Sunday, December 1, 2013

Irreducible Complexity

The cells of living organisms contain a tremendous amount of coded information. This information is found not only in the varying sequences of the four “base” molecules in the interlocking coiled strands of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of the nucleus, but also in other parts of the cell that govern the developing “body plan” of the organism as its cells reproduce. The amount of information in one cell has been compared to that in a large stadium, the seats of which are all stacked with volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

This vast information in the cell was unknown to Charles Darwin when he developed his theory of evolution, the idea that life on earth originated from accidental causes acting on nonliving matter. Darwin believed that this primitive life evolved into various species of plant and animal life through a gradual process of mutation, as slight changes in an organism rendered it more adaptable to its environment and therefore able to reproduce and pass its characteristics to a subsequent generation. In this way, Darwin thought, new species of living things arose from earlier species.

Darwin, however, had no concept of how the information in a cell functions to govern an organism’s development and reproduction. He didn’t realize that any single mutation in a living organism is more likely to render the organism less adaptable to its environment, or even to kill it. In order for an organism’s structure to change in a way that made it more “naturally selectable” for survival, through the production of some useful new feature or trait, a large number of informational mutations (in the DNA or elsewhere in the cell) would have to occur simultaneously and be coordinated with one another. This aspect of cellular structure is what biologists refer to as irreducible complexity. An arm, for example, could not gradually evolve into a wing through a long series of incremental changes, because the intermediate stages of such an evolution would have no useful function and would, most likely, be harmful or fatal to the animal.

The phenomenon of irreducible complexity means that chance, and the passage of time, can’t explain the simultaneous occurrence of the many mutations required to alter the useful function or part of an organism. Chance depends on probability, and probability depends on the number of possible events that could occur over a given period of time. Mathematicians have calculated that not enough events have occurred in the entire history of the universe to create a probability that even the type of small evolutionary change Darwin postulated could occur by chance. Or, as philosopher of science Stephen Meyer puts it, the “probabilistic resources” of the universe are not great enough to allow for the needed informational changes in a cell nucleus to appear simply by accident.

There is only one reasonable explanation for the “irreducible complexity” of the information that governs the development and reproduction of living organisms, and that explanation is that a Mind has designed life and its characteristics, purposely embedding that design in the information coded into the nucleus and other features of the cell. From the tiniest bacterium to the most accomplished human being, only the activity of the Creator can explain the origin of the highly coordinated information without which life could not exist. As the Psalmist exclaims, “Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance; in thy book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them." (Psalm 139:16).

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why We Need Rich People

In recent years political agitation in the United States has focused on the widening gap between the wealthy and the underprivileged. An iconic moment occurred during the 2008 presidential campaign when Barack Obama, confronted by “Joe the Plumber,” insisted on the need to “share the wealth.” The “Occupy Wall Street” movement mobilized unemployed people and left-wingers in a protest against excessive corporate and executive wealth.

There is no question that a vast gulf exists between the tiny percentage of American billionaires and the general public, especially those living below the arbitrarily demarcated “poverty line.” Those who have been the beneficiaries of clever and astute business decisions, or the recipients of disproportionate corporate bonuses, have an obligation to “share the wealth” with their fellow citizens in a voluntary and appropriate manner. Throughout American history they have, in fact, done so, from the time when the founders of our nation, in the Declaration of Independence, pledged “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” in support of their vision for new republic.

In the course of our nation’s history, families like the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Rockefellers, and the Dukes have established public libraries, endowed colleges and universities, and set up charitable foundations. This activity continues. Warren Buffet has created multiple foundations to administer his charitable giving; Bill and Melinda Gates have done the same, such as rescuing the Bettman Archive of historic photographs from deterioration in an unsuitable New York City environment and preserving them in an abandoned Pennsylvania coal mine where they could be kept under controlled conditions and digitized.

We all recognize how inappropriate it is when the wealthy hoard their wealth for themselves and fail to give for the benefit of others. Federal income tax returns made public during political campaigns often reveal how some aspirants to high office have ignored this obligation, while others have been generous. We recoil at reports of executives who amass vast sums for themselves while many live in deprivation.

Nevertheless, the idea of simply “spreading the wealth” equally does not work out in practice, for a simple reason: in any successful economy, some people just need to be wealthier than others. For example, poor people don’t hire other people to work for them, or buy the products other people are employed to produce by more well-to-do business owners. For an economy to function, a differential must exist between those who have more and those who have less.

We can illustrate this principle with a glass of ice water. As long as there's a differential between the cold ice and the warmer water, we can see movement. The ice cracks and sputters and dissipates into the water as it absorbs its warmth. But once the ice has all melted there's no visible movement in the glass. This phenomenon illustrates what physicists call the “heat death.” As long as there’s an energy differential between two regions of matter, something can happen. Once the differential is gone through the dissipation of energy, nothing can happen. And, indeed, once this occurs to our space-time universe — and physicists say it will, in untold billions of years — there will be no life, nothing but the “big freeze” of what began in the “big bang.”

