Monday, April 30, 2012

Look Out! I'm Holdin' Trump

Back in my college days (yes, yet again) we enjoyed getting together on Friday nights to play Rook.  For those of you who don't know the game, it's a trick taking card game in which a trump suit is declared each hand, and the rook card, while having the highest point value, is always the lowest trump.  The object is to make the most points.  Rook is the ultimate poor-man's bridge--mostly a luck game with just a tinge of necessary card sense to make it interesting.

One evening my friend Pat had committed his partnership to take all the points to win the hand; as with "shooting the moon" in hearts, such a bid in Rook is a perilous proposition.  Well, Pat lacked what would become the key trump card, and he lost the bid.  Pat silently pushed himself away from the table, went up a short flight of stairs, out the front door, closed it behind him, shouted at the top of his voice "Why Me?" to an unsuspecting neighborhood, returned to the table without comment, and resumed the game.

In my blog last week you were privy to a comment I had sent to RJS, who blogs on Scott McKnight's site, regarding the question, "Is theology the queen of all sciences?"  She graciously responded to my comments, and expressed her qualified agreement as a summary statement of some of her other commenters: "Theology is the queen of the sciences because it is the lens through which we see everything and because we are seeking God, even in the study of nature. But this is not the way it is generally used when it comes up in conversation. I think people tend to use it as a trump - and this doesn't seem quite right to me."

I agree with her completely; truth and the destiny of souls is not a matter of card game tactics.  Unfortunately, we Christians can sometimes act that way.  For example, we might obstinately respond to any inquiry or comment about the earth being older than 6K years by playing the trump card that the Bible says six days, not realizing that the data just cannot allow for such a short time, nor consider the possibility that both the Bible and the old earth data could be right.  

At least three motivations can account for playing the trump card in the manner the person did in the above scenario: 1) fear that making any accommodations to the facts might undermine his/her faith, 2) the belief that science and theology are inimical, and 3) the person wants to win the argument.  One could conceive others, of course, but the point is theology was used incorrectly with the idea that any argument would appear tantamount to saying God doesn't tell the truth.  The trump card is therefore "God said it, I didn't" which ends the discussion.

To be fair, scientists can play this card game.  I have been catching up on all the research concerning evolution.  It hasn't taken long for me to see that different groups of reputable scientists can all look at the same comprehensive data, come to the same general conclusions, and yet offer divergent explanations.  Despite this, some end up playing the trump card "It's a fact."  So, for example, they play this trump concerning the evolution of human beings with the result that the singleness of Adam and Eve is no longer an option, and everyone must seek alternative explanations for the unambiguous Biblical claims.  But from my vantage point--and I could yet be proven wrong--no one is left standing holding a smoking gun on any of the issues concerning evolution or creation.  Nevertheless the trump has been played, and the conversation is terminated.

At least three motivations can account for scientists playing their trump card: 1) fear of not being accepted by their peers, 2) lost objectivity from being controlled by their presuppositions, and 3) the person wants to win the argument.

Other motivations could be behind both of the above trump plays. And yes, they can be the same for the different players.  I know the ones I have suggested are true because, unfortunately, I have been guilty of each one at some point in my life.  And I'm certain I'm not unique.

Some trump cards are completely true.  But even in those cases, RJS's concern is that they are often not played properly.  And I have the same concern.  True trump cards should never be played to threaten, or to intimidate, but as an assurance--to benefit the other person.

When Jesus confronted the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), He certainly could've played the "Your going to rot in hell for all your sinfulness" card.  It's a true trump card.  Instead, Jesus played a different equally true trump "Today, something marvelous is happening. God--your God, my God--is fulfilling His promises.  He's bringing about a new creation.  Come! follow Me and be a part of it.  Enter his kingdom where we neither worship here nor over there, but together in Spirit and truth."  Jesus didn't play trump as much as He offered trump to her.  He did this by reaching  out with a hand of mercy past the prejudices of her day (i.e. her gender and nationality).  He even exposed her sins, not as condemnation but confirmation that the trump He handed her was a real assurance.  The woman saw Jesus as credible because He knew her life and  the trump priceless because He loved her, anyway.   She would recognize her own sinfulness in the light of the hope of redemption Jesus said to be at the door.

