Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and Biblical Inspiration

A few months ago, Jordan Peterson had a series of dialogues/debates with atheist philosopher Sam Harris on religion, facts, and values. The videos are quite long and the content is pretty dense, at times, but it’s fascinating to tune on a conversation between these two highly intelligent men as they discuss the most important aspects of human existence.

Neither of them are religious in the sense of personal commitment to an established, institutional tradition, but they are doing theology. Harris is an atheist who is one of today’s most harshest public critics of religion. Peterson is not religious in the traditional sense, but advocates for religion’s utility in understanding and guiding human life. Christianity, for him, is especially useful for this, though by his own admission he doesn’t attend church. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when Peterson says “God,” he means the thing at the top of our hierarchy of values. Yet, here they are, talking about God, what that word may or may not mean, and how our beliefs about God affect the sort of world we make. It’s basic theology in its purest sense.

Yet, when I watched the debate, I couldn’t help but wish that they had a professional theologian or practicing Christian philosopher in the discussion with them. Neither of the men are ignorant of “street-level” Christian theology, but there were a number of points that they made and assumptions they operated under, that I took issue with as someone who has had a formal theological education.

The biggest one was Sam’s (mis)understanding of Biblical revelation and inspiration. Throughout the debate he constantly dismisses the Bible’s value because it does not fit his criteria of perfection. His understanding of how Christianity treats the Bible is limited to that of the most rigid and naive fundamentalist. That is, Sam’s dismissal of the Bible is because it does not bear the marks of what one would expect of a text that was “dictated” to the authors by an “omniscient being.”

Listen to Sam and Peterson’s back and forth on the nature of the Bible’s inspiration in the video below. It starts at 1:08:34 and the conversation ends at about 1:15:00.

 

At 1:12:10, I laugh because Harris says, “When you read the Bible, you can turn every page of that book, and you will not find evidence of omniscience.” The reason this is so funny is because only a very small (and misguided) portion of Christians would ever claim that the Bible displays “evidence of omniscience.” Harris is basically attacking a straw man.

What do I mean by that?

Harris assumes that the ground of Christian faith is the book we call the Bible, which was allegedly dictated by God to reveal a comprehensive theory of everything. For Harris, if the Bible gets one detail wrong, or doesn’t conform to the the scientific era standards of accuracy on every detail, then you might as well throw the whole thing out and abandon faith.

Well, if my faith rested on that standard, then I would have to give it up, too. The reality, however, is that the ground of Christian faith has never been on the Bible’s accuracy on every scientific and historical detail as determined by our modern standards. The ground of Christian faith from day one has been the historical person of Jesus and the fact that his disciples saw him and experienced him after he was crucified. Even if one does not believe that Jesus was resurrected bodily, there is no other explanation for the rise of Christianity out of 1st century Judaism than that his disciples, at the very least, believed he was.

The resurrection was reported as an event in history that revolutionized the disciples understanding of who God was and their own identity as Jews. The New Testament writings, from the gospels to the epistles and Revelation, do not claim to be newly revealed knowledge from God, but are responses to the resurrected Christ. If you don’t have a resurrection, you don’t have Christianity, and you don’t have a New Testament.

The books that make up our New Testament became part of the Bible, that is, were canonized, because they were recognized by the church as faithfully and accurately testifying to what the apostles had taught about Jesus. Their value as inspired by the Spirit, and thus as revelation, is based on the fact that they faithfully point and instruct people in the way of Jesus, God’s ultimate and final revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). Similarly, the Old Testament functioned to the people of Israel as testimony and reflection on God’s action in history, calling Abraham and later the people of Israel out of Egypt so that he could make a covenant with them.

Scripture, then, is not meant to be judged on how well it conforms to modern standards of science, but in how it points us to Jesus.  Even Christians who use the language of “inerrancy” for the Bible, generally will qualify what they mean by that. They don’t mean “dictation,” and they generally will emphasize that God’s inspiration of Scripture was accommodated to some extent to the understandings of the biblical authors. I’ve written a little more about this here and hereWhen one loses sight of this fact and tries to make Scripture do something it is not intended to do, then of course it will fail.

Harris attacks a version of inspiration that very few educated Christians actually hold.  It’s really a straw-man he’s attacking, and that’s an easier target, of course. Peterson, unfortunately, lacks the theological precision to point this out to Sam. I think if they could have added a theologically trained person to the panel, the discussion would have been even better. Someone would have been able to call out some of the basic theological misunderstandings, at least.

