Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Forgotten Gospel

A men’s study group I belong to recently wanted to discuss the issue they saw posed in Hebrews 6, where the writer states, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:4-6).

The question that intrigued my fellow group members was whether a person can “lose his salvation.” A lively discussion produced no consensus, as is so often the case with problematic Bible passages — but that is not the matter I want to discuss here. What intrigued me was that phrase “those who have once been enlightened.” The author of Hebrews seems to link “enlightenment” with the receiving of the benefits of what we commonly call salvation. The person who comes to Christ comes, first of all, because he has been enlightened. He has absorbed certain information; a certain knowledge has been imparted to him.

I was reminded that the early Christian church, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, made a point of thanking the Lord for the knowledge that has come through Christ. In a passage in the Didache, the earliest (second century) account of a Christian worship gathering, the leader prays over the bread in this way:

We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever.

In the same vein, after the worshipers have received the bread and the cup the leader prays as follows:

We thank You, holy Father, for Your holy name which You caused to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever.

The stress on the enlightenment that comes through Jesus is unmistakable here. The eucharistic (thanksgiving) prayer does not focus upon the shed blood and broken body of Jesus, but rather on the abiding presence of the Father (His “holy name”) and the knowledge the worshiper now enjoys as a result of Christ’s coming. Normally, when evangelicals of today partake of the Lord’s Supper they focus on the sacrifice of the cross that atones for our sin. That note is absent in this earliest ordered account of a Christian worship service centered around the Lord’s Table.

What do we make of this? Had the second-century church already lost the significance of the Lord’s Supper as the remembrance of Christ’s death, and instead turned the Supper into a celebration of the sort of “head knowledge” that preachers often deride as a substitute for true commitment to the Lord?

I hardly think so, for the New Testament itself often mentions the knowledge, or enlightenment, that Christ brings into the world. In addition to the passage from Hebrews cited above we have the powerful image with which John begins his Gospel: “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not” (John 1:9-10). The apostle Paul might be driving toward this same thought when he prays for the Ephesians “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you" (Ephesians 1:17-18). Paul tells the Colossians that he has been praying for them also, “that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9). And to Timothy he writes of “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). True knowledge, understanding, or enlightenment is a key to being saved.

This raises the question of what it means to be “saved.” Biblically, salvation is deliverance or rescue. In the Scriptures, salvation is not usually related to sin — other words, such as “cleansed,” are used — or to heaven, which is the abode of the God who delivers. Most often, in Scripture, salvation is deliverance from some threatening external situation such as enemy oppression or attack. (See our study What Is Salvation? on the Laudemont Ministries web site.)

In the first recorded Christian preaching, Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost, salvation is deliverance from “this crooked generation” — that is, from a culture whose twisted thinking blinds it to the ways of God (Acts 2:40). To be rescued from this faulty paradigm a person must first come to a new understanding of reality, or to repentance (the New Testament term, metanoia, literally means a “change of mind”). This intellectual enlightenment is what initiates the process by which a person is rescued from his oppressing environment.

It was enlightenment concerning Jesus’s resurrection, as evidenced by the gift of the Holy Spirit and the explanation Peter offered, that persuaded the earliest Christian converts to change their minds about Jesus and acknowledge Him as Messiah. Those who had taken part in His crucifixion came to a new understanding that caused them to seek membership in Jesus, through baptism (Acts 2:21). They had to lay aside a false paradigm, or world view, that prevented them from recognizing the work of God in their midst. The same enlightenment came to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road through the appearance of the risen Jesus; he was forced to change his mind about Jesus, in a radical turn-around of his entire way of life.

This enlightenment, or knowledge, that God imparts through Jesus Christ is often the forgotten Gospel in evangelical preaching today. Sometimes worshipers are told to accept Christian truths “on faith,” without engaging in a deep intellectual grappling with them. People are not encouraged to explore the coherence of the Bible’s world view, or to understand how it synchronizes with knowledge arrived at through other avenues such as science — particularly cosmology, the study of the origin and nature of the universe. Forgotten is Paul’s assertion that “ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). The result is ineffective congregations of Christians who are simply flitting around the edges of churchiness, mouthing standardized formulas of doctrine and devotion without being penetrated by the knowledge that exposes the false values of their surrounding culture.

