Saturday, March 18, 2017

"Keep the Butter Square!"


I seem to have inherited from my father not only my first name, and my profession in the ministry and college teaching, but also my habit of wanting to make everything neat, orderly, and symmetrical.

At mealtime, in our family home as I was growing up, the butter was placed in a dish to pass around the table as needed. I think this was before we were buying the spread packaged in four quarters, so it was in a larger shape like a cube protected by an ancient pewter cover. To butter our bread, boiled potatoes, or whatever, we would take our knife and dig out a gob of butter, only to hear my father admonish us to “Keep the butter square!” He preferred that the butter in the serving dish not become misshapen, but remain neatly squared off.

This trait stayed with Dad till the end of his life. One incident stands out. When I was the pastor of a small-town church, he and my mother visited for a Sunday worship service. Seated on the platform after the service had begun, I noticed Dad in the congregation making a sideways motion with his outstretched hand. It turned out that the flower stand and pulpit chair on one side of the platform were not symmetrical with those on the opposite end. He was trying to get me to make the necessary adjustment then and there, to restore the proper order of the furniture.

This penchant for having things orderly and organized has been one of my lifelong character traits. Books must be shelved by topic and subtopic, and within the subtopic organized by author’s name. Vinyl records or music CDs must be organized by composer and genre, and a list made of all music so I can consult it when considering a new purchase, in order to avoid duplication, without going to another part of the house where they are stored.

Memorabilia must be boxed by life periods, in sequence. All other stored items, such as railroad ephemera (a hobby of mine), computer equipment, or unused kitchenware must be placed logically into cartons and labeled. I prefer the type of carton with a removable lid, like the cartons used to ship reams of copy paper, and have collected enough over the years to contain anything that will fit into them. I never throw away a good carton, and have stacks of folded cartons stored in a shed for possible future use.

When I moved to a new home some years ago, I installed seven large metal shelves in the basement to store such items, each loaded with clearly labeled cartons grouped by similarity of contents. When I held an open house welcoming friends to my new residence, people would go downstairs to inspect the basement. Cries of “Oh, my God!” could be heard as they registered their shock at what they witnessed down there.

The urge to organize and sort affects my use of the computer, as well. I don’t understand how people can load up their cameras or cell phones, or their computers, with thousands of images none of which have a caption that would explain, to the outsider, the subject and date of the image. I have standard methods of naming photo files that enable me to quickly find what I want. For family photos, for example, the file name begins with the date (year-month-day) and then the subject. A photo of my wife and me in front of a locomotive is labeled “2015-09-26_Richard_ Shirley_at_Monticello_Rwy_Mus.tif.” That way, when I sort by name I am also sorting by date. Of course, photos from each branch of our large family are kept in their appropriate sub-subfolders, under the proper subfolder, under the master “Images” folder in my hard drives (I back up everything to two other computers). I don’t keep every image I take of a subject; I pick out the best one or two and then get rid of the rest. Why do some people keep every shot, whether blurred, off-center, duplicative, or whatever, and then even put them on Facebook?

And I don’t like what the various versions of Windows do with downloads, scans, etc. Since I’m the only user of my computers, I don’t use the “My Documents,” etc. folders; I put everything in an appropriately named folder on the main “C” drive. It annoys me when some piece of software, such as a printer program, automatically puts my scans into “My Scans,” in “My Documents,” in my User folder, and assigns it some goofy name of its own. I have to go and locate it, cut it out to where it should go, and rename it according to my naming conventions.

Okay, call me compulsive if you like. I’ll tell you one thing, though: when I need to locate something I know where to find it, whether it’s in bookcases or storage shelves or the computer. “OCD” can pay off if you use it wisely; in the end it can save time and trouble.

Besides, I have a theological justification for my efforts. When God began to create the earth it was “without form and void”; what he did during the days of creation was to bring symmetry (e.g., light and darkness) and labeling (“God called the light day,” etc.) into what had been unordered and unlabelled. Then, finally, he could “rest” in his temple and enjoy his good work. By ordering our lives we participate in the Creator’s work; at least, that’s how I think of it. So when my open house guests encountered the order and organization of my basement, their reaction, “Oh, my God!” was not entirely inappropriate.