 

 

Advertisements

More Thoughts on Social Media and the Anxiety of Meaninglessness

As a follow up to my previous post, I decided I would elaborate more on how social media both reveals and attempts to confront the anxiety of meaninglessness. I think this is displayed most clearly in the way people use social media to promote their ideology (typically political or religious) and to mock and ridicule those of others. This is important to consider because much of the increasingly intense levels of polarization in our culture today get played out on, and exacerbated by, social media.  I contend that the drive to do this on social media is a response to the anxiety of meaninglessness that comes from encountering challenges to one’s dearly held worldview. worldview

First, let’s review Paul Tillich’s definition of the anxiety of meaninglessness. He explains it this way:

“The anxiety of emptiness is aroused by the threat of non-being to the special contents of the spiritual life. A belief breaks down through external events or inner processes: one is cut off from creative participation in a sphere of culture, one feels frustrated about something which one had previously affirmed, one is driven from devotion to one object to devotion to another and again on to another, because the meaning of each of them vanishes and the creative eros is transformed into indifference or aversion. Everything is tried and nothing satisfies” (The Courage to Be, 47-48).

Everyone has a framework for how they view the world. It explains to them how the world is, what is wrong with it, and has an idea of how it should be. Not everyone has a  sophisticated worldview, or would even be capable of articulating it well, but everyone needs to have one that they believe to be correct in order for them to make sense of the world and act within it.

Religious systems give us the reasons why things are the way they are and also give us a vision of purpose; where we are going and how to get there. Political systems give us a way of managing our lives in the day to day. The way it plays out most of the time is that religion gives one hope for the future, and the political gives one tools for right now.

Here’s a simple way to understand it. In Christianity, it is universally agreed that the future hope for Christians involves a new heavens and earth where violence and death don’t happen. It is an evil that will no longer exist. In the present, however, the world is full of violence, so Christians have to decide how they are going to respond to it, in the meantime. It leads to a number of difficult questions: should Christians be pacifists or should they participate in violence when necessary? Who decides when it is necessary? What are the hard and fast “rules” for participating in violence, and what are the exceptions?

How someone answers these sorts of questions informs how they believe society should be organized. If it’s agreed that violence is bad and we want a world that is less violent, we have to find a way to manage ourselves in a way that makes violence less likely. These are political questions because they involve managing the wider community so that it acts closer to the way it should.

Our religious and political worldviews guard us against anxiety because they help us interpret and simplify the surrounding chaos and complexity. That’s why people often get so riled up when their religious or political worldview is challenged or mocked. The worldview provides a shield, in a sense, from the unknown and the dangerous. When it’s attacked, we are forced to look at its weaknesses and come face to face with the possibility that we are wrong on the deepest levels. To be wrong on this level means we have to re-evaluate how we interpret the world, and that takes a lot of work. It also forces us to remember how finite we are, which corresponds to our anxiety of death.

The easiest way to combat this anxiety is to surround ourselves with like-minded people and consume information that supports what we already think we know. That explains the appeal of obviously partisan news outlets such as Fox or MSNBC. They appeal to people with a certain worldview and the way news is reported and spun aims to support the worldview of the viewers.

On social media, we find ourselves simultaneously encountering hundreds of people at once who hold to a number of different worldviews. While in “real life,” we can only have conversations with one or two people at a time on very limited subjects at once, social media removes these constraints. All it takes is one person to share an opinion that has the potential to challenge hundreds of friends’ worldviews all at once. Arguments in the “reply” section ensue and then friends start sharing content supporting their own worldviews on their social media. To bolster confidence in one’s own cause, people share memes that mock and ridicule their friends’ worldview, because that is the easiest line of attack.

The reason this get out of control like this and becomes so nasty is that it forces us to confront the anxiety of meaninglessness. It’s a spiritual crisis because we are exposed to the fragility of our own thinking and our limits of knowing become apparent. We see that our “friends” are challenging the things that are most sacred or meaningful to us. We are faced with the prospect that we might be fools. That is the threat of non-being.

So, is the answer to this not to share anything that could possibly be controversial or offensive on social media? I don’t think the answer is a simple yes or no, but we need to be thoughtful about what and how we share. We cannot take responsibility for other people’s anxiety, but we can be responsible in how we interact with people, even online.

