Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Problem of Evil and Epicurus' Trilemma

I've been musing over the problem of evil and that popular maxim put forward by Epicurus, 2300 years ago, as an argument against an all-knowing (omniscience), all-powerful (omnipotent), and all loving God. The argument is still popular today among many of my atheist friends (even being referenced in the movie Superman vs. Batman), so I thought it worthwhile addressing.

First, in case you are unfamiliar with the argument, Epicurus basically posited that if God is willing to prevent evil, but not able, He is not omnipotent. If He is able, but not willing, He is not all good. If He both able and willing, evil should not exist. If He is neither able nor willing, then He is not God.

The problem with the Epicurean trilemma (leaving aside the fact it is first quoted in the writings of a Christian theologian arguing against it, and was possibly never uttered by Epicurus) is that it rests on a few (unproven) assumptions: 1) the future is something which can be known, 2) omniscience is properly defined as knowing the future, and 3) evil can be objectively defined.

The reason this is a problem is that, if the future is something which can be known ahead of time (either because it is predetermined, or "exists" in the mind of its Creator), then free will does not exist. If free will does not exist, no action can be good or evil. A predetermined universe negates the initial premise of the argument.

However, it seems that quantum mechanics shows us "the future" is probabilistic in nature, rather than deterministic. This means it is essentially uncreated. While an omniscient God can know all the possible futures, there is no way a single future could be known ahead of time. A thing can only be known if it exists; so it follows that if the future does not exist, it cannot be known. In this case, a probabilistic universe negates the argument's definition of omniscience.

Finally, if evil can be objectively defined (especially as something within the created order), this suggests a moral reality beyond human social contract, which can only apply to functionally free beings in a probabilistic universe. Since humans are (said to be) free beings, then the burden of evil rests entirely on them.

But if there is no God, then there can be no moral reality beyond transitory human social contract. And again, the burden of breaking any such contract (defined as an act of evil) would rest only on its constituent parties, i.e. human beings. In either case, human beings are to blame for evil's existence, rather than God (whether or not God exists).

It seems to me that the God of Christianity (the faith with which I am most familiar) is generally described as creating humanity to reflect God's "Image", i.e. to be free beings which possess the ability to make moral decisions, to live in community (with God, fellow humans, and creation), and to create or destroy.

But the existence of free beings carries with it the implicit risk of evil, broken relationship, and immoral decisions. If Christianity's claims are correct, then the best explanation for the existence of evil is that God loves humanity so deeply, He figured it was worth the risk that we would dork everything up.
#philosophy #God #atheism #Christianity #theodicy #Epicurus #evil


Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Toward a Philosophical Understanding of Abortion and Human Rights

Since the landmark Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, the debate regarding abortion has taken a center stage in the political discourse of the United States. Unfortunately, this debate too often degrades into tired platitudes and appeals to party lines on both sides. Even worse, the well-being of mothers and babies is held hostage to political power plays.

On the pro-life side, I often hear appeals to religious principles or scriptural passages, but how do we apply these in a secular nation? Can we really expect those who don’t believe as we do to accept the formulations from a book they don’t read or care about? Apart from scripture, how do we develop an argument that human life (both pre- and post-born) should be respected? At a more basic level, is there an argument to be made that a freshly formed zygote is an individual human being with individual rights?

On the pro-choice side, I often hear the line that a fetus, or fertilized egg, is just a mass of tissues and has no rights apart from the mother. The problem is, I rarely hear a philosophical reason for why the process of birth separates masses of tissues from fully formed human beings. Beyond the ritual of having fluid squeezed from the lungs and passing through a tunnel, what is the difference between a baby moments from being born, and one already in its mother’s arms?

I think it is clear that, in the context of these important questions, one’s political opinion be founded on philosophically coherent principles. And the fundamental philosophical question is this: Are zygotes and fetuses fundamentally human beings with intrinsic, individual rights?

Now, as a Christian, I can’t completely remove the influence of my faith from my political positions, since the fundamental linchpin of my understanding of the universe rests in the belief that we are created in the image of God and like God, we have will, desire, moral understanding, and the ability to create, destroy, and shape our environments. Still, even a person who either denies the existence of God, or whose understanding of God is fundamentally different from mine, can at least (hopefully) agree that human beings exhibit the above attributes. That being said, I go a step further in my philosophy of individual rights.

You see, the above attributes all focus on “ability”. Humans have the ability to express will or desire, to create or destroy, to make moral choices, etc. However, if our definition of a human being only rests in its ability, what does this mean for the mentally or physically handicapped? Or for those whose ability is restricted by external circumstance, like the poor? Or those whose ability is restricted by past choices, like the prisoner? Even in the past century, we have seen many atrocities committed by regimes who denied the intrinsic, fundamental human right to life of one or more of these groups because they lacked “ability” in one way or another.

Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the Kims of North Korea all provide ready examples of the terror such a definition of humanity can create. It would be bad enough if these outbursts of violent and repressive regimes were the only examples we had, but there are new acts of violence and death perpetrated each day, all over the face of this planet. Every murder, every execution, every act of war represents the destruction of one or more human beings. And in order for a human to kill another human being, they first have to justify it in some way. Usually this means making an argument that the other human being has lost their right to life in some way, and have become less than human. Whether these deaths are justified (for instance in the execution of criminals or when fighting wars) is beyond the scope of this article.

