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Sacred Memories

In Devotional, Time, Worldview on February 27, 2016 at 10:19 pm

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have this sacred memory.  It was the summer of 2010.  The previous 4 years had been difficult.  But now I was in Rennes, France on my honeymoon.  While my wife was napping.  I went for a walk in the old town.  I sat down at an outdoor table on the cobbled street.  I watched the pedestrians stroll past the 5oo year old buildings that faced me.  I ordered a beer, one I’d never heard of,  Picon Biere.  It’s flavour was a surprise that I couldn’t identify at first–oranges?!  This beer was incredible.  The setting was incredible.

Then I experienced this feeling of profound peace.  It was a gift of grace.  I’d never felt this so strongly before.  This for me is a sacred memory.

I have no doubt this feeling had a transcendent source.  God was behind it somehow.  I don’t know what it meant, but I carry it with me always.

Dostoyevsky wrote of these moments:

People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.

Brothers Karamazov

I’m curious about your sacred moments.  Do other people have them?  I don’t hear much talk about them.  If you are willing to share them, post them in the comment section.

Christian Modernism? Modern Christianism?

In Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on October 9, 2013 at 5:08 am

UntitledWe just can’t escape the modern worldview.  The term “worldview” is itself a product of the modern worldview.

The modern worldview sees the world in terms of clear boundaries between categories.  Well, one of the most cherished categorical distinctions is between subject and object.  Implicit in the term worldview is the division between the object, the world, and the subject, the viewer.

But it all evens out because a person who deliberately rejects the Christian worldview can’t escape it either.

Those who claim they have a secular-modern worldview, don’t really.  Their understanding of the world and themselves is unavoidably infused with the Judeo-Christian worldview out of which it grew.  The concept of “secular” is itself rooted in the Judeo-Christian past.  A linear understanding of history, the importance of human rights and freedoms to name a few more.  Science flourished in the west because the universe was understood to be ordered–“In the beginning was the Logos.  Ordered means predictable and this is the basis of the scientific method.

These are just a few of many examples where the modern “secular” worldview is not truly secular.  If it were it would look far different.

Just as the secular worldview isn’t purely secular, the so called “Christian worldview” of our day has been influence by modern secular ideas.

First, there are many Christians that accept the modern reductionist understanding of “truth.”  They are trapped within this syllogism: Truth is rational and empirical; The Bible is true; therefore, the Bible is rational and empirical.  At a popular level, this idea leads to two common errors: that the Bible is true like an encyclopedia is  true, or that it’s not true at all.  Since this reductionist view of truth is so recent and so limited, it is neither appropriate nor useful to hold the Bible to this narrow understanding of truth.

Another way the modern worldview has infiltrated our churches is the valuing of reason over emotion.  This is the one I need to own up to.  I like the rational bits of the worship service–the sermon–far more than the more emotional components–the singing.  And you notice that even by classifying the elements of the church service as emotional and rational I am being very modern.

Third, we have a tendency to be individualistic and we put more emphasis on the individual autonomy than in preceding centuries.  We speak of having a “personal relationship with Jesus” and we sing songs like “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  OK, we don’t sing that song anymore, but we sing a lot of songs that are essentially personal reflections.  There is, obviously, an important personal or individual dimension to Christian faith, but modernism has lead us to put an unbalanced emphasis on the importance of the individual.

Modernism considers faith a private affair that ought to be kept out of the public arena.  Some in the church find it handy to live within this false dichotomy.  In these cases, one’s public life has nothing to do with one’s religious life.  This makes it possible to not claim some income on your tax forms, or to underpay employees, or cheat customers, or pollute the environment, or fail to adequately tip servers in restaurants, etc.  These behaviors do not really touch upon one’s conscience because “business is business.”  In other words, the demands of the Bible are separated from one’s public activity.

A related dichotomy, equally false, divides the world into sacred and secular spheres.  There are many examples of this kind of thinking.   When I was a teenager, there was much debate as to whether or not Christian young people ought to listen to “secular” music.  For many it was clear that Christians ought not do so, and no consideration was given to whether or not the “Christian” music was true, or even good.  Some Christian schools are based on the sacred/secular dichotomy.  The problem with the idea of the secular, as we understand it today, is it suggests there are areas of creation over which Jesus is not Lord.  This idea is completely incompatible with scripture.

