Monday, June 25, 2012

Science on Human Conflict

The May 18, 2012 edition of the  premiere scientific journal, Science, had a special section on human conflict.  I am still reading it--very interesting.  Of course, I immediately jumped to the paper on page 855 entitled, Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict, by S. Atran and J. Ginges.

Their opening thesis states that people will kill and die for the "moral conception they form of themselves, of 'who we are'".  Religion serves to galvanize peoples, especially during times of stress or pending death.  They point out that the belief systems typically override logic or conflicting evidence.

According to their sources religion may have evolved to enable groups to survive in environments of intense competition for resources etc.  Alternatively, religion may have arisen as a sort of byproduct of forces of natural selection, where a sort of angst (my word) is felt and responded to, even if not verifiable because it is "better safe than sorry."

Researchers now see that latter concept developing as part of cultural evolution rather than on a more individualistic level.  They say that evidence suggests that early humans who existed in small clusters didn't develop all-powerful/all-seeing concepts of deities.  Only when humans clustered in larger groups in response to competition did more sophisticated gods and rituals develop.  And the intensity and degree of sacrifice to these gods were proportional to the outside factors threatening the breakup of these communities.

A particularly interesting finding--and contrary to what is commonly asserted by the "New-Atheists"--only a minority of recorded wars can be attributed to religion.  They point out that religion has actually had a humanizing effect on human society.  They point out specifically that Christianity rose to power in the Roman empire because of its sacrifice in caring for the pagans during the several plagues that besot the empire.

It is this last point--now confirmed by secularists--that I wish to briefly consider here.  The early Christians clearly followed Jesus' mandate; they acted as the kingdom dwellers they were.  One thing this article does not say about this is not only did those Christians die along side the diseased pagans they lovingly cared for, but they were also persecuted by the pagans who saw the plagues as punishment from the Roman gods because the Christians stubbornly resisted worshiping them.  The Christians were not sacrificing themselves as a weapon against aggression or as a means of aggression against competitive forces (such as we see today with suicide bombers), but out of devotion to their risen Lord.  This is quite different from the evolutionary motivations suggested in the article.

We should be no different than our early Christian ancestors; nothing has changed; we remain a part of God's kingdom if we truly profess Jesus the Christ as Lord and King.  Yet, today, I see a neglect of the gospel by professing Christians.  I propose this has happened because many have forgotten that they are dwellers of God's kingdom that came into being at the death and resurrection of Christ, and have replaced it with a self-serving Christianity.  As a result they are turning to secular forces in the world to realize what they see as Christian goals.  Taking this tack, they are turning Christianity into another religious force we see described in the above-mentioned article--that is, they are making Christianity a means of protecting their community from other competing communities, instead of wooing other communities through acts of mercy and justice to join the kingdom of God.

The primary difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world is the modus operandi of always responding to evil with good, rather than with evil--to love our enemies instead of hating them.  The early Christians understood this and real justice (order) came to the unjust world because of their obedience to Jesus in this--at least for a time.  We would do well to repent from our current trajectory and return to the gospel of the kingdom of God so that the world can clearly see that God truly had entered the world and dwelled among us and ushered in His kingdom.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

In God We Trust

The phrase--vision statement?-- dedication?--vow?--I employed to title this week's post is found on our currency.  Some in our society would like to see it go because they see religion as the opiate of  human culture, and therefore a hindrance to any possible move towards true peace and human perfection.  Others are fighting to keep it for the opposite reason that such homage will keep our country from straying and ultimately collapsing.  I wonder, though, how many of us really believe that simple vow.  I suspect if it were really fully embraced, the first group would be silenced--perhaps not convinced, but silenced--and the second group wouldn't fret about it because they would be too busy living what it claims, so its truth would be self-evident.

In the first letter bearing his name, the apostle John wrote a deceptively simple admonition (it's clear to me that John's writings were inspired by the Holy Spirit by virtue of the depth of truth to be discovered in its simple language):

"Do not love the world, nor the things in the world.  If a person continues to love the world, the love of the Father is not in that person.  Because all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the obsessive longing of the eyes, and the self-confident pride of life, are not of the Father, but flow out of the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desire, but the one doing the will of God remains forever." [I John 2:15-17] [my translation]

Many who have read these verses take them as a mandate to isolate themselves from this world; thus many have lapsed into various forms of asceticism, thinking that in order to love God we must deny the physical and embrace only the spiritual.  This dualism of flesh=bad, spirit =good is pagan, or gnostic but definitely not Biblical, and definitely not John's intent; God is interested in the restoration of both the physical and spiritual worlds without the expense of one for the other; indeed, the restoration of one requires the restoration of the other--the physical and spiritual realms are inseparable in God's kingdom.  No, John is not teaching dualism here, but the central need for humans to trust God.

This is a political year, and with all that's coming down both in America and beyond, the political debate has never been more fierce (hyperbole, of course).  I cannot tell you how many people are putting their faith in the person who shall lead the nation, or that person's philosophical underpinnings--even those who profess the name of Christ--for the salvation of the country.  We find, then, in this great political arena our first example of love of the world which John was teaching against.

Certainly, we should utilize our constitutional rights to try to keep a light shining on a dark world; but we delude ourselves if we really believe truth will prevail through one person or that person's party.  Personally, I think it goes beyond delusion for most, and has degraded into a lethargy.  We would much prefer going about our business while someone else carries the moral banner for us.  This, too, is love of the world, because if we truly loved God, we would trust Him by tirelessly working for His kingdom in each of our spheres of influence--either small or large.  What would society look like if every professing Christian lived 'In God We Trust'?