But in the context of abortion, the observation remains true, people justify killing fetuses using the same psychological mechanism which allows them to kill enemies. This tells me their philosophical foundation for human rights is fundamentally deficient. A very pertinent example is the current practice in Iceland to screen for Down’s Syndrome and abort fetuses based on the results. On the one hand, their efforts are being lauded as successfully eliminating the genetic malady from the country. But at the same time, almost any parent of a Down’s Syndrome child will tell you just how wonderful, loving, and happy they can be. How long before we begin aborting fetuses that have the genetic disposition for heart disease, obesity, or brown eyes instead of blue?

To correct this, I argue that we must expand our definition to not only include “ability,” but also “potential.” Though a fetus is utterly reliant on its mother for the sustenance of its life and its ability for self-expression is severely limited at the moment, its potential for all the above attributes is never diminished. After all, a newborn baby is just as reliant on its mother’s survival as an unborn fetus and most humans of any age are utterly reliant on their communities for their survival, as well. In fact, no matter what challenges or changes the human organism faces throughout its life, though its ability is constantly changing as well, its potential for further expression in each of the above areas (however small) continues to remain a fundamental attribute.

This expansion of our definition of humanity has the potential to revolutionize how we philosophically frame a wide variety of political and ethical issues, including debates over the justification of war, capital punishment, euthanasia, poverty alleviation, environmental policy, and even the extension of rights to artificial intelligence or extraterrestrials we may come in contact with (topics which are science fiction now, but may become a part of reality in the future).

For me though, the issue is much simpler. Because I’ve fallen deeply, irrevocably, and irrationally in love with God; I love the bearers of God’s image just as deeply. To see any destroyed breaks my heart.

#politics #philosophy #abortion #prolife #prochoice


Friday, August 11, 2017

My Response to "How Contemporary Physics Points to God"

I decided to go ahead and write down my thoughts on the article, "How Contemporary Physics Points to God," first published on the website Strange Notions by Fr. Robert Spitzer, which can be found here. The reason being that, I feel my response to this article actually goes a long way toward not only expressing my thoughts on how cosmology and physics relate to God, but also explaining my thoughts on God's relationship to human beings, human nature, and the concept of free will.

The first thing which strikes me is that the jump from "creative power" to a "Creator" (implying intention) which Fr. Spitzer uses is a logical leap that isn't demonstrated by the evidence provided in the article. I think his use of "transcendent power" at least recognizes that there are other possibilities involved.

Still, it is interesting to note that not too long ago, the scientific community did not immediately affirm the idea that the Universe had a definable beginning. When the idea of the Big Bang was brought forward by Fr. Georges Lemaitre in 1927 as an explanation for the phenomena of Doppler shift being observed by astronomers, many derided it as a Christian interpolation into science. I think the article above did a great job of briefly addressing the proofs for the Big Bang, and some of its possible implications, while also providing a launchpad for further reading.

I also personally think the second part of the article, describing a teleological argument for God from the anthropic nature of the cosmos is more compelling, but even this doesn't "prove" God's involvement, nor does it provide proof of intention behind the universe. Instead, I like to say it "hints" at the possibility (or even probability) of intention behind the creation (and maintenance) of the Cosmos.

I would argue that we will never be able to find proofs for (or against) God in physical laws for a couple of reasons. The first is the obvious one, if there is no God, no proofs will be found. The second is less obvious, but more in line with my theological understanding of the Cosmos.

If God does exist, and this God wants to develop a relationship with created beings, then those beings must be able to develop the ability to formulate and express intent in a similar way to the God who created them. If this fundamental ability for self-expression (what one might call “free will”) were markedly different from what God has, or was non-existent, relationship would be impossible. This reality is already understood within the field of Artificial Intelligence. AI will only be recognized as conscious by human beings when the phenomena it produces begin to reflect the type of intention we already exhibit (cf. the hypothetical Turing Test).

But this also means that in order for self-expression/intention to exist, it must arise through natural processes which allow for risk (of evil, suffering, etc.) and on the other hand self-discovery. This means the “hand” of God cannot be too heavy, or else we would instinctively just do whatever God wants. There can be no relationship between puppets and their puppeteer, and it may be that in order to turn puppets into children, God needed to cut the strings.

Now, because I DO think our ability for self-expression is fundamentally different from God's (due to our fall into sin, and its corrupting effect on our ability to reason, to fully be human), the Incarnation became necessary for relationship to be restored.

Since an intentional being is only able to self-correct if its ability to reason is intact, God had to reach into the Cosmos and restore this ability (which in turn restored our capacity for free will), which I think he did through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Just as God didn't want us to be his puppets, He certainly doesn't want us to be puppets of corruption.

I think this theologically explains both the apparent absence of direct supernatural influence in the standard operation of the Cosmos and the apparent death and resurrection of Jesus (if such an event did occur) in a logically coherent way that also takes into account our current scientific understanding. However, I understand that from a materialist point of view, it isn't very satisfying.

#physics #cosmology #God #atheism #theology



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Relationship Between Spirituality and Religion

Every once in a while, I hear someone make the assertion, "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual." I see where they're coming from. The statement is usually uttered by someone who is trying to demonstrate that their faith is a deep component of their personality, and not simply empty, outward tradition or mindless, repetitive action.

But for me, I think the concepts of religion and spirituality only take on meaning when understood together. I don't think a person can have one without the other. While spirituality is the inward change experienced through faith, religion is its outward expression. Both are human responses to God's action in the world (what we refer to as "revelation").

As a hospice chaplain, the analogy I immediately go to describes the difference between grief and mourning. Grief is the inward, emotional and psychological experience of loss. Mourning is its outward expression. Indeed, it's no accident that grief is almost always described as a spiritual experience and mourning usually includes religious ritual.

