Thursday, December 17, 2015

Was the First Christmas Really So Heavenly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Principle of Complementarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

We Bigots Have Rights, Too

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 9, 2015

What Is Salvation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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