Friday, June 6, 2014

Help Me in My Unbelief: The Struggle with Doubt

Over the years, I’ve had a number of Christians tell me that they’ve struggled with doubt, often for long periods of time. This doubt could have come for any number of reasons; a prayer of theirs seemingly went unanswered; they felt God had abandoned them during a time of trial; or perhaps someone leveled an intellectual objection at them that they could not answer and it caused them to question their faith. But while the circumstances for the doubt may vary, the end result is usually the same: they feel as though they are a weaker Christian for having doubts. Thus, our initial cause for doubt usually creates a vicious cycle of doubt in which we pile doubt on top of doubt to the point where we wonder if we have any faith left at all. But while we often let our doubts paralyze us, what does God think of our doubts?

To get an answer to this question, the first place we should look is in the Gospel of Mark. In the ninth chapter, we meet a man whose son was possessed by a demon that had been tormenting him all his life. The boy’s condition was awful; “Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.” Like any loving father, he almost certainly consulted numerous doctors and physicians; but to no avail. No one could help the boy. Then, probably as a last resort he hears of the miracle worker Jesus and His disciples and thinks maybe they can succeed where everyone else has failed; after all, what did he have to lose at that point?

So he brings the boy to the disciples; and this too is met with catastrophic failure. They were unable to help the boy’s condition. Imagine how the father must have felt when one after the other, the disciples tried to heal him and could not. He probably shook his head in disgust thinking these supposed miracle workers were no miracle workers at all. He probably thought they were just a bunch of frauds and that the claims he’d been hearing were bogus. So then he goes to Jesus and says “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” 

The response of Jesus is shocking and direct. He says “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” Now notice how He doesn’t condemn the father for his faithlessness and doubt; instead He speaks of the whole generation, and indeed, what He said could also apply to our generation.

Perhaps the root of our unbelief begins with our own predispositions. All too often we claim to believe in God, we claim to have faith, and yet we default to the position of philosophical naturalism. We believe in a God who is there, but yet we would handcuff that God behind the natural order of things. This passage of scripture shows that things were no different in ancient times; the father doesn’t believe his son can be healed because he probably doesn’t believe in miracles at all. Even when we claim to believe in God and to have faith; it’s so hard not to think that we live in a closed system in which God cannot or does not act and miracles are simply impossible.

But as Christians, we have to reframe that mentality. As an avid gamer, I’d like to challenge you for a moment to think of our reality as a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game. MMO’s are known for attracting thousands of players from around the world and putting them into a virtual world that seemingly runs on its own. MMO’s have their own cities and inhabitants, their own governments and economies, wildlife and monsters. They are meant to be a totally immersive experience, and they usually are. I’ve certainly been addicted to playing a couple of them!

And yet we know that these games run on servers, and that the developers are frequently changing things in the game world. They put in innumerable updates and patches to improve the experience.
Now we know that God created our world, we know that He created the natural order; so if He is the developer, can He not act within His own system? Can He not interject “updates” and “patches” into the system as He sees fit? This is how we should look at the very Incarnation of Jesus Christ; it was not merely a patch; it was an overhaul. It was an invasion. With the Incarnation, God changed the natural order. The Kingdom; this unseen (greater) reality was made known in the person of Jesus Christ, and the power of that Kingdom that He implemented continues on to this day. The same force that would later heal this boy possessed by demons is still with us. So while we cannot always know the will of God; we must never assume that God cannot or will not act in decisive and powerful ways in our own lives today.

With that said, perhaps the root of our unbelief goes much deeper than our predispositions. Perhaps our predispositions are actually the ‘symptoms’ of a greater ‘illness.’ I would argue that unbelief is part of our fallen human nature and that because of our fall in the garden we are “children in whom there is no faithfulness” (Deut 32:20). We have layered doubt upon doubt from the very beginning when we tried to hide our faces from the Lord while He searched for us in the cool of the afternoon. In short, we doubt because we cannot help ourselves. By nature, we would sooner lean on anyone or anything rather than the Lord. By nature we would forsake the Fountain and grasp for “cisterns which have no water.”

So rather than hate on yourself because you have doubts, you should instead realize that it is only natural to have doubts and that our doubts will never fully go away until the Kingdom is finally realized in full. Having doubt does not make you a weaker Christian; it just means that you are human. And you would do well to remember that you are in pretty good company!

For example, in Hebrews 11 it talks about the Heroes of Faith. Every one of those heroes experienced periods of great doubt. Abraham didn’t trust God that he would have children, so he lay with his servant. Moses thought he was too old and not a good enough speaker to liberate the people of Israel. David slew Goliath and yet he was terrified that Saul would kill him. Elijah brought low a whole horde of false prophets and yet he hid from Jezebel in a cave. Doubt is simply a part of who we are, and we must learn to accept that fact. While doubt can be a painful process, it is an important part of our spiritual maturation.

As one writer put it, “many Christians fall into the trap of assuming that faith and doubt are mutually exclusive. They imagine that a real believer would never question the grounds for his faith and if one experiences doubt, his faith isn’t true. When confronted with arguments against Christianity they are thrown into a sea of doubt, believing that every plausible objection must be answered before they can rest in their faith.” But the story of the desperate father in Mark chapter 9 shows us this is not the case.
The father says to Jesus: “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” He says if; if you can do something. This shows us that even a weak prayer, a prayer full of doubt is better than no prayer at all. So rather than falling into the abject defeatism of our doubts, we should be bringing them to God in prayer. He can hear us whether we are full of faith or full of doubt.