And, of course, it’s also good policy to keep the butter square.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Defending the “Prosperity Gospel”


The so-called “prosperity gospel,” or “health and wealth gospel,” is much maligned in certain Christian circles. An Internet search will turn up a plethora of web sites, blogs, and the like that raise objections to the idea that following Jesus leads to a healthier, more prosperous life. The assumption of these critics is that the Christian life is to be marked by suffering, so that Christians who view their faith as promoting prosperity and health are departing from the pattern of the New Testament church. We present here some arguments that counter certain assumptions of the critics of the “health and wealth gospel,” who would instead advocate a “sickness and poverty gospel.”

The early Christians were not poor.

Jesus and the earliest Christians were not poor by the standards of their time and place, as they are often depicted. Jesus was a general contractor; the word teknon (Mark 6:3) refers to something more than a simple carpenter. The first disciples were in the fishing business; Matthew (Levi) was wealthy, being a publican. Well-to-do people, including the wife of one of Herod’s officials (Luke 8:3), supported Jesus and his disciples in their ministry. The disciples maintained a treasury from which they distributed aid to the poor (John 13:29). Jesus’ garment was of such quality that the Roman soldiers declined to cut it up (John 19:22-23). Wealthy men provided a tomb for his burial (John 19:38-40).

Early Christians worshiped in the homes of substantial citizens (e.g., Lydia, Acts 16:14-15) whose residences could accommodate an assembly. People like Paul with his entourage, or Priscilla and Aquila, could afford to travel through the Mediterranean world, booking passage on merchant ships. Paul was able to rent the lecture hall of Tyrannus to conduct his seminars (Acts 19:9).

The New Testament writings are the work of educated authors.

The New Testament writings are not the work of poor, uneducated peasants. They display a literary skill consistent with a high level of education, vast knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, and serious historical research (e.g., Luke’s introductions to his Gospel and Acts; a wealthy patron apparently underwrote the production and publication of these works, Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1). The manner in which the gospels are constructed reveals a deep theological insight into Jesus’ own intent, and reveals his intellectual brilliance in reformulating the story of Israel around his own ministry.

Paul’s writings reveal a philosophical genius that has been said to equal or surpass that of pagan thinkers of the time. The New Testament writers, and Jesus himself, were multi-lingual, conversant with Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek (Jesus, Matthew 15:22-28), and perhaps Latin and various local languages such as Lycaonian (Acts 14:11).

The early church had the witness of the Scriptures.

The earliest Christians did not have a “New Testament;” their Scriptures were what we call the Old Testament, i.e. the Hebrew Scriptures of the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Thus they had the example of wealthy Israelite leaders such as Abraham, Joseph, and Solomon. Moreover, they had the counsel of the Book of Proverbs, that “the reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4), and such counsel was not lost on the New Testament church.

While Jesus made clear that excessive concern for wealth can be a hindrance to receiving the good news of God’s kingdom, he also promised a “hundredfold” material reward for his followers in the “age to come” (Mark 10:17-31). He also told a parable about faithful servants who used what they were entrusted with for material gain (Matthew 25:L14-23). Paul recognizes that some members of the Christian community will have ample resources to give “with generosity” (Romans 12:8), and underscores the Scriptural principle that “sowing” leads to reaping a reward (Galatians 6:7; cf. Malachi 3:10).

Suffering, in the New Testament, is not poverty or sickness.

While the New Testament refers to the suffering of Christians, this suffering is not poverty and sickness but persecution, because the message of the earliest Christians ran counter to prevailing societal norms. Among Jews, the inclusion of Gentiles threatened the exclusivist, revolutionary mentality of the Pharisees and others, about which Jesus warned them (Luke 13:1-5). Acknowledging Jesus as “Lord” threatened the Jewish understanding of monotheism, and it is clear that early Christians, while not abandoning monotheism, melded the work of Jesus into the activity of the Father (1 Corinthians 8:6; cf. Jesus’ words in John 14:9 and passim).

In the Roman world, the announcement that “Jesus is Lord” threatened the lordship of Caesar, who was worshiped as a god. For these reasons the activity of the followers of Jesus was accompanied by persecution. But Jesus taught his disciples to pray that they would not be subject to peirasmos, the testing of persecution (Matthew 6:13). Writing to Gaius, John reproduced the customary greeting of a letter writer, “I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in health” (3 John 2); he saw no need to alter the greeting to reflect an expectation of illness and deprivation.

The purpose of Jesus’ coming is not to foster poverty and sickness.

