Free will in light of God’s sovereignty has always been one of those spiritual subjects that, just when I think I’ve got it figured out, I realize it either doesn’t jive with Who God is or what God does, or else I find new questions that I hadn’t thought to ask before.  Either way, I know I’ve got to rethink free will in light of God’s sovereignty.

This is an interesting quote I wanted to share, although I’m not sure whether it is entirely true.  “He [God] is like the grand chessmaster who, though exercising no direct causal control over the moves of a novice, is nonetheless able to checkmate the novice in the end.” – Tom Talbott, Inescapable Love of God

Sometimes it is beneficial to wrestle through difficult concepts, to be dissatisfied with the tension of two or more “truths” that can’t both be true.  Sometimes it’s best to shelve it for a while, trusting that God knows exactly what He’s doing, even if we aren’t able to explain with absolute certainty how or why He is Who He is and does what He does.  But don’t forget to dust off that shelf from time to time in case God is ready to make sense of it in your heart and mind.

Related: Theodicy of ProtestHowl: Job and the WhirlwindCharacterAre God’s Hands Tied by God’s Protocol?Free Will?Picking the Petals Off of TULIPs

There’s a Metallica song called “Holier Than Thou”, with the following lyrics:

you lie so much you believe yourself
judge not lest ye be judged yourself

holier than thou - you are, holier than thou – you are

you know not

before you judge me take a look at you
can’t you find something better to do
point the finger, slow to understand
arrogance and ignorance go hand in hand

In the previous blog, Avoiding Elaborate Commands, I described as one of two or more possibilities concerning whether one person should ever judge another:

Jesus, in saying “do not judge” is setting a precedent which does not necessarily apply to every single circumstance; in other words, there are exceptions in which “do not judge” must be set aside for the greater good.

If this is true, how are we to know what is an exception and what is not?  There are obvious things, say for instance that someone takes a baseball bat to someone else’s car, a spouse having an affair, robbing a bank, child molesting, etc.  This world would decay into utter chaos if everyone stood around with their thumbs up the bums ignoring that kind of behavior.  Civilization depends upon rules and the judgment of people who break the rules.  But what about other, less obvious things?

I believe that examining your own conscience and motives before God, using some common sense, having a heart that understands and expresses the love of God, intently watching and waiting for a green light or a red light from the Spirit of God, and nurturing a deep concern for the happiness and well-being of others is probably enough for anyone to know the difference, without ever even having to open the Book.  Nevertheless, there are many scriptures which speak of judging or how people ought to treat one another.  Among them, is this gem:

For there is not a good tree making bad fruit, nor a bad tree making good fruit; for each tree from its own fruit is known, for not from thorns do they gather figs, nor from a bramble do they crop a grape.  The good man out of the good treasure of his heart doth bring forth that which [is] good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart doth bring forth that which [is] evil; for out of the abounding of the heart doth his mouth speak. (Luke 6:43-45)

Some readers may wonder why I would choose to focus on this one as the “gem” of this judging thing.  This scripture is useful when we consider both the person who is supposedly in need of correction and the person who thinks they are the one to help in this correcting.  Imagine a tree in each season.  Sometimes there is no fruit at all.  Other times, the fruit is budding, but you still may not be able to figure out whether the fruit is full of poison or good for eating.  And then the fruit matures and ripens, and it becomes obvious what kind of fruit it is, and we know based on experience whether that particular kind of fruit is bad or good.  One thing I think that people tend to overlook, concerning this verse, is that each of us has the ability to produce good fruit or bad fruit.  No one should think that the good man is “self” and the evil man is “other.”

It is possible that the person who is experiencing the judgment of others is in a winter season of his or her life.  He may just need some time to sort through his own junk without the help of the one intervening on this process.  God might be waiting to deal with her until she has had time to discover her own error.  W. Somerset Maugham said, “I daresay one profits more by the mistakes one makes of one’s own bat than by doing the right thing on somebody else’s advice.” For example, before I understood the sovereignty of God, I used to freak out inside, thinking that people could actually mess up God’s plans.  One time I saw a situation where this unwarranted and irrational fear got ahold of me, and I wrote a letter that I now regret writing.  The letter contained some truth, but the rest of it was what I now understand to be a product of my own fear, desire to control/fix, and anger (hurt feelings).  I had no business writing that letter, and my motives, which seemed at the time to be good, were all screwed up.  The recipients of this letter just needed time and space.  They didn’t need my meddling at all.   The letter hurt them and it hurt me and it robbed them of God’s blessing of learning from their own mistakes.

In contrast, look at the wisdom literature of Jonah, in this touching conversation between God and Jonah, after Jonah was angry that God didn’t destroy the Ninevites:

Jonah – God, I want to die!

God – Does My doing a good thing upset you that much?

Jonah – I’m going to go sit in the shade and stew in my anger!  I’m freaking pissed!

God – I’ll provide the shade.

Jonah – Finally, some relief from this heat.

God – (I’ll send a worm to destroy this plant that gives Jonah shade, so that I can use it as a teaching opportunity.)

Jonah – God, I want to die!  This sucks!  I was already livid with You and now THIS?!?

God – I’ll ask you again, Jonah.  Should My doing a good thing piss you off like this?

Jonah – Yes.  I am so angry that I want to die.

God – You care more about this stupid plant than you do for the people of Nineveh.  The Ninevites need to learn right from wrong, not be destroyed for their ignorance.  You know, Jonah, I even care about what happens to their animals.

 

The possibility remains that in judging someone else’s actions, you are producing “good” fruit from the “good” treasure of your heart.  You want to help.  You are acting in love.  You have examined your conscience and motives very carefully before God, to be sure that your judgment is not about feeling self-righteous or superior.  You are not acting in fear.  You are not seeking to control someone, but to save them from themselves.  It is also possible that in judging someone else’s actions, you are producing “poison” fruit from the “evil” treasure of your heart.  You want to be right.  You are acting out of anger.  You haven’t taken the time to consider whether your desire to judge is coming from good or bad motives.  You haven’t remembered to measure your intentions in light of God’s perfect ability to judge (God knows every factor that plays a part – things we cannot possibly know.)  You want to make others behave so that you feel safe and in control.

Five Final Observations from Atheists (Part Three)

Posted: 18th August 2011 by admin in Uncategorized
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21. Atheists have something like faith, that is, saying there must be more than we can know – they all emphatically agree on this.

What I gather from this remark is that atheists are in agreement with the idea that there is more to existence than what we as human beings are able to know, but what bothers them is that some people claim to understand this unknown.  I can understand why this would be annoying to them from a strictly scientific viewpoint, because there’s no way to get inside someone else’s head/heart/soul to find out whether it is wishful thinking or truth.

22. Regarding atheist books – people don’t read them, they just read the reviews and then react.

This is an excellent point.  I share their frustration in this.  No one has the right to bash a book they’ve never even bothered to read.  I haven’t bashed atheist books, but I haven’t read them either.  If any atheists out there want to recommend the top five, I’ll be sure to do that (and maybe even review one or two of them).

23. Dawkins says grace (as in thanking God for the food) out of courtesy, but it doesn’t mean a thing to him.

This is a kindness that has been extended to me by my atheist/agnostic friends and family.  Especially at Christmas time – everyone joins in the festivities because it seems like the thing to do, not because they believe any of it.

24. All religions are equally false.  Latently, they are equally as dangerous because of the surrender of the mind.  Zionist movement is an example of how extreme thinking spreads quickly… I’m not likely to have my throat cut at the supermarket by a Quaker, but they see evil, cruelty, and violence and don’t fight it, so they are a serious danger to the United States – they (religions) are all equally rotten, false, dishonest, corrupt, humorless, and dangerous.

The atheists are justified in pointing out the evils of religion.  I agree that all religions are false, but this does not mean that all religions are totally false.  There are truths to be found in all religions, some containing more truth than others.  I wish there were a simply way to convey the difference between religion (rituals, rules, dogma, orthodoxy, etc) and a relationship with the Creator of the universe, because they are totally different concepts.  Religion is man’s idea of finding God, but God transcends religion.  Religions can be dangerous.  Jesus said whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  One way to know whether your religion is dangerous is to examine its history of bloodshed as well as its potential for bloodshed.  The Zionist movement, a political and military program whose proponents believe they can actually hasten the return of Jesus Christ by bringing about the fulfillment of prophecy in returning Jews to Israel, is a good example of religion turned dangerous.  What do you think Jesus would say about all the bloodshed that has taken place as a result of these efforts?  Yes, religion is dangerous when it is taken to extremes.  Is religion rotten?  I suppose it can be at times.  Dishonest?  Corrupt?  Humorless?  It depends on which religion one examines.  However, I personally do not see how Quakers are a danger to the United States.  How bizarre that a group of people who refuse to take up a weapon can be considered dangerous!  Could atheism become dangerous or fanatical?  I see potential for it in the comment about the Quakers.

