Drink no wine

Posted on November 8, 2015
Filed Under Theological | Comments Off on Drink no wine

In Jeremiah chapter 35, Jeremiah invites the Rechabites into the temple and invites them to drink wine. It was probably a fair amount of social pressure, being in the temple and being invited to drink wine by the prophet, but they turned him down, citing a duty placed upon them by their ancestor.

It is pretty clear that God had no problem with people drinking wine in general. Drunkenness was always condemned and there were specific circumstances under which wine was prohibited, but a general precept against drinking wine was not given to all of Israel the way prohibitions against idolatry and sexual immorality were. In terms of the Law of Moses this rule against wine was unnecessary.

Nevertheless God was pleased to use their faithfulness to this arbitrary ancestral law as an example of faithfulness to covenant promises, to shame and rebuke Israel. The law itself was not the point; the faithfulness was what God wanted Jeremiah to call out.

Today there is a bewildering number of marriageable Christians who are not married, both in my own personal sphere and in the wider culture around me. I’ve seen a number of essays on this topic, usually chiding all the singles for their wrong notions of marriage and too often wishing for a simpler time when people just got married and didn’t make such a big deal out of it.

I have not seen anyone looking at this as a work of God, taking the view that his Spirit is active in his people (yes, even young people; yes, even single people). Everyone assumes that the young people are just doing something wrong, and are somehow incapable of figuring out the most elementary things of the flesh–and somebody has to sit them down and teach them about reproduction, for crying out loud.

Off and on I’ve entertained the idea that maybe this country is headed for such a terrible calamity that God in his mercy is restraining marriage so that there will be fewer families to suffer in the disaster to come. This plays to a certain morose theme in my thinking but doesn’t really hold much water. There are still Christians getting married and raising children; either they’ve been earmarked for extra grief in this supposed calamity or else they’ve been given a complete pass while the rest of us get to bear all the grief. Such “unfair” divisions happen all the time; Christians in Syria and much of the rest of the world would wonder what I mean about this “future” calamity. But that whole line of thinking has more to do with trying to scheme a way to come out on top of world events. It has nothing to do with glorifying God and everything to do with glorifying my own imagined martyrdom.

In the context of the Rechabites, though, there is nothing so special about the abstinence from wine per se; it is the faithfulness, of itself, that God wanted to show as a rebuke. And if God wanted to rebuke a people for a culture of gratification and self-absorption, keeping a lot of people out there who are abstaining from the common pleasures of the day is a fairly obvious way to do that.

I’m not prepared to be dogmatic on this; I’m not claiming it as a revelation. But it seems at least a worthwhile reminder that God can use an entire lifestyle as a bit of emphasis on a short memo to his people. Circumstances that affect your entire life might not be all about you; it might be to serve up a lesson to someone else who is not directly involved in your life at all.

It still doesn’t seem fair, exactly, but it gives me a view on how God might glorify himself that is a little bigger than myself.

Riddle

Posted on January 11, 2015
Filed Under Poems, Theological | Comments Off on Riddle

Beloved Son

Which one of you, if his son begs for bread,
will give to him a stone?
Or if for fish, will give him then a serpent?

“Bless me—me also, O my father!”
he cried out with an exceedingly
great and bitter cry.

But he was rejected, for he found no place
for repentance, though he sought it

diligently
with tears;

for Jacob have I loved;
but Esau I have hated.

 

1/11/2015

God is a Monster

Posted on November 2, 2014
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First I saw a link (via a Facebook friend) to this “Dear John” post, which offered a final dismissal of John Calvin and his doctrine of predestination. The author, Zack Hunt, explains that if God is the controlling cause of everything as John Calvin says, then “I think your God is a monster.”

Then another Facebook friend posted a link to a video lecture, commenting that “most Calvinists […] make God out to be a moral monster.”

And then another Facebook friend offered a link to a critique of something Rachel Held Evans wrote. One of her comments: “Belief in a cruel God, they say, makes a cruel man.”

