are just hypocrites.

Evangelical Christian Ronald J. Sider wrote in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience,
By their daily activity, most 'Christians' regularly commit treason. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is their Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate their allegiance to money, sex, and personal self-fulfillment.
You or I may not agree we Christians are bad as all that, but no matter: when we give our witness of the Gospel, a large number of people believe we are like that, that we do not really mean what we say and do not live accordingly, either. That makes this perception a hindrance to our witness.

5. “I don’t feel welcome or comfortable at church.”

This goes beyond not being greeted on Sundays or not receiving a follow-up call or visit. Unchurched people can feel like strangers in a strange land when they come here. Frankly, we use a lot of “insider” jargon they don’t understand. We sing songs they don’t know with titles they haven’t heard—what is a “Doxology” anyway?

One result of these five factors and the way they inter-relate is that even church people well grounded in our faith shrink from being forthright to others, especially non-believers, about their faith. It’s not so much that we do not know what we believe, it’s that we often cannot explain why we believe it! And the problem is compounded by becoming tongue-tied when another person starts asking penetrating questions!

So come on Wednesday for the family meal at 5:45, then stay for exploration of these topics beginning at 6:30!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Be happy in your work!

Mandatory good times on the job seems all the rage these days.

The cult of fun is deepening as well as widening. Google is the acknowledged champion: its offices are blessed with volleyball courts, bicycle paths, a yellow brick road, a model dinosaur, regular games of roller hockey and several professional masseuses. But now two other companies have challenged Google for the jester’s crown—Twitter, a microblogging service, and Zappos, an online shoe-shop.

Twitter’s website stresses how wacky the company is: workers wear cowboy hats and babble that: “Crazy things happen every day…it’s pretty ridiculous.” The company has a team of people whose job is to make workers happy: for example, by providing them with cold towels on a hot day. Zappos boasts that creating “fun and a little weirdness” is one of its core values. Tony Hsieh, the boss, shaves his head and spends 10% of his time studying what he calls the “science of happiness”. He once joked that Zappos was suing the Walt Disney Company for claiming that it was “the happiest place on earth”. The company engages in regular “random acts of kindness”: workers form a noisy conga line and single out one of their colleagues for praise. The praisee then has to wear a silly hat for a week.

Yes, all work and no play make Jack a dull boy! You will go to work and you will enjoy it! For some reason I am reminded of this guy:









Be happy in your work! Or else!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Equations all the way down



Stephen Hawking is probably the best-known physicist of our day. He is the author of a number of mass-media books about science, including A Brief History of Time, which begins this way:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever", said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
The premise of Hawking's latest book, The Grand Design, co-authored with physicist Leonard Mlodinow, strikes me as not much of an improvement of the turtles thesis. Instead of turtles, Hawking has equations.

When the Marquis de Laplace presented his work, Mecanique celeste, to Napoleon, the conqueror complained that LaPlace had not mentioned of God in the text. Laplace replied,"Emperor, I have no need for that hypothesis."

That is the specific premise - nay, the very objective - of The Grand Design, in which Hawking claims that God is not needed to explain the beginning of the universe. "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing," writes Hawking. "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

It's striking how much this kind of science is coming to resemble science fiction with its own religious overtones. As Mlodinow is quoted:
We don't have a laboratory where we can control what's going on. We can't repeat the experiment and take the data. Also, the universe — since we believe in quantum theory now — is a quantum system.


What Hawking et al have done is written a form of science fiction, using equations rather than prose. All their equations may work out, but that don't mean they actually know more than before or that reality has been discerned to a greater degree. Hawking admitted that postulating a universe of three or four dimension did not resolve mathematically. In fact, using up to 10 dimensions didn't work. So they tried 11 and presto! X = 0. Or something. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, "These are our equations. If they don’t work, we have others."

It's equations all the way down.

