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.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Eternal Torment

In a Bible study group I once led, one of the members — a deacon on the church board — told why he had become a Christian. His chief motivation, he explained, was that he didn’t want to “go to hell.”

The desire to avoid the eternal punishment of hell is probably the reason why many have made the commitment to Jesus Christ. In some Christian circles, at least, the “gospel” is often presented in those terms: “Come to Jesus, in order to be saved from everlasting torment and ‘go to heaven’ instead.”

Scripture does contain a few hints about the possibility of eternal torment. Speaking of the need to avoid sinful motives and actions, Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47-48). Jude, the brother of Jesus and James, also has harsh words for those who rebel against the way of God, calling them “wandering stars for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved for ever” (Jude 13).

Most vividly, the Revelation to John speaks of the “lake of fire,” the ultimate destination of those whose names haven’t been written in the book of life of the Lamb of God. They, and particularly those forces who deceive and oppress the people of God, will be cast into the lake of fire “and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:7-10; 14-15).

But is the idea of eternal torment believable today? Two arguments, at least, speak against it. First, if God is good and merciful, would he really consign a person to an eternity of unspeakable anguish and suffering? Such an action seems unworthy of a benevolent Deity whose being is so often identified with love in Christian teaching.

Second, where is this everlasting hell, anyway? The first Soviet cosmonaut famously returned to earth and announced that he didn’t see any God “up there.” If hell is real, wouldn’t it also show up somewhere as powerful telescopes range throughout the vast reaches of the universe? In the age of science, people have trouble believing in things that can’t be detected and measured by our sophisticated instruments. “Spiritual” concepts like heaven and hell have been relegated to the sphere of private opinion, and therefore ruled out of public discourse.

Whatever one thinks of avoiding hell as a motivation for committing one’s life to Christ (and I think there are better reasons), it is ironic that contemporary science itself — especially astrophysics and cosmology — provides an interesting analogy to the biblical hints concerning eternal torment. I am referring to the phenomenon of the “black hole.”

A black hole is the remnant of a star that has “burned itself out,” having expended all the energy created by the nuclear fusion that gives the star its brilliance. When this occurs, the core of the star collapses to a tiny ball of matter so dense that nothing — not even light — can escape its gravity. Anything near the black hole is affected by its gravity and is in danger of being drawn into it and annihilated, as it crosses the “event horizon” that marks the point of no escape.

And here’s where the idea of “eternity” enters the picture. Einstein showed that, as a body approaches the speed of light, time slows down for that body. What to an outside observer would seem like a thousand years would be experienced, by someone on that body, as mere seconds. The gravity of a black hole is so powerful that objects streaming toward it approach, or perhaps exceed, the speed of light. Thus, as you near the black hole’s event horizon, time will slow down for you to the point that it ceases to exist and becomes an eternity. In the interior of a black hole, time has no meaning.

Astronomers now contend that a huge black hole occupies the center of our galaxy, and that most of the 100 to 400 billion galaxies in our universe (I have heard both extremes) have such a black hole at their center. Anything falling into their clutches has indeed come to the place of eternal torment. The phenomenon of the black hole, by analogy, makes the everlasting “lake of fire” believable.

People need to know that the concept of eternal torment isn’t so far-fetched, after all. Maybe I will go ahead and put that bumper sticker on my car: “ETERNITY — SMOKING OR NON-SMOKING?”

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Free Exercise of — WHICH Religion?

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” This is the wording of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1791 by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states.

Today, this First Amendment’s purpose has been lost. The first clause has been dramatically widened and twisted into the doctrine of “separation of church and state,” with the express intention of preventing religion — especially Christianity — from having any role in politics or the shaping of public policy. The result has been what Richard John Neuhaus famously called “the naked public square,” a forum supposedly devoid of any arbiter of values. In reality, the removal of ostensibly religious concerns from public discussion has not left a void. Rather, it has put in place a dominant secular naturalism, with its conviction about the irrelevance of religion and a stress on “diversity.” This philosophical view, which its adherents hold with a religious tenacity, permits no opposing views to enter into the debate. The so-called “separation of church and state” has resulted in a state-supported religion controlling the parameters of public discussion.

This, of course, was far from the intent of the framers of the First Amendment. Their intent, rather than to prevent religious interference in the political process, was to restrict the government from interfering in religious expression and practice. The first clause is not a restriction on religion, but a restriction on the legislative power of government: “Congress shall make no law . . .” In other words, Congress is not to pass legislation establishing a government-supported religion. This restriction applies to the Federal government, not to other governing bodies within the United States. For decades after the ratification of the First Amendment, several states continued to have state-supported churches such as the Congregational churches of Massachusetts. It was only later that the clear wording of the First Amendment was extended to cover state legislatures as well as the United States Congress, and twisted even further into the doctrine of “separation of church and state” as it is commonly understood today.

The second clause of the First Amendment is a critical one: Congress is not to prohibit the free exercise of religion. This clause, too, has been compromised by the doctrine of “separation of church and state,” to the extreme that public school students have been told not to bring Bibles into their classrooms, or a high school valedictorian is told not to pray, or to refer to Jesus, during a graduation ceremony. Recently we saw how a company’s Christian owners were originally compelled, by the Affordable Care Act, to provide their employees with insurance that covered the destruction of a fertilized human ovum, as a birth control measure; only a narrow Supreme Court decision prevented these Christians from being forced to become accessories to the murder of an unborn child, against their deeply held convictions.