Jesus tells this poor father that anything is possible if he would just have the faith, and that is when he cries out with those famous words: “I believe; help my unbelief!” In this powerful statement we see that he has the foundation of belief; he has a kind of faith. His faith is like the poster that hung on Special Agent Fox Mulder’s wall from the X-Files; his faith said “I Want to Believe.” He just needed a little help to get there, and so do we. Don’t stop praying because of your doubts; pray through them, pray about them. Say as this father said: “help me in my unbelief.”

It is in times of doubt that we need to draw near to the Holy Spirit. John 14:26 says “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.” The Holy Spirit is our comforter; it is in Him that we can find rest from our troubles. And moreover; He is our teacher. He testifies to our hearts the Truth of the Gospel, a truth that the world cannot understand, a truth that the world designates as “foolishness” (1 Cor 1:27-28). It is the Holy Spirit who will help us to overcome the obstacles of belief.

You see, I think there are times when we misunderstand what the Holy Spirit is or does; we may think of Him as a force or as a presence, but He is a Person. We can pray to Him, speak to Him directly and be assured that He will help us in our doubts, for “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).

And in your time of doubt, you would do well to know that the Holy Spirit is probably already present within you. Have you ever thought “God exists”, “I am reconciled to God” or “Jesus Christ loves me”? If you have believed such things, now or in the past, it is the Holy Spirit that has revealed it to you; He is the Source of all Truth He has already planted the seed of wisdom within you, or else you would have never believed Christianity to be true in the first place. I have argued on these blogs that the Christian God exists and that there is evidence for that belief; but ultimately, as others have pointed out; our faith is not dependent on such argumentation and evidence. Our faith is dependent upon the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.
So when you go through times of doubt as you naturally will, it is to the Holy Spirit that you should pray, so that He can ease your mind, answer your doubts and convict you of His eternal love for you. Holy Spirit we believe, help us in our unbelief.

Come, Holy Spirit,
fill my heart with Your holy gifts.
Let my weakness be penetrated with Your strength this very day
that I may fulfill all the duties of my state conscientiously, that I may do what is right and just.
Let my charity be such as to offend no one, and hurt no one's
feelings; so generous as to pardon sincerely any wrong done to me.
Assist me, O Holy Spirit,
in all my trials of life, enlighten me in my ignorance, advise me in my doubts, strengthen me in my weakness, help me in all my needs, protect me in temptations and console me in afflictions.
Graciously hear me, O Holy Spirit, and pour Your light into my
heart, my soul, and my mind.
Assist me to live a holy life and to grow in goodness and grace.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Seeking God

If God exists, then why is He so shy? Why doesn’t He reveal Himself in more ‘obvious’ ways? Those questions form the basis of an argument against the existence of God that has been gaining a lot of attention in recent years, the argument from “divine hiddenness”. As a former atheist, I can relate to the argument; it’s a tough question. I remember many years ago riding in a car with a friend and we came across a billboard that depicted a blue sky and some pretty white clouds and it read: “Looking for God?” At the bottom, it advertised going to a local church to ‘get answers.’ I laughed and I said to my friend “yeah, I looked for God, but I sure as hell didn’t find Him!” I joked that the blue sky and clouds represented what God really was; nothing but empty space. Seeking God was like seeking a passing cloud; pointless.

The crux of the argument from “divine hiddenness” is this: What kind of God would let well-meaning, intelligent people who seek good evidence of the divine in the midst of this suffering world fail to find it? Why does the seeker come up empty? Why are their efforts frustrated? Not only have I dealt with this objection myself, I’ve also come across many people who have had the same problem. They seek after God and they find nothing. They ask for a sign and no sign comes. They ask for something in prayer and the prayer goes unanswered. It really makes you think no one is there, that no one is listening, right?

But what if I told you that the problem lies not with our intention, but with our orientation? The great Sufi mystic Bayazid Bistami once said “for thirty years I sought God. But when I looked carefully I found that in reality God was the seeker and I the sought.” Put simply, our God is the Seeking God. To be able to truly seek God, we must first realize that He is seeking us.

We learn that God was seeking us right from the beginning, all the way back in Genesis. You probably know the story. They ate the forbidden fruit, they became aware of their nakedness and they hastily sewed clothes together from fig leaves to hide their shame from one another. And then they try to hide from God Himself. And yet, God is not content to let them hide. He comes down and He seeks them out. Despite the fact that He knows full well where they are, He asks “where are you?” The Seeking God forces them to acknowledge their hiddenness. It is not God who hides from us; it is we who hide from God.That moment in the Garden is the pattern for all of human history. Thus, it is our orientation from the very beginning to seek to hide ourselves from the presence of God. Isaiah 59:2 echoes this in saying: “Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you.”

The theme of the Seeking God continues throughout the entire Old Testament. We see how God communicates with His people, even when they aren’t trying to seek Him. He reaches out to people caught up in the midst of their daily routines or in the dead of night. He interrupts them. He comes to Abram in the middle of the night and tells him to pack all His things, take His family and go to a land “that I will show you.” After his stint in Egypt, Moses was seemingly content living out his retirement as a shepherd when God suddenly appears to him in the Burning Bush and calls him to be the liberator of the Hebrew people. In the story of Jonah, God calls him to be a prophet to the people of Nineveh, but he runs away. God then pursues Jonah relentlessly until he finally comes to terms with God’s plan. These stories serve to remind us that it is God who takes the initiative.

This pattern of the Seeking God culminates in Jesus Christ; when through the Incarnation God Himself comes down to visit His people. The theologian George Eldon Ladd wrote “In Jesus, God has taken the initiative to seek out the sinner, to bring the lost into the blessing of His reign.” We may try to hide from God, we may try to run from God, but He comes to us, and He comes to us out of love. In the words of Jesus Himself, “For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10)

I would encourage any of my readers who are curious about this concept and would like to explore it in more detail to please read the Gospel of Luke Chapter 15. Jesus was facing harsh criticism from the religious leaders of His day for ministering to sinners and even being in their presence. The great truth of the Seeking God is laid out in three Parables that Jesus taught. He said that it was His divine purpose to search out the sheep that had strayed; to seek the coin that had been lost, and to welcome the prodigal back into the family even though he was unworthy of forgiveness. It is God’s initiative every time. The shepherd searches for the lost sheep; the woman sweeps the house looking for the lost coin; the father longs for his son’s return. Thus, the sinner does not turn to God; God turns to the sinner.