25. What can be reasonably accomplished in the lives of our children? Something we can do other than criticism? Minority secularists will be defeated by theocracy, which will end up destroying civilization.

Just as the conversation started to take a productive turn, the atheists threw in the towel.  They asked the question and then sank into despair.  I certainly don’t consider secularists a minority – almost every college professor I’ve had so far is atheist or agnostic.  Academia has all but eliminated spirituality, with the exception of philosophy and world religion classes.  As to the idea that theocracy will end up destroying civilization – this is certainly a possibility, but not an inevitable one.  Perhaps if theists and atheists can work together, concentrating on what we have in common, the future will be brighter than these atheists predict.

I’ve included below the comment section that prompted me to post this blog series.  It is rather lengthy, but interesting…

Robert – likes this.

Sean – ‎…. or don’t. That’s what makes it a choice.

Alice – ‎”Just believe” is a sarcastic title, to draw attention to the idea that God is the one who gives a person the faith of Christ. No one believes on their own, as an act of the will. Perhaps you are right in pointing out that people choose not to believe, as in our nature, we do not want to acknowledge God, or even if we do, we do not want to have anything to do with God. God has to step in and change that predisposition. It is similar to that discussion between you and Mom/Mary a couple of weeks ago.

Sean – If God gave Jesus (himself) authority over flesh, does that mean that God has no authority over flesh now, but Jesus, his son (himself) who was made flesh and dwelt among us was given by God the Father (himself) as a sacrifice to “cleanse the sin” of the thing which was the “breath of life” (alternately translated as “the stuff of his being”) which has the choice to accept the sacrifice of the thing which was himself made flesh to dwell among us, but was offered as a blood sacrifice for the payment of the sin which was born into us from the beginning, but there is really no reason to worry because it has already been done, and we don’t have to do anything about it anymore, but we have to believe because there is no other reason to think otherwise?????? Yes, very simple indeed.

Sean – I am so happy to have my head unglued from the spyrograph of dogma.

Joyce – i disagree some with what you say… about sin was born in us… being a son of God (which we are)… we could not have sin born in us… God bless

Alice – You purposely framed a plethora of questions in an elaborate and intentionally confusing run-on sentence, labeled it the “spyrograph of dogma”, and then followed this with a contrasting “Yes, very simple indeed.” You have effectively demonstrated that words are powerful, and that you know how to arrange them toward whatever end you wish. Use that power wisely, Grasshopper.

Sean – It is the very thought pattern that is required to hold up the entire deck of cards, and just a nudge toward rationalism makes it all fall down. It is neither condescending, nor intentionally malevolent in any way, but simply another way to look at it from the outside, once you have left the old way of thinking behind….. Jesus is just alright with me, but I do not define GOD as man, or any man that ever was, and the idea that THE GOD which made the entire universe needs (or wants) anything from us, is in my opinion the greatest expression of ego that humankind can demonstrate…. coming from that point of view, when you say, “No one believes on their own, as an act of the will. Perhaps you are right in pointing out that people choose not to believe, as in our nature, we do not want to acknowledge God, or even if we do, we do not want to have anything to do with God. “, you are intentionally inserting several assumptions that do not add up to a whole logical conclusion. Lemma, If no one believes on their own, as an act of the will, then is belief predefined under something other than will? Why is it assumed that it is our nature not to acknowledge God? In fact, when the counterpoint of “revelation of God” is brought up, all the Christian apologists, including Mom will vigorously defend the idea that God is self-evident in nature, or expresses himself through others or events in our lives, or through some mysterious “still small voice” that talks to them (literally). They will heartily conclude that this is because God wants to talk/befriend/have the worship of/needs the belief of (as a condition of our obedience, acceptance of, and loving communion with…) FROM us for some reason that makes us very important indeed to the mysterious power who chooses to speak to us with stories and mysteries and CONFUSION, but loves us a lot, and that is why, young Padawan, I use such lengthy connectives to describe the absurdity of it, from the power of words to describe things which are evident, and demonstrable….. things like the elaborate nature of pre-defined beliefs that have no method of verification, and the assumptions of worthiness, importance, or meaning of our existence that are only evident in our belief, and not our reality.

Marie ‎(with Mary) – Sean, It is astonishing that the God who made and governs the universe acted to make himself known to us so as to have a relationship with us. That is the affirmation on which the Christian faith rests and without which there would be no Christian faith. We can know God only because God has revealed himself to us. Such a conviction inspires the deepest humility and gratitude, not pride. Why God chose to do this, why he wants our love and submission, remains hidden to us. We know only that he does and that he has spoken. You ask, “Why is it assumed that it is our nature not to acknowledge God?” If it were our nature to acknowledge God, then more people would acknowledge him. The fact that many do not is a good indication that responding to God’s self-revelation is not natural. The Bible tells the reason why: sin. But of course this explanation of why many do not turn to God is a statement of faith. You say, “…all the Christian apologists, including Mom will vigorously defend the idea that God is self-evident in nature, or expresses himself through others or events in our lives, or through some mysterious ‘still small voice’ that talks to them (literally).” This is plainly not true. We do not believe – let alone vigorously defend – that God is self-evident in nature. In fact, we believe just the opposite: that God’s self-revelation in nature is ambiguous and that God is seen in nature only by those who believe. Likewise, God’s revelation of himself in our experiences is not proof to the watching world either that he exists or that he is the personal God revealed in the Christian scriptures. We do believe that we are important to God, as stated above, but for reasons that are neither self-evident nor necessary – i.e., the conclusion of a rational argument. It is an astonishing truth, and one that we embrace gladly and humbly. Regarding the hiddenness of God’s self-revelation, we are helped by something C.S. Lewis said about the matter: “Christians…have a bad habit of talking as if revelation existed to gratify curiosity by illuminating all creation so that it becomes self-explanatory and all questions are answered. But revelation appears to me to be purely practical, to be addressed to the particular animal, Fallen Man, for the relief of his urgent necessities—not to be the spirit of inquiry in man for the gratification of his liberal curiosity. We know that God has visited and redeemed His people… What we must do, which road we must take to the fountain of life, we know, and none who has seriously followed the directions complains that he has been deceived.” (from God in the Dock, p. 43) It stands to reason that if one assumes that what is most real is that which can be explained, demonstrated, empirically verified, proven, etc., one would reject as absurd what can only be known by faith. You can’t get to New York by setting your GPS for Los Angeles. For us, the realm of the spiritual and our relationship with God experienced by faith is every bit as real as the air we breathe. Love, Mom and Mary

Marie ‎(with Mary) – Actually the Bible’s explanation as to why many don’t acknowledge and turn to God is also that there are powers of darkness that inhabit the world, blinding people to the truth of God’s existence and love.

Sean ‎- “God’s self revelation in nature is ambiguous and that God is seen in nature only by those who believe” … if belief is given or revealed, then is God choosing those who believe, or are the chosen doing the believing of their own volition? Regarding the assumption that it is our nature Not to acknowledge God, how can that stand against your other statements “Yes, religion is a universal human quest. And, we believe, the one true God is universally present and worshiped in paganism, even though pagan religions are ignorant of his identity.” and “There is no denying that rational thought is inherent to human beings. That is why our instinct is to try to prove the existence of God and to doubt or disbelieve what cannot be substantiated by rational argument.” In both arguments, the opposite conclusion is used to justify the current logical dilemma, and both cannot be correct, as they are mutually exclusive arguements. The “accident of birth” determines which of the many invisible sky gods we accept in our culture. And cultural influence in the belief of irrational thought is a well known, scientific, and historical demonstrable phenomena. Breaking out the boogeyman (devil, dark forces, etc.) is the last resort to an indefensible arguement. I have been called a “false teacher” and “prophet of satan” by several folks throughout the years when the debate reveals a singular and (to the believer) unacceptable conclusion that contradicts faith. If the faith is being given by God, then is he allowing that faith to be taken by the Devil? Is he powerless to stop the devil in this? And since we are given this faith, and we are not the ones who do this, then when we don’t have faith, does that mean we are equally uninvolved in the process, or are we responible for our unbelief? And which is it…. Are we the ones who believe – then we get to see God – or is it God who lets us (makes us) believe and lets Satan take the rest? Either God is revealing himself to a purpose which includes our decision, or he is making that decision for us by our place and time of birth and the circumstances that surround our exposure to this belief. In either case, it seems to be curiously arbitrary.