The second-century Christians whose worship gathering is recorded in the Didache, in giving thanks to God, celebrated “the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant.” Their insight was biblically based. Without the knowledge that comes from Christ his followers would be unable to do what Paul says we do, to “destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Without an intellectual grasp of a coherent biblical world view Christians are liable to be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Ephesians 4:14). We need to recover, and be informed by, the forgotten Gospel: “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him . . .”

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Heavenly City

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant . . . (Hebrews 12:22-24).

Here the author of Hebrews states, in no uncertain terms, that his readers have already come to “the heavenly Jerusalem.” The heavenly city isn’t something awaiting us after death, or in the far-off future; it’s a present reality. The writer’s emphasis is similar to John’s vision at the end of the Revelation: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . .” (Revelation 21:2). As John sees it, the heavenly city isn’t someplace we’ll go off to where, one day, we’ll meet God. The city comes to us “out of heaven from God,” and we live in it here on earth.

How can this be? Our life in this world often seems anything but “heavenly,” so it appears ludicrous to claim that the heavenly city is already here. Of course, we can apply the concept to entering the Lord’s presence in Christian worship. Hebrews refers to a festal, or joyful, gathering and speaks of the assembly of those who, through membership in Christ, are among the “firstborn” of God’s new creation (see Colossians 1:15). And John describes the city as the place where “the dwelling of God is with men” (Revelation 21:3), and states that its temple or central focus is “the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (22:22). Paul makes it clear that our entire renewed life, as followers of Christ, is our “spiritual worship,” so there is a sense in which every faithful Christian is experiencing the life of the city that comes from God.

But there is more to this “heavenly city” than the overtly spiritual dimension we typically recognize. Is there a way to understand the city of God as encompassing all healthy and constructive aspects of our present life, as well as the life to come? God has created all features of our physical environment and called them “good” (Genesis 1). Therefore, we see His providential activity and wise governance across the wide spectrum of our daily experience.

Turn the ignition key of your car, and realize that God made the raw materials out of which your vehicle was fashioned. He ordered the elements of the universe so that fuel and oxygen would combine to produce the energy to propel it. He created the human mind with the intelligence and skill to design and build your car and the roads on which you drive. You live in the heavenly city.

Slip into the voting booth and exercise your ability to discern what is right for your community and nation, and what is wrong. God gave His Word to guide us, so we can differentiate between them. He gave the vision to our nation’s founders, who believed that our Creator endowed us with certain unalienable rights including the liberties we enjoy. Be thankful you live in the heavenly city.

Contemplate your children, share tender moments with your spouse, enjoy the excitement of a youthful romance. God made us male and female in His image, establishing that intimate relationship that is the basis for the family and all human community, and the means of perpetuating the human race. The exercise of our distinctive role as a man or woman is evidence that we live in the heavenly city.

Boot up your computer, or use your digital camera. When God said, “Let there be light,” and divided light from darkness, He established the principle of information: the difference between one thing and another, between off and on. He created that digital difference upon which so much of our technology depends in this heavenly city.

In every facet of our lives we detect the work of God’s governing hand, ruling over His new Jerusalem. As Paul says, doubters have no excuse because His power and authority are “clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). The heavenly city is here because God is here, working out His purpose for us in all these things and calling us into His living presence to worship Him through Jesus His Son.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Law of the Vacuum

"When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest; and finding none he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first." (Luke 11:24-26)

“Nature abhors a vacuum.” The origin of the saying is ascribed to Aristotle, who explained the operation of a water pump by suggesting that the vacuum draws up the water. He wasn’t quite correct, since a vacuum is nothing, and nothing can’t do anything. In 1643 Evangelista Torricelli showed that it was atmospheric pressure that forced the liquid up in a vacuum tube; this was the invention of the barometer.

But the “vacuum principle” is still useful, whether or not we understand the physics of it. We sweep our carpets, seal jars of canned tomatoes, or sip lemonade through a straw knowing that if a vacuum is “created” something will try to flow in to take its place. And the principle extends to realms other than the behavior of physical substances. A vacant building draws vandals and arsonists; the plain side of a car in the railroad yards attracts “taggers” and their bold graffiti. And, as Jesus pointed out, a mind cleansed of demonic influence is soon invaded by influences even more demonic than the original, if nothing positive fills the void.

