Category Archives: Religion

My Catechism: Question 2

Wow. Only one question into this series and I’m already struggling. If you’ve read the previous post, you know that my response to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism doesn’t really lead into the second question the way the prescribed response does. What to do? It seems that I have two choices: a) rephrase the second question to dovetail with my response to the first one or b) do my best to answer the second question as it stands. I think I’ll try option “b”.

Q: What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A: God has spoken to humanity at different times, in different ways which have been recorded in both the Old and New Testaments, but the greatest communication of the mind and person of God came through the man Jesus of Nazareth whose life and teachings are recorded in the four gospels of the New Testament.

Hebrews 1:1-2
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

2 Timothy 3:16-17
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God[b] may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The first question is about purpose; why are we here? The second question is about guidance; how do we know what to do? The short answer is revelation. God has revealed Himself to us and the Scriptures record specific revelations so that we may know who God is, who we are, who Jesus is and how to behave accordingly.


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The Point of Religion?

Skip the article and go directly to the final sentence. This is what the author ultimately wants you to remember.

“What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.”

Now, think about the inherent contradiction in that sentence. If Mr. Gray didn’t believe in the importance of that sentiment, would he have bothered to articulate it? If Mr. Gray didn’t believe that his subject matter was important, would have have taken the time to write the article? (Perhaps, but at the very least he believed that keeping a job was important and so took the time to turn in something for publication.)

How we live is based upon what we believe. We live selfishly because we believe that there is no one else more worth living for. (Yep, that’s a Rush lyric right there.) We live selflessly because we believe that our happiness is bound up with the well-being of others. What people believe about their deity is manifest in their deeds in relationship to others. And the case can be made that what people really believe is best seen by how they live their lives.

Mr. Gray and countless Christians (and other folks) have divorced belief from action in their thinking and have lost a critical piece of the human puzzle. James spoke in terms of “faith” and “works”, but the meaning and the end result is the same: one without the other is dead.

Perhaps you should’ve skipped this post and just read the book of James instead?

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Bumming Out Bob Geldof

It was clear as Sir Bob spoke that the continent of Africa is critical to the question of global food security. He told us that its borders contain 60% of the world’s arable land which is vital for producing the crops needed to feed the swelling population of the world, particularly of those nation-states categorized as developing. He pointed out that consequently the political stability of Africa is paramount. He noted the increase of democratic countries in Africa from just 9 in the 1980’s to 19 today and the interviewer said, “So you’re optimistic about Africa?” Sir Bob replied that he was, with two caveats. They were the rising influence of Wahabism in the north and “fundamentalist Christianity pushing up from the south”. These two factors were the only things he mentioned which mitigated his optimism for the political stability of what is certainly to become the Garden of the World.

Wouldn’t it be great if Sir Bob (and the rest of the world) could see the spread of Christians as a reason to be optimistic rather than cause for pessimism? And yet, I wonder if that’s actually possible? Jesus didn’t engender universal optimism by his presence. Some shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” at his arrival while others shouted “Away with him! Crucify him!” at his departure. Some had even shouted both within the same week. I suppose we should expect the same for those who wear his name. In the end, I guess that what’s true of people in general is true of Christians in particular. They spread joy wherever they go: some by coming and others by leaving.

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Blair vs Hitchens: a comment

Mr Hitchens, 61, said: “Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well.”

I can think of one religion in the world which is somewhat represented by Mr Hitchens’ statement (there may be others), but it’s not the Catholic Christianity of his debate partner Tony Blair. It certainly isn’t representative of the narrative found in the Bible.

The Biblical story says that God made humanity “good”. In fact, the male/female aspect of humanity is described as “very good” by the Creator. Whatever the original Hebrew words means, it is highly unlikely that they have any connection to something negative like “sick”. Yet, Mr. Hitchens is (unwittingly?) right: humanity is sick. How did we get this way?

The Christian answer is called “The Fall”. It’s the story of how the first humans (called Adam and Eve) disobeyed God thereby introducing sin and death into the story. Staying with Hitchens’ metaphor of physical sickness: humanity’s choice to disobey God resulted in our exposure to the infectious disease of sin. The ultimate prognosis for sin is death. The good news is that there is a cure. And God, as the Healer, dispenses the cure freely to those who come to Him in order to get well. God’s doesn’t command humans to be well, but rather offers them the cure. It’s up to humans to avail themselves of it.