For this reason, some people in our economy need to be rich. We speak of “leveling the playing field,” but that doesn’t mean insisting, through legislation or other means, that both teams have equal resources in skill, planning, or brute strength. If that were the case the game would be deadlocked. Who would sit in the bleachers, or in front of the TV screen, to watch a game in which the score was predetermined to be a 0-0 tie? The level playing field simply means that each team has an equal opportunity to excel, as it marshalls its resources and executes its plan. American history is replete with examples of people like George Washington Carver, or now Dr. Benjamin Carson, who have excelled through their own initiative and dedication despite the odds against them. They leveled their own playing field, with God’s guidance, and succeeded. If they, and many others like them, had been made economically equal to everyone else by some government program, they would never have achieved what they achieved. And their achievements have benefited many, including people both wealthier and less well off than they.

So we need rich people, because without them our economy would stagnate into “heat death” just as that of the Soviet Union did. The wealthy person you envy may not be as public-spirited and generous as you would like. But because he or she is there our economy is alive, and you have an opportunity to take part in it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

World Without End?

An astronomer was giving a lecture at a university. During his talk he mentioned that astronomers believe that in four billion years the sun will become so hot that all water on earth will evaporate and life will be impossible. After the lecture a lady rushed anxiously up to the astronomer. “In how many years did you say the earth would become too hot for life?” “About four billion years,” the lecturer replied. “Oh, what a relief!” exclaimed the lady. “I thought you said four million!

Whether in four million or four billion years, this earth will one day burn up from the sun’s heat, if scientists who study the life cycle of stars like our sun are correct. But this conclusion would have come as no surprise to the apostle Peter, who understood that our planet would eventually run its course.

"But the day of the Lord will come like a thief," he wrote, "and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10).

Not only that, but he adds, “the heavens will be kindled and dissolved” (2 Peter 3:12). Astronomers are reaching the conclusion that there appears to be no cosmic force to halt or reverse the expansion of the universe. In fact, an otherwise undetectable “dark energy” seems to be propelling its continued expansion. Thus, astronomers foresee the time when distant galaxies will move so far away from our own that they will become invisible even to high-powered instruments. The universe will “dissolve” into the darkness of space.

But Peter doesn’t stop with this scenario of doom and gloom. Instead, he asks a pointed question: “What sort of persons ought you to be?” Although “heaven and earth” are to become uninhabitable, he states, “we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” — perhaps a renewed universe operating under a different set of the “laws” of physics. Meanwhile, we have a life to live on this planet, a life to be lived according to the Creator’s plan.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Six Ways God Acts in Your Life

God can sometimes appear remote, indifferent to our concerns, uninvolved in our lives. Placing our needs before him in prayer we may wonder whether he hears us at all — or, if he hears us, whether he cares to answer. Of course we understand that “his ways are not our ways” (Isaiah 55:8), and God may have an outcome in mind that differs from the one we envision in our pleading with him. Nevertheless, it’s frustrating to have to deal — day after day, month after month, or year after year — with issues in which we would like to see God acting on our behalf. Or acting at all, period.

Perhaps our problem can be traced to an incomplete idea of who God is. We may have been taught, over the years, that he’s like some gigantic angel hovering in the sky above us just waiting to respond to our plea. If that’s our understanding of God, we’re bound to be disappointed in our appeals to him. When we consider the vast extent of the universe God has created, that picture of God greatly reduces him in size and power. It’s hard to get that sort of mental picture out of our head, but understanding how God works in our lives might depend on replacing that image with a concept of God that’s more “true to life.”

If we came to a different understanding of who God is, how might we be able to perceive his workings in the world in which we live? Here are six possible ways.

1. Through Circumstance. If the Creator is in control of his universe, then we ought to see him at work in what happens in our world even when those events don’t seem good to us. If God has structured the universe, and human life, in such a way that actions lead to consequences, then even harmful events will ultimately have consequences that reveal his action. A culture, for example, that discards values such as responsibility, perseverance, industriousness, generosity, honesty, or respect for human life will eventually degenerate into chaos. This judgment is what the Bible knows as the wrath of God — the inevitable consequence of discounting his pattern for human conduct. Circumstance can be favorable, and in the good things that happen we can see God at work. But we also perceive his working in other types of circumstances, because “God is not mocked” (Galatians 6:7).

2. Through Providence. As Jesus pointed out, the nourishing rain and the warming sun fall upon everyone, whether a person seems to deserve them or not (Matthew 5:45). The seasons come and go, seeds spring to life and grow to fruition, birds sing. If the Creator had not tuned his creation to make these things happen, life wouldn’t be possible. The fact that we’ve been placed on this earth with the opportunity to make something of our lives is evidence that God is at work, continuing to sustain and undergird the support structure for human life. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).

3.Through People. The idea that “God has no hands but ours” is superficial, but it represents a partial truth. When we look for the action of God in our lives, especially in response to prayer, more often than not the answer will come in the form of something another person does to benefit us. What people can do for each other is often God’s instrument for intervention in our lives. And he can work through us, as well, to benefit others. As Paul wrote, “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

4. Through Miracles. We sometimes pray for miracles, and then are disappointed when no miracle is forthcoming. But miracles do happen, sometimes when people least expect them. While healing in answer to prayer, for example, seems to happen more frequently in parts of the world without modern medical resources, sudden healing also sometimes occurs where physicians are available and have given the most discouraging prognosis. These events are unexplained except through the direct intervention of God, in ways no one understands. Miracles are no substitute for seeking medical care; for that matter, financial miracles are no substitute for wise management of our money. Divine intervention doesn’t come automatically in response to a particular prayer formula; it remains God’s sovereign initiative. Nevertheless miracles do happen, and they reveal God at work.

