“It’s on me today!”

I stopped by the gas station this morning on my way to church to pick up a 32 ounce drink. It’s the same gas station I’ve stopped at a few times a week for the past eleven years. I’ve seen the same lady behind the counter quite a number of times, smiled and greeted her in the same way I did today, and paid for whatever I was there to purchase. For some reason, today was different. I had my $1.19 in hand as I approached the counter, and was surprised when she simply responded; “It’s on me today!” I asked if she was sure, which she was. I thanked her, and I left. It rattled through my head though, not because the $1.19 was a big deal to me, but because it was an unexpected kindness (and because getting something for free always feels good).

After church, my wife and I took our daughters out to eat at Mazzio’s Pizza. After examining the range of coupons and deals, we selected the least expensive option for still getting a meal our children would truly enjoy. As I turned, the young man behind the counter handed me two bowls. I took them without thinking, and then immediately realized I didn’t know why I had them. “What are these for?” I asked. “Your salads.” “Did we get a salad?” I asked, wondering if maybe I hadn’t realized they’d come with the deal we’d selected. “Yes,” he said. Then he looked at our ticket again. “Wait, no. But you can have them.” It was a good customer service move, since I already had the bowls in my hand and the alternative was to take something he’d just given me back. Still, I asked him the same thing I’d asked the woman at the gas station. “Are you sure?” He was. My wife and I enjoyed a free salad before our meal.

As I told my girls the story of my morning, our youngest daughter said she wished she could get something for free. She smiled as I pointed out that, at nine years old, pretty much her whole life is for free. I was buying her meal today. Her housing, her food, her transportation, her entertainment – all free every day. I thought about it though, and I thanked God as we all prayed together for the fact that He actually provides everything for us. As adults we work hard, taking the opportunities He presents, using our abilities, fulfilling the tasks each day brings, and we “earn” our pay, but those opportunities, those abilities, those are gifts from God.   Our days are full of free gifts.

All of which obviously pales in comparison to the ultimate free gift. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” We often think of the sacrifices of our Christian lives. The time spent in serving others. The money, opportunities, or comforts we may give up. We can come to see our Christianity as something we do, our lives as a set of responsibilities and obligations. We can forget that God basically looked at an entire world of lost people who had no hope of ever affording the price it would take to save their own souls, gave us everything He had and loved, and said; “It’s on me today!”

A wonderfully inconsistent God.

“I love the life and teachings of Jesus, but I just can’t reconcile that message of love and mercy with the harsh and angry God of the Old Testament.” It’s a fairly common concern, and to be honest, one that we gloss over too easily.   The God we read about in the Bible seems so different from one situation to the next. Overly harsh. Overly tolerant. Setting clear limits, and then backing off. Full of wrath, and then full of mercy.

The God who drowned the entire population of the world, minus one family, because they had turned away from him. The God, in fact, whose harsh judgment we see in many ways throughout the Old Testament, and in many ways find incomprehensible.

The same God who also took His people back time and again after they had turned away from Him.

The same God who both Old and New Testament describe as turning His people over to their sin because they turned away from Him, essentially letting their sinful behavior slide for a period of time in hopes that they would eventually find out it was the wrong path and realize they needed to return home.

We look for consistency in behavior, expecting it, assuming that a God who we are told never changes must also be characterized by unchanging behavior. Much because of this, like many Christian men and women, I spent most of my life looking for a God I couldn’t find. I wanted to know God, but the God of the Bible seemed unknowable. I wanted to love God, but the God of the Bible seemed so abstract and distant that He was, well, unlovable. And then, as they say, I had children of my own.

Parenting can be joyous. The indescribable peace of holding your newborn child. Being able to comfort them when they face the inevitable scrapes and bruises of life. The pride of seeing them grow and succeed. But along with these joys also come the paralyzing fears of seeing them flirt with danger they don’t understand. The desperation of knowing they need you but won’t accept your help. Worrying they will put themselves in a situation beyond your protection.

A great deal of talk and what seems like an endless line of books are devoted to the importance of consistent parenting. What is more rarely discussed is the reality that good parenting is often consciously inconsistent. Judgment calls are made and battles are chosen. There is a time for harshness and lines in the sand, when the dangers ahead are apparent to the parent, and particularly when they are not apparent to the child. There is a time for holding on more loosely, when the emotions of the child are high and confrontation is likely to lead to a full rejection of the relationship and consequences even worse than the ones already looming.

I may struggle to relate to the impassionate God I grew up thinking I was supposed to love, and whose love I always knew of intellectually but to which I could never quite connect. But this desperately loving God, this Father who pursues His children all over the planet, now holding on tightly, now loosely, always seeking to give them the best chance possible; I can not only relate to this God – I can find myself in love with His love.

Knowing the thousands of years God had already spent desperately seeing to save His people by keeping them in relationship with Him, followed by His most extravagant act of Mercy in sending His Son to live (and eventually die) for us, consider in a different light the story Jesus told of the ninety and nine sheep. This story isn’t really about the ninety-nine though. It’s always been about the one, and the lengths to which a loving God would go to save the one who was lost. Read with me from Luke 15: 1-10:

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

To make the point even clearer, Jesus continues:  “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.  Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?  And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’  In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  (Holy Bible, New International Version)

This message of desperately searching love is not new when Jesus presents it. It is a reflection of the consistently loving heart of God, just as much as the father running toward the prodigal son. God does the illogical, the unthinkable, the remarkably inconsistent thing – time and time again He abandons all else to pursue his children who are lost. I still struggle with much of what I read that God has done or allowed to be done. But where God is remarkably consistent is in His pursuit of relationship with His children. And that is a God to whom I can relate. That is a God I can love.