It’s not enough to simply try to rid ourselves of negative thoughts, dysfunctional patterns, harmful habits or addictions, and other “demons” that have a detrimental effect on our quality of life — not to mention the influence of genuinely demonic spiritual forces. The law of the vacuum suggests that these destructive factors will resurface with greater power unless a resisting force has replaced them.

It’s important, then, to exchange hurtful attitudes, warped beliefs and destructive behavior patterns with new thoughts and actions that tend toward what is healthy and good. The apostle Paul illustrates the “vacuum principle” this way:

Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:25-32).

In other words, we don’t just give up devious ways, but make the intentional effort to be truthful. We don’t just stop avoiding work or trying to get by at the expense of others; we apply ourselves to earning what we need to assist others who need help. We don’t just quit malicious or vulgar talk; instead, we learn to steer our conversation toward that which encourages and builds up other people. The “pressure” from the healthy replacement behavior helps to keep the old ways from returning. Ultimately, as Paul’s words suggest, it’s the Holy Spirit who must replace our self-seeking tendencies, or those “demons” will only come back to grieve Him, and us.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Where Is the Wise Man?

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. — 1 Corinthians 1:20-25

Paul’s question seems to imply that the “wise man” is nowhere when it comes to understanding what God has done through the cross of Christ. It would be easy to take this passage as a denigration of any attempt to apply the intellect to the understanding of the Christian faith. And sometimes we do suffer the rant of unreflective preachers who put down the value of higher learning.

But this passage wasn’t written by an uneducated ignoramus. Paul came from Tarsus in Asia Minor, a university town, and received an intense rabbinic education in Jerusalem at the feet of the esteemed Gamaliel. It took a brilliant mind to reach the insight expressed in these words. Paul’s intellectual achievement in discerning the core of the Christian gospel for his culture was exceeded only by the brilliance of Jesus, in His reshaping of Israel’s story around Himself so that God’s people might be renewed in their Abrahamic calling to bless all of humanity. Among all the apostles it was Paul who most effectively built upon Jesus’ masterful insight.

Paul, here, contrasts two ancient cultures, the Semitic and the Hellenistic: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.” In other words, Jews want something spectacular, something with a “wow!” factor. And Greeks want something they can speculate about, catalogue and document with footnotes. A man dying a criminal’s death on a Roman torture instrument doesn’t fit either expectation. Instead, Paul asserts, Christ on His cross takes the issue to another level, the level of calling and commitment. Jesus’ resurrection makes it plain that God is involved in what He did. Either you buy into God’s plan, recognizing the true power and wisdom of God, or you sidestep it with lame excuses when it doesn’t mesh with your cultural norms.

There are plenty of “Jews” and “Greeks” around today, people who look for the Christian faith to do something for them in terms of priorities imposed by non-Christian sources. We might be among them, attempting to cram the faith into the parameters of our own agenda and presuppositions. Is Christianity a tool we use to achieve our ends, or are we God’s instruments in the plan He has revealed in the cross?

As long as our self is the center of our concern, we partake of the foolishness Paul describes—a foolishness that passes for wisdom in the contemporary scene. Let’s examine our own thinking about the gospel to see whether we adequately appreciate its mysterious, but powerful, irony. For the story it tells calls into question the twisted worldview that so insidiously warps our perspective and makes us into the arbiters of coherence and effectiveness. May we have the grace to restrain our self-centered efforts to control the story, and to align ourselves with God's story that breaks free of our outworn cultural constraints.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man and he will increase in learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (Proverbs 9:9-10)

Until Galileo’s time, philosophers assumed that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. They believed this because earlier thinkers had believed it. The idea sounds logical enough, but nobody had ever taken the trouble to test it with real objects. Galileo’s experiments showed that objects dropped from a height fall at the same rate regardless of their weight. His finding came through insight, when he stepped outside the conventional thinking of previous generations.

It was insight by which Isaac Newton arrived at the first law of motion: that a moving object will continue in the same direction and speed until acted upon by an outside force. Before Newton’s time physicists thought that a moving object’s innate tendency was to come to rest. Newton showed this wasn’t so; the object stops only when something else stops it. His theory of inertia broke through conventional thinking.