5. Through Matter. There are four universal interactions that apply to all matter: gravity, electromagnetism, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces. If these interactions, operative since the Creator made this universe, weren’t precisely balanced, nothing would work at all and you wouldn’t be here. In the fact that anything exists we see the operation of God, and his work undergirds all we can experience, even if we think we’re not seeing him at work in any other way. And no life could exist if God had not created the information, in the form of a sequential code, in the nuclei and other parts of living cells to govern an organism’s development and reproduction. Biological science has no reasonable explanation for the improbable existence of this information, which couldn’t have arisen by mere accident; the “probability resources” of the entire universe aren’t sufficient to explain even a fraction of it. This information hidden in the matter of all life is the evident work of a Mind, the mind of God.

6. Through Truth. We might think of truth as an intangible abstraction, something we can’t grab hold of or actually observe at work. But truth is the same as reality; falsehood and unreality are what don’t exist. Truth can be compared with light; light always dispels darkness, which has no defense against it because it isn’t really anything at all. As the Apostle John wrote, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In the operation of truth we see the working of God, establishing reality in the face of nonexistence. Whether people believe it or not, reality is what it is, and it will eventually prevail over what is not — whatever tries to come against it. Jesus prayed, “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17), and by this Word he meant the voice of God through Holy Scripture, and through Himself as the Word made flesh. As the Apostle Peter wrote (1 Peter 1:25), “The word of the Lord abides for ever,” giving us the assurance that God is acting in our life and experience.

   Though the cause of evil prosper,
   Yet 'tis truth alone is strong;
   Though her portion be the scaffold,
   And upon the throne be wrong,
   Yet that scaffold sways the future,
   And, behind the dim unknown,
   Standeth God within the shadow
   Keeping watch above his own.

      —James Russell Lowell, 1845

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

When Death Comes Too Soon

It came without warning — the email message from the pastor appealing for prayer for a 38-year-old wife and mother in the congregation, who had been rushed to the hospital with what later turned out to be a blood clot in the lung. Within two hours came the news of her passing — news of sobering import for us, for the young woman was related to our own family by marriage.

Imagine the grief of a husband who, having carefully built up a business to support his family, suddenly finds his life partner taken away. Or can you imagine the desolation of a daughter whose mother, only that morning, had been preparing her for a high school homecoming dance she would never attend because of her mother’s death?

I once passed a church bulletin board that read: “I plan to live forever. So far, so good.” But we know that sentiment was meant ironically. Genesis 6:3 promises us a life span of 120 years, which Psalm 90 seems to reduce to eighty years at most. But some good, Bible-believing people never approach even that number, and are taken in the vigor of their prime. Others — even non-believers — linger on into the frailty of old age. It seems there is no equity, no justice in our respective allotment of years.

So we ask, “Why?” How do we understand these things? Christians have long suggested answers to the “why” of sudden, premature death. For example, perhaps God foresaw what was ahead for the younger person’s life and, wishing to spare them additional suffering, took them home to himself. Or perhaps he had a task for that person in the afterlife, and “needed” them there. Of course, the hope of reunion with loved ones in heaven offers comfort to many.

I don’t offer any of these answers here. For some, in the face of the desolation of loss of a loved one, such explanations might seem trite. There is really no glossing over the devastation we feel when someone we cherish and admire is wrenched away without warning. It’s hard enough to face loss when there have been, perhaps, months or years of dealing with life-threatening illness, or when advancing age suggests the possibility of our loved one’s impending demise. But when death seems to come too soon, without preparation, the usual “answers” may not offer the comfort we long for.

How did the mothers of Damascus feel when their children fell victim to the insidious attack of sarin gas? Or how must the Christians of Egypt feel when Islamic terrorism rips apart their families? Through the ages countless people have had to deal with the sudden, premature loss of loved ones through warfare, persecution, accident, or pestilence.

How did Mary of Nazareth feel beholding her son, only thirty-three years of age, being tortured on the cross of Calvary — cut off despite such promise, such wisdom from God, emanating from his young life? How did James and Jude, and their brothers and sisters, feel when their elder brother was taken prematurely from them? Before the resurrection, they had yet to fully understand who he really was, and that “death could not hold him.” Yet, they held on through their grief. For those who remain, life goes on with duties to perform. Mary became, for many Christians, the representative of the faithful church. And James and Jude became authors of parts of the New Testament.

The sudden loss of a loved one has moved some to question God’s existence. If God is good, why did he allow such evil? But if God is not good, why acknowledge him? Atheists have justified their belief in God’s non-existence on the basis of personal tragedies such as debilitating illness, serious injury, or the unexpected and premature death of someone important to them. But we are different. We understand that the existence of a loving God who created this vast universe of 200 billion galaxies, some fourteen billion years old, can hardly depend on what happens to us, for good or ill, on this small planet. If it did, we would be God. But we are not.

Further, we understand that the sudden loss of a loved one can teach us a valuable lesson, even if we can’t understand why such things happen. Confronted with our loss, we realize how petty are many of the things we worry about each day, and how insignificant the issues we argue about with those we live with. We come to understand how precious, and how fragile, are those relationships we have with people we know and love. We realize we can never allow our self-centeredness to erect barriers between us and them, for those bonds that unite us today, which could be severed tomorrow, are too important to jeopardize over trivialities.