Lately, I have spent a lot of time reading other people's blogs--particularly those from the big names of the Christian world.  Some of it has been enlightening and good food for faith; other parts have been down-right depressing.  The need to answer every question thrown at them like the gauntlet of old consume many on these blog threads.  Even though many of these folks would deny it, their peroccupation with these questions has caused them to drift away from the central truth of loving God first and has engaged them in an endless battle over words and minutia to the horrid yet expected outcome of not loving each other. The lie by which many operate is that we can convert the cynic by answering all of his intellectual complaints; but the cynic delights in keeping us prisoner to a never-ending treadmill of speculation; no matter how effectively we might answer a given question, another one is sure to come. As with all of us, the cynics need to meet Jesus; they need to trust Him, not their intellect.  And the first place they will meet Him will be us who profess His name, which means we place the purposes of His kingdom before everthing else.  If they see us putting our trust in reason, how can we expect them to do otherwise; for trusting in our own wisdom is to love the world.

Finally, trusting in our resources is also loving the world.  Yes, we need to be good stewards of our possessions because God has given them to us in order to bear fruit for His kingdom; this is what we should understand whenever we complete a prayer--particularly of thanksgiving--with 'in your name we pray'.  This should also inform us that our security is not in our wealth but in God alone.  Consequently, we should never hold onto material possessions too tightly, but trust God to keep us even should we give it all up.  Indeed, if every Christian trusted God in this way by distributing his/her wealth freely as the need arises, we would see less of a call from the world for a political system to force a socalism on society, and therefore risk all the pain of evil that inevitably comes at the heels of such centralized power because the latter doesn't trust God either.

Do not misunderstand me.  One of the core consequences of the fall of humankind is poverty; consequently, the first fruit God calls us to bear for His kingdom--all through the Bible, both the OT and the NT--is to right the disorder of poverty.  However, we will never bring order to poverty, or any other injustice wrought by the fall, through human institutions or philosophies--regardless--but only by acting from a pure trust in God alone.

When John tells us to not love the world, he means not to put our trust in the things of the world.  Instead of trusting in our politicians and human institutions, instead of trusting in human intellect and wisdom, instead of trusting in wealth in all its embodiments, we need to trust God first and last.  Otherwise, John tells us, the love of the Father is not in us--that is, we neither love God, nor is His love the state of our being: the power both guiding and motivating us.  You see, my dear readers, we cannot say we love God first unless we trust Him above all else; because the only way we truly love God is by obeying Him.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Living Dead Tree

This post is a week late due to a family crisis.

Everyday this past week I took a long walk from the hospital to the downtown.  And on each occasion I passed over a small stream.  A large birch tree had been ripped from the ground and cast down over the slow moving water.  The lower quarter of its long trunk lay partially submerged; the remainder of its height curved upward above the water.  Remarkably, despite the fact the tree was as good as dead, its crown was luxuriant with green leaves.  The incongruity of the situation haunted me with each passing until I finally realized why.

Life is like that tree.  Life is fragile.  Even in its strongest incarnations, life will succumb to death--either sooner or later--eventually.  Yet life is also resilient.  Life tenaciously clings to life.  Like that odd tree, life often defies death, causing death to submit to life as the highest order.  And, of course, this is perfectly so;  God is the God of the living;  God created a universe for living, not dying.

That defiant tree also revealed to me what we--the human race--the sole creatures created in the image of God--had become.  We are a living dead, which perhaps explains our fascination with zombies and vampires.  At the beginning we rebelled against our creator and cut ourselves off from the source of life and entered death, which became for us both a physical mortality and a permanent spiritual death.  We think we are alive; but as with that felled tree, our current life is nothing but a caricature of the fulfilled life we were created for.  We believe our life--as short and tenuous as it is--proves us capable of living independent of our creator.  But all we are really experiencing is the afterglow of the incomprehensible power of creation--green leaves sprouting from branches long before blackened by death.

Then again, I found great hope in that paradoxical tree.  As with Aaron's rod that budded, that tree promised resurrection.  Despite the fact we all deserve death,  God loves us and wants us to live--not for only a short time, but forever--not tenuously, but truly.  God is telling us, "Look! I who breathed life into inanimate matter, will also breathe life into what is permanently dead."  It is just as John taught us:

"In Him was life, and life was the light of Humankind.  And the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome the light." [John 1:4-5][my translation]

When John speaks of darkness, he doesn't mean the absence of physical light but the all encompassing effects of death: the fatal lie of our conceit and the sin it engenders--the ever-burgeoning disorder we cause through our stubborn free-fall away from the light.

But God is overcoming this darkness.  Those green leaves of that dead tree promise that God will lift that tree up someday and plant it permanently in a ground that will nourish it forever.  God will lift us up and plant us in Christ, so that in Him we will live--both physically and spiritually--and live to the fullest.  Christ is the light that is shining in the darkness.  God has intervened on our behalf through His one and only and unique Son, Jesus the Christ.  All we need do is believe Him by accepting the life He is extending to us by grasping hold of Christ by trusting Him through obedient love:

"But all those who received Him [Jesus], He gave them authority to be children of God--to all those who are believing in His name." [John 1:12][my translation]

By taking on flesh and dwelling among us, God--consistent with His Love and Justice--both overcame death for us, and foreshadowed the intimate life we will have with Him forever in His kingdom.  Think about it; we can become the children of God--not mere creatures, but members of His eternal family.  And God has done this; God has accomplished what we could not accomplish for ourselves:

"[Children] not born on the basis of blood-lines, nor the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, but [children] who were born of God." [John 1:13][my translation]

Even though I felt the weight of death about me this past week, even though the transience of life saddened my soul, that living dead tree taught me that it is really death whose number is up; the God of the universe is the God of the living.  And death will not overcome life; indeed, life has already overcome death.  Today, kneel before the King Jesus and live.