If you want to follow this conversation on a regular basis just sign up at the left or at the bottom of this page to follow this blog. If you want to take part, I welcome your thoughts, your challenging questions, or your additional perspectives.

Which came first, the Odyssey or the Bible?

My daughter came home from high school Friday with an interesting question. “Was the Odyssey written before the Bible?” She went on to explain that her English teacher had drawn a host of parallels between Moses and the tales of Odysseus, pointing out that the Odyssey had in fact been written before the Bible and explaining to her students that the Biblical author of the accounts of Moses must clearly have copied them from the Odyssey. My daughter’s faith is pretty strong, but I could see the worry on her face as she asked me, “Is that true?”

The problem with her teacher’s statement is of course that it’s not true. In fact, it’s so far from accurate that it took me some time to research where she may even have been coming from to make her statements. But the inaccuracy of her statements is really only a small part of the problem. The much bigger problem is the way of thinking that allowed these statements to be made and to go generally unchallenged – and the fact that they were made to an impressionable group of students just beginning their journey not only through high school but through the maze of spiritual questions and challenges that will shape their lives. Before we tackle any of that though, let’s go over the facts themselves.

I’ll confess up front that, while I’ve read the Bible a number of times, I only read the Odyssey once, and that was because it was required for my own educational journey. I was not a fan then, and no love for either the Iliad or the Odyssey will shine through in my writings now. But, for better or for worse (and to the dismay of high school and college students everywhere), the Odyssey is generally considered to have been first written down around 700 or 800 B.C.  It’s thought by some that it could have been passed down through oral tradition for some time before that, but since the story itself is set in Mycenaean Greece in about the twelfth century B.C., that’s as far back as it could possibly be considered to go.

Moses is considered to have written the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) in approximately 1400 B.C., or about 600 years before the writing of the Odyssey. So where did the idea come from that the Odyssey would have been written first? I thought it may have involved the earliest manuscripts found, but the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Odyssey date to about 250 B.C. – as do the earliest surviving manuscripts of the book of Exodus, the portion of the Pentateuch in which my daughter’s teacher sought to draw parallels between the heroism and struggles of Moses and those of Odysseus. So at best, if you’re drawing conclusions from the dates of earliest surviving manuscripts, it’s a wash.

A side note – to understand the conversations in my daughter’s classroom I spent some time this weekend studying the comparisons between Moses and Odysseus, and I think it’s a stretch to say they’re more related than any other accounts or stories of heroes who had great tasks to accomplish while dealing with their own flaws. Still, let’s accept the idea that they’re similar. We’re not talking about lines of text that read the same here, no high school plagiarism by copying another person’s work word-for-word, but the idea that the themes are similar. Would that mean that: (a) one was copied from the other, (b) they both drew from actual historic events (one choosing to write those accounts down as history and the other to create a work of fiction with the same themes), or just (c) that similar themes are likely to surface when epic accounts of heroism are being told? I’m obviously going with (c) on this one. You don’t have to agree with me, but I did pretty well on multiple choice tests in school. For any of you who have read the Odyssey with more enthusiasm than I have, and who have found more compelling similarities than I was able to find, I’m open to your comments.

Regardless, the burning question is what evidence there is that the Odyssey was written first. I’m assuming that what my daughter’s teacher may have heard or read goes back to criticisms some have leveled that Moses could not possibly have written the Pentateuch in 1400 B.C. because writing did not actually exist then. A compelling argument, until quite a number of archaeological finds proved that it did exist. In fact more than one form of writing existed in the 100 year span before Moses is thought to have written these books, and specifically within the same region where Moses would have done his writing. In a matter of minutes I found three different published archaeological discoveries showing writing dating to at least 1500 B.C., the most famous being the Code of Hammurabi.

There are of course those who simply choose not to believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, but not believing isn’t evidence. There are also many who believe Homer may not have existed, and certainly may not have written the Iliad and the Odyssey. That’s not evidence either. Of course, questions about Homer’s authorship were evident among the Greeks as early as were the first available manuscripts. Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch is asserted by other Biblical writers in both the Old and New Testaments. If anything, just going off of the available contextual evidence, it could be argued that the author of the Odyssey (whoever he or she may have been) “lifted” themes from available Biblical accounts and chose to create an epic story – after all, an author or story teller has to make a living.

The bigger question is this; why does a statement that it takes very little research to refute make it into the classroom and out of the mouth of an intelligent professional instructor? Not why did it happen in this case, but why does it happen so commonly and so easily? If you have read any of my posts, you know that I do not endorse blindly or easily accepting a religious point of view without examining it to see if it’s true. But just as dangerous, perhaps more so, is to blindly or easily reject a religious point of view because a challenge has been presented without examining that challenge to see if it is true. The world makes merciless fun of people who too easily accept religious perspectives. It applauds those who rush to reject them, treating them as courageous and heroic for speaking against generally accepted truth.