So why is it that our efforts to seek God are frustrated? Why is it when we look for God we come up with “divine hiddenness” instead of divine presence? It goes back to that problem of orientation. We do not seek God in the power of our own strength, but by trusting in the power of His might. We look for Him as though He were somewhere else, when He has been with us all along. The poet Rumi put it like this: “If in thirst you drink water from a cup, you see God in it. Those who are not in love with god will only see their own faces in it.” We are to seek God in love and in trust, knowing that He is already there, seeking us.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3:20)

The Almighty is standing at the door of your heart, knocking. Will you bid Him to enter?

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Resurrection of Hope Part II: Hope and Christianity

I have always been a big fan of the science fiction genre; whether its literature, film or even video games. I can trace this interest all the way back to childhood when I first saw the 1960 classic the Time Machine. Every time the main character would wind up that chair to travel through time, my eyes would just go wide with amazement. The idea of time travel is just fascinating. I think that’s always been part of the draw of science fiction; it makes us think of limitless possibilities and fills us with a sense of wonder and hope for the future.

One rainy afternoon a few years ago I sat down and read H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. A sense of anticipation came over me, and as I turned page after page, there was this distinct feeling of reconnecting with my childhood memories of the movie. It was one of those rare moments where you feel like a kid again. By the time I got to the end of the book, my eyes did go wide with amazement; amazement of an altogether different sort. I was shocked to find that the story was completely different than the movie. The traveler goes forward into the distant future to discover the destiny of man; but he doesn’t find alien races or technological marvels. He finds nothing. All that is left is a dead earth, save for a few lichens and moss, orbiting a gigantic red sun. The only sounds are the rush of the wind and the gentle ripple of the sea. “Beyond these lifeless sounds,” writes Wells, “the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over.” I put down the book in a stunned…silence. This was not at all what I had expected. The ending of the Time Machine reminds me a bit of the existential crisis of postmodern man. What do we have to look forward to at the end of our journey; with all our toiling, our passions, our struggles and our ambition? If the naturalist worldview is correct, not very much.

Last week I talked about the hope of humanism, demonstrating how the ‘New Atheists’ have substituted the pessimism of old with a more attractive, humanist Utopian idealism. But several atheist writers have emerged to attack and critique this ‘hope’ of the New Atheism. They accuse people like Dawkins of “going soft.” As one prominent atheist blogger put it, “We are Atheists. We believe that the Universe is a great uncaused, random accident. All life in the Universe past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself. While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not. Our highly evolved brains imagine that these things have a cause or a use, and they have in the past, they’ve allowed life to continue on this planet for a short blip of time. But make no mistake: all our dreams, loves, opinions, and desires are figments of our primordial imagination. They are fleeting electrical signals that fire across our synapses for a moment in time.” When put under the microscope; atheism cannot offer us hope. If we are simply the products of random time and chance in a blind and impersonal cosmos, then life ultimately has no objective, purpose or meaning. Just like the ending of the Time Machine, it is a deep silence and a profound nothingness that awaits us.

You see, under the naturalist worldview, we simply cannot get around the fact that everything ends in death. The great Emperor Marcus Aurelius once said “Alexander the Great and his stable boy were leveled in death.” How can there be any real hope in humanism if this is the case? All I can do is to try to escape from this inevitable reality. All I can do is to try to “authenticate myself” in any way possible.

But everything changes if God exists. The Christian view of God is important because it suggests that God is personal; He has revealed Himself to us in space and time; He has invaded human history with the Incarnation. The faceless now has a face; the unknowable has been made known. Thus God is not some blind watchmaker who sets the world in motion for no real purpose; rather He has created us to be in relationship with Himself. It is in this way that life suddenly has an objective meaning and purpose. You are not the product of random time and chance; rather you are the product of a loving God. You are not a momentary blip of being; rather you are a being of eternal significance. Your actions are not simply methods of escape or ways to “authenticate yourself”; rather what you do today matters eternally. Why must we debase ourselves with such naturalism? Why must we descend into despair and worthlessness when the Christian God says we are of infinite worth? My point here is that God has endowed us with reason above all other creation not so that we might despair of our condition; but so that our condition might cause us to seek Him. “Pain,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

I cannot escape the reality of suffering. The Buddha taught that life itself is suffering and the Christian would agree with that wisdom. We live in a broken and fallen world that is not operating as it was intended. I have likened it to a computer virus infecting the operating system. The computer still powers up; you can still run most of your programs; but it is erratic. It runs more slowly than it should. It shuts down unexpectedly. Every time you turn it on, you wonder how much longer it is going to last. But while the naturalist, the atheist or the humanist must somehow insert meaning into life when there is none; the Christian says there actually is meaning. We see the world for how it actually is, not as we wish it to be.

To the naturalist, no amount of “authenticating ourselves” can eclipse the fact that if we are merely the product of random causes, our suffering also has no meaning. Suffering is just another random event of which we are nothing more than helpless prisoners. Some might call it ‘fate,’ for rather than subjecting themselves to a benevolent God, naturalists have instead subjected themselves to a blind determinism. The grave is ever looming, and that is all there is.

By contrast, the Christian worldview says there is meaning even in the midst of our suffering. Even though there is a virus infecting our operating system, God uses it to bring about good. I can think of no better example of this than the story of Jacob. After all that happened to him, he was still able to confidently utter those famous words “You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.” And as Christians we can claim that as a promise. Our trials can be used to bring about good.