Yes, life goes on for those of us who remain. We go forward in hope, even when we can’t make sense of the sadness we face. We may not be granted understanding, but we are given support. As Moses was about to die he proclaimed to Israel, “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). In the Lord we have “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (1 Corinthians 5:1), as the apostle Paul declared; and he affirmed that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Further, God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

So we go forward in faith, even when we can’t answer the question, “Why?” There is a call of God upon each of us, his children, and faith is doing what God has called us to do. In the midst of our grief, that is enough.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Which Gospel is the “Other Gospel”?

Lately, some prominent evangelical leaders seem to have ramped up their critique of the “health and wealth gospel,” or the so-called “prosperity gospel.” According to their characterization, the proponents of this view — essentially, that God wants his people to be prosperous — have distorted the true gospel that downplays the desire for prosperity. In their view, advocates of the “health and wealth gospel” are teaching “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). These evangelical critics maintain a long list of television ministries they designate as “false teachers,” and post these lists on the Internet as a warning to anyone tempted to tune in to them. Yes, there are abuses within the ranks of television preachers. But there are abuses of one kind or another within all types of Christian ministry. However, the “prosperity gospel” crowd is singled out for special condemnation.

The phrase “another gospel” occurs in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, where he warns:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).

On the basis of this passage, the evangelical leaders I mentioned are anathematizing Christian preachers who teach the “prosperity gospel.” They believe the message that God wants his people to prosper and be in health is contrary to the gospel Paul received and taught to the churches of Galatia. A teaching contrary to the gospel Paul brought them is seen as “another gospel,” the advocates of which are accursed.

So what was the gospel Paul brought to the Galatian Christians? In his letter he was dealing with some people, often called “Judaizers,” who had been teaching the new Christians of Galatia that in order to be Christians they had to observe the Law of Moses. Exactly why those “Judaizers” took this approach is open to question. Did they believe that following the Law made them more acceptable to God? Probably not; it’s more likely that, since Judaism was a recognized religion within the Roman Empire, Christians could avoid persecution as an unauthorized sect if they remained within the Jewish orbit. Their motives were protective, not reactionary. Paul, however, would have none of that; the Lordship of Christ trumps the lordship of Caesar, and there can’t be any such self-protective compromise.

Paul’s own message, his “gospel,” was the “mystery” Christ had called him to reveal: that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:3-6). The promise he was referring to is the promise God gave to Abraham, that through his descendents God would bless all nations on earth (Genesis 12:1-3). Those who follow in the faithfulness of Abraham will inherit the blessings enumerated in Deuteronomy 28:1-14, where Moses proclaims that “the LORD will make you abound in prosperity,” and “make you the head, and not the tail” (Deuteronomy 28:11, 13). Unfaithfulness to the Lord, on the other hand, will bring the enactment of the curses (Deuteronomy 28:15-58) in which abject poverty, disease, oppression, and unspeakable horrors will be visited upon the disobedient.

In the light of this promise, and its contrasting warning, Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us —for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree’ — that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14). That was the gospel Paul brought to the Galatians: the message that the curses of sickness, poverty, and oppression have been borne by Christ on the cross, and are no longer to be the inevitable lot of God-fearing humanity — and that, further- more, Gentiles may enter into the resultant blessings as full members of the renewed body of God’s people, “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).

It sure looks to me like Paul’s gospel is the “prosperity gospel,” the “health and wealth gospel.” It certainly isn’t the “sickness and poverty gospel” that some evangelical teachers seem to think is the only true message. Yes, Paul admits that there is suffering in the Christian walk, and that while sharing in Christ’s resurrection from the dead we are also to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). But the sufferings the earliest Christians endured for the sake of Christ were not the sufferings of poverty and sickness. They were the sufferings of persecution by opponents of his message. Jesus, himself, warned that persecutions would come, even in the midst of the “hundredfold” blessings and eternal life that result from faithfulness to him (Mark 10:29-31). But this persecution is not part of the gospel; it is the result of witness to the gospel. There’s a difference between being persecuted because Jesus supposedly wants you to be persecuted, and being persecuted because you’re proclaiming the blessings Jesus wants people to enjoy.

So, to sum up, exactly who is preaching “another gospel” in today’s Christian environment? I suggest that it’s not the advocates of the “health and wealth gospel.” No, it’s the opponents and critics of that gospel who are pushing “another gospel,” and who are in danger of bearing the Lord’s anathema (1 Corinthians 16:22).

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Ten Commandments: A Closer Look

The Ten Commandments have been in the news recently, and the news hasn’t been positive. Atheists are doing their best to remove the Ten Commandments from any public place where they’ve been put up, such as courthouses or parks. This campaign by atheists to remove Christian symbols, like crosses, from any public setting is reaching a ridiculous extreme. The next thing you know, they’ll be after Google Maps or Mapquest to remove any cross streets from city maps. After all, when two streets cross at right angles, someone looking down from an airplane might get the impression that the city is endorsing Christianity by putting crosses everywhere. And I’m sure the atheists will want to ban graph paper, too, because of all the intersecting lines.