My daughter will return to school tomorrow having examined the evidence, and more prepared for continued discussions. More importantly, when the next challenge presents itself (and it will), she’ll know to step back, give herself some time, and examine the evidence for herself. That’s all I want for her. Not to be sheltered from the challenges, but to face them unafraid.

If you want to follow this conversation on a regular basis just sign up at the left or at the bottom of this page to follow this blog. If you want to take part, I welcome your thoughts, your challenging questions, or your additional perspectives.

United, not because we agree, but because we are searching together.

There are so many aspects of God, the Bible, and its teachings to understand.  As such, there are always things that can divide us, and more worrisome, always things that can convince us that the only people who can be brothers and sisters in Christ are those who agree with us on the specifics of a particular issue.  Right and wrong do matter.  Unity in Christ also matters.  But if we are not careful, unity in Christ is only seen as possible if everyone comes and stands squarely with us on every issue.  Unity in Christ while disagreeing and still searching for answers on particular issues can be seen as an impossibility, and as a result, conversations can be closed off before they have even begun.

One conversation we have been developing is in regard to our shared belief in God as creator, despite that fact that there are a number of views about how God may actually have completed His act of creation. The first steps of our search led us to one conclusion: science has no explanation for the original existence of matter. A belief in a creator is difficult to understand, and for many it’s difficult to accept. But a belief in either the eternal or spontaneous existence of matter goes against every scientific principal, and despite a world that screams otherwise we are led by evidence and reason to creationism as the only logical remaining explanation for our existence. But with so many different views of creationism, where do we go from here?

Some men and women, seeking to reconcile the vast range of scientific findings that seem to point to a very old earth and universe with the creation accounts of the Bible see Genesis as an allegorical account that makes it clear that all creation is from God, but that leaves open the possibility that God in fact initiated, and perhaps oversaw, a process that unfolded over billions of years.

Others begin with Genesis 1:1 and believe that an extraordinary amount of time passed between this verse and Genesis 1:2, time that is simply not described or discussed because it was seen as unnecessary to do so since the point of Genesis was about God and His desired relationship with His people.

Others believe that time’s passing is not nearly as fixed as our everyday experience dictates, basing thoughts on Einstein’s theory of relativity to consider that time at the beginning of creation would have moved much more slowly than it does today and that this explains the way the account in Genesis unfolds.

Others simply see the “days” of creation as long indefinite periods of time, and while the accounts are literal, the amount of time transpiring is intended to indicate that a period of time passed, and not a literal day.

Within various views there is either a belief that God allowed what is described as the process of evolution to unfold culminating in our current existence, that He allowed this process to unfold but still created a literal Adam and Eve to serve as the founding representatives of humanity, or that He created a literal Adam and Eve without an evolutionary process having taken place.

At one obvious end of the continuum are the young earth creationists, who believe the creation account of Genesis is literal, and that the timeline for the age of earth we can count from the genealogies of the Bible is also literal. Their viewpoint is that scientific evidence of earth’s much older age is a result of world-wide Biblical catastrophes, and that when these events are appropriately taken into account the evidence in fact points in a different direction than how it is traditionally interpreted.

This is a brief and admittedly inadequate summary of an extraordinarily complex set of viewpoints. If you want to point out things I’ve missed or that warrant further discussion, I’m open and eager for your comments. But for the moment, let’s consider on one thing: every one of these viewpoints reflects a profound degree of thought and searching for an understanding of God and creation. Every one reflects a deep respect for the Biblical account and a desire to understand how it relates to the world we live in. Every one reflects a grasp of the tension between what science has helped us understand and what science has no answers for. And every one leads to a worship and following of the God who created the universe.

Unfortunately, within every one of these groups there are also those who see their conclusions as so obviously correct that they not only believe that those who disagree with them are wrong, but that they are ignorant and willfully wrong. Of course these views of creation are not all correct. They can’t be. And it is certainly worth the deliberation, study, and investigation to learn as much as possible about the truth of our existence. In the meanwhile, if we are ever to find the answers it is likely to be the result of vigorous and healthy conversation. Not debate, where we each begin with a chosen point of view and try to prove it at all costs so much as dialogue where we agonize and search together for the most accurate view possible. For that to happen, we should see each other for what we are – fellow believers on an incredible search together for answers to the most profound of all questions; how did all of this happen and what does it mean about who we are?

If you want to follow the conversation on a regular basis just sign up at the left or at the bottom of this page to follow this blog. If you want to take part, I welcome your thoughts, your challenging questions, or your additional perspectives. Regardless, I look forward to continuing the journey together.

The Big Bang and “Let there be light!”

In my last post I noted the importance of us talking about the things we don’t talk about.  Beginning, well, in the beginning.  First let’s set the stage for ourselves a bit though – why should we even be talking about these things?  In Acts Chapter 17 we read of Paul waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy to arrive.  While he was waiting he became deeply concerned about the people in a city full of idols.  He didn’t just shake his head with concern though.  The writer of Acts tells us what he did.  He reasoned with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks.  He reasoned day by day with whoever happened to be in the marketplace.  He reasoned with the philosophers.  He started with the common ground he could find, and from there, he discussed with them the reality of God.

