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Archive for October, 2010

Unfortunately for our democracy, some Protestant pastors will not be celebrating a true Reformation Sunday this weekend.  They worship instead an unorthodox holy day of their own making – they are ending a season of lawbreaking and profane secular involvement with a feast day of Mammon which ought to be called The Last Sunday before Elections. The unholy season started on Sept. 26, with a thing called ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday.’

It is not clear how many preachers plan this Sunday to use the authority of their high calling to allege some kind of divine sanction of blessing or damnation for their own personal political choices.  The braver of these ignorant shepherds have already sent tape recordings of their Sept 26 sermons to the IRS, at the suggestion of the so-called Pulpit Freedom movement, which hopes to aid them if any lawsuits are initiated by the Government.

These pastors seem to misunderstand the perfectly legal connection the IRS is making between their tax-exempt status and the restriction that they not interfere with their local, state, and national commerce or politics.

All right then.  I would hope the IRS will exercise due diligence in taking up a limited number of these challenges.  The most air-tight cases are probably few, but let’s begin with those where there is hard evidence that a pastor has endorsed a local, state, or national political group or candidate who also enjoys the privilege of tax exemption on donations made to that particular church.  Look for cases where a state judge or congressman has made a significant donation – particularly if not a member of the church.  Because that’s where we’re headed if the tax-free pulpit endorsement becomes a reality.  Once preachers are free to endorse candidates from the pulpit, a very significant amount of tax-free influence goes up ‘for sale’ which is otherwise purchasable only through taxable media and canvassing outlets.

I don’t doubt that these unsophisticated preachers of God feel very righteous in their decision to go this way.  But seriously, they risk becoming the dupes of astute power brokers who would be very glad to manipulate the churches as ‘combines’ of political and market forces.

Fortunately, most pastors know the ‘Pulpit Freedom’ ruse is wrong

Obviously there are spiritual issues as well.  If you enter one of these stricken congregations this Sunday, expect to witness an overt flouting of both material and spiritual law.

(1) The preacher may blaspheme the will of God by equating it with his own narrow political view.

(2) The preacher may divide the very body of Christ entrusted to his care – by calling their votes either holiness or sin, depending on conformity to his own pompous choice.

(3) The preacher’s church may even enjoy lavish gifts (tax deductible) from the very same local, state, or national office-seeker or party whose views are being touted from the pulpit.

The church’s sacred calling ought to remove it from secular commercial and political affiliation.   Pastors who desire to preach like Jeremiah should be so pious as to end their acceptance of tax-exempt donations.

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For years I have had my liberal ears scorched by brief daily exposures to evangelical theology on my clock radio, dialed to a local ‘Family Radio’ station.  It’s eye-opening, certainly, and it prevents me from getting too comfortable in bed.

I used to wake up to a regular sermon spot by the late Adrian Rogers (the spot went away after he died).  Preachers like Rogers are fascinating.  Coming on all southern-fried with that big Johnny Cash voice, but I still remember one ‘family sermon’ that got my goat.

He started with an unobjectionable mix of moral and religious exhortation, a simple Doctor Phil wisdom with a Christian spin that would help anyone raising a family.

“Kids learn from example,”
“Parents should practice what they preach,”
“Love heals all wounds,” etc.

Well, yeah.

Next, a touching family story, with a moral (“…which just goes to show you, friends, we’d be lost without our families”)… at which point I’m thinking, “Man he’s right, I would be lost without my family!”

Then he sets a more serious tone.  A call for soul-searching, a gentle scolding, a little “nobody’s perfect,” “make an effort with the kids,” “stay with it for better or for worse,” etc.  All of this secular wisdom and morality; by now I’m thinking, where’s the Gospel?

But there wasn’t going to be any gospel.  Rogers suddenly and very simply forgets everything Jesus stands for.  His voice grows grim with warning tones, he places undue emphasis on some hard-boiled, out-of-the way place in the Bible, and then finds a point Jesus was trying to make and gives it a kind of nasty, judgmental spin that takes the heart right out of it.

I listen in horror as this old silvertongue leads me into dry and drier pastures, apart from all waters, until he takes away all my strength.  He has carefully spread a banquet of perfect calumny and fear in the presence of my enemies.  I hear how there’s a dangerous devourer of families out there, a cosmic enemy, who wants to bring an end to all our families.  All that sweetness and light I find is at stake in a terrific battle with Satan.

Finally – his ‘good news’ – I can be very thankful that this great cosmic evil is being ably challenged by … by Dr. James Dobson (er what!?).

And last comes the clincher:  the devil is very crafty, and the battle is a lot tougher than it needs to be, because a lot of well-meaning but utterly misguided and dangerous efforts are coming from “the Libruls” – who are just making the enemy’s work that much easier… etc.

O.M.G!

Friends, preaching like this has not gone away, and it must certainly be contributing to the destruction of our national discourse.  If our evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ appear unduly scared and angry, it’s because they have been flat-out lied to by their bad-shepherds – about the Bible, about God’s will, and about the motives of over half their fellow Americans.