Why do we easily forget this account of our Lord?  We tend to play trump in the rage of battle, under the auspices of our prejudices, with the aim of personal vindication.  We forget "knowledge puffs up; love edifies."  I'm certain my friend Pat would have felt much better if his partner had played the missing trump that night because it would have relieved a whole lot of stress and made his partnerships' victory  more certain.  Instead his opponent played the card to destroy him.  The trump card was identical in either event, what happened that night depended on who held it, which, of course, would determine how it would be played.  Alas, such is the way of card games.  But life is no card game.  When we stand before Christ, the question before us will be "Did you play  to win or so the other person would win?"  We should take this seriously because I can hear our Lord warning us: "Look out! I'm holdin' trump."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Does the Tail Wag the Dog?

A must read for everyone, particularly in our present troubled world, is the recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. No doubt, you will find many discussions prompted by this book in my future blogs. I have also been following conversations on the Scot McKnight blog site, The Jesus Creed, concerning theistic evolution, the crux of which is the question: Is science the dog or the dog's tail [my words, not theirs]? The Bonhoeffer biography quoted an excerpt from Goebbels' private diary concerning some of Hitler's perspectives on the subject of science and the church I felt extremely informative to the whole issue of science and theology--particularly from the standpoint of the question most recently raised in the discussion on Scot's blog: Is theology the queen of all sciences? Or in my parlance: Does the dog wag its tail, or is it the other way around?

 Here's what Goebbels recorded Hitler to say:

"It is simply incomprehensible how anybody can consider the Christian doctrine of redemption as a guide for the difficult life of today. The Fuehrer cited a number of exceptionally drastic and in part even grotesque examples.... Whereas the most learned and wisest scientists struggle for a whole lifetime to study but one of the mysterious laws of nature, a little country priest from Bavaria is in the position to decide the matter on the basis for his religious knowledge. One can regard such a disgusting performance only with distain. A church that does not keep step with modern scientific knowledge is doomed. It may take quite a while, but it is bound finally to happen. Anybody who is firmly rooted in daily life and who can only faintly imagine the mystic secrets of nature, will naturally be extremely modest about the universe. The clerics, however, who have not caught a breadth of such modesty, evidence a sovereign opinionated attitude toward questions of the universe."

Here's how I use it to answer the question regarding theology as the queen of science:

We see a Trojan horse in Hitler's opinions: the horse being this grandiose notion of humility that the crackpot Bavarian priest had long since abandoned to his narrow-minded hubris. But what's inside the horse is an even "grander"--and I use the term loosely--arrogance: that science will ultimately determine all thought and will therefore be the doom of the church. Hitler certainly didn't see theology as the queen of anything except maybe weakness.

And what was the outcome when science was released from the authority of the love and holiness of God (what I would call keeping theology queen or king of all thought)? We see that Hitler and his henchmen systematically began eliminating everything from the German society that had kept it weak and inefficient. This was Darwinism at its best; from a pure scientific materialism, which is science free of theological constraints, Hitler was completely right (even this word has imported theological content, sorry) in what he did. If one wants to subject all knowledge and thought to the litmus of science then you will get Hitler, and one better not complain about it because at least Hitler lived his worldview.