Confronting new ideas and the anxiety of meaninglessness can be an opportunity for growth. That’s essentially what happens when we learn. However, we generally don’t learn through mocking, ridicule, and heated arguments that are about “winning” against an opponent. We learn through thoughtful relationships with other people where we share our ideas and challenge one another, but with an implicit understanding that the relationship is solid.

Social media can be a great place to explore ideas together, but it is also very impersonal and it limited in terms of what we can say. I think before sharing something or getting involved in an argument, we should ask ourselves whether we are genuinely interested in engaging with the ideas and potentially changing our own mind, or if we are only reacting to the anxiety of meaninglessness.

 

 

 

Social Media, Anxiety, and The Courage to Be

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been re-reading The Courage to Be (TCTB), by the 20th century philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich. It’s a classic piece of Existentialist philosophy/theology about the human search for the courage to live fully, in spite of the threats to one’s own existence. Tillich calls this threat “non-being,” which takes three main forms of anxiety:smartphone

  1. The anxiety of death. This is the universal, and uniquely human, awareness that we are all going to die one day and if we are psychologically healthy people, we try to postpone that event as long as possible.
  2. The anxiety of meaninglessness. This is the sense of despair that occurs when the thing that makes our lives orderly and coherent is rocked and we are forced to re-evaluate what we have built our lives on.
  3. The anxiety of guilt/condemnation. This is the anxiety that comes from knowing that we are not as good as we could or should be. In Christian terms, it’s awareness of our sinfulness and estrangement from God.

When Tillich talks about these three types of anxiety, he isn’t talking about anxiety in a clinical/medical sense. These anxieties are just part of what it means to be a conscious human being. Clinical/medical anxiety, according to Tillich, is a manifestation of these deeper, existential anxieties that are common to everyone.

As I’ve been reading this, I’ve been thinking about the ways these forms of anxiety manifest themselves in relation to our lives on social media. Tillich’s book was published in the 1950s, long before the dramatic changes in connection that the internet brought us. The world was changing rapidly then, and there were plenty of reasons to be anxious, but many of us today likely look back at that decade as a slower, simpler time, comparatively. Earlier this year, research showed that millennials are “the most anxious generation,” and this is in spite of the fact that the world is getting safer, overall. Many people suspect social media and the internet play a large role in this phenomenon.

Now, I’m not anti-social media at all. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and I blog. However, I recently decided to delete my Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone to decrease the amount of time I spend on social media. I’ve also been making a conscious decision to not use my phone for searching the internet in my downtime. In the three weeks or so that I have been doing this, I have found that I’ve felt less stressed and had an overall much-improved mood. That’s anecdotal evidence, but it seems to be having positive effects on me.

But I’ve been thinking, because social media is a form of human communication and culture, it will naturally be a place where our anxieties are manifested and, in response, confronted. I’ve noticed social media handles our three levels of anxiety in the following ways:

  1. Anxiety of death is manifest and confronted in the way social media tends to highlight the best of an individual’s life. Even before social media, our culture has done a good job of separating the reality of death from our daily lives. Most of us won’t even ever kill our own food. The ability to immerse ourselves in constant distraction is away of fending off the anxiety of mortality, and social media does it well. Also, when we die, some social media allows us to basically continue existing eternally online, so to speak. This is evident in Facebook’s legacy feature.
  2. The anxiety of meaninglessness often is manifest and confronted in the intense political and ideological battling that occurs in those platforms. It was traditionally good manners not to indiscriminately discuss politics or religion in public because challenging another person’s entire worldview leads to the anxiety of meaninglessness. However, on social media, one is able to ridicule and attack the worldview of hundreds of one’s closest friends with one click. One shares a post declaring a certain ideological viewpoint as absolute, his or her friend gets offended because their worldview is being challenged (and sometimes mocked), and so they respond with a post of their own, and then a war between friends begins. The battles over fake news on social media highlight how little the media can be trusted to be truthful, and so we cocoon ourselves into ideological echo chambers with our own versions of truth and news that sustains our worldview.
  3. The anxiety of guilt and condemnation occurs and is confronted when we are faced with an awareness of how poorly our lives measure up to those we follow, and in response try to cultivate the appearance that our lives are better than they are. In a sense this is a very religious phenomenon. Just as human beings are confronted with their own shortcomings/sinfulness when they encounter the divine, social media often creates an ideal for what our lives should look like and be, but which is unattainable, in reality, for most of us.