Their common ground was a belief in deity (or in their case, deities).  He could certainly have seen it as what separated his belief from theirs – he believed in one true and living God, and they believed in many gods.  Instead, he saw what they both believed and began from there.  I believe one parallel for us today is that of modern science.  We often look at where our conclusions diverge instead of looking at the common ground it gives us to start with.  We often argue, or choose not to talk at all, instead of reasoning together.

It’s not hard to find information about the Big Bang Theory.  If you Google “The Big Bang scientific theory” you’ll get 1,530,000 hits right away – plenty of material for late night reading.  Some sites are admittedly less useful than others, but this information is from a January post by Charles Q. Choi on space.com and gives a pretty good overview from an entirely scientific perspective.   I want you to read these excerpts, and then ask yourself if this represents separation between the Bible and science, or amazing common ground:

“The universe was born with the Big Bang as an unimaginably hot, dense point. When the universe was just 10-34 of a second or so old — that is, a hundredth of a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second in age — it experienced an incredible burst of expansion known as inflation, in which space itself expanded faster than the speed of light. During this period, the universe doubled in size at least 90 times, going from subatomic-sized to golf-ball-sized almost instantaneously.”

When scientists first discovered evidence for an absolute beginning of what we know as time and space, a truly amazing meeting place between modern science and theologians was established – and then instead of reasoning together, most of us just walked out.  Interestingly, the following posts from readers were at the bottom of this article on science.com:

One reader posted: “The universe was born with the Big Bang …! then what lead to big bang …!?” He was quickly shouted down by another reader: “Learn physics and you will remove this naïve question.” In other words, “Shut up. If you understood science you’d know your seemingly religious question was naïve and stupid.” The problem is that science, including physics, does not have an answer to this reader’s post. In fact, within the article itself Mr. Choi had actually said:

“Since the universe by its definition encompasses all of space and time as we know it, NASA says it is beyond the model of the Big Bang to say what the universe is expanding into or what gave rise to the Big Bang.  Although there are models that speculate about these questions, none of them have made realistically testable predictions as of yet.”

Genesis 1:1 says that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Not only is this not incompatible with the Big Bang theory, it quite simply picks up where science leaves off.  The Bible speaks of a moment, before which there was nothing, when God created everything.  In one extraordinary moment, a universe was born.  Whether we agree on God as the source, we all agree on the fact of that one beginning moment, and most of us would agree with the importance of seeking together for an answer to what made that moment happen – how is it possible that we are all here?

As I’ve shared before, including in “10 Reasons I Believe,” the first moment in time is not a source of doubt for me.   In fact, it’s one of my core sources of faith.  I will admit though that some other aspects of the creation account have not in the past seemed to line up with science.  For example, in Genesis 1:1 the universe is created.  Then later, in verse 3, God says “Let there be light.”  Later than that, God creates the sun and the other stars.  Why is there light first, and then later the stars as a source of light?  Let’s read some more of Mr. Choi’s description of the Big Bang theory:

“During the first three minutes of the universe, the light elements were born during a process known as Big Bang nucleosynthesis. Temperatures cooled from 100 nonillion (1032) Kelvin to 1 billion (109) Kelvin, and protons and neutrons collided to make deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen. Most of the deuterium combined to make helium, and trace amounts of lithium were also generated.  For the first 380,000 years or so, the universe was essentially too hot for light to shine, according to France’s National Center of Space Research (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales,or CNES). The heat of creation smashed atoms together with enough force to break them up into a dense plasma, an opaque soup of protons, neutrons and electrons that scattered light like fog.”

“Roughly 380,000 years after the Big Bang, matter cooled enough for atoms to form during the era of recombination, resulting in a transparent, electrically neutral gas, according to NASA. This set loose the initial flash of light created during the Big Bang, which is detectable today as cosmic microwave background radiation. However, after this point, the universe was plunged into darkness, since no stars or any other bright objects had formed yet.”

It is science’s point of view that there was creation (whether Divine of not), followed by light, and followed much later by stars that would generate light from that point on.  Mr. Choi goes on to say:

“A little after 9 billion years after the Big Bang, our solar system was born.”

Let’s set aside the timeframes for a moment (we will come back to them in a future post), and just focus on the order of events.  What are the odds of Biblical writers thousands of years before all of these scientific discoveries describing creation as having light come before the sun and stars that they certainly understood to be the source of light?  If you were trying to make up an account of creation at the time, or even just form one from your best understanding of what you could see and experience around you, it seems like an extraordinary blunder to put light showing up before the sun and stars.  But if these words really are from God, and God knew what the writer of Genesis couldn’t possibly know – wow!

At the very least you’d have to agree that modern scientists and Christians willing to engage in conversation definitely have some fascinating things to talk about.

If you want to follow the conversation on a regular basis just sign up at the left or at the bottom of this page to follow this blog.  I look forward to taking the journey together.

Let’s talk about what we don’t talk about.

How many young people do you know who have lost their faith in God?  How many adults?  How many of those decided against their faith after carefully examining all the evidence, having all their questions answered out loud in church and finding the answers lacking?  No, we all know that’s not how it usually happens.  People don’t generally lose their faith because they have weighed the evidence.  They drift away from a faith they come to assume doesn’t have the answers, and they assume that, not because of difficult conversations that do happen but because of those that don’t.