What’s odd about this atheist “crusade” — or, actually, anti- crusade — against the Ten Commandments is that they aren’t a Christian text at all. In fact, the Commandments aren’t even a biblical innovation. Think about it for a moment: could any culture, or any society, survive if it didn’t have the Ten Commandments in some form? Imagine a civilization, for example, that didn’t have a rule about stealing from other people, or just killing other people indiscriminately.

Try this experiment with your atheist friend. When he or she isn’t looking, take his wallet or her purse. When they discover what you’ve done, they’ll confront you. “You stole my wallet! Give it back!” And you answer, “But ‘Thou shalt not steal’ is part of the Ten Commandments, and that’s a Christian rule. You don’t believe in Christianity, do you? So what’s the big deal about your wallet?”

You see, the Commandments, or “Ten Words” as the Bible actually calls them, aren’t really biblical law at all. They’re what’s called “natural law,” principles that apply to any culture or civilization. And the society that disregards them is headed for chaos and disintegration. Is that where our culture is headed today?

Okay, but what about the first two commandments: “You shall have no other gods bedside me, and you shall not bow down to any idol of your own making.” Aren’t those religious command- ments? Well, everyone has a religion of some kind. Theologian Paul Tillich defined religion as “ultimate concern,” and he said that everyone has some kind of ultimate concern, even if it’s the concern to avoid having any ultimate concern. Even atheism, then, is really a religion, the concern to avoid being religious. Or a person’s religion might be that very unscientific philosophy that’s called “evolution.” Or it might be the determination to enforce what’s “politically correct.” Or a person might be religiously committed to impressing and pleasing other people, leading to dysfunctional family patterns such as the alcoholic husband and his enabling wife.

Most commonly, by ignoring those first two commandments people just make themselves, and their own preferences, into their gods. Without those commandments, we would just worship another holy trinity: “Me, Myself, and I.” That’s happening today in our culture; people insist on being their own authority and nobody else can tell them what to do. We’re all infected with this idea. Whenever the checkout clerk says to me, “Have a nice day,” I’m tempted to reply, “Don’t tell me what kind of day to have!”

The apostle Paul has an interesting comment in Romans 7:7. Discussing the Law, he summarizes the entire set of commandments in the tenth Commandment: “You shall not covet.” Coveting is putting your own selfish desires ahead of everything else, and manipulating other people into conforming to what you want. But that’s exactly the same thing as the first Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The Ten Commandments, in other words, come around full circle. Putting God first, others second, and yourself last is what straightens out all of life, and that’s what the Ten Commandments are driving at. Jesus Christ summarized it when he quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). I repeat, these aren’t specifically Christian principles. No civilization could survive if every member of society consistently put himself first, without regard for the needs of others.

Finally, what about the criticism of the Ten Commandments, that they’re so negative? — “Thou shalt not, thou shalt not, thou shalt not . . .” Well, think about it: suppose the Ten Commandments were all positive: “You must do this, you have to do that” — and the “have tos” could go on ad infinitum. Would you be happy with that set of commandments, and would you be free? By stating a few things in the negative — by restricting behavior in certain critical areas — the Ten Commandments leave us free in all other areas. If nothing is forbidden, then everything is required. And we would go nuts trying to do everything — which is the trap many people find themselves in. But when we know a few things that we mustn’t do, then we have the liberty to plan our lives in other respects.

A famous philosopher once said, “Freedom is the recognition of necessity.” That is, when we know what kind of behavior is really necessary in life, then we have the freedom to act without worrying about all the unnecessary, harmful or trivial things we might be tempted to do. Our atheist friends are quite wrong; the Ten Commandments aren’t specifically Christian, but belong to any stable civilization. They aren’t true because they’re in the Bible; they’re in the Bible because they’re true. And they aren’t restrictive, but liberating and life-enabling. And they’ll endure as the necessary basis for a healthy culture, whether or not somebody wants to pull them down and hide them from public view.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Wealthy Jesus

A common misunderstanding is that Jesus Christ was a poor man. This understanding has led many Christians through the ages to exalt poverty as a more spiritually elevated state than prosperity, as if poverty was what is involved in “sharing his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Critics of the so-called “health and wealth gospel” might point to Jesus’s own poverty as an exemplar for Christian living, berating those “prosperity preachers” who teach that the application of biblical principles can lead to freedom from sickness and want.

It might appear that some passages in Scripture suggest Jesus was poor. Jesus himself declares that “the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). And Paul states, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor . . .” (2 Corinthians 8:9). But neither of these statements need be understood to imply economic poverty on Jesus’s part. Jesus’s statement simply means that, in his traveling ministry throughout Galilee and into Judea, he was seldom at his home in Nazareth. And Paul’s statement need not apply to Jesus’s material poverty; it describes his emptying himself of his pre-incarnate state “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6) to become a “servant,” in order to be subjected to death on the cross for the redemption of his followers. Indeed, Paul completes his statement by adding, “that by his poverty you might become rich.”

What is the Gospel evidence that Jesus was, in fact, not a poor beggar but was fairly wealthy, at least by local Galilean standards? Let’s look at a few facts.