In a sense, of course, all mathematical constructs are fictional, that is, creations of the mind. However, some math is purely theoretical in ways that other math is not. Negative numbers for example, have no real-world referent like positive numbers do. You cannot point to a fruit basket and say meaningfully, "That basket contains minus four apples." Mathematicians themselves even refer to "imaginary numbers." That doesn't mean they aren’t useful, but they are only mathematically useful. The square root of -1 is not a concept that has practical application.

I've no doubt that Hawking is impelled by a childlike curiosity about the universe that is so crucial to scientific work. But Hawking has been trying for years to establish in the popular mind his world view, which is not really a scientific one, but scientistic, a non-confirmable belief that science describes reality exhaustively and absolutely. But the scientific method cannot even demonstrate this, much less subject it to empirical verification. Scientism is a religious-type belief in science. As Mlodinow says, "We believe in quantum theory."

This is really a work of fiction, using numbers rather than prose.
And so Hawking claims that the universe simply popped into existence from nothing whatsoever, resting his claim purely upon mathematical constructs that are no less fictional than seventh-grade quadratic equations.

Yet Hawking may have shored up Genesis’ account as much as attacked it. Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss says, "Empirically, we can actually have evidence that the universe came from nothing. One of the key things is that the total energy of the universe is zero, which is only possible if the universe came from nothing. It could have been otherwise. It could have been not zero."

So it would seem that science has confirmed what the Church has claimed since earliest days, creatio ex nihilo, the idea that the universe’s antecedent was nothing at all. (One professor told me that the only reason the Jews didn't write creatio ex nihilo was that they didn't speak Latin.) That being so, a cynic might ask why a fiction of physicists’ equations should be preferred to the fiction of ancient priests' prose, since they both claim basically the same thing. Or perhaps the two accounts are not so separate as we think. Richard Feynman, after all, said that calculus, the basic math of physics, was, "the language God talks."

I prefer the priestly account of creation to Hawking's, since, as Mlodinow pretty much admitted, Hawking's and his concept of the universe's "grand design" is at bottom conjecture. Scientists may be able to describe how I got here, but not why. They can say what we can do, but not what we should do. Mlodinow said that there is no laboratory to research the universe’s beginning. But we live in a real-world lab with certain consequences. So we are better off heeding the wisdom of the prose than the conjecture of equations, even if they are equally false, or true.

Closing thought: Why is Hawking so willing to assume that the universe simply "big banged" itself into existence when we deny that anything else does so? And if the universe simply appeared, just popped into being, why do other such appearances not happen routinely? Why, for example, don't spherical balls (or whatever) just pop up in my front yard or yours from time to time?

But they don't. In fact, the entire universe itself consists only of contingent events that bring forth only contingent entities. But somehow, Hawking is nonetheless willing to say that the universe alone is a necessary entity. I wrote at some length about this argument in "Why God Must Exist."

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Cult of Green

"There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible."

"Environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths."


So said, respectively, renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, writing in 2008 in the New York Review of Books, and the late author Michael Crichton. (Dyson is one of the most highly-regarded physicists in the world.)

Global-warming environmentalism has indeed become a religion, complete with sin, expiation, ritual and cultic figures. It's deity is the earth itself, “Gaia,” the name of an ancient Greek earth goddess. The most important tenet of Gaiaism is that the earth is itself alive and is a being in its own right.

Gaiaism even has its own Garden of Eden - the earth before the appearance of human beings, when nature was pure, or after we showed up, but before we invented modern civilization. The Fall is the invention of the internal-combustion engine and the use of fossil fuels that followed, especially coal. More broadly, the Fall is consumerism and globalization.

But that Paradise Lost cannot be regained. There is no room for "life more abundant," since abundancy is environmentalism's original sin. Abundancy is expiated by human austerity or, as Dyson put it, "living frugally." Environmentalism's New Jerusalem is not prosperity, but the simple life arranged around a village-type lifestyle where everything is within walking distance of everything else. As British Leftist George Monbiot put it:
Everything we thought was good turns out also to be bad. ... We are killing people by the most innocent means: turning on the lights, taking a bath, driving to work, going on holiday. Climate change demands a reversal of our moral compass, for which we are plainly unprepared
This compass change requires cultic leaders such as Al Gore to guide the masses and give enlightenment to them. Like the Law of Moses, their commandments are to be obeyed from faith rather than inquiry: ‘Lo, I say unto you recycle, drive less, eat organics, drive hybrids, and so forth and so on.’