Some disclaimers below, if you need them, but let me get right into it: I sympathize, and very nearly agree. It does seem like a God who arranges and controls all things must be a monster. I’ve felt like God was treating me monstrously and can recite an argument or two in that vein. I’ve thought about some of those horrific situations (rape, murder) and the implications of God really being in control, enough to feel unsettled and dubious. Rachel summarizes it pretty well: “If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable.”

And I agree that saying God is beyond our comprehension doesn’t really help. Sure, it’s true, but if what we are saying is that God, who has a value system of X, and he creates and designs us to have a value system of Y, so that we are forever thinking things are good that aren’t, and thinking things are evil that aren’t, then it seems like the very best one can do is give up on it all and let that Almighty God sort it out when he wants, how he wants–without trying in any way to participate in this system of which we have been deliberately made ignorant.

Rachel, though, goes on to suggest that perhaps God wasn’t actually doing what he was said to be doing, or understood rightly by those who thought they were listening to him. Maybe God didn’t really kill all the first-born Egyptian males (regardless of their view on Israelite freedom). Maybe God didn’t want the death of everyone in Canaan. Maybe instead we should look to Jesus.

Well, I agree we should look to Jesus, but I don’t see how this solves the problem of God being a monster.

You want to frankly and honestly consider Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac? I will not be the first to compare that with the sacrifice of Jesus. Here’s this guy, supposedly the “only begotten” beloved son of God, supposedly with with access to thousands of angels to get him out of a horrible death, supposedly praying to God “please please please don’t make me do this”, and supposedly, God tells him to do it. Go die.

Okay, supposedly the deal is “go die to save the whole world,” but who’s dumb rule is that? “I have an idea. How about you die a horrible death, and then I will save the whole world?” says God to Jesus. And then Jesus says, “I have a better idea. How about I don’t die, and you save the whole world anyway?”

“Nope,” says God. “You gotta die, or no deal.”

C. S. Lewis dealt with this in his Narnia story. Aslan died to save a sinner because the “Deeper Magic” allowed an innocent to substitute himself for the guilty. Okay, where did the Deeper Magic come from? From the Emperor Beyond the Sea. And who is that?

See? God is a monster.

Now, some random guy on the internet says that I am misinterpreting the meaning of this arrangement; it is not that God cannot make another way and cannot overpower these rules of sacrifice, it is that he chooses to defeat evil with evil’s own rules. To extrapolate beyond what that author wrote in his piece, God allowed a real choice to humanity between good and evil. He made them to be truly free because it would be more marvelous for a truly free being to choose God (goodness) than for an automaton to function as designed – for a rock to obey gravity, as it were. And there are real consequence for choosing evil; it brings real suffering, which can extend beyond the one who initially makes a choice for evil. But God will eventually persuade some (all?) to choose good freely, as they learn to recognize that it is good.

Okay. But in that Garden of Eden (whether you consider it fact or parable), why didn’t God send an angel there to argue against evil? Couldn’t God offer a more persuasive argument than Satan? Again, however it is that you imagine reality being represented here. Basically, once we posit that God offered Adam / humanity a choice between Good and Evil, we must concede that God was incapable of showing the goodness of goodness to Adam / humanity–or at least incapable of showing it without the brutal sacrifice of his son, Jesus.

We know that people sometimes deliberately harm themselves. But it is generally held that people only harm themselves (for example, cutting) because of some other harm that they’ve already experienced (for example, sexual abuse). I am not aware of anyone who thinks that a fully healthy person will take a rock and start pounding on their fingers, or take a stick and poke themselves in the eye. So when Adam or Eve or each one of us chooses evil, it is because in that moment we perceive it to be the better choice. We might be wrong; there might be consequences we don’t fully appreciate when we make the choice. But we choose what, according to the totality of our comprehension in the moment, seems good; seems likely to please.

So in this scenario we have God making this plan: “I will make a creature which is capable of choosing good or evil, but which is not capable of fully understanding evil. That way, they can unwittingly choose evil!”

See? God is a monster.

The only way out of this is if there is something which makes it impossible for God to do any better job of it. Somehow it just was not possible for God to make us able to choose and able to understand our choice; somehow it was just not possible for God to demonstrate goodness to us in a way that would be convincing and persuasive, without first allowing all the horrors of history (and those yet to come). Or God tried to, but kind of failed, and he’s been working as hard as he can to patch things up. You go, God! Fix it good! Let’s hope you don’t make another mistake!

