October 20, 2014

Is Politics Awful?

I'm out sweeping off my driveway and the road from the mess I made after mowing when a pleasant looking woman comes walking down the road. I greet her; she greets me. She continues to walk towards me, and asks if [my wife's name] lives here. I say yes, and tell her that I am her husband. She wants me to pass along some literature to her. Yep... it's that time again: political season.

I was very polite and told her I would pass it along and thanked her for coming by, but then she just had to keep at it. She asked if I was voting. I told her, "no, I try to avoid that awful stuff."  She said it was awful because of people like me--those that didn't vote. I bit my tongue and continued to be polite, even pointing her in the direction of her next
victim potential voter.

But let's explore this for a minute. Is it really those that don't vote that make the system awful? To say that not voting is the cause of politics being awful, suggests that voting makes it something other than awful--good and right. I don't think it works in that direction, but let's reason this out.

First, to persuade one to vote for the Democrat Candidate (DC) over the Republican Candidate (RC) (as this woman wanted me to do) implies that you believe that there are only two choices that exhaust all the options for governance. This is unreasonable, but granted, it is not necessarily what makes politics awful.

What makes politics awful extends from this, though.
  1. Let's assume for the sake of argument, that DCs and RCs are radically different from each other--that they hold different positions on the issues. Supporters of the DCs might hold that all the positions taken by these candidates are right and proper, and all the positions taken by the RCs is wrong and improper. In reality, these views about which candidate is right extends, not just to the candidates and the parties' platforms, but also to those who vote for the respective sides. Voters for the DCs' assume that the voters for the RCs must be evil (after all, the DC is right) and ignorant (after all, the DC's approach is proper). This works the other way, as well. This is awful.
  2. Let's assume, though, for the sake of argument, that voters for the DCs and RCs can hold a more nuanced position, such that my candidate's positions are mostly right, even if I can see some value in the other candidate's positions. This means that voting for the DCs or the RCs necessarily put the public at risk for working under poor positions/policies. Remember, this operates under the assumption that the other candidate has some right and reasonable positions. This is awful.
  3. Assuming either (a) that clear lines of good and bad are drawn with respect to the candidates or (b) that a nuanced position is held about the candidates, voters of the DCs and RCs make up (roughly) 50% of the voting public. (Even if we go to 60/40 or 70/30, my point will still hold). Voting for one's candidate over the other forces people to live under one person's view of governance. For example, the woman with whom I spoke, said that we need to get Gov. Corbett (PA's current Governor) out of office. She thinks it's awful to live in a state with Corbett as Governor. Regardless of whether that is true or not, is it any more right, civil, or less awful to make others live under someone with whom they disagree? No. This is awful.
Look, I get the constraints we live in. I realize that voting doesn't come a-la-carte. I realize people and governing systems are not perfect. My reasons for not voting don't even necessarily flow from these. My point here is simply to reason out our exchange. As I see it, it is not abstaining from voting that makes politics awful; it is what voting implies and what voting results in that makes politics awful.

October 10, 2014

A Biblical Response to the "Just one True Religion" Challenge

Tim Keller writes, "During my nearly two decades in New York City, I've had numerous opportunities to ask people, 'What is your biggest problem with Christianity? What troubles you the most about its beliefs or how its practiced?' One of the most frequent answers I have heard over the years can be summed up in one word: exclusivity" (The Reason for God, p. 3).

As I work my way through my God Debate course, I'm faced with some difficult issues. Similar to Keller, students in this class will challenge the idea that salvation is exclusively found through Jesus. The challenge to this is that there are many, many people who devoutly and sincerely worship their god. What makes you think you are right? How can you know that Christians have it right? This is an intolerant view.

These statements not only affirm the cultural values of tolerance and relativity, they challenge the justice or fairness of God to those who are sincerely, but incorrectly, seek god or similarly, the fairness or justice of holding people accountable who have never heard of Jesus. 