Environmentalism embraces apocalypticism with true fervor. The entire religion is predicated on the imminent, substantial destruction of the biosphere. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in 2008 that "humanity faces oblivion if it fails to confront global warming." Oblivion, he said. Rising seas, expanding droughts, melting sea ice, increased desertification, scorched crops, mass human suffering and death - all inhabit the same enviro-religious space as Revelation's horsemen of the apocalypse.

Like Jewish and Christian apocalypticism, environmentalism embraces the "children of light" opposed by the "children of darkness." The children of darkness, those who rebelled against God, embodied evil. The children of light, those who apprehended the truth of God, were spiritually pure. This notion has been adopted wholesale by environmentalism. Dyson put it this way:
[R]uthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists - most of whom are not scientists - holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. ... Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment.
"The worldwide community of environmentalists" = children of light. "Enemy of the environment" = child of darkness. (Dyson does not himself promote this belief, but describes what he sees.)

Like traditional apocalypticism, environmentalism holds is that things must get worse before they get better. No matter what we do now, climate change will intensify for decades before being abated. If oblivion is to be avoided, control must be established now. More than mere religiosity is at work here. H.L. Mencken observed, "The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule it." That is the true dogma of environmentalism: its gurus want total power over the masses. Monbiot gave the game away: "We can deal with climate change only with the help of governments, restraining the exertions of our natural liberties."

Dyson wrote, "Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion." No wonder: environmentalism has much more potential to achieve a rigid regulation of people's lives than political socialism. After all, the fate of the entire planet is at stake! So environmentalism uses scientific language to mask its neo-Leninism, the desire to control most aspects of the way people live. From there, environmentalism has only a short step to Leninism's successor: Stalinism, the desire to control every aspect of the way we live. That's its plan for us, minus the gulags. We hope.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Litany of remembrance for Sunday, September 12

Remembrance for the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001

Leader: Gracious God, in humility we ask your blessings as we remember a day of great violence nine years ago.

People: You are the everlasting God, whose love extends to all generations. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

We remember with sadness the thousands who died on September 11, 2001, men and women of wealth, blue-collar workers, military members and government employees, airline passengers and crew - all the people who perished in flames and pain.

We are thankful for the bravery of police officers, firefighters and others who selflessly went into danger to rescue the stricken, and lost their lives or suffered injury in their service.

Continue, O Lord, to give comfort to the families of those who died, grace to those who still struggle with anguished memories or the effects of injuries.

May your Spirit rest upon each one who endured that day, and let the assurance of your presence be strong with them always.

We pray for the people of our land and lands far away, who have suffered or died in the wars of the last nine years.

We pray for our military and their families, who have lost their lives, endured separation and hardship and for many of whom the war will never truly end.

We pray for our enemies as you commanded us to do. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ fall upon everyone who wishes us harm. May we never take your favor for granted, but strive always to abide humbly in your service.

Help us Lord, to love our enemies and do good to them.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Is Islam the enemy?

On this anniversary day we would do well to remember who is our enemy? Who did this and why?

The first plane:









The second plane:









The horror:









Some have said that we are in a clash of civilizations. No. This war - and never forget that it is war - is not a clash between civilizations. It is a war between one civilization, the West, and the barbarism called Islamism. It is impossible meaningfully to call al-Qaedaism or Talibanism "civilization."

The Taliban beat and even shot women who went outside their homes without company of their husbands or a close male relative. They flogged or hanged men whose beards were too short. In Saudi Arabia a few years ago, a girls' school caught fire one night and the decency police (yes, they have them in Saudi Arabia) refused to unlock the exits because the girls were not properly veiled. At least 15 girls burned or suffocated to death.

These kinds of things are not anomalies. They are normative. And they are considered by our enemies to be divinely commanded.