No doubt I will be viewed by the Einsteins of the world as a crackpot and a reactionary. Actually I am a practitioner of the feedback approach to growing in my faith. By this I mean I openly consider all new evidence, scientific or not, to better understand God's revelation to us and what it means to be a kingdom dweller. Indeed, I wouldn't be engaged in this "conversation" if it wasn't for the fact the famous scientist, Francis Collins, makes some compelling arguments for evolution in his book, The Language of God. When I first started engaging in Scot's blog I was vilified (not by Scot or the person, RJS, who has actually been posting the blog on his site) in so many words for being narrow-minded and shutting down the conversation, when in reality I was and still am trying to focus the conversation on what it needs to be. I am no great scientist of the category of RJS, who is a Professor of Physical Chemistry, and Collins. But I will point out that it wasn't science that brought Collins to Christ but the realities of a transcendent morality and his own inescapable sinfulness; both of which science is completely silent, but theology speaks volumes. Furthermore, as I have said before, I do think Collins, whom I do admire, places too much importance on science when he makes statements like "I cannot believe God would put junk DNA in the genome...."[not an exact quotation] That's hubris! Whenever we start to tell God what is reasonable or not is arrogance--and I say the same to dogmatic theologians who make the same type arguments. Interestingly, Collins made these comments in 2006, I understand that there is now data to suggest the so-called junk DNA is not really junk (I could be wrong because I haven't investigated these new claims).

I have been studying science since the seventh grade. When my wife was sifting through all my old lab equipment, she found my notebook where I wrote down my observations of protozoa and ideas to transfer the nuclei from one species to another. She found a paper I had written in the eighth grade on bacteriophages; when she discovered I wrote it for my own amusement, she became a little worried. :) Until my Junior year of college I was a hard core microbiologist (I went on to become an organic chemist); in fact, the department head had me teach the microbiology course until they could secure a professor for the course. I also remember the required debate between the evolutionists and the creationists at the end of the evolution course I took in 1975. What a circus! Later, I spoke with my evolution professor in private, where he admitted that there really had been a flood as described in the Bible. I asked him why he didn't consider other things the Bible teaches. He said, "Well, I can't do that?" I asked, "Why?" And he answered, "Because I'm a scientist." Once again, science trumped theology at the expense of truth.

The battle I've been fighting since my college days has been against the idea that life is a chance event, which is the faith statement--whether they are willing to admit it or not--of all atheists. Okay, now the argument is where does evolution fit in since we all know that God used it to create the biosphere. We came to this point, didn't we, because theology informed the science? So isn't theology the queen of all science and thought?

At this point I don't care. May I remind us that Jesus said, "Unless you come to me like a child you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." And "I thank you Father that you choose to reveal these things to children..." And "If you love me, you will do what I say." And "If you save your own life, you will lose it...." And "Come to me all who weary and heavy burdened and learn from me...." And "What does it matter, you follow me." And "I am the way the truth and the life..." And "Without me you can do nothing...." And "Seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added unto you..." And when someone asked Jesus if only a few would be saved, what did he say? Did he say, only those who have figured out how I made the universe, and have learned how not to look foolish before their peers, and who see science as supreme and governor of all thought, wisdom, and knowledge, such as these are those who will be saved? Not hardly. It won't be the people who get all the concepts correct and rally around his moralism and shout "Preach it, brother!" who shall be saved, but everyone who seeks to please him by loving him first by obeying him and so love others as he loved them who shall know Christ and be known by him, and so enter his kingdom through the narrow door.

The Gospel is this: Jesus is King because He is alive, and salvation is to serve King Jesus in His kingdom by faith alone (believe, trust, and obey). And the work of the kingdom is to be a light unto the Gentiles so that salvation can be brought to all the earth.

So what is the value of science? In the new earth and heaven, where God dwells with us as we with Him in holiness and love and we do what we were created to do--to be stewards of the cosmos--I believe science will play a pivotal role. We will be learning about the properties and laws of the universe so we can properly discharge our duties. But such learning will no longer be fettered by pride, biases, darkness of a fallen nature, etc, rather it will be held subject to holiness and driven by God's love, and therefore remain true and complete knowledge. Therefore, we should strive, today as true dwellers of the Kingdom of God--that I might add is now and forever shall be--to practice and speak of science always in subjection to the tension of holiness and love; this is God's world, so, yes, theology is the queen of all sciences. The dog wags his tail.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Night at the Movies

This week I thought we could all do with a bit of merriment; so I would like to relate another story from my college days: a long time ago, in a place far, far away. If you have already heard this story, I apologize; if you have heard it several times before, what can I say? It's a first sign of old age. You will find no moral here beyond the obvious one, so sit back and enjoy.