You see, most people understand hope as a kind of wishful thinking. We want something to happen, so we hope for a certain outcome that may or may not work out. I hope the weather will be nice enough so I can take a walk today. I hope I get that promotion at work because I really need the money. But the Christian does not view hope in this way. The biblical definition of hope is “confident expectation.” Christian hope is the confidence that something will come to pass because God has promised us that it will.

But this hope is not Utopian. It does not say I will be healed of my every illness, it does not say God will make me healthy and wealthy, it does not say that all wars will be ended or that we will reach distant galaxies. Rather, it says “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” It says that I am not alone; that the God who Himself became man and suffered as a man is with me, suffering with me as I suffer. This is what the Psalmist means when he says “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” When I suffer, I am not cast adrift at sea without any sense of purpose or hope; rather, God is my refuge and in that refuge I am given the strength to get through the trial; not to try to “authenticate myself” around it.

According to the naturalistic worldview, suffering, sickness and death can have no meaning. But to the Christian, we believe that behind this broken world there is a sovereign God who will one day do a system restore to this faulty operating system and set it back to the original factory default. I can believe this because God has promised it and because He has demonstrated it in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the pattern.

At the end of my previous blog on the resurrection, I asked the question “what if it were true?” If Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, then the great reversal has begun. Death itself has been defeated. To the atheist; death claims everything. But to the Christian; death is but a passing through a doorway from one method of being into another. You are not a random collection of atoms to be dissolved; you are ceaseless, eternal. As Christ was raised, we shall be raised, for He said: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” He gives us the promise, all we have to do is believe it, even if it is a struggle; then we too can live in the hope of confident expectation where death does not have the final word.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus Christ, my righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
  All other ground is sinking sand.
When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.
(My Hope is Built, 1834) 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Resurrection of Hope Part I: Hope and Humanism

I was doing some spring cleaning the other day, and while rummaging through a bunch of dust covered boxes I found an old Obama “Hope” sticker from his 2008 election campaign. I’m sure you remember those. It has a picture of his face in red and blue colors with the words “hope” in all capital letters. For just a moment, I was reminded of the fervor of that election year, a fervor that I myself bought into. I went to see him speak during a Democratic rally held at a local area high school football field. He talked about how he was going to turn the economy around, how he was going to create new jobs and help the suffering middle class. He said he was going to end our foreign wars and favor diplomacy over aggression. He was saying all the things I so desperately wanted to hear and I found myself completely hooked. The “hope” sticker went up on my refrigerator that very night.

Clearly, I was not alone. He won the election in a landslide, and just about everyone I knew did indeed place their hopes in him. People seemed to think he would change the world and right all wrongs. But what happened as a result of our hopes? Our economy is in shambles, the middle class is being eviscerated, unemployment is rampant, and we always seem to be teetering on the brink of some new conflict. A survey says only 30% of the population feels our country is headed in the right direction. In short, our hopes were dashed. My “hope” sticker went from its prominent place on the refrigerator to a forgotten about box stuffed in a closet. To me, this is just another indictment of the false hopes of humanism; that world leaders and governments always have our best interests in mind and will fundamentally change the world and change lives for the better.

I cannot help but contrast the hope of humanism with the hope of my Christian faith. This past Sunday was Easter, and this year my church did things a little differently. Several people from our congregation went up front, one after the other, and talked about how Jesus Christ had transformed their lives and given them hope. In the United Methodist Church, we call this “faith sharing.” This was not the first time I’ve heard such testimonies. I’ve heard countless people talk about how they were freed from addictions, depression, abusive parents or relationships and all manner of bondage. I’ve even heard people talk about how they were healed of various physical afflictions and ailments. Skeptics of Christianity and religion often say that our faith is pie in the sky; but they ignore the transformative power of faith in our daily lives. Our lives have been transformed by hope.

I have asked these same skeptics a question; “what does the atheist hope in?” As of yet, I do not believe I have found a satisfactory answer. This matter is an easy one for me to probe, because I was once an atheist myself. Long before people jumped on the God Delusion bandwagon, I was reading the great atheist philosophers of old. The works of Nietzsche, Hume, Sartre, Camus and Schopenhauer once lined my bookshelves. Many of their views were not near as rosy as the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others.

Russell once wrote “that man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Sartre, whose “Being and Nothingness” was one of my favorite books when I was an atheist, echoed this when in his final interview he said: “With this third world war, which is going to break out one day, with this miserable ensemble that our planet is, despair returns to tempt me again. The idea that we will not ever finish it, that there is not any goal, that there are only individual goals for which people struggle. People start small revolutions, but there is not a goal for humanity, there is nothing that interests mankind, there are only disruptions”.

For Sartre and Camus, atheist “hope” boiled down to one thing; “authenticity.” Sartre argued that we live in an “absurd universe”, the total of which is “ridiculous.” All we can do, then, is to authenticate ourselves by an act of will. It doesn’t matter which direction you go; if you find a wallet on the ground you can either return it or steal it, because either way, you will have “authenticated yourself.” Such was the “hope” of the ‘old guard’ of the atheist philosophers that I was once so heavily influenced by; a kind of blind existentialism.

But now there has been a distinct paradigm shift in atheistic philosophy. With the explosion of the New Atheists onto the philosophical scene, we have moved from a naturalist despair or a subjective existentialism to a more broad sense of utopian idealism. These harsh critics of religion have put new clothes on the old guard to make it appear more attractive for pop culture consumption. Indeed, the New Atheists have become evangelists in their own right. We have gone from the bleak writings of a Sartre to “Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have and it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move. And that’s a pretty big hope.”  Substitute pessimism for a repackaged utopian ideal and you have the New Atheism. Open the windows; the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming; spring has come to atheism at last, after a long, long winter!!