Marie ‎(with Mary) – Searching for what will give meaning to our existence (the universal human quest) and acknowledging the God who has spoken so as to be known by his human creatures are two different things. The former is natural to us (since human life doesn’t contain its meaning within itself); the latter is not, in the sense that we are predisposed because of sin not to acknowledge/love/trust/worship/submit to God. That anyone believes in God and submits to his loving rule is solely the result of God’s acting to choose/love/help/save him or her. No one comes to God apart from God’s choosing and drawing. At the same time, though, believing is something we do – an act of the will – enabled by the Spirit, in response to God’s gracious acts. We believe that both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are affirmed in the Bible – a paradox that cannot be explained, only accepted. We don’t deny the role of culture in influencing people’s religious beliefs, including our own. And we can’t say with intellectual certainty that our religion is true. However, to acknowledge the influence of family and culture in shaping our beliefs is not to say that in the end this is why we believe. We believe – and continue to believe in the face of doubts – because of our experience of God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. And it does not follow that the things we affirm are inherently irrational simply because they are faith judgments and cannot be proven. We don’t sacrifice rational thought as Christians. We simply acknowledge the limits of the human intellect when it comes to knowing and understanding the things of God. We weren’t “breaking out the bogeyman” because we were pinned in a corner and unable to defend our views rationally. We were not trying to argue or defend rationally what we hold to be true by faith. Nor were we attacking you or making judgments about you. We were simply stating that when it comes to the issue of why many do not acknowledge God (and why in fact we cannot know God apart from God’s seeking us and enabling our coming to faith), the reasons the Bible gives are human sinfulness and the reality of powers of darkness that blind unbelievers to the truth of God. The Bible asserts the reality of evil forces at work in the world (without explaining how evil can exist in a world created and ruled by an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God.) But it doesn’t present a dualistic picture. God allows evil powers to have their way – he has relinquished a measure of control to them – but they are not independent of God. And while these evil powers exert an influence on us, they are not ultimately responsible for our actions. Neither God nor Satan is responsible for human unbelief. As stated above, we believe that God draws people to himself and enables faith but not in such a way that it must be said that God makes us believe, thereby rendering us less than the free and responsible agents he created us to be. As far as what will happen to unbelievers is concerned, we are content to entrust their destiny into the hands of the one loving and merciful God who we believe acted in Christ to save the world. We don’t know the role that God plays when it comes to people of other faiths/religions whose beliefs are determined by their culture. We can say only that because we believe there is one true God who created and sustains all peoples, we believe also that all people of every time and place and culture are God’s children – and that their ultimate destiny is in his loving hands.

Alice – This link won’t work anymore because I noticed a problem with the vid that I wanted to fix. I’ll repost a new link, but I didn’t want to remove this one in case you guys continue with your discussion.

Sean – thank you, Alice, for the floor { :) } – please, understand that I was not saying that your discussion ended up with anyone attacking anyone… I was saying that it HAS been done in the past by more than one person, and that it was a consequence of sitting down and really discussing the logic involved with faith. The reason I brought up Christian apologism is because you, Dad, Mary, and Alice (among many, many others) have all expressed specific “heretical” beliefs that diverge implicitly from the “norm” or “mainstream” Christian fundamental beliefs. You always have very well thought out explanations for why your belief should be what it is, despite the castigation you experience from those with whom you formerly associated with, and yet you all dance around the actual fundamental issue of belief, and why you should have it. I recall, as a very young boy…. I don’t know, maybe 4 or just turning 5 when you excitedly told me that if I died, I could come back as anything I wanted to. You told me, with no uncertainty, that I could come back as a dandelion after I died, because I really wanted to be a dandelion at the time. This was wonderful news, and because you told me so, Mom, I believed it. By the time I was in Sunday school, after you folks had your epiphany with Pastor Davids, the stories changed to another level altogether. When we were exposed to the pejorative dissonance which was Southern Baptist fundamentalism at Pine Hills, I was also developing my sense of self and understanding of these complex issues that the religious thought was based on. When you guys went off in yet another direction with the whole “spirit filled” circus show, you completely lost me…. now, I tell you, believe any fairytale you want to…. I don’t have to, and won’t. I see it as disturbing method of engaging the world, this method of subservience to an invisible master for some awful but necessary atonement. It is just quite simply not true. To entertain these ideas is a form of self-imposed denial of REALITY, not a “betrayal of mystery”….. It is a form of communal mental illness that, somehow, perpetuates from generation to generation, changing as it evolves, but fundamentally the same in its precepts…. faith without evidence, the need for atonement and forgiveness at all times without specifically nameable fault other than mere existence, the indefinable nature of the terms of reconciliation or completedness, the endlessly “mysterious” reasonings or motivations of a (pleased, angry, loving, jealous, forgiving, damning) God who never reveals himself in public, or to my observance, in any LITERAL method in private that may be verified as the “presence of God”, other than the previously mentioned scientific, shamanistic, or drug induced methodologies. Repeatedly, you side-step the OBVIOUS mythological and historical origins of your savior-god, and if we were discussing this 3500+ years ago, his name may very well have been Horus, instead of Jesus. You embrace an ever-changing God who reacts to your wants and needs, like everyone else who creates a god, and you believe it because it is your own delusion, or the one that is acceptable to you and your peers. This acceptability of absurdity needs to simply stop. We all need to be responsible, of our own volition, to choose to be good people, who are in NO NEED OF FORGIVENESS, and who are responsible EVERY SECOND for our own behavior and beliefs. We need not pay penance to anyone for anything that we have not done or said of our own free will. We must understand things based on verifiable and acceptable terms, not arbitrary assignments of “good”, “evil”, “right”, and “wrong”….. those are all-encompassing words that describe polar extremes of a very rich tapestry which is human existence. We need to discuss things on a basis that can be understood by not only ourselves and those in our culture, but those of many cultures. If the very human need for seeking complex pattern recognition in nature results in the very erroneous belief in an invisible and indefinable entity who is directing it all for our benefit emerges, as it does again and again in human history, we must react to this much the same way as we do for our fear of the dark, once that primal necessity is overcome by logical disposition. Much the same way that you dismiss the pagan for his erroneous beliefs, you must accept that your own beliefs MAY BE erroneous, or you have not adequately demonstrated an understanding of the other, or alternative viewpoint. This is essential to understanding ANYTHING, and a fundamental precept of science, and modern “enlightenment”. These are the working rules that have pulled us from the darkness of the middle ages, and moved us all forward to incredible opportunities to better ourselves and understand the world around us. Yet, despite a demonstrable recognition of these “doubts” and “questions” you all persist in defending the absurd rules that govern faith-based dogma. Have you really studied the alternative mythologies of the ancients as they relate to the Jesus story, or did you simply dismiss what I said as angry rhetoric? Did you really consider some of your own doubts as being valid and necessary movements toward truth and logic in your own mind, or did you dismiss them as the “forces of evil” you warned me about earlier…. and why can’t I come back as a dandelion? I thought it was the nicest of your stories I have been able to share (so far) in this lifetime. There is much love in what I am saying, I only hope that you are listening. Please approach me with something other than a lesson on God, but maybe a little more about why you feel such a need to be forgiven for being you…. Why are you so adamant about needing forgiveness from an angry God? I think you are just great.

Alice – Everyone needs forgiveness, but not everyone knows they need forgiveness. Hence, the entire video series, “Just Believe” – it is pointing out the fact that the human condition is not predisposed to believe. I don’t think you are deluded or stupid or any other negative thing. I think you are human. Nobody can will themselves to see God or understand God or hear God. Apparently you don’t, and you seem very bothered about the idea that others do (fairytale, self-imposed denial of reality, delusion, absurdity, etc). In one breath you say this has to stop and in the next breath you think we are just great. Can you handle the idea that we disagree? I can. I just leave you in God’s capable hands, whether you like it or not. And then I remember what it is like to not believe, so I can relate to what it is you are saying. You would be surprised at the amount of research I’ve done over the past few years, how many ideas I’ve let go of, because I recognized they were erroneous. I’ve also embraced ideas that I used to shun because of my arrogant religious-bullshit attitude. We are all works in progress. Maybe in some ways you are further along than me when it comes to science and logic, because you don’t have 15 years worth of religious baggage to unload. I am still in that process. But spiritually I am further along than you, because I am free to embrace the truths revealed to me by the Creator of the universe, ideas that you lump together with mythology, dogma, etc, and dismiss adamantly. But this isn’t a competition, so it doesn’t really matter anyhow. Live and let live. I can express my views and so can you. It’s all good.