The New Testament abounds with brief statements about the purpose for which Jesus has come. While he came to serve, and to seek and deliver the “lost,” he also came to impart abundant life (John 10:10) — however we take that phrase. He also came “to destroy the works of the evil one” (1 John 3:8). Since the “thief” comes to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10), logically the Son of God comes to do the opposite — that is, to bring blessing instead of curse, fulfilling the promise of God’s covenant and delivering his people from “the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13) in which pestilence, deprivation, exile and other evils are included (Deuteronomy 28). In so doing, Jesus comes to “deliver us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) so that the harsh circumstances of sickness, poverty, and ignorance that mark this age can be overcome. Part of Jesus’ stated mission, at the beginning of his preaching, is to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), which can hardly mean the continuation of their impoverished condition.

The New Testament church is a transitional phase in God’s purpose.

The New Testament is not the final story in God’s plan for his people. It is a transitional phase that records how the message of the kingdom of God was first proclaimed and spread throughout the Mediterranean world. The New Testament expresses the vision for a greater culmination: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). “Every knee shall bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11). These were not realities achieved in the New Testament church, except by anticipation: “For whoever is in the Messiah, there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The kingdom of God is like seed that takes root and eventually spreads throughout the earth (Matthew 13:31). The early church labored under great difficulty, but the difficulty was not supposed to last forever.

Two millennia of history show the beneficial results of Christian faith.

The history of those parts of the world that have been dominated by Christian influence reveals the beneficial impact of Christianity as a “health and wealth gospel.” The development of hospitals and charitable organizations, institutions for research and learning, and efforts to promote the public good has been the result of the practice of Christian virtues. The rights of the individual, valued by God as a creature in his own image, have become a cornerstone of human culture leading to such milestones as the abolition of slavery. Industrial initiative and the results of technology have, on the whole, benefited people across a spectrum of society. Poverty has diminished, pestilence has been curbed, and people have been freed to explore their possibilities in life to a degree not seen in parts of the world where this Christian “health and wealth gospel” has not been promulgated. (For a summary of the cultural and social impact of the spread of Christian faith, see John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? Zondervan, 2012.)

Opponents of the “health and wealth” gospel are inconsistent.

Critics of the “health and wealth” gospel take the supposed New Testament church as their model, claiming that the Christian life is subject to poverty and sickness. To be consistent, they should apply that model to all aspects of their life and witness. They should not have church buildings, or if they have them, not furnish them with electricity or flush toilets. They should avoid the use of radio, television, or the Internet to propagate their ideas. They should walk to all church meetings instead of riding in automobiles, and meet during the night only because there was no “weekend” as we know it in the Roman world. They should not use printed or electronic Bibles, which were unknown in the early church, but restrict their use of Scripture to oral or handwritten format.

Insistence that Christians must suffer poverty and illness is a “gospel” of works.

The “sickness and poverty gospel” nullifies the suffering of Jesus on our behalf. It claims we have to suffer in order to be true Christians. It is a “gospel” of works, not grace. In a world awash in poverty, illness, injustice, and all forms of oppression one wonders why any Christian would not choose to preach a gospel of deliverance from these evils.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Why Is Christianity True?


Why do people believe Christianity is true — or not true? Answers to these questions depend, of course, on who is trying to answer them.

The person who wants to affirm the truth of the Christian faith is likely to answer the question in one, or more, of several ways:
— "It works for me. My life was a mess till I became a Christian, and Jesus straightened me out."
— "I accept Christianity by faith. I just believe in my heart that it's true."
— "I accept the Bible is the Word of God, so Christianity must be true."
— "God told me it's true."

The person who doesn't accept the truth of the Christian faith might respond to the believer with something like this:
— "Maybe it works for you, but it doesn't work for me so it must not be true."
— "You can't make something real just by believing it. Anybody can believe anything they want to, but I don't have to accept their belief as the truth."
— "The Bible is just the opinion of some people who lived long ago, in a pre-scientific age. We're smarter today than they were, so we don't have to take what they wrote seriously — we know better."
— "I don't see any evidence that God is real. How could he tell you anything, if he's not there?"

What characterizes the answers of both the believer and the non-believer is that both are basing their opinion on something about themselves. The first person is saying that Christianity is true because he has faith, and because of what his faith has done for him. The second is saying that from his own experience and outlook he doesn't see any reason to consider Christian faith a valid option.