So when a person tells me, "i'm not religious, I'm spiritual," a number of questions immediately come to mind. If your faith and spirituality are indeed shaping your life and worldview, do they not find expression in every day actions? Do those actions include ritual or repeated expression? If not, do you really have faith or is what you are experiencing just intellectual assent, compartmentalized and far removed from other areas of life? Are you confusing knowledge (gnosis) with faith? Are you allowing your interactions, relationships, and actions (the substance of religion) to be transformed by faith? Can spirituality even be truly transformative without physical expression?

It isn't my intent to judge anyone's faith or spirituality, I just want us (me included) to take a deep look at our assertions and how they actually reflect our lives and practices. Words have different meanings for different people. When we make a claim (often with the implication that our opinion is superior), we should make sure that at most it can hold up to scrutiny, and at the very least, that we are talking about the same things.

#Spirituality #Religion #Faith


Monday, February 27, 2017

My Philosophy of Ministry

Introduction
As part of the ordination process with the Church of the Nazarene, I wrote a Philosophy of Ministry that articulates my views on theology and leadership within the church. This is a “living document” which can change over time as my emphases and experiences shape my outlook on church leadership.

Core Theology
My Central Mission Statement:
I am called to share the good news with the lost; to love God with everything I am; to reflect the love of God in my relationship with Him, with other people, and with all creation; and to lead others to do the same.

The Good News:
Humanity was created both individually and communally by God in God’s image,(1) to freely and fully enjoy worshipful communion with Him, with each other, and with all creation.(2) By virtue of our being God’s image, we were created with the ability to freely choose between life and death, right and wrong, creation and destruction;(3) as genuine relationship can only happen in the context of freedom.

In freedom, the first humans were seduced with the promise of power which the Tree of Knowledge embodies.(4) In doing so, they willfully followed their own selfish desires without regard to the natural consequences of broken communion which followed. This willful pursuit of selfish desire at the expense of our communion with God is what we call “sin”. Their communion with God was severed as their nakedness was revealed;(5) their communion with each other was severed as one human was cursed to dominate another and their children would be hounded by sin and death; and their communion with creation was severed with their removal from paradise and exemplified in their struggle to survive.(6)

But even though we have all been separated from God and each other by the selfish and rebellious choices of every human being from the first up to today; God did not abandon us. He chose the people Israel to be the avenue through which He would bring Salvation to all who would accept it.(7) He also sent the prophets to proclaim His law, the nature of His desire, and the reality of our sin.(8)And He loved us so much that Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully human, took on flesh and was born to a virgin, died on the cross, and was bodily raised from the dead; so that we likewise may not die in our twisted state of separation and sin, but rather also be bodily raised to new life in perfect communion with God and each other in the new, restored, and redeemed creation.(9) In doing so, Christ is the new Adam, and frees us from the curse of the old.(10) This also means our ability to repent and accept the free gift of salvation is restored through the prevenient grace provided in Christ’s sacrifice and communicated through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Christ had the authority and ability to do this because he is fully God and fully man. He was not tainted with the communal state of sin into which all humanity is born. He lived a perfect life free from sin, though he was tempted. He conquered sin and death forever in his self-sacrificial death on the cross and bodily resurrection; thus establishing the promise of bodily resurrection for all who believe in him.(11) During his life, he worked miracles and taught his disciples a new way of life, meant to provide a foretaste of his victorious kingdom and the above-mentioned new creation.

And once he was assumed into Heaven to prepare for the fulfillment of of his promise; he sent the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to call all humanity to Himself and to guide, comfort, and admonish the Church. The Holy Spirit is fully and equally God, as are the Son, and the Father. They are eternally and mystically One substance, yet three Persons. It is through the Holy Spirit that we come to know and experience God.(12)

The Church in turn is the community of disciples called to embody the foretaste of the new creation, the kingdom of heaven, which stands in stark contrast to the kingdoms of the world. We live by Christ’s teachings and self-sacrificial example. And our greatest testimony to our faith in a broken, hurting and often bitter world, is our love for one another which extends even to our enemies.(13) Our love not only reflects the promise of the new creation, it reflects the love Christ has for the world, and the love expressed in the perfect unity of the Trinity. The more fully this love is expressed in the Church, the more fully we realize the purpose for which we were first created, which is to be God’s image in the world.

Our sacraments were instituted by Christ himself for the benefit of the Church, and include Baptism and Communion. I believe Communion communicates the real presence of Christ to the participant and connects them in worship and proclamation to the whole Body of Christ, in all times and places.(14) And I believe water Baptism using the Trinitarian formula, whether by sprinkling or immersion and whether to infants or adults, is a necessary sign of obedience and public proclamation to the world of both the Christian’s inclusion in the community and their trust in Christ’s promise of the resurrection.(15) This does not mean it is necessary for Salvation, as Salvation comes through faith in the free gift of grace alone.(16)

In all this, I affirm the inspired reliability and sufficiency of Scripture to communicate what is necessary for Salvation;(17) I affirm the tradition of the Church Fathers and Mothers who have shaped its interpretation from the days of the Apostles to today; and I affirm the ancient ecumenical creeds which formulate orthodox belief.(18)

Role of the Pastor
While all Christians are called to utilize their God-given gifts for ministry, the Holy Spirit calls certain ministers, who are referred to in scripture as Elders or Overseers, to special roles in leadership, preaching, discipleship, and administering the sacraments.