Galileo and Newton, and others such as Albert Einstein, arrived at new understandings of the nature of the universe by pushing past previous perimeters of thought. Since God is the Creator of the universe, their insights may be considered “the knowledge of the Holy One,” whether or not these thinkers professed a belief in the Creator — as many did.

But insight isn’t limited to the physical; it allows us to penetrate social interactions as well. By insight we come to understand how our actions influence, and are influenced by, those of others. Norbert Wiener developed the theory of cybernetics, the idea that events are controlled by an information loop that includes more than the acting instrument. When we put our car on cruise control, its speed is governed by a feedback loop that includes not only the amount of fuel injected but also the engine’s revolutions-per-minute, the cruise control setting, and any other factors that come into play. The same principle applies to our relationships with others. How people act toward us depends, in part, on how we behave toward them in a constant circle of feedback. If that circle is dysfunctional, spiraling downward toward dishonest dealings and ruptured relationships, insight allows us to break free of the conventional pattern and introduce new information into the cybernetic loop so that healing can begin. Jesus put the principle this way: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:2).

The Bible has another word for insight; sometimes it calls it revelation. By thinking that transcended the world of the senses, Scripture’s inspired writers came to a new understanding of God and His ways that defied the conventions of their time. By the Spirit of God the same revelation is available to us. It isn’t the revelation of new truth, but — as Kenneth Copeland reminds us — it’s insight into truths that have always been present in the Word of God. We’ve just never seen them before.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Creation and Conduct

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. . . . The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. (Psalm 19:1-2, 7-8)

Some nineteenth-century literary critics, who regarded the Bible as a work of exclusively human origin, were convinced that Psalm 19 was a composite of poems from two different sources. The same author could not have composed both parts, they believed, because of their contrasting subject matter. The first section deals with the natural order, the starry heavens and the sun’s course across the sky. Never mind that the idea of the heavenly bodies communicating knowledge seems fanciful, or that the sun’s revolving around the earth is an antiquated concept in today’s Copernican view of the solar system. At least this part of the psalm celebrates a universal perspective.

By contrast, the second section focuses narrowly on an Israelite nationalistic concern, and celebrates the Law of Moses. An enlightened perspective, the critics thought, would surely relegate most of the Jewish Law to its proper niche in the museum of discarded standards, where they believed the superior insights of modern social and religious thought had placed it. Evolving humanity had arrived at a new way to formulate morality, one that didn’t purport to originate in divine pronouncements from on high.

What did these critics miss? They overlooked the insight that no “law,” or pattern for human conduct, rests upon any enduring foundation apart from the acknowledgment of God’s “handiwork” in the creation of the physical universe. If God is not “real”—if His work doesn’t underlie all that exists—then neither is there any basis for order on the plane of human relationships. Values and standards will be set merely by whichever human group is able to impose its ways upon others and force them into its mold. As William Penn said, “Those who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.” The God who brought what is seen out of what is unseen, who separated light from darkness, has also differentiated human conduct into actions that are either right or wrong—and made the differentiation clear.

Paul wrote to the Romans concerning those who would sidestep this truth, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse . . .” (Romans 1:19-20). Psalm 19, in linking the Law of the Lord to the cosmic panorama, makes the same point. However enlightened we may consider ourselves, when it comes to questions of how to deal with others and manage our personal lives—or the life of our society—we can’t write our own standards. The parameters have been set by the Word of Him who made all things.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Analyst

Our Creator is an Analyst.

It wasn’t enough just to launch the “big bang,” when “what is seen was made out of things which do not appear” (Hebrews 11:3). In the beginning there was nothing but light. But light reveals nothing if there’s nothing else to reveal. So the Creator took a further step. He “separated the light from the darkness.” As the older translations say, He divided. That’s what an analyst does, for analysis is the process of differentiating things into their components. God continued His analysis until the created order began to take shape, no longer “without form and void.”

In other words, God created information. As Gregory Bateson pointed out, information is “a difference that makes a difference.” There’s no information in sameness; information is the difference between one thing and another. That’s the principle of the digital computer. A “bit” is either on or off, and everything the computer does for us is based on the difference between what’s on and what’s off. God is the original Programmer-Analyst.