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A recent post over at Diglotting rejects the idea that New Testament principles and example can be normative for economic theory.  I agree in principle, but think this position needs a defense against the usual criticism that it unfairly neutralizes the NT’s apparent sanction of socialism.

My short defense leaves aside the question of specific logia of Jesus and looks only at the example of communalism in the early Jerusalem Christian church (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37).

People often treat this example in accordance with pre-arranged views of the value of their own economic philosophy. Those opposed to communalism will marshal supporting evidence which minimizes the degree to which this compelling example of careless love was manifest in the church; those in favor of communalism will demand that we take the text as it stands.

It is not necessary, however, to paint this communal economy as only a partial socialism, or an outreach to the poor, or the result of expectations that the world should end.  Instead I join those who would ‘take the text as it stands,’ but argue that we have historical evidence ‘standing’ elsewhere in the NT that the communalist program in Jerusalem was opposed to the divine will and unblessed by any success beyond its first 2 decades, after which it collapsed in misery.

From the letters of Paul, dating little later than 20 years after Pentecost, it appears that the church at Jerusalem was not any longer able even to provide for its own poor (Gal2:9ff).  James, Cephas, and John were driven to the humiliating extreme of prevailing upon Paul’s gentile churches to raise funds for this purpose on behalf of the mother church.  But Paul’s own words indicate that the community at large – all the saints – are in poverty.  He calls his fund-raising mission: “contribution for the saints” 1Cor 16:1ff; “relief of the saints” 2Cor 8:1ff; “offering for the saints” 2Cor 9:1ff; “ministry for the saints” Rom 15:25.

I think it stands to reason that, if membership reached a plateau in Jerusalem soon after Pentecost, fresh revenues must have dried up.  The ‘saints’ who had joyously (and rashly) liquidated their property and capital in the early days would eventually fall into extremes of poverty not as individuals but as a group.

We can’t say for sure, because Rome put an end to the experiment not long after Paul’s final infusion of gentile cash – a trip whose necessity was the occasion of his arrest, deportation, imprisonment at Rome, and eventual execution.

My point is that nothing in this communalist form of economy has the ring of God’s infallible will.  Until it collapsed, the love-economy presided over by James, Peter, and John (themselves poor from the beginning) was only a sadly mistaken application of Jesus’ small-group missionary principles to the realities of long-term self-sustaining societies.

NOTE: That the poverty of the Jerusalem Christians was due to their practice of communalism of property and goods has the authority of Augustine (cited by Rt. Rev. A. Robertson, Commentary on First Corinthians (ICC), 1911,  p.382).

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“your disciples … were not able” (Mark 9:18)

All three gospel records agree that the epileptic boy and his father enter the picture immediately after the events described on the mount of transfiguration.  Whatever we believe about the mountain-top experience, this sequel has a strong historical flavor – indisputable even by the unbelieving Jesus scholar who knows nothing outside of his poor ‘embarrassment principle’ – because it certainly reports a shameful failure of faith and power in the alleged Messiah’s chosen men.

Jesus, Peter, James and John return to camp to find the other apostles overwhelmed by defeat.  Two or more of them had tried and failed to perform an exorcism in a case obviously complicated by epilepsy.

Confronted with the scene, Jesus lumps the chagrined disciples together with the crowd and the scribes as one and all “faithless” (Mk 9:19).  “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” These expressions reveal an almost sorrowful astonishment, a mingling of disdain and divine homesickness.

“Faithless.”  In the absence of Jesus the disciples have been tested and proven ‘unable’ – they have tried and failed to exercise one of the hallmarks of messianic authority (power over demons).  What form might this failed exercise have taken?  I think it is fair to assume for it a standard form of prayer in his name, something like: ‘In the name of Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth, I bid you come out of him.’  Examples of the apostolic use of similar forms for healing are attested in the Acts.

But why had the authority of the messianic name been here invoked in vain?  Not because they lacked belief that Jesus was their Messiah.  These nine apostles had been present at Peter’s recent profession (Mk 8:29) of belief in their master’s messianic status.  And they had certainly seen wonders aplenty to confirm this special knowledge about Jesus.

And yet Jesus clearly viewed their failure as some kind of failure of belief, an example of faithless action, of unbelief.  In fact it looks very much like Jesus judges their current belief in his person and his mission not as belief but as unbelief.

“I believe, help thou my unbelief!” This cry of dilemma by the distraught father in Mk 9:24 is easily imagined in the mouths of the disciples later, when they asked about their failure privately (Mk 9:28).  And what did Jesus tell them they lacked?  Nothing but prayer (Mk 9:29).

So here is a group of logia with a strong warrant of historical authenticity which suggests two things:

(1) there are cases of belief about Jesus’ person and mission which are viewed by Jesus as a type of unbelief;

(2) there are forms of belief without which ‘prayer in his name’ cannot effect anything.

In a later post I will get some help from Martin Buber (Two Types of Faith, ET 1951) in further analysis of this story’s meaning for faith and belief – and unbelief.

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I found not one but two good theologically-minded writers last week, who are I think taking theology’s case against materialist ideology to the next level.  By that I do not mean to call the approach wholly new or to forget those who, in the spirit of Plato, Berkeley, and Kant, have contributed at a level quite above the hubris we often find today on both sides of the online discussion between religion and science.