Jesus is called a “carpenter” (Mark 6:3) and the son of a carpenter (Matthew 13:55). The Greek term tekton does not mean someone who just saws up pieces of wood and makes things out of them, or does incidental repairs. It really denotes what we today would call a contractor, or builder; the term can also refer to someone who works with stone, or who thatches roofs. Joseph was a well-known businessman of Nazareth, who passed the business along to Jesus and, no doubt, his brothers James, Joses, Judas and Simon. Like all Jewish teachers, Jesus had a trade that brought him an adequate livelihood before he was baptized by John and set out on his traveling mission.

In his three-year preaching career, as Jesus traveled with his disciples, he was adequately provided for. A group of women, one of whom was the wife of one of Herod’s officials, accompanied them to care for their needs (Luke 8:1-3). Jesus chose some men of substance to accompany him; Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were in the fishing business and at least part owners of boats and other equipment. Levi (Mark 2:14), equated with Matthew (Matthew 9:9), was a publican or tax collector; in the Roman system a publican contracted with the government for a certain amount, and then could collect as much as possible and keep the excess for himself. In following Jesus, Levi gave up a comfortable, if despised, life style; he did not come to Jesus out of a state of economic deprivation. If, like the publican Zacchaeus, he gave away part his wealth to the poor and redressed anyone who had been defrauded (Luke 19:8), he doubtless brought the rest into the disciples’ common treasury. That treasury, managed by Judas Iscariot, maintained funds adequate to provide for the poor (John 13:29) as well as for the disciples’ own sustenance.

Sending out the seventy on a mission to preach the kingdom of God and cast out demons (Matthew 10:7-10), Jesus instructed them not to take money with them or extra clothing — an instruction unnecessary unless the disciples already had such things available for their use. When Jesus taught the 5,000 men (plus women and children) at Bethsaida, and needed to provide a meal for them, the disciples proposed to buy food (Luke 9:13), and therefore they must have had sufficient resources to do that.

As his passion approached, Jesus rebuked the suggestion that a jar of expensive ointment with which a woman anointed him might better have been sold and the proceeds distributed to the poor. “You always have the poor with you,” he stated, “and whenever you will, you can do good to them” (Mark 14:4-8). His statement implies not only that the disciples had the means to help the poor, but also that they were not themselves identified with “the poor.”

Finally, as Jesus’s body hung upon the cross, the Roman soldiers, who customarily divided among themselves the clothing of the crucified, demurred at dividing Jesus’s seamless tunic (John 19:20-24). Evidently it was an unusually well made, expensive garment as opposed to the cheaper clothing of their usual victims.

When the Gospel record is consulted for details of this sort, it becomes clear that Jesus Christ, in his earthly ministry in Galilee and Judea, was not the penniless mendicant he has sometimes been made out to be. His suffering was not that of an economically poverty-stricken man, but that of the Son of God who bore the weight of the sin of his people. Critics who deride the so-called “health and wealth” gospel have no warrant for doing so in the recorded life style of Jesus himself.

And, we have to ask, what is the evangelistic impact of something other than a “health and wealth” gospel? How does a “sickness and poverty gospel” strike you? “Look, I serve the Lord and I’m sick and I’m poor — don’t you want to be like me?” You will look in vain for anything like that in the New Testament.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A World Without America

Disparagement of the United States is rife among the nation’s media and educational elite. For example, it's commonplace to hear of elementary and secondary school textbooks that call into question the rightness of American actions in wartime. A preacher in whose congregation our current President sat for many years is noted for his outburst, “God damn the United States of America!” In the eyes of major forces shaping public opinion, the United States has become what Islamic militants call it: “the Great Satan.” Those who believe in American exceptionalism — the idea that the United States has an historic purpose to promote and embody the liberty and welfare of all peoples — are belittled and silenced.

Do we think America is perfect? Of course not — and certainly not under its present leadership. But if America, as we’ve known it for two and one-half centuries, is such a defective and evil nation, let’s rewrite history as though the United States never existed.

After the colonies’ misguided revolt was crushed, Governor-General Benedict Arnold led in the formation of a greater “New England” incorporating all British settlements along the North Atlantic coast. British loyalists, driven out during the abortive revolt, returned to assume their rightful leadership and social position, heartened by the public execution of revolutionary leaders including Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, New England had become a Dominion exercising a high degree of self-rule, though still under the British crown. The southern colonies, never substantially tied to New England, formed their own entity known as Virginia. Eventually, Virginia was able to secure its complete independence from Great Britain and, to this day, maintains its own distinctive institutions such as a slave economy. It is estimated that as much as 57% of the inhabitants of Virginia today are slaves of African descent.

The territories of both New England and Virginia extend as far west as Louisiana, which became independent of France in the mid-1800s. The Louisianian government has resisted incursions into its territory by white settlers from New England or Virginia. Internecine warfare between tribal groups in the upper Mississippi and Missouri basins has rendered the region largely devoid of the agricultural or industrial activities typical of European settlement. Louisianian policy has always been to avoid disturbing the culture of the aboriginal peoples of the region, with the result that many of these native peoples live in a constant state of insecurity and privation.