Is there a way to anchor the Christian worldview on something other than subjective factors such as one's personal preference or perspective? Is there a way, in fact, to anchor Christian belief in reality itself? Does the Bible offer any guidance here, guidance that might even respond to the objections of a person who accepts only his own authority and not that of Scripture?

Biblical Insights into Cosmology

What, after all, is reality? That question, like that of faith, can be answered in several ways. Most people in contemporary Western culture would probably accept the view that reality is whatever exists; in other words, reality is the universe. Is the Christian worldview just fantasy, or does it have a foundation in the structure of the objective universe? Thinking about this, one might wonder why there should even be a universe. There is no logical necessity that anything should exist at all. How did the universe "get here"?

The Bible contains some statements about that; in fact, it begins with such as statement: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light" (Genesis 1:1-3). The statement is couched in geocentric terms, from the standpoint of an earthbound observer. But, in its essence, it says this: Once there was nothing — just "dark" nothingness. But then something was brought into being, and that first creation was light. In the same vein, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews declares that "the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear" (Hebrews 11:3).

 Most cosmologists accept the "big bang" theory, which holds that the universe didn't always exist but had a beginning. This view is reinforced by the observation that the universe is still expanding from the force of that original "explosion" of heat and radiation, an event best imagined as a flash of intense light. Light, itself, is still something of a puzzle to physicists, having the properties of both matter (a particle) and energy (a wave, or vibration). That the Genesis account begins with the appearance of light is in complete accord with the consensus of cosmologists about the earliest stage of the universe.

Creation by Division

The Genesis account goes on, of course, to relate the successive stages of creation, again from a geocentric perspective. In the earliest stages the universe takes shape by a process of division. Light divides from darkness, gaseous matter (called "water") is separated by more solid substance ("firmament"); then the "water" of the earth separates into the components that make up the surfaces of the globe. Echoing Genesis, the apostle Peter writes that "by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water" (2 Peter 3:5). It is of interest that this process of division is a breaking down of what is undifferentiated into components that differ from one another, in much the same way that cosmologists regard the formation of heavier elements from the universe's original simple element, hydrogen — a term derived, incidentally, from hudor, the Greek word for "water."

The creation process, as described in the Bible, is also a process of analysis, or the breakdown of things into their component parts. The description makes it clear that the components can be analyzed, and viewed objectively, because they are not sacred in themselves. The universe itself is not God, but is what God has made. Further, the portion of the universe that is accessible to human beings has been placed under their management, as the Creator's agents. This is the meaning of Genesis's declaration, "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth'" (Genesis 1:26). Without such a perspective that permits analysis and human intervention, what we know as modern science and technology would not be possible.

Additionally, this process of differentiation creates information, since information is the difference between one thing and another. This difference is binary; something is either "on" or "off," it is either one thing or another — the principle that makes the digital computer and modern information technology possible. This biblical view of the origin of the universe through division is foundational to all information, and therefore knowledge, since there is no information or knowledge in undifferentiated sameness. For human beings, who have the faculty of language, information is typically conveyed by words, or some equivalent symbol or action that functions as a word. Thus biblical writers speak of the informational, or word-like, aspect of the creative process. Psalm 34:6 summarizes the Genesis account this way: "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth."

Upholding the Universe

The Gospel of John equates the creative word with Jesus Christ, as the incarnate revelation of God. The Gospel begins, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:1-3). The letter to the Hebrews carries the thought further; the informational aspect of the creative process not only brings it into being, but also keeps it from collapsing back into itself. Thus of Jesus Christ, as the revelation of God, it states, "He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power (Hebrews 1:3).

Physicists note that the atoms and molecules of physical matter consist of subatomic particles separated from one another by distances that can be compared, on an astronomical scale, with the distances between bodies of the solar system. In other words, even the "solid" matter of the universe is mostly space. What keeps these particles both separated and bound together? Scientists give names to these mysterious forces, but that does not mean they understand how they work. The Scriptural authors identify Jesus Christ, as the Word of God, not only with the creative agency of God at the universal, or macro, level, but also with the operation of these forces at the quantum level to "uphold the universe."

The cosmos is filled with radiation emanating from various sources that astronomers have been able to identify. However, their instruments also detect a faint background radiation that permeates the universe and comes from no identifiable source. Their general conclusion is that this background radiation is the echo of the "big bang," an afterglow from the event that brought the universe into being. In this context, it is interesting to recall the words of the writer of Psalm 19: "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world" (Psalm 19:2-4a). Somehow, this writer understood that the universe conveyed a message about its creation that could not be expressed in speech.