These anxieties are real for everyone and must be confronted by everyone with “the courage to be” as Tillich calls it, whether one is on social media or not. The question I’ve been considering is how much of a role does social media play in highlighting and attempting to combat our deepest human anxiety? From what I can tell, quite a bit. The answer to it isn’t necessarily for everyone to abstain completely from social media. I think we first need to just be aware of this dynamic at work inside of us. That will help us to start figuring out how to put limits around our social media usage, so that we can begin to do the work of attending to these anxieties that are already there.

Thoughts? Pushback?

 

Memories from Seventeen Years Ago

This morning on my drive to work, I was thinking about how weird it feels that it has 9 11been seventeen years since the September 11th terror attacks. I imagine many other people were doing the same thing. The sense of “weirdness” stems from the fact that  events like that have a way of staying remarkably fresh in your memory, even when almost twenty years have passed.

We’re told every year on the anniversary to “never forget” and to “remember” September 11, 2001. That’s well and good, but I wonder how many people actually could forget. I was almost 11 at the time and I remember it very vividly. In fact, I would say that is the one day that I remember most of the details from my childhood.

I remember seeing the news footage, of course. The footage of the planes crashing, the towers collapsing, the pentagon smoking, the wreckage of Flight 93,and President Bush’s address to the nation.

I remember spending most of the morning at an impromptu prayer meeting my mom went to, and the conversations I had with my friends.

I remember that afternoon my mom assigning my sister and I to write down where we were and what we were thinking on that day, but I have no idea where it went. I would like to read what I wrote.

I remember going to my sister’s soccer practice that afternoon and hanging out on the park playground.

I remember wondering if the world was going to end that night. I thought maybe Jesus would come back that day.

I remember in the following days hearing for the first time names and words like, Al Qaeda, Jihad, Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and Afghanistan. As I saw the news footage of the first bombs dropping, I thought this war would be over in a couple years. I knew from my own fascination with history that most American wars lasted about 4-5 years, excluding Vietnam. Seventeen years later, U.S. forces are still in Afghanistan, making this the longest war we have ever fought.

I remember almost every cover of Newsweek that came in the mail for the following three months. That’s when I really started reading the news. I was fascinated by what was going on and had a sense that the world had permanently changed. It’s sounds cliche, but I did think that, even at 11. But maybe I’m just weird.

When I was in college, ten years into the War on Terror, I took a class on religion and violence and read a book on religiously-motivated terrorism called Terror in the Mind of God by Mark Jeurgensmeyer. In that book, I learned that terrorism is effective because it is a form of theater. The power of a terrorist act is the spectacle it creates. It’s random, it indiscriminately  targets innocent people, and it aims to send a message by strategically attacking targets that stand for something. The aim of terrorism is partly to create memories that can never be forgotten.

In that sense, the September 11th attacks were pretty effective. While Al Qaeda might be mostly destroyed and Bin Laden has been dead for almost seven years, the memories of the day itself stay fresh in our consciousness and likely will for the rest of our lives. Is it possible to forget? I don’t think so.

 

 

The Ministry of Reconciliation–A Preview for this Sunday’s Sermon

I’m trying something new this week. I’m going to be preaching this weekend at Christ Fellowship in Hollister, CA and I put together a little preview of my sermon for this Sunday. I would appreciate any feedback or thoughts on my content.

The sermon is on 2 Corinthians 5: 11-21. I’ve copied the text of the Scripture below the video.

 

11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;[a] even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,[b]we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,[c] not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

 

Your thoughts and feedback is appreciated!

“Stop Saying Things that Make You Feel Weak”–An Ongoing Experiment

One of the most personally helpful ideas I’ve come across as I’ve been listening to Jordan Peterson’s lectures and reading his work that you shouldn’t say anything that makes you feel weak. He explains what he means in the short video below:

We all know that feeling of saying something that makes us “feel weak” because we really know that we are lying to ourselves. We know what we are saying does not align with how we truly see the situation, but we say the words we are expected to say for the sake of keeping the peace, being accepted by our peers, or out of fear of facing the truth of what we really think.

For example…

We pretend to approve of a decision made in our workplace for fear of the consequences of saying that we disapprove.

We tell people we are praying for them, when really we are not.

We tell people how much we appreciate/love/like them, not because we genuinely do, but because we want them to like us more.

We discuss difficult issues and speak using cliches, slogans, or buzzwords that we cannot articulate what they mean (e.g. social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, patriotism, nonviolence, just war). We simply use these words because our peers expect us to, if we are to stay morally acceptable, in their eyes.