So where do we start?  Almost anywhere.  We need to be willing to talk about the very things we tend to avoid.  Bringing up hard topics won’t shake people’s faith.  Avoiding them will.

So, let’s start talking about the things we don’t talk about.  Let’s talk about everything from science versus the Biblical version of creation to why God seems to care so much about our sexuality and sexual choices.  Let’s have a conversation about why God allows evil things to happen to innocent people, even children.  Why God seems not only to have allowed, but at times to have commanded the killing of women and children in the Old Testament.  Why God did not condemn but clearly allowed slavery when virtually all Christians now agree that slavery is wrong.  Why some parts of the Bible seem to contradict others.  Why God killed David’s son for David’s sins when He elsewhere made clear that children aren’t punished for the sins of their fathers.

I described in “10 Reasons I Believe” the reasons I do believe in God.  That belief came as a result of years of study, tremendous digging, and agonizing soul searching.  It is not my desire to tear down the faith of anyone else.  But the fact is, if God is who we believe Him to be, our belief in Him will only be stronger as a result of examining the difficult and challenging questions head-on.

So let’s open up discussions without fear of where the conversations will take us.  One topic at a time.  I look forward to your thoughts.  If you have any topics to add, any questions, any concerns, any challenges, just jump in.

To begin this next step in our journey, let me ask you a question.  What exactly do you believe about creation?  How do you believe the world, and life came into existence.  How did human life come to be, well, human?  For some of you, this is a very simple question with a simple answer.  For others, it’s a question that sparks a quiet struggle, even doubt, about the Bible as a source of knowledge and truth.  So it matters that we take the time to talk about it.

If you want to follow the conversation on a regular basis just sign up at the left or at the bottom of this page to follow this blog.  I look forward to taking the journey together.

Agree or get out of my church?

Some years ago the Barna research group studied a question that has weighed on the hearts of thousands and thousands of parents:  why do young people leave the church?  Their findings boiled down to these six things.  Young people left because:

  1. Churches seem overprotective.
  2. Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
  3. Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
  4. Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
  5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
  6. The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. 

These all warrant significant discussion, but I believe number six is the real killer.  Our young people are leaving the churches they grew up in, and the faith they were taught, not because they’ve weighed the evidence and found it to be wrong, but because they were never allowed, or at least encouraged, to weigh the evidence in the first place.  They are leaving a faith that they were never really able to claim as their own because they were never allowed to ask the hard questions and develop a deeper faith.  Of maybe they just grew up in a church where no one examined the hard questions.  You can’t be part of conversations that aren’t happening.

It’s an understandable dilemma.  We want to stand for truth.  We want to provide answers.  We want our children to know the truth.  We want new Christians to know the truth.  We want to know the truth.  We want certainty.  Questions are okay as long as they are immediately supplied with clearly defined and accepted answers.  Uncertainty is to be avoided at all costs, and the easiest way to do that is to only raise questions we feel we have answers for.  And of course, to silence those who are less certain or who reach different conclusions…

One example:  at present there are some expressing a strong point of view that you cannot be a Christian unless you believe in a literal six day creation.  There are of course some basic aspects of what it takes to be a Christian.  It’s hard to see how someone could be a Christian without a belief in God.  Or without believing in Jesus, the actual Christ in Christian.  There is debate about how one becomes a Christian, and this is certainly important enough for future discussion.  But let’s assume someone has taken the initial step of faith and has become a Christian.  And now they enter your church, read your pamphlets, log onto your website, or otherwise enter a conversation with you.  They’re still trying to sort all of this “creation, evolution, or both” stuff out, and they hear from you that unless they’re committed to your point of view they are not, in fact, a Christian at all.  Not that they’re a Christian who you feel is wrong about something, or that they’re a Christian with whom you’d like to explore this important topic.  But that they’re not a Christian.  You have decided their relationship with God.  You have decided their eternal destiny.  You have made the decision on their salvation.  And you’ve shared this information with them.  Whatever your intentions, you have excluded them from the body of Christ.

Matthew 18:6 tells us that if anyone causes a little one who believes to stumble “it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”  Setting either barriers or stumbling blocks in front of those who are beginning to believe is high risk territory, and we should proceed very carefully.

I’d like to look at various points of view on creation in a later post.  For now, I’d just like to address whether we’re even allowed to discuss it.  Can there be differing points of view by people who believe in God, and who believe that God created the universe, but who differ on how He did it?  Can our children ask questions?  Even if we think the answer is yes, if we’re not discussing the hard questions in front of them, how will they possibly know it’s okay?

10 Reasons I Believe.

Faith comes easily for some people.  I envy them.  As much as I’ve tried, it’s always been a challenge for me.   I question.   I doubt.  I need answers.  I need clarity.  Certainty.  Understanding.  Just when I gain acceptance of something that seems to be nailed down as fact or truth, another question arises.  For most of my life these questions and doubts lived just under the surface, always present, always a point of consideration, but never faced head-on.  Until a few years ago, when I realized my faith was empty, lacking the conviction that only comes from being thoroughly challenged.