In anticipation of dealing with some of these challenges, I went to Scripture to see what principles are taught because I don't want to say anything less or anything more than what Scripture says. Here's what I found:

Salvation is found in Jesus alone. Christianity does make exclusive claims.
  • "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) 
  • "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (I Timothy 2:5).
Salvation is by faith in Christ alone
  • "And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' And they said, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household'” (Acts 16: 29-31).
  • "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God" (Romans 5:1-2).
  •  "yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified" (Galatians 2:16).
Salvation is a gift out of God's grace. Christians have no reason to boast in the exclusive claims of Christianity, as if our good works earned salvation or our  intellect or reason found God. This is critical to consider in dealing with these issues; this doctrine is humbling and a reason for gratitude and worship.
  •  "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith" (Romans 3:23-25).
  • "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:4-9).
  • "For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'” (I Corinthians 1:26-31).
God has not hidden Himself. He makes Himself plainly known to all. (Acts 17: ; Romans 1:18-19)
  •  "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them" (Romans 1:18-19).
God desires all to be saved
  • "This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Timothy 2:3-4).
God sent His Son with the purpose to save sinners.
  • "This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins" (Romans 3:25).
  • "The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost"  (I Timothy 1:15).
There is certainly more to be said and there are other passages that may communicate these truths even clearer, but these Biblical principles are useful in thinking through this issue.

September 30, 2014

The Problems with "The Problem of Evil"

In the course I am co-teaching, The God Debate, one of the issues we are covering is the problem of evil. The problem of evil goes something like this:

If God is all good, and if God is all powerful, no evil would exist. Evil exists.

The only solutions to the problem appear to be either:
  1. God is not all good.
  2. God is not all powerful.
  3. There is no God.
The problem, as stated, is a formidable challenge. It can not be dismissed easily. To address this challenge, it is critical to recognize that the atheist has a legitimate (e.g., a good and logical) and an illegitimate (e.g., illogical, unfounded) reason for raising this as a problem.

First, the atheist can legitimately raise this challenge if s/he believes that this as an inconsistency--a contradiction--in the Christian worldview, such that holding these attributes of God (i.e., God is good and all-powerful) can not be made compatible with the other premise (i.e., evil exists). Indeed, if these cannot be made compatible, if they can not simultaneously be held, then the Christian worldview collapses.

The first problem for the atheist is that the Christian worldview is compatible with the existence of evil. Here's the Christian worldview of evil:
  • The Christian worldview explains the entry of evil into our world (Genesis 3). 
  • The Christian worldview recognize evil and suffering as something alien to the world. It is not as it should be (Romans 8: 20-23).
  • The Christian worldview offers the sure hope that evil will end (Revelation 21:1-6).
More specifically, the Christian worldview is compatible with a sovereign, good God and the existence of evil. Scripture teaches several things in regards to this:
  • God  does not do evil (James 1:13). He is holy, perfect, and without sin (Leviticus 20:26; Isaiah 6:3).
  • God is sovereign over all things, such that nothing (including evil) can occur without Him ordaining it. This is tough to understand and deal with, but this conclusions is unavoidable.  Indeed, the most heinous evil was expressly predestined by God (Acts 2:23).
  • God uses evil and suffering to accomplish His ends. Those ends, though, are not always clear. God uses suffering for direct punishment for particular sin (e.g., 2 Samuel 12:10-12); he uses suffering to show his power (John 9:1-3); he uses suffering as a test of faith (e.g., Job; James 1:2-3; 1 Peter 1:6-7; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). God promises that He uses all things (including evil) to work for the good--i.e., for the sanctification--of His people (Romans 8:28). 
The Christian can not provide a fully satisfactory answer for why evil exists. The Bible simply does not tell us why God allowed evil to enter the world or how or why he uses evil in every case. However, the plain teaching of Scripture (and hence, the Christian worldview) is that evil is compatible with the good, omnipotent God of the Bible. As such, the atheist's legitimate reason for raising the problem of evil does not stand. It does not show that the Christian worldview is self-contradictory or incompatible. (Much more could be said about what is "good" and what is "evil," but for the purposes of this blog-post, this is sufficient.)

The second problem for the atheist in raising this problem is that, once the compatibility problem is handled, they can only raise this problem illegitimately. It is illegitimate because the problem challenges the consistency of the atheists' worldview. The atheist's worldview says that the world began out of chaos (a "big bang"), operates, in some sense, under randomness (e.g., chance mutations) via purely natural, blind, purposeless (albeit strangely enough, constant) laws of nature. Under these conditions, suffering and evil would be exactly what one would expect. In this worldview, suffering and evil fit quite well--too well. Evil and suffering are not a problem; they just are. They are part of the normal, purely natural, physical undetermined world.