Marie ‎(with Mary) – Dear Son, Here is why my faith makes all the difference in the world to me. Even though I do some good things and on the outside may look like a pretty decent person, at the most basic level I am not good. I am bent toward being selfish, toward acting in ways that alternately lift myself up or put myself down and in ways that gratify my selfish desires. In a host of other ways, I fail to be the person God created me to be – loving God and others wholeheartedly and purely. And no matter how hard I try to be different, I cannot. While in one sense I am free – free to make choices, to decide and do things – in another very basic sense I am not free at all. I can no more choose to be good in any ultimate sense of the word than I can choose to fly. When I look at my past, I see a not-very-pretty record of wrong and hurtful (to others and to myself) choices. And not a day goes by in which I am not aware of my inability when it comes to choosing and being the person who in my best moments I want to be – one who loves and obeys God and who loves and cares for others as I accept and live in the security and self-worth that come from God’s love for me. In short, I desperately need God. I need to be saved and set free for a life of true freedom in loving relationship with God and other people. And I have experienced God’s grace in Jesus Christ doing just this. Even though I’m far from perfect, I can see the evidence of God’s Spirit working in my life, setting me free and making me new, enabling me to choose the right and good. And I have experienced the peace and joy of having the burden of guilt and shame lifted for wrong choices I made in the past, the peace and joy of being forgiven and cleansed and given a new beginning based on what God in Christ did for me. Also, I have a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing that I am loved for who I am, that I am supremely valued by God, which frees me from having to keep propping up my fragile ego by endlessly seeking the approval and admiration of others and glorifying myself by elevating myself above them. As I said, I’m a long way from being perfect, but I know the One who has the power to change me, and I trust that he will continue to make me into the person he created me to be. Also, knowing that I am a child of the loving Creator, that I am part of something bigger than myself and that I have a future, gives my life meaning in the present. This, in a nutshell, is why my faith matters to me and why I couldn’t live a day without God and his grace. Regarding how you were raised, I can say only that at that time, I was on a journey, a quest for truth, a journey which I am still on. I don’t remember what the particular circumstances were when I told you that you could come back as a dandelion, whether this was the time in my life when I was looking into reincarnation and I answered you out of that exploration or whether I just considered it a harmless fantasy. In any case, the truth claims of Christianity are not a fantasy; they are real (a faith statement). I have regrets about some of the things I taught you and your sisters and brother, things that from the perspective of my current understanding I judge to be distortions of the truth (especially a view of God as vengeful and damning). But even though I have regrets and especially wish that I hadn’t been so extreme in some of my convictions and expressions of my faith, still I do not regret that your dad and I raised you in the Christian faith. As I said, I believe that the claims of Christianity are true, even though I can’t prove them and can’t rule out the possibility that I am wrong. And because I believe that Christianity is true and that belief in God matters supremely (not simply for what it means regarding an afterlife but for what it means for our lives in this world here and now), I raised you in the Christian faith and I continue to hope and pray that all five of you (along with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren) will know God and respond to his love. Also, in each of the churches I belonged to, I learned something and met wonderful people. I do not regret those experiences, even though I’m now in a much different and, I think, more balanced place in terms of my understanding and expression of my faith. One thing Mary and I have a hard time understanding is your expressed intolerance of those who embrace the Christian faith. You talk about respecting the beliefs or non-belief of people, but then you turn around and say things such as “it is a form of communal mental illness” and “this acceptability of absurdity needs to simply stop.” Where is the respect in that? It’s one thing for you to think that Christianity is false/absurd and that it’s somehow dangerous to one’s mental health, but for you to rant about its absurdity and demand that it be stopped is hardly a demonstration of respect and tolerance. We happen to think that your worldview – your materialist philosophy – is sorely lacking. From our perspective, to commit oneself to the idea that what is most real is that which can be explained, demonstrated, empirically verified, etc. – while an appealing idea because these ways of knowing provide power and control – is to lose a lot. Indeed, it is to lose realms of human experience, reducing us to less than we are, less than we were created to be. Your reducing “belief in an invisible and undefinable entity who is directing it all for our benefit” to an erroneous interpretation of “the very human need for seeking complex pattern recognition in nature” is an example of this kind of reductionism. Have you considered that such belief many arise out of a genuine human need for relationship with something/someone bigger than oneself? But even though we think the worldview you have chosen to embrace is inadequate (and harmful in the sense that it closes you off from even the possibility of seeking to know transcendent reality), we don’t deny your right to hold it and we don’t denounce you for holding it. We don’t “dismiss the pagan for his erroneous beliefs,” and we have acknowledged more than once that our beliefs may not be true. But we believe the truth claims of Christianity – which necessarily entails believing that contradictory truth claims of other faiths are not true. This doesn’t mean that we do not respect people of other faiths or that we think they have nothing to teach us. Nor does it mean that we think they will be condemned for their unbelief in the end. We would like to think that somehow God will enable them to receive the light. In any event, we are all for interfaith dialogue and for respecting people’s right to believe what they choose. Because faith is so important to us, we are motivated to hold onto it even though we have doubts and questions. In our ongoing quest for truth, we try to remain open to new perspectives and understandings (which is one reason I have jumped around from one tradition to another). And yes, we have considered our doubts as having value in themselves – as possessing the potential to lead us to truth or to a deeper understanding of it. But we haven’t gone down the path of skepticism. We haven’t abandoned the quest, settling for rationalistic explanations of our longings and experiences and serving a god that is the product of our own minds. “The answer to blind belief is not blind unbelief,” William Sloan Coffin wrote. Ceasing the quest for truth is, in our view, not the answer to the uncertainty of faith. No, we have not “really studied the alternative mythologies of the ancients as they relate to the Jesus story,” but we are not unaware of them. Again, we are helped by something C.S. Lewis, a student and teacher of ancient mythology, had to say about this: “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified…under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle…God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘pagan Christs’: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.” Granted, science and its rules have benefited humankind greatly. But there are many whose lives are not any better for all the science in the world. Science is not, in our view, the ultimate answer to the world’s ills. Neither is it the only valid methodology for knowing truth. I love you, son. Mom (and Mary)

Sean – And again, Mom, it is not a matter of intolerance; it is a matter of exasperation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell – I can be intimately aware of all of your beliefs, what is at the core of the understanding you are describing, share all of your very human needs for feelings of inadequacy and need for forgiveness, your current understanding of how God is supposed to work according to the current cultural rules that govern that belief system, and I can (on a point by point basis, as you wish) describe why this is an inherently flawed method of thinking, and causal to the very worst of human actions in this world. Think of this, if every person in the world had their worst sin immediately exposed, and we were to really understand that the human condition is pretty universal, then we were to further understand that some enterprising folks might take advantage of that fact, and that unwittingly your closest friends and family perpetuated the ideas of that cunning user of conditional experience to impose this never-ending-guilt-complex mixed with inadequacy/atonement/eventual reconciliation/etc. wrapped in well established mythology, then you would very much be exasperated, annoyed at the idea that it can continue unanswered. I get to hear all the time about how smoking will affect my health, but no one seems to be alarmed at the affect on MENTAL HEALTH that religion produces. When people believe in invisible, unverifiable influences who govern their lives use the names “Jesus” or “God”, it is culturally acceptable, because it is a shared idea. When one uses the words “Government agents in the wall” or “voices from the sky” as their reference, we deem them crazy, and treat them accordingly. What is really the difference? Joseph Campbell – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia en.wikipedia.org Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987) was an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work is vast, covering many aspects of the human experience. His philosophy is often summarized by his phrase…

Sean – My god is a very different thing. It is not a man, or anything that is a man, other than the part of what makes man part of the universe, which is god.

Sean – My god is VAST.

Sean – My god is not concerned with me, other than the fact that I am, which is part of his masterful work which is the universe, which is (again, not a man) Him/Her/It

Sean – I am one very infinitesimal part of a glorious thing which is God…… My tiny little brain will NEVER encompass that, and it is egotistical to even imagine it to be so.

Sean – And on the expression of ego…. all the concerns regarding sin, unworthiness, need for atonement, etc. have the overtone of the very worst kind of arrogance to the REAL God, which is my God. He/She/It doesn’t care about the concerns of your mere existence. They are very petty and small things in the (eyes?, how very anthropomorphic to say) of THE GOD WHO IS EVERYTHING.

Sean – But there is another way altogether to look at the same thing.