The quest I set out on, to tear everything I believed to the ground and to explore where a thorough search for truth would lead me, brought me first to read every source text I could find that profoundly disagreed with my own beliefs.  If my beliefs were wrong, I wanted to know that this was the case.  I explored scientific texts purporting to discredit the very idea of God and creation.  I explored texts from other religions offering an alternative to Christianity and the Bible.  My search was not an effort to confirm my faith, but to find fundamental truths I could be sure of – facts and principles to build my life on.  However convenient or inconvenient.  However familiar or unknown.  However comfortable or uncomfortable for me, or for others.  These are the conclusions my search has led me to.  I hope, in some way, these thoughts will be helpful to you in your own journey:

    1. The existence of matter requires a point of origin. Atheists contend that “God is an unnecessary hypothesis – you can explain everything without him.” The problem is, you can’t. See my previous posts for discussion on this, but science has no answer for the original existence of matter. No matter how well it may seek to answer questions about what happened after the beginning of the universe, it simply has no explanation for how matter itself came into existence. We are forced to choose between an eternally existing God, or eternally existing matter, with no beginning and no source or origin. This one fact alone has driven me back time and time again to belief in God.
    2. The existence of life requires a source – a creator. There’s a passage in the Old Testament (Isaiah 29:16), that asks if what is formed will say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me”? It’s what we seem to scream out, angrily, defiantly, at every opportunity. But the fact is, science doesn’t have the answers of origins. No matter what science may be able to explain or not explain about the evolution or continuation of life once it began, it has no answers for how it began. I’ve read the “scientific” arguments that we will one day explain everything, that we don’t need God to explain our existence, and that religious people are just clinging to a myth because they can’t accept the fact that science has made God unnecessary. I dug deep into those assertions looking for facts to back them up, but all I found were more assertions. No truth. No facts. Assumptions. I believe in the importance of science, but unfortunately, any assertion that science can explain the beginning of life is, well, unscientific.
    3. The Bible is a credible source of answers. Having come to the conclusion that there must be a God for matter and life to exist, the question was still “who is this God?” Having already read the Bible, I studied other religions, read their texts, and explored their teachings to see if they had answers for the basic questions of life. How did matter come into being? How did life begin? Who are we? What purpose does our existence serve? What are the facts of our story? What I found was a focus in almost all religions on the latter questions, but a lack of direct answers to the first two. I’ll spend more time on this in future posts, and welcome thoughts or challenges, but I was profoundly driven back to the Bible as the only religious text that sought to give direct and credible answers to the questions we all need answered.
    4. The Bible is written to be verified or falsified.   A couple of years ago, I purchased an Archaeological Study Bible. It was one of the more meaningful purchases of my life. Sure, it’s a great tool for study, with articles throughout on historical places and individuals connected to the words and accounts throughout the Bible. Part of why I got it was certainly for that continued opportunity for study, but just as much or more I purchased it because it represented an awareness I had come to after a tremendous amount of study: the sheer fact there can be an Archaeological Study Bible is part of what has strengthened my faith in the Bible as a source of truth. Having studied the key texts of other faiths, I found that some included no attempts at history, but were purely teaching or philosophy. Naturally, that also meant these had no historical facts that could be verified or disputed. Others that did present as containing some element of history were written in a manner so vague as to make any real verification or falsification impossible. The Bible is one long stream of falsifiable facts. The names of cities and of leaders of cities. The distances of travel from one place to another. Dates and locations of events. Every once in awhile I read some challenge to the Bible because one leader or city hasn’t been located yet in our archaeological efforts. No mention of the thousands that have. No mention of the ones that were considered not to exist, until they were found. And no mention of the sheer boldness and integrity of a religious text written across thousands of years that simply puts itself out there to be challenged. Here’s what happened. Here’s where. Here’s when. Here’s who. Question away. This wasn’t just written so you’ll believe. It was written so you’ll know.
    5. The Bible passes the “embarrassment factor” test – in spades! As historians consider whether an account is truth or fiction, one important element they consider is the embarrassment factor. Put simply, if you’re going to make up a story about yourself or someone you want the world to admire, you’re probably not going to include mention of the times when they were cowardly, sexually immoral, dishonest, or just plain stupid. The Bible, fairly constantly, does all of the above. The “heroes” of the Bible are men and women who lied, stole, hid, got involved in sexual relationships they had no business being in, and very often had to be called on the carpet before they even recognized what they’d done wrong. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the Bible simply does not read as a book made up to promote a religion or to glorify a group of people. Other religious texts often read as hero stories, with good characters who are consistently good and bad characters who are consistently bad. Which isn’t life, and which reads as heroic fiction. While the ugliness of some of the Bible accounts may serve as a stumbling block at times, it is also one of the main reasons I keep coming back to it as a reliable telling of events.
    6. The core witnesses of the New Testament risked, and mostly lost, their lives for a message that was only worth telling if it was true. And these are their own accounts. Not the kind of words you write because you want to be remembered by them. Not the kind of message you die for unless you believe it’s true and you’re desperately sharing something you believe the world has to hear.
    7. Jesus is the answer for the problems of guilt, meaninglessness, and death.   It’s true of course that we’re all looking for more than answers that explain our existence. We’re looking for answers to the problems in our lives. I’ve heard it said that the problems of guilt and remorse are actually caused by religion; that religious standards of right and wrong are what make people feel guilty in the first place and that we’d all be fine if it weren’t for these “rules” that religion has forced upon is. One problem I’ve always had with that argument is that the same people who say this also bristle at the idea that atheists have no source of morality. “Of course we know right from wrong. Of course we still value doing what is good for others. We don’t need God for that!” Okay, well then you also know guilt and remorse. It’s inherent. Another problem with the argument is that there seems to be significant evidence that there is actually a God, which means these standards aren’t created by religion but by God Himself. All of which leads us back to what we need the most – mercy. You might say all religions are based on mercy, but my readings say otherwise. Most religions are in fact based on justice. If you do good, you’ll receive good. If you do bad, you’ll receive bad. Our sin creates an extreme gap between us and any concept of God or eternal reward. Most religions, either implicitly or explicitly, are built on man’s best understanding of what it would take for us to bridge that gap. Extraordinary behavior or profound understanding. The right final balance (more good than evil across a lifetime). An almost endless stream of lifetimes adding up to eventually, finally, achieving nirvana.   Jesus, and only Jesus, represents God actually reaching out to bridge the gap for us. It’s opposite. Religion turned on its head. Outside of the box. Not what mankind would have come up with on its own. It’s also what gives not only hope, but meaning to our lives. We love because we are loved. We forgive because we know we have been forgiven. We show compassion because it was shown to us. We get how people need to be treated because we realize how important it was for God to see our needs and treat us that way.
    8. The teachings of Jesus are life- (and world-) changing. Compassion. Selflessness. Forgiveness. Love, not only toward those who love us but even toward those who would be our enemies. Helping others beyond all expectations and requirements. The animosity I see toward Christianity is fascinating. I believe some of it is certainly a result of exposure to individuals who profess Christianity but whose behavior is anything but Christian. On the other hand, some of it seems to be an anger response to teachings that, if accepted, would require an absolute and complete change of everything in the recipient’s life. But if you’ve accepted that there must be a God, and have begun the search of teachings to determine whose words really have the insight into what a deep, meaningful, and fulfilling life would actually be, it’s hard not to be astonished and drawn to the words of Jesus, the Christ.
    9. Natural moral law, conscience, and the existence of love. In short, I’ve listened to evolutionary psychology and its attempts to explain (or to explain away) the existence of altruism, an internal moral standard, and selfless love for other people, and it’s remarkably unconvincing. Evolution simply does not have an answer for love and selflessness. It shouldn’t exist. But it does. To me, our creative instincts point to our being made in the image of a creator. Much like that, our loving instincts, knowledge of right and wrong, and tendency to care if we’ve crossed moral lines all point to our being made in the image of a God with those characteristics.
    10. The placebo effect, man’s seemingly inherent bent toward faith, and man’s constant quest for something beyond himself. A doctor gives you a sugar pill, and your body responds to it as if it was the real thing because your mind believes it’s actual medicine. It’s called the placebo effect, and it’s exceptionally powerful. It works because what our mind believes can actually change what happens in our bodies. Not just whether you think you feel better, but what happens physically and chemically. Put differently, we’re wired for faith. When I was in grad school, a fellow doctoral student named Peter noted that I was a Christian and began to explain to me the stupidity of my beliefs by pointing out that people in almost every society have gravitated toward some belief in God. How did I explain that, he wondered. It’s still one of the more bizarre moments in theological discussions I’ve had. To Peter, the fact that most people on the planet gravitate toward some faith in a supreme being meant that there must not be a God – that we must all be making it up. Peter, you should know, considered himself a scientist. But this was the least scientific approach possible to the question. The fact that mankind constantly searches for answers beyond itself, that it inherently leans toward a belief in God in some form, and that it has an innate capacity for faith, would seem to point toward, not away from, God.