At the western extent of the continent, along the Pacific coast and inland for some thousand kilometers, stands the Republic of Mexico. This largely agrarian region, where climate and terrain make agriculture possible, is still organized according to the “rancho” system, with aboriginal peoples living in a near-serfdom to the Spanish-speaking aristocracy. Several good ports, such as at Mission San Francisco or near Mission Reina de los Angeles, remain largely undeveloped for trade with the Far East. This is, in part, because no railroads exist across the continent, through Louisiana, to allow goods to reach markets in the populous Atlantic region. Customs regulations across two international boundaries, and unstable conditions in areas not settled by Europeans, hinder other trade by land. Commerce by sea must contend with the lengthy and dangerous voyage around Cape Horn. A canal through the Isthmus of Panama has been proposed, but no entity exists with the resources to construct it.

The Republic of Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836 after a protracted struggle, and exists today as an enclave of European settlement along the Gulf coast and inland. The intervening position of Louisiana renders it difficult for Texas to maintain close ties with Virginia, and it has pursued its own developmental path. Texas mounts the largest military force in the continent, equipped with the most modern assets, due to the constant specter of a Mexican effort to reconquer its lost territory.

Turning elsewhere in the world, we look first to Europe where the situation remains bleak. Great Britain and France, with Britain’s allied Dominions, were able to resist the German Kaiser’s advances in the war of 1914-1917, but the Kaiser’s abdication and subsequent inflationary conditions in Germany rendered the nation ripe for the emergence of a new leader. Chancellor Adolf Hitler led Germany’s resurgence as a military power. His ambitions for “Lebensraum” for the German peoples resulted in another major war which left Great Britain and France in total defeat, and in a state of devastation from which those nations have not fully recovered. Today German rule extends throughout most of Europe. Only the Soviet Union remains outside National Socialist control, free to promote its own Communist ideology which has extended itself through large portions of Asia and Latin America. Jewish people who managed to escape Hitler’s European campaign to exterminate them have been able to find only a few havens of security elsewhere, principally in portions of Africa. Those who, earlier, had hoped to establish a Zionist homeland in Palestine found their hopes dashed through the resurgence of militant Islam in the Near East, and the lack of support from any powerful nation.

As for the Pacific region, the Emperor of Japan holds sway over a vast region that includes China, Korea, Indo-China, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and the islands of the South Pacific. The expansion of the Japanese Empire met with little resistance, especially from the opposite rim of the Pacific Ocean. Mexico lacked both the will, and the naval and air assets, that might have checked the Japanese advance.

In the field of science and technology, physicists are at a loss to know how to fully harness the power of electronics, or to explain the relation of energy, mass and the speed of light. Mysteries about the origin and extent of our universe might begin to be clarified if larger and more powerful telescopes could be designed, or even placed into orbit around the earth. As it is, space is still principally the domain of the Soviet Union, which placed men on the moon in 1972. Recent ventures into space by Germany and Japan only heighten one’s fears that orbiting vehicles could become instruments of intimidation and warfare. With the development of telecommunication instruments and computers for scientific and military use, one hopes to see the day when such technological devices will be applied to the needs of ordinary people. Mechanized vehicles for personal travel (so-called “automobiles”) remain available only for the privileged few. Thus far, few governments have allowed any firm to widely market consumer applications in these areas.

One wonders how history might have turned out differently if there had been, in the place of New England, Virginia, Louisiana, and Mexico, a strong and prosperous nation extending across the continent of North America. Would such a nation have been able to deal with the issue of slavery; produce technical innovators or harbor scientists of the highest caliber; build a “Panama Canal”; rescue and rebuild Europe after Hitler’s devastation; hurl back the aggression of the Japanese Empire; resist the advance of Soviet Communism; allow a free market for the development of consumer electronics, personal vehicles, and other goods; or support an “Israel” as a homeland for displaced Jews? Would such a nation have had the strength to extend its vision for human betterment to the rest of the globe? Had such a nation existed, this would be a much different world.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Digital Difference

After starting out in a ministerial and academic career I found my path blocked and had to start over in the business world. I took a temporary job with Rand McNally and just never bothered to leave. Twenty years later, in 2001, I retired from there. During that time I got involved with computers. Today my wife and I operate five computers, and I do web site design and have a small web site hosting operation. While working for Rand McNally, I came to see the connection between computers and the Word of God.

Computers, you see, are really dumb. You’ve all heard the expression GIGO — “Garbage in, garbage out.” You can’t get a correct answer out of a computer if you put in the wrong information. Another thing about computers is that everything is digital. That means that information is stored in “bytes” that are either turned off or turned on. A piece of computer information can’t be half OFF and half ON. It has to be one or the other.

Anthropologist Gregory Bateson pointed out, decades ago, that information is “a difference that makes a difference.” In other words, information is the difference between one thing and another; in a computer it’s the difference between ON and OFF. If everything is the same — all ON, for example — no information is conveyed. We learn nothing from a blank screen, what computer geeks call the BSOD or “blue screen of death,” except that something’s wrong with the computer.

God’s Word, too, is digital; it’s “the difference that makes a difference.” We see this, for example, in the Old Testament all the way from Genesis to Malachi. In Genesis, God creates by making a difference. He says, “Let there be light,” and divides the light from the darkness, just as in a computer the bytes are either ON or OFF. In Malachi 3:18 the Lord says, “Then once more you shall distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” That’s a digital difference. It reminds us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:30: “He who is not with me is against me.” Our faith is digital; our byte is either turned ON or it’s turned OFF.