We pretend to like something (sports, certain food, types of music) to win the approval of others.

We pretend to hold certain convictions about our faith in order not to upset certain people who would think us suspect if they knew what we really thought.

I could come up with others. The point is, we all know when we say something that we do not really believe. We feel that tug in our chest when we say it, and we find ourselves later thinking about what we should have said, or what we would have liked to say.

On the other side, we also tend to know when we say something that we truly believe. Things feel like they fit into place. They feel solid. Even if we find out we are wrong, and change our minds, the fact that we spoke what we formerly believed to be true, lends itself to cultivating a life of authenticity. It frees us up, I think, to take ourselves less seriously and be more open minded to truth.

Since I came across this idea a few months ago, I’ve tried to implement it, myself. I’ve tried to note when I say something that I am simply expected to say by others, and if I don’t truly believe or buy into it, I won’t say it. I’ve made an effort to replace what is expected of me with what I truly think.

As someone who is pretty easy-going and non-confrontational, by nature, this can be kind of a scary experiment. It’s so much easier to just say what’s expected of me and go along to get along. It risks putting you as an outsider.

I have found that not saying things that make me feel weak, though scary at first, is actually a much better way to live. It boosts one’s confidence, makes one more relaxed, and makes conversation much more interesting. I would recommend everyone try it.

If, as Jesus said in Matthew 12:36, that every person will have to give an account of “every empty word” they have spoken, it only makes sense that we should try our best to only say the things we think are true. We won’t do it perfectly, of course, and we won’t always say things that are true. But, if we pursue only saying what we believe is true, we will be further along on the path to discovering further truth.

 

“The Tents Made Sin Too Interesting”

I came across a video of the theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, giving his thoughts on the way many American evangelical communities have thought about sin and salvation. The video is pretty short, about 4 minutes, but he makes a pretty interesting point about the revivalist spirit that has been part of much of American Christianity.

As he describes in the video, his childhood was steeped in Methodist revivalism that aimed at convincing people they were great sinners so they could then receive salvation. Many evangelicals, even non-Methodists, are probably fairly familiar with that.

The problem with this sort of gospel presentation, according to Hauerwas, is that “the tents made sin too interesting.” What does he mean by this?

Hauerwas claims this sort of gospel presentation gets things backward. He argues that we only know what it means to be a sinner in hindsight after we have come to Christ and have begun the journey of discipleship: “You only know it on your way out of it.” In his words, Jesus saves us from “our narcissistic fascination with our own sin.” I think Hauerwas is onto something.

I think many presentations of sin are overly simplistic and I think the church needs to recover a robust theology of sin. I think there are two major ways church communities err when they talk about sin. Some will get bogged down legalistically, thinking of sin primarily as the transgression of a certain, fixed rules. Others, will talk about sin almost exclusively as matters of injustice that the church (and more often than not, the state) needs to fix.

Conservative Christians, especially with pietist or fundamentalist roots, tend to fall into the error of legalism. They approach the Bible as a rule book and try to figure out how far Christians can go before they break one of the rules. The problem is, the Bible was written in an ancient context and isn’t always clear about a Christian should do in today’s world.

For example, some conservative Christians go back and forth with each other over whether it’s ok for Christians to watch movies with nudity or swearing. How much is too much? In what contexts? The Bible doesn’t give clear answers on that, for the obvious reason that it was written two thousand years before movies existed. So, conservative Christians who are conscious of sin can fall into the trap of creating intricate legal codes of what is appropriate and what is not.

Progressive Christians, however, tend to err when they think of sin as almost exclusively a metaphor for societal ills. When they say sin, they think of poverty, racism, discrimination, and environmental degradation. Fighting sin, for them, is putting an end to these things and doing “justice,” instead. This typically means alleviating poverty, making economic changes, practicing “inclusiveness,” and being environmentally responsible. These are not necessarily bad things, but it tends to overlook the individual aspects of sin.

Either of these conceptions of sin will appeal to one type of person and will appear naive to another. People abandon conservative versions of sin because it gets too nit picky and leads to personal burnout when one realizes he or she can’t live consistently. The liberal/progressive version burns people out because they often find it to be simply a disguised version of left wing politics. It too burns people out when they realize they simply can’t change the world and that the problems they spend all their time decrying actually have their roots in their own hearts.