Is Islam the enemy? President Obama, speaking today in Shanksville, Pa. said no. " "As Americans, we will not or ever be at war with Islam."

But before we so quickly and politically-correctly say no, we might consider the words from Mosab Hassan Yousef, "son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founder and leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Throughout the last decade, from the second Intifada to the current stalemate, he worked alongside his father in the West Bank. During that time the younger Mr. Yousef also secretly embraced Christianity."
As the son of a Muslim cleric, he says he had reached the conclusion that terrorism can't be defeated without a new understanding of Islam. Here he echoes other defectors from Islam such as the former Dutch parliamentarian and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Do you consider your father a fanatic? "He's not a fanatic," says Mr. Yousef. "He's a very moderate, logical person. What matters is not whether my father is a fanatic or not, he's doing the will of a fanatic God. It doesn't matter if he's a terrorist or a traditional Muslim. At the end of the day a traditional Muslim is doing the will of a fanatic, fundamentalist, terrorist God. I know this is harsh to say. Most governments avoid this subject. They don't want to admit this is an ideological war.

"The problem is not in Muslims," he continues. "The problem is with their God. They need to be liberated from their God. He is their biggest enemy. It has been 1,400 years they have been lied to."
However, it really does not matter much whether Islam, per se, is the enemy. The fact is that Islam as a whole is not controlled or much influenced by (mythical?) moderate Muslims. The radicals are driving Islam's train and controlling Islam's agenda. To talk about some golden age of Islam, as if there was a caliphate where everything was unicorns and rainbows, is not relevant in the 21st century.

Islam is what Muslims do. And today Muslims are either trying to kills us, Islamize us, supporting those who are trying to or they are acquiescing to it. Professor Bala Ambati, writing in Duke University's "Chronicle" newspaper, in 2003, put it this way:
Religions are defined not only by ideals but by realities, not just by their deepest and most beautiful insights, but by their adherents' behavior. . . . When moderate Muslims state terrorist attacks are disconnected from Islam, they ignore the reality that Islamic fundamentalist imperialists act in the name of Islam and Muslims, claiming "true Islam's" mantle from conspicuously absent moderates. . . . Until the realization that theocracies cannot be democracies dawns throughout the Islamic world, saying terrorism is disconnected from Islam is a smokescreen employed to abdicate responsibility to face reality. ...

Moderate Muslims must choose whether to let megalomaniacs, liars, misogynists and murderers hijack societies and religion and pilot them into destruction's abyss. Sidelines are not moral high ground. Unequivocally repudiating and forswearing terrorist methods and imperialist aims of Islamic fundamentalism by moderate Muslims is overdue.
Note that he said seven years ago that it was "overdue" for moderates Muslims to seize control of the definition of Islam. This moderates have not only failed to do so, they have not even tried to.

It may be that 900 million Muslims around the world want to live entirely in peace with the West and wish al Qaeda et. al. would go away. It does not matter what they want. It only matters what they do. And they are doing nothing. So for all intents and purposes, there are no moderate Muslims.

Islam, whether promulgated by "moderates" or extremists, is inherently supremacist, absolutist and triumphalist. Moderate Muslims desire for Islam, qua Islam, are insignificantly different from extremists' goals, who merely add militarism and imperialism to the modus operandi. Their ideological wellspring is the Muslim Brotherhood and its financial deep pockets are in Saudi Arabia, whose own Wahhabist ideology is not significantly distinguishable from the Muslim Brotherhood's.

So what that only a tiny percentage of Muslims are violent against the US or the West! Even if only one percent of Muslims in the world want personally to carry out violence against the us, that's still 12 million potential jihadists. And if they are supported by merely 10 percent of Muslims, it means 120 million will help them. And the rest will let it happen and occasionally cluck-cluck that, of course, the killers are not practicing "true Islam."

So to say, "We are not at war with Islam" is to utter nothing meaningful. It does not matter whether we think that. For Islam, as it is being defined today, is certainly at war with us.