We went to the movies almost on a weekly basis during our college days back in the seventies. Pretty much the only thing to do in Colorado Springs was eat pizza and go to movies; when we had the green, we did both. We seemed enthralled with many of the productions; although, looking back, I can't tell you why. It is my opinion that films shot in the seventies haven't held up well over time. My friends and I have discussed this curious phenomenon, and can only figure that decade had a mandate to preach, and what it preached is no longer relevant to anyone except maybe Billy Jack and the few remaining burned-out geriatrics of his fan club (actually Billy Jack was the character's name; I don't recall the actor's name). Even iconic films such as Star Wars have grown somewhat long in the tooth. No doubt some movies from that decade might be termed classics, but compared to other decades, I would say they are few and far between.

Another film of great popularity in its time, but probably lost on most people today, was Jaws. I loved it because my girlfriend dug her nails into my thigh and clung to me during the tense parts, which there were many; Jaws was a wonderful date movie. It was also a blockbuster, and as with most all such films, it spawned several sequels--no pun intended (get it? white shark--fish--reproduction). And of course, we were sucker enough to attend those sequels.

As a rule I'm pretty tolerant of people's rudeness--some might say too accommodating--even while watching a movie. We didn't have cellphones back then, of course, but people don't need advanced technology to be obnoxious; all they require is a good set of lungs and a pair of vocal chords.

My friends and I always sought the eighth row center for watching a movie at the theater; this was considered optimum for viewing. It was no different when we sat down for the first sequel of Jaws (I don't recall the title, and I'm too lazy to look it up). My friend Pat got the coveted center seat, that night. I sat to his left, and to my left sat the female half of a thirty-something couple. I don't remember much about them except the woman talked incessantly during the show--and I mean incessantly. The poor dear was probably terrified--I suspect her husband had to drag her there--but instead of clutching her husband to manage her fear, she assailed him--and the rest of us--with an endless litany of questions. In no time, her interminable prattle grew tiresome. I became desperate for a kind way to shut her up. The plot of the movie eventually provided me the answer.

Here's what happened.

Woman: "what's that?"
Husband: "it's a handgun."
Woman: "what kind is it?"
Husband: "I don't know. I think it's a 357."
Woman: "does he think he can kill the shark with that?"
Husband: "I suppose."
Woman: "what's that he's got?"
Husband: "they're bullets."
Woman: "what's he doing?"
Husband: "he's putting something in the hollow-points."
Woman: "what is it?"
Husband: "poison."
Woman: "why is he doing that?"
Husband: "so he can shoot the shark and kill it."
Woman: "what kind of poison is it?"
Husband: "I don't know. Cyanide, I think."
Woman: "what does that do?"

At this point I lost my patience and leaning toward the woman I said, "it ties up cytochrome oxidase A of the electron transport system."

....enter the blissful chorus of chirping crickets. The movie hardly warranted my hard won undivided attention, but, hey, what else is a poor college student to do on a Friday night?

See you all next week. God bless.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Tiger and Me

Many of you probably witnessed or at least read about the antics of Tiger Woods during the Friday round of the Masters golf tournament. I as many of you--if the sports press is at all representative--was apalled and disgusted by his immature tantrums. It was quite easy for me to join the throng sitting in the stands of the great arena of Augusta in turning my thumb downwards as the once great gladiator forfieted his virtues. It would not be an overstatement to admit a certain satisfaction in doing so. But when I looked into the eyes of our risen Lord, it was plain to see I am a fraud.