If we say that God cannot show the beauty of grace and mercy and love without allowing the ugliness of resentment and retribution and hate, he is a kind of underwhelming God. Who says they can’t show their children beauty, grace, and love without first exposing them to the opposite, so that they’ll be able to appreciate the good? Who says that the only way to be good is in contrast to evil?

So: God is a monster. I almost agree.

But if I almost agree, that means I don’t quite agree. So how do I take my belief that God was supremely sovereign in the creation of the universe, creating with perfect anticipation of all consequences even the laws of physics and any other constraint that might now exist, how do I take all that and not blame God for evil and call him a monster for allowing such things as we have seen here on earth?

I think it has been put most poignantly by Paul: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1. Corinthians 15:19). The author of Hebrews chimes in, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2). And Paul again, in Romans: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

Now I don’t say that I understand this, because I don’t. I can point, as Paul does, to childbirth as an allegory, and say that even as it is possible for a mother to consider the joy of her child to so far surpass the suffering of labor that it is a disgrace to even ask, “Was it worth it?” But that begs the question, doesn’t it? Why does the joy of holding a newborn have to come after the pain of childbirth? Who made that dumb rule?

I don’t understand it but I do believe it. I believe that in the new creation, every sorrow experience, remembered, or heard of will be forgotten — not by a failing memory, but abandoned a something so exceedingly trivial as to be not worth mentioning. I admit that this doesn’t make sense in terms of our present experience; why must childbirth be painful in the first place? But even though I do not know how and cannot explain how, I believe it is no idle promise for God to say that he will justify himself.

This does require belief that it will someday be possible to view the horrors of history – yes, even the rape and murder of children – as trivial. I do not pretend to see it so now. I do not think we are meant to see it so now; I certainly believe that in this life we are to be outraged by injustice and appalled by evil. But I believe also that there is a sense in which the life that we now live is not life; that in the new creation we will regard the life that we live now the same way that we now regard a ball of clay.

That is the core of my disagreement with the three authors I mentioned in the beginning. I assume from their position that it is unacceptable and invalid for any point of time or eternity, and perspective on reality or being or life, to look at any suffering or evil in this life and say: “That didn’t matter. That has no lasting significance. That does not touch upon or mar Life Itself.”

I can understand why they would feel that way, because I feel that way myself more often than not. But I cannot understand how they can think that way. It requires very little thought at all to realize the even if one were supremely good, and poured only goodness into the life of every person you met, eventually you will die and all those people will die, too. And let’s say all that goodness you shared lasted a little longer than that: another generation, or another. They will all die. No fact of our existence can be more incontrovertible than our death, and therefore the conclusion that nothing really matters is the only sure conclusion. The twist is not in saying that evil doesn’t mar eternity; the twist is saying that good does glorify God. That’s where the mystery really begins.

Why does good glorify God? Because to seek good in the face of all that inevitable death is an act of confession, a performance art, a borrowing on the credit of God, to the effect that he has such power and goodness so as to wipe every tear away. It takes no faith at all to say that God wishes things were different; so do we all. But it takes true faith indeed to say that God will make things different.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

Finally, some disclaimers. You’ll see if you go to critique of Rachel Held Evans that the author has since apologized “for the tone and aggressive nature of this post;” that’s between him and Rachel. The link to his critique is what got into my Facebook feed, so as a matter of accounting for how I was motivated to write this it stands in the record. Also for the record: I for my own part would not choose to criticize Rachel or anyone else along the lines of “She was never mature enough (as far as theological training) to tread the waters she started treading”. I don’t see where anything in the Bible and particularly the New Testament requires us to have “theological training” before we ask questions and ponder the ways of God. 

Next disclaimer: I do not like to call myself a “Calvinist,” because we are told not to say that “I am of Paul” or “I am of Cephas,” let alone “I am of some guy who is not an apostle”. And Calvin certainly had his errors. What I do believe would generally be termed Calvinism, and I don’t think in most cases it is worth the pedantry to insist that I am not a Calvinist even though I believe what a Calvinist believes. But just to be clear: there is no use telling me about the awful things Calvin the man did or said, because I agree Calvin the man did and said awful things.