How Did They Know?

The non-believer may regard the Bible as the work of benighted writers working with a primitive, pre-scientific picture of the earth. He might call them "flat-earthers." It is true that the biblical authors describe their universe in geocentric terms; like contemporary weather forecasters they speak of the sun as "rising" and "setting," as though it revolved about the earth. But apparently some Scriptural writers knew the earth was a globe, not a flat plane. Isaiah wrote, "Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in" (Isaiah 40:21-22a).

Of course, any astute observer of an eclipse of the moon would see the curved shadow of the earth and understand that it is not flat but spherical; ancient thinkers, including the authors of Scripture, had a better understanding of such things than they are often given credit for, despite their lack of modern scientific instrumentation. They were aware of their limitations; Isaiah, himself, had just asked, "Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?" (Isaiah 40:12). Nevertheless, despite the restrictions of their perspective these thinkers had insights into matters affecting the structure of the universe that accord with contemporary understanding of the cosmos.

How did the biblical writers know about these things, in an era before the work of modern cosmologists, physicists and other scientists was available for reflection? There is only one answer: their insight came from the Creator himself, through means that transcend our "normal" path to the acquisition of knowledge. The Apostle Peter stated that "men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:21). Paraphrasing the prophet Isaiah, the Apostle Paul wrote, "'What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,' God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God" (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).

To return, then, to our earlier question: Can the Christian worldview be based on something other than subjective factors — can it be anchored in reality, or the structure of the universe? These examples from the Bible show that it was not written by people who lived in a fantasy world. These writers had a grip on some basic cosmological realities, even if those realities were largely hidden from people of their time due to the restrictions of a geocentric perspective. These men were skilled authors, brilliant thinkers, astute observers of life and of the world around them, but beyond this they had insight into foundational truths about reality. Christian faith, which inheres in Jesus Christ who is "upholding the universe with his word of power," is based on this biblical understanding of the universe. Therefore, Christianity is grounded in reality in a way that competing worldviews, including those of its detractors, are not.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Was the First Christmas Really So Heavenly?


We think of Christmas as a time of special beauty, a time of glory. The mystery of the incarnation — God taking human form in the baby Jesus — inspires in us a sense of wonder. Because this idea of God’s becoming man is so extraordinary, we feel it’s appropriate to celebrate Christmas with all the glitter and sparkle and tinselly trappings we can muster. Our Christmas cards are full of lovely pictures of angel choirs, peaceful villages, reverent manger pageants, and gleaming stars. Somehow we feel the first Christmas must have been such a special, “holy” time.

Our favorite carols reflect that sentiment. “There’s a Song in the Air” as angels “touch their harps of gold.” “All is calm, all is bright.” Bethlehem’s “deep and dreamless sleep” is undisturbed, for “born the king of angels,” “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”

Was it really that way, that first Christmas? Was it really so heavenly, so ethereal, so glorious? Let’s think for a moment about the familiar Gospel story of the people and events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Think of what people were doing as the story unfolds:

— A doubting priest loses his ability to speak.
— A young woman learns of her unexpected pregnancy.
— Her startled husband considers getting a divorce.
— People travel for miles in order to pay their taxes.
— A foreign emperor’s troops occupy their land.
— Shepherds have to work all night in the open field.
— A baby is born in a stable because the inn has no vacancy.
— Foreign dignitaries are trudging across a barren desert.
— A suspicious ruler slaughters innocent children.

No, the birth of Jesus wasn’t all glitter and glory. It didn’t occur under peaceful, benign circumstances. It wasn’t at all like the beautiful scenes on our Christmas cards. The birth of the Son of God took place in the midst of some very ordinary situations. Jesus was born into a harsh environment, where people faced difficulty and deprivation, where they had to struggle to get along.

But that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? A God who loves us wouldn’t come to us covered with forbidding glory, shielding himself from our struggles and putting on a fa├žade of peaceful complacency. A God who loves us would come just as Jesus came, in the midst of the ordinary grind of our daily existence. He would come to say, “I’m taking on your humble life, in order to raise it up to my kind of life. I’m taking on human nature so you can become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). I’m coming to you as Immanuel, ‘God with us,’ so that through him you can come to me and belong to my family.”