Update: I see now that Walter Russell Mead and I are on the same sheet of music. And he makes a good point, one that I should have recognized myself: there are moderate Muslims in the world making a difference (though practically none of them are in the West). The moderate Muslims who matter are killing al Qaeda and its ilk in Muslims lands.

Sunni Iraqis took a long hard look at Al-Qaeda. They watched bombs go off in marketplaces and mosques. They watched reprisal killings of respected tribal elders and innocents. They watched undisciplined groups of fighters, freed from all moral and social restraint, innocent for the most part of any serious religious knowledge, imposed narrow and poorly conceived ideas on society by force in the name of an Islam Al-Qaeda neither understood nor respected.

And the Sunni Arabs of Iraq made a choice.

They saw Al-Qaeda at its best — volunteer freedom fighters come from around the world to fight for them — and they saw America at its worst, incompetent, insensitive, vacillating and violent.

And they chose the United States.

They decided that the future of their families, their children and their values was better served by aligning with the United States against the terrorists and against the fanatics. ...

But as we look back on the nine years since 9/11, one thing needs to kept clearly in view. The more the world’s Muslims see of Al-Qaeda and its agenda of indiscriminate murder, the less they like it.

And many of them are doing something about it. But you'd never know it from reading or watching American media.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Who seeks smaller churches today?

The Rev. Lewis Parks, professor of theology, ministry and congregational development at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C., has done extensive work with small membership churches and their leaders. He answers who is visiting small churches today, and why. So go read!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Christless Christianity?

Christian author Michael Horton asks the pointed question, "What happens when we take Christ out of Christianity?" And he argues that to a great degree many mainline churches have already done so:



I am reminded of Saint Augustine's observation: "If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself."

You can read the introduction (by UMC Bishop Will Willimon) and first chapter of Horton's book here.

Monday, September 6, 2010

You can't eat gold

Prof. Bainbridge wonders whether Fort Knox, Kentucky, actually contains any gold. And the answer is no, because the US gold repository is not on Fort Knox. It simply adjoins the Army post. But let that pass.

The good professor writes:

Ron Paul thinks there needs to be an audit to see if there's really any gold in Fort Knox. The utility of gold as a store of value has always puzzled me, although I must confess to having done less well in Econ 102 than I did in Econ 101, so there you have it.
He then proceeds to relate the story of "Terry Pratchett's wonderful Discworld novel Making Money," in which character Moist von Lipwig, charged with securing the nation's gold, discovers there is no gold. An interview with "crack reporter Sacharissa Cripslock" ensues:
"The world is full of things worth more than gold. But we dig the stuff up and then bury it in a different hole. Where's the sense in that? What are we, magpies? Is it all about the gleam? Good heavens, potatoes are worth more than gold!"

"Surely not!," [said Ms. Cripslock]

"If you were shipwrecked on a desert island, what would you prefer, a bag of potatoes or a bag of gold?," [replied Moist]

"Yes, but a desert island isn't Ankh-Morpork!"

"And that proves gold is only valuable because we agree it is, right? It's just a dream. But a potato is always worth a potato, anywhere. A knob of butter and a pinch of salt and you've got a meal, anywhere . Bury gold in the ground and you'll be worrying about thieves for ever. Bury a potato and in due season you could be looking at a dividend of a thousand per cent."

"Can I assume for a moment that you don't intend to put us on the potato standard?" said Sacharissa sharply.
Eleven millionaires went down with the Titanic in 1912. One who survived was A.H. Peuchen, who said that he left $300,000 in money, jewelry, and certificates in a lockbox box in his cabin. "The money seemed to mock me at that time," he said. "I picked up three oranges instead."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Who else would?

A New York Times blog reports on an academic study done relating to church attendance. The blogger writes this blinding glimpse of the obvious:

The study specifically focused on the behavior of Catholics and Protestants because they were most likely to attend church on Sundays.
Imagine that!

Might it have been that the researchers specifically focused on the behavior of Catholics and Protestants because they were most likely to attend church at all?

Yah, could be.