Finally, I did not watch the video lecture. It was over an hour long and presently that seems like too much time to give to listening to a critique I think I might have already heard, coming from someone with whom I have no personal relationship.

Blind to Certain Lights

Posted on July 22, 2014
Filed Under Theological | Comments Off on Blind to Certain Lights

Free will is experientially undeniable. Even if we sometimes feel as though we can’t help ourselves with a specific action, most of the time we generally recognize some level of choice available to us in every situation. Often we don’t like many of the choices that we have, or we consider the choice inconsequentially different. You may be free to put on either your left sock or your right sock first, but who cares? Yet it is impossible to totally separate the inconsequential choice from the momentous. I used to live close to two grocery stores that I considered nearly equal in price and selection. I wound up shopping at one more than the other mostly out of habit and a minor preference, but I would still shop at the other from time to time. Any time I needed to go shopping I could easily have chosen one or the other. But what if choosing one particular store led to me being involved in a fatal car accident? A choice which I perceived as of no consequence and felt fully capable of choosing differently would be the definitive choice of my life.

That is why I say free will is undeniable in our experience. Whatever might be logically provable from certain suppositions, in our daily experience we would be less than honest if we said we felt we had no choice. The very feeling of having a choice could be an illusion, could be the brain chemistry equivalent of a dice bouncing around before it settles, but then so could the entire experience of consciousness. Regardless, as conscious, communicative beings, we would lie about our own perception and experience if we said we did not make choices, or at least perceive ourselves to make choices.

A God who is perfectly free to create (not bound by any prior rules of physics, but the author of those laws as well) and also all-knowing must by definition have predestined us for whatever we find in our lives. If he wanted a different outcome he could have used different inputs. This seems so manifestly necessary that I can only imagine arguing about the suppositions: is God really all-knowing? Was he really free to create or is he bound by some higher principle or power (impersonal or otherwise)? My belief in God’s omnipotence and omniscience is entirely by faith; I don’t claim to have any proof for it. But if you accept those principles I don’t know how you could avoid the conclusion. So how does one live under such a philosophy that is so evidently contradicted by experience?

Hopefully believing a proposition which is contradicted by experience is no new adventure for the Christian. Our faith is built on the belief that a man came back from the dead, a hypothesis thoroughly disproven by centuries of reproduceable results on billions of test subjects. The dead stay dead. Nothing is more scientifically certain. The most elementary teachings of our faith require that we believe in the truth of a concept with no readily apparent proof. So if I believe in resurrection while everyone I have known or known of in my lifetime will die, it is no more contradictory for me to believe in predestination while I experience free will.

Some people will not tolerate this kind of intellectual convolution and will require all explanations to align with experiences, at least as long as those explanations rest on ideas they are used to accepting. Many people will affirm the resurrection without allowing that they are believing in a scientifically disproven concept. The weight of the traditional religious teaching brings its own credence, at least in matters that don’t require direct observation. Miracles far away are fine, they say; things in my life are subject to my inspection and comprehension. I understand that people do accept the resurrection of Jesus and still believe themselves to be thoroughly scientific; I just don’t understand how people with a thinking capacity maintain both beliefs.

For those who can tolerate abstract intellectual inquiry, the tantalizing question is, what could reconcile the inevitable conclusion that God determines all things with the experience of choosing freely? Is not one a lie and the other a truth? But it is quite possible for both views to be true, depending upon the perspective employed. There is a legitimate distinction between truthfully describing what you see and truthfully describing what is. The best illustration I have for this is the concept of colorblindness. A person who cannot see red, cannot see it; and such a person would be lying if they claimed to see the color red. But it is sometimes possible for a person who cannot see red to know that the color is present. They may learn, for example, that the highest light on a traffic signal is red; and although they may not see the color of the light, they can tell when it is lit. So too with stop signs. Or perhaps also someone identifies a distinctive sweater as red, and thereafter the colorblind person knows the name of the color which is visible to others in that sweater. In the case of the traffic light, the colorblind person would technically be lying if they said they saw the red light, but also lying if they said that they did not know that the light was red. A colorblind person licensed to drive will not get out of any traffic tickets by stating they could not see the redness of the signal. But there will be other cases where the colorblind person has no context to inform them of the color of a thing, and they will in all honesty overlook it or fail to perceive it.