Moreover, the atheist is faced with another problem along these lines because s/he cannot establish an objective basis for identifying evil that extends beyond space and time. As such, they have no case against God on the basis of evil without borrowing from the Christian worldview. Only by taking on the definitions--the absolute standards of good and evil--from the Christian worldview can they make a case about evil.

In summary, it is illegitimate for the atheist to raise the problem of evil because (a) there is no reason to see evil as a problem because it is what would be expected in their worldview and (b) they have no objective basis for determining evil.

Most fundamentally, what this problem reveals is that the atheists' worldview suspends reality by pretending God does not existence, and as such, it can not stand under its own weight. Their worldview would say that suffering and evil are expected and as such are not a problem, but this does not fit with the way we speak and act in the real world.

Evil is problem. It is a problem for atheists; it is a problem for Christians. Only in the Christian worldview, though, can evil and suffering be properly recognized as something alien and foreign and  is there found the solution to evil--Christ.

August 26, 2014

Reason for God: Introduction

[A few years ago, I taught a topic-based, freshmen writing course, The Case for God. Throughout that course, I reviewed several chapters of Tim Keller's book, The Reason for God, since we used it in that course. I did not finish that project, but now that I have an opportunity to use the book again in another course that I am team-teaching called, The God Debate, I plan to periodically pick up and review some of the chapters/concepts covered in the book that I have not already reviewed. Today, I begin that new class, The God Debate, and students will be reading the introduction to Keller's book. Below are a mix of some of my reflections on this chapter and a sketch of some ideas that I have for my opening comments to the students.]

Engraved on the college's library is the phrase, "The truth shall set you free," and written within the center of the official seal of the college, is John 8:32, a reference to this phrase. I suspect that the college uses this phrase because it plays a duel role. It gives a (covert) head-nod to the historical relationship with the United Methodist church, but suggests something of the liberal arts education--the idea that knowledge, education, or "truth" is liberating.

The phrase, though, in its original context, has nothing to do with the liberation that education brings. Jesus used these words to describe Himself (i.e., He is the Truth; see John 14:6) and his mission (to set people free of their sins; see John 8:34-36). The context makes this clear. 
"So, Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, 'If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (ESV; John 8:32)
Notice that "the truth" is found in Him--Jesus. It is found in His word. This point is profound in many ways, but place this in the context of the course I am teaching; knowledge--all truth--can only be rightly understood if you know and understand God. Knowing God is an epistemological necessity. The Christian apologist, Scott Oliphant, makes this point. He writes "To claim to know something while thinking it independent of God (or to deny that there is a God) is to fail to know it for what it really is" (Covenantal Apologetics, p. 43). He goes on to say, "... since the fall.... we became, in the truest sense of the word, irrational. That is, we sinfully and deceptively convince ourselves that what is actually true about the world is not true. We create a world of our own making, where we are all gods" (p. 45). Let me then, in that light, make a not-so-bold-claim: to be truly educated necessitates that you deal with God's existence. 
-- -- -- -- -- 
Reason for God Introduction

To that end, Tim Keller opens his book with an introduction. He points out that there are three barriers to the faith. One is intellectual. There are reasonable questions and challenges in the faith (e.g., the problem of evil). Another is personal. People carry with them baggage and problems and experiences with religion--some of which create barriers to belief. A third is social; it is a problem finding a community that supports those beliefs. The course I am teaching will deal primarily with the intellectual barrier. It is why, perhaps, that apologists sometimes call apologetics per-evangelism. It is showing people that the intellectual barriers they place in front of belief are not really there. Indeed, in my study, I have become more sure of my faith by studying the skeptics' arguments. 

And to that end, Keller offers a challenge to both believers and unbelievers. To the believers, he asks that they raise doubt. Give faith an honest look. "People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person's faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection" (p. xvii). On a personal note, the examination of my beliefs in preparation for this course has brought to my conscious why I believe what I believe. The word "faith" is  inappropriately, but frequently used to trump the skeptics, as though, mere belief on the basis of nothing is enough. R. C. Sproul refers to this as credulity, not the Christian faith. There is reason to faith.

To the unbelievers, Keller asks they recognize that there doubts are based on their own beliefs, which should be tested with the same level of analysis. "The only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then to ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it" (pp. xviii-xix). 

These are the challenges I offer to my students today.