We know that God is a regular user of the Internet. In fact, his universe is one big Internet, and his search engine is even more powerful than Google. He’s always out there looking for information. As 2 Chronicles 16:9 says, “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth.” Jesus reminds us that God is seeking worshipers who will truly worship him (John 4:23). He’s looking for those who would serve him.

Paul, in Romans 12:1, appeals to us to present ourselves to God as our “spiritual service of worship.” Actually, the Greek expression is ten logiken latreian humon, “our logical service.” Computer people speak of the logic of a program — the reasoning behind how the bytes are arranged, either ON or OFF. God is looking for logical servers — people who will serve him with a commitment that is clear, giving him the information he needs to use them effectively.

Lots of things can go wrong with a computer, as we all know! Files can be corrupted with bad or incomplete information, our hard drive can “crash,” an Internet server may not be putting out the web site we’re looking for. At such times we get an error message, like the white screen that says, “This page cannot be displayed” or “Server not found.”

As the Lord points his URL (Uniform Resource Locator, or web address) at me or looks for me with his search engine, is he going to find me ready with the information he’s looking for? Is my byte turned on, is my drive working, are my files uncorrupted? Or will he get that screen that says, “Server Not Found”?

Originally published in ReUnion, newsletter of Union Congregational Church, North Aurora, Illinois, November 2004.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Am I a Maker or a Taker?

Recent political debate about how entitlements are stressing the Federal budget has raised the distinction between Makers and Takers. What percentage of the U.S. population are Makers, contributing to Federal revenues through the taxes they pay? And what percentage are Takers, who put nothing in but take out benefits the taxpayers are providing for them? And how long can we sustain a situation in which the benefits Takers receive exceed the resources the Makers provide through the taxes they pay — a scenario that requires the Federal government to go deeper and deeper into debt?

As a “retired” recipient of Social Security benefits for a decade now, I wondered whether I myself had become a Taker instead of a Maker. With a work record beginning in 1958, I wondered whether the FICA withholdings from my paycheck through the years, plus my employers’ matching FICA taxes, were still paying for my monthly benefit. Or had my “contributions” been exhausted by this time, so that I’m being supported by other taxpayers? My question led me to some research, and the creation of a spreadsheet to figure out the answer.

The first step was to capture the record of all my wages that had been subject to the FICA tax; that was easily obtained through the Social Security web site. Then I had to apply the FICA rate (combined for me and my employers) for each year to my wages. (When I started work the rate was 4.5%; when I retired the rate was 15.3%.) The result was the amount of money that was put into the system each year on my behalf.

But that amount had to be adjusted to correspond to 2013 dollars. To do that, I used the average price of a gallon of gasoline each year, divided into the 2012 average of $3.29. For example, in 1960 my FICA combined tax was a mere $15.78, and gas was 31 cents a gallon. In terms of today’s purchasing power, however, that $15.78 became the equivalent of $167.47. I set up the spreadsheet to convert each year’s FICA tax to 2013 dollars. In this way $124,000 of FICA input became equivalent to more than $400,000 today.

I was ready to answer my question: was I still a Maker? I totaled all my Social Security benefits since I retired, at 65½ in 2004, through the year 2012. I used the total benefit, including the Medicare premiums that were deducted. (Yes, we “geezers” pay a premium for our Medicare!) I then subtracted what I have received thus far from the total of my FICA input as adjusted for inflation.

I am happy to report that I am still a Maker — there is still money in my “account” that was paid in on my behalf throughout a work record of 46 years. Estimating my monthly Social Security benefit in years ahead (it will go up some, of course), at age 74 I still have about ten years to go before I transition to Takerhood.

But wait — there’s more to the story! My annual FICA payments were simply absorbed into the Federal Treasury every year. The so-called “Social Security Trust Fund” is a myth. Politicians just took my contributions to the retirement system and used them to make themselves look like better managers of the nation’s budget. But what if my FICA payments had been shielded from raiding by demagogues, invested in the stock market, and allowed to grow?

To figure this out, I looked at the Dow Jones Industrial Average since 1958 and compared the closing average each year with the previous year’s close. That gave me a growth (or reduction) factor for my hypothetically invested accumulated FICA input. For example, in 1981 the Dow closed at approximately 875; in 1982 it closed at 1047, nearly a 20% increase. I took the accumulated total in my “account” for 1981, added my FICA input for 1982, and applied the 120% factor to the sum, resulting in a new accumulated total as the base for the 1983 calculations. Those calculations would use the 1983 DJIA closing average to calculate the new factor — and so on down the spreadsheet.

True, the market has its ups and downs. In the 70s it had some negative ratios, and during that time my hypothetical investment accumulation sometimes dropped below the raw FICA total. However, since then the market has “taken off.” Over the years, in fact, the market has had an annual increase in value of better than 9%. As a result, if my FICA input into the Social Security system had been permitted to grow in this way it would today total around 2½ million dollars. I could not live long enough to become a Taker, instead of a Maker!

A trained economist could probably refine my amateur approach to this question, but I believe his result would have been substantially the same. The point is: if you worked for four decades or more, paying into the Social Security system, and are now receiving retirement benefits, you probably can’t be accused of being a Taker instead of a Maker. The title of Taker should go to someone else.

Published in the DAILY GATE CITY, Keokuk, Iowa, January 10, 2013.