Praying in public in the name of Jesus, or upholding the sanctity of human life in your business practices, are not things that diminish the good of society, even if some on the political left irrationally believe they do. But what about religious practices that do, in fact, endanger the well-being of others? What if a Muslim woman insists on wearing her full head covering for her driver’s license photo? The photo ID serves the legitimate purpose of identifying a person qualified to operate a motor vehicle, and of establishing the person’s identity in general, for the protection of the wider public. (Yet, in a Florida case, a woman was allowed to be photographed for her license wearing the Muslim covering.) To take a more drastic instance, what if a Muslim U.S. Army officer repeatedly voices his view that non-Muslims are to be suppressed, and follows up on his conviction with a mass murder of fellow servicemen to the cry “Allahu Akhbar” — as occurred in the “Fort Hood massacre”? The demeaning of women by forcible head covering and relegation to servitude, and the thrust to eliminate all who refuse to convert to Islam (as seen currently in the gruesome acts of the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq), are not harmless activities that have no effect on the public good. Are these ostensible “religious” beliefs covered by the wording of the framers of the First Amendment, that Congress shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion?

The problem, clearly, lies in today’s inclusivist tendency to treat all religions the same, with equal indifference — except that, in the name of “diversity,” detrimental non-Christian beliefs get a pass, while benign Christian beliefs are vilified. But the truth is that all religions are not equal in their contributions to the good of society. Is a religion that demeans women and demands “Convert, or die!” equal to a religion that teaches, “Let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and accordingly has built schools and hospitals and undertakes projects such as building wells to supply African children with clean water?

The framers wrote that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” But what religion did they have in mind? The American nation had been shaped by values emerging from the tradition of Judaism and Christianity; when the framers spoke of “religion” they did not have Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or some other religion in mind, but the various groups based on biblical faith. The First Amendment was put in place to prevent Congress from favoring one Christian denomination over another, and to prevent the suppression of any biblically based group’s exercise of its faith and practice.

Rightly understanding the meaning and intent of the First Amendment’s “religious liberty” clauses requires a determination that not all religions are the same, or can be treated in the same way. The resurrection of Jesus Christ validates biblical faith as the only religion that is true, and worthy of protection under the First Amendment; all other religions are false, and their detrimental and violent aspects should not be given free reign in the name of “religious liberty.” To apply the First Amendment according to its intended purpose, our nation’s leaders and judiciary must recognize the priority of the religion centered in Messiah Jesus. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why Can’t We Have It ALL?

Are you content with your church relationship? Or, to put it differently, is your church life — especially its worship life — all that you would like it to be? Increasingly, my wife and I find we are on a quest for a more fulfilling “church experience” — a tawdry sort of phrase, but I can’t think of a better way to put it right now. But we’ve been frustrated. One reason for our frustration is that, while many local churches have something of what we’re looking for, none of them even comes close to having everything. And we wonder why not.

Let me explain.

We can find a church that has liturgical solemnity and celebration, with the aesthetic satisfaction of color, pageantry and symbolism and the dignity of Christian tradition. These are things that could stretch us beyond the four limited dimensions of our mundane world into the transcendent realm of God’s presence. But those churches, typically, have abandoned the Holy Scriptures as the standard for faith and life and are caught up in stylized “inclusiveness,” pro-homosexual policies and other earmarks of political correctness.

At the opposite extreme, we might find a church that meets in homes as did the earliest Christians — where every member is free to offer his or her gifts contributing to the life of the body, where there is a wonderful sense of being bonded together in common life in Christ, in faithfulness to New Testament patterns. But when do we experience those moments of high worship when the transcendent glory of Christ breaks through to touch us intuitively? Where is the opportunity for the high ceremony of the worship of Israel, or the pageantry of heavenly worship reflected in the visions of John the Revelator?

We might easily locate a church that stresses faithfulness to the Word of God, where astute expository preaching brings out the nuances of the sacred text. But our role is pretty much limited to that of passive spectators of an oratorical or pedagogical performance. In such a preacher-dominated atmosphere there’s no opportunity for us to offer gifts of our own, whatever they might be, to our fellow worshipers. And the wordiness of such gatherings stifles or eliminates any breakthrough of the mystery of the transcendent — a mystery that touches us through sensibilities that can’t be confined to the flat world of rational understanding.

We could just as easily identify a church where free expression is valued, where there is a sense of the movement of the Holy Spirit among the whole body of worshipers, and where a sense of “family” pervades the congregation’s life. But such congregations often lack a sense of continuity with the historic church. They stem from movements that once experienced a life-giving breakthrough in understanding some neglected aspect of the Scriptures. But now that understanding has become a shallow formula that inhibits learning from other branches of the body of Christ.

It’s not hard, any more, to find a church that desperately seeks to connect with contemporary culture through cutting-edge music, heavy use of media and down-to-earth, conversational preaching. But the sensitive person on a quest for an encounter with the transcendence of God can be overwhelmed by the high-volume electronics, or lost in the busy crowds that flock to such churches.

Why can’t we have it all — in one congregation? Why can’t we have a church that holds to the moral standards of God’s Word, expounds that Word in depth with fidelity to the original texts, combines historic and solemn liturgy with free and passionate expression of praise, makes room for the exercise of individual gifts even during corporate gatherings, engages with the issues of our culture using the technology people have come to expect, and does all of this through a pervasive atmosphere of koinonia, the shared common life of all Christian believers in the unity of the faith?

Why can’t we have it all? Just asking.