We do celebrate, yes. We do cover Christmas with glory and glad song, because of what Christmas means: God with us, Immanuel; “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). That’s a truth we can’t ignore, and it’s right that we should celebrate it because of the difference it makes in our lives today. But let’s always remember, too, that God is with us even in the everyday humdrum of life when things look dull and ordinary and even tedious and hard. For Messiah Jesus first came to us in that very same kind of world.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Principle of Complementarity


A principle by which the universe operates, and which is fundamental to life and existence, is the principle of complementarity. By this I mean that all phenomena depend upon the interplay of opposites — things that are dissimilar to each other, and therefore work together in a complementary manner. Without this dissimilarity, the phenomena (whichever ones we care to discuss) simply cannot do what they’re supposed to do, maintain themselves, or even exist to begin with.

To state the obvious, existence itself is a complement to nonexistence. If we say something exists, that’s because that “something” cancels out its own nonexistence. This may appear a simple truism, but it’s a profound philosophical truth with extensive ramifications. Light, for example, is meaningful only in apposition to darkness, i.e., the non-existence of light. Matter and energy (really “two sides of the same coin”) are effective only to the extent that their presence contrasts with their non-presence. Otherwise matter wouldn’t matter — because it wouldn’t be.

The principle of complementarity extends to the field of information. As Gregory Bateson pointed out, information is “a difference that makes a difference.” That is, information is found in the difference between one state and what is not that state. A blank sheet of paper holds no information except in how it differs from its background, i.e., the information is found only at the edges. For a sheet of paper to contain information it must have some kind of markings on it which differ from the paper medium itself. There is no information in undifferentiated sameness.

Therefore, digital information also depends on the principle of complementarity. In a digital computer, a “byte” must be either turned on or turned off; there’s no half on or half off. The information in the DNA of living cells depends on the sequential ordering of the nucleotide bases along the spine of the molecule; each of the base pairs is either in one position along the sequence or another, and the positioning governs the information that is replicated into the rest of the nucleus to build the many types of proteins that enable the organism to function. The base pairs themselves (adenine-thymine, guanine-cytosine) are complementary; for example, a cytosine-cytosine combination doesn’t work because hydrogen bonding can’t occur between two such molecules.

Proteins themselves follow the principle of complementarity by folding into a three-dimensional shape that interlocks with whichever chemical they are designed to process. Unless the shapes of the protein molecule and the target molecule are complementary (that is, fitting like a hand into a glove), the two molecules cannot “nest” and the protein cannot do its work.

Mechanical and other objects also demonstrate the principle of complementarity. Take fasteners, for instance. Two bolts can’t be bolted together; to do what it’s designed to do, a bolt requires a complementary nut with threads of the same pitch and diameter. Or try fastening your jacket if both its edges have only holes, or only buttons. If your car battery had two negative poles, or two positive poles, you would never be able to get the starter to turn over. Two North American railroad cars can couple because the coupler knuckles face each other in opposite directions (always being right-handed as viewed from each car, therefore interlocking when viewed as a pair).

Now let’s apply the principle of complementarity to biological life. Both male and female parents are required to reproduce offspring. Without a complementary union of gametes (ovum and sperm), fertilization and a resultant zygote (the beginning of a new organism) doesn’t occur. An ovum can’t fertilize itself.

The principle of complementarity makes it clear why homosexuality is a ludicrous concept and a practice devoid of function — like trying to start your car with two negative poles on the battery. The requisite pairing of complementary body parts is absent from intimacy between two individuals of the same sex. There’s a logical reason, grounded in the structure of the universe, why marriage is appropriate only for the complementary pairing of male and female.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

We Bigots Have Rights, Too


As Executive Secretary of the National Association of Mean-Spirited Bigots (NAMSB), I am lodging a protest against the vilification our organization has been receiving in the national media. Because we oppose, for example, “gay marriage,” abortion on demand, and unrestricted infiltration of illegal aliens, we’re excoriated for our opinions and told, in effect, that we have no voice in the national discussion of such matters.

I am wondering why we Bigots aren’t allowed to be intolerant of certain trends in our culture, when non-bigoted people are allowed to be vehemently intolerant of our views. It seems there is a double standard here. If you’re non-bigoted, you can condemn and marginalize Bigots with impunity. But if you’re a Bigot, you aren’t allowed to criticize the opinions of non-bigots.