Sean – Our very insignifigance is the joyous and wonderful MIRACLE which is our life. The outmost chance of our very BEING when compared to the totality of the UNIVERSE that we know of and the (very, very little) pebble we live on is amazing enough……..

Sean – But the fact that we are HERE and SELF AWARE, and able to love, BE, share, and understand, and that the circumstances that made us that way are a long cadence of others who felt and shared and loved as we do…. well, heck, that starts sounding like an amazing thing to share and appreciate, once you know it….. but the problem remains….. when you have a better way to see things, you have to get other people to believe that too. And when they won’t see it, and won’t REALLY discuss it, but jump back behind cultural barriers, and unverifiable circular reasoning patterns, then they will never understand the TRUE JOY of being unencumbered by a terrible guilt that needs to be atoned for from an angry God. There is no God that I would worship who demands that of me, or those that I love, and as it turns out, there isn’t one you can show me to be that petty and undeserving of your or my worship who exist as a real being.

Sean – If it sounds intolerant, then I must say your God sound pretty intolerant to me too. And he is unfair, and misogynistic, and petty, and arrogant, and pretty much a low-life by any stretch of the imagination (remember the flood…… What about if you were a firstborn Egyptian 2 year old, around the time of Moses? What if you are a Muslim in Iraq right now? What are your chances then with your angry, baby killing God?) Which of us is intolerant to the MYSTERY which is reality? Which of us really is speaking the truth?

Alice – A few weeks ago I watched the documentary, “God on Trial” in which prisoners in a concentration camp do a mock trial, and many of the same questions are raised. They find God guilty, as you seem to do. I cried after watching that movie, for at least a good half hour. I was angry at God for not giving me satisfactory answers to these and other tough questions. What are His intentions and purpose for humanity. Are they good or bad? Is God evil, or does God use evil as a tool to ultimately bring about the best possible outcome for us all? In a finite POV – God most definitely looks guilty of the worst (genocide, infanticide, etc), but from the POV of One Who is able to not only kill, but bring back to life, these things may turn out to be like the rebreaking of a bone – painful, but necessary, seemingly evil, but ultimately good. I certainly don’t have answers to your questions, other than the answer God gave me, that is, not everything that has been recorded concerning Him and His actions is accurate. People have blamed God for being the mastermind in things about which they ought to blame themselves. I know you think it is ridiculous that God talks to me, but He does. And what He said to me that day was to consider my journals, and see scripture in that same way. As is evidenced in my journals, over the course of five years, my worldview changed drastically. I look at things God was speaking to my heart, that I wrote down, and they still ring true, but these truths are also encapsulated in a bunch of my own junk, opinions, misunderstandings, etc. Several times I’ve thought of making a bonfire of those journals, just because I can’t stand the way I interpreted His intentions. For example, He told me that He had news for me that people won’t believe, that is too good to be true. Before I knew what that news was, I imagined it had to do with the church I attended, that God would do something amazing and people would come flocking from all around. But then God told me, this is not for just one church, it is for all churches, and not only that, it is for the whole world. Then I was really curious and baffled. And I imagined different ideas and scenarios. All my imaginings and speculations were so far off base, so narrow, so true to the limited/skewed perspective I had on God at that time. I kept trying to see everything as applicable to me, my church, my town, etc, when God kept telling me, “you are not thinking big enough”, or “don’t you think more of Me than this?” So are my journals worthless now? I don’t think so, because at this point I am learning to distinguish what came from my puny mind and what came from Him. I am learning to see the difference between truths that stand the test of time and ideas/opinions/concepts that are outright wrong, or if they are accurate they are only accurate for a certain time or place or person. I think God walked me through this so that I could learn to see scripture the same way, to read it knowing that His Word is true and right and good and for a glorious outcome for all humanity, but also aware that it is written by puny minded, narrow thinking, fallible people who have likely had their writings mistranslated a bit along the way. Look at the way scripture translations have been twisted to accommodate the fear/control doctrine of eternal torment, for example. If this can be pulled off over the course of two millennia, I can only imagine how even older texts have been manipulated. I am still in the process of sorting through all that mess. What I do know is this – according to the Old Testament law, the adulterous woman should have been stoned. Yet when she was put before Jesus, He did no such thing. Did Jesus break His own laws? Or maybe He knew that God never commanded it in the first place… Regardless of what I think about these things, there is one thing that still stands – something amazing happened 2000 years ago, and there is plenty of historical evidence to back it – the resurrection. People who are crucified to death, people who are confirmed dead for days, do not get up and live again. That never happens! Except it did happen. And this one time that it did happen, it happened to Someone Who claimed to come from God, Who did miraculous things during His life, Who shares my utter loathing for religious bullshit, Who promised that what happened to Him is a “first-fruit” example of God’s Plan for all of us. Life, not death. Peace, not conflict. Love, not evil. Joy, not sadness, pain, death, etc. The accusations brought against God do not fit with this awesome, real life demonstration of His purpose. I don’t know how or why they don’t fit. I suspect that it may be for the same screwed up reasons and corrupt methods people used to introduce this idea of eternal torment. When/if I figure it all out, I’ll be sure to let you know. If you want to know.

William – Ok. I do not want to intrude here, or give offense to anyone, so I will try to remain humble about the statements I make here. That being said, I feel that there is an unexpressed side to this debate that contradicts some of the basic premises of both sides of the discussion. Sean, you know I respect you, and have had many lively discussions on various topics with you. As a preface to the statements I will make, I will say that it was the discussions we had on the mathematical nature of the universe that eventually lead me to my current beliefs. The problem I see with your view on Christianity, Sean, is that it takes a very Calvinist approach to God, and the nature of man. I agree that a pre-deterministic God, that makes daily choices about the life, death, salvation, or damnation of his creations is more like a devil than a loving Creator. I agree that guilt over one’s very existence, and even birth, are horrible philosophies that lead to dysfunctional behaviors. I agree that free will, and self-awareness are the essence of human existence, and not opposed to the nature of God. What I don’t agree with is that these are the teachings of Christianity. The original teachings of Christianity, (which exist to this day unchanged in the Orthodox Church), are very different than what most of us in America know of Christian beliefs. What caught my attention about the religion was it’s teachings on the nature of sin, and the methodology of salvation. The literal translation of sin is “to miss the mark”, as an archer would miss a bull’s eye. Orthodoxy teaches that sin is what we do that makes us less God-like. The purpose of eliminating sin is the process of deification, or becoming God. Original sin does not exist as a tenet of Orthodoxy. There is no reason, as sin is a willed choice, not a stain of the soul. One does not give offense to God through your sin, you give offense to yourself only. It is also taught that all people will eventually be brought into God’s love, and their lifelong path will determine the choice they make in how they perceive that love. It is not the common belief that some will be in, some will be out. The other thing that caught my interest in these teachings was the nature of Christ, and his purpose. The Orthodox teachings are that the Incarnation (Man and God) happened so that God and man could exist in union without destroying each other. Not so that man could have an instant and magical ticket to heaven based solely on belief in Jesus. The Resurrection itself, is the defeat of death (which is also a separation of God and man), not the appeasement of God’s judgment upon a sinful and worthless creation. The common belief is that Jesus died for our sins, when the original teaching was that he was resurrected that man could become unified with God, and thus unaffected spiritually by death. The power of Christ’s blood that so many modern Christian’s refer to, was not taught to be the blood he shed on the cross, but the blood he gave in the establishment of the Eucharist. I know that it is a mystical concept. The virgin birth, the Eucharist, the concept of death by death, these are all strange and irrational beliefs. I accept that though, because I don’t know everything. The very idea that I take for granted; that I am sitting her breathing air, may not even be true in the sense I believe it to be. The facts are, that Orthodoxy is a mystical religion, and is open about that. The whole point of it is to experience the Holy Mysteries that bring one into Communion with God. The strangeness of the beliefs are irrelevant. All of it is just about as impossible as teleporting a laser beam, creating alternate dimensions, or the concept of non-linear time. Just so we are clear though, I am not trying to convert anyone, or be down on anyone’s beliefs. That is your choice, which is is part of the free-will system that God set in motion. I am also no trying to say I am right, or anyone is wrong. I simply wanted to bring to light that what one accepts as Christian dogma is only a singular version, of which there are many. Not all of the arguments in this debate hold up when challenged by the tenets of the original Orthodox teachings. I believe that in ant debate about theology, one must take into account where the concept started, as much as where the concept ended up.