A theologically sophisticated version of sin takes seriously both the individual aspects that exist in every person, but also recognizes that sin is bigger than individuals. Jesus said that sinful action originates in the hearts of people (Matthew 15:18-19), so it is individual. Paul saw sin as both action and a power that enslaved people so that he could speak of sin as “exercising dominion” that would be overthrown by grace (Romans 5:21).

A biblical theology of sin is not naive about evil in either its conservative or progressive forms. It’s not fire and brimstone, turn or burn, guilt-tripping over questionable matters and neither is it just another word for social ills. Sin is both within and without the individual, making us totally reliant on grace for both our individual and social transformation.

 

 

 

Should You Leave a Church for Political Reasons?

If a church doesn’t speak out on a specific political or justice issue, does that mean you should leave it?

leaving church

This is a question that a lot of Christians, both political conservatives and liberals, have asked themselves and regularly struggle with. For example, many politically conservative Christians I know believe that churches should be actively encouraging their people to vote exclusively for pro-life candidates and to do everything in their power to see Roe vs. Wade overturned. Likewise, many politically progressive Christians I know believe churches should be actively speaking out for increased gun control and a more equitable economic system. They both see their respective causes as serious justice, if not gospel, issues. If the church does not actively address those issues, so the logic goes, then it is not being faithful to God’s mission in the world and it raises the question of whether I should stay in that community or go find another one.

This last week I read a blog post by a politically progressive pastor calling for people to consider leaving their churches if they do not address the border crisis on Sunday morning.  That’s a pretty provocative call, and it got me thinking about whether that is the right approach. What sort of political and moral crises should cause someone to leave their faith community?

I think the answer to this question depends on the sort of church community you are already in. If you are in a church community that is very politically active and nearly everything about it runs counter to your own convictions, the constant irritation you’ll feel will likely not be good for you, spiritually. However, if you are in a church that contains a diverse range of political opinion, most likely you should stay.

I say, generally, you should stay because I see a church that is made up of people with a range of political opinions as doing something right. There are plenty of churches that are made up pretty much exclusively of people of the same political stripe. I can think of church communities where your faith would be viewed with suspicion if you admitted to voting for Obama. I can also think of churches who claim to be radically inclusive until they find out you’re a republican who believes in a traditional definition of marriage. But, if a church is putting its primary focus on reaching as many people as possibly with the gospel of Christ crucified, then you’re going to see a diversity of opinions in your community, some of which will be objectionable to you.

Jesus’ ministry generally constituted being with the wrong kinds of people. He would surround himself with people whose lives were a moral mess (Luke 7:36-50). He would commend the faith of a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). He would heal a servant of a Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10). Jesus’s disciples included a tax collector (Matthew 10:3) and a Jewish revolutionary (Luke 6:15). His whole ministry involved being in relationship with people who had very different convictions about how the world should work.

Jesus would also often be approached by people who wanted him to advocate for their specific cause. In Matthew 22:15-22, Jesus was approached by Pharisees who wanted to know if it was “lawful,” that is religiously faithful, to pay taxes to the emperor. For them, this was a serious religious and political issue because in the Roman world, the emperor was often worshiped as a god and the coins had his image on them. The text says they were trying to trap him (vs. 15), so they were putting forward a difficult political and moral question that would allow them to box him in and say, “Look! His answer to this question shows he isn’t really being faithful to God!”

But Jesus refused to play their game. Jesus was not giving approval to idolatrous emperor worship, but neither was he going to be distracted from his mission by attempting to solve an incredibly morally complex problem on his questioner’s terms. He had his own kingdom terms that he was operating under.

To be part of God’s people, to be operating under kingdom terms, means to be one among many sinners who are justified by grace and are being, slowly but surely, made more like Christ. Church is where we go to be reminded of what God has done for all of us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. We should be reminded through the preaching of the Word and taking communion that we all have sinned and none of us are more pure than the person sitting next to us who at this point in their discipleship journey holds a morally or politically objectionable idea. Let God work in them!

This isn’t to say that there are not a lot of justice issues that churches should be engaged with. I think Christians should not be afraid to voice their opinions in the public sphere as Christians. Our faith is not a private spirituality, but it is one that must be lived out in the real world. The catch is, we are often going to disagree on how to do that, and because all of us are sinners, our ways of going about that will always be touched by sin, at least a little.

The church should strive to be a place where we can extend grace to one another even when we vehemently disagree on various issues. If we too quickly separate ourselves from others whose views we consider impure or compromised, we are committing the same sins of the Pharisees. To leave a church because there are people there who love everything about Trump, or who voted for Democrats in the last election isn’t going to do anything toward healing the divisions that exist in our culture.

