Monthly Archives: April 2013

Incomplete Picture: Who has value?

What happens when we have an incomplete, incorrect, or inadequate understanding of the doctrine of Creation?

Let’s break down the story of Creation into a few short phrases:

  1. God created the Universe
  2. God created man and woman in His image
  3. God said that it was good

In the first two installations in this series I have dealt with #1. Denying that God created the universe leads to materialism and its associated implications. The last two will examine #3. Today, I want to examine the effects of denying #2. What happens when we deny (or just plain ignore) the reality that humans are created in God’s image?

No one, anywhere, has value, meaning, or purpose:

The most obvious and consistent consequence to a purely materialistic system is nihilism, the notion that life is without any objected meaning, purpose, or value. Nihilism may be logically consistent, but it’s not really possible to live it out.

Our value, meaning, and purpose is self-defined:

So, if we have no intrinsic value, as nihilism states, perhaps we have some kind of self-defined value. Since we are beings who actually do have value, we’ll look for it wherever we can, even if that means looking in the wrong place. Instead of saying, as the story of Creation says, that we are made in God’s image, with the value, meaning, and purpose that that entails, we look for meaning within ourselves or our subjective experiences. We attempt to answer the question – if my value doesn’t come from God, where does it come from? If we simply say, “from being human?” it just begs the question. What about being human gives value? Where does value come from? Does it come from being smart? Strong? Rich? Independent? Autonomous? Able to feel pain? Come from a “superior” race? What if someone else doesn’t fit that criteria?

Only some people have value, purpose, and meaning:

Perhaps a more insidious and subtle form of this is to believe (even subconsciously) that only some people have value and others (like the ones we don’t like or can’t see) don’t. Not really anyway. If they really did have value it would mean we would have to treat them like they have value. We don’t really want to do that, do we? But the reality is that we all do have value, meaning, and purpose.

Babies (including the unborn) have value.

Handicapped people have value.

The elderly have value.

Muslims have value.

Jews have value.

Christians have value.

Republicans have value.

Democrats have value.

Socialists have value.

Homosexuals have value.

My wealthy neighbor has value.

That impoverished child in the Third-World has value.

I have value.

You have value.

The ones that are hardest to write… Kermit Gosnell and Peter Singer have value – even though they deny it for other people.

And, this value, meaning, and purpose doesn’t come from some subjective experience, but because we are created in God’s image. He gives it to us, and that makes it all the more valuable.

Value not perfection:

Don’t misunderstand me. We have value but we aren’t perfect. In fact, we’re all deaply flawed, broken, and rebellious. If we stop at Creation and fail to consider our sin, we err. Most people are comfortable with saying we all have value, but conclude that that means we’re perfect, that we’re superstars, that all of our preferences and ideologies and behaviors are perfectly justified. But that is a discussion for another day.

Real real and Faith real (Is only one religion true? – revisited)

Yesterday at our After School program I asked the students the question, “Is only one religion true?” I got a lot of interesting responses. There were about four kids that chimed in at one point or another. All told, I had a good hour and fifteen minutes of solid conversation with the students with topics ranging from how to witness to your friends, to the purpose of adult baptism, to the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. All these were interesting discussions but the main focus on the discussion kept coming back to the question “Is only one religion true?” and it is to this discussion that I want to turn.

Not surprisingly, this was a hard question for the students to answer. It is, I think, actually rather ambiguous, which is part of the reason I thought it would be a good question. With the exception of one enthusiastic and articulate Catholic student, the rest basically answered, after a little prodding, “no.” My goal here was not simply to give an answer, but to use the Socratic method to help the students reason it out for themselves.

Here’s a simplified version of how the conversation went:

Me: Is only one religion true?

Students: It’s really just a matter of belief.

Me: What do you mean?

Students: Whatever you believe, it’s true for you.

Me: What if two believe things that are contradictory? Are both of them right?

Students: You could believe anything. I could believe that this Vernors can created the universe and you could believe that God created the universe.

Me: So, doesn’t that mean one of us is right and one of us is wrong? I mean, it’s crazy to think that a Vernors can created the universe right?

Students: Right (thinking). Have you seen the movie Rise of the Guardians?

Me: No.

Students: In the movie fairy tale characters get smaller or stop existing if people stop believing in them.

Me: But, it doesn’t work that way in the real world right? If people stop believing in that Vernors can, it won’t get smaller and smaller, will it?

At this point, the students get distracted by imagining a shrinking Vernors can. So, I tried to ask the question another way.

Me: Let’s say I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and Darwin (another volunteer who had joined, not the scientist) believes that Jesus is not the Son of God. Can we both be right? Or is one of us right and one of us wrong?

Students: (thinking) It’s a matter of belief. (Implying we could both be right)

Me: Aren’t those mutually exclusive things? How could we both be right at the same time?