 It is no easy thing, purging modernism from our minds and if we could ever completely succeed in doing so, we’d then have to purge our minds of post-modernism.  I really don’t believe we can ever avoid being a product of our times.  But reading the Bible helps a lot.  It also helps a great deal to read history and non-western literature–the Bible nicely fits into these categories as well.  These help us to provide a context for the idolatrous worldviews out of which we live.

 

The Modern Worldview

In Worldview on September 21, 2013 at 7:12 pm

The modern worldviewLesslie Newbigin’s book, Foolishness to the Greeks, changed my life.  I don’t remember a lot of the specifics, but by reading this book I came to realize that I was looking at the world through some very thick and tinted lenses.  Everyone looks at the world through the metaphorical spectacles of a worldview.

There are competing worldviews in the West, by which I mean Europe and North America.  One of the dominant ones has been around for a while–the Modern story.  This may be in the process of being replaced by the newer “Post-Modern” story.  Another worldview that has been around much longer is derived from the Bible.  Although very different, we in the West look at the world through a weird blend of all three.

If you are going to understand the glasses through which you are view yourself and the world, you need to begin by understanding the basic characteristics of each worldview which is tinting the lenses by which you look at everything.  In our culture, all our glasses are being strongly tinted by modernsim.  The roots of the Modern worldview are in the 18th century, the Enlightenment.  While it took some pretty big hits in the 20th century, many of the ideas which characterize this perspective are with us today.

Here are the main ideas:

    1. Human reason is the source of truth; the light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes really got this idea going and it has suck with us.  They trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth (Read “Fact versus Truth“) albeit from different starting points. Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality. Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason to lead to the truth.
    2. Reality is material.  There is nothing that transcends the material world, or, if there is, it has no relevance to one’s life.  In other words, there is no such thing as the supernatural, only the natural.  This idea is called materialism or naturalism.  If human reason is the source of truth, then Bacon’s approach, called empiricism, will help us to discover the truth.  This only works on the natural world, but since nothing else is real, there is no problem.
    3. The individual is of primary importance.  In the modern worldview, human reason is autonomous.  So also is the individual whose motto has become, “You’re not the boss of me!”  Our history is one of emancipation from those who would curb our independence: kings and queens, God and the church, communism and socialism, and tradition and social conventions.  Our free economies and liberal democracies are testaments to our individual autonomy.  One source of this idea is Rene Descartes whose “I think therefore I am” not only grounded truth in the reason, but in the reason of the individual.
    4. Faith in Progress. Humanity is on an upward trajectory.  Because of human reason and its offspring, science and technology, Modernity places a lot of faith in progress.  It has long believed that we need to get rid of silly superstitions and religious beliefs.  Reason rather than religion will allow the human race to continue up the road toward perfection and science and technology will solve the problems that we face.
    5. Categories and more categories. Because human reason is only autonomous if the world is only material, the modern mind establishes and defends boundaries between categories.  There are many.  Here are a few: mind/body, natural/supernatural, material/spiritual, imminent/transcendent, public/private, rational/emotional, fact/value, reason/faith, knowledge/belief, sacred/secular and objective/subjective.
 The Biblical worldview differs significantly with the Modern worldview on each of these points.
  1. Human reason is part of God’s good creation, but it has also been distorted by sin, so it cannot be completely trusted.

  2. Obviously, the Biblical worldview is not materialist or naturalist because it proclaims a transcendent God who is the source of objective realities like The Good, The True and The Beautiful.

  3. The communal nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit challenges the idea that those created in the image of the triune God ought to be understood first as an autonomous individual.

  4. God’s Grace and not man’s ability will be the cause of any progress we experience in this world, and that’s only if we surrender to Christ because he’s the only one that can deal with our real problem–SIN.

  5. Christ, who is wholly God, became wholly human and yet did not surrender any of his divinity; this alone presents a challenge to the clean categories so loved by the Modern mind.  An honest reading of the Bible will blur many of the other boundaries between the other categories held so dear by modernism..