In a day of post-modern skepticism about the possibility of knowing what’s true and what isn’t, the Christian thinker needs to emulate the Creator in His digital differentiation. As Harry Blamires wrote five decades ago, “The thinker hates indecision and confusion; he firmly distinguishes right from wrong, good from evil; he is at home in a world of clearly demarcated categories and proven conclusions; he is dogmatic and committed; he works toward decisive action.”

A Christian intellectual may well acknowledge nuances and “gray areas,” but works through them to a firm conclusion. He or she is like the men of the tribe of Issachar “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).

In submission to the Creator, we pursue His analytical ways. We learn to differentiate and distinguish, in order to contribute to His purpose for human civilization. The English Old Testament begins with God’s differentiation of the created order. It closes, in Malachi 3:18, with an admonition to carry the process of analysis into the realm of human conduct: “Then once more you shall distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” With our culture in moral meltdown today, we need this type of analytical skill more than ever.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Am I Really Worshiping?

Worship isn’t a program we watch; it’s a meeting with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ. We’re God’s people gathered in His presence, reaffirming our covenant with him. That has implications for how we structure a worship service. Worship isn’t about me, or you, it’s about the Lord — and how He meets us for healing, encouragement, instruction in right living, and other benefits of being in His presence.

This leads to a larger question: How do we prepare ourselves for worship, and are we really worshiping if we’re not inwardly prepared and focused? Here’s my “take” on what it means to really be worshiping.

The biblical words for worship, in both Hebrew and Greek, refer to specific actions — usually either bowing or falling prostrate, or “giving thanks” which is a word derived from the word for “hand” and really refers, not to gratitude, but to taking an oath of loyalty to the Lord with uplifted hands. So you can see that the biblical worshiper knew he was worshiping when he performed the associated physical actions. It would never have occurred to David, for example, to ask whether he was really worshiping.

Perhaps some will object that in the New Testament there’s more concern with inward motivation in worship. In my opinion, the two Testaments don’t differ in this respect. The Old Testament worshiper also had a heartfelt motivation to express his loyalty to the Lord, as a member of the covenant community. This comes out, for example, in many of the Psalms.

The New Testament is also concerned with our outward, as well as inward, response. Paul, talking about the Lord’s Supper, says that we shouldn’t receive it in an unworthy manner. But the context of his statement shows that he didn’t mean introspection into our personal spirituality. It was, rather, an awareness of our place within the body — the believers around us — so that in eating and drinking we don’t neglect the needs of our brothers and sisters (1 Corinthians 11). And Jesus makes an astounding statement in the Gospels (Matthew 23:16-19) when he speaks about swearing by the gift on the altar. He says it’s the altar that makes the gift sacred, not our offering that sanctifies the altar. In other words, it’s God, represented by His altar, who validates our worship, and not our motivation. To concentrate on our motivation, or whether we’re “prepared,” is to put ourselves into the central focus — and that’s idolatry.

We in the Western world have become so used to thinking of worship as a cognitive or “thought-type” activity, internal rather than external, that we tend to navel-gaze, wondering whether our motives are what they should be. But when worship has a recognized, biblically based structure, and when we participate along with others in following that structure with the intent to bring honor and glory to God, why should we ever have to ask ourselves whether we are worshiping? Our feelings aren’t relevant to this question, if we’re obeying what God has commanded us to do to honor Him.

Jesus tells this parable in Matthew 21:28-31: “What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” Jesus doesn’t even go into the question of the two sons’ motivation; he focuses on how they acted. His answer indicates that the one who did the right thing, after repenting, was the one who pleased his father.

What I’m trying to do here is to offer a word of liberation to those who are under the bondage of excessive introspection and self-criticism. Let’s trust that God is big enough to accept our worship and be blessed by it, even if our motivation — by our standards — may not be as pure as we would like. Is it paradoxical to imagine that we might have standards more stringent than those of the holy God? But perhaps that’s the case!

[This material appeared originally in the January, 2005 issue of ReUnion, newsletter of Union Congregational Church, North Aurora, Illinois.]