Marie ‎(with Mary) – Yes, we agree that our being and awareness, understanding, capacity to love, etc. are amazing and wonderful – a miracle, indeed, and cause for celebration and, we believe, for praise to the Creator. Whatever story one chooses as to how we got here and how we got to be aware – whether it involves a loving and intelligent Designer, or a series of genetic accidents eventually producing creatures with the capability of overturning the process of natural selection, or complex structures at work in evolution leading to the evolution of creatures with the capability of discerning the structures, or some combination or something else – it remains an astonishing thing that we are here and that we are conscious of our existence and the existence of the cosmos. We couldn’t agree more about the fact that each of us is “one very infinitesimal part of a glorious thing” and that our finite minds cannot even begin to comprehend the vast expanse of the universe. We don’t share your idea of god, but we do share your attitude toward the vast and wondrous world. We think it utterly amazing that the Creator of the universe should care about us and “the concerns of our mere existence” – which we believe he does. This is a statement of faith and one that we confess with the deepest awe and humility. Given the vastness of the universe and the greatness of the God who created it, there is no other posture appropriate to humans than one of reverence, awe, and humility. If no one seems alarmed by the effect that religion has on mental health, it’s because, generally speaking, religion doesn’t have an adverse effect on the mental health of its adherents. Unlike smoking, for which there is incontrovertible evidence indicating its harmful effects on the body, religious belief has not been shown to cause mental instability or illness. The fact that an outside observer judges a person who holds certain beliefs about a transcendent being to be crazy because those beliefs cannot be proven is irrelevant. To the believer, his or her religious beliefs are critical to finding meaning and fulfillment in life. To imply that religious observers should be locked up or otherwise treated as society treats the mentally ill is, in our view, ludicrous. Religious belief is a reflection of the fundamentally human quest – and people should be given the freedom to pursue and practice it as they will. We simply do not agree that your way of viewing the world is superior. If to “really discuss” means, as you seem to define the rules for discussing, that we abandon faith and abandon even the idea of faith as a legitimate way of knowing truth and instead adopt a materialist worldview, limiting our quest for truth to that which can be seen and measured and verified, then you’re right: we aren’t interested in “really discussing.” As we’ve said before, for us the benefits of faith make holding on to it in the face of doubts and questions eminently worth doing. If, however, to discuss means that we talk about what we think and believe and why, and in turn listen to what you have to say, and share our thoughts about your point-of-view, then not only are we open to discussing but in fact it’s what we have been doing with you for these past weeks. There is no denying the role of culture when it comes to our religious beliefs. It is more than likely that we wouldn’t be Christian if we had lived and been raised in a culture where the dominant religion is something other than Christianity. And our practice of the faith more than likely reflects the particularities of American Christianity. But these things in themselves do not prove that Christianity isn’t true or that there is no truth to be found, nor do they prove that we are Christian now only because of the influence of culture. Mary walked away from the Christian faith at one point in her life. What brought her back was not social pressure, or an experience of suddenly becoming convinced beyond doubt that the claims of Christianity are true, but the experience of God’s relentless love seeking her and finding her. Kelly James Clark says that when it comes to the quest for truth, we can respond to the fact that we are products of cultural conditioning in one of several ways: by becoming skeptics and despairing of our ability to find truth, by embracing pluralism and deciding that every path is as good as any other, i.e., that truth is relative, or by following the lights God has given us and accepting what seems to be true, humbly trusting God to guide us in our quest. As for us, we have chosen the third option. Faith judgments cannot be verified by observation or the scientific method or by the canons of logic or reason. You recently commended our well-thought-out explanations of our beliefs and understandings; now you accuse us of circular reasoning. In any event, we aren’t trying to argue or prove what we hold to be true by faith. Your words about sin/guilt/atonement betray a distorted view of the God we believe in. God is no temperamental, vengeful deity who demands of those who offend him sacrifices to appease his anger. Rather, he is the God of holy love who acted in Jesus Christ to remove the barrier between us and him – the barrier erected by our sin – by bearing its painful consequences. This is a faith statement, of course, as is the belief that we need saving because we are alienated from God, others, and our true selves by sin. And while we believe it to be true, we cannot know it with absolute certainty. Far from being “the worst kind of arrogance” to God, the issue of our sin and forgiveness is, we believe, of utmost importance to the One who created us for loving relationship with himself and others. The God you describe as intolerant, unfair, misogynistic, petty, and arrogant is not the God we believe in. The God we believe in is revealed supremely in Jesus Christ, who welcomed all kinds of people, especially those whom the religious elite excluded, who extended mercy to those who humbly recognized their need, who rebuked the powerful, who showed compassion to the hurting, who treated women with respect and dignity, who displayed humility, serving others, who repaid evil with good. Of course it is a statement of faith to say that in Jesus we see God – a statement that, we admit, raises questions. Still, we believe it to be true. We don’t have a satisfying answer to the question about the Egyptian babies. Some scholars point out that the language of the plague stories in Exodus, of which the killing of the Egyptian firstborn is a part, is confessional language, intended to celebrate God’s deliverance of Israel from evil empire, not to make objective statements about the fate of the Egyptians from which inferences about the character of God can be drawn. It’s not a very satisfying explanation, though, and we struggle with this text and others like it, about which we can say only that there is much about God that we don’t understand. To confine your search for truth to what you can demonstrate, explain, and verify is to lose much. As William Sloan Coffin put it, “I can understand doubting the quality of the bread, but I can’t see kidding yourself that you’re not hungry—unless, of course, your soul has so shriveled up that you have no more appetite for the great mysteries of life, especially the Mysterium Tremendum.”

Sean – Friends and loved ones, I encourage you to listen to the whole discussion (12 parts, 2 hours), but I found this part of it to be right on line with our recent thoughts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?index=1&feature=PlayList&v=8PhmUyFUFyk&list=PLA490902178E6854D —— I am not a Dawkins atheist, but I do find myself in agreement (almost unilaterally) with the other participants, whose books and lectures I have read throughout the years. There are many thoughtful and compelling alternatives to religious thought that are equally as “mysterious” and “life-changing” to the human experience. The Four Horsemen: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens (2/12) www.youtube.com On the 30th of September 2007, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens sat down for a first-of-its-kind, unmoderated 2-hour disc…

Marie ‎(with Mary) – We watched it. A few interesting points were made: the distinction between numinous and supernatural (though Rudolf Otto associated the numinous with the divine), and between spirituality and religion; the contrast between the “limitations of the evolved brain” versus something being “systematically incomprehensible” to human beings; and the fact that the physical constants of the universe seem too good to be true for the universe to have come about by chance. Overall, though, it struck us as four scientists sitting around bashing religion and people of faith. And much of what they said about religion is a caricature – such as that it never occurs to believers “What if I’m wrong?” and that belief without evidence is considered noble and evidence a corruption of the intellect (contrast this with St. Anselm’s words, “I believe in order that I may understand.”) They portray believers as arrogant, believing that “the universe is all about me,” which is a bunch of bunk, as far as we’re concerned. To affirm that God has spoken and that he is personally involved with his human creatures doesn’t entail believing that “I” or “we” are the center of the universe. God is the center and those who acknowledge him seek to live for the praise of his glory. And the participants in the video portray believers as unthinking fools and religious leaders as con artists who manipulate their “flocks” into blind trust – again, a caricature based on their preconceived ideas about the complete impossibility of the existence of God. (We have to wonder how much actual exposure any of the participants has had to “church people,” given their expressed bias against and contempt for religion.) It’s good to know where you’re coming from. We don’t agree that science is the be all and end all of human existence, that religion/belief in the transcendent is for fools, that religion and science are mutually exclusive (and enemies of each other), or that faith has been demolished by the” hammer blows of science.” Of course you’re entitled to your views. But we have a hard time seeing how a worldview that does not address the deeper questions of human existence could ever lead to a life of meaning and joy. We’ve relaxed our defenses a bit…..Some of the criticism leveled at religion in this video is definitely justified. People of faith, ourselves included, can be arrogant and self-righteous, claiming certitude, extinguishing doubt, refusing to entertain alternatives, boasting possession of ultimate truth. To the extent that religion is like this, the participants in the video are right about it being a danger – in the sense that it promotes enmity and division between people who think/believe differently. However, we don’t agree that it is either necessary (to resolve the problem of religion) or advisable to do away with belief in God. Of course we say this as persons of faith who have found the fulfillment of our deepest longings in the God revealed to us in the Christian scriptures. But the longings are not ours alone, they are universal; and denying the possibility of something or someone outside ourselves to fulfill them is hardly, in our view, the answer. The answer to the problem of religion lies in people of faith embracing their tenets with humility and modesty, recognizing, if you’ll permit words from our sacred text, that we “see through a glass darkly.” (A Christian theologian named Douglas John Hall has informed our thinking on this matter.) Marie Dean ‎(with Mary – these are her words, which I agree with totally) – …..And in reality, a group of atheistic academics who take lip-smacking delight in devouring religious people can no more extinguish the human longings that breed the religious quest than a bunch of un-self-critical, obnoxiously self-righteous believers, smugly confident in their moral and doctrinal certitudes, can extinguish existential doubt. (Again, the thoughts here reflect the thinking of Christian theologian Douglas John Hall. Not all theologians, contrary to the portrait of them painted in this video, are totally out of touch with life.)