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States reads, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But it seems that the courts are reading the Constitution differently: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, except the speech of Bigots.”

We Bigots have the same rights as anyone else to hold and express our mean-spirited opinions. Yes, we’re bigoted against the irrational, the illogical, and the goofy. We believe that which is unreasonable — such as the items mentioned in my first paragraph, or the recently signed agreement encouraging Iran to pursue its nuclear program, or the proliferation of entitlement programs — are not only goofy but also dangerous to our nation’s moral and physical welfare. We’re mean-spirited, because the idiocies of public policy in our nation anger us; we don’t like to see people hurt by the effects, intended or unintended, of ill-considered court decisions, legislation, or executive actions.

So call me a Mean-Spirited Bigot. How could that bother me? That's what I call myself.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

What Is Salvation?


“Salvation,” in biblical terms, is simply rescue or deliverance. Biblical references to salvation, unlike contemporary presentations of “salvation” in many Christian communities, rarely speak of salvation from sin, as though sin were some sort of internal condition within the subject. In the Scriptures salvation is deliverance or rescue from an outside threat that has seized the subject. A typical reference is the apostle Peter’s appeal to his fellow Jews on the day of Pentecost: “Save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40).

Following the biblical pattern, salvation would be offered as deliverance from an enslaving or oppressing world view that affects a person’s existence and future possibilities within a particular, concrete cultural and historical setting. The individual who responds to the Christian gospel is “saved” not from some internal state of being as such, but from the false paradigm that has hitherto prevented that person from recognizing Jesus Christ as the risen Lord and Authority in life, and which has therefore held the person in a pattern of alienation from the purposes of God as revealed in Scripture.

Today millions are trapped in the bondage of such false paradigms — whether they be imposed by media, the educational establishment, political ideologies, non-Christian religions, dysfunctional behavior patterns or destructive habits. These are the external enemies from which people need to be rescued, or “saved,” so that they can enjoy the life for which God has created them.

In Scripture, salvation is usually mentioned in connection with a person’s rescue from forces or conditions that affect his life in the “here and now” It is rarely presented in a form that could be understood as an action by God that affects the state of a person after death, or his eternal destiny. No single verse or passage relates salvation to “going to heaven,” a phrase not in the Bible. Where “heaven” and words relating to salvation appear in the same context, the reference to heaven is not to the goal of the believer’s salvation but to the abode of God, his particular “space.” The believer’s “heavenly” destiny is an inference from other passages that state the matter quite differently.

The New Testament makes it clear that salvation is salvation by incorporation. The believer has already entered into his or her future destiny through incorporation into the life of the risen Christ (John 3:36; Romans 6:3-5; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 3:1-3; 1 John 3:14, 5:12). Since the believer, in dying to self, has already died the “first death” (a phrase not in Scripture), he has no fear of the “second death” as do those who are not in Christ (Revelation 20:6).

Salvation is an abstract concept, not an entity or state that exists somewhere in and of itself. “Salvation” is only a word that identifies an action that occurs in a relationship between two persons. A savior delivers or rescues another person, so that the other person is “saved” — or, indeed, a person “saves himself” through laying aside a false paradigm or world view that prevents him from recognizing the work of God in his life or that of his cultural context. Salvation is not a trait that describes one person as distinct from other persons, but is a name for the action that has rescued that person from the oppression that affects him or her.

In the New Testament, that rescuing action takes the form of being incorporated into the body of the risen Christ. One who is “in Christ” has been delivered from a corrupted “age” (cultural world) and lives a life that anticipates God’s new, or restored, creation (e.g., Acts 3:19-21; Romans 8:19-21). Thus terms relating to salvation, in Scripture, usually describe a concrete, down-to-earth experience of being set free from threatening or destructive conditions of ordinary human life.

In common Christian parlance “salvation” is a religious-sounding word that has been “spiritualized,” removed from its concrete biblical associations and related to some inward condition in an individual, or in the “soul.” To restore biblical understanding it might be better to speak not of “salvation,” but of rescuing people or helping them break free of dysfunctional relationships, harmful values, false world views, oppressing conditions, or other factors that constrict and diminish life and keep people bound in “sin” (estrangement from God) and away from Christ. On this understanding, people are not “saved” when they assent to certain doctrines or say a prayer, but when their life changes.