The problem is, the Biblical worldview and the modern worldview are not kept distinct.  Our glasses are tinted by both of these (and other) contradictory worldviews.

The Evening Sky

In Devotional, Worldview on July 1, 2013 at 3:11 am

Calvin-and-Hobbes-HD-night-sky 

Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes, once said, “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I bet they’d live a lot differently.”

It wasn’t that long ago when people did sit outside and look at the stars each night.  This is certainty one of the reasons why anyone who lived before Edison had an entirely different view of reality–both of themselves and the world around them–than we do.  

This passage from Psalm 8 is but one example.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place, 
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? 

When we look up at the night sky, we are seeing a tremendous distance through both time and space.

How far away is the farthest star? 

Here are a few of the answers.

  1. The Milky Way galaxy is about 120,000 light years in diameter.  We’re about 25,000 light years from the center.  So, the most distant stars in our galaxy are about 95,000 light years away. 
  2. The most distant known object has a redshift of just over 5.  That means that the light from this object started its journey toward us when the Universe was only  30% of its current age.  The exact age of the Universe is not known, but is probably roughly 12 billion years.  Thus, the light from this object left it when the Universe was a few billion years old.  Its distance is roughly 25 billion light years. 
  3. Existing observations suggest that the Universe may be infinite in spatial extent.  If so, then the farthest star would actually be infinitely far away!

There’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin is lecturing Hobbes on astronomical truth.  He explains, “That cloud of stars is our galaxy, The Milky Way. Our solar system is on the edge of it. . . .  We hurl through an incomprehensible darkness. In cosmic terms, we are subatomic particles in a grain of sand on an infinite beach.”  Then, after glancing at his watch he says, “I wonder what’s on TV.”

A regular submission to the night sky will certainly leave us impressed by our smallness.  In the modern world, we know it, but we no longer experience it.  Not with any regularity anyway.

Another Calvin and Hobbes cartoon has a similar theme.  Again, while looking at the night sky, Calvin says, “Just look at the stars! The universe just goes out forever and forever,” prompting Hobbes to say, “It kind of makes you wonder why man considers himself such a big screaming deal.”  Calvin explains, “That’s why we stay inside with our appliances.”

When you are in your family room, it’s not difficult to consider yourself to be a big screaming deal.  You are almost God-like in this context. 

Omnipotent in your ability to create light.

Omniscient in your access to the internet.

Omnipresent because you have Google Earth.

Which perspective is the more real?  The one from your family room, or the one from the campfire? 

One of my favourite quotes comes from Robertson Davies’ novel, The Fifth Business:  “You have made yourself in to a god, and the insufficiency of it has turned you into an atheist.”

 

 

Enlightenment Dualism

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on January 2, 2013 at 8:58 am

Publicprivate“No religion should ever be involved with anything other than its own place of worship, where worshippers can believe and practise anything they deem fit, far away from enlightened, logical, reasonable people.”**

Where did this idea come from?

Both Bacon and Descartes trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth.  Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality.  Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason, rather than faith and tradition,  to lead to the truth.

Because of their influence, by the middle of the 17th century, science was becoming the lens by which reality was viewed.  Importantly, this does not mean that there was a corresponding loss of belief.   Still, as the mysteries of nature that had previously been attributed to the direct intervention of God came to be explained as natural phenomenon, a division developed between science and religion.  God was understood to be the creator, but was no longer thought to be necessary for day to day management of the material world because it was obedient to Natural Law.  Correlative to the division between God and His Creation, was a widening gap between God and human reason; reason was understood to be autonomous.

Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Kant saw the movement from reliance on God toward a reliance on reason as analogous to the movement from childhood to adulthood.  This idea was foundational to the period we call the Enlightenment.  The light of the Enlightenment was the realization that it was neither God nor the church which would lead to a better world, but human Reason.  The light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  This view of is the essence of the modern worldview, and is still with us today.

Kant believed that human beings were also developing morally as we continue to articulate universally recognized moral principles.  All cultures and religions are expressions, to one degree or another, of these principles.   He believed that these Moral Laws could be uncovered by reason.  For Kant, religion was simply a particular expression of universal principles.