Not convinced?  That’s great.  I’m not trying to convince you – but I do hope to give you something to think about.  Disagree?  Let me know why.  Have other reasons of your own?  Share them.  Agree or disagree.  I look forward to hearing your point of view.

A Theory of Everything

I watched “The Theory of Everything” today.  (I know, it’s been out for awhile, but we’re cheap and I don’t usually see things until they’re out on DVD).  In the opening scene Stephen Hawking is shown introducing himself to his future wife as a cosmologist, which he explains is sort of religion for intelligent atheists.  In this well-made film, Hawking is presented as the intellectually gifted individual I believe him in actuality to be.  Brilliant.  Born with an intelligence most of us would give half our earthly possessions to acquire.  And explaining early on that “a physicist can’t allow his calculations to be muddled by a belief in a supernatural creator.”  We see him developing a theory as well as mathematical equations designed to lead back to the very first moment in space and time, and we all, scientists and theologians, cheer him on as we watch, because we all share the same fascination with that very first moment of existence.  “In the beginning…”  something happened, and we are all utterly drawn to understanding what that was, because we all want to understand just exactly how it came to be that we are here.  And in understanding how it came to be, to understand something of what it means for us to be here.

Of course the movie is about more than Stephen Hawking’s quest for answers.  It’s about his quest for life in the face of a crippling disease that was expected to end his life within two years of his initial diagnosis.  Spoiler alert: it didn’t.  He’s still alive at this writing, so the movie isn’t much of a cliffhanger in this regard, but it does pull you into the unimaginable struggle he must have faced.  And in the midst of that, his quest to prove with one mathematical equation that time had a beginning, and “with one eloquent equation, to explain everything.”  That’s all.  To live in the face of death, to find a way to communicate in the face of his body’s utter collapse… and to explain everything.