As leaders we are called to discern and execute the vision which God has for our particular area of ministry, while being good stewards of the resources placed under our responsibility. As preachers, we are called to bear witness to and proclaim the transforming grace of Jesus Christ in the gospel message. As disciplers, we are called to grow, challenge, counsel, encourage, and equip those believers entrusted in our care as the Holy Spirit leads them to greater maturity, sanctifies them, and in turn calls them to ministry.(19) When administering the sacraments, we take the concrete elements and actions taught to us by Christ, and through the Holy Spirit, communicate the immeasurable grace of Christ freely given to all who are in communion with Him.

As an Elder, I plan to fulfill all these roles; though the emphasis on particular roles may take precedence over others as need requires. For example, as a hospice Chaplain I may preach monthly, usually in the context of funerals and memorials where many of those gathered may not be believers, and who may only hear sermons when they attend weddings or funerals; rather than weekly to a congregation that may have a greater proportion of believers, who may be used to sermon series and themes carried over multiple Sundays. At the same time, I may spend a greater amount of my time and energy on the tasks associated with discipleship, especially counseling and encouragement. Additionally, rather than having set, pre-planned times for the administration of sacraments, they may need to be provided on an emergency basis for individuals who wish to partake in these particular expressions of faith.

Philosophy of Leadership
As a leader in the Church, I am called to both reflect the leadership of Christ to the people, and lead the people to worshipful communion in Christ. As stated above, the type of kingdom which Christ leads stands in stark contrast to the kingdoms of the world. Likewise, the type of leadership which Christ exemplifies stands in stark contrast to the leaders of the world. Where the world rewards leaders who ruthlessly pursue their desires and consolidate power over people under themselves; Christlike leaders are called to selflessly set our desires aside and bring people to true freedom in Christ.(20) Where worldly leaders and the kingdoms they lead seek to protect their group by demonizing outsiders; Christlike leaders welcome the outsiders into our churches, our homes, and our lives.(21) Where worldly leaders and the kingdoms they lead believe power should rest with the powerful and ally themselves to it; Christlike leaders protect the marginalized and defend the cause of the orphan, the widow, and the refugee.(22)

Additionally, the New Testament puts forward very clear standards for leaders in the church. An Elder must be disciplined, faithful, honest, and gracious in all his or her areas of life, starting with the home.(23) After all, our first mission field is our own families, and they often see our true nature.
I think all leaders in the church, whether clergy or lay, are called to this type of Christlike leadership. I also think that, as we are one community, we are all accountable to each other and to the Holy Spirit for our thoughts and actions. Still, as one of the fundamental roles of a pastor discussed above is discipleship and mentorship for those called to ministry, we must be especially watchful of our conduct; as it has the potential to shape (or harm) the faith of future generations of leaders.

Philosophy of Evangelism and Discipleship
There are a number of challenges which American churches are facing in the 21st century, and one of the biggest is how to draw in and communicate the gospel to generations of Americans who are increasingly not only un-churched, but even anti-church. It isn’t simply a matter of updating the music every couple of decades. Many of those who have walked away from (or never entered) a church have deep wounds from those around them which they perceived as religious. Many have walked into a congregation two or three weeks in a row without being noticed. And there have been some who were absent for weeks to care for a family member or because of illness, but no one called, came to visit, or prepared a meal.

If we are to attract, convert, and disciple an increasingly un-churched culture; we need to push past the political, generational, socio-economic, and ethnic divisions in our country and discern what the Holy Spirit is already doing. It’s easy to become discouraged sometimes, but God is doing some amazing things in our culture. For instance, there is a deep desire among younger generations to see ethnic divisions crumble and to be a part of diverse groups. They are passionate about caring and advocating for the poor and marginalized. And they care about the planet and the ramifications of pollution, deforestation, and climate change. Though they are increasingly shaped by sources of information which only serve to confirm previous biases, they have a deep desire for truth that addresses the hard questions encountered in life.

To me, these concerns represent the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, drawing all people to Himself. We just need to be aware of what God is already doing, and develop our ministries to reflect and participate in that work. That may mean starting a community garden, or organizing a highway cleanup, or designating lay volunteers to greet new visitors and call those who we haven’t seen in a while, just to let them know we care for them and are here for them. It could also mean conducting small group bible studies in more comfortable and personal settings, like in homes, or coffee-shops, or other so called “third spaces” where people can relax and grow as a community. Finally, our leaders need to trust God by being vulnerable with each other. By taking risks and letting our congregations know we also sometimes struggle with tough questions, with loneliness, and with emotional wounds; we can build a more trusting and truly united community within the Body of Christ.

Role of the Laity
Our church affirms the calling placed on the life of every believer to be ministers and witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ.(24) This means that, according to the gifts they’ve been given and which the Church is called to cultivate, they can and should be involved in almost every area of ministry. While an Elder is called to discern and communicate God’s vision for the community, lay members are equipped by the Holy Spirit to participate in and execute that vision. Though an Elder is called to preach to the congregation, lay members may pray or give testimony to what God is doing in their lives in the congregational setting. And though an ordained Elder is responsible for the maturity and discipleship of the body of believers, as well as the cultivation of prospective ordination candidates; more mature lay members may still lead bible studies, book clubs, and group discussions, teach Sunday School, and even mentor less mature individuals, all under the supervision of the ordained members of the congregation.

Philosophy of Stewardship
First, I believe the church should be utterly transparent in how it allocates funds. In line with the above discussion on evangelism, many have grown mistrustful of institutions in general and churches in particular. Popular criticism of lavish church facilities and pastors who travel in their own private jets and live in mansions abound; even if this criticism does not reflect the reality of most churches and pastors.(25) A church which makes its financial information readily available goes a long way toward earning people’s trust.