Could the church’s greatest witness in these polarized times be that Christians are the ones who try to build bridges across ideological lines? If we truly believe that all of us are sinners in need of grace, then I think it can be. And that’s something that will only happen if we commit to sticking together, even when it’s tough.

 

 

How is God Known?

In my previous post I offered some of my thoughts on Jordan Peterson’s ideas about God.  I said that I found that I could say yes to his basic ideas, but with some serious qualifications, mainly around whether God can be known apart from his own self revelation in Jesus Christ. I love what Peterson is doing, but as a Christian, I have to maintain that he is, at present, missing one very crucial piece of the puzzle. That is, the crucified and risen Jesus is the answer to the world’s suffering and shows us who God is.

Cima_da_Conegliano,_God_the_FatherPeterson’s talk about God, however, raises an old question: how can God be known? Put another way, is the God that is affirmed or reached through human reason the same God  revealed to us in Jesus Christ? I think the answer is both yes and no.

Theologians have called the attempt to discover things about God through human reason and observation of the world, “natural theology.” This discipline takes the view that when we look at creation and exercise the best of human reason, we can learn at least something about the God who created all of it. For example, natural theology says we are not  dependent on a special, supernatural act of revelation to know that God exists. One can look at the world and its complexity and come to the conclusion that it is the product of a creative, intelligent force.

Christians have debated for centuries how much about God can be known through natural theology. Most orthodox theologians have maintained that any knowledge of God that can be gained through human reason is only very limited knowledge. Even if we can know God exists, we are still reliant on God’s self revelation in Jesus to know him fully. Sin distorts the ability to truly know God.

One of the biggest theological debates of the 20th century was between Swiss theologians Emil Brunner and Karl Barth over this. Barth took a hard stance against natural theology and emphasized that the only real knowledge of God comes through God’s own self-revelation by grace in Jesus Christ, while Brunner took a more moderate view in favor of it. Barth thought that any attempt to look for God using human reason would only result in people talking about idealized versions of themselves while they claimed to be talking about God. That, in Barth’s view is idolatry. So Barth would probably say that when Jordan Peterson talks about God, he’s talking  about idealized human projection.

There is definitely a danger in relying too much on human reason to know about God. The inclination of we have to project some version of ourselves onto what we think God is like is very real.

Still, I don’t think we should dispense entirely with the role of human reason, because any truth is God’s truth. Yes, human reason is fallen and limited, and totally reliant on God’s self revelation to really know God. But we should recognize that God has revealed himself in human history to the historical people of Israel and in the 1st century Jewish man named Jesus. If God has done that, then we can use all of the tools available to us to examine that history and know the God who is at work in it.

We shouldn’t be too surprised if humans get some things right about God through human reason. As Christians, we we should celebrate that and encourage it while at the same time maintaining that it is only a very limited understanding. Again, I would point to the example of Paul in Acts 17 engaging with the Greek philosophers to show that the “unknown god” they worshiped was the one, true God who made Jesus Lord over all things. Paul saw their “grasping” for God by human reason as an on ramp to coming to know who God really is.

So, I think that there is a lot of value in engaging with Peterson’s ideas about God. However, I think we just should be clear about where the limits are. We cannot think ourselves to God, otherwise salvation would be a work that only the best people could achieve. But we can encourage people to be thinking about the Bible, God, and their own hierarchies of values. It opens doors for grace to show up.

 

 

 

 

Jordan Peterson, Atheism, God, and Suffering

Most people who know me well, know that I am a pretty big fan of Jordan Peterson, the Canadian Psychologist. I’ve watched a large portion of his videos on Youtube, listened to many of his interviews and talks on podcasts, and loved his book 12 Rules for Life. All of these things, including the Self Authoring program he developed with a couple other psychologists, has helped me improve certain aspects of my life. His talks tend to focus on telling the truth, taking responsibility for your life, and avoiding the dangers of groupthink and ideology.  I think he’s one of the most important intellectuals alive.

peterson

One of the conversations that always seems to be hanging over his head is what he believes about God. His ideas are greatly influenced by Christianity and he regularly references the biblical stories, but his main interest is in the psychological truths the stories tell us. People often ask him whether he believes in God, and he says he hates that question, because it is unclear to him what the questioner means and he sees it as an attempt to “box him in.” Still, he says he lives as if God exists and he maintains that is the only way to live.