It is ironic that those who would accuse followers of religion as being irrational; are themselves guilty of irrationality. It is ironic that those who would accuse followers of religion as having a blind faith; are themselves guilty of having a blind faith. They say that we can “end all wars” and have “world peace” (especially if we get rid of religion!). They say we can “end poverty” and “end world hunger”. They say we can bring about better economic conditions for all of mankind. They say we will go out to the infinite stars. They say that secular morality will replace the need for a god. And while these things (with the exception of that last one) are certainly what we should always be striving for; they are at the same time unrealistic expectations in their totality. It is nothing more than a repackaged utopian philosophy brought into the 21st century. The writer of Ecclesiastes said “there is nothing new under the sun”, and indeed there isn’t. I wish I could say that we have the power to end all wars, for example, but there have always been wars and there will always be wars. Because the desire for selfish gain has always been and will always be rooted deeply in the human heart; the utopian world that these New Atheists tout in their books and in their lectures is simply impossible. They advocate reason over faith; but this is not reason, this is faith of an altogether different kind, and is thus a flight fromreason. Perhaps the ‘old guard’ would have seen this as well. They are guilty of the same non-rational leap that they accuse theists of taking.

And like the utopian philosophers of old and the “hope” stickers of the present day, these ‘hopes’ will ultimately be dashed by reality. When we take off the rose tinted glasses of the New Atheism, we see the hope of humanism for what it really is. As Bertrand Russell put it, “Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on in its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest tomorrow, himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.”

So what does the Christian hope in? I will be examining that in the second and final part of this series. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, thank you for coming with me on this journey and please stay tuned…… 

Monday, April 14, 2014

He is Risen: How an Atheist Came to Believe in the Resurrection

When I was very young, my mother used to read to me from the Bible and tell me stories about Jesus; and as a kid I loved hearing those stories. My eyes used to go wide with amazement when she would tell me how He calmed storms, walked on water, gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk and how He rose from the dead. I believed those stories without question; I loved this Jesus very much and I prayed to Him every night before going to bed. I felt that He was really there, really listening, and I felt that He was always with me.
But as I grew older I became convinced that they were just stories. After all, my parents had also told me that Santa Claus was real and I’d believed that too, until late one Christmas Eve I went  downstairs to get a glass of water and I caught my mom wrapping my Christmas presents. That was a very good Christmas. It was the year I got Grimlock the Dinobot; but it was also the year my belief in Old Saint Nick was shattered forever. I didn’t care at all, mind you. I still got Grimlock; it didn’t matter where he came from. But it did make me wonder; why tell the story at all if it isn’t true? What’s the point?

By the time I was a teenager I had become a philosophical atheist, and in my early twenties the great mythologist Joseph Campbell provided a sound, if only partial explanation to that question. Myths, he argued, are the essence of what makes us human. They reflect a profound inner reality rather than an outward or divine reality. Myths are true, not in a literal sense, but because they are part and parcel of the human psyche; for what is man if he cannot dream? I saw the Christian story, therefore, as just another version of the ancient Roman, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, and Babylonian myths; stories that tell us not about God, but the human condition. The countless stories of dying and resurrected gods that have dominated our mythological landscape were to be seen only as our own reflection in the mirror. They represented our longing to transcend this material reality and to conquer and defeat death.

I never questioned the fact that a man named Jesus had actually existed. I just couldn’t accept any of the supernatural nonsense. To quote a famous line from the movie the Crow, I thought “there ain’t no coming back!!” Jesus had lived, He had been a great moral teacher, but He was put to death and that was the end of it. His followers crafted a myth around Him and it was that myth that became known as Christianity.

Then in the year 2,000 I had my own personal encounter with God and amidst a lot of grumbling and torrents of doubt, I became a reluctant believer. You see, even after I’d had what I believed to be my own supernatural experience; accepting the supernatural as a reality was very difficult for me. It seemed to fly in the face of all logic. I doubted everything, questioned everything. The first Christians and pastors I came into contact with must have thought I was crazy because here I was confessing to be a Christian, and yet I was challenging them and debating them on just about every point. I was especially skeptical about the resurrection. In the back of my mind, I kept hearing that guy from the Crow saying “there ain’t no coming back”. And then someone told me to read C.S. Lewis.

“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”

I had simply come to the wrong philosophical conclusion about the power of myth; I had assumed that it was only a symbol. But what if that symbol could become reality? C.S. Lewis argued that all of mankind’s previous myths were expressions of our deepest yearning; that the transcendent and unknowable God would come into intimate contact with mankind and thus be made known. Christianity, Lewis said, was not merely one myth alongside countless others; rather it was the fulfillment of all previous mythological religions. What we once longed for in our myths became true in Jesus Christ, when God Himself entered into space and time.

And when it came to the resurrection story, I had ignored all the internal evidence for its reality. As I investigated the claims, the idea of the whole thing being a fabrication or a fiction just seemed more and more unlikely to me. There are a number of things I could talk about here, but instead I want to focus on just a few things that really stood out to me. First, we have the matter of the empty tomb. When something is purely invented, especially in ancient literature, the general idea was to show a thing in the best light possible. The Gospels tell us how women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb, and this just isn’t the best way to start a myth. Women were little more than second class citizens in ancient times, and this alone would have discredited the whole story for most people right out of the gates! If they were trying to start a myth, why in the world would they use women who couldn’t even testify in court? Then we have the problem of the body itself. Where is it? If the women had simply gone to the wrong tomb, or the Roman authorities had moved the body, why didn’t anyone produce it? They could have stamped out the whole hoax in a minute just by producing the body! The silence here is deafening, and it was but one smoking gun that led this former atheist to think that maybe, just maybe this myth had indeed become fact.