I also think that if an Elder or leader in the Church is going to hold the community to a standard of investment in the church and personal accountability; then the self-same leader should exemplify that standard.(26) That means I should not only tithe as a regular act of trust, discipline, and worship;(27) I should use all my household resources in a responsible manner. This may mean going above and beyond the tithe to support Nazarene Compassionate Ministries or other worthy causes, as I am able. It also means responsibly using my time and energy in ways that edify the community, grow our bonds of love, and that exemplify the loving character of Christ to all those I interact with. And it means finding new ways to eliminate waste (including food, water, electricity, fuel, etc. as well as money).

Additionally, just as the church’s leadership are called to discern and build strategies for responding to God’s vision for the congregation; they are also called to find creative ways to efficiently allocate resources in a sustainable way, while seeing to the needs of those entrusted to the care of the Church.(28) This means having Standard Operating Procedures and detailed recordkeeping in place on the congregational and program level for the allocation and use of funds; as well as detailed financial plans in place when a new ministry or project is started and at regular intervals as it continues.

Finally, stewardship also extends to our care of the planet and the “community capital”(29) which surrounds our churches. This may mean embracing green initiatives when remodeling or expanding our facilities, or instituting a recycling or scrap collection program (which could also bring in revenue). It could also mean having a prayer garden and which incorporates the natural beauty of the surrounding environs, while also utilizing plants adapted to the climate to cut down on chemical pest control measures and watering requirements (which also saves money in the process). On the “community capital” side, the local church could partner with other like-minded area churches, businesses, non-profits, and individuals in ministering to the poor, or by working together on ministry projects, thereby fostering greater cooperation with the greater Body of Christ and negating another popular criticism of the Church as being fractured and divisive.(30)

The Role of the Family
The family is a microcosm of the Church,(31) and the relationships within the family should strive to reflect the perfect love, joy and communion expressed in the Trinity. My wife and I try to make all our family decisions in unity, submitting ourselves to each other, and being examples of Christ-like love to each other and our children.(32) When it comes to ministering in the Church, I recognize that my wife has been given unique gifts and her own will to follow Christ. This means that while she is very supportive of my ministry, her role within the church should be decided based on her own gifts and the leading of the Holy Spirit, and not by her relationship to me as a pastor’s wife.

I also recognize that, while I am committed to raising my children in the knowledge of Christ, their decision whether or not to follow Christ or participate in ministry is ultimately a decision made between them and God. So, while I encourage my family to participate fully in the life and ministry of the Church, I will not force them. Likewise, when it comes to positions of ministerial authority within the Church, they will need to show the same maturity and calling that would be expected of any other believer who desired such a position, and should not be deferentially placed simply because I am the pastor.

Why a Nazarene Minister
I love the Nazarene Church and the work of God expressed in both its history and distinctive doctrines. These include denominational roots in urban homeless ministries in Los Angeles, and an emphasis on supporting Nazarene educational institutions. They also include our teachings on Christian perfection, free will, and divine healing. Additionally, I support our affirmation of both infant and believer’s baptism. And I rejoice in the call God has placed in the lives of women as well as men to become ordained Elders and Deacons. All of these were factors in my decision to serve with and support the Nazarene Church.

Still, I also believe that God is doing great things in other orthodox denominations(33) and I believe it is God’s desire that we overcome our denominational differences and learn to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We may not agree on everything and should still stay true to our convictions and doctrinal distinctions; but we can also recognize the legitimacy of each other’s ministries, ordinations, and sacraments. In the meantime, I think it is essential to the ministry of the Church that we begin to work with other denominations in our communities to reach out to the lost, help the poor, and even worship with each other as the opportunity arises.

//SIGNED//

Rev. Ian Hyde

Footnotes
  1. Gen. 1:26-27.
  2. cf. Psa. 8:1-9, 19:1-6 and 139:13-18.
  3. Deu. 30:19.
  4. Gen. 3:3-6.
  5. Gen. 3:7.
  6. Gen. 3:13-19, 23.
  7. John 4:22; cf. Rom. 10-11.
  8. 2 Chr. 24:19.
  9. 1 Cor. 15:12-58; Rev. 21:1-27.
  10. 1 Cor. 15:45.
  11. 1 Cor. 15:12-58; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5:31:2.
  12. John 14:15-17.
  13. John 13:35; Mat. 5:44-45.
  14. Eph. 4:11-13.
  15. John 6:32-58; 1 Cor. 10:16-17, 11:23-29.
  16. Mat. 28:19-20; Acts. 16:31, 33; 1 Cor. 12:13.
  17. 28th General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene, Manual: 2013-2017, 29.
  18. cf. Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381; Chalcedonian Creed of 451; Apostles’ Creed; and the Athanasian Creed.
  19. Eph. 2:8-9.
  20. 1 Pet. 5:2-3; Mat. 20:25-28.
  21. Heb. 13:2.
  22. Exo. 23:9; Jer. 7:6; James 1:27.
  23. Titus 1:5-9; 1 Tim. 3:1-7.
  24. Church of the Nazarene, Manual: 2013-2017, 186.
  25. According to Pastor Salaries, Average Salary & Jobs Pay, http://www.salarylist.com/jobs/Pastor-Salary.htm, retrieved Feb. 27, 2017; the average annual pay for a pastor is $35,360. In fact, a growing number of pastors must work two or more jobs to provide for their families.
  26. 1 Cor. 4:1-2.
  27. Deu. 14:28-29; Prov. 3:9-10.
  28. Luk. 12:42-46.
  29. These are the unique cultural resources which abound in any community, and which both connect it to and differentiate it from other communities.
  30. John 17:20-21.
  31. John Chrysostom, Homily 20 on Ephesians, 6.
  32. Eph. 5:21-33.
  33. Defined as those who exhibit apostolic authority and adhere to the ancient creeds listed above.
#ministry #ChurchoftheNazarene #creeds #gospel



Thursday, December 03, 2015

How Should A Christian Define "Ethics"?