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Impermeable Matter and Subatomic Space

To us, the physical universe appears “solid” — that is, most physical objects appear impermeable. If you strike a nail with a hammer, the nail head does not pass through the head of the hammer. If it did, the hammer would be useless as a tool for driving nails. Fluids or gases, of course, behave differently. We can pour one liquid into another, such as two-cycle oil into gasoline for our line trimmer or snow thrower. The fluids mix in such a way that we can’t immediately grasp the oil and pull it bodily out of the gasoline. But the two fluids remain what they were, and if left undisturbed the oil may eventually separate from the gasoline. Unless a chemical reaction results in the recombination of the molecules into some new compound, the molecules of each fluid or gas in the mixture remain “impermeable” — that is, they retain the properties of the original substances.

What makes the impermeability of “solid” substances, such as steel, wood or even human flesh, a puzzling phenomenon is that no object we encounter in the normal course of events is really solid. All substances and objects are made up of atoms which, in turn, consist of subatomic particles — protons, neutrons, electrons, with the first two being further subdivided into “quarks.” (This is an oversimplification of a more complicated picture, which I am equipped neither to fully understand nor to describe.) The distances between the components of an atomic nucleus, and between the nucleus and its orbiting electrons, are comparable in terms of scale to the astronomical distances between the bodies of our solar system. This means that “solid” substances are not solid at all; in fact, the space they occupy is mostly just that — space. It has been suggested that if the space between all subatomic particles of the universe could be removed, the entire universe would shrink to the size of something like a grapefruit, or even a golf ball. Physical objects are not “solid” at all, but consist mostly of space between the subatomic particles that make up their molecules.

Within four-dimensional Newtonian space, material objects and substances — despite their not being “solid” at all — are held together by some kind of organizing force. Their molecular structure is sustained by what is called “nuclear binding energy,” or some similar term. Several nuclear, electro-magnetic and gravitational forces operate to both bind and keep apart the subatomic particles of matter. Reading discussions of this topic, one gets the feeling that physicists do not really understand how these forces and energy particles operate but are simply giving technical names to phenomena thought to occur, as though naming them would explain why they behave as they do. This is like saying that people gather together because they are gregarious, when being gregarious is just another way of saying that people like to be sociable. Exactly how and why an object or substance is able to hold its “shape,” given the fact that it consists mostly of space, is probably as puzzling a question now as it ever was.

What would happen if, from within four-dimensional Newtonian space, we could observe the effect of introducing additional dimensions into consideration — dimensions of which we cannot conceive given the limitations of a four-dimensional world of distance, volume and time? Would some kind of “nuclear binding energy” allow an object to retain its shape while ceasing to be impermeable? There is plenty of space between the subatomic particles of physical objects to allow them to “pass through” each other, if particular forms of binding energy allowed each object to retain its integrity while doing so.

Is this what happened at the resurrection of Jesus Christ? “Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:26). A four-dimensional universe could not have come into existence unless its Creator was operative in dimensions beyond the four that we normally experience. Could Jesus’s resurrection, and what He is able to do as the risen Lord, be the result of God’s continued multi-dimensional activity? Perhaps the universe is kept from collapsing into a tiny “golf ball” of spaceless matter through Jesus Christ, who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3).

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Scientific Knowledge and Faith

For most people of contemporary Western culture the arbiter of reality, or truth, is probably the enterprise we know as “science.” We understand truth to be that which can be scientifically verified. The word science comes from the Latin scio, “I know,” and science represents for us that which we can know for certainty. But our confidence in science as the uniform guarantor of knowledge might be misplaced.

A typical image of the progress of science pictures succeeding generations of scientists building upon the achievements of their predecessors, verifying their conclusions and correcting their errors. Few people are aware that science, as we understand it today, has not developed in this manner, but instead has evolved through a series of “revolutions” in which the underlying assumptions of the previous era have been called into question. Science has moved forward not by the steady accumulation of data, but by the replacement of old paradigms of understanding with new insights — insights which came not from newly discovered data but from a different way of structuring and interpreting the data already available.