Unfortunately, and I know it’s just a movie, the story-line highlights the biases and assumptions that are a part of the picture, simply because all scientists are in fact also humans.  His Ph.D. thesis explained there was a beginning to the universe.  His continued work was to disprove it.  “God must die,” and “physics is back in business” are the successive quotes at this point in the film, not because he had somehow proven the absence of God, but because he believed he had to set aside the idea of God in order to pursue his science.   So there’s the question.  Does God have to die for scientific pursuit to continue?  If science is truly an objective method of following the evidence in search of truth, then the answer is obviously no.  In fact, for any premise to be excluded up front would mean that science isn’t science at all – it’s what would more accurately be termed a religion.  On the other hand, does science have to die for us to believe in God?  Sometimes we act like it.  At times the scientific community has railed against the idea of God.  At times it’s sought to disprove His existence.  But for the most part, it’s sought answers.  For the religious community to mistrust the motives of some scientists and scientific authors is understandable.  On the other hand, to reject actual science rather than to seek to be part of its quest for understanding is essentially to fear that what we believe may not be true and that someday this will be proven to be the case.  Whatever the truth is, we should face it head on.  With both sides simply assuming the other is wrong and not examining the evidence, it’s hard to see how we move any closer to a clear understanding.

Who is telling you what to believe?

Bear with me for a moment.  This may change your life.  If you can truly take hold of how much this one point affects you and those around you in your life, it will open up your ability to think about all the most important questions in your life in a new way.  We all believe we make up our own minds on most things, from the smallest likes and dislikes to the deeper beliefs about science and religion.  But let’s be honest. Mullets.  Bell bottoms.  Parachute pants.  Disco.  There are choices you just can’t explain without recognizing how influenced we are by the choices of those around us.  Okay, so you may be offended by one or more of my examples, but the fact is, fashion, music, even what we eat tends to go in trends.

Trends are when we all start doing something new at once.  When that happens with what kind of pants we wear or how we get our hair cut, it’s pretty harmless.  But unfortunately the research of social psychology has taught us over and over that we are influenced in deeper ways than that.   A person who doesn’t know they’re in an experiment will do what they believe is inflicting pain on another person when those around them are doing it and don’t seem to question the commands they’re given. This is not just true for bad people.  It’s true for people who would never have believed themselves capable of cruelty to another person.  From tragic real-life events we know that a crowd of people will stand by and watch a horrible act of violence without doing anything to help, even when one person who saw the same thing would rush to call 911.  In one study and real-life situation after another we have discovered the terrifying truth that we are very reluctant to accept about ourselves; we are deeply reluctant to risk the disapproval of the world around us, and we are much more willing than we want to think to change the way we act and even what we believe if we think it’s what the world around us does or believes.

Why does all of this matter so much?  Because the world of science and religion is made up of human beings who are just as susceptible to trends in thinking as anyone else.  The problem is that scientists believe they are objective and uninfluenced by the thinking of their time, and that trends occur in the religious world in the same way that they do everywhere else.  We’ll come back to this reality over and over.  It’s not just important – it’s truly of life and death importance that we examine the questions of existence and meaning for ourselves and at least attempt to get outside of the “group think” of our time.  So what perception is posited right now that makes this so important to consider?

As we’ve discussed, something has always existed.  Before there was anything else. Before the universe as we know it.  Before time as understand it.  Before everything, there was either eternal matter, with no beginning, or there was an eternal God, with no beginning.  It’s the absolute foundation of my faith.  Of course, you may have heard that Stephen Hawking, so often heralded as one of the smartest people in the modern world, has another theory; that the universe is fully capable of launching itself into existence.  Spontaneous existence from nothing, which Stephen Hawking acknowledges goes against all the laws of science in all other circumstances, but claims can happen in the case of an entire universe.  The idea he explains in “The Grand Design” is that he does not believe in a personal God who created the universe, but he does believe in a law of science that somehow led to the spontaneous creation from nothing of a universe that would from that point on preclude spontaneous creation.  Here’s the thing though, in addition to the general absurdity of the idea itself; what Hawking is essentially saying is that it was the existence of the law of science that led to the spontaneous creation of the universe.  He cannot bring himself to consider that a God could always have existed and that this God could have created the universe, but he can bring himself to believe that, independent of any matter existing, an eternal law of science existed and acted independently to create a universe.  In the artificial “science versus God” argument, one that has done little to move the discussion forward, Hawking has managed to propose a theory that would be considered laughable if brought up by any other person or at any other point in time.  But today, in our current trend of thought, while not necessarily accepted, it’s not being universally rejected either.  It’s our mullet.  Our parachute pants.

Stephen Hawking does not need my admiration, but in general, I will tell you that he has it.  He is a passionately committed seeker of truth.  He is squarely in the midst of the quest for answers, for truth, and for understanding of our existence.  But I would also say he is blinded by his commitment to the idea not only that science must answer all questions, but that it must at all costs do so without considering the possibility of God.  It’s the current worldview, and it’s hard not to be caught up in it, no matter who you are.  It’s hard not to see what everyone else sees.  But what is true?  What makes sense?  What fits the evidence?  Step-by-step, let’s stay the course and simply look at things for ourselves.

An open discussion about doubt, belief, and faithfulness.