Consider Mr. Hitchens’ own illness. He has cancer. He can either submit to the various therapies or he can refuse. Both choices come with a set of consequences which are directly dependent upon his decision. True, the end result ultimately will be that Mr. Hitchens dies. However, if he submits to God’s prescription for both his physical and spiritual illness, then as Jesus said, “Even though he dies, yet he will live.” And that is really the Creator’s plan: that whosoever calls on the Lord will be saved from the sickness of sin and death.

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Anne Rice, Organized Religion and Jesus

Anne Rice has left Christianity. After reading the Facebook status that announced her decision and listening to an interview from Homebrewed Christianity, I’m pretty sure that I understand her. There have been times when I wanted out as well. She has my sympathy. Consequently, nothing I say here is intended to be an attack on her in any way. I simply want to reflect on something she said and (predictably?) disagree.

In the interview, Mrs. Rice tells Chad Crawford “Christ comes off in the gospels to me as a radical. And he’s against organized religion, that’s clear.” While I can certainly agree that Jesus comes across as a radical, I don’t think it is at all clear from the Bible that Jesus was against organized religion. Here’s why I think so.

Like Mrs. Rice, I believe in The Incarnation, which is another way of saying that I believe that Jesus was God in a body-fully human and fully divine. So, when God entered the world, he entered a family, a community and yes, an organized religion. (We can all agree that Judaism as we find it in the Bible is an organized religion, can’t we?) When he was in the world, Jesus participated in this organized religion. He participated by both critiquing it and fulfilling it. While with us, he demonstrated how to “do” this organized religion correctly. When he left us, he gave us his Spirit to guide us, which includes guiding us in organizing our religion.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was born to a Jewish couple in Palestine and was consequently a Jew. Scripture tells how Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised on the eighth day following his birth, according to the Law. When obeying the Law regarding the giving of the first born child to God, they also presented the appropriate sacrifices in accordance with the Law. (The Law is the organizing system of the Jewish religion, which Jews unshakably believe was given by God to Moses.) Clearly, the Bible demonstrates that Jesus was born into Judaism, a religion organized by means of the Law.

When Jesus was a grown man, the Bible tells us, it was his habit to go to the synagogue, a place of worship and learning in Jewish communities away from the temple in Jerusalem, which was the center of Jewish worship. The Bible tells us that Jesus went to the temple on more than one occasion, just as we would expect from a “practicing Jew”. (I’ll say more about what he did at the temple later.) In the Bible, we find him observing the Passover feast with his disciples. The Bible also records that  when Jesus healed lepers, he ordered them to obey the Law by showing themselves to the priests in order to be declared clean and welcomed back into society. Clearly, Jesus was an active participant in Judaism.

In the famous Sermon on the Mount recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus clearly states his position on and his relationship to the Law in this way: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” All that Jesus said and did can be understood as his intentional fulfillment of the Law, including his criticism of the way the Pharisees, the Scribes and the priests either practiced or failed to practice it. Jesus never taught the people to forsake the Law, to leave Judaism and express their faith-relationship with God according to their own conscience. Instead, as in the Sermon on the Mount, he told them how to follow the Law correctly. He also showed them what following the Law correctly looks like through his interactions with everyone.

By following the Law correctly, Jesus was in conflict with those who didn’t, particularly those who went beyond simply getting it wrong to wickedly manipulating it for their own purposes. For example, there were pious people who stood on the street corners and prayed aloud so everyone would see them. Jesus’ corrective was to tell people to pray in secret. He didn’t say abandon the temple and the synagogue and to stop all public prayers. He was addressing impure motives. Another example is Jesus’ actions in the temple. When he cleared out the money changers and the livestock sellers, he didn’t tell everyone to get out of the temple and to quit making sacrifices.  Instead, he condemned the abuse of the temple and the exploitation of the sacrificial system for financial gain at the expense of the poor. There are more examples, and they all show Jesus righting wrongs and correcting the misuses and the abuses of the Law. Unlike everyone else, particularly the hypocritical leaders, Jesus kept the Law faultlessly: he did organized religion the way it is supposed to be done, which was certainly radical to all of those around him who didn’t. Some people saw this and accepted that he was God. Others saw it and said he was breaking the Law and subverting the nation. In the end, part of the reason he was killed was because of the way he kept the Law, the way he did Judaism.