The sovereignty of God is a color to which we are all blind. Sometimes there are clues by which we can detect or infer the hand of God directing events, and this can be a beautiful and blessed vision indeed; but we are by nature incapable of seeing how God directs all things, how every atom of creation is an unfolding revelation of his will. We can’t see it; we would lie if we said that we did see it, everywhere and all the time. And we tell the truth when we say that we chose — the truth as we see it.

We are not held to account for what we cannot see, except insofar as we have learned better. Just as the driver is responsible to stop at the signal regardless of whether they see the color red or not, there are times when we can see what God has done and if we fail to acknowledge that we condemn ourselves. But in the main there is nothing dishonest in us speaking and acting as though we choose for ourselves. This is the light that we have; this is the portion of the spectrum that we can see. The Bible sometimes speaks as though we have a choice in our affairs, or even indeed that God himself is undecided about things. But the Bible also speaks of God as having decided things far in advance, before any precedent was set. There needn’t be any contradiction, if the statements about choices and changes are written from our perspective, dealing with what we as people could see and observe, while the statements about predestination are written to describe a truth that is out of our sight.

Although this framework for reconciling the sovereignty of God with our perceived free will allows us to speak honestly about our perceptions and deal honestly with the Biblical teaching about God, it does suggest that in the ultimate sense the perception of free will is a misperception, even a lie you might say, and that we are totally predestined. The roll of a die in the palm of the hand most of us cannot understand, so we consider the outcome random, arbitrary, unplanned; but we can also acknowledge that there are very definite physics governing how the corners of the die bounce of the curves of the hand, and that if one knows how the die is shaken one could predict the number it will turn up. To think of ourselves as being like that die–too complex for us to understand, but entirely known to the sly and canny creator who can manipulate the dice to exactly his will–that is a terrifying thought.

It is also an outrageous thought. If we are totally known and predicted, how can we have any agency? How can we be considered “responsible” any more than any other inert thing, acted upon by physics? Yet when this very complaint was anticipated by Paul, he did not contradict it at all but confirmed it (see also Isaiah and Jeremiah). We can indeed be considered in the eyes of God to have as much agency as a lump of clay; and in that perspective we are no more to be faulted for our own destruction than a piece of clay is blamed for being refashioned from one thing into another. But the thing about being colorblind is that you can’t see red just because you know it is there. Even if it is true that God shapes and makes us into exactly what he wants – whether for death or eternal life – it is still true that we perceive ourselves to have a choice. You cannot see yourself differently. There is no point arguing that if God predestines us, then he is responsible for our choices–because if God does predestine us, then included in that is the self-perception that we are making choices, and we can only honestly discuss what we see. Just as you cannot run a red light by claiming you did not see it, you cannot excuse immoral and rebellious choices by claiming that you really had no choice. You in your own perception saw the choice and made it. What God did with what he saw and knew and controlled is up to him; what you did with what you saw and knew and controlled is on you.

It is an utterly hopeless place to be; your fate is entirely out of your hands. You will see a choice, and choose wrongly, and for that you will suffer; but all of it was known and planned and even designed by God in advance, and there is no possibility that it might be differently, any more than you can play the same movie twice and get a different ending. The book has already been written

At the same time it is the only place of rest and freedom, because if God has secretly written what will be, and what your fate will be, then there is literally nothing for you to do but to trust him. This does not mean that you give up on breathing and eating and all the other aspects of your existence – because that is the first thing that God has already given you. You accept your involuntary breaths and your voluntary choice of food as equally gifts from God, and you take your choices as you find them. Yet you trust that your final fate is entirely in the hands of God, and not subject to any mistake you could possibly make. And if you can even find yourself at a point where you can consider this, you have considerable assurance that God has indeed chosen to preserve you; for rebellion against God is fundamentally nothing other than refusing to allow him to have his own way.

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