This is a question I was asked recently, and as I am not a professional philosopher by any means, any post of mine would probably fail to hit on many of the considerations which have been debated for millenia. Still, I think this is a worthy question which every person of faith should consider for themselves and their communities. So, in what is probably much too short a post to fully address the issue of Christian ethics, I will offer some of my own thoughts on how I formulate my understanding of Christian ethics, its relationship to human philosophy, and to scripture.

I think that very often, the term "ethical" is implied to be some external good (perhaps a holdover of Platonism?). If there is a God, then I do not think that God's ethics with regard to humanity are an objective, eternal reality by whose standard we are held to account. Before the cosmos (or outside of the cosmos, outside of existence itself), any understanding of "good" or "evil in relation to God would be irrelevant, as there would only be God as an objective reality. And after all, if God is revealed in any way in scripture, it seems immediately clear to the average reader that even in scripture standards change over time.

There are definitely overarching themes which weave their way through the passages and books (and these, I think, are significant for the faithful) concerning standards for justice, but of the 613 mitzvot alluded to in the Tanakh, many are simply impossible to obey today (for example, commands regarding the Temple in Jerusalem, which no longer exists). And most (if not all) of the basic concepts behind the standards for justice in scripture are relational in nature.

I think that, in terms of us who believe in God, ethics must be viewed as entirely relational and not objective. What I mean is, "the good" and the ethics which govern behavior along this standard, is defined as that which encourages harmony between God, humanity and creation. For a Christian, the more this harmony reflects the inner-relationship of the Trinity, and the more humanity's character represents Christ and lives as the image of God (and caretaker of creation), the more ethical we are. We measure these ethics by Jesus' interpretation of the Law and the Prophets: we are good when we love God and love others (even our enemies) as ourselves. We fall short of this ethical standard when we do not.

The commands themselves are relational, and reflect the above relational understanding of humanity's purpose. For the Christian, God is ethical because God sent the Incarnate Word made flesh, to open the way for perfect relationship between God, humanity, and creation. The commands, in this context, do not then act as the substance of ethics, but as part of the road-map leading toward the Incarnation.

This also means that as times change, humanity should ideally change as well. What was "good" for a Medieval or Ancient Near Eastern king is not necessarily good for a king today. This is something on which both religious and non-religious people should be able to agree. It is interesting to me that many non-religious have an objectified view of ethics or the good (as if they were unchanging), but I do not know what this idea would be founded on.

As an example, from an objectively material point of view, landmines are neither ethical or unethical. They are simply an additional and painful component of the chaos which often comes in contact with human lives. From a relational point of view, they are extremely unethical. Not only do they harm the possibility of human relationship in the relevant conflict in which they were laid; but they also harm people for many generations to come and greatly impede the ability of human beings to overcome all the other problems we have to deal with.

#God #ethics #good #evil #relationship #humanity #creation


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Six Challenging Questions Regarding God's Ethics

Below are my responses to six challenging questions by an atheist friend regarding God's ethical behavior in the Bible. These are questions I've struggled with deeply myself, so I definitely identify with those who question the often harsh or seemingly unfair behavior of a God who's supposed to be good and leading us toward a perfect relationship with Him, each other, and creation.

1) Would you drown everyone except 8 people and a boatload of animals?

I think this story is a great example of the use of myth to convey truth. Especially in Genesis, but also throughout the Torah, there are many places where the text incorporates myths from other cultures and usually gives structural clues in the Hebrew as to the nature of the myth. An example of the parallelism within this story is found in the opening verses. In v. 5 “God saw [Heb. wayyar'], v. 6 “the LORD was grieved [Heb. wayyinahem]... his heart was filled with pain [Heb. wayyitasseb]” and on and on. Hebrew parallelism is regularly used both in mythic and poetic genres and suggests a carefully crafted structure, not just a historical account. This is a myth, and while there have been local destructive floods throughout history, Noah's flood almost certainly didn't happen literally.

When this story was included in the Torah, the Jews were in the midst of the Babylonian exile and though they knew the special character of their God, they wanted a way to viscerally convey this character to their people, so they used stories which were familiar, i.e. the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (for the flood), the Atrahasis Epic and the Enuma Elish (for creation), and Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta (the Tower of Babel). Other sources may have been used as well, but these may have been lost. But what is most interesting is not the parallels with these other myths, but what is unique to the Hebrew myths. In the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Sumerian stories, the gods are pissed that humans are too noisy. We just party too hard, baby. So they want to kill us. Then when they realize they'll starve without our worship, they praise one of the gods who sneakily saved Utnapishtim (Noah). The Hebrew God on the other hand, cares about social justice and the violence that spreads through the earth. In fact, the Hebrew contrasts in the language with humanity's violence and the goodness of creation suggests that the violence was so bad, all humanity would have slaughtered each other completely. This means that by saving 8, God saved 8 more than would have survived without intervention.

This story's placement within the book of Genesis also serves an important theological purpose. It is the culmination of the acts of Adam and Eve, which first brought rebellion and deception into the world and out of that, the first acts of violence. This is foreshadowed in the skins with which they are covered, and carried on in the story of Cain and Abel, which in narrative structure (especially in Cain's dialogue with God) mirrors almost exactly the exchange between the first couple and God. Destruction was the inevitable path humanity was already on. I find it very interesting today, that in the face of climate change, we find ourselves in the same place again (only this time our violence is toward the earth and not just toward each other). If humanity cannot change its ways, it may very well destroy itself. I think that is the ultimate point of this story.