The Scriptures document what the risen Christ did through his apostles following his ascension into heaven. In the book of Acts, we see Jesus give the Holy Spirit to the disciples. In the power of the Spirit, the apostles exercised the  authority Christ had given them before his crucifixion. Acts tells us how they appointed people to serve the believers and commissioned people to preach. Those missionaries set up communities (called churches) which were devoted to the teachings of the apostles, eating togetherand prayer. In the book of Acts we see decisions made about doctrine and we see disciplinary actions taken within the community. In short, we see the followers of Jesus, under the authority of Jesus, filled with the Spirit of Jesus organize themselves and their practice of following Jesus.  And now, the risen Jesus, through the same Spirit works in his followers to transform them into his likeness. As this happens, the world is set straight and so is organized religion right along with it.

When I look at the Bible, I only see organized religion. I don’t see any other kind. Specifically, I see Judaism and its Law. I don’t see Jesus opposing this organized religion, this Law. I see him oppose the misuse and abuse of the Law. I see him oppose the manipulation of that Law for evil purposes, especially the oppression of the poor. Ultimately, I see him fulfill the Law thereby becoming fit to serve as both atoning sacrifice and High Priest on behalf of his followers. I can’t look at the Bible and agree with Mrs Rice that Jesus was clearly against organized religion because he wasn’t.

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Nazis, Homosexuals, Jesus and Me

You know the old dilemma:

Nazi Germany. Jews are being rounded up and shipped off to the gas chambers. You’re a German citizen and, by law, required to report Jews to the government. You’re in the position of either lying to protect a Jew’s life or telling the truth and giving a Jew into the hands of his executioner. What do you do?

It seems that this dilemma is usually presented to demonstrate that there are no absolute values. In this case, the implication that lying is good when it’s done to save an “innocent life”. The further implication then is that if lying is good in this situation, it can be good in others and therefore the moral quality of the act of lying is relative and not absolute.  When presented with this rhetorical dilemma, the assumption tends to be your choice is between “good and evil” or “right and wrong.” However, this assumption is incorrect. The choice is actually between “bad and worse”, or if you prefer a positive articulation, the choice is between “telling the truth and saving a life”.

The world is so messed up (“fallen” as evangelicals like to say) that it is possible for a good action like telling the truth  to result in a bad outcome like the murder of a human being.  However, the world is not so far gone that a bad action like lying can’t result in a good outcome like the preservation of a human life. Furthermore, creation is so utterly corrupted that the aforementioned situations are possible. The question then is how to navigate through such a thoroughly polluted sea of human existence? The answer is by following Jesus.

When Jesus was faced with healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Mark 3), He rightly discerned the situation.  His enemies were taking the good law of the Sabbath, which was given by God for the preservation of human life, and using it to destroy human life. So, He asks them the question, “Which is lawful to do on the Sabbath? To save life or to destroy?” Jesus’ decision to heal the man isn’t a denial of the goodness of the Sabbath law, but rather it is the affirmation that human life is more valuable than legal compliance.

Lying to the Nazis to protect the Jews in your attic is the appropriate choice because preserving human life is more important than good standing with the authorities or even preserving one’s integrity. The decision to lie isn’t a denial of the sinfulness of lying, but rather it is the affirmation of the value of human life, something which Jesus also affirmed.

While the case of Nazi Germany is so remote as to be almost purely academic, there is a current situation in Africa which certainly raises the same questions. Homosexuality is against the law in Malawi and the government is prosecuting men and women convicted of breaking the law. The Guardian reports that Uganda is considering the death penalty for homosexuals under certain conditions.

Now imagine that a Christian has a homosexual neighbor. Late one night, the homosexual comes to the Christian’s house and says, “I have a friend in the police. He called and said that they’re coming to get me. They’re going to kill me! Please, hide me!” What should the Christian do? How does the Christian decide?

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Why God Kills Babies Part 2

This blog doesn’t get much traffic, yet one of the two most visited posts here is the one called Why God Kills Babies. Those few folks who have left a comment tend to be  skeptic/atheists who are repulsed by the story of God and the death of the Egyptian children during the time of the Exodus. While I don’t think that I am up to offering an adequate response to charges that God/Yaweh/Elohim is either evil or non-existent because of the crimes against humanity that he has committed, I do think that William Lane Craig can and does.

So, if you’ve found yourself here and are interested in a rational commentary on the question of whether or not God is guilty of atrocities, you may appreciate listening to this.

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