There is only one good reason to celebrate Tiger's downfall, and that is the hope that perhaps this time he would come to see that his selfish-ambition/conceit isn't working for him; indeed, as with all of us, it is slowly extracting his soul. Thus, the term 'celebrate' is a wrong one I use in this case purely for effect. The destruction of any human being is nothing to celebrate. God does not want that any person should perish, but to repent (i.e., change one's mind--turn around and go the other way) and be healed. This should be our sole objective and desire if we call ourselves followers of Christ. Unfortunately, this was not my default motivation this past weekend--particularly disturbing because of the weekend it was.

No, a few non-virtuous attitudes drove my passions this weekend before mercy managed to fight its way to the top. First, I liked seeing him fail because I saw it as justice for cheating on his wife and not really being contrite about it. Second, remembering all those arrogent sportos of my childhood who made my life miserable during Junior high school, I enjoyed seeing them humiliated vicariously through the once great golfer. Lastly, and perhaps most despicable of all, as one frustrated by his own inability to attain the standard he aspires to, I felt a little satisfaction at watching such a great talent fail to reach his.

I can hear some of my good friends now: "Oh, quit your whining--leave the pity party, PLEASE; it's very unbecoming." But it's not that at all. I suppose a little of self stills creeps in even during the type of self-examination you are made privy here; it's inescapable because of the depth of the fall that Christ is redeeming us from. But we will never be redeemed if we are unwilling to consider those motivations the Holy Spirit exposes as unhealthy; this is how the grace of transformation works; it is at the core of Saint Paul's admonition to us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We all need, daily, to open the ledgers of our lives and read what's written in the margins because these are God's annotations. The main text is what we have written, and if we dwell there all we will see is our perspective. And our perspective will always make us out the hero and the martyr. But God's notes tell us the truth about ourselves, with the object of our reclamation.

My self-disclosure is not self-pity but an open confession: a first step in repentance, and a call to my friends to hold me accountable to what God has taught me about myself this past weekend that--I need not remind you--commemorated both His death and resurrection. It is also meant to encourage my readers to stop and listen to the entreaties of the Holy Spirit that work to perfect them in holiness and love if they will listen and obey. Finally, this blog serves once again as a call to all of us to extend the hand of mercy and not condemnation to those we encounter who continue to walk in darkness.

It is not about us so much, my dear friends, but King Jesus who wants everyone to enter his kingdom and dwell with Him forever.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Christ is Risen! He's Risen, Indeed!

Easter is less than a week away. The apex of the church calender is upon us; the celebration of the climax of history is about to come as it does each year. God because of His great love for us took on flesh and dwelled among us. Jesus Christ who is both perfect man and perfect God walked with us and taught us, and was arrested, crucified and buried on the cusp of Passover. On the third day, Sunday and the beginning of the new week, God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus ascended in to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father as King of God's kingdom forever and ever. This is the Gospel: Jesus is King. And if we acknowledge Him as our king and therefore follow Him, we enter into His kingdom that is our salvation: we are forgiven and live by Him in the power of His Holy Spirit forever, accomplishing what God has purposed for us as dwellers of His kingdom. God has proven His faithfulness to His covenant promise to Abraham; God has restored His kingdom through the faithfulness of His Son on the cross. And we know all of this is true because Jesus is alive! Jesus is risen; He is risen, indeed. For this reason Easter should be the most revered day on anyone's calender.

It's interesting, however, that unlike Christmas,Easter falls on a different day each year. You'd think Easter being the day of days--so to speak--would have been fixed in stone. Actually, in the last century there had been talk of holding Easter on the 2nd Sunday of April. It never materialized. So why does it change?