Students: (restating) It’s just based on what you believe. You would both think you are right.

Me: I agree, we would both think we are right, but are both of us right?

Students: Only the one who created the world would know.

Me: So only God knows everything.

Students: Yes.

Me: I agree, only God knows everything. If God knows everything, do you think he would want to tell us?

Students: Yes, that makes sense.

Me: Has he told us?

Students: Yes, he has told us in the Bible.

Me: And what does the Bible say.

Students: That Jesus is God’s Son.

At this point, I thought I had demonstrated my point but later discussions would reveal that I hadn’t really done so. I decided to approach the discussion from yet another direction.

Me: Is there anything unique about Christianity or are all religions the same?

Students: Well, all religions have a different name for God, but it’s all the same God.

Me: OK, is there anything else that makes religions unique?

Students: They each have different customs and holidays.

Me: OK, is there anything else that makes CHRISTianity unique? (At this point, the Catholic student is ready to answer but I wanted to hear from the others, so I asked him to refrain for now)

Students: Not that I can think of.

Me: (To one of the students who expressed interest in being baptized at our church) So why would anyone want to be part of one religion or another?

Students: Well, I guess you see what your friends do, if you think it’s interesting, if it works for you.

At this point, the Catholic student jumped in and said – “Christianity is unique because it’s the only one that tells us that Jesus is God’s Son, died for us, and made a way for us to be saved.” Everyone agreed… kind of.

All in all, the conversation was revealing to me about how the students think. Here are some observations:

The students had no problem making statements of Christian faith: The same students who were unwilling to say that one person was right and one person was wrong in regard to the existence of God would say, without blinking, that “God created the universe” or “the Bible is God’s word” or “Jesus is God’s Son.” All were able to express, without apology, basic tenets of Christian faith.

Basic propositional logic didn’t apply in regards to faith: The question I was ultimately asking was basic propositional logic. “Can A and not A be true at the same time?” Or, “Can God exist and not exist at the same time.” Basic logic says no, and when I applied it to something concrete (like a Vernors can) the students readily grasped my meaning. But when I applied it to God, it’s as though their minds entered another world where logic didn’t need to apply. The history of this reasoning goes back at least to Kant. The students would be unable to express the logic behind it. It’s simply ingrained in the culture.

“Real real” and “Faith real”: As I described parts of this story to another of our leaders she said that, when working with younger kids she sometimes has to say, “I mean really real not pretend real.” Subconsciously, we’ve been conditioned to think of the world in terms of what is “really real” and what is “faith real.” The “really real” world is the world of facts, figures, and science. It is measureable and knowable (Kant would call this the phenomena). The world of “faith real” is the world of morals, religion, the mind, God, doctrine, etc (Kant would call this the pneumena). Our culture doesn’t think it’s wrong or “pretend,” it just follows different rules. It’s the world of opinion. It can’t, or so the story goes, be known. It can be really real, and not at all real, at the same time. This is a false and illogical dichotomy, but as long as you don’t look at it, it’s easy to function as though it makes perfect sense.

In the world of faith, belief determines reality: You see, in the “faith real” world faith determines reality. You can say, “all religions are true because they are true for the person who believes them.” Such a thing is, of course, ridiculous. Jimmy believes God is real, therefore it is real for him. Bobby believes God is not real, which is real for him. That yields a universe where God is both real and not real at the same time. Again, if the rules of logic were to apply anyone could see the contradiction in this. But, in the “faith real” world logic doesn’t apply. The rules of reality shift from the universal to the particular. What you believe makes reality – but only for you. It’s as though we each have our own privatized reality which we create by our own faith or lack of faith.

This idea of faith and reality has nothing to do at all with the Christian, or any Theistic, notion of faith and reality. It really only ever works if “faith real” is either “not real” or “sub-real.”

This idea relegates religion to the realm of personal preference, self-actualization, socialization, and perhaps private morality but removes it from the realm of universal truth. It is not self-sustaining. It is illogical.

Update:

By way of citation, I should say that I have been heavily influenced on this point by Lesslie Newbigin in “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

Incomplete Picture: Nothing but mammals?

What happens when we have an incomplete, incorrect, or inadequate understanding of the doctrine of Creation?

Once we believe (in creed or practice) that humans are only biological, self-gratifying, need driven creatures, the next step is to apply this logic sexuality. Sex becomes only and essentially a means to gratify our desire (or need, as Maslow might say). The same worldview that drives our mass-consumer world ends up driving our sexual ethics as well. After all, “sex sells.”

We’ve become accustomed to throwing off “old-fashioned,” especially religious, moral principles. The only moral principles now are do what makes you happy and don’t cause suffering in others. Thankfully humanism has maintained the latter[1], but even with it, this moral system is incomplete and contradictory at best.