It was supposed that we could arrive at universal truth using only reason.  Importantly, it was believed that reason was neutral, unaffected by belief, (or history, tradition, body, etc.).  Because religion is particular, rather than universal, and because it is greatly influenced by belief (history, tradition, etc.) it wasn’t very long before Religion was thought to be the opposite of Reason.

This is where the divide between faith and reason was formalized–this is dualism.  It’s the belief that we can hold to whatever particular beliefs we want, but these are to be kept in the private sphere.  The public sphere is to be ruled by universal reason.  If we keep things in their proper spheres, we can all happily get along (about this site).

Although, this idea is considered passé by many intellectuals–not just the religious ones either–it still dominates public thought.

**(Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/letters/why-we-must-keep-religion-out-of-politics-16206389.html#ixzz2Go32sFDT)

Dog Poop in the Brownies: How to read Philippians 4:8

In Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on September 20, 2012 at 1:15 am

I attended a youth event when I was in high school.  The speaker was a youngish, cool youth pastor and he challenged us to get rid of all our secular music.  He said it had to be destroyed; selling it or giving it away would just spread the evil.  He mocked the counter arguments leveled at him by those who loved the pagan lyrics and musical brilliance of Led Zeppelin and The Who.  One argument I remember, perhaps because it was mine, was that, although there is some “bad” content in it, there was much that was good in the songs of my favorite artists – especially Pink Floyd.

His response to this argument was the “dog poop in the brownies” analogy.  It went something like this: “If I offered you a plate of brownies and I told you that I mixed a tablespoon of doggy do-do in the batter, would you still eat it?”

I didn’t like this analogy.  For one thing, it seemed pretty convincing and I didn’t want to be convinced.

But, I also sensed there was something inherently wrong with this analogy.  I knew that Pink Floyd’s songs were artistically beautiful, which is more than could be said of most Christian Contemporary Music of the day.  What’s more, some of what the secular artists said was true.  I had a hard time reconciling the truth and beauty with the analogy.

I wasn’t so clever to reframe and ask, “Would he eat a plate of tofu and cod liver oil just because it had no dog poop in it?”

I still encounter this issue in my personal and professional life.  My musical tastes are now acceptable to most people except, possibly, my children.  Nowadays, I find myself in conversations around literature and movies like Lord of the Flies and Harry Potter; Shawshank Redemption and Hunger Games.   Those who question whether Christians should read/watch these often use an argument similar to the dog-poop analogy and they do so by invoking Philippians 4:8.

“[W]hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

I am almost certain the youth pastor who wanted us to burn our secular music used this verse as his scriptural back up.

After all these years, I can now declare confidently that I agree with Philippians 4:8; I can also declare that I don’t agree with the dog poop analogy.

Foundational to the analogy is the notion that there are things in this world that are purely good, and true and beautiful (chocolate brownies), and other things that are thoroughly evil, false and ugly (dog poop.)

. . . crossing the line between the sacred and the secular

This is a false dichotomy; not only logically, but also biblically.

All things were created by God and he declared it all, very good.  Later, with the Fall, the same “all things” were distorted by sin.  If this is true, then we don’t live in a world full of clearly evil things and clearly good things.  We live in a world where everything is fundamentally good and also profoundly distorted by sin; in other words, everything and everyone, is both good and evil.  When Paul tells us to think about things that are true and noble and right, we are going to be doing that in a world where it’s all mixed together.  And it’s not simply that one song on the album is good and true and beautiful, and the other is not; the blending happens within the same song.

This complicates life, but complicated is good in this case.  We can end up doing a lot of harm when we make things far simpler than they actually are.

I think the speaker of my youth was wrong when he suggested the Christian life meant burning all my secular music.  If he had understood Philippians 4: 8 in the light of Genesis 1-3, he would have told us to burn some of our “secular” albums, (and we knew which ones) and then he’d tell us to listen to our Christian music and burn all the trite, simplistic and sentimental gunk that was far from true, excellent and admirable.

(Bad) Theology on a Bookmark

In Devotional, False Dichotomies - the lines between on June 5, 2012 at 4:02 am

I couldn’t find my copy of The Screwtape Letters which I have been reading with my English class so I picked up a Bible that was sitting close by.  As I was turning to Psalm 51 I came across a little slip of paper that someone had presumably used as a bookmark.  What was written on this bookmark caused a bit of a rant, and I never did get around to reading Psalm 51.