Alice – I watched part one tonight and I’ll watch part two tomorrow.

Alice – That was very interesting, Sean. Thanks for posting it. I’m going to write a blog about the 4 Horsemen vid sometime next week.

*As a side note, I found something to be even more interesting than the content of the conversation itself, between these four horsemen.  That is, there are patterns in the conversation of who interrupts who, who talks the longest, who keeps on talking despite being interrupted, etc.  The conversational dynamics as well as the body language demonstrate the levels of egoism (a word I borrowed from Ursula K. Leguin) and heirarchy – social/psychological constructs that keep these guys from communicating to the fullest.  I wish I had another 20 hours of conversation to view, to really hone in on this below-the-surface stuff.

One spiritual dichotomy that I have been stewing on lately is the idea of free will and how it (if it exists) coexists with God’s sovereignty.  The other day I saw something that I think may shed some light on the subject.  A child was sitting in one of those grocery carts that looks like a car, with a little steering wheel.  His mom was pushing the cart through the parking lot erratically, both mother and child were laughing and shrieking, obviously having a wonderful time.  I noticed that when the boy turned the wheel left, the mom moved the cart left, and when the boy turned the wheel right, the mom moved the cart right.

Now, for the question… Who was sovereign in that situation, the mother or the son?

What if the mother wanted to teach her son about what it is like to really steer?  She would likely do this by allowing him to run into things, to show him what happens when there is no rhyme or reason to the turning of the wheel.  Suppose the son wanted to steer the cart directly into the nearby highway?  Would the mom allow that?  Not likely.

I wonder if this scenario is applicable to our understanding of the seemingly free choices we make and God’s ultimate control of the universe.  R.C. Sproul said something that stuck with me, regarding God’s sovereignty.  He said that if there is one renegade molecule in the universe, then God is not God.  Why?  Because there would exist something, in this case the renegade molecule, which took Him by surprise, which operated according to a plan other than God’s plan.

Sometimes we see that terrible things happen, and we wonder how or why God would allow it, we wonder why God keeps pushing the cart even though He knows we are steering ourselves into the highway.  All He has to do is stop pushing the cart.  But then, we must also consider that we see the entire situation from one perspective, that is, our own.  What about seeing it from God’s perspective?  Since God can (and will) make all things new, since God has promised to bring resolution to the tension caused by horrors such as violence, starvation, death, etc, isn’t the human existence as we now know it just a lesson in the divinely ordained do-over?  A mother would not keep pushing the cart into the highway for one reason – she does not have the power to put an end to pain or to give life.  The consequences of the situation are beyond her control.  But this is not the case with God.  God is able to redo or undo or just plain do, well, anything He wants.

I remember telling my son, Seth, that when he was taller then me, I would let him go places and do things on his own.  He used to stand next to me every few weeks to see if he was tall enough yet.  In the meantime, I saw that he was getting smarter about the dangers in the world.  When he was still an inch short of venturing around the neighborhood on his own, I said, “If there were nothing in the world that could hurt you, no accidents, no getting lost, no strangers with bad intentions, no poisonous snakes or dehydration or any other life threatening thing, I would let you go as far as you want to go and do whatever you want to do.”  Then Seth took it a step further and asked me, “If you had the power to find me no matter how far I went, bring me back to life if I died, or rescue me from getting trapped for a long time in a bad situation, would you let me go off on my own right now?”  I told him I would.

Perhaps these illustrations are inaccurate or inadequate.  Free will and God’s sovereignty is a spiritual dichotomy with which philosophers and theologians have been wresting for ages.  I don’t expect that I will be the one to come up with an explanation, but it doesn’t hurt to try.  Just yesterday I experienced a spiritual breakthrough which I am not willing to share (yet), something I had been wrestling with for my entire life.  If God can teach me about Himself in one seemingly unsolvable puzzle, why would He not be able to teach me about the relation between free will and His sovereignty?  One thing I know for sure – to settle in “it’s a mystery” or “we may never understand” mentality for longer than a season is the equivalent of spiritual stagnancy.  There is such a thing as being at peace with God even though we don’t understand, but the fact that an unanswered question remains, is, to me, an invitation to a choice.  We can choose to dive into the scary-grand adventure of discovering God and be changed, or we can remain comfortably dormant, without progress, without development.  Is that choice evidence of free will?  I don’t know.  But to be perpetually content with “I don’t know” is tantamount to Copernicus ignoring the wandering stars and settling for “we may never understand” instead.

Although strangers as well as friends and family sometimes think it strange, I tell them that God talks to me.  I suppose that they think I have elevated myself above them, somehow, since most of them say God does not talk to them (although I suspect He does, and they don’t hear Him).  Or maybe they just think I’m a strange woman with a vivid imagination.  But I’ve never hear a big booming voice from the sky or even a small whisper.  I don’t hear Him at all, using the normal sense of the word “hear.”  His voice is more like a thought in my mind that I recognize as originating from somewhere other than myself.

One time, when I had a very vivid dream, the details of which I may share in another blog someday, where I distinctly heard a voice that has continued to echo in my mind across the cavernous expanse between consciousness and dreams.  It said, “Come and see this.”  In my dream, I left the place where I was and found myself at a yard sale where there were massive, elaborate chandeliers for sale for five dollars each.  These chandeliers were exquisitely crafted, the kind of grand lighting one might expect to find in a royal palace or a world famous opera hall.

Most of the time, I think of dreams as random synapsis firing as the brain reboots itself during the still of the night, sorting out all the input from waking hours, and preparing itself to accept more input upon waking again.  However, sometimes I believe dreams have significance.  In this case the significance or meaning became obvious to me in two separate seasons of my life.  The first attempt at interpretation, based on my spiritual understanding at that time as a church-attending church-centered believer, is that the chandeliers are “revelation/light,” like an earthquake in the spiritual understanding of believers, which would soon become available in a very public way to not only my church, but all churches, to whomever He gives eyes to see and ears to hear.  Since then, I have come to understand that this interpretation, although correct for the most part, is inadequate.

In real life, chandeliers are grand, beautiful objects through which humanity channels energy/light.  The cost to create them, install them, and use them is great, but in my dream they are at a yard sale as if they have little value.  If someone were to ask you to think of a grand and beautiful system which humanity uses to plug in to God and channel spiritual understanding to people who are in darkness, perhaps you would think of the institutional church.  I can tell you from experience that she most certainly thinks of herself in that way.

Now, consider this.  A parable in the New Testament describes how God arranges an abundant feast of spiritually delightful food, only once it is prepared, the people who have been invited refuse to attend.  So, what does He do?  He invites anyone and everyone – strangers passing by on the streets, the poor, the outcast, the uneducated – it does not matter who they are, the invitation now belongs to them.  Theologians take this to mean that salvation is given to the Gentiles, since the Jewish religious leaders and the nation of Israel in general reject their Messiah.  Although this interpretation is correct, it is inadequate.  Over the course of time, the institutional church picks up where Israel leaves off and rejects the Messiah over and over again saying He did not accomplish His mission to seek and save the lost, that His redemptive work is “sufficient” but not “efficient,” and denying either His Sovereignty or His Character in order to explain away their beloved doctrine of fear – eternal torment in Hell.  They have returned to a form of the law, where salvation depends upon man’s will or man’s decision.  They give lip service to salvation belonging to God, but if man can mess up God’s plans, then their doctrine nullifies either God’s ability to save or His willingness to save.  The orthodox Good News is a Jekyll and Hyde version of God who says “Love me or burn in Hell forever.”

God has decided to take the Good News away from those to whom it has been entrusted, His unfaithful servant, and give it to anyone and everyone, the strangers to spiritual things, the spiritually poor, the spiritual outcast, the spiritually uneducated, the spiritually hostile.  These are the ones who will come to Him as children, who will be enter into His Reign (first) before these others (last) who have returned to the curse of the law, like a dog returns to its own vomit.  We may not see the far-reaching effects of His Plan at this time, but this snowball has been put into motion, it is rolling down the hill, and it is becoming more significant with each passing day, weak, month, and year.