In this moral system, where there are relatively few constraints, there is nothing obviously wrong with promiscuity, pornography, polygamy[2], incest (so long as no children are produced), homosexual behavior, prostitution, etc. If sex is only a biological act then our only course is to simply follow our biology. Or, to quote the lines of a song popular when I was in school, “you and me baby ‘aint nothing but mammals…”  (I’ll refrain from finishing out the lyrics.)

Is there another way to view human sexuality? I think a proper understanding of Creation gives us a more complete view. We see, first, that people are both physical and spiritual beings. All our physical acts are also spiritual acts. This is especially true in the area of sexuality. God created us male and female. Marriage, and the act of consummation, is a means by which husband and wife are united as “one flesh.” God Himself has bound husband and wife together (Matthew 19:4-6). The apostle Paul later explains how this marriage union is a picture of Christ’s union with the Church (Ephesians 4:25-32). Again, Christians are warned against becoming “united” with a prostitute. After all, Christians are already “united” with Christ (1 Corinthians 6:12-17). Notice how spiritual and physical realities are intertwined?

God created the institution of marriage as a covenant relationship and sex as a means of bearing children and expressing covenant love within that context. That covenant is not just physical (though it is physical) but spiritual as well. That covenant, and the expression of it is sacred. It is holy. Any violation or misuse of it is a violation against or misuse of something which God has set apart as holy. But, if we recognize God’s beautiful design, then marriage and sexuality are far more meaningful and gratifying than anything the world has to offer in its cheap substitutes.

I could end here but I want to caution against one more error. There are some who have gone the other direction and have divorced sexuality from biology all together. In this view, what happens physically doesn’t matter at all – it’s only about expressing love. In this view no physical acts are inherently wrong because what happens in the physical world doesn’t really matter. This is an old, old view called Gnosticism but it has been trumpeted once again to promote a permissive attitude toward any kind of sexual behavior. This is essentially the view of John McNeill. Again, by God’s design we are both physical and spiritual beings. To deny either of these truths is to fall into error.

[1] Even this shows signs of going away. If you really want to feel depressed, check out Peter Singer’s views on infanticide. Humanism ‘aint so great, but it sure beats his brand of Utilitarianism.

[2] I have heard it argued (I believe it was Lesslie Newbigin) that our society already functions with a sort “serial polygamy.” Multiple wives (or husbands) isn’t really abnormal in our society, we just don’t have them all at the same time.

QOTD: Is only one religion true?

QOTD (Question of the Day) Introduction: This blog series reviews questions asked to teenagers as part of the NSYR study as documented in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. These questions relate to “seeker attitudes” among American Teenagers. I am also using these discussion questions to engage the kids in our After School program at a deeper level.

Question: Is only one religion true?

“Fewer than one-third of teens (29 percent) report that they believe that only one religion is true. The majority of teens (60 percent) say they believe that many religions may be true. Only 9 percent say there is very little truth in any religion.”

My brief answer:

This question, like others on the list, is a little more ambiguous than it might originally seem so an easy yes/no doesn’t suffice. Instead, I might propose the following logical propositions:

1)      There is one truth which is knowable.

2)      Sometimes, different religions propose different and mutually exclusive visions of that truth. In these cases, one religion is necessarily right and the others necessarily wrong – or they could all be wrong.

3)      Sometimes, different religions propose overlapping or complimentary visions of that truth. In these cases, multiple religions may be correct.

By this logic, then, we might say that the religion that comes closest to the approximation of truth is the “true religion” and that, because there are so many divergent and mutually exclusive claims made about truth, that “only one religion is true.” This is seen most obviously in claims about salvation. Christianity proposes that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Other religions place an emphasis upon particular religious behavior or piety. In the case of salvation, Christianity is either true (as I would say) or false.

However, we can also say that many religions contain some correct vision of the truth. Several religions say there is only one God. In this case, they could all be true at the same time. Several promote charitable giving, honoring your parents, etc. Again, in all these cases, proponents of one religion can, and should observe the overlap of beliefs.

Many have observed the overlap of ethical agreement in the major religions (which is usually overestimated) and come to the conclusion that because of this overlap that all religions are essentially the same. This is a tragic error. Our relationship to God is not based on our own morality – if it was we would all be condemned – but on God’s mercy and forgiveness. That mercy is only in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is only Christianity that bears witness to this essential truth. It is to Christ we must turn.

Incomplete Picture: Material Beings

What happens when we have an incomplete, incorrect, or inadequate understanding of the doctrine of Creation?

The first fairly obvious deviation from the doctrine of creation is to simply remove God and spiritual reality entirely from the picture.