It is important to note as well that the Jews reading the Torah during the Babylonian exile would have immediately recognized these stories as myths (both because they were already familiar with the Babylonian myths and because of the Hebraic structural clues); yet even as myths they communicate essential truths about God and humanity: that we have the potential to utterly destroy ourselves, and that God cares about social justice and wants to show mercy to those who will reject the path of violence.

2) Would you consider women as property?

In the ANE (Ancient Near East) all the way through Greco-Roman times, women were indeed seen as property, either the property of the clan itself (whose authority was recognized either in the elder males, or a patriarch) or the property of the pater familias (head of household). These authorities generally had the power of life and death over the men and women under their control. It was through this cultural lens the original audiences (and even authors) of the biblical texts saw their relationships to each other and to their God (or gods). But what is very interesting about even the Old Testament is that, despite many brutal passages read in today's Western cultural light, there are some pretty huge changes to the status of women and all vulnerable classes (including widows, orphans, the poor, and migrants/immigrants) taking place in scripture.

This change begins with the creation myths at the beginning in Genesis (two are found here, as well as another six uses of creation imagery in the Psalms). In the opening verses, men and women are created equally (Gen. 1:27-28). Even in the second story (ch. 2-3), when Eve is taken from the rib of Adam, their relationship is like that of a river. The mouth of the river might be its “head” or its source, yet no part of the river is more important than another. It is all river. Inequality is first mentioned after humanity has sinned, and is described as a consequence of our sin (Gen. 3:16). In this context, all human inequality is the direct result of human sin and is not part of the original created order.

From this point forward, any law code, or instruction, or even mythic (or possibly historic for some) story must be read in the context of human-created inequality. So, in this context, let's say God decides to begin speaking into history and changing things. I think God began to do this gradually, because an outright revolution of thought would have been utterly rejected (as I've stated elsewhere, I think God's relationship with humanity is not deterministic, but a give-and-take, and we have a say in it). The Torah laws represent a compromise, and an understanding that God is not done interacting with (and changing) the nature of our relationship.

Even the more brutal laws are a vast improvement in terms of social justice when compared with either ANE cultural practice or other written law codes (such as Hammurabai's). Where in other cultures, slaves were held for life against their will, in the Torah they are set free the seventh year, and all debts forgiven after seven sets of seven years (the 50th year of the debt), meaning a debt could not be passed to children or over the estate (as the land was held in trust for descendants forever). The concept of the Jubilee year is remarkably more progressive than even today's debt laws. And where in the ANE, if a slave did a crime they were given a harsher punishment then a rich person, in the Torah all are punished for crimes equally (though harshly). Additionally, where women leaders were unheard of in much of that world, some of the oldest sections of the Torah include the stories (and song) of Deborah, a female judge who leads an army and prophecies to the people (Jg. 4-5), as well as women who kill kings (Jg. 4:21; 9:53) and who decide the destinies of princes (cf. Rebekah, Jacob & Esau). It's certainly not a perfect image of women, but if the Torah were all humanity needed to move into perfect relationship with each other, with creation, and with God; then Christ would not have come (this point is what much of my theology hinges on).

Even in the NT, Jesus and Paul provide a vast improvement in the treatment of women and their status. Women form a central part of Jesus' ministry. It is a woman who brings the Incarnate Word into the world (Mary), and it is women who first discover the empty tomb and bring the Proclaimed Word into the world (by telling the disciples). It is a Canaanite woman who actually bests Jesus with a riddle/analogy in one of the best uses of irony in scripture (Mt. 15:21-28) and it is women who have some of the most intimate discussions and interactions with Jesus (Jn. 4:4-26; Lk. 7:36-50). Women even sit at the feet of Jesus, and listen as his disciples which was unheard of at the time (Lk. 10:38-42). And, even though a later bishop (who wrote Timothy) uses Paul's name to place limits on women leadership in his congregations, Paul himself elevates the role of women, proclaims them equal with men (and all people regardless of background) (Col. 3:11, Gal. 3:28), and even praises the work of women leaders in the church and commends Junia, a female apostle (Rom. 16:7).

3) Would you yourself or would you condone owning another person?

No, I wouldn't. And I don't think God would either. Though Paul tells slaves they should serve their masters, this should be read in the context of the unequivocal rejection of violence by Jesus and the early church, and in Jesus' and Paul's statements regarding the equality of all individuals. Paul's admonition in this case is actually a position of nonviolent subversion of Roman structures. Christians were to serve (whether free or slave) in such a way that defied the expected reaction to those placed in bondage or forced in anyway. It was indeed a revolution, but a revolution that rejected force and instead relied on the overwhelming power of love to change people's hearts, even the oppressors.

As for the Torah references to slavery,  I stated earlier that I think these are concessions to the cultural mindset and state of sin, violence and oppression in human affairs so that God could begin to define humanity's relationship with each other and with God, and that even they were a vast improvement over contemporary societies. The laws are a stepping stone into relationship, but they do not bring us into ideal relationship with God. That's why the Incarnate Word (Christ) took on flesh, but only once human beings were ready for such a radical event to take place.

4) Would you condone beating said person as long as they didn't die right away?

Well, since I rejected slavery in the previous sections, I suppose I'd beat the s*** out of a free man (I kid, I kid). Again, I think the Torah was a progressive approach to the brutality of human beings and was part of the process of God breaking into our interactions with each other and beginning to establish the grounds which would form our relationship with Him (generally framed within the cultural practice of covenant). This progress continues with the ministry of Jesus, who as the Christ, reframes the entire relationship and sheds new light on the old ways.