The exact day for Easter is determined on a complex set of calculations based on golden number and epacts. The former is the number given to designate the position of a given year in Meton's cycle of nineteen years--Meton being the Greek astronomer who constructed the calendar on the basis of the fact that every nineteen solar years equals almost perfectly 235 lunar months. One can calculate the golden number for a given year by dividing by 19 and adding 1 to the remainder; hence, the golden number for 2012 is 18. Epacts are the number of days difference between a given lunar year and a given solar year. The number starts off at 11 days, and increases by 11 each new solar year to determine the day of the lunar year. When the epact reaches 30 days, a month is chucked into the lunar calendar, and the epacts are reduced by thirty. Clear as mud? Me too. Thus, one calculates the day for Easter using these numbers purely on the basis of the calendars, not celestial observation--the age of the moon is based on the calendar. Based on the calculations, Easter will occur on the Sunday after the full moon on or after the vernal equinox (March 21) and so will occur on a Sunday any time between March 22 and April 25.

It's interesting to note that there was a disagreement in the second century church regarding the whether Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday or always at Jewish passover which always occurs fourteen days after Nisan (the Hebrew month of Aviv), and could be any day of the week. Those who opted for passover were called Quatrodecimans (i.e., fourteen). Saint Polycarp, who was the last person in the second century to have actually studied under an original apostle (i.e., the apostle John) claimed John said the resurrection should be celebrated on passover. Polycarp even went to Rome to convince the Bishop (Pope) of Rome at the time. But the church ultimately repudiated the Quatrodecimans and has celebrated Easter on a Sunday ever since.

In my opinion the whole brouhaha was largely political. The church wanted to completely divest itself from the Jews, which was a horrible mistake (see Romans 11) that only in recent times it has started to reverse. On the other hand, from a theological point of view I can understand both the Quatrodecimans and their opponents' positions. The former had correctly seen the intimate connection between the passover and Christ's resurrection. The passover, penultimate to the exodus of Israel from their exile in Eqypt, prefigured our permanent exodus from our (Jew and Gentile, alike) exile in death, through the Death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus' last words on the cross were, "It is finished." We lose something in the translation. The Greek is actually in the perfect tense (lit., "It has been finished"), which means (to the Greek) the result of what happened remains forever after it happened. What Jesus accomplished on the cross is permanent; we who acknowledge Him as our king will live through Him forever in His kingdom. I can easily see why the Quatrodecimans would be anxious to retain this powerful imagery and tie Easter with the Passover.

But I can also understand those who opposed the Quatrodecimans. Jesus was not raised on just any day of the week, but on Sunday, the beginning of a new week. I haven't researched this, so please chime in, but the resurrection happening on the first day of the new week could be symbolic of the seventieth week spoken of by the prophet Daniel (see Dan. 9:20-27). It would be the final week when Christ's kingdom, ushered in by His death and resurrection, coexists with the fallen world as God fully restores Israel into His kingdom through much tribulation--the time we are in now. If so, apart from the simple fact the resurrection occurred on Sunday, celebrating Easter on Sunday also potentially carries important theological imagery. Whether or not those upholding Easter Sunday understood all this, or if I'm even on the right track, remains to be seen.

It's sad the church treated the Quatrodecimans so harshly in the end. They hadn't excommunicated Polycarp and the Quatrodecimans of his time. Saint Irenaeus, who, interestingly enough because he studied under Polycarp, did not support the Quatrodeciman position, went to Rome to petition for leniency. They wouldn't capitulate, and the Quatrodeciman movement died out soon after that.

So what's my point? Easter, regardless of when we celebrate it, is the day on which God liberated us from our exile in death to be a kingdom with Him. The purpose of the kingdom during this seventieth week is to be a light to both the Jews who are our brothers and sisters--the apple of God's eye--and the rest of humanity who are desperately in need of King Jesus. In short, God showed great mercy to us, we must show great mercy not only to each other within the kingdom, but to every one still on the outside, so they might turn and be healed. We must remember that only Jesus matters, not our pet ideas, constructs, theories, doctrines, festival days and alike. We will only remain in the kingdom of God if we keep our eyes fixed on the king; for He is risen! He is risen, indeed!