Then we have to look at the reaction of Christ’s followers. The Gospels didn’t gloss over the bumbling of, and at times, even the stupidity of the Apostles. When it came to the resurrection, not one of them readily accepted that it was true. They were all filled with doubt and fear, and I happen to find this fact encouraging. The way I see it, if I had been there, I would have reacted in exactly the same way as Thomas and the others did. If someone told me that a man was raised from the dead I would have thought they had gone mad! Thus, the skepticism on the part of the Apostles as depicted in the Gospels is to me evidence of its plausibility. They didn't just accept that He had risen from the dead. They demanded proof. The Gospels depict a very rational and human reaction to the supposed resurrection event. It is how most of us would have responded. They believed as you or I would; that “there ain’t no coming back.”

But then a change happens in them, literally overnight. They go from cowards and skeptics hiding in the shadows to boldly proclaiming the Good News that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. They did this under constant persecution and the threat of death. How is this possible if it were all just a myth; unless that myth had become fact?!

You see, this change occurred because when myth became fact in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, they now had hope. Death itself had been defeated on that first Easter Sunday. What all of humanity had been yearning for since the dawn of time became reality in the moment that Jesus first stood and the stone was rolled away. Saint Paul wrote of this, saying: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thes 4:13-18)

So as we move through this Holy Week up to Easter, I want you to remember that we have hope. As an atheist, this was one thing I lacked; hope. I would think of all those I have loved and lost, I would think of my own mortality and I would be filled with an overwhelming sense of despair and futility. And if you have ever felt this way yourself, I would challenge you to ask a simple question; “what if it were true?” What if myth had indeed become fact on that first Easter Sunday?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

My Visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani: A Personal Reflection

Recently, I had the privilege of making my first visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. Thomas Merton is my favorite Christian writer and to simply walk the grounds where he had lived for so many years was an amazing and humbling experience.

It was Easter Sunday; and I could think of no better way to spend Easter than to make that journey and attend Mass at the Abbey. We woke up early to make the drive there from Louisville, which takes just a little over an hour. It was a cold, rainy morning. You take the Interstate out of Louisville and then before you know it, you find yourself out in the middle of the country; where it's just miles and miles of wide open spaces; fields and farmland and forests. For someone who calls the city home, it is an almost alien landscape. Some of the areas seemed so remote I almost began to question whether my GPS was leading me to the right place.

Eventually we came to a very small town. It was there that I first realized why many have dubbed that area "Trappist Kentucky". Several of the houses had statues of Jesus, Mary and Saints on their lawns. We went underneath a bridge where there was a makeshift shrine to the Mother of God, complete with a beautiful, tall statue of the Virgin Mary and flowers all around it. At the center of this town was a fairly large Catholic church that was filled to capacity for Easter Sunday. Everyone who lived there was probably at that church.

Once you get through it, all you see is miles of forests. It was strikingly beautiful. And then, suddenly, you come upon the great Abbey of Gethsemani; looming like an enormous fortress, almost as though it were something out of the middle ages. It was overwhelming just to be there in this sacred space. As a light rain fell, I walked the grounds.

Finally the bells began to ring and I knew it was time for Mass to begin. As I made my way up to the church, I came across the gated entrance to the monk's private area where I saw a sign that read "God Alone." I lingered there, staring at those words that had been carved so long ago. Those two simple words, to me, reflected the monastic ideal. When one enters into the monastery; they leave the world behind, they leave the life that they knew behind; relying on "God Alone." Moreover, they leave that false sense of self behind, the self that says "I am this" or "I am that"; the self that says I am a collection of my striving, a collection of the things that we possess, or the worldly titles by which we identify ourselves. One is stripped of all that they thought they were as they enter here, leaving nothing but "God Alone." I sighed heavily. If only I could reach that point myself. If only I could open those gates and cross over into that threshold of "God Alone." Everything that I am is as nothing before the truth of those two words.

As I entered the church I happened to pass by a couple of the monks. They nodded at me in silent greeting. They do not speak. I took my seat next to my wife and the Mass began as the monks took their places in the choir loft, which is the picture shown here. They began with the chanting of the Hours. At this point, tears were just streaming down my face. I love Gregorian Chant. To hear it in person like that just set my soul ablaze; it was as though I was hearing the music of heaven itself. It makes me laugh to think about Merton's journals; that he had so many complaints with the chanting; how they would be out of tune or someone would sing the wrong lines! They sounded good to me!! The Mass itself was phenomenal, and my overall experience there was one of enormous importance. I carry the Abbey with me in my heart, and I hope to return there someday on a full retreat.

It also got me thinking about the monastic way of life and how important it is for us today. I know the various monastic orders, both in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions have seen dwindling numbers over the years. Their influence seems to have waned a bit as well. There are many reasons for this.

One, I think is because they are often misunderstood. You think of a monk and the first thing that comes to mind is someone who has 'given up' the world' and shut themselves away from it. This isn't the case. Historically, it was the monks who were primarily responsible both for the spread of Christianity and the preservation of Christianity in the middle ages. In more recent times, I think of villages in Greece and Russia where the monks would go into towns and teach the people; or the people would come to them for advice. 

And speaking personally, I had the privilege of befriending a Greek Orthodox monk and learning from a book discussion group of all things! He was far from 'cloistered!' The Father was always travelling around, seeing people, ministering and assisting in the local Orthodox Churches. 