In my last post I mentioned the interesting views of essence and existence recently published by Jason Michael McCann over at homophilosophicusThe second writer, Matthew David Segall is the mind and soul behind Footnotes to Plato, a blog which includes an interesting use of video, and has been running at least a couple years.  When I encountered Segall he was offering a defense of the essential ontological status of human consciousness against the usual bad philosophy utilized by today’s materialist neuro-metaphysicians when imagining themselves heirs to all the authority of science.  Matthew writes:

In the end, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its own methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I think it is obviously very good for the physical sciences that the scientist, qua scientist, be a strict materialist.  It is good even that any truth-seeker, qua scientist, be a strict materialist.  But no truth seeker – not even the scientist 24/7 –  has some kind of professional duty to be a strict materialist in all of their approaches to all of reality.

I keep looking for help in the so-called theological ‘dialogue’ with materialism because materialism is an ideology which today appears to inform the thinking of most of the brilliant minds in our culture.  Not many of them appear to understand truth as an objective extending outside the grasp of their ideology, but I think they would be superbly furnished for truth-seeking of a higher kind if only they could be disabused of this fatal misunderstanding.  I see great things coming for our society if our scientific-minded persons could only be persuaded of the folly of applying materialistic theories and methods wholesale to psychology, abiogenesis, philosophy, and theology.

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I found a theologically-minded blogger this week who is concerned with the state of the religious dialogue with materialism, and sees no harm in ending the logjam by making what at first seems to be a drastic concession.

The strategy may be seen in a nutshell in this definition of existence, which concedes to the materialist the point that – in strictly materialist terms – God does not exist, meanwhile returning to theologians the task of elaborating the meaningful essence of a being more fully worthy of living faith – the spiritual God-who-is.

God does not exist. This statement is both philosophically and theologically valid. Existence is that which we are aware of through our senses, and which continues to exist independent of them. In philosophical categories one must be careful to distinguish between existence and essence; a common confusion. Materialism limits existence to matter, and therefore whatever lacks matter lacks also existence. Theology, in order to share a common language with modern materialism, must adopt these definitions. Thus a theology which accepts the reality of God must also affirm the reality that God is not subject to existence and therefore does not materially exist.

I  think I get it.  The materialist’s categories of existence by definition equate material substance with the essence of all evidential things.  Meaningful discussion cannot take place unless the theist can analyze and resolve this fallacy of the identity of material substance with essence.  Until then he has no valid grounds for engaging the materialist in an argument for the ‘existence’ of a God who is clearly non-evident and therefore non-existent under material categories of essence and existence.

So we are not talking about a trite ‘whatever’ and a polite end to head-butting.  Because the real argument with the materialist has not gone away but may now shift to the logical and moral necessity of his recognizing the possible being of non-evident non-existents – initially, the commonly held ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.  Not because these values are to be set up instead-of-God, but because their claim to acknowledgment as real rests on an understanding of essence which is not equated with physical substance alone.

The establishment of the possibility that real essence is not necessarily dependent upon material substance reopens the discussion on the transcendental level, where the accessibility of values such as truth, goodness, and beauty allow for consideration of concepts of a God who similarly cannot be equated, in essence, with the material substance of mere existence.

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Today I found a link to a New Statesman article from April 2009 which I had completely missed, by A.N. Wilson, Why I believe again.”   Thanks to Studium et Liturgica for the link, and apologies to any who feel it’s way old news, but please indulge me in some observations about Wilson’s rediscovery of faith after 20 years as a convinced atheist. 

First, I appreciate the way he notices the differences between his conversion from and his conversion back to Christianity.  His conversion to atheism, he admits, had been like a Damascus Road experience, and yet he notes in retrospect that just such a rush of sudden decision had been very unlike him:

“By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a “conversion experience”… Something was happening which was out of character – the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers.

“For months, I walked on air… For the first time in my 38 years I was at one with my own generation. I had become like one of the Billy Grahamites, only in reverse.  If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens, I did not have to feel out on a limb.”

Meanwhile, Wilson’s return to faith in God has been accompanied by just the kind of doubting and slow probing which make his reconversion, he thinks, all the more a genuine expression of his true ‘doubting Thomas’ nature – effecting a change which he feels is irreversible.

And isn’t it interesting that Wilson passed over the line into atheism just after publishing a biography of C.S. Lewis?  I love such counter-intuitive anecdotes (I sometimes find Lewis overbearing, even unbearable, but love him for the good I also find).

Wilson describes a public discussion of Lewis’s work in which he hauls the great apologist up for blame – but we get the usual litany of gripes after all:

“I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity made me a non-believer – not just in Lewis’s version of Christianity, but in Christianity itself. On that occasion, I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me – the sense of God’s presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world

And I loved this intimate scene with Hitchens from Wilson’s early atheist days:

Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. “So – absolutely no God?” “Nope,” I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. “No future life, nothing ‘out there’?” “No,” I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world.”

The whole article is worth a look.

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