For example, ancient and medieval astronomers operated with Ptolemy’s system in which the earth was the center of the universe. The Polish astronomer Copernicus, however, developed a different paradigm in which the sun, not the earth, was the center. In this heliocentric model, which he published in 1543, the observed movements of stars and planets in the night sky were no longer understood as their movements with respect to the earth, but as resulting from the earth’s revolution about the sun.

At the time there was no real “proof” of Copernicus’s theory, since the observations of astronomers could still be forced into Ptolemy’s geocentric system of epicycles. Copernicus’s system was thought to be an interesting possible alternative to Ptolemy’s, but was no more “scientifically” challenging; thus it failed to generate much controversy when first proposed. A century later, when Galileo invented the telescope, more accurate observations of the night sky provided the data needed to completely call into question Ptolemy’s earth-centered model. It was only then that Copernicus’s system became controversial. This was largely due to a failure, on the part of church leaders, to separate biblical teaching and Christian doctrine from philosophical assumptions on which the old science was based. Eventually, of course, even Copernicus’s heliocentric model had to be abandoned once vastly more powerful instruments revealed the enormous, multi-galactic scope of the universe.

The example of the “Copernican revolution” shows that science evolves not by accumulation of new facts but by the insight of individuals who are willing to question the unproven assumptions of a previous scientific establishment. The history of science is filled with breakthroughs of this sort, such as Isaac Newton’s “laws” of gravitation, or Einstein’s theory of general relativity which modified and replaced them. Einstein’s theory, which suggests that gravity is an effect of the “curvature” of space, is not self-evident to an observer working within the Newtonian four-dimensional structure, which has no place for “curved” space. Scientific advance, then, does not depend on accumulating observations or measurements or copious experimentation within the established paradigm; it depends on the insight of an individual who is able to break out of that paradigm and think about the phenomena of the universe according to a different model. (The classic discussion of this issue is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962.)

The early nineteenth-century French mathematician Laplace developed a theory of causal determinism: if we could know the precise present state of every atom in the universe, we could determine the exact course of past and future cosmic events. A popular view of science might agree with Laplace — would not the knowledge of everything be the key to the solution of all problems, through science? But this “thought experiment” destroys science itself by removing the element of human insight by which scientific knowledge actually moves forward. Therefore, Laplace’s hypothesis is sometimes called “Laplace’s demon.”

The point of this discussion is that science is not a mere objective body of knowledge requiring no personal involvement. Science is simply what scientists do, based on their unproven and unprovable philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality and how it can be known. The scientific enterprise is an exercise in personal commitment, and scientific knowledge is personal knowledge (see Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 1962). It is, therefore, akin to religious knowledge; like religious knowledge, it depends upon the exercise of faith.

Can the faith of the scientist be correlated with the faith of the Christian believer? If the universe is God’s creation, and if Jesus Christ is “upholding the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3), then the faith of the Christian and the faith of the scientist must become one. We will explore that thought in future entries.

Monday, January 17, 2011

“Martin Luther King Day” in Evangelical Perspective

As a student at Boston University in the 1960s, I was part of a group that was bused down to Selma, Alabama, just before Martin Luther King’s Selma-to-Montgomery march. The atmosphere in Selma was like that of an evangelical revival; we sang gospel songs and listened to fiery sermons — one being by A. D. Williams King, MLK’s brother. We marched around Selma in a civil rights demonstration, jeered by the bystanders and soaked by a downpour. Later, as pastor of a small Methodist church, I heard Dr. King speak on Boston Common, and I and a few of my parishioners picketed the Massachusetts State House singing “We Shall Overcome.” As a Boston University graduate student I examined King’s typed doctoral dissertation in the School of Theology library, on a comparison of the idea of God in the thought of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, and may have quoted from it in term paper.

Those were in my “liberal” days. Later, when I became an evangelical Christian, my perspective changed. The civil rights movement had lost its original Christian impetus — if that was, really, anything more than window dressing. I understood that the drive for “equality” was based on the New Testament principle of oneness in Christ (e.g., Galatians 3:28), but that divorced from its Christian orientation it becomes distorted and just one more example of totalitarian “political correctness.”