The second major reason why I see the influence of Monasticism dwindling; and this is a bold statement coming from a Methodist (!) is because of Protestantism! While the Reformation succeeded in some areas; it failed drastically in others. And one of those key areas of failure is the interior spiritual life of the individual. Protestantism has always emphasized two things; study of the Bible and corporate worship. Click on the website of just about any Protestant or Evangelical Church and you will quickly see the emphasis on the 'coming together in the Body of Christ' and the corporate nature of worship. I am not saying this is bad! What I am saying is that for centuries we have seen the emphasis on the one, to the exclusion of the other. Martin Luther had been a monk. But after his battles with the Catholic Church, he rejected monasticism completely. He saw it as false piety. John Calvin took it even further. 

In his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion he first (wrongly) asserts that monasticism was unknown to the early church. While it is true that monasticism did not exist in the Apostolic Age; the precursor or the ideal of monasticism was most certainly present. The ministry of Jesus was a public one; yes, but people forget that he went off into seclusion to pray on more than one occasion. He went into the wilderness to be tempted; which in turn became the mission of the early ascetics. They retreated into the desert to battle their own demons and the false self. If Jesus Himself was the model; then how can we rightly say its presence was absent? Next, Calvin tears them apart with accusations of corruption and false humility. He says that monks were guilty of a crime if "any one color deviates in the least degree from the prescribed form in color or species of dress" and that to be a contemplative meant a "life of idleness." 

"[M]onks place the principal part of their holiness in idleness. For if you take away their idleness, where will that contemplative life by which they glory that they excel all others, and make a near approach to the angels?… [I]nstead of Christians, we hear some called Benedictines, others Franciscans, others Dominicans, and so called, that while they affect to be distinguished from the common body of Christians, they proudly substitute these names for a religious profession…"

His judgment on monasticism gets worse...

"It is fine to philosophise in seclusion, far away from the intercourse of society; but it ill accords with Christian meekness for any one, as if in hatred of the human race, to fly to the wilderness and to solitude, and at the same time desert the duties which the Lord has especially commanded.
Were we to grant that there was nothing worse in that profession, there is certainly no small evil in its having introduced a useless and perilous example into the Church."
 So there you have it. A complete and total condemnation of monasticism from one of the 'godfathers' of Protestantism. This was the theological equivalent of dropping an Atom Bomb on the monastic orders and the monastic ideal; and that radiation has seeped its way into all forms of Protestantism ever since.
Now Calvin had some good points. There was corruption. There were monks who wanted to completely flee from society, as though the people were somehow their lessers. But one should condemn the practice not the institution. The monasteries needed to be reformed. Thomas Merton talked about this even in the 50s and 60s; how monks should be standing for social justice and actively condemning the Vietnam War and advocating peace. His own writings were censored several times for being too 'vocal' or 'provocative'. There is good and bad with every institution, however. Did Luther and Calvin think, for example, that their writings and words would give birth to literally thousands of different denominations? Would they have seen such a thing as a goal? Certainly not! 
But because of such bad theology in this case; most Protestants have lost out on the wise teachings of a whole tradition. The closest thing Protestantism has had to a monastic order was the short lived group known as the Shakers, from about 1774-1932. But they were outcasts. Mainstream Protestant Christians rarely accepted them. The influence of Calvin spread that far!
I sometimes wonder if the Protestant emphasis on 'corporate worship' is because subconsciously we fear being alone in a room by ourselves; subconsciously I think we  all fear the wilderness and the desert of the ascetics. Why go out into the wilderness and wrestle with God all night like Jacob when we can instead safely sit in the pews for an hour; then return to our 'normal' lives? 
I would argue that while corporate worship is indeed important; that retreat into the wilderness, that cultivation of an interior life is equally as important; in fact I would say it's exactly what we need today.  In our modern age; people are driven to distraction. We run an endless rat race from which we can never seem to slow down. Who has time for God? Who has time for practicing spiritual disciplines? Who has time for quiet, contemplative prayer? 
Indeed, the monastic way of life would have much to teach us, if we could but slow down for a moment to listen. Imagine, not a life that is idle; but unhurried. A life that retreats from the world so that it can learn to truly love the world. This is the true monastic ideal; and in our fast paced, frantic and hurried lives, we need to hear that voice. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend the movie Into Great Silence, about life inside a Carthusian Monastery. When you see the profound simplicity of their lives; it will stop you in your tracks and make you think about your own walk with God. I have provided a link to the trailer of it at the end of this post. Check it out, it will seem out of this world!
In ages past, ascetics and monks would retreat into the desert to draw nearer to God. Today, we must bring that desert into ourselves. The desert must become part of our hearts, our souls. Now how do we do that, though? There will be more on this to come....

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Belief in the Unseen

I was asked yesterday in a friendly discussion how I "could believe in a God that is unseen", and indeed; why would I need such a belief at all to be a "good human being?" These were very good questions; questions that I once wrestled with myself as an atheist. 

The basic idea is this: something needs to be seen to be believed in; a thing cannot be true unless we are able to verify it empirically. Religion, then, was something that 'primitive' man used to cope with the forces around them. A flash of lightning streaks across the night sky and the people tremble. The rains fall, the crops bear fruit, and the people give thanks. Because 'primitive' man did not understand the world around them, they had to attribute these forces to something supernatural, to something unseen. This is why in primitive mythologies 'the gods' were most often seen as elemental forces. The priests and shamans were seen as holy men and women that could interact with those forces and serve as intermediaries between the people and the gods. 

Fast forwarding a bit; as the middle ages gave birth to the Enlightenment, man's thinking began to shift from the supernatural to the sciences and from the unseen to the seen. The view of a personal and knowable God that once dominated the thought of theologians and philosophers gradually gave way to a deist version of God; a God who is a divine watchmaker that set the universe in motion, but is altogether unknowable. 