The logical result of this supposition is that people are only material (non-spiritual) beings. This is a deviation that Anderton explores in Screwtape’s Master Plan. The narrator, Screwtape, a demon, announces his plan in this way “One of our favorite tactics is to convince hybrids [humans] that they should live for themselves and grasp for all the material pleasures that the world can offer because they will soon die.”[1] Since, in reality, we are both spiritual and physical beings attempting this tactic leads to ever increasing dissatisfaction. Screwtape continues, “The ideal outcome is full-fledged materialism in which frustrated hybrids [humans] grasp for ever larger amounts of possessions only to experience ever diminishing satisfaction.”[2] (emphasis added)

We are bombarded with this worldview on a daily basis just by living in a mass-consumer capitalist system. I do not mean to say that capitalism is inherently evil but, as an all encompassing moral system, it promotes a competing vision of who we are as people. As Smith and Denton point out, “Capitalism is not merely a system for the efficient production and distribution of goods and services; it also promotes a particular moral order, an institutionalized normative worldview.” This worldview “constitutes the human self in a very particular way: as an individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefiting consumer.”[3] It is this last bit, that we are essentially self-seeking, cost-benefiting consumers fits very well with the enemy’s lie that we are only physical beings who can only find satisfaction in physical pleasures and comforts. Luckily, we have an system waiting to fulfill these desires… at the right price.

A complete view of creation gives us the perspective we need. When we can recognize that the physical reality is only part of the story we can appropriate those material needs and desires. We can see that God has created the material world for our good, but that it is futile to attempt to find ultimate satisfaction in the created thing instead of in the Creator. Once we learn to worship our Creator, and not the created thing, and we learn to view ourselves not simply as material things, we can then learn to “seek first the Kingdom of God” and rejoice when he takes care of our material needs.

[1] Anderton, Charles H., Screwtape’s Master Plan. 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

Incomplete Picture: Beginnings

Let’s take, for the sake of argument, that the grand Story of history follows the pattern Creation, Rebellion, Rescue, and Re-Creation.

What happens to our worldview (beliefs, values, choices) if we have an incomplete, incorrect, or inadequate understanding of the first stage of history: Creation.

Introduction: Briefly, and broadly, the doctrine of Creation states that God created the Universe out of nothing. It’s the belief that God created mankind in His image. It’s the belief that what He created was good, indeed, very good, and unfallen.

Overview the next few days(?) I will deal with five ramifications of deviating from this doctrine. For now I will simply list them.

If we have an incomplete, incorrect, or inadequate doctrine of Creation we may falsely…

1)     attempt to satisfy spiritual longings with material pleasures,

2)     believe sex is only a biological act,

3)     believe there is nothing unique or purposeful about humanity,

4)     equate ‘body’ with ‘evil’ and ‘spirit’ with good, or

5)     believe there is not value in scientific pursuits.

The first three are the result of believing (in creed or practice) that the material world is all that exists. The fourth and fifth are the result of devaluing God’s material creation.

Book Review: Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton

I’ve known about the phrase “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” for some time but it wasn’t until recently that I learned that the phrase was coined by Smith and Denton in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Once I learned that, this book jumped to the top of my reading list. I was primarily looking for a comprehensive description of the term from its “primary source.” In this quest I was not disappointed. What I didn’t expect, but got anyway, was an accidental-guide to youth ministry.

Solidness: Plus+

Soul Searching is officially written from a secular sociological perspective. In some respects, the book is simply a report on the results of a major survey of American teenagers (NSYR) on the topic of religion and spirituality. The book examines the results of this survey through a sociological lens. In this regard, the book is theologically neutral. It does not make claims about the doctrine of any particular religion.

That said, the book is not neutral. The authors are, at least, sympathetic toward various religious traditions and seem to be concerned that, in regards to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, have strayed so far from their doctrinal and historical roots. Near the end of the book the authors consciously stray from their sociological framework to offer advice to religious congregations. Such a diversion, while only consciously done at this place in the book, is not out of place.

Freshness: DoublePlus++

Soul Searching is an exceedingly influential book, not just about what it says about American youth in particular, but about what it says about American religion in general. The phrase coined in the book, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” (MTD) is an apt term for the form of religious thought popular in America today. It’s essential that Christian families and leaders be able to recognize this parasitic pseudo-religious system. When I read this section in the book I highlighted almost everything. That’s usually a sure sign that the book is good.

MTD is just one of the many contributions of Soul Searching. Its presentation and analysis of the NSYR results are also very informative and relevant to anyone interested in reaching American teenagers.

Recommendation:

This is a must read (a phrase I won’t use very often) from anyone involved in youth ministry. I would also highly recommend it for other pastors, since MTD is widespread, not just in among American teenagers, but among parents as well.

I said in the introduction that this book was an accidental-guide to youth ministry. It is definitely not a guide in format. It’s a sociology book. But, the issues its raise are relevant issues to all youth leaders. The findings of the NSYR research ought to make all of us think intentionally about youth ministry.