This last week, I listened to a fascinating conversation he had with Susan Blackmore, a self-professed atheist on a Christian radio program. They discussed the question, “do we need God to make sense of life?” Blackmore, unsurprisingly, argued that we did not. Peterson took the position that God (or his conception of God) is the very thing that makes sense out of life.

In the video below at the 38:18 mark, the Christian host asks Jordan to elaborate on the claim he makes in his book that most atheists simply are not atheists in their actions. Watch how the conversation proceeds through the end of the video (approximately 9 minutes).

 

Near the end (about the 45:40 mark), when the interviewer asks them again whether we need God to make sense of life, Jordan neatly summarizes his position and helps us see what he means when he uses the word God. His argument is basically this:

  1. God is what allows us to to make sense of life.
  2. We all have a hierarchy of values and whatever is at the top of that is “God” for us.
  3. How we intellectually think about God, as he defines God, has very little impact on how God acts upon us in the way we live our lives.

His last point, is illustrated by his conversation with Susan over whether she is truly an atheist. She basically does not believe in the God of classical theism, meaning a personal being that can be named and reveal Godself to humanity. Yet, Jordan says that her very actions of living as if the world has meaning by attempting to bring order to chaos is in itself an act of embodying the logos.

Remember, the logos is the Greek principle of order and wisdom, from which we get our word  “logic.” In the Bible, the Hebrews understood it as the personified wisdom through which YHWH created the world (Proverbs 8:22-32). The prologue to John’s gospel (John 1:1-18) identifies the  logos with the eternal God which “became flesh and lived among us” (vs. 14) in the person of Jesus. John also tells us that the logos, in addition to being God’s creative agent, is “the light of all people” (vs. 4). So, according to Peterson, when anybody is pursuing wisdom and exercising their ability to reason (bring order to chaos), they are embodying the logos, whether or not they name it as “God.”

As I listened to their conversation, I reflected on how I might address Peterson’s argument about God. I think it’s very compelling and persuasive on a number of levels, however, I think it stops short of a genuinely Christian answer. I find that I can say both “yes” with some serious qualifications.

I can say yes to his argument in that God is the ground of everything that exists and human beings, by default, attempt to reach God. Acts 17 illustrated this when it tells us that Paul, in Athens, noted that the Greeks were highly religious, even to the point of erecting an altar to the “unknown god.” Paul told them that God created all people and placed them on the earth, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him–though indeed he is not far from each one of us” (17:27). He then makes the claim, quoting a pagan poet, that “in him (God) we live and move and have our being” (17:28). We simply cannot exist independently of God, even if we do not know his name.

Peterson hits on a very important theological truth when he says that whatever is at the top of our hierarchy of values is “god” for us. He claims he got this idea from Jung, but Jung, who was the son of a Reformed pastor would know that this is deeply ingrained in the Christian tradition. This is true, but the problem is, as John Calvin said, “man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols.”

In Christian terms, sin has created a separation between human beings and God, so we attempt to bridge that gap with gods of our own making. We want to be fully reunited with God, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” but sin prevents us from being able to do that on our own. We constantly try, but we constantly aim at the wrong gods, and that is the reason why Christians maintain that we are fully reliant upon God taking the initiative in revealing himself to us and coming to us. This happens when God personally calls Abram and reveals his divine name to Moses. But the full and complete revelation of God occurs in the incarnation of Jesus, who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3). We simply cannot think or reason our way to God, who is completely and wholly “other” from us. When we try, we create idols.

Peterson is on the right track, but his understanding of God falls short of the one we see revealed in history to the people of Israel and in Jesus Christ. This understanding of God comports well with a non-specific “higher power,” but is not a God that can be personally known. From an orthodox, Christian perspective, I would press him on whether such a god that he describes can address the problem of suffering as well as the God of the Bible can.

I was reminded of this clip (below) of the German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann being interviewed on who God is for him. Moltmann explains that without Jesus Christ, “the human face of God,” he would not believe in God. The reason for that is that the suffering of the world is far too great to make belief in God credible, unless that God is also capable of suffering with his creation. Moltmann would know, too, because he became a believer in a prison camp after conscripted into the German army as a teenager during World War 2 and captured by the British. When Moltmann read the story of the crucifixion of Jesus crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he knew he found a God who is capable of taking the evil of the world seriously.

 

While I really love Peterson’s ability to gain wisdom from Christian theology and the Biblical stories, I think it’s still missing an important piece.

Thoughts? Pushback?