But it was the Modern era that forever shifted our thinking towards the unseen. Man had progressed to new heights. Our achievements in industrialization, technology, the arts and the sciences (among other things), left us with a world that no longer needed the supernatural to explain the nature of things. Nietzsche, who was seen as a precursor to Modernism famously proclaimed that 'god is dead, and we have killed him'. It was his view and that of many other philosophers of the time that religion and God was the invention of man. Man had needed a God to explain the world. Man had needed a God to derive a system of ethics from which to guide the masses. Science had taken us beyond that point and man could now create their own morality.

In this way, belief in the supernatural was seen as irrational. If it cannot be seen; it is not there. But is this view as sensible as it sounds? I would argue that it presents us with a logical fallacy. If I make the statement "a thing cannot be true unless it is empirically verifiable", then by reason of my own argument what I just said cannot be true! I am unable to empirically verify that statement; I have no way of measuring whether it's true or it isn't. 

Huston Smith likens science to a searchlight beam probing the night sky. "For a plane to register, two things are required: it must exist, and it must be where the beam is." Science can illumine our understanding certainly; but it can only do that at fixed points. It is a powerful beam, but it does not light up the entire night sky. Science can't answer questions like "why am I here?" and "does life have meaning?" 

And ultimately; neither can I if I believe that there is no objective reality or universal truths. I am left only with the sum total of my subjective experiences. The Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer put it this way: "Without the infinite-personal God, all a person can do as Nietzsche points out, is to make “systems.” In today’s speech we would call them “game plans.” A person can erect some sort of structure, some type of limited frame, in which he lives, shutting himself up in that frame and not looking beyond it. This game plan can be one of a number of things. It can sound high and noble, such as talking in an idealistic way about the greatest good for the greatest number. Or it can be a scientist concentrating on some small point of science so that he does not have to think of any of the big questions, such as why things exist at all”.

In a materialistic culture we would define that 'game plan' as achieving personal wealth and satisfaction. One could argue that this is the 'greatest good' of our postmodern society. Just as we can only believe in what is seen, we can only measure self-worth by what we possess. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements for the latest, greatest things. We stand in line for hours for the latest gadget. We seek romantic love as perhaps the highest ideal, because we think that it will somehow validate us. But as Pastor Timothy Keller suggests; all we have done is attach ultimate meaning to conditional 'things.' We have made our own false gods.

Religion warns us against such views. In the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism; we are taught that our suffering comes from our attachments. Buddhists see the things of this life as transitory; as "passing phenomena." There is nothing wrong with seeking a happy life. All of us want that. But at the same time; we cannot attach ultimate meaning to conditional states of being, because as the Buddha says, "there are no permanent states of being." The Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible echoes this truth; likening man's relentless pursuits for material pleasure and wealth as "chasing after the wind". But if we cannot hold onto external things or even our own states of being; is there anything we can hold onto?

I would argue yes; that we can hold onto the very thing that the Modernists were so quick to deny; the unseen. This is why the Lord said to 
"lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal." Just because the searchlight beam of scientism cannot find this unseen reality in the night sky doesn't mean it isn't there. Religion teaches us that reality is much bigger and much greater than what we can comprehend spatially.

Still, this is not something that is easy for us to do. In postmodern thought, religious belief is seen as taking "a leap of faith"; as though we are somehow moving from the rational to the irrational. This was an error of some of our own theologians in the 20th century; divorcing belief from the rational. It is more a product of Existentialism than it is traditional religious belief. Our greatest saints from ages past would have never held such a view. For them, belief in the unseen was not only rational; but super-rational. The things of God; the eternal, the infinite, transcends our perception altogether. This is why the Mystics have always said that we must put on a "Cloud of Unknowing" to truly seek God. We must empty ourselves of our own sense of perception so that He might fill us.

But again; this is difficult for us to do. The question, as in my discussion yesterday ultimately becomes "if God is real, then why doesn't He reveal Himself?" We say "If God revealed Himself, then I would believe." This is a sound objection. I wrestled with that same issue for many years. Now as a Christian, I certainly believe that God has revealed Himself in revelation; both in His Word and in creation. The fact that I exist at all is a 'sign' to me. But what if we had an even more direct revelation? What if the voice of God suddenly bellowed from the Heavens, "I am here", would it really help?

All one has to do is study the Sacred history of the three great Abrahamic faiths to see that this is not the case. God parts the Red Sea and leads the Israelites out of Egypt and feeds them with Manna on their journey. Yet when Moses goes up on the mountain, the people begin to build idols for themselves. In Islam, the Polytheist tribes made war on the early Muslims; and yet the Muslims won battle after battle even when they were hopelessly outnumbered. But so many still refused to believe that the One God was on their side. The Holy Koran says "And they swear their strongest oaths by Allah that if a sign come to them they would certainly believe in it. Say: signs are with Allah. And what should make you know that when they come, they believe not?"

I can think of no greater example than when hearing of the appearances of the risen Lord; Thomas still refused to believe. It wasn't until he placed his hands on the wounds of Jesus that he was finally able to believe. Thomas, I think, represents our human condition. We are hardwired to believe in God and the unseen on the one hand because it is the Image of God reflected in us; but at the same time our fallen and broken nature rebels against that and refuses to believe without 'signs.' In that sense, our very nature is in a perpetual state of conflict. Even when the miraculous is in our midst, we still struggle to believe.

That is why the Lord says to Thomas after he touched Him: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

This is the essence of our faith. It is not a belief that is irrational; rather it is a belief that transcends our own limited understanding. If God were to shout from the heavens demanding us to worship Him; it wouldn't be faith and mankind wouldn't be free. The unseen reality is there; but God gives us the choice to believe in it or not.

God does not speak to us in a booming voice from the heavens, He speaks to us in a whisper. He speaks not as a roaring lion, but as a gentle wind rustling in the trees. Let us strive to hear that small voice; for we are blessed because we have not seen and yet we believe...