Combined with the contemporaneous “sexual revolution,” the civil rights movement has done much to destroy African-American family structure. It may have restricted economic and educational opportunities for black people by eliminating their distinctive institutions in the effort to integrate them into the larger social fabric. Shaping congressional districts to ensure the election of minorities has actually reduced the number of African-Americans in Congress, by making them non-competitive in the “white” districts that remain (non-competitive not because of their race, but because of their political ideology). As one African-American noted in a TV discussion I heard several decades ago, “we’ve been civil-rightsed to death.”

I do not blame Martin Luther King for what happened to the movement after his passing. My point is that he has become an inappropriate symbol for what passes for “civil rights” today, which includes homosexual “marriage” and all the rest. It is well for the evangelical church to steer clear of MLK Day. It grieves me that evangelical churches have adopted the secular and popular calendar as their “liturgical year” — Mothers Day, Valentines Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Armed Forces Day, even Pastor Appreciation Day. The liturgical churches, which follow the traditional church year, have been in a measure protected from this incursion.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

“Majoring in the Minors” in the Church

As a student at Illinois Wesleyan University in the late 1950s I was required to select a major field. I was headed for the ministry in The Methodist Church, but at that time Methodist seminaries didn’t recommend a college major in religion for pre-theological students. (I think seminary faculty were afraid that students entering with a college religion major would have to be re-educated!). As a result, I needed to choose a different major.

Because of my interest in music I chose to major in that field. Illinois Wesleyan had a prestigious School of Music, but I was in the College of Liberal Arts. Therefore, I became the only liberal arts music major in the university, and took forty hours in that field. Although I had enough religion credits to count for a major, and was going on for more work in that field rather than music, I spent my college years “majoring in the minors.” (I couldn’t even minor in religion, because IWU’s course catalog didn’t provide for a “minor” designation at that time.)

I’ve never regretted my “majoring in the minors,” because the knowledge and enjoyment of music has always been an important part of my adult life and has certainly contributed to the ministry. However, when the process of “majoring in the minors” is applied to areas of life outside of academia the results can be ludicrous.

A man who pursues a hobby, to the neglect of his family relationships or gainful employment, is pursuing the wrong major. A parent who pushes a child to develop talent in sports or some other field, to the neglect of the child’s character development, is doing the same thing. A politician who focuses on superficial solutions to public issues, such as government-run health care, is misplacing his emphasis. In this instance the focus ought to be on the reduction of medical costs through the elimination of layers of bureaucracy, the reform of litigation, and education in life-style changes that promote better health and reduce reliance on harmful and expensive drugs. You can easily multiply the examples where “majoring in the minors” has unintended consequences that only add to life’s problems.

The church in North America today is similarly addicted to misplaced emphases. Church leadership is always tempted to stress denominational distinctives; theologians tend to focus on the salient aspects of their particular point of view. Catholic, Reformed, Dispensational, or Pentecostal doctrine comes to the forefront in place of what C. S. Lewis wanted to call “mere Christianity.” These things become the “majors,” while the heart of New Testament faith — the living presence of Jesus Christ with His people — becomes the “minor,” mentioned only in passing.

Lay people sometimes fare no better. They might choose a church to attend based on such things as worship style. Do we sing “contemporary” choruses, old-time “gospel songs,” or stately organ-accompanied hymns or chants? Does the preacher use a manuscript, or speak in extemporaneous fashion? Do officiants wear casual clothes, encouraging other worshipers to do the same, or do they dress more formally or even wear vestments? Do we lift our hands or pray in other tongues during worship, or do we participate more placidly? Compared with the presence of the risen Jesus Christ, by the Spirit, these differences are only differences in style. Elevating them to prominence is truly “majoring in the minors.”

If Jesus Christ is who the Scriptures say He is, Christians need to become trans-denominational. If, as Hebrews (1:3) states, Jesus is “upholding the universe by his word of power” (1:3), and if, as John (1:3) says, “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” — then the living Christ is present wherever His people gather to honor and celebrate Him. We can be aware of His appearance, or parousia, in any worship setting regardless of style.

The presence of God, revealed in His Son, can break through into our lives because Jesus is alive — and, as Paul reminds us (Acts 17:28) quoting a Greek poet, “In him we live and move and have our being.” In a culture increasingly hostile to Christian faith, it is time for Christians of all traditions to quit “majoring in the minors,” and make it evident in all aspects of living, including formal worship, that Christianity is Jesus.