The institutional church no longer holds the position it once held in this world, because the old wineskin is bursting.  It is unable to contain the new wine (which is actually aged, fine wine that had been forgotten in the cobwebs and dust of the Dark Age wine cellar).  The institution may continue, and God may in His mercy continue to do good things through it, just as He uses other organizations like the YMCA, Salvation Army, United Way, etc.  But for all intents and purposes, this system has lost its spiritual value.  Who carries a huge chandelier to the beach on a brilliantly sunny day?  God is no longer allowing His Light to be distributed to the world in this limited way.  Think about it.  A chandelier is an indoor item.  It exists within walls, lighting an area that is dark.  But God is doing His thing outside the walls now.  He is not abandoning those inside the walls, just as He did not abandon Israel when they abandoned Christ.  Jesus looks on them with mercy, and says, “Father, forgive them.  They know not what they do.”  Father forgive those people who choose the chandelier over the Light itself.  He may cut off the branch, but He is able to graft the branch back in.  He may blot out the name, but He is also God who gives new names.

You see that I now understand this dream to mean that this light-distributing device (the institutional church) will have very little spiritual value in the days to come.  I’m sure people who are currently very invested in it will disagree, and that is fine.  One day when they have eyes to see and ears to hear, what I am saying will make sense.  In the meantime, just as in the days of Jesus’ ministry, God is speaking to His people, His people are killing His prophets, rejecting Him, and trying to snuff out His message.  But He always reserves a remnant – a bit of yeast to work though the whole batch of dough.  I understand this with intense satisfaction, because I see Romans 10-11 repeating in history, as so many other prophecies/fulfillments have done throughout the ages.  Here is the message, with Israel/Jews replaced with the “churchians,” an affectionate term for those who are believers trapped in a system of righteousness that sucks the life out of them and “salvation” means being freed from the curse of the law and “good news” actually is good news, the Victorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.  See if this rings true to you:

Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for churchians is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.  Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.”If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between churched and unchurched—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

But not all church attending people accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

Again I ask: Did church people not understand? First, Moses says,“I will make the church envious by those who are unchurched; I will make the church angry by unchurched people who have no understanding.”

And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”

But concerning churchians he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”

I ask then: Did God reject churchians? By no means! …God did not reject churchians, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”?

And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”

Here it is very important that I pause to point out the significance of Baal, from Jeremiah 32: “They turned their backs to me and not their faces; though I taught them again and again, they would not listen or respond to discipline. They set up their vile images in the house that bears my Name and defiled it. They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom [aka Gehenna, the word erroneously translated "Hell"] to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing…”  Please watch this video called Molech, less than two minutes, which gives very important information about why the worship of Molech ought to be associated with the erroneous doctrine of eternal torment.  And now I continue in Romans:

So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.  What then? What church people sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened, as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.”

And David says: “May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them.  May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see and their backs be bent forever.” (BTW, churchians, aren’t you glad the word for “forever” is “aion” which means “age,” a period of time with a beginning and an end?  Otherwise it would be your backs which would be bent forever, not the unchurched like you think.)

Again I ask: Did church people stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the unchurched to make churchians envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the unchurched, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!

I am talking to you unchurched people. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the unchurched people, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my church-friends to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Churchians have experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the not-yet-believers become believers, and in this way all Churchians will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from church people.  And this is my covenant with church people when I take away their sins.”

As far as the gospel is concerned, churchians are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  “Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?”

“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” For from him and through him and for him are all things.  To him be the glory forever! Amen

Edward Said, in Culture and Imperialism says,

In the late twentieth century the imperial cycle of the last century in some way replicates itself, although today there are really no big empty spaces, no expanding frontiers, no exciting new settlements to establish.  We live in one global environment with a huge number of ecological, economic, social, and political pressures tearing at its only dimly perceived basically uninterpreted and uncomprehended fabric.  Anyone with even a vague consciousness of this whole is alarmed at how such remorelessly selfish and narrow interests – patriotism, chauvinism, ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds – can in fact lead to mass destructiveness.  The world simply cannot afford this many more times.

One should not pretend that models for a harmonious world order are ready at hand, and it would be equally disingenuous to suppose that ideas of peace and community have much of a chance when power is moved to action by aggressive perceptions of ‘vital national interests’ or unlimited sovereignty.  The United States’ clash with Iraq and Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait concerning oil are obvious examples.  The wonder of it is that the schooling for such relatively provincial thought and action is still prevalent, unchecked, uncritically accepted, recurringly replicated in the education of generation after generation.  We are taught to venerate our nations and admire our traditions: we are taught to pursue their interests with toughness and in disregard for other societies.  A new and in my opinion appalling tribalism is fracturing societies, separating peoples, promoting greed, bloody conflict, and uninteresting assertions of minor ethnic or group particularity.  Little time is spent [...] studying the map of interactions [...] No one can hold this entire map in his or her head.

No one, except God that is.  And under His direction, people will learn how to live at peace.

And He hath judged between the nations, and hath given a decision to many peoples, and they have beat their swords to ploughshares, and their spears to pruning-hooks, nation doth not lift up sword unto nation, nor do they learn any more – war. (Isaiah 2:4)

While it is true that no one can fully comprehend all the complexities of one-on-one human interaction, let alone the interaction of all the various people-groups (subcultures), societies, and nations, we can submit ourselves to the One Who is able to understand how and why we clash and how it is we can get along.  The real war is not between one person and another, one nation and another.  The real war is internal.  Regarding His Reign, in Jesus’ own words:

“To what shall I liken the reign of God?  It is like leaven, which a woman, having taken, did hide in three measures of meal, till that all was leavened.”

There is much more to be said about this, but that is another blog for another day.  Let’s continue with Jesus, on His way to Jerusalem:

A certain one said to him, “Sir, are those saved few?”

and he said unto them, “Be striving to go in through the straight gate, because many, I say to you, will seek to go in, and shall not be able; from the time the master of the house may have risen up, and may have shut the door, and ye may begin without to stand, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, lord, open to us, and he answering shall say to you, I have not known you whence ye are, then ye may begin to say, We did eat before thee, and did drink, and in our broad places thou didst teach; and he shall say, I say to you, I have not known you whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of the unrighteousness.  There shall be there the weeping and the gnashing of the teeth, when ye may see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the reign of God, and yourselves being cast out without; and they shall come from east and west, and from north and south, and shall recline in the reign of God, and lo, there are last who shall be first, and there are first who shall be last.”

Many believers read this passage and believe it to speak of Heaven, with all those outside, in the flames of Hell, unable to enter in.  But this is not consistent with the rest of scripture.  Notice what Jesus description of the Reign of God:

And having been questioned by the Pharisees, when the reign of God doth come, he answered them, and said, “The reign of God doth not come with observation; nor shall they say, Lo, here; or lo, there; for lo, the reign of God is within you.”

It seems to me that God has the academic community on a journey similar to that of the Gentiles in Jesus’ day.  Philosophy was the “science” of that age, and it was stirring the masses, making people think about spiritual things, even though they did not realize that is what they were doing.  When the institutional church obtained political power, the whole world went dark for hundreds of years.  Scientists were punished for speaking truth, just as those who recognize the Victorious Gospel of Jesus Christ have been punished.  We are comrades in persecution.  And then God began doing something new, but something old –  the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the Technological Revolution, ideas that have been possible for all of human history, reserved until the appointed time of revelation, along with the idea that we are all in this together, the entire human race, whether we like it or not, whether we like each other or not – this is part of God’s Plan of the Ages.  The Kingdom of God (the Reign of God) is within you.  No matter who you are.  Perhaps you recognize this now, and you are saved from the curse of the law that tells you that you have to do something to be saved.  Perhaps none of this makes sense to you, but you want to know more.  Perhaps you are so pissed off that you stopped reading this blog after the first few paragraphs (your loss).  God will have His way with you, sooner or later.  He will outlast your rebellion, open your eyes, and give you a new heart that see Him for Who He really is, a heart that praises Him for what He has done.  He is making all things new.  He is the Light.

For centuries, religious leaders have taught that believers accept Him and unbelievers reject Him.  In reality, most believers appear to accept Him but actually accept a distorted version of Him, while unbelievers appear to reject Him but actually reject the distorted version of Him that is presented to them by the believers.  The blind lead the blind and they both fall into a ditch.  It is no wonder Jesus said, “Many of the last shall be first, and the first last.”  Things are not as they seem.  Take comfort in knowing Jesus calls Himself the First and the Last, and consequently, no matter what order you enter into His Reign, He will not give up on you.  First or last, the Shepherd will be there with you.