It is deeply unfortunate that for many centuries the church forgot these important lessons and took steps backward. Still, God's value and love for women, the oppressed, and the alien has shown through in the work of many saints and mystics through history who tapped into the heart of God and shared it with others. And I think that when the progression of scripture is taken as a whole, and informed in the light of the writings of the early Church fathers, we see a definite movement toward rejecting violence and embracing mercy as a reflection of Christ's character.

5) Do you think eternal torture or annihilation for temporal crimes, unbelief or just 'wrong' thoughts is just?

Nope, and I also don't think scripture refers to eternal torture or annihilation. In the Tanakh, death was vaguely referred to as Sheol. This may have been understood as a shadowy existence, though many Jews believed a person lived on in name only, that they were wholly material infused with the “ruach” or “breath” of God, and that their bodies simply returned to the earth with no afterlife. There are many poetic allusions to death in the OT and very few of them suggest some type of afterlife.

When Jesus talks about Gehenna, much of what he was talking about was actually referring to the upcoming destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (which happened 40 years after he died and a few years after the gospel of Mark was likely written). Like almost all prophets (including John of Patmos, who wrote Revelation), he was speaking of contemporary conditions and the near future. Now, ever since Clement of Alexandria (and the Alexandrian school), many have ascribed deeper allegorical meaning to these utterances, and I think that's fine as long as we recognize that there are certain lessons which can apply to every generation, there are certain ones which apply only to the original generation, and there may be some that refer to an apocalyptic final future (but these interpretations must always be taken with a grain of salt).

I do think scripture affirms a bodily resurrection, though I don't believe in an immortal soul (which I think is a Greco-Roman syncretic addition to later Christian thought). In fact, I think many of our modern Christian thoughts around the afterlife are Gnostic holdovers that need to be re-examined. Honestly, if an immortal soul was all that was needed for existing, a bodily resurrection wouldn't be necessary. But as Paul states, without the bodily resurrection of Christ, we have no bodily resurrection. And if we have no bodily resurrection, we have no hope (1 Cor. 15:3-19). While much of scripture is infused with myth, I affirm the historicity of the death of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb, as well as the perception by the disciples that they saw the risen Lord soon after. It through understanding these specific events as historical that my faith in Christ takes shape.

While I do not have a definitive answer, I have been looking at different possibilities for interpretation. One, is that the condition popularly known as “hell” (a word which never appears in scripture) is actually a post-resurrection state of an individual (or even a state in this life), where they are so filled with rejection, bitterness, and hate that they are agonizing and suffering in the midst of their willful separation. If this is the case, then I think that God's mercy is so great, that in the very moment this person were to turn to God, they would be immediately accepted into the Body of Christ. This could leave open the possibility for even universal reconciliation among all human beings (and, I interpret “human being” to mean all life that has evolved the agency to enter into relationship). Though, there may be some who would so much rather wallow in their own bitterness and general crapitude, that even though they may be resurrected into the midst of Paradise, still they would eternally and wilfully suffer in their own personal “hell.”

If these possibilities are the case, then perhaps scripture (and Jesus) is using the creative imagery of Gehenna and fire to describe these states. There are many places throughout scripture where concrete terms are poetically used (such as in the Psalms and Proverbs) to describe more abstract concepts. A great example is the female personification of wisdom in the proverbs. Concrete imagery (especially in prophetic and apocalyptic works) helps us to grasp almost ungraspable concepts.

6) Would you let your son be tortured and killed to solve a problem you created?

Which one, Samson or Conan? That's right, I named my sons Samson and Conan (I like epic characters, what can I say?). Anyway, I assume you are referring to Christ. I think this is where the doctrine of the Trinity comes into play (though it is a very sticky topic, with much of its thought originating well outside the scope of scripture and more in the context of 4th century Greco-Roman culture and Greek philosophy). I think that Christ as God's Son may be understood to the effect that the substance, Being God is eternally, coequally Personalized in perfect internal relationship as the Trinity. This relationship becomes our model for relationship, and it is with this understanding that Christians call Jesus the Son. We believe that the Son eternally proceeds from the Father, just as a Word is the expression of the Originator, while at the same time Being the Originator.

That might sound like a lot of word salad (and I think some of the 4th century and later formulations border on word saladness), but its better if we go back to my point in a previous post about how the symbols of language fail to fully register direct experience, and even less so, direct being (in this case, the Being of God). Part of the value of the symbolic language of Sonship is its connections to sonship (as in the Son of Man, the Son of David) in the OT, and Jesus' special context within Israel. Anyway, the point is, it is God Itself who took on flesh, was tortured, and was killed for a problem that we created. If we have free will (and I think we do, at least in a limited way in our environment), and we were created for relationship with God, creation, and each other, and to be able to create or destroy (as God does, cf. Gen. 1:26-27; Deut. 30:19), then we need to take responsibility for our own actions. Honestly, this is the point of humanism, and helps explain humanism's roots within Christianity. We are responsible for our own problems, and our decision to enter into Christ signals our willingness to be part of the solution.

Final Thoughts

I hope these responses help any readers who are struggling with the idea of a God revealed in scripture and in flesh. As I said earlier, they are the fruit of my own struggle, and it is my hope that they save you some time and maybe some heart-ache; and will hopefully lead you down the path toward the truth (wherever that may lead you).

#christianity #atheism #interpretation #hebrew #women #torah #tanakh #bible #ethics