On the paper was the following information:

 

 

 

Sleeping – 7                                       God:

Eating – 2 hrs

School – 6 8 10

TV – 30min

Hobbies – 5 hrs

Total 1 = 24.5                                      Total 2 = 2hrs. per week

Between the list of daily activities on the left and God on the right, they had drawn a heavy line.

On the back the calculations continued:

Calculations

Other things:                                       God:

Total 1: (24.5) x 365= A                     Total 2: (2) x 365 = B

A = 8942.5                                          B = 730

Minus 5 years from age                       – 5 years from age

A x 12 = 107310                                 B x 12 = 1251

Again, between these two sets of calculations was this heavy line.

I don’t claim to know the reason for these calculations.  My guess is that some well-meaning adult was trying to make the point with a group of young people–the point being they weren’t giving enough of their life over to God.  Sadly, this sort thinking is all too common in Christian circles and the young people have picked up on it, even if someone isn’t deliberately teaching it to them.  It starts with the premise that the things of God—spiritual things—are distinct from the things of life.  The child that made these calculations predictably fell far short of what God demands—God demands a lot, more than 1%.  Whether it was intended or not, the certain result was guilt.  With this approach, you could never escape the guilt.

What if this seventeen year old spent an hour a day in prayer and meditation instead of doing homework or wasting time on that hobby?  That’d certainly improve things, for now God would receive 5%.  Two and a half hours a day would get God around 10%; that’s like the tithe–would that be enough?

No.  God demands our all—everything–so 10% just won’t do it.  The problem is the line.  Unless you engage in some sort of focused devotional activity every minute of the day, every day of the week, every week of the year, you’d never be able to satisfy God’s demand on your life.  But, even Saint Theresa went to the bathroom.

So get rid of the line!  Hobbies and homework can’t be any less about God than singing and supplication.  The only way to give everything to God is to remove the line and let him have education and eating.  When stop separating the sacred from the secular, he can have both.  Or, to put it another way, when we give him both, the line disappears.

That morning in class, after I finished this little sermon, one clever image bearer asked, “How I can include God in my sleep—I can’t have Godly dreams every night.”

After a pause an idea came to me, and I turned to Psalm 1.  That didn’t help me a bit, because what I was looking for was in Psalm 4.

. . . crossing the line between sacred and secular

My thought is that our sleep becomes sacred when we adopt a Hebrew concept of the day.  This ancient concept is apparent in the ordering of Psalm 4 and Psalm 5.  Psalm 4 includes these lines: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”  Psalm 5 says, “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.”  The editors of the Psalms placed the evening poem before the Psalm of morning.  In Genesis 1 we find the same pattern.  The first day of creation is described and then it says, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”  A few verses later, the same thing, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.”  You get the idea; the day begins in the evening.  Anyone who has watched Tevye hurry home before nightfall in Fiddler on the Roof knows that the Sabbath starts on Friday night, but it’s not just the Sabbath Day that starts in the evening; in the culture from which the Bible came, every day starts in the evening.

Notice the difference that this configuration of the day makes regarding the significance of the individual human being.  In our culture, the day begins with me.  I wake up, and then the day begins.  I must be pretty important if the day—and you might as well say, the universe—doesn’t start until I roll out of bed.  It would be quite appropriate to declare upon waking, “I am here, and, thus, the day may now begin.”

Consider the Hebrew concept of the day starting in the evening.  The day starts when I stop.  The first seven hours of everyday have transpired while I drooled on my pillow.  But God hasn’t slept; He’s been at work through the night.  He has a plan and a pattern for the day and I join it, already in progress and fit into that plan.

I’ve been trying to live in Hebrew time for at least 10 years now, and every morning when I wake up, well almost every morning, I say, “Good morning, Lord.”

Understanding the day in this way reframes the seven hours that I sleep in that it reminds me of my cosmic insignificance in the context of His divine Providence.    It also reframes the hours I am awake.  It is a quotidian reminder and that the all-powerful king of the universe loves me because he’s there every morning to hear me say, “Good, morning Lord.”